Bilbo would never understand dwarves. Oh, he was happy enough to travel with them, although this adventuring business was far too uncomfortable at times and they could definitely do with bigger meals. He found Bofur's and Bombur's hearty manner familiar, and Ori's and Dori's relationship was not too different from his niece's Primula and her younger siblings, and Fíli and Kíli reminded him far too much of his elder Took relatives; yet Thorin was grown from a different loam.
For now though Bilbo was more concerned with the matter of supper. The dwarves had taken some of the food that was left of the feast at Bag End with them, and Bombur prepared a meal that smelled appetising enough, but Bilbo still worried.
He stole away to pick mushrooms and sage and other herbs and handed them over silently, and gasped when Thorin spoke up from behind him.
"Not completely useless then," he said, and patted Bilbo on the back. At least Bilbo hoped it was intended as a pat for it nearly sent him stumbling to the ground.
"He likes ye," said Bofur, who had settled at his side, and winked. Bilbo glared at him. The ever-cheerful dwarf was aiding Bombur in their dinner preparations, stirring a stew and absently rubbing his mustache.
"If he liked me, why would he be so discourteous?" Bofur shrugged. He offered the ladle to Bilbo, who accepted gratefully. The broth was hot and still bitter, and he missed his own little kitchen and fireplace terribly.
"It's - bayur-tumûn," said Bofur, and shook his head. "There's no good word for it in Westron. Deerne, maybe. Secret."
Bilbo sighed and returned the ladle.
"No. If I liked someone, I'd offer to help them take care of their weapons, or share warmth. And if I really liked someone, I'd give them flowers, or make them something. I wouldn't stare at them as if I wanted nothing more than to feed them to a dragon."
Bofur patted his shoulder.
There was a fair amount of conversation around the campfire, and Bilbo perked up when Glóin loosened his shirt that had tightened as his stomach filled and a heavy gold chain gleamed in the firelight.
"That is a lovely piece," he said politely.
"Isn't it?" replied Glóin proudly. "My wife made it for me after my son was born. Here, let me show you."
And he shifted over to display the locket that hung on the chain. There were two miniature paintings inside it: one of a young dwarf, no older than two decades at Bilbo's guess but with ginger curls decorating his chin already; the other was of an older dwarf and Bilbo had to look twice to see the difference. The beard was almost as long as Glóin's own but golden and softer looking, and high cheekbones gave her a delicate air.
"Is this your wife?" he asked and Glóin beamed.
"And my son, Gimli. He's just passed sixty and he'll be a smith in his own right one day." His eyes misted over, and Bilbo could see from the corner of his eye Kíli elbowing Fíli in the side and grinning at him.
"It's for him I am reclaiming Erebor," continued Glóin, oblivious to the amused young dwarves. "He will grow up in the richest dwarven dwelling and will want for nothing. He's but a boy but he shows such promise already."
Kíli snorted, and Óin threw him a sharp look.
"Oh, don't you mock parenthood," he said gruffly. "There's few enough of us as it is, and each child's a blessing for all."
Kíli looked properly chastised, and Bilbo, strengthened by Glóin's gushing, decided to carry on.
"Your wife must be very skilfull," he said, admiring the chain once more. He'd heard about dwarves’ love of gold of course, but dwarven works were rare in the Shire.
"It's a lovely chain," nodded Glóin. "Not her best work, but there is little gold in the Blue Mountains and she prefers it over cold iron."
"I've heard that dwarves are masterful smiths," said Bilbo bravely.
"There is more to us than lust for gold and gems," Thorin interrupted him. He was glowering at Bilbo. "I'm sure the mouths of hobbits do not stand still when they talk of dwarven riches and greed, but not all of us have fallen under the thrall of gold."
Bilbo flushed with shame. Thorin looked proud then as he sat in their midst, tall and dark, and Bilbo saw the hunger for vengeance in his eyes. No, he corrected himself, the hunger for a home that was lost maybe, and a people that are scattered. And his heart clenched at the thought of hobbits wandering Middle Earth if the Shire was ever taken from them, all the Bolgers and Boffins and Brandybucks begging for food and shelter.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I only meant to show my awe at your craftsmanship. Truly I do not know what I would do were my home lost."
Thorin gazed at him levelly.
"Pray that you never have to," he said.
Bilbo kept silent then, hunching his shoulders morosely, but when the company laid down to sleep, one by one, Thorin came to him and offered a blanket.
"I see you have left your hole rather unprepared," he muttered. "This will aid your sleep." And he thrust the cloth at Bilbo, who thanked him profusely.
At last they came to the Bree. It was a warm evening and the town glowed in the splendor of its autumn colours: trees covered in red and golden leaves that also littered the paths, pale yellow roofs and the warmth of firelight in many windows. Bilbo would have felt almost at home had it not been for the presence of men bustling about on their business. As they made their way to the inn, he was carelessly shoved and bumped into several times, and by the time they reached the Prancing Pony's door, he was sick of men already.
The stablehand took a copper for each of their ponies, which Dwalin bemoaned loudly.
"We could have just set up camp," he said grimly.
"Be grateful for the chance to sleep in a bed tonight - it will be a rare occurrence indeed on this journey," said Gandalf. He paid a silver shilling for his horse and left them at the inn's door.
"I will return shortly, but there is an old friend I must visit," he said to Thorin, and would not hear the dwarf's protests. "You will be quite safe here tonight. Do not stir up trouble, do not gamble with them, and above all, speak nothing of the quest."
"You should know me better than that," said Thorin.
"It is not you I doubt, but the young ones' loose tongues." With that, the wizard nodded at them and left. One by one, they filed into the inn, unbuckling swords and axes and sinking gratefully onto wooden chairs. Fíli and Kíli were the first to order rounds of ale, carrying the pitchers in twos and threes to the table.
"Umanathûh!" they cried. "To the King! Mukhuh turgi turug usgin!"
The ale flowed freely from that point, and even though Bilbo exercised restraint and switched to sweetened water after two jugs, some of the dwarves' voices grew louder with each mouthful. Thorin was watching them closely, but as often as Thorin's eyes were on his nephews, they rested more and more frequently on Bilbo, and for every drink they downed, Thorin grew more sober. It wasn't long before Kíli started humming, and more added their voices to a fast tune.
But amidst the cheer, Bilbo became aware of the muttering.
"Look at the size of that one," one man said, and, "Never did an honest day's labour for that gold," when Fíli paid the barman in gold coins. Bilbo ducked his head and tried to make himself invisible, to escape the conflict that was brewing.
Thorin was hardly drunk, but he was angry and the anger had loosened his tongue.
"You had best watch your mouths," he announced to the room at large and stood up. "I am Thorin Oakenshield the King, and I will not have you treat us this way - let go of me!" For Balin had grabbed him by the arm and frantically attempted to drag him back to his seat. But it was too late.
"Oh, did ye hear tha'?" a clean-shaved young brown-haired man exclaimed. He took a little bow. "Show us yer crown then, your maj'sty!" The room erupted in laughter.
One of the few hobbits in the inn leaned down and whispered in Bilbo's ear, "Never thought I'd see Shirefolk throw in their lot with dwarves." He shook his head sadly, and Bilbo realised they pitied him, that maybe he had lost his fortune or committed some other grievous act that had him banished from the Shire. And he wanted to jump up and defend himself, and his companions, but at that moment the innkeeper stepped between them.
"Peace, peace," he cried. The men he herded back to their seats and gestured for ale to be brought to them, and then he approached the dwarves.
"Begging your pardon, but it is quite late and if you were to stay any longer, well, you would be in needs of rooms."
"Five rooms," said Thorin, "and one of them made for men."
The innkeeper nodded. "And how will you pay for them, Sir?"
In response, Thorin threw him a purse. It clinked appealingly as it landed in the man's hand, but he handed it back.
"I'm afraid these won't do, Master Dwarf," he said. "We don't trust dwarven gold around these parts, no insult to your person of course, but there has been enough trouble with your kind in the past."
Thorin's eyes grew furious, and Bilbo jumped up to prevent greater tragedy.
"Is this how you would treat a hobbit," he wondered loudly, and the man peered at him.
"You're a Baggins, aren't you," he said, and Bilbo raised his chin.
"Bilbo Baggins," he replied. At your service, he left out, for it was far easier to be polite when thirteen strangers and a wizard invaded his home, and much harder when thirteen dwarves stood at his back.
"Why, you're Belladonna's son," cried the innkeeper. "A Took, well. I will take the gold, if you will vouch for them."
Under Thorin's incredulous gaze, Bilbo shook the man's hand and said, and gold was exchanged and rooms chosen.
