It was love at first sight, unfortunately.
Bilbo Baggins was a practical hobbit. As a confirmed bachelor, he was accustomed to circumspection and restraint when it came to the matter of love. It helped that he had lived in the Shire all his life and, at the age of fifty, had already met and pined over and parted ways with everyone he was ever reasonably going to fall in love with. Or so he had believed until the very odd evening when thirteen strangers turned up on his doorstep, the last and chief amongst them particularly tall and dark and handsome.
A dwarven king.
A haughty, sombre, mildly exasperating dwarven king.
Thorin Oakenshield was altogether exactly the sort of king that Bilbo had been foolishly falling in love with, albeit in stories, ever since he was a fauntling on his mother's knee. Never before had there been such a figure in the Shire, let alone in Bilbo's sitting room, and thus with no practice and preparation with which to defend himself, there was nothing for Bilbo to do but resign himself to a mildly embarrassing bout of unrequited love. Far deeper-running, rather more Tookish currents had carried him out his door in pursuit of adventure, but a solemn-eyed king who could sing like stone given voice was, he had to admit, additional incentive.
Of course, Bilbo was not so base and crass (or foolhardy) a creature as to spend all day gawking at the company's leader. In the first days of their journey, he found no shortage of pleasant scenery and novelties to distract him. He even thought, once or twice in his green ignorance, that a quest was not entirely unlike a rambling holiday. To be sure, long hours of riding took the place of long hours of walking, and this was a tad more arduous for a hobbit whose backside was not as well-protected as his feet. So too were there decidedly fewer stops throughout the day for picnicking or mushroom-hunting or a brandy-tasting at a cosy inn, but still, there was enough of the familiar in climbing gentle hills in slightly awkward company to keep Bilbo from looking over his shoulder in worry as the Shire faded from sight behind him.
The weather was fair at first, and the terrain familiar. They rode across sun-dappled fields bordered by hedges and wild thickets of raspberries and currants and elderflowers that perfumed the air with summer sweetness. The dwarves sang merry songs and made conversation amongst themselves, and the younger ones were keen to ask Bilbo all manner of questions about hobbit-folk and the Shire in order to pass the time.
Yet dark grey clouds gathered overhead, and in time the woodland closed around them. Strange sounds whispered and whistled and whooped from all directions.
"It's probably only a wolf," Fíli said unhelpfully when a sharp rustle nearly startled Bilbo from his saddle.
"Maybe it's a boar," Ori said, sounding hopeful at the prospect. He had, Bilbo recalled, made short work of an entire pound of bacon before leaving Bag End.
The memory of a proper breakfast, whether first or second, was a pleasant one. The thought of old Farmer Sandybanks, who'd had a bad turn in the sty and was eaten by his hogs—less so.
"It sounds like a bear," Kíli chimed in, unable to hide the glee in his voice.
Bilbo suspected he was being made sport of, but he could not help twisting around in his seat nonetheless to cast his gaze about. For all he knew, dwarves considered bears a laughing matter. He saw only Dwalin riding behind him: big as a bear, certainly, and nearly as hairy as one, but no immediate threat.
"Fox," Dwalin said brusquely, jerking his chin to the left.
Bilbo followed his line of sight and spied a streak of russet fur dodging the first raindrops.
"Oh," he said weakly. "Right."
His pony, taking its cue from all his fidgeting, slowed to plod alongside Dwalin's. Bilbo attempted to urge it back ahead, but when it paid him no heed, he quickly gave up. He doubted there would be much in the way of conversation here, but there was nonetheless something a little reassuring about Dwalin. He was Bilbo's first dwarf, so to speak. True, they were better acquainted only by a quarter-hour or so, but as the company rode further into lands unknown, Bilbo was prepared to find friendship where he could.
Besides, Bilbo took comfort in telling himself that if you could get over the shock of someone like Dwalin turning up at your table, you were suitably prepared for anything to follow. He was extraordinarily tall, nearly as tall as one of the big folk, and he was as solid as a boulder. His scars—that nasty slash across one eye and his ear half torn off by who knew what—marked him as a professional warrior as surely as his enormous arms and enormous axes. His shaved pate and the markings upon it in ink were a source of fascination for Bilbo's curious eye, as was his jewellery, which was not at all dainty decoration, but rather thick pieces of engraved metal pierced right through the flesh.
If you were going to be swept away on an adventure by a dwarf, hopefully to return alive and with a ripping tale, surely a hammer-wielding giant in leather and fur was the best you could hope for.
Yet for all Dwalin's fearsomeness, he was not precisely frightening. Certainly, he was not as intimidating as their poised and regal leader. Moreover, he was not at all stand-offish and clearly seemed to be keeping watch over the company, making sure that no one was straying from the path. More guardian than mercenary, Bilbo thought, and then jumped when thunder rumbled in the distance.
One of the young brothers laughed, and Dwalin looked up sharply. His gaze flicked over Bilbo and then, without comment, he lobbed a piece of hard bread at Kíli's head in rebuke.
"Sorry, Mr. Dwalin!" Kíli yelped.
Sheepish but grateful, Bilbo firmed up his posture and rode on—surreptitiously scanning the sky for lightning. The wild might not be the place for gentle folk, but at least it seemed that Dwalin did not mean to abandon him to his fate.
