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The Last to Know

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“You’re settling into your new premises nicely, then?” said Gandalf.

“Yes, it’s been – nice to have somewhere to call my own, now things have started to quiet down,” said Bilbo. Though in truth his grey, angular dwarvish rooms didn’t feel much like his own premises, being grey and angular and dwarvish, and being as he’d been too rushed to spend much time in them.

He wasn’t even unpacked yet, and over the past week or two the task of unpacking had become steadily more complicated on account of his having unexpectedly come by an array of jewellery, several venerable looking books, and an axe.

“Hm,” said Gandalf. He was sitting in a chair by the deep, high window, smoking his pipe. Bilbo had invited him in to smoke – having come by rather a surplus of pipeweed – but he’d got sidetracked and hadn’t had a moment to light his own pipe yet. “Lovely flowers.”

“They do brighten the place up, don’t they?” said Bilbo, pausing in his arranging. “Bofur brought them this morning. Wasn’t that nice of him?” He shifted the vase a few inches to the right, fully into the sun, and nodded in satisfaction.

“Very.” Gandalf blew smoke into the shaft of sunlight below the window, and as Bilbo busied himself with his pipe, said, “how much do you know about dwarven courtship?”

“Eh?” said Bilbo, fumbling his pipe. “Nothing at all, I suppose. What does that have to do with anything?”

“Hm,” said Gandalf. He leaned back in his chair, and blew a thoughtful smoke ring. “Hm.”

“Hm?” said Bilbo. “Hm, what? What’s got into you?” He lit his pipe.

“I think you ought to know,” said Gandalf, “you have eight or nine dwarves courting you.”

Bilbo dropped his pipe. “I – what?” he stammered. “I absolutely don’t.”

“You absolutely do,” said Gandalf.

“Now,” said Bilbo, sweeping up his pipe from the ground and prodding it in Gandalf’s general direction. “I think I would have noticed.”

“Hm,” said Gandalf once again. His eyes ranged all about the room, and he said, “dwarves have a very particular way of courting.”

“Well, so do hobbits!” said Bilbo. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Nobody’s said a word about courting me. The very idea!”

“Ah,” said Gandalf. “That’s rather the crux of the matter. Dwarves prefer to express their interest through the medium of – material gifts. The specific nature of the gift communicates the expression of interest, without anything needing to be said.”

“I –” As Gandalf had done a moment before, Bilbo looked about the room, at the flowers, at the array of jewellery, at the axe. “Ah.”

“Ah indeed,” said Gandalf. “I was the one who advised them to try flowers. I thought it might clue you in. Evidently not. Would you like me to give you the full list? You may find it expedient to let them all down nicely.”

“I, I,” Bilbo sputtered. “You. I. No-one said – I thought –” He heaved a great sigh. “Give me the list.”

“Hm,” said Gandalf. “Let me think. It’s rather a long list. Dori, Ori, Bofur – naturally.”

“Naturally?” said Bilbo.

“Fili, Dwalin – Bruni and Naili, two of the dwarrowdams from Dain’s retinue, if you don’t recall the names – and who was the other? Ah, I believe it was Nain – he gave you that rather splendid belt, didn’t he? I thought as much.”

One hand pressed to his mouth, his pipe forgotten in his other hand, Bilbo digested the list. He left the room. He came back in. He said, “Dwalin?”

“He likes you very much,” said Gandalf. “He told me so himself.”

“Please tell me this is a joke,” moaned Bilbo.

“It isn’t a joke,” said Gandalf. “Dwarves take courtship very seriously. You must talk to them all. They’ve been awaiting your response for at least a week.”

“Because this is very embarrassing for me,” Bilbo went on. “And I’d hate to – wait, now,” he said, still reeling, still trying to get his head around the matter. “When you say response – I accepted the gifts, does that mean –”

“No, no, you needn’t worry about that,” said Gandalf. “It’s expected that one will accept all courtship gifts, whether one returns the interest or not, and then communicate one’s interest or lack thereof after a little time has passed. To reject a courtship gift would be a grievous insult. You did the right thing.”

“Oh, well, that is a relief,” said Bilbo.

“I did wonder what you thought about the axe,” said Gandalf.

“I didn’t know what to think,” said Bilbo. “I just said thank you very much. Stop laughing!”

“It’s a little funny, you must admit,” said Gandalf.

“It’s not remotely funny.”

“You’ll laugh about this later.”

“Shan’t.” Bilbo gestured at Gandalf, about to say something else, and found he was holding his pipe. He put it to his mouth, to calm his nerves, then remembered that the pipeweed had been a thoughtful gift from Dori – and Ori – and Bofur – and felt a touch dizzy.

Then a still more concerning thought struck him. “Now,” he said, “now you said eight or nine, but you only listed eight – who on Middle Earth is the other one?”

“Hm,” said Gandalf.

“Gandalf!” said Bilbo. “You have to tell me!”

“Now, I don’t know if I should,” said Gandalf. “I fear he might have lost interest, it being some weeks since he made his intentions known.”

“Made his intentions known – no-one’s done any such thing!” said Bilbo, his voice going up in pitch in the embarrassing way it did when he was terribly flustered. “Where I’m from, Gandalf, if a person wants to court someone they do the sensible thing and use their words.”

“A dwarf would find that excessively forward,” said Gandalf.

“I’m finding myself tired of dwarves,” said Bilbo. “I’m going back to the Shire at once.”

“That would put and end to the whole business in very short order,” said Gandalf. “But I can’t say I’d recommend it.”

“Then what would you recommend I do?” said Bilbo.

“Go to all of them in private and simply tell them you aren’t interested,” said Gandalf. “They won’t be offended, though I imagine having kept them waiting as long as you have might have hurt some feelings.” He blew another smoke ring. “Unless of course you are interested in any of them, in which case you had better say so before they lose interest in you.”

“Well, of course I’m not interested!” said Bilbo, a little tartly. “I’m a hobbit. They’re dwarves. It wouldn’t be proper.”

“They don’t seem to mind about that,” said Gandalf, his eyes twinkling as if he was in on an excellent joke that Bilbo wasn’t getting.

“I can’t imagine what they all see in me,” said Bilbo.

“No, nor can I,” said Gandalf.

“Quite,” said Bilbo. “I – now, hang on just a moment!” he said as once again, Gandalf began to laugh.