Gandalf claimed one of the men-sized rooms, and Thorin joined him, Óin and Gloin taking the adjacent one. Dwalin was tasked with keeping an eye on the drunk young Durin siblings.
Bilbo went with Bofur, Bombur and Bifur, but to his consternation saw the room had only three beds.
"Mister Baggins?" Ori had followed him and was poking his head through the door. "You can stay with us if you'd like."
Dori and Nori had taken the beds to the left, Nori sleeping by the window ("so as he can jump out quickly if there's trouble," confided Ori), leaving Bilbo to take the bed on the other side.
He unpacked wearily, but perked up when he saw Ori loosening his braids. He sat stunned when Dori and Nori followed suit, and gazed - rather impolitely, he realised - as hair was unbraided and untangled.
Dori, noticing his surprise, gave him a small smile.
"The wild is no place for this," he explained, "not when we must fear an attack. But as Gandalf said: we are safe here, and we should use the opportunity." Nori was the first to claim the washbasin, dipping his chin into it first to rub the strands of his beard between his fingers before upending it over his head and kneading his hair until it hung in dark, dripping strands. Ori ran to fetch more water, and one by one they cleaned themselves, and in the end even Bilbo tipped the bowl over his curls and washed off the dirt and grime from the road.
It was a peculiar sight he closed his eyes to that night: Dori's braids undone, hair long and fine, Nori's thick and voluminous beard tucked between his cheek and the sheets, and Ori's curls fanning across the pillow when he laid down to sleep.
And in the morning he counted himself privileged to see the process in reverse; for the braids had to be redone.
"Where's my brush," exclaimed Dori, "Nori you weasel, give it back!"
"Ow! Careful!" cried Ori whose hair was being unmercifully combed.
"I don't see why you should complain," said Nori, "when none of you have half the trouble I do!"
"No one made you braid your eyebrows," said Dori, cross at being chided by his younger sibling.
Bilbo, who felt just a little left out, bravely asked, "If there is anything I can do, uh..."
Dori gazed at him skeptically. "It's really a family ritual, laddie, and these are probably a bit advanced for you." At Bilbo's crestfallen look he relented and said, "Well, you can take care of Ori."
Ori smiled encouragingly, and Bilbo settled behind him to start his work. It was easier than he remembered: Ori's hair was finer and well-combed and not he did not twist and wriggle as much as Petunia Brandybuck had when Bilbo had last done this. He was kinder than her too and thanked Bilbo politely when the hobbit was done, despite one of the braids sitting half an inch lower than the others.
All in all, Bilbo felt content that morning, and ready to take on the next part of their journey.
Rivendell was even fairer than Bilbo had imagined. He wished he had come there earlier and by himself. He could imagine spending decades in Lord Elrond's library alone, and take full advantage of the opportunity of speaking with real elves. Yet he did remember the quest, and stayed with his ragtag group of cantankerous dwarves.
Inwardly he winced when they broke apart the delicate elvish furniture and rejected their food, but they already thought him unsuited and so he kept silent.
When Balin and he returned to the lavish balconies to join the others, he breathed a sigh of relief, for Thorin had retired to bed and the mood was lively.
"Ah, there's our burglar!" cried Kíli, and Bilbo was half dragged, half shoved onto a pillow by the fire. Bifur, who sat at his side, offered a lettuce leaf that he warily accepted.
"What's our plan then, Balin?" asked Glóin. He was flushed - from elvish wine no doubt; neither the furniture nor the cups were dwarf-sized, or hobbit-sized for that matter.
Balin sighed. "We're to take the High Pass over the mountain," he said, and Bilbo heard an undercurrent of disapproval in his voice.
"I'm sorry, why would we need to go over the mountain? Is there not a dwarven mine in the Misty Mountains?" he asked. It was there; he was certain of it. Moria had been drawn on the map in his childhood room, and he used to trace the lines of mountains and rivers when he was still young and sleep would not come.
The dwarves' faces turned dark at his words.
"What do ye know," snapped Dwalin, and Bilbo shrank back. "You're a halfling, you have no mind for our matters."
Ori was kinder. "We don't speak of it to outsiders," he said in a quiet voice. "Most of us lost kinsmen there. They say it's cursed - it's nonsense, of course, but-"
"Nonsense!" roared Dwalin. "Was it nonsense that felled Fundin? Was it nonsense that thrust a spear in Frerin's side? And was it nonsense that Dáin saw when he passed the gates?"
Ori was not the only one who had started to shiver at those words, and Balin laid a hand on his brother's arm.
"Durin's bane is but a fairy tale. It was Orcs that slew our kin, Orcs and fell beasts, and more than enough of them." Bilbo listened with rapt attention, and saw Fíli and Kíli lean forward as well, eager to hear more.
"All of us have kin that burned. I do wonder," mused Balin, sucking at his pipe. "One day I think we shall reclaim Khazad-dûm."
Dwalin's expression was unreadable as he replied, "I'll not step foot on those hills again, brother. Not for all the mithril in its mines."
Óin's eyes gleamed. "Mithril," he sighed. "Those were rich mines once. I might come with you yet, Balin."
It was at that point that one of the company began humming a sorrowful song, and Bilbo sat quietly as the others joined, one by one, his heart heavy with worry.
He slept fitfully that night, and at dawn he was shaken awake by Bofur.
"We're leaving," said Bofur quietly, and his face was somber. Bilbo looked around to see the others packing.
"Already?" asked Bilbo sleepily, and Thorin, who stood in the midst of the company, surveying their efforts, glanced at him. "They are conspiring just now to hold us here. It's time to earn your share, Mister Baggins."
And so Bilbo packed as well, but he was sad to leave, and turned more than once on their way into the mountains to capture the image of Rivendell in the sunrise.
The first night they set up their camp in the snow, Bilbo awoke to feel a noose around his neck. He struggled, feet kicking out, and gasped for air until a heavy hand settled on his shoulder.
"Calm yourself," hissed a deep voice, and Bilbo froze. Thorin was sitting behind him, and a quick glance down revealed a thick woolen scarf wrapped rather shoddily around Bilbo.
"Wha-" he murmured fuzzily.
"You were shivering," murmured Thorin. "Here, turn around." Shakily, Bilbo pushed himself up and moved toward the dwarf. In the low light of the fire he could see Thorin had put his own bedroll right next to Bilbo's, and thrown a blanket underneath.
"I assure you, I will not stab you in the dark," he said, and Bilbo's gaze drifted to Thorin's belt. The dwarf chuckled and pointed at the ground beside him, where his sword lay.
Warily, Bilbo shifted towards him, lured by the promise of warmth. When he crossed into what might have been the only spot of heat left in the world and closed his eyes, Thorin's arm came around him and drew him in. Gratefully, Bilbo burrowed closer, keeping his eyes determinedly shut. He felt the weight of Thorin's fur cloak being spread over them, and despite the peculiarity of their position he fell asleep soon, lulled by the heat of the King's body.
When he awoke again the sun was barely creeping over the horizon. Thorin's body was a soft, hot weight behind him, knees brushing against the soles of Bilbo's feet. In fact if Bilbo didn't know better he could almost imagine having fallen asleep next to a snug furnace. There was a damp spot on his neck where Thorin was slowly, heavily, breathing against him. He simply laid back for a few comfortable moments, but already sweat was pearling on his temple and his bladder made its wishes known. He struggled to free himself from the nest Thorin had wrapped them in, inadvertently kicking against Thorin's shin.
Immediately, Thorin woke violently and the arm that was thrown around him tightened. The soft chest that Bilbo had lain back against turned hard, supple muscles firmed, and Bilbo weakly protested against being squeezed into Thorin's rigid body. Thorin gasped into his ear, and Bilbo swatted at him.
"Ugh, let me go." That was all he could say before the arm suddenly disappeared and Thorin pushed him forward. Bilbo rose to unsteady feet, staring down at the dwarf who glared back at him.
"Is this the gratefulness I can expect for my kindness?" he said, voice rough with sleep.
"Thank you for the comfort offered," Bilbo stuttered, and decided to forego propriety and instead ran off.
Bofur, who passed him on his way to relieve himself, winked.
"Makes a comfortable pillow, our King, doesn't he?"
Onwards then they travelled, plowing through the snow. They took turns in pairs at the helm in carving a path into the snow with their own bodies; only Bilbo and Ori were spared: Bilbo because he was too small of stature for the task, and Ori because he had caught a cold further down in the mountains and was shivering and sneezing on every dwarf in the vicinity.
