[Part I of II]
The first time she snuck into his sleeping roll it was entirely innocent.
The temperature had dipped very low, and he had spent two hours listening to the poor Hobbit toss and turn, curling into a tight ball and trying to gather warmth. She was drunk with exhaustion, and he had seen by the light of the fire that she picked her head up once or twice, peering around the camp, as though looking for something. Every two hours, the shift changed, but since Bella was the deepest sleeper—and honestly, all of the company save Thorin had grown quite fond of her, and they hated to wake her—they seldom woke her in the night.
By the time it was his turn for the watch, Bella was still awake, and had buried her nose between her knees, her furry feet exposed since her blanket was pulled over her head. He thought little of it, save a quick dismissal that she was unused to traveling, and sat on the log which they had elected the watchpost; Thorin liked keeping watch, the stillness of the night gave him opportunity to think. Especially with the moon overhead, bright and full as it was, and somehow the snores of his companions seemed dimmer this cold evening.
Upon returning to his sleeping roll, he discovered a very comely Hobbit had burrowed down deeply into the warmth, her head on his pillow, fast asleep.
For a moment Thorin had stood there, not sure of himself, debating whether to wake her or leave her lie. And there was no denying his own weariness; Bifur, who was taking watch next, noticed his momentary hesitation and huffed a quiet laugh as he lit his pipe.
Thorin eventually lay down next to her, half-on, half-off his own sleeping pallet, wrapped in his cloak. He listened to her breathe and decided to let her keep the blankets.
She apologized profusely in the morning, blushing fiercely red and promising not to do it again. Thorin had once again thought nothing of it, besides a passing idle thought that she was not altogether an unpleasant bed partner. He had shared pallets with other Dwarrow upon occasion, when it had been very cold or blankets were scarce, and Bella was by far the most polite. Still, it had been a jolt to wake in the morning and find a snubbed, freckled nose inches from his face.
It had been, he decided as he saddled his pony, an unexpected surprise; and yet, it had been a rather pretty nose.
Perhaps a week later, she did it again.
The temperature had perhaps gotten even colder, and as they journeyed closer to the Blue Mountains the worse the weather became. Outside, the rain pounded down, and thunder rumbled across the skies, lightning illuminating the ground. Icy winds howled outside, and it was impossible to sleep; Nori and Ori were talking in low murmurs from the opposite side of the cave. It was freezing in the dark, dank cave in which they had made camp, and Thorin himself was having trouble sleeping.
Bella had picked her way over to him, pillow in hand, and knelt next to his bedroll. "M-Mister Oakenshield?" she whispered, her teeth chattering, "d-do you perhaps have a sp-spare blanket?"
He looked at her, with her tousled hair and deep, dark circles beneath her eyes. They were both so very tired, so very cold, and he wasn't entirely himself. Wordlessly, he grunted and lifted one arm; she needed no second bidding and fluffed her pillow next to his head, snuggling down beneath their shared blankets and keeping a modest distance away from him.
At first it had been awkward, trying to fall asleep with a young woman in his sleeping roll, but when he heard her deep, slow breaths he realized it meant nothing at all. She was just cold. And so was he. Thorin fell asleep then, and was undisturbed by the rest of the Company until dawn.
A modest distance didn't last while they were asleep; when Gloin shook him awake, Bella was cuddled in the crook of his arm, a mop of untidy curls draping over his shoulder. Thorin shared a bewildered look with his companion, who was stifling laughter, as his king was clearly at a loss as to whether or not to wake her. He had eased his arm away from her and found himself surprisingly pleased when she didn't wake. Truly, he hadn't wanted to wake her—she made him feel guilty sometimes in the early morning, when she tried to put on a brave face and seem awake when she obviously wanted to go back to sleep.
Bella had been thankful of the lie-in that day, and had thanked him bashfully later. "Think nothing of it," Thorin had told her brusquely, "I would not see you cold and alerting enemies to our whereabouts with your chattering teeth."
Then it became expected.
