The first time it happened, Thorin nearly shouted the camp into chaos, convinced that something was attacking them. After a half hour of alarmed darting around and searching, everyone slumped back into camp, completely bedraggled and half-dressed from where they had been awoken from a sound sleep.
No one was in a good mood the next morning, least of all Thorin who convinced himself that the touch he’d felt in the night had been mere wisps of waking reality fading into the realm of dreams and not the feather-light feel of a tentative hand upon his arm.
The second time it happened, Thorin simply grabbed the hand and held it pinned, convinced that either Kíli or Fíli were up to mischief and not particularly wishing to wake up enough to deal with them beyond keeping their sticky paws off of his armament. The day’s trek had been long and hard, even their hobbit seemed to be far more subdued than normal, and opening his eyes to glare at whichever brat of a nephew disturbed his sleep was too much effort. Thorin snorted with sleepy amusement as the hand wiggled, wriggled, and then slipped out from under his own. Hurried footsteps lightly sprang away and he settled himself into a more comfortable position on the rocky ground before slipping back into deep sleep.
Of course, both idiots fervently denied any involvement in the escapade when Thorin chastised them on it the next day, but he knew better than to believe Fíli and Kíli’s protestations of innocence and simply threatened that the next time they wished to maul him in his sleep, the hand which pinned theirs may just be holding a dagger instead. Further discussion was halted by a massive clanging and crashing, where it seemed that every single pot and kettle that Bilbo was trying to carry went flying. The two menaces escaped while Thorin’s back was turned and he shook his head ruefully. Why did he want to bring the younglings along in the first place?
“Because Dís threatened to unman you if we didn’t get the ‘spawns of Morgoth’ out of Ered Luin for a year? I’ve never seen a mother so intent upon killing her own offspring,” Dwalin commented lowly as he came to stand at Thorin’s shoulder and watch the hobbit and dwarves corral the scattered cookware.
Thorin didn’t know if he’d spoken aloud without realizing it, or if his old friend simply knew him so well as to accurately guess. “If you’d been in the mountain for all the chaos they caused in the week before we left, her ire would be understandable. And she wasn’t entirely ready to kill them until their last stunt. She did not tell me what it was, simply dumped their unconscious bodies in my chamber and threatened that either I took them with us or I’d lose something mightily important. Knowing my sister and where she first tends to aim her knife, I didn’t argue.” Thorin ignored Dwalin’s quiet snickers. Honestly, he could laugh about it now but the other dwarf was just as intimidated by Dís as everyone else was; his sister had grown into a fine princess who possessed a spine made of iron and a temper more fiery than Mount Doom. He didn’t doubt that she was the one who knocked Fíli and Kíli unconscious in the first place, and he pitied the dwarves left behind who had to bear her wrath as she cleaned up after whatever mess the boys created.
“They’ll grow up,” Dwalin assured and Thorin gave him a skeptical look. “Eventually,” he amended. “They’ll grow up eventually. If you hit them over the head enough times. Have you tried using granite?”
His friend’s efforts paid off and small smile pulled at Thorin’s lips. Dwalin clapped him on the shoulder and left to chivvy the slower dwarves into hurrying. They truly needed to be packed and on the trail again soon, not lingering over folding bedding just so or packing to make sure that small foods went on top to be eaten as the carrier walked. Thorin easily threw his rumpled bedding into the pack and glanced around to make sure that he left nothing behind before he called out to get the day’s march started.
The third time that it happened, Thorin was groggy from one of Óin’s medicinal teas and couldn’t get his limbs to move quickly enough as he felt a light weight, like that of a timid hand, rest on his chest. They’d had a truly horrific day; not only had it turned frigidly cold and wet, but they’d surprised a group of orcs camped by the trailside and been forced into a fight. They’d done their best to circle around and leave few openings for the orcs to get at their more vulnerable members, but he could hear Bilbo fighting behind him. He’d finished off the orc in front of him and turned to help, only to slip in the cold muck as another orc barreled into his side and they flew into a tree. After that his recollection became a muddy whirl of blue, orc blood, staggering to a hastily-made camp, and Óin forcing him to drink something truly foul “to feel better in the morning”. If it kept the pain in his head and ribs down to a dull roar, he wouldn’t protest that it tasted like the back end of a warg. Well, he wouldn’t protest right then anyway.
The touch brought him awake with a start and he dazedly stared around. No one was near where he’d been settled against a rocky outcrop. Thorin blinked in puzzlement and then let the confusion escape as he closed his eyes, the pull of Óin’s tea urging him to sleep again. A few moments later, the light weight returned and he again started up. “What?” he mumbled as he tried to sort out his tongue and convince herb-deadened limbs to move. He gave up when it became apparent even to his foggy mind that he wasn’t going to move anywhere, apparently Óin’s intent with this particular tea, he gave up and closed his eyes again. Not two minutes later, by his groggy count, the touch to his chest returned and he simply cracked his eyes open to confirm that no one was near enough to touch him. It was late enough that the other dwarves were wrapped up in their bedrolls asleep, and their burglar must have been on the other side of the fire because his distinctive blanket wasn’t within Thorin’s limited view. The touch remained; light and unthreatening, and Thorin got the sense that whatever it was it simply wanted to confirm that he was safe and looked after during the night. As he gave up and quit fighting the tea’s soporific effect, he made a mental note to speak to Óin about modifying the recipe. It obviously caused delusions if he was imagining an invisible touch and assigning it intentions.
