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The Thief: An unexpected Pirate.

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Belladonna Nightshade Baggins was perfectly content with her life.

She was the only daughter, and, indeed, only child of Lord Bungo Baggins, who was an only child himself. This, therefore, made her his only heir.

She'd grown up like all of the other children in the Shire; pampered. Of course, she wasn't a brat about it. Unlike most of them, she had no room to be a brat. This, of course, was because her mother was a Took, and no proper Took would ever in a million years allow their child to become such a vile thing as a brat! Any good and proper Took would let their child run wild as standard. It was simply the way things were. Tooks ran wild. The sky was blue. Simple.

Of course, Belladonna's mother, her namesake, went above and beyond what any normal Took did. She didn't just teach her baby about their home island like most other Tooks; no. She took her Bella all over the world to teach her survival skills. And from that, Bella's career was born.

What many of the Shire-folk did not know was that Bella was not only heir to her father.

In fact, she was heir to her mother too. The normal Shire residents could be forgiven for thinking that Belladonna the elder didn't have anything of import to pass on; Bella's mother's legacy was much more illicit than most.

Actually, Belladonna Amaryllis Took was the greatest thief in all of Arda. The only name that anyone outside the Shire knew her as was The Poison Shadow.

It was somewhat of a tough act to follow, but Belladonna the younger took it up with all the grace and ease of a professional, gaining her own name; one much closer to home. Deadly Nightshade. Not many were bright enough to notice the similarities between the two thieves; similar names, similar styles and methods... Those who did kept it to themselves, or they went missing.

Together, the duo could steal the breath from your lungs without you even noticing. They were brilliant, and with Bungo covering for them at home when needed, they could have done anything.

But, her mother and father were dead now.

Their passing left her lost and alone in the world, scarcely old enough to cope. She gave up her thieving ways, and took up her father's mantle, leaving her restricted, trapped in her empty childhood home...

But there was nothing else for it; not many men were like her father, willing to overlook her 'little trips' as her mother had called them. Unfortunately, her wishes on the subject of staying single were left entirely ignored.

She was, regardless on her lack of interest in marriage, the most eligible bachelorette in the Shire, and even beyond. This meant that her relatives simply would not leave her alone, constantly popping in with the thinly veiled excuse of wanting tea with her in order to propose yet another match.

Fortunately, she didn't have to marry if she didn't want to, as she could claim to be busy with her estate, and had more than enough money to support herself without aid. However, that still had its down sides, because as an unmarried Lady managing the largest estate in the Shire alone, she would always be judged.

They would never stop measuring her up against men, or telling her that having a man around to manage her property for her would be so much easier. She couldn't even grieve publicly for her own parents without fear of people labelling her as hysteric or mad and trying to take everything away. Bag End, her parents' belongings, her freedom... It could go on forever.

So, when her absentee Godfather, Gandalf Grey (Gandalf of the Greywater, one of the Lords of the Ardan seas) showed up, asking her beseechingly to go on another of their once frequent 'adventures' she was fully prepared to say 'no, thank you, not this time, and never again'... But then he turned those damnable puppy-dog eyes on her, and she was unsure.

She found herself saying 'maybe' instead, which would turn out to be the best decision she'd ever made (unless you asked Nori, who would insist she should never have agreed at all, for his sanity).

Three days later, a knock came on her door. Her Uncle must have been getting slow, she'd expected him to turn up hours earlier than they'd agreed in order to surprise her, and with unexpected company.

She opened it after a polite pause, admittedly only half expecting her Godfather, and found herself facing a dwarven pirate. At least she was right about the unexpected company.

He had to a pirate, she thought, for no other sort of man could pull off that much leather and muscle without belonging in some sort of death metal band or male stripper troupe. If nothing else, the numerous weapons told her that her Godfather hadn't sent her a strippagram. So, she admitted him without much pause.

Luckily for her, and unluckily for her nosy neighbours, the pirates had approached the manor from the rear, where the grounds were surrounded by dense foliage. This formed the property border all the way down to her private cove, and the road to the other homes on the island was only accessible from the front of the property. This ensured that no nosy relatives would see her somewhat undesirable guests, and her staff were both loyal and sworn to secrecy.

Even so, she looked around frantically, before pulling him indoors.

With a look that she deliberately chose to interpret as slightly amused, instead of angry, the burly man bowed slightly before her. "Dwalin. At your service, my Lady." He grunted roughly.

She smiled warmly at him. "Lady Belladonna Baggins, at yours, Master Dwalin. Tell me, are there others on their way?" She replied, swooping into a polite curtsy. She'd perfected it by this point; no Sackville-Baggins witch was ever going to claim that she wasn't a proper Lady!

"They sent me up ahead to test th'waters, so to speak." He said gruffly, as she slammed the door hurriedly closed behind him. "What's wrong? Not used to having people sneak in through the back entrance?" He grinned mischievously, eyes roaming up and down her figure.

Without a thought, she reached up as high as she could, and slapped him lightly on the back of the head.

"Master Dwalin! That is no way to speak to a Lady." She admonished playfully. She stepped back from the doorway, and waved a hand to indicate the house. "Please, make yourself comfortable. Cook and myself have almost finished a meal for you all."

He did so after a second of wary hesitation, settling himself in her quaint little parlour, looking dreadfully out of place with his scruffy outfit, and with war hammers and axes strapped to him. "Just Dwalin, Mistress. Never been a 'Master' in m'life. Never will be, either, if I have m'way." He winked. She laughed delightedly, suddenly realising how much she'd missed the company of folk such as Pirates.

"Well then, I suppose you'll just have to call me Bella then, if I'm to use your given name!"

For a second time, a knock came from the door and Bella rushed to admit her next pirate, as Dwalin smiled shyly at her.

The second pirate that had come to stand on her doorstep that night was a portly older fellow, with snowy hair and a beard as long, if not longer, than Dwalin's. "Balin, at your service, My Lady! Tell me, am I late?" He greeted with a deep bow.

"Belladonna Baggins, at yours. No, no, you're only the second to arrive, my friend! No need to fret." She greeted, with a curtsy in return. Before long he was following her obediently into her parlour.

"Brother!" They greeted one another joyfully, and Bella stopped to properly size them up.

Bell was quite tall for a Hobbit at around three feet tall, but she was still extremely short compared to other races of people. These two were no exception, she noted with some amusement. Dwalin wasn't dizzyingly tall to her mind, as Gandalf had always towered over everyone in the Shire. But that wasn't to say that Dwalin's height wasn't impressive for a dwarf; he had to be at least five feet tall! Balin wasn't that much shorter, to be honest, so being tall must have run in their family.

To be honest, most of the brothers' similarities ended there. Balin was obviously older, his hair colour and rotundness giving it away instantly. Their eyes were similar, but not the same. Balin's were the sparkling blue-grey of the open ocean, with a hint of youthful mischief, whereas Dwalin's were more like the sea in a storm, hinting at violence, but with a starkly similar mischief in their depths. Although younger, Dwalin was completely bald on the top of his head, with black bushy hair on the sides of his head and making up his beard. The two did share a face and nose shape, but Bella supposed that they took after separate parents, like her cousin Drogo and his sister, Lily.

A knock sounded on the door again, startling her, and Bella answered it to two young dwarven lads, one with hair dark as night, and the other as golden as the sun. "Fìli and Kìli, at your service, Lady." They said in sync, and kissed her hands. Refusing to be flustered, she allowed the two of them in. The blonde, she wasn't sure which was which, had warm blue-green eyes, matched by the dark-haired one. Relatives, then. The shorter one was definitely older, with a moustache and beard to be proud of. The younger one couldn't be too far behind age-wise, but only had a small sprouting of stubble.

She took all of this in within seconds, and answered them before a pause would be noticed. "Belladonna Baggins, at yours." She returned quickly, already tiring of introducing herself repeatedly. "Also, my apologies, but which one of you is which?" She asked with a small, (fake) embarrassed, laugh. It was cleared up quickly enough, and she waved for them to follow her.

Soon enough, the two were also sitting happily in the parlour alongside the two they'd greeted as cousins, if her rudimentary Khudzul (forbidden as it was for her to know) was right. Just as she was about to tell them that their meal was ready, someone else abused her poor, freshly painted door.

She opened it, and barely had time to brace herself for the onslaught of pirates as she was nearly flattened by eight of them.

They were all dwarves, and all apologised profusely (though neither pirates nor dwarves were known for their table manners, they were known for being very polite) before introducing themselves. She was so flustered that she missed most of their names, but she didn't miss the way most of them eyed her up and down.

Then, she caught sight of the openly laughing face of her Godfather in the doorway.

"You!" She roared at him. The pirates turned to her, astonished. "Oh, just stand there and watch as I'm almost crushed to death, and by pirates that you invited to my house!" She shouted. "I was expecting something like this, thank goodness, so at least there's food!" She continued more quietly.

"Food?" Kìli chimed in hopefully. Her demeanour changed immediately back into that of a charming host. She threw a poisonous glare at Gandalf as she turned to her guests.

"Of course, dear. This way, Gentlemen." She smiled serenely at them, as if she hadn't just shouted at a powerful Pirate Lord in front of them. "Is this all of your number?"

Dwalin dipped his head in thanks. "All but our Captain, Miss Bella." He rumbled with emphasis on her name, smirking at her where the others couldn't see.

"There should be plenty for all of you then." She nodded, ignoring the scandalised looks, Gandalf's wink, and the jealous glares directed at Dwalin. He was her favourite, she decided. She lead them into the dining room, and then simply waited for the chaos.

They followed her in, chatting amongst themselves, and she knew the exact second that they noticed the amount of food. All talk stopped. It was, truly, a mountain. There were countless pies and pasties, all different meats and combinations. There was a suckling pig, a roasted goose, fish dishes, steaks, sausages, eggs, salads and much more littered throughout. All thought vanished into chaos, and they descended like vultures.

She watched in horrified fascination. It had been a long time since she'd been in the company of a pirate who wasn't Gandalf, and she'd never seen them eat, though she'd heard the stories. They fell upon the little feast like drowning men gasped in air, and she was glad she'd made the decision to go overboard with the preparations. She knew that pirates went without much food whilst travelling, but she'd never seen a bunch who were (mostly) so thin.

It took her rushing back to eighteen years ago.

She was ten, and off on a 'little trip' with her mother.

They were having a nice enough time, until she almost fell through a glass panel in their target's roof. Someone shouted for the authorities, and they were off running, before the person could see more than Bell's foot and the sweep of their cloaks. They ended up in the slums, skulking around near the darker, scarier allies, when she saw them.

Five orphaned children, all crouching around a sixth, who was on the floor. It wasn't moving. The children were thinner than anything she'd ever seen, even in some of the nastier cities, and none like them could be found in the Shire. One turned, catching her eye. The child's eyes were the thing that stood out most. Her face was so hollow that each bone was poking outwards and those eyes protruded like something monstrous. Then she saw the cracked lips, and bleeding gums. By this point, her mother must have noticed and she breathed in sharply. They left the city that night, without the treasure they'd stolen. They'd exchanged it quietly for common currency and given every last penny of it to those children.

When they returned home, her father took one look at the sadness in her face and never asked about the souvenir they'd promised him.

She shook herself out of the memory, and even managed a wan smile as one of the men threw a boiled egg at the roundest of their number, who caught it in his mouth with ease, like it was practised. These men were not children. In fact, they were nothing like them, she told herself firmly, with a glance at their amassed weapons piled in the corner.

Finally, they were finished, and as Bella was about to start cleaning their plates up, they started throwing them. As she screeched about her parents' china and knives, they started singing some ridiculous song about destroying her possessions. Just as she felt like committing murder, they parted to reveal dishes so clean that they shined. She gaped at them for a moment before smiling gratefully and laughing with them.

Before any more could be said or done, a knock reverberated through the house which stopped any cheer in its tracks. "He's here." Murmured Gandalf, quite unnecessarily.

He opened the door before Bella could, to reveal the most deliciously handsome dwarf she'd ever seen. She thought very briefly about what he'd look like without the armour and fur, and it was great... Until he opened his mouth and ruined it.

"Grey! I thought you said this place was easily found. I lost my way, twice. And all for some high-born Lord who probably has more money than sense." He said angrily. Bella was shell-shocked. How dare he?

Gandalf had the good sense to interrupt before she could. "Thorin Oakenshield! May I present to you Lady Belladonna Baggins-"

"The wife of our would-be Burglar? Yes, hello madam. Although why he'd leave such a pretty treasure out where anyone could steal her away, I have no clue. Ever thought of leaving your husband and going for a real man?" He leered, smiling like a predator.

Gandalf's expression became thunderous, but it was nothing compared to Bella's reaction. She didn't give her Godfather a chance to interrupt for her this time.

"Excuse you!" She erupted. "How dare you come into my home, and start insulting me! First of all, how could you possibly get lost? There is one path up from the cove that brings you directly to my door! Secondly, my wealth is my own, not any male's and is none of your business! I am not married and have no desire to be, nor is there a Lord of this house! This place is mine, and mine alone, you presumptuous fool! If you ever talk about my person as though I'm some stupid doll ever again, I will gut you like the vile creature that you so clearly are!" She exploded scathingly, before slapping him so hard that his head snapped back audibly.

Gandalf stepped between them before Thorin could recover, and the pirates looked so shocked that you could've knocked them down with a feather. Bella heaved breaths in and out behind her Godfather, shaking with rage.

"As I was saying. This is Lady Belladonna Baggins, heir of Lord Bungo Baggins, my Goddaughter, and your new Burglar." Gandalf interrupted smoothly, ice in his tone.

"This woman... This is our Burglar?" Thorin demanded, recovering from his shock. "She looks like she should be tending children, not stealing priceless heirlooms. There is no way you're letting a woman on my ship; it's bad luck. And even if she was as good as you say, I'll bet she doesn't even know how to use a weapon." He spat harshly, eyeing her with cruelty rather than the lust that some of the others had favoured her with.

Bella stepped out from behind her Godfather. She would not cower behind her guardian like a child, especially not when she was getting ready to take another shot at the incredibly rude dwarf. She wanted to break his nose, she decided.

