The clearing stretched out in front of the company, too large and inviting to ignore. The sun had nearly set, turning the sky a soft gray edged with red. Still, Thorin had been known to press on though the night.
Please say we’ll stop. Please say we’ll stop. Please say we’ll—
“We make camp here,” Thorin said.
Oh, thank god! Finally, after an interminable day of marching up and down hilly terrain with grass that reached to your knees and more potholes and mole hills than you could shake a stick at, you would be allowed to rest!
You looked around frantically for a good place to sit. There! A fallen log, thick and quite bare of branches. You hobbled over and lowered yourself into a sitting position with all the grace of an arthritic elephant.
Your left calf picked that moment to seize up.
You dug your thumbs frantically into the rock-hard muscle, hoping to massage the cramp out before you started to cry and embarrassed yourself in front of everyone.
Thorin glanced over at you, no doubt due to all the noise you were making. Gritting your teeth against the pain, you gave him a little wave. Move along, nothing to see here… Thankfully, he must have decided you were just being a wuss as per usual, because he turned away and started towards Gandalf.
After a few minutes of vigorous massaging the pain abated somewhat, which should have been a good thing. Right now, though, it just made you aware of numerous other places on your body that could have used a massage or possibly an exorcism, only most of them you couldn’t rub in public. Your hamstrings were on fire. So were your shins, and your buttocks, and your lower back. Your feet added their own little movement to the symphony of pain. If you concentrated, you could even detect a slight twinge in the roots of your hair, like cello strings being plucked by an emo teen.
It took a great effort to drag first one foot into your lap, then the other, in order to gingerly take off your boots and socks. Then you examined your feet for blisters. While the skin was raw and red in places, no blisters had formed yet, to your relief. It wasn’t as if Middle Earth held a ready supply of band aids for weary travelers.
You had to do something about those boots or you’d certainly have blisters tomorrow.
You knew you shouldn’t be complaining. You’d arrived in Middle Earth via wormhole wearing only trainers and running clothes — which, as far as the dwarves were concerned, was only one step above running around in the nude. They’d been quick to outfit you in the smallest clothes they could find, first borrowed from Ori, then replaced piecemeal with better fitting things at the various villages you passed.
Shoewear, however, posed a problem. Since you were only hobbit-sized, good sturdy boots that fit your diminutive feet weren’t available anywhere. You’d had to make do with a larger pair, stuffed with several pairs of socks. It had been fine at first but now the laces had stretched out a little and the looser fit caused the boots to chafe in several places. After a day’s march worth of that, your feet were killing you.
No matter how tired you were, you had to tighten the laces before tomorrow or you’d be in trouble.
But first, you had to help with the camp. The company was hard at work around you — collecting firewood, unpacking pots, pans and pouches of condiments for Bombur’s cooking.
That wouldn’t do. Except for Gandalf you were the only one sitting down, and he had more than earned that right. You were already a useless bit of fluff, the least you could do was help with the preparations.
Wincing, you pulled two pairs of socks back on and went to help Bombur. In short order you’d cut up a good quantity of root vegetables for the evening’s stew. Afterwards Glóin helped Bombur hang the pot over the now roaring campfire. You rocked proudly back on your feet as you smelled the beginnings of a pleasing aroma rising from the pot.
Bombur patted your shoulder.
“Go sit down, lass,” Bombur said kindly. “Before you fall down.”
His words made you realize that you were the only one left standing. Everybody else had settled around the fire. Gandalf fiddled with his pipe, and soon the scent of tobacco filled the air.
“Aye,” agreed Dori. “Please sit. Can’t stand that hobbling. ’Tis painful to watch.“
You nearly flipped him the bird. Thankfully, reason intruded and you restrained yourself.
You hobbled back to your log instead, pleased to find it still unoccupied, and picked up your discarded boots again. Working quickly, you unraveled the knots on your left boot and laid it aside to retie later. The knots on the right, however, seemed to have been tied by a sadistic demon with nails of steel and nothing you did seemed to shift them.
You slipped into an exhausted trance as you worked, letting the company’s chatter wash over you. Your nails scrabbled at a particularly stubborn knot, trying in vain to find purchase.
