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Day and Night

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The first time Bilbo sees them they are barely more than a shadow.

He is still a tween and out too late after a rather long and loud night with his friends, consciously delaying the walk back home even more because he knows that his mother is going to be angry. Bilbo has been out in the woods alone on his own before - but never so late at night, when every sound seems somehow changed by the darkness and completely alien. His hand holding the lantern is trembling slightly as he strains his eyes and ears for anything unusual happening around him.

There is a huff to his right, accompanied by the crackling of small branches and he whirls around, the light in his hands briefly reflected in two grey eyes and a flash of gold before a large form jumps out of the understorey at him. No, not at him, but past him. Bilbo stumbles back with a frightened shout nonetheless and his lantern flies out of his hands and to the forest floor where it shatters, causing the light inside to go out. The wolf – and Bilbo is sure that it has been a wolf even though they haven’t been seen in this part of the world for decades – has already run past him when he looks up again. He thinks he hears a quiet voice, a whispered name and for a moment he can see a dark shape on the path in front of him. He is taller than a Hobbit but not as tall as a man, faintly illuminated by moonlight that glints off dark hair, a coat with a lining of silver fur on his shoulders. The wolf is standing next to him, the stranger’s hand on his head and the glint of gold in his ear.

Bilbo blinks and the two are gone. He hurries home as fast as his feet can carry him, his mother’s scolding suddenly preferable to whatever is out there in the woods, waiting for him. When he comes back to the same place again the next morning there is no trace of the two and as the years go by he convinces himself that he must have imagined it all, a dream procured by too much ale and pipeweed.

*

“Have you heard? Word is that someone has escaped from Erebor!”

Dwalin’s hands still momentarily before he pulls himself together and takes another bite from the piece of meat between his fingers. Truly this has to be just another ruse. Nobody has ever escaped from Erebor. Nobody.

The people around him express the same disbelief.

“No, no, it’s true, I tell you! They’re turning every stone between here and Mirkwood to find the one who's gone. There’s so many guards around you can hardly take a piss without one of them watching you!”

Dwalin frowns; it’s true, he has noticed more guards as well and resolved to go back to the Blue Mountains lest he might draw unwanted attention. He nods at the innkeeper and leaves a few coins on the table, drawing his hood deeper across his face before he steps out into the rain.

Once outside the little village he looks up into the trees.

“Thorin.” he calls softly. There’s an answering call from up in the branches and a large raven sweeps down to land on his arm and hop on to his shoulder from there. If there truly is a thief who has gotten out of Erebor alive they need to find them.

*

The second time Bilbo catches a glimpse of the cursed duo he doesn't recognise them.

He has different thoughts on his mind that moment than a distant memory of a wolf and a man in a lonely, moonlit night, for he has just escaped what is known as the impenetrable fortress that no one who enters it in bonds will ever leave alive. His fingers are cold and trembling from clawing their way through mud and the icy water of the sewers for too long and he can barely breathe from the cold when he finally clambers out of the channels. It is the beginning of winter and out here the cold is even worse than in the cells.

Bilbo had sworn to himself never to steal anything again should he escape unscathed, but of course, a growling stomach and empty purse soon override any good intentions he might have had. Bilbo Baggins is, after all, a thief. Oh, not one of those who take the big things like large items or expensive jewellery – no, he likes to refer to himself as a pickpocket, taking some coin here, a little trinket there or some food to get him through the day. Of course, being a hobbit often rather helps matters – quiet feet, small size and quick fingers are the keys to his ‘trade’ after all. Most men and orcs always regards him with something akin to amusement and when those who never took him seriously come to recognise their mistake it’s usually much too late.

It was only his luck that had gone amiss at some point and left him locked up in the dungeons of Erebor. Bilbo shudders quietly when he remembers the cold cells and the misery of all its inhabitants. Every day they had taken some and hanged them, even those whose punishment in the old days under the Durin’s rule would have been much lighter. But Smaug wants fear being sown amongst the people, not justice served and so Erebor’s current ruler will mercilessly weed out anyone who dares to oppose him or his laws. Bilbo knows he has to get as far away as possible, and as fast as possible at that.

As he is stumbling through the unfamiliar forest to the east of the Lonely Mountain, there is a croak over him and he sees what looks like a huge black raven with a few gray feathers on his neck sitting on a branch and staring down at him. It has the bluest eyes Bilbo has ever seen and there is something about them that makes him feel like he’s being watched. He decides to ignore the bird and just go on, even though he can still feel the gaze from those strange eyes drilling into his back. When he finally turns around to look again the raven is long gone and only then he realises that this is the first time he has seen a raven so close to the mountain.

*

The third time he sees them sets events in motion that Bilbo hadn’t even dreamed of ever experiencing.

He doesn’t truly feel far enough away from Erebor yet to be safe (maybe he will never feel safe again, dreaming forever about guards sneaking up on him and cold mud caked under his fingernails), but he is hungry and the coin he has stolen should be enough to buy him a decent meal at one of the street vendors’ stalls.

The vendor eyes his bedraggled clothes and unwashed face warily.

“Payment upfront.” he grunts and holds out his hand. Bilbo just answers with a theatrical sigh and an exaggerated jingle of his pouch full with coins to show the man that he has more than enough money to pay for a simple bowl of stew and some bread. The vendor just raises his eyebrows and repeats his gesture, pushing his hand in Bilbo’s direction.

Bilbo rolls his eyes and counts out the coins into the man’s hand. He’s just about to put his pouch back into his shirt (an experienced thief never puts it on his belt; he knows just how easily it can be cut off and stolen that way) when someone grips his wrist.

“That’s a nice full purse you have there.” Bilbo looks up into the man’s face and his heart stops and drops somewhere into the region of his stomach. The guard grins at him, increasing the pressure on his arm so that he is forced to let go of his pouch before his bones get crushed.

“And how does a ragged creature like you come by so much money?”

