Bella drew her tattered coat closer about her, trying to eke out a bit of warmth. Still, she didn't want to return to inside Erebor. There was nothing there for her, not really, not anymore. Of all the fears and worries that she had worried about over the course of the quest, the one that she never had was about losing her dwarves. Oh yes, she had worried about losing them through accident and death. After all, the journey had been dangerous and there had been a dragon waiting for them at the end of it, not to mention the battle that had happened so shortly after.
It had been a miracle that none of the dwarves that she had come to consider her family had died or even been irreparably injured. No, she had not foreseen what was going to happen. This time, her family was lost to her by their choice. They had chosen to believe lies and turn against her. As much as she'd like to blame it on gold sickness, the truth was, they had left her long before. It had happened when they had rescued the dwarrowdam from Thranduil's dungeons. That was the day that Bella ended up no longer belonging to her family.
She had been happy to include the dam in their rescue, believing that no one should be locked away against their will and had looked forward to spending time with a female again. If she'd known then what she knew now, she would've been tempted to leave her behind. She wouldn't have, because she still believed that no one should be imprisoned, unless they had done something truly awful, unlike just torquing off a temperamental elf king. However, if Rina was the type of dwarf that he was used to dealing with, then maybe that was why he'd been so quick to throw the company into the dungeons as well.
Although she had been pardoned for the Arkenstone incident by Thorin, contrary to Rina's urging surprisingly, Bella had been permitted to remain in Erebor but the company had closed completely to her. They were too busy with their tasks and believed Rina's lies too easily to bother spending any time with her. She had thought, she had believed, that all of her time with the company, all the dangers that they had weathered together and survived, that they would be willing to extend her a bit of grace, to listen to her side of things. After all, at the beginning, she was willing to write things off as misunderstandings and move on. But no, they hadn't, easily believing Rina's lies.
After the battle, she had taken Gandalf aside and whispered her fears that she had somehow enchanted them, not willing to believe that her good hearted dwarves would turn so thoroughly against her. He had listened gravely and agreed to investigate the situation, for one could not be too careful with how much evil had been out and loose in the world of late. But when he returned later, his expression sad, she knew what he would say and quietly thanked him for checking it out before pleading weariness and need for sleep.
They had been thoroughly wrapped around that wretched woman's fingers by their own choice. They would not listen to Bella or her concerns, their ears deaf to her and her pleas. So she had surrendered. After all, who was she anyway? She had been arrogant in thinking that she could find a new family, a new place where she might belong. At times, she almost thought that it might have been better if she'd been eaten by Smaug. She was starting to believe that it wouldn't hurt anywhere near as bad as she was hurting now. But no, if Smaug had eaten her, they would've lost the line of Durin. She had quickly been lost in the battle and so had made her way to the tallest point around, which just so happened to be Ravenhill. Because of this, she got there ahead of the Durins and realized that it was an ambush. So when the Durins did arrive, it was to the sight of Bella facing off against their opponents, having managed to pull down the signals, that is, after sending some very confusing ones that had the orcs turning on themselves.
But what no one knew was that she had taken a wound during that time, a wound that no one had seen. Afterwards, the elves had assumed that the dwarves had taken care of her and the dwarves were so busy fussing over the Durins and Rina, that no one had checked her for wounds. She absently touched her left forearm where bandages were wrapped firmly around it, hidden from sight by her sleeves, not that anyone was bothering to look. She could've probably walked around with it on full display and they would've said that she was just doing it for attention.
Tracing the bandages, she had a decision that she would have to make. For not only had she taken a wound, but it had been from a dark blade, one polluted with the evil of it's maker and carrier. At this point, the elves could most likely still heal it. The infection was creeping but it was still at a stoppable point. In another day or two, she would most likely lose her arm if she let it go untreated. Anything beyond that was courting almost certain death. She let out a bitter chuckle, devoid of mirth.
She already knew what her choice was. There was no good pretending that she didn't know what she was planning. She had weathered losing one family, they hadn't chosen to leave her but the fell winter had stolen them from her. She had withstood being an outcast in the Shire and pseudo courting by hobbits who only wanted her wealth and name, not Bella herself. And she had rebuilt both herself and her life. Or thought she had until a troop of dwarves come in and pull her from her complacency. Only to abandon her in the end, by their own choice. And she didn't have the strength to rebuild yet again. No, better to end it now. Even if they didn't care for her, they would see that she would get an honorable burial. She would leave specific instructions to Balin about how to return her to the earth and he would see them carried out. And that was that. She just hoped that she could last long enough for the Lady Dis to arrive.