Bilbo’s voice rose over the crackle of the fire, breaking your concentration. “Beards are certainly not a prerequisite for manliness!” he protested. “Why, I am quite male enough without one, thank you very much!”
“That’s debatable, Master Baggins,” said Dori in a tone of voice clearly calculated to get a rise out of the hobbit.
“Just because I am not a hairy brute like yourself, Master Dori, doesn’t mean—”
Glóin bristled. “Who ya callin’ hairy brutes, eh?”
“Well,” Bilbo said, drawing himself up to his full height, such as it was, “You can hardly deny that dwarves in general are a bit… over-endowed in the hairiness department.”
Bofur smirked. “And not only there, my friend.” He winked lewdly at the blushing hobbit. “But in my experience, ladies do not care overmuch about body hair or a coarse disposition as long as you have a sufficiently large—”
Balin held up his hands. “Lads, lads, may I remind you that we have a lady in our company?”
“So we do, so we do,” exclaimed Kili with the manic expression of someone who had just gotten An Idea and itched to put it into practice. “We could ask her opinion.”
Bofur frowned. “About large—”
“About beards!” squeaked Ori, blushing. “Er, I think?”
“Ah. Well, beards, too, do come in useful in the lists of love, at least in certain positions,” said Bofur, romantic extraordinaire. “Why, I remember that one time in Bree…”
“Nobody wants to hear that tale, Bofur,” groused Dori. “Not while still sober, at any rate.”
“So!” shouted Kili, trying to wrestle back control of the conversational train, “Shall we ask Y/N?”
Glóin slapped his thighs in approval. “Capital idea, m’lad! Go ahead now, before Bofur remembers more conquests to regale us with.”
Cringing, you looked around for Thorin and found him leaning against a tree, as usual slightly removed from the raucous crowd around the fire. Usually he was quick to put a halt to off-color chatter or anything he thought might distract the group too much from their task. Now, though, he merely rolled his eyes and turned away to talk to Dwalin.
You bent back over your work, relaxing a little when no questions seemed to be forthcoming. You did not see Kili converse with his brother in a hushed whisper.
Once again absorbed in your task, you barely noticed Kili as he leaned towards you, eyes gleaming. “What kind of beard do you like best, Y/N? Braided, long, short, parted or looped?”
Were they still going on about beards? Amazing.
“Come on, you must have a preference. You can tell us, don’t be shy!”
“Oh, I don’t really like beards,” you said absently. Seriously, that knot must be held together by evil magic.
Sudden, piercing silence descended.
Tearing your gaze from the boot with an effort you looked around, confused. Then your brain caught up with your mouth and you blanched.
A nervous laugh bubbled up in your throat. “Uh, p-present company excepted, of course! Your beards are very, er, healthy-looking.” you hurried to stammer.
Kili sniffed. “No, no, Y/N, don’t feel compelled to soften the blow, now. We’re all adults here. There’s no accounting for taste, everybody knows that!”
You cast around for something to say that would dig you out of this hole. “But I really didn’t mean it! I’m just not used to beards, thats all. Where I come from most men are clean shaven.”
“Ugh, really?” Kili gave a mock shudder.
“Is this true lass? How dreadful for you.”
“Yeah. Sorry.” You weren’t sure why you were apologizing, but you would take every opportunity to say sorry at this point if only they would stop looking at you as if you’d killed their pet goat.
“So you are coming to like beards, then,” Dori stated with a smirk, enjoying your discomfort.
You squirmed. “Well… Maybe like is a little strong? I’m still adjusting, I guess. But, but… I don’t actively dislike them anymore!” you finished brightly.
That bit of news was met with grunts of disappointment.
Bilbo leaned towards Bofur. “I think that’s called damning with faint praise,” he said, savoring every word.
Bofur huddled deeper into his cloak, plainly swallowing an acerbic reply.
“I’m sorry. I guess a beard can look good,” you stated, thinking of Thorin. Boy could a beard look good on the right person. “Very, er, manly.” You’d lowered your voice on that last bit to illustrate just how manly you thought beards to be.
The company brightened somewhat. Your silliness even earned you one or two reluctant smiles.
Encouraged, you pressed on. “It’s just that they’re so scratchy, and can become sort of gross when there’s food and drink around, with all the spillage and crumbs and whatnot.”