At least there are no orcs together with this bunch. The orcs have come to the mountain together with Smaug and since mingled with the men in his service, often enough accompanying them on their missions now instead of only guarding their master. There are many amongst them who are a decent enough sort and Bilbo guesses they have been forced into service just as much as the men now under Smaug's command, but there are also some amongst them that let shivers run over his back.

The guard opens the pouch to see how much money is in it and his grin widens, almost turning into a leer.

“Ooooh, lads, come over, looks like I caught myself a thief here!”

Bilbo decides that either, he has to run now or try and somehow talk his way out of the situation. The other guards are too close to try running, however, and his quick tongue has helped him out more than once before. He takes a deep breath and draws himself up to his full height (which isn’t really much compared to the men around him, but anyway).

“This is my money, thank you very much.” he says as indignantly as possible and extends his hand as if he expects the guard to hand his pouch back to him. For a second, the man looks utterly started and Bilbo decides to forge on. “I’ve won it in an honest gamble earlier today,” (of course there is no such thing as honest gambling under Smaug but Bilbo hopes that the guards in front of him belong to the vast majority of those who invest in such games anyway) ”and I would very much welcome it if you could give it back.”

His plan might even have worked had one of the guards not decided to put a hand on his shoulder and turn him around violently.

“I knew it!” the guard who has grabbed him from behind exclaims. “He’s the thief! The one who escaped! I knew I recognised him from my rounds in the prison!”

He yanks at Bilbo’s shirt, exposing his bare shoulder and the thief’s mark that’s burnt into it. Bilbo swears quietly. There is no way he will get through with his story now. Of all the men he had to meet it had to be one of the prison guards...there’s only one thing left for him to try. With all the strength he has left he ducks, ignoring the ripping sound his shirt makes, and wrenches his hand out of the momentarily slack grip of the other guard.

Bilbo uses the moment of surprise his sudden escape attempt creates and weasels his way through between the guards’ legs. There’s a surprised shout behind him just as he starts running and soon they are following him. With their longer legs they will have caught up with him in a minute – Bilbo desperately looks for something to climb on, but only sees a dangerously flimsy-looking wooden rack usually used to dry fish from the nearby lake. Now, with winter and snow around the door, it’s empty and Bilbo runs towards it and climbs up as fast as he can.

Only moments later the first guards slam against the wood, causing the entire structure to wobble dangerously.

“Take it down, take it down!” One of them shouts, furiously starting to hack at the beams supporting the rack.

Bilbo curses colourfully and wonders for a moment what his parents would say if they could see him now. Then he shakes his head – musing about them would not help him. They have both been dead for decades, even though the lingering pain in his chest from it will never quite pass. The rack wobbles as the first two beams fall and Bilbo curses again. A fine thief he is making, not even able to escape a handful of guards anymore.

He jumps from beam to beam, always evading the falling parts of the structure at the last second. But in the end there is nowhere else to go and with a murmured prayer he jumps off the last piece of wood, rolling off on the floor and darting away as soon as he has firm ground under his feet again. His freedom doesn’t last much longer though – one of the guards is faster than the others and grips his upper arm firmly not long after he has started running.

Bilbo bites and scratches, fighting against the hold of his captors, but it’s no use. Two of them restrain him, bending his arms so violently that he thinks his shoulders will pop out of their sockets if they increase the pressure just a little bit more.

“Kill him.” one of the guards orders. “I won’t take the risk of the little weasel trying to run again.”

The man next to him lifts his sword and Bilbo makes a desperate little sound in his throat, closing his eyes in what he is sure will be his last moments. Instead of cold metal on his throat, however, there is a thwack and a loud cry, followed by a sword clattering to the ground.

Bilbo carefully opens his eyes just as the two men holding him also cry out as a second and third throwing axes find their targets, the pressure on his arms easing immediately. There is a swirl of black feathers in the air and men fighting against someone to his right, but he wastes no time looking at it. A lot of time spent running from guards has taught him never to question his luck, but sometimes simply grab it and not let go. So instead of looking who or what has caused his sudden freedom he just darts forward and runs.

*

Dwalin curses loudly when he sees the thief run away, but his attention is soon diverted by the guards attacking him again. His little throwing axes have incapacitated them only momentarily, making it possible for the little thief to get away but not doing any significant damage. With a shout he knocks another one of them to the ground and blocks the strike of a third, just barely keeping him from taking his own head off. There is a croak behind him and the fleeting sensation of wings almost brushing his skin. He disarms his current opponent and turns around, watching just as Thorin’s talons sink deeply into one of the guard’s faces.

“It’s them!”

Dwalin swears again and hopes that Thorin is wise enough to be careful. It wouldn’t be the first time that he is hurt in a fight, but Dwalin has no desire to see it happen again, especially not when he’s a raven. They should never have come so close to Erebor’s vicinity, even to find the damned thief. He roars and with a mighty swing of Keeper incapacitates another two guardsmen who were foolish enough to try and sneak up on him from behind.

There’s a warning shriek from Thorin behind him and Dwalin strikes out blindly, catching one of the guards in the stomach. He pulls Grasper out again and steps aside, letting the wounded man fall into his comrade’s swords and giving himself a precious moment of time. The last of his foes goes down when Thorin distracts him by attacking furiously from behind so that it’s an easy thing for Dwalin to come and knock him out.

Thorin makes a little satisfied sound and lands on one of the fallen wooden beams, starting to preen his feathers that have become ruffled during the little skirmish. Dwalin shakes his head and starts collecting the small throwing axes from the beginning of the fight. Two of those he has fought are still alive and he hesitates, wondering whether he should kill them. With a sigh he decides against it – maybe he has become softer with age, but there has been enough blood spilled in both their names and even if they survive long enough to tell the tale, there are enough villagers who have seen him and Thorin and could give them away.

“Thorin!” he calls out to the raven who looks up immediately at the sound of his voice, his blue eyes drilling into Dwalin’s. “Go and see if you can find out where the thief went. We need him and it’s going to get dark in a few hours.”

