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Wherever I'm with You

Chapter Text

It wasn’t terribly unusual to find dwarves in the Shire. They often passed through on their way to and from the Blue Mountains, and rarely, they even stopped and camped by the side of the road, though they were always on their way again at first light. Other than giving them suspicious looks as they passed, most hobbits were content to ignore them, and the dwarves seemed content to be ignored, eager as they were to get where they were going.

Bilbo was a bit curious about them, though his neighbours would gladly tell him how much it was not respectable to mingle with outsiders. He couldn’t honestly say that he cared all that much what his neighbours thought, at least not anymore. He was restless--bored, in truth, with his lonely bachelor life.

He was probably the only denizen of Hobbiton who was not only surprised but pleased and curious when a troupe of dwarves took up residence in the abandoned smithy at the opposite end of town, near the East-West Road.

“Who asked them to come here?” groused old Hal Miller, glowering at the twenty dwarves sitting down to some roast chicken at the three big tables and making no effort to lower his voice.

Several of the dwarves glanced their way with visible discomfort. There were four little ones, and they looked to their elders in confusion, but remained silent when the adults shook their heads.

“No one, that’s who. But here they are all the same, taking over the old forge without so much as a by your leave!”

“No one else was using it,” Bilbo said reasonably around the end of his pipe.

“But they didn’t know that! Just waltzed right in and took it! They didn’t ask if anyone else was intending to set up there, and hobbits have first right to our own lands!”

Bilbo saw the dwarves shift and look over with even greater discomfort. “Going to take up smithing, then, were you, Hal?”

Hal reddened. “Well, no….”

Hamfast Gamgee snickered next to Bilbo but kept his thoughts to himself.

“Hal has a point, all the same,” said Fredegar Proudfoot, hesitant but with his own unfriendly glance at the dwarves who were now only picking at their food. “Nobody asked them here.”

“Yet here they are,” he said, maintaining his casual, reasonable tone. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t take advantage. I have a few odds and ends that have gone almost beyond repair, so long has it been since we had a competent smith, and dwarves are more than simply competent smiths from what I hear. And they have an almost unnatural lack of fear of the water--perhaps they might agree to see to any repairs to our bridges while they’re here, and save us hobbits a great deal of trouble.”

That turned about half of the eavesdropping hobbits from suspicious to considering. Some of the dwarves relaxed enough to resume eating.

Hal twiddled his bulbous nose resentfully. “I still say we ought to run them out of the Shire. Or at least evict them from that smithy--we don’t need any squatters here.”

That caught the attention of the bartender for the night, Fosco Bolger. The Cottons were off visiting family in Scary.

“We can’t evict anyone unless the owner of the property says so,” he said, puffing up importantly at being able to share a piece of information. “The Thain said so when we had that trouble with Sloco Bracegirdle sleeping on the gaming lawn all summer.”

“But who owns the smithy?”

Bilbo felt his lips curl upward when everyone started scratching their heads. He did so enjoy being able to surprise everyone now and again.

“That would be me,” he said, and feigned distraction with his pipe when everyone, including the dwarves, turned to look at him.

Fosco brightened. “That’s right! Old Peregrin Boffin left it to his favourite cousin, Belladonna Took, who was--”

“My mother,” Bilbo agreed pleasantly. “I have no desire to evict anyone, particularly given what a difficult time I’ve had finding tenants.”

Hal’s scowl deepened. “Yes, but dwarves.”

“It could be worse,” he said solemnly. “It could be a Sackville-Baggins.”

The entirety of the hobbits burst out laughing, as his feud with Lobelia was always a source of amusement for the other denizens of Hobbiton. Bilbo smiled as the atmosphere lightened and people seemed content to ignore the dwarves again. He blew a smoke ring at the ceiling, put out his pipe, and stood to leave, dropping a few coins on the table.

“Good night, Mister Baggins!” several people called out, and he acknowledged them cheerfully on his way out.

He gave it a few days, after that, letting things settle. People still peered at the dwarves suspiciously and hurried past them, but there was no more talk of running them out of the Shire. Still, he knew that they would leave on their own if business remained poor. No one approached them for any smithing, and when they set up a table in the market, only a few gossips drifted near, scrutinising but not buying any wares before scuttling off to whisper amongst themselves.

It wouldn’t do, not at all.

Bilbo enjoyed watching the dwarves from his garden or in the Green Dragon, but he was going to have to do more if he wanted them to stay. He very much wanted them to stay.

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

The halfling’s forge wasn’t in bad shape. The charcoal had to be swept back into it, after weather, and likely animals and mischievous children, had strewn some out across the dirt floor, but that was easily taken care of. The whole building and all of its contents needed a good cleaning anyway. The tuyere and the firepot were intact. The two anvils and a lone pair of tongs, and even the three slack tubs were in good condition despite their age and lack of care. The bellows needed a new rope, but it could have been much worse.

Especially given the condition of the rest of the smithy. The roof was just shy of caving in, owing to dangerously rotten beams. A horde of mice had taken up residence in the back room, filling it with straw and their leavings and the detritus of paper and other gnawings that mice are so fond of. They scattered when Thorin and Dís stepped into the room, most of them fleeing through a hole in the brick.