*

Bilbo had a plan, and it was a clear and straightforward plan. First he would go and visit the three members of Dain’s company who were – apparently – courting him, those being the easiest to turn down on account of his barely knowing them and their barely knowing him. After that, he would just have to politely reject Fili – and Dori – and Ori – and Dwalin – and Bofur. One at a time. Couldn’t be simpler.

“So, you mustn’t think I’m not flattered,” he stammered. “It’s really very kind of you. And, I do appreciate all the gifts, especially the pipeweed. That was thoughtful of you. It’s just, well – it’s only that I –”

“You had no idea I was courting you,” said Bofur cheerfully. “I know. Gandalf told me.”

“Did he, now,” said Bilbo, not sure if he was relieved or plain mortified. “You’re not upset?”

“Not at all,” said Bofur. “Cultural misunderstanding. These things happen. I wouldn’t worry about it. But you’d better talk to Dwalin next. He’s getting antsy. He worked very hard on your axe.”

“It’s a lovely axe,” said Bilbo faintly. “So, ah. Do I need to say anything else?”

“No, I understand completely,” said Bofur. “Shame, though. I thought I had a good chance, being as I was the first one to bring you flowers like Gandalf said.”

“They’re very nice flowers,” said Bilbo.

“Picked them myself,” said Bofur.

“Thank you,” said Bilbo. “Well. If that’s all that needs to be said I’ll be on my way.”

That had gone just fine, he told himself as he walked away. All cleared up. Nothing to worry about after all.

He doubled back. “Why didn’t any of you just tell me you were courting me!” he wailed.

“We didn’t think we needed to,” said Bofur.

“It would have made things so much easier!” said Bilbo.

“Why else would we all have been giving you jewellery we made ourselves?” said Bofur.

“I don’t know!” said Bilbo. “You lot do all sorts of odd things! I thought you were just being nice! And, and you must have realised I wasn’t responding in, in the normal dwarven way – why couldn’t one of you have just said?”

“We thought you were just taking your time,” said Bofur. “Understandable, seeing as you had so many suitors. And anyway, none of us would have dared so anything so forward as tell you we wanted to court you until you’d responded to Thorin’s proposal.”

Bilbo’s racing thoughts ground to a halt. What he said next was something along the lines of, “I, Thorin, what, Thorin?” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Take a deep breath and count to five, that was what his mother always said. He opened his eyes, and said, trying and failing to keep his voice from squeaking, “Thorin wants to court me?”

“Well, I should say so,” said Bofur, as if it was very obvious.

“But he hasn’t given me anything,” said Bilbo. “Not since – oh. Oh.” He swallowed. “He did, didn’t he?”

“We all got his blessing before courting you,” said Bofur. “We wouldn’t have dreamed of courting you without the king’s blessing.”

“Is he still,” Bilbo floundered for the right word, “interested in me?”

“I couldn’t say,” said Bofur. “What with everything that’s happened since we did think he might have rescinded the proposal.”

“Rescinded – how would he do that?” said Bilbo.

Bofur looked at him as if to say Bilbo, you woolly footed little idiot. “Well, he’d tell you, of course.”

There was a lot Bilbo wanted to say to that. He breathed deep, and held his tongue.

He said, “confounded dwarves!” and with that exclamation, stomped away to clear his head.

*

Bilbo found himself faced with a social conundrum.

Or rather, not a conundrum. To call it a conundrum would imply that he didn’t know what to do. He knew exactly what it was he ought to do. He ought to go and talk to Dwalin and the others, and Thorin, and let them down nicely.

What he did, was sit in his room and smoke for several hours, then have lunch, then go looking for Balin.

“You have to help me,” he said by way of greeting.

“I take it this is about the courtship business,” said Balin.

“What?” said Bilbo. “Does everyone know?”

“Naturally,” said Balin.

Bilbo covered his face. “Why does everyone know?” he said into his hands.

“It wouldn’t be proper to court someone in secret,” said Balin.

“Have you all been talking about me?” said Bilbo.

“A fair amount,” said Balin. “We were starting to wonder what was taking you so long.”

“I’m going to scream,” said Bilbo. He took his hands away from his face. “I can’t stand this any longer. It’s mortifying. Please can you talk to Ori and Fili and – the others – to let them know I’m not interested? I spoke to Bofur this morning and I can’t do it again.”

Balin smiled at him kindly, and said, “now, that really wouldn’t be proper –”

“Oh, dash proper –”

“But I understand we’ve put you in an uncomfortable position, between us,” said Balin. “So yes, I will talk to Ori and Dori and Dwalin and Fili for you.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” said Bilbo.

“But I’m afraid I simply cannot reject Thorin’s proposal on your behalf,” said Balin. “You’ll have to do that yourself. You know, I can’t think why you’re so upset about this. Most young dwarves would be delighted to be the object of so much affection.”

“Why can’t you talk to Thorin?” said Bilbo, ignoring that last comment. “Is it because he’s the king? Does that make a difference? I don’t even know if he’s still interested, after all that business with the –” He cleared his throat. “Well, that business. Please talk to him. I’d be so grateful.”

“I wish that I could help you, Bilbo, but a proposal is a very serious matter,” said Balin.

And there was that word again, proposal. It struck Bilbo that Bofur had said proposal as well, and both dwarves had used it with regards to Thorin, and only Thorin, and it couldn’t mean. It couldn’t possibly mean.

“When you say proposal,” he said weakly. “You mean – courtship proposal?”

Balin gave him a fondly withering look, and said, “I mean marriage proposal, Bilbo.”

Bilbo’s hands flew to his mouth, just barely catching his squeak. He had a hazy, numb moment in which he wasn’t sure his head was still attached to his body. He thought he might be going to faint.

He said, “Thorin wants. To marry me.”

“Yes,” said Balin.

Bilbo said, “I think I’m going to faint.”

“Try to fall forward,” said Balin. “I’ll catch you.”

“Thank you,” said Bilbo. Then he said, “no. No! He didn’t propose. He just gave me a gift. That’s not a proposal. That’s. Not how it works. That can’t be how it works.”

Though now that he thought of it, Thorin had taken him aside and asked if he was married. He’d thought that was a bit odd at the time. He’d thought a lot of things his companions did were a bit odd. He wondered, dismally, just what else he’d been misunderstanding.

Very gently, Balin said, “did it not occur to you to wonder why he gave you such an extravagant gift?”

“I thought – he was – the fighting –” Bilbo sighed, and confessed, “I have no idea how much it’s worth, actually.”

“Ah,” said Balin. “I’m beginning to understand why you’ve been so confused.”

