After that somewhat stressful evening, Bilba didn't think to question her luck when Smaug made no attempt to cajole her into going out for drinks with him. She simply made her thank yous, her goodbyes, and with a great sigh of relief, slipped into her quiet hotel room and closed the door on the rest of the world.
The shoes were the first thing gone— Bilba stepped out of them immediately, wriggling and stretching her aching toes against the carpet as she padded farther into her room. She clicked on a lamp as she passed, banishing the darkness with warm, yellowish light, and did a quick survey.
No sleek black screen glinted up at her from the bedside table, the dresser, or anywhere else around the room. She even peeked in the en suite loo, and dug through her luggage, just to be sure. As she'd expected, there was no sign of her mobile anywhere.
The clock on her bedside was glowing, displaying the time— twenty past eleven. Still early enough that the lads would still be awake, she hoped, pulling on her plain brown loafers before creeping back out into the corridor. Her initial search of the room had taken a short while, but she couldn't ignore the instinct to keep an eye out for Smaug as she headed down the hall, past Gandalf's room, and on to Ori and Bifur's door.
She could hear laughter from inside, and felt a flood of relief as she knocked.
It only took a moment for Bifur to answer, with his hair fluffing in a wild nimbus, and a flush of red across the bridge of his nose. His jeans and jumper were gone, leaving him in only a violently orange t-shirt and a pair of blue striped boxers, with naked, hairy legs and knobbly knees beneath.
"Y-y-you're b-back," he managed, and grinned despite the significant worsening of his stutter, pulling the door open wide to admit her. Tired and full of beer, Bilba knew from experience that Bifur would have less control over the flow of his words than usual, but he didn't seem bothered by his lapse at the moment. "Good ti-time?"
"Not a terrible time," she said, and bumped her shoulder gently against Bifur as she passed, earning a quick, friendly squeeze of his arm around her back as they both walked farther into the room. "But not my idea of a fantastic evening, either. What in the world is going on here?"
There were far too many beer cans scattered around— more than she remembered them buying, to be honest. Bofur was sitting cross-legged on the floor between the beds, with an array of nail varnishes set out on the bedside table behind him, and a quick glance down confirmed that Bifur's toenails had been painted bright, bubblegum pink. That wasn't entirely unusual: there was a great deal of camaraderie amongst the lot of them, familial comfort, and their skills were often shared around for one reason or other.
Bilba couldn't count the number of times she'd seen Nori's face painted up, usually when Bofur was eager to test a new look or product, and both Bifur and Bofur's hair was occasionally curled, pinned up, or plaited elaborately when Bombur was in the mood. The results of Bifur's experiments and bouts of whimsy were usually less fleeting than his cousins', simply due to the nature of his work. Her patchwork robe wasn't the only gorgeous piece of clothing he'd thrown together when the fancy struck him.
There were limits, however, and Bilba certainly hadn't expected to find Ori perched on a chair in the middle of the room, with a white towel wrapped around his shoulders and a dozen or more shiny aluminium foils glinting in his sandy ginger hair. Bombur was nowhere to be seen, but the sound of running water could be heard from beyond the open bathroom door.
There were a few smears of dye on the towel, staining it rich plum purple in spots.
"Oh my good lord." Bilba pressed one hand against her cheek, staring at Ori with wide eyes. "What…"
The sound of running water stopped, and an instant later, Bombur appeared in the washroom doorway, drying his hands.
"Now, we'll leave that for about a half hour—" Bombur began to say, before noticing her. "Oh, Bilba. Uh, hello."
"Oh my good lord," Bilba repeated, louder this time. "Dori is going to kill you. He's going to kill you all, and me too, just to be sure. Is that purple? Is it permanent?"
"I'm a grown man," Ori said, his voice cracking with annoyance. It hardly helped matters that he looked so silly, folded with his knees bent under his chin and his socked feet braced on the seat of his chair, his hair sprigged up in more aluminium than a takeaway container. He was dressed down to his pyjamas, tartan bottoms and a heather grey t-shirt, cradling a half-drunk bottle of water between his spindly hands.
"Hey, we managed to talk him out of the tattoo, at least," Bofur piped up from the floor, giving one of the little bottles of varnish a vigorous shake. "It's a bit of hair dye, love. Harmless."
"And it's demi-permanent," Bombur added unapologetically, as though he hadn't just widowed his own wife. Dori was going to murder someone.
Bilba shuffled over, flopping down on the end of one bed with a sigh. "Tell me there's still some whiskey, please."
"Aye, some. Get it, will you, Bom?" Bofur waved his hand over towards his brother, as Bombur fetched the bottle from somewhere, and a clean tumbler. It wasn't until Bilba was set with two fingers of warm amber liquor, clinking with a few cubes of ice, that Bofur scooted close enough to pat her on the knee with one big hand.
