Sorry for the long delay!

If you go back and glance at earlier chapters, you'll notice that I've now added chapter titles and did a some cleaning up here and there. Nothing major changed. When I first started writing this, I always had the chapter concepts and titles in the back of my mind, but I couldn't commit to a decision until recently. Sorry about that!

Disclaimer: I do not own anything related to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or The Silmarillion. They belong to the incomparable J.R.R. Tolkien. I'm just playing in his universe.


Dissonance

Harsh, discordant, and lack of harmony. A chord that sounds incomplete until it resolves itself on a harmonious chord.

Thorin walked alone beneath the moonlit sky, his thoughts heavy with the coming days. He was making his way back to the house provided for his Company by the Master of Laketown, where most of his companions had long since retired for the night. Only a few days remained before they would leave to begin the final stage of their journey, and they all needed to be fully rested and well prepared for whatever awaited them.

As he neared the mansion (at least compared to most of the other houses), he saw that a light still shone through the slit of the drawn curtains. If he had to guess, Bella was probably waiting up for him. She had refused to participate in the Master's pretentious celebrations, apart from the feast. In fact, she had been quiet and distant with everyone, including, or more likely, especially with Thorin.

He hesitated at the door of the house, wondering what sort of reception he might receive for his return. After a moment, he shook his head, berating himself for cowering like a dwarfling, and entered with his usual poise.

The house did not possess an entrance hall. Much like Beorn's dwelling, the front door opened right into one large area that served as a sitting room, dining area and kitchen all in one. A staircase in one corner led up a second floor with six bedrooms and a bathroom, though the toilet was in an outhouse outside.

In the living area, there were two armchairs with small tables beside them, several sitting cushions scattered around the floor, and a long wooden bench padded with plush pillows. These were arranged in a semi-circle facing a stone fireplace, and a warm blaze crackled and flickered in golden wisps within. The fire was well tended, yet only one person sat before it.

As he had expected, Bella was curled in one of the armchairs. Her legs were tucked up beneath her and she had a thin blanket wrapped around her body. One hand cradled a steaming mug while the other fingered some small, concealed object. Her face was turned towards the flames, so he could not see her face.

She must have heard him enter, but she did not greet him or turn around. The silence stretched between them as Thorin considered his options.

At last, he asked, "Are you… still angry with me?"

"That depends," she said immediately. "Do you still think I'd betray you?"

Thorin groaned, but his frustration was aimed at himself. He trudged towards her and plopped down on the cushioned bench. "No…."

"You don't sound too sure," she whispered, her voice despondent.

He lifted his eyes away from the floor to look at her, and he almost forgot the tense conversation.

Bella had caught a nasty cold during the barrel escape from Mirkwood and had spent the first days of their stay in Laketown bedridden. She hadn't exactly been the picture of beauty during her recovery (not that anyone else would look any better). She'd stayed burrowed beneath a mound of blankets and furs, covered in sweat and mucus, her hair in a tangled mess, and her eyes bloodshot from stress and sleep deprivation. The Company had been almost overeager in their desire to take care of her, but it seemed to wear her out more. Eventually, she snapped and refused to let anyone come near her, except for Óin when he brought her medicine and soup.

Between that, and negotiating with the Master for provisions, Thorin hadn't been able to pursue their relationship further. Her disheveled appearance and cranky attitude didn't make him love her any less, but he wisely kept his distance when she demanded that everyone leave her alone so that she could rest.

But now she was healthy and whole, freshly bathed and dressed in clean clothes borrowed from a Laketown youth. She was no longer flushed with fever, but there was still a rosy glow to her cheeks from the fire. Her curly tresses were free and flowing around her shoulders, having grown remarkably long over the course of the journey. Hobbit hair, she had once told him, grew very fast. Yet in the Shire, she had kept it short, after the manner of her male kin, once she had passed the usual marrying age of her kind. Fortunately, for Thorin at least, she had not packed the proper tools to cut it and had been forced to simply tie it back.

Oh, how he longed to run his fingers through those silky strands! Ever since they declared their love in the Elvenking's dungeons, he had wanted to plait her hair with a marriage braid, one that would be interwoven with golden silk thread and tied with jeweled beads. He would teach her how to braid his in turn, and when it was done, he would finally taste her lips and hold her unrestricted.

