In general, Bilbo approved of mornings. They were quiet, leisurely affairs, generally filled with teas and breads and a nice puff on the pipe. Even on the road Bilbo had found that the earlier portions of the day tended to be more agreeable ones, when their feet had yet to get sore with travel and the warm sunlight mixed with the lingering coolness of the night.
This particular morning, however, was proving to be a bit less enjoyable, as it began with him being prodded awake by two very persistent dwarves.
“Up we get, Master Baggins,” Kíli said, stealing Bilbo’s pack out from under his head as Fíli ripped away the coat Bilbo had wrapped around himself as a blanket. Bilbo groaned and flailed around blindly for his bedding, but his hands found only open air and hard, cold dirt. It had been a few days since Gandalf had left them to attend to whatever business a wizard might have, and the brief respite in Beorn’s lodge had only increased Bilbo’s longing for a proper bed. At this moment all he wanted to do was sleep, but it appeared he was not going to have a choice in the matter.
Reaching up to rub the sleep out of his eyes, he squinted up into the beaming faces of the two confounded dwarves. It was still so early in the morning that he could hardly make out their gleeful expressions.
“Oh, bless him, look at his face,” Fíli laughed, clasping Fíli on the shoulder. “Come along now, Bilbo. We best get an early start.”
“What the devil’s going on?” Bilbo groaned. “It’s barely even close to sunrise yet!”
Kíli and Fíli exchanged a look. “Looks like someone is not fond of rising early,” Kíli said. “Sorry, Master Baggins, but you’ll have to learn to adjust. I imagine it might take quite a while.”
“What might take a while?” Bilbo said as the two brothers pulled him to his feet. He fumbled as Fíli tossed him his sword and scabbard and beckoned for him to follow.
“Your training,” Kíli replied, pushing Bilbo in front of him as they made for the edge of camp.
"Training?" he stuttered, stumbling between the two dwarves as they shooed him towards the edge of the trees. "What training?"
"Combat training!" Kíli said brightly, catching his arm just before he tumbled over a raised tree root.
"We were watching your performance back with the orcs," Fíli explained, pushing aside the branches as they made their way into the looming trees. "Mind you, it was all very brave.”
"Oh yes, we were all very impressed," Kíli chimed in.
"But the fact remains that if it weren't for the stoutest of luck on your part, we'd have retrieved our burglar from that battle in separate pieces," Fíli finished.
“Thank you for that image,” Bilbo said, the thought of dismemberment joining his rude awakening to make him a little green in the face. The forest was much darker and imposing in the weak light of pre-dawn, especially compared to the hills and vales from before they had passed beneath the mountain. The trees here grew thicker and wilder, their branches twisting into each other and roped with layers of moss and ivy which dragged scarcely visible tendrils over Bilbo’s forehead now. They had yet to pass into the heart of Mirkwood, according to Thorin, but Bilbo could have been fooled.
Ah, Thorin. If Bilbo had thought that things would be different between then after that sudden embrace on the mountaintop, well, he would have been right—just not in the way that he might have expected. Instead of treating Bilbo more as a friend, or even returning to his familiar disdain, Thorin seemed to be attempting to do both at once. One moment he would grab Bilbo’s arm to keep him from tripping, and the next he would say something snappish and spend the rest of the day at a distance. Luckily the other dwarves didn’t suffer from similar bouts of tempers, and they had largely come to accept Bilbo as one of their own through-and-through. A fact which, after being shoved into the dark undergrowth with Kíli’s firm hand as his back, was becoming less appealing by the second.
“Where are we going?” he asked, flinching away from the damp brush of leaves across his cheek. Were it not for Fíli’s grip on his sleeve and Kíli pushing him forward, he would have easily gotten lost in the tangle. After another brief moment of stumbling around in the dark, they pushed their way through a wall of greenery and into an opening in the forest.
“Here we are!” Kíli said brightly, striding into the center and dropping his weapons to the ground with a clatter. Fíli laid his own collection of knives down next to them with a bit more care before turning towards a very anxious Bilbo, and holding out the hobbit’s sword to him.
“I’m not entirely sure this is a good idea,” Bilbo said, shuffling his feet uncomfortably.
“Well of course it is!” Fíli exclaimed, stepping forward to push the scabbard into his hand. “If our burglar is going to be in a great many more battles, he’d best be prepared to survive them!”
“I’d really prefer to avoid such things entirely,” Bilbo protested, but he accepted his sword all the same. The hilt was still a heavy and unwieldy weight in his hand, although lately a more familiar one. He had watched the dwarves guiding their weaponry through flesh and bone as effortlessly as Bilbo would have sliced through bread at teatime, and could never imagine possessing such strength and skill himself.
"First things first," Kíli said, selecting his short sword from the weapons pile and turning to face Bilbo. "Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and make sure you keep some bend in your knees."
Bilbo did as he was told, flexing his joints experimentally and feeling more than a little foolish. Fíli stood to the side and appraised him with a thoughtful frown.
"Feet a bit wider," Kíli said, kicking at Bilbo's ankles until his footing was properly placed. "Good. Now, show me how you would hold your sword."
Swallowing nervously, Bilbo shifted his weapon to his dominant hand and held it out in front of him in what seemed to be the most logical way. The immediate bout of laughter from the two dwarves made him start to think otherwise.
"Well, that position would be very useful if you were roasting sausages," Fíli said with a grin, stepping forward to prod Bilbo's arm into position. "Keep your elbow loose, point up, that's it," he said, stepping back once he was satisfied. Bilbo already felt his arm beginning to get sore, but he bit back a complaint. Kíli pulled his own sword from its sheath and stood facing Bilbo from a few paces away.
"Alright lad," he said, "I'm going to attack you, nice and slowly. Try to hold your ground."
"Shouldn't you give me some kind of instruction first?" Bilbo cried, but Kíli was already advancing. “Or at least buffer the edge of your sword?”
“No need,” Kíli said. “I’ll be very careful.” Bilbo was not at all comforted. Kíli wasn't a great deal taller than him, not compared to the likes of Men at least, but he may as well have been a giant for how inadequate Bilbo felt. Tightening his grip on the hilt of his sword, he dug his heels into the ground. Larger and better practiced the dwarf might have been, but Bilbo refused to play the coward. Steeling himself, he raised his sword to parry as Kíli swung his to meet him.
A moment later and Bilbo's sword spun off into the undergrowth with a sad, metallic ping. Fíli shook his head gravely as Kíli dissolved into laughter.
"I think we may have a long ways to go, Master Hobbit," Fíli said.
As the ridged backs of the mountains fell further and further behind them, Bilbo thought, admittedly without any sincerity to it, that perhaps he would have been better off if he had left Thorin to the wargs. Perhaps then the dratted dwarves wouldn’t insist on improving his swordsmanship. Years stooped over his garden had made him accustomed to muscle cramps, but after only a few days of combat training he thought he might never recover the full use of his arms. The fact that very few of the dwarves were particularly skilled at combat themselves beyond the most basic or intrinsic skills did little to help either. On top of that, Fíli and Kíli were awful teachers.