“At least we know no one is using it,” Dís said with a sigh that was mostly relief.

“They might still throw us out,” he said, feeling the brick.

No other imperfections that he could see or sense--only that one corner had crumbled.

Dís sighed again, this time with exasperation. “My brother the optimist.”

“We’ll have to plug that hole, and check why it crumbled there. Probably the eavestrough is broken there, it looks like water might have got through.”

“Easily done.”

Thorin didn’t answer, looking at the mouse nest. The smell here was unpleasant--musk and mildew. The spiders seemed confined to the front room, possibly because they didn’t care for the damp here, either.

“This isn’t your fault, Thorin,” she said after a long silence.

His shoulders stiffened and he blinked against the sting in his eyes, brought on by her gentle tone.

“We didn’t even make it to the Misty Mountains,” he said with a humourless chuckle. “Thorin Oakenshield and his grand quest…. They were right to laugh in my face. You shouldn’t have followed me on this…fool’s errand. You or any of the others.”

Her lips quirked. “We didn’t have much choice after they said any of your supporters were welcome to take our families and go.”

He turned from her at that, guilt pricking at his insides, cleaving his tongue to the roof of his mouth. Guilt was his constant companion these days, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear.

Dís caught his arm. “It was but a jest, Thorin. They may have asked us to leave, but we would have gone with you anyway.”

He didn’t look up from the floor. “What was I thinking of, Dís? Taking back Erebor from a dragon. It’s madness. I can’t do this. I don’t know why I ever thought…. I should never have spoken such folly. Now we’re…trapped in this green land of fat little beardless creatures who clearly don’t want us here, without coin enough to leave…. We shall starve here, unmourned--”

The solid whack to his arm snapped him out of it.

“Ouch,” he said flatly, raising his brows at her.

Dís snorted. “Yes, you shall go down in history as the only dwarf king who was killed when his sister smote him such a mighty blow he could not go on.”

He rolled his eyes, a reluctant smile tugging at his lips. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“No more ridiculous than you, nadad,” she shot back, but her eyes brightened at this sign of his mood lifting. “We’re not going to starve. At least, no more than we would have in Ered Luin anyway, given the food shortages no one wanted to acknowledge. If the halflings kick us out, we’ll hunt and Nori will…scavenge, and we’ll make our way to Bree that way, if we have to. We can make coin there, once we get there. But until the halflings ask us to leave or we run out of everything else, we can at least rest here a while. The children need it.”

Thorin nodded. “I know.”

The children weren’t the only ones. Chasing after the bandits who’d kidnapped the children had taken a lot out of all of them. Returning to camp to find Nori, Dwalin, and Glóin knocked out, and the ponies and most of their supplies and coin gone, had been a blow to all of them. Pulling the carts themselves all the way to this little village had sapped the remains of their reserves. Their only consolation was the relief that Nori, Dwalin, and Glóin had been knocked out, not killed, though it hurt their pride, and that the children were unharmed, only a little frightened.

They all desperately needed to rest.

In the future, he would heed Nori’s warnings. Who would know the habits of thieves better than a thief? At least Nori hadn’t been at all smug or self-righteous in accepting Thorin’s apology.

She laid her hand on his. “You’ll see us through, Thorin. You always do.”

He forced a smile for her sake. He knew she meant to be comforting, but it only made his burden press down harder.

He would see them through. He had to.

First of all was making the place habitable.

The carts were sacrificed in the name of shoring up the roof. If they earned enough coin here, they could always buy new carts and ponies--and if they didn’t, it would be easier to simply carry as much as they could, without having to pull three heavy carts themselves any further than they already had. The biggest pieces became beams in the roof, and the smaller were either used to repair other parts of the building, the little fence around the dooryard, or set aside to use for fuel or carving.

Thorin, Dwalin, Dís, Glóin, Dori, and Kíli and Fíli worked on the roof, while Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Lilja, and Ori worked on repairing the hole in the wall and any other repairs they could see. Nori and Balin worked together on the fence, surprisingly amicably, given that Thorin had never seen them within three feet of each other before. Then again, Dwalin was too busy to steer Balin away from Nori, so that might have something to do with it. Óin and Rikka did their best to keep the children occupied and out of the way, though Gimli kept sneaking off to see what his parents were doing.

They hadn’t finished making it liveable by nightfall, so Rikka, Bofur, Óin, and Dori set up their only tent in the dooryard so the children could sleep. The repairs were finished, but the cleaning was not. The others set themselves to the tasks of sweeping and dusting and, where necessary, washing, without instruction. They worked well together already, after only a few weeks of travelling together.

Thorin took his sister-sons aside and enlisted their help in cleaning up the forge, sorting what was usable from what was not. The equipment was a little smaller than what they were used to, but not unmanageably so. After they shifted some of it so it was spaced a bit further apart, it was quite comfortable, actually, at least in comparison to the forges of Men that Thorin had had the misfortune of working in. It wasn’t dwarvish, but it would do.

