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The Gift of Caring

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It was all Bella could do to keep putting on foot in front of the other, fatigue dragging her and causing her very bones to ache. She had been hungry for so long now that she didn't even register it any more, although she noted dimly that her hunger was probably part of the reason for her fatigue and brain fog. She needed sleep and food badly, but the dwarves were counting on her, so she didn't dare stop or take what she needed from the elves. Not only that, but she was doing her best to minimize her struggles and to keep up the company's spirits.

She had lost track of time, down there in the dungeons, but knew that they were running out of time if they were to reach Erebor in time for Durin's day. Still, she was just a hobbit and could only push herself so far before her body gave out. Shivering, she blearily made her way through the twisting halls, watching out for any elves that might be passing through. Although she still hadn't found a way out, she made a point of visiting the company at least once a day to pass messages between them and check on them.

She had reached Nori's cell, the last one, and was passing along a message from Dori when dizziness washed over her and she slumped against the bars. It took several moments for her to hear Nori's frantic whispers through the ringing in her ears. Dredging up another scrap of strength, from where she didn't know, she lifted her head slightly and murmured hoarsely, "I'm sorry, what were you saying?"

He cursed and whispered forcefully, "I can't see you. Take off your ring, right now!"

She fumbled tiredly for the ring, trying to remember why being seen was a bad idea, and mumbled, "What about the elves?"

Nori glared, "They're not due back for hours yet, you're perfectly safe. Now take it off!"

She finally managed to tug it off and shoved it into her pocket, looking at Nori tiredly. The horror on his face slapped some sense back into her and she abruptly remembered why she had been refusing to take off the ring in front of the company. She knew that she looked a fright and that the company would fret if they saw her. Drawing herself up, she offered him a weary smile, "It's not as bad as looks, I'm sure that the cobwebs will come out of my hair when I wash it, I just haven't had a chance yet."

Her words seemed to draw him from his stupor, rushing forward and claiming her hands with his larger ones, both of them hissing out a breath at the touch.

She exclaimed, "You're so warm!"

At the same time, he hissed, "Lass, your hands are like ice!"

She shrugged slightly, "It's very cold down here. I don't see how you aren't an icicle yourself."

Nori urged her to sit and gently chaffed her hands and arms, trying to impart so warmth to her. "Mahal, Bella, a stiff breeze would blow you away right now and the circles under your eyes are darker than mine shafts, when was the last time you slept or ate? And in answer to your question, when Mahal created us, he placed a forge in us to keep us warm while we explored the depths of the earth."

She leaned into his touch, trying to draw as much warmth and comfort from him as she could. She mumbled absently, "How long have we been here? I've lost all track of time here in these halls." She frowned, "Did I manage to finish Dori's message? He really is quite worried about you."

Nori's voice was quiet, "Are you telling me that you haven't eaten the whole time we've been here?"

She said tiredly, "A bite here and a bite there, I don't dare take much for fear of drawing attention to myself. And it's hard to sleep, not knowing if I will be discovered or not."

He pulled away and she whimpered at the loss of his heat, too tired to be ashamed of the sound. However, he was only pulling off his over tunic. She flushed and looked away, wondering if he'd lost his mind. He was back moments later, thrusting the cloth through the bars into her hands. She frowned at him and muttered, "Nori, what in the world are you doing?"

He offered her a smirk, but it was a pale imitation of his usual one, "Put it on, lass. You're no good to us if you freeze to death or keel over from exhaustion. The elves just did their rounds a little bit ago and they won't be back for hours yet. Lay down and I'll keep watch while you rest." She started to fumble for the ring and he reached through the bars and gently captured her wrist. "Leave it off, Bella. No one will see you, I'll wake you up, you have my word. Now, put on the tunic."

She didn't tug away but simply waited until he reluctantly released her before pulling the tunic over her head. It was large enough on her petite frame to almost reach her knees. She cuddled into it and leaned against the bars of the cage, a jaw cracking yawn escaping her. She mumbled, "Thanks, Nori. I'm just going to rest my eyes for a little bit, don't need sleep."

The words were barely out before a soft snore escaped her. Nori carefully rearranged her so that she was laying more comfortably on the ground, tucking his tunic more securely around her tiny frame. He noted mournfully that she was just a shadow of her former self. They had all lost ground from when the quest had first started, especially after the last few grueling weeks in Mirkwood. However, since their capture by the elves (and didn't that chafe Nori something royal), the dwarves had been recovering. No matter how much of a blackguard the king was, Nori couldn't fault their care and treatment at the hands of their captors. He'd been in enough jails to know that that was rarely the case.

