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Shield Me

Chapter Text

He stinks of troll snot and his body won’t stop trembling. A low, quiet sort of trembling as the stone remains stare down at the company, but a trembling nonetheless. The fear has entered his bones and takes up residence there, tunneling inside him.

Doing the best he can to hide it, Bilbo assists the dwarves out of their sacks. His hands do not noticeably shake, that particular motion evidently reserved for his heart. When he loosens the drawstring from about Thorin’s neck and shoulders, the dwarf king barely acknowledges him, staring stonily at the firepit where Gandalf has stomped out the flames. One dwarf at a time, the wizard frees the spit of its wriggling burden.

The burlap falls to the floor of the clearing and Thorin steps out of the sack, his back turned toward to Bilbo, his shoulders an impassible barrier.

Bilbo attempts to speak and promptly swallows his own tongue. The aborted “Th-” must sound enough like Thorin’s name to draw his attention. It certainly draws his gaze, his disgruntlement, his ire. Beneath this weight, Bilbo stands as tall as he can, which isn’t very tall at all.

“What have you to say, halfling?”

Bilbo swallows. He lifts his chin and holds his hands behind his back, lest he wring them in plain sight. “Thank you.”

Thorin stares at him blankly.

“I said, thank you,” Bilbo repeats, uncertain as to whether his voice had worked the first time.

“I heard you.”

Bilbo does not shift foot to foot. He knows he doesn’t, because he thinks about it very strongly.

“Adopting your plan was a matter of buying time, nothing more.”

Though the dismissal stings, the incomprehension hits harder. “Right,” Bilbo says. “Yes. Sorry. Of course. Let me just—right.” He slips away with as much dignity as he can muster and does not think at all about being held high, high above the ground. He does not think of troll fists wrapped about his wrists and ankles. Not now, not when he can still feel them pulling.

Chapter Text

“Master Baggins!” Fili calls, and clearly not for the first time. He tugs at Bilbo’s elbow in the attempt to coax Bilbo away from the high pillars of Beorn’s home. As much as Bilbo would love to venture toward the table, the dogs and the horses are substantial, terrifyingly large even after trolls and eagles. 

“I think I’ll keep out of the way until everything settles down,” he explains, but Fili only grins and pulls him along anyway. 

“My uncle needs his strength back. He’ll hardly get that by waiting to eat.”

“I—what?” Bilbo tries to sort out how that makes any sense, because it absolutely doesn’t. A dwarf waiting to eat? That is exceedingly undwarf-like. 

Beorn’s tables and chairs are low indeed, low enough for even a hobbit to sit comfortably, but this isn’t what surprises Bilbo. No, that would be the empty spaces beside Thorin. Fili fills the spot on Thorin’s left, sitting between Thorin and his younger brother. The spot on the right remains. Confused, Bilbo looks around for wherever Balin has gone off to. 

“Would you sit?” Thorin demands. 

Bilbo sits. A company of dwarves and not a piece of meat in sight. Small wonder Thorin’s testy. And the poor fellow nearly died on that mountain. Small wonder indeed. 

He smiles at Thorin as politely and deferentially as he can manage it. The expression comes with remarkable ease. “Sorry,” he says, though he’s not sure what for. 

Thorin regards him for a strange, quiet moment as his company, his kingdom of twelve souls feasts around him. “Keep your apologies. You’ve no cause for them.”

Bilbo keeps smiling. He reaches for the bread before him, and with that, Thorin begins to eat. 

Chapter Text

“So here you are still!” Beorn calls out, waking them from their second night of sleep beneath his roof. He draws near rapidly upon his long legs, and, before Bilbo can do more than blink his eyes open, Beorn lifts him up from his sleeping roll with a laugh.

Bilbo squeaks, arms and legs flailing until Beorn nestles him against his side. “Not eaten up by Wargs or goblins or wicked bears yet, I see.” Beorn pokes Bilbo’s waistcoat with a chuckle. “Little bunny is getting nice and fat again on bread and honey. Come and have some more!”

Torn between taking offense at their host and accepting food, Bilbo lets his hobbit instincts guide him. “Yes, please!”

Beorn laughs again, louder than before, and promptly carries Bilbo off with him. His change of mood is drastic, no mistake, and infinitely for the better. He cradles the hobbit against his shoulder as he might a cat or a babe in need of burping.

As such, Bilbo has an excellent view of the dwarves’ reactions to his plight. Reactions range from Bofur’s silent cackling to Thorin’s stony silence. Bilbo attempts a shrug and a helpless look, but Thorin Oakenshield will not be so easily appeased. “He must be good for hugging,” he hears Kili remark before his brother smacks his shoulder. 

For a brief moment, Bilbo fears Beorn will fail to set him down entirely, but Beorn deposits him at a low chair at his side. As the dwarves follow to eat their fill, Beorn wastes no time at all in explaining his new regard for his guests, explaining where he has been and what he has seen. He crows with delight over the slaying of the Great Goblin.

His infectious mood fills all with laughter. So Bilbo thinks until he looks to Thorin and finds his stony mood has grown large enough to contain an entire quarry of stony moods. In the attempt to cheer him, Bilbo asks Beorn what happened to the goblin and Warg Beorn had verified their story with. 

“Come and see!” Beorn invites them. He leads them outside—this time, without picking up Bilbo—and shows them the head on a pike and the Warg skin pinned to a tree. Though the sight turns Bilbo’s full stomach, it has no noticeable effect upon Thorin one way or the other. So much for that. 

They spend the rest of the morning packing and making preparations for their journey. Beorn gives them all sorts of information. Everyone listens attentively, and Bilbo feels a prickling of dread fill him up from toes to head at the warnings of the road ahead. He looks to Thorin, watching his reactions more than Beorn’s telling, and the confidence he finds there soothes him, even buried as it is beneath the stoniness. 

He looks too long, too distracted by his own worries, and Thorin catches him staring.

