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To Halve and to Hold

Chapter Text

Amidst all the chaos and carousing and Bilbo’s continued distressed flapping at the dwarves who’ve invaded his home, it is a wonder any of them hear the knocking at the door – but hear it they do, and his unexpected guests all fall very suddenly silent.

He,” Gandalf says into the quiet, with what Bilbo thinks must certainly be unwarranted gravity, “is here.”

The dwarf on the other side of the door when Bilbo answers it is— Well, he’s— He’s very handsome, if Bilbo is being honest with himself, tall and broad and muscular, with a strong, sharp nose and piercing blue eyes, and, well, Bilbo’s never been an especial fan of facial hair, as in his experience it’s only really found on Big Folk, but this dwarf wears it quite well, and the streaks of silver at his brow and temples are really rather regal looking, and—

And they’ve both been standing here staring at each other across the threshold for several long, silent seconds now, he realizes with a start as Gandalf comes up behind him.

“Bilbo Baggins,” the wizard says, dropping an enormous hand on his shoulder, “may I introduce Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of our company.”

The dwarf – Thorin – seems to shake himself and finally steps through the doorway, blinking wide eyes down at Bilbo as he strides past. It occurs to Bilbo a moment too late, at the strange thrill that goes through him with the close proximity, that he probably ought to have stepped back to allow the stranger through, but even inside the dwarf doesn’t go far, stands only a few paces away, still staring down at Bilbo like a starving man might look at the Midsummer Day’s party spread. Bilbo tears his eyes away at last to shut the door, and hears the conversation pick up behind his back.

“This is the hobbit?” the new dwarf asks, and is it Bilbo’s imagination or is there a slight strangled quality to his deep voice? “Your… burglar?

“Yes,” Gandalf answers cheerfully, either unaware of or unconcerned with the odd moment that had passed between them at the door.

“What?!” Bilbo squawks, spinning around to face the room again, but Gandalf pays him no heed and goes right on talking.

“As you might know, hobbits are quite light on their feet,” the wizard says, “and Bilbo here especially—”

“No.”

Gandalf does pause then, blinking in surprise at the abrupt dismissal from their newest arrival. “I… assure you, Master Oakenshield,” he continues, more slowly and slightly less jovial now, “he is quite up to the task.”

“No,” Thorin says again, more vehemently than before, shaking his head as he rips the cloak from his shoulders. One of the other dwarves – the short, white-haired one, Balin? – comes forward to take it from his hands, and he rounds on Gandalf and Bilbo again. “I would not care if he were the master of all burglars in the westerlands! I will not take this halfling on our quest, Tharkûn.”

“Now, really, Thorin, be reasonable,” Gandalf frowns, as Bilbo opens his mouth to say he has no interest in going off on some hare-brained quest in any case,  but he is drowned out by the chorus of cries that goes up from the dwarves spilling out of the dining room.

“Thorin—!”

“Uncle—!”

“But don’t we need a burglar?”

“We must have a fourteenth member!”

“It’s bad luck!”

“Did he say he was a master burglar?”

“I will not endanger my One!” Thorin Oakenshield roars above them all, cutting easily through the pandemonium, and there is an audible, collective intake of breath in his wake as the group quiets once more.

“Thorin,” the old one – Balin, Bilbo’s almost certain – murmurs into the silence, sounding full of awe. “Do you mean to say…?”

The dark-haired dwarf closes his eyes, draws in a breath through his teeth, and then gives a single, sharp nod.

There are, all of a sudden, thirteen pairs of eyes all staring at Bilbo with varying levels of wonderment and consideration, one wizard and twelve dwarves, and after a moment the thirteenth finally raises burning blue eyes to pin him in place as well.

“W-what?” Bilbo squeaks, blinking madly back at Thorin Oakenshield and only just resisting the urge to turn and flee from his own home.

Those blue eyes keep him frozen in place, though, and he watches as the dwarf draws in a long breath, squaring his shoulders. “Bilbo Baggins,” he rumbles, as though trying out the shape of the name in his mouth, his deep voice sending shudders running up Bilbo’s spine despite himself. “I am Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, most recently of the Blue Mountains, and heir to the throne of Erebor, which we,” he glances once over his shoulder at the dwarves behind him, who variously grin or wave at Bilbo, “intend to reclaim.”

Bilbo feels himself blanch at the word ‘throne.’ It’s not often they entertain royalty in Hobbiton! “Oh…” he murmurs, hearing a distant ringing in his ears, yet still thinking, somewhere in the back of his mind, that even royalty ought to wait for an invitation before coming over for supper.

“I regret that we have been forced to meet under such circumstances,” the dwarf continues, thick arms folding over his great barrel chest, “but once our quest is complete, I will send for you, or return in person so that we might court properly.”

Court?!” Bilbo chokes, and Thorin’s dark brows draw together into a scowl.

“Yes,” he snaps. Then, pausing for a moment, his frown only deepening, he adds, “Unless you are already wed to another?”

“No, I’m not—” Bilbo answers automatically, before catching himself. His ears are burning, his face is flushed, but he marshals his best returning glare, determined to stand his ground against this infuriating, intimidating, tall dwarf, at least while he’s still in his own home! He draws himself up to his full – admittedly meager – height, hands firmly on his hips. “I am not married, though I don’t see how that is any of your business. I don’t know why you’re all staring at me, and I’m afraid I must say I would really rather appreciate it if you stopped, as I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re on about!”

Thorin squints down at him as if he thinks Bilbo must be exceedingly thick. “You are my One,” he says simply, slowly, enunciating each word with great care.

Bilbo blinks up at him with a blank frown and asks, “One what?”

A murmur of astonishment goes through the dwarves, and Thorin rears back slightly, looking more and more thunderous with each passing second.

“If I may,” Gandalf cuts in then, and there is the curl of a barely suppressed chuckle in his voice, as if Bilbo is missing out on some very fine joke. “There is much lost in translation, I’m afraid, and I think I may be able to help explain.” He pauses, waiting for some sort of response, but Thorin doesn’t so much give his assent as refuse to remove his daggered stare from Bilbo’s face.

“What’s this all about, Gandalf?” Bilbo asks, striving to temper his tone yet finding he is equally unwilling to forfeit the staring contest with the dwarf lord.

“Dwarves have an ancient tale,” Gandalf begins, settling himself more comfortably on the bench against the wall, “from the time when the Valar formed the world. Aulë, whom they call Mahal, their Maker, cut the dwarves from the living stone of the world, and some of those pieces, it is said, were hewn in two.”

“Meaning…?” Bilbo prompts, frowning. Thorin, if anything, looks only more offended.

The wizard’s smile is clearly evident in his voice. “One soul in two bodies.”

“What— You can't mean— Soulmates?!” Bilbo yelps, and finally looks away from Thorin in favor of the smirking old man. “And you think that— that I am—?!”

“I do not think,” Thorin interrupts him, drawing Bilbo’s gaze back to him. “I know. A dwarf always recognizes their One.” Behind him, the other dwarves exchange nods and mutters of assent, as if that is all there is to it, a single word from their leader and it’s a done deal as far as they’re concerned!

It is Gandalf he appeals to again, after gawping like a fish for several seconds. “But I’m not a dwarf!” Bilbo cries, spinning to face the wizard in desperation.

“No,” Gandalf agrees slowly, and there is a twinkle in his eye now that Bilbo distinctly does not like. “You may not be carved of stone as they are, but perhaps there is a bit of a hard pebble at your core, packed in soft earth.”

“Soft is right,” Thorin Oakenshield snorts, and Bilbo rounds on him, mouth open to give him quite a piece of his mind, but the dwarf cuts him off. “Tell me, Master Hobbit,” he growls, “have you any experience in combat? Are you trained with either sword or axe?” he asks. “Or any other weapon, for that matter?”

“I— Well.” Bilbo huffs, folding his arms across his chest. “I’ve some skill at conkers, if you must know.”

“As I thought,” the dwarf says with a nod and a little twist to his mouth as he turns away, hands clasped behind his back. “You would not last a day in the wilds, and I cannot slow this venture in order to accommodate you.”

“Ah— Accommodate me?!” Bilbo squawks, and gestures wildly at the clustered dwarves watching them from his dining room. “No, I shouldn’t expect dwarves to be terribly accommodating, not if they’re the sort of folk to barge into a stranger’s home and raid their pantry without so much as a by-your-leave!”

Thorin stills at that, and then he turns a truly blistering glower on his company.

“We… We didn’t know he was your…” one of the young ones – Kíli? Víli? Something like that – starts, but then trails off into pathetic silence under the force of that glare.

“We were under the impression we would be welcome here,” the dwarf leader says tightly after a moment, and now swings his baleful gaze toward Gandalf. “Perhaps we were misled in that.”

The wizard appears only a little sheepish in the face of this accusation. “The hospitality of hobbits is known far and wide, as I’m sure you’d be glad to know, my dear Bilbo.”

“Hospitality for guests who are invited!” Bilbo snaps. “And announced! And who don’t tromp mud through my home or abuse my mother’s china!”

Gandalf opens his mouth to reply and the dwarves all begin to mutter guiltily amongst themselves, but Thorin’s voice cuts easily through the din. “Enough!” he bellows, and then looks back down at Bilbo. “We shall address the matter of recompense when I return—”

No, no, we most certainly will not,” Bilbo interrupts him, and is distantly gratified at the brief look of surprise that crosses the regal dwarf’s face, “because, I can assure you, there will be no call whatsoever for any of you to return here, quest or no!”

The dwarf lord stares down at him with a look that Bilbo finds quite unreadable, blue eyes fierce and intense, and he thinks he sees a muscle jump in his cheek beneath the dark covering of his beard. Bilbo holds his gaze, feeling rather wildly defiant with the sudden strange turn of events, and waits for his response – a response that doesn’t come, as Thorin turns abruptly on his heel to issue orders to his company.

“See to your gear, then get some rest,” he barks. “We leave at first light.” He directs a glare over his shoulder to Gandalf again and adds, “You have until then to find us another burglar, Tharkûn, if you can. Otherwise we will do without, luck or no.”

“You are making a mistake, Thorin,” the wizard warns him gravely, rising from his bench to loom over them all as the dwarves shuffle out of the dining room and down the hall.

Thorin doesn’t budge, large hands curling into fists at his sides as he glares up at the old man. “The only mistake would be allowing my One to come to harm.”

“I am not your—!” Bilbo begins heatedly, irritated in equal measure by the wizard’s insistence on Bilbo’s going on this ridiculous quest and by the dwarf’s even more ridiculous insistence on Bilbo supposedly being his soulmate! He would happily wash his hands of the both of them right this instant, but the words die in his throat as Thorin looks at him again – and, for just a moment, Bilbo thinks he sees something rather like pain flash in those clear blue depths, before the dwarf seems to steel himself.

“I hope you will forgive the intrusion, Master Hobbit,” Thorin says, not quite meeting Bilbo’s gaze any longer. “We will not disturb you again this night.” He offers a short, sharp bow, and then turns to follow his companions deeper into Bag End, towards the many bedrooms that now stand empty, without a passel of fauntlings and relations to fill them – not that Bilbo had extended them an invitation to stay the night!

Not that he would be so ungracious as to turn them out into the cold, he grumbles internally, watching until the dwarf’s broad back disappears around the corner of the smial’s winding tunnels.

He is left alone with Gandalf then, the wizard looking about ready to set fire to certain dwarven beards, a feeling Bilbo can rather sympathize with at the moment. Bilbo turns to him, hands fidgeting at his sides as he levels a frown up at the tall figure. “I told you before that there would be no interest in adventures around here.”

“Really?” Gandalf asks in reply, bushy brows rising up toward his grey mane. “Not even to follow the other half of your soul?”

“I am not half of anything!” Bilbo snaps. “Or anyone.

“No,” Gandalf muses in seeming agreement, ducking into the dining room to see if there is any decent food left behind by the pack of ravenous dwarves; Bilbo rather doubts it, though he follows the wizard in anyhow. “Not even half the hobbit your mother was.”

“Now, see here, Gandalf!” Bilbo balks, but the other goes right on talking over him.

“Whom I know for a fact would have jumped at the chance to see more of the world beyond these safe little borders,” the wizard says tartly, passing over a half-finished bowl of stew and instead reaching for the last quarter of a meat pie on the table. “I had thought Belladonna Took’s son might like to get his nose out of his books and maps and perhaps see what all those distant lands actually looked like with his own eyes, but apparently I was mistaken.”

“Yes. Well.” Bilbo tugs at his braces, keeping his frown firmly in place, despite the heat he can feel climbing up around his ears. He’d grown up on stories of his mother’s travels, had fancied himself quite the little explorer when he was just a hobbitling – but he’d outgrown all that long ago. “Adventuring is all well and good for some wild tween from out in Buckland, but I would remind you, Gandalf, I am a Baggins of Bag End.”

“Mm. So it would seem,” Gandalf grunts, and elbows his way past Bilbo back out of the dining room, taking his meat pie and a tankard of ale along with him as he starts down the hall after the dwarves. “And at this rate, that is all you will ever be. Good night!”

Chapter Text

Thorin’s cousins find him in the little sitting room towards the back of the labyrinthine hobbit hole, chewing on the stem of his pipe and staring down into the flames in the hearth. He expects their questions – has plenty enough questions himself, all coming back to the same answer no matter which way he looks at it.

“Well,” Balin starts, and Thorin straightens away from the mantelpiece, turning to face them as Dwalin, Óin, and Glóin trail into the room behind Balin and come to stand in a loose semi-circle facing Thorin. Balin clasps his hands in front of himself, a gleeful glint in his eye. “This is an unexpected turn of events.”

Dwalin snorts, folding his arms across his chest, and Thorin only just manages not to roll his eyes at his old tutor.

“A strange turn of events, I’d say,” Glóin huffs. “To find your One in such a place as this…”

“We choose neither the time nor the place the Maker has set for us,” Thorin murmurs, releasing a cloud of bluish smoke that he watches rise and billow against the ceiling before dissipating. “Nor the person…”

“That is certainly true,” Dwalin agrees, and his shield-brother is smiling when Thorin glances over at him, his thoughts no doubt turning towards his own wily, wholly unexpected soulmate.

“The portents placed special significance on the number of our party,” Óin says. “I thought it only a matter of lucky numbers, especially when we turned up thirteen to go, but now, with this revelation—”

Thorin is already shaking his head. “No. The halfling stays here.”

“But Thorin,” Glóin argues, “thirteen!

“Then the wizard makes fourteen!” he snaps. “Or else one of you can volunteer to stay back, and leave us at twelve.”

“Thorin…” Balin lays a tempering hand on his arm, and Thorin draws in a breath, dropping his gaze once more. “I do think, well… I think you’re doing the right thing. He will be safe here. It’s only…”

“Only what?” Thorin asks, looking over at the older dwarf.

Balin shakes his head, smiling grimly. “I suppose we’ll not be needing this anymore,” he murmurs, reaching inside his surcoat and pulling out a thick fold of papers that he hands off to Thorin. Thorin looks down at the rumpled, ink-stained pages, their best-laid plans already coming to naught, and slips them inside his own coat to be dealt with later.

“It’s only,” Balin suddenly repeats, blurting the words out as if they pain him, “I almost wish you hadn’t revealed the truth to Master Baggins, the whole truth of who you are, of what you are to each other. If the worst should happen… Thorin…” He shakes his head again. “You’re right in thinking this quest will be dangerous, too dangerous for one such as he – too dangerous for anyone with a right head on their shoulders, really,” he adds ruefully, looking around at their little circle, what’s left of the Royal House of Durin. “Who are we to go up against a dragon, after all? Merchants, miners, tinkers, toymakers…”

“Some of us still know how to fight,” Dwalin growls, looking first at his brother and then at Thorin. “And anyway, did not you meet with the other clan leaders? What of Dáin? Does he send reinforcements from the east to aid us?”

Thorin releases a long breath, in part glad for the change in topic away from his new-found One, though not relishing the news he must give them. “No,” he murmurs, sucking on his pipe and looking down at the rug again. “They will not come. They say this quest is ours and ours alone.”

“Which is why you will need all the help you can get,” a new voice cuts through their stunned, dismayed silence, and they all turn to see the wizard ducking through the round doorway to join them in the sitting room.

“We have your help,” Thorin shoots back, glaring up at him, “do we not?”

“As much of it as I can spare, yes,” Gandalf grumbles, crossing the room in two long strides to drop onto a low sofa under the window. He makes a show of getting comfortable, setting the mug of ale he carries with him on a nearby table and producing a fork from within one of his long sleeves to dig into the meat pie in his other hand. Thorin’s stomach gives a small, unhappy gurgle, reminding him he has not eaten since setting out early this morning. “But I am no sneakthief, and the plan you devised for entering the mountain specifically calls for a burglar—”

“Then we will make a new plan,” Thorin growls.

Gandalf squints up at him, for once shorter than the dwarves, seated as he is. “And so you mean to leave your soulmate behind, where anything might happen to him without your knowledge?” he asks at last.

“He will be safe here,” Thorin responds, frowning down at the wizard, and is gratified to hear murmurs of agreement from his cousins around him. “These are peaceful lands. So long as he remains anonymous, there is no reason his life should be in any greater danger than it was before.”

“Hm,” the wizard grunts as he sets aside his pie to instead retrieve his pipe and light it with a small point of flame from the tip of his finger. “Yes, none will come seeking him so long as they do not know of his connection to you, but he could still very well fall into the Baranduin and drown tomorrow afternoon, and you would be powerless to do anything about it, far away as you will be.”

“Tharkûn—” Thorin starts again, beginning to grow really angry now. He knows what the wizard is doing, knows how he manipulates and works on the minds of mortals, spinning tales of such dark possibility as to force others to bend to his will. Thorin will not fall for it, will not bow to his influence and insinuations – yet the thought is there now, the tiniest fissure of doubt, of fear, beginning to run through the bedrock of Thorin’s determination.

Not to mention,” Gandalf pushes on, his voice rising to cut Thorin off, “Bilbo has been seen in the company of thirteen dwarves this evening, or rather has been seen taking said company into his home for the night. Perhaps those who bear you ill will would not immediately connect him to you personally, Thorin, but gossip travels quickly in the Shire and, believe me, the presence of dwarves in these parts is quite gossip-worthy amongst hobbits.” He puffs on his pipe and pins Thorin with his ancient, knowing gaze. “Such gossip could easily reach the wrong ears in Bree, and you yourself know what unsavory characters happen through those taverns.”

Thorin grits his teeth, turning away to face the fireplace once more. What the wizard claims is possible, he knows it, knows all too well from his own experiences when he was chasing rumors of his father’s movements. There is a price on his head, and those who would seek such a bounty would not hesitate to use his One against him, as leverage, as ransom, or simply as a means to weaken him, to snuff out that fragile little life just for the pain it would cause Thorin.

And his very presence here may have already condemned Master Baggins to such a fate.

“No.” Thorin shakes his head, steeling his resolve once more before looking over his shoulder at the old man. “If such foulness were wont to venture here, they would have done so already.” He turns to face the wizard fully, feet planted and hands fisted at his sides. “Besides, it is well known that the Dúnedain prowl beyond these borders. They have long kept the Shire safe and peaceful, and I see no reason why they should stop any time soon.”

“So you would rely on others, of whom you know little generally and nothing personally, to look after the other half of your soul,” Gandalf retorts, and Thorin cannot help bristling, for all that he knows the wizard is purposely trying to rile him up.

