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The Morning Brings No Relief.

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It is, admittedly, not the best plan he has ever hatched. He will be the first to admit it. The dwarves, no doubt, will be a close second.

Ugh. He is never going swimming again.

Rock and trees tower like sentinels on either side of the river, watching two dozen silent barrels and their lonely rider move onward in drunken procession. The great darkness of Mirkwood has not yet faded, and Bilbo feels as if it might extend out ghastly arms and drag them back to the Elvenking’s palace, or worse, simply push them down into the torrent of water and not let them up. Both possibilities terrify him in equal measure. The barrels do not help. Their sides are smooth and slippery, and he can find no purchase to pull himself on top without the entire thing rolling over. He is reduced to clinging desperately to the bottom, fingers numb and waves periodically washing over his head.

Never. Again.

He knows they have not been in the water long, but his eyes grow tired, and the groaning gloom of the trees layers him in sleepy shadows. It would be so easy to just rest. He is weary, arms heavy, breathing slowing, and he can just float, surely...

The pale lens the ring gives his eyes grows fire-bright, and the whisperings become a scream. He chokes on a mouthful of water where his head has fallen below the surface, and his fingers go from numb to a fierce aching as they scrabble for the barrel edge. It is surely luck that he gains a grip. Why had he let go?

The ring pulses on his finger, a band of immovable fire, and with every pulse the whispers crescendo and the world brightens and blazes. It should be terrifying. Instead, it is strangely comforting. The pulsing almost has a sound; a growl from the throat of a huge barrel-chested bear; a purr from one of the great mountain cats; the hum of his mother just before she bursts into song. It is an echo and an amalgamation of ten thousand different sounds, twisting through his ears and his bones. It is a shield, a torch against the dark of the woods.

He does not think he will let go a second time.

Eventually they round a corner and ahead of them appears the river proper, wide indeed and faster looking than Bilbo likes. But there is also a great wide bay where the Forest River and its tributary join, and here are the barrels pushed, running aground or catching on a large pier of stone at the bay’s eastern edge. Prepared to cheer aloud as the barrels begin to bump on the bank, he has to stifle it when tall, graceful shapes emerge from the green gloom and pull them ashore. Oh bother. More elves.

He is hard pressed to avoid detection during the night the barrels are kept ashore, even with the ring. When that strange strangled dawn peculiar to Mirkwood finally fights its way through the unwilling canopy and the elves lash together all the barrels for a raft, Bilbo secretes himself in a corner and muffles his sneezes and coughs as best he can. He feels wretched.

By the afternoon they have cleared the bulk of the forest, and Bilbo feels something lighten in his spirit as the world lightens around them. He finds he can’t even keep his eyes fully open at first, so bright is this world outside the forest compared to the deep shadow within. Rocks still reach to the sky all around them, but with the sun so high in the sky they now reflect orange light, a welcoming guard ushering them toward the lake. Those trees still around them are smaller, less twisted and strange. The only hint of malice comes from the great towering shadow behind them; Bilbo does not look back, for fear the forest will reach out to envelop them again and plunge them into a renewed darkness. He shivers in the bright sun, wind off of the lake ahead cutting through his damp clothes.

Then in a moment so quick it passes between one blink and the next the high cliffs either side of them disappear, and the mist that had lain just above the river’s surface falls behind them and the banks arch away so that the river is clear and broad. He is greeted by a great expanse of water, so long to the north and south that he cannot see either end. To the north, near the bank but not on it, he can just see the shape of a settlement. About him Bilbo notices rotting wood sticking out of the water, not natural but hewn and shaped; the desiccated bones of some old town of men, perhaps. Thorin has mentioned men living south of the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo is immensely glad to find it’s true. He shall not be happy until they are all away from the elves and in the town itself, fed and watered and, if their luck picks up, not in another jail cell. He traces the outline of the town with greedy eyes, thinking of potatoes, and strawberries, and all the good food that might be found within. His eyes rise to the grey-blue sky, and he prays a little to whoever may be listening; that they might be safe, that they might be well, that they might be –

In the distance, large and threatening, looms the mountain.

It does not look friendly. If this is his answer to prayer, than he shall take the prayer back, thank you very much.

His grumbling is forestalled by the appearance of boats from the nearing town, full of tanned men and women. They grab ropes thrown at them by the elves and guide them toward the shore. There are more people there, and there is a sudden juddering of the raft as it catches on the lakebed.

“Ho the shore!” One of the elves shouts and a reply comes almost instantly. The raft is tied to a wide pole and left to float in the water, and the elves spend but a few minutes talking to the humans before they head toward the town, elves and humans both. No heed is paid to the barrels. Good.