“At any rate,” said Bilbo, regaining his composure. “He can’t possibly still want to marry me, after everything I did. Can he?”

“Did he rescind the proposal?” said Balin.

“Well – no,” said Bilbo. “But he made it perfectly clear he didn’t want to see me again.”

“But he didn’t rescind the proposal,” said Balin.

“How is saying he never wanted to see me again not rescinding the proposal?” said Bilbo.

“If he wanted to rescind the proposal, he would say to you Bilbo, I hereby formally rescind my proposal of marriage,” said Balin. “Which I presume he has not.”

“Perhaps he slipped his mind,” said Bilbo.

“Vanishingly unlikely,” said Balin.

Bilbo scrambled vainly for some understanding of the situation. Thorin wanted to marry him. But Thorin couldn’t want to marry him. Thorin was a dwarf and he a hobbit. It simply wasn’t done. What would be the point? What was Thorin getting out of it? He supposed marriage would be on Thorin’s mind about now, having just become king and all, but the thing to do would be to marry a well-bred dwarrowdam, not a hobbit who was, in that grand scheme of things, altogether insignificant. What would Thorin have been thinking?

“Now, now Balin,” he said. “I know you know your customs better than I, but is there any possible way you could have misunderstood? Are you sure he didn’t give it to me, well – well, just to give it to me?”

“I’m certain he didn’t,” said Balin.

“But you can’t be certainly certain,” said Bilbo.

“Before he gave it to you, he took me aside and said Balin, I know it’s not proper but as we might imminently die, I intend to propose to Bilbo.”

“He said that?” said Bilbo.

“More or less,” said Balin. “I forget his exact words. But that was the gist of it.”

“Alright, I, I suppose you’re certainly certain,” Bilbo conceded.

“I advised him that it was a good idea, and he should get on and do it,” said Balin.

“You did?” said Bilbo. “Why?”

“I felt that if that was how he felt, he ought to make his feelings known, and as soon as possible under the circumstances,” said Balin. “He had no intention of putting you under pressure or making you uncomfortable. That isn’t how our people do things. He only wanted you to know that he wished to marry you. He’s very fond of you, you know.”

“I think I need to sit down,” said Bilbo. He sat down. “I don’t know what to do.”

Balin looked down at him, sitting as he was on the ground. “All you have to do is to go to him and say Thorin, I reject your proposal, or something along those lines.”

“And then walk away?” said Bilbo. “I can’t do that.”

“You can’t put it off forever,” said Balin. “He shan’t propose to anyone else until you make your intentions known. Which, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, isn’t very convenient for us.”

Bilbo stared back up at Balin, incredulous. “He won’t get married until I tell him no?”

“Of course he won’t,” said Balin.

“I need to sit down,” said Bilbo.

“You’re already sitting down,” said Balin.

“Oh, good for me.” Bilbo considered his position, and said, “actually, I’d best find a chair.”

He went back to his premises. Outside the door, Kili was loitering, leaning against the wall as if he had every right to be there. “Afternoon,” he said.

Bilbo meant to say something ordinary like good afternoon in response, he really did, but instead, when he opened his mouth, what came out was, “your uncle wants to marry me.”

“Yes, I know,” said Kili.

“Why am I always the last to know everything?” said Bilbo.

“Probably because you’re very stupid,” said Kili. “You didn’t know then? Good.”

“Good?” said Bilbo.

“Me and Fili were wondering if you knew, and now he owes me a gold piece,” said Kili. Bilbo stared at him. “We had a bet going.”

“I gathered,” said Bilbo.

“Bofur told us Gandalf told him you hadn’t the slightest idea you were being courted,” said Kili. “Fili sent me to ask you if it’s true, and if he’s barking up the wrong tree, to to speak.”

“I’m not interested in your brother, if that’s what you mean,” said Bilbo.

“Ah, then he owes me two gold pieces,” said Kili, nodding as if that was just the outcome he had expected.

“Why do so many dwarves want to court me?” said Bilbo.

“Why’d you think?” said Kili.

“I haven’t the first idea,” said Bilbo.

“Well, Mr Baggins,” said Kili. “Let me tell you, it’s just as well I’m courting elsewhere these days or me and Fili would have had to fight over you.”

Excuse me?” said Bilbo.

“That’s what we do, when we’re both interested in the same person,” said Kili. “Saves time, and jealousy. We agreed to put it off until after this whole business was resolved, since we didn’t have much time for courting, and now it’s moot.”

“When you say fight,” said Bilbo.

“We usually wrestle,” said Kili brightly.

“You’re not saying you want to court me too,” said Bilbo.

“It was not to be,” said Kili. “But it’s true. Were it not for my Tauriel, I would have been delighted to make you my husband.”

Bilbo considered this new development. He said, “I’m going back to my hole, and this time I’m never coming out.”

“Pleasant journey!” Kili called after him.

*

While Bilbo was eating his breakfast the next morning, a dwarf walked up to his seat, and cleared his throat.

“Good morning, Dwalin,” said Bilbo.

“I made these for you,” said Dwalin, and set his newest gift down upon the table.

“That’s,” said Bilbo, picking it up, “most kind of you.”

Dwalin had made him flowers of worked metal, detailed and surprisingly delicate, considering the kind of dwarf he was. It was, he thought, charming. Perhaps even touching.

He turned the metal flowers over and on the base read this is a courtship gift – Dwalin.

“Thank you,” he said. “That’s, er, very thoughtful.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll. I’ll let you know, shall I?”

Dwalin beamed, and tousled his hair, and as he walked away Bilbo resolved to do something decisive as soon as possible.

*

He had got rather good at dwarf wrangling, over the last few months. He had all the relevant parties gathered in his rooms, and it wasn’t even tea time – not that they had such a thing as tea time, under the mountain.

He said, “I suppose you’re wondering why I asked you all here.”

“No,” said Fili.

“No?” said Bilbo.

“It’s about the courtship business,” said Fili. “I presume.”

“Well,” said Bilbo, a touch flummoxed. “Yes.”

“If it’s about the courtship business,” said Dwalin to Balin, “are you also courting Bilbo? You didn’t say.”

“I’m here for moral support,” said Balin. “Although – were I fifty years younger,” he went on, and winked.

“Balin!” Bilbo squeaked. “Not you too!”

“I jest,” said Balin. Then to Dwalin in what was probably supposed to be a whisper, he said, “I do not jest.”

“Well, anyway.” Bilbo clasped his hands together. “I just wanted to make you all aware that, I’m flattered, but I’m not interested, sorry.”