“I will rely on the same forces and anonymity that have afforded him a safe existence thus far!” he snarls in return. “And I certainly will not put his life in greater peril by bringing him along on this quest!”

“Not that it’s up to either of you whether I stay or go,” Bilbo Baggins’ voice says from the doorway, and Thorin turns in surprise to find the halfling himself bustling into the room with a tray of food held before him. Locating is not one of their bond gifts, it would seem, Thorin thinks with some chagrin; such a thing would certainly be useful with such a silent, quick-footed little creature as his One. Master Baggins sets his tray down on one of the side tables before turning to frown first at Gandalf and then at Thorin. “I could hear you lot arguing from all the way down the hall, you know,” he says, and the implied reprimand is perfectly clear to Thorin without his having to say it: So much for not disturbing me again tonight.

“Apologies,” Thorin says, shooting a glare over towards the wizard. “We were speaking only of nonsense, in any case.”

Gandalf makes a noise of disgust back in his throat, levers himself up from his sofa, and, taking his ale and his pie with him, marches from the room in a huff. “I am surrounded by fools!” is his parting remark before he disappears down the hallway once more.

Dwalin spits a curse in Khuzdul at the wizard’s back, earning a mildly scolding look from his brother.

“We all ought to get off to bed,” Óin comments, already shuffling toward the door himself, his ear trumpet tucked safely back into his belt, “we’ve a long journey ahead tomorrow, lads.”

“Aye,” Glóin agrees, following Óin, and adds in a loud stage-whisper, though he thankfully slips into Khuzdul first, “and we should give the lovebirds here some time alone.

Thorin glares at him, but he catches Balin’s smile even as the older dwarf rolls his eyes. “Master Baggins,” Balin says, turning to the hobbit, “thank you kindly for your hospitality, even if it was… unexpectedly required.”

“You’re most welcome,” Bilbo Baggins replies stiffly, apparently caught between dutifully fulfilling his role as host and being utterly put out at the way his home has been invaded.

Thorin can sympathize with that latter feeling, he thinks – and then blinks, frowning at that strange turn his thoughts have taken.

“Well, it’s greatly appreciated, in any case,” Balin smiles at him, then adds, with a twinkle in his eye, “Oh, and – welcome to the family.”

“The—?” Master Baggins starts in confusion, but Balin is already following the others out, his hands clasped behind his back as he goes and studiously avoiding Thorin’s glare.

“I find I must apologize for my kin once more,” Thorin sighs, drawing the hobbit’s gaze back to him. The fact that they are suddenly alone together, for the very first time, sends a bolt of lightning skittering up and down Thorin’s spine and sets his skin to tingling, almost aching with the urge to reach out and touch, just once, just a single hand, a finger even, just to feel his One’s skin against his own – but he tamps those thoughts down and straightens his back, looking down at Master Baggins with as much cool detachment as he can muster. “As I said before, we leave at first light tomorrow, and then we will trouble you no more.” He gives a single, stiff bow, and is just turning for the door when the hobbit’s voice stops him.

“Oh, I, er—” Bilbo Baggins starts, stumbling over his words, and Thorin pauses, looking back at him. “It occurred to me that you hadn’t had a chance at any supper,” he finally says, gesturing to the tray he’d brought in with him earlier. Thorin follows the motion of his hand to survey the tray’s contents: a bowl of hearty stew, several thick slices of bread with a dish of butter alongside, a tankard of ale as well as a large glassful of deep red wine, a thick wedge of cheese, some boiled root vegetables glistening with salt and butter in another bowl… It is a veritable feast compared to the road fare Thorin has been used to of late, and he can do nothing but stare at the food for several long seconds.

“Is it alright?” Bilbo asks, twisting his hands together anxiously. “I scrounged together what I could, but to be honest your companions have rather eaten me out of house and home in a single meal!”

“It is… more than enough,” Thorin murmurs, his eyes still wide, and begins to take a step towards the table, before thinking better of it. Reaching inside his surcoat, he pulls out the wad of carefully-inscribed papers Balin had handed off to him earlier, and steps back over to the fireplace, half-unfolding it as he goes. He is sure Balin and young Ori had drafted as near perfect a document as they possibly could, accounting for every contingency in iron-clad language so as to define precisely what they expect from their burglar, as well as to forestall any claims of unfair or duplicitous behavior on their parts – especially important when employing an outsider.

Such a thing is wholly unnecessary now, though. Redundant, and some might even say disgraceful in these circumstances. He looks down at Ori’s close, careful penmanship on the topmost page for one moment longer, and then tosses the whole packet into the flames.

“What was that?” Master Baggins asks, pulling Thorin from his thoughts. He is all unwilling curiosity when Thorin looks back at him, his hands still clasped in front of his chest as his wide hazel eyes dart from Thorin to the fire and then back again.

“It… was to be your contract,” Thorin answers slowly, moving over towards the table and the hobbit’s offering of supper rather than allowing himself to gaze down at him any longer.

“Contract?”

“A contract of employment and promise of repayment for the services of a burglar to enter the Lonely Mountain,” Thorin explains as he pulls a chair over to the table. The hobbit’s face scrunches up at the word ‘burglar,’ but Thorin forces himself to turn away, to act as if he has not seen and instead turn his attention to his meal. “One fourteenth of all the wealth therein,” he continues, “in exchange for retrieving the Arkenstone, the symbol of the king, from amongst the dragon’s hoard.”

“D-dragon?!” he hears Bilbo Baggins choke on the word, and the hobbit’s sudden, palpable spike of fear has Thorin looking at him again, half rising from his seat, almost afraid the little creature is about to faint dead away. He waves Thorin off, though, his hands covering his face as he backs away several paces until he stumbles backward into one of the plush armchairs near the fireplace. “Just what had Gandalf thought to sign me up for?” he moans, his voice weak and muffled behind his hands.

“Are you alright?” Thorin asks after several silent seconds, still standing awkwardly by his chair, frowning down at this skittish little thing the gods have graced him with, while Bilbo clearly struggles to regain his composure.

“Yes, yes – or I soon will be,” Bilbo Baggins says, dropping his hands from his face at last. Something to drink would likely settle his nerves, Thorin surmises, and crosses to him with the cup of wine in hand just as the hobbit looks up, saying, “Perhaps a spot of tea— Oh.”

Bilbo stares at the wine for a moment, then looks up at Thorin for an even longer moment, before finally reaching and taking the glass with both hands. Thorin cannot shake the impression that Master Baggins very intentionally avoids letting his fingers brush against Thorin’s, but he relinquishes the glass and steps back without comment.

The drink seems to do the trick, in any case, and after a minute or two of quietly sipping at it, the hobbit finally speaks again. “Well,” he says, shaking himself slightly, “I must say I think it’s a good thing I’m not going with you on this quest thing, as I am not a burglar at all, much less a dragon fighter, regardless of whatever that meddling old wizard may have told you.”

“I would not expect you to be,” Thorin responds, sparing half a glance for the would-be contract, now burned nearly to ashes in the bottom of the fireplace. Even if he were to accompany them… But no, it is better this way, as Bilbo said. Safer. “You must stay here; of that I am certain.”

The hobbit is watching him with slightly narrowed eyes when Thorin looks at him again – shrewd and assessing, if Thorin had to put a word to that look. “I would ask what you would expect me to be,” Bilbo Baggins says softly, still watching him – judging, Thorin thinks now – “but as I fully expect to never see you again, it is an entirely moot point.” With that, he drains the last of the wine from his cup, hops to his feet, and turns to stride purposefully from the room, offering only a final, “Good night, Master Oakenshield,” over his shoulder as he goes.

Thorin watches him leave, struggling, even as he sits still in his chair, to contain the sensation of falling that has overtaken him, just as it had earlier in the front hall each time his One rejected him and denied their bond in no uncertain terms. This is often the way, of course, when a dwarf finds their One outside their own race: the other peoples of Arda do not always feel as they do, cannot always sense the will of the Maker bringing them together, and while happiness is never a guarantee even with another dwarf, it is even more flighty and fleeting a thing with an outsider. Some part of Thorin, the part free of all pride, or shame, or dignity, wants nothing more than to follow the hobbit wherever he is currently, to throw himself at his feet and plead his case, to try and see if Thorin could just make him understand, if only he spoke long and sincerely enough.

But no. Such a display would be beneath him, beneath the leader his Company needs him to be. And it would likely not help, in any case, but would only further annoy Master Baggins with the insistent intrusion. No, it is better that they should be apart, that Thorin should go and his One should stay here, at least until Thorin has had time to process all that has happened in the last few hours. Until he has a home and a kingdom to offer his One, the riches and comfort that his soulmate deserves, anything more than the empty title of his name.

Not for the first time that evening, Thorin wishes his father and mother were here to advise him, or his brother, or even his sister, with her brusque, imperious approach to affection. It comes as no surprise to him, then, when he finds himself humming a familiar tune as he eats, and then later murmuring the words to himself while lingering at the table over his pipe and ale, old poetry of a home long gone, of family who should have been here to see this day with him, of everything he should have been able to offer his One, if only the world were a little different.

 


 

“We could send word to Dís, you know,” Dwalin suggests as they mount their ponies the next morning. The rest of the Company streams out behind them in the road outside their rented stables at the edge of town, performing final inspections of their gear and luggage and mounting up themselves. “She’d come and sweep the little bit off with her if she knew who he was, keep him safe until your return.”

“And remove him forcefully from the only home he’s ever known, with even less grace than what the wizard was attempting to do,” Thorin replies. It’s not as if he hasn’t had the same thought, not as if he hadn’t lain awake all last night trying to imagine what each of his parents would tell him to do in this situation, were they still alive. He sighs, shaking his head. “No. It will be best if he simply stays here, out of sight of the world.” And out of mind for Thorin himself, he adds silently.

“Thorin…”

“I cannot lock him in a cage, Dwalin,” Thorin growls, frowning over at his shield-brother as he wheels his pony around, before turning his gaze to the rest of the Company, “even if it would be for his own good.” He waits for all in their number to climb into their saddles and then to give a wave towards him and Dwalin at the front of the line as a signal that they are ready, and then Thorin turns round once more, to where the wizard sits impatiently astride his horse further down the lane. Thorin shakes his pony’s reins and squeezes his heels into her sides, starting the line forward, and cannot help muttering to himself, his thoughts still back on the hobbithole in the hill, with its be-runed green door and the little unassuming halfling who resides behind it, “No matter how small and weak he is…”

The rising sun is in their eyes as they set out, and for a time he and Dwalin jostle each other back and forth for the place directly behind the wizard’s taller form and taller steed to shield them from the blinding light. The good-natured roughhousing is a welcome distraction from the brooding thoughts that have plagued Thorin since the previous evening. He is just thinking that he must set aside all thoughts of his One and of what life might have been had some things gone very, very differently and turn all his attention instead to the quest ahead of them, when a voice cries out behind them, calling for them to wait. Thorin twists in his saddle, turning disbelieving eyes on the form of one Bilbo Baggins, a travelling pack weighing down his slight shoulders and his arms waving in the air to draw the Company’s attention as he runs to catch up with them.

Chapter Text

The look Thorin Oakenshield levels at Bilbo as he wheels his pony around and comes trotting back down the line of mounted dwarves is truly thunderous, almost murderous Bilbo would say. He shuffles back half a pace, then another, and glances about anxiously at the rest of the Company as they come circling closer, but always finds his gaze pulled back to Thorin.

What,” the dwarf lord demands when he draws even with Bilbo, “are you doing?!

Bilbo purses his lips, but clenches his hands against the urge to wring them anxiously in front of himself and instead glares up at Thorin. “I’m coming with you,” he says, feeling like a sullen tween, and then adds, looking around, “with all of you, I mean. I’m coming on the quest.”

He can see Gandalf absolutely grinning from his place at the front of the column, even as Thorin continues to glower down at him. The king draws in a breath through his nose, like a bull preparing to charge, and Bilbo braces himself, rather expecting an angry tirade that ends with his being ordered back home. He has no intention of doing anything of the sort, of course – he’d meant what he’d said last night, that neither the wizard nor some dwarf whom he’s known for less than a day will be allowed to tell him what he can or cannot do.

Thorin only narrows his eyes, though, looking down at Bilbo like he’s some incomprehensible, wholly alien creature.

“You were saying?” the big bald dwarf riding next to Thorin quips, smirking over at his king as he leans forward to rest his folded forearms on the pommel of his saddle.

Thorin shoots the other dwarf a quick snarl, looks down at Bilbo once more, and then turns his furious gaze onto the rest of the Company gathered around. “Get him a pony!” he barks.

“What? No no no, that won’t be necessary,” Bilbo starts to protest, spinning around with a hand raised to stop them doing just that. Hobbits are not meant for horseback, and gentlehobbits with animal hair allergies like Bilbo least of all. “I’m quite an accomplished walker, I assure you,” he says, though none of the dwarves pay him any mind as they select one of the pack animals and begin tossing bags to each other for repositioning, “been all over the Shire, I really don’t—”

“Master Baggins,” Thorin bites out, cutting off his words and drawing Bilbo’s gaze back around to him, “you may ride on your own or with me. Take your pick.

Bilbo bites his tongue at that and turns away to wait discontentedly while the dwarves shift their packs of supplies about until there is at last an open saddle for him – one without a dwarf lap already in it, thank you very much.

Behind him, the bald dwarf – he really must make an effort to learn their names, he decides, now that he is, in fact, going to be spending more than a single evening with them all – laughs quietly and says to Thorin, “Bit of an ‘arisi after all, eh? I didn’t expect him to turn up in the first place.”

Thorin snorts but doesn’t give any other reply, and Bilbo peeks over his shoulder back at the two of them, wondering what, exactly, the big dwarf had just called him.

“Here you are, Mister Boggins!” one of the young dwarves, the dark-haired one, says cheerfully, as he leads the newly unburdened pony up to Bilbo.

“Oh, actually, it’s—” Bilbo is just beginning to say, when Thorin’s voice snaps out, “Baggins, Kíli!”

Bilbo looks over his shoulder once more to glare at Thorin, while his young helper simply answers, carefree as ever, “Ah, right!” Thorin holds Bilbo’s gaze unapologetically, blue eyes hooded, holding some emotion Bilbo would prefer not to examine too closely just now. And if those eyes happen to be the exact same color as the clear morning sky behind Thorin, well, that doesn’t bear examining either. He turns away, reaching reluctantly for the pony’s saddle, and pulls himself up.

Or rather, he tries to.

The stirrup is much higher off the ground than he would like, and his arms are already raised nearly above his head with the height of the animal and so are unable to do much in the way of lifting him off the ground. If he can just get his foot into the—

A pair of large, firm hands close suddenly over his waist, warm even through his jacket and waistcoat, and then he is rising, being lifted off his feet and up, up, up, until he can swing his leg over and settle into the saddle, turning to look down and thank young Kí—

Thorin.

“Are you comfortable enough?” Thorin asks softly, though his gaze is still hard as he looks up at Bilbo. His hand lingers for just a moment where it has slid down to Bilbo’s knee before dropping away. Without waiting for an answer, Thorin leans down to begin adjusting the stirrup nearest him to an appropriate height for Bilbo’s legs, and, on the pony’s other side, the blond youngster hops down from his own steed to come adjust the other one.

“Er… Yes. Thank you,” Bilbo answers at last, willing his face to remain clear of the blush he can feel attempting to rise on his skin. That he is both handsome and strong – and has a lovely, almost hypnotic singing voice – does not actually negate the arrogance and officiousness Bilbo has witnessed from Thorin Oakenshield just since last night, he reminds himself somewhat viciously. Again, those sky-blue eyes glance up at him and narrow ever so slightly, as if the dwarf is attempting to puzzle him out, but Thorin only gives a small nod and turns away to remount his own pony.

“Move out!” Thorin calls to the Company at large once he is reseated, and move they do.

It’s not as bad as Bilbo might have imagined. He’s ridden before, of course, a little, but it’s been many, many years. Not since he was a child, really, and his mother had held him in her lap as she urged the pony into a trot, then a canter, while his father had looked on in terror. It had been the closest thing to flying a hobbit had ever come, his childish mind had decided, and his mother had laughed and laughed and finally agreed when he’d imparted that thought to her. Still, as a sensible, respectable, adult gentlehobbit, a full-grown Baggins of Bag End, Bilbo does not at all like how far he is from the ground.

“So,” a voice says beside him, and Bilbo gratefully sets aside all thoughts of tumbling head over heels out of his saddle to a certain death by trampling, to instead look over at the young blond dwarf who’d helped with his stirrup earlier. “Which name do you prefer to go by?” he asks.

Before Bilbo can even begin to formulate a reply, the other young dwarf, Kíli, asks from his other side, “Baggins is a clan name, isn’t it?”

Bilbo looks back and forth between them for a moment before deciding it’s simplest to answer the most recent question rather than trying to sort out the first one. “Er, yes. Yes, it’s my family name,” he says, lifting a hand to rub at the itch developing around one of his eyes.

“And are hobbits particular about being addressed by only your clan names right at first?” the blond one asks. “Mister Baggins, you know?”

Bilbo turns towards him now; at least he’ll not get a crick in his neck from looking in one direction for too long, he thinks. He scrubs at his other eye for a moment, before catching himself and forcing his hand back down to the reins again. “I… suppose, in formal settings, we might be. Certainly until you know the person well, or if you’re closely related. But as I expect we’re all going to be spending quite a bit of time together for the next while, you may as well dispense with all that and simply call me by my first name.”

“So we can call you Uncle Bilbo?!” Kíli asks excitedly from his other side.

“Well, I— Wait, what?” Bilbo does hear a small crack in his neck this time, he twists so quickly to look over at the dark-haired dwarf.

“You’re Uncle Thorin’s One, after all,” the blond one says, and offers a shrug and a small, slightly sheepish smile when Bilbo looks at him again.

“I am not his—” Bilbo starts heatedly, but then stops himself and takes a deep, calming breath. He has the strangest feeling for just a moment, almost like the bottom has dropped out of his stomach, like hot tears are beginning to prickle behind his eyes – but that’s just his allergies acting up, of course. Letting his breath out again and feeling a bit more like himself, he looks at the young blond dwarf and asks, “Thorin is your uncle? Both of you?” He glances at Kíli, who is smiling and nodding. “So… does that make you Kíli Oakenshield, then?”

Both youngsters give startled laughs that go on for far longer than Bilbo thinks is really warranted, but at last the blond one seems to get ahold of himself again and answers, “No, Oakenshield is more of a title, a name Uncle Thorin earned in battle a long time ago, before we were even born.”

“He’s basically a legend,” Kíli puts in, grinning proudly at Bilbo.

“Oh,” Bilbo breathes – whimpers, almost, if he were to be entirely honest with himself, but he doesn’t see much point in doing that right at this moment. A legendary warrior king, with a whole name based on his amazing feats in battle, had eaten supper in Bilbo’s house. Had shared wine with him. Had lifted him up onto his pony like he weighed nothing at all. Had claimed that Bilbo is his—

Nope. Best stop that thought right in its tracks, before it begins to sound too much like the fairytales his mother used to read to him at bedtime.

“I’m Fíli, son of Víli,” the blond dwarf goes on, smiling a bit like he’s decided to take pity on Bilbo, before nodding to the other one, “and my younger brother, Kíli, son of Víli.”

“Ah,” Bilbo acknowledges them, relieved to at last have a name to go with each of their faces, and can’t help rubbing at his eyes with the back of his wrist once more. “And Víli is…?” He glances around once, then turns his gaze ahead, to the big dwarf still riding alongside Thorin, the most likely candidate if he had to guess.