This time you were rebuffed from an unexpected corner. Fili jumped to his feet and marched over to you, blond locks swinging in the breeze, moustache braids fairly quivering with indignation. “Proper beards aren’t scratchy! They’re nice and soft.” He crouched in front of you. “Here, touch mine.”
Huh. You’d never seen Fili display quite so much fire before. He must really care a lot about the topic. And he was really pretty, with his face illuminated by passion and his eyes flashing.
You raised a hesitant hand. You had to admit his beard did look good up close, all shiny and well groomed. It also didn’t hurt that he’d inherited the same beauty gene that gave Thorin and his brother their looks.
You bit your lip. Nearly there…
Suddenly, Thorin appeared behind Fili, looking very displeased. You pulled your fingers back as if burned as he squeezed his nephew’s shoulder repressively.
Fili rose, avoiding your questioning gaze as he slunk back to his seat.
Thorin sank next to you on the log. Absently, he reached out and took the boot you were still clinging to with one hand.
“Hey!” What a joy-killing, boot-stealing, beautiful…
Thorin picked at the stubborn knot for a second, then gave two decisive tugs. The laces unraveled as if by magic. Wordlessly, he placed the boot back in your lap and proceeded to stare majestically into the distance. Which was quite a feat considering you were in a clearing and there was no distance to speak of, just thick trees anywhere you looked and an abundance of brambles.
“Thanks,” you said uncertainly.
And that, apparently, was it.
You shifted uncomfortably, unsure what to do about the royal presence so close to you. Should you try to strike up a conversation? Tell him you admired his beard and chiseled cheekbones? What?
Balin, bless his soul, must have sensed your discomfort. “No dwarf worth his salt will suffer crumbs and spilled ale in his beard, Y/N,” he offered.
“Aye! A real male cares for his beard. It must be groomed—“
“And lovingly braided!”
“Adorned with beautiful metalwork…”
You couldn’t help it. You giggled.
“This is no laughing matter, Y/N! A dwarf who doesn’t take care of his beard doesn’t deserve to keep it.”
You waved your hand limply around as more laughter threatened to spill out, and bit down on your lip as hard as you could. “Sorry, sorry. I wasn’t laughing at the content, just the delivery. You are all very, er, passionate about facial hair, that’s all.”
“That’s because it is a worthy topic,” Kili explained. “Beards are not only handsome, they are useful too! You can hide knives in them, or braid messages to your lady love — secret meeting places, that kind of thing.”
You nodded raptly. That was actually interesting! Kili smiled and nodded back at you, pleased.
You searched for a way to keep the conversation going. “So, what do you do then?” you asked pleasantly.
Your innocent question was met with a storm of sniggering and thigh-slapping.
“Oh, very good, Y/N!” yelled Bofur, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes.
After Glóin had whispered a short explanation in his ear, even Bifur was laughing and pointing along with the others.
Kili looked at you as if you’d stabbed him. “That was a low blow, Y/N. A low blow.” Before your very eyes the Durin prince seemed to shrink. He curled in on himself, a withered husk of his former self and stared into the fire, betrayed.
“Oh, Kili, I’m so sorry! Please forgive me! I didn’t mean it—” You jumped to your feet desperately, intent on rushing to Kili’s side, but Thorin grabbed your wrist and tugged you back down.
“I swear I’ll make it up to you somehow!” you promised, trying in vain to free yourself. “Whatever you want, I’ll do it!”
Kili’s head snapped up. The dejection in his expression was gone, replaced by a cunning smirk. “Whatever I want?”
You frowned at the speedy recovery. “Within reason?” you ventured, cursing your gullible nature.
“Then how about a ki—”
“No bargains!” boomed Thorin.
Kili leaned back on his elbows with a mock glare. “Aw, you never let us have any fun!”
“Seek your fun elsewhere,” Thorin snapped.
“I probably should do something to make it up to him though,” you protested. “I didn’t mean to embarrass him. I don’t want him to hate me?”
Kili grinned at you. “Nah, I don’t hate you, Y/N. I have every confidence in my rakish good looks, you know.”