Lady Dis was scheduled to arrive any time now, having rallied the people and left soon after Thorin had, placing faith in the prophecy that Erebor could be reclaimed. With luck, they would even make it before the first snow fell. She didn't know if the Lady Dis would listen to a strange hobbit any more than her family would. But it was her duty to hold on long enough to at least warn her. Then she could just let go and rest. A tear trickled down her cheek and she scrubbed it away, another chuckle escaping her. This laugh had only a trace of humor in it, although it had lost the bitterness and just held a weary sadness. Yavanna, she was so tired! She had given everything she had and then some for the quest and now she just wanted to rest. It wasn't too much to ask, was it, just a small space where she could be at peace.
A guard chose that moment to appear, searching for her. "Mistress Baggins, you're needed in the council room, on orders of His Majesty."
Shaking her head, she smiled ruefully. Well, that answered that question, didn't it? No, she wasn't to be allowed any rest until she returned to Yavanna's garden apparently. Before the guard could think that she was refusing the summons, she said quietly, "I'm sorry, just a passing thought. I'll head there at once."
The guard, a dwarf that she didn't recognize, said firmly, "I am to escort you there, Mistress."
She nodded and offered him a real smile this time, "I'm not going to run, if that's what you're afraid of. However, if you are heading back there anyway, I admit that I would appreciate the company. I have to confess that I am having trouble with some of the twists and turns of the corridors. It can take me some time to make my way anywhere, but I always get there eventually."
The dwarf offered her a short bow, "It was not feared that you would run. Master Dwalin said that I was to show you utmost courtesy and said that you might need a guide until such a time as you have settled in and made yourself fully at home here in Erebor. I volunteered for the duty and it is my honor."
Tucking her hands into her pockets in a vain attempt to warm them, Bella said, "The honor is mine. I would like to know the name of the one who is willing to help a lost hobbit lass."
He bowed again, "Dor, son of Kor, at your service."
"Thank you, Dor. I believe that we'd better get going before his majesty gets impatient with my slowness. Please lead the way."
They made their way back into Erebor and Bella sighed as the pins and needles in her finger tips and ears informed her that she had been in the cold for too long. Following Dor, she wondered idly what Thorin wanted to see her about now. Probably some new accusation on Rina's part about something else that Bella had supposedly done to her. Bella was honestly too tired to care, it didn't matter anyway. No one would believe a thing that she had to say in her defense and it was all moot anyway. She would be gone in a week or so and then everything could settle down.
She watched the dwarf walk just ahead of her and thought about why Dwalin would offer her a guard. He hadn't shunned her like the others, but neither had he defended her. He just stood there and watched, face impassive and hands folded either in front of him or behind him. That had hurt worse than anything, as she had nursed a soft spot for him since she had caught him with his hand in her cookie jar. He was a protector and surely he could see how things were, but he had turned away as well and that had killed the last of her hope. She would find no sanctuary here in Erebor. Because of her part in the quest, they were forced to tolerate a hobbit in the mountain, but they would never truly accept her.
Realizing how maudlin her thoughts had gotten, she quickly pushed them away before they could show on her face. She may be ceding to that witch, she may have lost the battle, but she would never let her know how much she had broken Bella. As they drew nearer to the council room, she could hear a muted uproar. She searched for a way to ask diplomatically what in the world was going on. Finally she said, "Um, Master Dor, do you hear that?"
Dor nodded, not slowing his movements, "Oh, aye. His Majesty's sister has arrived, the Lady Dis. Not to worry."
Bella's heart lifted slightly. Dis had arrived and Bella was still coherent. She didn't fool herself. From the pain that she was currently feeling, she knew that she would likely be out of her mind with pain towards the end. The sooner she could talk to Dis, the better. They arrived at the door and she could hear muffled shouting that somehow sounded feminine to her. Dor opened the door for her and bowed. "This is as far as I go. I'll wait for your return out here, Mistress Baggins." He muttered so low that only she could hear, "Good luck, you'll need it."