Every time the fire guttered low, or the company made several comments about how cold it was, Bella would somehow sneak next to him. Thorin found himself increasingly less irritated with these visits, and would often wake up with his nose buried in her hair. There was something shockingly intimate about being so close to her, and yet he went to great lengths to show no awkwardness about it. He made sure not to touch her while he slept, even though part of him wished to sling an arm around her waist and be done with it.
It changed nothing while they were among the company, for some reason, even though Thorin pretended to ignore the pointed glances from Balin and the sniggering from Fili and Kili. He still thought her useless, a soft, spoiled gardener who would only slow them up and be more trouble than she was worth. One afternoon, after nearly a week of hard riding and slow going, Thorin's temper had snapped and he shouted at Bella, whose pony was trailing far behind the rest of the company's.
"Keep up!" he had roared, "or do you wish for us to leave you behind? I have no need of a burglar that is too slow to follow!"
He heard her cry that evening, into her pillow and away from the rest of the camp. He tried to reason away the lump in his stomach—everything he said had been true, and yet he wanted to apologize. Discreetly, he noted that she wiped her eyes with a handkerchief and that her shoulders were rigid with fear and stress. Cursing his sharp tongue he went to sleep, trying to quell the uneasiness rising within him.
The next evening, he deliberately made his sleeping roll next to Bella's, and met her gaze determinedly while they were eating dinner. She went pink, mumbled something about retiring early, and dove into her sleeping roll. After they had eaten their fill, the rest of the company went to their sleeping rolls and quieted down.
He lay down, facing her back, and he watched her slowly tense up when she felt his gaze. "Burglar," he rumbled quietly, "it is a very cool night."
There was a very long pause, and then a small, muffled, almost petulant voice said, "And are you sure your bedroll is warmer than my own, Mister Oakenshield?"
"Aye," Thorin said quietly, "a great deal warmer."
Bella scarcely looked at him, and simply rolled onto his pallet, dropping her head against his chest. She breathed in, deeply, and then sighed. "It is warm," she whispered shyly, "much warmer than it appears to be."
Unbeknownst to Thorin, Gandalf and Balin had stopped the rest from waking either of them the following morning. "Let them both figure it all out," Balin had told Fili and Kili.
"It's nonsense," Fili protested, "they're mad about each other!"
Balin nodded sagely. "Of course they are, m'lad, but they won't know it for a good long while."
He began to miss her when she wasn't there.
It had happened over time, he supposed—without another's steady breathing, without her warmth and the scent of her hair, it all became rather…stale. Of course, he couldn't outright ask for her company without the pretense of it being cold, that would be a direct impeachment on her honor. But there was something about the looks she gave him which perhaps hinted she rather wanted to be asked.
Fire blossomed in his chest whenever he tried to move. Balin had sworn him to stay in bed—it was not difficult to remain there. Exhaustion was set into every muscle of his body, but he couldn't get Bella out of his mind; stolen moments of slumber was one thing, but that had always been offset by extreme coldness and distance during the day. And even after that, after all his slights and cruelty, to see that tiny Hobbit lass fiercely facing down his worst foe…it was making his heart too full for words.
"Don't you touch him!" she had screamed, standing guard over his body, facing down Azog. "Don't you dare touch him!"
Thorin closed his eyes. In that moment of pain and fear laced stupor, he had seen Bella for what she truly was; bravery bursting out of her chest, teeth set in a growl, she had been every inch a warrior and a saint of most unlikely proportions. How had he missed it? He had seen the complaining and the whining of a weak fighter, but had entirely missed the everyday courage of being continually out of her element. Very few times had his life been saved, but it had never come in the form of a Hobbit lass wearing a sooty burgundy jacket. How on earth to repay her?
She knocked politely and then entered, carrying a bucket of steaming water. Fresh as a daisy and wearing a skirt that was the least frayed, with her hair braided neatly and smoothed back, she looked like a professional nursemaid and not at all like the singed, grim warrior who had shrieked a war cry before throwing herself at an Orc.
"Are you all right, Mister Oakenshield?" Bella asked, setting the bucket down next to the bed. She dipped her hands into the water and wrung out a clean white rag. "I didn't wake you, did I?"
