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An Early Start

Chapter Text

The Carrock where the eagles drop them off is clearly a very convenient spot for a race with a 15 foot wingspan, and it certainly has a pleasant view. However, on their way down, Bilbo can't help noticing that it is also rather exposed. There was nothing quite like a full day spent in vertiginous scrambles to keep the blood pumping, of course, but it was a different story once you stopped for the night.

The rest of the company are all trussed up in a dozen layers of smelly goat wool and leather and most likely haven’t even noticed the cold. They all seem in rather high spirits as they set up the camp, and even Thorin is almost smiling.

Briefly Bilbo thinks back to the unexpected hug that morning, but he shakes the thought out of his head firmly. It wouldn’t do to dwell on it, though perhaps it might warm him up a bit. Whatever magic Gandalf had used in his healing trick had clearly worked very well, so it was probably strong enough to account for a bit of unusual behaviour.

Still, the facts of the matter are these: it had been a pleasant Summer day when Bilbo had taken it into his idiot head to go chasing after these dwarves, and he had been dressed accordingly, and now the nights are getting very cold indeed.

Bilbo tentatively stretches his feet at little closer towards the fire, but any attempt at subtlety is ruined with his first sneeze. The entire company fall silent and stare.

“Yes yes, all right,” grumbles Bilbo. “I’m fine, just a little chilled. You needn’t fuss.”

“Are you sick?” asks Ori, a note of panic in his voice. “I’ve read about this, sicknesses, they affect all the races apart from us. You’re not going to… to die, are you, Mister Baggins?”

It takes Bilbo more than a moment to hush the clamour that arises from that statement. “No, no no. Please. It was one sneeze, it’s a bit nippy out here, and I shall be fine in the morning, I assure you.”

He looks around at a circle of pitifully concerned faces. Óin clears his throat meaningfully, as if about to make some diagnosis, and it’s more than any reasonable soul could bear, so Bilbo sighs heavily and makes his decision. “You know, I probably just need a bit of rest. Excuse me, good night.”

It’s a wrench to leave the fireside, but Bilbo strides bravely off, flicks out his bedroll and attempts to get comfortable. He’s still freezing, and will probably remain so, but he’ll be damned if he’ll let dwarves be the only ones who get to brag about their endurance abilities. They already look at him as if he’s made of glass.

A warm, heavy weight descends upon him unexpectedly, one that smells like all kinds of delicious things that drag him straight from drowsing into wide-eyed alertness. There’s long, slightly matted fur against his face and he has to spit it out of his mouth before he can speak clearly, staring up at the dark shape standing over him in the shadows of the evening.

“Thorin?”

“To keep you warm,” says Thorin shortly, and Bilbo realises the Dwarf has laid his coat over him. Thorin remains standing over him, and there’s a moment of silence. Your coat smells wonderful, is all Bilbo can think, but he can’t possibly say that.

“Thank you?” he manages at last, and Thorin nods, then walks back to his place by the fire.

Bilbo falls asleep pretty quickly, the king’s coat keeping him as snug as he can ever remember being, but his dreams are uncomfortable, full of Thorin’s eyes and his hair and his arms around Bilbo’s shoulders. In the morning it’s no sacrifice to return the coat. It’s done its job.

--

The next night, when Bilbo retires to sleep, the coat lands on top of him almost immediately. He rolls over in surprise to find Thorin walking away already.

“Thorin!” he calls, and the king pauses. “Thorin,” says Bilbo again, still unsure what he wants to say.

Thorin has turned, now, and is watching him. He seems dreadfully tall from Bilbo’s position on the ground.

“It’s all right,” says Bilbo. “I can’t keep taking your coat. I’ll be fine.”

“I - We have no use for a sick burglar,” Thorin mutters, and is gone.

--

The next night Bilbo is prepared. Once everyone is busy eating, he clears his throat and says, "Thank you for letting me borrow your coat, Thorin, but I really think I might have to let you have it back now. I’m feeling much better, I assure you, and while you may not want a sick burglar, I think we can hardly afford a sick King."

Hopefully Thorin will understand that this isn’t meant as a rebuff. It’s been nice, feeling that their company’s leader despises him less than before. They’ve hugged, and it’s been a good week since Thorin last insulted him.

"My people do not suffer from sickness of the body, Master Baggins," says Thorin.

"But you can feel the cold, surely?" asks Bilbo, and Thorin frowns, as if the suggestion offends him. The rest of the company has fallen unusually quiet, watching this exchange take place.

"Yes," Thorin admits, "but we are sons of Durin. We endure.”

Obviously Bilbo wants to be careful of Thorin’s feelings, with everyone paying attention like this. He’s the king, and he’s got enough on his plate after all, but Bilbo is reluctant to let the matter go, even if Thorin is now openly glowering at him.

It’s a glower, all right, but gosh, Thorin’s eyes are terribly blue. And he’s far, far more handsome than ought to be allowed. No-one could blame Bilbo for the idea that falls from his lips well before his brain has properly considered it.

“Then we should share it. I’m only small, it’d be big enough for both of us.”

Oh, the look on Thorin’s face. Aware, faintly, of Gandalf coughing quietly from his seat a little further back from the fire, Bilbo can only press on, attempting to repair the damage. “It’s my own fault for not bringing something more practical. It’s only common sense, Thorin.”

“Sensible creatures, hobbits,” announces Gandalf, and returns to his pipe.

“I don’t see any other way around it,” agrees Bofur cheerfully before anyone else can speak, and there is a murmur of agreement from the company that sounds oddly eager to Bilbo.

Balin is positively beaming. “I like a problem solved,” he says. “Any more of that stew, Bombur laddie?”

Soon enough the conversation turns, and Bofur is telling some scurrilous tale about an alewife in the Blue Mountains. It lasts past the point Thorin has stopped staring at him, and since Bilbo has long since lost the thread of the story, he waits until the next round of guffaws breaks out and then stretches theatrically.

“I’m done in,” he announces. “Bedtime.”

And whether or not the company is watching, or snickering, or talking in loud confused voices, thank you Kili, Bilbo doesn’t care. He lays out his bedroll and lies down, still not sure what will happen next.

It’s less than a minute before Thorin joins him. Without speaking, he sets his bedroll out beside Bilbo’s, unbuckles his sword, shucks off his coat, and pulls it over the two of them. He’s very, very still, almost like those carven statues Bilbo has sometimes seen over the tombs of Men, in Bree’s cemetery.

Which only means that most of both of them is outside the coat’s reach. No good. Bilbo yawns carefully, giddy with daring, and rolls sideways, until he is tucked closely against Thorin. Under the pretence of sleepiness he dares to lay a hand on Thorin’s upper arm, and rests the toes of one foot against the King’s leg.

Thorin, if possible, stiffens further. It’s like cuddling up to a block of stone. Still, Bilbo thinks, it’s very warm stone. Thorin seems to emit heat like some sort of furnace, with the result that Bilbo is asleep in mere moments, more comfortable than he’s been in weeks, coat or none.

--

In the morning, by the time Bilbo wakes, Thorin is already up and discussing their route with Dwalin and Gandalf. Which is reasonable.

After all, they’re only sharing the coat for warmth’s sake. Within a few nights, Bilbo is feeling better than he has since he left Hobbiton.

Thorin seems somewhat less well, however, which is a worry. More than once Bilbo has seen him pass a hand over his face or sigh, losing the thread of whatever he’s been saying. He has lost his good mood, too, snapping under his breath in Khuzdul at his nephews for no reason Bilbo can see.

Now that Bilbo is feeling so much better himself, he feels as if he ought to try to help somehow. When they retire to sleep, Thorin keeps perfectly still and silent, and Bilbo hasn’t dared speak to him. Struggling with how to broach the subject, he falls asleep still pondering it, and wakes again just before sunrise.

A short distance away, against the pinkening horizon, Bilbo can see the silhouette of Bifur standing the watch. He is whittling at a small stick in his hands, as usual. No-one else seems to be awake yet.

More pressingly, there is an exiled Dwarf prince at Bilbo’s side who is decidedly less statue-like than he’s ever been before.

“No,” mumbles Thorin, his wide, heavy arm slung suddenly across Bilbo’s stomach, almost winding him. “I will not… I won’t let..”

“Shush,” whispers Bilbo instinctively. It occurs to him that if he reaches a little further around, he can stroke Thorin’s beautiful hair. Oh, it’s full of dirt and oil and the odd bit of Orc blood, but it’s beautiful nonetheless; the curl and weight of it, the strands of silver through the black. It smells a bit like his coat, of smoke and sweat and dirt, a combination which really has no business being so appealing.

Thorin shudders again, clutching close as Bilbo runs comforting fingers over his hair. How delicious it would be if it really was Bilbo he wanted to hold like this, instead of whoever’s lucky enough to be part of this dream. Or perhaps not, since it seems more like a nightmare.

“Mine,” mutters Thorin furiously, his lips moving against Bilbo’s neck. No, definitely someone lucky.

Nobody has the right to be so attractive. It’s simply rude, thinks Bilbo sleepily, the hand that isn’t stroking Thorin’s hair daring to rub a soothing thumb over the king’s drawn brows. He makes more calming, shushing noises, and his hand, entirely of its own accord, moves downwards, stroking softly across Thorin’s sharp cheekbones towards the darkness of his cropped beard. He stops there, of course, even when Thorin’s lips part softly, practically begging for Bilbo’s thumb to press against them.

Bilbo is too lost in watching his own remarkable self restraint to realise at first that Thorin’s eyes have opened, just a little. Once he does, he’s too startled to move.

Thorin shifts very slightly, and Bilbo’s hand, so recently tracing the edge of Thorin’s beard, snaps back to his side. The one previously on Thorin’s hair grabs at some of the grass beneath them. Thorin doesn’t speak. It’s unbearable.

“I am so, so sorry,” stammers Bilbo in a whisper. “I just, I really am, there’s no excuse, I can’t,” he continues eloquently.

The future King of Erebor blinks at him a few times, then presses their mouths together, and Bilbo makes a strangled noise that he will deny to the end of his days. The rasp of Thorin’s beard against his face is softer than expected, the smell of Thorin’s skin is very, very close and very, very interesting, and the taste of Thorin’s mouth is something Bilbo urgently wants to pursue. His heart struggles against the wall of his chest like a trapped bird, and his hands clutch upwards into Thorin’s hair, oh goodness, his hair, his braids, and Bilbo realises Thorin is quite awake now and must be aware now of how greedy the hobbit’s hands are, attempting to pull all of him closer.

He hasn’t even realised how short of breath he is until Thorin draws away briefly and he gasps, gulping down air, as thick Dwarf fingers press over his mouth. “Quietly,” breathes Thorin. “We will be heard.”

Bilbo nods, not daring to speak. He can be quiet, probably, and he would really like some more kisses, although he’ll settle for looking into those eyes for a bit longer. Thorin is smiling at him, although it’s a confused and cautious sort of smile, and Bilbo risks a smile back.

“You are full of surprises, Burglar,” murmurs Thorin, and leans over to kiss him again, just a chaste press of lips. Bilbo realises that a second too late, pressing his tongue back into Thorin’s mouth instinctively, but it doesn’t seem to matter, and at once they are kissing like lovesick tweens again. It isn’t until Thorin’s mouth shifts away from his, moving along Bilbo’s jaw, that he opens his eyes and realises just how close to morning it really is.

“Thorin!” he whispers urgently, and Thorin growls against his neck. Bilbo swallows hard and tries again. “Thorin, it’s morning,” he hisses, eyes pressed shut to block out the hot, whiskery kisses that are threatening to overwhelm him all over again.

It works, though deep down Bilbo almost wishes it hadn’t. Thorin stops, and he pauses, resting his forehead very gently against Bilbo’s. His hair hangs around them both like a curtain, blocking out the rest of the camp. Or the world. He sighs softly as if he’d rather stay like this, too, then leans down to whisper again.

“Tonight.” His breath is on Bilbo’s ear, and then, oh and then he runs the tip of his nose along the sensitive edge, up to the tip, and kisses it.

Bilbo’s whole body stiffens, and he presses his mouth very firmly shut so that all that escapes is a whimper.

Apparently Thorin was unaware of the sensitivity of hobbit ears. He is looking at Bilbo now with frank surprise, and damn him, the bastard actually grins. It’s a flash of white teeth that leaves Bilbo almost as undone as the wretched trick with his ear.

“It is morning. Time for us to rise,” says Thorin, standing, and around them the company begins to stir.

Bilbo watches him roll away and head over to Bifur, relieving him of his watch. Groaning softly, the hobbit reaches down to rearrange his prick in his trousers, resisting the urge to do any more. “Well ahead of you there,” he grumbles to himself.

---

The trek towards Mirkwood crosses a wide plain, dotted with tussocks of sharp-bladed grass, rocky outcrops, and the occasional tree. It’s all very well for dwarves, with their boots and all, but while Bilbo would never dream of complaining, there have been times when the endless tramping across Rhovanion is less comfortable for hobbits than it might be. The well-kept roads of the Shire are not quite the same as endless rocks underfoot or swamps or thistles or anything of that sort.

Today, he barely notices. At breakfast, he eats his porridge in a sort of daze, his hand creeping up to touch his mouth so often that Bofur asks if he’s burnt his tongue, and Bilbo can’t think of any sensible answer. That mood lasts until well after the Company has set off, and for an hour or so Bilbo could be walking over sunlit meadows of wildflowers, replaying in his mind the warmth of Thorin’s skin, the soft sound of his mouth opening against Bilbo’s, the faintest creak of his leathers as he’d leaned up over Bilbo to kiss him.

It’s when Balin glances over at him with a distinctly quizzical expression, and asks if he’s feeling quite well, that it occurs to Bilbo how obviously smitten he might be looking.

“Oh yes,” replies Bilbo airily. “Quite well, thank you.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” says Balin, and Bilbo could swear the old Dwarf’s eyes are twinkling.

Unsettled, Bilbo frowns at his feet as he walks on a touch faster, leaving Balin behind and catching up with Bifur, who nods in surprise at his sudden company. Bilbo feels a little guilty as he nods back, well aware that he’s deliberately sought out the one Dwarf who cannot talk to him.

But he is troubled, now, by Balin’s knowing expression. Bilbo has no business behaving like some lovestruck faunt, he’s a grown hobbit and a gentlehobbit at that, of none too tender years.

Moreover, he is on an important, dangerous quest, several weeks past his last hot bath, in need of a haircut, plus he’s lost so much weight he must look positively gaunt. Back home, he never considered himself unattractive, if nothing much to swoon over, but he really isn’t at his best at present. He has several cuts and bruises from his fall in the Goblin caverns and and despite significant scrubbing he’s pretty sure he still has remnants of troll-snot on his jacket. Now is not the time to be mooning about the possibility of stealing a few kisses come bedtime.

All of which is true, of course, and at the same time rather perplexing. It’s not hard to imagine why anyone might want to kiss Thorin; he’s so tall and big and fierce, and majestic of course, being a Prince, and he can lead a company and kill Wargs and Orcs and Goblins, and he’s got such blue eyes and black hair and that beautiful deep voice, oh heavens, he can even sing pretty well.

What occurs to Bilbo then, however, is to wonder why on earth Thorin would want to kiss him.

He looks up, to where Thorin and Dwalin are walking near the head of their group of travellers, and his heart begins to sink as fast as his mind starts racing.

--

By the time they find a sheltered spot to make camp that evening he can barely look at Thorin, and busies himself keeping the fire fed and fussing with Bombur about that night’s stew. Bombur agrees that it does seem to be catching on the pot, but suggests that’s probably only because someone built the fire too high, and raises his eyebrows meaningfully.

“Sorry,” says Bilbo, abashed. He drops the bundle of kindling he’s scavenged, and beats a retreat.

Not too far away is Gloin, sitting on a fallen tree in the half-darkness, sighing over the little pocket portraits of his family again. Bilbo’s not hiding, exactly, but certainly Gloin’s magnificent beard does a good job of blocking Thorin from view.

“Hullo, wee Burglar!” says Gloin. “Anything wrong? You don’t normally sit so far from the fire.”

“What’s that?” asks Óin from beside his brother, apparently not so deaf for once. “You’re not taking a fever again now, are you Mr Baggins?”

“No, no, I’m fine,” says Bilbo, anxious not to draw any more attention. It doesn’t work, of course, and now, from right across the campsite, he sees Thorin stop in mid-conversation with Balin and glance over at him. Bilbo smiles weakly and then pretends to be very interested in a pebble near his big toe.

“Master Baggins,” calls Thorin, “I would speak with you alone. Will you walk with me?”

Bilbo winces at the sound of Thorin’s voice and rises to his feet. There’s no helping it.

Thorin nods at Balin, dismissing him. “See we are not disturbed,” he mutters, and Balin is definitely twinkling at Bilbo this time.

But Thorin is already headed towards another copse of trees a little further down the hill, leaving Bilbo scampering to catch up. Well, it’s very kind of Thorin to do this in private, at least. Let him down gently instead of in front of the whole company. On the other hand, he’s probably also keen not to let any of them know it happened in the first place.

Bilbo stumbles over mud and tree roots, clumsy with apprehension, only half-aware of his surroundings as his miserable thoughts churn around his head.

“Master Baggins?” asks Thorin, pausing. He’s holding out a hand, and Bilbo takes it instinctively.

He’s grateful that Thorin’s watching where they’re going, because Bilbo can’t really look at anything else now except how incredibly small his own hand looks, wrapped in that gigantic Dwarf paw. When they stop, he’s so absorbed in the sight that he stumbles, and Thorin drops his hand to reach out and steady him, grasping both his shoulders.

They’re certainly a good distance away from the company, hidden from sight amongst old, wisened beeches and hawthorns. Bilbo can see the warm glow of the campfire, and that faint sound of dwarven conversation that always sounds like the beginning of an argument, but there’s no making out individual voices. He looks up at Thorin in trepidation, more out of breath than the distance they’ve travelled ought to merit.

“Bilbo?” asks Thorin, more quietly. His face is mostly hidden in the shadows under the trees.

Bilbo nods hastily, wanting to fend off the kind words before they begin. “I understand, Thorin. It’s not a problem. You really don’t need to apologise, after all, we were both... there, and I’m only sorry if I’ve caused you any bother. I got rather carried away, and with all your worries, I just, yes, well what I mean is, you don’t have to worry about me. I, er. It won’t happen again, I promise. And I understand if you want me to sleep somewhere else.”

“You regret what happened this morning,” says Thorin.

Bilbo screws up his face a bit, because he’s a lot of things, but not an outright liar. Or at least not often, and never to Thorin. “No, personally, I don’t think I do, not at all. But I understand that you must regret it, and that’s completely fine. I understand, truly.”

“Indeed,” growls Thorin, stepping closer, twigs crunching under his heavy boot. “A wise hobbit, to tell me my own mind. Master Baggins, look at me.”

Which Bilbo obediently does. And it’s a good thing Thorin’s got a decent grip on his shoulders still, because his knees feel suddenly wobbly.

“If you do not wish me to kiss you, I would have you tell me now,” says Thorin. His usual grim frown is gone. Instead Thorin only looks rather crestfallen, and worn, and probably very much in need of kisses, now Bilbo considers it.

So he leans up on tiptoes, takes Thorin’s coat in both hands, and presses his lips very deliberately against Thorin’s.

Thorin opens his mouth against Bilbo’s at once, and that hunger, the heat, the wet slide of Thorin’s tongue against his thrills Bilbo down to his toes. The Dwarf’s hands drop down to his waist to pull him into a fierce embrace, and Bilbo has to put his arms up around Thorin’s neck to keep his balance, which puts Thorin’s glorious hair within reach again, so Bilbo digs his hands in, seizing fistfuls of Thorin’s hair to pull him down, closer, desperate to taste and lick and know, until he feels Thorin stumble forward a step.

“Sorry,” gasps Bilbo, letting go, shocked at himself. Thorin is still pressing hot, ravenous kisses to Bilbo’s neck, still holding him up with one hand splayed across Bilbo’s back, but he shifts against Bilbo awkwardly, the other arm behind himself. He’s taking off his coat, Bilbo realises dimly, and automatically helps, pushing the thick fur away. Thorin leans back to catch it before it falls and treats Bilbo to a grin.

The coat is thrown down onto the forest’s floor and Thorin drags Bilbo into his lap as he drops to sit them both upon it. They are nearer the same height like this, Bilbo realises, and Thorin’s hand is on his cheek again. His fingers slide over the back of Bilbo’s head, drawing him back in for kisses that set off something like old Gandalf’s fireworks all through his body.

He wants more, gladly wriggling close and straddling those broad thighs. If he thought the Dwarf was warm in his sleep, it is nothing to the heat between them now. Thorin kisses with fervent concentration, hands cupping Bilbo’s face, stroking broad fingertips down the edge of his ears and setting off sparks with each touch. It is breathtaking to be under such focus, to be explored so intently. Bilbo half-wonders if he couldn’t finish just from this.

Before long, Thorin’s hands have shifted to pushing Bilbo’s jacket and waistcoat off his shoulders and tugging impatiently at the remaining buttons of his shirt.

“Wait, wait,” protests Bilbo, afraid that he’ll have no fastenings left by morning.

He fiddles his buttons himself, tearing his shirt open without caring how silly he may look. It doesn’t matter anymore how Thorin could possibly want him because Bilbo wants, too, wants to press his bare skin against Thorin’s, and moreover wants it more than to stop and ask questions. Thorin’s wide palm presses briefly against Bilbo’s soft stomach as he scrabbles for the blue tunic’s hem. He’s too slow. The Dwarf’s hands slide over his sides, dipping downwards to grasp Bilbo’s arse, startling him forward into the chilly, unyielding metal plates of his jerkin instead.

He can feel the press of Thorin’s cock hardening against him, pushing upwards against his thigh. It’s for him, or at least he’s here while it happens, and Bilbo can’t help whimpering a little at the thought of how lucky he is. It’s overwhelming, the force of Thorin’s want.

Thorin’s hand shifts again, not kneading Bilbo’s arse any more but slipping between the two of them, pulling at the laces of Bilbo’s trousers with rough strength. Oh, his hands are hot, so very warm, and strong, engulfing Bilbo’s throbbing prick so completely that he must bury his head against Thorin’s shoulder to muffle the yelp that threatens to rouse every Orc in Arda.

“Hush,” warns Thorin, and Bilbo feels Thorin’s lips moving along the edge of his ear, and his teeth closing gently against the tingling skin, as if that will help Bilbo be quiet. He squeezes his eyes shut, knowing this won’t take very long at all.

“Thorin, ah, please,” whispers Bilbo, unable to stop, rubbing his face against Thorin’s beard, clawing at the Dwarf’s broad back, helplessly thrusting into his hand.

“A burglar who cannot stay quiet,” says Thorin softly. “Ah, if I had you in my bed. What sounds would you make for me then?”

“Ohh,” moans Bilbo, utterly undone by Thorin’s words. He feels his whole body tighten briefly and then he’s there, leaning back again, white lights bursting behind his eyelids, overwhelmed as he feels his own release striking his skin.

“Oh,” he says again, opening his eyes to faint spots around his vision.

He’s blinking still as he looks down in faint disgust at the mess he’s made, as Thorin wipes it with his hand and smears it carelessly against Bilbo’s shirt. He wants to object, but more immediately, he realises Thorin is no longer holding him in place.

That gets him squirming backwards at once. He can feel that Thorin is still standing rigidly to attention, and there is something Bilbo’s been daydreaming about doing for far too long, quite possibly since the day he left Bag End. Not that he would have admitted it until today. But now there isn’t anything to stop him, as he pushes up Thorin’s tunic at last and opens the laces of his britches, pushing down his smallclothes and sliding a hand up his prick in honest amazement.

He should’ve known. He’s seen how big the dwarves’ hands are, and their noses, and all the other things that lasses like to giggle about. All the same, Thorin’s cock seems huge against his small palm, wide and dark and pointing skyward from the thicket of black curls that looks to trail right up Thorin’s stomach under his clothes. Bilbo has never seen anything so lovely.

He licks his palm, stroking it over the softness of the head a few times, and Thorin makes a very pretty gasping noise, encouraging enough for him to slide his hand down and feel the push of Thorin’s hips into that touch. He circles his tongue around the head experimentally, and if it’s a little stale at first, Bilbo’s seen enough to make his mouth water already, which takes care of that after a few seconds. Soon enough he can taste the fresh salt of Thorin’s skin and firm flesh beneath, taking his time licking up the length until it’s slick enough to take easily into his mouth.

“Greedy hobbit,” murmurs Thorin, and Bilbo’s mouth is too full to reply.

He’s done this before, though he doesn’t always like to remember. When he was a tween, there was Ponto Cotton, the baker’s apprentice, with strong arms and a merry laugh, and Bilbo had been so grateful for his slight, occasional favours at the end of an evening. This is not like that, not at all, not least since where Ponto was so frequently ale-soused and unimpressive, Thorin is hard as iron against Bilbo’s tongue. One huge hand rests lightly on Bilbo’s head, carding his fingers through Bilbo’s hair, playing with the tips of his ears, and Bilbo’s own spent prick twitches in response at how wanton that feels.

Thorin’s other hand slides over Bilbo’s chin, tracing the line of his jaw and dipping down to the apple of his throat. When Bilbo glances up Thorin’s eyes are wide, their blue even paler in the moonlight. “I can feel...” murmurs Thorin, with wonder in his voice. “I can see, your throat, how it moves.”

Bilbo lets his eyes falls shut again and moans around Thorin’s prick, and Thorin’s words cut off in a choke of pleasure. It is so good, and Bilbo wants this so much, his head bobbing as he takes all he can, though that’s barely more than half of it, circling the rest of the length with both hands.

He can taste Thorin properly now, a sharp, bitter tang on the back of his tongue as his mouth becomes wetter. Thorin’s hand in his hair clenches into a fist, and Bilbo takes a deep breath through his nose and swallows, hard, as Thorin breathes out a desperate, shaky word in Khuzdul and fills his mouth in a few thick bursts.

Bilbo gags a little despite his efforts. There’s more than he can manage, and he can’t swallow all of it at once. Dwarves taste different to what he remembers of hobbits however, and he is more than happy to clean up the mess with his tongue. He’s aware of Thorin watching with absolute fascination as he does so, and that’s not so bad either.

“Will that do?” he asks, and Thorin, raising his eyebrows, sets both hands under Bilbo’s armpits and drags him back into his lap as Bilbo laughs, kissing him again.

“You taste of… of my seed,” says Thorin, pulling away to lick his lips.

“Probably because I’ve just sucked you off,” says Bilbo cheerfully. The joy still coursing through his veins is making him brazen.

“You swallowed it,” says Thorin, as if that’s anything remarkable. Maybe it is, for Dwarves. He doesn’t look too horrified, so presumably it’s wasn’t an unpleasant surprise.

“Well, you know hobbits. Always hungry.”

It’s a joke, mostly, but Thorin doesn’t laugh. “I would like to know them better. One, at least.”

Oh, he could get used to this, even half-dressed on a forest floor, with rocks digging into his knees. Thorin’s touch has gentled now, rubbing little circles across the exposed skin of Bilbo’s hip, sliding around and down into his britches to cup his bare arse, making Bilbo shiver.

“Is it shameful, what we have done? Amongst your folk?” asks Thorin, mumbling the words into Bilbo’s neck. “It is a crime amongst Men.”

“No, I wouldn’t go that far,” admits Bilbo, his voice a bit raspy still. “It happens, certainly, but it’s... not quite respectable. Shire-folk get terribly excited about faunts and weddings, so people like me, well. It’s not a crime, at all, but it’s not something to discuss in polite company.”

“A good thing, then, that you are not in polite company now,” says Thorin, a flash of white teeth as his mouth twitches into a smile.