If he could have brought one thing with him from home, Bilbo had cause to muse a few days later, it would be his bathtub. He didn't care what they had to do—have Gandalf shrink it down to the size of a thimble so he could carry it in his pocket, or else rig it up on a cart pulled by two ponies and let the blasted rain fill it up—but what he wouldn't have given for a long soak at the end of a hard day's travel. After a few days more, he amended his wish and would have even settled for the bathtub in the state the dwarves had left it, ringed with dirt and clogged with hair.
The dwarves did not seem put out by washing in a cold river or fast-running brook. They were surprisingly regular in their bathing habits, but even though Bilbo was starting to itch terribly, he was not overly motivated to strip half-naked in their company and risk chilling his lungs by jumping into icy water. He made do with washing his hands and face as the others dunked their heads and combed out their hair and beards, and then he made a show of checking on his pony with politely averted eyes when they began to undress.
It was all as proper as could be managed, until a certain morning when Bilbo's gaze was turned in the wrong direction.
The sun had just peeped over the horizon, causing a glare that made Bilbo squint and put his back to the dawn. He looked to the river instead, and there was Thorin stripping off his shirt. The back he bared was broad and pale, and when he tossed the shirt to join his coat, he revealed a very well-made chest covered in quite a bit of dark hair. Kneeling down and bending over, Thorin plunged his head into the river. He rose, blowing his cheeks, and then immersed himself again.
Bilbo stared, swallowing hard as Thorin gathered two great handfuls of water and river-sand and set about briskly scrubbing his chest and under his arms. If he had his bathtub in tow, he decided, he would generously let Thorin borrow it. Provided he was allowed to sit nearby and watch...
He chided himself—oh, honestly!—and tore his gaze away guiltily.
That was when he spied someone else watching Thorin.
Dwalin was sitting on a fallen log just to Bilbo's left. He too was bare-chested, his braces and the top half of his combinations dangling about his waist. He was roughly combing out his wet beard, and as if sensing Bilbo's surprise, he looked suddenly away from his perusal of his king and met Bilbo's eyes.
Bilbo felt himself turn crimson. He ought to have feigned ignorance and said nothing at all, but when faced by the drawing together of Dwalin's impressive eyebrows, he could not help but blurt out: "Sorry!"
Dwalin looked at him for a long moment, his expression unreasonable. Then he looked briefly again to Thorin—whose back, now wet, gleamed in the early morning light—and snorted.
Sudden understanding nearly knocked Bilbo off his feet. He was intimately familiar that sort of look. He knew that rueful sound as well, and had more than once made it himself, accompanied by just that sort of head-shake that Dwalin was currently executing. It had not occurred to him that dwarves had confirmed bachelors as well. They seemed far too...well, he could not say exactly what they were that precluded the predilection, save that it somehow involved chest hair and weaponry.
It then occurred to him, in just as quick and mortifying a flash, that perhaps there was something else to apologise for. Was he trespassing? Did Dwalin and Thorin share some sort of understanding? Although the thought of dwarves partaking in that particular eccentricity had a moment ago seemed ridiculous, if any pair seemed to be bosom friends and something more, it was certainly those two.
"I didn't mean—" Bilbo babbled, "—I mean, don't mind me—if you two are—if I—"
"No," Dwalin said brusquely.
"No?" Bilbo echoed.
Dwalin's expression was no longer so difficult to decipher.
"Oh." Bilbo offered a wry smile in sympathy. He shrugged and put his hands in his pockets. "We should form a supper club."
Dwalin frowned, clearly suspicious.
"It's a joke," Bilbo said. "Or rather, it's a saying. 'We should form a supper club.' When you have something in common that you'd rather not. 'You hate your mother-in-law? Me too. We should form a supper club.'"
"What's a supper club?"
"Well," Bilbo said, rocking on his heels and trying to think of how best to explain it to someone who was not well-acquainted with cutlery. "It's when you get together with friends to have a meal, formally I mean. You need to be invited, and there's usually a theme. Some clubs are for wild game, and some are for a meal and a ramble, or for foreign food, or for dinner and cards. A proper nine courses usually do the trick, but it's the full twenty-one for special occasions."
"Hmph," Dwalin said, and Bilbo was reminded of his grudging compliments about his cooking. "You live well, hobbits, don't you?"
Bilbo sighed wistfully, thinking about the matter of breakfast and baths. "We try."
The polite thing to do would have been to mind his own business.
At home, Bilbo wouldn't have dreamed of poking his nose into another hobbit's heartbreak uninvited. However, that was a moot point, as there hadn't been any other so-inclined hobbits in his circle of friends since Olo Hamson had moved to Bree five years ago. Gossip spread like wildfire in the Shire, or worse, like the winter sniffles, going 'round and 'round in season and then popping back up the next year for good measure. There was no keeping a secret there, least of all about something as scandalous as a bachelors' affair.
Yet curiosity gnawed at him, and there was precious little else to do on the road but watch and wonder. Finally, when the rain had eased up and the company had made camp for the afternoon to hunt and forage, Bilbo found his pluck and asked:
"Is Thorin married?"
