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Miss Beryl Baggins had been known as Bilbo to her friends and relations ever since she was a faunt dashing about the fields of Hobbiton in wee trousers and shirtsleeves, splashing in puddles and scaling trees like a squirrel. Named in honour of her distant foremother, Missus Berylla Baggins, and then quickly gaining a nickname inspired by her forefather, Mister Balbo Baggins, Bilbo had always felt a strong connection to her Baggins heritage, even when her spirit flared its most Tookish and wild. Balbo and Berylla had been the progenitors of the Baggins line, after all: the first Bagginses of Hobbiton, and Bilbo’s great-great grandparents.

A Tookish urge may have lit the fire under her heels and set her running out her door after a band of scruffy dwarves, but Bilbo was just as much a Baggins, down in her very bones. And it was this same Baggins-ness that ruled her as she considered how best to make overtures of friendship, or at least camaraderie, toward her odd companions. She was not quite Tookish enough to ignore her social graces, after all.

By the time Bree disappeared behind them, it seemed as though the whole wide world stretched out before them in the most nerve-wracking, heart-pounding sort of way (at least, heart-pounding for one settled spinster, having now travelled farther from the comforts of home than she had ever been before in all her fifty years; the rest of the Company didn’t seem overly bothered). It was also by this time that Bilbo had managed to memorize all the dwarves’ names (a feat made simpler by years of previous experience with recalling the names of her many curly-headed cousins milling about the Shire), and had privately split them into aptly named groups: sweet, savoury, and sour.

At first, it had only been Bofur, with his easy grin and bright laugh, young Ori, and Kili in the first category; these three had been the friendliest to her immediately, making her feel as welcome as possible, and decidedly not cutting doubtful, sideways glances her way. It hadn’t been too long, however, before Bombur proved himself as sweet as his older brother, asking Bilbo for her help with supper preparations and chatting amiably (if a bit shyly at first) about recipes and ingredients. It had made her feel included, in some small way, rather than simply the mistrusted, useless outsider. She had no idea how to tend to ponies, sharpen weapons, or hunt game, but she knew dozens of tasty ways to prepare rabbit and venison with only a few simple herbs, and which tubers and mushrooms were safe and plentiful to gather along the Great East Road.

Most of the other dwarves, Bilbo labelled savoury in the privacy of her mind: generally fine enough fellows, not inclined to rudeness or overly obnoxious behaviour aimed in her direction, but rather more neutral than actively chummy.

Fili seemed to trust his brother’s judgement to some extent, cozying up to Bilbo on occasion with a warm smile in his golden face as Kili pressed in on her other side. Thorin’s stern glares and judgemental comments at her expense seemed to kept him flitting back to arm’s length, however, and Bilbo didn’t have the heart to feel too slighted about it; it was obvious that Fili yearned for his uncle’s approval, and Thorin certainly did not approve of her.

Balin was similar, though Bilbo didn’t imagine for an instant that the older dwarf’s reserved attitude was because he sought Thorin’s praise as a pup might seek a treat. No, Balin was kind enough to her, quick enough to answer her questions and offer advice, but Bilbo still remembered his doubtful words around her table: hardly burglar material. It felt as though, despite his welcome and his wink when she’d appeared with her contract flapping behind her, Balin still doubted her suitability for the task ahead. She hardly blamed him, of course, for she doubted herself in that regard most every step of the journey thus far, but it also seemed as though Balin had little interest in forming a proper friendship with such a Shire-soft hobbit lass.

Gloin and Oin were both mannerly, though gruff and looked upon Bilbo with the same air of skepticism as Balin did. Nori was something of a mystery, keeping his distance even when she felt his eyes on her, but Dori seemed to be slowly warming to her presence (bringing up the topic of teas and tea service had brought an excited glint to his brilliant blue eyes, and had also earned her an encouraging nod from Ori). Bofur and Bombur swore that their cousin had nothing but kind words for her, but of course Bilbo couldn’t understand a single one of those supposed kind words or strange gestures, and so any friendship between her and Bifur was progressing very gradually.

