Bilbo first meets the dwarf one rainy Saturday morning, on the sidewalk of his own street. It's all thanks to Gandalf. The cat has run away again, and Bilbo is out in the drizzle with an empty collar in one hand, feeling like a dimwit as he croons, "Here, puss. Here, kitty." He's feeling so miserable at the thought of losing the cat after only three months that he's not even looking where he's going and almost walks right into the dwarf walking the other way.
"I'm so sorry!" Bilbo leaps back and gapes up at him. He's in a battered, leather jacket and blue jeans that his legs look ready to bust right out of. Among all the suburban hobbit-houses he looks huge, even though he's not nearly as tall as most of Bilbo's workmates. But somehow his girth, all that black hair, those heavy brows, and the beard conspire to make him look larger.
Bilbo is staring. He knows he's staring, but somehow he just can't stop.
It isn't the first time he's seen the dwarf around. They've all seen him. Hobbits are nothing if not well-informed about their neighbours, and there was much chatter and peering between net curtains when the moving van pulled up two weeks ago. It left behind not just a lot of furniture, but a hulking, dark-haired dwarf and two small, dwarf-shaped children running around the fresh-cut lawn, yelling and trying to hit each other with rolls of bubble-wrap. Bilbo's neighbours shook their heads. This is a hobbit neighbourhood, a hub of community and tradition, where no one locks their doors and no one plays music too late on week nights. It has always been a hobbit neighbourhood. And now dwarves are moving in? What will be next?
Bilbo agrees that it's odd. His family has lived in the big villa at the very end of the street since before he was born, and he can't remember anyone living here except hobbits and, for a few years, a family of men who rented the house on the corner. But he's curious, too. The cul-de-sac was full of children in his youth, big families who were in and out of each other's houses, holding street-wide barbecues in summer, and dinner parties with up to a score of adults and twice that many children every weekend. He remembers snowball wars that took days to resolve and enough Varda’s Day lights every winter that you could spot the street from space. But the hobbit children have all grown up and moved on now. The barbecues are small, exclusive gatherings between different factions of the bowling league. The street is full of grey heads and grumpy voices complaining that their neighbours haven't mowed their lawns again. And if any child these days dared ride their bike on the sidewalk their mother would get a very angry phone call from Mrs Bolger at number twelve.
Bilbo would rather have new families, no matter who they are or where they've come from. But now he's actually facing the dwarf, all his hopes of welcome have fled and he's still staring.
"Excuse me," the dwarf says. "I've lost my... uh... here," he fumbles in his pocket and draws out a wallet, flips it open to show what Bilbo assumes is a photo. But he can't take his eyes off the dwarf's face. His cheeks flush as he realises his mouth is hanging slightly open.
The dwarf meets his gaze. There's a flash of anger there. "You know, it's fine. Never mind," he snaps, closing the wallet and pushing past Bilbo.
"Oh," Bilbo squeaks. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"
Before he can follow the dwarf, there's a buzzing and the dwarf grabs for a cellphone in one of his deep pockets. Bilbo stops, reluctant to interrupt. The dwarf's voice breaks in a tone of pure relief. "He's where? North Road Animal Shelter? Thank you. I'm so sorry about this. I'll be there as soon as I can."
He bolts off before Bilbo can say another word. Bilbo deflates.
But then he thinks, if the dwarf's dog can get all the way to North Road, perhaps Gandalf can too. Bilbo isn't even sure how long the cat's been missing, after all. He's a terrible pet owner. He should never have let Lobelia bludgeon him into adopting the skinny, self-assured cat in the first place. But he's committed now and he has to find Gandalf no matter how much of his (admittedly rather empty) Saturday it wastes.
He pulls out his phone, hunching over to protect it from the rain, and searches for the number on the internet. Five minutes later, he hears that a cat matching Gandalf's description is waiting for him at the North Road Shelter, and heads back home to get his keys.
Bilbo maneuvers his hybrid into a tiny parking space across the road from the animal shelter. The massive SUVs front and behind are both jammed badly into place, overlapping the park between them, but Bilbo has a sleek, short-nosed little sports car imported from Rohan and designed for the shorter races – hobbits, dwarves and various goblins – and he can wriggle it into the smallest parking gaps when he needs to.
As he gets out and locks up, a taxi pulls into the bus stop outside the shelter and out jumps none other than the dwarf from Bilbo's street. Bilbo's heart performs an improvised percussion piece on his ribs and he trots towards the front door, staring at the dwarf's black mane of hair, glinting with silver strands, until it is out of sight. It isn't until he is safely on the other side that he realises he just walked straight across the road without looking.
The reception of the shelter smells of greenery and wet fur. Potted plants hang from the corners of the ceiling, and an aviary, handmade out of chicken wire and plywood, holds a dozen budgies and finches of various shape and colour. Behind the counter, there is a glass door into a shining, white veterinary clinic and another that leads to a warmer-coloured hallway beneath skylights. The wall by the front door is plastered with layers of posters. Some are ads for missing pets or upcoming dog shows but most are profiles of available adoptees, their ears hanging slack and their dark eyes wide, pleading into the camera. Bilbo looks away quickly. He can't stand dogs, but even less than that he can't stand creatures that look sad.
“…he's here? Thank you, thanks, thank you so much," the dwarf is up on the booster-block in front of the receptionist, his hands flat on the counter with the knuckles going white. Bilbo admires the shape of him from behind and then shakes himself. He goes up to the counter, trying to make commiserating eye contact with the dwarf, but the fellow is wringing his hands with worry and his gaze is locked straight ahead. That's what a loving pet owner looks like, Bilbo thinks. Maybe he'd take a cat, too.