Most of the others had gone into the woods with their weapons. Dori, who had already brought down a quail from the path with his throwing weights, sat a little ways down-river, plucking the bird and laying the feathers aside for safekeeping. Gandalf was napping under a tree, and Bombur was sharpening a set of butchering knives.
"No," Dwalin said, not looking up from his task of picking over a net full of mussels next to where Bilbo was fishing.
"Ah," Bilbo said. He felt a nibble on his line and gave it some play. "I just thought, because he's a king and all..."
Dwalin frowned at him, but it did not seem to be an expression of annoyance so much as puzzlement.
"You know," Bilbo said, gesturing vaguely. "Heirs."
Understanding lightened Dwalin's brow. "Fíli and Kíli are his sister's sons."
"Right," Bilbo said uncertainly. "But he likes..."
He then made a hand motion that he knew, as he was making it, did not even remotely communicate "women-folk" and likely made Dwalin think that hobbit lasses were very strange.
Or, judging by the sideways look he was given, made Dwalin think that Bilbo was very strange.
"I only meant," Bilbo's mouth continued before his brain could put a stop to it, "that you're obviously very close. He obviously...cares about you."
Dwalin grunted in the affirmative, peering at a misshapen mussel shell and tapping on it before tossing it back into the river.
"But you two aren't..."
Dwalin grunted in the negative.
"Right," Bilbo said.
Dwalin inspected another mussel for a time and then said, almost grudgingly: "He has his eyes set on the mountain."
Bilbo inspected the words from all sides before sussing out their meaning. "But not, ah, right in front of his nose?"
The corner of Dwalin's mouth quirked, half-hidden between his beard and moustache.
Bilbo had read that dwarves loved loyally, and that there were some who never married at all for the love of their craft. It seemed to follow naturally that Thorin would not marry—or love—while Erebor was still before him. It was all very romantic, like the best of poems, and it made Bilbo feel like a cad of the worst order for his idle infatuation. An apology was on his lips, but at that moment the nibble on the line turned to a hard pull and Bilbo leapt to his feet.
A brief fight followed as he endeavoured to flip a good-sized perch out of the water. He nearly fell backwards with the effort of it, but after three ungainly attempts on his part, the fish flopped onto the shore. It was caught up by Dwalin, who brought it to a quick end against a rock.
Bilbo beamed in triumph and then cursed the fact that hardly anyone had seen him land the thing. He might not have had much adventuring experience, but summer days spent roaming the countryside with his cousins as a boy had not left him entirely useless. Dwalin tossed the fish back to him, looking thoughtful. Bilbo's smile faded, and he wondered if he had overstepped with all his questions. He found himself looked over in appraisal once, then twice, and could not help but lean back warily.
"That fish you made for dinner," Dwalin finally asked, "how did you get it so crispy?"
"That fish I made for my dinner, you mean?"
Dwalin waved his hand dismissively.
"Well," Bilbo said, blinking away his surprise and looking Dwalin over in appraisal in turn before confiding: "You make three cuts on either side, just here..."
He demonstrated with a fingertip on the perch.
"...then you season the fish all over with salt and mace and dredge it in just a touch of flour. It goes in a middling hot frying pan with a bit of oil, a few minutes each side, until it's cooked through."
"There was a lemon," Dwalin reminded him.
"There was," Bilbo agreed, refraining from pointing out that he had paid for that lemon and never even got to taste it. "Right at the end, or else it makes the fish soggy. Just a drizzle to brighten it up."
Dwalin's stomach let out a ferocious grumble, and Bilbo's whined in sympathy. He laughed, embarrassed, and they exchanged wry smiles. What he wouldn't give for a lemon now, he thought, and even a pinch of flour. Yet as he took out his pocket knife and set about gutting the fish, he supposed there was an odd sort of kinship in a shared longing for what couldn't be had.
"Kíli!" Dwalin roared. "Guard your back!"
Kíli spun, dodging his elder brother's swing, and then jumped back with a cheeky grin. The clash of steel and iron filled the air, almost deafening, but the muffled thump of flesh and bone in between made Bilbo wince.
He sat well clear as the dwarves sparred with each other. The vigour with which they fought should not have surprised him, but it was one thing to read about the might of dwarven armies and another to see thirteen companions dive into the fray as though they were merely taking light exercise. Even the gentlest of them were capable of landing blows that made Bilbo's ears ring, and so he tried to make his status as an uninvolved spectator clear by sticking close to Gandalf as Dori headbutted Óin and Balin ruthlessly swept Thorin's feet out from under him.
The dwarves traded weapons amongst themselves, axes and swords flying through the air as needed and called for. There was a pattern to it, Bilbo soon noticed. Brother aided brother for the most part, although the princes shared easily with Ori, and it seemed to him as though only Dwalin of the older dwarves lent his weapons widely. It was strange to think of him so, but Dwalin was obviously a teacher as much as a fighter—woe betide any schoolboy who hoped to escape with only a rapped set of knuckles.
Bilbo's attention was then drawn to Thorin, who was locked in a whirling exchange of blows with Balin. Thorin had stripped down to his shirtsleeves and was fighting fiercely, his hair flying and his gaze fixed and full of fire. Bilbo fidgeted, aware of a flush creeping up on him. He made to loosen his collar, and as if aware of him even in such circumstances, Thorin glanced his way. Balin pressed forward in the lapse, but Thorin blocked his swing blindly.