Bilbo waits till they are out of sight and hearing, then tentatively splashes his way ashore. He sneezes thunderously. No-one appears. Very good.

Pulling the barrels onto the bank is a nightmare. His feet barely touch the lake bed, and when he first starts to pull at the rope tying the raft he realises he will have to cut the barrels free, at which point he panics that one or all of them will float away. Then he wonders how to tell which barrels hold dwarves and which don’t, and in a horrific moment thinks that maybe none of them hold dwarves and they were all found in the elf camp while he was ashore. He flounders in the water, breathing ragged, and when the first barrel is on the bank and open and out comes the damp form of Thorin, Bilbo is more relieved than he has ever been to see the dwarf.

Bilbo speaks, and even in his own ears he sounds rushed and weary. “Oh thank goodness, oh my, up, up, come on now, up, we have to get the rest of them out!”

Thorin grunts, and flops onto the ground. He is, now that Bilbo takes a second to really look at him, dishevelled and covered in mottled bruises, with straw tangled in his hair and clothes and eyes a sunken shadow. But Bilbo is desperate to get the others free, and he forgets a little that he has had food and sun, that he is not half drowned; he forgets to be careful with Thorin, and is instead very cross.

“Thorin Oakenshield, get up this moment and help me. Come on, slap your arms and legs and help me get the others out.”

Thorin groans and Bilbo is given a surly look, but nonetheless the dwarf accepts Bilbo’s flailing hand and between the two of them they get the dwarf back on his feet. Bilbo all but drags him back into the water, and they spend a very unhappy time opening barrels and releasing dwarves.

The walk into the town – Lake-town, Bilbo remembers – is almost as miserable. When the guards stop them Bilbo is half tempted to kick the lot of them in the shins and go and find a bed. In fact he feels as if his legs may make the decision for him, just fold under him and leave him with a hard wooden deck as a mattress. Only Fíli and Kíli’s shoulders pressed tight to his keep him on his feet. Then, of course, they have to be introduced to the Master of Lake-town, a frankly unctuous character as far as Bilbo is concerned, and Thorin has to do whatever it is Kings without kingdoms do to endear themselves to strangers, which seems to Bilbo to be not a lot of talking but a lot of looking very, very important.

“I wish to go to bed,” Bilbo says. No-one seems to hear him. He sneezes. At least there’s food, even though he can’t taste much of it.

Eventually Óin makes a lot of noise about rest and healing, and they are shown to a house that can fit all of them. It even has a bathroom, though unfortunately only the one bath. Óin takes a good look at it.

He nods happily. “It’ll fit at least two of us at a time. We can wash, and then I’ll check you ninnies over, then straight to bed! No arguments!” He says, though no-one looks the least bit likely to try.

Bilbo is entirely sure he has misheard the healer. “I am not,” he says, but his speech is odd and thick with mucus and just as he stops in confusion coughs rack his body. “I am not,” he tries again when the coughing has finished, but Óin has wandered over with an intense look on his face and is checking him over with eyes and hands.

“You’ll be one of the first, Bilbo” he says, and Bilbo only gets out a few spluttered words before he’s guided toward some seats to wait his turn. Really, bathing in pairs? It was well enough as a group, when they had descended from the Carrock and found the stream, but in the confined space of a bath? It is not a pleasant notion.

His thoughts continue in a similarly unfortunate cycle of embarrassment and anxiety as Óin wrangles Fíli and Kíli into helping him prepare the bath and some of the others go to divvy up rooms. The rest wander or sit as they feel like. Ori comes and sits next to him, still damp from the river water and haggard looking.

Bilbo looks at him, and dares to ask a question. “We don’t really have to bathe in pairs, do we?”

Ori stares at him as if he can’t quite make sense of the words that have come out of Bilbo’s mouth. “Why would you not?”

Bilbo does not answer, instead looking worriedly around the room and trying not to imagine all the dwarves in their small clothes. “Well, who are you bathing with then?”

“With my brothers of course. Oh!” He adds, as if in sudden elucidation. “Don’t worry Bilbo; one of your family will be with you.”

Bilbo almost points out that no other hobbits are about, but his tired mind recalls that he does have a family here. However unconventional. He wants to ask more questions, though he is not sure what, when a muddied hand grips his shoulder and startles him.

“I shall share with you,” Thorin tells him.

Oh dear.

“I can’t possibly share a bath with a King!”

Thorin frowns at him, displeasure pulling his lips taunt. “You won’t be sharing a bath with a King. You will be sharing it with family.”

Good gracious, at times he thinks he understands Thorin and then moments like this come along. “That’s not what I meant at all.”