"I'll have you know that my being a female changes absolutely nothing! As for tending children, you can take your sword and stick it where the sun doesn't shine. If I were to steal for you, I'd wager that I could do it better than anyone, man or not. Plus, I have some skill in conkers, if you must know!" Belladonna raged with sarcasm clear in her tone. "Uncle Gandalf. I said that maybe I'd help you. However, if you wanted to convince me that badly, you shouldn't have invited thirteen strange men into my home without saying a word, nor should you have invited that insulting, rude, idiotic rat of a dwarf!" She stopped her harsh diatribe after the last insult, and looked at her Godfather angrily.

"My dear, wouldn't you at least like to hear of what we're trying to accomplish?" Gandalf twinkled, changing track, and catching her curiosity before she could act on her desire to hit him too.

"Of course. But it's the principal of the matter." She sniffed haughtily, playing the part of the gossiping Lady once more. However, she stalked into the dining room away from them, still clearly fuming.

Victorious, and grinning broadly in the knowledge of it, Gandalf followed in the footsteps of his Goddaughter. The Company remained, looking at Thorin bemusedly. "You've right cocked that up." Nori smirked cheekily after a few seconds of stunned silence. "Even if she doesn't come, now none of us have a chance of getting into her bed!" He finished with a vulgar flourish of his pale, long-fingered hand, missing Bella's quiet return to the room.

Most of the Company roared with laughter. Dori whacked him, Thorin glared, and Dwalin shook his head smugly, uncrossing his folded arms to point at something over Nori's shoulder. He turned slowly, apprehensively, and came face to face with Bella's flirty grin.

She didn't blush, or blink at his crudeness, just raised one red-gold eyebrow. "Sweetheart." She simpered sweetly, as an evil grin split her face. "If you wanted me in your bed..." She trailed off, sounding sultry before her voice gained a sharp quality. "You'd better join the queue of rejects." She snapped harshly, slapping him on the arse as she slid past. "Not that you wouldn't have been... Fun. I'm sure." She whispered gently into his reddening ear. "I'd tell you you had a chance even, but a Lady doesn't share her secrets." She mocked.

Nori turned bright red, and started stuttering incoherently, as Bella pushed gently past the other men and down the hall, with a swing in her hips. The second she turned the corner, she stopped and broke down into silent laughter. She wondered idly how long had it been for them since they were around women. She had felt the majority of their eyes had burning into her back until she turned out of their line of sight.

She gathered the spare sheets she'd originally gone to fetch from her linen closet, and made her way back towards the poor men.

They were still standing exactly where she'd left them, and as soon as Nori saw her approaching, his face once more flamed red to match his hair. "Pardon me, gentlemen." She smiled, winking.

They parted for her like the ocean parts around a rock, and she walked back to where Gandalf was sitting patiently. The pirates followed her like moths to a flame, or ducklings, and she handed the sheets roughly to her Godfather. "Here. Seeing as you aren't doing anything important, you can do these. I've let Prim have the rest of the day off. Good job too. She'd probably try to make off with one of them." She said offhandedly, baring her teeth slightly, causing more faces to redden like her prize winning tomatoes.

Gandalf merely raised an eyebrow at her mockingly. Bella huffed, and pinched his ear like her mother had taught her to do. He winced and rose as high as he could with the Hobbit holding onto his ear, following in a limping crouch as she dragged him forcefully towards the stairs. She released him at the foot, and pushed her pile of cloth into his arms.

"There's food left." She snapped harshly at Thorin, before moving herself and Gandalf out of sight, and sound of the others. They stopped moving once they were at the top of the stairs and down the hall a fair way.

Quickly, she checked to make sure no one was listening. In her peripheral vision, she noticed a shape melt seamlessly into the shadows down the corridor, well within hearing distance of their conversation.

"Uncle..." She murmured, still aware of the dwarf's presence. She knew full well that the shadow had been sent to listen to their every word.

"Yes, my dear?" He said gently. Too gently. She blinked rapidly, suddenly hearing her father in his tone.

"If I go wherever this is... It won't be like the other times, will it?" She asked resignedly.

Gandalf paused, with one foot in the door of the first guest room. He looked at her, with those kind, twinkling eyes that she knew so well, and she could almost read his answer before he spoke. "I... I cannot promise anything. If you do return, you may never be the same again. Your reputation... Your parents were still alive when last we adventured; now... People will use your departure against you. And yet I truly believe that this will be good for you."

Bella took a deep, shaking breath. She gave a curt nod, and turned on her heel. As she took a step away, she heard Gandalf sigh deeply. "Bell?" He said quietly. Too quietly for any eavesdropper to hear. She nodded once, almost imperceptibly. "Whatever you decide... I truly hope that you choose not what is best for you now, but what makes you happiest in the long run." She bowed her head slightly. He must have taken this as agreement, as the next thing she heard was him moving into the guest room and closing the door behind him.

She was glad for a moment that he hadn't seen the tears gathering in her eyes. Then, reprimanding herself, she dispelled them. Gathering herself together, she straightened, took a breath, and marched away towards the top of the stairs.

She stopped casually next to the spy holding his breath in the shadows of the alcove he'd hidden in, practically able to hear his heart beating. She grabbed his collar, fast as a viper, and pulled him into the adjacent and completely deserted sitting room. She spun, releasing him into the room, standing with her back against the door, tilting her head slightly. He was trapped; now it was only a matter of patience.

As he blinked at her, half afraid, she very deliberately reached behind herself and locked the door, before crossing her arms, leaning back, and waiting, never taking her eyes off of him. He broke first.

"What?" Nori huffed, sounding slightly nervous and blinking rapidly. She smiled in victory.

"Oh, nothing much at all really. I just want to know who sent you to spy on my private conversations." Bella purred conversationally.

She advanced a step in his direction, and he backed off subconsciously. She repeated this action a few more times without him realising until the back of his knees hit a chair and he fell into the seat, her form now towering over him. "Darling." She murmured, falling back on the seductive, raspy growl that had always gotten her whatever she wanted with men and women alike: information, or something else.

"It is most rude to ignore a Lady when she speaks to you." She growled, changing tracks between threat and seduction as quickly as breathing. She bent slightly forward, more leaning over him now, so that the neckline of her dress fell just a tiny bit lower than it had before, revealing an inch or so more of her smooth, tanned skin.

Nori swallowed desperately, his mind working frantically. He'd not even spoken to a lass for almost six months, not slept with one in much longer. He focused on a fixed point over her shoulder stubbornly; he would not break so easily!

Bella simply waited. Seeing his resolve beginning to strengthen, she put one delicate hand on his cheek, forcing him to look into her eyes. He flinched and tried look away without success. He opened his mouth, and she put a finger over it. He exhaled very slightly, almost like he was gasping, but she noticed. He wasn't bad, for a pirate. Certainly, this lot were the cleanest she'd ever seen. He had such pretty hands, too. All delicate and dexterous, she mused to herself as she waited for him to give her what she wanted.

He could barely breathe, couldn't think at all. He knew he'd spill any secret she asked for if she got any closer. Then, she leaned forward even further, bringing one hand up to rest on the top of the chair and shifting her weight so that she could rest one knee gently on the outside of his thighs, just letting them touch.

He honest to God whimpered.

Bella looked away, faking a blush and smirked where he couldn't see her. Easy as stealing from a drunkard.

She looked into his glazed, desperate eyes, and brought her other knee up, on the other side of his legs, effectively framing them, and trapping him. She sat down on his lap, wobbling slightly. The poor lad looked ready to cry, but whether from joy, fear or desperation, she didn't know. Didn't care either. This was turning into a rather fun game. It was imperative that she got some extra practice in; if she ended up going, it would be absolutely essential to know who to manipulate with what moves. For example, this one would need just a bit of physical contact, maybe more if he'd been around other women.

Not breaking the eye contact until the last second, she leaned into him, and put her lips to his ear, barely touching it. "Could you tell me what I want to know?" She whispered, just brushing his delightful little piercing.

He nodded frantically. "Yes Ma'am. I'm Thorin's spy, ma'am. He just asked me t'see if you were trustworthy." He spilt out in a rush of words.

Without a second's pause, Bella slid to her feet and was back at the door, one hand on the handle. "Thank you!" She smiled brightly and unlocked the door, any trace of what he'd perceived as desire gone. "Dearest, if you tell anyone about this, I'll tell them that you're no longer a trustworthy spy. They'll have you hung, drawn and quartered before you can say liar, and I'll smile all the way through. Am I clear?" The pleasant smile never left her face, and Nori's face never changed from that scared-desiring look. He nodded curtly.

Bella sighed in a put-upon way, and went back to him. She crouched in front of him. "Maybe another time, yes? In different circumstances." She winked, before she leaned down and gently pecked him on the lips.

She left the room, only to run straight into Gandalf. "Dealt with?" He inquired softly.

She nodded, smirking. "If anyone asks-”

"If anyone asks, you relented and were helping me the entire time we were gone." He winked slyly. The door opened once more. Nori stood, blushing once more, with an angry scowl on his face

"M'lady. I'm Nori, if you remember. Our introduction was quite rushed." He grunted, sarcastic. "I appear to have gotten lost in your wretched maze of a house. Would you kindly point me in the direction of the dining room please?" He muttered uncomfortably. She laughed, and it was musical, like the sound of water rushing over the stones of a brook.

"Of course, my dear dwarf." She answered, linking arms with him, and leading him back down the stairs towards the others.

When they looked up, with varying expressions of suspicion and surprise, she laughed loudly. "Fancy getting lost!" She exclaimed. "If anyone else does, I can't promise being able to find you again!" No one questioned her, and a silver haired pirate who may have been Nori's brother cuffed him over the back of his head and hissed something about not stealing from their hostess.

In no time at all, the men were taking over her dining room, and all talking at once. She stayed back, simply observing. None of the others seemed to realise she was still there, except for Nori, who kept shooting shy/suspicious glances her way and alternating between scowling and smirking when he caught her eye. Finally, a map and key were produced, which led them to talk about other things, until at last, a contract was laid almost reverently before her.

Impatiently and without any ceremony, Bella snatched it. Quietly and quickly, she read through it, unruffled, until she got to the part about- "Evisceration... Incineration?" Her voice trailed off into a whisper. She looked up at the gathered faces, her eyes glazed. She wasn't seeing them any more.

She was sixteen in this memory, only a month into her majority.

Before her eyes, the North wing of Bag End, where her parents slept, was flaring up into deadly, flickering flames.

She was running towards it from the cove, faster than she'd ever run before, but her father caught her around the waist before she could get any closer. He'd come from the direction of his little writing shed, where he often stayed all hours of the day and night. She could hear her mother's cries for help, fainter by the second. She fell to her knees as her father let her go and told her to stay put, running straight into the inferno without hesitation.

She soon heard him scream as well, and suddenly realised that her mother's cries had stopped. But she knew that it wasn't because she'd gotten out. She tried to move, but couldn't make her muscles cooperate, felt tears streaming down her face, and could feel the heat from where she knelt, only metres away. It was blistering her, and she hadn't even gone in; couldn't go in. With all her might, she forced her legs to rise beneath her and took a step towards the blaze.

Before she could approach any further, she heard popping and creaking and the roof caved in, taking the sound of her father's cries with it. She should have been in there with them; her bedroom was only two doors down from theirs - if only she hadn't had insomnia, she would have been there, to help, to get her mother out. Or, more morbidly, to die with them.

She only realised that she was screaming when she fell back to her knees and heard her voice rising above the sound of the fire. She could smell the smoke and the earth, then something more sickly. It took her a minute to realise it was the smell of her parents and possibly their maid and footman, cooking in the inferno. Tasting bile, she leaned over and vomited into the dark ground before her, finally, mercifully, passing out.

As the memory threatened to take her over completely, she was broken out of her reverie by a jolly, sarcastic, voice. Gandalf slowly stood up, squinting suspiciously at her.

"Yep!" He snickered, popping the 'p'. "Smaug, chiefest and greatest of calamities. He's got a proclivity for burning. Like a dragon, you could say." He grinned, completely unaware of her panic.

"Dragon..." Bella whispered frantically, trying to stop another onslaught of memories.

"Well, yes. You know, like a furnace with wings?" He said encouragingly, even nodding at her rapidly paling face.

With the sounds of her parents' screams still ringing in her ears, and the smell of smoke in her nose, Bella quite unashamedly fainted right there, in front of all of them.

As the Pirates watched in confused horror, she seemed to fall in slow motion. They shot out of their seats worriedly, and Gandalf reached her inches before she hit the floor. He caught her by the shoulders and gently lifted her into his arms, gazing down at her sadly.

"And you want her to be our burglar? She faints at the mere idea of danger!" Thorin sneered derisively.

"Mama... No! No, Father! Don't... You'll burn! No, no! Please- Don't leave me here alone." Bella murmured restlessly. Gandalf closed his eyes for a second. He looked upon her creased, pained, face sadly.

He carried her to the parlour, with the Pirates following. Bofur spoke first. "What..." He started uneasily.

"It's not my place to say. I told your Captain not to mention the fire right away." Gandalf spat, his harsh tone contrasting with his gentle movements as he placed his Goddaughter onto a sofa.

"You expected me to remember? I have far more important things to worry about than her! How was I supposed to know?" He demanded in reply.

Before Gandalf could respond, Bella stirred. They peered at her as she came round. "Wha- Gandalf?" She whispered groggily.

"Bella, my girl. Are you feeling alright?" Gandalf probed gently.

She shot upright, as if just noticing the others. "Fine!" She growled, fighting a bout of dizziness. "Now, thank you for thinking of me, but no. I will not be going on this fool's quest."

She very nearly ran from the room. Gandalf followed, shutting the door. "Belladonna." He whispered, when they were completely alone.

"No! I know what you're going to say, and it's still a no!" She said firmly.

"Bella. You know how I feel about you going, but if I must repeat myself... I had no idea how much this would still affect you; if I had-"

"You knew!" She shouted with venom pouring out of her very being. "You knew. That is how they died, of course it still affects me!" She hissed coldly. Then she opened the door on the thirteen pirates desperately pretending not to eavesdrop on them.

Bella ignored them completely. "We've made up the spare rooms for you. Gandalf, do show them where to go. Sorry I can't be of more assistance." She said flatly, and left the room.