“Our father,” Fíli answers, then, softer, “but he isn’t among the Company today. He died when we were both still small.”

“Oh.” Bilbo looks at Fíli once more, and this time the hollow feeling in his middle seems more natural, more expected, more his own. “I’m sorry.” He purses his lips, sniffles a little, and then adds, looking over at Fíli again, “I lost both my parents some years back, when I was still rather young myself.”

Fíli nods, looking contemplative, then smiles again. “Anyway – Thorin is our mother’s brother. We don’t tend to use family names amongst ourselves very often, but then we’re all essentially family as it is.” He indicates the bald dwarf Bilbo had noticed before with a jerk of his chin. “That’s Dwalin,” Fíli explains, then looks over his shoulder to gesture briefly to the older, white-haired dwarf with the long, curling beard, who’s chatting with another elder, grey of hair and elaborately braided, “and that’s his brother Balin. They’re our cousins. Óin and Glóin,” another nod to each, “are also our cousins, though a little further removed than Balin and Dwalin.”

“Glóin has a son our age,” Kíli comments then, “just a few years younger than me. Gimli hasn’t quite come of age yet, so his parents wouldn’t let him come along,” he adds, smirking.

Fíli nods, chuckling, and then goes on with his introductions. Dori, Nori, and Ori – another young dwarf, just between Fíli and Kíli in age, they say – are distant relations, of the same clan as them at least, plus, Fíli adds enigmatically, being connected by marriage. Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur come last of all, and Fíli explains, “They’re Broadbeams, originally from out west, not like the rest of us Longbeards. They’re good friends, though – their kind took us in after Erebor fell and our people needed a new home.”

“Right,” Bilbo says, sniffling again. He’s had to learn the names of countless cousins and acquaintances ever since he was small, so this shouldn’t be too much of a challenge – though, admittedly, he’d known most of those hobbits his entire life. At least there seems to be a pattern to these dwarves, he thinks, scrunching up his nose, what with the rhyming and the little family groups of twos and threes and—

He quite loses his trail of thought when he’s overtaken by a truly violent sneeze.

Kíli says something Bilbo can’t make out, something that makes his brother chuckle and nod, but then another sneeze forces its way out before Bilbo can ask, and then another. He tries to cover his mouth and nose with his elbow, one hand still clutching desperately at the pony’s reins while the other fumbles blindly through his pockets for his handkerchief. “Oh— Blast—” His pockets turning up empty, he struggles to pull his travelling pack around into his lap, searching through it a bit frantically while he tries, but ultimately fails, to stave off another sneeze.

“Are you alright, Uncle Bilbo?” Kíli asks beside him, no longer grinning but actually sounding a touch concerned now as he draws his pony closer to Bilbo’s.

“I am not y—” He’s cut off by another violent sneeze that turns into a hacking cough the next moment, air and spittle going down the wrong tube and just making everything worse. “It’s the horsehair,” he gasps at last. “I’m having a reaction, and I can’t find my handkerchief.” He sniffles loudly again but resists the urge to simply wipe his nose on his sleeve like a grubby child. “We have to stop,” he goes on, looking up and raising his voice to call towards Gandalf at the front of the line. “I have to go back and get my handkerchief, I simply cannot go on for days like this…” He trails off when he meets Thorin’s gaze, finding the dwarf has turned in his saddle to frown back at him, and can’t help but wonder just how long he’s been watching Bilbo.

The dwarf king glares at him for a moment longer, then looks past Bilbo to the rest of the Company to growl, “Keep moving,” before he at last turns away again.

Bilbo glares at his back for a second, then, feeling another sneeze building, he finally gives in, squeezes his eyes shut, and scrubs his sleeve across his face, hoping to alleviate the itch inside his nose before it can explode outward again.

“Here,” Thorin’s gruff voice says then, much closer than before, far too close, and when Bilbo opens his eyes again Thorin Oakenshield is riding right beside him, his nephews having fallen back to make room for him. In his hand, shoved almost right into Bilbo’s face, is a small wad of whitish cloth.

Bilbo frowns at him but gingerly plucks the cloth from his hand nonetheless, glad at least that the dwarf’s rough nature has prevented his offer from seeming at all gallant. “Thank you,” he says coldly, and finds that he has to force down a strange sense of regret, not unlike what he’d felt last night when Thorin had handed him the glass of wine to clear his head. It is truly frustrating to be so continually overcome with a desire to touch someone whose behavior he finds so reprehensible, lust and dislike seeming to war in Bilbo every time he’s near the dwarf. That – combined with the twist of irrational sadness in his gut after every time he resists that temptation – makes Bilbo only more determined to avoid any sort of physical contact between them.

Still, he was raised too well to not be grateful – and gracious – he thinks as he dabs first at his eyes and then at his nose. The cloth is a light linen, slightly threadbare in places but worn to an almost silken softness. It’s larger than one of Bilbo’s own handkerchiefs and free of any sort of embroidered initials or other embellishments – so at least he won’t be reminded of its owner every time he looks at it.

“I hope it will serve adequately for your needs,” Thorin says, his words sounding stiff and a little forced. After a moment, he adds, “I normally use it to clean my weapons.”

Bilbo jerks the cloth away from his face, rearing back a little to frown over at the dwarf again.

“It’s clean, I assure you,” Thorin sighs.

“Oh. Yes. Well. Not anymore,” Bilbo replies, and blows his nose loudly. When he’s done, he can’t be sure, but he almost thinks he catches a slight chuckle from Thorin Oakenshield. “Thank you,” he says again, folding the handkerchief away to be rinsed out when they next stop for a rest. “I, er… I may have packed in a bit of a rush,” he admits then, the silence making him antsy, especially as Thorin continues to ride alongside him, giving no indication that he intends to rejoin his friend at the front or fall in with his nephews behind them.

Thorin hums in acknowledgement, not really looking at Bilbo, the sound low and gravelly and making Bilbo’s toes want to curl against his pony’s stirrups. “We’ll have to see what gear we can acquire for you in Bree,” he says after a long moment of silence, “but our budget is tight, Master Baggins. You will have to make do with what little we can find.”

“I wasn’t meaning to beg for you to provide for me,” Bilbo responds, a bit snippily. “I dare say I’ve got the essentials well enough in hand. Just a few little things might have slipped my mind in my rush to catch up with y… er, with the Company.”

Thorin is quiet for several more seconds, seems to be chewing on his words, before he looks over at Bilbo and bluntly asks, “Why did you come?”

“I… Well…” Bilbo makes the mistake of glancing over toward Thorin, and just like the previous evening he finds himself caught by the intensity of the dwarf’s blue eyes, how he seems to be trying to see right through to Bilbo’s core. “Well, because…”

Because you don’t get to tell me what to do.

That had been the thought that had followed him out of the sitting room the previous evening, with Thorin’s statement that he “must stay here” still ringing in his ears. Perhaps it had been the wine going overly quick to his head, but Bilbo had grumbled and griped his way back to his bedroom after leaving the dwarf king with his supper, complaining to himself about meddling wizards and uninvited guests and determined to simply lie down and put the whole mess from his mind.

But then there was the singing.

“I suppose it was a bit of a whim, really,” he says at last, looking away. Then, hoping to change the subject, he rushes on, “I, er, couldn’t help overhearing you last night.” The walls in Bag End are not exactly thin, made of the earth the smial was carved from and lined with the best hardwood to be found anywhere in or around the Shire, but still, Thorin’s voice had seemed to follow him out of the sitting room, down the hall, and around the corner into his bedroom. He hadn’t been able to entirely make out the words, but the voice singing them was filled with such longing, mournful and nostalgic all at once, that it had seemed to burrow right into Bilbo’s chest and settle in his bones. “That song you were singing was… beautiful. Really,” he says, and glances at the dwarf sidelong.

Thorin grimaces and turns his face away. “It is better with a group.”

Bilbo huffs. “I find that hard to believe,” he mutters, but gets no response.

He had lain on his bed last night, listening to Thorin’s distant voice singing of far-off places, and had eventually drifted off to sleep like that – only to jerk awake some indeterminate amount of time later, with Bag End dark and quiet around him, and images of snow-capped mountain peaks still dancing before his eyes, along with hot smithing irons and staircases that went down, down, deep down into the earth…

He’d begun packing without entirely realizing what he was doing, there in the middle of the night, with the dwarves’ snores still echoing softly down the hallways of his familial home. A few different changes of clothes, a comb and bar of soap for his hair, he had to be presentable when he finally met them, after all, these relations he was going off to see for the first time…

That thought had finally been strange enough to shake him more fully awake, and he’d sat down on the edge of his bed, frowning at the bag in his lap. He’d been dreaming of… someone… someone whose opinion of him mattered, whom he was terribly desirous to impress, whose approval he hoped to earn. Knitting his brows, he tried to recall the faces of the people in his dream: they were his mother and father, and yet not. There was something off about them, strangers, faces he’s never seen before, and yet the dream had been suffused with such a sense of comfort, familiarity, that Bilbo still couldn’t shake it off. Their smiling faces had seemed to whisper, in answer to some question Bilbo hadn’t asked, You know what to do…

He’d fallen asleep again at some point, curled around his half-packed bag atop his bedspread, and while he hadn’t had any more dreams of mountains and imagined strangers, he did dream of helping his mother in the kitchen of Bag End, making her famous honey wheat loaf. As she alternately stirred or kneaded or shaped, she had asked him, quite calmly, like it was of no greater importance than the weather outside, why on earth he would turn his back on something he’d been waiting for his entire life.  

Bilbo had opened his eyes in what seemed to him to be the very next instant, with his bewildered reply still building on his tongue and pale morning light filtering down onto his face from the windows of his bedroom. The smial was utterly silent. He’d sat up slowly, the pack still in his lap, and all of a sudden he’d been overwhelmed by such a deep sense of loss, like he was missing something terribly important, like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was moving steadily away from him. Without another thought, he had been up and moving, barely pausing to even throw on fresh clothes and grab some nuts and dried fruit that had been overlooked the night before in his pantry. The dwarves had left without him already, but if he hurried, he could catch them before they got too far, he was sure—

And then he’d stopped, just for a moment, right on the threshold of his front door, almost as if he’d run into an invisible wall. Here he was about to step out into the world as he never had before, when an entirely different feeling had washed through him: something like resignation, tinged with relief, like some part of him was trying to accept the idea that it was better – safer – if he simply stopped and gave up, let go, if he just stayed here, where everything was calm and quiet and peaceful…

He didn’t know how he knew, but something about that feeling had been undeniably foreign, like it was being pushed on him by some outside force, and Bilbo had fought viciously, instinctively against it, slamming Bag End’s green door behind him and then turning to take off down Bagshot Row like his very life depended on it.

“This journey is neither the time nor place for whims, Master Baggins,” Thorin is saying, his gruff, disapproving voice pulling Bilbo back into the present moment. He’s frowning at Bilbo once more when Bilbo looks over at him. “Your life may very well depend on your staying close and doing as you are told over the next few months. I hope you know that.”

Bilbo blinks, confused and for a moment wondering if he had somehow spoken his thoughts aloud without realizing it. But no – the dwarf king is simply being as dramatic and overbearing and controlling as Bilbo is beginning to suspect comes entirely naturally to him. “We’ll see,” he sniffs, and then pulls on his pony’s reins to slow her pace and fall back into the cluster of dwarves riding behind them, decidedly turning his attention to all of his travelling companions who are not Thorin Oakenshield.

Chapter Text

They make it to the edge of the hobbits’ lands before nightfall, traveling east along the Great Road from Master Baggins’ home and into the region he tells them is known as Buckland, after one of the powerful families in the area. As they approach the bridge spanning the Brandywine river – as the locals call the great Baranduin in their colloquial vernacular – Master Baggins seems to hesitate, radiating unease as he falls further and further back in the line of the Company’s ponies. Whenever Thorin glances back at him, he seems to be fidgeting in his saddle and twisting to look longingly over his shoulder, back the way they’ve come.

Thorin slows his own steed, letting the others pass him as if he intends only to get a count of their number and make sure they’ve not lost any stragglers – as ludicrous as that would be while they are yet in such safe, peaceful lands. He pulls up alongside Master Baggins’ pony, measuring his words and preparing to suggest that, even now that they’re a full day’s ride from his home, he can still choose to turn around and go back. Surely the halfling can find some relation or acquaintance to stay the night with here in Buckland, still in the confines of the Shire as they are, and then return home on the morrow. He would still be safe, and they could avoid this folly of taking such an untried creature out into the wilds with them...

Thorin is only just opening his mouth to speak, when, as if sensing his intentions, Bilbo Baggins’ gaze snaps over to him with a ferocious glare, and Thorin feels his words die on his tongue. Turning away, the hobbit urges his pony to pick up her pace and goes charging across the bridge after the others, leaving Thorin behind.

Thorin grits his teeth, mentally cursing the foolishness of hobbits, and nudges his own steed faster as well.

The halfling did not actually know what Thorin intended to say, of that he is sure, he thinks as he watches the back of Bilbo Baggins’ head. True telepathy is rare, and can take months, even years, to fully develop between bondmates. And Thorin has certainly not heard the halfling’s voice in his mind; that would have been unmistakable, and such things always flow both ways. Still, there has been something passing between them just in the few hours since they met, though he has as yet been unable to identify it.

Well, besides the dreams, of course.

Sharing dreams is nothing special, though – mental and spiritual barriers are lowered, weakened, in sleep, as the subconscious mind reaches across Arda and across time, tapping into the living stone of the world from which all dwarves were formed, calling to loved ones who have gone ahead to the Halls of Waiting and to the other part of a dwarf’s soul, wherever they may be. Many dwarves have come to know their One years before ever meeting in waking life through the dream encounters they share. Last night was the first time Thorin had ever experienced such a thing himself – though, like so many things about his soulmate thus far, it had only raised more questions rather than answering them.

The hobbit woman was clearly someone special to Master Baggins, Thorin thinks, recalling the image of the small figure elbow-deep in flour and plaiting dough for baking that he had seen in his sleep the previous night. She was obviously someone he loved dearly, someone who brought with her such an intense feeling of nostalgia, of loss, that it makes Thorin's heart clench just remembering it.

Master Baggins had said he is not married, though, it occurs to Thorin, that doesn’t mean he never has been. Or that he isn’t pining for someone, for this halfling woman, whoever she is, nor does it mean that he didn't decide to come on this quest specifically to escape some heartache haunting him in the Shire…

Clenching his teeth against the jealousy that spikes through his chest at that thought – a base, dishonorable feeling, as the halfling is not Thorin’s in any way that he may be jealous of his attention, much less his affections – he spurs his pony on and attempts to push away all thoughts of his infuriating One.

They make camp off in the hills north of the Great Road just as the sun begins to disappear behind the western horizon. They are beyond the borders of the Shire now, about halfway to Bree, or so Glóin tells them when he checks the map he carries, and should reach the human settlement before the next evening. While the wizard wanders off to do whatever it is wizards do in their free time and the dwarves of the Company draw lots for the night’s watch and begin laying out their gear and bedrolls in the usual familial groupings around the fire, Master Baggins again hesitates. He hangs back by his pony after he has dismounted and fiddles with the straps of his little travelling pack instead of stepping forward to take his rightful place amongst them: at Thorin’s side, if he wishes it, or at least amongst his kin, though Thorin knows without having to ask that he would be rebuffed if he were to suggest such a thing to the hobbit.

He makes a rather pathetic figure, though, standing there by himself, seeming ever more awkward and uncertain with every passing moment. Finally, with his own bedroll spread out on the ground and Fíli already laying his gear to one side of Thorin’s, Thorin can bear it no longer, and he turns to bid Master Baggins stop dithering and come join them – only to be anteceded by Kíli.

“Over here, Uncle Bilbo!” Thorin’s young sister-son calls, waving from where he sits on Fíli’s far side, before hopping to his feet and dashing over to where the halfling still stands with their pack animals.

“Er… Kíli, I’m really not…” Master Baggins protests weakly, though he doesn’t resist as Kíli takes him by the wrist and pulls him over toward their group.

“We saved you a spot – see? – right here,” Kíli goes on, completely ignoring the hobbit’s words and indicating the open patch of grass beside his own bedroll.

“Oh, er… That’s very kind of you,” Master Baggins mumbles in reply, and begins to slowly shrug off his pack.

“We dwarves always stick close by our families – you’ll learn that soon enough,” Kíli says, grinning up at Master Baggins as he flops back down onto his own bedroll and immediately turns to inspecting his bow and quiver and asking Fíli if he thinks they ought to go looking for some small game for supper tonight.

Master Baggins stands a moment longer, as if frozen by Kíli’s careless words, and then his eyes dart over to meet Thorin’s, as if waiting for him – or daring him, even – to comment. Very deliberately, Thorin turns away and busies himself with his own pack. What the halfling chooses to do or not do is none of his concern at this point, and certainly does not require his approval – and neither is Thorin fool enough to believe that Master Baggins’ acceptance of his sister-sons’ easy camaraderie in any way means that he accepts the fact of their soulbond, any more than he did a day ago.

Balin, on Thorin’s other side, offers him a sympathetic smile and kindly speaks of everything but Shirelings and Ones as they settle in for the evening, though his words do little to settle Thorin’s agitation. The sight of Dwalin sitting beyond Balin, with Nori at his side, both of them, in their own way, happy and relaxed and so very aware of each other, so often seeming to move as a single entity, perfectly in tandem though they are such disparate pieces of the same whole… That sight does not help much, either.

Bombur serves them a lean stew to go with their hardtack, and then all but those who have drawn the first watch turn in for the night. Thorin lies back on his bedroll, staring up at the stars and habitually looking for the familiar constellation of Durin’s Crown, and wonders if sleep will find him at all tonight. The thoughts continually swirling through his head and the sharp awareness of Master Baggins lying only a few paces away both seem to suggest not…

 


 

He’s running.

The forest is dark and terrible, dense and twisted, ever-changing, shadows leaping about him, changing form, attempting to trick him and draw him into their depths.

He thought at first that he was running away from something, or perhaps someone, some terrible creature that is hunting him, pursuing him through the trees with an unquenchable hatred.

All of a sudden, he knows, somehow, that there is safety to be had just ahead, a light at the end of the path where the trees break and the forest ends, that he will be saved if he can only reach it…

 


 

Dori nudges Thorin awake for his turn on watch, the last before the sun rises and they resume their journey for the day. Without really thinking, as Thorin rises from his bedroll he casts a glance over his sister-sons and then onto the hobbit where he lies between Kíli and Bofur. Unsurprisingly, Master Baggins’ blankets are twisted about him and his face is scrunched into a scowl, though his sleep seems relatively untroubled now. The dream was likely the halfling’s originally – it’s not as if Thorin is terribly frightened of trees, after all.

The last few hours of the night pass quickly enough, with Thorin alternately pacing around his half of the camp or sitting to gaze out at the rolling hills around them and trying to think about anything but Master Baggins. The others begin to rouse as the sky lightens and the wizard finally reappears from between the trees beyond their camp; those first to wake reach over to shake their companions awake as well.

No one touches Master Baggins, though.

After the second time Fíli loudly clears his throat next to Thorin, he finally looks up to find both his nephews giving him identical pointed – if also more than a little mischievous – looks. He sighs, drops the bag where he was stowing away his blankets again, and walks around them to where the halfling is still curled up on the ground. Master Baggins is, ultimately, Thorin’s responsibility, of course. He does not much like, however, the way the rest of the Company all seem to be carefully averting their eyes – and doing rather poor jobs of hiding their smiles – as if they think they have to give him and Master Baggins privacy, as if they are lovers sharing the first blush of affection.