And so he should. He was very good-looking, you thought, not for the first time, although not as beautiful as Thorin.
“I still say you should touch someone’s beard before you form an opinion, Y/N,” Fili said, giving Thorin a sour glance.
“Aye!” everybody cried.
“You really think just touching one will convert me into a beard lover?” you joked.
“Without a doubt.” There were nods all around.
Oh my. He was serious.
You shrugged. “Okay,” you agreed. “Which one of you sacrifices himself in the name of science?”
There was a tug on your wrist and you realized Thorin still hadn’t let go.
“You may touch mine,” he said magnanimously. Everybody gaped at him.
This was a suprise. Since that wormhole had spit you out into his arms with back-breaking force, Thorin hadn’t given you the time of day. You were too, small, too delicate, altogether unsuitable to be part of his company. He was saddled with you despite his better judgment, and he never hesitated to make it clear how much of a burden you were.
And now he was inviting you to touch him, just like that. You would have suspected a joke if only Thorin weren’t such a glum fellow. But he was also brave, lethal and kind, no matter how much he might protest otherwise. He’d stolen your heart with laughable ease until he populated your every single daydream and haunted your sleep in equal measure, grumpy scowls and all.
It would take a stronger woman than you to pass up that offer.
Slowly, giving him ample time to reconsider, you lifted your hand to brush the pads of your fingers along the side of his jaw. The sensation was indescribable. You did it again, with a little more force. It would have been amazing if only the company hadn’t seemed intent on giving you pointers.
“That’s it, lass!” Glóin instructed. “Stroke it!”
“A bit more firmly, now. He can take it.”
“Yeah, none of that pussyfooting. Dwarves are made of hardy stock!”
“Just grab it, lass!”
Your fingers twitched away, but Thorin covered your hand with his and brought it back to his cheek.
“Ignore them,” he murmured.
Your surroundings receded, reducing your world to a pair of blue eyes. You ran your palm along the hollow of his cheek to his chin, traced a tentative finger around his lips. Then, as if in a trance, you curled your fingers and scratched lightly under his jaw, blushing when he tilted his head slightly to give you better access.
An ecstatic mewl escaped you. “It’s so soft!” you marveled. “Like— like kitty fur!”
Thorin jerked back as if stabbed. A flurry of coughs exploded around the camp.
You blinked, torn from your blissful trance.
“Maybe not quite as soft,” you amended, then looked around, puzzled. Kili was writhing in silent paroxysms on the ground, one fist shoved into his mouth, the other hand waving around in the air like he’d just burned himself. Dwalin had his back to everyone else, massive shoulders quaking, clearly in the grip of some deep feeling. The broadest, naughtiest grin you’d ever seen had taken up residence on Bofur’s face, while Gandalf chuckled quietly into his beard. Everybody else was contorting in some way, trying to suppress some deep surge of emotion, except for Ori, who looked as baffled as you felt.
“I don’t mind telling you, darlin’, you’ve brought me great pleasure today,” said Bofur, wiping discreetly at his eyes with a sleeve.
Thorin glowered at him, then at you.
What now? What were they all going on about?
“I don’t understand,” you said plaintively. “It was a compliment!”
A whistle like a kettle in which water had come to a boil pierced your ears. Alarmed, you searched around for the source and saw Bombur, vibrating like a volcano about to erupt.
“Fiiiii– Pffffff– Bwahahahahaha!!” The explosion was surprisingly high pitched for a dwarf of his girth. A bit like hyena laughter, only scarier.
Your brow furrowed as you tried to remember what you’d said. Comparing Thorin’s beard to kitty fur surely couldn’t be the cause of quite so much hilarity, could it? Wait. Kitty… Kitten… Pussy… Oh. Oh.
You whirled desperately to Thorin. “I didn’t mean it, I swear! I didn’t know what I was saying!“
He raised an eyebrow. “That much is plain.” His voice was glacial.
Your head bowed in shame. “I’m sorry. Terribly, profoundly sorry. Words can’t express how sorry I am.”
Thorin said nothing.
“Your beard is not soft at all. It’s rough and very manly and I swear I will never, ever again compare it to fur of any description. Or feathers, or anything that’s not at least the consistency of steel wool.”