For once refusing to be flustered, Bilbo looks to Beorn and back to Thorin. He lifts his eyebrows as if to ask, Is everything going to be all right?

Face impassive, Thorin nods the slightest nod. Stone no longer, he looks back to their host and guide until Bilbo recalls his manners and does the same. 

Chapter Text

Eyes shine out of darkness, cold glints of light that hint of reaching fingers and clammy hands. Though Bilbo attempts to sleep beneath the boughs of Mirkwood, he jerks awake with the certainty that he must wake, or else die. The canopy above shifts without wind, the leaves whispering in conspiracy against them. What good is a magic ring when Bilbo is already invisible in this endless darkness?

When a hand touches his shoulder, Bilbo nearly screams. He jerks away, nearly falling over his pack in his rush to rise, but the hand merely catches his arm and holds fast. 

“Halfling,” Thorin whispers, his voice soft and low, “it is time for your watch.”

“How the blazes can you tell?” He can’t see his hand in front of his face, let alone Thorin’s hand on his arm. He can feel it through his coat and shirt, the iron grip of a smith exerting a precise pressure. Thorin’s hold prevents him from fleeing off the path, but it does not hurt him. 

“Because you are already awake.”

“Still,” Bilbo corrects. 

Thorin makes a soft, disparaging sound. Bilbo hates that sound. He hasn’t heard it in some time, not since before the goblins, before the eagles. 

“If you fall asleep as we march, I will not carry you,” Thorin warns. 

“I know that,” Bilbo whispers. Sheer terror at being left behind will certainly keep him awake. 

Thorin shifts beside him, sitting down. His knee digs into the side of Bilbo’s leg. His grip on Bilbo’s arm neither squeezes nor falters. 

“I thought hobbits were a burrowing race. Does the darkness bother you so?”

“We are,” Bilbo replies, “but our holes are close to the surface. We like the hills, not the mountains.”

“There are more to mountains than what you have been unfortunate enough to see.”

“I know. I know, sorry. I didn’t mean… Well, hobbits prefer having a spot of light. That’s why hills are so lovely, you see. Neatly underground with the grass just outside.”

“And above.”

Bilbo smiles faintly. “And above. Yes, we like the light. I suppose dwarves are better off in places such as this.”

For a long silence, Thorin says nothing. “This is no mountain darkness. A mountain’s darkness is cool and cold. Though it may be wet, it is never the cloying damp such as it is here. I dislike it as well.”

Bilbo exhales slowly. He sits up straighter. “Thank you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m glad it’s not just me,” Bilbo explains. “I don’t know why. Maybe I’d rather have a rational fear than be an irrational coward.”

“You sit in a circle of warriors, halfling,” Thorin replies. “You have nothing to fear, provided you wake them in time. Yours is the last watch of the night.”

Bilbo nods into the dark. He does not ask Thorin to sit with him, to keep another shift of the watch with him, but Thorin remains all the same. The dwarf is rock as well as iron and Bilbo finds he would rather sit with Thorin behind him than he would with a solid wall.

They say nothing more that night. Come morning, come the thin, vainly struggling light of what they call dawn, Bilbo finds Thorin sitting with his head drooped, his eyes shut. His features are smooth, his dreams untroubled for having placed his life in the hands of a frightened hobbit. 

Chapter Text

Another night in Mirkwood, another night awake. Bilbo dozes fitfully between his patches of terror. To sleep on his belly is to lie with his neck exposed. To sleep on his back bares his entire body. To lie on either side blinds him to an assault from behind.

He makes the mistake of lying on his side, his face toward the forest, and opening his eyes. Eyes stare back, blinking out of the dark. Holding his breath, Bilbo shifts backward until his bum makes contact with his pack. He presses up against it, presses and presses until he hears a grunt from behind him.

“Sorry,” he whispers. 

“What is it now?” Thorin groans softly. 

Bilbo says nothing, because it is nothing. He lies still and frozen in the night. 

Behind him, Thorin shifts closer, pressing Bilbo’s pack between them. “There is grass upon our mountain.”

Bilbo blinks slowly, pointlessly, into the blackness. “What?”

“Grass. Outside. On the foothills for the most part, but higher as well. There once was, certainly. The dragon burned much years ago, but it may have had chance to return by now.”

Frowning, Bilbo rolls over. “Are you talking in your sleep?” he whispers. 

“It has occurred to me,” Thorin whispers, “that thirteen dwarves is a small start for a kingdom.”

“Oh, you are.”

“I am not. I am… explaining.”

“All right,” Bilbo says slowly. 

“Our halls are stone, our materials metal. We trade for the majority of our food and always have. We’ll have coin enough to buy whatever we like, of course, but our skill sets are not diverse enough to found a culture anew.”

“I’m not sure where you’re going with this.”

“There is grass up high as well as in the foothills. Up high, the wind is pleasant, though it would tear wood down or send a small body flying. But the foothills, they are… rolling. We are not gardeners, none of us, but we should require one if we are to undo what damage Smaug has inflicted upon our lands. Hobbits strike me as such a people.”

Bilbo nearly giggles. “Good luck getting anyone else out of the Shire.”

“That being the case,” Thorin says. 

Bilbo doesn’t giggle at all. He stares instead, trying to sort out the outline of a bearded face. 

“My company is comprised of the only dwarves still loyal to me,” Thorin states without grief or anger, only resignation. “Such loyalty ought to be rewarded. With, with a fair home.”

“Oh,” Bilbo says, understanding at last. He closes his eyes and lays his head down. “I wouldn’t worry about it, really. I think this lot will care so much about the inside that the outside will have grown back before they notice it.”

A puff of tobacco-tinged breath brushes against his closed eyes. A laugh? A sigh? Bilbo nearly asks, but, his exhaustion having at long last caught up with him, he falls instead into a quiet sleep. His dreams are soft, filled by his armchair and his fireplace, but outside his round window is nothing but sky. 

