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The Sons of Durin

Chapter Text

In a flat above a small grocery in Linlithgow, there lived a hermit. Not a nasty tip of a flat, filled with the filthy dishes of a bachelor, nor yet an empty, sterile modern wasteland with nothing comfortable to sit on and only mineral water to drink. It was Bilbo Baggins’ flat, and that meant comfort.

Mr. Baggins was an entirely respectable man. He was the proprietor of the little shop, Bag End, which he had inherited from his father and from his father’s father before him, and he lived in quiet contentment in his tidy, warm flat. He kept to a strict schedule, managed his shop with as little contact with outsiders as possible, and maintained his figure as best he could with a daily walk around the quiet streets of Linlithgow. Once a year or so, he would travel as far as Edinburgh to stock up on specialty items for the holidays, and he considered that about as much excitement as a man might need.

His customers considered him a trifle odd, and were known to hide smiles behind their hands as they left his establishment. They were mostly fond of him in their own way - him with his mop of curly hair and mobile face, and uncanny ability to creep up behind potential shoplifters just as they were about to lift an item and politely murmur that if there was anything they needed, he was at their service. Mr. Baggins had lived above Bag End for fourteen years, since his father’s untimely death had brought him home from uni to manage the family business. The Tesco down the street didn’t seem to touch his business, and there was talk in the town council of having Bag End declared a cultural establishment. Bilbo Baggins was a prosperous man, content in his own life - and had you suggested a bit of adventure, he would have stuttered rather violently and asked if you might prefer a nice assortment of cheeses which he would be happy to show you.

So it came as an unpleasant surprise when the old man appeared at the door of his little shop, looking for all the world like he’d just been pulled from a dustbin. His clothes were old and tattered, in varied shades of grey, and he smelled less spring-fresh and more like the stoop outside the all-night takeaway around the corner. He didn’t fit in Bilbo’s usual view of the type of people who came through his door, and he was immediately uncomfortable. He cleared his throat once, then again, hoping the man might stop staring discomfitingly at him and shuffle away to bother someone whose produce hadn’t just been alphabetised.

After a long minute, his years of professional cheerfulness and hospitality took over, and he pasted on a smile. “Good morning!” Bilbo ventured cheerfully.

The old man snorted at that, shaking his head. “Bilbo Baggins. That you should have come to this.”

“I-” Bilbo began, opening and shutting his mouth rather like a goldfish. “I’m sorry? Do I know you? And I’m - I’m quite happy as I am, thank you!”

The old man ignored his question, wandering a few steps further into his store and looking around with sharp eyes, muttering under his breath. Bilbo wavered at the door, torn between following him and perhaps slipping out the door and hoping the man would vanish as suddenly as he had appeared. “You’ve done well enough for yourself, I suppose,” the grey man grumbled after a minute. His thick eyebrows drew together. “For a grocer.”

“There’s no shame in being a grocer,” Bilbo said stoutly, rocking back and forth on his heels. “My father and grandfather before me were both grocers, and fine upstanding men they were, too.”

“And your mother?” The sharp eyes turned now on him, and Bilbo swallowed, feeling like he was being examined inside and out. “My dear Bilbo. I don’t think she would have liked to see you end up like this.”

“My mother doesn’t come into it,” Bilbo snapped.

“There are things coming.” The man’s voice dropped low. “Things are beginning to happen, Bilbo. The violence in the cities? The stories the media will not tell? There are things coming that you need to be prepared for.”

“I think I am quite prepared enough!” Bilbo couldn’t help the way his voice went up as he tensed at the man’s words. Did he mean them as a threat? His hand crept to his pocket and grasped his mobile nervously, ready to ring for help if the man became dangerous. “Now, if you please, I’ll help you with any purchases you would like to make before you leave.”

“I think I have found what I was looking for,” he answered mysteriously. “And I must be off. I have messages to send, but I will be back, and then we must talk at length.”

“Err, certainly!” Bilbo’s agreement came quickly, unasked by him, in his relief at seeing the old man make for the door. “Any time! We can go to the Chinese down the street or something.” He hesitated a moment. “I’m sorry, but what was your name?”

“The ruffians in your street usually just call me Greybeard,” he said with a strange smile. “But you may call me Gandalf.”

“Gandalf, then,” Bilbo said. Cheered by the idea that the strange old man was leaving, and feeling more confident now that he had a name, he dared to smile more widely and bob his head at the old fellow in farewell. “Yes, let’s have a meal! Any time!”

Gandalf chuckled and shook his head, and made his way to the door. The business part of Bilbo’s brain kept a sharp eye on the man’s hands until he left the shop, needing to be certain he hadn’t lost any valuable little items into the baggy sleeves or pockets of the man’s long coat. He shut the door behind the old man gently, breathing a sigh of relief as the gentle jingle of the door bell assured him that the unnerving visit was truly over.

There wasn’t that much mystery to the man after all, Bilbo told himself as he closed up shop that evening. He was clearly a vagrant of some sort, down on his luck, and more than likely suffering from some sort of mental instability. His mentions of Bilbo’s name and his mother were clearly meant to evoke a sort of camaraderie that he could later draw on for a hot meal. Bilbo was well enough off not to begrudge that to a kindly old man, no matter how strange he might be; the Chinese a few doors down did a good takeaway anyway. If the man ever did bother to return, they could share a meal, and he would account the cost as part of his charitable givings for the year.

Bilbo swept a quick eye over the headlines of the papers that hadn’t all sold that day, sighing a little at the bleakness evident in the world. “More gang violence in Edinburgh? Environmental terrorism? Whoever they are, these Sons of Durin, I don’t like the sounds of them.” A quick shudder wracked the little grocer’s body, and he shook his head. The police were offering their usual assurances that they were in pursuit of the antisocial elements behind the recent spate of crime, but Bilbo was simply happy that it was unlikely that this unsavory activity would make its way to his sleepy little town.

Bilbo made his way out of the shop, locking it up carefully behind him, and then opening the next door over and disappearing quickly up the narrow stairs leading to his flat. Absorbed in the bright glow of his mobile as he checked for email updates on shipments that he was waiting for, Bilbo didn’t see the angular little sign that had been carved into the dull green paint of the door that led to his flat, barely visible in the low street-lights. And he didn’t see the pair of dark eyes watching him intently from the shadows across the street.

The Sons of Durin were coming to Linlithgow.

Chapter Text

Bilbo yawned his way through his accounts as the most recent episode of “Strictly Come Dancing” wound its way to a predictable finish on the television. He would need to order more tea, and he groaned a little as he thought that he really needed to reorganize the biscuit selection again, as the local women’s crafting society had just had their monthly meeting and left his shelves in complete disarray.

A sudden nerve-shattering jangle of the doorbell made his hand jerk sharply, sending a line of ink across the page. He jumped to his feet, fumbling to shut off the television. It had been several years since his doorbell had been rung - and that had been a mistake, anyway. No-one came to see Bilbo Baggins, and he preferred it that way. He drew himself up to his full, unimpressive height, and wiped his hands nervously down the front of his jumper.

The noise came again, and Bilbo jumped, then scurried down the stairs before whoever it was could ring again. He peered out through the little round peephole, and was more shocked to realize that it was not one, but two people.

There were two young men standing on his doorstep, their heads inclined together in quiet conversation. They were dressed in neat, dark clothing, with warm-looking hats pulled close around their ears. They didn’t look dangerous, he reassured himself. They might just be missionaries of some sort, or students collecting for a charity - though they hardly looked old enough to be at university. He pressed his fingertips together to still their reactive trembling, and undid the bolt, opening the door an unwelcoming crack.

“Can I help you?” he asked. The two straightened quickly, lightning-quick smiles spreading across their faces.

“We’re not the last to get here, are we?” the first asked, looking suddenly worried beneath his improbably blond beard. He backhanded the other’s arm. “I told you we should have left earlier!”

“The - the last?” Bilbo stuttered, feeling very out of his depth. “I’m sorry, lads, you must have the wrong place.”

“No, we don’t!” It was nearly a crow of delight as the other spoke, pointing quickly at something on Bilbo’s door that he couldn’t make out. “Did Gandalf forget to tell you we were coming?”

“Gandalf?” He frowned. Hadn’t Gandalf been that old fellow a few weeks back who had never turned up for his free dinner? His hand slipped down the door as he thought, opening it wider, and the youngster who had just spoken put his hand out eagerly, clearly taking the open door as a sign of welcome.

“It’s an honor to meet you, sir!”

“I - honor, yes,” Bilbo murmured absently, allowing first one and then the other to shake his hand as he thought frantically. Whoever these fellows were, they clearly knew the old man whose visit had disturbed his calm. They stood on his step now, beaming winningly at him, and he blinked a few times. “And who is it exactly that’s being honored, if I may ask?”

The two shot one another confused glances, a flurry of quickly changing facial expressions seeming to pass for conversation between them before the blond-bearded one’s eyebrows shot up in realization. “Oh! He means to ask who we are!”

They stepped back in unison, nodding crisply. “Fíli and Kíli, at your service!” It was like a formal presentation of their credentials, somehow, and Bilbo found himself nodding back at them, head bobbing uselessly. The beardless one - who, on closer inspection, seemed to be attempting to grow a rather scraggly beard - grinned again disarmingly.

“And you’ll be Bilbo Baggins, of course! Gandalf has told us so much about you.” He leaned in conspiratorially, and Bilbo found himself bending forward to listen. “Particularly of your kind hospitality.”

“Oh!” Bilbo muttered, startled. “Well, yes. That is.” He stepped back, mind whirling - but despite his concern over these strangers, and the nagging worry that he might have left a mess of dirty dishes in his sink, he could not ignore the manners that his mother had drilled into him. “Won’t you come in?” he squeaked.

They followed him in cheerfully, and he gestured them up the narrow staircase, closing the door behind him. The two came out into the tidy sitting area of his flat, and looked around approvingly.

“Can I offer you some tea?” Bilbo asked, feeling more than a bit lost, and a bit like they were viewing his diary rather than just his sofa.

“Tea,” the blond one said wistfully. “I dream of tea. Remember when there was tea, Kíli?”

“Or anything hot at all?” Kíli murmured back, looking mournfully at the plate where the remnants of Bilbo’s dinner sat, long since forgotten. Bilbo swallowed uncomfortably and ducked into his tiny kitchen to put the kettle on. He had thought Gandalf looked in need of a hot meal - but now, in the light of his home, he could see that these two young fellows were hungry. He hadn’t intended to become a reference network for the homeless, and he would have to put a stop to it at once.

Having made up his mind to firmly tell the lads that they could have a cup of tea and then be on their way, Bilbo strode back to the door of his kitchen, and then paused. The two had sunk down onto the couch, both firmly clustered together at the end as though they feared the vast distance between cushions might tear them apart. As he watched, Fíli put a hand to Kíli’s head, ruffling it until the boy’s hat fell off and his long, dark hair tumbled down. It was an act of such clear brotherly fondness that Bilbo found a lump in his throat, and he turned back to the kitchen.

By the time the tea was ready, he had also put together a plate of sandwiches, and he carried them out carefully. The boys’ eyes lit up at the meagre offering, which made him feel like even more of a heel for having hesitated. They thanked him profusely, words tumbling over each other like water on stones, and then set to eating with an enthusiasm that made Bilbo smile just a little. He waited until they were finishing the last crumbs, now looking a bit more like people and less like starved puppies before he tried to talk to them.

“Now lads,” he said gently, and they looked up quickly. “I understand Gandalf’s given me a reference, but I don’t really - this isn’t usually how I conduct business.”

“Yes, of course,” Kíli agreed, looking a little shamefaced. “We understand that, Mr. Baggins.”

“We don’t really know what’s going on,” Fíli added. He tugged at his own cap, sending long blond hair flying, and Bilbo tried not to cough in surprise at the neat little braids that had painstakingly been put into his hair. “Gandalf just sends us here, with word the rest would be along. We were to be something of an advance guard, I suppose.” He eyed the empty sandwich plate mournfully, and Bilbo found himself trotting off to the kitchen and bringing back an assortment of cheeses and fruit and whatever else he could find in his kitchen. He didn’t tend to keep too much on hand, as he could always shop from his own store. The words “the rest would be along” were running circles in his head.

His entrance, with food, was greeted with cheers of delight, and Bilbo couldn’t help the grin that spread slowly across his face. It was a strange thing, to have other people in his home, but there was a homey quality to the scene that he couldn’t deny was attractive. As the two ate their way quickly through the contents of his larder, Bilbo let himself relax.

“So you two are - what?”

“Brothers, of course!” Kíli said with a bright and wild laugh. “Though I can see how you could get confused, as ugly as he is.” Fíli elbowed him sharply, and Kíli grinned at his brother with such delighted self-satisfaction that there could be no doubt he was the younger brother.

“Yes, but brothers who do what?” Bilbo pressed. He suspected the answer was something like ‘professional vagrant’ or ‘troublemaker’, but thought he’d let the boys speak for themselves.

“We have a particular set of skills,” Fíli said carefully, after a long moment where the brothers had exchanged another of their wordless conversations. That, of course, was no answer at all, and Bilbo started to get his nerve up to ask some more pressing questions.

And then the bell rang again.

Chapter Text

At the sound of the dreadful bell, Bilbo looked at the boys in horror, but they just shrugged cheerfully. “That’ll be the start,” Fíli offered.

“The start?” Bilbo gasped. “There are more - more particularly skilled people coming to my home?”

At his look of near panic, Kíli sprang up, putting his hands out wide in reassurance. “Mr. Baggins, it’s nothing bad. We don’t mean any harm, and no harm will come to you.” He exchanged a lightning-quick glance with his brother, and they nodded in unison. “Fíli and I will guarantee it.” The bell rang again, with a hint of impatience, if that was possible. “Don’t mind how they look,” Kíli said quickly, and with an encouraging nod and smile, he sent Bilbo hurrying off down the stairs to meet his new guests.

There were two more men on the stoop, these also dressed in dark clothing - but their beards were enough to put young Fíli’s to shame. Bilbo stood with his mouth open, unable to figure out how to offer welcome to such strange fellows. The first had a long, white beard that made Bilbo think he must be quite old indeed, while his companion had one of those hats with fuzzy ear flaps that Bilbo’s aunties had delighted in giving him every Christmas when he was a child. The fellow with the hat gave him a crooked smile and took his hat off to wave it about in some form of greeting.

“Good evening?” Bilbo finally asked, though he was far from certain now.

“If you like,” the hatted man said pleasantly. “I’m Bofur, and my friend here is Balin.”

“I take it our young rascals have already arrived, and are likely eating you out of house and home?” the one called Balin asked, eyes twinkling in the gap between his bushy white eyebrows and his startling beard.

“You - you mean Fíli and Kíli?”

“Ah, then we are in the right place!” Bofur said. Without another word, the two men were past Bilbo and making their way up the stairs, already shrugging off their long, heavy black coats as they climbed.

“Wait!” Bilbo called uselessly, stopping to shut his front door, and then racing up behind the intruders. By the time he had emerged from the stairs, panting slightly, it was a cheery sight that met his eyes. The two older men were greeting his young visitors with a startlingly fond happiness, wrapping them up in warm embraces while hearty laughter filled the air.

“You’ve grown, lad!” Bofur told Kíli proudly, clapping hands on both of the youngster’s shoulders. “I think you’ve passed up your brother now!”

“There’s no saying I won’t keep growing!” Fíli protested, looking deeply wounded. “Kíli takes after our mother, and uncle says they do their growing young on that side of the family.”

Balin shook his head fondly, beard wagging. “Don’t delude yourself, laddie.” He put an arm around Fíli’s shoulders, though he had to reach up a bit to do so. “Now, how about helping an old man to a nice cup of tea, eh?”

“Excuse me!” Bilbo interrupted, suddenly indignant. He had scarcely worked himself up to accepting Fíli and Kíli’s presence in his home - and now there were four strangers in his tiny flat, apparently prepared for a gathering that he had not been informed about, and helping themselves to his tea! “Now, gentlemen, I’m afraid I must ask that you move along. I’d be delighted to - to join you for a pint. Another evening, perhaps?” He smiled, but it wavered, and he knew he must look desperate.

Bofur smiled at him gently. “You’ll always find me up for a pint, but we’re not often in these parts.” He pulled out a pipe - a genuine pipe! - and started to poke at the bowl. “We’ve made a rather special trip to meet you.”

“Me?” Bilbo turned around in a quick circle, then again, nearly hoping to find someone lurking behind him. “Why would you want to meet me? Surely there are other generous souls who will offer a free meal?” His voice trailed off as the four men burst into laughter, Fíli and Kíli pounding one another’s backs in mirth.

“Laddie,” Balin said after a moment, “there’s a great deal we cannot tell you yet. Not until we are all gathered. But I will tell you this.” He leaned in close, eyes dark and intent. “You cannot begin to imagine what is happening here.”

Bilbo stared back, his mouth dropping open a bit. “You - I -”

The bell rang again, and he felt his heart drop into his stomach. Balin shook his head, looking sympathetic. “You don’t much look in the mood for another surprise, Mr. Baggins. Fíli, lad, run let them in.”

Bilbo found himself escorted to his most comfortable armchair by Bofur, who pressed a mug of tea into his hands. “You may need a bit of fortification,” he warned, not unkindly.

“More visitors?” Bilbo murmured, feeling a cold sweat break out on his palms. “I haven’t even got enough tea to go around.”

“And you the proprietor of that fine shop downstairs?” Kíli inquired, appearing suddenly at his elbow with a gentle grin. “Mr. Baggins, I do believe we could find everything you might need for entertaining in a grocery of such inestimable quality.”

“Yes, well,” Bilbo blinked at the boy, a flush of pride pinking his cheeks. “It’s a family business you know. Quite well reputed in the area.”

“And I can see why!” He grinned, a dimple forming in one cheek. “Let me solve your problem here, sir. I’ll nip down to the shop and fetch up everything we need, and we’ll see to it that you get the full worth of your goods before we leave.”

And before Bilbo knew what he was doing, he was handing the keys to his shop over to a stranger and explaining where the best biscuits and cheese could be found. One part of his brain was screaming in protest, demanding to know what he thought he was doing - but most of the rest was just grateful for the assistance.

Kíli took off down the stairs at a wild gallop, narrowly avoiding knocking his brother down as he escorted two more guests into the room - these the wildest and most alarming yet. The first was a giant of a man whose bald head was littered with tattoos. His gigantic fists were covered in fingerless leather gloves; in fact, he seemed to be covered in leather head to toe. A biker, then, Bilbo decided with an internal moan of dismay. His companion was scarcely less terrifying, though he could also have been part of a biker gang. What was most terrifying was the thick, knotted scar across his forehead, which cut up through the receding hairline as though he had been hit in the head with an axe. Both men sported huge wild beards, which was rapidly becoming a theme, but for poor Kíli. Perhaps they were something of a gang, he thought weakly, and clutched his tea for comfort.

They barely stopped to nod terse greetings to Bilbo before they were embracing Bofur and Balin. Fíli had vanished for a moment, and he and Kíli reappeared in a moment, laden down with arms full of goods from Bag End, and his flat was suddenly awash in movement and noise. His unexpected visitors were a whirl of motion as they grabbed dishes from cupboards, loading them down with food and drink as the lads continued to haul up more food than Bilbo could have imagined selling in a week.

“That’ll be Dwalin there,” Bofur said comfortably, perching on the arm of Bilbo’s chair with a friendly lack of discomfort. “Him with the shiny head - and would you believe he’s old Balin’s brother? And the other fellow is my own cousin Bifur.” He leaned in, close and conspiratorial. “Just between you and me, I wouldn’t try talking much to him. He’s not right in the head, poor fellow.” He sniffed experimentally at his drink, then took a huge gulp. “May even bite.”

When the bell rang again, Bilbo didn’t bother to object - just waved Fíli off down the stairs with a hand that trembled gently, and tried hard to remember where he had left his mobile. He sank back further in his chair as five new faces appeared up the stairs - all male, all impressively bearded, and all ridiculously noisy, to judge from the roar that went up as the first set of visitors met the second set.

Bofur had wandered off to greet the newcomers, so Bilbo grabbed at the first almost-familiar sleeve that moved past him, and Fíli dropped to one knee beside his chair, waiting respectfully to see what he needed.

“Who are all these people?” Bilbo asked frantically. “I’ve completely lost control of the situation here!”

Fíli laughed. “That’s more than common around this lot. Those three there, all in grey, they’re brothers - Dori, Nori, and Ori.”

Kíli appeared next to his brother, dropping a hand on his golden head. “We reckon their mother couldn’t keep them straight, and so went with rhyming names to keep it easy.”

“Like you can talk,” one of the newcomers said from behind them, placing a hand on the back of each boy’s head and shoving them forward sharply. He wore what Bilbo thought was a policeman’s jacket. “Fíli and Kíli, and your own uncle wouldn’t be able to choose between you if it weren’t for the coloring.”

They grinned at that. The two didn’t look much alike, but their smiles carried the same joyful spirit, and Bilbo smirked into his tea as their jab was turned around on them.

“And this fine gentleman is called Gloin,” Fíli continued, both boys dropping him deep, playful bows. “He’s got a son about our age, but he won’t let us socialize lest we corrupt young Gimli and lead him off the primrose path.” Kíli looked sincerely wounded at that comment, and Fíli clutched his brother’s right arm with one hand, cleared his throat, and moved along. “And his brother is about here someone - Oin, he’s called, but he’s hard enough of hearing that he’ll nod pleasantly and pretend to have heard you no matter what you say.”

“So that’s -” Bilbo counted quickly on his fingers, then repeated the count. “Eleven. Eleven visitors in one evening? I don’t even think this building is licensed to hold that many!”

“And more to come, Mr. Baggins!” Kíli said joyfully, jumping to his feet and waving expansively around the room. “The whole family, all in one place! That hasn’t happened in years!”

“Bombur will be here any minute,” Fíli added, eyes sparkling with mischief. “We’d better go for more crisps, Kíli my lad.” The two were off in a shot, leaving Bilbo gasping like a fish on dry land at the idea of still more guests.

Bombur, as Bilbo was introduced to him not five minutes later, was a man of particularly impressive girth; Bilbo thought his expensive-looking suit must have been custom made for him. He was struggling to place the man’s face, feeling certain he had seen it before - until Bombur spoke, and his rich, plummy tones made Bilbo start in recognition.

“But you’re-”

“Don’t say it!” Bofur warned, a hand going over Bilbo’s mouth in an instant. “We all know who he is, but shouting about it won’t do our cause much good.”

“But you’re an MP!” Bilbo protested, breathless.

“And my brother to boot,” Bofur said, elbowing his gigantic brother in the stomach. “You’ll please call him Bombur for now. We can’t have it getting around that he’s associated with the likes of us.”

With now a full dozen strangers in his flat, the party seemed to reach a full swing, and Bilbo sat mournfully in his armchair as bits of food and splashes of beer hit his carpet, and the wild band of visitors threatened to crack every plate with their wild gesticulations. They didn’t seem able to speak a single word in normal tones - and the volume only grew louder and louder as alcohol was put away in frightening quantities. At one point, Bilbo saw Kíli with a beer in hand, until it was confiscated in one of Dwalin’s giant fists.

“I don’t think so, laddie,” the giant growled, sounding almost fond. “You may be all but feral, but you’ll not be drinking before you’re of age while I’ve got any say in it.”

“I’ll be eighteen in less than a month,” Kíli protested, scowling furiously. “And it’s not like I’ve never had a pint!”

“Don’t let your uncle catch you saying that,” Dwalin remonstrated. He dropped a benedictory hand on Kíli’s dark head. “And haven’t you grown up too fast already?” There was a surprising sorrow in the fearsome man’s face, and Bilbo felt a tug at his heartstrings. He looked around the group, trying to see them with eyes unhindered by the slight terror which still gripped him. They were a strange and ragged lot, and though they seemed cheerful enough to pass for a pub full of happy football fans whose team was winning, there were more wary glances at the door and windows than he could count, and an air of watchfulness lay under all of their joviality. And the amount they had eaten - Fíli and Kíli had seemed worst off, but it was clear that several of these men hadn’t had a decent meal in a while.

When the doorbell went again, Bilbo dropped his head into his hands with a groan. Fíli and Kíli managed to knock one another over in their scuffle to be the first down the stairs to greet the new arrival, and Bilbo prayed quietly that perhaps it was the police come round to tell them to quiet things down. He was startled, more than anything, when it was the ragged grey clothes of old Gandalf that appeared slowly at the top of the stairs. The man made his way into the room with no great haste, leaning on Fíli’s patient arm for assistance as he finished the climb up the steep steps. At the sight of him, Bilbo found the strength to jump to his feet at last, and pushed his way through the intimidating crowd to glare up at the old man, arms firmly crossed over his chest.

“What, pray tell, is the meaning of all this?” Bilbo demanded loudly. The noise of the rest of the party dropped suddenly, leaving him facing Gandalf in the midst of a circle of interested faces. Kíli peeked over Gandalf’s shoulder eagerly, and Bilbo realised he was now completely surrounded by people he hadn’t known two hours ago, stranded in the middle of his own flat.

“This, my dear Bilbo, is the first meeting of what will hopefully become an exceptionally successful and prosperous business venture.” He gestured around the room, taking in all of the strange men - from Bifur’s cross-eyed wildness to Ori’s cuddly cable-knitted jumper, encompassing the wide eyes and hopeful grins of young Fíli and Kíli. “And these fine fellows are the Sons of Durin.”

Bilbo felt the floor give a lurch beneath him as he heard those words, and there was suddenly a dragon sitting on his chest, he was sure, from the lack of oxygen he was able to take in. “The - the Sons of Durin?”

“Aye!” Kíli said brightly, shoving in through the group to stand at his brother’s side. “It’s a family venture, you see!”

“Mostly family,” Fíli added.

“No, no, wait,” Bilbo insisted, trying to think. “The Sons of Durin are - they’re terrorists! Or mafia! Or something! They blow things up and steal and murder and - and - and they’re a public nuisance!”

“That,” Bofur said firmly, “is false advertising.”

“We’re not killers - not when we don’t have to be,” Balin told Bilbo gently. “And the rest of it - well, you’ll have to hear us out. There’s a great deal you don’t yet know, laddie.”

“I -” Bilbo said frantically, feeling the room spin as thirteen sets of eyes watched him intently. They weren’t denying the charge - not even the MP in the group, nor the policeman. They were serious. They were the Sons of Durin. “Excuse me,” he murmured carefully, and pushed his way through the crowd to the bathroom, where he pushed the door closed with quiet precision, and then was carefully and quietly sick.

The most dangerous domestic terror group in Scotland was currently standing in his living room, drinking his beer, and Bilbo was half a flat away from his mobile phone. He sank down with his back to the door, holding it closed, and brought his knees up to his chest, hugging them for comfort. The Sons of Durin had invaded, and Bilbo Baggins was sitting in the toilet being sick. That sounded about par for the course.

Chapter Text

Bilbo sat with his head on his knees on the floor of the toilet and listened carefully, wondering whether the terrifying gathering might simply wind down and vanish if he hid long enough. Sadly, the opposite seemed to be happening. Music had started now - not any of his preferred Tchaikovsky or Wagner, more was the pity. This sounded at first like the drone of pipes and the slow beat of drums, and Bilbo became curious. He raised himself up shakily to his knees, pressing an ear against the wooden door for a clearer sound.

“Mr. Baggins!” The youthful shout was just on the other side, and Bilbo went flailing backward in shock, crashing to the ground in a tangle of limbs and pounding heart, and giving his head a good knock against the vanity as he went. “Please, we’ve got to talk to you!”

“Not just now, Kíli,” he said with a groan, rubbing at his head. “I - I think it’s best if I just stay in here and you can all see yourselves out.”

“Ah, but that’s no good!” Fíli said easily. Where Kíli’s voice had come from low, like he was on one knee to shout through to Bilbo, Fíli’s was more distant. Bilbo could almost see him leaning against the wall coolly, smiling down at his intense brother. “We’ve come all this way to meet with you. It’s no good hollering about it through a door.”

“Well, I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted journey,” Bilbo said crossly. His head was really beginning to hurt now. “But how’s this? As long as you leave promptly, and don’t kill me or steal my things, I won’t call the authorities! You can’t say fairer than that!”

“Mr. Baggins, please.” Kíli’s voice came through again, a heartfelt plea. “Let us explain, at least. Hear us out before you send us away. We’ve already promised no harm will come to you.”

“And what is the word of a terrorist or - or a thief, or a murderer worth?” Bilbo asked, beginning to feel breathless and slightly panicky again. Some of the men in his front room had been quite friendly and charming, it was true, but he knew more about the Sons of Durin than he was happy about.

The dull thud of a clearly frustrated fist on the other side of the door made Bilbo jump again. He heard a quiet murmur from the other side, the lads clearly conferring, and then Kíli’s voice was back at the door again. “Here.” From the other side of the door, the boy pushed Bilbo’s mobile under the crack in the door, and he scrambled to snatch it up, clutching it tight like a lifeline. “Please. Come listen to us, and if you feel unsafe, you can call anyone you want.” Kíli’s fingers lingered, just barely in view, and Bilbo stared down at his close-bitten nails, grubby and childish. “Just give us a chance?”

He stood slowly and unlocked the door, opening it by degrees to find the brothers in pretty much the exact positions he had envisioned, with Fíli offering Kíli an approving grin.

“If your job is grocer-wrangler, you’re making a good effort,” Bilbo said, shaking his head at his own stupidity for listening. “Very well. Tell me what you came to say, as fast as you can, and you can be off.”

Fíli chuckled, arms crossed as he leaned against the wall. He wasn’t particularly threatening. “We’re not the ones who are meant to tell you things. We’re just here to open the doors!” In a sweeping, grandiose movement, he pulled away from the wall and led the way back to the sitting room, shouting ahead for everyone to settle down.

“Gandalf, then?” Bilbo enquired.

Kíli got to his feet. For all his youth, he was a good foot taller than Bilbo. “No. Our leader’s not even here yet. Likes to make a dramatic entrance.” He shot Bilbo a quick grin and hurried after his brother, like the invisible tie between them had been stretched to its limit by the small length of the hallway.

“Not more of you!” Bilbo groaned, but followed the lads out. He found, to his surprise, that in his absence the mess had all been tidied away and the furniture rearranged, somehow leaving enough seats for nearly everyone in a rough circle. The music that had continued at the edge of his hearing suddenly stopped, and he realized it had been these men making the haunting melody that was now lodged in his brain.

“Ah, welcome back!” Gandalf greeted him, opening his arms expansively, but Bilbo crossed his own arms and shook his head.

“I’m here to hear you out, and then see you out. And don’t get any funny ideas about walking off with the silver or my head or anything,” he warned. They laughed at that, just as if he had made a joke among a company of close friends, and a shudder went up Bilbo’s back.

“We’re still waiting on him,” Balin reminded them all. And as if bringing up this missing person were enough to summon him, there was a solid knocking at the door downstairs. Fíli and Kíli glanced at one another, eyes suddenly wildly alight, and they took off down the stairs without a word. Bilbo winced at the sounds of shoulders and elbows knocking against the walls on the way down, hoping that they didn’t manage to throw themselves down to their deaths. There were a few seconds of silence, and then three sets of feet thumping up the stairs, though in a much more sedate fashion than the descent.

All of the men in the room had gone quiet, waiting for the newest arrival, and Bilbo wondered at it. It was like waiting for royalty - the expectant hush, the eager expressions, the respect he could see in the eyes of all of the men. He took a few tiny steps backward, wishing again to just disappear and wait for them to leave - but Bofur was behind him, and put a gentle hand on his shoulder, stopping his quiet retreat.

“Easy, lad,” he murmured. “Thorin won’t bite.”

The man who emerged from the staircase rather looked like he might, though. He was tall and broad, with a full beard and long hair, both dark and streaked with silver. He looked around the room silently, keen eyes glinting from beneath a furrowed brow, and he nodded once in greeting at the assembled group. When his eyes fell on Bilbo, they narrowed to slits, and Bilbo had the sensation that he had been tried and found wanting in the space of a single blink.

“Gandalf,” the new arrival finally said, eyeing the old man skeptically. “Is this what you have found for us?”

“He is,” Gandalf answered, and there was no doubt in it. “We are all here, Thorin, and we don’t have much time. You’d better come in and have a seat.”

Thorin, as it seemed the newest arrival was called, shrugged off his heavy coat and dropped it behind him, into Fíli’s waiting arms. He strode across the room and seated himself in Bilbo’s best armchair, frowning at it as if it had disappointed him personally. All the guests seemed to take that as a signal to sit, and a vicious, silent struggle broke out over the best chairs. In the end, Bilbo found himself perched on top of a wooden stepladder that he kept around for changing bulbs, and Fíli and Kíli collapsed to the floor near Thorin’s feet with the easy grace of the young, staring up at him with great intent.

“Well, then,” Gandalf said, clearing his throat. “We’d best begin.”

Thorin nodded, letting out a long, slow breath. “As you all know, we are here to determine our plan of attack on the worm responsible for our deprivations in these past decades. Gandalf has offered to find us a burglar, and now it seems he has made his choice, questionable though it may be.” He shot Bilbo a dismissive glare, though Bilbo had no idea what was meant by it. “And so, we are left with few options. Do we dare risk open warfare? Or must we stay in the shadows, grasping for the crumbs left behind by respectable people while our home lies in the hands of our enemy?”

“Wait, wait,” Bilbo said quickly, blinking fast. “I’m afraid I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about, and - and I was assured that you would explain the purpose of all of this, and why it is taking place in my flat!” He waved expressively around the room, taking in all of the mess and chaos that his flat had never seen before. Thorin turned to Gandalf, frowning.

“Does he know anything?”

“I had just gotten around to explaining who you all are when he was taken ill,” Gandalf said diplomatically. “I have not had time to explain the whole sorry mess.”

Thorin sighed, and Bilbo felt about three feet tall with the weight of such disappointment bearing down on him. “Very well. I shall start at the beginning.” He nudged Fíli and Kíli each with a foot. “You youngsters would do well to pay attention for once in your lives.” Fíli shoved his mobile in his pocket, looking guilty, and Kíli sat up even straighter, if that was possible, trying to look keen. “It goes back almost a quarter of a century. In those days, my cousins and I lived together in a modest mining settlement on the hill of Beinn Chùirn. It was handed down through our family through the centuries, worked now and then for the lead when war made it profitable. We were not wealthy, but we lived in peace, until I made a discovery.” He fell silent at that for a moment, lost in thought. “I was a young man, eager to explore the land that had become mine when my father died, and there I found gold.”

“A gold mine?” Bilbo said skeptically. “Your family had literally been living on a gold mine for all those years?”

“Yes,” Thorin growled. “Gold - and silver, as we later found. At least five tonnes of gold, and something like twenty-five of silver. We thought that our troubles were over, and we applied for permissions to start working the mines. The application found its way to the hands of the Minister for the Environment, and there it stopped. We waited for years, inquiring after the progress, but we were always told the matter was under investigation.”

Thorin went quiet, face contorted with anger, and Balin took up the story. “It was five years in the hands of the government, and we began to grow worried. We - most of us here, that is - those who were old enough - we went down to Edinburgh to see Smaug himself.”

“Smaug?” Bilbo asked. The hatred in Balin’s voice, and the way the rest shuddered at the name, made him feel that there was something he should recognize, but he was drawing a complete blank.

“Smaug was the newly appointed Minister for the Environment, put into the position after his predecessor suddenly dropped dead. He received us kindly, assured us that the paperwork had been lost in the shuffle, and that he would get back to us soon. We left that day thinking that it was all back on track, ready to begin the lives we had dreamed of.” Balin sighed deeply, looking mournful. “Two days later, they came for us - the police and officials from the government, and something like a lynch mob. They declared that we were criminals, living on lands that were public property.”

“Smaug had made our home into a national park,” Thorin growled, and Bilbo gave an irrepressible snort of laughter. For all the solemnity of the men’s voices, they were complaining about a bureaucrat who had redrawn the lines of a map? Thorin’s eyes blazed at that, and several of his companions shot Bilbo unkind looks. “You can laugh, grocer, because you were not there. They burned our homes, not stopping to see that we had all come out alive. They arrested us, charging us with dozens of crimes that we had never committed, and demanding the payment of fines that we had never been advised we owed. By the time we were released, they had put up fences to keep us off our land, and we had been branded terrorists.”

“But - the Sons of Durin are environmental terrorists!” Bilbo protested, leaning forward. “Everyone knows it! You defile wildlands and kill protected animals and endanger the ecosystem!” He broke off at that, realizing how they were looking at him, and shrank back on his stool.

“Those charges were leveled against us when we dared to try to go back to our homes, to see if anything was left,” Balin told him sadly. “We were homeless, without employment, and no-one would lift a finger to help us.”

“It wasn’t long before we actually became criminals, though,” Bofur said glumly. Even the fuzzy ears of his hat seemed downcast. “To make our way in this world when everyone was against us, we learned to lie and steal. And that only made everything worse, because then they had real crimes to charge us with.”

“Why didn’t you just explain matters to the police and have it cleared up?” Bilbo asked. The sadness in the eyes of the men around him was tugging at his heart, and he wasn’t about to just become sympathetic to their cause without more explanation.

Thorin let out a huff of air that was probably a bitter laugh, but it didn’t sound anything like merriment. “Every time we tried to speak to them, we only gave them more ammunition to use against us. We were accused of intimidation and fraud.” His gaze dropped to the lads seated on the floor, and there was a deeper pain still in the man’s haunted eyes. “And we were not only looking after ourselves. Fíli was born only weeks after they took everything, and Kíli two years later; Gloin also has a young son to worry after. We cannot trust anyone in power. Smaug has them all safely on his side, paid for with the gold of our lands.”

“So what do you do?” Bilbo breathed, leaning forward again despite himself. “How do you survive?”

“Some of us have jobs,” Bombur said, his voice like a political slogan. “I was not there on the day of the burning, and I avoided association in the legal matters. We thought it might be useful to have a few people in positions beyond reproach.”

The grey-bearded man Bilbo had been told was named Nori gave a rough laugh. “And others of us do what we must to make ends meet. There are a number of less-than-legal trades in this country who will not ask for references.”

“We fight,” Dwalin said suddenly, voice growling above the rest. “We run, we hide, and we survive. That is all we can do for now.”

Bilbo took a moment to look around the room, watching each man’s face. They were universally sober, even Fíli and Kíli, who he had not seen before without smiles that seemed to light the room. They were watching Thorin quietly, unmoving, and Bilbo understood.

“You really don’t have a home, do you?” he said quietly. “Some of you never have.” He shook his head, feeling desperately sorry for them. He wanted to get up and get them more beer or something - anything, just to help in the only way he could. And that thought made him freeze, eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Hold on. That’s all very sad, but what does any of it have to do with me? I’ve never even heard of this Ben-Hur of yours before.”

“We want our home back,” Thorin declared, lifting his chin. “Beinn Chùirn is ours, and we will take it back. That is why we are here - to determine how to deal with that great worm of a man, Smaug.” His face twisted as he said the name, like it physically pained him. “We know there are secrets that he keeps, and we believe they may be enough to provide us with a way in. We need to prove our case, to clear our names, and to take back our home. Our best hope for that lies in Smaug’s secret files, and for that, we need a burglar.”

“A- a burglar.” Bilbo repeated the words flatly, trying to see how they might relate to him. “And you want me to be this burglar?”

“None of us can do it,” Gloin said. He tugged at the sleeve of his police jacket, reminding Bilbo that he might know what he was talking about. “Most of our faces are in every police station.” He nodded at Thorin, encompassing Fíli and Kíli and most of the others with a sweep of his hand. “They can’t step foot in a government building, a hospital, a school without being surrounded.”

“We’re wanted men,” Fíli said lightly, grinning as though he had just been commenting on his relationships. Thorin shot him a quelling glare, and he closed his mouth, looking down at his hands.

“We’re not capable of burgling Smaug’s office,” Balin told Bilbo. “It wouldn’t be a hard job, nor especially dangerous. But those of us who aren’t wanted for our crimes are too important in their roles. We cannot afford Gloin or Bombur being exposed as members of our company.”

“And you think I’m capable?” Bilbo protested, putting his hands up and waving them about frantically. “I’ve never stolen anything in my life! I’ve never so much as crossed a street against a signal!”

Gandalf put a hand on his shoulder, startling him into silence, and they all looked at the old man in his tattered clothes like he held the keys to their home. “Bilbo Baggins,” he sighed gently. “I don’t believe you have the first clue how much you are capable of doing. You need a challenge, before you wither and fade, locked up here in this little hole. You need to take this job.”

“Now wait just a minute!” Bilbo argued, leaping off his stepladder. “You don’t know the first thing about me! I only met you once before this whole mess began - and now you want me to throw away my life? Become an outlaw? Steal government papers? And all for a bunch of people who I don’t even know, and who have already confessed to multiple crimes?” He laughed, then, at the absurdity of the whole proposition. “I don’t mean any offense, and I wish you all the best in your quest, but it is nothing to do with me.”

A mutter of dissatisfaction went around the room, and Bilbo felt his heart stop. What was he thinking, saying these things to the Sons of Durin? Most of them looked like they could rip his head off with one hand! He glanced quickly at a few of them, trying to figure out which one of them was likely to kill him - but there was more blankness than anger. He couldn’t even look at Fíli and Kíli for more than an instant; the disappointment in their open young faces was an accusation.

Then Gandalf and Thorin started arguing, and Dwalin and Balin stood up to join in, and the next thing Bilbo knew, the whole room was a roar of angry voices. He shrunk back through the crowd, carefully disappearing into the kitchen where he could lean against the counter and clasp his hands together, staring down at his fingers. It wasn’t his job to save them, particularly not at the expense of his job or respectability or even his life.

It was a few minutes before anyone came looking for him, and he was relieved that it was the youngsters who appeared. Of all the group, Fíli and Kíli felt the safest. Fíli offered a tentative grin, waving his mobile at Bilbo. “I’m setting up payment for all the things we’ve eaten,” he said. It was a peace offering, and Bilbo offered a small smile in answer. “Think two thousand sounds fair?”

Bilbo gaped at him. “Two thousand? That’s far beyond what you’ve used!” Fíli waved his objection off, and Bilbo shook his head sternly. “No, lad. You think I can’t see that you’re going hungry? I can’t accept that.”

“It’s not like it’s our money,” Fíli said insolently, fingers flying across the keys of his mobile. “It’s simple enough to move a bit here, a bit there, and-” he grinned ferally “there you have it! Straight to your account.”

“Is that stolen money? And how – how did you find my account?” Bilbo protested weakly.

“Only for a certain value of stolen,” Kíli shrugged. He looked downcast, not meeting Bilbo’s eyes. “And my brother is very good at what he does.”

“So why hadn’t you two eaten?” Bilbo narrowed his eyes at the lads. “If you can just move money about that way, you should be rich!”

The two exchanged a look that was a conversation, then offered identical shrugs. “It’s not the money,” Fíli said slowly. “It’s the risk. If we’re seen, if our names are on a single piece of official paperwork, we’re dead.” It hardly sounded like an exaggeration when he put it that way.

“Look,” Kíli said suddenly, cutting his brother off before he could say more. “We have to ask you one last time. Will you help us?” They looked pleadingly at Bilbo, and he thought with a shudder that some poor parent had to deal with these twin forces of persuasion. It was harder than he expected to shake his head in a reluctant denial.

“I can’t. I’m sorry, I just can’t. I’ll be happy to help you out with - you know, tea and biscuits and such, but I can’t be a burglar!” Kíli turned away at that, looking like he might bolt, but Fíli clapped a hand to his shoulder without even looking.

“We’re sorry too, then,” Fíli said quietly. He offered Bilbo a quick smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes; Kíli wouldn’t even look at him.

They left the room together, Fíli keeping a hand on his brother’s shoulder, and Bilbo blew out a breath of relief. It had been difficult to refuse them, but if that was the end of it - well, it would be a story for his memoir, wouldn’t it?

The noise from the other room suddenly dropped to a dull mutter, and Bilbo could make out just one or two hushed voices. He thought one of them was Kíli, arguing something; the other was undoubtedly Thorin, answering in short, clipped phrases.

Then, silence, and Bilbo dared to poke his nose out around the corner, only to find the entire company staring at him.

And then Thorin nodded sharply, and Dwalin and Bifur rushed at him, grabbing his arms and lifting him off the ground. A thick hand covered his mouth, cutting off any protest, and Bilbo Baggins found himself being abducted from his own flat by the people he had allowed in for dinner. The only thought going through his head in that moment was, ‘Bilbo Baggins, you are a fool.’

Chapter Text

Bag End, and Bilbo’s once-peaceful flat, were on a very quiet street where everyone turned their lights off by nine and were asleep by five past. As he was hauled out of his home, unable to make a sound, the clocks were just beginning to strike midnight, and Bilbo knew, with a helpless twist of fear in his gut, that there would be no witnesses to his abduction. He kicked Dwalin’s leg as best he could while being hauled along at a brisk pace, but the giant man seemed to feel nothing.

“Give it up, laddie,” Balin said in a regretful whisper as he somehow kept pace with the group. “He’ll no more mind your struggles than a tree minds a touch of breeze.” Bilbo gave a little moan of despair, but he couldn’t even hear it himself. From behind them, he could hear his door being carefully closed and locked, and was sure that such experienced criminals would have done all they could to erase their traces from the scene. How long would it be before anyone even noticed he was missing and started searching for him? It wasn’t unheard of for him to close the grocery for a day or two, and no reason that anyone should ever suspect that he had been kidnapped.

They brought him around the corner and down a quiet alley, where several vehicles were clustered in an anonymous, unlit area. They were all battered and old, and as they drew near, Fíli and Kíli darted ahead, quickly setting to work on changing some of the plates. Behind the cars were, unsurprisingly, three old motorbikes which had clearly seen better days. The company broke up as they reached the assortment of vehicles, and Bilbo quickly found himself squashed into the back of a mint green Ford Escort. He tried to scramble out the other side, but the door opened before he could touch the handle and Fíli blocked his way, looking regretful but unmoving. He slid into the seat next to Bilbo and shook his head.

“Sorry, sir,” he whispered. “We’ve got to make you see things our way, and we can’t risk you telling anyone about us!”

“I won’t!” Bilbo said frantically. “My word on it, I’ll never tell a soul!”

“Thorin’s policy is that those who are not with us are against us,” Kíli said, suddenly appearing at Bilbo’s other side. “We’re sorry, we really are.” He looked downcast in the dim light as he picked awkwardly at the knee of his trousers where the fabric was wearing thin.

“We tried to convince him not to take you,” Fíli murmured. “But he’s not in a listening mood, not after having to tell that story.” He looked over Bilbo’s head at his brother. “I half thought he was going to cuff you, the way you wouldn’t shut up.”

“I’m too quick to be caught that way,” Kíli scoffed. “Not that it did any good.”

They fell silent as the front doors creaked open, and Thorin sank into the driver’s seat without a word. Bilbo shrank back, and the boys straightened their backs, squaring their shoulders as if preparing for inspection. It would be a grim trip indeed with Thorin at the wheel, even before they got him to wherever they were going - and then he had to stop thinking, because speculations on how a terrorist group got you to see things their way only led to nightmares.

Bofur opened the other door and poked his head inside, fuzzy ear-flaps dangling. “Thorin, you’d best ride along with Gandalf. He says he has things to discuss with you, and him in with the lads the whole way will only lead to tears and knocked skulls.”

Thorin gave a great sigh and stepped back out of the car, then leaned in to give the three passengers in the back seat a warning glare. “Fíli, Kíli, you’re responsible for the grocer until we arrive. Keep a sharp eye on him.” They nodded fervently and Thorin disappeared into the night with a swirl of his long coat. Bofur winked at them, withdrew long enough to grab the nearest passing man and push him into the passenger seat, and then Bofur flung himself behind the wheel with a chuckle.

“Love the man, and would follow him into a dragon’s throat, but he’s no fun on a road trip!” The car rattled to life and Bofur pulled away, following hard on the tail of the first car to leave.”

“A road trip?” Bilbo asked indignantly. “That’s what you call this?”

“We’ll leave it to our Kíli to wrap it in pretty words, but essentially, yes. A road trip with a slight kidnapping component.” The laughter in his voice, just under all the man’s words, confused Bilbo entirely. Was this all a game to these men? Had they become so inured to violence and force that they didn’t even realize the enormity of their crime?

“Where are you taking me?” Bilbo tried again.

“We’re going to Beinn Chùirn,” Fíli told him, more than a hint of excitement in his voice. “Gandalf advised it. He says if you see it for yourself, you’ll understand.”

“It’s a sight, to be sure,” Bofur said longingly. “We can’t get all the way there, but close enough to see is the best we can hope for these days.”

“We’ll have toast and sausages,” the other passenger said in a threatening growl. It was Bifur, who Bilbo thought he remembered he’d been warned against talking to. “Mushrooms in the fens!”

“Aye, cousin,” Bofur answered gently. “Best to rest that head of yours, I think. It’s a long drive to make at this time of night.”

“How long, exactly?” Bilbo asked nervously.

“Under two hours if we went direct, but we’ll be keeping off the main roads. No sense courting trouble.” There went Bilbo’s half-developed hopes of finding a way to signal other motorists for help. “More like three hours, I should think.” Ahead, Bilbo could hear the dull roar of the motorbikes, and the Sons of Durin occupied the cars just before and after his. He was surrounded. Bilbo put his head in his hands and leaned forward, trying to breathe through the competing forces of sheer panic and absurd irritation that wracked him.

Fíli’s mobile buzzed and he flipped it open, glancing quickly at the message. “Thorin wants to talk to you, Kíli. He says you’re to pick up your mobile.”

“Tell him I’ve left mine in my other jacket,” Kíli said shortly. “Or that I’m sleeping or something.”

Bofur sighed. “You can’t keep silence with him forever, lad. Thorin’s got more stubbornness than even you two can dream of.”

“He wouldn’t listen!” Fíli said, seeming to take on some of Kíli’s more obvious frustration. “We told him that we’d promised Mr. Baggins’ safety, and that we could work him around to the idea, and he nearly growled at us.”

“Not that you’re not safe!” Kíli hurried to assure Bilbo, a careful hand hovering over his shoulder. “You are! No-one will lay a finger on you, and we’re taking you straight back home after you’ve seen the hill.”

“You can’t guarantee that,” Bilbo said tiredly, the fear and adrenaline starting to drain from him, leaving him an overtired kidnapping victim who was up far past his usual bedtime. “It seems like Thorin does what he wants, and you can’t stop it.”

Bofur laughed from the front seat, turning briefly to flash Bilbo a grin. “I wouldn’t say that. There’s nothing he will refuse those two, when it comes down to it - no more than the rest of us will.”

“The perks of being the babies of the family,” Fíli laughed easily. His fingers flew across his keyboard. “I’ve told him you’re napping, so you’ve got a while to brood and get over it.” Kíli reached over Bilbo to smack his brother’s head, and in a moment, he found himself in the middle of a childish fraternal war. Bilbo hunched down and let them play, until they were both laughing again, clapping his shoulders and apologising for any collateral damage.

“You’ll really take me home again?” Bilbo ventured. “Even if I don’t agree to burgle for you?”

“Aye,” Bofur said solemnly. “Thorin has promised, and we’ll hold him to it.”

With that assurance, Bilbo finally felt the last vestiges of panic fade away, leaving him still annoyed and tired and wishing sadly for his warm bed in his own little flat that didn’t smell so much of stale smoke. Within ten minutes, Kíli was asleep, and Fíli watched him for a long while, until his eyes drifted shut, and somehow Bilbo was trapped between two sleeping teenagers who had both dropped their heads on his shoulders and were snoring gently. “Just how I was hoping my night would turn out,” he grumbled quietly. Bofur chuckled.

“They’ve taken quite a shine to you. I haven’t seen them sleep this easy since they were wee lads.”

“Where are their parents?” Bilbo whispered. The more he looked at the two, the more he could see of a lack of care. Their clothes were clean, but faded and worn, and their sound sleep spoke to a greater weariness than simply being up a bit late should have accounted for.

“Long gone. I doubt Kíli remembers either of them. The father walked away when he discovered who his wife’s family was, and she passed when Kíli was just a wee thing, rest her soul.”

Bilbo shook his head. Orphans, in a world of crime and danger. It was no wonder that the two seemed entirely inseparable.

Bofur drove on, into the darkness away from the towns and cities, and it wasn’t long before Bilbo’s head started nodding, dropping lower and lower each time. He wondered drowsily at his own ability to sleep in the company of his kidnappers - but considering that two of said kidnappers were currently sleeping against him like a trusted relative, there was little about the entire situation that met with expectations. The interior of the car was warm and quiet, and Bilbo nodded off, feeling strangely at peace.

When he woke, it was to a rush of cooler air on his face and the sudden stirring of the lads on either side of him. “Where are we?” he slurred tiredly, rubbing at his blurry eyes.

“Cononish Glen,” Bofur said quietly. “This is as far as we can go this way. We’ll have to do the rest on foot.”

“It’s the middle of the night!” Bilbo protested. “We can’t go wandering around in the dark!”

“It’s the only time that’s safe.” Bofur climbed out of the car and stretched, and the others followed quickly, still groggy from sleep. “We don’t want to be caught. The rangers here are on Smaug’s payroll, and they won’t hesitate if they find us.” He gestured to Bifur, who was glaring around fiercely; the grotesque knotted scar on his head gave him an air of great menace. “That’s how my cousin wound up with that beauty mark.”

Bilbo glanced at his watch, and groaned as he saw that it was nearly three in the morning, and it looked like he would be expected to march around the wilderness in the dark with only a few hours of uncomfortable napping to refresh him. Fíli and Kíli, in the obnoxious way of young people, had recovered their energy entirely, and were now all bright smiles and endless motion.

The other members of their company were gathering slowly, and Bilbo’s eyes were immediately drawn to Thorin, who was watching the young people with an expression of concern. He looked away sharply as the last men wandered up, most yawning and scratching their heads.

“Torches and supplies,” Thorin bellowed. “Anyone who doesn’t know the way had best be certain they stay close to the group.” He stalked past Bilbo, giving him a meaningful glare, and made his way into the trees just beyond where the vehicles were parked.

“Oh, that was subtle,” Bilbo complained. Kíli laughed, seemingly all light and cheer again, and nudged Bilbo with an elbow.

“Don’t worry, he wasn’t just talking to you. Fíli and I haven’t been here before either, and Thorin doesn’t think much of our ability to survive in the wild.”

“He may not be far wrong, in some cases.” Fíli handed Kíli and Bilbo each a torch and set off in Thorin’s wake.

Bilbo felt a bit better to know that he hadn’t been the lone target of Thorin’s lofty disdain, and allowed himself to be caught up in the flow of bodies moving into the depths of the woods, leaving safety and civilization farther behind him with every step. With fifteen lights between them, they were able to see the path well enough, and Bilbo soon forgot how terrified he had been by the idea of wandering at night. The company seemed to come to life in those woods, and rich laughter and snatches of song were heard soon, as though they had just been a normal group of walkers.

He was amused by watching some of them try to navigate the rough terrain, tripping over tree roots or slipping on pine needles. Bilbo drew in a deep breath, suddenly glad, in a perverse way, that he had been dragged along. He hadn’t been out of Linlithgow for far too long. They walked for a long time, and Bilbo found himself chatting idly with one, then another of the company. For terrorists, thieves, and murderers, they weren’t bad company once you got used to them. He avoided Thorin carefully, though, unwilling to deal with the man’s unpleasant demeanour.

The path started fairly flat and easy, but soon became an ascent that Balin told him was bringing them up the south-east ridge of Beinn Chùirn. They passed some little streams and piles of stones that Bilbo wasn’t certain were natural, but they didn’t stop for anything. After more than an hour, their path took them past the old mine workings where Thorin’s father and grandfather had delved for lead, before the gold had been found. They walked on past, though some of the older men gave nostalgic sighs and cast glances back over their shoulders after they had passed.

The sun was just beginning to lighten the sky, stars fading into the purple haze of oncoming dawn, when Thorin signaled for them to stop. Those who had not been in the front crept up carefully, until they saw the reason for the halt.

In front of them, just beginning to be illuminated by the golden rays of the coming sun, was a small glen on the side of the hill. It was a beautiful sight - tall green grass waving in the gentle morning breeze, and a light mist beginning to rise. It was a peaceful place, and Bilbo let out a slow breath, feeling better just for looking at it.

Balin put a gentle hand on his back, steering him toward Thorin, and Bilbo could see that Bofur was leading Fíli and Kíli in the same direction. Thorin barely looked at them as they arrived, face fixed forward.

“Don’t touch the fence,” he growled quietly. “It’s electrified, and rigged to alarm.” With a start, Bilbo noticed the tall chain-link fence in front of them, which he had been looking right through without noting it. Thorin and the others were spread out along the fence, looking longingly through to the green world beyond.