Thorin’s frown does not ease, and he rubs a rough circle into the back of Bilbo’s shoulder with his thumb. It is the only kind of answer Bilbo appears likely to get, as Thorin turns and mutters something about choosing a room. Bilbo curls into his chair and despairs of the complexity of dwarves. Ori just laughs at him, turning into his own chair to try and find some comfort while they wait.

Bilbo must drift off, for what seems but a moment later Fíli is shaking his shoulder and cajoling him onto his feet.

“Come on uncle,” his grin is irrepressible, and even covered in mud and river slime as he is he appears a bright shining beacon. “Come and get washed up, it will do you good. A good bath cleans skin and soul!” He pronounces. It is something Bilbo said at the stream below the Carrock, one of his father’s multitude of sayings, and he is surprised and gratified that Fíli remembers.

“You’re terrible,” he tells Fíli, but he does so with a grin and lets himself be led toward the bathroom. He sneezes and coughs as they go, and Fíli’s face takes on that expression that Bilbo has taken to calling his ‘kinging face’.

The scrunch of his eyebrows does not quite make it a frown, but instead pensive. The gentle tilt of his mouth is not quite a smile, but rather a reassurance that Fíli will take any ills in hand and sort them. It is not quite how Thorin looks at times, but close enough that Bilbo wonders if the whole family has their own version of the ‘kinging face’. Perhaps his mother’s is more jovial, his grandmother’s more stern.

He is led into the bathroom, where Kíli is pouring a bucket of steaming water into a large copper bath and then testing the temperature. Thorin is inspecting a bar of soap, probably incredibly disappointed in the craftsmanship and liable to start talking about dwarven made soap if Bilbo were inclined to let him. He turns toward them just as Fíli pushes the door closed.

“Bilbo,” he says, just as Kíli announces the bath ready.

“I hope you’ve not made it too hot.” Bilbo tells him, eyeing the great rolls of steam coming off the water.

“Oh no.” Kíli swings his bucket in a loop, smiling widely. “At least, not for a dwarf. Perhaps you should check it uncle? I can get some cold water if you want.”

Bilbo tests it, and declares it alright. Really, he is not as bothered about the temperature as he is about getting clean. The boys leave, and just as Bilbo is beginning to struggle out of his clothes he remembers that Thorin is still there, and just as he is about to ask the dwarf to leave he remembers that they are to share a bath.

“By my sun and stars.” He says, a mite louder than he means to.

Thorin misinterprets the cause of his distress, and pauses in his own disrobing to assist Bilbo in his.

“Really Thorin, I don’t need help.” Bilbo objects.

Thorin snorts, and continues tugging at his shirt. “You are lethargic and clumsy. I fear you could not make your way out of an open sack in this condition.”

“Clumsy!” Bilbo makes to retaliate by elbowing Thorin in the stomach, but the effort is weak and Thorin only grunts lightly before pulling the shirt up and over Bilbo’s head.

The rest of his clothes are pulled off in quick succession, despite Bilbo’s struggles. He supposes it’s a dwarf’s way of showing his regard, this well intentioned manhandling, but that doesn’t mean he likes it. He likes it less when Thorin grips him under his arms and lifts him bodily over the rim of the bath and into the water. He is half tempted to throw one of the bars of soap at the dwarf, but really, it’s too much fuss. Instead he leans back against the end of the bath and lets his exhausted body absorb the heat of the water. He’s perfectly content to just lie there. Right up until Thorin climbs in himself.

“For goodness sake, why must we bathe in pairs?” Thorin does not roll his eyes – it’s probably beneath his kingly demeanour – but he might as well have, with his eyebrows rising scathingly and his shoulders drooping as he settles himself into the water.

“Do stop complaining.”

“Well, it’s improper!” Bilbo makes every effort to not look at Thorin, bare as they both are. “Hardly a done thing, unless you’re a child, and even then you must be family. Why, if the rest of the Shire could see me –”

Thorin nudges him with a foot, and goodness the bath is smaller than he thought. “They would be glad to see you taken care of, surely?”

“They would be horrified Thorin.”

This seems to confuse the dwarf. “Horrified? For what reason?” He prods Bilbo with his foot again when the answer is slow in coming.

“For what – well, um, because...well I thought it rather obvious. Er.” How is he meant to explain it without embarrassing them both? Drat and double drat. He wrings his hands. “Well, we’re not the right kind of family.”

It is entirely the wrong thing to say. Thorin surges forward, sending a torrent of water towards Bilbo and startling him from his flustered inspection of the wall. Thorin growls, eyes burning a brand into Bilbo’s own. “We are family, we have discussed this. How much reassurance must you have before my early follies are forgiven? Is the oath not enough, is Fíli and Kíli’s insistence not enough?”