Chapter Text

When Balin rescues the small boat, Bilbo doesn’t know whether to sigh in relief or despair. Though they agreed not to leave the path through Mirkwood, Bilbo hadn’t realized the depth of the dark river they would have to cross. Nor the speed of it, for that matter. 

“Who will cross first?” Bilbo asks, hanging back as best he can without being obvious about it. 

“I shall,” Thorin says, clapping him on the shoulder, “and you will come with me, and Fili and Balin. That’s as many as the boat will hold at a time.” This can be an estimate, nothing more, but Thorin utters it with such certainty that Bilbo is tempted to believe him. 

But, whispers a voice of doubt, if it only holds three, in you shall go

As Fili readies the rope to pull them across, Bilbo attempts to keep his distance from the enchanted water. Thorin’s hand upon his shoulder complicates this feat. 

Thorin sighs. “You cannot be afraid of water.”

“I can’t swim.”

“Halfling, should you fall in, you will be asleep before you could attempt to learn.”

“That’s… really not what I was looking to hear,” Bilbo replies. 

“Rope’s ready!” Fili announces. 

“In you go, lad,” Balin says, holding the boat still. 

Bilbo doesn’t move. Instead, Thorin climbs into the boat, his motions careful. The boat doesn’t tip, doesn’t flip, doesn’t sink, but the urge to vomit still doesn’t pass. Thorin gestures to Balin. “Hand me the hobbit.”

“Right,” Balin says. He reaches for Bilbo with exaggerated slowness, much to the amusement of the company. 

“All right, all right.” Bilbo climbs in, hands shaking on the edge of the boat. The sides are damp and he lets go as quickly as he can, wiping his palms dry on his dirty trousers. Though Thorin doesn’t roll his eyes, the difference between action and inaction is oddly unclear. 

“Everyone ready?” Fili asks, looking to his uncle. 

Thorin says nothing, still looking with a sort of despair at Bilbo. 

“Ready!” Balin announces in his stead. 

With the first pull on the rope, the boat leaves the shore. Bilbo whimpers and presses into the side of the boat only for the sloshing to alarm him. He tries to lean away, toward the center of the boat, and when Thorin doesn’t shove him back, Bilbo burrows close. 

“It’s all right, lad,” Balin says. 

“Drowning is the second most prevalent cause of accidental hobbit-death,” Bilbo replies. “I am not nearly Tookish enough for this.”

Balin pats his knee. “I’m sure you’re whatever it is enough for whatever it is you just said.”

“Almost there,” Fili assures him. 

Bilbo closes his eyes to the dark, not that it does him much good. An eternity later, the boat gives a great bump. Thorin climbs out first, breaking a hold Bilbo had not realized he’d been clutching. Standing on the riverbank, Thorin holds out his hand. From behind, Balin takes Bilbo up under the armpits and lifts him clear out of the boat and into Thorin’s arms.

Legs shaking, Bilbo promptly sags into him. He can’t stand. He can barely hold on. 

“It’s all right, lad,” Balin says, patting his back. An unspoken conversation goes on over Bilbo’s head, something involving Thorin shaking his head. His beard moves side to side against Bilbo’s face and a fresh burst of shame floods his smooth cheeks. 

Without another word, Thorin drags Bilbo to the side and sticks him against a tree. “You’ve killed an orc and a warg. What is a river compared to that?”

“Wet,” Bilbo answers. 

Thorin says nothing. Behind him, Fili and Balin see that the boat is guided properly back to the far bank. Bilbo fights the urge to apologize. 

“A fair distance,” Thorin says, as if to himself, “we can hardly see the other side.”

At least there’s that, Bilbo thinks. It’s not much pride to hold onto, but it is a little. 

Chapter Text

Dragging Bombur is a slow process, but one Bilbo is fortunately exempt from. Even were Bilbo’s strength sufficient to withstand one-fourth of that slumbering burden, his height causes him to carry Bombur at a lower height than his fellows, so placing yet more of Bombur’s weight into their hands. 

No, Bilbo will not carry Bombur. Instead, he carries Bombur’s pack on top of his own, a constant burden of pots and pans. The weight pulls at his shoulders and hurts his back, but he trudges on without complaint. When a friend nearly drowns, it’s bad form to complain about him—though that’s hardly stopped any of them from doing just that. 

They trudge on and on and on, the dwarves carrying double loads, single loads, and Bombur in turn. While under a single load, Thorin walks at Bilbo’s side, his steps slowed to match the pace of his burdened company. 

“Is ‘Tookish’ a particularly good thing to be?” Thorin asks. 

Bilbo looks up at him sharply. “Sorry?”

“You used that word in the boat.”

“Oh,” Bilbo says. “Um.” He thinks about this. “I’m not sure, honestly.”

“What is a took?”

“A Took,” Bilbo corrects. “My mother’s side of the family. My mother was a Took.”

“Was she Tookish?”

Bilbo laughs a little, the first sound of that kind he can remember making since entering this blasted forest. “She was the definition of Tookish. Off having adventures, you know. Travelling. She would tell me stories of them when I was small, but Bungo didn’t like that. My father, Bungo.”

“She was daring, you mean.”

“That… That is an understatement. I’ve no idea how they wound up together. Her father was the Thain of the Shire for seventy-two years, so I suppose that helped with the respectability problem.”

Thorin clearly hovers on the verge of asking. 

“They’re not respectable, you see,” Bilbo explains. “Adventures. Adventuring. All of that. ‘Make you late for dinner,’ Bungo always said.”

“I fail to see how joining our quest could be other than respectable,” Thorin replies, steel in his voice. “We’ve come to reclaim a lost kingdom, our lost heritage. We may not appear to be savory folk from a distance, I will grant you that, but we are not dishonorable.”

“I didn’t—that’s not—right, um, sorry. That’s simply how it is, in the Shire.” Bilbo smiles weakly, a thread of dread winding through his mind. He loves his home. He does, truly. He can only hope it will love him still upon his return. 

“A pity, but one which fails to surprise me.”