"Not at all," Thorin rasped, and shifted carefully on the bed. A worried knot immediately sprang to Bella's brow and she pressed him back among the pillows.
"Stay still," she told him firmly, and began dabbing at his grimy brow and neck with the rag. It was unexpectedly dear, her soft ministrations, and he closed his eyes to better enjoy the warmth and cleanliness. She moved from the chair to the bed and folded the blanket down in order to wash his shoulders and arms. For some reason she paused, and lingered at his collar, one small hand fingering the braid behind his ear.
"It is an akhûnith braid, meaning young man," Thorin rumbled without opening his eyes. "When a Dwarrow completes the Rites of Manhood…he braids his hair in that fashion and secures a bead on the end…"
Her voice sounded a little strange as she resumed washing his shoulders with added vigor. "That's…so fascinating. I wish I knew more, I asked Gloin about it once and he became terribly…terribly secretive. But Dwarrow are like that, I suppose."
She dipped her rag back into the bucket and began patting his hands, blotting the dirt and grime off of his knuckles. "That's partly what fascinates me about Dwarrow, I mean they're so terribly prideful and secretive and it's a wonderful mystery. I mean, us Hobbits, we're always blathering on about our rites and rituals, and we don't have a secret language or anything. I'm…I'm chattering, aren't I?"
"Are you nervous, Miss Burglar?" Thorin said sleepily.
Bella quieted for a moment. "A bit."
Her laugh was small and more of a sigh. "This is the first time I've spoken to you as a friend in the daytime, Mister Oakenshield."
"Is it daytime? I thought it was evening."
Bella sobered immediately. "Thorin, can you see? Are you certain you're all right, do your bandages need to be changed? I'll run and get some things from the medicine cabinet…"
Thorin caught her sleeve and said roughly, "No. Stay. I would go through any measure of pain to hear you say my name again."
She colored very deeply at that and pressed a hand against his forehead. "Mister…Thorin, you're a bit warm. Do you feel all right? I could run and get a tonic for you in case you start to run a fever."
"Rather…" he licked his dry lips, and Bella took this as a sign. He continued as she poured him some water. "Rather than a tonic…reach into my cloak, and find…my leather bag."
She set the mug of water aside and picked up his heavy, fur-lined cloak. In a cunningly sewn inner pocket was a tiny leather bag, stitched prettily on the outside with what were no doubt ancient Dwarrow runes. She loosened the drawstring and spilled out the contents—inside was four beads. One of beaten gold, two of silver, and one of a beautiful white metal that seemed to be a bit of captured starlight plucked from the heavens. She stirred the beads with a finger and exclaimed, "Thorin, these are beautiful. Why don't you wear these?"
"Not for me," he mumbled. "Wear…wear the gold one, would you…"
"You want me to wear this?" Bella asked, her mouth going dry. "Oh, Mister Oakenshield, I don't think I can do that."
He appeared not to have heard her. "I should…braid it into your hair…"
"No!" Bella said, glaring at him. "No, you stay in that bed and heal, Thorin, or so help me I'll put fresh bruises on those ribs of yours."
He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, his burglar muttering about tonics and beads and stubborn Dwarves.
That evening at dinner, Bella sat between Gandalf and Dwalin, and they tried to keep their celebration quiet. Still, it was hard not to feel jubilant; they had escaped from Azog temporarily, and were now resting in Beorn's beautiful home, which felt so solid and safe that it was impossible not to be merry there. Not to mention he had a great quantity of very strong ale which the Dwarves immediately took a liking to—Bella didn't care for it much, but it was nice to see Ori laugh again.
She reached across the table to pour Bofur another mug of mead when the whole table suddenly stopped talking. A little surprised, she looked around, and realized that every single member of the company was staring at her. "What?" she asked.
"Where did you get that, Miss Baggins?" Balin asked, staring at her neck. "Did you pick it up somewhere?"
