Actions

Work Header

Over There and Back Again

Chapter Text

PROLOGUE

 

Bilbo Baggins stretched his limbs and yawned drowsily, nuzzling languorously back into his pillow. Months after reclaiming Erebor, he had yet to get tired of waking up in a bed, especially when said bed was more comfortable than any he had ever slept in.

He tugged the blankets and furs all around his small frame and snuggled into a big, hobbit-shaped cocoon of warmth. There, sheltered by soft sheets and basking in the peaceful glow of being only just half-awoken, Bilbo wondered what time it could possibly be.

Of all the positive things that had come with the end of their journey, not having to wake up and be on the move at dawn was maybe the greatest. Not to say that Bilbo was lazying around, no, his journey across Middle Earth had been more than enough to keep him from ever being lazy again! But you couldn’t blame a respectable hobbit for enjoying a few moments of peace and quiet in the morning when said hobbit knew that his day would be filled with so many duties… and so many dwarves.

Oh, he had no real problem with dwarves, no, quite the contrary. He enjoyed watching them moving about, talking about a task or another they had accomplished the past week, a rumble of hearty laughter always at the ready down their throats to be unleashed at first chance. Most of them had come along with Dain’s army, straight from the Iron Hills, and had only heard tales about Erebor the Great. But it didn’t dampen their will to bring the city to its full glory the slightest bit, which mesmerized Bilbo and the hobbit felt humbled by their selflessness. Especially considering that most, if not all of them, wished to return to the Iron Hills once the rebuilding was over!

No, the dwarves themselves did not bother Bilbo, rather… it was just that dwarven culture was a very peculiar one, to his eyes. Everybody stamping around, more often than not in large crowds, exchanging harsh words in Khuzdul and brutally bumping foreheads was a bit unnerving, to say the least, as was the ever-present cacophony of hammers and chisels. And then, there was the way they wolfed down food and gulped down ale by the gallon… Bilbo could not bring himself to think about the food fights, and how he probably ought to give a lecture to that load of idiots for them to understand why rabbit stew was better off in their stomachs, instead of in their neighbors’ hair. But it would probably be a waste of time and saliva.

Bilbo sighed happily and rolled onto his back, his hands coming up to rest under his head as he looked at the ceiling with a smile. Had he been told the previous year at Bag End that he would find himself living with an army of dwarves under a mountain, he would have laughed and told that person that they should go easy on Old Toby. Then he would have gone inside and locked the door. Just in case.

After a last cat-like stretch, Bilbo kicked back his blankets and scooted over to sit on the edge of the bed. It was preposterous, really, the sheer size of it; you could have fit three dwarves in there, and not skinny ones! And not just the bed, but the rest of the chambers as well was designed to host way more important occupants than simple hobbits. To the far side of the room, there was a hearth where dying embers of what had been a merry fire the night prior were still glowing red. On either side of the hearth, two armchairs sat facing one another, only separated by a low wooden table that was currently laden with books that Bilbo had yet to read, but the hobbit knew for a fact that they would still be gathering dust for a little while. On the other side of the bed, next to a very fine mahogany closet, a door led to Bilbo’s study. It was maybe his favorite room, for it deeply resembled the one he had had, back in Bag End, down to the maps on the walls and the quantity of books crammed on the shelves, and it had also been a gift. He remembered Thorin’s face as the dwarf gave him a tour of his new chambers, leading him in the study with large hands over his eyes, and his booming laugh as he removed the appendages and his burglar let out a squeal of delight.

Bilbo smiled fondly at the memory, reaching out across the bed to grab his dressing gown. It had been the day Thorin had finally been able to walk without a cane or someone to support him, and now that Bilbo thought about it, the fierce hug he had given the King Under the Mountain that day might have been a little too much for his still tender wounds. But he couldn’t remember hearing Thorin complain about it, so it must have been alright.

As was customary, Bilbo looked down to check on his feet. He was pleased to notice that most of his hair was growing back. It was still timid, and he had long since given up on his hopes to get his thick coat of brown pelt back, but he was fairly sure that in a month or two, he would have enough curls on his feet for it to be acceptable – honorable even – by hobbit standards. Anything was better than naked, burn-scarred ankles, at any rate. But it would still be some time until the skin there allowed the former burglar to trot painlessly on rocks once more.

With a satisfied nod, Bilbo tied his dressing gown around his waist and hopped off the bed. He hummed appreciatively as he wriggled his toes on the thick rug; another gift from Thorin, made of soft white fur with darker stripes running across it – though it hadn’t been disclosed, Bilbo had a fair idea of where it came from. He winced however as his soles hit the cold floor; this, he was still getting used to. Without a fire to warm it up, the mountain would always be cold, but for now, he bore the cruel assault on his sensitive soles and eagerly padded over to the deep brown curtains that concealed the best feature in the room yet.