He gently brushed a curl out of her face and studied her. They had been so caught up in the fact that were captured and time was passing, that they never gave a thought to how ragged the poor lass had been running herself trying to get them out. Instead, they had insisted upon a miracle from the plucky lass who had been running on pure nerves and courage from the looks of it. Well, no more. From now on, he would take care of her to the best of his ability, even if it was just keeping guard while she slept. He had gotten out of tighter spots than this, he would help find a way out of this one as well, she shouldn't have to face all of this alone.

* * *

Someone was shaking her and Bella shot to her feet, certain that the elves had finally found her. However, before she could bolt, a warm hand grabbed her wrist and a low male voice said urgently, "Bella, it's all right, it's just me. Calm down, lass, it's just us. You're safe."

His voice, his low dwarven voice, managed to break through her flight response and she froze, her heart beating rapidly. Glancing around quickly, she found that he was right and it was just the two of them there. She slumped against the bars, her knees suddenly weak, and apologized, "Sorry. Didn't mean to sleep."

His expression was rueful, "Sorry, didn't mean to scare you. I should've realized that you would be on edge with everything and found a different way to wake you."

She yawned, feeling more alert than she had in days, "How long did I sleep?"

He muttered, "Not long enough." When she looked at him curiously, he said louder, "Only a few hours. I would've let you sleep longer, but the guards will be coming through in a while and we need to talk before you go."

She smiled at him, trying to reassure him, "It's alright, I've slept enough for now. Thank you for standing guard, I knew that I was safe with you on lookout."

He sighed and offered her a wry smile, "I wish that I could've done more. You've already done more than anyone could've asked for."

She looked at him, puzzled, "What do you mean? I haven't even done what I signed on for yet."

His smile turned genuine and he even chuckled quietly at that, "You could argue that this is decidedly NOT what you signed on for. You've gone above and beyond anything that we could've expected from the company burglar."

She flushed and looked away, saying tartly, "You said that we needed to talk? I need to get moving before those guards come back." When she looked back, he was smiling warmly, which caused her to flush yet again.

He seemed to sense her discomfort and quickly became businesslike, "If you have a bit of time, could you carry a message to Dori for me? It's important that he gets it quickly."

She was puzzled, how urgent could it be where they were all locked up, but nodded agreeably, "Of course. I can't remember, did I give you his message before I fell asleep?"

He reassured her, "Yes, you did. Now, listen carefully. I need you to tell Dori exactly what I say. Can you do that?"

She rolled her eyes, "Yes, I'm much less muzzy headed now. What is the message?"

Taking a deep breath, he said slowly, "The lukhudel is fading, the ghivashel needs protected."

He sounded out the unfamiliar words slowly, making sure that she could pick apart all of the sounds properly. She turned it over for a moment in her mind before repeating it back to him. He corrected a slight pronunciation and she tried a second time, managing to get it right that time. She said wistfully, "I suppose that this is another thing that I'm not supposed to know."

He said firmly, "After Erebor is reclaimed, I'll teach you whatever you want to know. After facing down a dragon, no one will dare say that you haven't earned it."

That cheered her up and she pushed off the bars and smiled at him, "I'll hold you to that. I'd better get going, I'm sure that they'll be doing their sweep any minute now."

She started to tug his tunic off but he stopped her, "Keep it, lass. I don't need it and it will do you a sight more good right now than it will me."

Bella hesitated, "Won't the elves notice that it's missing? I don't want you to get into trouble."

He shook his head, "I haven't drawn any attention to myself and they barely glance in to make sure that I'm here before moving on. They won't notice, I promise."

She sighed but left the tunic on, unwilling to argue with him, especially after being warmer than she had been for a long time. Instead, she murmured the phrase one more time before pulling out the ring and slipped it on. She murmured, "I'll be back as soon as I can. Stay safe."

Holding onto the bars, he murmured seriously, "Don't take any chances, Bella. We'll be all right, one way or another. Mahal guard you."

She just smiled and moved away. They were sweet, but she was going to get her dwarves out of here, by hook or by crook. Her stomach gave a half hearted grumble and she grimaced. As much as it irked her, she would have to find food soon, otherwise she wouldn't be able to go on much longer.

* * *

It took her over an hour to reach Dori's cell, having to dodge the guards bringing the dwarves meals as well as checking in with the various company members. She found the mithril haired dwarf examining his jacket moodily as if wishing for needle and thread. After making sure that the area was empty except for them, she sidled up to the case and whispered his name.

