Bilbo crouched down beside the small brook and submerged her hands in the water. Her hands were visible beneath the swiftly moving water and she watched as orc blood, mud and heavens knew what else slowly washed away down the stream. She lifted her head and closed her eyes, letting the feel of the cold water revive her spirits as she slowly came down from the rush of the battle with the orcs, the flight with the eagles, and the shock of Thorin Oakenshield smiling at her with more warmth than she thought him capable of possessing.
Very unkind, Bilbo, she thought to herself. The warmth has always been there. Just not directed towards you.
She sighed and gently daubed water on her face frowning when she realised that she was far muddier than she realised.
“You shouldn’t stray too far,” a deep voice came from behind her.
Bilbo startled and fell forward, her hands landing flat in the stream, water splashing her face and front.
“And you,” she said directly a glare over her shoulder, “shouldn’t be straying anywhere. Does Oin know you’ve wandered off?”
Thorin gingerly sat down to lean against the trunk of a tall pine tree and waved his hand in what Bilbo supposed was a royal wave of dismissal at her question.
She huffed and finished washing her hands and face, then got to her feet. Absently, she dipped her feet into the stream and hissed when the water washed over the cuts she sustained from her fall in the caves. The image of the unfortunate…whatever he was, Gollum, flashed in her mind and she shivered. She looked around the small dip in the treeline where the stream rushed merrily along, between moss-covered stones under the shelter of the pine trees. She breathed deeply, letting the scent of pine tickle her nose. If she closed her eyes she could almost imagine herself in that little alcove in the woods in Buckland.
She stepped out of the stream with a grimace and a sigh.
“Something troubles you?” Thorin asked quietly.
“A great many things trouble me,” Bilbo said with a laugh. “But at the moment, I was simply feeling…nostalgic, I suppose.”
“Oh?” he asked. “Remembering other times you slaughtered orcs with a sewing needle?”
“I have it on good authority that it’s a letter opener, thanks very much,” she said drily. “And no. I was listening to the sounds of the stream and the rustle of the thrushes in the undergrowth. My father proposed to my mother in such a setting. I was just remembering how he liked to tell me the story.”
She turned her back on the stream and faced him; Thorin looked steadily back at her. Under Oin’s and Gandalf’s instructions, they’d descended from the Carrock to immediately take rest for the day before travelling onwards. The sun, though low in the sky, still shone and if Bilbo stretched, she could still see the Lonely Mountain in the distance.
Thorin’s armour had saved him from a serious mauling, but he had some deep gashes and looked two breaths away from a deep sleep. However, colour had returned to his cheeks after viewing the mountain.
Bilbo walked over to where Thorin sat and settled down beside him. “Actually, if I tell the story truthfully, it was my mother who did the proposing.”
“That doesn’t surprise me in the least,” Thorin said. “I’ve found hobbits to be especially determined creatures.”
“Well, to hear Mum tell it, they’d been seeing a great deal of each other, liked what they saw, so why waste time?” Bilbo said.
“Why indeed?” he said.
She gave him a look. “I get the impression that the King Under the Mountain is mocking the hobbit-lass.”
Thorin raised his hands up, palms out. “I wouldn’t dare to be so bold. I’ve seen the damage that can be wrought with that sewing needle of yours.”
“Letter opener,” Bilbo corrected primly.
“My apologies. Letter-opener.” A corner of his mouth quirked upwards and Bilbo rolled her eyes as she resettled against the tree.
She looked up at the fading light filtering down through the pine trees. She dearly wished for her pipe but contented herself with breathing in the musky, spicy scent of the earth around her. She nearly choked on air when she realised that it wasn’t so much the air around her that smelled soothingly of spice and earth, but the dwarf beside her.
Oh, botheration, she thought helplessly. I don’t suppose there’s anything for it though? We Tooks fall so very heavily, after all. She frowned. So do the Bagginses, come to think of it. Blast.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Thorin’s low voice asking, “What do you suppose you’d be doing on an evening such as this had we not descended upon you?”
“Ah!” she said with great satisfaction. “So you admit it was a descent?”