“Am I not! You’re royalty, Thorin,” laughs Bilbo, resting his forehead back on Thorin’s shoulder. Perhaps Thorin is right, all the same. Dwarves are not polite, at all, and it may yet turn out to be Bilbo’s favourite thing about them. He half-wishes Ponto could see him now, astride the bare lap of a handsome prince, his chest still smeared with his own release.

“You avoided me today,” says Thorin, and like most of his questions, it isn’t a question at all. He lifts Bilbo’s chin with a finger. “Do not. If we are to continue this, Master Baggins, I would have us be friends.”

“All right,” gulps Bilbo. It’s on the tip of his tongue to object to Thorin’s high-handed tone, but he can’t, not when his heart leaps more at those words than anything that has come before. He hadn’t pictured this as anything more than a mutual convenience, and to know that Thorin could consider him a friend startles him. It’s so far outside his experience, all of this, thinks Bilbo, and the thought leaves him a little sad.

There are more kisses, lazy ones, before they tuck themselves in, re-tie laces, replace and straighten their clothes.

Then they must go back to eat with the rest of the company as if nothing has happened. Bilbo feels horribly wrong-footed with the strangeness of it.

“Alright, Bilbo?” asks Bofur, and if his grin seems rather wide, that’s as far as it goes.

Kili and Fili are singing some daft song that requires them to hit their throwing knives together to beat time, and Bilbo shakes his head at them, helping himself to food. The stars are out overhead by now, and there isn’t much stew left in the pot.

Thorin sits beside him as they eat, and once his stomach is less empty, Bilbo can relax a little. It’s not as though he’s about to lay his head against Thorin’s arm, but he can look his friends in the eye still, join in with a conversation about whether bilberries may still be in season so far East, and so forth.

The company lay out their bedrolls to sleep, and for a moment Bilbo feels uncomfortable again, crawling under that coat with Thorin. He isn’t sure where to put his hands.

Thorin feels no such compunction, it seems, dragging Bilbo into his arms so hard that Bilbo suppresses a squeak, not entirely successfully from the snickering sounds of the company around them. He would be more annoyed, but Thorin is warm and solid and still smells faintly of sex. There is some satisfaction, Bilbo finds, in wriggling his bum back into Thorin’s crotch and hearing the soft grunt that results.

“You asked me, before,” whispers Bilbo, feeling bold.

“Asked what?” says Thorin softly, and he has the advantage of speaking directly into Bilbo’s ear, the edge of his beard tickling the sensitive skin there.

“What noises I would make, in your bed,” sighs Bilbo, feeling the tips of his ears tingle. Thorin’s grip about his waist tightens, and Bilbo grins. It’s a tiny revenge, but a sweet one. “I would sing for you, Thorin, so loud they could hear me back in the Shire.”

“Peace, wicked hobbit,” growls Thorin. “If you goad me further I shall do it now, before all the company.”

Bilbo chuckles. Things could be a lot worse.

Chapter Text

They are walking again by the time dawn rises, trudging onwards, and though the Carrock is far behind them, Mirkwood doesn’t seem much closer. Mostly Bilbo keeps pace beside Thorin, but they don’t speak. Breath is saved for walking amongst all the company, and conversation comes in the evenings once camp has been made.

The weather is still good, pale Autumn sunlight and enough breeze on their faces to cool the sweat of the journey. Although Bilbo’s stomach is empty his heart feels fuller than he can remember in a long while. It’s a good day, he decides, and glances up to find Thorin watching him curiously. He smiles, and the Dwarf merely nods back, but Bilbo thinks he saw the ghost of a smile in return. From Thorin, that’s plenty.

In the afternoon they discover what must be a small tributary of the Anduin, and after some pleading, Thorin and Gandalf reluctantly agree to allow a pause for bathing. They are making good enough time, according to Balin and Gandalf, and there’s no doubt everyone’s getting pretty ripe at this point.

As the company gleefully begin to strip off, Bilbo sidles away. There’s a rocky bit a few yards further down that he can hide behind, and that will suit him nicely. After the unfortunate incident with Lord Elrond’s fountains, he is well aware that Dwarves have no problem with public nudity, but no-one has seen Bilbo Baggins naked since he was a faunt. He is in no hurry to change that, or at least, not in a cold river surrounded by great furry Dwarves of distinctly un-Hobbit-like proportions.

He folds his poor, ruined clothes neatly and slides into the water, shivering in the cold, and dunks his head as quickly as he can to get over the chill. Noises of splashing and yelling come from around the corner and he sighs, amused despite himself. Hobbits do not swim, and staying near the bank suits him for all sorts of other reasons too. The last thing he wants is to get jumped on by one of Thorin’s nephews.

First things first, Bilbo has a go at scrubbing some of the dirt from his smallclothes and shirt. Not just dirt, he realises, his cheeks flushing as he rubs at a pale, yellowing mark the approximate size of Thorin’s hand. It makes very little difference, but he does his best, and once done Bilbo steps out of the water to lay his things out across a rock in the weak sunshine. They may be dry come morning, if he’s lucky, and he can just button up his coat and do without until then.

He hears a sound that seems to be coming closer and hurriedly scrambles off the rock into the river to conceal himself. It’s a bit deeper than he expected on this side, the water halfway up to his armpits before his toes find the riverbed, and he lets out a yelp of fear.

“Bilbo!” calls a familiar voice, and he looks up to see Thorin, wading through the water towards him. On Thorin, the water is only waist-height, and goodness, he is broad and muscled and hairy all over, chest and arms and belly, his long wet hair slicked back from his beautiful sharp face and silvered beads of water in his beard.

All the Dwarves have hair on their chests; Bilbo noticed that in Rivendell. It was just an observation, back then, and now it’s a very pressing concern, because he can’t help wondering what it would feel like under his fingers. Whether it’s long enough to tug on slightly, and whether that would hurt, and how it would feel to press up against it, over muscles so solid. And how Thorin feels about having his nipples touched, or kissed, because Bilbo would very much like to try that, he really would. In fact he wants all of it with a force that rather unsettles him.

Bilbo sinks under up to his chin and wonders if there’s any steam rising off him.

“Here you are,” says Thorin, sounding pleased. “You are hiding.”

Bilbo jerks his head in acknowledgement and backs up against the rock. Hiding seems a strong word. Surely it’s quite reasonable to want his privacy respected. “Well, you’ve found me. You can go away now.”

Thorin looms over him, eyes narrowed. “Go away?”

“I’m just, I’m washing, Thorin, it’s very cold in here, I’d like to get on with it.” He’s not joking. It’s cold enough that he can see goosebumps on the bare skin of Thorin’s giant biceps, and nipples that are stiff and dark pink and approximately at Bilbo’s eye level. He does his best not to stare.

“I could warm you,” grins Thorin, sinking lower into the water.

Bilbo can’t help it, he panics. “The - the whole company is just over there! They’ll hear splashing, or they’ll see, I really don’t think...”

“They will not disturb us,” interrupts Thorin, his arms braced around Bilbo now, leaning in to lick the tip of Bilbo’s ear and make him squirm. He’s really got the hang of that trick, thinks Bilbo irritably. “Come out of the water, let me see you.”

“It’s broad daylight, Thorin! No,” says Bilbo sharply.

He can’t. Not in front of Thorin, so gorgeous and muscled and dripping wet. He feels like an unshelled snail in comparison, pallid and shapeless, nothing to tempt a king, and it just isn’t fair. He’s well aware his own hair must be sticking to his forehead like damp string, unlike the black shining ropes that hang across Thorin’s glorious shoulders. Never mind that they had their hands down each others’ britches only a few hours ago; that was in the dark, and this is different.

He turns his face away from the attempted kiss and frowns, arms folded across his chest.

Thorin is obviously disappointed. He glowers and snorts in a manner almost childish, but steps back from Bilbo without a word, and wades back around the rock to where the others are washing.

Bilbo heaves an enormous sigh and wonders if he did the right thing. Too late now. He ducks his head under the water again and scrubs his face hard enough to hurt.

--

That evening the camp is quieter than usual. The Dwarves all sit, in various states of dress, in their family groups to comb and re-braid their hair. After the mockery of Bilbo’s fine buttons and handkerchiefs, it’s highly amusing to watch them all concentrating so hard on such a vanity.

Ori, Nori and Dori sit in a small, tight circle, each carefully brushing and braiding their brother’s hair. Dori weaves the little purple ribbons into Ori’s beard with a smile of such tenderness Bilbo feels he shouldn’t be watching.

Across the fire Thorin leans back against Fili’s knees, the braids at his temples complete, while his nephew carefully combs out the rest of his uncle’s hair across his lap. Kili has taken his bow to shoot some dinner, and Bilbo wonders if this sort of ritual is uncomfortable for him. He has gleaned that Kili is rather sensitive about his lack of bristles.

Bifur is manhandling the extraordinary volume of Bombur’s beard, while Bombur finishes off Bofur’s hair with little leather ties, and Bofur delicately combs a paste from some small metal pot into his moustaches to shape them. Nearby Óin and Glóin sit facing one another, fingers twisting through braids in a complicated dance that seems well practiced. Even the Elves they saw at Rivendell didn’t wear such fancy hairstyles, thinks Bilbo, and feels a flare of affection for these silly Dwarves.

The sun is setting in a clear sky, and the light falls on the river in pretty pink ripples, a good sign for tomorrow’s weather. He wanders away from the camp to check on his washing, laid out across the rock. It’s still damp, unfortunately, and Bilbo’s cold now, wrapping his arms around himself and grimacing. It’ll probably still be damp when they set off in the morning. He chews his lip a moment before putting it all back on anyway, hoping it will dry on his body overnight.

On the way back he comes across Balin and Dwalin, seated on a shelf of stone that faces out towards the water as they talk together. Their hair is already tidied and Balin’s wispy white curls almost dry already. Neither wears braids. Bilbo wonders why, and asks, as politely as he can.

“No reason to,” grunts Dwalin. “Waste of time.”

Balin looks at him reproachfully, but says nothing to his brother, smiling at Bilbo instead. “I did once,” he admits. “Long ago, though, it was. My hands are strong yet, but the fingers are not so nimble as they once were.”

“Could I help?” asks Bilbo, holding up his relatively small hands. Balin chuckles, and his brother beside him snorts as if Bilbo had paid him an insult.

“No, no,” insists Balin. “Braiding hair is a very personal business, for Dwarves. Family members only. It was my husband who did mine, and I keep the clasp he made me yet.” He pats his jerkin gently over his heart and sighs. “I had not the heart to wear it, after he died.”

“I’m sorry,” says Bilbo, and means it. “I didn’t know you’d been married.”

“Long ago. Almost a hundred years since.”

Bilbo can’t help wondering if he has missed something enormous. Dwarf women have beards too, or so he’s heard, but surely Balin isn’t female? He and Dwalin have always addressed each other as brothers. So perhaps male Dwarves can marry each other.

“That’s long time to love a memory,” says Bilbo, distracted by the thought, and winces immediately at his own lack of tact. “Er, he must have been very special.”

“It’s the way of Dwarves,” nods Balin sadly. “We love but once, if at all.”

Bilbo looks down, digging his toes thoughtfully into the dirt. He knows Dwarves live a very long time, at least twice as long as Hobbits. It seems a rather lonely business. “What was he like?”

Balin smiles broadly, and beside him Dwalin groans and looks away.

“His name was Hallur. He was a lad to tempt any heart, Mister Baggins! A fine smith, could wield a hammer to make Durin himself proud, and handsome, too. His eyes were dark as coal, and his hair a seam of purest copper falling over his chest, as broad as an anvil,” sighs Balin, the remembrance clearly a fond one. “And yet, I would have loved him though his eyes were blue, for he was my One, the second part of my soul.”

It’s very sweet, and clearly heartfelt. Although there’s something Bilbo may have misheard. “Are blue eyes bad, then?”

Balin shuffles a little in his seat. “You don’t have that phrase in the Shire?” he asks. “Perhaps you wouldn’t. Blue eyes are not considered attractive amongst Dwarves. Too Elvish.”

“Thorin’s eyes are blue.” The words are out before he thinks better of them.

Balin is certainly uncomfortable now, and Dwalin has turned back, the shadow of a grin on his face. His eyes are blue, too.

“Aye, they are,” agrees Balin. “A common trait amongst the line of Durin, as it happens.” He pauses. “Although... it’s not thought ugly by your kind?”

Balin has squirmed enough, and Bilbo takes pity on him. “No, no. Quite the opposite, really, my young cousin Drogo has very pretty blue eyes, much admired. All the lasses of Hobbiton are sighing after him, I’m told.”

“Well!” says Balin, brightening all too suddenly. “Isn’t that nice!”

It strikes Bilbo with sudden cold clarity that Balin knows more than he’d realised. Somehow Bilbo had assumed a more Shire-like level of discretion, but these are Dwarves, and there’s every chance Thorin has told him directly about last night’s... improprieties. Bilbo can only hope there wasn’t too much discussion of the details. The ascot at his neck seems suddenly unduly restricting, and he loosens it as subtly as he can, casting about at random for some way to divert the topic before it becomes more awkward.

“How about you?” he asks Dwalin. “Do you have a ‘One’, then?”

“I do,” scowls Dwalin, and reaches back to pat one of his axes. “The other half of my soul lies on my back, wee burglar. My heart is in the battle, and always has been.”

“Is that how it works?” asks Bilbo. Dwalin sounds offended, but then he usually does, so Bilbo is willing to risk it. It seems he really doesn’t know much about Dwarves, despite what he can sometimes prise out of Ori, and the more he finds out, the more fascinated he becomes.

“Aye, and my good fortune it is too. When I go to the halls of my maker, my axes and the strength of my arm will go with me. We shall never be parted.”

After his brother’s reminiscing, that doesn’t seem terribly polite. However Balin doesn’t look offended, still beaming from Bilbo’s previous revelation.

“It’s true, we Dwarves have always believed that those whose hearts are given to their craft are the lucky ones,” laughs Balin, smacking Dwalin cheerfully on the knee, “Small wonder that our race is dwindling, brother!”

They’ve been talking for a while now, and in the meantime everyone’s hair seems to have been put in order. Kili has returned, delighted with himself, brandishing three rabbits. Óin proceeds to gut them with slightly alarming efficiency. Bombur is clattering his pans, ready for dinner, and everyone returns to the fireside. The night is falling, and it’s time to eat.

That evening Thorin sits on the other side of their camp, as far from Bilbo as possible. Bilbo smiles wryly into his stew, remembering the insistence only a few hours previously that they should be friends. He’s not sure Thorin even knows how.

Gandalf takes the seat beside Bilbo instead. The wizard had made himself scarce when they were bathing, but he returns just as dinner is ready, smiling and nodding and giving no information as to what he’s been up to at all. Typical wizard. Bilbo notes that that doesn’t improve Thorin’s mood either.

He wonders where Thorin’s heart lies; with his kingdom, or his people, or some other Dwarf long left behind. A lonely business, indeed. Perhaps it’s not much wonder after all if he wanted to warm his bedroll with Bilbo for the journey. Bilbo can hardly object, either, when Thorin is like some unexpectedly hairy version of his most secret fantasies.

Bodily, at least. Majestic nobility and selfless bravery aside, he’s still a pompous, grumpy, ill-mannered clot.

The air is too chilly to stay up when the fire begins to die down, especially with clammy underclothes, and Bilbo resigns himself to a cold and lonely night, curling up tightly on his bedroll. He tries not to startle when he hears the thud of Thorin’s footsteps, and pretends to be asleep already as the Dwarf lies down as usual beside him. There’s one difference though. Tonight, Thorin has not taken off his coat for them to share, and wears it still.

Thorin’s back, at least, is warm against Bilbo’s, and perhaps it is best to let sleeping wolves lie. Or not, since after a while Bilbo realises he can’t actually feel his toes and Thorin is being ridiculous about this. He wriggles onto his other side.

“Thorin,” whispers Bilbo, swallowing his pride. “Thorin?”

Thorin grunts, only half-turning.

“I’m cold,” says Bilbo. It’s an effort to keep the crossness out of his voice but he tries.

Thorin rolls over, throwing a heavy arm over Bilbo and tucking him inside the coat, close to his body. He rests his chin on Bilbo’s head and does not speak.

It’s better than nothing, and knowing Thorin it’s probably the closest they’ll get to an apology or forgiveness from either of them. Bilbo decides to cut his losses, and falls asleep, a lock of Thorin’s hair tickling his nose with the scent of river-water.

--

The following day they discover Azog is back. It’s taken just over a week for the Orcs to catch up, much faster on their Wargs than the Company on foot, for all the advantage the Eagles gave them. Thorin is in a foul mood now, cursing the time wasted yesterday by the river.

Then, when Bilbo is sent up the rocks to scout the way ahead, he spots the most enormous bearlike creature and despairs of their company ever seeing a single ounce of good luck.

Remarkably enough, it turns out it they just have, even if it does do a fine impersonation of wanting to eat them all alive.

In Beorn’s home the Orcs cannot reach them, and they have a safe place to bed down for the first time in a while. The hall Gandalf has brought them to in seems vast, even in the dim light of evening, but Bilbo can’t bring himself to care too much. It’s surprising how fast Dwarves can run, and he’s exhausted from keeping up. Before long he is fast asleep, deep in a wonderful dream of eating sweet clover cakes warm from the oven, with a mug of mead to go with them.

He wakes in the night to find Thorin has wandered off somewhere. Bilbo is thinking about getting up to look for him when very, very quietly, the most enormous person he has ever seen walks through the hall and disappears into its farthest shadows.

Thorin is really quite capable of taking care of himself, of course. Bilbo squirms back down into the straw and scrunches his nose up anxiously, summoning up the courage to go and search. He is deeply relieved when Thorin reappears beside him a few moments later.

“Where did you go?” hisses Bilbo.

“To piss,” replies Thorin shortly, sounding annoyed by the question. He lies back down to sleep, and Bilbo toys with telling him about the giant man, but decides against it. Perhaps he wasn’t so big after all, and Bilbo will seem a fool if he makes a fuss. With a sigh, he closes his eyes, and against Thorn’s warmth he drops off again without much trouble.

Beorn proves indeed to be huge and terrifying when Bilbo wakes next morning. All the same, after all introductions are concluded, Bilbo finds his new surroundings surprisingly comfortable, colossal bees aside.

The enclosure of Beorn's home is almost like the Shire, if the Shire had been built by giant bear-men. The meadows and wildflowers soothe something already half-forgotten in Bilbo’s soul, and even the air is heavy with the scent of honey. Of course the plentiful food and soft, warm straw to sleep on don’t hurt either. Beorn is apparently prepared to help them in their quest, and Bilbo considers that a great blessing. His feet are sufficiently sore that he thinks he might happily ride a pony again. Perhaps.

Best of all, Beorn grows pipe-weed. Not the finest, sadly, and he seems to use it for some sort of infusion rather than burn it in a pipe, but he does not mind Bilbo and Gandalf helping themselves to a little, while the Dwarves hide themselves indoors. It is extremely pleasant to sit safely in the sunshine and smoke whilst huge bees stir themselves lazily amongst the flowers.

“Gandalf,” asks Bilbo thoughtfully, after a while. “How long will it take for Beorn to get these ponies ready, do you think?”

Gandalf purses his lips in consideration. “Well, they are very important ponies, Bilbo. Closer to his family than merely his animals. I should think he will want to discuss the matter with them first, and certainly allow them a good night’s sleep and plenty of bran before morning.”

“Hmm. So we’ll stay here another night, you think?”

“I am certain of it.” Gandalf looks down at him, a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth. “Why?”

“No reason, no reason at all. Nice to know we’ve time for a proper rest, that’s all.” Bilbo swings his feet in the air, and lets his thoughts wander a little.

“Indeed!” Gandalf agrees, all innocence, exhaling a neat sequence of smoke rings. “It would be a great shame not to take advantage of such excellent hospitality. We are all in need of some restoration, I think, and opportunities may become rarer yet before our quest is complete.”

They sit for a while in companionable silence. Gandalf’s mind is presumably on wise, wizardly matters, and as for Bilbo’s, well. That is no-one’s business but his own, of course, although he does rather wonder what Thorin might be doing. Something terribly important that precludes sitting outside for a smoke, probably. Bilbo ponders whether it would be worth standing up to find him, and perhaps distract him a little, if it looked as though Thorin might welcome it. He isn’t entirely happy about their interactions over the past day, which seems rather a shame in a place as nice as this.

Gandalf sniffs, as if a thought has just occurred to him, glancing down at Bilbo again. “Although I fear some of our company may need some persuasion on that matter. I wonder. Bilbo Baggins, might I entrust you with a task?”

Bilbo swallows uncomfortably, drawn too suddenly from his thoughts. “Of course.”

“Good. I would be most grateful if you would seek out our leader, Thorin Oakenshield, and see that he takes sufficient rest.” The wizard pauses before the word “rest”, Bilbo could swear it. “It might also be wise, if you can persuade him, that he find himself a more private spot, in order that the rest of our company are not tempted to interrupt him with business. In fact I might ask you to stay with him, so as to ensure it. That hayloft over there looks very suitable.”

Gandalf gestures with the stem of his pipe to a small stone building with a wide archway, where a sheltered trough of animal feed sits on the beaten earth. Sheep amble in and out of it occasionally, and through the shadows inside, Bilbo can make out a low, wide shelf between the gables where hay bales are stacked.

“Hum,” mumbles Bilbo, extremely aware that his face feels very hot indeed.

“Well, that’s settled then,” says Gandalf, with unconcealed satisfaction. “I think Thorin may be in the hall. Off you go, there’s a good Hobbit.”

Thorin is indeed in the hall, sitting with his back to a pillar while half of the company cheerfully juggle the fruit from Beorn’s table and joke amongst themselves. He is sharpening Orcrist, sliding the stone down its curved edge with long, fierce strokes, and glaring at the blade as if it has personally offended him.

Bilbo’s nerve fails him for a moment, and he comforts himself with a plum from the bowl nearest to hand, nodding at Bombur who is methodically demolishing another round of bread and honey. He grins at Bofur’s current trick, balancing a wooden spoon on his nose to applause from Ori and the King’s nephews. Dwalin is watching from across the table, arms folded, Balin’s head on his shoulder as the old Dwarf snores quietly. Óin is asleep too, sitting near to where Glóin and Bifur are playing a slow game of chess with Beorn’s enormous set. Nori is examining one of the pieces removed from play already and Dori seems displeased, hissing angrily in Nori’s ear. Thorin is the only one sitting alone.

“Hello,” says Bilbo cautiously as he approaches, and to his immense pleasure Thorin’s face clears briefly on the sight of him. And then the stormclouds return, as if they’d never left.

“Master Burglar,” says Thorin.

“Gandalf says we’re staying until at least tomorrow, while Beorn gets the ponies ready. It seems kind of him, to be helping us,” offers Bilbo.

“And I must be grateful, that he does not hate my people as much as he hates Orcs,” says Thorin bitterly, turning the sharpening stone in his hand.

A fair point, realises Bilbo.

“At least it’s help. Better than nothing,” he says. Thorin huffs, unconvinced, and Bilbo decides to press on while he has the courage. “Anyway, Thorin. I came to ask you something.”

“Anything,” says Thorin, still looking at the stone, but he says it so simply it catches at Bilbo’s heart, and he can’t help smiling again.

“Good. Well. Put that away and come with me,” orders Bilbo, grabbing Thorin’s hand and tugging.

Outside, the sun is beginning to drop in the sky, stretching out the shadows and turning the far mountains to gold. It is lovely, and Bilbo has not the least interest in any of it. The hayloft is not far, and that raised floor is not hard to reach, thanks to Beorn’s building style. The stones are piled together for solidity rather than prettiness.

Thorin follows him up, and stands within a little stooped, his head almost touching the rough clay roof tiles.

“What do you want of me?” he asks, a little confused.

“Only yourself,” says Bilbo daringly, and removes his jacket and waistcoat to lay them carefully on a haybale behind him. The Dwarf’s expression is entirely different in an instant, his eyes hungry and dark. “Only you, please.”

“What has changed your mind since yesterday?” asks Thorin, but he is reaching for Bilbo already.

Bilbo cannot help but roll his eyes, stepping into the circle of Thorin’s arms. “I haven’t changed my mind, and I hadn’t yesterday, either. I’m not constantly at your beck and call, you know.”

“You signed my contract.” Thorin sounds pleased, almost teasing. He deftly slides Bilbo’s braces down from his shoulders as Bilbo reaches up for a kiss, and his hands move down Bilbo’s back without much hurry, past the waistband of his britches and smallclothes, loosening ties and pushing at both until they fall to the floor about Bilbo’s ankles.

“Yes, as a burglar!” Bilbo can’t help but notice that he is suddenly wearing nothing but his shirt, whilst Thorin is still fully dressed and slowly unknotting the ascot at Bilbo’s throat, sliding the silk over his collarbone as if he’s unwrapping a present. Bilbo swallows hard and attempts to collect his thoughts.

“You’re still dressed.”

Thorin pauses, and simply looks at him, positively smug. “I am.”

“Please get undressed,” says Bilbo, exasperated. “I mean, look.” He gestures between them. “This seems hardly fair.”

The speed, the sheer confidence with which Thorin proceeds to get completely naked is confounding. His vambraces, jerkin, tunic, shirt, the complex belt, the layers of boot and sock and britches are all stripped off and carelessly discarded within moments.

Too soon for comfort he is sitting back between the stacked haybales, and it’s such an embarrassment of riches that Bilbo doesn’t know where to look. He’s never really gone as far as this, to be honest. Past experiences have usually involved dark corners, fumbling, and clothes remaining on from either the waist up or the waist down. He’d be flustered enough by now even if Thorin were not so staggeringly attractive.

Thorin is all muscle and hair and scars, and his reddened prick nests against the thick fur of his belly, heavy and hard already. He holds out a hand to drag Bilbo down beside him, and really, Bilbo wouldn’t know how to protest even if he wanted to. His knees hit the bare boards hard.

“Gosh,” he mumbles eloquently, laying a trembling hand on Thorin’s chest. The hair is softer than he expected, almost silky. The muscle beneath is unyielding, the softness of skin lying taut over flesh, quite unlike anything Bilbo has known before.

Thorin’s hand has found the back of Bilbo’s neck, and he is pulled in for a kiss. There’s no hurry to it, a slow and deliberate exploration of Bilbo’s mouth and tongue that leaves him still open-mouthed as Thorin moves back.

“And I may look at you now, my burglar?” asks Thorin, his voice low.

“If you have to,” says Bilbo wretchedly. “It’s not much to look at, I’m afraid.” It takes all his courage to pull his shirt over his head, eyes closed. He doesn’t want to see Thorin’s disappointment, or pity, or whatever it will be.

He feels a wide hand stroke down his side, ghosting over his hip and gripping his thigh. Strong fingers sink into Bilbo’s flesh tightly, possessively, pressing him down. “Do not say so,” Thorin tells him. “You are... very pleasing.”

Bilbo’s eyes blink open as Thorin lowers him down, until he’s lying back on the rough boards. He must’ve misheard. Thorin leans over him, nudging his legs apart to rest between them, which feels both natural and outrageous at once. That large hand is still stroking up and down over Bilbo’s body, setting sparks off with each caress. “What?”

“So bare and unmarked. Your skin draws me,” breathes Thorin, his gaze roaming Bilbo’s body, his hair hanging over them both. Thorin’s fingers find a nipple, rolling the nub gently, making Bilbo suck in a shuddering breath. “So soft, yet you have such steel within. You hold many contradictions.”

Bilbo can hardly speak. He certainly feels bare, with Thorin’s hands all over him, Thorin’s broad body curved over him. Soft, well. Not so much, really.

“I don’t know about all that. I’m just a Hobbit,” he stammers.

“You are not just anything,” says Thorin, and his elbows are braced either side of Bilbo’s head now, pressing their whole bodies together as they kiss, the mere touch of Thorin’s skin making his own tingle all over.