"You all right, darlin'? Managed to get through the evening with His Posh and Pissiness, I see."
The whiskey was lush in her mouth, smooth and thick with a bit of sweetness, and more than a little heat, trickling down her throat and pooling in her belly. Bilba sipped it twice before answering. "Smaug was… surprisingly well behaved, and Tauriel is lovely company. And I ran into Bard Bowman."
Bifur made an inquisitive sound from his lounge on the other bed, then spoke, slowly and carefully. "Bard? Been ages."
Nodding, Bilba swirled her glass slightly, thinking back to the conversation. "He's well. I gave him my card, in case I could talk him into taking some work across the Pond again. I rather hope he's interested."
She paused, peering down into the whiskey, before shifting her attention up, flitting between all four men. "Unrelated to that, I… well. Have any of you seen my phone? I may have misplaced it. Already checked my room, and nothing."
"But it wouldn't be in here," Ori said, shaking his head quickly enough to make the foils in his hair crinkle softly. Bombur tutted, swatting Ori on the shoulder and sending a clear, silent command to be careful. "Ah, sorry! It's just, Bilba, you texted Bofur from the dinner, didn't you? So you wouldn't have left your mobile in here."
There was a headache blooming behind Bilba's temples, not quite throbbing yet; she tipped back another, larger sip of whiskey.
"I lived in hope," she said, and toed off her loafers, lifting her legs onto the bed and tucking them under herself. The length of her dress kept the pose more than demure enough for this company, especially since there wasn't a man in the room who hadn't seen her stripped down to sheer lingerie on many occasions, or wearing even less.
"A fool's hope, of course," she continued, rubbing her forehead absently. "Yes, so, I must have lost it at the party, because it's not in my bag— I emptied the entire thing. May I borrow someone's mobile to text Thorin? I don't want him worrying if he tries to get hold of me tomorrow."
There was some chattering, some questions about where she recalled having the phone last, if she'd checked at the party, and subtly roundabout questions as to whether this might be a PR emergency. Bilba answered them all in the same calm, even tone of voice, and gratefully accepted Bofur's mobile when he pressed it into her hand, trading her now nearly empty tumbler for the phone.
"Jesus, it must be serious," Bofur said, as Bilba almost instantly began typing out a message for Thorin. "You know his number just off hand? I don't think I'd remember Nori's number without speed dial."
"You don't even kn-know your own n-number," Bifur said, swinging one leg over the edge of his bed, and landing a hard enough kick to Bofur's side to elicit a breathless groan. "Finish up. Looks silly half d-done."
Hello Thorin. It's Bilba, she typed, while Bofur went back to his painting (grumbling about bullies and broken ribs), Bombur puttered around tidying, and Ori shifted around in his seat, snatching up one of his notebooks.
I'm using Bofur's phone, she continued. I think I've lost mine. You can text me at this number and Bofur will make sure I get it. Miss you xx
She read it over again, then once more, before pressing send. The phone made a low swoosh of sound, and Bilba made doubly sure it had gone before craning back and laying the mobile carefully on the bedside table. It was nearly four in the morning back home; even if he'd been struck by another bout of troubled sleep, Thorin likely wasn't awake at the moment. Or, at least, she hoped he wasn't. She also hoped that the soft chime of his text alert, which was much less strident than his ringtone, wouldn't wake him.
"Thank you, Bofur," she said, then let her attention settle on Ori, who was busy writing away in the hardbound notebook he had balanced on his lap. Upside down and from this angle, Bilba couldn't make out much detail of what was scrawled across the blank, creamy pages— one page of text, it looked like, and across from it, a loose, half-formed sketch of what might have been a woman's face, and more text around her. There wasn't much white space remaining, from what Bilba could see, and it wasn't more than a moment or two before he turned to fresh page, as she'd expected.
University had been Dori's dream for his youngest brother, perhaps for business, or even a proper art school. Something creative, something that satisfied Ori's passions and played to his abilities, but professional and stable— something secure. Certainly, Dori hadn't expected Ori to make a career of self-taught photography, some savvy and sage advice from Nori (as well as a few favours called in, whether Ori knew it or not), and no small amount of good luck.
Bilba knew that Dori was still stubbornly conflicted about the entire thing: profoundly proud of Ori, but unable to dismiss his lingering worries entirely. The tempered, realistic quality of Dori's enthusiasm had ignited tensions between the brothers on more than one occasion, with Ori chafing under Dori's doubts, and both of them frustrating the other to no end. Bilba could sympathize with the pair of them— the dreamer and the realist. Most days, she felt both extremes beating side-by-side in her own heart, what her family had called Tookish daring and Baggins sense.