He pulled the heavy fabric aside and relished in the warm rays of sunlight that immediately assaulted his skin and bathed his face. In Erebor, a balcony was a rare commodity, only reserved for the highest members of dwarven society according to most, since it was thought of as a weak spot in the mountain’s powerful bulk. Which is why Bilbo had been deeply surprised to discover the wide ledge adorning the southern side of his rooms. He had learnt, some time later, that Thorin had it specially built with the hobbit in mind. All of the King’s effort to make Bilbo feel at home warmed his heart; although from time to time, he wondered if the dwarf wasn’t acting out of guilt for the way he had treated Bilbo at the end of their journey, and tried to make up for it by showering the hobbit with gifts.

Bilbo sighed as he leaned on the silver-streaked dark stone that had been chiselled into a thick guardrail, gazing thoughtfully at Dale in the distance. To be honest, he did not know where he and Thorin stood, lately. A King’s schedule was an extraordinary busy one, especially when said King had his whole kingdom to rebuild. When the day’s meetings and patrols were over, Thorin could still be found working in his study, scrolls scattered all about him – even on the ground, to Bilbo’s horror – and quill scratching away in the candlelight. Some nights, if he had some courage left and didn’t collapse right into bed, the hobbit would fetch a cup of tea from the kitchens and use it as an excuse to visit Thorin. Otherwise, several days could fly by without any news from the dwarven king.

Bilbo would always be greeted with a warm smile and a deep voice inquiring about his well-being. He would return a smile of his own and announce that he was well, and that he hoped that it was the same for the mighty King Under the Mountain. Thorin always snorted and accepted the offered tea with muttered thanks, his broad fingers lingering over Bilbo’s slender ones as the cup was passed from burglar to King. They would exchange a gaze, and the hobbit would marvel at the tenderness that could be found in those same eyes that had been darkened with greed and madness during the fiercest bouts of gold-sickness. But as he would struggle for something to say, Thorin would turn to his scrolls again, breaking the moment.

This was all Bilbo seemed to get from the King. Oh, of course, gazes and smiles were always welcome, as was the odd hug that could come out of a fortuitous encounter in the halls – and even, if Bilbo was particularly lucky, a light kiss to the forehead. But there was no trace of the passion of their first – and, so far, only – kiss from months before, in the tent. On his darkest evenings, usually after about five days of Thorin’s absence, Bilbo wondered if the dwarf had acted under the influence of the fierce fever that had ravaged his mind after his wounds were infected, and had simply forgotten that he had ensnared a hobbit’s heart. The mere thought pulled sharply at his chest and Bilbo would live through a very unpleasant night, no amount of furs seeming quite enough to ease the coldness he felt on the inside.

But it would just take another flashing grin from Thorin, and Bilbo would forget.  

“He’s just busy,” he said as his gaze wandered absently all over the plains surrounding the mountain. “That’s it. Just busy.”

A thunderous knock on his door almost had him toppling over the guardrail and down the side of the mountain. As he held his heart and tried to steady his breathing, a bellow came from the other side of the oaken panel. “Bilbo! Are you in there?”

Bilbo sighed as he recognized Kili’s voice and lack of manners. “Yes, I am,” he answered, padding back into his bedroom. “Don’t come in, though, I’m not dressed yet.”

There was an audible groan and suspicious grumbling about Hobbits and their silly modesty. Bilbo only chuckled and began sorting through his mahogany closet for clothes, trying to decide if the green waistcoat would look better with brown or grey trousers. “What is it you want, Kili?” he asked as he finally settled on the brown breeches and snatched a silver belt as well.

“Well, I’ve been told that you have some time off this morning, since Ori is sick and you can’t organize the library without him,” the prince said, and from the soft sounds that Bilbo’s ears picked up, the young dwarf was shuffling his booted feet. “I thought you would be glad for the company.”

“Let me guess,” Bilbo mused as he wriggled out of his sleeping clothes and slipped the trousers on. He frowned at the fastenings that were pulled a little too tight around the waist; maybe he had indulged a little too much in Bombur sumptuous desserts. “Fili has left with Thorin to attend to some task, possibly out of Erebor, and you are left wandering the halls alone like a lost soul without anyone to bother.”

Bilbo laughed when sudden silence filled the air, and he knew that he had nailed it. “Alright, you figured it out,” Kili groaned. “They have a meeting to oversee, or something like that. But! I assure you my intentions for seeking you out are completely respectable.”

“I am listening.” The buttons on the green waistcoat were tiny dragon heads, and Bilbo marvelled at the details on the silver ornaments. Whoever had made the garment was highly skilled.

“I wanted to know if you wished to come with me down to the Western Hall and see if we can find new tools for your garden.”

Bilbo froze, the oaken comb he had picked up in his washroom completely forgotten as he turned to the door. “Gardening tools?” He thought for a while and something clicked in his mind, prompting a beaming smile from his features. “Good gracious! Is it today?”

“It is, but if you waste any more time, there won’t be anything left! And I want honey cake.”