The dwarf looked up, strain lines clear on his face, looking far older than he really was. Setting the jacket aside, he stood and moved over to the bars. He murmured, "Miss Bella?"

She had to smile at that. Even after all of this time, he still treated her with such respect, his formality charming in it's own way. She nodded before realizing that he couldn't see her, "Yes, I'm here. I've a message for you from Nori. Both he and Ori are doing all right, although they miss you."

Dori chuckled tiredly at that, "I'm surprised that Nori isn't climbing the walls by now, he never liked being confined."

She shrugged, "He's quiet for the moment. If I had to guess, he's plotting something."

Dori nodded, "More than likely. You said that you have a message from him?"

She said apologetically, "Yes, forgive me if my pronunciation isn't quite right. He said: The lukhudel is fading, the ghivashel needs protected."

This changed his demeanor instantly, his posture straightening and his eyes becoming sharp. She asked worriedly, "Did I say something wrong? I warned you that my pronunciation was shaky. I apologize if I said something offensive."

He shook his head, his voice gentle, "You said it perfectly well, you have the ear of a linguist. Can you do me a favor, Miss Bella?"

Relief filled her that she hadn't said anything awful, she murmured, "If it's within my power, I'll do my best."

He looked oddly intent as he spoke, "Would you mind making yourself visible? I find myself rather disconcerted talking to someone that I can't see. The elves just delivered our meals and they won't be back for some time yet."

Confused by his request, but it was a simple enough one to accommodate, she looked around cautiously before slipping off the ring. She warned, "I won't be able to do this every time, sorry, but it's safe enough for the moment."

He nodded, studying her closely, his face impassive. After several moments, he offered her a small smile, "Thank you, that's better. How do you manage that? Is it a hobbit gift?"

She smiled at that, Ori wasn't the only family member that was deeply curious. However, she merely shook her head, ignoring the way it made her head ache and swim, "I would prefer not to talk about it here, if that's all the same, Master Dori."

He nodded, waving it aside as unimportant, "Sit for a moment." She did and leaned against the bars while he moved to the back of his cell and fetched a tray. Sitting next to the bars on the inside, he settled the meal tray comfortably on the floor next to himself. Plucking up a roll, he quickly filled it generously with ingredients from the tray before passing it through the bars to her.

She wanted to desperately snatch it and gobble it down, but forced her hands to stay in her lap as she protested softly, "Dori, I can't. You need this."

He pressed it more firmly into her hands, "Lass, I get meals delivered regularly to me. I can't eat it all and it's a shame for it to go to waste. Besides, we don't need you drawing attention to yourself by trying to steal food. You need to be focusing on finding a way out."

Unable to find the strength to refuse a second time, she took the roll and ate slowly, all of her will power going into taking small bites and not bolting the food like her stomach was begging to. But the Fell Winter had taught her the danger of eating too fast after being on limited rations. Dori passed her his water flask and she carefully washed down each bite with a sip of water.

While she ate, Dori asked her questions about how her search for a way out was going and what precautions she was taking to keep from being discovered. He said little in response to her words, but his whole demeanor was oddly gentle. When she finished the roll, he offered her a second one, but she had to decline, already feeling overly full from the food and fresh water.

Feeling stronger and more clear headed than she had in days, Bella climbed reluctantly to her feet. She smiled at Dori, "You've helped me figure out a few things. I need to go look at some things now. Do you need me to take a message to anyone?"

He had basic messages for Nori and Ori, as well as one in Khuzdul for Balin that he slowly walked her through the pronunciation on. This one was much longer and it took her several tries to get it all right to Dori's satisfaction. Thanking Dori for the food, she slipped the ring back on and hurried to find Balin and relay the message before she lost any of it or got it confused in her mind.

This continued for the rest of the afternoon, running messages between the various dwarves, each of them carefully sounding out messages for her while insisting that she rest and drink some of their water, as well as rest a bit and talk with them. She wondered absently what in the world they were talking about so secretly, but was too busy trying to remember each message correctly. She tried to tuck away as much as she could remember, but had the feeling that it would fade away before she could figure it out.

It wasn't until after the last sweep of the guards for the night that she finally made it back to Nori's cell. Making sure that it was safe, she pulled off the ring and slumped loudly against the bars, sighing dramatically. Nori was there instantly, looking her over carefully, "Bella, lass, what happened? What's wrong! Are you ok?"