He almost felt content, for a moment, as he and Fíli and Kíli brought in their own hammers, fullers, hardies, and chisels, and additional tongs, arranging them the way they liked. He’d always felt at home in a smithy. He could almost forget everything except working metal into something beautiful or useful, or both, while he was standing over a forge.

Almost.

“We don’t have much in the way of raw materials,” Fíli said, his brows knit.

“We’ll make what we can out of what we have,” Balin said, though his attempt to bolster them was rather undercut by his grimace.

“We’ll sell anything we have that we don’t need,” Thorin corrected, trying to sound more sure than he felt. “Then we can save the raw materials for our first commissions.”

This rather optimistic view put a smile on Kíli’s face, but Balin and Fíli only exchanged a glance.

“As you say,” Balin said, strained with the effort of sounding cheerful.

Morning found them moving their belongings into the freshly cleaned back room. They would all have to sleep on the dirt floor together, their bedrolls pressed tight and even overlapping--but it was indoors, in a fairly sturdy building, which was an automatic improvement over sleeping on the ground in a tent or under the open sky.

They spent a large portion of the day sorting their belongings, though they found precious little they could afford to part with. Óin and Glóin lit the forge, though they had nothing to make in it yet. It would keep them warm tonight, at least. Bifur and Bofur got a start on carving toys to try to sell in the quaint halfling market Nori had spotted setting up in the centre of town--if it could really be called such.

“We don’t have much left to eat,” Bombur said reluctantly when dinnertime came around.

Nori raised his braided brows. “There’s a nice pub up the way.”

Thorin frowned, reluctant to argue with Nori now, when heeding his advice would have saved their ponies and supplies.

Dwalin, however, never had a problem arguing with Nori. “We have little enough coin as it is.”

“It’s cheap,” Lilja, who never had much to say, grunted.

“How would you know?”

Glóin bristled on his wife’s behalf. “Because you sent her with Nori to check food prices, of course!”

Dwalin was unimpressed with Glóin’s show of temper, but he fell silent--most likely because Lilja had suddenly felt the need to start sharpening her axe.

“Perhaps it would be best to save our money for the market,” Rikka suggested without looking up from brushing her daughter’s hair.

“It would probably be wiser,” Bofur agreed cheerfully, “but I think I speak for all of us when I say that I’m sick to death of stew!”

That was met with a hearty round of “hear, hear’s,” and the matter was decided.

Bombur gave his brother a mock solemn look. “All right--but if any of you orders stew, they’ll not get any of my cakes again.”

They all laughed, but Thorin wasn’t the only one who was careful not to order stew. It seemed that roast chicken and vegetables was the special of the night, and even Nori looked surprised by the sheer bulk of food crammed onto each plate for the few precious coins they had parted with.

“These halflings know how to eat,” he said with a kind of awe.

Bombur looked extremely pleased. “It would seem so,” he said around a mouthful of potato.

He, at least, seemed at home here.

Until the first halfling spoke up.

“Who asked them to come here? No one, that’s who. But here they are all the same, taking over the old forge without so much as a by your leave!”

It was an elderly halfling, his curls thin and white, his sour face even more lined by the scowl creasing it, his back bent with age. Thorin would have laughed him off as no threat if it hadn’t been for the various heads that nodded along with him. Unfriendly stares swivelled in their direction, and Thorin tensed, preparing to order everyone out if it became necessary.

A clear, level voice spoke.

“No one else was using it.”

Thorin peered over his shoulder as discreetly as he knew how--which was to say, not very. Fortunately, the new speaker was surveying the room at large and didn’t seem to take any particular notice of Thorin.

It was more than fortunate because Thorin found himself staring, almost gaping, really. This halfling was…very handsome. His eyes were bright and dancing with mirth, and even around the end of his pipe, his smile was enchanting, sharpened with mischief and gentled with kindness. Thorin had dismissed the short curls of the other halflings as unattractive and messy, but on this halfling, they were perfect. He couldn’t imagine any other way to frame that round, friendly face. If he’d been a dwarf, he would have been beating off suitors with a stick, despite his frame running rather small--it was round enough to make up for the lack of muscle.

He only realised he’d been staring when Dís kicked him under the table. He snapped back around in his seat, staring determinedly at the pile of vegetables on the side of his plate that he had carefully picked out of the mixture. Actually eating was out of the question with his stomach jumping like he’d swallowed a hornets’ nest. There was a buzzing in his head, too, and he wondered for a somewhat hysterical moment if seeing someone he might be meant to be with was supposed to strongly resemble an angry bee infestation.

All of that stopped, replaced with a sinking, cold feeling, when he finally realised that the halflings had moved on to discussing which of them had the power to evict them.

“That would be me.”

Thorin whipped back around to see the handsome halfling fiddling with his pipe, utterly unconcerned by the fact that he held the lives of Thorin’s people in his hands. Now that he was looking again, he saw the signs he’d missed before--the silk waistcoat and the expensive velvet dinner jacket, the shiny brass buttons, all of it much finer than the clothes of the other halflings in the room. This was a landowner, a wealthy one.