And for a while Bilbo held on to hope: surely the worst was behind them. That was before the battle of the Giants though, and before he fell into the darkness beneath Goblin-town, and when he escaped from the mountains with no more than the clothes on his back (and a golden ring in his pocket) he had started to lose hope.
Maybe it had been foolish to come after all; maybe he should have stayed in the Shire. A hobbit was not made for danger and adventure, no matter what Gandalf said. Conversely, to hear that Thorin shared those doubts wakened a desire in him to refute them. If he was to be the first hobbit to leave the comforts of the Shirelands, so be it. In that moment, Bilbo Baggins discovered his own pride, and it filled him with determination.
And had he not found his way out of the caves on his own? Had he not bested the terrible creature that had lurked in the dark? No, he would stay.
His decision was once more sorely tested when wargriders ambushed them as they fled into the trees. For his part, Bilbo was too concerned with staying alive to feel heroic. And as one of the wargs sprung towards him, teeth flashing in the moonlight, he reacted on instinct, some long-buried memory of childhood stick fights rising up in him. He barely had time to feel the stink of its breath when his sword pierced the heavy skull. The elvish blade glid through flesh like butter and with a sickly gurgling sound the warg collapsed at his feet.
Unfortunately, the sword would not come out as easily, and in the end he had to push against the bloodied body with all his strength to free it. Then he ran, enemies pursuing his footsteps, and up and up into the tree he jumped to dodge the snapping jaws.
That was when he saw it, the creature that had undoubtedly haunted Thorin's dreams and would now haunt his own as well: a pale Orc, body criss-crossed with scars, on a warg the colour of snow. Around him, the dwarves groaned.
"Mahal save us," he heard Dori whimper.
Thankfully Gandalf had his wits about him, and once they were for the most part in the tallest tree, they fought the beasts with fire. Bilbo coughed and wheezed and did his best not to let the smoldering fir cones go to waste: he would swear he hit a warg squarely on the nose.
But the weight of fifteen bodies proved too much for the fir, it swayed and rustled and with a mighty crack split from the ground, leaving many of the poor dwarves clinging tightly to its branches.
Bilbo would have prayed as well if he had known who to pray to; as it was he held on and tried to catch Gandalf's eye, hoping for a miracle, when he saw Thorin get to his feet.
Proudly the dwarven King stood, and Bilbo might have applauded him for his courage had it not been so clearly foolish and hopeless. Bilbo's eyes watered from the smoke and his lungs heaved, wrecking his body with shudders, but he still saw clear as day Thorin running towards Azog and somewhere within him he found a spark of hope that Thorin would do the impossible. He believed, for a moment, in this King, and thought that this was what Balin must have meant that day in the wilderness, that this was the King he saw in Moria, noble and unbroken.
It lasted but a second, and then Thorin fell to the warg. His body was thrown to to ground and picked up by those terrible teeth once more and slung into the dirt. Thorin's sword, Bilbo saw, was torn from his hand, and the King lay unmoving.
Azog barked something at one of the Orcs, and Bilbo did not have to speak their language to understand the meaning of those words; kill him, Azog said, and the Orc's face twisted in a terrifying grin.
To his surprise, Bilbo realized that he had found his footing. The bark was rough and hot beneath his feet, and his eyes still stung, but his feet gripped the trunk securely. Tentatively, he stepped forward, step by step nearing the edge. Beside him he saw Dwalin dangling by his fingertips, the oft-present scowl on his face replaced by sheer despair. And then he was safely on the ground, slipping through the burning grass, ducking behind the bodies of the felled wargs.
He saw the Orc raise his sword over Thorin's head and began to run as fast as his feet would carry him, embers burning his soles, twigs cutting into his legs, and when the stroke fell he threw himself into the terrible creature. He rolled once, twice, and came to rest atop it; his sword was in his hand and in the Orc's body before he could even grasp the thought, and then it was done.
He stumbled back, towards the fallen dwarf's body, and gripping the blade tightly with both hands prepared himself for death.
For that much was certain; he would die there, today, young and among dwarves, killed by fell creatures so far from home. But he would keep his promise, and he would not give anyone cause to doubt his heart.
Three of the approached him, and vainly he pointed the sword at them. He did not know if Thorin was still alive, but he hoped he could take one of the beasts with him into death.
"Khazâd ai-mênu!" came a cry from his right, and to his wonder he saw Kíli and Fíli join the battle, followed by more and more dwarves. Their shouts rang out as they fell upon the Orcs, and Bilbo cried out wordlessly and joined them. But he only had time to swing a few strokes and tremble at the sight of Azog bearing down on him before something swooped through the air and picked him up. He was lifted inside a cage of bone, no, claws, and thrown through the air until he landed in a featherbed. At least that was what it seemed at first, but this bed was warm and moving, and carrying him through the air. Bilbo closed his eyes and clenched his hands tightly in the feathers and allowed himself to sink into the soft body of the bird that carried him.
"You!" growled Thorin, when he woke on the high rock, and Bilbo blanched. "What were you doing? You nearly got yourself killed." Anger radiated from him.
"Did I not say that you would be a burden, that you would not survive in the wild and that you have no place amongst us?" He stepped toward Bilbo, who flinched. Would this be the day he outlived his usefulness? Nervously, he eyed the ground far below, then Thorin's arms closed around him.
"I've never been so wrong in all my life," whispered the dwarf, and Bilbo stood paralysed. He smiled tentatively, struggling to stay on his feet. It was the blood loss, he mused, that had Thorin act this way, for even though the embrace was crushing his ribs and decidedly too familiar, it stood in stark contrast to Thorin's behaviour towards him so far.
As they turned to look on Erebor, Thorin's hand remained on his shoulder, and he leaned to whisper into Bilbo's ear, "Your courage in this matter will not be forgotten. Thadulur kuthu tharâk shulukizd mingalel." He started pointedly at the hobbit, who unfortunately had no idea what meaning to take from those words.
"Ah," said Bilbo and blinked, "I could hardly let them kill you."
"And yet, I am pleased you decided to show your heart as you did." Thorin smiled at him. And Bilbo's heart lifted: he had survived a battle, he had kept his vow, and had proven himself.
For two days, all seemed well. Bilbo's foolish attempt to defend Thorin from the Orcs had put him in the dwarf's good graces, and for once he was not afraid to sleep close to him. A tension that had lined Thorin's mouth for so long had vanished, leaving his face open and his gestures graceless and easy. He spoke amicably with Bilbo, even sharing his whetting stone.
Yet on that second day, Bilbo ruined it by falling into a stream. In his defense, the water had been quick and barely warmer than ice, the ground of the riverbed tricky. Bilbo carried his pack over his head and slipped just as he neared the other side, toppling backwards. The freezing water rushed over him, and he would have been caught and carried away by the current had not two strong hands grabbed him and pulled him out.
"Durin's beard, what are you doing?" rumbled Thorin, who was indeed clutching him."Do you wish to kill yourself? Because once we've reached the mountain, a dragon should be sufficient for that purpose."
Bilbo shivered, and was sorely tempted to lean into him to steal a little warmth, but the dismay in every line of Thorin's face stopped him. The King looked murderous. Contrary to his words and his demeanor though, his hands still held Bilbo fast.
"S-sorry," said Bilbo, shaken. "I don't know what happened." He steadied himself by gripping Thorin's forearms, but quickly let go when the motion only led Thorin to tighten his already bruising grip. He would be black and blue tomorrow, Thorin's ancient rings leaving deep impressions in his flesh.
As he regained his composure, he became aware of to things; one, that the company had travelled on and was waiting for them, glancing curiously in their direction but none approaching, and two, that Thorin was shivering as if it had been him slipping into the water.
"You, ah, you can let go now," muttered Bilbo. Thorin's gaze shifted, the intensity in his eyes extinguished like a flame. His body grew rigid and taunt, and he let go of Bilbo so fast the hobbit nearly fell back into the river.
"See that you don't slow us down," called Thorin, and turned to rejoin the others, footsteps fast and heavy as if he was punishing the very earth itself for his temper.
The home of Gandalf's friend was too far to reach before nightfall, and so they settled in a small cave that Balin had spotted. Many set up their bedrolls at the very back of it and a fire was lit, but Bilbo preferred the freedom of the cave's mouth though the wind beat hard against the rock.
"This seems a most dangerous place to set up camp," said Dori. He was dragging his pack toward the fire, Ori close on his heels.
"Oh?" questioned Bilbo. He was unpacking his bedroll, struggling to lay it flat against the Eastern wind.
"Indeed," agreed Nori. "Do you see that overhang?" He pointed at an outcropping of rocks and firs, dangerously close to the upper edge of the cave. "Now I'm no miner, but that doesn't look stable to me. Could come crashing down any time in the night."
