What no one knew about Bilbo Baggins, Esquire, (except for the wizard, of course, because Gandalf knew everything) was that Bilbo really had been a burglar. He'd been a very good one too.
Retired, enjoying his prosperity, indulging in a taste for fine wine and leaf, but undeniably a (former) burglar, Bilbo had a professional interest in secrets, locks and maybe also in small amounts of gold that were unattended.
The conversation with Gandalf the afternoon before the dwarves arrived did not include a call to adventure and a plea to Bilbo's Tookish side. Oh, no.
"It's a lot of gold," Gandalf said. "Sitting there, for the taking. You'd earn your share honestly."
"I'm too old to go dashing around the Wild, chasing lost Dwarvish hoards," Bilbo said. "I'm fifty-one!"
Gandalf, who was older than time itself, put his head back and roared with laughter.
The dwarves, perhaps foolishly, didn't believe Gandalf's assurances that Bilbo was a fine burglar, and considered the hobbit something of a burden. Thorin, who was short-tempered and sharp-tongued at the best of times, made his opinion known.
"Useless!" Thorin shouted at Bilbo, when Bilbo needed to be lifted on to his pony every time. "Clumsiest burglar I've ever met!" Thorin roared, when Bilbo stumbled with tiredness while handing around the bowls of stew Bombur had made.
Fili's and Kili's whispered kindnesses were no salve for Bilbo's pride, not at the end of a long trek through the rain accompanied only by a steady stream of complaints from Thorin, many of them directed at Bilbo.
"He doesn't mean it," Fili whispered, when he took over from Bilbo on watch.
"You'll get used to his ways," Kili added, as Fili and Kili settled under the shelter of a hawthorn tree, out of the rain as much as possible.
Bilbo crawled into his bedroll, shivering as the rain seeped around his ears. He would show Thorin he was useful.
On the road in the Wild, things were always going missing. Balin lost a button from his jacket and no one listened to his grumbles. Dwalin slapped him on the back and pointed out it was a good thing it was the bottom button, not the top, and at least he was still dry. Balin, whose rain-soaked clothes were steaming gently in the first sunshine they'd seen for days, didn't think Dwalin was funny, even if everyone else did.
Dwalin lost a strand of leather from the worn length of his belt which made Bombur poke his stomach with the ladle to make sure he wasn't eating too much.
Fili lost a tie from his glove, and Kili a loop of leather from the edge of his quiver. Fili replaced the loop for Kili and Kili attached a new loop for Fili while Bombur and Bilbo were serving that day's stew.
When Gloin misplaced one of the braid bands from his beard he opened a leather pouch containing dozens of spares and secured his beard braid again. Nori had spare studs for his vambraces, when one of the studs slipped out. Dori lost a curlicue from his belt, and Bifur a frog from his jacket sleeve.
Oin's missing decorative boot buckle was greeted with cheers and a general wish that he lose the buckle from the other boot as well. At least with only one buckle, the clanking when he walked was halved.
Bofur lost a single chain mail loop from the bottom back edge of his armour. Bombur couldn't be certain, but to his cook's eye it looked like his sage flowers weren't lasting as long as he'd expected.
And Óri misplaced a blank piece of paper.
"Very clever, Bilbo," Gandalf muttered, drawing his horse alongside Bilbo's pony, making Bilbo's pony trot faster and nearly dislodge him.
"What is?" Bilbo asked.
Gandalf peered at Bilbo from under substantial eyebrows. "Tread carefully, little burglar, and take care not to irritate Thorin, or myself."
Bilbo ducked his head, and Gandalf urged his horse on, leaving Bilbo and his embarrassment balanced precariously on the back of the pony.
Thorin was on watch in the deep of the night standing looking out from the hollow where they had made camp. Across the camp Bofur guarded the ponies, humming quietly over the background burr of dwarves snoring.
Bilbo walked around the edge of the camp, making sure not to walk silently because Kili had already nearly shot an arrow through him once for creeping. His shadow in the weak moonlight bobbed and dipped ahead of him, hopefully giving Thorin enough warning that Bilbo wouldn't have to duck an axe swing.
Thorin harrumphed and turned to nod at Bilbo, murmuring, "Master Hobbit, is there a problem?"
Bilbo held out a twist of paper for Thorin to take, then snuck back to his bedroll confident the darkness hid his smugness.