“I thought as much,” said Dori.

“I already knew that,” said Fili.

“So did I,” said Bofur. “You told me yesterday.”

“Did you not like the axe?” said Dwalin.

“It’s a lovely axe,” said Bilbo. “I don’t suppose you want it back?”

“Absolutely not,” said Dwalin. “I made it for you.”

He sounded sincerely hurt and Bilbo sincerely didn’t know what to say to that. He was beginning to regret his plan. His plan had seemed such a good idea until he was sitting in a room with five entire dwarves who inexplicably wanted to court him.

He cleared his throat, and said, “well. That’s not the only reason I asked you here.”

“It’s not?” said Fili, intrigued.

“No, I – wanted to make some of my feelings known to all of you,” said Bilbo.

“I’d say you’ve done enough of that already,” said Bofur.

Bilbo ignored him. “It’s just that, for future reference,” he said, “I’d rather that, if you are going to court me, you tell me straight out rather than doing all this dwarven pussyfooting. It, ah, wasn’t at all clear what you were doing. Sorry.”

There was a pause as the room full of dwarves processed this. “Pussyfooting?” said Bofur.

“Well, that’s not very helpful advice, is it,” said Fili, “because none of us are going to be courting you in future, as you’ve just made it plain you’re not interested.”

“I just wanted to say –”

“I gave you an axe,” said Dwalin. “That’s the most romantic gift there is. What’s unclear about an axe?”

“I don’t think hobbits give each other axes, Dwalin,” said Ori.

“No, they give each other flowers, like Gandalf said,” said Bofur.

“Axes are romantic everywhere,” said Dwalin.

“I don’t think they are, Dwalin,” said Ori.

“They aren’t,” said Bilbo.

“What sort of a gift is better than an axe?” said Dwalin.

“Two axes,” said Bilbo without thinking. “That’s beside the point. I wanted to ask you –”

“Would you like another axe?” said Fili.

“No, I –”

“Three axes!” declared Dwalin.

“Yes, that’s – not what I wanted to –”

“A hundred axes!” said Fili.

“I don’t know what to do with the one I have, to be quite honest,” said Bilbo.

“Cut things,” said Ori.

Bilbo gave up. “I wanted to talk to you all,” he said, “about Thorin.”

“Oh, you mean how he proposed to you and you didn’t realise he was proposing and he didn’t realise you didn’t realise he was proposing and then we all started courting you as well, and now he’s hiding?” said Fili.

“Yes, that’s a good – hiding?” said Bilbo. “I wouldn’t say hiding. I’d say he’s just, very busy.”

“He’s hiding,” said Fili.

“He isn’t,” said Dwalin.

“He is,” said Ori.

“Look,” said Fili. “This is the impression I’ve got of the situation. Thorin threw out a lot of very important courtship protocol to propose to you, because he thought there was a good chance we were all going to die, and he wanted to get all of his feelings – on the table, so to speak. But then nobody died, so now I think he’s a touch embarrassed.”

“Embarrassed?” said Bilbo. “About not dying?”

“Some people did die, Fili,” said Bofur.

“But nobody we knew,” said Fili.

“A lot of people died, Fili,” said Ori.

“That’s beside the point,” said Fili.

“It is beside the point,” Bilbo agreed. “He’s really hiding? From me? Why?”

“Because he’s embarrassed,” said Fili.

“Well, I got that much, yes,” said Bilbo. “I do hope you’ve not upset him, by courting me.”

“Oh, we all got his blessing,” said Ori.

“We wouldn’t have dreamed of courting you without the king’s blessing,” said Dori.

“And we waited a full month before we did any courting at all,” said Bofur. “We all thought for sure you’d respond right away.”

“You did?” said Bilbo.

“We were very surprised when you didn’t accept,” said Ori.

“You thought I’d accept?” Bilbo squeaked.

“Naturally,” said Balin.

“You could have been on your way to being king-consort by now.” Fili laid a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder. “And my new uncle.”

Bilbo took a deep breath. “Is it not a bit – uncomfortable – for you to be courting me just after your uncle proposed?”

“I got his blessing,” said Fili. “I thought I had a good shot, when you didn’t respond to uncle’s proposal. Glad I didn’t wrestle Kili for you, I’ll tell you that.”

“I, for one, am also very glad you didn’t wrestle your brother for me,” said Bilbo. “I don’t want anyone wrestling anyone for me, thank you.”

“You know, some people would consider having two strapping young dwarves wrestling over them a compliment,” said Dwalin.

“Well!” said Bilbo. “I’m not some people.”

“Evidently,” said Dori.

“Pardon me, Mr Baggins,” said Ori. “But I don’t understand why you’re so upset either. Most dwarves would be delighted to have nine people courting them at once.”

And one of them a king,” put in Bofur.

“To – to be frank,” Bilbo stammered. “I don’t really understand why any of you would want to court me.” They exchanged unreadable glances. “Is this some dwarvish custom I’m not privy too? It doesn’t seem proper, you all being dwarves and me being a hobbit – and I really am just a hobbit, and a funny-looking one at that – I can’t imagine what you all see in me.”

There was a moment’s puzzled quiet. Then Ori said, “well, it’s just we all think you’re rather smashing.”

“Every one of us would be honoured if you’d consider staying in Erebor and being his husband,” said Dwalin.

“We all think you’re very brave and clever,” said Dori.

“You’d be a wonderful husband,” said Bofur.

“You’re what we call, husband material,” said Fili.

“We are willing to look past the lack of beard, for your enchanting personality,” said Dwalin. Balin shushed him.

“And you have a very lovely bottom, if I may say,” Ori finished up, prompting a chorus of murmured agreements.

“You may not say!” said Bilbo, his voice squeaking.

“But it is lovely,” said Fili.

“Why have you been looking at my bottom!” said Bilbo.

“It was there!” Fili protested.

“I dare say you’ve look at at least some of our bottoms, these past few months,” said Bofur.

“That’s beside the point,” said Bilbo.

“So you have looked?” said Fili.

“That’s beside the point!” said Bilbo again.

“Precisely,” said Dori. “What is the point, Mr Baggins, is that your backside is very shapely.”

“That’s also beside the point!” said Bilbo.

“Now, now,” said Balin, gesturing for them all to settle down. “Everyone stop talking about Mr Baggins’s backside. You’re making him flustered.”

“Even though we all agree it’s very shapely?” said Dwalin.

“Even so,” said Balin.

“Maybe I shall stay in Erebor a while, I said,” said Bilbo. “It might be nice, I said.”