He huffs to himself and hops up onto the block so he can rest his elbows on the counter. The receptionist is a freckled young woman with her hair mostly escaping from a loose ponytail. She has the narrow eyes and slightly pointed ears of a part-elf, but given the wrinkles already beginning to gather on her brow it might only be a small part. A brown-and-white Edain cat rests at her elbow, shedding strands of long hair across the computer keyboard. Its flat face stares suspiciously at Bilbo.
"Hello. I called about a grey tomcat earlier," Bilbo says.
"That one," the woman says. "Yes, him again. You know he's been brought in as a stray five times in the last couple of years?"
"Has he?" Bilbo swallows. "Oh. I've only had him for a few months. I thought he just ran away because he didn't like me."
"Do you have his microchip or vaccination records?"
"No," Bilbo admits guiltily. "I don't even know how old he is. My cousins inherited him from another relative."
"He looks so roughed up all the time, it's no wonder people assume he's stray. You need to get him a collar. We're not babysitters," the woman grumbles. Bilbo is about to reply that he has tried, but Gandalf hates them and manages to get out of every type of collar he buys, but the woman is already turning away. "I'll get this dwarf's runaway first and your cat next."
"Of course," Bilbo smiles brightly, but she is halfway through the back door already. Bilbo hears the yap and howl of caged dogs for a few moments before the door clicks shut again.
He goes back to the plastic seats by the door, where the dwarf is sitting with his arms folded. This time, Bilbo manages to get his attention at last when the dwarf looks up. He takes a breath and put on his best chatting-over-the-fence smile. "Hello again, neighbour!"
The dwarf's left eyebrow gives a little twitch but after a moment he nods. "Hi. You, er, you're at the big house at the top of the loop, aren't you?"
"Yes! Yes I am," Bilbo replies, a little too enthusiastically. He holds out his hand. "Bilbo Baggins. I feel like we sort of missed each other back there at the street."
"We did. My fault, I was sick with worry. Thorin Oakenshield," the dwarf takes Bilbo's hand and squeezes. His palm is very warm and large enough to almost completely engulf Bilbo's fingers.
Bilbo hops up onto the seat next to him. "At least that's over. They're bringing your chap now."
Thorin shakes his head. "I fucked up," he says, bending over to rest his elbows on his knees and digging his fingers into his thick hair. "He must have been gone an hour before I even noticed. God, my sister would kill me if she found out."
"Well, they do what they want," Bilbo shrugs, and against his better judgement he reaches out and pats the dwarf's arm. "One time I accidentally locked my cat in the garage for a whole day and only figured it out when he started knocking jars of screws off my shelves."
For a moment Thorin continues to stare at his knees, and then his head whips around to meet Bilbo's gaze. Bilbo feels as if he'd been struck, very gently and unexpectedly, perhaps by something like a falling leaf in a strong breeze. He stares back at Thorin. A wrinkle is growing deeper between the dwarf's brows, moment by moment. Bilbo thinks, wait a moment, he doesn't look comforted at all, before Thorin says, "You didn't look at the photograph from my wallet, did you?"
Bilbo's first instinct is to make an exasperated face as if that is totally untrue, He frowns as he realises he'd missed some extremely important detail. Then he feels his lips going very thin and flat as they attempt to creep into his mouth and hide. Finally he says, "Er, no. He's not a cat? Is he a guinea pig?"
Before the dwarf can answer, a bright voice fills the waiting room, "Uncle Thorin!"
It is a shrill voice, but very loud indeed. Thorin turns from Bilbo and jumps to his feet. The receptionist has come back from the kennel and is lifting up the counter, but the young dwarf she's brought with her is small enough to duck beneath it anyway. He sprints towards Thorin so fast he collides with him at bowling-ball speed and knocks him back a pace, wrapping his arms around Thorin's waist to keep from bouncing off again. His face turns up to present Thorin with a wide, squinting grin.
"Durin's beard, thank you," Thorin grips the back of the boy's head, his thick fingers twisting in his long, tangled hair. He closes his eyes for a moment as the blood finally comes back into his cheeks, then crouches down and takes the boy's shoulders. "What were you thinking, Kili? You scared the shit out of me!"
The boy's glowing smile vanishes and his bottom lip began to tremble. "I left you a note," he says.
"'Going to visit dogs' is not a good enough explanation for running away!" there is the echo of a roar in the dwarf's voice. Bilbo flinches. He can hear the panic eating away at the dwarf's composure. "How did you even get out here?"
"I took the bus," tears were pooling in Kili's eyes now and his shoulders twitch as he gives a little hiccough. "I had some pocket-money. You were busy and I was so bored, I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" his voice rises into a wail that makes the Edain cat sitting on the counter hiss and dash off into the backroom.
"If you want to look at animals I will take you to the pet store, Kili. But you can't go wandering off without telling me. I mean it."
"I thought it was safe at the new house. You said it was," the tears begin to dribble down Kili's face at last, his shoulders heaving. "I'm sorry."
"I know. I'm sorry too," Thorin's arm slide around the boy's torso and he presses his forehead to Kili’s and then gets to his feet, sweeping the child up to sit on one arm as easily as Bilbo lifts his cat off the sofa. Kili wraps all his limbs around Thorin like a starfish around a pole and continues to sniffle into his collar.
"I can't apologise enough for this this," Thorin holds up his hand to the receptionist, having to crane his neck to look up at her. "Thank you for calling me."
"He picked the padlock on the back fence to get into the kennels, sir," the receptionist growls, shaking his hand. "If he'd scared the animals he could have been seriously hurt."
"I won't let it happen again," Thorin promises, taking his free hand back to rub circles between Kili's shoulder blades.
"We're not a zoo. We're really only open for those seriously considering adoption," the receptionist's face is beginning to soften. "Are you...?"
"No, no," Thorin shakes his head with a forced laugh. "I'm all on my own, I don't have time to walk a dog on top of everything else." Kili makes a plaintive whine against his shoulder. Thorin sighs and pats his back again. "We've talked about this, Kili. No pets." But he gets only a small grizzle in response.