Dwalin and his menacing scowl had been firmly placed within the realm of sour, until they had been on the road for not quite a fortnight. That was when the rain had started: only a springtime sprinkle at first, but quickly turning into a downpour that lasted for days. Bilbo had weathered the cool drizzle quite staunchly at first, not uttering a single complaint as it began to soak into her pinned-back hair and trail shivers down her neck as it seeped under her collar. She did, however, immediately realize the gravity of her error in not packing any sort of cloak, or even a hat or hood. Her travelling clothes— trousers and a corduroy coat— were sturdier than skirts would have been, but offered little protection from such elements as rain and strong wind.

A week and six days on the road, with home far behind them now and the Lone-Lands ahead, Bilbo was soaked and shivering on the back of a pony, probably looking as miserable as a cat that had been tossed in a bath. After only a few hours of that miserable trekking, however, Bilbo suddenly found herself blind and snared in an ambush of heavy fabric, tossed over her head and back from behind.

She had flailed then, nearly tipping from her pony as Myrtle snorted and shook from Bilbo’s panic. A very large hand had steadied her before she could take a tumble, gripping firmly on her arm, and the accompaniment of Dwalin’s deep rumble of a voice was both calming and shocking in nearly equal measure.

“Easy, lassie,” he’d said, then tugged the fabric back away from where it had fallen over her face. A heavy cloak, in a drab mossy green colour that was growing darker with the heavy slick of rain over its oiled length, had been draped over Bilbo from head, down past her feet.

The cloak had smelled mostly of pine, smoke, and the heady musk of very masculine sweat— Bilbo had a vague sense that she shouldn’t have found the aroma as comforting as she had. It was also body-warm already, which brought an unwelcome, answering heat flushing up over her face, scorching under the chilly rain.

When she’d turned, favouring Dwalin with a terribly confused but grateful sort of wide-eyed stare, he’d waved off any and all arguments, and offered not a word of explanation for his generosity, even as the rain splattered down over his bald pate, beading in his eyebrows and bushy beard.

From that day forwards, Bilbo had assumed a tentative sort of accord with the big, burly dwarf warrior, and Dwalin hadn’t corrected her increasingly cordial conduct. He was rough around the edges, certainly, but he still thanked her every evening when she passed him his supper (with a word and a glance, rather than simply a grunt as Thorin was wont to do), and had even lent her a natty little travelling haircomb when her own had met its ignoble end under a pony’s hoof one evening. It wasn’t the same sort of easy rapport that she shared with her sweet dwarves (dwarrows, Ori had corrected her kindly, with the tone of someone sharing a secret), but despite a rocky, intimidating sort of beginning, Dwalin had unquestionably earned his way out of his initial label of sour.

Thorin, from the moment he’d stepped foot inside her smial, had been tart as a lemon. She looks more like a seamstress than a burglar, said with such dismissive humour, had not endeared Master Oakenshield in her eyes, and his attitude had not improved overly much in the weeks since. He may have given in to Gandalf’s arguments and pressed the contract into her hands, but he had no faith in her, nor any compunctions about telling her so.

All things considered (including all the rumours Bilbo had heard about the standoffish nature of dwarrows when it came to outsiders), she believed it was a rather impressive ratio for so early in their journey: four sweet friends, eight fellows who were not by any means unsavoury (and who might just warm up to her yet, if she played her cards right), and only one sour, stubborn old goat (who Bilbo hoped, very privately, she might one day impress enough to earn at least a nod, for if she could squeeze even a flyspeck of support from the stony Thorin Oakenshield, then perhaps she might be able to survive this madcap quest after all).

But impressive or no, Bilbo was not content to sit on her hands when it came to her place in the Company. She would prove herself— somehow, eventually, hopefully— but in the meantime, she had made it her mission to win a few more dwarrows from savoury into sweetness. She had managed to charm her stuffiest Baggins and Boffin relations into accepting her spinsterhood in Bag End with some amount of good grace (except the Sackville-Bagginses, of course, but the less said about that, the better); surely she could charm a few hard-headed dwarves if she put her mind to it.