With a clear laugh and a promise to be quick, Bilbo hurried through his morning routine. He hastily combed his wild hair and threw on a green fur-rimmed jacket. How could he forget! He had waited for this moment for weeks, even buggering Thorin about it once or twice. And to think he had almost missed it!

Almost missed the first market in Erebor since the arrival of Smaug.

“I’m coming!” Bilbo announced as he snatched a few coins from a pouch on the bedside table and opened the door.

Kili, who had been leaning against the wall while waiting for the hobbit, straightened up and offered a smirk. “My, you are worse than a girl sometimes,” he joked. “If all Hobbits are like you, I’m glad we picked you and not a female to be our burglar!”

Bilbo snorted and gave the dwarf a playful swat. “Well, you could have picked my dear cousin, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. She could have used the exercise… though she would have been appalled at your evident lack of manners, lad.”

Kili laughed and wrapped a companionable arm around Bilbo’s shoulder. “Considering everything you told me about her, she would have been appalled at everything, anyway.”

“You do sum it up pretty well.”

The two of them made their way down the great staircases and large passageways that led to Erebor’s lower halls, chatting lightly. Kili had great news; Fili’s eye was almost back to normal, the golden prince had even managed to read some words from a book the previous day with his good eye closed. However, the scar that ran from his hairline to his cheekbone, courtesy of a warg’s claws, he would keep for life.

“You ought to see how he shows it off,” Kili growled as they side-stepped to let a broad dwarf carrying an enormous anvil through. “His head is so swollen, I bet it couldn’t fit in your hobbit hole, back in the Shire. And I, of course, only get that.” The young prince made a harsh gesture toward his own chin, where a thin scar was drawing a neat line through hair, but still discreet enough to pass unseen by most. “Some useless thing that impedes my beard’s growth, on top of that.”

“Now, now, Kili, it looks fearsome, honestly,” Bilbo said as solemnly as he could, giving the dwarf a friendly pat. “Ladies all around Erebor must be in awe.”

Kili pouted like a dwarfling and Bilbo only gave a fond smile. The lad probably had no idea how close he had come to meeting Mahal first-hand… and it was certainly better this way. He had seen him and his brother stand protectively over Thorin’s lifeless form, swinging their weapons at whoever got a little too close, and roaring in pain as arrows and spears stabbed their battered bodies. He had seen them fall, dark blood obscuring their faces, and Bilbo’s heart had died a little that day at the thought that he might lose all three dwarves at the same time.

Their recovery had been slow, and most unpleasant, but the two young dwarves had healed quite nicely and now only had to bear with scars and memories that they wouldn’t forget anytime soon, not unlike most of the company.

Bilbo had been relieved to learn that their other companions had escaped the battle with their lives, though the price they paid for it differed for each dwarf. Some had suffered very little, by dwarven standards – Bofur had only had a sprained ankle to add to the obligatory cuts and bruises – but others had stayed alive at a heavier cost. Those were Ori and Gloin.

 The young scribe had lost his left hand to the orcs, his fingers shattered beyond repair under a huge mace, and Oin had had no choice but to cut the appendage off. Ori was dealing with a missing hand quite admirably, if Bilbo was any judge, but at times the dwarf could be found wincing and rubbing his mangled wrist. As for Gloin, well, a warg had decided that he would make for a nice snack and had lunged for his face. The red-haired axe-wielder had ducked to escape the fearsome fangs, but not really quickly enough. The beast had torn his ear off, along with a small chunk of his bearded jaw. Well, not so small after all; whenever Bilbo remembered walking in on Oin stitching his brother’s cheek close over his teeth again, he felt sick. The wound had healed as well as was possible, but the missing patch of beard would probably never grow back.

Then there was the usual array of battle wounds; Dwalin had had broken ribs, Dori had taken a sword to the thigh, Bifur an arrow to the shoulder, and so on. Everyone had made a full recovery and Bilbo never dwelled on what might have happened if they hadn’t for too long.

“Do you think Bofur and Bifur will be there?” Kili asked as he held one door open for Bilbo to walk through. “They were thinking about taking a stall, last week.”

“Well, I expect people from Dale will come over, people who have children,” Bilbo answered as they walked into the Entrance Hall and were immediately assaulted by the cries of thousands of Ravens. “I wager they’ll enjoy finding toys in the market.”

“Children? Bofur made little leather replicas of Smaug, I don’t think people will buy them for their kids but to wring the beast’s neck themselves everyday.” Kili smirked boyishly. “I was thinking of buying one for Uncle Thorin, as a joke.”

“I am not sure he would laugh, Kili.”

The Entrance Hall was particularly busy that day, what with dwarves running about carrying things and ravens flying in and out of Erebor. The great birds had returned massively to the dwarven kingdom, flying from Ravenhill with Roäc in the lead, taking on their former role of messenger from before Smaug arrived. They had built giant nests in the Entrance Hall, near the ceiling, and a day couldn’t pass by without a new egg hatching out and a tiny black beak greeting the world for the first time. Bilbo had gotten used to the large black birds roaming the kingdom to deliver messages, but he would still flinch when one of them unleashed a string of Westron. A dragon he could abide, but talking birds? That was pushing it.

