AN: I don't own it. Wish I did, but I don't.
BE WARNED: This is SLASH. Light slash, more like slashy tendencies, but it is Bilbo/Thorin. Turn back now if it is not your cup of tea. You have been warned.
This is a companion piece to A Bead of Silver. You might want to read that one first.
edit: went through and fixed names. Apparently I typed Bombur instead of Bofur in a couple places.
Bofur was startled the first time Bilbo sought him out with questions, just a few days after the start of their journey. He had felt for sure that the Halfling would go to Gandalf, or perhaps one of the older dwarves, but then he was there, sitting on a log next to Bofur, demanding information.
"Do Dwarf braids mean anything?"
Bofur had been startled out of his thoughts, and took a moment to reply. He had not anticipated the ambush, and gave a concise answer he hoped would satisfy the company's burglar.
"The braids themselves are usually meaningless to others, the woven design created by the wearer and holding meaning only to them. The size and location say more than enough. Braids in the beard can represent status and family. The scope of the braids indicates status, and beads of precious metals tell of each family member. Braids in the hair are usually more for comfort than a symbol, though some of our more private matters are expressed in the hair. But it is all in the placement, there is no message in the braid itself."
The Halfling had listened intently, and then moved away, close to the fire, never saying a word. Bofur noted, however, that the burglar seemed to be paying closer attention to his companions' braids. Secretly, he was glad the Halfling cared enough to ask.
Bofur watched Bilbo more carefully now. He noted the halfling's eyes following the other dwarves, noting how they acted, what defined them. Then he noticed something odd, the Burglar was always aware of Thorin. Even if he was watching Kili pull a prank on one of the others, or helping Bombur with the evening meal, the Halfling always kept an eye on the King. But the dwarf never spoke of it with the Halfling. It seemed too private.
The second question came weeks later, as they toiled to bury the troll-cave treasures.
"Do dwarf women braid their hair as men do?"
A question on dwarf women. Sooner or later, this always came up, albeit in a less curious and more course manner. Bofur sighed and Bilbo backpedaled, apologizing for intruding on clearly such a private matter. This made Bofur laugh, and he explained that dwarf women were not usually spoken of politely by non-dwarves, so questions about them could be… tricky.
"But, to answer your question, no, they do not. Dwarf women braid their hair however they see fit, there is no hidden message in the braids unless the woman chooses to put it there. Many incorporate things about their children or heirloom jewelry into their tresses, but not by any formal system. Our womenfolk are too precious to us to be subjected to such segregating practice."
Once again, Bilbo had listened attentively, leaning on his shovel. When Bofur was done speaking, the Halfling merely nodded thoughtfully and went back to digging, never speaking a word.
They reached Rivendell at long last, pursued and filthy. After a little while, following warm bathes and clean clothes and good food, another question was asked.
"Is it taboo for non-dwarves to have dwarven braids?"
Bofur had stared at the Halfling for a second, hand on his carving stilled, then fallen backwards off his bench, roaring with laughter. Bilbo had huffed angrily, muttered something under his breath, and started to turn away. But Bofur had sat up, still shaking with laughter, and called the Halfling back. Wiping tears of mirth from his eyes, the dwarf explained that is was not taboo, but why on earth would Bilbo want to know?
After hemming and hawing for a few minutes, the Halfling blurted out, eyes screwed shut and face red with embarrassment, that his hair was growing longer and getting in his way so, instead of getting it cut, what better way to prove to Thorin that he belonged in the company than braiding it in the style of his people.
Bofur's laughter had faded after that, though his eyes still held a twinkle. "So, you wish to learn the art of braiding, do you?" He considered the halfling's face carefully, mentally dividing the sections of Bilbo's hair. "I assume you know how to braid, seeing as you can crochet."
After Bilbo nodded, somewhat sheepishly, Bofur sat him down and talked him through some basic braids that would keep his hair tamed and out of the way. When Bilbo asked him why he didn't just do it the first time to show him, Bofur's face grew pink. He explained that only those courting or married did that, as it was a very private thing to trust someone with the look of one's hair and beard.
When Bilbo had finished, his hair braided back from his forehead and down behind his right ear, he tied it back with a bit of string, thanked Bofur and rose to leave. But Bofur called out to him as he left the porch where they had been sitting.
"Remember this, Bilbo. It's not the braids themselves that are important, it is the meaning woven into their very strands that carries the most weight. No matter what the braid looks like, it always holds a message for the wearer."