The world around them disappears, and everything is Thorin. Bilbo’s hands spread along the extraordinary planes of his back, and then down a little further, tentatively stroking the high, solid muscle of Thorin’s arse. It earns him a growl that doesn’t seem to be an objection, and he dares squeeze a little harder. A broad, spit-slicked hand slips down between them and grasps Bilbo’s prick with Thorin’s, beginning to stroke them both slowly and it’s so hard to resist falling into this, letting Thorin just pull him to completion.

But who knows when a chance like this will come again, thinks Bilbo, and takes a deep breath. He has to ask. “Wait.”

Thorin slows, but does not stop. His mouth is against Bilbo’s neck, his tongue flickering against skin, just an edge of teeth in his kisses, and he merely grunts the question.

“Oh, wait,” pants Bilbo, pushing in vain against Thorin’s broad shoulders. “Thorin. Wait. I thought, we could try something more. You know. In the, ah, general direction we seem to be headed.” There are words for what he wants, but he can’t make his mouth say them, couldn’t even if his head wasn’t spinning with need. He can only hope Thorin will understand.

He does not. “More?” Thorin has lifted his head now, and his hand has stopped moving, though his hips still shift slowly against Bilbo, driving all coherent thought from his head.

Oh, this is difficult. Bilbo turns his face to hide it in the fall of Thorin’s hair, and tries again. “I would like to try, to see, if we might, if you might. Lie with me. Properly.”

At that Thorin stops moving entirely, and when Bilbo dares to peek, his eyes are shut, and he is swallowing hard. A crawling terror slides up Bilbo’s spine. He never thought, but what if Dwarves just don’t do… that? What if he’s suggested something terribly offensive?

“No,” rasps Thorin at last. “We have no… we would need oil, or I would hurt you. I will not.”

“Oh,” says Bilbo. His immediate relief is followed rapidly by feeling very foolish indeed. “Oh, I didn’t think of that. Oh, bother.” He squirms against the straw wishing for the ring that lies out of reach in his pocket, his nakedness suddenly unbearable once more. “I’m an idiot.”

“No,” says Thorin, shaking his head. “That you should want… such things. With me.” He opens his eyes, and there is something so terribly vulnerable in his expression that Bilbo’s wriggling stops at once.

It’s Thorin who looks away first, frowning, his hand stealing back up Bilbo’s body to press two fingers against Bilbo’s lips. It takes a moment to understand that he is to open his mouth.

He sucks eagerly on the thick fingers, licking between them, feeling his face heat simply at how lewd it feels. He might be a Hobbit but still, it ought to be pitiful how much he craves something, anything of Thorin in his mouth, but he’s dizzy with want again already and finds he can’t muster much shame at all.

When Thorin takes his fingers away at last they are so wet with spit that a string of it still clings to Bilbo’s mouth for a second. It’s crude and it should be disgusting but Bilbo only licks his lips and lets his eyes fall shut, because he wants this, whatever it’s going to be, whatever Thorin wants to do to him. He has more than an inkling, after all, as Thorin’s slick fingers slip down, past his stones, between his legs, circling very gently against his hole. It’s hot, is all he can think. Thorin’s skin is hot, his breath is hot, panting against Bilbo’s face.

He feels the thick press of one finger into his body and moans aloud, toes curling against the rough boards beneath him.

“You are so small,” breathes Thorin, just as Bilbo is thinking how bloody huge Thorin is.

It’s so new and strange a sensation that Bilbo isn’t even sure whether he likes it or not. He knows, at least, that he likes the raw, ragged sound of Thorin’s breath, Thorin’s wide, blown pupils watching his face as he pushes further inside Bilbo’s body. Instinct is telling Bilbo that this should not be, that it is too much, that his body should not be allowing it.

Instinct is entirely wrong. Oh, Bilbo is wrecked by it. He feels wanton, squirming down against the intrusion, rocking against it just to feel it fill him up. It takes a moment to get accustomed, but once he has, it’s just as good as Thorin’s cock in his mouth. It feels just as enormous, just as wanton and delicious. And this is only one finger, he thinks, a little dazed.

Thorin - big, strong, naked Thorin, leader of the company, heir to Erebor - shuffles down his body now, taking Bilbo’s cock into his hot mouth, and Bilbo arches against the sharp bolt of pleasure. How is this happening, he wonders wildly, and bites hard on his lip, because he will not, he will not let this be over in minutes. Not this time. The wet pull of Thorin’s mouth is too good not to try to savour it, and the finger pressing slowing in and out of him sends such an entirely new sort of pleasure tingling along his spine.

His hands sink into Thorin’s hair, pulling it to one side, and he dares open one an eye to see his own prick, slick and shining, disappearing into Thorin’s mouth. That’s a mistake, of course, and now he can’t stop the rising wave of need, tightening low in his belly.

“Thorin,” he manages, his voice strangled. “Thorin, I’m...”

Bilbo whines helplessly as his prick meets the cold air, Thorin’s mouth replaced with his hand, gripping him even harder, making him spill at once with a barely suppressed shout. He comes so hard it doesn’t even touch Thorin’s fist, falling across Bilbo’s belly in long stripes as he shudders through it.

Before he can summon words Thorin is kneeling up over him and he is pulled up to sitting, eye-level with Thorin’s cock, and any other thought leaves his brain at once. Bilbo reaches forward, as greedy as ever for as much of Thorin as he can get. The hard, thick length of him is heavy on his tongue as he grabs Thorin’s arse again to drag him closer, not in the least tentative now, relishing even the effort it takes not to gag as it strikes the back of his throat.

Above his head Thorin growls his name, curled over him, fingers splayed wide against Bilbo’s throat as he moves. Thorin isn’t so careful this time, thrusting hard into Bilbo’s mouth, and it’s exactly what he wants, aching jaw and all. He wants the taste of Thorin’s release once more, moaning happily as Thorin’s hand tightens in his hair. He can feel the swell and throb of Thorin’s prick, the way the rhythm of his hips begins to stutter, and forces himself further forward in anticipation.

And then his hair is held a little too tightly, and Thorin moves back, and Bilbo’s mouth is empty. His eyes open wide in shock and in front of him, still, is Thorin’s cock, but with Thorin’s hand around it now, moving in swift strokes, denying him.

Bilbo can’t reach, straining forward, mouth open wide; he must look like he’s begging, but that hand in his hair holds him back still. He looks up at Thorin through watering eyes and begs, “Please!”

As the word leaves his lips Thorin’s eyes fall shut and he spills, snarling, over Bilbo’s chin and chest, although he catches a little on his tongue. He wanted more, blast Thorin, but he hasn’t time to say so before Thorin drops back on his heels and kisses him, hard, licking into his mouth as if to steal even the small taste he’s snatched. He can’t help but respond to a kiss so fierce and desperate.

It’s a while before Bilbo is released and can lie back to retrieve his breath. Thorin still looms over him, and Bilbo blushes at the thought of what a terrible wreck he must look.

“You didn’t let me finish you,” he says, hiding his embarrassment in annoyance.

“I wanted to… to silver-plate your skin,” says Thorin simply, then frowns. “It sounds clumsy in the common tongue.”

To silver-plate..? It takes Bilbo a moment to understand, but once he does, it’s a thought to warm his cheeks all over again. He notices how avid Thorin’s gaze is still and looks down at himself, at the reddened blotches from Thorin’s beardy kisses, the ropes of seed that cross his chest and belly. So Thorin likes him like this, flushed and sweaty and covered in their combined mess. Thorin likes to look at him. Goodness.

"I should have asked," says Thorin, still staring.

“Next time?” Bilbo shrugs, as best he can, pinned to the floor by the heavy Dwarf kneeling over his legs, marvelling at how utterly ravished he feels. Really, he’s not about to complain. Thorin likes looking at him, just as he likes looking at Thorin. How peculiar that seems, the thought of it somehow heavy in his chest. He wants to pull Thorin back down against him, but the Dwarf leans away before he can.

He’s fishing a sock out from the abandoned boots beside them. It withdraws from the boot still foot-shaped, Bilbo notes in horror.

“Oh, now that is disgusting,” he groans, as Thorin carelessly uses the crusty sock to wipe away the remaining mess then tosses it aside. “How can you wear those, Thorin, your feet must be rotting off at the ankles.”

“We cannot all be blessed with Hobbit feet,” replies Thorin, wrapping Bilbo in his huge arms, pulling him up on top of him in an undignified sprawl. He’s smiling. Bilbo can’t feel too bad, looking down at a smile like that.

“That’s true,” concedes Bilbo. “Dwarf feet aren’t too bad though. A bit bald, but you make up for that elsewhere.”

The thick hair of Thorin’s chest remains fascinating and he doesn’t seem to mind Bilbo petting it, so he does, idly threading his fingertips through the dark strands. No wonder Thorin cleaned him off first; he can see that it would take more than a sock to deal with a rug like this. “Men’s feet, now those are peculiar.“

Thorin snorts, amused, and Bilbo’s aware that he’s talking nonsense, but it’s as if all his happiness is bubbling out of him in words and he can’t help it. “And Elves, my word, back in Rivendell, did you see? Like trotters. I’m surprised they don’t all topple over.”

This time Thorin’s laugh is louder, and longer. It rumbles in his chest and shakes the muscles of his stomach and Bilbo raises his head to watch it, smiling so wide to see it that his face hurts. He’s never seen Thorin laugh like that before. He wonders how long it is since he did. He folds his hands together on Thorin’s impossibly broad chest and rests his chin on them to enjoy the view.

Thorin’s hand is playing with Bilbo’s hair, sometimes stroking his fingertips lightly along the edge of Bilbo’s ear and making him shiver with it. Not with the finger that has recently been up Bilbo’s bum, he’s glad to note: that hand is spread against Bilbo’s side, a little wet still, and the thought sends ripples of heat down his spine. He is discovering all sorts of things about himself on this journey.

Thorin appears to be considering something.

“What is it?” asks Bilbo.

Thorin sighs. “When we reach the mountain. If I made you a bead, to braid into your hair. Would you wear it?”

Bilbo raises his eyebrows. Braids are important to Dwarves, he remembers that much from talking to Balin. “If you wanted me to. I’m not sure my hair would hold much of a braid, it might look a bit silly.”

“I think it would suit you very well,” says Thorin. He’s still smiling, but there’s something off about it, something that on another Dwarf Bilbo might call nervous. “And it would tell all of my people that I am yours. That I belong to you.”

Oh. Goodness. Surely that’s a bit much. “I would be honoured,” says Bilbo, and finds he means it. “Thorin, are you quite sure?”

Thorin takes Bilbo’s hand and lays it carefully over his own heart, over the dark hair and scars. The smile is brighter now. “I am sure.”

“Should I do the same?”

“If you wished.”

“I can’t work metal,” says Bilbo, chewing his lip in thought. He stares upwards, where golden dust-motes are moving in the last faint rays of sunshine. The roof’s trusses are wooden, just simple logs, barely shaped, but Beorn has decorated their surfaces with the same curving lines as everything he makes. “I could carve something, I suppose.”

“Only if you wished to,” says Thorin again, sounding a little hoarse. “But I would be proud to wear it.”

It’s impossible, of course, Bilbo knows that. If they succeed - which is a pretty big if - if they reclaim the mountain, Thorin is going to be King, and he’ll probably have to marry some noble Dwarrowdam or something. This whole thing between them, it’s just for the journey. He would never have been so daring, otherwise, so determined to make the most of this.

It’s a nice dream, though, and just at present he doesn't want to spoil it. He chuckles to himself, imagining it - a braid in his hair, and another in Thorin’s, and a long, happy life together under the mountain.

For all Bilbo’s intention to stay awake for more, they are both tired, and the hayloft is warm and peaceful. Thorin reaches out to drag his coat over them both, and their exertions have pulled down enough straw that despite the hard boards beneath, it feels as if they’re in a small, snug nest entirely their own.

“What are you thinking, Mister Baggins?” mutters Thorin, sounding half-asleep already.

“That we’re getting ahead of ourselves,” admits Bilbo. “There’s a dragon to kill first.”

Thorin sighs into Bilbo’s hair, his breath warm, and his arms tighten around Bilbo in acknowledgement. There couldn’t be a better pillow than Thorin’s warm, furred chest, thinks Bilbo. They fall asleep soon after, with no more words exchanged.

All the same, the next morning, as he passes Beorn’s woodpile, Bilbo pokes around until he can find a suitable bit of wood, and spots a little piece of oak, fine-grained, that will hold a delicate shape if needed. An acorn rolls out of the pile when he picks it up, so on a whim he pockets that too.

He’s becoming quite the burglar, he thinks.

Chapter Text

The first time he wears his ring since the Misty Mountains is in Mirkwood. He doesn’t really like wearing it, truth be told. It’s a comfort to have in his pocket, and he wouldn’t be without it, not now, but putting it on is odd. It feels like picking at a scab or drinking too much of Hamfast’s home brew - a guilty sort of thing, somewhat satisfying at the time perhaps but you know it’s bad for you, and not really worth it.

He can’t quite trust it, either. He still isn’t quite sure what happened when he dropped it, and that peculiar pink underground spider-thing touched it, his ring, with its horrible crablike claw. He remembers coming back to himself in front of a mushy, pink mess and the ring in his hand again was a frighteningly potent relief. It wasn’t like the spiders, because he remembers killing those. He’s not likely to forget that, sometimes he still dreams about it, but the pink thing? He can’t remember much about that at all, which isn’t good. It makes him wonder what other damage his ring might do.

Of course, Bilbo is well aware that he knows next to nothing about things of this sort. The ring may be a perfectly wholesome sort of magic. The fact that it makes terrifying shadows flicker around the corners of his sight, or that it enables him to understand the speech of gigantic murderous spiders, well, that doesn’t have to mean it’s evil. Besides, Bilbo would never use it for any sort of evil purpose. So really, when he thinks about it sensibly, it’s just a very handy little trinket.

Invaluable, in fact, once they reach King Thranduil’s prisons. Bilbo had to run to keep up with the Elves and their Dwarf prisoners, out of breath even as he’d made it through the great doors, and once the company are in their cells all he can do is fall down in a corner and collapse for a bit.

This place is not like Rivendell, not at all. Everything is stairs, everything is narrow and winding where Elrond’s house had such wide open spaces. The wood elves sing very different songs, too, some of them haunting and sad, but others full of wild, ferocious merriment.

It’s impossible to tell quite where all the pale golden light comes from since Bilbo is certain they are underground. Tree roots twist through the ceilings and the stone walls have no windows, yet the place is airy and spacious, almost unearthly in its beauty. Perhaps he would be more disposed to like it if it were not his companions’ prison.

Most of the dwarves are held in separate cells, but so far as he can tell the same key turns all the locks. Unfortunately that key is kept on the belt of an Elf, and Bilbo has not the least idea how to get hold of it. Invisibility is one thing; unbuckling an Elf’s belt without them noticing is quite another, and on top of that is the question of where to go once the cells are unlocked.

He hasn’t told the Dwarves he’s here. At first he was waiting until he had a plan, and now, several days and nights have passed, he still doesn’t have a plan, and somehow revealing himself doesn’t appeal. Besides, he knows Dwarves by now. They’re being kept on perfectly decent rations, Bilbo has seen them himself, but Dwalin and Ori in particular have been muttering about filthy Elf bread and whining for steaks and sausages. If he lets them know he’s here they’ll have him running errands to the kitchens and he’ll probably get himself caught. No, better to wait until he’s got some sort of plan.

Bilbo watches the Elves carefully and remains entirely without ideas.

Most evenings, he sits in a corner not too far from Thorin’s cell, where the shadow falls deep enough for him to take off his ring without too much risk of detection. It’s a sort of recess in the rock which might once have been used to store things, but it’s neatly hobbit-sized, and from it, when Thorin sits close to the door of his cell, Bilbo can just see him.

While he racks his brain for a plan, he hacks away at the bit of wood he took from Beorn’s house. His father was quite the woodcarver in his day, and taught Bilbo a few things, but it’s been years since he last practiced. He’s using a small knife filched from Thranduil’s tables that’s a bit too large for his hand and in the dim light he keeps cutting his fingers by accident, and doesn’t dare even curse aloud when he does.

More than once he jabs his knife into the stone beside him just to vent some frustration, but it only makes the blade blunt, and even harder to work with, which is no good. When he’s not sneaking about or stealing food he needs to keep himself occupied, since the risk of being discovered keeps him from getting much rest. He tried sleeping with the ring on, but he won’t be doing that again in a hurry. He’s never had such dreadful nightmares in his life, all fire and screaming rage.

In the daytime, he’s been trying to work out where the exits are from the Elven king’s halls, and drawing an alarming blank. Usually he waits for a guard to go off-duty and follows them around to try to get a lay of the place, and on day four he can say with some confidence that it is very, very difficult to get in or out of this place without an Elf knowing about it. Captain Tauriel would appear to be extremely good at her job.

He rather likes Captain Tauriel, even if she is making his life difficult. There doesn’t seem to be any malice in her efficiency and, unlike some of her fellows, she doesn’t sneer or curse at the dwarves. He’s even noticed her sitting by Kili’s cell and talking to him. He eavesdropped for a bit, just to make sure Kili wasn’t revealing anything rash, but they seemed to be talking about stars and the moon and nonsense like that, like two romantic children, and really, Bilbo felt quite uncomfortable listening in.

It made him lonely too. Bilbo is not the most sociable of his kind, but it’s hard, being a hobbit bereft of conversation, so just once, he gives in. He’s pretty familiar with the guards’ routine by now and one night, after dark, when he knows the patrols have finished and there’s only a watchman at the foot of the stairs, he slips the ring off just out of sight of Thorin’s cell.

“Thorin,” he whispers. “Thorin. Thorin?”

Thorin steps forward, light falling across his face. His hair is all unbraided now, his leather and mail stripped away. He looks mussed, as if ready for bed, which is not a thought a sensible hobbit would pursue, and he says Bilbo’s name as if he can’t trust his own ears. “Bilbo?”

“I’m here,” says Bilbo, stopping just long enough for Thorin to see him, before he slips back into the little nook that sits just across and above from Thorin’s cell. “I wanted you to know I’m here, and I’m doing what I can to get you all out.”

“Master Baggins,” says Thorin, with glad satisfaction, and maybe even something more. He sits down beside the bars of his cell, still staring up the direction where Bilbo hides. “I knew you would find us.”

“The racket you dwarves make, I’d have a hard time losing you,” says Bilbo, basking in the warmth of Thorin’s approval.

“Then I must be grateful for it. How long have you been here?”

It’s tempting to lie, with so little to offer for his days of exploration. “Since they brought you in. I’m doing my best, but this place is pretty impregnable.”

Quickly Bilbo runs through the information he’s gleaned so far, how many Elves are on each watch, how often they patrol, how often the guard on the gates is changed, how many gates there are. It feels like little enough, but Thorin listens carefully and asks sensible questions. To no avail. King Thranduil has been making his kingdom secure for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and for every idea Thorin suggests, Bilbo is forced to explain why it won’t work.

At length, Thorin nods, looking back down at his feet, and doesn’t press further. If only Bilbo had more to suggest, some sliver of hope.

Or some distraction that might cheer them both. The last few times they’ve been alone together, there haven’t been iron bars between them. Bilbo scrapes away at what will be his bead, feeling the silence grow heavier.

“After the Carrock,” he says suddenly, not even meaning to speak the words aloud.

Thorin makes a noise of surprise, and turns back towards him.

“When you kissed me, that first time.” Bilbo swallows. He wants to know, but also he really probably doesn’t. “Was it, well. Was it just because I was there?”

“No,” says Thorin at once. “I would not have done so if I had not thought on it before, very often. Do not imagine otherwise.”

“Oh,” says Bilbo, a warmth blooming low in his belly at the thought. “Often, was it.”

“Yes,” says Thorin, and Bilbo can hear the smile.

He dares a little more. “Since when?”

Thorin is leaning up against the bars, but It's impossible to read his expression in the dark. “From the first, almost.”

“Oh, I doubt that! You said I looked like a grocer.”

“That night? It was the first thought I could bring to mind, and I am sorry for it. I disliked Gandalf forcing his choices upon my company,” says Thorin, thoughtfully. “You seemed ill-suited to the task before us, and I hoped to dissuade you from joining us. I watched you after we had set off, and saw you always stumbling or in our way.”

Bilbo has no recollection of stumbling any more often than the rest of the company, but he won’t say that, since Thorin is still speaking, softly enough that Bilbo must strain to hear.

“Then, as I watched, I began to see how often you would laugh, and how merry the sound. How you gave apples to a pony you did not even like to ride. How the sun would burnish the light curls of your hair to gold. How when it rained...”

“When it rained?” Thorin doesn’t reply to that, only makes a sort of grumbling sound, looking down suddenly at his hands. He clears his throat awkwardly.

“Wet clothes,” says Bilbo suddenly, and Thorin’s guilty start tells him he’s right. “You were looking at my wet clothes.”

“Hobbit clothes are thin,” protests Thorin.

“You were watching my bum!” The thought is rather thrilling.

“I...” Thorin sighs, and a low laugh escapes him. “I was.”

Bilbo swallows a soft, astonished chuckle. He turns the little piece of wood in his hand, staring at it, struggling to quite believe what he is hearing.

Thorin leans his head back, his hair falling away from his face as he looks towards the nook where Bilbo hides, unsure if he is seen or not. Dwarf eyes are supposed to see well in the dark, he knows.

“Soon enough you were a constant distraction,” says Thorin, “And still, I believed you no more than a nuisance. When we lost you in the mountains I should have been relieved. But you returned, and what you said shamed me. You are much more than I had guessed, Bilbo.”

“Oh. I hide it well,” shrugs Bilbo, uncomfortable with all these compliments. He’s not really that wonderful, certainly not in comparison to Thorin. Yet Thorin likes him, by some miracle.

Thorin chuckles. “And for you? Will you not tell me?”

“Oh!” Bilbo has to laugh himself, then, as if anyone could help falling in love with Thorin Oakenshield. He stretches his legs, stuffing the bead and the knife into his pockets. “Well, if you must know, it was that song you sang back at Bag End. I will grant, after I caught up with you in the woods, I did wonder. You were pretty unpleasant.”

Thorin exhales, nodding in acknowledgement.

Bilbo wrinkles his nose, wondering where all this honesty has come from. It’s his own fault for asking, he supposes. “The thing is, it didn’t matter. You were so far above me, Thorin. I could burn myself up with wanting you and in the end, it was the same as not caring. I thought you couldn’t possibly fancy me.”

“Bilbo,” says Thorin, his voice sounding thick, reaching through the bars of his cell.

Bilbo scrambles down to clasp Thorin’s hand in both of his own. The stairs are well lit, and anyone passing would see him quite plainly. It isn’t safe at all, but he can’t help it. He can’t ignore Thorin when he sounds like that.

Thorin‘s other hand has reached the back of Bilbo’s neck, dragging him in for a kiss. It’s chaste, compared to what they’ve done before, just a press of mouths together. The bars between them get in the way and it’s yet another reason why Bilbo absolutely has to find a way to escape.

“I will get us all out of here, Thorin, I promise it.”

Bilbo still has no idea how he will make good on that promise as he says it, but in the end, it is only a few days before the perfect opportunity presents itself. Thorin trusts him, even if the others are skeptical, and when Bilbo, like a clot, forgets to rescue himself, he discovers that Thorin has held back the barrels and waited for him. He clings to Nori‘s barrel and is grateful that at least he won’t have to swim.

He nearly drowns as they race down the river with Orcs and Elves equally intent on killing them, but that seems a small price to pay.

--

It is the tail end of the seasons now, the chill in the air unmistakable, and sitting on the boat to Laketown, Bilbo is colder than he can ever remember being in his life. He lived through the Fell Winter, certainly, but goodness knows he didn’t go outside much then, what with the snow up to his eyebrows and the wolves and so on. He was barely 20 at the time, and mostly his memories consist of sitting by the fire with his mother telling stories and going to bed a bit more peckish than usual.

He has been tossed around an icy river for longer than he can sensibly reckon, and is drenched to the skin still, his fingers and toes red, swollen and long since gone numb. They’re all wet, all of them, and even huddled up all close together between Kili and Gloin, it is cold. Kili’s wounded leg is beginning to smell.

Thorin, meanwhile, is standing at the edge of the barge, one foot on the actual side of the boat, like the foolhardy idiot he is. He must be cold too, but he doesn’t even shiver. He’s staring at the mists ahead as if he could burn through them with the sheer force of his glare. They’ve escaped Mirkwood, but they have no weapons, no food, and precious little coin, especially now most of it is promised to the Boatman. Dwalin doesn’t look to be helping, either, grumbling mutinously and shooting filthy looks at him already. The Boatman seems unconcerned, silently steering them right across the middle of the largest body of water Bilbo has ever encountered.

The lake is only a lake, not even as dangerous as the river he has just hurtled down. It’s just that their progress is slow, and he has a bit more time to notice quite how much water there is. It is very still, and probably very deep, and Bilbo can’t see the shore any more. He just has to keep his head down and not look at it, and he’ll be just fine.

Bilbo huffs quietly, chafing his hands together and blowing on them. Now the Boatman is watching him, and he looks up, offering a weak smile. Politeness costs nothing, as his father would have said.

“You are not a Dwarf,” says the Boatman, and Bilbo does not roll his eyes.

“I’m a Hobbit,” he says. “Bilbo Baggins, of the Shire. At your service.”

“I am Bard of Laketown, at yours,” replies Bard, and the corners of his eyes crinkle as if something is comical. “Forgive me, Master Hobbit, I have never seen one of your kind before.”

“Well. Most of us have the common sense to stay at home.” Bilbo doesn’t really feel like conversation, all of a sudden. He has had about enough of this ridiculous adventure, and the thought of a warm fireplace, a full pipe, and a cup of tea has rarely been so appealing. A distinct gloom has fallen over the whole company, and it doesn’t let up until the Lonely Mountain appears through the mists before them.

It really is rather a beautiful sight. Almost as lovely as the look on Thorin’s face when he sees it.

--

Laketown is less impressive. It’s probably the dampest, nastiest, most wretched little town Bilbo has ever seen, even if it is on terribly clever stilts. It improves a little after a wash and a set of clothes that don’t smell like fish, or toilet, though they’re ragged enough and don’t remotely fit.

Bilbo isn’t sure he can remember what being warm even felt like. He’s so preoccupied with it he simply goes where he’s told, for the moment, even when that means fighting the Master’s guards or raiding his armoury. It seems to work out well enough, and really, how can things go too wrong when you’re following Thorin Oakenshield. He is mule-headedly brave and strong and he has seen them all safe thus far, more or less. If Thorin Oakenshield gives his word, he will always keep it. Bilbo knows that much.

They’ve managed to fall out with Bard, which is a pity, but instead the Master of the town is holding a great party in their honour, and the room is full of loud, braying Men. The air is hazy with the smell of cheap, rank pipeweed and they slosh their ale and wine about the place, apparently attempting to out-drink the dwarves, which Bilbo could tell them now is a fool’s errand. Bilbo’s toes have been trodden on more than once already, though, so he’s inclined to leave them all to it.

There’s plenty to drink, and the company is taking full advantage of it, Bofur most of all. He’s yelling out some song which, when Bilbo listens to the words, is actually very rude about Men indeed, but his accent’s thick enough that no-one seems to have noticed. Even Kili, whey-faced and limping, is waving a mug around with a cheer that looks slightly forced. His brother is watching him closely, but still drains his own ale and holds it out gladly for more.

Bilbo isn’t thirsty so much as hungry. With a sinking heart, he is forced to conclude that nearly all of the food at this banquet is fish-based. Even a hungry hobbit can’t face more than a mouthful of it after that boat ride. The few cuts of meat have been spiced suspiciously highly, and all of the vegetables are either served in aspic jelly or boiled to a mush. Everything is very elaborate, and some of the combinations seem very strange, such as poached pears in wine with what looks like cream on top, and turns out to be white fish-paste. The Master is either trying to impress them or poison them.