He swallowed, trying to push away the shrinking feeling in his gut, the familiar sense of inadequacy like a weight on his head.

He didn’t understand the joke about the Sackvillbaggins, whatever that was, but it wasn’t important. What was important was that he was going to let them stay on as his tenants, and his name was Baggins.

Thorin turned back to the others as soon as their new landlord was out the door.

“Nori, we need to know the going rate for rent in this place,” he said, urgent but low. “Balin, Glóin, gather every coin we have first thing in the morning. If he comes to call, we need to be ready to pay.”

Everyone nodded solemnly. He could almost see them all calculating in their heads already, fingering their clothing and wondering how much a halfling might pay for it. It brought a lump to his throat.

But what broke his heart was the small voice of one of Bombur’s sons.

“’Adad? Do I have to sell my toy pony?”

Thorin dropped his fork and stood from the table, muttering an excuse. Even Dís let him be, and he walked back to the smithy at a brisk pace, wishing for something to work on to take his mind off his failings.

Chapter Text

Bilbo waited until just after midday, when the market was bustling with the crowd between lunch and afternoon tea. He sauntered down with his prize behind his back, peering idly at knitted throws and sides of ham as he made his way to the dwarves’ table of bric-a-brac.

They were more than just smiths, apparently. Their table certainly displayed goods made in a smithy--pots and pans, spades, that sort of thing--but there were also wooden toys and pipes, and bright woven cloth, and jewelry so fine they were unlikely to sell any of it here. They seemed to take turns manning the table, but they hadn’t sold anything regardless of who was present, as far as Bilbo knew.

There were three of the dwarves sitting there today, one smoking a pipe and wearing a rather ridiculous hat, another quite plump with a pleasantly hobbitish round face, and the third…had an axe in his head. All three of them stiffened when he wandered up, brushing off their clothes and smiling with visible strain.

He smiled back, nodding. “Good afternoon!”

“Good afternoon!” the one with the ridiculous hat said, bowing. “Bofur, at your service!”

“Bombur, at your service!”

The one with the axe in his head bowed, but it was Bofur who spoke for him.

“And that’s Bifur, also at your service. He doesn’t speak Westron.”

Bilbo nodded. “Ah. Hullo, hullo. Bilbo Baggins at your service.”

“What can we do for our illustrious landlord?”

It was said jokingly, but he couldn’t help noticing that they all looked worried. He cleared his throat and brought his broken metal kettle from behind his back.

“Well, it’s my kettle, you see,” he said, stammering a bit as nerves suddenly overtook him. “I seem to have…. Well, I dropped it, and I…I’m quite lost without it. I’m not accustomed to doing without my afternoon tea. I was wondering if I might secure one of your services for a repair?”

They stared for a moment, mouths agape. He was just about to start stammering apologies when they broke into wide grins, their eyes bright.

“Of course, Master Baggins!” Bofur cried cheerfully.

He and Bombur came around the table to escort him away, out of the market and toward the smithy.

“We’ll get you fixed right up,” Bombur said, still wearing a broad, much more natural smile.

The first thing that Bilbo noted was how much better the building looked. Of course, he’d seen the dwarves outside tending to the building from afar, but it was different seeing it up close. He did what he could, but there was no denying that the building and its little dooryard had become more than a bit shabby with disuse.

Now, the grass was trimmed, the dooryard was clean, and though it was still in need of some small repairs, the most broken bricks and mortar of the siding had been replaced. The roof looked to have been patched, too. Smoke poured from the chimney, a sign of the forge at work.

The four dwarflings he’d seen in the Green Dragon had been playing in the fenced dooryard, but when they spotted Bilbo and his escort approaching, they scampered inside, leaving their ball behind. He stooped to pick it up while Bombur fidgeted nervously.

“My little ones, and Glóin’s boy, Gimli,” he said, tugging at the thick braid resting on his chest. “They won’t cause you any trouble, Master Baggins, I promise.”

Bilbo frowned at him. “Those little dears? They don’t look capable of troubling anyone. I do hope they didn’t run off on my account.”

For some reason, that surprised the two dwarves, and they exchanged a look before escorting him the rest of the way through.

Inside the smithy, it immediately became apparent why the four dwarflings had run off, as all of the dwarves inside were standing straight and stiff, clearly expecting his arrival. He could hear a faint jingling in the back, but couldn’t quite place it.

He handed off his kettle obediently when Bofur began explaining why he was there, looking around curiously. The last time he’d checked up on the smithy, there were cobwebs in the high corners of the ceiling where he couldn’t reach, some of the rafters were bowing to rot or wood-eating insects, and the forge had become a blackened, cold mess from sitting too long unused.

Now, some of the wood beams were clearly new, and every inch of the place was clean, even the dirt floors obviously recently swept. There were packs and supplies stowed in the rafters. The forge was only black with fresh soot and charcoal at the edges--the centre was active, filling the room with a warm glow and the smell of heat.

“It’s too old.”

