Bella was quite put out. She was supposed to be having a quiet evening at home, enjoying her fresh caught fish dinner (what lass didn't like to keep her hand in at fishing now and again) followed by the new novel she had just received by post. She had been waiting on this book for weeks and when it had arrived the day before, she had promised it to herself as a treat for enduring the bi-weekly tea that Lobelia absolutely insisted on. If she was going to have to endure those ghastly cranberry scones, she should at least have something good to balance it all out.
That had been the plan at least. So how in the world had she come to be hosting a group of dwarves in her smial? First came the giant one who'd eaten her dinner without even so much as a by your leave. Then had appeared a most dignified looking dwarf and Bella had hoped that he would explain what was going on in a rational manner. That hope was dashed moments later when he smashed his forehead with the giant in greeting. Apparently, they were kin. Then had come the two scamps that she was currently dealing with. Although it was hard to tell with dwarves, they appeared to be a good deal younger than the first two, right about mid thirties for a hobbit if she had to guess.
However, that still did not explain how she ended up holding one of the scamps sharp weapons while the other one thought it was appropriate to wipe his muddy boots on her mother's hope chest. Before she could walk over and smack the dark haired dwarf like she was highly tempted to, the first dwarf called for the younger two to help rearrange her furniture, again, without so much as a by your leave.
That's when she heard that they wouldn't be able to fit everyone in and she could help the words that burst from her lips, "Everyone? How many more are there?"
She was distracted from trying to stop the rearranging of her home (not that they were paying a bit of attention to her anyway) by the sound of her doorbell once again. Spinning on her heel, she dumped the blond dwarf's weapons to the side, it wasn't like she had a proper place to put weapons anyway, she stormed towards the door, calling loudly, "Go away! There's nobody home, go away and bother somebody else! There are already far too many unexpected guests in here and there is no room for more." She muttered under her breath, "When I find the person who thinks that it's amusing to send strangers to my home, they will get the rough side of my tongue."
Wrenching open the door, she had to leap back to avoid the group of dwarves who had just fallen through her door to land in a heap on her foyer floor. Staring at them wide-eyed, she caught a hint of movement out of the corner and looked up just in time to see Gandalf bend over and peek in her door. Propping her hands on her hips, she sighed, "I should've known that you would be the one behind this."
As he made soothing noises at her, she ignored him entirely and moved forward to help the dwarves start untangling themselves. It was a large group, double what was already in her home. She quickly pulled out what appeared to be another young one, assisted a rotund redhead who held the potential to be most hobbitlike to his feet, ignored the cheeky one with the hat, although she could tell that he was a good natured dwarf from the laugh line around his eyes. Finally, she held out a hand to help a dwarf with odd, star pointed hair to his feet. He took it silently, an odd look on his face, and something zinged down her arm when they touched. It was not unlike wearing wool socks in winter and then touching a doorknob, a sharp little jolt that was not painful exactly but certainly got one's attention.
She met his dark eyes and offered him an apologetic half smile, letting his hand go once she was sure that he was steady on his feet. Noting that they'd all been sorted out and were back on their feet and knowing that it was much too late to be rid of them now, she shooed them towards where the other dwarves were, only half listening as they offered her their names. The last one to leave was Nori, the star haired dwarf, who kept glancing at her almost expectantly yet oddly at the same time.
Puzzled as to what was puzzling the dwarf, she examined herself and groaned when she realized that she was in her at home clothes and robe. With a huff, she told Gandalf, "You lot might as well make yourselves at home. I'm going to go make myself presentable, then I'll be back and I want answers, Gandalf. This is not seemly in the least, besides, I've never put on such a poor feast before in my life."
Gandalf wisely held his tongue and followed after the dwarves while she stormed off to her room, putting on a perfectly serviceable market day dress. For some reason, she wanted to primp and put on her best, despite the fact that her smial was filled with uninvited guests. She chalked it up to wanting to put her best Baggins foot forward after such an awkward start. Still, when she caught herself checking her hair yet again in the mirror, she forced herself to set the brush down and rejoin the party of dwarves. She found her pantry well ransacked and the dwarves eating heartily. Noting how thin some of them were, abominably so by hobbit standards, she couldn't begrudge them the food.
Pulling Gandalf aside, she asked impatiently, "Is this all of them of will there be more yet?"
