and One Time Thorin Oakenshield Asked What He Should Do…

The Hobbit's lips were soft and warm, softer and warmer by far than any I'd ever touched, that was for certain.

Dwarfs, for all that we were free with our touches with both friends and family, were more circumspect in our treatment of lovers and rarely used our mouths in love play. It was much less likely to see a wife press her cheek against her mate's or to stroke a lover's beard than it would be to see brothers in arms embrace or clasp hands. Perhaps that's why it struck me so deeply, the first time I saw a kiss between human mates. I was barely 30 years old and hardly out of my adolescence. It was in Dale, coming back from a Southen patrol. I'd been with Balin at the time and found myself fascinated when they caught my attention. The first thing I noticed was that the woman was heavy with child. When dwarf women are expecting, they do not leave the security of their homes. The second was the strange intensity of the contact. Though they were fully clothed and doing nothing that could have been considered indecent, there was something about the embrace that struck me as painfully intimate. Beside me, the older dwarf had cleared his throat and told me gently not to stare. I'd obeyed, but it hadn't been easy. In truth, I'd been barely able to tear my eyes away.

At that age, I had of course experimented with the pleasures of the body, exploring with some of my friends and with one dwarf lass ten years my senior who I'd thought smashed my heart to pieces when she chose to give her affections to another and announced her marriage. But never had I seen the like of that kiss. The man was a soldier of Dale, returning home after accompanying our group of dwarfs on patrol. That day we'd stumbled on a clutch of goblins, and a few of our company had been killed putting them down. Always the most vulnerable, the lives lost had all been those of men. For my part, I'd been exhilarated by the short battle, by fighting in one of my first true conflicts. All I really wanted was to rush back through the gates of Erebor and tell my father of my great deeds. I was euphoric with our victory.

Until I saw the wife rush to her husband, terror and pain warring with joy on her face. He had pulled her to his chest, and while I could not hear what he said to her, his words were much less important than the emotion in his embrace. Though none of my kin had been taken, I realized perhaps for the first time as the couple clung to one another that not only dwarf lives were of value.

"Wh-what are they doing?" I'd asked Balin, quiet and uncertain as I tried to identify my emotions.

"It's called kissing, Laddie. It's something men do now and then to show strong emotion. Not a dwarfish custom, but I've heard 'tis rather pleasant. Or it can be, with the right partner." He answered. "Either way, it's best to give them some privacy. As the Prince of Erebor, you must do your duty and give honor to the fallen before we return to the mountain. And the faster you get that over with, the faster you can share your glory with your father."

Balin's eyes twinkled knowingly up at me, filled with equal measures of pride and amusement. A heartbeat earlier and I would have shared in his enthusiasm. But my taste for boasting had soured. "What are the names of the men who died?" I asked instead of answering.

For a moment, Balin looked puzzled. "I'm not sure. It's not necessary to know them, you know. You've only to offer a formal acceptance of the city's sacrifice to the Legate. "

"I want their names." I would not be dissuaded, and Balin, ever loyal, had gotten them for me.

It had been my first public act as a Prince of Erebor. I had acknowledged the name of each of the fallen that day, and every time after when a soldier of Dale lost his life defending our kingdom. The passage of time erased that first short list from my memory, but not the kiss.

Later, I'd attempted the caress with the dwarfs with whom I took succor. The advances, while not entirely rebuffed, had been met with enough puzzlement and confusion to discourage me from attempting it often. Whether it was a dwarf man or woman, there was something too hard, too rough, about my kin to lend itself well to a kiss. And slowly, I ceased my attempts.

As I grew older, though, my fascination with the act lingered. When I was invited to share the bed of the Elf king, I thought perhaps I my curiosity in regard to kisses might be assuaged. But it was not. Pale and cold and eerie in his perfection, the seduction of Thranduil was strangely formal. I might have attempted a kiss had the affair continued, but no matter how I may have wanted it, there never seemed a place in the ceremony of the act for it to fit.

Then, of course, Smaug came.