There were a few topics every hobbit, from rowdy tweens to white-haired gaffers, and muddy-fingered farmhands to plummy old gentlehobbits, understood as respectable conversation. The weather, food, and family were considered the safest and most popular, the majority of the time.

The weather was not a subject apt to inspire good feelings, with the rains having lingered on and off as they trudged across the forested Lone-Lands, and few of the dwarves save Bombur seemed overly concerned with food. Or, at least, not overly concerned with the intricacies of ingredients, recipes, and techniques; they were certainly all concerned with quantity, and availability of food, but that was hardly enough to be going on for Bilbo’s purposes.

That left family, which was a subject Bilbo hesitated to bring up immediately, for fear of putting her foot in it. No, with these secretive dwarrows, Bilbo decided to test the waters first. She was still a bit cross with Gandalf for keeping her in the dark about all of this from the beginning: marking her door, filling her home with dwarrows, and cajoling her into such an adventure. There were many things she would trust him with, her life not the least among those things, but she wasn’t about to trust him with wading through matters of propriety with their Company when he’d already proven willing to toss her in headfirst and watch her flounder.

It wasn’t until their journey had brought them within sight of the craggy hills and thick forest of the Trollshaws that Bilbo was finally able and willing to shore up her nerve, and try to broach the subject. She hemmed and hawed for a short while about which dwarf to approach first, but in the end chose Bofur, whom she considered the most easygoing of the bunch, despite his tendency to let his mouth run away with him on occasion.

It was evening, after sunset, and their fire was crackling merry and bright in the centre of their camp; it hadn’t rained all day, and by some miracle, Gloin and Oin had managed to track down some relatively dry wood, though it was still smokier than usual. Supper had come together with spit-roasted hares and some delicious oyster mushrooms Bilbo had gathered and tucked away the day before, as well as their usual cram. It was all sitting beautifully in her belly when she licked the last bit of grease from her thumb, and glanced over to where Bofur sat, just beside her on a thick patch of clover. The Company had formed into loose groupings for the meal, and in their little half-ring also sat Bombur, Bifur, Fili, and Kili.

“So, Bofur, you’ve seen my home,” she began, during a natural lull in their dinner conversation. She kept her voice low enough not to travel across their entire camp, but not so quiet as to indicate she was being secretive, and Bofur looked to her with interest.

“Aye, and a lovely little burrow it is, too.” Leaning back on his hands, arms stretched and braced behind him, Bofur’s smile was fond and more than a little cheeky. “Cosy as a rabbit warren. Could’ve been dug a bit deeper, though.”

“It’s a smial,” she said automatically, treading a line between annoyed and playful that Bofur could so often draw with hardly any effort at all. “Not a burrow, nor a warren, and not some cave, either. But my point was, you’ve seen mine, and I’m curious about your home, as well.”

Bofur’s cheer drooped a bit, his smile turning mildly rueful, and Bilbo noticed the others in their little group glancing at each other.

“It’s no bother if you’d rather not,” she assured them, though she didn’t have to fake the disappointment in her tone. “Or if it’s some sort of dwarven secret.”

“No, lass, it’s not that.” Bofur looked to his brother and cousin, then over at the young princes, and whatever he saw there prompted him to shrug before turning his attention back to Bilbo. “Not precisely that, anyway. There’s not much said about dwarven kingdoms to outsiders, that’s true enough, but you’re part of the Company, eh? And no harm in a few stories of home with you, except, well…”

“Mister Balin would probably be better to ask,” Kili said, when Bofur trailed off.

Beside him, Fili nodded. “Aye, or Gloin maybe?”

“Since none of us lot have ever even seen Erebor,” Bofur continued, motioning at the five dwarrows. “And stories aren’t the same as memories.”

“No, you misunderstand.” Bilbo twisted her hands slightly in her lap, picking absently at one thumbnail with the other. “I meant your home in the Blue Mountains— I’ve never been farther west than Michel Delving, and you can hardly even see the peaks from there. Tell me about the mountains, or about life there. Do you… do any of you have families?”

