Never in the history of the Shire had the words ‘communal’ and ‘bathing’ been used in the same sentence.
To say Bilbo was horrified was an understatement. Not thirty seconds after Thorin had announced an official hygiene break, his fellow travelers were flinging off their clothes left and right, boots soaring through the air, trousers raining over the grass. If Bilbo hadn’t toughened up from the terrors they’d so far encountered on the road, he was sure he’d have fainted, but as it was, all he could do was stare in pale horror.
It took one of Bifur’s boots making contact with his head to snap Bilbo out of it. The hobbit spun on his heel on the slick riverbank and turned sharply from the debauched sight before him, cheeks turning as dark and red as his corduroy coat. Adventuring came with its rustic charms, he understood, such as horrible food and sleeping on the cold, hard ground, and those he thought he could contend with. Public nakedness, however, was another matter entirely.
“First poor table manners, now this?” he mumbled to himself incredulously. Gandalf was high on the bank with the ponies and looked down at the hobbit with a grin that he didn’t at all like.
“I think I’ll go scout ahead,” the wizard said pointedly, and disappeared into the trees even as Bilbo spluttered to find his complaints.
“Curse that wizard!” he groaned, and it was just as he said it that icy water collided with his rear. Bilbo jolted with a cry and turned to see Kíli bobbing in the current, waving at him in mock innocence. Now all the back of his coat and trousers were soaked through with water, chilling him deep down to the skin. But that was the least of his troubles. Bilbo winced and immediately covered his eyes from the sight he’d so foolishly turned towards.
Body hair. So much body hair. Hair in places Bilbo didn’t think it could grow.
Bilbo scrunched his eyes to the point of pain, but he was sure the sight of thirteen unusually woolly travelers would haunt his nightmares for days to come. The poor hobbit had finally gotten used to the dwarves’ beards, somewhat, but he still maintained that the only respectable places for hair of any kind were the head and feet.
“Won’t you come in, Master Boggins?” cheered Kíli. Several dwarves splashed and hollered in agreement.
Bilbo curled his toes into the mud. “No thank you, Kíli,” he shot back, still resentful of being doused. “I’m quite fine up here.”
“But don’t you want to get clean?” asked Bofur, whose precious hat had for once been relinquished in favour of washed hair. “You smell something terrible.”
Bilbo felt like responding with a comment on the smell of his collective companions, and how it was in fact worse than his own, but didn’t have the chance.
“Do you think yourself above the rigours of the road, Burglar?”
The Company went suddenly quiet.
Bilbo cringed and slowly dropped his hands from his eyes, knowing that hiding from Thorin’s hard words would only make matters worse. The dwarf was scowling at him darkly form the middle of the river, wet hair falling on his shoulders in gray-brown streams. Thankfully he was deep enough in the water that his more personal regions were hidden from Bilbo’s sight, however, his chest was laid damp and bare and broad, and the halfling struggled to keep eye contact with the leader.
“You will find no bathtubs in the wilds, Master Baggins; no scented soap, no hot water, so I suggest you join us, or else return to your Hobbit hole for a bath that will meet your expectations.”
Bilbo barely restrained from glowering at Thorin. Being reprimanded for his assumed shortcomings in front of the entire Company was quickly becoming a regular occurrence. The hobbit held in a breath under the expectant eyes of his friends, and then let it out in frustrated resignation. “Fine,” he said sharply, throwing up his hands, “I’ll bathe! But I’m going downstream!”
Everyone watched as he scampered determinedly for his pack. Bilbo energetically flung it over his shoulder and began to wheedle his way through the sparse trees and stones on the bank. Soon enough he was around the curve in the river and out of sight.
All were silent.
Suddenly Fíli sniggered, breaking the tense moment. “Maybe Master Baggins is so shy to bathing because he has something to hide.”
“What do you mean?” asked an innocent Ori, ginger hair sagging around his eyes as Dori brushed it out.
“Well,” said Kíli, catching on with a jeering grin, “perhaps our dear hobbit’s small stature extends to certain, unmentionable places.” Kíli held up his hand, miming out a small distance between finger and thumb. Ori turned bright scarlet and the rest of the Company burst into laughter.
“Poor thing,” continued Gloin once they’d settled down a bit, “he’s quite strange looking, having no beard! And those big feet! It’s no wonder he’s ashamed to show himself in front of us!”
“Not everyone has the luck of good looks,” said Dori sadly.
“Or the abundance enjoyed by Durin’s folk!” said an eyebrow-wagging Nori.
The dwarves hummed in united pity.
