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The Fine Art of Small Talk

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When the awe of seeing the Lonely Mountain wore off, the party still had to get down from that blasted old rock. They climbed down one after the other, cursing and grumbling the whole time. “Couldn’t you have gotten the eagles to drop us a little bit closer?” Bombur asked as he scooted down a crevice.

“Or a little lower?” added Fili, clinging to the rock below Bombur and looking a little concerned.

“The eagles are a proud race,” Gandalf said. “They are not ferries or servants to be commanded from one place to another.” Gandalf seemed to be having considerably less difficulty climbing down than the rest of them. For his own part, Bilbo had taken to clinging to the cliff with three limbs and blindly flailing with the fourth. Right now, his left foot groping for foothold in the cliff face found nothing. The process would go quicker if Bilbo would just look down. Bilbo refused to look down.

“There is a crack two handbreadths to the left. Can you reach?” Thorin asked, perched slightly below him. Dwalin and Balin were close by, keeping an eye on their king as they went. Thorin had insisted that he was fine and could climb unaided, but Thorin’s pride seemed to be the only undamaged thing about him. He looked like nothing so much as tenderized meat; Bilbo ached just looking at him.

Bilbo stretched lower and found the crack. “Got it. Thanks,” he said as he lowered himself.

“There aren’t many mountains in the Shire, I take it?” Bofur asked in a disgustingly cheerful manner.

“We’ve got lovely sloping hills,” Bilbo said. “We have picnics on them.” He pretended that he was there now, and that the rough rock scraping against him was the cool new grass of spring, and that he was not pressed against a rock cliff but lying down after a good hearty lunch. It took a great deal of imagination to convince himself that this was that, and the effort took his mind off fright until he realized with a start that his foot had touched ground.

“Well,” Bilbo said, plopping himself on the ground next to Nori. “That’s an experience I don’t care to repeat. I much prefer staying on the ground.”

“You do know that the Lonely Mountain is a mountain, right?” Nori asked. “And that we’re going to go up it?”

Thorin looked ahead towards the direction of Erebor looming on the horizon. He had shrugged off his nephews offers to help him stand, but his face looked pale and his cuts deep. “We flew through the night, and we have the day ahead of us. We can cover more distance before we break camp.”

They were, at the moment, the most horrifying words Bilbo had ever heard. Gandalf evidently agreed as the wizard scoffed and sat himself down on a fallen log.

“We could,” Gandalf said. “It would save time. Then again, we could have flung ourselves down from the rock to reach the ground quicker, but I think the drawbacks outweighed the benefits.”

“We have enemies on our trail. We cannot afford to tarry.” Thorin hefted one of the packs onto his shoulder and winced. Dwalin reached for the pack and Thorin shrugged him off, wincing again.

“I do think the mountain range between us will buy us time,” Gandalf said. Thorin glared at him and started to walk. Or hobble. Hobble was the more accurate word. “And you are not going anywhere very quickly.”

 “I will not slow this company,” Thorin said, his voice a low rumble of affronted pride.

“Which you will assuredly do if you do not heal,” Gandalf said. He gestured at the other twelve dwarves and Bilbo. “You are not the only weakened member. We are all tired.”

Thorin regarded his company. They did their best to look eager and willing. If he asked it of them, they would march on. Bilbo saw that he would not ask it of them. These men had been raked through the flames today, more literally than they all would have preferred. "Whatever their reasons, the eagles have given us a great boon," Thorin said reluctantly. "We are far closer to the mountain than we would have been on foot alone. Our time is limited, but we can afford a more leisurely pace for the time being."

No one sighed exactly. That wouldn't have been very fitting for a band of adventurers. But everyone did seem to slump with relief as they went about the pleasurable duties of setting up camp. Kili and Ori, being over-encumbered with the energy of youth, got saddled with the first watch. Oin built the fire. Bilbo watched as he poked and prodded the fire, sending sparks up into the night. That's our destination, Bilbo thought. Our journey ends in dragon fire.

Bilbo had no mood to sit around tonight. He had never been so tired in all his life. While the others talked and laughed, Bilbo tried to find a patch of ground that had ground somewhere between all the rocks. "Mr. Baggins," Thorin said as Bilbo ran his hands over the dirt. Bilbo straightened. Thorin, leaning against the cliff wall that sheltered them, raised his arm and pointed to a spot a few feet away. He moved with some difficulty, Bilbo noticed, a stiffness that Bilbo had never noticed in the dwarf before. It was a shame that he would have to sleep on dirt and a fur cloak tonight; that was enough to make a healthy man sore. "The ground is clear there."

"Oh." Bilbo walked over to it. Indeed the ground was as level and smooth as Bilbo could hope for in the great wilderness.  He pounded the ground with his foot. "Very, er, sturdy. Yes, good. Thanks, thank you," he said as he rolled out his blanket.

"You sound surprised," Thorin said. His face was as unreadable as the rock behind him.

"I—I am," Bilbo said. "It's always surprising to find a decent bit of ground to sleep on." Which Bilbo thought was an elegant way of sidestepping Thorin's real point because it was late and Bilbo was exhausted and he didn't know what else to say. He turned from Thorin as he laid down on his kit and faced the Misty Mountains. I have crossed a mountain range, he realized. I have gone under some of it and over the rest and I have live to tell the tale. And he thought of his little armchair back home and the warm hearth that awaited him, and the memories stirred the same homesickness that they always did. But something new rose in his breast as well. If I go home, I will be a hobbit who has crossed a mountain range twice. Once on the way there and once on the way back again. I could stay in Bag End for the rest of my days, and nothing could take that from me.

And behind him, soft as spring rain and low as thunder, Thorin started to sing so quietly it must have been just to himself in a language Bilbo did not understand but wished he did. He listened as long as he could before exhaustion finally sent him plummeting into sleep, and his dreams, when they came, were full of dark places he'd never seen.

 

 

The next morning, Bilbo felt halfway decent again, though his back still made an alarming assortment of cracks and pops when he leaned backwards. The other dwarves seemed similarly revived as they ran about disassembling camp. They were singing as they did so. They did that quite a lot. Bilbo stayed away from all that business. He wasn’t that well-rested. Thorin wasn’t singing either as he sat next to Gandalf. The conversation seemed heated.

“We have need of you with us,” Bilbo heard Thorin saying as he approached. “Our misadventures in the mountains have proved that well.”

“Your begrudging, belated respect is appreciated, but I am needed elsewhere,” Gandalf said.

“You’re leaving?” Bilbo asked, horrified.

Gandalf and Thorin looked up at him as if they had not heard him approach. “Yes,” Gandalf said. “I have higher duties to attend.” Gandalf gave Thorin a wry look. “And I never signed a contract.”

“So you will leave us.” Thorin glowered. It worked quite well for him. He had a face built for glowering, grimacing, and brooding. If Bilbo attempted any of those, he’d just end up with sulking.

“I will do my duty as I must.” Gandalf raised an eyebrow. “Unless you oppose the idea.”

Thorin shot the wizard a look that said do not talk to me of duty, and Bilbo knew that Gandalf had won. The rest of the dwarves protested as well when they heard the news, but the matter was settled. “I will see you all at this end of this journey,” Gandalf said as they stood at a crossroads, him heading east and they west. “And when you have need, I will come.”

