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A Thief's Calling

Chapter Text

 

Cover Image by me.


 

Nori considered himself very fortunate in that he still had had their ‘amad to explain the important things in life to him. Kori had been a great Dwarrowdam, the best if anyone asked her sons, and theirs were the only opinions that mattered anyway. She had been realistic in her outlook on life, but had had enough hope to last them through the hard times until first Dori and then also Nori could do their part to help. Men had an expression he thought fit her very well, even if no one else seemed to quite understand how one Dwarf could be more `down to earth´ than another.

 

Kori had taught them of arukhaz santorva, the inner need of every Dwarf to learn and master a specific craft, of sanâzyung, a Dwarf’s one love that made all others pale in comparison, and of hagulhaz âzyung, the need to create something for their One and only them. The item that The Calling resulted in, commonly called ‘agalhaz sanâzyung, the Gift, varied from Dwarf to Dwarf. Most reported that their Gift hadn’t made any sense at all until they actually met their One, and it wasn’t always at their first meeting either. Anything was possible, and their ‘amad had had many stories to teach her sons just that. There was the one about the carpenter who carried with them a wooden staff for several decades, sometimes to replace the broken handle of a war-hammer, sometimes it was the perfect height to serve as a crutch for their One. It was rather obvious that not all of those stories were true, but that wasn’t important. Important was only that Dori and Nori grew up knowing with absolute certainty that it didn’t matter at all what their craft was or what The Calling made them do. It would be perfect for their respective One either way, worth it, and having that knowledge to fall back on was invaluable.

 

Once, only a single time, their ‘amad had mentioned that sometimes Dwarrow didn’t feel The Calling for one reason or another, but the thought haunted Nori for many years. He had been far too young to fight at Azanulbizar (as had Dori, and their mother had thanked Mahâl for that every day of her life), though the aftermath had still been palpable when he was old enough to brood over fundamental questions, wonder why one should feel The Calling when their One had died or they died before their One was born.

 

They never asked their mother if she had felt The Calling, and which of their fathers (the first lost to the Dragon, the third to a mining accident, the second simply gone) had been her sanâzyung. Nori took two lessons from that regardless: it was possible and perfectly alright to love and desire someone not your One, and finding your One was no guarantee for happiness. That meant love was always imperfect, though Nori was willing to consider that there might be one, and only one, who could prove him wrong, so he called them santhadulur and refrained from correcting people when they assumed he was especially dedicated. Those that knew him noticed soon enough that he most definitely wasn’t any more faithful to someone he hadn’t met yet than the next Dwarf anyway.

 

Nori was convinced Dori had felt The Calling but never asked about that either. It was a private matter, and he would find out when the time came. That he hadn’t felt hagulhaz âzyung himself so far never bothered him. There were other things to worry about, after all, most importantly the survival of his family.

 

They lost their mother the day they got little Ori. It was not a fair exchange, not at all, but they loved their little brother all the more for it, though they certainly showed it differently; Dori through fussing and being a mother-hen too often, Nori through providing by his own means and teaching Ori what their oldest brother would not. They all knew Ori would likely need that particular knowledge, even if Dori would never admit it, as it was with many things.

 

It would have been easy to say Nori turned to thievery because it was the only way for an uneducated Dwarfling to provide for their family at the time, and there was a truth to it, certainly, but that wasn’t all of it. The important part was that Kori’s second son liked what he did and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

 

Thievery was not an honourable craft; most wouldn’t even call it a craft to begin with, but Nori begged to differ. They said everyone could be a thief; he said everyone could be a smith. The difference was the quality. Thievery was dangerous; so was being a warrior. In fact, Nori was sure he actually got the better deal in comparison. Stealing was illegal; so were the prices some merchants demanded for wares their apprentices crafted, but were never credited or paid for. From Nori’s point of view, he certainly wasn’t a criminal, or at least not the kind the guards should bother with, though he wouldn’t deny that sometimes he antagonised them just for the thrill of the hunt.

 

In the end, it didn’t matter what other people said anyway. Nori knew he had followed his arukhaz santorva (even if he couldn’t speak about his craft it in public, brag about his accomplishments as others did), and he had his brothers. He was content with his life as it was, happy even, and didn’t worry about The Calling at all ... until Ori started to ask questions.

 

Well, of course the Dwarfling asked questions; he always did, and they were often enough the kind of uncomfortable questions all children tended to ask. Dori and Nori tried their best to make their mother proud, even if it sometimes meant bending the truth or flat-out lying. And why the blazes should they tell the lad the truth so early anyway? Honouring their mother by calling themselves her sons was better than being fatherless bastards, no matter if the men themselves had been honest or not. So when Ori asked about hagulhaz âzyung, they told him the same stories as their mother had told them and added their own, and the little one looked up at them as they had looked at their ‘amad and understood.

 

They had done that together, Dori and Nori, but when the lad asked how one knew they felt The Calling, Dori only offered a short `you will know´ before leaving Nori with a confused child and no idea whatsoever how to respond to that. It had to be revenge for all the times the middle brother had left on similar occasions, had to be. The alternative would be that the topic caused Dori grief, and Nori wanted to believe for the sake of his older brother that that wasn’t the case. They might not always get along, though that didn’t mean they wished each other ill, and Dori could use someone good in his life and deserved them, too.

 

Ori started to ramble, not so much talking with Nori than thinking out loud. He theorised about how every Dwarf was unique as an individual as a person and in their craft. Consequently were no two smiths or warriors were alike, and so, as Ori reasoned, it only made sense that The Calling would feel differently for everyone and result in different ‘agalhaz sanâzyung.

 

“What do you suppose it will feel like for you?”

 

It was a good question and one Nori had never actually asked himself, content with what he had and neither hoping nor dreading that he might feel The Calling one day, but now his baby brother had him thinking.

 

He always imagined it as waking up in the middle of the night, bathed in sweat and unable to rest until he had completed a certain piece that may not make sense at that moment, but might be worth it in the long run.

 

Then again, he didn’t craft things, did he? He stole. He stole information and items; sometimes to sell them in order to support his brothers, other times because he was paid to do it, needed that particular item or information, or simply because he wanted it. He had a little hoard of his own – several, actually, because keeping all his valuables in one place was stupid – consisting mostly of trinkets that wouldn’t sell for much and had no particular use, things stolen and kept because he fancied them.

 

That night Nori actually did wake up in cold sweat, though it was definitely not The Calling rousing him, but thoughts, thousands of them. What if The Calling wasn’t as powerful as he imagined? What if he had already felt it? What if he had met his santhadulur and hadn’t noticed because he had had the trinket in question not with him or something terrible had happened to them for that same reason?

 

Nori’s moral compass was admittedly as bound to fail him as Thorin I-can’t-find-my-way-out-of-an-open-box Oakenshield’s rumoured sense of direction, but santhadulur was something to be cherished. He might not need them – though Nori was fully prepared to change his mind about that particular point if it ever came up – and might not gain any happiness from the experience, but them coming to harm, maybe suffering the same doubts or doubting their own worth because of him ... that was unacceptable. So the next day the thief packed his travel pack, bade his brothers goodbye, and left to hunt down every single cache he had, some as far as Gondor and Rhûn, relentlessly sorting through it all and getting rid of everything that meant nothing to him or had no use.

 

When he returned, it was with a few more scars, knives, and numerous new pockets in his clothes to store the few trinkets he could not make himself give away. Most were things that reminded him of their ‘amad, many he associated with his brothers, but nothing he could associate with anything he knew about hagulhaz âzyung or santhadulur.

 

It was not a very satisfying result in regards to a potential One, but he slept better being sure, and as a little reward for himself and because he never returned without gifts, he made a short detour before reaching Khagolabbad to Armukhakkar, a small strip of land inhabited by the oddest creatures to ever walk the face of Arda. Melekûnh had no beards at all and were always barefooted. The most valuable thing to be found in their dwellings was the odd piece of cutlery – family heirlooms, no doubt – but hardly ever worth the effort of stealing. Their cooking, however, was delicious, and the drinks even better. Also, they lived underground. It might be just lush green hills, lacking any and all fortification, but Nori was willing to give them points for being more sensible than the larger races. They also had more children running around than grass on their hills, so the Hobbits – the few he had talked with in Bree insisted they were `not half of anything´, and they could be quite vicious in their own ways, so Nori was careful what to call them in Westron, especially in their presence – had to be doing something right.

 

He bought tea for Dori, a toy and candied fruits for Ori, and out of principle stole some tomatoes for himself from the garden of a newly finished burrow, the paint on the green door still wet. Then Nori went home to his brothers and his old ways, content with his craft and not having felt The Calling. He stole and wandered, and no one would be any wiser if he questioned himself more often now on why he kept some things. If his wanderings led him through the Shire more often than strictly necessary, and he continued to lift tomatoes or whatever was ripe at the moment from the same garden around a burrow with a green round door under a hill, well, it wasn’t as if the Hobbits were starving, and was it his fault that this one knew how to grow tasty plants?

Chapter Text


 

Soaked to the bone and freezing, Nori hung his head and finally admitted to himself that he had gotten lost.

 

He probably deserved that for making fun of a certain king’s lacking sense of direction so often, but, in his defence, it was pitch-black and raining, as it had been for a while. Could he really be blamed for having been determined to walk just a little further? So what if he had run into trouble on the road and wanted to relax a bit, let the worst scrapes heal over before shuffling back to Dori and submit himself to extensive fussing? Not that he minded it as much as he pretended to, but it really were just scrapes, and worrying his brothers was the one thing he didn’t like about his craft, aside from being locked up now and then. So what if the inns in the Shire were cheaper, the company better, and the food more plentiful than elsewhere? So what if he had grown rather fond of the odd little melekûnh and hadn’t been able to drop by for a few years because he had needed to stay far away from Khagolabbad, and deemed it better to avoid Eriador altogether? He could have been warm and dry now as opposed to having to choose between his pride and drowning in this downpour.

 

It wasn’t a difficult decision on most days – if he were inclined to put something as petty as pride before his own survival, Nori would have been long since dead – though the rain and his own misjudgement of the weather put an additional sting to it. He knew how to navigate the wilds and predict the weather rather accurately, damn it.

 

Well, there was no helping it now. Gathering his dignity and what he remembered of his lessons in manners, the thief did what technically was one of the stupidest things a thief could do, and knocked on the first door where he could still see light behind the windows, praying that he wouldn’t wake any kids. He could deal with a lot, but right now a screaming horde of ankle biters would be too much, never mind that he was fairly certain waking their ten or something offspring would not endear him to the parents.

 

Seriously, with what it must take to deal with a family of the size that counted as average in this little part of the world, it was no surprise no one dared to bother Hobbits. That hardly anyone outside of Eriador knew they even existed certainly helped as well, but Nori still felt it mandatory to be on his best behaviour by Dori’s definition.

 

Anyway. There weren’t hordes of screaming children in the smial of his choosing, only one young lad (maybe an adult already. Nori never quite got a hang of it, but he was fairly certain this one was at least a male) holding onto the door and his ugly patchwork-dressing-gown.

 

“What do you ... can I ... Good evening?”

 

“Not really, no.”

 

Somewhere in Gabilgatholnur, Dori was no doubt despairing, but Nori was cold, wet, and miserable, and he knew Hobbits; at least better than any other Dwarf. He knew they were suspicious of strangers and fond of politeness, and Nori was trying, but there were limits.

 

Right, be nice to the little Hobbit and he will be nice to you.

 

“Sorry for that. Thing is, I’m lost. Can you point me to the next inn?”

 

The Hobbit didn’t reply, just stared. He was probably scared out of his wits, and Nori couldn’t blame the lad. If his hair looked only half as terrible as he thought it might (never mind the cuts and scrapes), he had to be quite the sight in a very negative sense ... or maybe he had gotten even more lost than he had anticipated, but that couldn’t be it. Things like that only happened to others, right?

 

“A barn would do, too, or a tool shed even. Anything with a roof would do.”

 

In his line of work, Nori really couldn’t afford to be picky. If he had the choice, of course he would prefer a proper bed and a warm meal, but Maker knew he could and had survived on far less.

 

“Oh, right. I’m sorry, I got ... yes. Well. There is an inn, a very good one, not far. You just have to ... go ...”

 

The lad got a faraway look, and Nori almost despaired, but then the little Hobbit puffed up.

 

“Nope. No, that won’t do at all. I will not let anyone wander around in the dark in this weather. My smial is warm, dry, and more than big enough. Come in, come in.”

 

That ... was a surprise, certainly, though a pleasant one. Warm and dry was good, the sooner the better, and he could hear the implications of a soft bed and at least one hot meal in there. Hobbits were the most amazing hosts of all the races of Arda if properly approached, and Nori would sooner cut out his own tongue than to complain, even if this felt more intimate than he had planned to get.

 

“Good gracious, you’re drenched to the bone. Oh, and freezing. Here, the bath is through here. Good thing I have always some water by the fire. Make yourself at home, I’ll be right back.”

 

Nori realised with some surprise that he might have underestimated Hobbits. Before he could even start to protest, the lad was gone with his pack and coat, which should probably worry the Dwarf greatly, but he was starting to lose the feeling in his fingers and toes, and he had just been promised a hot bath. Everyone had priorities, especially thieves, and if the price for feeling warm again was the (temporary) loss of his pack, he could live with that. Also, the ginger Dwarf knew dangerous people and he knew Hobbits. He wouldn’t go so far and say the two groups never overlapped, but this one lived in the heart of the Shire (presumably), well settled, and seemingly able to fuss more than Dori. The only danger was to be mothered to death, and there were worse ways to go.

For example, freezing to death or drowning in the rainwater in his hair. Dwarrow weren’t prone to falling ill, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t, and he felt as if he had half the road caked on his limbs in one way or the other.

 

“Luck is on your side; I really still had water on the fire. I’ll go and fix a late-night snack now. Nothing to ward off the cold like a hearty meal. Take your time.”

 

And the Hobbit was gone again, this time with most of Nori’s clothes, and the Dwarf decided then and there that he would stick around for as long as he could get away with. If he learned how to be even half as good at sneaking around and burgling things as this lad (who didn’t even seem to be trying, for pity’s sake), he would truly be a master thief. He may have even been inclined to say with skills like that he would be able to sneak into Azsâlulabad and steal the gold from under Smaug’s belly, but the thief remembered all too vividly his ‘amad’s ashen expression whenever drakes of any kind were mentioned, so he shooed the thought away.

 

Regardless, Nori was quite content with sinking into a hot bath for now and having a good soak. He ignored the slight sting from his wounds, and kept one eye always on the door, thank you very much. As nice as it was, the hospitality was starting to unnerve him a bit. Hobbits weren’t like the big folks, expecting reparations for every kindness, though the ginger thief still couldn’t help but wonder what this would cost him. Mahâl’s beard, he didn’t even know the lad’s name (or had gotten a good enough look at him to say what he looked like), neither had he introduce himself, and it added to the uneasy feeling. He had hightailed out of seemingly safe locations for less, but what could possibly happen to him here? It wasn’t as if he would end up in a cooking pot.

 

It was a ridiculous thought, wasn’t it? He would have heard if people tended to vanish in the Shire. He had heard about labyrinth-like roads, and that many travellers had to be led through by Hobbits if they didn’t stick to the Great East Road (or what was left of it), but they all had left the Shire again in one piece and well fed. No need to become more paranoid than necessary.

 

The lad had left him large, fluffy towels (it would be a challenge unlike any other to not steal them) and clothes that were far too wide around the middle and too short in the arms and legs. Not that anything about that was a surprise, and it was surely not the first time Nori had to wear ill-fitting clothes, though this bordered on ridiculous. However, the garments were soft, clean, and in good condition. For that, he could ignore for a while the feeling of being utterly unprotected, and get used to running around barefooted until his own things were at least remotely dry again. There were no real dangers within the Shire after all, and the wooden floor and colourful rugs were in kinder to bare feet than stone.

 

Briefly, Nori considered calling out to his host, but decided to first explore the burrow a bit, just in case. Who knew what kind of corpses Hobbits hid? Surely not literal corpses, but they couldn’t be perfectly polite and fussy creatures all the time, and this way he could figure out what he might offer the lad as payment if required. Also, he had never actually seen one of their smials from within. The point of having a safe place was after all that it remained safe, so no breaking in or committing crimes (worse than stealing a tomato or two, and no one could prove it anyway as the evidence tended to vanish rather fast).

 

The smial was to equal parts exciting and utterly boring. There was a lot of wood everywhere, and every room had at least one window (he would still give them points for living underground like sensible people, even if too close to the surface for any Dwarf’s liking, and every window was a possible exit, so no complaints from his side). Hearing the Hobbit puttering around in one direction, Nori started with the door straight ahead and found a large study with a generous desk overflowing with papers, inks, quills, and a used teacup. The walls were lined with portraits of (probably) relatives next a map of the Shire and one of Middle-earth that were not inaccurate per se, but definitely lacking, and a few bookshelves that couldn’t hold the number of books and scrolls that had started to migrate to every available surface. The plants on the windowsill were thriving, and there were two well-loved armchairs in front of a currently unlit fireplace positioned just so that two people could comfortably sit there and talk if they so fancied.

 

Attached to the study was a small library, filled with even more books, scrolls, and maps, and Nori could see some labelled in Tengwa even from the door, though he didn’t bother to look closer. Some of the tomes were no doubt valuable, but he wasn’t here to spy out potential loot (a conscious `safe place remaining safe by not committing any obvious crimes´ decision), and there were still more rooms to check before he ran into his host.

 

The next room the Dwarf dubbed `smoking room´ since it seemed exclusively reserved for smoking and possibly brooding, which made no sense to him at all. If he wanted to smoke, he would do it whenever and wherever he pleased, especially within his own home, though to have a place reserved for brooding sounded quite practical if one had the space to spare and was inclined to it. The location certainly seemed perfect for it.

 

The master bedroom was in what Nori would call calculated disarray, and he hurried to close the door again. Whenever it looked like that at home, Dori was going through their clothes to see what could still be salvaged and what was beyond hope. It never failed to be depressing and usually ended in a huge argument between them because Dori always refused to let Nori help replace what they needed and became very upset when he had to accept it anyway.

 

Opposite of the smoking room was another bedroom (the lad’s, going by the dressing gown that must have been abandoned for clothes more befitting company. He doubted two of those ugly things existed) then a room obviously dedicated to doing and drying laundry where his own clothes and pack lay. It was a sorry sight, but quite fortunate for the thief as he had many things the little Hobbit should better not see. As good as he was at hiding the tools of his trade, it was a miracle nothing had fallen out already. Next time he had the money to spare, he definitely needed to invest in new clothes.

 

Unpacking and repacking his things in haste, Nori hung all his clothes out to dry on conveniently strung lines while making sure his host would not stumble over anything he shouldn’t, before stroking the fire in the little oven heating the room. Come morning, most of his things should be dry enough to wear if still caked with mud.

 

Closing that door, too, the Dwarf continued exploring, but obviously, that had been all the interesting rooms in this part of the smial. He only found a backdoor – locked, but the key was in the lock, and the whole contraption was only good to keep the chill out either way – two guest rooms, a second, smaller bathroom, and a couple of storage rooms that ... well, they were odd. Too large, and they didn’t feel like storage rooms at all, though they were obviously used as such, and ...

 

Struck by a thought, Nori went back and had another look at the lad’s, and then again the not-quite-storage-rooms.

 

Oh.

 

Bedrooms. The storage rooms had been intended as bedrooms, most likely for children that obviously didn’t exist, and the master bedroom didn’t look like Dori checking their clothes, but like that one time Dori had forced himself to put away their mother’s belongings because looking at them hurt too much and they needed the room for little Ori. In the end, Nori had done it in secret when his brother had passed out from exhaustion and grief. It had hurt him as well, but someone had to do it and Dori did so much already ... but this lad had no one, had he? Just a big, empty smial with memories in every corner, and now a guest he should have never let into his home in the first place.

 

Mahumb.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Bilbo couldn’t say what he had done since tea. Going by the ache in his feet and back, his faintly grumbling stomach, and the darkness outside, he must have stood in the parlour and stared at the slowly dying flames the whole time.

 

That had been happening a lot lately or often enough at least that Bilbo had noticed it happening. He could blame it on the season before (there wasn’t much else to do in winter with everyone, himself included, still too scared after what had happened last year to go out more often than necessary), but now it was spring, and yet he still wasn’t worried about it. In fact, very few things worried him. The almost petrifying numbness was only interrupted by deep sadness and burning anger whenever well-meaning (or rather nosy and partly greedy) relatives dropped by to check up on him (which actually meant they were trying to convince him to give them his parent’s home and inheritance).

 

He didn’t want the money, never had, but he wouldn’t let any of it go to those vultures, not while he was still alive. And if he ever dropped dead, he most certainly wouldn’t let Lobelia of all people have Bag End! She had been a nice girl once, but since he had refused to enter a marriage of convenience with her, she had only given him more and more reasons to be extremely glad he had not taken her up on that offer. No, he would not let that terrible woman or anyone else get their claws on his home. It was all he had now, and he would defend it, be it with false smiles or barbed politeness.

 

Shaking himself out of those thoughts Bilbo decided today was not a good day, independent of the rainstorm he hadn’t even notice starting, and went to get ready for bed early. If he stayed up or not hardly made any difference anyway, but just before laying down his stomach made it loudly known that, appetite or not, grief or not, it would very much like to be filled, and had he actually taken the pot off the fire? The Hobbit remembered the plan to take a long bath today, but he hadn’t gone through with it ... or had that been yesterday? Which day was it anyway?

 

By the Green Lady, what had he become? His mother would ... but that was the point, wasn’t it? Belladonna wouldn’t do anything ever again because she wasn’t there anymore. After Fell Winter and Bungo’s death, they at least still had each other to lean on, and now he was all alone. What was even the point of ...

 

Knocking. Someone was knocking at his door.

 

Well, who by the good green earth would go outside in this weather? So help him, if that was someone else coming to offer condolences and check if he was still alive (he was, thank you very much. Pity, isn’t it?), he would give them an earful, except that it wasn’t one of those visitors; it wasn’t even a Hobbit, or so Bilbo thought. He had never seen a Hobbit with that much hair around the head anyway, and he had wandered all over the Shire before ... well, before.

 

Anyway, this one was quite a scary sight, actually, in a rather pitiful way.

 

“What do you ... can I ... Good evening?”

 

Socials skills. He remembered he had them at one point. This might be the oddest visitor he ever had – there was a memory from his early childhood about an even odder friend of his mother; tall as a tree, a wrinkled smile, and a long grey beard, but Bilbo had forgotten the name. It didn’t matter anyway, as the Man must have had been old even then and was likely dead already, too – and he might not be in the mood for even ordinary visitors, but that was no reason to be impolite to one who didn’t deserve it, and be it only by chance of them not having ever met before.

 

“Not really, no.”

 

Oh my. There was definitely a male under all that hair, somewhere. No woman had such a deep voice, and Bilbo kind of deserved that rebuke. It was a horrible evening, and he could hardly demand politeness from anyone when he himself was floundering and staring like that.

 

“Sorry for that. Thing is, I’m lost. Can you point me to the next inn?”

 

Oh. That ... well, that was ... new, in a good way, actually. How long had it been since anyone talked with him and not just over him, no matter if he was actually present or not? Someone was speaking to him instead of brushing past him and not letting him get a word in-between and what not. Granted, the stranger still looked scary, and the longer Bilbo looked, the scarier he became (was that a knife in his belt? The other didn’t exactly look like a wandering cook), but he also reminded the Hobbit of a rather large, miserable kitten ... a very wet kitten, at that. Why, Bilbo could probably fill the bathtub with how much water he could see running through all that hair, and soaking the other’s pack.

 

“A barn would do, too, or a tool shed even. Anything with a roof would do.”

 

Right. He should probably say something, and soon. It was definitely not healthy to stand around in the rain like that.

 

“Oh, right. I’m sorry, I got ... yes. Well. There is an inn, a very good one, not far. You just have to ... go ...”

 

Bilbo stopped himself. The Green Dragon Inn was good, great even, the best in the whole Shire, but if he described the way, the stranger would leave, and they would probably not meet again.

 

Suddenly, the Hobbit couldn’t bear the thought to shut his door and go to bed, all alone in the big smial of his parents. And look at this weather! Oh, to let the poor sod march through this downpour would be nothing sort of horrible of him, never mind that Bilbo would not be able to live with himself if the other came to harm on the way, short as it was.

 

“Nope. No, that won’t do at all. I will not let anyone wander around in the dark in this weather. My smial is warm, dry, and more than big enough. Come in, come in.”

 

The stranger was not just metaphorically, but very literally and completely soaked; Bilbo could feel it through the clothes – which were mighty odd, too, for a Hobbit. Too much leather and odd shapes underneath, and then a surprisingly firm body – and see the water dripping down from everywhere, never mind the mud.

 

That would take ages to clean up, but first things first.

 

“Good gracious, you’re drenched to the bone. Oh, and freezing. Here, the bath is through here. Good thing I have always some water by the fire. Make yourself at home, I’ll be right back.”

 

Okay, so that wasn’t entirely true, but who was there to call him out on that? Also, the stranger’s pack was as wet as the man himself, and Bilbo hurried to bring it to the laundry room. Bilbo considered unpacking it, to make sure everything could dry, but that would be prying and, really, he had been raised better than that. Instead, he put it close to the oven, which he lit, and then hurried to the kitchen. There he indeed found a large pot over the fire where it surely wouldn’t have caused any harm if he would have forgotten it there, but he was also glad his scattered mind would for once serve a good cause, so the Hobbit banked the fire, and carried the pot to the bath.

 

The sight greeting Bilbo there was enough to make the hair on his toes curl even more, or so it felt. That was a lot of ... Dwarf, he realised. Larger than the average Hobbit, too small to be a Man, hairy, beard ... yep, had to be a Dwarf. A ginger Dwarf, almost naked, with a lean yet muscular frame that was quite different from the farmhands in West Farthing and covered with freckles ... and a whole lot of bruises, shallow cuts, and even more scars.

 

That was ... mildly disconcerting, but Bilbo had heard the roads outside the Shire were dangerous, and he couldn’t find it in him to regret letting what probably was a wandering merchant into his smial. That one could use a good scrubbing indeed ... and Bilbo would not offer to help with that. Nope. Absolutely not. The other may have the most enticing back the Hobbit had ever seen, and Bilbo was in the middle of discovering that he possibly had a thing for hair in general, red hair in special, and definitely freckles, but the Dwarf was still a complete stranger. It would certainly be better to go and hang his guest’s clothes to dry; anything to stop his mouth running away from him.

 

“Luck is on your side; I really still had water on the fire. I’ll go and fix a late-night snack now. Nothing to ward off the cold like a hearty meal. Take your time.”

 

Food was a good idea. Bilbo was hungry, and cooking would keep his mind occupied for a while, not to mention that the Dwarf had to be starving. Who knew how long he had been on the road. Oh, and the bruises. Surely he still had a salve for that somewhere, and if not, it was easy to make.

 

Surely offering a bath, food, and medicine wasn’t against any dwarven customs, was it? Rules of hospitality couldn’t vary that much, but Dwarrow were so terribly secretive about everything regarding their culture, it was difficult to predict.

 

Bother it all, but he had completely forgotten to introduce himself or ask for the Dwarf’s name. Oh, but he felt alive as he hadn’t since his mother’s passing if not longer.

 

Hanging the clothes by the oven (they were threadbare to the point he feared they might dissolve entirely if he attempted to wash them properly, and lumpy with things he refused to take a look at), Bilbo forced himself to not think about it as he snuck some old clothes of his father and towels into the bathroom, then returned to the kitchen and started cooking. They could exchange names later, and the Hobbit knew the guest rooms were in order, even if he felt the need to dust everything over once more, just to be sure.

 

The bread had become old but roasted with butter, and garlic it would do. Cheese, sausages, should he make a soup or stew? No, not enough time for that, though fried potatoes with onions, eggs, and some ham would do as well. Scones from ... oh. No, they were at least three days old and burned. That wouldn’t do at all. He was a Hobbit. He wouldn’t serve his guest anything, but the best he could offer on such short notice, even if he hated wasting food. He would find a different use for them later.

 

Food, names, the salve, guest rooms, oh, it was so good to feel alive again.

Chapter Text


 

Nori was hard-pressed to go back and have another look at the master bedroom. Maybe he had gotten it all wrong because the little Hobbit surely wasn’t acting as a grieving lad should in his experience, humming to himself as he cooked. It smelled delicious, but that was not the point, even if the thief’s stomach begged to differ.

 

Of course, the Hobbit was grieving. Seeing a lanky, thin Dwarf was not uncommon; poverty and hunger preventing many from filling their natural disposition for broad shoulders and generally wide frames, but Hobbits weren’t thin, ever. Some would begrudge them their rich earth and full pantries. Nori, however, had seen the effort it took to work the soil, no matter how fertile, and he knew they would share what they had if they knew about their neighbour’s plight. The problem was that Dwarrow were too proud to ask for help (never mind what he had heard about how that had ended with the Elves), and had hardly anything to offer Hobbits for trade. Melekûnh had no need for jewels or weapons, and there was only so much need for farming tools. Give them good quality, and two or three generations would not need a replacement; give them low quality, and the Hobbits wouldn’t buy from Dwarrow again. The only ones with any kind of chance for profit were tinkers and toymakers, or would be if both races weren’t equally suspicious of strangers.

 

The point remained: Hobbits weren’t thin, but this lad was, and there were bags under his eyes that didn’t come from just one late night or two. The Dwarf had never been able to name what gave it away, yet he knew the lad must have cried himself to sleep a couple of times recently. That he was so cheerful now made Nori very wary, but he refused to revisit his earlier thoughts about Dwarf-stew. Nope, not going there. It was much more likely the lad was just a natural at acting or having a good day. Still, he best trod with caution.

 

“Master Hobbit?”

 

The lad actually jumped in fright and would have likely fallen and hit his head, but he most definitely he would have lost hold of the pan if not for Nori’s fast reflexes. He caught the Hobbit with one hand, and the pan with the other – thank Mahâl (literally), Dwarrow were by nature more heat and fire resistant than any other race – put the former back on his feet and the latter on the hearth. Then Nori backed away and out of the smaller’s reach again. He might have felt the lad up a bit – just to check for hidden weapons of course. Better safe than sorry – and wasn’t keen on feeling the backlash.

 

Nori tried to keep in mind that it was possible the lad was indeed just that but, Durin’s beard, he was a vision! Thin, yes, yet still soft, big eyes of a blue he had no comparison for. Sapphires, topaz, cobalt, nothing quite seemed to fit. Granted, they were widened by surprise, and it was in the middle of the night, and those lips might not look quite so plump and delicious when not shaping a soundless o. Nori really, really, really needed to remember that the other might look ready for ravaging, but might just as well be still a child, and Nori was a professional thief, not a cradle robber. He didn’t want to be that kind of man, ever, never mind that the lad was grieving, damn it all.

 

It would be so much easier to remember that if the lad would not be turning surprise into a blinding smile.

 

Mahâl’s forges; he had been on the road for far too long with only his hand for company, and damn him for having grown used to beardless faces and short, curly hair. Damn him twice over for appreciating the amber colour of said curls shimmering almost golden in the light of the fire. And don’t get him started on that button nose.

 

Right. Not a cradle robber, no matter what certain parts had to say to that. He had to remember the empty rooms, and clothes often picked up, but never put away, or something equally off-putting. Not his brothers, though, never his brothers. Thoughts of them were meant to be fond, and uplifting, and admittedly sometimes frustrating, but not in that way.

 

Then again, thinking about the last slimy bastard leering after his brother – his younger brother at that; little Ori, who was not a baby anymore, but far from being of age that time. Dori was perfectly able to fend for himself – helped. It went without saying that said Dwarf would never again leer after little lads or lassies or anyone for that matter, though Nori would like to point out that he hadn’t been involved in that one’s timely demise. He had only made sure the offender could not enjoy any carnal pleasures anymore, but that someone else saw fit to take more drastic measure didn’t surprise him. He wasn’t the only one with a younger sibling in Khagolabbad.

 

“You sure are fast. Thank you.”

 

Nope. No lusting over or after the lad. Hopefully, with some rest, Nori would have that train of thought fully back under control. Food would also be great, and who could blame his stomach for rumbling when presented with such delicious smells?

 

“Oh my, you must be starving. Sit down and help yourself. I’ve got plenty. It’s none of my business, of course, but I noticed you have some bruises and I have this salve that works miracles. Oh, and you’d need to go through your things, so they can dry. I would have done it, but I didn’t want to pry, and ...”

 

“Master Hobbit,” Nori interrupted amused, and this time he didn’t hesitate to think of Ori. His little brother also tended to ramble, and Nori believed himself a fairly good judge on when interruptions were called for and when not. “Thank you, on all accounts. I already took care of my things, but I don’t want to impose on your hospitality more than I already have.”

 

Dori would be so proud of him. Pity, he would never hear about this.

 

“Don’t be ridiculous. I may be part Took, but also a Baggins, and we don’t do things by halves. I offered you my hospitality, and … oh, bother it all! Forgive my manners. I’m Bilbo Baggins.”

 

“Nori,” the Dwarf replied and could have smacked his head against the table the next moment.

 

What was he, forty? Never ever give your real name to anyone; that had been one of the first things he had learned, and a pretty little face was no reason at all to endanger his brothers. Nothing was ever an acceptable excuse for that. At least he had not given his mother’s name as well, but he would need to be extra careful in the future.

 

“Oh. That’s ... a nice name? I’m sorry, that was awkward. I don’t do that very often; talk, that is, with strangers. I should ... yes, I should probably leave you to your meal and prepare the guest room. Yes. Excuse me. Damn it, Bilbo Baggins, when have you become so horrible at social interaction that you have to steal away like a thief in the night?”

 

The last part had obviously not been meant for Nori’s ears, and he had to fight against laughter to not give it away.

 

Thief in the night, indeed. If only the lad knew, but he wouldn’t; especially not with a family name like `Baggins´. Nori didn’t even care about the politics of his own people when it didn’t concern his craft, but the Bagginses were important people among Hobbits. Better not upset the little one. Complementing the food would also be a good idea, not that that was a hardship. It was free, plenty, and delicious. Seriously, if he were anywhere but in the Shire, Nori would worry when the other boot would drop and get the fuck out of here.

 

Hobbits; best creatures ever.

 

“My apologies for the delay, Master Nori. I’ve found the salve.”

 

This time Nori couldn’t help but laugh.

 

“I’ve been called a myriad of things, but certainly never master.”

 

“I’m ... sorry? I was only trying to be polite.”

 

“Mighty kind of you, lad, but none of this master business, aye? I’m nobody’s master or servant. Just Nori will do.”

 

Aw, now he had the lad flustered. It was a good look on him. Ravaged and debauched would also be a good look on the Hobbit, and that wasn’t just the long, lonely road talking anymore.

 

“Well, if you insist ... Did you want tea? Or maybe something stronger? It is awfully cold tonight.”

 

“Wouldn’t say no to stronger.”

 

And again the little one was gone only to return with a brown, corked flask, and two minuscule glasses.

 

“My neighbour’s moonshine. It’s ... very potent, even by hobbit standards.”

 

The lad had certainly meant it as a polite warning or just babbled due to nerves (surprisingly many people did that), but all the thief heard was a challenge. That, too, happened rather often.

 

“Not to discredit your neighbour, but I’ve travelled far and tasted brews that would make the curls on your feet flee. Some moonshine won’t scare me.”

 

The smirk he got in return should have really been warning enough, and the ginger Dwarf would forever deny the brew made him tear up. He definitely would try to get a few flasks from said neighbour, though. Even if he watered it down (as in one part moonshine, ten parts water), he would still be able to sell it as a potent drink and make a small fortune.

 

“It’s good,” he said, and did not sound as if his throat was on fire, thank you very much.

 

The Hobbit beamed widely, seemingly unaffected by his own drink, and Nori decided enough was enough.

 

“Lad, just how old are you?”

 

And gone was the smile, replaced with a very brisk scowl.

 

“Old enough to take care of myself, I assure you.”

 

That ... well, he didn’t deserve that, not really, but how often had Nori said (shouted) the same thing to Dori’s face? It was an entirely justified question, though he should have known to phrase it differently.

 

“Nay, lad, I mean no offence. It’s the lack of beard, you see? Makes it hard for any Dwarf to tell the age of others, aye?”

 

There. That was close enough to the truth. Nori was comparably good at guessing with Men (except them Rangers with their ancient blood, though they were exceptions in many things), and had no reason whatsoever to bother with Elves. He didn’t tend to talk to them, much less considered bedding one, but as long as it made his Hobbit stop being put off ...

 

“Oh. Oh, I’m sorry, I ... well, I guess I’ve had people questioning me a bit too often lately. Hobbits can’t grow beards, only sideburns at most, but I am old enough.”

 

Old enough. Right. Never mind that Nori doubted Bilbo was fully aware of what the Dwarf had been referring to, Nori had also been old enough for a lot of things, but that didn’t mean he had actually been legally old enough for them. In this case, it probably meant a few years short of maturity, and that meant Nori would keep a majority of his thoughts to himself and come back in a few years. Not that he was making any plans, of course. With his lifestyle, it was hard enough to plan ahead more than a week or two, but he still made a firm mental note that he was essentially dealing with a child right now.

 

“Don’t doubt it. Just don’t fancy angry relatives driving me out of town for corrupting the young.”

 

“Well, they should weed their own gardens, before criticising others,” Bilbo huffed, and after a second inquired about beards.

 

That was ... well, how was Nori supposed to answer that without going into topics not supposed to be discussed with not-Dwarrow?

 

He tried anyway, just the very basics, and the Hobbit’s eyes grew large enough that the thief could literally see a myriad of new questions battling to be asked first ... but, Mahâl have mercy, Nori really, really needed sleep and some privacy, though not necessarily in that order. Pretty underage Hobbits, too little sleep, and too much time alone were not a good combination even on good days, and until he had knocked on this lad’s door, it had definitely not been a good day.

 

The yawn was only half faked.

 

“Forgive me, Master Baggins.”

 

“Oh, no, no, no! Forgive me for keeping you up like that. My curiosity can wait. If you wish, I can show you the guest room now.”

 

“That would be a good idea, I guess, else I might fall asleep on your table. Surely would make a decent resting place as well.”

 

“Why the table if I have a perfectly comfortable bed ready? This way, please. Don’t mind the dishes; I can handle them later on.”

 

In the back of his head, Nori could hear his older brother scoffing at him to at least offer ... but when had he ever listened to Dori, and his repertoire of politeness for one day (actually for the next three months, but that was a sacrifice he was willing to make) was truly depleted. He drawled `mighty kind of you´, and let the smaller point out his own bedroom `in case you need something´ and the closest guest room, and then Nori was alone with the soft bed that would be his for tonight.

 

Briefly, he considered to indulge guilty fantasies but was asleep the moment he hit the pillows.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

One would think that a good night’s sleep would make everything better, but apparently, the opposite was the case. Either way, Nori didn’t particularly like being awake right now, at all. It was by far not as bad as that one dungeon so far south Westron had stopped being common for several miles already. Dungeon masters never believed one couldn’t understand them, and, as a rule, didn’t react favourably to people not answering their questions. However, it also wasn’t that brothel to the east either. He had never dared to return to it because it had been so good it must have been at least a hoax. This felt real, but altogether more like the aftermath of too much ale and losing a bar fight.

 

Had he had too much ale and lost a brawl?

 

Nah. He didn’t tend to end up in soft beds with fluffy pillows afterwards, least of all alone, and couldn’t smell any of the tell-tale odours accompanying such occasions either. In fact, Nori couldn’t smell anything, but that could also be because of the pillow in his face, and the pounding headache. The aching joints didn’t help either, and ...

 

Ah, Mâhal damn it! He had actually managed to catch a cold.

Chapter Text


 

Nori knew he was not an easy patient. His brother would never kick him out, no matter what he said or did, but the thief could and would not expect the same courtesy of a Hobbit he had known for but a few awkward hours. He tried not to be on his best behaviour – that would be rather counterproductive – but tried to keep to what Ori would do, mostly. Miracles were not his expertise after all.

 

He thanked Bilbo for the broth, bread, and tea, and only mentioned the latter was not to his taste once. Then he did his best to gracefully accept that medicine was supposed to not taste well so everyone would have good reason to stay healthy. He kept his whining as well as a craving for tomatoes to himself since it wasn’t the season and he could tell Bilbo was the kind of person to be upset he couldn’t deliver. No doubt he would give him the same sad look Nori had seen in his ‘amad’s eyes when she had no food to give her children. He hadn’t understood it then, but he did now, though only Mahâl knew why he had developed a love for tomatoes of all the things. The first time he had asked for them back home, Dori had actually tried to drag him to a healer in earnest.

 

At least he did not have to suffer much boredom, as his little host-turned-caretaker was very curious and very attentive ... almost too attentive, not to say desperate for company, enough so that Nori actually ate and drank slowly to check his meals for anything that shouldn’t be there. Not that he was under any illusion that he would be able to taste the difference. The broth was tasty if a bit bland (his own fault for pretending to have an upset stomach as well to mask his hesitation), but certainly Hobbits knew their herbs well enough to hide any suspicious scents or flavours, never mind that the thief doubted Bilbo would want to kill him. However, keeping him sick so he could have company for a while longer ...

 

Poor little tyke, all alone in this big smial. It would do Bilbo mighty good to get out for a while, but since that was not an option at the moment, Nori distracted him with stories from faraway places, though he was careful not to mention any names. He didn’t fancy himself a great storyteller, but the Hobbit was enthralled and looked much more alive than when they first met, and the thief figured that would do as repayment for the hospitality.

 

It was nice, in an unusual way, though the ginger Dwarf still was glad that it took but three days for him to feel well enough to get up again. Another two days and he would be back in travelling form, he estimated, and was surprised how much he worried about how to break that to Master `just Bilbo please´ Baggins without upsetting him too much. The lad had grown on him already.

 

A knock on the front door interrupted Nori’s thoughts. This was the first time anyone had visited since his own arrival, and it was obvious by the expression on Bilbo’s face he didn’t expect anyone and that he very much disliked the possible options. Why then he still went to open the door instead of he wasn’t home like any sane person would, Nori couldn’t begin to guess.

 

At the door was a woman, going by the voice, and, Mahâl have mercy, it was a voice that made the thief want to flee through the next window or cut off his ears. His mind was already pulling up what the Dwarf knew of his surroundings to form an emergency escape plan. He could be out of one of the window, into the washroom through another, out again, and halfway out of the Shire before anyone was any wiser. No one would even know Bilbo had had someone staying in his smial. It would be so simple, except for the part where that banshee was bothering his Hobbit.

 

Of course, Bilbo wasn’t his by any stretch of imagination. Persons could not be owned, and the people who thought otherwise, fortunately, didn’t travel this far north or west, though he couldn’t vouch for further north. To get to Forodwaith, one had to pass over Goblin-, and Orc-infested (never mind the rumours about Cold-drakes) Thaforabbad or through the former witch-realm of Angmar. Nori might not make a habit out of taking rumours at face value, and he wasn’t as superstitious as most of his craft were, but there was a huge difference between gullibility and being stupid enough to go anywhere near Angmar.

 

The point was: there were no slave traders in Eriador, only the occasional asshole, so Nori wasn’t staking any claim on Bilbo. He was merely choosing the easiest way to differentiate between Bilbo and all the other Hobbits. And he was fond of the lad, though it had only been three damn days and not even three of his best.

 

The plague upon Hobbits and their big sad eyes, curly hair, and tentative smiles that could be blinding if they ever grew to full-size, and a wry sense of humour all that proper little attitude couldn’t cover up entirely ... okay, the latter was probably only Bilbo. The lad was pretty in a beardless, `old enough, but not of age´ kind of way, and Nori might just drop by again in a few years when he didn’t have to feel guilty for thinking the lad attractive anymore. First, however, he had to save Bilbo from being bullied into his early grave.

 

“There you are, lad. I need your help with something. Excuse us, miss.”

 

Finally, there was at least a door between that horrible voice and his ears, but the thief still pushed Bilbo deeper into the smial and into one of the armchairs in the smoking room, claiming the other for himself. As he had first assumed it was indeed a good place for brooding, far enough from both doors to ignore knocks if one so chose, and no proper Hobbit would go tramping through another’s garden uninvited.

 

The Dwarf hadn’t expected to be shouted at but wasn’t really surprised by it either. There was talk of propriety, and that Bilbo had it hard enough already for technically being not of age yet, and that he was going to be shunned by relatives, and all that in many more words Nori didn’t bother to listen to. Then Bilbo suddenly became silent, and the thief could see it working behind the comically widened eyes.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome. One of your numerous cousins?”

 

“If only. She wants to marry me!” the lad groaned with real distaste, and Nori frowned.

 

That is how Hobbits court?! I was sure it would involve a lot more cooking and flowers.”

 

“It does, usually, but Lobelia wants only my name, home, and lands, and just won’t accept that she won’t get it, ever. I’ve never tried a door in her face before though. Is that how Dwarrow deal with unwelcome guests?”

 

“Nah, I was trying to be considerate. We usually throw them out, bodily, or take an axe to their head, and that’s guests. You don’t want to know what we do to unwelcome suitors pushing too far.”

 

“What if I do?” the Hobbit asked, radiating `challenge´ from curly head to hairy toe, and there was no way the thief could pass that one up.

 

“We cut off their beards ... which I just realise wouldn’t seem like much to you,” Nori mused, deciding to rather not mention the removal of limbs. That might be a bit too bloody for gentle Shire-folk. “It’s a great shame for a Dwarf to lose their beard thus. Think of it like shaving your feet.”

 

Going by how scandalized Bilbo looked, the comparison was sufficient, though the Dwarf did notice a certain morbid fascination. It made him wonder ...

 

“Got a lot of those unwanted suitors? Ah, forget I said anything,” the ginger Dwarf added when the other’s face fell. “None of my business.”

 

“Many. I don’t think anyone ever wanted to court me just for my sake, though,” Bilbo replied quietly, wringing his hands. Nori hummed and packed his pipe.

 

“I know that well. Not personally, mind. I don’t tend to stay in one place long enough to be proposed to for more than a quick tumble, but my brother, now, he got suitors aplenty. He’s the standard for dwarven beauty ideals, or close enough, and not a day goes by without someone hitting on him for his looks and only that. They certainly never took the time to get to know him.”

 

“Really? What does he do? To make them stop I mean.”

 

“Why, throw them, of course. There was one guy who just wouldn’t take a hint. He went flying twenty yards after going through the stone wall. It only earned my dear brother even more attention, of course, but it’s still fun to watch.”

 

“Dwarrow like to be thrown through walls?!”

 

Nori laughed, then he saw Bilbo’s serious yet disbelieving expression and laughed even more.

 

“There’s probably someone somewhere who gets their rocks off on that kind of thing, but it’s the strength, lad; mostly anyway. We are a whole lot rowdier than you gentle folks. Seriously though, don’t you have some relatives you could go to? Preferably away from here. You look like you could use some distance from everything to clear your head.”

 

Bilbo bit his lower lip, working it between his teeth, and the ginger thief had to look away.

 

“I don’t know ... I mean, I could visit my Took relatives for a few days, and I’m sure the Gamgees would be happy to keep Lobelia away from mother’s West-Farthing china and silver spoons.”

 

Silver spoons? So there was something of more worldly value than fluffy towels to find here after all. Maybe ... nope. Absolutely not. It was probably just an alloy and not worth the trouble either way.

 

“Sounds like a plan, lad. I should get on my way soon as well. It’s been a few years since I last saw my folks.”

 

“Years?” the Hobbit asked alarmed, and it wasn’t the `how can you not visit your family for years´ kind of gasp. Nori might have pissed off some dangerous underground boss by having principles, and maybe he had given the most honourable guard in Gabilgatholnur an anonymous hint and needed to vanish for a while to keep his brothers and himself safe. However, this sounded more like the `something happened in the last years that you should know, but I don’t know how to tell you´ kind of alarmed.

 

That didn’t bode well.

 

“Do I want to know or should I just go back south and never return?”

 

Please, not the second option. By the Valar, please, not the second option.

 

“Not like that, I don’t think so. It’s just ... the winter two years ago was ... it was horrible. So cold, and so long, and ... I don’t know where your settlements are, but w-we had great white wolves in the Shire, and some say even Orcs. That had never happened before. Many starved, and we don’t hear much about the outside world, but ...”

 

It was hard to tell who had lost more colour – probably Nori, considering he had been wandering for six damn years, most of the time spent in the sunny south, and Bilbo had been pale to being with – but a wordless understanding passed between them. Nori went to pack his things, and the Hobbit packed dried meat, fruits, and nuts, and a small bag, and refused to let his guest depart without it. The Dwarf would have argued – on principle, not because he didn’t appreciate the gesture – and forgot about it again when he stepped outside for the first time and found himself in front of a green door in a large hill he knew very well.

 

“Oh.”

 

“What? What?”

 

“Nothing. Just wondering what the chances had been that I’d come out of this particular burrow. Always thought it rather pretty from afar.”

 

“It’s a smial, not a burrow. My father built it for my mother.”

 

“Eh, I don’t have any skill with architecture or constructions, but I think he did a good job. Anyway, I’m off. And remember the door in the face thing. Most folks understand that one, and it might save you a whole lot of trouble.”

 

Bilbo’s reply was spoken so fast, Nori wondered if it had even been words to begin with.

 

“Will you come back?” the Hobbit repeated, blushing a fetching shade of pink. “I-I mean when- if you ever pass through the Shire again, you could ... visit?”

 

Okay, that ... that was unexpected, and such a bad idea the Dwarf didn’t know where to start.

 

“Lad, I like you, honestly, but I have it on good notion that I’m a terrible influence for young, respectable lads.”

 

“And what is the bigger problem here? My age or your misplaced assumption on my respectability?”

 

Cheeky. Nori could appreciate that, but, really, it was still a bad idea, only that he could recognise that determined look. There was something fundamentally wrong with the world when he had to be the voice of reason.

 

“It could be years if ever, and you can’t ask anyone passing through or admit to knowing me if asked. You shouldn’t either way. You don’t want the people who know me to know you.”

 

“Then I won’t, but that won’t stop me from having a guest room and some extra towels ready, in case it rains again.”

 

In his defence, Nori was worried for his brothers, planning the shortest way to the settlements in Khagolabbad, where and how to acquire a fast pony, and if it was worth it, while simultaneously battling against fondness for Bilbo, and wondering just what he had done wrong that playing nice had worked too well. It certainly was to be excused that the ginger Dwarf was a bit too distracted to properly out-argue a child with less than a third of his own years and experience under his suspenders.

 

“If,” Nori emphasised, and be it just so he could later say he had tried. “If I pass through again and have the time to spare, I might drop by.”

 

“Well, in that case, I might be here or wandering around the market to let you when I return if you have indeed the time to spare.”

 

Definitely cheeky and stubborn. Adorable.

 

“Good. Until then, maybe,” he added for good measure and hurried away before one of them did something to make this even more awkward. Incredible how very bad he was at saying goodbye, or not so incredible, considering he tended to skip it altogether and just snuck away in the middle of the night when need be.

 

Ah, nope. He had to concentrate. Gabilgatholnur was 200 miles north-west from Hobbiton as the raven flew. He was not a raven, so closer to 300 miles. If the weather held and nothing unfortunate happened, he could manage 20 miles a day if he had to. He definitely had to, but Nori wasn’t completely back on his feet yet, and with a pony, he could be twice as fast and still have strength left to spare to take care of his brothers if he had to, which was rather likely at this point.

 

“Pony it is then. Damn it all, Dori, you better be glad to see me!”

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

As it turned out Dori wasn’t just glad, he was ecstatic. Even before he entered the city, Nori had figured out that he might have overacted, a bit, so he didn’t storm their little home like a madman. Instead, he left the pony with an old farmer who could use a loyal beast, and snuck into the house, careful not to be seen. He needn’t have bothered. Ori’s happy squeal could probably be heard all the way back to the Shire, followed by the sound of his bones breaking when Dori crushed him in a hug. Not literally, of course; Dori would never use his strength against his brothers, no matter how much they frustrated him, but it sure knocked the wind out of the middle brother.

 

“Can’t you use the door, just once?”

 

“Now where would be the fun in that?” Nori replied between coughs and tried not to think of a round, green door that he had, in fact, used both to enter and leave a home. He should be well over the little Hobbit by now, but there was nothing to be done about that. He had time enough to do so anyway. After six years away and two weeks of fearing the worst, Nori could do himself and his brothers the favour and stay out of trouble (and out of sight of the guard) for a while. He had missed them something fierce, and when the time came that his feet ached for the road too much or he needed to vanish for a bit for some other reason, there was still a cosy little smial under a hill in the middle of the Shire where no one would ever think to search for him. If the lad came to his senses and didn’t let him in again, the inns were just as well.

Chapter Text


 

Bilbo took a Dwarf in his kitchen rather well, all things considered, and not just for a gentle Hobbit of the Shire and especially considering said Dwarf was gorging himself on his prized tomatoes. Of course, Nori hadn’t timed his return with the ripening of his favourite vegetable/fruit/whatever or planned to return at all. No. He had just happened to have annoyed Dori (and the guards, and maybe one or two more shady characters) enough that getting away for a month or two before he would be stuck in the mountains for the winter would do them all some good. And where else to go but his second favourite place on Arda?

 

His favourite was of course home with Dori if enjoyed in small doses, and was conveniently close to his favourite dungeon. Ever since Dwalin Fundinul had taken over the guard, it was almost nice to get locked up in Gabilgatholnur. Dry, fresh hay, remotely clean, two meals a day (not much nor notably good, but edible), strict rules as to what were acceptable means of interrogation ... it wasn’t as nice as roaming free, mind, but very recommendable as far as being locked up went.

 

Anyway. It was of course only by chance Nori had found himself back in the Shire in time for ripe tomatoes and decided to enjoy them behind this particular round, green door. Nothing to do with any fondness for certain blue-eyed Hobbits and their tomatoes, and Bilbo took it in stride. He just blinked out from under his amber curls, fastened his ridiculous dressing grown, and declared that it was too early for this, before fixing himself first tea, then scrambled eggs and toast, to which Nori generously donated some of Bilbo’s his tomatoes, and got a portion of his own in return.

 

“For a while,” Bilbo said in lieu of greeting when he was remotely awake. “For a while, I thought you were a hallucination, something grief, anger, and loneliness conjured up. But who in their right mind would make up a sick Dwarf of all things? It had me worried.”

 

“I’m pretty sure I should feel insulted.”

 

“If it’s any consolation, Lobelia complained loud and long enough to make it impossible to deny the reality of your existence. I shut the door in her face, by the way; it was very satisfying.”

 

“Told you so.”

 

“Indeed. ... Are those my prize-winning tomatoes?”

 

“They taste prize-winning in any case.”

 

Bilbo gave an undignified noise but didn’t comment on it further. Nori missed the fussy, hyped lad who had forced him to stay in bed and drink his tea half a year ago. He didn’t blame the lad for showing some sense, of course, but ...

 

“You look better.”

 

“I also feel better. Turns out visiting my Took cousins was just what I needed. Thank you for that.”

 

The Dwarf waved it off, nibbling on his toast.

 

“How are your brothers? With Fell Winter and such. Did they make it through alright?”

 

“Yeah, they are fine, all things considered. They won’t tell me how bad it was, but I hear things, and ... I can be content knowing they made it through without lasting harm.”

 

“Content, but not free of guilt.”

 

Remembering the hesitation and dread when Bilbo had told him of the winter two years ago, Nori felt suddenly twice as bad for coming back. Of course, the lad must have lost family then (he had seen the master bedroom, damn it. How could he forget?), everyone had, even Nori. Not blood relatives, but friends, fellow thieves he got along with, and he hadn’t been here to help. Of course, neither had he been another mouth to feed, but the thought ate at him regardless. He had been warm and remotely comfortable down in Harad. The natives there had commented on it being colder than usual, but their lands were hotter than forge fires all through the year, so Nori had not paid it any mind, and travelling back north he had not recognised the signs. He had not worried more for his brothers than he usually did, while they had thought him dead. Why, even Dwalin Fundinul had sounded almost joyful when he had spied the ginger thief, and wasn’t that a funny thought?

 

If Nori was honest with himself, he had abandoned the mountains and literally run for the hills to find a distraction from the guilt. That plan had obviously gone south quite spectacularly, and then Bilbo offered his neighbour’s moonshine without a hitch, although it was far too early to start drinking even for indecent folks. The Hobbit even noted that if anyone asked, which wouldn’t happen, they could always pretend they weren’t starting early, just finishing late.

 

Hobbits were awesome, and Nori didn’t quite care right now if it was a personal quirk of Bilbo or a general treat in all of them. Though as much as he could need a stiff drink right now, the thief could see that they needed to do some talking before they drank themselves into a stupor.

 

“If you say you’re sorry now, I will hit you.”

 

“Fair warning?”

 

“A promise. I don’t want pity,” Bilbo all but snarled, and the Dwarf wondered how he could have missed that particular streak. Maybe there was more to Hobbits than he had first thought. Interesting.

 

“Why did you come back?”

 

“You invited me,” the thief replied, which was maybe stretching the truth a bit, but he had been asked to come back. The invitation to enter had been implied.

 

“Not to steal my tomatoes and break into my smial, I didn’t.”

 

“The tomatoes begged to be eaten, and I’ll have you know that liberating tomatoes from their sad, underappreciated existence on some plant is the only crime I ever committed in the Shire if you can even call it a crime.”

 

“And yet you are here.”

 

“I arrived at a horrible indecent hour, and your back door was open.”

 

“It wasn’t. It’s always locked. I never unlock it.”

 

“You call that a lock? It’s a joke. You give it a screwed look, and it all but jumps open on its own and pleads for mercy.”

 

“But its symbolic meaning still stands, as does the fact that you had to persuade it to open by means not involving the key. Per definition, you broke in.”

 

“You can’t prove that.”

 

“You’re sitting right in front of me.”

 

“Which brings us back to the point where you invited me.”

 

“But didn’t open any door to let you in. I ought to call the shirriffs.

 

“Who can’t prove anything either.”

 

With a smug smirk, Bilbo pointed at his eyes, then at Nori, and folded his hands self-satisfied. The thief was impressed enough to momentarily forget to answer. Usually people grew frustrated or angry at this point and either gave up or turned to violence, but here the Hobbit sat, matching him point for point, and not only being amused by it but doing so in the early hours of the day when decent folk were supposed to be asleep, not in a battle of wits with travelling thieves.

 

“I can do that all day. Biscuit?”

 

“Gladly.”

 

“Help yourself. So ... is Nori your real name?”

 

The Dwarf caught on his first bite.

 

“What?”

 

“It’s a justified question. I got to thinking, you see. You are secretive, evasive, elusive, and a whole lot of other -ives I don’t particularly care about (including knives. I know you have several; don’t deny it). The only things I am currently sure about in regards to you are that you travel a lot, have at least two brothers you adore, and you are the mysterious vegetable thief that caused my father to turn grey early.”

 

“Really?”

 

“No. Not a single grey hair on his head when we buried him, but I note that you’re not denying it.”

 

“You can’t prove it either.”

 

Again, Bilbo didn’t reply verbally, but picked up a tomato and held it so it was unclear if he was focusing on it or on the Dwarf with his meaningful look. Maybe Nori should get a bit more creative in his argumentations.

 

“You are one evil, little Hobbit.”

 

“I spent three weeks with my Took cousins.”

 

“Is that supposed to explain anything?”

 

“Actually it is, yes,” the Hobbit replied as if it had never crossed his mind that someone would not understand the reference. Nori made a mental note to be wary of every Took in the future. And Half-Tooks. He probably should just be wary of Hobbits in general, though that was old news.

 

“Good thing I’m not bunking with a Took then.”

 

“No, you broke into the home of the son of a Took and a Baggins. A very dangerous combination or so I’m told. You can never be sure of how I will react.”

 

“Considering you haven’t uninvited me yet, I’m quite happy with whichever side I’m arguing with right now.”

 

“Would it change anything?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“If I asked you to leave, would you?”

 

That got the Dwarf to shut up, and his overconfident smirk to slip. Would he? Fondness for certain Hobbits or not, it had been years since he had actually been asked (as opposed to bodily forced) to leave when his presence was unwelcome, longer even since he had been asked to stay or return by anyone not family or owned something. That didn’t change anything about the answer, but it had Nori momentarily stunned.

 

“Aye, I would. I still think you’re barmy for letting me stay the first time around, and downright insane to invite me back, but you’re lucky. I’m not the least interested in harming the provider of the best tomatoes this side of the sea.”

 

“So you only want my vegetables.”

 

“Must you turn around all of my words, lad? You can’t know it, but reassuring people that I mean no harm and being honest about it is not usually part of my life. Well, honesty, in general, is not ... anyway.”

 

“Ah. Well if it is just a tumble you’re after, you could have just said so.”

 

Oh, now that sounded really temp- hold on. What?

 

Nori blinked, and in the next moment, he had a Hobbit in his lap. An amorous Hobbit. An amorous underage Hobbit!

 

It was entirely possible that no one in the history of Arda had ever dislodged a willing soft body so fast and catapulted themselves to the other side of the room. There might have been the attempt to climb a cabinet involved.

 

“Mahâl’s stones, lad!”

 

“A simple `no´ would have worked as well,” Bilbo grumped, rubbing his bum, but the Dwarf wouldn’t have any of it.

 

“Lad, I’m the last person to lecture people about morals, but you can’t just throw yourself at people like that.”

 

“Oh, as if you haven’t undressed me with your eyes since the moment you first stepped in.”

 

“But I wouldn’t have acted on it!” the Dwarf countered, getting louder.

 

“Why not? I’m old enough and offering.”

 

“Old enough is not of age!”

 

“What does it matter?” the Hobbit shouted, and if he hadn’t been sitting, one would have to worry about his balance with all the flailing his arms were doing.

 

“It matters to me! Accuse me of any crime, and I’ll likely have done it at one point, but I don’t kill in cold blood, and I don’t fuck the unwilling or underage.”

 

“I’m very much willing!”

 

“Not the point, lad!”

 

“Then what is the point? Why did you come back?” the Hobbit asked for the nth time, clearly frustrated, and he wasn’t the only one.

 

“You invited me!” the ginger Dwarf gritted out. “You’re a pretty little thing, I won’t deny it, and, Mahâl strike me where I stand, if you were a few years older, I would have you against the next available surface, and then some. However, that’s not all there is to you, and keep those damn tomatoes out of it. You have a good and kind heart. I travelled far and wide, and I can say with surety that there aren’t many who would take in a stranger, nurse them back to health, and not expect a damn thing in return. I call you an idiot for it, maybe even insane, but it’s a good thing, damn it, so stop searching for hidden intentions. Fuck! I didn’t mean to say even half of that. You’re going to be the death of me!”

 

“I ... I actually don’t know what to say to that.”

 

Nori badly wanted to point out that that had to be a first; instead, he slumped where he stood. He might have forgotten to breathe somewhere in-between.

 

“I believe I really need that drink now,” Bilbo sighed, sounding rather exhausted himself, before picking himself up. “You?”

 

“Not on an empty stomach, I don’t think so.”

 

“Empty? You ate my tomatoes, and I shared first breakfast with you!”

 

“Very kind, but they are not all yours, actually. The tomatoes. Figured I might as well sample some and find out if I’m biased or if they are really that good.”

 

“And what is your conclusion?”

 

“They are that good, which is quite the compliment considering most Dwarrow aren’t exactly fond of green stuff; too elven. Outside of stew, I doubt my brother would even consider it.”

 

“The one throwing suitors 20 yards through a solid stone wall or the other one?”

 

And to think Nori had hit his limit before. He wasn’t sure which limit applied here (his word-by-day quota had definitely been met in any case), but it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

 

“We spoke of them earlier. You said they are fine.”

 

“Mahâl’s stones, how do you do that? How do you make me talk about things I wouldn’t reveal under torture without even touching me?”

 

“Torture? Why would ... Listen, I’m just trying to work through this extremely awkward situation by means of forced idle conversation! You are under no obligation to answer,” the little Hobbit shouted, and of course he felt insulted. His kind was more curious than anyone refusing vehemently to leave their borders had any right to be, but usually not with any ill intent behind it. To them, torture was making little children bathe and withholding dessert.

 

Suddenly, Nori felt very tired and old. It must have shown since Bilbo visibly deflated and gave him a critical once-over.

 

“Maybe we should postpone that, Master Nori. I need to run some errands either way, and you look only little better than the first time we met. At least you’re not tracking mud and leaves all through my smial this time.”

 

A wave of the soft little hand and the Dwarf followed like a lost puppy, though he refused to recognise his behaviour as such. In fact, he refused to think at all until he stood in one of the guest rooms and his host left with the promise to wake him for lunch.

 

Heaving a sigh, the ginger thief looked around. It was the best guest room in Bag End, of course, the same one he had stayed in the first time around, with the sinfully comfortable bed, clean sheets, and a vase from some distant aunt or another filled with fresh flowers, all properly aired out, but still faintly smelling of lavender and cedar.

 

He shouldn’t stay. He should wait until Bilbo left, sneak out, and never return, as he should have done the first time around. He ...

 

Nori took off his boots and went to bed.

Chapter Text


 

“So ... we’re gonna stick with Nori?”

 

“It is my name actually. Somewhat common as well,” the Dwarf sighed at the ceiling. A very nice ceiling, he had to point out, though Nori still preferred stone over wood.

 

“That’s ... sorry, I didn’t mean it to come out like that. Only, the heroes in my books have these ... long, impressive names, and after all your stories last time ...”

 

“I thought we settled that? I’m definitely real and not a hero, never wanted to be, never will be. Lucky for you, I’m not the villain either.”

 

“Then what are you?”

 

“A wanderer with a knack for getting into trouble.”

 

“That’s not an answer.”

 

“Aye, but the only one you will get.”

 

Bilbo puffed up with a frown that spoke volumes about his displeasure but didn’t press further, just as he hadn’t made a single comment about not being able to wake Nori for lunch. Instead, he had prepared a feast for dinner. The Dwarf kept expecting ten more people to come in any moment with the amounts of food loaded before him, and thinking about that helped not thinking about anything else; mostly about why it was so hard for him to just leave, and why he wasn’t lying his way out of it yet either. He was a master thief, damn it all. He was supposed to be better than this!

 

On the plus side, at least they were having this very necessary if very awkward discussion. That should go a long way in making things easier eventually.

 

“Fine. Brothers?”

 

“Two. You won’t get their names or any names for that matter, ever.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because I’ve got so many people after my head, no one must ever know about my family or that they exist in the first place. You should never admit knowing me either. Few bother with the Shire, and I’ll try not to lead anyone here, nor will anyone ever get your name from me, but you never know.”

 

The words were visibly working through the young Hobbit, but then he nodded to himself and put yet another piece of delicious pie onto their plates.

 

“Okay, fair enough, I guess. Sounds like a pretty lonely life, though.”

 

Huh? Now that had to be a first. The few times Nori had actually been comparably honest with others, they had become quite annoying and tried to convince him this was different or to give up his craft. Did the Hobbit do it on purpose?

 

Eh, probably not, and that was somehow worse than the understanding sympathy in his words. If only Dori would have ... but that wasn’t very fair. To compare the two, Nori would need to tell Bilbo the same he had told Dori, which was not a good idea altogether. For all his complaining, his older brother might not approve of his chosen craft or understand why Nori stuck to it, but he was tolerant. So long as he didn’t bring back work, Nori could come home whenever he felt like it, had a place to call home to begin with, and Ori wasn’t kept away from him. That was more than most could claim to have.

 

“Does that mean you won’t tell me more stories from far off places? Because I really enjoyed them.”

 

“Stories? You … seriously? You want to hear about my questionable exploits in the wide world? Because it sure looked like you wanted something else entirely yesterday.”

 

Bilbo sniffed indignantly and surely hadn’t intended to look so adorable doing it.

 

“There is nothing wrong with having needs and desires, and one doesn’t expel the other.”

 

“Fair point. Well, I can give you stories, tons of them, but nothing else.”

 

“I believe tons of stories should tide us over the next three years,” the Hobbit nodded more to himself than the Dwarf, as Nori didn’t know what that had to do with anything and said as much.

 

“Well, in three years I’ll be of age. Then you can’t call me `lad´ anymore, and we can pick up where you insisted we stop yesterday.”

 

There was something very sure and cocky about the way Bilbo smirked, and Nori had no qualms pointing out that that sounded like a mighty unhealthy attitude.

 

“This is our second meeting; why the blazes are you so dead-set on us sharing the sheets? Never mind that three years is a long time. You can’t seriously expect me to stick around that long. I won’t, just so we are clear, and I don’t do commitment.”

 

“Not expecting you to.”

 

“Then just what is it you are expecting from me, lad. What’s it to you? Surely there are enough Hobbit lads and lassies willing to line up for you, and there are Dwarrow – and my brother will shit diamonds if he ever finds out I said that – with looser morals than I as close as Bree. You can have your pick.”

 

Bilbo set on to reply but had to start again another two times before he sat down heavily on the bench, huffing in frustration.

 

“It’s not so much about the sex. I’d really like that, mind; I just figured pointing it out would make you more willing to come back.”

 

“Which brings us back to the core questions of why, and why me?”

 

“Because I want,” Bilbo stopped himself there, taking a few calming breaths. “I need company, someone to talk to, and just … exist in the same space; someone who is here for my sake. It’s been lacking in my life for a long time now, and there is no one to fill that position in the whole Shire. But you are different, aside from being not a Hobbit. You don’t care who my parents were or if I’m perfectly polite all the time. Those few days with you had been liberating, and I want more of that.”

 

Oh. Oh, that wasn’t good, the thief thought to himself on the verge of panic. That, right there, was attachment in the making, and it didn’t matter which side started it because it would end in disaster. Damage control, that’s what he had to do.

 

“You realise I can’t promise to come back. In fact, I can’t promise anything at all.”

 

“Considering you’re `a wanderer with a knack for getting into trouble´, I assumed that is a given,” the Hobbit replied with a crooked smirk. “But ... well, your brothers live in the Blue Mountains, right? I mean, I heard there is a dwarven settlement there, and you will visit them. I just ... I thought you could stop here for however long you can whenever you pass through in either one direction if you want.”

 

No. Nope. Bad idea. Really bad idea, the worst. He couldn’t, he shouldn’t ...

 

“I could try.”

 

That was probably why Dori called him stupid or insane from time to time. His brother usually wasn’t as serious in those claims as he wanted people to believe, but ... ah, but that smile. What kind of thief would he be if something more brilliant than any diamond he had ever seen wouldn’t make him want to possess it? He couldn’t, that was the problem with smiles, but if he could cause them ...

 

“So ... three years you said?”

 

Forget the smile, Bilbo’s laughter was so much better ... and now Nori had a real problem.

 

Mahumb.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Three years, it turned out, was both too long and no time at all. Nori tried, he really, really tried to stay away, but was unable to for several reasons.

 

That he really didn’t want just leave the general area for a few years at least was certainly a major factor. As unscratched as he and his brothers had come out of it, the scare the stories of Fell Winter had instilled in him was hard to shake off.

 

Before, he had thought work literally following him home would be their biggest problem. He had knives for that, and sticky fingers against poverty and hunger, but the weather he couldn’t fight. So to Ori’s honest and Dori’s slightly wary but no less honest joy, he spent his winters in Gabilgatholnur until he was sure spring would soon be upon them. Then he would travel, usually towards Bree, and from there to the surrounding settlements. It made him predictable and that got people like him killed, but it couldn’t be helped. There simply was nowhere else to go that would allow him to be back with the first snow. The Men near the sea were notoriously too poor to have anything worth stealing or too hardened to make it a good idea to try, and there was only so long a Dwarf could stand to sulk around Grey Haven, so Bree it was.

 

Unfortunately, there was no way to Bree but through the Shire near Hobbiton, unless one wanted to brave the Hills of Evendim, swim through the lake bearing the same name, and cross the wilderness to the abandoned city of Fornost (that was said to be haunted, but who listened to such talk? Certainly not notoriously superstitious thieves.). Then one had to follow what remained of the North-South-Road there, though calling it a `road´ was an overstatement by any stretch of imagination. No one maintained that part of the once important trading route because no one but the Rangers still travelled that way, and they seemed to avoid roads like Nori avoided guards and well-lit stores.

 

Anyway. It would be utterly ridiculous to go to such lengths to avoid a single Hobbit that didn’t even pose an actual threat to anyone, so the Dwarf didn’t bother and spent early spring and mid-autumn in a cosy smial under a hill or in the garden of said smial because of course living with a Hobbit meant getting roped into tending to plants, learning how to blow smoke rings and developing a habit of leaving his boots at the door. At least he was able to restrict the latter to two doors, namely the back- and front-door of Bag End, as everything else would be horribly inconvenient.

 

Nori had to admit he rather enjoyed those times. Plenty of food, good company, and no need to constantly look over his shoulder or generally be on the lookout for potential targets and enemies. That didn’t mean he stopped doing it, but the knowledge that he didn’t need to was oddly relaxing.

 

He would tell stories of far off places and stealing this and that, though he was rather proud of how he avoided to call it that, never mind that Bilbo had obviously guessed his craft already after his first visit. Bilbo, in turn, told of distant relatives and cousins with sticky fingers. It was a good life, and a challenge not to get too used to it. Then came a spring when he sat in front of a green round door, smoking a last pipe with Bilbo before he left again. The Hobbit blew a wobbly smoke ring and mentioned that he would turn 33 this summer and, as was expected, would throw a large coming-of-age party.

 

“You are, of course, invited.”

 

“I can’t promise anything.”

 

“I know. I’m just saying I would be happy to have you there. Or you just drop by whenever you can. I’d be happy to see you no matter when.”

 

Truer words had never been spoken if one went by the way Bilbo smiled every time he found the Dwarf in his parlour or kitchen in the early hours of the morning. It surely made Nori forget why it was such a bad idea to return every time, and the ginger thief gave his usual `I will try´ reply, even if he later swore to himself that this time he wouldn’t.

 

Nori managed to avoid thinking about it thought throughout spring and summer, but then came September and his mind began to wander, not to say splitting itself over the question of whether to run for lush green hills because finally, finally, Bilbo was of age, and he wouldn’t need to feel guilty for wanting anymore ... or run for Harad because his Hobbit knew, and wanted, and waited, and Nori didn’t have a clue what to do with that. Going back time and again had already been a mistake, but being intimate with Bilbo ...

 

If he went back this summer, it would happen, hands down. Nori knew himself, and Bilbo had made his opinion on the matter very clear. There was no way they wouldn’t end up in bed together (if they made it that far. Any available surface would serve), and not just once. It would happen again and again, and he would keep coming back. One day, the thief would not be careful enough, and someone would follow him, and it would be a bloody disaster, very literally in the worst case. He had the same fear where Dori and Ori were concerned, but they could defend themselves against anything thrown their way if they had to, while Bilbo couldn’t.

 

No. He had to stop this now. He had to stay away from Bilbo, and Bag End, and possibly the Shire as a whole, for the safety of everyone involved ... except that he couldn’t.

 

It was downright odd, actually. Nori was absolutely sure he had chosen the paths leading around Hobbiton, knowing the lay of the land well enough to not to get confused by winding roads vanishing between green hills, yet he still ended up where he hadn’t wanted to be.

 

Before the Dragon, `when in Dale´ had been an often used saying (or so he had heard). Nowadays, it was usually replaced with the name of the favourite bar, brothel, whatever, but the sentiment remained the same. He was here now, and Nori was notoriously bad at denying himself especially the things he really wanted, so he might as well make the best of it. While he was at it, Nori could prove to Dori that he was not the impolite clod his brother accused him of being. He would not turn up at his favourite Hobbit’s birthday party without a proper gift, and returning the silverware that a certain woman kept stealing sounded like a great idea.

 

It was perfect. Nori could apply his craft without actually committing a crime, or so he would later argue to himself. In truth, he couldn’t quite recall what happened. One moment he was seeing the party tree in the distance with all its lights, and music, and general partying going on, the next he stood in Bilbo’s door in the early hours of the morning, with the Hobbit ogling him and his handful of silverware with wide eyes.

 

With no better idea of what to do, Nori thrust the cutlery at the Hobbit.

 

“Happy birthday?”

 

Another moment passed, then he was pulled into the smial, kissed within an inch of his life, and stopped thinking for the remainder of the night.

 

It was a mistake, probably one of his worst, and that would be a whole lot easier to believe if it didn’t feel so great, and he wasn’t talking about the sex. Not that he was complaining about that, far from it. They didn’t know each other’s bodies yet, and at least Bilbo had been more than a bit tipsy. Awkward fumbling and extensive giggling aside, the sex certainly had been great, but not worth waiting three years for. However …

 

It might have something to do with how long it had been since the Dwarf last had a tumble with someone he actually cared about, though he doubted that could really explain why it felt so entirely right falling asleep with a pliant, cuddly Hobbit in his arms, and so absolutely wrong waking up without him.

 

Talking about wrong, Nori needed a moment and a glance out of the window to realise he wasn’t in an unknown room, but the master bedroom of Bag End. Sometime between his last visit and now, Bilbo must have finally made himself put away his parent’s things, and claim the room as his own. The Dwarf had to admit he was rather relieved to find the bed to be a new one. There was kinky, and then there was debauching adorable Hobbits on their dead parent’s bed, never mind that Bilbo definitely hadn’t been a blushing virgin. Tipsy, yes, maybe even drunk, but he had definitely known what he was doing.

 

At least it was easy to find Bilbo. Even without the scent of bacon and pancakes in the air, the first place to look for a Hobbit was always the kitchen, though the sight was like a punch in the guts.

 

Bilbo stood at the stove in Nori’s shirt, and only Nori’s shirt with the additional hickey here and there (which did funny things to the Dwarf’s innards), swaying to a song he was singing under his breath with a content, happy smile, obvious to his audience.

 

Guess it's true, I'm not good at a one-night-stand

But I still need love 'cause I'm just man

These nights never seem to go to plan

I don't want you to leave, will you hold my hand

 

Why am I so emotional?!

No, it's not a good look, gain some self-control

Deep down I know this never works?

