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Sweat drips into your eyes as you twist and slash your dagger across an orc's bare thigh. The orc howls. Blood spurts from the femoral artery. You lean sideways to evade the spray and twist again to evade a clumsy mace blow.

The orc stumbles, dragged off balance by the momentum of his own weapon. To your enhanced senses he seems to move in slow motion. For a moment, the orc's chin lifts, exposing his throat above the armor. You feel a short pang of dismay as you flip the dagger and slice again.

Time speeds up as you dip beneath the flashing arc of a mace blow meant for your throat. You turn, quicksilver fast, and make use of the opening it affords you. Another orc drops to his knees. You leave him to choke on his own blood and press on.

Around you, the forest is burning.

You are forging a path toward Azog. The Company is cornered and outnumbered, and time is running out. There are entirely too many orcs; killing their leader is the only way to survive. Thorin was right about that. But he shouldn't have tried to go it alone, weakened as he was by a persistent bout of illness that had swept through the Company for days.

Taking refuge in the trees had been the only option. Not for you — you had been subjected to years of experimentation and conditioning for this very purpose: infiltration, Guerilla tactics and the whole array of wetwork skills. So you had signaled Thorin and went to ground, making your silent way towards the white warg. Undetectable. Deadly.

Your whole body is a precision instrument engineered for this specific purpose. Even your sweat adapts to mimic the scents around you. You could stand right in front of a warg and it wouldn't be able to smell you.

But none of that matters now.

When Thorin falls, you are too far away to interfere effectively. Your throwing knife hits the orc ordered to kill him right through the temple, killing him instantly. It also saves Bilbo's life. You're proud of your friend, who tried to protect Thorin even though he was only going to delay the inevitable. His interference has bought the others enough time to reach Thorin, but the damage is done.

Thorin's hurt, you don't know how badly, and his charge has forced you out into the open much too early. Melee fighting is not your strength. You are not built for sustained brute force combat, and the brutal pace of the last few days has tired you out. You can feel yourself weakening.

You need to move faster. Get to Azog. That's the objective. It's the only thing that matters now, unless Gandalf pulls a miracle out of his grubby hat.

You duck and feint, maiming rather than killing on your way to the smoke-shrouded figure on its white warg. The animal dances in place, eager to join the fray. Azog reins it in, pulling back.

Stay put, dammit.

The cry of a bird of prey makes you look up.

The sky is full of eagles. Birds of prey the size of cars, they descend on the orcs without delay, wreaking havoc among the ranks. Azog's cry of impotent rage echoes through the trees. You see him retreating further as he tries to evade a punishing dive.

Damn it.

The lead eagle drops down and picks up Thorin's limp body in its claws. You run towards the Company as Gandalf waves you forward, jumping up to catch a swooping claw. It curls up beneath you as you pull yourself up, making a secure seat.

Inertia presses down on you as you soar into the sky, then all of a sudden you are weightless. The air currents whip sharply through your hair.

You wipe blood off your forehead with your sleeve and look down at the burning trees below as they fall farther away with each beat of the great wings above you.

 

*    *    *

 

Morale among the Company is shot to hell.

You should be unaffected. Everyone survived, after all, and Lord knows your conditioning was brutal enough to turn you into an unfeeling weapon. But your true self has been surfacing bit by bit in the time you've spent with your new companions, and so all you feel is frustration, and a burning need to smash Azog's thick head in until his brain spills out of his skull.

Nobody threatens your boys and lives.

You're pretty sure at least one person shares your burning need for a second try at the pale orc.

You avoid looking at Thorin. He's a brilliant fighter in regular circumstances. You can only imagine how much the defeat must pain him, not to mention his wounds.

You don't feel much better. That was entirely too close for comfort. For a few moments there on the Carrock, you thought Thorin wouldn't wake up. You'd rather not remember how that made you feel.

Still, he finally recognizes Bilbo for the treasure he is, so the whole wretched incident wasn't a total loss.