The bread at least will serve, so Bilbo grabs a couple of rolls and contents himself with those. He notices something else on the table that catches his attention and very, very cautiously slides it into his sleeve, and thence to the inside pocket of this frayed blue jacket he’s been given. He’s reasonably sure that no-one spotted the manoeuvre but his red face is bound to give him away soon, so he heads over to Thorin, his heart fluttering a little in his chest.

“I can’t face much more of this,” he yells into Thorin’s ear. “I think I might go upstairs.”

Thorin nods slowly, staring darkly out at the boisterous room, then jerks his head towards the door in permission. He has remained all evening between Balin and Dwalin, at the high table that once also held the Master’s seat, although the Master appears now to be attempting some sort of dance in the middle of the floor. Bilbo isn’t sure he’s seen Thorin smile at any point since they arrived in this rotten town.

It takes another five minutes for Bilbo to weave his way through the crowd, and at one point someone smacks his bum and shouts “past your bedtime!” at him. He grits his teeth and mounts the stairs without looking back.

Thorin has been given a room of his own, and Bilbo hasn’t asked, but he fully intends to share it. There’s a proper bed and everything. The sheets are rough and the blankets thin, but the canopy is hung with moth-eaten velvet drapery which will help keep out the chill. Beside the bed there is a drafty, uncurtained window, the snow banking up on its sill, and below it sits a large carved chest with a pitcher and bowl set upon it. Bilbo doubts this is usually a bedroom since the floor hasn’t even a rug upon it, and the wall opposite the bed is stacked with crates and boxes, hastily covered with a burlap sheet. Half-obscured behind them hangs a dark oil painting which may be intended to represent the Master. If so, Bilbo is glad it isn’t much of a resemblance.

He sets his little stolen flask of oil on the edge of the chest and strips down to his shirt, pausing with his hands on the buttons. Perhaps it wouldn’t do to be too forward, he decides, and besides, it’s properly cold tonight, snowing and everything. He climbs up onto the tall bed and wriggles under the covers shivering, and hopes Thorin won’t be long.

He isn’t. The thud of iron-clad boots rings on the stairs not long afterwards, and Bilbo peeps over the blankets to see Thorin come in, bolting the door behind him.

“You are in my bed,” says Thorin, the twitch of a smile in the corner of his mouth. Well, that’s something to warm Bilbo up already.

“I am, and you should join me. It’s cold.”

“True enough,” grunts Thorin, frowning again. He still carries a mug of ale in one hand. “The Master of this town is a worm. Padded in satins and velvets, while his people wear rags in the snow.”

These are not the thoughts Bilbo wishes to dwell on just at the moment, so he reaches for Thorin’s arm. “All will share in the wealth of the mountain,” he quotes, smiling, and it’s disappointing when Thorin doesn’t smile back.

Indeed, his frown deepens if anything, staring into his mug for a moment before draining it back and setting it down on the chest, beside the flask. Thorin notices that for the first time, and picks it up, turning the bottle slowly in his hand and watching the golden oil within wash against the glass.

Bilbo clears his throat awkwardly. “I remembered, this time.”

“Yes,” says Thorin. He exhales, long and slow. “You have not done this before.”

Bilbo shrugs, since he can’t exactly deny it. “What gave me away?”

“I would be your first,” says Thorin, meeting his eyes with a terribly serious expression, as if this is something momentous, as if it’s more than just a tumble. Bilbo is extremely disinclined to indulge Thorin’s dramatic tendencies just now. He prefers the way they were back at Beorn’s, laughing about Elven trotters, and in the morning, he had picked straw out of Thorin’s hair. They have a bed, they are both willing, and it all seems too fortunate to waste.

“Quite possibly my last, too,” he reasons. “There’s every chance we’ll all be dead by tomorrow night.”

Thorin looks surprised at the joke, but he manages something almost like a chuckle, though a bleak one. He sets the flask back down and leans against the bed, stooping to wrangle the vast array of buckles that adorn his boots.

“You have done this before,” says Bilbo, carefully making it half a question, just in case.

“Yes, though long ago. Shield-brothers sometimes seek such comfort, and though I was ugly,” Thorin gestures towards his face, his short beard, as if it that made the least bit of sense to anyone with eyes, “I was heir to Erebor. Enough were willing.”

“You’re not ugly, Thorin. The furthest thing from it, I’d say.”

“I am glad you think so,” says Thorin, although he hardly sounds convinced. Boots done, he unbuckles the outsized, heavy belt, and drops it to the floor with a clatter.

“Was there someone you loved, back then?” asks Bilbo, and regrets it instantly.

Thorin is pulling his borrowed tunic and shirt over his head, and emerges frowning. “Someone?”

“Sorry,” says Bilbo, backtracking as quickly as possible. Oh, there’s Thorin’s chest, and his lovely shoulders. Very close, and very distracting. “I just, I was talking to Balin about it a while since, this matter of Dwarves having a One, and you only ever love that person, or that thing, and it’s really none of my business, I shouldn’t have asked.”

Thorin’s movements stop suddenly, his eyes narrowed. “It is different, then, for Hobbits?”

“Do you know, I’m not sure if it is or not. Maybe we do have a One, but our lives are so short we don’t know? Maybe only some hobbits do?” Bilbo stops his babble, realising something. “My parents would’ve said that we do. Some of us, at least. They were definitely two parts of one soul.”

He rubs his nose, still cold, and looks up to the ceiling as he ponders it. “She’d have liked you, my Mum. Probably. She always worried I’d be alone after she’d gone.”

Thorin is sliding into the bed beside him and Bilbo realises with a flash of regret that he’s missed watching the Dwarf take off his britches. Thorin’s body is something Bilbo could happily worship, and goodness knows he hasn’t seen nearly enough of it so far.

“Oh stars,” he mutters, furious with himself. “Why am I talking about my dead parents at a time like this?”

“It is something important to you,” says Thorin. He leans up over Bilbo unsmiling, and Bilbo scrunches his face up in frustration. They’re right back at the Dramatic Deflowering of The Virgin conversation again.

“Thorin,” he says firmly, without any real idea of where he’s going to say. In fact, he realises, he doesn’t actually need to say anything. He twirls one of those lovely dark braids around his finger and tugs gently, until Thorin’s mouth meets his, and they can forget about talking for a bit.

Hobbits do have Ones. Bilbo has a One. Currently his tongue is pressing delicately into his One’s open mouth, tasting him through the ale, and he wants all of it he can get while he can. He’s not about to tell Thorin that, though. What good would it do? Kings and gentlehobbits falling in love is something from a story, or a song.

It is simply that he belongs to Thorin and suspects he always will. Even when this is over, however it ends, either in death or a lifetime of loneliness. Bilbo really isn’t sure which he’d prefer. But for now Thorin is large and strong and pressed against his body, deliciously warm, his hair smelling of pipeweed smoke and ale, his skin tasting of sweat, and that is all Bilbo needs.

He reaches down with both hands to make his best attempt at wrapping them around Thorin’s prick, and grins as Thorin grinds his hips into the touch. It presses up against his own hardness, albeit awkwardly, but Bilbo doesn’t mind that. There’s no need to rush, and Bilbo is struck with how luxurious it feels to be doing this in an actual bed. He wouldn’t object to staying here a week.

Thorin seems to agree, since his kisses are unhurried and wet, ranging across the skin he uncovers as he pushes up Bilbo’s shirt, letting his tongue curl around a nipple briefly before pulling the garment over Bilbo’s head and tossing it aside. He presses his lips against Bilbo’s neck and jaw, seemingly fascinated by the bare skin there, licking and tasting upwards until he reaches Bilbo’s ear, flicking his tongue against the tip and closing his teeth gently around it.

“You like my ears,” says Bilbo, and he must be grinning like a proper simpleton.

“I like all of you,” agrees Thorin. Suddenly Bilbo is aware that while Thorin’s mouth was busy with his ears, his hand has been creeping down rather lower. A broad palm slides under Bilbo’s thigh, lifting it, and he wriggles against the sheets, spreading his legs wider in assent.

Thorin slips from Bilbo’s grasp as he leans over for the oil, pouring a little out and rubbing it across his fingers carefully. He sets the flask back down with unnecessary gentleness and reaches back under the blankets. Bilbo ought not to feel shocked at that slippery touch, and yet does, as Thorin’s hand drifts down the inside of his thigh and lower. Thorin raises an eyebrow and Bilbo only nods quickly, hearing his own breath coming loud and fast and not trusting himself not to say something daft.

One finger slides inside Bilbo’s body. It’s familiar already, though they’ve only done this once, and he tips his head back and whimpers, a small pathetic noise to protest how badly he wants it, and more. He can trust Thorin. Before long a second finger broaches him, easily enough, and it doesn’t hurt, it might even feel better. He opens his eyes, to find Thorin staring at him as if he holds the key to some secret.

“You are mine,” says Thorin softly, watching his face. He twists his fingers slightly and something happens that Bilbo can’t quite understand, something that makes him yelp and clutch at Thorin’s shoulders.

“Is it good?” asks Thorin, grinning in a way that ought to be maddening. Except it is good, it’s very good, and Bilbo gasps agreement, arching his back as Thorin’s clever fingers perform the trick again. And now he feels a third finger added, and the shape isn’t right, somehow, it’s awkward and the stretch is not so welcome as before.

“Hang on,” warns Bilbo, and Thorin pauses only briefly.

“Breathe,” murmurs Thorin, pressing his mouth back against Bilbo’s neck, licking at the sweat already beading there. The slide of his fingers slows, but does not stop. “Breathe, Bilbo, slowly. Let me have this.”

That’s not quite what Bilbo wanted to hear. He breathes deeply again, willing himself to relax. It works soon enough and though he still feels that third finger more uncomfortably than the two before, it isn’t long until he is squirming down against them, lifting his feet again to take more and groaning when Thorin touches that little secret spot.

He groans louder when the fingers are removed and Thorin reaches again for the flask of oil, pouring more into his hand, less carefully now, and slicking his cock as Bilbo watches, still not quite able to believe this will happen. Surely it can’t. It won’t fit.

Then with one hand Thorin is guiding himself against Bilbo’s slackened hole, the other planted in the pillow beside Bilbo’s face. The pressure of his cock is blunt, and broad, and it does not stop. Slowly, oh slowly it fills Bilbo up, his breath short as he feels it pushing further into him, until at last Thorin’s hips rest against his spread thighs, and he has never felt so helpless with need in all his life.

Thorin leans over him, trembling now.

“Thorin?” asks Bilbo, no more than a whisper.

Thorin groans something unintelligible in Khuzdul, then grits his teeth. His eyes are so dark, barely a thin circle of blue around such swollen pupils. “Bilbo. Do not let me hurt you.”

“You won’t,” promises Bilbo, his hands fluttering over Thorin’s chest, too wrecked even to touch him properly. “You won’t hurt me, you never would. I know it. Please.”

The movement is cautious, tortuously so, when it comes. Bilbo knows well enough what his prick has always liked - a warm mouth, a slick hand - so although he wanted this, he’d assumed it was more for Thorin’s pleasure than his own. Which turns out not to be the case, at all.

Thorin moves slowly, but every thrust feels so deep it steals the breath from Bilbo’s lungs, each withdrawal is a loss he can hardly bear, and the slip and burn of it is so good. He feels utterly broken open around Thorin’s cock, as if his ribs have been cracked apart and his heart laid bare, with Thorin’s name written through every drop of his blood, every inch of his bones, impossible to hide. He flings his head back against the pillows, eyes pinched shut, gasping for air, and his fists clutch at the bedsheets. If he touches Thorin, if he touches anything other than this rough bare cloth, it’s going to be too much and he really might die.

It’s already too much, he knows. He feels Thorin’s hair sliding over his shoulders, Thorin’s breath on his cheek and hears his name whispered. “I’m all right,” gasps Bilbo, “I’m all right, it’s just a lot, a lot, ohh...”

His mind is too drowned in sensation to manage even kisses now. Instead, Thorin’s forehead presses against his, and Bilbo wonders absurdly if this is where that greeting comes from, because it feels like it’s the only thing grounding him. As if, without that touch of plain skin over bone, the rest of his body might fly apart entirely.

All Bilbo’s clever words have deserted him, and he can just barely form the sounds coming from his throat into “please” and “yes” and “Thorin”, until even those are gone.

“Sing,” croons Thorin, against his throat, wrapping his great hand around Bilbo’s aching cock. “Sing for me, as you promised.”

Thorin remembers that from months ago, and Bilbo nearly howls. He can feel it then, the edge of pain as his body draws together tightly, pulsing around Thorin as he spends, but it seems only to heighten the sensation. He is lost in it, begging without even knowing what for, legs wrapped tightly around Thorin’s back, until he lies back gasping for breath and utterly boneless.

Thorin has stilled, and his eyes are closed. It’s a moment before he moves again, slowly, his whole body shaking as he moans softly in words Bilbo can’t understand that sound like a prayer.

Bilbo is so wrung out with pleasure that all he can do is stare in wonder, amazed that he has this privilege, of seeing Thorin Oakenshield fall so deeply into his pleasure that the Common Speech fails him. It's a harsh poetry but it's poetry all the same. No-one is ever likely to agree to teach Bilbo Khuzdul - he has barely heard ten words of it together in his entire time with the Company - but he cannot help longing to know what the words are that escape Thorin, when his iron control is almost broken.

The snap of Thorin’s hips pushing into him is careful even now, as if he’s still afraid of hurting Bilbo. Thorin says his name again, and Bilbo has recovered his voice enough to whisper “Yes, oh yes, please,” softly, stroking Thorin’s chest and arms. Thorin bares his teeth in a snarl, and Bilbo can actually feel it, how much harder Thorin’s prick is for those last thrusts, the sudden increase of slickness inside him.

it’s only a moment before Thorin collapses against the bed, on his side next to Bilbo, still breathing hard. Bilbo’s head is spinning and his heart aching, and he isn’t even sure why. Perhaps Thorin was right to be cautious about this.

“Thorin,” says Bilbo, pushing the black hair away from his face. “Hey. Thorin.”

Thorin’s eyes open and he reaches out at once to stroke Bilbo’s shoulder. There’s such care in the gesture that he can hardly stand it.

“You are not hurt?” Thorin asks.

“No, no,” says Bilbo, a huff of laughter escaping him. Hurt? He feels like he’s floating, glowing with the warm fuzzy contentment settling through his bones.

Thorin presses his lips to Bilbo’s forehead and mutters something that must be Khuzdul again, but it doesn’t sound guttural or grating at all. It’s some word full of “ah” and “mm” sounds.

He wants to ask what that one means, even if nothing else, but Thorin has rolled out of bed to where the pitcher stands, and comes back with an unpleasantly icy washcloth. He has the nerve to laugh when Bilbo flinches at it, and then frowns.

“You are sure I have not hurt you?” he asks again.

“I’m not hurt,” says Bilbo, “I - I ache a bit, it’s funny,” he wriggles, trying to understand, because it definitely does feel strange, but it isn’t pain, not really. “I think I’m all right. Or I will be when you come back here and warm me up again.”

Thorin smiles, dropping the washcloth on the floor like the lout he is, and climbs back in. Bilbo can forgive him for being an untidy slattern, just this once, and is soon asleep his arms.

--

In the night, he wakes, cold again even under the covers. Thorin is not beside him, which explains it.

He sits up, and sees Thorin standing at the window of their room, and Bilbo realises it must face towards the mountain. He has his back to Bilbo, wrapped in a blanket from the bed, and that seems very unfair. Bilbo could’ve looked at the undraped view even longer than Thorin could stare at his mountain.

“Something up?” he asks.

“I feel it, outside the window,” admits Thorin softly. “It pulls me.”

“It’s your home.”

“It is. And yet, the pull is strange. It sits ill in my heart.”

“I suppose it has got a dragon in it,” yawns Bilbo. “As far as we know. It’s probably quite sensible to be a bit afraid.”

“I am not afraid,” says Thorin at once, and then sighs. "I did not expect to get this far. And now here we find ourselves, on the cusp of Durin’s Day, the mountain before us and the key in my hand. But I have lived in exile so long.”

He swallows, looking down at the floor again, and the next words are so soft Bilbo has to strain to hear them. “I do not know if I am ready.”

It’s fair to say, being entirely honest, that Thorin hasn’t quite been himself since they escaped Mirkwood. Still, that isn’t really so odd. Hiding in a barrel of fish wouldn’t improve anyone’s temper and nor would climbing through a dunny. On top of all that, the end of their quest is in sight, and with it, the final test of success or failure. Bilbo doubts any of them, even stubborn, loyal old Dwalin, expected to reach this point.

Bilbo climbs out of the cold bed to cross the even colder room, scuttling to where Thorin stands and squirming his way insistently under the blanket. Thorin is a furnace, and Bilbo is very glad of it as he presses up against warm, welcoming skin. Thorin’s arms close back around him, and he looks down at Bilbo, his expression soft. Maybe this has always been a doomed expedition and they will all die at the end of it, but actually, Bilbo thinks he really could die for this Dwarf.

Bilbo takes Thorin’s face between his hands and looks into those unfathomable blue eyes. “You are ready, Thorin,” he says, very quietly. “This is your mountain. And you have me.”

--

The Master sees them off in grand style, with absurd outfits and even more absurd trumpets sounding a very flat fanfare as their boat sets off across the lake. The sound fades mercifully quickly as they move away, and at the further shore, by some unspoken agreement, everyone ditches the cloaks and helms that the Master provided. They are still a more ragged bunch than they once were, but at least they can feel a bit more like themselves.

It’s clear that Thorin wasn’t happy about all the fuss, or Fili’s decision to stay behind, and Bilbo doesn’t like his humour. He charges off as soon as they’re ashore, making for the mountain as if he can bear no further delay.

Before them lies a wide, forbidding expanse of bare rock that Bilbo could happily leave to some old dragon, silent and empty. Moreover, walking turns out to be rather less comfortable than usual after the previous night’s activities, so he isn’t at the front with Thorin. He can keep up, but it’s no fun, especially when they approach the last ridge and Thorin breaks into a run.

When Bilbo catches up to where the company has stopped, he’s looking down across the empty wasteland to Erebor’s great gate. Rising hundreds of feet from the dead wilderness are great geometric arches and pillars and windows, their arrangement perfectly symmetrical, carved from the mountain itself. They are flanked by two gigantic stone Dwarves, axes raised. It’s taller than any of Rivendell’s halls, and this is just the front gate.

Balin nudges him gently. “Quite a sight, eh Bilbo?”

“Very impressive.” Not exactly welcoming or homely, to his mind, but certainly impressive. Thorin is calling for them to move on again, and Bilbo grimaces, but the old Dwarf beside him is bouncing with eagerness. Balin strides out over the treacherous, shifting slope sure-footed as a goat.

“I can’t lie, I really thought we were done for after we lost so much time up in Mirkwood,” chuckles Balin.

“Yes, well,” protests Bilbo weakly, feet slipping on the scree. “I did my best.”

“Ach no, laddie, I don’t blame you! You were marvellous, Bilbo, I was merely concerned that we didn’t take the... opportunity. For an earlier exit.”

“A what?” asks Bilbo. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. What earlier exit?”

“The Elf King offered us a deal, that first night. I did not take it,” says Thorin ahead of them, not turning. Bilbo stops in his tracks, attempting to wrap his head around this new bit of news.

“You didn’t take it? Thorin, why?”

“I could not trust him.” Thorin turns then, not a trace of doubt or guilt on his face. “I trusted you, and I was right. You rescued us all.”

Bilbo gapes like an idiot for a moment before he must run to catch up again. He could have died in those prisons, they could all have died, and Thorin had been so reckless that he yelled at the King - Bilbo had heard it, everyone in the bloody forest had probably heard it - instead of getting them out of there. Gandalf would probably have rescued them eventually, but never in time for Durin’s Day.

With a prickling discomfort that has nothing to do with his arse, Bilbo realises that sometimes he doesn’t understand this Dwarf king at all.

--

Now, with the sun barely past its height, the mountain is before them, but they must find their way in. When Bilbo spots the hidden stair, it earns him the first smile he’s seen on Thorin’s face since that morning. And the second, when he discovers the keyhole. Honestly, what would these silly Dwarves do without him, he wonders.

“I know these walls,” says Thorin, his hand laid upon the stone so lovingly, and the sweet yearning joy in his voice is something Bilbo could never regret, no matter what followed.

There’s something wrong with the place though. It itches all over his skin, just as in Mirkwood, and it’s not all the deadness in the valley outside. It’s in here, in the air, if not the walls. Thorin doesn’t seem to feel it, which may be even more worrisome. He’s walking forward along the narrow tunnel as if in a dream.

Somehow, Bilbo wasn’t expecting Erebor to be so pokey.

He looks at the engraving over the door, and Balin explains about the Arkenstone. Not Thorin. Thorin is apparently addressing him as Master Burglar again. He doesn’t offer to show Bilbo the way down either, leaving that to Balin too.

Well, so be it. It must be a very difficult moment, and Bilbo hopes, at his age, that he can be mature enough to recognise that.

After Balin bids him good luck, it occurs to Bilbo that if he gets toasted by a dragon today, he won’t have kissed Thorin good-bye. He turns, wondering if Balin might take a message for him, but he’s already gone. So Bilbo heads forwards alone.

He, a hobbit, is the first to enter the halls of Erebor in well over a hundred years. He looks down from the wide, open stairwell and is stunned by what he sees.

It’s not pokey. It’s huge.

Chapter Text

It takes a few hours to establish it, but eventually Bilbo is quite certain. Certain that everything about this wretched mountain is just too large, from the cavernous halls to the mighty engraved pillars that support them, from the obscene sea of golden treasures that spreads between them to the whopping great sparkly Arkenstone, as big as his own fist.

And the dragon, the dragon is very large too. Very large indeed and approaching alarmingly quickly as he attempts to race back up the stairs again.

He has never been so glad to see Thorin in all his life, he thinks, and then changes his mind abruptly as a sword - a sword! - appears before him.

The moment is so brief Bilbo hasn’t time to understand it. He almost thinks he must’ve imagined it, since very swiftly afterwards he is racing with the rest of them towards the guardroom, and then the forges. Thorin is wild-eyed, frenzied, reckless, taunting the dragon even as he stands upon the monster’s nose. Yet Bilbo can’t help but be struck by how astonishing he is, this foolhardy Dwarf. Who else would ever be so hopelessly, fearlessly brave? They are all doomed, they must all be doomed, and Bilbo can only do as he’s told, run where he’s told, and fight down the screaming panic that threatens to overwhelm him. It works, well enough. He even manages to be almost as reckless as Thorin, shouting at Smaug to leave Laketown alone, as if a dragon would listen to a Hobbit.

All their efforts are futile. Smaug lurches through the gates, shimmering with fire and fury and molten gold, to burn Laketown to the ground. Bard was right, though presumably it won’t save him now.

--

Bilbo is running again, out of the sweltering, gold-drenched Hall of Kings into the freezing night. eHe runs until he can see Laketown and dragonfire catching on the first roofs.

It’s a while before the others join him, out on a spur of stone that overlooks the lake. The crash of collapsing buildings and the terrified screams of Men reach across the water, muted by distance but loud enough. Smaug’s flames roar from his throat as he sweeps over the town, circling back again and again. The smoke rises up, thick and dark until they can smell it, faint on the night air, even from where they stand, but there is nothing the Company can do. They stand silent amongst the dark rocks and watch, and listen, and grieve.

Fili and Kili are children, and Bofur is Bilbo’s friend, and Óin has always taken care of them all. It’s a catastrophe, a disaster, to lose any of their company, and yet just at this moment the four who are under Smaug’s fire seem the most unfairly lost. Bard had a family, thinks Bilbo suddenly, remembering the littlest girl who asked if Dwarves would bring them luck, the older brother and sister. There are so many in Laketown who will die tonight for what he and the Dwarves have done.

Then the dragon surges abruptly upward, screaming and clawing at the sky, and its scales are winking out from burning gold to charred, dead black. It hangs in the air, an inked silhouette against the grey clouds and sparking flames, and drops back into the lake like a stone.

“Smaug is dead.” Bilbo has to say it aloud to understand it. So suddenly! There was a dragon, and now there isn’t. Within moments the Dwarves around him are laughing, shouting with happiness and relief. Now they must head to Laketown and discover whether the king’s nephews and their company are still alive.

Thorin is already striding in the other direction and Bilbo stumbles trying to catch him.

“Thorin,” he calls. “Don’t we need to go after Fili, and Kili? And Óin, and Bofur?”

“The mountain is ours,” replies Thorin. He wasn’t even watching when Smaug fell, and his voice is dreadfully flat.

“But we don’t even know if they’re alive, Thorin!”

“Hold your tongue.”

Bilbo stands open-mouthed in shock. Thorin looks furious, but it’s a cold fury, unyielding and hard. Behind him there is a gentle murmur of protest from several of the company, but nothing which actually makes it into words.

“If they live they will come to us. If not, we shall reclaim Erebor in their names. For now this is our mountain, our treasure regained. We must begin work.”

All Bilbo can think is that this, suddenly, is a very different Thorin to the one he knows, the one he defended to Smaug a few hours before.

“Balin,” calls Thorin, and the older Dwarf hurries forward. “You, and Bilbo. Stay close to me.”

--

“Thorin,” tries Bilbo, on the third day after they enter Erebor. His anger has long since dimmed into confusion and is well on its way to panic by now.

Thorin isn’t even dressed like himself any more; goodness knows where he found it all but the cloak he wears is long enough to trail on the ground, with what looks like a full bear’s pelt across the shoulders. He seems wrapped in shadow and glinting gold, in a place which is too much shadow and gold for Bilbo’s liking already. Bilbo barely recognises him.

They stand in the ruined treasury amongst the unimaginable riches of the dead dragon’s hoard, a wasteland of gold, more desolate even than the landscape outside. The whole place smells rank, like something long rotted, the air stale and dry. There’s no-one here in all this vast space but the Company, and the stone walls echo with the faint clinking sounds of the others sifting fruitlessly through gold for the stone in Bilbo’s pocket. It’s all they’ve done ever since they arrived. Even the four Dwarves who came from Laketown were given barely a greeting before Thorin assigned them a section of the Treasure halls to scour. The whole business is so stupid and awful it makes Bilbo want to scream.

“Thorin, this is ridiculous. You need to rest,” he says.

Thorin shakes his head, never taking his eyes from the riches around his feet. It’s impossible to know if he’s even listening. The metal reflects in his eyes, turning them as gold as Smaug’s, and Bilbo shivers at the thought.

“Well, I’m going for a kip anyway,” says Bilbo frankly. “Let me know if the Arkenstone turns up.”

The hand moves like lightning, grasping Bilbo’s arm with bruising strength. “Do not go.”

Bilbo sighs. There’s been a lot of this. Thorin will barely let him out of his sight for some reason, and growls if he tries to speak to anyone else. It’s as much as he can do to bargain for 10 minutes alone to go outside for a piss. “I’m tired, Thorin.”

“We cannot rest until it is found.”

“I’m sure it will be,” mutters Bilbo, the weight of it heavy in his coat. He feels like the glow of it must radiate through the cloth, but somehow no-one has suspected him yet. It’s all wrong, he shouldn’t be lying to Thorin or any of them like this. Everything has gone bad at exactly the point they were supposed to have triumphed.

Bilbo sags, exhausted. The quest, and on top of it everything that’s happened since they entered this blasted mountain, have left him so weary he doesn’t even notice Thorin’s focus has shifted until the heavy hand on his arm slides up to his shoulder, pulling him close.