But you could lay with me, so it doesn't hurt


Oh, won't you stay with me

'Cause you're all I need

This ain't love, it's clear to see

But darling, stay with me.”

(Sam Smith - Stay with me)

 

A noise like a wounded animal had the Hobbit turning around to look for the source, which as it turned out had been Nori.

 

“Oh, I didn’t hear you. Sleep well?” the smaller asked, greeting him with a kiss on the nose, and then certainly would have slipped back to preparing breakfast if not for Nori taking hold of him and burying his face in soft amber curls.

 

“I don’t do commitment,” the thief sighed with regret. It was the truth, but he’d be damned if the past three years hadn’t meant anything. Still, there was the matter of him being a thief, and Bilbo a (mostly) respectable gentle-Hobbit, never mind The Calling he still might one day feel, and the possibility of Nori finding his santhadulur someday. Nice as this was, even if he were one to settle down, he could not be committed to it with that hanging over their heads.

 

“Huh? What brought that ... oh. Oh! Oh no, Nori, not like that. I heard that song in Bree some time ago and couldn’t get it out of my head since. That you keep coming back is more than enough for me.”

 

“I can’t promise you even that,” the ginger Dwarf continued, and actually meant `you deserve better´, which was not a thought he had often, but meant anyway.

 

“But you can try.”

 

The Dwarf remembered the first time they had that particular discussion. Had it really only been three years ago? It certainly felt longer, but that didn’t make it less true, and at the end of the day nothing had changed, had it? It wasn’t as if he hadn’t already put Bilbo on his (very short) list of people no one must ever know meant anything to him. He wasn’t ready yet to leave his brothers over winter, so he would most likely continue to pass through the Shire twice a year in the foreseeable future. He was still Nori, and Bilbo was still Bilbo. Nothing had changed, except that he could finally act on all the subtle and not so subtle invitations from this little minx. Really, there was no reason to get worked up over it.

 

“Aye. I can try.”

 

“Good. Now let me go before something burns. It would be a waste of perfectly good breakfast.”

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

“What’s that?”

 

Even thirteen years after coming of age, Ori still hadn’t lost the ability to ask questions Nori just couldn’t answer. Granted, technically he could answer this one, but the item in his hand was much more than a pretty silver spoon. It had nothing and everything to do with it being one of Bilbo’s silver spoons; one of the spoons he had definitely handed over to his Hobbit.

 

Stealing from Lobelia had been one thing (she had stolen them first after all), but this was stealing from Bilbo, and that was not alright. Nori didn’t steal from friends or family.

 

He had not meant to take it, hadn’t even noticed it until he had emptied his pockets at home, but the fact remained that it was stealing if he didn’t give it back, and to give it back, he would need to go back to the Shire despite knowing better, which didn’t even begin to cover the problem of him actually not wanting to give the spoon away again in the first place, and ...

 

Mahâl, he was so screwed!

Chapter Text


 

Bilbo Baggins was an odd Hobbit; odd enough, in fact, that even his tookish heritage didn’t quite suffice in excusing it; neither did Baggins side for that matter. After all, Belladonna Took might have ventured further beyond the borders of the Shire than anyone else since the Wandering Days, but Bungo Baggins had been the one to marry her, and happily so, which was considered odd in its own right, especially for a Baggins.

 

It was an ongoing debate whether Bilbo had inherited their `worst´ traits or if he was worse than his parents in his own right, and the Hobbit in question happily ignored such talk. He was polite to those of his fellow Hobbits who at least offered him the same curtsey, kept his smial, garden, and the curls on his feet in order, visited with family as one should, and even suffered the unpleasant relatives with a smile if he couldn’t find a good reason to get rid of them soon, which was a well-kept tradition in the Shire, so no one really held that against him.

 

It was a good life, and he was content with it. That he could do more with a knife than just prepare meals and whittle a bit, sometimes went on long walks and came back with a rabbit or two he hadn’t bought from anyone, was nobody’s business, but his own. And that for close to eighteen years now shared his smial and bed with a wandering Dwarf who had taken him on quite a few trips to Mithlond, Bree, and the wilderness around, had stopped being worth talking about to the gossipers years ago.

 

Truly, the only thing people nowadays had any right to complain about was that Bilbo let said Dwarf leave time and again. That was odd, downright mad, but what had started as a rebellious attempt to cure loneliness, had pretty fast turned into honest desire and curious attraction, and over the years then into a deep, unwavering love. Bilbo loved that idiot of a Dwarf, and Nori came back when he could, and he loved Bilbo as much as he was able to, which was a lot, considering how very pained the other looked every time he had to leave.

 

Did Bilbo wish they wouldn’t have to part, that he could actually know the names of Nori’s brothers, and could meet them in person? Of course. Did he understand the reasons why that wasn’t possible? Mostly. Did he lay awake at night or mop around the smial from time to time, wishing there could be actual words of love and promises between them? Naturally. Would he force his Dwarf to change who he was to fit the imaginations of others? Eru, no! Their actions spoke a language of their own, and Bilbo certainly didn’t feel less loved for it. Their relationship certainly must seem strange to outsiders and was far from perfect, but as long as they found more happiness than grief in it, that was all that mattered.

 

Still, this situation was something else entirely. When he had last seen Nori, the other had been troubled by rumours of a nature he hadn’t wanted to reveal, and what worried Nori was indeed very worrisome in Bilbo’s opinion. So instead of stalling for more time with him as he usually did, the Hobbit had sent the other on his way again to check on his brothers as soon as the weather allowed for safe travel.

 

That had been last autumn. Now it was nearing the end of April, and if they would have worried for nothing, Nori would have long since been back again. Nori always came back in spring when he left for the Blue Mountains in autumn, even if he denied it.

 

Chewing on his unlit pipe, Bilbo emptied the mailbox by his proper, neat fence gate, and went through its contents again and again without actually reading what stood on the envelopes. He wanted to search for his Dwarf but didn’t even know where to start. Thanks to Nori, Bilbo’s maps were probably the most detailed in the whole Shire if not all of Eriador, including cities, and towns of far-off lands no Hobbit had ever heard of, but the dwarven settlements in Ered Luin were missing for the sole reason of preventing Bilbo from getting any ideas about ever following Nori there.

 

They had argued a lot about that, but in the end the Hobbit had accepted Nori’s reasoning, though now it drove him to distraction to the point that he would have almost missed the old Man clad in grey with a pointy hat and odd staff clearing his throat several times on the other side of Bilbo’s fence.

 

The Man’s name was Gandalf, or so he said, and the Hobbit didn’t quite believe him, as he had a vague recollection of an old Man clad in grey by that very same name from his fauntling-days. The man claimed to be the same one, a friend of Belladonna Took, and he spoke of an adventure he wanted Bilbo to take part in, and how much the Hobbit had changed, in a negative way.

 

Naturally, Bilbo bristled at that. If this really was the same Gandalf, which was still up to debate, Bilbo had a lot of personal reasons to like him even less than Lobelia. Also, the Hobbit was of the opinion someone he hadn’t seen in 40 years or longer had no right to complain about any changes, be they for the better or worse. However, he didn’t say any of that. He had more important issues to handle than barmy old people and their insane ideas of adventure. He already was on a quest to save his idiot Dwarf from whatever he had managed to get himself into, which meant he had to figure out how to find Nori without using the other’s name, describe his appearance or anything else he knew about him and his habits in a settlement he only had a very vague idea of where to find, and without leaving his smial for too long in case said Dwarf had only been delayed by some profanity. In face of that, he was maybe more direct than propriety dictated when telling that Gandalf-person where to shove his adventures and move his undersized feet, before all but forgetting about the whole encounter again.

 

Trout, Bilbo decided. He would have trout for dinner with steamed vegetables. He deserved something nice after checking and replacing his travelling gear as needed, never mind all the organising he would have to do. Truly, it was the thought of that trout as much as finally doing something about his concerns that helped the Hobbit to get over the day, but just as he was finally about to enjoy his reward in the evening, someone knocked heavily on his front door.

 

`That’s not Nori,´ was his first thought. His Dwarf only ever took the backdoor to which Bilbo had gifted him a key to their not-anniversary because theirs was officially a friends-with-benefits kind of relationship, not something warranting an anniversary of any kind, and the pounding was too powerful for one of his neighbours.

 

Wary the Hobbit took his good frying pan – a gift from Nori that purely by chance fit timely to aforementioned not-anniversary. Really, it had only been the exchange of one useful item for another between friends with benefits – and a dishcloth as disguise, and went to the door, praying that it was just his Dwarf having a laugh at his expense.

 

As it turned out there was indeed a Dwarf at his door, but not Nori, no. This one was huge, tattoos adorning his bald head, twin axes on his back, and a fierce scowl to match. He introduced himself as Dwalin, would have probably added the customary `at your service´, except for the sturdy green door he got into his face as Bilbo raced to his room.

 

The name didn’t mean anything to him, as Nori had never used names for friend or foe, so Bilbo could always truthfully claim that he had never heard about them if asked, but the appearance he recognised, and it scared him greatly. In his mind, the Throneless One’s Hound knocking at his door at this indecent hour could only mean the worst, and ...

 

Bilbo came to a sudden stop. The Hound, while the ban of every thief, was a decent man, or so Nori had always claimed. If he had found a way to catch Nori at last and was here to arrest Bilbo for some reason or another, then he certainly wouldn’t have knocked and introduced himself. He would have broken down the door, dwarven locks or not, which hadn’t happened yet.

 

Something didn’t add up here, and things that didn’t add up needed to be investigated until it was at least clear if they were simply confusion or a potential threat.

 

With a nod to himself, Bilbo abandoned his pack again, slipped into a pair of decent breeches, and stopped in the kitchen to switch the frying pan for a knife he concealed under his clothes before opening the door again. He preferred non-lethal weapons if he had to use a weapon at all, but if push came to shove, he would need every advantage against the Hou- Dwalin, and no Dwarf save Nori would expect a Hobbit to be anything but a gullible pushover.

 

He counted it as a plus that the Dwarf seemed very much confused by what had just transpired as Bilbo was by his mere presence at his door; that the other ultimately shouldered his way in without any explanation and devoured Bilbo’s dinner was a clear point against him, but still better than the worst-case scenarios the Hobbit had come up with.

 

A second knock then brought him closer to one of those worst-case imaginations again. `Balin, at your service´ seemed like a nice elderly fellow, but then he called Dwalin `brother´, and the Hobbit was ready to run for the mountains because when Nori had warned him of the Hound, he had been adamant that the Hound’s brother, the Advisor, was exponentially worse. The Hound might look every inch as dangerous as he was, but his older brother was much more deceptive on that front.

 

Whoever was responsible for those two in his smial would suffer indescribably if Bilbo had his way, and that didn’t account for the twins, Fíli and Kíli, and the defiling of a beautiful little chest from Rohan Nori had once gifted him. `Morgoth’s Spawns´ he thought while trying to get a word of reprimand in between the greetings. It was an unsettling thought as Nori had used that exact term for two young princes, and Bilbo was increasingly worried about the amount of dwarven royalty filtering into his smial. That they also started to move furniture and clear out his pantry was quite frustrating as well.

 

Four Dwarrow in his smial, and the only one Bilbo actually wanted here was not in sight, and then there was a whole pile of Dwarrow falling through his door with Gandalf standing over them as if all this mess was highly amusing. Gandalf, who definitely was at fault for all this, and the old clod would get an earful right after Bilbo had picked those poor fellows up. They might be uninvited, and for a good part unwanted, but he wouldn’t stand to hear them complain about the hospitality of Hobbits.

 

On top was a round Dwarf, very embarrassed, shy, and grateful (what a nice change), by the name of Bombur, as Gandalf supplied, though that certainly didn’t enamour the Man anymore to Bilbo. Underneath him was one with a mighty red beard and booming voice (Glóin), and an older fellow, Óin, who was hard of hearing and dismissive, then Bifur, who had an axe in his head and spoke only Khuzdûl, and on the bottom of the pile Bofur, a fellow with an odd hat and an almost unsettlingly sunny disposition. He was friendly, and rather hands-on, and Bilbo almost would have missed three more Dwarrow slipping past him if not again for Gandalf checking them off his imaginary list. Dori, Ori, and ...

 

“Nori!?”

 

“A rather common name, Master Hobbit.”

 

Bilbo didn’t recognise the hairstyle, but he definitely recognised the colour, and he would need to be deaf to mistake that voice for anyone else’s.

 

Nori, his Nori was here, hale, and whole ... and scared in ways that had nothing to do with finally introducing his brothers to Bilbo, and a whole lot with the Throneless One’s Hound, and Advisor, and Morgoth’s Spawns, and Gandalf in their smial. They had spoken about situations like this or at least comparable ones, and Bilbo knew for both their safety he needed to pretend not to have known Nori previously to this evening, but ...

 

“What by Mahâl’s furry stones is going on here?”

 

“Dinner, Master Hobbit. Do you want to join us?”

 

The Hobbit had half a mind to throw Bofur out again, bodily. They were clearing out his pantry and invited him to join?! The gall!

 

Instead of reprimanding them the way they deserved, Bilbo rather focused on trying to save at least some of the food – they didn’t seem to have found the second pantry yet, but better safe than hungry – and the West-Farthing china that had been Grandma Took’s wedding gift to his parents. In between the Hobbit caught Nori doing the same, and looked for opportunities to catch his thief alone for a moment, but all they managed were fleeting touches in passing that did little to reassure either of them.

 

After the invaders had sung a rather crude version of a drinking song his Dwarf had taught him years ago – Bilbo conceded that it would have been funny if it weren’t his own carpets on the line, and his Dwarf in distress – his dishes at least had survived. That was good, actually, but only a small comfort in comparison to his irritation about Nori’s condition, and as if matters weren’t already bad enough, a dooming knock sounded from the front door that managed what Bilbo hadn’t been able to archive the entire evening: the Dwarrow fell silent.

 

“He is here.”

 

Whoever `he´ was better had a damn good explanation for all this, but of course Bilbo still didn’t get one. Instead, he got yet another imposing Dwarf shouldering his way inside, forgoing introductions in favour of insulting Bilbo while still in the doorway.

 

Not that the Hobbit needed any introductions to realise that this was the fabled king-in-exile Nori only ever called the Throneless One, and the stories certainly had cured Bilbo of any notion that this king was anything like those in the stories, but this …

 

Grocer, the nerve! Well, this grocer sure was playing with the thought of getting out his frying pan once more, and certainly not for cooking, but he could deal with this, Bilbo reminded himself. Unwelcome and uninvited guests who insulted him were not that uncommon; he just had to be polite and smile until his lack of reaction frustrated them all into leaving. Worked like a charm most of the time, except that Dwarrow weren’t impressed by manners. Then the newest addition, Thorin, started speaking about some semi-secret meeting between representatives of the Seven Kingdoms, and all of them denying help for some kind of quests, and suddenly the discussion turned to Bilbo being supposed to get involved in one way or another beyond playing unwilling host.

 

That was the point when Nori obviously had enough. He jumped up, and very purposefully positioned himself between Bilbo and everyone else, growling in Westron and Khuzdûl, neither of which Bilbo could make any sense of (not that he had the faintest idea about Khuzdûl, of course). Dwalin, at least, seemed to take the greatest offence and tried to grab Nori, but the thief was too agile and too determined. As it later turned out, the Hound had actually tried to protect Bilbo, which was, of course, ridiculous, as Nori was the one trying to protect the Hobbit from everyone else, but Dwalin couldn’t have known that. Under different circumstances Bilbo would have been willing to give Dwalin points for that, but certainly not in this particular moment.

 

And then Gandalf stepped forward, and Nori got out his knives.

 

Officially Bilbo couldn’t approve of such measures, but he certainly didn’t mind the idea behind it. Clearly, this was all Gandalf’s fault one way or another, and while the Master of Bag End still wanted that by now very necessary explanation of what by the good green earth was going on, Bilbo had not the least interest in having the mad old clod do it. On the other hand, watching his Dwarf get pummelled to death was not an alternative either.

 

Gauging the distance, Bilbo slowly edged to the side, Nori predictably following his movements until they both were near enough to the Hobbit’s goal that with a twist and a pull Bilbo had his thief in the kitchen and a door between them and the rest of the madness that had descended onto their home.

 

Obviously being the only Dwarf within sight was a good start, as Nori put the knives away and hugged Bilbo close, muttering darkly into his curls. Bilbo let him for a while, then pushed him onto the bench and made them a large pot of camomile tea, agreeing to everything Nori said though he still couldn’t make sense of more than a fraction.

 

It took two mugs and Bilbo all but curled into the Dwarf for Nori to finally calm down enough to make sense.

 

“Better?”

 

“No.”

 

“More tea?”

 

“Will that make the barmy wizard go away?”

 

“I guess that’s a `no´ to the tea, but what do you mean, `wizard´?”

 

Gandalf,” Nori growled as if it was an insult and not a name. It didn’t exactly answer the question, but, obviously, his Dwarf shared his opinion of where the blame had to be placed.

 

“Okay. So we have a wizard, the Throneless One with a worse sense of direction than a headless chicken, his Hound and Advisor ... the twins are Morgoth’s Spawns, Thorin’s sister-sons, I take it?”

 

“The only one with a lick of sense in that whole line. Lady Dís, not her boys. Not twins, though. Fíli is older by five years.”

 

“Good lads?”

 

“But as dumb as a sack of hammers, and with the survival instinct to match.”

 

“What about the others?”

 

“Nobles, distant cousins of the idiot king. Banker,” Nori grumped, loosening one hand to indicate a mighty beard, “and a healer so superstitious, he would skip every thirteenth step if he could. The other three are low-class; decent fellows with nothing to lose but their lives.”

 

“Your brothers?”

 

The Dwarf clamped shut and all but hid in Bilbo’s neck. Pulling the other’s beard affectionately, Bilbo let the topic rest for now; there would be time enough for that later.

 

“So, twelve Dwarrow in our smial. Reminds me of a fauntling-rhyme.”

 

“Thirteen. And a barmy wizard.”

 

“Twelve. You’re not a Dwarf.”

 

“Pretty sure I am.”

 

“No, I’m absolutely certain. You’re not a Dwarf, you’re my Dwarf. That’s a most important difference.”

 

“Good to know I’m special.”

 

“Always. Now, why do we have twelve Dwarrow and a barmy wizard in our smial?”

 

Nori sighed and held him tighter, almost crushing Bilbo when the door opened. The Hobbit didn’t quite care who interrupted; he just threw an empty mug and shouted at the intruder to `get the fuck out! This is a private conversation!´, waiting only long enough for the door to be hastily closed again before focussing back on his still distressed lover.

 

“You know the Lonely Mountain?”

 

“That solitary peak far to the east, currently infested by a ... oh. Oh no, you don’t ...”

 

“Not me, that’s for sure, but that wizard put flees into the Throneless One’s ear that the time is right, and the damn healer and his thrice-cursed portents agreed. Got everyone chained to the quest by contracts, and when it seemed to be just us thirteen, Tharkûn appeared again and told us about a burglar willing to join. Imagine my surprise when we stopped in front of your door.”

 

“Imagine mine when I had the Hound invade our home and steal my dinner.”

 

“And he has the nerve to call me a thief with disdain.”

 

“That’s what I thought as well. So, against a Dragon it is, and it’s all Gandalf’s fault, yes?”

 

“You could say that?” Nori replied warily because where Bilbo knew to read him and his moods, the same was true the other way around, and it was never a good sign when a Hobbit switched a concealed knife for their sturdiest pan – Nori hadn’t even noticed the knife until now, but instantly felt better for knowing Bilbo hadn’t been unarmed and relieved that the Hobbit switched back to a non-lethal weapon – and made to leave the kitchen.

 

“Good. Now, why don’t you finish your tea in peace? I’ll be back in a moment; I’ll just sort out our guests real quick.”

Chapter Text


 

Nori’s condition had not been exactly stellar to begin with, but worsened with every step further into the Shire, though he was certain he had managed to hide it. Still, that they entered this region in the first place was already very unsettling. Hobbits weren’t adventure-material in general, and most definitely not for the kind of suicide quest they were on. No one was.

 

Then night fell when they were approaching Hobbiton, and Tharkûn pressed on, arguing they would reach this burglar of his soon enough.

 

If he would have managed to eat anything at all lately, the ginger thief certainly would have been sick all over the damn wizard (accidentally, of course, nothing to do with a growing hatred for the meddling old clod) as they approached Bag End because of course, of course, they had to be heading for the one place Nori truly had not wanted to be for the first time in years. With the dooming knock on wood in his ears, Nori got the sudden notion that grabbing his brothers now and vanishing into the wilderness would prevent all this from happening, but trying only made them literally fall into Bag End. That, of course, wouldn’t stop the thief from trying to sneak past him and out of the back-door unseen, but again he was thwarted by Tharkûn.

 

At least his Hobbit was smart, even when notably confused and agitated about being robbed of his food. However, Bilbo kept to their emergency agreement of pretending not to know each other, and Nori really wished he could do anything to comfort Bilbo other than sneaking away some of the food so his Hobbit wouldn’t end up with nothing but crumbs. Bilbo wouldn’t go hungry either way, but doing something made the Dwarf feel better, marginally.

 

He would never say so out loud, but Nori was actually too caught up in far too many thoughts and worries to do anything but react to his immediate surroundings. Food was being thrown? Secret some away for bad times. Bilbo, Dori, and Ori still safe and accounted for? Good, now stay away from the Hound. Feasting? Pity he couldn’t make himself more than try to get some bread past his locked jaws. Brothers and lover still well? Good. Throwing of Bilbo’s precious West-Farthing china? It may be butt-ugly and impractical, but it was a family heirloom and connected with many precious memories. It would survive this evening, damn it all!

 

Maybe he was overacting. Maybe this wasn’t the home of their would-be-burglar, and they just hadn’t made it all the way after all. A chance meeting. In the morrow, they would leave, and ...

 

And then the Throneless One appeared and had the nerve to insult Bilbo in his own home; the home he had made room in for Nori without hesitation, the home he would open to all of them if given the chance (and after all this at least a half-hearted apology).

 

Someone would find stones in their bedroll and socks for however long they managed to stay alive, a lot of people, actually. He would prefer to spike their food with something unpleasant as well, but they all literally ate from the same pot, so stones it was.

 

Oh, maybe they’d find Bilbo unsuited for the task. He was. Everyone was unsuited to go for the hoard of a fire-breathing Dragon. Even the Dragon-slayers of old had been smarter than that, and they had been Elves, mostly, according to Ori, who was also smart, or at least he had been. Then Ori had let himself get tricked into signing the damn contract, and he must have been tricked, no matter what he said, because Ori was too smart to sign up for this madness no matter how smothering Dori’s care could be. But, no, he couldn’t even have that small comfort because that damn wizard had set his mind on dragging Bilbo off to certain death.

 

After that revelation things got a bit fuzzy. It probably involved his knives (that sort of thing tended to happen when he was something between extremely angry, protective, and panicking, spiced with a good dose of exhaustion, long as it had been since that last happened), but it ended in Bilbo’s kitchen, with camomile tea, and his Hobbit being cuddly, and no one else around.

 

He knew nothing had changed, that there was nothing more than a bit wood between them and madness, but still the Dwarf felt himself slowly relax for the first time in months.

 

It had to be noted that it wasn’t the tea having a calming effect (except where it concerned his highly upset stomach). Bilbo’s presence alone was enough to slow his usually wandering, jumping thoughts and override the constant need to look out for targets or enemies or allies that would turn into enemies if they felt like it, and escape routes, and so on. The Hobbit was also the source of a warm and fluffy feeling, especially prominent whenever he spoke of their home, and showed in various ways how very much he didn’t just not mind but very much appreciated that Nori was a scoundrel.

 

It made him once again think of the silver spoon sewn into his breast pocket. It would be so easy to just let Bilbo find it now, would probably even amuse his Hobbit, and they would be done with it. It would be just as easy to put it back to the others, or lose it somewhere, even sneak it into Lobelia’s house, and no one would ever know, but every time he tried he just couldn’t, just as he could never tell Bilbo of that warm, fluffy feeling.

 

His Hobbit was the best thing that had ever happened to him, but Nori had felt The Calling (unclear as it had been that time), and he really wished he hadn’t. The Dwarf knew how much he hurt Bilbo that there could be no spoken commitment between them, but his santhadulur couldn’t be blamed for this mess either. If he would be stronger, the ginger thief would have given up either Bilbo or the spoon years ago, made a decision. Instead, he had taken the cowardly way out, and hung the key to Bag End’s back door on a chain around his neck – cliché, yes, even the Throneless One did it, but why change a working concept? – so every time he reached for the spoon he touched the key as well, and Bilbo knew only of one item. It would end in blood and tears ... well, or Dragon-fire, apparently, if they lived long enough.

 

After a while, Bilbo asked about the invaders and their purpose, and Nori answered honestly; he owned the Hobbit as much. When he heard about the madness of the quest, his Hobbit would never sign any damn contract, stubborn as he was, though first he obviously would be angry, very angry, in that very dangerous, calmly polite way not even Dori could pull off. Nori watched as Bilbo took the frying pan – the one he had gifted Bilbo to what could have been an anniversary if fates had been kinder, and spared him the hagulhaz âzyung – and leave the symbolic safety of the kitchen.

 

It was a formidable weapon, no matter what others might think, especially because Nori knew the Dwarf who had forged it. A good smith, that one, and he had been paid. The money had admittedly been stolen, but Nori made a point of acquiring all gifts for Bilbo and his brothers legally if at all possible, and to pay honest craftsmen for their work. And of course he followed his Hobbit out of the kitchen. Moths didn’t reconsider either before flying into a flame, and an angry Hobbit was worse than a prickly house cat; you never knew if to smooth them or get the hell out of the way. Even exhausted as he was, Nori didn’t want to miss that for the world.

 

Bilbo approached Thorin, Balin, Dwalin, and Gandalf first, the others lingering close by, and Nori made himself comfortable against the doorframe, which had nothing to do with any weakness of his knees. Nope. And even if, it was purely from the stress and days of not eating properly, and Dori could keep his odd looks to himself as well.

 

“Done consulting The Thief, Halfling?”

 

Oh, bad mistake. Couldn’t they see Bilbo had a pan? The Pan at that, capital letter and all. Also, if the Hound thought he could catch his Hobbit off guard by calling Nori out on his craft (which he did, going by the arrogant tilt of his head that obviously was a family trait), he would be sorely disappointed. Nori was keeping secrets from Bilbo, but only a few in the grand scale of things, and certainly not the kind of secrets the Hound would know about.

 

Predictable as his little lover tended to be when truly angered, Bilbo didn’t hesitate to swing his pan. Nori would have to instruct him where best to aim to get the most out of it; Dwalin’s side was simply too well armoured for it to cause much harm, but it sure got Bilbo the attention he must have wanted.

 

“First of all, you insufferable hadhod, I’m not half of anything. I’m a Hobbit, and my name is Bilbo Baggins, Master Baggins to you. If that is too difficult for you to remember, I am willing to accept you addressing me as `Master Hobbit´. And `The Thief´, as you call him, is Master Nori, and you will treat both of us with respect, especially in our own home. Also, it’s mighty rich of you to try and use his craft – which I’ve known about for decades, by the way – to try and turn me against the only one of you lot with any right to be in this smial. You devoured my dinner without so much as `by your leave´, and the rest of you aren’t any better.”

 

And there was the warm and fluffy feeling again. Soon Nori would turn into one of those sticky sweet rolls Bilbo often made him for breakfast, but seeing his Hobbit fearlessly insult the Hound on his behalf and tell the assembled Lords and whatnots off was totally worth it. Also, it was adorable how Bilbo brandished the pan like a proper sword, and there was a collective if likely unconscious shuffle away from the Hobbit and towards the next exits happening by everyone except the wizard and the direct Line of Durin.

 

Idiots, all of them. They should have started running for the mountains at least an hour ago.

 

“Why, you ...”

 

“`Why´ is a good cue because I’d really like to know why you thought it a good idea to invade our home and steal our food, destroy mementoes of family members long past on, and defile heirlooms! They may not have the worldly value of your so-called precious metals and gems, but they sure are priceless to me. Why, if it weren’t truly tasteless of me, I’d say you’re not better than that damn Dragon you’re so keen on meeting in person!”

 

“We were promised a dinner!” the Hound boomed and puffed up in indignation, which actually made him resemble Bilbo a bit, in a completely grotesque way. Naturally, the Hobbit became only more agitated about that.

 

“By whom? I certainly didn’t invite you. In fact, the only one here with an invitation to enter this smial is Nori, and he doesn’t need an invitation because I gave him the Valar damned key!”

 

Schooling his expression into neutrality Nori hid behind his rapidly cooling tea. Bilbo continuously and loudly calling the smial theirs was doing very funny things to his stomach (in a good way, which was a pleasant change after the last few months) that weren’t just warm and fluffy anymore. More like hot and melting.

 

“My dear lad ...”

 

This time Bilbo put actual force behind the swing, and the knee of the wizard was notably less armoured than an average dwarven side, though it likely wasn’t the pain that made the wizard’s eyes go wide.

 

“I’m not your anything, you batty old clod! I don’t know who you are, but the only Gandalf I know was an odd, old Man lighting fireworks some 40 years back at Old Took’s parties, and one my mother used to say would come when needed, except that didn’t happen, did it? You claim to be that Gandalf? Then where were you during Fell Winter, where were you when father fell ill and died, and mother followed? Where were you when well-meaning relatives tried to take my home from me? When I had to tell them a friend of the family would check on me to get some peace to at least try to grieve? If Nori hadn’t appeared out of nowhere when he did, I would have lost it all, and now you come here, 40 years later and at least 25 too late, claim to be a friend of my mother’s, speak of adventure, drag 12 uninvited and unwanted Dwarrow into the home my father built and my mother filled with life. Dwarrow that tracked mud into every carpet, emptied the pantry, dishonoured mementoes, and sneered at and insulted their hosts without even having the curtsey to introduce themselves and explain what the fuck is going on! You have absolutely no right to be so familiar with me.”

 

Oh, that was brilliant! Nori wished Ori would be taking notes so he could later go over that speech again and praise ... wait, what? Bilbo could have ... and Tharkûn ... oh, there would be boulders in someone’s shoes, possibly also thorns, but why had his Hobbit never said ...

 

“Well, at least the Halfling got fire.”

 

This time Bilbo swung low and hit Dwalin’s notable less protected knee. The Dwarf howled (mostly in surprise, but it still counted), and hopped back on his good leg while Bilbo stared down Thorin, daring him to say something with the pan swinging threateningly between them. The Dwarf-king held his glace, but said nothing, so the Hobbit turned on the wizard again.

 

“And, while I’m on a row, a Dragon, Gandalf?!”

 

“If we get that far,” Nori threw in for good measure because the wizard might start to fidget and look unwell, but by far not enough so for all the trouble he had caused already.

 

“Indeed, if we get that far! And, as if even suggesting it isn’t bad enough already, you dragged these strangers into our smial to do what exactly? Bully me into agreeing through sheer numbers? And don’t you start with my mother’s adventures! She’d have had your head for trying to whisk her only child off to certain death. You should be ashamed of yourself. She would be ashamed to have ever called you friend. You could have at least shown the decency, and properly ask me, but no!”

 

“Forgive me, Master Baggins,” Balin interrupted then, forever the diplomat, or he simply disliked losing control of a situation in general. “Do I understand you right that you have not been informed about our coming nor the reason for it? Tharkûn said you agreed to join and awaited us with enough to feed twice our number.”

 

“The only Dwarf I ever expected was Nori, and that was a month ago. Your Tharkûn had absolutely no right whatsoever to invite anyone anywhere, least of all a bunch of rowdy, dirty, presumptuous strangers led by the most ungrateful, arrogant prick I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across! Last I saw someone going by the name `Gandalf´, I was, but a wee faunt at my father’s knee. Then this one came by just this morning with some hare-brained scheme about adventures that I told him in no uncertain words to take elsewhere. Next thing I know that brother of yours is eating my dinner. I was looking forward to that trout all day and now I don’t even have crumbs left, never mention that you emptied my entire pantry without so much as a by your leave!”

 

When Balin started to glare at everyone with disapproval the size of a mountain, Nori decided it was time to think of dinner for his brave Hobbit, and went to retrieve what little food he had managed to hide away. Meanwhile, he could hear Thorin doing the first smart thing in months, and turn against the wizard.

 

“You said you had a burglar willing to join our cause, Tharkûn. You said he expected us; you said so weeks ago!”

 

“Did I?”

 

“Aye, you did. I was there,” Dwalin growled, then the kitchen door closed again behind Bilbo, who had left the battlefield victoriously. He took the bread and cheese from Nori, and ... oh. Yes, he probably really should sit back down.

 

“Yavanna bless my late father and his foresight. Not to think what they would have done if they had found the second pantry.”

 

The second pantry was notable smaller and not well stocked unless Bilbo was expecting larger numbers of guests, but there were always some none-perishables to be found there. Nori had forgotten about that, though it went a long way in reassuring him. His Hobbit would be fine.

 

“Drink, eat. I’ll make us a late supper.”

 

“It should be me comforting you, not the other way around,” he Dwarf pointed out for good measure, but dutifully refilled his cup (his hands were not shaking! No one had seen it, so it hadn’t happened, and if he happened to avoid working with knives for the time being, it was only because there was no need for it as long as Bilbo had his pan within reach), but ignored the bread put before him.

 

“You look more dead than alive, darling. Let’s discuss that another time And I believe I told you to eat.”

 

To underline his words Bilbo pulled out some cookies, and Nori almost choked on the laughter bubbling his way up. Bilbo’s cookies were almost as good as his tomatoes, and it was widely known that the Hound’s one weakness was, in fact, cookies, though he wouldn’t let himself be bribed that way. Everyone must have tried that at least one, and only Lady Dís was rumoured to have ever succeeded.

 

Would it be too much if he went out and ate the cookies in front of Dwalin? Probably.

 

“Now tell me more about that quest and the contracts so I can knock the right heads together.”

 

“You already did a good job of that,” the Dwarf smirked half-heartedly, but nonetheless gave a brief recount of what he knew about the loss of Azsâlulabad, Azanulbizar, the quest, and the contents of the contract. The first two Bilbo had heard about before, though with names and actual family relations it was easier to make sense of in the big picture, but the other two had him frowning heavily while preparing them sandwiches. At one point, the door cracked open a bit (the shouting outside had subsided), and Bilbo lifted a questioning brow, wordlessly asking if Nori was alright with having someone listening in. The Dwarf shrugged it off. He was beyond caring, and he had made often and loudly known what he thought about the quest in the past. The thief, for once, had nothing to hide.

 

“So you’re not actually allowed to tell me anything.”

 

“They already hung me for a lamb; might as well hang for a sheep.”

 

“There won’t be any hanging of anything but good ham,” the Hobbit scoffed, and pointedly nudged another sandwich in Nori’s direction. From the way Bilbo was now pressed against him from knee to shoulder, it was really only a symbolic move, and the thief knew when he was out-fussed. Might as well give in and have a bite.

 

“Is there a way out of that contract?”

 

“Well, there is killing the Throneless One, taking Morgoth’s Spawns hostage, or you could just brain them with your pan until they forget about this madness altogether.”

 

Legal ways, dear, if it can at all be helped. I have it on good notion blood stains are a pain to get out of wood.”

 

“I love how you make it sound as if that’s your only concern, but, seriously, whatever you do, don’t sign that contract, please. Forget about the intentions, be they noble or not (though I’d bet on not); that will not matter when we all die by Dragon-fire if we get that far. And we won’t because the roads have grown darker in recent years and these idiots have the survival instincts of headless chicken!”

 

“Interesting picture you paint. That bad?”

 

“Worse.”

 

Bilbo nodded slowly, and mulled over the information for a long while, fiddling with Nori’s hands. At this point, it was impossible to say who had started that particular habit, but neither of them was made for idle hands. Nori, for his part, enjoyed it almost as much as the beard pulling.

 

Obviously having come to a decision, the Hobbit finally straightened with a most determinate scowl, and took up his trusted frying pan again.

 

“Come on,” he said, and pulled open the kitchen door. Tumbling in came Morgoth’s Spawns, but one wide-eyed look at The Pan (it deserved capital letters at this point) had them scrambling away and behind their uncle. Not that they were any safer there, but at least they were out of the way, and again Nori followed Bilbo. He didn’t want to miss round two of `vicious Hobbit with a frying pan´ against `idiot Dwarrow too stubborn to realise they were in mortal danger´.

Chapter Text


 

The Throneless One must have a plan, Nori thought to himself warily; one obviously involving the crowning of King Morgoth’s Spawn because he throned regally in Nori’s armchair with the Advisor and the Hound close at hand as if he was holding court. The wizard was also still hunching around, either unaware or ignoring that Bilbo had thrown him out in all but those exact words.

 

A sure-fire way to get murdered in the Shire: be a pompous arrogant arse the smial of someone not a close blood relative. A pity that Bilbo didn’t rise to the bait; his Hobbit must have a plan as well, which meant this might actually become entertaining soon.

 

“Well, let’s get this over with. Am I right to understand that you indeed plan to steal from the hoard of a living, fire-breathing Dragon on the other side of Middle-earth?”

 

“The foul beast hasn’t been seen in many years, and the portents say the time is right.”

 

“If I’d give a damn about portents, I wouldn’t check the sky for rain clouds before leaving the smial, but if you don’t want to answer that question directly, how about this one: how much will it cost me for you to dissolve their contracts?” the Hobbit continued calmly, and gestured at Nori ... and his brothers. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, really, except it was.

 

“You dare ...!”

 

“Oh, spare me the righteous nobility act. I’m a strong believer of `home is where your heart is´. If you’d wanted a home, you could have made one, so name your price already.”

 

In theory, the thief admitted, it was a good plan, brilliant even if a surprise, but ...

 

“As they are entitled to one-thirteenth of the treasure each, it’s only fair you match that price.”

 

Yes, that. Bound to fail. He only had twelve bound to follow him; the Throneless One wouldn’t give them up, and then there was the gold-madness to consider. Nori had witnessed it before, only there had at least been actual gold involved then, not just the idea of it, so this might actually count as worse even though no blood was involved (yet).

 

Could one actually catch the Dragon-fever from just thinking about a mountain filled with gold? Probably not or there would be a lot more lunatics running around, so maybe the Throneless One really was that desperate to get the mountain back, not just the gold ... but then again, there was still the Dragon, and dragging the thief’s brothers off to certain death and trying the same with his Hobbit. No, there would be no sympathy from his corner, that was for sure.

 

“Grand. And three thirteenth would be how much in numbers?”

 

“Uncountable.”

 

“Ah, so it is greed that drives you. Splendid. And I take it you didn’t even have the decency to tell them that before they signed on.”

 

There were scandalised gasps, and shocked glares which were not all directed towards Bilbo, and neither at Nori for that matter. And, left aside that the ginger thief had thought it as well ... saying that out loud, with the Hound present and armed? That was not something one should do with only a pan, even The Pan, as the only weapon at hand. Mahâl, he wouldn’t do that with an army to back him up! He had nicknamed that Dwarf `Hound´ for a reason, and that wasn’t just his tendency to hunt down criminals.

 

“You will not speak to my king like that!”

 

“I will speak however I wish. He’s no king of mine, and this is my home. I’m king of this castle! And don’t think I haven’t heard about what brought the Dragon down on your precious mountain in the first place.”

 

Truth be told, it had from the beginning been only a matter of time until things escalated

 

The Hound aggressively moved towards Bilbo, and Bilbo sidestepped him, which gave Nori plenty of room to get himself involved after all. Not his smartest idea, considering his state, and Dori – good, ever fussing Dori, who would whine and lament, but never ever abandoned one of his brothers to their fate – joined in, and so did Ori, then Glóin on Dwalin’s side, and Fíli and Kíli, though their main interest seemed to be to cause a violent outbreak, while Balin and Tharkûn tried to prevent just that, but were bound to fail. Oín tried to get someone to tell him what was going on, and only the family Ur watched from the sidelines, talking among themselves, and Thorin Oakenshield just stared at his kin as if they had suddenly been turned into spring fairies.

 

“And you want to take on a Dragon with that lot? By the Green Lady, there is not a lick of sense between all their ears. At this rate, you won’t even make it to Bree. You don’t need a burglar, you need a miracle. And brains.”

 

Okay, now that he actually took offence from.

 

“Hey!”

 

“Dear, you are the cleverest Dwarf here by far, but didn’t think to just steal the damn contracts?”

 

“How do you think they caught me in the first place?”

 

“Are you kidding me?!”

 

Nori knew it was surprise speaking, that Bilbo didn’t really question him or his abilities, but today it rubbed him the wrong way.

 

“Do I look as if? I swear, I was this close, but then that damn assassin had to try and get to the princes. You know I couldn’t have let that happen, but do I get at least a `thank you´? No. I get locked up. I swear, the only one in that damn family with any brain is Lady Dís. Without her, they would have blamed that assassin on me as well and had me executed.”

 

“What!? But you’re a thief. You hate killing people, everyone knows that!”

 

“Well, try to tell that to them!”

 

Bilbo’s wide eyes would have been comical were the topic not so serious.

 

“Durin’s stones! Okay, that’s it! Give me that damn contract. You guys need all the help you can possibly get.”

 

Bilbo certainly had the right of … wait, what?

 

Instantly Nori forgot about arguing with the Hound, and pretty much everyone saying anything against his Hobbit or his brothers, and ducked out to pull Bilbo away from those terrible influences.

 

“What? No! No, no, no, no, no. Bilbo, don’t. Please, Melekûnuh, babithel. Ma shâdi, melekûnuh. Kuf?

 

“Westron, dear, Westron.”

 

“Why, my Hobbit? Why would you do that? We are going to die, all of us, long before we even lay eyes on that blasted mountain. We are all going to die. Don’t sign the contract, please, melekûnuh. Don’t do that. I can’t save my brothers, don’t force me to watch you die as well.”

 

“Oh, Nori!”

 

Hugs from his Hobbit always made things better; Bilbo was just the perfect size to hide in amber curls, and wrap around, and Bilbo knew just the perfect way to pet Nori’s hair to smooth all worries away ... except this time it was too much, and Nori couldn’t suppress a whine, and tried to literally curl around the other. If no one could see him, no one could take Bilbo away.

 

“Dear, if there is no way to get you out of that contract and you will all definitely die, I much rather spend the remaining time with you. And, who knows, we might actually survive.”

 

“Dragon, melekûnuh. Fire-breathing, hoard guarding, teeth-as-large-as-Men-high Dragon. That way lays no future, only death and tragedy.”

 

“That’s alright. You know, I never quite got used to waiting around, never knowing when or if you will return, and if this will truly end in death, at least I will know for sure. And you want that mountain as well.”

 

“I ...”

 

“Ah! Don’t deny it. I know you too well for that.”

 

And Nori crumbled, though he tried to hide it with anger.

 

“Fine. Yes. I like the concept, alright? Thick walls, shelter from cold and foes, enough space for everyone. A place I know I can leave my brothers without worry when the wanderlust takes me. Nothing wrong with wanting a mountain, but not that mountain. Not that Dragon.”

 

“Then all the more reason to go with you; in any case, a much better reason than a heap of stupid metal, never mind that I’m quite set on my decision. Now, dearest, when was the last time you actually slept properly? Or at all. Let’s start with `at all´.”

 

Nori didn’t know how to answer that. Sometime between finding out the Throneless One was serious about that mad quest and had made both his brothers sign up, he had given up on sleeping, only catching an odd hour here or there if he could, and the same was true for eating, but how to avoid saying any of that? He didn’t want to worry his Hobbit ... though it was obviously far too late for that.

 

“That long? Well, that just won’t do; not on my watch. Off to bed with you, now! We will talk about this tomorrow.”

 

“Yes, dear.”

 

There were several voices in his head when the thief shuffled his way along familiar walls towards the master bedroom. One pointed out he should keep his eyes to the ground for the rest of his life (however short that would turn out to be) because there was no way anyone would ever let him live that one down. Another pointed out he needn’t worry about that because his Hobbit still had The Pan, and wouldn’t stand for anyone ridiculing Nori. A third voice despaired about just that because to defend him Bilbo planned to join the quest, which this most stubborn of all Hobbits would do if he had put his mind on it. A fourth suggested that that wasn’t actually such a bad development. He wouldn’t have to feel guilty for leaving Bilbo to forever wonder why he stopped visiting, and now his Hobbit and his brothers could get to know each other, and Nori could tell all the stories he had to leave out before because it didn’t matter anymore. There was also the fact that he now would be able to spend a lot of time with his Hobbit, or at least as long as it took for the Throneless One to get them all killed.

 

And then there was one voice that used very clear and unmistakable words to finally throw the wizard out, and uninvited him from ever entering Bag End again. That voice sounded very much like Bilbo, and then it offered Dori and Ori the best guest room with much an apology that their first meeting had gone so horribly wrong and he hoped they could start again over breakfast, and ...

 

“Yes, oh Throneless One, breakfast. You can leave at daybreak with that batty wizard for all I care, but you’ve worn my Dwarf down to the bone, and I will not stand to see him go on like that, which, by the way, should be your job as well. You are the leader of this suicide mission, you can’t just decide whom to take care of and whom to ignore. But, hey, I’m just the little grocer-Halfling who fed and housed your kin, and has yet to murder them for the atrocious insults they offered against me and mine. Leave the contract on the table, and do be silent when you hash out who sleeps where or you will join the wizard outside!”

 

It spoke volumes about his exhaustion that Nori didn’t realise he had really heard Bilbo sorting out their `guests´ until finally, finally he sunk into a soft bed and soon had his cuddly Hobbit wiggle in as well and wrap around him as good as he could.

 

“I’m sorry, melekûnuh. For everything.”

 

“None of this is your fault. Now sleep. You’re safe here, and I’d really like my Nori back.”

Chapter Text


 

Dwalin was a guard; he had hunted criminals most of his adult life, prided himself on being able to recognise most of them on sight, but Bilbo Baggins was definitely not one. Nori was a criminal, but not the Half- Hobbit, which was why this whole matter caused him such a headache.

 

The Thief was, as far as he knew, one of a kind, and most certainly Dwalin’s favourite criminal if there was such a thing. Sure, he was a pain in the arse, always running just out of reach – he could swear often enough the other hadn’t actually done anything and just wanted to the attention – but Nori had principles if one believed it. At least he claimed he had, the few times they had managed to catch him, and they had never found evidence of him doing anything that wasn’t, strictly speaking, forgivable. He stole only from those that could afford it (or deserved it, preferably both), avoided unnecessary injuries and causalities on all sides, and either saved children that need saving or tipped off the guards.

 

It was questionable how much of that was true, of course, but for all his faults, Nori was a good Dwarf in his own way. Dwalin could admit as much and hadn’t actually believed for a second the other had wanted to harm the lads (they might be of age, but, damn if anyone thought of them as such). The evidence, however, had sadly been rather fishy, and standing before court and declaring ‘that one’s an annoying, notorious thief, and always will be, but not an assassin´ hadn’t seemed like a good way to keep his own head attached to his shoulders, never mind that Thorin had been in a horrible mood, understandable as it had been.

 

The Hobbit had made it look easy, as if there was nothing wrong with being associated with a known criminal, so the real question was: what by Mahâl’s mighty hammer had the Thief done to earn such fierce loyalty, that such a soft, little thing would fearlessly attack Dwalin of all people, badmouth a wizard, and scold Thorin for all to hear? Never mind that the guard was still quite scandalised about what Mister Baggins had implied and flat out accused.

 

It took stones to even attempt for any of these things, but all of it in such short order?

 

Who knew, in the end having that one along might even prove useful, even if not for the original purpose. Still, Dwalin would keep an eye on the Thief and the burglar. After all, his main job was having Thorin’s back and making sure the lads survived. He couldn’t let the personal quirks of the Company distract him from that

 

*~*~*

 

This could be dangerous. Not the Hobbit, no. That one had fire, sure, and Balin would not underestimate Mister Baggins a second time, but a divided house was a house in ruins. Yes, he was not happy about the quest as a whole, and very doubtful of the few following them, but they should have at least been a company, one company. Now there would be Mister Nori and Mister Baggins, loyal only to each other and the former’s brothers, on one side, said brothers in the middle, and everyone else on the other side if they were lucky.

 

If the burglar and the thief managed to convince Mister Dori and Ori to abandon the quest, they technically had no right to stop them. Contract bound they might be, but a contract made under force was null and void, and they had forced Mister Nori, there were no two ways about it, and calling Mister Dori’s signing voluntarily would also be stretching the truth quite thin. As immediate family, the brothers could demand recompense, and considering how little they all had to offer, having their contracts dissolved would be a reasonable demand, and Mister Baggins had yet to sign anything, never mind that as a non-Dwarf he had the right to step back from the contract anytime he pleased either way. And why should the Hobbit stay if not for the thief? None of them had done anything to endear themselves to Mister Baggins so far; quite the contrary.

 

The wizard’s manipulation certainly had been the worst offence this evening, as it had led to several of the other missteps, but that was a weak excuse, and, in all honesty, he knew Thorin had been taught better. Despite how very frustrating the meeting with the other clans had gone, letting it out on their host had been absolutely disrespectful. Even if Tharkûn’s words would have turned out true, the Hobbit would have deserved better treatment than that, and now Mister Baggins shamed them by agreeing to feed them and house them for the night despite his more than justified misgivings. True, not all the points that had been made had been deserved, but the tongue-lashing Thorin had received had been, very much so in fact.

 

Well, it seemed as if Balin had his work cut out for him.

 

*~*~*

 

Fíli and Kíli shared horrified glances. They already owed Master Nori their lives – and it hadn’t taken their mother to point that out, thank you very much. They had actually been there and seen Master Nori keep their would-be assassin from reaching them first-hand – and had thought of how to make it up to him, especially as their uncle insisted on making everything worse.

 

It wasn’t a grand plan, but considering what little they had to work with, they had figured being a puffer between uncle and Dwalin, and Master Nori, and watching out for Ori would be a good start. Ori might be older than them but obviously had had only minimal training with weapons and no experience what so ever on the road, and didn’t him and Master Nori being brothers explain quite a lot? But now Master Baggins was part of that mess, and how were they supposed to account for that?

 

The Hobbit was dear to Master Nori, so protecting him as well would work in their favour ... only that Master Baggins was obviously very able to defend himself (and Master Nori), and they had managed to get on his bad side. Unintentionally, of course, but that hardly changed anything about the problem at hand.

 

And then there was the fact that they were honestly scared of Master Baggins because the Hobbit had The Pan and swung it as their mother did her rolling pin (or axe, depending on the occasion), and they knew no one else who would dare to talk to Uncle Thorin like that.

 

Repay a life-debt to Master Nori, and make Master Baggins like them enough to not kill them without uncle or Dwalin getting overly upset about it ...

 

“I want‘amad!”

 

*~*~*

 

Thorin hated to be wrong for several reasons, and he liked to believe his own pride was the least of them. When he made mistakes, people died, a lot of people, most likely those he held dearest among the first, so he let few close and made sure to not make mistakes.

 

Blessed be Mahâl, underestimating the Hobbit had not cost any lives (yet), but having trusted the wizard might in the future. Thorin had been promised a burglar, and while it did make sense that Smaug would not know the scent of a Hobbit, Mister Baggins was definitely not a burglar. He might survive longer than anticipated at first glance, and might not turn tail at the first sign of trouble – out of loyalty to the thief of all things, though that was another field of bad rock – but ultimately he was a burden.

 

A very presumptuous burden at that, talking about things he didn’t know the first thing about. Of course Thorin knew he couldn’t pick one of his Company over the other, and he neither planned to in the future nor had he done so in the past. He had been away for the most time, trying to get more help from kin and kith, to begin with, and how dare that pompous little man to accuse him of following only the call of the gold? Mister Baggins sat here, safe and well-fed, without a care in the world, while Thorin’s people were starving and freezing. It wasn’t as bad anymore as it once was, but not good either, so what right had Mister Baggins to question him?

 

Screw the portents and whatever reasons Tharkûn had for approaching him now at all times with `help´ (170 years since Smaug, 140 since Azanulbizar, almost 100 since his father vanished, and now the damn wizard offered help?!). His people were getting by, somehow, but every year their numbers dwindled, shunned, and forever unwanted mouths to feed and hands to put to work, and that didn’t even account for the increase in Orc-activity. They needed a mountain of their own, they needed Azsâlulabad, and, yes, its wealth because that wealth would provide them with what was needed for their survival. If the only help he got were a wizard with dubious motives, a thief, and a Hobbit with dubious loyalties, and the rag-tag group of misfits with dubious states of sanity, then he would make it work. He had to. There simply was no other choice.

 

*~*~*

 

Sneaking into the study and finding a library attached would have been quite enough to endear Master Baggins to Ori, but the Hobbit also took care of Nori, effectively. Dori had often enough tried, which usually ended in a row between his older brothers and Nori leaving for a while, but somehow Master Baggins managed it. To know Nori had spent at least part of the time away from them well taken care of was a great relieve, even if it didn’t make the parting itself less painful.

 

It helped that he knew without a doubt that Nori didn’t leave them and then just spend his time away only with the Hobbit. He had had long talks with his middle brother about things Dori would never approve them talking about, and while some of them were clearly exaggerated, the important ones about dangers, the origins of his scars (well, some. Most caused Nori to give him a look that made Ori change the topic voluntarily) were true and recent.

 

Also, the precautions Nori took to keep them safe left no room to question that he loved his craft, but loved his brothers more.

 

Ori’s middle brother was a thief and wandered a lot, and if he stopped on his way home with someone so obviously invested in his well-being, Ori could be happy about it and look forward to getting to know more about Master Baggins than just his courage and sharp tongue. There was only one thing that bothered him: why did everyone insist he had been tricked into joining the quest when he had all but begged to be taken along?

 

*~*~*

 

He had failed, and not for the first time.

 

Dori had cared for his brother since the day he had been born. After their mother, he had been the first to hold Nori, had witnessed his first steps, had been his first word. Hardly more than a toddler himself he had changed his fair share of nappies, fed him, clothed him, rocked him to sleep, played with and run after the notoriously restless child, and defended him against bullies of all ages and social standings. His brother was not to blame for his honourless father, and Dori had loved him twice as fierce for knowing himself what it was like to grow up with only one parent.

 

Maybe that had been his greatest mistake; trying to be a parent instead of a brother.

 

At first, he had thought it was losing their mother. It should have been easier with Ori. She would have taken care of the baby, Dori would have taken care of the family, and Nori could have been an older brother. Instead, they had been orphans, Dori barely of age and Nori still too young to take care of himself, much less a baby.

 

`Overbearing´ and `smothering´ Nori had called him more than once, but `Dori´ had been his first word, accompanied with a laugh and grabby hands in his direction, so Kori’s oldest had thought he must have done something right and tried to raise Ori the same way while he continued raising Nori, but it hadn’t worked. Things had started to slip away from him, and he remembered being devastated when Nori stopped being a child in favour of helping every way he could, and the guilt about how very relieved he had been that time never really lessened.

 

Then Nori started lying and bringing home money although he was too young for honest work, for safe work. Nori had argued that he had found his craft, and that it may not be something he could ever boast about on the streets, but a craft nonetheless, and they needed what Nori could bring home; Ori needed it, and Dori had counted his coins, looked at their threadbare clothes, hollow cheeks, and failed to give his beloved nadadith a better alternative.

 

Some things had gotten better after a while, others worse. They didn’t fight hunger anymore, and Ori had a proper apprenticeship, but Nori was gone for months at a time, had scars and knives in abundance, loose morals, and a predator’s grin. Still, even in that Dori could count his blessings. His middle brother came home when he could, and was Ori a better brother during his visits than Dori had been a father to either of them, and Nori could take care of himself ... except that wasn’t the whole truth, was it? Because his brother had the Hobbit who took care of him, whom Nori let take care of him, and who did a better job at it than Dori because Kori’s eldest had hardly noticed in his worry about Ori how very pale and thin Nori had become over the last few months.

 

If Ori hadn’t signed up for the quest, he would have never ... if Dori hadn’t failed so spectacularly, sweet little Ori, for whom both his brothers would do anything, wouldn’t have signed up for a suicide quest. Dori would have rather never known about Master Baggins, his overflowing pantry, splendid guest rooms, and honest care, than watch his youngest brother march to his death and his middle brother despair about not being able to prevent it.

 

*~*~*

 

Bofur and Glóin shared a meaningful look. They didn’t have much in common, almost nothing except for each a brother already sleeping next to them, and, obviously, an odd amusement about their current predicament with a thief mad with exhaustion and a Hobbit ... well, a Hobbit so done with everything and everyone not said thief to singlehandedly beat Tharkûn in a hasty retreat and make Dwalin and Thorin back down.

 

“At least we won’t have to worry about the quest becoming boring.”

 

At the fire, Bifur grunted his affirmation, and continued to whittle. He didn’t expect to interact with the melekûn all that much either way, so why bother?

 

*~*~*

 

Olórin sat by the road and regretted.

Chapter Text


 

Adult Hobbits preparing breakfast with their children watching or helping was a daily occurrence in the Shire, mostly depending on how old the children and how young the day was. Doing so in a kitchen not their own wasn’t quite so ordinary, but nothing to cause any sort of reaction either. Family tended to stay over every now and then, and some woke earlier than others; that was just the way things were.

 

The ting was, these particular people weren’t family by the reckoning of most inhabitants of Hobbiton, and thus it had caused quite some tongue-wagging when the rough looking Dwarf with the dangerous smile continued to first just visit and then share the bed of well-situated Bilbo Baggins, and certainly not because of limited options on either side. Not that either had ever seen a reason to deny it to begin with or make a secret of it when the Master of Bag End began treating Hobson Gamgee, his gardener and the most common of all common Hobbits, and his family like kin.

 

There had been a very short time when especially cruel tongues suggested that either the reason or the result of that behaviour was that the Gamgee-faunts had not all been sired by Hobson, but the rumour had died down very fast for three reasons: all four children resembled only Hobson and his wife, and were entirely hobbity in appearance; secondly was Miss Daisy Gamgee in possession of a rolling pin of solid oak, which she didn’t use exclusively for baking; and last but not least was everyone repeating aforementioned rumours in danger of finding themselves haunted by a most particular spirit, who rearranged their furniture and belongings over night without waking anyone. Those hauntings seemed to coincidence with a certain Dwarf reappearing in Bag End, but if anyone thought to link the two events together, they knew by then to mind their own business where Mad Baggins was concerned.

 

So, no, for the citizens of the Shire there was absolutely nothing noteworthy (anymore) about the Gamgees preparing breakfast in Bag End with their children calling Master Baggins and his Dwarf their uncles without hesitation.

 

For the Dwarrow not known to belong into Bag End, it was a shock.

 

There was Nori, sitting more asleep than awake at the large kitchen table. To those knowing him, that was not as surprising as one would believe. When the thief felt safe enough to allow himself the luxury, he could sleep like the dead until well after high noon, but of course most didn’t know that. They also didn’t know what to make of the tiniest child they had ever seen sitting on the thief’s lap, happily munching on toast, while two slightly larger though still very small children leaned against Nori, one on each side, eyeing the strangers slowly piling into their uncles’ kitchen with curiosity, while a fourth, nearly large enough to not seem worryingly small, stared at them downright hostile, which matched with the frowns of the two adult Hobbits preparing breakfast.

 

The scene was so odd, Bilbo standing behind Nori, combing and braiding his hair with the ease of practice, escaped their notice at first, and then seemed logical enough considering the happenings of the last night. Of course the Hobbit was braiding Nori’s hair. For who knew how many years already the thief must have stopped in this very burrow every time he had been in and out of Gabilgatholnur. That was long enough even for casual lovers to reach that level of intimacy.

 

“So, these are the Dwarrow that upset you so,” Daisy said, and many eyes snapped to the rolling pin in her hands. They might have underestimated Bilbo and his frying pan, but an angry woman, an angry mother, was a very well-known threat. After all, for decades Dís and Frigga had done what they deemed necessary to keep the men of Durin’s Line alive, and recently they had found a willing and able ally in Hildr.

 

Obviously, they had been very lucky that only one Hobbit had been at home last night.

 

“We’re terribly sorry, Mistress Baggins.”

 

“It was a misunderstanding.”

 

“And all Tharkûn’s fault anyway.”

 

At Fíli and Kíli’s rambling Daisy grew completely still except for a single eyebrow rising higher and higher. With a panicked `meep´ the brothers drove behind Bofur, as they knew from experience that their uncle and Dwalin would sell them out to Dís without hesitation, and there was a frightening resemblance between their mother and the Hobbit in everything but looks, but Bofur was nice and kind, and would protect them from hobbity wrath, right?

 

“Oh, for the love of ... these are Hobson and Daisy Gamgee, dear friends and neighbours of ours, and their children, Andy, Hamfast, May, and Halfast. Now stop being ridiculous, and get out. Breakfast will be served in the parlour when it’s ready,” Bilbo snapped, keeping the `if we feel like it´ to himself. Naturally, he wasn’t feeling like it at all, but they would still see them fed. It was a matter of principles.

 

“We meant to head out at first light.”

 

“You will not leave this smial without a proper breakfast,” Daisy declared with finality, and with many a `yes, ma’am´ the Dwarrow fled the room. Little May watched them go in wonder.

 

“Can I do that, too?”

 

“What? Scare a baker’s dozen of unruly men into retreat? In time, my dear, in time.”

 

Hopson and Bilbo exchanged wary looks, then the latter concentrated back on the task at hand. Some would say he had `wasted´ the last half hour trying to recreate the three peaks Nori had worn his hair in when he had arrived last night, but he found the task itself very calming ... except for the frustration of failing time and again.

 

“Oh, confound it all. Daisy, you don’t happen to ...”

 

“Not at all. Why don’t you just braid it in the usual way? He can fix it himself when he is awake.”

 

“Might as well,” Bilbo sighed, and in virtually no time he had three three-strand braids running over Nori’s head, laying the ends into a single three strand braid down his back. In the meantime, Daisy put a large mug with the strongest tea this side of the Misty Mountains in front of the Dwarf and watched amused as Nori slowly gained consciousness with every sip.

 

Knowing his Dwarf would be safe and well taken care of with his friends for now, Bilbo finally had to admit delaying the unavoidable any further was no longer possible and went to his study to pen out the carefully worded letters he had been composing in his head all morning. He definitely needed to write one to his cousin Fortinbras. As Thain, he had the power to ensure Hobson and Daisy would not have any problem taking over Bilbo’s duties and the care for Bag End while Bilbo was absent. Sending similar a letter to the Major and ... who would be head of the Bagginses with him gone anyway?

 

Huffing frustrated Bilbo retrieved the tome with family trees from the library. He would need to leave a will either way, as there was no way this quest would not end in blood and tears, so he might as well make sure his succession was properly taken care of.

 

“Let’s see ... technically Uncle Longo would be next, but he’s not the youngest anymore, and knowing him he would probably rather not do it either way. Same goes for Uncle Bingo, which means ... nope. No, absolutely not. Only over my cold dead ... yes, well, Lobelia would certainly appreciate that, but Otho would be a bad idea even without that engagement. Ah, but how do I argue that without causing an uproar?”

 

Tapping at the paper with a deep frown, Bilbo contemplated his options. Decisions like this should be made with careful consideration, but with what little time he had ... his finger landed on Camellia Baggins and stopped, before browsing the pages with haste.

 

“Aha!”

 

Camellia Baggins, neé Sackville, only had one sister, who in turn only had daughters so far, which made Otho the only male in the family that old Master Sackville could give the title as Head of the Family, too. Not that his daughters and granddaughters were unsuited for the task – in fact, Bilbo had it on good notion that they would be an excellent choice – but old Master Sackville was ... not entirely right in the head anymore, and had never quite gotten over his wife and only son dying during Fell Winter. Claiming unwillingness to cause the Sackvilles in general and especially old Master Sackville unnecessary trouble should suffice, but who then should take Bilbo’s place?

 

Going back to his own family tree the Hobbit followed the lines up and down and stopped at one Drogo Baggins.

 

“Distant cousin, but a Baggins all the same,” the Hobbit mumbled to himself, trying to remember the lad belonging to the name from the last family gathering. “Good lad, decent head on his shoulders, very mature for his age ... and not of age until the end of the year. Ibzag! Who would have thought the whole drama with `old enough, but not of age´ would ever come back to bite me again? Ach, where is that blasted map?”

 

The ledger with his maps was found soon, and Bilbo poured over possible roads to the east. In theory (and in the very unlikely case they survived the Dragon or the less unlikely case the Throneless One changed his mind) it should be possible to make the way to Azsâlulabad and back again within two years. The position of Head of the House (and Bilbo still knew those rules well enough to not have to consult any book over the matter) could be held by the Thain for three years if necessary, and two years should be enough for Drogo to get used to the idea and celebrate his 33rd birthday in peace. A pity Bilbo would miss that party.

 

“And pity I have to spring it on him so, but it can’t be helped. I should write down that Hobson is to keep his job and home under all circumstances. I’d leave them Bag End, title, name, and all if I could get away with it, though they would not thank me for the trouble. Ah, now where do I get a notary at this hour of the day?”

 

“A notary?”

 

“It’s very impolite to sneak up and eavesdrop on people, Master Dori (left aside that it’s impossible with boots like that). And, yes, a notary, to verify my will and other documents. The Throneless One seems unable to understand, but I only learned about this entire quest last night, and need to put my affairs in order before we leave. Wouldn’t want to return and find everything in a mess, never mind that we will all die by Dragon-fire if not sooner, but better safe than sorry. Good grief, I haven’t even packed anything yet. Master Dori, I’m terribly sorry, I’d really like to chat with you, but I have a feeling that should be done with both of us able to give it our full attention, and right now I really can’t do that unless you can convince his royal grumpiness to delay this madness for another day or two, or better yet, call the whole thing off.”

 

Dori hesitated at the door, chewing on his bottom lip. Looking up Bilbo noticed that he very much resembled Nori in doing so, but the answer was still surprising and not just because of the offer itself.

 

“I suppose I could buy you an hour or two if we lose the ponies for a while. We can’t ride without them after all.”

 

“Oh, that would actually help me quite a lot. Thank- wait. Riding?!”

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

“Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?” Daisy asked gravely, her grip strong on Bilbo’s arm and stronger still on Nori’s; not out of favouritism, but simply because they knew Nori was much stronger, and the Dwarf was also the one usually leaving and always towards some kind of danger on top of it. Daisy was and had always been the talkative one in that marriage, and for all her laughter and calling Nori protective and Bilbo possessive, she certainly matched them in both. Hopson was the same, only with fewer words. Out loud the gardener only said he would take the greatest care of Bag End and especially the tomatoes, but his eyes communicated well enough that he would without hesitation take a shovel to any head if it would help. It wasn’t very hobbity; actually, they were almost dwarven in their mannerism, but none of them minded. Their friendship was worth being considered odd on in its own right, and hobbity mannerisms weren’t designed to send close friends off on a suicide quest.

 

“I’m absolutely sure this is the stupidest idea in the history of stupid ideas, ponies notwithstanding, and we should absolutely not go, but we’ll do it anyway. Contract bound, honour bound ...”

 

“We’ll write if we can,” Nori assured, though it wasn’t actually reassuring at all.

 

“That’s an awful lot of ifs,” Andy groused, looking almost like a little scowling Thorin, but only almost, thank the Valar. One of that sort was bad enough. “But better than broken promises, I suppose.”

 

Staring at the faunt both Bilbo and Nori missed that they wore the same pained expression at the reminder of all the promises and words unspoken between them. They also missed the knowing look exchanged between Daisy and Hopson about the same thing.

 

“Did you pack everything?”

 

“Everything that can’t be replaced on the way,” Bilbo agreed with conviction. A steady stream of food had kept the Dwarrow distracted for a while, and Dori had indeed managed to buy them an additional two hours with the ponies, which had meant ample time for Bilbo to wake a notary and get Nori’s help with packing. A dangerous quest across half the world was after all quite different from a trip to Bree or Mithlond, but fortunately, Bilbo had already prepared a lot for his initial quest for Khagolabbad to find out what was keeping his Dwarf so long. That they had made a big show of taking The Pan along had been petty, but the badly concealed wariness the other Dwarrow showed at that had been well worth it.

 

They hugged the faunts, and touched foreheads with Daisy and Hopson – a gesture so dwarven, Thorin, who had turned around to reprimand the thief and the burglar for delaying them yet again, clicked his jaw shut again and said nothing – before Nori helped Bilbo onto Oregano, adjusting the stirrups, and saddled up onto Tomato. The names had been May’s idea, and though she still had a lot of growing to do, one didn’t say `no´ to May Gamgee, even when she named Dwalin’s pony Buttercup and Thorin’s Muffin, as the Dwarrow had not seen the need to name the beasts or had forgotten to ask the previous owner.

 

“We’re ready, Master Oakenshield. Thank you for your indulgence,” Bilbo called out, managing to sound almost sincere. He was still miffed about the whole affair and constantly growling at the Dwarf-king, of course, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate the chance to say his goodbyes in peace.

 

“Then let’s head out.”

 

“Thorin?”

 

“What now?”

 

“Where is the wizard?”

 

The burglar and the thief made the mistake and met each other eyes. They couldn’t stop laughing for a long time.

Chapter Text


 

Ponies and additional company notwithstanding, the first (half) day of the journey went pretty much the same way as any other time Bilbo and Nori had gone hiking together. The Dwarf showed Bilbo how to ride without harming himself or Oregano, and the Hobbit, in turn, related what gossip Nori had missed out on, all the while riding as close to the Dwarf as he dared in order to keep Nori from falling down should he fall asleep.

 

That happened twice, and when they set up camp, the ginger thief was notable not awake. Bilbo set up their bedrolls at the edge of the camp and took over Nori’s duties without a word as he wasn’t given anything to do himself. The only reaction it earned them was a sneer from Thorin, though if that was because of Bilbo’s glare (and The Pan always within reach), or Dori’s matching one, or simply because the thief and the burglar were the outcasts of the company in general and not worth the effort, was anyone’s guess.

Bofur, in any case, was vocally grateful when he woke up to discover Nori, no longer the little spoon to Bilbo doing his damn best to curl around him, and finally nearing a state of adequately rested, had taken his place on third-watch and got Breakfast started. Bilbo took this as his cue to file Bofur under `approachable´ until he could learn more about their companions. This ragtag group was by far not high enough in their graces to warrant for Nori to be kind for kindness sake, so it had to mean something. For now, however, he was too busy trying to figure out just where the ever-loving pie the Throneless One was leading them, and what to do against his terribly arching back.

 

He put the thoughts aside for another time when later Nori had most of the company distracted with some story about the unique magic of the Shire that made most not-Hobbits get horribly lost. It was complete hogwash, of course. The only thing remotely magically in the Shire were secret fertiliser components and cake recipes; the big folks just couldn’t follow directions, but if they slept better blaming magic, who was he to deny them? Also, it gave him the perfect opportunity to approach his Dwarf’s older brother, who was trailing a bit behind.

 

“Master Dori? You wished to talk to me yesterday. I’m terribly sorry it slipped my mind so, but if you are amendable now? Only, I fear we will not have much more privacy than this for a while, and there is nothing in the Shire that would warrant our attention unless you wish to enjoy the landscape. I’d hate to keep you from doing so.”

 

“Yes, that ... now would be a good time, indeed,” the Dwarf replied, expression unreadable as he looked stubbornly ahead. “But it’s hard to find the words. For years now I watched my brother, thought he finally learned to take proper care of himself, hoped he might have taken up a respectable craft elsewhere. It hurt that he could not tell me, but I slept better believing it, only to find out nothing had changed at all. He just found someone else to care for him, and I can’t decide if I should resent you for that, or be grateful for the illusion while it lasted.”

 

Bilbo sacked in his saddle. What could he possibly say to that? For Hobbits, the whole concept of meeting the in-laws was more a formality than anything else, considering everyone knew everyone already. Sure, the couple in question could always meet disapproval anyway, but usually nothing so drastic it couldn’t be solved over a good meal or three. Left aside that Nori’s brothers weren’t really his in-laws and actually meeting them had not seemed like a possibility before either, Bilbo had actually expected trouble when he had entertained the idea of meeting them. The Hobbit had expected opposition for not being a Dwarf, to start with, or the resulting age-gap, the difference in their life-span, but that his existence itself would be a problem was a surprise. However, he wouldn’t let it discourage him either.

 

“Your brother is the best that ever happened to me,” Bilbo said because, in the end, that was what mattered the most. “I’m sorry if it caused you and Master Ori distress, but I can and will never regret letting Nori into my smial and my life, no matter what you or anyone else has to say about that.”

 

“I misspoke, Master Baggins, my apologies. I do not fault or begrudge you for what you share with my brother, and as it seems to make him happy, nothing could be further from my mind than discouraging you. I fault myself for not being a good enough brother for Nori to confide in.”

 

At that Bilbo frowned heavily. That Dori still refused to show any emotion or even look at the Hobbit wasn’t making the entire discussion any easier. Just why were Dwarrow so difficult?

 

“Funny. Aside from the few frustrations every brother experiences (or so I’m told), Nori certainly only sang praise on you and Master Ori.”

 

“And yet, even if he told Ori, neither ever mentioned you to me.”

 

Ah. So that was the fly in the soup.

 

“Master Dori, in the past twenty-two years, Nori has never given me a reason to think of him as anything but protective and caring, and who would know better about those things than a Hobbit?” Bilbo relayed calmly. “I found it’s in the very nature of my kin to care; for the earth, plants, and especially the people we love. That’s why our hills are green and our families large. I was always an oddity, only child of a respectable Baggins and an anything-but-respectable Took. They died before I came of age, and I would have been cared for by family one way or the other, but very lonely indeed, no doubt becoming even odder with time. You probably haven’t heard about it, but the people here call me `Mad Bilbo Baggins´. I’m the one who beds a Dwarf, wanders too far, laughs too loud, and treats his gardener like closest family because he is the best friend anyone could wish for, social standing be damned, while he has the nerve to throw unwanted visitors out, no matter how closely related. And all that thanks to your brother’s influence. And that is a good thing. Yes, Nori has his flaws. He’s rather crude, got a mean streak or two, and I hate it when he has to leave and can’t say when or if he will return, but the measures he takes to make sure work doesn’t follow him home ... Did you know, last night was the first time I heard your names, and Nori would have kept your existence from me if he wouldn’t have slipped on our first meeting? It seems silly sometimes, but then I see his scars and remember the stories, especially the ones he refuses to tell. I’m by no means helpless, for a Hobbit, and if I had to, I would deal with whatever the world could throw at me to keep my Dwarf hale and hearty, but I’m immensely grateful Nori is so very careful to make sure I will never have to find out if I really could. He is a thief, yes; the best, he says, and he loves his craft, but he loves his family more. Being left in the dark about certain things always seemed like a ridiculously low price to pay for that.”

 

That certainly got Dori’s attention, but this time it was Bilbo who refused to meet his eyes, so he did not see when realisation hit the Dwarf like Mahâl’s hammer. Of course. A Dwarf with brothers in Khagolabbad, even Gabilgatholnur, was a too general description for anyone to identify a specific person, but the lover of a Dwarf in the Shire ... no wonder his middle brother so seldom actually talked about what he did or where he went when not at home.

 

“And about Nori’s ability to care for himself,” Bilbo added as an afterthought. “I’m convinced he manages just fine most of the time. I’m not saying he doesn’t get hurt or is reckless, and sometimes downright stupid, but he tries, and except for that one time he insisted to travel with a stab wound that hadn’t been properly treated yet, the worst I saw on him were some scrapes and bruises. Well, and of course the one time he was being an idiot and trudged around in the rain. He is not very pleasant to be around when sick, as you surely know, but I’d not call a common cold life-threatening.”

 

“You forget, melekûnuh,” Nori butted in with a sly smirk and made Bilbo and Dori almost jump off their ponies in fright. Eru alone knew how the thief had managed to sneak up on them like this. “If I hadn’t been trudging around in the rain and become sick in the process, we would have never met.”

 

“And I never stopped thanking Ulmo for that particular deluge.”

 

“And I’m grateful the Shire wasn’t in a mood for drowned Dwarf on Bagshot Row. Should I be worried about you two getting along?”

 

“Just making the best of what time we have before being turned into Dragon flambé, dear.”

 

“Not if I can prevent it, you won’t. The Dragon part I mean. I don’t know how yet, but I’ll find a way out of it.”

 

“Of course we will, dear,” the Hobbit agreed with a smile, and Dori excused himself, riding ahead again. Nori frowned.

 

“And there I went and disappointed him again. Great.”

 

“I don’t think that’s the problem here. When we set up camp, maybe you should have a long talk with your brothers about crafts and safety-measurements.”

 

Huffing the ginger thief shook his head.

 

“Did that before; can’t see what that is supposed to change now, but if you believe it might help, I’ll consider it. Not today, though. I had months with my brothers (kind of); I’d like to spend some time with my Hobbit now.”

 

As much as the Hobbit agreed with that notion, they didn’t get far. That wasn’t much of a surprise; the river, however, was, and that in a threefold negative way. Firstly, of course, it was a river, an actual river, as in `deep enough to drown in and fast enough to make it likely´. Secondly, there was no such river in the whole Shire, except for the Brandywine, and this was not the Brandywine, so where in the name of the good green earth were they? Still, in the Shire, that much Bilbo could feel it in the earth under his soles, but that was only a small comfort considering the way Nori was looking from the trees to the river to the sun, and seemed just as confused as Bilbo felt. If Thorin hadn’t intended to take the direct way to Bree, which was the only sensible destination no matter where they planned to cross the Misty Mountains, then why had he been so determined to leave so fast?

 

The third and most important negative surprise, at least where it concerned the Hobbit, was that Thorin looked left, then right, and decided they would cross the river right where they were.

 

Naturally, Bilbo lost all colour, toes buried deep in the earth, and trying to distract himself by petting Oregano. It wasn’t so bad, he told himself. Up on the pony, he would even stay dry, only that the Hobbit hadn’t considered a Dwarfling noticing his discomfort and drawing the worst of all wrong conclusions.

