“Excuse me, but what did you just say?” demanded Billa Baggins, planting her hands on the natural shelves formed by her curvaceous hips. They were a bit less squishy after months of travel, but still good enough for this hobbit spinster.
“I asked if that strange brown circle on your upper arm is a soulmate mark,” repeated Fili slowly. “Really Billa, you need to work on paying attention more if you want to stay safe on our journey.”
“Not to mention that a better situational awareness would spare you some blushes and embarrassment, lass,” Nori added from behind her shoulder.
Billa jumped in surprise and huffed. “I manage to sneak up on you often enough that you have no room to talk!” she defended.
Nori laughed, licked his finger, and drew her a point in the air. “The lass is better at sneaking than you are too, Fili,” Nori said.
If Billa could distract them a little more, they’d turn their teasing to someone or something else. Bored dwarrows distract very easily. However, before she could come up with another topic, Kili hopped up from his perch on a log and jogged over to loudly cry, “Fili! You were supposed to wait for me to ask Billa about her mark.”
“What mark?” asked Gloin, joining the conversation. Everyone must have finished bathing at the same time. Lovely. And as happened often and somehow unexpectedly, Billa found herself surrounded on all sides by Dwarrows. Even after months of it the situation still both startled and annoyed her, while simultaneously filling her with traitorous warmth. They were dear fellows, even if she wanted to pinch their ears and bop them over the head like some of her Took cousins occasionally.
“Does the lass have a soulmate mark too? Like mine?” Gloin’s hands went to his belt and began to unbuckle, but Billa did NOT need to see THAT again, or any of the surrounding territory. Gloin’s mark was centered behind his belt buckle and partially obscured by the generous hair covering his stomach. She found his flaunting of it disturbing.
“I am a respectable hobbit!” She shouted in exasperation, “As I’ve told you a thousand times!” Turning, she added, “And keep your pants on, Gloin, I remember well enough what your mark looks like,” she told him firmly. Half the company was laughing at her reaction, which just goaded the rest of them on, drat them all.
“What does that have to do with anything?” asked Kili, tilting his dark head. “We’re asking about your soul mark, the one on the back of your upper arm. We caught a glimpse of it. So who’s the lucky hobbit? Did you turn him down flat? Are you still looking? Or is there a tragic story?
Billa ignored his questions and poked Kili hard in the chest, “Who is this ‘we’ catching glimpses of my upper arm, which is always covered unless I’m bathing or changing clothes? WELL?” She poked him again, her curls bouncing in indignation. You had to be firm with dwarves, she’d learned.
“Oh ho, you’re in trouble now lad,” guffawed Bombur.
Bofur put the back of his hand to his forehead in a pretend faint. “Oh dear, we’ve been living all this time with a peeping tom and just now discovered it!” Placing his hands on his cheeks he affected a high pitched voice, “Have you been ogling my very fine behind when I’m undressed, you shameless pup? Oh the indecency! And me a proper dwarf!” He pretended to swoon and lost his hat due to an overly dramatic gesture.
A giggling Ori picked the hat up, dusted it off, and offered it back to Bofur.
“Thank you, lad,” Bofur said with great assumed dignity. “Be careful of that’a one,” he said out of the side of his mouth as he ushered the youngest member of their company away from Kili. “You don’t want his bad habits rubbing off on you now. Billa would stop trading stories with you if they did, and that would be a tragedy you’d never recover from.”
Ori opened his eyes wide and looked up at Bofur soulfully, “Oh dear, Master Bofur, I certainly never would. Please, defend my virtue until my big brother can protect me.”
Gloin snorted and then cackled when Bofur escorted Ori to Nori, only to be told sadly, “No, not that big brother. He’s a bad influence too.”
“Bofur! Ori! Stop it!” Kili cried through a red face.
“Yes, Ori,” Nori demanded with a laugh, “stop it at once or you’ll hurt my feelings even more. Then I might have to tell Dori about that thing with the jug after all.”
Ori immediately leapt away from Bofur with arms extended. “My favorite brother!” he cried, tackling Nori to the ground.
Billa couldn’t help but join the general laughter at their tomfoolery.
Kili laughed too, but then tried to explain. “It was an accident! I didn’t mean to look, but then I saw your mark and what a great body you hide underneath those clothes, I mean, who knew hobbit women with those smooth cheeks and hairy feet could actually be so, so…” he gestured with his hands as he struggled for words, one of those secret Dwarf signs that they refused to teach her. The rest of the men laughed earthily. She could guess well enough what that one meant though.
A mortified blush swept down her cheeks, over her chest, and probably all the way down to her very respectable hairy feet. Billa wanted to slap his cheek, and she would, once she managed to remove her hands from where they covered her face. Most of the time, she considered herself half-insane from travel because she actually liked and even loved most of the infuriating dwarrow males she travelled with. May the Shire save her, she even had come to laugh at their jokes and share her own.