Bilbo had left then, and Bombur spent the rest of the company's time in Rivendell contemplating what had occurred. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but there was something else driving Bilbo. He decided if it was important, he would learn in time.
For the rest of the journey, Bilbo came to Bofur with many questions. Some were about the members of the company, others about legends of Erebor, and still more about differences between hobbit culture and that of the dwarves. Bofur answered those he could, and sent the hobbit to other members of the company when he could not.
And Bofur observed. He noted the point at which Bilbo finally stopped merely glancing at Thorin and stared openly. He was startled when he recognized the expression in the Halfling's gaze, not merely curiosity, but affection and perhaps even longing. The dwarf was even more startled when he noticed Thorin staring back at the Halfling when the King thought he was not being observed.
After that, he kept a close eye on the pair, noting the times they unconsciously aided the other. So Bofur was not the least bit surprised when the Halfling flung himself in front of Thorin, waving his little sword about and brazenly standing down the pale orc.
What truly surprised the dwarf came later, when the rush of battle and the fear of flight had subsided. The company had camped on the Carrock for the night, Thorin nestled in a cave towards the base, being treated for his wounds, Bofur on first watch, observing the camp. Bilbo had sat forlornly by himself for a bit, before timidly making his way down to the cave. As Bofur watched, the Halfling stood nervously by the entrance for a moment before taking a deep breath and going in.
The watch shifted then, Bofur falling asleep as soon as his head hit the ground. But something happened while the dwarf was asleep. He knew, because he was the one who had taught Bilbo how, what the braids in the Halfling's hair should look like. One interwoven braid across the front, holding Bilbo's hair back. But now there were two braids. Another peeked from behind the first, not a fluid weave like the simple braid Bilbo usually made, but a thick, angular weave that ducked under the back of Bilbo's hair before it tied off.
With dawning comprehension, Bofur had glanced at Thorin, confirming his suspicions. There, in plain sight, for all to see, and worn like a badge of honor, was a simple braid that looked to have been made with shaky hands. It crossed the top of Thorin's head, down the exact middle and tied off in the back. This braid was in an obvious place of honor.
Bofur noticed others staring throughout the day, indeed, throughout the remainder of the journey, but no one ever asked their King where the braid had come from. Bofur felt that he knew with certainty, but was wise enough not to ask.
All seemed well for a while. Certainly, the King showed more concern for the Halfling than before, and if he and Bilbo vanished for any length of time, well... It was none of Bofur's concern.
The other dwarves of the company either were truly unobservant or chose to ignore the growth of feelings between their King and their Burglar, but there reached a point when even the blind would have noticed. Thorin, hardened warrior and King Under the Mountain, was beside himself when Bilbo was facing Smaug alone. He snapped at his nephews, growled at everyone else, and refused to move from his post beside the door. When the Halfling finally dashed out of the tunnel, Thorin had swept him into a crushing embrace and had not let go until assured that Bilbo was whole and unharmed.
That evening, as the company was finally settled in the halls of old, Bofur had a quiet chuckle as grudging bets were exchanged between some of the older members of the company. There had been rumors for years that Thorin had a heart of stone and no room for affection beyond his family.
Bofur saw Thorin carving a silver bead the night before everything and everyone went insane. If anyone else from the company saw it, they never told Bofur, but that sight, which seemed so joyous at this time, weighed on the dwarf's heart for the rest of his life.
The the world as the company knew it ended, Bilbo was thrown out of the Mountain and Thorin grew unbearable. He was furious, seething, even went so far as to remove Bilbo's braid. But in the quiet of the evening, Bofur heard muffled sobs coming from Thorin's claimed chambers. But he never said a word. For years to come, he wished he had. It might have prevented the heartbreak that followed.
The last question Bilbo asked Bofur came on the heels of battle and death. He held out his hand as he asked his question, a single silver bead lay in his palm.
"How do dwarves mourn?"
Voice shaky, and tears coming unbidden, Bofur explained the only braid that has meaning to the dwarves. The only braid that could be done by anyone. Fingers trembling from grief and exhaustion, he guided Bilbo's hands as the Halfling braided the bead into the underside of his hair, and held him close as he sobbed the oath to only cut his hair when mourning had finally ceased.
And after the Halfling had left, not being able to bear watching Thorin placed in the stone, Bofur gazed at the single Halfling braid on Thorin's head, done on his deathbed, and remembered the hidden bead under Bilbo's hair.
Tears once again threatening to return, the dwarf whispered words from long ago to an empty burial hall. "It's not the braids themselves that are important, it is the meaning woven into their very strands that carries the most weight."
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