With a small sigh, Thorin kneels by the hobbit’s head, looking down into his sleeping face. The urge to touch him is, once more, nearly overpowering: Thorin can imagine running his knuckles down one of those soft, strangely hairless cheeks, or drawing his hand through the golden tresses atop his head, feeling the short, gentle curl weave itself about his fingers. He could press his thumb just there, where his lips are slightly parted in sleep, could cup his jaw in the palm of one hand, let his fingers wander up to test the feel of those pointed ears, draw him close, press their foreheads together, and…

Swallowing thickly, Thorin pulls his gaze away and forces himself to say, “Master Baggins.” When this elicits no response beyond a slight knitting of the halfling’s brows, he repeats himself, a little louder, and then, finally, with the absolute briefest of touches, he grasps Master Baggins’ shoulder and shakes him a little.

The hobbit’s eyes snap open, staring wide up at Thorin. “It’s… you…” he mumbles, and then frowns a little, before shaking himself and beginning to sit up. Thorin, with a mixture of both relief and disappointment, hastily backs away out of Master Baggins’ personal space. “Oh! Oh, goodness, I've slept quite late, haven't I?” he exclaims, looking around at the rest of the Company as they break camp.

“Yes,” is all Thorin says in response, at a loss for anything else, and turns to go back to his own gear.

Master Baggins shakes off his blankets and climbs to his feet – and then freezes, gasping in pain and drawing Thorin’s gaze sharply back to him.

“Are you hurt?” Thorin demands, striding back over to the hobbit, but Master Baggins only grimaces, shaking his head, and presses his hands into the small of his back.

“Just terribly sore,” he explains with a groan. “I’ve not ridden so much in a long, long time…” The halfling groans again, rubbing his hands over his lower back, then down his rear and onto his thighs, bending forward slightly as he does so.

Thorin attempts not to stare.

You know, Uncle,” Fíli drawls in Khuzdul, yet his expression appears perfectly serious when Thorin glances over at him, “I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to use your time on watch.

Thorin feels his face begin to flush, and looks around to glare at all the others as they fail to smother their snickers. From across the doused firepit, he meets the wizard’s narrowed gaze; the old Grey Wanderer raises one eyebrow at him.

“What was that?” Master Baggins asks, looking around as well before settling a frown on Fíli. “What’s so funny?”

Nothing,” Thorin replies, glaring down at his sister-sons, who each manage to look a little apologetic even while still fighting to keep from smiling too broadly. He turns his gaze on the rest of the Company. “There is absolutely nothing to laugh about here.”

He feels, rather than sees, Master Baggins’ unhappy gaze on him. The hobbit no doubt suspects the general theme of his nephew’s comments and the others’ laughter – and no doubt blames Thorin and their soulbond for such comments – even if he cannot understand their sacred tongue.

And even that they will not be able to hide behind for long.

“Hurry up and make ready to leave!” Thorin barks, setting aside, for the moment, the thought of his duties in educating his One. There will be plenty of opportunities for that while they ride. “We’ve a long way to go yet and no time for idling!” The other dwarves all pick up the pace to do as they’re told, and, in the ensuing storm of activity, Thorin pulls Óin aside for a quick consultation.

They’re ready to get back on the road again before the hour is out, bags and gear all resecured on their ponies as the dwarves and one odd old man climb into their saddles. Thorin, however, waits, standing by his mount and watching the halfling slowly approach his own pony.

“As loath as I am to inflict my sneezes and wheezes on this poor animal again,” he’s saying to Bofur, who walks along beside him and has apparently already endeared himself to the hobbit with his open, easy-going nature, “I will be quite happy to leave that blasted forest behind.” He gives a nod to the south, across the road, where the trees stand dense and sinister.

“I thought you lot liked all those green things like trees,” Bofur replies, and then grins in apparent amusement as he watches Master Baggins reach up for his pony’s saddle and, again, futilely attempt to pull himself up enough to get his foot into the shortened stirrup. Thorin leads his pony over to them in a few quick strides.

“Normally we do— Oh.” Master Baggins has turned his head to address Bofur only to find Thorin standing there too.

“Would you like some help?” Thorin asks, gesturing toward the hobbit’s steed.

Master Baggins purses his lips, looking briefly mulish and like he would very much like to refuse, but then at last he releases a breath and gives a small nod. “Yes, alright.” He turns back around and, just like the previous day, Thorin leans in and places his hands on the hobbit’s soft waist. He cannot resist inhaling as he does so, the scents of pipeweed and campfire smoke mixing with the sweat of a full day already on the road in his One’s golden tresses. He lifts the halfling easily, like he weighs hardly anything at all, and only relinquishes his grip once Master Baggins gets his leg over his pony’s saddle.

He feels rather hot under the collar when he turns away to climb onto his own pony, though Bofur thankfully doesn’t comment beyond a knowing smile.

“You were saying about them trees, Mister Bilbo?” Bofur says as they head out onto the road.

“Oh? What? Hm—” The hobbit coughs a little, clears his throat, and then finally goes on to tell them all about the horrors of what the Shirelings call the Old Forest.

 


 

They ride into the human town of Bree in the late afternoon and quickly divide up into a few groups to acquire the various supplies they might need.

“We should not linger here,” Gandalf warns quietly, his eyes already on one of the notice boards outside of the inn and tavern, no doubt looking for another orcish missive advertising the bounty on Thorin's head.

“We won’t,” Thorin agrees – if he is being hunted, as Gandalf seemed to think all those months ago when he had first come to Thorin to urge him to take up this quest, then his sister-sons, his One, anyone who accompanies him is in danger as well. Still, Master Baggins’ appearance in their midst the previous day, and his being so ill-equipped for the journey ahead of them, means that they must stop at least for a short while here in this last vestige of civilization before they strike out into the wilds.

The hobbit is standing with Bombur, Bofur, and Balin, saying something about food stuffs, herbs and spices for cooking that they ought to get a store of for the road, when Thorin approaches them.

“Master Baggins,” he says, and their conversation trails off, all four looking to him, the three dwarves with amiable enough smiles on their faces and the halfling with a look that is bordering on a glare. “We should determine what supplies you still require.”

The hobbit’s frown intensifies. “I really don't see that what I've already brought with me is so very insufficient,” he starts to argue.

“What weapons do you carry, then?” Thorin cuts him off, matching him glare for glare. “What armor? Do you have anything about your person that would aid you when – when, not if, Master Baggins – when we face orcs, wargs, a dragon?! Or do you plan to ward them off with a well-seasoned supper?” he finishes with a sneer.

The hobbit has gone rather pale at his words, his mouth pinched into a small, flat line as he stares down at his bare toes in the dirt. Thorin softens slightly, though not enough to entirely regret what he has said. “I would not have any in my Company face such dangers unprepared,” he says, dropping his voice and taking half a step nearer, and thinks but does not say, You least of all.

“Oh—” Master Baggins swallows thickly and glances around for a moment, as though searching for some way to still be cross with Thorin, but finally, he meets Thorin's gaze. “Oh, alright,” he sighs. “What have you got in mind?”

 


 

The armorer’s shop is small and dingy, and Thorin feels his hopes crumble away almost immediately as he surveys their sparse wares. What little there is appears mostly second-hand, dirty and rusted, and what little might be considered serviceable is surely too large for the hobbit’s small frame. While Balin trails around the displays of chainmail and boiled leather, Thorin makes for the weaponry along one wall. Master Baggins lingers back by the shop’s entrance, clearly just as skeptical as Thorin is himself, folding his arms about himself and shifting his weight from one large, furred foot to the other.

“Master Baggins,” Thorin calls, drawing the hobbit’s gaze over to him, and, after a jerk of Thorin’s head, he finally comes trotting over, his brows knit together worriedly and a growing frown on his face. “One of these might do,” Thorin says, gesturing to the collection of daggers on the shop’s counter – though the halfling has to stand up on his toes to see.

“Oh, um, I suppose,” Master Baggins says, his small hands grasping the edge of the countertop.

“Here.” Thorin hands the first one down to him, a reasonably well-balanced little dirk – though a moment later he has to rush to catch it as its weight nearly drags it from the hobbit’s hold. “Something smaller,” he mutters, returning the first to its place in the display.

“Indeed,” Master Baggins agrees, his voice a little high and strangled after the near-miss with the blade, “something I’ll not drop and stab my own foot with would be much better, I should think.”

The next few blades are only a marginal improvement, and Thorin continues to hand them over only to take them away again a moment later when the halfling still struggles to hold them before him. Each weapon is smaller than the last and yet still none will suffice, until they are left with only a few tiny knives, each with a blade that is barely the length of Thorin’s palm. “I suppose these will be better than nothing,” Thorin sighs, and waves to the shopkeeper to come give them a price. “Just make sure to stay behind me – or one of the others, if you must – should anything happen,” he says, handing over the coins to pay the human behind the counter.

“Oh— Well, I, er—” The halfling stumbles over his words, finally trailing off as Thorin pushes the little knives into his hands.

“Balin,” Thorin calls, looking across the room towards his councilor. “What have you found?”

“This might do,” Balin says, holding up a shirt of light mail and crossing over to Thorin and Master Baggins. “Try this one, laddie.”

After first stuffing his new little daggers into the pockets of his red jacket, Master Baggins reaches out to attempt to take the shirt from Balin’s outstretched hands. The bottom edge of it drags on the floorboards, and, like the daggers, the halfling seems barely able to lift it, in any case. “It’s not so heavy when the weight’s distributed over your body,” Balin tells him with a small smile.

“Is this— really necessary?” Master Baggins asks, struggling to keep ahold of the chainmail.

“Yes,” Thorin answers. He takes the shirt out of Master Baggins’ hands and holds it up to inspect it himself, trying to ignore how the halfling watches him with wide, round eyes. “Necessary, but insufficient,” he growls, frowning down at the rust-flecked links. “I would not trust such human-craft to not crumble to dust the first time it takes a real blow,” he tells Master Baggins, who blanches at such a thought. “Had we the time,” and the funds, he adds silently, “I would rent out the smithy here in town and make you some proper weapons and armor, but as it is, time is short, and we must continue on our way. Like I said – stay behind me should we meet with any trouble.”

“Right. Of course,” Master Baggins murmurs in response, his eyes, if possible, only widening further as Thorin easily tosses the shirt back to Balin, who catches it and returns it to its place with the others. Then, as Balin steps out into the street and Thorin ushers the halfling outside after him, Master Baggins pipes up, “You— You can do that?” He seems just a touch pale, a little lightheaded when Thorin glances down at him. “Make weapons and things?”

“All dwarves know something of smithing,” Thorin says, frowning slightly – could Master Baggins be growing ill? “But yes, I am a blacksmith by trade.”

The hobbit swallows with some difficulty. “Oh.”

“I crafted this myself,” Thorin goes on then, gesturing to the axe currently strapped across his back as they turn down the road to rejoin the rest of the Company. He knows he's toeing the line into boasting, but the hobbit’s wide, clearly impressed eyes – and the warm feeling in the pit of Thorin’s stomach that they cause – push him onward. He next touches the hilt of Deathless where it rests at his hip. “And this.”

“Oh,” Master Baggins says again, his gaze following the movement of Thorin’s hand, before he finally looks away.

They fall into silence after that, and Thorin finds himself turning over the last hour in his mind. It was, by far, the best interaction he and Master Baggins have yet had, though the pleasure of that knowledge seems to have gone a bit to his head: he feels flushed, almost… almost as if he is in a state of half-arousal, as if he can feel his blood flowing downward.

Thorin allows his gait to slow a little as they near the others, allowing Master Baggins and Balin to go on ahead, and wonders if he ought to make use of the tavern’s privy before things become too… noticeable.

A quick check downward, though, shows that Thorin's body in fact remains unaffected. His heart is pumping steadily as always, not rushing in his ears, though he could almost swear…

The realization hits him all at once, and he stops in his tracks, his gaze snapping up to the rest of the Company up ahead, watching the way their smallest member hangs back, turning away from the others, nervously dancing from foot to foot, the reddening in the tips of his pointed ears visible even from where Thorin stands.

These are not his own sensations Thorin is feeling.

They are Master Baggins’.

Chapter Text

The coals burn hot, casting everything in shades of gold and red, including the smith’s skin, which gleams, almost glows, in the smoky light from the forge. His muscles bulge and flex as they move under the sheen of sweat that covers every inch of him, from his gloriously broad shoulders to firm pectorals, and a stomach that is both taut with strength and sheathed in a healthy layer of fat that makes Bilbo’s hands itch to grab and stroke. Dark hair – flecked here and there with silver, the same as that on his head and in his close-cropped beard – follows every dip and contour of his flesh, trailing downward until it disappears beyond the waistband of his trousers.

In one hand, the smith holds a mighty sword, the blade longer than Bilbo is tall and nearly as wide as the hobbit’s own shoulders. Fingers clenched tight around the weapon’s thick hilt and biceps bulging and glimmering in the low light, the dwarf slams the sword down onto the anvil before him. The metal glows bright orange as he swings the massive hammer in his other hand down to strike at the hot length.

It almost feels as if Bilbo is the one who has taken the blow from that hammer, rather than the sword, leaving him terribly lightheaded and weak in the knees as he looks on.

As if noticing for the first time that he has an audience, the smith pauses in his hammering and glances up, his enormous tool held half-raised before him as if it weighs nothing at all. Bilbo is just opening his mouth to urge him onward, when, in the space of a blink, from one moment to the next, as if by magic, several dark, twisting lines of ink trace themselves across Thorin’s skin.

Because the shirtless dwarven smith before him is of course Thorin Oakenshield. Of course.

Bilbo squints his eyes slightly at this new development, tilting his head and holding the tip of his tongue between his teeth. Tattoos. Interesting. He’s never really considered tattoos before – never actually seen any up close, to be fair, only spied them from a distance on the few dwarven traders who have happened to pass through Hobbiton in the past – but he finds now that they’re actually rather enticing, beautiful even, with their precise, intricate knots and carefully etched runes.

The scars that accompany the tattoos, though, pale and knotted and scattered across the dwarf’s skin in varying sizes – some alarmingly large, and surely painful before they had healed – give him more pause. Tattoos are one thing, but scars are not exactly the stuff of a Shire gentlehobbit’s fantasies…

Thorin follows Bilbo’s gaze down to his bare torso. “This is… highly impractical,” he says, and then looks over at Bilbo again with one dark eyebrow raised. “As is this,” he adds, hefting the huge sword with a frown. “The whole point was to make you something that would fit your physique.”

Bilbo sighs, slumping back in his armchair. Because there is suddenly an armchair in which he can slump. Also, beside him, a little tea table has appeared with a piping hot pot of tea and a lovely little chocolate hazelnut cake for him to munch on. “Trust the stuffy Baggins side of me to choose now to butt in about practicality,” he mutters, and doesn’t have to even cut himself a slice of the cake: it simply appears on a plate in his hands the moment he thinks of it. “And after I’ve gone and done the most Tookish thing of my entire life and run off on an adventure with a bunch of dwarves!”

“I… don’t know what that means,” Thorin says slowly, still watching him from in front of the hot forge, his brows drawn together quizzically when Bilbo looks up again. After a moment, the dwarf glances down at himself once more and at the sword and hammer in his hands, and then, when he meets Bilbo’s gaze again, he asks, a little haltingly, “This would… please you?”

“Yish— Er, yes! Yes, please!” Bilbo answers brightly, first having to swallow past his mouthful of cake, and sits forward in his chair, smiling wide and eager.

Thorin gives him one more look like he rather suspects Bilbo might have been kicked in the head by a pony at some point, but, thankfully, he turns back to his sweaty, grunting, muscle-bulging task without further interruption.

Bilbo sits back with his endless supply of tea and cake and thoroughly enjoys the view.

 


 

He manages to wake on his own this morning, thankfully, without needing to be shaken awake by any dwarven kings – an especially fortunate turn of events, given the content of the dream that’s still dancing about behind Bilbo's eyelids. He’d not be able to look Thorin in the eye having just come off of that, he’s quite sure, he thinks as he stretches and finally forces himself to sit up, despite how his limbs ache from another long day in the saddle.

A surreptitious glance around reveals the dwarf in question is sitting with his back turned toward Bilbo anyway, busily packing away his things in his usual spot beyond Kíli and Fíli. Good; he's in the clear, and, Bilbo figures, wincing a little as he climbs to his feet, he may as well use this opportunity to go have a wash and change his clothing in peace.

They had camped out in the flatlands east of Bree the previous night, after both Thorin and Gandalf had insisted they couldn’t possibly stay the night in an inn like civilized people. Bilbo winces and stretches again as his back gives a twinge when he bends to pick up his travelling pack. One last night in a proper bed would have done them all good, he thinks, grumbling a little under his breath as he shoulders his pack and starts across the camp towards the stream he can hear just on the other side of the next hill.

It occurs to him then, as he happens to glance around just as Thorin looks up, their eyes meeting for the briefest of moments before Bilbo tears his gaze away, that the Company’s sleeping arrangements might have been significantly different in an inn, with walls, and doors that lock, without the prying eyes of the others making privacy impossible… It’s several days and several dozen miles too late, but for the first time Bilbo wonders if he perhaps ought to be at all worried about fending off the nighttime advances of a lusty dwarf, entitled by their supposed soulbond, bigger and stronger than Bilbo in every way.

That’s quite a terrifying thought to have just as he’s about to go off to bathe, and the sound of footsteps behind him just as he leaves the camp behind, followed quickly by a heavy hand dropping onto his shoulder, has Bilbo all but leaping out of his skin and spinning around to face—

Not Thorin.

No, the dwarf frowning down at him like Bilbo is a skittish little rabbit is the Company’s grizzled old healer, Óin.

“Oh, er—” Bilbo gulps in air, attempting to calm his speeding pulse, and sees the healer’s eyes drop down to his mouth: attempting to read his lips, as his ear trumpet is still tucked into his belt. “Did… Did you need something?” he asks at last.

“Here,” Óin grunts, and thrusts a little earthenware pot in his hands out towards Bilbo.

He takes it gingerly, starting to ask, “What…?”

“It’s for your backside, lad,” Óin explains loudly, gesturing vaguely to Bilbo’s lower half.

Bilbo stares at him, feeling his face pale, hoping against all hope that this isn’t what he thinks it is but horribly, terribly afraid that he is, in fact, holding a little pot of sexual lubricant.

Over Óin’s shoulder, several yards back, he spies another figure standing at the edge of the camp, watching them: Thorin, having risen from where he was seated a minute ago, his dark brows drawn together as his eyes find Bilbo’s once more. Though he makes no move to approach them, the dwarf king holds Bilbo’s gaze and then tips his chin up ever so slightly, his frown seeming to ask, Is everything alright?

Face flaming, Bilbo forces his attention back to the grey-haired dwarf before him. “For my…?” he prompts, but can’t bring himself to finish that sentence.

“Thorin said you were complaining about sore muscles the other day,” Óin responds, and, his hands now free of the pot he’d given Bilbo, he pulls out his ear trumpet to better be able to hear Bilbo.

“Oh,” Bilbo says, blinking, and then, finally, the petal drops. “Oh! Yes! Sore muscles, of course. It’s… some kind of poultice?” he asks, and raises the pot towards his face to crack open the top. The strong whiff of medicinal mint hits him right in the face, confirming his suspicion.