Bilbo started listening again just in time to hear this judgment from the dwarf Bofur had chosen to explain the situation to, a taller than average male with long black hair shot through with silver, and a rather pointy nose. His beard was unusually short, for a dwarf, though Bilbo was accustomed to no beard at all--still, it was a difference that caught his eye. His sleeves were rolled up and all of his visible skin was streaked with black grime, his clothes caked with dust and mud and soot.

“I’m sorry?” Bilbo asked politely.

The dwarf gestured to the kettle on the anvil before him. “It’s too old. The metal is weak. I can patch it, but it will break in another place before long.”

“Oh,” he said, his shoulders sagging with disappointment. “It was my father’s, so I was hoping…. Never mind. Could you perhaps make me one similar to it?”

The dwarf considered him for a long moment, his pale blue eyes unreadable. He nodded, after a moment, just once.

Bilbo brightened. “Thank you! I would appreciate it. How much would it cost?”

For some reason, that made all the dwarves go unnaturally silent and stiff again. Even the jingling stopped.

“What?”

The dwarves exchanged glances that Bilbo couldn’t read. Fortunately, before he could work himself into a panic over whatever blunder he’d made, another dwarf spoke up, this one blond with his moustache braided.

“Well, you’re our landlord,” he said, quiet and serious despite his obvious confusion. “We expected you’d want the work done for free, and to collect the month’s rent besides.”

“Oh.” Bilbo chuckled, his shoulders relaxing. “I don’t feel inclined to charge any rent for the next three months at least.”

There were rumbles of protest, but Bilbo didn’t give them a chance to build any steam, gesturing at the repaired rafters.

“Do you think I haven’t noticed the work you put in to fix the place? I’ve done what I could with it, but it has always been a low priority due to the lack of tenants, so I am well aware of what shape this property was in before. I’m also aware of the cost of the materials, and the money you saved me in labour, as I could hardly have repaired those beams or the roof myself.”

He cringed inwardly as he recalled the rather large family of mice that had taken up residence in the back room. He hadn’t bothered to attempt to evict the tiny squatters because it didn’t seem likely he would ever again have paying tenants. Now he only hoped that they hadn’t left too great a mess for the dwarves to clean up when they moved in.

“No, no, Master Dwarf, this is well worth three months’ rent, if not four. And not pay for the work you do simply because I’m your landlord? I’ve no idea how things are done amongst dwarves, but in the Shire, it won’t do. No, I must at least pay for the material, if you won’t accept payment for your labour. At the very least, you must let me subtract all of it from the rent, if you don’t wish to be passing money back and forth between us.”

He lost steam himself, then, and gave a final nod for emphasis, hooking his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets--or, rather, he attempted to, only to be reminded that he still had the children’s ball in one hand.

The original dwarf, the one with black hair and blue eyes, spoke again. “That would be acceptable.”

“Great!” Bilbo faltered. “Er--which one?”

The dwarf looked at him like he was a particularly stupid sheep. “Subtract the cost from the rent.”

“Ah! Yes! Splendid,” he said, regaining his cheer. “Thank you.”

The dwarf just grunted, but Bilbo was distracted by a little face peering out of the back room. His grin widened and he tilted his head to the side.

“Hullo there!” He held up the ball, waving it a little. “Looking for this?”

The child gasped and pulled back a little. Bilbo squatted in order to be on her level--for on closer inspection, the little child appeared to be a girl.

“Now don’t be frightened!” he said kindly, extending the ball toward her. “I stopped biting years ago. I still bark a bit, it must be said, particularly when naughty children steal the tomatoes from my garden, but it’s only a little noise. Nothing a strong dwarf like yourself need fear!”

She had timidly approached as he prattled, and he softly deposited the ball in her hand when she drew within reach.

“This is my daughter, Katla,” Bombur said, distinctly nervous, though Bilbo couldn’t imagine why.

“Ah! Now I see where she gets her good looks from!” he said, for by hobbit standards, they were both very handsome indeed, with their plump bellies and round noses. Both of them flushed with pleasure, and he turned to the little dwarf girl with a mischievous smile. “Do you like magic tricks, Katla?”

She nodded tentatively.

“Right, then, watch closely.”

Her squeal of delight when he seemingly pulled a silver coin from thin air brought the rest of the dwarves who’d been in the back running. Whatever Katla gibbered calmed them immediately, and Bilbo found himself surrounded by all four dwarflings, all of them clamouring for another trick.

He laughed. “All right, all right, settle down. Now watch.”

He made a marble appear in his right hand, then his left, and back again with a series of “magical” gestures, and all four dwarflings bounced up and down with excitement, examining the marble and chattering to each other about how he could have done it.

“One more?” he offered, and they nearly knocked him over in their haste to agree.

They really did knock him over when he pulled a sweet from Katla’s ear and handed it to her, squealing and checking each other’s ears and Bilbo’s pockets for sweets. He laughed harder than he had in quite some time, hard enough that he couldn’t pick himself up or tell them to settle down. Bombur and Bofur stepped up to rescue him, as did a red-haired dwarf who began scolding a boy who looked a lot like him for tackling their landlord.