Bilbo inspected the overhang worriedly, caught in visions of crashing rocks and entombment when he became aware of a commotion by the fire. Thorin was arguing with Dwalin, and Bilbo felt more than one unfriendly look thrown his way. He ducked his head and tried to make himself unseen, but to no avail.
"Master Baggins!" he heard Thorin call, and sighed. His feet hurt, as did his empty stomach, and he was in no mood to deal with the King today, who as of late seemed intent on punishing him for some nameless crime. When Bilbo approached, Dwalin passed him with a snarl.
"You will have a place at the fire," said Thorin. He was pointing at a place on the ground right beside his own bedroll - Dwalin's customary place, and entirely too close to comfort for Bilbo.
"Ah, no thank you," he replied. Frankly, after weeks of climbing mountains and creeping through Goblin tunnels, none of them smelled too well, and he was not inclined to add his own unwashed and bloodstained body to the group. "I'd rather stay here, catch some fresh air."
Thorin narrowed his eyes. "This will be the safest place for someone not learned in any art of fighting."
A small, impetuous voice rose within Bilbo. He'd grown to calling it his Took voice, because it was contradictory and improper and would rarely shut up. Now though, unnerved by Thorin's manner, he didn't stop to filter his thoughts.
"Are you calling Bifur, Bofur and Bombur weak?" he asked casually.
"Of course not." Thorin, to give him credit, looked outraged at the very thought.
"Then you don't trust them to protect this Company?" continued Bilbo.
"I trust them with my life!" stated Thorin.
Bilbo smiled. "Well, then I will gladly trust them with mine." Thorin frowned, and crossed his arms. If he didn't know better, Bilbo would say he looked betrayed.
"Sleep where you will," he finally growled, and turned to speak to Balin, and as Bilbo returned to his spot, he noticed the divide in the camp, like an invisible line carved into the stone.
As he tried to fall asleep, shivering in his blanket, he almost regretted not accepting Thorin's offer. A place near the fire would have been far more comfortable, but -- and he fell asleep before he could finish the thought, exhausted by the events of the previous day.
He was roused by a mighty clamour and cries of dismay.
A few of the rocks had indeed come crashing down during the night, and a tree had been uprooted as well, half blocking the cave entrance, half burying Bofur, Bifur and Bombur. Bilbo staggered towards them, eager to lend his hands to the effort, when one more rock tumbled down from above him. He jumped back in fright, barely avoiding being squished to jelly at last. The rock settled heavily, and no sooner had he overcome the shock when something gave a soft thump behind him and a solid arm caught him around the middle and startled him yet again.
"I told you it was too dangerous so close to the edge," said Thorin in a low voice, and Bilbo turned. But he merely continued, "You ought to stay closer to the fire next time," and Bilbo laid aside his suspicions and ran to aid the others.
"Where were you, Thorin?" he heard Gandalf ask, and Thorin paused.
"I was taking care of- business," he finally replied, and everyone seemed content with his words, except the wizard, who frowned at him.
Beorn's flourishing gardens glowed in the sunlight. Despite the late season, it was warm enough to leave the heavy cloak behind, and Bilbo spent an enjoyable morning cleaning himself and his clothes at the riverside. He spread his shirt and jacket over tree branches and stripped down to his smallclothes to bathe in the narrow stream, regretting the lack of soap and washcloths. With a sharp pang, he realized he still missed Bag End, if only for its cozy claw-footed tub and fluffy towels.
With a sigh, he dried himself off as best as he could. Shouts rang out from the direction of the house, and soon Fíli and Kíli were approaching with Beorn in tow.
"See, there he is!" said Fíli.
Bilbo squeaked as he was lifted in the air by Beorn's giant hands.
"Little bunny is all clean now!" laughed Beorn. "But it shouldn't wander off, too many holes for bunnies to fall into." And with that, he was set on the shapeshifter's wide shoulder, protesting as he was carried back to the house.
"Don't worry Mister Baggins!" shouted Kíli. "We'll take care of your things!"
If they ruined his clothes, Bilbo vowed, he would find many embarrassing ways to pay them back.
From his position he could see the area clearly, and he had to clutch his hands in Beorn's shirt to fight a bout of nausea. The ground was very far down, and surely tumbling off from this height would be far more dangerous than falling down a rabbit hole?
Laughter greeted him as they returned to the house. Gandalf, Dwalin, Balin and Thorin were sat at the wooden table outside and watched him come near; they were clearly amused by the sight of a small hobbit perched on a giant. All of them, except for Thorin, it seemed. The King stared moodily at him, and his eyes only darkened when Beorn exclaimed, "My little bunny must eat now!"
Bilbo was set down carefully on the grass and made his way to the dwarves, blushing at his unclothed state. What a sight he must make!
Strangely, it was Thorin who stalked towards him and set his own heavy cloak around Bilbo's shoulders. The fur felt sinfully good on his skin, even though it was warm and smelled a little of sweat and dirt.
"It may not be wise to play with a shapeshifter," he said darkly, and privately, Bilbo had to agree. He did make a point of handing the cloak back to Thorin as soon as his clothes had dried though; it would not do to antagonise the King further.
That evening, Bilbo returned to his makeshift bed to find three sword lilies lying on his pillow, bound by ivy. He started at it, confused. Fidelity, a small part of him piped up. And... sincerity? He shook his head and closed his eyes, but when he opened them the flowers were still there.
He racked his brains trying to figure out who might have left it there, before finally just pondering which dwarf had been nice to him in the past.
Unbidden, the image of a cheerful smile and long, dark whiskers came to him. Bofur?
If it had been him, Bilbo must hurry to remedy the situation.
He found the dwarf in the hall, sitting by his brother's and cousin's side, sharing stories of their childhood.
"May I speak to you?" whispered Bilbo. At Bofur's confused nod, he continued, "Privately?"
They set off to the porch, where Bofur took out his pipe and gestured at Bilbo to begin. "What is it then?" he asked.
Bilbo wrung his hands.
"I appreciate the sentiment," he began, and Bofur's eyebrows flew up. "I did say I liked flowers, and they're very nice, thank you, but, uh-"
"Now hold on," interrupted Bofur. "So you've found flowers, yeah?"
Bilbo nodded anxiously.
"Ah well I'm not the one you're looking for." At Bilbo's alarmed look, he chuckled. "I have my âzyungâl - I'm not free."
Bilbo blinked. "You're in a relationship? With whom?"
Bofur smiled a small, secretive smile. "That'll be my own business, thank you." He patted Bilbo's back.
"As for your flowers," he continued and his eyes grew sad, "If you don't want to see, I shan't tell you."
Bilbo's shoulders slumped. He sat down heavily on the bench. "But who could it be?" he murmured.
"Out of curiosity - what were they?" asked Bofur.
"Sword lilies and ivy," said Bilbo absentmindedly, mentally reviewing each of the dwarves. Ori? Doubtful.
"A fine choice," said Bofur, and smoked in silence, a comforting presence at Bilbo's side.
The next day would not dawn; the sun was hidden behind storm clouds, and they set off with an eye on the skies. And indeed they had travelled only a few hours when the storm started.
"Fíli, Kíli, find shelter!" shouted Thorin, and his nephews hastened to obey. Bilbo tugged his jacket closer around him and once more mourned the loss of his waistcoat buttons; they were dry for now but once the rains started he would be the first to be soaked to the bone. For now though, thunder growled on the horizon and the wind roared through the tall grass and shook the elms by the wayside.
As the first drops began to fall, the young dwarves returned.
"This way," Kíli cried, and they set to follow him at a sharp pace, hastening into a large cavern.
They took care of the ponies and waited well after the storm had passed. In the comfort of the mossy cavern Bilbo unwrapped a honeycomb, still fresh and sweet from Beorn's beehives. He had barely taken a bite when Kíli crouched next to him.
"Ah, what sweet treats you hide, Mister Baggins! Will you share them with the rest of us?"
"I only have two," grumbled Bilbo, but gave in easily when Kíli offered to trade him a new pair of breeches. He took off his old trousers, travel-stained and torn in places with holes too big for even kind Ori to fix, and with a glad sigh exchanged them for the dwarvish garments. They were long, reaching below his ankles and he flipped the bottoms up to keep his feet free. They would do, Bilbo decided, admiring the well-crafted stitches when he became aware of a pair of eyes watching him.
Thorin was staring at him again. The King had put aside his weapons and drank deep from a flask, but now under Bilbo's eyes he took his blade and called out.
"Come, Bilbo, unsheathe your sword."