The raven nods and with a sudden movement of his wings he climbs up into the air, flying in the direction that the thief ran off to.

*

It is only sheer will that keeps Bilbo going after a while. The time in prison hasn’t exactly improved his stamina and it feels like everything in his body is burning, his feet, his legs, his chest, his head. The close encounter with death has shaken him more than he has realised and he keeps turning, paranoid of soldiers following him. When he finally stops he is shaking and has to lean against a tree to calm his ragged breathing. Thankfully he still has his second purse sown into the inside of his shirt, but out here in the wilderness money will be of little us of him. His growling stomach reminds him that he still hasn’t eaten anything today, but going back is out of the question and he doesn’t feel like he could face any other village right now.

He gives himself another few moments to collect his wits before he forces himself upright once again. “Help yourself if nobody wants to help you.” his mother has always told him and so far he has stayed true to her words. After all, hasn’t he even managed to escape from Erebor?

Bilbo’s first priority is to make a fire. The cold of the beginning winter is starting to gnaw at his bones despite the new clothes he has stolen the day he escaped. And there are only a few hours left until sunset – better find a good place to spend the night now, sooner rather than later. The next hour he fully concentrates on finding shelter and dry wood. Once he has done so he tries to get a fire going with what little knowledge he still has of surviving in the wild. Focusing on his tasks helps his mind to push back the fear floating through it and when he finally sits down and starts warming his hands over the flames he has almost calmed down, leaning back against the wall of the little cave he has found with a sigh.

There is the sound of flapping wings above him and he looks up just in time to see the outline of a huge raven against the sky. Bilbo frowns; he vaguely remembers the bird he has seen shortly after escaping from Erebor and the black feathers during the fight with the guards. Surely it cannot be the same one? But something tells him it was and he feels uneasiness settle in his gut like a heavy stone even when he is trying to reassure himself that the bird is probably as harmless as it’s curious.

He curses his gullibility only moments later when there is the cracking of heavy boots on the forest floor. His snug little hideout now becomes a problem - there is only one exit and whoever is coming will be here shortly and block it. Bilbo scrambles as far back as he can to bring the fire between himself and the intruder and ignites a branch of wood on the flames to defend himself with.

A burly shape comes into view and Bilbo startles a little when he sees that it isn't one of the guards, nor, indeed one of the menfolk in general. It is a dwarf, unusually tall still, but definitely a dwarf with wide shoulders, a set of axes on his back, a beard and a short mohawk. There are tattoos on his hands and to each side of the tufts of hair on his otherwise bare head. He looks menacing and grim and Bilbo grips his branch a little more tightly.

There's a croaking in the air and then the flapping of wings again and the raven, the same raven he has seen before, settles on a branch near the entrance to his little alcove in the rocks. It looks first at the intruder, then at him and the gaze of his blue eyes is so intense that Bilbo almost forgets about the danger around him.

Bilbo's attention snaps back to the stranger when he comes closer to him yet again, but then the dwarf lifts both of his hands to show he is holding no weapon.

"Relax, thief, I'm not with the guards." he grumbles.

At the mention of the word 'thief' Bilbo's heart clenches and he musters the dwarf in front of him suspiciously.

"What do you want?" he asks, lifting his little branch a bit higher. His make-shift weapon looks a lot less intimidating when faced with the stranger's axes, but it's still better than nothing.

"I'm here to ask you for your services." The raven makes a strange little sound at the dwarf's choice of words. It almost sounds like laughter. The stranger shoots him a dark scowl which seems to leave the bird entirely unfazed.

"What services?" Bilbo is slightly confused. He has expected a lot of answers ranging from "I'm here to kill you." to "I want you to give back those shoes you stole a few days back at the apple orchard." but not this.

The dwarf exchanges another gaze with the raven who, if Bilbo sees correctly, seems to give a small nod. The gesture looks so un-birdlike that Bilbo is sure he must have imagined it. Birds don't nod, and neither do they laugh.

"I need you to guide us back into Erebor."

"Oh no. No no no no no no." Bilbo shakes his head. There is no way that he will ever go back. "You won't get me back in there. Not for any money in the world."

"But you are the only one who has ever made it out alive. We need you." Does Bilbo's mind play tricks on him or is there a slightly desperate tinge to the dwarrow's voice?

"No." he says again, making his voice as firm as possible. Rage briefly lights the dwarf's features and Bilbo tries to take another step back, even though his back is already touching rock.

The raven suddenly shuffles his feathers and makes another sound. With a few beats of his wings he sails through the air and lands on the dwarf's shoulder, whacking his face with his wings in the process. From there the bird hops onto the stranger's pack that he's carrying on his back and starts picking at one of the many pockets in it.

"What-" The dwarf grunts, seemingly annoyed, but doesn't seem to mind the presence of the bird. Then understanding lights his features and he turns back to Bilbo.

"Let's let the matter rest for now." he suggests. "You look like you haven't eaten all day and I have more than enough. Care to share?" The words sound slightly forced, as if he would rather just drag Bilbo away by force, but they still give him a slight pause. Bilbo's stomach answers for him with an almost embarrassingly loud growl that makes the corners of the dwarf's lips twitch.

"Alright." Bilbo says hesitantly and gestures at the fire for the stranger to sit down. Belatedly he remembers his manners and gives a slight bob of his head. "Bilbo Baggins, at your service." 'Never forget your manners even in the most dire of situations.' his mother's voice echoes through his head again.

"Dwalin, son of Fundin, at yours." The dwarf's nod is so miniscule that Bilbo almost misses it. With a sigh Dwalin sits down on the ground next to the fire, opposite Bilbo. He starts rummaging in his pack and, after a moment, pulls out several large stripes of dried meat, wrapped neatly in some oilpaper. He rips one in half, puts one part in his mouth and hands the other to the raven which is sitting back on his shoulder again. The bird takes the piece and flies to a small rock close by, holding down the piece of meat with one clawed foot and immediately starting to rip small enough bits out of it to eat.