“Are you… not having a nice time?” said Ori.

“Well, I was, until –” Bilbo cleared his throat. “This really is all beside the point. What I wanted was your advice regarding the – well, well the Thorin situation.”

“For what it’s worth, we’ve discussed the matter and we all agree we’d be delighted to have you as our King Consort,” said Ori earnestly, to a general rumble of agreement.

“That’s not helpful at all,” said Bilbo. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Now, Bilbo, I already told you,” said Balin. “If you don’t want to marry King Thorin, just go to him and tell him in plain speech, and we can put this whole business to bed.” Fili snorted. “So to speak.”

“I don’t want to cause any offence,” said Bilbo. “And – oh, goodness. You’re all quite sure this still, well, applies?”

“Did he rescind it?” said Fili.

“No,” said Bilbo.

“Then it still applies and you’d best get on and tell him you don’t want to get married,” said Fili.

“I will,” said Bilbo. “I was just looking for some advice as to the best way to do it. That’s all.”

“I don’t know if we can help you with that,” said Bofur.

“I think hurt feelings at this point might be unavoidable, if that’s what you’re trying to avoid,” said Dori. “Just get it over with.”

“Although,” said Ori.

“Although?” said Bilbo, perking up.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” said Ori. “Are you sure you don’t want to marry King Thorin?”

“Pardon me?” said Bilbo.

“It’s just,” said Ori. “All this – pussyfooting – around the best way to tell him you don’t want to get married. I can’t help but wonder if you don’t know what to do because you haven’t made up your mind yet. If you want to marry him or not. So to speak.”

“Well, of course I’ve made my mind up!” said Bilbo. “I have no desire to marry Thorin. I can’t imagine why he wants to marry me.”

There was a baffled silence. “You can’t?” said Bofur.

“No!” said Bilbo. “I don’t understand why he proposed this at all! Is this another of those dwarven things I don’t understand?” He looked around the room. Six sets of puzzled eyes looked back. “Balin?” he said helplessly. “What’s Thorin playing at here?”

All eyes turned to Balin, who broke the silence. “Bilbo, lad,” he said gently. “You do understand that Thorin’s in love with you?”

Bilbo had another of those moments in which he wasn’t altogether sure his head was attached to his body. It seemed to him to be floating about the high ceiling, looking down on the gathered dwarves, listening to his own voice squeak, “what?”

“My uncle’s madly in love with you,” said Fili.

Bilbo’s head, as quickly as it had left, re-attached itself. He said, “excuse me.”

He hopped off his chair. He went into his bedroom, and shut the door carefully behind himself.

Alone, he took a deep breath, and muffled his scream into his arm. He screamed, his eyes screwed shut, for a long moment, then stood breathless, shoulders heaving, feeling – what? He didn’t know what he was feeling. Hot. His face felt very hot. He leaned his forehead against the cold stone of the wall to chill it, and breathed deep.

Through the closed door, he heard Dwalin over-loud whisper. “Should we see if he’s alright?”

“You’ve really broken him this time, Balin,” said Fili.

Enough of that. He peeled his damp forehead off the wall, scrubbed his hands over his face, and composed himself. He went back to the other room, and sat once again on his chair. He said, faintly, “where were we?”

“My uncle is madly in love with you,” said Fili once again, his tone sing-song.

“Oh, yes,” said Bilbo. “I, I consider this highly inconsiderate of him. It would have been preferable if he had asked me first.”

“Asked before falling in love with you?” said Bofur.

“Yes!” said Bilbo. “Yes. No. I. Oh my.” The hot, shaky feeling had begun to coalesce into something more concrete, and he found that he was, more than anything, frightened. Very frightened, but in a new and strange way. He found that his hands were shaking. “How long has he been in love with me?”

“I couldn’t say,” said Balin.

“A while,” said Bofur.

“I think it’s one of those things that comes on you gradually, like,” said Ori. “Are you in love with him?”

“No!” said Bilbo. “I don’t. I don’t know. I don’t think I am. I never thought about it before.”

“Have you checked?” said Dwalin.

“How does one,” said Bilbo, “check?”

“I’ve no idea,” said Dwalin.

“Why did you think he wanted to marry you, if you didn’t know?” said Bofur.

“I had no idea,” said Bilbo.

“For what reason do people in your country usually get married, if not for love?” said Fili.

“Well, I,” said Bilbo. “I. Oh, dear.” He took his head in his hands. “I’ve been very stupid and I don’t know what to do.”

“Just go to Thorin and tell hm how you feel,” said Bofur.

“But I don’t know how I feel!” Bilbo wailed.

“Ah,” said Bofur. “That is a pickle. Good luck.”

“Now, look, Bilbo,” said Balin. “If you’re quite certain you don’t want to marry him, you really must tell him as much. Once that’s done, the two of you can avoid each other for as long as you feel is necessary.”

“Thank you,” said Bilbo. “I shall do that.”

“But that will, of course,” said Balin, “not only put an end to this courtship but render any possibility of future courtship between the two of you quite out of the question. And in the current political climate, you can expect King Thorin to be engaged to someone else in the very near future.”

“Oh,” said Bilbo.

“How does that make you feel?” said Balin.

Bilbo considered how that made him feel. He said, “I need to lie down.” He slipped off his chair.

“Of course,” said Balin.

Bilbo looked about the room at the assembled, unmoving dwarves, and said, “that means all of you out!”

*

“Alright, Mr Baggins,” he said to himself as he fastened his new waistcoat. “You once stood – face to face with a dragon. How frightening can one dwarf be. Even if he is the king.” He fastened the last golden button, and peered at his face in the copper mirror. “Very,” he concluded, and left his room before he changed his mind.

It was early evening, and the passages and staircases inside the mountain were packed with busy dwarves, a hive of industry and enthusiasm. He was hoping to slip through unnoticed, but almost ever dwarf he passed stopped to say good evening, Mr Baggins and most of them wanted to exchange further pleasantries. He took to saying can’t stop – royal business and hurrying on.

He was most of the way to the royal chambers and doggedly climbing a quiet, high flight of steps before it struck him that he hadn’t the foggiest idea where Thorin would be. He hadn’t seen Thorin for a fortnight. He had assumed Thorin was too busy to see him. It was obvious, now, that he’d been expertedly avoided. He kicked himself for not seeing it.

Though the matter of his being avoided was irrelevant to the matter at hand, that being that he had no idea where Thorin would be at that time of the evening. With a sigh he shoved his hands into the silken pockets of his waistcoat and started back down the steps, thinking he might perhaps get some fresh air.