“Of course,” he said. “Tactics had been discussed ahead of time.”
“I knew it,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “Did you really get lost twice?”
“I’ve seen rabbit warrens that were less confusing.”
“You have a terrible sense of direction.”
“You haven’t answered my question,” he countered.
Bilbo sighed. “Restocking my pantry for winter, I suppose. Actually, the crabapples will have just begun to drop from the trees, so I’d most likely have a few pots of jelly on the boil. In all honesty, I imagine it would be somewhat revolved around food.”
Thorin chuckled. “I’ve noticed a certain preoccupation with the subject.”
“If you’re referring to the size of my waistline,” she said warningly.
“You have a perfectly proportioned waistline,” he said simply and Bilbo felt her cheeks flush.
“Oh, well, yes. I’ve always thought so,” she said flustered. “Why did you ask?”
“I suppose,” he started slowly, looking down at his hands. “I wanted to know more of what we’ve taken you from. Whatever you usually do cannot be anything close to what you have done on this quest.” He looked at her and she had to remind herself to breathe when she received Thorin’s full stare. “Whatever it was, you could not have predicted this.”
“No,” she said. “I truly couldn’t have.” She frowned. “Could you?”
“Could I have predicted that a hobbit woman with a fondness for handkerchiefs and seven meals a day could have been so daring as to dissuade three trolls from eating a company of dwarves?” he said, eyebrows rising rather majestically. “Could I have predicted that the same hobbit woman would have thrown herself into an orc fight and come out the victor?”
“I would have thought you’d approve of that last one,” Bilbo pointed out. “Charging in recklessly without any thought whatsoever to the consequences or strategy or, oh sweet heavens, I’m becoming a dwarf!”
She clapped her hands on her mouth and looked at Thorin, feeling utterly appalled.
Naturally, the dwarf had the temerity to laugh, rather loudly, at her and asked, “Would that be so very bad, Mistress Baggins?”
“Well, I’m not sure,” she said, her hands falling from her mouth. She wriggled her toes on the moss. “You all wear such heavy boots all the time and you’re all so stubborn.”
Thorin opened his mouth to speak, but Bilbo interrupted him with, “Not a word.”
He closed his mouth.
“However,” she continued, “you’re not without your charms, I suppose. On the very odd occasion.”
“Praise, indeed,” he said as he shifted, grimacing in pain.
“Oh, let me help you,” Bilbo said getting to her knees and helping him re-settle against the pine tree.
He raised his hand to adjust his cloak and Bilbo froze when the tips of his fingers accidently brushed her ear. She closed her eyes and stifled a gasp. Naturally, Thorin noticed and paused.
“Did I hurt you?” he asked frowning. “You have bruises on your face and arms; have you had them looked at?”
“No, and yes,” she said.
He arched an eyebrow at her and she sighed.
“No, you didn’t hurt me,” she clarified, “and yes, I’ve had the bruises looked at. But they're fine. Turns out us hobbits have thicker skin than I realised.”
“Then why…” He gestured towards her ear.
“Oh, um, our ears are quite, ah, sensitive,” she said her face burning with a deep blush. She turned away and sat beside him once more, her eyes focussed firmly on the stream ahead.
She did her best to ignore his amused staring, but eventually sighed and asked, “What?”
“Nothing,” he said, the corners of his mouth turned up. “I hadn’t realised that. About the sensitivity, that is. They’re funny things.”
Bilbo glanced at him with narrowed eyes and he quickly added, “I mean to say…they’re lovely.”
“Oh,” she said taken aback. “Thank you?”
“Does the sensitivity lend itself to your hearing as well as when they're touched?” he asked, his voice deepening.
“Sometimes,” she said uncertain. All this talk of touching and ears and, oh, this was all a bit much. She suppressed the urge to press her hands to her face.
“They must aid you in your burglaring, I imagine,” he continued, amusement firmly settled in his voice.
“That’s the hope,” Bilbo said staring straight ahead.
“I’ve embarrassed you,” he said leaning forward.
