Dwalin’s earliest memory is one of protection.
He is playing with Frerin, rolling a ball back and forth, when another dwarfling runs past, knocking them both down into the dirt. Dwalin cares little for himself, but Frerin is small, being several years younger, and when he hits the ground his eyes well with tears he tries vainly not to shed.
Dwalin shoots to his feet and chases after the dwarfling, dragging him back to face the prince. “Say you’re sorry,” he says, solemn as only a child can be.
The other dwarf puts his hands on his hips, staring up at him. “Or what?”
Dwalin thinks about it, and shrugs. “Or I’ll knock you down, too.”
The boy apologizes. Frerin stops crying.
What Dwalin remembers most is how right it felt, keeping his friend from further harm.
Nothing is right about what comes next. It could have been days later, or even months, but the next thing Dwalin remembers is running from the fire of a dragon.
His lungs feel tight from smoke and fear, and he clings to Balin’s hand as they flee. His brother tries to hide his eyes as they pass charred bodies that were once friends, but Dwalin pushes his hand away, because he has to see in order to keep running. He tries not to look at the bodies, but the glimpses he gets are enough for years of nightmares.
They run through the gates, but when Dwalin realizes Thorin is not with them he stops. Ripping his hand from his brother’s, he tries to run back inside, because safety’s worth nothing if Thorin’s not beside him, but Balin grabs him around the waist and hauls him bodily to safety.
He thinks Thorin’s dead, charred like the bodies he saw, and it’s the only time Dwalin can remember crying. Lost in his helplessness, it takes a punch in the arm for Dwalin to realize Thorin is safe, standing before him.
What Dwalin remembers most from this memory is the feeling of uselessness that comes with this hard lesson: Not even the best fighters can save everything.
Dwalin comes of age without presenting. Whispers begin to follow in his wake: there is something not right about the second son of Fundin, something keeping him from maturing. At times, Dwalin catches his father staring at him as if searching for a defect. Conversations between his parents end abruptly when he enters the room, and Balin gives him supportive smiles that chafe. He lives in limbo, unable to move up from his trainee position in the King’s Guard until he presents, just in case he proves to be a bearer and must be protected.
Shortly after Dwalin’s coming of age, plans begin for a huge battle against the orcs, a push that Thráin hopes will end the War. With Thorin’s interference, Dwalin is included on the roster of fighters. There hasn’t been a male bearer since the Second Age, Thorin reasons, and never among Durin’s Folk. There’s no real excuse to keep Dwalin from the battle, and every fighter counts.
In the dark, just before he falls asleep, Dwalin thinks he is being permitted to fight because an honorable death in battle is the best Fundin can expect from a damaged dwarf such as he.
Before the battle, Thráin pulls him aside. “You will protect my sons,” he demands, and Dwalin understands why the king has not protested his fighting. In response, Dwalin only nods. That he will protect Thorin and Frerin is so obvious he does not see the need for words.
But he fails, and Frerin dies. Thrain is not there to chastise him, having disappeared from the field of battle, but Dwalin blames himself in the king’s absence.
Dwalin can still smell the smoke from the prince’s funeral pyre several days later, when he feels a liquid heat low in his belly that is unfamiliar yet instantly recognizable.
He is a bearer, and he is in heat.
As Thorin rushes him somewhere safe, Dwalin spares a moment to think that he would rather be defective.
Dwalin hates his first heat, and not just because of what it means. He’s empty, so empty, and aches to be filled. He’s no stranger to pain, however, and if that were the end of it Dwalin thinks he could stand the whole thing. It’s the loss of control that’s the worst, the fact that he’s so desperate for someone to take him that he would do anything—anything—to get what he needs.
He has to be guarded, for the safety of others as much as his own, and Thorin’s there the whole time, not trusting his friend to anyone else. The things he says to Thorin, who’s always been like a brother, make him avoid the prince’s eyes for days once he’s in his right mind.
For all the money and stature his family has, there’s little in the world that Dwalin counts as his beyond his body. Now it’s betrayed him, and he doesn’t know what’s left. The moment his heat ends, he takes the herbs to suppress the next with a fervor that is almost religious, never forgetting what he has lost.
Two days after his heat ends, he receives his first courting gift from a sire, a former member of Thráin’s court. The dwarf is at least a century older than him, and one of the wealthiest in Ered Luin. Dwalin stares blankly at him until he grows uneasy and leaves without a formal response, which means Dwalin has to track him down later to return the gift as politely as he is able.
“I didn’t even know his name,” Dwalin complains to Thorin that evening as they spar.
Thorin ducks his axe before responding. “You knew he has money,” he says, panting heavily. “That would be enough for most bearers.”
Dwalin stops mid-swing. “That’s not what I want,” he growls. “He looked at me like I was something precious.”