Blushing harder, Bilbo looked aside, his gaze falling next upon Dwalin, who flashed his teeth in what might have been a smile or a snarl before he was tackled by Dori.
That night, the images lingered along with the heat of the day. The air was stifling, lying heavily on top him as he tried to get comfortable enough to sleep, and beneath him the earth was hard and uneven. He was perky despite his discomfort, teetering unbearably on the edge of arousal. He had not had any time alone with his hand since leaving home, and while he had been too exhausted to even want to up until now, the urge had returned with a vengeance.
He wiggled. He turned over. He turned back over and wiggled again. The fact that he was even considering the prospect of stealing away from camp by himself, in the darkness, spoke to his need.
Maybe, he thought, he could be very quick and very quiet. He reached down to adjust himself and then, after only an instant's hesitation, eased open the buttons on his trousers. Even that seemed perilously loud. He stopped. Then he tried again, making brief work of his placket. His underclothes rustled like paper, and his stomach flip-flopped. He agonised over whether to stop, but his cock was already rising up imperiously, demanding to be dealt with.
That was when Dwalin started snoring.
Suspiciously so, in fact.
This was officially the third-most embarrassing circumstance that had ever surrounded one of his attempts at self-attention, but in that moment Bilbo could only let his cheeks burn and silently bless the indulgence of unsubtle dwarves.
He closed his eyes and quickly wanked under the cover of Dwalin's noisy breathing. There was no use imagining himself back in his cosy bed, and so he did not bother with the pleasure of a saucy tale. Instead, he fantasised only in hurried glimpses. Thorin, sweating, his muscles straining. Thorin, singing low in the firelight. Thorin, smiling. Thorin and Dwalin, their heads bent together, engaged in silent conversation, their arms touching, one step away from being pressed chest to chest...
Bilbo finished with a quivering gasp. He sealed his mouth shut to keep from drawing attention to himself and then, before he had even eased, wiped his fingers off on the terrible "handkerchief" borrowed from Bofur, which he then hastily balled up and shoved into his pocket. His breathing slowed. The worst of the tension subsided, though the ground was no softer and the night no cooler.
Dwalin's snoring eased back to the volume Bilbo was familiar with, and then it lightened even further. In time, it stopped altogether, and Bilbo then heard Dwalin get up and walk quietly away from camp into the darkness on his own.
"A goose," Bilbo mused, riding through the rainy morning at Dwalin's side. Though his stomach was full of a handful of walnuts and some travelling bread, his mouth nonetheless watered as he described exactly what he would cook for their imaginary supper club night.
"I'll score it with a very sharp knife across the breast and legs so all the gorgeous golden fat can render out. Then I'll take four whole lemons and grate the yellow off, mix it with salt and mace, then rub that all over the bird, inside and out."
Dwalin groaned. His eyes were closed, and so only Bilbo saw when Thorin glanced back at them. Was that a spark of jealousy in Thorin's eyes, or only annoyance?
"You can't waste lemons," Bilbo continued. "So the fruit will go inside the goose with a handful each of sage, parsley, and thyme sprigs."
"Hobbit-handfuls or real ones?" Dwalin asked.
"I'll let you do the stuffing," Bilbo promised, but only because he would never have to. He'd had quite enough of dwarves helping out in his kitchen. "And you can do the next bit too, because the secret is pan-frying the bird before you roast it. You hoist it up by the legs and press it down in the big frying pan before it goes into the roasting tin."
Dwalin nodded seriously, as if he might be held accountable to this at a later date.
"Then I'll drizzle the whole thing with honey and sprinkle a few more of the thyme leaves on top before putting it in the oven to roast."
"The smell of it..." Dwalin growled.
Bilbo sighed his agreement. "Basted on the half-hour, to keep it moist."
"What'll you do with the drippings?" Dwalin asked.
"I'll keep them for the vegetables. There's nothing like turnips and carrots cooked in goose fat."
Dwalin closed his eyes again and made a positively wicked sound that drew Thorin's attention once more—and that of half the company. Unsure of how exactly to succinctly communicate that he and Dwalin were not, in fact, talking about anything untoward, Bilbo could only smile tightly and then pretend to notice a passing bird.
"Potatoes," Dwalin declared in the afternoon when they were leading their ponies across the increasingly rocky ground. "In salt."
Bilbo waited for elaboration and then nodded. It wasn't very imaginative, but at this point in the journey, the thought of a floury baked potato or little pan-fried fingerlings with a sprinkling of salt sounded just fine.
"Maybe a little butter?" he suggested.
Dwalin shook his head and clarified: "Not with salt—in it."
"What do you mean?"
"You take a great big pan of salt..."
Bilbo's eyes widened as Dwalin's hands shaped the equivalent of a roasting tin that could hold a suckling pig. "That would cost a fortune."
Dwalin gave him a smug look, and Bilbo recalled that it was dwarf merchants who traded in salt, and mountain dwarves who mined it. There was surely a discount to be had, buying it at the source.
"You bury the potatoes in the salt," Dwalin explained. "Cleave a few heads of garlic in half and stick 'em in there too. Then you roast 'em, and they come out as crispy-skinned as a goose."