There, on the platform beneath him, smoking his pipe and gazing down upon the lights and industry of Erebor, was Gandalf.

“Oh, there you are!” Bilbo said, pattering down the steps. “Just the person. I’m looking for Thorin.”

Are you?” said Gandalf.

“I need to talk to him,” said Bilbo. Gandalf put his pipe back into his mouth. “It’s very important,” Bilbo said. He put his laced together fingers to his lips. “About the proposal,” he went on, when Gandalf still said nothing.

“Ah, you found out about the proposal, did you?” said Gandalf. “I was wondering how it would take you to work it out.”

“I was never going to work it out!” said Bilbo. “Balin told me.”

“Most kind of him,” said Gandalf.

“I, I would have appreciated it if you had told me,” said Bilbo.

“Oh?” said Gandalf, sounding not terribly sincerely astonished.

“Yes!” said Bilbo.

“Oh,” said Gandalf. “I shall bear that in mind. For the next time.”

Next time?” said Bilbo, but before he could say what he wanted to say to that there was the rumble of a stone door opening and the huffing and stomping of a dwarf on the stairs above.

“Thorin will be in his chambers,” said Gandalf. “Or possibly in the royal council chambers. Or his forge. Or any number of other places.” He gestured expansively with his pipe at the kingdom stretched beneath them. “Now, here’s Gloin. Perhaps he knows.”

“Knows what?” said Gloin, stepping down onto the platform. “Good evening, Mr Baggins.”

“Good evening,” said Bilbo. “Do you know where Thorin is, perchance?”

“In his chambers.” Gloin waved back at the stairs. “I’ve just now left him.”

“Bilbo is on his way to discuss the small matter of Thorin’s proposal,” said Gandalf.

Gloin’s face brightened. He snatched up Bilbo’s hand and began to shake it with unabashed enthusiasm. “You certainly took your time!” he said. “I’m delighted. We’re all delighted –”

“I’m turning him down, Gloin,” said Bilbo curtly.

Gloin dropped his hand. “Oh,” he said. “Well, then.” He cleared his throat in that loud, protracted dwarvish manner, and said in a less than delighted tone, “you took your time.”

“There’s been some,” said Bilbo. “Cultural confusion. To be honest, I only just now learned how Dwarven courtship – ah, works.”

“Ah, I see,” said Gloin. “That would be why you’re just now turning everyone down.”

“That would be why,” said Bilbo. “This whole matter has been quite bewildering. Why you people don’t just talk to each other I shall never understand.”

“Talk is for business,” said Gloin. “Matters of the heart are in what is touched and seen with the eyes. What better way could there be to show what’s in your heart than to give a gift that shows the beauty and value you see in your beloved?”

“Ah,” said Bilbo. “When you put it like that –”

“When my wife first courted me she gave me a helmet etched with symbols of such delicacy and beauty that I wept,” said Gloin. “It showed that she thought I was strong, and hard, and would protect her and our children, but she saw that I had tenderness and charm in me as well, aye.”

“I see,” said Bilbo, quite floored. “That’s lovely, Gloin, truly it is. Thank you for explaining.”

“You’re very welcome,” said Gloin. “Now – Bilbo,” he went on, putting a hand upon Bilbo’s shoulder.

“Ye-es?” said Bilbo, already not liking the way this conversation was going.

“I wanted you to know,” said Gloin. “That were I unwed, perhaps –”

“Gloin, if you finish that sentence I shall never speak to you again,” said Bilbo. So saying, he turned and marched angrily up the stairs, which was frustratingly difficult to do in a dignified manner as the stairs had been built for rather longer legs than his own.

He resisted the inevitable temptation to look back at the platform where Gandalf and Gloin were now talking in low voices. He stood before the door to the royal chambers, and straightened his waistcoat, and pursed his lips.

“Courage, Bilbo,” he muttered. “It’s not as if he’ll be angry.” He considered. “And if he is, that’s nothing you haven’t faced before,” he said, and knocked.

From within, Thorin’s deep and growling voice said, “come in,” and the door opened.

There was Thorin, standing by the fire, and at the sight of him, his eyes sombre, his face half in shadow, Bilbo’s stomach dropped with such intensity that for a moment he didn’t notice that Thorin wasn’t alone.

There were several other persons in the chamber, of various statuses and species. There were two dwarven attendants in light armour. There was Bard of Lake-Town, and one of his men. There was an elven guard – and there was the Elf-King, looking every bit as comfortable in his stone chair as if he were in his own royal chambers.

“Mr Baggins,” said Thorin. “This is – a surprise.”

“I, er,” said Bilbo.

At the look on his face – which must have been quite stricken – Thorin stepped away from the fire, and said, “is everything alright?”

“Everything’s fine,” said Bilbo. “I just wanted to speak with you – but I see you’re busy – I don’t want to interrupt,” he said, already backing towards the stairs.

“No, no, do sit down,” said the Elf-King, gesturing expansively at the chamber and its various chairs. “We are merely drinking.”

“Drinking?” said Bilbo helplessly.

“We have finished our talks for the night,” Thorin explained.

“Ah,” said Bilbo. “I see.”

“Please,” said the Elf-King. “Sit.”

Bilbo wavered for a moment, for he wasn’t at all sure the Elf-King had any authority to give him leave to stay, or if that was an order and if so if he was obliged to stay, or if he even wanted to stay.

Thorin wasn’t objecting. He wasn’t saying anything at all. Bilbo sat, and accepted a cup of wine, and the polite conversation resumed around him. His palms were sweating. There was no particular reason he shouldn’t be there, and no-one was acting as if his presence was unwelcome, but he couldn’t help feeling like a dreadful interloper.

He was familiar with the function of this sort of – soiree. He’d attended a fair few himself, though his had been with other members of the West Farthing Best Kept Village Committee and the Hobbiton and Bywater village councils and the like, had taken place in the middle of the afternoon, and had involved tea and crumpets rather than wine. Sitting down and breaking bread – or crumpets – together and chatting like friends made difficult negotiations easier.

“Mr Baggins?” said Thorin, jerking him out of his idle ponderings.

“Hm?” he said.

“What was it you wanted to speak about?” said Thorin.

“Oh,” said Bilbo. “Ah.” He looked down at his cup, and the dark, glistening surface of the wine within. “It, it was a private matter, actually. I should go.” He sipped his wine in an ill-thought out attempt at politeness, and stood.