That sounded awfully vague to Bilbo’s ears, but he’d learned that was the way wizards talked. They made grand statements that didn’t really say anything so that when something happened that halfway fit what they said they could say they predicted it. He told Gandalf that as they said goodbye and was rewarded with Gandalf’s deep laughter. “Keep that insight to yourself, Mr. Baggins,” Gandalf said with a wink. “I’d recommend you try mastering the art yourself. You’ll need every trick you can get to keep these dwarves in line.”

“That’s not my job,” Bilbo protested.

Gandalf smiled. “By the time this journey ends, I suspect you’ll have done a great many things that aren’t your job.”

On that ominous note, Gandalf straightened and tipped his head to the assembled parties. “I wish you safe travels, though I fear that is impossible.”

“And the same to you,” Thorin said. He didn’t sound wholly gracious. In fact, on a lesser man, Bilbo would have said he was pouting. But he clasped hands with Gandalf anyway. Thorin did understand duty, even as he resented and cursed it when it inconvenienced him. As they watched the wizard disappear into the woods, Bilbo heard Thorin sigh, softly enough that Bilbo wondered if anyone else had heard. “Enough gawping,” Thorin said. “We move out.”

Since they first set out, the party had fallen into a walking pattern without discussing it. Kili and Fili scouted, followed by Thorin and Dwalin, followed by Bifur, Oin, and Gloin, followed by Bilbo and whoever had decided to keep him company that day, followed by Nori, Dori, Ori, and Balin, with Bombur and Bofur  taking up the rear. Left to their own devices, this was the pattern that the party naturally fell into and it suited them all well. Although today, Bilbo sensed a flaw in the pattern almost immediately as Thorin limped forward. “Stop, stop that,” he said to him without thinking. Thorin looked back as the others walked past them, pretending very hard that they weren’t listening while intently listening.

“Stop what?” Thorin asked.

Maybe ordering Thorin Oakenshield to do anything was a mistake. But watching him try to make his injured body do what it would do at the peak of health was painful to watch. “Stop—” Bilbo gestured at all of Thorin. “Stop that. You’re injured. You can’t lead the party, you can barely walk.”

“I assure you, Mr. Baggins,” Thorin said, his face dark with disapproval, “I am hearty and hale.”

“You’ve just been chewed like gristle by one of the nastiest things on four legs, and you look like it. It’ll be quicker in the long run to have you healthy than to have you limping from here to the Lonely Mountain.”

Thorin scoffed and turned away. Then Bilbo did something particularly stupid. He jabbed Thorin in the side with his walking stick. Thorin grunted and grabbed his side. Up ahead, the dwarves rustled with horror. Bilbo leaned on his walking stick and tried to look like he wasn’t afraid Thorin would murder him. “If you were fine,” Bilbo said reasonably, “you’d be thrashing me right now.”

Thorin was quiet for a moment as he cradled his side and studied Bilbo’s face. “I wouldn’t thrash,” he said at last. “I save thrashings for physical equals.”

“You’re right,” Bilbo said. “I am far more physically fit than you right now.”

"So you're a medicine man," Balin said, butting in, for which Bilbo was grateful because murder might still be on the table.

"Er. No. No, I'm not," Bilbo said. He'd gotten into this situation because someone mistook him for a burglar, and while he didn't regret coming, he preferred to get into trouble based on what he actually was.

"But you've got some basic idea of healing."

 “Ah, well.” Bilbo slipped his hands into his pockets. “I know how to patch myself up. I have tumbled down in the cabbage patch a few times,” he said and immediately regretted it. It sounded like one of those things that dwarves wouldn’t find very impressive. Then again, his sword had drawn blood not one night ago, and that knowledge made him hold his head a little higher as the company looked him over. “I’m sure it’s not as much as you fellows know. Being warriors.”

The dwarves all avoided Bilbo’s eyes.

“You do know basic medical care?” Bilbo asked. He had not meant it to come out as a question. It seemed to him that on a journey across Middle Earth to reclaim a mountain from a dragon, at least one of the party would surely know how to tend wounds.

“That’s women’s work,” Kili offered. “Dwarf women are very good healers. The best in Middle Earth.”

“Er, great. But we don’t…have any dwarf women?” It was another sentence he had not meant as a question. But now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure what dwarf women looked like. Hairy was the only trait he knew about them.

“Course not,” Kili scoffed. “Fighting and questing are men’s work.”

“Which right now, I will admit,” Fili said, “does seem like a problematic division of labor.”

“Right. So no one here knows healing.”

“You do,” Kili said cheerfully.

“No, I don’t,” Bilbo said at the same time Thorin said, “No, he doesn’t,” as they both saw where this was going.

Balin stroked his beard as his eyes flicked back and forth between Thorin and Bilbo. "That's good," he said.

“No, it’s not,” Bilbo and Thorin said.

"That's very good. It's settled then." He pointed a finger at Bilbo then at Thorin. "You can look after him."

“I don’t need to be nursed by a Halfling,” Thorin protested.

“He’s right,” Bilbo said. “He does not.”

Balin gave them a cheerful grin. “Yes, that’ll do.” He raised his considerable eyebrows at Thorin. “Unless you can keep up with us.”

Thorin glowered. He was fond of that. But he stayed silent. Balin winked at Bilbo as he turned to face the rest of his pack. “Come on, my friends. Erebor awaits us.” The company walked on, one loud mass of dwarves vanishing up the forest path. Thorin looked at Bilbo. Bilbo looked back. “Well,” Bilbo started before Thorin took off walking without a word. Bilbo sighed, hoisted his pack higher on his back, and followed.

Bilbo thought about saying something. He thought about for so long that it seemed to him that the moment for speaking had passed and that continued silence would be less uncomfortable now than breaking it. But Bilbo couldn’t think of one conversation topic, not a one. Thorin may have embraced him, may have told him that he deserved to be here, but they still had not one thing in common, not one. There was small talk, of course, and like all respectable hobbits, he was well-versed in the art of speaking while saying nothing, but he found he had less and less patience for chore as the journey continued. He hadn’t good day’d anyone for weeks now. But if you took away small talk, what could Bilbo say here? Nothing was the answer, nothing at all. Bilbo sighed quietly and walked on. Well, it was no tragedy not to connect to someone. The wide world was full of people Bilbo could not connect with, and he’d lived happily enough. One more to the pile made little difference to him.

 

 

After five hours of continuous silence, Thorin cleared his throat. "The trees," he said stiffly. "They are...pleasant."

Jerked out of his own thoughts, Bilbo glanced up at Thorin's face. "Er. Yes. Very...green."

"Green, yes. That's the correct word."

They fell back into a silence that was all the more uncomfortable for the words that had broken it. Trees. They were talking about trees. And now they weren't talking about trees which seemed worse than when they hadn't been talking about anything at all. So Bilbo cleared his throat and cast around blindly in the darkness for some burning question he had about trees. "Do you have trees?" he asked. Yes, well done, Bilbo, he thought, but he pressed on. "At Erebor, I mean. Because you live underground. I don't suppose you get much sunlight under there, but then again Bag End is underground and I've quite a few plants I tend. Though I imagine Erebor is more extensive than a hobbit hole. We couldn’t fit a dragon in one of ours, I mean. A hobbit hole. Not that it’s your fault that Smaug could fit in yours. I bet the builders didn’t see that coming."