“There’s really no need for this, you know,” Bilbo said, picking himself off the dirt for the third time that morning as Kíli fell back into position. “I’m sure it must be very tiring for you, getting up early and doing all this work; I promise you, there will be no hard feelings should you want to stop.”
“Nonsense!” Kíli said. “What friends would we be, if we let you walk into the dragon’s lair without learning how to swing a sword?”
“Very poor friends indeed,” Bilbo muttered, wincing as he raised his sword to prepare for another blow.
One morning Kíli and Fíli were interrupted from a heated argument over the benefit of throwing weapons over archery by a loud shout. Thorin strode into the clearing, his expression dark.
"What are you doing?" he asked, his eyes flitting from dwarf to dwarf to hobbit accusingly.
Kíli elbowed Fíli in the ribs, who stomped on Kíli's toes in turn. Bilbo was suddenly very interested in a small hole in the hem of his waist coat, until Fíli and Kíli simultaneously shoved him in the middle of the back and sent him stumbling directly into Thorin’s line of sight.
“Right, yes,” he said, drawing himself up and making a note to give the brothers a sturdy kick in the shins each when this was done. “Good morning Thorin,” he said. “Kíli and Fíli were just giving me some more instruction on proper swordsmanship.”
"Is that so." Thorin regarded the dwarves coolly. "And what use would a burglar have for sword fighting?"
Fíli and Kíli shuffled their feet, neither of them eager to speak. "Well, should we find ourselves in another battle we thought he might be better off with a little practice," Fíli explained. “Seeing as last time he nearly got his head taken off.”
"Should we find ourselves in another battle, Master Baggins will be best off staying out of the way. His previous assistance was greatly appreciated," Thorin said stiffly, not once looking Bilbo's way, "But in the future our burglar would be best limiting himself to burglary."
"But we can't know for sure that fighting won't become a necessity!" Kíli spoke up. "What if Bilbo should find himself face-to-face with another orc, with no eagles to come to his aid?"
"Then you or I will protect him," Thorin said, his voice raising.
"We can't always be there!" Kíli cried, shaking off the hand that Fíli laid on his arm. "Just as on the mountain, there will be times when Bilbo has to stand alone. The least we can do is try to prepare him for it!"
"The hobbit does not fight!" Thorin shouted, his hand flying instinctively to the pommel of his sword.
"The hobbit can speak for himself, thank you," Bilbo said as loudly as he could muster. The three dwarves turned to look at him in surprise. It appeared that they had forgotten he was there. The moment would have been much more dramatic if Bilbo's voice hadn’t come out an octave too high, but all the same he gathered himself up to his full and albeit less-than-impressive height.
"I want to learn to fight," he said firmly. "I hope that I’ll never have to, but no one can make that guarantee. We're far into the Wild, and I can't go on pretending that the hobbit who stumbled out of the Shire so long ago would have a chance at surviving out here." He took a deep breath. "So, with that in mind, Thorin, I would respectfully like to request that I continue with my lessons."
Thorin's eyes bore into his like iron drills. He looked like he wanted to clap Bilbo upside the head for arguing, but he settled for grinding his teeth. When he finally looked away it was to pin Fíli and Kíli with that same baleful stare.
"You'll continue to do as much work as you have been, with the addition of Bilbo's training," he said curtly. "I won't hear a word of complaint out of either if you about being tired or sore." Kíli and Fíli nodded and grinned, whispering excitedly under their breaths and they clasped each other on the shoulders in success.
"And for pity's sake, be careful," he sighed. "Bilbo will have little use of training if one of you fools accidentally cuts his hand off." Bilbo swallowed nervously, glancing over at the two brothers. Their history of clumsiness was suddenly much less endearing.
"We'll be careful, Uncle!" Kíli said excitedly, thumping Bilbo on the back so hard that he nearly spilled onto his knees. Bilbo forced a wide and slightly manic grin to match. Thorin shook his head in exasperation and trudged back towards camp, muttering under his breath. It appeared that Gandalf had found a successor for being perpetually frustrated with his surroundings.
As the days went by, his practice sessions became a bit of a spectacle. Between preparing for the day’s travels, other members of the Company would find Bilbo trying to wrench Fíli’s throwing axe out of a tree, or dancing around the glen while Kíli maniacally stabbed at his toes. Bilbo would have commented on the fact that the dwarves seemed to be taking just a little too much glee from his discomfort, but somehow he knew that speaking up would only make them laugh harder. Many times he was on the brink of telling them that he had an enchanted ring which would prove much more useful than a sword, but he was reluctant to give away the one secret advantage he still had. And so, he continued training.
Even Thorin would occasionally stop by, but only for long enough to gauge Bilbo’s progress (or lack thereof) before shaking his head and striding back to camp. Those visits made Bilbo feel especially nervous, and more than a little self conscious. He hadn’t exactly been thinking about his technique during his mad rush into battle with Azog; his primary concern had been protecting Thorin’s life, and not losing his own. Yet if anything, Bilbo was doing even worse since that night. A fact which the dwarves did not hesitate to comment on.
“I don’t understand it,” Kíli grumbled as he watched Fíli and Bilbo exchange a bout of blows. “You were doing rather well back with the orcs, all things considered. But at this rate I doubt you could best a squirrel.”
“I very well could,” Bilbo said indignantly, nearly missing Fíli’s sword as it swung towards his ear, “Though if I saw a squirrel wielding a shortsword my first thought wouldn’t be to engage it in combat.”
“Lucky for you,” Fíli said sagely. “I’ve heard that squirrels are fearsome opponents. Very sharp teeth.” He made a clicking motion with his own, to which Bilbo responded by ducking under his guard and tackling him at the knees. Fíli hit the dirt with a startled yelp as Bilbo rolled away, laughing along with Kíli.
“That’s cheating!” Fíli cried.
“That’s fighting,” Bilbo said with a grin, raising his sword. “It’s no fault of mine you’re bad at it.” He notice that Fíli’s blows came down extra hard for the rest of that session.
One morning he was woken up not to Kíli’s and Fíli’s grins, but to Dwalin’s craggy features.
“On your feet, burglar,” he grunted, hefting his war hammer. Bilbo struggled bleary-eyed to his feet and glanced around in confusion.
“Where are Fíli and Kíli?” he asked.
Dwalin snorted. “Sleeping, I should expect.”
"Ah, yes. And, um, why are you here, then?"
"If you ever want to learn a thing about fighting you won't get it from those two numbskulls," said Dwalin, grabbing Bilbo by his collar and hauling him to his feet. "By the time we're done here you'll be able to take on three orcs and their wargs, all at once."
"I really don't think that would be at all necessary," Bilbo said, but arguing was clearly going to get him nowhere. Dwalin shifted his grip on his hammer and fixed Bilbo with a surly glare.
Bilbo eyed the mallet apprehensively. The end was twice bigger than Bilbo’s skull and looked heavy enough to crush it easily. All in all, the whole contraption was about as tall as he was. The hobbit did not cherish the idea of such a thing swinging towards his face at speed, but neither did he enjoy the thought of Dwalin’s reaction to his refusal. He had a feeling the two might be one and the same.