"Thorin?" she interrupted his thoughts.

He regarded her with hungry eyes. "Forgive me… I seem to have lost my focus." When she tilted her head in a gesture to continue, he said, "I have never seen you with your hair down like that before. And we have not spent any time alone since our arrival here. I had almost forgotten how beautiful you are."

He could see from her blush that she was pleased by the compliment, yet she glowered at him. "If you think such flattery will cause me to forget your cruel words from this afternoon, you are quite delusional," she responded sharply.

Thorin tried to tell her that it was an honest expression of his feelings, that he was not trying to avoid the inevitable confrontation, but there must have been something either in his words or expression that caused her to snap.

"While you and Balin were busy at the market getting supplies and making arrangements with the Master most of the day, I merely thought to pass the time by visiting Bard. He was very good to us after all, and we have done little to repay him. But when I tried to explain this to you earlier, you accused me of betraying your confidence with him! Do you truly think so little of me?"

"It's not… I didn't…"

"Which of my actions caused you doubt me?" Bella sneered. "When I saved you from a horde of monstrous spiders? Or how about when I rescued you from Thranduil's dungeons? Or perhaps it was the other day, when I vouched for your honor before the people of Laketown?" Her voice rose in volume and pitch during her tirade.

Thorin frowned, his own temper rising at the implication. "You think that I am not grateful, for all that you have done for us... for me?"

"Well if you are, you certainly have a funny way of showing it," Bella retorted. Her expression turned haughty as she mimicked his low voice. 'Well! Here we are! And I suppose we ought to thank our stars and Miss Baggins. I am sure she has a right to expect it, though I wish she could have arranged a more comfortable journey." She set her mug on the side table next to her, shoved whatever she was playing with into a coat pocket, and crossed her arms, huffing. "If you must know, that is one of the other reasons I went to talk to Bard. I understood how he felt, considering how quickly we exchanged his kindness for the Master's richer accommodations. None of you made any effort to show him appreciation for helping us enter Laketown."

"You think it was kindness that persuaded him to assist us?" Thorin roared. His hands clenched into fists. "We paid him for his services, and it was far more than he deserved. Men are motivated by greed, and he was no different."

"Are you truly so blind? Have you not looked around the city?" Bella shouted back. "Did you not see the state of Bard's house, or his clothes? Or notice how thin and starved his children were? Who in their right mind would refuse pay, even for an illegal venture, if it meant providing for his family? Didn't you once tell me that you had struggled for the sake of your family, following the fall of Erebor? I would have thought that such experiences would have made you more compassionate for the plight of others."

Thorin hesitated at that, pierced by a twinge of shame. He did indeed know the great lengths one might go for loved ones, but he hardened his heart when he remembered how well he was helped in his youth. "I showed them the same measure of compassion that was shown to us."

"That was one or two generations ago! These people are not the same ones who turned you away."

Thorin stood up and glowered down at her. "You are the sheltered child of a protected realm," he said slowly, as though she really was a child. "You know nothing of men. They do not change."

She sprang to her feet as well. "Neither do dwarves, it seems. You are still the same rude, condescending, hard-headed arse that insulted me in my own home! It makes me wonder why I agreed to this quest to begin with!"

She had expressed similar views of his person long ago, but she had not said such things since their courtship started. He was by no means thrilled by her slights to his character (even if he could grudgingly admit that there might be was some truth to them), but the last part of her statement stalled his rage.

"Do you... regret coming with us?" he asked haltingly.

Bella looked away from him. "Sometimes," she admitted.

She still sounded furious, and Thorin's mind began to race with other possibilities. "And are there other things you regret?"

"Like what?"

Thorin took a tentative step closer to her, his anger fading to fear. "Like… us?"

Bella immediately snapped her gaze back to him, searching his face. He did not guard himself against her, though he had to fight his wounded pride to do so.

It was only then that he noticed something strange in her, like a shadow clouding her eyes. But as soon as he saw it, she shook her head and it cleared.

"What? No! No, Thorin – not at all!" Without hesitation, she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him, surprising him with the change. "What would make you think that?"

Thorin gently forced her away, just enough so that she could read his disbelief. "First, you choose to confide in and seek the companionship of the bowman instead of the Company, and then you insult me and say you are sorry you came on this journey. What other conclusions could I draw?"