Bilbo nearly swooned at the thought. "Maybe a little rosemary..."
Yet in the night, sitting up on first watch while the rest of the company bedded down, it wasn't food they spoke of.
"No," Bilbo admitted. "There aren't many confirmed bachelors in the Shire. A few. But you have to be discreet."
Dwalin did not seem to recognise the term, and he shrugged his shoulders. From what Bilbo had gathered, it was true that male dwarves outnumbered female ones, and it seemed they had taken a pragmatic approach to this. Yet for all that, there also seemed to be nothing easier to the longing in Dwalin's eyes as he looked back at the shallow cavern where Thorin lay sleeping.
If he had travelled so far to see nothing but the beauty of Rivendell, he could die a happy hobbit.
The dwarves were of a decidedly different opinion, but even they seemed relieved by the opportunity to rest their feet and spend the night indoors. Bilbo would have loved to see the whole of the estate, and the library in particular, but he was tethered from wandering too far by the suspicions of several members of the company. Dwalin in particular seemed to think he was at risk of being stolen away by elves if he strayed from the group.
"You'd be better off watching over your king," Bilbo said. "Getting lost in Hobbiton, honestly. Now that takes skill."
Yet he did admittedly get a little turned around by the spiralling curves of elven architecture upon leaving the bath. He had thought himself the only one polite enough to ask Elrond's steward—who was going to be white-haired by the end of the visit, if elves could go white—about private bathing accommodations, and when he finished with the most thorough scrubbing of his life, he managed to head in the wrong direction and ran into Thorin in the corridor.
The king too, it seemed, had been at his ablutions. He had just left one of the bath rooms and was still lacing up his trousers. His skin was flushed and damp, and his hair hung wet about his shoulders, and when he saw Bilbo, he gave what was nearly a companionable grimace that seemed intended to communicate some shared grievance about elven bathing practices. To be fair, the tubs were unreasonably tall, to the point where Bilbo had nearly needed a ladder to climb out of his.
He attempted a smile in return, swallowing hard, and congratulated himself for not openly staring at Thorin's laces.
That night, Bilbo lay close to Dwalin as a hint and proceeded to have a hasty bout with himself while Dwalin snored obligingly. He might have simply gone to sleep afterwards, but it occurred to him that Dwalin could go wandering off again, and he did not wish to be held even remotely responsible for poor Lindir catching a burly dwarf abusing himself all over some ancient relic.
"Ah," he whispered uncertainly. "If you need any help..."
Dwalin rolled over to face him. His eyes gleamed in the darkness as he looked Bilbo up and down. He shrugged. "All right."
Bilbo had of course meant "help" in the way of snoring or otherwise causing a minor distraction to keep the rest of the company from overhearing. He had not in fact meant "help" in the way of giving Dwalin's cock a tug. This really was something he ought to have clarified, but by the time Dwalin had unfastened his trousers, Bilbo was already coming around to the idea. It had been a very long time since he had been able to share his bed with a friend, and there were certain things worth doing if only to say they had been done. When might he ever get the chance again to put his hands on a dwarf?
He reached over cautiously in the darkness and had a feel. A small shiver of mingled intrigue and alarm coursed through him when he felt the size of what was rising behind Dwalin's underclothes. It continued to thicken beneath his hesitant touch until it was as big around as Bilbo's wrist and impressively long as well. Bilbo considered the matter and then squared his shoulders stubbornly. Hobbits might have been small folk, but they did not shy from big jobs.
His fingers sought out the gap in Dwalin's combinations. He did not find anything particularly strange inside: just what he would expect, only quite a bit bigger and surrounded by rather more hair. Bilbo wiggled closer—this certainly called for both hands—and to his surprise, Dwalin's arm curled companionably around him.
With his eyes shut, it would have been easy to pretend it was Thorin he was touching. Strong arms. Coarse hair. A loud heartbeat lubbing away close to his ear. Dwarves had a faint odour common to all of them, Bilbo had discovered. It was salty and sharp and not altogether unpleasant. For a single second, he let himself imagine it: Thorin drawing him into an embrace, needful, having been lonely and strong for so long that he trembled beneath Bilbo's touch.
Yet Dwalin did not tremble. He was admirably silent, breathing in and out slowly. His hand moved down Bilbo's back until it reached his bottom, settling there to have a good squeeze. Bilbo pulled at him steadily, feeling him swell to straining length, all of him hot to the touch and astonishingly sturdy. He was no youth ready to pop another sprout so soon after spending his seed, but it was a near thing with Dwalin's hand spanning the whole of his backside, kneading and groping, and he felt a rush of heat spread through him from his cheeks to his loins as he tugged Dwalin off to what proved to be quite a messy finish.
Dwalin betrayed himself with no more than a long breath out as he came. He sagged briefly against Bilbo like a great big sleepy hound, and then to Bilbo's consternation pulled out from his pocket a perfectly serviceable looking pocket handkerchief to address the issue.
"Where did you get that?" Bilbo hissed.
Dwalin only winked, but he was good enough to share it.
"I've never been so wrong in all my life."