Poor Bilbo knew that this was it, the King Under The Mountain was calling him to duel. Instead of throttling him at night, Thorin would murder him in bright sunlight, in front of witnesses.
He rose on shaky legs. Kíli patted his back in sympathy.
"Go easy on him," he said, and Bilbo choked.
"I think you are addressing the wrong person here," he muttered, and Kíli shrugged.
"Follow me," said Thorin, and stalked toward the treeline, Bilbo stumbling after him. It had stopped raining, but water clung to his feet and sprayed the new clothes, while the trees above unloaded their share of drops at every gust of wind. It only took seconds for Bilbo to be drenched head to toe, and he was sorely tempted to sneak back to the camp and let Thorin wander off alone, but just then the dwarf turned and raised his weapon.
"This will do," he said, and nodded at Bilbo. "Show me your sword."
Bilbo handed it over, and the blade slipped from his wet hands to pierce the ground inches from Thorin's foot.
"Abzagûn!" cursed Thorin. "Take care with that letter-opener." He inspected the blade's edge.
"Sharp enough," he proclaimed, and handed it back to the hobbit.
"Raise your sword. Mirror me." He had turned his own blade diagonally in front of his body, and Bilbo followed suit. Then Thorin stepped to the side and swung the blade in a tight arc to rest slantwise again, and Bilbo struggled to keep up.
On and on they went, blocking and parrying, and Bilbo's arms hurt even though their blades had not yet crossed.
Finally, Thorin seemed content.
"Remember those movements and block me." And with that, he swung his sword at Bilbo, who parried widely, panicked. Metal clashed and slid and separated, and oh, Bilbo's arms were going to fall off. But Thorin was not satisfied, he came after Bilbo again and again, swinging expertly but slowly.
At a particular hard clash, Bilbo sidestepped Thorin and retreated well beyond his position, ducking behind a tree. With a dark laugh Thorin followed him.
Twice they danced around the thick trunk, stumbling over leaves and twigs before a hand caught Bilbo by the collar and tugged him back. Bilbo cried out, his sword fell from his hands and he quickly raised his hands to shield himself. A slicing sound was heard, and he felt a sharp pain in his arm.
"Ow!" he cried, and stared at Thorin, who stood, stunned.
"Durin's beard, I'm sorry," he said, and sheathed his sword, for that was what had slashed Bilbo. "Quick, show me." He grabbed Bilbo's arm and tore off the shirt-sleeve. The cut was not deep but bleeding freely. Thorin breathed a sigh, though whether it was relief or regret Bilbo could not say.
"You will be fine," said Thorin. He pressed the torn fabric to the cut, and Bilbo gasped. It stung, and he felt his eyes begin to water.
"What did you do that for," he hissed, and Thorin looked dismayed.
"I was trying not to hit you, but you moved too fast," he replied.
"What if it gets infected?" Bilbo panicked and would have run off had Thorin not put a hand on his chest.
"It will not," he said. "Óin will help you clean it, and you will not even need stitches. Now," he continued, and took one step closer to press Bilbo against the tree. "What have you learned from this?"
Bilbo swallowed. "Not to drop my sword?" he asked weakly. Thorin nodded, hand curled in Bilbo's shirt.
"It is not wise to run if your enemy is faster than you," he murmured. This close, Bilbo could smell him, sweat and dirt and musk from their exertions, and warm leather and pipeweed. He could not think of what to say - the last time he had demanded Thorin let go of him had not ended well, and now that they were truly alone he was afraid of what one wrong word might do.
Thorin was breathing rather harshly against him, puffs of air hitting Bilbo's cheeks, the wound forgotten, and he became increasingly aware of his fear turning into into something dark, something entirely un-hobbitlike. Just then a crashing sound echoed through the forest, and footsteps neared. Thorin let go of Bilbo quickly and turned from him and Kíli burst through the trees.
"It's the eagles," he cried, "they're back!" And with that, they were off, running back to the cave, and Thorin would not look at Bilbo.
But only one eagle had returned, and he carried a message for Gandalf that cast a worried shadow on the wizard's face.
"We must hurry," he said to Thorin, "I am needed further south, and I will see you to the borders of the Mirkwood before I leave."
So they moved on, intent on reaching the woods before nightfall.
As Bilbo hurried to catch up with the group, he overheard Dwalin speak to Thorin.
"Is he showing any signs yet?" rumbled Dwalin, and the other dwarf sighed.
"Nothing. I do not understand, Dwalin. He has given me santûmb, he has shown his devotion and I have shown mine. And yet he is as distant as ever."
Thorin turned to stare after the rest of the company, and for a moment Bilbo was struck by the vision of the King, head wreathed in gold from the setting sun, as if crowned by destiny itself. And then he wondered which he would prefer; whether to reach Erebor and fulfill his promise and return to the comforts of home, or to travel ever onward in the company of these dwarves.
Dwalin slapped Thorin's back. "He'll come around," he said confidently, and at that moment he turned his head and spotted Bilbo, and the hobbit had to contend himself with what little he had overheard. Try as he might though, he could neither determine who it was they had spoken of, nor what that person had done.
The dungeons of the elven King were a dark place. Bilbo searched for hours until he found a pantry he could steal apples and bread from, and in his exploration he kept the ring on until it weighed heavily on his soul. He had not found his companions yet, and had in fact not spoken to anyone since they entered the palace. As he stared at his provisions fear gripped him, fear of being lost forever in this twilight world. Something seemed to crush him, an iron grip around his chest that made it hard to breathe, but he walked on.
He would have wept with relief when he found Ori.
"Bilbo!" exclaimed the dwarf when Bilbo slipped off the ring, and his eyes were bright and cheerful.
"What?" came a voice from the dark, and oh, that was Nori.
"It's Bilbo, Nori, he's here!"
"Did you hear that, Dori? Our burglar has found us!" Nori said, but Bilbo could not hear the answer; the corridors seemed to swallow every sound.
"Where are the others?" asked Ori, and at the same time Nori exclaimed: "Is that food in your pocket?"
"I don't know," said Bilbo, "I have not found them yet. And yes, there's food."
He distributed it among them, and brought some to Dori as well, who said: "Thank you kindly, Mister Baggins. Now if you would find us a way out of here..."
"I am trying," said Bilbo crossly, and Dori's eyes widened.
"Oh, take your time, lad. They've provided some water, and it's not too cold. Best if you're not seen, or none of us will ever escape."
So Bilbo went on, searching for his companions in the twilight of the ring.
After many hours of carrying messages back and forth he found a moment to breathe. He spread his cloak on the ground and settled down to devour what food he has stolen for himself.
Thus nourished, he set off once again to explore the dungeons.
He came upon Bifur next, who had not taken well to imprisonment. When he saw the hobbit, he jumped up and shouted at him, but Bilbo could not understand a word.
“Mahal” groaned Bifur finally, pointing at himself, then down the corridor. “Bo-furr,” he pronounced carefully, and Bilbo blinked.
“Oh, yes, I have no idea where he is.” Another bout of khuzdul greeted him, and some very impolite gestures that probably translated into, you best go now and find him.
And so Bilbo took off again. Bofur was in a cell not two corridors away, and he was considerably more polite but equally frantic.
“Bilbo,” he gasped in obvious relief and approached the cell’s door. “Where is my kin? Where is Bifur?”
“I think he was asking for you,” replied Bilbo. Bombur, who was imprisoned in the adjacent cell, shouted joyfully.
“He is well, but he seems... disturbed.”
Bofur smiled wryly. “Here,” he said, and took off his hat and handed it to Bilbo. “Give it to him, and tell him we’re fine.”
“And find some food, if you please!” shouted Bofur as Bilbo dashed back to find Bifur.
When he passed the hat to the distressed dwarf, Bifur calmed immediately. He held it gingerly, stroking his hands over the fur lining, and Bilbo left him to find food.
A few corridors on, he could hear footsteps approaching and slid his fingers into his pocket to slip on the ring, but it was not there. Panicked, he turned out his pockets; a bit of string and two coppers fell out, but the ring was not there. An image flashed through his mind: his cloak and sword lying in the lower passage where he had sat to eat, and taken off the ring. Cursing, he ran.
They had seen him: he could hear footsteps following him, two, maybe three sets, one of them accompanied by the occasional tapping sound. To his right the corridor suddenly dropped, and he nearly lost his equilibrium. At the last moment, he dove to the left and touched the heavy oak door, not stopping, allowing momentum to carry him toward the underground river. Right now it looked small, maybe a foot, but it widened with every step – two, three, four feet. One of the elves had spotted him and urged his companion on.