Fighting against the urge to beg him to accompany her, he was the first person to treat her like a person in days, she nodded and made her way into the room. She was not expecting the scene that met her eyes. Inside, a dam that resembled Thorin strongly was ranting at a cowering Thorin. The rest of the company made themselves as small as they could in their chairs, all except Dwalin who was leaning disinterestedly against the wall behind Thorin's chair. Also present was a smirking Thranduil, a stoic Legolas, and a very uncomfortable looking Bard. Not to mention Rina who was crimson faced with fury and looked like she wanted to spit nails, although she was sitting and had her mouth clamped firmly shut for once.
She hesitated, unsure if she should flee while she still had the chance and Lady Dis hadn't noticed her. However, Fili noticed her and threw her to the wargs in a desperate attempt to save his uncle. Half standing, he called loudly, "Amad, here's Miss Baggins."
His mother shot him a truly terrifying glare that had the fearless blond prince cowering back into his seat. With a growled threat that she wasn't done with him yet to Thorin, Dis turned and faced her.
Accepting that there was no chance of her being able to flee, Bella drew upon every scrap of dignity that she had left. Drawing herself up to her full height with her shoulders squared and her chin lifted elegantly, not defiantly or challengingly, but elegantly, she offered Dis her deepest, most elaborate curtsy. "Welcome Lady Dis, daughter of Thrain, son of Thror, to Erebor. I hope that your journey was pleasant and your trials light. Have you been offered refreshments yet? I know that Master Bombur made a delicious stew today that would be hot and filling after your long journey."
The entire chamber seemed to hold their breath as Dis studied her. Bella forced herself not to fidget or look away. Finally Dis spoke quietly in a voice that carried clearly across the room. "Do you see now what damage you have done? I am ashamed to be a dwarrow this day."
Bella tilted her head curiously, suddenly feeling like she was missing something. She glanced at the company to see if she could glean any clues from them, but they were staring at her in horror. She sighed, knowing that she looked a wreck but she hadn't seen any point in getting new clothes at this point in time. Meeting Dis's gaze, she said quietly but firmly, unwilling to be judged by someone that didn't know how things currently stood. "I know that my attire and presence is unfit to be part of Erebor. However, you should not trouble yourself about my presence for much longer. Is there anything else or may I be dismissed?"
Dis smiled at her show of spine, "Oh no, that was not directed at you, Mistress Baggins. That was directed at those who would call themselves quest mates and companions. Men and elves are different, but for dwarves to have let a dam reach this state, especially one that has proven herself loyal time and again, on behalf of a poisonous snake that whispered in their ears, no, that is insufferable and I will not permit it. It is time that they realize exactly what they have done to one that is by all accounts pure mithril on behalf of one that is nothing but fool's gold."
Suddenly realizing that Dis was on her side and hadn't believed the lies that were spread about her, Bella felt her shoulders sag slightly in relief before she caught herself and quickly fixed her posture. Feeling overwhelmed with both relief and disbelief, Bella could only say, "How do you? I mean, I was not aware that you were aware of the circumstances and situations here at Erebor, Lady Dis."
Dis fingered a small axe hanging on her belt thoughtfully. "Truthfully, I do not know the whole situation, nor do I want to. I will tell you what I do know. From the infrequent letters from my brother and sons, they were full of tales about a hobbit lass who was to be their burglar. Sometimes foolish and soft, you were nonetheless brave and loyal. From Balin, Dwalin, and the others, I often received reports of the same. However, after Erebor was retaken, the messages sent via raven were truly disturbing. Instead of a peaceful dove, the company had unwittingly harbored a viper in their midst in the form of an unassuming hobbit woman. I was unsure of what to make of these reports, but having seen the changes my grandfather Thror went through from his love of gold, I couldn't dismiss it entirely. Only Dwalin was silent on the subject, merely reporting facts, injuries, repairs that needed made, a dam that had joined the company in Mirkwood. So I resolved to wait until I could see and talk to all parties before I made any judgements. Because one should listen to all sides with an open mind, without prejudice and preformed opinions."