She pulled a wry face at him, batting her eyes outrageously at him, "No, I'm not all right."

He frowned in confusion, not finding any injuries on her, and quite frankly baffled by her overly dramatic behavior. Settling on the ground, he waited until she did the same to ask, "What's going on, lass? What's wrong?"

She wrinkled her nose at him, feeling better than she had in days, "My head hurts and my feet are about to fall off. I don't know what you said to Dori, but I've been carrying messages back and forth all day. I can barely think for trying to remember all the messages and get the words just right. Not to mention that each one insisted that I sit and talk for a bit. I wasted a lot of time today, time that I could've been spending finding a way out."

He grinned at that, noting the color in her cheeks with relief, "Nay, lass. This was very important what you did today. Tell me what messages you carried and to whom."

She rolled her eyes, "I'll tell you what I can, but I've undoubtedly forgotten most of it. Oh, and Dori told me to tell you know to fret, they'll be cared for. I have no idea what that means, since there in the exact same position as you are, but undoubtedly it's some super secret coded message that only you'll understand."

Nori nodded, satisfied, "Not at all, it's exactly what it seems. He knows that I worry about them unless I can see that they're all right with my own eyes. Now, tell me."

While she spoke, he carefully fed her bit by bit, distracting her when she would've protested by asking yet another question. By the time she finished recounting her afternoon, he had managed to get most of his dinner tray into her, distracting her each time she would've protested by asking yet another question. When she finished, she was drooping against the cell, blinking tiredly, her last sentence interrupted by a large yawn.

Pleased by how well his plan was working out so far, he suggested casually, "Why don't you stretch out and get comfortable for a moment while I figure out what message to send back to Dori."

She grumbled but did as he suggested, stretching out comfortably on the floor, her eyes already closed as she murmured, "Don't take too long, I've got things that I need to investigate. Don't let me fall asleep."

He gave a noncommittal hum, pretending to be busy thinking. Her full stomach and exhaustion worked against her and she was asleep in moments. He settled more comfortably against the wall of the cell, just watching her. He thought that he would have more of a fight from her, especially about taking the ring off again and getting more rest, she must've been on the very last dregs of her reserves. Such a brave, selfless lass, the company didn't deserve one such as her. And a dwarf who'd been on the wrong side of the law more often then not definitely didn't deserve such an amazing lass. But it didn't stop him from wanting to take care of her and wooing her anyway.

He sighed, wishing that he could do more, that he wasn't locked up in these cells so he could protect her and care for her like she deserved to be taken care of. Watching the steady rise and fall of her breathing, he comforted himself with the fact that at least he could watch over her for a little bit while she slept. It had to be enough for now.

* * *

Bella woke abruptly in the middle of the night, sitting bolt upright trying to figure out what had awakened her. Looking around, she found that the hallway was empty and Nori was sleeping lightly leaning against the wall. Climbing silently to her feet, she tried to pinpoint what had caught her attention. The low sound of voices caught her attention and she slipped on the ring and crept towards them, worried that the guards had somehow discovered her presence.

To her surprise, it was an elf guard, but it was not her that was being discussed. No, it was the red headed elf that was the captain of Thranduil's forces. She was talking with Kili and the youngest dwarf was hanging avidly onto every word as she described the upcoming Feast of Starlight to him. As she detailed every last little faucet of the feast for Kili, the wheels started turning in Bella's mind. What better time to escape than when all the elves were distracted with merry making?

Bella started listening closer to their conversation and had to bite back a groan when she realized that Kili was flirting, badly, with the elleth and she seemed to be responding to his flirtation, albeit with some reserve. Shaking her head, Bella turned away and started searching for the wine cellar. She had heard enough to start formulating a plan and she needed a drink after having to witness that pitiful attempt at flirtation. It was nothing at all like the sly looks and smooth lines that Nori favored.

She shook her head again when she realized that she was day dreaming about the star haired dwarf again. She picked up her pace a bit, she had definitely been in this place too long, it was messing with her head, making her long for impossible things. Between Kili's behavior, her wild day dreams, and Thorin's upcoming tantrum of the century when he found about his youngest nephew's said behavior, it would be a miracle if she made it out of this place with her sanity intact.

When she finally reached the cellars, all thoughts of actually getting a drink fled, an insane plan forming instantly in her mind. The company would actually hate it, but it was their best bet of actually escaping the elven king's palace undetected. This would require great precision on her part and an insane amount of luck, but it could actually work. Feeling hope spread through her, she left the cellar. She had so much to do!