Óin nods. “I had to gather the supplies while we were in town yesterday and brew it up last night,” the dwarf explains. “Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting to need such a thing, certainly not so early on in our journey. Dwarves don’t tend to get sore just from riding along while another creature does all the work,” he remarks dryly, and Bilbo glances back up at him with an affronted frown, feeling himself beginning to bristle. He can’t help that he’s not used to so much travel!

Shaking his head, Óin goes on before Bilbo can speak, his tone gentling somewhat. “I’m not familiar with the biology of hobbits as I am with my own kind,” he admits. “So if you need anything, you let me know, alright, lad? No keeping any hurts to yourself, I don’t care how minor you think they might be,” he says sternly.

“Alright,” Bilbo agrees with a nod, finding himself a little mollified by this offer. Prickly as his new traveling companions often are, they do, on the whole, also seem to have his welfare in mind.

Óin sniffs and glances over Bilbo’s shoulder, to where the stream burbles away. “You’d best get a move on,” he says next, already beginning to turn back towards the camp. “Most of the others could do with a good wash while we’ve the opportunity, and you’d best be finished before they get there if you don’t want to get pulled into any of their games.”

“Oh— Oh dear— Thank you!” Bilbo just manages to call over his shoulder as he hurries on towards the stream, as Óin laughs and shakes his head and returns to camp.

He resolutely ignores the way he can feel Thorin’s gaze still on him as he crests the hill before finally dropping out of the dwarf’s view.

 


 

Bilbo manages a very quick wash and, with great relief, is just buttoning up his shirt once more when Fíli and Kíli come barreling over the hill, followed closely by Ori and, more sedately, a few of the other dwarves. The young princes holler at him to come join their swimming games as they begin to strip off and leap into the shallow water. Bilbo makes a weak, nervous excuse, bundling his clothes up into his arms before hurrying off further downstream in just his shirt and drawers. He can’t remember the last time he’s seen so many naked bodies – not since he was a wild young tween, he’s sure.

That they are all, to a one, tattooed in various fashions remarkably similar to what Bilbo had seen in his dream last night does not bear consideration.

At least Thorin wasn’t amongst them, he thinks with a frown, hunkering down behind a lonely tree growing on the stream’s bank. He’s already had more than enough embarrassment involving that dratted king of theirs for one day, thank you very much.

He rinses out the clothes he’s spent the last two days in and then lays them out to dry on the tree’s gnarled roots, before turning to the little pot Óin had given him. The salve burns a little as he applies it to his back, rear, and legs, but it’s the satisfactory, soothing sort of burn that has his knotted muscles beginning to unwind within a few minutes. It rubs into his skin and dries quickly enough, and he is soon able to don a fresh change of clothes from his pack without even the slightest uncomfortable residue. Óin is a miracle worker, he decides, and packs the still mostly full pot away in his bag for future use.

He returns to camp when he hears the dwarves’ splashes upstream begin to wane, not wanting to be left behind – or, more likely, to be scolded for keeping them waiting. His worn clothing is still rather damp, but Bofur helpfully shows him how to string up a sort of rudimentary clothesline over the packs behind his saddle, allowing his clothing to continue to dry and air out as they ride.

Thorin appears at Bilbo’s side once more when it comes time to mount up. He holds out a hand wordlessly towards Bilbo’s pony and, scowling but as yet unable to devise any other way to get up into the saddle, Bilbo sighs and nods and turns around so that the dwarf king can lift him up. As infuriating as it is to be so reliant on another for such a basic task, it is somehow so much worse that none of the others ever offer to help him, forcing Bilbo to accept Thorin’s aid day after day.

Even more infuriating is how solid, how strong and safe Thorin’s hands feel on Bilbo’s hips, how his warmth seems to bleed right through every layer of Bilbo’s clothing, how his long hair sometimes brushes against Bilbo’s neck and shoulders as the dwarf bends to grasp him round the waist, and how the scent of him – leather, sweat, some sort of pipeweed that is sharper and more spiced than Bilbo’s own – wafts around him, how very much Bilbo wants to gulp that scent down, fill his lungs with nothing but Thorin, lean back and let that warmth fully encircle him—

He’s falling into a habit of studiously avoiding Thorin’s gaze, especially in these moments when they’ve just parted, when Bilbo is settling into his saddle and Thorin is turning away to climb onto his own pony. He doesn’t want to see the confirmation of just how obviously flustered he is reflected in the dwarf’s eyes, and he certainly doesn’t want to see any sort of answering attraction in Thorin’s expression.

No, such things are best left to the realm of dreams, where Bilbo’s guilty fantasies can play out entirely in private, secret and safe from anyone who might have opinions on them.

That thought leads easily back to the images that had entertained him last night, and Bilbo finds himself idly wondering if perhaps Thorin does have any tattoos like the others, if they are at all like what he’d imagined – only to be startled out of his daydreams when the dwarf king himself clears his throat beside Bilbo. They’ve been riding for some time now, the sun climbing higher and higher into the sky and beginning to make Bilbo sweat a little under his clothes, for all that it is not even summer yet. How the dwarves can go about in their many layers of wool and leather and fur is beyond him, he thinks, glancing over at Thorin with his great fluffy surcoat and armor.

Thorin casts him a brief glance as well, opening his mouth as if to speak before seeming to think better of it. There is a touch of pink across his nose and cheekbones, now that Bilbo looks: perhaps the warmth of the day is beginning to affect him after all. “How, ah… How are you feeling today?” Thorin asks at last, his deep voice awkward, almost hesitant.

“Er… Quite well, thank you,” Bilbo answers, feeling his brows rise a little. Small talk! With Thorin Oakenshield of all people! “And you?” he asks after riding in silence for a long moment.

Thorin looks over at him, seeming surprised by the question. “I am well,” he replies stiffly. “Thank you.”

“Right. Good then.” Bilbo turns his attention forward again and fully expects that they will go on in silence for a while before eventually allowing their ponies to drift away from each other.

“Óin found you with the salve he made, I take it?” Thorin asks abruptly then, pulling Bilbo’s gaze back to him.

“He did,” Bilbo nods. “As you saw,” he adds, his tone turning a little wry, remembering the dwarf king standing there at the edge of camp, watching Bilbo and the healer. 

“It seemed as if—” Thorin starts, before breaking off, his brows knitting together in a scowl. “As if he had frightened you,” he finishes, casting Bilbo a dark glance.

“He only surprised me is all,” Bilbo sighs irritably. He didn’t think his embarrassing little startle response had been so obvious that it could be seen from back in camp – but perhaps Thorin actually was watching him more closely than their briefly traded glances had seemed to suggest. Perhaps that was why he had stood and made as if to follow Óin that morning, when he had seemed to be all but ignoring Bilbo before that. 

“You seemed—” Thorin says, but bites the words off. Then, “I thought—” He doesn’t finish either sentence, instead sinking into a rather frustrated silence. His big hands clench around his pony’s reins as he looks forward with a glare, his lips pursing and jaw working as he struggles over what to say next.

“I, um. I suppose I should thank you,” Bilbo says, breaking the silence, and Thorin’s gaze jerks up to meet his, the dwarf blinking in surprise. “For the salve Óin made for me, I mean. He, er, he sort of said it was your idea, or rather, that you had told him that I… um…” He trails off with a vague wave of his hand. Goodness but he feels rather warm under the collar after holding Thorin’s gaze for so long.

“You are welcome,” Thorin murmurs very, very quietly, and when Bilbo peeks over at him, the dwarf is most definitely growing rather pink in the face.

Bilbo looks back down at his hands on the pommel of his saddle, swallowing with some difficulty and feeling his own face flush as well. For all that Thorin Oakenshield has shown himself to be bossy, rude, high-handed – for all that he seems to really believe this nonsense about soulmates – Bilbo can’t help but think that it was a rather kind thing for him to have done, thoughtful even. Especially considering what Óin had said about dwarves not having such problems like sore muscles from riding a pony for days on end…

The thought of muscles, of course, brings the vision of bared, flexing, sweaty, dwarven muscles from his dream flashing once more before Bilbo’s eyes, and he can feel his face reddening further even as he tries to fend off such thoughts.

“Would you like to learn about my craft?” Thorin suddenly blurts beside him.

Bilbo looks over at him, startled, and finds the dwarf in a similar state to himself: wide-eyed and red-faced. “Your… Your craft?” Bilbo asks. He can only hope that some more innocent small talk, on a completely different topic, will help ease their shared embarrassment. Though what Thorin has to be embarrassed about, when his actions were nothing but noble, altruistic, is quite beyond Bilbo.

“Blacksmithing,” Thorin replies.

Bilbo never before truly understood what it meant to feel his face flame, he’s sure. He must be quite the same shade as an over-ripe tomato now, as every drop of blood in his body rushes directly into his cheeks. “What?” he asks stupidly, staring at Thorin.

“I thought—” Thorin falters, almost seems to choke on his words as he holds Bilbo’s gaze. “I thought perhaps— perhaps that you would like to learn—”

“Nope. No no no, definitely not,” Bilbo cuts him off somewhat frantically, shaking his head and wondering distantly if smoke has by chance begun to pour out of his ears. He certainly feels hot enough for such a thing to have happened. “Don’t know what could have possibly given you that idea, I— Oh, you know, I just remembered!” he announces, his voice cracking as it climbs in pitch, but really, there’s only so much one hobbit can be embarrassed about at any one time. “I need to speak to Gandalf about something! Something very important! If you’ll excuse me—” And he nudges his pony into a faster trot, darting up through the Company and leaving the dwarf king behind.

He falls in beside Gandalf up at the front of the line but doesn’t say a word, sure he must be absolutely radiating discomfort and embarrassment after that ridiculous little exchange.

The wizard looks down at him with a shrewd grin behind his long beard. “You’re getting to know your One better, I see,” he remarks.

“Shut up and pretend you’re talking to me,” Bilbo snarls without looking up at the old man, and can’t even bother feeling ashamed of his poor manners given the way the wizard laughs at him.

Chapter Text

Thorin is seething, every breath huffed out from between clenched teeth as he yanks on his vambraces, pulling viciously at the straps to tighten the armor against his forearms. He keeps his back turned to the others as they gather up their gear and chatter amongst themselves, half-hoping to be able to contain and cool his fury before it erupts outward. At the same time, another part of him wants nothing more than to allow himself to explode, to scream his rage and pain and terror to the heavens, to leave none in any doubt of how extremely, reprehensibly unacceptable the last several hours’ events have been.

He can feel the halfling’s nervous tension through their bond, fluttering and delicate, like a butterfly’s wings or the petals of a flower caught in a high wind – so new and strange, even now, to feel another’s emotions coursing through his own body, yet still there, at least, still whole and alive and breathing, after Thorin had feared— Nausea rolls briefly through him, and Thorin shoves that thought away, along with the memory of Master Baggins held aloft in the trolls’ huge grasp, his terrified eyes unerringly finding Thorin’s amidst the crowd of dwarves.

Now, Master Baggins’ eyes flick back to Thorin every few seconds, he knows without having to look,  while Thorin’s nephews, he knows from experience, give him a wide berth, no doubt treading carefully, keeping their heads down, wary of anything that might set him off…

“You all should have seen him!” Kíli’s voice rises suddenly above the general hubbub of voices behind Thorin. “He walked right past those big oafs and cut the ropes holding the ponies in, and then, then he tried to talk them down! ‘Oh, were those your ponies? Terribly sorry! But you wouldn't want to eat those anyway!’” Kíli breaks off his impression of Master Baggins with a laugh, and then adds, “You were amazing, Uncle Bilbo!”

Something snaps inside Thorin at that, and he whips around, a snarl on his lips, even as Master Baggins demurs, “Really, Kíli, I didn’t do much…”

Amazing?!” Thorin demands of his sister-son, and the whole Company stills, falling silent before him. “The only thing amazing about any of this is how unbelievably thoughtless you and your brother were last night!” Thorin yells, jabbing a finger once in the air toward his two nephews, before his hands ball into fists that he cannot keep from trembling. Kíli and Fíli, standing on either side of Thorin’s One, both seem to shrink in on themselves under his gaze.

“I came back to get help,” Fíli offers quietly, sounding a little sullen.

“Because you said we’d need all hands to round up the ponies once they’d been freed!” Thorin replies, and Fíli cringes. “Neither of you spared a single thought for Bilbo’s safety! You sent him in to face three mountain trolls all alone and completely defenseless!”

“That’s… That’s not precisely…” Bilbo starts, but his voice is weak and he trails off when Thorin casts a sharp glance his way.

“I was keeping an eye on him,” Kíli mumbles next, but drops his gaze when Thorin turns his glare on him again. “And… And Gandalf said hobbits are light on their feet, so… so we thought…”

“You thought what?” Thorin demands. “Because you clearly didn’t think about any of the myriad ways he – or you, or any of our number – could have been killed!

“Alright, so it was a bad decision!” Bilbo suddenly snaps, and the sound of his One’s raised voice, along with the burst of anger that comes rushing through their bond at him, momentarily startles Thorin out of his rampage. The hobbit is frowning up at him when Thorin finally really looks at him, and their soulbond crackles with something else now, something Thorin almost can’t believe he’s feeling: his One actually has the gall to be annoyed with him right now! After he nearly— “But it was a joint decision,” the halfling goes on doggedly. “The boys don’t deserve all the blame for it. And I wouldn’t have agreed to it if I didn’t think I could handle it!”

Thorin stares at him. He can’t believe what he’s feeling, much less what he’s hearing. “You thought you could handle it?” he croaks.

“Well… Yes,” Bilbo replies, a little uncertainty at last beginning to creep into his voice and into their bond. “I mean, I wasn’t planning to fight them, of course – I was just going to sneak in and cut the ponies free, which, you might recall, means I wasn’t ‘entirely defenseless,’” he adds, giving Thorin a sour look and pulling one of his tiny little knives out of his pocket. “I have these, remember?”

“Yes, and exactly how effective were your little butter knives against troll-hide?” Thorin asks witheringly.

The halfling gapes at him for a moment, and Thorin feels the precise instant when his annoyance turns to outrage, red hot and boiling, before he squawks out, “You bought these for me!”

“As a last defense, should everything else fail!” Thorin shouts back. “Not so you could go charging in on your own to face certain death!”

“Obviously not certain death, considering I’m still here, you— you— ukhag!” Bilbo retorts – and then freezes, as they all do, the color draining from his face as he realizes what he’s just said. “Oh— Oh dear,” Bilbo squeaks, and then he turns tail and scurries off into the trees.

“Wait—!” Thorin takes a single step forward, raising a hand as though to stop him, but then the wizard’s staff cuts across his path, halting him in his tracks.

“I think,” Tharkûn says, matching Thorin’s glare with one of his own, “someone a bit cooler-headed ought to go after him just now.”

Thorin glowers up at the old vagabond, but he can feel how Bilbo’s— How Master Baggins’ anger has turned almost entirely to fear now, and that is enough to stop his tongue and make him rethink his actions. For his One to be afraid of him… He shakes his head, takes a deep breath, trying to calm his racing heart, and then looks to the other dwarves.

“On it,” Bofur volunteers without Thorin having to ask, and with a quick, jaunty salute he turns to jog after Bilbo into the trees.

Dwalin heaves a sigh and mutters, “I’ll go make sure he hasn’t wandered off too far,” before following after Bofur.

Thorin nods, beginning to turn away, his anger all but entirely evaporated now, heartsick in a way he hasn’t experienced in many long years, as his One’s fear – not of some outside threat, but of him – continues to echo through his core.

“Uncle,” Fíli’s voice stops him, cutting through the quiet hum of the others as they return to what they were doing before Thorin’s outburst. His nephews both look deeply remorseful when Thorin turns back to face them, and he is reminded once more of just how painfully young they still are, watching them fidget and struggle to hold his gaze. They look just as they had when they were small children and had been caught in some minor indiscretion, as if they feared that a shattered window or sweets eaten without permission were the worst crime a dwarf could ever commit.

They are adults now, though, he reminds himself. And this is more serious than a little broken glass.

“We’re sorry,” Fíli says after a moment, and Kíli nods beside him. “And you were right – we really didn’t think it through, beyond the idea that Bilbo might be able to sneak in undetected and hopefully save us a fight. That clearly didn’t work out,” he adds ruefully.

“No, it didn’t,” Thorin agrees.

“We didn’t mean any harm, though, honest,” Kíli puts in then, his wide brown eyes glancing up at Thorin for just a moment before he goes back to staring down at his boots.

Thorin draws in a long breath and lets it out in a sigh. “Then let this be a lesson,” he says, and they’re both watching him now, silent and attentive. “Harm can come whether you intend it or not, and often when you have not thought to anticipate it. That is what it means to be a leader,” he adds gravely, looking at Fíli, who squares his shoulders under Thorin’s scrutiny, standing just a little taller. “It is our responsibility to see what dangers might lie ahead, and to ensure that those under our protection are prepared to face those dangers as best they can. And we will not always have a wizard to save our hides in the nick of time,” he adds, casting a dark glance over toward the Grey Wanderer, who has moved away to help himself to some of the sparse breakfast Bombur has thrown together.

“Yes, Uncle,” his sister-sons both murmur, and, apologies offered and accepted and a wholly deserved lecture given, they start to turn away to rejoin the others.

“One more thing,” Thorin says, and they pause to look back at him. Raising an eyebrow, he asks simply, “‘Ukhag’?”

Fíli has the good sense to at least look a little embarrassed, while Kíli lets out a short snicker, before catching himself. “We just thought… Well…” Fíli struggles, and eventually gives up, shrugging and smiling slightly. “It’s more fun to learn insults first?”

“Bofur and Nori were teaching him really dirty words!” Kíli hisses in a faux-whisper, and Thorin can only sigh, rolling his eyes.

“Of course they were.” Sighing again, Thorin shakes his head and dismisses them. His sister-sons fall in with the rest of the Company once more, all reassessing and repacking their supplies now that they’ll have to move on foot, with their ponies having run off in the face of the trolls’ presence and the ensuing battle.

Thorin turns back to his own belongings, shrugging on his jacket and then picking up Deathless in its scabbard and the belt upon which it hangs. Without any other distractions, Thorin’s focus is inevitably drawn back to his One and the emotions filtering through their bond: the panicked, hummingbird-like fear of several minutes ago seems to have gone now, replaced by a sort of uneasy weariness. Bofur and Dwalin must have found him, meaning Master Baggins can’t have gone very far.

Just far enough to be away from Thorin.

He grimaces, settling his belt in place around his waist. Master Baggins has been avoiding him, and Thorin has, admittedly, not tried to change that; this was the first time they had actually spoken to each other in nearly a fortnight, and it was only to argue and yell at one another. The halfling has hardly looked at him since Thorin’s disastrous attempt at conversation that day after leaving Bree, when he had brought up his work as a smith – when he had attempted to bring up the dream they had shared the night before.

The secret knowledge of what had happened that night, and the private nature of what he had been privy to, sits uneasily across Thorin’s shoulders. It is only right that he tell Master Baggins, after all. It feels as though Thorin has trespassed upon something he was never meant to see, unintentional though it was, like he’d walked in on the halfling bathing or…

Or pleasuring himself, is the obvious next thought, and Thorin shies away from it, away from the sort of imagery it conjures, feeling heat wash through him nonetheless.