It wasn’t the smoothest round-about query she’d ever posed in her life, but at least it was (probably) less likely to go off like a whizzpopper in her face when laid before the group seated around her, rather than the whole Company.

“Now that is something you shouldn’t ask Gloin about,” Fili said quietly, almost under his breath.

Kili nodded meaningfully, leaning away from his brother’s shoulder and closer to Bilbo. “Unless you want him talking your ear off about his wife and his lad. Honestly, he’ll go on for days, and there’s no stopping him once he’s off. I wouldn’t risk it.”

“I’d listen to the lads on this one; that’s actually good advice.” Bofur clapped Bilbo lightly on the back (and not just lightly for a dwarf; he was learning, bless him), before pointing towards his own brother. “Now Bombur, he’s married as well, to the sweetest dam in all Ered Luin. Aren’t you, Bom?”

In the dim, orange light of the fire, it was still entirely obvious when Bombur’s cheeks darkened into a flush, just above the great puffy roots of his braided beard. His expression, however, was open and almost dreamy, rather than pinched with embarrassment.

“Dear Runa.” Lacing his fingers over his belly, Bombur let out the longest, breathiest sigh, and murmured something that Bilbo could not understand but it had all the other dwarrows groaning and grinning in turn.

“She’s a gem,” Bombur said, in plain Westron now for Bilbo’s benefit. “Solid and sturdy built, with agate eyes, gleaming all brown and gold, and hair thick and dark as black treacle.”

Bifur, still chewing on the stem-end of a dandelion while the bright yellow flower bobbed merrily from his lips, grunted roughly and made some complex gesture with his hands.

“Oh, aye,” Bofur said, then leaned in close enough that Bilbo could smell the earthy spice-scent that clung to his hat and the bulky layers of his clothes, even through the smoke of the fire. “Runa’s a beauty, enough to make a dwarf forget his own name. Skin rich brown as a copper coin, furred overtop soft as velvet, and the beard on her… I swear, a fella could die happy, smothered in those gorgeous locks. If my hide’s still in one piece at the end of all this adventuring, I might just give it a go.”

Bilbo half-expected a squawk from Bombur, whether mock or truly offended, when Bofur waggled his eyebrows in such a suggestive way, but not a single note of censure was raised. In fact, Bombur simply laughed at his brother’s antics, and accepted a brief, affectionate clasp of hands when Bofur stretched out towards him. Bilbo scooted just slightly away from Bofur, not especially keen on risking an elbow to the face if the hand grip turned rowdy.

“What about the rest of you?” she asked, bolstered by the easy acceptance of her curiosity; this plan might just work. It might still be best to tread carefully, but at least she had some ground under her feet at last. “Married, or sweethearts, or anything like that?”

“Why, Bilbo?” Kili jostled near her other side again, dragging her shoulders under the heavy drape of his arm. She had no great love for being pawed at like a toy by overly strong, overly eager dwarrows, but the half-embrace went no farther than a friendly squeeze, and Kili snuggled tight and warm as a furnace against her wasn’t an uncomfortable familiarity. “Fili and I haven’t found a sweetheart yet, if you’re on the hunt… and we both think you’re very pretty.”

“Kee!” Bilbo could feel the smack Fili delivered to this brother’s arm all the way through the dense padding of Kili’s body, and once again marvelled at the sturdiness of dwarves. If someone had thumped her that hard, it would have rattled her bones out of her skin, but Kili hardly flinched, only pulling a rude face at his older brother.

His older, frowning brother, who was looking far less amused than Kili at the moment, and Bilbo had a horrid thought that perhaps there was a thread of seriousness in the teasing. This sort of tension and sour feeling had not been her intent at all, and Bilbo’s mind sought a wise way to defuse it.

“You’re a dear lad, Kili,” she said, reaching up and giving the back of his hand a pat where it dangled over her shoulder. “And no doubt the lasses all think you deadly with that smile and that silver tongue, you rascal, and handsome Fili, too. If I were twenty years younger, I might have kept up with you, but alas, you’ve found me too late in my season.”