“Do not shout at me, Thorin Oakenshield. I am tired and ill and I will not have it. Now sit down,” he presses his hands to Thorin’s shoulders as he says this, tries to move the large hairy dwarven bulk back to his end of the bath. “We are family, you are right. If you would listen – Thorin for goodness sake, sit down. You are much too close.”

Thorin does ease himself back down, his brows still pulled downward and his mouth an unhappy line. “If I would listen what, Bilbo?”

“We are not the right kind of family. No, don’t sulk, let me finish. I meant, well, I meant that we’re not a couple.”

Thorin stills, his brows furrowed, and then proceeds to release a torrent of ridiculous laughter.

“Well I’m glad you find the notion of romantic love so funny.” Bilbo says, sinking further into the water. “I suppose you shall find it equally amusing when I point out that neither of us is a parent to the other,” and indeed, Thorin’s laughter does increase, “and really we’re both too old to bathe as chums.”

The dwarf eventually contains his mirth, and splashes a sulky Bilbo when he refuses to respond to another nudge. “This is another hobbitish thing, I suppose?” He says, when Bilbo has spluttered and glared at him. “As with the nightmares, and the doilies?”

“You needn’t sound so condescending about the doilies.”

“I simply do not understand why they must have so many holes. Surely it is a sign of poor craftsmanship.”

Bilbo does throw the soap at him then, which Thorin deftly catches as it bounces off of his head, laughter echoing around the room.

“So,” Thorin says after a few moments of silence, “group bathing is not done in the Shire?”

“No. It is not.”

“The stream, below the Carrock. I did not see such distress then.”

Bilbo sighs. “That was different. We were not, for one thing, completely naked. And swimming together in shallow water is quite a pleasant way to spend a day, with hobbits. I just imagined that was what we were doing.”

Thorin quirks an eyebrow, face pensive. “So this is different because it is more...intimate?”

Bilbo resumes his inspection of the wall.

“Bilbo, it is not so among dwarves.”

“No, I imagine not,” Bilbo mutters.

“Among dwarves such communal bathing is common. It is a tradition grown from our earliest forebears, who used it to help each other; it builds bonds, and dwarves can help their sick and injured fellows to get clean.” Bilbo does look at him then, considering the merit of the idea. “The only other option is often a wiping down by a healer.” Thorin adds, looking entirely displeased at the prospect.

Bilbo can see the sense in that, he supposes. Certainly in the summer he broke his leg it was an incredible pain to wash. “Well, I guess that is rather sensible. More than I can say for most of the things you dwarves do.” Thorin laughs and prods him again with a large foot. Bilbo hopes it doesn’t become a habit; they are quite close enough as it is.

Thorin doesn’t seem to think so, as he leans forward and gently grips one of Bilbo’s forearms. “Turn around, Bilbo. Let us do this the dwarvish way.”

Bilbo splutters. “Do what?”

“Bathe,” Thorin says in a mocking tone, and Bilbo is so flustered by the entire ordeal he turns around as Thorin bids him.

He jolts as water is cupped in rough hands and dropped over his back. Thorin does the same for his neck and shoulders before there is slight movement behind him and the bar of soap is placed into his hands.

“Lather yourself up,” Thorin says as he rubs soap into Bilbo’s back, and goodness if his father could see him now Bilbo is sure the man would have a heart attack. Thorin periodically takes back the soap – even softly rubbing it into Bilbo’s hair – until Bilbo is as bubbly and soapy as he is likely to get. Then the soap is placed aside, and to Bilbo’s horror Thorin finds a knot in his back and starts working it out with his hands.

He squeals loudly. “What are you doing?” He even tries to scramble away, but Thorin’s hand keeps a firm grip on his shoulder.

“If I do not attend to this, your muscles will become sore and tight. This must be done now, so your body can recover.”

“I do not need such ministrations to aid my recovery, for goodness sake.”

They bicker some more, and Thorin has the cheek to tell him he is acting like a grouchy house-husband who has had his doilies soiled, at which Bilbo informs him, in loud and certain terms, of Thorin’s own many insufficiencies that would become glaringly apparent were he to become a house-husband himself.

“Then it is good that I shall not be a house-husband.” Thorin says blithely. I shall be a king, Bilbo hears within the silence after. Thorin’s hands continue their work.

“You shall make a poor king too, if you go around giving people massages without their consent.”

Thorin laughs, and Bilbo relents somewhat, though he still periodically gets told to relax, for Mahal’s sake Bilbo, it’s like touching stone.

It may be one of the most awkward interactions he has ever had with another living creature. It then embeds itself quite firmly among his top ten when Thorin claps him on the shoulders, turns around, and without preamble says,

“Now you must return the favour.”

Well now.

Well...