 

It wasn’t out of malice, of course. Kíli honestly believed including Bilbo in a few shenanigans would help to make him feel more included in the groups general, and for an outsider it would certainly seem ridiculous that the short man put up such a fuss because of a bit water, but all thoughts of a good laugh left his mind when the younger prince discovered a knife at his throat and was firmly instructed to `Put the nice Hobbit down on his feet far away from the water. Please and thank you´.

 

Thorin, Dwalin, and Fíli drew their swords and axes respectively, but Nori hadn’t survived so long just because he first had a brother (he had always tried to not let Ori see him brought low, so he had only ever gone to Dori), then a brother and a Hobbit he could crawl back to in order to get stitched back together. Not that there had been any crawling or stitches involved, ever, but the point was that he knew perfectly well how to survive in hostile surroundings.

 

The moment Bilbo was put down on solid ground – ground, not feet. The smaller’s knees wobbled dangerously – Nori pushed Kíli, unharmed, into his relatives, and in the same motion shouldered Bilbo, took Tomato’s and Oregano’s reins, and waded through the river. On the other shore, the thief let the ponies go – they were smart animals and loyal, and wouldn’t wander far from the Hobbit sneaking them apples at every second opportunity – and carried Bilbo like a sack of potatoes a good part further under the shade of a tree.

 

“Alright, melekûnuh?”

 

The Hobbit nodded stiffly, still pale and shaky, then buried his toes in the earth and his face in Nori’s chest where they sat, breathing heavy and irregular.

 

“I hate rivers.”

 

“As every sensible person should.”

 

“Who needs them anyway? What’s wrong with a nice little creek? They got fishes and freshwater aplenty, and you can’t drown in them unless you’re fucking stupid!”

 

“Stones for brains, the lot of them.”

 

“Only one with any sense in that family is Lady Dís.”

 

“Pity she didn’t manage to pass down at least a bit of that,” Nori agreed because in this state it was definitely better to just hold Bilbo and agree to everything he said. Pointing out that all the Hobbit knew about Lady Dís was Nori heaping praise on her ability to keep her male relatives in line, wouldn’t help.

 

“Must come from their father as well.”

 

“Never met Víli, but he picked Dís, so there must have been some smarts in him. Lads got the worst from both sides.”

 

“I know I’m the expendable one, but they could at least have the curtsey to choose a more pleasant death than drowning!”

 

“You’re not expendable, and I’ve got 23 reasons for everyone to never disagree with me.”

 

Twenty-three reasons, indeed. One: Nori knew he could never let Bilbo go, even though he should. Two: the weight of a stolen silver spoon in his breast pocket next to the key to Bag End’s back door. Three: even if either of the first two for some reason fell away, he would not watch someone drown (even by accident, as he would not accuse Kíli of deliberately trying to harm his Hobbit), and a total of twenty knives, poisoned needles, darts, daggers, throwing axes, and other assorted weapons. That, of course, were only the weapons he expected to be found, but the point was that the thief would use them all to protect his Hobbit.

 

Maybe he should have that talk with his brothers sooner rather than later after all. In between the despair about their general situation, he had been relieved to know he would have Bilbo’s support in keeping his brothers safe from the Dragon, but now it seemed he would need said brothers to keep his Hobbit safe from their comrades; Mahâl help them all.

 

“And I hate that I can’t act on how very much I appreciate that you can haul me around like that.”

 

Now that was a turn for the better after Nori’s liking. Amorous Hobbit in his lap, kissing the tip of his nose, was possibly the best thing ever since a certain Hobbit’s coming of age ... but his trousers were soaking wet in all the wrong ways, there were people all around them, and Nori didn’t have the slightest idea where they were, geographically, or where to find some privacy ... Lady Dís would understand if he made her queen with only one heir and no spare, right?

 

“Do I have to worry you will run away with one of my brothers? They could have carried the ponies as well. Got ‘amad’s strength, both of them, I just her nimble fingers.”

 

“Don’t worry. I like nimble fingers, and I prefer my Dwarrow prickly.”

 

He didn’t, actually. Bilbo didn’t care a lick about Dwarrow or prickly or strength or on which side of legality they stood; he just cared about Nori, and the thief knew it. If it weren’t for his ‘agalhaz sanâzyung ...

 

At least the Hobbit had calmed down again, which in turn helped to keep Nori from attacking Kíli when the younger approached again.

 

“Master Baggins? I’m sorry about before and interrupting. I ... it was all in good jest, I swear. I didn’t mean ...”

 

“In good jest?” the curly haired Hobbit snarled, not bothering to get up. “Would you like to be thrown off a cliff in good jest?”

 

“That’s hardly ...”

 

“It’s exactly the same from where I stand. Your jest could have drowned me!”

 

“I ... I didn’t think ...”

 

“That’s my point exactly: you didn’t think! Hobbits can’t swim; we hardly float. And, for future reference, we can’t fly either, and if cut with anything sharp or pointy, we bleed just like any other race, except for Dwarrow, of course. Everyone knows they are made of stone and thus can’t bleed. Oh, I know, let’s cut your throat, in good jest.”

 

When Nori tightened his hold this time, it was not for his own or Bilbo’s comfort. The Hobbit was vicious, yes, but not cruel, at last not like that. The scare must have been greater than he had thought.

 

And, damn it all, did it have to be Kíli? Nori didn’t mind having a soft spot or three for children, but it was very inconvenient at times, especially when his Hobbit’s life was or had been on the line.

 

All this drama, and they hadn’t even been on the road a full day yet. Mahâl give him strength! And he certainly wouldn’t say no to some patience and a non-lethal weapon against royals as well. Lady Dís would want to do any beheading of royalty herself when she heard about this. And she would; Maker, would she hear about this!

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

When they set up camp that night, Bilbo had mostly calmed down again, which had, in fact, a lot to with sharing Oregano with Nori for the remainder of the day, the Dwarf wrapped around him like a blanket, while his trousers and boots hung dripping from Tomato’s saddle. The great amount of pipe-weed Bilbo had smoked meanwhile hadn’t hurt either. He would have to buy more once they hit the next town; if they ever came across one. How anyone could navigate the Shire for one and a half days, on ponies to top it, without seeing a single settlement or Hobbit, Bilbo would never be able to understand.

 

Nori’s display of possessiveness also helped. The Hobbit was very fond of his independence and wouldn’t allow anyone to manage him, but now and then it was nice to see how very much Nori didn’t want to share him with anyone or anything. It was comforting when the thought that they could never be more than lovers became too much.

 

No, Bilbo didn’t mind a bit of reasonable possessiveness, and was, for the most part, amused when Nori put him down next to Bifur and told the other Dwarf to `watch my Hobbit´ while he went to talk with his brothers. The Dwarf with the axe in his head didn’t seem to find it quite as funny going by his growls and the hand signs accompanying it.

 

“He is that, but thanks for indulging him anyway.”

 

At that, the Dwarf turned his complaints against Bilbo.

 

“Hey now, that’s hardly fair. Ever heard of the saying `you reap what you sow´? Of course, I could be nicer, but they didn’t exactly give me a reason to try now, did they? And I still let you eat our food and stay the night in our home after all the mess. Demanding a minimum of respect and consideration in return doesn’t seem too much.”

 

More angry Khuzdûl followed, but Bilbo had it on good notion that the secret language of the Dwarrow always sounded that way to a stranger’s ears, so the Hobbit tried to only pay attention to the moving hands and not the accompanying words.

 

“Hold on, that isn’t fair. From the start, I told all of you that I didn’t know what was going, repeatedly, but you all choose to ignore me. Call me petty for it, but as long as no one here at least offers a semi-honest apology – Mister Balin doesn’t count. Everyone here is of age, so he can’t apologise on behalf of the entire company and expect me to just swallow it – I will be as difficult as I damn well please.”

 

“Well now, Master Baggins,” Bofur threw in with a friendly smile but an odd gleam in his eyes as he sat down on Bilbo’s free side. The smaller felt a wee bit uneasy bracketed in like that, but they were far away from water and Nori was just over there, having a tense, whispered argument with his brothers, so there was hardly a reason to worry.

 

“We’re Dwarrow. By our customs, we were very well-behaved.”

 

“I’m not talking about table manners, Mister Bofur. I’m well aware they differ among our people, and I assure you I don’t mind it even half as much as I should. What upsets me, is that you shouldered your way into another’s home; uninvited and in most cases without even an introduction. I’m willing to let that slip as well, since obviously all of us were tricked by a certain meddling wizard, but I doubt it’s considered polite to empty the entire pantry of one’s host without considering who else would need to survive on that and for how long, insults and dismissal of said host notwithstanding.”

 

“Now, no need to exaggerate so. There certainly was still plenty left for breakfast.”

 

“Not in my pantry, there wasn’t. I had onions, and a few odds and ends I kept in the second pantry that you no doubt would have cleared as well if you’d found it. Your breakfast has been donated by my neighbours, and I dare say you ate them out of house and home as well.”

 

The grip on his shoulders was sudden and painful, but Bofur’s eyes, wide and wild, kept the Hobbit from alarming Nori.

 

“The children will hunger?!”

 

“What? No, of course not! Are you insane? They are my best friends, for pities sake; closer than many of my blood relatives. As if I’d let them suffer for your mistakes, honestly!”

 

It had been but two days and Bilbo hadn’t really interacted much with any of the Dwarrow, so he didn’t quite know what to do when Bofur sacked against his shoulder in relief, muttering what sounded like prayers. It made Bilbo wonder just how much Nori had bent the truth when asked about how the colonies in Khagolabbad had weathered Fell Winter.

 

With all the flourish of a Dwarf with a purpose, Bofur then got up, took off his hat – the Hobbit couldn’t quite decide what was odder, Bofur without his ridiculous hat or that he thought the sight odd without even knowing the Dwarf to begin with – and bowed deep with a certain grace that didn’t even come close to what Bilbo had seen Nori pull off, but the thief only did it to show off and annoy people. This seemed entirely genuine.

 

“I’m sincerely sorry about the mess we made of your home and every insult inflicted, unintended as it had been. Bofur, son of Balfur, at your service, Master Baggins. And that’s my younger brother, Bombur.”

 

“At your service, Master Baggins. Terribly sorry as well,” the round Dwarf said, and also bowed as far as he could with his grit, which was surprisingly far. If they ever managed to reach a settlement with Hobbits again, Bombur certainly would be very popular. Hobbits, as a rule, loved everything that had to do with food, planting and cooking it to equal amounts, and very much appreciated someone who so obviously liked the results. Add to that his soft-spoken and shy demeanour, and Bombur would be swarmed. Bilbo was the odd one out among Hobbits, preferring his partners lean, and loud, and crude, and most importantly nori (yes, as in `lovely´, only `nori´. An adjective reserved for a single person), but he didn’t get a chance to dwell on it as Bifur bodily turned him around, and first patted his own, then Bilbo’s chest.

 

Achrâchi gabilul. Bifur Kífurul. Shamukh ra ghelekhur aimâ, ghelekhûn.

 

“If that is how you say `sorry´ in your language, you are most definitely excused from saying it,” the Hobbit deadpanned, taking care to meet Bifur’s eyes and smile. Aside from Dori and Ori these three had been the least offensive of the Company, and Nori obviously approved of them, so there was that. “I’d break my tongue just trying. Ah, manners. Bilbo Baggins, son of Bungo Baggins and Belladonna Took, at yours. And you are forgiven, of course. Truth be told, at this point I’m mostly upset on the principle of the matter.”

 

“Talking about principles, Master Baggins ... not sure how to ask that politely, do forgive me, but how can you understand our cousin?”

 

Confused Bilbo looked between the serious faces. What sort of questions was that? He did it like everyone else ... ah, right.

 

“Bifur’s hands, of course. A cousin of mine was born mute, so many of us learned sign language. It’s also very helpful with elder relatives.”

 

The sigh of relief that followed came from more than just the three Dwarrow surrounding Bilbo. Of course the others had listened in as well. They were at least as bad as Hobbits in that regard, but, seriously, Dwarrow and their secrets!

 

“Ah. Very kind of you. Surely your cousin appreciates it.”

 

“I’m sure she did, while she lived.”

 

For a moment, there was this dark desire to speak about how she had drowned. No one knew why she had snuck away, as she hadn’t been stupid by any length of imagination and had known there would be no screams to hear for anyone should something happen. Bilbo had found her bloated corpse days later, and today he had actually feared to end like that for some poor, innocent child to find more than the drowning itself. However, with time and distance between him and the river, Bilbo realised Kíli really couldn’t have known Hobbits couldn’t swim at all. Not that anyone here had bothered to try and learn more about Hobbits, but there was a difference between fear turning one cruel – looking back it surprised him as well – and deliberately hurting a misguided child. It wouldn’t even serve to teach Kíli a lesson, as grim tales were supposed to do, so he didn’t speak of the poor girl any further.

 

“Let’s just agree that it’s very convenient that our signs are similar enough that I can have something resembling a discussion with good Master Bifur here without having to learn your secret language,” Bilbo smiled instead. “Would be a pity to miss out on that, I’m sure.”

 

Later Bilbo would learn that what to him had been an awkward attempt at humour, had earned him a fierce one-armed hug from Bifur and joyous grins from the brothers because most assumed the axe had damaged more than just the Dwarf’s ability to talk Westron. It had, actually, though that didn’t mean he was stupid or any less coherent than the average Dwarf most of the time or stupid, but try to explain that to others.

 

Before Bilbo could ask, Nori flopped down in front of the Hobbit and buried his head in the smaller male’s lap.

 

“Dori is being mean, <melekûnuh. Make him stop.”

 

“Uhm, I’m not sure that is such a good idea. Sorry to say it, dear, but you are an expert at being annoying. Are you sure that has nothing to do with it?”

 

“Nori Korinul, move your hairy ass back here right now!”

 

Nori’s wide eyes were almost comical as he scrambled back to his elder brother. Bilbo shook his head with fond expiration, then got up and collected Nori’s and his bedrolls and packs, rearranging everything next to where Dori and Ori had put up their mats.

 

“Is this more acceptable, Master Dori?” Bilbo asked with his most disarming smile, and the Dwarf could only nod perplexed while the Hobbit roped Ori into a discussion about the merits of different knitting patterns. For years now Nori had helped him with his family related problems (and everything else, to be honest); it was about time he returned the favour.

 

“So, Korinul. Not a name I’ve heard before. Anything I should know about?”

Chapter Text


 

Standelf?! How in the name of Mahâl and the Green Mother did we end up Standelf?” Nori asked, wavering where he rode with Bilbo.

 

“I don’t have the foggiest,” the Hobbit hissed back, though he couldn’t prevent a note of horrified awe sneaking into his voice. They had been travelling for three and a half days, on ponies, best weather, and with no delays except for the river accident; they should have long since passed the Brandywine Bridge and been able to reach Bree before nightfall if they hurried a bit; instead, they were passing Standelf! That took skill, though a questionable one.

 

“We didn’t take the Bucklebury Ferry, nor crossed the Brandywine Bridge or the Deephallow Bridge, and that the other day was not the Brandywine. It isn’t that swallow, nowhere, not in the Shire, and we didn’t leave the Shire. I would have noticed.”

 

At least now they had a point of orientation again and could ... obviously not stay on the road because that would have been too easy, and while the sight of High Hay was rather unsettling in itself, even Thorin can’t-find-my-way-out-of-an-open-box Oakenshield couldn’t lose sight of that. Maybe they would finally get somewhere for a change.

 

Unfortunately, somewhere turned out to be the gate to The Old Forest at Crickhallow, and that was where Bilbo had to draw the line where ignoring the Throneless One and his idiocies were concerned.

 

“Master Oakenshield?”

 

“Mahâl’s beard, Halfling, we all heard your large bum suffers. Now lessen our suffering and be silent about it already!”

 

Bilbo huffed and fluffed up like an annoyed bird, though he would never tolerate such a comparison.

 

“The size of my behind is perfectly respectable and none of your business what so ever. And I’ll have you know I fell off a ladder the other day, so ...”

 

“You did what?” Nori asked, instantly alert. “Why didn’t you say something?”

 

“Oh, shush, you. It’s just some bruises where it’s most unfortunate, and you tried to keep much worse hidden from me. Either way, I merely wanted to point out that you are leading us straight into The Old Forest, and you do not want to do that.”

 

I lead this Company, so leading it I will wherever I want.”

 

“By all means, do! I don’t mind traipsing around the Shire in circles for weeks, but not into that forest. It doesn’t like trespassers.”

 

“They are trees, Halfling. What do I care about their dislikes? Keep up; we will not wait for you.”

 

“Not the trees, idiot, the Huorns!” Bilbo exclaimed, voice climbing a pitch or two. “Sentient trees! High Hay was planted for a reason, and it most definitely wasn’t squirrels.”

 

“I stand by my point.”

 

“You can’t do that!”

 

“Watch me!”

 

Faster than they would have given him credit for, Bilbo was out of the saddle and in front of their leader. Muffin stopped, sniffing the Hobbit in hope for treats and completely ignorant of Bilbo’s ire.

 

“Now listen here, you insufferable Dwarf: if you’re so insistent on getting yourself killed before even leaving Eriador, be my guest, but I refuse to let you do it on Hobbit-land!” he snapped, and Thorin’s expression was priceless, but he was not yet outdone.

 

“And how do you plan to stop me?”

 

Bilbo growled, and if Nori wouldn’t have been trying so hard not to laugh, he might have been sighing in adoration. Bofur had no such restraints, laughing so hard he was barely able to stay on Frosting. In the meantime, the Hobbit snatched the reins out of the Dwarf-king’s hands, doing the same with Dwalin and Oín. Chuckling Nori mirrored him with Ori, the still laughing Bofur, and a mighty confused Kíli. Between the two of them, they couldn’t lead all the ponies, but the other Dwarrow would no doubt follow their relatives, though the ginger Dwarf still made sure to catch his older brother’s eyes and motioned him to follow. Wouldn’t do to make him feel left out when they were just starting to properly patch things up between them.

 

“Ah, maybe you’re a burglar after all; burgling away the Company. Must be my bad influence.”

 

“Your influence has always been the best, and if at all, I’d be burgling some ponies, which is completely unnecessary, as they are a lot smarter than the Throneless One and would have never entered the forest anyway. Ignoring a Hobbit’s directions on their own land, the nerve!”

 

“I’m surprised, Master Baggins. Talking like that about a king can’t be very hobbity,” Nori teased, and Bilbo put his little button nose in the air.

 

“We have no kings in the Shire, and if this one is anything to go by, we are better off for it.”

 

“I can still hear you!” Thorin groused and would have no doubt tried to snatch the reigns back if he would not risk his fingers in doing so. It wasn’t only Tomato and Oregano anymore who favoured Bilbo over their own riders, and the beasts were very receptive of bribery.

 

“Funny that you mention it because I’m certain I have better hearing than you, and I don’t care for your constant slights against my person at all. If I’d wanted to be insulted and questioned at every turn, I could have just as well stayed in Hobbiton! Now shut up and let me lead the way. I’d much prefer to spend this night in an actual bed for a change since you are obviously in no hurry to get anywhere.”

 

Nori bumped against him, carefully of course. It wouldn’t do to spoil Bilbo’s victorious moment by sending him tumbling, after all.

 

“I hope you intend to share.”

 

“Of course. The pub in Newbury doesn’t have enough rooms for all of us anyway, never mind that I’d like to have some alone time with you sometime this century.”

 

Laughing the Dwarf tried to subtly hurry their steps, but one glance to his partner in everything but crime told him how very obvious he was, so the ginger thief rather put the reigns in his belt – the beasts were all too happy to follow him as long as it was away from The Old Forest anyway – and started to pack his pipe for him and Bilbo to share.

 

“Sure you don’t want me to go back and rob your neighbours blind? I’d even share the loot. Let’s see how respectable they are when they have to eat from the floor with their fingers.”

 

Call him a horrible sap, but the smile Bilbo sent Nori’s way was brighter than any stone could ever be, and for the thousandth time Nori wondered why he didn’t just give Bilbo the damn spoon already because he seriously doubted he could ever find anyone more perfect than his fussy, sassy Hobbit ... but he still chickened out. A One was a One, and Bilbo was Bilbo, and since Nori couldn’t make himself let go of either, the thought snuck up on him that maybe it was for the better they were on a suicide quest.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

After having listened to various complaints from a large part of the Company about the treatment all the way to Newbury, Bilbo had half a mind to tell Thorin to fuck off and sleep outside, and one look around showed that Nori and his brothers, Morgoth’s Spawns, Bofur, Bombur, and Bifur, and the barkeep would have gladly backed him up on that. Oín and Glóin also seemed ready to consider a revolt, but would ultimately side with their cousins, no matter how hare-brained it was to ride on for two more hours (no doubt to get lost again) and sleep on the ground instead of enjoying actual beds with dinner and breakfast.

 

At this point the Hobbit was tempted to believe this whole quest for Azsâlulabad was only to get rid of the most pig-headed, impractical king in history, but swallowed the words, turning instead to the unimpressed barkeep.

 

“Master Brownlock, I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience. I’ll take care of it; one moment, please. You. With me,” Bilbo growled and pulled Thorin and Balin to a table.

 

“Let’s not talk about the insanity that is going into The Old Forest, especially with night approaching. I’ll offer you a deal instead: you answer me one question, straight and honest, and I’ll bow to your will (figuratively). Fail, and we will do things my way until we’re past Bree. Is that acceptable for you?”

 

Thorin scowled but agreed, and Balin nodded as well, so the Hobbit spread out his map of the Shire and the surrounding parts of Eriador.

 

“Splendid. We can agree that we started in Bag End, that’s here, and were heading for Bree, over here,” Bilbo started, pointing out his beloved smial and the city of Men. “That’s about 150 miles of well-kept roads. We had good weather so far and good ponies, so we probably travelled 30 miles a day for three days and a half. That makes a total of 100 miles give or take. Earlier this day, we passed Standelf, here, then you tried to force your way through the Crickhallow Gate, here, and now we are in Newbury, here, though the last part of the journey doesn’t count considering I was the one leading you lot around. Two days ago, we crossed a river that was neither the Brandywine nor the Stockbrook, that’s these lines here, and we’ve not seen Woody End, the forest over here, even from afar, which brings me to the aforementioned question I want you to answer: how? How could we ride through the Shire for three and a half days and end up in Newbury without at least crossing the Brandywine? Explain it to me.”

 

The Dwarf-king straightened self-assured, leaned over the map, opened his mouth, finger raised to point out their route ... and audibly snapped his teeth shut again. This happened a few times, even after Balin joined in. Their frustration- and confusion-levels were rising like yeast-dough on a good day.

 

Not bothering to hide his self-satisfied smirk, Bilbo reminded them that he expected his maps back in the same condition they were in now. Then he ordered the necessary rooms, dinner, and early breakfast from Master Brownlock, who wasn’t happy at all but accepted the coin anyway.

 

“Oh, and my husband and I will take our dinner later in our room if it’s not too inconvenient.”

 

“Master Baggins, after what I’ve heard here, I am convinced my inconvenience is nothing compared to yours. Your key. I’ll knock loudly and repeatedly, and leave the tray at the door. If the cat gets it before you, I’ll not be held accountable.”

 

“Many thanks, Master Brownlock. We’ll try not to make too much of a mess.”

 

“No promises,” Nori threw in and started to drag Bilbo towards the stairs. “Except that riding tomorrow will be mighty uncomfortable.”

 

“For both of us,” the smaller agreed readily, and for a moment he felt pity for leaving poor Master Brownlock at the mercy of all those Dwarrow, but ...

 

“That’s not proper!”

 

“Seven months, Master Glóin, and you didn’t even have the courtesy to bring my Dwarf home in good condition. Propriety can go fuck itself; I’m otherwise engaged.”

 

Nori froze on the spot.

 

“You’re not supposed to wait on me,” the thief muttered, and Bilbo gave him a hard glare.

 

“So help me, if you intend to discuss that now, I will start talking about your freckles!”

 

Emerald eyes widened, and that was the last they spoke of the matter for that night.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

The next morning was quite busy. Word of strangers had travelled fast, especially in the Shire, and Brandybucks were particular enough to see their arrival as something good. Accordingly many locals were, purely by chance of course, waiting on them, and just as Bilbo had predicted, Bombur was very popular with the young lads and lassies. That the soft-spoken Dwarf turned out to be married already with enough kids to make him seem like an exceptional hairy Hobbit, hardly affected his popularity; the young and unmarried simply bullied him, gently, to join the cluster of young mothers and elderly matrons around Dori and Balin, while they joined the crowds around Fíli, Kíli, and Bofur. Glóin got into a competition with the husbands about whose children were the brightest, and Oín was in a heated discussion with a midwife and her apprentice about herbs and remedies. Even Thorin was surrounded, as the glowering, brooding type was obviously considered very attractive this season, and Dwalin and Bifur were overrun with faunts, who naturally thought the scariest of the group would be best suited to climb over, and braid flowers in their hair. They were, actually, but how the little ones could tell with just one glance was beyond anyone’s guess.

 

In the past, Nori had gotten the same attention, but the numerous marks covering his and Bilbo’s skin, and the satisfied air around them kept most attention (scandalised glares notwithstanding) elsewhere. Ori took advantage of that and fled the commotion under the pretens of showing the Hobbit how to convince Nori’s hair into the three peaks the Dwarrow of Khagolabbad were used to see him with.

 

“You were never supposed to wait on me,” Nori mumbled around the stem of his unlit pipe.

 

“I didn’t, but why settle for some mediocre substitute? You were patient for three years; I can handle a few months; doesn’t mean I have to like it, though.”

 

“Could you please not have that talk while I’m here?” Ori groaned, trying not to look at the red bruises and what might be teeth marks. He wasn’t nearly as innocent as Dori would like to believe, but that didn’t mean he wanted to know what his brothers got up to, litera- oh no! Now he had thought of it after all!

 

“S’cuse me, Mister Baggins, did your Dwarf have little Dwarves like my bunny?”

 

“Dwarrows,” Bilbo corrected automatically, then stared at the little faunt with a large bunny in his arms, and all but choked on a laugh when he remembered a tale involving a Took and a Fae.

 

It was just a story, of course; bless the Valar for small mercies. Bilbo could still hear Daisy’s screams in his mind, and ... they said it got easier after the first birth, but it hadn’t, and four births had been the most Hopson could force himself to witness, even though Daisy would have liked a few more children. His oath to never touch his wife again if she didn’t take the necessary herbs to prevent pregnancy had been very dramatic, very public, and at first not very well-received by said wife, but they had pulled through.

 

In Bilbo’s opinion, women in general and mothers in special (independent of what the midwife said about it usually being much easier for Hobbits) were incredible and should be respected, and honoured, and worshipped, and, Eru, was he glad to be very much male, with no actual Fae-blood anywhere near his family tree, and that his interests were firmly set on the male currently sitting right in front of him. He loved the Gamgee-faunts as much as if they were his own, but sitting next to Hopson in front of that door had already been much closer than he ever wanted to be to anything involving birthing, thank you very much. He didn’t want to experience first-hand how much worse it would be if he would additionally have to blame himself for being partly responsible for it as well.

 

That being said, Bilbo was absolutely sure he would have loved Nori even if the other were a woman or a potted plant. Of course, he enjoyed the body that came with the character more than just, but it wouldn’t matter as long as it was Nori. Knowing their luck, he’d likely be unable to admit the nature of his feelings regardless, in fear of trapping the other.

 

“Lad, I swear, we had nothing to do with any of their creations.”

 

“My goodness, what a big sword you have. Is it proportional to anything important?”

 

Primula!”

 

“What? You have your Dwarf, let us appreciate the others,” a dark-haired woman, almost still a girl, countered, and Bilbo knew he was being a hypocrite, but that was Gorbadoc Brandybuck’s youngest daughter, the most adventurous of the lot, and sole reason why Rorimac would have Bilbo banned from Buckland if he could, making doe eyes at Thorin.

 

They probably should leave before the Master of Buckland or his heir came after their heads for corrupting their little darling (more than they already had anyway).

 

It took a bit to get everyone detangled from overly curious Hobbits, but they still managed to get an early start, and made good way that day, especially since Thorin honoured their agreement and let Bilbo lead if under protest. That Nori insisted on complaining for all to hear that they should just dump the unlikable ones in a ditch and live happily ever after in the Shire with the rest didn’t really help. Never mind that Nori’s wasn’t actually serious – they wouldn’t actively harm the company, though ditching them sounded far too tempting – but half the time Bilbo wished to be the kind of person able to agree with the suggestions and go through with it.

 

Oddly enough no one commented again on any indiscretions or improprieties (though that might have more to do with everyone needing time to digest that the Bucklanders called Nori either `Master Baggins’ Dwarf´ or `Master Baggins’ husband´ and `you don’t happen to be related, do you?´). There was also a notable lack of the expected teasing about them fidgeting in their saddles, the supposed burglar more so than the notorious thief, as the latter was used to hide discomfort, but when they made camp Glóin approached Bilbo about families and their dynamics in the Shire. Confused Bilbo answered as best as he could, glad when it gradually eased into stories about what the Gamgee-faunts had gotten up to, prompting the boisterous Dwarf to tell about his wife, Frigga, and children, Gimli and Gritta.

 

The situation became even odder to the Hobbit when Óin joined them, asking about local herb lore. There was a lot of huffing and half-remembered signs involved, and as soon as the discussion was wrapped up and the brothers left him with bruising claps on his back, Bilbo made for a strategic retreat to his not-really in-laws since Nori was scouting the area.

 

“It means they approve of you,” Ori pointed out with a smile, not looking up from the scarf he was knitting, though the Hobbit had seen him knit while riding Pepper and watching the landscape at the same time.

 

“Then I’ll just be glad they don’t show disapproval in the same way.”

 

Bilbo had thought that was that; his only concern when the other boot would drop, what’s with how nice the weather continued to be. Songs and stories had been shared all day, the cheer only increasing when Nori (after a short and completely unnecessary look at Bilbo’s map) announced that they would reach Bree early the next evening if nothing unexpected happened, but then Balin sat down next to Bilbo and asked about said map.

 

“It’s very well made, more detailed than any I have seen. Where did you come by it?”

 

“I made it, actually. It’s a hobby of mine, you could say, though I couldn’t have done it without Nori, of course. He has an amazing eye for detail.”

 

“That I travelled enough to know the distances by heart and brought local maps along, didn’t hurt either,” the Dwarf in question pointed out, hovering close by. Glóin and Óin approaching his Hobbit was one thing, especially as he had not been there to be worried about it and run interference, but Balin was a completely different vein of ore. Who knew what the sly old fox was up to now?

 

“Ah. If you had such knowledge of the lay of the land, why did you not speak up earlier?”

 

“Oh, you were lost?” Bilbo asked back with wide, innocent eyes the colour of corn flowers. It had to be said that Balin did not blush or otherwise show any sign of embarrassment, but he did wrap up the discussion very fast after that and left them to crackle merrily.

Chapter Text


 

Bilbo pinched the bridge of his nose and could see Nori doing the same in his periphery.

 

Why, oh, why did the Valar torment him so? First Dwarrow (Nori excluded), then lost Dwarrow too stubborn to admit it (still not counting Nori, though he could be a stubborn idiot as well), and now, after they had finally gotten somewhere, namely Bree, said Dwarrow intended to get them all thrown out of town again. Granted, it actually was just one Dwarf being ornery, but that was their leader, and Thorin was bad enough on his own.

 

The moment the town of Men had come into view, Thorin had snarled his way back to the front and interrupted Bilbo whenever the Hobbit had tried to be polite to anyone (this time including Nori for some reason, and Bilbo had been reaching for his pan at that, except his thief had given him to understand that it really wasn’t worth it).

 

After the third time, the Hobbit had kept to the back of the group, scoffing and pretending he was just purely by chance walking in the same direction. If King Stubborn the Grumpy thought he could do better, let him try. It was the other’s coin they were wasting after all ... ah, but Bilbo knew this particular innkeeper, and quite well at that. He was a good man and didn’t deserve to have the Throneless One chew him out over nothing while the Hound glared.

 

“As I already told you, I don’t have ... Ah, Master Underhill, and the Mister as well. What a pleasure to see you again.”

 

With a sign, Bilbo made his way to the counter, Nori on his heels (just in case, and to step on Kíli’s toes when the lad tried to point out that Bilbo’s name was not `Underhill´ because, seriously, they were kind of on a secret quest. Had no one ever heard of travelling incognito?), and up a short step-ladder most of the Big Folk of this city had built into their counters. It was up to debate if Thorin took greater offence from its existence or that the man hadn’t revealed it to him as well, but the Hobbit couldn’t fault the inn-keeper for it. Half the time Bilbo didn’t want to be on eye-level with that particular Dwarf either, and Thorin had been in a notable foul mood already before they entered the inn.

 

“Good to see you as well, Master Appledore. How are the family and business?”

 

“Oh, just fine, on both accounts. The same as usual? We still should have a room in Hobbit size for you, though not our best, I fear. The season, you understand?”

 

“Of course, of course. Spring makes everyone a bit stir-crazy, never mind merchants, and the workers needed on the fields. Still, I fear the matter is not quite so simple for us this time.”

 

“In other words: we’re with them, regrettably,” Nori interfered nonchalantly. As much fun as it was from time to time to watch his Hobbit politely talk people in circles, the past week had left him rather on edge for all that nothing dangerous or even very exciting (if one ignored the river accident and didn’t count Bilbo chewing Thorin out) had happened. He wanted this over with, follow his craft’s calling for a while, and then curl up with his Hobbit, please and thank you, and no amount of scowling from Bilbo would change that ... well, the beard-tucking might, actually, but Nori absolutely could not let that show. It was one thing to let Bilbo do it in public – a show of trust as well as intimacy – but he didn’t want everyone and their brother to know that it could turn him into a compliant pile of putty.

 

Master Appledore gave them both looks of such heartfelt sympathy, he might as well have just said it out loud.

 

“Indeed, and we all need lodgings for the night. I don’t know most of them long enough to vouch for them, but they are good people (though they do their worst to appear the opposite).”

 

“And even without you vouching for them, I would give you rooms, but, as I told your ... companion, I simply don’t have them. The season, Master Underhill. It’s a miracle I have any rooms suited for Hobbits or Dwarrow free. Why, even the one I offered you ... telling the truth, Master Underhill, I’m ashamed I even mentioned it, but the Missus would have had my hide if I’d just send you away without even trying.”

 

“It’s quite alright,” Bilbo lied because it wasn’t. He may not be a very respectable Hobbit by Shire-standards, and was not as fussy about lodgings as others, but that sounded as if the only available rooms were the worst ones. Call him a snob, but he was still a gentle-Hobbit and deserved better. Not that Master Appledore had any rooms that would actually qualify as `bad´, but this was about principles.

 

“I understand you have none fit for our size, but if we paired up in twos per bed, would you by chance have some Men-sized rooms free for a night or two?”

 

The innkeeper frowned in thought, then nodded slowly.

 

“That would work, indeed, but, Master Underhill, it’s not proper.”

 

“Oh, do not worry about that. Most here are brothers or close kin. I will personally ensure the respectability of your fine establishment does not suffer.”

 

Frown deepening the man threw a suspicious glanced towards the still scowling Dwarrow.

 

“We will pay per head, of course.”

 

“No, we won’t!” Thorin set on to say, as he must have overlooked The Pan already in Bilbo’s hand. Well, he couldn’t ignore it anymore when it collided with his shoulder just out of sight of the innkeeper.

 

“Yes, we will. It’s the least we can do under these circumstances.”

 

At that Master Appledore’s eyebrows did a rather entertaining combination of lifting and drawing together at once, then he shook his head.

 

“A most generous offer, but that would be robbery. No, we will make it as you said, and you will pay per bed.”

 

“Now that wouldn’t be fair, not at all. Let us at least pay the extra meals. It would not do to upset your dear wife unnecessarily.”

 

“Ah, yes. Upsetting the Missus is never a good thing, but she cannot object to me offering hot baths. No offence, Masters Underhill and Masters Dwarrow.”

 

“Of course not, my good man, of course not,” Bilbo cried out with honest joy. “When there are hot baths involved we shall surely not object. No. We will make it so, and you have our most sincere gratitude.”

 

“Splendid. Then do make yourself comfortable while I’ll have everything made ready.”

 

The man vanished, and predictably Thorin instantly rounded up on the Hobbit as much as he could with Bilbo still standing on the step ladder and Nori very much willing to go against the Throneless One if he had to.

 

“That was ...”

 

“Entirely unnecessary, I agree,” the Hobbit hissed, using his elevated stand to menacingly stare down at the Dwarf and poke his chest. Granted, it was an armoured chest and thus hurt Bilbo more than Thorin, and, due to lacking opportunities, he had never learned how to properly loom over anyone, but trying it made the Master of Bag End feel a lot better.

 

“You wanted rooms, you have them. What is your problem?”

 

“Haggling means to lower the price, not raise it, you fool!”

 

“And ruin the best innkeeper around? I know him. He’s a good, hardworking man with two kids to feed, Master Dwarf. The rooms are good, more than suitable for our needs, his wife’s cooking is even better, and the prices more than fair. Master Appledore needs the money, and we still got away cheaper than if we went somewhere else. Also, we had a deal if you would be so kind to remember. Until we are past Bree, we do things my way, and we are in Bree, not past it yet. You want something from him, and it would do you good to remember it. I know it’s not a cultural thing, so it must be your own idiocy. No wonder no one wants to help you!”

 

That was a low blow; Nori knew it, and so did everyone else, including Bilbo and Thorin, but they only stared at each other before the Dwarf stormed away, Dwalin and Bofur only a moment behind him. Jokes aside, there was an actual chance their leader would get lost and/or mugged, and that just wouldn’t do.

 

The Hobbit sat down with a heavy sigh.

 

“Lad, that ...,” Balin tried, but Bilbo waved him off.

 

“I know, I know. Would you please just pair up already? And no funny business. Men, in general, have not a very high acceptance of same-sex couples, though they are rather tolerant here, all things considered.”

 

“It’s hardly the first time we are in a town of Men,” Glóin grumped, and Bilbo gave him a tired glare.

 

“Could have fooled me.”

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Dinner, as predicted, was delicious, and so were the hot baths, yet the evening was tense; maybe not more or less than the previous ones, but Bilbo certainly felt it more keenly for Nori’s absence. The ginger thief had needed to stretch his legs (or rather fingers), and the Hobbit couldn’t begrudge him that. He would have liked to leave as well but wasn’t much for jumping across rooftops, and they would have to return sooner or later, contract-bound or not, so it really wouldn’t solve anything either way.

 

The Dwarrow were in another corner, trying to make merry and exchanging stories, though Thorin (dragged back hale and whole, and ordered to `stay in the fucking building, Mahâl damn it!´) was certainly pressing the mood. Still, even Gandalf, who had spoken very little since his (in Bilbo’s and Nori’s eyes entirely deserved) banishment from Bag End, shared an anecdote about `Bullroarer´ Took beheading the Orc-leader in the Battle of Greenfields.

 

To be fair, the wizard had likely meant well, aiming to raise the general opinion of Hobbits and Bilbo in special, but this Hobbit could not quite see that through his anger over Gandalf once again meddling where he was neither wanted nor needed, and getting it all wrong once again. Bilbo was already in a horrible mood, so it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he didn’t exactly react favourably to that.

 

“Bandobras had the face of a horse, and was the greatest coward to ever be born a Took,” he sneered, causing the room to fall silent. Most people in Bree knew Hobbits, both drunk and sober, and they knew better than to mention one Bandobras Took anywhere near them. “He set to flee in the face of the enemy, but ran in the wrong direction. If he beheaded any Orc, it was an accident at best, a lie at worst, and he certainly did not roar like a bull, more like squealed like a slaughtered pig, and it had been a massacre, not a battle. The losses had been so high in every family, no one could bear yet another horrible story or to tell Bandobras’ husband or the children what really happened. So the few survivors made up a story for them, but every adult knows the truths. That’s why we don’t leave the Shire often and stay out of other races’ business, and if the damn wizard would stop assuming and check his fucking sources once in a while, he’d know that!”

 

“Cowards and traitors as ancestors. A fine burglar you got us, Tharkûn.”

 

Up until he had actually left with the Dwarrow, Bilbo Baggins had technically still been quite respectable. Taking up with a Dwarf of ill repute (not for being a thief within the Shire, but being too loud, too bold, and too many other things Bilbo loved about Nori), and adopting and being adopted by the Gamgees in all but name were questionable things to do in the Shire; throwing Lobelia out an act of heroism that required public scolding, but toasts to his health and that of his garden in private, and the creative usage of kitchen tools had a longstanding tradition in the Shire. Why, with a bit of stretching the truth, he might have even savaged his respectability after the whole adventure business (not that he cared about his respectability very much, to begin with, but there was a minimum of it needed to live comfortably). However, throwing an ale pint only half empty in the face of someone ... too bad he was too angry to properly savoury Thorin’s shocked expression, and Nori too away to properly describe it to him later. Surely it must have been absolutely worth it.

 

“Bandobras is not my ancestor or anyone’s for that matter. He had a husband and no children of his own; only lots of nephews and nieces, and you are the last person to go around complaining about anyone’s heritage. The sins of your immediate ancestors far outweigh those of the entire Shire combined!”

 

Bilbo stomped away, convinced Mistress Appledore to let him pay for the pint and a new one – an actual pint this time, not the Hobbit-sized one – and retreated back into his corner to get at least a bit drunk. After indulging Hopson’s moonshine for years, it was probably impossible with just regular ale, but he could try ... except Bofur came sneaking over.

 

Well, sneaking was taking it too far, as it was maybe unsuspicious for the others, but extremely obvious for Bilbo.

 

“Unless you’re Nori in a convincing disguise, you can turn right around again and go away.”

 

“I fear I’m exactly who I appear to be.”

 

There was a whole lot of unflattering things Bilbo could have replied to that, but he swallowed them all, reminding himself that Bofur may not be the Dwarf he wanted right now, but he was a decent fellow nonetheless, well on the way being considered a friend. One did not insult friends unless they were really terribly stubborn idiots about something stupid, which was not the case right now.

 

“Listen, you’re not Nori, and I’m not in the mood for whatever you want, so could you please leave me the fuck alone?”

 

“No can do,” the Dwarf replied joyously, but then became unusually serious and joined the Hobbit in his booth. “We need to talk, about Master Thorin and your ongoing squabble. No worries, I’m not gonna ask you to be nice to him.”

 

Now that had Bilbo perking up.

 

“You’re not?”

 

“Nope. You’re pissed, I get it, and you’ve got all right to be. Mahâl knows we’ve given you enough reasons to be, but don’t you think you take that hostility a tad too far?”

 

“Too far? Did you miss the part where he is constantly insulting me, and now daring to drag my ancestors and people as a whole in it? I may not know all the details, Master Bofur, but more than enough to be certain that his own grandfather and father did far worse. And he started it!”

 

Bofur raised his hands appeasingly.

 

“Alright, fair point. Thorin can be very difficult, and he shouldn’t have said that, but would you believe me if I told you most of his attitude right now is due to stress and lots of it? To which you are adding, I have to point out. Complaining about the unpleasant parts of this quest all the time screws moral, aye?”

 

“A Dragon, Bofur. You all signed up knowing there is a Dragon waiting at the end. If I were complaining about roots and stones under my bedroll, or how every inch of my whole body hurts from riding all day – don’t you dare to joke now – that would be complaining about unpleasant things. Pointing out that we are riding into certain death is stating the obvious facts you all seem to be ignoring, and that doesn’t even account for all the other dangers I know are out there. Just because I was smart enough not to wander far from the Shire before, doesn’t mean I’m ignorant of what lies beyond.”

 

“The Dragon might be dead; hasn’t been seen for sixty years or so.”

 

“Smaug is likely several thousand years old!” the Hobbit pointed out dryly. “It’s more probable he’s just taking a little nap between meals, and will wake up hungrier for it; probably extra grumpy as well depending on what wakes him.”

 

That at least made the Dwarf hesitate for a moment. He obviously hadn’t combined the longevity Dragons with their potential sleeping patterns before. Bilbo’s mother had told him once that, while certainly nice to be around, the problem with Elves was that they didn’t actually sleep, only set themselves into a meditative trance when the fancy struck them. Elves were immortal, Dragons the next best thing. The Hobbit saw a parallel there, though it stood to reason that such things weren’t discussed among Dwarrow.

 

“It’s not Thorin’s fault.”

 

“Whose then?”

 

It was a rhetorical question, but the conviction with which Bofur replied `Tharkûn´ made Bilbo pause. It always came down to the wizard, but now he was curious and motioned the other to go on.

 

Gabilgatholnur, er ... New Belegost? Well, it was never a good place. Not bad, mind – Mahâl knows, Thorin’s people had it much, much worse since Smaug – but not a good place either. Only small deposits of ore, few gems, only a few mines were ever promising enough to bother with properly securing them, and the stone not suited to build a whole city underground. And that was before the refugees came. Truth be told, at first, they were adding to the problem. More mouths to feed, more hands to put to work ... bad times; lots of unrest, but Thorin made a lot better; cared for everyone, not just his own people.”

 

Bilbo very much wanted to doubt that. He didn’t want to think of Thorin as a nice guy in any way or form, he wanted to be angry at him ... but Nori had spoken of New Belegost before, and this sounded a lot worse. His thief had also mentioned that this whole mad quest had been Gandalf’s idea, but that still didn’t mean Thorin hadn’t been an arse on top of an idiot to listen to the damn wizard in the first place.

 

“Listen, forget about the wizard. I don’t know what his reasons for all this are, but we need a mountain. Its protection, a means to feed the people, and sadly a Dragon-infested mountain is the best available choice. You don’t have to like Thorin or the quest, but believe me when I say we wouldn’t be here if there was an actual choice, and at least consider going easy on him. You know, if you’d both just stop despising each other for a few moments, you’d notice you are actually rather alike.”

 

“We’re what?!”

 

Very alike even. Short tempered, permanently in a mood, but willing to do everything for the ones you love, including facing a Dragon. You got more sass than Thorin, I’ll give you that ... just consider it, please, for all our sakes,” Bofur added with a friendly pat on the shoulder, and left the Hobbit gaping after him in shock.

 

Short-tempered? In a mood? He wasn’t ... that couldn’t ... Oh, sweet Yavanna, he was!

 

Bilbo slumped on the table.

 

Mahumb!”

Chapter Text


 

It had been a question of getting out or picking a fight, most likely with Dwalin, and since the latter would have upset Bilbo and his brothers, Nori had settled on the former.

 

Briefly, the thief had contemplated acquiring gifts for Dori, Ori, and Bilbo, but that would take too long and would be noticed, and it wouldn’t be the first time strangers (independent of race, but it were usually the Dwarrow just passing through) were blamed for something they didn’t do. In this case they, or rather Nori, would have done it, and ... it would just unnecessarily complicate things right now, so he rather stuck with breaking in and rearranging a few things, and pretending to run from guards that didn’t exist until his fingers stopped itching and his mind ceased jumping around like Ori after too many candied fruits.

 

It wasn’t as if he could help it. He was a thief; he lived from fast fingers and a faster mind; weighting the value of something versus the risk of acquiring it. It was by far not as bad yet as it could get, but the ginger thief didn’t want to wait until he started to consider members of the Company as potential targets. Better to scratch that itch while he still could, never mind that he might as well use the opportunity to learn more about the road ahead. Nori knew these roads like the back of his hands, but half a year could make the difference between a perfectly safe path and a death trap. Even if the Throneless One didn’t listen to him, at least they would be warned.

 

And he was in need of some solitude to settle his thoughts, but that was something else entirely.

 

It was still too early for the criminal elements of the city to be up and willing to chat, but merchants, townsfolk, and the odd Ranger stopping by to resupply were a good source as well.

 

Actually, that was a good idea, resupplying. Not that they weren’t currently decently supplied, but there was no such thing as too prepared, and Nori might have been a bit too out of it to properly restock his less-than-legal supplies in Gabilgatholnur, and Hobbits didn’t tend to keep poisons against anything larger or more dangerous than a mole around. Dangerous to people, that is. If one listened to Hopson, moles and root-voles were the incarnation of Morgoth himself.

 

Nori, at least, begged to differ. The worst thing was clearly coming back to the room he shared with Bilbo to find the Hobbit motionless on the bed, their things in disarray. At least the other was breathing, but the moment of fear before he noticed that last part was definitely the worst thing that ever to happen to him.

 

Melekûnuh?”

 

“Hey,” Bilbo replied, waving from the bed. “Sorry about the mess. I had some thoughts to settle, and figured I could be productive meanwhile.”

 

“Productive?”

 

“I remembered you said something about always keeping what you can’t do without on your person. I tried to do that, but it turns out I’m still too much of a home-Hobbit.”

 

Home-Hobbit. Oh, how Nori wanted to comment on that, desperately, but the moment of fearing Bilbo dead, short as it had been, had not yet left him completely, and ... well, his Hobbit was much more experienced with travelling than your average Hobbit, but trips to Grey Haven or Bree or hiking through the Shire didn’t exactly count on the large scale of things. They had always picked the time of their trips according to weather, never used ponies, and had always been entirely free on how far to go each day, to name just three differences. There had never been a need to prepare for anything worse than a sudden rain.

 

Well, there was no time like the present, and knowledge was power, so he coaxed Bilbo off the bed, and together they tidied up the room and sorted their belongings. Coincidentally it also gave the Dwarf a bit more time to think about how to approach the topic he had been mulling over half the night, though when it couldn’t be put off anymore, he still felt completely unprepared.

 

Melekûnuh, can we talk?”

 

Smooth. Real Smooth. Probably the best way to not keep the other from worrying.

 

“Of course, dear. Something happened?”

 

“I ... I was thinking, about this quest and all. We’re not in the Shire anymore, and, as much fun as it is to watch you out-sass the Throneless One ... I fear it’s rather contradicting our goal to actually survive this mess.”

 

Bilbo, for what it was worth, didn’t have a fit, though the blank expression and slow blinking of his eyes weren’t really reassuring either. Neither was the sudden ... was that realisation? But that wasn’t supposed to happen until after they argued.

 

“You talked with Bofur, didn’t you?”

 

What?

 

“What? Why would you say ... wait, you, too?”

 

“Dear, I think we’ve had been had,” the Hobbit replied dryly. “Before we discuss any need to throttle him, let me get a few things straight. How old is Bofur, in comparison?”

 

“About my age, I guess. Never asked. Why?”

 

“I’ll get to that. Can you remember life before Thorin changed things in Gabilgatholnur?”

 

Tugging his beard Nori’s frown deepened. Why in the world would Bilbo change the topic so when they were just ... oh.

 

“Mahâl strike me! That ever the day should come I am outwitted by a miner. Ten times worse than Balin that one, who’d have thought?”

 

“So when Bofur said that Thorin made things better but that it’s still bad enough to make a Dragon-infested mountain sound like a reasonable alternative ...”

 

“It’s not that bad,” the thief scoffed, flopping down on the bed. “Improvable, certainly, but we can survive that; Dragon-fire not so much.”

 

Bilbo laid down next to Nori. The less said about the absolutely undignified manner in which he had to climb onto the bed the better.

 

“You should have brought your brothers to me.”

 

He should have. He really should have. Ori would have had the time of his life, and Dori as well. There had been no accusation in Bilbo’s words, but ...

 

“I tried. I told them there was a green land, not too far, with plenty of sunshine and mostly friendly people that lived underground and would love nothing more than to stuff them with tea and cake, and more books than they could read. Didn’t believe me, to put it mildly.”

 

“It does sound rather unbelievable if you word it like that.”

 

“I didn’t.”

 

“I know,” the Hobbit huffed, and rolled on top of Nori. It was a nice thing, to have a cuddly Hobbit to hold, and usually this could lead to many a pleasant thing, but he was tired, drained even, and could see Bilbo felt the same.

 

The Dwarf could see before his inner eye how it would play out for the two of them if things didn’t change, and it couldn’t end well. That was a valid excuse for burying his face in amber curls (not that he needed an excuse or even much of a reason, to begin with).

 

“Look at us. We’ve only just so left the Shire, the easiest and most harmless part of this entire journey, and we’ve been so on edge the whole damn time, it’s a wonder we didn’t yet turn against each other as well.”

 

“Bofur called me short-tempered; said me and the Throneless One are very alike, and the worst is that I can’t even make myself be angry at him! He’s a good guy and got a point. I don’t want to be like that, Nori, and I don’t want to end up arguing with you, least of all for silly reasons. I’d much rather enjoy our remaining time together.”

 

Knowing nothing to say to that, Nori rolled them onto their sides and held on tighter, feeling himself relax despite the dire reminder that their days were now very limited, although for the first time he wouldn’t need to leave sooner or later. Briefly, he wondered if that was something unique between him and Bilbo, or if cuddling with Hobbits in general had that calming effect on people. The faunts at least had a very similar effect on the thief, and Dwalin might deny it, but he and Bifur sure had looked quite content and happy having the little ones all over them.

 

Then again, the point was mute anyway. Nori felt no desire to cuddle any other Hobbit, and the likelihood of any of them ever returning to the Shire to test it out was horrible unlikely. And he sure as rain wouldn’t share his Hobbit with anyone.

 

“Thinking dark thoughts again?”

 

“Just trying to figure how to talk to the Throneless One without losing my head one way or the other.”

 

Bilbo gave the Dwarf a knowing look but didn’t call him out on the lie.

 

“Leave that one to me. Just make sure to obviously sulk around in the shadows. You know, just in case His Grumpiness decides to be even less reasonable than he has been so far. Don’t want him to catch up on how very tired I am of being angry all the time.”

 

“What about the wizard?”

 

“Thorin got excuses, even if they aren’t always good ones; the wizard doesn’t. He can go hang himself for all I care.”

 

Hobbits. One just had to love them.

Chapter Text


 

“Master Oakenshield, could I have a word with you, please? In private if possible.”

 

For a moment Bilbo was tempted to be insulted by the suspicion the Dwarf in question regarded him with, but considering the nature of their interactions so far, it was to be expected. At least the Throneless One – Thorin. For the sake of diplomacy, he really should start calling him by his name – didn’t react outright hostile. The Hobbit had to begrudgingly admit the Dwarf was the better man in that but banned such dark thoughts from his mind. It was all the more reason for them to have this talk, the sooner the better, and fortunately, Thorin agreed.

 

Of course, they didn’t leave the room, only took their porridge, ham, and bread to a secluded table. That Dwalin joined them Bilbo decided to take as a compliment. Dangerous enough to make a dwarven bodyguard nervous; how many Hobbits could say that about themselves? Then again, Nori was notable sulking around in the shadows, radiating this air of `I don’t approve, but for the greater good I won’t say anything yet´. Well, one couldn’t have everything.

 

“I’ll keep it short and be blunt if you don’t mind. I want to offer you a truce.”

 

It likely would have been hilarious to watch the Dwarf-king choke on his breakfast, but it would have soured the other’s mood even more, so Bilbo took care to voice his offer only after Thorin had swallowed.

 

“A truce?”

 

“Indeed. On behalf of myself and Nori. I still believe you owe us at least an apology or three, but ... well, we talked it through, and we are willing to let the matter rest. Fact is, the road ahead is extremely dangerous, and while it doesn’t really matter considering there is a Dragon at the end, our chances of survival would increase exponentially if we laid our differences to rest and started working together, though there are conditions.”

 

It was written all over the Dwarf’s face that he really wanted to reply something entirely impolite, possibly insulting, but for some reason, Thorin snapped his mouth shut. Bilbo for his part hid his surprise about that in his breakfast, though Dwalin made an attempt to choke on his, more so when Thorin agreed to hear the Hobbit out. Nori almost fell out of his shadows, which admittedly sounded funnier than it was, but Bilbo tried to stay in good cheer and chased away a stray thought that maybe Bofur had had a little chat with Thorin as well. Surely the miner hadn’t ... or maybe ... nah. No need to become paranoid, and even if he had, the Hobbit was convinced that it had happened for the sake of everyone.

 

“Huh, that was easier than expected. Well then, first of all, I’d like you to clear Nori’s name from that accusation of being involved in any assassination attempts against your nephews. He’s a thief, and a good one, but not an assassin, and that is not negotiable.”

 

Thorin pouted, though he would have protested such a notion, while Dwalin at his side grumped something that sounded suspiciously like `I told you so´ into his porridge.

 

“I may have overreacted. A bit,” the king-in-exile finally allowed, but the smaller wouldn’t be swayed.

 

“Which is understandable given what I heard of the situation, but I will not have that stand in the room any longer, and I must insist you repeat that where the others can hear you. It would be very contra-productive if that were to divide the Company, wouldn’t it?”

 

It would, or so the Dwarf’s grunt led to believe, and Bilbo fancied himself fluent in Grunt-ish, as it was not only Nori’s preferred form of communication when he had been up for either too long or not long enough yet, but young Hamfast’s as well, who in turn had it from his father. He should keep that comparison in mind in case he needed to blackmail any of the aforementioned persons.

 

“Glad we can agree on that. Now, another point I’d like to address is what I like to call `appreciation of talents´. We are well aware that we are the outcasts in this group, but that doesn’t mean we can’t contribute.”

 

“And how, pray tell, do you intend to contribute?”

 

Bilbo gave the Dwarf-king the mother of all unimpressed glares, borrowing it from his own grandmothers on both sides of the family. Neither Laura Baggins nor Adamata Took had ever made a habit out of taking anyone’s shit, and Bilbo didn’t intend to either.

 

“Do I have to remind you that it took us over a week to get here? A distance we could have easily crossed in four, maybe even three days, and don’t get me started on your almost detour into the Old Forest. That would have cost us another week at least if not our lives. I’m also a great cook if I do say so myself, know the plants of these parts of the world, basic first-aid, and I have good hearing. To be fair, I can’t see very well in the dark, so putting me on night watch is not exactly the best idea. That I can’t swim should be obvious by now, but I’m told I’m witty, and I don’t need to boast about Nori’s skills, do I? Numerous as they are.”

 

“Illegal skills.”

 

“Skills are neither good nor bad, Master Dwalin. It’s what they are used for that matters, as with all things. Brewing tea sounds harmless enough, but I could kill you with the right combination of ingredients, and you’d probably compliment me on the blend before keeling over. I can imagine quite a few situations where you could use someone able to do the dirty work for you, left aside that Nori hasn’t been up to anything strictly illegal for a while now, have you, dear?”

 

“Nothing anyone can prove,” the ginger Dwarf said nonchalantly, appearing behind Bilbo like fog on autumn fields, and then gliding onto the windowsill effortlessly, show-off that he was. “Had my ears open around the town’s people. Seems there was neither a notable increase nor decline in thefts or mugging in recent weeks.”

 

“And of what use is that information to us?” the bald guard challenged, causing the Hobbit to lean back and enjoy his porridge for the moment. He would not get involved in a contest of egos between a guard and a thief, not if there was food on the line, but if they tried to exchange more than insults, he would break them up. Bilbo might have left his pan with his pack – a display of trust, or so Nori had claimed, that would force Thorin to remain somewhat civil or lose his face (figuratively and literally) – but he knew where his thief’s knives lived.

 

“Plenty. If something were afoot, for example a bounty on your heads, potential pursuers would either keep a low profile or organise distractions. As it is, chances are good that the underground has no special interest in us (yet), so we should stick to the main roads. Any form of sneaking around would just raise unwanted attention.”

 

“That will never work.”

 

“With a group as large as this? Of course, it works; I did it plenty of times before. Also, we’ll likely hit a stroke of bad weather soon, so leaving the streets is a bad idea either way. Don’t know about you, but I’d like to go out in a more dignified manner than drowned in mud.”

 

“Like bleeding out in a back alley?”

 

“Aw, didn’t know you cared.”

 

Okay, maybe Bilbo needed to interfere before it actually came to blows, for the sake of conversation, of course. Eru knew he could easily go in circles about dying, Dragons, and suicidal quests, but the Hobbit would prefer surviving on the principle of the matter, and not be reminded of all the worst-case scenarios he had dreamed up whenever Nori was away on.

 

“Right. I believe that settles the matter of skills. Now, there is another point we need to discuss.”

 

“Your demands keep adding up.”

 

“Requests,” Bilbo corrected calmly. “The first one was a demand, the second ... let’s call it an insistent suggestion we all would benefit from, but this part is a request.”

 

“And what exactly are you requesting?” Thorin growled, losing his patience. He had admitted accusing Nori of being an assassin had been a mistake (seriously though, his nephews, sons of his heart, in their home! There was no such thing as overreacting to that), and he was willing to consider their so-called skills (the potential usefulness of the thief’s skills was admittedly one of the reasons why he hadn’t made him a head shorter), so what else could that impertinent little creature want?

 

“Convince me this is a good idea.”

 

“What?” it echoed from three mouths.

 

“Convince me that this quest is a good idea, that you have reasons that are actually good enough to warrant facing a Dragon at the end, and I will not just stop hindering you, I will actively help you,” the Hobbit elaborated, not reacting to Nori’s insistent poking. They hadn’t spoken about this little detail, and it certainly wasn’t fair to spring it on the ginger Dwarf like that, but Bilbo wanted answers, and he couldn’t see them getting out of the contracts any time soon, so he might as well find out for certain if they would at least die for a noble cause or if he had reason to reconsider his restriction to legal ways.

 

“That’s ridiculous.”

 

“Why? All I’m asking is that you explain why you can’t just stay in Gabilgatholnur and why it has to be Azsâlulabad of all places. You can’t seriously expect anyone to follow you into certain death without at least knowing the reason.”

 

“They know the reasons.”

 

“But I don’t!”

 

The noise Dwalin made was probably his equivalent of subtly clearing his throat; Bilbo was tempted to call for Óin to have the healer make sure Dwalin wasn’t about to suffocate.

 

“He has a point there. Can’t see the thief telling him the truth.”

 

“Of course not,” Nori scoffed. “Had I told it as it was and is, he would have proposed to come along and help.”

 

“Nori!”

 

“Dragon,” the ginger thief reminded pointedly, and Bilbo couldn’t argue with that. Of course, he couldn’t expect Nori to be honest under those circumstances. He would have lied as well if there would have been a chance to keep his Dwarf out of danger.

 

“I’m sorry, dear. You’re right, of course, but now I’m along for the ride for the better or worse, and I’d really like to know which one it is.”

 

That was also very true, and they turned their eyes on Thorin ... who stubbornly refused to speak or even meet anyone’s eyes. It was the high of childishness, but admittedly very effective and soon mirrored by Dwalin, then Nori, when the Hobbit turned to them for answers.

 

“Okay, seriously? One of you will have to tell me because I sure as rain won’t speak with Tharkûn, and I doubt anyone here wants me to ask the Dwarflings.”

 

“They are all of age.”

 

The attempt of giving the Dwarf-king a what-does-that-have-to-do-with-anything glare was thwarted by the other looking away again.

 

In the end, it was Nori (of course, as with all things considering his Hobbit, except for a certain trice cursed silver spoon) who gave in and with a sign slid down to sit next to Bilbo.

 

“You know,” Nori started, still not meeting the cornflower blue depths that were Bilbo’s eyes. “When I say `doing well´ I’m talking about a sturdy house with enough beds for everyone, more than one set of clothes each that are not threadbare, and two to three meals a day without anyone going without so the others can eat. `Getting by´ would be sharing beds for more than pleasure or warmth, no more than two meals, often less, and one set of clothes while you fight the second to not fall apart. `Not doing well´ would be the adult and healthy skipping meals so the others can eat at least once a day, and a shack at the edge of town if you’re lucky. There are a few in Gabilgatholnur that would count as `well-off´, but those are the types of people making me look like a saint. As a rule, most in the settlements get by, more or less, and many are not doing well or are off worse. It largely depends on the season, how well the mines are doing, and how closely knitted the neighbourhood is, and such stuff.”

 

The Hobbit stared open-mouthed, trying and failing to wrap his mind around what he had just heard. Of course, he had known that in comparison to the rest of the world Hobbits led a rather sheltered life of plenty – they also worked harder for it than their appearances led to believe. All that food had to be produced somehow, after all, and it took work to keep the earth fertile, till the soil, and take care of the cattle – and that life in the dwarven settlements was not easy, but the extent ... that was entirely unexpected, and instantly Bilbo tried to remember how often Nori had used what phrase when asked after his brothers. Considering the Hobbit had never paid the wording much attention, only how sincere the other sounded, it was, of course, impossible, but still ...

 

“Bilbo?”

 

The look of open concern on the thief’s face was very similar to the one Nori had sported a few days ago after the river accident, as if he expected the Hobbit to panic or go into shock any minute now, which ... actually wasn’t as far off the mark as Bilbo would have liked.

 

“I’m alright,” he lied stiffly. “Just trying to figure out the logistics of wrapping the whole lot of you in blankets, and cart you back to Bag End. Do you suppose I could hire some of the Rangers to do the same with everyone’s families?”

 

The ginger Dwarf chuckled, partly forced, partly relieved, bumping their foreheads together.

 

“If you argue it right, they just might, but there is not enough room in Bag End for them all.”

 

“My parents wanted a large family. It wasn’t to be, but father made plans for expansions just in case. I have them archived in the library. I’m sure he would be thrilled to know they are put to use at last, and my Took cousins would certainly love to have all of us over until the renovations are finished. They are odd like that; and don’t underestimate a Hobbit’s need to feed everyone within their general vicinity. We can have you all as round and jolly as Bombur before winter sets in.”

 

“How does such a big heart fit into such a small body?”

 

“Hey, no short-jokes,” Bilbo reminded the other of one of their earliest agreements. Granted, Nori was larger than Bilbo, a lot of people were, including many Hobbits, but the thief had been often enough in cities of Men to have been ridiculed just as much if not more so than Bilbo, and they absolutely didn’t need to add to that between them.

 

“It wasn’t, and we’re making them uncomfortable.”

 

The Hobbit mumbled something that might have been `as if I give a fuck´, but detangled himself from Bilbo, and cleared his throat to let Dwalin and Thorin know that they were done being ... whatever the two found so embarrassing. Seriously, it wasn’t as if this was the first time they were cuddly with each other for everyone to see.

 

With the new knowledge, it was easy to admit for Thorin that the situation in New Belegost, while still better than it could have been, definitely justified searching for alternatives, but Bilbo still wanted a more detailed explanation as to why a Dragon-infested mountain of all places seemed like the best option.

 

It was with obvious unwillingness and short but very to the point words that Thorin explained that the other kingdoms couldn’t take them in for political reasons – a nation within a nation would cause much unrest if nothing else – and the fickleness of Men, never mind the difficulty of their different body sizes, made living with them undesirable. Oh, they were happy enough to have wandering smiths, tinkers, and sell-swords too desperate to work for more than a pittance, but the moment they gained their footing and/or brought their families, people became suspicious and found ways to get rid of them. Founding a new settlement also sounded also much easier than it actually was. Suitability of the location, and not just the preference but actual need of Dwarrow for solid stone aside, land and mountains were usually part of other kingdoms already. Negotiating that would be a nightmare on its own that might be worth it if there would be a way for them to finance and support the actual construction of a new city. There wasn’t, to say the least.

 

As it was, the only realistic choice was to reclaim a previously abandoned settlement, but those within a reasonable distance were few in number and all had different and fatal faults. Since the War of Wrath, the very mountain around Gabilgathol was so unstable it was a wonder the whole thing hadn’t come tumbling down already. The stones of Tumunzahar, which had also taken extensive damage in that same war, might be stable enough, and ancient texts indicated there were still riches to be found there that would support them for years to come, but it had filled with a poisonous gas that clung to the halls and corners. It was questionable if they would be able to ever air the place out, and the risks were too high to chance it either way. The Dwarf-king didn’t mention Khazad-Dûm, and the Hobbit didn’t ask, already aware of that particular story.

 

Bilbo didn’t like to admit it for several reasons, but for all sense and purpose, it seemed as if a Dragon-infested mountain was indeed their most realistic choice. Still ...

 

“If I can see that, why are only so few willing to help you? Did you ask the other kingdoms?”

 

“I pled my case before their leaders and representatives, but it was decided that this is to be our quest and ours alone. They will not fight two wars in one generation for the Line of Durin, not unless I hold the Arkenstone, the King’s Jewel, a sign of my right to rule.”

 

Something about that pulled at the Hobbit’s memory, and with dread, he inquired about the location of said stone.

 

“Somewhere in the immeasurable horde under Smaug’s belly,” Nori replied dryly, which ... yes, that explained the uneasy feeling.

 

“So let me get that straight: your kin refuses you the help so obviously need unless you get them a unique jewel from under the nose of a living, fire-breathing Dragon? Does that remind anyone else of Beren and the Silmaril?”

 

“The what?”

 

“Beren, a mortal, fell in love with Lúthien, an elven princess. Her father was against the union, and forbid it unless Beren brought him a specific stone of great magical power, a Silmaril, from the very crown of Morgoth himself. The task was chosen because it was thought to be impossible, that it would discourage Beren from even trying, except Beren did try, and ... well, technically he succeeded, but he got his entire Company, his friends and himself, killed. Lúthien followed him into death and successfully begged Námo to release them so they could complete the task and live out a mortal life together, but that’s not the point here anyway.”

 

Thorin gritted his teeth, and certainly not because there were Elves in that story.

 

“I’m very aware of that, Hobbit, but tell me: what choice do I have?”

 

Bilbo exchanged a long look with Nori, then begged a moment off in which he pulled the thief aside and had a heated discussion with him for all that they used hardly any words. Of course, they couldn’t wordlessly communicate; that was a skill solely reserved for those little romance booklets neither of them had ever heard of and definitely didn’t have a secret stack under their bed in Bag End, that they read alone or to each other when they felt especially silly (or kinky, depending on the story in question).

 

Right now, they simply didn’t have the words to properly express themselves, and instead tried to convey it with small gestures and mimics. It wasn’t perfect but worked good enough to get from fear and worry, to resignation bordering on acceptance, backed up with determination.

 

“For the record, I don’t think a stone, no matter how pretty, can give you the right to rule,” Bilbo finally said, returning to the table. “It’s something you must earn. I can’t judge if you have earned that right, but considering the loyalty you inspired in this lot, I’m willing to grant you the benefit of doubt.”

 

“And that means?”

 

“We reserve the right to call you out on being stupid, and it remains to be seen if either of us will face an actual Dragon for you, but we will help you reach Azsâlulabad as good as we can.”

 

`Shock´ was not nearly a strong enough word to describe what Thorin felt. They had had a horrible start, the Hobbit and he, there was no denying it, and over the last week, their opinion of each other certainly hadn’t improved. Neither of them had been secretive about it, yet here this Bilbo Baggins was, offering help despite their personal misgivings and his reservations against the quest. A Hobbit, while kin and kith rather send him on an impossible quest.

 

“Thank you, Master Baggins.”

 

“And I’ll be ignored?” Nori huffed. “I could teach those sister-sons of yours a trick or two. Just saying.”

 

Thorin’s expression could not be put into words, but Dwalin’s exclamation of `don’t you dare´ seemed to get very close. In the end what counted was that they had put their differences aside, or most of them at least. Truly, not one of them was under any illusion that they would suddenly start to get along, but it was a start, and Bofur at least seemed very happy about the development from where he was definitely not eavesdropping.

Chapter Text


 

There was something to be said about travelling in company, even if Nori didn’t believe he would ever fully trust the others. It wasn’t in his nature, especially considering he was supposed to trust them with the lives of Bilbo, Dori, and Ori. That wasn’t something that would happen anytime soon. Still, the perks of having a known agreement with the king were certainly not to sneeze at. At the very least it offered Nori the opportunity to relax a bit and enjoy the amusing happenings that came with being around such odd characters.

 

The princes were always good for a laugh, and ... well, he hated to admit it, but for all the trouble they caused, they sure had their moments and were downright adorable from time to time. Worse than puppies, those two. Always begging for attention, and draping themselves over each other and everyone who let them get away with it. The thief would not comment about any sleepy hair braiding going on, as he was well aware he and Bilbo gave a similar picture in the early hours of the morning. And then there was Thorin, tugging the lads in every damn night when he thought no one was looking, and finding excuses to be somewhere else when it was time to wake them up. At least they slept in a pile – Nori would have long since broken them out of that habit if he hadn’t by chance seen that, as tangled as it looked, they could be up and battle ready in a heartbeat – so one only had to steel their will against their pitiful whines for `just five more minutes´. Also, their mischief never failed to make Thorin’s face do this absolutely hilarious thing between trying so hard to look reprimanding and fighting a grin like everyone else.

 

Nori liked Awkward Uncle Thorin a whole lot more than Grumpy King Thorin. Not that he liked either of them, of course; only by comparison.

 

Then there was the continued drama of watching Balin and Dwalin (subtle and not so subtle) trying to make sure their illustrious leader remained on the right path, which ... actually, it was getting old very fast. Mahâl save them, the thief had always thought the rumours about Thorin’s lacking sense of direction were exaggerated; now he could only pray it was better underground. A Dwarf-king getting lost in his own mountain ... ah, but there was still a Dragon and half a world between them and that. No use getting worked up over something that might never be relevant.

 

At least the king stood by his word and sought Nori’s council about potential places to make camp at night and send Bilbo foraging. That wasn’t exactly what his Hobbit had meant to archive, but it gave at least the illusion of contribution and inclusion. Whether or not Nori liked that feeling under these circumstances he hadn’t quite decided yet, but there was always Bilbo to keep him company.

 

Watching the smaller talk Dori in circles about doilies, tea, and what foolishness young Hobbits got up to when unsupervised was always entertaining. Nori really wanted to be present when Dori found out Bilbo was talking mostly about his own exploits, and not all of them from his fauntling days, but watching his Hobbit trying to learn from Ori how to ride and knit at the same time was also interesting. Then there was Bilbo bugging Balin about dwarven customs and history Nori had known too little about to satisfy Bilbo’s curiosity, never mind that their culture was supposed to remain secret. The thief had never quite understood why they went to such extremes with that, but ... well, it wouldn’t do angering The Maker, just in case He really had sworn their forefathers to secrecy, and Balin probably knew better what was and wasn’t appropriate to tell than Nori anyway.

 

Talking about angering Mahâl, Nori wondered which of the crimes he had committed justified agonising over his ‘agalhaz sanâzyung so; one silver spoon that belonged to a Hobbit he called his own, greedy that he was, but couldn’t properly claim as such because of a One he hadn’t met yet and never would because of the Dragon that would end him and the best damn thing that ever happened, and ...

 

Time to have a little chat with Bofur. Manipulative, charming bastard that he was, the miner was always good for a distraction with his easy laugh and wild stories. Good thing the thief had gotten his Bilbo used to such tales. Proper little Hobbits firmly rooted in their smials would have no doubt fainted over some of them, but Bilbo just laughed along and went on discussion cooking recipes with Bombur or family with Glóin. Nori had no patience to listen to the 100th repetition of `The Glorious Life of Gimli´, and where Nori and Dwalin were concerned, it was a miracle in its own right that they managed to be mostly civil around each other, so his Hobbit didn’t get to talk much with the Hound. Not that Nori would stop him, but the Hobbit was loyal like that, and when Bilbo needed a challenge, he could always try to talk with Óin and Bifur. His Hobbit already knew a sign language very similar to Iglishmêk, but there were enough differences to keep him on his toes.

 

Maybe the ginger thief should warn everyone that Bilbo had a talent for languages. If he put his mind to it, he would get a hang of Khuzdûl before too long, and Nori much rather wouldn’t be there to be blamed. On the other hand, if Bilbo so obviously learned it from someone else, he’d be off the hook.

 

Still, as entertaining as all of that was, Nori’s favourite was probably the chance to just lay on his bedroll, cuddle his Hobbit to his heart’s content, and have his brothers within sight and arm’s reach. Granted, usually one’s brothers and lover so close together was the last thing anyone would want, and Nori would have preferred the lot of them in Bag End with Dori and Ori each in their own beds and rooms as a permanent solution, but after eighteen years of being unable to fully appreciate one because there was always the worry about the other, this was downright exhilarating in its own right; enough so to get Nori in good cheer through the first days of rain. When that started to fail there was always the Company to rely on to offer something else to think on.

 

“Master Tharkûn, can’t you do something about this deluge?”

 

That was Kori’s eldest for you, dignified in his complaints even when looking like a drowned rat. If he wouldn’t have sworn to himself never steal from family (unless it was a matter of life and death), Nori would steal Dori’s mirror just to spare them all the drama that would occur the next time his brother saw his own reflection. Those braids could withstand a lot, but there were limits.

 

“It will stop when the clouds are done raining, Master Dori. If you want to change the weather of the world, you must find yourself find another wizard,” came the snappish answer. Technically it was a deserved reply, but Nori didn’t like anyone talking like that to his brother. Also ...

 

“You mean there are more of your kind?!”

 

That had to be the first time since Bag End that Bilbo directly addressed the wizard, and Nori could fully sympathise with the horror in his voice. One wizard was bad enough, but, Eru, what sick games were the Valar playing with them to unleash more of that kind on Arda?

 

“There are five,” Tharkûn replied if a bit hesitatingly. Maybe he had finally realised that he was currently the least liked person in this mismatched group, though Nori wouldn’t hold his breath over it. “Saruman the White, the leader of our order, and two blue ones that ... huh. Now that I think of it, I haven’t heard of them since they went east. I wonder what they are up to.”

 

“We are so doomed,” Bilbo deadpanned, and he certainly had the right of it. Five, only five of his own kind, and still the damn wizard managed to lose track of not one, but two? There went their chances of survival, slim as they had been to begin with.

 

“And what about the fifth?”

 

“Radagast the Brown. He is ... a gentle soul; prefers the company of animals to people. It makes him admittedly a bit odd at times, antisocial, but he is powerful in his own ways.”

 

Yavanna’s hoe and Mahâl’s hammer! Eru, please never let them run into that wizard, ever! If Tharkûn called that one odd ... on the other hand, maybe that meant this Radagast fellow would turn out quite decent. The question was: did Nori actually want to find out?

 

Bilbo’s dark scowl answered that with a clear `no´, which proved that his Hobbit was the clever one. Staying away from all things wizardly was always the right decision, curiosity be damned, so Nori put it out of his mind again and all but forgot about the other wizards, and even if he wouldn’t have, the Trolls a few days later would have taken care of it.