Later, after our defeat at Moria, as I struggled to provide for my people in the Blue Mountains and build Thorin's Hall for them, I lay from time to time with human women. And while they often tried to touch their lips to mine, I found myself avoiding the attempts. Whatever was inside me that wanted what I sensed could be found in the kisses of Dale had died. I no longer sought intimacy. I no longer wanted anything beyond the pull of physical relief.

In 100 years, that hadn't changed.

Until today.

For long moments, I lost myself in Bilbo's kiss. When finally we broke apart, I was surprised to realize that while our mouths were no longer slanting across one another, the Halfling hadn't removed his lips fully from mine. He was smiling against my mouth, small hands reaching up to push at my sodden hair. My arms were around him again, much the way they had been at the top of the Carrock, and his slighter frame was once again offering support.

This time, I had no audience and did not feel the need to pull away. In fact, I let myself sag just a little heavier against him. The change was slight, but the Hobbit clearly felt it. Against my lips, his smile widened. And then he spoke, tone gentle and soft.

"Thorin Oakenshield, you are a mess."

By all rights, I should have taken offense at the insult, but something about the manner it was delivered and the way he made no move away from me made the words feel more like praise than slur. I let my own lips curve up a little in a tentative smile. It wasn't an expression I'd had much practice at recently, and I wanted to make sure I was doing it right. "Then we are a well matched pair, Master Baggins."

My attempt at humor was rewarded with a huff of quiet laughter. "True."

I hadn't meant to say anything else, but somehow the words slipped from my mouth without me fully realizing. "I—am not sure what to do."

Bilbo squeezed lightly, more strength than there should have been in his slight shoulders, and I felt him smile again. "Then you should do nothing."

I pulled back a bit, confused. Nothing? I could not—Bilbo continued, changing his grip and bringing one hand up to stroke the side of my face. The caress cut off my thoughts and sent a shudder through my insides. "You are a king of dwarfs, a great warrior and defender of your people. When the time is right, you'll know what you should do, and you will do it."

"I am a king with no kingdom," I replied, hearing the Goblin King's words echo in my mind. "That makes me nothing."

"No, it makes you everything." Bilbo countered. "In the days of your grandfather, your people had their entire kingdom to rally behind. Now they have only their king. You are everything."

"If that is true, then I am a poor substitute." I laughed mirthlessly. "My greatest victory in battle was nothing but a lie. My enemy remains, the deaths of my grandfather and father un-avenged."

"I heard Balin's story, Thorin. Regardless of Azog's fate, you saved your people that day. Your father and grandfather could have asked for no greater tribute."

I shook my head slightly, unwilling or unable to find the words to explain my failure to Bilbo. "May I kiss you again?" It was not in my nature to ask, either for advice or permission, but something about the Hobbit prompted me to both.

"I believe I would like that," he answered. Instead of waiting for me to take his lips, though, this time the Halfling stretched up and met mine. And for long moments, I let myself do nothing at all but revel in the body in my arms.

Minutes passed, and I might have been content to stay in this place that felt outside reality forever had I not heard behind me a quiet cough. Taken unawares, I felt myself stiffen, turning fast and pushing Bilbo behind my back. Whoever it was, I would not let their shock at finding me with him cause the Hobbit harm. Instead of one of my companions, though, Gandalf stood watch us, tall and somehow more forbidding for the careful blankness of his features.

"What is it?" I asked tersely. It was only careful practice that kept my features from registering shock when I felt a gentle hand rub down my forearm, and then Bilbo stepped around and beside me, his words much more diplomatic than mine had been.

"Is everything alright, Gandalf?"

The wizard turned his attention to the Halfling, and his blank face softened with warmth. "Everything is fine, Bilbo. Some of the others were concerned for their leader and wanted to make sure the falls were having the same healing effects on his wounds as they had on theirs."

"We are fine," I heard myself say through gritted teeth.

"And I would imagine everyone should like to see that for himself," Bilbo interrupted whatever I might have followed with gently. "I know I would not have been able to rest myself without having made sure."

He was warm at my side, and I felt myself relaxing, the flare of my temper abating, against my will.

"Bilbo is right, Thorin. You must remember your duty to your kin." Something in the wizard's voice held deeper meaning than his words, but I steadfastly refused to examine it.