Bilbo would remember until the end of his days the first time Thorin embraced him. The feeling of being held in his arms was stranger and more wondrous than being borne aloft on the back of an eagle. Bilbo was too stunned to properly reciprocate, his stomach turning somersaults and fancy leaps as his senses attempted to convince him he wasn't dreaming. He could smell the smoke in Thorin's hair and in his clothing. He could feel the warmth of him, the strength in his grasp. He thought he felt the faintest brush of Thorin's lips against his cheek.
"I am sorry I doubted you."
The words stayed with him like the lingering taste of something sweet long after the company regrouped. His arms were beginning to hurt very badly—they never mentioned that about sword-fighting in the stories—but the pain was an oddly distant thing, and he barely registered the jolt, or any of the fear he ought to have felt, when Dwalin seized him by the shoulder and led him away from where the others were setting up camp.
"You saved his life," Dwalin said, cornering him in the private space behind a jutting stone hill.
"Well," Bilbo scoffed, feeling as though he should shrug it off. The company had been saving each other's lives ever since they left the Shire, or rather, everyone had been saving Bilbo's life. It only seemed fair that he finally returned the favour.
Dwalin shook his head. He always looked serious, but now there was something hard in his eyes.
"You saved his life," he said again.
Bilbo nodded uncertainly. Yes, he supposed he had.
Dwalin's embrace was far different from Thorin's. He seized Bilbo by both his shoulders and pushed their brows together. Bilbo flinched, immediately thinking of the solid stag-clap of Balin and Dwalin crashing their heads together in his front room, but Dwalin pulled the blow and made it a mere tap. It still hurt a little, but Bilbo had just fought off an orc and managed to stifle his cry of discomfort.
"You would have done the same," he said, his lips nearly against the tip of Dwalin's nose. He was shaking a little. He hadn't noticed that until he found himself held up by steady hands.
"Aye," Dwalin said. "I would have."
Bilbo's knees were suddenly wobbly. He had to sit down or he thought he might fall over. He lowered himself into the grass, his back against a large, flat stone. He could not imagine Dwalin being as afraid as he had been. Dwalin was stronger, faster, bolder. And yet he remembered the desperate sound of Dwalin roaring Thorin's name and understood that there was more than one way to be frightened.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Dwalin nodded, but stiffly. He sat down beside Bilbo like a small avalanche and could not keep back a very tired-sounding sigh as he did so.
"I don't want to say that was a fluke..."
Dwalin snorted rudely.
"All right, it was entirely a fluke. But if I can do it again, I will."
"He'll need looking out for," Dwalin said, shaking his head. "He won't be cautious, not when we're so close."
"Then we'll look out for him," Bilbo replied.
They were mad words, boastful words, but in that moment he felt as if he could follow through on them. He didn't know if he would be as lucky next time, but Dwalin generally seemed to have things well in hand. If he felt he needed an ally in the rare gaps, then perhaps, Bilbo considered, he could be of some small help.
That was when Dwalin kissed him. This time he knew he wasn't imagining it, for it was a proper kiss: lips fully on his own and a large amount of beard everywhere else.
"You'll feel better if you have it out," Dwalin said, looming over him and already starting in on Bilbo's buttons. "It'll settle your nerves."
Bilbo found himself crushed back against the rock, but his cock did not protest and neither did the rest of him. It took some manoeuvrings—Bilbo was briefly smothered by the weight on top him—but Dwalin seemed willing to curl down and risk putting his back out in order to get off. The feeling of the summer air was wicked on his private places, for Bilbo had not dallied outside since he was a youth, and least of all with a company of dwarves only on the other side of a hill, but the breeze was soon held at bay by the reassuring heat of Dwalin's skin against his own.
There was a distinct advantage, Bilbo soon discovered, to very large hands. They were interestingly rough, and one of them could barely fit down the front of Bilbo's trousers, but when it got there, it was broad enough to completely swallow him up. Dwalin was surprisingly gentle with him, as if he wasn't used to being with someone so much smaller and was erring towards care. Bilbo got him in a sure hold and demonstrated that he was not as delicate as he looked. It was a quick and inelegant business that followed, their hands twined together, the smell of sweat and fire still hanging over them and the ghost of Thorin's embrace lingering. Bilbo's legs scrabbled for purchase as the quick, pressing rhythm drove him towards his peak; he grasped a handful of Dwalin's beard, yanking despite himself. A growl rumbled against the side of his neck and when Dwalin came, the slick smear of his spending in their tangled-up grip pushed Bilbo over to follow post-haste.
Dwalin was right. He did feel quite a lot better afterwards, sleepy and heavy and calmer. The pain throbbed in his arms and a few other choice spots where he had been bruised in the fight, but his head felt clearer and he was no longer trembling. Dwalin cleaned them both up and then helped him to his feet, clasping his arm in a tight squeeze and sealing their fellowship.
"You poach the pears in butter until they're brown. The sweetness in the pears makes a caramel, you see, and it gets crispy around the edges. Then you toast the walnuts in a pan and pour the caramel over them. The walnuts go on top of the pears, and then a big dollop of clotted cream goes on top of the walnuts..."
Bilbo was frightened. He was more frightened than he had ever been of anything in his life, save perhaps when he was a fauntling, in the fell winter when lean, hungry wolves circled the Shire and the high, eerie cries in the night nearly made him wet the bed. Yet he was surrounded by friends, and Thorin seemed so sure of their prospects, and Dwalin was behind him with newly sharpened axes.