When she hadn’t talked to one of them in a few days, she’d even seek the straggler out! Even Thorin was speaking to her nowadays, and had the most fascinating things to say, not to mention a dimple that she occasionally made peek out on his cheek that made her feel like she’d just drunk a mug of hot chocolate.
But right now, if a freak earthquake swallowed them all, she’d just smile, turn on her heel, and walk back to the shire. “I can’t believe you peeked at me when I was naked,” she said from behind her palms. “I’m not a dwarf or male. Hobbits don’t do that!”
“Oy, you did what to our burglar, boy?” Dwalin’s voice suddenly piped up with the start of an angry growl. Good. “Your mother taught you to treat females better than that, especially a friend.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Fili defended his brother. “We were taking a shortcut back after hunting and came in too far upstream. We accidentally saw her, and of course we immediately turned away, but the sun still shone quite brightly, so it’s not like we could miss her creamy curves and the mark on her arm.”
Kili stepped up. “Besides, she’s seen us bathing often enough, so we were just curious. Tit for tat and all, with us having the tat and her having the ti-,” Fili’s elbow to the side cut off the rest of his words.
Pulling her hands down from where they’d knotted in her curls, Billa saw the brothers smiling hopefully at her, looking almost innocent. Amazing. Taking a deep breath for focus, she took a quick double step, pivoted, pulled back her foot, and kicked out twice, once in the back of each brother’s knee, above the boot and right where they’d taught her just the week before. Happily, everything went perfectly. Her foot didn’t hurt, and Kili and Fili both went down like a load of sticks and smacked into the ground. Hard.
She lunged forward to kick them again, but was picked up by Bombur and dangled in the air before she could. Struggling to kick her captor and flailing like a scruffed kitten, she finally gave up and dangled in his grip. Patting her condescendingly on the head, Bombur put her down. “Those lads are more stone than flesh. You would have hurt yourself if you kept kicking at them.”
“That’s what you think,” Billa muttered.
“Ow,” Kili whined, getting up gingerly and limping a few steps away. “I was just being honest and nice! Don’t girls like being told they look attractive?”
“Not when you were peeking at them naked when they don’t expect it!” Billa shot back, riled.
Putting an arm over Kili’s and then Fili’s shoulder, Dwalin steered them over to stand in front of Billa. Both tried to edge back out of range of her feet, but the meaty arms behind their necks wouldn’t allow it. “Now lads, apologize for the mistake, for invading her privacy without an invitation, and for your discourteous words. If you do it now, this might blow over without any more groveling.” He gave them a firm shake. “Otherwise, you might have to explain your limps, and why Billa gave them to you, to Thorin when he returns from his own bath any minute now.”
“Gah!” Kili choked out. “I’m sorry we accidentally walked past you bathing and then told you how hot you looked. Please forgive me! Don’t let Uncle Thorin kill me! I’m too young to die,” Kili begged.
“And I’m too handsome to die!” Fili added. “I’m sorry too.” He looked up at her through dark blond lashes, soulfully like a lost puppy, despite being a foot taller and several decades older in age if not maturity.
Billa huffed out a big breath, then another. She paced back and forth, and then stopped with her hands on her hips again. “Oh all right, I suppose I will forgive you. But do NOT do it again. And don’t mention what I look like unclothed again.”
“Why not when you have nothing to be ashamed of- oomph,” Fili started before an elbow to the side from Nori shut him up. “Fine, fine, cultural differences etc., my lips are sealed,” he wheezed out.
“But are you blessed with a soulmate mark?” asked Gloin. “Or did you have to petition the gods to get it later? Is it one of those? You needn’t be ashamed if it is lass. There is one in this company who has such, and you know how much esteem I hold for him.” Billa opened her mouth to ask just who he was talking about, but Gloin kept talking without pause. “Just because some think it shameful, old-fashioned, arrogant, or stupid to bargain with the gods like that, especially when the consequences can be so horrible when it goes wrong. I won’t judge. I know the joy of finding your other half. After all, my-,” a hand snuck around his head and covered his mouth.
“Yes, yes, we all know your raptures of joy over your mate,” interrupted Nori, “but let’s not get off topic. What about our burglar’s mark? What’s the story?”
“There is no story,” Billa exclaimed with a huff and an eye roll. “It’s just a birthmark!”
Kili hummed doubtfully. “Maybe a soulmate birthmark? It looked a bit big for a mole. If you don’t want to say you don’t have to, but you can trust us you know.”
“It’s not a mole, it’s a birthmark! A large one, but it has no significance.” Billa explained with a hand wave. “Bagginses are respectable hobbits; we don’t have soulmates or anything overblown like that.”
Gloin broke Nori’s hold, shoved the other dwarf down, and sat on him. “Do you mean to tell me hobbits don’t have soulmates?” he asked incredulously as he blocked an elbow to the side.
Billa sighed. She tended to do a lot of that around her dwarrows. “The rare hobbit might have a soulmate, but usually that type is found in the pureblooded Tooks or those who mate with outsiders, but even then only rarely. It’s not considered quite the thing, you see.”