“Is this it?” Fíli asked tentatively

“This was our home,” Thorin said quietly. “There used to be other ways to reach this place, but they cut us off in every way. This glen was where our homes were.” He pointed out past the bent wire that kept them from their home, indicating a few dark patches in the grass. “You can still see some of the bones of the houses.”

Bilbo looked up and down the line, more interested in the faces around him than in the land itself. There was an almost palpable sadness in the air as they looked at what they had lost, and if some men were wiping at their eyes, Bilbo didn’t think that any blame could be attached to them. In that moment, Bilbo looked at the men who had kidnapped him, and he could not see the Sons of Durin. All he saw was a group of men who had had their homes stolen away, been made outlaws, and left outside the protections of the law. They were forced to live their lives on the run, not allowed to be the men they wished to be. They were exiles in their own land.

Thorin had moved behind Fíli and Kíli, who were staring at the ground that should have been their home, and he placed a hand on each of their shoulders. There was a grace to his movements that belied his size, and Bilbo felt like he was looking in on something private, something from an older time.

“This would have been your home,” Thorin said gently, his voice kinder than Bilbo had heard it yet. “Your mother used to play in these very woods every day as a lass.” His hands tightened on their shoulders. “I will give it back to you, if I can.” They looked toward him, and Bilbo looked away from the awe that their expressions held. He didn’t understand the dynamics of this group yet, but it was clear that even after their earlier disappointment with Thorin, the youngsters viewed him with little less than absolute awe.

Bilbo looked at the others again, at the hunger and longing in their faces, and felt a hollow ache in his stomach. He couldn’t bear to leave it this way. A wild, rash mood crept over him, flushing his cheeks and making his hands begin to sweat - but Bilbo was certain, now, that he was making the right choice. It made no sense; it was probably the worst idea he had ever had, and yet, it was the only thing he could do.

“I will help you,” he said firmly. Thorin spun on him, surprised, and Bilbo realized that his presence had been forgotten. He grinned now, swept away in the moment. “I’ll help you. I’ll do what I can, whatever you need.”

The group turned to stare at him, eyes wide and disbelieving, and Gandalf folded his arms across his chest, smiling smugly. Fíli and Kíli glanced at one another, and then leapt at Bilbo simultaneously, knocking him back into the soft grass behind him, hollering with excitement. Bilbo gasped in surprise, swept off his feet now as fully as he had been swept away by his new determination to assist the strange, ragged band who were now crowded around him, offering their hands and their gratitude. And that, Bilbo thought, he might be able to get used to.

Chapter Text

They didn’t have the luxury of time to linger in that peaceful place, and it was with a rasp in his voice that Thorin ordered them all to start back. The sun had risen quickly, the air beginning to warm in the golden light, and Bilbo breathed deeply. He was sorry to leave the quiet green glen.

The company was quiet at first, their enthusiasm dampened by the need to leave their home behind again. Thorin set a much faster pace now, drawing them away quick enough that some of the older and heavier members of the group struggled to keep up. Fíli and Kíli fell to the back, heads close together as they talked intently, and Bilbo could see that they were looking out for the end of the procession, helping Bombur up when he stumbled or offering Balin a hand over a particularly difficult patch of ground. There was a nervousness among the company now that hadn’t been there in the dark, and they glanced over their shoulders often, listening for things he couldn’t hear.

Nori sidled up to him after a few minutes and offered him a crafty smile. “So you’re to be our burglar. How much experience do you have?”

“Of - of burgling?” Bilbo asked, taken aback. “Well, none - although I used to be fairly good at lifting things off my friends for a laugh at uni.”

Nori shook his head, disappointment in his sharp features. “We’ll have to start with the basics, then. Lock-picking, fingerprints, avoiding detection.” His smile grew wider as he thought, clearly enjoying the prospect. “Disguises, identity fraud, emergency procedures - ever had to stab someone?”

“Oh god, no!” Bilbo said, horrified at the idea. Now that he was beginning to think more clearly, the sheer size of what he had agreed to do was starting to bear down on him. Nori looked a little disappointed, and patted his shoulder.

“Not to worry. It’ll come.” He thought for a minute, fingers moving as if in calculation, and then nodded. “Best you get the lads to help you with the basics. Trained them myself, I did!” He looked so proud at that statement that Bilbo worried just a bit more about the man’s character.

“You trained them to steal?”

“And other things. They’re good lads,” Nori said, beaming fondly back at the youngsters. “You’ve never met anyone who can lie as convincingly as our Kíli. And Fíli’s yet to meet a digital lock or encryption that can stop him.” Bilbo’s eyes widened, and he blew out a long, quiet breath. They walked along in silence for a bit, before Bilbo got up the nerve to ask the man a question.

“The stealing and - and the crime - does it not bother you?”

Nori chuckled. “Not all of us are quite as noble as Thorin. He wants to be the man his father and grandfather were - and there’s plenty of honor in that, I’m sure. But me?” He shrugged, rolling his head back to stare up at the clear blue sky. “I don’t mind a bit of freedom.”

They drifted apart after that, and Bilbo was left to think about what Nori had said. The company was beginning to talk again, perhaps cheered by the clearness of the morning, and he tried to listen in to some of the conversations around him. It was hard going, though, and he almost felt like he was listening to a language he didn’t speak. Their words flew thick and fast, punctuated by barks of laughter and the occasional roar of offended dignity. He didn’t know how to join in, didn’t understand the references that made the whole group roar with laughter - and no-one stopped to explain anything to him.

Eventually, as they were passing the remnants of the old lead mines again, Bilbo found himself trotting along next to Gandalf, whose long legs threatened to leave him behind at every step.

“You don’t belong to them, either,” Bilbo observed quietly, and Gandalf looked down at him, crooking a bushy eyebrow in confusion. “You’re not part of their family, are you?”

“No,” Gandalf chuckled. He poked at the ground ahead of him with the long stick he’d picked up to assist him on the walk. “I am trying to help them, but there’s no connection between us. I am simply trying to do what I believe is right.” He lifted his eyebrows at Bilbo. “As are you, I think.”

“Yes,” Bilbo agreed slowly. “But it’s different for them, isn’t it? I don’t know what they all are to each other - brothers and cousins and such, I suppose - but they’re family.” He glanced up at Gandalf, feeling a wistful smile tugging at a corner of his mouth. “I’d forgotten what that was like.”

“Yes,” Gandalf agreed. He sounded sad, though Bilbo couldn’t have said for whom.

“Not that my family was ever anything like this, but we had our own habits, I suppose. Things we did together, things that were important to us.” He laughed a little bitterly. “Now all I’ve got are the Sackville-Bagginses, and they’ve moved to Majorca half the year anyway.”

Bilbo hadn’t thought about his family in a long time, and it was mostly on purpose. His parents had been on the older side when he was born, and he was an only child. He was raised with love and warmth, and a good sense of decency and propriety and the value of his mother’s dishes. His parents had both passed away when Bilbo was in his early twenties, having lived good lives, and he had had more than a decade to come to grips with the loss. Bagginses, as a rule, were not maudlin sorts, and he preferred to remember how happy they had been than to dwell on what he no longer had.

“You may find something of what you are looking for in this company,” Gandalf said, interrupting his thoughts. Bilbo blinked.

“Excuse me?”

“There is room for you within this family, if you choose to seek it,” the old man replied. His blue eyes twinkled as he nodded at Bilbo, and then set off downhill at such a great pace that Bilbo realized the infuriating man had been holding back for his sake all along. What did Gandalf know of what he was looking for, anyway? Bilbo Baggins was not the sort to join a crime family, or aid terrorists, or take off into the wild in the middle of the night - and yet here he was, stumping along in the middle of a crime family and more than half wishing that he was part of their tight-knit group rather than a reluctant burglar peering in from the outside.

Their rapid pace had brought them back to where the trail leveled off in just over an hour, and Bilbo’s feet were beginning to feel quite blistered from the unaccustomed exercise, as well as from wearing entirely the wrong shoes. He eyed the path ahead of them with some relief, looking forward to sitting down and riding back home to the peace and quiet of his own flat. Maybe once he was there he would be able to start sorting out some of the wild and unfamiliar feelings rushing through him, and maybe see about learning to pick a lock or two.

There was a shout from up ahead, and the whole pack of them broke into a run, darting forward with a speed that left Bilbo reeling. Even Bombur, who was several times Bilbo’s size, barreled ahead of him as if used to running for his life when Thorin shouted that way. He was left in their tracks, trotting along as best he could, and watching their flapping coats vanish ahead of him.

“They can’t leave without me!” Bilbo told himself firmly. “They shall have to wait for me to catch up if they want to play at running around this way.” He kept up a steady pace, but refused to push himself too hard - until he heard the sounds of crashing and loud shouts from up ahead. He took off at a flat run, then, and ducked aside behind a large tree as he came up to the place where the noises were coming from.

It seemed that Bofur’s warnings about the rangers were not exaggerated in the slightest. Thorin and his men were facing off against three of the tallest, burliest men Bilbo had ever seen, each of whom was holding a long and dangerous-looking wooden club. They looked as though they had been presented with a pile of gold, faces alight with a violent glee as they swung their clubs menacingly back and forth. Thorin was holding his men back with a glare and an occasional shout, but several of them seemed ready to snap as they growled and brandished their fists.

“Now then, Mr. Oakenshield,” the first of the giant men said in a dangerously pleasant tone. “It seems that you and your companions have been lurking about on private property, despite the orders that you remain a very great distance from this particular part of the park. I’m afraid my colleagues and I have no choice but to escort you from the premises.” He grinned widely, and allowed his club to thump down onto the soft earth with clear intent.

“We were just leaving,” Thorin growled. To his right, Dwalin started, as if about to charge forward, and Thorin shook his head. “I don’t have any quarrel with you,” he told the men. They laughed at that, and Bilbo thought it one of the nastiest sounds he’d ever heard.

“Well, I’m afraid we’ve got one with you!” The second member of the ranger patrol stepped forward, grinning evilly. “See, you’re not permitted to be here, and Mr. Smaug has promised to reward us handsomely if we should apprehend you.” He pronounced the difficult words very carefully, as though his speech had been well rehearsed.

“And then there’s the fact that we’ll be heroes,” the third said happily. “Catching the Sons of Durin, stopping them blowing up public parks and the homes of innocent little squirrels? They’ll probably throw a parade for us, won’t they, Bert?”

“I expect so, William. And the best part is,” the first said, hefting his club back over his shoulder, “nobody gives a shit if you lot live or die, so we don’t have to exercise any caution in how we bring you in!”

And that was the last clear thing anyone said for a long time. Thorin dropped the arm he’d been holding out to stop Dwalin, and with a roar, Dwalin, Oin, Nori, Bifur, and Thorin threw themselves forward. They were on the rangers in an instant, fists flying and arms swinging, while the rest of the group spread out around the little clearing as if acting on a prepared battle plan. Bilbo watching in horror as those not already fighting tried to find sturdy sticks or stones to arm themselves.

For the first time since he had met them, Bilbo suddenly felt like he was seeing the Sons of Durin. They fought like an army, strong and fast, if brave to the point of stupidity, he thought critically. Already the first wave of them had been knocked aside by the clubs of the rangers, falling with great crashing thuds and groans, while the second group rushed in to take their place. Even old Balin had a sturdy staff now, and was using it to knock industriously on the head of the one called William, though he didn’t take much notice. Dwalin and Thorin fought like wild things, leaping up again every time they were knocked down - but they were fighting with bare fists against heavy wooden clubs, and it wasn’t looking too promising.

He winced in sympathy when Ori, who didn’t look particularly strong to begin with, was flung back against a tree and lay there clutching at his ribs and groaning. Bofur was down before long, too, winded by a punishing blow to the gut that left him retching in the bushes. Bombur and Gloin were nowhere to be seen, and Bilbo wondered whether they were frustrated not to be able to help for fear of being revealed. Gandalf had vanished as well, and the number of Bilbo’s new friends who stood against the rangers was shrinking fast.

One of the great wooden clubs caught Fíli against the side of his head with a sickening crack, and Bilbo’s blood ran cold as Kíli and Thorin both screamed in rage and terror at the same moment. Kíli was there to catch his brother before he fell, cradling his head gently as he laid Fíli down in the soft grass - and then he had a knife in hand, seemingly snatched from one of Fíli’s boots, and he was running toward Bert with an expression of such desperate wild fury that Bilbo had to look away. Thorin and Dwalin were each struggling with one of the giant rangers, while the rest milled around, taking what shots they could and trying to stay out of the way of the clubs. It was no good, and Bilbo wanted to throw up at the idea that he would have to sit here and watch them be taken apart.

Unless he did something.

Bilbo threw himself down into the shrubbery, creeping around the edge of the battle until he reached the place where Bofur was struggling back to his feet, his face pale and drawn with pain.

“Bofur!” he hissed. “Bofur, we’ve got to do something!”

“We are doing something,” Bofur snapped. “This is no place for you, lad. Get out while you can.”

“No, I’ve got an idea!” Bilbo hissed. “We need to distract them long enough to let the rest take them out, maybe get them to put their clubs down!” It took only a second to explain his plan, and Bofur gave him a wild grin, and grabbed him around the neck.

“Stop, or he dies!” Bofur’s shout rang out above the noise of the fight, and they turned on him quickly, clubs lifted high. Bofur didn’t move, keeping one arm tightly around Bilbo’s neck while his right arm was twisted behind his back. “That’s right, my lads. We’ve got ourselves a hostage!”

“What’s going on here?” Bert asked slowly, narrowing his eyes at them.

“P-please!” Bilbo gasped, struggling to breathe. “They kidnapped me! From my own flat, in the middle of the night! They brought me out here all alone! Don’t let him kill me!”

He glanced around quickly at the Sons of Durin, hoping they would get the message. Mostly they just looked confused, and more than a little angry.

“That’s right,” Bofur said, a hypnotic melody in his voice. “Put down the clubs, or I’ll wring his neck, and then what sort of heroes will you be? What parades do they throw for men who get an innocent little grocer killed?”

The rangers looked at one another, clearly undecided, and Bilbo knew he had to make the situation more urgent. He started coughing, harsh and rasping, like he wasn’t getting enough air. It must have looked convincing, because the rangers suddenly looked half-terrified, and dropped their defensive stances. Bert lifted a meaty hand.

“Come on now, mate, don’t kill the little fellow! We can talk about this like civilized folk!”

But they couldn’t after all, because finally it had gotten through to his friends what Bilbo was doing, and they leapt on the rangers all at once, wrenching the clubs from their hands and knocking them out with a few practiced blows that made Bilbo’s blood run cold. Bofur let go of his arm and neck, patting his shoulder in congratulations, and staggered off to the hedge to be sick again.

Thorin’s men were working fast, some pulling rope from their bags and quickly tying the rangers up, while others ran around fixing up the scene, removing the evidence of their presence. Dori ran to Ori’s side, pulling up his shirt to examine the ribs that Bilbo could see were causing him great pain. Oin was collapsed against a tree on the other side of the clearing, looked after by a few of the others, but it looked like he might be unconscious. A few feet away from where Bilbo now stood, unsure how to help, Kíli had just returned to Fíli’s side, looking nearly blank with shock and panic.

“Fíli!” he hissed, dropping to his knees and reaching out to his brother, wiping bloodied locks of blond hair away from his face. “Come on, wake up!”

To Bilbo’s surprise, Fíli seemed to obey his brother, blinking his eyes open and letting out a heartfelt groan.

“Are you all right?” Kíli asked breathlessly, hands hovering over Fíli’s head and chest, as though he desperately wanted to help but was afraid to touch. “What can I do?”

“You can keep your voice down, for one,” Fíli snapped - but his hand went up to grasp his brother’s forearm, and Bilbo could see that it was pain and not anger speaking. “By Durin, my head hurts.”

Kíli’s head dropped with relief, coming down to rest on Fíli’s chest for a moment before he straightened himself up, pulling a few first aid supplies out of his bag with a practiced ease that disturbed Bilbo. “We’d better see if it needs stitches. Shame it’s you if it does, since yours are so much neater than mine.”

Thorin was making his way around the group now, checking on injuries and occasionally aiming a look of boiling fury at the still-unconscious bodies of the rangers. Bilbo wanted to shrink back into the undergrowth and avoid an encounter with the man in such a raging temper, but he stood his ground and waited to see what Thorin would do.

After he had seen to the welfare of all his men, making sure that Dori knew to go help Bofur, Oin, and Fíli as the only other major casualties, Thorin stalked over to Bilbo. His face gave away nothing of how he felt, and Bilbo did his best to stand tall.

“That little display - that was your idea?” Thorin asked, voice rough and unforgiving as ever. Bilbo nodded, and Thorin regarded him for a long moment, staring at him with an intensity that made Bilbo feel a bit like an ant under a magnifying glass. Finally, Thorin gave him a sharp nod. “It was well done. You seem to be good at going unseen when you choose. I’ll have someone brief you on our combat tactics and work on figuring your abilities into our plans.” Bilbo tried not to gape at the man, and he tried even harder not to let him see the way Thorin’s words made his heart jump and his head swell.

“Right. Ah, good, then,” he said after a minute, giving Thorin the best serious nod he could manage. “Is there anything I can do to help in the meantime?”

“We need to move out as quickly as possible,” Thorin said. “They may have called for backup when they saw our vehicles. See who you can help with packs.” He was off again then, sweeping over to help the men who were preparing to move Oin.

Not seeing much else to do, Bilbo made his way over to the youngest members of the group. Kíli was just helping Fíli to his feet, wincing at the near dead-weight on his arm, and Bilbo was sympathetic. He was sure all the men involved in the fight would be covered in bruises, and almost felt a little bad at his own escape without a scratch.

“Don’t drop me!” Fíli said quickly, reeling dizzily and clutching at his brother’s shoulder, and Kíli’s eyes widened, mouth compressing into a thin white line.

“Sorry!” he gasped after a moment. “I won’t let you fall.” He hauled Fíli’s arm over his shoulder, face tight, and started helping him walk unsteadily forward. Bilbo stooped to grab the packs that both brothers had abandoned in the grass, and followed behind them, watching their slow, meandering progress with concern. He knew head wounds had a tendency to bleed heavily, but Fíli’s wound had matted his hair with blood and soaked through his brother’s sleeve at the shoulder, leaving them a matching bloody mess. It was very probable that Fíli had concussion or some other damage that a bit of field-hospital medicine wouldn’t really solve.

The procession back to the vehicles was much slower and more labored than their early morning happiness would have led Bilbo to expect, and he saw the cars again with great relief. Gloin and Bombur were there, waiting impatiently, and Bilbo gathered from their quick chatter to Thorin that Gandalf had just been by, offering positive news about the outcome of the battle, and that he had already moved on, promising to find them again when he had news for them.

With Bilbo in his wake, Kíli dragged Fíli over to the mint green car, propping the door open and helping his brother inside. Dori, who was clearly the closest thing to a medic the crew had, made his way over, already tugging at his bag of supplies.

“No,” Kíli said, pulling off his long coat and tucking it over Fíli, who already seemed half asleep.

“No what, lad?” Dori asked, brow wrinkling with confusion.

“He doesn’t need your help,” Kíli explained. “I’ve got him.”

“You should let me look him over,” Dori said kindly. “You don’t know what else could be wrong that you can’t see, and head trauma isn’t anything to mess around with.”

Kíli stood up, eyes flashing, and put himself between his brother and the world. “I said I’ve got him! I know plenty about head wounds. He doesn’t need anyone else.”

“There’s no point in arguing,” Balin said tiredly, pulling Dori away. “You’re better off troubling a mother bear about her cubs. Come ride with us and keep an eye on Oin.” Dori followed him, casting worried glances back at the car, but Kíli was an unmoving force. He didn’t budge until Thorin came along.

“In the car, Kíli. We need to get out of here.” Kíli cast one last glance around, as if looking for the forces that were coming to take his brother from him, and then obeyed, sliding into the other side of the car. Thorin pointed at Bilbo. “You’ll ride with us. We’re scattering here. It’s too much of a risk to take everyone back to your little town.” He gave a strange little smile. “For some reason, the sight of Dwalin on a motorbike tends to stay with people when the police enquiries come around.”

Bilbo slipped into the passenger seat, glancing behind him to offer a little smile of encouragement to the lads. But Fíli was unconscious, tipped over to lean heavily against his brother, bloody head resting heavily on the bloody stain on Kíli’s shoulder, and Kíli only had eyes for his brother’s wound and the pulse in his neck. They looked like soldiers, and they looked like children, and Bilbo looked away.

Thorin took them away from the mountain quickly, not speaking a word as their home receded in the rear mirrors. His fingers clutched the wheel tightly, knuckles white with the strength of his grip. It wasn’t until the mountain was out of sight that he relaxed a bit, though he kept shooting glances at the sleeping lads in the back.

“Will they be all right?” Bilbo asked after a while.

“They’ve had injuries worse than a blow to the head before,” Thorin said quietly. “They don’t like to accept help from anyone but one another. If it’s bad enough, and I push hard enough, Kíli will let me help his brother.”

“That’s – honestly, it’s a little worrisome,” Bilbo said hesitantly, “but I was thinking more about the fallout from that fight. I wouldn’t have wanted to see a thing like that at their ages.” A little shudder ran up his back, and he shook his head. “Not sure I wanted to see at it my age, either.”

“They’ve seen and done many things in their lives that you’ve never wanted to imagine, Mr. Baggins,” Thorin said a touch coldly. “I’m afraid my nephews haven’t had much in the way of sheltering from the harsher facts of our lives. They were born to this.”

“Your - sorry, your nephews?” Bilbo stuttered. “I didn’t realise.”

“Their mother was my younger sister,” Thorin said, giving Bilbo a hint of a smile. Hopefully he hadn’t offended the man. “I’d always fancied they favored me a bit. Is it so unlikely seeming?”

“No, not at all! In fact, it’s very clear, once you know to look for it!”

Thorin gave a small rumble of laughter. “I won’t snap your neck for disagreeing with me, burglar. I know I’m not the most demonstrative guardian.”

“I just didn’t expect - well, I’m not sure what I expected,” Bilbo admitted. “And you’ve raised them since their mother died?”

“I have,” Thorin said. There was a gentleness to his voice and face now that Bilbo hadn’t seen before. “The whole company has, in some ways. Everyone looks after them and teaches them what they know. But I’m afraid I am the closest thing to a father they’ve known, more’s the pity.”

“They adore you,” Bilbo said softly, wanting to take away the edge of bitter self-reproach that he saw in Thorin now. “Anyone can see it. We’re none of us the people we want to be, but when your children look at you the way those lads do, you know you’ve done something right.”

Thorin ran a hand across his eyes. There were lines there in the corners and across his forehead that Bilbo knew must bear witness to things he couldn’t even imagine seeing. “I’ve left them alone far too many times. I cannot afford to stay too close, even though I worry over them.”

“Smaug?”

Thorin nodded. “I’ve always been his main target. I don’t dare let him know what they - how much I -” he broke off. There was silence for a long moment, then he let out a breath. “I will not put them in danger just because I want them with me.”

“Where do they live? Where do all of you live?”

“Everywhere,” Thorin said. “I never know more than vague locations, and they all move as often as practical. My nephews are the worst for it - always haring off to somewhere in hopes of meeting up with some of the family as their paths cross.” He laughed rustily. “Once, when they were still small, I had to go down to London in the middle of the night to find them. Ori was meant to be watching them, but he was still young himself, and he accidentally let on that they had run off in search of the Queen.”

“What?” Bilbo asked, chuckling at the idea. “Why would they do a thing like that?”

“Well, Kíli, at all of eight years old, was going to explain our situation to her and get her to take care of the problem,” Thorin explained. “Do you know, if he’d had the chance, I’m half convinced he’d have succeeded?”

“He’s very persuasive,” Bilbo agreed. They both glanced over their shoulders as one of the boys gave a muted whine of pain in their sleep, and Bilbo felt a tug of concern.

“And now, while Fíli’s healing up, where will they stay?”

Thorin shook his head. “I have no idea. We’ve raised more excitement than I’d hoped today, and we’ll need to lie low for a few days.” He looked weary, burdened with the weight of all of his men’s wellbeing, and Bilbo’s heart went out to him. He thought of his tidy, quiet little flat, and it was suddenly a hollow sort of thought - too quiet, too contained, too empty.

“If you liked,” Bilbo said carefully, not quite believing what he was saying, “they could stay with me for a bit. Just while they’re recovering from this, you understand.” Thorin shot him a glance full of disbelief, and Bilbo nodded, strengthening his conviction. “In fact, I think I should insist that all three of you stop with me for a while. It’s a good place to lie low, and Nori told me to start learning the tricks of the trade from the lads anyway. We can call it an even trade.”

Thorin drove on for a bit, considering the idea, and Bilbo worried at the nail of one thumb, suddenly anxious that he take the offer. And then Thorin chuckled.

“I did not expect to be so far in your debt quite this early, Bilbo Baggins. We’ll stay for a day or two, until they’re on their feet again.”

Bilbo smiled, a wave of relief washing over him - which then faded into a quiet sort of horror as he remembered the mess his visitors had left in his flat, and that there was very probably no tea left at all.

Chapter Text

They drifted back into Linlithgow in the mid-morning, Thorin having taken several back-road routes to be certain they avoided detection. The ride had been surprisingly comfortable for Bilbo, even if much of it had been spent in a companionable silence. Thorin was not one of the world’s great conversationalists, and Bilbo was too worried about saying the wrong thing and offending the man just as they were starting to get along.

When they were drawing close to his grocery, Bilbo directed Thorin down a back alley to where a steel door set into the wall served as the deliveries entrance to his shop, and linked to the hallway where steps led up to his flat. It was very much out of the way, with no windows on either side of the narrow alley, and Bilbo was reasonably confident they could sneak two bloodied teenagers into his flat without alarming any of his well-meaning but nosy neighbors.

Waking the lads was a bit tricky, since they had managed to collapse into a tangle of intertwined long limbs wound about with coats, and neither of them was entirely cognizant of where they were or how they’d gotten there. Kíli snapped at Thorin when he offered to assist Fíli up the stairs, and Thorin backed away, clearly knowing a losing battle when he saw one.

They burst into Bilbo’s flat in a rush of mud and blood and desperate relief, and he heaved a sigh as he looked around. It might have been someone else’s home entirely. It wasn’t the neat, tidy little flat that he had walked into every day for the past decade, and it wasn’t the slightly terrifying party scene he had been dragged from the night before - had it only been that long? It felt like months. It was littered about with leftover food and empty glasses, and had a slightly melancholy feeling to it, somehow. He led the way down the short hallway to the guest room, and pushed at the door, which tended to stick a bit at the bottom.

It was a small room, and Bilbo mostly used it as a little library. But there was a clean, comfortable bed and an armchair for his reading, and this room, at least, had not been messed up by his unexpected visitors.

“You can bring him in here,” Bilbo told Kíli. Fíli was draped over his brother’s shoulder, not doing terribly much to support his own weight, and Kíli was pale and tense with the strain. He helped Fíli to lie down, and breathed a sigh of relief. “What can I get you to help him?” Bilbo asked, hoping that much assistance wouldn’t trigger the boy’s defensiveness about being his brother’s caretaker.

Kíli ran his hands back through his long dark hair, tangling it further. “Water,” he said, voice rough and strained. “Any sort of pain medication you might have. And disinfectant.”

Thorin had made his way into the room as well, and was leaning over Fíli from the other side of the bed, examining him closely. “Looks like the bleeding has stopped, but we have no way of knowing if there’s internal damage.”

Kíli snorted, a quick smile lightening his features for a moment. “Not like he’s using his brain for much anyway.” Fíli groaned at that, slapping halfheartedly at his brother’s hands as Kíli began to probe the area with gentle fingers. “He’s awake, coherent, and all his senses are in order. I’m not too worried at the moment.” Reassured by this assessment, Bilbo hurried off to fetch the things Kíli had asked for.

He found he was out of disinfectant in the medicine cupboard, so he had to go down and borrow a bottle from his store. As he popped out from the green door leading to the stairs and began to key open the lock to Bag End, Mrs. Gamgee from the house three doors down called a cheerful greeting just beside his ear. Bilbo startled, dropping the keys in his flustered state.

“Are you quite all right, dear?” she asked kindly. “It’s not like you to be opening this late - and with your clothes in such a state!” She stared him up and down for a moment, looking concerned - and Bilbo realised that he was liberally splattered with mud and blood, and looked nothing at all like the decent, respectable grocer he had always been.

“It’s the, um,” he started, mind drawing a complete blank. “The spring cleaning!” He gave a nervous chuckle. “You know how it is! You get to scrubbing in all the corners and tackling cobwebs and you just never know where you’ll end up!”

“If you’re quite sure, dear,” she said slowly. “I’m glad you’re opening up, though. I need a few things before our Hamfast brings little Sam around this afternoon. You know it’s my day to look after him!”

“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Bilbo said, beginning to feel a little frantic. Upstairs in his guest bedroom, a boy was bleeding all over his second-best sheets, and he really did not have time to discuss her much doted-upon grandson. “I’m not actually open today. Just grabbing a few things for the, erm, the spring cleaning!” He finally managed to turn the key, popping the door open. It only took him a few seconds to grab the disinfectant - and as a precaution, he helped himself to a bottle of paracetamol and some sterile bandages. Mrs. Gamgee was still watching him curiously as he rushed out of the shop, juggling his items as he struggled to relock the shop.

“Bilbo, dear,” she said kindly. “I’m not sure you’ve got the hang of this cleaning thing just yet. You know, there are people who can help you with these sorts of things!”

“Right!” Bilbo said quickly and too loudly. “People! I should go and call them right now! Good morning!” He darted through the green door and up the steps, and tried not to think about what the old dear would be telling the rest of the neighborhood in a few moments.

He handed Kíli the things he had requested, and then hung back awkwardly, not sure he should be intruding on the little family’s quiet moment, but not really sure where else to be. Kíli worked quickly, hands sure, while Bilbo tidied away the bloody rags and tried to stay out of the way, and it wasn’t long before Fíli was resting comfortably with his head wound cleaned and bandaged. Bilbo glanced over to Thorin, looking for some hint of what he should do next - but Thorin was asleep in the armchair in the corner, head lolling uncomfortably against the wall beside him. Kíli glanced over as well, and then caught Bilbo’s eye and gave a snort of quiet laughter, shaking his head. Kíli inclined his head toward the hall, and Bilbo led the way. When they were clear of the little room, Kíli heaved a sigh, running hands through his hair again.

“I think he’ll be fine,” Kíli said, voice hushed. “My brother has a hard skull. We’re notoriously hard to kill!” He grinned at Bilbo with a fraction of the energy of the night before, clearly worn out by the events of the day. “I’ll check Thorin for injuries when he wakes up, I suppose. You’re all right, though?” It struck Bilbo as quite funny that a boy who looked about to fall over from exhaustion should be worrying about him, after he hadn’t even been involved in the battle.

“I’m fine - not a scratch on me! You look like you could do with some food and rest, though.” Bilbo reached out to touch the shoulder of his shirt, where the soaked-in blood was now black, though obviously not yet dried into the fabric. “I can find you something else to wear, too, though I can’t guarantee a perfect fit.” Kíli stepped back warily, evading his hand, and shook his head.

“We’ve got clean things in our packs,” he said quietly. “I don’t want to leave Fíli for long just now, though. I just wanted to thank you - for the supplies, and for the shelter.”

“It’s really the least I can do,” Bilbo said earnestly. Kíli nodded, looking worn thin, and turned back toward the room, lifting his arms above his head to stretch them out. Bilbo flinched in sympathy as he hissed and grabbed at his shoulder. Carrying his brother for that long had obviously left his muscles sore. The door closed with a quiet click, and Bilbo was left in the middle of the destruction of his home. “The very least,” he murmured, and went to work cleaning up.

By the time Thorin emerged, looking slightly more human for a few hours of rest, Bilbo had restored his flat to it’s usual state of order and cleanliness, and was working on setting out some food for himself and his visitors. He grunted in response to Bilbo’s cheerful greeting, and put a hand to his ribs.

“Knocked about pretty hard, weren’t you?” Bilbo asked. “Are you all right?”

Thorin shrugged off his concern. “Nothing broken. It won’t interfere with our plans.”

“And what are these plans?” He tried not to be condescending, but from all he had heard, there wasn’t so much a plan as a vague notion that a burglar would be able to solve all their problems. Bilbo was willing to give it a go, but he really did think that a few more solid ideas wouldn’t go amiss. Thorin looked a bit annoyed.

“They’re a work in progress,” he admitted grudgingly. “Gandalf is gathering information for us, but we hope to move soon. We’ve wasted enough time.”

“I’d better get to work myself, then,” Bilbo mused. “I don’t know the first thing about burglary.” It was a little frightening how easily he was able to talk about it, now, and make plans to commit a crime. The Bilbo Baggins of twenty-four hours earlier would have been entirely appalled at him.

“The lads can help you with the basics,” Thorin reminded him. “Kíli’s better at lock-picking. I’ll fetch him, and you can start there.”

“No, no, no, wait!” Bilbo protested. “Isn’t he resting?”

“We have work to do,” Thorin snapped. “There’ll be time to rest when we are home again.”

“I think there’s plenty of time for it now,” Bilbo insisted quietly. “You can’t expect them to fight and travel and work and heal and not allow them to rest!”

“Kíli’s not injured!”

“Kíli fought with you, and has been wearing himself out looking after his brother. They’ve both earned their rest.” Bilbo dropped a plate of sandwiches on the table with unnecessary force. “Here, eat. It’s what humans do after trauma and exhaustion. You might want to remember that.” He bustled back to the kitchen, well aware of exactly how much he sounded like his mother just then, and not even caring. Thorin might care more about his family home and the defeat of Smaug than any mortal concerns like food and rest, but Bilbo wasn’t about to let him get away with it in his home.

He busied himself in the kitchen for a long while, until the surprisingly tentative step of a heavy boot on the linoleum made him turn around. Thorin looked almost ashamed, not meeting his eye. “You were right, Mr. Baggins. Sometimes I forget that they are still young, and that we cannot simply fight our way through everything.”

“Bilbo.” He turned, offering a smile. “Please, call me Bilbo.” There was no sense in pushing the rest, or in trying to force Thorin to change his ways.

In a few minutes, they both had hot tea and sandwiches, and were seated across from one another at Bilbo’s little breakfast table. Bilbo scuffed his foot aimlessly back and forth across the floor, and looked at Thorin sideways. “Can I ask you something?”

“I’m surprised by how little you’ve asked so far,” Thorin said wryly. Bilbo ducked his head.

“Why do you call yourselves the Sons of Durin? What does that mean?”

Thorin looked thoughtful. “It’s an old story that my grandfather used to tell when I was a boy. A myth, more than anything, I suppose. Durin was said to be our ancestor, back before recorded history. They said he was formed from the land itself, as durable as the stones, and that he was a great leader of men, in peace and in war. When he died, our ancestors tried to go on living in their same land, but countless armies came again and again to drive them away.” He sipped at the tea, eyes lost in a distant past. “But every time they were nearly driven out, Durin returned to them, in a way. Six more times, a king named Durin ruled his people and kept their land safe. They say he came back, no matter how often he died, and he was called Durin the Deathless.”

“And so you’re claiming his name?” Bilbo asked softly.

“The story is a part of our home. We claim it all - our land, our songs, our stories.” Thorin gave a crooked smile. “I’m not Durin. But right now, I’m the closest thing we’ve got.”

~~~~

Kíli eventually emerged from the guest bedroom, and Thorin strong-armed him into cleaning himself up and eating, despite the pleading gazes Kíli sent along with his protests that he couldn’t possibly leave Fíli alone for a half hour. Thorin eventually had to take him by the shoulders and steer him toward the shower, with Bilbo scurrying ahead to dig out his guest towels and wish that he’d had a bit more time to prepare for company.

Fíli was doing well when Bilbo and Thorin looked in on him, though his face was still pale and drawn with pain. He was awake, fingers toying with the edge of the blankets, and he gave a tired smile on seeing them. “Knocked Kíli out and stuffed him in a cupboard, have you?”

“Do we need to?” Thorin asked, an unusually gentle smile spreading across his face as he sat down at Fíli’s bedside. Fíli shook his head, then winced at the pain it caused, looking more than a little nauseated.

“He’s fretting. It’s all pacing and worrying, and it’s not doing him any good.”

“And you’d be any better, if your positions were reversed?” Thorin asked sternly, and Fíli’s eyes went wide.

“Don’t even joke about that,” he said quietly.

Kíli rushed back into the room, dark hair hanging in wet strands around his face, plate of sandwiches clutched in his left hand. “Sorry it took so long,” he apologised to Fíli. “Here, you need to eat.” Fíli and Thorin shared a meaningful glance, and Bilbo had to quickly excuse himself to the kitchen to keep from laughing at the earnest young man.

By that afternoon, they had settled into an easy pattern, filling Bilbo’s little flat with a congenial level of activity that was decidedly uncommon. Thorin had hauled in his bag from the car and set himself up at the table, spreading bits of paper, old maps, and various dogeared journals across the whole flat surface. When Fíli was awake, Kíli was with him, the two laughing and talking together, swapping fragments of sentences and shards of ideas as though they were carrying on a real conversation. Thorin just rolled his eyes when Bilbo asked if they were always like that with one another.

“Kíli was almost four before he started talking properly. Before that, Fíli interpreted all his babble and always knew what he needed, so he never bothered learning regular language patterns.”

When Fíli slept, which was often, Kíli wandered like a lost thing, picking up random items and then forgetting them in the wrong locations, and jumping at any sound that might have been his brother. In an attempt to get him to settle, Bilbo asked him for help with the basics that Nori had said he would need to learn, and Kíli jumped at the chance to make himself useful.

“Best start with lockpicking,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s a handy skill to know, and easy enough to pick up.” As Bilbo wrestled with the slender picks two hours later, near the end of his patience, he was questioning that assessment.

“Perhaps I’m not cut out for burgling,” he said disspiritedly, poking again at the recalcitrant lock.

“And are any of us born to be what we’ve become?” Thorin murmured. “Gandalf says you’re our burglar, and I’ve never yet known him to be wrong.” So Bilbo kept at it, and the first time he managed to open the lock on his own in under thirty seconds, Kíli punched the air and shouted in triumph, and Bilbo felt like he was glowing with pride.

Fíli was feeling well enough to stand and try to walk for a bit that evening, and he took careful, small steps around Bilbo’s apartment with Kíli hovering at his elbow, ready to catch him if need be. “It’s far from the worst head injury I’ve ever had, but it’ll take me a few days to be steady again,” Fíli finally declared. The little bit of activity was enough to wear him out, and by the time Thorin shooed them off to bed that evening, neither of the lads protested the early hour.

Bilbo was fighting exhaustion by then as well, and barely managed to keep on his feet long enough to make up the couch for Thorin, apologising over and over for not having a better place to put him up for the night. Thorin told him to stop fussing, and sent him off to bed in much the same way he had dispatched his nephews. Bilbo went away feeling slightly wrongfooted at how easily Thorin had slipped into commanding obedience within Bilbo’s own home. If the man had really set himself up to become a crime lord or a terrorist, as the media claimed, Bilbo didn’t think there was a soul on earth who could have stood in his way.

Bilbo woke the next morning to the sound of a row, which hadn’t happened since his days in uni accommodations. He stumbled out of his room with bleary eyes, startled to find that it was Fíli and Kíli who were arguing.

“I’m telling you it’s not safe! Thorin will back me up!” Fíli shouted, glowering at his brother from his position in bed, propped up against a stack of pillows.

“When are our lives ever safe? I need to be out there!” Kíli hollered back, arms crossed and eyes flashing.

“Will a day or two kill you? We’ve got things to teach Bilbo! We’ve got jobs we can do here!”

“No,” Kíli said, suddenly calm and reasonable again, and Bilbo gaped at them as both of the lads were suddenly all rationality. “That’s exactly it. You can do your job from here, or anywhere you can take your mobile. I’ve got to be out on the streets.” He ran his hands through his hair. “If I stay here, I’m not doing my job, Fíli. I’m not going to let everyone down.”

Fíli glared down at his mobile as if it were the cause of all the trouble. “I don’t have to like it,” he said quietly. “Be back before dark?”

“Count on it,” Kíli said, offering a soft smile. “Be sure our uncle looks after you today, or I’ll have his head and yours on a platter.” He dropped a light hand on Fíli’s shoulder, squeezing quickly, and then was out in the hallway, moving past Bilbo at a rapid clip. Bilbo frowned after the boy, not liking the pale cast of his face, or the way he held his shoulders, all tight lines and tension. He didn’t look much healthier than his brother.

“Uncle Thorin?” Kíli called, striding into the sitting area. Thorin grunted some response from the couch, obviously still mostly asleep. “I’m going out. I’ve got a few people to see in Edinburgh who have promised a lead on some good information.”

“Don’t do anything rash,” Thorin said, sitting up with a groan. “Stay out of official eyes, today especially.” Kíli nodded sharply and was gone.

“Where’s he gone?” Bilbo asked, still dazed by sleep.

“Kíli’s our ears and our mouthpiece,” Fíli said from the door to his room. He was looking pale, but much steadier on his feet. “He’s got contacts in all the underground organizations in the cities. He’s gone to follow up on a bit of information that will supposedly lead us to information on Smaug that we can use.”

Thorin stood up. “I’ve got to get in contact with everyone today. Bilbo, can you look after Fíli?” He was gone nearly as fast as Kíli, before Bilbo could offer question or protest, and he turned to Fíli with his mouth hanging open in surprise.

“It’s his way,” Fíli said, slumping against the door. “You get used to it.” Bilbo shut his mouth and went to help the lad, supporting his weight as Fíli made his way over to the table. “I see he’s been busy.”

“I suppose,” Bilbo said. “I think we’ll do a proper breakfast this morning, what do you say?”

Fíli gave a beatific smile. “I would write a song in your honour, oh prince of burglars!”

While Bilbo bustled around making breakfast - not an excessive meal, mind you; just eggs and sausage and bacon and tomatoes and mushrooms and porridge and toast and tea - Fíli sat at the table, chin propped up on his hands, and they exchanged idle conversation. Sitting down to eat a proper meal with Fíli was actually quite an enjoyable experience, Bilbo thought. He wondered why he’d never had anyone round to visit before all of this began.

“So tell me,” he began once they had both taken the edge off their appetites, “what’s it like, this life of yours? All dashing adventures and running from the authorities, I expect?”

Fíli rolled his eyes. “I wish it were that interesting. It’s mostly very dull. Lots of hiding out in cheap hostels, lots of thinking ahead about everywhere we can’t be seen. Kíli worries after the family all the time, so I try to keep up with everyone, keep him from deciding they’ve all been killed somewhere and flying off the handle.”

“Do you not worry, then? I think I’d be on edge all the time.”

“I’ve got Kíli,” he said simply. “That’s enough for me to worry after.”

Bilbo shifted in his seat, uncomfortable with the weight of that statement. “Well, I expect all that will change once you’ve got your home back,” he said lightly. Fíli raised his eyebrows, and Bilbo was suddenly struck by his resemblance to his uncle.

“Do you think so? Because I’ve spent my whole life thinking about what happens then, and I don’t see how this ends well for us.”

“How do you mean?” Bilbo was taken aback.

Fíli sighed, poking at a mushroom with his fork. “It’s one thing for Thorin and the rest. They lived there, and remember it as home. When we get it back, they’ll be mining and making it profitable, living in their homes again. They’ll get their lives back. But Kíli and I don’t have much of a future there.”

“But surely your uncle wants you there? He’ll make a place for you!”

“Oh, of course he will! And then how long do you think we’ll be able to sit still, there up on that hill?” Fíli looked at him, blue eyes older than they had any right to be. “We’ve grown up in the cities, on the run. We don’t know how to be still and live like people. Kíli and I haven’t got educations or jobs training, and all of our experience is in being criminals. Thorin thinks he can fold us back into civilization there on Beinn Chùirn, but I know myself and my brother.”

“So what’s the alternative?” Bilbo asked quietly. Fíli laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound.

“That’s our best-case scenario, Bilbo, and most of the rest end up with us in prison or under the earth.”

Bilbo gripped the handle of his teacup tightly. “It’s not right,” he murmured. “You should never have been put in this position.”

“Sometimes it makes me angry,” Fíli confessed. “I understand that they wanted their home back, and never thought it would go on this long - but then I look at Kíli, and I just think he deserved to have a life, and I know he’ll never get one.”

“I think you both deserved one,” Bilbo said softly. “Does Kíli feel the same way?”

Fíli shook his head. “All that matters to him is family. If everyone is safe and well and happy, Kíli doesn’t mind where we are or what we’re doing, as long as it’s not boring. I don’t think he even realises what he’s missing.”

Bilbo stood up to clear away their dishes, and couldn’t help but give Fíli’s shoulder a pat. “We’ll figure something out,” he said, knowing how useless the sentiment was. “Now, do you need a rest yet?”

Fíli shook his head. “Can’t sleep - not until Kíli’s back.” He didn’t offer an explanation or an excuse, and Bilbo left it at that. “What we should do, though, is work on some false identities for you. You never know what you may need.” He pulled out his phone, flashing a brilliant smile, and Bilbo sighed a little as one more vestige of his law-abiding past fluttered out the window.

~~~

As the sun was setting, Fíli paced back and forth, worrying at a nail.

“He’ll be back,” Bilbo said evenly, turning the page in his newspaper without looking up.

“I know,” Fíli said shortly, and made another circuit of the flat.

Bilbo hadn’t finished his page before Fíli glanced out the window, muttered “thank the maker,” and rushed to the top of the stairs to wait. From the speed and enthusiasm with which the heavy footfalls made their way up the stairs, Bilbo knew that Kíli had indeed made it back before dark.

“Fíli!” Their new arrival hollered his brother’s name joyfully. “You’re looking well! How’s the head?”

“Worse for your being back,” Fíli said, but couldn’t help but grin in response. Kíli grinned back and clapped his brother on the shoulder soundly.

“You’ll never believe what I’ve found out! Where’s Thorin?”

“Still out,” Bilbo contributed.

“Excellent,” Kíli said, eyes flashing with a dark glee. “Because we’ve got a job for you, master Burglar, and I’m not sure our revered uncle would approve.”

“Ahhh,” Fíli said, drawing out the sigh with great interest. “Those are the best kinds of jobs.”

“What?” Bilbo asked, looking back and forth between the two excited faces. “What kind of job?”

“Think of it,” Kíli said, eyes glittering, “as a kind of riddle in the dark.”

Chapter Text

“Hurry!” Kíli called. He vaulted over the sofa, tearing through a pile of discarded things until he found Bilbo’s coat, and moving over to drop it on Bilbo’s shoulders. “We need to move! Thorin could be back at any minute.”

“Where are we going?” Fíli asked, but he was already dragging his own coat on, ignoring the blood around the shoulders and collar.

“Well, you’re not!” Kíli declared. “You’re barely off your death bed! I’m not dragging you around in the middle of the night!”

Fíli just laughed at that. “Yes, and I’m going to sit at home while you tear around?” He tugged his shoes on. “What do we need? ID’s? Weapons?”

Kíli looked torn, wavering between protesting and accepting the company he clearly wanted, and then gave up with a violent shake of his head. “Fine, but don’t whinge about it when you’re bleeding in the gutter. You don’t need to bring much, as we’re just going as backup for our esteemed burglar.”

Their esteemed burglar was still standing motionless by the door, coat draped crookedly over his shoulders, blinking in confusion. “I - you what? Where are we going? What is it you want me to do?”

Kíli darted close again as he dropped a dark woolen hat on Bilbo’s head, eyes bright with excitement. “We’re going to get Thorin exactly what he’s always wanted. Information that will help us bring down Smaug!”

“So it’s a burglary?” Fíli asked. “Just like old times?” He grinned meaningfully, and Kíli gave a shout of laughter, clearly remembering something they had shared.

“Not exactly. It’s more of a negotiation - with a party who doesn’t want to deal with the Sons of Durin. We needed a third party, someone who’s not associated with Thorin yet - and then our burglar turns out to be exactly the kind of clever fellow that’s needed for a job like this.” He turned a bright, approving grin on Bilbo, which faded as he saw that their burglar had not yet moved. “What’s the matter?”

“I’d really like to know a bit more about what I’m doing before I do it!” Bilbo said desperately, but he started forcing his arms into his sleeves, feeling more than a bit swept away by the force of nature that was Kíli on a mission.

Kíli laughed heartily at that, and Fíli gave a snort of amusement. “Now where’s the fun in that, Mr. Baggins? I’ll fill you in as we go, but there’s no time to waste.”

And Bilbo found himself swept out the door by the two young men, one on either side, and both talking in fast, hushed voices as they made their way to the train station.

“What’ve you got us?” Fíli asked.

“An informant,” Kíli whispered. “Apparently this fellow used to be an employee, and had access to all sorts of Smaug’s records. He also had a small but growing problem with addictive substances, and eventually decided that a corrupt and very rich employer was his ticket to success. He stole all sorts of files, enough to bring the man to justice, and set up shop in blackmail!” He sounded delighted at the whole story, and Fíli gave a quiet howl of delight.

“So why’s he changed his tune? Why negotiate with us, instead of blackmailing Smaug forever?”

“I asked about that,” Kíli said, a little more collected now. “Apparently he was asking for drug money, so Smaug offered to cut out the middleman and provide him with the stuff directly. Only, our man’s not happy with what he’s getting. It’s not enough anymore, but Smaug won’t renegotiate. You ask me, he’s lucky Smaug hasn’t decided to take the risk and have him killed.”

“No, look, you’ve got to be joking!” Bilbo interrupted. “You’re talking about an appointed official! A - a member of the government! They don’t do things like this.”

Fíli and Kíli exchanged a glance over Bilbo’s head that was part amusement, part bewilderment, and a least a hint of condescension. “Bless your buttons, Mr. Baggins,” Fíli said fondly, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “It’s nice to see a bit of honest faith in the system.”

“No, honestly,” Kíli said, looking confused, “do people think that? Regular, everyday people?”

“I’ve always tried to,” Bilbo admitted, feeling more than a little dismayed. He hadn’t had so much trouble believing that Smaug had usurped Thorin’s land, but this sort of casual everyday violence and corruption was a shock to his law-abiding system.

Kíli shook his head. “Well, the point is, our man wants to get out of the whole mess - get rid of the information, make a few million quid, and flee the country before Smaug catches up with him. It’s not a bad plan, all things considered, but things aren’t going to work that way for him tonight.”

“We - I’ve got to meet with this fellow tonight?” Bilbo squeaked, feeling his insides turn to ice. “Is he dangerous?”

“No more than your average desperate drug addict,” Kíli shrugged. “Don’t worry. Fíli and I will be right there if you need help - just out of sight.”

“But what am I supposed to do? I don’t have millions of pounds for him!”

“Ah, see, this is where it calls for cleverness!” Kíli said, looking very proud of himself. “You don’t have to! You just have to convince him that you’re the agent of an anonymous billionaire who does have the money!”

“Kíli,” Fíli said slowly. “Why does he think there’s an anonymous billionaire who wants his secrets?”

“I may have convinced him there was,” Kíli said. “I’ve been working on this one for months, Fíli! All top secret, building up trust, offering him everything he wants - and now he’s desperate enough to take the plunge.”

Fíli stared at his brother, something like awe building in his eyes. “You think we can actually do this?” Kíli nodded solemnly, dark eyes dancing. “Thorin’s been saying for years that this is what we need!”

“Wait, sorry,” Bilbo said nervously. “How am I supposed to convince this man that I’m your billionaire’s agent?”

“Well,” Kíli hesitated. “That’s where things get tricky. He says he’ll know a pawn from a crook, and you’ll have the first move.” He shrugged.

“Oh, fantastic!” Bilbo huffed, flapping his arms in dismay. “So I’ve just got to convince a desperate drug addict that I’m there to make him rich and famous, and I’ve got no idea how I’m supposed to identify myself to him! Anything else you lads would like me to do? Turn into a bird and fly away, perhaps? Learn to make myself invisible?”

“You’re the cleverest person we’ve met!” Fíli said, nodding eagerly. “You can do it!”

“Mr. Baggins,” Kíli said gently, “we wouldn’t ask if we didn’t think you capable. Gandalf thinks so, too.”

Bilbo groaned and rubbed at his head, wondering again how he’d gotten himself into this. The noble sentiments of the previous morning, bathed in sunlight and camaraderie, seemed to have faded entirely into the dark uncertainty of this first mission. “And if it’s such a sure thing, why are we running away from Thorin?” The brothers were silent, and neither would look at him. Bilbo nodded slowly, letting out a long breath. “You know he’d object - to your presence, or mine?”

“Both, most likely,” Fíli said, voice low. “He’s not keen on us being in dangerous situations, or anywhere there’s likely to be police, and it’s going to take him a while to fully evaluate you and figure you out. He won’t want to let you do much until he knows what you’re made of.”

Kíli looked forward, jaw set at a stubborn angle. “It’s my turn to show him I can do something to help,” he said evenly. “The family needs this.”

“It’ll be your chance to prove yourself as a burglar,” Fíli added, a note of pleading entering his voice. “Don’t worry - we won’t let you get hurt.”

Bilbo dropped his head, unable to believe where his life was going. “A bit of advice, lads,” he said tiredly. “If someone ever comes to your shop and acts shifty, don’t invite him to tea.”

When they got to the train station, Kíli directed him to get himself a return to Glasgow. “We’ll see you there,” he whispered, and then they melted away from either side of him. Bilbo bought his ticket and a newspaper, and spent the entire ride nervously creasing the edges of the paper and wondering whether he would ever see his own slippers again.

He got off the train, and looked around the station, but the lads were nowhere to be seen. Bilbo sighed and made his way to the first exit he saw, and wasn’t particularly surprised to find them already waiting for him outside, collars turned up and long hair tucked under their dark woolen caps. Kíli led the way without a word, and Bilbo just followed. He hadn’t been to Glasgow in many years, and he wasn’t terribly familiar with the geography, but he was fairly certain it hadn’t felt so claustrophobic and dark the last time he had visited. The buildings towered up above him, less well-lit than he would like, and Bilbo pulled his coat tighter around his body.

Kíli led them in a roundabout route that Bilbo finally realised was taking them down by the river. They came in sight of the river, bridges stretched across it’s width, and Kíli pointed. “You’re to meet him there, under the bridge. We’ll be right behind you, staying out of sight. Any sign of trouble, give a shout, and we’ll be there.” Bilbo nodded anxiously, shoving his hands in his coat pockets, and took a deep breath before stepping forward.

He crept under the edge of the bridge, trying to project an air of confidence, and nearly cursed as he realised that Kíli hadn’t bothered to mention the man’s name. “He’ll know a pawn from a crook,” Bilbo muttered angrily. “Fat lot of good that does me, as I’m not even sure which I am.”

The space under the bridge was dark and damp, and an unseasonably chilly breeze came off the river. It wasn’t a nice place to be. Still, Bilbo crept into the darkness, looking for any sign of the man he was meant to be meeting.

He nearly jumped out of his shoes when a cold hand came up to touch his shoulder, and he let out a strangled shout.

“Sorry, sorry!” The other man was short and scarily-thin, and he flung his hands up in front of his face in self-defense. “Didn’t mean to scare you! Shhh, shhh - must be quiet!” Bilbo blinked at him in the darkness. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting from Kíli’s description of the man, but it certainly wasn’t this pale, bald little figure of a man. His skin hung loosely on his bones, marked with dark bruises that matched the shadows under his pale, protuberant eyes. Bilbo was unkindly reminded of pictures he had seen as a child of strange, cave-dwelling fish who were changed by the darkness.

“Right,” he gasped, “very quiet.” He straightened up. “I believe we have a mutual acquaintance?”

The man narrowed his eyes, looking up and down at Bilbo. He seemed to blink a bit too often. “You’re not one of them. Not one of the Sons of Durin. Nasty, they are. Stay away!”

“No fear,” Bilbo assured him. The man nodded, relaxing a fraction, and crept forward into a patch of moonlight that slunk in through a gap in the structure above them.

“Your move,” he hissed. “Choose. Is it black, or white?”

Bilbo thought frantically, eyes searching the man for clues. What was he asking? Kíli had said something about him having the first move. Black and white, pawn from crook - “White!” he blurted out. The man nodded, stepping around to the side, and then again, making a creeping circle around him. He’d passed the first test.

“What will it be?” His voice was almost sinuous, all slithers and hisses in the darkness. “Is it a bold move? Or are we cautious?”

Bilbo thought fast. What was the man looking for? Safety? Or the fast strike that could lead to freedom? There was a risk either way.

“Queen’s knight to C-3.” The wide eyes closed for a moment, and the man heaved a rusty sigh, heavy and weary - then his eyes shot open.

“And if we change the game, my friend? If we clear the board? Who are we, when we are alone in the dark?” His hand shot forward, quick as malice, and grabbed Bilbo’s right hand, which was still in the warmth of his coat pocket. “What have we got in our pockets, my friend?” His voice was a hiss now, and Bilbo gasped as his fingers closed down tight.