“Right you are,” Bilbo said resignedly, but he climbed up off the ground and grabbed his sword before Dwalin marched him off to an open spot of ground.
If Bilbo's sword had ever given him courage, now was not one of those times. Balin's description of a "letter opener" was beginning to feel truer by the second as Dwalin hoisted his battle hammer over his shoulder and turned to face him with a skeptical eye.
"Alright, lad," he said, tightening his grip on the hammer. "Let's see what you've got."
"What?" Bilbo cried, instinctively taking a step back. "You can’t be serious—I can’t fight you!"
Dwalin dropped his hammer to the ground with a heavy thud and leaned his weight on the pommel. "And why would that be?"
"Well, just take a look at me!" Bilbo said, gesturing down at himself. "There's no way I could ever stand a chance against that monstrosity of a hammer. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m much smaller and weaker than any of you."
"Master burglar, if there's one thing you should get through that thick hobbit skull of yours, it's that every single enemy that you will ever face is likely to be bigger and stronger than you." Dwalin raised a bristling eyebrow. "Many would say that the same goes for dwarves. After all, we're a good deal shorter than the race of orcs, men or elves. But do you think that likely to stop us?"
Bilbo bit back a comment and looked away. "That is slightly different," he said, gesturing towards the massive length of steel under Dwalin's fist. "I could never hope to wield a weapon like that, let alone block a blow from it."
"I know," Dwalin replied, lifting the warhammer as easily as if it were made of plaster. "But you won't have to."
By the time dawn broke in earnest over the tops of the trees, Bilbo was astonished to realize that he had in fact escaped Dwalin's training session with all of his bones intact. He had begun by teaching Bilbo to try and deflect the attacks he sent his way, which the hobbit continued to fumble again and again until Dwalin looked like he wanted to bring the mallet down on his head and be done with the whole thing.
It was only when Bilbo began to do things his way that the tide began to turn. Instead of blocking with his sword, Bilbo would duck, weave or dart out of the way whenever Dwalin swung his hammer, slipping past his slower guard to tap his sword against the dwarf’s armor. Hobbits were naturally on the nimble side, while armored dwarves had much more difficulty in keeping up with his movements. At first Dwalin complimented his improvements, but grew more and more irritated as the lesson went on, eventually trudging out of the clearing muttering about slippery little eels and ignoble sportsmanship. Still there was no doubt that Bilbo had come out of this lesson better off than ever before. He did have the beginnings of a fairly impressive bruise going across his stomach where he had been too slow and Dwalin too careless, but for once he felt rather satisfied with how the morning had gone.
Of course, thinking that the worst was over with was Bilbo's first mistake.
The next morning Dwalin had him standing with his back against the steep side of a rocky cliff, his sword still lying by his bedroll. Bilbo was surprised to see Fíli and Kíli there as well, mischievous smiles spread wide on their faces. None of them seemed to have any weapons and they all stood a good distance away. Bilbo was immediately concerned.
"So what are we doing this morning, then?" he asked, forcibly cheerful. "Climbing practice, is it?"
"Not quite,” Dwalin said. “Since you showed such promise yesterday at ducking and dodging, we’ve come up with another exercise to help you improve even more.” He picked up a rock.
Bilbo had about five seconds of horrified contemplation before he threw himself to the ground and the stone pinged off the cliff wall behind him. He threw his hands over his head and waited for another blow to come, but dwarvish laughter was all that greeted him. He raised his head to see Fíli and Kíli tossing smaller stones in the air and Dwalin picking more off the ground.
"Are you crazy?" Bilbo yelled. "You could have cracked my head open!"
"That's entirely up to you, Bilbo," Fíli said, pelting another in his direction which struck him in the shoulder. He hissed in pain and rolled back onto his feet, rubbing the area where it had walloped him.
"We won't throw anything too big or too fast," Dwalin promised, inspecting a rock the size of a pigeon egg in his fist. "But I doubt getting hit will be enjoyable all the same." The stone whizzed past Bilbo's ear as he threw himself to the side, dodging back as one of Kíli's nicked across the front of his waistcoat.
"This is a terrible idea!" Bilbo yelled in frustration, weaving and dodging in a way that made the dwarves more likely to double over with laughter than keep throwing rocks. Still, he managed to avoid most of their projectiles until a sharp stone hit the edge of his toes, making him hop on one foot with a yelp.
"Isn't there another blasted thing you could throw?" Bilbo cried, ducking under a rock that sailed just over his head. The dwarves exchanged a look. Seconds later a clot of mud from Fíli's hand hit Bilbo straight in the face.
He stopped giving the dwarves suggestions from then on.
Luckily that morning they had made camp within walking distance of a river. Bilbo, completely splattered in mud, quickly squelched his way to its banks before the rest of the dwarves could catch a glimpse of him and immortalize this moment in memory. He expected Fíli and Kíli to have prepared a selection of new nicknames that everyone would undoubtedly find quite amusing.
He knelt on a grassy bank near a stiller section of the stream and plunged his hands into the water, wincing against the cold. The pool soon turned cloudy with the mud sloughing off his skin as he sloshed the water up his arms and face and scrubbed at the dirt. He shifted to dip his feet into the water, thankful at least that the chilly water numbed the sore spots where Dwalin had been a bit too enthusiastic with his throws. Peeling off his coat and vest, he dunked them both in the water and swished them around until the water ran opaque.
"Confound these dwarves," Bilbo muttered under his breath.
A small cough from behind him interrupted him. He scrambled around to see none other than Thorin lingering by the edge of the trees, his arms clasped over his chest. As Bilbo turned to face him Thorin’s eyes widened marginally.
"What in Durin's name happened to you?" he asked, taking a step forward. Remembering the mud, Bilbo was immediately struck with that familiar sense of self consciousness that seemed a constant by-product of Thorin’s presence.
"Training with Dwalin," he said with a smile that tried to be reassuring but came away mostly as strained. "I didn't do very well."
Thorin frowned. "And how was it that Dwalin thought coating you in mud would improve your ability to swing a sword?"
"I assume he thought it would make it more amusing," Bilbo muttered. "Not that he hasn't been very helpful," Bilbo said quickly, seeing Thorin's eyes narrow. "Really. I'm getting much better, couldn't have done it without all of them."
"Is that so." Thorin looked at Bilbo appraisingly before reaching down to grab his chin and tilt his face towards the light. Bilbo started in surprise, but didn't pull away. The skin on Thorin’s hands was stiff with calluses and his face was creased with a frown, but beneath it his eyes were kind. The last time Bilbo had seen that look they had been even closer than now, Thorin’s arms unwinding from Bilbo’s shoulders and the uncomfortable press of his armor still imprinted in Bilbo’s chest. Those same eyes flicked over his face now, weighing what they saw.
"You've got a welt starting up," Thorin said, releasing him to brush the tender skin on his cheek where Fíli had pelted him with an especially hard-packed mud ball.