“Too late in your season?” It was Fili leaning forward now, craning around his brother to fix Bilbo with a stare, disbelief writ large across his furrowed brows and gentling frown. “It’s not as though you’re some silvered grandam, Bilbo— still gold and copper in your curls, and springtime in the swing of your hips.”

“Oh Fili, hush.” The tips of her ears felt warm where they peeked out of the curls he complimented so lyrically. A poet prince, and not an entirely chaste one, either— springtime in her hips, indeed. These young brothers had surely been born charmers. “I’m at least old enough to weather such honeyed banter and keep my wits.”

Bending down, keeping that same sweet, laddish smile firmly in place, Kili tilted his head towards hers like a close confidant and murmured: “That’s a no, then?”

“That’s a no,” she agreed, gently but firmly, and couldn’t help but be a touch flattered by the softening of disappointment that flashed through his keen, dark eyes. A thread of seriousness, just as she’d thought, and it was good she’d had the chance to nip it in the bud early. Like a splinter, it was best to have such things out now, rather than let them linger to soreness and risk festering.

“Ah, well.” There was another squeeze around her shoulders, before Kili was shifting back, unwinding himself from around her and slapping his brother on the knee. “You’re still our fine Mistress Boggins, even if you’ll not be our sweetheart.”

There was a freshness to the night breeze that almost made her regret his retreat— dampness lingered in the air from the rain, and Bilbo had every intention of snatching a certain oversized cloak from where it hung drying by the fire before she shuffled off to her bedroll. She’d cosy up under her blanket and the thick, windproof wool, and very purposefully not think about Dwalin’s bullheaded refusal when she’d tried to return the cloak to him, or the knot of warmth that had tightened in her chest.

Bifur had wandered off during Kili’s tomfoolery, trundling towards the trees that marked and obscured their privy, and Fili hadn’t argued his brother’s claim that neither of them had a sweetheart, which left only Bofur undiscussed in their huddle.

“And you, my friend?” she said, choosing her words carefully as she gave Bofur a light prod in the ribs to catch his attention. She was slowly getting into the swing of this casual physicality the dwarves seemed to favour. It was similar to a sort of intimacy that she would only privately admit having missed, ever since she and her cousins has grown past their tweens and left roughhousing and cuddles behind in favour of dour respectability. “Any sweetheart waiting back home?”

Bofur, surprisingly enough, peered at her with the most confused furrow between his brows. Bilbo was struck by the sudden urge to check her face and clothes for stray bits of food, but that was ridiculous.

“Well, aye, of course.” Bofur scratched consideringly at the patch of hair tufting from his chin. “I hardly cut half the fine figure of my brother, true enough, but I’m not some orc-faced clod, you know.”

“Oh!” If she’d thought Fili and Kili’s unanticipated punt of interest had been a hotbed for tension, it had been nothing at all compared to this. Through her clumsy fumbling with matters of dwarven manners, she seemed to have managed to hurt Bofur’s feelings, somehow or other. “Certainly not! That’s not— I didn’t mean—”

Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm the churning in her belly where her supper was going sour. “Bofur, you can’t think I meant something so terrible. You cut a very fine figure, and you’re a kind and lovely chap, if the tastes of a silly hobbit spinster hold any weight at all in that regard.”

The shadows cleared from Bofur’s expression as Bilbo stammered her way through her apology, like clouds parting for the sun, and he snatched up her hand when she finished. The dry press of his lips against her knuckles was whiskery, and the flicker of firelight put a gleam back in his rich green eyes.

“Spinster, bah.” The kiss was entirely chaste, a playful peck of forgiveness. “You hobbits have ugly words for fine things. Just means you’re choosy, as you should be. Dam’s prerogative.”

Bilbo didn’t correct him; it was partially true, after all. She had refused a suitor or two in her younger years, but those gentlehobbits had been more interested in her sprawling smial and the wealth that kept it so well turned-out. She’d always been rather too odd to be considered a catch for any other reason, even if she had inherited an attractive mix of her father’s plump figure and soft, welcoming face, along with her mother’s thick toffee-brown curls and elegantly long Tookish feet.