Even though he was very fond of Roäc and always kept dried meat in his room for the old raven.

“So, did Thorin settle on a name for the market yet?” Bilbo asked, his eyes darting to the stables near the entrance, making a mental note to sneak an apple for his pony Snowball in the evening. It had been a while since he last took the lad out for a stroll. “I hope so, isn’t he supposed to give some sort of speech before lunch?”

“He is, and yes, he has settled on a name,” Kili grinned as they were only one door away from the Western Hall. “He is naming it the market of Armukhakkar, and it is to be held in Erebor once a week.”

“Well, that’s…” Bilbo cleared his throat. “That’s a good name, a very good dwarven name. Are you allowed to tell me what it means? And if you aren’t, please just tell me that he didn’t make good on his promise to name it “The Place Where You Buy Stuff”, as he intended.”

Kili barked out a laugh and gave the hobbit’s back a solid clap. “No, he didn’t call it like that! And you know that we trust you enough to teach you some Khuzdul, Bilbo. Maybe not all of it, you would need two hundred years for that, but you should feel free to ask what some words mean.” Bilbo grumbled at that; the company may be comfortable with a hobbit nosing around in Khuzdul dictionaries, but he knew for a fact that he would be frowned upon by dwarves from the Iron Hills. He knew most curse words, though.

“Anyway, Bilbo Baggins, I am proud to present…” Kili led Bilbo through an enormous stone arch and opened his arms wide, encompassing the Western Hall before them. “Armukhakkar Manarbul! The Market of the Shire!”

Bilbo’s mouth fell open as his eyes tried to take in the whole market. But it was a very, very hard task, for there was scarcely one single corner of the great room that wasn’t laden with stalls or decorations. A thousand different colors painted the market, whether it was because of the sumptuous rolls of fabric at the tailor’s shop or the ripe fruit dangling from hooks in the back. Goodness, there was… there were even flowers! True, the vendors were Men and Women, but still, it was a very nice touch. There was a lively tune going on, courtesy of a merry band of dwarven musicians who were playing on a wooden platform in the middle of the stalls.

It was perfect.

Then Kili’s last words finally registered in Bilbo’s mind and he turned to the dwarf. “The… the Shire?” he stammered. “Why?”

“In your honor, of course,” Kili smiled gently. “Uncle Thorin sent out word for every vendor in the area, regardless of their trade, that they would be welcome here once a week. So there’s food, clothing, toys, flowers… He said that he had only encountered such markets in the Shire, and so he named it as a tribute to you and your kin.”

“That’s… very sweet of him,” Bilbo said, his eyes returning to the colorful stalls laden with goods. To be honest, all of this was beyond sweet. It was positively adorable coming from the King, and made little bubbles of warmth explode in the hobbit’s chest. Oh, that silly scoundrel, he hadn’t told Bilbo a single thing. Well, if Thorin thought he could get away that easily, he was sorely mistaken. There would two cups of tea and a couple pastries from the market awaiting the dwarf in the evening, along with good, proper thanks. “Armukhakkar, you said?”

“Absolutely. You are a natural, Bilbo!”

Kili and Bilbo walked off and among the stalls and general agitation that filled the Western Hall on this fine morning. It was a wonder to see everyone, Dwarves and Men alike, so cheerful and in high spirits. They all bowed respectfully to Kili, and more often than not Bilbo would find himself swept in a strong handshake as people thanked him profusely for his deeds. He was touched, and graced everyone with warm smiles, but felt relieved nonetheless when Kili saved him with a gentle but firm arm around his shoulders. He thanked Yavanna that he hadn’t come alone; he knew they meant well, but they tended to be a bit overwhelming.

“Look! I found Bofur and Bifur!” Kili exclaimed.

“Kili, I’m sure your Uncle taught you that pointing is rude… but yes, I see them.”

In front of the cousins’ stall, a small gathering of children from Dale was giggling and squealing in delight as Bifur gave them small firecrackers, setting a few off as Bofur laughed uproariously at the young ones thrilled cries. Before and around the two dwarves, toys of various shapes and sizes were laid out. Bilbo immediately spotted the already famous leather-Smaug on a shelf; reared up on its hind legs with its wings outstretched, the toy strongly resembled its deceased model. It even had red fabric flowing out of its mouth when you opened it in a parody of fire-breathing, Bilbo noted with some level of amusement.  Trust Dwarves to make the most of things, and Bofur, as it seemed, had his very own definition of irony.

Bifur was actually handing a leather dragon over to a young boy when he spotted Bilbo and Kili. He elbowed his cousin, who looked up from his little wooden horses and grinned. “Bilbo!” the dwarf with the floppy hat greeted warmly. “Haven’t seen you for days, lad!”

“Ah, yes, sorry, I guess I’ve been a bit busy,” the hobbit apologized. He took in the abundance of toys in the stall. “As you were, apparently.”