Bella wrinkled her nose. "PERHAPS - that I went to visit a friend with whom I share similar views, that I let my mouth run away from me in my anger, and finally, that much has happened that I wish had not." She smiled a little. "You drive me crazy sometimes, my love, and we are bound to have arguments. We are very different creatures, after all. But that does not mean that my heart has changed."

She took his hand, led him back to the bench and gestured for him to sit by her side. They both settled themselves; Thorin remained stiff and resisting, but Bella pulled her legs under her and reclined towards him.

He was still irritated, but the feel of her hand in his - so warm and soft - eventually began to calm him.

"Let's take a deep breath, okay?" She did just that, and he mirrored her. "There. Now let's try to talk this out calmly." She took another breath. "First of all, tell me this – why were you so upset that I went to speak with Bard? And do take your time, if you need a moment to think about it."

Thorin took her advice and considered the best way to explain his reason. "I suppose… it was because we had been apart for so long. First, there was my incarceration in Mirkwood, and then your illness when we arrived here. There is much I wish to discuss with you, and the days are growing so short for us. I had hoped to spend as much time with you as possible before we embark for the mountain. When Óin told me you were finally well, I was overjoyed, for I have longed for you. But instead, I returned to find you away, with a man who would hinder our journey if he could."

"So you were worried, and perhaps a little jealous maybe?" Bella concluded. She squeezed his hand and edged a little closer to him. "I'm sorry, Thorin. I guess it was insensitive of me; I didn't consider how you must have felt."

She leaned against him to rest her head on his shoulder, causing Thorin to involuntarily sigh.

"I missed you too, more than you know. And it makes me so happy that you want to be with me." She tilted her face up. "But even so, I do not appreciate having my own honor called into question. I trust Bard, but I would never reveal the Company's secrets to him, or to anyone else. "

"I know. I am sorry," Thorin murmured. He reached up slowly to caress her cheek with his free hand. "But you should know by now that in this, at least, I have confessed myself very selfish, Bella. I do not wish to share you with anyone."

To his disappointment, she sat up again. Se placed both of her hands on either side of his face. "Surely you must know that only you have my heart. I love you, and I will love no other." She leaned forward and bowed his head to kiss him on the forehead. "I think you mean well, and perhaps if I were a dwarrowdam, I would swoon to be regarded so fiercely. But I am a hobbit, and to hear you speak thus makes me feel as though I am an object to be horded, not a person with thoughts and feelings and a will of my own."

Thorin couldn't precisely make sense of this. How could she ever believe he would think of her in such a way? "That is not my intent at all." He smiled tenderly and removed her hands from his face. He pressed a kiss to each palm. "You are my One Bella; there is no one who will care for you or regard you higher than I."

"Then why do you grow so unbearably possessive when I interact with others?" Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Do you not trust me?"

"I trust you with everything that I am. It is everyone else I am suspicious of." He pulled her in a tight embrace and buried his face in her curls. "I do not want any harm to come to you. I could not bear to lose you."

He felt more than heard her sad sigh. "Oh, Thorin. Loss is a part of life. We both know that. But perhaps it would ease your cares to know this - there are only two things which could part me from you: either death must claim me, or you yourself must send me away. And in both cases, you will still find that I will not be far beyond your reach."

It made him smile to hear her use his own oft-repeated phrase, but it did not lighten his heart to think of metaphorical nearness. He pulled her even closer so that she was nearly in his lap.

She didn't seem to mind. In fact, she maneuvered her own arms around him and relaxed her head against his chest.

It was strange, in a way. If anyone should have asked him in the days before he met Bella, Thorin would have insisted that Erebor was the only place that would ever be home to him. Though the Blue Mountains had prospered under his reign, and the exiled dwarves of Erebor had increased in might and population, it had never reached the splendor and majesty of the realm he remembered.

Erebor had been a place of peace and prosperity, and the place that held his earliest memories. It was a wonder wherein halls gleamed with golden light, and mines held gems that shone like starlight. It was the forges where iron was beaten into forms deadly and beautiful, and the armory where blades gleamed like the sun on snow.