Bilbo watches with such fascination that he almost misses Dwalin handing him a few pieces as well, accepting them belatedly with nodded thanks.

"That's a very well-trained pet you have there." he remarks with a gaze at the raven. The bird looks up at him and croaks indignantly, fluffing up his feathers seemingly in protest of his words. Dwalin grins.

"He isn't quite my pet and not half as well-trained as you seem to think. But we have been travelling together for a long time, right, Durin?" The raven gives another croak and diverts his attention back to his almost finished piece of meat again. Dwalin throws him another one and then continues to eat, gathering more provisions from his pack to share with Bilbo.

Now that he has the chance to examine him more thoroughly, Bilbo notices several strange features about the dwarf. There is a golden earring in one of his ears and his fingernails seem to be a thought sharper than normal ones. His canine teeth look long, almost like fangs. There is a wildness about him as he tears into the food in front of him and Bilbo shudders, suddenly grateful that the dwarf doesn't seem to be intent on killing him at the moment.

The silence between them stretches until Dwalin suddenly moves, eyeing the sky that tells them it will get dark soon.

"You are welcome to sleep under my protection tonight, Master Baggins." he says. "Although I'm afraid I must leave you for a while to see to something in the woods. And do not wake me, for I do not like to have my sleep disturbed at night."

Bilbo signals his agreement - he is too tired and his stomach too full to be able to truly resist Dwalin's proposition. Dwalin even throws him a blanket before he leaves and Bilbo takes it with a murmured thanks. He looks after him as the dwarf disappears into the woods, taking nothing with him but an axe and a small bag - and the raven on his shoulder. Maybe he is leaving to gather some more firewood, Bilbo thinks drowsily, unable to stifle a yawn as the events of the past days are taking their toll on him.

He spends a good while staring into the fire whilst the sun is setting and darkness descends, lost in his own thoughts about what he is to do in the future. At one point he thinks he can hear distant cries but the sound is gone as quickly as he has heard it and maybe he has just imagined it, so he returns to his own musings again. He has no true home to go to, nobody waiting for him in any of the cities he has visited so far. Despite not ever feeling the need for physical intimacy he has also taken care not to stay in one place for too long since he became a thief, for fear of being discovered and remembered. Now this choice is coming back to haunt him, taunting his mind with an uncertain future. If he could but find sanctuary somewhere, a place to stay at during the winter...he thinks of Dwalin's question again and a plan starts forming in his head.

Amongst his dim thoughts he falls into a restless sleep plagued by dark dreams and nightmares. He wakes up once or twice, only to see that Dwalin must have returned - there is a burly shape opposite him across the fire, back to him and blanket drawn over his head, but Bilbo is sure it must be Dwalin since his axes and a sword he hasn't noticed before are lying in close proximity, easy enough to reach should someone come and try to disturb his sleep. In his sleep-addled state it doesn't even strike him as odd that they haven't set a watch throughout the night.

*

Dwalin walks away from the campfire just in time; he can feel his body stirring already, the change imminent. He has to bring some distance between himself and the hobbit and the same is true for Thorin too. The raven on his shoulder shifts restlessly and without thinking, Dwalin reaches up to stroke his feathers. He knows that Thorin hates the change even more than he does, the strain on his body much larger with the bigger size difference.

He always refers to Thorin as 'Durin' in company other than their kin; they have learned long ago that their true names are still known in some parts of the country and that Smaug has never truly stopped hunting them once they come too close to Erebor. With a small sigh he settles down in a little clearing, hoping that the bushes around them will be enough to stifle the sounds and hide the sights from everyone.

Dwalin takes off his own clothes as quickly as he can, a prickling in his fingertips and the deep red of the horizon telling him that the transformation is about to begin. Thorin has hopped from his shoulders onto the ground into the opposite corner of the clearing, his blue eyes blank as he withdraws deeply into himself. Dwalin takes out his partner's clothes from the bag he has brought, taking a moment to bring them up to his nose, his already heightened senses flooded by Thorin's smell that is still on them from the previous night. He takes comfort from the smell even as the magic is racing through his body and slowly ripping it apart.

It takes all his strength trying not to scream - sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he fails, gives in when the pressure of bones breaking and re-knitting, muscles ordering themselves in different structures and skin stretching and contracting gets too strong. It is too much for Thorin this night and he can hear his partner scream as feathers disappear and get replaced by flesh and his body stretches and remembers what it means to be a dwarf. Something inside him breaks as it does every time when he hears Thorin cry out, wanting nothing more than to run over to him even though he is unable to do so, his own body lying helplessly on the ground in twitching agony.

The change never takes long, even though it always feels like an eternity. When his senses finally return to him Thorin is already on his feet, panting heavily and ignoring the shaking and occasional spasms that are running through him as he finds and puts on the clothes that Dwalin has left on the ground before. Dwalin takes a moment longer to recover, then he slowly rolls on his feet and pats over to him, a soft tone in his throat as he licks over Thorin's hand.

Thorin's features soften immediately as he smiles down at him, lifting an arm and stroking his fur behind his ears. His smile deepens when his fingers encounter the little ring of gold in his ear.

"So, Bilbo Baggins, hu?" he wonders. "I never thought a hobbit- ah, but it doesn't matter now. We should take him back to the village, Dwalin, maybe Dís and the little ones can persuade him where we cannot. And if we last out the winter there the palace might have forgotten about him next year."

Dwalin huffs in agreement and yelps when Thorin playfully pinches him in the side.

"And what was that comment about well-trained, hm?" he asks him. "As if I couldn't just fly away if I wanted. It also took you awfully long to get to the thought of giving that famished creature something to eat."

Dwalin growls slightly. Thorin had never been talkative in the times before the curse had happened to them; now he seems barely able to shut up in the minutes after he has turned back into a dwarf, as if he wants to make up for the entire lost day where he was unable to talk. Sometimes they have odd conversations like this, replying to each other's words at dusk and dawn, one argument drawn out over the course of days or even weeks. Dwalin playfully snaps at Thorin's arm, pressure just strong enough that his teeth don't break the skin.