He clears his throat and shuffles until he is facing Thorin. Sun and stars, this dwarf is so hairy! The expanse of his back is wide and strong with muscles that flow to his arms and down below the water. Bilbo takes special care not to look at much of anything, fails, then stares resolutely at the base of Thorin’s neck while his hands float uselessly above Thorin’s skin. Bilbo has to strangle a sound in his throat before it gets out.

“Bilbo?” Thorin turns his head slightly, not enough to truly see the expression on Bilbo’s face, thank goodness.

“I must confess to not having the first inkling toward what I’m doing.”

Thorin has the temerity to laugh again. “Hobbits,” he murmurs, for which Bilbo is very tempted to thump him, but then directs Bilbo in a rudimentary approximation of what a massage is supposed to be like.

“I still have no idea what it is I’m doing,” Bilbo says, half-heartedly digging his thumbs into strong muscle.

“No matter,” Thorin shrugs, voice gruff and abrupt. “My – our – nephews shall finish. There is time for you to learn.”

Hardly, Bilbo thinks. In not very long at all they shall be at the mountain, and then in all likelihood they shall be messily killed. The hope that some of the other’s seem to be entertaining that the dragon is dead or gone seems rather farfetched, and Bilbo feels that a healthy pessimism may be better in this situation. It’s much more likely that they shall all be eaten or burnt to a crisp. Or ignominiously fall down the mountainside. Bilbo hasn’t much faith in the endeavour, all told. His Baggins half is rearing its head in confused outrage, all at once determined to honour his contract and oath and conversely sure that he should turn back for the Shire this instant. It’s certain that this whole quest is going to end badly and is a terrible idea. Bilbo is not convinced it is entirely wrong.

Still, if by some chance they do survive that still won’t leave much time for him to learn. He shall be on the road again quite soon, no doubt, back home. A dwarven mountain is no place for a hobbit; he’d just get underfoot.

“Our dear nephews shall have to finish it,” he says, deliberately not thinking about how strange the word nephews still tastes in his mouth. “I believe I’ve done all I can.” Indeed, his hands are starting to shake with weariness, and when he has backed away slightly he lets himself flop against the side of the tub. His eyelids droop, and he is quite content to stay there for a while, in the warmth, skin scrubbed to softness and limbs like liquid.

Then Thorin has the cheek to scoop him up and haul him out of the bath.

“For goodness sake. Thorin!” He will never recover from this embarrassment. “Put me down, we’re naked!”

Thorin does place him down for a second, only to wrap him in a towel, shove another into his arms, and pick him up again in a mockery of the bridal hold.

Bilbo hasn’t the energy to struggle, so he complains instead. “Well I never. Can’t a body be left alone?”

Thorin huffs. “The others need the bath.”

“Can’t a body be allowed to get himself out of the bath?

He continues complaining as Thorin takes them through to the kitchen, where the fire is high and hot and the walls reflect its friendly orange glow. Fíli and Kíli are heating some water, surprisingly well behaved; Bilbo would have thought they would be splashing each other at every available opportunity. Fíli nods at them as they pass and, waving at his brother to follow, moves toward the bathroom. To empty out the bath, no doubt. Óin is sat over a small wooden tub, curls of steam escaping from its confines and swirling slowly past his bedraggled form. A bar of soap sits in one hand, a knife in another. He carves minuscule shavings of soap to drop into the water, grumbling all the while. Bilbo is shifted in Thorin’s arms, and he looks up to see the dwarf levelling a frown about the room.

“What is it?” Bilbo says.

Thorin does not reply, but instead places Bilbo down in front of Óin, takes the towel from Bilbo’s lap and wraps it around himself. Bilbo is tempted to just lie down and go to sleep right there.

“Good gracious,” he says, utterly done with proceedings.

Óin looks at him, brows lowered. “Huh?”

“Some people,” Bilbo replies, as if that explains everything. Which, really, it does.

Óin nods at him in commiseration.

The rest of the evening passes in a lethargic blur. He is barely awake by the time he is being ushered up the stairs, dry and dressed in some borrowed clothing. Thorin pushes him into a room with three beds, built for people much bigger than hobbits.

“Where are you sleeping?” Bilbo asks as Thorin makes a hash of tucking him in.

“Here, obviously. The boys shall share the third bed.”

He really should have expected this, but somehow he didn’t. “Oh,” he says, and nothing more before falling into an exhausted sleep.

He wakes periodically throughout the night, body aching and throat raw. Shivers move in waves up and down his body, but his skin is clammy, sticking to the quilts and the bed sheet. Pain is present in lines over his face; his sinuses are completely blocked, and they throb each time he coughs or swallows or even takes a breath. His neck and shoulders feel like they are on fire, a low burning that flares whenever he moves. At one point he can barely breathe, and rolls over to cough mucus out of his lungs and onto the floor. His vision swims, and when he can get himself under control again he rolls onto his back. It’s a terrible idea; it closes his throat again and he has to turn to his side, curling in on himself and coughing loud enough to wake the entire house.