“Nothing! Nothing, I’m not armed! See?” He withdrew both of his hands slowly, and let the man pat at his pockets. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” he said evenly, hoping he might be able to calm the paranoid man. He could feel the thin fingers trembling. “Let’s just talk, hmmm?”

Finally, he stopped, stepping away into the shadows, always looking behind him. “You are here to collect it?”

“Yes,” Bilbo said, keeping his voice even. “Do you have it with you now?”

The man jerked and twitched, then nodded doubtfully. A thin hand crept into his pocket, and he withdrew a slim USB flash drive. It was on a golden chain that glinted in the light, and as Bilbo watched the man’s fingers curl protectively around the little device, he didn’t question that it had likely been around his neck every day since he stole the secrets and ran.

“Everything is here,” he said, voice breathy with fear and tension. “Not all readable. Some is encoded - needs a key, doesn’t it, and himself keeps that safe and close.” He giggled at that, eyes wandering.

“How do we know that’s true?” Bilbo asked, feeling like he should do the thing properly. “My…employer will be most upset if I bring back a worthless trinket.”

The man gasped at that, horrified by the insinuation. The gasp turned into a cough, rasping and painful, and Bilbo swallowed in sympathy. The pitiful creature was gasping for breath by the time the coughing spell ended, making horrible gulping sounds in his throat. “Worthless?” he growled. “It is precious! Beyond the amount I was promised.”

Bilbo recognized the look the man turned on him now, sly and calculating. He saw it every time someone came into Bag End intent on getting something for nothing, on taking advantage of nice Mr. Bilbo.

“We thought you might say that. I’ve been authorised to offer you a further five percent, above and beyond what was agreed.” He was proud that his voice did not waver or break, and he hoped it might have a ring of truth. The man’s eyes narrowed.

“Ten! It is precious!”

“Seven,” Bilbo said firmly. “And that’s my final offer.” It was awfully easy to bargain with someone else’s imaginary money, and for a moment he felt bad, promising this man things that they would never deliver. But the source of his ill-gotten and dangerous payment now was the information that his friends desperately needed, and Bilbo steeled himself to the task. The little man’s face contorted in indecision. “Look,” Bilbo said gently, “don’t you want to be free of all this? Free of him, free of the people controlling you? Let it go.”

The scrawny hands clutched again, and then slowly opened, and the pitiful man dropped the flash drive into Bilbo’s hands. “And we will get our money tomorrow?” he asked, eyes flashing with greed.

“All as agreed,” Bilbo promised quickly, shoving away the stab of guilt, and tucking the drive safely into an inside pocket of his coat. The man watched it go, swallowing hungrily, and then seemed to spasm all at once, shaking his head.

“No! No, we can’t! Give it back!”

“I can’t do that,” Bilbo said regretfully, backing away. “I can’t go back without it.”

“He will know!” The man whined, snuffling pathetically. “He will see, and then where will we be? Dead in the river!” He advanced on Bilbo, who backed away faster.

“Now look, we agreed!” Bilbo babbled. “You’ve given it over fair and square.”

“Give it back!” the man howled, all concern for quiet now gone. “Thief! He’s stolen it!” There was murder in his eyes now, face twisted into a mask of fury, and Bilbo decided he needed to get out of there now. He turned to run, and was knocked to the ground by the man, whose skinniness belied a surprising strength.

“Fíli! Kíli!” Bilbo shouted, hoping they were as close as they had promised to be. “Help!” His attacker’s fury gave him strength, and in an instant, there were two long, spindly hands around his throat, squeezing viciously.

He slapped at the man and tore at his hands, but couldn’t break the hold on his neck. Bilbo was beginning to truly panic, when he heard two sets of footsteps thunder in.

“Bilbo!” Fíli roared.

“Let him go!” Kíli didn’t hesitate, rushing forward to pull the man off Bilbo. Fíli was at his side in an instant, helping him sit up, and Bilbo put a hand to his chest to check that the precious data source was still safe.

“Oakenshield’s brats!” The miserable creature pointed at Kíli, struggling against his grip. “You tricked me!”

“We have to go!” Fíli said desperately, pulling Bilbo to his feet. “Bilbo, can you run?” He nodded, not trusting his voice. Kíli gave a grunt of pain as the man fought like mad, but waved them off.

“Go! I’ll catch you up!” Kíli was already back on his feet, and was holding the little man without too much difficulty.

“Just chuck him in the water and run!” Fíli called, and he started away from the bridge, supporting Bilbo more than he would like to admit. They ran on for a few minutes, breath tearing raggedly through his traumatised throat, and then Kíli caught up to them and they ran faster. They had almost made it back to the station when they were cut off by a car, which pulled up directly in their path, and the three stopped dead. The door swung open, and Bofur poked his head out.

“What are you waiting for, you young fools? Get in!”

They piled in fast, all tumbled together on the back bench, and Bofur slammed on the gas before they had properly shut the doors. Bilbo lay back against the seat, panting for breath, and didn’t open his eyes for a long time.

“What were you thinking?” Bofur asked, an unusual intensity in his voice. “You could have been caught, running around like that at night!”

“We were getting something important,” Kíli said. He was unmoving, stubborn as a mule even after having to be rescued.

“How did you know we were there?” Fíli wondered.

“Thorin called me,” he said darkly. “Told me he saw you three hop a train to Glasgow. He offered to following on the next, but since I was already here, he asked me to be on the lookout for you.” The boys gave identical groans of despair and slumped back against the seat, crowding Bilbo dreadfully.

“He’s going to kill us,” Fíli said glumly. “If we’d just been able to make it back on our own, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But having to be rescued?” He groaned again and buried his face with both arms.

“And he’s not wrong,” Bofur said sternly. “What sort of trouble have you been up to?”

The whole story came out in a matter of minutes, and he whistled gently. “That’s impressive - up to the part where you’ve left an agent on Smaug’s payroll who not only knows that you two have stolen his priceless information, but also the name of your accomplice. And said agent will be so desperate without the promised payment that he’ll likely go right to Smaug himself with everything he knows, in hopes of sparing himself.”

“But we got the information!” Kíli insisted. “It’s exactly what Thorin’s always wanted!”

“What we want and what we need aren’t always the same things, laddie.” Bofur sighed, and glanced back at them in the mirror, eyes sad. “Oh, my lads. Will you never learn?”

“We weren’t the ones in danger,” Kíli said. He turned to Bilbo. “You were. Are you all right?”

“We’re sorry it took so long,” Fíli added. “There was a police patrol just a minute before, so we were hiding.”

“We were all in danger!” Bilbo said, struggling upright. The pain in his throat was beginning to fade into a dull ache, but his voice was harsh and rasping. “Is this what you two do? Fling yourselves into the middle of situations without looking first?”

“We know the risks,” Fíli insisted.

“No, you don’t!” Bilbo cried. “This is the second time in as many days that I’ve seen you do that, like it doesn’t matter - like you think you can’t get hurt! Isn’t that lump on your head enough to prove otherwise?”

“We know how to take care of ourselves, Mr. Baggins,” Kíli murmured. He laughed wildly at that, and from the front seat, Bofur chuckled as well.

“I’ve had goldfish with better self-preservation instincts,” Bilbo muttered. He ran a hand over his face, worn beyond belief. “Look, just promise me you’ll remember you aren’t invulnerable, all right? If not for yourselves, then for each other.” They were silent then, and he hoped he might have made an impression. He put a hand on each of their heads, grateful for the moment just to be alive and well, and if they leaned into the touch like attention-starved kittens, Bilbo wasn’t about to tell anyone.

Bofur had them back in Linlithgow before midnight, and left them on Bilbo’s stoop with a wink, and a quick, warm hug for each of the lads. “Don’t let Thorin be too hard on them,” he told Bilbo quietly. “I wish you the very best with this lot, really I do.” Bilbo unlocked the door with hesitant hands, and led the way up the stairs, Fíli and Kíli lagging behind like the recalcitrant children they still seemed to be.

Thorin Oakenshield, in full quiet fury, at the top of his stairs, was not something Bilbo thought he could ever be prepared for. He certainly didn’t receive any kind of welcome from the man, who kept his face impassive until all three of them had reached Bilbo’s sitting room. Fíli tugged at one of his ears nervously, while Kíli looked down, apparently attempting to memorise the pattern of Bilbo’s tile.

“So where were you?” he finally asked. Bilbo stepped away to the side, to let the man deal with his nephews, and they gave him looks of shocked betrayal at the retreat. Fíli squared his shoulders and looked up.

“We went to Glasgow. We were looking for some really important information, Uncle.”

Thorin pointed a heavy finger at the boy. “Don’t play the nephew card right now. I’m not just your uncle; I’m the leader of this family, and I need to know what you have done, and what danger it may have placed us in.”

“We had a source of information,” Fíli said, swallowing hard. “We knew we needed to obtain it right away. It’s information on Smaug, collected by one of his ex-employees, and we hear it’s enough to take him down.”

Thorin stepped closer, looking at each of the lads in turn. “We had a source? We?” He put a hand on Kíli’s shoulder, and Kíli went white. “Isn’t that your job, Kíli?”

Kíli looked up, mouth pressed into a tight line, and Bilbo noticed with a touch of alarm that he was sweating a bit. Were the lads that frightened of their uncle? He hadn’t seen any sign that he was cruel to them.

“I had a source,” Kíli said quietly. “I set up the exchange, and I made them come with me. I convinced Mr. Baggins to do the trade, so that we wouldn’t be recognized.”

“And?” Thorin prompted.

“It went wrong,” Kíli whispered, but he didn’t look away. “The informant got cold feet, and tried to kill Mr. Baggins, and when Fíli and I went to help him -”

“He recognized you,” Thorin said in a strangled voice. The lads nodded slowly, and the thundercloud that was Thorin’s face seemed to darken a few more shade. “So you went haring off on an idiotic, poorly planned adventure, and dragged our burglar along with you. Now Smaug will know that we have his data, and that we have a new addition to our company.”

“We’re sorry, Thorin,” Fíli said quietly. “We didn’t think it would go that way.”

“No, you didn’t think!” he roared, and they flinched a little. “You placed this whole operation in danger! All of our hopes and dreams are balanced on the blade of a knife, and you two go running off without a thought, without a word!” He poked a finger into Kíli’s chest. “If you were not my nephew, and still a child, I would send you away this very night.” The look of disappointment in the man’s eyes was enough to make Bilbo want to weep for the lads, and it was clear that they were hardly keeping their composure. He shook his head and turned away. “I suggest you remove yourselves from my sight. We will talk of what can be done in the morning.”

Fíli darted from the room, one hand flying up to tangle itself in his golden hair, but Kíli stood still.

“I am sorry, Uncle,” he said quietly. “I acted wrongly, and I placed my brother and Mr. Baggins in danger. I didn’t think.”

“You never do,” Thorin said heavily. “Go, Kíli.” Kíli nodded, a single nod that was almost a bow, and followed his brother. There was an unsteadiness to his steps, and Bilbo barely waited until he heard their door click closed before turning on Thorin.

“That was too much,” he said, disapproval in every syllable. “All they wanted to do was help you.”

Thorin turned on him, and the fury in his face made Bilbo want to retreat a few more steps. “You, master burglar? You would speak to me after this night’s work?”

“What do you mean?” Bilbo asked, digging in his pocket and holding out the flash drive. “Look, I’m sorry they were recognised, but we got the information.”

“I know my nephews are headstrong and lack foresight,” Thorin rumbled. “But I thought you were a man of some sense! I thought you might at least have stopped them! You allowed them to drag you, and themselves, into danger. You put them at risk, and now we are all faced with dangers that you can’t begin to imagine!”

Bilbo threw up his arms in despair. “What do you want from me? You hire me on to be a burglar, then shout at me when I actually burgle! Now, I’ve been strangled and chased and dragged all over the country tonight, and I’ve had about enough.” He stormed forward, no longer caring about Thorin’s temper, and slapped the flash drive down on the table in front of him. “Here’s your bloody information, much good may it do you. I hope it’s more valuable to you than those young people are, because you certainly don’t look after them properly. I wash my hands of the whole thing.”

He stomped away down the hall, a small part of him satisfied that apparently he had surprised Thorin, because the man had nothing left to say to him. When he reached his own bedroom, Bilbo slammed the door, and then stood in the middle, breathing heavily. After a minute, he became aware of sounds drifting in through the wall, where Fíli and Kíli had the guest bedroom, and he was quiet. He couldn’t make out the words, but Fíli was speaking soothingly, his voice a gentle rhythm. Of Kíli, he heard nothing at all.

Bilbo went to bed still fuming, and lay awake a long while, tossing and turning. Finally, the ache in his throat became too much, and he wrapped himself up in his dressing gown and padded out to the kitchen to look for paracetamol and water, hoping that Thorin would be sound asleep. That was too much to hope. The man was crouched over a glowing laptop screen at Bilbo’s table, staring avidly at the data, and Bilbo couldn’t help but be curious. At his entrance, Thorin spun around, looking startled.

“Bilbo, you’ve got to see,” he called softly, as though he had forgotten their argument entirely. “You won’t believe what was on that drive.”

Bilbo crept forward and stared at the screen, but his eyes were bleary and tired. “I haven’t got a clue what any of this means.”

“It’s account summaries, mostly - the things that aren’t encoded. A few personal files here and there, but it’s given me a much clearer picture of what Smaug is doing. See here and here? The numbers don’t add up. There’s money laundering here, if I’m not mistaken, and vast quantities of cash. And here -” he flipped to another document - “names of people he’s worked with. The worst of the worst. He’s amassed a fortune for himself in all the most unsavoury fields - smuggling, drug trafficking, possibly even human trafficking, though I’d need more proof.”

“That’s horrible,” Bilbo breathed. “Is it enough to prove anything in court?” Thorin shook his head, eyes fixed on the screen.

“No. All of the actual data is in the encrypted files. I’ll have to see if Fíli can do anything with them.”

“The informant said there was a key - something he kept safe and close,” Bilbo recalled.

“We’ll look into it,” Thorin promised, and opened a new file - and froze for a long moment, reading the page as he face went steadily redder and angrier. Finally, he looked up at Bilbo, hate burning in his eyes. “That piece of scum is using Beinn Chùirn as his base of operations for all of this. Our home is now a source of evil, and he’s planning to mine it dry himself to pay to expand his operations.”

Bilbo swallowed hard, feeling Thorin’s rage as a pressure in the room, and shook his head. “What - what can we do?”

Thorin’s eyes were nearly black now in the gloom of the room, and he clenched his hand into a fist that shook with anger. “War. We will make war on the great worm, and we will not stop until he is dead.” He slammed the computer closed, leaving Bilbo sitting in the dark, feeling very small and vulnerable, and more than a little sorry that he had agreed to go out his door in the first place.

Chapter Text

It took a good long while, and a mug of Horlicks, but eventually Bilbo was able to sleep, though his night was far from restful. He woke early, staring at the patterns of light coming in through his curtains, and contemplated just staying in bed until everything went away and he was left in peace. But then a groan of pain from the next room over had him out of bed in a rush, throwing on his dressing gown as he made for the door. He knocked lightly, and the door flew open, Kíli staring at him warily as though half expecting he’d come to throw them out.

“Bilbo,” he breathed after a minute, sounding relieved.

“I heard-” Bilbo started, gesturing vaguely. “Is everything all right?” Kíli hesitated a moment, then opened the door wider to let him in.

“Fíli’s not doing so well,” he said quietly - and that much was apparent. The older boy was curled up in a ball on one half of the guest bed, hands pressed to the sides of his head. He looked like he was in a great deal of pain.

“All that running about last night,” Bilbo groaned. “Do you think he needs a doctor?”

Fíli laughed, bitter and muffled. “And wind up in prison? No, thank you - I’d rather deal with a bit of a headache.” But he winced at the sound of his own voice, and Bilbo held up a finger to Kíli, warning him to stay put. He dashed out to the kitchen to fetch paracetamol and ice packs, noticing in passing that Thorin was slumped over the little table, piles of documents and hand-scribbled notes surrounding his head. He had obviously had an even less restful night than Bilbo.

Bilbo hurried the supplies back to Kíli, and they quickly offered Fíli the pain medication, pressing the ice gently to the still-visible lump on his head where he’d been struck by the heavy wooden club. He gave a thin smile of thanks, which Bilbo waved off.

“There’s got to be something more we can do,” he murmured. Kíli shook his head, looking more than a little angry.

“In a bigger city, one of the places I know better, I could get him better medications to help with the pain. Here, all we can do is wait.” His shoulders slumped, and Bilbo snuck a closer glance at the lad - who looked about as weary and ill as his brother. Kíli was pale and drawn, dark smudges under his eyes, and there was a tightness to the set of his mouth that made Bilbo certain he was in some pain as well. Of course, he thought mournfully, having to deal with the enraged disappointment of one’s only real father-figure as well as the major head injury suffered by one’s older brother could put a bit of a strain on a person. Neither of them looked well-rested, and Kíli was starting to pace around the room nervously.

“Tea?” Bilbo offered, as much because he had nothing better to offer than because it was what one did in a difficult situation, and they both nodded fervently. Fíli stopped him with a question, though, before he made it out the door.

“Uncle Thorin? Is he still very angry with us?”

“He’s asleep just now,” Bilbo said wryly, leaning against the door frame and looking at them with a touch of fondness. “But he showed me a bit of what was on that drive last night, and I’ve got to say I think it’ll prove a distraction, at the least.”

“Thank the maker,” Kíli breathed, sinking onto the edge of Fíli’s bed. “I haven’t seen him that angry in years.” He gave a little shudder, dark eyes flickering over to his brother in a moment of shared memory. Fíli winced in agreement.

“Deserved it, though, didn’t we?” Fíli muttered. Kíli seemed to shrink a bit, dropping his eyes, and he nodded slowly.

“Even if we did need the information?” he asked, not looking at his brother. Fíli sighed, and flung out a hand to catch Kíli in the side - a thump of brotherly affection.

“Come off it. He’ll glare at us for the next few days, make us wash the car, threaten to disown us if we ever do anything that stupid again, and everything will be back to normal.” Kíli didn’t respond; his hair fell in his eyes, and he looked lost. Bilbo excused himself from the room silently, and went to make tea.

They crept around the flat for an hour or so while Thorin slept on, Fíli eventually feeling well enough to move about and start looking at the files his uncle had found. Bilbo had to go looking for Kíli, though, who he found curled up in the armchair in the guestroom, head resting on his knees.

“Cheer up, lad,” Bilbo said warmly, putting a hand to his shoulder. Kíli startled so hard he uncurled in a tangle of flailing limbs, knocking himself to the floor, where he stared up at Bilbo with wide, confused eyes. “Sorry! I’m so sorry!” Bilbo flapped his hands a bit, not sure what to do with them or how to offer help. “Kíli?”

“I must’ve nodded off,” Kíli said slowly, pulling himself carefully to his feet. A hand went to the shoulder that Bilbo had just grabbed, and he seemed half-dazed. “Don’t tell Thorin.”

“I was just coming to tell you he was waking up now,” Bilbo informed him. “I expect there will be a lot to talk about?” Kíli nodded, looking like he was going to his doom, and Bilbo had to smile a bit behind his back. He remembered what that felt like - having to face a parent after a bad mistake, when it was already certain that they knew what you had done.

He followed Kíli into the sitting room, where Thorin was already standing as tall and intimidating as he had been the night before, watching Fíli work with the files. He didn’t acknowledge Kíli’s entrance. Fíli did, though, shooting his little brother an empathetic look from beneath the white bandage that had been reapplied to his head.

“I’ve managed to get into a few more files, but most of them are locked down tight,” Fíli muttered, shaking his head. “It’s a passcode that’s required. Thirty-two digits. I could spend my whole life working on this and never happen across the right combination!”

“Well, that gulping fellow did say that there was a key, something that Smaug keeps safe and close to him,” Bilbo offered. “But he must have meant this numerical key rather than a physical one, right?”

“Unless it’s both,” Kíli offered. He didn’t voice his idea too loudly or boisterously, but Thorin glared down his nose at the lad anyway. “What if it’s a physical item that carries the passcode, somehow? An engraved locket or ring or something?”

Thorin put a hand to his chin, looking pensive. “That might not be far from the truth,” he murmured in a deep voice. “The question is, how much might sentiment have corrupted Smaug’s common sense?”

Bilbo rolled his eyes and sat down on a chair, trying not to sigh. “What part of your epic history with Smaug have you left out now?” he asked sharply. Fíli and Kíli exchanged a quick glance, then looked up at Thorin like children at storytime, eyes now sparkling with a bit of their usual interest and irrepressible humour.

“Smaug’s interest in Beinn Chùirn was not all business,” Thorin said heavily. “He was looking for revenge. My father had embarrassed him, you see, when my mother chose him - a poor miner, son of a miner - over Smaug, who was clearly going to be a major political player even from a young age. He never forgave my father for the insult, or my mother for not loving him.” He moved around to sit on one end of the sofa, balancing his forearms on his knees. “On the day of Burning, when they came to take our homes, Smaug was there. He didn’t touch us or speak to us, even when we were screaming for mercy - just found his way to my parents’ home, and took the only item of value we had ever possessed, aside from the mountain itself.”

“The Arkenstone,” Fíli murmured, like the end of a prayer. Thorin nodded slowly.

“The Arkenstone. It was a jewel like no other, passed down through my mother’s family for generations. If you had seen it,” he said, eyes distant and voice growing quieter. “It was our chiefest treasure, and the heart of our home, and he took it away with a smile on his face because it was in his power to do so.”

“And you think this Arkenstone might be the key?” Bilbo asked, trying not to sound too skeptical.

“Smaug is a man of great malice,” Thorin said, face settling into hard, cold lines. “The things he has done were not just for money, but for revenge. To make the Arkenstone the key - to lock our secrets away with our only treasure - it would appeal to him, I think.”

Bilbo blew out a breath, rolling his eyes. “And let me guess what’s coming next. You want me to steal the Arkenstone from Smaug, because it might be the key?”

“I was going to ask you to steal it regardless,” Thorin snapped. “It will not remain in the possession of that worm for one moment longer than necessary.”

“And if it’s the key,” Fíli added, “we can’t do without it. If we could just get into these files, they’re exactly what we would need. Smaug would be destroyed if this information were leaked!”

“So that’s the plan, is it?” Bilbo asked, voice rising. “To send me into Smaug’s office, or his home, or wherever he makes his lair, and have me steal the most precious thing in his possession? Why don’t we just wander down to the loch right now and push me in with a stone tied around my feet?”

He might have gone on like that indefinitely, if there hadn’t been a sudden banging at the door. Fíli and Kíli leapt to their feet in a single motion, looking stricken, and Thorin tensed into a motionless ball of frozen muscle. Bilbo’s heart began pounding, and he got to his feet slowly.

“What do we do if it’s the police?” he murmured, keeping his voice even.

“Lie,” Thorin said tightly. “Deny we’re here.” He glanced around at his nephews, a bit of the ice melting. “We’re in no shape to be fighting right now.”

Bilbo nodded and darted down the steps, pressing his eye to the peephole with a mounting sense of terror - which faded instantly at the shockingly comforting sight of Dwalin’s bald, tattooed head on the stoop. He wrenched the door open, and the huge man was inside with startling speed, already climbing the stairs.

“Dwalin! What’s brought you here?” Bilbo tried to keep up, but Dwalin took the steps two at a time, barely pausing to look over his shoulder.

“Those young fools have done it now,” he growled, and disappeared over the edge of the steps. Bilbo puffed after him, finding the four men on their feet. Fíli looked almost sick with relief, and Thorin and Dwalin had hands on one another’s shoulders in greeting.

“What have they done?” Thorin asked, anger creeping across his expression again. The lads both swallowed, looking nervous again, and staring up at Dwalin.

“It’s all over the underground,” Dwalin rumbled. “Oakenshield’s kids attacking Smaug’s man? Taking his valuables, stealing his secrets? There’s a price on all our heads now, for both the law and the underground forces. There’s nowhere safe left.” There was a desolation in his rough face, and Bilbo felt the panic stirring again.

“How long do we have?” Thorin asked, already moving to start packing his notes and books; Fíli and Kíli were moving too, and Bilbo knew this was not new for them, leaving at the drop of a hat.

“How many men named Bilbo do you think there are in these parts? How long to find him?” Dwalin asked, rolling his eyes. “Smaug’s man had your name, little burglar. They’re coming for you, too.”

Bilbo cursed quietly, desperately, and looked to Thorin. “What do I do? I can’t stay here!”

“You’ll come with us, of course,” Thorin said shortly. “Get your things together; we need to leave as soon as possible.” Bilbo gaped at him, not even knowing how to start moving. “And Bilbo,” Thorin called, a little more kindly now. “We won’t be back here for a long while - if ever. Take what you’ll need, and make your peace.”

It was a blur, the next little stretch of time, and Bilbo never could quite recall it clearly. He had a sensation of motion, of making quick, incomprehensible choices, of Dwalin and Kíli offering quiet assistance. He did find himself pausing at the door for a final time, letting his fingers run across the faded green paint, and wondering whether he would ever walk through that friendly door again. Kíli put a hand on his arm, pulling him away, and Bilbo left Bag End for what he knew might be the last time.

Things didn’t settle into focus for Bilbo for a long while, until they were passing the outskirts of Linlithgow, and the gentle murmur of Fíli’s voice, darkly insistent, broke through his fog.

“No, listen, Ori, you’ve got to move!” he was saying urgently. “Get Nori, too - I can’t reach him. We’re going to Edinburgh - yes, the vaults. Evening. Just - be careful, right?”

Bilbo blinked fast, clearing the fog from his mind. They were packed again into the little minty-green car, with Dwalin and Thorin silent in the front, Fíli and Kíli pressed to either side of Bilbo like unmatched bookends. Fíli dropped his mobile into his lap, running his hands over his face in exhaustion. “God help the old,” he sighed. “I can’t reach half of them, Thorin!”

“Keep trying,” Thorin growled. “If they’re on our tail, no-one has time to waste.” Fíli nodded and bent to his task, fingers flying over the keyboard.

To Bilbo’s right, Kíli was slumped against the window, breath fogging the glass with every exhale, and Bilbo looked at him, at all of them. Them with their worn clothes and watchful eyes, belts too right and fingers too practiced at stitching one another back together; they were homeless, outside the law - and now he was the same. He couldn’t go home again, Thorin said, and what did that make him? Bilbo let his head fall back against the seat behind him, looking up at the tattered fabric of the car’s interior. He was a grocer, not a burglar, and he belonged safely at home.