Bella could hear the barbs and emphasis on the last sentence and Thorin flinched as if they had struck him a physical blow. Dis continued on, her voice lowering to almost a purr. "So imagine my surprise when I arrived to find that the dam that the company had freed from Mirkwood was none other than the dam Hela, although now she was going by the name of Rina. The same Hela that I had exiled from Ered Luin for countless counts of thievery as well as an attempt to overthrow my rule there. Oh, she was very careful to keep her hands clean, but she was the master mind behind it, never you doubt. I should have shaved her bald as well as taken her braids, but she was young and the young are often foolishly ambitious. I will not make that mistake another time, I assure you. So imagine my surprise that she has managed to get her claws into my brother and my sons and has plans to sit on the throne of Erebor as queen. Also, upon further interrogation, I have discovered that you tried to warn the company, multiple times, that she was false and none would listen. It would not surprise me if you chose to leave them to the fate that they so foolishly pursued."
Bella tucked her hands into her pockets to hide their trembling. "I was going to speak to you, to try to warn you about what had happened. I didn't know if you would believe me or not, but I had to do my best. They had turned away from me, but they were still my family and I wasn't going to abandon them without trying every last thing I could."
At her words, there was an outcry from the company. She looked over at them and the eyes that met hers were filled with remorse and horror. Dori was openly weeping and both Bofur's hat and mustache seemed to droop lifelessly. But what surprised her was that they finally seemed to see her, truly see her again. Unable to look at them without wanting to forgive them, she turned her attention back to Lady Dis.
Dis surveyed the company with satisfaction. Turning her attention back to Bella, Dis said firmly, "Whether or not you can forgive the actions of those you consider your kin against you, I just ask you to remember that they are male and are prone to making mistakes. However, this travesty cannot go on any longer. You will be fed and given clean whole garments at your disposal, better than those rags that you are wearing, something that will actually keep you warm."
Bella sighed and shook her head, "It was my choice to remain so. I could've gone to Dori and asked for new clothes and he would not have turned me away. But I could not in good conscious have new clothes when it will be a moot point soon."
Dwalin suddenly loomed up in front of her, his expression hard. She flinched and took a half step back, not expecting him to suddenly be in her space. He matched her step for step though. He rumbled quietly, "That's the second time that you have referenced the fact that you will not be here much longer. What are you planning?"
Chewing her lip, she unthinkingly reached for her left forearm and covered it, before suddenly realizing and dropping her hand. But it was too late and Dwalin had seen. Taking her wrist ever so gently in his large hand, he carefully pushed her sleeve up to her elbow, baring the bandages for all to see. He swallowed hard and asked, "Why didn't you tell us that you were injured?"
She tried to yank her arm away but he kept his grip firm yet gentle. She said fiercely, "It's no one's business but my own. No one bothered to ask and I was tired of being told that I was just a vain attention seeker. Now release me."
He shook his head, "No, we've failed you, lass. No longer. When did this happen?"
She narrowed her eyes at him and said scathingly, "When do you think?"
"You've been injured since the battle? Oh lass."
Oin was suddenly there and Bella contemplated refusing to let him see. But maybe it was better this way, to let them know how things were. After all, there had been enough lies of late, it was time for some truth between all of them. So she lets him peel away the bandage and examine the wounds. She knows the moment when he realized the truth, because he stiffened, before letting out a low oath. He looked up and when he met her eyes, she nodded to let him know that she knew. His face mournful, he allowed his hands to drop.
Dwalin asked fiercely, "What, what it is?"
Oin said quietly, for him anyway, "This is beyond my skill. The infection has already set in past saving. I could take her arm, but even then it's dicey. There is nothing I can do."
She felt sorry for the defeat she saw in his face, in his slumped shoulders. Tapping his shoulder until he looked up, she offered him a small smile and signed, "It was too late the moment that it happened. There was nothing that you could have done."
Tears filled his eyes and he made his way back over to his seat by Gloin, burying his face in his hands. Dis watched Bella, concern plain on her face, clearly she had not expected that. Then Kili was there, his expression a mixture of devastation and determination. "No, Miss Boggins. I refuse to believe it. You are not going to die. I refuse to accept that. There must be something that we can do. We defeated a dragon, for Mahal's sake! There must be something that we can do!" His expression turned pleading.
As soon as he mangled her name, she knew that she was going to forgive her dwarves. They did truly care for her, they had just lost sight of it in all the madness. She dragged up a smile from somewhere, "Oh Kili, I don't think that there's anything that can be done. I'm sorry, I wish it were otherwise, but sometimes things just don't work out. Erebor has been reclaimed and you have a home again. That is enough for me, truly."