“Aye, business’s never been so good!” Bofur laughed, ruffling a young lad’s hair. “I kind of missed all the little ones, they’re a real joy to work for, y’know.”

Bifur muttered something in Khuzdul that had Bofur and Kili chuckling, but which meaning was lost on Bilbo. However, he understood partially what had been said when Bofur answered: “Aye, but I have yet to find a lady who can stand me for more than two hours, let alone convince her to give me kids.”

“Do not despair, Bofur,” Kili said as he patted the older dwarf’s shoulder. “When our people travels from the Blue Mountains to Erebor, I’m sure you will find what you are looking for.”

“By the way, how is this going?” Bilbo asked, his curiosity aroused. “Did we receive word from Ered Luin?”

Kili nodded. “The raven Uncle sent has returned. Dispositions are being taken for everyone to depart as soon as possible, but it might be a month or two before they are ready. Which is just as well, since the builders haven’t finished the habitations yet. Uncle is quite pleased.”

Suddenly, the lively music came to a stop and all eyes turned to something behind Bilbo. Puzzled, the hobbit turned around and his eyes instantly fell on a small balcony, carved out of the southern wall. It was lovely in itself, but what attracted Bilbo’s gaze was not the fancy guardrail or the thick vein of gold that ran under it, no.

It was the majestic dwarven King standing on it.

Thorin was clad in a splendid midnight blue coat, all rimmed with the purest white fur and engraved with silver runes. His large belt buckle was sporting black stones to match the beads in his hair. And to think that mane had once been cropped short by the Elvenking’s orders! It now reached past the King’s shoulders, long enough to be pulled back in an elegant ponytail if Thorin wished. But it was not the case that day; the dark strands flowed freely, some of them weaved into intricate braids. He was almost the same as the night he had entered Bag End; though, if Bilbo squinted, he could see the dwarf had more silver in his hair. None in his thick brush of a beard, however.

Thorin looked positively regal, with his chest puffed out and his hands behind his back, as he swept his blue gaze over the Western Hall. One could not deny that he had become every bit the King he was meant to be, the stone-carved crown on his brow only acting as confirmation.

Dwarves and Men alike fell silent as Thorin II Oakenshield opened his mouth and filled the hall with his rich baritone voice.

“My friends,” he began. “I am happy to have you all as guests on this very special day, and it gladdens my heart to see so many of you answered my call. Today, through your efforts, we celebrate the return of a kingdom’s most important asset: trading.” All of Thorin’s formal speeches had been in Khuzdul, but for the Men’s sake, he must have seen Westron as more fitting, and Bilbo was glad for it. “In honor of this blessed day, it is my greatest pleasure to invite you and your loved ones to a feast at noon, in the Main Hall. In the meantime,” Thorin said a little louder to cover the crowd’s enthusiastic cries, but there was a smile on his face, “in the meantime, I wish you all luck and I hope you enjoy this very first market of Armukhakkar!”

Shouts resonated all around Bilbo, both in Westron and Khuzdul, as the crowd cheered for the King. As roars of “Oakenshield! Oakenshield!” erupted from the marketplace, the hobbit shook his head and looked up at the dwarven King with a fond smile. Trust Thorin to spoil his people rotten every chance he gets.

A shiver ran down Bilbo’s spine as he caught the dwarf’s eyes, and it only worsened when said dwarf’s lips stretched into a large smile. Before Bilbo could repay him in kind, Thorin disappeared behind a red curtain.

“A feast! I suppose that’s why Bombur was so busy yesterday and this morning,” Bofur mused as Bifur nodded fiercely from behind. “I hope there’ll be roast chicken.”

“And smoked salmon! Oh, and cake, that’s always nice,” Kili nodded.

Bilbo’s stomach growled loudly at that, prompting a laugh from the dwarves around him and a blush to his cheeks. He hadn’t had any breakfast, and those oafs were talking about food! What did they expect, honestly?

As the three dwarves debated over what kind of food they would wolf down at the banquet, Bilbo’s ears strayed away and he found himself absently listening to conversations all around him.

“Dad, was that dwarf the King?” a small boy asked shyly.

“Yes, Reron, this is Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain,” a man answered. “He said we are welcome to eat here for lunch.”

“He’s nice!”

“That he is, child.”

“Can Mom come too?”

“Of course. Let’s go and fetch her, alright?”

“Yes Dad!”

Bilbo smiled softly as father and son walked away hand in hand. True, there was no telling what the future would hold for Thorin, but for now, the King was thoroughly loved.

As soon as he had been strong enough to sit up in his bed, the dwarf had sent for Bard the Bowman. His mind no longer suffering from the effects of the gold-fever, he had agreed to trade the Arkenstone for enough gold to rebuild Dale and Esgaroth. He had even detached a few dwarves to help the men in their task. The elves, however, he had wanted nothing to do with at that time, and Bilbo could understand. Thorin had been willing to do right by the people of Lake-town, and repair the damage caused by Smaug’s fury because of him, but he had growled at the mere mention of those who had imprisoned him and cut off his hair.