"Well, check out our website if you change your mind. I've got to fetch this gentleman his cat."
The woman heads back into the kennels. Thorin nods at Bilbo and is just heading to the door, still with his nephew plastered around him like a very lumpy shawl, when Bilbo cries, "Excuse me!"
The dwarf and his attachment turn back to him. Bilbo smiles, but this time it is just his usual, I-don't-really-know-you smile, the one he feels he gives far too many people in his life. "Do you want a lift home?"
"Thanks, but we can take the bus."
"It's no trouble, honestly," Bilbo laughs nervously. "We live in the same street, after all."
Thorin opens his mouth, quite clearly about to say 'no' again, but Kili gives an extra-loud sniffle and Bilbo sees his fortitude waver. He smiles. It is a soft and pettable smile. "That'd be great. Thank you."
"This car is gorgeous," says Thorin, running his hand across the dash as he climbs into the passenger seat.
Bilbo pinks. "She's my pride and joy."
"I know I should be loyal to dwarf work, but for Rohirrim Motors I have to make an exception. Maybe I should have bought a car instead of a house."
Bilbo grins. "It's worth it. She was a birthday present three years ago and I’ve never looked back."
"Someone must love you," Thorin chuckles, staring hungrily at the speedometer.
"Oh, uh, no, ha-ha," Bilbo replies, trying to make it sound like an actual laugh. "Birthday present from me to myself."
"Ah," Thorin looks out the window and tucks his hands under his arm as they pull out into the traffic. After a moment of heavy silence he glances in the rearview mirror. "Kili!"
Bilbo jumps and nearly hit the brakes. Thorin twists around in his seat. "I told you, do not let Mr Baggins' cat out inside the car, do you hear me?"
"Aw," in the mirror Bilbo sees Kili fold his arms and pout. "But he likes me."
Bilbo isn't sure where Kili got that impression. Gandalf is squatting in the very back of his cat cage, back arched, claws extended, the mohawk-like ruff of pointed fur down the back of his neck sticking up even further than usual. The poor receptionist at the shelter had returned him with a lot of fresh scratches on her arms. Bilbo felt so guilty that when he’d finished filling out the release papers he'd signed up for a rather generous monthly donation. The receptionist was actually beaming when she finally chased them all out the door.
"So how are you finding the new house?" Bilbo asks as they meander through the dilapidated shopping district towards the motorway. “Sad to see the Bracegirdles go, but it’s nice to have new faces on the block. Things don’t tend to change around here very often.”
“Yes,” Thorin says, apparently in agreement. He is staring out the window again, his brows heavy. Then he seems to give himself a quick shake. “The house? It’s roomy. Dry. House-y.”
Desperate for conversation topics now, Bilbo says tentatively. "And... what do you... do?"
For a moment it seems that Thorin isn't going to answer, but at last he says, "I manage a charity for the preservation of dwarvish culture."
"Oh, how fantastic!" Bilbo gushes. "So, community programs, that sort of thing?"
"Precisely," Thorin starts to nod. He looks over at Bilbo. "Helping put programs into schools and fund trips for performers and khuzdul clubs. Lots of work with museums and academics as well, and liaising with owners and valuers to get antiques into the public eye," he hums to himself. "It's not a lucrative business, but it's important," he sounds defensive about the statement, though Bilbo is certainly not one to argue. Thorin asks hurriedly, "And you?"
"Really boring money stuff," Bilbo smiles.
Nothing more to be said, Bilbo supposes. They're back to the soft rush of the engine and the low complaints of Gandalf in the backseat. Thorin growls, "Kili, don't tease him."
"You were, I saw you."
"We're playing tug of war!"
Thorin gives a disbelieving grumble but lapses back into silence. Bilbo prompts (because he knows it's not true, but he wants to seem interested without sounding like a stalker), “So it’s just the two of you in the new house?”
“And Fili!” comes the yell from the backseat.
Thorin shoots a smile at the rearview mirror. “Yes, us and his brother.”
Bilbo waits for him to go on, but he gets nothing. Finally he presses, “How long are they staying with you? The boys, I mean.”
“A while,” Thorin answers. His voice doesn’t sound like they are treading on anything too sore. “My sister’s a geologist. She was supposed to be living with us too, but she got offered a position in a mining company that she couldn't turn down, in the Orocarni Mountains,” he glances in the mirror yet again and Bilbo’s mind crams in all the explanations that Thorin has left hanging; school fees or medical bills or mortgage payments? Or posthumous debt from the unspoken father? Thorin shifts his weight, propping his arm up on the window frame. “Anyway, she didn’t want to uproot the boys like that so she left them with me. Her contract finishes next year and fingers crossed she’ll be back to lecturing at the university again.”
So they are definitely temporary debts, then, Bilbo thinks. Drama-loving hobbit that he is, He's too curious not to ask, but just as he opens his mouth—
“Thorin! Thorin! The field’s down there— we can go see Fili—” Kili has jumped up and is straining against his seatbelt, pointing to the corner just past the red light where the car is waiting.
“Fili’s getting a ride home with Aghan’s mum today, Kili,” Thorin replies. “We’ve already made Mr Baggins late enough.”
“Please! Please, please, please!”
“Last night you didn’t want to get up early enough to watch Fili play,” Thorin reminds him. “You wanted cartoons this morning.”
“They were boring. I changed my mind. I want to see the rugby,” Kili is suddenly in the gap between the front seats, his elbow jammed into Bilbo’s shoulder as he bounces up and down. “It’ll be over in ten minutes, please, Thorin, please—”
“Sit down and put your seatbelt on,” Thorin rumbles. The light has turned green. “Right now!”
“Kili, I mean it!”
Kili’s pleading is now so squeaky that he is on the verge of summoning dogs, and Bilbo swears Thorin’s voice is low enough to make the chassis of the car shiver. His ears are beginning to ring and an ache thumps in the back of his skull. Before he really knows what he is doing, he finds himself snapping on the indicator and turning into the side street.