"Left, left!" arose a cry. Three steps from the edge, Bilbo committed the position of river, far-away bridge, and himself to memory, then risked a glance over his shoulder. They were catching up, but one of them was limping - one step - and another carried a heavy bow that scraped against the walls - two - and he looked back and just. Jumped. He landed on hands and knees, out of breath, and something brown flew past him so it was a good thing he was down. His ring was still far, four turns until the east corner of the dungeon where it must have fallen off.
Another arrow hissed over his head now, and he didn’t think, just picked up a stone from the ground and loosened his wrist and threw it. He heard a gasp and something splashing. Good. Now up and away, fast, before they jumped themselves or crossed the bridge. Óin's and Glóin's cells were in the next hallway, and he passed them in a hurry, not bothering to answer their exclamations as he ran, almost sliding on the smooth floor of the passage. He was just about to twist around the next turn when he heard a familiar voice, silky and exasperated.
"What are you waiting for, Pelilasdir?" Thranduil, it seemed, had heard the commotion and taken a shortcut. Immediately, Bilbo threw himself down. He heard the first elf reply, "It's too small a target!"
"You have shot down sparrows from greater distances. Are you telling me your arrows can not find a dwarf?"
"It's not a dwarf!" came the reply. Bilbo risked a glance down the corridor. The first elf - Pelilasdir - was aiming his bow but looking at Thranduil, and Bilbo did not wait for the elven King's response.
He stood up and slipped past the next turn, polished floor giving way to fine dirt. Pelilasdir's bow sang, and to his horror Bilbo saw the passage he had initially taken barred by a tanning rack. There was no time to push it aside, instead he ran on, turning sharply and trusting that he would find another way. Finally, three turns on, he found the familiar corridor, sloping downward from his left to his right. Unfortunately, the elves pursuing him had taken another detour and appeared in front of him.
He could not tell who was more surprised, and at another time Thranduil's face would have been comic. He sprinted forward and to the right, a loud roar rising behind him; he pushed off the rock of the passage and tumbled down, rolling, put his weight on his left hand and somersaulted over a stack of firewood and ducked behind it. He did not pause to look behind him: the footsteps were too close, instead he ran, stumbling, head held low, until he came upon the bundle of cloth that was his cloak. And there beside it lay the ring, glittering enticingly. He pushed it onto his finger and grabbed the cloak and sword and listened to the surprised voices.
"Where did it go?" cried Pelilasdir.
"You must have lost it," said Thranduil. "Fool, it's gone now."
They looked about them, but Bilbo had flattened himself against the wall and crept past them.
"I don't understand," he could hear Pelilasdir say as he made his way back to the dwarves' cells, but their voices soon became faint.
Sighing, he sunk down in a dark spot and took off the ring. It gleamed in his palm, and he vowed to be ever more careful with it. Loath as he was to become dependant on it, the others counted on him and he would not fail.
A whole day and night Bilbo had searched the empty corridors, dashing from dwarf to dwarf, each kept in their solitary confinements, before at last he found Thorin.
The King sat on the stone floor of his cell, his furs stained with dust and dirt. A silver bowl sat at his side, but Bilbo could not ascertain its purpose. He did not move; his broad shoulders rose and sunk - perhaps in sleep, Bilbo thought - but the dirty curls of his hair hid his face.
"Thorin!" he called out softly.
Bilbo took a hasty step back as Thorin jumped and threw himself against the bars of his cell.
"Bilbo," he growled, eyes raking over Bilbo's form, "You are a most welcome sight." His hands gripped the bars tightly, and the hobbit dared a step forward.
"I'm sorry I did not find you sooner," he stammered. "The others are here as well, a bit further up."
"How long since you were caught?" asked Thorin. His eyes were wild, and he seemed to strain to contain his anger.
"Two days," said Bilbo. "We were ambushed by spiders, and I had to free them, only to be caught again by the elves." And so he told Thorin of the perils the Company had faced: of the fight against the spiders, and the dwarves lined up on the tree like grisly ornaments, and the flash of Sting in the Mirkwood's encroaching darkness.
"Another brave deed," said Thorin when Bilbo had finished. He was calm now, and he looked at Bilbo more gently. "You have earned your fourteenth share several times over."
"Yes, well," stuttered Bilbo, more than a little surprised at the praise. "I still haven't found a way out of this dungeon yet, at least not one thirteen dwarves can take."
"How do you find your way through this maze unseen?" asked Thorin, and now, after so many secrets and lies and nearly being caught and fearing for his sanity, it all tumbled out of Bilbo. He spoke of the ring then, and of the ways he had used it, and Thorin's eyes grew solemn until finally, he leaned against the cage wall.
"Use it only when you must," he said. "My father had a ring like this, handed down to him from my grandfather. It did not make him invisible though, it only poisoned his mind until he was overcome by greed and lust for wealth." He paused, and regarded Bilbo sadly. He held Bilbo's gaze, and the hobbit held his breath, spellbound. But far off a door creaked, announcing their foes' return, and the moment was shattered.
"Be careful with it. I believe in you," said Thorin simply. "Find the others again, tell them that I live. And Bilbo-" he reached out, quick as a fox, and grabbed Bilbo's arm tightly. "Tell them to keep silent. No word to the elves."
Bilbo struggled against the grip, and just as he found he could not break away, Thorin released him. Quickly, Bilbo staggered back.
"I'll do that," he muttered. He left quietly, conscious of Thorin's eyes on him until he slipped into the shadows and slid the ring back on his finger.
By the time he had dragged the first barrel to the shore and opened it, Bilbo was drenched to the bone and shivering. He gave Thorin - for it was him who Bilbo had, by chance, chosen to free first - a hand, then he slumped down into the grass. Battling exhaustion, he looked up under lowered lashes to find Thorin frowning at him, and so he groaned and picked himself up and returned to the river's edge to open another barrel. Fíli's grim smile greeted him, and he had barely a moment to smile back before he was shoved aside and nearly toppled into the water.
For the worst part of their escape was Thorin's anger when he recovered enough to help Bilbo retrieve the others from their barrels. He was almost brutal in handling Bilbo, hovering over his shoulder, brushing against him at every opportunity and nearly throwing him into the river twice, until Bilbo snapped.
"If you're not fully recovered, sit and let us do the rest," he commanded, and Fíli and Kíli, who had joined their efforts to free their companions, raised their eyebrows. Thorin, however, merely continued to breathe down his neck, his imposing body closer to Bilbo than even a shadow.
"And if you still want to complain now you're safe and within sight of Erebor, well," - he drew himself up to his full height, which was still a good two inches shorter than Thorin - "I suggest you take your precious mountain and your fancy ring and find yourself another burglar."
With that he stalked off to the remaining barrels bobbing in the water, furious with himself. King though he might be, Thorin seemed to lack any form of courtesy - how else could he explain that any attempt to show him respect would anger Thorin even more?
He was calmed though by the sight of Bifur and Bofur embracing after they climbed onto solid ground. Both were drenched and stamped their feet on the ground to shake out the rigidity in their limbs. Bilbo watched open-mouthed as Bifur put a sopping wet hat back on Bofur's head and brushed his temple against Bofur's, who clutched him tightly as if he were still drowning. Oh, Bilbo thought dizzily, of course.
The moon shone cold over Laketown, and after many explanations and even more songs Bilbo was glad to see the room provided for him. He would have sunk into the bed and slept until the next evening had not the argument with Thorin by the river's side still been on his mind. It was with trepidation and a heavy heart that he approached the door to the King's quarters. From below, the voices of his companions rang out, mingling in long-forgotten tales of ancient glory. Presently, Bilbo knocked.
Never let it be said that a Baggins forgot his manners.
Thorin answered on the first knock, clearly surprised when he saw Bilbo.
"Has dinner already finished then?" he said, and Bilbo's brow darkened.
"I came to apologise for my rude words when we left the river. I was feeling rather ill, and I am sorry," he said stiffly.
"Apology accepted." Thorin opened the door wider and gestured him in.
"Although," continued Bilbo as he entered Thorin's chamber, "I might demand an apology myself. Not all hobbits care only for a full belly."
Thorin's eyes softened. "I was merely concerned for your health," he said. "but I do apologise." He gave a small bow, and Bilbo snorted.
"Very well," he said.
Thorin smiled widely then, and drew him closer, and as content as Bilbo was that their last grievance had been rested, he still had his reservations.
"You - ugh, let go - why do you insist on doing this!" he cried. Thorin's hands stilled, then he gave Bilbo a shove that nearly sent him sprawling into the fireplace.
"Why do you keep retreating from me?" said Thoin sharply. Bilbo stared at him, incredulous. He planted his feet and retorted: "Why do you keep trying to kill me?"