Bilbo smiled weakly. "They were very thorough."
Thorin straightened up to regard him. "When I first began training to fight in earnest, I would return to my bed with more bruises than clear skin," he said. "An injury is not a sign of failure, but of progress. Wear yours proudly."
Bilbo wasn’t sure what to say. He nodded shortly with a smile which Thorin hardly returned; in fact, the dwarf’s face had already pinched back into its customary sourness, the softness that had been there mere seconds ago seeming now a distant memory.
"Be sure you continue to demonstrate care in your lessons," Thorin said gruffly. He crossed his arms over his chest again before letting them fall to the sides like he wasn't sure what to do with them. "We break camp in an hour. Make yourself ready by then." And with that, he turned and strode back towards the rest of camp and left Bilbo standing by the river and feeling more baffled than ever.
It would be easy to laugh Thorin’s erratic behavior off and simply attribute it to the dwarf’s seeming discomfort with any emotional display that didn’t involve brooding or shouting; but Bilbo had seen him with the others, and though he was not the most expressive of the Company he had done his fair share of laughing and chatting as the mood struck him. Yet with Bilbo he remained inexplicably aloof.
Bilbo shook his head and set to washing the rest of the mud off. "Dwarves," he muttered again to himself. He’d had quite enough of them, thank you very much.
The next day Kíli returned from Bilbo’s much less rigorous training with a decent-sized hole in the arm of his shirt, earned when he referred to the hobbit as a “chubby little munchkin” and then didn’t think to keep his guard up. Despite all that, he still insisted on giving Bilbo training advice.
“Have you tried standing with a big rock on your head?” Kíli suggested.
Bilbo looked up from the arm of Kíli’s jacket, the hole in which he had been sewing up with a strip of leather. “How would that possibly help me?” he asked. “And pay attention, I’m only going to do this once”
“It’s good for balance and strength,” Kíli said brightly. He frowned slightly. “At least I think that’s what it was. I did it a lot when I was younger.”
“Well that certainly might explain a lot,” Bilbo said, a cheeky smile fighting its way onto his face. A second later Kíli shoved him with a laugh, to which Bilbo responded by jabbing him in the ribs with the dull end of the needle and dancing away when Kíli lunged for him.
“Alright, alright you two,” Dwalin rumbled, pulling the two apart by their collars like squabbling children; which, to be fair, was not untrue.
“Just a bit of fun, Dwalin,” Kíli said, darting around him to violently muss up Bilbo’s hair with a wild laugh.
“Oi, not the hair!” Bilbo yelped, squirming away to flatted it down on his head. Fíli suddenly appeared by Kíli’s side and put his brother in a headlock.
“I’ll avenge your beautiful locks, Bilbo!” he bellowed, rubbing Kíli’s scalp with his knuckles as his brother cursed and flailed. Bilbo was lifted off the ground as Bofur hauled him up and ran them both into Kíli and Fíli, tackling them all to the ground in a kicking, laughing mass.
“Get off me, you bumbling idiots!” he cried. “You’ll crush me to jelly!”
Bilbo managed to worm out of the pile while Bofur was distracted trying to yank off one of Fíli’s boots, and ducked just as Kíli whirled around carelessly and just about clocked Bilbo in the face. He was sure that the dwarves wouldn’t hurt him intentionally, but in their roughhousing they did tend to forget that Bilbo was without the benefit of their armor and slightly larger size.
Putting some distance between himself and their squabbles, Bilbo looked up and was surprised to see Thorin watching him with a gentle frown. As soon as Bilbo met his gaze, though, he quickly looked away. Bilbo’s good mood diminished slightly at that; he found his mind falling back into the well-worn track of wondering why Thorin had pushed him to such a distance. He would have liked to hear Thorin laugh and joke with him as the others did, but instead Bilbo rolled over and tried to push him from his mind. Such thoughts were foolish.
That night, when the dim fragments of sun evaporated from the air, the Company was stranded in near total darkness. They had no fire, for it attracted all sorts of unsavory insects and did more harm than help. So Bilbo lay awake staring sightlessly at the blackness and willed himself to fall asleep.
"Come on now, Bilbo," a soft voice said by his ear, nearly making him leap out of his skin. His neck whipped back and forth to try and find the source, but all he could see were masses of shadow.
"Over here," the voice said, and a firm grip appeared on his arm. "It's Bofur. Let’s get some training done."
"Training?" Bilbo hissed in disbelief. "It’s nighttime! Not to mention I'll be lucky if I can find my sword at all in this pitch-blackness, let alone fight with it."
"Oh, stop your complaining," Bofur said good-naturedly. "Leave your sword, you won't need it." After a short moment of hesitation Bilbo stood up and followed Bofur's careful footsteps to the edge of camp, nearly tripping over or stepping on the sleeping forms of his companions in the process. There Bofur's footsteps stopped, and Bilbo was left alone in the darkness.
"We'll be training here tonight," the dwarf's voice called out softly, from what Bilbo could swear was a different location than he had last heard it. "Don't want to wander too far off from the group and get lost out in the dark."
"What exactly are we going to be doing?" Bilbo asked, keeping his voice low. "I can't see a dratted thing."
"That would be the point," Bofur said lightly. "I'm going to come at you with my fists. All you have to do is stop me, and—if you can—hit me back."
"Oh yes, 'all I have to do'," Bilbo said bitterly. "It may have escaped your notice, Master Dwarf, but I am in fact a hobbit. And hobbits don't possess whatever night-seeing abilities you seem to be endowed with."
Suddenly a blow snaked out of the darkness and bopped Bilbo straight on the nose, not hard enough to hurt in earnest but enough to smart. "My eyes are no better than yours, burglar," he said, his voice a disembodied presence moving around the shadows. "It's not the eyes that matter." A sweeping blow took Bilbo off his feet, and he landed on his back in the dirt with a quiet oof.
His first instinct was to scramble to his feet, but suddenly he had a different thought. He stayed low, his eyes darting wildly and his ears bent towards every sound. At first there was nothing but that close, dense silence, but he slowly became aware of a quiet shuffling to his right that edged steadily closer. When it was nearly within arm's reach Bilbo rolled to the side, and a soft thump hit the ground where his body had been a moment before.
"That's right," Bofur said, and a second later his bare foot came down between Bilbo's shoulder blades. "You're getting the hang of it, I think."
"You're too kind," Bilbo grunted, climbing to his feet as soon as Bofur released him.
By the time Bofur was called to take his watch, Bilbo had gotten much better. He had learned to anticipate a blow with the quick sigh of air from a breath, follow movement on the floor, duck down low to make a smaller target. Hobbits were already naturally good at moving quietly, so for once he took to the lesson quickly.
"Where did you learn all this from?" Bilbo asked as he quietly followed Bofur through the maze of bodies to the stump where he would be sitting up that night. A fat moon had emerged through the clouds up above to grant them a faint light, and Bilbo was not yet tired.