“I’ve really… I’m not sure how well it will work, honestly. Going home. I mean, mother came home with a pile of gold and married well enough, but she was the Thain’s daughter and beautiful besides.”

“Should you return, you will return with an even larger pile of gold,” Thorin replies. “This Thain was your grandfather. I fail to see the problem.”

Rather than explain, Bilbo grins and says, “I notice you didn’t call me handsome.”

Thorin looks at him stonily, a reaction which urges a Tookish heart onto more ribbing. 

“Would it kill you?” Bilbo asks. “To call me handsome.”

Thorin lifts his eyebrows. “Would you risk my life in so frivolous a manner?”

Bilbo laughs aloud, startled into it. “No,” he says, still grinning, unable to stop. “I suppose I wouldn’t.”

Chapter Text

Thorin wakes at a small sound, at once familiar and foreign. He knows it, he is certain of that, and yet it is out of place in this elven dungeon. He sits up, his body aching from the floor. His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth, his supply of water insufficient to make his burnt bread and salted beef edible, let alone truly quench his thirst. Where the elves once fed him as a valuable captive, they now hope to break his silence with weariness and slights. 

Perhaps this is another trick. Perhaps not. If nothing else, it is something to do in this damnable hole. 

Thorin approaches the door and looks out, as he often has, through the keyhole. He need only duck his head slightly. Through the thick wood comes a muffled gasp. 

“Thorin!” whispers the excited voice of Bilbo Baggins. “Oh, thank goodness, it is you! I was half-afraid there was some other dwarf trapped in here.”

“I entered the clearing and they had me,” Thorin whispers back. “I find I cannot fault you for falling asleep as you did in the first clearing.”

“Some sort of spell,” Bilbo agrees. “Then you’ve been here all this time?”

“Yes.” Alone in the dark, trapped in the hall of his enemies.

Thorin turns his head this way and that, attempting to find a better angle through the keyhole, but the hobbit remains unseen. He looks at the base of the door, to the thin, uninterrupted sliver of light emerging from beneath it. 

“Where are you standing?” he asks. 

“What? Oh, right. Sorry. One moment.”

Strain however Thorin might, he can hear no sound, no motion, no breath from the hobbit. Has he vanished? Is he gone? Or worse: nothing more than a figment of Thorin’s imagination? Surely he cannot truly hope his burglar has followed him even here.

“No one else about,” Bilbo whispers at the keyhole and Thorin jumps back. He immediately returns to his position at the keyhole.

“Where are you?” he demands, his voice forced low. 

“Here.” 

Without warning, the hobbit’s face blots out the light of the keyhole. There is none of the expected shifting, no sight of light curls before a cheek before the eyes. There is only the far wall and then, without so much as a blink, the barest glimpse of the hobbit’s face. 

“Bilbo!” he gasps. “How…?”

Bilbo exhales a chuckling sort of breath. With that, he begins his explanation. The mountain, the ring, the spiders in the woods, his evasion of capture. “Everyone else is here,” Bilbo assures him. “No two together, but I know where everyone is. They’ll be overjoyed to find you safe. What message should I give them?”

“Tell them to breathe no word of our quest,” Thorin answers, his broken resolve restored. No, he shall not give in. He will not betray his kingdom to these elves. “Tell them to make no move until you give them my signal.”

“Oh! Do you have a plan of escape?”

“No,” Thorin says, but for the first time, this hardly seems a setback. “We’ll think of one between the two of us.”

“I suppose we have to, don’t we? Oh dear.”

“Take heart, Master Baggins. Your luck will see us through.” A silent burglar, now invisible as well! Escape is imminent under such conditions. 

“Oh dear.” 

Thorin beams at him through the door nonetheless. There will be keys to fit these locks soon enough. Perhaps they could steal some horses on their way out. No pony for the hobbit, Thorin imagines, but for such a feat, Thorin would gladly share his mount. Thorin would gladly share anything. A friendly voice erases so much of his cell’s darkness. 

“I’ll pass along the word,” Bilbo promises and promptly vanishes. 

“Halfling!” Thorin hisses. 

Bilbo promptly reappears, his feet casting two strips of shadow beneath the door. “Yes?”

Thorin sighs, hands shaking against the locked door. He curls them into fists. “Describe the passages for me.” Something to think about, yes. Something to do. Idleness suits neither his hands nor his mind. 

Bilbo’s report reveals him to be a carpenter’s son, not a soldier’s or a tactician’s. Even so, the description is good, orderly, and Thorin can visualize enemy territory by the end of it. 

“Is that all?” Bilbo asks. 

“No,” Thorin answers. 

“Yes?”

It is dark and cramped in the cell. Thorin does not say this. 

He hasn’t spoken to a friendly voice in days, instead taunted and questioned by the very elves who abandoned his people to their deaths, to wandering, to this endless separation from their homeland. Thorin does not say this either. 

He feared them all dead in the forest. This certainly needs no saying. 

“Why didn’t you tell us you had this ring?” Thorin asks instead. “I would have accepted you as a burglar from the start.”

“I didn’t have it at the start,” Bilbo replies. “I only found it in the mountains, after the goblins carried you away. And I…” Thorin imagines the hobbit looking away from the keyhole to the tops of his furry feet. “I didn’t want to tell anyone. It… It’s much more impressive, really, isn’t it, sneaking about this well if there’s no magic involved.”

“A magic ring is impressive enough.”

Previously like a hearth felt even through the door, Bilbo’s silence turns cold. 

Thorin does something then that he has not done for years: he panics. 

“Stay here,” he begs. “Don’t go. Don’t stop talking.”

“Are you all right?” The hobbit’s breath touches Thorin’s eyelid through the keyhole. Warmth. That is what warmth feels like.

“Yes,” he answers. Suddenly, it is no longer a lie. 

“I’ll stay,” Bilbo tells him. “I’ll stay here and sit with you.”