“Actually,” said the Elf-King. “I’m glad you’re here, Misterbaggins.”

“Oh?” said Bilbo. He sat.

“There are some rather fascinating rumours circulating as to your intentions, King Thorin,” said the Elf-King.

“I am aware,” said Thorin.

“I had meant to ask you,” said the Elf-King, “and I do not mean any offence – I only wish to know the truth of the matter. Are you and Misterbaggins betrothed?”

Bilbo choked on his wine. “Who told you that?” he squeaked, and choked harder, the wine having gone down the wrong pipe when he had squeaked.

Thorin’s warm and gentle hand lay upon his shoulder. “We are not betrothed,” he said stiffly.

“I can’t imagine why people would be saying that,” Bilbo gabbled. Thorin’s hand left his shoulder, and for a long moment he could feel the fading weight of it.

Bard cleared his throat, and said dourly, “I have also heard rumours of this.”

“They have been most persistent,” said the Elf-King. He was looking at Bilbo with the intent intensity of a curious raven, and Bilbo wondered if he had ever seen the Elf-King blink.

“I should – really go, your highness,” said Bilbo, setting down his cup.

He didn’t wait to be waylaid again. He fled the royal chambers, scurrying along the passage to the stairs. Behind him the door rumbled shut – and Thorin called, “Bilbo.”

Bilbo spun upon his heel. “Thorin,” he said.

“I hope they did not upset you,” said Thorin, catching him up.

“Oh – no, not at all,” said Bilbo. “Well, a bit. Rather. Yes.”

“I am sorry,” said Thorin. “If I have made you uncomfortable. I have been so busy these past weeks – there had been little time to talk.” He laid his hand upon Bilbo’s shoulder, high up near his collar bone, and through the thin cloth of his shirt Bilbo could feel the heat of his fingers.

There was heat in Thorin’s gaze, too – of course there was always a sort of fire in Thorin’s gaze, but at that particular moment it was bright and gentle, like a low burning fire in a comfortable room, late in the evening. He was looking down at Bilbo with such fierce concern, and it struck Bilbo that for all Thorin had a room full of important guests behind him, they might as well have been the only two people in the world.

It was at that moment, looking up into Thorin’s eyes, that Bilbo realised two things simultaneously and with the strength of two successive punches to the gut.

Firstly, Thorin was in love with him. This he had already known rationally, having been told as much, but he hadn’t really believed it; hadn’t known it truly, until he saw that look in Thorin’s eyes; until he realised, that he’d seen that look many times before and not known what it meant.

Secondly, he realised that he, Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, was very, very attracted to Thorin, and he thought this is the reason I stayed.

“Bilbo?” said Thorin. “Are you alright?”

Bilbo said, “mmrmphmguh.”

“Bilbo?” Thorin took his hand from Bilbo’s shoulder and made a move as if to touch his face – then thought better of it.

“Wouldyouliketohavedinner,” Bilbo said in a heady rush.

“I’m sorry,” said Thorin.

“Would you like to have dinner with me,” said Bilbo. “Tomorrow night, perhaps? We could have a talk. About recent. Happenings.” Thorin was giving him a funny look, which he supposed was altogether justified. “We don’t have to, if –”

“No,” said Thorin. “I should like that.”

“Oh!” said Bilbo. “Thank you.” Thank you? he thought.

“You’re very welcome,” said Thorin, faintly bewildered.

“Well I, I shall let you get back to your diplomatising,” said Bilbo, taking a step back, swinging his arms. “Until tomorrow, then?”

“Yes,” said Thorin. “I look forward to it.”

“Alright,” said Bilbo. “Thank you. Good night.”

At a jog, he made for the stairs.

*

In the semi-darkness of his room, he lit his pipe, looked at his coppery reflection, and said to himself, “hm.”

Now that he was no longer staring Thorin quite so directly in the face, his feverish anxiety had passed. He sat, rested the bowl of his pipe upon his knee, and reflected on the situation.

This was what he knew: Thorin was in love with him, and wanted to marry him seemingly with no agenda. He was, for his part, smitten with Thorin, and had somehow become so without his noticing. He supposed he had been very busy with other things, such as talking to dragons and stealing treasure and trying not to die.

He did not know if he was in love with Thorin. He’d never been in love, to the best of his knowledge. He’d had his share of dalliances at home in the Shire, but he wouldn’t say he’d been in love with any of them.

And did he want to marry Thorin? He didn’t know that either.

There’d been a time in his life when he’d assumed he’d get married, sooner or later; and a time when he’d been less sure; and then for the past fifteen years, he’d been comfortably certain he didn’t want to. He was happily set in his ways, and had planned to remain as such for the rest of his days. He had his life arranged the way he wanted it and there wasn’t room in it for any kind of spouse.

But then Gandalf had come along and brought thirteen dwarves into his life and upended all his ways, and he’d known for some time that there was no going back to his old way of doing things. He’d thought long and hard about staying in Erebor for good. But the possibility of marrying Thorin simply hadn’t occurred to him, not for a moment.

‘King Consort’. That sounded like a lot of responsibility. He’d be happy enough carrying on as they were.

But – he realised with a dismal sensation in his chest – like it or not, things were different now. Thorin was living a different life now. Sooner or later there would come a time when there might be no room in it for Bilbo.

He put his pipe in his mouth, and considered slinking away in the night, all the way back to Hobbiton, and his hole, and his ways.

*

Dinner, then. And while Bilbo might not have known a lot about axes or dwarven courtship, he did know how to make a nice dinner for a friend. He was trying very hard to get the table settings right, and trying not to think about why he was doing this, when Gandalf came to the door.

“Good evening,” he said. “I understand you have a dinner date.”

“Does everyone around here know everything that I do?” said Bilbo, absently adjusting the tablecloth.

“Probably,” said Gandalf. “I take it you haven’t rejected the proposal yet?”

“No,” said Bilbo, adjusting the tablecloth back the other way.

“And you intend to do it over dinner?” said Gandalf.

“I intend to have dinner with him,” said Bilbo.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” said Gandalf.

“Do I ever?” said Bilbo.

“No, I suppose not,” Gandalf sighed.

Looking at the chunky dwarven silverware, Bilbo said, “it’s possible I’m in love with him.”

“Ah,” said Gandalf.

“I don’t know what to do,” said Bilbo to the silverware.

“Well, don’t look at me,” said Gandalf. “I’m exceedingly knowledgeable on many subjects, but this isn’t one of them.”