Bofur shrugged his shoulders and took out a pipe, before remembering they could have no flame. His form was still little more than a silhouette against the gloom as Bilbo sat down on the ground beside him, the brim of his hat turning up like strange horns. "When I was younger, I was exploring a section of tunnels that had been abandoned long ago. As it turns out they abandoned it for a reason, and I got myself trapped inside during a collapse. No one knew where I had gone, and there'd be no reason for them to look for me there. My only option was to keep going, and hope that one of the side passages led me back home.
"It was so dark that you began to see things that weren't there, because your eyes couldn't comprehend that level of nothingness. I walked for miles, feeling along the tunnel walls, turning down side passages that quickly turned to dead ends. I can't be sure whether it was a trick of my mind, but there were things down there with me, strange scuttlings and murmurs that seemed to come from every direction. I would have wandered around in that hellish pit forever if I hadn't smartened up." He tapped the side of his nose. "I followed the fresher air, and listened to the way the echoes formed. A day later I stumbled out half-starved and a quarter mad, but a tad wiser all the same."
Bilbo smiled faintly, feeling like he had just climbed out of a dark and endless tunnel himself. Bofur always was good at weaving a tale. "I’ll remember that well,” Bilbo said.
Bofur nodded, his wink a brief flash against the dark. "I knew you were a smart one."
Bilbo was quiet for a moment. This seemed like a good opportunity to address an issue that had been weighing on his mind lately, but for some reason his tongue felt heavy in his mouth. Clearing his throat pointedly, he forced himself to speak.
“Bofur,” he began, lowering his voice to scarcely over a whisper. “Have you noticed Thorin acting… rather odd around me?”
Bofur coughed uncomfortably. “Odd?” he asked, his voice equally hushed. “Odd how?”
“Well,” Bilbo said, “odd as in an awkward and belligerent ass.”
Bofur burst out laughing at that but quickly silenced himself. “Yes,” he said. “I have noticed.”
“What in the world is his problem?” Bilbo wondered aloud, frustration brimming in his voice. “I thought that we had come to some sort of reconciliation, what with the—and well, now he seems to take pleasure in nothing more than criticizing and insulting me. And then the next moment he’s acting as if nothing happened.”
“He means no harm by it,” Bofur said.
“And what is his issue with me learning to fight?” Bilbo muttered, hardly listening. “Doesn’t he care if I end up on the wrong end of a sword?”
“Oh, I’m sure he does,” Bofur said. “In fact, that may be the problem.”
Bilbo cocked his head. “How do you mean?”
Bofur sighed. “I don’t want to speak on his behalf, but I will say this. Thorin knows all too well the risks that are at hand on this quest, and I doubt he cherishes the idea of you getting into harm’s way again.”
Bilbo thought about it. “Well that’s just foolish,” he decided, irritation pinching his brow. “I’ll be put in danger whether Thorin wants it or not, and that’s certainly no excuse to treat me so rudely. In fact, I ought to tell him such." Bilbo huffed, crossing his arms over his chest and kicking his heel into the dirt.
"Well, that would be entirely up to your discretion," Bofur said diplomatically. He sounded as if there was something else he wanted to say, but subsided into silence all the same.
Bilbo nodded stiffly. "Right then. I've been biting my tongue for too long. Let me tell you, next time he so much as looks at me funny I'm going to give him a piece of my mind. Let's see how he reacts to that."
There was a thoughtful pause. "Well, knowing Thorin, he might decide to take your head off," Bofur said. "But certainly you should do what feels right."
Bilbo swallowed on a suddenly dry throat. "Yes, well. Don't think I'll back down. I've faced down Azog and that brutish beast of his, and they were both a good deal more frightening than Thorin ever could be."
There was a pause.
"He wouldn't take my head off."
"No, probably not."
"Right. Yes. I'm not scared."
In the days that followed, the forest seemed to get even thicker and darker than before. Branches which had mingled before now knitted into a solid tangle, sinking much of their journey into twilight even in the middle of the day. There were patches where the sun fought its way through the snarl and stabbed at the ground like a pillar, but those became fewer and further between. No longer would they risk leaving the path for training; Bilbo’s lessons took place closer to camp with each passing day, their weapons muffled with cloths so as not to break the hush.
No eyes watched from the bushes or sinister growls from off the path; for all its darkness it seemed to be otherwise a fairly ordinary forest, but Bilbo sensed that something was not quite right. There was a feeling not of being hunted, but of being watched; the bird calls which had seemed jovial before now seemed to be secretive. Bilbo was gladder every day for the weight of his sword on his hip, as well as his increasing knowledge of how to use it.
Gone now was the rough bark and thickets of the outer country; the trees here were smooth as skin and an unhealthy grey pallor, so thick that half their company could have joined hands with hardly enough to reach around the base. The path quickly became as overgrown and ill-formed as Beorn had promised, often only distinguishable by a slight gap in the trees. Either side was often bordered by thick and foul-smelling growth which crowded against the path and brushed slimy trails on their hair and faces.
“It’s so dark and close,” Ori complained from in front of him. They were walking single file now, as the path would allow nothing more.
“You’re a dwarf,” Bilbo grumbled, more than a little irritably. “Isn’t this just how you live?”
“Yes, you’re absolutely right,” Ori snapped. “Dwarves live in nasty, smelly holes covered in slime and filth and bloody big fungus!” On the last word he swatted a massive leaf away from the path, which rebounded to smack Bilbo in the face. “Quick, someone call Thorin and let him know that there’s no need to return to Erebor! We can just move right into this cesspit that Master Baggins was so fortunate to point out!” From then on Bilbo kept his ideas about dwarf culture to himself.
Bilbo’s other abilities came quite in handy as they travelled deeper into the forest. His small size and quiet feet made him an excellent scout, and his dexterous fingers were well suited to repairing holes in the gear and tying knots in traps. On top of that, Bilbo’s continuing lessons had become a bountiful source of entertainment for the rest of the dwarves.
"What exactly is this teaching me?" Bilbo said as he struggled to stay balanced on a branch that Dwalin and Bifur were holding relatively level at shoulder height. The collection of dwarves snatching and stabbing at his feet were doing little to help that.
"Dexterity!" Kíli supplied helpfully with a jab from a pointy branch. "Resilience! Luminosity!"
"You're just shouting random words!" Bilbo cried, dancing a miniature jig to avoid the needling of sword points on his legs. The branch bowed and creaked ominously under his weight and the ground beneath him was a threat of sharp objects of varying degrees, but Bilbo had to admit that when all was said and done, he was rather enjoying himself. A very Tookish notion overtook him.
"Hold it steady now!" he yelled, and with a whoop he did a cartwheel down the length of the branch, nearly losing his footing as it shook and shivered but landing neatly on his feet to the applause of the dwarves below.
"What are you doing?" Thorin's voice cracked over them like a whip, the shock of it causing Bifur to drop his end of the branch and send Bilbo tumbling onto the ground to land at Thorin's feet. For a moment, all was dead silent.
"I brought the torch!" Bombur's voice shattered the quiet as he trotted back with a burning branch in hand. Thorin's eyes narrowed and Bombur suddenly looked much less enthusiastic than he had just a second ago.