It may very well have been her Baggins sense that sniffed out something strange in this situation— Ori wasn't some rebellious teen, nor was he just generally the sort for wild hair colours, piercings, or tattoos. Even without Dori's influence, Ori's style always drifted towards cozy, layers of warm knits and soft corduroy, with a few little bits of unexpected flair. It wasn't a look that required primping, or anything more than the most basic effort to maintain.
Purple hair… Bilba certainly hadn't seen that coming.
"So, Ori, what brought this on?" she asked, twiddling her fingers towards her own hair. Ori's attention flickered up from his notebook, then back down again almost instantly; big brown eyes were fixed on the paper in front of him, though the pen had stopped moving across the page.
"Just felt like it." There was pinkness creeping over the apples of Ori's cheeks and across the bridge of his nose, and his long, spindly fingers began to fiddle with his biro. "No, um, yeah. No real reason."
Ori Rison was the worst liar on the face of the earth, and it would be adorable if it weren't so tragic.
"Well, knowing Bombur, I'm sure it will be lovely," Bilba said, as diplomatically as she could muster. Glancing around, she reassured herself that everyone except Ori was wearing some varying expression of disbelief. None of them bought Ori's deflection as truth, of course, but none of them seemed eager to push him either. Not even Bofur, who had a certain skill for inappropriate timing and uncomfortable candor, made any attempt to press the issue.
That didn't mean he didn't speak up, however.
"Sure." Bofur twisted the cap back on the petal pink varnish, setting it aside. "It'll be great, 'til Dori comes at you with the clippers. I shaved my head once, you know, when I was fifteen— found out it makes my ears look daft, winging right out, and my scalp gets cold easy. That's when I started wearing a hat, and got into the habit."
Bilba didn't hesitate to reach out and deliver a sharp flick to one of those big ears, not currently hidden beneath a hat and only partially obscured by scruffy, dark locks of hair. Bofur winced away with a startled cry when he didn't notice her in time to evade.
"Dori's not going to shave his head, for goodness sake," she said, trying very hard to sound more convinced of that statement than she felt. It was probably true. Bleach would be more likely, if Dori decided to make an issue of it.
"He won't," Ori agreed, with a definite thread of determination in his words, though his pen was still tapping nervously. "He might not be thrilled, but… no, he won't. Even if he wants to, I won't. I won't let him."
Sitting up straighter, Ori pushed back his shoulders, breathing deeply enough to puff out his chest under his thin t-shirt.
"I can do what I like," he said. "Dori can't stop me making my own decisions, even if he thinks they're stupid. He can tut and fuss and give me that look all he wants, but he can't stop me. I'm twenty-seven years old, and I can do what I like."
The measured cadence of Ori's words made them sound almost like a mantra, and Bilba had little doubt that he'd been repeating similar sentiments to himself for quite some time.
It also felt as though there was more to this than simply some hair dye, especially given the earnestness of Ori's self assurance. Something more than a punt at rebellion through cosmetics.
Think as she might, however, Bilba couldn't quite put her finger on what it was.
There was a text waiting on Thorin's phone when he woke up, but in a rare show of inattention, he didn't notice straight away.
It was Friday morning, after a Thursday night spent at the pub had run longer than he had intended. Thorin dragged himself out of bed with bleary eyes and an ache in his joints that he probably wouldn't have suffered ten, or even five years ago after an evening out drinking. It hadn't even been a wild night, not by any stretch of the imagination— just a few beers and some conversation.
Well, all right, admittedly it had turned into more than a few beers, and Thorin should have known better, but he was surrounded by terrible influences.
His mobile was still in the pocket of his jeans, which in turn were crumpled up in the corner of his bedroom, when Thorin shuffled out and down the hallway, intent on the toilet, his toothbrush, and an intensely hot shower. Every minute spent under the spray, letting the punishing heat of the water redden his skin and soak into his muscles, succeeded in making Thorin feel fractionally more human.
When he finally slipped out of the bathroom to fetch some fresh clothes for the day, barefoot, hips wrapped in a towel and hair spiking damply, the lingering scent of soap wasn't strong enough to disguise the smell of toast and coffee.
He hadn't made either that morning.
Dragging one hand up over his face, partly annoyance and partly to slick his hair back somewhat, Thorin padded out through his flat and stuck his head into the kitchen.
Ah, yes. He'd forgotten he had a guest.
"Morning," Thorin said, mildly chagrined that Dwalin was already up and eating, despite having nearly pickled himself the night before, with far more determination than Thorin had done. It had quickly devolved into the same friendly sibling competition that an evening out with both Dwalin and Balin always became, wherein Dwalin flat-out refused to concede to the sad truth that his brother, though older and less bulky than Dwalin, could drink like a damned fish when he was in the mood.
Thorin hadn't been drinking competitively, but it was still Balin's fault that he was nursing a headache that morning. Being faced with the knowledge that Balin had actually Googled his girlfriend was bad enough, but then the troublesome old git had actually twinkled at him, and asked if he knew whether Ms Baggins Wikipedia page was correct about her age.