She rushed to her bedroom as fast as she could, and slammed the door shut behind her, leaning tiredly on it. There had been too many memories brought forth by their presence, and it had only been one evening. She could still hear the men talking, although it was in hushed voices. Then, like distant thunder rolling throughout the house came one voice. Thorin. He sung mournfully, of all that he had lost, the others slowly joining in. It was beautiful and haunting and it hit Belladonna like a tidal wave. She suddenly felt all the years of loneliness and pain she'd had since her parents had died come rushing back to her. Finally, she gave up and let herself go. She wept and wept, sobbing all of her hurts out until she had nothing left to give.

Slowly, the singers petered out until only Thorin's voice remained, solid as a rock, his presence tangible. Then he stopped also, his voice breaking with the feeling of it all. Like a thief in the night, she stole away into bed and fell into a deep, restless sleep.

She dreamed. She saw her home, and theirs, and fire. She saw Thorin's face, alongside her godfather's, and made her decision without conscious thought.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Bella wasn't woken by her maid, as was customary. It was the noise from the pirates cheerfully wishing said maid, and distant cousin, Prim, a good morning as they left her home that broke her out of her slumber. She shot up like an arrow as the realisation that they had just exited her home set in, and Prim burst through her door in a similar fashion. She looked frantic.

"Lady Belladonna!" She cried in a panic. "Bella!" She corrected herself when she saw her cousin already standing up. "Your pirates, I mean, guests are on their way out! Bell's trying to stop them, but I doubt she'll manage to hold them up for long!" Prim hissed loudly, indicating the sound of Bell, Bella's cook and wife of the gardener, hurriedly rushing out of the door after the men, screeching something inconsequential about waiting for a good breakfast before rushing off like that.

Belladonna Baggins was not a morning person, nor would she ever be.

However, exceptions could be made, and this morning, the first since her birth, she made that exception. She knew she couldn't just let these poor men down. Knew, also, that she couldn't let them get killed thanks to her Godfather's wretched meddling.

She moved through her home like a hurricane, utterly unstoppable. She was sweeping possessions into a bag with one hand and brushing her teeth with the other whilst Prim and Bell tried to get her dressed, to save as much time as possible. Finally, her trunk was full. In it she'd packed every pair of dark trousers she owned, all of her concealing shirts, the dresses from her thieving days, one of her best formal dresses, a sewing kit, some currency, and other essential survival items. It had a false bottoms too, which hid her weapon belt, wrapped around the thing her thief persona was renowned for; her mask.

Her backpack contained one change of clothes, a first aid kit, more currency, a dagger, all the preserved provisions that she could cram in, and her journal.

In the end, she chose to wear her best trousers, which were originally her mother's. They were both stylish and practical. They had a very feminine cut, loose but still hugging her curves, so as not to impede movement, slightly flared at the ends to keep her feet as unrestricted as possible. They weighed as little as possible so that they had little impact on her balance, and could be shortened into a three quarter length by neat little hidden buttons near her calves. The material was a deep green, offset in places by matching green gems so dark they were almost black, which conveniently his within them tiny vials of both poison and medicine, which had saved her and her mother's life countless times.

Her shirt was similarly fitted, again hugging her curves yet not impeding her movement. The sleeves were long, and billowed, but had small ties which allowed them to be tied back to her elbows, and it was cut fairly low on purpose, to catch the eye and distract from what the hands might be doing. It was white, which didn't help when she needed to get her hands dirty, but in her line of work, she wore things like this on purpose in order to remind her to keep her hands as clean as possible. It had little hidden pockets in some of the bodice panels which hid lock picks, and small daggers so that in case of capture, she still had a fighting chance.

She signed the contract that had been left on her mantelpiece with a flourish, and left letters for her staff which had been prepared for years just in case; a tradition her mother had started. She left the house in Bell and Prim's capable care. If she didn't send word after three years, the place was to be given to her favourite cousin, Drogo, under the conditions that he kept her staff as his, and that only a blood relative could inherit the place.

Finally, she ran out of the door, practically being pushed by Prim. She flew down the porch stairs, piece of toast in her mouth, only to be caught by Gandalf. "For goodness' sake!" She huffed, peering up at him. "Make yourself useful for once, take the trunk! We aren't keeping them waiting." She ordered him. He didn't protest, just grinned broadly as he did as she commanded.

In no time at all, they were at the cove. The ship was massive, moored a few feet from the dock, carefully out of sight of both the open ocean and the road and Bella had to give that dense Captain some credit. She looked distastefully at the little rowboat, and huffed. She heard low, genuine chuckling behind her. Nori stopped when she saw him.

"Ma'am." He smirked. "'Another time' might be approaching faster than you expected." He smirked, wriggling his eyebrows saucily.

She laughed, and hopped easily into the boat, snatching her heavy trunk from Gandalf's hands with practised ease. "If you say so, Master Nori." She winked cheekily. The two men situated themselves in the boat, and began the quick job of rowing them to the ship. She got a good look at the name as they drew level: 'The Blue Mountain'. It seemed to be a strange name for something that wasn't supposed to sink like a rock.

A rope was thrown down as they drew level, and Nori motioned to let Bella go first. "I'll wait. We don't want you 'accidentally' seeing up my trousers, loose as they are, now do we?" She sniffed haughtily.

Nori blushed, caught out, then scrambled up the rope, and once he reached the top, Gandalf followed heaving Bella's trunk under one arm somehow. Once the rope was clear for her, Bella cracked her knuckles, and stretched her muscles as she went up, remembering the motions of the waves, and prompting her muscle memory for this sort of climbing. It was easy, after the first few handholds.

She was up in just over a minute, amazing compared to their much slower climbing efforts. She leapt onto the deck, preening slightly at the impressed looks directed at her. She was about to saunter off to the side, but instead bumped straight into Oakenshield. She managed to keep her balance, luckily.

He glowered down at her, looking at her outfit with a raised eyebrow. "I wasn't aware that we were holding a fashion show, Miss Baggins." He sneered. A few chuckles came from the men gathered around him, although they were looking her up and down in a fashion similar to Nori the evening before.

"Master Oakenshield! I'll have you know that I am always holding a fashion show!" She sniffed. "Take Mister Dwalin, for example. He looks delightful!" She nodded at Dwalin, who paused, shrugged, and did a little twirl.

The Captain looked angrily at Dwalin in frustration. The larger pirate simply shrugged again, a slightly smug smile on his face. Pirates wasn't used to being complimented on their choice of clothing, might as well make the most of it. They were interrupted by a smattering of sarcastic applause from the others. Thorin looked even angrier now.

"If you're finished with this travesty, follow me, Miss Baggins. The rest of you, back to work!" He growled.

The men rushed off with mumbled apologies and placating looks, trying not to look at Bella. She grinned at Dwalin, who remained behind and cleared his throat awkwardly. "Captain, Gandalf wants to know where Miss Baggins will be staying." Dwalin said quietly. "He's already gone down to his usual room"

Thorin swore quietly, before looking at Bell and going slightly red. "Sorry." He muttered. "What do you mean? We agreed that whoever Gandalf chose would sleep with the crew! I don't know where to put a woman." He hissed.

"Oh for goodness' sake, I can handle sharing quarters, if needs be, but before we resort to that, let me talk to that idiot of a Pirate Lord." She interrupted.

Thorin looked somewhat uncertain, but eventually nodded at Dwalin to take Bella to her Godfather. Without much ado, Bella swung her trunk onto her shoulder and followed the large pirate into the bowels of the ship.

"What do you plan to do, exactly?" He asked suddenly, taking her trunk for her.

"Oh, thank you! Not much, I'll just make him give me his room, it should be a doddle." She smiled airily, waving a hand.

Dwalin grinned at her as she overtook him and stopped in front of the door. She knocked loudly and unceasingly until it was wrenched open. Grumbling, Gandalf looked at his Goddaughter and winced. "You'll be wanting my room, I suppose?" He sighed.

Pushing past him and into the room, Bella indicated where Dwalin should drop her trunk and flung herself onto the bed. "Need I answer that?" She asked smugly.

Without another word, Gandalf gathered his things and stormed out, no doubt to berate Oakenshield for not providing an extra room from nowhere. Dwalin remained standing at the foot of the bed, shifting uncomfortably from foot to food.

"Nice work. None of the lads have ever managed to make him do anything he didn't want to do." He mumbled eventually.

"Oh do sit down, I hate people hovering over me. And tell me, where are we going from here?" She commanded.

Obviously uncomfortable, he lowered himself onto the very edge of the bed and cleared his throat. "We should be off to the Troll-shores from here. It's always been a good place for us to drop anchor and take stock of what we'll need to trade for."

Bella watched Dwalin as he tried not to stare at her and failed. She smiled quietly to herself as his eyes wondered up and down her form. "See something you like?" She whispered. He jumped almost a foot off the bed and looked at her guiltily from the other side of the room.

"I've never seen a woman wear clothes like this. Apart from once... But I was young then. Sorry. I should be going." He stuttered, blushing to the roots of his beard.

"Oh shut up, they'll not miss you for a few minutes more. Do stay and talk to me, I enjoy your company." She said, leaning closer to him. Her voice dropped slightly lower and his breathing hitched.

He looked at her. "I suppose I can stay for five minutes. Why would you enjoy my company, Bella?" He asked, smirking. She rested her hand on his arm.

"You aren't boring. And any woman would be a fool to think you were purely muscle, although it does suit you well." She purred back.

His smirk faltered as his eyes began to glaze over.

Number two, check and mate. Nori needs physical contact, Dwalin needs pretty words, she thought to herself. It was becoming clear to her that they'd be easy to manipulate. And why shouldn't she? It would always be better to have friends than enemies, and she'd take falsely-acquired friends to easily made enemies any day of the week.

She heard footsteps approaching in the corridor and decided to have some more fun. "Yet, our five minutes are up, and we must part ways. Another time, we could have some fun perhaps?" She said loudly enough for the listener in the hall to hear. Dwalin cocked his head, hearing the shuffle from outside. The glazed look disappeared, and he looked at her knowingly. Suddenly, Bella felt that she might just be able to make real friends in one or two of these dwarves.

They got up, and Dwalin swung the door open to reveal a pirate wearing the most ridiculous hat Bella's had ever seen.

"Sorry am I interrupting?" He smiled cheekily. "Only Thorin expected you to be back right away. He wants you on the main deck as well, Miss." Suddenly she recognised his voice as the one that had led her to faint the night before and looked at him suspiciously before deciding to let it go.

Bella pushed right into the pirate's personal space and winked at him. "You wouldn't be interrupting," She paused to look him very deliberately up and down. "At all." She said with relish, as he went red.

"Bofur!" Dwalin called as he walked away. "Stop bothering our Bella!" He snapped to attention, looking embarrassed. She simply smiled at him and followed Dwalin, feeling Bofur's eyes burn into her rear the entire way back to the main deck.

They reached the deck in no time, and Thorin looked at Bella disapprovingly. "Don't rush on my account, please. Just keep us all waiting." He said sarcastically.

Bella dropped into a deep curtsy. "My deepest apologies, oh great Captain. I'll try to rush things next time." She grinned while straightening up, making deliberate eye contact with Dwalin and licking her lips. Throats were cleared, eyes were averted and Thorin looked furious. Bella decided she was going to enjoy this journey very much, especially with the number of good looking dwarves on this ship.

Before Thorin could have some sort of aneurysm or stroke, Gandalf saved the day by pointing out that they'd better move soon before any patrols passed by. Thorin simply nodded and the silver-haired brother of Nori began pulling up the anchor. Single handedly. Bella was impressed. As the crew dispersed to their various tasks, Bella was left standing alone in the centre of the deck. Without anything to do, she wandered to the rear of the ship to watch her home slowly begin to fade into the distance.

She took a deep breath, and sent a silent thought to wherever her parents might be, to ask them to forgive her in advance if she was sailing straight into death.

After taking a moment to gather herself, she put one hand over her heart and bowed her head in the direction of her home before turning away.

Behind her, one of the crew had been regarding her curiously, and started as she turned so suddenly. She spared him a small smile and flicked her head in order to motion him closer.

"I'm very sorry, I can't quite recall your name." Bella said after a second.

"Oh, apologies my Lady, I'm Ori, at your service!" The young dwarf stuttered out in reply.

"You've no need to apologise for my mistake." Bella reprimanded lightly. "And enough with the Lady business, my name is Bella." She added.

"Ah, sorry, I mean thank you." Ori mumbled. "I actually came to ask if you minded me including you in my chronicle of our voyage, but you seemed busy, and then I wanted to ask what you were doing but Dori's always saying it's rude to pry..." He trailed off.

Bella smiled warmly in response. "I don't mind at all, though I'd prefer if you just called me Bella or something instead of my full name please. As for what I was doing, what you saw was just a silly old tradition that my mother and I had. Whenever we left the Shire, we would put a fist over our heart and say a little goodbye prayer for good luck and to promise that we would return."

"I don't think that's silly at all. Oh, and thank you!" He responded enthusiastically before rushing away, presumably to begin writing.

With a sigh, Bella turned from the rail and surveyed the crew rushing to and fro for a moment before feeling eyes on her. From the centre of the deck, Thorin Oakenshield's eyes were boring into her suspiciously. With mischief in her mind, she waved daintily at him, before sauntering towards the rear mast. With a short run and a jump, she launched herself onto the rope ladder that led up to the rigging and crow's nest, her trousers billowing in the wind. In a few quick leaps she was at the top of the mast, and in amongst the ropes. She risked a short glance down to see Oakenshield still tracking her with his eyes.

Bella leapt from rope to rope testing her rusty skills and slowly but surely pushing herself towards her limits. Upon reaching the crow's nest, she pulled herself up onto it with just her arms and walked to the very edge of the nearest wooden strut, arms held out for balance. She could feel the eyes of the crew settling on her one by one as she teetered above all of them. A hush was falling as she walked further away from safety, and towards the open drop between the ending of this mast and the beginning of the main one. As she reached the very end, she surveyed the faces staring up at her, and zeroed in on Oakenshield's stupidly angry face.

She spared only a second to very clearly give him the middle finger and poke her tongue out at him before leaping into the empty space. There were cries of alarm as she appeared to hang in open air for a second, and she allowed her momentum to carry her out into the air as far as she could stretch before gripping firmly onto the rope that appeared from below to be miles out of her reach. She flipped herself deftly so that she was hanging upside down from the rope held just by her legs, and allowed the swing of the rope to carry her towards the rigging that was attached to the central mast before reaching her arms forwards and up as far as she could go, to perform another flip and land solidly in amongst the mass of ropes.