Thorin gives him another gentle shove and stuffs the last of Dwalin's clothes into the bag before picking up the axe from the ground.

"Go." he tells Dwalin. "I see how keen you are to roam the forest. I will look for more firewood and return to the camp as soon as the hobbit is asleep. You know when to wake me up."

Dwalin nods. He knows they are taking a risk with this, of having Thorin so close to Bilbo when he isn't a raven, but leaving the hobbit alone in the forest throughout the night would not have been an option. They just have to hope that Bilbo has a firm sleep and won't notice Thorin getting up in the night before dawn. Now, however, his blood is calling for freedom and the promise of a good kill and he sets off into the night, feet padding lightly over the ground and leaving Thorin behind.

*

Bilbo wakes up from the smell of bacon sizzling over the fire. He blinks drowsily and it takes him a moment to remember where he is; then it comes back to him and he jumps upright with a start. He vaguely remembers waking up shortly before dawn, seeing that the dwarf opposite him had already gotten up and thinking that they must leave; but Dwalin had told him in a voice that sounded strangely different from his usual one to go back to sleep and so he had, the incidence now no more than a hazy memory in his mind.

The dwarf is sitting across from him and keeping an eye on their breakfast (some kind of porridge as it seems to Bilbo), whilst expertly gutting and cleaning two rabbits on the ground next to him. The raven is there too, looking down at Bilbo from a branch in the trees and catching the odd scraps of animal Dwalin throws him.

"Finally awake?" the dwarf asks Bilbo gruffly as he sees him stirring.

"Yes." Bilbo yawns, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He feels hungry and thoroughly dishevelled and it suddenly springs to his mind that he hasn't even washed in days. Dwalin seems to notice his gaze at his dirty clothes and points to his right.

"There's a little river down there in case you want to wash. Hurry up though; breakfast should be ready soon."

Bilbo gives a thankful nod and scampers off to the little river. The cold water helps to bring his thoughts back on track and wake him up fully. When he returns to the fire Dwalin wordlessly shoves a bowl of porridge at him, then frowns when he sees the large rip in his clothes where the guards have gripped Bilbo the day before.

"You want me to mend that for you?" he says gruffly and points at the torn fabric. Bilbo startles; he'd almost forgotten about it.

"I can do it myself if you have needle and thread to spare." he says, surprised that someone like Dwalin would have sewing skills. But then, he supposes, the dwarf looks like he's travelling a lot and such a skill would likely come in more than handy in this case. Dwalin nods and starts rummaging in his pack again, throwing him a little pouch that contains sewing implements after a moment.

Then he pulls out several of his axes and begins to clean and sharpen the weapons. Bilbo's watches him as he is finishing up his breakfast and when his eyes land on several small throwing axes his mind finally connects the dots.

"You're the warrior from yesterday." he blurts out. Dwalin looks up, one brow raised.

"I saved your life, yes." Then he turns his attention back to the whetstone and the cold metal in his hands.

"Uhm, thanks, I guess?" Bilbo suddenly feels slightly flustered, not at all sure of how to continue the conversation. He wants to know how Dwalin knew the thief who had escaped from Erebor was him, but at the same time he is aware that the deed somehow places him in his debt and he is terrified of being forced to return to the prison.

"Hm." Dwalin keeps his eyes on his task whilst Bilbo cleans out their pot and dishes with some water he has brought up from the river earlier with him.

Bilbo fidgets around for a moment, trying to find the right words for what he wants to say next.

"Yesterday, you asked me to help you. I will do so under one condition." Dwalin looks up sharply at this and Bilbo suddenly finds himself faced with two pairs of eyes staring at him, one grey and one blue. He takes a deep breath, feeling that his next words are going to decide his fate. "Hide me and help me to survive the winter. I know your people are secretive; that Smaug's soldiers will never find me with them. Then, in the spring, I will show you the way into Erebor."

Dwalin frowns and Bilbo knows that his words were bold, maybe too bold. This, however, might be his only hope to get through the winter unscathed. The warrior looks over to the raven and Thorin croaks, flying over and hopping onto Dwalin's shoulders. Bilbo holds his breath.

"Yes." Dwalin says finally and Bilbo exhales with great relief.

"I can make myself useful, of course." he hurries to add now. "I do not plan on eating up your food stores and taking up space by just being idle."

The dwarf in front of him nods, suddenly seemingly at lot more at ease with Bilbo's suggestion. And with that, the matter is done - Bilbo finishes the mending of his shirt and carefully places the needle and roll of thread in the pouch again before handing it back to Dwalin, who has started to tidy up their little camp and stow everything away in two bags, a large one for himself and a smaller one for Bilbo to carry.

Bilbo still has no belongings apart from what he has stolen on the road and as such just watches, helping with whatever Dwalin tells him to do which, he figures, is better than constantly getting into his way. They are off remarkably quickly and Bilbo takes a deep breath when he turns around and looks back at the little cave in the rocks one last time. He can only hope that this supposed new life of his will be better than the old one.

*

The travel to the Blue Mountains takes them the better of three weeks. Dwalin and Thorin are a well-versed team, having had over a century's practise of keeping their secret safe and Bilbo doesn't seem to discover it, even though over time he becomes quite friendly with Thorin, letting the raven sit on his arm and feeding him scraps from his own meals. He even talks to Thorin when he thinks that Dwalin can't hear him, muttering here and there about 'grumpy dwarves' and 'no regards for a hobbit's short legs' which earns him quiet chuckling-like sounds from the bird.