It was the rooms where he played with Dis and Frerin, and the chair where his mother sat as she recited stories and sang him to sleep. It was the writing desk where his father sketched out designs for new halls, weapons, or other trinkets. It was a golden harp, and the feel of his grandmother's fingers guiding his along the strings.

Home was the throne where his grandfather sat, ruling his kingdom with a firm but fair hand, and a love for his people that burned hotter than dragon fire.

It was the Arkenstone, a divine gift from Mahal himself, and Thorin's birthright.

But now...

Bella shifted in his arms to look up at him. "Thorin? What are you thinking about?"

He lifted his head to smile down at her. "Many things have occupied my thoughts of late, but nothing captivates them more than you, my love." Reluctantly, he released his hold on her and leaned back a little to create more space. "But… there is something I have been meaning to ask you," he mumbled seriously.

"Oh?" She tilted her head and flashed a playful grin. "And what is that?"

He looked into her eyes and inquired, "Have you given thought to what you will do, when the quest is over?"

Her answer came more quickly than he would have predicted. "In all honesty, I have stopped myself from thinking too far ahead. A dragon yet lies in our future, and it is too big for me to see beyond it."

Thorin halted at that, his courage faltering a moment. He had been so preoccupied with figuring out how to pose the question of his deepest desire that he forgot to factor Smaug into his calculations. But there were still several days before that problem needed solving, so he pressed on undeterred. "Surely, you've thought of it a little. Is it still your desire to return to your books and your armchair?"

"Well, I..."

"Because we have those in Erebor, you know," he interrupted. He groaned at the amused quirk of her eyebrow. "That is… what I mean to say is…" He glared at his trembling hands, searching for the words he had long rehearsed during his imprisonment in Mirkwood. Of course he would forget them now, when the timing was right and he needed them most!

He was startled when Bella reached over and put her hand to his cheek once again. Then, holding his gaze, she allowed her fingers to trail through his hair, brushing them back to comb the strands framing his face, behind his ear, and finally capturing one of his braids and holding it lightly.

Thorin shivered when her nails scraped against his scalp, and nearly gulped at her sultry expression. She knew very well that for dwarves, touching one's hair was only meant for families and lovers. She had said with her actions what he was desperately trying to say aloud, and knowing this gave him courage.

"Stay, Bella. Stay in Erebor, with me. Be my queen, and I will make Erebor a home worthy of you. I will love you always, and anything you desire will be yours." He wasn't one to beg for anything; it was well below what his pride would allow, but he would humble himself for her. He leaned in, pressed his forehead to hers, and closed his eyes. "Please. We dwarves cannot bear to live without our Ones, once we have found them. And you are mine, Bella. Say you will stay and marry me."

He heard her breath hitch. "Are you sure? You must tell me if you have any doubt at all, Thorin. As I said before, we are very different creatures, and there will be times when we will have to work hard to be patient with one another. If you are not willing…"

"I am," he insisted. "I told you; you are my One."

Bella gave his braid, which she had not released, a sharp tug. He winced, and they separated.

"That's all well and good, but I'm afraid that this is one of those moments where you must try to understand me, Thorin. I know that dwarves believe in soulmates – Ones – as you call it. And perhaps it is true, and romantic in its own way. But hobbits, like myself, do not put too much stock in such things."

Thorin frowned, frustration igniting his temper again, but she soothed him by running her fingers through his hair again.

"Before you get huffy, please hear me out." She took a deep breath. "I think maybe there is some agreement with us, in that we believe that you cannot necessarily choose who or what you fall in love with. It just seems to happen, often at very inopportune times." She traded a knowing smile with him. "Perhaps in that way, we might be destined for one person, but that does not mean we are duty bound to them. That is why hobbits more or less believe that there is some choice to love, because there will be hard times that require sacrifice, and a conscious decision to stay together, no matter what."

"I don't understand," Thorin said.

Bella let go of him and sighed. "I love you, Thorin. But I must know: do you love me because you think you must? And will you still love me when I am being difficult or stubborn, or when we can't agree? Will you love me when I am an old crone with white hair and a shriveled body?"

Considering how the night began, or even thinking back to the early days of the quest, it was a valid question. They didn't see eye-to-eye on many things, and she was right in that they already had to work very hard to explain themselves and listen to one another. And if they were to spend their lives together, they would have to continue to do so.