Thorin only scowled down at his pale limbs below the water and began to wash himself in rough passes. If Gandalf hadn’t wandered off to who-knows-where, he would be bothering him about his treatment of the burglar, he was sure. Thorin tried to retain his anger at Bilbo, like a small fire shuddering in a strong wind. Ever since he’d lost his homeland, the dwarf hadn’t enjoyed the comforts to which Bilbo’s demeanor and softness spoke, and that made him burn with resentment and jealousy. But surely, a small part of him argued, it was unfair to blame the hobbit’s reluctance on his appearances. Bilbo didn’t have the strong build, height or facial hair that Thorin’s people considered attractive, but in his most poetic moments the dwarf found his short curls to be warm and red like a chestnut, and his eyes the pleasant gray-blue of a fresh autumn morning.
Thorin would have rather kissed an orc than admit that, of course, so he spent the rest of his ablutions in stony silence, pretending not to worry about the lonely hobbit around the river bend.
A good while later, when it came to the point that Thorin thought Dwalin might actually carry through on his threats to murder Kíli if he didn’t stop splashing, Thorin announced their bath was over. The Company groaned collectively but dutifully dragged themselves from the water to dry out on the sunny bank. Bofur reunited with his hat and stretched out on the soft grass, staring into the sky. The sun had travelled from the height of her peak and was waning into the west. Soon they would be back on the road.
“Where’s Bilbo?” he asked, directing his question at the tall brooding shape to his left which he knew to be their leader. Thorin scanned his dwarves and sighed; their burglar was not done with his bathing, it seemed.
“I’ll go find him,” Thorin growled. He was still far too wet to get back in his clothes, so he wrapped a blanket around his lower half and began down the bank. It occurred to the dwarf that Bilbo might’ve taken the opportunity to turn tail and head back to the Shire. Or that, being alone and quite defenseless, he might’ve been snatched up by some wild creature. ‘Good riddance,’ thought Thorin darkly, but really his heart was beating quickly at the thought.
He was therefor relieved when he spotted the hobbit alive and well just a little ways downstream.
Bilbo had found himself a nice private spot to do his cleaning. At first he’d been a bit nervous wading out; hobbits were not overly fond of water, and the river was deeper than expected. The halfling had looked about suspiciously before disrobing, as though afraid some squirrel would see him naked, then made sure to lay his clothes in a nice, folded pile where he could reach them.
Although much of his mind was occupied by trying to ignore the frigid cold of the water and keeping his balance, Bilbo couldn’t help but drift back to Thorin. He thought of the noonday sun dappled over his scarred skin and robust muscles. He thought of the way the water looked in his hair, shining droplets like kingly jewels scattered in a dark lake. Then Lobelia Sackville-Baggins’ pinched, disapproving face swooped in, and Bilbo shook his head to clear it all away.
He was just finishing with his back when he heard a familiar voice.
“Burglar! We’re leaving now!”
Panic lanced through Bilbo.
Thorin! Thorin would see him naked!
He was so surprised by the dwarf’s sudden arrival that he lost his balance and his feet were swept up under him. “Oh, bother!” the hobbit yelled, but his words were drowned out by a face full of water. He grasped out desperately for something to hold onto, but his fists only met water, and before he knew it he was being rushed downstream.
“Burglar!” screamed Thorin.
The dwarf’s heart suddenly plummeted, all the air squeezed form his lungs. Thorin’s automatic response to catastrophe kicked in and he began running after the hobbit, even as his mind caught up to his body. His soaked hair whipped in his face and eyes, and his bare feet slipped dangerously on the grass and stones. Bilbo struggled with all his might to keep his head above the current, but the churning water was dragging him down and he could only get air in sharp and irregular gasps laced with river water.
“Master Burglar!” Thorin cried again, uncaring of the raw terror in his voice, or the fact that his blanket had fallen and he was sprinting in the nude. His fear had even outrun his pride.
The river grew faster and faster the farther it went and the wider it became, and the dwarf had no choice but to put every ounce of his strength into catching up. His muscles strained and burned, but it was nothing to the terror rising in Bilbo’s heart as adrenaline and survival instinct faded to exhaustion and darkness. One thought rose above all others: he was going to die.
Finally Thorin managed to outpace the river. The dwarf slid to a halt a ways ahead of Bilbo and crashed down on his knees at the very edge of the bank, the current rushing by in a loud fury. As soon as the flailing halfling was within reach, Thorin shot out his strong arm and hauled Bilbo from the water by his skinny shoulder. He threw him down on the ground where he twisted this way and that, gasping for breath like a freshly caught fish. Bilbo was too busy coughing river from his lungs to be concerned about propriety, to notice that he and Thorin were still naked, and that Thorin was leaning over him, gaze intense.