"Alright," Bilbo said after a moment. "I can see how all of this might look a lot worse than it actually is."
Thorin looked positively stormy, but to his credit his voice remained steady. "All of you, back to camp," he ordered, and Bilbo had scarecly seen the dwarves move so quickly. "You have jobs to do." As Kíli and Fíli slunk by Thorin shot them the kind of look that suggested that there would be many words in store for his nephews and few of them would be very pleasant.
Bilbo had hoped to slip away with the rest of the crowd, but having just fallen flat on his rump he was too slow to lose himself in the crowd. As it was he found himself standing face to face with Thorin, and completely alone.
"Would you care to begin with some sort of explanation?" Thorin asked after a moment. Bilbo crossed his arms and remembered what he had said to Bofur that night during watch. He’d been letting Thorin push him around for too long.
"For what it's worth, I don't owe you one," Bilbo said. "Pardon my rudeness, but how I spend my free time is none of your concern."
"It would seem that it is," Thorin shot back. "I accept the fact that you insist on trying your hand at the sword, as ill-advised as I find it. But occupying the time of half my company with foolish games I cannot abide."
"And what do you think they'll be doing otherwise?" Bilbo asked. “Not everyone enjoys sitting around and moping to the extent that you seem to."
"Quiet contemplation is much less likely to result in you accidentally getting a sword through your gut," Thorin snapped. "Though with the regiment you've been insisting on, I wouldn't count even on that."
Bilbo’s fists clenched. "I'm not a weakling, Thorin. I neither need nor want your protection.”
“You’re right,” Thorin said with narrowed eyes. “I told Gandalf once that I would not be responsible for your fate, and that has little changed. Leap into a warg’s den if you so see fit, but I will not be held to blame.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that, Master Dwarf,” Bilbo said acerbically. “If memory serves, you were the one who last saw fit to throw yourself to the orcs and their wargs.”
Thorin looked prepared to launch into a whole separate diatribe, but at the last moment bit back his comment and settled for a stony glare before stomping off towards camp. Bilbo followed a short distance behind, just close enough to hear him grumble about going to scout the path ahead before disappearing around a bend in the path.
The rest of the dwarves seemed engaged in a silent conversation of raised eyebrows and slowly shaking heads. Bilbo ignored them all and headed straight for his bedroll, throwing himself down to glare up at the sky. He had certainly gotten his point across, he thought, yet somehow he didn’t feel at all accomplished. In fact, his stomach churned with a gnawing, anxious ache that remained with him for the rest of the day.
As they travelled deeper into Mirkwood, his training continued on a much more traditional course, thanks in part to Balin occasionally stepping in to oversee his progress. Bilbo learned the proper way to swing an axe (although the only kinds he could lift were Fíli’s ones for throwing), how to sharpen a sword, and which weapons were most useful against another. Bilbo’s favorite lesson had been the time when Ori had taken him aside for an afternoon and let him use his sling shot. Bilbo was a terrible shot, being much more proficient at throwing his rocks by hand, but any learning curve that didn’t involve being hit with things himself was a good one in his book. Every day he felt that he improved just a little more.
And then, one morning, Bilbo awoke to the sun on his face and the sounds of movement already around him.
He sat up quickly, rubbing sleep out of his eyes and squinting at the scene around him. The majority of the dwarves were already awake, hauling packs and bustling around to prepare to set off on the next day’s journey.
“Up you get, Bilbo!” Bofur said. “We’ll be leaving in a moment now!”
“What about weapons training?” he said thickly, stumbling to his feet.
“That’s done with for now,” Bofur said. “We’ve moving closer and closer to Erebor with every day. You’ll have to do what you can with what you have.”
Bofur wandered off to continue his preparations, leaving Bilbo sitting befuddled in the dirt with a faint ache building in his heart. As painful, irritating, and humiliating as training with the dwarves had sometimes been, in truth Bilbo had begun to enjoy it. And now he was fast approaching the dragon without being much better at all at defending himself. The thought put him in the foulest of moods.
He walked in silence for the majority of the day, the ground cool under his feet and his mood chilly to match. A few times his companions would attempt to draw him into conversation, and every time they were politely and firmly rebuffed. Bilbo was in no mood to speak with anyone.
After walking for the majority of the day they were lucky enough to happen upon a rocky outcrop that rose out of the forest like the pointed roof of a house. After some climbing and a good deal more scrambling they managed to reach the top, offering a panoramic view of trees on every side of them. Bilbo had heard stories of the ocean, although he had never seen it himself; he imagined if he had, it would look something like the endless plain stretching out around them, with the rocky outcrop as their boat. Even the distant view of the lonely mountain had been lost to the haze lingering above the green. Soon his foul mood was also tainted by a deep sense of isolation. It did not take much to make Bilbo feel small.
Once camp was made and the dwarves mostly settled in to supper, Bilbo grabbed his sword from its place by his pack and set to clambering to the other side of the outcrop.
“Bilbo!” Fíli called out to his back. “Come get the last of the sausages while they’re hot. No telling when there will be any meat from here on out.”
“You eat them,” Bilbo called back. “I’m not hungry.” If any of the dwarves looked at him strangely for that, he didn’t know. He had passed around the corner before he could see any of their faces.
Once he found an open patch of rock wide enough to accommodate him and far enough to make clear his intentions of being alone, he promptly realized that he had no idea what he was doing. For all the information he had absorbed in the past weeks, the thought of fighting in an actual battle still seemed only slightly less ridiculous than it had when he first went running pell-mell out of Bag End so very long ago. He pulled his sword out of its scabbard and stared at it before giving it a half-hearted wave. No surge of prowess overtook him. In fact, he felt rather ridiculous.
Setting his blade down beside him with a clatter, he sat down on a rock and stared out over the treetops. It had been foolish of him to think that he could learn to fight in a few short weeks of training. It had all been for naught.
He sat on that rock for a long while, watching as the light from the sun decayed through a spectrum of golds and reds while it sunk towards the rim of the forest. It didn't take him long to start regretting his decision to storm off dramatically; or at least, to sidle away irritably. He should have at least thought to grab something to eat before he went. He was quite certain that brooding was a lot easier on a full stomach, but of course he hadn't had much practice. Well, he couldn't just turn around and go back now. With a sigh he leaned forward and tried to ignore the complaints from his midsection.
There was the sound of scurrying rocks from behind him, and he turned to see Thorin clambering around an outcropping with a small parcel clutched in his hand. When he saw Bilbo he scowled, but came to stand just in front of him.
"Bombur had his eye on your portion of dinner," he said, thrusting out the pouch unceremoniously. Bilbo accepted it, already smelling cooked meat and feeling the warmth through the leather.
"Thank you," Bilbo said cautiously. "You didn't have to do that."
"You shouldn't be skipping meals," Thorin berated him. "It's more important than ever that you keep your strength up. You'll do no good to us half-starved and weak."
“Yes, well. I figured I should try and get some practice in, before sundown.” Bilbo gestured vaguely at his sword lying propped up on the outcropping.