It’s not as if such things are unheard of, much less taboo – the ability to be close with your One, even when hardships demand a temporary separation or prevent privacy, as their current travelling circumstances do, is one of the great benefits of such a connection. And Thorin has known Dwalin and Nori long enough, and heard enough of their insinuations, to know what forms that ‘closeness’ can take in the confines of a shared dream. Still, it seems… soon? That is certainly part of it, in addition to the fact that Master Baggins couldn’t have known he had an audience. Most dwarves are taught to be disciplined in approaching such things, to avoid such sexually charged fantasies with their Ones so early on, at least until they have worked out what sort of relationship best suits each of them.

That Master Baggins would consider such a thing, though… That is another side to it, of course, one that is as flattering as it is discomfitting… But Thorin’s ego is hardly the issue at hand.

No, the real issue is how to even start such a conversation, how to impart to his unwitting, uninformed, naïve One that Thorin had not only been witness to but also an admittedly not-unwilling participant in his little fantasy. That had been Thorin’s downfall before, the thing that had tangled his words and tied his tongue in knots – especially since he could feel every shift and turn in the halfling’s mood, one moment drifting into a sort of hazy, dreamy arousal, and then, the next, when Thorin had attempted to broach the topic, turning suddenly to sharp, sickening embarrassment. Thorin’s own embarrassment had answered in kind, and after only a few moments their combined emotions had seemed almost to behave like a cavern of echoes, ever reflecting and amplifying each other with no end in sight.

This is not at all the sort of thing he had ever expected to have to struggle through upon meeting his One. Realizing, after those first few days, that he was feeling everything Master Baggins felt has not actually made it any easier for Thorin to sort through all of the foreign emotions that come coursing through their bond. Nor has it prepared him for how the halfling’s emotions affect Thorin’s own moods, how easily they seem to rile each other up without even exchanging a word. That has been the case ever since the beginning, of course, though he hadn’t realized until later, hadn’t recognized it for what it was: that first evening in the Shire, Thorin had been keenly aware of his One, of both his reluctance and curiosity when he looked at Thorin, of his fear, almost to the point of fainting, at the mere mention of the dragon… It should have tipped him off as to the nature of their bond gift, should have occurred to him at the time just how odd it was that he was so very attuned to the moods and desires of someone who was, for all practical intents and purposes, a complete stranger. He can only blame it on the shock of having just met his One, which prevented him from thinking entirely clearly, it seems.

And his realization in Bree had seemed to send him right back to that state of shock and hyperawareness: Thorin had felt as though he was on a hair-trigger, jumping at even the slightest shift in Master Baggins’ mood, now that he understood what it was he was sensing. When the hobbit had left their camp that next morning – presumably to wash in the nearby stream, though a treacherous little voice in a back corner of Thorin’s mind had whispered about what else he might have been doing out there, alone and unclothed, considering the things he’d imagined up the previous night… Thorin pushes those thoughts away now, as he had then, refuses to dwell any further on Master Baggins’ private desires, no matter how they might involve Thorin himself – when he had disappeared from Thorin’s view that morning, and then, only moments later, Thorin had felt such a spike of fear from him, he had leapt to his feet, ready to charge in and fight off whatever threat so unwisely dared to accost his One— Only to find the hobbit talking quietly with Óin before scurrying off to the stream like originally planned.

He had to get ahold of himself, he’d decided then. As much as a part of him desires to do nothing else but revel in this new-found connection, to shirk his duties and shut out all the rest of the world in favor of focusing solely on Bilbo Baggins and exploring all that their soulbond has to offer… he cannot. He has a duty to the Company, and to his people, back in the Blue Mountains and scattered all across Arda, to faithfully complete this quest and restore their home to them. And he has a duty to his One, a duty that requires he not succumb to any of the hazy, languid desires that might plague his dreams, and instead see that Master Baggins is fully informed and educated on exactly what it means to be a dwarf’s One, regardless of how the hobbit’s feelings might affect Thorin.

That was all easier planned than forged, of course, he thinks with a sigh, remembering again the way each of their individual emotions had seemed to amplify the other’s, until Thorin could barely think, much less speak, through his embarrassment. And so when Master Baggins had run away from him that day, Thorin could not help the relief he’d felt. He had let the matter lie ever since, allowing this weeks-long silence to grow between them… Just as he is doing again now, letting others comfort and distract his One while Thorin himself remains passive and silent and helpless, he thinks, his mouth twisting in frustration as he shrugs into his surcoat.

“You are not making such a grand figure as Bilbo’s soulmate so far, are you?” Tharkûn’s voice sounds over Thorin’s shoulder, and he turns to find the wizard approaching, bowl of porridge in hand and disapproving frown set firmly on his grizzled old face.

“I don’t see how it is any of your concern,” Thorin growls, glaring up at him.

Gandalf watches him for a moment, seeming unimpressed by Thorin’s bravado. “Bilbo is a dear old friend – the son of a dear old friend, I should say. And you might recall it was me who led you to his home in the first place,” he adds, to which Thorin scoffs and begins to turn away again. “I will not see him mistreated,” the wizard goes on, his voice sharp, “especially not by the person who should have his best interests at heart more than anyone else!”

“I do have his best interests at heart!” Thorin snarls, whipping back around to face Gandalf. “Whereas he nearly got himself killed last night – several times over!”

“He seemed to have the situation well in hand when I returned,” Gandalf says, shrugging. “He had the wits to play for time,” he points out at Thorin’s wordless, outraged sputtering, “unlike any of the rest of your Company – yourself included.”

That gives Thorin a little pause. He’d been too frightened and angry at the time, more concerned with struggling against his makeshift bonds to try to ascertain if Bilbo was alright, if the trolls had hurt him when they’d grabbed him and used him as leverage to make Thorin and the others stand down. Seeing his One climb to his feet after they’d all been captured and draw the trolls’ attention back to him once more – intentionally! – had nearly sent Thorin into a panic all over again.

And to think, Master Baggins had managed that with not only his own fear coursing through his veins, but Thorin’s as well…

“They must have come down from the Ettenmoors,” Gandalf murmurs to himself, having moved on to inspect their would-be executioners while Thorin stewed in his thoughts and memories of the previous night. “I've not seen mountain trolls like these this far south in an age…”

“They could not have moved in daylight,” Thorin comments, trailing after the wizard and looking up at the hulking, troll-shaped boulders. He has half a mind to take up a hammer and smash off their faces and hands, just to be sure. Gandalf looks back at him, and, realizing what his own words must imply, Thorin concludes, “There must be a cave nearby!”

 


 

It doesn’t take long to locate the cave with thirteen dwarves all searching for it, their stone sense feeling out precisely where soil turns to rock and where the earth opens to welcome them down into its confines. It is nothing so comfortable or safe as a dwarven stronghold, of course, little more than a dirty pockmark carved into the stone, and what little treasure lies within is liberally mixed with bones and various kinds of unspeakable troll filth.

While some of the others pick through the coins and gems for anything worth taking or stowing away for later, Thorin circles the low-ceilinged room, allowing his gaze, rather than his fingers, to seek out anything of interest. He nearly passes over it at first, but a second glance reveals, covered in cobwebs and dust but unmistakable now that he’s really looking, what can only be a dragon’s tooth.

The sight of a dragon’s maw coming directly at him as Smaug burst through Erebor’s front gates is not one to be easily forgotten, after all.

The tooth is partially encased in metal that gleams murkily beneath its web coating, etched with runes that he cannot quite make out beneath the layer of filth, and attached to a long blade – surprisingly long, nearly as tall as Thorin is himself, he finds as he pulls it free. Even more surprising is how very light it is, especially given its size. “This was not made by any troll,” he murmurs, turning the sheathed blade in his hands before reaching for the hilt.

“Nor by any smith amongst men,” Gandalf says, coming up alongside Thorin with a similarly runed sword in his own hands. “If I had to guess, I’d say these were made by the High Elves in Gondolin, in the First Age.”

Just as he was about to pull the blade free, Thorin instead grimaces, releasing his grip around the hilt. Of course they’re elvish blades – that’s why they’re so light, no doubt crafted from the treasure of Khazad-dûm, so jealously hoarded by elves of ages past, bought at a dear price from the dwarves who mined it, though not so dear as what Thorin’s ancestors had paid for it in turn…

“You could not wish for a finer blade!” Gandalf snaps, apparently seeing Thorin’s sneer and no doubt following where his thoughts have traveled – and the wizard’s ire no doubt rising defensively in response to his precious elves’ guilt.

With a brief glare up at the old man, Thorin grasps the dragon tooth once more and yanks the blade from its sheath, fully expecting to find little more than rust – only to be met with smooth, shining, perfectly sharp metal instead.

His first instinct was right after all – and Mahal’s Gift does not rust.

The others soon finish their inventory of the trolls’ hoard, with Glóin marking the spot on his map with apparent great satisfaction. That they all seem to believe without reservation that they will be returning this way, or at least that they’ll be alive and well at the end of this quest and able to direct family and friends to this spot as they journey out to the restored Mountain to join them… That thought alone, of their scattered kin streaming back to their lost homeland, of Erebor’s halls ringing with light and life once more, nearly proves too much for Thorin. He turns away, attempting to quietly clear his throat of the lump that has sprung up there and blink away the tears of longing that threaten to overtake him.

“Let’s get out of this foul place,” he orders, turning back to face them, his loyal, optimistic followers, gesturing broadly with the elvish sword towards the cave opening. Those who had come down into the cave rather than keeping watch outside – Glóin, Nori, Ori, Fíli, Bofur, Bifur, Dwalin – stream past him up and out into the fresh air, though he does get several curious looks from them, including one intensely raised eyebrow from Dwalin at the sight of the foreign weapon in his hand. Thorin only shakes his head and makes to follow them out.

“Thorin,” the wizard’s voice calls, stopping him just before he reaches the mouth of the cave. Gandalf is looking down at something in the mud and filth on the cavern’s floor when Thorin turns back to face him, nudging the muck aside with the toe of his boot, and after a moment he looks up at Thorin with a smile. “I believe I may have found something that would do quite nicely for our hobbit.”

 


 

“Master Baggins,” Thorin calls, striding through the loose cluster of the Company members who elected to wait outside rather than venturing down into the troll cave. The halfling was among that group, purportedly because he hadn’t any boots like the dwarves and so could not stomach the idea of treading through whatever detritus might litter the trolls’ lair. Thorin cannot help wondering, though, if he would have been so eager to stay behind had Thorin also chosen to do so rather than leading the group in the cave, if the idea of dirtying his bare feet might not have seemed so terrible compared to having to spend even a moment in his One’s company…  

The halfling meets Thorin’s gaze reluctantly, tucked away at the far end of their gathering with Dori and Balin, though the two older dwarves begin to subtly inch away as Thorin approaches. Master Baggins looks wan and sullen, and through their bond filters first a sort of wary antagonism, and, beneath it, that accursed apprehension, fear, fear of Thorin.

“I apologize for insulting you,” Master Baggins suddenly blurts out as Thorin draws to a stop in front of him.

Thorin pauses, blinking down at him, blindsided by the non-sequitur. “It’s… alright,” he murmurs, and then frowns a little. “Did they tell you what that word means? It wasn’t anything particularly offensive, just… a bit childish,” he explains, shrugging.

Master Baggins stares up at him, his brows slowly knitting together as that blasted annoyance seeps once more into their bond. “Is that a trick question?” he demands at last.

“What?” Thorin frowns down at him in confusion.

“I know— I’ve heard, as much as anyone has, that the dwarven tongue is supposed to be secret!” Master Baggins goes on then, his words rushing out quick and sharp. “If I say I do know what it was I said before, well then I suppose I’ve done something terribly wrong, haven’t I? And so has whoever taught me it! But I can’t exactly deny it, either, considering I’ve already used the word, so—”

“Peace, halfling,” Thorin cuts in, squeezing his eyes shut and holding up a hand against the torrent of words. “You are not in any trouble – you or the ones who taught you.”

“I—” Master Baggins takes a sort of quick, hiccupping breath, seeming almost to trip over himself. “I’m not?”  

“No,” Thorin sighs, meeting the hobbit’s wide, wondering gaze once more. He looks down at his hands and then holds out the smaller of the two blades towards Master Baggins. “Take this.”

“Oh— What—?” He gingerly accepts the little elven dirk – really more of a short sword in the hobbit’s hands – but holds it out in front of him as if afraid of dropping it on his toes like he had nearly done with the human-made ones in Bree. “Oh,” Master Baggins says again after a moment, looking down at the little sword. “Oh, it’s so light!” He pulls it partway from its sheath, revealing gleaming edges much like Thorin’s own newly acquired sword.

“It is most likely some silversteel alloy,” Thorin comments, moving a little closer to peer down at the blade. He had managed to wipe the worst of the muck from the hilt and sheath on his way out of the cave, but it will still need a thorough cleaning. The blade, however, perfectly reflects the halfling’s wide hazel eyes blinking down at it, not a nick or speck of rust in sight.  

“Silver and steel?” Master Baggins asks, looking up at Thorin again with a frown, his brows raised questioningly. “I’ve never thought of either of those as terribly light.”

Thorin shakes his head. “No, silversteel. What the elves call ‘mithril.’” That brings a slight dawning of comprehension to the halfling’s face, and Thorin purses his lips, hesitating just a moment, and then adds, quieter, “In our language, it is called ‘sanzigil.’”

Master Baggins’ eyes jerk up from their inspection of his new sword, his shock and confusion washing through their soulbond as he gapes up at Thorin. Thorin holds his gaze, attempting to exude as much calm, safety, security, as possible – if he can feel every shift in his One’s emotions, then the reverse must also be true, and Thorin would rather have all the hair shorn from his head than ever again cause Bilbo Baggins to fear him.

Master Baggins drops his gaze after a long moment, looking down at the little sword in his hands. “Sanzigil,” he repeats quietly to himself, and then, looking up again, with an edge to his voice and something almost like suspicion in his eyes, like he doesn’t want to believe Thorin’s assurances, he asks, “Why are you telling me this?”

Thorin licks his lips, letting his eyes trail down to the elven sword in his own hands and idly rubbing away a bit of mud on the scabbard. “You are right in thinking our language is secret,” he says after a moment. “From outsiders. But a dwarf’s One is considered as one of Mahal’s children, regardless of their race, and so you have as much right to every part of our culture as any dwarf here.”

Master Baggins sucks in a quick breath through his teeth, and Thorin can sense his irritation once more. “Right,” he mutters, looking away with a frown, “of course it comes back to that.

Thorin swallows with some difficulty, his mouth gone dry and throat feeling oddly tight as he too drops his gaze. It is rather obvious how very much Master Baggins wishes to be away from here and to never have to hear another word about soulbonds and Ones… He pushes past all that, though, and past the peevish obstinance now radiating from the hobbit before him, turning his attention back to the purpose that had originally brought him over here. “I can teach you how to fight,” he says, his voice coming out low and gravelly, and he gestures to the little sword when Master Baggins finally looks up at him again. “If you’re going to insist on flinging yourself into harm’s way, you need to at least gain a modest proficiency with a blade.”

“I didn’t ‘fling’ myself anywhere,” Master Baggins huffs, but he does color a little when Thorin pins him with a raised eyebrow, and at last sighs. “Fine.”

Thorin nods. “We can continue your Khuzdul lessons in the meantime as well,” he says, and, without really thinking, reaches out to slightly adjust the halfling’s grip on his sword, as he would with any young novice under his tutelage.

It is the first time they have actually touched, skin to skin, and the contact sends a bolt of warmth up Thorin’s fingers and through his arm, into his core. They both stand there, silent and unmoving, for several long moments, while Thorin fights the urge to step closer, to wrap his arms around Bilbo and bury his face in his hair, to run his hands over every inch of him and never, ever let go… But the urge passes after a few seconds, and Thorin finds his breath is a little labored when he forces himself to drop Master Baggins’ hand.

“We—” Thorin croaks, clears his throat, and tries again, taking a small step backward. Best to simply act like nothing happened, he decides. “We’ll focus on basic vocabulary and grammar to start with,” he says. “Something a bit more useful than curses and insults.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Master Baggins says, his voice a touch higher than usual and his face looking rather pink as he clutches his little elven sword in front of him and absolutely refuses to meet Thorin’s gaze, “I’ve found them quite useful so far!”

Chapter Text

Bilbo sinks to the ground with a small sigh after yet another long day walking ever eastward. They’ve not made such good time since they lost their ponies, and Thorin has set a punishing pace, as if trying to make up the difference through sheer force of will.

Unlike the others, who mostly flop down around Bilbo to rest a bit before laying out their bedrolls, Thorin only drops his pack in his usual place and then moves a short way off, unsheathing his new elven sword as he goes. This has become their routine the last few days since they’d found the troll hoard: They walk as far as they can before the sun begins to set behind them in the west, then, as most of the Company make camp, Thorin begins warming up, running through fast-paced exercises with his new sword, blue coat flaring out around him as he spins and slashes and jabs at the air.

Any minute now, he’ll cease his own practice and call Bilbo over to come begin his sword-fighting lesson for the day. Bilbo hunkers down a little further in the grass, stretching his legs out, and his feet, all the way down through his toes, groaning a little at the pleasant burn and hoping to gain just a few more moments of rest before he must be on his feet once more.

And that, of course, is when he spies Gandalf making his way around the camp towards where Thorin is practicing.

Oh dear, he thinks, sinking lower still as he leans back on his elbows, almost wishing to disappear entirely amongst the grasses rather than sit through the fight he knows is coming now. He catches Balin’s eye for a moment, and the older dwarf follows his gaze over toward the two at the edge of camp, looking just as worried as Bilbo feels. There has been a palpable tension growing between the dwarf king and the wizard the last few days, with Gandalf making exasperated comments about taking some kind of “very short detour” and Thorin answering back every time that he will do absolutely nothing of the sort. Bilbo hasn’t caught more details than that, as he’s taken pains to fall back in amongst the others and make himself scarce whenever the two of them come anywhere near each other.

Now, he can vaguely make out of the sound of Thorin and Gandalf talking, and another peek over towards them shows that Thorin has stopped his vicious attacks on the air to instead glower up at the old man, his elven sword held before him with its point driven into the ground like a walking stick. Bilbo looks away again, relieved to see them simply talking, and settles into his patch of grass a bit more comfortably. Perhaps they’ve finally both begun to act like reasonable adults and worked out whatever this disagreement between them is—

“I did not give you that map and key for you to hold on to the past!” Gandalf’s voice suddenly barks, rising clear and sharp through the camp.

“I did not know they were yours to keep!” Thorin snarls back.

“You are a stubborn fool, Thorin Oakenshield!” is Gandalf’s parting remark, before the wizard comes stomping back through the camp.

“Everything alright?” Bilbo asks, straightening in his seat to peer up at the old man as he draws near, and then, when the wizard shows no sign of stopping, he calls, “Gandalf? Where are you going?”

“To seek the company of the only one around here who’s got any sense,” Gandalf growls back at him, marching right past Bilbo and beyond their little circle.

“And who’s that?!” Bilbo demands, with a half a mind to jump to his feet and follow the wizard wherever he’s going. Considering what happened the last time Gandalf wandered off and left the rest of the Company on their own…

“Myself, Mister Baggins!” Gandalf replies. “I’ve had enough of dwarves for one day!”

Bilbo can only gape after him, frozen in place on the ground as the wizard’s grey robes disappear between the trees. He’s not sure which is worse now: that Gandalf has left them once again to fend for themselves, or that he seems to be lumping Bilbo in with the dwarves!