“Tell the others first,” Thorin says. “I… misspoke. See to them, then return to me. Their promises of silence are more important than my… They are important.”

“Have they hurt you?” Bilbo whispers. His voice is strange, almost unfamiliar in this furious strain.

With the greatest of effort, Thorin does not ask the hobbit again to remain. “Return to me by tomorrow,” he says curtly. 

“I will. I promise.”

“Go now. Say nothing more.”

Bilbo vanishes anew. Thorin tells himself his warmth remains. He sits in his cell without speaking to his burglar, never quite certain that Bilbo has truly left. Sitting with his back to the wall, his eyes shut, he waits in the agreed-upon silence. He tells himself until he nearly believes it: he is no longer alone. 

Chapter Text

Thorin, Bilbo discovers, did not like his barrel. At least, he thinks the bedraggled dwarf is Thorin, but the limited moonlight makes it difficult to tell as they slosh they way into the shallows, drenched from the dwarf’s tumble from the barrel. 

Once upon the sand, Thorin flops down to lie groaning on the shore. He has a famished, ragged look, like that of a dog chained to a tree and abandoned there.

“Can you try to stand?” Bilbo asks, but Thorin only groans and curses at him. As rude as this is, especially after Bilbo’s rescued him, the insults barely touch him. Though Bilbo’s temper flares, he trusts in Thorin’s regard for him too much to be intimidated. “We need to get the others out,” he explains as patiently as he can. “They’ll be aching and sore as well, but trapped inside with far less air.”

“What do you know of ‘far less air’?” Thorin demands, forcing himself to a seated position. He slaps at his arms and legs, and Bilbo joins him somewhat more forcefully than is perhaps called for. “You had air and movement and the light of the sun!”

“I had water!” Bilbo answers. “A long, unending stretch of it, and a barrel trying to tip me over every second of the way.” He shoves his hands beneath Thorin’s dripping, straw-coated beard. “Do you think I did this to myself for my own amusement?” Splinters and rope burn aplenty coat his palms and fingers. Slapping Thorin’s legs has only worsened their state. “But we can’t stop now.”

“I only wanted a moment, halfling,” Thorin replies, clearly attempting to put his moodiness aside. The effort largely fails, but Bilbo tries to appreciate it. 

Bilbo stands and offers Thorin his much abused hands. “In your own time.”

Thorin groans anew, grips Bilbo by the wrists, and attempts to stand. He promptly drags the hobbit down instead, nearly smacking their foreheads together. Groaning together now, they force themselves up separately. Once upright, there’s no excuse for inaction. 

With a shudder, Bilbo turns back to the water. Forbidding hesitation, he wades back into the shallows, Thorin at his back every step of the way. 

Chapter Text

The cup heavy in his arms, he flees the vast lair as swiftly and quietly as his feet will carry him over the coin-strewn floor. When warm metal gives way to cool stone, he increases his pace, leaving the red glow and the stink of dragon behind. Incineration, echoes Bofur’s voice inside his head. Think of a furnace with wings

Up the tunnel, up and up the unending, unvarying slant of the dwarven floor, up and away, before it wakes. At last, light, a thin glow of it framing a familiar figure. 

“Balin,” Bilbo attempts to whisper. He squeaks instead. “Balin!”

“What is it, lad? What… Ah.” He reaches for the cup, but Bilbo’s hands can’t release it, each clenched tight upon a handle. “Come here, Master Baggins, I have you.” He ducks beneath Bilbo’s arms and Bilbo’s front smacks against his back as Balin straightens. 

They jog out like this, dwarf and hobbit together, Bilbo’s face tucked against Balin’s shoulder, all his face below the eyes, for he cannot look away from the light ahead. Balin carries him as if he weighs no more than a cloak, the cup his fastener beneath Balin’s chin. They emerge through the secret door into a hushed silence, into a collective gasp, into muffled shouts of joy. 

Someone pulls the cup from Bilbo’s fingers. He doesn’t know who, isn’t looking down, isn’t looking at anything other than the sky, the sky, the beautiful sky. As he falls off Balin’s back and onto the dirt, this is all he sees. He takes huge gasping breaths as the dwarves bustle about him, passing the cup hand from hand, remarking over its beauty, the craftsmanship, speculating over the craftsman. Bilbo doesn’t listen, doesn’t care, too busy drinking light and air and the shifting breeze of a sky that smells nothing of dragons or warm metal. Never was fresh air so wonderful, so beautiful, not even from the treetops of Mirkwood with butterfly wings caressing his hair. 

I stole from a dragon, he thinks. stole from a dragonThat was once, that was only once, but there is so much more, I can’t go back down, I can’t, I’ll die. Before he can utter this resolution aloud, Kili pulls him to his feet and envelopes him in a tight hug. Someone pats Bilbo’s shoulder, someone his arm, someone his hair. 

“Our burglar,” Balin announces fondly. ”He doesn’t look much like a grocer now, does he?”

The other dwarves laugh, but Thorin pays him no heed. He turns the cup in his hands instead, looking at it from this angle and that, his eyes not quite seeing. He is looking somewhere else, somewhere farther away than simply down the secret tunnel. 

“There was a day when such splendor was commonplace. There was a day when such marvels were crafted for the simple joy of the hammer against metal. Our anvils rung like great bells into the depths.” Thorin lifts his gaze from the cup to look upon his mountain, his kingdom, his home. “Soon, my friends.”

All stand in deferential silence, but deference can only last so long with dwarves, even with their own kings, and especially not with such awaiting wealth closer now than ever before. 

Thorin shakes himself from his thoughts and turns instead to Bilbo. His eyes shine like a river under starlight, and then Thorin blinks the dampness away. “Thank you,” he rasps.

More keenly than Bilbo has ever wished for anything, even for his home, he wishes that he might have emerged upon his own feet and handed the cup to Thorin himself. The regret cuts in the style of despair. His small frame can scarcely endure the gratitude in Thorin’s face. He thrusts his hands into his pockets, wraps his fingers about his ring, and says, “There’s more where that came from.”