Thorin did not have to think on it long. "Bella," he said, taking her hands, "You are the most infuriating, the whiniest, and the fussiest thing I have ever met. To borrow your own words from earlier – you drive me crazy, sometimes, my love. But you are also kind and fierce and beautiful. I know that we have our differences, but it causes me to love you more, not less. Only death, or some fit of madness, would cause me to do anything that would make you doubt it. And if you will allow it, I will gladly spend the rest of my days showing you the depths of it.

"For so long, my only passion - my only purpose - in this life, was taking back Erebor, of reclaiming my home. And though that is still my dream, I have also found a new home, in you. All the warmth and comfort, that sense of belonging... it is in your arms that I feel it most. My life may go on, but it would be dull and bereft without you. So I will ask you again: will you stay in Erebor? Will you marry me, Bella Baggins?"

At first, she looked away, seeming to deliberate, but then she blushed and giggled softly. "Well... when you put it like that…" Without warning, she threw her arms around his neck. "Of course I'll stay and marry you, you silly dwarf! I just needed to be sure you knew what you were getting yourself into."

Thorin didn't bother to try and hide his silly grin. "I rarely consider the consequences I've what I'm doing," he remarked.

"So I've noticed."

Unable to wait any longer, Thorin pushed Bella back, chuckling at her pout. Then he reached into the pocket of his trousers and retrieved a spare bead. "Traditionally, I would carve one of these myself and adorn it with runes and jewels that would most fit your character. But as I do not yet have the proper tools and materials, this will have to do for now." He held it up to show her. "May I braid this into your hair?"

"That is what you use to signal an engagement?" When he nodded, she gave her consent.

He instructed her to move into a comfortable position so that he could easily access the left side of her head. She laid her head in his lap and fanned her hair out across his thighs so that he could do whatever he wished with it.

For a moment, all he could do was stare, hardly daring to believe his good fortune. He had resigned himself to living out his life alone, the love for his craft and position taking the place of a companion. And even when his feelings for Bella began to blossom, it had taken much to convince his heart to hope to win hers. It all seemed like a pleasant dream, but one that might finally replace years of lonely nightmares.

"You do not know how long I have wished for this," he told her, his hand reverently hovering over her hair.

Bella crossed her arms. "So you say," she said, making a disatisfied face, "yet you seem in no hurry to get on with it."

Thorin chuckled. "Forgive me for wishing to savor this moment." But he gave in to her impatience and began to comb his fingers through the splayed strands.

It was even softer than he imagined; his thick digits flowed through her hair as effortlessly as water, and it almost seemed to glow in the firelight. Bella's eyes fluttered closed at his light touch, and she hummed in contentment.

He took his time, enjoying both the feel of it and the intimacy of the act, while absently singing a dwarven balled, fully aware of how much she enjoyed it. When he was satisfied that he had removed any tangles that might hinder his work, he separated a section of hair and started to twist the strands into the marriage braid, plaiting it in such a way that it would rest securely behind her left ear.

Bella whimpered and squirmed whenever his fingers brushed her pointed ear. It made him grin wolfishly, though she couldn't see it, and he committed the knowledge to memory for later use.

Far too soon, he completed the braid and secured it with his bead. Bella opened her eyes and reached up to feel it the unfamiliar twist.

She sat up and turned around to face him again. "How does it look?" she asked nervously.

Thorin couldn't think of any words, either in Western or Khuzdul to adequately describe what he saw and felt. Instead, he yanked her to him and covered her lips with his.

He hadn't meant to be so rough. Even though Bella had insisted many times that she was not helpless or delicate, he could not help handling and cherishing her as precious beyond measure. Yet at the same time, his desire for her drove him to the brink of madness, so much so that his body and soul ached to claim her, to give in to long suppressed hopes and cravings.

Alarmed by his lack of self-control, Thorin started to back away as quickly as he'd rushed in, but Bella did not let him. She climbed into his lap to straddle him, and her arms came up to snake around his neck. She matched his fervor, kissing him with a passion that he hadn't known (but perhaps should have guessed) a proper, gentle hobbit could possess.

Unfortunately, the need for air forced them to separate, but they remained attached to one another, foreheads and noses pressed together as they panted.

"Well..." Bella murmured. "That answers that question. I was wondering when or if you would EVER kiss me."