“No, no,” she said quickly turning to look at him. She paused. “Well, actually, yes, you have a bit. We don’t tend to speak of such things.” She paused once more. “Actually, it’s more that I don’t tend to talk of such things. At least, I haven’t before.”
She watched him raise his hand to trace the edge of a bruise on her face. Her breath caught in her throat.
His fingers crept closer to her hairline and he murmured, “May I?”
“Yes,” she said breathlessly not truly understanding quite how she got to the point in her life where allowing this dwarf to touch her ear had somehow invited a kaleidoscope of butterflies to set up party inside her stomach while stabbing an orc had felt like business as usual.
She stared at him and then felt the gentlest of touches along the curve of her ear. Her vision swam slightly and she pressed her lips together.
His finger dipped to her lobe and then drew back up along the shell to curve over the tip. Her entire body shivered and he stopped. Bilbo blinked and Thorin's face came back into focus. He stretched out his hand and curled it around the back of her head, pulling her forward to press his forehead to hers. She sucked in a breath and stared at him with wide eyes.
“You saved my life,” he said hoarsely. “I am in your debt, Bilbo Baggins.”
“You saved mine on that mountain top,” she reminded him, her own voice having become rather unsteady. “I think we’re on even ground now.”
He shook his head, his hair brushing against her cheeks, forming a curtain around their faces. “I think we’ve been on uneven ground since our first meeting.”
“I said those boots of yours are ridiculous,” she said.
He huffed out a laugh, his breath ghosting over her lips. “I’m trying to be grave and serious, Mistress Baggins.”
“And you’re doing wonderfully,” she said nodding. “Do carry on.”
He chuckled. “I fear we will remain on uneven ground a bit longer. You send my thoughts whirling. There is something very confusing about hobbits.”
“While dwarrows are incredibly straightforward,” she said, nodding. “I blame all the time spent around stone.”
“Whereas you’re around growing things that go every which way and cannot be tamed,” he said, a furrow appearing in his brow. “You’re becoming quite lovely to me, Bilbo Baggins.”
“I think you may be delirious,” Bilbo said with a little laugh, pulling away slightly.
“No doubt,” he said, flexing his hand and sliding it from the back of her head to cup the side of her face. “I still find you to be a rather wondrous creature.”
“That’s blood loss talking, so shush,” she said wondering if she could die from all the blood rushing to her face.
“You’re shushing me?” he asked, that royal eyebrow arched once more.
“I’m in earnest.”
“I’m quite sure you are, but tell me again when you haven’t been thrown around like a ragdoll by an overgrown dog,” she said.
“Ragdoll?” he repeated, looking offended and raising his head from hers, but not moving far.
She rolled her eyes and patted the hand that cradled her face. “A very regal ragdoll.”
“You’re humouring me,” he said flatly.
“Yes, but not to offend, I promise,” she said. “It’s always best to wait a moment to determine if what you’re feeling are your true feelings and not the rush of the moment.”
“What an utterly practical thing to say,” he said frowning.
“You say that as though it’s a bad thing,” she said. “You’ve spent the last however many months barely able to look at me without scowling and now you’re paying me compliments simply because I rushed in and did something utterly moronic and dangerous. It doesn’t follow.”
“It does if you’re a dwarf,” he said beginning to grin.
“And I believe my point has been made for me,” she said drily.
He hmphed, but let her manoeuvre them so that they rested once more against the trunk of the pine tree.
“So,” Bilbo said after a few moments of silence as night slipped over them completely and all she could see was the orange glow of the campfire behind them, “all it honestly takes for you to be civil to me is for me to burst in and save your life in an absurdly reckless fashion?”
“It doesn’t hurt,” he admitted.
“Heaven help me,” Bilbo muttered.
They were silent a few moments more before Thorin said, “I’m sorry I wasn’t more…polite.”
“Apology accepted. And to be perfectly fair, I’m hardly suited for this quest. I’m smaller and softer and…” Bilbo said but stopped as Thorin reached over and took her hand. He turned it over and they both stared at the contrast of her small open palm cradled in his much larger one.
“It wasn’t that,” he said quietly.
“No?” she breathed still staring at their hands.
