"Wait, you sing?" Squished between Fili and Kili on a mossy, fallen log, with their small campfire warming his toes and a bowl of rather nice stew cradled in his hands, Bilbo searched the faces of his companions. They all appeared perfectly sincere, and Ori couldn't lie to save his life (the poor lad would go all pink over the bridge of his nose, and gnaw his lips).
"Aye." Swirling his spoon around his own stew, Bofur smiled crookedly, shadows dancing under the shade of his hat. "And listen. The listening's the vital bit, right brother?"
Expression going a bit misty as he nodded, Bombur kept on crumbling hardtack into his bowl, thickening his supper. His answer sounded more watery than the stew, and Bilbo nearly glanced away, feeling unaccountably prying. "The most beautiful sound in the whole wide world, it is."
"Any dwarf'll know the voice of his Heartsong," Nori added, prodding at the fire with a long stick, seemingly engrossed in the licking flames. "Down in his bones and blood."
"We hear it in our dreams," Ori said softly, before Bilbo could ask, and slid an arm around his other brother's back, leaning his head on Dori's shoulder. Dori didn't flinch or shrug his brother off, staring into the fire as well, and Bilbo felt another question catch in his throat. Goodness gracious, did dwarves—
"Dori's song went quiet," Fili murmured, leaning close to Bilbo's ear. "When Erebor fell. Just a wee boy, he was."
"Balin and Oin's too," Kili added from his other side, almost more breath than whisper. "Far as I know, and Dwalin lost his after Azanulbizar. Too much death."
Bilbo's grip on his bowl tightened, and he fought the urge to toss it aside and touch his wrist through its careful wrapping, enough to feel the slightly raised edges of his Mark. He could not begin to fathom the notion of it fading— the Mark of a widower was just as crisp and clear as the Mark of a lovestruck youngling. Silence in dreams would have been like waking to bare, empty skin, and the very thought made Bilbo feel hollowed out and cold as winter wind.
"What do hobbits have, then," Kili said suddenly, too loud in the silence that had fallen, but it managed to break the delicate shell of tension well enough. Dori inhaled deeply, then smiled at his little brother, ruffling Ori's smooth hair.
Chewing on a tougher morsel of stew, Fili hummed inquiringly. "Aye, what, if not a song? Or are you not born for partners, like men and elves?"
Immediately levelled with the rapt attention of eight dwarves (while Dwalin, Balin, Oin, Gloin, and Thorin huddled apart from the rest, muttering over maps and plans), Bilbo squirmed a bit, all too aware of the chance he'd just been handed. He could unwrap the dark green cotton from 'round his wrist, and seek the answer he had ached to learn since he was a tween— the dwarves wouldn't know how private a Mark was meant to be kept, especially for an unmarried hobbit. They wouldn't know, nor would they likely care, that flashing the strange red runes etched across his skin would be the equivalent of dropping his trousers over supper, or worse, baring his very soul. They certainly weren't hobbits: to them, his Mark would be as scandalous to wave about in public as Dwalin's tattoos.
But despite the Tookishness that had brought him scampering out his door in the first place— the same boldness that had seen him sneaking into a troll encampment to free their poor ponies, and willingly leave behind the soft beds of Rivendell even after he'd struggled on their journey thus far— despite all that, he was still a Baggins of Bag End. He was still a proper gentlehobbit, no matter what some of the stodgier old gaffers and grandmothers muttered about him back home.
And so Bilbo hesitated, fidgeting with his bowl. In the end, he did not allow his fingers to stray to his binding for even an instant.
"Hobbits have a Mark," he said, clearing his throat when the explanation tried to stick. "We're born with it, somewhere on our skin." Always on the soft inside of the left wrist, but Bilbo was not about to divulge that. His companions might guess, might ask about the cloth wrapped snugly under his cuff, but it seemed like foolishness to volunteer himself to be woken by either Fili or Kili trying to peek under his binding.
"Oh, what sort of mark?" Ori's eyes were wide and liquid dark in the firelight; of course, he had been fascinated with any bit of Hobbitish lore Bilbo had shared so far. But the others appeared to be listening closely, as well.
"The name of our intended," Bilbo replied, and there was a chorus of sharp inhales around the fire.
"A name—" Bofur whistled, low and perhaps a touch awed. "Well, that'd be right handy."
Handy, certainly, if it was written in a legible script, but Bilbo hadn't been so fortunate. In a quirk of fate so very ill thought of and rare that it was only whispered about among his people, Bilbo Baggins had been born with a Mark not written in Hobbitish at all. He had not been certain the runes were even dwarven at all, until Gandalf had first spread that aged map across his table. He had sought their meaning as a younger hobbit, of course; the consensus between what books he could find and a few talkative travelers had been some kind of Dwarfish script, but it had always been challenging to learn anything tangible. It was not standard Khuzdul, he knew that much.
The curious, angular symbols cut across his wrist in three neat rows, in the same deep, ruby red of blood freshly welling from a cut. The colour, at least, was ordinary— there were rumours of a Took maiden decades before who'd been born with a curling elvish Mark in silvery, shimmering blue, as pale as spring moonlight, but the vast majority of hobbit Marks were some shade of red, from pinkish to russet brown.
"Some hobbits aren't born with Marks at all," he continued, perhaps a bit too quickly. "Though it's not common, there's no shame in it either. Some of us are simply made to be bachelors."
As he had half-hoped, and half-feared might happen, the dwarves glanced curiously from one to another, but none spoke up. He could bear the pity of their assumption, if it meant keeping his privacy— curiosity, even the desperate, clawing sort that had settled in his chest, was not a match for the trepidation that stilled his tongue.
Still, if they had pressed the issue, he would have shown them, flushed with nerves but eager all the same.
It was foolishness— what would come of it besides heartbreak and awkwardness, if he showed these dwarves his Mark? If his time amongst them had taught him anything, Bilbo was confident in their stubbornness and love of home. If they gave him a name, of some silversmith or miner from the Blue Mountains or the Iron Hills, what then?
It was easier, in the end, to live out his days as though he had no Mark at all, than to know for certain that the other half of his heart was out in the world, so far from his cosy smial and the rolling hills of the Shire. Bilbo could not, in good conscience, expect a settled dwarf to leave home and hearth for some podgy hobbit he or she had never clapped eyes upon.
But now that he knew dwarves had fated partners as well, Bilbo was struck with doubt. Was there a dwarf somewhere, dreaming of his voice in the wee hours? Did they ache to know him as he did them? Did they hum their Heartsong before sleep took them, quiet and yearning, just as he traced crimson lines with his fingertip when no one could see?
Feeling heat and grit spring up in his eyes that could not be explained away by the smoke of the fire, Bilbo swallowed thickly and called up his broadest grin instead, shaking off the dark shroud of useless grief. This conversation had begun as a talk of Shire drinking songs, and how bawdy they could get compared to Dwarven tunes— that seemed a much more pleasant topic to explore.
"Here, friends, the Gamgees have an endless supply of good songs for a mug of ale—"