The hobbit was cold all over. His fingers and toes didn’t seem to exist, or any other part of his body; only his lungs, which burned like he was breathing lightning.
“Master Burglar?” called Thorin, the edge of his voice broken away by worry. He cupped the hobbit’s face in one sturdy hand to try and still his thrashing. Bilbo’s eyes were squeezed shut, but when he felt the welcomed heat of the dwarf’s hand they slowly opened.
“Yes. Are you alright?”
Bilbo blinked slowly, heavy droplets clinging to his lashes.
Thorin was smiling.
“I think I’m alright,” said Bilbo, but his fingers were white and trembling violently. Thorin frowned, and the hobbit conceded: “it’s so cold, like the Fell Winter again.”
Thorin automatically swept his hand around to pull off his fur coat and wrap it around Bilbo, but his fingers only met bare shoulder. Well, he thought, he couldn’t very well let the burglar die now. Gandalf would never let him hear the end of it.
“Come here,” he said, and he drew Bilbo up into his arms. The hobbit was utterly malleable and yielded easily to his fate, not so much aware of Thorin himself as his warm, safe arms. Bilbo burrowed his head against the other’s chest. He thought through a veil of tiredness that chest hair, as scandalous as it was, made a rather nice cushion, and that extra body hair must be like natural insulation against cold weather, and that maybe Thorin was wonderfully warm because dwarves were supposedly so hot-blooded. Thorin cradled Bilbo and worried at the coldness in his skin, but also managed to note its fairness, and how strangely soft the hobbit was in his hands; not at all battle-roughened, but nonetheless pleasant.
The dwarf didn’t know how long they’d stayed like that, him measuring Bilbo’s warm breaths against his collarbone, Bilbo listening to the steadfast drumming of the other’s heart, when there was a gruff cough from behind.
Both their heads shot up in horror to see all twelve remaining Company members staring at them in shock.
There was a long, long silence.
“We heard yelling, so we thought something bad had happened!” Balin finally said after shaking himself from his daze. Indeed, the dwarves were all brandishing their respective weapons, now sagging uselessly in their fists.
“But clearly,” said Fíli, clearly disturbed, “your cries were something… else, entirely.”
Kíli looked like he was about to vomit.
It took a moment for Thorin to piece together their insinuation. He glanced at Bilbo, naked and wrapped in his arms, then at the Company, then at Bilbo again before it fell on him like a thunder clap.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Thorin hollered, his entire face as red as Bombur’s hair. He wrenched himself upright, dragging Bilbo with him. The hobbit finally recovered his wits enough to understand what had happened and scrambled to cover himself with a squeak and a blush.
“I was just saving Master Baggins from drowning!”
Everyone exchanged disbelieving looks. Dwalin tossed Nori a sack of coins with an unhappy grunt.
“Could someone please lend me a blanket? Or – or something!” yelped Bilbo, equally ashamed at his lack of clothes and the feelings he’d experienced towards Thorin a moment before. The dwarf might have saved him from drowning, but apparently all hope for respectability had been lost to the river.
“Here you are, laddie,” Bofur said consolingly, stepping up and handing him the tunic he’d had in his hand when they’d run off to save their friends. Bilbo wrangled it over himself while still managing to keep one hand over his groin the entire time. The tunic was so large on him that it looked like a dress.
There being no battle to attend to, everyone began guiding Bilbo back to camp, eyeing Thorin in various octaves of distaste as they passed. Only Bifur gave their leader a thumbs-up.
“Nothing happened!” Thorin roared. He stomped after them, but his attempt at authority was completely negated by the fact that he was naked and blushing like an idiot.
“We’ve quite the story to tell Gandalf when he comes back,” said Gloin.
“It can’t be that small,” Kíli whispered to his brother; “I mean, if uncle was interested.”
“You’d better stick with us next time we take a washing brake,” Balin said sagely.
‘Yes, you’d better,’ thought Thorin, even as he tried to banish the ghost of Bilbo’s skin against his own.
‘Yes, perhaps I’d better,’ thought Bilbo. He didn’t fancy any avoidable near-death experiences, so he supposed he’d just have to muster up some Tookish gumption and get used to mutual nakedness. And after today, well, he didn’t think he’d mind too terribly.
Bilbo flushed all the way from the tips of his ears to his furry toes.
After all, he was in very, very good company.