“Bilbo,” murmurs Thorin. He’s staring at him now, and the pupils of his eyes are huge and dark. He leans in close and there’s something deeply unnerving about it, when there really shouldn’t be. “I have been cruel. We should rest.”

“Yes?” says Bilbo cautiously. He’s not altogether certain what Thorin’s implying. It doesn’t sound like sleep, especially when the hand on his shoulder tightens.

“We need not be seen,” breathes Thorin, closer now. “I will press you down into a bed of pure gold, and you will be more precious than all of it, my burglar.”

“Oh, now wait, no. That doesn’t even sound comfortable,” says Bilbo.

His tentative efforts to hold Thorin off are futile. The Dwarf has the advantage of him in every way. It is not a nice thought to consider and he never has before, but if Thorin determines to have him now, he won’t really be able to prevent it. Bilbo stumbles backwards, struggling to find his footing in the shifting piles of treasure. The sound of gold sliding against gold is loud in his ears.

“The Arkenstone,” he protests feebly. “You said we need to find that first. Time enough later, don’t you think?”

Thorin stops, and for a moment looks utterly lost. He blinks, his mouth working as if he wants to speak, and his expression clears, becomes sane, just for a flickering instant before it is gone again. His grip on Bilbo’s shoulder slackens and his hand falls to his side again, and Bilbo feels a wave of guilty relief sweep over him.

“Yes,” Thorin whispers brokenly, turning back to the search. “The Arkenstone. And then.”

Once his heart has stopped hammering like a woodpecker, that brief flash of clarity in Thorin’s eyes begins to haunt Bilbo. Thorin is still in there, somewhere, he thinks, although there seems less and less evidence of it as the days go by.

It’s pure chance that Bilbo is fiddling with the acorn, not the Arkenstone or the half-finished bead or even his little gold ring, when Thorin sweeps around the pillar, demanding to see it. It’s the closest he gets to pulling Thorin back out of whatever it is that is poisoning him so, and that smile, oh, it is wonderful to see. It quite stuns Bilbo into silence for a moment or two. And then Dwalin interrupts, the old clot, and there never seems to be another opportunity.

Thorin gave his word. Thorin knows what it is to be homeless and helpless and hopeless, and yet he will not honour his promise to the people of Laketown, and none of the Company even raise their voices against him. They hunt through the gold for hours every day as if it has half-bewitched them, too. Bilbo trails around the Lonely Mountain struggling to understand what is happening, and wonders if he has ever felt more lonely in his life.

By the time he’s wearing a ridiculous silver shirt and watching the armed Dwarves of the Company march towards the gate, he knows, whatever it will take to save Thorin, it is not him. Bilbo Baggins is not enough. How could he be?

Something must be done, or there will be a massacre. For days he has puzzled over it, wishing for Gandalf, wishing for some miraculous act of the Valar, but there is only one thing he can think of, and it breaks his heart to even consider it.

Under cover of darkness, Bilbo sneaks away from the mountain. He will give the Arkenstone to Bard, and perhaps Thorin will trade for it, and no-one will die.

--

It doesn’t work.

Looking back, Gandalf had a point when he suggested Bilbo shouldn’t go back to Erebor, but he was quite prepared for Thorin to be angry. Foolish as he knows it is, Bilbo wanted to be there to help.

Instead he finds that Thorin is gone, drowned beneath the dragon-sickness, and instead there is a terrifying stranger in his place. There can be no doubt that he means what he says, and he really does want Bilbo dead, but he still speaks with Thorin’s voice. He still has Thorin’s face, and his eyes are wet. The urge to reach forward and brush those tears away with a caress is so nearly overwhelming that Bilbo can’t run, even if he knows he should.

Which is why, when the stranger lays hands on him, when he’s dragged across the battlements in a grip so strong he knows that if he drops, it can only be deliberate, he can’t blame the others for not intervening. Because this stranger does look a lot like Thorin.

It isn’t until the wind is whistling through Bilbo’s curls and he hears Gandalf’s voice that he comes back to himself enough to escape. When Gandalf speaks, the grip on Bilbo’s arms loosens a little, and he scrambles over to where Bofur is pleading with him to climb down and escape, although pleading is hardly necessary at that point. It’s not as though Bilbo is a complete dolt.

He scrambles to Gandalf’s side as the Iron Hills Dwarves come sweeping over the hill, followed by Orcs. Oh, surely this couldn’t be a bigger mess. Some part of him just wants to knock all their heads together and scold them like children, and he has a feeling Gandalf would agree.

Bilbo has never been in a battle before, but he finds he could happily have forgone the experience. It is loud, and chaotic, and terrifying. He waves Sting about, and in the throng of Orcs and Men and Elves at least there is some advantage in his height, since his blows are rarely anticipated and he remains unscathed for a while.

At first it’s impossible to tell who’s winning. Then it becomes alarmingly clear that it’s probably not them. The Elves and Men have retreated into Dale, and Bilbo with them, slipping in spilled blood as often as on ice, trying to keep Gandalf in sight. All the metalwork in the city is bowed and melted, from statues to door hinges, and in his panic it takes Bilbo longer than it should to understand why. They’re being forced upwards, further into the city along steep cobbled streets, and Bilbo risks glances over his shoulder when he can to see what’s happening to Erebor. The Dwarves from the Iron Hills are still fighting before the gate, and the gate still appears to be sealed. It shouldn’t make sense, but there’s a low, roiling fear in Bilbo’s gut that is quite sure of what is happening inside that mountain. Dwarves are loyal to a fault, and the Company is loyal to Thorin, and Thorin is already as mad as his grandfather ever was.

There is a sound so loud it carries even over the roar of battle, and over the edge of a balcony Bilbo sees first the ruined gate, the scattered stone and black open maw of the mountain, and then how the line of Dwarf warriors seems to be pushing back against the Orcs at last. Amongst them are his Dwarves. Because of them the tide of the battle is turning, the Orcs are moving back out of Dale to join their fellows, and Gandalf is actually smiling, so it must be true.

He’s smiling when they spot Thorin, Fili, Kili and Dwalin riding up towards Ravenhill and he doesn’t stop until Thranduil’s son arrives with news of a second army of Orcs sweeping in from the North.

“The North?” asks Bilbo. “Where is the North, exactly?”

“Ravenhill,” says Gandalf.

--

Bilbo turns and is running before anyone can stop him. He hears Gandalf shout behind him, “Bilbo Baggins, I will not allow it! You will be seen!”

No I won’t, thinks Bilbo, and fumbles for his dear golden ring, slipping it onto his finger even as he runs. Normally he’d hide, but who cares, who cares when Thorin’s life may be in the balance, and he’s pretty sure Gandalf knows about the ring anyway.

He runs until his lungs are bursting, until his feet aren’t even hurting any more, just numb, until his vision narrows into a black tunnel and running feels like the only thing he’s ever done. When he reaches the top of the hill and sees the fortress he so desperately wants to stop, just for a moment, but he will not. He will not until he can see the Dwarves. His Dwarves are in there somewhere and they are in danger.

He’s forgotten he’s even wearing the ring, so they don’t notice him, and Fili and Kili are walking away from Thorin and Dwalin as Bilbo reaches them. He drags it from his finger, gasping “Thorin!” as he falls breathless against a wall.

It should’ve been a shout but there’s not enough air left in him for that.

“Bilbo!” says Thorin, wheeling round in shock. Even from where he’s leaning, eyes watering with exhaustion, Bilbo can see that it’s Thorin again, his Thorin, not mad or broken any more. He looks fierce and strong and serious, although it’s anyone’s guess why none of them are wearing the armour they found in Erebor. It’s not the time to ask.

Fili and Kili stop walking. All of them are staring at him.

“You have to leave here, now. Azog has another army, attacking from the North. This watchtower will be completely surrounded, there’ll be no way out,” Bilbo tells them. “You have to get out of here.”

“No!” shouts Kili, stepping forward. “We will not run.”

“Peace, Kili,” says Thorin, silencing him with a gesture. “Nor will we walk into a trap.”

He bows his head, sets his jaw, eyes darting across the snow as he decides, weighing his sword in his hand. He’s thinking over what Bilbo has said. Thorin trusts him again, and Bilbo could almost weep for relief.

“We must have this fight another day,” says Thorin.

Thank the stars above, they may all survive this yet. Thorin is staring up at the tower, and Bilbo can see how hard it is for him as he shakes his head and walks away. Dwalin, Fili and Kili fall in behind him obediently, for all their evident frustration.

There is a rumbling sound behind them, and a flicker of firelight against the black stones. The drumbeats are louder now, and before they reach the archway, a voice calls from the top of the watchtower, snarling in the black speech of Moria. Thorin stops, frozen in place, turning slowly to face the White Orc.

Bilbo has never cared to study the Black Speech of Moria, and so he does not know what Azog is bellowing, although he catches the word “gast” and knows it means “fear”. Azog must be taunting them, calling them cowards. He has no idea whether any of the Dwarves know that, but he can’t imagine it matters much.

“Too late,” mutters Kili, his eyes gleaming with impatient glee. Dwalin is grinning too.

“They are upon us,” says Fili, lifting his sword again, but he still looks to his Uncle, his King, waiting for Thorin’s word.

“Then we have no choice. We fight,” says Thorin grimly, almost to himself. “We finish this. Stay close, all of you.” He glances aside to Bilbo, and his eyes are as hard as flint.

“Bilbo,” he says. “Hide.”

As if he would. As if there’s even anywhere he could, with Orcs on every side. There’s no time to says as much, though, with Azog’s Orcs pouring towards them, enormous and monstrous and bellowing with bloodlust.

So, they’re all going to die after all, and probably Bilbo first. He does his best, dodging and jabbing at ankles and the backs of knees, but it’s not much. Within minutes, Sting is lost, and he resorts to scrabbling for rocks to fling at the Orcs’ heads. He even takes a couple down, that way, doing more damage than he ever managed with a blade.

Kili and Fili fight back-to-back, and Dwalin is a blur of spinning axe blades and black Orcish blood.

From the corner of his eye Bilbo spots Thorin near the stairs to the fortress, the blade of his sword gleaming and singing in his hands as he whirls, thrusting and slashing through Orcs twice his size. And then Bilbo sees Azog approaching, teeth bared, stalking slowly downwards as if he has all the time in the world, a gigantic mace swinging in his grip.

“Thorin!” yells Bilbo, the rock in his hands dropping to the ground. An Orc hears him, swings, and everything goes black.

--

Bilbo wakes with the kind of headache that leaves him swearing never to touch Hamfast’s home brew ever again. He aches all over, his mouth tastes like gargled dirt, and his bed feels as if there are rocks under the mattress.

“Master Baggins? Is he awake?” asks a voice he recognises from somewhere, and all at once he realises that he is not, in fact, at home in Bag End, and this is not his bed, or even his mattress.

“Óin?” he tries to ask, but his voice isn’t working. Recollection comes flooding back, and with it a redoubled pain all over his body, but mostly his hip and his head. A grey-bearded, careworn face swims into view.

“Now, Mister Baggins, do you know me?”

“Óin,” says Bilbo, sounding scratchy even to his own ears. “Óin, is Thorin...?” He can’t even finish the sentence.

“Thorin will live,” says Óin firmly, holding a fat, gnarled finger up in front of Bilbo’s face. “Follow my finger with your eyes, please.”

Bilbo obeys. “Good,” says Óin, picking up his hand now. “Squeeze my hand.”

“And Fili, and Kili?” asks Bilbo, squeezing.

“Excellent,” says Óin, shifting his grip a little. “Stretch your arm out?”

“Can I see them?”

“Who?”

“Fili, and Kili!” says Bilbo, exasperated. “And Thorin!”

Óin hums, still lifting and bending Bilbo’s arm. “Soon enough, lad,” he mutters. The old Dwarf looks as if he hasn’t slept, and there’s dirt on his face and a rough bandage on his arm with a bloom of dried, brownish bloom seeping through it. “Now, your leg.”

“I’m fine!” insists Bilbo, attempting to sit up. His head spins and suddenly he is looking at the pale canvas of the tent’s roof again. The sheet that covers him is too hot, and then too cold, and he isn’t at all sure he won’t be sick.

“You are not fine,” Óin tells him sternly. “But you will be. As will all of our Company, by some miracle, Mister Baggins. Another day and I’ll warrant you’ll be out of this bed, but for now, you will rest.”

Gulping, Bilbo manages a weak nod. All the Company will be fine, says Óin, and Bilbo wants to believe it. He will believe it for now. The tent is drafty, and his bedroll is uncomfortable, and outside he can hear shouting and bustle that make his head ring, but he obediently drinks the draught Óin gives him and falls back asleep soon enough.

--

Óin was right. Bilbo takes it as a good sign, that he can struggle out of bed before the next day is out, as the healer predicted. Surely that means that he is right about Thorin as well, and he will wake soon.

Bilbo gets dizzy if he walks too far, and his hip is a constant, grinding ache with a lovely colourful bruise to go with it, but he can manage to walk to the tent where Thorin lies, and he doesn’t need to get any further than that. It appears that Azog is dead, and Bolg, and of course Smaug, so all has turned out like it does in the very best stories. Or it will, once the King wakes up.

Thorin’s skin is still warm, but he is pale, as if his wounds have drained all the blood from his body. The blue veins in his hands and arms stand out under the dark hair, and there are bruises too, purplish and yellowing at the edges, blooming across every inch of him that Bilbo can see. There are scrapes on his knuckles and grazes on his shoulders. Above his right eye is a long cut that runs down to his eyebrow, and over the edge of his blankets peep the thick bandages that wrap his torso. His breathing is shallow, but steady, and Óin says that’s a good sign.

When Óin arrives he sends Bilbo off to fetch silverwater from the Dwarves’ tents, and despite the pain when he walks, Bilbo is glad to be useful. These Dwarves are from the Iron Hills and eye him suspiciously, but they don’t scare him. As he’s looking for someone to ask, one steps in front of him, all scars and tattoos and bristling black hair, glowering like a bear, a hand resting on the hilt of his throwing axe.

“You should not be in the Dwarf tents, Child,” he says in a warning tone. “Go back to your family.”

“Oh,” says Bilbo, realising. It’s not the first time he’s been mistaken for a child of Men, after all. “No, it’s for Thorin. I’m one of the Company, Óin son of Gróin sent me to fetch silverwater.”

The Dwarf recoils in surprise, but his expression doesn’t grow any friendlier.

“The Halfling,” he scowls, and Bilbo blinks, because it’s been a fair while since anyone called him that. The bucket is snatched from his hands and filled, and when he gets it back the Dwarf leans down rather too close into his face.

“Tell King Thorin,” growls the Dwarf, “There are many Dwarves here who would be proud to serve him.”

“I will,” says Bilbo, somewhat mollified. Dwarves really are dreadfully rude.

He tells Óin on his return, since he doubts Thorin would be listening, and the response is equally unenthused, no more than a raise of eyebrows and a grunt. It doesn’t particularly bother Bilbo that he isn’t sent off on any more errands. He’d rather stay with Thorin after all. Bilbo has his bedroll moved in so he can sleep on the floor beside Thorin when exhaustion takes him, and when he’s awake, he sits on an old wooden box that serves as a chair, and waits. Every so often someone will appear with soup or water or both, and Bilbo is politely grateful, and usually manages to eat some.

Outside the canvas of the tent there sounds to be all sorts going on, Elves shouting in Sindarin and Men in the Common Speech, arranging supplies and shelter and similar stuff. He smells the smoke of campfires, and hears the whinnying of horses, and one night he wakes to the patter of rain, which makes for a very chilly morning. Thorin sleeps through all of it.

Óin lets him help when Thorin’s bandages must be changed or washed, and instructs Bilbo in how to mix the paste of pungent herbs that dresses the wound, to clear any infection and dull the pain. The dark, raw hole in Thorin’s side makes Bilbo’s eyes leak tears every time he sees it, which is rather discomfiting. Óin pats his shoulder and mumbles something reassuring about emotions being nearer the surface when recovering from an injury.

“Perfectly natural,” he says gruffly.

He has also entrusted Bilbo with the job of sponging a little water against Thorin’s dry lips every hour. Bilbo undertakes the task with care, and sometimes the Elven healers come, bringing a thin broth to give him as well, as they chant soft words in Quenya that Bilbo can’t understand.

Bofur is the first to visit, lucky enough to have escaped the battle uninjured. He talks for a while of nothing much and lends Bilbo a better knife for his woodcarving. Now that he’s feeling better, it’s good to have something to keep his hands occupied again. The wooden bead is smooth and hollowed out now, and he’s working on a design of oak leaves and an acorn for the outside. It was simple enough when he started it, and now every vein of the leaves, every bract of the acorn cups is rendered in painstaking detail.

Bombur brings food, a thick, rib-sticking stew and a whole loaf of bread, as soon as he discovers where Bilbo is staying.

“These Elves mean well, but...” says Bombur, laying a finger alongside his fat nose with a wink, “I doubt they’ve been giving you the rations a Hobbit needs, eh?”

Bilbo nods, grateful. It’s true, although he would never have complained, and it’s good to know that his friends are still thinking of him. Of course they mostly visit to see their King, always hopeful that he’ll wake. He hasn’t yet.

Within a day or so of the Battle, most of the Company are recovered well enough to drop by at least once, with only Fili, Kili and Bifur remaining in their sick beds, so Bilbo is told, and they too are well on the mend. All the Dwarves have things to be getting along with now that the battle is done and the mountain must be reclaimed in earnest. Only Bilbo sits in this tent all day, with nothing else to do. There is nowhere he would rather be, under the circumstances.

One afternoon Bard arrives, stepping into the tent with confidence and then stopping abruptly to stand just inside.

“King Thorin has not woken,” he says to Bilbo.

“As you can see,” says Bilbo warily.

“Indeed,” says Bard, exhaling as if amused at himself. “Forgive me, I wanted to see for myself.”

Bard seems a suspicious, grim enough sort from what Bilbo has seen of him, but at least he is honest. Bilbo decides not to take offence at the suggestion that Thorin’s condition has been exaggerated, especially since Dale will presumably be needed as an ally of Erebor. He suspects Bard knows that too.

“When he wakes,” says Bard, haltingly, as if the words are hard to say. “I would have you give him my thanks. For joining the battle. We could not have won without King Thorin’s aid. Tell him I hope it was an omen of better relations to come, between his people and my own.”

“I think it was,” says Bilbo at once. It must be hard, going from Bargeman to King at a moment’s notice, but Bard’s attempt at diplomacy, though transparent, is impressive. “In fact, I’m sure of it. You’ll see yourself once he’s well.”

Bard frowns. “Do you think he will trade for the Arkenstone, then?”

“I don’t know,” admits Bilbo, considering. Personally, he would rather never see the stone again. It means something different to Thorin, of course, but how he will feel about it after what’s happened, Bilbo cannot guess. “But I think he will give you the gold you were promised. No, I know he will. He will keep his word to you. You may not think that means much any more, but it does, it really does.”

Bard gives him a searching look, but it would be too complicated for Bilbo to explain. At length the new King of Dale simply nods, once, and is gone.

Shortly after him comes Gandalf, a much more welcome sight. The old wizard stands at the end of the bed, watching the slow rise and fall of Thorin’s chest under the sheets and blankets in silence for a while. Not very long, but then Gandalf is rarely silent for long. He clears his throat purposefully.

“Bilbo, my dear Hobbit. May I ask what you’re making?”

Bilbo hides the bead in his fist. He’s hardly going to let Gandalf see it first. “It’s a bead, for Thorin. It’s not finished yet, I’m afraid.”

“A bead,” says Gandalf. “You are aware of the significance, I take it.”

“Yes,” says Bilbo. It would be nice if the Wizard could leave it at that. Nice, but unlikely.

Gandalf sighs, leaning back the way he always does when about to make some grand pronouncement. “The Dwarven people have many fine qualities, as you and I both know, but their ways are greatly different from those of the Shire. This will be no light undertaking, Bilbo. I hope you understand that.”

“I think I do, Gandalf, yes.”

He is about to say more, but for the first time Thorin’s head is shifting against his pillows and his mouth falls open in a long, broken gasp.

“Thorin!” cries Bilbo, leaning forward, and clasps Thorin’s hand.

Thorin looks up at him, unseeing for a moment, then seems to focus. He grips Bilbo’s hand with surprising force.

“I dreamed of you,” rasps Thorin, his stare so desperate. “Are you still a dream?”

“No, no,” says Bilbo gently, shaking his head. “I’m here. I’m right here.”

Thorin’s eyes close for a moment, then flutter open again in a fresh panic. “Bilbo, I am so sorry, for what I did...”

“Not now,” insists Bilbo. “Do you need anything? Are you thirsty? Óin said you should drink something if you can.”

Thorin blinks before he manages a yes, and Gandalf helps raise him a little, so that Bilbo can lift a cup of water to his mouth. A lot spills, running over his beard and getting his bandages damp, but he manages to swallow some.

“That’s good,” says Bilbo, pleased, once Thorin has taken a few sips. “Any more?”

“No,” says Thorin, leaning back on his thin pillow, and even that small movement clearly costs him some pain. His voice is a croak, and he hasn’t taken his eyes from Bilbo yet, noting the bandage that still wraps around Bilbo’s head. “You are injured?”

Bilbo grins. “Nothing to worry about. Not like you, you need your rest.”

“The others? Fili, and Kili?”

There are some clean cloths nearby and Bilbo takes them to mop things up. He smoothes the sheets with his hands, busy with happiness. “A few scrapes, but Óin says they’ll be right as rain soon enough. I should go and tell them you’re awake.”

“Stay,” says Thorin, grasping Bilbo’s hand again. “Stay with me. Please.”

Bilbo smiles at that. It might be the first time he’s ever heard Thorin say please, so he can hardly refuse. He nods, instead, his heart a bit too full for words, because Thorin has come back, he’s alive, they all are, and it’s better luck than he could ever have dreamed of. On a whim, he leans down to press a kiss to Thorin’s cracked lips, and the smile he gets in return is like the sun from behind a cloud.

It’s the first time, thinks Bilbo dimly, that they’ve kissed in front of anyone.

Thorin’s eyes fall shut a moment later, and he falls asleep again still smiling. He was awake for a few minutes, no more, and Bilbo’s pretty sure he wasn’t even aware of Gandalf’s presence.

“Well, well,” grumbles the wizard, but without any real displeasure, and suspiciously as if he wishes to hide how pleased he may actually be. “I see my concerns are too late, after all. It is rather an unexpected outcome, but perhaps not a bad one, for all that. I suppose you are well-suited, in your way. Did I not say this journey would be good for you? And, indeed, it has proven most amusing for me. Remain here, and I shall go and inform Master Óin that his king is beginning to wake up.”

--

The news travels fast. Óin arrives back with all three of the Ri brothers hot on his heels, plus Bofur, Dwalin, several Men and even a couple of Elves. Bilbo explains as pleasantly as he can that the King is not ready for visitors yet, but he will make sure they are kept up to date on his condition, and Óin threatens to brain the lot of them with his staff unless they get out of his way.

Once their audience has left, Oin demands to know exactly what Thorin said and did whilst he was awake. He seems delighted with Bilbo’s account, although he frowns after a moment, and glances up at the bandage on Bilbo’s head, peeking underneath.

“Yes, this has done its job, I think,” he says, looking the rest of Bilbo over rather thoughtfully, then sends him briskly away for a wash. It’s probably very much overdue, come to think of it. They’ve both been so busy tending to Thorin and changing his bandages that it never occurred to Bilbo until now, but he’s still in his clothes from the battle, and he must stink.

It’s Ori who takes him off to a small tent full of Dwarves again where he thinks he has never been so grateful for soap and hot water in all his life. He’s so tired and relieved and filthy that he can’t even care about the lack of privacy, and strips down as carelessly as any Dwarf there, unperturbed by the pointing and harsh whispers around him. All that stops abruptly in any case when Dori sweeps in, a pile of fresh clothes over one arm, fixing any over-curious Dwarves with one of his infamously fierce stares.

Bilbo is rubbing his hair dry, wondering at quite how long it’s grown, as Dori holds various things up against him until he is satisfied with Bilbo’s new outfit. The clothes smell a bit musty, but they are clean, there are no holes in them, and Bilbo would guess they must be some Dwarfling’s, rescued from the mountain. He finds himself wearing a long, thin shirt, somewhat tight, some dark grey trousers, and a very beautiful woollen tunic in rich mossy green, with the hem and cuffs embroidered in gold. It has two neat pockets to accommodate his bead, his knife, his acorn and his special gold ring. It also feels far too showy for comfort, and Bilbo can’t help but say so.

“It’s all there is, Mister Baggins,” explains Dori, a little smugly. “The ordinary folks’ clothes have long since rotted away. Only the finest garments, properly stored, are still fit to wear.”

Bilbo has to concede that makes sense. Dori tuts as he looks Bilbo over, pinching at the tunic’s shoulders, which are far too wide, but he’s pleased with the trousers, which fall almost to the ground.

“Perfect for length, at least!” says Dori, nodding to himself. “I’ll sort you something better out for your top half, Mister Baggins, just give me a day or so.”

“Please, there’s no need,” says Bilbo, but Dori will have none of it, bustling off between the tents twittering to himself about darts and easing.

He waits until Dori is out of sight before rolling up the trousers to a more natural, Hobbit-ish length, and then heads back to Thorin’s tent. Thorin remains exactly where Bilbo last saw him, but his head is turned towards Óin, and the two appear to be in conversation.

“You’re awake again!” says Bilbo in surprise.

Thorin beams at him, a very unusual expression to see on his face, although Bilbo feels he could get used to it. “Master Baggins,” he says, sounding hoarse, but more like himself than he has in a long while. His gaze takes in Bilbo’s peculiar outfit. “You look well. Very well.”

“So do you,” says Bilbo. Even looking half-dead, Thorin awake and smiling is still the best thing Bilbo could ever hope to see.

Óin snorts with laughter, and even Thorin looks amused. “I have felt better,” he says. “Óin tells me you have been at my side all this time.”

“Not much else to do,” shrugs Bilbo, well aware that his smile and the speed with which he hurries to Thorin’s side give the lie to his words.

As he catches Thorin’s hand in his own, Óin mumbles into his beard about some other patients needing his attention and Bilbo couldn’t care in the least whether that’s true or not. He doesn’t even wait until the old Dwarf is out of the tent before lifting Thorin’s hand to kiss his scraped knuckles.

“How are you feeling?” he asks.

Thorin sighs, his face falling, and looks down to where Bilbo’s hand grasps his own.

“Ashamed,” he says at last. “I have treated you very ill. If I could take back my words, undo my deeds... I do not expect you to forgive me, but I would have you know. I am sorry. I am so sorry to have led you into such perils.”

“Stop,” says Bilbo firmly, laying a hand on Thorin’s chest. “You were sick. You did some extremely, um, questionable things, I’ll allow that, but I forgive you. Everything. So let’s have no more of it.”

“Bilbo, no. I would give my life to take the wrongs I have done you.” He looks at Bilbo with such anguish it’s scarcely bearable.

“That would be deeply counterproductive,” says Bilbo, a little crossly. “No, I mean it, Thorin Oakenshield. I have been glad to share in your perils, and it’s no good you apologising any further, because I forgive you entirely.” It’s a bit more complicated than that, but they can take it a step at a time, and deep down, he really does forgive Thorin. “Anyway, I did steal your Arkenstone.”

Thorin smiles weakly. “It was your fourteenth share.”

The joke is so unexpected Bilbo’s laughter breaks out of him in a bark that startles them both. “Hardly!” he splutters. “It’s the King’s jewel, the heart of the mountain. I knew that when I took it. I should be asking your forgiveness.”

“I care not,” says Thorin, not even blinking, his grip on Bilbo’s hand tightening again. “I do not want it. I have found another, more dear to me.”