That, of course, only brings to mind what Thorin had told him that day outside the troll cave: that as far they’re all concerned, Bilbo may as well be a dwarf. Under other circumstances, he imagines, he might even be able to consider that a good thing, a compliment really, a sign that he’s been accepted by his traveling companions and, like something out of a fairy story, gained the favor of their king.

If only it didn’t all actually hinge on their ridiculous belief that he and Thorin are somehow soulmates.

As though summoned by Bilbo’s thoughts, Thorin calls across the camp to him at just that moment. “Master Baggins, we should begin your training.”

“Right. Coming,” Bilbo answers, standing with a sigh and pausing only briefly to dust himself off. His little sword is still belted at his side, and he goes trotting across the breadth of the camp to where Thorin stands waiting, casting one last glance back towards the trees where Gandalf had gone.

“Shamukh,” Thorin says gruffly when Bilbo draws to a stop in front of him, his voice low and expression still stormy. He doesn’t quite meet Bilbo’s eye, his lips pressing into a thin, flat line as he seems almost to chew over some unspoken words, as if silently continuing his argument with the wizard.

“Shamukh,” Bilbo returns the greeting quietly, and the dwarf’s gaze finally focuses on him.

Thorin looks at him for a silent beat, and then he draws in a deep breath, seeming to shake himself a little to cast away his dark mood. “Good,” he comments then, giving a slight nod. “You’ve been working on your pronunciation.”

“Yes,” Bilbo says, glowing a little with pride at the praise despite himself. He has always had such a passion for languages – begun, no doubt, with his mother’s tales of adventure and meeting elves when he was small, leading to his lifelong study of the elven tongues – but it’s a rare thing for Bilbo to have anyone with whom he can practice, much less an actual instructor.

Just so long as he doesn’t dwell too much on why he’s being allowed these lessons, he can keep enjoying the experience.

“We will continue with thafanu marakh zê’,” Thorin says, and there now seems to actually be a very small smile lingering around the corners of his mouth as he moves to stand at Bilbo’s side, raising his sword in front of him. Bilbo draws his own blade, mirroring Thorin’s stance: one foot forward, his little sword held upright in front of him in his left hand – they’ve worked, the last few days, on breaking Bilbo’s instinct to grasp the hilt in both hands and simply swing it wildly about.

“Rumush?” Thorin asks, glancing over at Bilbo, who has become quite familiar with these terms that start out each of their lessons. He gives a nod, and Thorin barks, “Ignin!”

They move slowly through the defensive stances Bilbo has been learning over the last few days, blocking different parts of his body with his blade one after another in sequence. Thorin recites the name of each position as they go, waiting for Bilbo to strike the appropriate pose and repeat the Khuzdul word before moving on to the next and only occasionally pausing to correct his form or, even less frequently, his pronunciation. Bilbo’s memory of both the movements and the new vocabulary is improving with practice, but he still finds himself glancing over towards Thorin every few seconds in the dying light – just to check he’s doing it right, of course. Absolutely no other reason he’d want to look over at the dwarf king while he’s all gilded and glowing with the rays of the setting sun at their backs, none at all.

He allows himself a glance over now, only to find Thorin already watching him, his normally intense blue eyes softened somehow, sending Bilbo’s stomach into a series of funny little somersaults. Bilbo tears his gaze away, looking anywhere but at Thorin – which leaves his eyes, and his thoughts, with nowhere to go but back to the treeline where Gandalf had stalked off. He chews on his lower lip, feeling the same anxious energy of a few minutes ago begin to spiral through him again, willing the pointy grey hat to reappear through the branches.

“You needn’t worry so much over the wizard,” Thorin says then, quietly, and Bilbo looks back at him, only just remembering to move his sword arm into the next position and taking the required step backward as he does. The king stands in a perfect mirror image to Bilbo, sword held in his right hand while Bilbo’s is in his left, and he looks down at Bilbo with those terribly blue, terribly gentle eyes, absolutely radiating a sense of warmth, and safety, and security. Not for the first time, Bilbo feels as if he’s being drawn to the dwarf like a moth to a flame.

“I’m not worried,” he snaps, turning his face forward again and launching into the second repetition of the defensive sequence without waiting for Thorin to lead the way this time.

He can’t say precisely what gives him this impression, but, without even looking over at Thorin, Bilbo feels as if that aura of safety and security begins to dim and recede a little, almost as if Thorin himself is pulling away from Bilbo, though neither of them have moved from their respective spots in the grass. Part of him exults at this, congratulating himself for having once again overcome his ridiculous attraction to the dwarf king – while another part immediately misses those sensations, and regrets his words and actions that caused their loss.

...Which is preposterous, of course! Why, there’s nothing to say what Bilbo had felt— what he’d seemed to feel coming from Thorin was even real! Bilbo attributing his own random impressions and feelings to Thorin doesn’t make them real, and it certainly doesn’t mean Thorin actually feels anything like what Bilbo imagines!

“I’m only a little… concerned,” he goes on after a moment, glancing very briefly up at Thorin but making sure not to let himself become ensnared once more. “We got into a spot of trouble the last time he went off without us, after all. I should hate to have a repeat of all that nasty business.”

“Don’t let yourself get talked into any more of my sister-sons’ schemes and we won’t,” Thorin returns smartly, his tone mild despite the reproach in his words.

“Hmph. Well,” Bilbo says, following Thorin’s example and shifting into the next position. “They can be very persuasive.”

“Yes, they can be,” Thorin sighs, his deep voice turning rueful, “as I know all too well.”

That surprises a laugh out of Bilbo. He’s never heard Thorin sound so put upon, so world-weary, not even in the brief moments when he’s spoken about dwarven history and their life as vagabonds. “Ha, there must be a story – or several – behind a statement like that!” he says, glancing over with a grin. But then he meets Thorin’s gaze, and the dwarf is smiling now as well, and Bilbo’s stomach is doing those little jumps and flips again, warmth blossoming in his chest, bubbling with something almost like anxiety, almost like hope—

He forces himself to look away, clearing his throat loudly. In other circumstances, finding himself chatting amiably – even flirtatiously – with a handsome, strong, dwarven warrior king would be… Well, mostly it would be unbelievable, more likely something he’d dreamed up on a warm summer evening after one too many glasses of wine than anything to be found in real life in the Shire. But this isn’t the Shire. It is, in fact, his real life now, and knowing what Thorin and his followers believe about the two of them, seeing that belief shining in Thorin’s eyes whenever they look at each other, almost like he feels just as giddy as Bilbo does…

“So what were you and Gandalf arguing about?” Bilbo asks then, forcing his tone back to nothing more than cool cordiality as he changes the subject. He feels Thorin drop his gaze as well, sensing, again, how the dwarf seems to pull away from him without actually moving a muscle.

“It was nothing,” Thorin says after a moment of silence. Bilbo casts him another look, raising one eyebrow, and the dwarf sighs again, giving in. “Gandalf has expressed some… opinions on what course our journey should follow over the next few days. I disagreed.”

“Hm. That’s putting it mildly,” Bilbo comments as he slides into the next position in their practice, thinking of the shouting that had preceded the wizard’s storming out of camp. “Is that what he meant about the map?” he asks next, and feels Thorin’s gaze come to rest on him again. Bilbo allows himself only the briefest of glances over, before continuing, “I wouldn’t have thought there was anything special about the map Glóin’s been carrying all this time to chart our course. Why, Balin and I have both looked it over a time or two, and it seemed like any old drawing of the Great Road. There wasn’t anything about it that I could see to indicate it was a gift from a wizard.”

“No, it’s—” Thorin starts to say, but then stops. Bilbo’s gaze jerks back over to look at him as something abrupt and secretive seems to shift in the air between them. He watches as the dwarf’s expression shutters, sending a chill through Bilbo, despite the warm summer evening. “There is another map,” Thorin finally explains gruffly, without looking at Bilbo, “but it’s nothing you need to concern yourself with.”

Bilbo’s mouth falls open as he simply stares at Thorin’s profile for a long moment. Several responses flit through his mind, but then, lowering his sword arm along with his gaze, he straightens his stance and says instead, “Well, I think I’ve had enough practice for one evening. Good night!” Resheathing his sword, he turns on his heel and marches back into camp without sparing another glance back at the dwarf king – even though he can feel Thorin’s gaze on his back as he goes, and can almost imagine a sort of confused, even apologetic tone to his silence.

Oh, blast and confusticate his ridiculous imaginings!

He finds a seat around the fire away from any of the others already hanging about there and offers a slightly clipped “Thank you” to Bombur when the cook passes him a bowl of the stew he’s only just finished preparing. Bilbo hunkers down on his log, avoiding the gazes of all his companions as he stabs rather viciously at the chunks of potato and rabbit meat floating in the thin broth, before biting hard enough to make his teeth scrape along the soft metal of his spoon when he raises it to his mouth.

The nerve of some people!

Bilbo knows, on some level, that he’s being just a tad dramatic. What does he care if Thorin Oakenshield wants to keep secrets? Why, he may not even be specifically keeping it from Bilbo. There’s nothing to say he’s shared this fact of there being a second, secret, magical map with any of the others. It could just as easily be that Thorin is keeping this information from everyone, perhaps on orders from Gandalf, the crafty old coot…

As if Thorin would take orders from anyone, least of all the wizard.

No, he thinks sourly, taking another, somewhat calmer bite of his dinner, it’s much more likely that Thorin is keeping this from Bilbo alone. Which makes him feel… all sorts of nasty things, if he’s honest. Like he thinks Bilbo can’t be trusted, for one. And like he’s an outsider, for another, even after the weeks he’s spent on the road with all of them, like he’s a stranger with no stake in where their quest takes them or how they get there, like a wall has been thrown up between him and all the dwarves, like he has no right to expect to be included in any of their decisions.

Like that first evening in Bag End, like he’s back in his own parlor once more and Thorin is insisting that Bilbo must stay behind, that they couldn’t possibly accommodate such a weak, useless, deadweight of a gentlehobbit like him.

He sniffles once, finds himself blinking back the beginning of tears, and sets aside his bowl to fumble for his handkerchief – the handkerchief Thorin had given him – while muttering about his allergies, just in case anyone should notice his shining eyes.

That’s the crux of the issue, really, the reason he’s so frustrated now and the thing that had stopped the words in his throat a few minutes ago when he ought to have given Thorin a good tongue-lashing like his mother taught him: he’s not a dwarf, not really. He had had the thought, as he’d stood there gaping at Thorin, that they had all said he was as good as one of them, had said he has a right to all that the dwarves know. For one brief flash of a moment, he had felt the pure conviction that he ought to assert that right, and remind Thorin of this fact, remind the dwarf king of his own words just a few days ago – but then he’d remembered whence this supposed ‘right’ came. He’s only being allowed on this journey, and allowed to learn all he has from them thus far, because they all believe the ridiculous notion that he and Thorin somehow share a soulbond.

Accepting free language lessons is one thing – he could never say no to such an offer, no matter the consequences, or the implications – but this, seeming to accept these ridiculous claims about Ones and soulbonds, holding Thorin to those claims as if they could ever possibly be true, no, that would just be a bridge too far.

And so all he could do was simply bite his tongue and walk away. And now, all he can do is sit here stewing in impotent rage, casting occasional dark glances over toward where Thorin has resumed his own practice beyond the camp, his movements quick and fluid and oddly beautiful as he spins and slashes at the air with his long elven sword. It’s somehow only more infuriating that someone so pigheaded can also be so terribly attractive, he thinks, and then goes back to stabbing at the dregs of his supper with a small snarl.

“Alright there, lad?” Balin asks as he sinks down onto the log beside Bilbo, a full bowl in his hands and a small, tired smile on his face when Bilbo glances up at him.

“Yes— No— Oh, bother, I don’t know,” Bilbo sighs, shaking his head. He sets his now empty bowl aside in favor of resting his elbows on his knees and digging his fingers into his temples.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Balin says kindly in between bites of stew. “We all learned Khuzdul from the cradle, and picked up our weapons and crafts near soon as we could walk. You’ve got quite a lot to learn, but it’ll come to you soon enough.”

Bilbo snorts and rubs his fingers over his eyes. If only that were all that was plaguing him… He drops his hands at last, and, as he raises his eyes once more, he finds his gaze drawn inexorably past the fire, across the camp, and out to where Thorin is still running through fast-paced practice drills on his own in the gathering twilight. He watches the king silently for several long moments, and then asks, “Is he always like this?”

“Hm? Who’s that now?” Balin asks casually – as if he doesn’t know, as if Bilbo can’t see that little smile of his, or the twinkle in his eye, as if he’s forgotten that ‘Welcome to the family’ nonsense the first night they’d all met. The older dwarf glances at Bilbo and then seems to follow his gaze, at last nodding and letting out a quiet, “Ah. Yes. Yes, I’m afraid he is.”

Bilbo looks over at Balin as the dwarf turns back to his supper. He’s still smiling behind his beard, and Bilbo braces himself for what he knows, by now, must be coming. For all that Bilbo has come to think of Balin as a friend over the past several weeks, he’s still keenly aware of where the old scholar’s loyalty truly lies. Balin is a pleasant conversationalist, friendly, cultured, and intelligent, and Bilbo has happily wiled away many a mile on this journey talking with him and some of the others who share their interests – Dori and Ori, primarily, though Bofur and Bombur, while a bit rougher around the edges, also share Bilbo’s love of good food and good jokes. But when it comes to Thorin, Balin suddenly seems to resemble no one so much as Bilbo’s various meddling aunts and uncles and older cousins, the types who go about gossiping over which tween or young adult is smitten with whom, and either clucking their tongues over Bilbo’s persistent bachelorhood or sharing knowing glances whenever one of his peers seemed to show him a little more attention than usual at a Farthing dance.

He’d thought he’d long since left such bothers behind, a good decade too old now to really be considered much of an eligible catch, his smial and landholdings notwithstanding. And yet here these dwarves are, tumbling into his life and acting like he’s some dunderheaded youngling again who simply hasn’t realized yet that he’s in love.

“Thorin’s always been a hardworker,” Balin goes on, sighing and shaking his head just a little, as if he finds such a trait exasperating and hasn’t instead just paid the king a compliment. “He led our people after Erebor fell, when no one else could, and went to work as a smith in the towns of men to put bread in our mouths, even when his skill was disrespected and his work undervalued… Even when all others would have long since buckled under such ill-use.” He pauses, sighing again. “He could not do otherwise, if you asked him, though; it’s in his blood to protect all those under his rule. I’m afraid, laddie,” he says, glancing over at Bilbo again, “he’s simply never learned when to stop working.”

“I— Well. Hm.” Bilbo really doesn’t know what to say to any of that. ‘I meant, is he always so controlling and secretive?’ seems a rather poor complaint now – ‘Is he always so focused on the task before him and trying to do everything he can to reclaim a homeland for his people, even if he hurts a few hobbitish feelings along the way?’ Yes, well done, Baggins, making their entire race’s existential crisis all about yourself.

He doesn’t particularly like the fact that Balin has no doubt anticipated his line of thinking and has managed to, as usual, reframe it to put Thorin back into a— well, if not an entirely positive or friendly light, then at least an understandable one. Bilbo can hardly argue that his own bruised ego ought to come before the lives and homes of all the dwarves around him, to say nothing of all the thousands more depending on them and this venture. Still, it grates on his nerves; he can practically hear the twitter of scheming relations gossiping about wedding plans every time he and Balin have this sort of exchange.

Bilbo sighs, shaking his head, and gathers up his bowl and spoon for washing. “Well, perhaps someone should teach him to ease up once in a while,” is his parting remark as he stands once more. He knows it’s a weak, low blow, but he’s also not entirely willing to admit defeat: this is just a temporary retreat, rather than fully relinquishing his anger.

He can hear the smile in Balin’s voice as the dwarf murmurs behind him, “Yes, perhaps someone should.”

 


 

Gandalf still has not returned when Bilbo rises with the rest of the Company a little past dawn the next morning. They break camp in relative quiet, the dwarves grumbling sleepily to each other as they all gather up their bags and belongings for another long day of walking. Bilbo can’t seem to keep his gaze off of the treeline for more than a second or two even as he rolls his blankets up and secures them to his pack, his eyes darting from tree to tree in search of a pointy hat and familiar grey robes, but to no avail. With one final, aggrieved sigh, he closes his pack up and stands to swing it around onto his back – only to hear a quiet grunt as the bag impacts one of the dwarves as they were apparently crossing the camp just a pace behind him.

“Oh—! Oh, goodness, my apologies—” he starts automatically, spinning around to face his victim.

And it’s Thorin, of course.

“Think nothing of it,” the king says, his voice low, rubbing one hand down his opposite arm for a moment. His eyes briefly flick to Bilbo’s face and then beyond him, to the trees, understanding dawning. “You seem a bit preoccupied this morning, Master Baggins,” he comments, meeting Bilbo’s gaze again.

Bilbo feels himself begin to color slightly, the same annoyance from the previous evening rising easily in him. “I’m merely anxious to be on our way once more,” he sniffs, fingering the straps of his pack where they slice down across his shoulders.

Thorin gives a small nod and for a moment looks as if he might leave it at that and move along, but then he seems to change his mind, shifting his weight ever so slightly to face Bilbo more fully. “You know the wizard can look after himself, of course,” he says, and then pauses, licking his lips. “And I… I hope you know that I— that we would never allow you to come to harm,” he continues, then adds, his mouth twisting ruefully, “even if we did have the ill luck of meeting with the likes of mountain trolls twice in the space of one week.”

“Oh…” Bilbo can only blink up at him; arrogant as he is, controlling as he, every now and then Thorin will say or do something so terribly sincere, like this, and it takes Bilbo a few seconds to remember why he objects to the dwarf again. “Well, I, er… That’s, that’s very kind of you to say,” he responds at last, looking away to awkwardly watch his toes shuffle and curl on the ground rather than allowing himself to get caught up in Thorin’s intense gaze as he has so many times before. He can’t help remembering, after a promise like that, the way the trolls’ massive hands had felt pulling his arms and legs taut, and the look on Thorin’s face as he gazed up at Bilbo then, ‘horror’ and ‘shock’ such insufficient descriptors for someone who looked as though their entire world was crumbling right before their eyes…

“I also… I wanted to apologise,” Thorin goes on quietly, and Bilbo’s gaze snaps up to look at him again, though the dwarf seems to be mirroring him once more, staring down at his boots instead of at Bilbo, “for my behavior last night. I did not mean any offense. I only…” He hesitates, letting out a long, frustrated breath, before at last looking up and launching into his explanation. “The map Tharkûn spoke of is not a mere road map for our journey,” Thorin says, his eyes hard and lips tight as he meets Bilbo’s gaze once more. “It details a secret entrance into the Mountain that we hoped to use, since Smaug destroyed the front gates when he first invaded our home.”

“Oh. I see.” Perhaps something Gandalf had managed to divine with his magical powers? But then, Thorin had said that the map wasn’t Gandalf’s to keep… Bilbo purses his lips, glancing around at the others making ready to leave, and then leans in slightly, dropping his voice. “Is it meant to be kept a secret?” he asks.

“What? No,” Thorin frowns down at him in confusion. “All in the Company know of it already.”

Bilbo rears back, straightening his spine and rocking backward on his heels. Why— Why— Of all the nerve— “Right,” he bites out. “Right, so the whole Company knew about this already. So it was just me you didn’t trust with this information.”

Thorin scowls down at him. “No!” he growls, and then squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, seems to be trying to take a breath and keep his temper in check. “It was not intentionally kept from you,” he says from between clenched teeth, and then finally looks down at Bilbo again. “It was only…”

“Only what?” Bilbo demands when Thorin hesitates again, glaring up at him.