It had taken about three months, and a large amount of coaxing from Bilbo, for the dwarf to admit begrudgingly that the elves of Mirkwood had fought honorably and had been a great help to the wounded, including himself. He wouldn’t frown upon them if they entered Erebor, same as he would not avoid their forest like the plague, but he would seek no further friendship between his people and Thranduil’s. They had joined forces against a common foe, won the battle, and that was the end of it. And if Bilbo felt the urge to have a cup of tea with the tree-shaggers, it would be useless to send Thorin an invitation. The King had spoken.

Bilbo chuckled at the memory. The word “tree-shagger” in Thorin’s mouth never failed to make him laugh.

“…lbo?”

Kili’s voice brought him back to the present and the hobbit blinked. “Sorry, what did you say?”

“I was wondering: which Smaug do you prefer? The leather one or the wooden one?”

“Am I allowed to answer that our quest made me hate dragons, regardless of their shape and size?”

Kili huffed. “Come on! Which one do you think Uncle will like best?”

“For the last time, Kili, Thorin would like neither.”

“Neither what?”

Bilbo whirled around and narrowly escaped bumping into a massive chest. He looked up timidly, and sure enough, a pair of clear blue eyes stared right back at him. There was a soft glow in Thorin’s eyes, but also a glint of puzzlement as he tried to figure out what Bilbo and his nephew had been talking about before he made his presence known.

If the King had looked good from afar, up close he was the perfect depiction of magnificence. His hair was neatly combed and braided, and rested upon his shoulders with grace, the beads making soft clinking sounds as they brushed against the silver runes on his coat. His grey trousers disappeared inside polished black boots which, as was Thorin’s preference, were sporting silver toe claps. His proud bearing made Bilbo’s stomach flutter a little, and to think it was only due to his skipping breakfast wouldn’t be entirely true.

A flash of golden appeared over Thorin’s shoulder as Fili ran past his uncle and into Kili. “Brother!” he cried out. “You are going to be so jealous!”

“What? Got a new scar that I wasn’t aware of?” the younger dwarf said gruffly.

Fili rolled his eyes, his hand instinctively coming up to scratch at the angry red mark across his right eye. “Don’t be daft! Today Uncle had to meet with an envoy of elves from Mirkwood, you know how they took it upon themselves to clean the forest free of spiders, right?”

Kili nodded, his face scrunched up as he tried to figure out what cause he had to be jealous, and Bilbo chanced a glance at Thorin. Meeting with the elves, eh? Well, the King didn’t look like he was ready to smash walls or tear his face apart, so either the meeting had gone exceedingly well, or Thorin’s opinion of elves was improving. Bilbo settled on the first option.

“What of it?” Kili shrugged.

“Well they came to give Uncle a quick report, and my presence wasn’t mandatory so I was made to wait in the corridor with the messenger’s escort.”

“Again, what of it?” Kili’s arms crossed over his chest, a sign that he was starting to feel annoyed by his brother beating around the bush.

But Fili just grinned and wriggled his eyebrows. “A very female escort, brother.”

“Oh. Oh!” Kili’s eyes widened and he gave Fili a swift swat to the head. “And of course, you didn’t call me! You selfish whelp, was it so hard to send a raven? I would have come, I would-” From the corner of his eye, the young dwarf saw Thorin’s eyebrow raise in suspicion, and his voice wavered some. “I would have… helped you suffer through the dreadful ordeal of being alone with those creatures. To think that you waited for Uncle on your own, I am so sorry!”

“And let us all thank Mahal that you are a warrior, and not a minstrel, dear nephew,” Thorin said. His thin lips were pressed together, but Bilbo could feel a smile tugging at them underneath. “You would not convince a single soul with your stories.”

Thorin was indeed in a very good mood if he could talk about Kili’s attraction to elves with his mouth devoid of any foam, and even joke about it.

Still, Kili didn’t push his luck and gave his uncle an uncertain smile before he tugged Fili in front of Bifur and Bofur’s stall and began to whisper in his brother’s ear. About the elf maidens or the leather dragon, Bilbo wasn’t sure.

“I trust you have been well, Bilbo.”

The hobbit turned his attention back to Thorin and smiled. “Yes, yes. Ori and I have been making great progress in the library. Fortunately, Smaug cared little for books, and a nice amount of them is in perfect state, if a bit dusty. Some of them are quite old too, your grandfather had a fine taste for literature.”

“Yes, he was quite passionate when it came to history, and lineages.” Thorin’s eyes quickly flicked to his nephews over Bilbo’s shoulder, but just as swiftly returned to the hobbit. “I haven’t seen you in a while. I wish to apologize.”

Bilbo scoffed. “Nonsense, Thorin! You have a kingdom to rebuild, you can’t spend all your time prattling away with a hobbit about silly things, what would your people think?” His own heart ached as the words left his mouth, but as bitter as they sounded, there was a ring of truth to them.