Kíli sighed, and took out a knife and a whetstone, setting to the task of sharpening the blade that had been completely invisible a moment before. Thorin and Dwalin were murmuring in the front, words like “war” and “assassination” and just plain “murder” drifting to the back in a mind-muddling swirl of sound. Fíli was lost in his digital world, and Bilbo could see numbers and words flying on his screen like tiny projectiles, all hurled against those who would stand against his family. He was a grocer in the midst of criminals, and now he was nothing better - not after what he’d done to the desperate man the previous night.

~~~

They arrived in Edinburgh while the sun was still high in the sky, and Thorin insisted they stick together for safety. He parked the car in an inconspicuous alley a few blocks away from a construction zone, where vehicles changed constantly and no-one paid them much mind. They tucked all their things into the boot, leaving the little car looking no more memorable than any of the others in the street, and Thorin led them away. There were several hours left before they were meant to meet the rest, and Bilbo was certain there had to be a method to Thorin’s madness, to the seemingly random path he chose to gradually lead them through the city centre, even though it seemed to take forever.

Bilbo wasn’t the one feeling the stress of the journey, though. They had to stop at one point for Kíli to dig out the paracetamol he’d brought along for Fíli’s poor head, and then he fought Thorin to a standstill over the need to take a quick break and let Fíli rest.

“Fine,” Thorin said eventually. He found them a quiet bench outside a public garden, where a tree provided a bit of shade from the unusually bright sunlight of the fading afternoon. “Dwalin and I will go ahead and collect some of the others. Don’t move from this spot until I return for you.”

“Yes, uncle,” the lads chorused, and there was no mockery in it. They both seemed worn down, and more apt to take orders without complaint than usual. It bothered Bilbo more than a little. They sat together on the bench, Bilbo hovering nervously to one side, and a quiet fell over the group that Bilbo had not yet known in his short acquaintance with them. He took a moment to breathe in the breeze coming off the garden, heavy with the smell of flowers and petrol, and then sat down on the far end of the bench, putting his head in his hands.

“It’ll be fine,” Fíli murmured. “Don’t fret, Mr. Baggins. We’ll look after you.” Bilbo shook his head in despair.

“That was never the plan,” he moaned quietly. “I was meant to help all of you, just a little. And then a little turned into more, and now here I am, and I don’t know where we’re going or what is going to happen!”

“We don’t exactly have a map, granted,” Fíli said, a trace of laughter in his voice. “But Thorin hasn’t steered us wrong yet, and Gandalf should be back any day now. And as much as he may not like to admit it, Thorin showed me how much useful data we found on that drive. This is what we’ve been waiting for all along. We just have to wait a bit longer.”

Bilbo laughed a little, and turned to respond - only to frown in dismay. Fíli had slouched down low on the bench, resting his head against the top while his long legs splayed out in front of him - but Kíli was slumped on his brother’s shoulder, clearly asleep despite their situation.

“Can he just sleep anywhere?” Bilbo asked, trying not to sound too critical. Fíli frowned, waking up a bit.

“No,” he said slowly. “Not usually.” He reached a hand over to his brother’s forehead, pushing aside the dark hair that fell in Kíli’s face, and looked at Bilbo in startled fear. “He’s burning up.”

Bilbo jumped up and rushed around the bench, dropping to one knee beside the brothers. Kíli was still pale, but now his cheeks were fever-stained, and as Bilbo watched, he gave a little shiver despite the warmth of the day. Bilbo stared at Fíli, who was beginning to look deeply worried.

“Kíli?” Fíli murmured, shaking his brother’s head back and forth. “C’mon, wake up!” Kíli just murmured a protest, burying his head further into Fíli’s neck. Bilbo sat back on his heels, shaking his head. Homeless, lawless, without access to doctors or medicine, both of the youngest of their company injured or clearly quite ill, and the forces of both law and chaos were bearing down on them. He hoped Thorin would come back quickly, because from where Bilbo Baggins was sitting, the Sons of Durin didn’t have a hope in hell of making it out of this one in one piece.

Chapter Text

“Kíli!” Fíli called, voice getting more frightened as he struggled to rouse his brother. “Wake up! You’ve got to wake up now!”

Bilbo stepped in closer, putting a gentle hand on Kíli’s shoulder to shake him, and he sat up quickly with a sharp gasp, eyes wide but unfocused. “Kíli, lad, what’s wrong?” Bilbo asked quietly. He glanced around the square, but was relieved to see that they were still alone. “Are you ill?”

Kíli blinked a few times, looking hazy. “Where’s Thorin?” he asked, sounding like a lost child.

“He’ll be back in a few moments,” Fíli assured him. He had pushed himself upright, now hovering over his brother with something like panic in his eyes. “Kíli, what’ve you done?”

The sharp worry in Fíli’s voice seemed to rouse Kíli from his stupor, and he shook his head wearily. “Nothing. Just tired, that’s all.”

“Don’t lie to me,” Fíli whispered, eyes narrowing. “You’ve been off for days now, ever since the fight. I thought it was strange, but everything has been so wrong recently that I just figured-” he broke off, shaking his head sharply enough to send his hair flying. “Please don’t lie.”

Kíli looked down, clearly ashamed. “I didn’t do anything,” he murmured, voice raw with exhaustion and something else Bilbo couldn’t place. “I got a little injury in the fight, that’s all, and it’s been giving me a bit of trouble.”

Warning bells went off in Bilbo’s head, especially when Kíli wouldn’t look at either of them. “What happened?”

“I grabbed one of Fíli’s knives to go help, but then I caught the wrong end of one of their clubs and went down, and he saw the blade,” Kíli mumbled. “Ended up stuck on my own knife.” He gestured vaguely to his shoulder, and Bilbo remembered the blood there after the battle, the way he flinched when someone touched him.

“How could you be so stupid?” Fíli asked, but there was no anger in it - just compassion and sorrow. “Hiding an injury, not taking care of it - that’s exactly what Thorin’s always warned us not to do!”

“I didn’t!” Kíli protested, head coming up, dark eyes blazing. “I may not have mentioned it, but I took care of it! I know basic first aid, Fíli.” His hand went to his shoulder absently, but hovered above the surface like he was afraid to touch. “I cleaned it, dressed it, stopped the bleeding. I thought it would be fine, and then you were down and not waking up half the time, and I didn’t even think about anything else.” His voice trailed off and he looked more than a little lost. The fading sun of the afternoon illuminated his face, and Fíli groaned a little, tangling his fingers in his hair in frustration.

“How bad is it?” It was little more than a whisper, but Kíli shook his head quickly.

“It’s not. I’m fine, really! It’s just a bit sore - but what do you expect?” He gave an awkward laugh.

“You’re running a fever,” Bilbo pointed out, and Kíli gave him a quick glare.

“I’ll take some paracetamol.”

“You were practically passed out on my shoulder!” Fíli hissed.

“I’m tired!” Kíli retorted. “It’s not like I slept last night, is it?” He grabbed his pack, rustling through it for the bottle of medicine, and swallowed a few tablets dry. “There. Are you happy?”

“Yeah, sure. Ecstatic!” Fíli muttered. Bilbo looked from one to the other, both faces set in equal masks of stubborn unhappiness.

“But - what are we going to do?” he asked, forehead wrinkling in concern. “You’ve got to have it seen to!”

“Can’t,” Fíli muttered, rubbing at his head. “It’s not like we can just wander into the nearest A&E and tell them ‘hello, we’re wanted criminals, could you just see to my brother’s shoulder?’”

“So we just let him get more ill?” Bilbo asked, temper rising at the thought of not being able to do anything.

“We leave it alone and wait for it to get better,” Kíli insisted. “It’s not like we’ve never been hurt before, Mr. Baggins.”

Bilbo threw up his hands and stared at the darkening sky, asking for patience. “You’ve been stabbed and let it get infected before?”

“Haven’t tried that yet,” Fíli said, clearly trying to keep the tone light. He reached out a hesitant hand to Kíli’s uninjured shoulder and squeezed tight, and Kíli shut his eyes a little, leaning back against Fíli in gratitude. “But we’re telling uncle Thorin as soon as he gets back, little brother.” There was no hesitation in his tone now, and he didn’t relent when Kíli groaned in dismay.

They sat in awkward silence for a while, and Bilbo tried pacing, then sitting still, but he couldn’t help but bounce his knee and fiddle with his fingers, left entirely at sixes and sevens by the entire situation. The sun set, and the temperature began to fall, the foot-traffic picking up even in their quiet little square. Bilbo tried his best not to look guilty and suspicious, but it seemed as though everyone who passed was looking at them warily, probably getting ready to call the authorities at any moment. The lads sat still, both calm and composed despite their dire situation.

Thorin appeared as if from nowhere, sweeping them up into his wake with a few grunted words, and they were following him into the lights of the more public areas of the town without hesitation.

“Dwalin’s found Balin and Oin, and I was able to collect Bofur and Bifur,” he rumbled. “We’re heading for the vaults now; the rest will join us, but we can’t look like we’re together. Don’t speak to them, don’t act like we’re a group,” he instructed them quickly. Bilbo nodded agreement, but Thorin’s forehead grew lined with frustration when he looked around and saw that Fíli and Kíli were trailing behind. “Are we having a problem, boys?”

“No,” Kíli said firmly, moving to catch up.

“Yes,” Fíli insisted, trailing him closely. Kíli stomped on his foot, and Fíli gave a growl of annoyance and shoved Kíli off his bruised appendage. “Kíli’s got an injury that’s not doing well, uncle.”

Thorin spun on them, walking backward, and Bilbo had to nod in apology to a young couple he almost trod upon in the street as they moved into the crowds of Prince’s Street. “What?”

“It’s nothing,” Kíli said, shooting a dark glare at his brother.

“Fíli?” Thorin asked, ignoring his protest.

Fíli glanced around them, clearly mindful of the crowd, and then raised both hands and flickered his fingers quickly in signs that Bilbo didn’t recognise. They certainly weren’t standard BSL. Thorin clearly did understand, though, because his face went dark and closed-off, like a shutter had fallen over his eyes.

“And you didn’t feel it necessary to mention this?” he asked Kíli, ignoring the murmurs of startled pedestrians who had to dodge the large man walking backward. Bilbo darted forward and grabbed his arm, trying to turn him around.

“Please can you just face forward while you shout at them?” he asked sharply. Thorin glowered at him, but began walking in a more conventional way, though he reached out to haul Kíli close to him by one arm. They carried on a brief but intense conversation in whispers and signs, Fíli drawing close on his other side to add to the discourse where he could, and Bilbo followed along like a little duckling a few feet behind them, mindful of Thorin’s warning not to look like a group traveling together. He nearly started out of his skin when Balin appeared beside him as if from thin air, shaking his white head.

“He’s done it now, has he?” The old man looked mournful, tugging fitfully at his long beard. “We should have seen it after the battle.”

“How do you know what’s going on?” Bilbo asked fretfully, looking around quickly and wondering how many more of them were walking within earshot that he could not see.

“The signs,” Balin said, holding his hands up in demonstration. “We had to find ways to communicate when we cannot speak. There aren’t that many words, but enough to get the message through.”

Bofur and Bifur drifted up on Bilbo’s other side, keeping enough of a distance to not be an obvious part of the group, but Bofur sighed heavily, his face unusually sad. “Poor lad,” he murmured. “We should have raised him to be less skilled a liar and more skilled a healer, I think.”

Bifur’s hands and fingers flew in the same sorts of signs that Bilbo had seen the others use, but Bofur just nodded silently and clapped his cousin on the back.

“Where have you all been?” Bilbo hissed. Balin chuckled.

“Here and there, lad. Staying out of trouble, which is more than we can say for you!”

Bilbo glanced behind them as they left the crowds on Prince’s Street, crossing over the Mound. The sky was dark now, with a crescent moon rising into the air above the towering edifice of the Old Town, and the castle up on the rock looked menacing despite the friendly lighting. Ahead, Thorin was still talking intently with his nephews, and Bilbo winced in sympathy as Kíli nearly took a tumble, foot catching on a loose stone he hadn’t seen as he looked up at his uncle. Behind them, a sudden looming silence made Bilbo glance over his shoulder, to see that Oin and Dwalin had taken up the tail of their procession and were watching all directions, guarding their rear.

“Hear you’ve had a bit of an adventure,” Oin said loudly, giving Bilbo a grin and a hearty wink. He was immediately hushed by the others, and shook his head sadly, gesturing to his weak ears in explanation. Bilbo’s own ears burned at the idea that all of the company had somehow learned of his unexpected adventure already. Did they all blame him for making their former hiding places unsafe, he wondered, eyeing the tips of his boots with some ire. He hadn’t asked for any of this.

They continued in near-silence, Thorin leading them through dark streets and closes, keeping them out of the light wherever possible. Bilbo hadn’t been down these streets in years, and he struggled to remember some of the names, but he knew where Thorin was leading them. They crossed the High Street quickly, following the curves of the roads down away from the bright lights and cheerful noises of the clubs, and crept onto the Cowgate.

The South Bridge vaults were mostly tourist traps now, filled with underground clubs and the fake-spookiness created for walking tours, but Thorin ducked past all of those, leading them into the quieter parts that were not so well known. Here there was little light, and littler sense of safety, and Bilbo let himself walk a little closer to the comfortingly frightening bulk of Dwalin and Oin. Ahead, Thorin turned away to look back at them, clearly counting his followers, and Bilbo was startled by the tight lines of his face, the fear that was evident in the line of his mouth. He wondered if that was for their situation, or for their location, or just for Kíli - and then he tried to stop thinking at all, not liking the fears whirling around in his own mind.

Thorin finally led them off the street, through a narrow crack and into the darkness of a deep vault. Bilbo was relieved to see light a little ways ahead, and even more cheered when he found it was the friendly light of a small fire, tended to by Dori, Nori, and Ori, who all offered hushed, if cheerful, greetings. Thorin looked around as they all clustered around the fire, obviously counting heads, and he raised an eyebrow.

“Has anyone heard from Bombur or Gloin?”

“Bombur sent me an email,” Fíli volunteered. “He can’t get away without attracting far too much attention just now, but he’s waiting for your orders.”

It took a moment of shouting in Oin’s ear to make the question understood, but he finally gave the same answer about Gloin - he was safe and well, but didn’t dare risk his cover by joining them that evening. Thorin gave a heavy sigh, and gestured for them all to sit around the fire. Bilbo sank down gratefully next to Fíli, who was already half-supporting Kíli’s weight as he leaned against Fíli’s shoulder.

Thorin was the only one who remained standing, his back straight and shoulders broad as he paced around the cavern. “You’ve all heard what happened last night?” Nods and murmurs from all around confirmed it, and Bilbo shrank back a bit, afraid of the blame he was half-certain was coming. But Thorin just shook his head and continued. “What you may not know is the value of what our burglar brought back. We have our first glimpse into the things Smaug is truly doing, the evil he is perpetuating - and on my mountain!” His voice rose into a roar at that, echoing around the vault, and Bilbo’s eyes flew wider open.

It took a few minutes for Thorin to explain everything - the smuggling ring, the illegal trade, the desecration of their home in the service of evil - and as he spoke, the mood of the gathering grew darker and more threatening. When he stopped speaking, the silence rang almost louder than his voice, and Bilbo shivered a little. The faces of the Sons of Durin were dark and almost evil in this light, flickering glow casting their eyes into shadow and lengthening their eyebrows and beards into sinister masks.

“And what will we do?” Dwalin growled, eyes fixed on Thorin. “We will follow you in whatever you decide.”

“We are going to war.” The declaration was flat and short, but filled with a rage that made Bilbo shudder. Thorin sounded ready to murder Smaug with his own hands.

“Now, lad, let’s consider our options,” Balin said reasonably. Thorin turned on him.

“Don’t tell me to wait any longer,” he rasped, eyes dark and dangerous. “Balin, your wisdom has saved us all many times, but do not counsel us to bide our time or wait for assistance. None is coming but what we make for ourselves.”

“Will we attack Smaug himself?” Ori piped up, looking nervously excited; Bilbo was quietly disturbed by a man who wore hand-knitted cardigans and gloves talking about fighting their enemy with that much enthusiasm.

“Of course we will!” Thorin’s response was a shout of rage against his enemy. “We will take this war to him, and to all that is his! We will destroy him the way he has destroyed us! Defile his home the way he has defiled our home!”

Bilbo couldn’t contain his snort of disbelief, and all eyes turned to him, more than a few looking hostile. “And what good will that do Beinn Chùirn, I’d like to know?” The question was far more confrontational than he generally liked to be, and he cursed his mouth even as he heard the words continue to spill out. “When you’re all in prison, or dead, what use will it all have been? Twenty years, and you’ll throw it all away in a suicide mission for a revenge that will do none of you any good?” He shook his head.

“What sort of a life is this?” Thorin demanded, fury and desperation at war in his eyes. He pointed at his nephews, who were huddled together in front of the fire, Kíli looking worse even than he had a few hours before. “When our children are dying before our eyes, and we cannot do anything to help them? How can we wait?”

Bilbo had opened his mouth, though he had no idea what he would even begin to say, when there was a roar of laughter from behind them, and the Sons of Durin leapt to their feet - those who could, at least. An immensely fat man in a leather jacket covered in metal studs stood in front of the only way in or out of the vault, and he clapped his hands slowly together as his eyes met Thorin’s.

“Thorin Oakenshield. The man who would be king.” He offered a mocking little bow. “It’s so nice to see you descending to my level here. I thought you lads didn’t hold with skulking around in the dark?”

“You’ll want to leave now,” Balin told the stranger, voice steady.

“No,” he said, a cruel smile appearing at the corners of his mouth. “I think you will be the ones wishing to leave - and I’m afraid you’ve left it too late.” From behind him, a crowd of men began to shuffle in, all dressed in dark leather, and most sporting tattoos and missing teeth. They came in such numbers that Bilbo lost count, and although the Sons of Durin huddled together, pressing Bilbo and Fíli and Kíli to the centre of their protective circle, they were completely surrounded.

“Who are you?” Thorin asked, not bothering to even attempt to sound polite.

“I’m hurt that you don’t recognise me!” he said, posturing in an attitude of sincere hurt. “You’re on my territory, Thorin, and I don’t take kindly to that. This all belongs to the Goblins, and we don’t like strangers coming in and threatening our position!”

“Tell ‘em what we do to intruders, Great Goblin!” One of the men to his right snickered, and the rest nodded knowingly, smiling with cruel amusement.

“Well,” their huge leader said, folding his hands comfortably on his stomach, “generally we knock them around a bit; maybe take an eye or a few fingers, as a first-time warning.” He stepped forward, little eyes glittering in the firelight. “But this, my lads, is what we call a special circumstance, on account of you being worth a pretty penny if we bring you in!”

“Take us to the authorities, and you’ll be arrested yourselves!” Dori said sniffily, tossing his chin up. “That’s an empty threat.”

“Ah, but it’s not the police who’ve got the biggest price on your heads anymore, is it?” The Great Goblin sniggered, turning to his men to be sure they were sharing his amusement. “Word everywhere is that Azog’s looking for you, and he’s made a very respectable offer for you lot, dead or alive.”

“Azog?” Bilbo whispered, feeling lost, though the others clearly recognised the name.

“Bad news,” Fíli muttered in his ear. “Very bad. Smaug’s right hand man - handles all his underworld business. He was probably the drug dealer keeping a leash on our informant.”

“Now as I see it,” the Great Goblin said conversationally, “we’ve got a few choices here. We can make an example of you ourselves, to warn others off our territory.” A few cheers went up at that idea, and he waved them off. “We can hand you in to Azog and collect the money, and rest like honest men for a while.” Louder cheers at this, with a few boos mixed in. “Or - and this is the plan I like the best,” he said in a stage whisper, “we can do both!”

At that, the Goblins rushed forward, breaking through the Sons of Durin and tearing them apart. They were scattered around the cavern, each subdued and held by several strong men, though most of them didn’t go without a fight. Dwalin and Thorin both left opponents bleeding on the floor, and had to be held by nearly half a dozen men each, while Bilbo stood stock-still, afraid to even breathe for fear of attracting attention, and only one of the Goblins bothered to grab hold of his arm. Fíli and Kíli were yanked apart and dragged over near Thorin. Though they stood tall and held their heads high, Bilbo could see the terror in their eyes, and hoped it wasn’t apparent to the Goblins how physically damaged both of the boys already were.

“Now that we’re all settled comfortably,” the Great Goblin roared jovially, “let’s have a bit of fun! After all, Azog didn’t specify how you have to be delivered, so he’s not entitled to complain if you show up a bit damaged from the handling, is he?” The Goblins roared again in amusement, and the Sons of Durin struggled against the arms that held them, some of them starting to become seriously worried. The Great Goblin waddled happily over to Thorin, cackling with amusement when his attempt to kick out fell short by a full foot. “Now, is that any way to treat your hosts?”

“Let us go,” Thorin growled. “If you lay a finger on any of us, I’ll have your throat out.”

“Ahh, that’s right,” the Goblin giggled. “Words have always been your sharpest weapons, haven’t they? All bark and no bite, Thorin Oakenshield. Well, let’s see how you do with your words.” He held out a hand, fingers like sausages wiggling in Thorin’s face. “We heard what you took from old Gollum. We’ve tried to get it off him before, with no luck, so our congratulations on that! But we want it.”

“Never,” Thorin said, sounding almost bored. “That’s not going to happen.”

“Now, now, you didn’t let me finish! You must hear the choice before you decide! Give me the drive,” he said pleasantly, “or we’ll take our time making your people bleed.” He stepped closer, all amusement now gone from his face. “They will beg you to hand it over, and they will die screaming, if you don’t give in.”

Thorin’s eyes had gone icy with hatred, and his face was unmoving when he spoke. “Every one of my men has chosen to follow me in our cause, and is devoted to its success. None of them would wish me to give you the information that could take us home. I will not give it over to the likes of you.”

The Great Goblin drew back, looking disappointed. “Well, we’ll have to see how long it takes you to change your mind! Blood can be a powerful persuasive tool.” He looked around, eyes lighting up as they fell on Fíli and Kíli. “Especially the blood of your blood. Your sister’s sons will die first.”

Chapter Text

If Bilbo had thought Thorin looked icy before, it was positively heartwarming compared to the cold rage that set in at the threat to his family. He fought furiously against the hands that were holding him back, eyes shooting hatred toward the Great Goblin. He didn’t scream or shout abuse, but the Great Goblin stepped back, looking wary of the fury of the man. The rest of the family were not so silent, though, roaring defiance and denials, struggling like madmen against the cruel hands of the Goblins.

Fíli and Kíli didn’t flinch, even as they were hauled forward and put into Thorin’s direct line of sight. They held their heads high, offering looks of practiced disdain for the filthy, ragged men who surrounded them.

“I can see the resemblance!” The Great Goblin said jovially, staring at first one boy, then the other. “They do you proud, Thorin. Shame to waste all this heart, this loyalty, over such a small thing.”

“You will not touch them,” Thorin said coldly, not deigning to look at the vile man. He kept his eyes locked on the lads, and they stared back, unblinking. They didn’t look panicked, though Fíli kept throwing nervous glances toward Kíli, clearly worried for his brother. Bilbo swallowed, wishing he could look away; the trust that Fíli and Kíli clearly had in their uncle to get them out of the situation was too much for him to bear.

A howl of laughter ran through the Goblins, and Bilbo’s hands curled into fists. The Great Goblin pulled out a knife, the blade gleaming evilly in the flickering firelight, and flicked it back and forth between the two. “Where shall we start?” The blade darted forward, marking a line across Fíli’s cheek, and he started backward in surprise. “The heir?” Another flicker of motion, and Kíli wore an identical cut, both of them starting to bleed. “Or the spare?” Dwalin roared with anger, throwing his head backward into the men holding him, and from the muffled scream, Bilbo was sure he’d broken one man’s nose, at least; the numbers were too great for him, though, and he could do nothing to help. “Any preference, Thorin?” The Great Goblin asked the question solicitously.

Thorin only glared at him, eyes burning. At the back, numerous small struggles flared and faded as the Sons of Durin refused to give in easily. The Great Goblin shrugged and turned back to his little game, grinning widely. “Well, there are enough of us here to multitask.” He studied the two boys for a moment, then nodded decisively. “Give them a small taste of what’s in store.”

There was a flurry of motion around the lads, as a few of the Goblins rushed over to follow the order. Bilbo winced, unable to watch as a shower of iron fists rained down, the sound of fists on flesh a horrible counterpoint to the grunts of pain. The rest of the company shouted protests, but the Great Goblin just smiled, letting it go on for a few eternal moments, then calling them off with a quick word. Fíli was bent over as far as the men holding him would allow, breathing around a clearly painful blow to his stomach; Kíli stood on both feet, but was wavering badly, the blood streaming from his nose looking frighteningly dark against the pallor of his skin. The Goblins backed off for a moment, and the Great Goblin gestured grandly at the two.

“Brave lads you have here, Thorin. Right little soldiers, aren’t they? Tell me - are they willing to sacrifice everything for you?”

Neither of them spoke, but Fíli and Kíli exchanged a quick glance, a conversation in silence, and then both stood taller, looking ahead. Bilbo covered his mouth, hiding a sound of protest that he knew would be unwelcome now - because he didn’t want to look at the lads and see Thorin’s soldiers. He thought miserably about the hungry young brothers who had shown up on his doorstep, all smiles and energetic helpfulness. They were still and bloody now, faces frozen, answering the Goblin leader’s question with their forthright courage.

The Great Goblin shook his head, looking impressed. “This must be some quest you have, Thorin Oakenshield, to inspire such loyalty. But,” he said with a wicked grin, “what is loyalty without sacrifice? We’ll have their hands off first, I think.”

As the vault erupted in screams of fury all around, Bilbo brought his hands up to cover his face, unwilling to let his anguish show in front of these monsters - and as he did so, he realised that the Goblin holding his arm had let him go, caught up in the moment. He crept backward slowly and silently, until his back hit the wall of the vault, and he was able to creep sideways toward the exit. His heart pounded in his throat, seeming to cut off his breath, but he knew that if he could get out, he could try to find help before the worst happened.

In front of him, Thorin threw himself against the hands of his captors, grunting in anger. “Leave them alone!” His roar echoed through the vault, and Bilbo could not understand how the people outside in the city could be missing what was happening here - why no help was coming.

“But Thorin,” the Great Goblin protested innocently. “This is your doing! You won’t give me the one little thing I’m looking for - so what choice do I have? It’s no good letting yourself get a reputation for weakness, you know. I’ll take the hands from your little thieves, and we’ll leave their corpses out as a warning to anyone who would oppose me - and Azog will pay a fine price for the rest of you!” He spread his hands wide, shrugging helplessly. “You’ve left me no choice - unless you care to reconsider?”

Bilbo took one careful sideways step at a time, knowing he must be getting close to the exit, but not daring to take his eyes off the men who might see him. “I will not negotiate with you,” Thorin rumbled. “I will not give up our home - our future! - to a filthy animal of the streets!” Bilbo saw Fíli glance between his uncle and his brother, worry growing in his eyes. “If you lay another finger on either of them, I will hunt you down. I will tear out your heart, and watch you bleed!” Bilbo turned the corner, feeling cooler air hit his face, and he took off at a run, though terror for what might be happening behind him nearly crippled him.

He was out on the street in a moment, turning in a tight, frantic circle as he looked for help. But this was a deserted part of town, and no-one was around at that time of night. He tangled his hands in his hair desperately, breathing hard, and wishing he hadn’t left his mobile in Thorin’s car so much earlier in this awful day.

“Bilbo!” The sound of his voice, shouted in gravelly tones, nearly made him weep with relief. Gandalf hurried down the street toward him, ragged grey clothes flapping around him as he moved, still carrying the ridiculous walking stick that he’d picked up on Beinn Chùirn. “Where are the others? Thorin said-”

“In there!” Bilbo gasped, breath nearly a sob. “In there, but they’ve been captured by the Goblins, and they’re going to cut off their hands and sell them to Azog!”

Gandalf changed at this, somehow, in a way that Bilbo couldn’t quite explain. He stood taller, shoulders less stooped, and there was a resolve to his face that Bilbo hadn’t seen before. He lifted an eyebrow. “Are they all still alive and well?”

“Alive, but some aren’t so well,” Bilbo said, feeling flustered. “Thorin won’t give over the drive, and the Great Goblin is going to kill his nephews. We’ve got to hurry! Should we call the police?”

“That would not be wise,” Gandalf said quickly. “No, I think we need a bit more cunning here. A distraction, at the least. How brave are you feeling, Bilbo Baggins?”

“Brave?” he gasped, eyes wide. “I’ve never been brave! But I don’t think we have time for that now, do we? What should I do?”

And so it was that, two minutes later, Bilbo Baggins crept back in through the crack in the wall, hands clasped nervously in front of him. He made it to the opening and peeked around nervously, terrified of what he might see.

Fíli and Kíli were each being held by half a dozen Goblins, now, fighting as best they could. The bandage had been ripped from Fíli’s head, a trickle of blood now streaming down to join with the blood on his face, and Kíli was white with agony as one of the Goblins held his injured shoulder in an iron grip, keeping him motionless. Given the general level of noise and chaos in the cavern, Bilbo decided the Great Goblin must finally have had enough of posturing and threatening, and was preparing to follow through on his threat. Indeed, as he watched, the Goblins grabbed the right hand of each of the lads, forcing their arms out before them, and the Great Goblin lifted his knife, preparing to strike, and Bilbo couldn’t wait any longer.

“Stop!” he shouted, as loudly as he could manage. They turned on him, surprise and fury at being interrupted writ large in their faces, and Bilbo knew he only had a second before they rushed him. He lifted his right hand high in the air, letting the golden chain dangle from between his fingers. “I have what you want!”

Thorin stared at him, mouth hanging open, and Bilbo mentally pleaded with the stubborn man to just go along with him, just for once. The Great Goblin lowered his knife to his side, looking fascinated. “And what is this little weasel, eh, Thorin? Is this the thief that took the drive from Gollum?”

“Yes!” Bilbo shouted, well aware of every eye on him - and of the sounds of rustling in the tunnel behind him. “I am the burglar! I stole this from Gollum, and I stole it again from Thorin!”

“And what do you want with us?” The Goblin leader eyed him with interest. “Betraying your boss like this - it’s a bold move, young fellow.”

“He’s nothing to me,” Bilbo lied, giving a shrug he hoped looked casual. “All of them - nothing but an annoyance.” He stepped forward, letting the chain dangle temptingly between his fingers. “Do you know, they haven’t even paid me for my services?” He gave a disappointed shake of his head, pursing his lips. “What’s the world coming to when a burglar can’t even get paid? So I thought I might see if anyone else had an interest in what I’ve got.”

The Great Goblin turned away from Thorin and his men entirely, dismissing them with a wave of his hand, and the men who had been holding Fíli and Kíli let them go, looking disgusted. They crashed into one another, holding each other upright, but Thorin was still pinned tight.

“I think we could make a deal, little man,” the Great Goblin said cheerfully. He spread his hands wide. “What do you want for it?”

Bilbo gaped at him, not having really thought this far ahead. He’d just sort of been hoping that he could distract them from chopping up his friends for long enough for Gandalf to make a move - but Gandalf seemed to be taking his time, and there was entirely too much noise coming from the crack behind him.

“Two million?” he asked hesitantly. He had no idea what would even be a reasonable asking price - and apparently he had gotten it very wrong, as the Goblins howled with laughter.

“Two million?” The Great Goblin wheezed, holding his stomach as he laughed. “Ah, little burglar! Thorin never told you what it was you were stealing, did he? It’s criminal, keeping a member of your organization in the dark this way, Thorin!” He turned to chastise Thorin, and Bilbo felt the tap of a wooden stick on his shoulder, and flung himself out of the way.

Gandalf rushed into the cavern, holding a blindingly bright torch - and he wasn’t alone! Behind him, dozens of people poured in, armed with lengths of steel pipe and chunks of brick and stone, shouting horribly. The Goblins shrieked in terror.

“The Eagles! The Eagles!” A howl of despair went up among the Goblins, and they shrank back toward the back of the cavern - letting go of the Sons of Durin in the process. And Bilbo saw more violence than he had ever hoped to witness in his entire life.

It was a brutal fight on all sides, blood and broken bones and screams, and Bilbo found it very hard to follow any of the action. The Eagles, whoever they were, seemed to mostly be on the young side, but they fought with a casual brutality that took his breath away. The Goblins were better armed, bristling with knives, and not afraid to use them.

Bilbo tried to keep his eye on the Sons of Durin, though, fighting desperately to keep count of all of his friends while they fought wildly, all struggling to get to the door. Thorin was a blur of motion, strong fists taking down everyone within reach as he fought his way toward his nephews. Dori, Nori, and Ori had all clustered together, moving as a unit bristling with fists and Nori’s short truncheon, and Ori’s ridiculous little slingshot, which worked with surprising accuracy in the close quarters. Dwalin had Balin tucked in close to his side, massive arms keeping away every threat, and he moved through the crowd like a hot knife through butter, cracking Goblin skulls against one another and moving on without a pause. A constant roar of nonsensical words, coupled with what almost sounded like battle song, kept Bilbo aware of Bifur and Bofur’s location in the fray.

Figuring out that all of his friends were rapidly converging on him, Bilbo jumped up and stood by the entrance, waving them toward him in the dim light. He snatched the torch that Gandalf had dropped in the fray, spotting the old man swinging his walking stick around with remarkable precision and effectiveness, and he lifted the torch high, calling to the Sons of Durin. Thorin shouted above the noise of the fray, pointing them toward Bilbo, and they ran to him and out through the narrow crack, helping one another as injuries slowed them down.

Bilbo counted as they left - Gandalf taking the lead, with Dori, Nori, and Ori hard on his heels, and Bifur and Bofur darting out of the fight at the last second, still dealing punishing blows behind them. Oin thundered through the crowd, tugged along by Balin and Dwalin, who had needed to go fetch him when he couldn’t hear Thorin’s signal for retreat. Where were Thorin and his nephews?

He swung the torch around into the fray, looking for his friends, and then was nearly trampled by them as they rushed upon him all at once. Thorin had one arm around each of their shoulders, supporting them as they ran. They were still fighting as they went, dealing blows with their free arms, shouting defiance even as they were dragged away.

“Bilbo!” Thorin bellowed, glancing behind him as they went past. “Come on!” He ran, then following the rest of his friends, and barely even noticed when the empty golden chain slipped from his fingers to hit the cavern floor.

They were out of the vault system in a moment, but if anything, the group ran faster. Bilbo did his best to keep up, berating himself when he saw old men and injured lads outpacing him with ease, but he was a grocer! The most vigorous exercise he’d had to do in the past few years had involved chasing rolling wheels of cheese after a tragic incident with a trolley. He made the mistake of looking behind him after a minute, and gave a yelp of fear.

“Thorin! They’re after us!” he hollered, with as much breath as he could spare from his running. Ahead, Thorin gave a shout, and Dwalin and Nori and Bifur and Bofur wheeled around, letting the rest get safely ahead. Bilbo puffed up to Thorin, who eased his arms out from under his nephews with a quick look of regret, and allowed them to support one another. He dropped a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder.

“Keep them moving,” he said intently. “Bilbo, do you hear me? Keep them safe.”

Bilbo nodded desperately, already moving forward to stay near the rest of the company. They moved fast, Gandalf leading them through the less-occupied streets, keeping them from the public view as much as possible. The people they passed were mostly wasted, staring at them with vacant eyes or laughing uproariously at the sight of them- but there was nothing amusing about their plight. They ran like the devil was behind them, the rear-guard fighting as they went. Bilbo could hear the crack of what sounded like firecrackers or small explosives, and was willing to lay odds that those were Nori’s contribution to the cause. They overturned wheelie bins and flowerboxes where they could, slowing their pursuit wherever possible. Bilbo kept up with the lads, but didn’t need to do much to keep them moving forward. They ran together, arms supporting one another, as though they had forgotten they weren’t a single person with four legs.

Gandalf finally turned, beginning to lead them back to the larger streets and brighter lights, and Bilbo knew that the risks of being seen no longer outweighed the risk of the angry horde behind them catching them up in a dark close. He put a hand on Kíli’s back when the boy started to flag, encouraging them both with what little support he could gasp out. He almost sobbed with relief when they came in sight of St. Giles Cathedral, the crowned dome shining in the lights of the city and the light of the moon.

Thorin and the rest came up behind them, turning around a few times to be sure their pursuit had faltered - but the lights and exposure of the main street looked to be too much for the Goblins, who grumbled their way back into the darkness, shouting threats for the next time their paths crossed. The company collapsed to the cobbled street, resting against the wall of the church as they regained their breath. Bilbo hovered nervously near Fíli and Kíli, who were the worst off.

“Are you all right?” Thorin was there in a moment, as soon as he was certain they weren’t being followed. “Fíli, how’s your head?”

“Hurts,” Fíli grunted, but he dredged up a tired smile. “But still in one piece. I was able to get the Eagles in, wasn’t I?”

“That was you?” Bilbo asked, amazed. “How?”

“Kíli made some friends,” Fíli said offhandedly. “When we were caught, I tossed off a few quick messages. I hoped it would be the Eagles who came. They’re the toughest there are, and always ready for a scrap.”

“Well, I can see your thinking is still as clear as we can ever hope from you,” Thorin said, voice heavy with relief, and he dropped a hand on Fíli’s shoulder in proud acknowledgment. “Kíli?”

Kíli had sunk down in a heap, dropping his head onto his raised knees and slumping against Fíli’s side as if it were the safest place in the world. He didn’t rouse at his uncle’s prodding, and Bilbo’s heart, which had started to calm down, leapt into his throat again. “Kíli!” Thorin repeated, hand going out to the boy’s shoulder - but he paused, clearly afraid of hurting his wound, and used both hands to lift Kíli’s face from his knees.

“Thorin!” Balin called, a hint of panic in his voice - but Thorin ignored him. Kíli was unconscious now, his head dangling limply, and Bilbo saw panic rising in Thorin and Fíli, just as he felt it in himself.

“No,” Fíli muttered, shaking his head. “No, he was fine! He was just running!”

“Kíli!” Thorin slapped lightly at his face. “Where was he injured?”

“Right shoulder,” Fíli choked. Thorin’s fingers hovered nervously over the spot, but he didn’t move.

“I don’t understand why he didn’t say anything,” he murmured. “Kíli, lad, come on. Let me see your eyes.”

Bilbo felt the urge to shout at Thorin rise, burning in the back of his throat. That Thorin had sacrificed his nephews for the sake of a stupid trinket, that he might well have lost them - that he might still lose Kíli, because there was nothing they could do for him, out here on the streets in the night.

“Thorin!” Balin shouted again, and Bilbo registered that there were more voices now, and bright blue lights were casting strange flickering shadows on their frightened faces.

“Kíli,” Fíli whispered, bringing his arm up to wrap tightly around his brother, prepared to keep them together against whatever was coming. Thorin looked up at Bilbo, eyes wide and bright in the blue light as the shouts rose up.

“Get out of here,” he hissed, jerking his head at Bilbo. “We’ll need you free. Go!” Bilbo stood, stumbling backward into the shadows, and clinging to the side of the building

The police swept over them in a wave, the rattle of handcuffs and shouts of angry men not enough to overwhelm Fíli’s scream of loss when they took Kíli from him. There were calls for a paramedic, and a sudden crowd of onlookers snapping pictures with their mobiles, and the Sons of Durin were being shoved into police vehicles. Thorin was raging, looking fit to tear the world apart.

Gandalf was suddenly beside Bilbo, tugging him away.

“We must leave,” he said solemnly. “We can’t be caught here. They’ll need us.” Bilbo nodded, unblinking, unmoving. The lump in his throat wasn’t going away, even as he swallowed hard. Gandalf sighed and put a hand on his arm, pulling him along.

The last thing he heard before they were out of earshot was Fíli screaming, terror and loss and pain, and Bilbo thought that if Kíli died, they wouldn’t have to worry about getting Fíli free, either.

Chapter Text

Bilbo wandered through the streets of Edinburgh, lost in every possible way. He thought he’d put enough distance between himself and the site of the arrests that no-one could connect him with the Sons of Durin, but there was no way to be certain. The light was now starting to show at the horizon, the buses picking up in frequency as the city slowly woke up, and Bilbo was lost.

Gandalf had been with him for a short while after the rest had been arrested, hauling him up and making him move when Bilbo would have stayed frozen in place or collapsed in a heap to deal with everything that had happened. The old man hadn’t even allowed him to sit down for a breather, always pushing him forward, keeping him in motion. “There’s no time for that now, Bilbo,” he’d grumbled every time Bilbo had gone to voice his fears and frustrations. “They are counting on you. Keep walking.”

But eventually, they had paused in the mouth of a darkened close, in a silent bit of the sleeping city, and Gandalf had put a heavy hand on Bilbo’s shoulder. “I must go,” he said quietly.

“What? Go where? Why?” Bilbo spluttered, unable to believe that his last friend in this insane venture was leaving him.

“There are people who may be able to help us, but I must go and find them.” He raised an important eyebrow at Bilbo. “It is up to you, Bilbo Baggins, to see that they make it safely out of the prison. I will find you all again, when you are free. Make for the Highlands, and tell Thorin to contact me in the usual way.”

“What, me?” Bilbo gaped, unable to keep his jaw from dropping. “You want me to organise a mass prison-escape for the most wanted criminal family in the country?”

Gandalf gave him an amused shrug. “If not you, then who?” He patted Bilbo’s shoulder encouragingly. “I have great faith in you, Mr. Baggins. In fact, I do not believe there is anyone else capable of this task. The Sons of Durin will either succeed or fail by your hands.” He smiled enigmatically, and swept away into the gloom, leaving Bilbo to slump back against the wall, feeling robbed of all his strength. If he had been a different man, one raised with more sensitivity or less emotional repression, he might have wept a bit at the fate of his friends, and at the cruel tricks that fate seemed to play on him at every turn; but Bilbo was a Baggins of Bag End, and so he made a few awkward faces, drew in a few deep breaths, and stood up again with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Now he stood outside the locked gates of Prince’s Street Garden, staring across the green expanse to the Old Town on the other side. The spire of St. Giles rose above the city, looking quietly majestic; but Bilbo could still see the scene bathed in flickering blue light and the screams of his friends. He didn’t know anything about prison, but he couldn’t imagine Thorin contained in a little cell, couldn’t see Fíli and Kíli separated, or Bifur with no-one to understand his strange ways of speaking.

“I don’t even know where to begin!” he said despairingly, thumping a fist against the iron gate. He had no resources, no assistance - no way of even contacting Gloin or Bombur, who hopefully still remained free. He supposed he might go down to the Parliament and try to find Bombur in person, but the risk that would pose to both of them was unthinkable. He no longer even had the drive they’d taken from old Gollum, as the Great Goblin had called the miserable informant - and that was another thought that sent a shiver down his spine. Azog and his men apparently knew that he, Bilbo, was involved now, and the criminal elements of the city would be after him - and now he had no protection against them.

But Thorin hadn’t had the drive, either, Bilbo remembered with a start. He hadn’t been willing to carry it around the city, so he’d instructed Fíli to make copies of the files, and then had left the little drive in his leather satchel, locked securely away in the back of his little mint-green car. That was where Bilbo needed to start. Everything that Thorin and Bilbo and the lads had brought away from his flat was carefully locked in the boot of the car.

He shoved his hands in his pockets, turning away from the gardens, and making determinedly for the construction zone where they’d left the car, hoping with all that was in him that it hadn’t been towed away in the night.

It was still there, though the windshield was littered with parking citations which he ignored. Of course, the car was locked, and Bilbo tugged uselessly at all the handles before going to stare at the closed boot, as though glaring at it might make it pop open. In his pocket, his fingers curled stiffly around the little leather lockpick kit that Kíli had given him. He didn’t even know whether he could pick a car lock with the slim tools - but it was the closest thing to a plan he had yet devised.

It didn’t go smoothly, of course. The picks jammed and almost broke, and he swore more times in the ten minutes it took him to get into the boot than he had in the previous ten years, but eventually the hood popped open, and Bilbo almost cried with joy. Their things were all still neatly in the back where they’d left them, undisturbed as yet; Thorin’s battered leather satchel, stuffed to the brim with his notes and maps, the little drive still safely tucked away inside a deep pocket; Fíli’s and Kíli’s matching dark rucksacks; his own hastily packed bag bulging with poorly-chosen items. He opened his own quickly, hardly remembering what he’d taken away from home with him - and was startled to see the small yellow envelope carefully placed on top of his pile of clothes.

It was labeled “Mr. Bagins” in deplorably untidy handwriting, and he picked it up gently, fingers trembling a little. He broke the seal, tipping it upside down, and barely catching the small mobile that slid out. There was also a stack of folded money, and several papers; he pulled them out, unfolding them into the growing morning light.

“Dear Mr. Bagins,” the handwritten note read in the same light, careless scrawl. “Please don’t think we don’t trust you, but Kíli and I wanted to make sure you’d have some things to help you out if something goes wrong. The mobile is prepaid, so they won’t trace it to you, and it’s got a few numbers in already. I’ve put a few of the alternate ID’s we made up for you in here, too. Use whatever you want, but if we need to come looking for you, we’ll be looking for William Took.” Bilbo shuffled hastily through the other papers, startled to find his face on several different passports, driving licenses, and other official documents. He found a passport, driving license, and cleric’s card for William Took, and gave a low whistle at Fíli’s preparedness. He looked back at the letter. “Kíli says this way you can pose as our uncle or as our religious official, whatever you need. They’ll stand up to official inspection, just don’t try to join the Army or anything with them.”

The handwriting at the end was cramped in to fit on the page, and Bilbo shuffled it aside, moving to the next sheet of paper, which was covered in a different hand - equally untidy, but darker and more prone to tumble all over itself. “Some tips on what to do if you’ve lost us,” it began, and Bilbo stifled a watery grin, almost able to see Kíli’s mischievous smirk as he wrote.

“1. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Stay calm. If we’re just separated, we’ll come find you.
2. Don’t call the authorities, no matter what!
3. If we’ve been snagged by a criminal element, use the mobile and call the Eagles. Tell them you’re with me, and they’ll help you.
4. If we’ve been arrested, use the Took ID to come and visit, and we’ll work out a plan. Probably best to pretend to be a relative of some sort, and we’ll tell them you’re allowed to visit us.
5. If we’re dead - we’re sorry. We didn’t mean to mess up your life. Some of Fíli’s ID’s are complete enough to let you start over under a new name, or you can go into police protection. Please don’t take on Smaug.”

Bilbo breathed out a long sigh, and turned the paper over. There were a few more lines here, still in Kíli’s hand. “Whatever’s happened, we don’t blame you. Even Uncle Thorin thinks you’re amazing. If you don’t want to risk anything more for us, we understand entirely. We remain at your service - Fíli and Kíli Oakenshield.”

Bilbo let out a sob of a breath and sat down on the edge of the boot, papers carefully tucked between his fingers. He didn’t have to do anything else. He could just disappear, or get police protection to go back to his own life. He could just walk away.

He stood up, putting the mobile and papers carefully into the pockets of his jacket, and picked up the bags from the car, arranging them on his back as best he could. The car wouldn’t sit here empty forever, and when he got Thorin and the lads back, they were going to want their things.

It was a fifteen minute walk to the bus station, but Bilbo was able to stow all the bags in a locker, knowing the chances of them remaining safe there were much higher than with the car; he held onto his own bag, in case he needed a change of clothing. He stopped to grab a coffee before leaving the station, and sat down to collect his thoughts.

“Police have issued an official statement concerning rumours of their capture of the domestic terror group known as the Sons of Durin,” the news reporter on the television said cheerfully, and Bilbo spilled hot coffee all over his fingers. “While they are unwilling to say how many men were arrested, they have confirmed that most of the group, including their armed and dangerous leader, were taken into custody in Edinburgh late last night, and are awaiting trial at this time.” A dark and blurry picture flashed onto the screen, showing the scene from the night before, with Dwalin and Oin and Bifur being pushed into police cars, hands cuffed behind their backs, while Thorin struggled against the hands pulling him away from the dark shapes on the ground that Bilbo knew had to be Fíli and Kíli. He put a hand over his mouth, trying to look composed. “Rumours continue to circulate that some of the terrorists were killed in the capture, and that still more of the group remain at large. Detective inspector Thranduil will offer a statement later this afternoon to update the public on the situation. And now for the weather!” The reporter smiled cheerfully, and Bilbo stood up carefully, trying not to be ill.

He went to the men’s toilet and washed his hands slowly, staring at his reflection without seeing anything. If Kíli hadn’t made it, he didn’t want to think of how Thorin and Fíli would be taking the loss. He had to know. Bilbo carefully sorted through the papers Fíli had left for him, replacing his own identifications with those of William Took, and hiding the rest deep inside his rucksack, which he then stored in another locker, pocketing the keys to both with a sense of finality.

He hired a cab to the prison, breathing slowly and carefully as he watched the city zip past, and laughing nervously as the cabbie shared stories of things he’d seen when bringing fares there in the past. It didn’t take long, and Bilbo checked his watch as they arrived - just gone nine, and he felt like he’d been awake for days. He paid the fare in cash and followed the signs to the visitors centre, feeling the palms of his hands grow sweaty as he walked through the doors. The woman at the desk looked up as he entered, face a mask of bored professional courtesy. She was young and slender, all graceful motions that seemed to make him feel entirely made of thumbs.

“Ah, hello,” he said in a quiet voice, dropping his hands to the surface of the high counter. “I’m here to see someone who’s just been arrested.”

“Name?”

“Mine, or?” She shook her head, and he nodded fiercely. “Oh, right, yes. I’m hoping to see Fíli Oakenshield.”

She turned to her computer with a sigh, typing in the information as though there were no more boring job in the world than hers. “Arrested last night - on charges of terrorism, cyber crime, and fraud?” Her eyes opened wide at that, and Bilbo winced.

“You know young people these days,” he offered weakly. “I’m sure it’ll all be sorted out quickly.”

She pursed her lips and didn’t agree. “And your name?”

“Oh! Took, William Took. I’m his uncle,” Bilbo lied, hoping he wasn’t blinking too fast. She nodded again, hitting a few keys.

“You’re on his visit sheet, Mr. Took. I’m afraid there’s a limit of thirty minutes daily visiting with remand prisoners.”

“That’s fine,” Bilbo said quickly. “Just - whatever you can do.”

It took nearly half an hour before they would let him see Fíli, though. He had to submit his fake paperwork for approval, and have his fingerprints and picture taken, and be searched and briefed on all the rules, and then walked over to the main building. He was handed from one official to another, all of them seemingly identical - tall and graceful, ruthlessly confident and efficient and endlessly, heartlessly polite. They made him leave all of his personal possessions in a locker, and warned him sternly not to try to give anything to the prisoner. Bilbo felt almost like he was a prisoner himself.

They finally brought him into a little white room with two chairs, a small table, and - Bilbo swallowed with relief - Fíli, alive and seemingly well.

“Thirty minutes, sir,” the prison official reminded him pleasantly, “and we’ll be monitoring your visit.” They closed the door with a sharp click, and Bilbo turned to Fíli, lost for words.

Fíli hesitated a second, looking very young and very small in the standard-issue prison clothing he was made to wear, and Bilbo’s heart went out to the lad. His head had been neatly bandaged and the rest of his wounds cleaned, but his face was bruised and swollen, and he was standing with a care that made Bilbo certain he was in pain.

“Uncle Bill?” he asked, tentative, uncertain, and Bilbo couldn’t take it any longer. He went to him quickly, opening his arms, and Fíli crashed into him with a muffled sob. “They won’t tell me anything!” he said, voice muffled against Bilbo’s shoulder. “They took Kíli away to hospital, and the paramedics seemed really worried, and I can’t get anyone to even say if he’s alive!”

“Hey, hey,” Bilbo soothed, rubbing a hand in circles along the boy’s back. “I’m sure he’s fine! It’s probably a good thing, actually, you being caught, because now he’s getting the medical treatment he needs.” Fíli only shook his head, shoulders trembling, and Bilbo held onto him for a long moment, offering all the strength and comfort he could. Eventually, Fíli pulled away, wiping at his face, and they both sat down. Bilbo knew they didn’t have much time. “How are you?” Bilbo asked softly, and Fíli shrugged dismissively.

“They saw to my head and the rest when we were taken in,” he muttered. “I saw some of the others being looked at too, and I think they’re all fine. Thorin was roaring and shouting fit to have the building down on us when they took Kíli away, though.” He looked desolate, like half of his heart had been ripped away and he was left trying to function without it.

“I’ll find out about Kíli,” Bilbo promised. “I’ll make inquiries with the police. They’ll have to let me visit - I am family, after all!” He offered Fíli a little grin, and was immensely heartened to see the lad smile back a little, weak though it was. “The woman at reception said thirty minutes daily, so I’ll come back tomorrow and tell you everything. That brother of yours has probably got half the hospital eating out of his hand already!”

“He’s never been in hospital before,” Fíli said, looking sick. “What if he’s-”

“No,” Bilbo said firmly, taking a tone of command that made Fíli look up sharply. “None of that. No what ifs, no if onlys. We’ve got to deal with what’s in front of us.”

“What will we do?” Fíli sounded very young now, looking up at Bilbo with wide blue eyes. “Thorin always has a plan, but we’ve never prepared for this.”

“You just leave that to me,” Bilbo assured him, wishing he felt even a little certainty. “We’ll have you out of here in no time. You’ll see.”

“It’ll take a while to bring us to trial,” Fíli said thoughtfully. “They’re holding us in separate cells. Apparently we’re very threatening.” He smirked at that, and Bilbo chuckled, because while Dwalin or Bifur might be threatening even in prison clothes and bandages, most of the rest were not. Old men and children, most of them, and he nodded firmly as renewed determination fired up in his heart.

“You’re a load of fools, my lad,” he said gently, and patted Fíli’s hand. “Leave it to someone with a bit of common sense to see you through this, hmm?”

Fíli chuckled, shaking his head, and then looked up sharply. “Oh, I forgot to tell you! Uncle Thorin will know to have put you on his visitor sheet, too, of course. You’ll be able to visit with him this same way.”

“Of course,” Bilbo said slowly, trying to work out how that might be justified, since he couldn’t really claim to be Thorin’s family member. Fíli just smirked at him, and Bilbo reminded himself that there had been a time, not so long ago, that he hadn’t been burdened with obnoxious criminal nephews and an extended family of murderers. How lonely he’d been!

They opened the door sharply behind him, and Fíli looked disconsolate. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” Bilbo promised quickly.

“Just - make sure Kíli’s all right,” Fíli begged, and Bilbo nodded. He grabbed the boy in a quick hug again before the warden called him out, and he had to leave Fíli alone in the little white room. They walked him back out to the visitor’s centre, letting him pick up his things on the way, and Bilbo stopped at the desk on the way out.

“Look, my other nephew - Kíli Oakenshield - he was arrested last night as well, but I understand he’s not here?” Bilbo asked nervously, suddenly terrified that the answer would be the thing he was most afraid to hear. The receptionist sighed and tapped her way through her records again, clearly annoyed by the mundane nature of his requests.

“He was taken to the Royal Infirmary,” she finally said, seemingly speaking down the bridge of her nose. “We haven’t had any report on his condition yet.”

“What - what does that mean?” Bilbo stuttered, wondering whether to panic or not.

“It means that we haven’t had any report on his condition yet,” she said icily. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m afraid I’m rather busy just now.”

Bilbo nodded, backing away from the desk and making his way out the door. Now he had to find his way to the Royal Infirmary and lie and beg and charm his way into seeing his other fake nephew, and then there was apparently a prison escape to plan, for men who were all being held separately and couldn’t communicate with one another, all while the media watched on in amusement at the capture and trials of the Sons of Durin.

“Confusticate and bebother these men!” he groaned to himself, and went out to hail a cab.

Chapter Text

The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh wasn’t too far from the prison by cab, and Bilbo spent the entirety of the short ride chewing nervously at a thumbnail - a bad habit he thought he’d given up years ago. He made himself stop immediately as soon as they arrived at the hospital, and he straightened his shirt a few times on the walk to reception.

The young man behind the desk was aggressively cheerful, offering Bilbo a wide fake smile. “Can I help you?”

“Ah, yes. I understand my nephew was brought in here last night - Kíli Oakenshield?” He waited for the young fellow to type it in, heart pounding in his throat as he tapped his fingers on the desk. If Kíli had - well, best not to think about it, he supposed, and waited with barely concealed terror. Finally, the young fellow nodded.

“Yes, he’s here. He’s in one of our secure wards - apparently been arrested as well! That’s an unfortunate evening!”

“Yes,” Bilbo said dryly. “Can I see him?”

The receptionist shrugged. “As long as you follow procedures. Take the lift to the third floor, and it’ll be to the left. You’ll have to check in with the ward supervisor and they’ll see to processing your clearance.”

Bilbo considered asking if there was any report on Kíli’s health, but decided he’d be better off asking closer to the source. He nodded thanks and made for the lift, feeling like he ought to be hiding his face or something, given his own status as a wanted man. It seemed to take forever for the lift to climb to the third floor, and Bilbo darted through the doors as they crept open, following the signs to the secure ward.

“I’m here to see Kíli Oakenshield,” he said rapidly, pushing his face up close to the glass. The woman behind the desk blinked at him from beneath heavy glasses, looking startled.

“Are you family?” she asked, sounding doubtful.

“Yes,” Bilbo said firmly. “I’m his uncle.”

“Let me get the supervisor,” she said, and rushed away, leaving him standing for a long moment. The supervisor turned out to be a giant bear of a man, all dark eyebrows and muscled forearms, and Bilbo thought to himself that Dwalin would have been dwarfed by this man.

“I am Beorn,” he rumbled, glaring down at Bilbo with his arms crossed.

“Ah, William Took,” Bilbo offered, holding out a hand. Beorn shook it gently, and Bilbo swallowed gently as his hand disappeared within the depths of the giant man’s fist. “Listen, I really need to know how Kíli is doing.”

Beorn ushered him through into a private consultation room, closing the door behind him. “Mr. Took,” he began in a low grumble, “this is a most unusual case. Our records would suggest that your nephew is a minor, and yet we have no medical records since his birth, and no indication of guardianship. We have had to take immediate action to ensure his well-being.”

“Is he all right?” Bilbo asked frantically, leaning forward.

Beorn blinked slowly at him. “Are you his guardian?”

“Yes!” Bilbo said, pounding a fist on one knee. “Well, one of them, anyway. I assure you, he will have no problem with you discussing his medical care with me!”

“Very well,” Beorn said, a long sigh deflating his massive chest. “I will tell you that his condition was quite critical when he was brought in. Your nephew seems to have suffered a stab wound to the right shoulder a few days ago, which then became infected. We were forced to debride the wound, and to treat for infection, as it was rapidly becoming systemic.” Bilbo pressed his hands against his mouth, elbows resting on his knees. “We have treated the rest of his injuries to the best of our ability, but the infection is still a concern. We have not closed the wound, as we need to watch for further infection or tissue death.”

“But he’ll live?” Bilbo asked, voice small in a throat that was painfully thick.

“We believe so,” Beorn said solemnly. It was a declaration made with such intense consideration that Bilbo couldn’t help but accept it as fact, plain and simple, and he let out a breath.

“Will he remain here?”

“Until he is well enough to be released, and then we will put him into the care of the prison health staff.” He turned a severe glare on Bilbo. “You must not attempt to remove him from our care.”

“I won’t,” Bilbo promised, meaning it wholeheartedly. He was not about to do anything to endanger Kíli, especially when the whole family was so entirely trapped. “Please, can I just see him?”

It was actually surprising how similar the procedures for visiting a patient and visiting a prisoner turned out to be. He was booked and fingerprinted and warned at great length of the regulations about visiting, though the restrictions were far less strict.

“Visiting hours are between ten and six,” Beorn recited. “No outside food or drink, and the patient’s health is the priority.”

“Fair enough.” Bilbo stood on one foot, toeing the ground behind him nervously with the tip of his other shoe. Beorn pointed a heavy finger directly in his face.

“Do not let him become agitated. I do not intend to allow my patient to come to any harm.” While Bilbo nodded furiously, Beorn stared at him, dark eyes never leaving his face, and then unlocked the door to Kíli’s room and let him in.

He stood on the cusp of the room for a long minute, taking in the frightening sight. Everything was white, Kíli’s dark hair standing out starkly in the midst of the clean crisp linens. He had IV lines running into one arm, a clean white bandage across the cut the Great Goblin had left on one cheek, and his right shoulder was loosely covered in gauze. He looked very fragile, stripped of the many layers he usually wore, and Bilbo remembered again that he was not yet eighteen.

The click of the door closing behind Bilbo, quietly being relocked as Beorn had warned him it would be, seemed to startle Kíli out of his rest, and he tried quickly to sit up. It took a long moment for his eyes to focus properly on Bilbo, and then they went wide and frightened, and Bilbo started forward. There was no way of knowing whether Kíli could remember the fake name they’d come up with for him, and they couldn’t afford to have their story ruined yet.

“Shhh, lad, it’s alright. It’s just Uncle Bill.” He slipped onto the chair next to Kíli’s bed, patting his arm gently. “It’ll be fine.”

“Uncle Bill?” Kíli asked, forehead wrinkled in confusion, and Bilbo nodded slowly, encouraging him to remember. Finally, his face cleared, and Kíli offered a quick, tired smile. “Glad you could make it. Has the great bear told you everything?”

“Beorn? Yes, he filled me in. Kíli-” Bilbo cut himself off with a sharp sigh. “You’ve had a lot of people worried after you, my boy.”

“Thorin’s going to kill me, isn’t he?” Kíli asked placidly, turning his eyes up to the ceiling. “I always thought that would be the way I went.”

“If your brother doesn’t get to you first,” Bilbo agreed, giving a little chuckle. “How much medication do they have you on?”

“None,” Kíli said, eyes sharp and suddenly fixed on Bilbo again. “They reckon I’m probably a drug addict, and they have policies against narcotics in these cases. But how is Fíli? Have you seen him? Is he here?” He looked around frantically, as if Fíli might be hiding behind Bilbo’s knees.

“No,” Bilbo said regretfully. “I’m afraid the rest are already in the prison. I saw Fíli not an hour ago, though, and he’s well - if worried about you.”

Kíli looked away, swallowing hard. “I thought,” he murmured, and then stayed quiet.

“Kíli,” Bilbo said quietly, moving his chair forward a bit. He needed to keep Kíli engaged, keep him from slipping into an unproductive melancholy. “Help me figure out what to do? I can visit Fíli and Thorin for a few minutes each day, but our conversations are monitored. Gandalf’s gone, and he says I’m to get you out, and I don’t know how!”

Kíli didn’t look at him. “The DI came to see me a few hours ago,” he said quietly. “He’s very pleased to have caught me. Apparently I’ve become a little famous in the young people’s crime circles, would you believe it?”

“I don’t -” Bilbo began, but Kíli continued.