 

Trolls in Trollshaws. That was not the kind of joke Nori could appreciate, and there were three of the beast, with a camp of their own and a fully functional spit roast, and he and Bilbo had fucking told Thorin (after the blasted wizard had left in a huff because of course Thorin wouldn’t ever voluntarily go to any Elves, much less for help) that staying in a burned down farmhouse was a bad idea. Nori remembered the Man who had lived here when he last passed by not two years ago; a good man, hardworking, smart enough not to let just anyone into the main house, but kind enough to leave the barn unlocked for everyone in need, and offering supplies for less than they were worth. Hopefully, his death had been faster and kinder than what Nori was currently facing, tied to a spit roast with half the Company, his brothers included, and the other half awaiting their fates in burlap sacks.

 

Sometime between Fíli falling into camp, crying about Trolls, Bilbo being seized and threatened to be torn apart, and Thorin throwing his sword down, the thief had been sure he would have a conniption. He hadn’t, but considering their current predicament he might just have preferred that. Nori couldn’t cut himself or anyone else loose because then someone else would end up in the fire, and he wasn’t the kind of person able to make such decisions. The resistance to heat that came naturally to Dwarrow – forges were hot, to say the least, and though many wouldn’t believe it, the deeper you went into a mine, the warmer it actually got – wouldn’t help here either, and that wasn’t even counting the way the smoke made his eyes burn and nose itch, and ...

 

“W-wait! Y-your d-doing it all wrong!”

 

Bilbo? Oh, no nonono no. Hobbits weren’t supposed to call attention to themselves, least of all from Trolls. They were supposed to get away if they could, especially stupidly brave, loyal little Hobbits so close to his- wait. Big, stupid Troll said what?

 

“S-see, I’m a monster, like you. Of course, that’s just what everyone else calls us, impolite sods that they are. They eat cows, and birds, and pigs, and greens, and call us monsters just because our diet has more variety, but a g-gourmet like you must know all about that particular g-grievance, of course.”

 

“No one knows how to appreciate an artist anymore,” the Troll with the apron slurred, and Nori wondered if the smoke had already damaged his mind. What by all the forges was his Hobbit doing, and what did he mean calling himself a monster?

 

“What are you?”

 

“I-I I’m a-a ha- a ho- a b ... I’m a burglahobbit.”

 

“A Burglahobbit? What’s a Burglahobbit?”

 

“Me? Yes, me. I’m B-Ben Burglahobbit o-of the Burglahobbits of ... Harad? Yes, that’s me.”

 

What the ... okay, fire and Trolls aside, Nori had told Bilbo often enough to never give his real name and origin to anyone, but he definitely had also taught him to lie better than that. Not that he had needed much teaching, but still ...

 

“Petty far away from Harad, aren’t you, Ben? Very pale, too.”

 

Exactly what he meant. Trolls were stupid, but not that stupid.

 

“I, uh, I’ve always been different from my kin?”

 

That was ... acceptable, kind of, and caught the interest of the Trolls, and as long as they were curious they wouldn’t go eating any Hobbits, probably. Still, Nori would feel much better turning over the fire if he could at least be sure Bilbo had an actual plan and wasn’t just rambling madly. And would the others be so kind and shut up already? At least someone was trying to buy them time, and ... Green Lady, hopefully Bilbo wasn’t playing for time for Nori to come up with something. His mind was so blank he couldn’t even come up with a bad comparison, never mind an escape plan.

 

“S-see, us Burglahobbits, we are not very widely known because we are so small. Makes hunting easier, you understand, though also being hunted. Terrible business that. How is one supposed to feed their young like that? So my great-granduncle Ben Burglahobbit – Ben the first, that is, I’m the third in our family to share his name – had this marvellous idea to settle down in a remote area and breed our own food. Oh, what splendid times. We bred sheep, pigs, cows, and birds, and Men, and Dwarrow, even tried for Elves once, but they break so easily and don’t have much meat anyway, so we gave up on that.”

 

“How did you keep them from running,” the Troll turning the spit asked curiously, but sadly didn’t stop in his task, and despite the dire situation Nori found himself wondering the same thing. It sounded like a good story if one planned to scared faunts, but too elaborate to actually get anyone out of trouble.

 

Dinner and entertainment. It wouldn’t be a bad way to go, except for the part of them being the dinner.

 

“Ah, that is a family secret, I fear, though I suppose I could tell you, from one cook to another, but I need to finish my task first.”

 

“What task?”

 

“An important one,” Bilbo insisted, and on his next turn, Nori could see him standing there in his burlap sack and nodding vigorously to underline his own words. “Breeding, it turns out, is a bit more complicated than my ancestor thought, so my brothers went out to catch us more Dwarrow, and Men, and such; fresh blood to keep the stock healthy, and I believe Aunt Milli wanted to give Elves another try. (She’s a bit odd in the head, but don’t tell her I said so.) Anyway. So my brothers went out, but the livestock they brought back was sick. Terrible business, truly terrible. We could contain it, and because I’m the odd one out, I was to lead the sick far away from our settlement.”

 

“Sick?! You say they are sick?”

 

“Oh, yes, indeed, and the worst part is: dead they are even more contagious than alive,” Bilbo agreed, and Nori couldn’t for the life of him understand how those Trolls could believe any of that. Not that he was complaining, of course; it certainly was a novel (and insane) approach, but the way Bilbo was pulling it off, the only solution was to let them all go. And it might just work, too!

 

“I don’t believe you.”

 

Or not. Ibzag.

 

“It does sound rather silly, doesn’t it? If I were told such a tale, I wouldn’t believe it either, and yet my family lies sick, maybe dying, as we speak. I was the last one healthy enough to travel, though I have to say I haven’t been feeling all that well lately either.”

 

Whatever Bilbo was planning, Nori sure hoped it happened soon. This back and forth was killing him as much as the heat and smoke were, and that didn’t even account for the worry about his brothers.

 

“You don’t look sick; neither do they.”

 

“That’s the treacherous part of it. It might be more than one kind of sickness, I don’t know, but it affects everyone differently. With the Dwarrow, for example, the sickness seems to affect their minds first; makes them behave very odd indeed. Why, earlier they tried to free me, which would be utterly ridiculous if they were to be my lunch under better conditions, wouldn’t you say? Clearly touched in the head they are. And the Men coughed up blood until they turned blue and died. My family, on the other hand ... it didn’t look so bad at first. Our feet just got too big for our boots, but then they all got a terrible case of the runs, and when it started to spread, my brothers admitted they had the Dwarrow from a Cave-troll. Now, I only heard my brothers’ version, of course, but you seem much smarter and cultivated than that other fellow. He supposedly had been moaning about seemingly harmless symptoms the one night – sneezing, they said, itches, and a shorter temper than was usual for him – and two nights later, puff, dead he was. Just like that.”

 

Nori wasn’t entirely sure what happened next, but the spit stopped turning (with him facing the flames. Joy), and the Trolls started to argue among themselves. Then someone shouted something, things got brighter, literally, and a moment later the Trolls were stone, and the thief spotted Bilbo determinately shovelling dirt onto the flames with his bare hands.

 

When the fire was out and Nori cut down, Bilbo was gone from his sight, replaced with Thorin helping Bofur down and checking on everyone. The thief turned to his brothers where Bifur helped them down, gave them a once-over, and let them do the same while looking for his Hobbit.

 

That turned out quite unnecessary as the next moment he had Bilbo barrel into him, and Nori wasn’t entirely happy with that since he couldn’t see if the smaller was hurt when pressed so close, but neither was he willing to let go.

 

“Can we go home now?” Bilbo sobbed, and the thief would have loved to agree, but couldn’t help asking: “Harad?” which earned him an elbow into the ribs.

 

“I panicked! And it’s not as if anyone else had a better idea.”

 

There was an undeniable truth to that. The thief couldn’t remember having a more productive thought that `Valar, please, let Bilbo have a plan´ – embarrassing, but in his defence, usually when he was in a comparable situation, he only had to worry about getting himself out of trouble, never more than three others, and certainly never anyone he couldn’t even bear the thought of losing. Also, he might have grown a bit fond of the entire company, kind of. Just a bit.

 

“But what were you thinking engaging three Trolls on your own in the first place?”

 

“Nothing, actually. I saw one of them carrying off Tomato and Oregano and couldn’t not try to save them. I certainly didn’t plan to serve anyone as a kerchief,” Bilbo sniffed, and tried to pull away, though only half heartily on account of his hobbity sensibility about hugging people while covered in mucus. Nori most certainly didn’t give a damn, especially considering how he had to smell and look himself.

 

At least they all had gotten out of it alive, though he wasn’t too sure Bilbo’s travel coat would survive, but Thorin was already shouting orders again, so they would be fine.

 

“Fíli, Kíli, with me. Master Baggins ...”

 

With the exception of the king, who was obviously an insensible clod on top of a suicidal idiot and would not survive the next hour if he continued as Nori feared.

 

“No! I just burgled 13 Dwarrow from three grown Trolls despite the lot of you trying your best to get us all eaten alive. All I will do today is take a bath and catch up on sleep, and if you have a problem with that, you are free to crawl back into the sack! And, while you’re at it, find out how your nephews could miss a Mountain-troll carrying off our ponies!”

 

Thorin gaped, and it was hilarious. One would think by now he knew not to rile Bilbo when the Hobbit was already on the edge.

 

“If you would let me finish, Master Baggins,” the Dwarf-king continued, though calmer. “I meant to suggest we all could use a bath, and you should go first. Take Masters Nori and Bofur with you. Wouldn’t do to have our burglar drown.”

 

“Thank you,” the Hobbit shouted at the majestically retreating back (not to be mistaken with hastily fleeing, even if it looked the same), though to Nori it sounded more like `fuck you´.

 

“So,” Bofur drawled after a heavy pause, dusting off his hat that had somehow survived without any damage. “That was ... different. Would you rather I leave you two alone?”

 

“At this point, I don’t give a damn. I just want to get this ... ugh, I just want to bath. Where is the soap?”

Chapter Text


 

Considering their almost demise by Trolls, Bilbo was currently a rather content Hobbit. They hadn’t moved camp yet, arguing that it was unlikely anything else would live so close to a Troll camp, and generally too tired to go on anyway. Hence it was decided on a day of rest.

 

Clean, rested, and fed was a good state to be in. His pipe-weed had survived the rain, Bombur was already fixing dinner, and soon Bilbo would have freshly washed clothes as well, since doing laundry had been the only available punishment for Fíli and Kíli.

 

After failing to watch the ponies – how exactly they had missed a Troll was still unknown – they now had to watch the clothes dry, and every time they tried to get up, someone would press them back down. They were also forced to endure an impromptu history lesson concerning Hobbits, as Ori had expressed great interest in the topic and Balin had instantly joined them. Dori was alternately fussing over Ori and Bilbo, and Óin was mulling over the recipe of Bilbo’s salve for bruises the Hobbit had forced on the Company earlier (and for good reason. The sight hadn’t been pretty, to say the least), while Bifur stood guard close by. The others had, on Gandalf’s and Thorin’s insistence, sought out the troll-hoard. What they expected to find in a cave they had discovered by following their noses in a very literal and very unpleasant way, the Hobbit couldn’t imagine and didn’t want to know either.

 

He was much happier outside in the sun either way, thank you very much. There had been much surprise when he mentioned the Shire’s affiliation to the King of Arnor, who had granted their ancestors settling rights in Third Age 1601 (which equalled year 1 by Shire Reckoning, naturally), which in turn had led to almost all Hobbits of Middle-earth migration into the region now known as the Shire over the following 30 years.

 

“So Hobbits have a king after all.”

 

“We’ve been independent since the fall of Arnor, and even if anyone came knocking for taxes or whatever kings would want from us, they’d have to find us first, and then prove they are the rightful king, and then there’d be a huge amount of paperwork involved in signing over the power, and all the records they’d have to go through. I don’t know all the details, but I’m certain we will remain independent no matter what,” Bilbo grinned deviously. Just because they carried no obvious weapons didn’t mean Hobbits didn’t know how to defend their land. That hardly anyone outside Eriador knew Hobbits even existed also helped greatly.

 

“Ah, bureaucracy. A most powerful weapon indeed,” Balin nodded over the twin groans from Morgoth’ Spawns, as even princes-in-exile had to suffer the particular evil of paperwork. “But you say your kind has not always lived in the Shire?”

 

“No. Before that our ancestors lived all over Eriador, Tharbad, and Dunland, wherever they found something suitable after the Wandering Days. I imagine after centuries of homeless wandering they were not too picky. And before that, I believe, we lived east of the Misty Mountains, probably in the upper vales of the Anduin. We have a few songs and stories still of that time, but our earlier history and origins were lost to time and struggle.”

 

“You don’t know where Hobbits come from?”

 

“Really now,” Bilbo huffed around the stem of his pipe in amusement. “I believe we are all far past the age where we’d need to discuss where faunts come from, or pebbles.”

 

“True, true. Unless Hobbits go about it another way,” Balin chuckled. “Men, for instance, seem to largely believe Dwarrow are quite literally hewn from stone, probably because our children are too few and too precious to take on journeys, and they seem unable to keep our females and males apart.”

 

“Ah, yes. I heard something similar about Hobbits. Some seem to believe we have so many children because we grow them like cabbage on the fields. Ridiculous, really. We’d at least plant proper gardens for them to grow strong and well protected, but the truth is that I’m pretty sure we’re not doing anything different in that regard than Men. Anyone saying different ... well, I’d send them to my maternal grandmother, bless her soul. She had born 12 healthy children in her time and surely wouldn’t stand let anyone belittle that.”

 

Bilbo really loved the reaction that bit of information used to bring forth in everyone not a Hobbit, and was thus laughing loudly when Thorin joined them, announced more by the stench clinging to him (his own damn fault for going into that cave) than his looming presence.

 

“And what is so funny, Master Baggins?”

 

“The expressions of people when I tell them about my mother’s eleven siblings.”

 

Sadly, Thorin’s reaction wasn’t nearly as gobsmacked, but the raised eyebrow could count as impressed and Thorin didn’t challenge Adamata Took’s legacy, so Bilbo let it slip. Not that being a mother of twelve was the only accomplishment of grandma Took, but considering what Bilbo knew about the low birth-rates among Dwarrow, he figured that would impress them more than her baking and ability to reign in even the most unruly of her family with a single glare.

 

“Was there something you needed, Master Thorin?”

 

`Aside from another bath,´ the Hobbit thought, but felt generous and kept that opinion to himself.

 

“If you insist on getting into trouble, you should at least carry a proper weapon,” the king in exile said and thrust a sword at Bilbo. At least in the Hobbit’s hands it was a sword; in truth it was probably an elven dagger, going by the leafy designs on the blade and scabbard, and it was in surprisingly good condition considering its origins. Still ...

 

“Yes, well, thank you, I guess. I’m sure it’s a gracious offer, but I’d much rather not.”

 

“You need a weapon!”

 

“And your concern honours you, but I have seen more than enough blood and death in my life already to not want to add to that.”

 

“You can’t keep defending yourself and others with just that pan!”

 

“Before you slander The Pan, you should have a look at the kharum uzhar,” Nori threw in with a grin that didn’t settle right with anyone, before turning to nuzzle into amber curls. “Keep the fancy elven dagger, melekûnuh. As formidable a weapon your pan is, there are indeed a lot of things out there that won’t be impressed by it, and I can’t always protect you.”

 

“I’m pretty sure I was the one doing the protecting so far,” Bilbo deadpanned, but accepted the blade after all. He still preferred his trusted pan, but just as the knife Nori insisted he always needed to have on his person had definitely served its purpose cutting him free from that awful burlap sack, having a sword at hand might turn out for the better in the end. Maybe he should also get a few lessons in handling it while he was at it. The Hobbit hadn’t been paying much attention during the fight against the Trolls, but he knew it took more than just sticking the pointy end into an enemy. There was at the very least the problem of distinguishing friend from foe in the heat of battle, and the difference surely wouldn’t always be as obvious as last night.

 

His musing was interrupted by Dwalin’s sudden, bellowed laugh, and then the bald Dwarf all but threw the pan into Thorin’s face. The Dwarf-king looked rather constipated at that (more constipated than usually, that is), his frown deepening as he gave the object a once-over. Afterwards, his opinion changed very fast.

 

“Fine. It is a good pan and will hold through more than just cooking ... but still not a weapon. Dwalin will teach you to handle that letter opener,” Thorin grumped, and went away again, completely ignoring his best friend’s complaints of `why me?!´. It took a bit of effort, but Bilbo firmly decided not to take that personal. Surely it was simply the ongoing feud between the guard and his thief, and Bilbo’s own very clear and very biased standing in that conflict, that prompted the Dwarf’s reaction. Besides, Dwalin was the kind of Dwarf to complain about it until late in the night, and then wake poor, tired Hobbits at least an hour before everyone else to teach them the basics of swordplay just as he had taught Morgoth’s Spawns ... on that note, maybe Bilbo should take it personally after all.

 

Time for a change of topic.

 

“Okay, what is so special about my pan, and will I need to hit someone with it because of that?” Bilbo asked, now also looking over said object, trying and failing to see what had been so amusing.

 

“Well ...”

 

“Out with it or so help me ...”

 

“Thorin forged it.”

 

Ah. That was of course- wait.

 

“He did what?”

 

“I needed a ... it was our ...I mean,” Nori stuttered, then cleared his throated and tried acting aloft. “Your pan was clearly of inferior make, and a good cook should have a good pan. Especially when cooking for me.”

 

Bilbo couldn’t see how unimpressed he looked when faced with such an obvious lie, but it must have been very unimpressed indeed, bordering on insulted. However, mostly he just wanted to know if the other’s first attempts might have involved the words `gift´ or `anniversary´ because Bilbo certainly had thought of it as such, and when Nori thought it as well ... Eru, but the way his thief suddenly found the sky so fascinating was quite adorable.

 

“You bought me a pan forged by a king?”

 

“He’s a good smith. And, for the record, the emphasis is on `bought´; I don’t give stolen goods to family.”

 

“I know, but you bought me a pan forged by a king, dear. Why didn’t you tell me? All that time Lobelia was after my silverware, and I could have waved a pan forged by a king in front of her face.”

 

“You realise your silver is worth more than the pan, yes?”

 

“To a Dwarf? Certainly, but to a Hobbit a good pan is invaluable, and this is a damn good pan. I’d choose it over that silly elven sword any day.”

 

On the other end of the camp Thorin puffed up like an especially fluffy bird, and the Hobbit rolled his eyes. He would have said the same about a silly dwarven sword or one made by a Man, but, well, Thorin didn’t need to know that, right? And Bilbo could write down some sympathy points on his side for when they would eventually clash again. Having Nori laugh and hug him was a good thing as well.

 

“Hobbits never cease to be amazing.”

 

“And don’t you forget it. Now, what were you doing so long in that awful cave?”

 

All of the sudden the thief became quite serious again and pulled Bilbo, Dori, and Ori together. He was very insistent they all memorise the location of the cave and where exactly Bofur, Glóin, and he had buried a chest of gold. There were a lot of spoken and unspoken `ifs´ in his arguments, usually paired with their questionable chances of survival.

 

Needless to say, their general reaction to someone suddenly breaking through the bushes was altogether not a very positive one. It might have something to with an odd man – larger than a Dwarf, smaller than a Man, and with the general appearance of one who hadn’t seen soap or a comb in several years – riding a sleigh pulled by big fluffy rabbits, and spouting nonsense about thieves, fire, and murder – Nori’s expression when for a change he was instantly pulled behind the protective backs of Bilbo, Dori, and Ori must have been priceless, except no one was quite paying attention – and then the actual worst thing happened: Gandalf recognised the man.

 

“Radagast the Brown ... what on earth are you doing here?”

 

“Mahâl’s furry stones! Of all the horrors, did it have to be another wizard?”

 

“Suddenly roasting over a fire doesn’t like seem such a bad fate anymore,” Nori agreed suspiciously as Gandalf pulled Radagast away to talk in private. Well, he wouldn’t get any privacy, that was for sure. One wizard was bad enough, but two conversing about something that started with `thieves, fire, murder´ warranted investigation.

 

“Let the specialists take care of that,” Bilbo couldn’t resist telling Thorin after the grumpy Dwarf had been rudely foiled in his own attempts to listen in. Granted, neither Bilbo nor Nori had been hired as spies, but they had agreed to put their skills into the service of the Company for now, and walking unseen and unheard was a necessity for thieves and a natural speciality of Hobbits, never mind that Bilbo had good ears as well.

 

“You should have everyone pack up camp. I got a really bad feeling. The kind that makes you want to run into bad rock if you know what I mean,” Nori added, and Thorin did, in fact, not seem to know, but followed the advice anyway, for which the Hobbit was rather grateful. He was familiar with that particular phrase but had never fully understood the reference either, only that it meant they should have left an hour ago at least.

 

Nori’s warning and Thorin’s compliance turned out to be rather fortunate because, while the wizards discussed things that might become a huge problem in the future, the Wargs and Orcs were a very real and very current danger. They also appeared quite suddenly, which might have been for the best as well. Would Bilbo have had time for it, the memories of Fell Winter might have overwhelmed him. As it was, he was too distracted to even point out that letting a madman on a rabbit-sleigh bait Wargs was bound to fail.

 

Bilbo let instincts he hadn’t known he possessed take over as they first ran from and then fought against the beasts. His memory of the whole thing was fuzzy at best up until the point they were all sitting in a hole in a ground – not Bag End or any other smial, but an actual hole Gandalf had pushed them down into after his very much not appreciated vanishing act – and there were a whole lot of more arms holding him than he had expected, and ...

 

“Why is Thorin complaining about Elves this time?”

 

“Seems they saved our hides, melekûnuh. Kind of. Maybe accidentally.”

 

“Ah. Very fortunate that. Everyone alright?”

 

“Seems that way.”

 

“Good, good. Then surely everyone can let go of the nice cuddly Hobbit, and – carefully, mind you – put him back on his feet, yes? Us Hobbits really don’t care for not being connected to good solid ground. We’re very dwarven in that regard, or so I’m told,” Bilbo pointed out, and, lo and behold, he was put back down on his own feet and most arms vanished. Nori’s remained, naturally, but the Hobbit was very alright with that. Ori was more hanging onto Nori than Bilbo anyway, which was also acceptable, and Dori was patting his head, which ... not so alright, actually, but the Hobbit was maybe a wee bit too scared right now to tell the oldest brother that. He was pretty sure he had seen Dori literally split open a Warg-skull just a moment ago; it certainly gave those stories about unwanted suitors flying 20 yards after a solid wall a whole new dimension. That was to say, Bilbo wasn’t scared of Dori, and knew from Nori’s telling that the oldest brother never used his strength against those he liked, but indulging the Dwarf like this only hurt Bilbo’s dignity a bit. Considering what they just lived through, that was a ridiculously low price to pay.

 

“Master Baggins?”

 

“Yes, lad?” the Hobbit sighed. After the river and the Trolls, he supposed it was justified to dread being approached by Kíli, except the lad was looking rather ill and wrung his hands, and Fíli was pale as well. Now that he thought about, there had been something involving the youngest prince, and arrows, and a Warg almost getting too close if it wouldn’t have been for Bilbo’s intervention. Eru, he really should take Thorin up on that offer/order to train with Dwalin. Not remembering the gruesome details was one thing, a very good thing, but he should at least be able to keep his head during battle, metaphorical and literal.

 

“I, uh, I wanted to thank you. I ... I owe you for that, a debt, or three. I think by now I actually owe you my life. Or my first-born.”

 

“That’s not funny, lad.”

 

“Indeed it isn’t,” Fíli said gravely and looked the part as well, which was very disturbing. “I’ll take my brother’s debts. I will see them settled.”

 

“Fee ...”

 

“Not a word, Kíli.”

 

“Now, both of you stop right there,” Bilbo threw in, not quite caring that they were drawing the attention of everyone else. “What is this nonsense about debts? And what by the Green Mother am I supposed to do with either of your first-borns?”

 

“Take good care of them?” the younger brother suggested crestfallen and got pulled down on eye-level with Bilbo by his ear. He would have done the same with Fíli as well had the other stood within reach.

 

“I’ll try simpler words: why do you say you owe me?”

 

“Well, there was Master Nori saving us from the assassin and being off worse for it, then us defiling your home, almost getting you killed, twice, accidentally, then you saved us from the Trolls, and now you saved me from that Warg ...”

 

“Oh, Mahâl’s stones!” Nori suddenly groaned. “Life-debts, seriously? That’s gone out of fashion ages ago; got too many people killed. Sweet mercy, lad, only thieves and cutthroats would still hold onto it if they could trust each other further than the length of their knives.”

 

“Fíli, Kíli,” Thorin thundered, and this time the conflicting emotions echoing over his face were not the least entertaining nor did he try to hide them. “Did you swear any debts?”

 

“Only this one.”

 

“It didn’t come up before.”

 

“It better! Nori’s right, it went out of practice centuries ago, and for good reason. Where did you get the silly notion to do this?”

 

“But you said ... You and ‘amad always took on our debts,” Fíli pointed out confused, bordering on hysteric, Kíli nodding along, and Bilbo wished someone would explain to him what the ever-loving pie was going on.

 

“We wanted to show you were can be responsible adults, and Balin said ...”

 

“Balin?!”

 

The advisor raised his hands in defence.

 

“Certainly not in this context. Pointing out past concepts, perhaps, but surely not ....”

 

“Enough!”

 

Given their previous clashes, it would have surprised no one had Bilbo been the one to call everyone to order like that, but the Hobbit was as confused as the lads, though for different reasons. Bofur, however, was obviously boiling over with anger, and it was very disturbing to see the usually so upbeat miner like this. That he stood protectively in front of Fíli and Kíli was not quite as unusual.

 

“For Pity’s sake, Thorin, everyone knows you love the lads like your own, so stop making everyone miserable by pretending otherwise! They just want to make you proud, and they are young. Of course, they make mistakes, some graver than others, but they won’t learn if you only ever shout at them. Now hug already. That was one brush with death too many in too few days, and while you’re at it, thank Master Baggins for risking himself to save the lad. Mâhal knows we all own him more than simple thanks at this point, but let’s start there anyway.”

 

That ... was most unusual, and though Bilbo was still a bit snappish about previously having been tricked by the miner, he was starting to become as concerned as Nori sounded when he asked Bofur if he was alright. Suddenly Bofur slumped against his brother.

 

“Yes, apologies. Don’t know what came over me. Must be the walls; I get I a terrible headache just looking at them. Also, weren’t we running from Orcs just a moment ago? Shouldn’t we continue with that, just to be safe?”

 

“Now that is a good idea if I ever heard one,” Glóin commented and started to strut ahead. There was only a single way out of the small cave that didn’t involve climbing back up and possibly right into the arms of either Orcs or Elves, so it should be safe to turn their backs on Thorin likely being very un-kingly with his nephews. Bilbo knew as a fact that Ori had a sketch or three of the lads using their uncle as a pillow hidden away in his journal, so they weren’t missing out on new blackmail material either, and Dori and Balin very insistently dragged their remaining wizard with them to prevent further meddling.

 

Thoughts of debts and why it had everyone so in an uproar circling through his mind, Bilbo tugged on Nori’s arm before him to get his attention and hopefully answers to another question.

 

“Why does Bofur’s stone-sense give him a headache here? Assuming it’s related to his stone-sense. I still don’t quite understand how it works, and why are you fine and he is not?”

 

“And I don’t understand how you can look at a patch of dirt and know if the tomatoes will grow especially well there or not at all while Lobelia can’t even grow grass. Mysteries of life, melekûnuh,” Nori grinned, and it had that sharpness to it that reminded Bilbo of knives. For a moment he wondered if there was maybe something wrong with him for finding those knife-smiles way more attractive than Bofur’s joyous dimples, for example. Then again, he was several years too late for that kind of revelation, so why bother worrying?

 

Soon Thorin and the lads caught up with them again, Kíli up front, and Fíli in the back, but of course only because the younger brother was so energetic and the path in parts so narrow they feared Bombur would get stuck. It had nothing to do with their Uncle trying to go in the wrong direction.

 

Soon the king became a gloomy presence in Bilbo’s back that was difficult to ignore.

 

“I won’t even pretend to know what this whole mess with debts was about, but I know a thing or two about dwarven idiocy and assume your tradition demands that once spoken we can’t just forget about this whole business, so you intend to take their debts as your own.”

 

The Dwarf growled an affirmative, most telling in the way he didn’t reprimand Bilbo for insulting the traditions of his people, and the Hobbit hummed in thought, then shouted for Ori somewhere in front of them.

 

“When you have the opportunity later, could you please add to your records that this Hobbit will not be accepting any debts that can’t be settled with a hearty meal and an ale from any Dwarf of this Company or their immediate family in any future situation?”

 

“I can do that, Master Baggins.”

 

“Just Bilbo, lad. And that goes for everyone here. Every Dwarf that is. Almost being eaten twice within a day should suffice to get us on first-name-basis.”

 

“Only if you do the same,” Dori called from roughly the same distance ahead as Ori; a more or less muffled chorus of `aye´ following.

 

“My pleasure. I fear I was starting to slip already anyway. Any objections?”

 

None came forth, and Bilbo was quite pleased with himself. Wizards and ending up as dinner for one reason or another notwithstanding, he had been getting closer with the members of the Company and rather liked the thought to now be travelling with something akin to friends instead of just comrades.

 

“Splendid. Now, Thorin, you were saying?”

 

“The debts. I will see them repaid.”

 

“Ah, yes. Well, if I can’t stop you, can I at least choose in which manner you do that?”

 

The Dwarf-king frowned deeply enough to be felt rather than seen.

 

“That is the usual way to go about it,” he said, and Bilbo imagined an unsaid `unless you prefer to let me save you from mortal danger´. That wouldn’t do. Nori had first dibs on getting him out of those, and so far it had been the Hobbit saving everyone either way, never mind that he didn’t actually intend to encounter any near-death experiences again anytime soon.

 

Briefly, Bilbo considered having their contracts dissolved, but ... he liked the Company, he really did, or was at least fond of most, and since their talk with Thorin in Bree it was impossible to pretend he wasn’t invested in the quest anymore. They just wanted a home, needed and deserved a home, and if a Dragon-infested mountain was truly the only choice ...

 

“In that case, I will consider all debts between us settled if you try to be civil with the next potential host with affordable beds we come across, and that you let us stay at least three nights there. I, for one, am in desperate need of some decent sleep and could use a hot bath if at all possible.”

 

“You would waste a life-debt on such frivolities?”

 

Comforts,” Bilbo corrected amused, poking Nori’s back to keep the thief from laughing. “And what else should I ask for? I’m a Hobbit, Thorin. I have no use for life-debts, and gold does not make for a good mattress, I imagine, but a soft bed and hot bath? Oh, I have plenty of use for that.”

 

Though he obviously couldn’t understand how one could throw away such an opportunity, Thorin was fast to agree to Bilbo’s conditions, and as it turned out not a moment too soon.

 

In front of them Bofur suddenly groaned, and a moment later Bilbo thought he could actually feel why and jumped back, right into Thorin, Fíli, and Kíli.

 

Of course, Nori instantly noticed he wasn’t keeping up anymore.

 

"Melekûnuh?”

 

“I’m alright, really, but remember when we went to Mithlond and I told you there was something odd in the air around the city? Well, this feels similar, only a lot stronger.”

 

“What are you talking about, Master Baggins?” Thorin groused.

 

“It’s Bilbo, and I’m speaking about you having the opportunity to settle that debt much sooner than expected, and I dare say you won’t complain about me wasting an opportunity then anymore either.”

Chapter Text


 

He may have misjudged the Hobbit, much as Thorin disliked having to admit that. Oh, Master Baggins was an odd creature and most certainly not entirely sane, but he was loyal (to those he deemed worthy), had a caring heart, and was not as unsuited for the wilds and this quest as the Dwarf-king had assumed at first. As idiotic as it had seemed then, no one else had thought of stalling for time with the Trolls, and for a moment he had thought he would have to watch his sister-sons die. The lads had been right about that life-debt, with the exception of saying so out loud. That had been stupid, but in theory ...

 

He couldn’t exactly fault them for that, not really. In his youth, he had skipped lessons as well when he still could afford it, and Balin was a skilled advisor and diplomat, but could easily get lost in storytelling. Thorin should have learned from the incident with The Talk, the one most parents and parental figures dreaded to have with their children, that some things just had to be done in person, with a keg of good ale after agreeing to not meet eyes afterwards for a week or two, and never talk about it in such detail again.

 

It had been most awkward, to say the least, but not worse than changing nappies or sitting day and night at their bed, praying the fever wouldn’t take his precious boys, but that had been different because it should have never been him doing it. Víli should have been the one they ran to when frightened, who told them wild stories with the mischievous grin Kíli had somehow inherited, and went through his days with dishevelled hair the same colour as Fíli’s after the boys practised their braiding on him. Víli should have been the one gifting them their first swords, teaching Kíli to hunt and Fíli to whittle, and laughing at them as their first pipes made them cough and be sick for two days. But Víli had died, slain by Orcs the winter after Kíli’s birth. There had been no one else left to do it in the weeks Dís’ grief had been too great, so Thorin had done what he could.

 

Later his sister had insisted they needed a father figure, and that he would do well by them. When she had said out loud what he had thought all the while, that there was no one else left, her hands had been shaking, but not her voice.

 

He didn’t need Bofur to point out that he had failed them. Dís would skin him alive when she heard about the Trolls, Víli would have skinned him for letting them join this quest, to begin with, no matter how much he had tried to prevent it ... and Frerin would have skinned the wizard for giving him the idea, and then dragged Thorin, Víli, and the lads off to get utterly wasted until they forgot there had ever been someone named Tharkûn in the first place. Or maybe he would have been even more eager than Thorin had been before the reality of the quest had caught up with him. It was so difficult to guess which of his characteristics his brother might have grown into or out of, which new, surprising ones, might have later appeared.

 

Frerin had been far too young at Azanulbizar, they all had been. No one had complained when he had pushed the age when Dwarflings were allowed to take up arms up or join suicide quests up a few decades. Only Gimli had protested when it turned out that he was too young to join this quest, which proved that the lad was far too young to come along more than his actual age.

 

Now that he had seen his nephews, pale and wide-eyed, clinging to each other, and no doubt as unable to sleep as Thorin and Frerin had been back then ... Víli’s skinning knife would have been kinder than that, and Thorin was extremely grateful that Master Baggins had taken the lads under his protection, despite their less than unfortunate start.

 

Looking at it from that angle, Thorin actually deserved this.

 

Elves. Many of them, no doubt, in their very own elven fortress, even if it lacked the actual fortifications to mark it as such. And the Dwarf-king was honour bound to be nice to them; to be civil enough that they could rest at least three nights with possible access to bathing facilities and food.

 

It would be worth it, of course; there was nothing Thorin wouldn’t do for his sister-sons – he made a mental note to ask Nori if the offer to teach the boys was still up. Fighting honourable was all well and good in theory; out here they would need every advantage they could get. In fact, he would have had them taught earlier if only it weren’t so very difficult to find a trustworthy shady character – and he had no one to blame for this than himself. True, Master Baggins had actually only said he should try, but he didn’t deserve so much kindness, so Thorin would make it happen, and he would blame Tharkûn for every inconvenience along the way. Recent history proved it was usually the wizard’s fault anyway.

 

Also, much as he loathed to admit it, they actually did need the help of the Elves. They had lost supplies, though not as many as they could have, and none of them had gotten out of the last few days without scratches. They hadn’t approached Thorin or Óin about it, but he knew the Urs were additionally running out of the herbs needed for Bifur, and now Bofur had a headache as well and of course refused to take his cousin’s herbs though they might help him.

 

So being nice to Elves it was ... but how by Mahâl’s furry stones was he supposed to do that? Pretending they were Men would help if Thorin wouldn’t be so certain he would not be able to keep that up for very long. Hopefully, the constant reminder that he had given Master Baggins his word (in a roundabout way), and was doing it for the well of his Company and nephews would be enough to keep his anger from showing. It had to be.

 

 

For all that they must have upset their magical barrier quite thoroughly – that was what Master Baggins had meant, right? Magical barriers around their cities that made the Hobbit’s ears ring, and caused Bofur’s headache – it couldn’t be said they were expected. The guards looked suspicious in their impassive way but didn’t stop them (which might have something to do with Tharkûn being with them. Finally that menace was good for something), and only a single, dark-haired Elf came flying down the stairs with the ridiculous dramatics their kind cultivated.

 

Mithrandir. It has been a long time, and you have brought guests. Be welcome in Imladris. I am Lindir. How can I assist you?”

 

A large part of Thorin wanted to sneer and snap (in short: be his usual unpleasant self. He was quite aware that he was not a people-person, especially when Elves were involved), but his pride was stronger, and that was a good thing (for a change). He had given Master Baggins his word that he would try, and promised himself he would see it through, so he would swallow every comment about how it should be obvious that they needed food, healers, and baths, not necessarily in that order. No, he would take a deep breath and remind himself that the Elf had welcomed them, offered his name and assistance, and all that in a language they all could understand, which was a lot more than Thorin had expected, to say the least, and there was an easy protocol to follow for that kind of reception.

 

“We need to speak with Lord Elr-”

 

Maybe the Hobbit wasn’t so insane after all. His pan was as extraordinary as its wielder, independent of Thorin’s involvement in its making, and if he would have known back then that he had crafted the one weapon able to shut up a wizard, he’d never sold it. And he must have sold it. He would have remembered if ever a pan of all things would have been stolen from him.

 

With one of his darkest glares for the grey-clothed Man, Thorin handed The Pan back to the Hobbit who had had the foresight to offer it, taking notice of the smug little smirk on the smaller’s face. There had been a time Thorin had respected the wizard, been wary of him even. He wouldn’t have imagined how gratifying it could be to take a swing at someone supposedly so much more powerful than him, but he would absolutely not let Tharkûn walk all over him anymore. Last he had checked, this was still his Company (in Ori’s journal it was even named after him), and not that of a meddling old clod.

 

I,” he emphasised so the blasted wizard would hopefully get the point already (not that he had much hope in that regard), “am Thorin Oakenshield, and these are family and friends of mine. We were beset by Mountain-trolls but a few hours from here and are in need of a safe place to rest and treat our wounded, resupply if you can spare anything. The Warg-riders spooked our ponies, and we lost many of our belongings with them.”

 

“Trolls and Warg-riders?” the Elf cried out, and Thorn grid his teeth.

 

“If you need proof, there are now three very ugly statues in Trollshaws.”

 

“Peace, Master Oakenshield. I did not mean to discredit your words. Only, I am surprised to hear such news. It has been a long time since such creatures dared to venture this close to our border. My Lord Elrond is out hunting at the present, and he has the last word in this, but I will not turn away those in need, and neither will he. If you would follow me, we shall find you all a bath and then healers, unless you require imminent aid? No offence, of course, only, our healers are very ... particular about cleanliness if they can afford the time.”

 

Thorin gaped, there was no other way to describe it, eyes flickering to the other’s ears. Yep, still pointy, still an Elf, still not glowering arrogantly down at them, still with a kind and understanding smile, and the Dwarf-king wondered if maybe he had hit his head especially hard recently. He couldn’t remember (which didn’t mean it hadn’t happened), didn’t suffer from a headache, and going by Dwalin’s expression, Thorin wasn’t imagining things either. That only left one or several of the Valar having a good laugh at his expense as an option, or he had accidentally found the single kind Elf in all Middle-earth.

 

His bet was on the Valar, or maybe Víli taking his revenge from The Halls, the latter an oddly cheering thought.

 

“Nothing urgent enough that a bath would put anyone in danger. Thank you.”

 

No one was more surprised at how honest and easy those words passed his lips than Thorin himself, and following the Elf up the stairs he briefly entertained the thought that maybe, just maybe, he should reconsider his opinion about Elves. Not the Elves of Mirkwood, never them, but maybe the Elves of Rivendell were indeed different in more than the colour of their hair.

 

It was a disturbing thought and fortunately didn’t weight on Thorin’s shoulders for long. A noise like thunder had him push everyone not ranking a warrior (plus his sister-sons because his love for them would always trump reason) behind them. The stairs made it a dangerous move, but still safer than they would have been had they still stood in the actual yard.

 

Twenty Elves or so – Thorin was more concerned about the amount and size of hooves trampling around than the actual number of riders – rode in on their horses, circling Tharkûn, who stood alone, and the king-in-exile thought that some of the riders looked rather surprised at that, though it also made him wonder just what they had expected to find here for such a ridiculous display. This certainly didn’t look like a good place to dismount – not enough room for so many, and no stables anywhere within sight to start with – and `their´ Elf certainly didn’t look as if this was a common occurrence either. It seemed more like a show to intimidate someone, but the Elves couldn’t have known they were coming, unless ...

 

“My Lord Elrond, I ...,” Master Lindir started – Thorin had decided to memorise this one’s name and face, and filed it under `be nice to as Master Baggins requested´. It had nothing to do with any sudden fondness for the first kind Elf he had encountered in his life. Nope. Not happening. The stubbornness of the Line of Durin always won out – and was promptly ignored. The one who had to be Lord Elrond turned instead to Tharkûn and talked with only the wizard. In Sindarin.

 

Thorin didn’t say so out loud, but he heartily agreed with Master Baggins grousing under his breath about how very impolite it was to ignore one’s guests and speak a language they had to assume said guests couldn’t understand. Assume, because Thorin actually could understand spoken Sindarin, and guessing from their expressions, so could Ori and Master Baggins. The Dwarf-king was nowhere near fluent, but it had been part of his upbringing, and he later had made a point to maintain a basic knowledge of the language. In secret, of course. Tactical advantage or not, it was still the language of Elves.

 

“Thorin, son of Thráin. I knew your grandfather when he was King under the Mountain.”

 

“He made no mention of you.”

 

The design was maybe not to his liking, but right now Thorin considered to be grateful for whoever had built these stairs and made Master Lindir welcome them so promptly. It did not bear thinking to be circled like prey as Tharkûn had been, or looked down upon by this so-called lord. Standing where he did, Thorin could glare right into the Elf’s face, and that was him being polite no matter what anyone else would have to say of that.

 

Lord Elrond frowned and turned back to Tharkûn again, causing Thorin to grind his teeth once again, hand closing around the smooth dark stone he always had in his pocket. Being dismissed like that was galling, more so when the blasted wizard so bluntly lied about the words being spoken. Oh, the Elf was offering food and lodgings, but laced with insults and not only subtle ones. He would have had words for those two if it wouldn’t mean revealing his secret and possibly losing that invitation to dinner. He also couldn’t quite stop himself from being offended on Master Lindir’s behalf when the other was dismissed just as casually and appointed Dwarf-sitter, never mind that the Elf in question seemed offended enough in his own right. He didn’t let it out on the Dwarrow, though, and Thorin decided that alone warranted them being as accommodating towards Master Lindir as possible.

 

“Rooms close to each other and a bit secluded would be preferable, and many will end up sharing either way – yes, Nori, we all know you take the Hobbit. Spare us the details.”

 

“Oh, I take Nori as well. We are very flexible in that regard. And others.”

 

“I so didn’t need to know that,” Ori piped up, and Thorin nodded in agreement. He suddenly liked the smug Hobbit a whole lot less again. Did he have to make trying to be nice so difficult?

 

Frowning the Dwarf-king made a brief headcount. Nori and Master Baggins would share, so would Fíli and Kíli, no questions asked. The Urs would certainly want to stick together as well, he doubted Glóin and Óin would care either one way if given the choice, and Balin and Ori would no doubt camp in the nearest available library if it were up to them. Putting them together in a room would appease Dori, and give both brothers some much-needed space. Dwalin would insist on keeping their night watch on rotation, Balin would argue that they all needed a full night of rest or two, and Thorin was already torn between getting some much-needed solitude himself if only for a few hours and his natural suspiciousness. Also, with someone on guard Fíli and Kíli would be too embarrassed to come sneaking into Thorin’s room, and the Dwarf-king needed to be just Uncle Thorin for a while even more than the solitude. Great.

 

“Seven rooms would suffice, Master Lindir, if possible.”

 

There, that was perfectly polite and reasonable. He would either distract Dwalin into forgetting about the night guard or flat-out order him to, and the thought of the damn wizard sleeping on the floor was amusing enough to not react to the disbelieving stares he received from the others. He could be polite and civil, damn it all; he usually just saw no point in it.

 

“I had a wing with ten rooms in mind, Master Oakenshield, and two separate bathrooms,” Master Lindir informed them amused. “It’s close to the great library and an in my opinion very underappreciated but nonetheless beautiful garden. It is also as secluded as I can offer you.”

 

“Sounds perfect. Thank you.”

 

The location was indeed as perfect as it could get. The rooms were spacious, clean – elven in design, of course, but this was an elven city, so it would be quite ridiculous to expect differently – and the only downside was that the beds were too high to get onto with any form dignity. Master Lindir actually apologised for that, finding polite words to explain that they didn’t often have visitors other than fellow Elves and the odd Ranger now and then, and thus weren’t prepared to house anyone smaller than adult Men.

 

To be honest, Thorin was starting to grow wary of the kindness by now, waiting for the other boot to drop, which promptly happened, though by no fault of Master Lindir. They had hardly put down their packs when another Elf came to lead them off to dinner that they were to take with Lord Elrond.

 

It was simply impossible that in the few moments between the Dwarrow arriving, Lord Elrond giving his okay to their presence, and Master Lindir showing them their rooms, the Elves had put together a dinner, and this time he loudly agreed with their Hobbit’s complains that they hadn’t even had time change into something not covered in blood and grime, never mind check for wounds, and only Master Lindir’s honest and obvious surprise at the situation and his instant siding with the Dwarrow saved him from falling from Thorin’s good grace again.

 

Master Linder used his polite outrage – a very strange thing to witness – to stall for time while Master Baggins and Dori forced everyone through a quick wash, Óin made sure they would survive the next few hours, and Dwalin and Nori – the first time they were of the same opinion, Trolls notwithstanding – made sure everyone took at least one concealed weapon with them. Then they were already ushered away, and whatever thoughts Thorin had about Tharkûn possibly having gone to the Elves to collaborate while his Company had fought the Trolls, died when the Dwarf-king saw the dinner, or rather lack thereof.

 

In contrast to the very far spread opinion that Dwarrow ate stone, they very much needed regular food and, yes, also vegetables and fruits, though meat was still preferred, but not leaves, and he bloody knew Elves needed a greater variety as well! The ponies were treated better than that, and that the elves had apparently found the beasts mostly unharmed and rescued them was good to know, but not making the situation any better.

 

At least Thorin managed to drag Master Baggins and Balin to the high table with him. If he had to suffer that Elf, he would not suffer alone, and suffering he did. He assumed each on their own would have been bad enough, but Elrond and Tharkûn together were horrible. And don’t get him started on the torture they sold as music.

 

Dirty and tired, forced to stay awake with bad lullabies in one ear, thinly veiled insults in the other, sitting at dinner with nothing to eat and wine that was only just so drinkable ... and people wondered why he couldn’t stand Elves on principle. And that was before Lord Elrond revealed the history behind the newly acquired elven swords, and allowed – allowed! As if he had any right to take them away – them to keep the weapons. They wanted him to differentiate? Fine. Master Lindir was decent enough. All Elves not Master Lindir were abysmal, and Thorin very much wanted to use Orcrist and cleave some heads or tables.

 

This counted as the first night, right? Ugh! Two more to go. With a bit of luck, they would not starve before that.

 

And why by Mahâl’s furry stones was Nori swaggering over here with that shit eating grin?

Chapter Text


 

Elves.

 

Nori didn’t dislike them just for being Elves (that was hardly their fault), and thought himself willing to like an Elf if he ever encountered an actually likeable one. The problem was he hadn’t. All Elves he had met so far had been either arrogant, dismissive, or faulted him for being a Dwarf, which really wasn’t fair. Considering he had met most of them in Grey Haven, there was a real chance they hadn’t been arrogant, and dismissive, just too far removed from the here, and now to notice anything around them, but not all Elves had that excuse, least of all here.

 

This was Rivendell, not Grey Haven. The Elves here were still very much in the here and now, but still arrogant and dismissive. Fine, so they had saved them from the Warg-riders (presumably), but did they have to ride into the courtyard on their horses? The yard certainly wasn’t designed for that to happen on the regular, and the steward had looked positively offended at the display as well. Then again, their Elf was also rather kind, all things considered, so maybe that one was the one Elf Nori would be willing to make exceptions for.

 

Be that as it may, Tharkûn was definitely losing sympathy points again, which was rather unfortunate considering splitting the large rock that had blocked the sun from the Trolls – Nori hadn’t seen it, Morgoth’s Spawns insisted that was what had happened and Óin agreed, so it was likely true – and finding that little elven dagger for Bilbo had only just so brought him back into neutral realms where Nori was concerned. Tharkûn was supposed to be on their side, but first tricked them into coming here (and he could bet it was all Tharkûn’s doing, especially the oh so convenient arrival of the Elves, though the thief hesitated to blame the Wargs on him as well), and then talked with that Elf-lord in a language none of them understood. Well, almost none. Maybe Thorin knew Sindarin, being royalty and all, though he would likely deny it either way, but Ori knew at least some of it, and Bilbo ... Bilbo was fluent, even if he claimed his pronunciation was off, and the Hobbit was absolutely unimpressed.

 

“Does he offer us insult?”

 

The wizard said `no´, Bilbo’s frown hinted at the opposite, and that Elrond-fellow didn’t protest, so either the Elves had to tolerate Tharkûn’s meddling as well, or it had been an offer of food and shelter out of pity laced with insults. Nori could deal with that, especially since the Elves obviously had found all their ponies alive and had already taken care of them. Nori certainly wouldn’t have wanted to explain to little May what had happened to them. Thorin, on the other hand ...

 

Too bad the situation allowed not for hysteric laughter. It had certainly not been Bilbo’s intention, but that the Throneless One was honour-bound to be civil for the next three days was brilliant. Civil with Elves at that, and naturally Thorin made an expression as if ... well, as if he had to be nice to Elves.

 

Funny how expectations could sometimes live up to reality so perfectly.

 

The oddest thing, however, was that their king seemed to have no problem being nice to the steward, Lindir. Why, if he wouldn’t know better, Nori would say someone had given Thorin some of those leaves Radagast had been smoking.

 

And, talking about leaves, did they have to attend that stupid dinner? Seriously? Not that it was worth being called a dinner, but first they weren’t given time to wash up, never mind treat their injuries, and then only leafy salads? No tomatoes? He’d take celery as well, or carrots. Fruits? Nori had heard it was warm in the Hidden Valley all year long, surely they could have at least offered a greater variety of green stuff if they couldn’t be arsed to get out the meat, or nuts, or eggs. Something more filling than lettuce at least. What bread they were offered was hardly more than a mouth full, never mind that everyone was pushing it towards the three youngest.

 

From that point of view, the elven music (torture, really. Not bad enough to make one consider Harad’s dungeons, but pushing it) came quite in handy. It certainly took care of the food problem. By killing any appetite.

 

Or, and here was a thought, maybe these particular Elves were really stupid, and poor Bilbo was stuck at the high table in the midst of all that tension, most likely already feeling guilty for accidentally forcing Thorin to be nice to what the Dwarf thought were his mortal enemies. The Hobbit was probably also despairing about politics and feeling torn between being a good guest and calling the Elves out on being extremely terrible hosts, not only by hobbit-standards, and intentionally insulting.

 

Well, it wasn’t as if Nori could do anything about that. He was tired, hungry, in need of a bath, and bored. His fingers itched for something to do, but liberating the Elves of their silverware or other valuables was just not worth it. They were neither pretty nor notable valuable – obviously dwarven guests weren’t a reason to get out the good tableware – and he had already burden enough to carry with Bilbo’s spoon sewn into his breast-pocket – he made a note here to himself to make sure the threads actually still held – so stealing anything wouldn’t be worth it. Dori wasn’t even looking, so it wouldn’t even serve as a distraction from the boredom and Kíli eyeing the Elves with what was definitely not suspicion or disdain.

 

Yeah, he so didn’t want to be drawn into that mess. He much rather pretended any hungry glances were exchanged because of the lack of proper food.

 

Finding Bilbo’s eyes over the heads and tables, a sudden idea struck the thief.

 

“Bofur, what date is it?”

 

“Dunno. Mid-May, I reckon. Why? Got any appointments?”

 

The miner-turned-toymaker certainly hadn’t expected a simple `yes´, nor that Nori would rise; not jump up or anything so dramatic, just rise and swagger over to the high table.

 

Melekûnuh, I fear we missed an important spring tradition. Care to catch up on that?”

 

Bilbo’s expression spoke volumes about what he would do to get away from this mess if only for a while. It was a lot, to say the least.

 

“And what tradition are you speaking of? We have many of those.”

 

Including promises Nori couldn’t give, and fretting over thrice-cursed silver spoons, but Bilbo didn’t know about the latter (and never should, never ever), and this was, in any case, a far better idea anyway.

 

“It’s May. We lack a Party Tree, but there are trees aplenty around, and I get the feeling this is as festive as it will ever get here. Join me for a dance?”

 

Smart man that he was, Bilbo caught on fast and chuckled amused, leaving the table in haste.

 

“We’re lacking the proper music as well.”

 

“I’m sure we can find a solution for that,” the ginger Dwarf smirked back and chucked off his boots. Hobbit feet were sturdy and Nori might not wear the heavy steel capped boots the others had – emphasis on heavy. Sneaking and running from guards didn’t work very well weighted down like that, never mind the noise – but dances of the like he had in mind were better done barefooted either way. Then he took the laughing Hobbit’s hands and started singing one of his favourite hobbit-drinking songs, Bilbo joining the lyrics soon.

 

“There’s an inn of old renown

Where they brew a beer so brown

Moon came rolling down the hill

One Hevensday night to drink his fill


On a three-stringed fiddle there

Played the ostler’s cat so fair

The horned cow that night was seen

To dance a jig upon the green


Called by the fiddle to the

Middle of the muddle where the

Cow with a caper sent the

Small dog squealing

Moon in a fuddle went to

Huddle by the griddle but he

Slipped in a puddle and the

World went reeling


Downsides went up- Hey!

Outsides went wide

As the fiddle

Played a twiddle

And the moon slept till Sterrenday

Upsides went west- hey!

Broadsides went boom

With a twiddle on the fiddle

In the middle by the griddle

And the Moon slept till Sterrenday


Dish from off the dresser pranced,

Found a spoon and gaily danced

Horses neighed and champed their bits

For the bloodshot moon had lost his wits


Well, cow jumped over, Dog barked wild,

Moon lay prone and sweetly smiled

Ostler cried `Play faster, cat,

Because we all want to dance like that.´

 

Gambol and totter till you’re

Hotter than a hatter and you

Spin all akimbo

Like a windmill flailing

Whirl with a clatter till you

Scatter every cotter and the

Strings start a-pinging as the

World goes sailing


Downsides went up- Hey!

Outsides went wide

As the fiddle

Played a twiddle

And the moon slept till Sterrenday

Upsides went west- hey!

Broadsides went boom

With a twiddle on the fiddle

In the middle by the griddle

And the Moon slept till Sterrenday.”

(“The Cat and the Moon” from the LotR Musical)

 

Still laughing Bilbo almost tripped over his feet, and trying to keep them upright Nori overbalanced and ended up on his back with his Hobbit sprawled over him. At some point, some of the others had joined the chorus, and laughing and throwing green stuff had lifted the general mood. That of the Dwarrow at least; the Elves not so much, which was definitely a plus.

 

“I love that tradition,” Nori grinned at the still breathless Hobbit. “But there’s one I love even more.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Sneaking away for a romp in the hay, though a bed would serve as well.”

 

Bilbo lighted up like the sun after a moonless night, and the thief was quite happy to have the smaller physically drag him away. Dori or Ori would certainly remember to bring his boots, he thought, but then found himself already pressed against a wall and kissed within an inch of his life, and forgot about pretty much everything again.

 

Breathing was overrated anyway; thinking as well.

 

That was the loveliest thing anyone has ever done for me. I could devour you right here and now.”

 

“I sense a `but´ coming.”

 

But,” Bilbo agreed breathily, “I’m hungry enough to go back to Trollshaws and see if their stew survived.”

 

The thief sighed dramatically.

 

“I feel like I should complain, but I see your point. Let’s go raid the kitchen.”

 

“And pantries. Today I witnessed the worst hosts ever! Not even Lobelia would have dared to not at least give her guests time to freshen up only to then serve a single, tasteless dish! And that Bifur enjoyed the centrepiece doesn’t count. I’m just glad none of the flowers has been poisonous, but this calls for revenge!” the Hobbit raged, then added much calmer that they also should pay the healing quarters a visit.

 

“Everyone’s got cuts and bruises, Bifur and Bofur still have a headache, though they won’t say so, and I’m getting a migraine as we speak. Also, I think Thorin deserves a reward for putting up with all that. Coming home (so to speak) to dinner cooked and ready should cheer him up. Certainly always worked with you.”

 

Nori had to actually bit his tongue not to reply what first came to mind, which would have been ridiculously flowery declarations of love he wasn’t allowed to voice and, Mahâl, why? Instead, he just nodded. It was a sound idea after all; the Elves would be busy with cleaning up or curious about the havoc the others caused, and between the two of them the remaining Elves still roaming the halls could be tricked or evaded.

 

As it turned out, resupplying was easier than stealing cooling pies from windowsills. When faced with the perfect politeness of a scrapped and bruised Hobbit, the healers couldn’t give them the requested items fast enough, the kitchens were abandoned, and when they returned to their wing extra pillows and blankets, as well as a ridiculous amount of towels, soap, and too large robes had appeared. Obviously, someone had thought it necessary to show goodwill or annoy the Elf-Lord, or both, and it wasn’t exactly difficult to guess who that might be.

 

Master Lindir might just find himself to be the only Elf in recent history to have ever been considered a friend of Durin’s Line, or at least favoured by them.

 

By the time the others trickled in, Bilbo had a hearty stew cooking in a cauldron large enough to fit Bombur into, while Nori was stirring a smaller pot with enough tea for everyone. He knew the family recipes of his Hobbit by heart but didn’t stop the smaller from instructing him.

 

Someone blurred `I love you´, not specifying which one of them they meant, but the sentiment found much agreement.

 

“That’s for bruises, and that for cuts,” Bilbo declared, pointing at the pots with liberal amounts of plant pastes and clean bandages. “But, for pity’s sake, first sit down and have something to eat. The tea is mostly lavender, willow bark, and honey. It should tide us all over until you can wash up and let Óin check up on you proper. That is not negotiable.”

 

It really wasn’t. Bilbo had decided some all-around mothering was in order, so he would do it. He was as unstoppable as Dori in that but less overbearing ... well, as long as one didn’t try to resist. Fortunately, no one tried, or maybe not as fortunate. It would have been fun to watch.

 

“You have been busy.”

 

“I’m a Hobbit,” Bilbo replied with a grin and handed Thorin a notable big bowl with stew. “After being exposed to so much foreign culture, I wanted to introduce you to a few hobbit-customs. Food seemed like a good thing to start with. We prefer a great variety and eat up to seven meals a day, not counting snacks of course.”

 

Seven?!”

 

“Of course. There is breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, supper, and dinner, or first dinner and then supper; depends on personal taste and if one expects guests. Every now and then the old debate about whether or not a midnight snack counts as a meal flares up, but personally I don’t think it makes much of a difference. Also, we should probably catch as much sleep as we can considering we’re leaving tomorrow as early as we can.”

 

“We stay.”

 

One had to give Bilbo credit for not spilling stew all over the floor. It was a damn near thing for Nori and the tea in any case.

 

“We are?”

 

“Necessarily,” Thorin grumped. “Apparently there is a hidden message on the map that can only be read in the light of the moon of a certain phase during a certain season.”

 

“And knowing that we can’t just read the message on our own because ...”

 

“It might be in Ancient Khuzdûl that only the Elf-Lord can still read, or so I’m told. My grandfather was a complicated man.”

 

“I see,” Bilbo replied, and Nori had to bite his tongue in order to not congratulate the Hobbit on not saying the many unflattering things about Thrór he no doubt thought as well. “And do we have any idea about when that hidden message will appear?”

 

“A midsummer’s eve under a crescent moon.”

 

Of course, Ori was the first to translate that into something usable, though that didn’t make it any more pleasant.

 

“By the Maker! That’s another two weeks!”

Chapter Text


 

Dear readers,

 

This is NOT an actual chapter (obviously), but me informing you that this story and I will go on hiatus for a while. I’m staying at the hospital for six weeks without access to any computers. It’s likely there won’t be any new chapters until at least mid-September.

I will not abandon the story, no worries, and there is no more danger to me or my life than on any other average day, I’ll just not be able to update for a while.

 

That being said, let me use this opportunity to thank you for all the kudos and awesome comments. I’m insanely happy about every single one of them and look forward to coming back to this and you when I’m better.

 

Luv

Kia

 

 

EDIT

 

It seems I’ve been a bit too vague. I’m touched by the concern and sympathy, and I never meant to worry anyone, so here is the whole story:

 

I have had depression and self-esteem issues all my life, mostly due to mobbing and such. It hasn’t reached self-harm/suicide levels, but I figured I should finally get professional help before it gets that bad. It was long overdue either way. So for the next six weeks or so I’m in stationary therapy with no access to a computer except at the weekends when I’m at home. The hospital is really nice and comfortable, and in theory, I could leave whenever I want, but I want and need to do this.

 

So, I’m not fine, but I’m not in any mortal danger either, and I’m confident I will get better in due time.

 

Again, thank you for the concern and advice, but, please, don’t worry.

 

 

EDIT II

 

Dear Readers,

 

Operating on the assumption that some of you are still sticking around, I have 3 announcements: neutral, good, and not so good, in that order.

 

1) I’m out of the hospital, and I think it actually helped

2) I had time in-between to write, just need to digitalise it

3) I don’t think I will be able to actually update a new chapter before the end of the month.

 

I’m sorry it takes so long, but therapy, while helpful, was a rather exhausting experience, and I need a bit time to recover from it and get back into something resembling a daily schedule. Also, I need to take care of some real-life issues that piled up over the last weeks.

 

Thank you all for your patience and sticking with me. I will leave this chapter/announcement thing here. Your comments mean a lot to me, and I don’t want to lose that.

 

I’m looking forward to introducing you to the stuff I have planned.

 

Love and hugs

Kia

Chapter Text


 

“Let me apologise already!”

 

“There is nothing to apologise. It was well within your right to demand that and more.”

 

“I seem to remember telling you to try to be civil with our next potential host. You did try! Why won’t you take the free pass to be you grumpy, surly self?!”

 

“I gave my word and I will see it though. And I’m not surly.”

 

“You absolutely are, and I’m trying to be nice to you, confounded Dwarf!”

 

“Stubborn Hobbit!”

 

Lindir was staring wide-eyed at the scene before him. The leader of the Dwarrow and the little Hobbit looked quite ready to tear into each other over something that must have to do with the mockery of a dinner earlier. The Elf wouldn’t have known what to do with this on ordinary days, and this day had been anything but ordinary, to say the least.

 

“You know,” the Dwarf next to him mused. “They do sound like an old married couple. I’m considering becoming jealous.”

 

He must be the one who had danced with the Hobbit earlier, though Lindir had seen it only in passing, too busy trying to counteract the no doubt horrible first impression his kin left. Lindir didn’t know the names of the Dwarrow yet, though he had previously tried to distinguish them by hairstyle and clothing. Now, clad in the too large robes he had found for them, tending to each other’s bruises or hair, Lindir felt more and more like an intruder and was struggling to keep them apart. To be blunt, all he saw was lots and lots of hair and more skin than he was comfortable with. With even more hair.

 

Dwarrow were obviously very hairy and not at all body-shy. Fascinating. Scary and scandalising, but fascinating. Now, if only he were here with a more pleasant task.

 

“Uhm, excuse me? I hate to bother this late, and you all must be exhausted, but ... well, the kitchens and pantry are in disarray and the cooks quite upset. I was sent to find out if you know anything about it,” Lindir said, carefully neutral, and pointedly not looking at the leftovers or the pot over the fire oddly enough burning in the middle of the hall. He was ready to run, though, expecting the violence to turn against him, and if this were an ordinary evening, he might have unknowingly been right about that assessment, but nothing about this had been ordinary so far, neither for him or their guests.

 

“Now that is odd. How can a place serving only lettuce, flour, and some oil at best be in disarray? And you absolutely must tell me the secret of that dressing. Never in my life have I tasted something so blatant. It takes great skill to achieve that,” the Hobbit groused, and Lindir winced. It was a justified complaint, and he certainly didn’t blame them for raiding the kitchens, but it wasn’t his fault.

 

There was a warm pressure on his lower back, the intimacy as well as the suddenness making the Elf jump. It was the Hobbit’s melethron (or was it benn? Another thing Lindir was insanely curious about but didn’t dare to ask yet), and it took him a moment to realise it likely had been meant as a supporting gesture, like a touch to the shoulder except that, of course, the Dwarf couldn’t reach that far up.

 

“You’re upsetting Master Lindir, melekûnuh, and as he seems to be the origins of most of our comforts right now, it’s hardly fair to blame him for the actions of others.”

 

Lindir looked at the basket with candles in his arms, and hid them behind his back, before realising how very ridiculous that move was. Oh, but he was so far out of his depths right now, it really wasn’t funny anymore.

 

“I ... yes. It is only proper, and after what transpired today ... I’m terribly sorry about that. I don’t know what prompted this. Usually, they aren’t so ...”

 

“Arrogant?” one offered, “Unfriendly,” another, and a third called it “cruel”. The Hobbit simply named them the worst hosts he ever encountered, making it sound like the worst possible insult, and Lindir wished he could have said anything in defence of his kin, but all he could think of was how he hadn’t witnessed anything like this before, which was a rather pointless thing to say since they had never hosted Dwarrow before to his knowledge. The Dúnedain usually didn’t require hosting as much as a healer and a place to rest for a while. Most times they didn’t even use the beds.

 

Lindir tried to see in the Dwarrow what the other Elves saw and vice versa, but couldn’t. All he knew about the animosity between their races were rather one-sided accounts of events that strictly speaking he couldn’t be sure had actually transpired as he had been told, and even if they had, these Dwarrows had had no part in them, maybe not even their ancestors. Of course, he could also argue that the Dwarrow had reacted rather unfair to Elves, but if they were always received like this ...

 

Not knowing how else to react he just nodded with an apologetic smile.

 

“A steward can delegate, but should not have to apologise for their lord, Master Lindir. We do not fault you for their shortcomings,” Thorin Oakenshield said gruffly, but not unfriendly, and there were many disbelieving noises from the other Dwarrow that Lindir mirrored.

 

“I’m not the steward. I am ... ah, the Westron word escapes me. Zurlindo?”

 

“Mastersinger,” the Hobbit translated without a hitch, Master Oakenshield nodding along. “Though I suppose `head minstrel´ would be more accurate here.”

 

“You … understand Sindarin?”

 

“Bilbo is fluent,” the Hobbit’s Dwarf grinned, and that was not good ... well, for everyone else that is, and Lindir didn’t quite feel like mentioning this development to his kin just yet. He himself hadn’t said or done anything insulting (to his knowledge) after all and didn’t intend to ... but if the Dwarrow took offence on the words and actions of the others (and they had all rights to), they might not want to talk with him either, and he had so many questions.

 

“Is he now?” the leader wondered.

 

“You never asked, it didn’t come up, and as I told you already, you really should stop being nice to the Elves. They most certainly don’t deserve it. Except for Master Lindir here. To him, you should be as nice as you can. Anyway, I’m off to bed. Trolls, and Orcs, and Elves, and wizards, I’ve had enough of this mess. Nori?”

 

“Do you have to ask?” the Hobbit’s Dwarf, Nori, asked back cheerful, and they vanished into one of the rooms. They made Lindir wonder how it came that a Dwarf and a Hobbit were wedded, but that was probably a question best saved for another day. All his questions were. Lindir knew that mortals needed much more rest than Elves, though the mortal he had learned that from also had enough energy to drive the whole city to exhaustion if he put his mind to it.

 

“I will leave you to rest then. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call. I will see to it that today’s ... well, I will try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If you allow, I would like to re-join you tomorrow.”

 

The replies varied from suspicious grunts – that seemed to be a form of communication in its own right – to formal agreement, and the minstrel bowed his way out and headed straight for the great library. He felt the need to do some actual research as soon as possible.

 

Gi suilon, Master Erestor. Where would I find literature about Dwarrow?”

 

The glare he received was every bit as suspicious as what the Dwarrow had levelled him with on their first meeting, and wasn’t that a curious thought?

 

Naugrim? Why would you want to read about them?”

 

“I’m curious about our guests,” Lindir replied evenly, suppressing a scowl. It was an unusual request, alright, but that didn’t mean the other had to be so insulting. Now that he thought about it, they always spoke of naugrim unless talking to the Dwarrow directly. Then it was hadhod, and now the difference gave him a headache.

 

Why did they even have two different words for Dwarrow?

 

Eru, a minstrel should be playing, and singing, and writing ballads, not worrying about linguistics and politics. Well, maybe linguistics, but certainly not in this context. At least he got directions, though what he found was not very satisfying. One-sided as the stories of his youth, often written with disdain, and telling only of Dwarrow, never about them, aside from a few basics that weren’t helpful right now, and probably not very accurate either. They had been rather sour and rough, but there was no telling if they were always like that or because of how they had been treated today. And certainly no one had been eating stones or waved weapons about.

 

Asking Erestor if perhaps they had something written by a Dwarf wasn’t getting Lindir anywhere either (it hadn’t been a simple `no´, but Lindir decided to not dwell on the other words spoken for his own peace of mind), and asking about Hobbits had the same result, except less hostile, and with a side note that there had obviously been one staying here for a while some years ago during Lindir’s last trip to Lothlórien.

 

It was an altogether rather frustrating experience, and the minstrel decided the best way to balance that was to seek the company of someone who knew nothing of such worries (yet), and no impressionable minds should be left with Glorfindel for too long unsupervised anyway. Later, when their guests were rested, he would just have to ask Master Oakenshield himself to satisfy his curiosity. He seemed kind enough.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Watching Thorin squirm under the attention of the Elf was too hilarious not to laugh. His expression constantly changing between that of an indulgent uncle trying not to appear too fond (Morgoth’s Spawns had trained him well on that front), and what Nori dubbed his `But Elves!´ face, since there just were no other words to describe it sufficiently.

 

“Do you think he will die of contradicting emotions?”

 

“I know someone will die if we don’t do something, though probably of trying not to laugh,” Bilbo deadpanned and staked a hobbity intervention. In this case, it meant he joined the conversation for a moment, and then casually mentioned he had recently talked with Ori about a similar topic. With the skill that came from handling a large extended family, the Hobbit directed Lindir towards the scribe, while drawing the Dwarf-king away with a `ah, Thorin, why I actually came over´, and leading him over where Fíli and Kíli were watching the whole debacle from out of their customary pile on a nest of pillows.

 

Sometimes the thief wondered if there were cats somewhere in the bloodline, or maybe sloths, but Thorin’s natural disposition towards grumpiness made cats the more likely candidate. Also, Nori was taking full credit for that harmless looking move from Bilbo that had a certain Dwarf tumbling into his nephews, and partly also for the sly `you’re welcome´ because the latter he had noticed could also come from Bilbo’s Took-side; Nori had only nudged the Baggins-side into embracing it.

 

Oddly enough Thorin didn’t stay with the nice, safe, elf-less cushions for long; all three Durins were soon drawn back to Lindir, who was by then animatedly talking with Ori and Balin. Bilbo shook his head at that and sighed the same way he did when watching his younger cousins or the Gamgee-faunts repeat the same mistake three, four times a day without tiring or learning from it. It was adorable. Bilbo, that is, not the Durins. Well, they were kind of adorable as well, but not in the same way, and ...

 

Mahâl, he had signed up for a Dragon, not this mess.

 

“Have you ever seen anything so … pitifully lost?”

 

“You mean aside from the whole lot of them in the Shire?”

 

“There weren’t any Elves involved then, and I dare say we have both been a bit too angry to properly pity anyone but ourselves then.”

 

That was a good point; Bilbo always had a lot of those, and his corn-flower-blue eyes swabbed over their Company much like Nori’s emerald ones did.

 

Ah, Mahâl help him, but he already thought of them as `their´ Company, at least in parts. Curse his sentimental heart! He had never been meant to be attached to so many ... except now he was starting to be, so maybe he had been meant to after all. Nori had never been very religious unless Ones and crafts were concerned, and didn’t intend to start now. That didn’t mean he couldn’t recognise the possible involvement of a higher power, though he still abandoned that line of thought fast to save himself from a headache.

 

Talking about headaches, was everyone accounted for?

 

Lindir – decidedly not part of the Company, but with them, and a decent lad (not that anyone had any idea how old he actually was, but currently his demeanour qualified him as ranking `lad´) – had drawn a crowd of their three royals in a more or less voluntary pile (voluntary on account of Morgoth’s Spawns, pretended involuntarily on Thorin’s). Bofur was with them because his attempts to make Thorin look a bit less constipated had resulted in the Dwarflings latching onto him, as was their habit with everyone within arm’s reach. Or possibly only people they liked especially well. Balin and Ori were in an open, long-winded debate with the Elf about one thing or another, while Dwalin and Glóin were glowering nearby, though likely more on the principle of matters than any real opposition to Lindir. Dori and Óin fussed each in their own way over everyone – they accidentally but consistently included Lindir as well, no matter how often they tried to stop themselves – Bifur was carving, and by the looks of it he was also the only one actually keeping watch, and Bombur was ... staring into space?

 

“He is interested in the architecture,” Bilbo informed his Dwarf, noticing his confusion. “I guess it is rather pretty but impractical. Definitely lacking railings in any case. On that note, am I the only concerned with how they are acting?”

 

“Must be elven magic ... well, or his youthful demeanour. Seriously, how old do you think he is?”

 

I won’t ask,” the Hobbit put down sharply, a long string of arguments about propriety, and manners, and his hobbity sensibility (never mind their personal experience with questions of age) echoing unsaid in the words. Nori let him be with a smirk. In the end, it wasn’t important how old Lindir was, in numbers or relation to them, only that he seemed Eru’s answer to the drift between Dwarrow and Elves. A very effective answer so far, as Nori didn’t feel any additional concern to his everyday worries about his brothers when he dragged his Hobbit away to visit the ponies and do some exploring of Rivendell, the thief’s way. Railings were for beginners anyway, and Bilbo might complain about it before others, but the thief knew he loved going wild once in a while.

 

On a related note: he might deny knowing the feeling, but it was a very humbling experience to see how very much Bilbo trusted him. Not that Nori had ever doubted it, but first-hand-experiences were always like a punch in the guts. Despite his natural aversion against highs and water, the Hobbit never once hesitated to follow where Nori led, and this wasn’t the soft rolling hills of the Shire with its bubbling brooks. This was Rivendell, with high walls, actual roofs, and water everywhere.

 

Needless to say, Nori returned to the regular paths soon, railings or not, choosing safer paths and consequently more dangerous destinations. Dangerous being a very loose term here; referring only the heightened possibility he would lose Bilbo’s attention to them.

 

It was to be expected that his Hobbit would want to stay in the library, really, but the Elf tending to the books was (fortunately) so unfriendly, they soon left again with Bilbo mumbling about sneaking back and switching some books around.

Being Ori’s brother and having witnessed Bilbo cursing up a storm in his own library a time or two, the ginger Dwarf had a good idea how very aggravating that could be to someone dedicated to all things paper and ink, and choose not to say anything

 

It was a short victory, more a stroke of luck, which clearly ended where plants were concerned. Bilbo was by far not the most plant-insane Hobbit there was. He had a beautiful garden and loved to putter around in it, but it was Hopson who was dedicated to all that grew in it almost as much as to his family. Personally, Nori didn’t much see the appeal, but knew enough to like the Shire much more than this, and not just because it made his Hobbit happy or for the obvious lack of Elves. The gardens and landscape in the Shire seemed more ... well, natural, while in Rivendell there was a forced undertone that entirely disagreed with his inner thief. Still, Bilbo was radiating joy when leading him from plot to plot, pointing out this plant and that, their healing and culinary portions. That was a more than good enough reason to relax and ignore for a while that they were technically in enemy territory.

 

Talking about enemies, he still couldn’t get over Thorin’s reaction to Lindir. Not that his own or anyone’s had been any better, but at least not as obvious.

 

“Heh, King Grumpy the Constipated.”

 

“We wanted to be nice to him, dear.”

 

“And yet I can’t hear you disagreeing. Also, I intend to share whatever you plan to cook with the lot of them; that is plenty of nice.”

 

“Eh, true enough,” the Hobbit allowed with a smirk. It was easier making fun of the reaction of the others to Lindir than admit he was rather hurt that they took better to an Elf than him. Then again, they had met under completely different circumstances, and neither Nori nor Bilbo had actually tried to be likeable at first. He probably should stop worrying so much.

 

“He seems rather out of place here, doesn’t he? Master Lindir, I mean. He is the only one acting as I had always imagined most Elves would, except those in Grey Haven, but they are,” the Hobbit made a complicated hand gesture that had no real meaning, but actually gave a good idea of how odd those Elves were.

 

“I imagine they are sulking. Remember when Thârkun left shortly before the Trolls? I think he went to get the Elves to bully Thorin into being agreeable by numbers alone, the same he tried with you, and now they are prissy because the Orcs and our escape ruined their grand entrance. Show-offs, the lot of them.”

 

“Hu? Well, that would actually explain a lot. Lord Elrond didn’t seem surprised at all to see us, and it was kind of implied in how they spoke that there had been a foiled plan involved. Also, I can’t imagine they are like that to everyone. People would speak about that if it were so.”

 

“Not Men and Hobbits, maybe, but Dwarrow?” Nori couldn’t help but point out. He had seen it often enough in all parts of the world, but Bilbo shook his head.

 

“Then they are petty, and it’s still no reason to not feed us properly,” he growled, and the thief couldn’t help but laugh and press a kiss to the hand in his.

 

“Feeling protective, melekûnuh?”

 

“Oh, as if you have to ask. I favour you over every one of them, though.”