A few minutes later, he and Thorin stand by the car and watch Kili sprinting across the field towards a bedraggled umbrella-line of parents and coaches.
“Does he ever slow down?” Bilbo asks, feeling slightly light-headed.
Thorin scrubs his hands down his face with a groan. “Never. He even sleep walks.”
“Well, come on,” Bilbo pulls his umbrella out of the boot of the car and flicks it open. “Might as well watch the end of the game. I haven’t has a good shout at a rugby match for years!”
Most of the boys who straggle off the pitch soon afterwards are human, though it is hard to tell under all the mud. There are a couple of broad-shouldered young orcs, but only one figure short enough to be a dwarf. Sure enough, this stout, dripping child wanders in the direction of Thorin, Bilbo and Kili, dragging his boots and tugging out the ties that holds his hair back in a bun. He shakes out the long tresses, so filthy with bits of rugby field that it is only a wild guess on Bilbo’s part that he is usually blond.
Apparently their side has lost. Bilbo hasn’t been quite following the game, which mostly seemed to be a flock of boys under fifteen running back and forth along a churned field, occasionally throwing themselves into a pile and yelling a lot. The two team colours, if they had ever been particularly distinct, are now only blurs beneath the filth. Nevertheless, Bilbo listened for when Kili’s pitch rose to eardrum-imploding levels and dutifully screamed various half-remembered slogans from his university days.
The new young dwarf, the muddy one (though from the knees downwards Kili is having a go at matching him) squints up at his uncle. "Why're you guys here?"
“To see you, of course. Good game. You really hammered them in the fourth quarter,” Thorin tells him. "I saw that kick—”
Fili tilts his head to the side. “You were only watching for the last five minutes. Kili announced your arrival pretty clearly.” He glances at the bustling human woman beside Thorin, who is handing out juice boxes to several lads indistinguishable except by a few inches difference in height. “I thought Gilda was taking me home.”
“Yeah, uh,” Thorin gestures with his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels. Bilbo makes sure the umbrella follows him. “We had a bit of an emergency and Bilbo here offered us a ride. He lives just down the street from us.”
“Okay. Whatever,” Fili slouches past him towards the car park, his hands hanging by his side. Kili follows at a leaping jog, hanging off Fili's elbow as soon as he catches up. Bilbo notices that despite his sullenness, Fili’s arm immediately slides around his brother’s shoulders, smearing mud all over Kili’s jersey. The bustling woman gives Thorin a gentle smile and hands him a worn, clean towel, telling him to bring it back next week.
Bilbo is intensely grateful for that towel, and to Thorin for laying it down on the car seats before Fili climbs in. He tells himself he needs to do a proper upholstery clean anyway, and determinedly forces himself not to look at several fresh, earthy splodges on his backseat covers behind Kili's shoulders. It is just dirt. It will wash right out.
There isn’t much talking the rest of the way home, except for Kili introducing the cat to his brother, and being subsequently raked by Gandalf's claws when he tries to stick his fingers through the bars to touch its tail. Thorin immediately undoes his seatbelt and turns around to check that that the blood-loss is minimal, scolding Kili while his jeans-clad rear-end waggles mere inches from Bilbo’s face.
“Sit back and put your seatbelt on, Uncle,” Fili grumbles. “He’s fine, he’s just making a fuss.”
“I’m not! It hurt!” Kili cries, sticking his fingers in his mouth.
“Kili don’t put them in your mouth, it’s not hygienic—! oh, Mahal, too late—”
“He’s fine, uncle. He’d have licked the cat sooner or later anyway," Fili leans back and stares moodily out the window. Thorin fumbles in the pocket of his leather coat and produces a battered sticking plaster for Kili's fingers before he finally settles back into the front seat. Bilbo's hands relax on the steering wheel and he let out a long breath.
Poor Gandalf. He’s been stuck in that cage far longer than Bilbo meant him to be. He is keening and scratching the plastic walls as Bilbo slows down outside Thorin’s house, the realtor's sign still standing to attention on the lawn. Thorin extracts both boys and then leans down to the passenger’s side window, the towel folded over his shoulder, one hand locked around Kili’s wrist and the other resting on Fili’s back.
“Thank you again for the lift,” he says, as Kili heaves on his arm.
“Thor-or-rin, I need to go to the toi-let!”
“It was no trouble, honestly,” Bilbo waves him away. “Better get them inside and into the shower. And keep a closer eye on them this time.”
“What?” Fili asks. “Did Kili run away again?”
“I’ll do that,” Thorin ignores him to answer Bilbo. “Good luck holding onto the cat.”
"Touché," Bilbo laughs. His ears are still ringing from all the noise. And then, as if his tongue has completely missed the chaos of the last half-hour, he says suddenly, “Do you guys want to come around for a neighbourly dinner sometime?”
“Oh,” Thorin blinks. “Uh.”
“Tonight, even,” Bilbo shrugs. “I don’t have any plans.”
Thorin doesn’t answer, his mouth slightly open. Kili squeals his name and his brother rolls his eyes and peels Thorin’s grip off his wrist. “I’ll take him inside, Thorin. Come on, you little warg.”
As their voices recede towards the house, Thorin says at last, “Alright, but let me cook.”
“What? No, you’re not coming around to my house and cooking me food.”
“I owe you,” Thorin insists.
Bilbo hums. "Fine, fine. I'll do a dessert."
"Deal," Thorin gives him that bone-melting smile again and Bilbo feels himself relax back into the driver's seat like he'd been hit with a tranquilizer dart. He pulls away from the curb and drives the last two hundred yards home in a daze, Gandalf yowling in the backseat the whole way.