It so happened that at that moment they were passing by a brook. It babbled less than Bilbo did.

"Not inside Erebor, no." Thorin stopped talking, and Bilbo figured that was that. They had attempted conversation and it had been ultimately fruitless. But then Thorin surprised him. "The surrounding area was lush and green. The men of Dale hunted in those rich forests and tended the woods well, though they needed little help from men, for those forests were older than Dale or Erebor."

"Did they..." Bilbo trailed off until Thorin shot him a questioning look. "Did they survive Smaug?"

Thorin looked ahead. "No. The fire claimed everything for miles around."

That ended the conversation for the day.  

 

 

The day was miserably hot, and the hills were miserably steep, and by noon Bilbo was miserably miserable with no hope of his mood improving. Perhaps Thorin felt the same way; Bilbo wouldn’t know. The dwarf was as silent as ever, as silent as the rocks they clambered over. Injured or no, and he was still very obviously injured, Thorin showed no signs of stopping as they trudged ever upwards and onwards. He must be in pain, Bilbo thought as he puffed his way up the roughest hill yet. He doesn’t show it though. Is that stubbornness or stoicism? Whatever it was, it seemed very admirable to Bilbo at the moment. I could be stoic.

Then Bilbo finally bobbed his way to the top, Thorin a step behind him, and he saw the next, even steeper hill jutting up in front of them. No, of course, I can’t, Bilbo corrected himself as he plopped down on a toppled log and pulled out his canteen. “No,” he said when Thorin looked at him questioningly.  He toasted Thorin and drank. “You’re injured and I’m short. We’ve earned a break after four hours of marching over these rocks.” He scowled and started beating the rubble off his feet. “I can’t take a step without something sharp and hard poking into me.”

Thorin looked more amused than concerned. “I thought hobbit feet could weather any condition.”

“They can,” Bilbo said. “But that doesn’t mean I appreciate pebbles digging into my sole.” He plucked out the offending rock that had embedded itself in Bilbo’s heel. It didn’t hurt—hobbit feet would never twinge at something so small as that—but small annoyances could quickly become major problems on the road where there was no time for rest and no healers. Save for one little hobbit who can peddle no more than common sense, Bilbo thought. Though that is precious rare among dwarves.

He glanced at the pebble in his hand. “Hmm. Shiny.”

That got Thorin’s attention. He stepped towards Bilbo and held out his hand. “May I?”

 Bilbo raised his eyebrows. “You do know that was in my foot?” Thorin said nothing in response and kept his hand out so Bilbo shrugged and dropped the rock into his palm. “Have I found a treasure gem then?”

Thorin ignored him as he held the small rock up to the light. It looked like clouded glass with a purplish tint, and as Thorin turned it this way and that, it glinted in the sun. “King’s quartz.” He sounded disappointed. Thorin tossed the stone back to Bilbo. It bounced off Bilbo’s chest and onto the ground.

“I’ve heard of that!” Bilbo said, picking it up. “It’s supposed to grow or appear or whatever it is rocks do in spots where an elf has bled.”

Thorin snorted. “Despite what their kind would have you believe, elves do not bleed magic rocks. Though if they did, it would be something like king’s quartz. Despite its name, there is nothing particularly special or rare about it.”

“Pretty though.”

The look Thorin gave Bilbo was especially pitying. “When you see the treasure of Erebor, you’ll see it as the dull bit of rock it is. Emeralds, rubies, sapphires, topaz, bloodstone, opals, mithril, diamonds, precious gemstones beyond name and measure. When we say that dwarves have gone mad from the beauty, we do not say it lightly.”

Bilbo tucked the pebble into the pocket of his waistcoat and grabbed his walking stick. “That sounds very pleasant. I think I can handle the sight of some rocks,” he said as he started walking again. He’d gone ten steps before he realized Thorin wasn’t following. He looked back. Thorin stood where he’d left him, staring at Bilbo with a mixture of shock and horror.

“Some rocks?” Thorin said. It was around that point Bilbo realized his mistake. “Some rocks?”

“Er. Nice rocks,” Bilbo said quickly. “Lovely rocks. You can’t get rocks like…your rocks just anywhere.”

Thorin advanced on him. For a second, Bilbo wondered if Thorin was going to stab him. “Gemstones are the dwarves’ gift to the world. We mine them, cut them, fasten them, and send them out into the world. Every precious glinting thing you have ever seen came through the hands of the dwarves.” Except for the elvish treasures, Bilbo thought about saying and then immediately thought better of it. “You would reduce the craft of our people to ‘some rocks?’” Thorin shook his head. “No, I am not angry at you. I am angry at myself.”

“Oh,” Bilbo said because he wasn’t sure what was about to happened, but at least he was fairly sure now he wasn’t about to be stabbed. “Good?”

Thorin clasped his hand on Bilbo’s shoulder so robustly that Bilbo’s arm went a little numb. “You are ignorant of our ways. That is to be expected. There are no dwarves close to the Shire. I can see now that this entire company must be a culture shock for you.”

Bilbo thought about, well, thought about literally anything any dwarf had ever done in front of him and said, “I think that’s a fair assessment.”

 “I have been too curt with you these last few days. Forgive me. I resented my weakness and took it out on you who I should respect as much as any member of this party. But now I see the hidden blessings of my injuries. They made me as weak and feeble as you so that I could have this opportunity.” Thorin clasped his other hand on Bilbo’s other shoulder and smiled. It felt like he was cutting off Bilbo’s escape. “I will teach you, Mister Baggins. I will teach you the ways of the dwarves.”

“Good?” Bilbo said again.

“Yes. This is good.”

Thorin was wrong.

 

 

The hill was long and hard, and the next one was even more so, but somehow the searing agony in Bilbo’s legs were far preferable to the current one in Bilbo’s brain as Thorin rattled off facts about rocks. Bilbo couldn’t tell you which facts about rocks because at a certain point all rock facts blurred together because, quite frankly, rocks were not interesting and never could be because they were rocks, but Bilbo’s noncommittal grunts and I says did not seem to deter Thorin in the slightest. At least he sounds cheerful now. That makes one of us.

“And those are the ores,” Thorin said. “Now I will walk you through the smelting process.”

Bilbo held up his hand. "Are you going to walk me through every process?"

"Yes."

"I can outrun you, you know. Your top speed is still ‘hobble.’"

"Then I can inform the rest of your company of your woeful ignorance." Had Thorin always looked so evil? "I'm sure they will be happy to assist in your education."

"I—you—that’s not fair." The thought of all thirteen dwarves teaming up to educate him on the differences between the primary, alluvial, or placer deposits of gold—Bilbo was bored just thinking about it. “Listen here,” he said, thrusting a finger at Thorin. “This is the deal. For every hour that you talk about mining, I will talk to you about my garden. Agreed?"

Thorin smirked. "You cannot have as much to say about your garden as I have about the entire craft of mining."

Bilbo laughed. Thorin looked a little alarmed. Good. Bilbo could work with that. He stuck out his hand. "Agreed?"

Thorin raised his chin and grabbed Bilbo's hand. His grip was firm and hard. "Agreed."