 

That sure stifled any laughter, making room for a very tender, guilty feeling, and the thief stole another kiss. He had never doubted Bilbo’s loyalty, but never had to share it or his affections with so many either, and there had been the stray thought that maybe, just maybe, his Hobbit didn’t favour him but simply Dwarrow in general. Nori usually wasn’t conscious about his looks, but he was aware it was far from the standards of dwarven beauty others of their group had been blessed with.

 

“Nori? Dear, you do know I favour you over everyone else, right?”

 

“Aye, my Hobbit, and the sentiment is shared, but you deserve better.”

 

And wasn’t that the truth of it? For once it didn’t even so much have to do with the spoon laying heavy on his heart, but simply who and what he was. Too lean, thin even, a craft that not just caused wandering hands, but wandering feet as well. Sure, his hair was the envy of many a Dwarf, but ... but Bilbo had never cared about any of that, had he? No, he likely would have cared even if Nori were an Orc, and not given a damn about his craft either way, except for that it kept them separated more often than not.

 

Orcs didn’t have Ones – not that anyone had ever asked them, and Nori certainly wouldn’t start – so that would have made things at least a bit easier in that department, aside from the Orc-part in general. That certainly wouldn’t have gone over well.

 

“That’s bullshit, and fortunately I’m the one to decide what I do and don’t deserve, and I’m very much set on you.”

 

It didn’t quite matter which Valar had decided to bless this world with Bilbo Baggins or why Ulmo and whoever else had been involved stranding Nori in front of that particular green door twenty-two years ago because there was no way the thief could ever properly express his gratitude to them anyway.

 

Bilbo was a marvel and allowed no arguments against his very set opinion on the matter of their relationship or when dragging his Dwarf off to the next convenient bush. He wasn’t one for voyeurism, his Hobbit, but if anyone had any problem with what they did, they were free to seek out another garden, or conveniently placed broom-closet or seemingly abandoned nook, and since even Nori understood that there was a symbolic meaning to locks (that he chose to ignore most times, but that was off the point), nobody else could feign ignorance.

Chapter Text


 

There was a child in their hall. Not just someone acting like a child, that wouldn’t have been anything new – but an actual child, about Nori’s own high, with dark, wavy hair, round ears, smooth face, big eyes, so definitely a child. He (probably; it was difficult to tell at that age and in elven robes) was clinging to Lindir’s legs, half hiding behind the Elf, while trying to see everything at the same time.

 

Nori had a soft spot or three for children (which was more wildly known than he would have liked, and gotten him into his fair share of trouble), but this was a level of unexpected that he just couldn’t deal with after just waking up, so he forced his still sleep-addled brain to spit out a reasonable suggestion on what to do, and stepped back into the room he shared with Bilbo.

 

“There is a child in our hall.”

 

“One? I was sure we had three; more on particular testing days,” Bilbo yawned, and the thief didn’t know how to explain it, so he pushed his Hobbit out to see for himself.

 

“Oh.”

 

“Good morning,” Lindir said a tad stiffly and uncomfortable, and if Nori knew one thing, it was the posture of one charged with the protection of a child and feeling horribly under-qualified for the task. It might also have something to do with by now eight Dwarrow and a Hobbit staring at the poor Elf and his ward, but the minstrel should know by now that whatever animosities existed between their races didn’t extend to him. Even their most stubborn king already liked him well enough to exclude him from his grumbling about Elves, verbally. That was already a miracle in itself, not even counting it had been but four days since they met, and Thorin and Balin had had two more meetings with Lord Elrond in the meantime. There had been much grumbling about Elves, to say the least. Also, the three royals and the Fundin's sons were still asleep, so Nori felt justified in believing that they were not the reason Lindir was on edge.

 

Since Bilbo was obviously as clueless as everyone else – the thief should have seen that coming. The Hobbit was great with children, but they usually came running up to him demanding stories. He probably never had to approach them first – there was really only one thing to do in this situation, so Nori went and dragged Dori (and consequently Ori as well) out of their room to do something.

 

Dori, bless his fussy heart, only needed one disgruntled moment to assess the situation and instantly took charge.

 

“Good morning, Master Lindir, and you, young Master. We haven’t begun breakfast preparations yet, but we’d gladly have you join us.”

 

He was clearly overstepping competencies there, but no one was stupid enough to say that to Dori right now. The combined self-preservation of this Company wasn’t very high, as proven by their current quest with a Dragon at the end and the part about almost ending up as troll-dinner, but high enough to know better than that. In any case was Lindir starting to relax a bit.

 

“We already ate, but thank you.”

 

“Nonsense. Growing children are always hungry.”

 

“That is true enough,” Lindir allowed with a smile and nudged his charge to introduce himself. The lad, Estel, waved shyly, and Nori could already see him being spoiled rotten by everyone here, himself included.

 

“Well then, young Master Estel, would you like to have breakfast with us?”

 

Estel nodded enthusiastically, and it was adorable enough that Nori almost missed his brother’s order to go and find something to eat for them, but only almost.

 

There was self-preservation, and then there was letting his proper older brother getting away with that.

 

“Hiring thieves now, brother dear? Why, I’m shocked. What happened to the respectability of this family? ‘Amad would be appalled.”

 

Predictably Dori poked him with the Finger of Stern Disapproval, but it was totally worth it.

 

“We’re guests. Guests are meant to be fed, and technically no one ever said we don’t have free reign over the kitchen.”

 

“If I’d had to count the times I used similar argumentation, we’d be here for a long time.”

 

“Don’t look at me,” Bilbo said before Dori could even open his mouth. “Truth or not, I’m bound to side with Nori on the principle of matters. Also, I’m hungry, and I know better than to get between squabbling brothers. Come along now, dear.”

 

Nori followed, giving his brother a wave, but there was an unease bubbling at the back of his mind now, and he and Bilbo had both learned long ago to speak of such things before they became an issue. Their time together had always been too short to waste on arguments, misunderstandings and grudges, and why change a working concept just because they had more time together now? Relatively speaking, of course, as there would be the threat of a Dragon hanging over their heads until the moment it all went up in flames, literally.

 

Melekûnuh, I know you don’t mean it that way, but you have become quite bossy recently, also towards me, and it makes me feel a bit uneasy.”

 

Maybe he should have worded that differently. Bilbo instantly started a string of sincere apologies, obviously more distressed about the matter than Nori, and though he had meant it, the thief was fast to reassure his companion that it wasn’t nearly as bad as the other seemed to think.

 

“Truth be told, half the time I like it when you do that, more than like. My Hobbit ordering kings and wizards around? That got something, but there has been a bit much ordering me around from all sides recently, and that right now, that was unnecessary. It’s not a problem yet, but could you just ask next time? It’s not as if I would deny you.”

 

“Of course, of course. I’ll watch my tongue, but if I do it again, tell me straight away, alright? I hate to make you uncomfortable like that.”

 

“I think right now you are more distressed about the whole matter than I, melekûnuh” the thief pointed out amused, glad to have that over and done with. “Let us get that food now, hm? Can’t have you run around without at least first breakfast.”

 

“Indeed. It would be high treason to do so. Well, it should be at least. I can’t believe we haven’t made it a law yet.”

 

“We should let that cousin of yours, the Thain, look it up. You should write him.”

 

“And we should definitely write the Gamgees,” the Hobbit pointed out, no doubt already composing the letters in his head. “They’ll want to know we are still alive. But first: breakfast.”

 

By the time they returned from their ‘foraging´, Lindir was once again his usual relaxed and curious self, and Estel was very excited about everything. The smell of breakfast drew the last sleepers forth, and afterwards, the lad was quick to bond with Fíli and Kíli over their shared dislike of learning their letters and runes, and fondness of being distracted with tales about their adventures. Granted, the latter was mostly triggered by Nori and Bilbo arguing back and forth about what they actually could write the Gamgees, and what they should write, which then turned into a lengthy discussion with Morgoth’s Spawns what they should, and could, and absolutely must never ever write their dear mother, and `Glóin, don’t you dare!´.

 

Needless to say, Balin and Bilbo soon took to dictating any and all letters being written, while Nori kept Estel entertained with stories that had Dori frowning heavily, and Lindir as fascinated as his charge.

 

They weren’t the only ones, but the thief hardly minded being the centre of attention when he spoke of far off places, odd customs – as odd to them as their customs were to those born in Rhûn or Harad – unusual weapons, and strange cuisine (the latter Bilbo took full credit for, as Dwarrow liked to eat as much any race, but it was clearly a hobbity thing to talk about it at length). He described deserts of rock and sand, plants and animals that only existed in those regions, Men and Elves of dark skin who wrapped their bodies and heads in colourful fabrics, but went barefooted as Hobbits did, and often spend all their lives living in tents in a land where water held more value than any gems. The same went for the Dwarrow of Blacklock origin, who were assumed to have their main settlement in a mountain somewhere in Harad or Far Harad, but Nori himself had only ever seen them live as the Haradrim did, though the ancestors of the Blacklocks originated from Barazabbad in the east, where the people wore dainty shoes and odd weapons, and had an inclination towards poisons that could have nasty side-effects apart from killing people.

 

“You have seen the Red Mountains, truly?”

 

Most of the Company had done some travelling at one point or another for different reasons, but none as far or frequently as the thief. He could have probably made them believe the grass there was purple, and it wouldn’t even have been a lie. He had actually seen purple grass, though it grew more like reed in some places than actual fields, but what was the use of getting them worked up over grass of all things?

 

“Just from afar.”

 

“But you were close.”

 

There was danger in Thorin’s voice, or not exactly danger, but a form of upset that left no doubt the Dwarf-king was not talking about Barazabbad anymore.

 

“Aye, I was. And on my way there I saw a lonely mountain and a city in ruins, but never went closer than Lake-Town. The land was barren and the river killed the fish where it flew into Long Lake. The people always glanced with fear towards the mountain and spoke of smoke occasionally rising from it. I didn’t stay long. They are not exactly fond of Dwarrow in those parts of the world,” Nori replied carefully and very conscious about the shifting mood. Of course, they would be upset about him, who had easily been the loudest in his arguments against the quest, being the only one of them to have actually seen Azsâlulabad up close in the last 150 years. Still, he would not lie about that. It wasn’t his fault if they couldn’t bear the truth.

 

Estel then begged for more stories, unknowingly preventing an argument, and even a blind man could have seen the wanderlust in his eyes. That wasn’t a bad thing to have. In fact, as long as there wasn’t a Dragon at the end of it, Nori very much approved of wandering (obviously), but the lad was so young still, and travelling wasn’t just seeing new places and meeting interesting people, and Nori said as much. Everything came at a price, and travelling came with long days, weeks, or even months of tracking through uneven terrain and weather, so he spoke of that, too, and how tiredness, hunger, and aches were the only loyal companions. He spoke of laws that were as cruel and unjust as the lords enforcing them, of dungeons deep, and dark, and dirty, and jailers with too much free time and imagination, and how very common it was that one needed to spill the blood of others in order to survive. Of course, he didn’t go into detail, but childish imagination could be scary enough to fill in the gaps, and hopefully, it would serve its purpose and keep the lad alive for a while longer.

 

“It’s not all bad, and you don’t even have to travel far to encounter those sorts of things, but it’s important to know what you’re getting into, the good and the bad. Let me give you a piece of advice, young Master Estel, or rather three. When you go wandering, only ever go as far as the languages you speak are still common in use. Danger can find you everywhere, but you should make sure that talking yourself out of it is at least an option. Secondly, and I can’t emphasise it enough, be very careful who you trust. Can’t count the number of times I had supposed friends try (and some succeeding) to stab me in the back metaphorically and literally ... though now that I think about it, I had enemies turning into allies as well. One of my best friends actually started out that way. Ah, well, only proves that I should learn to live by my own rules, but the most important thing is this: always remember where your home is. Travelling can be all nice and fun, but nothing beats knowing you have a place and people to return to.”

 

“Do you have a home, Mister Nori?”

 

“Nah, I was blessed with two places to call home. Good thing, too. I’ve been in some bad spots in my life, and what kept me going then was remembering that my brothers and my Hobbit are waiting for me, to heal all hurts and share the joy once I returned. A very powerful motivator that.”

 

“If it’s so great, why do you always leave again?”

 

Nori just so managed to catch the snappy reply before it escaped. He really tried not to pick fights with his older brother (or assume Dori was trying to goat him into it on purpose), and he was tired of having the same argument time and again, but it was an old habit and hard to fight, never mind that he just wasn’t used to just saying things as they were, especially around his brothers. What should he say anyway? That poaching wasn’t exactly possible inside a settlement and took time, or that their neighbours never had anything worth stealing (or rather anything Nori would take from them, as they were just as poor as Kori`s sons) so he had to search elsewhere? That he had to go away further and for longer to keep trouble away? That he downright hated it in the beginning but then got used to it and later started to love it, need it? That Nori was, of course, sad he hadn’t been there for Ori’s first steps or first words or first anything, but that Dori knew fucking well that there wouldn’t have been any firsts had Nori not brought meat and valuables home? No one hired a weaver who hadn’t even finished his apprenticeship, and that fucking tea shop had most definitely not paid the bills for a very long time.

 

Nori knew how much it had hurt Dori to give up his craft, and didn’t begrudge him the tea shop. He most certainly wouldn’t let dear Ori feel as if this was somehow his fault – there was no one to blame, and most certainly not Ori – either, and he damn well wouldn’t risk Dori haughtily saying something about Bilbo or the Gamgees that Nori would have to punch him for because he would. There were lines even the brother who had done his best to raise them wasn’t allowed to cross.

 

For all their differences Kori’s oldest sons were both experts in saying hurtful things they didn’t mean but couldn’t take back again either. All the thief wanted was some recognition that he, too, had made sacrifices for their family, more than Dori would ever know, but that way lay long hours of shouting, arguing, and a real possibility of flying fists, and Nori really didn’t feel up for that, least of all here, much less in front of an audience.

 

“I have restless feet,” he shrugged instead with a tired smile, and technically that wasn’t even a lie, just not the whole truth. He was very good at that kind of answers. “I need to wander.”

 

“And that has nothing to do with your thieving ways.”

 

Sometimes Nori considered disliking Dwalin Fundinul in earnest, but before he could say something in that regard Bilbo was between them, holding a ladle in the guard’s face as he would his Pan. It was remarkably similar to how anyone else would hold a blade.

 

“If you want young Estel’s attention, there are better ways than to insult others.”

 

“It’s the truth,” the large Dwarf argued with crossed arms, and the ginger thief considered starting a betting pool on how long it would take certain members of their Company to finally stop arguing with Bilbo, or maybe just a score to keep track of who was doing it out of misled bravery and who because of plain stupidity.

 

“But you intended it to be an insult, and you are not arguing my other point.”

 

The Hound actually blushed, and that ... that was too much.

 

“Eh, I need a break anyway. My throat is as dry as Harad’s deserts, and for what’s worth it, in the whole of Arda you are my favourite (competent) guard, and your dungeon is the most comfortable one I’ve ever encountered. Truly, I’ve lived in worse places ... well, except for the freedom to leave whenever I please. That is always a bit of a downturn, but it’s not as if your locks could actually keep me.”

 

That statement caused a rather interesting reaction. Dwalin wasn’t known for his expressiveness, yet underwent a very wide range of expression and colours anyway. It started with the original blush spreading, then darkening into something angrier, which then paled into a healthier complexion. A frown was added, and when the full scale of what Nori had so casually revealed hit, it drained all remaining colour from the burly Dwarf’s face.

 

It was kind of satisfying to see at least someone understand, but one would think after all these years the guard would be aware that, while still cells, the prisons under his command were by far the best to end up in. Then again, it was ridiculous to imagine anyone leaving the dungeons stopping by Dwalin’s office to tell him how much they enjoyed the stay, for all that it had been involuntary. Still, the guard had must have noticed that the cells were fuller with people arrested for petty crimes in the winter months.

 

Didn’t look like it.

 

“You’re kidding, right? It’s warm, dry, the straw is replaced regularly, two meals a day if the stores allow it, and then the rules against torture or generally unnecessary violence against prisoners you enforced. I have been many places where the inns were worse than that, and they are supposed to make people want to come back. I swear, half the inmates let themselves be captured just to have a few days of safety and rest. Mahâl help me, if it weren’t for you and your moral standards, half of Gabilgatholnur’s population would have either frozen or starved to death ages ago!”

 

He could have said more. In fact, Nori was only starting to warm up to a good and lengthy rant that would put Dori’s to shame. He had been on the receiving end of those often enough to pick up the technique and couldn’t swallow two of those rants in such short time. He had sent Dwarflings Dwalin’s way, for Mahâl’s sake, assuming the other was aware of what he did. He had done exactly as Nori had expected him to, getting the little ones the help they needed for all that he could hold grudges against adults like no other. That he had done so without being aware spoke greatly of the big oaf’s character, but to think all this time Nori had relied on Dwalin to know what he was doing while he hadn’t ...

 

“Is it really that bad?”

 

Estel, for all that he couldn’t have seen more than ten winters and must have spent most of them secured away within the Hidden Valley, had a look in his eyes that gave Nori a pause. It wasn’t just childish curiosity and wanderlust that had equal chances to enhance or vanish with time; he could see a whole lot of determination and almost mature calculation there as well.

 

“Not everywhere,” the thief amended with a sign. “There is a whole lot of good out there, and I had the honour to meet some of the best people one could wish to call friends on the streets, but in most regions, even if it’s not visible at first sight, there is a whole lot of cruelty and injustice going on as well. And coming from a notorious do-no-good and thief as myself that gotta mean something, aye?”

 

“Hm. Well ... well, then I want to be a thief when I’m grown, and wander everywhere. And if I find a bad place, I will be a guard and make it better, and then I’ll be a thief again and wander further until it's good everywhere.”

 

The duality – a child’s words and naive belief that everything would turn out well, but the conviction and determination of an adult – was odd, to say the least, but the thief just grinned and ruffled the boy’s hair, filing the thought away for later.

 

“You’re a good lad, but that’s enough stories now. I could swear Bilbo actually came over to call us for lunch.”

 

“What? Oh, yes, I ... yes,” the Hobbit stuttered, giving the thief a look that spoke volumes about his own surprise about the child, but he didn’t comment on it.

 

 

Lunch was a comparatively quiet affair. Most were busy with their own thoughts, and afterwards, Fíli and Kíli were all too happy to drag Estel into a corner and mock-fight with him with sticks. Estel obviously had had some training, as in he knew to direct the (here imaginary) pointy end towards the princes, and that a `sword´ could also be used to block strikes. That reminded Nori to corner Dwalin about training Bilbo. They had the time for it now, but also enough to put it off for a day longer.

 

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Bilbo started when they had settled down with cups of tea, though his own hands were buried in Nori’s hair, massaging his skull. It left the Dwarf rather boneless, but after this morning the thief needed it more than he would have admitted, and luckily his Hobbit was very good at guessing those things. “How did a child of Men end up in your care? Not to discredit you, of course; it’s obvious you do a recommendable job, but it’s still unusual. How old is he anyway?”

 

It had to be said that usually, Bilbo preferred to be more subtle (came with nosy neighbours and just as nosy relatives), but Balin sat with them and seemed curious as well. If the direct approach failed, the Advisor would certainly try again later, though it turned out to be unnecessary. Lindir obviously didn’t see any reason for secrecy.

 

“Ten winters, most of those he spent here,” the Elf explained with fondness, but then his face fell again. “I don’t know all the reasons, but his parents were of the Dúnedain, who try to keep the Orcs and other foul beasts from gaining the upper hand in these lands. His father was slain, and the Orcs have sworn to end his line, so his mother, the Lady Gilraen, asked Lord Elrond to foster young Estel, to keep him safe until he is at least old enough to defend himself. She is with her people at the moment, but ought to come back soon.”

 

“Oh, the poor dear.”

 

“Indeed, but we are fortunate in that regard as he doesn’t remember it has been different once and doesn’t miss it, though of course he is aware. He is a very bright lad.”

 

“That he is,” Nori agreed (boneless, not brainless, thank you very much), but Lindir didn’t seem to have heard him, staring off into the distance without seeing anything. The thief had seen a similar look on children when they were tired enough that all it took was a nudge towards their beds and they would be asleep within moments. He doubted that was the case here, but the comparison was amusing.

 

“May I be honest with you?”

 

“By all means, lad, be as honest as you wish, and we shall take no offence that wasn’t intended, though you seem not the type to be insulting on purpose,” Balin laughed, and Nori couldn’t for the life of him tell if the old Dwarf was serious, polite, or devious. That was exactly why he rated him more dangerous than the younger brother, never mind that Nori had by chance seen both sons of Fundin spar once, and caught glimpses of them during their encounters with the Trolls and Orcs. The lean Dwarf was confident he could handle Dwalin on his own, but Balin would take a well-planned and executed ambush, and when Fundin’s sons worked together, it was definitely time run home to hide under Dori`s bed, or Bilbo’s, depending on who was closer at hand.

 

“While I brought Estel along out of necessity originally – we would have studied otherwise, but Master Erestor is in one of his rare fits, so it’s wiser to avoid the library – I must admit to also have ulterior motives.”

 

Lindir waited for a response, but aside from Balin motioning him to go on, the only thing that happened was Nori wondering if upset Elves in the library might have something to do with Bilbo sneaking away in the middle of the night and being rather gleeful about it. However, while the thief would get himself involved in a wide range of matters, prank wars with his Hobbit participating were not among them. Those were better enjoyed from a safe distance.

 

“I have no gift for telling the future, but Lord Elrond has. He didn’t say anything specific in that regard, but ... I worry about what might lay in Estel’s future, very much so.”

 

And just like that, all humour left them, and after exchanging a few meaning full looks, Bifur, who was the only one who had remained somewhat suspicious of Lindir aside from Dwalin, asked calmly how they could help. They first needed to translate for the Elf, of course, but the sentiment was shared among all who had heard. A child of Men he might be, raised by Elves no less, but a child still, and Nori wasn’t the only one with a protective streak a mile long and twice as wide on that front.

 

“I fear great challenges and great grieve will come Estel’s way, and I’m not the only one trying to prepare him for that, but especially recently it has come to my attention that we are ... compromised in certain fields. Not everything can be taught through books, and some things shouldn’t.”

 

“In other words: You want us to teach the lad about Dwarrow.”

 

Lindir at least had the decency to look slightly sheepish about being called out like that.

 

“I understand that your people are very secretive, and I would not ask you to reveal what you’re uncomfortable with, but if you could show him how to approach Dwarrow in general without offering offence? And Hobbits, of course. It would ease my heart greatly to know he could at least ask for help from all of the Free Races, should he ever need it.”

 

“Aye, I’m sure we can teach the lad a thing or three,” Balin chuckled and seemed to mean it. Then he asked what age Estel was again, which Glóin heard in passing and promptly got into a long-winded speech about his son. Again. It was a cruel fate, the thief thought to himself, that they kept running into people who didn’t know the stories already, and thus asked for them. It was time for a change of tune if only a small one.

 

“Glóin, don’t you have a daughter as well. How come you never talk about her?”

 

“You don’t know my daughter?” the Dwarf asked back in shock, and then went into an even longer, more emblemised speech about his dear darling Gritta, spitting image of his wife, who of course everyone knew was the most lovely Dwarrowdam to ever grace the face of Arda. She was, actually. Maybe not the most lovely Dwarrowdam (beauty was in the eye of the beholder after all), but damn close. Even Nori, whose preferences had been fixated outside the dwarven race for a long while now, had to admit that much, and it annoyed him to no end because he would have loved to disagree with the banker just to shut him up. Or rile him up more, most likely.

 

“He believes there is no way anyone could have not heard about his Gritta, and thus sees no need to speak of her. At least we’re hearing a few new stories now,” Nori informed his Hobbit, and then tried to pretend he was at least as deaf as Óin and lose himself in Bilbo tucking at his hair absentminded. The Hobbit hadn’t known more about Gritta than that she existed so far either, and thus didn’t mind Glóin going off a tangent again, until ...

 

“Hold on. Where are the boys?”

Chapter Text


 

Bilbo pinched the bridge of his nose. They let the lads out of their sight for five minutes, and of course they had nothing better to do than to vanish on them. That was the future of the Longbeard Clan? Mahâl help them all.

 

“Not that He’s of much help, cursing us with Morgoth’s Spawns in the first place.”

 

“Who?” Lindir inquired, obviously quite aware that it had been a rhetorical question, but too worried to not jump at any chance for a slight distraction.

 

After they had made sure the boys weren’t in the wing currently occupied by the Dwarrow anymore, the whole group had split up in search of the three missing youngsters, very determined to make them un-lost as soon as possible, but rather unwilling to involve anyone else just yet. As it was, Bilbo and Lindir had paired up under the guise of the Elf showing him around, while the Dwarrow `explored´ on their own. In truth, they simply assumed that with Lindir knowing his charge best and Bilbo seeing everything from roughly the same high as Estel, they had the best chances of finding them. It was also less suspicious than an Elf and a Dwarf wandering around. No need to get the whole place into a fit.

 

“Fíli and Kíli, Thorin’s nephews, though he calls them sister-sons. I guess it’s a language thing or maybe it has to do with them being his heirs.”

 

The Elf stopped in his tracks, and Bilbo turned just in time to see him mouthing `heirs´.

 

“But surely it will be a long time until then,” Lindir mused with a complicated expression that somehow fit the Hobbit’s own doubts about the matter very well and caused him to laugh.

 

“They are of age, or so everyone claims, though it can’t have been for very long. They have their moments and good hearts, but rocks for brains. Maybe with more experience ... well, let’s just say I’m not the only one drinking to Thorin’s health and longevity.”

 

“I may have to join in that, for the greater good,” the Elf mumbled, and they continued walking again. It didn’t seem that way from the outside, but Rivendell was a vast city, especially when one had lost an adventurous child and the dwarven equivalents.

 

“Suddenly I find myself very glad Lord Elrond’s sons are away with bessnîn, much as I pity her for it. I doubt Arda could withstand what they might get up to if your princes would ever meet ours. They seem ... far too alike to risk it.”

 

“Oh dear. I can’t help but ask: what would happen, in your opinion?”

 

Lindir contemplated the question more seriously than Bilbo had expected or indented it to be, which made the answer all the scarier.

 

“Elrohir and Elladan are ... changed, since their mother sailed west, of course they are, but in their hearts, they are still mischievous boys, and I have no doubt your Dwarflings would bring that out in them more so than Estel does. Of course, Lady Arwen has always been much worse, but too cunning to get caught. Fortunately, she isn’t here either. If she were, the world as we know it would certainly cease to exist.”

 

“Personal experience?”

 

“Oh no,” Lindir laughed. “I was the boring, well-behaved child, and no one can prove otherwise. It’s why I am tasked with watching Estel.”

 

“Ah.”

 

This time it was Bilbo stopping in his tracks, a thought in his mind, but he couldn’t quite grasp it yet and then was distracted.

 

“Thorin?”

 

The Dwarf, who had been looking up and down the corridors in clear confusion, turned to them, trying to appear his regal self, but couldn’t quite shake off the impression of one completely lost.

 

“Master Baggins, Master Lindir. Any Luck?”

 

“Not yet. Where is Dwalin? Didn’t you leave together?”

 

“I turned around for a second and he was gone,” the Dwarf replied with too much practice and too much ease to not have said the same thing a thousand times before. Bilbo didn’t have the heart to call him out on it right now, though Lindir didn’t seem to have such reservations.

 

“Oh. Which way did you come from?”

 

“Everything looks the same!”

 

“Hm, I suppose the differences can be quite hard to spot if one doesn’t know what to look for. Even I still get turned around from time to time. When in doubt, I usually just look in the adjuring rooms,” the Elf admitted, though if out of kindness or honesty was anyone’s guess. Then he brightened suddenly, leading them down another way.

 

“I just remembered, there is a secluded courtyard where only a few ever go,” Lindir explained, unaware that Bilbo made certain to always walk a step behind Thorin, just to be sure. Judging from their past interactions, Dwalin would tease the other more than enough for getting lost again anyway, and Bilbo had no interest in adding `find the lost king´ to their current to-do-list. “I didn’t think of it before because Estel only goes there when he wants to be alone.”

 

The courtyard was not exactly what Bilbo would have expected of the hideout of a child; too dark, and the mural was far too creepy for his likening.

 

“I recognise this. Isildur cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand with his father’s sword,” Thorin said absent-minded. “I always wondered what happened to the famous blade.”

 

“I was always more concerned about what happened to the Ring,” Bilbo noted warily, not quite daring to look closer at the mural. It was just paint on a wall, but in the diffuse light, it certainly gave him the creeps. “If I thought of it at all, that is. We tell the old stories in the Shire, of course, but not often or in great detail.”

 

“What happened with the Ring I do not know, no one does,” the Elf replied sombre. “Lord Elrond besought Isildur to destroy it, but he refused. Later, as the tale goes, Isildur and his sons were slain in the Gladden Fields and the Ring lost, probably washed into the sea. Only three of Isildur’s entourage survived and brought the shards of Narsil here. They used to be on display in this very courtyard, actually, but I had them locked away when I found out Estel frequents this place. I remember when we were young, Lady Arwen once cut herself on the shards, and I rather not have a repeat of that. The panic it caused had ceased to be entertaining when it was my charge in danger.”

 

“You have Narsil?!”

 

“Elrond did what?!”

 

Bilbo and Thorin glared at each other, judging the other for being surprised by different details, but Lindir was simply confused.

 

“I thought that was commonly known. Then again, if the Orcs ever heard of it ... no one ever mentioned it was supposed to be a secret, but if you could still keep that to yourself? Just to be safe.”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Can I see the shards?”

 

Bilbo groaned and massaged his temples, trying to will a rising headache away. Lost faunts, lost kings, knowledge that may or may not be secret, and may or may not have to power to make kingdoms crumble ... he had signed up for a Dragon, not this level of insanity.

 

“Thorin, you nephews are missing, with Estel. Can we concentrate on that first, please?”

 

“Or we just wait until they caused enough chaos that they will be impossible to miss. Worked in the past, don’t see that changing anytime soon,” Thorin suggested, and there was so much wrong with that statement, the Hobbit didn’t know where to start.

 

“Estel is usually very well behaved. I don’t think he would let it come to that,” Lindir pointed out, and Bilbo straightened up, the thought from earlier returning, and this time he could make sense of it.

 

“But what if he weren’t? We’ve been going about this the wrong way all along. Lindir, if we weren’t searching for well-behaved little Estel trying to stop Morgoth’s Spawns from bringing the roof down on us but Lady Arwen leading her brothers into mischief, where would they go?”

 

The Elf crooked his head, then paled, though it wasn’t very obvious with his already light complexion. He gathered his robes and ran, leaving Bilbo no time to ask where to or even be surprised – `Elves´ and `running´ hadn’t seemed very compatible in his mind until now – while Thorin and he tried to keep up.

 

It wasn’t far – thank the Valar. Bilbo could handle walking for hours, but running was definitely not on his list of favourite past times – and true to Thorin’s prediction they heard the commotion before they saw it.

 

There was sadly no way to make it unseen again, so the Hobbit didn’t follow his first impulse to turn around and cover his eyes – he had never completely lost his properness, thank you very much, just re-evaluated the necessarily of it in certain situations, and whose opinion actually matter – and instead did a head count.

 

Estel, Fíli, Kíli, and Ori were fooling around in the largest basin at the bottom of a great three tier fountain. Dori sat smoking in the smallest basin on the top with Óin and Balin, occasionally reminding the youngsters to be careful and `if you slip, you will break your neck´, but not doing a thing about it, and in the middle basin Bofur was cheering on Nori and Dwalin, who had obviously decided that wrestling in the water was an acceptable way to work out their issues with eachother. It looked for all sense and purpose like Farmer Maggot’s dogs when they `established hierarchy´, as the man had put it. It was supposed to be not nearly as dangerous as it seemed and good for pack dynamics in the long run ... well, or the two Dwarrow were simply bored.

 

Needless to say, all of them were naked as the day they were born, except for Bofur and his hat, but Bilbo started to believe the toymaker had, in fact, been born with that thing.

 

Definitely too much hair, skin, ink, and metal in places (and on persons) he didn’t want to know about in such great detail.

 

Nearby Bifur and Bombur sat in a flower patch, both mostly clothed, and Glóin on a bench, next to an Elf in armour who was laughing loud and booming at something the Dwarf had said, and what did it say about Bilbo’s life that Lindir starting to chuckle at the sight was the strangest thing about the whole situation?

 

“Ah, I should have known. He mentioned a few times that this fountain looked like fun to bath in, but I haven’t seen Estel this carefree in a long time. There are no other children in Rivendell, and it’s too dangerous to bring him elsewhere. My brother and Lord Elrond’s sons try, but it’s not the same.”

 

“Is that your brother? You don’t look very alike?”

 

We present Thorin Foot-in-mouth Oakenshield, formerly known as the notoriously lost King of Grumpiness ... though he admittedly had a point. The other Elf was strawberry blond, for one, his hair cropped short (another thing Bilbo hadn’t thought possible: an Elf with short hair), and with the broad build of a trained warrior, while Lindir was ... none of that, actually.

 

`Their´ Elf made a face.

 

“The joys of being the brother of the great Glorfindel.”

 

“Ah. That explains ... wait, Glorfindel? The Glorfindel? You are his brother?”

 

“You needn’t sound so surprised,” the Elf grumped, and wasn’t that a sight; Thorin excited over an Elf as if he was a little boy in front of a very large cake, and Lindir making a good impression of the Dwarf-king on any other day.

 

“And who is Glorfindel that he warrants such a reaction?”

 

Instantly Thorin rounded up on the Hobbit, demanding how it could be anyone didn’t know about the Balrog-slayer, especially considering Bilbo had more books in his library than half a village together. Bilbo didn’t point out that he only had a small collection compared to the libraries of the Great Smials in Tuckborough or Brandy Hall, neither asked just when Thorin had had time (and reason) to evaluate Bilbo’s library, and he sure as shortbread wouldn’t point out that of course he knew about Glorfindel. The idea that someone really might not know his infamous brother had simply Lindir to light up like the Bonfire Glade, and then Lindir gleefully left to rub it under the older Elf’s nose. Thorin followed him, all but swooning.

 

Just when had Bilbo become the single parent of thirteen Dwarrow anyway? Never mind a child of Men and two Elves? And, yes, two Elves because Glorfindel was obviously getting along splendidly with this lot and not acting very mature, pushing Lindir into the fountain. Also, it was absolutely unfair that Bilbo was growing fonder of them all with every quirk he discovered this lot.

 

“Hang for a lamb, hang for a sheep,” Bilbo told himself, and started to undress. His smalls he kept on, and going by the surprised exclamations, no one had noticed during previous baths that the Dwarrow weren’t the only beings in Middle-earth inking their skin.

 

“Is that a bird on your shoulder?”

 

It was; a magpie on his left shoulder blade to be exactly, the first and only tattoo Bilbo had ever and would ever receive. It had hurt like nothing else, but Nori’s expression when he had found out (and the extensive and repeated way he had shown his appreciation) had been worth it.

 

“Yes. Now help me up there.”

 

Once in the middle basin, Bilbo got as comfortable as he could in the rather cold water, stole Bofur’s pipe – the dwarven tobacco was too crude for his likening, but his own was all the way back in his pack – and cheered Nori on. The short glimpse of Lord Elrond and Tharkûn coming from another corridor and staring at the going-ons in mortification was only the icing of what was turning into a quite amusing afternoon.

 

Of course, Estel was the first start showing signs of becoming too cold, or at least the first they noticed it on, what with all of them constantly having their eyes on the child, and the group abandoned the fountain. Now, wrapped in dry clothes and a blanket for good measure, the lad still sported the widest grin to possibly fit on his face, which was rather adorable considering he was trying to mimic Thorin at the moment. Someone had apparently told him that Thorin was a king, and Fíli had mentioned something about him being very majestic even when sopping wet, which Estel had decided was a valuable skill to have.

 

It probably was, come to think of it, but hilarious anyway.

 

Thorin being as wet as the rest of them had been an accident, actually. Ori and Kíli, on grounds of being younger brothers as well, had ganged up on Glorfindel to avenge Lindir, but accidentally also pulled Thorin into the fountain, which had resulted in Kíli fleeing his uncle’s ire, and Ori hiding behind Dori when he realised he had just `attacked´ the Balrog-Slayer himself, never mind that Glorfindel had laughed the loudest of them all and discarded his armour in favour of having a water fight.

 

In short: they were all soaked and had acquired a second Elf comfortably lounging between the Dwarrow, even sharing a pipe. Estel switched every few minutes between needling Thorin about being majestic and following Dwalin, who strutted around very self-satisfied, as he believed himself the winner of his match with Nori. The thief knew better, of course, and so did Bilbo, but neither argued the point. Instead, Nori whispered tips to Estel about pickpocketing and promised to make Bilbo show him how to walk unheard. Not that the child needed much help in that or remembered to ask when the Hobbit returned from the kitchens with a fresh batch of scones.

 

They stayed up through half the night, telling stories, singing songs about lost homes, wandering, times long gone, and a few about ale and wine curtsy of Glorfindel. Obviously, Elves hadn’t been created all noble and stiff, and didn’t that discovery go over well?

 

It ended in a sleep-over with everyone snoring away on pillows and mattresses they had dragged into the hallway between their rooms, while Lindir, Nori, and Bilbo spread blankets where necessary. Dwalin didn’t help, just glowered because he had a ten-year-old clinging to him like a barnacle. He definitely would need pointers on how to look dignified with grown people mistaking him for a giant plush toy, but, to be fair, Thorin had more practice.

 

Not that Estel was grown, of course, but he was about the same size as an adult Dwarf. The oddest thing, however, was still Glorfindel literally snoring sprawled out by the banked fire, but Bilbo figured dying and being resurrected allowed for all kinds of oddities, including sleeping like `normal´ people.

 

Now, if only he could keep his family from making half the experience, namely dying, and ...

 

“Oh, fuck me.”

 

“Ngh. Not that I’m unwilling, melekûnith, but I’m also tired. Can’t we just cuddle tonight?”

 

“Not like that,” Bilbo snapped in despair. “I’m well past starting to like them and approaching `fond in earnest´.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Yes. Oh.”

 

“Well ... well, they are already wrapped in blankets. Organising a cart shouldn’t be too difficult,” Nori tried half-hearted, not for a lack of compassion but because they both knew it wasn’t that easy. “Fuck, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel the same.”

 

“Good thing it’s still half a world between us and that stupid mountain. Plenty of time to unlike them again.”

 

It also would be a lot easier if he could still mean that.

Chapter Text


 

Balin sharpened his sword.

 

The weapon was almost as old as he was, the hilt re-wrapped uncountable times, and shorter than average among Dwarrow, but Balin wasn’t average either. Short, yes, especially next to his larger-than-average brother; sharp as well, though he preferred wits and words over blades if it could be helped at all, and with hands so small he hid them in gloves to escape ridicule.

 

Hands of a scribe; hands of a child.

 

Sometimes, when Balin had the luxury of time, he wondered if his hands had stopped growing so he could always wield this sword comfortably, or if his sanâzyung had known that Balin would never need a broader grip, as all those following the hagulhaz âzyung instinctively knew what would be best suited for their One.

 

Or so he had heard.

 

Balin himself had never felt The Calling, and as he was not in the habit of lying to himself, he was also aware that it was rather unlikely this sword had actually been gifted to him by his One, but why then was his memory of that moment still so clear while everything else had started to fade with time if he had ever been able to recall it to begin with?

 

He had lost his axe, the one ‘adad had gifted him, during the final battle at the East Gate of Khazad-Dûm, now known as Azanulbizar. It would have cost him his life, but seemingly out of nowhere someone had thrown this very sword right into his hands, saving his life.

 

Balin hadn’t seen who it had been and had never found out. He had been too young, far too young for Ones, the Calling, and war, like so many had been, though he tried not to dwell on it.

 

Balin had his craft and occasional dalliances, though he seldom felt the urge. He wrote letters, contracts, books, copied tomes and scrolls, advised friends, nobles, and kings (sometimes all at the same time), met with friends, casual and not-so-casual lovers, but, though not short on passion, never had he felt the hagulhaz âzyung; never had he loved someone as more than a friend or family.

 

It was a good sword, for all that he had never given it a name (in case his sanâzyung had already done so), so he held onto it, and the thought that there may have been someone meant for him once, even if they were lost to him in this life, and that they might still be watching his back in their own way. This endeavour could need every help they could get on this quest.

 

Much as he knew how very limited their choices were, Balin would not be convinced this quest was a good idea until after they had definitely reclaimed Azsâlulabad (if they got that far, and did that internal voice have to sound so much like Nori and Bilbo?), so he sharpened his sword and tried to believe.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

If asked, Dwalin would always claim his father had gifted him the axes, and those who remembered differently never called him out on it.

 

He remembered Azanulbizar in more details than he would have liked, though what haunted his nightmares was usually not the battle itself but the aftermath. Corpses – some dead, some still walking, but corpses all the same – blood and gore everywhere, Fundin in the midst of it, cold and stiff already. There had been nothing Dwalin – just so 27 years old, scared, bleeding, and alone among the dead – could have done for him, so he had taken his father’s axe from Fundin’s bloodless hands (the grip on it had still been as strong as in life, so Dwalin renamed it Grasper, and never told a soul why), and continued searching for his nadad.

 

Instead, he had found Balin’s axe, twin to his father’s, buried in an Orc skull, and kept it as well (hence its new name, Keeper).

 

That time Dwalin hadn’t been able to fully comprehend the meaning of his find, the possibility of being completely alone numbing him. He had heard rumours then that the prince was dead – they hadn’t said which one – and that his cousin, Dáin, and one they only called `Oakenshield´ were heroes, but it hadn’t quite registered with him then.

 

He remembered the relief and joy of finding Balin alive and mostly unharmed sharper than any grief or later the surprise at finding out `Oakenshield´ was actually Thorin. He was told Dáin had engaged The Defiler to avenge his father, and almost paid with his life. Thorin, his own shield lost, had taken up the branch of an oak and pushed the foul creature back, which had given Dáin the time to get up and behead the Pale Orc. Thorin’s war cry then had rallied the Dwarrow to finally, finally drive away the remaining enemies, but Dwalin couldn’t remember anything of that either.

 

He did remember Thorin breaking his nose before he fell into Dwalin’s arms and cried for Eru knew how long.

 

Fundin dead, Frerin dead, and Náin as well; Thráin and Thorin wounded in body and spirit; Balin disorientated, clinging to an odd blade and searching for a One he couldn’t have found (no one received their ‘agalhaz sanâzyung that young. No one.); Dáin with his crooked braids (younger than Dwalin himself, for Mahâl’s sake), missing half a leg, Lord of the Iron Hills now, and spouting nonsense about Durin’s Bane behind the gates of Khazad-Dûm. Dwalin had almost lost an eye, but it had seemed so unimportant in comparison, still didn’t.

 

They had burned the dead – it had been impossible to give them even a half-arsed burial, never mind a proper one under stone, and just leaving them had been out of question. Dwalin would never forget the heat and the smell of burning flesh and hair – and the living grieved. More died of their wounds or grief, and Dwalin again had done the only thing he could: He took his brother and his best friend, and dragged, sometimes bodily carried them back to Lady Ferís and Dís.

 

After Dagrún’s death, Lady Ferís had taken Balin and him in as her own, and even in her grief she had known what to do, how to calm Dís’ impotent rage, ease Thorin’s guilt, nurse Thráin, lead their people, and dry Dwalin’s tears when the reality of what had happened had finally caught up with him. She hadn’t been able to get Balin fully out of his flunk, but she had made it better, and Dwalin would always love her as he had never had the chance to learn to love his own ‘amad.

 

He owned her so much there was no hope to ever repay her. Swearing his own life into the service of her family had been unnecessary, she had said, and not enough, he had argued, but Dwalin had stuck to it, though not just out of obligation. He genuinely loved those idiots, and someone had to watch out for them, so Dwalin did it. He tempered Dís where he could, and was Thorin a friend, brother, and guard, whatever was needed. He helped raise Fíli and Kíli, made the settlement as safe as he could, and made sure Balin didn’t get lost in his own head. He did what he could, as he always had done, and hoped it would be enough to see them through.

 

Considering all that it was certainly for the best Dwalin had been spared the whole trouble with love. He didn’t begrudge it others, but he was glad his craft was unspecific, and that he had never felt the hagulhaz âzyung. Without a sanâzyung he was free to concentrate on his promise to Lady Ferís to keep her family that was his as well safe and alive, never mind that it also allowed him to go completely guilt free about his understanding with Dís as long as Thorin didn’t find out about it. Not that Thorin’s consent was needed – Dís consented; that was all that mattered – but he would make Dwalin a head shorter either way, no questions asked. Dwalin could hardly guard the royal family if he was dead, so Thorin wouldn’t find out, and if Víli disagreed ... well, they would have a lot of time to figure that one out in Mâhal’s halls.

 

And talking about protection, where was Bilbo wandering off to now? Mâhal be his witness, that Hobbit was harder to look out for than Thorin and the princes combined.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Glóin considered himself blessed. He had a beautiful wife, his sanâzyung, and together they could keep themselves and their two extraordinary children fed. Truly, Mahâl must have blessed his life, but that didn’t mean he was blind to the suffering of others, and suffering was what he saw; children in rags turning to crime out of hunger, putting a price on what shouldn’t be sold just to be warm for one night, and worse.

 

There was only so much Glóin or anyone of them could do, and he had run the numbers himself, several times. The odds in favour of reclaiming Azsâlulabad were still better than for any other endeavour, so he had signed up on Thorin’s quest, asked his children to guard the pen that had been dear Frigga’s ‘agalhaz sanâzyung to him, and had commissioned new portrays for the locket he had received to their anniversary so he could carry his family close.

 

Glóin knew Dwalin didn’t understand, that Balin looked at him oddly, and Óin did the same with barely hidden pain, though his brother didn’t want to talk about. He knew, but he wouldn’t let that stop him from talking about his loved ones. Talking eased the longing, though he of course never stopped missing them. Bombur at least understood, and if Glóin hadn’t quite expected to find anything in common with the shy Dwarf beyond being younger brothers, well, one never stopped learning.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Óin was a healer. It was his passion, his arukhaz santorva, and even Azanulbizar and all its horrors hadn’t discouraged him, though the loss of their mother had been a harsh blow that took them a long time to recover from.

 

Glóin and him, they had been too young (as so many had been), and most importantly too untrained to participate as soldiers, but Óin had found his craft early and had helped out in the healing tents in any way he could, while Glóin had run errands.

 

In contrast to his near and distant cousins, Azanulbizar hadn’t been what made Óin an old man or turned him prematurely grey. No, that had been a mining accident, one of many, several years later when he had found his sanâzyung and lost him in the same hour.

 

Óin had had the ointment to starve off infections ready, had spent years perfecting the formula, but it hadn’t been enough, the wounds too grievous. The Dwarf wouldn’t have survived long enough for infection to set in either way; Óin had known it, and so had his One, stilling his hand and telling him to save it for someone who still had a chance.

 

It had been the only words they ever exchanged.

 

Later, Óin had heard the Dwarf’s name from his family. They were nice people, devastated by the loss. Óin hadn’t approached them, never told anyone, or even spoken the name out loud. It was all he had, and Óin guarded it jealously.

 

`Save it for someone who has a chance´ his sanâzyung had said, and Óin had. True, no other healer would have given Bifur a chance – he couldn’t blame them, considering the axe was still the other’s head – and it was touching how grateful the small family still was, even if it didn’t make it easier for the healer.

 

Óin tried. He learned all he could from all sources, didn’t even hesitate to seek out elven healers, all in the name of a Dwarf he never had the chance to get to know, yet still people died.

 

Maybe a mountain, a real mountain with secured mines and prosperity, could ease his consciousness, make things better. It was at least worth trying, and if he died ... he wouldn’t seek his own death, that would dishonour his One, but if his death could save another, he wouldn’t mind so much.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Elven architecture was possibly the complete opposite from dwarven, and very different from man-ish architecture. Hobbits seemed a bit of a blend of all, but the proper names for the arches and decorations escaped Bombur.

 

He was a cook, now, and a damn good one. It was how he had found his wife, or rather how Hildr had found him, but that didn’t mean his passion for architecture had diminished. Maybe if they retook Azsâlulabad ... they spoke of halls filled with gold, as in `more than one hall´. Bombur couldn’t imagine the dimensions, but it should be more than enough for him to apprentice despite his age and still take care of his family meanwhile, and then pay the fees for the apprenticeships of all his children.

 

Oh, that would be a great joy indeed, though not the most important thing. He already had his sanâzyung, even without following his arukhaz santorva. Bombur would admit their exchange of gifts hadn’t been what he had expected, just as his wife wasn’t what he had expected, and how could she be?

 

Bombur hadn’t believed it at first, couldn’t. He was just a poor architect turned cook. How could this wonderful, kind, beautiful person be meant for him? But Hildr was also headstrong and stubborn, hurumab Mâhal, and hadn’t given up until he believed, and Bombur loved her and their children all the more for it. He didn’t need anything physical to remind him of that love.

 

Now, if only he could have done more to help his brother than joining a questionable quest.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

He hadn’t always been a wordless, stumbling idiot.

 

Oh, his cousins would protest that he wasn’t now either, but Bifur was under no illusion that most thought differently.

 

He wasn’t stupid or dangerous or a liability, just slower than he used to be and unable to speak Westron, but even the Thief’s melekûnith had found a way around it without trouble. Not to say Bilbo was anything less because of his race, but Hobbits certainly didn’t use Iglishmêk on a daily basis, or so he had thought. Made one wonder how Hobbits came by a sign-language that was so similar that they could understand each other with only a few misunderstandings.

 

The point was: the axe in his head, while inconvenient and at times painful, didn’t make him a lesser Dwarf ... but the loss of his craft did.

 

Bifur could function as a hunter and warrior or guard, and he adored the way the eyes of children (and adults) lighted up when presented with his toys, but he wasn’t a toymaker or guard or warrior or hunter. He was a carpenter, and before the axe, he could create things of beauty and functionality in all sizes, and his masterpiece had been both. A loom, sturdy, handy, and with decorations befitting royalty. It had been his ‘agalhaz sanâzyung as well, and he had giddily awaited the day he could present it to his sanâzyung ... but the Orcs had taken that from him along with most of his family.

 

In comparison, the axe had been but an annoyance, a disturbance keeping him from taking care of his little cousins straight away. At first, he had needed to recover, then raising his cousins had taken most of his time, so it wasn’t until later when he tried to recreate the loom that he found out the axe had not just taken his words but his hands as well. He could still work, but anything larger than a chair and the headaches would prevent him from ever finishing. Mâhal only knew why it was the size of things that hindered him while the delicate mechanics of toys didn’t, but that’s the way it was.

 

It had been horrible, no denying that, and his reaction was likely the reason many still thought he was prone to mindless raging. Bifur didn’t think anyone would have reacted kindly in a similar position, but he hadn’t let the discovery keep him down for long. From the few remains of the loom, he had made a set of combs. Everyone could end up in a situation when they needed a comb, and Bifur told himself that his One would know either way, that Bifur would recognise the hands he had originally built the loom for.

 

It had been many years since then, but Bifur was patient, and if there was a pair of strong, crafty hands in the Company that he could imagine working on the loom (and maybe other things) almost too well, well ... a Dwarf could dream.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

“I’ve had a thought.”

 

Ori didn’t point out that there was a first time for everything, nor did he say anything about the disaster that was sure to follow such a statement, but meeting Fíli’s eyes, he saw that the older brother must have thought the same, so he closed his journal and turned his attention on Kíli, ready to bolt if he had to. Not everything the Durin brothers did, caused trouble (the fountain had been a bad idea, though a lot of fun, and strictly speaking not their idea), but they had a history of bad and possibly dangerous ideas (see: Trolls and what not to do when you encounter them).

 

Kíli didn’t seem to notice any of that and just continued.

 

“We are fourteen – not counting the wizard, but that would be gross either way – yet only four of us are in a relationship. Glóin, Bombur, and Nori and Bilbo. Don’t you think that’s odd? ‘Amad always said everyone feels the hagulhaz âzyung.”

 

“Kíli! We’re not supposed to talk about that among outsiders!”

 

“Oh, come on! It’s just us here, and don’t tell me you didn’t wonder the same.”

 

The brothers started bickering about the appropriateness of discussing this topic in an elven city, and if Fíli was indeed worried about the topic or not, but Ori’s thoughts certainly strayed that path now.

 

Glóin and Bombur were definitely in a relationship each. The scribe had met their wives and children and would never dream of saying anything to discredit the unions, but he wasn’t so sure about his brother and Bilbo. Nori at least seemed too tormented for it to be true – besotted and happy with his Hobbit, but tormented all the same – and it was questionable if Hobbits even had Ones, independent of how dedicated to Nori yet also tormented Bilbo was.

 

Considering that it was rather two out of thirteen, Ori had to agree that the thought was a bit disconcerting. Then again, many had served in Azanulbizar, died there, and while his brothers certainly had kept things from him and played down others, Ori didn’t think Dori and Nori had flat out lied to him. On matters of food and money, certainly, but not this.

 

“Many died, and ... and sometimes you just don’t feel it.”

 

That obviously went far over the princes’ heads, and hesitatingly the scribe shared what his brothers had taught him, as their mother had taught them before. It wasn’t a secret, but Ori had noticed other families thought differently about the matter, and he didn’t want to upset his friends, never mind that he wasn’t yet completely over being considered friends with the princes to begin with.

 

“What do you mean, not loving your One?”

 

“Or loving another. How could you?”

 

Obviously, they were upset either way. Great.

 

“I’m just saying it’s possible. What if your One turns out to be a horrible person? Or what if they die before you are old enough for a craft? That doesn’t mean you suddenly stop being able to love or desire in general if you’re inclined that way. Life isn’t perfect, people aren’t perfect, so how could love possibly be perfect? I will not let someone else dictate whom I love, not even our Maker.”

 

“But ...”

 

“So help me, Fíli if you finish that sentence, Kíli will be Thorin’s only heir in no time.”

 

A quill was not a dangerous weapon by any stretch of imagination, but obviously impressive enough that Kíli instantly covered his brother’s mouth. Well, or he just didn’t want to risk becoming king at any one point.

 

“He won’t. You’re right. Whom you love or not is entirely your decision, but ... but that means Ones and The Calling ... it’s all lies?”

 

Oh, for the love of ...

 

“Of course it isn’t; aren’t you listening? It’s real and can be good, but hagulhaz âzyung doesn’t guarantee you will actually ever find your One, and finding them doesn’t guarantee you will actually be happy together, and the existence of a One doesn’t mean it’s impossible to love someone else. It’s ... I just think it would be ridiculous to deny yourself happiness, to spend your whole life alone, waiting for a One who might be dead already or live so far away you will never meet. And I sure as crackers won’t stay with someone who can’t appreciate me the way I am or is abusive. That’s all.”

 

That at least seemed to get through to them. Maybe there was hope for the future after all, though Ori didn’t doubt the brothers could be proper princes when the situation called for it. It was just the moments in-between they had to work on, and both princes had a fundamental problem: on their own, they were utterly useless. They worked best as a team, and that was true for everything, from playing pranks to ruling. It was good to know at least one of them was aware of that, even if Kíli being the sensible one was a worrying concept.

 

“Oh. Yeah, that ... Never thought of it that way, but it makes sense, I suppose,” Fíli said now, and Kíli asked what they thought The Calling might feel like.

 

“Different for everyone, I suppose.”

 

“Did you feel it?”

 

“That’s none of your business,” the scribe snapped, his hold tightening around his journal. He was ready to leave, but Fíli’s hand held him back, the desperation in his eyes and voice actually more effective than any physical restriction. The scribe knew well how to get out of those.

 

“Sorry, you’re right. It’s just ... ‘amad becomes really sad every time it’s mentioned, and indâd is worse, so there is no one we could ask. I, we are just really worried what The Calling could possibly be like for a prince.”

 

Oh. Oh, so that’s what this all was about. Really now, couldn’t they have just said so from the start instead of riling him up? Though Ori supposed that was a valid concern. Ori was a scribe, a defined craft with defined duties. He could be sure his hagulhaz âzyung would involve ink and paper in one way or another, but for a prince that wasn’t quite so easy. Why, from what he’d seen they had to be jacks of all trades.

 

Maybe he should point them to Nori. Ori had heard him muttering to himself, years ago, and it seemed his brother had had a similar problem ... but Nori wouldn’t appreciate anyone poking into that mess (a hornet nest more like it), not even Dwarflings, and maybe that wasn’t even necessary.

 

“You had the arukhaz santorva, right?”

 

“Sure, but what does that ... oh. You mean being a prince isn’t a craft?”

 

“It could be, I suppose, and it’s a difficult job, no doubt, but I don’t think it counts in your case.”

 

The brothers considered it, communicating in that weird silent way of theirs Ori sometimes envied, but then relaxed and the scribe counted that as a success.

 

Believing the matter settled Ori turned back to his journal, determined to make it right and perfect, and not to miss out a single thing that happened, for his private copy, of course. He would later make a second one where he would gloss over a few things. History didn’t need to remember that his older brothers argued more often when they tried to reconcile than when they didn’t, that Glóin would talk about his family all day long, but Bombur did so in his sleep, and Ori probably should also consider a way to make the adoption of two Elves and a child of Men sound less insane to the average Dwarf who hadn’t been here to see it. That the other Elves had obviously grown rather jealous of Lindir for his closeness to the Dwarrow, he would definitely keep in the records, but official records didn’t need to contain any pranks played in Lindir’s defence or every single row between their Hobbit and king, but that were all things he could worry about later.

 

“Do you suppose Elves and Hobbits have Ones as well?”

 

Oh, Mahâl help him. Ori suddenly had a whole new appreciation for the patience his brothers had shown in face of his own relentless questioning.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Bofur was a miner by profession, even if it had been a while since he had actually worked as one. There had never been much work to go around in Khagolabbad, and the mines ... much as the stone called to him, it was just too dangerous most of the time. And as much as his family could use the additional income, they had been very clear about the priorities, and Bofur also much preferred to be alive, no matter how much he itched for a pickaxe, thank you very much. The toys didn’t bring as much income as mining would, even with his very limited knowledge of numbers Bofur still knew he could make more coin helping Bifur than dying in the mines.

 

Carving had always been more of a hobby, a way to keep his hands busy and the children entertained, never mind that the coin they saved by making all the toys themselves and selling what they didn’t need, was needed elsewhere. That, and he could keep an eye on Bifur even if they all knew it wasn’t necessary.

 

Bofur was a miner, yet his most prized possession was a carving knife that had been gifted to him by his One, or at least the person he thought was his One. The miner-turned-toymaker had never had the courage to approach the other directly, except for that one time he had given him his own ‘agalhaz sanâzyung, and even that had been more a case of hit and run. Bofur actually doubted the other had even seen him or realised what happened. Chances were high his gift had not even been recognised as such and been thrown away, maybe even received as an insult or an attack, but ...

 

He was being silly, that’s what he was. It had been decades, and they had interacted often enough since then in one way or another. If the other really were be his One, he would have certainly shown that already, but Bofur just couldn’t make himself stop hoping for the impossible, so he had joined a suicide quest to prove his worth.

 

If only his sanâzyung would be less ... well, less of everything, actually. If they were at least equal in something, maybe then there would be a chance, but ...

 

“Stupid fool. As if he’d give you the time of the day.”

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Dori liked pittances about as much as taking money from Nori (on the principle of it having been acquired by illegal and often dangerous means), which is to say not at all, but being able to work with fabrics again was almost worth it. Elven they may be, but good quality, sturdy. He doubted Master Lindir had asked if they could have them, and it didn’t settle right with the oldest Ri, but just as with Nori’s `gifts´ he knew when he had to swallow his pride and make the best of what he had.

 

The fact was: half their Company was running around threadbare and without spare clothes, and while that was nothing new to them, they still had a long way to go, and who knew when they would next have access to fabrics? And leather. It wasn’t his element, but he had learned to make due. The Urs’ boots were beyond worn out, and Bilbo could struggle all he wanted, but he would appreciate something to protect his feet in the mountains. Tunics came first, though. Mahâl knew especially Nori’s with its many pockets would take ages to replace, so Dori used the involuntary stay to go through all their clothes to see what was still salvageable, and ...

 

Oh, the nerve!

 

“Nori Korinul, get over here right now!”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t get your braids in a twist. What is ...?”

 

One moment Dori was ready to unleash righteous indignation upon his brother – thievery was one thing, but even if Dori had failed, their ‘amad had definitely taught him better than this – the next his hands were empty and Nori in his personal space, and not in a good way, no. More in a very furious, possibly dangerous way.

 

They argued a lot, maybe more so that brothers usually did, but never had Dori used his remarkable strength against Nori, and never had Nori pulled any of his knives against Dori. He didn’t do it now either, but it felt as if it was only matter of perception, and that was a very disturbing thought.

 

“You have no right, Dori, no right at all. Not in this. You will not touch it again, or speak of it to anyone, is that understood? I never said anything about that damn tea shop or the sealed tin at the bottom of your pack. I guarded your secrets better than my own, all of them. This one you will keep for me, or so help me, I will pay you back in equal measures!”

 

Now that was ... and Bilbo ... oh, great Lord of all forges!

 

“Nori ...”

 

“Unless it’s to agree, you better save your words.”

 

“He needs to know, Nori. It’s not fair to him.”

 

“I know! But in case you didn’t notice, life is never fair, and this is between Mahâl, Bilbo, and me, no one else.”

 

He had a point, though there was still a lot Dori could have said to that about Ones and Gifts, Crafts and Mahâl, and where to fit Nori and his Hobbit ... they always called Bilbo that, didn’t they? He had noticed how in the Shire Nori had always been `Bilbo’s Dwarf´, and hadn’t known what to make of that then. He never realised ... it was just so easy to ...

 

How long had Nori been alone with this? Why had he never said ... well, because he was Nori, of course, and Dori had never wanted to hear about his thieving ways, and didn’t talk about the tin either, but that just wasn’t right. They were brothers; they shouldn’t have to do anything alone, especially not such burdens.

 

Ignoring all spoken and unspoken threats, Dori pulled his brother close and held him through the other’s struggling, the loud curses, and silent tears, and continued to do so long after complaints about embarrassment and mother-henning had died down, come up anew, and died down again.

 

He had made mistakes, they all had and would keep making them, but even if everything else slipped through his fingers, he could hold onto his brothers, and if that was what Nori needed, he also could stay silent about silver spoons with a finely engraved `B´ growing into a floral pattern.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Smoothing his thumb over the stone that just so fit into his palm had always helped to ease Thorin’s mind, even though it was a constant reminder of his greatest failure.

 

His sanâzyung, the one Mahâl had meant for only him, had rejected him.

 

They had been subtle, at least, which had been a great kindness, even if Thorin had needed a while to understand.

 

At first, he had been euphoric to receive his ‘agalhaz sanâzyung. What else could it have been after all? The stone had still been warm and smooth to touch as if his One had held it as he did now. It was too dark and too big to be just a random pebble, and couldn’t have been the tool of an attack either. Those were traditionally thrown at heads, not dropped into hands, and the latter was what had happened. The stone had literally fallen into Thorin’s hands when life had brought him low, and Thorin had spent a long time waiting for the giver to reveal themselves, searched among the stonemasons, architects, miners, everyone working with stone, really, but to no avail.

 

It had made him wonder if maybe he had gotten it all wrong. He had at no point needed a stone, but if it had been a mistake, someone surely would have spoken up.

 

And after a while, Thorin had reached a point where he had needed to accept that his One had either died in the meantime or that they thought him unworthy, and he didn’t know which hurt more.

 

Dís, pregnant with Kíli and Víli still at her side, had tried to cheer him up. She had liked to point out that maybe they were just insecure or shy. Being crown prince then, king now, was already difficult enough, everyone with eyes could see that, so could he really blame a future queen or consort to be a bit scared of the prospect?

 

He couldn’t, didn’t, but there was only so long that particular excuse worked.

 

There would always be difficulties and obstacles; a One was meant to be a support in those, and be supported in return, a sharing of each other’s joys and burdens. It wasn’t even about the sex; Thorin could do without that or find it elsewhere, but to have someone, a partner, an equal, someone to be Thorin with, not the king of the Longbeards, uncle or brother, just Thorin, and offer the same comfort in return. Shouldn’t that be worth it? Shouldn’t he be worth it?

 

Obviously, he wasn’t.

 

After Víli’s death, Dís had not brought it up again, and Thorin had tried to forget and had given away his ‘agalhaz sanâzyung not to his One, but a Dwarf very much as Thorin had always imagined his sanâzyung to be: funny, witty, and friendly, probably able to temper Thorin’s own disposition towards stubbornness and grumpiness, but not his. Someone else would be that fortunate.

 

Thorin wouldn’t be anyone’s husband or even know the face of his One. He was a failure as a Dwarf and brother. All he had left was trying to be a decent uncle, and keep Fíli and Kíli alive where he had already failed to make them stay with their mother; try to be the king his people needed, and reclaim Azsâlulabad, so they could have safety and wealth again, secured mines and warm halls.

 

Maybe that would be enough; it had to be. He had nothing else to give.

 

Note:

I dropped a few new names and a lot of information on you, so I made a list of the characters sorted by family, and then age, kind of. It’s too long for the notes, so I put it here.

 

 

Ferís – wife of Thráin II, mother of Thorin, Frerin and Dís. I choose the name as a combination of Frerin and Dís. She was a silversmith, and her Gift to Thráin had been the chain/necklace Thráin later hung the key to the secret door to Azsâlulabadv on. Gandalf retrieved it, unaware of its importance, along with the key, and that is how Thorin knew that it was indeed the key of his father. Ferís had been the driving force of the Durins after Smaug and took in Balin and Dwalin when their mother died and Fundin was too caught up in his grief and duties to properly care for grieving children as well. She had also tried to keep them all away from the war, and never quite got over only having succeeded with Dís. Ferís died around T.A. 2835 from a combination of age and having worked herself to the bone. Losing her was probably what prompted Thráin to try for Azsâlulabad six years later, from which he never returned.

Ferís had one older sibling, Lar, a jeweller of great renown. They died when Smaug attacked Azsâlulabad.

 

Thorin II – eldest son of Thráin and Ferís; current King of the Longbeards. Born in T.A. 2746 he was 53 at Azanulbizar and is 195 years old at the time of the quest. He is a weapon-smith and made a carving knife as his Gift.

Thorin is “blessed” with a strong connection to stone, enabling him to navigate even unknown terrain blind as long as he is in, on or close to actual mountains. As a downside, he is completely helpless without stone although he knows how to read a map and recognise landmarks. A noteable exception to this is Rivendell, as the elven magic infused within every inch of the valley supplants the effect the surrounding mountains would have had.

Thorin also (more or less secretly) can understand spoken and written Sindarin, though not speak it himself (his accent is atrocious).

It is my personal head-canon for this story that Thorin and Fíli react sensitively to willow bark in special and narcotics in general. Frerin was the same, but it never came up. They don’t get an anaphylactic shock or something alike, but a small dosage (in relation to their body size) already knocks them out, and a larger dosage could have deadly effects. (Óin knows about it, of course, so Thorin wasn’t actually in any danger. He’s just pissed about it on principle.)

Thorin received a smooth, dark stone about the size of his palm as Gift from his One, who hadn’t shown themselves. This led to Thorin believing himself rejected and giving his gift away to the first person in need of a carving knife he encountered.

 

Frerin –second child of Thráin and Ferís; born in T.A. 2751, the only thing canonically known about him is that he died at the Battle of Azanulbizar at the age of 48, and was burned on a pyre along with Fundin and all others that had died in the war. He was too young to have felt The Calling or receive a gift.

 

Dís – youngest child of Thráin and Ferís, wife of Víli, mother of Fíli and Kíli. Born in T.A. 2760 she was 39 at Azanulbizar (and not participating) and is 181 years old at the time of the quest. Her name is Old Norse for “goddess” or “priestess”, and she is canonically the only Dwarf identified as a woman Tolkien ever mentioned by name. She is a silversmith and had apprenticed under her mother, Ferís. It’s the general consent that she inherited all the brains in the family and is the sole reason the males of Durin’s Line survived for so long. Her Gift to Víli had been a clasp for his coat that kept falling open. It sadly was also what helped identify his corpse after the Orc raid that had cost him his life.

Years later she took up with Dwalin. Their secret affair understanding is an actual friends-with-benefits thing, based on mutual trust and affection (and Dís’ not suddenly having become asexual when Víli died). They don’t love each other romantically, but it is a stable thing that is good for them.

Nori’s nickname for Dís is simply “the Queen”, because she is the only royal he actually has any respect for, and he is also possibly a bit afraid of her. She’s definitely not the sort of woman he would risk angering.

 

Víli – Dís’ husband, father of Fíli and Kíli; a hunter of the Broadbeam Clan. He is named after one of Odin’s brothers from Norse mythology. His Gift to Dís hadn’t been a thing, actually, but saving her from a wild boar, though Dís liked to complain that she `had it under control´. Certainly didn’t stop them from being madly in love either way. They later claim Víli had given her his hunting knife to defend herself, but the boar had gotten away with it. Víli died in an Orc raid the winter after Kíli’s birth while visiting family in the same village Bifur, Bofur and Bombur lived in.

 

Fíli – firstborn son of Dís and Víli; Thorin’s heir. Born in T.A. 2859 after the Longbeards had settled in Gabilgatholnur, he is 82 years old at the time of the quest. He is a silversmith leaning more towards engraving than actual smithing. He joined the quest out of love and obligation to his family, to prove himself a worthy heir, and because he believes being back in the halls of her ancestors would make his mother happy.

 

Kíli – second born son of Dís and Víli. Born in T.A. 2864 after the Longbeards had settled in Gabilgatholnur, he is 77 years old at the time of the quest. He is a hunter and joined the quest for the same reasons as Fíli, and because he is more aware that they work best when together than Fíli.

 

 

Fundin – husband of Dagrún, father of Balin and Dwalin; older brother of Gróin, and cousin twice removed and loyal friend to Thráin. He was a warrior and later Thráin’s personal guard and military adviser. It’s unknown what his Gift to Dagrún had been, and what he received in return. He was known to carry two axes, one of which he gifted to Balin since he is older. He intended to gift Dwalin the second axe at a later point but died at Azanulbizar before he could do so. Dwalin found both axes after the battle and kept them as his own. In the book, Dwalin didn’t have any special weapons, and Graham McTavish mentioned in the extras on the extended DVDs that the axes are named Grasper and Keeper.

 

Dagrún – Old Norse (dag – day, rún – secret knowledge); wife of Fundin, mother of Balin and Dwalin. She was a teacher, though that turned more into running a daycare after Smaug. She died protecting the children during a bandit ambush around T.A. 2789 (means Dwalin was 10 and Balin 19 years old).

 

Balin – older son of Fundin and Dagrún; born in T.A. 2763 he was 36 at Azanulbizar and is 178 years old at the time of the quest. He is a scribe/advisor/scholar and never felt The Calling, but he believes he received an oddly shaped sword as his Gift from his One during the Battle of Azanulbizar, although he had been too young then. He knows that, but still clings to it because to him it’s less painful to believe his One died than consider he might have never had one. He’s on the quest out of family obligations, and because someone with brains and tact in the company would increase their chances to get somewhere, never mind that he can actually read a map and is willing to use it. It may also have something to do with him and Dís not quite getting along. There is no special reason for it; they just don’t like each other and do the mature thing, namely avoid being alone together.

 

Dwalin – younger son of Fundin and Dagrún; born on the road after the sacking of Azsâlulabad in T.A. 2772. He was 27 at Azanulbizar and is 169 years old at the time of the quest. He is a guard/sell-sword/occasional smith and neither felt The Calling nor received a Gift at any one point (which he is rather glad about when he sees all the drama it causes). He is dedicated to protecting the Line of Durin out of gratitude to Ferís and love for his family, which is also why he is part of the quest.

It’s my head-canon that Dwalin runs the guards in Gabilgatholnur, and has an unshakable moral compass. The criminals love him for it, but hate him for being so damn good at his job, which makes for some odd warnings (“Stay away from Dwalin Fundinul, but if you get caught, make sure it’s on his watch.”), but anyone suggesting to do away with him is more likely to get a knife in the back themselves. Dwalin himself never quite realised any of that before Nori mentioned it.

His discretion about the understanding with Dís is absolute. He wouldn’t tell anyone about it (especially about any tears on both sides, and her calling for Víli during their more intimate meetings) if his life depended on it.

 

 

Gróin – husband of Ásgunnr, father of Óin and Glóin, younger brother of Fundin. He was an accountant, and his Gift was helping Ásgunnr settle some financial issues. He died canonically T.A. 2923 (probably) of old age.

 

Ásgunnr – Old Norse, ás – a day, gunnr – war/battle; Gróin’s wife, mother of Óin and Glóin. She was a warrior of the Firebeard Clan, hence the red hair that runs in the family, and Glóin actually favours her regarding looks and temper. She and Gróin met on her first day in Erebor, where she saved him from being mugged. She died at Azanulbizar.

 

Óin – older son of Gróin and Ásgunnr. Born on the road after the sacking of Azsâlulabad in T.A. 2774, he was 25 at Azanulbizar and is 167 years old at the time of the quest. He is a healer and made an antibiotic salve for his One, but the other was wounded too gravely after a mining accident and told him to save it for someone else. Óin never spoke of this to anyone and used the salve on Bifur, which very likely saved his life by preventing the axe wound from becoming infected. Óin is plagued by the guilt of not having been able to save his One and all the other various deaths he had to witness in Khagolabbad, and hopes reclaiming <Azsâlulabad will change that for the better.

 

Glóin – younger son of Gróin and Ásgunnr, husband of Frigga, father of Gritta and Gimli. Born on the road after the sacking of Azsâlulabad in T.A. 2783, he was 16 at Azanulbizar and is 158 years old at the time of the quest. He is an accountant/investor and helped his wife set up her own shop. He is absolutely dedicated to his family and very vocal about his love for them, especially Gimli, as he is convinced that at Gritta’s birth the Valar sent out a memo to everyone that the most perfect being ever was just born, and they could all just sit back in awe from now on. He is on the quest out of family obligation to Thorin and Óin, and because he agrees with Thorin that their people need a safe place to live and work. The axe he carries and later gifts to Gimli was his mother’s.

 

Frigga – wife of Glóin, mother of Gritta and Gimli. Named after the major goddess in Norse mythology, she is a jeweller and fashioned a fountain pen sturdy enough even Glóin in his temper can’t damage it (too much). She also made the locket Glóin always carries with him as an anniversary gift. Frigga is in league with Dís on her eternal quest to keep the idiots that are their family and in-laws alive since before she became officially part of the family.

 

Gritta – first born child of Glóin and Frigga. Born in T.A. 2845 after the Longbeards had settled in Gabilgatholnur, she is 88 years old at the time of the quest. Glóin chose that name because it rhymes with her mother’s. Gritta is a jeweller, specialising in engravings and inlays, and hasn’t yet felt the Calling nor received a gift. Gritta didn’t want to join the quest, arguing that a jeweller would hardly be needed, and also because she knew her father would have a conniption if she suggested it. (She also thinks it’s a stupid idea.)

 

Gimli – second born child of Glóin and Frigga; born in T.A. 2879 after the Longbeards had settled in Gabilgatholnur, he is 62 years old at the time of the quest. His name means “star” in Khuzdûl. Gimli trains to be a warrior, though his actual craft is word-smithing. Because of his age, he had to stay at home during the quest (and because his sister sat on him for two days straight to prevent him from running after their father, among other precautions, like hiding his weapons and boots). He hasn’t felt the Calling nor received a gift.

 

 

Kori – mother of Dori, Nori, and Ori; a Dwarrow-dam of known beauty and hidden strength. She was a weaver. Her husband, Dori’s father, died when the Dragon came. Years later she took up with a shady Dwarf who left soon after Nori was born and was never heard of again. Her third partner was a good sort and would have married her if Kori would have wanted it, but he died in a mine accident (not the one Óin lost his One to. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of mining accidents in Khagolabbad with many causalities over the years) before Ori’s birth, which was complicated and cost Kori her life. No one knows if one of the three Dwarrow had been her One or if she had even felt The Calling at any point, but she had been happy with each of them while it lasted.

`Kori´ seems to be a commonly used name for the mother of the Ri-brothers. I’m not laying any claim on it.

 

Dori – oldest of Kori’s sons. Born in T.A. 2769, he was 30 at Azanulbizar (and not participating) and is 172 years old at the time of the quest. He is described by Thorin as “the strongest Dwarf in the Company” in the book, which is commonly interpreted as `extremely strong´. That he is very beautiful/handsome by dwarven standards is a far-spread idea among fans, as the matter of what Dwarrow find visually appealing has (to my knowledge) never been breached in any of Tolkien’s texts with the exception of Gimli’s drunken ode to hairy Dwarrowdams.

Dori was born shortly before Smaug came, and apprenticed as a weaver under his mother, but had to give that up after her death. Instead, he worked odd jobs and also as a waiter and tinkerer, and later owned a tea shop (it grew from serving neighbours tea and cakes in his own kitchen, with said neighbours donating odds and ends until they had enough for an actual shop) because it was safer for Ori. He has a tin with a special tea mix with him at all times, which might be for his One, and joined the quest because of Ori.

 

Nori – second son of Kori. Born on the road after the sacking of Azsâlulabad in T.A. 2789, he was 10 at Azanulbizar (and not participating) and is 158 years old at the time of the quest. He is a thief and scoundrel with strong opinions on what are acceptable crimes and what not, especially where children of any race are concerned. He is also a notorious vagrant with two home bases, namely his brothers and Bilbo. His Calling made him steal a spoon from Lobelia, who in turn had stolen it from Bilbo before. The conflict between loving Bilbo and the obligation to his One is causing him a lot of stress, especially since Dwarrow are the only race have something comparable to Ones and The Calling, so it completely escapes his imagination that Bilbo could be his One. He was forced to join the quest because when he tried to steal the contracts of his brother, he prevented an assassination attempt on Fíli and Kíli, and Thorin deliberately got it all wrong.