"Honey cakes," Dwalin murmured softly to him as they haunted the empty corridors of Erebor. "I don't know how you make 'em, but my mother did."
Something in Dwalin's voice sent a pang through his chest. This dark, deserted place was their home. He had known that when he had heard them sing of pine trees and stone, and of mines full of gold. Up until this moment, however, he had not put the thought together with the things he loved best about the Shire: family, and kitchens, and cakes for tea. A mother had made pudding for her sons here. He recalled the tears that had glistened in Balin's eyes and wanted very much to reach out and touch Dwalin's hand.
"Fluffy or dense?" he asked instead.
"Fluffy," Dwalin said. "Light as air."
"I bet they soak up the honey."
Dwalin hummed. "Blackberry juice too."
"Yes," Bilbo sighed. "What about sweet wine?"
"Mead," Dwalin said, nodding solemnly.
He thought of that as he ventured down into the dragon's den, and in the fracas that followed. Cakes, he told himself desperately for courage. Victory. The way Thorin would smile, triumphant and joyful, when Erebor was recovered. Everyone would be all right. There would be food and drink, singing and dancing (did dwarves even dance, he wondered), and all the comforts of home. Surely there was a hall here just for great feasts, and Bilbo would gladly eat from the dwarves' table and have his revenge for what they had done to his own. Or perhaps he would lend a hand, just to show who was the most magnanimous. Roast goose, he thought. Lemons. Cakes.
"Does Thorin seem strange to you?" he whispered.
Dwalin's hands tightened around the grip of his axes. He said nothing, but that seemed answer enough.
"I don't...I don't think he's all right." Bilbo wasn't certain he could have voiced his worries to anyone else, but he and Dwalin had made a pact to look out for Thorin. "You know him better than I do. If you think..."
He trailed off, met with disheartening silence. For a long moment, Dwalin watched Thorin pacing. His mouth tightened, and then he shook his head slowly.
"You might be right."
Bilbo nearly sagged in relief. He was not alone.
"I think I might have an idea," he said. "But I'll need your help getting out of Erebor."
His heart was still pounding wildly when he returned from his secret business in Lake-town. He was a burglar in deed as well as name now, and the world moved slowly and strangely around him as he stole invisibly back into the halls of Erebor. The night sharpened to cool darkness once more as he took off the ring and slipped it into his empty pocket. He felt as though he might be sick with nerves, but he forced one foot in front of the other and continued quietly on through the empty corridors.
He and Dwalin met up as planned, not in the armoury where the rest of the company was lodging, but in one of the rooms above the treasury. There was a fire waiting there, and what useful tools could be gathered. Swallowing over a lump in his throat, Bilbo sat down on the floor and emptied out the bag he carried. He and Dwalin settled in shoulder to shoulder and worked together in near-silence, the sound of the crackling fire interrupted only now and then by a quiet question or brief instruction.
Meat had been scarce Lake-town, and Bilbo had not been able to bring himself to purloin what little there was, even for the gold and silver he had left behind in the pantries he'd infiltrated. Fish there was aplenty, and he had taken too a few loaves of rising bread and a small wheel of cheese, and beetroot, radishes, and sorrel—and plums and greengages too, with herbs and honey, and a small cask of beer and a pitcher of cream (with a ruby left behind in case the pitcher had sentimental value).
Butter melted in an old iron pan, browning and sizzling around the edges. The smell of frying fish and golden onions soon filled the room atop a backdrop of baking bread and tea cakes. Vegetables roasted and cheese melted, and the closed-in scent of long-sealed stone was chased away by the bright aroma of fresh fruit split in two and marinated in honey and herbs. He supposed it had been decades since anything of the sort had been prepared in Erebor, and it was little wonder that the smell travelled far and quickly. The door had been left ajar, and in time, Thorin found them.
"What is the meaning of this?"
Even by firelight, he looked dreadfully pale. His eyes were heavily shadowed; he obviously had not been sleeping. He was carrying his sword, and his hands were smudged with bruises and blood—his own. He had been tearing through the treasury, Balin had said. Looking for the Arkenstone. This was a far stranger enemy than the Pale Orc, but he and Dwalin had armed themselves as best they could.
Bilbo forced a cheerful smile as if nothing at all were amiss. "It's the first official meeting of the Erebor Supper Club."
Thorin stared back at him, hollow-eyed and uncomprehending.
"Sit down," Dwalin said.
"If you'd like," Bilbo quickly added, elbowing Dwalin in the ribs. Was that what he called a light touch? "We can't really have a club of two, so there's room for one more."
"I don't have time for this," Thorin said darkly. "None of us do. If you're awake, then make yourself useful and help me search instead of idling here, plotting—"
Bilbo sensed the danger in that last word and interrupted him, blurting out: "But Dwalin has something important to tell you!"
From the corner of his eye, he found himself pinned by a fiery glare whose heat rivalled the late and terrible Smaug's.
"He's in love with you, actually," Bilbo said, pressing on. "Did you know that?"
The frozen expression upon Thorin's face suggested that the answer was no. He stared, startled, as if Bilbo had suddenly started speaking Orcish.