Thorin's cooking is… interesting, Bilbo thinks, forcing a smile to his face. The stew he's made is thick and dark, filled with lumps of mushrooms, woody slices of root-vegetables, thin cuts of meat and a number of other ingredients that Thorin took out of freeze-dried bags he brought into Bilbo's kitchen. There's also a side of sticky rice with something Bilbo can't identify holding it together and giving it flavour. It's not bad. It's just... different. Dwarvish, he supposes. There aren't a lot of dwarvish restaurants on this side of town, so he can't be sure.
Fili and Kili are wolfing the meal down, their elbows on Bilbo's big table and in Kili's case, surrounded by a splatter of stew across Bilbo's best tablecloth. Thorin eats with a little more grace.
"The flavour's not too strong?" he asks Bilbo suddenly, his fork halfway to his mouth.
"No, it's delicious!" Bilbo squeaks, smiling broadly, and tries to follow Kili's enthusiastic example.
"I halved the herbs," Thorin explains. "Hobbit cuisine seems to be a lot plainer."
"Hobbit cooking gets complexity from the variety of vegetables and fruits," Bilbo counters, happy to have reached a topic he has some knowledge about. "And we use plenty of herbs. But all fresh, all seasonal."
A smile tugs at the corner of Thorin's mouth. "My grandmother never used anything fresh. She was a half-decent cook, though she'd never even made toast until after we came west. She had a million recipes, I wish we hasn't lost her books. But everything we ate was from tins, or freezer bags, or dried. Not just because… you know…” he raises his eyebrows, and Bilbo doesn't know, but Thorin carries on as if he did. "It's how food was in the old country. In Erebor. Almost all food was imported, so all recipes developed around slow cooking, thickening and rehydrating, adding richer flavours. Did you know that refrigerated transport was invented in the Lonely Mountain?"
"N-no," Bilbo chokes on what seems to be a twig and quickly swallows it down. "Your family's from Erebor?"
"I was born there," Thorin glances down at his meal. He shrugs. "Before the war."
Bilbo raises his head. He doesn't know what to say, and his brain prompts him with the uncomfortable reminder that he's terrible at judging the ages of anyone who isn't a hobbit; how old can Thorin have been when he fled that horror? Ten? Forty? It has to be somewhere in between, but that could mean anything from a child living helplessly through the trauma to a young soldier fighting a vain battle to save his home. Bilbo doesn't know where to start. Thankfully, Kili rescues him.
"Our great-grandpa was really important in Erebor," he pipes up. His plate is empty and he's been eyeing his Bilbo's food for a couple of minutes now. "Mam says we'd be princes if Erebor hadn’t got burned up."
"We're not princes, Kili, that's not how it works," Fili tells him, pushing lumps of stew around his plate. "That's like when Aghan claims he's a Dunedain because one of his great-great-grandmothers worked as a ranger."
"We are!" Kili squawks. "Thorin, we are, aren't we?"
"You're both my little princes," Thorin says, smiling behind his beard and reaching over to give Kili's ear a gentle tweak. "You want seconds?"
"For Durin's sake, uncle, you're so embarassing," Fili mutters and Thorin lets out a burst of rumbling laughter that echoes through the halls of Bilbo's big, empty house.
"No, I'm full," Kili says sweetly, pushing his plate away, and then turns huge, brown eyes on Bilbo. "Dessert?"
Kili is made to wait until everyone else finishes before Bilbo brings out the trifle. He watches Thorin make his way through a bowl with what he is quite sure is the same forced smile that Bilbo put on while eating the stew, and he can't help laughing to himself as he dollops a scrape of cream into Gandalf's bowl. At least the boys seemed to enjoy it.
Bilbo insists that Thorin leave the washing-up on the bench for him. "You cooked," he says. "I'll clean. Tomorrow, probably."
"Can we play a game, now?" Kili appears at his elbow. "Do you want to, Bilbo?"
"Maybe Mr Baggins wants to sit and have another drink first, Kili," Thorin says cautiously.
Bilbo takes the empty casserole dish from Thorin, "No, we can play a game. What do you want to play?"
Kili bolts from the room and returns carrying a flat box that is almost wider than his arm-span. "Risk!" he squeaks, gazing up at Bilbo with the same wide, adorable gaze with which the dogs at the shelter had stared out of their posters. "Do you know the rules, Bilbo?"
"Kili, where did you even get that?" Thorin cries, coming into the kitchen with a pile of bowls. "I told you to leave it at home!"
Fili ruffles his brother's hair as he arrives with the last of the dirty place-mats. "He took your keys out of your jacket and ran back to the house when he told you he was going to the bathroom."
"And you covered for him," Thorin gives a low groan and crouches in front of his younger nephew. "Kili, we're not playing that. It takes days."
"Not when Fili and I are on the same team," Kili pouts. "We slay you and Mam both."
"Mr Baggins doesn't want to spend his Saturday night playing board games!"
Bilbo leans over. "I don't mind. I've never played before."
"Trust me, it's really not that exciting—” Thorin starts.
"It is!" Fili cries defensively. "You just don't try properly!"
"Ple-e-ease..." Kili bounces on the balls of his feet, clutching the rattling box to his chest.
"If you're worried I'll get bored, we can get another a bottle of wine for the grown-ups," Bilbo suggests, rinsing the plates and beginning to pack them into the dishwasher. "It's not like you have to drive home. I mean... if you want to?"
Thorin glances between the three faces in despair. "Alright," he throws up his hands. "Alright, we'll start a game, but not all night, yes? At Kili's bedtime we'll stop and leave it for another day." He takes Kili's chin between his thumb and forefinger. "Agreed?"
"Yeah, yeah," Kili grins.
About an hour later, Bilbo and Thorin's respective ambitions for Middle Earth domination are being obliterated by the children's empire. They are on the floor of Bilbo's living room, only halfway through Bilbo's favourite Dorwinian red. Fili and Kili lie on their stomachs with their heads together and a number of cards clutched in their hands, whispering about their next advance. Bilbo is pretty sure he is about to lose Minis Tirith to the oncoming hoards.