* * *

It took the better part of the three days before the feast to get everything into place, having to dodge elves more and more as the halls filled with people bustling about in preparation for the feast. Bella reluctantly left the company to their own devices, although she passed by their cells a few times to check on them. However, every time she went by, there were elves too close for her to risk revealing herself. So she forced herself to ignore their anxious expressions and keep on task.

Finally, it was time for the feast. She was nearabouts dancing with impatience for the time it took for the key keepers to drink themselves into a stupor. Once they finally passed out, it was an easy thing to lift the keys from them and she scampered over to where the dwarves were imprisoned. A few were grumbling loudly to each other, but most were sulking in their cells, their expressions worried.

Satisfied that the guards were gone, it was a mandatory event after all, she slipped off the ring in front of Thorin's cell and grinned widely at him, "Ready to get out of here, your majesty?"

He grinned back at her, his eyes filled with surprise, "Burglar, we thought you lost."

She shook her head, "Nope, just busy. C'mon, we need to hurry." She locked the cell after he exited and explained when he raised an eyebrow at her, "Let them try and figure out how you escaped from a locked cell."

He grinned at that, clapping her heartily on the back. Bella hurried from cell to cell, repeating the action and having to repeated shush the ecstatic dwarves. Nori was last simply due to cell positioning. He was holding onto the bars in a white knuckled grip, craning his head to try and see what was going on. Relief filled his expression when she rounded the corner and he hissed, "Where have you been?"

She grinned brightly at him, her eyes undoubtedly filled with mischief, "I've been busy. C'mon, I'm sure that you're ready to get out of this place already."

She had the door unlocked by then and he was there, pulling her into a tight hug and muttering in her ear, "Don't scare me like that again, I thought that that poncy prat had managed to capture you."

She indulged herself and hugged him for a few precious seconds before pulling away, "No, I found the way out, but it took a little bit to get everything together. Your brothers are over this way." In another small bit of self indulgence, she grabbed his hand and pulled him after her, only releasing it when he was next to Dori and Ori. After all, she had earned it after the past few days of hard work.

The company had been overjoyed to get all of their possessions back, from coats to weapons. However, they were less pleased with the method of escape that she had come up with. It had taken every bit of persuasive skill that she possessed plus Thorin's backing to get the dwarves into the barrels. Making sure that they were packed as comfortably and sturdily as she could manage, she carefully sealed them in. Before she could get Nori's lid on tightly, he smoothed a loose curl behind her ear and murmured, "Be careful."

She offered him a small smile, "Don't worry, I can take care of myself. I'll get you out of here as soon as I can."

He looked concerned but merely nodded. She carefully affixed the lid and then double checked that all of the lids were secure. Sending a swift prayer to Yavanna, Bella slipped on the ring and then pulled the lever, scrambling after the barrels and making it just in time. Thus began two of the worst days of her life. It was all she could do to cling to the wet, slippery barrels. She was battered by the river and the rocks and nearly drowned more times than she could count.

At one point in the night, they floated into a little inlet. However, before Bella could gather the strength to release the dwarves, elves appeared and lashed the barrels together before pushing the raft back loose into the stream. Bella managed to scramble on top of the barrels and passed out, exhausted. But as soon as the sun rose, it woke her, the heat from the sun and reflected glare from the water making the ride a misery.

It was inching towards mid-day when the finally came to rest on the shore. Bella scrambled shakily to her feet, swaying and feeling almost as if she were still on the river. After waiting several minutes to make sure that no one was going to appear and claim the barrels, Bella took off the ring and started prying the lids off of the casks. The dwarves emerging from the barrels were understandably irate and Bella did her best to soothe them despite her own grown ire. After all, she'd gotten them out of the cursed dungeons, hadn't she? And her own trip had been far from comfortable. However, she merely bit her tongue and moved on to free the next dwarf and hear yet another litany of complaints.

Finally the last one was freed and she staggered over to a rock where she could sit for a minute and catch her breath, maybe get her head to stop spinning. It took her several moments to realize that there was someone standing in front of her. She blinked to clear her vision and found Nori standing there. She offered him a weary smile, "We made it."

He examined her carefully, "Are you all right, lass?"

She nodded gingerly, "Of course I..." A series of explosive sneezes escaped her and she muttered, "Oh dear" before passing out cold.

Nori caught her, noting with dismay how clammy and cold her clothes were. Wrapping his coat around her, he lifted her easily and promised, "I'm going to take care of you now, lukhudel. It's going to be all right."