To your left, Ori heaves a forlorn sigh. It is echoed by Oín, who has taken out his hearing aid and is cleaning it with a grimy piece of cloth. Dwalin grunts.

Even Gandalf is drooping slightly as he watches the door with worried eyes.

You can't stand the moping any longer.

You look around you, then you stand up and sharply clap your hands.  You'll have to wash them — they're soaked with crusted blood. Every head in the room turns to you.

"Boys," you say cheerfully, "I'm in the mood to bake. Who wants cookies?"

There is a long, incredulous pause. The clamor that breaks out after is nearly deafening.

"I'll have two!"

"I'll have a dozen!"

"Shut up, you greedy bastard!"

"Can she even bake? Perhaps Bombur should assist…" That Dori. Suspicious and insensitive. You can't fault him though. The skills you've displayed so far haven't been exactly domestic.

You haven't baked in years. There was a time when you were trying out recipes daily, tweaking and improving them in preparation of the day when you'd open your own bakery. And then one day you went out to donate blood, and everything changed. You were kidnapped and imprisoned in a black book facility where the genetic quirk that made you a valuable asset was enhanced and exploited to its limits.

The portal that sucked you into Middle Earth was in a hidden facility that had been seized by hostile forces. It was the only way out before the lab blew. The rest of your unit was dead by then.

You shake off the memory as you walk into the kitchen. You have a new unit now. You have killed for them and you'll continue to do so until they're safe or you're dead.

You wash your hands. Blood washes away so easily. It's the memories that linger. A collection of your opponents' final moments, caught in the web of your eidetic memory like insects in amber.

You turn away from the images to focus on the present. You let it fill you to capacity: the sweet smells of hay and beeswax, the deep-rooted serenity of the shape-changer's giant cabin.

The pantry is orderly and filled with neatly labeled goods. Your hands, now clean and dry, sort through them, picking out what you need. Then you carry them to the low bench sitting kitty-corner of Beorn's oven, and lay them out one by one. The working surface glows golden in the slanted light from the high windows, a fitting backdrop for your treasures: flour, honey, fresh milk, eggs, and a pat of thick, golden butter. But the real treasure lies beside you in an unassuming wooden bucket: an abundance of plump apples, perfect for pie.

 

*    *    *

 

Your baking is an unadulterated success. You get showered with praise and hugs by everyone except Thorin. He isn't sulking, as far as you can tell. He just wants to be alone.

Still, he must be hungry.

You've held back a good chunk of pie and the largest cookie for him, but you find yourself hesitating before you offer them to him. He's sitting in a corner, watching the proceedings with a stony mien that doesn't encourage intrusion.

Eventually, you take a deep breath and decide to brave his wrath. All he can do is say no, right?

You get on your knees in front of him and hold out the cloth-wrapped goodies. He blinks as if rising from a dream and focuses dizzily on you. Has he been sleeping with his eyes open?

"I didn't mean to disturb you," you tell him quietly. "It's just that I baked a bit and though maybe you'd like a cookie. Or some pie."

Thorin stares at you for a moment, then takes the offering with a nod of thanks. You watch him expectantly as he peels away a corner of the fabric and bites into the gently steaming sweet.

His eyes close. A strange calm spreads out over his face. You only realize how tense he was when his features smooth out. It makes him look twenty years younger.

When he opens his eyes again, you are struck by how very blue they are. He doesn't smile, but he covers your hand with his.

"Thank you."

His voice is warm. An echoing warmth spreads through your belly. It feels like you're suddenly sixteen again, and your crush has noticed you. You blush. "You're very welcome."

He gives your fingers a gentle squeeze, then releases them. "I wish to thank you for your kindness as well. It was an ingenious thing you did."

You duck your head. "I'm just glad it worked."

The warm glow of his praise lingers long after you've returned to your seat. Out of the corner of your eye, you watch Thorin devour his piece of pie in a few quick bites.