It’s certainly enough to wake the occupants of the room. He feels hands press into his back, rubbing up and down in an attempt to sooth him. After a moment one thumps him instead, which helps somewhat to dislodge more mucus. When he gets a second to breathe a face moves into view.

“Uncle?” In the dim light he can’t tell which nephew it is.

“Uh,” he replies.

The face turns a fraction and talks to one of the others. “Get a candle lit, can’t see anything like this.”

There is a scuffling sound, and a soft, flickering light appears towards his feet. It’s brought up to his face, where he can now make out three slouching dwarves. Thorin is holding the candle, Kíli hovering by his shoulder and chewing on his fingernails. Fíli is the one in front of him, eyes wide, fingers hovering over Bilbo’s skin as if afraid to touch him.

“Alright uncle?” Fíli asks, a generic question that everyone already knows the answer to.

“You’re shaking,” Kíli says. The moment it’s out of his mouth Thorin is handing him the candle and grabbing quilts from another bed, dragging them over to heap on Bilbo. The man has such a ham-fisted way of helping people.

Bilbo blinks blearily from under a pile of bedding. “It’s nothing.”

“You,” Fíli grumbles as he tries to help Thorin arrange the quilts, “are a master of understatement.”

Bilbo makes what he had intended to be a noise of protest, but comes out more as the last cries of a dying animal. Everyone becomes slightly frenzied.

“How sick does he look, Fíli?” Kíli says while trying to get closer, hampered by the bulk of his two relatives.

Fíli is trying to take his temperature and look in his eyes, obviously without the first clue as to what he should be looking for. “Awful,” he concludes, “we need more blankets.”

Thorin is patting down the quilts already on the bed like a worried chicken pats down their nest. “Should we wake Óin?”

“No,” Bilbo protests, muffled by the growing layers above him.

“I could make soup,” Kíli is almost vibrating with nervous energy, the candle swaying precariously, “or porridge.”

“You can’t cook.”

“Tea?”

“We have not even found provisions –”

“Should we wait until morning?”

“He might be dead by then!”

“Dead! Don’t let him die uncle –”

“More blankets –”

“No, no, if we put any more he won’t be able to breathe –”

“Oh Mahal don’t die uncle, don’t die, don’t you dare die –”

Bilbo might laugh, had he the energy. “I’m not going to die,” he manages to get out, “it’s just a cold.”

Kíli shrieks. “See! He’s still cold.” The candle has begun to splutter with all his thrashing around, casting the room in an eerie wavering light.

Thorin’s features, pinched before, now harden into something determined. “One of us should share with him.”

They look ready to start a fight on who it should be – probably with ravings about honouring family and who has the most bulk – when Fíli forestalls all arguments by lifting the blankets and quilts and sliding in next to Bilbo.

“Really,” Bilbo says as Fíli shuffles them about, “I’m fine, there’s hardly room – Fíli!”

Fíli just continues frowning and moving them into a comfortable position. “We’re not going to let you die uncle.”

“I’m not going to – will you – oh fine, but you had better not wriggle.” There is not much point him protesting, and he hasn’t the energy besides. So he burrows into his pillow and resolves to ignore his meddling dwarves. Fíli wraps himself around Bilbo and mutters something, but it’s lost to Bilbo’s lethargy. There are a few more minutes of worried shuffling around the room, then the light goes out, and everything quiets save for Bilbo’s coughs. He manages to fall asleep between one bout and the next, still shaking.

The morning brings no relief.

He wakes with a thunderous sneeze, or, more accurately, a succession of thunderous sneezes. When they finish, he uncurls slightly and brushes up against a worried Kíli.

He pats the lad on the arm. “I hope I didn’t sneeze on you,” he says through a rough throat. It hurts in a way that lets him know speaking or swallowing is going to be a chore for the next while.

Kíli shakes his head. “No, no uncle, I’m fine, we’re fine. Are you?”

“Am I what?” His head is too muggy to continue this conversation without some tea, so he makes to get up.

A hand pushes him back down into the mattress. “He means,” Thorin’s unamused voice says from behind him, “are you fine.”

“Ah, well –”

He is rather rudely interrupted. “I do not trust your judgement.” Thorin mutters.

Bilbo gives that the reply it deserves. Which is to say; he rolls over so he can see Thorin looming above him with one knee on the mattress, and with narrow eyes waggles his pinkie finger at the dwarf. Thorin’s eyebrows knit together, and he looks as guilty as he ever does: which is not at all, really, being too proud to show that sort of thing, but you know he’s feeling it all the same.