“Tell me about this lucky sweetheart of yours,” she said instead, finding her smile, only to have a shade of confusion cloud over Bofur’s expression again.

Impossible, confounded dwarves.

“Tell you? We already did.” Bofur jerked a thumb in his brother’s direction; Bombur was studying Bilbo as well, obviously unsure. “Runa, you remember? I tell you, lass, if you’d ever seen her, you certainly wouldn’t forget so quick.”

Bilbo blinked.

“Runa?” She blinked again more quickly, lashes fluttering, then stared between all four dwarrows seated around her, searching for the joke. Surely she was being teased again. “But I thought, Bombur… You said, his wife—”

The words spilling out of her mouth made no sense at all, but by some far-flung stroke of luck, Bombur actually seemed to gather some meaning from the mess.

“Ah,” he said, pitched more like a question than a realization. “This might… huh. Hobbits marry, don’t they? How many?”

Bilbo appreciated the direct query; her mind was too befuddled at the moment to unravel anything subtler. “Most,” she said. “Nearly all, actually. I’m rather an odd duck, truth be told, still alone at my age.”

That answer was enough to send a grumble around their huddle, though nothing distinct.

“No,” Fili said, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “He means, how many each? How many spouses?”

“Or sweethearts,” Kili added.

“Well, some hobbits have lots of sweethearts before they take a suit.” Bilbo refrained from mentioning by name several of her more comely Boffin cousins, and even a few tow-headed Tooks around her age who had never, ever wanted for dance partners at Lithedays fairs. “But we don’t often remarry. Even young widows and widowers rarely accept a courtship again, though there’s no true shame in it, if they eventually do.”

Here, she very carefully did not think of her mother and those last five years after Bungo’s passing, when Belladonna had faded away so gently in her grief, like silk left out to bleach and weaken in the sun.

Silence answered her, but Bilbo didn’t miss the twitch of Bofur’s hands, nor the answering twiddles of other thick dwarven fingers.

Her annoyance peaked with these damned secretive dwarrows, and more so with her own foolish, childish want to wheedle her way into their cohort. She had been kept just outside her entire life— apart from her peers, too much a Baggins for the Tooks and too Tookish for the Bagginses— and now she was too Hobbitish in a band of bloody dwarves, and pushed aside even when she tried to understand. The most annoying part of all was that it still stung, after all these years tucked away inside the seclusion of Bag End trying to grow a callus on her heart against such nonsense, and that ridiculous pang of hurt in her chest was what finally sent her fluffing up like a wet hen.

“Never mind it; keep your secrets,” she snapped, stamping her foot hard enough to chuck up a few crumbles of soil from under her heel. “But I’ll spend all my time with Gandalf chattering away in Old Hobbitish if you don’t stop that dratted finger whispering when I’m sitting right here. I can see you, and it’s awfully rude.”

Kili made a distressed sort of grunt, and scuffed softly at her shoulder with his fingers. “We’re just trying to understand, Bilbo.”

“While trying not to offend, as well,” Fili added. “Even if we’re making a hash of it. Are you… are you saying hobbits take one spouse each?”

“Well, yes,” Bilbo said with a slow nod, as the dwarves all gawped at her.

“One only?” Bofur had a hand pressed against his cheek, and his mouth ever so slightly parted even when he wasn’t speaking. “Just one apiece? All of you?”

“Yes,” Bilbo said again, with only the barest sliver of impatience; she thought she was being fairly clear, but she wouldn’t fault these dwarrows their confusion. She certainly felt out of her depth, as well.

“Bless me,” Bofur said, words nearly lost in a great gusty sigh. “That sounds lonesome, if I’m being honest, lass. No offence meant.”

On her other side, Fili and Kili were both staring at her with wide eyes, and Bombur was stroking the thick chain of his beard, looking deeply contemplative.

“I’ve no idea what I’m meant to be taking offence about,” she admitted. “Or not taking offence about, as it happens.”

“Oh, lass.” Bofur sighed again, almost sadly, and now Bilbo found both her shoulders held in supportive grips, Bofur on her left and Kili on her right. It was bizarre, but also oddly effective, since she felt as though her head was full of dandelion fluff caught in a breeze. “We’ve tripped over a wee snag in custom here, it seems. In hobbit marriage, it’s one and one, aye? Just the pair?”