The weight on his chest was gone when he awoke in the morning and Thorin tried to pass it off in his own mind as a figment brought on by the tea, sleep, and head injury. That excuse didn’t sit right with him, though, but he didn’t have time to ponder it as they had to move out quickly and be on their way. Bilbo was lagging this morning, he noticed, and looked like he’d had a rough night. The hobbit had been pressed into fighting, an act which he claimed to be ill-suited for, and Thorin could see that the previous day’s violence had marked his sleep.
“Ori,” he called to bring the younger dwarf closer.
Ori startled and trotted over with a curious expression. “Are you feeling alright? Do I need to fetch Óin over?” he asked in a rush. Thorin held his hands out to stop the nervous dwarf from rushing off to fetch Óin anyway, requested or not.
“As I said earlier, I feel perfectly fine.” Ori settled a bit at the confirmation. “I was going to ask if you’d look after Master Baggins today. It seems as if he’s had a difficult night and I don’t want him getting injured if lack of sleep has dulled his wits,” he explained.
Ori nodded in thought. “I slept beside him last night and noticed that he was already up when I awoke today,” he confirmed. “I’ll be happy to walk with him and keep him safe. We can talk about books again,” Ori grinned. He truly was a happy dwarf, in contrast to his two brothers, and it amused Thorin to watch those three interact. Staid Dori, crafty Nori, and the seemingly innocent Ori who actually ended up getting the best of his brothers whenever he wished simply by pouting a bit; big eyes, sad expression, and the two elder brothers caved quicker than rotten limestone. Mahal help him if Kíli or Fíli ever learned that trick.
The fourth time that it happened, Thorin didn’t react beyond assessing that there truly wasn’t anyone close enough to reach out and touch his shoulder. The day had been spent climbing over a shale protrusion, where they could have gone around if they could have afforded adding three days to their schedule. So over it they had to go, sliding on the flaky and loose shale every step of the way and falling every few steps as their feet betrayed them to send them crashing to the hard rock. Thorin wasn’t the only one sitting in silent misery, nursing aches and pains. Even their bruises had bruises! Strangely, Bilbo was the only one who had the least amount of problems with the unstable footing and only fell if another dwarf fell into him. Apparently bare hobbit feet were fantastic for that sort of thing, or Thorin had been assured when he’d been curious enough to ask. Trying to give his mind anything to focus on other than listing where all it hurt, Thorin watched Bilbo move around camp and examined those hobbit feet as best he could.
They were certainly rather… hairy… on top, he considered, and disproportionately large even if the little being moved around with a surprising amount of agility and silence. And the soles appeared to be rather leathery instead of calloused and thick, which is what he would have expected if Bilbo walked around with bare feet as a matter of course. Perhaps little hobbits were made to go through life unshod, and that is why their maker gifted them with feet appropriate to being exposed to all weather and conditions? Thorin knew for a fact that heavy dwarven boots certainly were not appropriate for walking on loose and slanting rock, as they’d experienced today, yet the leathery bottoms of Bilbo’s feet seemed to grasp the rock flakes as if they were the most solid of meadow soil. Curious creatures, hobbits, though he had to abandon his observation in favor of turning in for the night with the rest of the company.
Some time later, he couldn’t tell how many hours into the night, that’s when he awoke to the touch and decided to do absolutely nothing about it beyond making sure that it was neither joke nor harm. He simply was thankful that it lightly pressed into his shoulder where he didn’t carry a bruise, and then it left. Nothing else disturbed his sleep that night.
Night after night passed in the same fashion, though it wasn’t every single night- the touches would appear, sometimes linger, sometimes not, and then disappear. They grew bolder as he allowed the contact and he warred with himself over whether to attempt to capture the owner of the touches or whether to have patience and do nothing but enjoy them. In the end, he resolved to enjoy and see where the touches would go, if they had a plan in mind.
As the nights passed, the touches moved from his arms and shoulders to brush his face. They ghosted a tingly not-touch along his beard that made him dearly wish to push into it simply to feel the solid sensation of a hand instead of the tickle. Then the touch startled a gasp out of him by tracing along his lower lip. That night he did open his eyes, heart pounding in reaction, and couldn’t go back to sleep. After that, the touches moved to other areas as if they were wary of their welcome. They traced his cheek bones, lightly tugged on the braids in his hair as they felt along them, and traced his hands as he obligingly turned his palms up into the touch. They even tickled his scalp and traced the shape of his ear if he lay on his side to allow his hair to fall out of the way. Thorin knew he wasn’t losing his mind, and he knew that he hadn’t gained a ghost. Along with allowing the touches, he’d been noticing.
On nights when the touches went on longer into the night, one member of the company rose later than usual. Once he noticed that, he truly started keeping a surreptitious watch and began to notice other things. That same member made sure that he always got the first serving of food, even if they didn’t have much to go around that night, and it was usually more than what was on that member’s plate. Thorin easily solved that problem by eating what long experience told him would be enough to stand him in good stead on the trail, and then gifting the rest of it back to the member by claiming to be too full to eat it. He noticed that the same member of the company kept watching, little glances, especially on the days after Thorin’s invisible visitor had touched him in the night. It was all the little things he noticed which made up Thorin’s mind as to how he was going to handle the touches
The second time that the touch returned to trace his lips, Thorin didn’t startle and instead gently smiled. “You may join me and spend the night, if you wish,” he invited. A gasp and lightly running footsteps were his only answer and Thorin glanced around. He wasn’t worried about scaring off his now not-so-mysterious visitor, because if he didn’t return in the next few nights then Thorin could take the initiative and seek him out this time. For there, lightly pressed in the dry dirt and thrown into relief only by a quirk of the firelight, was the faint outline of a hobbit footprint. Their burglar had a curious talent, and it appeared that hobbits may have an even more curious method of courtship.