Thorin responded by granting her a chaste peck on both of her cheeks. "It was not for lack of desire that prevented me, love. My kind simply do not give of themselves until we have secured a betrothal."

"I see. I wish you had told me that sooner. It would have saved me a great deal of doubt." She paled. "And embarrassment. I've kissed you before. Have I committed a grave offense in doing so?"

Thorin shrugged ruefully. "You have done nothing wrong. You were acting on your own experiences. Forgive me. I had not thought to explain. But if it makes you feel better, know that I am more than willing to make up for lost time."

"In a moment," Bella interjected. She leaned back to see his face better. "I have a question first: am I not meant to craft a bead and braid your hair as well?"

Thorin nodded. "Usually, yes, that would be the case."

She looked a little downcast. "That may present a problem. I can braid well enough, but I lack the skills to make any such trinkets."

Thorin hugged her and carded a hand through her hair. "Do not distress yourself over it. I can make the beads for both of us."

"I thought so, but I want to honor the customs of your people whenever possible."

"As do I." Thorin considered the matter. "Perhaps," he thought aloud slowly, "we can compromise. Didn't you once tell me that your people exchange homemade blended oils and anoint one another during marriage ceremonies?"

Bella glanced up in surprise. "You remembered!" she gasped, sounding delighted.

Thorin threw her a mock glare. "Of course I did. More to the point, I myself do not have a talent for growing things, as you do. Perhaps we could bend the rules, yet combine our traditions. I will forge our marriage beads, and you can prepare the anointing oils. That way, we can both use our respective abilities while fulfilling the rituals of our kind."

"A very sensible suggestion," Bella concurred. "Very well." She relaxed in his arms, but her countenance remained thoughtful. "Are we meant to give other gifts as well?"

Thorin had hoped that the time for discussion was over. He could think a much better activity for his mouth to engage in apart from debating formalities.

"It is a common practice, but not strictly necessary." He took one of her hands and brought it to his lips, lavishing every inch of it. "Must we continue speaking? I'm afraid that my mind has strayed rather far from coherent thought."

Bella heaved a dramatic and exasperated sigh, but the effect was lessened by her widened eyes and the way her body shook against him. "Just one more thing, Thorin..."

He did not cease his ministrations, now slowly kissing a path further up her wrist. "Yes?" he whispered against her skin.

Bella twisted her hand from his grasp. "Please listen. It's important."

Thorin stilled at the despondency of her tone. "What is it?"

There was a flash of both sadness and fear in her lovely features, but she exhaled heavily, and determination replaced them. "I know you would rather not think on it, but we must face the reality that Smaug remains a significant barrier between us and our goal. And while we cannot yet guess what will happen in the coming days, I would offer you a promise."

"What sort of promise?"

She looked away from him. Her hands trailed from his shoulders to play with the collar of his tunic nervously. "I... for a while now, I've been working on something - a gift - as it were."

"Have you?" Thorin was having difficulty concentrating on her words, when her fingers kept brushing the exposed skin of his neck and the top of his chest.

She nodded. "Throughout our journey, you've asked me time and again if I would sing for you. And though I've told you my reasons for withholding, I want to grant your wish." Her eyes flicked to his. "I've written you a song."

Thorin was speechless and fully attentive. Neither of them had spoken of that since the day she had revealed the motive behind her silence. As much as he longed to hear her, and perhaps meld their respective abilities one day, he had resigned himself to the thought that she may never share that part of herself with him.

"Are you sure?" he asked. "You need not force yourself to do anything you are not comfortable with."

Bella kissed him tenderly. "I know. And while there always be some grief in the act, I want to do this. You have given me love and hope, Thorin, and my heart cannot help wanting to sing for the joy I feel." Her countenance became serious and grim again. "But I will not sing it now. I want to wait until the dragon is defeated, and you have taken your rightful place on the throne of Erebor. That is why it is a promise; no matter what awaits us in the mountain, we must both do whatever is necessary to survive the day. I must live to give you my song, and you must live to hear it."

Thorin touched his forehead to hers. "It is a worthy goal, and an honor I do not deserve. Nonetheless, I will hold to our promise."

"Ours," Bella repeated.

As though of one mind, their lips met. And there was no more talking after that.


Thanks for stopping by! Kudos and comments appreciated!

To be continued...