The heat in your belly returns when he licks the crumbs from his fingers.  The look of bliss on his face as he leans back  warms you all the way through.

 

*    *    *

 

It's the middle of the night when you wake up from a restless sleep. You try to go back to sleep, aware that you need rest, but the remnants of your nightmare cling, turning your thoughts gray. After half an hour you give up.  Wrap the blanket around your shoulders, you escape to the porch.

You sit down on the wooden steps and take deep breaths of the cold air. Gradually, your heartbeat slows.

Your conditioning is deteriorating. You feel too much, and it shows in your dreams. They're an undisciplined mess, full of regrets and longing. Worst of all, you can't stop thinking about Thorin.

You stare out into the forest. It takes only a little imagination to imagine a small cottage  with a warm little kitchen, and an oven where you can bake all the pies you could ever want. Thorin would come home after a long day, and you'd feed him piece after piece with your hand, so he could lick the crumbs off your fingers when he's done…

You shake off the daydream. Get a grip, woman.

"Trouble sleeping?"

Thorin's sleep-roughened voice makes you jump. Your head whips around just as he closes the door of Beorn's cabin quietly behind him. He's wearing entirely too little and you find yourself convulsively clutching the blanket to your chest like a Regency matron confronted with an impertinent rake might clutch at her pearls.

"Uh," you say, scrambling for eloquence and coming up empty. "I guess." Then you shrug awkwardly, because it's not enough to sound like an idiot, you have to look like one too.

The blanket slips off your shoulders. You tug it back up.

Thorin walks past you to lean against a support beam and tilts his head to look at the stars. It's a polite gesture — he's giving you time to grow accustomed to his presence. You're not sure there's enough time left in the lifetime of this particular planet for that to happen. Thorin always makes you weak in the knees, and that's when he wears so many layers of furs he looks like a tank.

Now he's barefoot. To add insult to injury he's wearing only a thin, dark blue tunic that brings out the color of his eyes even at night, and ragged breeches that end abruptly mid-calf. You are tempted to ask for smelling salts. If someone were to ask you right now who your first love was, you would have to answer "Thorin's calves". They are just perfect — hard and muscular, solid but still gracefully arched, and beautifully defined. His feet are broad and perfectly formed. The kind of feet that never move once planted, not even in a hurricane. The perfect foundation to the rest of him.

A sigh escapes you. And then you notice that the sleeves of his tunic are rolled up, exposing the most incredible forearms in existence.

"Ngh," you say as your fickle affections abruptly shift there, leaving Thorin's calves to deal with the sudden end of your short but torrid love affair.

Thorin turns his head towards you. It occurs to you that he may be expecting you to say actual words now. You scramble desperately for something intelligent to talk about… The weather! The weather's always a safe subject.

"It's beautiful tonight," you say. And then your emotions slip the leash, prodding you to continue. "I guess I needed to look at something pretty for a change."

"I see," Thorin says, turning back to gaze at the sky, as if your words have given him a new appreciation.

You weren't exaggerating. It is a beautiful night. Not all nights are — you've spent enough time outdoors lately to know that. Crickets sing in the high grasses behind Beorn's hut, doing their best to deny that summer's already left; the sky is an endless spill of stars on indigo velvet.

You lean your elbows on the step behind you and tilt your own head back until white sparks on deep blue are all that you can see.

The longer you look, the more it feels as if the sky is coming closer, ready to wrap you in its star-dotted softness. It nearly makes you forget the recent close calls. The killing. You always try to see the good in life, it's the only way you've found to cope with what's been done to you. Becoming a lab rat, being turned into a killing machine when all you wanted since you were a little girl was to open your own little bakery… It tends to weigh on a girl, even though you try not to brood overmuch. There's no point in trying to out-brood Thorin anyway, he's much too good at it. The comic relief spot is being shared between Kíli, Ori and Bofur, and the taciturn warrior slot is firmly held by Dwalin, with Bifur a distant second. The only thing the company doesn't have is a mother figure, so you've taken it upon yourself to provide that. They all seem to enjoy your fussing, more or less secretly.