“Why not?” Kili asked. “Doesn’t everyone want a soulmate?” He sounded lost.
“Oh heavens no,” Billa answered with a laugh. “Soulmates are too passionate, too possessive, have too many children and not enough prize-winning produce. No no no, soulmate marks are one of those unfortunate things that pop up in families like a hare-lip or near-sightedness or preference for only three meals a day. The community endures it because we must, because it’s too much effort to avoid them, and because such couples breed like rabbits and their children intermarry all over the place so they turn up at all of the parties, but nobody wishes for such a thing.”
The dwarrows all looked confused and slightly appalled.
Kili scratched his head, “but the mark on your arm really did look significant. Are you sure it isn’t a rune or pictograph or something significant? Maybe you just haven’t looked closely enough. That’s what happened with me. Mine isn’t a dwarven rune, it’s a bunch of little stars that make up a pattern. I’m unusually special for a dwarf. I haven’t found my soulmate yet, but I’m still young. Plus there’s always that thing with Uncle,” Kili stopped talking and coughed into his hand. “So, you know,” he trailed off and looked at her hopefully.
Perhaps he’d finally thought about what she’d just said instead of just ignoring her when he thought she was being silly?
But the ring of expectant dwarrow faces examining her told her this still wasn’t over. “Oh my goodness, this is ridiculous,” Billa muttered. It seemed like she didn’t have much choice. Unbuttoning the cuff of her blouse, she pulled the sleeve, quite loose now after months of minimal meals and constant walking, up to her shoulder and rolled her arm up to the sky. “See? It’s just a random reddish-brown blotch. It doesn’t have any meaning. Now will you all just leave me alone about it?”
“Yes, they all will,” a deep, commanding voice said from the edge of the trees behind her. It carried the faintest hint of violence, and a protective growl that made Billa confused because it caused her to think silly thoughts.
Turning around, Billa saw Thorin emerge from the shadows of the forest and sweep the dwarves with a stern look. They scattered like smoke under a stiff breeze. Yanking down her sleeve, Billa found herself blushing again. Thorin had always made her nervous, but at some point it had turned into a good nervous instead of a bad nervous. That didn’t keep her from trembling slightly like a complete ninny though, instead of the confirmed spinster who could chew up and spit out bachelors at will.
Focusing on her cuff, she tried to rebutton it, but her fingers kept slipping on the button.
“Were my nephews being inappropriate with you?” Thorin asked softly, stopping just a step away.
Billa took a deep breath and told herself to calm down. Her fingers steadied, but she let go of her button to answer Thorin. Glancing up at him from under her lashes, she saw him staring down at her forearm, usually covered, but now bared to his gaze. There was nothing indecent about it, but his intense focus made something in her belly clench.
“Your nephews were just being their usual selves. Teasing, poking, prodding, offending unintentionally, but good-natured at heart. They are perhaps too good at getting me riled up, but I am getting better at defending myself, so it evens out.” She sent him a conspiratorial grin, thinking about her perfectly executed kick.
Thorin didn’t smile back, but his face softened. “Good for you, Mistress Baggins.” He raised his hand towards her slightly, paused with a slightly open mouth, and then curled his fingers inward and lowered it again.
Confused, she raised an eyebrow. “Thorin, what is it? And I thought I told you, in fact I’m quite certain I did, to call me Billa. It’s in my contract if you need to see it written down. I’m sure Balin still has it on him somewhere.”
A small smile quirked his lips and the elusive dimple appeared.
“Very well. Billa.”
“And?” she prompted.
Thorin hesitated, but then reached out slowly and grabbed her around the wrist. Startled, Billa did nothing to stop him as he gently peeled her sleeve up to study her birthmark. Some strong emotion moved over his face, but she couldn’t decipher it. Just when she was about to say something to break the tension, a drop of water from his hair splashed onto her forearm.
Blinking rapidly, as if waking from a daze, he reached over with his other hand to wipe the water away. His fingers were surprisingly delicate for how large and calloused they were, and left a sizzle beneath her skin that lingered unsettlingly and elevated her pulse. Billa took a trembling breath and couldn’t help but smell something slightly spicy and exotic that had to be Thorin. She liked it a bit too much.
Pulling down her sleeve, Thorin gently buttoned it. “It is indeed just a normal birthmark.” The warmth of his large, strong hand holding her wrist so gently was not something she would soon forget. Unfortunately. She should know better by her age.
“Like I said,” Billa answered slow and soft.
Letting her wrist slip from his grasp, he stepped back. “Forgive me, Mistress Baggins.”
She huffed at his formality.
“Billa,” he said, his mouth carefully shaping the syllables like someone savoring a bit of fudge. Then, nodding without making eye contact, he turned on his heel and disappeared back into the forest, leaving her alone, flustered, and craving something she shouldn’t.
Solving the simple things first, Billa went to her pack and fetched a snack. Bifur wandered over and she offered him some berries. They ate companionably until Billa felt at peace with the world and her stomach. Then they both got up and went to help the rest of the dwarrows with packing up for the next bit of travel.