Thorin’s eyes dropped a little and focused somewhere by Bilbo’s elbow. The King muttered something about not finding Bilbo silly at all, slipping a hand in a side pocket to finger something. The former burglar was instantly reminded of his old magic ring and absently patted his own pocket; the small item was there, to his relief.

When Thorin met his eyes once more, Bilbo could swear there was a glint of hesitation in the blue orbs.

“Bilbo, may I speak with you?” he asked, and his voice was definitely lower than before.

“We are speaking, unless I am mistaken,” Bilbo pointed out with a smile.

“I mean, in private?”

“Oh. Very well then, lead on, Your Highness. But if you make me late for the feast and there is no roasted boar left, you will be very sorry indeed,” the smaller creature warned to cover his surprise and excitement.

Thorin snorted but made no comment as he turned around and began walking alongside Bilbo, reining in his strides to match the hobbit’s shorter ones. Bilbo happily trotted along, enjoying the King’s presence and he almost giggled at the prospect of an opportunity to be alone with the dwarf, even for a few minutes. Maybe he could sneak in a touch or two; Thorin’s hair looked particularly soft today, and Bilbo wondered how it would feel to run his fingers through the silken strands.

Just as they had done with Kili, Dwarves and Men gave Thorin deep bows as he passed them, but thankfully nobody tried to clap Bilbo’s back or crush his hand, and for that he was grateful. Thorin smiled and nodded at everyone, slipping in a kind word in Westron or Khuzdul when somebody congratulated him.

Bilbo didn’t fight the fond smile that came to his lips when a little girl, no more than four year-old by Men’s standards, shyly walked up to the King and offered him a handful of daisies. The flowers were a bit crushed, and the stems slightly crooked – the child must have carried them all the way from Dale – but Thorin got down to a knee and thanked the little lady with a bright smile, tucking the flowers in his belt in plain sight. The little girl shuffled her feet for a second or two before she gathered her courage and pecked Thorin’s cheek.

Before the dwarf or anyone could react, the young once turned on her heels and disappeared among the crowd, her cheeks a deep red.

“Daddy!” her little voice shouted almost immediately from somewhere. “I kissed the King! His beard’s itchy!”

Thorin chuckled as he regained his feet and Bilbo was overwhelmed with the sudden urge to hug the dwarf into oblivion. Thorin’s soul was healing; slowly, one day at a time, the King was getting rid of his past fears and his painful memories, aiming to build a better future for himself and his kin. He would smile more openly, and even laugh sometimes, though those occasions were rarer.

Last time had been during a feast, when Dwalin and Bofur had Bombur drink so much ale that they convinced him he was a fairy. But there hadn’t been any enchanting grace when the stout dwarf launched himself from the table, flapping his arms as though they were delicate wings, before Dori was squashed by an enormous amount of non-fairy meat. Bombur’s “flight” and Dori’s squeaks had sent Thorin into fits of laughter that had left him breathless and clutching at Bilbo for support.

Good times. Good times.

Thorin led Bilbo out of the crowd and they soon reached the arch that separated the Western Hall from a string of corridors. They were about to cross it when someone shouted from behind.

“Cousin!”

Both dwarf and hobbit turned around to see none other than Dáin II Ironfoot making his way over to them, closely followed by a smaller dwarf who ought to be a guard. While not as regally dressed as Thorin, the dwarf was a fine sight, all decked out in dark red silk and golden clasps in his hair. Large golden beads shaped his long black beard into intricate braids that marked him as the Lord of the Iron Hills.

Thorin owed his younger cousin a great amount of things. For starters, if it had been for Dáin and his five hundred combat-trained warriors, the outcome of the Battle of Five Armies may have been dramatically different. Then, while Thorin recovered from his injuries, Dáin had acted as a Steward and nursed the fragile flame that was Erebor into a full-sized fire, until Thorin was well enough to turn it into a volcano of activities. Dáin had watched over the first phases of rebuilding, making sure to stay on good terms with the Men from Dale and already sending out ravens for potential trade partners all over Rhovanion.

As Thorin slowly recovered, his kingly duties were gradually handed to him. As soon as he could sit up, Dáin had reports and scrolls brought to him for appraisal. The day the healers allowed Thorin to walk a few hours a day with the help of a cane, Dáin took his cousin on a small patrol in the Halls and showed him the new Throne Room. And immediately after Thorin threw his cane to the fire, Dáin was the one to deposit the stone crown on his brow and insert the Arkenstone over the seat from which the King Under the Mountain would rule.

“Dáin,” Thorin acknowledged with a nod, smiling at his younger cousin. “How are you faring?”

“I am well, thank you,” the black-haired dwarf answered. “I hope the same can be said about you. Oh, and you as well, Master Baggins,” he added, bowing low when he noticed the hobbit’s presence.

Bilbo smiled and thanked Dáin. The Lord of the Iron Hills was one of those dwarves who carried a strong bearing about them, utterly charming and bordering on irresistible. One of those dwarves would could talk you into doing everything they wanted, if they set to the task, and it was impossible to refuse them anything.