“It’s quite all right,” Bilbo assured them when he had his breath back, still chuckling as he brushed the dust from his clothes. “I knew that was a risk when I offered up only one sweet--but let no one accuse me of unfairness,” he added, producing three more sweets and presenting them to the three other dwarflings.

Their faces lit up, but they accepted their sweets without tackling him this time.

“Gimli, what do you say?” the red-haired dwarf said sternly.

The eldest of the four dwarflings turned with a sheepish smile, the sweet already in his mouth. “Thank you, Master Baggins,” he mumbled. Of course, with the sweet in the way, it came out “Fank oo, Mutter Aggin,” but Bilbo understood all the same.

He offered a slight bow. “You are most welcome, Master Gimli.”

For reasons only children could understand, that delighted them all into more squeals and giggles, and he found himself chivvied out to the yard, the ball pressed back into his hand.

“Please play with us, Master Baggins!” one of the other boys cried.

“Please?” Katla added.

Bilbo had nothing better to do, and they were all looking at him so eagerly. “What are we playing?”

From the cheer they sent up, he might have thought that someone had announced free pies.

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

“He’s a chipper fellow, isn’t he?” Balin said after the children had absconded with Master Baggins.

Thorin grunted, trying to focus his attention on heating the forge. He wasn’t certain he would have enough iron to make an entire kettle of the correct size. He couldn’t afford to be distracted, lest he fail and lose Master Baggins’s apparent goodwill.

The reprieve from paying any rent for several months was an unexpected blessing that he had no intention of wasting. They still had no idea what the likely rate was, despite Nori’s best efforts.

Hobbits,” he had sneered when he returned, “view that sort of thing as private. Not even any gossip about it--not where I could hear, anyway.”

To make matters worse, none of the halflings would buy anything from them. Balin and Dori had managed to hire them out to repair the bridge in town, but with Thorin, Dwalin, Dori, Bifur, Bofur, Glóin, Óin, Lilja, Fíli, and Kíli all working together, it had barely taken an afternoon. They had not been held responsible for the supplies required, thankfully, but it had earned them very little money, and didn’t lead to any further employment, despite the excellence of the work.

Thorin hadn’t eaten much yesterday, and nothing today, and he knew several of the others had forgone any food as well. The little ones needed it more, and the younger dwarrow like his sister-sons and Ori.

Although self-sacrifice wasn’t his only motivation for avoiding food. Thorin’s stomach twisted itself into tighter and tighter knots for each day that passed without word from their landlord. By the time Master Baggins finally turned up this morning, he thought he might go mad from the tension.

The sudden shock of hearing the words, “I don’t feel inclined to charge any rent for the next three months at least,” was like a weight being knocked off his chest, a rush of dizzying, sweet air that made his head spin. He was grateful that the handsome halfling seemed to have a habit of rambling, as it gave him a little time to collect himself. He could hardly get the words out to accept Master Baggins’s terms.

If he had still been in Ered Luin, he would have been offended by such charity, cloaked in terms of fairness though it was, and would have sent the offender away with a few sharp words at the very least. He didn’t have that luxury now, exiled in this green country of suspicious folk, with lives hanging in the balance. It stung his pride to accept all the same, but he found himself grateful that Master Baggins had taken pains to point out the work they had done on his property, to try to make it sound like an even exchange.

Then--oh, then, he’d outdone himself, amusing the children with tricks and giving them sweets, and even agreeing to play with them. A little voice had broken through Thorin’s haze of relief--He’s not just lovely, but kind, too….

Only turning his attention to the broken kettle--thank Mahal he’s clumsy--and making plans to replicate it had saved him from doing something embarrassing like stand in the doorway staring at Master Baggins as he grinned and laughed and played with the children. As it was, he was hard-pressed to ignore the high, clear laughter mingling with the giggles and delighted shrieks of the children.

And Balin and Dís weren’t helping.

“Indeed, he is,” she said warmly. “Cheerful and friendly, and good with the children. I hope this isn’t a one time event--you can see how fond of him they are already.”

“Aye,” Balin said. “And they’re not the only ones.”

Thorin froze, certain he’d been caught out.

“I myself am inclined to like him,” he continued, oblivious to the way Thorin’s shoulders slumped with relief. “And Bombur and Rikka love anyone who dotes on their children.”

This had to stop, or he would never get anything done.

“When the halfling is done reclaiming his youth, you can tell him I’ll have the new kettle ready in two days,” he cut in gruffly.

Dís glared, lips parted with shock. “Thorin!”

He ignored her, gathering up a bucket of metal scraps to sort.

“We’re here on his sufferance,” she said, low and angry. “You must at least try to be civil to him, unless you want us to be thrown out.”

She stalked off without waiting for a response. She never had liked being ignored.

When he looked up, Balin’s fists were on his hips and his brows were raised pointedly.

“What?”

Balin shook his head. “Nothing, laddie, nothing,” he said, half sighing.

He took a seat nearby, watching Thorin work. His back stiffened and he tried to ignore both Balin’s gaze and the musical laughter drifting in through the open door.