You will break first hung unspoken in the air. You underestimate my love of gardening, Bilbo thought as he clasped Thorin’s hand and stared him in the eye. You underestimate at your own peril.

Bilbo didn’t say it aloud. The dwarves were never as impressed with hobbit threats as they should be.

They should have probably let go of each other’s hands by now. Thorin apparently thought that at the same time as Bilbo and released. They stood awkwardly for a moment, Bilbo flexing and unflexing his hand. “Great. Well. Yes.” He nodded his head at the trail. “On we go.” Thorin opened his mouth and Bilbo held up a finger. "My turn," he reminded Thorin. Thorin grimaced. Bilbo hid his smile and cleared his throat. "When I inherited Bag End, the garden was for purely practical purposes. My parents had given no thought at all to aesthetic value. Well," Bilbo said, chuckling as he saw the despair creep into Thorin’s eyes, "I changed that, didn't I?"

What a joy it was to talk about gardening! Sure, the audience seemed actively pained, but the simple pleasure of the familiar words on his tongue brightened Bilbo’s spirits. Bilbo heard nothing but dwarf talk for the last month. Just having the chance to say ‘daisy’ made him feel like he was closer to home. He was in such a good mood that when Thorin said, "Your time is up,” with a strained voice, Bilbo was taken utterly aback by the interruption.

"Are you sure?" he asked, cross to be interrupted. He was only halfway through his explanation of the Brandybuck root incident. "I thought I had a while more. I haven’t even gotten to my begonias yet."

"I was counting,” Thorin said like a dwarf who had felt the weight of every minute. “I am sure. Now. Back to smelting."

Bilbo’s mouth tightened. He knew the rules. He’d made them. He could abide by them. Still as Thorin started to prattle on, as if Bilbo had never spoken at all, it felt like a slap in the face. Thorin could not even pretend to care. Fine, Bilbo thought as he tuned Thorin out. He could easily return the favor.

 

 

Bilbo hadn’t expected the arrangement to last, but the next day as they began walking again—a few paces behind the rest of the company, as always—Thorin dove right back into the subject of gold, which apparently occurred in its malleable form in nature that gold occurred in its form in nature while copper, lead, silver, and iron all occurred primarily as minerals. The point of conversation, Bilbo thought as Thorin explained why that mattered, should to not be to punish the other person for listening.

But Bilbo did love talking about his garden, even if his audience didn’t enjoy listening. (“They’re just flowers!” Thorin moaned when it was Bilbo’s turn to talk.) He took great pride in his land, cultivated from some of the most unforgiving soil in all of Hobbiton. Everyone in the Shire agreed that he’d made a very good garden, and getting hobbits to agree on something was a feat more difficult than the one this company had assembled to complete. He missed his garden every day that he was away from it, missed the sight and the smells but mostly missed the simple but incredibly complex act of fostering lifewhere it hadn’t been before. While Thorin lectured on gold extraction, Bilbo sighed at the thought of what must have befallen his little plot of land.

“It is not the risk of toxic fumes from molten rock that has you sighing so sadly,” Thorin said. Bilbo was so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he only noticed the sentence was addressed to him when the silence stretched too long.

“Er, no. I’m afraid it’s my garden. I never told any of my neighbors to look after it.” Bilbo sighed again. “I expect it will be nothing but weeds by the time I return. If I return.”  

Thorin was silent for a moment. “If you would like to discuss your garden further,” he said at last, “I can bear that burden.”

“Thanks,” Bilbo said dryly.

Thorin scowled. “I did not mean it like I said it.”

Bilbo shook his head. “Come now, Thorin. How do you deal with the risk of toxic fumes?”

“Truly? You are interested?”

“Well, not particularly, no. But I can wait my turn.”

Thorin raised his eyebrow. “How you are immune to the wonders of mining and smithing, I do not know.”

“As I believe you said only a few hours ago,” Bilbo said, “it’s because I’m ‘more woefully ignorant than the average dwarvish infant.’”

“No, Mister Baggins, I insist. Tell me why they do not interest you,” Thorin challenged.

Bilbo sighed again and rubbed his forehead. The truth slipped out before he could stop himself. “It’s just—they’re dead! Gems, rocks, gold, what have you, they are just dead things dragged up from the earth and made pretty. And they are pretty, they’re very pretty, they are stunning works of craftsmanship, but they’re inert. I’m sorry, but I don’t see what is wondrous about that.”

Thorin’s face was dark as a thundercloud. “To think that is to misunderstand the craft entirely.”

“Then explain it to me.”

“I am explaining it to you!”

“No. You are explaining smelting. There’s no poetry in smelting.”

“We covered smelting yesterday. Today I was talking about cyanidation. You are not listening.”

“I am listening,” Bilbo said crossly. It was at least a little true. “Maybe the fault isn’t on my end.”

Thorin scoffed. “And you say such things of worth.”

Bilbo narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean what I say. If I have failed to stir your heart with explanations of the craft, you have failed to stir mine with rambling anecdotes about, about—” Thorin made a dismissive gesture. “Soil consistency or how the sun must shine just so. Concerns that matter to no one but a few gentlehobbits with no concerns in the world.”

Bilbo crossed his arms. They’d both quite abandoned walking at this point. “I see. Since you find it all so dull, I ask you, when you reclaim Erebor, where will all your food come from?”

Thorin glared. “That is not the same.”

“It is exactly the same on a larger scale. Whether you grow food or trade for it, your meals depend on someone knowing the soil consistency or how the sun must shine just so, so please do not pretend that you, Thorin Oakenshield, alone among all creatures in Middle Earth, have nothing to do with the green things that grow.”

“And when you return home to spend your cases of dead, inert gold, ask yourself who first crafted the bookshelves you’ll buy or the new silverware or the fine mirror or anyone of the thousands of treasures and tools that make life easier and beautiful.”

Bilbo rolled his eyes. He couldn’t help it. The future king under the mountain was like a child throwing a tantrum. Thorin snorted and turned away. “I forget,” he said as he stomped ahead. “You are no dwarf.”

Thorin spat the words like a curse and they smarted like a slap. “Good!” Bilbo shouted after him. “That means I’ve got some sense in my head.”

They walked the next few miles in silence, Thorin stomping five paces in front of Bilbo while Bilbo stared at his back and fumed. Stupid dwarf and his stupid quest and his stupid craft and his stupid face, Bilbo thought. But it was fine. It was so fine. If Thorin thought Bilbo said nothing of worth, then Bilbo wouldn’t say anything and Thorin could think about rocks all by himself. No skin off Bilbo’s nose.

Then Thorin stumbled.

“Are you alright?” Bilbo shouted as Thorin’s knee almost hit the ground, his arm going to his side. Thorin looked back, his face lined with pain, and flicked his head back. He walked on.

“Slow down,” Bilbo said. He left you royal idiot implied.

Thorin didn’t look back as he said, “I have no need to slow myself to your lazy pace.” But his voice sounded tighter than it had before.

Bilbo jogged after him, silently cursing the whole line of Durin. “The last I checked, you weren’t limping for my benefit.”

“I was humoring you and the rest of this company. I am fine.”