Thorin lowers his sword, giving his friend an odd look. “You don’t want to be precious?” he asks, only partly teasing.
Seriously, Dwalin replies, “I don’t want to be a thing.”
When Dwalin thinks about it, his head hurts. Bearers must be protected, this is a conviction central to their culture. But protecting others is a belief central to his very being, and he does not know how to reconcile these thoughts.
It hurts to think about, and so he doesn’t. He just fights and people, misconceptions, and stereotypes fall before his fists. It’s not enough to earn him a place in the guard, however, and he finds most interesting careers are now closed to him.
Weeks pass, and Thorin has to intervene in order to get him a job. Having to rely on his friend and prince burns, but what can he do? He’s not meant for the soft work most female bearers favor. His manner’s too gruff to work in a shop, and he lacks the patience to be a scholar. Mahal knows he lacks the diplomacy for the advising Balin does. Most bearers only work until they are with child anyway, which is a fate Dwalin currently regards with horror.
Thorin can’t get him back into the King’s Guard, but he sets Dwalin to work teaching his little sister to fight. To everyone’s surprise, Dwalin is a good teacher, and quickly gains other students.
But whenever his students get good enough to be a challenge, they move on to a different teacher or stop their lessons altogether, as no one wishes to risk a bearer with advanced students. Dwalin spars with Thorin to keep in shape, but misses the joy of combat.
Life goes on, and the other dwarves learn to accept this odd, male bearer who insists on being treated like the warrior he was before he presented. The courting offers dry up, to be replaced with disapproving glares as it becomes clear Dwalin is not interested in marriage or children.
Once, when he’s had too much to drink, Dwalin confides in Thorin that it’s not that he’s uninterested in marriage, but he’s never met his One and he doesn’t think he will. His One would treat him as an equal, allow him to protect and be protected in equal measure, and no such dwarf exists.
Thorin never tells his friend what he confessed under the influence of alcohol, not even to tell him how very much he understands the sentiment.
This is his life, Dwalin thinks, and can live with that, until the portents show it is time to retake Erebor, and everything changes.
Bilbo’s earliest memory is one of love.
The morning of his birthday, his mother wakes him in the early hours, just as the sun’s rays are beginning to lighten the sky. “What’re we doing up so early, Mama?” he asks, and she hushes him, glancing furtively toward his father’s closed bedroom door.
Belladonna doesn’t answer him until they are outside, cuddled together on the bench in front of their smial. “It’s rainbow weather,” she whispers, right in his ear like the best secret she could give.
He scrunches his nose in confusion, but before he can ask what she means the rain begins to fall. Small drops splat on Bilbo’s head, and his mother stands, pulling him into her arms and placing him firmly on her hip. “We just have to wait for the sun to rise,” she tells him.
He gives her a quelling look he’d learned from his father. “We shouldn’t be out in the rain,” he says sternly. “We could get sick.”
She laughs, light and airy, and Bilbo can’t help but laugh with her. “A little water won’t hurt you,” she teases, ruffling his hair. “Bilbo, my sweet, you have to learn to dance in the rain!”
So they dance, his mother holding him close as she hums a jig and bounces him to and fro until he squeals with joy. And finally, she stops and turns toward the sun, and there, right before Bilbo’s eyes, is a rainbow.
“You see, Bilbo?” Belladonna whispers, her voice raspy from laughter and song. “If you’re afraid of the rain, you’ll miss the best things in life.”
For a long time, Bilbo believes her.
Bungo used to say that Bilbo was all Belladonna’s. Bilbo thought this was because he looked and acted just like his mother. He thought his father meant it as a compliment.
He thinks back, and can’t tell which stings more—his father’s comment or his own willful blindness.
The clues had been there for years, but Bilbo is two weeks shy of his thirtieth birthday before he understands. It’s suppertime, and his parents are fighting.
“It’s just a trip to Rivendell, not across the Misty Mountains,” Belladonna says, exasperated. “The Rangers have agreed to take me. It’s far safer than the trips I used to take.”
Bungo sets his glass down with a bit more force than necessary, and Bilbo winces. When he speaks, Bungo’s voice is flat. “And I thought those were too dangerous, as well. Not that it stopped you.”
“Why should it?” Belladonna snaps. She stands, throwing her spoon back into her bowl of stew. Bilbo stares at the brown splatter stain on the tablecloth and knows his parents have forgotten his presence.
That doesn’t prepare him to hear his even-tempered father shout, “Because I’m your husband!” He stands as well, hands on hips. “Doesn't that matter?”
Belladonna calms slightly, and bends over to scrub at the stained tablecloth. “You knew I was like this when we married,” she says querulously.
Bungo laughs, a bitter sound. “What does that matter?” he asks, and leaves.