Bilbo sat down. He surveyed the table settings from his new vantage point. “I suppose I shall just have to be honest with him.”

“Ah,” said Gandalf gravely.

Bilbo looked up at him. “Do you. Not think that’s a good idea?”

Gandalf laid a hand upon his shoulder, and gave him a comforting smile. “Have a nice dinner,” he said, and left the room.

*

“We don’t have to talk straight away,” said Bilbo, after Thorin had complimented the food, after they had sat for a moment in silence. “We could eat, and then talk.”

“I would like that,” said Thorin, in grim, stern tones, as if he was sitting down to a business meeting.

Bilbo, for his part, was all a flutter. His palms were sweating. He had been hoping that by that point in the evening he would have decided what to say, or failing that, that something would come to him at the opportune moment. But here he was, at the opportune moment and at as much of a loss as he’d been when Thorin had put his hand upon his shoulder and given him that look.

They ate, in companionable silence. The food was good – naturally, as Bilbo had prepared it himself – and the light in his rooms low and dusky.

When they’d finished their dinner and set aside their plates, Thorin lit his pipe and sat toying with it, smoke winding towards the high ceiling. Bilbo rested his elbows upon the table, and thought.

“I suppose,” he said. “I suppose I, I’d better just be honest. About everything.”

“Indeed,” Thorin agreed.

“I didn’t know you had proposed to me,” said Bilbo. “Not until a few days ago.”

Thorin took his pipe away from his mouth. He said, “oh.”

“Though I suppose you already knew that,” said Bilbo in what he hoped was a light tone.

“I did not,” said Thorin.

“You didn’t?” said Bilbo.

“No.”

Bilbo said, “ah.”

He hadn’t anticipated this. He was sure Balin or one of the others would have filled Thorin in on what had happened, or failing that, that Thorin might have put the pieces together himself. He hadn’t expected to have to explain his own failure to understand.

He said, his words tripping over their own feet, “Thorin, I hope you’ll understand that all this business with dwarven courtship rituals is, is very strange to me, and – well it’s entirely different to how us hobbits do things and, and I truly didn’t understand – if I had understood, I promise I would never have – well it’s, it’s a good thing Balin explained it for me, I dare say.”

“Balin knows?” said Thorin.

“I, ah,” said Bilbo. “Yes.”

“Does the whole company know?” said Thorin stiffly.

“I’m afraid they do, yes,” said Bilbo.

“Oh,” said Thorin. “I see.” And until that moment, if you had told Bilbo that Thorin Oakenshield could ever look the slightest bit like a kicked puppy, he wouldn’t have believed you.

He said, “I really am terribly sorry.”

“You have nothing to apologise for,” said Thorin, his composure hastily regained. “My actions towards you were – hasty. I should not have acted as I did. It is I who should apologise to you.”

“It is?” said Bilbo faintly.

“I ought not have put you in this position,” said Thorin. “It was not fair, or appropriate. Say the word and I shall rescind my proposal.”

Bilbo looked at the table top, not at all sure what to say.

When Thorin had give him the mithril – when he had proposed – Bilbo had thought – what? That Thorin thought he needed protecting? That he thought he could make Bilbo into a little dwarven warrior?

Since his talk with Gloin, brief as it was, he had turned that gift over and over in his mind, and now he looked at it in a new light. Thorin thought he was strong, much stronger than he looked, but delicate and beautiful, and precious – so very precious.

And it wasn’t something he had made; it was an heirloom, something old and long belonging to his family. If he had understood this gift-language right, that meant, I want you to join my family.

He said, “Thorin, I – I said I’d be honest, and I shall.” He took a deep breath. “I’m not sure I want to marry you. I have a life, back in the Shire, and I don’t know if I want to leave it. I’m still making up my mind on that one, and it might take me some time.”

“I see,” said Thorin.

“And goodness, king consort is – well, well it’s a lot,” Bilbo stammered. “And, I’m very honoured, that you would ask me. Honoured, and – well –”

Well what. What was the word, for what he felt? He was afraid of discussing this – or rather not afraid but anxious. He’d thought he was afraid of what Thorin felt for him, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t that.

When he thought of it, thought Thorin is in love with me, it was as if a vista opened up in his mind, a wide and beautiful view of mountains and forests and waterfalls. He wanted to live in that feeling.

What was that feeling? Was he in love? Was that what it was?

“You do not share my feelings,” said Thorin. His tone was dismal – well, his tone was often dismal, but now it was more dismal than usual. Dismal, and resigned. He might not have known that Bilbo hadn’t understood his proposal, but he had long since accepted that it would be rejected, in time.

“Thorin,” said Bilbo. “I.” He rested his chin upon his fists, and considered the problem.

He did the only thing he could think to do. He rose from his chair, and walked around the table. “Thorin,” he said, more emphatically.

He took Thorin’s face in his hands, and kissed him

It was a peculiar experience, at first. Thorin sat unmoving as stone. Bilbo, with his eyes closed, couldn’t see his face, couldn’t begin to guess the look on it, and for a moment thought oh no, I’ve fumbled it.

But then Thorin’s lips parted, kissing back, soft and steady. His hand cupped the back of Bilbo’s head, fingers lacing into his curls, and Bilbo’s heart lifted. Thorin’s lips were so much softer than he had expected and his beard felt quite extraordinary, silky, like thick velvet beneath his hands. Strange, and new, and different.

He drew back, his breathing quick, his heart all a-fluttered. Thorin’s hand relaxed in his curls, but didn’t let go.

Thorin said, his voice low, “your face is very soft.”

Bilbo collapsed into giggles. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, my.”

“What?” said Thorin. “What is it?”

“Oh,” said Bilbo, tipping his head forward, touching their forehead together. “Oh. I was just thinking how funny your beard feels.”

“Do you like it?” said Thorin.

“It’s very nice,” said Bilbo, running his fingers down Thorin’s prickly chin. Thorin’s hand shifted cupping his face. His thumb stroked Bilbo’s cheek. “Oh,” said Bilbo weakly, and kissed him.

“I, I don’t want you to rescind your proposal,” he said when they parted.

“I understand,” said Thorin.

“But I don’t want to say yes,” said Bilbo. “Not yet. I think I should like us to court each other first.”

“That’s most irregular, Mr Baggins,” said Thorin.

“So was the proposal,” Bilbo shot back.

“So it was,” said Thorin. “Should I court you hobbit-fashion, then?”

“Let’s play it by ear, shall we?” said Bilbo, and kissed him again.