Chapter Text

They sit before the secret door, waiting for the hobbit to return. It is a nervous business, waiting before a dragon’s front step. Not the dragon’s, Thorin corrects himself. It is theirs, his, and will someday pass to Fili should this adventure prove fruitful. He turns the cup between his hands, loath to release this small token of his kingdom. They are close. It will be done. 

These thoughts are plain on the faces of every dwarf of his company. This is well and good, but much depends on the shoulders of their little burglar. The second trip into the dragon’s lair is riskier than the first, and the first nearly cost them Bofur and Bombur along with their lost ponies. If Bilbo carries out much more, even the barest pittance, the wrath of the dragon will be aroused anew. 

Even if he returns with nothing, more trouble awaits. What can a company of fourteen do against a dragon that his grandfather’s army could not? 

No, no more of this thinking. He takes note of his stance lest he obviously steady himself.

The wait drags on without end, but wait they do. Afternoon turns to evening by the time their burglar reappears. He is far from silent and exceedingly visible, smoke rising from his clothing. Bilbo collapses without a word, his color poor beneath the soot coating his face. 

“Give him some space!” Balin cries out as Fili crowds forward. Though looking as if he might rush forward himself, Bofur holds Kili back.

Thorin elbows forward to kneel at the halfling’s side. Still breathing, yes, but for how long? Bilbo reeks of the vapors of dragon smoke. Fearing the worst, Thorin helps Balin roll Bilbo onto his side and they inspect the hobbit’s back. His curls are singed, his hair frizzled down the very base of his skull, but the skin seems intact. His feet have taken the worst of it, the backs of his ankles blistering. As gently as they can, they wash away soot only to realize that the charred flecks upon his feet was once hair.

When they have done for him what they can, they stand back. They give him air. Thorin sits beside him, waiting for motion, waiting for a word. Bilbo coughs weakly now and again, but he does not stir. The stench of dragon clings to him. Is this the same creature that once fainted dead away at the mere mention of a dragon? For he has gone down twice now, and that is all that Thorin himself dared upon that dark day.

The first time, he led his grandfather’s army to the tall gates of their city. And then the cracking of the hinges, the blast of flame, the crushing force of each clawed foot as the worm’s mere size proved as dangerous as its teeth and fire. He can still hear the crunching of bones beneath the snapping of armor, the breaking of axes. 

The second time, to seize his grandfather. Only for his grandfather, only the thought of Thror unarmed against the beast had compelled his feet onward that day. 

And now, now their blasted hobbit ventures down with steady hands and clear eyes. The absolute fool. The trusting fool. 

“Are you all right?” comes a rasp from his side. 

Thorin looks down at his soot-streaked face. “What did you discover?” he asks. 

“Well,” Bilbo says weakly, “it’s a very stupid thing to do, laughing at a live dragon.”

“Laughing,” Thorin repeats. 

Bilbo nods, the slightest motion of his head, and begins to giggle hysterically at the look on Thorin’s face. Their timid hobbit is gone, vanished, and only a charred burglar remains. 

Chapter Text

It is remarkable. Thirteen otherwise perfectly reasonable dwarves—a contradiction in terms though that is—and the moment a dragon steps out from its horde, the lot of them entirely take leave of their senses. 

“He is coming back,” Bilbo reminds Bofur, but the dwarf merely laughs and pulls a pair of gauntlets from the wall. 

“Oh, aye, but we’ll hear him. Hard to sneak when you’re a dragon.”

“He did sneak. He can. Trust me, he can. If you can remember back all of an hour ago, that happens to be how he trapped us in here!” Bilbo argues, but there’s no point to it. The dwarves are too much enchanted by their stones and gems and gold. It is marvelous to look at, this much is true, and yet the staggering amount of it overwhelms the senses. One cup was a fortune. This mound is large and cold. 

“Right then,” Bilbo says loudly. “If you uncover a comfortable armchair somewhere in that lot, come fetch me.”

A few distracted chuckles answer him, nothing more. With a sigh, Bilbo seeks out Thorin in the torchlight, hoping he at least will have somewhat more sense than his fellows. He already knows he hopes in vain, but he hopes nonetheless. 

He finds Thorin with his nephews, Kili holding a torch aloft while Fili dresses his uncle in a coat of gold-plated rings. A belt of scarlet stones goes about his waist, Orchrist already fastened to it. Bilbo stops and watches, a small corner of his soul knowing that one does not interrupt the arming of a king. 

He pauses too long, for Thorin sees him and smiles. “Master Baggins!” he cries, happier than Bilbo has ever before seen him. “Here is the first payment of your reward! Kili, bring it to him.”

Kili complies, grinning. He stoops and plucks up a length of shimmering, fluid silver. He hands the torch to his brother and approaches Bilbo with the garment draped over his arm. 

“Cast off your old coat,” Thorin urges. “This one will hardly lose its buttons.”

Bilbo laughs despite himself and removes his much beaten coat. He folds it with care before holding his arms out and allowing Kili to pull the coat of mithril over his head. If water could be solid without becoming ice, it would be this coat. 

“Here’s the belt,” Fili calls, and when he tosses it to Kili, Thorin scowls. Bilbo’s eyes grow wider, it feels, than his head itself. The belt is of crystal and pearl, strong and decorative in turn, but uniformly heavy across his middle. Kili fastens it for him, the clasp both elaborate and invisible.

By the time he finishes, Bilbo feels quite fussed over and oddly shy with it. He looks up from Kili and into Thorin’s eyes. 

“One more piece,” Thorin murmurs, a helm in his hands. A light piece of protection, the leather helm is studded about the brim with white gems. It suits the belt more than it does the mithril coat, but the relative simplicity of the leather suits Bilbo himself, as much as any object studded with precious stones may be said to suit a hobbit. 