Bilbo stares in astonishment. “That is…” he begins, shaking his head. “No, I’m sorry, that is the worst line I’ve ever heard.”

Thorin’s eyebrows raise, and he chuckles, then winces with pain. “I have not your gift with words, Master Baggins,” he admits.

“Well,” says Bilbo, pulling a dismissive face. His heart is swelling in his chest enough that it feels as if he’ll burst his ribs. “You make up for it in other ways.”

Chapter Text

The intention has always been to move everyone to Erebor as soon as possible, and the rest of the Company are up there already, including Thorin’s nephews. In the morning Bilbo helps Óin pack up all the necessary supplies into a cart and Dori, Nori, Gloin and Bifur arrive with a litter to carry Thorin. He has woken again, more than once and for longer each time, and all the healers are delighted about it.

He is awake again now, although not in one of his better moods.

“What is the matter with you?” asks Bilbo in exasperation, when Óin takes another crate out to load the cart. “Besides the obvious, I mean.”

Thorin glares at him from his bed. It’s not particularly intimidating. “It is nothing.”

The tent’s flap opens before Bilbo can ask what that’s supposed to mean, and he turns expecting to see Dori or someone asking what’s keeping them.

“My apologies for interrupting,” says Gandalf, without looking in the least apologetic. He plants his staff firmly before him and leans down towards them both with a warm smile. “I understand you are to return to the mountain today, King Thorin, and I wished to offer you my most sincere congratulations.”

“Then you are a fool. I am the last Dwarf who should be King of that cursed mountain,” spits Thorin, his voice thick with bitterness. Bilbo and Gandalf share a look, eyebrows raised. Honestly, this response is not entirely unexpected.

“You need not be so hard on yourself, Thorin,” says Gandalf wearily, bending to sit on the little crate that still sits beside Thorin’s bed. The position leaves the wizard’s knees poking up almost to his shoulders. “Many have succumbed to dragon sickness, but I know of only one who has overcome it. That is no small thing.”

“Until it comes again.”

Gandalf shakes his head, entirely serious. “It will not. The speed with which it wrought such changes in you was a dark and powerful curse, born of Smaug’s long lying upon his hoard. But that curse is broken now, and Smaug is dead, so take heart, Thorin. You know your own nature. Always you must guard against the greed that runs deep in your kind, but you have the benefit now of knowing its signs, and its dangers. I doubt even the gold of Erebor could seduce you from yourself again.”

“You cannot know that,” mutters Thorin.

“There is much that cannot be known,” agrees Gandalf amiably. “But I trust that it is so. Besides, I understand you will have the assistance of a particularly admirable Hobbit, and I believe he is quite capable of keeping you in line.”

Thorin turns his head at that, looking over at Bilbo. “It is not so. I hurt you, Bilbo. I would have killed you,” says Thorin, almost pleading.

“Well, but that wasn’t exactly you, was it. It won’t happen again,” shrugs Bilbo, more casually than he feels. He would be lying if he said he hadn’t been concerned about going back, after Thorin had fallen so far, so fast, almost from the moment he stepped into the mountain. It’s very reassuring to hear Gandalf say the danger is past.

“Your trust in me is misplaced,” growls Thorin, his hands curling into fists. “I am not fit to be thrown into Erebor’s deepest dungeon, far less crowned her King.”

Gandalf sighs, clearly preparing his next speech, and Bilbo cannot help but roll his eyes.

“Oh stop,” he says, on the edge of losing his temper. After all, he is the one who was nearly thrown to his death, so if anyone ought to be making a fuss, it should be him.

“Your Kingdom is out there,” he says, “Your Dwarves, they’ve stuck by you long enough and now they deserve their King. The least you can do is give it a decent try and I think Gandalf’s right, you know, I think you’ll be just fine. So come on, they’re waiting for us.”

Thorin has looked by turns astonished, infuriated, and now dreadfully tender as Bilbo has been speaking. Gandalf meanwhile is beaming delightedly.

“Very well,” says Thorin. “We should not keep them waiting.”

--

It takes most of the morning to cross the Desolation with Thorin, and though his teeth are gritted, Bilbo can see from the King’s pallor and the sweat on his brow that the uneven ground does not make for comfortable traveling.

Balin meets them at Erebor’s gate, guards either side of him, but by then Bilbo has eyes only for Thorin, who has begun to slip in and out of consciousness in the last hour. The bandages on his torso are spotted with red blotches that spread with each bump. Óin is grimacing, muttering into his beard and fussing over the wet cloth on the King’s forehead.

“Directly to his rooms,” he says to Balin, who nods. “No audiences today.”

It doesn’t occur to Bilbo to ask whether he can come too. He’s been Thorin’s nurse long enough now that he simply follows the litter up the wide staircases and along golden-lit corridors, past dozens of Dwarves who stop to stare as they pass. Erebor is hardly full, but there are plenty more folk here than Bilbo has seen before, and the extra life suits the mountain, which echoes with the chime of hammers and the boisterous shouting of busy Dwarves.

Balin leads them through a grand archway into a small stone plaza with sweeping staircases and galleried walkways. At the farthest end is a pair of gigantic double doors, inlaid with gold and polished black stone. Each door bears the shape of a raven swooping downwards, their beaks almost meeting over the jewelled doorknobs, the same design as on the Raven Crown of Erebor. At a push, the doors swing silently open into a tall chamber with gleaming gold ribs between the vaults of the ceiling and gem-studded bosses.

A gigantic carved fireplace takes up most of one wall, with a crackling fire lit in the hearth, and the flames spread a welcoming light through the room. There’s one large stone chair set beside it, and goatskins laid over the seat and the floor. In another corner stands a broad table, but other than that the room is empty, and far too large for just two bits of furniture. Their footsteps are loud as they walk through it, echoing over the mumbled conversation of the litter-bearers.

The litter is borne on through another set of doors into another room with a similar ceiling and fireplace, smaller than the last but still huge enough that Bilbo can only understand it’s a bedroom because it happens to have a bed in it.

A bed, he notes, that is twice the size it would need to be for even Beorn, but which lies low enough to the ground that Thorin can be lifted onto it without too much difficulty. The stone from which it has been carved has little glittering specks in that sparkle in the long shafts of sunlight slanting down from high windows. They’re too high to look out of, but it’s more daylight than they had in the tent, and Bilbo is very glad to see it.

“Bed linens hadn’t survived, obviously,” explains Balin, hovering about his King with evident anxiety. “Best we could do for now.”

Bilbo realises that the mattress Thorin now lies on is stuffed with straw, and the sheets and blankets under the heaped furs are worn. They have most likely come from Dale.

“Balin,” groans Thorin, only half-awake.

“Thorin!” exclaims Balin, peering into Thorin’s face delightedly.

Thorin struggles to focus. “Thank you,” he says, and then his eyes widen as he takes in his surroundings. “The King’s Chambers.”

“Welcome, my King,” chuckles Balin.

Bilbo winces, wondering how that will be received, but Thorin does not look unhappy, or distressed. There’s awe in his expression and a softness to his gaze as he looks around the room. His eyes light upon Bilbo, and his smile widens.

“Welcome to Erebor, Mister Baggins,” he says, holding his hand out, and Bilbo walks forward to take it.

“It’s very nice,” he tells Thorin, without actually looking at any of it. He only really wants to look at Thorin, just at the moment, who seems so unexpectedly peaceful. Oddly enough, Bilbo feels much the same. This isn’t at all like the mountain they were in before. There’s no prickly sense of foreboding, no staleness in the air, and best of all no stench of dragon. The mountain was poisoned, he thinks, and now it begins to heal, just as the sons of Durin will.

“Well, well, I shall be back to see you once you’re settled in, no doubt,” says Balin merrily. “Plenty to do in the meantime! I’ll see if I can’t arrange a spot of something to eat, eh?”

He’s herding the two guards and the Dwarves who carried the litter back out of the chamber as he speaks, all looking over their shoulders as they go. Nori throws Bilbo a wink.

Óin has already begun unpacking his herbs and potions, and summons Bilbo over to help. Between them they get the bloodstained bandages changed, and though the wound has reopened in places, it’s nothing like so bad as Bilbo had feared. He cleans it gently, and reapplies the herbal paste, aware that for the first time Thorin is watching him do so. Since Óin isn’t looking, Bilbo leans over to place a kiss on Thorin’s mouth as he finishes tucking the last bandage in.

Thorin’s hand lands on the back of his neck immediately, holding him in place.

“Get off,” laughs Bilbo, and to his great surprise, Thorin does so, releasing him at once.

“I meant no offence,” begins Thorin, looking anxious, so Bilbo kisses him again. This time for a bit longer, although when he feels Thorin’s lips parting against his own, he draws back, not without a pang of regret.

“You should sleep,” Bilbo says, drawing the blankets up to cover him.

“I do not want to sleep,” grumbles Thorin, allowing Bilbo to tuck him in all the same.

“Yes, you do,” says Bilbo, smoothing back Thorin’s hair and pressing a last kiss against his brow. The King is back under the mountain. That will do for now.

--

Thorin sleeps until evening, and can sit up a little, even eat the broth that Óin sends to the kitchens for.

The next day he wakes before lunch, and begins to ask questions about when he will be out of bed, to which Óin will only roll his eyes. It seems frankly astonishing after a week asleep and the previous day’s journey, but he is awake until early afternoon, and even then only naps a few hours until the evening. Bilbo fetches another bowl of broth, and is quietly elated when Thorin grouses under his breath about being fed like an Elf.

When Bilbo comments later on what an excellent recovery Thorin is making, Óin lectures him about Dwarven resilience, although he concedes a certain amount of credit to the healing magics of the Elves. Remembering Thorin’s injuries on the Carrock, and more, Bilbo is inclined to believe him, not least when Kili arrives that afternoon. Kili’s ribs are still bound and he moves with a care Bilbo has never seen in him before, but he is smiling and talking with the same boundless energy he always had, even if he sometimes interrupts himself with a hiss of pain.

“Thorin!” he cries, and shuffles forward to press his forehead to his uncle’s. Gently, Bilbo is pleased to note.

Thorin leans up against his pillows, delight clear in his wide smile as he looks over his nephew. “Kili! Bilbo told me you lived, but it is good to see you with my own eyes. Your brother?”

“He’s still abed, lazy oaf,” grins Kili. “The healers say his leg will keep him there a while yet, but he bid me tell you he’ll walk to your bedside before you walk to his.”

“We shall see about that,” replies Thorin, and Bilbo wags a finger forbiddingly from his seat at the foot of the bed.

“Oh, no you don’t. I’ve got orders from Óin, if you go damaging yourself just to get one better on your nephew he’ll have my hide.”

“Aw, Mister Boggins!” says Kili, and Bilbo rolls his eyes. It’s not as if Kili doesn’t know his name by now, and he’s given up trying to object to the joke.

“Tell your brother, when you return to him,” says Thorin, sounding gruff. “Tell him, all this mountain would have meant nothing without you in it. If you had not lived...”

“Yeah. So, you’re feeling better,” says Kili, interrupting, and his sudden, sly change of expression almost makes Bilbo laugh out loud. Subtlety is not a dwarven trait. “Could you manage another visitor?”

Thorin blinks in confusion, without time to object before Kili dashes outside as fast as his injuries will allow. He’s dragging someone extremely unexpected through the doors a moment later.

The Elf is tall, though perhaps not for an Elf, with long hair the colour of dark marmalade, and she looks so nervous that it takes Bilbo a moment to place her. It’s Captain Tauriel, of Thranduil’s guard, the one who captured them all back in Mirkwood. Kili pulls her over to Thorin’s bedside eagerly.

“Uncle, this is Tauriel. She saved my life in Laketown, and again in the battle.”

The smile has dropped from Thorin’s face, but he isn’t glaring, not yet. He nods, very regal, and deeply suspicious, although he probably thinks he’s hiding it well. “Then I owe her a great debt, and she has my gratitude.”

The Elf’s hand is still tightly clasped in Kili’s, and they look at each other with unmistakable devotion. Oh dear. Bilbo can see where this is going.

“More than that, Uncle,” says Kili. “She is the other half of my soul. I asked her hand, and she has accepted me.”

Ah, there’s the glare. Goodness. Thorin struggles to sit up higher in his bed, grimacing with pain, and he is not at all pleased. He’d better not split any stitches or Óin really will be cross. “Don’t be a fool, Kili,” he growls. “You cannot. She is not...”

Bilbo reaches over to pat Thorin’s hand quickly, and raises his eyebrows. It is almost comical to see Thorin stopped in his tracks so suddenly. Actually it really is comical, Thorin’s mouth hanging open as his frown melts into utter bewilderment and realisation.

“Not a Dwarf, no. There’s a lot of that about, it seems,” says Bilbo pointedly, and thinks he hears a stifled Elven giggle.

Thorin deflates. He lays a hand over his eyes, groaning. “What says Thranduil to this?”

“I am banished,” says Tauriel. There is a silence. Banishment is no trifle, and Bilbo can’t help but wonder what Tauriel’s done. Anything that’s pissed off Thranduil is likely to endear her to Thorin, at least.

“Then he can’t stop us,” says Kili hotly. “You will have a home with us, here, won’t she?”

“I dare not ask so much, my Lord,” says Tauriel at once, and blushes.

She seems very sweet and awkward, thinks Bilbo, though he knows quite well how deadly she can be, too. He can quite see why Kili likes her. Plus the red hair probably helps, he’s noticed Dwarves generally have a thing for redheads.

Thorin, meanwhile, is rubbing his forehead as if he’s starting to get a headache.

“Hold on,” says Bilbo, before Kili can start getting any more overexcited. An idea has occurred to him, and he holds up a hand for quiet while it resolves in his mind. It should work. He leans up to whisper in the King’s ear.

Thorin ponders for a moment, then nods, still grave. “Very well. Let King Thranduil attend me in the morning, and we will discuss the matter.”

“But…” says Kili, then narrows his eyes at Bilbo, who is pulling a deliberately exasperated face at him behind Thorin’s back. “Fine,” he grumbles, reaching his hand out for Tauriel’s.

She does not take it, instead stepping forward to kneel at Thorin’s bedside, head bowed low.

“Thank you, O King Under the Mountain, for granting our audience,” she says.

It’s very prettily done, and Thorin looks so heartily disgruntled by such grace that it’s all Bilbo can do to hold in his laughter. Once they are alone again, he doesn’t even bother.

--

It hadn’t taken much for Thorin to persuade Bilbo to sleep beside him that first night. There would have been room for a dozen hobbits in that bed, for one thing, and for another, Bilbo remains in no hurry to leave Thorin’s side.

The straw mattress is lumpen and scratchy, but still more comfortable than a bedroll on a tent’s floor. As a result, and as always beside Thorin, Bilbo’s sleep is deep and delicious. He makes sure to leave his poor invalid plenty of room, but wakes up nestled close under Thorin’s arm nonetheless. He extricates himself as delicately as possible and is always dressed again before Thorin’s eyes open.

So far he hasn’t explored the mountain much. After seven months on the road and a battle at the end of it, a bit of sitting by the fire in a sunlit room is very welcome. He daren’t work on the bead in case Thorin wakes up and sees it, and it’s as finished as he’s likely to get it in any case. Ori has brought a few books rescued from the Great Library, and he definitely wants to go and look at that when he can, but for now it is enough to simply read, aloud when Thorin is awake, and otherwise to himself.

At night he strips down to his shirt, and crawls under the covers beside Thorin. There have been kisses and wandering hands, certainly, but Bilbo is not about to set back Thorin’s healing process if he can help it.

Today, four days after their return to the mountain, Thorin has woken before him, and is gazing down at him with ridiculous affection. Bilbo hasn’t done much more than smile sleepily before Thorin’s lips are pressed to his forehead, and then Thorin’s hand is under his chin, lifting his face until their mouths meet in a kiss.

“Someone’s feeling better,” remarks Bilbo, and buries his grin in the warm, bristly corner of Thorin’s jaw.

“Wholly recovered,” murmurs Thorin, sliding a hand down Bilbo’s back.

“Hmm. I’m not too sure about that,” says Bilbo. He strokes across Thorin’s magnificent chest, down to where the heavy bandages start.

“Then I must prove it,” says Thorin.

Bilbo jumps slightly as Thorin’s large hand squeezes his bum. “Aren’t you still in pain?” he laughs.

“Some,” admits Thorin. “But we are sons of Durin. We...”

“Endure, yes, so I’ve heard,” says Bilbo dryly, finishing the sentence before Thorin can. “I’m not sure bedplay is supposed to be endured. And I’m not sure you’re healed enough to indulge in any.”

“I have missed you,” says Thorin simply.

There are hundreds of clever retorts that Bilbo could make to that statement, and he doesn’t bother with any of them. He’s missed Thorin, too.

He shuffles up until they can kiss properly. It feels different to lean over Thorin, to be the one bending down, but he rather enjoys the novelty. It’s so much easier to take charge, and really, Bilbo’s obliged to do so, since whatever Thorin says, it’s scarcely a fortnight since he nearly died.

Bilbo shifts his weight a little, nudging one leg in between Thorin’s knees to better get his balance as he presses kisses to Thorin’s lips, teasing ones that lick deep into Thorin’s mouth then pull away, taking full advantage of his position. Thorin growls a little, which is always pleasing, and he looks terribly pretty like this, his eyes heavy-lidded and soft, his mouth hanging just a little open, and his glorious hair spread across the pale linen pillows.

“What am I going to do with you,” says Bilbo fondly. Thorin grasps his hips, pulling Bilbo down against him meaningfully. Neither of them is more than half-hard but the intent is clear, and yet they can’t have Thorin moving around too much in his current state. Bilbo considers, his hand slipping down towards the ties of the short, loose sleeping trousers Thorin wears.

“Would you like me to use my mouth?” he asks, leaning in close to whisper it, feeling his face flush at actually saying the words, but encouraged by the rapidly swelling heat of Thorin’s cock under his palm as he speaks. Thorin turns his head, groaning, cupping a hand to Bilbo’s cheek and kissing his willing agreement.

Bilbo eyes the muscle of Thorin’s stomach tensing and shivering, and knows they must be careful. He wriggles further down, hoisting one giant thigh over his shoulder to turn Thorin slightly onto his side, reducing pressure on the wound as much he can. It’s nice to discover that this angle also gives him much more room to grasp Thorin’s magnificent arse.

The astringent, medical smell of the herbs under Thorin’s bandages mixes with a darker, more enticing scent of sweat and sex as Bilbo moves his mouth lower yet, nosing across the thick pelt of Thorin’s belly, mouthing over the gloriously hewn planes of muscle that draw him slowly downwards and inwards. Bilbo licks his way along the sharp line between Thorin’s stomach and hip, savouring it, before drawing his tongue up the length of the thick cock and wrapping his hand around it.

“Bilbo,” grunts Thorin impatiently, breathless already. “Would you have me beg?”

Which hadn’t occurred to Bilbo until Thorin said it, but there’s no question. “Yes,” he says at once. “I could definitely fancy that. I’m sure you’d beg very nicely.”

Thorin’s eyes go wide, and Bilbo is not imagining the shudder that runs through his body. So it’s something that could suit them both. Bilbo darts his tongue out, licking at just the tip of Thorin’s prick, tracing up the slit, and grins when he curses.

“Ask politely,” Bilbo tells him, and watches Thorin’s eyes flutter shut.

“Please,” manages Thorin, and Bilbo licks again, longer this time, taking just the head into his mouth for a quick suck. To have earnt two ‘pleases’ from Thorin Oakenshield in less than a week is very satisfying.

“Like that?” Bilbo says, keeping his mouth close enough that Thorin will feel Bilbo’s breath on his wet skin.

“Yes,” hisses Thorin, his head tipped back against the pillows. He cracks his eyes open again, looking down to where Bilbo waits. “Please,” he says again, nostrils flared and teeth gritted.

Bilbo doesn’t hold out for long. It feels like forever since he’s had his mouth on Thorin, and he likes it too much to tease. Thorin doesn’t stop in any case, saying “please” over and over in a voice that soon becomes irresistibly fractured and needy.

It’s such pleasure, to give himself up to this, to draw those sounds from Thorin and feel the throb of his prick growing harder in Bilbo’s mouth. He has missed even the ache of fitting his jaw around Thorin’s girth, that evidence of how huge and hard the Dwarf is, so that Bilbo’s spit leaks from his stretched lips to slick the hand that grips the rest of it, pulling down into the thick, dark curls of hair at its base.

He remembers something Thorin did before, and draws back just as he can feel the twitch of Thorin’s finish coming upon him, opening his mouth and looking up so that Thorin will see his seed land on Bilbo’s tongue. It’s easier to swallow that way, and they can both get what they want.

Thorin moans when he sees what Bilbo is doing, and spends almost at once, watching through eyes he can barely keep open.

Bilbo closes his mouth over Thorin again, sucking him clean through his over-sensitivity. It’s almost tempting to keep him there, wait until he can grow hard again and wring another finish out of him, but that will have to wait until he’s recovered.

Instead Bilbo wriggles his way back up to lie on his side next to Thorin once more.

“Please tell me I haven’t damaged anything,” he says, and Thorin is halfway to kissing him before the words register, and he laughs.

“I have seldom felt so well. You are a healer, Master Baggins,” says Thorin, reaching over to stroke the point of Bilbo’s ears. “Perhaps you are part Elf.”

“I doubt you’d have me in your bed if I were,” says Bilbo, attempting humour, but the combination of his unattended prick and Thorin playing with his ears makes the words catch in his throat. Thorin must notice, since he chuckles, a low rumble in his chest, and reaches down under the hem of Bilbo’s shirt to snake his hand past the waistband of his smallclothes.

“You are bold, to have a King beg for you,” murmurs Thorin, and there’s still a smile in his voice, under the rough whisper.

“You seemed to like it,” manages Bilbo, as Thorin’s huge hand wraps around his cock, working him in slow, smooth strokes. They will have to try that again, and often, he thinks. The thought of Thorin needy and wanting him is too intoxicating. He presses his face against Thorin’s beard, panting as he feels the hot, rising desire tightening in his gut.

“Would you dare more? I would have you take me,” Thorin breathes into his ear.

Bilbo thrusts against the tight warmth of Thorin’s hand, imagining how much sweeter it might feel to be inside Thorin. He was close enough just from sucking Thorin off, and that thought is enough to tip him over the edge of his finish, spilling with an unseemly groan across Thorin’s chest and bandages.

Indeed, it takes him a moment to recover the ability to speak. Thorin is grinning at him, looking wonderfully dishevelled and satisfied, and altogether it’s a great shame they can’t just stay in this bed.

“Right. Time to get up,” sighs Bilbo. "Time and honeycakes wait for no Hobbit."

“Why?” asks Thorin pettishly, as if he’s had the same thoughts as Bilbo. “What more pressing deed calls you than to wait on your King’s pleasure?”

“Well, Thranduil’s probably on his way already,” says Bilbo, and Thorin groans far less prettily than a moment ago. “We’ll get you washed and your bandages changed, and then you can get dressed.”

“Dressed?” asks Thorin in surprise.

“Unless you want to receive Elves in your bedchamber? There’s a chair in the main room, Óin thought we should be able to prop you up in that for long enough, and I got Balin to sort out some clothes for you.”

Mercifully, no mess has fallen on the shirt Bilbo was only given last week. He pulls on his trousers, and as he reaches for the green tunic he thinks of the bead in its pocket. He fishes around to find it. No time like the present, after all.

“Here,” says Bilbo, holding it out to Thorin, who stares at it uncomprehendingly. “I made this for you. I don’t know if you remember, but back at Beorn’s hall, we talked about beads. I thought, well. You’ll need your braids redone anyway, you could put this one in too if you like. At the back or something.”

Thorin takes the wooden bead and holds it as if it was made from the light of Varda’s stars. He stares at it a long while, taking in every detail of the decidedly amateur carving, to Bilbo’s discomfort.

“I have nothing for you, I have not been able,” says Thorin earnestly. “I will make a bead for you, I swear.”

“I know that!” laughs Bilbo. “I don’t need one in return, not really. It wouldn’t make a difference, after all. I’m yours.” He crawls back onto the bed towards Thorin, taking the Dwarf’s huge hand in both of his own. “I am all yours, Thorin Oakenshield.”

“You would have me wear this now? Today?”

“Only if you want,” shrugs Bilbo. “You don’t have to.”

“I want to,” breathes Thorin, leaning up to kiss him, and they don’t get dressed for a while after all.

--

There is a banging from the room next door as Bilbo is still buckling Sting to his hip, and he scowls, thinking Thranduil must have arrived. To his shock, a moment later the bedroom doors are thrown open wide and a burly, red-haired Dwarf strides into the room. It’s a mercy he did not arrive half an hour since, or he might have found quite a different scene, whoever he is. The Dwarf has tusks woven into his moustache, and Bilbo vaguely recognises him.

“Cousin!” he bellows, arms spread wide as he approaches Thorin and headbutts him with audible force before Bilbo can prevent it.

“Dáin!” says Thorin gladly, apparently unharmed. He is propped up against his pillows, dressed, and fiddling with a clumsy new braid that ends in a wooden bead. Bilbo insisted on putting it in behind his ear, somewhat concealed in the fall of his hair. The two braids that already frame Thorin’s face are rather elegant in their simple symmetry, and he refused to disturb it, despite Thorin’s insistence.

“Good to have you back! I’ve been keeping the big chair warm for you,” says Dáin cheerfully. “I like what you’ve done with the floors in the Hall of Kings by the by, bit slippery underfoot but it brightens the place up nicely. Maybe get some etching on it before too many legs get broken, though not yet, there’s a great fancy flock of Elves on their way up and I’d hate to miss them skidding about. Like piglets on ice, I’m betting.”

Dáin turns at the sound of Bilbo’s chuckle, and beams widely.

“Well hello there, wee one! What’s your...” he tails off, suddenly, evidently realising that Bilbo is not actually a young Dwarf.

“Bilbo Baggins, of the Shire,” says Bilbo, bowing low in the Dwarven style. “At your service.”

Dáin doesn’t reply, his gaze flitting between Bilbo and Thorin. His good humour has dissolved in an instant, and Bilbo quails slightly under his stern look. “So it’s true,” he mutters, looking far from pleased.

Thorin frowns, but Dáin barrels on regardless, evidently a habit of his. He has a smile back on his face that is not particularly convincing. “Anyway, it’s good to see you well, Thorin. Gave us all a nasty scare.”

It’s at that moment that Kili and Tauriel arrive, their two heads peeking around the opened doors. As soon as Kili sees them he is once again dragging Tauriel over to Thorin’s bedside. She does not seem to mind, smiling at his eagerness and managing to follow gracefully in spite of it.

“Uncle!” says Kili delightedly. “King Thranduil has arrived, he’s on his way up.”

“Durin’s beard,” says Dáin, staring at Thorin, his expression hard to read behind all the hair and tattoos. “Thorin, Cousin… I’ll leave you to your Elves and Halflings for now, but we can talk a wee bit more later, eh?”

Bilbo is thankful that Dáin and Thranduil do not meet in the doorway, but it’s a near thing. Kili helps his uncle to the chair in his receiving rooms and Bilbo cannot help but fuss a little, making sure Thorin’s tunic and cloak fall in elegant folds. He only wants the King to look his best, and Thorin puts up with his ministrations with unusual patience. Perhaps he remembers having servants who would have done this for him, realises Bilbo, and at that thought he decides Thorin looks quite well enough and stops immediately.

Thranduil enters shortly afterward in a sweep of silvery robes, declaring how wonderful it is to see Thorin so recovered. The sarcasm is barely veiled.

“Thank you. And you, King Thranduil. I see you are entirely unscathed,” growls Thorin, gripping Bilbo’s hand tightly.

Thranduil inclines his head in bored acknowledgement. “What would you have of me?” he asks.