"And so am I," Bilbo added, thinking that might at least allay Dwalin's anger with him. "But, ah, that, that doesn't matter as much..."
"Bollocks," Dwalin muttered darkly. "He's been glaring daggers at me since Rivendell."
Thorin shook his head as if trying to clear the fog that had descended upon him, and any doubt that the news might be met with anger or ambivalence lifted.
"Dwalin?" he asked uncertainly, looking at his brother in arms as he had when the door to Erebor had first failed to appear: lost and so much younger than his years.
"Aye," Dwalin said quietly. "I love you. Always have."
Thorin's lips parted. His expression flickered, and then he shook his head violently.
"No," he muttered. "No, you've taken him for yourself."
Bilbo was not sure which of them he was speaking to, but it hardly seemed to matter at this point. He stood up carefully. Had he trembled so badly when he had spoken in not so different a manner to Smaug? Yes, but barely. Yet he thought that Balin might have been right. Hobbits did have a certain kind of courage. It wasn't the sort of courage that spurred warriors into battle, but the subtler sort needed to live one's life amidst too many manners and stifling traditions.
"He wanted to wait to tell you until you had reclaimed your throne," Bilbo said gently. "He waited all this time for you, but now you've done it, and you two—"
"But I haven't," Thorin cried wretchedly.
Bilbo shook his head and waved his hand dismissively. "Oh, the details hardly count. The Arkenstone will turn up when the treasury's all accounted for, and Balin can arrange that when he's seeing to the distribution of the shares and paying out the folk in town—"
"I promised them nothing!"
Dwalin tensed visibly, and Bilbo knew with sinking certainty that it would soon come to blows if he did not speak quickly.
He feigned a gay laugh and hoped it did not sound half as hysterical as it felt. "Of course you didn't. You're wiser than I am on that front. Do you know, I paid a piece of gold the size of my fist for half a cup of flour!"
Confusion momentarily replaced anger upon Thorin's brow.
"From my own share, of course," Bilbo hastened to add. "That's how I got all this food. I went through any unlocked door I could find and left gold and jewels for whatever I stole. That's a silver's worth of fish right there. A ruby for a pitcher of cream! Can you imagine it? But then, they need so little, just enough to get back on their feet—I expect they'll be telling their grandchildren years from now about the time they went into the hen house and found a coin under the hen instead of an egg!"
For the first time in what seemed like many days, Thorin met Dwalin's eyes and they shared between them one of their silent conversations. The topic, Bilbo suspected, was whether the hobbit had gone mad.
"At least eat a little," Bilbo pressed. "We worked very hard on it."
Dwalin stood up as well and took Thorin firmly by the arm. Bilbo held his breath, but Thorin followed, unsteady as a sleepwalker. They all sat down in front of the fire, and Bilbo served their supper on smelting plates and in crucibles, with cautious, tight-throated silence. Thorin ate a piece of buttered bread with trembling hands. He drank a cup of ale as if he hadn't quenched his thirst in days. Eyes cast upon the floor, he then put away a slice of mustardy rarebit, sighing now as he chewed with increasing force, and then he ate an entire fried pike hot from the pan, snatching meat from the bones with his bare fingers.
Dwalin's arm came around Thorin's shoulders. "We'll have a proper coronation feast soon enough."
Thorin went still, staring down at his greasy fingers. "Dwalin..."
"I knew you'd do it," Dwalin said inarguably as he swiped a hunk of bread through the pan drippings. "Let Balin sort out the petty payments in the morning. He's got enough sense not to pay gold for potatoes, at least."
Thorin's shoulders slumped. Then he turned and with a strangled sound kissed Dwalin hard on the mouth. Dwalin was rocked back with the force of it and then braced himself, his hands winding in Thorin's hair. One of them made a low noise, half growl and half moan, though which one it was Bilbo could not say. A great shiver shook Dwalin's broad shoulders, his relief matched by Bilbo's soft exhalation. Then the kiss broke, and the two remained entangled, brow to brow, holding on to each other as if to let go was unthinkable.
Well, Bilbo thought. That was that. Unable to take his eyes from them, he got his feet carefully under him and made to sneak out—but Dwalin shot out a hand and grabbed him firmly around the wrist.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"Er," Bilbo stuttered, "to give you some privacy?"
"Sit your arse down," Dwalin said. "As you said, two's not a club."
To Thorin, he added: "Can't trust 'em with numbers, hobbits, but they've got a few good ideas."
There was a glimmer of speculation in Thorin's tired eyes as Bilbo was yanked down into Dwalin's lap. He wiggled briefly in protest but found there was nothing he could do but make himself comfortable. The mismatched platters were pulled unceremoniously closer, and they all three ate their fill and then some in what proved to be the most silent and exhausted supper Bilbo had ever been a party to. Little by little, somewhere between the hard-cooked eggs and the roasted beetroot, Thorin's chin began to dip, and in time he fell asleep with his hand on Bilbo's knee and his head on Dwalin's shoulder.
A wry look was shared over the King of Erebor's head, and there Bilbo and Dwalin sat with him in well-fed victory until the light of a better morning had dawned and the rack of tea cakes had long since burned to cinders on the fire.