Thorin raised an eyebrow. "If sitting on a rock is what you call practicing, I may have to have a conversation with the others as to what exactly they've been teaching you."
"I was taking a break," Bilbo grumbled.
"A common excuse, for those who prefer laziness to work.”
Bilbo’s eyes narrowed. “You know what?” he began. “I am absolutely sick of your constant insults and bitterness. I understand that you don’t think me capable of wielding a blade, but I’m happy to inform you that I’ve been doing quite well, all things considered, and so I’d appreciate it if you’d keep your comments to yourself.”
Thorin raised an eyebrow. “You think yourself proficient with a sword?”
Bilbo nodded brusquely.
“Then draw it.” With that Thorin pulled Orcrist from its scabbard, the blade catching the fiery sunlight so that for an instant it looked as if it were still molten from the forge. "Prove it to me."
Bilbo frowned to hide the fact that his heart just picked up. “I don’t owe you proof.”
Thorin lowered his blade so that the tip hovered a finger's length from the ground. "So you refuse,” he said, a note of triumph in his voice.
“I never said that.” Bilbo stepped over to the rock to retrieve his sword. He knew this was a bad idea; out of the whole group, there was none more skilled with a sword than Thorin himself, and Bilbo already had difficulty sparring with the rest. But if some extra cuts and bruises were the price of having Thorin take him seriously, so be it.
"Don't be afraid," Thorin said with a slightly mocking smile. "I’ll go easy on you."
Bilbo laughed. “I’m not afraid of you.”
Instead of attacking, Thorin began circling, the tip of his sword still low to the ground. Bilbo shifted to move with him, going over the positions of his feet in his memory as he struggled to keep them in proper place. Thorin was having no such difficulties. He moved like a predator, graceful even with the weight of his armor, his eyes watchful and ready. It made Bilbo think of the tales Gandalf had told, of enormous lions in the mountains that crept on ledges no larger than the breadth of a twig. In comparison Bilbo was feeling very much the fattened sheep.
In a blink Thorin attacked, Orcist arcing up to cut towards Bilbo's right shoulder. Bilbo leapt to defend, his other hand flying to his sword's pommel as he parried the blade, but Thorin's strength was greater than his own; remembering what Balin had taught him, he shifting the tip of his sword while bringing the hilt forward and let the pressure on Thorin's sword push itself away.
At least, that was the theory. What actually happened was Bilbo's grip loosened and his sword was knocked out of his hands, and even as he dove down to retrieve it he felt the cool kiss of steel on the back of his neck.
"Too slow, Master Hobbit," Thorin said. The coldness on Bilbo’s neck vanished. “Again."
Bilbo straightened his back and tried to pull something out of the clutter of information that the dwarves had dumped into his head. This time Thorin wasted no time in coming at him, his blows never as fast or vicious as they would have been in a real battle but difficult to block or predict all the same. Instead of pressing forward this time, Thorin would retreat and then come in for another lighter and quicker blow.
“I thought you said you had been improving?” Thorin said as Bilbo readjusted his grip on his sword once more. “I can’t imagine what your skills were like before. It’s nothing less than a miracle you survived your brush with Azog.”
“Miracle, indeed!” Bilbo grunted, parrying and driving his sword towards a gap in Thorin’s defense. The dwarf quickly blocked it.
"Oh, come now Bilbo," Thorin said, stepping back and glowering at him. "I know you can do better than that."
"Well, I can't actually," Bilbo snapped. "But your vote of confidence is duly noted."
"Your heart isn’t in this," Thorin said. "Don't you care?"
"Of course I care!" Bilbo cried. "I'm trying as hard as I can, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't make such a mockery of that."
"Yes!" Thorin cried, thrusting a finger in his direction. "That's it! Use that anger, and let it make you stronger."
"I'm not angry," Bilbo snapped. "I'm put off."
"Well then, I suggest you get angry," Thorin said.
"I wouldn't know about the emotional capabilities of dwarves," Bilbo said, although to be honest he had already been forming quite a few assumptions about them, "But hobbits, you see, can't simply flip a switch in their brains to feel one thing or another."
Thorin paused. "I'd imagine not," he said, lowering his sword. "After all, they do tend to be very stupid. And lazy."
For a second Bilbo was shocked into silence merely by the utter rudeness of Thorin's proclamation. His mouth flapped open and closed wordlessly for a moment before he pursed his lips and held up an indignant finger.
"I know what you're doing," he said tightly, "and it's not going to work."
Thorin regarded him coolly. "You're overly picky with your food," he said, "and overprotective of your hair. When you're hungry you adopt the mannerisms of a troll. You complain more than is due."
"Stop it," Bilbo said.
"You're a fool." Thorin stepped closer. "You’re weak. You’re useless. You think yourself strong and capable, yet you scarcely have the skill to defend yourself. You are eager for battle, yet your inexperience and recklessness will only get you and my Company killed.”
Each word had Thorin taking a step closer and Bilbo's fists squeezing slightly tighter, until he was looking up at Thorin's face through what seemed to be a red haze. All of Thorin’s insults and cruelty came rushing back to him, and he found himself raising his sword.
Before Bilbo even realized what he was doing he had lunged forward, his muscles burning with a new kind of strength that sent his sword arcing up towards Thorin like the strike of a snake. The dwarf moved to block, but this time Bilbo was ready. He dodged to the side and struck a blow under Thorin's guard, who barely managed to deflect it before Bilbo was at him again, moving as quickly and nimbly as a cat, striking again and again. At first Thorin had seemed gloating at inciting such anger out of him, but as Bilbo’s attacks continued his eyes grew increasingly more concerned. Orcrist repeatedly found only open air as Bilbo used his smaller size and quicker feet to his advantage, dancing into the spaces where Thorin couldn't reach him and striking from there.
“Enough!” Thorin growled, but Bilbo scarcely heard him. Part of him knew that the only reason Thorin hadn’t put an end to all of this was that he was hesitant to hurt him, but Bilbo was far past stopping. He thrust and hacked and drove Thorin back towards the rocks. Thorin cried out as Bilbo's sword found the arm of his tunic and bit down, slicing neatly and cleanly through the cloth. With his free hand he covered the gash, and when Bilbo still showed no signs in stopping he threw Orcrist to the ground with a clatter of finality.
A second later Bilbo's sword was nestled at his collar, rising and falling with Thorin's harsh breathing. Bilbo's lungs ached as well, but he hardly felt it; his muscles still trembled with fury, and he scarcely knew what he was doing.
It was the look in Thorin's eyes that snapped him into his senses. They weren't afraid or even angry; in fact, Bilbo wasn't sure what he saw in them. But whatever it was, it brought him back to himself, and he slowly lowered his sword.
A thousand apologies mouthed unsaid on his lips as he realized what he had done. His heart still pounded with the energy that, mere seconds ago, Bilbo had nearly used to take the dwarf’s arm off. Thorin ought to skin him alive, but instead he just stood there and stared.
"Thorin, I—" he began, his voice unsteady. But Thorin was stepping forward, so close that Bilbo's words were crowded back into his throat, and a pair of strong hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him in to a kiss.