Having the piss taken out of him for dating a woman ten years his junior had not been especially pleasant, especially considering Thorin's own deeply buried insecurities about that very thing. Drowning himself in beer had seemed a reasonable response, all things considered.
Back in the present, Dwalin grunted something that might have been a greeting around a mouthful of toast, crumbs speckling his beard. There was also a smear of vibrant pink on the top of his bald head, only partially recognizable as a lipstick print— the young woman (Thorin could never remember her name for the life of him) whose mother ran the All Welcome Pub had been there last night, though not squawking on her saxophone this time. She'd been out with a pack of her equally young, equally enthusiastic mates, celebrating her acceptance offer from some university or other, and had been wearing the same bright magenta colour on her lips as the streaks in her hair.
Dwalin had suffered a squealing hug from her for all of three seconds, and a loud, smacking kiss planted on his skull, before shooing her and her friends off with his gruff congratulations. Thorin wasn't entirely certain if Dwalin was more disappointed that he'd likely lost his occasional gig for free beer, or pleased that he'd never be tempted to sit through that godawful caterwauling again just for the liquor. It was certainly clear that Dwalin hadn't been overly keen on the affectionate attention, however— the girl and her friends weren't even stumbling out the pub door before Dwalin was scowling like a gargoyle and vainly trying to scuff away the glitter that had clung to his black t-shirt.
Neither Balin or Thorin had mentioned the very noticeable, nearly neon lipstick left behind on Dwalin's head, and it seemed as though a night spent sleeping on Thorin's sofa hadn't managed to wipe it off either.
"Listen, I know your girl's been gone a while," Dwalin said suddenly, reaching out to pick up his coffee mug in one huge, tattooed hand. "But I'm not that desperate yet, mate. Go put some clothes on, for fuck's sake, before you start shedding in my food. There'll likely still be eggs left if you get your arse in gear."
Snapping his mind out of the distracted wandering he'd fallen into, Thorin spared one brief, longing glance at the coffee pot— still enough for a large cup of his own, for the moment.
"There'd damn well better be eggs," he said, trying to be as authoritative as possible even as he hoisted his towel a bit higher on his hips, turning to go. "And coffee, too, or you're on housekeeping chores for a month. Detailing the truck, and all."
"Blatant abuse of authority," Dwalin called out from behind him, chewing noisily on toast again. "Conduct unbecoming an arsehole!"
"Well lucky I'm not an arsehole, then!" Thorin shouted back, probably too loud considering his neighbours and the somewhat early hour, and headed down to his bedroom.
He tossed his damp towel into the hamper beside his dresser, then proceeded to dig around until he found clean pants, a pair of joggers, and a dark t-shirt, pulling the loose, comfortable clothes on with efficient movements. There hadn't been any seriousness in his threat to put Dwalin on cleaning duty above and beyond the usual roster, but the chance that Dwalin would polish off the entirety of breakfast before Thorin could enjoy more than a sniff of coffee was a real risk.
It was only then that he thought of his mobile, and when a glance over at his bedside table turned up nothing, Thorin took a moment to hunt down his discarded jeans.
He checked it for messages on his way back to the kitchen, and found one text waiting, from a number he didn't recognize.
The text itself offered explanation enough— Bilba had lost her phone. It was nearly the end of her trip, anyway, which was more fortunate than losing it early on, but it was still an annoying, inconvenient situation. Thorin had a strong inkling that Bilba would be feeling frazzled by the whole thing.
It was just past half nine in the morning, and it would be earlier still on Bilba's end, but Thorin typed out a reply regardless, as he ambled slowly back towards the kitchen.
Does Bilba have any tracking installed on her phone?
He wanted to wish her good morning, to send his sympathies about the phone, he wanted to speak with her, but none of that felt like the sort of sentiment he would willingly funnel through someone else. Especially not someone like Bofur, who might be Bilba's good friend, but Thorin hardly knew him from Adam.
The text was sent off just as Thorin entered the kitchen again, and wonder of wonders, there was still coffee to be had. Setting his mobile on the table, not expecting an answer straight away, he set about pouring himself a generous mug.
"Eggs on the cooker," Dwalin said, jerking his head in that direction, but made no move to get up from his seat at the table. "Any word from the little missus, you sad old bastard?"
Thorin leaned against the cupboards, stirring the sugar into his coffee, and fixed Dwalin with a bland look. "If you ever call her that to her face, I'll not be held responsible for the fate of your balls. Fair warning."
AN: We're nearly done with all this New York business, which will bring me no end of delight, holy shit.
This chapter however, is almost entirely for those of us (myself included) who've been eager for a bit of Knitted Axes. Though just the teeniest hint for now, I think it's pretty cute