“Oh goodness,” Bilbo said, before she could stop herself. She’d been very purposefully ignoring the glaringly obvious nature of the misunderstanding, so sure she must be jumping to conclusions, but now it seemed the cat was leaping free of the bag. “Sorry, yes. Just the pair, that’s right. Usually a chap and a lady, but it’s not unheard of for two ladies to settle down together, or two chaps either. Not even the stodgiest gammer cares overmuch about the details— it only matters that you’re married and settled, respectable.”

“But just two, always just two,” Kili muttered, rough with disbelief, and Fili hushed him with a hissing sound and an elbow to the ribs. Bilbo’s heart gave a nervous judder.

She swallowed, thick and dry, and drummed up a sudden bolt of courage. “Dwarrows… you marry more than two?”

Her voice had been little louder than a mouse’s squeak, but at least she’d said it, rather than chattering all around the issue for a hundred more years and flapping her hands like some infuriating dwarrows she could mention.

“Dams do,” Bofur said, and there it was, out in the open at last. “Most times a dam’ll favour taking a pair of husbands, though she could take more if she fancied. Kin, likely as not— brothers, usually, like Bom and me. I’m Runa’s second, though I’m older, and to be honest, the order don’t really mean much anymore. Just tradition.”

“You?” Bilbo knew it wasn’t especially polite to point, but she could help waving one finger in the air between these two sweet dwarrows, brothers, and husbands. “And you? Your wife, Bombur, she’s… Bofur, she’s your wife too? How does that even work— No. No, don’t tell me, please, no. Forget I said anything.”

“Oh, it works grand, thanks for asking, lass.” Bofur’s dimples deepened with his toothy grin. “Though when we take the mountain, first thing we’re getting is a bigger bed. What’s the use in being rich and heroic if you still wake up with a crick in your back?”

Bilbo’s face felt hotter than the coals she’d roasted their supper over, and the shadowy woods around their little campsite swam murky at the edges of her vision. Even being a bit irregular by Shire standards, she’d had her share of youthful folly— stolen kisses behind the Party Tree, a few sweet tickles, and even a handful of sticky, clumsy tups in quiet haybarns— but this was something else entirely, this brothers and husbands, and we’re getting a bigger bed. She hauled herself to standing with only a minor wobble, and managed to mumble an excuse about a smoke and then sleep, without babbling too insensibly, or tripping over her suddenly (and never before) ungainly, awkward feet.

She wasn’t running away, not precisely, but she did ignore the calls from behind her as she scurried off across their camp. At all cost, she kept clear of Gandalf; she could already imagine his amused little smile under that sweeping beard, thank you very much. He took far too much pleasure in putting her out-of-sorts.

Her bedroll was already laid out, but tucked too close to Bombur and Bofur’s packs, and Ori’s as well, for her comfort at the moment. She needed some time to order her thoughts about this— a bit of privacy, without expectant dwarrows watching every emotion flicker across her face as she chewed it all over like a cow.

Luckily enough, she had her pipe and a packet of leaf hidden away in her coat pocket, and Bilbo took only a moment to surreptitiously nab Dwalin’s cloak and swing the ample cloth over her shoulders before slipping off to a secluded corner of their campsite. Not dangerously far away from the glowing golden wreath of firelight, but just enough to shake off the stifling sensation of so many gruff, rough, foreign dwarven bodies pressing in from all sides.

Two husbands. Goodness gracious.

She packed her pipe with quick fingers, but only when she had the bit in her mouth did she realised that she hadn’t thought to fetch a coal or a smouldering stick from the fire, and her tinderbox was safe in her pack. Drat it all.

The pipe stayed stubbornly clenched between her teeth, black and cold though it was, as she sat on a lumpy spot of grass, staring up at the inky sky. The stars were glittering brilliantly, almost as though they were determined to make up for four days of overcast grey, and the moon was strung up as round and fat as a lantern.