“You’re acting—” Stupid, petty, needlessly stubborn, like an overgrown and overly hairy child, all popped into Bilbo’s mind and crowded in his mouth so he couldn’t decide which he wanted to shout at the dwarvish nuisance currently striding away, his gait unnaturally stiff, when Thorin shouted and bent double, clutching his left side. Bilbo ran up to him and abutted his little body under Thorin’s, taking some of the weight off. Thorin muttered something that sounded very foreign and very offensive.

“Come on, now,” Bilbo said. “Are you alright?” He couldn’t see any bleeding so maybe Thorin hadn’t ripped open his old cuts. Something under the surface though? Cracked rib perhaps? It couldn’t be poking into Thorin’s lungs right now. Bilbo couldn’t contain his flutter of panic at the thought as his hands patted down Thorin’s torso, looking for injury.

Thorin grunted and tried to jerk himself free and grunted again in pain. “I am fine. I do not need you fluttering around like a worried mother.”

Bilbo’s annoyance, temporarily stamped down by concern, flared up again. Then you should stop acting like a child. “If you would just take it easy—”

“Nor do I need your advice.”

"Big talk from a dwarf who can’t walk right now!” Bilbo snapped. “If you weren’t intent on acting like such a prat, you wouldn’t need my advice or my help at all. But here we are with you bent like an old maid, and since I’d rather you didn’t die right now, will you kindly stop fidgeting?”

Thorin stopped fidgeting. Bilbo finished patting Thorin down. He couldn’t swear that Thorin’s insides were alright, but the outside seemed to be doing alright. At least as far as Bilbo could tell. After all, and as he kept reminding everybody, he didn’t actually know anything about healing. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

Thorin stared down at him, and since Bilbo hadn’t moved away, he stared down from a very close distance. "What is a prat?" He said the last word like he didn’t believe those letters belonged together.

Bilbo furrowed his brow at the non sequitur. "Er—what?"

"I can tell that it is an insult," Thorin said lowly, "but I do not recognize it. I am trying to gauge how angry to be." He in fact said this so lowly that Bilbo could the vibration come through Thorin’s chest into his own, and it occurred to him that Thorin maybe didn’t need help supporting his own weight anymore.

“Er,” Bilbo said again and jumped backwards. Thorin stumbled and stood upright. "Do you not have prat in your lands?"

"Not that I am aware of."

Bilbo was stunned. If there was one universal part of language, he had thought, surely it would be the insults. “Truly? I can't imagine how I'd talk bad about the neighbors without it. Do you have nonce?"

Thorin seemed slightly surprised by the turn this conversation had taken. "No?"

"Berk?"

"No."

"Ragger?"

"No."

“Quad?”

“No.”

"Wholly whopper?"

"No. Is that truly an insult?"

Bilbo scoffed. "A very crude one at that. I wouldn't say it if there were any female dwarves around. Kop?"

“We have a type of spade we call a kop.”

Bilbo laughed and laughed and laughed and then stopped when he realized that Thorin was not. “That’s, well, hmm.” Bilbo coughed delicately. “That’s not what it means in the Shire.”

Thorin looked like he wanted to question that and then changed his mind. "And what does prat mean, to return us to the original question?"

"It's, well, it's hard to explain. Insults lose a certain something if you have to define them." Bilbo thought for a moment. "You remember that night when Kili hid Fili's boots up a tree and spent the evening making him look for them?"

"Of course."

"Kili was being a prat. And strictly speaking, so were the rest of us for not telling Fili where he hid them."

"I see." That had been a lovely evening. Not for Fili, of course, but in a party of fourteen, someone was bound to be unhappy at any given time. Bilbo was just glad that it wasn’t always him anymore. “And that’s what I am right now.”

It seemed to Bilbo that the glade was chillier than it had been a moment ago. “Not now, no,” Bilbo said truthfully. “You’re pleasant right now. But two minutes ago, yes, you were a prat.”

Thorin regard Bilbo for a quiet moment. “True enough,” he said at last, to Bilbo’s immense surprise. “But you were a mythrog-gaul.”

Bilbo opened his mouth to respond and closed it when he realized that he had no idea how. “I’m sorry,” he said. “A what?”

Thorin looked at him loftily. “Oh, do you not have those in the Shire?”

Bilbo scowled and Thorin smiled, just a little bit. “I recommend we keep walking, Mr. Baggins,” he said smugly as he turned and started walking at a slower pace than he’d been going before. “It would be a shame if you slowed this company.”

Bilbo shook his head and hoisted his pack higher on his back. “Wholly whopper.”

“Bwalt.”

 Bilbo was fairly certain that was offensive. He didn’t ask to confirm.

 

 

They didn’t talk the rest of the evening nor the next morning—not to each other at least. Bilbo had a pleasant enough time at camp talking with more civil dwarves while they waited for their fearless leader to point them in the right direction. The forest path they were supposed to take was blocked off at the moment with the ominous sign, “DO NOT ENTER! GIANT SPIDERS!” Thorin hadn’t been deterred; thankfully, everybody else was. Now Thorin, Dwalin, and Balin poured over that yellowed old map, looking for another route. On the other side of camp, as far from certain members of the line of Durin as he could get, Bilbo spent his unexpectedly leisurely breakfast with Bofur, Ori, and Bombur.

“Why is Thorin in charge of navigation?” Bilbo asked. “He got lost in the Shire twice.”

“Because he’ll listen to whatever way Balin tells him to go,” Bombur said. “That’s the mark of a good leader, you know. Listens to his wisest advisors.”

“And as long as he’s in the back with you, he won’t know if we’re following his directions or not,” Bofur said as he roasted sausages speared on a stick. “Speaking of, haven’t heard from you in awhile, Bilbo. Not since you and Thorin became the best of buds.”

“That’s not what I would call it,” Bilbo said. “Nor what he would either.”

Bofur frowned. “I thought he liked you now.”

“You hugged and everything,” Ori added.

“It turns out there is a bit more to friendship than hugging once,” Bilbo said wryly.

Ori thought for a moment. “Have you tried hugging him again?”

Bombur patted Bilbo on the shoulder. “Friendship is a delicate blossom. It must be grown with care or it will not be grown at all.”

Behind Bombur, Bofur nodded. “What he said. D’you want these burnt or rare?”

“Is there another option?”

Bofur looked down at the sausages. “Not really, no.”

“Burned.”

Bofur passed him a two black sausages impaled on a stick. Bilbo Baggins, Respectable Hobbit, would have recoiled in horror. Bilbo Baggins, Burglar for Hire, took a large bite. “Quite frankly, friendship is one flower I have no interest in cultivating.”

“You don’t want to be his friend?” Ori asked.

“No more than he wants to be mine,” Bilbo replied.

“Then you must want to befriend him quite badly,” Bofur said.

Bilbo scoffed. “Stop that.”

“It’s true!” Bofur stuck a whole sausage in his mouth and nodded sagely. “Just the other day, Thorin was saying to us, ‘That Bilbo chap, he’s an interesting fella, isn’t he? He’s got a good head on his shoulder. I would rather like to know him better.’”

Bilbo laughed at what was probably the worse Thorin impression he could imagine. “He did not say that.”

Bofur stuck his sausage roasting stick in Bilbo’s face. “Alright, not with words, no. But with these.” He tapped the tip of his stick underneath one of his eyes and winked. “If you just listen to Thorin’s words, you’ll miss half of what he’s saying.”