“He thinks I’ll be an excellent example for young people. Show them the consequences of a life of crime or some such,” he said easily, but he didn’t look at Bilbo. “Maybe I can make a deal. Maybe if I confess to everything they want to say I did-” he broke off again. He was silent a moment, then turned to Bilbo, very young and very, very frightened. He moved his left hand a few inches, showing Bilbo the cold metal handcuff that tethered him to the hospital bed. “You have to get Fíli out of there,” he pleaded. “He can’t be locked away for years, it’ll kill him! You’ve got to get them out!”

“Kíli,” Bilbo said, reaching for his free hand, but Kíli pulled away, shaking his head.

“We’ll cause a diversion, or stage an escape or something,” he said wildly, eyes brighter than they ought to be. “Something - anything you can use to get them out. I don’t care if they lock me up forever. You’ve got to get my family out.” Above his head, a monitor was beginning to beep more rapidly, a few lights beginning to flash.

“Kíli!” Bilbo barked, trying his best to sound like Thorin - and it worked. Kíli froze, staring at him in stunned silence. Bilbo shook his head, and gently put out a hand to touch Kíli’s face, wiping at a traitorous tear with his thumb. “We’re going to get them out,” he said quietly. “And you, too. We go together, or not at all.”

“We’re trapped,” Kíli whispered, eyes very wide. “We’ve been running forever, and now we’re trapped, Uncle Bill. I don’t know how to get us out.”

“Ah, but they don’t know that we’re not all trapped, do they?” he asked, letting a little smile creep up on his face. “Now, we are going to think and scheme and plan, and then I’m going to go see your uncle and see how much I can get through to him, and we’ll work from there, hmm? One step at a time.”

Kíli nodded, sinking back against the pillows, and Bilbo let his hand drop. He looked utterly worn, and Bilbo could almost see the weight of it all - pain and fear and loneliness - pressing down on the slim shoulders.

“Now, tell me,” Bilbo said quietly, giving his hand a gentle pat. “Is it any good looking for Bombur or Gloin?”

Kíli shook his head wearily. “Not likely. They’ve never been willing to do anything that would expose them. Poor old Gloin has his wife and Gimli to think about, and Bombur-” he shrugged. “If things are desperate - life and death - they might act. For this, I just don’t know.”

“All right,” Bilbo mused, digesting that information. “One more question, lad - this William Took? Who am I supposed to be?”

Kíli grinned at that - a proper, wide grin that crinkled up the corners of his eyes. “Ah, that would be Fíli’s idea. Mostly. To give you a family claim in case something like this happened.”

“Am I meant to be from your father’s side, then?” Bilbo pressed, and then winced as Kíli’s eyes went hard.

“Of course not.” He shook his head sharply, then relaxed again. “No, it’s more the opposite, really.” His eyes sparkled with mischief. “When Uncle Thorin finds out, be sure to blame Fíli, OK?”

“You didn’t-” Bilbo said, feeling a churning sense of mortification rising in his gut. “No. No, you didn’t!”

“Just be glad domestic partners are accorded some family benefits, hmm?” Kíli said, giggling a little. It turned into a yawn, and he burrowed a little deeper into his pillows.

“You little bastards,” Bilbo muttered, running his fingers through his hair. “If you weren’t injured, I’d thump you!”

“Scary, Uncle Bill,” Kíli murmured through another yawn. He turned sleepy eyes on Bilbo. “Are you going to see Thorin and Fíli now?”

“I can’t visit Fíli again until tomorrow,” he said regretfully. “But I’ll see if they’ll let me see Thorin, and pass along the supposedly-good news that you’re still breathing.” He glared down at the sleepy boy, who was fading fast. His eyes were almost shut now.

“Want Fíli,” he said mournfully. “Tell him to come?”

“As soon as he can,” Bilbo murmured. He reached out a gentle hand and pushed the scruffy fringe out of Kíli’s face. “He’ll be here as soon as he can.”

He snuck out once Kíli was truly asleep, tapping at the door until a nurse heard and let him out, but he was required to stop and see Beorn again before he could leave the ward, and be given stern warnings once again about visiting hours and regulations. When he stepped out of the hospital, Bilbo gave a heartfelt groan. It wasn’t even yet noon, and he was exhausted.

He traveled back to the prison by bus, unwilling to pay yet another cab fare, and went through the same rigmarole again to see Thorin - made much easier this time, since they had his picture, basic information, and fingerprints in the system already. This time, though, the security measures were stronger, and the tall, graceful prison guards stopped him outside the visiting room.

“This prisoner is considered dangerous,” the woman warned him, her voice unusually deep and melodic. “He is not permitted to stand up or make physical contact. Is this understood?”

“Yes! Right, yes,” Bilbo said quickly, and then remembered that perhaps he ought to look disappointed by this news. He was just relieved he wouldn’t have to try to make some physical demonstration of their supposed relationship for all the cameras to see. The guards watched him carefully as he entered the room, and Thorin looked up warily. Surprise, and a quick wild joy, ran over his face before it settled into the all-too-familiar scowl that Bilbo had come to know so well.

“Hi,” Bilbo said lamely, offering a quick, awkward wave, and then wishing he could die of embarrassment just to get himself out of the situation.

“William,” Thorin said evenly, easing one of his worries. “It’s good to see you.”

“You too,” Bilbo said, and that was a truth, and it came out with sincerity. “Are they looking after you?”

Thorin shrugged, fierce eyes on Bilbo like he carried the answers to their predicament in his curly hair. “They haven’t done anything to harm us, besides locking us up.” His gaze softened, became something entirely more real, though his face didn’t really seem to move. “Fíli and Kíli?”

“I’ve seen them both,” Bilbo said, stepping forward and taking the chair across from Thorin. “Fíli’s here, and well enough. They’ve taken care of his wounds. Kíli’s in hospital.”

“Foolish puppy,” Thorin growled. He shook his head, and Bilbo ached for them all. “He should have told me! Last night, I thought I’d lost him.” There was a raw ache in his voice that Bilbo simply could not handle, and he waved a hand through the air.

“He’s fine! Well, not fine, exactly. He’s in some pain, but they seem to think he’ll make a good recovery.” Thorin’s face crumpled at that, into the most honest expression of relief that Bilbo had seen from him. He buried his face in his hands for a brief moment, then dragged his hands down his face, composing himself again.

“And you?” Bilbo blinked at Thorin’s question.

“Me? I’m fine!” He chuckled dryly. “About ready to strangle those nephews of ours, though.” He glanced at Thorin sideways, hoping he might pick up on the hint. Sure enough, his brow furrowed mightily, and he raised a suspicious eyebrow.

“They haven’t -”

“Yes,” Bilbo interrupted, well aware that everything they said was being monitored. “They’ve told everyone about our relationship. Which, I mean, at least now I can come visit, so that’s something…” his voice trailed off awkwardly, and he could feel the hot flush in his cheeks. He was going to thump them both when they got out of this.

“Well,” Thorin said. He looked up at the ceiling, a strange combination of amusement and anger seemingly at war within him. “Yes, that is something.” Bilbo had the feeling the lads were not going to be entirely pleased with their reception by their uncle once they were free again.

“So,” Bilbo said awkwardly, unsure how to tell Thorin that he was trying to come up with a rescue plan without alerting the authorities to the same thing. “When do you think things will begin to move?”

“No way to be sure,” Thorin said heavily. “Smaug will be certain to obtain the best possible counsel against us, and they won’t want to wait too long. Trying us in the public eye will be very good for the police’s reputation.”

“Kíli said the DI on the case has already been to see him,” Bilbo reported, and Thorin gave a hum of acknowledgment.

“I’ve seen him as well. I don’t think Thranduil is on Smaug’s payroll, but he’s devoted to his job. He has no love or sympathy for us.”

Bilbo nodded, but the door swung open before he could speak.

“Mr. Took, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave now. Mr. Oakenshield has some questions he needs to answer for us.” They swept Bilbo aside gracefully, bringing him to the door before he had a chance to even say goodbye. Thorin just gave him a calm, steady nod, and Bilbo offered back the best smile he could scrape up, hoping it communicated some sort of optimism.

He set off down the hall at a slow pace, thinking hard. This was the closest he was likely to get to the inside of the prison where the rest of his friends were captive, and it wasn’t very promising. In the outer hallway where he’d been so far, all the doors led to little interview rooms or to the offices of various police officials, names neatly spelled out on the doors.

When his eye caught on the words “Detective Inspector Thranduil” it took Bilbo a moment to recognise the name. He hesitated, debating with himself. What good could he hope to do in speaking to the man, if he was even in his office? But he hadn’t found any other way to help yet, and so it was in desperation that he knocked on Thranduil’s door.

“Come in!” a rich, cultured voice called, and Bilbo swallowed hard and pushed the door open. Thranduil looked up, clearly surprised not to see one of his colleagues, and Bilbo closed the door quickly before he could be sent away. “Who are you?”

“I’m William Took,” he said, pleased that he was doing so well in remembering his alias. “I’m sort of with the - the Sons of Durin?”

“Oh?” Thranduil stood, looking surprised. He was a tall, slim man in a well-fitted uniform that looked brand new. His hair was such a light blond that it might almost have been white. “Are you here to turn yourself in?”

“No!” Bilbo objected. “No, that’s not what I mean! They’re my family! I haven’t done anything illegal - and neither have they, for all that I know. I just want to help.”

Thranduil seemed surprised, and perhaps a little intrigued. He sat down behind his fine wooden desk, and gestured for Bilbo to have a seat. “Tea, Mr. Took?”

“No, thanks,” Bilbo said, almost surprised at himself. He had no desire to take anything from this man.

“What is it that you are wanting?” Thranduil asked, no more than mildly curious. “I’m not about to let them go just because you tell me that they don’t curse at old ladies or pester picnickers.”

“No, I wouldn’t ask you to,” Bilbo said, feeling unreasonably annoyed with the man. Maybe it was the way his eyes didn’t blink often enough. “I just thought-” he paused for a long moment, trying to think what might help. For the moment, he was only able to visit Fíli and Thorin, and Kíli over at the hospital, and none of them could see one another. But that was exactly the trouble, wasn’t it? He cleared his throat and started again. “It’s about the youngsters - Fíli and Kíli. My nephews.”

“Ah, yes,” Thranduil said, flicking lazily through a thick file of paperwork. “Quite the list of charges they’ve racked up, and so young. I think their example will do very good things for the young people of this nation when they are brought to justice.”

Bilbo brought a fist down on his knee, unable to look at the slight smile around the corners of the man’s narrow mouth any longer. “Well, right now, they’re not criminals or examples at all, good or bad. They’re children who are alone and frightened and hurt. Kíli almost died last night, and his brother had to watch!”

“Yes, it’s all very poignant,” Thranduil said smoothly. “Such a shame, the consequences of a life a crime. What is it that you want me to do about it?”

“Please,” Bilbo said, leaning forward and speaking earnestly. “Let Fíli visit his brother. They need one another. Let them at least see that they’re both alive and well.”

The officer sighed, sounding put out by the conversation. “That’s not our usual procedure, Mr. Took. They’re not here on holiday. It’s not meant to be comfortable.”

“We’re not talking about comfort!” Bilbo said fiercely. He cast his eyes around the room desperately, and they fell on a picture on the man’s desk of a young man, not much younger than Fíli and Kíli, who was smiling confidently at the camera. He was dressed in the kind of rich clothes that Bilbo knew his lads had never worn, and there were no lines of worry on his face, no scars or burdens hiding under his cheerful expression. “Is that your son?” he asked, allowing his voice to become gentle again.

“Yes,” Thranduil said proudly. “My Legolas. He’s at university now.”

“Then let me appeal to you as a father,” Bilbo said evenly. “If your son were somewhere, hurt and alone and afraid, wouldn’t you do anything to go to him and comfort him, just for a moment?” Thranduil didn’t speak, staring at the picture of his son with thoughtful eyes. “Kíli doesn’t have a father. But he does have a brother, and they need one another right now, maybe more than anyone you’ve ever known.” He hesitated a moment. “Please.”

Thranduil stared at him for a moment, face impassive, and then nodded slowly. “I’ll allow it - but only under my own direct supervision. I’ve got another case to deal with at the Royal Infirmary anyway; he can come along in custody and visit under secure conditions.”

“Thank you,” Bilbo breathed. Thranduil was up and moving before he could finish the words, his smooth long-legged stride taking Bilbo by surprise.

“Are you coming?” he called over his shoulder, and Bilbo had to hop to keep up with him.

They brought Fíli around to the back of the prison, hands carefully secured, and Thranduil put both of them in the back of his car, driving them over to the hospital himself.

“They said I get to see Kíli?” he asked eagerly, and Bilbo nodded.

“Not likely to be on a regular basis, but the DI has allowed you this visit on compassionate grounds,” he explained. Fíli’s eyes darkened at that, and Bilbo cursed his own wording. “Don’t worry - he’s fine! Or he will be. You’ll see.” He patted Fíli’s arm comfortingly, and was warmed to the core by the grateful smile the older of the brothers gave him.

Thranduil didn’t waste any time seeing them to the secure ward, or informing Beorn about the circumstances of their visit. The giant man nodded slowly.

“It is good,” he said ponderously. “I believe my patient needs to see his brother. It will ease his heart.”

Kíli nearly fell out of his bed when they let Fíli in, and Bilbo found himself beaming as Fíli launched himself toward his brother with a wordless shout of joy. Thranduil rolled his eyes and turned away. “I’ll be back within the hour,” he called over his shoulder. “Beorn, I’m leaving them in your care. Don’t lose them.”

Bilbo just shook his head, smiling at the brothers as they both talked a mile an hour in their strangely incomplete language, faces and voices and a shared lifetime of experiences filling in the gaps of the words they didn’t need. He sat down on a chair by the bed, made unnecessary when Fíli had leapt up to sit cross-legged at the foot of Kíli’s bed, both beaming fit to light the room.

“You stupid idiot!” Fíli was saying, shaking his head at Kíli’s bandaged shoulder. “If you ever pull something like that again-”

“I know, I know - Waternish all over again,” Kíli said, rolling his eyes grandly. “Don’t remind me.”

It took them a few long minutes to assure themselves that the other was really alive and well, and Bilbo kept out of it, wishing that Thorin could be here to see them. Eventually, though, they calmed down and turned to include Bilbo in their conversation.

“Well done, Uncle Bill!” Fíli said, leaning over to clap him on the shoulder. “You’ve half-burgled me out of prison and it’s only been one day!”

“I’m afraid it’ll take a lot more than that to do the job properly,” Bilbo said, trying not to sound too disconsolate. “There are rather a lot of you, and it’s not like I can shove you in barrels and let you float away to freedom or some such! I can’t even get into the prison properly to see anyone!”

“I was thinking about that,” Fíli said, suddenly all business. “Did they take much information on you before they’d let you visit?”

Bilbo rolled his eyes. “Photograph, all my information, fingerprints - everything but a blood sample!”

“That could be useful,” Kíli said, leaning forward - and then wincing in pain and collapsing back with a look of disgust at his own shoulder. “What we need is some sort of credential that will let you into the prison properly, and that’s all the information they would need to give you that.”

“If I had a computer, or my mobile,” Fíli moaned, shaking his head. “It would be child’s play!”

Kíli sat up again, grinning merrily. “Want to see something fun?” From beneath the covers, he pulled a mobile phone - one of the posh ones that Bilbo had never understood how to use, all touch-screen and no buttons. “I lifted this off this awful nurse when she came in earlier. She’s determined to give me every jab I ever missed as a child, all of them in the same spot!”

Fíli snatched the mobile from his hands, looking slightly awed. “Remind me to thank Nori for making something useful of you!” His fingers flew across the screen, and Kíli laughed softly at the intensity in his face. In less than five minutes he looked up, glowing with triumph.

“Mr. Took, you are now a janitor!”

“I - what?” Bilbo was quite lost.

“I took all the information they collected on you, and hacked into their system to change it. You are no longer a visitor; you’re a janitor, one whose been working there for almost six months. When you show up to work tomorrow morning and explain, all shame-faced, that you lost your security badge, they’ll pull you up and print a new one right then and there, and you’ll have almost complete access to the prison!” Fíli couldn’t have looked much more self-satisfied if he tried, and Kíli shook his head.

“We need to teach you how to disguise yourself,” he put in quickly, narrowing his eyes at Bilbo thoughtfully. “You could do a limp, maybe. Give them something obvious to look at, or to pretend they’re not staring at, and they’ll never bother to notice your face!”

“But - what good does it do me to be a janitor?” Bilbo asked. “I still can’t unlock your doors or smuggle you all out! And Kíli’s not even in the same part of town!”

“Ah,” Fíli said, waggling his eyebrows. “This way, you can find everyone and talk to all of us without the monitors. You may not be able to come up with a plan all on your own, but I don’t think there’s a prison built that can hold all of us if we’re able to work together.” He tossed the mobile back to Kíli, who hid it away again in a smooth motion, and they both turned to Bilbo, identical expressions of somewhat baseless optimism on their faces.

“I don’t know,” Bilbo said, shaking his head. “It’s not very much to go on, is it?” They stared back at him, and he could see the doubt and fear growing in their eyes, beneath the cheerful smiles they tried to hold. It really wasn’t much to go on, and he was probably going to end up in prison himself for the rest of his natural life. But he dared anyone, even Thranduil himself, to resist that much desperation and determination. He sighed heavily. “Well, my mother always did tell me I was going to wind up a janitor if I didn’t concentrate on my studies!”

Chapter Text

They hadn’t had much time to work on the details of their plan in Kíli’s secure room before Thranduil returned, leaning against the doorframe with an expression of near-terminal boredom.

“If you’re quite finished,” he said mildly, and the lads looked at one another, not far from the edge of panic.

“Can I come back?” Fíli asked desperately, grabbing Kíli’s forearm in what Bilbo suspected was an unconscious reaction. Thranduil sighed.

“Look, I’m sure you’ll see him in the prison once he’s transferred. I’m not running a social club.” Kíli’s eyes were wide, and he clutched Fíli’s sleeve so tight his knuckles went white.

“Look, it’ll be fine,” Fíli said, turning a strained smile on his younger brother. “It will! I’ll see you soon, and Uncle Bill can come visit both of us.” Kíli nodded, but his fingers didn’t loosen from Fíli’s sleeve. Fíli looked at Bilbo beseechingly, and he stepped forward.

“You’ll both be fine,” he said soothingly, and gently uncurled Kíli’s fingers, patting his hand. “I’ll stay for a while, if you like.” Fíli slid off the bed carefully, mindful of his brother’s injuries, and paused for a long minute, like he would reach out and drag his brother with him if he could.

“Mr. Oakenshield,” Thranduil called, clearly growing impatient, and Fíli offered Kíli a sad, wordless smile and went away, letting the officer take his shoulder in an iron grip as he went. Kíli gave a muffled, wordless sound of loss, and Bilbo shook his head sadly.

“I’m so sorry it’s come to this,” he murmured. Kíli slumped back against the pillow, the animation that had been there during his brother’s visit fading into something older and sadder.

“We always knew it might,” he muttered. He tugged a little at the metal cuff that kept him tethered to the hospital bed. “I should never have rushed you off to get the drive like that. Uncle Thorin was right. I never think.”

“Ah, Kíli,” Bilbo said with a sigh. “You need to focus on getting well. We’re going to need you healthy and ready to move, when the time comes. And I think I’ll need you to help me figure out what to do!” But trying to jolly him out of his sorrow seemed to be an impossible prospect, and by the time Beorn came to escort Bilbo from the ward, Kíli was nearly asleep, fingers clutched tightly around the edge of his blanket and face lined with loss.

Bilbo swore he’d be back the next day, and Beorn walked him to the door of the secure ward, looming over him threateningly as he opened the door.

“Mr. Took,” he rumbled, “if these visits of yours produce ill effects in my patient, I will not allow you to continue visiting.”

“They won’t!” Bilbo promised, holding up a hand. “I swear! I’ll cheer him up tomorrow, I know it.”

Beorn nodded, but looked like he was reserving judgment. “Nothing that harms my patient will be permitted. And I do not like so many visitors all at once. You will come alone.” He gave Bilbo a stern, frightening glare, and then closed the door behind him, leaving him outside. Bilbo shook his head, wondering desolately whether anything was ever going to go his way again.

The light was beginning to fade by the time he left the hospital, and Bilbo stood in the street for a long moment, looking around. There was so much he knew he needed to do, but he felt paralysed. He had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat, and no real idea what would happen the next day - and now he was more alone than he had felt in years. He might have gone days or weeks at a time without passing more than idle words with a customer, but that had been different. He hadn’t known what he was missing. Shoulders slumped with exhaustion, Bilbo shoved his hands in his pockets and began to walk.

He eventually found a pub where he could grab a quick bite and a pint, feeling more than a little guilty for enjoying something his friends were now deprived of, but he reasoned he would need the fortification. A further trudge through the streets of Edinburgh took him back to the bus station to collect his safely-deposited bag of hastily packed items, and then he went into the street, turned to face a random direction, and set off for the first hostel he could find. It was cheap and shabbily cheerful, packed with broke young backpackers and gap-year students, and the best place for anonymity that Bilbo could think of. He collapsed on an empty bunk in a six-bed dorm, grateful that his new roommates weren’t back from the clubs yet, and stared up at the bunk above him, wishing for advice or a friendly smile or anything that would mean he wasn’t so entirely alone.

And in the middle of the night, when they stumbled back in, roaring drunk, Bilbo lay awake quietly resenting them for being the wrong roaring drunks, and mentally cursing Fíli and Kíli for not coming up with a better plan. It was, when considered in the middle of the night, one of the worst plans Bilbo had ever actually heard - right up there with shoving him toward a paranoid drug addict and expecting him to secure a precious item from the man with no preparation.

“Maybe this is why you’ve never got your mountain back yet, you stupid lumps,” Bilbo muttered under his breath, and flipped over, trying again to sleep.

He woke early that morning, dressing in the plainest clothes he had, and wishing he had any idea whether he was meant to wear a uniform for this job. There was nothing for it but to try, though, and so he grabbed a coffee on the way, and turned up at the back door just before eight, as Fíli had advised. A small wave of sleepy-eyed employees seemed to be making for the same door, which was an encouraging sight, and Bilbo joined the pack. They filed through a basic security installation, where they passed a bored-looking (if graceful) security guard who glanced fleetingly at their ID badges before waving them through the metal detector on their way in. Bilbo hung back and let the rest go ahead, then stepped up to the guard’s desk, looking as sheepish as he could manage.

“I’m afraid I’ve lost my badge,” he said quietly, offering an apologetic smile. “Can you, erm, help?”

The guard sighed, eying him a little suspiciously. “Name?”

“William Took,” he said quickly, flipping out his identification.

The guard typed the information into his computer, then shook his head, and Bilbo nearly had a heart attack. He looked up, raising his eyebrows at Bilbo. “And what, precisely, happened to your badge?”

“It - came unclipped and slipped down a grate?” Bilbo offered, wincing at the stupidity of the entire situation. The guard gave a short huff of laughter.

“Says here that last time, you managed to drop it down the loo. Be more careful with this one.” A machine near his head gave a few clanking, wheezing sounds, then spit out a fresh new ID badge, complete with Bilbo’s picture and employee information. He tried not to gasp in shock or grin with delight.

“Right, of course. Ta!” Bilbo shot through the metal detector, trying to find the group he’d come in with. They were loud enough that it wasn’t too much trouble, and Bilbo came upon them suddenly, clustered around a man who was clearly handing out assignments.

“Here,” the pudgy man shouted, waving at him over the head of the crowd. “You Took?”

“Uh, yes!” Bilbo replied, holding up his badge uselessly. Bless Fíli - he must have put him on the rota and everything!

“You’re late, so you can take the mess in section J. Remand prisoners have been having a bit of a hard time adjusting.” There were some chuckles around the group, and Bilbo realised he’d been stuck with the least favoured job - and possibly the one he most wanted, if the remand prisoners they were discussing were the ones he hoped! He nodded quietly and followed the crowd to the largest janitor’s closet he had ever seen, and copied the rest by helping himself to a cart full of supplies.

There was a helpful list of rules and regulations posted on a board outside the supply closet, and Bilbo read over it quickly, trying to memorise the rules about how to open and close cell doors, how to deal with prisoners, and the basic functions of his ID badge. It wasn’t much to go on, but it gave him at least a hint of the expected procedure.

Section J was more than a bit difficult to find, but Bilbo managed in the end, helped along by the sound of a familiar voice shouting nonsensical words. He was surprised, making his way through the facility, how little fear of discovery he felt. He was affecting a fairly convincing limp, on Kíli’s advice, and between his garish cleaning cart and his seeming disability, none of the employees he passed even bothered to glance at his face. As long as he was able to avoid the few specific employees he’d encountered before, it shouldn’t be too difficult to stay under the radar.

There was a guard posted at the entrance to Section J, and a locked door. Bilbo approached casually, hoping for some hint as to how he should behave.

“What’d you do to get this job?” the guard laughed when he drew close. He seemed younger than most of the employees there, a bit of merriment to his features.

“I’m rather in disgrace at the moment,” Bilbo offered sheepishly. He waved his badge. “Lost my ID for a second time, I’m afraid.” The guard put out his hand, and Bilbo handed his ID over.

“They’ll probably have you on this section for the week, if I know your boss,” the guard said sympathetically. “The new remands are causing all sorts of difficulty. I don’t envy you!” He swiped Bilbo’s ID through a reader, then typed rapidly on his keyboard. “You’re cleared to enter any of the low-security cells. Most of them don’t seem to be dangerous, but I’ll be monitoring. If there’s any trouble, I’ll be right along.”

“Thanks,” Bilbo offered, hoping desperately that it was just his batch of criminals beyond the door. The guard nodded and handed his badge back, then swung the door open wide and let Bilbo push his cart through.

“Attention!” the guard shouted into a microphone by the door, his voice carrying clearly through the short hallway beyond and, Bilbo was sure, into each of the closed rooms. “Cleaning services are not to be disrupted. All prisoners are to remain seated while rooms are being serviced. Any contact with the cleaning staff, or attempt to leave your cell, will result in disciplinary actions.” He offered Bilbo a perfunctory smile and left the hall, the door locking behind him with an audible click, and Bilbo let out a slow breath and pushed his heavy cart a few feet down the hall. There was a card reader by each door, and he took a deep breath and swiped his card, hearing a click before yanking the door open.

Bofur was inside, seated on the edge of his bed with a sad slump to his shoulders that made Bilbo sort of want to punch things, and he looked at Bilbo for a long moment before delighted recognition crept over his face. Bilbo pushed his cart into the room, positioning it as the instructions had stated - cart blocking the door, with the metal hook on the end propped into the doorjamb, keeping the cell door from shutting and locking behind him.

“Shhhh,” he whispered as he moved. “I don’t know how closely they monitor things here.”

“They’ve not minded us shouting across the hall,” Bofur said quietly, grin spreading slowly across his face. “Bilbo Baggins, you are full of surprises! A grocer to a janitor in barely more than a step!”

“With criminal mastermind as the expected promotion,” Bilbo added. He looked around the small cell. “Any idea what I’m meant to be cleaning?”

“The fellow who came in yesterday sort of just gave everything a once-over,” Bofur offered. He looked like he wanted to jump up and embrace Bilbo, but kept to his seat. Bilbo sighed and picked up a few basic supplies from his cart, figuring he’d better make it look good in case the guard was watching. “How did you manage this, Bilbo?”

“It was Fíli and Kíli, mostly,” Bilbo explained, giving a rapid-fire description of their quick thinking. “And now I’m meant to be coming up with an escape plan! At this point, I can’t do much more than scrub out your sink!”

“You’ll be fantastic,” Bofur assured him heartily. “Just seeing you is a sight for sore eyes! And to hear that the lads are well - that’ll do us all a world of good. We didn’t know what had become of our Kíli.”

“They’re not letting you see one another?” Bilbo whispered, scrubbing at a strange dark stain on one wall, and trying not to think about what it might be.

“No, not yet. I expect that’ll change when we’re convicted and here for the duration.”

“It won’t come to that,” Bilbo promised.

“I don’t mean to doubt you,” Bofur said quickly. “You’re the best hope we’ve got, and don’t think we don’t appreciate it. But Thranduil seems awfully chuffed to have caught us, and he’s not likely to let us go easy.”

Bilbo sighed, changing out the toilet roll. “You can all listen, at least,” he said quietly. “See what you can pick up. Any weaknesses, anything you can figure out about the schedule or the guards or anything, really. And I can pass messages this way, any time they let me work here.”

“Oh, aye, I can do that!” Bofur agreed, sounding more cheerful with a plan of action in front of him. “You’d be surprised how chatty people get with a little encouragement!”

Bilbo finished up everything he could find to do in Bofur’s cell, noting it had only taken about twenty minutes, and whispered a regretful goodbye as he backed out of the cell. Bofur gave him a cheeky grin and a wink, and he comforted himself that he had, at least, lifted the man’s spirits a bit. The next cell along contained Dwalin, whose flicker of surprise on seeing Bilbo was quickly concealed beneath his customary tough exterior. At least he wouldn’t have to explain the importance of discretion to all the men!

“Any idea where they’re keeping Thorin?” Bilbo asked as he worked. Dwalin lay back across his cot, arms crossed over his chest, staring impassively at the ceiling.

“Somewhere close,” he grunted, not moving. “Heard him shouting when they brought him in the first night, asking where the lads were.” He blinked slowly. “Where is Kíli?” There was a darkness in his question that Bilbo disliked greatly.

“Alive,” he assured him. “In hospital, and not happy about being separated from his brother, but he’s going to be fine.” Dwalin closed his eyes at that, exhaling so slowly that Bilbo could barely comprehend how great his lung capacity must be. It was something of a surprise to Bilbo to see such a reaction from the stoic man, and he hid a little grin as he worked on the basic cleaning chores in Dwalin’s cell.

He offered a few whispers about the others, about the bare bones of a plan that they were putting together, and repeated his request for information.

“You’ll want to talk to Nori,” Dwalin offered. “He’s spent more time in prisons than the rest of us together. If anyone will have an idea, it’s that old criminal.”

It took Bilbo a long time to find Nori, working his way methodically around the cells, which were full of his friends. Balin was in next to his brother, and the old man’s enthusiasm on seeing Bilbo was a cheering thing to behold. Dori offered all the little pieces of gossip he’d been able to pick up so far, and was delighted to hear about Bilbo’s visits with Thorin and his nephews (though Bilbo deliberately withheld the information about the fictional relationship that Fíli and Kíli had forced him into). Ori was a nervous wreck, nearly trembling with repressed energy and more than a bit of terror at his situation, and all Bilbo could do was offer his assurances that he would do his very best to get them out.

“I wish they’d let me have my knitting in here, at the least,” Ori sighed. “Do you think they’ll let me have pen and paper?”

“I don’t know,” Bilbo was forced to answer. “I’ve never been to prison myself - not until now, anyway.”

Bifur was the cause of the troubling mess that the other cleaning staff had been wary of, but Bilbo couldn’t help but smile a bit. The odd fellow seemed to know exactly what he had done, showing Bilbo the nearly artistic way he had smeared his food on every part of the white cell wall. Even though Bilbo had to scrub up all the mess, he didn’t much mind, and he whispered an encouragement to keep it up as he crept backwards out the door.

Nori was on the other side of the hall, and he was the only man who didn’t seem surprised to see Bilbo. He raised a crafty eyebrow, giving a little nod as if in congratulations, and went back to counting something on his fingers.

“Listen,” Bilbo muttered as he worked, “I’m trying to figure out how to get you all out of here, and word is you might be the best person to ask.”

“I’ve been in a prison or six in my time,” Nori admitted easily. “Haven’t escaped from any, though. This one would be a challenge.”

“Well, we’d better take that challenge, or you’re going to be in here a very long time,” Bilbo said sharply, a little frustrated. “What can you tell me? What should I be looking for?”

Nori sighed. “It’s too modern to be an easy target. They’ve got cameras and locks everywhere, and no convenient guards napping with key-rings on their belts. But it’s not all bad news.” He nodded at the door, which had a posted list of rules. “They’ve got rules, and for everyone. Means the guards won’t beat us or allow us to kill each other. Means they have regular shifts and working hours. We’ll learn the rhythms soon enough, and if we behave, they’ll start to relax. Give us some privileges, some benefits for good conduct. That’s when things get easier.”

Bilbo secured his promise to keep his sharp eyes open and pass along anything that might be useful. Talking to Oin was basically impossible, given his lack of hearing, so Bilbo had to settle for small, cheering smiles and hope that the old man would get the message. He didn’t give Bilbo away, and that was the most important thing.

The last cell in their hall contained Fíli, who was pacing in tight circles. The guard had to get on the intercom to remind him to sit down while Bilbo was in the room, confirming that they were being watched, and Fíli sat in a tense cross-legged position on the bed. He looked very tired, and Bilbo wondered whether he was sleeping properly.

“I’m going to see Kíli after I’m done here,” he promised quietly. “They’re looking after him there, you know.”

“I look after him,” Fíli said sullenly, his arms crossed. “We haven’t been apart like this in years. And he used to bite people when they took him away from me, back then.”

“I don’t advise biting,” Bilbo said dryly. “We’re going to figure this thing out.” Fíli nodded and rubbed at his face, and Bilbo saw the tiredness in his eyes, in the lines of his shoulders. He talked quietly while he worked - about Kíli, about the life he used to live, about what they would do when they got out - and when he left the room, he was quietly pleased to see that Fíli had fallen asleep, curled up in a little ball on his cot.

Thorin, he was not able to find that day. When he reported back to the supervisor that he had finished the cells in Section J, the man blinked at him. “It took us three times that long yesterday. The mad old fellow threw food at me the entire time.” He scribbled something down on his schedule and pointed at Bilbo. “You’re a good man, Took. You can keep working with them until we get them reassigned into more permanent cells.” Bilbo feigned a bit of disappointment, but it was a challenge.

He went to see Kíli after work, just as he had promised, and shared news of all of the others, gratified to see life in the lad’s expression when he talked about his family members. He looked healthier, though still in a great deal of pain, and Bilbo stole a moment to talk to Beorn when Kíli had drifted into a light doze.

“How long will it be until he’s well?”

Beorn shrugged heavy shoulders in a movement like the shift of glaciers. “A few days, if he rests. The infection was severe, but he is young and healthy.”

“And then he’ll go to the prison as well?”

“It is not in my hands,” Beorn said calmly. “I am not his judge. I must see to his health, and others to his moral conduct.”

Bilbo quickly slipped into a routine, though he was slightly disturbed by how easy it became. He spent most of his day in the prison, cleaning cells and exchanging quiet words with his imprisoned friends, then went to the hospital to visit Kíli, who chafed at his own confinement as he regained his strength. When Beorn threw him out in the evenings, Bilbo returned to the hostel, where he was rapidly becoming a quiet fixture.

The men in prison offered what small scraps of information they could - which guards were kind and which intolerant, how quiet it got at night, the way the air flowed through the vents - but Bilbo could see no way to make those pieces of useless knowledge into a usable escape plan. Fíli paced like a caged lion, apparently only sleeping when Bilbo could coax him into it, and Kíli was little better. Bilbo wanted to find Thranduil again and throw himself on the man’s mercy, explain how much the brothers needed to see one another, but that would have destroyed everything he was working toward. He worried that Thranduil might question his lack of formal prison visits, but he could not afford to be caught as both a visitor and an employee.

The Sons of Durin were very cheered at first by his presence, whispering excitedly about escape, but as the days stretched on, they grew quiet and dispirited. Bifur tried to remain cheerful for his benefit, but Balin’s eyes grew dim, and Dwalin would do little more than grunt. Ori’s nerves deteriorated, and Bilbo was reminded of a little rodent in a cage, scrabbling at a wall uselessly because it could do nothing else. Nori remained calm and collected, though, and Dori heard every piece of gossip that passed through the prison, and relayed it to Bilbo with unceasing enthusiasm.

He could not find Thorin for the first few days, although some of the others insisted he had to be nearby. It was a real worry. Bilbo was reasonably sure that, given the opportunity, he would be able to get the others out of their cells, at the least. His ID card had been authorised to access all of their cells once he had been assigned to Section J, and he’d learned the trick to jamming the section door open discretely with a scrap of rag. But to escape without Thorin - he knew none of the rest would ever agree to that.

For Bilbo, it was a bittersweet time. He had the company of people he was genuinely coming to like surrounding him most of the time, and a chance to get to know them all one on one. He shared more than one laugh with a member of the family, and there was no doubt that they saw him as one of them these days - and that they were counting on him. Bilbo didn’t think anyone had ever offered him the kind of trust that the Sons of Durin extended so willingly. But he hurt for them, locked away in these small soulless rooms, cut off from one another, and from the hope that had been guiding them all along.

There was a pain in them all that he was coming to see more clearly the longer he knew them, an ache deep down in the bones of them that he could barely see the shape of. Alone and quiet, they were damaged men. They spoke to him of Beinn Chùirn sometimes, of the home that they longed for, of the hopes they had carried that they could be a proper family again. They were bound together by that pain, by the lonely song that echoed through them all, Bilbo thought, and then cursed his own maudlin poetic nature.

It was an accident, in the end, that gave him the hint he needed. Tim, his boss, gathered them together at the start of their shift a week after the Sons of Durin had been arrested, and coughed aggressively until everyone was listening.

“Right,” he said awkwardly. “So, for the banquet tonight, we’re going to need a few volunteers. It’ll be overtime, but you have to be committed to staying as late as it goes.”

“Banquet?” Bilbo hissed to his neighbor, a tired woman whose name he’d never bothered to learn.

“Celebration, isn’t it?” she mumbled, as a few people around them raised their hands to volunteer. “The DI’s throwing a big do to show off them as caught that gang the other day. They’ll do up a big thing for the press. Thranduil’s looking to be promoted, I think.”

“So it’ll be him and who else? And where?” Bilbo asked, trying to sound casual. “I don’t know if I should bother to sign up or not.”

“Oh, all the officers,” she said tiredly. “And everyone who was involved in the capture. It’s good publicity, right, them catching the Sons of Durin after all those years. Nobody wants to miss a piece of the pie. They’re having the whole do up near the Castle, I hear. Lots of media coverage.”

Bilbo’s heart skipped a few beats, but he just nodded, and went to find his cart, ideas tumbling through his head. If Thranduil and much of the prison staff were going to be gone that evening, it sounded like the best possible moment to try to escape. He went straight to Nori’s cell, hoping the guard wouldn’t note the deviation from routine. He hissed out the details quickly while scrubbing at an invisible spot on the floor, and Nori lit up.

“Oh, that’s very good, master burglar! Very good indeed! Of course, it won’t be all fireworks and cake. There’ll still be staff on duty - only they’ll be the worst of the lot, the ones who haven’t earned any rewards.” He snapped his fingers. “They’ll be resentful, too. Easy to distract, likely. We’ll need something official, though. They won’t let us just walk out, no matter how big of a party they’re missing.”

It really was Bilbo’s lucky day, because when he went to visit Bofur, there was more good news - when he thought about it from the right perspective, anyway.

“So we’re to go on trial tomorrow,” Bofur said without preamble. He had lost some of his spark, and offered the news glumly. “They’ll be moving us to a different part of the prison when the trial starts. Hear Smaug’s got us quite the legal opposition, too.”

“So it’s got to be tonight,” Bilbo breathed. He shared the details quickly, and then sat down to think, pretending to be cleaning the floor deeply. “But if you’re to be moved, maybe we can use that! What does it take to move a prisoner?”

“An officer with orders?” Bofur guessed. “A janitor can’t do it, lad.”

“No he can’t,” Bilbo agreed. “But it’s a start.” He was feeling newly refreshed by these developments, finally feeling like things were moving.

He left in a rush that afternoon, and didn’t go to the hospital. Instead, he sought out a private corner of a quiet courtyard, and used the mobile the lads had given him to make a call for the first time.

“Gloin,” he said quickly when the man answered. “Listen, it’s Bilbo Baggins. We’ve got to talk.”

From the other end, the man sighed heavily. “I know what’s happened, Bilbo. I’m sorry, but you know there’s nothing I can do. I’d have done it if I could.”

“No, no, listen!” he insisted, trying not to get angry. “I get it! I know you’ve got another life to protect, but I need your help! I’ve got a plan!”

“Well, what is it?” Gloin asked, sounding angry himself, but Bilbo thought it was more frustration than anything else. He laid out his ideas quickly, and there was a long silence from the other end of the line.

“Please,” he said, finally breaking the quiet. “I understand about your wife and son, really I do. I used to have a life, too - a proper, law-abiding life. I liked that life. It was nice. But this -” he huffed a breath, “this is family. I know you must understand that.”

“I do, lad,” Gloin said quietly. “But my wife and son are family too. What happens to them if I’m caught?”

“What happens to Thorin if you don’t help?” Bilbo demanded, fingers tightening dangerously on the mobile. “What happens to Fíli and Kíli? They’re not much older than your son, are they? They’re going to spend the rest of their lives locked away, all alone, if you don’t help me now. What good are you as a father if you won’t take a risk for your family?” His heart pounded in his ears as he spoke, and he had to force himself to sit down.

Gloin sighed, slow and resigned. “You’ve got a point, Mr. Baggins, though I don’t like it. I’ll meet you there tonight and we’ll see what we can do.” He cut off the call before Bilbo had a chance to thank him, and Bilbo nearly danced for joy. Then he stopped, mind racing. If they managed to get them out that night, they were going to need things. Clothes, Thorin and Fíli and Kíli’s things that he had saved, transportation, Kíli - he stopped there. There was so much still to work out, and he couldn’t do it all alone. He would have to prepare what he could, and trust to the family to help with the rest.

He fetched the Oakenshields’ possessions, and his own things, and stashed them behind a rubbish bin in a quiet alley not far from the prison. And then, because he was still a Baggins, Bilbo went and had a cup of tea and a few biscuits, and waited for the sun to set.

It was more nervewracking than he had expected, going back to the prison that evening. He was waved in by a casually dismissive security guard who didn’t even bother to listen to his carefully prepared story about having been called in as backup, and made his way through the unusually empty corridors to the main entrance, where he spotted a familiar figure. Gloin pulled him aside into an interview room, and drew out a sheaf of papers.

“These are their transfer papers,” he said quickly. “They’re official-looking enough not to be questioned, especially not when delivered by a senior officer.” He gestured at himself. “But I’d rather not have to use them too frequently, if you know what I mean. Let’s do as much under the radar as we can.” Bilbo agreed heartily, and quickly explained where he had found all the others. Gloin frowned.

“Thorin’s likely to be in a higher-security area. I’ll have to go find him.” He nodded sharply at Bilbo. “Get the others out, but wait by their section. I’ve disabled cameras in that section, and Thorin and I will be by to pick you up.” Bilbo nodded breathlessly and turned away, but Gloin called him back. “They won’t like this, but you’ll have to cuff them. It has to look authentic when we’re moving them.” He shoved a box of cuffs toward Bilbo, who picked it up with a grimace.

It was such a familiar walk to Section J now that Bilbo could have done it in his sleep, and he was gratified to find that there was no guard on duty outside the door, as Dori had reported was usually the case. He ducked inside the door, propping it open with his balled-up handkerchief, and keyed open Bofur’s door.

“Hurry!” he hissed, and Bofur was on his feet in seconds, darting out the door.

“Is this it?”

“Yes!” Bilbo said. “Now help me!” He ran around opening the doors as quickly as he could, letting Bofur, and then the whole group of already released men hold the doors open and wake their comrades as they went. It took only minutes to have them all released and greeting one another with violent affection, and Fíli swept Bilbo off his feet in a massive embrace that took his breath away. After a moment, he called for their attention, and to his shock, they all listened immediately. “Gloin says you’ve got to wear these,” he explained, holding up a pair of handcuffs. “Just for now, I promise.”

There was grumbling at the idea, of course, but Balin put a quick stop to that. “None of that, lads,” he called sharply. “Our esteemed burglar has gone to great lengths to free us, and we’d best listen to him. Do as he says.”

By the time Bilbo had all of them secured, he was listening with bated breath for Gloin and Thorin, or for a security detachment, whichever came first. He nearly collapsed with relief when it was Gloin who arrived, and Bilbo wrenched open the door, delighted to see he had Thorin in tow, also cuffed.

“Let’s go,” Gloin murmured, and led them away in a quick procession. Bilbo was beginning to hope that they might escape without a single problem, when from around the corner in front of them, the young guard who Bilbo usually exchanged friendly chatter with outside Section J appeared. His eyes went wide at the sight of them, and Bilbo ducked around the corner, hoping he hadn’t been seen in the nighttime gloom.

“Where are you taking these prisoners?” he demanded. Bilbo heard the rustling of paper, and then Gloin’s voice, sounding absurdly calm, almost bored.

“Transferred over to Section C. Thranduil wants them in higher security for the duration of the trial. Greater chances of escape attempts, you see.”

“I wasn’t informed!” the guard protested, and Gloin chuckled.

“Laddie, if there’s ever a day that someone is informed of everything he’s got the right to know, you’ll have to write it up for the history books.” Bilbo heard the papers being rustled about and examined, and finally the young guard sighed.

“Fine. See if I care. It’s none of my concern where they’re to be housed.”

“That’s the only way you’ll survive this job,” Gloin said approvingly, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on then, you lot. I want you stowed away so I can go home to my own bed.” They shuffled off, and Bilbo waited until the guard walked past, sipping his coffee and shaking his head, before rushing to catch up with them.

Gloin took them out the delivery entrance, which was dark and locked at that time of night, and happily loaded them into delivery truck that was parked outside. It was a tight squeeze, and Bilbo had to dash off to the bushes to retrieve the things he’d hidden there earlier, but they made it out of the parking lot without any signs of pursuit. Bilbo scuffled around the back, undoing all the cuffs as quickly as he could, and had to endure painfully enthusiastic claps on the back and roars of approval as he went.

“We’ve got to ditch this truck quickly,” Gloin called from the front. “Do any of you have vehicles?”

“Not likely after this long,” Thorin grumbled, rubbing at his wrists. “They’ll have been impounded.”

“Better grab some more, then,” Dwalin rumbled, giving Thorin an amused glance that made Bilbo very happy. It had been many days since Dwalin had shown such signs of life.

“Gandalf said we were to head to the Highlands,” he piped up. “He said to tell you to contact him in the usual way, Thorin, and that he’d be making connections we need.”

“Maybe he’s found a place for us to lie low!” Ori said cheerfully.

“We can’t!” Fíli said sharply. They turned on him curiously, and he gave an angry flail of his arms. “Kíli’s still locked up in that hospital! We can’t leave him!”

“Should we sacrifice all of our freedom for his?” Nori asked lazily, eyeing his fingernails. Thorin and Fíli both gave an identical growl at that, and he shrank back, lips closed tightly.

“Well, Bilbo?” Thorin asked, turning to him expectantly. “How are we rescuing Kíli?”

“You expect me to have a plan?” Bilbo said incredulously. They all nodded industriously.

“You’ve done a fine job in organising this rescue,” Balin said kindly, “and the other will be much simpler. He’s just one wee boy.”

Bilbo threw up his hands. “Trust me, I want to see Kíli rescued as much as anyone, but I don’t have a plan! I’ve been focusing on getting you lot out in one piece!”

There was an outbreak of voices at that, and Fíli sank back against the wall of the truck, looking crushed. Thorin had to shout to be heard over the noise.

“Very well! We split up here. We make for the Highlands. Get past Stirling and wait in our usual spot. Fíli, Bilbo, and I will get Kíli and meet you there as soon as we’re able.” He pointed at them fiercely. “No-one is to get caught again, do you hear me?” They all nodded agreement, and Gloin brought the truck to a grinding halt, letting them all jump out. He joined them, and Thorin clapped heavy hands on his shoulders. “My cousin. How can I thank you for what you’ve done tonight?”

Gloin shook his head, looking weary. “It’s no more than I should have done years ago. Bilbo was right.” He clapped Thorin on the back and went away into the dark, following Oin. Already, Bilbo could hear the sounds of the Sons of Durin breaking into vehicles and hotwiring them, engines roaring to life up and down the street. But then Thorin was running, and Fíli behind him, and Bilbo simply had to try to keep up.

To Bilbo’s surprise, Thorin headed right for where he’d left his car. The little mint-green vehicle was still standing where they’d left it, littered with parking citations, and wearing a boot. Thorin nodded at it sharply, and Fíli was immediately at work on it with a little bag of tools he produced from somewhere under the car’s carriage. Bilbo gaped at them.

“Won’t they be looking for this car?”

“I like this car,” Thorin said, and he would say no more. It took Fíli less than two minutes to remove the boot and fling it aside, and then they were hurtling down the street, making for the hospital at a speed that Bilbo frankly worried about.

“You’ve been here loads,” Fíli said frantically. “How will we get him out?”

“I don’t know!” Bilbo shouted. “It’s a closed ward, and the warden’s about ten foot tall and more than half a bear, and everything is always locked! He’s cuffed to the bed, for God’s sake!”

“Oh, locks,” Fíli scoffed, and tossed his little pouch of picks in the air and caught it. “It’s this warden that worries me.”

“He’s very very concerned with your brother’s well-being,” Bilbo said dryly, “and I am very concerned about the size of his fists.”

Thorin didn’t say anything, and eased them carefully into a parking spot only a few streets away from the hospital. Bilbo shook his head as they got out, and Fíli opened the boot. “Under the floor there, we’ve got a few different plates. Change them out, would you?”

It took a few minutes for Bilbo to change the plates, but by the time he was done, Fíli and Thorin had managed to change into regular clothes - which was a good thing, as their prison jumpsuits would have been very conspicuous in the hospital, Bilbo thought tiredly. He led the way in through a smaller door, and took them up the stairs, not willing to chance the lift.

The secure ward looked really rather incredibly secure in the nighttime lighting, both sets of double doors locked from the inside. Fíli dropped to one knee and started working on the lock right away, while Thorin and Bilbo kept watch on either side. They made it through both sets of doors, and Bilbo led them to Kíli’s room, which was also locked - and then he appeared, silently, as if from thin air.

“These are not visiting hours, Mr. Took,” he rumbled at Bilbo, sounding almost disappointed. Bilbo noticed, to his own surprise, that he was wringing his hands together, and he looked down, feeling oddly ashamed.

“We’re not visiting,” Thorin growled. He nudged Fíli and Bilbo behind him, and stood as tall as he could, facing the giant of a man. He barely came up to Beorn’s shoulders.

“Are you his guardian?” Beorn asked, nodding toward Kíli’s door. From inside, a light came on, and Bilbo guessed that Kíli had heard the commotion.

“Yes,” Thorin said firmly. “He’s mine. I’m taking him with me.”

“That’s not permitted.” Beorn was unmoving. “He is here for his own wellbeing. I will not see any harm come to my patients.”

There was a slap against the door, and Fíli nearly plastered himself against the wood. “Kíli?”

“Fíli?” Kíli called, voice muffled. “Uncle Thorin? Is that you?”

“Yes,” Thorin said over his shoulder. “Get ready to leave, Kíli.”

“Please,” Bilbo said quietly, looking up at Beorn. “I know it’s your job to keep him here, but you’ve got to understand. You’ve seen how much he needs his family. If you don’t let him go, he’s not going to be safe and healthy, is he?”

Beorn heaved a sigh, giant chest inflating dangerously. “So I should send him off with criminals?”

“You should send him with me,” Thorin said, an edge of wild desperation in his voice that Bilbo wasn’t familiar with. “These lads are my family. They are all I have, and there is nowhere they will be safer than in my care. I promise you this.”

A knock came at the door behind them, then again. Kíli was starting to sound a little desperate. “Uncle Thorin!” he called, pounding again. “You haven’t left, have you?”

Beorn and Thorin stared at one another, and Bilbo felt like he was watching an arm-wresting match of the sort that could go on for hours. Finally, Beorn bent his dark, shaggy head, and stepped forward. He opened Kíli’s door, and then was forced to step out of the way as the boy barreled out, running into Fíli at full speed. Thorin was there in an instant, wrapping his arms around both of the lads, and Bilbo hid a smile beneath one hand. Beorn was watching them as well, an almost wistful look in his eyes.

“We’d better go,” Bilbo said quietly. “Thank you, Beorn. Seriously. If there’s ever anything we can do for you, just ask.”

“Don’t get caught,” he said, his words a growl, and they agreed. Kíli was still in a hospital gown, but they didn’t have time to waste looking for anything more suitable. Bilbo led them back to the car, looking behind him every few seconds to where Fíli and Kíli each had an arm wrapped around one another, one of Thorin’s hands on each of their shoulders. It was almost sweet, if you didn’t know the whole story.

“How did you lose the handcuff?” Fíli was asking in a hushed voice, and Kíli laughed, free and clear.

“That awful nurse who likes to inflict pain? She’s got a terrible habit of leaning in too close. I stole some of her hairpins and picked the lock when Uncle Bill didn’t come by this afternoon. I knew something had to be wrong.”

Thorin shoved them affectionately into the backseat of the car, motioning for Bilbo to climb into the passenger seat, and they were off, taking the road that would lead them north to the Highlands. “Don’t think we’re not going to talk about that whole Uncle Bill situation, boys,” he warned them. But there was too much relief in his face for Bilbo to think that he meant too much harm, and there was too much hope in their faces as they looked forward to think that they were afraid. They would go north to the Highlands, where they could rest, and Gandalf would be waiting with whatever resources he had found. They had escaped captivity, all together. He gave a sigh of relief and let his head drop back against the seat.

Thorin clapped a grateful hand on his shoulder, warm and firm, and squeezed a little, and Bilbo smiled wearily. As a burglar, he wasn’t doing too badly. “I do think the worst is behind us,” he said drowsily.

Chapter Text

Bilbo slept. It wasn’t the most comfortable position, crammed into the passenger seat of a rather clanky old car, but the stress of the past few weeks had worn him down. Now that he was not alone, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to just sleep, and let Thorin do the driving. From the back seat, the mingled soft breathing of the lads provided a restful background noise, and he let himself slip away with images of bright headlights on a darkened road pouring through his mind.

He woke again when they stopped, deeply confused. Thorin was climbing out of the car, and Bilbo saw that they were at a roadside pulloff, lit only by the headlights of a few scattered vehicles. He rubbed his eyes blearily.

“Where are we?” he asked, hearing the lads stir in the back.

“Doune, I think?” Kíli yawned. Bilbo glanced back at the two, who hadn’t bothered to untangle themselves from one another, collapsed in a heap of tired limbs and contrasting bright and dark hair. “Thorin’s got to figure out where Gandalf means for us to go.” Bilbo peered out the window, to see that Thorin was borrowing a mobile from Nori and stabbing deliberately at the buttons, sweeping his hair back in annoyance as he held the mobile up to one ear.

“Are you both all right?” Bilbo asked, realising that they hadn’t exactly had any after-care instructions from Beorn for looking after Kíli, and while Fíli’s head seemed to be entirely back together, there was no way to be certain. They grinned rather goofily, looking at Bilbo half upside-down.

“We’re good, Uncle Bill,” Fíli said sleepily. His fingers were curled around the sleeve of the warm hoodie he’d forced over Kíli’s head. “Can’t ask for better than this.”

Bilbo rolled his eyes. “And how long are you going to keep up this Uncle Bill nonsense? I’m not your uncle!”

“You are now,” Kíli said, a hint of glee in his expression. “You’re stuck with us. ‘S how the family works.”

“You think Bifur and Bofur and Bombur were originally related to the rest of us?” Fíli asked, and Kíli actually giggled a little. “They were Thorin’s neighbors on the mountain, and sort of fell in with us after the burning.”

“And then we adopted them,” Kíli explained. Bilbo somehow got the feeling that the ‘we’ in that sentence meant Fíli and Kíli. “Like you.”

“You’ve adopted me?” Bilbo blinked at that. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise. He certainly felt a more than friendly attachment to them, and to the whole crew, and, if he was being honest with himself, he’d guiltily allowed himself to think of the family as somehow including him these days. But that was very different than having it stated so plainly. A lump rose in his throat, and he looked out at Thorin again.

“’Course we have,” Fíli said, and now Bilbo knew they were laughing at him as well as welcoming him. He nudged the back of Bilbo’s seat with a heavy boot. “We’ve all grown attached.”

“We won’t call you Uncle Bill if it bothers you, though,” Kíli said languidly, stretching out a little further, and shoving Fíli a bit more into the corner as he did so.

“No, it’s - that’s fine,” Bilbo said, feeling more than a little flustered. “Erm, that is - what will Thorin think?”

“That’s for Thorin to work out,” Fíli said, sounding quite satisfied with himself. “Can you see him, by the way? What’s he doing?”

Bilbo peered out into the gloom. “Standing very still and glaring at the mobile,” he reported. The lads gave a simultaneous hiss of discontent.

“That’s not good,” Kíli said soberly. “He’s angry. Tell us when he throws it?”

Bilbo watched for a minute, and then nodded. “He’s just tossed it to Dwalin very hard. Coming back here now.”

“We’re asleep!” Fíli hissed, and in an instant, they were both peacefully settled on the back bench, soft, even breathing filling the car again. Bilbo rolled his eyes.

Thorin wrenched the door open and threw himself inside, clearly very angry indeed, and Bilbo let him have a moment of quiet while he got the car in gear and started back up the A84.

“So where is it we’re going, then?” Bilbo finally asked. Thorin’s fingers tightened on the wheel.

“Glen Etive,” he snarled.

“And that’s a problem?” Bilbo inquired mildly. Thorin shook his head a fraction.

“It’s who we’re going to see that’s a problem,” he said roughly. “That cantankerous old fool has found us a place to stay and rest for a while.”

“But surely that’s a good thing?”

“The problem is the person who is meant to be our host.” Thorin seethed quietly for a minute, and Bilbo could almost hear his teeth grinding. “Elrond was the leader of the police force that came with Smaug on the day he took our home. He watched us taken from our homes, our lives ruined, the houses we had grown up in burning - and he did nothing. He and his men held us back, and threatened us with worse if we resisted.”

Bilbo’s eyes were wide, and he stared at Thorin in disbelief. “And this is the man Gandalf has found to give us shelter?”

“Gandalf says that Elrond did not know the truth. That he has learned it now, and he wishes to help us to make up for what he did.” Thorin shook his head grimly. “I don’t want to accept a crumb of his courtesy, Bilbo.”

Bilbo blew out a slow breath, thinking hard. “Glen Etive, you say? I thought there was nothing there!”

“Almost nothing,” Thorin corrected. “It’s one of the most remote places I’ve known.”

“That’s a good thing,” Bilbo said gently. “I understand why you don’t want to accept anything from him, but to get a bit of peace, a bit of time when we can stop running and just think for a while - I think it’s what we need.”

“I know it is,” Thorin muttered. “I don’t have to like it, though.” He glanced in his rear-view mirror, adjusting it for a moment so he could sneak a look at his nephews. “I’m not going to commit to anything until I’m sure we’re all fit and ready.”

Bilbo glanced back at the boys as well, faking sleep with the skill of the truly professional liar, and a spark of mischief awoke in him. There had to be some sort of payback for the trick they’d pulled on him and Thorin, after all.

“These two must have kept you busy, growing up,” he said offhandedly, offering Thorin a crooked little grin when the man glanced at him in surprise at the change of topic. “You must have loads of stories to tell.” He raised an eyebrow, and the answering smile that tugged at the corners of Thorin’s mouth was worth a thousand words.

“Well,” Thorin said, slumping back in his seat a little more comfortably, “there was the time that Fíli dressed Kíli up as a little girl when we first moved to a new place. I spent six months trying to figure out how to accept compliments on my lovely little daughter.”

Bilbo nearly choked, turning it into a cough of laughter that seemed to want to tear its way out of his chest. “Oh, that must have been precious!”

“He really was quite lovely,” Thorin said, a wicked edge to his own chuckle. “Of course, then Kíli got offended and went and chopped off all his own hair so the mistake wouldn’t be made again, and then Fíli simply had to do the same, so his brother wouldn’t be maimed alone.” He frowned thoughtfully. “I’ve pictures somewhere - remind me to dig them out some day.” Bilbo agreed, snorting with laughter - but there was a warmth in his chest that wouldn’t quite go away at the idea that Thorin expected he would be around to look at their baby pictures on some random day in the future. It felt a lot like something real.

The dam on Thorin’s memories seemed to have been broken, and he talked on and on in a low, rumbling voice as they crept along the shores of Loch Lubnaig and into the wilder woods beyond, their headlights mingling with those of the rest of the family as they traveled together. Thorin told him stories of Dwalin trying to teach the lads their basic maths, and why that had been the worst idea ever, and how Ori had insisted on sending them horrible hand-knit jumpers until they were both in their teens. In return, he shared a few stories of working in the shop with his father as a lad, and about his brief time at uni before his father’s death had brought him home, and Thorin seemed to almost revel in the simple domesticity of the tales.

By the time they were passing Crianlarich, the dawn was beginning to break, and the fake-sleepy sounds from the back of the car had shifted into genuine snores. Bilbo shook his head at the sight of the lads, curled together like puppies in a litter, and Thorin raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

“It’s not my place,” Bilbo said quietly, “but - do you worry about them at all?”

“All the time,” Thorin muttered. Bilbo shook his head.

“I don’t mean just safety and keeping them out of prison and whatnot. I mean, what about the future?” He gestured vaguely to where their hands were twisted around one another’s sleeves, even in sleep. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen two people so unable to be apart. And things like jobs and stable relationships - how does that work?”

Thorin sighed. “I don’t know. Honestly I don’t. We haven’t done much to make them fit in with normal society, I know, but the struggle has always been just to keep them safe.” He glanced back at them again, and Bilbo could see the lines that worry had etched into his face. “We lost them once, right after my sister passed away. They were taken into care, and put in separate homes because we were considered such a threat. Three weeks it took us to steal them back, and I wasn’t sure they would ever stop clinging to one another after that.”

“That’s horrible,” Bilbo said quietly. “Do they remember?”

“Fíli does. Kíli was just four, and not even speaking properly yet. I’ve never heard him mention it since.”

The statement hung in the air for a while, and Bilbo watched the light grow in the sky as they sped past Tyndrum and up toward the wild desolation of Rannoch Moor. Finally, Thorin shifted a bit in his seat, and glanced sideways at Bilbo.

“Tell me, Mr. Burglar, what is it precisely that’s made you take up with our ragged crew? I mean no offense, but I didn’t quite think to see you again after we were arrested.”

Bilbo raised his eyebrows. “Didn’t I say I’d help? I wasn’t about to leave you then!”

“You had a chance to go back,” Thorin said heavily. “You weren’t associated with us. You could have gone home and opened up your shop and gone on with your life. I don’t understand why you didn’t.”

“I’m not sure I understand it, either,” Bilbo told him soberly. “It was just that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave you all there, not while there was a chance I could help.” He laughed a little. “My mother always accused me of acting before I thought, and now that seems to have gotten me adopted into your little family.”

“Yes,” Thorin said dryly. “Uncle Bill now, isn’t it?” Bilbo shook his head despairingly, and Thorin snorted. “You should have seen Bofur the day Kíli declared him family. I thought the poor man would weep.”

They drove on, across the moor, and now Bilbo could make out the details of the other vehicles in their caravan. Dwalin and Bifur and Oin had managed to steal themselves new motorbikes that they drove proudly, though their shoulders were hunched with exhaustion. Dori, Nori, and Ori seemed to have jammed themselves into a tiny, bright yellow efficiency vehicle which trailed along at the back of the pack, while Bofur drove a solid little brown car with Gloin and Balin carefully packed inside. They made for a strange-looking company all together, and Bilbo was glad they would be hidden away in Elrond’s secluded home.