"Oh!" Her hands flew to her throat. "No, this—Thorin gave it to me, a few hours ago, when I was checking on him. He said to wear it. I think it's a thank you of some kind, but I feel a little odd, I never liked jewelry. He was a bit groggy, and I didn't want to upset him, so I took a cord and put it around my neck."
"That's no ordinary piece of jewelry, lass," Bifur said, eyes wide, "that's a courtship bead from the House of Durin, that is."
Bella stared at him, and then looked from Gandalf to Balin wildly. "What – why?"
Gandalf laughed around his pipe, laughed for a very long time. Soon the whole company erupted in laughter and it nearly shook the rafters, but the blood was pounding in Bella's head and she wanted answers. She pounded on the table and then stood on the stool, shouting, "Quiet, you lot of rubbish, someone tell me what is going on!"
"I knew it!" Fili howled, tears streaming down his face. He clung to Fili and Bombur in his hilarity. "I knew it, all those times Uncle spent cuddling up next to Miss Baggins!"
"I knew it when he agreed to let her come on the journey at all," Dwalin said, and looked up at Bella with gruff good humor. "Sit down, lady, let the boys have their fun."
She sat down, clenching her small fist around the smooth golden bead, and bit her lower lip. "Will someone explain –"
"He offered you a courtship," Balin explained, "when a Dwarrow male shows interest in a female, he gives her a golden courtship bead. When she wears it, it's a sign she's accepted his suit and consents to be courted. Y'didn't know any better, lassie, but iffen you don't care for him in that way you can always give it back to him –"
"No!" Bella said, startling all of them but mostly herself, "no, I'll…I'll wear it. I just didn't expect…"
"Congratulations, Bella," Gandalf said, patting her on the back. Bella, feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, put her head on the table and threw a napkin over her blushing face, feeling as though she might cry. A heavy, comforting hand patted her back and she knew it was Dwalin comforting her.
"Ach, we don't even have time for a proper wedding," Dori lamented. "Not even a proper courtship, really—by Durin's beautiful beard, why on earth did he court her now?"
"She just saved his life!" Fili pointed out, "and you know that Uncle's carried a torch for her for about an age, it's about time he finally got a move on—"
"Oh shut up," Kili said, elbowing his brother, "that could be our aunt you're talking about."
"True, that. Hello, Auntie!"
"Oh be quiet all of you!" Bella said, with surprising volume for someone her size, throwing the napkin at her 'nephews', "Will someone please stop assuming I know everything and tell me what on earth do I do next?"
"It depends on whether you accept his suit or not," Dwalin said firmly.
"Let's assume I do," Bella said, her cheeks still flaming, her eyes sparkling with tears but her voice steady.
"Then…well, bloody hell, you let him braid the bead into your hair for as long as you court. Once you've decided to marry, you exchange vows, and he braids the mithril bead into your hair as a sign that he's taken you as a wife. Seeing as he's wounded and we're traveling, I don't know how long your courtship can last…"
"Offer yourself," Baling interrupted. "Old fashioned, I know," he said over the groans around the table, "but honestly as we can't have a formal wedding ceremony, and there won't be an official Court of Durin until we reclaim the mountain, the best thing Miss Baggins can do is wear the mithril bead as a sign of intent and offer herself."
"Don't think I want to hear this," Fili said, looking slightly nauseated.
Balin shot him a look. "You'll be courting yourself one day, lad, don't mock tradition."
"So…" Bella cleared her throat, "so I simply braid the mithril into my hair, and then…just go to him?"
"Aye," Balin said with a firm nod.
"But…he's wounded, and…"
"We'll stay at Beorn's for a few days yet," Balin said. "Don't fret yourself, Miss Baggins."
She rubbed her eyes and then buried her head beneath the napkin once more. The din around her increased and the company cracked open a keg to celebrate; someone began singing a traditional wedding song and the noise was positively terrific.
What a lovely, lovely family to be included in.
Rated M because the next chapter will be a wedding night. Read: they're not gonna hold hands, y'all. Also, I BS'ed the wedding traditions because honestly, I want to finally try my hand at writing Bagginshield smut. –fyrelark