“Only that you nearly fainted the last time you heard any mention of burgling or dragons!” Thorin snaps, and then immediately grimaces, as if he already regrets the words. Bilbo can feel a flush rising in his cheeks, embarrassment joining his anger, but he doesn’t back down, continuing to glare up at Thorin as the dwarf goes on talking, “The secret door is the point of all this.” Thorin gestures vaguely to their camp, the Company around them, all the rest of the journey eastward, his voice low and strained, as if he is holding himself together through sheer willpower. “It’s the key to our plan. It was why we all gathered at your home in the first place, because Gandalf had said he would find us a halfling burglar—”

Hobbit,” Bilbo snaps, interrupting, in no mood now to tolerate any more such slights, no matter how minor.

Thorin stops, confusion clear on his face once more. “What?”

“We are called hobbits!” Bilbo spits out. “‘Halfling’ is a Big Person word! It’s how they see us, as if we’re only half what we ought to be, half what they are, half people, when they’re the ones who’re so unnaturally tall, not proper sized at all! I’ve put up with it all these weeks, not least because Gandalf is a Big Person and doesn’t know any better,” he snarls, his voice rising as his rant gains speed, “but I’ve had just about enough of hearing that word from people who are barely any taller than I am!” He’s jabbing a finger in Thorin’s face by the time he finishes, and decides, for the sake of argument and his own sense of dignity, that he’s going to entirely ignore the fact that he has to tip his head back in order to look the dwarf in the eye.

Thorin stares at him for a very long, very tense moment, looking a bit like Bilbo has just told him most stridently that the sky is in fact made of meringue, and then finally says only, “Apologies. It won’t happen again.”

“Thank you,” Bilbo growls, folding his arms over his chest. When the dwarf doesn’t immediately return to his explanation about the map, he prompts, perhaps a touch sharply, “You were saying?”

Thorin gives a small nod, licking his lips once more, and goes on in a somewhat subdued tone, “Gandalf had said he would find us a hobbit to act as burglar…”

“Yes, yes, a burglar to search for some stone in the dragon’s hoard! You already told me all this back at Bag End!” Bilbo interrupts again with a wave of his hand, remembering that infuriating conversation by the fire in his own sitting room. He had indeed felt quite faint when he’d learned just what might have been expected of him, and then relieved that he absolutely would not be going on any such mad quest— And yet here he is, halfway across Arda with no one but dwarves for company!

“Yes,” Thorin agrees, a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice again, “exactly. When I burned the burglar’s contract, and decided we would come up with a new plan. The secret door on my grandfather’s map was how the burglar was meant to reach the hoard, and since you are no burglar, and under no circumstances will I send you to face any dragon, I saw no point in troubling you with the existence of a plan that had so distressed you before, especially when that plan has already been abandoned!” Thorin looks away, scowling and clenching his jaw, his shoulders rising and falling subtly with his heavier breathing. “Gandalf still believes we should continue with the plan as he first devised it,” Thorin adds, quieter, without looking back at Bilbo. “So to answer your original question: that is what we have been arguing over.”

“Gandalf thinks I should be your burglar after all, doesn’t he?” Bilbo asks, his anger beginning to ebb at last, replaced by suspicion – though not, for once, suspicion of Thorin and his motives. In all these weeks of carefully avoiding Thorin, it would seem Bilbo has quite forgotten who it was who had first tried to strong-arm him into joining this quest.

Thorin turns back to look at him, and Bilbo knows the answer without him having to say it – and then several of the others start yelling.

“Something’s coming!” Bilbo hears Bofur’s cry, raising the alarm, and he and Thorin both follow the crowd of pointing fingers towards the dust cloud on the horizon.

“Prepare yourselves!” Thorin bellows, drawing his elven sword from where it is slung across his back and shoving Bilbo behind him in one fluid move.

“Hey—!” Bilbo stumbles, has to grab at Thorin’s sleeve to keep himself upright, and then draws his own little sword, half stepping out from behind the dwarf king to see what’s going on, though Thorin keeps his arm out in front of Bilbo as if to block him from the potential fight.

“Dozens of feet approaching,” Nori calls, kneeling with one hand stretched out upon the ground rather than standing with weapons at the ready like most of the others – using what the dwarves refer to as their ‘stone sense,’ though Bilbo doesn’t see any stone here, only hard-packed earth. “They’re small, though… Too small to be orcs or humans,” the pointy-coiffed dwarf adds with a frown.

The column of dust rising into the air grows ever nearer, and after a second or two Bilbo can feel the vibrations himself, rattling through the dirt and up through his soles. Surely whatever it is, it must be traveling in quite a large herd. He has just enough time to wonder if perhaps they ought to instead make for the trees rather than risk being trampled by whatever is approaching, but then, out of the brush bursts—

Rabbits.

They’re good-sized rabbits, most of them easily coming up to Bilbo’s waist even without counting their long ears, but still. Rabbits.

And then he sees the old man on the sleigh behind the rabbits.

“Gandalf!” this old man screeches, lurching off of his sleigh and towards the nearest dwarves, who back up hastily and brandish their weapons. “Where is Gandalf?!” he demands. “He was supposed to be here!”

“Who’s asking?!” Dwalin demands, his hammers raised and ready to strike should the man come within range.

“That would be Radagast the Brown!” Gandalf’s voice suddenly thunders around them, and the grey wizard comes striding out of the trees a moment later, glaring down at them all. “And I would very much appreciate it if you did not attack him!”

“Another wizard,” Thorin growls, but he does lower his sword, and, after a brief moment of hesitation, Bilbo and the others follow suit.

“Gandalf!” Radagast gasps, and Bilbo can certainly see the resemblance now as the two of them meet in the center of their camp: Radagast is shorter but no less haggard and tattered than Gandalf is, his beard just as long and scraggly, his hat just as ridiculous, if less pointy. In some ways he is actually even more travel-stained and vagabondly, especially taking into account the bird’s nest built into his hat and the various little bits of feathers and dropping dotting his ratty brown robes.

“What it is? What has brought you so far from the Greenwood?” Gandalf asks, frowning down at him with concern. When Radagast only sputters and searches for words, Gandalf places a calming hand on his shoulder to lead him away, while his other hand produces his pipe seemingly from nowhere. “Here— Take a breath, have some Old Toby, and tell me all…”

The two bearded old men walk a short distance away to confer quietly between themselves, though Bilbo thinks he catches Radagast saying something about someone having risen from the dead before they are beyond his hearing. He shakes his head, figuring he must have misheard, and returns his sword to its sheath.

Beside him, Thorin heaves a quiet sigh, then calls to the others, “We’ll wait here a little while longer – but make sure your gear is ready to move at a moment’s notice!” He nods distractedly at the answers of assent and acknowledgement that he receives, and mutters some choice words about wizards and their scheming slowing the Company down. Thorin makes no move to follow the two old men or to find out what this newcomer’s business is, though. Instead, he looks down at his sword, turning it this way and that a few times before moving through a few lazy figure-eights, the blade almost singing as it cuts through the air, before he finally reaches back to slide it into its sheath.

“Why do you do that?” Bilbo finds himself asking all of a sudden, and Thorin looks down at him in surprise, eyebrows half-raised questioningly. “Practice so much, I mean?” Bilbo adds, feeling himself quail a little under the force of those blue, blue eyes, a shiver trying to tingle its way up his spine and all across his skin now that he’s not burning up with anger at the dwarf king. Quashing that feeling as best he can, he adds, just a touch sarcastically, “Aren’t you supposed to be a master swordsman already? Or should I perhaps go look for someone else to teach me?”

Thorin frowns a little, mouth twisting and brows flattening out at Bilbo’s attempt at humor. He gives a small snort, but, rather than respond in kind, he instead crosses to his pack and reaches for the second sheath that is strapped onto it: his old, dwarven sword, Deathless, which has been all but set aside in favor of the new, elven blade. Thorin leans down to pull the short, angular sword out and then, straightening up, holds the hilt out towards Bilbo. “Take this,” he says, completely deadpan – and perhaps it’s just that, that absolute lack of inflection or emotion, that makes Bilbo suspect something, some trap opening up before him. Because it’s certainly not as if he can read such a thing in Thorin’s eyes, or, or, or somehow simply sense it from him! No, that… that would be impossible…

Gingerly, Bilbo wraps his fingers around the solid shaft of the hilt, making sure his toes are well clear should this turn into a repeat of the weapons fiasco in Bree… Thorin releases his grip just below the hand guard, and, yes, sure enough, it’s all Bilbo can do to keep the thing upright with both hands, even with its tip still resting on the ground.

Thorin lets him struggle for a few seconds, and then sweeps Deathless away from him with one hand. With the other, he reaches over his shoulder and draws the elven sword once more. “Now this,” Thorin says, his voice softer now, and somehow without any of the careful, clever subterfuge that had seemed to be there a minute before.

Pursing his lips, Bilbo takes the elven sword from him with no less trepidation than before, but finds he needn’t have worried. It is heavier than his own little blade, of course, and unwieldy for him, but then it is also twice the size of his sword, as long as Bilbo is tall! Still, he can lift it with ease, could even swing it about in a fight if he really needed to, unlike the dwarven-made sword.

“Alright, yes, they’re very different, anyone can see that,” he says at last, turning the sword round to offer the hilt to Thorin again. The dwarf takes it and begins returning it to its place on his back. “But it still doesn’t answer my question: why are you so intent on practicing with it every waking moment of the day? Shouldn’t a lighter sword be… well, easier to use?”

“No,” Thorin replies, meeting Bilbo’s gaze once more after his sword is back in place. “Your first observation was correct: they are different,” he explains. At Bilbo’s frown, he goes on, “I created Deathless with my own hands, and I have carried it, and fought with it, for nearly one hundred and fifty years. I could not know that sword better even if it were actually a part of my own body.

“But this one,” he says, reaching one hand back to touch the dragon’s tooth hilt of the elven sword. “I don’t even know its name yet, much less how it will behave in battle. A good swordsman always takes the time to learn the feel of their equipment.” He pauses, a slight hint of a smile growing in the corner of his mouth. “And a master swordsman knows that they are never done learning, and are never above a little more practice.”

Bilbo feels himself growing warm in the face once more, especially with Thorin smiling down at him like that, so warm and soft, like they’re sharing a secret between them, like Bilbo was never even angry with him… He clears his throat, looking away. “Hm. Well. I suppose it could be that,” he says. “Or could be you just think you look fierce and kingly whenever you’re swinging that thing about.” He casts another glance up at Thorin, and the dwarf meets his gaze with slightly narrowed eyes – and yet he’s still smiling. He knows he's being mocked, yet he doesn’t seem to mind terribly.

The moment is shattered a second later, though, when a howl suddenly rips through the air.

“What— What— Was that a wolf?!” Bilbo demands, spinning to look all around, feeling his eyes popping open almost painfully wide as gooseflesh breaks out all across his skin. “Are there wolves out here?!”

“That was no wolf,” Bofur answers him, glancing back once before facing the east again as he hefts his mattock.

“There’s another group on the horizon!” Glóin calls, pointing.

“Bigger than before,” Nori adds. “Big enough to be—”

“Orcs,” Thorin spits, drawing his elven sword.

“Orcs?!” Bilbo echoes.

“Stay close,” Thorin tells him, thankfully seeming content to ignore Bilbo’s mindless, panicked squawking. “No matter what happens, stay behind me.”

Bilbo can only gape up at him, his tongue feeling as though it’s been frozen in place.

“Oh— Oh dear, oh no—” Radagast cries as he and Gandalf come hurrying over to rejoin the Company, robes fluttering and matching walking sticks clacking against the ground. “It’s that orc pack that’s followed me all the way from Dol Guldur! I thought I lost them in Rohan, but…”

“Apparently not,” Gandalf finishes for him, voice grave. He looks over at Thorin. “You must flee. If you’re recognized—”

Thorin scowls up at him, looking like he wants to argue, but the brown wizard speaks up again before he can. “I’ll lead them away!” Radagast announces, already striding back over toward his sleigh and his waiting team of rabbits. “We’ve been able to keep ahead of them this long, and there’s no sense in your little friends getting caught up in all this…”

“‘Little’?!” Dwalin protests.

“‘Friends,’” Thorin growls, low and sarcastic, though Bilbo doubts anyone else is near enough to hear him.

“Be careful, my friend,” Gandalf intones, stepping up to rest a hand on the other wizard’s shoulder again.

Radagast nods once, then looks up at Gandalf with a more lucid expression than Bilbo had thought him capable of. “You must tell the Council. You must show them—”

“I will,” Gandalf promises, and the clap on the back he gives Radagast turns into a slight push. “Go now.”

Without another word, the brown wizard is off, heading vaguely south-west, his rabbits picking up speed almost faster than Bilbo can believe, faster than any tame pony or pack animal, certainly. Gandalf turns to face him and Thorin, looking briefly around at all the others. “Well?” he asks after a beat of silence.

“Move out!” Thorin roars, taking the hint – and then his hand closes around Bilbo’s wrist, and they take off running.

Bilbo stumbles along through the tall grass and sparse trees, unable even to catch his breath enough to tell Thorin to release him. Plus, part of him is a little afraid he’d be left behind entirely were it not for the dwarf’s grip on his arm. He can hear Radagast whooping and hollering in the distance, trying to draw the orcs’ attention, and the howls from the wo— the not-wolves, whatever they are, grow ever more numerous, ever closer, sending chills stabbing their way down Bilbo’s spine and all across his skin.

He hears a growl, a panting breath, just before an enormous nightmare beast comes leaping out of the brush right across his and Thorin’s path, massive jaws gaping wide with deadly sharp teeth looking for flesh to bite, tear into, rip apart… The world seems to tilt sideways, all other sound subsumed by the buzzing in his ears, as if someone has rung a dinner triangle right by his head, and Bilbo can only watch in dazed wonder as the animal’s beady eyes focus on him before it takes a single step forward – only to be cut down a moment later with a few quick slices of a long, shining blade.

Someone grabs his arm – his right arm, yanking hard, reminding him it’s still there, the touch hot against his wrist, burning away the chill from the snowdrifts – and then he is running again. He’s pulled and pushed and spun around, while the landscape swings wildly before his eyes. There are wolves everywhere, closing in, wolves and orcs, their cackling voices mixing with the barks and growls, echoing in his ears. Bilbo can somehow feel the sun growing hot on his face even as snowflakes freeze his eyelashes together, the cold making it hard to think, hard to move, hard to breathe. They run, and stop, and run some more. There are voices yelling, Thorin yelling, Bilbo’s mother, screaming his name— He’s shoved to the side, stumbles backward, trips over something in the snow— no, no, the long grass: a rock, a rock the size of his fist, his fingers curling around it easily, fitting perfectly in the palm of his hand.

He doesn’t know quite what he’s doing until the rock is leaving his hand again, sailing through the air, hitting one of the not-wolf-things squarely in the eye. The monster falls, yelping, and the hobbit— no, dwarf, the dwarf just in front of it avoids being bit in two.

There are more rocks, and now it’s as if Bilbo has never known anything else in his life: grabbing them up, winding his arm back, letting them fly, striking back at the wolves, one stone after another, over and over, so that he almost doesn’t hear Gandalf calling for them all.

“Here! Down here! Quickly!”

Bilbo spins, drops his armload of rocks, stumbling, looking around, trying to locate the wizard, when thick arms close around him, lifting him off his feet, and a voice growls in his ear, “Come on.” And then they are falling, tumbling, rolling down a steep incline, finally coming to a stop.

Bilbo can only lie still for what feels like an eternity, staring up at the stone ceiling above his head, the storm of sounds around him battering at his ears senselessly. A hand suddenly hauls Bilbo to his feet, and he stares down at it as it holds tight around his upper arm. Someone is talking, yelling, a single voice breaking out of the cacophony, the words ricocheting around inside Bilbo’s head without forming into anything intelligible.

“—alright?!”

The hand shakes him, and then another takes hold of his other arm. Bilbo finally looks up and finds Thorin’s face before his eyes, quite close, much closer than he’s accustomed to, at least while he’s awake.

“Bilbo!” Thorin yells, and shakes him again. “Are you hurt?!

“Oh…” Bilbo blinks up at him, and then looks back down at himself. Oh, yes, it turns out those are in fact Thorin’s hands gripping his arms. Well, that makes sense now. But… he’d asked Bilbo something, hadn’t he? Oh, yes, right… “No… No, I don’t think so…” he manages to muddle out at last.

Thorin makes a strange noise then, almost like a growl, and then one of the hands releases his arm to instead pat roughly around Bilbo’s skull, thick fingers digging through his hair down to the scalp. Thorin pulls his hand back after a few seconds, and then stares at it so hard Bilbo rather expects to see blood on his palm – but the dwarf’s skin is clean when Bilbo gets a peek at it, or as near to clean as any of them can be considered after so many days on the road, anyway. He lifts his eyes to meet Thorin’s gaze again, and the king is giving him a suspicious, considering look. His other hand is still holding onto Bilbo’s arm; lucky that, as Bilbo feels himself begin to sway, his knees turning jittery and weak as his head feels like it’s being filled up with water.

“We should not linger here,” Gandalf says then, and Thorin finally looks away from Bilbo to glare up at the old wizard. Bilbo sways forward and nearly collides with Thorin’s fur-clad shoulder. No, no, he does collide with the fur, and the shoulder underneath it, and perhaps it’s all the fluff and warmth of Thorin’s coat clogging up his ears, because he can hear Thorin and Gandalf exchanging words, but he can’t for the life of him make heads or tails of what they’re saying. Someone’s arm hooks around his waist, nearly lifting him off his feet, and then they are moving forward.

“I can walk,” Bilbo grumbles, turning his face away from the soft fur but then finding he must squint against the bright sunlight filtering down into the cave from… somewhere…

“Then walk,” Thorin’s voice responds, quiet and right by Bilbo’s ear. The arm doesn’t loosen from about his waist, though, and really, Bilbo is simply too weary to argue anymore at this point, and they limp along in relative silence for the next while until—

“This was your plan all along!” Thorin suddenly snarls, boots grinding to a halt on the stone path, and it takes Bilbo a moment to realize Thorin is not addressing him. “To seek refuge with our enemy!”

“You have no enemies here, Thorin Oakenshield,” Gandalf’s voice returns, though Bilbo cannot spare the energy to lift his head from where it lies against Thorin’s shoulder to look up at the wizard. “And quite a great need for refuge, it would appear…”

“We can look after our own—!” Thorin growls back, and the arm around Bilbo’s waist tightens once more, seeming to curl around him like a shield.

“What is it…?” Bilbo mumbles, trying to push himself upright, to find the elusive balance that will allow him to stand on his own feet, pushing feebly against Thorin’s side. “Where are we?”

“The valley of Imladris,” Gandalf answers him, and he steps aside to allow Bilbo a view out of the cave mouth where they’ve stopped and the vast valley beyond. Thorin’s hold around Bilbo finally, reluctantly, loosens and falls away, allowing him to take a single, tottering step forward towards the mouth of the passage. “In the common tongue, it is known by another name, of course…”

“Rivendell,” Bilbo breathes, looking out into the place he has heard so much about, read so much about, always dreamed of visiting, with its soaring cliffs and crashing waterfalls, the distant twirls of delicate elven architecture reflecting the sunlight like a thousand dew drops on the world’s most perfect field of wildflowers…

And then he has the strangest sensation like he’s falling, and everything goes black.