The nights are harder, especially when the full moon draws near and Dwalin gets twitchy and more easily annoyed, barely trusting himself with being in their immediate vicinity and keeping them safe at night. Thorin would take the watch and sleep throughout the day on Dwalin's shoulders, but they cannot take the risk of Bilbo waking up and seeing Thorin sit at their fire. Dwalin has never been a dwarf of many words, but since the curse struck he is even less so. Many of the days pass in silence, with Dwalin drudging ahead through the falling snow and Bilbo trailing behind, trying not to lose contact. At night, Dwalin goes hunting so they always have enough meat with them and from time to time Thorin catches a few voles for himself throughout the day. However, even though a diet based on meat alone might satisfy the two of them (indeed, eating anything else that won't be digested before they turn into their animal counterparts would only upset their stomachs), it's clear that it doesn't do the same for Bilbo. When the hobbit says so Dwalin grunts with annoyance, but accepts the coin Bilbo gives him to buy some bread, vegetables and eggs by the time they pass the next settlement.

Dwalin is glad when the first houses of the settlement finally come into view. It isn't home per se - his and Thorin's place lies another half day's journey away in a valley in the mountains, impossible to find for anyone who doesn't know the way. Officially, the heir to Erebor is dead and his sister now the leader of their people and it is easier to keep it that way. At least the natural secrecy of dwarves makes it possible for Thorin to still be with his family and kin at night; but as soon as word of this would get outside they would be lost. Dwalin glances back at Bilbo trudging behind him and pushes aside the apprehension that he feels of bringing an outsider into the village. If they succeed there will be no need for secrecy anymore. He has given Thorin a message to bring to Dís the day before so that everybody knows they are coming.

Bilbo has never been this far away from the mountain before - he was born and raised in a village no further than a two day's journey away from Erebor and has spent his entire life in the settlements around it, moving from place to place as often as it was required. The village looks peaceful as it lies in front of him - no more than twenty or so small houses built of wood and stone, each of them with smoke curling up into the air through the chimneys, proof that they are inhabited. Bilbo shivers in anticipation of the warmth that will await him.

The door of the first house opens when they are not far away anymore, two laughing children spilling from inside into the fresh snow on the doorstep.

"Uncle Dwalin!" Both of them shout his name at the same time, seemingly full of joy about his return. Dwalin grins, the expression transforming his usually so grim face within moments and braces himself against the impact of two small bodies slamming against his legs and almost toppling him to the ground. He hoists the smaller one up on his arms and grips the shoulders of the older, then beckons to Bilbo with a move of his head to come over.

The dwarfling on his arm makes huge eyes when he sees Bilbo, a gesture that tells him he has likely never seen hobbits before. Bilbo feels his heart melt instantly - most hobbits have a soft spot for children, even those who never truly desire any of them for their own.

"Bilbo Baggins, at your service." he says, with a little bow and a flourish of the coat he is wearing. The young dwarfling is obviously delighted, giggling in reply and even his older brother who has been watching Bilbo warily is grinning a little at the display. The smile hasn't left Dwalin's face either and just widens when the dwarf next to his leg does his own proper nod and replies "Fíli, at yours."

Fíli nudges his brother and the younger one giggles again before it breaks out of him: "Kíli, at yours!" Bilbo would estimate him no older than maybe five or six years, but he knows that dwarves age differently so the lad might as well be far over ten already.

"They're my distant cousin's sons and apparently I'm their second favourite uncle." he explains to Bilbo, unfazed by little Kíli burying his small hands in the hair of his beard and starting to pull with all the enthusiasm of a small child.

"Is that so?" Bilbo laughs and falls into a step with them when they start moving towards the closest house whose door is still wide open. "And who's your favourite then?"

"Uncle Thorin!" Kíli shouts full of joy. Fíli nods. "But he's never home before nightfall, because he's working so much, am- mother says." He has obviously remembered mid-sentence that he isn't supposed to speak any words in the dwarves' secret language aloud.

He also tries to sound dignified and old as he's speaking and Bilbo can only guess as to the whereabouts of their father, a good enough observer to know not to ask after him. Dwalin smiles and ruffles his hair, a strange look in his eyes that shows a pang of pain.

"Let's go and see what your Ma is doing, hm?" he asks Fíli who nods enthusiastically. Bilbo trails a little behind as both children start babbling at the same time, the sound of Dwalin's voice and gruff laughter breaking the flood of words from time to time. Bilbo looks around and frowns; only now does he notice that the raven is nowhere in sight.

He sees the bird again as soon as he enters the house - Durin is sitting on a post in the corner of the living room, seemingly happy with himself as he's preening his feathers and, at the same time, watching the assembly of people in the room.

Dís, as the boys' mother is named, comes into the house through the back door only moments after them, plucking her boys from Dwalin's figure so that he can take off his boots and travelling clothes. She presses a kiss to his cheek in the process, obviously delighted to see him again.

"Sorry for the lateness, but I was finishing up in the forges when Durin signalled me that you had come." Dwalin smiles at her (Bilbo is surprised by just how much the old warrior seems to have changed since he has seen his kin again) and gives her a quick hug, unheeding of little Kíli's protests who's almost getting squashed between them.

"Where's Balin?" he asks the dwarrowdam. She nods towards another wooden door at the far end of the room.

"In the kitchen, getting lunch ready. We thought you must all be hungry from your travels." Dwalin nods at her and briefly presses their foreheads together before he disappears into the direction of the kitchen. Dís briefly eyes up Bilbo before she extends him the formal welcome into her house which Bilbo is only too glad to return.

"So, this is the hobbit." Her words sound serious, but there's a smile on her face as she looks at him and Bilbo feels instantly welcome.

"I guess so." he replies, still slightly nervous. "Thank you for having me."

"You're welcome." the dwarrowdam replies and urges him to sit down at the large table. "Now, I've heard that you are the one who is rumoured to have escaped Erebor. You will have to tell us all about it; Fíli and Kíli have been clamouring to hear the story all day since we received message from Dwalin that you were coming!"

"Ah, yes of course." As long as they don't ask him again to return to the mountain he has no quarrels talking about his little adventure - especially not to young children who are always the ones most adept at listening.