He leans in towards Thorin and whispers. "Is it just me, or is Kili a lot... lower maintenance around his brother?"
Thorin huffs a laugh. "It’s true. I couldn't handle him without Fili."
Bilbo smirks down at his cards. Thorin swallows the dregs of his glass and reaches for the bottle again, muttering, "Of course, it goes both ways, really."
"Hmm?" Bilbo raises his head.
"Stop conspiring! You're enemies!" Kili cries, going pink with fury when the adults only reply with a sniggers.
They surrender before the wine bottle is even empty. Kili wants to keep playing until he and Fili control the entire board, but he’s swayed to mercy by the promise of more trifle. Thorin crawls around on hands and knees packing the pieces away while the boys clatter about in the kitchen next door.
“You know, I’ve got another bottle of this that needs drinking,” Bilbo says as he empties the wine into his glass. “And I think there’s kids movies on at least one of the four hundred satellite channels my provider made me sign up for.”
Thorin pauses with the game box cradled on his knees. There’s a little line forming between his thick brows, and he opens his mouth to reply, but a voice interrupts him.
“You need to ground him, you know.”
Bilbo looks up guiltily, resisting the urge to hide his wine glass behind his back. Fili is standing in the doorway with a bowl of trifle in his hands, spooning it slowly into his mouth as he stares at his uncle. “For running away,” he explains to Thorin. “Mam would have grounded him.”
“Kili said he was sorry and I believe him. That’s enough for me,” Thorin says.
“You would have grounded me,” Fili mutters, swallowing down a particularly large spoonful of trifle. “You were always harder on me.”
“Well it didn’t work with you, did it?” Thorin growls back.
Bilbo gives him a shocked glance and then sips his wine to try and cover it. Thorin’s shoulders are tense and his expression self-reproachful, but he’s still refusing to break Fili’s gaze. Neither of them speak, and the electric silence stretches on until Kili appears in the doorway behind his brother with an even bigger bowl of dessert in his hands.
“What’s going on?” he asks, his voice muffled by a mouthful of food.
Thorin gets up off his knees and goes to put the box on the coffee table. “Mr Baggins was just asking if you guys wanted to watch a movie while the grown-ups hang out together.”
“Yeah!” Kili beams. “Fili, you wanna watch movies?”
Fili is still glaring at his uncle. He squeezes the scruff of his brother’s neck without looking away. “Yeah. Okay.”
They leave the boys flopped in front of the network premiere of Song of the Ice Drake and end up back into the kitchen, sitting on bar stools with a bowl of water-biscuits (Bilbo doesn’t do junk food very well) and an open bottle between them. It’s not the Dorwinian silver-label that Bilbo had promised, but a proper Iron Hills Single Malt, the liquor shining gold under the glow of the bohemian chandelier that Bilbo installed when he overhauled the décor two years ago (he hates it now; he’s going to redo it all next summer, because this is what he spends his inheritance on, this is how he keeps himself occupied when he isn’t chasing cats).
“Mahal, I need a drink,” Thorin mutters, rubbing his eyes with one hand. Bilbo cracks ice into a glass, but Thorin puts his hand over his own with a tired smile. “You’re supposed to drink that at room temperature, you know.”
“Oh,” Bilbo screws his face up and tosses the ice into the sink. “I’m not really a connoisseur. I dabble.”
“I got that impression already,” Thorin picks up the bottle and pours them each two fingers – generous, dwarvish fingers. Bilbo tries not to stare at his hand encircling the bottle, at the brown knuckles and the thick, silver rings. “Sorry, that sounded rude,” Thorin says as he looks up at him and Bilbo meets his eyes with a smile.
“Not at all,” he says quietly, taking his glass and clinking it to Thorin’s. “When’s the last time you had a Saturday night out of the house?”
Thorin thinks about it, staring into the liquor as he breathes in its scent. At last he says, with a soft note of surprise. “I don’t remember.”
“You seem pretty involved with children that aren’t yours,” Bilbo says, because the wine was strong enough, the door into the living room is shut and the first musical number of Song of the Ice Drake is playing loud enough to cover their voices anyway. “No offence. They’re seem like cool kids, but you didn’t even get the fun of making them.”
Thorin snorts into his drink and wipes his mouth with a smirk. After a long moment he shrugs. “Their dad’s in the territorials. I was the only one with Dis when Fili arrived, and I just thought, this is my firstborn. No questions, that’s what it felt like. So I decided to hang around for the first few months, help my sister change nappies and do nightshifts until he got back. Thirteen years later…” Thorin let it hang as he took a long sip. “Vili came and went,” he licks the ghost of the liquor off his bottom lip and Bilbo swallows and holds back a whimper, but Thorin is staring at the steel door of Bilbo’s enormous fridge and doesn’t notice.
“You said ‘it goes both ways’,” Bilbo reminds him. “About keeping the boys in line.”
“Yeah,” Thorin smiles. “Kili brings out the best in his brother, there’s no doubt. Fili’s gonna be a good dwarf one day, I know it. He’s getting there. I went through bad stages and so did my brother and my best friend Dwalin. Fili… he’s had a rough couple of years. That’s why we moved out here into the middle of the suburbs, into the zone for a new high school. Get him away from… bad influences,” Thorin is chewing the inside of his cheek. “Funny thing is, I didn’t realise until I saw him at the game today that we didn’t just cut him out of all the shit. We cut him off from everything dwarvish he had. Everything I’ve spent my career arguing is important,” he combs a few tresses of hair back from his face. “How fucked up is that?”
Bilbo shrugs. He doesn’t have any answer for that, or indeed, any frame of reference to begin to understand how fucked up it might be. After a long time he says, feeling no more useful than a fridge magnet, “Transitions are tough for everyone. I should organise a welcome party, you know, get the neighbourhood together in one place.”