Gandalf said calmly, although his eyes were still dancing at the dwarves' antics, "There will be one more and then the party will be complete."
Since that wasn't as bad as she'd feared, she shooed him back to his dinner and set about salvaging enough food for three or four plates worth from the table that was quickly becoming picked clean. If the last dwarf was anything like the others, they would undoubtedly be hungry. To her surprise, one of the dwarves gave her a hand, reaching the plates that were too far for her to easily get and steadying the plates as she filled them.
He teased, "You sure have an appetite for a wee mite of a thing."
Finding herself reluctantly charmed, she rolled her eyes lightly and offered him a half smile, "Master, um, Nori?" He nodded, although a small hint of hurt seemed to pass through his eyes, although it was there and gone so quickly that she couldn't be sure, "These plates are not for me, but for the dwarf who isn't here yet. They'll undoubtedly be hungry as well. So I thought that I'd save them a bit to eat. Thank you for your help."
He carefully followed her into kitchen, a small frown on his face, "Mistress Baggins."
She interrupted, taking the plate from him and carefully stowing it alongside the other two in the warming oven, "Might as well call me Bella. Thanks again for your help."
He nodded hesitantly, "Mistress Bella, aren't you going to eat then?"
She sighed, knowing that that was the best she was going to get for now, "No, maybe later." Right then, they heard a quiet crash. Frowning, she muttered, "'Scuse me", and dashed off to see what had happened now. She didn't see Nori frown or hear the quiet sigh fall from his lips, too focused on the chaos going on in her house.
Gandalf was zero help as well, of course, and when one of the dwarves was polite, the evening devolved into a total chaos of dancing and singing dwarves, especially when she told them not to blunt her knives. Those knives were not of dwarvish make, didn't they understand how hard it was to get an edge on soft Shire steel? But still, the tune was a merry one and if they laughed at her at the end, at least they had done the dishes. She had not looked forward to all the washing up that had been awaiting her.
She caught Nori staring at her again, but before she could inquire as to why he was staring, they heard the knock on the door. The last dwarf had finally arrived. Or maybe they had arrived before then, but the racket the others were making had drowned out their request for entry. Gandalf managed to reach the door first (tired old man, her foot!), and welcomed the last dwarf in. She smirked at hearing that he had struggled to find Bag End, only to be outraged to learn that the wizard had been so impudent as to leave a mark on her freshly painted door. If she weren't a respectable Baggins, that would've earned the wizard a short sheeting at the very least.
Then, the leader of the company, one Thorin Oakenshield, had the gall to circle her then look down his nose at her as if he had found her wanting. She thought that she heard a quiet growl, but ignored it as she pushed down the urge to either slap or throttle the haughty dwarf. When he asked her what her weapon of choice was, she felt her cheeks heat as she answered snarkily, "Well, I do have some skill at conkers, if you must know. However, I fail to see why that's relevant."
Thorin dismissed her after that, calling her a grocer before striding off into her home as if he owned the place, the others trailing after him. She glared at Gandalf who looked away sheepishly before pinching the bridge of her nose and counting to ten in an attempt to control her temper. As wonderful as it would be to vent her ire, they were her guests which meant that she was by default, their hostess. Which bound her by very specific rules of guesthood, which meant that she couldn't yell, withhold food, or otherwise abuse her guests.
Seeing that the others had already fetched him ale, she went to fetch the food that she'd set aside, mumbling under her breath the entire way. Nori was already there, lurking in the shadows between the kitchen and dining room. She sniffed angrily at him as she marched over to the warming oven, "I suppose you find me wanting as well."
She didn't know why it mattered, goodness, she didn't even know why the dwarves were there invading her home. But for some reason, this dwarf's opinion mattered to her. She refused to look at him, to see the disdain where earlier there had been good cheer.
However, he merely stepped forward and claimed two of the three plates, his face set into a neutral mask, "Not at all, Mistress Bella. But Thorin has traveled a rough road and is not as courteous as he ought to be. Maybe after he's had a bit of food in him, he'll remember his manners."
She looked at him, startled, but he merely nodded and left with the plates. Now, that wasn't the answer she had been expecting at all. Hoping that the odd dwarf was right and that Thorin was merely hungry, Bella set the final plate of the table before settling on lurking unobtrusively at the edge of the room. Upon hearing the news of how the others had refused them, she winced slightly, understanding better now Thorin's foul mood.