He soon finds that, indeed, dwarflings are just as hungry for a tale as any other child and enjoys the huge eyes of both Fíli and Kíli as they listen to his story which he of course embellishes, much to Dwalin's amusement. The warrior's and raven's contribution to his rescue are both getting praised in front of the young dwarrows and smile after smile flitters over Dís' face as she's watching her children hang on his lips. Balin, Dwalin's brother who has joined them during lunch, seems amused too and glad that for once, it isn't him who the children are pestering with questions and the demands for more and more tales.

Balin asks him if he could write and read as well as tell tales and when Bilbo nods, he proposes that the hobbit could help him with the dwarflings in the little school that he's running, at least in those lessons that are not about dwarven history or language. Bilbo is delighted, of course, and agrees to come by the next day, glad he will have more to do than just sitting around all winter.

*

Thorin sleeps for most of the afternoon, thankful for his own little place in the corner of the room. From time to time he peeks out beneath the cover of his feathers, watching the people in the living room of his sister's house. There is the hobbit who seems so adept at telling stories, his nephews who hang on every single word that is coming from his lips, Dís and Balin, who cannot hide their gazes flickering to Thorin from time to time. And Dwalin, of course, always Dwalin.

It still aches to look at him, a familiar little hurt somewhere in the centre of his chest that will never disappear. Sometimes he still dreams of being with Dwalin as they have once been, of the taste of his lips and the feeling of his fingers running along his own bare flesh. But it has been a hundred years and the memory is all but a ghost now, haunting him in those nights where the past is too close. He knows that Dwalin feels the same even if they never talk about it; they know each other too well, have been together for too long for the other to be able to have too many secrets. Thorin still wonders how much would have been different had they not decided to return to the mountain together a century ago.

A laugh roars through the room and rips him out of his thoughts. Bilbo has long finished the tale of how he escaped (and Thorin has to admit that swimming through the sewers does indeed not sound like the most pleasant of tasks) and how Dwalin had first rescued and then found him again. Now he is busy recounting a story from earlier days, one that has both Fíli and Kíli squealing in delight and the others grinning. He still doesn't know whether it was the right decision to bring the halfling here; Dwalin has agreed with him but his sister is still of two minds about it as she has told him earlier when they had been alone and he could give nothing as answer but croaks and deathly glares. Yes, they are secretive, yes, they would never invite a stranger to live with them - but Bilbo Baggins is the only hope they might have at a life in Erebor again, a life without the curse. If they could but get inside and kill Smaug...

Another bout of laughter wafts through the room. Thorin looks up again and sees Dwalin throw a glance through the window - and blanching slightly.

"I fear I must leave." he says suddenly when Bilbo stops talking. "It will be getting dark soon and I have my own place to return to."

Fíli and Kíli seem dismayed, protesting that he never stays for dinner. They get even more upset when they realise that he will take Thorin with him too and Kíli stretches out his short arms to pat his favourite raven one more time before they leave. It saddens Thorin that neither of them know that it is their uncle in this form; but Kíli is yet too small to be trusted to be silent and so he doesn't know that the uncle who often stays away for a long time and never comes to visit them before nightfall is the same as the raven he loves with such affection.

Dwalin collects their belongings and holds out his arm to Thorin who sweeps through the room and lands on it gracefully, making his way up to Dwalin's shoulder in moments. Dís and Balin accompany them to the door and outside.

"You'll be coming back for dinner tonight?" Dís asks her brother and softly scratches the feathers under Thorin's chin. He makes a pleased little sound and rubs his head on her hand to signal that yes, he will come. He longs to hold his nephews in his arms once again and actually have words with his kin. His sister smiles and gives both him and Dwalin a kiss on the head, stepping back to let Balin touch foreheads with his brother and bid his friend and king goodbye with a pat on the head.

It is none too early, for the sun is already deep over the horizon and not much time is left if they want to make the change unnoticed and where people cannot hear them. They have a temporary shelter no more than an hour's walk away from the village, a place that they can change and sleep at should they wish to spend the night with their kin instead of at their own place.

The transformation leaves them both breathless once again, Thorin leaning against the wall of the little shed and eyes closed as he's trying to regain his balance. Dwalin shuffles up to him, on legs still shaking from the violence of the change and puts a head on his knee. Thorin scratches his fur, the constant movement helping them both to calm down until Thorin feels he cannot delay for longer. Dwalin gives a soft whine when he stands up and stops petting him, following Thorin to where he puts on his clothes. He leaves Dwalin's axes stowed in the hut but takes his own sword with him instead.

Dwalin walks with him through the quiet and dark forest, grey eyes reflecting the light of the lantern Thorin is carrying and always so close that they are almost touching. When the first lights of the village come into sight Thorin kneels and pulls the wolf closer to himself, sinking into the warmth of Dwalin's fur as he hugs him.

"I'll see you later." he whispers and Dwalin makes a quiet sound as he is leaning against him. It would be too dangerous to bring the wolf into the village and despite never having hurt anyone, Dwalin still doesn't trust himself around small children.

The wolf disappears into the night shortly after and Thorin takes a deep breath before he enters the settlement and knocks at his sister's door again.

"Uncle Thorin!" Fíli and Kíli must have seen him through the windows already for they seem to have waited right behind the door and pull it open the moment his hand has touched the wood. The crash into him with all the force of two young dwarflings and the burden on his heart lightens as soon as he has them both in his arms. They babble on and on and it's hard for him to detach himself far enough so that he can butt heads with his sister and Balin and greet Bilbo, pretending that he's meeting him for the first time. When Dís introduces him there is no recognition in Bilbo's face at the name; it both hurts and is reassuring that the former rules of Erebor have seemingly long since been forgotten. That no one knows their names anymore means more safety for his family and kin, but is also grates at his pride, that the great line of Durin should have fallen so low now. His nephews should have grown up as princes in Erebor, should have had two uncles instead of one who is barely there to see them grow up.

They sit down for dinner and he lets Balin do most of the talking; he has long since learned that he is no good at making up stories of what he has done when in reality his tale would be the same as Dwalin's. He is happy enough with watching his two nephews, his sister and his closest friend as they seem to be relieved to see him in their midst again.