 

Ori – youngest of Kori’s sons; Born in T.A. 2838 after the Longbeards had settled in Gabilgatholnur, he is 103 years old at the time of the quest. He is currently earning his journeyman under Balin as official scribe for Thorin’s quest. He is notoriously annoyed by his over-protective brothers, by whose reckoning Ori didn’t have The Calling yet, and most certainly didn’t receive any Gift. Ori would like to point out that they shouldn’t be so sure about the former, and that he hadn’t been bullied into a suicide quest but actually begged to be allowed to join.

He is fluent in Westron, Khuzdûl and Iglishmêk, and nearly fluent in Sindarin.

 

 

Bifur – son of the tanner Kifúr and the midwife/wise woman Ragnvé (Old Norse, ragn – counsel, vé/vi – holy); Born in T.A. 2757 in Khagolabbad, he was 42 at Azanulbizar (and not participating) and is 184 years old at the time of the quest. He is a carpenter, apprenticed under his father’s younger brother, Balfur. His parents and most of his family died in an Orc raid on their village, the same in which Víli was killed and Bifur received an axe into the forehead. He survived thanks to Óin, but the loom he had created for his One was destroyed and because of the axe he can’t work as a carpenter anymore. He turned to carving toys and has a set of combs as a replacement for the loom. He joined the quest to keep an eye on his cousins.

 

Bofur – son of the carpenter Balfur and the cook Saldís (Old Norse, sal – hall/house, dís – goddess/priestess). Born in T.A. 2791 in Khagolabbad, he was eight years old Azanulbizar (and not participating) and is 150 years old at the time of the quest. He is a miner. Because of the horrible conditions in the mines he mostly works as a toymaker. His iconic hat was a gift from his uncle, Kifúr. Bofur had The Calling and gave his Gift away, but anonymously because he felt he doesn’t measure up to his One. He joined the quest in hopes to prove himself worthy.

 

Bombur – younger son of Balfur and Saldís. Born in T.A. 2802 in Khagolabbad, he is 139 years old at the time of the quest. He had and has still a passion for architecture, but they couldn’t afford the apprenticeship, so he took to cooking with his mother. He doesn’t mind, not really, but Bombur never lost his interest in architecture. His Gift to Hildr had been a hearty stew in the middle of winter. He couldn’t quite believe she could be his, but she was persisted, and now they hold the record among Dwarrow with seven kids and number eight on the way. He’s along on the journey because Bofur needs a minder, and because the chance to have his family taken care of for the rest of their lives is too good to pass up on.

 

Hildr – named after a Valkyrie from Norse mythology (the name means “battle”); Bombur’s wife, mother of seven children with number eight on the way. She is a guard from a semi-rich family (for Khagolabbad anyway) and prevented a robbery on Bombur’s workplace. She instantly took to the shy, round Dwarf, and her stubbornness in insisting they were meant to be won out. She fell in disgrace with her parents over it, but her brother, Hálfgeirr (Old Norse, hálf – half, geirr – spear), an armourer/blacksmith, and his husband, Drengr (Old Norse, young/brave man, warrior), also a guard, stand with her and help out with the kids and financially.

 

Bombur and Hildr’s kids are still unnamed, but definitely too young to have felt the Calling or received any gifts.

Chapter Text


 

Bilbo had meant to ask Nori about the path ahead, specifically on his opinion on how best to cross the Misty Mountains. They had four days left until Lord Elrond had estimated they would be able to properly read Thrór’s map, and the Company had already started to collect supplies and generally prepare. The Hobbit had so far assumed they would make for the Gap of Rohan, but if the map could only be read at a specific time and date, it stood to reason that a secret door into a dwarven kingdom filled with gold and jewels (and a Dragon; mustn’t forget about the Dragon) was even better guarded and hidden, so alternative routes should be considered.

 

Originally he had meant to take his thoughts to Thorin, but their leader had not seemed to be in the mood to talk with anyone about anything, and now Bilbo found Nori arguing with Dori. Again.

 

Unsure what to do about that the Hobbit hesitated. Valar knew he wanted to help the brothers get along, on principle and because it pained him how unhappy it made Nori, and Dori and Ori definitely weren’t happy with it either, but the problem was that beyond encouraging them to talk with each other there wasn’t a lot he could do.

 

Fortunately, the situation resolved itself, kind of. The hug looked even from the distance very awkward and uncomfortable, but it could count as them working things out on their own, so it was probably best to leave them alone. Bilbo could always ask later, and in the meantime, he could go for a little walk. Eru knew he was starting to come to terms with being fond of the Dwarrow, all of them, but sometimes a Hobbit needed some time for themself.

 

Also, he’d rather not get caught by Dwalin with nothing to do. During their first training session, he had managed to send the larger on his back, but only because the guard had underestimated how much Nori had taught him already. Unfortunately, Bilbo had paid that little victory with harsher lessons, and consequently hurt all over. All day.

 

Yes, a bit time alone sounded heavenly right now, but obviously, it was not to be.

 

“Not with your companions, Bilbo?”

 

Bilbo felt ten kinds of heckles rise. He had tried to avoid Elrond, and for good reason. From the first day on he had felt the unquenchable need to have Words with the Elf, lots of them, possibly in several languages, and definitely involving words not fit to be repeated in polite company, but the other was the Lord of Rivendell, and the only one within reasonable distance to read the map. Also, Bilbo was a Hobbit; an odd Hobbit, alright, but a Hobbit still. He had been a (reasonable) decent host to terrible guests, and he would be a (reasonably) decent guest to a terrible host, not counting occasional glares at those giving Lindir a hard time for being entitled to Bilbo’s baking and Bombur’s cooking – the Hobbit had it on good notion that Fíli and Kíli in special made sure to get back at the offenders, though it probably was a bit contra-productive – and incidents with the head-librarian. The fountain had been a cultural misunderstanding, and they would absolutely stick with that story.

 

“Lord Elrond,” Bilbo thus replied in place of a greeting, keeping his eyes on the courtyard before them. The Elf hadn’t greeted him either, after all, and if there was one thing Lobelia had taught him, it was the art of barbed pleasantries and veiled insults. Distant and dismissive, however, was something he had picked up from Thorin, though it had to be mentioned that the other’s attitude had gotten much better since Bree, at least towards Bilbo and Nori. Everything else was simply Thorin’s disposition to being grumpy.

 

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

 

The honest answer would have been a clear `kind of´. Rivendell wasn’t not beautiful, but still inferior to even the first potted plant of any faunt. That, however, would not be a nice thing to say to one’s hosts, so Bilbo just shrugged.

 

“Have you seen the gardens?”

 

“Yes, Lindir has been so kind and showed them to us,” the Hobbit noted and bit down any comment about him and Nori now being intimately familiar with many bushes and secluded corners. It was none of the other’s business, and Elrond had likely heard about it already either way. What the Elf likely hadn’t heard about was the possible weirdest conversation of Bilbo’s life about eatable flowers and healing properties. Between Óin, Bifur, Lindir, and himself they had discussed in a hodgepodge of Sindarin, Westron, and Iglishmêk, and half their conversation had probably been lost in translation, but it had been a very fascinating and entertaining experience.

 

On that note, those gardens couldn’t hold a spade to his own. In fact, he would suggest inviting Hopson and Hamfast here to show those Elves how to handle a proper garden with the added bonus of the other Gamgees tagging along. Then Bilbo would get his revenge without even doing anything, and the Elves ... well, they would have had a hidden fortress for the longest time when Daisy was done cutting them down to size. Sadly that would take too long, and Bilbo didn’t want to subject his friends to the long travel and Elves, and, Green Mother, now he sounded like Thorin!

 

“Good sort, Lindir,” the Hobbit added for good measure. “Very kind, very curious, and great with Estel.”

 

“You met my ward?”

 

“Oh, he is your ward? I was sure Lindir and Glorfindel were his guardians.”

 

Bilbo knew he was being petty, but if the Elf had truly missed his ward running after Dwalin, Thorin, and Nori as if they hung the stars and moon, and pranking various inhabitants of this city with Fíli and Kíli (and probably Ori, but no one could prove that), then he deserved at least some ribbing. About Estel Bilbo wasn’t worried at all. The lad had Lindir, and ... on second thought, what if Elrond took that as his cue to get more involved in teaching the lad?

 

Nope. That just wouldn’t do.

 

“Ah, it’s of no importance what I think. Estel is obviously happy with the way things are, and that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

 

“Yes, indeed,” Elrond replied if a bit disgruntled, but Bilbo still counted it as a success and turned to make his retreat before he got tempted to start the argument he actually wanted to but really shouldn’t have.

 

“You could stay if you wish. Your mother used to visit, and the Dwarrow don’t seem to care much for you.”

 

And there went Bilbo’s good intentions out of the proverbial window. He had no clue where that offer came from or what had given the Elf the idea Bilbo might appreciate it; and what by the good green earth did the larger mean with `don’t seem to care much for you´? He was maybe not best friends with all of them, but Bilbo was confident that they all cared for each other in one way or another, and even if not, there was no doubt in his mind that it had to be impossible for Nori to care more for him than he already did and vice versa. How dare this ... this person to question that?

 

For the sake of this quest – and he couldn’t quite believe he was thinking that – Bilbo swallowed that new wave of rage as well, the nails of his fingers, short as they were, digging into his palms.

 

“My mother?”

 

The Hobbit knew he would regret asking the moment the words left his mouth, but it was the only thing that came to mind and too late then either way. Elrond’s pleased expression made him sick.

 

“Belladonna Took. The resemblance between you is obvious for all who know her, and she is indeed a good friend of mine.”

 

Bilbo had it on good notion that he might have a devious mind but was generally a kind, tolerant, and very patient person, but this ...

 

Wasn’t anger supposed to be hot and white? The Hobbit was sure he was positively seething, but it was like a cold darkness breaking over him, and if this impertinent Elf wanted to be taken down a notch or three, by all means, who was Bilbo to deny him that?

 

“My mother has been dead for over 20 years, and I’ve been reliably told I’m the spitting image of my father, so you must not have known her well,” Bilbo forced out between clenched teeth, and it was rather satisfying to see the Elf flinch away as if it was a physical blow, even if it did nothing against the pain the Hobbit felt.

 

“Oh, my dear lad ...”

 

“I’m not a lad, damn it! Haven’t been since Fell Winter, and I’m not your anything! You played not even the smallest role in my life, not while my parents lived, and certainly not afterwards. By Mahâl’s great forges, we haven’t had a single conversation previous to this since I entered your house! You are presumptuous and arrogant, mistreat and insult your guests, my friends and family, and dare to try and turn me against the others because of what? Petty jealousy? You have no right, no right at all to act so familiarly! You don’t know me and never will. So help me, if I had my pan, I would ...!”

 

A large hand stopped Bilbo from continuing. It was too large and heavy to belong to Nori, but the angle was similar enough to hint at a Dwarf, so the Hobbit didn’t react with the violence boiling under his skin, but tensed and stopped his ranting to cast a short glance to the side. The sight deserved a raised eyebrow.

 

“You are remarkably adept at getting into trouble,” Dwalin said gruffly, and, though he wasn’t the Dwarf Bilbo would have wanted at his side right now, the Hobbit was still grateful to have someone there to back him up. Not that Bilbo thought he needed back up rightnow, but Dwalin had to be on Bilbo’s side with the way he glared at Elrond.

 

Eru, but why were all the large people such assholes?

 

“I get that from my mother.”

 

“Better than her people skills, obviously,” the guard replied dryly, and for a moment Bilbo was inclined to take that as an insult, but breathed through it. Dwalin, for all that he was often as direct and crude as his appearance led one to believe, could be as subtle and discreet as his older brother, and in contrast to the shocked Elf Bilbo was now gently stirred away from, the Dwarf had bothered to get to know the Hobbit at least a bit previous to this conversation, so he deserved the benefit of doubt.

 

“You better stick close to us from now on, Master Baggins. We take care of our own, but can’t do that if you keep disappearing.”

 

“I appreciate the concern, but I knew my mother my whole life. Her people skills were extraordinary, in a good way.”

 

“I assumed as much. The wizard and the Elf must be lying then. Doesn’t surprise me.”

 

“Indeed,” Bilbo harrumphed. “She would have never ever called them her friends. I refuse to believe it. On that note, could we train a bit more, like, right now? I feel like destroying something.”

 

Dwalin chuckled, and for a moment Bilbo felt insulted again, but then the burly Dwarf tightened his hold around Bilbo’s shoulder shortly, like a miniature hug, and actually elaborated.

 

“No, you don’t. Oh, there is potential for violence in your anger, but you dislike it when clear of mind and only put up with it because the alternative would be people you like getting hurt. You are more the angry baking type.”

 

“I do make a mean angry apple crumble and actually won a contest or two with my indignant iced blackberry pies,” the Hobbit mused, then suddenly stopped in his tracks, staring wide-eyed at the large Dwarf.

 

“You followed me; away from the king and princes you are sworn to protect. You left them to follow me. Why?”

 

“They got the others, you were sneaking off alone.”

 

“Liar,” Bilbo called him out. It might have something to do with Elrond’s earlier comment, but he was unable to let the matter rest. “You could have sent someone else, but you didn’t. You are fond of me.”

 

“Don’t push it, Hobbit,” the Dwarf growled, and he could have just as well admitted it as far as the smaller was concerned.

 

“You do like me! And I told you it’s just Bilbo.”

 

“I will carry you, just Bilbo, if you don’t shut up and start moving!”

 

The Hobbit gave the other his toothiest grin, which probably was a poor imitation of Nori’s. It got him thrown over a shoulder and carried away under a lot of grumbles that may have included `just as bad as the Thief´.

 

“If that is how it goes between you and Nori, I’m considering becoming jealous, though I’m not entirely sure of whom.”

 

“Will you shut up already?”

 

“Why? Are we getting my pan so I can let it do the talking for me? Because I’d love to introduce a certain Elf to the very fine smithing Thorin did. He was angry smithing, wasn’t he? It feels as if there was a lot of anger involved.”

 

It wasn’t even a joke. Swinging his pan against idiots was not violence, it was a service to Arda, but Dwalin didn’t reply. He just trod on, and it had to be mentioned that it was a highly undignified and uncomfortable way of travelling, but blessedly short. Soon Bilbo was dumped rather unceremoniously on a large pillow.

 

“Stay here and together. I won’t run after you again.”

 

“I’d like to point out I didn’t require you to follow me the first time around, and I could have totally taken the damn Elf on my own, but I appreciate the thought, so thank you.”

 

“I told you not to push it, Hobbit. Now take care of your Thief, or whatever you need to do to stop making my life difficult.”

 

Snorting Bilbo turned to Nori, because of course he had been dumped with his thief, to comment on Dwalin being obviously a big softy behind all that leather and sharp weapons, but the ginger Dwarf looked downright miserable. Pale, braids not in a mess but not as tidy as usual either, and there were dark shadows under Nori’s bloodshot eyes. That was enough to side-track any Hobbit.

 

“Good grief, Nori! Are you alright? Should I make tea?”

 

At that, the Dwarf gained a bit colour, but green was definitely a healthy complexion for Nori to have.

 

“I had enough to drown in,” Nori mumbled and buried his nose in Bilbo’s curls. Looking around the Hobbit saw Dori by the tea kettle, and brutally stomped down any and all jealousy. He had known from the start that he wasn’t the only one, but still hadn’t quite gotten used to someone else actively caring for Nori while he was present. However, that didn’t mean he would give in to any unreasonable urges.

 

Eru, he sure hoped he would get used to it sooner rather than later.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?”

 

“Yes,” the larger whined lowly, which stood testament to how upset he had to be.

 

“But you can’t?”

 

Another’s whine was all the answer Bilbo needed, his own troubles for the moment forgotten. He disliked not knowing what upset Nori with passion, especially as it was difficult to comfort when he didn’t know what was wrong, but he knew Nori, so he rearranged the unresisting Dwarf to lay half in Bilbo’s lap, while the Hobbit held him with one hand and petted his hair with the other, tugging on a hidden braid now and then. It wasn’t exactly a comfortable or very dignified arrangement – that was becoming a theme, and Bilbo was rather glad that, while often enough to learn the signs, neither of them was this upset often enough for them to find a way to be comfortable while comforting – but aphids on anyone daring to say a word about it.

 

No one commented, but Ori became a warm presence against Bilbo’s back, the movements of him knitting a calming rhythm, while Dori fluttered around, unable to sit down but ever present, and just like that what anxiety the Hobbit had accidentally developed after Elrond’s words dissolved entirely.

 

Suddenly there was a commotion to the side, consisting of Thorin piled under Fíli and Kíli, and Dwalin looking at them with obvious pain.

 

“Not to nose into your business, but Thorin might have only heard half of what Dwalin said about your encounter with that Elrond fellow.”

 

The Hobbit frowned at Bofur. That the Dwarf was mediating between Thorin and pretty much everyone was one of the few things falling under `normal´ behaviour, but it upset Nori even more and forced the Hobbit to reluctantly retell what had transpired. He really would have preferred to forget about the whole matter, and that didn’t even account for a certain pair of rounded ears listening in.

 

Gwadadar did that?” Estel cried out with large eyes, and, yes, Bilbo might have for a moment forgotten that they had an actual child underfoot now, who was fond of Elrond.

 

Gwadadar?”

 

“He means Elrond. Listen, Estel, your uncle didn’t intend to be mean, probably,” Bilbo tried. He really didn’t want to do anything nice for the stupid Elf right now, but neither distress the lad. “It’s all just a huge mess of stupid misunderstandings, but, to be honest, I’m too upset right now to talk with him again. Just know that nothing of this has anything to do with you, alright?”

 

Estel didn’t look very convinced but nodded anyway, and for a while stayed next to Bilbo and Nori, deep in thought. Then he suddenly jumped up.

 

“I’ll talk with him,” he decided, and was gone, leaving the slightly disturbed adults behind.

 

“I didn’t mean for that to happen,” Bilbo sighed, and would have slumped, except he was quite thoroughly surrounded by Dwarrows by now.

 

“Of course not, melekûnuh, but let him try his luck. There are some lessons he needs to learn on his own.”

Chapter Text


 

It might be an odd thing to say, but by now Bilbo was really looking forward to being back on the road, destination and all. His Dwarrow (yes, all thirteen of them, Yavanna have mercy on him) had been acting decidedly strange since they entered Rivendell, but during the last four days it had gotten at least twice as bad; worse even if one counted Nori’s increased clinginess. For the record, Bilbo didn’t mind the last part, but he worried about the possible cause, especially in combination with everyone else.

 

The Hobbit and Dori were still struggling to figure to talk with each other and coexist in Nori’s life without stepping on each other’s toes. They were getting there, but slowly.

Thorin looking at Bilbo oddly wasn’t anything new either, though the episode with Elrond had left them both a bit off balance for different reasons, but Bilbo caught the three youngest Dwarrow looking at him oddly as well, and holding each other back from approaching him; the same with Dwalin and Thorin.

 

If this continued, Bilbo would be the one to make them talk, but that wasn’t even the oddest thing. The Hobbit saw that more like his sword lessons with Dwalin, and Nori teaching the princes to fight dirty; an odd sight at first, but already becoming routine. That Dori had insisted Nori also train Ori had been a mild surprise; that the younger brothers had to confess that said training had already taken place years ago not so much.

 

On that note: Bilbo had told Nori that Dori would be relieved to hear it, and insisted it counted even if Nori had been right about the general circumstances.

 

But the cake – the metaphorical cake, and the actual ones Bilbo baked in the aftermath – went to Dori, Bifur, and Bombur, who had fashioned a leather armour for him; an actual fitting leather armour that he could wear under his coat and jerkins.

 

The torture devices other people called boots had been unnecessary, but the gesture had almost made Bilbo cry (hence cake, one for each of them). Still, madness everywhere. In comparison was Thrór being rather unclear about where the secret door into Azsâlulabad was, and when and how to open it, the only normal thing right now.

 

Yes, the normality of a suicide quest was currently much appreciated if they managed to get out of Rivendell. Elrond had translated Thorin’s map and not spoken directly to Bilbo – for which the Hobbit was very grateful – but that he didn’t approve of the quest was obvious.

 

Tharkûn had made himself scarce during their entire stay here, bless the Valar, so Bilbo (and he wasn’t the only one) had assumed the wizard had been discussing the quest with the Elf Lord the whole time, but obviously, that hadn’t been the case. The Hobbit didn’t know what to make of that, and stayed behind when Tharkûn, Elrond, Thorin, and Balin left the alcove – had it really been necessary to drag them all the way up here? The moonlight would have been just as well somewhere with fewer stair to climb, no doubt – and waited for Nori to come out of the shadows.

 

“Do you want to follow the wizard, or shall I?” the Hobbit asked. The way the Elf had glared at Tharkûn had promised a very uncomfortable talk, and that meant a high possibility that things would be discussed that would be vital for the Company to know, but which no one would bother to tell them about directly.

 

“You go. I’ll get everyone packed and ready to leave.”

 

“Right. I forgot about the packing,” the Hobbit smirked and hurried after his targets with a peck on the other’s chapped lips. Sometimes he was surprised how a dwarven thief and an eccentric gentle-Hobbit could, to use Daisy’s words, be so `adorably domestic´ despite seeing each other but a short few weeks each year if at all, but then he remembered that he didn’t give a damn about the `how´. They had gone through a long list of trial-and-error experiences to get where they were, and when in doubt, they usually just did what felt right to them. If that happened to seem rather domestic to outsiders, it hardly was their fault, not to mention that there was absolutely nothing wrong with it to begin with. He may have a special fondness for the memory of Nori’s expression when the Dwarf had been asked once if he planned to go native, but he preferred his Dwarf as he was.

 

However, the memory of Nori clothed as a Hobbit, hair in a simple braid, cookie in one hand, pipe in the other, never lost its appeal.

 

Either way was it surprisingly easy to follow Elrond and Tharkûn, even if they walked in tense silence for the longest time.

 

“I have considered you a friend for a very long time, Mithrandir, aided you even when it was unwise, and yet you thank me by bringing that into my home!”

 

`Oh, now that is just plain rude,´ the Hobbit thought to himself, though he had long since come to value plain rudeness over veiled insults. It was just so much easier to react appropriately when one didn’t need to guess at the intentions behind the words first.

 

“Really now, Elrond, I thought you stand over the whole animosity between Dwarrow and Elves. They are an unconventional lot, sure, and difficult at times, but ...”

 

“I’m not talking Dwarrow,” the Elf Lord interrupted. “I know they are difficult, and I know they are fast to anger and slow to forgive or trust, yet when you came to me, asking me to play into it, I did you that favour against better judgement, but you didn’t even see fit to warn me. You told me Belladonna’s son was among them; you didn’t tell me she’s been dead for years, and now I couldn’t prevent that Halfling from turning my own children against me!”

 

Under Bilbo’s hand, the vein of a ranking flower bust, the noise unnaturally loud in his ears. There was anger fogging the Hobbit’s mind, yet before he could even grasp the extent of the emotion Tharkûn straightened up in the courtyard below, and there was anger in the wizard’s voice, though restrained.

 

“Bilbo Baggins would never knowingly bring harm to a child! What scorn you harvested from him, you have sown yourself, as did I.”

 

And just like that, the Hobbit’s anger subsided again, making room for ... well, he didn’t quite know what. Disappointment was in the mix, and an emotional tiredness. If the damn wizard had realised he had screwed up, why hadn’t he at least apologised already or shown remorse in some other way than making Bilbo even angrier at him?

 

Eru, what he wouldn’t give for some consistency. Just for a change. A stiff drink would not be amiss either. Why hadn’t he taken any of Hobson’s moonshine along?

 

“What are you talking about? How could I have sown any scorn if I never met him bef- oh.”

 

“Bother and confiscate those supposedly wise assholes!” Bilbo growled under his breath and slid down along the next best wall, flexing his aching fingers. His targets didn’t seem inclined to move, and Bilbo wasn’t inclined to so much as see a hair of them right now. Staring in the opposite direction was much healthier for everyone involved.

 

Good thing it was him eavesdropping and not Nori. His thief would have probably accidentally soaked them in ink – again. Elrond still had a slight blue tinge to his skin from when Nori had messed with his soap. The thief had sworn the first five or so scrubs he had been purple head to toe, and then promptly denied any involvement – if he didn’t get out the poisoned needles straight away. Not the deadly ones, probably, but laying around petrified for a few hours wasn’t fun either.

 

“I made the same mistake with Bil- Master Baggins,” the wizard now sighed. “I assumed to know the man when I met the boy but once.”

 

“I met his mother two more times after you first brought her here. I know she married and had a son. I didn’t know she died. I thought there was time.”

 

There was true regret in their voices, and Bilbo hated them for it. He didn’t want to sympathise with them and he wouldn’t, immortals and their blasted old-men-talk be damned. His anger was justified; they would need to do more to earn his forgiveness or sympathy that just regret, starting with asking Bilbo for it. Especially the high and powerful shouldn’t be excused from apologising.

 

“Time has a habit of running away from us when it’s most needed, old friend. You should know that better than I do.”

 

“I’m learning now. Estel grows so fast; it seems like yesterday when he was just a small baby in his mother’s arm.”

 

“And tomorrow he will be king.”

 

The men chuckled, and the Hobbit stopped letting his head fall against the wall repeatedly. King? Estel would be king? Of what? This sure sounded more serious than `king of mischief´.

 

“Not if you continue with this folly you call quest. The saying `let sleeping Dragons lay´ is popular for a reason.”

 

Pity. He would have liked to hear more about Estel being royalty – it was a hornet’s nest, and none of his business, but he liked Estel, and Lindir, and Glorfindel, and that sounded like the kind of information that would help the latter two in protecting the former one – but if they moved to quest related topics now, Bilbo could leave all the sooner.

 

“There is an important difference between the saying and an actual living Dragon: Smaug will wake sooner or later. It hardly matters by what means, and I fear what power will influence him then.”

 

Well, what in the name of Mahâl’s hammer and Yavanna’s hoe!? Oh, Bilbo would kill that wizard! The Dragon was alive, and Tharkûn had known it all along, but hadn’t told them? Valar, how was he supposed to break that to the others? Would they even believe him? ... Would it matter? Not the part about believing him, but would it matter to anyone whether the Dragon was only suspected or actually known to be still alive?

 

“The only power strong enough to dominate Smaug is long gone, Mithrandir, and don’t come me with Radagast and his findings. He was a great wizard once, but living alone in the woods has done him no good, never have the mushrooms he favours.”

 

Bilbo could agree with that, except that the information and their implications he had gathered from the last, oh, five sentences were scaring him greatly, and causing him a headache on top of that. Not a pleasant combination, to say the least.

 

Smaug was definitely alive, there might be someone or something out there with the power to control the Dragon, and it was connected to what Radagast had approached Tharkûn about, which meant Dol Guldur, morgul-blades, and a necromancer. Oh, and giant spiders, brood of Ungoliant, in Mirkwood, formally known as Greenwood, where they most likely would have to pass through.

 

Scratch the headache; that was a migraine in the making. The worst was: Nori and he had tried to look it all up, fill in gaps left by the wizards, but hadn’t gotten very far, all things considered. They had admittedly gotten side-tracked now and then, but that was only half the reason.

 

“Be that as it may, I object the madness you call quest, especially with Thorin Oakenshield leading it. A curse lies on the Line of Durin and the gold. The madness took his grandfather and father. It will take him as well.”

 

Just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse. It was an important bit of information, an additional danger they should have been made aware of, but it certainly wasn’t Thorin the Hobbit was angry at for it.

 

Needless to say Bilbo was ready to leave and revisit the idea about blankets and dragging everyone back to his smial – Glorfindel and Lindir would help, no doubt, the Rangers as well if he sold the safety of the Shire properly to the Lady Gilraen – but surprisingly it was Tharkûn’s voice stopping him from going through with it.

 

“You have no right to stop him. It’s their home, and the throne is Thorin’s birth-right, and you can’t know for sure he will catch the Dragon-fever.”

 

“Neither can you guarantee that he won’t. Would you bet the fate of all Arda on it?”

 

“Would you risk all of Arda on the chance that he will? Erebor is a fortress, and Smaug is too powerful even on his own. When the Dark Lord returns – and it has always been a question of when not if – he will control Smaug and with him Erebor, all her riches, and the trade routes to the East. That is an advantage I will not surrender to him without a fight.”

 

“The Ring was lost, Mithrandir. It ...”

 

“Can and will be found again; it doesn’t want to remain lost forever. You said it yourself once: the Ring has a will of its own, and as long as it exists, so will it’s master, or were they able to raze Barad-dûr and Morannon to the ground? No. The foundations still stand, the Ring was not destroyed, and Sauron will return. Not today, not tomorrow, but one day he will, and we will never be prepared enough. Our only hope is to prepare as best as we can.”

 

Sauron.

 

Eru have mercy, they were talking about Sauron returning in an actual, serious context; not to express frustration, or scare children into leaving the pie alone and go bath already, but as a real thing that could and would happen, and Radagast had found a morgul-blade, a weapon poisonous with the magic of the Dark Lord, in Dol Guldur, where a necromancer currently housed.

 

What if the necromancer was in league with Sauron, maybe trying to bring him back, maybe ...

 

Clawing at the stone beneath him, Bilbo tried to breathe, white spots dancing before his eyes, and he knew he was panicking and that he had to calm down, but ...

 

The pain was sharp and sudden but forced sweet air to rush into his lungs, making the Hobbit rather lightheaded for a moment, so it could be excused that he wasn’t entirely sure he was seeing right now.

 

“Thorin?”

 

The grump he received was very telling, as was the lack of further body contact.

 

“Did you just slap me?”

 

“Elves seem to have developed a habit of turning blue. I assumed Hobbits don’t.”

 

Ah, yes. That was quite ... yes.

 

“Right, thank you. That ... might have been quite necessary, yes.”

 

“Don’t tell your thief. I’m still finding pebbles in my boots. I’d rather not they turn into thorns or worse.”

 

It took an embarrassingly long time for Bilbo to realise Thorin had tried to make a joke, tried to be conversationally and maybe a bit comforting, but was simply horrible at it. Must be either the lack of practice on adults or that his preferred conversation partner was Dwalin. Between them, they had turned grunts and glares into an art form that would put Hopson before his first cup of tea to shame. Considering that, Bilbo should probably be glad he was treated like a Dwarfling at the moment.

 

Right. There had been a very indirect, passive request in that statement somewhere. He might as well acknowledge it.

 

“I’m not admitting anything, but I could let it be known that such measures aren’t necessary anymore, and ...”

 

Wondering just why he was even trying Bilbo signed, and just asked how much the other had heard.

 

“Was there anything I should know about before the Elf accused you of corrupting his children?”

 

“No. They pretty much started with that.”

 

“Then everything, I suppose.”

 

Yeah, awkward conversations all over the place. Bilbo hadn’t had enough sleep for this kind of awkward, nor enough to drink, especially considering this was happening with Thorin. Talking about conversations ...

 

“Are they gone?”

 

“Left a moment ago. It seems Tharkûn actually has to answer to someone, but while gratifying to know, I’d rather be gone before the White Council decides on anything. Can you walk?”

 

White Council. That ... that was good, actually. Bilbo didn’t know much about the White Council, only that it existed and consisted of the most powerful persons in Middle-earth, but that was enough to reassure him that the matter with Sauron would be brought before someone who might actually be able to deal with it. It definitely wasn’t a job for Hobbits. Still, they should get out of Rivendell anyway, just in case the White Council didn’t approve of Dragon hunting, and he would not go there. Nope. He had had enough traumatising discussion for a day, he wouldn’t even think about the damn Dragon now.

 

“Not without aid, I don’t think. For future reference: there is a reason people usually don’t give into the urge to slam their heads against hard surfaces quite so often. It’s called a concussion. I might have one; fair warning.”

 

Thorin made an expression as if he was the one with a headache, but offered Bilbo his arm to get up and then to hold onto while they went back to their comrades.

 

“You are not going to comment on anything you just heard?”

 

The Hobbit glanced to the tense Dwarf next to him, subtly steering their steps in the direction they actually had to go while having to lean on him.

 

“Well, what do you expect me to say?” Bilbo asked back. “That I’m angry how long it took those two supposedly wise men to realise why I’m furious with them, although I actually told them? Not worth the effort. and about the rest ... well, I’ll admit it’s a shock to know for sure that the Dragon still lives, but it isn’t as if we haven’t suspected as much, and that Tharkûn knew and chose not to mention it, isn’t much of a surprise anymore at this point either. And considering how often I lose my temper over people judging me for what my parents did, I sure as pie won’t judge you if that is what you’re after.”

 

“You did in the past.”

 

Alright, Bilbo had to admit that was true, but he distinctively remembered Thorin starting it and had no trouble pointing that out.

 

“Seriously though, you are neither your father nor your grandfather, just as I’m not my mother nor my father, though I haven’t been compared to him in a while. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I doubt your father and grandfather had people willing to ignore the crown and tell them when they were idiots, drag their sorry asses out of trouble by force, or take a pan to their heads.”

 

“They had, actually. Fundin, mother, grandmother ... it got worse after they died.”

 

Oh.

 

Bilbo shouldn’t be the one having this talk with the Dwarf. He really, really shouldn’t. They neither knew nor liked each other well enough for this, but they were here and had it anyway, so they would have to make due. Bilbo patted Thorin’s arm with his free hand.

 

“Well, in that case, we’ll just have to stay alive, and you will save us seats in your council or whatever, but that is something we can discuss after the Dragon. The real question is: how do we break it to the others that Tharkûn uses us as tools against,” the Hobbit broke up there, finishing with a weak `you know´ and feeling mighty ridiculous for it. It was just a name; he shouldn’t give the being behind it more power than it already had by fearing its name as well, but ... they were talking about the second-worst of all evils here; Morgoth’s actual right-hand. Bilbo figured there was no such thing as `unreasonable frightened´ in face of that.

 

That reminded him, he had forgotten to tell Thorin about what Radagast had said, and was rather sure Nori hadn’t done it either. They had to, now more than ever, but this was already uncomfortable enough as it was, and at this point waiting a day longer could hardly hurt.

 

“I’m tempted to insist on `never´, but they deserve to know, and I will tell them. Only, that is not something to be discussed in a hurry, and hurry we must.”

 

“Agreed. I’ll need a bit to get it all straight either way, but there is one thing I can’t get out of my mind right now: King Estel?”

 

Thorin gave the Hobbit an odd look. It was probably deserved, but between Smaug, Sauron, and the White Council, discussing the future of the child of Man they had all come to love was at least something he could do right now without having another anxiety attack.

 

“He is heir to the throne of Gondor and Arnor.”

 

Obviously, Bilbo had been wrong.

 

“You’re kidding.”

 

“Master Baggins, as my sister-sons will gladly inform you, humour is not one of my strong characteristics, and part of being a king is to know the names of the rulers and heirs of every kingdom. Gondor is currently ruled by the House of Húrin. Steward Turgon is old, and will likely soon be succeeded by his son, Ecthelion II, but the true heir to the throne was a man named Arathorn. He was killed a few years ago, but I have reasons to believe that Gilraen, wife of Arathron, and Gilraen, mother of Estel and current chieftain of the Dúnedain, are the same person, and keeping Estel’s heritage secret seems like the sensible choice. Still, if he were to claim his birthright, Hobbits might find themselves with a king after all ... and there is no reason to stare at me like that.”

 

“Right, sorry, but ... you have to admit most days you don’t exactly act like one pouring over ancient family trees. More like the ... `grrr. Balin, take care of that. I have some angry smithing to do´ kind of guy,” Bilbo replied and knew it wasn’t the right thing to say, but Thorin didn’t take it too bad.

 

“You don’t seem like the kind to attack kings and wizard either, yet here we are.”

 

“Alright, I deserved that, but then we have at least one thing in common: we need to stop judging people before we actually know them.”

 

They rejoined the others before Thorin could say anything else. The Company was all packed up and ready to go, and of course Nori instantly noticed that Bilbo was still pale except for his red cheek, and refused to be reassured that his Hobbit was perfectly alright, merely in need of a stiff drink and a very long, very serious talk later because obviously there were some people here mighty enough to make Tharkûn cower and apparently not happy with certain quests, so they really should get out of here first.

 

“This is not over,” the thief promised, but they didn’t get around to have more than a hushed and very tense exchange over the origin of Bilbo’s aching cheek that almost ended with them being a king short. Before that, however, there was the rather awkward and uncomfortable goodbye from Lindi, and Estel, since no one quite knew how to go about it. It was resolved by the child, tired and sad about their departure, deciding he didn’t care and hugging everyone as fiercely as a ten-year-old way past his bedtime could. Glorfindel didn’t say goodbye, just as he didn’t offer to accompany them to the borders of the Hidden Valley. He just stated he would do it, and that was that.

 

They left by foot, the path they meant to take not fit for ponies. Estel had solemnly promised to take care of the beast (with Lindir signalling in the background that he would supervise), so Bilbo wasn’t worried about them. He was more worried about the Company, as Glorfindel spoke of bandits, Goblins, and the mountains themselves behaving strangely, and the Hobbit really wished he could have written that down as the Elf being his usual odd self, but Glorfindel was too serious, too clear, so they had to take his warnings seriously as well.

 

“This is where we part, my friends. Your cause is just, and I wish I could offer you more aid, but my obligations lay here,” were Glorfindel’s parting words, followed by a blessing for safe travels. Then the Company left Rivendell behind and turned towards the Misty Mountains.

Chapter Text


 

Nori was well travelled, and in this company, he fancied himself the most experienced in the related (and some entirely unrelated) hardships ... and he wanted to go home. He wanted to go home, crawl under a blanket, hide for at least a few days or longer, and if possible, forget this stupid quest had ever happened.

 

It was a completely justified desire in the thief’s opinion.

 

The most prominent reason probably should have been Dori finding the spoon, and in a way, it was because his brother must have drawn conclusions, but the thief couldn’t even make himself ask what conclusions, never mind discuss and correct them as necessary. On the one hand, someone knew. It was a risk ... but on the other hand were they talking about Dori here. He wasn’t just someone to talk to, to help Nori get his often circling thoughts in order, he was Dori, and he was the best. Seriously, Nori hadn’t thought about it or even noticed how much it bothered him until his brother recruited the Urs to make Bilbo a leather-armour. The boots had been overkill, but it was the thought that counted, and Ori was almost done with a new jumper.

 

The middle brother would have accused Dori of telling their youngest brother about the spoon, but Ori had already gifted Bilbo a scarf and mittens shortly after they entered Rivendell, so it was more likely he had found out Bilbo was not fitted for cold mountain air. They had packed warm clothes, of course, but not expected they would actually have to climb the mountains. Also, Dori didn’t break promises unless lives literally depended on it.

 

So, yes, Dori finding out about the spoon was not good, but not necessarily bad either. The route they were taking across Malasulabbad was indefinitely worse anyway.

 

From a neutral point of view Nori could understand why they didn’t take the long way to the Gap of Rohan – even with ponies it would have taken too long now that they had an actual deadline to keep – but that they weren’t taking the High Pass (named so for obvious reasons), but instead climb uncharted paths far above said pass, was madness. The High Pass had already been in bad condition last time Nori had been forced to take it ages ago, and it wasn’t nearly as crowded with travellers as Thorin and Balin made it sound. Not completely deserted either, but the chances to meet another traveller were extremely small, and then there were, of course, Glorfindel’s warnings. And to make the disaster complete was Thorin `it’s a wonder I can tell up from down´ Oakenshield leading them.

 

No, really. Thorin was the one going ahead and deciding where they were going and resting. It was madness ... though the thief had to admit that their king was surprisingly surefooted and actually seemed to lead them true for a change.

 

That didn’t mean Nori would just forget that Thorin had hit his Hobbit, of course. Bilbo could claim that it had been necessary, but nothing excused anyone laying hand on his Hobbit! ... On the other hand did this throw up the question of what Bilbo could have possibly heard that made him panic to the point the Hobbit would excuse it in the first place.

 

The smaller had a zero tolerance for such things, and was anything but faint of heart – he had taken the encounter with the Trolls better than most of them, including Nori, for pity’s sake – so whatever had transpired must have been epic levels of terrible, yet somehow they never managed to discuss it. Bilbo insisted that wasn’t something to just say by the way, and in the evenings they were too tired. The Hobbit had seen mountains up close before but never before needed to scale them, so of course he was tired, but it still grated on Nori’s nerves that there was obviously something Thorin shared with Bilbo that the thief had no clue about.

 

Those were good reasons to turn around and go home where Nori was concerned, but he wasn’t above admitting that not everything about their current predicament was bad. Travelling might not be the time to share sensitive information, but swapping songs was fair game. Why, Bofur’s attempts to translate a nursery rhyme from Khagolabbad about travelling and seeing the world from the back of a pony had been hilarious, especially as the whole lot of them couldn’t manage to fit it into verses that preserved the meaning and the melody well enough.

 

There were also moments of camaraderie that still caught the thief off guard, though one would think that he would have gotten used to it by now. It wasn’t that he was unused to travelling in groups, far from it, but usually, he was anything but inclined to trust his travelling-companions further than he could throw them. He could name but four people he had honestly trusted in his life, which were his brothers, Bilbo, and a fellow thief in the south whom he owed his life; the only actual life-debt he had offered in his life, and the only debt he had yet to pay back. The Gamgees he trusted as well, but that was different, and not just because they didn’t travel. The Company, however ...

 

Nori had thought he could like people but not care about them at the same time. He had also been fully prepared to wait for the next best opportunity to grab his brothers, trusting Bilbo to follow him anyway, and drag them to safety. Maybe he would have made allowances for the princes – `old enough, but not of age´ was a repeating theme in Nori’s life that he had come to expect to some degree, though with them it was rather `of age, but not old enough´ – but somewhere along the lines things had started to become less clear, less defined.

 

He had noticed it before in smaller and bigger mannerisms of everyone, not just Bilbo hopping from one group to the other to talk with everyone. It was everyone; exchanging rude jokes, recipes for food or medicine, stumbling through Iglishmêk, swapping big and small tales, and `Fíli, Kíli, put that down right now! And what is that in your hair?´. There was Glóin shutting up about his pests in favour of listening to Bombur speak about his own brood, Dwalin despairing about everyone’s general lack of combat training, and Balin taking a spare minute or five to see if he couldn’t teach the Urs at least a few letters. Óin’s and Bifur’s long discussions with flying hands slowed down to include Dori (apparently it concerned tea of all things), Bofur was pulling the princes off Ori so the poor scribe could have a few moments of peace to update his journal, and Nori didn’t even notice that he had it just as bad as everyone else until he was brooding over Bilbo’s maps with Thorin, both of them taking turns to look up and count heads and limbs, and perfectly content to assume everything was well when the other found nothing to comment on.

 

Teaching the princes how to fight dirty Nori could have excused away, but not that, though it didn’t really hit home until Nori started to first hum then sing a song he had picked up from the Rangers, with Bilbo adding a verse of his own making, and then the others joined the chorus as if that was the way things were supposed to be.

 

There’s a road calling you to stray

Step by step pulling you away

Under moon and star

Take the road no matter how far

 

Where it leads no-one ever knows

Don't look back, follow where it goes

Far beyond the sun

Take the road wherever it runs

 

The road goes on

Ever ever on

Hill by hill

Mile by mile

Field by field

Stile by stile

The road goes on

Ever ever on

 

Mountain and valley and pasture and meadow

Stretching unending for mile after mile

Fenland and moorland and shoreline and canyon

Bordered by hurdle and hedgerow and stile

 

One more mile then it's time to eat

Pick some pears succulent and sweet

To the farthest shore

Take the road a hundred miles more

 

Sweet pink trout tickled from a stream

Milk a goat, churn it into cream

Far beyond the Sun

Take the road wherever it runs

 

The road goes on

Ever ever on

Hill by hill

Mile by mile

Field by field

Stile by stile

The road goes on

Ever ever on

 

See the road flows past your doorstep

Calling for your feet to stray

Like a deep and rolling river

It will sweep them far away

Just beyond the far horizon

lies a waiting world unknown

Like the dawn its beauty beckons

with a wonder all its own

 

Mountain and valley and pasture and meadow

Stretching unending for mile after mile

Fenland and moorland and shoreline and canyon

Bordered by hurdle and hedgerow and stile.

(“The Road Goes On” from the LotR Musical)

 

Everyone laughed and repeated parts for the rest of the day, setting the others off again, and Nori started to feel quite ill. That three different Dwarrow, none of them related to him, asked him over the course of the day if he was alright, wasn’t helping either.

 

They shouldn’t bother; he shouldn’t bother. When had `just my brothers and Bilbo´ extended to `my brothers, Bilbo, and the other ten´? When had he started to value the company for more than having someone else on night watch, and the hilarity that was the daily struggle with their hair?

 

Not that the latter had ever actually stopped being hilarious; and it was the consistency of it that actually helped Nori settle in his new awareness of how close-knitted the Company had become. In fact, it had become even funnier the more comfortable they grew with each other.

 

Kíli still did Fíli’s hair before either of the princes was truly awake. Depending on watch rotations; Thorin or Dwalin would then wrangle Kíli’s bird’s nest; then the brothers did Thorin’s braids if the guard hadn’t beaten them to it already. Balin and Dwalin themselves wore no braids and their hair too short to require more care than the occasional wash and comb; and Bombur’s impressive loop took a family secret he wasn’t inclined to share. For all that they looked so pretty and delicate, Dori’s braids required surprisingly little care under normal conditions, and Bifur didn’t like anyone, much less sleepy Dwarflings, anywhere close the axe. Everyone else, however, ran danger of having to spend a whole day with ridiculous braids.

 

It wasn’t the worst that could happen, but Nori was still glad he wasn’t part of that madness. No one was brave enough to try that with the thief, though it was questionable whose reaction they feared more, Nori’s own or Bilbo’s. In either case had the thief and the burglar a very similar set up as the princes, only that Nori had not noticed how similar exactly until the nights grew cold and damp, and the bedrolls were pushed closer and closer together.

 

He had left his Hobbit for maybe five minutes one such morning, but when the ginger thief returned, it was to Bofur sitting on his pallet with an expression between confusion and amusement. Bilbo, on the other hand, was in the middle of combing the miner’s hair into Nori’s peaks, and ...

 

Mahâl, but it looked ridiculous.

 

“I swear, I don’t know how this happened,” Bofur stage-whispered, probably too scared spooking Bilbo would cost him his scalp. It wouldn’t. Nori knew from experience that the Hobbit was more prone to drop or throw things in surprise than hold them tighter, but he wasn’t about to share that quite yet.

 

“I do, but I’m not sure if I should laugh or have a fit.”

 

“When you decided, tell me if I can laugh along or should run for my life.”

 

“What is the meaning of this?” Thorin boomed before Nori could reply anything, and startled everyone who hadn’t been awake already out of sleep. Some even jumped up, weapons at the ready, though Bilbo didn’t since he didn’t have (and hopefully never would need to have) the instincts of one expecting to wake with a knife to their throat regularly. He was, however, experienced in braiding half asleep, and let go of Bofur’s hair before floundered around quite heavily in surprise.

 

“What? Where? Oh, dear Mother of Green, Thorin! Don’t scare a Hobbit like that. I ... oh. Oh, I’m sorry, Bofur. I wasn’t ... well, I didn’t know it was you, obviously. That explains the lack of eyebrows, though,” the Hobbit finished lamely, much to the amusement of those standing by, and not being King under the not-yet-reclaimed Mountain.

 

When Bofur reached up to feel his face, Nori couldn’t keep a straight expression anymore and burst into laughter.

 

“Over twenty years and that is what you recognise me by?”

 

“When I’m more asleep than awake, yes. Also: freckles,” Bilbo replied dryly, and a smidge insulted, and the thief instantly shut up.

 

“You are mean. Sometimes I wish you were less shameless, my Hobbit, so I could use your sensitive ears against you.”

 

“Ears?” Kíli asked, perking up, and Nori could see the granite-hard glare – inherited from either Bungo or grandma Took, he had been told – Bilbo sent the young Dwarf.

 

“If you wish to ever sire children, lad, or enjoy any activities along that line, you will not try it! Ever. That’s a no-touching-area like the most unstable mine you can imagine.”

 

Nori laughed even louder upon seeing Kíli’s expression. Hobbit ears were sensitive in general, but Bilbo’s especially, and Bilbo was accordingly picky about whom he let touch them, limited actually to his favourite barber and Nori himself.

 

“Cease this foolishness. We break camp in half an hour no matter if you’ve eaten or not,” Thorin growled, and stomped away. Nori watched him go with a shake of his head, wondering if King Grumpy had woken up on the wrong side of his bedroll or if he was just jealous that everyone else was still able to laugh. Then he turned around and found Bilbo had already finished with Bofur, much to the confusion of the miner. The peaks were notable smaller than Nori’s own to accommodate for Bofur’s shorter hair, but one couldn’t argue the similarity.

 

“What? Can’t let you run around with half-finished braids, can I? And it would take longer to undo it all again at this point.”

 

That was true enough the thief supposed, and he got the additional laugh out of Dori mixing him and the miner up two times in a row.

 

 

Pity it wasn’t always like that. Everyone growing closer aside, Nori wasn’t exactly surprised shit continued to happen on a suicide quest, but the scale ... the scale was ridiculous.

 

Decreasing temperatures were as normal as it could be; storms were dangerous in the plains, more so in the mountains, and especially on narrow, uncharted mountain paths, but not unusual either. That for some reason Thorin of all people suddenly seemed perfectly able to find the one safe path in this mess was unusual and didn’t make up for the very real possibility of just getting blown off the mountain by the wind and rain or knocked out by falling rocks, but that, too, was manageable. Between Bombur’s weight, Dwalin and Dori’s strength (and Ori’s as well, even if most hadn’t realised yet that Kori’s youngest had also inherited their mother’s strength), and the miles of rope Lindir had given them, they should have been comparably fine.

 

Nori hadn’t signed up for Stone Giants, though. No one had signed up for Stone Giants. There shouldn’t have been any Stone Giants anywhere. They were legends, stories to tell but never encounter, yet here they were, caught in a thunderstorm with mountains all around them coming to life and throwing other mountains at each other.

 

No wonder these paths were uncharted, except this couldn’t be happening often or else the thief would have heard about it.

 

He hadn’t, just to be clear. There had been no word about this in any of the thief-dens in Khagolabbad, neither in Bree’s taverns, and not in Rivendell either because of course had he bugged the Elves about what they knew of the potential roads ahead. The only warning Nori had received was Glorfindel’s cryptic words, and to be frank, the Elf was mad as a march-hare, and Nori had reason to believe even sane Elves would find ordinary mountains strange just for being mountains.

 

So, yeah. Stone Giants fighting each other during a thunderstorm with the Company on a narrow mountain pass in the middle of it. Anyone laughing at Nori for wishing to be at home under a pile of blankets with the optional camomile tea was free to switch places with him.

 

Sweet Mother of Green, and now the ground was shaking. Mountains shouldn’t shake; common ground could shake, maybe parts of mountains, but not entire mountains. This one, however, did, and the stone giants were still fighting around them, and Nori couldn’t feel his hands anymore, and ...

 

And now the ground was opening up right next to him. Great, just ...

 

“Mahâl’s stones, Bilbo!”

Chapter Text


 

At no point had standing up on a Stone Giant’s leg been part of Bilbo’s plans for his life.

 

The cold nights had been bad enough, and the mist ... he probably should have expected that part considering they were crossing the Misty Mountains. He had evidence that whoever had named the world had at times been very uncreative if spot-on. However, realising that a name was justified didn’t make the constant dampness more bearable.

 

The storm was sudden and worse than any weather they had had to suffer previously, making the Company huddle under an outcrop. It was only a brief respite. Soon the wind turned, forcing them to move on or drown in the rain, and Bilbo was eternally grateful for the ropes Lindir had given them. Of course, that didn’t change anything about the Hobbit being unable to see a damn thing between water and darkness, but it helped to know that the others were still there, like the certainty of the sun even on a rainy day, though that was a terrible comparison considering the current weather.

 

In the end, it wasn’t enough, and Bilbo would forever regret that their last memory of each other would be Nori’s terrified expression when the smaller cut the rope between them just before his thief would have been dragged along as well. He would have also regretted that he couldn’t have done the same for the others with him – he could at that point only say for sure that Kíli was among them because the lad was right next to him, holding on for dear life – but the mountainside was coming closer way too fast, and ...

 

And they didn’t die. Oh, they certainly should have, but by some miracle or the blessing of Mahâl they weren’t ground to dust between living and dormant stone. They hit an alcove of sorts by just a hand’s width and were all but thrown off the leg against the mountain, and it hurt an awful lot, but they weren’t dead. The only blood their terrified friends and family found was from a split lip and scraped elbows.

 

They didn’t find a Hobbit, though.

 

Bilbo didn’t have the slightest clue how he had ended up hanging from probably the only root in the whole Misty Mountains – obviously, Mahâl wasn’t the only Valar looking out for them right now – and he didn’t actually want to know either. All he could to do was try to hold on and call for Nori because he was slipping!

 

It wasn’t Nori saving him, though not for a lack of trying, but Bilbo wouldn’t complain either way. In fact, if he would have had the breath to do so, he would have sung praise to Thorin and probably done something stupid like declaring a life-debt or swear fealty in gratitude. The other had literally jumped over the edge and pushed the Hobbit up, and the smallest member of the Company had also not missed that the Dwarf-king had almost fallen himself if not for Dwalin’s timely intervention. That deserved gratitude and then some, but Bilbo was breathless, and Thorin used the opportunity to insult the Hobbit.

 

Truth be told, Bilbo could have handled it better, and using a word he was only moderately sure to have grasped the meaning of wasn’t very smart either, but he had just almost fallen to his death after almost being pulverised by a Stone Giant, and that were a few almost fatal situations too many in less than a minute. The Dwarf-king had a terrible temper and was emotionally constipated; worry and fear he masked with anger, and Bilbo knew that, but right now he couldn’t have cared less.

 

Hubma rakit!”

 

Going by their expressions at least some of the Dwarrow had heard him, but if anyone commented on it, the words were lost in the storm, and they pushed on into the next best cave.

 

Bilbo loved it, hands down. In fact, right now he was all for moving into said cave permanently. It was dry and sheltered from the winds, and most importantly it wasn’t moving. It would have been better if they could have made a fire, but what firewood they had taken along and not lost already was as soaked as they were, so they spread the wet clothes on the cave floor, and distributed what was still dry between everyone.

 

Of course, they did all that in clusters because as it turned out not only Kíli, but Ori, Dwalin, Óin, and Bombur had been on the Stone Giant as well, and no family was willing to let go of their almost lost members quite yet. Bilbo himself was quite content to stay right next to Ori and submit himself to mostly Nori’s but also Dori’s fussing, even if the only thing of Nori’s grumbles he actually understood was the threat to throw Bilbo over the edge himself if he ever did something this stupid again. The hair braiding – Nori braiding Bilbo’s hair for a change, not the other way around – was maybe a bit much, but, his hair had gotten rather long and was hanging in his eyes, and right now the Hobbit would agree to pretty much everything to keep the other close. Not that he would have to do more than ask, but that was off the point.

 

Suddenly Thorin stood up, dishevelled, dripping wet, and as pale as the rest of them. For a moment Bilbo feared the other would be stubborn and declare they should rest now and move out at first light, but the Hobbit was – bless the Valar – only partially right. The Dwarf-king suggested insistently (not to say ordered) everyone to rest now, and in the morning they would see if it was safe to travel again. Bofur was excluded from the first part, as he had first watch.

 

Thorin looked damn near miserable like that, and the Hobbit cursed his soft heart.

 

“Thorin.”

 

“What now?”

 

“Thanks for saving my ass earlier.”

 

The Dwarf-king made a good impression of a fish, then simply nodded and returned to his nephews while Bilbo received odd looks.

 

“What? It’s not my fault he can’t decide if he likes me or not.”

 

“Because you are so clear about that all the time.”

 

“Shut up and hold me.”

 

The thief did so, and gladly, an arm thrown over Bilbo, the attached hand fisted in Ori’s jumper, pinning them together. Dori did the same from Ori’s other side, though technically he was holding Nori’s arm, but Bilbo thought it counted, and for his part also tried to hold onto as many of them as he could. He just wanted to sleep right now and forget this horrible day had happened for an hour or two because he had no doubt there would be nightmares after this. The Trolls and Wargs had already been bad enough, and he was glad at least it hadn’t thrown him back into Fell Winter. Training with Dwalin had also helped, but the Hobbit wasn’t sure if it was thanks to the growing confidence or exhaustion.

 

However, no amount of training could help against Stone Giants, yet the expected nightmares never came, though that had probably more to do with Bilbo being unable to settle down.

 

Melekûnuh?”

 

“Hush. Just stretching my legs a bit.”

 

Nori mumbled something and fell back asleep, or at least closed his eyes and let Bilbo wiggled out of his hold. The Hobbit stretched his back and made a head-count – would he ever be able to stop doing that again? Probably not – then joined Bofur at the mouth of the cave. If he could not sleep, he might as well give the one forced to stay awake some company.

 

“That was a brave thing you did back there.”

 

“Cutting the rope or insulting Thorin?”

 

The look he received was very telling and Bilbo signed.

 

“It wasn’t. It really really wasn’t, and I’m sorry I dragged your brother into it.”

 

“I won’t say I wasn’t scared to death, because I was – that took a few decades from me – but you are hardly to blame for legends deciding to become real all of the sudden. If you’d have cut the other rope, that would have been cowardly, and I’d probably have to kill you now, but you didn’t. It doesn’t matter if it was an active decision or not. You forfeit your own life to save those you could, and I can respect that,” Bofur explained, and Bilbo couldn’t quite tell how serious he was in the darkness but liked to think at least the last part had been the truth. What he could see was an unlit pipe waving animatedly in front of his face.

 

“Good to know. Is that the point where you start lecturing me about getting into an argument with Thorin again?” the Hobbit asked, took the pipe, and repacked and lightened it for the Dwarf before handing it back. Bofur stared at him as if he was the next coming of Durin.

 

“You have to show me that trick.”

 

“Do you have any idea how long it took me to convince Nori to teach me? Now, what about that lecture?”

 

“Huh? Oh, no. No lecture,” the miner chuckled. “Thorin should know better, and you know he doesn’t, and everyone is still in one piece. No lecturing. So, what’s keeping you up?”

 

Bilbo shrugged, packing his own pipe in hopes that maybe a smoke in decent company would settle his nerves.

 

“The scare, I guess. Makes me restless. Also, something about this cave just rubs me the wrong way. I must say I still don’t quite understand the whole stone-sense business, but you would have noticed if it’s not safe, right?”

 

“Usually, yes, but right now? Not so much, no,” Bofur replied apologetic, raising his hands to eye-level. “I didn’t even notice the Stone Giant. Felt like ordinary stone to me, then it moved, and now I can’t feel a damn thing. It’s really weird, I tell you, but the cave didn’t crumble around us yet, and Dwalin checked earlier for other occupants, so we should be fine.”

 

Bilbo wished he could let that reassure him. Maybe it really was just the scare, but an unoccupied cave in the mountains without even so much as a bat seemed just too convenient right now, especially in this weather. Still, the Hobbit didn’t say anything, and for a while they sat in companionable silence, only interrupted by Bofur’s occasional sighs. Those happened a lot when the miner believed himself unwatched, and Bilbo had a suspicion what or rather who caused it.

 

“Want to talk about it?”

 

“Ah, it’s nothing, really. Just the weather, aye?”

 

“Bullshit.”

 

“Master Baggins!” the miner cried out with mock outrage, though silently as to not wake their comrades. “Such words from an esteemed gentle-Hobbit. Clearly, you’ve spent too much time among crude peasants.”

 

“It was the best company, I assure you, and I still reserve the right to call bull when I hear it, and your `just the weather´ is enough to fertilise half the Shire. Bofur, if you don’t want or can’t talk about it, that’s fine – you won’t believe how many meaningful discussions I had that way – but know that I would listen, and don’t play me the fool.”

 

Bofur at least had the decency to look ashamed, but he didn’t speak again, and the Hobbit didn’t mind. He had sworn to himself that he would not meddle where it wasn’t wanted, no matter how good his intentions. He would content himself with just sitting here, smoking, and watching the storm rage on. It was an odd thing, he mused, how calming and beautiful it was now that he was out of immediate danger. Maybe he could try for some shut-eye again in a bit, but just when Bilbo had convinced himself to get up, the Dwarf sighed again, heavier than before.

 

“It wouldn’t work.”

 

A pity Tharkûn wasn’t here. He could have taken notes of when it as appropriate to meddle, namely when someone actually needed help, and that right here was a cry for help.

 

“You can’t know that. Let’s forget for a moment that he and I manage to rub each other the wrong way even when we are trying to get along. He’s a decent guy; grumpy, but honourable. I’d even go so far and say he’s a good match if you’re interested in good but emotionally constipated guys. Could even pass as handsome, that one. My cousin certainly seemed to think so.”

 

The miner gave him a pained glare.

 

“You really don’t need to convince me of his qualities.”

 

“Then what do I need to convince you of?”

 

The way Bofur shrunk in on himself was very telling and very heart-breaking.

 

“Oh, Bofur, no.”

 

“Well, it’s true. What could I possibly offer him?”

 

Everything?” Bilbo suggested, disbelieve colouring every syllabus. Of all people, he would have never expected Bofur to lack in self-esteem. “I knew I should have started with `you’re too good for him´, which you are. You’re funny, kind, loyal, and good with children. Lady-Hobbits have a very keen sense for good guys, let me tell you, and if I remember correctly, you almost drowned in attention back in Newbury. And what can he offer in return? Not even a sense of direction. I really don’t understand why you are letting him go ahead anyway.”

 

“Not a sense of ... oh. Ah, no, Bilbo, that’s only in the flatlands,” the miner replied slightly amused, which was not really what the Hobbit had been aiming for, but an improvement.

 

“What does that have to do with anything?”

 

“It’s ... eh, it’s hard to explain. Well, no, it’s not, except you don’t know Khuzdûl, and that makes it difficult. Thorin, well, he got rathukh’urdu. He, er ... damn, it’s hard to translate that. Basically, it means he is really good navigating in and on stone, but right shit at it when you take the stone away.”

 

Bilbo blinked slowly, taking the time to decide if it might be better to just pretend he hadn’t heard that. His curiosity won out.

 

“You can’t expect me to believe that.”

 

“But it’s true,” Bofur insisted. “Every Dwarrow has it, to an extent, just like khaifû’ebn, er, stone-sense. If I could feel a damn thing right now, I could tell you stuff about this cave that ... probably wouldn’t mean a thing to you, seeing that you’re a Hobbit and all. Not that it’s a bad thing, of course, being Hobbit or you. In fact, I’d give a lot to be you, and I’m rambling. Shutting up now.”

 

Bilbo watched the usually jolly Dwarf sink into himself again, and thought of all the things unsaid, promises not made, and moments not lived in his own life; all in the name of not wanting to trap each other. It wasn’t all bad, of course. In fact, the good far outweighed the bad, but it wasn’t all just sunshine and flower-crowns either, and yet here sat Bofur, who was upset enough to want to switch with him.

 

The Hobbit patted the other’s arm with a forced smile.

 

“It’s not always fun to be me either.”

 

Maybe he should stop trying to cheer people up, the Hobbit thought to himself. Today he seemed especially bad at it, so he changed tactics and went with distractions instead.

 

“So, run that by me again, yes? Thorin will get lost in an open box everywhere in Middle-earth, but the moment the box is on or inside an actual mountain, he could carry it through a maze blindfolded; is that what you try to tell me?”

 

“Wouldn’t have put it that way, but, aye, that sums it up quite nicely.”

 

“And all of you have that, yet no one else got lost in the Shire, continuously and spectacularly? I have the maps to prove it should have been impossible for us to end up in Standelf; just saying.”

 

“There are no mountains in the Shire, not even the roots of one or large boulders. Truth be told, if not for Tharkûn, most of us would have probably gotten lost as well. Well, except for Nori, obviously, but I guess he would have gotten lost on purpose just to keep us away from your door. Not that I blame him. The things we do for our loved ones, aye?”

 

“Something like that, yes. And Nori can’t actually get lost. The Shire wouldn’t let him end up anywhere but at my door,” Bilbo delivered straight-faced but cracked up when the miner got wide eyes.

 

“I’m kidding, Bofur. There really is no such magic in the Shire, no matter how much everyone else claims otherwise. But I think I start to understand. I mean, I knew before that Dwarrow are rooted in the stones and need a mountain to live in; I just wasn’t aware of the magnitude.”

 

“That’s not even half of it, but I don’t know if I’m allowed to speak about the other reasons. Actually, I think I already said too much.”

 

“Alright, then I won’t ask anymore. I’m only surprised Nori never mentioned that part before. He always made it sound as if he is perfectly able to navigate everywhere,” Bilbo mumbled more to himself, then suddenly tensed. “Do you think all that wandering uprooted him somehow? Is that possible? Is that dangerous? I know Dwarrow aren’t plants, but ...”

 

“Didn’t you want to stop asking?” the other interrupted amused. “Ah, doesn’t matter anymore, aye? I’m sure your Nori is safe. He’s just rooted elsewhere now. Re-potting. That’s a thing, aye?”

 

Bilbo got the sudden image of Nori as a sunflower-hybrid in Bag End’s front yard, grinning at everyone, and waving big leaves where his hands should be, except when uninvited guests appeared; then he would turn into a most thorny hedge, probably one that bit additionally to stinging.

 

Needless to say the image sent him into a laughing fit that woke half the Company, and of course they weren’t very happy about it. Bofur’s sheepish attempts to hush the Hobbit were generally viewed as an admittance of guilt.

 

“Can’t leave you out of my sight for five minutes,” Nori complained when Dwalin all but threw Bilbo and Bofur at him. The thief didn’t ask why he got both of them while the guard took over watch duty, but took it in stride, only threatening to separate them when Bilbo couldn’t stop giggling.

 

“You’re a good friend, Bilbo,” the miner later mumbled into Bilbo’s neck where he was spooning the Hobbit because in contrast to certain kings Nori was didn’t get unreasonable jealousy-fits and thus didn’t see the need to separate anyone. It might have also something to do with how the Company had generally huddled further together, not leaving much room to shuffle anyone around.

 

That is not to say that Bofur wasn’t an excellent friend as well, dutifully defending Bilbo when in the morning most were still grumpy while they started a smoky fire to cook breakfast near the mouth of the cave and repacked their things.

 

They neither saw nor heard anything of the Stone Giants, but the storm had not relented, and very begrudgingly Thorin admitted that it was still too dangerous to continue with their journey. There was also still enought time until Durin’s Day to allow for the delay, so they stayed where they were and considered it a sound plan. They couldn’t have known that braving the storm might have caused them less trouble than staying. Stone-blind as they all were – a term Bilbo later made up only to find out that it was quite accurate – there had been nothing to warn them when the ground under them literally gave in and had the whole Company tumble into the darkness.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

“What is it, my precious? Walks on Goblin-paths, but not a Goblin, no. Elf-ears and -pointy, but not an Elf either, my precious. And it has Dwarf-braids, indeed. Not seen those in a long time, we have, but it’s not a Dwarf, my precious, not at all. What is it? Is it fat and juicy? Can we eats it, my precious?”

 

`Well,´ Bilbo thought, `there is really only one thing to do in such a situation.´

 

“I’m Ben Burglahobbit of the Burglahobbits from Harad, and I’m most certainly not eatable.”

Chapter Text


 

Nori knew pain and injury. With his wandering feet, sticky fingers, and general disposition for trouble, they had long since become familiar and expected companions wherever he went, though certainly not his favourite. He estimated he had broken more bones and received more stab wounds, and bruises than all the others members of the Company combined, and he could deal with that. He didn’t like it, mind. One could say a lot about the thief, but he certainly wasn’t one who enjoyed pain, though there were three types of injury he disliked the most, not counting fatal wounds.

 

The first was injuries – actual injuries, dealt out to hurt, cripple or kill – inflicted on people he liked. The second were injuries to his own hands – they made escaping far too difficult, and in the worst-case might cost him his life or trade altogether – and third on his list of `injuries best to avoid´ were head injuries. Seriously, life was so much easier on all accounts when one wasn’t fighting against a headache, nausea, and balance problems at the same time, and then had to wonder afterwards how much of what one remembered was actually real.

 

There were worse things, of course, there always were, but those three were the kind of injuries Nori couldn’t work around, and sadly he had to deal with all of them right now, which made for a very scrambled recollection of what he believed to be a few hours.

 

The thief knew for sure that the cave had happened, including Bofur being clingy with his Hobbit. That had admittedly been testing Nori’s patience a bit, but Nori had no right to be jealous and no reason to either. The miner was a decent fellow, for one, and a lovesick one on top of it, pining not for Bilbo but the most oblivious fool in all the seven kingdoms. And then there was, of course, the floor literally giving out under them. That definitely had happened as well. Nori had the bruises to prove it, and he was certain he had done his level best to shield Bilbo, knowing himself much sturdier and durable. It was little more than a guess that Bofur might have aided him with, as others did with those closest to them.

 

The concussion was a sure thing as well. Nori didn’t actually remember hitting his head, but that only added to the other tell-tale signs. His wrist was likely sprained as well, which was better than broken fingers, but still inconvenient.

 

Nori wasn’t as sure that Bilbo had actually gotten away as he would have liked to be, but the Hobbit wasn’t with them when the Dwarrow were chained together and herded deeper into the mountain under the whips of their captors. Amidst the horrors that the Goblins – of course Goblins. How silly of him to assume they might be able to cross the mountains without running into them – called interior design, it was a comforting thought to have either way.

 

The thief could only just so remember the most general outline of everything that happened after their initial capture, and some gruesome details he actually would have rather forgotten. Half-rotten corpses and torture devices he had no name for (prayed to any Valar listening that none of them ever would have to find out how they worked), obscure constructions of mostly wood, a bit of metal, and stolen furniture, and things used in ways that had not been their original purpose.

 

It was the bastardised parody of a city, butchered, and unstable, and wrong, and it was definitely the concussion making him notice that, between the pain, and Goblins, and even more pain, the dwellings certainly fitted their captors. On any other day, he would have been worried about that observation and the reason why his mind conjured up the cruel mockery of a song about the torture they would likely have to face, but for now Nori was too caught up in the struggle to avoid further injury, and staying between the whips and his brothers. Then he forgot it again.

 

At some point – the thief’s sense of time had been lost along the way, though at least the numbing effect of the Stone Giants was wearing off – the biggest, most repulsive Goblin he had ever seen ordered the youngest Dwarrow to be tortured first. It was the first truly clear moment Nori had since falling down the trap door, pushing forward with the intent to be his most annoying self, and keep the attention away from Ori, and the princes. Before he could do that, however, a sudden light blinded everyone. That part was also quite memorable.

 

When the shackles fell away, Nori turned against their captors first, then began to spread weapons and those of their packs close at hand among the others. He didn’t question it then or later, for the most part reduced to instincts. The few clear moments in between running and fighting he used to work in tandem with Bofur and Thorin to find a way out of this blasted mountain, using his knowledge of cities and quick escapes to aid their khaifû’ebn. He didn’t wonder about Bilbo or where Tharkûn had suddenly come from either, not doubting even for a moment that his Hobbit had found a way out of the mountain, run into the wizard, and bullied the old cod into saving everyone. Of course, that was what had happened; it was the afterwards he wasn’t so sure about. Running and fighting were definitely involved, lots of it, and then a construction similar to a bridge giving out under them.

 

How they actually survived that no one knew, but that the dead Goblin-king had crashed down on them, no one didn’t need to tell Nori. Three newly cracked ribs and one on the verge of breaking told that particular tale loud and clear, never mind that his whole torso was a single bruise, making every breath agony.

 

That Dwalin carried him a good part of the way out of goodwill and necessity Nori would forever deny, and who cared about the `how´ anyway when they finally reached the outside?

 

There was the sun, warm, and bright, and not something a Dwarf should carve, but, Mahâl be his witness, never had the thief been so glad to be outside a mountain. The past few hours easily made it into the top five of his most horrible experiences. That was admittedly mostly due to this being the first time a situation like this involving his family, but it was over now. They were outside, in the sun, where the Goblins couldn’t follow for hopefully a few hours at least. There was the blasted wizard with his tendency to vanish on them, though so blessedly on time with his returns, and thirteen Dwarrow, bruised and scrapped, and there were more than a few cracked bones between them, but nothing that wouldn’t heal ... and no Hobbit.

 

There was ... there was no Hobbit, anywhere, not a single hairy toe, which should have actually been reassuring, as a single hairy toe would have meant it wasn’t attached to Bilbo anymore, but no Bilbo all the same, and it definitely weren’t any bruises or weighty monstrosities preventing Nori from breathing now. It was plain old fear, and he would fight whoever was holding him up to go and save his Hobbit because if Bilbo wasn’t with Tharkûn he still had to be in the Goblin-tunnels, and ...

 

“Nori, calm down!”

 

“I won’t leave him there!”

 

Of course we won’t, but getting us killed won’t save anyone. Let’s at least try to make a plan, before we throw it to the wind,” Dori scoffed, and Nori could live with that. When Dori said they would go back for Bilbo, they would, contracts be damned, and it meant a lot to the thief that his brother didn’t hesitate to include himself in the rescue plans. Not to say that Nori liked the thought of anyone having to go back to the Goblins, pain, and skull-splitting headache. Nope. Hobbits appearing out of thin air was, in theory, worrisome, but certainly preferable to the alternative, and most likely a result of the concussion anyway. It didn’t matter at all on the big scale of things as long as Bilbo was safe with them.

 

“No one will go anywhere except the fuck away from here!” said Hobbit growled. He was dirty, bruised, and limping, but there and alive, and he went straight into Nori’s arms.

 

The pitiful noise must have been Nori’s doing, and instantly Bilbo backed off – not far, bless the Valar – and began to fuss, and scold, and assess the damage with no regard to his own state, and the ginger Dwarf couldn’t be arsed to care about things like dignity as long as his Hobbit didn’t vanish again. Thorin, for all that he might have put himself between the Goblins and Ori – Nori was willing to give him points for that, lots of points, even if it wouldn’t have saved his little brother in the long run – could go and shove his suspicions where the sun never shone., and he wasn’t talking about caverns or dungeons of stone.

 

“Thorin, so help me, I just had the most terrible time of my life, and there is a veritable horde of Goblins making ready to hunt us down the moment the sun is down, so could you please postpone being an arse until there is at least a chance we might survive the night?”

 

There was little Thorin could have replied to that, and nothing he actually said. He just made another roll call – he actually shouted out names, and refused to move without visual and vocal confirmation that everyone was accounted for and able to move – and then ordered them to head out. Nori mustered the presence of mind to connect Bilbo’s limping with a possibility of the Hobbit not actually being able to keep up, and asked him more directly. It earned the thief a snapped `can you?´ and an almost poke into the ribs, which was a fair point.

 

Nori had half a mantra ready to hold onto Dori and Bilbo, and just run, but then his older brother switched sides, half carrying Nori and Bilbo, and ... why was Ori swinging Dwalin’s war hammer and carrying two packs? He knew his little brother was strong enough to carry more if need be – he had their mother’s strength, just like Dori – but why he would do so escaped Nori, as did the question itself when they fell into a familiar pattern of running and pain. The lack of fighting was a relief, though it didn’t last, of course. It never did.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Bilbo tried not to think of what had happened under the mountains. He allowed the memory of the many Goblins assembling and arming themselves at the gates he had snuck out to remain in order to press everyone for speed, but everything else the Hobbit suppressed. Instead, he took comfort in the sunlight and seeing the whole Company alive, all limbs accounted for and not in need of immediate saving, though no one had gotten out of their approximately three days of separation unscratched. Nori was doubtlessly off the worst, but Bilbo would allow that he might be very biased in that assessment.

 

Dori supporting him and his middle brother, and Ori taking his pack – there were some things in there that Bilbo would hate to lose now that he had actually managed to keep hold of them for so long – was very appreciated as well, but the Hobbit knew the worst was yet to come, independent of the Goblins.

 

In theory, there were only two ways this could go for him, the memories of Fell Winter still sharp enough that he could recognise the signs. Either Bilbo would break down and not get up for a long while, or the unnatural tension would release itself in a potentially violent outburst and then he would break down.

 

The Hobbit didn’t want to accidentally turn against his family, but the way things were going at the moment, it would be best to just hold on until a fitting occasion for violence came up. It didn’t make him like the Warg-howls reaching them by late afternoon any better, or prepared for what they heralded. He could have also done without Tharkûn leading them straight onto a cliff by nightfall; that the wizard insisted that it hadn’t been there the last time he had passed by wasn’t helping either.

 

Who ordered to climb the trees didn’t matter in the end, but it was certainly the smartest thing they had done in a while, even if Bilbo had an internal fit about what that would do to Nori’s ribs. His own ankle he didn’t even feel anymore.

 

There was no preparing for when the Wargs finally caught up with them, and it was so much worse than Trollshaws. Bilbo hadn’t had the time for fear and memories back then, but being stuck in the tree, terrified, and pained whimpers around him, images of Fell Winter started to overlay what he saw.

 

He knew what was happening, and tried to stay in the present, using the light and heat of the burning pine-cones as sharp contrast against the darkness and cold of long ago, the snow, and the pained yips from the Wargs and their Orc-riders a great reminder. For all that the Hobbit disliked cruelty, he found some satisfaction in this. It was a bit like dreaming, and being aware of it enough to turn things to his own liking, taking revenge for past terrors ... except this wasn’t just a nightmare. This was real, and the Company had been cornered.

 

There already was a definition for `cornered´, Bilbo knew that, but it should be changed into `thirteen Dwarrow, a Hobbit, and a wizard on a single, thin pine trapped between the edge of a very, very, very steep mountain face on one side, and fire, Wargs, and Orcs on the other´.

 

Objectively Bilbo was aware that thinking a situation couldn’t get any worse did, in fact, not somehow conjure up something to make it actually worse. If it happened anyway, it was purely by chance. However, knowing that didn’t help the fact that the Hobbit had thought it couldn’t get worse, and promptly it did, and in the worst possible way at that.