Polite refusal gathers upon Bilbo’s tongue and there remains. As Thorin lifts the helm, Bilbo lowers his head. He thinks, absurdly, of kneeling. Inside, the leather has been strengthened by steel hoops, these crushing Bilbo’s remaining curls flat against his head. In the back, against his singed scalp, the metal is wonderfully cool. The brim comes down far over Bilbo’s forehead, nearly into his eyes. 

“It’s a little big,” Bilbo says, not at all the flustered thanks he intends. 

“It may still serve,” Thorin replies, though he now sounds somewhat doubtful. 

To prove his point, Bilbo looks up sharply. The helm stays at precisely the same spot in the air, if not upon his head. The brim hits Bilbo’s nose, the rest of his head absolutely swallowed up. 

Kili and Fili burst into laughter, and Bilbo chuckles along as well. His laughter dies as a strong hand pushes the helm back over his brow. Bilbo looks up into a face neither amused nor stern. 

“A pity,” Thorin says. “It suits you.”

Bilbo laughs anew. “I must look ridiculous.”

“Oh, you do,” Kili agrees before his brother elbows him. 

“Even so,” Thorin says. 

Though Bilbo searches hard and long for an adequate reply, the only words he can find are “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

In the morning, Bilbo knows the end is coming. Though a dwarf or two keeps watch upon the wall, the remainder are still joined in the fruitless search for the Arkenstone. They call Bilbo to join them, but Bilbo stays put. 

“Master Baggins, come, search with us,” Thorin bids. 

“No, no thank you,” Bilbo answers. He pops another piece of cram into his mouth and sets about chewing. Considering the age of the biscuit-like substance, he sets about chewing for quite some time. 

Hours later, Thorin returns. “Your eyes are the best among us,” he begins. 

“Ah,” Bilbo says, interrupting the inevitable. “Then I ought to keep watch on the wall, shouldn’t I?”

“Hardly called for. It’s nearly midday. Come.” He takes Bilbo by the arm and Bilbo’s feet slide over shifting gold coins. “Why will you not help us?”

“I’m sure it will turn up,” Bilbo answers. “Completely and entirely certain, Thorin. But I wish…” He stands as tall as he can, as limited as this is. “I can’t help but wish you would reconsider your priorities.”

“Reinforcements are on their way,” Thorin replies. “We will have strength enough and supplies enough shortly, but we will also have allies who may not hesitate to take from me what is mine. I will not see the Arkenstone stolen from my palace.”

Though Thorin speaks more truthfully than he knows—for indeed, he hadn’t seen, not in the slightest—Bilbo keeps his expression smooth. “I simply…” He sighs. “Never mind.”

“Speak.” Thorin releases his arm to lean near. “I would hear you.” 

Bilbo looks up at him pitifully. “This place has changed you. Not for the better, I’m afraid.”

“I am a king,” Thorin replies. “This is my kingdom. How is that not a change for the better?”

“Well, we’re nearly at war with people who were kind to us. That’s not exactly ‘better’.”

“They have sided with our enemies.”

“They’re camped next to each other, I admit, but I’m certain—”

“Enough. What does a hobbit know of politics?”

“I—”

Enough. I will not have you question me.” 

With conscious effort, Bilbo eases his hands from his pockets. He wears his old, ragged coat over his mithril coat once more. In one pocket: his ring. In the other: the empty space where the Arkenstone sat last night as he carried it away. 

“You are very right,” Bilbo answers quietly. “You are a king.” He lets his mouth pretend at a smile. “Excuse me.”

“Where are you going?” Thorin demands. 

“To the wall!” Bilbo answers, walking away and awaiting the end. To do as you bid, and look for the return of your stone.

Chapter Text

The stone blazes in the light of the midday sun, so stunning that all may be forgiven their speechlessness. Beside Bilbo upon the wall, Thorin leads over the edge, over the crenel. His eyes wide, his mouth open, he looks nearer to death than he once did while dying in an eagle’s talons. 

The silence stretches too long and cracks. 

“How came you by this?” Thorin bellows at Bard of Dale below. No longer a kingly figure but a mere creature of rage, Thorin’s breathing hastens. Bilbo shies away from his side, far too much reminded of another creature, a terror from the dark. Though Gollum had been pitiful in the light, illumination only brings Thorin’s anger to shine. “How?”

Below, Bard says nothing. A bid to save Bilbo’s life, clearly, but Bilbo steadies himself. 

“I gave it to him,” Bilbo confesses, the words squeaking up through his tight throat. 

“You!” Thorin rages. “You!” He turns upon Bilbo without hesitation, without mercy, and seizes him with both hands. “You miserable hobbit! You undersized—you—you—burglar!” He shakes Bilbo then, rattles him to the core. 

Trying and failing to twist away, Bilbo cries out as Thorin lifts him off his feet. “Thorin, Thorin, please!” His hands fly to Thorin’s gauntlets, clutching thick leather.

“I wish I had Gandalf here!” Thorin shouts into his face. “Curse him for his choice of you! As for you, I will throw you to the rocks!” With that, Thorin swings him out between the merlons.

Bilbo shrieks, his feet scraping at the stone of the wall, his hands desperate about Thorin’s wrists. Worse than the height, worse than the gust of wind, worse even than the frozen faces of the dwarves who do nothing in his defense, worse than all else are Thorin’s eyes. Without pity, without mercy, the King Under the Mountain administers his justice. 

“Thorin Oakenshield, put my burglar down!” comes a shout from below. “Though you may not like him, do not damage him!”

Gandalf, oh, Gandalf. Bilbo trembles with relief while trembling with fear, and the two lead him to an oddly frozen state. Thorin’s arms begin to shake. Bilbo’s foot scrapes down the outside of the merlon. 

“Put him down, and hear what he has to say!” Gandalf urges. “Put him down on the wall!”

Thorin growls before he does so, flinging Bilbo down onto worked stone rather than the sharp rocks and rubble below. “What have you to say, you descendant of rats?”