Had his lips just twitched? Nah. That was probably just wishful thinking on your part.
Thorin stared into the fire, ignoring you completely.
You slid a sidelong glance at his profile, suffused red-gold in the firelight. Another sigh escaped you.
Having recovered from his earlier attack, Bombur announced that food was ready. A line formed, and soon everybody was seated again, tucking into their bowls with obvious enjoyment. You should probably go get something to eat but you couldn’t stomach the thought of food right now.
Bereft of something more productive to do, you grabbed your boots and put them back on, pulling the laces as tight as you dared. It was getting too cold to sleep without footwear.
Thorin’s deep voice tore you from your dismal thoughts. “Y/N.”
Your head snapped up. “Yes?” Ugh, that sounded pathetically hopeful.
He rose abruptly to his feet. “A word.” And then he walked away, clearly expecting you to follow.
You scrunched your shoulders and complied. If only you’d been a tortoise, you could have retracted your head fully. As it was, you could only turn up your collar and hope for the best, even though you were sure he only meant to blister your ears about your lack of tact.
He led you quite a distance away. When you finally came to a halt, the campfire was a mere pinprick glow of orange between the trees.
The clear, star-studded sky provided an abundance of light. Across from you, Thorin was a forbidding, silver-limned statue.
“Have I said I’m sorry yet?” you murmured. “Because I really, really am.”
“Think nothing of it.”
“That’s very kind of you to say. And thanks for letting me…” Fondle? Pet? Molest? ”er, experiment on you,“ you said. “I mean, your beard. Heh.”
“Have you changed your stance on beards, then?” he inquired politely.
“Only insofar that I’ll run away very quickly whenever someone brings them up again?” you said, only half-jokingly. “I think that discussion scarred me for life.”
A shadow of a grin passed over Thorin’s face. “Scarred for life, eh?”
“Oh, but that won’t do,” he said.
Aaaaand you’d lost the thread of the conversation. Again.
Thorin shrugged off his coat with one careless twitch of his shoulders and pulled the mail shirt over his head. It fell to the ground, unheeded, as he stepped closer, right into your personal space. He seized your left hand in both of his and looked deeply into your eyes. “No,” he said.
Even though the sheer intensity of the eye contact was overwhelming, you did not dare look away. For the second time tonight, all of Thorin’s attention was focused entirely on you. You could not have run if your life depended on it.
Ever so slowly, still holding your gaze, he inched up your sleeve. Callused fingers rubbed lightly over the skin thus revealed, the delicate tracery of veins on the inside of your wrist. The rasp of calluses along fragile skin conjured hot images of the strength in that muscled body and what that strength could do to you. For you.
“I have it on good authority that my beard is rough.” Thorin murmured in your ear, “As you can see, rough is not necessarily bad.”
He took a step forward. You retreated, breathless. With his cheek brushing yours, your wrist clasped in his large hand, it was almost like a dance. He walked you back until your back hit rough bark. A tree.
His chest brushed your breasts and he searched your eyes for a moment, his own darkening at what he found there. Slowly, deliberately, he brought your hand up to brush his lips against the inside of your palm. His beard feathered against your wrist, the twitching tips of your fingers. And then he licked you. The tip of his tongue touched the very center of your palm, and then he lifted his head and blew on the damp skin.
Your legs buckled. A moan broke from your throat.
Thorin caught you with an arm around your waist. His free hand speared into your hair, tilting your head back. You grabbed his shoulders for support as hot lips moved to trace the side of your neck. His beard grazed the delicate wings of your collarbone as he peppered your throat with kisses and small bites. Hot breath fanned the moistened skin and you quivered, digging your fingers harder into his flesh.
Briefly, his arm tightened around you. When he finally pulled back, he was breathing hard.
Your heart hammered so hard in your chest, you were sure he could hear it.
“Have I convinced you yet?” While his voice was quite even, his eyes were burning.
Your neck still tingled with the memory of smooth kisses, cool breath, and the rasp of that short, thick beard. “Not yet,” you breathed. “Convince me more?”
He kissed the tip of your nose. “A challenge. Very well, I accept.”