A rough press of lips, a scrape of beard, a hint of teeth; Bilbo's mind seemed to scatter like leaves under the force of it. By the time he managed to draw his thoughts together Thorin had torn away. His chest still rose and fell with harsh, heavy breaths, but this time Bilbo recognized the expression on his face: regret, and even a tinge of fear.
Bilbo stood mute in front of him as the realization washed through his mind. The memory of Thorin’s mouth was so vivid he could practically still feel it. It was as if all the anger had evaporated from his veins, and taken his voice along with it. He swallowed and opened his mouth, willing himself to speak, for his tongue to find any words at all.
"Oh," he said faintly. "Oh." No other sound would come.
He may has well have struck Thorin another physical blow. He practically flinched away, the flash of pain in his eyes quickly replaced by that familiar anger that Bilbo now recognized as a shield. Thorin turned and strode away, retrieving Orcrist from the ground with a hurried swipe before making for the way back to camp.
"Thorin, wait!" Bilbo cried, at last finding the words he needed. He stumbled after him and grabbed for his arm, persisting even as Thorin shook him off. Finally Bilbo managed to grab him and whirl him around, recoiling from Thorin’s hiss of pain as Bilbo accidentally brushed the cut on his arm. He stepped back, for a moment afraid that Thorin might lash out at him, but nothing of the sort happened. Instead Thorin seemed to collapse into himself, hunched over like a wounded animal, refusing to meet Bilbo's gaze. Once again upon facing him Bilbo's words died in his throat, and after a moment he gestured helplessly at Thorin's arm.
"You're hurt," he said in a small voice. "Please. I can look at it."
At first he thought Thorin was about to storm away again, but he made no such move. Bilbo took his arm and gently led him to a rock, where he sat and kept his gaze resolutely on the rocky ground. He was completely and dreadfully still as Bilbo set to peeling off his glove and vambrace, rolling up the sleeve so he could access the wound. It was hardly serious, thank goodness, and truth be told Thorin would have been fine without anyone attending to it, but Bilbo wouldn’t tell him that. Instead he reached for his pocket, where so very long ago he had tucked away a handkerchief Elrond had given him. Bilbo smiled haltingly.
“And to think of my good fortune upon receiving this handkerchief,” Bilbo said gently, wrapping the silver-grey cloth around Thorin’s arm. “I imagine I’ll be going without for the rest of the trip, thanks to you.” That got Thorin’s attention, but when he glanced up into Bilbo’s eyes he found them smiling. He quickly looked away again.
“Bilbo,” he began, his voice rough.
“Shush,” Bilbo said, focusing entirely on properly cinching the bindings. There was something he had to say, and when he finally did he wanted to be sure he said it right.
“Bilbo,” Thorin said again, more insistently this time, and laid a hand on Bilbo’s to still his working fingers. “Please. Let me explain.”
“You don’t need to, Thorin.”
“But I do.” His jaw tightened painfully, and he looked away. “When I awoke after the events of the glade, my first thought was that I had brought about your death by my own foolish actions. I had thought it better to go to death with a sword in my hand, rather than clinging to the branches of a pine like a drowned rat. But when I saw you there, fighting them off…” he shook his head. “I thought I had killed you too.”
“Well you certainly gave it your best attempt,” Bilbo said with a smile.
Thorin’s face remained stony. “That night, I came to a decision: that from then on I would keep you safe, no matter the cost. And so, I did my best to alienate myself from you. I thought perhaps if you came to dislike me, you would be less likely to put your life at risk for my sake once again. And I thought that perhaps, it would help me attempt to keep our relationship…simple.”
Thorin’s next words came hard and slow, as if he were choking them out. “What I said to you before was untrue in the greatest sense,” he said. “I do care about your safety, very deeply. And while I have harbored… other feelings for you, I want you to know that they are irrelevant. You will always have my friendship, should you want it. I can easily understand if you would not.”
Bilbo sat back. “Irrelevant, hmmm? That’s a pity.”
Thorin looked up in confusion. “What?”
“Well you see, I was just about to tell you what an idiot you were for waiting this long to get around to it. But if it’s all irrelevant, then I suppose I’d better keep that to myself.”
For a second Bilbo paused to cherish the dumbstruck look on Thorin’s face before leaning in to capture his mouth in a kiss. Thorin froze, and at first Bilbo worried that he had said the wrong thing, that at the last moment he had ruined everything. But then Thorin’s lips softened and curved back into his, and Thorin’s hand slid up to the back of his neck to pull him closer. Bilbo chuckled at that, the sound losing itself in Thorin’s mouth. He curled his fingers into the furs on Thorin’s shoulders to hide the fact that his hands were shaking, the tension draining out of his body and taking his strength with it.
Bilbo pulled back a moment later, but not without difficulty. The fiery light of sunset had painted Thorin’s face gold, his eyes looking softer than Bilbo had ever seen them. A sheepish grin stayed plastered on his face as he cleared his throat. “Like I said. You’re an idiot.”
Thorin tilted his head to concede. “Yes, so it would seem.” With that, he leaned in for another kiss. It was a supreme effort of will for Bilbo to break away once again, and Thorin chasing after his lips persistently made it all the more difficult.
“Light’s fading,” Bilbo murmured, looking out over the forest to where the sun whittled down on the horizon. “We can’t stay here for much longer if we don’t want to fall off the side of the bluff in the dark.”
Thorin looked a bit cross at that, but he dipped his head begrudgingly. “I suppose that would be best.”
Bilbo gestured at Thorin’s ruined tunic. “Tell you what, I can sew that up for you first. If you want.”
Thorin nodded and straightened out his sleeve. Pulling his needle and thread from the back pocket where he always kept it at hand, Bilbo set to stitching up the rent pieces of cloth.
"I can do it myself, you know," Thorin said after watching him for a moment.
"Well, it is a bit my fault," Bilbo said. "Think of it as my apology, I suppose."
Thorin’s eyes creased, and he sat quietly as he waited for Bilbo to finish his sewing. The needle dipped in and out of the fabric, tugging the two ends closer together with every stroke.
“There,” Bilbo said with some satisfaction as he tied off the thread. “Good as new.”
Thorin inspected his handiwork. “Not quite,” he said. “You can still see the stitching. I think our burglar might owe me a new shirt.”
Bilbo pursed his lips. “Well, I’m sure that once we’ve reached Erebor you can find something to your liking.”
Thorin looked away. “Perhaps you could pick one out for me.”
Bilbo glanced up from fiddling with the edge of his waistcoat. “Yes, I suppose I could. If you like.”
Thorin nodded, his eyes staring out over the horizon. “It’s a deal, then. You’d best make sure to make it to Erebor in one piece, or I’ll hold you accountable.”
“Well, as long as you don’t go leaping into another pack of wargs, I suppose I won’t have to come and save you.” Bilbo said, bumping Thorin’s shoulder with his own. “Don’t worry. You can’t get rid of me so easily.”
He offered up a smile, and this time Thorin returned it.