Dwalin shook his head, his face as pale as parchment, "No, lass. Erebor isn't our home if you aren't here with us."
There was the sound of a long suffering sigh and Bella suddenly remembered the three visitors that were still there, watching the whole unfolding drama. There was the sound of a chair scraping backwards across the floor and she turned to see Thranduil stand up. He said haughtily, "Mistress Baggins has been of value in events of late. I suppose that it would be remiss of me to fail to offer her aid."
Thorin rose to his feet and said firmly, "Heal her and those jewels that you want are yours."
To their surprise, he waved the offer away. "I am not doing this for you. I am doing this because it would be a crime to let one with such a brave heart and compassion vanish from this world without even attempting to save her."
Making his way over to her, he knelt in front of her, his expression surprisingly gentle. He said quietly, "With your permission, milady."
Dwalin finally released her wrist, but moved instead to her side and took her right hand in his left, her dainty hand practically disappearing in his larger one. Squeezing the guard's hand, she offered her left arm to the elven king wordlessly. The king took her hand gently between both of his and his hands started glowing. The company watched anxiously as Thranduil closed his eyes, his brow furrowed in concentration. After several minutes of tense silence, Thranduil nodded to himself and opened his eyes. "It's just in time. This can still be healed and you will not lose function in your arm. But I warn you, this will be painful and your will to live is key. If this is not what you want, tell me know. I will do what I can to ease your pain until the end." There was an outcry at this, but both he and Bella ignored it. "You have earned the right to choose. If you choose to rest, none will judge you for it. But should you chose to live, I shall do everything in my power to make sure that you thrive. So what will you chose?"
Bella closed her eyes, shutting them all out. None of them spoke and she allowed the quiet to wash over her. She didn't have the strength to find a new family, a new home. But would she be willing to try again with her second family? Would it be possible to heal the hurt caused by their thoughtless actions. But the thought of never seeing them again, of being parted from them forever was just as painful as the opposite. Then there was the dwarf standing next to her, holding her hand. He was solid and steady, a rock, a shield. Dis had said that he was the only one that hadn't bad mouthed her. Heat radiated off of him, warming her. The question wasn't whether or not she could forgive the company, she had forgiven them the moment it had happened. No, the question was whether or not she could trust her heart again to the dwarf who had broken it once already. Opening her eyes, she turned her head so that she could study his face. He met her gaze openly, allowing all of his walls to fall, allowing her to see his heart.
And that was when she knew her answer. Turning back to the elven king who was waiting patiently, she smiled at him and said, "Do it."
He warned quietly, "It will be painful, I am sorry."
Taking a firmer grip of Dwalin's hand, she nodded. Closing his eyes again, Thranduil got to work. It felt like she had been struck by lightning and it took her breath away. She forced down her cry of pain, simply holding Dwalin's hand even tighter. She didn't know how long she burned for, but she didn't move and she didn't cry out. She was blind, the agony causing her vision to white out. But she did her best to keep her expression neutral. That's why she missed Rina's attempt to kill her while she was distracted and everyone's focus was on her and not the dam. Although she couldn't see, she could definitely hear the commotion. It looked like Nori was the one who had caught her, but he promptly handed her over to Dis for her tender mercies, which was to say precisely, none. Total chaos ensued and then utter silence. Bella wished that she could see, but it was all she could do to keep her breathing steady.
She then heard the sound of a body being dragged, rather roughly from the sounds of it, over to the door. The door was opened and Dori, gentle dwarf Dori, fairly snarled, "Take her to the dungeons."
So she wasn't dead then. That was good, she supposed, or not, but she would deal with that particular bridge when she came to it. She didn't know how long she burned, before the pain finally started to recede and she could finally see again. There was sweat on the elven king's brow and he looked weary. Releasing her hand, he looked up and nodded to her. "It is done. I have never met a warrior as brave as you, Mistress Baggins. Long life and health to you. The infection is gone, although you will need rest and food to truly recover."
Unclenching her aching jaw, she whispered, "Thank you."
She then turned to Dwalin to find the tall dwarf looking down hopefully at her. She offered him a slight smile before she pitched forward into his arms, darkness descending on her, and she knew no more.