Of course he is the one who has to bathe the dwarflings and bring them to bed - a process in which he gets as wet as them if not wetter and laughs more than he has in weeks. He sings to his nephews softly until they fall asleep and smiles when he looks at their sleeping faces, so relaxed and happy. Then he returns to the living room, just in time to see Bilbo yawn as well and excuse himself to bed too after the long day of travelling he's had. When he is gone and safely out of earshot he sits down with Dís and Balin at the table. As always, he regrets that Dwalin can't be here; his partner would of course be unable to talk but his presence is always a silent reassurance. However, it would be too dangerous, should one of the children wake up and walk into the room just to see a large wolf sitting in it.

"Thank you for taking Bilbo in, sister." Thorin tells Dís quietly. She smiles warmly at him in response.

"You're welcome, brother. I just hope he will prove his words that he will work for his stay. As it is, we have enough coin to get through the winter, but some extra help is always needed and I would not see the children starve again."

"I know, namad." Thorin sighs, an old wound of his slowly opening again. "You know I would help you more in the forges if I just could, but-"

"Sssshhh, no, Thorin, it's fine." She gets up and comes around the table, putting her arms around her brother. It is so easy to forget at times that she is suffering too, her partner and one brother dead, the other trapped in a raven's body at daylight and the burden of ruling their people fallen on her shoulders now with only Balin as steady support. Thorin will forever be glad how her children have softened the hard lines on her face. "It's not your fault and you know it. You are doing the best you can and Dwalin is there to help me now."

Thorin closes his eyes, tries force down the bitter taste of guilt in his throat.

"But if I hadn't run after Smaug back then without thinking, if I hadn't taken Dwalin with me, if I'd just been better and killed him, if-"

A pained expression flickers over Dís' face and for a moment she looks like she wants to strike her brother before she takes Thorin's face into her hands and drills the gaze of her brown eyes into his, stopping his rambling.

"Listen to me, Thorin, listen. You did what you believed was right and Dwalin followed you because he loved you and because he felt it burning in his own blood, too. The curse was not of your own making and neither were the hard winters that followed. You did your best; you always have. Without you, we might all be dead already."

Thorin replies nothing, not sure what he could say faced with such praise that he clearly doesn't deserve. In the end he just presses his forehead against Dís and murmurs a quiet thank you that elicits a small smile from her.

Balin has come around the table too, putting a hand on Thorin's shoulder.

"You are still our king, Thorin, and nothing will ever change that." Thorin looks at him, smiling gratefully at his friend. Sometime he feels that the burden fate has placed on his shoulders is too heavy, that it is all but impossible for him to go on. It is his family that reminds him, the warm love in his sister's and Balin's eyes, Dwalin's soft hand on his feathers on his own fingers buried in the wolf's fur and always, always the laughter of two young princes greeting him every time he returns.

They stand like this for a few moments more, drawing strength from each other, before they return to the topic at hand.

"Bilbo said he would spend the winter as and, when spring comes, show us the way back into Erebor." Balin frowns at Thorin's words, knowing well the thoughts that are going through his king's mind right now.

"And what would you do then, Thorin? Even if you and Dwalin make your way inside - you are but two, one of them in a beast's body, and Smaug is not alone. Even if you, by some marvel, manage to kill him, his guards would end your lives long before you can draw any profit from his death."

"I know." Thorin says quietly. "But we still have to try and I know Dwalin agrees with me in this, as far as we could talk about it. If Smaug is dead, then Erebor can be retaken, no matter who the ruler is. I would not see our people end their lives here, so far from their homes."

Balin shakes his head at his words whereas Dís just looks weary. They have had this discussion more than once and Thorin knows that his sister, who was so young when their home was seized, would willingly spend the rest of her life here if it means that her family is safe and he cannot fault her for the sentiment. But for the past one hundred years there has been heat burning inside him, sometimes a roaring fire, sometimes glowing embers only, but never gone. It is the urge to return home, to retake what is theirs by right and see it happily in the hands of his people once more. He feels like he owes it to them as king, even if more than half don't even know he is still alive. It is one of the few things propelling him forward and he knows he can never let go of it.

"If you go, I will go with you." Thorin looks up again, surprised. Balin's eyes are soft as he is looking at him. "I could imagine no greater honour than following my king. And who knows, with Bilbo at our side, we might even have a chance."

"I would come with you, too." Dís announces and Thorin knows better than to remind her of her children and that she's needed here, to rule in his absence. His sister's head is harder than anything he knows. In his gratitude he can barely breathe, their loyalty moving his heart.

"And I could never be more blessed than with you at my side." Thorin smiles at both of them. "But spring is still many weeks away and I would rather know what happened here than spend the rest of the night with the planning of deeds that might not even come to pass."

His suggestion is taken up almost immediately, Balin and Dís taking it on them to tell him everything new there is to talk about in their little village. Thorin, in turn, tells them of Dwalin's and his travels and how they found the hobbit and he asked for sanctuary with their people. It is long past nightfall when they finally finish and Thorin feels a measure of peace surge through him. If only Dwalin were here...but he knows his faithful partner will wait for him as soon as he steps outside and so he doesn't find it too hard to bid his sister and friend goodbye for the night, with the promise to visit them again in a few days when he and Dwalin have seen to the state of their own home.

The cool air of the night hits him in the face like an ill-aimed smith's hammer and for a moment he thinks of Dwalin's thick fur with envy. The wolf is waiting for him not far away, just outside the circle of light from the houses. Dwalin leans against him affectionately and Thorin smiles, running his hand through the thick and ruff hair covering his body. He feels tiredness running through him and suddenly he's glad that he doesn't have to cover the entire distance to their own place tonight but can sleep at the small shed instead. Dwalin always at his side he makes his way back to their temporary accommodation, taking the time to kindle a fire in the small fireplace on the floor before taking out his bedroll.

He falls asleep not much later, the reassuring warmth of Dwalin close to his body and his fingers tangled in the wolf's fur.