“So if I listen to what he’s saying, I’m not listening to what he’s saying,” Bilbo said.

Bofur nodded. “Now you got it.”

“And if he didn’t want to get to know you better,” Bombur added, “then why would he have asked me about gardening last night?”

Bilbo dropped his little stub of sausage into his lap. “Wait, what?”

“Pulled me aside when he came back,” Bombur said. “First time he’s ever asked me about my little hobby.”

“You garden? What? Why haven’t we talked about this? Really, you garden? Can you identify these plant cuttings I’ve picked up? Thorin asked you about gardening?” Bilbo furrowed his brow. He unfurrowed it. He furrowed it again for good measure. “Why? What? Why?”

“All good questions,” Bofur said. “I know wouldn’t listen to this idiot ramble on about flowers if my life depended on it.”

Bombur bumped his cousin with his shoulder. Bofur toppled over. Bombur sniffed in satisfaction and turned his attention back to Bilbo. “It’s true. I spent a good hour explaining winter gardening techniques to him while you and Nori were on watch.”

“But,” Bilbo said, aware he was being a bit repetitive and utterly unable to do anything about it, “why?”

“The eyes!” Bofur said as he sprawled on the ground. “It’s all in the eyes.”

Bombur ignored his cousin. “Thorin didn’t say. And he didn’t seem that happy about it. But he listened and he asked questions and he thanked me for the knowledge. We stopped talking when your watch was over. I suspect he wanted to surprise you with his knowledge.”

“Aww,” Ori said.

“No, not ‘aww,’” Bilbo said, running his hand through his hair. “Thorin doesn’t do things that can be cooed at. That’s not him.”

Bofur poked him in the leg with his sausage stick. “Because you’re the local expert on Thorin Oakenshield.”

“I’m not saying that. I don’t know anything about him,” Bilbo protested. “But I’m saying—” He glanced over at Thorin across the campsite. The dwarf was deep in conversation, jabbing his finger at the map while Balin stroked his beard. Thorin’s face was overcast as a rainy sky. Thorin’s face was hard as rock. Thorin’s face was sharp as an axe. All true, very true—Thorin was as much a dwarf as Bilbo was a hobbit. But a memory tickled the back of Bilbo’s brain, the memory of two days ago when Thorin had described the process of setting a gem when, just for a moment, he changed. It had been as if his face was a lantern and someone, at last, had lit the wick. It wasn’t joy or love or lust or anything as complicated as that; it had been the look of someone doing the thing they had been built to do.

Thorin glanced up and caught Bilbo’s eyes. Bilbo didn’t look away. They regarded each other a moment before Dwalin said something to Thorin and Thorin turned to him.

Some rocks. Some flowers. Bilbo wasn’t always the quickest hobbit, but you couldn’t say that he didn’t eventually get it.

“I’m saying that I’ve been a mythrog-gaul,” Bilbo said, “and I should do something about that.” Nobody said anything. He looked over at the three dwarves. They were staring at him in horror. “That doesn’t ‘bit of an idiot,’ does it?”

“Depends on the sexual proclivities of idiots where you come from, I suppose,” Bombur said.

Bilbo debated for a moment whether he should be retroactively more offended by Thorin calling himself that, but he shook his head. “Not the point. I need your help, all your help. Er, if you’re willing.”

Ori sat up straighter. “Ori, at your service,” he said proudly.

Bofur nodded at Ori. “We don’t just say that, you know.”

“What do you need?” Bombur asked.

Bilbo sighed a little and braced himself. “I need you to keep your voices down, try not to get too excited, and tell me everything you can about mining before we break camp.”

The three dwarves were quiet for a moment. Then Bofur grinned. “Oh, Mister Baggins,” he said happily. “We can do that.”

 

 

When the company set out an hour later, the new path finally agreed upon, Bilbo’s head was swimming, and yet, despite the deluge of information he’d nearly drowned in, he didn’t feel like he knew anything more than when he’d started. “But I don’t understand,” Bilbo hissed at Bofur as he walked away to join Fili and Kili near the front. “Why does the crystallization rate matter?”

“Because that affects the luster,” Bofur replied which didn’t really answer Bilbo’s question at all because he thought luster depended on the cut not the formation, and upon reflection Bilbo had been wrong—he actually seemed to know less now.

 He was still sulking about this when Thorin appeared at his side.“Come, Master Burglar,” Thorin said. “The company leaves.”

Bilbo opened his mouth to respond and Thorin took off without a word. Bilbo sighed again (sometimes it seemed he spent this entire journey quietly sighing) and walked as well. Apparently, Thorin didn’t intend to make anything easy.

The heat of the day beat down like a fist as they walked, the worst the heat had been this entire journey, and before they’d gone a mile, Bilbo’s poor tattered clothes were soaked in sweat. He panted like a dog as they went. Thorin seemed not to notice, though surely the heat was even worse for him. Dwarves were very fond of layers. To be fair, so were hobbits, who never seemed comfortable unless they had on at least a waistcoat or a petticoat just to be on the safe side. Still, hobbits knew when it was time to loosen their buttons and slip into something a little less stifling. Bilbo had never seen the dwarves stripped down even slightly, couldn’t even conceive of what they looked like under all the fur and armor and dirt. He suspected they were hairy. Likely very hairy. Really just nothing but muscles and hair.

He stopped himself before he could go too far down that line of thought. Bodies weren’t generally something proper hobbits thought about, no matter what their state of mind was while they were thinking about it. Proper hobbits had twelve hobbitlings and feigned a respectable ignorance about how they had all gotten there. Of course, proper hobbits also didn’t go stomping off on adventures to slay dragons or steal gold so perhaps Bilbo was already a lost cause. In that case, he decided as he called for Thorin to halt a moment because if he was already improper, then he might as well be improper and slightly cooler.

Thorin looked around impatiently while Bilbo wriggled out of his jacket. “I didn’t know that came off,” he said. It took a moment for Bilbo to realize he was joking.

 “Says the man who wears a fur collar everyday in the middle of summer,” Bilbo replied, shoving the jacket into his over-full pack.  

As Bilbo fumbled with the mismatched buttons of his waistcoat, he suddenly realized that Thorin had spoken without being prompted, had spoken about something other than the quest. This was his opening, this was the break he needed to start a conversation, and with a start, he realized as well that the moment was almost gone.  Thorin turned to start walking again. Bilbo, wracking his brain for something that sounded organic, shouted at him, “What do you do for fun?”

Admittedly not Bilbo’s best icebreaker.

Thorin stared at him. “For fun?” Then he shook himself. “I’m sorry, I—I wasn’t expecting that. I did not mean to make it sound like I was unaware of what fun was.”

“Oh. Good,” Bilbo said, because that was exactly what he’d first inferred. He made an abortive little walking gesture and Thorin jerked like he was going to start walking as well and then, for a moment that felt like the most uncomfortable moment Bilbo had ever experienced, they just looked at each other. Then they started to walk again. Bilbo cleared his throat. “You were saying what you did for fun?”

Thorin looked like he wanted to point out that he had been doing no such thing, but he jerked his shoulders.  Maybe he really did not know what fun was. “I do all the things any dwarf does to pass the time,” he said gruffly.