Still, she didn't speak, not wanting to draw his ire back on her. She wrinkled her nose at the repeated noisy outbursts of the dwarves and had to snicker when Gandalf was put on the spot. However, when she finally realized what they were speaking of, she started to get a queasy feeling in her stomach. She protested that she wasn't a burglar, although moments later she wanted to prove Dwalin that he was wrong and she was able to take care of herself just fine.
And then Gandalf had to stick his nose into the whole mess and she felt control of the situation slipping from her hands, although she was coming to realize that she'd never had any control in the first place. Then Gandalf was spouting all sorts of things about hobbits, things that they would prefer that the other races did not now. Before she could find a way, politely, to call the wizard a liar, she was being handed a contract.
Her head was swimming from all the shocks that she'd gotten in such a short amount of time, she started to skim the contract. The terms themselves were all quite fair and the remuneration quite generous.
However, when she reached the section about possible injuries, her mind flashed back to memories of the wounds she'd seen during the Fell Winter. The evening had obviously unsettled her worse than she realized because the memories that she had kept firmly locked away swarmed to the forefront of her mind with ease.
And when Bofur added his bit about the dragon, it was all just too much. The world went black and she never felt the arms that gently caught her nor the uproar that followed.
* * *
When she awoke, she was perched in a chair in the den, her smial fairly quiet for the first time that evening, a blanket wrapped lightly around her. She blinked blearily and tried to sit up straighter, only to be stopped by a warm hand on her shoulder. A gruff voice bid her to be still. When she did as bid, the dwarf moved away and fetched her a mug of cool water, pressing it gently but firmly into her hands before moving away half a pace.
Sipping at the water, she rubbed tiredly at her eyes until they came back into focus. She was about to ask what had happened when the evenings events returned to her and she sighed, her cheeks growing hot. Looking up at the dwarf who had obviously stayed with her while she was unconscious, she apologized, "I'm sorry, Master Nori. This entire evening has been a bit overwhelming, but that was no excuse for fainting like a silly Bracegirdle."
Curiosity filled his face while he waved her apology aside, "What's a Bracegirdle?"
She chuckled quietly at that, "Not what, who. A hobbit family filled with very silly hobbits, I'm afraid. Not that my behavior was all that much better. I suppose Master Oakenshield has retracted his offer of a contract."
Nori shook his head, "No, the position is still yours, if you want it, that is."
She eyed him curiously, feeling like there was a deeper meaning to his words than she knew. She answered softly, "I am only a soft hobbit lass, part of a soft land. What good could I possibly be as a burglar? I am sure that there are many more qualified than I am."
Although he looked slightly disappointed, his next words still carried that deep feel, "Don't be so quick to undersell yourself, Mistress Baggins. A good judge of character is Tharkun. I'm naught but a thief, but here I am, part of one of the grandest quests in all of Arda. I am sure there is more to you than meets the eye." He paused for a moment before winking and adding with roguish charm, "Although what does meet the eye is lovely indeed."
She chuckled slightly at that, rising slowing to her feet, relief flooding her when her legs held steady under her, "That is sweet indeed of you to say, Master Nori. However, I still think that you ought to look elsewhere for your burglar. I am going to turn in, Gandalf can show you where the rooms are for each of you. Good luck on your quest and may Yavanna watch over you."
She glanced over her shoulder as she slipped out of the den to see him frozen in place, the oddest expression on his face. Refusing to analyze the look or to allow herself to be drawn into a quest, she was a respectable Baggins after all, she made her way to her room and shut the door firmly behind her. And even when she heard dwarven voices lifted in a clear song of yearning and home, she refused to ask herself why it felt like she was making a grave mistake by not joining this quest. And no matter how she turned their conversation over in their mind as she tossed and turned, she couldn't figure out the silent question that Nori had been asking her.
* * *
Nori sighed as he listened to Dori fuss over Ori yet again while simultaneously managing to carry on a conversation with Tharkun about different types of pipe weed. They rounded yet another bend in this cursed place, the roads looping around and around on themselves. If they didn't have Tharkun with them, the chances that they would be lost was higher than he would've liked.