As close as he was, his braids hung between you, brushing your collarbone. He took the end of one braid between index and middle finger and ran it across your cheek. “While smoothness has its charms,” he murmured, “there is something to be said for texture.” He slid the metal bead slowly, tantalizingly, along your lower lip.
Involuntarily, your tongue flicked out to chase it.
The braid fell away as his mouth closed over yours with a hungry growl.
Heat pierced you. It pricked the place between your legs, turning it molten. It prickled in your breasts, turning them heavy and sensitive.
Thorin’s leg slid between yours. You whimpered at the delicious pressure and burrowed further into him. He grunted and grabbed your bottom, lifting you up as if you weighed nothing.
Your legs scissored around his hips and suddenly you could feel him against you, hard and thick and massive. You whimpered, unsure whether in terror or approval, as your hips bucked helplessly, eagerly against him.
He pressed harder against you, crushing you between him and the tree. You cried out, desperate for relief. Thorin groaned and tore his mouth from yours, biting out a frustrated oath.
You stared at each other, panting.
Everything tingled. Trembling, you leaned your forehead against his and pecked his mouth, already missing the taste of him.
“We must stop,” he murmured against your lips. “We must get back to camp.”
You nodded. He was absolutely right. The others would be wondering where you were. They might even send someone out to look for you if you didn’t return soon.
Thorin was looking at you with an expression you’d never seen before, a mixture of affection and sheer predatory hunger. You grabbed his face between your hands and slanted your mouth over his in a hard, deep kiss. He responded enthusiastically and you lost yourself in the taste and scent of him again.
“No more,” he groaned once he’d managed to tear himself free.
“No more,” you agreed, then bent your head to nibble at his ear.
Biting back a curse, Thorin fisted a hand in your hair and drew your head back gently but inexorably. “I have unleashed a monster.” He grinned as he said it.
You took a deep breath. “Sorry. I get carried away around you.”
“And you shall never have to apologize for that. Tell me,” he said, caressing your cheek. “Did I sway your opinion?”
You laughed down at him, giddy with love and a surfeit of hormones. “Beards are magnificent. The best. Beards rule.”
Thorin’s answering smile was soft. “I’m glad.”
“I might forget though, and need reminding.”
He set you down with visible reluctance. Seeing your pout, he grinned and placed a kiss on your forehead. “I am at your service should such a dreadful event occur.”
He was so beautiful, you could barely believe someone like him could look at you with such hunger. “I might need reminding often.”
“I’ll strive to give satisfaction.”
You sighed — a long, low sound of contentment. “Thank you.”
You grinned at each other like loons.
The quest was still suicidal. Your body was still on fire from various aches and pains as well as frustrated desire, and it was likely to be worse tomorrow. But none of it seemed to matter right now. Thorin’s burden too, was weighing him down a little less, judging by the grin that now appeared permanently affixed to his face.
“Try to look serious now,” you told him. “Since we have to get back and all.”
Thorin nodded. He shrugged on his mail shirt and his coat, then just stood there for a moment with his eyes closed. Within seconds, he transformed himself back into the dour leader of your company. His face closed. An air of veiled disdain settled over his shoulders like a cloak.
When he opened his eyes, only the slightest wicked twinkle marred the seriousness of his expression.
“That’s impressive,” you whispered, awed by his discipline.
You were sure that in contrast you looked exactly as you felt — like you’d been snogged within an inch of your life. You patted down your hair, trying in vain to smooth what felt like a veritable bird’s nest.
Raising an eyebrow at your clumsiness, Thorin gently pushed your hands away to run his fingers through your tangled locks. He even massaged your scalp a little and you leaned into him with a pleasured moan.
“I’m dreading this a bit,” you confided.
“I’m afraid everybody’s going to take a look at me and know exactly what happened.”
Thorin smiled. “They won’t, I assure you.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I have not taken an interest in lovers for a very long time,” he said. “The idea will not occur to them at all.”
“Oh!” You searched his eyes, suddenly light-headed. “Oh. I’m… I’m glad,” you finally said simply, because it would have been impossible to put into words what you really felt.
Thorin merely smiled at you again, as if he knew a secret you didn’t and was rather anticipating the moment you found out. And as you started towards camp, battered muscles protesting your every movement, you realized that for the first time in forever, you were looking forward to tomorrow.