After taking a second to gather herself, Bella started to laugh breathlessly. She climbed to the top of the centre mast as far as she could go, and settled herself upon the edge of the second crow's nest, feet dangling over the edge. No doubt grinning like a madwoman, she took a second to appreciate the view and the breeze ruffling her hair. When she'd taken her fill of looking at the surrounding ocean, she stood once more and peered down through the rigging at the astonished faces of the crew. Her Godfather stood amongst them, looking as smug as she's ever seen him and she laughed again before once more taking a death defying leap into empty air. This time, she was aiming for a tangle of ropes that ended just a few feet above the centre of the deck.

She caught the nearest rope and wound it around her arm slightly as she plummeted. She caught a second, then a third and managed to position herself so that she spun as she descended, like an acrobat playing with the ribbons. Finally, she stopped, hanging upside down and inches from Thorin's shocked face. She simply smiled at him cheekily and winked, allowing herself to spin once more, lazily, before dropping gracefully to the deck.

"You never used to be able to jump that far." Gandalf commented through the silence.

"Yes I did!" Laughed Bella. "It's the same sized gap as on your old ship, no different."

"No my girl, that was definitely a shorter distance than this." He replied, one eyebrow raised.

"Ah. In which case, I have gotten better." Bella said sheepishly.

"You fool!" Roared Thorin out of nowhere. "You took a risk on my ship that could have gotten you killed, and you didn't even know you could make the jump? If you want to get yourself killed then I'm certainly not going to stop you, but it's not going to happen on my ship. You aren't my responsibility." He raged before turning his back and stalking towards the wheel of the ship.

Bella opened her mouth to respond, before closing it again and shrugging. She looked at her Godfather and laughed airily. "I've never missed a jump before, and I'm not about to start now. If I had ever missed, I wouldn't be here today, and if that isn't enough for some people, fair enough." She commented loudly, and turned to the assembled faces.

"I have just had a thought: which one of you do I give my contract to? In all of the commotion, I quite forgot to hand it over!" Bella exclaimed.

"Ah, that would be me, Lady. Might I have a look now?" Balin responded politely.

"Of course, but can all of you please stop with the titles? I hate them unless they're absolutely needed." Bella said. Before a response was given, she reached a hand down the front of her shirt and produced the contract with a flourish. After a moment's pause, Balin delicately plucked it from her hand, red in the face. "Sorry, it was the safest place to keep it in a hurry." Bella offered as explanation.

"Ahem, no problem Miss Baggins. Let me just go over this in my office for a moment, and then we'll sort you out with some provisions and the like." Balin murmured politely, before turning and hurrying into the bowels of the ship.

The others looked at Bella for a second longer before once more dispersing to go about their various jobs, leaving her standing with Gandalf. They stood in quiet contemplation for a moment, before Gandalf sighed and looked at her from the corner of his eye. "Are you going to stop playing with them soon? It's cruel." He huffed finally.

"Why Godfather, I have no idea what you're talking about." Bella simpered in return. "Anyway, I need to unpack my things, so I'll see you later." She added, turning and hurrying away before he could continue to act disapproving.

She meant to go straight to her quarters, she really did, but a loud conversation caught her attention before she reached her door. The door next to hers was shut tightly, but the strains of conversation were still loud enough to be heard if you listened carefully. With a Hobbit's hearing, it wasn't even a case of trying to listen in, so in her mind, it didn't even count as eavesdropping.

"-to calm down." Balin's voice was saying as she paused with her back against her door.

"Calm down?" Thorin's angry voice came back with, clearly straining to remain at a lower volume.

"Yes, laddie. You've no reason to shout like that at the poor lass. She was practising, like she said, whether it was dangerous or not."

"She could've died!"

"She needs to practice if she's going to do the job we have just hired her for, woman or not. She has signed the contract. That's it." Balin said firmly, tone leaving no room for argument.

"Who's the Captain on this ship, Balin?" Thorin asked suddenly.

"Don't you start that with me, Thorin. I served your father, and now I'm serving you. Just because I'm being reasonable doesn't mean you need to act like a child. You are my Captain, and my King, and nothing is going to change that for all the jewels in the world." Balin snapped sharply.

"Balin, I'm sorry." Thorin sounded wretched for a second. "I just refuse to be responsible for that miserable halfling's life." He said finally before moving towards the door. Digesting this information, Bella moved silently back towards the entrance of the corridor and made it look as though she was entering just as the door to the study opened and Thorin strode out. He paused at the sight of her, and Bella faked a jump.

"Oh, hello, sorry, I was just heading to my room. I thought you were still on the deck." Bella said quietly as she moved to go past the towering captain.

A hand shot out to grab her arm as she swept past, and she was roughly turned around. She frowned at Thorin's hand on her upper arm, and he snatched it back as though burned. "My apologies, Lady. I- I just wanted to apologise for my harsh words earlier. And last night." He ground out through gritted teeth. "You are free to practice your skills in the rigging if you desire, though I'd appreciate you taking fewer risks. Please." He added sourly, as though every word pained him.

Had Bella not just heard his conversation with Balin, she might have been inclined to give the burly dwarf a second chance, despite the tone of his words. As it was, she was suddenly feeling much less kind towards him.

"Right. Okay then, thanks." She answered coolly, moving further past him. From behind her, she heard him heave a sigh.

"Look, if I have offended you, I really am sorry, and I regret raising my voice at you, I was simply concerned for your safety." He said quietly, sounding much calmer now.

"Yes, you have. Thank you for your concern. Good morning, Captain." Bella hissed, before finally storming into her quarters.

She sat down on the edge of her bed, taking deep breaths in order to collect herself and stop the words she'd heard from hurting quite so badly. After she'd calmed down significantly, Bella took out her father's old pocket watch to check the time, her stomach rumbling slightly. She sighed; at home she would just be finishing her elevenses, meaning that she'd missed second breakfast too. After so many years without an adventure, she'd forgotten how many meals she'd often missed whilst on jobs. She was just out of practice, in time, she'd remember the rhythms of the world outside the Shire.

A soft knock sounded at her door. She rose to answer it, to find Balin standing on the other side with a pleasant smile on his face. She moved to the side to allow him entrance, and he strode in, only to pause in the centre of the room, unsure.

"What can I help you with?" She questioned lightly. She shut the door and moved to pull a chair out for him from under the desk that was situated under the porthole.

"Thank you, Miss Baggins, I just came to confirm that your contract is in order, and to officially welcome you to the Company of Thorin Oakenshield."

With a small roll of her eyes at the mention of the captain, Bella extended a hand for Balin to shake.

Taking it, he smiled knowingly at her expression. "He can be harsh, especially to newcomers, lass. I'm sorry that you have to bear the brunt of his behaviour, but I'm sure he'll warm up to you in no time."

He rose, patting her on the shoulder in a manner that reminded her of her father momentarily.

"Thank you. I do appreciate it, Master Balin."

He shot a smile at her over his shoulder before departing.

Alone once more, Bella started to sort through her belongings. Deciding against changing before lunch, she simply untied her hair from its pins, feeling a small spark of mischief reignite within her. Were dwarves really so sensitive about hair?

With her hair unbound and freshly brushed, she washed her face and hands, and began to unpack her trunk so that she could go over her supplies. With enough shuffling of items and refolding of clothing, she could fit a great deal more into her pack, meaning that should the worst occur, she would have the majority of her important stock, such as the sewing kit, weapon belt and most importantly, her mask.

These tasks completed, Bella checked her pocket watch once more before deciding to go in search of lunch. Quietly, she opened her door and poked her head into the hall, just catching a glimpse of the retreating form of a dwarf. Presuming that he was going in the direction of the galley, Bella followed both the dwarf and the ever strengthening smell of food until her intuition was proved correct. The corridor opened into the galley directly; the dwarves had already gathered there search of food, and had the nerve to tuck in without her!. With a huff, she walked into the room to look for a seat and at once became aware of each pair of eyes snapping onto her one by one.

Maybe the hair thing was right.

Luckily, their shock was to her advantage, as this gave her the room to slip into the nearest seat that she could find and pile a plate with food. With her first forkful halfway to her mouth, she paused and looked around. "Is there a problem?"

Several of them shook their heads and looked down, some of the youngsters were given 'subtle' elbows to the ribs, and slowly, everyone got back to their food. Bella regarded her neighbour now that chaos reigned once more, and was pleasantly surprised to find Bofur at her side. He glanced at her for a second and gave a brief wink before going back to his food. After a solid stretch of food eating, people started to chat once more, and Bofur finally turned towards Bella.

"Ya know exactly what you're doing, don't ya lass?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean Master Bofur." Bella replied primly with a shake of her hair, which admittedly transfixed the poor dwarf for a second.

"I'm sure, but if yer confused, let me enlighten ya. Hair is a big thing for our folk. And the only time we see it down like that is in very... intimate settings, lass." Bofur got out, turning red.

"My apologies! Should I just put it back up or?"

"No!" Bofur hissed, somehow turning redder. "Ya don't do yer hair in front of others, lass, that's almost as bad as leaving it down. Only close families and spouses see each other do their hair unless yer just fixing it slightly."

"Oh, I'm sorry, it just isn't an issue back at home." Bella raised her voice just slightly so the eavesdroppers could hear and be scandalised. "I mean, many people just wear their hair down when they aren't working, it's just easier. Also, if your hair is making you too warm, we just put it straight up, there's no sense in going all the way home when you can just get one of the other girls to help you pin it back."

There were gasps from around the room, and Bella did an exaggerated look around, frowning. "Did I say something wrong?"

"You let others touch your hair?" Kili blurted out from three seats down.

"Well, yes. Why wouldn't I let one of the other girls help if I can't manage all of it? I remember once, it took three of the other girls helping me to pin it all back one windy day, because I just couldn't manage it!"

Bella looked around the room at the sea of red faces and raised an eyebrow. "I suppose I'd better not talk about the Spring festivals if you're all so bothered by just that little story! There, it's a tradition for all the girls to weave flowers through each other's hair in the centre of the village for the festivities to come." There were one or two groans at this, and Bella rose from her seat. "I'm sorry if I've bothered you all, if you'd prefer, I'll not leave my hair down as much as I would otherwise." She smiled, before waltzing out of the room.

Gandalf was coming the other way with Thorin and Balin, she assumed from the Captain's quarters. They stopped at the sight of her, with Gandalf raising a mirthful eyebrow and the other two turning as red as the others. She ruffled her hair a little, just to watch Thorin's blush deepen, and put a hand on her hip. "Apparently I shouldn't wear my hair down in front of you all?" She demanded. Balin cleared his throat and quickly disappeared through the nearest exit alongside Gandalf.

Thorin, trapped, lowered his eyes. "You may do as you wish, Lady Baggins, though I agree, this isn't a tradition amongst dwarves." He sounded strangled, and Bella was fascinated.

"Oh blast it, I'll just keep it up."

With that, she ran her hands through her curly hair and began to pull it up into a pony-tail. Thorin seemingly couldn't tear his eyes away, and Bella idly wondered how far under his clothes that blush reached. After a moment of her messing with her hair, Thorin finally cleared his throat and spluttered some excuse before almost running away. She watched him retreat with a predatory smile on her face.

That certainly made her feel better about earlier.

Chapter Text

After her little experiment with Thorin and the others, Bella felt that for once, she'd better give them a break.

It wouldn't to to scandalise them into heart attacks, now would it? It had only been a day and a half, after all. So, upon causing Thorin to run away from her all aflutter, she returned quietly to her room and began to read a book that she'd brought with her, interestingly enough, one about dwarves. Better to be prepared for any other silly sensibilities she wasn't be aware of than scandalise them again so soon without even meaning to.

After a couple of hours spent in contented silence, Bella became aware of the sounds of a commotion drifting through her porthole. She sat up, frowning, and turned her face towards the sounds, but couldn't hear the full conversation due to the sound of waves breaking against the ship. With a sigh, she rose to her feet and made her way out of her room, before turning and exiting the bowels of the ship to see what all the fuss was about.

Upon emerging into the brighter light of the outside world, she squinted her eyes and located the source of her intrigue, which was, of course, her Godfather and Thorin. Arguing. Muttering about the stubbornness of males, she made her way towards them, the cause of their argument becoming clear.

"You told us of this place, Gandalf. I don't see why you'd try to discourage me from landing there now!" Thorin was ranting, not bothering to lower his voice.

Gandalf rolled his eyes rather impressively. "I told you that here would be a good place to put down anchor for a night and take stock of your stores, not to go onto the island!"

"You've said that the island is dangerous, but I don't see what is so dangerous that my crew couldn't handle it. Are you saying that we aren't strong enough to face even the smallest threat?"

With a glance at his Goddaughter, Gandalf shook his head. "That is my point. This isn't a small threat! This place is named 'Trollshores' for a reason, Thorin Oakenshield, and you'd do well to think on that."

Sensing her eyes on him, Thorin turned to regard Bella for a moment. "Maybe your hesitance comes because of her presence? From all the tales I heard of your adventures, Grey, I never expected you to be so much of a sentimental old fool! Trolls have been extinct for generations, and besides, if there were live trolls on this Island, there would be tell of them far and wide. We are docking here to scout for possible supplies, and that is final!"

Offended, Bella put her hands on her hips and stared at the captain. "My presence has never made him any more or less wary about any situation, Captain; in fact, I think you'd be surprised at how many of those tales involve me as well. Maybe your own insecurities are simply flaring up? Or is this a... Mast measuring contest between the two of you? In either case, I am not some silly, simpering little thing to be worried about or fawned over. You should listen to my Godfather, Captain, as he knows what he's talking about. However, if you don't, which I expect, then I will be ready to dock with the rest of your crew." Bella snapped, watching the two of them look shamefaced for a second before they remembered their argument again.

"You may go off and entertain this foolishness, Thorin, but I will be remaining right here. Good luck." Gandalf spat before storming off to brood somewhere.

"Be ready to go in ten minutes, halfling." Thorin said without looking at her, and Bella, feeling quite stung at the terminology, left to ready herself.