Instead, I gave Gandalf a slight nod. "We'll dress and be along in a moment."

"Excellent. The river is plentiful with trout. I believe Bombur and Bofur have rigged up fishing lines and are trying to catch us dinner. I'll tell the rest you'll be along shortly."

As Gandalf turned away, I shifted my attention back to the Hobbit. He'd struggled into his shirt, the damp fabric clinging to warm, hairless skin that only moments ago had been pressed against mine. Much like the wizard's had, I felt my expression soften as I took him in. I held out a hand and motioned for him to hand me the bundle with the rest of his warn clothing in it.

He flushed, but allowed me to help him into his vest and coat. Looking down, he muttered shyly toward his feet, and distracted as I had been by the process of getting him dressed again, I could not quite make out his words.

"Speak up, little burglar. I can't tell if you're talking to me or to your toes."

His flush brightened, but he forced his eyes up. "I was saying—that is, I wanted to offer." He paused and licked his lips, then pulled something from one of the inside pockets of his coat. "Er—I have a comb, if you'd like to put yourself in order."

It was an offer I appreciated. While dwarfs as a whole are much less fastidious than elves or even men, keeping our beards and hair neat is of some measure of importance to us as a whole. And, while Bilbo would have had no way of knowing he was offering something intimate, anything associated with such grooming is considered quite personal, even the sharing of a comb. I started to reach for the offered object, trying to settle on the appropriate words of thanks, when my damaged shoulder made itself known.

I flinched back with a light curse, favoring the arm.

Bilbo was at my side in an instant, scrambling to the tips of his toes and demanding to be allowed to examine my shoulder. By all rights, I knew I shouldn't really be able to move it at all without great pain. As strong as the rock from whence we were made, dwarfs are remarkable resilient. But being tossed about by the shoulder by a Gundabad warg was bound to cause injury. The bones hadn't broken and the punctures were healing, but the muscle and tendons had still been strained.

"As generous as your offer is, Hobbit, I believe I may not be in a position to accept it." I tested my shoulder, lifting it again, and was stopped by sharp pain once more before I could extend it fully. "Best I let this arm rest for a few days before I attempt to drag that little comb through these snarls."

"Oh! Well, I could—"

"Bilbo!" Kili's excited voice interrupted the offer I knew Bilbo was about to make. And for once, I found myself grateful for my nephew's exuberance. Nothing was more intimate than the braiding of a dwarf's hair. In all my years, never had I allowed another to do it for me. But if Bilbo Baggins had offered—it was madness, but I might have accepted.

"Bilbo," Kili continued in a rush, not noticing the way the Hobbit and I flinched apart. "We've caught some fish! Bombur is getting a fire ready. We have no pots, but Dwalin said that you were an expert at cooking fish and that we should get you. That you'd know what to do with them."

"Er—I'm not an expert." Bilbo stammered a bit in response, and I was gratified to realize that he was as shaken by the interruption as I had been. Clearly, I wasn't the only one confused by the strange emotions swirling between the Halfling and myself.

"Oh." Kili's face fell. "Then should we just gut them and hold them on sticks over the fire?"

Straightening his shoulders, I was proud of the Hobbit when he shook off his distraction. "N-no. No. What I wouldn't give for my frying pan and a bit of lemon and salt—but since wishes won't get our dinner cooked—do you suppose you could find a large, flat rock? Thin as can be, if you please. And I think I noticed a bit of rosemary, growing from some of the crevices near the steps. Let's get that, too."

Kili's grin bloomed again, and before I could stop him he'd reached out and taken my burglar by the arm. "Come on then. You can show me just what you're looking for. You'd best hurry, Thorin, if you don't want to miss your dinner!" He dragged the Hobbit away into the night, Bilbo glancing over his shoulder and sending me a tentative smile that, to my eyes, seemed filled with promise.

"A fine meal, Master Burglar, very fine." Murmurs of agreement met Dori's praise, and even across the fire as I was from him, I could see heat creep up the Hobbit's cheeks.