 

Truth be told, a pale Orc, bigger than any he had ever seen, the lack of armour not projecting `easy target´, but `too dangerous to need armour´, riding a giant, white Warg, was already scary in itself, but additionally Bilbo sat close enough to hear Thorin gasp what had to be the name of that personified nightmare, and ...

 

It couldn’t be true, it just couldn’t be. Everyone knew the story. It might have come into the Shire late, changed already by many mouths, but Bilbo had heard of it even before a certain thief had come knocking on Bag End’s door one rainy spring night. There was no way that Orc was who Thorin thought it was, but even from the distance, Bilbo could see the cruel metal construction replacing the arm Thorin cut off so long ago. Better than that, however, Bilbo could see the very real, naked fear on the Dwarf-king’s face.

 

Azog the Defiler.

 

That was ... that wasn’t fair. Stone Giants, floor traps, Goblins, separation, that insane creature in the cave, and now this? And then `their´ tree caught fire as well and started to fall, and not even towards the ground, of course not. No, it fell towards the cliff, and Yavanna and Mahâl had to be looking out for them right now because somehow the roots found hold in the rocky ground, and they didn’t fall to their deaths straight away.

 

Still, being favourites to the Valar didn’t save them from fire and Orcs, and ...

 

And obviously, Nori wasn’t the only one who had hit his head because no one still lord of their senses would storm off the treacherous safety of the tree to fight an Orc easily twice their size, sitting on an even bigger Warg.

 

In hindsight, Bilbo would never be able to say why seeing Thorin used as a chewing toy was what pushed him over the edge, though he would for a long time feel guilty for not noticing Nori’s struggle to keep his brothers from falling off the tree. Fact was, however, that he drew his glowing elven dagger, and barrelled into the Orc trying to finish what the Warg started.

 

The Orc was definitely more surprised about being run through than Bilbo, but the Hobbit saw not stone and Wargs, but blood on snow and wolves.

 

“Try that again, and I’ll cut you down like the hedge in my backyard!”

 

Bilbo was painfully aware that this had been very pitiful as far as threats went, but said hedge was a nasty thing made almost entirely of thorns, and when Azog came at him, slow and menacing, the Hobbit wondered if maybe it was him who had knocked his head once too often. It had been a rather deep fall after all, but Bilbo was too angry to really care. At that moment guarding Thorin’s still form and snarling at the Defiler were the most important things to do, and woe betide anyone getting in the way. Some of the Dwarrow – he had neither the mind nor the focus to count or identify them closer – coming to their aid with war cries barely making it past the rush in Bilbo’s ears, was welcome anyway, as were the eagles once Bilbo realised that they weren’t an additional threat.

 

It was terrifying to see Thorin lifted like a ragdoll, losing his trademark shield in the process, just as the others were picked out of the tree and Orcs thrown down the cliff, but Bilbo was even more scared when for a moment it seemed he would be overlooked. Not to say the Hobbit was in any way fond of being scooped up by giant claws and thrown through the air to land on a giant bird’s back, but it was better than being left behind any day.

 

“Your flock-mates are all safe, little one,” the eagle spoke after his passenger had almost fallen off his back twice while trying to count heads. The wind, and cold, and general stress sadly made it impossible for him to focus enough.

 

“Family,” the Hobbit corrected, and held on tighter.

 

They flew through the night, the scenery of snow-peaked mountains partly surrounded by clouds in an otherwise clear sky a truly breath-taking sight, though Bilbo was blind for it. He needed sleep, something to eat, water, and more than anything he needed to make sure that Nori and the others were at least not worse off than before.

 

Sunrise came and went, and finally, the eagles descended. The Hobbit didn’t have the strength left to complain about being put down on top of an oddly shaped overlook-stone-thing or even thank the eagles for the rescue. All he could do was stand there, too tired even to sit down, and count to 14 again, and again, and again.

 

Considering all that had happened, Bilbo was convinced it was well within his rights to not react favourably when Thorin’s first action after getting up was to scold the Hobbit for saving his sorry ass. Naturally, the words used by the Dwarf were differently but the meaning was clear enough, and Thorin’s posture quite aggressive on top of that. Pulling a knife on him was maybe a bit extreme, but the Hobbit still saw snow though his feet were dry and wolves where the still logical part of his mind knew there could be none. Truly, Bilbo was well within his rights to react as he did, and it brought Nori – still wheezing but no longer glassy-eyed – to his side, which was always a good thing because Nori hadn’t been anywhere near the Shire when the wolves came. The snow melted, wolves vanished, and Bilbo could breathe again.

 

“Hush, melekûnuh; no one means you any harm. Are you alright?”

 

“Me? Sure? I mean, why shouldn’t I? We had how many almost-too-close brushes with death now? I do that every day. No, seriously, every day, twice. I don’t even know when I last slept,” Bilbo laughed hysterically, not seeing the numerous the wide eyes focused on him. Then he took a few deep breaths and seemingly relaxed, finally sheathing his knife again. He didn’t quite know where his sword had ended up, and his pan was in the pack that may or may not still be in Ori’s hold, but Nori’s knife had stayed with him all the time, a comforting pressure against the small of his back.

 

“Alright, so, two questions if you don’t mind: is everyone alright?”

 

“We’ve been better, but we will live,” Nori answered after pointedly looking around. Bilbo appreciated the gesture and honesty greatly. A simple `we’re fine´ would have probably upset him even more at this point, and fortunately, the thief could guess as much.

 

“Okay, great. And we’re safe now, yes? No more trap-doors, Stone Giants, or whatnots?”

 

“Not anywhere close by, I don’t think so.”

 

“Ah, fantastic. In that case, please excuse me. There is something I’ve put off way too long already,” the Hobbit noted with an air of satisfaction and fainted where he stood.

Chapter Text


 

“I have a headache that could fell an oliphaunt,” were the words that greeted Bilbo when he came around, though he hadn’t bothered to open his eyes yet. “But I can recognise a stupidly daring act when I see it, and what you did, my dear Hobbit, was beyond stupidly daring.”

 

The lap his head was laying on was familiar enough that it wouldn’t have needed the voice and skilled fingers massaging his scalp to keep the smaller calm and chase the strange dreams away. He had been running through Bag End, searching for something or someone for a very important reason he couldn’t remember now, only that every room had been cold and empty. Somehow it had scared him more than the very real memory of fire and Wargs (or was it snow and wolves?), though not as much as the creature in the darkness, the very reason Bilbo was in the middle of developing a fear of the dark. He kept his eyes close to pretend he wasn’t.

 

“Who of us ran around with broken ribs, you or I?” the Hobbit grumped, but otherwise didn’t move. He really didn’t want to face reality right now, or the way every inch of his body hurt, but since he was already awake ...

 

“How is everyone?”

 

“Well ...”

 

“Do I need to poke your ribs?”

 

“Please don’t,” Nori deadpanned, and Bilbo was very much tempted to sit up and check how badly wounded his partner really was. He remembered vividly the wheezing and distant eyes, even if everything else was rather fuzzy around the edges, but Nori knew how to take care of himself, and the Hobbit could hear familiar snoring, and vaguely remembered having seen all thirteen Dwarrow (and the wizard) on their feet, so there was no immediate need to get up. On the other hand were they both experts on keeping quiet about a lot of things, important things, so there actually was a quite real chance they were in a shitload of trouble.

 

“Mahâl be my witness, Nori, if you make me get up to get a straight answer ...”

 

“Alright, alright. Bossy little Hobbit,” the thief chuckled, or he would have if he weren’t sitting ramrod straight and trying not to move his torso at all, including for breathing. It had been disturbing to hear when Nori long ago had downright bragged in a drunken stupor that he could move around most injuries, but to find out that he had been serious was definitely worse.

 

“Everyone is alive with all limbs attached, and they will make full recovery with a bit time and rest. Most just have some bruises, cuts, swells, and such, but nothing that will leave permanent damage. Dwalin had a dislocated shoulder that Óin already set, Bofur got bruised ribs, Thorin managed to fracture at least two ribs, and he has a set of punctures from the Warg’s teeth. We’ll need to watch for infection with that one, and his bruises are almost as impressive as mine. He won’t be able to use his shield arm for a few days, and he and Fíli each have a bit of a limp now, but everyone will recover in time.”

 

“Sounds painful, but it could have been worse, I guess. Is that the point where you tell me one of us is missing a limb? Because I’m rather sure it’s not me.”

 

“It’s not that bad, don’t worry.”

 

“Then how bad is it?” Bilbo asked, starting to get annoyed. Really, how was he supposed not to worry when Nori continued to evade the question?

 

“Two fractured ribs left, one on the right, and my whole torso is a single big bruise. No internal bleedings, as far as we can tell, and a sprained wrist.”

 

“How by all that is good and green did that happen?”

 

“Funny thing, I hit my head pretty bad and don’t quite remember, but I’m reasonably sure it had something to do with a slide down some deep chasm, and something the size of an ox landing on me. Then running, and climbing, and the eagles weren’t exactly careful either. By the way, your ankle is strained, and we need to keep an eye on that bite in case of infection, and you got some pretty impressive bruises yourself,” the thief finally started to count off. “Also, you remember that rock the eagles put us down on? There is a cave at its base we’re currently camping in. Good and solid, no worries. Stone-sense approved. All of us checked several times.”

 

The Hobbit didn’t have the heart to point out that currently every kind of cave gave him the creeps, nor did he want to ask how he had gotten down the rock. It would have been a silly question anyway, as he obviously hadn’t walked himself, nor been thrown down; the only thing unclear was who had carried him, and how dignified it had been, but in the end, it hardly mattered. Dignity was overrated anyway.

 

The petting didn’t stop, which Bilbo appreciated greatly, but he could feel the other turn deadly serious before Nori even set on to ask what had happened after they had gotten separated.

 

“I found something, and ... and then something found me. Can we ... can we just not talk about that right now? I’d really much rather be a good part further away from the mountains first.”

 

“I understand,” the other said, and if anyone really understood the need to not talk about something, it was indeed Nori. Valar knew there were enough stories he couldn’t speak of, no matter how much time and distance was between him and the memory in question.

 

“It’s almost midday,” the thief continued, dutifully changing the subject. “It was decided earlier that we will stay the night. There is a stream close by, swallow enough for a wash, but food is a bit scarce. Dori, Ori, Óin, and Glóin are foraging already, and, knowing my dear brother, probably having a wash as well, the cheaters.”

 

“Cute. Talking about Ori, did my pack happen to survive?”

 

“Miraculously, yes. Ori was very adamant about keeping a hold on it. Why? Did you manage to save something eatable?”

 

“I might have some lembas left in one of the pockets, actually, and some odds and ends I picked up before ... well, before,” the Hobbit replied elusively. Hearing that he had been unconscious for half a day (that was assuming it was still the same day) was concerning, but midday meant light, which ... yeah, best thing ever, light. Totally underappreciated. Pity he had already missed half a day of it.

 

“Bilbo, my memory is a mess, but I remember some very disturbing details, so whatever you picked up, you should get rid of it as soon as possible.”

 

Ignoring the other for the moment the Hobbit looked around now that he knew it wouldn’t be dark. The cave was (bless the Valar) much brighter than he had feared, and he could almost instantly recognise some of his Dwarrow. Thorin was in the back, completely knocked out by the look of it, with Fíli and Kíli at his sides, upright but obviously also sleeping. Dwalin was sitting at the mouth of the cave, guarding them with his axes close at hand, and once his eyes got used to the light, Bilbo spotted Balin sitting back to back with his brother, almost completely vanishing in the larger’s shadow, which ... well, it was a bit ridiculous, but the Hobbit could see a certain tactical advantage in it. Even if someone managed to catch Dwalin unaware, they would in turn not expect the older yet smaller brother. Very ingenious.

 

Should he be worried that he was able to recognise and appreciate ingenious defence strategies? Not very hobbity, but it wouldn’t be the first nor the last un-hobbity discovery Bilbo made about himself, and he didn’t actually give a damn. But why could he hear Dori and Óin arguing outside? Shouldn’t they be with their respective brothers? It wasn’t worth getting up for but still struck the Hobbit as odd.

 

Well, again, as long as they were all safe it didn’t quite matter. What mattered was how very pitiful the sight of the family Ur was, curled together as much as they could, and Bofur easily the most miserable; even the flops of his hat were hanging down, or they would be, but the miner was completely hat-less, which likely played a huge part in the misery.

 

Good thing Bilbo knew just the thing to fix at least that if nothing else, and for a moment he had the urge to make a big spectacle out of it, one that would lead to a great party with food appearing out of nowhere, and music, the whole deal. But this wasn’t one of the stories they told faunts for entertainment (or one of the little booklets that hopefully the Gamgees hadn’t found because neither he nor Nori would live that one down, ever). This was a bruised and battered Company, tired, and hungry, and hurting, and small comforts didn’t need grand gestures.

 

“Bofur? Hey, Bofur?”

 

He threw a pebble at the Dwarf’s head, belatedly remembering that he had reason to assume everyone must have hit their heads at some point and throwing stones at them couldn’t be helpful. However, it got him the attention he wanted.

 

“Your hat is in my pack. I found it in the tunnels,” the Hobbit said, and added, mostly to himself, that it might have saved him from serious head injury, and that there was actually a whole lot he had to thank for, but no one quite listened to that part. Bifur was at his pack in the blink of an eye and kindly didn’t throw Kíli’s bow or Ori’s journal around but carefully placed them down before he found the article in question and brought it over to his cousin. Bilbo didn’t need to know Khuzdûl to recognise a most heartfelt `thank you´ when he heard it, and the way Bofur clutched the article and looked at the smaller were translation enough in any case.

 

“Bifur’s father was a tanner. He made the hat and gifted it to Bofur. It’s the only reminder they have of him,” Nori related Bifur’s words solemnly, which was decidedly not against any rules, as he didn’t translate directly, never mind that the Hobbit believed that he was starting to get a hang of the secret language beyond swear-words. Not that he would ever admit it, of course, but continued exposure had that kind of effect on people.

 

“I’d hate to let go of you, but you should sit up before Ori comes back,” the thief then gently suggested. “He will tackle you, and my ribs can’t take that, much as I loathe to admit it.”

 

It turned out a correct prediction, as Ori indeed forgot himself and tackled Bilbo the moment he saw his precious journal safe and hale, showering the Hobbit in an amount of gratitude that could hardly be covered by three languages. Kíli was less eloquent when the commotion woke him, but the lad was as close to tears as Bofur had been, and could hug with surprising strength considering his lanky frame. Apparently, the bow had been his father’s, and while not the only memento, it was a dear one nonetheless.

 

Since they were already at it, Bilbo in turn hugged assorted Dwarrow, counting off the many ways their different presents and teachings had very likely saved his life, especially the leather armour and knitting that had prevented him from taking serious damage during his own fall, never mind the comfort it had given him in the cold, lightless caves. The sword lessons had also helped, but Dwalin refused any and all hugs with a single glare.

 

“You pulled a knife on my king. That’s high treason ... though I suppose you did save his ass beforehand.”

 

“Well, first of all: it can’t be treason, as he is no king of mine, and nowhere in my contract is it stated that I’m not allowed to defend myself against him, never mind that it wasn’t the first time, and you didn’t complain before. Secondly: it was his own damn fault. And third: you’re welcome,” the Hobbit listed with a grim smirk, and then hobbled towards the stream with the aid of Nori’s mace-turned-crutch.

 

He may have laid on a bit thick with the hobbling part, but he refused to be parted from Nori again anytime soon, and if extensive hobbling spared his Dwarf the grief of having to admit that the giant bruise that was his rib-cage hindered him a lot more than he was comfortable admitting, it was just as well.

 

Also, the longer they took, the better prepared he would be to redirect any and all questions about his own adventure. Bilbo had no intention whatsoever to talk about it more than once, and as Óin had seen fit to actually drug Thorin, talking would have to wait until King Grumpy was awake again and had apologised. Seriously, even the Hobbit knew how to recognise the signs of battle nerves, and knew better than to approach the inflicted person with hostility if at all. Granted, the gentle Shire-folk had a less heroic name for it, but since the Massacre of Greenfields, they were familiar enough with the concept, Fell Winter having refreshed the memory. It certainly seemed similar enough, anyway, and Thorin was king of a people believing giving each other a concussion was a proper way to greet family. Thorin should have known better, and a word of gratitude for saving his hairy ass from something that should have been dead for ages would also be a nice. Thorin wanted something from Bilbo after all, not the other way around, and ... oh.

 

Right, they still needed to have that talk about definitely living Dragons and necromancers, and had he actually ever told anyone about the giant spiders in Mirkwood?

 

Maybe he shouldn’t be so hard on their esteemed leader after all, never mind that Thorin was quite the pitiful sight when he finally got up, though whether or not he actually got up was probably a matter of definition. It took some work and help, as the Dwarf had a swollen knee additionally to everything else. In fact, he had to be all but carried out of the cave by Kíli and Bofur, and carefully lowered onto a stump by the fire, accompanied by the obligatory growling and outrage about having been drugged. Óin convincingly claimed deafness when he examined the royal family again because his hearing aid had been trampled on at one point.

 

Needless to say Thorin’s dignity and thus his mood had hit rock bottom at the end of it, and it showed when he turned towards Bilbo, which naturally had the Hobbit on the defences again.

 

“So help me, if you make me get up and get my pan, I will make you wish the Warg had gotten you proper.”

 

Yes, that was a good threat. Short, clear in its message, yet open enough to give Thorin a pause and the time their illustrious leader no doubt needed to indeed think about his next words, with astonishing results.

 

“Fair enough. I wish to apologise for my behaviour earlier this day. I meant to thank you for saving my life, but I see now I went about it the wrong way.”

 

“That’s one way to put it, and I have half a mind to slap you around the head anyway, but you know what? It’s alright,” Bilbo said and was surprised himself that he meant it. “Until a moment ago I was convinced I should make you grovel, but to what use? We all had a shitty few days of almost getting killed a few times too often and reacted accordingly poorly. That on the mountain pass, that was low, from both of us, and we’ll probably always rub each other the wrong way, but the trick is not to let it get out of hand (again). So you’re welcome; that’s what I meant to say. You’re welcome, and I’d probably do it again, but I’d be much obliged if we could avoid near-death situations in the future; for a while at least, since forever is likely too much asked for.”

 

Thorin stared, so did everyone else, while Bilbo drew on his pipe. He had lost his leaf-pouch and wasn’t exactly a fan of dwarven tobacco, but it was better than nothing.

 

“You are a good man,” the Dwarf-king finally said, patting Bilbo’s shoulder in recognition of worth, though lightly due to both their injuries.

 

“For a Hobbit?”

 

“No, just a good man.”

 

They shared a grin and the pipe, and let everyone else continue to gawk. Then they had to submit once more to Óin checking them over with complaints about idiots concealing head injury for him. Bilbo could have objected that he actually had mentioned he hit his head, and Thorin could have insisted that his head only hurt because Óin had poisoned him – he hadn’t, actually. It just so happened that their leader and his direct heir both were sensitive to willow bark in special and narcotics in general, and the healer knew that – but both knew better and suffered in amused silence.

 

“Maybe the wizard had the right of it after all, hightailing when he did.”

 

“I did no such thing, Master Glóin,” said wizard commented, and made those still able to jump around. Those strictly speaking unable tried anyway and fell back down with pained groans that made Óin curse even more. Tharkûn at least had the decency to look apologetic.

 

“And where did you go then?”

 

“Scouting ahead. I know where we are now, which is further north than I hoped, but I know of a friend nearby where we might be able to rest in safety and restock.”

 

“`Might´, hm? And is this a friend of yours like you claimed good Master Baggins here is your `friend´, or more like the Elves?” Thorin asked darkly, and it was his hand heavy on Bilbo’s shoulder and the Hobbit’s own determination to stop taking everything the Dwarf-king said badly that kept him from complaining. “I’d much prefer to know what to really expect of our would-be–host beforehand for once.”

 

“I, uh, must admit I do not know Beorn personally; only by reputation.”

 

“Oh, really? And what kind of reputation are we talking about here? Is it more like my reputation in the Shire that I ruined myself, and gladly so, or that of the Elves and Dwarrow that you actively sought to make them ruin in the eyes of each other?” Bilbo added, matching Thorin’s scowl. A united front against the idiocy that was the wizard certainly sounded like the best idea any of them had in a while, and Tharkûn looked mighty uncomfortable, which was probably what prompted Balin to back them up.

 

“Indeed, I’d like to know that as well. In my experience, it takes a special kind of Man to live out here in the wild.”

 

“Beorn is not a Man, though he appears as one at times,” the wizard scoffed, obviously trying to evade the question, but under the scrutiny of fourteen suspicious pairs of eyes, he soon had to choose between fleeing or giving in. He chose the latter.

 

“He is a skin-changer. At times he is a great bear, wild and fierce, but as a Man, he is quite reasonable and will either help us or kill us, depending on his mood. He is much fonder of animals than people and sees them as kin, so you absolutely shouldn’t hunt on his lands. In fact, you shouldn’t even speak of it.”

 

“And at which point did you intend to inform us of that? Before or after we gravely insulted a potential host and ally, again?”

 

“At least this time we won’t wrongly expect to be expected, aye, Master Baggins?”

 

“I thought we left this whole Master Baggins business behind us,” the Hobbit huffed with false indignation, but he didn’t shake off Thorin’s hand and returned Dwalin’s wide grin with one of his own. “My name is Bilbo, and that’s what I want you to call me.”

 

The Dwarrow laughed and agreed, and Bilbo couldn’t help but laugh along. Maybe putting off talking about dark things one more night wouldn’t be too bad. After all, what use would it be to spoil the mood if their future host decided he’d rather tear them to shreds tomorrow?

Chapter Text


 

Tracking through the wilderness was surprisingly uneventful if uncomfortable. Though they had rested far longer than they should have, everyone was still exhausted, but that was to be expected after the last couple of days, and their various wounds made every step painful. Additionally, they had only been able to hold onto five packs in total, and what of their possessions they had carried on their persons. It was a lot, all things considered, since after the Trolls most had subtly inquired about the many pockets sewn into Nori’s and Bilbo’s clothes, and those that hadn’t asked them directly had listened in, Lindir included when he brought them fabric and leather. They hadn’t shown them much – most of the techniques were trade secrets that Bilbo felt as bound to as Nori – but the few extra pockets sure made their life easier now. The lembas also helped to fight the worst hunger, but they still would need help and thus followed Tharkûn’s suggestion more or less willingly.

 

When it turned out that they actually had to cross the stream that ran past their cave, Bilbo expected that to be a hitch in their track and cost them a few hours of daylight at least – the water went almost to his hip and was fast. He would need time to work up the courage to cross the ford, especially as he now had a new, unpleasant association with water – but before he could even start to get worked up about the matter, he was already sitting on Dwalin’s good shoulder, and was carried over and put down on the other shore as if that was the natural order of things and they had done it a thousand times before.

 

A short glance revealed Nori more contemplative of this than surprised, but Dwalin had already trotted on, and Bilbo followed with a shrug. He had seen and done weirder things, especially recently, but now that it had caught his attention it didn’t remain the only odd occurrence. That Bofur was constantly at Thorin’s side was at this point not surprising anymore, lending a subtle, steadying hand whenever their leader stumbled, often aided by Kíli, who frequently scouted ahead or flitted around the group, endless well of energy that he was. Dwalin, too, was circulating most obviously around them, counting heads again and again, though at a more sedated pace than the young prince. Ori was having a close eye on Fíli and vice versa; Dori, Bifur, and Glóin were walking together and picking each other up, and Bilbo hadn’t even noticed that he and Nori were pretty much doing the same with Balin and Óin respectively. When someone stumbled, someone else was there to catch them and offer a word of strength, and it wasn’t just brothers or cousins. Everyone was looking out for everyone, and though battered, bruised, and damn well miserable, in this moment Bilbo more than ever before felt as if they really were one Company, not just a group of strangers who had grown a bit fond of each other as it was wont to happen if forced spend extended time together in dangerous surroundings.

 

Family of thirteen. Just three words, but they had a very real impact.

 

It was an enlightenment, to say the least, and the Hobbit wondered if Nori or one of the others felt the same, but didn’t dare to ask. Whatever this was – independent if it was new and fragile or only seemed that way to Bilbo – he didn’t want to risk it with questions he wasn’t even sure he was ready to hear the answer to.

 

And to think at the beginning of this he had been firmly set on `you, me, and your brothers´. That Morgoth’s Spawns had snuck their way into it had been unavoidable. Really, for all that they were supposed to be adults and certainly had their annoying moments in-between, they were too much like Bilbo’s little cousins: One may wish to strangle them from time to time, but would come to love and protect them anyway. Bofur, along with his brother and cousin, had endeared themselves to Bilbo already in the Shire, and in Bree, the toymaker had quirked Nori’s interest as well. There weren’t many who could outwit a master-thief, no matter if thieves had proper guilds and guild masters. Then Glóin with his unshakable love for his family, and Óin’s grumpy care. Fundin’s sons and Thorin had taken a while longer, granted, but eventually, Bilbo had come to appreciate them as well, kind of. Dwalin’s gruff protectiveness had been a bit difficult to get used to, but the Hobbit would hate to have to go without now, and every family needed the shrewd storyteller and the grouchy but dependable uncle.

 

The Hobbit wasn’t very proud of it, but he had to admit that even after coming to like the individual members and realising the necessity of the quest itself, he could have still abandoned them to their fate for a long time. That resolve had crumbled like oat cookies when the Trolls had tested it, and been completely shot down in Rivendell. `Just´ abandoning had been entirely out of question after that episode or abandoning them at all, really. Either they found a (realistic) way to keep everyone alive and away from the overgrown lizard or went along until they did. Pretending that he wasn’t getting involved in the goal itself had still been an option then, but those three days alone in the dark ...

 

It had set a lot into perspective, and not just Bilbo’s outlook on life in general or his issues with Thorin. Only during the first hour or so had the Hobbit kept himself going with thoughts of his cosy smial and books, and revisited half-formed plans about Dwarrow in blankets, fussed over by various cousins, aunts, and uncles from all sides of his family while Bag End was expanded and renovated. That he had held onto the thought for so long had only been due to imagining the unavoidable, epic battle for kingship over the Shire between King Grumpy Under The Hill and the great man Estel would surely become in time if Lindir kept up the good work. Thorin would lose that match, of course, brought down not by any sword or axe, but huge, pleading eyes because their leader was really just a giant sap.

 

Of course, it wouldn’t work – Dwarrow in the Shire, that is. Estel making Thorin give up any claims on the (imaginary) title of King Under The Hill was entirely realistic – and be it only for the lack of stone. In his time alone Bilbo had developed a few ideas about how they could try to make it work, including placing some larger boulders at crossroads, but it couldn’t replace a mountain, and truth be told, the Hobbit wasn’t just recently feeling a want to see his Dwarrow in their proper home and discover Azsâlulabad for himself. He didn’t know how to do it and wasn’t yet ready to think about where he saw himself in the reclaimed kingdom or if he would even be welcome there, but Bilbo wanted to try.

 

Hang for a lamb, hang for a sheep, indeed.

 

Musing so and fighting to keep going – his back hurt something fierce still, even though it had been days since he tumbled down into the dark – Bilbo didn’t quite notice when the wilderness started to turn into something less wild, but when next he paid attention, it was almost ... but surely he was just imagining it.

 

“Does this look familiar to you?”

 

“You mean, do I expect to see the Party Tree around the next bend?” Nori asked back, as most times able to guess what Bilbo meant without the Hobbit needing to explain it. It didn’t prevent the smaller from getting quite worked up, but it was a nice, fluffy feeling where currently hunger reigned, though the other’s grim half-smile was rather disconcerting.

 

“We are quite literally half across the world, why does it ... Tharkûn, where the Void are we?”

 

“We should be close to ... ah, there it is, Beorn’s home. Radagast praised his honey, but be mindful of the bees.”

 

Bilbo’s steps faltered, and instantly two very different pairs of hands steadied him without further comment on it. He could see smoke curling in the distance, likely from a chimney, and lush green fields up to a hedge that was bordering on wild and unkempt, but not out of control. It looked quite homely to the Hobbit, but that didn’t help to settle the dread he felt.

 

Radagast? This Beorn was a friend of that mad half-brain of a rabbit-loving wizard? Oh, they were so screwed!

 

“Oh, did I mention that he is not used to visitors? He might not react favourably to all of us at once, so we should ...”

 

Bilbo stopped listening and instead etched into the wizard’s back to sign to Thorin that he had an idea that was less likely to get them killed. Not that he really needed the Dwarf’s permission to go through with it, but it was about time he started to fully embrace all the dynamics that came with being part of a company, and that included at least informing their leader. Thorin, that is, not Tharkûn, which is why he used Iglishmêk for that. The sign-language wasn’t in the least designed to be eloquent or polite or communicate elaborate plans, so he actually only stated that the wizard was insane and asked permission to try a different approach. Their leader nodded, while Nori didn’t need to sign anything to let the Hobbit know how very insane he thought Bilbo to be. Balin readily offered to come along, which put the thief at least a bit at ease and the Hobbit as well. He didn’t actually want to approach a potentially hostile Man alone. However, it was necessary if they wanted to survive, and Balin wasn’t only a good diplomat, he was also a skilled warrior, and one of the least injured.

 

“I hope you have a good plan, lad,” the Dwarf stated once they had made it past the hedge and the gate unnoticed, walking on an actually nicely kept cobblestone path. They had left Nori’s mace that had served has Bilbo’s crutch so far and the pack Balin had been carrying with the others, so Bilbo limped ahead supported by the Dwarf for the most part.

 

“I don’t, but everything is better than whatever Tharkûn cooks up. Trust me, twelve Dwarrow trickling in unexpected and uninvited into one’s home is not something anyone wants, and I imagine a Man in the habit of changing into a great bear will be a lot harder to placate after that kind of deceit than an enraged Hobbit. I mean, you realise I would have done much worse to you lot if I hadn’t been so distracted with Nori, don’t you?”

 

“I believe I have a decent idea now,” Balin replied kindly, patting the Hobbit’s hand on his arm. “Though I wonder: is that common in all Hobbits?”

 

“If pushed past a certain point, definitely.”

 

Making their way to the house, Bilbo became increasingly more nervous. The flowers growing between the hedge and the house were comforting to see, and the vegetable patch and fruit trees were a most welcome sight as well, but everything here was so big. Not grand – in fact, it was a rather rustic in design and focused on functionality from what Bilbo could see – but huge; larger than what the Men in Bree used.

 

`Biting off more than one could eat´ was an idiom Bilbo had never quite understood. The meaning had been explained to him often enough, but the concept never quite registered with the Hobbit (or any of his kin, truly), until he stood face to face with a man he had all reason to believe was Beorn.

 

Or rather face to calves.

 

As it turned out, the sole inhabitant of these lands matched his surroundings. He was a bear of a man, literally. A Dwarf compared to Stone Giants, sure, but a giant to a Hobbit, covered with dark hair from head to toe – bare toes. Bilbo hadn’t noticed how much he had missed seeing bare feet, but combined with everything else that wasn’t very comforting at all right now.

 

The skin-changer didn’t turn around, though he must have noticed them approaching. He just continued to chop wood bare-chested, displaying an insane amount of muscles, and scars the Hobbit would rather not imagine the origin of. The irons around his wrists were enough of a tip-off, but for now, Bilbo was much more worried about the iron in his hands. An axe, to be precise, the head as large as the Hobbit was high. Dwalin’s looked like toys in comparison.

 

This would need all his Baggins-properness and tookish charm, and a lot of pity.

 

`Oh, please, merciful Nienna, let this Beorn be partial to pity!´

 

“Er, good day. I’m Bilbo, and this is my good friend, Balin. We’re sorry to interrupt, but do you happen to be Mister Beorn, guardian of this beautiful land?” Bilbo asked, carefully avoiding any term that would imply servitude or lordship or anything up that alley. Good thing he had Balin along and not someone else. The other was perceptive, and the Hobbit doubted the customary dwarven introduction `at your service´ would go over well with Beorn.

 

“What do you want?”

 

That was probably as much of a greeting as he would get, and it had to be noted that especially Thorin and Dwalin – not Bifur, though. Khûzdul just was a very growly language to Bilbo’s ears – had tried to intimidate Bilbo with deep, growling words before, and it had never worked before, but this ... this made for one very intimated Hobbit, though not scared, and the difference was much bigger and confusing than Bilbo would have anticipated. The other spoke slow, and the Hobbit got the impression that the (much, much) larger man didn’t often have people around to have actual conversations with, but filed that away for later. Tharkûn had mentioned after all (if belatedly) that the skin-changer wasn’t used to visitors; he hadn’t said anything about him being an eremite, however, not counting the various animals now watching them.

 

“We need your help, please. Supplies, medicine, a place to rest. We would be most grateful for anything you could spare, though we have little to offer in return.”

 

Beorn sniffed, not the sort of arrogant thing certain in-law relatives of Bilbo had mastered, but more like, well, an animal would, probably. The Hobbit wondered if someone like Beorn would be more likely to be offended by the comparison or approve of it, but wasn’t anywhere near stupid enough to voice the thought.

 

“There are more of you.”

 

For a moment Bilbo considered lying as Tharkûn would have. The notion was, of course, instantly abandoned for that very same reason.

 

“We’re fifteen in total, three just past their majority, and most wounded worse than apparent. We were ambushed in the mountains, and lost most of our supplies.”

 

The hesitation in the next swing gave the Hobbit hope, but it was short-lived.

 

“Travelling these lands without knowing them is unwise, doing so with cubs even more so. I want no part in that.”

 

“Oh. I understand. Truth be told, in your place I wouldn’t want to get involved with this either. Eru knows I didn’t want to get involved long before we were hunted by Orcs and Goblins.”

 

“And Wargs.”

 

“Yes, thank you, Balin. Can’t forget about the Wargs,” Bilbo sighed. It wasn’t a trick, not really at least. Of course, there was a chance that making the other curious about their story would help to change his mind – it worked like a charm with faunts and certain Dwarrow after all – and, yes, he probably should put up more resistance, but telling a man easily four times his size and wielding an axe of appropriate dimensions to reconsider inviting trouble into his peaceful home? Certainly not. He liked his head where it was, thank you very much. Leaving empty handed was, however, not something Bilbo would do either.

 

“We will respect your wish, of course, Mister Beorn, but I saw flowers, and bees, and an herb-garden. Could you perhaps part with some honey and white sage, or something else to stave off infection?”

 

Instead of replying Beorn put down his axe and turned around to frown at them – actually at them, not at some point over their heads as most large folks were wont to do – which made Bilbo wonder just what the other might be seeing right now. The scratches and wounds were scrapped over, and the swellings and some of the bruises had started to fade, but others were only just coming into their colours, never mind the conditions of their clothes and their generally unwashed states. The splashing in cold streams had helped with the worst, but the lack of soap was visible, and very likely smell-able as well.

 

Now that he thought about it, Beorn had probably smelled them coming for miles already. So much for Tharkûn’s grand plan to sneak them in.

 

The way they were so intensely mustered was unsettling either way.

 

“You were hunted by Goblins and Orcs?”

 

And there was the curiosity Bilbo hadn’t dared to hope for, though covered by a lot of growling, but it was something the Hobbit could work with, something he could make work if pity failed.

 

“And Wargs, yes. An old family feud with the Orcs, though I don’t actually know what the Goblins want from us. Surely they aren’t that upset about you not staying to be their dinner or whatever meal they wanted to make of you.”

 

“Tharkûn killed their king,” Balin replied almost casually, but kept one eye always on the skin-changer, just in case. “And we probably laid waste to half their city in our escape. I assume they weren’t too happy with that either.”

 

Beorn made a rumbling noise, sounding more bear than man, but, though his frown deepened, he appeared thoughtful.

 

“Dwarrow and a Halfling,” he said and didn’t sound happy at all, but he had yet to actually make them leave.

 

“Hobbit, Mister Beorn. Bilbo certainly isn’t half of anything,” Balin corrected with a huff, and the Hobbit in question was happy to hear it, even if he didn’t believe this was a time. The large skin-changer, however, raised a bushy brow in what could have been a sign of impress on someone less intimidating.

 

“I don’t like Dwarrow,” the man continued, obviously choosing to ignore the correction. “They are greedy and blind to the lives of those they deem lesser than themselves ... but Orcs I hate more. Bring the others; I shall feed you and listen to your tale. Then I will decide.”

Chapter Text


 

For all his gruffness and initial rejection, Beorn was a most exceptional host in the best possible way. There were bread and honey, milk, butter, cheese, fruits and vegetables in various forms, and honey-cakes, and everything was delicious and plenty. Table, chairs, and benches were too high to allow for anyone, but Tharkûn to sit down with most of his dignity intact, but that was a small discomfort in comparison, and that the meal was served by dogs walking on their hind-legs and fluffy sheep balancing tablets on their backs definitely went on Bilbo’s list of odd happenings, but he couldn’t be arsed to care about the ranking. He just smiled kindly and thanked the animals every time they brought him something. It was only proper after all, independent of how much Beorn seemed to approve of the gesture.

 

When the skin-changer turned his back to them, he was quick to sign for Dwarrow to show some manners already. Bifur was the first to catch on, and dragged Bofur and Bombur along, as they had to explain the obviously confused dog that their cousin meant to thank it. The petting was maybe a bit too much, but Bilbo could completely understand the urge, and the animals didn’t seem to mind. It wasn’t as if Bifur was the only one. Kíli kept poking the sheep whenever he could tear his wide eyes away from everything around them, for Beorn’s home was filled with detailed carvings, and ornaments of a richness, and beauty one wouldn’t expect when seeing it from outside. Fíli was keeping his hands to himself, though it was clearly a hard fight, and Ori’s were twitching for something to write or draw or anything to record all of this.

 

The `adults´ meanwhile were busy pushing food around, though not because of any dislike but out of a general need to make sure the youngest and those most hurt would get their fill in case their host suddenly decided he didn’t want to hear their story after all. Thorin, of course, couldn’t protest being counted among the latter, Fíli and Kíli were too busy being amazed by the size of their host and everything around them to notice, and Nori and Ori had experience with being fussed over to say anything. That didn’t mean they didn’t take part as well, though.

 

Bilbo watched it for a while to make sure his Dwarrow didn’t forget to eat while fussing over each other – there was enough to feed them all and then some – but mostly he watched Beorn watching them. He wasn’t the only one of course, but it seemed as if he saw something the others either missed or didn’t know what to make of.

 

Their host was hovering; not the suspicious hovering one might expect under such circumstances, but the worried, caring kind of hovering; the same one pretty much everyone else here was displaying. His frown was almost exclusively directed at Tharkûn, whom he had to remind twice that there was a proper order to do things, namely food first and talking later. It raised the general opinion of the skin-changer dramatically and had the wizard sulking on his chair.

 

When everyone was well and truly sated, and the amusement about Bilbo being able to out-eat everyone had subsided, bandages and salves based on honey appeared. Nori, forever much more farsighted than Bilbo could hope to be, saw the problem arise long before the Hobbit, and bid him to ask Beorn about the herbs used. That way the Hobbit could point out how he recognised a smell from what his mother used or some other source before anyone could decline the offered medicine. He drew the skin-changer into a discussion, making sure Óin was close by. Their healer got the information he needed, their host was not insulted (Bilbo had the sneaking suspicion the larger knew what was going on and was amused by it), and Balin had a moment to give everyone an update on what they would be better off not mentioning. That they had managed to avoid anyone offering their service during the brief introductions had already been more luck than the advisor and Bilbo wished to rely on.

 

Altogether Bilbo was rather confident at that point that Beorn would let them stay at least for the night, especially going by the blankets and pillows he had seen the animals sneak in, and if they managed to keep Tharkûn from butting in, though that was comparably easy to archive. When they had all gathered around the fireplace Balin simply suggested that, as their leader, Thorin should tell their story, and if anyone had objections, they could always call out, nice and orderly if you please.

 

It really shouldn’t have come as such a surprise that Thorin was actually quite good at choosing what to emphasise and what to better leave out of his account. He was the king after all, and couldn’t spend all his time angry at the forge, leaving Balin and Lady Dís to handle politics. From the way Fíli and Kíli instantly got comfortable at his side and looked at their uncle with expecting eyes as if they hadn’t lived through it themselves, Thorin had to be a decent storyteller as well.

 

He was, actually, so much so that Bilbo at one point caught himself leaning forward enraptured. He didn’t think Thorin was aware of what he could do with his voice, just as he likely didn’t notice he was petting his nephews, who of course didn’t protest at all.

 

Thorin spoke briefly of the Stone Giants and why they had taken the pass, and completely glossed over the part where he and Bilbo would have almost strangled each other as well, as all conversation that had taken place in the cave in the Misty Mountains. He also tried to play down the part where he had revealed his identity to the Goblin-king to protect the Dwarflings from being tortured, but Dwalin didn’t let him get away with it, and Beorn rumpled approvingly before motioning for the Dwarf to continue. Not that there was much more to tell, or so Thorin wanted his listeners to believe. They had mostly just run and fought their way through the mountain, which had led to a standoff with the Goblin-king. Here Fíli and Kíli interrupted to give a description of said monarch that Bilbo thought exaggerated until he saw the disgruntled nods all around. It ended with Tharkûn slaying the monster, followed by a most painful tumble down a chasm.

 

“Don’t forget the bridge and the Goblin landing on half of us,” Nori groused from where he sat supported by giant pillows that prevent most movement. Not that Thorin and Bofur looked any better, but they didn’t have as much trouble sitting still as the thief. The conflict between the urge to move and the necessity of remaining still was not a pleasant one, to say the least.

 

“Should I also mention how you needed to be carried for half a day afterwards?” Thorin asked with a half-smirk, and Bilbo could hardly believe what he was seeing. He knew their leader was just an ordinary person like everyone else, and he had seen the Dwarf in more compromising situations than teasing Nori good-naturedly, but it still caught him by surprise. The thief, of course, was not surprised but extremely flustered.

 

“No such thing happened. I needed assistance for a moment or two, I’ll admit, but not more.”

 

“Try several hours, lad, and not just once,” Óin informed the ginger Dwarf unimpressed. “We are a stubborn people, true, with thick heads to match, but with how hard you hit yours, I’m amazed you only lost a few days.”

 

Days?!”

 

“Three days, give or take, between entering and leaving the caverns.”

 

Nori slumped, then groaned, and even more so when his brothers instantly reached for him in an attempt to help and accidentally brushed against his ribs. On the sidelines, Dwalin snorted.

 

“Not so tough after all, are you?”

 

“Shut it, Fundinul. I could have withstood their torturing for hours without uttering a sound if only to buy you time to escape, and I would have done it. Unless you can claim the same, you have no right to fault me for finding no pleasure in it.”

 

The reactions to this could have been manifold, but Beorn was faster.

 

“You are in pain,” he realised, in part confused and guilty, and thus interrupted what might have otherwise turned into a repetition of that one talk they’d had about dungeons in Rivendell. “I did not know the stone-born feel pain. You should have said.”

 

He left then for the general direction Bilbo assumed the kitchen in.

 

“And that is why it is a bad idea to let people believe Dwarrow are hemmed from stone,” the Hobbit stated into the resulting silence. It was unnecessary to say so out loud, but he felt better for doing it anyway.

 

“It’s not our fault most folks can’t distinguish our women from the men, blind fools that they are, and we have good reason to hide our young away.”

 

“That isn’t what I mean, Glóin, and you know it.”

 

“Just saying,” the Dwarf grunted as their host returned with a flask and mugs that looked ridiculously small in his hand, but were quite voluminous in Bilbo’s.

 

“Willow bark, strong. It seems I don’t know as much about Dwarrow as I thought.”

 

“That happens more often than one would assume, and we should have spoken up. Thank you,” the Hobbit replied and gently patted the large hand, before hobbling over to Óin. He had no trouble putting salves and soothing teas together, but narcotics he would leave to actually trained healers, thank you very much.

 

Nori was more than happy to take whatever was given to him without questions, which said a lot about how much he had come to trust Óin and in how much pain he truly was. Bofur was grateful, and Thorin and Fíli weren’t offered anything just yet, as it was too dangerous without knowing how strong the willow bark really was, and at least their leader wouldn’t have taken it anyway, still sore about having been tricked previously and preferring his mind clear besides. Everyone else also refused on the grounds of being grown Dwarrow and having been worse.

 

Once everyone was settled again, Thorin continued the tale, and since he had been present for that part, Bilbo was free to observe Beorn’s reactions again. The skin-changer had said he disliked Goblins and Orcs but seemed to harbour a special hatred for Azog. In fact, the Hobbit was willing to bet there was a personal grudge between them at least as serious as between Thorin and the pale Orc, and the large man’s hands twitched to the metal around his wrist whenever The Defiler was mentioned.

 

“That was very brave,” Beorn said when Thorin came to the part where he had confronted Azog alone and Bilbo had interfered to save the Dwarf, also alone, just before the eagles came and saved everyone.

 

“That wasn’t brave, it was stupid. Epically so. I’m amazed we survived.”

 

“I’m more amazed you survived alone in the mountain. No offence, Bilbo, but how did you do that, and how did you find your way out?” Balin asked, and he had a point, a good one, but that didn’t mean the Hobbit was anymore looking forward to reliving the experience than before. On the other hand, they were all together, and safe, and sooner or later they would make him tell his story. If he did it now, at least he would only have to do it this once, in an environment that had the least similarity with a dark and dank cave he could imagine.

 

“Well, the second question is easy enough to answer: I don’t have a clue. I just desperately wanted to get away from where I was, and back to you guys or into the light of the sun. I have to admit at that point I wasn’t picky about which. Now that I think about it, it was rather odd. My feet just knew where to go, I suppose, but you won’t catch me complaining.”

 

“Sounds like stone-sense to me,” Bofur laughed, not showing the slightest sign of discomfort although it had to upset his ribs quite a lot. The willow bark essence had to be really strong.

 

“Hobbits don’t have any stone-sense,” Bilbo scoffed. “We are known to have sharp instincts when it comes to soils and plants, I’ll give you that, and to be just on time for tea, but no sense for stone at all.”

 

“And when was a Hobbit last around good, solid stone long enough to be sure of that?”

 

Bilbo wanted to shoot him down, he really wanted – a Hobbit with stone-sense was just ridiculous – but the truth was that since the Wandering Days no Hobbit had to his knowledge spent notable time around mountains, never mind inside one, and most of their knowledge from that time and before had been lost. It was at least not impossible, and Bilbo was fast to admit that when Bofur suggested that another possibility was that the mountain had liked Bilbo and had wanted to help him. That ... that was too much for a simple Hobbit. Mountains (not even Stone Giants but actual mountains) with a will of their own? Just nope. Maybe as a philosophical exercise when there were more time and distance between him and the mountain in question, but not now, and certainly not as a serious contemplation.

 

“Be that as it may, that’s how I got out: running and trusting my feed to find the way. As to what else happened ... it’s not easy to speak about that; not a very pleasant experience, to say the least. Just ... just give me a moment,” the Hobbit requested, and took some steadying breaths, concentrating on the fire. Light, he had noticed within the first few moments of being out of the mountain, helped greatly to keep the fear at bay.

 

“So, uhm, to keep it short, when the Goblins ambushed us, you all caused such a commotion, they, well, they overlooked me.”

 

The statement is met with a heavy silence. Heavy with disbelieve, that is, and the Hobbit couldn’t fault anyone for it. Had someone told him the story, Bilbo wouldn’t have believed it either. Pity that he’d been there to live through it.

 

“I’m serious. I just ... ducked, and everyone went past me. I can’t believe that actually worked either, but it did. Anyway, I snuck after you – don’t give me that look. I know that wasn’t very smart, but I couldn’t just leave you to your fate, could I? – and managed to pick up some of your belongings. Truth be told, I wasn’t thinking very clearly that time, and I don’t know how long I followed you. It was altogether not a recommendable experience. I thought I lost you a few times, and then almost ran into some Goblin lacking behind. Then one suddenly jumped at me from the side, and, well, down we went into the dark. I couldn’t see the bottom from the top, and from the bottom, I couldn’t see the torches, but I was lucky, I guess. There were some really huge mushrooms that must have cushioned my fall, never mind the leathers and knitted things and sword lessons. Without that I would have surely ended up with much worse than bruises, so thank you all again for that.”

 

Bilbo broke up there, well aware that he was rambling and that it was worrying not a small number of his listeners. He was a better storyteller than that, much better, but never before had he needed to speak about something scary he had actually lived through. It made one wonder what the heroes of old had thought about their own deeds. Maybe Túrin Turambar had been sneaking through the night thinking `this is such a bad idea; I should have stayed at home´. The thought was only mildly amusing and not comforting at all, especially considering the end of that particular story.

 

“There was something down there,” the Hobbit finally said, calmer than he felt. “The creature ... it wasn’t like anything I’ve ever seen. Greyish skin, maybe my size, only thin, as in only-bones-with-skin thin, and the proportions were all wrong. Long limbs – it hobbled on all fours – big hands, even bigger eyes, and it made a coughing noise of the likes I’ve never heard before. Gollum. Gollum.”

 

He shuddered and didn’t look up to see if anyone else was as affected as he was.

 

“If I’d have to give it a name, that would be it, but I don’t dare. Some things shouldn’t be named. It ... it killed the Goblin that had fallen down with me and dragged it away. I figured it had to be living down there, so I followed it. I mean, I wouldn’t have wanted a dead Goblin laying around on my front porch either, so I thought it would bring it to the surface or something like that. It was better than blindly stumbling through the dark ... but instead, it went deeper down and into a large cave with a lake. Then it ate the Goblin, parts of it at least, complaining that there wasn’t much to it, but at least it wasn’t fish again. Naturally, I tried to get away from there, but it noticed and cornered me. I was lucky, though. I had my elven dagger, and my appearance obviously confused it greatly. `Walks on Goblin-paths, but not a Goblin´ it said. `Elf-ears and -pointy, but not an Elf either. Dwarf-braids, but it’s not a Dwarf. What is it? Can we eats it, my precious?´. Eru be my witness, never have I been gladder something didn’t know Hobbits. Its curiosity might just be what saved me, and I’m sure the creature was completely insane. It kept talking with itself, like a dialogue between two persons, arguing back and forth, but it was just one being. I tricked it into a game of riddles, and won through another trick. Mighty dishonourable of me, but considering neither of us ever intended to honour any promises in the first place ...”

 

It was not a Dwarf interrupting him there, though Bilbo didn’t need more than a look to know they all thought he had gone through worse than they had – needless to say, he thought otherwise. He would have at least been killed before any dismembering and eating would have taken place – and would likely attempt to cuddle him as he hadn’t been since he was a wee faunt (officially, as no self-respecting adult, least of all one called `thief´ as if it was a title, would admit that cuddling was a nightly, and much enjoyed occurrence). It was Beorn, with a large mug of mead, and an even larger, warm hand on his shoulder.

 

“Nothing will eat you here, little one.”

 

 “I ... thank you. That ... that is very reassuring, really.”

 

Beorn hummed deep, then straightened to slowly look from one to the other, before he nodded to himself.

 

“I have business to attend to. You may stay until I return under two conditions: do not harm my friends, and stay inside when it is dark outside.”

 

They promised, though bewildered at the sudden turn of events, and their host left before anyone could question him further.

 

“What promises exactly were you talking about?” Nori asked after a moment and groaned when Bilbo ducked with the instinct of one knowing they had done wrong.

 

“It promised to lead me out of the caves if I win, and if I lose, I had to let it eat me.”

 

“Bilbo!” Dori gasped scandalised, managing to fit an entire lecture about stupid and/or suicidal ideas in that single word, though it shouldn’t have been possible. He came over to check the Hobbit again as if there was still a reason to doubt that he had gotten out in one piece. It should have been annoying, but the smaller was glad about.

 

“It’s not as if I had much of a choice, and I won, so I have to insist that, in theory, it was a sound idea. It wouldn’t have been half as terrifying if the creature would have upheld its word. Predictably it didn’t, and I never intended to keep my word either, but I had to try. If it would have been an honourable competition, I would have been disqualified though. I cheated quite badly at the end, and ran the moment it was distracted.”

 

From his pillows, Nori groaned quite dramatically, and not at all because of his torso.

 

“Bilbo, melekûnuh, please, tell me you killed the creature. I know you don’t like that, and I understand, you know I do, but that right there is one of the things that will come back to haunt you one day. You know how out of hand a grudge can go, just look around you.”

 

Bilbo didn’t actually look around, which is why he missed several people looking decided guilty and just stared at his mead.

 

“I had the chance, but I couldn’t do it. It ... I imagined how long it must have been down there, how lonely that it started to speak with itself just to hear someone’s voice, and how out of hand it must have gotten that it also started to answer. I thought `that could have been me´. Not exactly like it,” the Hobbit corrected instantly and searched Nori’s eyes. “But if you wouldn’t have turned up at my door when you did that first time, I would have ended up just as lonely. Rounder, certainly, and I still would have had people to talk to, but lonely all the same. And technically it will hold a grudge against one Ben Burglahobbit of Harad. I’m confident it will have a hard time finding that guy. It really didn’t seem like a creature able to stand lots of sun and heat if you know what I mean.”

 

There was a collective sigh of relief that made Bilbo feel a bit insulted – really, he thought he had proven that he was smarter than just giving his name to whatever decided to put him on the menu – but it wasn’t worth getting worked up over.

 

“So with any luck that is at least one creature less we will need to worry about in the immediate future,” Thorin grunted. “We should sleep while we can. Who knows when our host will return, and in what mood.”

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, but we could all use the sleep, I agree,” the Hobbit recommended with a small smirk, and let Dori help him over to Nori. They may not be able to cuddle as they wanted to right now, but he needed to be at least close, and it made it easier for Kori’s eldest son to fuss over them both, and Ori was determined to hug all life out of the Hobbit.

 

“How can you be so sure?”

 

“Because,” Nori butted in with the widest, mischievous grin he had worn in days. “For all that he prefers his solitude, good Mister Beorn is like a really tall Hobbit. Or a mother bear, I suppose: fiercely protective, a nurturer at heart, and he is already starting to grow fond of us. The question is not if he will let us stay, but if he will let us leave.”

Chapter Text


 

There was a bee. On his face. There was a bee on his face, covering it entirely because it wasn’t just a bee, it was the fucking godmother queen of all giant things to ever be faced with, and Bilbo could only stare, and he would swear up and down it stared right back at him ... and then flew away.

 

Actually, it had been a bumblebee, not a bee, which was an important difference if one considered that bees stung and bumblebees bit, and Bilbo was prone to get uncomfortable swellings from stings, not bites, though both were literally a pain in the ass. It also didn’t change anything about the fuzzy thing had been the size of his entire face.

 

It was far too early for that kind of shit, the Hobbit decided, and turned around to sleep some more, only that all his bruises protest to movement, and even more so when he tensed and tried to roll back into the original position. It didn’t work, of course, because it never worked even if there weren’t any bruises and what not to consider. Like the Goblin-bite in his shoulder.

 

Bilbo forced one eye open then closed it again and fast. An epic battle unfolded in the back of his mind about what to make of bright sunlight through milky windows. Light was great, the best thing ever because it was the opposite of darkness, and there were things in the dark that riddled for other people’s lives, and then ate them regardless of the outcome, but light also meant getting up, leaving soft pillows and warm blankets, and move aching limbs ... and it meant breakfast.

 

Breakfast beat sleep every morning, and nothing helped against hurts like a good, proper meal. It was a very hobbity approach, but, damn it all, he was a Hobbit ... except he didn’t get that far.

 

The bumblebee had woken him, true enough, but it hadn’t flown away because of his stirring; rather it must have been the stirring and noises of the Dwarrow. At first, the Hobbit thought the groans and moans, tossing and turning had to do with them suffering as he did. Bilbo didn’t notice his mistake until the main source of the disruption, Thorin, was suddenly on his feet with a war-cry, and most Dwarrow followed.

 

In his defence, Bilbo had witnessed battle-dreams before, but Nori didn’t dream vividly. In fact, he became so silent and still, he seemed like dead, while the Hobbit was aware he himself leaned more towards little whimpers and silent crying. There had been times they had set each other off with their nightmares as well, which Bilbo could have gone without knowing, but almost the entire company at once? He also had never witnessed any shouting and weapons before, though maybe that had more to do with the separate rooms they all had had in Rivendell. Irmo knew he had had plenty of his own nightmares then.

 

His first impulse was to sooth, especially with how pained some seemed independent to their aggravated wounds; the second to reign in the first right away. It was simply too dangerous. With Nori, he knew he had to wait until his Dwarf was aware of where he was and with whom before he could approach him. Technically it was the same for Bilbo, except that the thief was much better at avoiding accidental attacks from him than the other way around. However, fourteen Dwarrow, armed and in various states of distress and wakefulness at once was something entirely else. In fact, Bilbo decided the best course of action would be to remove himself and let his friends sort themselves out in whatever manner worked best for them.

 

“I would wait a bit before going in there. They ... aren’t morning persons. At all,” he advised the sheep outside and refused to think about the knowing way the animals looked at him. They were far too intelligent, not just in their mannerism, and Bilbo entertained the thought that maybe all the animals here were secretly skin-changers. At least they weren’t simply ordinary animals, that much was clear.

 

“Well, that’s the story I will stick to it, and I’ll thank you kindly not to question it. Now, not to be a bother, but do you have some of those honey-cakes and chamomile left? Yes, I believe honey and camomile tea would do all of us a world of good right now.”

 

He got a `bah´ in return that was actually not very telling, but he followed the sheep anyway, and tried not to think about how preparing breakfast side by side with sheep, a pony, and dogs almost as large as he was even without standing on their hind legs, was not the strangest thing that had happened to him recently, never mind that the animals had already finished cooking but indulged him anyway.

 

They gave the Dwarrow half an hour and found them swarmed with the fluffiest rabbits, bunnies, and kits Bilbo had ever seen. He’d love to say his Dwarrow were cuddling said fluff-balls, but it seemed more like the other way around. All except for one, that was, though Nori had the decency to wait until Bilbo had put down his tablet before crushing him to his chest, which he really shouldn’t do with his ribs, but the Hobbit didn’t have the heart to protest either.

 

“You weren’t there.”

 

“I’m sorry, dear. I thought you had seen me. I’m fine, though, and I will stick around, don’t you worry,” he promised at the soft whine. The `next time´ he left unsaid, as they all should be well beyond pretending that it wouldn’t happen more often. It was probably only by chance and due to exhaustion, that no one had had obvious battle dreams since Rivendell.

 

“Sit and eat. That always helps.”

 

“Food doesn’t solve all problems,” the thief grumbled into messy curls, making the Hobbit chuckled.

 

“No, but it certainly is a good place to start.”

 

“Hobbits, and your oral fixation.”

 

Bilbo simply refused to rise to that, but Bofur, ever helpful, happily pointed out that Nori certainly had never complained about that before.

 

“If you’re into that sort of thing. Not everyone is. Not that I would know what you’re into ..., and I don’t actually want to know either. Forget I said anything,” the miner-turned-toymaker added, while carefully trying to dislodge two bunnies from his lap to get up and then help Thorin, who wasn’t just swarmed with bunnies; he was all but buried under what had to be every single kit this side of the Misty Mountains. With his ribs, which he had no doubt aggravated something bad earlier, he couldn’t move enough to get them off himself, not that he seemed to try very hard.

 

“Yes, thank you very much for clearing that up. Now, if assorted bunnies, rabbits, and kits could please leave off for a moment? I promise you can go back to Dwarrow-cuddling later, but first, they need some food and, talking about food, you lot better be grateful. I have it on good notion that cooking without opposable thumbs is very difficult.”

 

The rabbits and bunnies glared at Bilbo betrayed, but shuffled off with little huffs, collecting their kits on the way. It was entirely possible Thorin was as heartbroken about having to part with them as the kits were, and Bilbo stored the information back for later. Knowing their grumpy leader had a weakness for bunnies might come in handy at one point.

 

“What’s wrong with your thumbs?”

 

The Hobbit gave Fíli a very long, very hard glare until the young Dwarf made a small `oh´, and finally took his seat.

 

“I swear they are usually smarter than that,” the Hobbit mentioned conversationally to the sheep next to him. It was the fluffiest he had seen so far, with a blue bow around its neck, and seemed to be the one in charge, at least of the sheep. It gave him a `baa´ that sounded like the understanding sort of `I have some of those in my family as well´ before it nudged him towards the table.

 

Breakfast started as a rather solemn affair until Bilbo couldn’t stand watching Nori poke his food any longer, and asked what was bothering him. He received a rueful look in return and a mumbled reply. However, the one word he could understand had the smaller laugh hysterically.

 

“Seriously? You ... seriously? Orcs, and Wargs, and nightmares, and you are upset the damn tomatoes aren’t ripe yet. Ah, but, no, I shouldn’t laugh. Your taste for tomatoes is what brought you to my door time and again after all.”

 

“I didn’t come for the tomatoes or any treasures of the earth, save one,” was the soft reply, barely audible over the laughter of the others.

 

“I know,” Bilbo replied, and reached to squeeze the fingers peeking out of the bandage Óin had insisted on. Not that Nori would protest on any treatment that served to preserve his finest tools – his words, not Bilbo’s, though he couldn’t disagree that the Dwarf had very fine hands indeed.

 

”Oh, for fuck’s sake, take a room.”

 

“You realise the wording leaves you so wide open, it’s not even worth commenting on?” Ori of all people pointed out, much to Dori’s horror and Fíli’s amusement. In fact, the golden heir laughed so hard, he fell off his chair and Glóin took an interesting shade of red. For all that he bragged about his wife and children, and could out-swear the roughest sailors – Bilbo considered himself a fair judge when it came to swearing, considering he lived with Nori for years (part-time) – but the banker could be such a prude, it was downright ridiculous.

 

“Stop teasing and eat. I am determined to gain back what weight I lost, even if it takes all day, and I advise you to do the same.”

 

Bilbo set on to do just that. Dwarrow weren’t the only ones known for stubbornness, and a Hobbit set on eating their fill was not something to be trifled with, never mind that it was delicious. Of course, that had been the case the day before as well, but then it had been more about filling the ache and carving four days of lembas had left in his bones. Now it was about quality and quantity, and both were to be had in abundance.

 

When he finally looked up the Hobbit wasn’t surprised at all to see Nori grinning again and counting coins, while everyone else just stared at him flabbergasted. It took Bilbo a moment, but then he realised that the entire time food had always been close at hand, and gave his partner a stern glare.

 

“Dearest, if you took bets on my eating habits, I expect you to share.”

 

“Of course, my Hobbit, though halfway through two-thirds of this lot started to fear we have been starving you on the road. They wouldn’t believe me I would never let them, and since I’m technically not allowed to steal from members of the Company outside of life or death situations ...”

 

“Yes, I can see where you’re going,” Bilbo sighed, and threw a calculating look around. There were indeed tell-tale signs, classic in the way most at the table avoided looking at him and each other, hunched shoulders, wide eyes. Guilt, regret, horror ... if he were a crueller Hobbit, he would let them keep guessing, but Bilbo didn’t have it in him to even be vague about the whole matter on principle. And he liked them far too much for that besides.

 

“Okay, let’s be plain: I was at no point starving more than anyone else in this Company, probably even less considering I had lembas in my pack in the mountains. Yes, Hobbits eat up to seven meals a day if we can, but that is because we spread the amount you wolf down in one sitting into several smaller meals over the day. The overall amount is roughly the same I discovered; I thought you would have figured that out in Rivendell. We are, however, under exceptional circumstances able to eat a whole lot more in short time, and these are exceptional circumstances as far as I am concerned.”

 

Some of the Dwarrow relaxed at that, almost sheepishly, but not all.

 

“But all the Hobbits we saw were ...”

 

“Round?” Bilbo offered amused. “Of course we are. Farming is hard work and you be surprised how much of that roundness is actually muscles, but the Shire is good to us and gives plenty, and Hobbits know hardship. Not the way your people do, not for a century and a half at least, but we haven’t been without perils since the Wandering Days either. There was the Massacre of Greenfields, before that the Great Plague, and after that, the Long Winter, followed by the Days of Dearth. I heard more than half the Shire population died back then, though that was long before my time. However, that doesn’t mean we make light of the lessons learned. We eat more than we need when we have the means, preserve and store what will hold, and trade what won’t. It certainly served us well in Fell Winter, so I will eat plenty while there is plenty to be had, and build up reserves for lean times. You can’t tell me the extra pounds haven’t served you.”

 

“Extra pounds we had to carry,” Thorin pointed out, though not in complain. He just sounded very tired, so Bilbo refrained from mentioning how their leader had almost stabbed Dwalin for trying to steal a cookie from Thorin’s plate at Rivendell. Thorin, too, seemed to remember that or a similar occasion, and averted his eyes.

 

“The point is: we Hobbits aren’t strangers to hardship, and we are quite capable to deal with them, so I appreciate the concern, I really do, but in this at least it’s entirely unneeded. Now, does that answer all your concerns?”

 

“Aye, lad, that it does,” Balin finally said with a kind smile, petting a bunny that had obviously snuck back in while they were eating. “There is only a scholarly concern if you will indulge me. You mentioned this `Fell Winter´ a few times already, and I wonder what you mean by that.”

 

Bilbo crooked his head. He hadn’t considered that other people might have a different name for that time, and it was not something he would ever enjoy talking about, but maybe he should share the story. After all, he had become quite familiar with the perils of the Dwarrow, and it had helped him understand a lot about how they ticked. Sharing that part of his own story might help them understand him better as well.

 

“It’s what we call the winter 24 years ago. It set in early, ruined the winter crops, and ended late, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as Long Winter. We could have held out with our preserves, but the cold ... the Brandywine, our main defence if you will, froze over. That has never happened before in our history, short as it may be in the eyes of others, and with the cold came great white wolves, and they were hungry.”

 

He could have left it that. Truly, there was plenty of evidence that the Dwarrow could guess the rest by themselves well enough, but stop when it was most convenient or wise was not a practice upheld in this group. If it were, they would be in the Shire right now, probably on their way to check in on the renovations and expansion of Bag End.

 

“We suffered bitter losses between the cold, the wolves, and the flood in spring, and it took a very long time until I stopped waking up drenched in sweat, hearing them howl. Some even say there were Orcs in the North- and East-Farthings, but what really cost us was the sickness. I believe we lost more people to that than everything else. My father was one of them. My mother tried to hold on for me, but she, too, wasted away a year later. For a while, I tried to resent her for that, for the grief and trouble it brought me, but I came to realise my parents loved each other so much that her lingering at all is a testament to the love she had borne me as well. She couldn’t have known relatives from both sides would try to steal my home, but then Nori happened, so ... why are you all staring at me like that?”

 

“They are surprised I of all people prevent you from having your home stolen. Not that you ever told me, mind. I had to find it out by you yelling at the blasted wizard who once again draws attention by being absent,” the thief pointed out seriously. With everything that had happened, he had forgotten about that little detail, but since it was already on the table ...

 

“Because there was nothing to explain. I wasn’t of age, and my relatives didn’t believe I was old enough to live alone. Some wanted my home for themselves, yes, but most of them were actually well-meaning. Not that I appreciated it then either way, so I told them a family friend would be looking after me from time to time. I meant Tharkûn, as I didn’t know better, but instead, I had you throwing that door into Lobelia’s face. Fortunately, I had been so vague about the whole thing, it didn’t take much to make everyone believe I had been talking about you the whole time. I certainly was better off for it, and ... what? Oh, no, no, no, come on,” Bilbo groaned seeing the change in how he was looked at, and Dori `subtle´ trying to edge closer to no doubt unleash an unholy amount of mothering. “Not the pity.”

 

“Not pity, melekûnuh. The `old enough, but not of age´ part; you know how it gets people. And you should have told me! What if I had decided to stay away?”

 

“Oh, as if you haven’t been ogling my shapely ass from the moment I first opened my door! And you still made me wait three years, you damn tease,” the Hobbit complained, voice gaining in volume, and he kicked at Nori. Of course, he didn’t really finish the motion, didn’t want to, but the impulse was there.

 

“You told me yourself that you didn’t wait for me, and I never expected you to either! And who was teasing whom with what they shouldn’t want and couldn’t have?”

 

“But you could have! I offered! You and your cursed principles!”

 

“Weren’t so cursed when Primula was making doe eyes at Thorin, and you should be grateful I ... wait, why are we arguing?”

 

“I don’t know!” the Hobbit cried dismayed and hit his head on the table. Opposite of him Kíli carefully hid a roll in his tunic, ready to bolt any moment.

 

“If that is how relationships work, I’m rather glad not to have one.”

 

“If you go on like this, you won’t ever find out either.”

 

It could have been a joke, friendly teasing, except for the ice in the older brother’s voice. It melted away like the colour in Fíli’s face once he realised what he had said. Kíli gasped, then ran out of the house, the blond Dwarf following him but a moment later, shouting the younger’s name. Thorin tried to follow as well, as did many others, but due to his injuries it was even easier than usual for Dwalin to keep him in place, and his glare was enough to do the same with everyone else.

 

“Leave them be. Brothers argue, tempers flair; happens all the time. They need to work that one out themselves.”

 

“Wise words, nadadith.”

 

“Don’t you start as well, nadad.”

 

Balin smiled innocently and continued to pet his smug bunny. Dwalin growled before stomping off as well, though not out but deeper into the house. Confused Bilbo looked around.

 

“Okay, what just happened?” he asked no one in particular, then shook his head. “No, wait, don’t tell me. Something just went terribly wrong, and I’ll just ... yes, I’ll go and sit in the sun until I feel better or it grows dark; whatever happens first.”

Chapter Text


 

That his Hobbit was laying between high grass and flowers was not a surprise, and, given the size of the plants, neither that Nori only found him by following the smoke rings rising from an especially sunny spot. That Bilbo hadn’t fallen asleep already, that was a surprise – it had been two hours due to Óin’s treatment and the willow bark having left the thief in no state to have a serious conversation, so it wasn’t as if the Hobbit hadn’t had enough time – though also a relief. Beorn would likely not look too kindly on them burning down his garden, accident or not. Now, if only Nori knew of a way to sit down without aggravating his ribs.

 

“Stay right there. I’ll help you.”

 

“I’d love to object, but I’m Dwarf enough to admit it might be necessary,” the ginger Dwarf agreed as Bilbo got up and tried to find a way to get him to the ground. There was a lot of fumbling involved and no grace at all, but it (probably) involved a lot less pain and possible injury than if he had tried alone.

 

“I already dread getting up again.”

 

Bilbo plopped down, though not next to him but at his back. Nori didn’t like it, but it gave him something remotely soft to lean against, and they could hold hands, so he didn’t complain.

 

“I’ve been thinking the whole morning, and I still don’t know what went so terribly wrong.”

 

“Hate to say it, melekûnuh, but Dwalin has a point. Tempers flare; it happens. The lads may be adults by law, but lads all the same. I’m more surprised something like that hasn’t happened before, and after the whole thing with Azog ... yeah. Thorin better has a good explanation for that one. Now that I think about it, there is a whole lot of shit that needs explaining, and soon.”

 

“I tried to kick you, Nori!”

 

Personally, the thief hadn’t thought it such a big deal, but Bilbo sounded honestly upset, and that had Nori wishing they could do this face to face. That always made talking much easier.

 

“But you didn’t.”

 

“I wanted to. I was aiming for your ribs. I don’t ... I don’t do such things. I don’t want to do such things. How could everything just get so out of hand so fast?”

 

“Now, now. That was by far not our first argument, neither theirs, and ... well, I really don’t want to start a new one, but you should have told me you could have lost Bag End. I was trying so hard to stay away for both our sakes. If I’d known ...”

 

He trailed off, and Bilbo pressed his hand. How such a small gesture could convey regret Nori would never know, but he knew the other was sorry about it before the words were spoken.

 

“I should have mentioned it, you are right, but at first I didn’t actually expect you to keep coming back, and then I began to understand that when you saying you would try, it is worth more than a promise from anyone else. Well, and I was of age at that point, so it didn’t matter anymore. I figured I would spare us both grief by just not saying anything. That way you wouldn’t feel bad if you really couldn’t make it, and I didn’t need to feel guilty over trapping you and could pretend that I wasn’t waiting.”

 

“I never meant to hurt you.”

 

“Me neither, but it seems we are very good at unknowingly hurting each other by staying quiet with the best intentions.”

 

It was a moment of painful clarity Nori experienced then, hitting him like a war hammer. He could say it now, tell Bilbo about the silver spoon in his breast pocket, its implications, everything, and it would hurt his Hobbit, and Bilbo probably had more secrets that would hurt Nori as well because everyone had secrets, but they would find a way to work through it and come out stronger.

 

The thief didn’t believe in right moments (though there were plenty of wrong moments), but this, right here ...

 

“Bilbo, there is ...”

 

“I found a ring.”

 

And just like that the moment was gone, confessions dying in Nori’s throat as the fear of losing Bilbo – if not over the spoon, then something else – gained the upper hand again. They were on a quest with certain death waiting at the end after all, even if he sometimes caught himself thinking that maybe they could actually manage the impossible. Also, the way his curly-haired partner had said those four simple words it sounded much more serious than Nori’s greatest failing and insecurities.

 

“A ring?”

 

“In the Goblin-tunnels. It belonged to the creature, I think. It turns its wearer invisible. That’s how I escaped. I put on the ring, became invisible, and snuck past the guards.”

 

“A magic ring?! Oh, Bilbo ...”

 

“I know!” the smaller snapped, but then crawled around to face the ginger Dwarf when the larger started to pull on his arm. It was obvious he didn’t want to, but the alternative would have been that Nori would ignore his injuries and try to turn around himself.

 

Bilbo seemed hunted, pale all of the sudden, and twitchy. That was more than enough to chase all thoughts of ‘agalhaz sanâzyung and santhadulur from Nori’s mind.

 

“I know, Nori, I know magical things are always more trouble than they are worth and dangerous. You spoke often enough about it to caution me for life, and I meant to throw it away, but invisibility, Nori. That’s useful, and I didn’t notice anything wrong, and I wanted to tell you earlier, but things got in the way, and then last night ... I should have mentioned it then, but I just couldn’t, and even now it’s like a belt drawn too tight, a need to keep it secret. And the world when I’m invisible is so cold and colourless, and it scares me, but it still seems too practical to just get rid of it, and I don’t know what to do!”

 

The Hobbit was panting at the end of the little speech, unable to look the other in the eyes, and Nori thought on his words, long and hard, turning them this way and that in his mind. His hands, however, stayed with Bilbo’s, constant motion but always together, and if they both slipped signs with meaning into it, of trust and affection, promises of protection neither knew how to hold, that was entirely between them.

 

“We will tell the wizard when we see him next, no excuses. Magical rings that don’t want to be spoken about are definitely the business of wizards,” Nori finally decided, and for a moment it seemed as if Bilbo wanted to pull away and protest, but then visibly forced himself to relax and nod. “However, I believe for now we shouldn’t tell the others. Everyone is under enough stress already, and items of such power always bring discord.”

 

The Hobbit grunted in agreement.

 

“Makes me even more wary of the Arkenstone. Still got Silmaril written all over it, and we all know how that ended.”

 

Nori shuddered. Since Bilbo had brought it up in Bree, he had occasionally considered similar what-if-scenarios; trains of thought he hadn’t taken to anyone else yet. Maybe he should have a chat with his little brother (and possibly the wizard as well) about the lore regarding the fate of the Silmarils and the creation of Azsâlulabad – the mountain, that is, not the kingdom – just for curiosities sake, of course, but first ...

 

“Blood and tears, yes, and, while I do like your singing, I’m not sure it will be enough to sing us all back to life.”

 

“Don’t even joke about it! So we won’t tell anyone but Tharkûn about the ring, and stay alive. We will need to talk about the road ahead as well.”

 

“Indeed, but, Bilbo, promise you won’t use the ring unless there is no other choice. In fact, I’d prefer you don’t even touch it. Many a poison enters through the skin, and magic is so much worse. I’d rather you not take any chances.”

 

It was a desperate plea, he knew that well enough. If his past experience with magical objects was anything to go by, the ring might work to create a situation for Bilbo to have to use it. The thief had never bothered to find out how such things were possible, firm in his opinion to just stay away from magical things, especially those of unknown or untrustworthy origin ... but Bilbo was the one who would literally go down into the Dragon’s lair – in theory. The last word hadn’t yet been spoken on that front – and a ring of invisibility sounded indeed very useful for such an occasion. Not that it would protect his Hobbit from fire or teeth, but it might just make the difference between escaping, and ending up as a snack.

 

It was worth a thought, and Nori still bemoaned that it wasn’t an object of a less potentially use. Not that he wished the Boots of Eternal Dancing on anyone – he hadn’t made up that name, nor personally known the lass stupid enough to put them on, but he knew they had to cut off her feet to make her stop dancing – but he would have had fewer qualms about burning a Box of Everlasting Cheer. Bofur and Kíli had that covered most days anyway, but a Ring of Invisibility ... Bilbo was right. That was indeed too useful to discard without at least weighing the danger against the use.

 

“I’ll take some spare cloth and make a bag or something. It’s at least better than nothing, and ... I know it’s random, but are you feeling up for a little walk? I should be dead tired, but I can’t seem to shake the restlessness.”

 

Nori couldn’t suppress a chuckle. He knew he was being distracted, and knew that he should at least put up some resistance, but it would just be repetitions of things Bilbo already knew. Right now they could only wait until they could talk to Tharkûn.

 

“It’s only natural after so long on the road. Don’t tell me you never noticed it in me.”

 

“Honestly, I thought that was just part of you are in general.”

 

“Yes, that too,” the thief laughed, and carefully they worked him back onto his feet.

 

It was not unlike strolling through the Shire. There was, of course, a notable lack of winding paths and Hobbits all around, but Beorn’s garden still was beautiful. Grass and flowers, greens, vegetable and herb patches, and fruit groves. Some buildings stood around as well – stables, barns, and a small mill – all very rustic, but in good condition, and the beehives ... well, they were proportional, as Bilbo claimed the insects were the size of his face, and even from the distance, Nori was inclined to believe him. It certainly would explain the abundance of honey.