* * *
She didn't know how much time had passed since she fainted when she woke up. She was warm for once and she wondered if her fever had spiked again. But there was no pain, no ache, that she associated with the wound. A crackling sound intruded on her musings and her ear twitched at the sound. Her fingers twitched and she felt a soft blanket underneath them. Curiosity overwhelming her, she forced her eyes open. She was in her room, although she could not remember returning there. But her chamber was different from the dark and dreary chambers that she remembered. There was fire roaring merrily in the fireplace, the source of the crackling sound that she had been unable to place.
Glancing around, she found that the room was empty of anyone. Unsure if she was relieved or not by this development, she slowly pushed herself upright. Once she was comfortably propped up, and when had these lovely pillows appeared, she looked at her arm. The cut was gone, only a small scar marking the place where it had been. The black lines that were tracing up her arm were gone as well. She opened and closed her hand several times, marveling at the lack of pain. So, it hadn't all been a dream then.
Sighing, she studied her surroundings. While she had been unconscious, someone or several someones had made significant changes. One was the roaring fire, warming the chamber nicely. And from the feel of it, she had a nicer mattress as well as thicker blankets and not one, not two, but three pillows, ones that didn't smell of mold and disuse. There was also a couple of comfortable arm chairs that had been added in while she was unconscious. Judging from the basket of knitting next to one of the chairs, it looked like Ori had taken a turn watching over her.
The door creaked open and she braced herself for whomever was going to come through the door. Although the status of her room indicated that she hadn't dreamed the whole thing, weeks of being treated with outright hostility taught her to be wary of the company. To her surprise, it was Dwalin who made his way into the room carefully balancing a tray in his hands, his face weary. He nudged the door closed behind him with his heel before he turned and looked at the bed.
His eyes widened in surprise and he nearly dropped the tray before managing to steady it. He rumbled, "You're awake."
She nodded at him and asked quietly, "Have I been unconscious long?"
Setting the tray on a side table that she hadn't seen, he opened the door and barked something in Khuzdul before shutting it and bringing the tray with him over to where he sank down into the chair next to the bed. He rubbed a hand over the top of his head before saying softly, "Ye've been unconscious for nigh on two weeks lass. We were starting to worry that you wouldn't wake up again."
He looked pained at this and she relaxed back against her pillow. So it hadn't all just been a dream. The company had really seen her again and Thranduil had fixed her arm. She still found it hard to believe, but found that she was grateful nonetheless. She offered him a small smile, "I hadn't been sleeping well, I guess I just overdid it. I'm sorry for worrying all of you. It won't happen again."
He scrubbed a hand over his face, apparently trying to find the right words. "Lass, Bella, you shouldn't be apologizing to us. We need to be apologizing to you. To have let ye get to this state, we owe you our beards for this."
She shook her head firmly, "Nuh-uh, no one's losing their beards over this. Nothing sillier looking than a dwarf without a beard, save Kili of course and his will come, and I refuse to be surrounded by several without beards for only Mahal knows how long. So just get that out of your head right now."
He sighed but reluctantly let it go. Instead, he offered her a glass of water which she accepted gratefully. After she drank, she asked, "Who fixed up my room? It's nice." She winced as his face fell. "Never mind, it's not important." She searched for something to say, something that wouldn't trigger the uncertain truce. "So, um, has the Lady Dis settled in all right?"
Dwalin chuckled at that. "Oh yes, she has everyone jumping at her least little order. She'll have Erebor back in order in no time."
"That's good." The conversation fell flat and she examined her hands.
He sighed, "We need to talk, lass. Afterwards, if you don't want anything to do with me, I understand."
She nodded and murmured, "If I didn't want anything to do with you, I wouldn't have let Thranduil heal me."
He looked at her, "There's that too. Why lass, why would you be willing to throw your life away? We aren't worth that."
She sighed, "You all are my family of choice. I already lost my family once. I couldn't bear the thought of losing them again."
He groaned, "Oh lass, I'm sorry, so, so sorry. We all are."
She smiled shyly at him. "I know that. I won't tell you that everything's going to be all right right away. But the fact that you are even willing to try, that you see me again, that makes it worth it to me. But I am curious."
He scooped her hand gently up in his. "About what?"