At least the guard captain wasn't here glaring daggers at him. So, they'd had their differences in the past. But they were sworn together to complete this quest, Dori and Nori signing up after Ori had already signed onto the quest. And Nori took comrades seriously, he would never touch any of their belongings and he would defend them to the death. He supposed it would take time to truly sink in for the surly captain, but it was getting old.
Finally they rounded yet another bend and saw Gandalf's mark on a round hobbit door right as it shut behind what appeared to be the dwarven princes. If Fili and Kili were already here, that meant that they had to be in the right place. If it had been Thorin, maybe not so much. As much as he respected him as a ruler, the truth was that the king-in-exile was a terrible navigator.
They reached the door in a bunch and Dori took it upon himself to knock on the door, Tharkun standing well back. In hindsight, that should've been a good indication of trouble ahead but he had been blissfully unaware at that time. Once they had knocked, they heard a muffled shriek from inside, one that almost sounded feminine in nature. The dwarves in back leaned in closer to see if they could make out the words. This too, proved to be unwise, as the door was yanked open and the whole lot of them tumbled inside.
Although Bofur tumbled on top of him, Nori took a moment to appreciate the way the hobbit lass leaped lightly back like an offended cat, managing to avoid being buried under an avalanche of dwarves. And when she realized that the wizard was with them, she propped her hands on her hips and gave Tharkun the most adorable scowl that Nori had ever seen on another living being. She ignored the wizard's platitudes and sighed, looking over the dwarves sprawled so ungainly on her floor.
And when her lovely emerald eyes met his, it was like lightening shot through his veins. This beautiful hobbit lass was his One and he would have no other. But there was no exclamation of joy from her, no smile, like he always envisioned his One would wear when he finally found her. Instead, there was only a mixture of irritability and weariness on her face. He barely even felt Bofur's elbow digging into his back, disappointment lancing through him like Bifur's big boar spear.
Turning away from him, and didn't his heart crack a little bit at that, his lass started pulling dwarves from the heap and assisting them to their feet. First was Ori, for which Nori was thankful for as the lad truly was squished under the other dwarves. Then she helped up Bombur, which the dwarves underneath him probably greatly appreciated. She helped up Bofur next, who quipped about falling at the feet of beauty. But before he could growl and smack the dwarf that he usually considered a friend, hard, she ignored the miner and moved over in front of Nori, holding out her hand to him.
He reached for it slowly, wondering if she was going to acknowledge their bond now. After all, it was rather unnerving to have over half a dozen dwarves fall unexpectedly into one's house, maybe she had just needed a moment to recenter herself. When their hands touched, he felt the connection zing through them, showing that this was indeed his One. However, once he was on his feet, she met his eyes and smiled apologetically before letting his hand go.
As soon as their touch parted, he felt his heart crack. His One, it seemed was not willing to acknowledge their bond in front of the others of the company. Instead, she merely listened as all the dwarves introduced themselves before shooing them towards where they could hear the others of the company, not even bothering to give them her name. Unwilling to make a fuss, he followed after the others, mentally begging her to acknowledge him as her One, even if it was just between the two of them. Instead, she looked at him, puzzled, before glancing down and seeming to be startled to find herself in a dressing gown of many colors over what he would guess what a comfortable stay-at-home dress.
She said something in a low tone to Tharkun before disappearing down a different hallway than the one that she had indicated for them to take. Only his long years as a thief allowed him to maintain a semblance of normality as he greeted the others, absently helping them to bring out the food while keeping a close eye out for the lass. Now that she was out of sight for a moment, he allowed himself to think of her closely. She seemed to be tall for a hobbit, the top of her head would tuck neatly right underneath his chin. She had the bonniest golden brown curls that he had ever seen and his fingers itched to see if they truly were as soft as they appeared. Not to mention her emerald eyes that had sparkled and snapped in the gentle candle light.
He could say without falsehood that she was the prettiest lass that he'd ever seen, and that included the Lady Dis. But even beyond her beauty, he could see her intelligence shining brightly as well as a fiery spirit that burned so brightly. He barely knew her, but he already knew that she was everything he could've ever wanted in a One. So why hadn't she recognized their bond?