Once more in her room, Bella went over her mental checklist of gear. Weapons belt on, hair out of the way, trousers shortened, medical kit, sewing kit, currency: check. She took a second to place her mask within easy reach in the top of her pack before slinging it onto her shoulders and tightening the straps. All this done, she took a few seconds to go over her knives. One in each hip holster, within easy reach. Two strapped over her shoulders so that a simple reach over her head would give her access. One or two more in her weapon belt so that should she loose her four larger blades, she would have a backup. That done, she headed out into the fading light of day.

The pirates were gathered around Thorin in a loose semi-circle, waiting to board the little row-boats that would take them to the little island. As Bella waited for Thorin to finish his little pep talk, or whatever it was, she surveyed the place. It was hard to see much of its geography from the outside; past the small strip of rocky beach the place was completely overgrown, with thick, thorny bushes giving way to massive, vine-covered trees which left no room to see through them to the interior of the island. Even so, Bella's thieving eyes were marking out tiny gaps through which she would be able to squeeze, and slightly larger spaces where a dwarf might just push through, provided one was careful of the thorns. After a moment, her Godfather appeared by her side.

"You know I don't give warnings lightly." He murmured, low so the others couldn't hear.

Bells looked at him from the corner of her eye. "People have gone missing on this island, I know. But he won't bow to your will, Uncle. They will have to learn the hard way, but I'll keep my eyes peeled. Is the danger true trolls? Or something worse?"

"Worse, I fear. Though I do believe that there is a reason that they haven't left this island. Keep that in mind, and stay high where you can. Have fun, Goddaughter." With that parting advice, he turned and sauntered away, through the dispersing huddle of pirates and down into the ship's interior.

Bella quietly approached the group of pirates as they began to climb down towards the row boats. One by one, they descended, with Bella going last and ending up in a boat with the three youngest members of the group. She offered them a bright smile, which was returned immediately by Ori, and then, more hesitantly by Fili and Kili. As the other boats set off, Fili and Kili took up the oars despite protest from Ori, and they were off towards the island.

Bella kept her eye on as much of the tangled jungle as she could, looking for any sign of danger, but she could see nothing out of place. They splashed ashore soon enough, and everyone set about making a little camp. Feeling useless, Bella looked around for a moment until she caught Bofur's eye.

"Can I help with anything?" She asked, indicating the campfire that Bofur and his two companions were setting up.

"Oh no lassie, there's not much we need help with here." Bofur replied with a smile before indicating the other two dwarves. "Ya probably didn't get a proper introduction to these two, correct?"

With the affirmative nod from Bella, he indicated his rather round friend.

"This is my brother, Bombur, he's a dwarf of very few words, you'll find. He's our cook, and a fine one at that."

Bella nodded and smiled at the red-haired dwarf, who shyly returned the sentiment, before continuing his work setting up the cooking pot.

"This is our cousin, Bifur. You'll find that he doesn't say much either, but that would be on account of the axe in his head." Bofur pointed out cheerfully. Indeed, the wilder, older looking dwarf did have an axe-head embedded in his forehead, though it didn't make him all that threatening if you looked past it to the kindness in his eyes. Bifur nodded his head at Bella, and grunted something out in Khuzdul, which Bella knew was a greeting, but pretended not to understand. "He can only speak our mother-tongue since the incident. Though if ya know Inglishmek, he can sign to ya." Bofur hurried to explain.

Bella, delighted by this, signed a greeting and her name to Bifur, who was equally happy to find someone fluent in the sign language. Bofur shot a confused smile at her and Bella tapped the side of her nose with a forefinger. They were interrupted by a rough hand landing on her shoulder.

"Whilst this is wonderful to behold, Burglar, I do have a job for you. You can find Fili and Kili, and give them their dinner. I trust that it shouldn't be too arduous a task for you, seeing as they're simply behind that patch of rocks near the treeline hiding the boats." Thorin droned sarcastically. Bella, tiring of his constant bad mood, nodded once and turned her back on him, shrugging off his hand in the process.

With a growl, probably at her insolence, Thorin stormed off down the beach again, and Bella turned back to the three dwarves still present. She settled into the sand next to the now bubbling pot, and resigned herself to becoming a serving-wench for the entire journey. Bofur settled to the side of her, produced a piece of wood and carving knife, then began to whittle it. Bella watched, transfixed, as the shape of a dolphin soon became apparent, and laughed in delight when he handed it to her after only a few minutes.

"This is lovely!" She exclaimed, admiring the little toy.

Bofur grinned. "Aye, I make 'em for Bombur's small army of children while we're away. He's got five of the little buggers now, all waiting for us at home."

"Oh, how lovely! Are you married, Bombur?"

His only response was a nod, though there was pride in his eyes. Bella smiled, and filed this information away for later, though she doubted she'd need leverage on many of these pirates at all after beginning to get to know them.

"Our Bombur isn't the only one, Gloin over there has a wife at home as well, and they have their little Gimli. These two are brilliantly lucky to have children, rare as they are, and Bombur having more than one? Truly a miracle!" Bofur gushed, clearly besotted with his little nieces or nephews. Bifur nodded along, similarly proud of his family, and Bella had to wonder at it all.

"Are children rare, for your people?" She questioned, truly curious.

"Aye, of course! It's once in a blue moon that our kind are born, and for one couple to have five, it's extremely rare. Dori and his brothers were celebrated when young Ori came along, it was unheard of for a dam to have three children in her lifetime!"

"This is fascinating. In the Shire, my family was the odd one out for only having one child!"

Bofur stared at her for a second. He shook his head slightly, before asking: "Really? How many is normal for your folk then?"

"Oh, any less than three is considered a sad state of affairs for anyone. Though as many as fourteen children have been known to be produced by some more affluent families. It's really a case of the more the better, to be honest with you." She replied flippantly.

Bofur's mouth gaped in amazement, as did Bombur and Bifur's. Bifur quickly signed a few swear words that had Bella laughing at him, and Bombur simply shook his head before turning back to the pot and scooping out some bowls of stew.

"With that note, lass, you'd better take these to Fili and Kili. Mahal, fourteen?" Bofur smiled, shaking his head.

Bella laughed again and stood to accept the bowls, before trotting off up the beach to where the boys should be. Upon poking her head around the rocks she found no sign of them, and immediately began to worry, recalling her Godfather's warnings. Spotting their tracks in the sand, she followed them away from the beach and into the grass and earth at the beginning of the jungle. She pushed through a large, recently used gap in the foliage to find the two crouching behind a half-broken tree some ways in.

She shook her head at their obliviousness. "What are you doing?" She hissed in a whisper, making them jump in alarm.

They frantically shushed her as Kili dragged her down beside them in the undergrowth. "We got here with five boats, right?" Kili asked quietly.

Bella nodded and Fili pointed behind them to where the boats were partially hidden. "Now there are only four."

At that moment, there came the sound of stomping in the undergrowth, and the half-broken tree they were hiding behind creaked alarmingly as a massive hand used it for balance to step over a large rock. The giant figure, a troll, crept as quietly as it could through the gap Bella had used moments ago and seized a second boat, heaving it over its shoulder and stomping back from the way it had come. Mouth agape, Bella watched it retreat as Fili and Kili looked at each other in alarm. The two had a frantic, whispered discussion in Khudzul before turning expectantly to Bella.

She raised an eyebrow, already fearing what they were going to ask. "What?"

"You're a burglar." Fili commented slowly.

"You could get the boats back for us!" Kili declared. "Our Uncle Thorin will kill us if he finds out we weren't watching the boats. You have to help us, please."

"You think I can carry those boats by myself? I don't think i could manage one, much less two!" Bella hissed, thinking momentarily about that 'Uncle' comment.

Kili looked deflated. "Oh."

"You could at least go in and have a look, though. You could go in, assess the situation and Kili and I can get the boats if you clear us a path!"

Bella rolled her eyes, already resigned to the situation. She knew that the other two would try and go in, regardless of whether she agreed to help. At least she could give them a fighting chance.

"I'll go in, do not follow me. I'll look around, see if I can find a clear path, and then I can try and get you in. If not, we are telling your Captain. Deal?"

They nodded vigorously before practically shoving her into the path that the troll had taken. She turned and gave them a glare before approaching a low-hanging branch. Kili gave her a thumbs up. "If it's clear, hoot once like a barn owl. If it's not, hoot twice like a screech owl."

With that, the two retreated back to their cover, leaving Bella to wonder what in the world a screech owl sounded like as she climbed into the tree. Lithely, she swung into the upper branches, following the troll's footsteps from as low as she dared to remain. For a moment, she thought about swinging back around to the beach to warn Oakenshield about this problem, and his nephews, apparently. But she dismissed this almost immediately, still sore about his treatment of her; she could handle this alone. If nothing else, she might be able to advise the others on the trolls' movements and allow them a gap in which to sneak in and take back the boats.

After a few minutes' tracking of the troll, she reached a clearing in the trees. In the centre, a fire was roaring, and around it sat not one, but three trolls. Bother. She observed them from a perch in the branches above one of their heads. They certainly weren't normal trolls, she mused. Normal trolls were much more muscular, and less fond of fire. On top of that, the last rays of evening sun were shining through the trees, and they weren't turning the trolls to stone. That quite gave it away. Their skin was much darker than the guard-trolls Bella had run into before, and from the strains of their conversation, they sounded more intelligent as well. That ruled out them being standard mountain or cave trolls, who could not enter the light.

To the side of their little camp, Bella saw a wooden shelter which appeared to be formed from the remains of a boat. Upon remembering her Godfather's words, she realised that they must have gotten stranded here together in a boat wreck, which meant that they probably couldn't swim. But that didn't necessarily mean that they were the water-fearing race of forest trolls. They obviously intended to use the boats to leave this island, which meant Bella would have to work quickly: she didn't want these beasts escaping this island and ending up somewhere like the Shire. With a sigh, Bella evaluated the trolls' camp. The stolen boats were at the edge, which would help their chances of stealing them back, but with no threat from the sunlight, the trolls could be a problem, no matter the time of day.

With a start, she noticed a flash of silver at the edge of the camp. Kili! He'd followed her path and was giving her an enthusiastic wave from his hiding place next to the boats. He did an exaggerated shushing motion, and crept slightly further around the boat towards the camp. She shook her head at him, heart in mouth. He rolled his eyes, but stopped, leaning against the boat. This caused the second boat, balanced atop the other, to wobble before falling to the ground. Yelping, Kili leapt away from the boats, narrowly avoiding being crushed, but now facing a much greater danger.

He was now standing directly within eyesight of the trolls.

He turned to run, but in one stride, a troll had rounded the fire and lifted him by the arm. "What have we here, lads?"

"What is it Bert? What is it?"

"Can we eat it?"

The troll (Bert) holding Kili shook him a little before looking at his companions and shrugging. "How should I know what it is, Bill? I've never seen one before."

"Oi, what are you? Are there more of you about?" Bill asked, clearly trying to address the root of the problem.

Kili looked defiantly up at them. "I'm a pi-dwarf" He got out, clearly deciding not to let them know he was a pirate half way through.

"A pie dwarf?" The third troll asked, licking his cracked lips. "Does that mean we can eat 'im Bert?"

Bert squinted down at Kili suspiciously. "Don't see why not lads. There's pie in 'is name after all! Tom, get the pot ready."

Tom clapped his massive hands together in joy and went to reach for his cook pot only to be interrupted by a colossal shout. The three trolls looked around stupidly before the rest of the dwarves came pouring out of the surrounding forest accompanied by the sound of mangled battle cries in Khuzdul. They immediately swarmed Bill, who retaliated by swatting at them like flies.

Meanwhile, Fili was facing Bert down, sword at the ready. "Drop him!"

With a nasty smile, Bert did exactly that, almost throwing Kili at his brother. The two tumbled to the ground in a heap of limbs, but were saved from further harassment by Bofur and Bifur rushing in to hack at Bert's ankles. The dwarves were battling away, dodging club-like hands and feet, hacking at shins and ankles wherever possible. Ori of all people had somehow got hold of Dwalin's war hammer and was smacking the trolls in the back of the knees to try and get them down.

Bella was watching on in grim fascination, all the while pawing at the various gems and beads sewn to her clothing, trying to remember which ornaments held which poisons. She was watching the trolls, trying to decide how much of each poison she'd need to hit them with to get them down, when she saw Bert grasp Kili by the leg and lift him high above the ground once more. He wriggled and squirmed, unable to free himself.

"Right!" Bert roared ferociously. "You're going to put your little weapons down now, or 'e gets 'is head crushed!"

Thorin moved forwards until he was in front of his crew, staring helplessly up at his nephew. After a tense second, he threw his sword to the ground, point first, and the others followed suit. In no time at all, the trolls had tied each dwarf up in sacks, and had set up a spit over the roaring fire. Bella watched on in tense silence as some of the dwarves were strapped to the spit. She had to think quickly. The poisons would be easy enough to get into the trolls' systems, but she wasn't sure how long it would be before they took effect in such big creatures. They could have eaten any of them by that point. A distraction was needed. Quietly, she slipped her mask over her face, the wooden surface cool and familiar as she secured it over the top half of her flushed face.

She readied three darts, a different poison in each of them. The first dart contained powdered seeds from the suicide tree, one of the deadliest and most undetectable poisons she knew; it caused the heart muscles to stop working, and was fairly fast acting. The second contained the plant she was named for, belladonna, or deadly nightshade. This was slower, but she felt it was more likely to work on such large creatures. The only downside was the number of side affects; the other trolls may notice and begin to panic. The third was pennyroyal: slightly faster to act than the belladonna, it caused organ failure when given in a concentrated dose. If she wanted to do this without arousing suspicion, she would have to use the belladonna, then the pennyroyal and the suicide tree's berries last.

As the trolls settled around the spit, preparing for their meal, Bella crept down from the trees and into the camp. In the dark, her shirt would have stood out, so she covered it as best as she could in mud. She looked at the captured dwarves as she passed, and they stared at her in surprise. Their grumbling began to stop as they spotted her, and it was Thorin's quick thinking that saved her from the trolls turning around to investigate; he kicked Gloin hard and started shouting about killing the trolls. The others caught on fairly quickly and carried on screaming the odd threat of violence at their captors. Bella spared them a quick smile and moved to continue past.

"Oi, are you going to let us out or what?" Gloin hissed impatiently as she drew near. She shot him a withering look before ignoring him and moving closer to the hulking figures gathered around the fire.