"Oh, it was nothing, really," Bilbo protested. "Hobbit's are quite fond of fish."

"But few Hobbits, I think, have had cause to cook it on a rock over an open fire," Gandalf interrupted.

"Well—hunger is a powerful motivation, isn't it? Healing waters or not, one can't be expected to get one's strength back with eating raw fish, or eating it charred to black. Have to be a bit creative, right?"

The flash of Bilbo's eyes in my direction was quick, but I knew without looking that Gandalf hadn't missed it. I was a bit surprised when, instead of answering, he just harrumphed under this beard.

Weariness was evident among the company, and with our bellies full, warm and as safe as we had been in a long while, it seemed as though everyone was drowsing, content to let silence stretch out between us. I looked around the company, and it struck me that each of my fellows had in his own way sought comfort from another this night.

Dwalin was running a small whetstone methodically over the blade of his ax, Balin beside him steadying the handle. Nori, Dori, and Ori were methodically looking through the contents of their pockets, pooling them in a pile between them. Fili and Kili were leaned shoulder to shoulder, heads bowed toward one another. Bifur and Bofur each laid their head on one of Bombur's massive thighs, and Oin and Gloin carefully worked Oin's crushed ear trumpet back open again.

It was not so different than any other night of our journey. But this night, I was discontent. I'd always isolated myself by choice, holding myself separate. From across the fire, I felt the weight of Bilbo's gaze on mine. He was watching me, looking conflicted. I felt an answering confusion in my own breast. Part of me wanted to call to him, to ask him to my side so that I, too, could feel the warmth of closeness. But I found that I could not. For half a second, I felt my mask of indifference slip before I steadfastly turned my eyes away and looked once again into the fire.

No matter how I might crave it, I would not show weakness. I would not ask for comfort of companionship from anyone, certainly not from a small Halfling. Had I been a wiser dwarf, I would have realized something about the Hobbit I'd failed to take into account as I resigned myself to a night alone—he would not make me ask.

In unguarded instant, Bilbo must have seen the secret longing on my face. Moving as quiet as a whispered breeze, he slipped without a word around the camp fire and near to my side. He looked quite nervous but also as resolved as I'd ever seen him.

"Can I help you, Master Baggins?" I asked, tone carefully neutral.

I could see the Hobbit steeling himself. He nodded his head slightly. "It is quite chilly over there. This side of the fire looks a bit warmer."

Whatever small noises and movements were coming from the other dwarfs cut off like flames smothered. A strange tension filled the air. Fili started to shift forward, I can only assume to offer Bilbo a place beside him to save him the embarrassment of what he assumed would be my rejection.

Because there could be no doubt in any of the minds of the company that I would send the Hobbit away from me. For a span of time far longer than just this journey, never had I allowed my isolation to be compromised. It was well known that even my indulgence in carnal matters was conducted as a formality, the sating of a need and then my partners sent quickly on their way. There was no question in the action I should take. I looked up at the Hobbit, standing nervously above me, waiting for my answer.

I nodded once, solemn. "We can't have our burglar freezing."

Lifting my arm, I motioned him forward, ignoring the hastily silenced gasps coming from my fellows. A swift, warning look around the circumference of the fire silenced any comments that may have been forthcoming, and with a brilliant smile, Bilbo turned and scooted himself into my side.

"As I suspected," he announced boldly. "Much more satisfactory."

It was then I realized that he, too, was looking around the circle with an expression of warning. And all at once I understood that he was defending me, as well. The fierce little Hobbit would allow no protest or question of my judgment. He would not permit any castigation of my decision to accept the closeness of another on this night. I wondered, for a moment, if I was the only one who understood that. Sitting as we were, with my arm around him, it would have looked like I was sheltering his body. But, in truth, propped underneath my shoulder he was a stalwart support, holding me unobtrusively up.

Perhaps I should have set Bilbo away from me. But as I'd been reminded today, I was a king of dwarfs. I did not have to accept the suggestions or advice of others who could not understand the burden of leadership.

I glanced down at the tousled head beside me and made a silent amendment. I did not have to accept suggestion or advice—but I could ask for them.