It’s a simple enough question, but it makes Bilbo think.
About the way his parents never even hold hands. How they sleep in different rooms. The way the neighbors whisper when they think he isn’t looking. The way everyone behaved when he presented as a sire (just like his mother, always just like his mother), warning him so strongly about the dangers of being near unbonded bearers in heat.
And, just like that, he knows. And he leaves.
Long hours pass, as he wanders the dark woods, thinking. When he feels like he can face his parents again, he returns home to find them waiting for him.
Belladonna explains. It happened at a party. Bungo hadn’t realized he was going into heat, and she was too young to stop herself from responding. Before they knew it, they were bonded with a baby on the way. Of course they got married—what else could they do?
“But don’t ever doubt that we love you,” Belladonna says. Bungo is silent.
Bilbo nods, and goes to bed. They never speak of it again.
And Bilbo decides he’ll never touch anyone unless he knows he is in love, and loved in return.
When Bungo dies, Bilbo mourns, but does not expect much change in his everyday life. His father spent most of his time in his study, after all.
But everything changes.
Belladonna gives up any pretense of respectability and does as she pleases. She disappears for days on end, with no explanation, or leaves a note saying, “Gone on adventure,” and is not seen for months. Bilbo imagines her flitting about Middle Earth, as if Bungo was her anchor and now she is free. Clearly, he’s not enough to keep her home. The realization is bitter, so Bilbo tries not to think of it as he rattles about Bag End alone.
One morning, he opens his door to find a courting bouquet sitting on the stoop. He stares in silent shock for longer than he likes to admit, and, leaving it there, he slams the door. It is early evening before he ventures outside to examine the flowers in detail. The bouquet is from the sweet young girl down the lane. He can’t imagine her coveting Bag End so much as to court him for it, but as they have hardly spoken he can’t imagine another reason.
When he politely returns the flowers, she cries. It’s almost enough to change his mind, but he’s seen what marriage without love can do to a family, and he can’t imagine falling for this soft, quiet little hobbit, who wouldn’t dream of arguing at the dinner table.
When he returns home, he considers the possibility that he’s entirely mad. What more could he want than a sweet, pretty hobbit who would never argue?
Adventure, is the prompt response from the Belladonna in him.
The next morning, he leaves for Bree. It’s not much of an adventure, but it’s a start.
Bag End sits empty more often than not in the next several years, as Bilbo and Belladonna separately adventure. Bilbo suspects his journeys are considerably tamer than hers; he never ventures further than Bree, spending time with relatives on the way. Whenever he reaches Bree, he finds a Ranger and asks after his mother, without success.
Years later, he is in Bree when he sees smoke, more smoke than could come from a cooking fire. He follows the trail, and finds a house in flames. A crowd of onlookers have accumulated, most of them clustered around a distraught woman who has to be held back from running into the fire. “My children are in there!” she cries.
In response, a small figure pelts into the house amidst shocked gasps from the crowd. They wait with bated breath, until she emerges with a toddler clinging to each side. The children run to their mother as their rescuer collapses, and Bilbo feels his world turn upside down.
Even dark with soot, he recognizes that bright brown hair. He sees it in the mirror every day.
He runs to the collapsed form of his mother, carefully turning her onto her back. Belladonna’s eyes light as she recognizes her son. “Bilbo,” she sighs as he pats out sparks on her clothing. “It’s…” The rest of her sentence is lost to coughing.
Bilbo hovers at her side, his hands fluttering as he searches his mind for something—anything—he can do to help. Her breath has a terrible, rasping rattle that cannot be good, and there is a burn on her side that is oozing dark blood. A man squats beside Belladonna, looks down her throat, and shakes his head.
“Little People aren’t made to survive this much smoke,” he says, almost apologetically. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Bilbo shoves him out of the way and falls to his knees next to his mother. “No, Mama, please,” he begs, almost hysterical.
Belladonna gulps in air, and manages a garbled word. Bilbo realizes she’s asking about the children. “They’re fine. See?” He moves behind her, propping her up so she can see the toddlers being hugged by their mother.
Belladonna smiles, and the rattling breaths slow. With that final smile for her son, she dies.
Bilbo goes home, and doesn’t leave again. The mere thought of adventure makes his heart seize in his chest. He’s respectable now, a true Baggins like his father. Slowly, the scandalized whispers of his neighbors cease.
When it rains, he stays inside and watches through a window, unwilling to leave the dry house but unable to turn away. He receives two more courting bouquets and returns them immediately. Love hurts too much. He’s safer alone in his father’s study, reading books that can’t break his heart.
His life is lonely, but livable, and he expects it to stay this way the rest of his life. Perhaps it would have been so, were it not for a meddlesome wizard.