Reaching the first troll, she crouched silently behind his back and looked for the weakest patch of skin that she could find. The only place that she thought might work was behind the ear. The other sensitive areas, like the palms of hands or undersides of feet were too risky, and at least the soft skin at the back of their ears would mean the poison would reach their hearts and internal organs faster. With a deep breath, Bella took out the wicked dart containing her namesake. Inserting it into a tiny blow-gun, she took aim. In a second, she blew it at the back of Bert's ear, and barely took the time to watch it hit home deep into his skin before darting behind the cover of the nearest dwarf. Bert half stood, with a grunt of pain, looking around him before settling back down, muttering about 'dratted flies'.

Bella heaved a sigh of relief, and gave Thorin a tense smile from her position next to him. He frowned at her, which she supposed would be the only thing approaching approval that she got from him. She rolled back to her feet and picked her way back through the dwarves until she found herself behind Bill. Without waiting, she loaded the pennyroyal dart and shot it at him before darting away, this time hiding behind the boats. He grumbled for a second, wafting at his face, but didn't turn.

With a sigh of relief, Bella considered her next move. The next troll was harder to reach, and had no cover directly behind him, making him much harder to sneak up on. After a second's indecision, she melted back into the tree line in order to position herself directly behind him. She crept out from her cover, praying that the trolls only had eyes for their next meal. In a few tense seconds, she was as close to Tom as she dared, just out of sight of the others. She took out the blow-gun and quickly fired off the suicide berries before running full tilt into the forest and launching herself up a tree. It was lucky she had, too. Tom turned just in time to see the bushes move, and stood up with a snarl. "Who's there?"

The other two stood as well, and Bella set her plan into action. "Did you know that your 'pie-dwarves' are poisonous?" She chimed in a sing-song tone.

Bill looked around in confusion. "What?"

Bella laughed in the same childlike tone. "Oh yes! They're horribly bad for you, you know. Even strong trolls like yourselves should probably avoid risking it!"

Bert tilted his head in consideration. "Is that right? How do we know you're not just here to save 'em?"

Bella's internal timer was ticking down; best to keep them talking a little longer. "Well I suppose you wouldn't want to trust me, would you Bert? I think you should though."

"How do you know 'is name?"

Bella chuckled again, moving to the next tree so that her voice couldn't give away her location. "I know a lot of things, Bill. Like the fact that your boat crashed here, leaving you all stranded. You can't swim, can you?"

Tom looked around himself fearfully, whilst Bert squinted suspiciously at the trees. "You just saw the boat wreck."

"Even if I did, Bert, I also know that your friend Tom over there is about to die." She said, a cruel note entering her voice.

As Bella's internal clock ticked down, Tom started to clutch at his chest; good, it was working. Just before the countdown inside her head reached five seconds to go, Tom sank down to his knees, wheezing for breath. Bella scrambled down the tree, materialising before him as his eyes began to bulge out of his head. The moonlight shone off of the black lacquered surface of her mask. The green and red vines running over it stood out from the surface of the wood, and twisted the shadows on her face, making her look monstrous. She looked up at the other two trolls as Tom's upper body hit the floor inches from her feet. The others, dwarves and trolls alike watched her in horrified silence as she smiled at them. "Even touching dwarves can be fatal. You see, any dwarf in my protection has a nasty effect on anyone who wants to hurt them."

Bert let out a roar and made as if to move towards Bella. She shook her finger at him. "I wouldn't be concentrating on me, if I were you. I'd be looking at my other companion. He's going to die next." She sang at him before leaping onto the dead troll and pointing directly at Bill.

Terrified, Bill looked at Bert for help, unsure of what to do. Bert looked again at Bella. "Save him!"

Bill clutched at his stomach with a groan and sank slowly to his knees. He began to retch, doubled over, and Bella's eyes never left Bert's. "No. I don't think I will." She smiled.

Bert rushed over to his surviving companion as he began to sway, looking confused. "I don't feel right, Bert." He managed, before falling into Bert's arms, dead as a door nail.

Bert lowered his brother gently to the floor and looked up at Bella. "You'll die for this." He growled.

Bella shook her head, still wearing the malicious grin. "You'll die for hurting them."

She could see the second that the Belladonna had begun to work, as the remaining troll's pupils dilated suddenly, followed by him blinking rapidly and wincing at the light coming from the fire. He tried to speak without much success, and suddenly shied away from the body at his side, shaking his head at something that no-one else could see. He turned to flee from the camp, managing only a few staggering steps before falling to the floor and convulsing violently. Bella watched him dispassionately until the twitching had stopped then turned to where the dwarves still laid trapped. She was greeted by several pairs of wide eyes blinking at her.

With a breath of relief, she reached up and removed the mask from her face before making her way to those trapped above the fire. "Are you going to sit there not helping all day, Gandalf, or are you going to make yourself useful?"

With a rustle of bushes, Gandalf stepped out from behind a rock and put out the fire still crackling below the dwarves with a nearby pot of water. "I would have, had your methods been unsuccessful. It is still a pleasure to watch you work, my girl. Marvellously done, as always."

Bella huffed and began to untie the dwarves, who were still silently rotating in front of her. Within a few minutes, they were free of the spit and trying to recover, whilst Bella and Gandalf began untying the dwarves on the ground. Upon release, Fili threw himself at his brother with what sounded suspiciously like a sob. Finally, they were all free and reunited with each other which Bella took as an opportunity to sink to the ground, exhaustion taking over her.

After a second of being left alone, Thorin loomed over her. "What were you doing? You could have gotten my men killed!"

Shocked to her core, Bella simply looked up at him, unable to form a response.

"You sat there in those trees, watching us fight, yet you waited until we were captured to act? You only helped us because you had no other option, halfling."

Finally recovering, Bella stood and poked Thorin in the chest. "How dare you? I couldn't try to hit them whilst you were all fighting, I could have hit one of you! With the doses I just used, even my antidotes wouldn't have worked! Would you rather I had killed your precious nephews by accident?"

With a black look, Thorin pushed her away. "Poison." He spat. "The woman's weapon, yes; there is no honour in killing your enemies without giving them a chance to fight."

"What? You would rather I had tried to fight them alone? Then what, loose like you did?"

"How can I trust that you won't poison our food the first chance you get and make off with our belongings like the thief that you are?"

"I signed your contract, that's how." Bella raged.

Their argument was interrupted by a shout from Bofur. "Look what we've found here lads!"

Without another word, Thorin spun on his heel and marched away. Bella stared daggers into his back, seriously considering slipping something nasty (but not deadly) into Thorin's food. The nerve of that pig-headed dwarf! Some thanks she got for saving their pathetic lives. She cursed him mentally with the worst words she knew, and flopped back onto the ground, arms crossed. She sat fuming for several minutes, ignoring everyone else until Thorin emerged from the trolls' stockpile underneath the wrecked boat. After a few tense words with Balin, he made his way over to his nephews.

Bella didn't know what she was expecting from the captain, but another tirade somehow wasn't it. She'd thought that he would at least show some concern for his nephews, but no, he seemed content to solve all of his problems by shouting them away, she thought with an angry sigh. Fili and Kili shrank back a little, wilting like un-watered flowers, the hopeful smiles they'd directed at their Uncle dying on their faces. Bella felt immensely sorry for them; though they weren't much younger than her, they reminded her of her young cousins. Once Thorin finished his rant and moved away, Bella rose and walked over to them.

"Your leg is hurt." She said without preamble.

Kili looked up with a wince and nodded sharply. Bella tutted and motioned for him to sit down. She reached into her pack and removed her ointment, before pushing up his trouser leg to survey the damage. The skin around his ankle was already turning purple with bruising and Bella whistled through her teeth at the sight of it. There was a rustle at her side, and she turned to find an older dwarf settling next to her and holding an ear trumpet up to his ear. "I'm Oin. The medic. What's happened?"

Unperturbed, Bella offered the doctor a tight smile. "Bad bruising, he wouldn't have told you about it himself. It looks like he's avoided a sprain, but I'm not certain."

Oin nodded approvingly at her diagnosis. "Well done, lass. What have you got there?"

"It's an ointment my mother taught me to make, it reduces swelling and has a slight numbing effect. It helps bruises go more quickly."

"Brilliant, lass. We don't have anything that does all of that at once, I would have had to treat each thing separately. Would you mind sharing your recipe?"

Bella smiled at the elderly dwarf. "Of course. I have plenty in this tin, though I'd be happy for you to have it, seeing as you're the trained doctor here."

Oin took it with thanks, and applied a thin layer onto Kili's ankle. He and Bella rose together and turned to walk in the same direction. She surveyed him out of the corner of her eye. Gloin approached to speak to his brother, only to be met with confusion. "What? I can't hear you, you need to speak up!" Oin near-shouted. Bella smiled slightly as Gloin threw his hands up in despair and stormed away.

"You can hear perfectly well, can't you?" She asked quietly. Oin's eyebrows flew upwards as he turned to look at her. After a second's pause he winked and put a finger to his lips before turning to go and bother Dwalin about the potential burns to his face.

Chuckling, Bella made her way over to Gandalf, who was surveying the group with pipe in mouth. "I found this. It's about your size, you should take it." He said quietly. He held out a small sword that was perfectly sized for Bella.

Bella gasped in awe at it. "It's beautiful Gandalf... But are you sure? I've only ever used daggers, I don't know what I'm doing with a real blade."

"Take it. I'll feel better knowing you have something this well made. Besides, this is elvish steel. It glows blue in the presence of orcs and goblins, so even if you won't use it, it can be an early warning system."

Bella took the sword, marvelling at how light it felt. She opened her mouth to thank him, but was cut off by the sound of rustling in the bushes. Without a word, the dwarves formed a defensive circle in their part of the clearing, and Gandalf drew his new sword, putting a protective arm in front of Bella. Seconds later, a man dressed all in brown rags burst through the undergrowth. The company sized him up for a second before Gandalf cried out a greeting.

"Radagast the Brown!"

"Gandalf!"

Gandalf frowned at the other, more bedraggled pirate lord. "What brings you here, old friend? You've not left the Brown Graveyard in years!"

"Oh, of course! There's trouble brewing, Gandalf, and it's bad."

With that, Radagast drew Gandalf into heated discussion, leaving the others to return to what they were doing before. Something felt wrong to Bella, however. She couldn't quite place what it was, but she couldn't seem to take her hand off of the sword she'd just been given. She was right to be on guard, for a moment later, she heard rustling in the bushes behind Dwalin. Without conscious thought she sent a dagger flying to embed in the forehead of the monstrous creature that had leapt out. Dwalin moved, looking first at Bella, then the creature lying dead before shouting a warning, and catching a second creature that had been seconds away from landing on Bifur.

"Warg scouts! We need to get back to the ship. Now!" Gandalf shouted.

"If i can get to my ship, I can draw them away!" Radagast chimed in as they started to run to the shore.

"Don't be a fool, they're in clippers, they'll catch you!"

"They've never tried to catch my Rhoscobell before! I've never been caught before, and I won't begin now!" Radagast shouted, crashing back the way he'd come.

Dwalin and Gloin heaved one of the nearly forgotten boats between them as howls sounded from the forest behind them.

In mere moments, they were at the shoreline, pushing the boats into the water and jumping in. In their haste, they'd left one boat behind, leaving Bella and Bombur without transportation. Without a second thought, Bella ran into the water, swimming as fast as she could after the boats. Bombur, she was surprised to find, was matching her stroke for stroke. As they caught up to the closest boat, Bella chanced a look over her shoulder. She wished she hadn't. The wargs, some with riders, were plunging into the waves after them alarmingly quickly. As soon as she was within reach of the boat, she reached an arm up and grasped the edge of the hull, allowing the boat to pull her along. The others were shouting their encouragement at Bombur now that Bella was safe, but he didn't need it. He was, impossibly, speeding up. His arms were a blur, and though it shouldn't have been possible, he soon outpaced the boat that Bella was clinging to, and the one after that. In fact, he soon outpaced the fastest boat, which the incredibly strong Dori was rowing.

In a few tense minutes, they were boarding the ship and Dori was heaving up the anchor so that they could set off. The others were rushing about at top speed, leaving Bombur and Bella to sink to the deck, panting. "Impressive." She got out, nudging him.

"Dwarves are naturals at long distance swimming." Bombur murmured, deadpan.

The two collapsed into relieved giggles for a moment before the reality of their situation set in, leaving them to scramble to their feet. Bombur rushed to where two of the others were struggling to pull a sail into place, whilst Bella, feeling useless, decided to climb to the top of the mast and keep an eye on the situation. Upon reaching the top, she looked at the scene taking place outside the bay.

A tiny ship was almost flying across the water, with three clippers bearing orc sigils doing their level best to keep up. Radagast was leading them away from the Blue Mountain, leaving them room to escape into the open ocean. Though how much time he'd be able to grant them, Bella didn't know.

Chapter Text

Soon, they were back into open water, speeding as fast as the wind could carry them away from where they'd seen the orc vessels.

Gandalf had momentarily taken over the navigation, having inhabited these waters much more frequently than the dwarves. He swung the ship around some rocks that stuck just above the waves, and continued to sail to some unknown destination. Still in the rigging, Bella watched Radagast's ship fade into the distance as the orc clippers finally gave up the chase. She gulped as the faster ships began to turn in their direction. They had a good lead, thanks to Radagast, but the question was: would it be enough?

"They're going to come for us now!" Bella shouted down to the crew, unsure as to whether they could hear her at all.

Rocks were beginning to rise up in front of them, standing tall and wide out of the water. Gandalf manoeuvred them through gaps that lesser pirates would shy away from, knowing exactly where he was going. With a few more moves, they were in a maze of rock spires that hid them partially from view. The ship slowed now that it was out of the wind, and they drifted near-silently, the only sound the creaking of the wooden hull. The dwarves barely dared to move, looking around uncomfortably. Soon, the sound of another creaking ship came into earshot. Thorin signalled to Kili, who took a deep breath and drew a bow.

After a second's pause, he leapt into the rigging and climbed up until he had a view of the rival ship. He fired off three arrows before the orcs had noticed him, killing all of his targets, but couldn't prevent one of the remaining three from letting off a warning noise with a horn before they too were dead.

Trapped, Thorin rounded on Gandalf. "What is this, Grey? We're trapped like fish in a barrel here! I thought you had a plan."