Chapter Text

Bofur had informed him that Thorin, which was apparently the name of the black-haired, blue-eyed dwarf in charge, had said the new kettle would be ready in two days. A few of the dwarves had seemed rather anxious about that, particularly the eldest among them, a friendly sort with a long white beard who identified himself as Balin.

“If you truly will be unable to do without it for so long, we could try to locate a suitable replacement until the new one is finished,” he’d said, tugging at the ends of his beard and glancing at Thorin out of the corner of his eye.

Thorin had immediately got to work, and Bilbo found it very hard not to be distracted by all the bellows-pumping and metal-heating and sweating and hammering going on by the forge, and the odd, tingling warmth that unfurled in his belly at the sight.

“Oh! No--I’m sure I’ll manage for two days,” he assured them cheerfully.

Today was only one day, so he knew the kettle wouldn’t be ready yet. He was prepared for the defensive glare Thorin shot his way when he stepped inside, as well as the fearful glances and fidgeting from the other dwarves.

“I’m afraid your kettle isn’t ready, Mister Boggins,” said a dwarf who looked rather like Thorin, though he was considerably younger, with even less beard and dark eyes.

“I know!” Bilbo said brightly. “It hasn’t been two days yet. I haven’t come for the kettle--rather, I came to ask--that is, I’m going fishing, and I was wondering if any of the children might like to come with me?”

He held aloft the fishing rods he’d brought in explanation. The adults in the room relaxed infinitesimally, but the four dwarflings popped up from wherever they’d been hiding with broad grins, and immediately began begging their parents.

“Oh, may we please?” Burar asked, tugging on Bombur’s sleeve.

“Please, please, ‘adad?” Burin added.

Katla just gave their mother one of the most pitiful looks Bilbo had ever seen, all large eyes and quivering chin.

“We’ll be very good,” Gimli said solemnly, looking up at his father, Glóin, with slightly less obvious puppy dog eyes.

“You don’t even know how to fish,” the dwarf who thought Bilbo’s name was Boggins said, sneering a little.

Bilbo knew jealousy when he saw it. “Would you like to come along and help me teach them?”

He brightened immediately, turning to Thorin with an eager expression, bouncing a little on his toes, and Bilbo mentally removed a few decades from his assessment of the dwarf’s age.

“Please, Uncle?”

Thorin’s scowl deepened and he did not reply.

“You may go if Kíli goes,” said Bombur’s wife, and their three dwarflings turned pleading faces to Thorin.

To Bilbo’s surprise and pleasure, Thorin immediately caved, his hard expression softening when he looked at the children.

“Very well--but take your brother with you,” he said gruffly to Kíli.

The blond dwarf popped seemingly out of nowhere, grinning and bearing two fishing rods.

Glóin patted Gimli’s shoulder. “Since Fíli is going, you may go, too.”

Fíli’s grin widened, and Kíli spluttered, outraged.

“It’s like you don’t trust me!”

Glóin gave him a look. “Can you blame me?”

Kíli reddened and mumbled something that Bilbo couldn’t make out.

“Well, we’d best get going, then, before it gets too warm and all the fish go down for their afternoon naps,” Bilbo said brightly.

The children cheered and practically shoved him back out the door in their eagerness. He just laughed and handed each of them a fishing pole before retrieving the two baskets he’d left just outside the smithy.

“Be careful with them, now!” he said when they made to start waving the poles. “You wouldn’t want to accidentally hurt anyone or break your pole!”

“Yes, Master Baggins,” they chorused obediently, holding their respective poles more carefully but still bouncing and running up and down the path around him as he walked, unable to contain their excitement.

“Would you like me to carry one of those for you, Master Boggins?” the blond dwarf--Fíli--asked politely, gesturing toward the full baskets in Bilbo’s hands.

He handed one over with a grateful nod. “Thank you, Master Fíli--and it’s just Bilbo, please.”

“Just Fíli, then, Bilbo,” he replied, his eyes somehow brighter than they had been a moment ago.

“That’s an awful lot of bait,” Kíli butted in, gesturing toward the baskets they carried.

“Oh, that’s not our bait--that’s elevensies and lunch. The bait is in this,” he added, lifting his hand a little to show the sack tied to his fishing pole.

The brothers exchanged a puzzled glance.

“Elevensies?” Burar piped up, having drifted close enough to hear. “What’s that?”

Bilbo smiled at the lad. “It’s the third meal of the day.”

Burar’s nose crinkled. “That’s supper.”

Hmm. He hadn’t considered that possible cultural difference. He knew Men and elves only ate three meals a day, but he’d rather assumed dwarves were more sensible and ate at least four or five meals, given their more solid, hobbit-like statures.

“Maybe to dwarves,” he said lightly, “but hobbits eat seven meals a day, when we can get them.”

The dwarfling’s eyes went round. “Seven?”

“Oh, yes--breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner, and supper. Some folk skip supper from time to time, especially if they have young faunts who need to get to bed early, and farmers occasionally don’t bother with elevensies, preferring to get their work done before the heat of the day sets in, but for the most part, those are our standard meals,” he explained, and was rather pleased that all six dwarves paid close attention, the youngsters looking a bit awed.

Gimli gestured at the baskets. “You’re really going to eat all that?”