“Of course I trust your judgement,” he says, and were Bilbo feeling better he might laugh at the poor fellow. Of course Thorin then goes and ruins it by saying, “but we should have Óin check you over all the same.”

“I’m fine,” Bilbo says, and then descends into another series of bone deep coughs. Trying to suppress them doesn’t work. Good gracious, it’s like fighting a battle with his own body.

Kíli decides that the perfect time to betray him is when he is incapacitated and can’t defend himself, which is incredibly low. “You’re still shaking,” hardly at all, Bilbo thinks but can’t say, “and I don’t think coughing that much is healthy. What if you bring up a lung?”

Fíli pops his head into view. “I don’t think lungs work that way, Kíli.” Sensible lad

It’s at this point Bilbo gets himself back under control. “You’re my favourite.” He tells Fíli.

Fíli, predictably, beams at the praise.

Kíli, predictably, frowns heavily. “You’re not allowed favourites. S’not fair.”

Thorin doesn’t look much happier. “Fíli, go and fetch Óin.” Typical, deprive Bilbo of allies.

Fíli goes, still smiling. Bilbo makes a further effort to persuade everyone that he’s not that ill, really, but no-one buys it.

Óin is no more impressed.

“Bed rest,” he says after a thorough examination. “And plenty of liquids. No arguments.”

Bilbo makes one last-ditch attempt. “You are all overreacting.”

Óin just looks at him severely.

Drat. Illness: 1. Bilbo: 0.

He is at least allowed to sit up, propped upright by pillows. The rest all head down to breakfast, all bar Óin immediately coming back up again with some sad looking porridge for Bilbo. He has to fight for the right to feed himself. Ridiculous. As it is he only manages to get hold of the spoon, Kíli insisting on holding the bowl. Thorin spends the time making sure his bedding is arranged just so, pillows set at precise angles and quilts laid out for maximum coverage; it’s like he’s constructing a building with the amount of thought he’s putting into it. Fíli just watches, sat cross-legged at Bilbo’s feet. The rising sun catches on his hair, and he looks like nothing so much as a befuddled hawk.

When he has eaten as much as he can bear and made a show of drinking his tea all by himself (“Yes thank-you Kíli I can do it myself, thank-you, let go of the cup now, let go of the cup Kíli –”) he drives off all but Fíli with a plea for some peace. Fíli will not be budged.

“We shouldn’t leave you alone,” he says quietly, “we should keep an eye on you, just to be safe.”

Bilbo sighs, and as Fíli closes the curtains again considers crying. The room is bathed in subdued golden light, dim and quiet. Where is the little foolish dwarf he started this journey with? They’ve left him behind at some point, and instead here stands Fíli, sensible and watchful boy who has tired of blood spilt for its own sake and misses his mother and wants everyone to just be safe.

“What did we do with you, eh?” He whispers, drifting off even now. Fíli turns and raises a solitary brow. “What did we do with the little mountain boy?”

His nephew says nothing at first, just shuts the last of the curtains. Then he walks over, grabbing a stool so he can sit himself beside his uncle’s bed. “Same thing we did with you, I guess. Little Shire hobbit.”

That makes Bilbo chuckle, even if it does hurt his throat. “Perhaps we should have stayed there.” He doesn’t really mean to say this, doesn’t mean to set that spark of confusion upon Fíli’s face, but he is too tired to filter himself. “Perhaps I should have stayed in my Shire, and you in your mountains, and we shouldn’t have learnt to grow such hard skin.”

Before Fíli can say anything in reply, Bilbo slips away into sleep.

It is the heat that next wakes him, the smothering, heavy air a result of being under far too many layers of bedding. At least half of it gets thrown off in a fit of pique, then a few pillows for good measure, and then Bilbo stills as he realises there is no-one trying to stop him. A bleary look around the room reveals that he is alone.

“Oh,” he says, then, “quick you daft hobbit, escape!”

Jailers absent, he slips out of bed and finds himself a coat, some too-large blue piece with untidy seams. Still, it shall keep him warm. The walk to the door is stiff, body protesting every achy movement, but it is overruled by the dryness of his throat and a desperate hankering for tea. At least he isn’t coughing yet.

He vaguely remembers the way to the kitchen – down the stairs, to the right, and at the end of that little corridor – so, sticking to shadows and avoiding creaks in the wooden floor, he exits his room and makes his way there. It’s in much the same condition as it was last night, although the fire is lower and the floor is clear of water pails. A bit of rummaging in the cupboards finds him a kettle, which he fills with water from a covered basin and sets to boil, and a little bag of earthy smelling tea leaves. Next he locates a strainer and a tea pot, and with that all set makes an effort to find whatever the local version of biscuits is.