“Do you need anything?” Thorin asked politely, then frowned. “You are not already leaving for the Iron Hills, are you?”

“No, no, cousin, I am not leaving just yet,” the burly dwarf chuckled. “I merely wished to introduce you to my niece, Dihla, daughter of Girá, who has just arrived from the Iron Hills.”

Dáin stepped aside as the dwarf that Bilbo had initially thought to be a guard walked forth and bowed before Thorin. If it weren’t for the beard that was a little too soft and the – rather generous, not that Bilbo was staring or anything - bosom that adorned her front, the maiden could easily pass as a male dwarf. Her golden hair was pulled up into a bun, with only a few braids running behind her ears and onto her shoulders. Her forest green eyes were looking at Thorin with the same kind of reverence Bilbo had seen in other subjects, but her smile… her smile was maybe a little too sweet, and caused the hobbit’s innards to lurch unpleasantly. He frowned; he hadn’t even thought of the feast, why would his stomach protest?

Quite oddly, Thorin’s bright charming smile did nothing to settle Bilbo’s discomfort. If anything, it made it worse.

“Welcome to Erebor, my lady,” the King said as he took Dihla’s hand and kissed its back. “I hope you find it to your liking.”

Dihla’s smile widened – if such a thing was even possible – as Thorin released her hand. “Oh, I already do, Your Highness,” she answered. “I already do.”

“You must be tired after such a journey, I trust arrangements have been made and you have been given sleeping quarters?” Thorin asked, but his although his eyes were still on Dihla, his question was directed at Dáin.

“Not yet, we were planning to take care of it right after the feast. Speaking of which,” Dáin said and there was a glint in those brown eyes, a signal that Ironfoot’s magic was about to be unleashed, “I thought we might attend together, the three of us. What do you think?”

“Yes, why not,” Thorin agreed, a little too quickly perhaps. “I shall meet you in the Main Hall, then.”

“Ah… but noon is upon us,” Dáin drawled, his features turning concerned suddenly. “Shouldn’t you be the first to arrive, to greet the guests?”

“I am sure nobody will hold it against me if I am but a few minutes late,” Thorin assured. Already, he was taking steps to stand beside Bilbo. “Why don’t you go ahead? I will be there shortly.”

“I am sure you will, however,” at this point Dáin reached out and grasped Thorin’s forearm, a warm smile blooming on his lips, “don’t you hunger for their calls? Do you remember, when we stood side to side, on the day of your coronation? Don’t you want to hear them shout our names out loud again?”

“Dáin, I don’t-”

Oakenshield! Ironfoot! Oakenshield!”  Dáin mimicked.

“Very well,” Thorin said a little louder to cover his cousin’s enthusiasm. “I am coming with you. Give me a few seconds.”

“Of course, cousin. Master Baggins.” Apparently satisfied, Dáin and his niece walked away with a last nod in the hobbit’s direction.

Thorin turned to face Bilbo and his expression was one of regret. “I am sorry,” he said mournfully. “I dragged you away from the market only to abandon you here…”

“It’s perfectly fine, Thorin,” Bilbo smiled as he patted the dwarf’s arm, hoping that he sounded confident enough and not as disappointed as he felt. “I was hungry anyway. I am sure this matter can wait until the feast is finished, am I right?”

Thorin frowned and opened his mouth but no sound came out, and his jaw eventually snapped shut. His hand was once more in his pocket, and it was clear from Bilbo’s point of view that he was twisting something in his fingers. The hobbit had done it so many times with his old ring that there was no hiding it from him.

Finally Thorin’s frown disappeared and he sighed. “You are right,” he relented. “This matter can wait. I will see you at the feast then?”

“I am a hobbit, where else should I be?” Bilbo scoffed.

With a fond smile, the tall dwarf wrapped the hobbit in a warm hug and buried his nose in the honeyed curls. Bilbo grinned and embraced Thorin as well, taking in the scent of the King. It was a strange mix of leather oil and granite, quite unusual but not exactly unpleasant. The warmth seeping through the heavy blue coat felt wonderful as well, and Bilbo almost whined when Thorin stepped back and it was taken away.

Blue met hazel when their gazes mingled, and with a last parting squeeze of Bilbo’s shoulders, Thorin was off to join Dáin and Dihla.

The moment they were out of sight, Bilbo’s shoulders sagged miserably and he let out a disgruntled sigh. There. Another chance to spend some time with Thorin, not matter how little, gone to the winds. It seemed like he was doomed to never sort out what exactly was going on between the two of them. And the way Thorin had smiled at Dihla…

Bilbo shuddered and willed the memory away as he made his way to the market, his step visibly heavier than it was moments before in Thorin’s company. He would fetch the brothers and drag them to the feast, yes, that sounded like a good plan.

Maybe filling his stomach would ward off some of the emptiness he felt inside his chest. But somehow, he doubted it.