That was the moment that she reappeared, dragging Gandalf off to speak privately with him. She had changed into a bright outfit, a pretty green skirt, white blouse, and a cheerful yellow corset. Her frowned slightly when he noticed that her feet were bare. She was risking getting them accidentally stepped on by heavy dwarven boots. He'd have to be on a sharp lookout to make sure that she wasn't injured.
He was pleased when he saw her head towards the table and start filling a plate, she should eat with them if she were to be one of the company, although he had to raise his brow at the sight of her filling three plates. He joined her, curious as to what her preferences were. Seeing a tiny crease in her forehead, he teased, hoping to get a smile from her, "You sure have an appetite for a wee mite of a thing." He winced inwardly after the words came out, worried that she would misconstrue them.
However, it just seemed to amuse her as she offered him a tiny smile before speaking, Master, um, Nori?"
He nodded, feeling a small wave of pain pass through him that she seemed to struggle to remember his name. Seeming not to notice it, she continued, "These plates are not for me, but for the dwarf who isn't here yet. They'll undoubtedly be hungry as well. So I thought that I'd save them a bit to eat. Thank you for your help."
He was intrigued by the glimpse of the kind heart his One seemed to possess. But why then was she denying him? Frowning, he followed her into the kitchen, carrying the last plate. He wanted to ask, without prying as it was the dam's prerogative, why, "Mistress Baggins."
Before he could get the question out, she interrupted, taking the plate from him and carefully stowing it alongside the other two in the warming oven, "Might as well call me Bella. Thanks again for your help."
Bella. Her name was Bella. It was the most beautiful sound that he had ever heard. However, it didn't seem right to address her so informally while she didn't acknowledge their bond. Respecting her unspoken wish, she'd made it more than clear that she didn't want to speak of the bond, he asked, "Mistress Bella, aren't you going to eat?" It wasn't right that she was not eating, his instincts clamoring at him to care for her.
She shook her head, "No, maybe later." Right then, there was a crash from the other room and she dashed off to see what it was. He couldn't help the sigh that escaped him even as he inwardly cursed the company. Little chance of having a meaningful conversation with that lot around. He moved back to join the others, unwilling to let them, especially Dori, know the truth of the situation.
To help distract himself from his aching emotions, he allowed himself to be drawn into Bofur's nonsense. The fact that he could see his lass's cheeks fill with rubies and her eyes sparkling with temper and amusement was just a little bonus. But all too soon their fun was over when Thorin finally joined them. He couldn't stop the tiny growl the escaped his throat when the king examined her so disdainfully, although he couldn't help his tiny smirk at her cheek. Conkers indeed.
Knowing that she would need a moment to compose herself, he made his way to the kitchen, intending to apologize for Thorin's behavior and for not stepping between them. Although he knew that he was well concealed in shadow, she located him moments after entering the kitchen. Her spine was stiff with outrage, but he could see the hint of hurt lurking in her eyes. She asked angrily, "I suppose you find me wanting as well."
He found himself at a loss for words. To him, she was absolutely perfect, didn't she know that? Carefully hiding his confusion, he took the plates from her and said quietly, "Not at all, Mistress Bella. But Thorin has traveled a rough road and is not as courteous as he ought to be. Maybe after he's had a bit of food in him, he'll remember his manners." And if Thorin didn't, well, Nori would be more than happy to remind him of it.
She looked at him, startled, but he just left, unable to figure out exactly what to say or do. He gave Thorin the food before going and joining his brothers on the bench, unobtrusively keeping an eye on Bella. He kept quiet as the various dwarves shouted, although he could tell that Ori had had too much ale if he was using such language around a lady. He knew that Dori would reprimand him in the morning after he sobered up and Nori would add his two cents worth as well. Although it was extremely inexcusable to use such language in front of Nori's One, he needed to remind the younger dwarf that it was never acceptable to speak so in front of any female.
As the evening progressed, he noted that Bella grew paler and paler, although she seemed to take amusement from their questioning of Tharkun. When Thorin told Balin to give her the contract, he found himself torn. While he wanted her there at his side, he also wanted her safe as far away from the dragon as possible. Still, listening to her mutter over the contract, he was pleased by her thoroughness and her attention to detail.
However, then Bofur had to go and spout of about the dragon. Seeing Bella grow even more pale, he stood and made his way towards the door. And it was a good thing, because Bofur's last remark was apparently the final straw and she passed out, dropping like a stone. His heart in his throat, he barely made it in time to catch her before she hit the ground. Scowling harshly at the now repentant Bofur, Nori scooped her carefully up and carried her off to a quiet room where she could come around in peace.