“I present my sister-son, Kili, son of Vili, third in line to the throne of Erebor. He seeks the hand of Tauriel, of the Woodland Realm. I have considered, and I will not oppose the match. What say you?” Thorin grinds out each sentence, his tone carefully even.

“Tauriel is banished,” says Thranduil coldly. “If she should seek to bind herself to an Orc, it is no concern of mine.”

It’s like a well-practiced dance already, the way Bilbo and Tauriel must both surreptitiously calm their furious Dwarves.

“Nonetheless,” growls Thorin, breathing deeply. “You are the nearest thing she has to kin. It would be most dishonourable of us not to offer you the marriage price.”

Thranduil’s eyes flash with evident interest. And they say dwarves are greedy, thinks Bilbo disgustedly. The Elf King really is the most obnoxious person Bilbo has met on all his travels, including that Troll who wiped its nose on him.

“I would propose the traditional offering,” continues Thorin, “Tauriel’s weight, including her weapons, in gold and gems as she chooses. But Elves are lighter than we Dwarves, and she plights her troth to my own sister-son, so in this case I would offer their weight together. And, in addition, the white gems of Lasgalen.”

Thranduil’s shock is very clear and quite delightful to see. He recovers himself enough to sneer. “The white gems belong to my people by right.”

“We do not seek to withhold them,” says Thorin, the corner of his mouth twitching a little. “You should wear them at the ceremony, Tauriel,” he adds. “They would look very well on you.”

Bilbo’s heart soars. What a sweet suggestion, and all Thorin’s own. He’s so proud. And Thranduil looks as sick as a dog, which is even better.

“The match would serve as a fine symbol of the fresh alliance between our peoples,” continues Thorin, and Bilbo can tell he’s enjoying this now. “Although of course, being banished, Tauriel cannot return to the Greenwood. But we dwarves do not forsake our kin easily. She will have a home in Erebor, through all the ages of her life.”

Thranduil almost appears to be in pain, his eyes closed in frustration. “You are a fool, Tauriel,” he snaps, in Sindarin. “You will not regain my favour by ransoming yourself to these Dwarves.”

“I do not ransom myself, my Lord, and we will wed with your favour or without,” says Tauriel calmly, and Bilbo wonders if either of them know he can understand what’s being said. Kili’s stare switches between the two Elves with openly distressed confusion and Thorin is scowling, so presumably Thranduil has assumed Bilbo does not know Sindarin either.

“He is mortal. He will die,” says Thranduil, with a sudden tenderness in his words that quite startles Bilbo. “You will live far longer alone than with him. It is harder than you know.”

“I love him,” she replies.

Thranduil sighs. He takes a step forward, his long, pale fingers stroking Tauriel’s hair, and she meets his gaze unflinching, though it seems to hold a sorrow deeper than Bilbo would ever have suspected.

“Perhaps you do,” says Thranduil at last, and withdraws his hand. “By the Sea and Stars, Tauriel, when I forbade you to encourage my son’s affections I hardly expected you to take up with a Dwarf instead.”

Tauriel laughs, though there’s a hiccup of tears in it, and Bilbo contemplates that little tidbit of information. He’s not sure which is more surprising, that Thranduil’s own son was apparently in love with Tauriel or that the Elven King just made a joke.

Thranduil draws himself up to his full height, and all softness is dispelled at once. He looks very regal and aloof.

“Very well,” he says, in the common speech once more. “I will be present when the marriage-price is determined, and in light of the alliance between our peoples, I will lift your banishment, Tauriel. My blessings to you both.”

As Thranduil sweeps out of the room, he cannot resist a parting shot. “You will need them.”

--

Thranduil’s delightful attitude aside, things seem to be going well, at last. Much better than when they first reclaimed the mountain, better even than Bilbo can remember since before Laketown. No wonder this is when things start to go wrong, although in retrospect, he should’ve seen it sooner.

Bilbo has left Thorin sleeping again, and is just quietly closing the doors of the chambers behind him. There are two guards at the archway that marks the entrance to the Royal Quarter, and he thought he could ask one of them the way to the kitchens. Any Hobbit would be famished after the morning he’s had.

Balin stomps through the archway before Bilbo can reach it, heavy footsteps echoing against the stone, as grim-faced as Bilbo has ever seen him.

“Is the King awake?” he snaps, and Bilbo blinks in surprise.

“No, he’s… I’ve just left him to sleep a bit. What on earth is the matter, Balin? Do you need a cup of tea?”

“Tea!” spits Balin, and the resemblance to his younger brother is suddenly striking. He follows it with some truly terrifying stream of consonants that can only be Khuzdul, and whatever they mean it can’t be good. Balin has never slipped into Khuzdul in front of Bilbo before. Balin appears to realise it too, looking suddenly awkward and rather more like himself.

“What’s going on?” Bilbo asks, as Balin rubs an anxious hand across his head, fluffing up his hair like a dandelion clock.

“Aye, well. It’ll be sorted out soon enough. Don’t worry yourself about it,” says Balin, and turns to go.

That sounds far too suspicious for Bilbo’s liking. “Balin, come on. If it’s something important, I’d rather find out from you. Come in here, we’ll talk privately.”

Balin strokes a thoughtful hand down his beard, and sighs sadly. “Perhaps you are right, at that. I fear you will find out soon enough. I have been in a meeting with Dáin and his nobles.”

He stops, and Bilbo prompts him. “I take it things didn’t go well?”

Balin looks around them, his eyes narrowing at the guards. He nods at the door to the King’s Chambers and they go back inside, where he shuts the door behind them and draws Bilbo over to the fireplace before he will speak again.

“Not well, no,” says Balin, with his typical understatement. “The fact is, there are a number of Dwarves in this mountain who, well. Let’s say they’d as soon see Dáin on the throne of Erebor as Thorin.”

Bilbo goes cold all over despite the fire beside him. “But I thought… isn’t he the direct heir? Son of Thrain, son of Thror, all that?”

“No-one questions his legitimacy!” says Balin, once more as close to furious as Bilbo has ever seen the gentle Dwarf. “They question his fitness to rule.”

That makes no sense at all. Whatever faults Thorin may have, and there are plenty, he remains every inch a King. “What?”

“They speak of Thorin’s years in exile, say he has been too close to Men and Elves and taken on un-Dwarven ways, and they point at his nephew’s scanty beards and that dratted copper-headed Elf maid who will not leave young Kili’s side, and ask why we did not join the battle until after the Elves and Men. Durin’s beard, I don’t even know where to start explaining that one.”

Bilbo thinks of Dáin’s face that morning. He thinks of the Dwarf who gave him the silverwater, and the whispers as they arrived, and the day before that at the washing station. At the time he’d assumed it was just curiosity or the general ill manners of Dwarves.

“I’m not helping then, am I.” It’s a statement, not a question. It feels like dirt in his mouth.

“Bilbo,” sighs Balin. “You’re very important to Thorin, to all of us. The bastards are only stubborn, and I am sure, between us, we can persuade them.”

Maybe so. But he remembers the first few weeks of the quest, and how nearly he had turned back. It had taken him so long to befriend only thirteen Dwarves, and he’d spent every minute of the day with them. How long would it take to convince a whole mountain?

“How do they feel about Tauriel?” he asks suddenly. “Kili’s going to marry her.”

Balin looks aghast. “The Elf maid? No. Thorin would never allow it.”

“I may have talked him around,” admits Bilbo, and for a moment he regrets it. Only for a moment, and he’s ashamed of the thought as soon as it’s crossed his mind.

Balin lets out a long breath and takes the chair, his head in his hands, muttering under his breath.

“Balin,” says Bilbo, crouching down before him and trying to smile encouragingly. “Balin. How serious is this, really? Hmm? Surely Dáin can’t just take the throne. It’s not his.”

“It is not Dáin’s wish,” says Balin, and the old Dwarf’s voice shakes a little. “This mountain is full of Dwarves from the Iron Hills, and they have seen their Lord fight to reclaim it and its treasures. Thorin’s army numbers but twelve. By the time we sent to Ered Luin for the rest of our people, Erebor would be Dáin’s, and to seize it back would mean war. It is his for the taking, should his nobles persuade him that Thorin is no fit King.”

“So it’s true, me sitting by Thorin’s bed all this time is fuel for them.” Bilbo rocks back, sitting down hard on the stone floor as something else occurs to him. “Oh. And if they find out I’m sharing his bed, too...”

“Bilbo, listen,” says Balin, reaching over to grasp his shoulder in a grip that is surprisingly strong. “This is not your doing. There will be others who fear he is too much his grandfather’s son and may fall to gold-sickness. He will need you, Bilbo, remember that.”

“He doesn’t need me,” says Bilbo bitterly. Thorin Oakenshield will make a fine king, and he has Balin to advise him, and there will be plenty of willing Dwarves to share his bed, if that’s what he wants. The Company are the ones who were meant to stay in Erebor when the quest was done, not Bilbo. He has done his burglaring and plenty more besides. His contract is already discharged.

“He does, more than you know! This quest would have been lost without your bravery and cleverness.”

“Yes, absolutely, like giving the Arkenstone to Bard.” Everyone for miles around must be well aware that Bilbo is a thief and a traitor.

“No,” says Balin, plucking at his beard. “We all know you did for the right reasons, though. And Thorin forgave you for it long since.”

“I doubt Dáin has. Or any of his Dwarves.”

“There is not one of our Company who would stand to hear it from them. You are one of us, Bilbo, every one of the lads counts you like kin, not least myself.”

“That’s very kind,” says Bilbo, and means it. “Still, you are but twelve, Balin, and I don’t think Thorin needs you picking any extra fights.”

“Oh, Bilbo,” says Balin sorrowfully. “Don’t do this, Laddie. Don’t let yourself be parted from him.”

Bilbo shakes his head.

It was just for the journey. He knew that, once, but his foolish heart has let him forget it. Thorin is a King, and Bilbo is just a Hobbit. He frowns at himself, and knows what must be done.

--

One of the guards takes him off to the room where his old things, few as they are, have been put. Bilbo glances sideways at him as they walk, and the curled sneer of contempt on the Dwarf’s face rather confirms what Balin said, as if it needed doing. Indeed, as they pass several other Dwarves, Bilbo is pained to notice that they all look at him as if he’s something they’d scrape off their boots. He didn’t see it before, so wrapped up in Thorin, but it’s hard to miss now.

Packing doesn’t take long. He changes out of his beautiful embroidered tunic and shrugs the old ragged blue coat back on, still dirty. It feels more fitting, and it can be washed later. As soon as he is back in the Shire he will have his own clothes again. So it isn’t as if there’s nothing for him to look forward to.

By the time Dwalin comes looking for him he’s just staring at the wall, wondering how he will do this.

“Thorin’s asking for you,” says Dwalin gruffly, his eyes narrowing as he takes in Bilbo’s coat, and Bilbo follows without a word.

In the empty, echoing room Thorin sits in the solitary chair beside a huge roaring fire. He is no longer in the clothes he wore that morning, wrapped instead in a silvery-furred robe, with a blanket over his legs. Beside him on an upturned crate has been set a mug of something that steams, and a jug with a lid, and a second mug that Bilbo doesn’t want to think about. When Thorin sees him, his smile is warm and relieved. Bilbo wants nothing more than to turn and flee without another word.

“Dwalin says you wanted me?” asks Bilbo.

“Always,” says Thorin, and shrugs. “You were not with me when I woke.”

“I had a few things to sort out. Some stuff,” says Bilbo vaguely.

“What has happened to your clothes?” asks Thorin, frowning a little. He reaches out for Bilbo, who pretends not to see.

The fire is blazing, and looks like a safe thing to stand in front of so he doesn’t have to look at Thorin while he’s speaking. He clears his throat.

“Thorin, I think it’s about time I headed back to the Shire,” he begins. “My contract’s fulfilled, and I did leave in a bit of a hurry, after all, goodness knows what the neighbours will have thought. It’s been almost a year, you know. They’ll have given me up for dead if I’m not back soon. The weather’s clearing up so I should think the pass will be clear by the time I get to the Misty Mountains, and really there’s no point putting it off. I believe Gandalf may be off on his wanderings shortly, I might ask if he’ll come with me. Can’t hurt to have a Wizard for an escort.”

Bilbo carries on in such vein for as long as he can, but eventually even a Hobbit runs out of meaningless chatter, and he stutters to a halt.

“When will you come back?” asks Thorin cautiously.

“Hmm.” Bilbo takes a deep breath. “I’m not going to.”

“You are leaving.”

“I am, yes,” nods Bilbo.

“Why?” Thorin asks, sounding suddenly as if Bilbo has taken a blade and run him through anew.

Bilbo reaches into his pocket, seeking the acorn, longing to hold something real that he can keep. His fingers find the smooth gold band of his ring instead, and that will do, to steady himself. It’s not easy, hearing Thorin sound like that. Hasn’t he just explained why? He stares at the fire, struggling to find better words, though they may hurt more.

“Because, Thorin, you are King under the Mountain, as you should be. You’ve waited for it and fought for it longer than I’ve been alive, and I won’t have you risk that, not for me.”

“There is no risk,” says Thorin at once, and Bilbo has to hold up a hand.

“There is. I know Balin’s been in to explain it to you, and I’ve spoken to him as well. Worse than that, I’ve seen it. These are Dwarf lands, even you said so. They don’t want me here.”

“I care not. Stay.”

“I care. No,” says Bilbo, refusing to budge.

“Then I will go with you,” says Thorin, and the mere idea is so preposterous that Bilbo feels a flicker of irritation. Thorin is leaning forward in his chair, reaching for Bilbo again, the strain of the action written on his face, but Bilbo can’t go to him. He daren’t.

“Erebor needs its King, Thorin.”

Thorin drops his hand back to his side again, and there is silence for a moment.

“Dáin,” says Thorin at length, and Bilbo is not going to listen to another word of that.

“I didn’t face down a dragon and fight a battle so that you could hand your throne to Dáin!” shouts Bilbo, clenching his fists in fury. “This is your mountain!”

“You never intended to remain here,” says Thorin accusingly, glaring at him.

“That isn’t true! I never thought I could, but then… I hoped. I started to hope so much I thought I could make it true, but I can’t. We can’t. And we can’t pretend it doesn’t matter, Thorin, you are a King. The rightful King.”

“I could order you to stay.” It’s a hollow threat, as empty as the cavernous room they stand in, and Thorin clearly knows that even as he mutters it. He squeezes his eyes closed and covers his face with a hand.

“Oh, Thorin,” says Bilbo, helplessly, listening as Thorin’s breath becomes ragged.

“Azanshathûr,” says Thorin, almost to himself. Bilbo shakes his head, confused. It sounds like Khuzdul, but Bilbo can’t understand Khuzdul, and the Dwarves refused to teach him more than a few words.

Thorin looks up at him, such pain on his face. “If you will not wear my braid, then let me give you this.”

“I don’t understand,” says Bilbo, and allows himself to step close at last, crouching to lay a hand on Thorin’s knee, feeling the familiar warmth for what will most likely be the last time.

“Not Thorin,” explains not-Thorin, apparently, covering Bilbo’s hand with his own, with a gentle reverence Bilbo could never deserve. “Azanshathûr. In Khuzdul, it means storm clouds. It is my inner name, the deepest secret I have. I give it to you now, Bilbo Baggins, because I know it is safe with you.”

He has heard, thanks to Ori, that Dwarves have inner names, but they hardly tell them to anyone, or so he thought. Not even other most other Dwarves, and certainly not Hobbits. “Say it again?”

“Azanshathûr.”

Bilbo repeats it carefully, and this Dwarf whom he loves so dearly, who has shared with him his true name, takes in a sharp breath as he does so, as if the sound of it hurts. Thorin is looking at him, his eyes wet and still a little hopeful, as if it might not be true, as if Bilbo might still be persuaded to stay, and Bilbo can’t have that.

“I have to go,” says Bilbo.

Thorin seems dazed, lost. He releases Bilbo’s hand slowly. “Then I will not prevent it.”

Bilbo has crossed half of Arda in the past year, and yet the few steps to Thorin’s door feel like the longest journey he’s ever made.

Chapter Text

When he walks out of Erebor, Thorin, Fili nor Kili are nowhere to been seen, but the rest of the company are, standing at the scratched and broken gate looking so sad you’d think Bilbo was dying, not going home. Even Gandalf has a face like a wet weekend. It’s ridiculous, and makes Bilbo quite cross. When did they all get so sure he would stay? It was never part of the contract. Really it’s quite rude of them all to make such assumptions.

“My dear Bilbo,” says Gandalf for the fiftieth time as they roll out of Dale. “If you would reconsider...”

“No,” snaps Bilbo. “I think you might stop pestering me, Gandalf, thank you.”

The old wizard huffs at that, and they barely speak for the rest of the day. If he was listening, he would hear Gandalf muttering about a stubbornness to match any Dwarf born, and being well-matched for fool-headedness, and suchlike stuff. But he is not listening.

By the following morning, to his relief, the whole business seems to be forgotten, and the journey is not so hard after that. Gandalf has always been good company, and a useful travelling companion. They have far better provisions than on their outward trip, safe passage through the Greenwood, and no trolls. They even drop in on Beorn for a night, who continues to be huge and terrifying.

Spring comes, and it is approaching summer as they drop into the rolling hills of the Shire, always at its prettiest about this time. Bilbo bids Gandalf a heartfelt farewell, jumps down from the cart, and heads home, to Bag End. He is making the right decision. He has done the right thing.

He feels utterly bereft.

--

Bag End is an empty, dusty Smial. It seems an odd business, laying out his bedroll once more to sleep before his own fireplace, but perhaps it’s more comfortable than sleeping back in a bed for the moment. He can’t even take a bath, he realises, since he has nothing to dry himself on that wouldn’t leave him filthy again.

The next day he stomps into the Thain’s halls to demand a few answers, and before long he has the deeds of sale for every item that was once part of Bag End. He’s lucky, apparently, that the matter of the Smial itself hasn’t been decided yet - his second cousins Fosco and Ruby have been contesting the Sackville-Baggins’s claim for the past three months, and the matter was due to come before the Thain for a final decision within the next fortnight.

A remarkable proportion of Bilbo’s gold from the mountain is spent on recovering his own property. Cousin Lobelia in particular drives a shameless bargain, and in the end Bilbo gives up, and lets her simply take his mother’s silverware, and her best dinner service. It’s not as though he can imagine giving many parties in future.

Altogether the farce keeps him busy for a good while after his return. A day comes when he wanders towards his library after breakfast, regards his largely restored home and wonders what to do next. In the evenings he works upon his Red Book, noting down all his adventures for posterity, but that sort of work is too much for the daytime. Too often he finds himself reaching for another handkerchief by candlelight.

He might work in his garden, but it seems Hamfast Gamgee never gave him up for dead like the rest of his neighbours. The vegetable patch, the flowers and lawn are all immaculate, as if Bilbo had never left. There’s still an acorn left to plant, but he finds he can’t decide where.

There are polite invitations to tea in his letterbox most mornings, and he valiantly accepts a few, but soon discovers he’s lost whatever inclinations to smalltalk he once had. Bilbo drinks his tea, compliments the food, and grinds his teeth as quietly as he can. How can anyone in their right minds be interested in who is marrying, or feuding with, or courting, or snubbing whom? On one occasion Elsie Twofoot notes with mild alarm that his teacup is rattling in its saucer, and since he can hardly confess his seething rage, he stammers some nonsense excuse. From the looks exchanged around him he suspects that it will now be put about that he is a lush, or some sort of nervous wreck.

The invitations dry up eventually, to his guilty relief, yet it feels too conspicuous to spend entire days sitting alone at his front step, smoking his pipe. Besides which, he finds often that his gaze slides towards the Easterly end of Bagshot row, although he has no reason to look that way. Instead he withdraws into Bag End, writing sometimes, and tidying, and baking, and sitting in his armchair, looking into the flames of his hearth and sighing for something he never really had, and certainly never will now.

--

A year passes, and more, until Summer’s warmth starts to fade again into the cooler, sharper sunshine of Autumn. There was a year when Bilbo spent Autumn in the company of thirteen hairy, uncouth strangers who became the best friends he has ever known. Last Autumn he was tramping around the Shire recovering his belongings. This year, Autumn feels hollow and empty in a way it never has before, as if it is not just the death of one year, but a whole life.

The oak tree on top of the hill begins to turn golden and drop its acorns across Bag End’s steps. He remember’s Thorin’s words about chambers filled with golden light, and thinks of how wonderful Erebor must be looking by now, though he will never see it. He is done with adventures. Jays fly down to eat the acorns, and Bilbo wonders if he shouldn’t chuck the one from Beorn’s house out there too. He very much doubts he will plant it, now, and it seems a silly thing to hold on to.

It’s a bright, fresh morning when he takes his pipe, a book, and a warm scarf to wander down along the river, and spots an untouched crop of hedgehog mushrooms under the trees. There are not many days so dark that a find of mushrooms can’t brighten them, if only a little, so on a whim he changes plans and heads towards Hobbiton, already planning dinner in his head. He reaches the butcher’s in a better mood than he’s known for days, even managing a smile as he pays for his sausages.

In the queue behind him someone mentions that a party of rich Dwarves, very grand, arrived in Bree the day before.

“Didn’t you go a gallivantin’ with some Dwarves on your adventure, Mister Bilbo?” asks the butcher, Gaffer Hackett, merrily swinging his cleaver through half a pig. Every eye in the shop turns to Bilbo.

“I did, yes, that’s right,” he says, nodding politely. He leaves before anyone can ask further questions, his pleasant mood rather faded, and heads straight home again.

That afternoon he sits and looks blankly out of a window until the sky begins to grow dark.

The evenings are getting shorter, and he’ll need to fetch some more firewood from the store tomorrow. At about 8 o’clock he fries up the sausages, mushrooms, and a few cold potatoes from the day before with a bit of rosemary, and eats without really tasting them. He can’t manage all of it so he puts the leftovers on a covered plate in the back pantry, and washes up, and changes for bed.

He finds he isn’t quite ready to sleep yet either. Perhaps a cup of tea would help. He takes down the pot and hangs the kettle over the stove.

The knock on his door is loud and confident. Bilbo tightens the belt of his robe, takes a deep breath, and goes to answer it.

There on his doorstep, beaming like an excited faunt, stands Kili. He’s more princely in his dress than Bilbo has ever seen him before, his hair held back in curving braids capped with silver beads, but he is still Kili nonetheless, and he appears to have come alone.

“Bilbo!” he cries delightedly, then looks anxious. “My pony’s eating your hedge. I couldn’t see where else to tie him.”

Bilbo laughs, mingled happiness and relief. As if the hedge mattered. “Come in, Kili,” he says.

The sausages come back from the pantry, with the mustard pot and the butter, a jar of quince jelly and another of apple sauce. He cuts some bread, and fetches Kili a mug of ale. He can see the young prince eyeing the cheese scones he baked yesterday, so he puts those on the table too, and Kili’s plate is soon piled high.

“It’s lovely to see you, Kili, don’t misunderstand me, but the Shire’s a long way from Erebor,” says Bilbo. “What’s brought you back here?”

“We’re on our way to Ered Luin. Escorting some of the noble families to Erebor, very majestic business,” says Kili through a mouthful of food. How absurd it is that Bilbo’s heart is so warmed by the sight of Dwarven table manners, when any proper Hobbit would be disgusted.

“Do you need me to make up a bed?” asks Bilbo. “It’s no trouble.”

Kili shakes his head cheerfully, dunking a sausage directly into Bilbo’s mustard pot. “No, I can’t stay. If I’m not back at the inn before morning Thorin will shave me. He doesn’t know I’ve come here.”

The kettle is whistling now and Bilbo is grateful for it, turning away to lift it from the heat so that Kili can’t see his face. “Your Uncle’s with you?”

“Course he is! That’s why I snuck out, I wanted to say hello before he got here or I knew I wouldn’t even see you.”

Best not to think too hard about that. “So who’s taking care of Erebor?”

“Ah, Fili and Balin will manage, and Mam can keep them both in line. Fili is sick as a pig that he didn’t get to come and see you though, both of them are, but it’s good practice for him. Erebor’s looking very fine these days, Bilbo, you should see it.”

“I’m sure it is,” says Bilbo, sincerely. His head is spinning, and he decides to forget about the tea since in this state he’d probably scald himself making it. “So how is your Uncle?”

Kili takes an audible breath before answering, and he doesn’t sound so cheerful any more. “Lonely. Heartbroken. You should know.”

Bilbo turns and sits down heavily at the table. Whatever he’d expected to hear, that was not it.

“It took us a good month to persuade him not to abdicate,” says Kili, setting down his food, and watching Bilbo with narrowed eyes. “Couldn’t let him do that to Fili, apart from anything else.”

“Abdicate?” Surely Kili is mistaken, or telling stories. Exaggerating.

Kili shrugs. “You left,” he says, as if that explains it. “It’s hard enough when Tauriel has to go to the Greenwood, but at least I know she’s coming back. How could you just walk away from your One?”

“Oh...” Bilbo can’t quite believe what he’s hearing, but there’s no trace of a joke on Kili’s face. He grips the edge of the table against the feeling he may faint, his knuckles going white as if he might leave fingerprints in the wood. He is only Bilbo Baggins, of Bag End. He could never be Thorin’s One, or any of that. “Oh, dear.”

“Bilbo, what did you expect? You set a bead in his hair and I don’t see any braids in yours. He’s your husband, and you left him.”

“That’s...” Bilbo stares at Kili wildly. “That’s not what… is that what it means? I didn’t know! He never told me, I thought it was just… I don’t know, something else, a little token. My goodness, Kili, I wasn’t even sure he’d have kept it.”

He’d hoped, perhaps, though it was probably better that Thorin forget him entirely. Bilbo hangs his head then, and feels Kili’s hand descend on his, steadying him. “You didn’t?”

“I didn’t,” repeats Bilbo. His eyes are prickling, and he blinks the tears back. He would never have given Thorin the bead had he understood how important it was meant to be. It’s too much, this idea that Thorin believed them married, that Thorin even wanted them married, that Thorin thinks Bilbo is his One.

“Fili said it must be so and I didn’t understand how it could be true. Ah, Bilbo.” Kili’s voice is kind and, for once, Bilbo truly does feel younger than the Dwarf. It seems he’s been a bigger idiot than even Kili could ever manage.

There is a sound of hooves approaching on the road outside and then a hammering on the door, loud enough to shake the hinges. They both jump up to answer it, Kili following Bilbo into the hallway as he pulls back the bolt. The door swings back, flying out of his hand and thudding against the wall as Thorin strides into Bag End, glaring at Kili.

“You! What in Durin’s name do you think you’re doing?”

“Not very polite, Uncle,” replies Kili, unabashed. “Say hello to Mister Baggins, at least.”

Thorin sweeps around, dark cloak swirling. His hair is wild from riding, the colour high in his cheeks, and the scar across his forehead has faded to a pale, pinched line. He wears finer clothes than Bilbo has ever seen before, a dark blue tunic trimmed with complex embroideries and clasped with jewelled buckles, and heavy silver clasps in his braids. He’s absolutely a King now, like something from a story, thinks Bilbo, looking up into those fierce blue eyes.

Thorin’s anger vanishes and his mouth opens as if to speak, but nothing comes out.

“I’ll just finish my dinner. Leave you to it,” snickers Kili behind them, and there’s the sound of his footsteps disappearing back to the kitchen.

Bilbo isn’t sure where to begin, but his mouth seems to make the decision for him without consulting his brain. “You never told me we were married!”

Thorin draws himself up, proud and imposing. “We are not.”

“Then what is that, exactly?” asks Bilbo, voice rising, as he points to the small wooden bead half-hidden behind Thorin’s ear.

Thorin reaches up, folding the end of the braid into his fist, hiding it from sight. “It is all I have left of you,” he says bitterly. “But I will return it if you ask. If you still cannot accept me.”