"I do, you impatient nuisance!" Gandalf snapped back.

A second ship soon drifted into view and, unable to hide, the company drew their weapons and prepared to fight. Before it could come to that, arrows rained from above, hitting each orc target precisely. They looked up in wonder and relief, but there was no trace of their saviours to be found. Gandalf quickly steered them through the rest of the maze until they emerged into a place which Bella could only describe as her idea of paradise.

The maze ended in a cove sheltered on all sides by great walls of natural rock. There was an elegantly designed port just to the left of where boats entered, which led seamlessly around and down to the beautiful stretch of white sand beach. Behind the beach, short cliffs rose up to form a large, circular plain which held what could only be described as a castle. A further shelf of rock rose up behind this, which held houses and groves of trees. Above all of this, from the very top of the rock spires that formed this haven, a lake must have formed, causing tiny waterfalls to flow straight down into the ocean and into small fountains dotted around the island designed for catching the water and distributing it to where it was needed. Scrambling down from the crow's nest, Bella rushed to the furthest edge of the prow with an audible gasp of pleasure and strained to take it all in.

From behind her, she heard Thorin give a snort of derision. "Elves. You brought us here on purpose."

"Where else could we have gone?" Gandalf asked, exasperated.

Thorin harrumphed, beaten.

They docked without trouble and disembarked warily, jumping to form a defensive circle when they spotted a line of elves waiting for them. For a second, Bella was at the front of their little group, before Bofur's arm shot out and dragged her into the centre for safety. Unable to decide whether she should be flattered or offended at the action, she remained put, shoulder to shoulder with Ori and Kili. Gandalf strode out to speak with the central elf, who was obviously the person in charge if the circlet that he wore was any indication. After a brief conversation in elvish that Bella followed with little difficulty, the pair turned to survey the company.

"Are you insulting us, you pointy eared-" Gloin burst out, only to be interrupted by Bella.

"He's offering us food and shelter, Master Gloin."

"Oh. Well in that case, lead on." He muttered, ashamed.

The elf looked delighted. "Apologies, Madam Hobbit, I was unaware that you could speak our tongue. My name is Elrond, lord of this place, and I bid you all welcome!"

He stepped forward and offered Bella a polite bow, which she returned with a delighted curtsy. Despite poisonous looks from the dwarves, she stepped forward in order to speak with Lord Elrond, and they walked further into the Last Homely House.

In short order, they were shown to the guest wing, where they had their pick of rooms, though the dwarves kicked up a great deal of fuss when Bella was invited to use a room in Elrond's personal wing. Bella, sensing more trouble, politely declined, but chose the room closest to the entrance to the rest of the castle. The victorious looks that the dwarves shot at the elves escorting them were worth it, especially when it made them look like particularly proud kittens as they preened at her and puffed up in happiness.

Bella finally managed to escape to her room after assuring the others that the elves were very unlikely to try and kidnap her when the dwarves were right there. Even so, she could hear Dwalin and Gloin arguing with Thorin about why it was perfectly reasonable to post a guard outside her room. With a laugh, she settled herself at the dressing table provided and took the opportunity to look into the mirror. She gasped at the sight of herself, utterly disgusted with her appearance. It had only been three days, yet she looked like she might as well be homeless! Her hair was a tangled snarl of knots, beginning to drop from the pins she'd used to secure it - probably due to all of her tree climbing the night previous. On top of that, it was dreadfully greasy, and she made a mental note to ask someone to show her how to work the water system in order to draw a bath in the adjoining bathing room as soon as possible. Her shirt looked filthy beyond saving; although her dive into the ocean had taken much of the mud off of it, it was still a murky brown colour. Her poor feet were in such a dreadful state, with their normally beautiful hair looking waterlogged and tangled, and she winced at the sight of it.

Opening her door to go and find someone to help her bathe, she leapt back as a confused Fili dropped through her door. He rubbed his head and stood sheepishly, glaring at the floor. The others minus Thorin were gathered together outside on the balcony doing something that Bella didn't want to ask about to an ornate wooden chair.

Bella crossed her arms. "Is there any particular reason that you're camping outside my room?" She wondered loudly. "Or are there simply not enough rooms for you all?"

"We didn't want the elves sneaking in." Fili grumbled stubbornly.

"Oh, of course, the elves. How could I forget? They're renowned for their kidnapping attempts in the Shire you know!" She snapped sarcastically.

The others had turned gleefully in order to witness the telling off, and Bella seized the opportunity to turn her disappointment onto them next. "As for the rest of you, you'd better listen to this as well! I do not need protecting from these elves! I can decide whether or not to trust them for myself, and do not require a guard to be posted outside my door. In fact, I was just heading out to find an elf to help me, so you're going to have to let one in, whether you like it or not!"

"You don't need some elf! We can help you with whatever you need." Bofur insisted earnestly.

"Oh really? So you're going to help me to untangle my hair, are you?"

Bofur went completely pink, and Bella decided to press her advantage while Fili stumbled back away from her. "If I don't need an elf, I suppose you'll be drawing my bath then, Fili? Kili, of course you'll have to help me undress, and Dwalin you must help me bathe. Whilst we're at it, I'll need one of you to help me dress again, Nori, you'll be a dear and do that, won't you? Let's not get me started on actually dressing my hair, shall we? I might need two of you to help with that..."

The dwarves had retreated as far as they could go from her, and Dori had his hands clamped over poor Ori's ears, though his red face suggested that he'd heard anyway. Bella snorted at them derisively, nodded proudly then left to search for a real helper. She heard frantic whispering break out behind her as she walked away, and the sound of a slap as someone who sounded suspiciously like Nori suggested that 'they get on with helping her, then'. She found an elvish woman hovering around not too far away, and asked if she could point her in the direction of someone who could help. Delighted by Bella's delicate form and musical voice, the elf wasted no time in gathering a small army of companions who gladly rushed Bella back to her room. As they reentered, Bella glanced at the dwarves who were still red for the most part, and trying desperately to appear as though they weren't watching her intently.

The elves got to work in no time, helping Bella with her every need, despite her protests. Bella chatted away with all of them, having the time of her life, and was delighted when one of the elves, named Aelinor, agreed to help her to do something with her unruly hair. Another, Gaylia, insisted on helping her to wash the grime from her body before someone else helped her to apply some silvery powder to the angles of her face to create an ethereal effect. The remaining two, whose names she could never hope to pronounce, helped her to put on her best dress, which had somehow survived the trip in her battered old trunk. After what felt like hours, the elves were finished, and bid her goodbye as they flitted out the door.

Bella took a second to look at herself in the mirror.

Her hair was half pinned back into a twist on the back of her head, the remainder falling in its natural loose curls to settle at the small of her back, alternating between shades of copper and gold in the shifting candlelight. Her face had a faint glow to it, thanks to the strange powder, and her eyes looked brighter than their normal hazel colour thanks to the pink flush to her skin from bathing.

The dress was the real star of the show. It was the most formal gown that she owned, made from silk dyed deep blue. It had a plunging neckline, and leaves embroidered all over the bodice in shining golden thread, with long, flowing sleeves that fell to her wrists. The hem just barely brushed the floor as she moved, and tiny black gems sparkled as they caught the light. It was simple compared to some of the puffy, layered dresses that ladies in the towns of men owned, and had far less decoration than anything that dwarves or hobbits might usually wear, but she loved it with all her heart.

A knock came on the door. "Lord Elrond has thrown a feast in honour of his guests, my girl. It's just about to start, but I know you like to make an entrance." Gandalf's voice filtered through the door, the smile in his voice practically visible.

Bella threw the door open and smiled up at her Godfather. "You know me too well, old man." She joked as they set off towards the dining room.

As they approached the tall double doors, two guards opened them, revealing two long tables overlooking the cove, which sparkled. Everyone turned as the pair entered, and Bella inclined her head with a smile.

"Apologies for my late arrival, gentlemen. My Godfather and I simply got caught up in the architecture of this place." She smiled serenely at the audience, then turned to regard Elrond. "Your home is truly beautiful, my Lord. It does live up to its name."

Elrond dipped his head in thanks, and gestured to the tables. "Many thanks, my Lady. You are not late at all, please, make yourself comfortable."

Gandalf broke away from Bella's side to go and sit at Elrond's, in pride of place. Bella turned to survey the table of dwarves gaping at her, and went to sit in between Balin and Oin, the two least likely to get food on her. "Good evening, my Lords." Bella greeted politely, as Balin rushed to pull a chair out for her.

"Good evening, Lady." Balin responded, a twinkle in his eye. "May I be the first to compliment your beautiful appearance?"

The others fell over themselves to greet her and offer her compliments once Balin had subtly reminded them of their manners, and Bella accepted it all with grace. With some signal from Elrond, servants descended with dishes filled with food, though to the dwarves' displeasure, it was mainly salad. Bella recognised her server as Aelinor, and thanked her by name as she tucked in happily. Prompted by Bella's behaviour, the others muttered reluctant thanks and hesitantly began to eat, apart from Bifur, who seemed as delighted as Bella by the selection of greens placed before him.

This was the first time that Bella had seen them all eat so delicately. In fact, it was also the slowest she'd ever seen them eat, and for once managed to finish before all of them. She chuckled as she heard Dori cajoling Ori into trying the food, and decided to help them out somewhat.

"Lord Elrond? I presume that the meat course is almost ready? I don't mean to be rude, but I'm rather hungry after the journey!"

With a knowing smile, Elrond nodded. "Apologies my Lady, we'll serve a meat course right away."

With that, the servers reappeared with steaming plates filled with varying delicacies, and the dwarves let our a ragged cheer. To this course, they dug in with gusto, and Bella congratulated herself for not sitting between Bofur and Kili, who had managed to get food in their hair in their excitement. Listening in to the conversation going on at the next table, Bella's thoughts drifted to her new sword.

"Balin, how do swords get named?"

"They are named for the great deeds they perform in battle lass, but I wouldn't get my hopes up. Yours doesn't appear to have seen battle. In fact, I'd wager that it's more of a letter opener to these folk." He replied gently.

Bella deflated slightly, before remembering that this meant she might be able to name the sword herself in time and perking up. Soon, desert was served, and singers began to perform, entrancing Bella so thoroughly that she found herself leaning forward dreamily in order to listen. Noticing this, Bofur leapt onto the table and began to sing over the top of the poor elf, some crude shanty that set many of the serving elves to blushing furiously, and made the dwarves laugh uproariously. They cheered even louder when Bella leapt up as well and finished the song for Bofur, curses and all. Bofur danced her in a circle as they finished the song and they sat back down, laughing.

Soon after, they were ushered out of the hall and back to their wing, where the reason for the destroyed chair soon became clear. The dwarves began fooling around as they cooked a string of sausages which amused Bella no end, and she sat with them to enjoy their merry company.

A larger figure soon settled down beside her, and she looked up to find Dori at her side. "I believe we haven't met too formally, Miss Baggins. My name is Dori, which I'm sure you knew, but I felt it was rude to presume, you know?"

"It's a pleasure to meet you properly, Master Dori. I believe I overheard one of the others refer to you as the tailor?"

Dori sniffed primly. "Well yes. That is my occupation, and in fact I came to ask you about the fabric of that wonderful dress you're wearing. Is it normal silk?"

With that, the pair fell into a heated debate about the pros and cons of Shire silk versus dwarven silk, which were very different fabrics, thank you very much! The night passed fairly quickly after that, with Bella and Dori being pleasantly surprised by how much they had in common, including their love of tea.

Some time before midnight, Bella finally retired to her room, utterly exhausted. She got ready for bed with little difficulty, and fell into a deep sleep the second that her head hit the pillow.

Elsewhere in the castle, Thorin was having a discussion with Dwalin about the burglar.

"What do I do about her?" Thorin asked.

"I don't know what you mean. You don't need to do anything about her. Like you keep telling Balin, she's not your responsibility." Dwalin snickered.

"I'm so glad that you find my problems so funny."

Dwalin sighed as Thorin crossed his arms with a glare. "Why do you suddenly care so much? Before we got here, you didn't care whether she lived or died. Captain."

"Well. I am the Captain, I need to look out for all of my men. Ahem, crew. She signed the contract as you and your wretched brother keep pointing out. It is simply my duty to make sure that she doesn't die." Thorin muttered, trying, and failing, to look noble.

Dwalin looked at his cousin in silence for a few seconds before guffawing loudly. "You fancy her!"

"How dare you? I don't know where you pull these ideas from. This is-"

"You saw her all trussed up in a pretty dress tonight, and you realised that she was a woman, and now you fancy her and don't know what to do about it!"

"I do not!" Thorin whined, looking remarkably like his nephews did when they were dwarflings and couldn't have their way.

Dwalin just laughed at him, and Thorin blushed red. "I knew she was a woman before tonight."

"Yes, you knew, but you didn't realise what that meant until she put a dress on."

"I 'realised' from the moment that I laid eyes on her, if you must know!"

Dwalin just laughed harder. "So you got to her house, saw her, got jealous of some imaginary husband and cocked it up before you even had a chance!"

"I don't need distractions like this. I know what we're travelling for, Dwalin. She hasn't made you forget that, has she?"

"There's no need to get jealous of me. She plays games like that, it doesn't mean anything."

"Bofur says otherwise." Thorin snarled before thinking about Dwalin's words. "I'm not jealous!"

"Mahal, Thorin Oakenshield, jealous over a woman! You normally know better than to listen to Bofur's gossip, as well. Though, for a minute, I thought I had her..."

Dwalin leapt out of the way as Thorin tried to smack him, smiling madly. Thorin made to gave chase, but stopped as a throat was cleared from the doorway. Balin looked at them with the full might of his disapproval, causing them to stop in their tracks. "Are we quite alright in here, gentlemen?"

Thorin sat down abruptly, shuffling through some papers. Dwalin leaned against the wall, unable to remove the smile from his face. "We're all good, brother. I was just giving our esteemed Captain some grief about his little crush."

"There is no crush!" Thorin roared, throwing a large paperweight at Dwalin's head. Balin put a hand to his temples, massaging them lightly.

"Ach, brother, stop winding him up. Or should I mention how you've been giving a certain someone in the Company the eye since before we set off?"

Dwalin sobered immediately. "I don't know what you mean. In fact, I think that someone's shouting me, so I'd better be off. Goodnight."