It occurs to you that Thorin may have come out here for some fussing, and is too proud to say so.

You tear your gaze from the magnificence of the sky to look up into his shadowed face. The sight is hardly any less beautiful than the stars.

"Thorin?"

"Hmm?"

"How come you're awake?" you inquire gently. "I thought you'd be exhausted after—" You break off, chagrined. Way to insert your foot in your mouth.

"After my ignominious defeat?" His lips curl, but there's no humor in the smile. "I suppose I was. But I do not require much sleep."

You nod. That is certainly true. Thorin's the one who wakes the rest of the Company most mornings, usually with his boot.

His eyes lock with yours. "Perhaps I was feeling the need to look upon something beautiful as well," he adds.

A hot blush spreads across your chest and creeps up your neck to set your cheeks on fire. "You've certainly picked the right night for it," you say, hoping he can't see your blush in the dark. He can't have meant to compliment you, you tell yourself. No matter how intently he's staring at you, completely ignoring the scenery.

The wind picks up, driving the autumnal chill right through the blanket as if it weren't even there. You shiver.

"Brrr," you say, because Thorin is still looking at you, taking in everything with laser focus. "It's cold."

It occurs to you belatedly that he's probably feeling the cold a lot more than you are, given how little he's wearing.

"Oh, you must be freezing!" you exclaim, kicking yourself that you didn't notice earlier. "W-would you like to share the blanket?"

Thorin's eyes soften, but when he doesn't react right away you begin second-guessing your offer. Did you just insult him by implying he's cold and therefore weak? Dwarves certainly are quick enough to take insult at, well, anything really. Your offer may be a tremendous faux-pas in their culture. Or… you blush again just thinking about it, or it might mean something entirely different, given that you're a girl and he's, well, not a girl, very firmly not one, and—

Thorin pushes away from the porch railing and lowers himself smoothly beside you. For the king of a race who's supposed to be loud and clumsy he certainly defies expectations at every turn. You blush again and get clumsily to your knees so you can tuck the blanket around you both.

"Thank you," Thorin says, looking amused. His voice sounds even deeper up close, still a little rough, and you shiver again, this time not from the cold. Well, maybe a little.

"May I?" he asks.

You have no idea what he's asking permission for but you nod anyway — because, how could you not? — and Thorin slides an arm around your shoulders.

You freeze. The reason for his amusement is suddenly quite plain: he radiates warmth like a small sun, and he probably had a good laugh to himself when you took it upon you to offer him your thin blanket. You can't muster too much embarrassment though. You're feeling too cozy with his warmth seeping into your skin and spreading all over your chilled body.

"You're better than a hot toddy," you say, sighing.

"I assume that is a compliment."

"It is."

He smells good.

Better than good, in fact. If there is such a thing as Dwarven pheromones, Thorin got a lot more than his fair share. He not only smells amazing, he smells right in a way that bypasses your brain completely and goes right to your limbic system, banging a drum and yelling "THIS is the one!".

It's disconcerting, to say the least. You may be good at disemboweling orcs, but that doesn't mean you're good at discerning non-verbal cues of the romantic kind.

"Relax," Thorin says quietly into your ear. His breath tickles your cheek and you lean into him before you can catch yourself. "Now," he continues in a more businesslike tone. "Why did you come out here in the middle of the night? The truth, if you please."

It spills out of you.

"It's just hard to shake," you confess. "The killing. I know exactly how to slash to deal the most damage, where to stab so the blade slides right between the ribs… I'm not deliberately cruel. But when their eyes go blank and I know I did that, I ended a life for good … It's hard to distance myself from that."

Thorin takes his time pondering that before he answers. You're grateful for his thoughtfulness — you're not looking for comforting platitudes. Eventually, he laces his fingers through your cold ones. "You are one of the best warriors I have ever seen,” he says. “You do what must be done without flinching. There is no shame in mourning the death of living things after a battle, no matter how twisted they may have been."