“For us?” Thorin raises an eyebrow. “The same neighbours who’ve been crossing the road when they see me coming?”
“Oh, they haven’t!” Bilbo cries.
“Even you, almost,” Thorin points out.
“Woah, no,” Bilbo raises his hand. “This morning, that wasn’t—”
“It’s alright. Maybe I’m being paranoid,” Thorin rumbles. “Worrying about the boys being isolated out here.”
Bilbo sighs. He is trying to think through the warm blanket of the liquor, and a spark burns in the distance to reach him. “You know there’s a sports centre just on the other side of the district? I go to the gym there. They host a hockey league, and more than half those kids are dwarves.”
Thorin raises his head. His eyes are brighter now. “Fili loves hockey. There was no league at his old school.”
“There we go,” Bilbo reaches across and squeezes his hand. A jolt of heat that pretends must be from the drink runs up his arm and deep into his core. “I’ll pick up a flyer when I’m there next.”
“Thank you,” Thorin murmurs.
“So, tell me what you’re working on right now,” Bilbo presses. “I majored in history at uni before I went into trade, I want to hear about your projects…”
They talk around the bottle so late that Bilbo doesn’t notice the time until Fili appears in the doorway, rubbing his eyes and saying the movie has finished. Thorin goes into the living room and comes back carrying Kili over his shoulder, fast asleep with the pattern of Bilbo’s embroidered pillows imprinted into his cheek.
“Goodnight, Mr Baggins,” Thorin nods at him at the door, clutching Fili’s hand. “Thank you for the drink, and for tolerating my cooking.”
“Night,” Fili yawns.
“Have a safe walk home. And pop in any time,” Bilbo raises his hand to them and watches them wander down the drive.
The house feels very cold and quiet, but it still smells of stew.
Bilbo sleeps off the Iron Hills liquor until late on Sunday morning and is just sitting down to a pile of eggs, bacon and proper-cooked Buckland toast when there comes a knock on the door. He grizzles to himself and ties his dressing gown tighter before he marches down the front hall.
“Oh,” he draws back when he finds Thorin standing on the other side. “Good morning.”
“Sorry to bother,” Thorin has his hands stuffed in the pockets of the same leather jacket as yesterday, and shadows beneath his eyes. “We left the infamous board game behind.”
“Ah! Yes, come in, I left it somewhere obvious that I’ve forgotten now—” Bilbo waves him into the house. “Have you had breakfast?”
“Are you kidding? I’ve been up since eight trying to convince Kili to finish Monday’s math homework,” Thorin takes a couple of hesitant steps over the threshold. “I just left them playing video games, I shouldn’t stay long.”
“Just stay for a cup of tea then,” Bilbo finds the game leaning against his umbrella stand and holds it out. “Go on.”
“One cup,” Thorin warns. As he follows Bilbo towards the kitchen, Gandalf comes dashing down the passage to wind himself around Thorin’s ankles. Thorin makes an uncomfortable face at the cat and settles himself in the chair nearest to Bilbo’s breakfast. Bilbo, still blinking away sleep, loses his thoughts for a moment while he watches the steam unfold in coils from the pot. He comes to with a jolt, nods to himself and goes to find his mother’s best porcelain at the back of the pantry.
“You know, you said your sister loved lecturing geology,” Bilbo says as he scoffs down his breakfast. “But you never said why she went off to work in the Orocarnis.”
Thorin’s mouth went very thin and he looks down at his tea, turning the delicate, little cup between his hands. “That’s not a story that reflects well on me, actually.”
“Oh,” Bilbo stops with a wobbling piece of egg-white halfway to his mouth. “Ah, well, if it’s personal… but really, it can’t be worse than what I’m imagining now, can it?”
Thorin shoots him a frown that is quickly tempered with a smile. “Really? I bet you’re a terrible gossip, Mr Baggins.”
“No, no, I’m kidding. You don’t have to tell me,” Bilbo shakes his head.
“It’s… you know, I won’t hide it,” Thorin says slowly, sipping his tea with great delicacy, as if afraid the painted cup will shatter in his grip. “I don’t know if you saw it on the news last year, but there was this old temple downtown. Early fourth age. The only one of its type in the whole district, and the only one in the country I’ve seen with the original friezes still in situ. It’s only a small chapel, but it is… it was beautiful. It’d been boarded up for decades and it was starting to fall apart, but the landowners finally put it on the market and we ran a big campaign to turn it into a tourist attraction. My charity raised half the asking price, and we got a grant from the government for the other half. I had volunteers and professionals keen to do the work, and a private donor willing to put in start-up money to restore it and get the business running,” Thorin smiles, his gaze resting on the blank varnish of Bilbo’s oak table, remembering something lovely that Bilbo knows, without hearing the end of the story, that he will never see. Then his face turns grim and his voice writhes with bitterness. “Then the mall next door outbid us and bought up the whole block to turn into a carpark.”
“I do remember it,” Bilbo says quietly. “There was a lot of fuss.”
“We thought for sure we’d get classified as historically significant and they’d be barred from demolishing it,” Thorin snarls, and his hand jabs at the air as if he is still speaking to councilors and board members. “But no one cares about dwarvish beauty. Once the media started asking question the mall promised to remove all the wall art and donate it to a museum, but a temple like that… they’re spiritually connected to the earth where they’re built, the architecture reflects that, and there were graves and catacombs and history in those flagstones, great names from the past who’d knelt there… you can’t just rip out the nicest bits and dump them in a museum!” he spat. With a long sigh he shakes his head. “Anyway, we protested for weeks. The last day, all these uni students had come to support us, a couple hundred of them, and not just dwarves – all sorts, it was… heartening. I think we got too full of ourselves then. When the cops came to clear us out, they started pushing those kids, and I…” he raises his eyebrows at Bilbo. “I meant to wade in and tell the students to disperse. The last thing I wanted was one of them getting arrested over some bits of old stone. But things got a bit heated, and, well, now I have a court date in a couple of months for elbowing an armoured police officer in the gut.”