They turned onto a single track road near the large, dark mountain that Thorin told Bilbo was called the Buachille Etive Mor - the Great Herdsman of Etive. He knew it was a silly superstition, but Bilbo reached his fingers out toward the mountain, almost praying for a bit of luck. They could use a watchful shepherd about now.

The road wound down into the glen, empty on all sides of everything but rocks and wildlife. The mountains rose up on either side of them as they descended, and Bilbo watched the clear flowing river reflecting the cloudless blue of the sky with a shocking sense of peace. He saw a stag up one of the steep slopes, watching them curiously. As they descended into the peace of the glen, though, passing through a lovely wooded area as they approached Loch Etive, Thorin grew tense again. The softness that had appeared in his face while he and Bilbo were talking was gone now, replaced again by the stony leader he had met the first night of their acquaintance.

They came upon the house, perched high on the hill above the loch, nestled into the face of the rock itself. It was a large house, unexpectedly graceful, that seemed almost to have grown from the hills themselves. It looked out over the peaceful face of the water, giving clear views up and down the glen, and Bilbo let out a long, slow breath. He felt like he could stay here in this peaceful place forever. Thorin’s shoulders were tense, though, and he pulled up the gravel drive without a word.

Bilbo climbed out of the car slowly, stretching muscles made stiff and weary from the long ride. The air was warm and clear, smelling of nothing but green, growing things and the wind off the water. He was soon surrounded by sore, groaning men, most of them still clad in their prison jumpsuits.

“Welcome!” Gandalf’s voice carried clearly in the stillness, and Bilbo spun around to see that he had appeared in front of the house, arms spread wide as if to embrace them. “My friends. I am pleased to see you so well!”

“Easy for him to say,” Nori grumbled. “I don’t recall him being there in prison with us.” Thorin shot him a quelling glare, and stalked forward, Fíli and Kíli hurrying to stay in his wake.

“Gandalf,” he rumbled. Thorin was very clearly not pleased. “I did not expect to see you in a place like this.”

“You’d better leave your anger at the door,” Gandalf said firmly. “Elrond has offered his hospitality, and he was not obliged to do so.”

“Actually, I rather feel that I was.” The new voice was sure, but had the weight of age behind it. Bilbo peered behind Gandalf, where their new addition was making his way down the drive to join them. The man was tall and slim, dressed with a casual elegance that Bilbo almost coveted. His hair was dark and smooth, and he wore it like a crown. Thorin’s jaw tightened. “Thorin Oakenshield. I am glad to meet you under more pleasant circumstances.”

“You’ll forgive me if I am not so pleased,” Thorin growled. “I seem to recall you holding me back from my home as it burned, Elrond. I cannot forget as easily as some.”

Elrond dropped his head in a nod of acknowledgment. “We can discuss this later. For now, I offer my apologies for what passed between us. I only knew what Smaug had told us, and I acted on that bad information. I hope to make some sort of reparation now.” He gestured toward his home gracefully. “Welcome to Rivendell. My home is at your disposal, as long as you have need of it.”

The house was as comfortable and gracious inside as the exterior had suggested, and the large windows allowed for such light and air to flow through the home that Bilbo barely felt he was indoors. Elrond offered them copious amounts of food and drink, and showed them his numerous spare rooms, allowing them to distribute themselves through the house. The exhausted Sons of Durin were soon fed and showered, and sleeping anywhere they had found room, but Bilbo could not make himself rest. He wandered back to the front of the house, and found Gandalf and Elrond seated on the wide front porch, looking out over the loch. He joined them quietly, hoping he was not unwelcome, and Gandalf smiled at him with a genuine warmth.

“Bilbo Baggins. I had no doubt that you would succeed in rescuing them, but you did so with such a facility! I think we have stumbled on the hidden treasure of our age in you, young burglar!”

Bilbo smiled awkwardly. “I didn’t exactly ask for any of this, you know. I just wanted to help.”

“And so you have,” Elrond said gently. “I only hope Thorin will allow me to offer my help as well.”

“Look,” Bilbo said, suddenly curious. “You’ve both known them - or known about them, anyone - longer than I have. A month ago, I thought they were nothing but ruffians. Criminals. Now, I know they’re a lot more, but-” he trailed off, feeling disloyal even asking the question. Gandalf and Elrond exchanged a knowing glance.

“You want to know who they really are,” Gandalf surmised, and Bilbo nodded. The old man sighed. “That is a difficult question. Are they criminals? Yes. They have stolen and lied. They are complicit in fraud and any number of underground economies. I think you’ve seen how easily they help themselves to the things they need.” He gestured meaningfully at their fleet of stolen vehicles, and Bilbo swallowed. It was true. “But what that does not tell you is who the Sons of Durin are. They operate on a very strict moral code - Thorin’s, of course - and they do none of it for greed or for the desire to hurt others.”

“I believed what I was told by Smaug,” Elrond said quietly. “He said they were avaricious, only interested in destroying the land to reach the precious metals beneath. He told us they were dangerous, vicious animals. We did our jobs and removed them from their land, without questioning any of it. If you had seen Thorin that day, you might have understood.”

“But you don’t believe that anymore?” Bilbo pressed. Elrond shook his head slowly.

“No. It was Gandalf who found me and told me the truth, and I followed the evidence myself until I was convinced. I would not wish to live their life, but I now believe that they deserve nothing but our assistance, where we can offer it.”

Bilbo turned to Gandalf, burning with curiosity. “It’s always you, isn’t it? You brought them to me, you recruited Elrond. Who are you? What is your interest in them?”

Gandalf leaned back in his chair, eyeing him strangely, then gave a little laugh. “I suppose you do deserve to know. I’m a detective. I was hired to investigate the Sons of Durin, to see if they could be apprehended by nontraditional methods. I found out too much.”

“You don’t exactly look like Sherlock Holmes,” Bilbo pointed out dryly.

“Undercover, of course!” Gandalf protested, poking at his grey rags. “You might be surprised what a homeless old man can overhear that a police official cannot. When I had uncovered the truth about Thorin and his family, I went to him personally and offered my assistance in clearing their names and taking back their home. And that is where you come in.”

“You really think I can do something to help them?” Bilbo asked, leaning forward confidentially. “Me? I’m a grocer, Gandalf. I don’t have the first clue what I’m doing!”

“And yet how many times have you helped them already?” Gandalf countered. “Would they be safe and free today, if not for you? No, Bilbo, I have chosen the right man for the job.”

Bilbo was far from convinced, but the breeze was blowing over the surface of the loch, and the heather on the hills danced, and he let it slip away, turning his face up to the sun.

They stayed in Rivendell for far longer than Bilbo had expected, given Thorin’s objections - but Bilbo watched Thorin watching Fíli and Kíli scramble up and down the rocks, splashing in the clear water of the loch and laughing like children, and he understood. Bofur’s cheeks regained their color in the gentle sunshine, and Bifur found a warm, sunny spot of soft grass where he could lie and watch the clouds roll by, and he was content. Gloin was worried, calling home whenever he could, but as the days stretched on without pursuit for him or his wife and son, he let the fear slip away, and sat on the old wooden pier over the loch with his brother, fishing for things they never caught. The whole family seemed to uncurl, somehow, in that place, and their laughter lost a bit of its desperate edge. Bilbo thought sleepily to himself one day that this was who they were meant to be. This was who they might have been, living on their own mountain, free and happy on the land that had been their home for generations.

He found Thorin one evening while the family was mostly gathered around a massive fire in Elrond’s open sitting room, toasting things on sticks and sharing teasing memories and well-meaning jests. He was seated out on the hill in front of the house, staring up at the stars on a cloudless night. Bilbo had never seen the stars so bright and clear as they were in that place, and he slipped out to sit next to Thorin in silence, letting the man take in his presence wordlessly.

“This is a good place,” Thorin finally said, not looking at Bilbo. “I have not seen my family so well in two decades.”

Bilbo made a wordless sound of agreement, watching the stars, and watching Thorin. “Can’t stay here forever, though, can we?” he asked regretfully. Thorin shook his head.

“This is the way it goes, Bilbo,” he said quietly. “We find peace and happiness, and then we throw it away. Over and over, playing out the same story. We risk it all and lose it all, and we are left trying to hold ourselves together. It ends in blood and fear and fire. We are trapped in this cycle, and we cannot get out.” He looked down and over at Bilbo. “Can you understand this?”

“No,” Bilbo said honestly. He shrugged. “I’ve never believed in any of that. Just because it’s gone wrong once, or twice, or even a hundred times, it doesn’t mean it will always be that way.”

Thorin smiled up at the sky, wistful and hopeful, and somehow younger than Bilbo had ever seen him yet. They sat in silence, watching the stars take up their positions, and Bilbo knew this time of peace was coming to an end soon, but he couldn’t regret it - not in that moment.

Chapter Text

It didn’t really come as a surprise to any of them when the message came the next morning. Bilbo was already awake, enjoying a quiet cup of tea outside, when he saw the white car speeding into the glen, heading toward Rivendell without hesitation. He barely had time to duck his head inside the house and shout a warning before the car had stopped halfway up the drive and a man had gotten out. He was tall and slim, with long golden hair that flowed behind him like a shampoo advert.

“Glorfindel?” Elrond said quizzically, coming up behind Bilbo on silent feet. “What brings you here in such a rush?”

“Bad news, old friend,” the man said, his voice clear and bright. He took the steps three at a time, reaching Bilbo and Elrond on long, graceful legs, and clapping a hand on Elrond’s shoulder. “I’m afraid you’re about to have company.”

Elrond ushered him into the house, where the Sons of Durin were gathering themselves together after Bilbo’s warning, all in various states of half-dressed dishevelment. “Everyone, this is Glorfindel, a very old friend of mine. He’s in the business of providing information, and it seems that he has news to share.”

Glorfindel nodded soberly as they all drew near. “Things have been busy out there while you’ve been hidden away here,” he told them seriously. “Thranduil’s turned the whole city inside out searching for you, and Smaug has his own people after you as well. Earlier this morning, a skinny, bug-eyed fellow who doesn’t seem able to speak in complete sentences turned up on the police’s doorstep, saying he would show them where to find you.”

“Gollum!” Bilbo muttered, feeling the blood drain from his face. If that little sneak of a man had been tailing them and knew where they were hidden, they could easily be trapped in the glen as the authorities closed in.

“If Gollum’s gone to the police, we have to assume that he’s also informed Azog,” Thorin said roughly. “And if Azog knows, then Smaug does too.” There were unhappy murmurs around the room at that thought, and Glorfindel nodded.

“I’m afraid so. In fact, we think Gollum went to his employer first.” He looked down at them, cool blue eyes shining with sympathy. “I regret to inform you that we believe Smaug has sent one of his assassins after you. I would advise you leave this place as soon as practicable.”

“Assassins?” Bilbo protested, spluttering a bit. “Now you tell me there are assassins? And here’s me thinking wasteful spending in government was our biggest concern!”

“Who has he sent?” Thorin demanded, getting close to Glorfindel. “Bolg? The White Warg?”

Glorfindel shook his head. “One faster and more cunning, I’m afraid.” Thorin swore at that, a tightening at the corners of his eyes and mouth speaking to his worry, and Bilbo felt his stomach drop. Not bad enough to be running from law enforcement - now they had a trained assassin on their trail? One dangerous enough to make Thorin Oakenshield look that worried? He glanced toward Thorin, then Elrond and Gandalf, hoping to find some comfort in at least one familiar face, but there was none to be had.

“We need to move!” Thorin shouted, and all of the Sons of Durin snapped to a form of attention. “We leave as soon as everyone is able!”

“How will you go?” Elrond asked.

“We’ll take the roads up further into the Highlands,” Thorin declared. “Maybe make for the islands. Disappear for a bit.”

“Yes, you must disappear,” Gandalf agreed soberly. “But I do not believe this will be enough. On the roads, they will find you. You can be traced, trapped, cut off from escape.”

“What would you have me do?” Thorin asked dangerously. “We cannot fly, or make ourselves invisible!”

“You can do the next best thing,” Elrond answered. “Leave on foot. I can direct you on footpaths out of the glen, and I have supplies enough to allow you to travel and camp comfortably enough for the next few weeks. On foot in the wilds of the Highlands, they would need the resources of an army to find you.”

Thorin paused to think, while around him, the family scrambled to get ready. Fíli and Kíli flew around picking up the items that people had left scattered about the house, quickly reuniting them with their owners, while Ori sat down on the floor to try to undo the vexing knot in his shoe laces.

“Won’t we be more vulnerable if we are found, so far from any help?” Bilbo asked quietly. He’d never been much of a fan of camping trips, or really of the wilderness in general. Balin came to Thorin’s side, shaking his head, white beard wagging.

“No, lad. If we’re found by these men, any place is equally as dangerous to us.” He looked to Thorin. “I would say we’ve a better chance on foot, Thorin. We should trust to our own strength now.”

Thorin looked around. The men who were in the room nodded slowly, apparently all of one mind, and Bilbo forced back a groan of dismay. Elrond nodded, and swiftly vanished, taking Bofur, Dori, Nori, Oin, and Gloin with him.

“You cannot run forever, Thorin,” Gandalf said quietly. Thorin nodded slowly.

“We won’t. For the moment, we need to stay free and safe, or nothing else matters. But the time is coming when we will have to take the battle to Smaug himself.”

“How do you mean?” Bilbo asked, hoping that Thorin didn’t mean an actual war. He was woefully unprepared to go to war. Thorin smiled down at him a little, and Bilbo felt himself flush self-consciously.

“I mean our burglar, who has already proven his great value, will be called upon again to find the key we need.” He put a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder. “Think about it. We already have all of the information we need to discredit the man, to bring him to justice - if we could only access it! We need the Arkenstone.”

“Oh!” Bilbo said weakly. He had sort of forgotten about his given role with the company in the chaos of the past two weeks. “Yes, well. Right. But - not yet?”

“We’ve still got quite a bit to teach you before you’re ready for an operation like that, Uncle Bill,” Fíli said cheerfully, hauling a load of clean clothing past in over-filled arms.

“And there’s the slight matter of us really not wanting to be arrested again,” Kíli added, going the other way with a load of empty satchels.

“Our first priority is to get clear of this place,” Thorin said firmly. “We’ll leave the vehicles here. Only the one belongs to us in the first place.” But at the idea of leaving his little car behind, Bilbo could see his face fall a bit. Gandalf laughed quietly.

“I’ll take care of it,” he said kindly. “They won’t take it away.”

Elrond reappeared, arms full of supplies, and the five men behind him were all similarly laden - but it took a surprisingly short amount of time to have the necessary tents and gear stowed away in packs that were carefully loaded onto their backs, until they were all bent a little under the weight. Bilbo eyed some of the older men warily, hoping they’d be up for the trip - and hoping in an even deeper part of his mind that he himself wouldn’t be the one slowing them down.

Elrond led them out the back of the house, straight onto the sloping side of the hill that rose up from the glen. He led them along a narrow stone path for a few moments, then stopped and pointed ahead. “If you follow this trail, you’ll soon come to a gap in the face of the rock. It will lead you through into the next glen, and then to the moor beyond. Keep to the path, and you’ll eventually come out by the main road - but I would avoid that as far as I can, if I were you.”

Fíli raised a hand in the air, showing his mobile. “I’ve got GPS and maps. I think we’ll be able to manage.” Elrond nodded, raising an eyebrow, but he smiled at all of them quietly.

“You are welcome back to Rivendell at any time. If you have need of me, I will come.”

Thorin hesitated a long moment, then stepped forward and offered his hand. “You have proven yourself a far more honourable man than I ever would have believed. I would be honoured to welcome you to my own home, when it is mine again.” They shook hands solemnly, and Bilbo felt like he had witnessed something larger than he was prepared to put into words.

They left Elrond behind, following the path as it wound higher and higher up the mountain, leaving them looking down on the peaceful glen that had been their respite, the sun glinting off the surface of the loch. Bilbo was sure he was not the only one to heave a sigh of regret when the path turned, taking them into a narrow crevice between two high hills, leading them away from Glen Etive.

For the first few hours, the journey was fairly enjoyable. They all shouldered their loads bravely, keeping up a smart pace, and the spirits of the company were high. Snatches of song flew back and forth, as did apples and bottles of water when they grew hungry and thirsty. Bilbo settled into a comfortable walking pace, chatting easily with Dori and Ori, who made for undemanding conversation partners. They stopped for a break around noon, examining some of the wealth of foods that Elrond had given them, and Fíli looked at their progress on his mobile.

“We’ve put some distance between us and where they’ll be looking for us, but I think we should look for somewhere sheltered to spend the night.”

Thorin agreed, but left it to Balin and Fíli to plot out their route. The afternoon’s journey was not so pleasant as the morning had been, for a number of reasons. A smattering of clouds moved in and seemed to settle atop the company, keeping them in a permanent state of unpleasant dampness and chill. Ori tripped over a loose rock and twisted his ankle badly enough that they had to relieve him of his pack, spreading out the weight among the rest of the company, who were already growing tired. Balin and Oin grew tired, their pace slowing enough to leave the younger members of the company a little impatient, and tempers began to fray a bit. Although they could hear everything clearly, out in the wild, Bilbo was sure that the rest were listening as hard as he was for sounds of pursuit. They glanced over their shoulders often.

In the early evening, with their spirits flagging and feet aching, Fíli and Balin finally agreed that they had found a suitable place to make camp for the evening. They took shelter under the shadow of a tall hill that ran down to a clear, quick-flowing stream, and began to try to figure out the tents and equipment Elrond had given them. It was, to Bilbo’s mind, a disaster. Thumbs were smashed, toes crushed, and Ori wound up in tears by the time a few lopsided tents were in place. Bilbo hoped the rain would continue the brief respite it had given them, or he feared the weight of a few drops might cause all the tents to collapse.

Gloin somehow managed to get a small fire going, and they crowded around it, the companionship of damp elbows and shoulder rubbing together a strange sort of comfort.

“What do we do now, Thorin?” Bofur asked, stretching his hands closer to the fire and pulling the earflaps of his hat down more snugly against the chill of the evening. “Not that this isn’t marvelous, but I can’t see us keeping it up forever.”

Thorin stared into the fire, one of his nephews close on each side. “We’ll be taking the initiative. Bilbo is going to steal the Arkenstone from Smaug, as soon as we can come up with a plan that has a reasonable chance of success.” He glanced over at Bilbo with a respectful nod. “I’m not willing to risk him until we’re confident the thing can be done, though. Ideas?”

A stream of banter picked up all around the fire, ideas tossed back and forth, but Bilbo hardly bothered to listen to any of them. He hunched down a little further into his coat, drawing his knees up to his chest for warmth, and tried to swallow around the growing tickle in his throat. He wasn’t cut out for burgling, no matter what they might say, and the idea of breaking into Smaug’s private den to steal the Arkenstone was enough to make panic grow in his chest and leave his eyes blurry. He went to bed early that night, curled up in his sleeping bag in the corner of an unsafe and leaky tent, and tried not to think about his upcoming responsibility.

Bilbo woke in the middle of the night, feeling the call of nature, and groaned softly as he tried to sit up. His head was pounding in time to the deafening and rhythmic snores of his tent-mates, and he could hardly swallow for the thickness of his throat. It felt rather like someone had taken a knife and plunged it in the side of his neck. He stumbled out of the tent, feeling disoriented, and tried to keep himself from falling as he made his way to the secluded area they’d established for his intended purpose. As he was walking back to the tent, though, he had the creeping sensation of eyes on his back, and he spun around.

From the darkness outside the circle of tents, where the last glimmers of light from the embers of the fire barely reached, there were eyes. He startled backward, tripping over a loose stone, and going down with a grunt.

“Uncle Bill!” Kíli darted over, helping him up quickly, and Bilbo pointed furiously to where he had just seen the eyes.

“Did you see that? Who is out there?”

Kíli frowned. “Nobody! I’ve been watching since Fíli woke me, and there hasn’t been anyone moving around, until you.” He looked at Bilbo worriedly. “You look awful. Are you ill?”

Bilbo waved off the concern. “Kíli, I saw something out there. I know I did.”

Kíli nodded and drew a frighteningly long knife from his belt, quickly disappearing into the darkness where Bilbo had indicated something. Bilbo stood by the dying fire, looking around in every direction, but there was no further sign of anything. Kíli came back after a few moments, shaking his head.

“I saw nothing,” he said, almost apologetic. “Are you sure you’re all right?” He put a hand to Bilbo’s head before he could move away, and Kíli frowned. “You’re sick!” he said accusingly.

“A cold, that’s all,” Bilbo said, and the congestion becoming apparent in his nose made it clear that he wasn’t lying. “You’re sure there’s not anyone out there.”

“Very,” Kíli said certainly. He looked at Bilbo expectantly, then shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know what to do for colds.”

Bilbo sighed. “I’ll just go back to sleep,” he said quickly. “Don’t worry about it. Just - keep your eyes open, OK?”

“I won’t even blink,” Kíli promised with a grin. “Rest up!” He turned back to stare out into the darkness, and Bilbo crept back to his now-cold bedroll, still feeling the creeping sensation of eyes on his back.

The next morning he woke in misery. All of his symptoms had multiplied in the night, and he could barely move his head without shooting pains. He lay in bed groaning quietly while the sounds of a noisy breakfast being put together knocked and rattled at his skull, and he could only grunt unhappily at Fíli when the boy stuck his head in the tent to wake him for breakfast.

“What’s wrong?” Fíli asked, then darted out of the tent, and Bilbo could hear him shouting. “Something’s wrong with Bilbo!”

“He was sick last night, but he said it was just a cold!” Kíli shouted back, and Bilbo’s head throbbed miserably. A moment later, Thorin brushed aside the flaps to the tent and came in, ducked uncomfortably low to avoid knocking his head against the low ceiling.

“You’re ill?” he asked brusquely, brow furrowed.

“Just a cold,” Bilbo rasped, unable to make his voice come out as anything but a hoarse rattle. “I just need some paracetamol and something to drink.”

Thorin looked unconvinced, but turned to rifle through the bag of medical supplies that Oin had been hauling along. “I’d rather stop and let you rest, but I’m afraid that might be very risky right now,” he said quietly. He handed Bilbo the pills and a bottle of water, and Bilbo tried to swallow them without wincing at the pain. “Can you move with us today?”

“I won’t slow us down,” Bilbo promised. And he didn’t, for the most part, though it was a struggle. Fíli and Kíli carefully removed all of his baggage, adding it to their own loads without a word of protest, and Bifur found him a walking stick that helped greatly to support his weight and ease his way forward, but Bilbo was in misery. He blew his nose every five minutes, eyes protesting the too-bright light, and his throat never stopped aching. Bofur took it upon himself to walk next to Bilbo, telling cheerful stories to distract and amuse him, and plied him with water all day.

He paid little or no attention to where they were going or to his surroundings that day, though the misery of being attacked by clouds of midgies stayed with him through the rest of the torment. Thorin seemed to drop back to check on him every few minutes, eyes crinkled at the corners with concern, and then he strode back to the front of the company, controlling their speed carefully.

It seemed to Bilbo, through the haze of his misery, that there was someone following them - but every time he turned to look properly, it was only a hawk settling in to land, or a grouse taking wing from a patch of heather. Assuring himself that his fever was simply making him imagine things, Bilbo tried to keep his eyes focused on the ground in front of him, longing for the time that they could just stop and he could rest.

When they stopped for the evening, he collapsed in a miserable little heap at the base of a small tree, and let the others get on with making camp. The tents went up more easily the second time, and Gloin’s fire blazed a little more merrily. Bofur volunteered to cook them a proper supper from the supplies they had, and Bilbo let Thorin push more medications on him, relieved just to be able to get off his feet.

Bifur came over to glare at him that evening as the light left the sky, and made a few violent looking gestures with his hands that Bilbo couldn’t make any sense of. He looked to Fíli and Kíli for assistance, but they were both smiling broadly up at the older man.

“What’s he saying?” Bilbo hissed.

“He says don’t die, Uncle Bill,” Fíli explained. He gestured back, fingers flying, and Bifur nodded serenely and walked away. “I’ve told him you won’t dare try, or Thorin will have your head.”

Bilbo groaned and fell asleep, propped up against the tree, and didn’t wake until the next morning, when light was creeping in through the door of the tent that he had somehow been moved to. He was sweating, greatly overwarm, but couldn’t help but give a smile when he saw why. He had been carefully covered in a ridiculous pile of blankets and long coats, clearly donated by nearly all the members of the family. It was slightly uncomfortable, trying to squirm out from under the small mountain, but the gesture touched Bilbo deeply. It had been many years since anyone had tried to take care of him.

He snuffled experimentally, and was pleased to find that while he still had traces of his headache and stuffy nose, the pain and disorientation from the previous day was mostly gone. He shook his head, happy to be able to move without pain, and then grinned crookedly as he listened out. There was nearly no noise from outside his tent. Clearly the protection and care offered by the family had extended to convincing one another to be quiet for his sake while he rested. He would have to do something nice for them in return, once he was back to his full strength.

Bilbo got to his feet, stretching a bit, and wandered out of the tent, rubbing at his eyes. He yawned as he looked around - and then froze.

The Sons of Durin were scattered on the ground all around the campsite, unmoving. Fíli and Kíli were collapsed next to one another, hands almost touching on the ground between them, faces turned toward one another. Bofur was slumped over next to the tree where Bilbo had rested, hat on the ground next to him. Half of the company seemed to have simply toppled over where they sat around the fire, untouched plates of food sitting open on the ground, the contents spilling into the dirt. Thorin had fallen only a few feet away from Bilbo, and lay full-length in the dirt, arms flung out in front of him. With a cry, Bilbo ran to him, struggling to turn him over onto his back.

Thorin wasn’t breathing - or if he was, it was so shallow that Bilbo couldn’t make it out over the sound of his own panicky breaths. He looked around frantically, but there was no help to be found. He put his hand to Thorin’s neck, feeling desperately for a pulse, but he wasn’t sure whether he was feeling Thorin’s heartbeat or the frantic thud of blood through his own fingers. He wanted to scream, to rage his helplessness and desperation to the sky - but he was frozen in place on that flat piece of ground, heart pounding and eyes watering, surrounded by the bodies of his family. Bilbo had never in his life felt so alone.

Chapter Text

Bilbo found his feet after a long, frozen moment, and scrambled from one member of the company to another, looking for signs of life. They were all still and unresponsive, faces gone slack , and he couldn’t tell whether most of them were breathing.

“No,” he muttered, running from Bifur to Bofur, and lifting his head up to desperately search for signs of life. “No, no, no, no. Come on!” But Bofur was as still as the rest, and his head dropped back to his chest as soon as Bilbo let go.

Fíli and Kíli were the last he checked, having been the furthest away from Thorin, and here finally Bilbo found some sign of life. They were both still breathing shallowly, hearts beating in a sluggish rhythm that was still a beautiful sound to Bilbo. He leaned over Fíli to take his pulse - and his fingers found a little metal dart sticking in the side of the boy’s neck. Carefully, fingers shaking, Bilbo pulled it out and looked at it.

It was a tiny thing, no bigger than a thumbnail, but the point was sharp and painful-looking, and Bilbo frowned closely at it. On the end, carefully engraved in miniature, was a stylised spider. He threw it away from him quickly, realising the significance at once. They had been found, attacked while he slept, and now his friends were ill, possibly dying, as a result of the tiny stings like the one he had just found. The assassin Glorfindel had warned them about, clearly, and one who believed in advertising his identity on his murder weapons. He slapped Fíli’s face a bit, shaking him, lifting his head up - but nothing seemed to stir him from the unnatural sleep. As Bilbo sat between the two boys, paralysed by grief and fear, he became aware that the lads’ breathing was growing fainter, their chests rising and falling less with each breath. They were slipping away as he watched.

Bilbo climbed to his feet, spreading his arms out wide, and threw his head back.

“You’ve missed one!” he howled, letting his fear and frustration vent into the clear air. “Spider! Lazy lob, you’ve missed one!” He breathed hard, listening - and then threw himself forward just in time, as a tiny dart whizzed by his neck.

“Shame,” a grinding, clicking sort of voice said from behind him. “But an easily corrected mistake.” Bilbo darted sideways again, dodging another dart, and threw himself to the ground behind a little tree, hoping it might provide some shelter.

“Can’t catch me that easy,” he shouted, all rage and adrenaline. “What’s wrong? Too busy spinning away to see that you’d done your job?”

“I was told thirteen,” the voice grated, and Bilbo focused hard, trying to locate the source. There, in a tree a few feet outside the edge of their little camp, coming from the branches. “Thirteen, not thirteen and a half-man hiding in a tent.”

“Bet that won’t leave your boss happy,” Bilbo called. “Old fat Spider, up in his tree, happy to leave the job half finished. What will Smaug have to say about that, hmm?” He waited a second after he spoke, then rolled into a crouch, keeping his feet silent and the bulk of his tree and the surrounding bushes between himself and Spider’s tree.

“Kill as many as I liked, but bring Thorin to him, that’s what he said,” the man’s voice crackled dryly. “Never said anything about you, did he? What should Spider do with you, hmm?”

Bilbo stooped and picked up a rock, tossing it up and down in his hand to check the weight. It was many years since he’d tried throwing at anything, but as a child, Bilbo had always been the best in games requiring accurate aim and a steady hand. He breathed out slowly, then darted out from behind the tree, throwing the stone with all his might. He had already scooped up another, preparing to shoot again, when the man’s body toppled from the tree to land awkwardly in the grass below, a slow trickle of blood already appearing on his temple. Bilbo nearly fell over in shock, but shook it off and ran forward.

Spider was a skinny fellow, all arms and legs, dressed all in dark, practical clothes with a multitude of tiny pockets all over. Bilbo hauled him upright, checking that he hadn’t managed to kill the fellow with his well-aimed rock, and then dropped him back against the tree and sprinted for one of the packs Elrond had given them. He dug out a neatly-coiled rope, thin but incredibly strong, and wasted no time in lashing the assassin to the tree, taking particular care that his hands were well-secured and not able to reach any of his pockets. He stood back to examine his work, breathing heavily, and not quite certain what to make of himself. Bilbo Baggins, lately a grocer in Linlithgow, had just incapacitated an assassin.

“What on earth would Mother say?” Bilbo muttered, and shook his head. He made another nervous round of his friends, trying to at least arrange them comfortably, and hoping desperately that their stillness and pallor were just a temporary affliction, rather than the way he would have to remember them forever.

Spider groaned, and Bilbo scampered back over to stand in front of the man. He crossed his arms, trying hard to look intimidating, but knew he was likely making a mess of the whole business. Spider seemed to come awake with a jerk, arms and legs scrabbling around as best they could - but Bilbo had tied his rope well, and he could not break free. Bilbo let him squirm for a moment, then cleared his throat meaningfully.

“Let’s try this my way for a bit, shall we?” he offered. “My name is Bilbo Baggins. I’m the one you missed.”

Spider snarled at him through a mouth of crooked, darkened teeth. “You’re too fat and little to matter. Smaug won’t mind one survivor.”

Bilbo raised an eyebrow, struggling to remain calm, even while his heart was screaming that his friends, his family, lay dying in the grass all around him, and he needed to act. “But the others aren’t dead, either.”

“They will be, soon enough,” Spider hissed, black eyes glittering with malicious pride. “It’s a toxin of my own devising, you know. Goes in quick as biting, and starts to work right away. They fell down before they could even scream, little man”

“How does it work?” Bilbo asked, wanting to be sick. But it was clear that the man took great pride in what he did - and if Bilbo could use that to his advantage, he would.

“It’s a paralytic,” Spider said eagerly, fingers twitching a frantic rhythm on the tree behind him. “Stops the big muscles first. Knocks them down. And then everything begins to shut down - eyes, vocal cords, motor control. But the lovely thing - the really lovely, artistic thing - is that they’re awake in there, even while heart and lungs are quietly slowing and stopping. They’re all awake.” He giggled at that, high and insane, and Bilbo’s gut clenched.

“You said,” he began, pointing at Spider, “you said that Smaug wanted Thorin alive.”

Spider cocked his head, acknowledging the fact. “Thorin, yes - and his whelps, if convenient. But you made me come a very long way, and it’s not dreadfully convenient any longer, so I think I’ll just take Thorin. The rest will be dead within a few hours.”

“But Thorin won’t?” Bilbo pressed, dropping to one knee to get on Spider’s level. “Why won’t Thorin be dead?”

“I made the venom,” Spider chittered. “Do you think it was hard to make the antivenom, too? Easy as breathing!” And he laughed at that, a horrible wheezing sound that sent shivers up Bilbo’s spine.

“Ahhhh,” Bilbo breathed, feeling a little smile spread across his features. “So you have an antivenom. That makes my job much easier!” Spider looked at him warily, and Bilbo hardened his face, wiping away his hope. “I’ll be needing that - enough for all of my friends, if you please.”

Spider laughed again, wheezing and coughing, and Bilbo stood firm. When the torrent of amusement stopped, Spider shook his head. “Little man, you can’t think I’ll just hand it over. I’ve done my job already. All it will take is a bit of time to finish the work!”

Bilbo tried not to be disappointed. It wasn’t like he’d really thought that just asking would work, anyway. He tried for an understanding look. “What is it that Smaug has promised you? I’m sure we can come to some arrangement!”

Spider shook his head, eyes alight with a madness that Bilbo couldn’t fathom. “All he gives is the job, and that is enough for Spider. To kill - to watch them fall and breathe their last - it is enough.”

There was no way to reason with that, Bilbo thought, and a sudden despair grasped him. He couldn’t exactly go searching the man for something that might be an antivenom. From the number of tiny vials he could see poking out of the man’s pockets, there had to be dozens or hundreds of possibilities contained there - and most of them would probably doom his friends even more certainly than they already were. He looked around frantically, hoping for inspiration, wishing that any one of them were awake to advise him.

They weren’t awake to offer help - but there was a knife, sharp and deadly, poking out of the back of Fíli’s boot, and Bilbo swallowed hard. Could he use it, if he needed? Not for self-defense, not on an armed aggressor - but against a now-defenseless man? He stood and walked over, removing the long knife carefully, and balanced it in his hands. Spider was watching him, dark eyes glittering curiously, and Bilbo straightened his back and made his way back over, displaying the knife prominently.

He breathed deeply before speaking, laying the knife out on his open hands where Spider could see it clearly. “Now we have a problem,” he said carefully. “See, I need that antivenom. I need my friends well and whole again, and I need that to happen right away. If that doesn’t happen -” he shrugged, letting the morning sun glint off the knife, and hoping Spider’s imagination was working hard.

“Soft little man!” Spider spat, anger and fear warring with amusement in his sharp features. “You wouldn’t. Spider knows those like you. You are good, you are soft, you are kind. You will not hurt.”

Bilbo nodded slowly, dropping to his knees in front of Spider and leaning in until their faces were very close. “You know what, Spider? You’re not wrong. I am soft. I am kind, and I have tried to be a good man.” He shifted the knife into one hand, grasping the handle tightly. “But you know what else? I am a lonely man. I have been alone for so very long, and I never even knew it. I didn’t know to want anything else - can you imagine that? But then one night, those two boys came to my door, and I let them in - I don’t know why, really I don’t.” He smiled then, letting the memories wash over him - sunny days in Rivendell and songs in his sitting room and waking up to blankets and kindness that very morning. Thorin, with a hand on his shoulder, telling him that he was not to be risked. “And ever since then, I have not been lonely. I have a family now, and I’m learning that sometimes that means you do things that you’re frightened of, or things that hurt you.”

His hand was steady as he brought the knife up to point directly at Spider’s right eye, light flashing from the sharp point only a few inches away from the man’s face. “I won’t lose a single one of them. I will not let you kill my family,” he murmured, and tilted his head to the side. “Now, did you say something about an antivenom?”

Spider sat stock-still, not blinking, and watched Bilbo carefully for a long moment. And then he blinked rapidly, and nodded his head a tiny fraction, clearly afraid of the proximity of the knife. “I’ll show you,” he breathed, and Bilbo shook his head.

“I’m not stupid,” he said. “You’ll go nowhere until they’re all on their feet again. Tell me what to do.”

Spider’s eyes flickered downward, and he swallowed. “Left pocket, third down. There’s a clear vial.” Bilbo laid the knife down carefully, far from the reach of the man’s feet, and dug in the pocket until he found the tiny crystal vial.

“How do I administer it?” Bilbo asked, throat dry.

“Darts,” Spider said reluctantly, after Bilbo had glared at him in an extended moment of silence. “I have clean ones in the right shoulder pocket.” A little rummaging produced an unopened packet of darts, but Bilbo looked at them warily.

“How do I know that these are safe? Or that this even is an antivenom?”

Spider giggled, seeming to find amusement in the situation again. “Now we’re playing!” he said eagerly. “Do you trust the man who tried to kill you all? Is Spider afraid of pain, to give up his secrets so? Or will you kill your friends in your eagerness to save them? Clever Mr. Baggins, what will you do?”

It was a sickening problem, and Bilbo looked at the items in his hands, begging for some clarity. If he did nothing, they would die slowly. If he used a poison, they would be dead by his hand, and he would know it forever. He could try actually hurting Spider, seeing if the answer he was given changed - but Bilbo knew, somehow, that if he did that, he would be a changed man. He didn’t know how he would live with himself in any of those circumstances.

Bilbo’s fingers closed definitively over the vial, and he stood up. “Who did you shoot first?” he demanded. Spider looked interested.

“The one by the tree - with the hat. He was so cheerful. I thought he should die first.”

Bilbo shuddered again, and made his way quickly over to Bofur, fingers tearing madly at the packet of darts. His hands shook as he selected a dart and wrested open the clear vial, dipping the tip of the dart inside - but he hesitated before striking.

“Bofur,” he murmured, reaching out to take hold of his friend’s limp fingers. “I have to try, and I hope to God it works. Please, please let it work.” With a final squeeze of his fingers, he let go, and jabbed the dart into Bofur’s neck. It was a tiny thing - such a little thing, but it meant either life or death, delivered by his hands, and Bilbo couldn’t take his eyes off it.

It seemed to take an eternity, but eventually there came a moment when Bilbo could see him take a proper breath, color beginning to creep back into pale cheeks, and he dropped his head into his hands for a moment, overwhelmed with relief. He glanced over at Spider, who was watching him carefully, sharp face a mask. With a gentle pat to Bofur’s hand, Bilbo got up and made his way to Bifur, fingers already fumbling with another dart. Now that he had begun, it seemed like he couldn’t work fast enough. Every second was too long, too much time that they weren’t breathing, trapped inside their own heads as they suffocated. He was nearly sobbing by the time he reached Fíli and Kíli. He’d left them for last, trusting that their youthful vigor would keep them well enough until he could see to them.

With the antivenom applied to everyone, Bilbo found himself rushing in circles around the camp, checking all of them to see whether they were waking up yet. He became aware of how ridiculous he sounded, going about shouting “Dori! Nori! Ori! Oin! Gloin! Bifur! Bofur! Fíli and Kíli! Thorin! Dwalin! Balin!” over and over, not waiting long enough to get more than a glimpse of their faces before moving on.

It was a long time, or so it seemed, before muffled groans began to emerge from the huddled lumps of his friends’ bodies, and then he was laughing helplessly, dashing away tears as he tried to help them sit up and get more comfortable. All thoughts of his own aching head and stuffy nose had long since vanished, and he barely felt the rocks that dug into his knees as he knelt to help one, then another of them.

They came awake very slowly, in stages. Breathing came first, with heartbeats that picked up slowly and color returning to their faces, icy fingers growing warm again. They started blinking before too long, slowly, without much indication that they were seeing or hearing anything. Bilbo, staring down at Thorin as his eyes began to open, thought that he had never seen such a lovely sight as those brilliant blue eyes opening, when he had feared to never see them again.

When they started groaning, he moved to help them sit up. “Up you get!” he called, feeling a rush of terrible joy and relief sweep through him, washing away his inhibitions. “Come on then, Dori! Let’s have you moving!” Eventually, he had them all seated upright around the fire, which he stoked back into a roaring blaze, feeling like they all needed the comfort and warmth just then. Fíli and Kíli he had slumped over one another, following their wordless demands to be together. Spider stayed quiet, strung up to his tree, and Bilbo was happy to forget about him for the time being.

He eventually decided they were recovering well enough for water, and ran around helping them all to drinks. Their coordination was completely lacking, though, and Bilbo was absurdly reminded of helping some of his mates after a night out at uni, when they’d had so much to drink that they couldn’t walk straight or put together a sentence. He chuckled a bit at the thought - particularly since the Sons of Durin, fierce terrorists that they were, all seemed to be rather clingy, cuddly sorts of drunks.

Bifur was the first to start talking again - which wasn’t particularly helpful when Bilbo was trying to assess the mental conditions of all of his patients. He rambled on at length, all words that didn’t seem to fit together or make sense, and Bilbo had to nod along and agree.

Of course, it wasn’t long before Fíli and Kíli were chattering again, their irrepressible spirits clearly undampened - but they wouldn’t speak to him, unable to focus on anything but one another. Their usual indecipherable language was worse than ever, and Bilbo couldn’t make heads or tails of anything they were saying. He took comfort in the fact that they clearly understood one another, though, and chalked it up to trauma and lingering effects of the toxin, hoping that all of them would be back to normal soon.

But Nori and Dwalin and Gloin were angry when they woke enough to be aware, and Bilbo had to try to hold them back, fighting against their uncoordinated efforts to get up and murder Spider with their bare hands. Bofur put his head back against his tree, staring up at the sky, and sang songs that Bilbo thought he had heard before in his youth - sad songs, full of loneliness and a longing for home, and Bilbo tried to get him to stop. Bofur just grinned up at the sky and sang on, accompanied by tuneless murmurings from Oin, who clearly believed he was singing, too.

Balin was a worry - as was Oin, since both of them were very slow to wake. They were much older than anyone Bilbo had known in a long while, and though they seemed hearty, he couldn’t help but fear for them, after that long without proper lung and heart function. He fussed over them for what seemed like hours, but they did come out of it - slowly and deliberately, but Balin smiled so kindly at Bilbo when his eyes could focus again that Bilbo nearly wept for joy, and had to content himself with giving the old man a brief, exultant hug disguised as an attempt to help him sit more comfortably.

Thorin was always on his mind, even as he helped the rest recover, and Bilbo found himself running back over to Thorin’s side every few minutes. There was a vulnerability about the man in this state that Bilbo hadn’t even imagined before, and he was startled by how fiercely he wanted to protect him. Thorin smiled at him every time he came by - a sweet, lovely smile that seemed entirely at odds with the man he thought he knew. But then Bilbo thought about how Thorin looked at Fíli and Kíli when he thought they weren’t watching, how he had nearly fallen apart at the news that Kíli would survive, and he knew better. Thorin was a man of innumerable strong walls - but the heart of him was kinder than Bilbo could have imagined, and now it was shining out of his eyes, out of his smile, and Bilbo was drawn to it like a moth to flame.

They were trying to walk again within a few hours, and Bilbo had to stifle his laughter behind his hands as they tottered around like babies learning to walk, leaning on one another, and occasionally just falling over and lying there for a few minutes. The company was becoming loud again, though, which did Bilbo’s heart great good. Gales of almost drunken laughter roared through the camp, and there were unsteady songs here and there. Fíli and Kíli decided to try to cook food for everyone, which ended up with piles of burnt food and a roar of laughter around the camp, and Bilbo let himself go, finally feeling like everything would be fine. He laughed deeply, feeling his sides burn as the laughter became almost hysterical, and he toppled over to the side, landing solidly against Thorin.

Bilbo blinked up at him, laughter still trickling from his lips, and Thorin smiled back down merrily. “Laugh all you like,” he assured Bilbo, the rumble of his voice a solid vibration under Bilbo’s shoulder. “You’ve earned it today.”

Bilbo chuckled a little more, sobering, but he didn’t make himself pull away. It was a relief beyond any he had known to feel Thorin’s breathing, strong and steady, and to know that they were all still breathing and laughing - that he hadn’t lost everything. “It’s not exactly what I was planning to do with my day,” he confided, and Thorin chuckled back.

“What would we have done without you?” he asked easily, shaking his head. The breeze picked up a little, drawing through Thorin’s thick hair, sending tendrils flying about this way and that. “Gandalf knew what he was doing when he chose you.”

Bilbo ducked his head, embarrassed. “No more than you would have done for me,” he muttered, glancing around the camp for some sort of distraction - but they were all stubbornly trying to go about their business. Dwalin had stationed himself in front of Spider and was staring him down, unmoving, and Bilbo thought tiredly that at least he didn’t have to bother with the man. Dwalin could handle Spider with a rolled-up newspaper if he liked, Bilbo was sure.

“It’s more than that,” Thorin insisted, his voice low and easy, without the tension that it usually carried. “You’ve saved us all, over and over, and asked for nothing in return. I never thought I would come to depend on a - a -” he stopped, looking confused by his lack of the correct word.

“On a grocer?” Bilbo said, smiling crookedly. Thorin rumbled a denial.

“No. On an honest man.”

Bilbo sat up, pulling away enough to look at Thorin directly. “You’re not exactly a criminal mastermind yourself, Thorin,” he reminded him.

“I haven’t been an innocent in a long time,” Thorin said slowly. “I did not think you would come with us. And then I told myself you would not stay - you would go home as soon as you were able, and we wouldn’t see you again. My nephews insisted otherwise, but they are very young.”

“They’ll get over it,” Bilbo said dryly.

“But you stayed with us in the prison, and came to rescue us that night,” Thorin mused lightly, staring up at the sky. “I wanted to hate you then, for doing what I couldn’t. You saved my family when I could do nothing. But that was useless.” He smiled again at Bilbo, in a helplessly open way that made Bilbo think abruptly of spring days and the sick, silly feeling in the pit of his stomach when he had looked at his lovely classmate two rows ahead of him, when love was still expressed in avoidance and denial. “And then I heard you threatening that insect of a man for us, when we couldn’t breathe or move on our own, and I knew you would save us again.”

“I couldn’t lose you,” Bilbo whispered, mouth dry. It was hitting him all of a sudden, just how close he’d come to being alone again, without the laughter and danger and warm, comforting insanity and the steady eyes of the man who watched out for all of them - who was now watching just him.

“And I would not lose you,” Thorin said gently. I, not we, and he was looking at Bilbo with an intensity that took his breath away. Thorin Oakenshield was staring at Bilbo with his heart on his sleeve, eyes more vulnerable than he had ever seen them, and Bilbo couldn’t breathe.

He felt like the world froze, in an instant, and he could see the path before him - and he was terrified.

He got to his feet quickly, trying to ignore how Thorin’s expression changed so rapidly, and backed away a step, shaking his head.

“Look, I’ve got to-” he said breathlessly. “Thorin, I need to -”

It was no good. There was no way to finish the sentence, and he put a hand up to his head in confusion, tangling it in his curls. He darted away, going to his knees beside Spider in an instant, rifling through his pockets until he found what he was looking for.

“Bilbo?” Dwalin said, startled. “What’re you doing?”

“Look, deal with Spider,” Bilbo said flatly. “Do whatever you like. Don’t trust him.” He darted away, looking among the packs for his own satchel, which was still packed. Around him, the Sons of Durin were starting to stare, confused by his strange behaviour.

“Uncle Bill?” Kíli asked, eyes still wide and confused as he fought off the effects of the drug. “What are you doing?”

“My job!” Bilbo bellowed, standing quickly as he slung his satchel over his shoulder. “I’m going to find Smaug and steal your damned Arkenstone, all right?”

“You’re just leaving us here?” Fíli said, looking stunned. “Are you coming back?”

“I’ll find you when I’m done, obviously,” Bilbo said, feeling his heart hammer in his chest, in his ears, roaring almost loud enough to drown out his words. “I can’t do this any more.”

“Bilbo?” That, at last, was Thorin, who had gotten unsteadily to his feet, staring at him in open confusion. “Why?”

He shrugged wildly, past the point of caution, feeling wildly on the edge of doing something insane like bursting into tears, or flinging himself at Thorin and never letting go. “I want my own damn life back!” Bilbo snapped - although that was so far from the truth that he almost choked on the words, a thick lump in the back of his throat. He waved the keys he had taken from Spider’s pocket in the air. “I’m going to get your Arkenstone, Thorin. I don’t know what more you want from me.”

He turned away then, hurrying away from the camp before any of them could stop him, and he saw Spider’s motorbike as he crested the hill. There were tears in his eyes, and he dashed them away angrily, trying to block out the images of the stunned faces of his friends - his family. It was all too much - losing them, getting them back, Thorin’s words. Feet barely keeping up with his body as he hurtled down the hill, mind racing, Bilbo ran.

Chapter Text

Bilbo Baggins was not made to ride a motorbike. It wasn’t a surprising revelation to him - he had never been drawn to fast, dangerous transport - but it was a fact that he was unable to get away from. He shifted uncomfortably on the seat, too worried about toppling himself over to really get comfortable, and groaned aloud. There was no-one there to hear him.

 

Spider’s motorbike was surprisingly quiet, all things considered, and Bilbo had figured the operation out quickly, but it wasn’t comfortable. The wind whipped at his clothes and hair, and he was all too aware of his unprotected skin - though he’d carefully put on the helmet. It didn’t drown out the sound of the wind, though, or the sound of his thoughts as they whirled through his head.

 

They were mostly variations on a theme - that theme being the stupidity of one Bilbo Baggins, lately of Linlithgow, and even more lately an unlikely addition to the Sons of Durin. Though, he thought gloomily, that was probably all in the past now. Even if he got the Arkenstone, how could he go back and hope that things would be the same? How could he explain to any of them why he’d picked up and run so suddenly? He couldn’t even explain it to himself in words that made any kind of sense - just that he had been so frightened, and running had been the only thing that looked like a way out. His hands tightened on the handles of the bike.

 

He’d been riding for close to two hours, and the petrol gauge was beginning to dip too low for comfort. Falkirk was only a few minutes away, and Bilbo knew in his bones that Linlithgow was just a few minutes further down the road. Part of him ached to go home - to see his old haunts, the quiet and peaceful places he had grown up in. He could stop for just a while and breathe - forget everything that had happened, and pretend he was just on a walk to the loch. But that was wrong, and most of him knew it. He tried to imagine seeing his grocery and his flat again, empty and cold and devoid of life, and the idea turned his stomach. There was no going home - not until the job was done. He turned off at Falkirk and found a petrol station, climbing off the motorbike gingerly, every sore muscle making itself known.

 

Perhaps he would have to go home soon anyway, alone again, he reflected as he filled the tank. Even if he got the Arkenstone, Thorin might not want to see him again - or the rest might be wary of him now, and send him packing. And then he didn’t know what he would do.

 

He shook his head, and dug in his pocket for his mobile, looking to check the time. It was rather amazing that it was still functioning after all those days without a proper charge. The screen lit up as he pushed a button, and he blinked in shock. Six missed calls, and a few text messages. He blew out a startled breath and flipped to his call log. Fíli had called every twenty minutes, regular and unceasing. He pulled up the messages, leaning back against the pump as he read - four messages, all from Fíli.

 

Please come back

 

We didn’t mean it, whatever we did

 

Thorin did something, right? Tell us, please! We’ll make it right.

 

Please, Bilbo. I don’t know what to tell Kíli. Are you coming back to us?

 

He shook his head, a lump in his throat. Persistent little brat, that was certain. He hesitated a moment, then typed as quickly as he could manage.

 

Going to do my job. Will be back when it’s done, if wanted. He hesitated. Not your fault - tell Kíli the same.

 

He put his mobile back in his pocket, stopped in the little shop to use the facilities and get a bottle of water, and by the time he was climbing back on the bike, his mobile was chiming again to tell him there was a new message. He pulled it out, knowing he should move forward, but unable to abandon the link back to the people he cared about.

 

If you don’t come back, we’re coming after you, Uncle Bill.

 

He grinned stupidly down at the screen, and shot off a quick reply. You know where I live. Expect you’ll get me out of prison if this goes wrong.

 

Bilbo climbed back on the bike with his heart a little lighter, and sped up quickly as he pulled back onto the road, heading for Edinburgh. He didn’t actually know too well where he was going, but it was the best lead he had. He was still feeling a little tired and his head was a constant memory of pain, and Bilbo thought his nose must be going very red from as much as he’d had to wipe at it, but he was moving forward now.

 

Edinburgh wasn’t far from Falkirk, and Bilbo had to think hard about his destination as he approached the city. He finally headed for the swell of the Salisbury Crags, letting the rise of Arthur’s Seat draw him in, and he parked Spider’s motorbike in the lot just outside Holyrood Park, not much caring whether it was still there later. The Parliament building was just a block or so away, the iconic strangeness of the architecture unmistakable to even an unfamiliar eye. He decided to enter the building through the public entrance first, and see what he could make of it.

 

The security was tight, and Bilbo was glad he didn’t carry weapons like his companions, or he’d never have made it through. He followed the orderly queue, and spent a few minutes in the galleries, examining the maps and diagrams of the building’s structure carefully. There wasn’t much public access to secure locations - like the personal offices of MPs and appointed officials - but Bilbo could see, generally, where they were located. He would have to make his way into the secure area and try to find the office on his own.

 

It was actually easier than he had expected, once he’d gotten up the nerve. His light feet and small stature served him well, getting him past the eyes of the not-so-watchful security officials, and then he was faced with a locked door. He debated trying to pick the lock, but that was quickly eliminated as an option as he watched someone swipe a card to open the door. He didn’t have Fíli’s hacking skills to get himself through the door, or Kíli’s facility with a smile and an easy lie to have it opened for him.

 

The door opened from the other side, so quickly that Bilbo had to duck back to avoid being hit by it. The woman coming through had her arms loaded down with papers, and she was staring at the top one fixedly. He slipped a hand around the door, ducking quickly to avoid a glance that might slip his way, and slid through the door before it closed, heart pounding in his chest. He was inside, just that easily.

 

He slipped to one side of the corridor, wishing he were wearing something more appropriate for the venture than his tattered trainers and slightly weather-worn parka. A quick glance told him that he’d found the block of offices that he was looking for, each marked with their occupant’s name. He took off down the hall as fast as he dared, scanning the doors on both sides for Smaug. It took him by surprised, though, when he saw another familiar name on a door, and he reached out without much conscious thought, ducking inside the room just as he heard a door opening down the hall.

 

The gasp of surprise that greeted him was familiar, and Bilbo waved his hands frantically, trying to get him to be quiet. “Bombur!” he hissed, “don’t make a sound! It’s just me! Remember? Bilbo Baggins, burglar!”

 

Bombur - and Bilbo had to keep reminding himself to think of the man as Bombur, rather than his more famous political name - nodded, face flooding with relief. “Of course,” he said quietly in his rich voice. “You startled me, Mr. Baggins. What are you doing here?”

 

“There’s been a few spots of trouble,” Bilbo confided, stepping further into the room. Bombur gestured for him to come in and sit in the comfortable-looking chair across the desk from his own, pushing forward a plate of pasties. Bilbo grabbed one quickly, his stomach just now catching up with the fact that he hadn’t eaten a thing all day, and now it was almost growing dark outside. “Have you heard any of it?”

 

“Gloin was keeping me up to date while they were in prison,” Bombur said solemnly, “and then of course I followed the news reports about the breakout. Was that you?”

 

Bilbo shrugged, his mouth full of food. “Some of it,” he managed after a minute. “We’ve been in the Highlands ever since. Got attacked by an assassin this morning.”

 

Bombur’s jolly red face paled and his eyes went wide. “Is everyone alive? Bofur?”

 

“He’s fine! They’re all fine!” Bilbo assured him quickly. Bombur sagged in relief, and reached out for a comforting pastry.

 

“Then, if I may ask, why are you here, Mr. Baggins?”

 

“I didn’t really mean to drop in on you,” Bilbo admitted. “I know you have to stay out of things where you can, and I’m not trying to force you into anything. I’m actually looking for Smaug’s office.”

 

Bombur shuddered a little, shaking his head. “You’re in the right place, but I don’t think that’s where you want to go, lad. He’s not a kind man. If he catches you-”

 

“I’ll just have to not get caught, then!” Bilbo insisted. “You don’t understand. He has something we need!” It took a few minutes to explain the situation - the flash drive he’d stolen from Gollum, the documents and data Thorin and Fíli had been able to access, and Thorin’s certainty that the Arkenstone was the key to unlocking everything they needed. Bombur was looking deadly serious by the end of his little speech, the normal jolly guise faded from his rotund face, leaving a stern-looking politician in it’s place.

 

“You need to be very careful,” he told Bilbo in a low voice. “The Arkenstone is trouble.”

 

“How do you mean?”

 

“For Thorin, I mean,” he said slowly. “He’s been entirely obsessed with that jewel since the day of burning. It means everything to him.”

 

“You don’t think he wants it as a key, then?” Bilbo asked, his heart pounding. If Thorin had lied to him- but Bombur shook his head.

 

“No, I think he may well be right. It would be very like Smaug to make Thorin’s most precious thing the key. But I think you need to be careful. Thorin is a good man, and a great leader, but he’s also lost a great deal, and he does not forgive or forget. If something went wrong with the Arkenstone, I believe we would have a dangerous man on our hands.”

 

Bilbo let out a slow breath, looking down at his hands. “I’ve got to try,” he said desperately. “They’re all out there, with the police and assassins and who knows what else after them, and none of this is ever going to stop if we can’t make that information public.”

 

Bombur sat back in his chair, folding his hands contemplatively over his stomach. “I may be able to help, when the time comes. If young Fili is able to get that information, have him send it to me. I can make it public, if it’s enough - if it really will prove that he’s guilty.”

 

Bilbo nodded quickly, leaning forward. “I was wondering how we could handle that! It’s not like Thorin can just show up and give a press conference to say ‘we were innocent all along, and by the way, Smaug is a criminal mastermind.’”

 

Bombur gave a fruity laugh, shaking his head. “No, he certainly can’t. I can, though - and people will listen. But I can’t afford to make a move until it’s certain, you understand? I can’t help you with this theft.”

 

Bilbo gave a weary nod, feeling the weight of responsibility settle back on his shoulders again. “Is it hard?” he asked, the question tumbling out unexpectedly. Bombur frowned in confusion, and Bilbo hurried to clarify. “Not being with them? Not being able to help? It seems like it would be lonely.”

 

“Aye, lad,” Bombur said quietly. There was a sadness in his eyes that caught Bilbo off guard, reminding him too much of the lonely ache in his own chest. “It is. I hardly see my own brother, let alone the rest of the family. I’ve missed the wee ones growing up. I’ve missed so much.” He heaved a huge sigh. “But Thorin and I decided twenty years ago that we needed someone inside, someone who could be respectable and do exactly what I’m going to do, once the data is released.”

 

“I don’t know if I can do it,” Bilbo confessed, looking away from that loneliness with an awkward shiver. “Leave them, now that I’ve found them.”

 

“And why should you?” Bombur asked, offering him a shadowed smile. “Plenty of room in the family for one more, lad!”

 

“I’ve sort of made a mess of things with Thorin,” Bilbo confessed. “Don’t know if he’ll want me to come back.”

 

“If there’s one thing you need to know about Thorin Oakenshield,” Bombur said wryly, “it’s that he’s a proud bastard. He’ll never take the first step toward reconciliation. If you want to make it right, it’s going to be on your terms.”

 

“Now you sound like a politician,” Bilbo muttered, and they had a quiet laugh.

 

Bombur advised him to stay hidden away until after normal business hours, and Bilbo agreed. He wound up dozing quietly in Bombur’s comfortable chair while his host attended to paperwork, and only waking to a gentle hand on his shoulder.

 

“It’s late,” Bombur said quietly. “If you’re going to take your shot, now is the time. I’m going to leave.” He shook Bilbo’s hand firmly as he stood. “I wish you the very best, Mr. Baggins.”

 

He left quickly, advising Bilbo to wait a few minutes before starting his attempted burglary, and offered a few whispered instructions about how to find Smaug’s office. Bilbo nodded furiously, trying to conceal his disappointment at seeing the last friendly face walk away, and then stood in the dark, waiting.

 

The walk down the corridor in the dark was nerve-wracking. Bilbo could feel his hands trembling even as he shoved them in his pockets, following Bombur’s instructions to the letter, and trying to move as quickly and smoothly as he could. Kíli’s hasty lessons on stealth movement ran through his head on repeat.

 

Smaug’s office was tucked away in a corner, and Bilbo took a moment to visualise the setting, looking for potential escape routes. There was a stairwell a few doors down the corridor that he could hopefully use, if needed; he didn’t much care for the idea of going out a window. He knelt by the door, trying the knob, and then dug out his set of lockpicks. He would have to ask Kíli where he’d gotten a set that could pass through metal detectors without setting them off, since Bilbo was beginning to see them as a regular tool of his trade. The lock gave in less than thirty seconds, and he darted inside, closing and relocking the door behind him.

 

The office was spacious, almost cavernous, and lit with a dull red glare from a streetlight outside that was shining through the deep red curtains at the wide windows. A faint smell of smoke hung in the air, and the room seemed almost to glimmer. Curious, Bilbo stepped forward.

 

There were awards everywhere that he could see - statues standing on bookcases, golden plaques hung on the walls, medals dangling from ribbons. It was rather a strange horde, and Bilbo wasted a moment creeping around the room staring at a few of them. Awards for academic achievement, for green initiatives, for leadership in government - all displayed with equal solemnity and pride.

 

He stepped toward the wide desk, it’s surface likewise scattered with glimmering monuments to Smaug’s ego - and then he froze. There, on the desk, resting carefully against a wall, was a tall, narrow display case. Bilbo crept forward, tilting his head to get a better look inside.

 

It was the Arkenstone. There could be no question of that. The gem gleamed like moonlight on a wind-rippled loch, every particle of light seeming to spring back from it’s surface multiplied and enhanced. It hung on a slender silver chain, set into an unobtrusive silver setting, and Bilbo couldn’t help the little sound of amazement that came from his mouth unbidden. It was the loveliest stone he had ever seen - like something alive, caught and set in silver and glass. If Thorin was enamoured of it, he could understand why.

 