You twist to look at him. "Do you? Mourn them?"

His gaze is open, unflinching. "No."

As you duck your head, his thumb rubs gently over the back of your hand. "I have lived a long time, seen such things… I no longer have it in me to pity orcs."

"I understand." And you do.

"I know you do," he says. "And I do not think less of you for you your compassion."

You soften against him. "I didn't think you did," you confess. Whatever else Thorin is, he's not petty.

Time passes in companionable silence.

"There will come a time when you will be free to choose something other than the battle," Thorin says after a while. "As brilliant a warrior as you are, I believe that your true vocation lies elsewhere."

"You do?"

"Those biscuits were magnificent," Thorin says wistfully. "Did I tell you that Dwalin got to the last one before I did? The loss was grievous enough to rob me of my sleep." He sounds so downcast that you have to bite your lip to stem the giggles that are bubbling up.

"Magnificent?" you manage finally.

"Transcendent," he agrees earnestly. His arm tightens around your shoulder, tucking you closer against his chest. "Divine."

You hide your pleased expression against his shoulder. "I can ask Beorn for the ingredients and bake some more tomorrow if you like. And I suppose I can write down the recipe for you—"

He shakes his head. "I wouldn't presume to ask for such a precious secret."

"It's just a recipe…"

"It's magic," Thorin says firmly, "best left in your capable hands. Though if you wish me to assist you with baking I will gladly agree."

You picture Thorin covered in flour, his hands sticky with sweet dough, and your head spins.

"A-another time maybe," you whisper.

When you look up, he is awfully close. His lips brush your cheek. "Why? The thought seemed to be to your liking."

"I like it a little too much," you murmur, nuzzling his jaw. His short beard tingles against your lips, and when he turns his head and suddenly his mouth is brushing yours, you draw in a breath.

"May I?" His voice is rough.

There is only one answer to that question. "Please."

The kiss starts out soft, slow. Slow enough that you have time to savor the tingle as your lips brush for the first time, the melting rush as his mouth finally closes firmly over yours and he delves deeper.

This is your first true kiss, shared with someone you admire as well as well as want, and it's more than you could ever have imagined. The rasp of his beard against your palm, the way his mouth slants over yours again and again with just the right amount of tender pressure, it all adds up to one small stretch of perfect happiness.

Thorin's hand slides beneath your hair to cup the nape of your neck. He caresses the sensitive skin gently as he lays a path of gentle kisses along your jaw to your ear.

You slide your fingers into his unbound hair. The raw silk of it tickles your palm and you make a fist, tugging as Thorin's teeth close, ever so gently, over your bare shoulder.

He lifts you into his lap and his mouth finds yours again, hot and slick and just a little wild. It's the kind of kiss that should go on forever, but of course it can't. You make a small sound of protest when Thorin gentles the kiss, soothing you with shallow little pecks all over your lips and chin. His broad hand is rubbing slow circles over the small of your back. You relax into him, feeling warm and cherished and entirely too happy.

The blanket has long slipped away to pool on the ground. Thorin picks it up when you shiver, and wraps it carefully around you. You tuck your head beneath his chin and link your arms around his trim waist with a happy sigh.

"I'm keeping you," you announce drowsily.

Thorin hugs you tighter. "I see." He sounds amused.

"No objections?"

"None at all, though you may wish to reconsider. I am a difficult charge."

You reach for his hand, press a kiss to his bruised knuckles. "I'll take good care of you, I promise." You meet his eyes, let him see that you mean every word. "I don't take this lightly."

Thorin's eyes are soft as his thumb traces the curve of your cheek. "Nor I."

You sit there entwined until the velvet night turns light around you, and there is nothing else you need.

Birds start singing when the sun comes up. You exchange a tender glance and rise, hand in hand, to face the new day together.