 

“Do you suppose they are skin-changers as well,” the thief wondered out loud when he noticed that the many different animals around here didn’t just manage the house – that one had already been unbelievable on its own – but indeed the whole property, or what strategically placed hedges and fences marked as obviously claimed by Beorn. It was a larger area than it had appeared to be when they arrived, but they might have been a bit too occupied with other matters to notice.

 

“If they are, I don’t think they want to be human,” the Hobbit replied carefully. “Beorn ... did you notice how he has to search for words, aborts gestures, growls all the time?”

 

“I was a bit distracted by his size, but now that you mention it, it didn’t seem as if he had much reason to use words in recent time.”

 

Briefly, Nori entertained the thought that maybe all the animals here were indeed skin-changers and Beorn, as the doubtlessly largest and most dangerous of them, was the only one remotely comfortable in his human-skin or something like their elected spokesman. Or Beorn was simply the only skin-changer and had surrounded himself with unusually intelligent animals.

 

“In the end, it’s none of our concern. Live and let live, aye?”

 

“True enough. As long as they don’t kick us out, I couldn’t care less” Bilbo agreed, but then backpedalled. “Well, except for the tragic story that obviously is the reason for all this. I’m sorry about that, but it’s not as if we could change it, and I’m against butting in where we aren’t wanted.”

 

Nori made an agreeing noise and then distracted his Hobbit with a question about the flowers. Considering they were still and against better judgement on a quest with a Dragon at its end, and had only very recently almost died without even so much as seeing the mountain in question, pointing out that they couldn’t save everyone seemed bad taste. That not everyone with a lifestyle they couldn’t quite imagine for themselves wanted or needed to be saved, was an entirely different mineshaft.

 

They reached the other side of the cottage, and would have gone further if it weren’t for several somethings in their path; said somethings being his fellow Dwarrow.

 

“Already wondered where you had gone off, too. Care to join us?” Bofur asked happily, pulling back his hat as it tried to hop away over the grass. Its usual place was taken by a grey bunny, another in the Dwarf’s lap was staring up at him adoringly.

 

Nori, for his part, was too stunned to say anything, but happily deferred to Bilbo in this matter.

 

“What by Yavanna’s Evergreen Pastures is going on here?”

 

“Oh, well, we were informed that, in absence of the good Mister Beorn, Miss Bluebell is in charge,” the miner laughed, and pointed at the sheep with the blue bow Thorin was leaning against. Said sheep nodded her head regally while the king was completely distracted petting the many colourful kits in his arms with a soft smile he usually reserved for his sister-sons when he thought no one was looking.

 

It was an odd thing to know about one’s king, and a bit disturbing as well considering rabbit stew had so far been an almost nightly occurrence. Then again, they all had made sacrifices in the name of survival. Eating something one was emotionally attached to was common enough, and sometimes ...

 

It was best to abandon that train of thought straight away, so Nori just motioned Bofur to continue.

 

“Yes, well, she and her ... do forgive me, Miss, was it sister or daughter?”

 

The second sheep, a pink bow around her neck and currently supporting Bofur, bleated, and the Dwarf nodded sagely.

 

“Of course. So Miss Bluebell and her daughter, Miss Rosehip, insisted that medicine is all good and well, but relaxing in the sun is just as necessary to heal. Hence our relocation. They were also so kind and offered support for Thorin and myself as well,” he continued to explain, and Nori had half a mind to declare him a lost cause. The miner turned toy-maker must have finally gone mad ... and why was Bilbo nodding along in earnest?

 

“It’s a well-known and applied remedy in the Shire as well. Sun, rest, and plenty to eat. And good company, of course. I assume that’s what the bunnies are here for?”

 

“Ah, no, not quite. Of course, the little fur-balls are great to have around, but there has been some misunderstanding about the nature of our beards. Dwalin has been trying to explain it to the General for a good half hour already, but ... to be honest, I lack the courage to ask how it’s going.”

 

Following the pointing finger, Nori indeed found Dwalin sitting in front of a rabbit with thick brown fur and scars to match the Dwarf. It sat upright and looked down with a serious and attentive expression as far as rabbits went. Down, since their current arrangement meant The General was actually a good deal larger than the seated Dwarf in question. In comparison, Balin sitting against his brother’s back, and trying to distribute his attention between the three rabbits hopping around him, and a fourth pawing his beard was entertaining, but not nearly enough of a distraction.

 

The thief rubbed his eyes, but nothing changed. Dwalin still sat in front of a rabbit that sitting up was about as tall as Bilbo standing, and petting a smallish bunny the colour of sand that was hanging over his shoulder.

 

“Is that ...?”

 

“The General, yes. A veteran, or so I’m told, who successfully fought off a Warg on his own. Not a bad track record for a bunny.”

 

There was a chance that Bofur was making all this up on the spot, but Nori wasn’t certain, so he decided it would be for the best to ignore all questions of possibility vs. probability and focus on the truly important things.

 

“Please tell me Ori is sketching that.”

 

“A goose was so kind to donate some feathers for the noble cause of preserving this for the future. Ori was muttering about blackmail, though. Dori wants to have words with you about that.”

 

Nori indeed spotted Ori in the shade of a tree, sketching in his journal with two black bunnies, one under each arm, watching him attentively. Dori sat close by and had an especially woolly bunny on his lap that appeared even from the distance extremely pleased. Next to him, Bifur was sharing a leafy meal with two brown bunnies with short fur, and they, too, seemed very content with the arrangement. All three of them.

 

Nori wasn’t sure if he should be proud of his little brother or wary of the older one, but that was probably the point where bruised ribs came in handy. Dori would scold, and all the thief would have to do was look slightly pained, maybe winze once or twice, and then submit to the inevitable mothering. There were worse fates.

 

While he was already counting heads: Óin was continuously trying to dislodge the two bunnies begging for his attention. He was rather unsuccessful as the healer got distracted petting the animals time and again, and Glóin was perfectly content snoring away in the sun with a reddish bunny making a nest of his beard. That would be a bitch to comb out later, and Nori was glad it wasn’t him. Bombur, for his part, was in a similar position as the banker, which left them short of two princes.

 

“Right. Why do I even bother? The lads?”

 

“Haven’t returned yet, but Miss Clover – that would be Miss Bluebell’s younger daughter. You can easily recognise her by the green bow – is following them, and we have been assured that she is a force to be reckoned with, so it’s unlikely they will get into any trouble.”

 

“Okay. How ... on second thought, no. I don’t want to know,” Bilbo deadpanned, and then asked if they intended to stay here the whole day.

 

“That was the plan, yes. Do you object? Sunlight, flowers, trees, grass-covered hills; this looks pretty much like the Shire in a backyard.”

 

“Of course I’m not going to object,” Bilbo huffed as if he had never heard a greater insult. “In fact, I’m going to soak up this everything, and nothing will stop me from doing so ... well, except maybe a hot bath. Honestly, I feel as if I have half Middle-earth on my skin. I would kill for hot water and soap.”

 

As if the words had conjured him, Kíli stormed around a corner with the most maniac grin that had ever graced the face of a young, energetic lad.

 

“Hot springs,” he breathed, and independent of their various injuries a dozen Dwarrow shouldn’t have been able to move as fast as they did now. Seriously, Nori was convinced it wasn’t actually physically possible, and considering that his craft often entailed bending and moving in unorthodox ways, that had to mean something.

 

“Did he say ...?”

 

“Aye. Want to wait until they are out?”

 

“Did you miss the part where I said I would kill for a hot bath?” his Hobbit asked back but didn’t storm away either. The commotion had upset the bunnies and sheep, and Bilbo apologised and offered gratitude to everyone for being so accommodating, readily agreeing that those Dwarrow were quite rude, but also arguing that their last proper bath had been weeks ago, and this would be a service to everyone. The General still didn’t seem very happy, but huffed, and that was probably as much of an acceptance as they were going to get.

 

Strange times indeed that the approval of a giant bunny counted for something.

 

A moment later Bofur came shuffling back, apologised as well, and then helped get the kits off Thorin and their leader off the ground. Not that he was of much help considering the state of his own ribs, but it was the thought that counted. Then they, too, were off towards the promised hot springs, Bilbo and Nori following at a leisure pace.

Chapter Text


 

“This is heavenly. Why don’t we have that in the Shire?”

 

“Lay of the land, lad. You need stone, pressure, and water reservoirs deep down in the earth,” Bofur said and sunk deeper into the water. One could say a lot about their currently absent host, but he knew how to make the best of a hot spring. The basin would be large even for Beorn, and thus was just right for 13 Dwarrow and a Hobbit, and the hut around the basin kept the warmth and water vapour in. It reminded Nori of the bathhouses he had seen in Rhûn. They heated the water with large fires where they had no hot springs, and in some areas, they sat in only hot steam. The people there often mixed herbs and salts into the water, some that made breathing easier or `enhanced the communication with the spiritual world´. The thief would rather say it made people high as mountains. Fun times either way, and Miss Bluebell had obviously heard about it as well. Not the `fun´ herbs, but the ones easing breathing, pain, and bruises, or so Óin and Bilbo had claimed. The healer also insisted that Thorin and Fíli should be fine, but that didn’t stop everyone from keeping a close eye on them. Wouldn’t do to end up as a footnote in history books stating the quest failed because their king and his heir drowned taking a much-needed bath, leaving the spare too distraught to go on.

 

On that note: poor Kíli, always called `the spare´. Not a kind title, though he had heard the lad shrug it off before, saying it was the truth, and that he really wouldn’t make a good king. Fíli had argued it, of course, as Morgoth’s Spawns were always fiercest when defending each other, but ... well, the princes always joined in when someone drank to Thorin’s and Dís’ health and longevity, and certainly not just because they were family.

 

Indâd, didn’t you tell us there are hot springs in Azsâlulabad? Do you think they still work?”

 

Nori perked up. He had heard a lot about Azsâlulabad over the years and from various sources, but that one was new, though it was difficult to care with his Hobbit massaging his scalp so expertly the thief had to concentrate on not growling – and it was growling, no matter how often Bilbo insisted it sounded more like purring – as Kíli did under Fíli’s similar ministration.

 

At least the lads had reconciled, obviously. Whatever the true reason for their argument had been, if they would have decided to indulge their stubbornness or hold a grudge, the next few days (or years, depending on how strong that particular Durin trait ran in the lads) would have become trying.

 

“Maybe. Depends on the pipes and the overall damage, I suppose,” Thorin rumbled with a small smile. He seemed half asleep already from warmth and exhaustion. “The royal chambers had private baths, but ‘amad took us to the hot springs a few times. I don’t remember much else, though.”

 

“Sounds like you don’t have many hot springs in Gabilgatholnur,” Bilbo wondered.

 

“Only a few, private property. Damn expensive, too. Never been to one before,” Bofur pointed out, and Bifur grumbled something about thieves and cut-throats, at which his cousin only laughed.

 

“Aye, well, we’ll have gold aplenty to spare when this is done. I dare say that won’t be a problem anymore then.”

 

“Pay? Now, ‘adad always told us in Azsâlulabad the hot springs were available for everyone. For free,” Glóin contested, and Nori wisely refrained from saying anything. For one, he didn’t have a clue how it had been done in Azsâlulabad before the Dragon, and secondly, he doubted anyone would care much about how he used to steal from said cut-throats running the baths in Gabilgatholnur. And he may or may not have been involved in a rather big soap accident as well, but, in his defence, he had been young then, and hadn’t realised that in the end the loss would be rolled off onto those least deserving it until after the deed was done. Also, Thorin put down that it didn’t matter how it had been because once he was king he would make the hot springs free for everyone to enter as they pleased, end of debate.

 

That was a more practical application of optimism and actual planning for the unlikely case that they survived the quest than Nori could deal with on a regular day, but he was warm, clean, and safe, and possibly a little bit drugged. Maybe the herbs Miss Bluebell had used were of the `fun´ kind after all, but he could allow unreasonable optimism right now in either case.

 

“You should let me cut your hair, just a bit. These tangles will turn me grey early.”

 

“No. You should let yours grow.”

 

“Gladly,” Bilbo countered and sounded quite serious. That was a surprise, and Nori had no qualms saying as much.

 

“Seriously? What happened to `not proper´ and `I’ll be the laughing stock of the entire Shire´?”

 

“The Shire is far away, and those braids might have actually saved my life a time or two by now. I’m not even kidding. Under those circumstances, I can stand to look ridiculous until it grows long enough for proper braids,” the Hobbit replied calmly, lightly tugging on Nori’s hair. “Also, don’t think I haven’t noticed how you liked seeing me with them.”

 

“... Maybe,” the thief admitted reluctantly and played with the thought to fully submerge in order to avoid further questioning in that direction, but then decided against it. He didn’t want to risk Bilbo stopping his tender ministrations.

 

“Though so. Now hold still or I will seriously consider scissors.”

 

“You know, after 15 years that threat has become rather stale.”

 

The Dwarf didn’t need to see his smaller partner to know he was on the receiving end of his `you’re not funny´ glare.

 

“Freckles.”

 

“You love them, don’t deny it.”

 

“Sure do; especially your reaction is hilarious.”

 

“Okay,” Kíli burst out, and Nori had to admit that for a moment he had forgotten he wasn’t alone with his Hobbit in the nice big tube in Bag End. “I know I’m going to regret asking, but I have to know: what’s that about freckles all the time?”

 

Bilbo levelled the lad a long, painfully neutral look, then shrugged, but surely he wouldn’t ...

 

“Connecting the dots. My favourite pastime.”

 

He would, obviously. Well, there went the last bit of Nori’s reputation. At least Kíli was one of the slow ones, but eventually, he gave them a nice, horrified reaction to observe.

 

“... ALL OF THEM?”

 

“Kíli! Don’t ask questions I don’t want to hear the answer to,” Fíli whined, much to the amusement of everyone until they realised that the bunnies had stolen all their clothes (except, of course, Bofur’s hat that was still on the miner’s head, though it had received a good wash along with the Dwarf). At least they had left them some large towels and blankets, so it was generally assumed that the balls of fluff had decided their clothes needed to be cleaned as well.

 

They weren’t wrong, and while not body shy, relaxed from the bath and wrapped only in huge blankets made for a rather subdued group huddled in the main building around the fireplace. As so often when they had time to spare, hair care stood very high on the list of pastimes after an early dinner, especially as they found out that the oils the animals used on their fur were just as suited for hair and helped with the tangles.

 

“I did wonder how you make it shine so nicely,” Bilbo commented, which made assorted animals preen and willing to share. The thief believed to recognise the smaller’s indulgent way he also used with faunts hatching out especially hare-brained ideas, but it might have just as well been surprise. He didn’t care much either way, too busy trying to convince his ribs to stop hurting long enough for him to lift his arms and put at least a few braids into Bilbo’s hair. Would it be a new low in this not-relationship? Sure. Would it give him more reason to wallow in misery later? Certainly. Would he regret it? Definitely not if only his damn ribs would cooperate already, and that Bilbo kept complaining that they should just wait a few more days, didn’t help either.

 

“Oh, for pity’s sake, I can’t watch this,” Dori complained suddenly, and carefully but insistently pushed Nori aside to take over braiding. In that he was also careful and as economic as he was with everything, and that right there was highly unfair on Nori’s general condition. His older brother, head of their House (as much as three penniless brothers could be called a House) was braiding the hair of Nori’s ... well, Nori’s Bilbo.

 

The thief couldn’t say if it was fortunate or rather a pity that said Hobbit wasn’t quite aware of the symbolic meaning and that for some reason nobody saw reason to comment on it, but it was doing things to Nori’s chest and belly that had nothing to do with his cracked ribs.

 

Of course, Nori had a name for that particular feeling. He wasn’t that clueless, and if he wouldn’t be such a coward ... if it wouldn’t be for the damn spoon!

 

“Oh, that already feels pretty. Thank you, Dori. Now I absolutely need to find a mirror.”

 

“Dori,” the middle brother tried once the Hobbit skipped – he shouldn’t be skipping, damn it. What about his ankle? – away, but the other waved him off.

 

“I won’t speak of it, nadadith, but if nothing else let me do at least this for you. I love you, and I hate to see you suffer.”

 

Nori crumbled like shortbread, and it was such a ridiculous, hobbity compare, he might as well choke on it and the tears when Dori pulled their foreheads together. He would blame the willow bark if he had to, even though he hadn’t taken any since this morning.

 

“I don’t know what I’m doing anymore,” the thief admitted, barely above a whisper, and it was one of the most painful truths he had ever spoken.

 

“You were always the smartest of us. You will figure it out.”

 

“You confuse something, nadad. Ori is the smart one, you are the strong one. Me? I’m the shifty one at best.”

 

“Ori is book-smart, but out here books won’t get us far. You, on the other hand, you know how to survive out here. You are smart in your own way, and you were right all along. I was just too stubborn to admit it.”

 

It was a rather undignified noise that escaped the thief then, and it didn’t come as much a surprise that soon he had Ori carefully folded against his back, not asking what was going on, but sensitive to their distress all the same. Bilbo, for his part, made an inquiring noise when he returned, but didn’t voice any question either. He just found his way into Nori’s lap and started to comment on how his hair didn’t look half as ridiculous as he would have thought.

 

“Not that there is anything wrong with braids on a Dwarf, of course. You all make it look rather fetching, but for Hobbits? Not really our cup of tea if you know what I mean, but I might just get used to it.”

 

“When it comes undone, I’ll fix it until this idiot can lift his arms again.”

 

“I’d appreciate that, thank you.”

 

“Oh, that looks comfortable,” Kíli piped in and dragged Fíli down to cuddle against Ori, as neither brother was quite brave enough to try it with Dori or Nori.

 

“It’s called a cuddle pile; a favourite remedy of Hobbits against pretty much everything ... except flees, actually, and lice, but I’ll assume for your sake you don’t have them,” Bilbo explained, far more serious that one would have expected from the words alone, and the ginger Dwarf couldn’t help but point out that their favourite remedy was actually food and more food, with a side dish of drinks and pipe-weed.

 

“Well, yes, that too, but cuddling is still high in favour.”

 

“You are very open with that,” Dwalin quirked, and the thief was not entirely sure if the guard was merely curious or out for trouble, so he tightened his hold just in case, but Bilbo just grinned back with cheek.

 

“And you only notice that now? Why shouldn’t I be open with my affections? Also, it’s not as if you have to even ask to join in. Move your hairy ass over here and pick a spot; just be mindful of the injuries.”

 

“Nay, I’m good where I am,” Dwalin deadpanned, and Nori was maybe a bit jealous about how he could pull that off without appearing as if he was chickening out. Nori could do that, too, mind, but the Hound made it look easy.

 

Still, if Dwalin was as relaxed about the whole thing as he seemed, where was this tension in the air coming from?

 

A brief look around, and there was Thorin, broodingly staring at them. He had half a mind to suggest they call back the bunnies but hadn’t yet decided if it would be kind or cruel. Once they were away from Beorn’s lands again, chances were high they’d have rabbit stew every second day if not more often. Right now – with Bilbo cuddly and pliant in his arms, and his brothers at his sides, all of them gorged on bread, honey, and fruit preserves – he couldn’t imagine himself ever eating rabbit or mutton again, might even agree to swear off meat forever, but he knew he wouldn’t stick to it, and not just because he happened to like the flavour. Hunger was a terrible force that he had felt often enough to not underestimate it, though fortunately the worst of that he only knew from tales; dark tales when the fire burned low and made it hard to distinguish expressions or look anyone in the eye.

 

Considering this, Thorin and his limited patience were very good to have around right now, and there it was already, that pointed clearing of a throat. Great. So the big one had something he wanted to talk about, and going by the way Bilbo tensed in his arms the thief had an irking just what was on Thorin’s mind.

 

Distractions were one thing, but they were in towels, damn it all; warm, and bathed, and stuffed with food. That limited the possibilities greatly.

 

“Can’t we just pretend he isn’t there?”

 

“Dear, you know as well as I do that we’ve been avoiding that particular talk for far longer than is in any way or form excusable. We talk today and have better chances to survive tomorrow. Your words, dear, and I believe it applies better now than when you didn’t want to meet with my aunts.”

 

To be fair, back then he had only said it because the Baggins side of Bilbo’s family was scary as fuck. The Tooks, too, actually, but they were more the type of scary the thief was used to deal with. Maybe he should reconsider his opinion on the different Hobbit-families or not define it to begin with. It was a miracle he hadn’t yet been asked about it in more detail.

 

“I was actually complaining the effort it takes to get up,” Nori lied, though there was a truth in it. It was rather painful to get up and sit down again, but he also rather didn’t talk about the things laying ahead, even if he knew that Bilbo was right, and he would only continue to turn in circles in his head if they didn’t get it out of the way already.

 

“Nori, what is going on now?”

 

“Don’t worry, nadad. We’ll tell it all later; just let us get the facts straight first, yeah? Now, comfy as this is, move it and help me up.”

 

Dori wasn’t convinced, of course he wasn’t, but shooed the younger ones away, helped Bilbo up, and the less said about the awkward struggle to get Nori to his feet without causing him pain the better; never mind the fact that they were all still covered with only towels, independent of their actual size. There were two different offers of everyone else relocating, and one from Thorin to actually just forget about it, but neither was a solution. Sooner or later the thief would have to move anyway.

 

In the end, it was Ori who just pulled him up. It hurt a lot, but only for a moment, and the thief swallowed every noise of pain while making a mental note to not sit on the ground again anytime soon.

 

They retreated to the big dinner table, Thorin, Bilbo, and Nori, and arranged Bilbo’s maps of the lands between Malasulabbad and Azsâlulabad between them. Arguing that if they were doing this they might as well do it right, the Hobbit also brought the chess pieces of Beorn’s set and a big pot of tea. The Dwarrow didn’t argue with him, especially as Bilbo was the only one of them able to move around freely. Everyone else, for what was worth it, kept their distance and only threw them occasional glances, biding their time until the three of them had gotten their stories straight.

 

Long story short: Thorin took the news a whole lot better than Nori, which was wrong on so many levels, but the thief was a bit too agitated to worry about that on top of everything else as well.

 

“He said what?!”

 

“Now, dear, it’s not ...”

 

“Bilbo Baggins, don’t you dare tell me it’s not as bad as it sounds! How can the return of Sauron not be as bad as it sounds?”

 

Shouting that out loud had not been smart nor intentional, but if that wasn’t a good reason to lose one’s composure, nothing was.

 

“Run that by me again, lad. My ears are acting up again; I could have sworn you said something about Sauron returning,” Óin shouted from the other side of the room, and if anyone had missed Nori’s words, they couldn’t have possibly overheard the healer. Maker, the Goblins back at High Pass must have heard him!

 

“Well, so much for breaking it to them carefully. Gather around everyone, I’ll get more tea,” the Hobbit groaned, and Nori hated him a little bit for being able to flee the unavoidable while he was stuck. Also, Thorin glaring at the white queen, then smirking, then glaring again, was only amusing for so long.

 

Their directionally challenged leader had already placed the white king, a white runner, and a white pawn (there would be bruised egos over not everyone getting their own figure, no doubt) with surprising accuracy on where they agreed Beorn’s homestead was most likely situated. The white horse (Tharkûn) was standing a bit to the side, and Nori had snuck a few white pawns to where he knew settlements might still be inhabited in the nearer vicinity between them and their goal. Certain he was only about a shabby city built on the Great Lake in line with the Lonely Mountain, fittingly called `Lake-Town´ by the poor sods living out there, some of them descendants of the people of Dale or so he had heard. For the sake of covering all options, they also had included Thranduil and his Elves, represented by the white queen and two more white pawns (hence Thorin’s conflicted response) where the Forest River left the woods.

 

This was going to be so much fun.

Chapter Text


 

Strangely enough, breaking bad news to people one even remotely cared about caused similar reactions no matter who was involved or what it was about. It was almost entertaining except for the part where Nori was one of those who had to relay said bad news.

 

They exchanged glances, Thorin, Bilbo, and Nori, that could easily be summarised as `Why me? You do it´, `Mâhal, no! You do it´, and Bilbo heaved an `oh, for fuck’s sake´ sigh and began pointing out the chess figures already on the map.

 

“This is where we are right now, Thorin, me, and you guys.”

 

“Hey, why do we get thrown together as a single pawn?”

 

Nori had known that question would arise, but since he had forgone pointing it out when they had first placed the figures, he sadly couldn’t say `I told you so´. Instead, he just pointed out instead that Thorin was their king and leader, and Bilbo deserved a figure of his own because he would be the one who would go alone into the mountain first (which was still open to debate where Nori was concerned). That explanation was for some reason better accepted than just pointing out that, as a Hobbit, Bilbo couldn’t be pooled with the Dwarrow.

 

“Right. Over there is Tharkûn, and I forbid any and all discussions about why Thranduil is the white queen, is that understood?”

 

To their credit, no one took the challenge, though it must have cost a few people parts of their tongue.

 

“Why do the Elves get more white pawns than we?”

 

“Because they definitely outnumber us, and personal feelings aside, they aren’t our enemies. We should at least keep in mind that they are there, be it to avoid them or to seek them out should we find us in the kind of worst case scenario where it’s either their aid or our deaths.”

 

“So certain death either way,” Dwalin grumbled, and Nori couldn’t blame him. Neither of them had been born when the Dragon came and the Elves betrayed them, but there was something he believed Bilbo once called the `collective memory of a people´. Every Dwarf felt that betrayal, just like every Hobbit (old enough to know the truth) would become rather touchy about topics like the Massacre of Greenfields or Fell Winter. They didn’t need to have been there to feel with those who had.

 

“Don’t make me get my pan,” Bilbo snapped at that. “I mean it. You hold no love for those Elves, and that’s perfectly fine with me, but you remember Lindir, right? There might be someone like that among Thranduil’s court as well. You can’t hate an entire race for the failings of one person, even if that person happens to be one of their kings. It’s not practical nor healthy. Either way, we would be fools to completely ignore their presence, especially as there is much worse than Elves ahead of us.”

 

Strange times; not even half an hour ago Nori had thought Smaug was actually their biggest problem. Of course, he had been aware that the chances were high they wouldn’t get that far, but this ... if he wouldn’t have been so painfully aware that the movement would be a stupid idea and not helpful at all, the thief would have thrown the black king across the room. Instead, he put the black tower onto Thorin’s map of Azsâlulabad.

 

“In case you didn’t catch up to it yet: the definitely living, fire-breathing Dragon at the end is probably the least of our problems.”

 

“Definitely living Dragon?” Balin parroted with too much control for anyone’s likening, and sadly their local Hobbit lacked the experience to avoid that particular trap.

 

“They are magical, long-living beings. Also, Tharkûn said so, and Elrond confirmed it, so, yes, definitely living Dragon.”

 

“Did they now? Ori, be a dear and pen down that I claim first right on confronting Tharkûn about withholding vital information. There is a good lad.”

 

A side glance to Bilbo revealed that now at least the Hobbit was catching on, and was likely already planning to either witness that particular confrontation or be as far away from it as he could. The thief himself was not yet sure which he would prefer himself; a decision best left for another time either way.

 

“I will not contest you on that, my friend,” Thorin said far too seriously. “That he kept such vital knowledge from us should not be taken lightly, yet I am just as guilty. I knew since Rivendell and neglected to reveal it. Under these circumstances, I will not hold any of you to your contracts.”

 

Considering this was exactly what he had wanted the whole time, Nori should have felt elated at the very least, but he felt absolutely nothing; maybe a hint of disbelieve that died a quick death when he saw their leader’s expression. Dwalin’s jaw dropped, Bofur almost fell off his chair if it wouldn’t have been for Thorin unconsciously reaching out and steadying him, and the thief was a bit too distracted by how painful it was to watch those two to notice Bilbo’s hand on his arm keeping him upright as well.

 

Kíli had no such luck. He fell flat on his arse, causing many to crane their necks and see him sprawled on the floor.

 

“I’m alright,” the youngest Durin called up, and that ... that was actually the extent of reactions to Thorin’s announcement. No one was scrambling for their packs, no one was cheering and pushing away the current maps in favour of those needed to plan their safest route back home – the Shire or Gabilgatholnur didn’t matter at this point – not even a relieved `Hurumab Mâhal!´, nothing.

 

The ginger Dwarf already set on to ask if they were serious if there was really not a single one among them ready to point out that this was their one chance to get out of this mess; not as celebrated heroes, but alive, all limbs attached, and even their honour intact. Was no one else tempted to learn to fear Daisy as much as the Lady Dís, and growing old together, of rooms permanently assigned to them in Bag End, trying to return as soon as possible, and drawing out the date they had to leave again as long as possible, and ...

 

He thought of what he knew about the Dark Lord, added a Dragon to that picture, and before his mental eye the Shire was burning and all mountains crumbled to dust.

 

In that moment Thorin could look put-upon about the lack of reaction all he wanted, the thief had half a mind to express his most sincere gratitude to every single one in the company, but held back on that, too. There was more to reveal first; plenty of good reasons to take the offer out after all.

 

“Right. Let’s ignore the oliphaunt in the room for a moment longer,” he said instead, and scattered a few black pawns around Mirkwood, not bothering to neatly place them as they had with the other figures. “Back in Trollshaws Radagast mentioned a sickness in the forest, something vile that creeps through the air and earth. And spiders; big ones, possibly the size of ponies if not larger. He said their webs keep the sun from reaching the ground, and they are more cunning that ordinary spiders, and distinctly evil. `Brood of Ungoliant´ he called them. While I’m not inclined to fully trust the words of a mad wizard, we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that he might be right. According to him both, the sickness and the spiders, originate from what he called Dol Guldur.”

 

“The Hill of Sorcery?” Thorin asked with an arched brow, clearly unimpressed with how they had neglected to mention that little detail to him before, but, to be fair, he had dropped Sauron on them, or rather Nori, first, so there was that.

 

“That’s what it means? Ah, that explains a lot then,” Nori mused, and put the second black tower onto a hill at the south-western edge of Mirkwood. “Last time I was in the area the Men were absolutely terrified of that place; the few willing to brave the paths anywhere within a day’s travel of it were in a terrible hurry to get away again. That time I thought them superstitious, but now ...”

 

“What he is trying to say, is that the wizards believe there is a necromancer in Dol Guldur. They didn’t speak of any details, but ... it’s hard to explain, but something about the way they spoke was highly disconcerting, especially the part about the morgul-blade.”

 

Maybe there would have been a better way conveying that piece of information, though Óin coughing on his tea gave the whole thing a dramatic flair Bilbo certainly hadn’t been aiming at.

 

“Morgul?!” the healer shrieked.

 

“That’s what they said, though that is the one point where I’m not certain about the significance. I know I heard that word before, but I just can’t connect the dots.”

 

From the floor – Mâhal only knew why the lad hadn’t gotten up yet. He didn’t seem to have hurt himself – Kíli gave a strangled sound.

 

“Please, don’t speak about dots. I can see far too many from here.”

 

“Kíli, this is not the time for jokes! Get up here, right now!”

 

“I would, but ... well, the towel got caught between some planks, and ... I really don’t ... I’m being ridiculous, aren’t I?”

 

In a way, it was actually a relief as much as it was not. No matter what happened, Kíli was still able to be Kíli, so things couldn’t be as dire as they seemed, except where Kíli being Kíli entailed Kíli acting so damn young, more so than a Dwarf his age should. It was a rather painful reminder of what they were in comparison to what they faced: hopelessly under-qualified. Sure, they were all still alive, and no one had lost a limb yet or received crippling wounds, but much of that had been plain dumb luck.

 

Dumb luck got people past Stone Giants, but not giant spiders, necromancers, Elves, and a Dragon.

 

With a sign, Fíli slipped from his seat, pulled first his brother then the overlarge towel up, wrapped the former one into the latter, and pulled their foreheads together.

 

“Ori, when you write that account of our Quest, could you leave this part out?”

 

Ori gave the princes a shrewd look that made Nori first extremely proud, and then extremely wary because Dori had seen it too.

 

“Well, alright. I have more than enough blackmail material on everyone anyway.”

 

Nori would die as an extremely proud brother, that was for sure, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t try to save his own hide. No one needed to know about how `shrewd´ became `fond´ the moment nobody paid any attention to Ori anymore.

 

“Don’t blame me. I taught him to fight dirty or run and hide, whatever appropriate. That is not my fault.”

 

“I’m blaming you anyway.”

 

“Right,” Kíli interrupted drawn out (and no longer beet red and wounded, and Nori breathed easier for it). “So, mogul blade. Can’t say I’ve heard that one before.”

 

“Mâhal’s beard, lad, do you actually listen to any of my lessons?” Balin groaned, covering his eyes.

 

“If I say `of course I do´, will you still explain?”

 

And that was where the other boot dropped. They were good lads, Nori would be lying if he said he hadn’t come to like them, and from a professional side he was impressed with their innocent faces, but they weren’t just little scoundrels, they were the crown princes, for pity’s sake. They had potential, alright, and maybe in another century if they lived that long, but right now ...

 

“Queen Dís,” Bilbo mumbled, and Nori breathed the customary `Thank Mâhal for small mercies´, though the further east they went the less comfort it brought him. The concept alone was interwoven with too much death and grief.

 

“`Morgul´ literally means `dark magic´ in Sindarin. In this case, it refers to a weapon not just coated but embedded with a sort of magical poison so potent even the smallest cut will gradually weaken the victim until they wither away. It was the cause of many casualties during Sauron’s reign and the war that ended it,” Thorin explained, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. The thief was honestly impressed that the other could raise his arm that high considering Thorin’s ribs were only a little better than Nori’s, but the thief had to admit that it was probably one of the most pitiful attempts to distract himself he had ever tried.

 

“There are, however, a set of swords specifically referred to as morgul-blades, carried by Sauron’s most terrible servants,” Balin picked up. “Their blades didn’t just kill slowly; it’s said they turned their victims into wraiths, servants of the Dark Lord, but those blades were locked away with their owners in a secret location. Even if it’s not the real thing, that they call it a `morgul-blade´ at all doesn’t bode well for the state of things.”

 

“It’s a medical nightmare,” Óin cried out. “If there is one, there are more, and the only herb known to provide a remotely decent remedy is ridiculously rare. The bit athelas I have is hardly enough to make a cup of tea, never enough to save even one of us.”

 

Athelas? You mean kingsfoil? Really now, Óin, the situation is already bad enough without you being overly dramatic.”

 

“Dramatic?!”

 

“Of cour- wait, you’re serious? Óin, kingsfoil grows everywhere! Most Men consider it a weed. We are talking about the same plant here, aren’t we?” Bilbo asked, scrambling for an empty piece of parchment to hastily draw a pretty little flower Nori knew most Hobbits had, in fact, growing in their gardens in abundance. The thief wouldn’t say that he was particularly fond of their smell, but that would be a lie, and had more to do with the knowledge that the dried leaves crushed in hot water were generally used to ease breathing and anxiety. He wasn’t exactly proud of how he had found that out. It had not been Daisy giving him a stern lecture about how to calm a panicking Hobbit, to say the least.

 

Óin didn’t need to verbally confirm that they were indeed talking about the same plant; his expression told it all.

 

“To be fair,” Nori pointed out for the sake of breaking the silence. “They only grow like a weed in, and around the Shire. I’ve also seen them in Gondor, now that I think about it, but not on bare rock either way.”

 

“Oh ... well. Well, maybe we should put that particular discussion on hold, though, you know, there are some rather large patches just behind the house. All things considered, we should probably take some along if Beorn will separate with it. Just in case.”

 

“`Just in case´ he says. With our luck, we should take as much as we can carry,” Óin groused, but indeed dropped the topic.

 

“Now that we are talking about morgul-related things either way, is that what that racket with Sauron was about?”

 

What followed was basically a repetition of their earlier silent exchange about who was supposed to break that little piece of information to their friends, only that this time Bilbo didn’t give in, and Nori, who hadn’t yet heard the entire story either, very pointedly pushed the black king towards Thorin. He would have liked to throw it, but in reference to both their ribs settled on rolling.

 

“A concern Tharkûn mentioned to Elrond regarding the return of Sauron to Middle-earth. He was vague about the time frame but certain that it would happen, and that there are preparations that need to be done. He fears Sauron could command Smaug, and with him, the strategic advantage and riches our mountain would give him.”

 

“Which means the damn wizard set us up from the start. A suicide quest on the off-chance a long gone evil will return,” Dwalin growled, reaching for the axes that were for once not on his back, but the intention was clear.

 

“Er ... not to contest your claim to his beard,” Bilbo started, though it clearly wasn’t just the wizard’s beard the guardsman was after, “but it didn’t actually sound so off-chance, and aside from the point where it’s us on said suicide quest, I have to admit Tharkûn’s reasoning was rather sound. I mean, seriously: Dragon, riches, resources, a fortress in a strategically important location ... I would want to risk Sauron gaining control over all that either.”

 

“Just to make sure we’re all on the same page: we are actually discussing this seriously, yes?” Fíli asked, and he had a point. The whole matter sounded rather ridiculous in a horrifying way.

 

“We are, though there seems to be no direct influence on our quest beyond Tharkûn’s intentions.”

 

“You mean except for the part where we would either be responsible for leaving Azsâlulabad to Sauron or signing our people up for a siege before we have even reclaimed the mountain. And they will besiege us when the time comes, be it in our own lifetime or after.”

 

“I stand by my word. If you wish to turn back now, no one will hold it against you,” their leader groused, but it only earned him weak chuckles.

 

“And you actually expect someone here to take you up on that?”

 

Thorin shrugged as best as he could, looking rather lost. Nori could sympathise with that, and it made him wonder what their leader was actually seeing when looking at them. Certainly no longer a ragtag group of misfits, the bottom of society with nothing to lose and not enough brains between them to avoid a hopeless cause.

 

“Eh, we knew going in it’s a suicide mission, and stuck with it when it was still smart and easy to leave. Hardly changes anything that we now have names for what will end us.”

 

Snipping his cousin against the head Bifur growled that it wasn’t funny at all, but he didn’t protest either. No one was protesting, again. They probably should just accept already that they would really do this no matter what.

 

“Names, yes. Sauron, necromancer, Smaug, spiders, Elves. Great names, sure, but there is one I’d really love to hear the story: what by all that is good and green was Azog doing on that mountainside?” Bilbo asked, and just like that what little good mood they had been able to preserve was gone. Thorin couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes anymore.

 

Indâd?”

 

“I’d rather not talk about it.”

 

“Yes, well, that’s not an option anymore, don’t you think? We all saw the demon on that cliff side, and you are the only one who could explain it,” Glóin assessed, though Dwalin’s dark glare seemed much more effective.

 

“What do you know about it, Master Baggins?”

 

The Dwarf-king was stalling, plain as day, and it was such a pitifully sight Nori almost wished Bilbo would play along and deny knowing anything.

 

“It’s just Bilbo. I mentioned that several times already. Stop going back to `Master Baggins´ me every time you feel threatened. And of course I heard about it, even before Nori. Just because Hobbits prefer to stay out of the mess of other races doesn’t mean we are ignorant of it. As to what I know ... well, the same as everyone who hadn’t been there, I suppose. The battle seemed lost when you took up the branch of an oak to shield yourself and Dáin from Azog’s assault. You took off his arm, and Dáin his head. With their leader dead, the Orcs faltered, and your war cried rallied the Dwarrow, turning the battle to your favour, in a manner of speaking. Nothing about war is ever favourable.”

 

It was probably one of their biggest differences or at least one of the most noticeable ones: Bilbo could say that calmly if with much sympathy, while every Dwarf would react emotionally. Thorin for once didn’t rise to what could have been perceived as an insult and just sunk further into himself.

 

“`Battle´ they call it, it was a nightmare. You go in, childish ideas of glory and valour in your mind, hoping for battle scars to impress your friends, and then six years passed, and you lost more friends than you knew you had. I saw Dáin fall, and ... I don’t remember what happened then, not in detail. I remember pain and wanting that damn mace to stop coming down on us. Then screams, and Dáin swinging his axe. I know it hit its mark, but was it the blunt or the sharp edge? I try to remember, but all I ever see is fire.”

 

Nori could see it in his mind, how Thorin couldn’t stand to see another friend fall and grabbed an oaken branch to protect Dáin from the giant Orc; how he cut the assaulter’s arm off, more luck than actual skill no doubt, and, brought to his knees, Azog then was low enough that Dáin could cut his head off. Of course, that last part had obviously not happened, and it was far too easy to imagine a much younger Thorin and Dáin – he had never actually seen Dáin, nor knew what Thorin had looked like in his younger years, but in his mind they look a lot like Fíli and Kíli, which was only making it worse – breaking down and clinging to the only thing they could take comfort from in that nightmare, driven on battle nerves, pain, and medicine if there had been any left to spare.

 

Well, shit.

 

Personally, he had never believed it had been even half as heroic or glamorous as people made it out to be, but this ... and Thorin kept rubbing his arm, his shield arm, where through their whole journey an oaken shield had rested. Sentimental fool that he was, Thorin had likely made it himself from the very same branch that had earned him his battle name, and now it was lost in the Goblin-tunnels or burned to ashes on that cliff.

 

Caught up in his imagination the thief didn’t catch what Dwalin said, but Thorin’s reaction to it was impossible to miss, seeing as Thorin was suddenly on his feet, completely disregarding his wounds, and literally butting heads with the much larger guard, and not in a good way.

 

“What would you have me do, Dwalin? There were so many dead! Frerin, Fundin, Ásgunnr, Náin, everyone had lost someone, and the only comfort we had was that at least Azog was dead as well. And Dáin, he was hardly older than you then, lost his father and his leg, Lord of the fucking Iron Hills. And he was scared, so very scared, begging for something, anything. His people needed a leader, but a child? Would you have me take even that bit from him? The hope that it could be true? What did it matter if Azog lost his head or just an arm? Between all that filth he could have died from the wound alone, should have died. We had nothing but that hope, and you know it!”

 

“You should have told me, you damn bastard! I’ve been following you all my life; you are my best friend, shield-brother, close as my blood-brother. I shared everything with you, had your back in everything we encountered, but on that cliff, I failed you because I wasn’t prepared, because you didn’t fucking tell me as you should have!”

 

The noise Thorin made when he was pulled against Dwalin and hugged within an inch of his life had nothing to do with his ribs and everything with having his hair petted and being related to Kíli. All the while the large guard kept cursing Thorin, his senses in general, and his ancestors – on his father’s side, of course, because Lady Ferís was without fault, and, blessed be the Maker, Dís came after her!

 

“I’ll get the strong drinks,” Glóin huffed. “Maker knows, we won’t sleep tonight anyway.”

Chapter Text


 

Beorn returned the next day, and it was both timely and decidedly not.

 

As predicted by Glóin none of them had gotten any sleep, and the short periods of not being awake had decidedly not been restful. Thorin and Dwalin were so completely out of it, it wasn’t funny anymore. Not that it had ever been, mind, but Balin, Óin, and Glóin were also struggling, and failing to keep it together, though it wasn’t clear if they were less shaken or just better at hiding it. In either case was it throwing their whole group-dynamic for a loop, and the princes tried, brave lads that they were, to help, but they were lads all the same, and not equipped to deal with traumatised adults.

 

Bilbo looked at the misery all around, took a steadying breath, and then channelled his own misery and inner Baggins into the most productive outlet he had at hand, and started to fuss over them like he had never fussed before ... or at least not in a very long time, and certainly not with so many at once.

 

He might lack a wagon and the means to get everyone back to the other side of the Misty Mountains – never mind that he himself didn’t feel stable enough yet to even think of bracing those accursed mountains again anytime soon; emotionally as well as physically – but there were blankets aplenty, lots of food, and hot beverages. That was enough for any Hobbit could work with that, and fortunately, Dori was able and willing to help. Naturally, that included Dori fussing over Bilbo as well, and the Hobbit really wasn’t in the mood to suffer that, though he could admit that it was needed just as much.

 

Of course, food, blankets, and someone dead set on mothering people into their early grave were a good start – to be fair, what really helped was actually having their clothes returned cleaned and mended. The power of clean clothes was a highly underestimated one in Bilbo’s opinion – but they also needed a distraction of some sort, which was why Beorn’s return was so timely.

 

The not so good part was the one where the skin-changer was in an exceptionally good mood and picked Bilbo up, meaning he wrapped hands large enough the Hobbit could have actually hidden between them around said Hobbit, lifted him off the ground and held him close like one would with a grumpy cat, petting included.

 

“Little bunny getting fat on cream and honey.”

 

The rational part of Bilbo was quite aware that their host being happy was a good thing. It would make it so much easier to convince the large man to at least let them stay until everyone was fit to travel again. On the other hand, Beorn was huge, which meant the floor was too far away for Bilbo’s liking. Still – and even hanging six feet over ground the Hobbit thought it sounded rather silly, for all that it felt quite true – he was willing to endure it for the sake of the Company, and even swallow all comments about how, not counting his parents, there had only ever been two adults in his life he had allowed to pet him, and Beorn was definitely not one of them.

 

Yes, Bilbo was willing to make this sacrifice as long as no one started laughing. That would only lead to blood and murder, left aside that Nori already looked ready to cause that without further prompting. The thief was downright seething, but for the time being, didn’t say anything either. The Hobbit wasn’t sure if he was grateful or absolutely hated his Dwarf for that.

 

Either way, he was stuck, and so Bilbo made the best of it and listened more or less patiently as Beorn recounted how he had retraced their steps and confirmed their story with an Orc- or Goblin-scout. The skin-changer didn’t seem to be sure about the difference himself, not that it mattered. Personally, the Hobbit could have done without the details of that interrogation, but Beorn was happy, and that led to him just as happily offering his hospitality for as long as the Company wished to stay. He cautioned against their pursuers, of course, but refused to go into details at the moment, the weather and his mood too good for such troublesome talk.

 

Still, there was only so long Nori could hold back, and once his limit was reached he threw himself up to his full high (though he had admittedly never looked as small as next to the skin-changer), and marched over.

 

“Excuse me, Mister Beorn, would you please unhand the Hobbit, like, right now? I agree, he is cuddly, and I don’t know about the customs of your people, but it’s considered highly inappropriate and insulting to Hobbits and Dwarrow to grope another’s husband especially for all and sundry to see!”

 

Beorn looked at Bilbo, who, quite relieved that finally someone staged an intervention, could only nod vigorously in agreement.

 

“Little Bunny got a wify? Soft little thing as well?”

 

“I’ve got a Nori,” Bilbo deadpanned. “Prickly, but much better than any wife could ever be.”

 

“What’s a nori? It sounds like a hedgehog.”

 

“It stands right here, and demands its husband back!” Nori growled, grabbing the Hobbit the moment he was close enough, and carried him off without listening to a word Beorn had to say to that, though mostly it consisted of laughter anyway. Hedgehog, indeed. At least Beorn could have bothered to compare him to a porcupine.

 

Half in his arms, half over his shoulder (and thankfully not moving about much as Nori could still feel beams and the Goblin-king on his whole torso) Bilbo hummed.

 

“I very much appreciate that you tried to be diplomatic before resorting to threats.”

 

“I will knife him if he tries that again.”

 

“Ah. I also like it when you get territorial, within reason, but when you are quite done having a fit, put me down before you seriously hurt yourself.”

 

As if conjured up Óin started shouting at Nori to `put that Hobbit down right now or so help me, I will put you and that stubborn miner into iron-casks, don’t think I won’t!´.

 

To his credit, Nori first put Bilbo down and then turned around – slowly and full body – to first stare at the healer, then at Bofur, who had been in the process of getting up but now very slowly and carefully sat back down next to Thorin where he had been slumping the entire day already.

 

“You are a cruel man, Óin, but I defer to your superior knowledge of healing,” the thief offered with a pronounced nod, and looked for a secluded spot. He wouldn’t retreat there, of course. The bones of Dwarrow were strong and healed considerably fast, but that didn’t account for the bruising. Really, it was only sensible that he refrained from seeking solitude until he could stand and sit on his own again without fear of making everything worse in the long run. They had that luxury here, and that was also why Bilbo swallowed the question about Nori calling him his husband that desperately tried to claw its way up his throat.

 

He knew exactly how that would end, namely with Nori on the roof, likely seriously injuring himself in the process, and both of them unable to talk with each other for at least two days, which ... yeah. Bilbo didn’t have the patience for that particular dance right now, nor in the foreseeable future. It was just a word, after all; one they had been perfectly happy without in the past, and it wasn’t as if they didn’t have more than enough problems already. There was The Defile, and an unknown number of Orcs and Goblins on their trail, and Mirkwood ahead, never mind what came after that. They didn’t even know yet how to reach the forest in the first place, and there were still ribs in various states of broken to fix.

 

And spirits. Couldn’t forget about the broken spirits. The mothering had helped Bilbo not feel quite so helpless for a while but ultimately hadn’t changed anything for the others, which in turn frustrated the Hobbit more.

 

Ugh. He couldn’t think like this.

 

“Alright, this calls for drastic measures,” the Hobbit proclaimed loudly and then ushered Nori to the table. They were obviously way past camomile tea and mead; it was time for hot milk with copious amounts of honey, starting with their emotionally `worst cases´.

 

Naturally, the reactions to that new approach varied. Fíli, Kíli, and Ori were grateful, Bofur an endearing combination of surprise to be included and sheepishness of having been found out, and Dwalin had either finally learned to not argue with Bilbo or not yet recovered enough to try. Only Thorin put up a fight, but that was actually a relief. If Thorin would have reached a subdued state, Bilbo might have needed to ask Beorn for a cart and blankets after all. And possibly a way-description back to the Shire, but that was neither here nor there.

 

“I don’t need to be coddled.”

 

The kits swarming Thorin’s lap told another story. Not that Thorin was the only one, of course, thought the smuggest bunny was definitely the one who had once again claimed Dwalin’s shoulder. Bilbo didn’t point out any of that but didn’t curb his unimpressed glare either.

 

“Oh, you so do, I won’t even start discussing it. Do you three want to be included or rather continue to pretend you can deal on your own?”

 

“I’m good, lad,” Óin called, Glóin echoing him, but they joined the others at the table anyway. Balin, though, Balin stood there for a long moment, contemplating, then nodded to himself.

 

“I wouldn’t say no to that, lad,” he finally concluded, stole Thorin’s milk – much to Bilbo’s amusement the dark-haired Dwarf actually protested against that – and sat down next to his brother. At Thorin’s reaction Dwalin, of course, snickered, the Dwarf-king growled, and if the latter would have been in any better condition they likely would have started a scuffle. That would have been an even better development than Thorin being contradicting and argumentative, but considering everyone’s health, Bilbo loudly clapped his hands and channelled his best imitation of Daisy when the faunts were being unreasonable.

 

“Boys, if you don’t stop making the actual lads look mature, you won’t get any cookies.”

 

“Cookies?”

 

Why wasn’t he surprised that got him the undivided attention of literally everyone? Bilbo caught himself imagining Azsâlulabad reclaimed, and politics being dropped, wars delayed at the mention of freshly baked products. It sounded like an interesting theory to test, except in his mind it looked more like a family gathering in one of the Great Smials, only involving more beards and the occasionally thrown axe, and he much rather wouldn’t let it come to any wars that had to be delayed in the first place.

 

“Yes, cookies. The cookies I intend to bake, to be precise. I considered oatmeal and whatever dried fruits I can get my hands on if you allow, Mister Beorn.”

 

“Hmm, cookies,” the skin-changer purred like a very large, very pleased cat. Or, well, a bear, as it was, except Bilbo wasn’t sure bears could purr. In any case was it as much as a go ahead as he needed.

 

“Right. Favourites? I need to see what is available, of course, but ...”

 

He shouldn’t have said that Bilbo realised belatedly. Everyone started to shout their favourites, and then they argued about the choices of the others. The Hobbit had half a mind to be annoyed, but then he realised that they were lively and arguing good-naturedly, and hid a sigh of relieve. Maybe things weren’t quite as bad as he had feared after all. Not that he didn’t intend to deliver the cookies either way. The general consent was `plenty´, and `cheese´ was highly contested. Bilbo made a mental list that would hopefully cover most tastes and seemed reasonable this time of the year, added cheese scones on principle, and slipped away, first to bring Thorin a mug of hot milk with honey of his own, then to do the actual baking.

 

“They are distressed.”

 

Bilbo didn’t jump. Nope. Least of all in fright; and if he did, only in surprise that someone of Beorn’s stature and nature was able to sneak up on a Hobbit. Also, in his excuse, he had been rather invested in imagining it wasn’t dough he was beating into submission.

 

“My apologies, Mister Beorn. Your rabbits gave no indication that they disliked being petted. I shall inform the other’s at once.”

 

Of course, the Hobbit knew that it wasn’t about the bunnies even without the skin-changer’s frown and large hand keeping him from leaving – without picking him up this time, Yavanna be blessed – but it was the first excuse coming to his mind.

 

“Not the bunnies. Your Dwarrow.”

 

“They are not ... well, in a manner of speaking I guess they are mine, but …”

 

Bilbo broke off. When had he actually stopped thinking of them, all of them, as anything but his Dwarrow anyway, and did it actually matter?

 

No. It really didn’t.

 

“You know what, forget it. Yes, my Dwarrow, and, yes, they are upset. The bunnies help, actually, but we had to discuss some very uncomfortable truths last night, but it’s not my story to tell.”

 

“Azog,” Beorn growled, and with a pat on Bilbo’s shoulder went back to the main room, also petting Dwalin’s head in passing, leaving the Hobbit to wonder about the reason the Dwarf frowned so, the petting or something Bilbo did. Or maybe Thorin. Really, anything could make Dwalin frown. The sand coloured bunny still on his shoulder was still just as smug as it had been before, though.

 

“You didn’t tell him.”

 

The guard actually sounded pleased, and Bilbo felt as if he had just passed an important test he hadn’t been aware he still needed to take. Seriously, he had stood between Thorin and an Orc almost four times his own size and mass; one would think that was more than enough on the proving front, but that were Dwarrow for you. However, pointing that out would get them nowhere.

 

“Of course not. As I said, it’s not my story to tell. Also, I’d like to pick up training again tomorrow if that is alright with you – and don’t you dare to touch that dough! You will wait until the damn cookies are done properly!”

 

Grumbling the large Dwarf agreed and shuffled back. Bilbo followed and saw Beorn already at the large table, everyone serious, and sour-faced again. Bilbo counted heads – he hardly noticed anymore that he was doing it – told himself firmly that they were all adults, and if they wanted to have another potentially disturbing talk, he had neither the right nor reason to stop them. He was, however, under no obligation to be part of that, so Bilbo returned to the kitchen, figuring that they would need more cookies than he had calculated at first.

 

When he brought the first batches, Bilbo caught bits and pieces about how Beorn’s people had been held captive by Azog for amusement. The skin-changer also spoke of how he had once travelled past Azanulbizar and had resented Dwarrow and Orcs alike, as destroying the plant life had caused the earth to erode, leaving the area bare rock where nothing could grow. Knowing now what exactly had caused it, children fighting to please their elders and losing far too much, made him reconsider. It also seemed that it was the war of the Dwarrow against the Orcs that had caused enough of a stir that Beorn had been able to escape imprisonment. What had become of the other skin-changers he didn’t say, but it was very telling that he lived alone with only animals as company. Unreasonably smart animals – a magic in the lands, probably, or a forgotten blessing of Yavanna – but animals nonetheless.

 

The Hobbit couldn’t bear to listen to that and fled back to the kitchen.

 

Another batch of cookies and scones (that had admittedly taken longer than it should have, but who was to know?) later Bilbo returned to another picture altogether. The Dwarrow, either because of their wounds or out of sympathy, still sat around the table, contemplative but not necessarily worse off than before, with Beorn puttering around, humming a song.

 

It was most disturbing. Not the puttering or the humming itself, as Bilbo was prone to do both as well, but the melody had him freezing up.

 

The Hobbit didn’t drop the cookies, but it was a near thing as he stared at their host.

 

“Land of bear, land of eagle,

Land that gave us birth and blessing

Land that called us ever homeward

We will go home across the mountains

 

We will go home, we will go home,

We will go home across the mountains

 

Land of sun and land of moonlight

Land that gave us joy and sorrow

Land that gave us love and laughter

We will go home across the mountains

 

We will go home, we will go home,

We will go home across the mountains

 

Hear our singing, hear our longing,

We will go home across the mountains

 

When the land is there before us

We have gone home across the mountains

We will go home, we will go home

We will go home across the mountains.”

(King Arthur OST - Song of exile, as performed by Karliene)

 

He hadn’t noticed the plate was being taken from him, or that he had been singing along, words and melody not entirely fitting together, but similar enough. What brought him back was Beorn’s appreciating hum.

 

“You know the old songs. Clever little bunny.”

 

“My people used to live here,” the smallest of the Company offered, still quite beside himself with a number of possibilities suddenly running through his head. “Further south, in the Valley of Anduin, before we wandered west. That’s what the stories tell, at least. There is only very little knowledge left of those days.”

 

“Ah. Then sit with me, little bunny. I have many stories for you. More pleasant than talk of war and blood.”

 

And just like that Bilbo ended up in front of the fire, and soaked up every legend, story, and old song Beorn recalled that might have to do with Hobbits, sharing what little he himself knew. He entirely forgot about cookies, and Dwarrow, and Azog, and couldn’t quite tell when listening became dreaming, became waking wrapped in blankets, disorientated, and in great need of a reminder of where and when he was.

 

Dwalin was quite straightforward in covering that need, reminding Bilbo that they had agreed to take up training again. Naturally, the Hobbit insisted on his hobbity right to not start a day without breakfast and was promptly informed that it was almost time for lunch.

 

They settled into a comfortable routine after that. Having taken a real liking to them, Beorn gladly provided all the Company could possibly need, from material for new clothes, a makeshift smithy, and herbs, to his own brand of fussing. It was gruff, at times rough, but where his size alone had made them uneasy before, it now radiated safety.

 

They healed, recovered, and trained, which wasn’t always pleasant, but generally made everyone feel more confident about the road ahead. Certain parties also may or may not have received a very stern scolding from Miss Bluebell for canoodling behind the bramble bushes. It was almost like being a tween again, with the added plus of Nori being included and looking quite scandalised when Dori didn’t react scandalised upon the discovery at all.

 

“You have hardly been discreet, and your hairy bum is hardly new to me, brother dearest.”

 

Needless to say, Bilbo hadn’t been able to keep a straight face for the rest of the day.

 

It was a good time, and of course that was when Tharkûn returned.

Chapter Text


 

Leaving Beorn’s homestead had been both, the easiest and the hardest of their departures yet.

 

Easy because for the first time in this entire endeavour the Company actually felt prepared for the next leg of the journey. Beorn had told them as much as he could about the forest and its more deadly inhabitants, though that pretty much included everything alive, and possibly a few things strictly speaking not alive. Having Radagast’s stories about giant spiders and the sickness in the forest confirmed was not very reassuring, but at least they knew about it beforehand for a change, and knew that the Old Forest Road – the one Tharkûn had intended to send them on – was a clear no-go. In fact, when they had brought it up, Beorn had just given them a firm and simple `no´, and the Company had silently consented that when a giant bear-man tells you `no´, you brush the topic off the table and out of the door to never be seen again.

 

Fortunately, the skin-changer had been able to offer them an alternative; the Elven Path, as he called it. It began further north, and like most things in Middle-earth, it was named so for obvious reasons. However, the proximity to elven territory and the distance to Dol Guldur should make it a comparably safe route to take. Should, because Beorn himself didn’t travel that far from his home anymore; not since the Orcs had grown more numerous, and the sickness of the forest spread further and further.

 

It had actually been quite easy to convince Thorin to agree to the new route. All it had taken was a half-hearted promise to avoid the Elves themselves as best as they could, and the Dwarf gave up all pretence of resistance. The true challenge had been to translate Beorn’s understanding of distances and landmarks into something they could put onto Bilbo’s maps and use to estimate how long they would need to cross the forest.

 

It had taken a lot of calculating, but in the end, they were rather confident they had enough supplies, food, and especially water, as Beorn warned them not to drink or eat anything that originated from Mirkwood. He had also let them refill their stocks of medical herbs and plants from his garden, especially kingsfoil. It made their hearts lighter to know that if they had the misfortune to encounter morgul-weaponry, they at least had the means to counter the poison.

 

They had a path, plenty of information and supplies, and Beorn even lend them ponies to get them faster to the forest edge, though he insisted they promise not to take his friends further. In fact, he would much prefer the Company wouldn’t go there either, and that was where leaving became so very difficult.

 

Beorn had grown fond of them, and they of him to the point that Balin hadn’t minded transferring his right to be the first to knock Tharkûn’s head around to the skin-changer. That didn’t seem like much to an outsider, but Dwarrow, in general, took their grudges very seriously, and so did Beorn.

 

The large man had not been impressed with the wizard, to say the least. Not the `turning into a bear´ level of angry Bilbo assumed was a real possibility, but he wondered if it was truly an indication of Beorn’s level of angry or a sign of his regard for the Company that he reigned in his nature to not risk them getting caught between the front-lines.

 

The most telling sign was probably that Bilbo was convinced it was the latter, but talking about Tharkûn ...

 

The Hobbit reached into his pocket, and flung another acorn he had picked up in the skin-changers garden at the wizard’s head when it looked as if the man would try to do or say anything that differed from what they had agreed on after a lot of shouting and accusing, namely make sure they reached the Elven Path alive and well before going off to Eru only knew where. Bilbo hoped that when Tharkûn abandoned them – again, although this whole quest had been started on his insistence – it would at least be to confront that necromancer in Dol Guldur or something equally useful.

 

All things considered, they might have been a bit hard on Tharkûn, but that was a pit the wizard had dug himself. They all could understand the part about not mentioning the necromancer, spiders, and forest-sickness for different reasons. Radagast was hardly a reliable source, for one, though a warning wouldn’t have hurt, and Sauron ... well, that was admittedly more about the principle of matters as Thorin had hardly needed more incentive to march for his ancestral home, and it wasn’t actually a pressing matter at the moment. What was absolutely unacceptable, however, was that Tharkûn actually believed he had had any right to keep to himself that Smaug was alive, arguing that he hadn’t been asked.

 

Needless to say, that hadn’t gone over well, at all, especially as it was the general consent that the wizard had most likely also known about Azog’s continued existence and its implications, and, again, had kept that crucial detail to himself. Hence acorns. It beat cutting off heads or other limbs any day. A menace Tharkûn was to everyone, but someone had to take care of the necromancer and Sauron, and it sure as apple-pie wouldn’t be Bilbo or one of his Dwarrow.

 

Also, the Hobbit felt a certain amount of satisfaction from hitting the man, which had a lot to do with that talk Nori and he had had with the wizard about the ring Bilbo had found. Tharkûn had cautioned them against telling anyone else or using it and promised to look into the matter once he had time. It had sounded more like a dismissal than an actual promise to help, and Nori had been anything but happy about it, while Bilbo had been more concerned about how relieved he had felt that the wizard didn’t intend to look into this right now.

 

“Your aim is a bit off, melekûnuh.”

 

It was. Bilbo had actually aimed for the head, not the hat, though knocking it off certainly had the same effect of warning the wizard to shut up. Out loud he blamed it on the wind, though he had an irking that it was actually the training Dwalin put him through. Throwing acorns wasn’t exactly something he had had reason to practice recently, but Nori always looked so guilty whenever he noticed something on the journey had changed the Hobbit, so the aim was off because of the wind and because they were now getting closer to Mirkwood, which made Bilbo feel off-kilter altogether.

 

The last part at least was true and became worse the closer they got. Much worse.

 

After three days of absolutely uneventful if hurried travelling, the Company reached the beginning of the Elven Path in the early evening. They had neither seen nor heard anything of the Orcs no doubt still hunting them – Beorn following them in his bear shape had no doubt played a major role in that, though they hadn’t approached the skin-changer, and neither he them – and Bilbo had been quite happy to get off the pony, but the moment his bare feet touched the ground ...

 

The Dwarrow would claim they had never seen someone get back onto a pony so fast, nor heard anyone swear so colourful, and in at least three languages at that. However, they only thought it funny for the half minute it took for Dwalin’s ears and Ori’s neck to turn a deep red, but all merriment was abandoned when they realise that their Hobbit was truly distressed.

 

“Bilbo?”

 

“Just ... just a minute, please, just ... sweet Mother of Green, Radagast wasn’t kidding when he said that forest is sick. I felt it before, but this close ... please tell me we won’t go in there tonight.”

 

“Definitely not,” Thorin agreed without hesitation, then ushered everyone along to set up camp for the night, giving Nori and Bilbo at least the illusion of privacy.

 

“You alright?”

 

“Not really, no, but I’m getting there. Not much of a choice either way,” the Hobbit reassured, glad for the pony’s stoic patience and the thief’s skilled fingers on his knees chasing away the ... he didn’t have a name for the feeling, only that it was wrong on a fundamental level.

 

“I’m considering the boots, actually.”

 

Wordlessly Nori reached into one of the bags and pulled out the leather boots Dori, Bifur, and Bombur had collaborated on to gift Bilbo all the way back in Rivendell. The Hobbit almost choked.

 

“I didn’t know they survived.”

 

“What sort of thief would I be if I couldn’t keep track of a single pair of boots?”

 

“The kind who regularly lost his pants in my smial?”

 

Nori laughed at that, as did Fíli and Ori. Kíli groaned, and Bofur commented that he hadn’t needed to know that.

 

“At which point did we ever give the impression that’s not what happened, continuously, and repeatedly, with enthusiastic consent from all parties involved?”

 

“Not challenging that; I just could do without the mental images.”

 

The short exchange was followed by a friendly shouting match with so many innuendoes thrown back and forth that Bilbo should have probably felt at least a bit embarrassed. Instead, he used the general distraction to slide down the pony, and get down onto the ground again, one toe after the other.

 

Now that he knew what to expect it wasn’t quite as bad anymore, though the Hobbit still shuddered at the feeling, and then again at the thought to spend any amount of time, least of all the better part of the next three weeks, on that tainted soil. He didn’t know what was worse, that or the awareness that he would get used to it eventually.

 

Though it went against his every instinct the Hobbit stepped closer to the forest to stand next to Thorin, who frowned fiercely at the trees. Were it any other forest, Bilbo would have scoffed at that, but now ...

 

“Remember the fit I had about the Old Forest?”

 

Thorin didn’t look at him, and Bilbo didn’t look at Thorin, but he saw the Dwarf nod slightly in his periphery.

 

“You spoke of Hurons and insulted me. A lot.”

 

“A repeated theme between us that you deserved at the time, and you know it. Every Hobbit could have told you not to go into the Old Forest, least of all with darkness approaching, but that’s not what I was getting at. I don’t know this forest, but I know with absolute certainty that we shouldn’t travel through there, no matter which time of day. Forget about giant spiders and necromancers; this forest is sick, and a malevolent presence houses here. It’s in the earth, the air, the absence of animals.”

 

It stood testament to how far they had come that Thorin didn’t brush his concerns aside but carefully considered them, and that Bilbo remained calm when told that there was no other way.

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“From here it’s two hundred miles to the northern edge, and we would come too close to Gundabad and Thaforabbad. I rather not risk facing more than one Dragon, and we call them Gundabad-Orcs for a reason, much as it pains me. It used to be the most sacred our dwellings, the place where Durin the Deathless first woke, but those ancient halls are truly lost to us since the founding of Angmar, even if we could drive out the Orcs.”

 

Bilbo hadn’t actually known that part, and already regretted that he would likely forget to inquire about it in the future, but he was still grateful Thorin told him instead of only pointing out that Bilbo already knew there was no other way. He liked to think that it helped them both to check all possible options, even if it was for the hundredth time.

 

“South?”

 

“Twice as far. We would not reach Azsâlulabad in time, and Dol Guldur lies that way.”

 

“I know you long to reach it, and I understand, truly, but wouldn’t it be worth it to wait a bit longer to reach the mountain hale and whole? With the Dragon alive, we don’t have to worry about anyone else moving in before we get there.”

 

“True enough, but Azog is still on our heels. The eagles have certainly delayed him, but we lost much time staying with Beorn, necessary and enjoyable as it had been, and we will be on foot from here. It’s already a miracle on its own that his scouts haven’t caught up with us yet. There is no other way.”

 

This time Bilbo remained silent and considered if there was any other way left. He could only think of turning back, but that would be a cruel thing to say considering he didn’t actually want to go back anymore, not really at least, never mind that doing so would lead them straight into Azog’s clutches.

 

“We have to be wary of literally everything in there, not just spiders and Elves. The very air might make us ill the longer we breathe it, and I can already tell that there are trees in there that have turned malevolent. If they are close to the path, they will try to cause us harm in any way they can. We should definitely expect them to move around, and try to make us lose the way. What is the plan?”

 

“We will move as quickly as caution allows. We ration food and water from the start, make it last as long as possible. You, Bombur, and Óin will know what is eatable if there is anything to be found, Dwalin and Nori are paranoid enough about our safety for all of us, Bifur, Glóin, and I can take on most dangers, Fíli can be level-headed in most dire situations, and Kíli, Dori, and Ori are very observant in their own ways. What danger there is, we will meet it prepared. The road seems paved with stone, and Bofur’s stone-sense is infallible. As long as it remains that way he will be able to keep track of the road.”

 

They had gone over this so many times during their preparations, the Hobbit was certain any member of the Company could be woken in the middle of the night and – possible decapitation aside because one didn’t wake war veterans or thieves unexpected without facing a blade – asked what the plan was, and they would give a similar answer.

 

“If you can stand it, I would have you help Bofur. I am confident you will be able to warn us should the plant life indeed decide to turn against us, or at the very least notice sooner than anyone else if we leave the path,” Thorin then added, and that part was new and a bit endearing.

 

“I will help any way I can. You know, for all that I don’t have much use for kings outside of stories and am still convinced it is a terrible idea to enter the forest on principle ... well, if there is one I could follow through a cursed forest to a Dragon-infested mountain, it would be you, I suppose. I start to believe you’d make a decent king after all, and I look forward to finding out.”

 

It was a rare treat to see Thorin stutter and blush so, a good imitation of Bofur when they had first called his stone-sense infallible, but in contrast to the miner, the king didn’t straight out deny it. Instead, he cleared his throat pointedly and turned even redder before he found his voice again, which was just as entertaining.

 

“High praise indeed, but wouldn’t you need to live in a mountain for that, child of the sun?”

 

“Ach, don’t pretend you don’t need the sun,” Bilbo laughed. “Maybe not as much as I, but I saw you napping in Beorn’s garden on countless occasions when you could have just as well stayed inside. I have no doubt that there will be enough windows in Azsâlulabad to suit my needs soon enough. I will be just fine, but I appreciate your concern.”

 

“What if I won’t let you into my mountain?”

 

“In case you forgot: I have a contract that entitles me to one-fourteenth of that mountain, you owe me your life a few times over at this point already, and a good portion of your Company would sooner follow me back to the Shire for nothing but the promise of Daisy’s cooking and the attention of the faunts.”

 

“You’re execrating, and the contract was about the gold.”

 

“One word: cookies. Also, the contract stated `one-fourteenth of the gain´ as the promised payment, and the mountain is part of the gain, not to say the main reason we’re here anyway.”

 

Months ago this would have been a shouting match that might have led to someone drawing blood. Now Thorin laughed, and Bilbo grinned and found he could bear the forest’s closeness a little better already better.

 

“You strike a hard bargain, Master Baggins. Very well. I remember a set of suits in the upper parts with direct access to a terrace garden. All in terrible condition, no doubt, and nothing like the Shire, but there will be light, and I’m sure something will grow there. Eventually.”

 

“I knew we’d come to an understanding,” was the bright reply. They clapped shoulders on it and completely ignored that there might be a connection between the merriment of their friends and their own banter negotiations. It didn’t hit Bilbo until days later when Tharkûn was long gone and the forest edge far away, that somewhere between the Carrock and the forest, their notoriously grumpy king and he had actually become good friends.

 

The thought helped him greatly to deal with Mirkwood for a few days, which was an altogether unpleasant experience, though so far not meeting their worst expectations. During the day, the eternal twilight inside the forest was pressing the mood, but at least there was light in contrast to the darkness of the night, which was sudden and complete where Bilbo was concerned, though the Dwarrow couldn’t see more than the roughest outlines then either. After the second night, the Company as a whole stayed closer together, and especially the Hobbit made sure to always be within arm’s reach of one of his friends no matter what time.

 

The air was stifling, no denying, and caused headaches and temper flairs, and Bilbo felt quite sick most of the time, a lot like that one time he had gotten a heat-stroke, only without the heat, but the trees showed no signs of consciousness, so there was that at least.

 

The only real trouble so far was that Bofur took keeping them on the path very serious, which was generally a good thing, but the stress he put onto himself pressed his mood considerably, and a miserable Bofur meant everyone else was miserable as well, especially Thorin. Bilbo didn’t know how those two never seemed to notice they were mutually pinning after each other, but a few attempts at Beorn’s to make them noticed had ... well, it hadn’t backfired, but neither had it changed anything for the better. Either way was Mirkwood hardly the place for romance, so Bilbo did the next best thing and followed Thorin’s suggestion of aiding Bofur in his task whenever he could, even if going barefooted worsened his own reaction to the forest.

 

If anyone back in the Shire ever heard about how Bilbo had grown fond of the leather boots for more than their sentimental value, he would be exiled no matter how justified his reasons, but the Shire was far, and they all had to pull their weight, literally and metaphorically.

 

Where the path allowed it, they walked double file, the warriors making sure to spread evenly among the group and often rotating. Dwalin usually remained in the back; the Hound indeed. At times it made Bilbo feel a bit like cattle, and Nori must have felt the same, for he soon started to walk up and down the files in irregular patterns, obviously more comfortable being a second hound. It went uncommented either way.

 

A week into the forest they ran into the first true spot of trouble, forcing them to stop making fires at night. Bilbo didn’t like to think about it and was eternally grateful that the mocking never extended beyond two jokes the night of the first `attack´. The Hobbit refused to feel embarrassed about his relief when from then on he ended up under a blanket or someone’s coat every night, and definitely with one Dwarf or the other wrapped around him, usually Nori. It wasn’t as if they didn’t all sleep more or less on top of each other either way at this point, but the moths here were far larger than Beorn’s bumblebees, more aggressive as well, and oddly fixated on the only Hobbit of the group. Needless to say, everyone preferred Bilbo in one piece and not carried off to Eru only knew where.

 

After a while the nightly wildlife, in general, started to get too close for comfort, bodiless eyes in the dark, and that they seemed to stay off the path was to equal parts comforting and absolutely worrisome. The dark squirrels, however, were a menace on their own, especially when certain young Dwarrow started to get restless and/or bored.

 

“I know I could shoot one.”

 

“No one is doubting your aim, lad, but those things don’t look eatable. Save your arrows.”

 

“But not for the white stag,” Bilbo butted in insistently from the front. “We talked about that. I don’t care if they hail the Green Lady or the Hunter; you see any white stag, doe, or another unusual animal, you leave it the fuck alone. That goes for all of you.”

 

There was a lot of groaning at that because they must have gone over that part as often as every other doctrine they currently followed – ration the food, ration the water, don’t leave the path, don’t trust the trees, and don’t shoot anything unless it’s actively trying to kill you – over a thousand times already, but Bilbo insisted that there couldn’t be enough warning in this matter. Bilbo and Beorn had argued about the details quite a lot, as Hobbit-lore said the white stag and its herd were sent by Yavanna to aid the Ents in protecting forests, and the skin-changer insisted Oromë had once invoked them to have challenging prey, and some had been left in reclusive parts of the world where they foiled hunters they deemed not worthy. They had, however, agreed on two parts: the white stag was a guardian spirit, and messing with it was about the most stupid idea one could have, especially in this kind of forest.

 

That definitely qualified as a thing worth mention again and again, and Bilbo might be losing grip on what they had and hadn’t talked about already. Just because it wasn’t as bad as they had feared didn’t mean the forest didn’t take its toll.

 

Right. He had to make sure they didn’t lose the path and didn’t upset the forest or each other so much someone ended up dead. That the only change in the scenery around them was that the air steadily growing staler as the daylight dimmed around them didn’t help either.

 

At least there weren’t any unusual spider webs anywhere in sight. Yet.

Chapter Text


 

Nori couldn’t remember when the webs had started to appear in the trees, but they were there now, disturbing in their size, and blocking what little light the ancient trees might have let through the foliage. They didn’t cross the path, but Nori was wondering how the spiders went from one side of the path to the other if not via their nets, and he was scared to find out.

 

A lot of things scared him currently, and the thief didn’t know how to deal with that. He knew fear, intimately. Being caught unprepared or by the wrong person in the wrong place with the wrong kind of items in his pockets; accidentally leading unsavoury people to his brothers or his Hobbit; not managing to reach the next hideout before the weather turned for the worst; watching his family starve or freeze or both. Those fears he knew, and many more, but that was the point: He knew them, their cause, and how to counteract them. Then there were the spiders (though they hadn’t seen one yet), the odd light, and sometimes he saw things between the trees he was absolutely certain couldn’t be there. He couldn’t do anything against the fears that caused, but at least he knew what they were. To make matters worse were all of them repeatedly losing track of the time of days, and the Company had long since lost track of how long they were already trudging through the forest. It felt like years, and the bodiless eyes in the night were not exactly comforting either. That spelt trouble for their supplies, but that, too, he could deal with.

 

The things Nori couldn’t name were the problem. How was he supposed to counter something when he didn’t know what it was? But he had to do something, so when they travelled, Nori walked up and down the line, counting heads and beards, and at night he either kept watch or buried his face in Bilbo’s amber curls with his brothers at his back and the remaining Company around them, and prayed that the forest would soon end.

 

They tried to pass the time with stories of the past and future, what to do if they reclaimed the mountain (and suddenly it was `if´ again, not `when´). When he was especially grumpy, Thorin would threaten everyone with lordship and seats at the council. He didn’t have concrete positions in mind yet, but he claimed Thorin would go through with it. However, that lost its entertaining value soon, and after so long in each other’s company, every story started to sound familiar, though there were still surprises to be had.

 

“I keep seeing Azog’s Warg between the trees,” Dori groaned one day when they were settling down for the night. At least they assumed it would grow dark soon; more often than not it happened a lot sooner or much later than expected. The thief didn’t ask why of all the possible things his brother saw that, just as he was very unlikely to ever name what he himself saw during the worst hours.

 

“I don’t think you need to worry about that.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Well,”