He hurried forward, heart pounding in his throat, and examined the case carefully. It was clearly locked - set with a combination lock that Bilbo didn’t have the first idea how to pick. His heart dropped a bit. A gentle push on the side of the case revealed that it was somehow bolted to the desk or the wall - either way, he couldn’t just pick it up and make off with it. Bilbo picked up the combination lock gingerly, examining the six tiny dials underneath with caution.

 

“How much of a bastard are you?” Bilbo muttered, and thumbed the little numbers into position. 270792. “Day, month, and year of the burning of Beinn Chùirn.” He held his breath and tugged at the lock - and nearly stopped breathing as it gave way. He pulled the door open carefully, unhooking the silver chain from the top of the case, and sliding the gem into his hands. It was strangely heavy, seeming to carry more weight than it should.

 

He turned the gem over, looking closely at the silver setting, and almost dropped the precious item. There, engraved in tiny, neat figures, was a string of letters and numbers. It was the key.

 

It only took a second to close the door again, securing it with the lock, and to slip the Arkenstone into a secure inner pocket of his jacket, where it pressed up near his heart with a startling immediacy. He started for the door, wondering whether he ought to try to wipe away his fingerprints, hand already going to his pocket to send Fíli a text to let him know Bilbo had succeeded after all.

 

The door swung open silently, and the light from outside blazed into the darkened office, nearly blinding Bilbo. He stepped back quickly, throwing a hand up across his face, and the intruder gave a low, dark laugh.

 

“It is the sad fate of most burglars to be caught out by the light.” The voice was low and smooth, almost hypnotic, and so pleasantly polite that Bilbo was caught off guard. He dropped his hand slowly as his eyes adjusted to the light, and he could make out the figure in the door. He cut a striking figure in the doorway - tall and slim, with a tailored black suit that emphasized the strong lines of his body and made the most of his height. The man wore a polite, easy smile, and stood as relaxed as Bilbo was tense. As Bilbo stared, speechless, the man sauntered forward casually, seeming to take up all the space in the room just by existing. “Now, what would you be hoping to steal from me, little burglar?”

 

“Nothing!” Bilbo said quickly, knowing it was a pathetically bad answer. Smaug - for he could be no-one else - laughed again, low and dangerous.

 

“It is not wise to lie to me,” he told Bilbo calmly. “We who lie - we can see it and hear it in one another. You should tell me the truth, and likely you will find you have more room for deception.” Bilbo looked up at him, trying not to panic at having been caught by this dangerous man, and he couldn’t help the convulsive shudder that went through him. Smaug was a handsome man, and clearly knew it; his features were elegant and refined, much like his clothing, and he bore himself with great dignity. But his eyes - oh, his eyes. Bilbo backed up another step, feeling his back hit the display case on the desk. His eyes were ancient and evil, and seemed to see through Bilbo with ease.

 

“I’m here to steal,” Bilbo said quickly - more because he didn’t know what to do than anything else. “They told me you were the most difficult man to get around, and I wanted to see if I could.”

 

Smaug stepped forward, closing the door behind him with a quiet click, and leaving them both enshrouded in the gloom. “It’s not likely that any other person in this building has personal alarms rigged to go off when their door is opened, no,” he agreed, sounding pleased with himself.

 

“Well, exactly,” Bilbo agreed frantically. “What challenge would it be to steal from them?”

 

“So you think I’m a challenge, do you?” Smaug asked, tilting his head to the side with an almost reptilian smoothness. Bilbo nodded, widening his eyes.

 

“Oh, yes! Clearly too much of a challenge for me, I can see.”

 

He chuckled, but his eyes never left Bilbo, never even seemed to blink. “And why did Thorin Oakenshield send such a pitiful burglar to me, hmmm? Are you a distraction or a sacrifice, little man?”

 

“Neither!” Bilbo said, fast and angry. “I had a job to do, and I did it! He didn’t send me, either. I came of my own accord.”

 

“I don’t think so,” Smaug said calmly. He folded his hands together, looking at Bilbo over the tops of his crossed fingers. “You’re clearly his little minion. You dance to Thorin’s tune - and where is he now? Is he waiting to rescue you, when this inevitably goes wrong?”

 

Bilbo shook his head a tiny fraction, not wanting to give anything away. Smaug smiled sweetly. “Poor little fellow,” he said sadly. “They have you all twisted around, don’t they? They’ve got you believing you’re doing something good, something to make the world a better place. Tell me - did he send the children to you first?”

 

“What?” Bilbo asked, his voice thick in his throat.

 

“His youngsters. I understand they’re very good at confidence tricks. They find a sad, lonely, law-abiding person like yourself, and next thing you know, you’re eating out of their hands and feeling privileged to do so.”

 

“That’s not how it is,” Bilbo insisted, his voice rough.

 

“Oh, isn’t it?” Smaug sounded frankly pitying now. “Little burglar, where are your friends now? How many scrapes have they allowed you to get into? How many times have they rescued you - and how often have you had to sacrifice to help them?” Bilbo swallowed, thinking of the empty flat he didn’t dare visit; of the knife in his hand that morning as he prepared to hurt a helpless man, if he had to.

 

“I’m here because I want to be,” Bilbo insisted. He pushed away the creeping doubts that Smaug’s voice seemed to insinuate so easily into his brain. “I chose to help Thorin because I wanted to, not because he tricked me.”

 

“Ohhh,” Smaug breathed, his voice a satisfied whisper. “Is that how it is? You poor fellow.”

 

“What?” Bilbo asked. He was entirely on edge now, and the knowing tone of Smaug’s voice had him balanced on one foot, as if preparing to run.

 

“You think you’re in love with him!” Smaug said exultantly. He spread his arms wide; in the gloom of the room, they almost looked like wings. “He has you so twisted up inside that you think you love him, and that he loves you. Thorin Oakenshield loves nothing but his mountain.” He shook his head sadly. “I hope the, err, benefits to your arrangement are sufficient to keep you satisfied, because it’s all you’ll ever get from him.”

 

“That’s - that isn’t it at all,” Bilbo protested, feeling his face flush. “You’ve got it entirely wrong.”

 

Smaug smiled at him, cold and lizard-like. “I can only imagine what keeps you so loyal to the man.” His eyebrow lifted in insinuation that made Bilbo’s skin crawl - and then, suddenly, it was past. The fear and the loathing for the man in front of him faded away, and Bilbo smiled - really smiled, wide enough to hurt.

 

“Do you know what?” he asked, suddenly easy and confident. “I don’t think you are wrong, after all. I think it is love!” Smaug blinked slowly at him, and Bilbo straightened up. “Not like you’re thinking - but then, I don’t think you have the first idea about love, do you? You took everything from them just because you could, and you covered it up with words about the land and excuses about loving another man’s wife, and none of it rings true.”

 

“You don’t know anything!” Smaug hissed, eyes narrowing to venomous slits. “You think you know Thorin? He’s a criminal and a lowlife. He’s not worthy of being stepped on, and he’s made you his little plaything! What does that say about you?”

 

“Oh, I know Thorin Oakenshield,” Bilbo said. He walked forward a slow, brave step. “I know that he’s the noblest, bravest, most selfless person I’ve ever met. I know that he would do anything for his family. I also know that he’s stubborn and proud and completely unwilling to let anyone help him.” Bilbo smiled a little more, feeling like he couldn’t help it. “And I know his children. They’ve taken me as family, did you know that? They’ve given me everything I’ve always been missing. All of them - those criminals that you made, those desperate men - they have taken me in. And yes, I love them.” He shook his head at Smaug, pity now firmly in his corner. “That’s your weak spot. That’s the thing that you don’t understand. I didn’t understand it either, for a long time. I thought it made me vulnerable - and I was terrified, until just now.- until I understood what you can’t. Love isn’t about control or manipulation, or about getting the things you want. It hasn’t made me weak and vulnerable, Smaug. It made me strong.” He laughed then, wild and free, and darted forward, past the man who was now staring at him in disbelief.

 

Bilbo was out the door in an instant, not bothering to close it behind him as he flung himself into the stairwell, taking the steps two and three at a time. Above, he heard a roar of fury, and figured that Smaug must have seen that the Arkenstone was gone. The stairs led down to an emergency exit from the building, opening out onto the lawn behind, and Bilbo gave a wild howl of laughter when he saw that his good luck had brought him out only feet away from where Spider’s motorbike was still parked, waiting for him. He ran to it, heart unbound, hair flying wildly, and he thought his heart might burst from joy.

 

The Arkenstone was a solid weight against his heart, and Bilbo wanted to pull it out and hang it around his neck, to let it be the first thing that Thorin saw when he got back. He flung himself on the bike, letting it roar to life even as he heard a shout from behind him, and saw the bright blue lights of the police force coming up one street. Bilbo threw himself forward, the bike roaring now as he pushed it as hard as it could go, leaving Smaug and his police force behind him. With no helmet, no protection, and no more fear, Bilbo was more free than he had ever been in his entire life.

Chapter Text

Bilbo flew through the night, pushing the motorbike to faster speeds than he would ever have dared before. The wind grew sharper as he fled north, but there were no lights or sirens behind him, and he felt like he might almost burst into flight from the joyful freedom of it all. He didn’t even pause until he was in Dunfermline, where he stashed himself along a quiet lay-by and dug out his mobile. His fingers hovered above the keyboard for a moment, but he decided he needed to tell someone his news out loud, and he hit the button to call Fíli.

The phone only rang once before Fíli picked up, sounding rushed. “Uncle Bill? Where are you? Are you all right?”

In the background, Bilbo could hear Kíli shouting as well - “He’s not in prison, is he? Tell him we’ll come and get him straight away if we need to!”

“I’m fine!” Bilbo laughed, warmth blossoming in his chest. “Tell your brother to take a breath.”

Fíli sighed loudly, as if in heartfelt relief. “Thank the maker! What’s happened?”

“I’ll tell you everything when I get back,” Bilbo promised. “My battery is about to die. I just wanted to let you know I was fine and on my way home. Er, back.”

“Well, you’d best make for Aberfeldy, then,” Fíli said quickly. “We’re almost there now. Thorin wants us somewhere more secure tonight, so we’ve taken a cottage on the edge of the village. We’ll be watching out for you.” Bilbo thought quickly about the best roads to take, and then nodded.

“I should be there in under an hour.” He rang off, shoving the mobile back in his pocket, and took a moment to put the helmet securely on his head before setting off again. He’d been through Aberfeldy on a holiday once. It was such a quiet little village that he hoped they would be able to stay concealed.

The night was clear and growing cold, and Bilbo kept getting distracted by the crescent moon riding high in the sky; the brightness and nearness of it made him think, strangely, of the Arkenstone. The light off the gem, like moonlight on a loch, was almost hypnotic in a way. He hoped furiously that presenting the gem to Thorin would make it a bit easier to explain exactly why he’d had to take off - and why he had returned.

He crept into Aberfeldy a little before midnight, wishing Spider’s motorbike had a quieter engine. There were cottages scattered around the outskirts of the town, but only one of them blazed with light from every window, welcoming-looking smoke billowing from the narrow chimney up into the clear night sky. He slowed as he approached, hoping he had the right place, and a sudden frantic motion of waving arms convinced him he was right. Bilbo pulled up carefully, switching the engine off, and was pleased to see Bofur approaching him with a broad grin.

“I told those poor fools you’d be back,” he said cheerfully. He waited until Bilbo had climbed off the bike before sweeping him up into a bone-cracking embrace. “Though what you were thinking, running off before we’d had a chance to thank you for saving our lives, I don’t know. Leaving us all with Thorin in that state - poorly done, laddie.”

“I know,” Bilbo murmured, feeling his spirits dim at the thought of what he’d done, and what he would have to face. “I’m sorry. I had to get some distance, figure things out on my own, I suppose.”

“I understand,” Bofur said, nodding wisely. “And that’s what I told the rest, when they were ready to mourn your loss. Told them you wouldn’t abandon us, but we ought to give you a bit of space.”

“I don’t envy you having to deal with them,” Bilbo said wryly. “Fíli called so many times I’m surprised he had time to write all those texts.”

“You can’t blame him, nor Kíli.” Bofur was solemn now, and ducked his head a little to make strong eye contact with Bilbo. “You need to tread gently with them, I’m afraid. They’re not much good at handling loss. They’ll be a bit shy of being burned.”

“I never meant to hurt anyone,” Bilbo protested. “I was doing my job!”

“But not alone! You’re one of us now, lad. That means not running off on your own, you understand?” Bofur shook his head, eyes soft in the moonlight. “You’ve saved us over and over now. Do us the courtesy of letting us watch your back too, won’t you?”

“I will.” Bilbo met his eyes evenly, offering a little nod. It was an apology and a gesture of thanks, all at once, and Bofur clapped him heartily on the shoulder.

“Then let’s not waste any more time!” He made for the door, but Bilbo grabbed his arm.

“What about Thorin?” he asked, voice hushed. “Is he terribly angry?”

Bofur looked down at him, a little sadness creeping up behind his reassuring smile. “Not mad, laddie. Hurt, maybe, and confused. It’s not often that he’s vulnerable, and he doesn’t rightly know what to do with himself when he feels rejected. Just take it slow.” Bilbo nodded, and followed Bofur into the neat white cottage, closing the door carefully behind him, and then turning to face the expectant eyes of the Sons of Durin.

They were ranged around the room, most clustered close to the cheerful fire, and Bilbo thought they all looked weary. If they’d had to walk to Aberfeldy after overcoming Spider’s poison, the reason for their exhaustion was clear. None of them moved - except Fíli and Kíli, who moved together as always, taking a few cautious steps toward him.

“You came back,” Kíli said, the hopeful enthusiasm of youth in his eyes even as he clearly tried to maintain his distance.

“I did,” Bilbo said, quiet but firm. He offered a smile, and Kíli returned it warily.

“And you’re not leaving again?” Fíli asked, like he was confirming a fact he’d already been told. Bilbo’s stomach turned over as he wondered quickly what it was that had the two youngsters so very wary of abandonment. He shook his head vigorously.

“I wasn’t intending to leave at all. I needed a little space to think, and I needed to do my job - to do something to bring an end to all of this.” He looked around, making eye contact with each man in turn. “I handled it poorly, rushing off like that, and I am sorry.” There was a shift around the room, as postures relaxed and weary smiles crept over the faces of his friends, and Bilbo relaxed a little. He turned back to the lads, who were still eyeing him a little warily. They exchanged a glance, quick flickering expressions communicating beyond the need for words, and then they sprang at him with gleeful grins. He found himself nearly knocked over, engulfed by two sets of arms, and couldn’t help but laugh with them. It felt like coming home.

Eventually, the lads pried themselves away (mostly because Balin scolded them and sent them to get more wood for the fire), and everyone settled into the mismatched sets of chairs and sofas they had hauled in front of the fire, groaning with tiredness. Bilbo glanced around the room.

“Are you all well?” he asked. “Recovered from the toxin and everything, I mean?”

“Well enough,” Dwalin grunted. “Not fighting fit, perhaps, but we’ll make do.”

“And what of you, Master Baggins?” Thorin asked. There was a cold distance in his tone that Bilbo hadn’t heard in weeks, and it hit him like a slap to the face. He stumbled and fluttered for a moment, and Thorin raised an eyebrow. “Are you injured?”

“No!” Bilbo insisted. He fumbled about inside his jacket, fingers trembling a little, and drew out the precious cargo he had carried next to his heart. “I went to Edinburgh and broke into Smaug’s office. I brought this back.” He let the chain slip between his fingers until the Arkenstone dangled freely, the light of the fire setting it ablaze with a riot of colour. If he were more inclined toward drama, Bilbo would have appreciated the startled gasps that went around the room. As it was, he had eyes only for Thorin’s reaction.

Thorin was on his feet in an instant, the careful distance of a moment before swept away. He was like a man set alight, and he approached Bilbo quickly, pausing just out of arm’s reach. “It cannot be!”

“Well, unless he was hiding any other priceless gems about his office, I do think it is,” Bilbo said, letting a pleased smile creep across his face.

“The Arkenstone!” Balin murmured, sounding awed, and perhaps on the edge of tears. They were all gathering in close, eyes fixed on the jewel.

“Is it the key?” Kíli asked eagerly. “Can you tell if it will do the job?”

“Be quiet!” Thorin snapped, not taking his eyes off the jewel. “If it were only itself, that would be enough! You don’t understand what this means.” Kíli stepped back, hiding a bewildered hurt behind Fíli’s back, and Thorin stretched out his hand. “Give it to me.”

Bilbo’s skin crawled a little at his tone. Bombur had warned him that Thorin’s love for the jewel was startling, perhaps excessive, but he hadn’t really expected this intensity. Bewildered, he shook the chain from his fingers, placing the Arkenstone carefully in Thorin’s hand. It was almost a relief to be rid of it then, and Thorin’s expression as he took it was a little past awe. He cradled it carefully, hardly seeming to breathe as he examined it. Finally he looked up, a smile of relief crossing his stern face, and Bilbo could breathe again himself.

“It is the Arkenstone! I never thought I would see it again!” He held it up for all of them to see, and there was a roar of approval that filled the little cottage. Thorin came forward, clapping his free hand to Bilbo’s shoulder. “Master Burglar, indeed! We owe you our thanks once again!”

Bilbo found himself being pounded on the back by seemingly every man all at once, as a cold drink was shoved into one hand, and then he was the subject of toasts and much praise as they drank to his health. They insisted on hearing every detail of his adventure, and then on having it repeated again, laughing and cheering at the best bits. Only Fíli and Kíli seemed to hang back, watching their uncle with care. He never let go of the Arkenstone, and hardly took his eyes off it for a long while. Bilbo sank into a comfortable armchair and tried to relax, letting the adrenaline of the past few hours float away on the tide of good cheer and good company. Thorin led them all in a few traditional songs, until most of the family were beginning to yawn and totter a bit on their feet. Dori took over then, shooing tired men off to bed in various corners of the cottage, until only Thorin and Bilbo and Fíli and Kíli were left in the main room. Fíli had produced a small laptop from somewhere, and approached Thorin a little slowly.

“Uncle Thorin, is there anything there that might be the key?”

Thorin raised his eyebrows, but lifted the gem to examine it.

“It’s got a string of letters and numbers engraved in the setting,” Bilbo pointed out. “I thought about sending you a snapshot, but there really wasn’t enough light to make out the details. And besides, I thought I might get a warmer welcome if I brought the thing back with me!” The lads grinned crookedly at that, but Thorin shot him an almost dangerous glance, and Bilbo realised that joking about the Arkenstone was not going to be a productive avenue of discourse. Finally, Thorin spotted the tiny detail, and called out the sequence quickly.

“Got it,” Kíli said, tapping his head, and brandished the flash drive. “Why don’t we see what we can make of this?” They withdrew to a little table at the far side of the room, where their heads leaned in together, bright and dark, and they looked at the computer in a studious hush.

Thorin turned to Bilbo, fingers closing around the Arkenstone, and Bilbo was surprised to see that he looked about as nervous and unsettled as Bilbo felt. “I do want to thank you,” he said quietly. “This is the most precious treasure of our family. It’s all we have left. I thought it was lost to Smaug forever.”

Bilbo gave an awkward little shrug, suddenly aware of things like his elbows and the fact that his hair was standing up in strange clumps after an hour inside a helmet. “It was why you wanted me along in the first place, right?” he said with a little laugh - and then sobered, giving a sigh. “But I owe you a particular apology. I shouldn’t have just taken off like that. It was all just a bit much, so suddenly.”

“I’d have preferred a bit more warning myself,” Thorin said wryly, shifting a bit in his seat. “But you’re not the only one to blame. I shouldn’t have said what I did. I was still not myself from the influence of that poison. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“I wasn’t!” Bilbo protested, sitting up straighter. “That is, maybe I was, but not by you! It was the whole situation. Spider, and all of you looking so dead, and I didn’t know whether I was going to be left all alone again - and then everything was fine, and you started talking, and it was all just too much for a little grocer who’s been alone for a very long time.” He finished a bit awkwardly, making a gesture that was supposed to symbolise what it had all felt like - his heart so close to bursting, and the creeping panic that caught at his breath.

Thorin’s eyes had gone soft in the firelight, and he shifted to bring his chair closer to Bilbo’s. “I should have waited for a better time, or simply kept my mouth shut.”

“No! No, you shouldn’t!” Bilbo thought the words came out far too loudly, but he didn’t much care. The fire that had been lit within him in Smaug’s office was still running hot through his veins. “I’m glad you said it, and I hope I haven’t ruined everything by taking off like that.”

Thorin shook his head, an almost shy smile creeping over his face. “No, you haven’t.” He reached out slowly, as if waiting for Bilbo to run and hide, and put a hand over Bilbo’s where it rested on the arm of the chair. “I’ll say it again. I would not lose you, Bilbo.”

Bilbo let out a long breath, feeling his face heat up in the firelight. “I won’t either,” he said, and felt it lacked poetry. “Lose you. I won’t do it, no matter what Smaug or any of his people may try to do.”

“When this is all over,” Thorin murmured, his hand warm and wonderfully present atop Bilbo’s, “we can work everything out. I wish we had all the time in the world now.”

“But we haven’t,” Bilbo said firmly. “I don’t know what you did with Spider, but I know Smaug must be after me by now. I’ve stolen this thing right out from under his nose, and he’s not going to just let it go. We don’t have much time before he finds us, I’m sure.”

“We didn’t kill him,” Thorin said. Distracted as he was by the entire situation, it took Bilbo a second to understand his meaning. “Dwalin beat him up a bit, and we took all his poisons and weapons away and left him there. We didn’t think you’d want to be party to a murder.”

“Not really,” Bilbo said. It was an odd thing to feel grateful for - a bit like thanking a housecat for the gift of a dead mouse, but he appreciated the spirit of the thing. “Won’t he die out there, though?”

“We informed the authorities after we were far away.”

“Ah, good.” Bilbo nodded in relief, and let himself relax a bit more in his chair, which really was quite comfortable for his tired body.

“Are you two done yet?” Fíli called curiously, leaning over the little table to peer through the gap between their chairs.

“Only we’ve got some things to show you, if you’ve got yourselves sorted out,” Kíli continued. Thorin stood quickly and strode over to them, tugging lightly on a handful of each of their hair in warning for their cheek. Bilbo followed more slowly, beginning to feel the aches settle into his muscles.

“So the key worked, mostly,” Fíli reported. He scrolled quickly through a long, long list of files with names that Bilbo couldn’t begin to read at that speed. “Some of the most important files are encrypted in different ways, but they’re all things I can work through, given a bit of time.”

“What’s really significant here is what we’ve found already,” Kíli took over. “It’s not just figures and earnings reports. There are detailed plans in here for what he’s doing at the mountain.”

“We haven’t read it all yet, of course, but it sounds like they’re going to break ground on a mine there - and soon,” Fíli said, flipping rapidly through different documents. “If that happens, his claim to the mountain and everything in it becomes that much stronger.”

“And you don’t even want to know what the money is going toward,” Kíli said, looking more than a little ill. “We’ve got to look everything over before we can say for certain, but -” he paused, looking directly at Thorin. “I don’t think we have much time left.”

Thorin looked like a thundercloud, and sat down at the table between the boys, fingers tapping away much more slowly than Fíli’s, but there was an intensity to his motions and stare that made Bilbo sure he wouldn’t be looking for conversation any time soon. He crept away, leaving the little group to their work, and found a sofa to curl up on in the next room, drawing a blanket over himself. He was asleep almost before he had time to toe his shoes off.

He woke to sunshine streaming through the window and the now-familiar noises of the Sons of Durin preparing themselves a noisy meal. Bilbo sat up slowly, regretting having slept on such an uncomfortable surface, and rubbed at his face as he wandered out into the main room. To his surprise, Fíli and Kíli were still sitting at the little table - Fíli tossing out words and figures at an incomprehensible speed while Kíli scribbled in a notebook, both faces fixed in expressions of tired concentration.

Gloin wandered in, carrying two plates heaped high with food, and nudged both of the lads with a sharp elbow. “Budge up, there. Make some room for a bite to eat. Growing lads need fuel.”

“Bless you,” Kíli muttered, falling on his breakfast with a weary sigh of satisfaction.

“Don’t suppose there’s coffee?” Fíli asked, sounding a little pathetic, and Bilbo laughed and went to the kitchen to find two mugs. He brought the coffees out slowly, not wanting to spill, and set them down in front of the boys. They were both almost halfway through their food already.

“Mind you don’t choke,” he warned them, and they both laughed a little and slowed down. “Were you up all night? And where’s Thorin?”

“There was a lot to read,” Kíli said with a shrug.

“Thorin fell asleep around three,” Fíli explained. He jerked his head back toward the fire, and Bilbo saw that the apparently immobile pile of blankets there was vaguely man-shaped, and was emitting a muffled snoring noise. “He tucked us in enough times as youngsters for us to return the favour now.”

“You’re still youngsters,” Bilbo muttered, ruffling their hair absentmindedly. “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

“And more,” Fíli said, nodding at the laptop. “There’s enough here to have him changed and convicted on so many counts of embezzlement, fraud, drug and weapons trafficking - you name it, he has his claws in it. It’s a nasty business.”

“Fíli’s still working on a few of the files, but we’re drawing up what we’ve gathered already,” Kíli said. He poked at his notebook with an ink-stained finger. “But you know how we said last night we didn’t think there was much time?”

“Yes?” Bilbo pressed. Kíli looked too old, carrying worry that should not have been his in his eyes, and Fíli’s shoulders were hunched.

“We don’t really have any,” Fíli said gloomily. “They’re starting work on the mines tomorrow.”

“But that doesn’t matter, does it?” Bilbo asked, fighting the urge to gnaw at a thumbnail. “Bombur said he’ll present the evidence, and we can see him brought to justice and your names cleared!”

“It’s not quite that easy,” Kíli said, his voice low and rough from lack of sleep. “He’s got so many people in his debt. Politicians, police officials - even heads of state. He’s got tendrils everywhere. If he breaks ground on the mines, it gives him a lot more legal standing, and when he manages to fight off the charges-”

“Which we half expect he’ll manage,” Fíli growled.

“He’ll be able to come right back in and take up where he left off.” Kíli sighed, burying his face in his hands for a second. “We’re at a disadvantage here, Uncle Bill. We’ve got no-one on our side, and he has everyone. It almost doesn’t matter what we can dig up - they’ll just bury it all again twice as fast.”

“Now, hang on,” Bilbo said firmly. “It’s not just you against the world. Gandalf and Elrond know the truth, and they must have connections of their own. Bombur’s not exactly unconnected, either, and once he makes this public, do you think the nation will stand for it?”

“Thorin won’t want to rely on them,” Fíli said quietly, looking away. “He doesn’t think we should really trust anyone but ourselves. He says that no-one has lifted a finger to help us in twenty years, so why should we expect it now?”

“I’ll talk to him,” Bilbo promised - though he wondered, a little despairingly, how much good he might do. “Listen, you lads eat up and have a wash. We’ll see about getting everyone moving quickly. I don’t think we really want to waste much time today.”

It was rather amazing how fast everyone could move, given the circumstances. Their breakfast was finished and tidied away in no time, while Dwalin woke Thorin and forced a plate of food on him. They sat together as Thorin ate, talking quietly before the embers of the dead fire. The family gathered back in the same room as Thorin was finishing, and he gestured to Fíli and Kíli to explain what they had learned.

They presented the case soberly, the words flowing between them like water, like they were one mind in two bodies. Fíli paced as he talked, back and forth in a restless pattern in front of the window; Kíli stood steady, arms crossed, looking from one member of his family to the next, like they were the thing grounding him in this flood of words. They all grew uneasy as the picture became clearer, and when the words trailed off, it was into a silence that stretched out as they all watched Thorin, waiting for his decision.

He thought for a long time. Finally, he nodded slowly. “There’s nothing for it. We have to go back to the mountain.”

“We can’t!” Nori objected, jumping to his feet. “Thorin, we’ve just escaped from prison! I don’t want to go back so soon!”

“Neither do I!” Thorin roared, and they all blinked, staring at him in surprise. “You think I want to walk into the trap that worm is undoubtedly laying for us? You think I want to drag you all back into danger? But what choice do we have?” He looked at each of them, genuinely looking for an answer. “How can we let him just take everything that is ours? For twenty years, we have run! We hid in dark places. We sacrificed everything. And now, here we stand, with the first chance we’ve ever had to bring the fight to Smaug.”

Fíli lifted the sheet of Kíli’s untidy notes. “We’re sending the information to Bombur as soon as we can. I just have a few more files to work through. He’ll be able to start legal and media proceedings.”

“We need to stall him at the mountain,” Balin said slowly, thoughtfully. “If we can keep them from beginning work - if we can show proof of what’s been happening there, it will help.”

“There’s more to it, though,” Bofur interrupted, his voice unusually sober. “We’ve got to tell the whole truth. Not just Smaug’s part of it. We have to put it all out in front of the public.”

“What more do you mean?” Ori asked, looking frightened.

Bofur sighed heavily. “Lad, what have we done in the past twenty years? It’s all been for survival, yes, but we’ve done more crimes than I can count.” He dug in the satchel he kept at his side and produced a heavy leather book, it’s pages watermarked and dogeared. “I’ve kept records.”

“You kept a log of our crimes?” Gloin asked, sounding scandalised.

“We had to remember!” Bofur insisted. “If we were not to lose ourselves in this life, we had to remember who we were and what we had done. We always knew there would be a day of reckoning - and it’s ours, too.”

“He’s not wrong,” Dwalin said suddenly, startling those seated near him. “What do they all think of us, out there? Criminals, murderers - the shadows in the dark that they fear. We can’t pretend we are innocent.”

Dori looked like he might weep. “After all these years, should we put ourselves in their hands? What will it all have been for, if we wind up locked away?”

“What good will any of it have been if we live free under false pretenses?” Bofur asked, a kind sadness radiating from him. “We’ve got to be honest. We were pushed into this life; we’ve done what we can to remain good men. That’s all we can say.”

“Smaug told me something like that,” Bilbo said quietly. “He said I should tell the truth, because those who lie can see it in others.” He looked around at them, at Thorin. “I agree with Bofur. We’ve got to tell the truth and face the consequences, just as Smaug must. It catches up to you, in the end.” He thought of his own crimes in the last fortnight and winced. So much for the honour of the Baggins family name.

There was a sober silence for a long while, and then Thorin nodded slowly. “We will tell the truth,” he said firmly. “All of it, and trust that justice will be done.”

“Bombur can pass it on along with the rest,” Bofur said, and pushed his book forward. “Besides, we’re likely to be more than half heroes when the truth is exposed. I reckon they’ll understand, given the extenuating circumstances!” Most of them didn’t share his cheer, though, and muted whispers flew back and forth around the room. Finally, Thorin spoke again.

“Balin was right as well, earlier. We must stop Smaug at the mountain, and give Bombur time to share our findings. We’ll go to Tyndrum.”

“But it’s no more than a village!” Nori protested. “What good will it do to station ourselves there?”

“We’re going to ask for their help,” Thorin said, and Bilbo was more than a little startled. Thorin Oakenshield, asking for assistance? “When I was a lad, I spent many hours of my days there. The men of the village were our friends once - do you not remember?” He gestured around their little circle. “There are too few of us to hold off Smaug and his men. The people of Tyndrum will help us.” He sounded certain, and Bilbo hoped that he was right. It was about time they found some help.

At the front of the room, Kíli turned to grab his coat, throwing it over his shoulders in a rush. Fíli stopped him quickly, grabbing his forearm.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Kíli put his chin up stubbornly, eyes flashing. “Edinburgh. We need to know what Smaug is doing, and if he’s got anything brewing in the underworld. I need to find my contacts and see what’s going on.”

“You can’t!” Fíli snapped, holding tight. “The whole city is looking for us!”

“Us, yes. The whole group. I’ve been walking that city without being seen since I was old enough to talk!” Kíli insisted. He broke his arm out of Fíli’s grasp, but turned it around so that he was clutching his brother now. “You’ve got your work, and I’ve got mine. Trust me.”

“Let him go,” Thorin said quietly. Fíli glared at him with a look of betrayal, and Thorin shook his head, coming over to stand by them. “Kíli’s right. We have to know what we can expect.”

“I’ll meet you in Tyndrum,” Kíli promised. Thorin hesitated a moment, then grabbed him in a quick, rough embrace. Fíli threw himself into the middle, and they were a tangle of long arms and wild hair for a moment, before Kíli broke away. He darted over to Bilbo, and put out a hand. “Can I take the motorbike?”

Bilbo was tempted to say no, or at least to ask whether he even had a clue how to drive the thing - but Thorin had already given his permission, and Bilbo wasn’t his guardian. He handed over the keys, anxiety welling up as he passed them over, and Kíli chuckled.

“Don’t look so grim, Uncle Bill! If you could survive that thing, I’m sure I’ll be fine!” He flung himself at Bilbo in a quick, wild embrace, and then pulled away. To Bilbo’s surprise, Dwalin and Balin and Bofur insisted on hugging him or ruffling his hair as well, and they all looked sober as he made for the door.

“Be back before dark?” Fíli asked, face contorted with worry, and Kíli grinned.

“Count on it.”

He left in a rush, and the mood seemed to darken a little as the door swung shut. Thorin sighed, turning back to the group.

“We need to move. Tyndrum’s not far, but we don’t have transport. Dwalin, Nori, Gloin, see what you can do about it. Bofur, Fíli, I want you to see to getting the information to Bombur as fast as you can.” He looked around, squaring his shoulders, and Bilbo felt himself doing the same - as were the rest of the company. “Everything is about to change,” Thorin said softly, and his hand went briefly to the Arkenstone where it hung around his neck.

Bilbo took a deep breath, watching them all start to move, and wished he didn’t feel quite so much like Thorin had just prophesied their doom.

Chapter Text

Bilbo didn’t ask where his companions had procured the vehicles. It seemed better not to know, somehow, and they crowded into the cars quietly. A strange, almost frighteningly peaceful quiet had fallen over the group as they prepared to go back to their mountain once more, and there was very little conversation. Tyndrum was only an hour away, and Bilbo craned his neck to look out the window as they approached, taking in the now-familiar shape of Beinn Chùirn rising gently up into the sky. Thorin’s face was hard to watch as he looked at his home, all longing and rage and terrible grief, and Bilbo looked away.

It was just past eleven when they reached Tyndrum, a tiny, quiet village that Bilbo could tell was more of a transport junction than an attractive living option for the local inhabitants. The roads led away to the north and the west, drawing the eye past the little settlement. Still, it was a respectable place, and the people they passed seemed honestly curious about the sudden influx of visitors. Thorin led the company to the low, white building that served as the village hall, and shrugged when Bilbo glanced at him in surprise.

“People here are fairly traditional,” he said quietly, a fond sort of nostalgia settling over him. “It’s best to do things the right way.” The Sons of Durin abandoned their cars and moved themselves and all their gear into the hall, which Bilbo was surprised to find was not even locked.

There were several large rooms inside, and Thorin directed the family to see what they could do about security, making certain the other entrances were covered and eyes were at every window. Fíli, who had been working on unencrypting the remaining files for the whole journey, sat down on the floor and continued to work with his golden hair hanging in his face.

“Almost done,” he muttered as Bilbo crouched near him. “I’ll have to see if I can set up a wireless hotspot here to get the data to Bombur.”

“You’re doing fine, lad,” Bilbo said gently. He didn’t like the intensity of Fíli’s gaze, or the way his fingers twitched toward his mobile every few seconds, as if desperate to call Kíli and check on him. They were both too young for the weights they had been forced to bear. He patted Fíli’s shoulder in support, and went to find Thorin.

Thorin was staring up at the rise of the mountain, half lost in thought, and Bilbo came up beside him quietly. It took Thorin a moment to realise he had company, but he gave Bilbo a surprisingly sweet smile when he did.

“I have not been here in many years,” Thorin said, brow wrinkling, “and now I’m back for the second time in a fortnight. Things really are changing.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?” Bilbo asked. “After all the terrible things you’ve been through?”

“I hope so.” Thorin’s voice was very quiet, and he shook his head a bit. “If it goes wrong now, though, we’re through. There’s no more running and hiding. We either succeed, or we are finished.”

“I think we’re all hoping for the former.”

Thorin quirked an eyebrow at Bilbo, half amused. “As am I. I don’t relish the idea of a life behind bars.”

“Oh please,” Bilbo said lightly, hoping to defuse the mood. “Fíli and Kíli will cause enough trouble that they’ll ask us all to leave in under a week, mark my words.”

But Thorin seemed to darken a little more at that, looking back to the mountain. “Bilbo, what if I’ve led us wrong? To see them end up bearing the punishment for my crimes-”

Bilbo cut him off with a gentle hand on Thorin’s arm, shaking him a little to grasp his attention. “You can’t dwell on it. What you’ve done until now is done. All we have to decide now is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

“Someday, you will have to tell me how a quiet grocer grew to be so wise,” Thorin said fondly.

It was, Bilbo reflected later, a rather remarkably nice moment which might have grown into something still nicer had they not been suddenly and unexpectedly attacked.

A pair of long, skinny-fingered hands were suddenly pressed against the glass of the window, and a pale face with protuberant eyes was only inches away from his own. Bilbo yelped in a decidedly unheroic manner and darted back, heart pounding in his throat. Thorin was moving almost at once, thundering toward the door. He was back in seconds, hauling the pathetic little figure back with him by the scruff of his shirt, and flung him to the floor with a low growl.

“Gollum!” Bilbo choked, shocked beyond comprehensible speech. The skinny fellow cowered on the floor, throwing his hands up to protect his head, and Bilbo shook his head quickly at Thorin when he seemed ready to attack the pitiful creature.

“Why were you spying on us?” Thorin roared. The commotion had attracted attention, and the rest of the family came pouring into the room, staring wide-eyed at the confrontation.

“Not spying!” Gollum whimpered, pressing himself back against the wall. “Never spying! Looking for you! For help!”

“You want our help?” Bilbo asked flatly. It wasn’t a plausible excuse. Gollum nodded quickly, and Bilbo took another look at him. He’d thought the man had been a mess before, but now he looked about two steps from the grave. His skinny frame was nearly emaciated now, skin bruised and hanging from his bones, and he shook even as he lay on the floor. Whatever had happened to him, it was not pretty.

He nodded desperately, wide eyes fixed on Bilbo. Thorin snorted dismissively, and Bilbo shot him a quick glance to tell him to be quiet.

“Why do you need help?” Bilbo asked. He got down on one knee, making himself less threatening, and moved closer to Gollum. The man opened his eyes wide, pleading.

“Azog wants us dead! He says we let the precious information escape, and so we must pay!”

“I assumed they’d appreciate your information about who took it?” Bilbo asked. Gollum moaned quietly.

“Went back to Smaug, we did, and told him everything! He sent us to Azog, but he would not give us anything. No food, no money, no drugs! We spied and crept - brought him information on you. Found you in Glen Etive and went back to tell Smaug, didn’t we?” He sobbed miserably, spindly fingers coming up to cover his eyes. “Starving, we were, and he would not help.”

“And so you’ve come to us?” Bilbo asked skeptically. “Why would you think we would help you?”

“Because Baggins is a good man!” Gollum said, flipping quickly into a pleading position, sitting on his knees with his hands clasped in front of him. “He will not let us die!”

“What do you know about what kind of a man I am?” Bilbo asked, annoyed by the clear attempt at cheap flattery. Gollum shrank back.

“Smaug said it! He has taken your fingerprints and learned who you are! He told Azog about you - and about your mother.” His voice had shifted subtly now from pleading to a tricky, cunning whine. “We heard him, and we thought if we came to warn Baggins, he would help us! He would see that we are not evil!”

Bilbo rubbed both hands over his face, feeling old and tired. It seemed that every time he thought he had things under control, something came along to destroy his calm. Now there was a clearly mentally ill drug addict begging for his assistance, and apparently Smaug knew exactly who he was and what he had done. He knew he should have tried to wipe his prints before leaving!

“Smaug is looking for him, then?” Thorin growled, moving forward until he stood directly at Bilbo’s side, his warm presence a comfort.

“Oh, yes!” Gollum insisted. “Very eager to find the thief, is Smaug!”

Bilbo shook his head and stood slowly. “Look, we’ll feed you something, all right? But you can’t stay here. We can’t protect you - we’ve got enough to do trying to look after our own.”

“But he will kill us!” Gollum whined, voice rising in terror. “He will make us an example, he says!”

“It is not our responsibility to shield you from your poor choices,” Thorin grumbled. Bilbo turned to him quickly.

“Why don’t we send him to Thranduil? If there’s anyone who might be able to keep him safe, and maybe get some information from him, I think it’s the DI.”

Thorin frowned. “Send him to the man who has been hunting us everywhere?”

“It’ll give him a good enough reason to protect Gollum,” Bilbo pointed out. “And once the information is made public, the police will hopefully be on our side. Thranduil should know as much as possible if he’s going to be an ally.”

“We have no reason to think the man will lift a finger to help us,” Thorin protested.

“He’s not a bad person! And he’s not on Smaug’s payroll. I believe he’s trying to do what he believes is right. Once the truth comes out, I think he’s more likely to help us than to hunt us down.” Bilbo stood firm as Thorin eyed him warily, keeping his chin high enough to maintain strong eye contact. Thorin’s resentment for the man who had imprisoned them was understandable, but he simply had to see reason - or there was no point in hoping for the success of their gambit. Finally Thorin nodded shortly and turned away.

“Do what you want with him. Thranduil can throw him in that hellhole for his own safety, and see if we care.”

Bilbo quickly called Dori and Ori over, and asked them to see to Gollum. They agreed to feed the man, and then see him to the train that could take him to Edinburgh.

“We’ll ring ahead and tell Thranduil he’s coming, and the police can wait for him at the station. No sense giving him a chance to run,” Nori put in, leaning casually against a door frame. Bilbo allowed himself a small smile, reckoning that Nori would be the best expert on that topic.

Thorin stalked out of the room, and Bilbo followed once Gollum was safely in the care of the three brothers. He found Thorin helping a tired, stiff Fíli to his feet; Fíli shot Bilbo an exhausted smile.

“It’s done! I’ve unencrypted all of it, and organised it as best I could. Bombur should be able to move quickly with this lot.” He lifted the laptop in one hand, moving his mobile a little closer with the other, and squinted at the screen. “It’s almost done sending. What I wouldn’t give for decent internet access here!”

“Beggars can’t be choosers, lad,” Bofur said cheerfully. He tossed his own mobile in the air and caught it snappily. “I’ve just been speaking to my brother, and he’s ready. He’ll present all he can of our history, and we’ll give my records to the authorities once the dust settles a bit.”

“Everyone thinks they know who you are - the Sons of Durin,” Bilbo said quietly, and they all looked at him in curiosity. “I thought I did, before I met you. They’re going to find out that they’ve been wrong about so much.”

“Not about everything,” Bofur objected, his fingers clutching the edge of his book tightly. “We’re not innocent.”

“I know that! And so will everyone else.” He smiled at them, affection creeping in around the edges of his words. “But if I could come to tolerate you lot after you broke into my house and kidnapped me the first night we met, I have a feeling the general public might have a bit more sympathy for your story than you might think.”

Thorin glowered at Gollum for a few minutes, and then paced around the empty hall until Fíli announced that his transfer of information was complete. The data was out of their hands, out on its way to do the job they desperately hoped it would manage to do. Then Thorin clapped his nephew on the shoulder, and started for the door.

“Where are you going?” Fíli protested.

“We need to go talk to the people. We need Tyndrum with us.” He glanced back, and his expression softened as he saw Fíli’s exhaustion. “You need to rest while you can.”

“I’m fine!” Fíli shook his head wildly, but his eyes were red and tired. “Can’t sleep while Kíli’s out there alone, anyway.”

Thorin sighed and swung back around to his nephew, dropping heavy hands on his tired shoulders. “Fíli. You have done so very well - but now I need you to do this for me, as well. I need you rested and ready for our next fight.” Fíli held his eyes for a stubborn moment, then dipped his head in agreement. Thorin knocked his forehead against Fíli’s gently, then pushed him carefully toward a quiet corner. He looked around the room, then, and made a quick choice.

“Balin, I want you with me. You knew these people better than anyone else.” Balin trotted over unhesitatingly, and Thorin cocked his head at Bilbo. “If you’d like to join us, you’d be more than welcome.”

“I’ll come,” Bilbo decided, more than happy to leave Gollum behind.

Tyndrum was a quiet village, but the inhabitants had clearly been stirred by their arrival. Curious faces watched them from behind curtains and inside cars as they made their way to one particular house. To Bilbo’s surprise, Thorin hesitated at the door, his hand stilled in front of the knocker. After a long moment, Balin muttered something and elbowed Thorin aside, giving a few loud thumps.

The door opened quickly, and a young man with a fierce scowl stood inside, eyeing them suspiciously. “What do you want?”

“I’m looking for Girion,” Thorin said, an unusual subdued tone to his voice.

“You’re a few decades late,” the man said. “My grandfather died almost twenty years ago.”

Thorin looked stricken, but Balin’s eyes widened. “You’re never little Bard? But you were hardly walking when last we saw you!”

“I am Bard,” he allowed. His fierce eyes scanned over them. “My grandfather once told me that one day, strangers would come looking for him in the name of that mountain.” He nodded toward Beinn Chùirn. “He said I should offer them help, for the sake of his memory. Are you the men he was talking about?”

“I think we are,” Thorin answered. “I’m Thorin Oakenshield - and that mountain is mine. I’ve come to take it back.” He gestured to either side of him. “My companions, Balin and Bilbo.”

“Your grandfather and I were great friends,” Balin said gently. “You may not remember me, lad, but I never could forget one as strong and stubborn as you.”

Bard looked torn between slamming the door in their faces and letting them in. Finally, he sighed, and opened it wide enough to allow entrance. “I’m not promising anything. But for my grandfather’s sake, I’ll listen to what you have to say - and then we will see.”

It took an hour to explain their tale, and another of argument before Bard would even begin to see their side. Smaug’s poisonous words had done their work in Bard’s ears. He believed everything he had heard about the Sons of Durin, and it was an enormous struggle to convince him of their good intentions. Finally, Thorin slammed a hand down on his knee in frustration.

“We’re not asking for much! Just help us prevent them from starting work on the mines!”

“Those mines are going to change our lives!” Bard snapped, face reddening in fury. “They will bring jobs and wealth and economic stimulation to this village! We’ve been holding on to nothing for decades! We need these mines.”

“And you’ll get all of that,” Balin soothed. “We intend to work the mines ourselves - and we’ll do it properly, too. We know what it means to respect this mountain and this village. We grew up here, after all. Can you tell me you believe Smaug will have any respect for Tyndrum? Or will it be crushed beneath his feet in his quest for wealth?”

“Look what he has done to us,” Thorin said intently, leaning forward. “What he has made of us! Don’t let him do the same to you.”

Bard stared at them, unmoving. A muscle in the side of his face twitched. “Tell me, Thorin of Beinn Chùirn. Who were you to my grandfather, that he asked me to help you? Who are you, that I should trust your word?”

Thorin shifted uncomfortably. “Girion was something of a hero to me. He was strong and wise and kind. When my father died, I was still very young, and Girion offered his support and advice.” He drew out a letter, crumpled and worn with age, and passed it over. “It was Girion who advised us to apply for mining rights when I found there was gold under our mountain. This was his advice to me.”

Bard took the letter carefully and read it intently, scowling at every word. When he looked up, he did not look at Thorin, but passed the letter back stiffly. “My grandfather was a trusting man,” he said quietly. “He may have given too much of his trust to you - but I will honour it.”

“The people here will listen to you,” Balin urged. “Get them to help us, and when we are back on our mountain, the friendship between us will make us both strong.”

“I will do what I can,” Bard promised. He showed them out, looking at his watch as he did so. “You say Smaug intends to start tomorrow?”

“Yes - at Cononish, bright and early.”

“We will be there,” Bard snapped, and slammed the door in their faces. Bilbo let out a low whistle.

“Now there’s a man with even fewer social skills than you,” he told Thorin wryly, and was delighted when a crooked smile twisted Thorin’s face into happier lines.

Assured of at least some assistance, they made their way back to the village hall. Fíli was sleeping in the corner when they entered, and Bifur gave them a furious glare, motioning for them to keep quiet as he draped another coat over the lad’s sleeping form. They nodded and made their way to the connecting room, where most of the family were gathered.

“They’ve taken that slimy fellow off to the station,” Gloin volunteered. “I’ve put in a call to let Thranduil know he’s coming.”

“You all look like you’re waiting for something,” Bilbo observed, taking in the way that they were sitting around the room, eyes going to the doors and windows.

“We are,” Dwalin growled. He held up a mobile, which looked ridiculously small and fragile in his hand. “Gandalf is coming. He should be here soon.”

“That’s fantastic news!” Bilbo said, his heart lightened. Somehow, it seemed that nothing was quite as bad when Gandalf was around - although whether that spoke to the man’s competence or simple chance, he couldn’t say.

“But he’s late!” Oin complained loudly from the back. “He’s always late!”

“Gandalf arrives precisely when he means to,” Dwalin told him in no uncertain terms. “He will be here when he is here.”

“And until then, we wait,” Balin agreed placidly.

“Here, Bilbo!” Bofur called cheerfully. “Amuse us! Tell us what that fishy fellow meant when he said Smaug had been telling tales about your mother!”

Bilbo went red to the tips of his ears, and toed at the ground. “Ah, that’s - not interesting or amusing. Just old family business.”

“No, we want to know!” Ori called, as the three brothers slumped in. “Everyone’s had a go at guessing, but Gollum wouldn’t say anything more.”

“You already know all our secrets, lad,” Balin agreed. “Tell us a bit about you! For all the time we’ve spent together, we know precious little besides your name and your good character.”

Bilbo sighed in exasperation and slid into a chair with a dull thud. “Fine. It’s not really that interesting, though.” He breathed out fretfully, trying to decide how to tell the tale. “My father was probably exactly the man you expect he was, from knowing me. A good man, solid and rather dull. He kept Bag End all his life, and he was the best there was at it.” He smiled wistfully as memories came rushing back of his father, bagging groceries with such care, or toiling over the accounts until late at night. “He was utterly respectable.”

“Sounds like a recipe for a dull life,” Nori said, smiling a bit condescendingly.

Bilbo put up a finger. “Ah! That’s it, you see! Because my mother made sure it never was.”

“Full of gossip, was she?” Dori suggested. “Our mum never went a day in her life without collecting tales to share about everyone she knew.”

“Let him speak!” Thorin said fiercely, and he sat down close to Bilbo, urging him to go on.

“No, she was a bit more than that,” Bilbo said, now finding some amusement in dragging the story out and making them wait for answers. “My mother was the best thief this side of Hadrian’s Wall.”

There were startled mutters and a roar of laughter at that, as the company digested the information. Bilbo grinned smugly, pleased to have surprised them. “You think you’re dangerous,” he said with a chuckle. “My mother would have stolen everything you owned before you made it through the door, and returned everything she didn’t want before you ever knew it was missing. Never mess with a Took, she’d say!”

“And it was good advice, too,” Gandalf said, appearing silently in the door. He smiled down at all of them. “That is, of course, how I knew Mr. Baggins before our adventure. I’d been after his mother for years for various burglaries we couldn’t pin on her, and I got in the habit of stopping by for a chat every once in a while. It was quite a friendly relationship, considering I was meant to be bringing her to justice - but we never found a scrap of evidence to tie her to any of the thefts.”

“And you never would, even if you searched to the end of the world!” Bilbo said brightly.

“So is that where you learned it?” Gloin said, smiling behind his great beard. “At your mother’s knee?”

“Oh, no!” Bilbo said, horrified. “She always insisted I keep to the straight and narrow. Wanted me to take up in my father’s footsteps, or possibly to go into law. But she always had the best stories of the things she had done, and the excitement and romance of it kept me awake at night.”

“I suppose you never thought you’d be doing the same, yourself,” Thorin mused, fingers creeping up to grasp the Arkenstone where it lay hidden against his chest.

“Not once I grew up a bit,” Bilbo admitted. “When I took over the shop from my father, she had retired long since, and was living a very quiet life. She missed him terribly, though. I think he was sort of her anchor, as plain and solid as his life was. I thought I’d be like him forever.”

“I think perhaps you’ve shown it’s possible to be both at once,” Thorin said warmly, and heads nodded all around the room.

“So that’s my big secret,” Bilbo said firmly. “Gandalf, what about you? Where have you been?”

“I have been looking for backup. I went to see Saruman, who I report to directly, to see if the other members of our organization could be informed. We could have done a great deal to help with the spread of the truth - but he would not allow it.” Gandalf looked grim. “I suspect that he may be in Smaug’s pocket - or possibly, though I don’t have the evidence to prove anything yet, that he and Smaug are both nothing more than agents of a greater master.”

Bilbo shuddered at that idea. Smaug alone was enough to have them all in danger and horror, on the run, and facing a nightmare of choices that he’d never been expecting to make. Thinking of a greater enemy beyond him was enough to make him want to crawl back in his hole and hide.

From the other room, there was a sudden scrambling sound, and Fíli’s muffled voice speaking in sharp sentence fragments. In a moment, he came rushing in, hair wild from sleep, and gestured for them all to be quiet.

“We’re here, Kíli,” he called down in the direction of his mobile, which he held out to the room at large. “You’re on speaker, so you’ll have to speak up.”

“I needed to tell you what I’ve found.” Kíli’s voice came crackling out of the mobile, sounding tiny and distant. “It’s not good news. Is Thorin there?”

“I’m here,” Thorin replied. His hands were pressed together in tight fists, knuckles white where they met.

“You need to get out of there,” Kíli said, rushed and breathless. “Word on the street is that we are dead men. Smaug has gathered up every gang, every mob, every petty lowlife and criminal and drug addict - everyone with a grudge against us, or who is desperate enough to take his money, or who owes him a favour. They’re all coming after us, and they’re coming now.”

“It’s an army,” Fíli breathed, eyes wide.

“They know where you are. Smaug had Bilbo followed, and they’re coming to Tyndrum now! You’ve got to go!” Kíli was beginning to sound frantic now, and his breathing had picked up. There were rustling sounds on the other end that Bilbo couldn’t place.

“We’re not leaving, Kíli,” Thorin said calmly. “We can’t leave now. It’s time to make a stand.”

“You can’t!” Kíli hissed. “They’re not going to arrest us this time, or beat us up for information. They’re going to kill us, Uncle Thorin!” His voice cracked at the end, and Bilbo’s heart started pounding harder. The men around him were looking out the windows, clearly expecting company soon.

“Kíli,” Fíli interrupted, frozen now in a semblance of calmness. “Where are you?”

Kíli laughed sharply, and then stopped abruptly. “Still in Edinburgh. I can’t get out. They’ve closed the roads, and they got the bike hours ago.”

“Why are you running?” Fíli asked, still so sharply calm and cold that it gave Bilbo the chills.

“Why do you think?” Kíli’s answer was rushed, and came through on a breath like a sob. Bilbo’s hands clenched into fists. “Fíli, get out of there. Just get out, please!”

Thorin was on his feet now, moving next to Fíli like it could get them closer to the other end of the line. “Kíli! We’re not leaving - we can’t leave. Hide yourself somewhere. We’ll come and find you as soon as we can.”

“Too late for that,” Kíli said grimly. There were sounds of footsteps now, running fast, and more than one pair. The Sons of Durin were all gathering close now, silent and frightened, and Bilbo squeezed his way through to stand by Fíli and Thorin. “Please, go. I’ll delay them as long as I can.”

“Kíli, no!” Thorin roared. “Get out! Don’t you dare put yourself between them and us!”

“There’s nothing else I can do!” Kíli roared back. “Get Fíli out, please! You’ve got to!”

There was a roar in the background they couldn’t make out, but it sounding more like an angry mob than anything. Fíli was stock-still, barely breathing, his hand clenched so tight on the mobile that his fingers were shaking. “Kíli,” he whispered.

They all jumped when the crash came from the other end, like Kíli’s mobile had been flung against a wall, and then there were shouts and thumps and a horrible muffled scream that had them all covering their ears, even as they stared, unblinking, at the mobile in Fíli’s hand. Then a scraping noise came, and a rough voice roared through the speaker.

“If that’s Oakenshield, then we’ve got a message for you!”

“I am Thorin Oakenshield!” Thorin shouted, trembling with rage. “If you lay a hand on that boy, you will regret it!”

There was a nasty laugh. “You’re in no position to be making threats! Smaug sends a message.”

“What is it?” Thorin ground out, teeth clenched.

“We’re coming for you,” the evil voice recited. “And everything that didn’t burn then will burn today.”

And the deafening sound of the phone being smashed against a wall made them all jump back, and then stand, frozen, as the call cut off.

Chapter Text

The room was so still, so silent, that for a long moment Bilbo wondered if everyone could hear the way his heart was pounding, or how his throat was working as he struggled not to sob. Kíli was gone, and they were about to be swept away by an evil tide. It hardly mattered that Bombur would get the truth out, if they were all to die before it could do them any good. His hands were ice cold, and he clenched them into slightly shaky fists, hoping to find some warmth.

Bilbo could hardly see the others in the room, since his eyes wouldn’t quite seem to focus on anything. To his left, he heard a choked cry, suddenly cut off, and he thought rather dreamily that it must have been Bofur. There came a growl of pure rage that had to be Dwalin, and then Oin was asking someone rather loudly what had just happened, and Dori and Nori and Ori were talking at once, all fear and fury - and in the middle of it all, Fíli was still frozen, eyes desperately wide and unbelieving.

Bilbo forced his head to move, looking toward Thorin, who looked stunned beyond his ability to cope. There was a horrible, familiar sort of desolation in his eyes, and Bilbo knew that this was not the first loss Thorin had faced, though it might be one of the worst. He watched as Thorin swallowed hard, pulling himself together in shreds and patches, and reached out toward his remaining nephew.

“Fíli,” he murmured - and Fíli swung around on him, faster than thought. His bewildered expression was gone in a flash, replaced by a fury that frightened Bilbo to even see.

“We have to go get him. Now!” Fíli barked, and spun around quickly, looking to see that they were with him. No-one moved. “We don’t have time to waste like this! We need to move!”

“Fíli,” Dwalin said evenly, his gruff voice unusually kind. “Leave off, lad.”

“What are you talking about?” Fíli asked blankly. “Look, Kíli’s in trouble! We’ve got to save him. I’ll call the Eagles and anyone else I can think of while we drive.”

“No, laddie,” Balin said mournfully. Even his beard seemed to droop as he shook his head, eyes glistening.

“This is Kíli!” Fíli protested, clearly beyond understanding their hesitation. “I’m going to get him! Why are you wasting time?” He started for the door, and Bifur caught his arm, shaking his head. He signed quickly, directly in front of Fíli’s face, and the lad shook his head wildly.

“That’s not true. I just heard him, he’ll be fine! He’s Kíli!”

“We don’t have time for this,” Thorin snapped, eyes blazing with more than anger. “You must face reality, Fíli. We can’t save your brother.” It sounded like the words were torn from his very heart, a piece of himself he would never get back again.

Fíli shook his head in denial, but it grew rapidly into something more frantic, and his eyes darkened. “You think he’s dead?”

Thorin nodded solemnly, and Fíli seemed to snap. His eyes flashed dangerously and he ran at Thorin, crashing bodily into him, and swung at him wildly with clenched fists.

“No!” It was a howl of loss and horror that made Bilbo want to be ill, and echoed in the scream that was still playing inside his head. “Kíli, no!”

“Fíli!” Thorin bellowed, grabbing the boy’s wrists tightly and trying to calm him. “Stop this!”

“You killed him, you bastard!” Fíli roared, struggling wildly, and managing to land a blow on Thorin’s face that made him wince and draw back. “Damn you! You just had to keep fighting and pushing! You taught him this!”

“Fíli! That’s enough!” Balin shouted, tugging on his shoulder, but Fili shrugged him off, barely noticing the interruption.

“He idolised you!” Fíli screamed, his voice a raw wound. “Everything you did, he watched! And all you showed him was how to risk his life and obsess over revenge!”

“I know!” Thorin roared. “You think I don’t know that?” Fíli froze, staring at him in shock, and Bilbo saw the tears streaming down his face. “I’ve known since you were infants that I was doing you wrong, but I never thought -”

The fire died away, and they stared at one another, loss and grief and terror binding them together. Fíli seemed to collapse in on himself, shoulders and knees growing weak, and Thorin wrapped his arms around the lad, crushing him close and swaying back and forth in a horrible dance of grief. They were both shaking with sobs. Bilbo reached up to the itch on his own face, and brought his fingers away to find them wet with tears that he hadn’t realised he was shedding.

“Kíli,” Fíli said brokenly. “My Kíli,” and the words became a wail of sorrow, the likes of which Bilbo hadn’t heard since the day his father died.

The rest of the company were huddled together in little shattered groups, heads bowed and hands touching shoulders and arms - anything to remain in contact and remind themselves that they were not alone. Gloin had collapsed onto a chair, burying his face in his hands, and Bilbo remembered that he was a father himself. Gandalf stood tall and untouchable in the corner, apart from the rest, but there was a deep and tired sorrow in his eyes. Bilbo wrapped his arms around himself, shaking with reaction, and let the tears flow silently. He hadn’t known it was possible to feel so much pain at the loss of someone he had known for such a short time.

Eventually, there came an exhausted silence, and Bilbo wiped at his eyes and nose and looked up. Fíli and Thorin were still nothing more than a single unit of pain, but they were silent now. Bilbo swallowed hard and stepped forward, but didn’t put out a hand. He had no right to touch such grief.

“I don’t mean to give false hope,” he said quietly, “but there’s no way of knowing anything. He might still be alive.”

“If he is, then we will find him again,” Thorin said quietly. “But we deal with dangerous men, and there is no pity in their hearts.” Fíli gave a little cry of despair and pushed his face further into Thorin’s shoulder.

“Those dangerous men are coming here.” Dwalin came up beside them, face dark with fury and loss, but his voice was gentle. “We cannot remain here, Thorin.”

Fíli pushed away from Thorin, eyes red and face flushed. “You want to keep on as usual? After this?”

“No, lad,” Dwalin said gently, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Nothing is as usual. But Kíli took great pains to get us this information, and if we let it go to waste, we dishonour his memory.” His fingers tightened on Fíli’s shoulder for a moment, and then he gave Thorin a deep, sorrowful nod and turned away, beginning to stir the rest from the lassitude of mourning.

It took all of Dwalin’s strength, and Balin’s calm kindness, to get them moving. They herded the rest of the family into the vehicles and urged them forward. Bilbo saw Thorin stop and speak quietly to Gandalf, who nodded deeply. At Bilbo’s questioning look, Thorin shrugged tiredly.

“I’ve asked him to speak to Bard and the rest. I fear the morning will be too late for us to be looking for assistance.”

Bilbo swallowed fast. He had hardly had time to think about what it meant, that Smaug’s henchmen were coming after them now. “Where will we go? What will we do?”

“We are going to fight for our home,” Thorin snapped. “We’re going back to Cononish, and up to where they will try to begin the mines - where we went that first night that we met you. We will stand there, whether Bard comes or not.”

“But that’s suicide!” Bilbo gasped. “All of these people that-” he gulped, “that Kíli warned us about - they’ll all be coming for our heads!”