Bilbo is just taking a sip of his own tea, but most of the mouthful spurts back into the cup and over his hand. He chokes and grabs for his napkin to dab himself down. Thorin chuckles. “I know.”
“But that’s terrible! They face worse than that when the Dunland Dragons win a big game, don’t they? They’re using you as a scapegoat,” Bilbo splutters.
“I don’t know. All the kids had videophones, so the lawyers say there’s a good chance I’ll get off on self-defense grounds. Otherwise it’ll be community service and a fine. But the legal fees,” Thorin shrugs. “If Dis hadn’t taken the job, we’d have lost the new house before we could even move in. Right when we needed to get the boys into a stable environment. So that’s my story,” he drains the rest of his tea in a single gulp and grins, but there’s something like surrender in it, and Bilbo wonders again how old he really is. “I’m just as bad as all your neighbours suspected.”
Bilbo tilts his head, glaring at him. “You should hear the things they used to say about me,” he says at last. “And you know, what you said last night, about how even I almost crossed the road when we first ran into each other…” he feels his cheeks beginning to glow, but barrels on regardless. "I know it came off badly, but I wasn't staring at you because you were a dwarf. Well, not entirely. I mean. It wasn't because I was scared. Quite the opposite," he winces, but he’s being explicit enough: he can see two spots of colour growing on Thorin's cheeks. "Not because I, you know, have a weird thing for dwarves! I don't! I mean, nor do I have anything against that… I'm completely open to… or rather… it was just you in particular that I was staring at, is what I’m saying. I'm trying compliment you," he shakes his head furiously. "It's going very badly."
Thorin licks his bottom lip, and Bilbo sees with relief that he's trying not to smile. "Not at all, it’s not as if I didn’t see this coming. You're awfully... forward for a hobbit, Mr Baggins."
"I'm awfully lonely for a hobbit," Bilbo mutters, and then covers his face with both hands as Thorin laughs. "Oh, Yavanna, shut me up."
“It’s fine. Compliment accepted,” Thorin tells him, and Bilbo lowers his hands.
“Do you want to do dinner again?” he asks before he can think about, before Thorin has a chance to look up from his empty teacup and meet his eye, because at that point he will absolutely become so tongue-tied that he might as well lock himself in the fridge until his skin stops burning up. “Just the two of us, I mean. I could cook. Or we could go out. I don’t mind.”
Thorin looks up sharply and his gaze pins Bilbo in place. Just as Bilbo knew it would his throat locks up and his gut clenches and he can’t say a word as the quiet falls between them. Gandalf is purring like a vacuum cleaner. At last, with what looks like grief or pity or something even more shameful, Thorin shakes his head and looks down at his hands again. “Everything is such a mess right now,” he rumbles. “With the new house, and work, and just me to look after the boys, and going to court on top everything, Durin’s Blood! I… it’s not a good time to get back into the dating scene…” he licks his lips and smiles at Bilbo again. “Thank you, Bilbo.”
“It’s fine,” Bilbo squeaks. “Completely fine. Don’t think on it again.”
He sees Thorin to the door, shakes his hand, and closes it behind him.
Bilbo walks through the big, empty halls of his big, empty house and settles himself at his desk, staring at all his neatly laid-out books and pencils, hunching into his dressing gown. Well, he bollocksed that up good and proper, didn't he? He should have waited. He should have just slowed down and been a good neighbour. Now he’s not only lost a friend, but ruined Thorin’s best chance of ingratiating himself with the rest of the street. He’ll be far too uncomfortable to come back to the house anytime soon, and certainly won’t ask Bilbo for any favours like introducing him to the rest of the neighbours, even though Bilbo would be happy to, no strings attached—
There's a sharp rapping at his door. Grumbling, Bilbo gets up and strides towards it. The last thing he needs is nosy Mrs Bolger asking him what the deal is with that dwarf who just moved in down the street. He drags the door open.
Thorin is standing there, smiling. "Hello."
"Did you… forget the game again?" Bilbo frowns and leans back to look through into the kitchen, where the Risk box is sitting shedding bits of old duct tape onto Bilbo’s table.
"Yes. I did. And I also realised," Thorin takes a deep breath. "Since yesterday I've accidentally told you everything about my life, Bilbo, without really learning a thing about yours. I don't even know what you do."
Bilbo steps back and folds his arms. "Well... er... I'm a tax auditor. Really boring money stuff, as I said,” he laughs. It comes out like more of a nervous giggle.
"Still," Thorin inclines his head. "I can't very well make a decision this important without a bit more research."
"Er," Bilbo narrows his eyes. "You know I was just talking about a date, right? Not marriage and the unification of our households—”
"I know," Thorin laughs, and it would probably be a nervous giggle just like Bilbo’s if he didn’t have a chest cavity big enough to house the eagles of Manwë. “Look, er,” he shrugs. "Dwalin can watch the boys on Tuesday if he's not working late. Does that suit you?"
Bilbo can’t take his eyes off that warm, blue gaze. A smile spreads slowly across his face. "Tuesday suits me."
"Good," Thorin grins so wide and bright that Bilbo’s breakfast seems to triple in density and drag his lungs down to his ankles. Then Thorin leans in over the threshold. Bilbo tenses up for a moment, his vision suddenly blocked by a silhouette of dark, wild hair and his nose full of the smell of leather, but Thorin simply kisses him on the cheek and straightens up again. The dwarf turns and jogs down the front steps, looking back over his shoulder with one last smile. He raises his hand, still trapped into the pocket of his jacket, and gives a small wave. “I’ll see you round.”
Bilbo watches him march down the street, and he hopes all the neighbours are watching, because for all the gold and reputation in the world he cannot stop smiling.