Wrapping her gently in a blanket he found draped across the back of the chair, he settled her gently into a large armchair, most likely her father's. Then he settled in for her to wake. However, this lasted only a few seconds before he jumped up and started to pace, his mind whirling. This was not how he foresaw this day going at all. This morning, he woke up, excited to be part of this quest and get to travel a bit with his brothers. After all, this quest had the possibility of great rewards, had enough recklessness to appeal to him, and had lots of opportunities for a resourceful dwarf to take advantage of.
He had most certainly not expected to meet his One today, although it was something that he had yearned for all of his life. Some dwarves would be upset that their One was a hobbit, but he considered himself blessed to be paired with such a bonnie lass. So why then was she not willing to be paired with him? They had just met, she couldn't know of his less than savory past. Could it be because he was a dwarf and not a hobbit. A horrible thought occurred to him, could she already be married? He carefully checked her over for a braid or a ring to indicate such, letting out a sigh of relief when he could find no sign of her being taken. Then another thought occurred to him, what if she was just promised, not yet wed?
This train of thought was abruptly derailed when she shifted and sighed softly, coming slowly to. She tried to sit up to fast and he carefully stopped her, fetching her some fresh water. He was pleased to see some color return to her cheeks and her gaze sharpened to it's usual determined gaze. He could tell when she remembered what happened because her cheeks filled with rubies.
He wanted to chuckle when she apologized, "I'm sorry, Master Nori. This entire evening has been a bit overwhelming, but that was no excuse for fainting like a silly Bracegirdle."
Curiosity filled him and he waved her apology aside as nonsense, asking, "What's a Bracegirdle?"
She chuckled quietly at that, the sweet sound moving through him, "Not what, who. A hobbit family filled with very silly hobbits, I'm afraid. Not that my behavior was all that much better. I suppose Master Oakenshield has retracted his offer of a contract."
Dread filled him at the thought of her in danger, even as he hoped cautiously that she still wanted to go with them. He couldn't resist layering a more personal offer in with his words, hoping that it was just the overwhelming circumstances or the presence of others that had kept her from speaking earlier, "No, the position is still yours, if you want it, that is."
She eyed him curiously, uncertainty clear on her face. Her voice was soft as she answered, "I am only a soft hobbit lass, part of a soft land. What good could I possibly be as a burglar? I am sure that there are many more qualified than I am."
His heart dropped, even as he wanted to shout out that there would never be another, more qualified or not, not that anyone would ever come close to her. He said firmly, "Don't be so quick to undersell yourself, Mistress Baggins. A good judge of character is Tharkun. I'm naught but a thief, but here I am, part of one of the grandest quests in all of Arda. I am sure there is more to you than meets the eye." He paused for a moment before winking and adding with all the charm he could muster, "Although what does meet the eye is lovely indeed."
She chuckled slightly at that, rising slowing to her feet, relief filling her face, "That is sweet indeed of you to say, Master Nori. However, I still think that you ought to look elsewhere for your burglar. I am going to turn in, Gandalf can show you where the rooms are for each of you. Good luck on your quest and may Yavanna watch over you."
He froze as he watched her slip from the room, only glancing briefly over her shoulder before she was gone. And that caused his heart to shatter entirely. His One didn't want him, although she hadn't said the words. It took him several minutes before he could pull himself together enough to appear unaffected when he went out and informed the others that she would not be a burglar for them.
Even though he wanted to close his heart entirely to her, to cut off the pain, he couldn't help the tiny thread of relief that at least she would be safe and sound far away from the dragon. When Thorin led them in song, he filled his voice with his hope and longing, trying to tempt her to come out, to acknowledge him, acknowledge them. But the door remained stubbornly empty and so was his heart.
He was placed in the same room as his brothers, unsurprisingly, and he stretched out on the floor so that Dori wouldn't nag at him and pretended to sleep. But he lay there for most of the night, unable to answer two simple questions. Why had his One rejected him? and What had he done to be judged unworthy?
For the first time in his life, he rued all of the choices that he had ever made. Maybe if he was someone else, maybe if he wasn't just a common thief, maybe then she would've accepted him.