“No,” says Bilbo, and has to ignore the immediate hurt in Thorin’s eyes. “No, I mean wait. Wait.”

He must stop here, and think, his hands held up in a plea for patience. Kili’s arrival has changed everything Bilbo has been telling himself for months, and Thorin is waiting, as asked. Bilbo Baggins once talked down a dragon and survived. Surely he can marshal his thoughts enough for this.

“The thing is, I love you, Thorin,” he starts, because that’s the main thing. “I mean, I don’t just like you or want you in my bed, although I do, very much, want you in my bed. I think you’re very probably my One, if that’s what we’re calling it, and I was going to spend the rest of my life miserable and alone because I thought it would help you. Because I love you.”

A silence hangs in the air between them for a moment.

“Bilbo,” says Thorin, taking a step closer to him. The buckles and ornaments on his clothes jingle, and the sound of his iron-shod foot is heavy on the tiled floor. He’s tall, still, and Bilbo had almost forgotten that, how Thorin towers over him by a whole head.

“It’s just that I thought,” says Bilbo quickly, stumbling over his words a little. He has to look at the floor, because Thorin is too close for him to concentrate if he dares look up, and he wants to explain. “I don’t know quite what I thought. That you’d lost your One long ago, or that they’d have to be a Dwarf. That you couldn’t really love a Hobbit.”

Thorin is taking Bilbo’s hand, very gently. His skin is terribly warm. It always was. “Bilbo,” says Thorin again, and his voice is barely more than a whisper.

“So you see,” says Bilbo, because he isn’t finished yet. “I love you, Thorin, and if you think your people could stomach having a Hobbit live in their mountain, well, as it happens, I think I would very much like us to be married. I would like it a great deal.”

He makes the mistake of glancing up, then, and Thorin’s eyes are so full of tentative hope and love that he can’t look away.

"It will not be easy," says Thorin, sounding pained. "We are a stubborn folk."

"I know," nods Bilbo, because he’s well aware of that. It’s quite probably going to be horrible, and completely worth it.

Thorin pulls a small leather bag from his jerkin and presses it into Bilbo’s hand. Bilbo tips it out onto his palm, and there it is, a little rectangular bronze bead inscribed with the same pattern that is on the ones Thorin wears. Thorin made it for him, and brought it all this way, and Bilbo looks at it and exhales hard, unable to help himself, at how hopelessly romantic Thorin truly is.

“It is not traditional, but I thought bronze would suit you better,” says Thorin, and even now he sounds unsure. “Will you accept it?”

Bilbo wraps the bead in his fist, nodding earnestly.

“Yes please,” says Bilbo. “Yes, Thorin. Yes.”

The sound Thorin makes is raw with longing as he drags Bilbo forward with force, and Bilbo welcomes it, pressing close again. He belongs here, in Thorin’s arms. It feels right in a way nothing else ever could.

There’s a sound from the direction of the kitchen, and both of them turn to see Kili, his mouth still full, staring in shock.

“That was quick!” he splutters, spraying crumbs.

“Kili,” says Thorin, drawing himself up in a most regal manner, considering his arms are full of amorous Hobbit. “Return to our lodgings. Inform the party I will be staying with Bilbo while you go on to Ered Luin, making arrangements for him to join us on our return journey.”

Thorin’s hand is sliding very, very slowly down Bilbo’s back and it’s a significant effort to keep still.

“Fine, let me finish my scone...” begins Kili, then notices the hand. His face goes pale, then horrified, in rapid succession. “I could just take it with me?”

“Take them all and be damned, you wretch,” growls Thorin, and Bilbo can’t help it, he’s laughing into Thorin’s shoulder like he hasn’t laughed in a year or more. He’s still laughing once Kili has reappeared from the kitchen again, clutching a tea-towel hastily stuffed with half a dozen scones, and is scampering towards the front door.

“See you later, Uncles.” He pauses in the doorway and grins. “Ha, Fili owes me so much coin. Good night!”

“Was there a bet?” asks Bilbo, once the door has slammed and they’re alone together.

Thorin groans. “It is behaviour most unbecoming of the royal line,” he grumbles, “but probably.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” replies Bilbo, with somewhat forced lightness. “A whole mountain full of gold, and they gamble it between each other. There’s worse things.”

Thorin’s blue eyes meet his own. There are much worse things, and for all the months apart, they are too recent to speak of lightly. Bilbo cups his hand around Thorin’s jaw, and draws him slowly down for a kiss. It’s been far too long.

They begin slowly, carefully, each unsure of one another and unwilling to push too far. It lasts perhaps a minute, until Thorin makes a small, soft noise against Bilbo’s mouth, and a hot spike of desire shoots down his spine. At once his hands are fisting in the hair at the back of Thorin’s neck, and it’s all he can do not to climb him like a tree in the middle of the hall.

“That way,” he gasps, breaking away just long enough to nod in the direction of his room. Thorin catches his mouth again at once, and hoists him up unceremoniously against his broad, hard frame.

“Where?” Thorin asks breathlessly, staggering a few steps into the east hall as Bilbo’s tongue worries at the silver clasp on his ear.

Bilbo doesn’t answer, too busy digging his nose into Thorin’s hair, which smells different, but the same as well. It’s sweat and pipeweed and some kind of spiced oil that might be vetiver, at a guess, but whatever it is it’s a good smell, a Kingly sort of smell, that fills Bilbo’s head so completely it makes it difficult to think. There is every chance at this rate that they may conclude matters on the atrium floor, which Bilbo can dimly recognise would be a shame. So he wriggles free, grabbing Thorin’s arm and pulling him through the study, stumbling towards the bedroom.

“Wait, wait,” says Bilbo suddenly, falling back against the door of his room. “Have you eaten?”

Thorin looks bewildered. “Yes?”

“Good. Are you tired? Would you like some tea?”

“...No?”

“Wonderful,” says Bilbo gratefully, his duties as Host duly discharged. “Come here, then.”

He throws his arms back around Thorin’s neck, dragging him backwards until the end of the bed hits the back of Bilbo’s knees. He lands hard, Thorin falling over him, thankfully with his arms braced against the mattress so that Bilbo isn’t crushed entirely. This mattress is only two years old, he thinks dizzily. It isn’t going to know what hit it.

Bilbo’s tongue is pressing into Thorin’s mouth again, his fingers in Thorin’s hair as his teeth pull on Thorin’s lower lip. He rubs his face against the scratch of Thorin’s beard and lets his hands drop downwards at last, hauling the heavy embossed belt from Thorin’s waist.

Then there is the cloak, the surcoat, the tunic, then the long shirt beneath. Bebother these Dwarves; it isn’t even cold outside! However, the sight of Thorin’s bare chest is worth all the effort, in spite of the angry puckered scar along his side, lovely enough that Bilbo has to push him back and sit up to properly appreciate it.

“Oh,” he says suddenly, because he has called to mind Thorin’s body so very often since they parted, and now he sees that it is not quite the same. Apparently, Kingship suits Thorin in more ways than one.

Bilbo glides a hand over Thorin’s stomach, and the sharp lines of muscle under dark hair are very slightly softened. Not enough for anyone who wasn’t a Hobbit to notice, maybe, but Bilbo takes a trembling breath at the thought that there may one day be even more of Thorin to adore. It had never occurred to him that Thorin could become more attractive. He will bake, he decides. He will get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow and bake until it would be unforgivably rude for Thorin not to eat at least some of it. Tomorrow, that is.

Thorin is plucking at the back of Bilbo’s nightshirt, and he squirms his arms out of his dressing gown so that the linen can be drawn over his head, reaching down again at once for the ties of Thorin’s britches, releasing the heavy, gorgeous length of his cock. While Bilbo’s hands are busy pushing the heavy woollen leggings and smallclothes down he runs his open mouth along the length, anxious to wrap his lips around it as soon as he can.

Thorin’s hands are still carding through his hair, rubbing his ears delightfully, and the britches are stuck. Why are they stuck, wonders Bilbo’s arousal-addled brain, and looks down to where the fabric is bunched, refusing to shift any further.

“Boots!” he snarls. “Of all the… stupid pointless boots!”

Bilbo scrambles off the bed, dropping to his knees on the wooden floor so hard that it’s a mercy his robe has already slid down to cushion the blow a little.

Above him, Thorin is laughing as Bilbo wrestles with the buckles until he can wrench them free. Obediently Thorin lifts one foot, then the other, as his boots and socks are removed and flung with some force across the room. When Bilbo next glances up, Thorin looks less amused by the naked Hobbit at his feet and rather more covetous. One hand is loosely curled around the shaft of his cock, which is just a little too high for Bilbo to reach comfortably from here, so he pushes Thorin down to sit on the end of bed and settles between his spread knees.

“I want a taste, first. Just a little,” he insists, reaching out for Thorin’s prick, sliding a palm over the heat of his stones and up, over silk-soft skin and hard flesh, licking at the bead of faintly bitter wetness already sliding down the head. He can’t help himself, he sucks a little harder, and then again, one hand pressed to the bare skin of Thorin’s inner thigh as he pushes forward to take more. If Thorin is his now, Bilbo will lavish attentions upon his cock as he’s always longed to do, sloppy licks and kisses, sucking and worshipping to his heart’s content. He could fancy doing this for first breakfast every morning.

“Bilbo, hold,” growls Thorin, close to pleading. It’s really very nice to hear, and the hand on Bilbo’s shoulder grips tightly but isn’t pushing. “You will have me spend too soon.”

Bilbo lifts his head slowly, enjoying the low sound Thorin makes as he pulls away. “What’s happened to your mighty Dwarven endurance?” he asks.

“You,” mutters Thorin, shifting back across the rumpled bed.

Bilbo crawls up over him to straddle Thorin’s hips, ignoring his own hardness to wrap a hand around Thorin’s prick once more, or as much of it as his hand can manage, the wetness of spit easing the slide of his grip. He presses his tongue against one nipple, and closes his teeth around it very gently, as Thorin has sometimes done with the edge of Bilbo’s ears. The response it elicits seems much the same, and Thorin groans very pleasingly.

He kisses and soothes where his teeth have been, until Thorin grips his shoulders, pulling him back up into kisses so hungry and possessive he can’t help but chuckle into them. Thorin’s hands are large and warm, sliding down over his skin to his waist, and Bilbo reaches back to shift one downwards until broad fingers are caressing the cleft of his arse.

“There,” he sighs, as Thorin’s fingertip strokes down to find sensitive muscle, and they moan into one another’s mouths.

Thorin breaks the kiss. “Have you oil? In the kitchen?” he asks hoarsely.

“No, no,” says Bilbo, because he is not about to prance off to the kitchen when there is an excessively handsome naked Dwarf in his bed. “In that drawer, little clay jar.”

He points to the small drum-shaped bedside table, and Thorin reaches over to drag the handle so hard Bilbo’s precious gold ring nearly bounces out onto the floor. In amongst some papers Thorin’s blind rummaging finds the jar that Bilbo never imagined he’d let anyone else know about. If he had, he probably wouldn’t have made it smell like the clover honey from Beorn’s house.

“This?” asks Thorin, holding it up curiously. “What is it?”

“I made it,” says Bilbo, hoping that isn’t a bad thing to admit. “For, well. For doing this.”

He does not miss the flash of sadness that crosses Thorin’s face at those words, or the fact that the jar is half-empty.

“By myself, you great fool Dwarf,” scolds Bilbo, laughing. He looks down between them to where his hand is still wrapped only part-way around the generous girth of Thorin’s prick. “Frankly, I think you’ve spoiled me for other Hobbits forever.”

“Oh,” says Thorin, smiling. “You use this?”

“It’s not as good,” admits Bilbo. “My fingers aren’t as big as yours either.”

“Ah,” says Thorin, his brows drawing together as if he is struggling with something. “You do that, to yourself?”

Bilbo grins. He has a reasonable guess as to what Thorin is thinking now. “Of course I do. And I think about you when I’m doing it. Are you picturing it? Do you want to watch me, next time?”

Thorin groans, eyes shut and breath shaking. “Yes,” he says.

“Your turn tonight though,” says Bilbo. “I’ve wanted you for far too long.”

Thorin digs his fingers into the salve at once, coating them entirely, not at all how Bilbo strokes a little carefully from the top, and he isn’t even looking at what he’s doing. He won’t look away from Bilbo’s face, even as his fingers are stroking down to find where they can gain entrance.

“Oh,” moans Bilbo, moving back against the intrusion at once, greedy for more. Oh, it’s good, and how has he contented himself with his own meagre hand for so long? He hasn’t, and now he knows by how much. He falls down onto his elbows, pressing his face into Thorin’s beard, the silk of his wonderful hair, moaning without words how much he has yearned for this.

Thorin’s finger is thick, and two of them are better, given readily, as Bilbo shoves ungraciously back against them, so that soon there are three fingers stretching him and he cannot wait any longer. He wriggles his arse away from Thorin’s hand, shockingly aware of how oddly empty his body seems, scrambling for the clay jar rolling dangerously close to the edge of the mattress.

The salve is cool on his fingers, his skin already overheated with desire, and he is back onto his knees, reaching behind to slick Thorin’s cock and guide it inside him. He can’t help the sound that escapes his throat or the way his head falls back against his shoulders. There has never been anything else like this, sinking down so slowly, as aching emptiness becomes an obscene, stretched fullness that seems to consume him. It feels as if there’s no room in him left for breath. There are sparks shooting under Bilbo’s skin all over his body, and he is heavy with need.

He leans back further, holding his weight on the heel of one hand, arching his spine as he goes lower until Thorin is pressed as deep into him as he can be. With the other, he smooths his palm over the head of his own prick, sliding just the tips of his fingers down the vein of the shaft, a little of the salve still slick on his hand from guiding Thorin into him.

He is utterly exposed like this, sunk to the hilt on Thorin’s cock, naked and touching himself, but there’s no doubt Thorin appears to enjoy the view. It is something new to consider himself quite so desirable, and he means to embrace it. For himself, he can’t help wondering at how lovely Thorin is, staring up at him with such intensity.

Thorin’s hands stroke lightly over Bilbo’s sides, murmuring in words he can’t understand, and at some point Bilbo will have to ask for a proper translation, but for now the intent is enough. It reminds him of the only bit of Khuzdul he knows that isn’t a battle-cry or an insult.

He shifts forwards again to lay his splayed hand over Thorin's heart and pauses, practising in his head so he won’t say it wrong.

“Azanshathûr,” he says. It’s Thorin’s inner name, the one he told Bilbo just before he left.

Thorin freezes. His expression melts from startled to intensely tender, but he’s shaking his head all the same. “Not now,” he mumbles. “Not in bed, you cannot.”

“Really?” asks Bilbo, intrigued. He looks sideways for a moment, chewing his lip in thought. “So it’s terribly intimate, but not appropriate in bed? That’s fascinating, why is that? Is it too formal? Or is it a spiritual thing?”

“Bilbo,” pleads Thorin. “Must we discuss this now?”

“I suppose not,” concedes Bilbo. “So I must call you Thorin when I have your cock in my arse,” he grins, and Thorin’s expression is far less pitiful at once. Bilbo could almost laugh at how swift the change is.

“Yes,” Thorin growls, his grip on Bilbo’s hips tight, lifting him bodily to thrust back into him.

“Mmm, Thorin,” agrees Bilbo, rocking against the movement, and it comes out a little more breathless than he meant. “That’s fine, that’s going to work just fine. Oh, Thorin. Yes.”

It isn’t as if he needs many more words than that. Repeating Thorin’s name feels like a prayer of thanks, of gratitude to whatever benevolent force has brought them back to one another. He presses both hands down against Thorin’s beautiful, strong shoulders and begins to ride his prick in earnest, rising and sinking back down with relentless urgency, giving himself completely and yet taking just as much.

“Come here,” he pants, grabbing Thorin’s hand and stuffing the fingers into his mouth, sucking hard, wanting even more of Thorin however he can get it. The sound Thorin makes is filthy, a harsh moan, his thumb pressing under Bilbo’s chin, holding his jaw so possessively. He meant this to last longer, but neither of them can stop, now.

Maybe that’s all right, because it isn’t as if this is the first time, or the last time, or even the only time. This is something Bilbo means to keep, to hold fast for the rest of his life.

The bed frame is creaking fit to break in two, the forgotten jar rolls across the floorboards, and the air smells of sweat and sex and honey. With one hand Bilbo tugs his prick, and the other winds through Thorin’s hair, clenching into a fist, and he might be pulling a bit hard, but he isn’t hearing any objections.

He can’t deny that the edge of wildness, the knowledge that this is Thorin truly undone, is what finally begins to unravel him, too. He feels his desire drawing inwards, tightening with need. The thick fingers are dragged from his mouth and his hips grasped again as Thorin thrusts upwards hard, teeth bared, lifting them both off the bed with such force Bilbo could fall without that bruising hold.

Thorin shudders and tenses and throws back his head, grinding so deep into Bilbo in the last pulses of his finish. It’s overwhelming, a devouring pleasure, fizzing through him like brandy on a hot skillet. With some effort, Bilbo manages not to yelp as he spends across his hand and their bodies, though the husky moan that emerges from him probably isn’t much more dignified.

His limbs are so loose in the aftermath he fairly topples sideways to slide down into bed beside Thorin, still short-winded and blinking through the last tremors of his finish. He feels limp as a pancake, and deliriously happy.

“You are loud,” says Thorin, his voice a quiet rumble over Bilbo’s panting breath.

“Hardly my fault,” snorts Bilbo, giddy with joy. It doesn’t matter, the shutters are closed and Daddy Twofoot down the road is half deaf anyway.

Of course, they will need to clean themselves up before things become damp and uncomfortable. For a moment Bilbo is tempted to just grab Thorin’s clothes from the floor, remembering his own shirt on the quest long, long ago. However he’s reasonably sure Thorin wouldn’t care, or possibly even notice. There’s a pitcher and basin by the bedroom door, and Bilbo’s slightly shaky legs will at least take him that far.

“I was too rough,” says Thorin uneasily, watching him go. “Did I harm you?”

“No,” says Bilbo, resisting the urge to throw the washcloth at Thorin’s idiot head. “And I’ll say it now, if I ever think you might, I will tell you, so stop fretting. To be blunt, I think my thighs hurt more. I haven’t done anything that strenuous for a while.”

Bilbo cleans up, hands the cloth to Thorin, and wanders back to the end of the bed for his dressing gown, shrugging it on and ambling through to the pantry. He returns shortly with half a seedcake, the few scones Kili didn’t take with him, and a couple of apples.

“What is this?” asks Thorin, eyebrows almost reaching his hairline, as Bilbo sits on the end of the bed and hands him a plate and napkin. Much as he loves Thorin, crumbs in the bed would be no fun.

“Seedcake. Shut up,” says Bilbo without the least malice, and tucks in.

Apparently his appetite has returned, and food has rarely tasted better. It’s Thorin’s business why he isn't eating, instead just watching Bilbo with a sort of fond confusion. They talk, discussing Thorin’s journey, and what Bilbo has in the pantry for breakfast, and how they will arrange matters for their return to the mountain, since that’s what it seems they’ll be doing. It should be strange, having the King of Erebor sitting up in his bed, talking about the difficulty of finding good stabling between Bree and Rivendell, but the strangest thing is how natural it feels. It’s a good omen. For once, it must be.

Before long everything edible has been demolished and Bilbo tidies the crockery away on a side table with a satisfied sigh. He peels off his dressing gown, and from the pocket retrieves the little bronze bead to hand to Thorin, kneeling on the bed beside him.

“Here,” he says, more casually than he feels. “Unless you want to wait until we get back to the mountain?”

Thorin reaches up eagerly to stroke Bilbo’s curls. “I have worn your braid for more than a year, I would give you mine as soon as I may.”

It’s peculiarly intimate, to sit so still and quiet and bare, listening to their soft breath and the whisper of his own hair being braided. He feels self-conscious, the heat rising in his face, which is ridiculous given what they’ve been doing already this evening. When Thorin fastens the bead on, deft fingers brush against Bilbo’s ears and he feels a pulse of desire at the contact.

“There,” says Thorin softly, and leans their foreheads together. “Balin will tell us to have a ceremony on our return, but it is a mere formality. I am yours, and you are mine.”

Bilbo stretches out to touch the little wooden bead he set in Thorin’s hair all those months ago. The carving isn’t so bad, really. It’s quite pretty. He wraps his hand around it and delivers a brutal tug that makes Thorin grunt in shock.

“You really should have told me quite how important these beads are, you know.”

“I know,” says Thorin, sounding chastened.

There’s no excuse or apology at all, and Bilbo, kissing him, doesn’t really care any more. There’s a muzzy blissfulness still floating right through him, down to his bones. They snuggle back into bed together, facing one another, talking in whispers and light touches, and Thorin keeps fiddling with the cool metal sitting behind Bilbo’s ear.

“If you’re a King, what will that make me?” asks Bilbo. “I’m not going to have to wear a crown and go about gussied up in jewels and gold, am I? Because I won’t do that, I’d feel ridiculous.”

Thorin grimaces. “You will be my Consort, and I will make your crown myself, so you may have it grand or simple as you wish. But I will not drape you in gold, I swear.”

Bilbo has the sudden urge to smother himself with a pillow for such clumsiness. “Oh, oh I didn’t mean… well. After all, gold isn’t a problem any more, is it? I’m sure it isn’t. Gandalf said it wouldn’t be. Thorin?”

“No, it is not,” says Thorin wryly. “Gandalf spoke true, the sickness has not returned.” He sighs, and the next words sound as if he is quoting something. “The beauty of Erebor’s gold is mouths fed, homes rebuilt, the construction of new mines and forges. It is trade with Allies we may one day call Friends. The foundation of a noble kingdom. A wealth that all may share.”

“That’s a very fine sentiment,” says Bilbo, and refrains from saying aloud that it doesn’t sound like a typically Dwarven one. He knows Dwarves are a bit more complicated than that, especially the one in his bed just now.

”It was to be my coronation speech. Balin re-wrote it,” says Thorin, sounding rather forlorn. “My throne was not thought to be secure enough for such words, not then.”

“Ah,” says Bilbo. He rubs his cheek against the smooth, furred muscle of Thorin’s chest, thinking again what a marvellous pillow he makes. Maybe they can save that speech for the wedding. “That’s why I left, you know. Not because I didn’t love you. I do. I love you, Thorin.”

“As I love you. Always you have the strength to do what I cannot.”

“Bloody Dáin,” says Bilbo vehemently. It’s all that bristly pig-tusked fool’s fault, sweeping in at the last minute to throw doubt on Thorin’s worth.

Thorin’s hand has begun to stroke Bilbo’s hair, and now it stills for a moment. “Do not think too ill of Dáin and his nobles. We have always mistrusted strangers, and they sought only to do right by our people.”

Bilbo sniffs, aware that he is not going to be easily convinced on that one, and Thorin presses a kiss to the top of his head.

“He is my cousin. I have his trust, and his sworn loyalty. I am King under the Mountain, and none would challenge me now. Dáin will come to love you, I am sure of it.”

Love seems unlikely, but tolerance will do, since it isn’t as if Bilbo is going to be scared off again. He leans up on one elbow, feeling the bead swing against his head. It’s heavy. Not that he doesn’t like it, but it’ll take a bit to get used to. A lot of things will, he supposes, and the thought is surprisingly appealing.

“How daft do I look, honestly?” he asks.

“You look perfect. Made for me by Mahal’s own hand,” says Thorin, which is going far too far.

“Hardly perfect,” replies Bilbo firmly.

Thorin just smiles at him, radiating such sweet happiness it’s impossible to look away. He looks puppyish, and the resemblance to his nephews is curious. “You are perfect. You will not change my mind.”

“And you,” says Bilbo, “Are a stubborn old Dwarf.”

“On that we agree.”

A thought strikes Bilbo. He’s never asked, although he’s read that Dwarves age differently, not truly growing old until they are near the very end of their lives. Presumably it’s not outside the bounds of propriety to find out now, however.

“How old are you, Thorin?”

“A little more than one and three quarters,” shrugs Thorin, and Bilbo can’t help a small huff of shock as he realises Thorin counts his age in hundreds. “Not so much older than you, surely?”

Bilbo grins wickedly, and squirms over to drape his naked self over Thorin’s body in as languid a manner as possible. Thorin blinks in pleased surprise, and his wide palms promptly settle over Bilbo’s arse.

“Thorin,” he says very seriously. “I’m fifty-two.”

Thorin recoils, both hands flying above his head at once.

“And well past my majority!” laughs Bilbo, hardly able to speak through his mirth. “We come of age at thirty-three, you know. Much more mature than Dwarves.”

Thorin still looks aghast, unwilling to touch Bilbo, until suddenly he wraps him so tightly in his arms that Bilbo is almost winded.

“Like Men,” he breathes, sounding horrified. “How long have you left?”

Oh, dear Thorin. Bilbo hadn’t considered that aspect of his revelation, and feels badly for it. “Not quite like Men,” he explains gently. “Somewhere between Men and the ancient Dúnedain, according to my books. I should have another fifty years in me, sixty if I’m lucky.”

Thorin’s grip relaxes somewhat, and he pulls back to look at Bilbo with less fear than before. “That is... not so much less than I. How strange, then, that we should have met now.”

“It’s like fate,” says Bilbo thoughtfully. “I think it must be. After you nearly chucked me off the gate, and I ran away halfway across Arda, not to mention all the Orcs and Wargs and Goblins and Trolls on the way, but here we are nonetheless. My father always used to say third time pays for all. I think we’re stuck with each other now.”

Thorin looks a little pained to have his actions dismissed so carelessly, but really, he’ll have to get over that. Perhaps he just needs to be distracted.

“Shall we go again?” asks Bilbo. Thorin is broad and hairy and naked beneath him and really, there seems no convincing reason not to. There’s more than a year to catch up on, and they could take it a bit slower this time, thinks Bilbo, his hand gliding over Thorin’s collarbone appreciatively.

“Already?” asks Thorin, but he looks more intrigued than unwilling.

“Hobbit appetites,” says Bilbo gleefully. “I don’t think you’ve any idea what you’ve married.”

--

At the end of a week, the Thain’s sharp eyes clearly spot the braid in Bilbo’s hair while he’s dropping off some paperwork.

“Nothing much, a few bits about Bag End for you to look over, if you could? Any questions, Cousin Drogo can sort it out,” says Bilbo breezily, before heading back out to where Thorin and his pony wait in the courtyard beside a small cart.

It is piled with books, a few quilts, some favourite cooking utensils, the portraits of his parents, and surprisingly little else. No doilies, for one thing. He climbs back onto the seat, glad at least that he will not have to ride, this time. He flicks the reins and the iron-shod wheels creak as they begin to roll, the pony’s hooves clattering over cobbles towards the open road. Erebor is ahead, and Bilbo finds he can hardly wait to see it. He thinks of Thorin’s rooms, the only bit of the mountain he ever saw much of, and remembers tall ceilings, shafts of glittering sunlight, and a fireplace big enough to roast a cow. Not a place meant for Hobbits, but a few homely touches might work wonders.

“Off we go, Jemima,” he says, and Thorin glances over from where he is riding alongside.

“Jemima?” asks Thorin, sounding entertained.

“What’s wrong with that? Yours is called Fosco,” retorts Bilbo.

“My pony? Fosco?”

“Good solid Shire name,” says Bilbo. “I should know, I chose it.”

It will be an easier journey than last time, now that they have carts and ponies, and the wealth of Erebor to take care of them. All the same it’s unlikely they’ll reach the mountain before Winter sets in. Bilbo points this out and Thorin appears to consider it for the first time.

“Ohh, but you’re all sons of Durin,” grumbles Bilbo. “I expect you’ll endure, as usual.”

“Yes?” admits Thorin, and then suddenly grins very widely. “Do not worry, Bilbo. If it is too cold, I will let you have my coat.”