“You should be home in your warm home in the Shire,” he said, his voice low and hard, “and I resent that you are here. I resent that others of my kin who have more reason than you to join me did not. I resent that we have been forced to journey so far and so long on the wings of a prophecy and the whim of wizard.” Bilbo could feel him vibrate with emotion and his hand closed tight around hers. “And every time I looked at you I felt that resentment fill my veins and-“
“Shhh, shhhh,” she said turning to him and laying her other hand on his chest, gently pushing him back against the tree. “It’s okay, I understand.” Thorin slumped down and looked at her helplessly, while she smiled. “Goodness, you’re just like a kettle always on the edge of boiling over, aren’t you?”
“If you’re trying to imply that I’m full of hot air,” he began.
“Now, I’m the one who wouldn’t dare to be so bold,” she said, checking his bandages and then satisfied that he hadn’t reopened any wounds, she squeezed the hand that still held hers and resettled beside him.
Bilbo listened to him breathe and gazed down at their joined hands before lifting her head and speaking.
“I meant what I said before,” Bilbo said softly, staring out into the growing dark of the forest. “Everyone should have a home. Whether it’s a smial filled with books and crabapple jelly. Or it’s a mountain with great halls carved by your ancestors.” She took a deep breath. “I will help you, Thorin, I promise that I will.”
“I meant what I said as well,” Thorin replied. “I find you to be the most confounding and loveliest thing this side of the Lonely Mountain.”
“Yes, well,” she said fidgeting slightly embarrassed by the compliment. “Say that again when you’re not suffering from traumatic injuries.”
“You think that I won’t?” he asked. “That I’ll forget?”
“I think you might have second thoughts, yes,” she said chuckling. “Especially when I find something new to complain about.”
He stilled and appeared to think about that for a moment. Then he straightened and puffed out his chest as he asked, “Is this a challenge?”
“Dwarves,” Bilbo muttered fondly.
“It is a challenge,” he said with something that sounded quite a lot like satisfaction.
“You’re a challenge,” Bilbo said, not able to hide a yawn and turning her face to rest against his shoulder.
“I think you’re more than suited to the task, Mistress Burglar,” he said.
“We’ll see, won’t we?” she mumbled as her eyes closed. “Now, sleep, Thorin Oakenshield.”
“As my mistress commands me,” he said, his voice comfortingly low and rumbly and still laced with satisfaction. In fact, there was something in the way he said ‘command’ that made something inside of her shiver and take notice.
Bilbo closed her eyes and dozed for a moment, but something still niggled at the back of her mind and she opened her eyes.
“You’re thinking rather loudly,” Thorin remarked.
“I’m surprised you can recognise the activity,” she said absently, “judging by some of your earlier actions today.”
He heaved a great sigh. “If I admit that charging Azog without appropriate thought to reinforcements wasn’t the most tactical of decisions, will you let it be?”
“I’d let it be if I thought you wouldn’t do it again,” she retorted. “However, I don’t think you can give me such a guarantee.”
“Most likely not, I’m afraid,” he admitted.
“In any case, that’s not what I was thinking of,” she said.
“What were you thinking of?” he asked.
Bilbo pursed her lips and then said, “I feel as though something has just occurred between us and that it has some great meaning to you and I’m struggling to figure out what it is.” She paused. “I’ve missed something, haven’t I?”
“You have,” he said and she felt him turn his head so that his nose lightly nuzzled her hair. “But do not worry, you’ll figure it out soon enough.”
“More riddles in the dark,” she muttered.
“Pardon?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “I’ll tell you of it later.”
“Hmmm,” he murmured against her hair and she could feel the energy of him begin to drain away as he slumped gently against her.
“We should go back to the rest of the company,” she said through a yawn. “Get closer to the fire.”
“Mmm, yes,” he said. “In a while.”
‘In a while’ turned out to be the remainder of the night and as she awoke to the sun easing into the sky, her thoughts turned once again on the deciphering the behaviours of dwarves and was quite certain that she was going to have her hands full figuring out the intentions of the one still pressed close against her, his breathing deep beside her ear.
The thought didn’t fill her with as much worry as it probably should have done.