Bilbo climbs to his feet unaided. The air grows still. The world grows silent. Bilbo explains his piece. “You said I could choose my own fourteenth,” he said. “It was clearly stated in my contract. Should you wish to exchange a different fourteenth for the return of the Arkenstone, so be it.”

“Very well,” says Thorin, his voice low and rough. “So I am betrayed. Go then. The exchange will be made.” He calls over the wall. “The exchange will be made!” 

Bilbo wrings his hands and forces himself to stop. Without the full force of Thorin’s attention upon him, he can feel all too well the gazes of the rest of the company. 

“Get down to your friends,” Thorin commands, spitting the word, “or I shall throw you down!”

Bilbo nods, and nods again, shuffling backwards, and then Bofur catches him by the arm. 

“We have rope,” Bofur says, almost kindly. 

“Thank you,” Bilbo whispers. He turns to the rest of the company and bows. “May we meet again as friends.”

Thorin curses him anew and with that, Bilbo is lowered from the wall into Gandalf’s waiting arms. 

Chapter Text

“Bilbo!” Gandalf cries, the only sound of joy in Dale. He stands before a tent with one arm in a sling but it doesn’t seem to pain him overly much.

Much tired from trudging into the remains of the town, Bilbo smiles weakly, leaning into the one-armed hug rather than returning it. Chilled from a cold night out in the field, his arms resist motion. As do his legs and mind. As does most of him, frankly. Besides, his hands are still muddy. He nods along as Gandalf expresses his fears for Bilbo’s safety, but Bilbo doesn’t quite hear. The world is too strange, drifting beyond a shifting veil of exhaustion. 

“As it is, you are nearly too late,” Gandalf continues. “Come! You have been asked for. I am only glad I can deliver you.”

Bilbo squints up the great height to the wizard’s doleful face. “What do you mean?”

In reply, Gandalf looks behind to the tent. A short structure, dwarf-made, and kingly in quality of cloth and adornment. 

Bilbo’s feet refuse, but his arms reach out for the flap. His good hand on Bilbo’s shoulder, Gandalf gently pushes him inside. “Thorin,” Gandalf says, “I have brought him.”

Armor lies upon the floor, rent and bloodied, splattered with dark mud. A notched axe keeps the plate and chain feeble company. Beyond them upon a pallet lies a small and ruined body. Without his armor, Thorin Oakshield barely seems to exist. Beneath the stained blanket pulled across his legs and chest, his body lacks pieces of itself, but Bilbo could not say if those pieces were of flesh or metal. His arms have been arranged, his hands laid upon his stomach as if he were already prepared for burial.

His head secured by means of two pillows, Thorin doesn’t shift as Bilbo draws near. He opens his eyes, the skin beneath dark and bruised where loss of blood hasn’t paled him beyond recognition. His lips move, the bottom split. His chest rises, provoking a terrible frothy, bubbling sort of noise. “Burglar,” he whispers, his deep voice fading away. His eyes nearly fall shut. “I wish to… I would take back my words at the Gate. And my deeds. My deeds most of all.”

Bilbo kneels at his side, distantly thankful for the low height of the pallet, for the ability to fall to his knees and still look Thorin in his dimming eyes. “I,” Bilbo begins. He can still see Thorin leaping from the Wall, horns blowing, his axe raised high. Cloak cast away, his armor had stone with the light of a dying fire as the dwarf king set into his enemies before the Gate. For one shining moment, this dying soul before him had been invincible. 

“I only wanted to prevent the fighting,” Bilbo tries to explain. “That’s all—”

Thorin’s hand lifts from the reddening sheet. His palm finds Bilbo’s shoulder. Its immense weight presses Bilbo into the soil, into the bedrock beneath the floor of the tent. 

Bilbo grabs at his wrist, his dirty palms smearing mud onto rough bandages. “I am glad to have shared in your perils,” Bilbo answers, straining for the weight of words that Thorin so favors. If he could wrap a heavy blanket of formality about Thorin and so bind in his blood, he would talk forever. “That has been more than any Baggins deserves.”

“No!” Thorin argues, the word a harsh burst from his chest. “There is more good in you than you know.” His eyes wander across Bilbo’s face. “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above horded gold, it would be a merrier world.” His hand begins to slide from Bilbo’s shoulder, the weight of dwarven muscle and bone too great for a hobbit to cling to.

Bilbo catches his hand before Thorin’s arm can fall back to the pallet entirely. Beneath Bilbo’s palm, the grit of mud sticks to the half-dried blood upon Thorin’s hand. Thorin looks to Bilbo’s shoulder, almost an absentminded glance, and there is an apology in his gaze. I seem to have bled on you, his eyes say. 

It’s all right, I’ve tracked dirt in on you, Bilbo nearly replies, but there is no more time for last words and Bilbo would not force Thorin to die to a statement so trivial as that. 

Instead, Bilbo squeezes Thorin’s hand with a strength so curiously greater than Thorin’s own. 

Thorin’s lips move in a final word, a single farewell. All his body seems to grow heavy, heavy beyond belief. The terrible sound of his ruined breathing continues for moments longer, slowing, ratcheting, gurgling with foamy blood. The red stain grows worse beneath the blanket, but still Thorin breathes on. 

Bilbo tries to brush the dirt from the bandage about his forearm, tries to fix this one, tiny thing, but even that is beyond use. His shoulder is not warm from Thorin’s fallen hold, and yet the imprint of his hand lingers in phantom sensation. Slowly, it fades away. So too does Thorin’s breath. 

“He is gone,” Gandalf murmurs. His voice is kind and soft, a sound Bilbo has somehow forgotten in these few minutes. 

Bilbo turns away from the body upon the pallet. He does not look up the great distance to Gandalf’s eyes, choosing instead to walk by himself and sit down alone. He sits and he cries, the drying blood upon his shoulder close to invisible against the dirtied red of his coat. I shall never get it out, he thinks in the distant way of mourners when they cannot bear to think. But I do not suppose anyone shall notice.