“Bombur will do his job, and Smaug will not last forever,” Thorin said. There was a disquieting calm to his speech. “This is our home, Bilbo. It’s all we have.” He turned away and left, and Bilbo had to trail along behind him, wishing there was another option that he could see. Balin pushed him gently into a car, where he found himself next to a nearly insensate Fíli, with Oin on the other side of him. Balin and Bofur sat in the front, silent and withdrawn in a way that he hadn’t really thought these particular people could be.

They rode in silence for a moment, and then Bilbo put a hand on Fíli’s arm, trying to offer some kind of comfort. “Don’t give up,” he murmured. “Nothing is certain.”

Fíli hardly blinked. His eyes were cold and vacant, staring ahead at the winding road they were climbing. “What’ve I got to hope for?” he asked dully. “If Kíli’s alive, then he’s in the hands of our worst enemies. He’d almost be better off dead. And even if he survives, none of the rest of us will.”

“That’s not true!” Bilbo protested. Fíli didn’t bother looking at him.

“What has any of this been but a twenty-year-long suicide mission? Thorin’s raised us for this, put us in position, and now there’s no way out.” He laughed bitterly. “If Kíli’s gone, then at least I don’t have long to wait until I join him.”

Bilbo’s stomach flipped sickeningly at that, and he grabbed Fíli’s face, forcing him to meet his eyes. “No, no, no!” he said firmly, a little frantic. “You can’t think that way!”

“Kíli was the whole world, Uncle Bill,” Fíli murmured. “I don’t even know if my heart is beating anymore.”

Bilbo wrapped an arm around him, shushing him with meaningless, gentle words. Fíli slumped against him, boneless and weary; the rest were silent, and Bilbo ached for all of them.

They parked at Cononish, though now that they were prepared to face their enemies openly, there was no need to hide. They were able to leave their cars much further up the mountain, cutting the walking time in half. They walked close together, faces shadowed and eyes fixed on the ground. Bilbo felt he was walking with ghosts.

Fíli, in particular, was a wreck. He seemed half dazed, stumbling over obvious stones and rough patches in his way, and Thorin took note. He came to walk by his nephew, not touching, but they walked in sync and Fíli did not fall so often.

“I had a brother,” Thorin said abruptly, his voice rough. Fíli looked at him, startled, and Balin and Dwalin inhaled sharply. “Your mother was our younger sister. As children, we were inseparable. We climbed over every inch of this ground, and there were days our parents never saw us.”

“I have another uncle?” Fíli asked, dazed. Thorin shook his head.

“Frerin was a great deal like Kíli - brave and brilliant, like fire caught in human form. He took such risks, laughing all the while.” A melancholy wistfulness was in his voice, and Bilbo crept closer to hear more of the story. “He never did learn that he was vulnerable. On the day of Burning, when Smaug took everything we had, Frerin would not stop fighting.” His voice grew more tired, and hoarse. “And when they burned our homes, it was Frerin who broke away and went into the burning buildings, looking for those who were trapped. He did not return”

“Oh, Thorin,” Bilbo murmured, unable to stop the words. He glanced back over his shoulder, and offered a quick, sad smile of thanks.

“It took six of us to hold Thorin back, when we saw it was too late,” Balin said sadly. “He would have followed Frerin into the flames, even when there was no hope.”

Fíli stared up at Thorin, his feet stumbling as he neglected to watch the path - and there was a new understanding in his sorrow. He seemed to have aged a decade in the past few hours. “How did you go on?” Fíli whispered.

Thorin looked down at him sadly, past and present losses tangled up in the slump of his shoulders. “Your mother needed me,” he said slowly. “And then you came, and Kíli, and there were reasons to keep going.”

“It doesn’t stop hurting,” Dwalin said evenly. He walked shoulder to shoulder with Balin, the brothers drawn close by their loss. “They’ll tell you it does, but that’s a lie. We carry Frerin with us every day.”

“But you’ve never spoken of him!” Fíli protested, and Thorin shook his head.

“You will understand, Fíli - and I am sorry for that.”

They came up to the green pasture that Bilbo remembered just as the sun was beginning to sink low in the sky, sending shallow beams of light across the field. They made their way silently to the fence, keeping their hands back, and Bilbo stared out at the bones of their homes, lying burned in the tall grass. They were a tangible memory, a dark shadow on that lovely place that kept them all from moving forward.

They looked for a long time, breathing in the clean air of the place, and Bilbo remembered the first time they had been there. It had been just as lovely then, and now it seemed haunted, darkened by what they had been through. Finally, Thorin drew a deep breath, and turned to face them all.

“You all know why we are here,” he said clearly. They looked up at him, all worn and dismayed, and his eyes flashed. “We have suffered greatly. We have lost what we love again and again. We have been cast out of our homes, out of every civilised place, and made outcasts.” He flung out a hand, gesturing to the peaceful meadow. “But here is our home! It is still here, even if it is scarred and damaged. Now we have to decide whether to fight, or to lie down and die.”

“You make it sound like there’s a choice,” Fíli said bitterly. He wasn’t looking at the meadow. His eyes were on the mobile in his hand, still clutched tightly as if it were a lifeline to Kíli. “They will come and kill us, and that’ll be the end.” He didn’t sound frightened or angry - just matter of fact. Bilbo wanted to shake him, or to hug him, until there was some sort of human response. It was like watching Thorin in miniature, without the years of experience.

“It’s never that simple, lad,” Bofur said gently. “We have lived rough, without much call for our ideals in these past years. But it matters, what we do here - even if it’s the end of us.”

There was a roar, now, from further down the mountain, and they all glanced around nervously. It was approaching fast. Thorin threw his shoulders back, lifting his chin high.

“Listen now!” he shouted, and every eye was fixed on him. “You have stood by me for twenty years. I could not have asked for any more than what you offered. Loyalty; honour; willing hearts.” He looked around the circle slowly, his face proud and fond as he stared at them all. “I ask you for one final thing. Fight with me now! Fight with me for our home! For our honour!” His eyes met Fíli’s, and he closed his eyes slowly. “For Kíli.”

They didn’t cheer or shout. That moment was long past. But they stood straighter, shoulders firm and hands steady, and they nodded all together. The roar came up around them - a swarm of ragged, frightening people with pipes and sticks and stones and worse, all jeering and shouting as they surrounded the family on three sides. A man in black leather, tattooed all over and armed with a heavy, nail-studded club came forward far enough to shout threats in Bilbo’s face, and he was quickly snatched back and put in the centre of their circle. They seemed to flow in like water, in uncountable numbers, growing louder and more dangerously cheerful with every moment. The Sons of Durin huddled together, grasping what weapons they had. It seemed like a pathetic defense against their attackers.

“Why don’t they just charge and get it over?” Gloin wondered grumpily, hefting his truncheon in one hand. “What are they waiting for?”

There was a commotion at the back of their ranks, a ripple of quiet that spread through the crowd, and they could see the mob parting slowly as someone made their way up the middle. Several people, in fact, as Bilbo saw a moment later. He tried to lean past Nori and Bifur to see what was happening, but it was hard to see much. The dying light of the day was streaming directly into his face now, and he had to squint against the sun to make out the dark shapes approaching them. He let out a hearty groan as one shape resolved into a familiar man.

“Seriously, Spider again?” he complained, and elbowed Dwalin sharply. “I thought you were going to take care of him! Wasn’t he going to jail?”

“You don’t have to spend much time in prison when your boss has the whole system on his payroll,” Nori said gloomily. “Watch out for poison, mates.”

“Don’t let him get close,” Bilbo warned everyone, keeping his eyes on the spindly man, whose fingers were lingering threateningly on a little pocket in his vest, which Bilbo knew must contain a specially-chosen toxin.

“He’s not the only problem!” Bofur called, pointing at one group of thugs who seemed to be wearing nasty fur hats of some sort. “The Wargs are here!”

“And the Goblins,” Dori pointed out gloomily, gesturing at another section of the crowd. “They’ll have it in for us, that’s certain.”

“Who is that, in the front with Spider?” Bilbo hissed, pointing at the huge, muscled man. He was entirely bald, and there didn’t look to be an ounce of fat on his frame - he was pure muscle, and all the more frightening for it.

“That,” Thorin growled, “is Azog. Smaug’s controller for the underworld.” He snarled at the man. “He lit our houses on fire, and laughed as they burned. I will have his head today!”

Spider and Azog were now at the front of the army, facing down the Sons of Durin with an assurance that Bilbo found deeply disheartening. For all of Thorin’s words about fighting, it was fairly clear that what was going to happen here was nothing short of a massacre. But still, they didn’t move - didn’t attack.

There was another stir among the crowd now, and another person coming up through the ranks, and Bilbo glanced around nervously. This must be what they were waiting for. He swallowed hard, and moved closer to Fíli, pressing his arm against the lad’s.

Spider and Azog moved aside to make room for the new arrival, and Dwalin sprang immediately for Thorin, holding him back. It was Smaug - still dressed in his expensive suit and neat shoes, looking as though he had merely stepped out of the office for a breath of fresh air. Thorin roared anger and defiance, and Dwalin had to restrain him from leaping at the man.

“How dare you come here?” Thorin bellowed. “How dare you set foot on this ground?”

“Well, considering it’s mine, now, I could ask you the same thing,” Smaug said coolly. “What brings you to my mountain, Thorin Oakenshield?”

Thorin growled, past the use of words. Balin shook his head and came forward, a startlingly vicious chill to his tone and manner that Bilbo hadn’t imagined possible in the old man.

“You know why we are here!”

“Well, yes,” Smaug agreed easily. “Of course I do. It was easy enough to get you here, after all. You’re so very predictable!” He made a show of looking around at knee level. “But where is your little burglar? I have so much to thank him for! Leading you straight here on the quest to stop me? Giving me reason to send all of my friends out to the country for a bit of fresh air?” He smiled coldly, and patted Spider’s head before wiping his fingers fastidiously on his handkerchief.

Bilbo pushed forward, frowning furiously. He didn’t want to think that he’d had any role to play in this disaster. “I’m here,” he said, sounding calm enough.

“Ah, how lovely!” Smaug smiled viciously. “The whole family, together at last! Except -” he pulled a fake expression of distress over his face, and mimed counting the company. “Someone seems to be missing! Have you lost your baby?”

Fíli threw himself forward, snarling like a wolf, and had to be held back by Bifur and Bofur. Smaug shook his head.

“Such a tragic business, crime. It does such bad things to family togetherness. And such a sweet lad, too.”

Ori pulled out his slingshot, drawing it back and threatening Smaug with his little stone. “Don’t you say anything about him!” he shouted, his voice quavering and half-lost in the noise of the gathering.

“Oh, is there bad feeling?” Smaug asked solicitously, then heaved a sigh. “Such a shame! And here I thought I’d do you all one final favour by bringing him back to you.”

From behind him, hands shoved a disheveled figure forward, and Smaug grabbed the back of his neck, dragging him forward.

“Kíli!” Fíli’s scream echoed through the meadow, startling a pair of nesting grouse into the air.

Bilbo heart leapt into his throat, and he nearly fell over with the shock of it. Kíli wasn’t dead! The Sons of Durin called out in shock, ready to jump forward and grab him. The cries of joy rang around the meadow - and for a moment, they could all forget their situation, staring in delight at their unexpectedly returned member.

He was beaten bloody, hands tied and mouth gagged, but Kíli was clearly alive, and fighting as best he could. He tried to jerk away from Smaug’s cruel hand, and then, when that failed, stomped hard on the man’s foot. Smaug shook off the blow with a slight wince, and looked at the boy disdainfully. Kíli tried to smash Smaug’s skull with his own forehead.

“Really, Thorin, one would think you hadn’t bothered to educate them at all, with manners like these.”

“Let him go,” Thorin growled, his voice dangerously low and cold. “Give him to me now, and I will make your end merciful.”

Smaug shook his head. “What sort of a bargain is that? I hold all the cards here, Thorin. You are on my mountain, surrounded by my people, and I have your nephew. I would think you’d show a little more respect.”

“I’ve shown you more respect than you deserve,” Thorin grated. “All the respect that should be accorded to you could be summed up in one word of contempt.”

Fíli was struggling frantically to get away, and he elbowed Bofur hard, and shoved past Bifur to dart forward across the open ground between them. Kíli stopped fighting, staring at him in shock and horror, and Bilbo and the rest called after him frantically. He charged into the middle of the mob, right past Azog’s huge fists, and flung himself at his brother, wrapping his arms around Kíli without a care for any of the others there. Smaug raised a disdainful eyebrow and stepped back.

“Have him, if you’re so eager,” he told Fíli coldly. “You’ve only a short time to cherish your brother now, anyway. Best make the most of it, my boy.” He nudged Fíli’s leg carefully with one immaculate shoe. “But I think convention dictates that you’re meant to stay on the other side of this divide, so if you’d just arrange yourselves properly, we can get on with things.”

Bilbo gaped at Smaug as the boys hurried back across the meadow, Fíli already tearing at the gag around Kíli’s mouth.

“Why are you doing this?” Bilbo asked, narrowing his eyes at the tall man. Smaug smiled.

“My dear little burglar! Let me tell you a little something about power. It’s not easy to come by, but it’s not as hard as you might think, either. Look at me! I have power that you cannot begin to imagine. I am untouchable!” He stepped forward, gesturing contemptuously at his ragtag army. “My power is certainly not found in my armed force, nor in my position - nor even in my money! Do you know why I am mighty, little burglar?”

“Because you like the sound of your own voice enough to put the rest of your competition to sleep?” Bilbo guessed, glaring at the man. Behind him, Fíli was helping Kíli remove the rope that had bound his wrists, and Kíli’s hiss of pain was enough to put Bilbo in a very bad mood indeed. He was alive, but badly bruised, and Bilbo could not forgive the horror of the last hours, when they had been made to think him dead.

Smaug chuckled coldly. “Witty, but incorrect. I have power because I control the stories. The power of a good liar, Mr. Baggins, is not to be underestimated. Look at us now!” He gestured around the meadow. “I took this land, burnt these homes, and sent these men away - and I became the hero. It is the story that gives me power.”

“Which does precisely nothing to answer the question,” Bilbo pointed out. “Why bother to bring Kíli back, when you just intend to kill us all anyway?”

“The story I am telling here is one of absolute power,” Smaug said conversationally. They might have been talking about it over tea. “To ambush you one by one and murder you in dark alleys removes you as annoyances, but it is not a good story.” He stalked forward a few steps, his army following him closely. “To reunite you in all your fighting strength, showing mercy in your last moments - and then to wipe you utterly from the face of the Earth? That is a story of great power, Mr. Baggins.”

He turned back to his troops, looking them over. “Give them a few minutes to say their goodbyes, and to compose themselves,” he called. The sun was half down, and his face was illuminated with the blood-red light of the sunset. “Then kill them all. Leave none alive.” He wiped his fingers on his handkerchief again, as if they’d been soiled by contact with the Sons of Durin, and walked back into the midst of his army. Bilbo’s mouth dropped open. Was Smaug not even going to wait to see the outcome of the battle, such as it might be?

Thorin pulled away from Dwalin and shoved his way to the centre of the circle, where they had all clustered protectively around Fíli and Kíli. Fíli was clinging to Kíli, both hands wound into his shirt, and he would not let go.

“Kíli!” Thorin said desperately, and grabbed him in a frantic embrace. In a moment, he’d drawn Fíli in as well, holding both of the boys tightly, and pressed his head down between theirs, dark and light hair bookending his greying head. “I thought I’d lost you!”

“I’m sorry, Uncle Thorin,” Kíli said, his voice choked. “I didn’t mean to! And now-” Kíli shuddered, and pressed closer into the warmth of his family’s embrace. All around, the Sons of Durin crept in close enough to put a hand on a shoulder, or to ruffle his hair proudly.

“Well,” Bofur said after a long moment, heaving a sigh. “This will be one for the books, lads. I expect they’ll write songs about us, you know.”

Fíli’s hands tightened enough on Kíli’s shirt that his knuckles went white, and he pulled back from the embrace, looking at Thorin and Kíli and the rest. “This is it, isn’t it?”

“Looks that way,” Balin agreed, giving a long sigh. “Could be worse, though.”

“How,” Nori demanded, “could it possibly be worse? We’re about to be torn apart by a mob.”

“We could be alone,” Kíli said quietly - and Bilbo remembered his voice across the line, when he thought he was dying alone in the streets of Edinburgh. It was too much for him to bear, and he pushed through the crowd until he could reach the lads. Thorin was speaking to Dwalin in low, sober tones, and it seemed to be hitting everyone that this might be their last chance to say their farewells. Dori, Nori, and Ori clustered together, and Oin and Gloin were locked in an embrace without words.

“My dear fellows,” Bilbo began - and then he had no idea what to say. Nothing in his life had ever prepared him for this moment. He floundered, lost for words, and Fíli and Kíli exchanged a grin and took pity on him. They flung themselves at him, nearly knocking him to the ground, and he embraced them as hard as he could. “My dear boys,” he whispered. There was nothing more to say.

He pulled away, sniffling a bit pathetically, when Thorin came back around after saying his goodbyes to the company. He put his hands on their shoulders, looking at them both with such shining pride that Bilbo almost wept again.

“Oh, my boys,” he sighed, looking at them fondly. “I wish your mother could see you now. She would have been so very proud of you.”

“Really?” Kíli asked, surprisingly shy. Thorin wiped at a trickle of blood on his forehead with one thumb, nodding soberly.

“You’re both fine, brave, brilliant young men. You’ve done things I should never have asked of you - and you’ve done them all so wonderfully.” He blinked quickly. “My sons.”

“Sons?” Fíli raised his eyebrows, clearly startled, and Thorin nodded.

“You are my children,” he said possessively. “You always have been, even if I was too proud and frightened to voice it. I need you to know that if I were your own father, I could not be more proud. No father could ever have asked for finer sons.”

Then there were tears, and Bilbo crept away, feeling like a thief. He made his own quiet rounds of the company, so aware of the passing of time that each second was painful, and made his goodbyes. It was oddly peaceful, there on the meadow, with the moon rising above them.

Thorin found him, when he’d said what he needed to say to all of his friends, and shed tears with more than one of them. Thorin was suddenly beside him, a hand on his shoulder, and he looked like he had been weeping.

“They really were the very best,” Bilbo said quietly, looking over to where Fíli and Kíli were standing now, heads tilted together. They might have been silent, or they might have been saying everything there was to be said. No-one would ever know outside of them.

“They don’t blame me, even now,” Thorin said, clearly bewildered. “Even for this. And, in a way, they seem the most ready for this out of all of us.”

“They have what they’ve always had,” Bilbo said, looking at their closeness and seeing completion. “But they’re so young, Thorin.”

“I could murder every one of these men with my own hands, if it meant they would stay safe,” Thorin said quietly, staring out at the army around them. They were starting to grow restless, and Bilbo knew they would not wait much longer. Thorin turned his eyes on Bilbo, and the guilt there nearly knocked him over. “And you as well. I would have had you safe.”

“I had safe,” Bilbo said calmly, offering him a little smile. “For a very long time, Thorin. I lived the safest life you could imagine.”

“You should have stayed! You never should have been in this danger.” Thorin’s voice was anguished, and Bilbo turned to him, reaching out to take his hand. He clasped it firmly, willing Thorin to see that he wasn’t shaking.

“If I had known all along how this would go, and where we would end up, I would have made the exact same choices.” Bilbo’s voice was firm, and his smile was steady. He was brave now, braver than he had ever known he could be. “Thorin Oakenshield, you and your band of frustrating, dangerous, ill-mannered, wonderful people are the best thing that have ever happened to a boring little old grocer from Linlithgow. I am proud to be here with you all now.” He gestured around to the Sons of Durin, including them in his words, and then nodded directly to Thorin. “To be here with you, Thorin.”

A light laugh floated up on the air behind them - Fíli and Kíli, sharing one last joke - and Thorin returned the pressure on Bilbo’s hand. They looked out at the crowd before them, hungry now for violence, and Bilbo knew their respite was over. Azog raised one huge fist in the air and brought it down, and the army of their enemies descended upon them, there before the burned bones of Beinn Chùirn.

Chapter Text

Bilbo had thought, when he was young, that he would have adventures of his own some day, like the stories his mother whispered to him before bed. He had imagined himself as a hero, maybe with a sword or a magic ring, saving people and destroying evil with a smile on his face.

Like most things in life, it hadn’t worked out the way he planned.

The horde was on them in an instant, smashing against the solid circle of the Sons of Durin like a wave on a rock. The battle cries changed as the two sides met, becoming something entirely more frantic. The company tried to stay together at first, but Oin and Gloin were soon torn away, fighting side by side against a group of Goblins armed with metal pipes and lengths of chain. Bifur flung himself into the fray, roaring wildly, and Bofur went after him, watching his back and fending off what attacks he could. The Sons of Durin didn’t have much to protect themselves - a truncheon or cudgel here and there, and some sticks and stones picked up from the ground - but they fought together, watching out for one another. Dwalin and Thorin went roaring forward, heavy fists flying - and in a moment, a pile of pipes and bricks and clubs began to build behind them. They were stripping the weapons from their adversaries, and leaving them for the rest of the company.

Fíli and Kíli flew forward, gathering discarded weapons, and distributed them to the rest. Bilbo was more than a bit lost - but there was one thing he knew he could do. He bent down and quickly gathered as many stones as he could manage, shoving them in pockets and balancing them on his left arm before moving forward.

The Sons of Durin were fighting desperately, as men who had nothing left to lose. Bilbo tried to locate all of them at once. Hanging back, he hadn’t yet been spotted as a threat by any of the oncoming mob, and he felt almost invisible.

There, down to the right, he caught a glimpse of a Warg with a brick coming up behind an unaware Ori, lifting it high above his head. Bilbo didn’t hesitate. He whipped a stone at the man, and caught him right in the temple, feeling nothing but a rush of relief as the man toppled over. Ori spun around, shocked by the collapse, and Bilbo saw his face whiten as he realised how close he’d been to death. He hurried to catch up to his brothers in the fray, the three of them forming a natural triangle that ensured no-one would sneak up behind them.

Bilbo quickly established a rhythm - find a friend in battle who was under threat, take aim, and let loose with a stone. He was fast and light on his feet, moving from one part of the battle to the next, and his attacks came so quickly and from such varied directions that he had still not been spotted, even as he had to stop to reload his arms with stones. A quick count reassured him that all twelve were still fighting, though it couldn’t be said that they were doing much more than staying alive.

Fíli and Kíli were a whirlwind, backs pressed together as they moved in unison. Kíli was flinging things as well, though his projectiles were more dangerous than Bilbo’s. He snatched knives from the hands and belts of the men who drew too near, and sent them flying with lethal accuracy. Fíli dealt with the closer threats, wielding two lengths of pipes like swords, hacking away at those who came within striking distance. Bilbo spotted a man in a horrible fur hat drawing too close, just as both brothers were distracted in the other direction, and let fly a stone just before he would have brought a long knife down into Fíli’s neck. Astoundingly, even in the drawing gloom, they both spun to see, and shot him identical wild grins. Hair flying, laughter ringing - they were like warrior children of old, and Bilbo hoped, even as he raised another stone to defend Balin’s old head, that somehow this was how they would be remembered - as so wildly, brilliantly alive.

The darkness was falling fast, and the moonlight could only do so much to illuminate the scene. There came a crackling sound, and light flared in one place, then another. The Goblins were setting fire to the trees, and to the piles of branches and dried grasses that marked the passing of a dry spring. The smoke rose quickly, and the smell of burning filled the air. Thorin and some of the older men gave wild howls, throwing themselves forward with greater abandon, and Bilbo remembered that this was how they had lost their homes and lives - in fire and smoke, in this very place.

He counted again - twelve - and threw a stone that just barely missed Dwalin’s head, smashing into the face of the man behind him. Bilbo watched him fall with grim satisfaction. He had never intended to hurt anyone - but this didn’t feel like a fight. It was a struggle for survival.

The numbers were against them, though, no matter how hard they fought, and Bilbo knew he was watching a slow death. Gloin caught a blow to the head and went reeling, caught by his brother, but hardly standing under his own power. Dori went down, crushed under a pile of Wargs who leapt on him from a protruding rock. Nori and Ori immediately set about dragging them off, but Dori stayed down, and Bilbo couldn’t see if he was moving. He threw stones furiously, trying to keep count. Thorin and Balin were bleeding now, and Kíli was staggering a bit, even as he fought on. There was no way of knowing how badly he’d been knocked about, and Fíli was losing concentration as he tried to keep an eye on his brother, leaving himself open to more attacks on every side.

Azog was a towering figure in the middle of the battle, directing his forces with roars and gestures that were larger than life. Bilbo couldn’t see Spider at all - and that worried him greatly. They were scattered now, spread across the field in little clusters of desperation, and the violent laughter of Smaug’s forces made it very clear that they were doing nothing more than buying themselves a few moments of time.

Bilbo ran out of stones again and paused to get more, feeling despair creeping over him at the sight of the field. Smoke from the fires and dust from the disturbed ground had risen in clouds, lit by the flickering lights of the burning land. A stone, as if from nowhere, glanced off Bilbo’s skull, and the sudden shooting pain left him reeling. He blinked hard, trying to get the world to come back into focus. It smeared and blurred at the edges, and he could no longer tell if that was a result of the fires and smoke. The world was pain and fear and the blood of his friends, and Bilbo could not count to twelve.

He looked up, despair falling over his heart - and the smoke shifted, just for a moment. A star shone bright above the field, clear and calm above the tumult, and Bilbo felt a sudden flare of hope. The sound of battle shifted, somehow, and Bilbo pressed a hand to the trickle of blood from his scalp, trying to squint across the fight. The shouting at the far end, where the path came up to meet the field, was quickly turning into screams of anger and rage. His heart beat faster. Had Bard come?

Bilbo stumbled forward, barely pausing as he ran to chuck a stone at the head of a man who was throttling Oin, watching him fall as Bilbo passed. He made it to the far edge of the battle and peered out.

Bard was there, now, carrying a shovel and a pick, and wielding them with strong arms. At his side and behind him were maybe ten men, all similarly armed, and Bilbo nearly shouted with joy. The men of Tyndrum had come to help them! He spun about quickly, as a roar came from behind him, and blinked wildly at the sight. A short, heavily bearded man in bike leathers was glaring at him, flanked by a handful of men who might have been his brothers.

“Are you with Thorin?” the man demanded, lifting a heavy, tattooed fist high in the air.

“Yes!” Bilbo squeaked, and then hoped that hadn’t doomed him. “Who are you?”

“Dain, of the Iron Hills Motorbike Association.” He glared around the battle, eyes narrowed. “Dwalin called us in. What can we do?”

“The Sons of Durin are surrounded, up there at the front,” Bilbo said breathlessly, pointing forward. “They can’t hold long.”

Dain and his men grinned ferociously, fists at the ready. “They don’t have to.” They rushed forward, leaving Bilbo stunned - but a glimmer of hope began to grow in his heart, and he hurried after them. They threw themselves into the fray, and Bilbo rushed back to the front, looking again for his friends. He could see most of them somewhere in the rush and fury of battle, which was now becoming more wildly disorganized with the new arrivals. Bard and Dain led their men from two sides, and Thorin and the Sons of Durin held their own at the front. Smaug’s army was beginning to fray a bit around the edges, though they still pushed forward, clearly set on the destruction of their targets.

He spun around again as a wild, high cry came through the battle, and saw Fíli and Kíli running back toward the front, grinning triumphantly - and behind them were the young men and women who Bilbo recognised from their heroic rescue less than a fortnight earlier.

“The Eagles!” Bilbo shouted, grabbing Thorin’s arm and pointing. “The Eagles are coming! And Bard and Dain! We are not alone!”

Thorin gave a roar of violent laughter, and then pushed Bilbo aside, taking out the man who had crept up behind him in one mighty blow. “Watch your head, none the less!” he cried. “If we are to survive, it should be all of us!”

Bilbo agreed heartily with that assessment, and spent a few minutes rushing around and trying to find all of his friends and assure himself they were still alive, if injured. They were taking a beating, but whether by skill or chance, all were still breathing. The sound of battle was beginning to change as the men of Tyndrum and the Iron Hills gang threw themselves into the fight, and the Eagles seemed to fly through the battle, quick and light and deadly. With the change in tone, Bilbo noticed a distinct movement in Smaug’s troops. They were starting to back away, some breaking and running, others creeping more slowly backward toward the gap left on the final side, where another path led away down the mountain.

He was torn between wanting them all to run away, and wishing furiously that they would stay and be defeated, giving Smaug a taste of humility. Thorin noticed too, though, and a wild fire was in his eyes.

“Don’t let them run!” he bellowed. “These scum will know today what it means to be the enemies of the Sons of Durin!”

Bilbo worked his way around the edge of the fray to look where their enemies were trying to slip away - and was met by an unpleasant surprise. There, storming back up the path with a face like bloody vengeance, was Smaug himself. His allies went before him, clearly stopped in their attempt to retreat, and more afraid of Smaug than of the adversaries awaiting them at the top.

“Go!” Smaug roared, fury pouring off him like smoke. “Fight! I will have my treasure!”

They fled before him, throwing themselves back into the fight, and Bilbo’s surge of optimism faded as it became clear again that, even with their new additions, the Sons of Durin were horribly outnumbered. Smaug stalked across the field, which seemed to flow apart before him to make way for his passage. Bilbo followed as best he could, dodging the odd blow here and there from those who bothered to notice him in the chaos. He made his way to Azog, who was standing on a large rock in the centre of the field, surveying the battle. They spoke for only a moment, and then Smaug took his position on the rock, and Azog leapt down, moving smoothly and with assurance. Moving, Bilbo quickly saw with horror, directly toward Thorin.

Azog lifted the huge, nail-studded club that he carried, and hefted it high above his head as he bore down on Thorin, who was in the middle of a fierce fight with two smaller Goblins.

“Thorin!” Bilbo shouted, desperate to make his voice carry across the noise. Amazingly, Thorin seemed to hear him despite the chaos, turning quickly to look for him, and spotting Azog in the process. He dropped to the ground in a quick, graceful roll that just managed to avoid the strike of Azog’s club, and came up to his feet, clutching what looked like a solid oak branch. Azog was upon him in an instant, bringing the deadly club down again, and Thorin blocked the strike with the branch. Bilbo could hardly breathe, frozen in place as he watched.

The club fell again and again, and Thorin fell backward, still managing to block the blows with his impromptu shield even as he fell to the ground. The last blow caught Thorin’s arm at an awkward angle, and the scream he gave, and the way his arm fell across his chest afterward, made it clear that his arm had been broken. Bilbo finally made himself move, starting forward through the madness and the haze of smoke, but every step seemed to take a hundred years. He watched in slow motion as Azog kicked the oak branch away contemptuously, followed by a vicious kick to Thorin’s ribs that left him curled around them in pain, breath coming in shallow gasps. Bilbo wanted to hurl a rock, or to pick up a weapon of some sort - anything, to defend the man he had come to see as so much more than a leader. But his steps barely seemed to move him forward, and he groaned in agony as Azog raised his club again, preparing to put an end to their battle.

He never did see where they came from. One moment, Thorin lay defenseless before Azog; the next, Fíli and Kíli stood in front of their uncle, forming a living shield - albeit one that happened to be bristling with weapons, and glowing with fury.

“You will not touch him!” Fíli roared, and leapt forward with his steel pipes, hacking and slashing at Azog, who was forced to step back, and to use his club as a shield. Kíli was a blur of motion, then, hurling knives and stones with uncanny accuracy. A long knife stuck directly into Azog’s shoulder, drawing a roar of fury from the giant man, and he lashed out with his club, knocking both of the lads over. They were up again in an instant, circling him, keeping him away from Thorin. It was rather like watching dogs bother a bear, and Bilbo winced with every move, worried that the man would catch one of them a fatal blow. He finally reached Thorin, throwing himself to his knees beside him, and trying to figure out how he could help, or what parts of the man he could even touch without causing him pain.

A blaring of sirens from the path that Smaug had just taken startled Bilbo and the rest, and the fight paused for a moment as they turned to look. Bilbo’s jaw dropped as he saw who was coming onto the scene. Gandalf was there, flanked by a man in ragged brown clothes and a tall, lovely woman all in silver. Just behind them, Thranduil was cresting the hill, carrying a bullhorn.

“Attention!” he bellowed, the screech of the horn hurting their ears. “This is now a police matter! We are here for the arrest of Smaug and his associates. Everyone is to remain in this location until given permission to depart!”

There were howls of protest all around, and Smaug’s army seemed to collapse into panic. Bilbo surmised that most of them would prefer to keep a great distance from the police - and the wave of dark-uniformed officers pouring up the hill had them in a complete collapse. They fought frantically, like trapped animals, and the shouts of pain multiplied as the battle grew more grim.

Smaug and Azog both howled in fury, and Smaug screamed something indecipherable, pointing at Thorin in rage. Azog dropped his club, grabbing Fíli and Kíli each in one giant hand, and smashed them together, dropping them to the ground behind him as he moved forward - toward Thorin and Bilbo. Bilbo felt his heart stop. He stood on shaky legs and put himself between Azog and Thorin, darting worried looks back at Thorin and toward the lads, who were struggling to get up, clearly in pain.

“You won’t touch him,” Bilbo said, his voice clear. “I won’t let you.”

“You, little rabbit?” Azog laughed. “I could crush you in one hand!”

“Yes, you could,” Bilbo told him evenly. “But in the time it’ll take you to do that, he’ll have stabbed you in the back.” He pointed back beyond Azog’s shoulder, and the giant swung around, already roaring in fury at an enemy who was not there. Bilbo took his chance and slipped forward, snatching up a long knife from the ground, and drove it deep into his foot before Azog could even turn back to him. His scream was horrible, and Bilbo clapped his hands over his ears, dancing backward to stand in front of Thorin again as he tried to move out of range.

Azog roared, and hurled himself forward - and was knocked backward by Dwalin and Balin, who flung themselves at him bodily. Dwalin landed squarely on his chest, and began smashing Azog’s face with his fists, while Balin carefully picked up Azog’s own club and brought it down on his head, knocking him out. Dwalin glared up at his brother.

“I had him!”

“And now you don’t,” Balin said calmly, offering a serene smile. They both turned back to Bilbo, who was dropping to his knees beside Thorin. His face was ashen, and drawn with pain, but he was trying to sit up. Bilbo hurried to help him, hands splayed awkwardly on his back and shoulder.

“Are you all right?” Bilbo asked frantically, looking him up and down. Thorin gasped a painful sounding breath, but nodded.

“I’ve had worse. Help me up?” Bilbo struggled to his feet, pulling Thorin up, and then stood close enough for Thorin’s hand on his shoulder to serve as a bracing mechanism. Thorin’s broken arm was clutched tightly to his chest, and he was breathing shallowly, as if afraid to inhale properly.

“Where is Smaug?” he growled, staring into the smoke. Bilbo pointed toward the rock where the man had been, nearly spitting in fury, just moments earlier. It was empty now, and they could see a fight taking place by its base. The fight was dying down all over, pockets of resistance Thorin made to start forward, but Bilbo pulled back, shaking his head.

“Fíli and Kíli,” he protested. “I want to see that they’re not hurt.” Thorin blinked, startled, and Bilbo wondered whether he had forgotten entirely in the heat of his rage. He didn’t object, though, and he let Bilbo lead them the few paces away, to where the lads were still collapsed on the ground. Kíli was curled in on himself, and Fíli had managed to fall half-splayed over him. As they drew closer, Bilbo began to frown, because they weren’t moving. They weren’t moving, and they’d been down for quite a while now, and Thorin had gone tense at his side.

“Fíli!” he shouted, hurrying as much as he dared. “Kíli!” Thorin’s desperate silence was louder than his own heartbeat, and Bilbo hardly managed to keep him from throwing himself directly to the ground as they reached the boys.

They didn’t look too badly injured. At least, Bilbo amended in his head, they didn’t look like they should be lying there unresponsive. Fíli’s face and arms were marked with shallow cuts and the red marks that would become bruises later, and Kíli was still a complete mess of blood and swollen bruises, but neither of them were bleeding profusely, or seemed to have broken their necks or split their heads, as Bilbo had half feared. They were just - still. So still.

Thorin reached out his uninjured arm, hand shaking, and felt for their pulses, for their breathing, while Bilbo crouched by his side, hands useless and still, too scared to breathe. “No,” Thorin muttered, low and desperate, “no! Durin’s blood, no!”

“They’re not,” Bilbo whispered. “They aren’t, Thorin, they can’t be.” His blood was racing, icy, through his veins.

“They’re not breathing!” Thorin said, growing frantic. He pulled away from Bilbo, not minding his broken arm, and leaned over to listen closely next to their heads. Bilbo watched in horrified detachment, noticing absently how even their hair was twined together - like no part of them could stand to be separated, even now.

Bofur thundered up next to them, out of breath. “Thorin! We thought you were a lost cause!” He stopped abruptly, taking in the scene, and his eyes widened in horror. “What’s this?”

Bilbo could only shake his head, as Thorin was frozen, half-crouched over their bodies. Bofur sat down abruptly, legs giving way from under him, and he swept his hat off, letting it fall to the ground beside him. The sight stirred a memory in Bilbo - Bofur, slumped against a tree, his beloved hat at his side in the dirt - and he leapt to his feet.

“They aren’t!” he said fiercely. “Thorin, they haven’t died! It’s poison! Spider’s been at them while they were down!”

Thorin spun on him, eyes wild with grief and hope. “Is this how it was, before?”

“Yes!” Bilbo shouted, fingers tangling themselves into his filthy hair. “I didn’t think! Of course it was Spider, sneaking around.” He spun in a wild circle. “We have to find him. We need that anti-venom now!”

“Don’t you still have it?” Thorin demanded.

“No! I left it on the moor after you were all healed! I didn’t think-” he broke off, shaking his head. “There’s no time. We need to find him before this thing does its job.”

“I’m not leaving them,” Thorin said, turning back. “Bring him here as soon as he’s found. Get everyone to help!”

Bofur was on his feet in an instant, running like a madman, rounding up all the members of the company who were well enough to help. Bilbo took off for the rock where Smaug had stood, and rounded it at a run, crashing directly into Bard. The tall man glared down at him disapprovingly.

“You. You’re with Thorin, aren’t you?” He didn’t wait for a response. “You can tell him we’ve done what he asked, and that he can consider the debt of my grandfather’s regard paid.” He gestured abruptly to one side. “I’ve got your man.”

Bilbo gaped at him, and then into the shadow of the rock where he had indicated. Smaug was there, disheveled and bloodied, with two armed men standing guard over him. It would have been a magnificent sight, had he not had more pressing issues on his mind.

“Spider!” he gasped, and Bard looked at him oddly. “I’m looking for Spider! A crawly little assassin sort of fellow - wears all black, lots of pockets! Have you seen him?”

Bard gave a huge sigh of annoyance, and shook his head. “I have done what I was asked to do - and now you wish me to hunt spiders for you?” He turned and walked away, shaking his head and muttering. “The gratitude of Thorin Oakenshield, by all that’s holy.”

Bilbo gave a moan of frustration and ran again, searching everywhere in the clumps of captured foes, looking for the nasty little fellow. It was a long while before he heard a triumphant shout from the top of the mountain, and took off at a dead run, puffing his way to the top to see Spider being dragged along by Dwalin, who looked ready to kill. He flung him to the ground before Thorin, who was sitting next to the lads, looking half in mourning already.

“What did you do to them?” he roared, leaning forward dangerously. Spider sniggered.

“Put them to sleep! Poor children, awake at this hour! Spider will see them off to their dreams.”

“The antidote!” Thorin growled. “Give it to me now, or I will tear out your heart with my hands!” He was horrible in that moment - fire and fury, and Bilbo shook a little at the sight of his face. Spider, though, just smiled, and shook his head.

“Haven’t any!”

“You’d best be lying,” Dwalin thundered, giving him a sharp prod in the ribs with his huge, heavy boot. Spider put out his hands, flexing his fingers to show how empty they were.

“Smaug says Spider isn’t to have it any longer, if he gives it away to the first little stinging fly that comes along.” He leaned forward, giggling quietly to himself. “Smaug has taken it for himself.”

Thorin roared in fury, smashing his hand down on the ground.

“No,” Bofur whispered. “Our poor lads.”

“Smaug’s just over there,” Bilbo interrupted, pointing down the hill. “Bard captured him!” He took off at a run, and heard Dwalin’s thundering footsteps just a beat behind his own. It only took a moment to wrest Smaug from the company of his guards and drag him up the hill, though the smile on his face was so coldly unbothered by his predicament that it turned Bilbo’s stomach.

“Smaug!” Thorin growled, as soon as he was in sight. If Balin hadn’t been there to hold him back, Bilbo thought he would have thrown himself at the man, despite his injuries.

“Ah, Thorin! So good to see you again - although these were not the exact circumstances I expected our next meeting to be under,” Smaug said cordially. He glanced around, to where the whole family was closing in, forming a tight circle around him. “Really? I only managed to take out two of you? That is disappointing!”

“They’re not dead,” Bilbo snapped. “And they’re not going to die. You’re going to give us the antidote.”

“Or what?” Smaug asked. “You’ll steal it from me? My dear burglar, do give me a little credit!” He reached into his pockets and pulled out two handfuls of little glass flasks like the one the earlier antidote had been in, all identical but for the colour of the glass. “Only I know which of these is the correct antidote.”

“Give it to me now, or you will die in such agony that your ancestors will be writhing!” Thorin spat. Smaug just laughed.

“Kill me if you like. I’m not incredibly bothered.” Indeed, he looked more annoyed by the whole mess than anything else. “I can at least die knowing that, one final time, I have taken your treasures from you, Thorin Oakenshield.”

“No!” Bofur couldn’t contain his dismay, nor could half the others. They crowded in further, all of them darting nervous glances from Fíli and Kíli’s still, bloody bodies to the man who held their salvation in his hands. Bombur crept in beside his brother, his friendly face sunken with care and sorrow, and they were all together for the first time since they had originally brought Bilbo to this very place.

“What do you want?” Balin asked, standing tall beside Thorin. He put out his hands, almost beseeching. “What will it take to obtain what they need?”

“Well, that is the question!” Smaug rubbed his hands together. “What could possibly be worth enough for such a precious gift?” His eyes shot to Thorin, cold as spite, and his smile split his face. “Give me the Arkenstone.”

Thorin’s hand flew to the stone around his neck, and he looked at Smaug with an expression of complete shock. “What did you say?”

Smaug shrugged easily. “Look, Thorin, we’re all aware you’ve won this round. There are policemen there with a warrant for my arrest, and three skilled detectives with years of information on my less than legal activities. Your pet MP has made my crimes public, and I have no doubt that my accounts are now frozen. It will take me at least a year or two to handle all of this legally, and even longer to rebuild my empire. And that’s fair enough. It’s the way the game is played.” He crept forward a step, and dropped to one knee, putting his face on a level with Thorin’s. “But I do not lose, Thorin - not to common lowlives like you. I survive, and come back to take what you love, again and again and again, don’t I? And this time, I will take your treasure, one way or the other, and you will know that in the end, I still beat you.”

Bilbo could hardly breathe. If Smaug had asked any other price on Earth, up to and including Thorin’s own life, Bilbo had no doubt that he would have complied at once. Thorin Oakenshield would do anything to keep his nephews safe. But Bilbo remembered the way Thorin had spoken about the Arkenstone, and the way his fingers had clasped it greedily - the way he had cradled it in his hands, like he was holding his own heart before him. He could not say, in that moment, how Thorin would choose. Behind him, he heard Ori give a dry sob, and Bofur sank to his knees, staring sadly at the bodies of the lads that they all had loved as their own.

Thorin didn’t hesitate. He stared Smaug in the eyes, unblinking, and his hand went to the jewel around his neck, tearing it off. The silver chain snapped as he pulled it, and slipped down to fall in the dirt. Thorin Oakenshield took the stone that was his heart, cold and hard and beautiful, and placed it in the hands of his enemy, and did not blink.

Bilbo felt tears well up in his eyes as Smaug took the stone, smirking at it triumphantly, and tossed the blue vial of antivenom to Thorin with his free hand. “I trust you won’t insult either of us by asking how you can trust that it’s the real thing,” he said lazily. He held the Arkenstone up before his eyes, caressing the edge gently. “Now, I’m afraid I must be off, or that lovely officer down there will be growing most annoyed. He stood smoothly, brushing the dirt from his knee as he slipped the Arkenstone inside his coat pocket. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he promised easily, and sauntered down the hill into the waiting arms of the police force.

Thorin didn’t even watch him go. He was fumbling with the lid to the antivenom, but his broken arm was no good, and Bilbo hurried over to take it from him. “Hurry,” Thorin said desperately. “I don’t know how long they have.”

“Darts!” Bilbo cried, and scrambled over to Spider, who was still sitting nearby, watching the proceedings with interest. “I need darts!” It took long seconds to retrieve a packet of darts from one of his pockets, and longer still to prepare the antivenom, and Bilbo wanted to cry as he fumbled with the little darts. The prepared tips sank into their flesh easily, and Bilbo sat back on his heels, breathing heavily. If Smaug had tricked them, or if it had been too long, with their systems already compromised from exhaustion and injury -

Fíli took a shallow breath, and Kíli followed suit a second later.

The cry of relief that went up around the circle was so bright and loud that Bilbo thought every person on Beinn Chùirn that night must have heard it. He was enveloped in one rib-cracking hug after another, the Sons of Durin celebrating in the best way they knew. Half of them were injured, and all of them weary, and Bilbo knew nothing was over. There would be questions - so very many questions to answer, and their faces on every newspaper in the country, and they were sure to be facing charges once Bofur’s information was given to the police. There would be words with Gandalf and Bard and Dain, and agreements to be reached with Thranduil. He half suspected they would all wind up in prison, after all his hard work to break them out - and it was nearly a sure thing that Smaug would one day be free again to work his evil in the world. None of it mattered, though.

From high above, a drop of rain fell on Bilbo’s face, and was joined by another, and then it was a storm. It was warm enough, though, and the smell of the rain began to wash away the blood and sweat and dust and fear, the drops soon becoming a torrent that quenched the fires in the trees. Bilbo sank down on his knees next to Thorin, who was leaning over his nephews, speaking quietly and wiping at the blood on their faces as it was washed away by the rain. They would wake soon, tired and sore and more than half sick from the poison that had almost taken their lives - but they would wake, and feel the rain on their faces.

He wrapped a hand around Thorin’s good arm, squeezing a little in his growing joy. Thorin turned to look at him, still half lost in the terror of believing his children lost, and Bilbo smiled, bright and wide. He looked up to the sky, letting the rain pour down over his tired face, and Bilbo thought he could feel the stars just beyond, and the wide world open to him now, here with these people who had become his family. Bilbo laughed, wild and tired, and kept laughing until he found that he was joined by the rest. Relief, and the end of fear, and the sheer absurdity of the moment - and they were howling, falling about in the dirt that was fast becoming mud. Thorin was staring at Bilbo, bemused, like he had never before encountered such a creature, and Bilbo couldn’t help but giggle at the expression on his face.

“And they say we’re the children,” Fíli said tiredly, not bothering to open his eyes. His hand clenched tight around Kíli’s arm, where it had been since they fell, and Kíli huffed a tired laugh in reply.

They had survived - all of them, somehow, despite all the odds, and Bilbo thought quietly, in a secret contented place in his heart, that whatever came after, it had all been worthwhile for this - for the smell of rain after fear, and the laughter bright on the faces of the people he loved.

Chapter Text

Bilbo sighed as he finished restocking the milk, pushing each container carefully into place so they were lined up evenly. He straightened his back, feeling an ache in one shoulder that he tried to rub away. It lingered on.

He wandered back to the front of the grocery, peering out the window. Summer had come to Linlithgow, with unusually warm days and short nights, and he was feeling more than a little restless. Across the street, Mrs. Gamgee shot him a wary look as she went back into her flat, carrying groceries she had purchased somewhere else. There were a great many of his neighbors who wouldn’t darken his door again, even after a year of peace and quiet. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t been convicted of any crimes, or that the authorities had congratulated him for his heroic efforts in bringing Smaug’s treachery to light. To his quiet little neighborhood, Bilbo was a figure of danger and intrigue, and that was a little more than they’d ever wanted to see from quiet Mr. Baggins. Bilbo wanted to fling open the window and shout a “good morning” at Mrs. Gamgee, just to see what she might do.

He puttered around the front of the shop, stocking biscuits and sweets, and checked his watch. It was a Thursday, so that evening, once everything was taken care of, he would be able to go down to the prison to visit. They had eased up on the restrictions considerably in the past few months, given the good behaviour of all of the Sons of Durin, and his weekly visits were more of a social event than anything else. There wasn’t long left to go in most of their prison sentences, thank the maker, and Thorin assured him that Gandalf was working all of the legalities out so that, as soon as they were released, they would be able to go back to Beinn Chùirn and begin mining operations right away.

He wasn’t sure that Nori and Ori had ever quite forgiven Bofur for insisting that they come clean about all of their crimes - but, then, Nori’s sentence was several months longer than the rest, since there had been so much evidence for his various crimes. Bilbo straightened a stack of newspapers, still absently a bit surprised when the Sons of Durin weren’t mentioned somewhere on the front page. It had been the story of a century, and he half expected it to take another century before the excitement fully died away. Gandalf had done his best to see them exonerated for their crimes - but there had been so many of them. Despite the public hatred of Smaug, Bofur had been right. They had to stand answerable for the things they had done.

The bell over the door jingled, and Bilbo turned to see who it was.

“Hi, Uncle Bill!” Kíli called, dropping his satchel just inside the door and coming over to grab him in a quick hug. It was like feeding stray cats, Bilbo thought with what he recognised was fake grumpiness. Feed them once or twice, make the mistake of petting them, and you’d never be rid of them. “Is Fíli back yet?”

“Of course not!” Bilbo said with a laugh, ruffling Kíli’s hair. It was much shorter these days, and wildly curly. “You know Gandalf said they’d be working late all week on this case.” Kíli huffed, pouting a bit, and Bilbo pushed him gently toward the produce. “Here, lend a hand. I’d like to have things in order before Frodo gets home from school.”

“Oops,” Kíli said, not-quite accidentally dropping an apple on the floor. “Better eat this one myself.” He grinned cheekily at Bilbo and bit into the apple, re-stacking the rest with his free hand.

“You’d think Beorn made you work through meals, the way you act!” Bilbo scolded, but he ducked his head to hide a fond smile. “How are things at the hospital?”

“Great!” Kíli said cheerfully. “Beorn said today that he thinks I’ve got a real shot at getting into uni! He claims he’s personally responsible for my reformation as a decent human being worthy of being educated.” He rolled his eyes at that, and Bilbo followed suit. Granted, he gave Beorn great credit for the work he’d done with Kíli. When he and Fíli, and half of the rest of the Sons of Durin, had wound up patients on his secure ward again, Bilbo had feared that he would take some kind of vengeance on them for their earlier escape. Instead, he had carefully taken Kili under his wing as he healed, and by the time he was ready to be released, Beorn had negotiated a compromise with his legal representatives. Kíli was something of a cross between a community service worker and an apprentice - but Beorn had given him a job and a solid place to put his feet, and kept him from running off whenever the thought struck him. Now, Kíli was applying to the University of Edinburgh, and Bilbo couldn’t be prouder.

Sometimes Bilbo looked at him, and at Fíli, trying to see the boys who’d come to his door on a dark night more than a year before. Gandalf had worked out a similar deal for Fíli’s technological services, and they were both making an honest living, and coming home to a hot meal and warm beds at night. He’d taken them in without a thought - without one second of hesitation, happy beyond words to fill the cold, quiet places in his home with warmth and the noise of overly energetic youngsters. Frodo had joined them almost nine months ago, when his parents had died suddenly, and Bilbo was the only relation who was willing to take him in.

The lads had taken to Frodo like a younger brother, and there were no more neat, tidy corners in his flat anymore. The eight-year-old’s toys and books were scattered everywhere, along with Fíli’s high-tech devices and power cables, and Kíli’s - well, everything. It wasn’t orderly or peaceful or predictable - and Bilbo was so unbelievably grateful!

It wasn’t perfect, of course - nothing ever was. The family was divided so cruelly that sometimes Kíli fell into dark moods, staring out into the night with absent eyes. They would likely never shake the instinct to put their interests, and their family’s interests, before anything else. Bilbo had been forced to very sternly talk Fíli out of plotting cyber-hacks to try to get the others out of prison ahead of schedule, reminding him again and again that they had to abide by all the laws now - even the ones they didn’t like. And there was no escaping the fact that Fíli and Kíli were dangerously codependent, even after a year of peaceful family living. They didn’t sleep unless the other was around, worrying constantly over one another, and Bilbo had become resigned to the fact that when one of them was having some sort of trouble, the other was useless to the rest of the world until it was sorted. He did worry after them, despite how well things seemed to be going - but for now, they had one another, and they were safe and well, and that was all there was to be said.

The bell jingled again, and Frodo came in at a dead run. Kíli gave a shout of laughter and swept him up, tossing him high in the air and just barely missing knocking over the whole apple display. “Frodo! How’s school?”

“Wonderful!” Frodo grinned, huge blue eyes wide. “Ted Sandyman said that I was an orphan, and I said I wasn’t either anymore, and then Sam Gamgee punched him in the nose!”

“I imagine Sam’s grandmother won’t be pleased to hear that,” Bilbo said with a wince, but Frodo shook his head. Dark curls flying, he looked like he might have been Kíli’s little brother in blood as well as in practice.

“No, because Merry and Pippin distracted the teacher so she didn’t see, and then Rosie Cotton told Ted that if he told anyone on Sam that she’d tell his mother he’d been picking on the little kids again, and Ted ran away!” He finished his story half-breathless from excitement, and Kíli put him down gently, offering his hand in a solemn handshake.

“Well done you!” Kíli said seriously, though his eyes were twinkling. “I think we should take Sam for an ice cream one of these days, you know!” Frodo nodded gleefully at that, and scampered around the shop to fling himself at Bilbo as well.

“Uncle Bill!” Bilbo crouched down to hug the little lad. “It’s Thursday, Uncle Bill! Are we going to visit everyone tonight?”

“Of course we are!” Bilbo said, shaking his head in mock dismay that Frodo would even ask that question. “You’ve got your marks to show them, don’t you? And Uncle Thorin said there would be a surprise this week. Wouldn’t want to miss that!”

Kíli beamed, bright as a sunbeam, and gestured wildly to Frodo. “Come on! We need to get you washed up if we’re going!” They left the shop together, heading upstairs, and Bilbo caught Kíli’s mischievous wink as he told Frodo loudly, “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving! How about a bite to eat?” Frodo’s giggle carried back to Bilbo as he climbed the stairs, and Kíli’s deeper laugh was a joyful undercurrent. Bilbo smiled quietly as he finished up his last few tasks, getting ready to close up for the evening. It was a bit of a trip, out to Edinburgh and back in an evening, but if Fíli and Kíli could make the commute every day to go to work, Bilbo didn’t think he should complain about making it once a week to get the family all together.

The bell jingled again, and Bilbo gave a quiet sigh. Someone always did manage to turn up in the last few minutes before he closed up, and they invariably took half an hour to buy one or two items. He turned quickly, pasting on his best welcoming smile.

Thorin was standing there, in dark clothes grown a little large on him after a year in prison, with a smile on his face that Bilbo had never seen before. Bilbo gaped at him uselessly for a long moment, unable to process it.

“You-” he tried after a minute. “You’re supposed to be in prison. For another six months.”

Thorin shrugged easily. He looked younger, somehow, than Bilbo had ever seen him. “We’ve been working on a deal - Gloin and Bombur have been doing all they can for us. The authorities are very pleased with our rehabilitation, and, truth be told, the government is very invested in getting the mines working. We’re a much better investment at work on Beinn Chùirn than we are in prison.”

Bilbo was almost breathless, and looked down to see that his hands were busy crushing a newspaper up in a tiny ball. He let go quickly.

“Everyone? For good?”

Thorin laughed, and it was a healthy, hearty sound. “By Durin, I hope so! They’ll keep Nori a few more days, just for the form of the thing.” He looked around. “Where are my nephews? Not in too much trouble, I hope?”

“Fíli’s working a bit late tonight, and Kíli’s just gone up to the flat with Frodo,” Bilbo said. The words felt like they were coming out at a bit of a distance. He wasn’t sure he had blinked since Thorin came in, and he wasn’t really certain he was going to want to blink in the next little while, either.

He had seen Thorin in prison every week since the trial, visiting with him first in the isolated little room where he’d made his visits the first time the Sons of Durin were incarcerated, and later in a larger, cosier lounge with the rest of the family as well. It had been incredibly good to see him every week - but there was a constraint on their interactions, there in front of cameras and witnesses, with Thorin in stark prison garb. Now he was here, in his own clothes and standing in Bilbo’s shop, and looking hale and whole. It was more than he could take in.

Thorin nodded, perhaps a little distracted himself. He was watching Bilbo happily, with a deep sort of contentment. “Well, we’re going out to the mountain right away,” he told Bilbo. “The others are collecting supplies.”

“What, you mean now?” Bilbo asked. “Don’t you want to sleep in real beds tonight?”

“We’ve been sleeping in beds for a year now,” Thorin said, shaking his head. “We’re free men now. We need to go home.”

A sudden stab of loss hit Bilbo, and he broke eye contact, looking down. He had known that they would want to go back to the mountain when they were free - but he’d hoped, somehow, that it wouldn’t have to mean losing them. “I understand completely,” he said, trying not to let the hurt show in his voice. He was happy for them, honestly he was.

Footsteps thundered down the stairs, and Kíli dashed out onto the pavement, crashing into Fíli as he reached the shop door. They clutched one another’s shoulders for a minute - their normal ritual of reassurance when they’d been forced apart for a day - and then sauntered into the shop, stopping dead when they saw Thorin. Frodo followed in Kíli’s wake, staring up at Thorin in shock.

“Thorin!” Fíli shouted, face lighting up, and Thorin was nearly knocked over as the lads threw themselves at him, laughing and asking questions in rapid-fire succession. He put his arms around them tightly, eyes closing in relief as he held his children again as a free man.

“Is everyone free?” Kíli asked frantically, clutching at Thorin’s sleeve. “Are we going to be together again?”

He was happy to see the boys he loved like sons smile so brightly, looking up at Thorin with such adoration - but it was a bittersweet happiness for Bilbo. He could almost see the places in his flat where they had been, empty once again. He and Frodo wouldn’t make nearly enough noise or mess to fill the place up, and the idea of them rattling around that little flat made his throat feel thick. Frodo crept to his side, looking up at Thorin and Fíli and Kíli in undisguised awe.

“Yes,” Thorin said fondly, letting his forehead knock against Kíli’s quickly. “In fact, we’re going home tonight. It’s a lovely night to sleep under the stars.” It was a gentle offer, but Fíli and Kíli lit up, grinning at one another like fools.

Frodo looked up at Bilbo, tugging a bit on the hem of his jacket. “Are they coming back, Uncle Bill?” he murmured, voice quiet and anxious. If anyone knew about loss, Bilbo thought sadly, it was Frodo. He didn’t deserve to have to deal with this separation. Bilbo put a hand on his back, rubbing a comforting little circle.

“Of course they are, my lad!” he said, too cheerfully. “I expect we’ll never get a moment of peace to ourselves with this lot popping in and out all the time!”

Fíli and Kíli spun around at that, looking startled and half horrified, and Bilbo saw Thorin’s face fall before he quickly composed himself, seeming to draw back into himself a bit.

“What do you mean?” Fíli asked blankly. “You make it sound like we’ll just be visiting you!”

Bilbo’s forehead furrowed in confusion. “You can’t very well live here and at Beinn Chùirn at the same time, lad,” he reminded Fíli gently.

“But,” Kíli objected, looking utterly lost, and more than a little hurt, “but look, we can’t be split up everywhere!” He turned to Thorin, looking to his uncle to make it right. “Tell him, Uncle Thorin!”

Thorin cleared his throat awkwardly, looking at Bilbo with more than a hint of embarrassment. “We were hoping,” he said quietly,

“He means he is hoping, really,” Fíli interrupted.

“Though we all agree,” Kíli added, and Thorin smacked the backs of their heads gently.

“Hoping, that is, that you might consider coming to Beinn Chùirn. With us.” He was looking so carefully optimistic that Bilbo wasn’t sure how to handle the situation.

“You mean tonight? For this camping trip?” He looked down at Frodo, who was looking desperately hopeful. “I suppose we might, although Frodo might miss school tomorrow.”

“Not just tonight!” Thorin pulled away from his nephews gently, coming forward a few quick steps. “Truly come with us! There’s no telling when we might need a grocer, or indeed a burglar, away up there!”

Bilbo blinked at him. “Are you saying I should leave Bag End and move to the middle of nowhere, just in case you have a sudden urge for Hobnobs?” But for all his sarcasm, there was a glowing ember of hope in Bilbo’s heart that felt like it might burst into flame at any second.

“No!” Thorin came forward fast, putting gentle hands on Bilbo’s shoulders. “I’m saying I want you to come with me, and to be there with me, because I do not want to be apart from you any longer.”

“You mean it,” Bilbo said, more than a little stunned. “I didn’t think-”

He stopped, bewildered by his own sentiments, and Thorin gave a crooked little smile. That hopeful spark roared to life, and Bilbo had to take a quick, deep breath.

“I had a great deal of time to think, this past year,” Thorin admitted.

“If you say no, he’s going to mope for the rest of our natural lives!” Fíli hissed, peering around Thorin’s back to make eye contact with Bilbo.

“You didn’t think you were going to get out of this family so easily, did you?” Kíli asked. He leaned in from the other side, chin leaning on Thorin’s shoulder. “Come on, Uncle Bill! One more adventure?”

Bilbo looked at Thorin, and the understanding that passed between them in a glance was enough to make him smile softly, feeling like he might never stop. He looked down at Frodo, who was still clinging to his side, and patted his shoulder.

“Let this be a warning to you, Frodo,” he said wryly. “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door.” He thought back to the way they’d dragged him away, kicking and fighting, and the road that had stretched before him then. “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

And it had swept him away, all unknowing, until hardly anything was left of the life he had cherished. Bilbo felt like he scarcely knew the man he had been before - and he was wildly, fiercely glad. The warm summer breeze tugged at the door of his little shop, and Thorin Oakenshield was standing before him, hope in his eyes and a smile on his face that echoed Bilbo’s own. He heard a roar of laughter and song making it’s way up his street, likely scaring his neighbors indoors, and he knew they were all coming back to him, prepared to sweep him away again on an adventure that he couldn’t begin to imagine.

“And after all,” Bilbo said, brave and daring, “why not?” - and he grabbed Thorin by the shirt, kissing him soundly. His feet hit the road, and he didn’t much mind where he might go. One more adventure, indeed.