Thorin's guffaw was sudden in the night, startling a pony into neighing back at him, and Bilbo grinned under his blanket. The crumpled paper had held a collection of leather straps and loops, fashioned into a crude neckpiece decorated with studs, buckles and the other loot Bilbo had stolen from the dwarves. Nestled in the middle in a chain mail link was a single sage flower, from Bombur's precious spice collection.
The next morning, Thorin tapped Bilbo on the shoulder and said, "Walk with me, Master Hobbit, while I look at the lay of the road."
Bilbo scrambled to his feet and pushed the last of his breakfast apple into his mouth, then ran after as Thorin strode away from the camp.
When Bilbo caught up with Thorin, he was sitting on a rock and packing his pipe. Between the folds of his gambeson, Bilbo could see the loops of leather and a glint of steel from Bilbo's gift.
"You didn't steal anything from Gandalf," Thorin said.
"I'm a burglar, not stupid," Bilbo pointed out.
Thorin exhaled smoke and laughter. "If you would do that, I would call you the best of burglars."
Bilbo smiled sideways at Thorin. "Ah, you see, I would also be dead."
Thorin's pat on Bilbo's back was gentle, at no stage threatening to send Bilbo face first into the dirt.
"I would not like that either, Master Hobbit. But why not steal from me? Surely that would test your mettle?"
Bilbo stood, blinking in the early morning sunshine, unable to look away from the tangle of stolen leather at Thorin's neck, trying to find words but failing.
"Hmm," Thorin said. "Maybe I should steal something from you instead? What do you have?"
Bilbo shook his head. "Nothing?"
Thorin's chuckle was warm and deep. "Nothing? Shall I search you, see what other stolen treasures you have hidden about you?"
Bilbo squeaked, and Thorin grinned, reaching out an arm slowly and carefully for Bilbo and reeling him in just as slowly. Up close Bilbo could see that the sage flower was bound into one of Thorin's braids at the side of his neck. The sage overlaid the smell of leather, steel and sweat.
"I will search you," Thorin whispered. "See if you have stolen anything else…" He balanced his pipe on his knee and began to brush the roughened and callused fingertips of that hand down Bilbo's waistcoat, too firm to tickle but gentle enough to make Bilbo shiver.
"I haven't," Bilbo said. "Nothing."
"I think you might have something of mine," Thorin whispered, leaning his face close to Bilbo's so his whiskers dragged against Bilbo's neck and chin. "At least something I want…"
The shivers had spread right through Bilbo and he would have fallen without the firm grip of Thorin's hand on his shoulder still. Thorin's other hand… Thorin's other hand had melted its way across Bilbo's belly, lower to where an ache had begun.
"Oh," Bilbo said. "Oh, oh."
"Shhh," Thorin whispered, his mouth against Bilbo's. "Let me make it better for you."
"Yes, please," Bilbo whispered, then he gasped when Thorin cupped his heat through his breeches.
"You.. I… Want…" Bilbo stammered, as Thorin flicked the buttons of his breeches undone and slid callused fingers through the opening.
Thorin rumbled in amusement and Bilbo sagged a little as the grip on his shoulder was released. Thorin reached down to deal with the leather straps, buckles and ties that guaranteed no dwarf ever lost their breeches in battle.
Then Thorin pulled Bilbo down on to the rock as well, and covered his mouth again with warm, generous lips and a lot of whiskers. Bilbo's hand, guided by Thorin, found what it needed, and Thorin said, "Quickly, quickly."
Thorin's fingers were clever and nimble, the scratch and pull making Bilbo's head swim. He hoped his own hand, buried in the tangle of leather and quilted cotton but undeniably in the right place, felt as good.
A twitch of Thorin's knee, a jerk of his hips, and he moaned long and low against Bilbo's mouth, as wetness slid between Bilbo's fingers and dripped out of the many folds of leather and cloth.
The feeling inside Bilbo hit him hard so he would have fallen from the rock if Thorin had not held him securely with one hand. Thorin's other hand touched him gently and slowly until the waves of warmth had left Bilbo completely.
"I like the look of the road ahead," Thorin said, when Bilbo was steady enough to fix his own buttons. "I like it a lot."
Thorin hummed and clapped his hands as they walked back into the camp, calling out, "Packs on the ponies, we ride out now."
No one, not even the ever-inquisitive Kili and Fili or the possibly aggrieved Bombur, mentioned the dried purple flower tucked into Thorin's braid. No one interrupted his cheerful whistling and humming through the day's journey, in case he stopped.
Bilbo thought he might try and steal something from Thorin that night. Thorin had a lot of things Bilbo wanted to steal.