“You are aware that I’m a hobbit,” Bilbo said. “I don’t know what those things are. And don’t tell me that your leisure activities are entirely determined by your race. Come now, you’re reclaimed Erebor and it’s a quiet night. What are you doing? And mind your step, the pass is rocky here.”

Thorin grunted as he always did when Bilbo offered him unsolicited advice on walking. “I’m blessing myself that I finally have a dungeon to throw my interfering burglar into.”

 “Yes and after you’ve abused your royal power, what are you doing?”

The ground sloped up more sharply here, and Bilbo felt the ache in his healthy limbs. He looked over at Thorin, still heavily favoring his left side and apparently deep in thought. Still, he looked like he could manage the hill so long as he didn’t charge up it. Bilbo slowed, and Thorin in turn slowed as well, apparently without noticing Bilbo’s mechanisms to make him do so. “Like all dwarves,” Thorin said like he was making a point, “I take delight in creating. Music, armor, jewelry, whatever strikes my mood.”

“That seems a lot like work to me,” Bilbo said. “But I am a hobbit. Our chief pleasure is consumption. It’s a shame there isn’t a dwarf kingdom closer to the Shire. We’d get on quite well.”

Thorin said nothing in response to that. It was like prying conversation from a rock.

And on the subject of rocks.

“Of course,” Bilbo said as casually as he could, “it’s all chalk around the Shire. Nothing worth looking for down there, whether you excavated relatively close to the surface, a process known, of course, as shoal mining, or dug deeper, relying on some kind of earthmover, perhaps the Dar-Shrivark, popularized in the Third Age by the elves of the Blue Mountains.”

For the second time in as many minutes, Thorin stared at him.

“Was any of that correct?” Bilbo asked.

Thorin shook his head. “None of it.”

“Yes, I suspected that as I said it.”

“To be fair,” Thorin said after a moment, “all the words you said existed.”

“Huzzah.”

“Huzzah indeed. It means you are doing better at learning about mining than I am at learning about gardening—something Bombur told you about despite my strict orders not to.”

When Thorin shot him a knowing look, Bilbo tried to look as innocent as he could. “I’m sure Bombur would never betray your confidence.”

“Of course he would,” Thorin said, sounding more than a little grumpy. “That is what they all do. Dwarves are meddlers, from the wisest elder to the youngest child. We’re the worst of all races when it comes to that.”

Bilbo snorted. “You ought to meet more hobbits. I don’t know anyone who picked their own spouse. Most hobbits just had someone nice thrust at them by their family and sorted things out from there.” He looked at Thorin curiously. “So what did you learn from Bombur then? Which I only learned about just now from you and certainly not him.”

“That the roots go in the ground.”

Bilbo paused for a long time. “Ah,” he said at last.

“I mean, I knew that before.”

“Of course.”

“It was a joke. I was making a point about how little I know about gardening, but I did know that before.”

“I’m sure you did.”

“Don’t give me that tone; you thought rocks grew from elf blood.”

Bilbo laughed and after a moment, Thorin cracked a smile. “We’re a sorry couple, you and I,” Bilbo said.

“I can’t disagree,” Thorin replied. And then, almost as an afterthought, “Though I wish we weren’t.”

“Weren’t a couple?” Bilbo asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Weren’t so sorry.”

“Oh.”

Neither of them seemed to know what to say to that. Bilbo wondered if he’d ever share a silence with Thorin that didn’t feel uncomfortable.

“I don’t know what to do with you,” Thorin said suddenly. “You are wholly unlike any creature I have met before.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“Perhaps. Yes. It’s a statement of facts.”

Three different answers, but they averaged out to something approving, Bilbo thought. “You’re strange to me as well,” Bilbo said truthfully. “There are no hobbits like you in the Shire.”

Thorin made a smug noise that suggested that he thought there was nobody else like him anywhere. Bilbo rolled his eyes. Thorin caught him doing it and snorted. “Perhaps the gap in impossible to cross,” Thorin said.

“Perhaps,” Bilbo replied. The thought disquieted him in a way that he hadn’t thought it would.

Thorin’s words had sounded foreboding. But his face had not looked it. In the back of Bilbo’s mind, he imagined Bofur pointedly nudging him.  

He cut in front of Thorin and stopped in his path. Thorin blinked in confusion. Bilbo stared into his eyes. They were good eyes, dark and bright at the same time. You didn’t find eyes like that in the Shire, and Bilbo didn’t have words for them. But maybe they looked like what caves looked like, he thought with the sudden rush of an epiphany long in the making, when you tapped away the rock and found your first diamond—a sparkling fire in the black, not dead or inert at all but one step in a long chain of work and skill and faith, like the chilly first days of spring where you anxiously watched the dark dirt to see what long gestating hope survived the winter to bloom.

“Huh,” Bilbo said. “I think I just understood mining.”

For another moment, Thorin still looked at him like he was mad. And then, with an unselfconscious joy Bilbo didn’t know Thorin possessed, he grinned.

 

 

Sometimes the start of a friendship is a slow trudge, the painful process of putting one act of decency in front of the other until affection ceases to be a chore. Sometimes it creeps as quiet as a cat, so stealthy that you don’t realize it has sunk its claws into you until some quiet afternoon where the other person cancels and you wonder when your days became intolerably grey without them. And sometimes it is a keg of gunpowder, tightly packed, and a very short fuse. All you need then is the spark.

Metaphorically speaking, Thorin and Bilbo exploded.

“It was my father who taught me,” Bilbo explained. “It was the only thing he and I had in common. I was always closer to my mother—we were very alike when I was younger except she was better at adventuring, honestly if you’d grabbed her for this journey in her youth you would have reclaimed Erebor by now. I don’t think my father understood either of us. But when we tended to the garden together, I felt like his son.”

“I understand. I learned my craft from my father and my grandfather in my childhood home,” Thorin said. “My father is missing. My grandfather is dead. My home is taken. My craft is all that remains.”

“I’m sorry,” Bilbo said and meant it.

“So am I,” Thorin said.

And then the conversation, as they are wont to do when they finally get started, took a bit of a left turn.

“I do not understand the beards,” Bilbo said as they passed over the top of a hill.

“Yes, and the hairy feet make much more sense.”

“They do. What are you talking about? Of course they do. Quite frankly, your bare feet are a little disgusting.”

“I could say the same about your bare chin.”

An hour later, after the debate about body hair had somehow morphed into the relative attractiveness of each race’s women which had morphed into the relative attractiveness of each race overall which in turned had shifted into what they hoped to do when the quest was over, Bilbo complained, “I just don’t want to be incinerated. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable desire.”

“Nobody wants to be incinerated.”

“Yes, but I want it even less than you lot.”

“Perhaps Smaug will merely eat you instead.”

“I can live with that as long as he doesn’t roast me first.”

“Mister Baggins, I think you’d have great difficulty living with that.”

“Don’t be pedantic. If I get incinerated, it’s all your fault anyway.”

And an hour after that, Thorin scrunched up his nose and said, “Is this truly how hobbits spend their time?"

"The not respectable ones, yes," Bilbo said.

"It is a perverse game. I don’t want any of them.”

“Of course you don’t. That’s the point.”