"Kill you?" said Thorin, bewildered. "Whatever gave you that idea!"
Bilbo held up a finger. "You have choked me," - a second - "stabbed me," - a third - "bruised me," - a fourth - "and in many other ways shown me that I am not welcome in your presence."
Thorin groaned. "I would never hurt you!" Slowly, as one would approach a wild animal, he made his way to Bilbo. "I have been trying to show my regard for you," he continued in a low voice.
Bilbo's hand sunk to his side. He boggled. "Your - your what, your regard?" he asked.
"Yes! And you have answered in kind, have you not?" Thorin's voice was almost accusing, and Bilbo rushed to object.
"Not that I am aware of." he responded. "I wasn't aware there was any - regard, on your side," he said hesitantly.
"Have you not shown your sincerity when you rushed to defend me from Azog?" asked Thorin.
Bilbo tilted his head. "That's one way of putting it," he said wryly.
"And have you not claimed your sincerity when you vowed to aid in my quest?" The King's voice was almost desperate, but even now Bilbo felt as if the threads of their argument were slipping through his fingers.
"I- yes, I swore to help you reclaim your home," he said.
Thorin's gaze was painfully open, hands leaning on the mantel, close enough for Bilbo to touch if he had wished to. "And you have given me santûmb when rested in the snow at the foot of the Misty Mountains," he said slowly.
"Sa- I'm sorry, what?"
"Santûmb, halfling, the perfect touch," shouted Thorin. "We slept as kin that night!" And oh, there was honest anger in his eyes now.
"I didn't know!" he cried.
"It seems there is much you don't know. I had thought you accepted my courtship, but now I see my favours are not returned." And with those words, the ever-present fire left Thorin's eyes and he turned from Bilbo. "Leave me."
But now that he was no longer observed and pursued, Bilbo felt an emptiness spread inside him, and unthinking, he reached out to touch Thorin's shoulder.
"What do you think you're doing?" hissed Thorin and stepped free. "I will not take a halfling's pity. Leave."
Bilbo swallowed. He could use the famed Took courage now, he thought, and vowed not to retreat. "Will you take a halfling's admiration then?" he asked
"Another day I'd take it gladly." Thorin sounded tired. "Tonight it is not welcome."
Through the rapid beating of his heart, Bilbo spoke: "What of affection, will you accept that?"
"Affection." Thorin stared. "For one that you thought wished to murder you."
Bilbo laughed nervously. "Well you didn't, and I liked you well enough. It was the stares I didn't appreciate, and the choking, and the-"
"- stabbing, yes, I remember." Thorin frowned at him, and Bilbo returned his gaze unflinching. "Know that regardless of what passed tonight, I shall never harm you."
"I know," whispered Bilbo.
He saw the weariness in Thorin, the lines and pains the road had had marked him with. But there was still Thorin's gaze, fierce as ever, only now Bilbo understood that it was not anger that drove Thorin but hunger. And thus he knew why Thorin was forever drawing him near, was favouring him with those all-consuming stare; he was hungry for every ounce of Bilbo's own affection and starved for his touch.
"I apologise," said Thorin hoarsely. "For my behaviour, and my words, and anything else you deem worthy an apology, and I thank you for your kindness."
The King looked defeated.
Bilbo drew a deep breath. "Apology not accepted," he said softly. "It is unnecessary. What kindness I can give is yours."
"Come, then," said Thorin tiredly, "show your affection, whatever they may be."
And Bilbo stepped closer, cursing his overgrown great-grandfather, meddlesome wizards, and generations of entirely too curious hobbit ancestors. He wished he could put the blame on them, could hold them responsible for his own nature; yet when he reached Thorin he had to admit defeat as well, for the desire in his heart was not born from ale or ancestry, but was his and his alone.
He reached out and ran his hand through Thorin’s hair, drifting lower to trace his features, watched Thorin’s eyes close and prayed silently, please, allow me this. And as if in answer, Thorin's voice rasped, "please," and Bilbo slid his hand to the nape of Thorin's neck and tugged him forward.
Thorin's voice was a half-whisper accompanied by soft lips barely touching his - once, twice ghosting, the third time lingering tenderly. Something warm was flowing through Bilbo, from his heart up into his head - it made him dizzy and took his breath away; he gasped into the kiss, hand clutching at Thorin's shirt, almost ripping it off in the attempt to hold on to something. Then it spread down again, through his chest and his stomach into his groin, leaving a tingling spark of desire, into his feet, and it felt like flying or drowning, hot and deep and tasting faintly of salt.
Thorin's whiskers rubbed against his chin, and his hand was heavy on Bilbo's cheek and Bilbo would gladly have this rather than all the gold to be found in Erebor.
"You have me at a disadvantage," murmured Thorin, and when Bilbo drew back he tugged pointedly at the hobbit's jacket, slipping it off his shoulders.
It landed with a curiously heavy sound, and they looked down. From one of the pockets the ring rolled, wobbling but slowly crossing the floor and coming to rest at Thorin's boot. The King stooped to pick it up, and Bilbo felt vaguely irritated for a moment, but it passed quickly. The ring seemed bigger in Thorin's hand, dark gold lit by its own flame, and the air in the room grew heavy.
"Such a small thing," said Thorin wonderingly, "and it brought us such fortune." Their eyes met over the golden band, and without breaking their gaze Thorin bent down to place it back in Bilbo's jacket, folding it carefully over a chair.
"I would worship you," he said. His eyes were very dark and unflinching, and Bilbo's breath stopped at the sight of him.
"I would give you a throne and a kingdom," he rumbled, voice dropping, "and my kinsmen would bow before you." No, thought Bilbo, that's not what I want at all. "But none would show you more devotion than I."
At that, Bilbo could not help himself, he buried his hands in Thorin's thick mane and tugged him down to kiss him again.
They undressed hastily after that, and Bilbo, with his back to Thorin, was toppled onto the bed.
He heard cloth rustle and a kiss was dropped on his neck, trailed over his spine and dipped in the hollow of his back.
"Ah," gasped Bilbo. "You are trying to kill me!"
"Only a small death, and I shall join you in it," rumbled Thorin. His hands halted on Bilbo's thighs.
"Will let me take you?" he asked softly.
Bilbo gulped. "Yes," he said, "but be careful, it's been... a while." He turned around to see Thorin rummage through his pack for weapon oil. Returning, Thorin bent to kiss Bilbo's ankle, licking his way up Bilbo's leg until he reached his cock.
And Bilbo could find no pain in Thorin's careful preparation: he was stretched slowly, insistently, until he was mewling with pleasure and pushing back against the invading fingers.
Only then did Thorin coat himself with oil and press against Bilbo, sliding in as a key would fit into a lock. Bilbo groaned, unaccustomed to the fullness, and Thorin leaned down to nip at his neck. Experimentally, Bilbo lifted his hips, and Thorin responded with a slow, rolling thrust. He snuck his hands under Bilbo's back and Bilbo drew himself up, settling on his lap, knees spread around Thorin's hips. Their rhythm was languid, each content to stay in the space they had created for themselves, clinging to each other. Thorin's mouth was warm on Bilbo's skin, his fingertips roaming over the hobbit's back, and his cock pressed into him deep enough to make his very toes tingle with it.
His peak snuck up on him between one thrust and the next; his fingers tightened around Thorin's back and he threw his head back and gasped and spilled his release between their bodies. Thorin followed soon after, pumping into him once, twice, crushing Bilbo against him and groaning into his neck.
Just before he dozed off, Bilbo remembered.
"Dwalin!" he cried.
Beside him, Thorin gave him a strange look.
"It is rather bad form to cry the name of your companion's best friend when you are in bed together," he said mildly.
"No, no," said Bilbo. "Dwalin hated me! He never stopped staring at me!"
Thorin laughed. "He thought you unworthy of my courtship. And then he thought you were mocking me."
Bilbo laughed with him.
He was – now, after his adventure – no longer afraid of the dark, or of lightning and thunder. The night with its creaking and rustling trees and its cold, sharp air was a refugee. The wild held no terrors that would frighten him.
He awoke slowly the next morning, wrapped in a cocoon of furs and warm skin.
He marvelled at the turns his life had taken since he stepped out his front door. This, though, was the most pleasant by far.
At his side, Thorin was regarding him fondly. Rough hands stroked down Bilbo's arms and played with the hair at the nape of his neck.
"Hmm, good morning," mumbled Bilbo and leaned in for a kiss. He shifted until he was fully in Thorin's arms and enjoyed their closeness until his cock grew interested.