With that, he stumbled out of the room, nearly taking the door off its hinges in the process. Balin internally congratulated himself, before turning to the reason for his white hair. Thorin was looking between Balin and the door in wonder.

"He likes someone in the Company?" Thorin wondered aloud.

"Now now, there's no need to pry into his business. I just wanted to get rid of him. Now, about this Hobbit."

Thorin soured immediately. "What about her?"

"I'm not going to push you into anything, or make fun of you. I simply think that you should try to be nicer to her. Perhaps you'll find that she warms up to you, then."

With that, Balin turned to wander out of the room, ignoring Thorin's halfhearted protests and following the footsteps of his younger brother. Before long, he found himself back in the corridor belonging to the Company. He looked around for a moment, before sighing at the life choices that had led him here and going to bed.

The next morning dawned in no time, and Bella awoke to the chirping of birds as the morning sun slid across her face. With a stretch, she rose and went to draw herself a bath, foregoing the help of elves gladly. She could take care of herself, thank you kindly! As soon as she had washed she stood, wrapping a towel around herself before settling at the dressing table and picking up a brush in order to tackle her hair. She was just finishing this task when a knock came at the door.

"What is it?" She called airily, turning to listen for an answer.

Instead of an answer, however, the door began to open and Bofur's voice filtered through. "Mornin' lass, I just came to ask if ya wanted-"

He cut himself off as he saw her. "Sorry! Sorry, I didn't realise, I thought y'meant I could come in and-"

"It's alright, just an accident. What did you want, Master Bofur?"

Bella leaned back slightly to peer at him, mindful of the fact that she was only in a towel. She arched a brow at him causing him to gulp and step back, hitting the door with his back in the process. It turned out that all it took for Bofur to turn into a mess of hormones was for someone to show a bit of skin. Interesting.

"I- I just came t'ask if ya required an escort to breakfast. That, ahem, that was all. Only this place is a maze, and I was worried yeh'd get lost, which we don't want happening."

Bella regarded him for a second longer before replying. "That would be lovely, thank you. If you could just wait for a moment?"

"Aye, lass, of course." Bofur blushed.

Bella stood from her seat, retreating into the bathroom with a quickly gathered armful of clothes. In no particular rush, she dressed carefully, simply donning some cropped trousers and a white shirt, similar to her usual style of outfit. Once finished, she returned to Bofur and took his arm. "Shall we?"

With a nod, they were off, reaching the dining hall in short order. The others had already begun, though Gandalf and Elrond were nowhere to be seen. Bofur dropped Bella's arm like a hot coal in his rush to get to the food, leaving Bella to find herself a place alone. With an eye-roll, she managed to insert herself between Dwalin and Nori thanks to a couple of well placed elbows. With a grunt, Dwalin moved out of her way, wincing, and Nori huffed, doing the same. Bella cleared her throat a few times, until the frantic stuffing of faces slowed to a stop. Taking advantage of the pause, Bella quickly filled a plate before looking up.

"Please, begin." She smiled sarcastically, doing just that herself. After a few sullen looks, the others continued, and silence reigned until they were finished clearing their plates.

Eventually, chatter began again, leaving Bella to settle back and listen in. She had to hide a smile as Bofur gave the others a rendition of his walking in on her that morning in Khuzdul, pretending to look confused as the others laughed. A cleared throat from the doorway has them starting in surprise. An elf, looking remarkably put upon, was peering at them suspiciously.

"Good morning. I am Lindir, Lord Elrond's master of affairs. He sent me for Lady Baggins."

The dwarves drew around Bella protectively, causing the elf to raise an eyebrow. Shrugging, Bella stepped forward, through the circle of muscle. "How may I help you?"

"Your Godfather had mentioned to Lord Elrond that you had a fondness for plants, yes? Lord Elrond would like to invite you to look at our extensive gardens, if it please you."

Bella smiled in delight. "You could call it that, yes. Might I take the chance to stock up on some... medicinal plants whilst I'm here? I doubt I'll get another chance for a while."

Lindir bowed his head. "Of course. Follow me, Lady."

With that, Bella left the dwarves behind, practically skipping alongside the graceful elf. The sound of whispered argument broke out upon their retreat, until a shove could be heard. Hurried footsteps soon caught up to them, and a panting Oin joined them. "I might take a look m'self, if that's okay." He muttered. "I need some herbs for my medical stock."

After taking several winding paths, the trio arrived at the gardens, and Bella had to stop to take it all in, clutching her hands to her chest. It was truly glorious. There were rows upon rows of the most beautiful plants sitting either side of winding grass paths, forming spiralling patterns that drew the eye and spun the mind in circles. To top it all off, a great deal of them were in some way poisonous. From various species of lily to palm species such as the pinyang, it was a poisoner's heaven. There were some plants beneficial to the health, of course, but Bella had only a slight twinge of interest for them. Lindir, seeing Bella's wistful expression, gave a small bow before departing. Now practically alone, Bella rubbed some ointment over her hands to prevent accidentally poisoning herself before diving in. She plucked leaf after leaf, placing them in a basket she'd snagged from the entrance, even going so far as to dig up plants to take cuttings of their roots. Oin watched on in fascination as Bella rushed this way and that, poking and prodding at everything. After a few minutes Bella seemed to recall Oin's presence, suddenly slowing to a stop and spinning to face him over an angel's trumpet shrub. She plucked one last flower before approaching him.

"Sorry, did you want me to point you in the direction of some of the medicinal plants?" She asked.

"No, you're alright lass. You could tell me about some of the plants you're gathering, though. I'd like to know more about the symptoms and treatments for poisons."

For the next few hours, Bella taught Oin as much as she could about her plants. They chatted amicably as time flew by, finding much common ground in their passion for the workings of plants on bodies - though their expertise should have had little overlap between Bella's interest in ending lives and Oin's interest in saving them.

The light was beginning to fade before anyone interrupted them, though instead of a well-meaning elf, or disgruntled Dwalin, it was Bifur who emerged from behind the bushes. Bella didn't miss the way Oin's eyes lit up at the sight of the other dwarf, or the way that Bifur's eyes found Oin before anything else. With the excuse of finding a pool of water to wash the plant residue off her hands, she left the two alone. That done, she returned to find Oin animatedly gesturing towards a thriving tangle of yellow oleander, with Bifur smiling on indulgently. Bella had a sneaking suspicion that Bifur's smile was more for Oin, not for what he was speaking about.

"It's a rough one." Bella noted, indicating the plant. Oin nodded vigorously, eyes shining with intrigue. Bifur's eyes never left Oin's face, his eyes crinkling at the corners in fondness. "It's commonly used in food poisonings. They're toxic, which is slower, but they do have an effect on the heart, which can be beneficial or deadly depending on your dose. Takes a professional touch to get it right, whether you're killing or healing with it. Luckily, I can do either. Remind me to teach you, if we ever get the time."

Bella shot another sideways glance at the two dwarves, who were barely saying a thing, content to sit together in companionable silence.

Bella cleared her throat, unable to contain her suspicions any longer. "So how long have you been together?"

Oin started and gulped, whilst Bifur turned a light shade of pink.

" How did you know?" Bifur signed with a tilt of his head.

" I have eyes, my friend." Bella threw out with a laugh.

"We met after Bifur's axe-wound happened." Oin said with a sigh. "I was the senior medic onsite, and when I realised how bad it was, I took it personally. I decided that he wasn't going anywhere until I'd fixed him the best I could, and now here we are.

Bifur smiled fondly. " We've been courting for about six months. Though we don't tend to advertise it, if you don't mind."

"Your secret is safe with me, gentlemen." Bella promised solemnly with a soft smile.

With that, the unlikely trio finally meandered out of the gardens, pausing now and then to take in the heady perfume of the lilies and the smell of the freshly cut grass as the last remaining evening birds sang their defiance to the setting sun with sweet little trills. Bella felt a strange sense of loss as she took one last look at the gardens, perhaps realising that she might not feel such contentment again for a long while. Before she could sink too deeply into such maudlin thoughts, Bifur nudged her to point out the sight of Dwalin and Nori approaching, bickering viciously. From her spot in between the two older dwarves, looking curiously at the approaching duo, she suddenly realised that the gardens might not be worth getting so upset about when she had such comforting company to look forward to.

Noticing the observers, Nori straightened up with a charming smile before stepping smoothly in front of Dwalin. "I've been sent to find you."

"That would be 'we', rat. Don't take the credit. Besides, Thorin only sent you to follow me because he knew Dori wanted you to be useful for once."

"Don't make such mental leaps, your last few brain cells might leave you if you do. Thorin chose me because he knew you'd get lost, clueless as you are."

"Saved, at last." Bella muttered quietly to the dwarves either side of her.

Bifur signed something rude about the two, while Oin shook his head at them. Bella hooked her arms through the older dwarves' and impatiently pushed through the arguing pair.

"Well, marvellous at your job at finding us as you were, we're tired and want to head back for something to eat. So we'll leave you to it, shall we?" Bella laughed.

Dwalin and Nori shot each other accusing looks before falling into line with the others. "Sorry." The two muttered at the same time, glaring at each other.

After an uneventful return to their wing, the companions split up to go their separate ways, leaving Bella to enact her plan to raid the kitchens. It didn't take her too long to find the place, mercifully. Like all rivers run back to the ocean, all Hobbits can find their way to a kitchen, a fact which Bella was not the exception to. Before long, she was rifling through the cupboards and storage cabinets in search of bread and jam, a favourite snack of hers since being a tiny fauntling. Upon the completion of her masterpiece, Bella savoured the sweet smell of the jam for a moment before chomping down on the soft bread and allowing the taste of ripe strawberries and sugar to flow over her tongue. Bella moaned aloud in joy, eyes fluttering shut, and finished her snack in just a few short bites.

The sound of a deep chuckle broke from her sugar-induced reverie. Her eyes flew open to settle on Thorin's unmistakable figure in the near darkness. He approached, a smirk on his stupid, handsome face. Bella glared fiercely at his intrusion, unable to suppress a blush. He stopped beside her, reaching past the cutting board to snag the pot of jam.

"Enjoying yourself, hobbit?"

Ignoring her affront at simply being named by her species, Bella shrugged up at him, unrepentant. "I enjoy sweet things."

Thorin, defying all of her expectations, actually smiled at her. "We have something in common, I fear."

He dug a spoon into the jam jar, extricating a glob of the stuff, before tipping it onto a slice of bread. Bella found herself smiling back as he returned the jar to her. They continued like this for a moment, eating their snacks with delight.

"Where have you been all day?" He asked after a second of companionable silence.

"The gardens. You might not be interested in such things, Master Oakenshield."

"No, go on, please."

Bella stared in surprised as he urged her to continue. She was suspicious for a second, before the joy in the gardens returned to her at the memory of the place.

"They're brilliant. Yavanna herself would be in bliss at the place, there were tulips and lilies and palms and every type of poisonous shrub that you can find in the tropics! I really must send my personal thanks to Lord Elrond for allowing me to see them."

She added this last part as an afterthought, but the change in the pirate captain was immediate. At her descriptions, his face had been verging on openness, but the mention of the elf-lord had closed him off as effectively as a tea-break closed the Shire's market at lunch time. The smile died on Bella's face.

"Of course, we must pander to our gracious hosts wherever possible. In fact, I'm not sure why you bothered to accept a room in the hall provided to us when you could just as easily shared a bed with him!"

Bella had reached up and slapped him without a second's thought, anger roaring through her brain. Thorin stumbled back a step, more in shock than pain. Their eyes met, and Bella glared at him with as much force as she could muster.

"I don't know why you insist on acting like an arse, Oakenshield, but I don't appreciate it one bit. You think that I would jump into bed with him just like that?"

"Well, seeing as you've already had Dwalin, and Nori seems to follow you with his eyes like a drooling hound, then yes, I do!"

"How dare you?" Bella asked quietly.

She'd been called worse before, of course, but for him to say that when they'd been civil for the first time just moments ago... This one actually hurt. Her eyes filled with angry tears, her hurt taking physical form. Thorin's eyes widened in shock, and something resembling regret, perhaps realising that he'd crossed a line. He reached out to touch Bella's arm, but she had already moved, leaving the room at a pace approaching a run. He stood staring at the spot she'd vacated for a long time. Finally, he shook himself out of it and returned to his own room, desperately trying to ignore the muffled sound of sobbing coming from Bella's.

She was ashamed to have run to her room and cried like a child. But it had hurt. It was bad enough to have these accusations by her own relatives, who had no reason to think those awful things. They took her continued wishes to remain alone as a sign that she just couldn't choose one person. They knew it was a false accusation without a doubt; some of them simply thought it would push her into marrying. But to have this dwarf, who barely knew her, who had hired her for a job, think that? It tore at her. Her work was her pride, and to have an employer think such things stung. It wasn't because she wanted his regard at all. She hoped.

The next morning, she awoke with a start. Something was wrong. It took her less than a second to realise that there was someone in her room, and even less time to palm her knife. Barely making a sound, the intruder made his way to her bedside, not trying particularly hard to remain quiet. She had the knife at his throat before he could register that she'd awoken.

"Bella! Bella please, I'm sorry!" Kili squealed, raising his arms.

She huffed, and dropped the weapon, squinting at him.

"What were you doing?" She hissed in exasperation/

"I was sent to come and wake you, we need to move now!"

"Could you not have knocked?"

"We're trying to be quiet about it! Uncle Thorin says they're going to try and stop us, Gandalf managed to get a message to him before he was whisked off to some meeting."

Bella sighed as her head thumped the pillow beneath her. She gave herself ten seconds longer in bed as Kili hovered above her anxiously. After that, she rose from the bed and began to gather her things. She shoved the majority of her clothing into her trunk haphazardly, resigning herself to having creased clothing for the rest of the journey. Her pack was still mostly full at least. She strode quickly into the bathroom to wash her face and dress, leaving Kili pacing in the bedroom. She was done as quickly as she could, and together they hurried from the room, her trunk lifted between them precariously.

The others were waiting impatiently on the dock, hissing for them to hurry as they approached. Within minutes, they were back aboard the ship, and everyone rushed to and fro, getting things ready for departure. Finally, the ship began to move, but all that Bella could do was stand at the stern and gaze longingly at the haven they had to leave behind