Thorin scowled and after a minute of intense thought, he said, “I will marry Gandalf,” not sounding that pleased with his decision. “I will sleep with Ratagast. And I will kill Elrond.”

Bilbo laughed. “Of course you will.”

“Why do you say that? Are your answers different?”

“Look, marry Gandalf, clearly. No question there. But I am not sleeping with a man caked in bird droppings.”

“So you would sleep with an elf.”

“An elf not covered in bird droppings, yes.”

“Get out of this company.”

And then, as they approached camp, Thorin rested his arm on Bilbo’s to stop him just outside the range of the dwarves’ voices and the light of the campfire. Bilbo waited for Thorin to talk. Thorin looked around and coughed. “Are we just standing here?” Bilbo asked.

“No,” Thorin said and fidgeted again. It was remarkable. He’d seemed more dignified when a troll had shoved him in a sack. “It—I—Mister Baggins. Bilbo.” He coughed again. “You should accept my apology.”

“I what?”

“Do you?”

“Do I what?” Bilbo asked. “Accept your apology? You haven’t actually offered one, you know.”

Thorin looked around like the trees were particularly interesting here. “My apologies.”

“Ooh, I can feel the sincerity.”

Thorin glared at him. “My apologies for being a prat.”

Bilbo waved him off. “Don’t worry about it. I wasn’t much better. And on a related note, what does ‘mythrog-gaul’ mean?”

“Nothing that applies to you,” Thorin said quickly.

“I’m going to ask the other dwarves what it means.”

“Please don’t.”

Bilbo grinned. And since Thorin looked physically pained, Bilbo said again, “Do not worry about it. Apology accepted and offered in return. We were both idiots. Let’s agree to try not to be so in the future and get our supper.”

“Why do I feel you would forgive any slight if grudge-keeping kept you from your meal?”

“Because, Thorin,” Bilbo said cheerfully as they approached the roar of the fire and those seated around it, “we are finally beginning to understand each other.”

 

 

One week later, Bilbo sat by himself under an oak tree that seemed older than the mountain it grew on and lit his pipe. The night was silver with starlight. In that unearthly shine, the leaves twinkled like emeralds shaking in the breeze. Tomorrow they would descend into the darkness of Mirkwood, where the trees grew so thick that noon looked like midnight, and stars were just a fairytale told to stave off despair. But tonight, in the breath before the plunge, they were still under the night sky and the night sky was a lovely sight.

Bilbo heard footsteps approaching from camp and he scooted over so that Thorin could sit himself next to him. He was moving better nowadays, well enough that he could join the front of the line if he wanted. “Are you sure? With you in the rear, we’re less vulnerable to attacks from the back.” Balin had said when Thorin mentioned this.

“Besides, Uncle,” Kili had added, “it’s not like we need your navigational abilities up front.”

Bilbo was amazed at how quickly Thorin had assented to staying in the back. After he’d boxed Kili’s ears, of course.

"You should get some sleep,” Thorin said. “You get so cranky when you are tired.”

Bilbo did not dignify that with a comment. He held out his pipe to Thorin. "Care for some?"

Thorin wrinkled his nose. "The halflings' love of leaf is a mystery I don't care to explore."

Bilbo shrugged and popped the end of the pipe back into his mouth. "We appreciate relaxation. I’m down to the last of it anyway. If you thought I was anxious before, you’ve seen nothing yet.”

The company had been on the road so long that last days of summer were tipping into fall, and the last of the fireflies lit the last of their dances in the last of the warmth of summer nights, and Thorin and Bilbo sat in silence while the summer died around them. It was a beautiful night, and Bilbo was struck by how the stars twinkling in the sky looked like nothing so much as gemstones.

“Did you know,” Bilbo asked after they had been silent a good long while, “that I am the only hobbit in all of the Shire who’ll have crossed a mountain range twice?” Assuming I survive went unspoken.

“It does not surprise me,” Thorin said. “Hobbits are much like dwarves in that respect. We too prefer not to leave home.”

Bilbo puffed out a smoke ring aimed at the moon. “They’ll never believe me, you know.”

“You will bring home one-fourteenth of the treasure of Erebor. They’ll believe that.”

“I’m not bringing home one-fourteenth of the treasure, Thorin. No,” Bilbo said pointedly as Thorin started to protest. “We’ve been over this. Even if I wanted that much treasure, which I don’t, or needed that much treasure, which I certainly don’t, I’ve no idea how I am supposed to get it all from here to there.” Bilbo puffed on his pipe.

Thorin shook his head. “Bilbo, I’ll send a fleet of horses behind you. You are taking what you are owed.”

Bilbo rolled his eyes, and then he said with a start, “Oh! I’ll show them this.” He reached into his waistcoat and pulled out his little stone of king’s quartz. The purple crystal looked grander than usual in the starlight—though to Bilbo’s eyes it looked grand enough anytime. At the sight of it, Thorin groaned.

“You cannot tell me that your prized treasure of this journey is that.

“There’s gemstones everywhere there’s rich men, Thorin. But there’s no hobbit that’s seen king’s quartz. We don’t have any bleeding elves in our area.”

“I can explain their formation process to you again.”

“We’re not that close yet.”

This time Thorin was the one too good to answer. Instead, he held out his hand. After a moment’s hesitation, Bilbo dropped the quartz in his palm. He was half afraid Thorin would chuck it away. But instead, Thorin held it up and shifted it in the light of the moon. “I spoke poorly of quartz, but I spoke rashly as well. Quartz is among the most common minerals, true. But the toughest of minerals as well. From quartz, we make glass, mortar, grindstones, lenses. We can measure time by its vibrations. It makes up good soil. It endures. Sandstone and granite hold up mountains; quartz holds up sandstone and granite.” Without looking at him, Thorin tossed the king’s quartz Bilbo’s way. With the hand that wasn’t holding his pipe, Bilbo caught it. “Sometimes I forget how common things can do great wonders. There are worse treasures you could take from this journey.”

Bilbo curled his fingers around his pretty little rock as warmth filled his chest. Thorin still looked ahead. Thorin was not always good with feelings. “Well, it’s pretty enough,” Bilbo said after a pause. “I do still intend to take home at least a few chests of Erebor’s treasure, Thorin. Don’t think that you can keep it all to yourself because you’ve approved of quartz. I’ve heard it’s beautiful enough to drive a simple hobbit like me mad.”

Thorin grinned, one of his big wide smiles that Bilbo hadn’t know Thorin could do. He didn’t give them out freely or easily or often. You had to work extra hard to see one. It was worth it. “So it will do no further damage to your state of mind then.”

Bilbo blew smoke at him. “Watch it. I’ll let the warg eat you next time.”

Bilbo’s feet ached, and his stomach was too empty, and his clothes were secondhand and tattered and smelled nothing like nothing a proper hobbit should smell, and his sword arm felt like jelly after tonight’s sparring practice, and he was all out of clean handkerchiefs, and as Thorin laughed like his laughter surprised him, it was the strangest thing but Bilbo couldn’t remember one moment from all his years where he felt as content as he did now.

He tucked the little quartz into his pocket, next to his ring, and thought to himself with a quiet smile that he’d already gotten all the treasure he needed from this quest.

Of course, Bilbo decided to keep that from Thorin. He knew Thorin well enough to do that.