There is a muffled shout from somewhere else in the house. Bilbo looks at the door a moment, but decides that it can be someone else’s problem. Instead he putters around the kitchen, sniffing and bemoaning his sore feet, but all the same quite pleased. Water bubbles softly, and the cupboards give a soft thunk whenever he swings them closed. It’s quiet in here, and staying in bed while ill is never fun for long, if it is at all. The kettle whistles, and then shushes and steams as he pours it out. There is more noise; the well known sound of thirteen panicking dwarves. Bilbo watches his tea steep and chooses a biscuit. Doors are slammed. He places his cup, now full, and a large ginger biscuit on a plate. As he pushes open the kitchen door and makes his way to the main room, there is a garbled scream. It appears a bit of a calamity is occurring.

Bofur is standing in the main room, whirling about like a spinning top and gripping the flaps of his hat.

“‘Lo, Bofur,” Bilbo says, and wonders which chair to sit in.

Bofur yelps. “Where have you been? He’s here!”

Of course I am, Bilbo thinks, and then is descended upon by thirteen very worried dwarves. They’re like cats, appearing from places you never thought they could be.

“Where have you been?” Dori shouts, and Bifur makes a grab for his tea.

“Leave off!” Bilbo says.

“You should go back up to bed.” Says Glóin.

“Shan’t,” Bilbo says, and then he is bustled into a chair.

They back off a bit, only for Thorin to loom forward and cover him with blankets, narrowly missing his tea. Fíli clings to the edge of the chair like a limpet, and Kíli is crying of all things.

Bilbo is going to focus on one thing at a time. “Kíli, stop crying, I’m not going to die.”

Kíli wails. “But I lost you! If anything had happened it would have been my fault.”

“Where were you?” Thorin demands of Kíli, and Bilbo may be sick but he is not an invalid so he whacks Thorin when he tries to put another blanket on him.

“Thorin, don’t be cruel.”

Kíli starts blubbering anew. “I just went to the toilet, it was only a moment, I’m so sorry –”

Enough. “I just went to get some tea you Mahal cursed dwarves.” He reaches out and tugs Kíli towards him, who crouches by his feet and buries his face in the blankets, Bilbo’s hand smoothing over his hair.

“It is not your fault Kíli,” and his glare stops Thorin from saying anything to the contrary, “I am a fully grown hobbit and can get a cup of tea if I so please. You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“We should get you back to bed,” Fíli says, all but climbing over the back of the chair so he can keep them all in his sight.

“Nonsense,” Bilbo says, “it’s just a cold.”

Thorin is all but growling. “That is why I am trying to give you blankets, fool.”

“I said I have a cold, not I am cold. I’d be sweating buckets if you had your way.”

Óin bundles his way through the lot of them and checks Bilbo over again. “You do have a fever.”

“See?” Fíli says.

“And you said your muscles were aching all over, perhaps you are bruised.” Thorin points out.

“It’s not bruises. It’s not!” Fíli is glaring at him knowingly. “Alright, so they do ache, but it’s probably just the flu.”

That pronouncement is met with silence.

“What,” Óin says slowly, “is the flu?”

As it turns out, nobody besides Bilbo knows what the flu is. Apparently dwarves don’t get such an illness, or, as Kíli mumbles into his blankets, ‘Mahal built them tough’. So Bilbo has to explain, with constant interruptions, what it is and what it does and how long it usually lasts.

“I am not convinced that it cannot be simply cured with heat,” Thorin says at one point, and gets so indignant when Bilbo tells him to shut up that he manoeuvres them both so he is sitting in the chair and Bilbo is in his lap, blankets over them both.

“You,” Bilbo tells him, “are far too stubborn.”

Kíli starts singing a song that, he is told, brings good health and luck, while Fíli is quite literally hanging off the back of the chair like some very anxious bird of prey and Thorin is refusing to let him move. So he just chooses to ignore the situation and drink his tea in a dignified manner. He is too tired for this nonsense.

Of course, that is when the front door opens.

“Good morning Mister Bard,” Bilbo says into the silence. Bard stares, and Bilbo dearly hopes the man is not prone to gossip.

Thorin and Bard exchange awkward pleasantries.

After a while, Bilbo falls asleep. He curls into Thorin’s shoulder while the dwarf continues to talk. Kíli keeps a good grip on both of their legs, and Fíli moves to perch on the chair’s arm, running a gentle hand through Bilbo’s hair. Some kind soul takes away his cold tea.

Everybody is tactful enough not to mention it the next morning. But Kíli does sing quietly over breakfast.