"Why didn't you say anything? You never belittled or ignored me that way that the others did. And Dis said that you never did in the reports either. Why then, did you ignore what was going on? Couldn't you see how much that hurt me?"
He frowned. "I saw what was happening. But I didn't know how to stop it. I've never been good with words, that was always me brother's strength. I couldn't figure out a way to explain how they were all being taken in by a she wolf. And I knew that if I tried to take your side, it would only bring them down harder on you. I couldn't trust the little viper, I didn't know what her end game was. So I had to make a hard call and protect Thorin and the princes until Dis got here. I couldn't risk her killing one. But I see now that I made the wrong choice."
She squeezed his hand gently, "How is that? You managed to keep them alive. Not an easy task, with the way she was slinking around poisoning everyone's minds. So how was that the wrong choice?"
He growled, "Because it would've cost me you. I would've lost my One. Nothing is worth that. Nothing!"
She covered their hands with her other one. "You and Thorin have been shield brethren for decades and I know that Dis charged you with overseeing her sons. Not to mention that Thorin is your king. You would not be the dwarf you are without your loyalty and honor. And now that I know your reasons, that you were doing your best to protect me as well. It doesn't make it instantly better, but it helps. You see." She flushed and looked away.
He reached out with his free hand and gently turned her back to face him, using a knuckle to lift her chin until their eyes could meet. "I see what?" She looked pleadingly at him but he shook his head. "Not talking is what led us to this position. Never again."
She sighed, turning as rosy as her prize winning tomatoes. "Somewhere along the quest, Dwalin Fundinson, I found myself falling for you. The thought that you could be so influenced by an evil female, that I never had your heart in the first place, hurt. The fact that I was nothing more than another companion to you, someone that you had to keep safe and ultimately just a burden, that cut me deeply. I had hoped that we were growing closer and that it was only the threat of the dragon that kept you from speaking to me about courtship. But as Rina kept pointing out to me, I was only a useless hobbit far from home and she was a dwarrowdam of reputed beauty. How then, could I ever possibly compare? And now that I've made a total fool of myself, I would like to rest some more, please."
Dwalin's expression was the oddest mixture of overjoyed and outraged that she had ever seen. He seemed to search for words, opening and closing his mouth several times before finally speaking. "If I'd know that she was dripping such poison in yer ear, I would've stopped it, rest of the company be damned. You are everything a dwarf could ever dream of in their mate and then some. I've been head over heels for ya, lass, since the day you opened your door and I laid eyes on you. But we both had contracts. I did my best to court you on the road, to make you see my regard, but I see now that I should've used my words, poor as they might be. It's no wonder that you doubted me. But please, let me make it up to you, amralime. Let me court you properly, as you deserve."
She drew a deep breath in. "I don't want a bunch of formal nonsense. I just want you, Dwalin. That's all I've ever wanted. But it seemed like too much to expect that such a valiant warrior like you could ever care for the odd Mad Baggins from the Shire."
Instead of speaking, he gently gripped her chin in his hand and brought his mouth down to hers for a gentle claiming. It was the barest brush, but before she could protest, he returned, his lips settling more firmly over hers. She melted into the tenderness, freeing her hands from his so that she could sink them into his beard and tug him closer.
This caused him to smile, his lips turning up against hers. She nipped his lower lip in reproach and his groan gave her the opportunity to sweep in and taste him. He tasted like ale, pipe weed, and something that was uniquely Dwalin. However, his surprise quickly faded and his tongue dueled with hers for control. What had started off as sweet and chaste quickly turned hot and needy, both seeking reassurance that the other one was there, that it wasn't all a dream, and they truly cared for each other. They kissed for several minutes before he finally pulled back, breathing hard.
She tucked her face against his chest, struggling to catch her breath and also so that she wouldn't kiss him again. She mumbled, "Wow."
He laughed, the sound rolling through her pleasantly. "Wow indeed, lass. By Mahal, I could get addicted to your kisses."
Her lips quirked up in a smile and she let out a small, relieved sigh. She was safe, she was home, and everything was going to be all right. Almost as if he read her mind, Dwalin hugged her tighter and dropped a kiss on her head. "Never again, lass, never again. I'm going to spend the rest of my life making sure that you're safe and happy, if only you'll have me."
Contentment washed over her and she hugged him back, murmuring softly, "That sounds perfect."