Thorin's hands slipped down his back and when he rubbed his fingers across Bilbo's entrance, the hobbit winced involuntarily.
"I'm still sore," he said. In response, Thorin slid off the bed and tugged at Bilbo until the hobbit's legs were dangling over the edge, cock already hardening under Thorin's gaze. Thorin kissed Bilbo's stomach, rubbing his face in the fuzzy trail, and Bilbo shivered at the sensation of stubble on his sensitive skin. His hands reached out vaguely, and were captured and pushed firmly onto the mattress. Strong fingers encircled his wrists and held them down as Thorin's mouth moved downward, sucking and nipping. Finally Bilbo could feel the dwarf's bear tickle the head of his cock and whimpered. It was dragged over his cock, caressing it maddeningly, until finally Thorin's lips found his cock.
Bilbo threw his head back, gasping and arching under the attack of Thorin's mouth, and his eyes closed. Thorin's hands slipped to his waist, and something was dragged against his perineum and the base of his cock, brushing along the length.
Then suddenly Thorin stopped and whispered, "Look at me," and Bilbo leaned up to peer down. There, before him, knelt the King. Thorin's hair was in wild disarray, single strands tickling Bilbo's thighs. His head was buried between Bilbo's legs, long nose rubbing against the hobbit's cock, and precome glistened in his beard.
"Does it please you to see your King kneel?" asked Thorin, and Bilbo's cock twitched.
"It'd please me more if he stopped using his tongue for talking," said Bilbo.
Thorin chuckled, but a swift lick at Bilbo's cock had the hobbit gasp and moan. He was enveloped in heat and wetness, and he could not help but thrust his hips forward, cock slipping deeper into Thorin's mouth. And Thorin let him, fingers tightening on Bilbo's hip but making no move to hold him down. Thorin's tongue did something amazing, swirling around the head and, when Bilbo settled back down, pushing against the slit.
"Oh hell," moaned Bilbo, and Thorin hummed, throat vibrating deliciously around Bilbo's cock. He gave up all attempts at restrained and allowed himself to thrust deeper, a slow rhythm that sped up as Thorin started sucking in earnest, until his hips stuttered erratically. At that moment though, the mouth around his cock vanished.
"Turn around," whispered Thorin, and Bilbo complied, flopping gracelessly onto his belly. He felt impossibly aroused and desperate, and quite content to lie there until that business with the dragon had taken care of itself, but a touch between his cheeks had him draw a sharp breath.
Big hands spread his cheeks and then something warm and wet was lapping at his hole, and Bilbo gave an embarrassed groan and pushed back into it.
Behind him, Thorin chuckled. "You are ready for more, then?" he said, and accompanied it with another broad stroke of his tongue. Bilbo wordlessly groaned again. He still felt impossibly open from last night, and Thorin's tongue did wonders to soothe his sore muscle. He ground his hips against the bed to bring some relief to his aching cock, but the tongue vanished and instead, Thorin suddenly gave his arse a small slap.
"Oh- what was that for," said Bilbo breathlessly.
Thorin stroked his fingers over the reddening skin. "None of that," he said, and brought his arms around Bilbo to drag him up to his elbows and knees.
"You'll come with me inside you," said Thorin, and Bilbo turned his head glanced at him warily.
"Don't know if I can," he said hesitantly, but Thorin continued kneading his cheeks and ducked his head to nip and bite at the soft flesh.
"You can, and you will," he said decisively. Bilbo hear the soft click of the oil flask, and then a slick finger was teasing his entrance. It slipped in, and he shuddered. His channel felt raw and overly sensitive, and every move made his muscle twitch. It was joined by another finger far too soon, spreading and twisting, and it was all Bilbo could do to hold on and pant into the pillow. A third finger made him try to spread his thighs to ease the penetration, to open himself up as much as he could, but it was still not enough, not nearly enough to prepare him for the thickness of Thorin's cock.
He hissed as Thorin pressed the head into him, stretching him, pushing in inch by inch.
"Shh," said Thorin calmly, and then his voice dropped. "You can take it."
And Bilbo did take it, though he cried out when Thorin was finally buried inside his hole, coarse hair brushing against Bilbo's ass. The first thrust was short and slow and had Bilbo clench his hands in the sheets, torn between pushing back and rocking forward to escape. Thorin, however, showed no mercy. The next stroke was longer, and the next longer still, and soon he was slamming harder into the whimpering hobbit.
Bilbo bit into his hand and screamed at a particularly hard thrust, but there it was, that magic spot that had him see stars, and suddenly he was open enough and Thorin was not deep enough.
"More," he hissed, "By the stars, Thorin, more." Thorin complied instantly, wrapping his arms around Bilbo and lifting him up until Bilbo was cradled against him and Thorin slid just a little further into him, and oh, that was it. Bilbo could feel every inch of the King buried inside him or pressed against him, surrounding him. He gasped at each thrust, trying to time himself with Thorin's, and the bed beneath them shook with their coupling.
He could feel his peak approaching quickly and tightened his muscles, bearing down. Behind him, Thorin gave a strangled shout and pounded into him once, twice, and Bilbo felt him come deep inside his arse. He grabbed his own cock, stroking himself rapidly while Thorin pulsed inside him, and finally cried out his release.
Limply, he let himself fall into the sheets, rolling to the side and catching his breath. At his side, Thorin was gasping and Bilbo reached out to touch his shoulder, stroking his hand over his chest. He curled himself toward Thorin and saw his own peace reflected in the dwarf's lazy smile.
"Oh, I love you" Thorin whispered, eyes widening at his own words. And Bilbo felt like the day he left Bag End, he was equally nervous, heart fluttering. They stared at each other, Thorin's eyes wide and open and Bilbo could read every emotion in them. "You-" he started. He leant in, lowered eyes, and when he could feel Thorin's breath on his lips he said, "I love you", and sealed it with a kiss.
"Finally!" shouted Kíli when they arrived for breakfast, late enough to find nothing but a meager handful of rolls and some butter and honey.
Bilbo narrowed his eyes at the dwarves who had started congratulating each other and exchanging small purses. Thorin's hand on his back had him keep silent though, and he basked in the happiness he had never hoped to find.
For many years Bilbo would chide himself for his betrayal, and he would be the last to forgive himself for his actions against the dwarves. Nothing, not the darkness of the Mirkwood dungeons nor the desolation of the caverns under the Misty Mountains had wounded him as deeply as the sight of Thorin turning from him as if he were a stranger. He deserved it, he knew, he deserved every ounce of Thorin's loathing.
His heart grew cold and he stumbled as if in a daze. And when at last he stood on the battlefield, after many blades had been crossed and foe had fallen as easily as friend, he knew he was lost. The ring had led him here and preserved his body, but his soul would stay in its shadow world.
That was where they found him.
"Come," said Gandalf. "Your King asks for you."
"Will he live?" choked Bilbo.
Gandalf's eyes were sombre. "I do not know."
"Bilbo," rasped Thorin as Bilbo came to his bedside, and Bilbo felt tears form in his eyes. Thorin's body was badly injured; the battle against Azog and his allies had taken a heavy toll on him. Blood tained his clothes and coated his hands, and Bilbo sat at his side carefully.
"This is the hour I would take back my words to you," said Thorin.
"No," replied Bilbo, "no, it was my fault."
"Hush," said Thorin. "Don't you know it is impolite to interrupt your King." Bilbo smiled weakly at that.
"I would have us part in peace," continued Thorin, coughing.
"I would not have us part," muttered Bilbo. He lay his hand softly on the King's brow.
"Ah, Bilbo," said Thorin. "If the Gods are merciful, we shall meet again." And with that, his eyes closed and he fell into deep slumber.
And Bilbo wept over Thorin's body as the King slept on; he could not fall asleep himself for fear he would wake and find him dead. Three days Thorin lay on bloodied sheets, and Bilbo fell into the darkness behind his eyelids on each inhale and woke to each ragged breath. Thorin's skin grew hot under his hands, then cool, and colder still. His bleeding stopped, and his face lost its colour, and many of their companions came to sit vigil at his side.
The fourth morning dawned grey and cold. Fog veiled the mountain-top and hid those bodies that were yet unclaimed from view.
But as the sun rose, the shadows fled, and Thorin's eyes opened.
bayur-tumûn - a hidden place of delving
Umanathûh! - very bad translation of "Cheers!"
Mukhuh turgi turug usgin! - May his beard continue to grow longer!
Khazâd ai-mênu! - The Dwarves are upon you!
Thadulur kuthu tharâk shulukizd mingalel. - Only when the rocks drink the sky of all skies.
âzyungâl - lover
Abzagûn - bane