Bilbo frowned. “Gracious, no! It’s simply rude to eat in front of anyone, so I brought enough to share.”

That made all of his companions light up, and it was quite a merry company that made their way down to Bilbo’s favourite fishing spot. It was a low spot on the riverbed, with a soft carpet of green under an old oak tree that had branches that spread wide, providing a large shady space, only stray dapples of sunlight making it through the leaves.

Bilbo helped the dwarflings choose the best spots and showed them how to bait and cast their lines. Kíli took over showing them the “finer points,” or so he claimed, although his instructions seemed to consist of exaggerated stories of his and Fíli’s past catches. He left them to it anyway, chuckling, and set up his own pole. He sat back with a pipe after it was set, one eye on his line and the other on the dwarflings, reassuring himself that none of them were too close to the edge or playing roughly enough to risk falling in.

At elevensies, the dwarves eagerly gathered around him as he began unloading the first basket, even Fíli--who was old enough to work the forge with the adults, at least, if not quite an adult himself--unable to contain his excitement and joy. Katla climbed into Bilbo’s lap when he removed the last item, the pie he had baked that morning, and began handing out plates. As it turned out, she and Burin, the second youngest, couldn’t cut their own food yet, so Bilbo happily served both of them and looked after them during the meal. Burar shot a jealous look at his brother where Burin leaned against Bilbo’s side, and soon enough, he had a dwarfling on his other side as well.

“Will you tell us more about hobbits, Mister Bilbo?” Katla asked around a mouthful of potatoes.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” he chided gently. “I will certainly tell you about hobbits. What would you like to know?”

“Why don’t hobbits wear shoes? Don’t your feets get cold?”

Bilbo laughed. “No, our feet are tough and hardy. We don’t need shoes or boots. In fact, wearing boots is a bit uncomfortable for us, so we only wear them in the direst circumstances. Besides, if we wore shoes, it would cover up our foot hair.”

“Is that important?” Gimli wondered.

He pondered how to explain it to them for a moment. The answer came to him in the decorative braids in Fíli’s moustache, the stubbly fledgling beard on Kíli’s cheeks, and the faint beginnings of facial hair around Gimli’s mouth.

“Well--a dwarf’s beard is very important to them, is it not?”

The dwarflings nodded emphatically.

“Oh, yes!” said Gimli, rubbing the little wispy red hairs on his jaw.

“A full, healthy beard is a dwarf’s pride and joy,” Kíli said, preening a bit and rubbing his bearded chin.

“If someone shaved it off, we’d be very angry,” Katla said solemnly.

“And we would never shave it off ourselves!” Burar agreed.

Bilbo tamped down on the urge to ask about Thorin’s noticeably short beard.

“We would not unless we had somehow disgraced ourselves,” Fíli corrected, “or unless we were in deep mourning.”

Bilbo didn’t ask which one it was for Thorin.

“Well, it’s much the same for a hobbit and their foot hair,” he said, shifting Katla and stretching his legs out so he could waggle his feet before them. “We take great pride in our foot hair. Every morning, I comb my foot hair so it’s neat and presentable, and every evening I wash the day’s dust out of it. A hobbit with matted, dirty curls on their feet is in a sorry state indeed--and if a hobbit shaved off their own foot hair, we would all be very worried about them and try to help them.”

The dwarflings giggled when he wriggled his toes.

“Why don’t you just grow beards?” Katla asked.

“Well, we’re not dwarves--that is, we can’t grow beards,” Bilbo said, and chuckled at their goggle-eyed faces.

“Not at all?” Burar blurted, faint with horror.

He pretended to think. “Well…I have heard of a hobbit once who managed to grow a very few whiskers on his chin, but they were so few in number and so very curly that everyone agreed he looked quite silly. No one had any idea how to shave them off for good, and he wasn’t about to ask one of the Big Folk, so he was stuck with his poor excuse for a beard until the end of his days, or so it was told to me. I find it hard to believe, though--I’ve never seen so much as an off-colour hair on the face of any hobbit in my life, and my own cheeks have always been smooth without any effort on my part.”

Gimli looked quite serious, poking his slice of pie as he gathered his thoughts. “I suppose if you can’t grow a beard, foot hair as fine as yours would do quite well instead.”

Bilbo smiled at him gently, pleased with both the compliment and the effort to understand. “Thank you, Gimli. What else would you like to know?”

The dwarflings were full of questions, Fíli and Kíli only slightly less so. Bilbo did his best to answer all of them, even though it meant continuing the conversation long after they had cleaned up from their meal and gone back to their fishing poles. At lunchtime, Bilbo unpacked their second meal and told the story of his ancestor, Bandobras “Bullroarer” Took, when Burar asked if there were any hobbit warriors.

It was a pleasant, relaxed day, and Bilbo was proud to bring six happy dwarves back to the smithy, three of them bearing fish. He’d actually caught one of them, but as Burin had “helped” as best he knew how, by coming over and pulling on the pole as Bilbo drew the line in, he had pretended that he would have lost it without Burin’s help and given him the fish out of gratitude. Katla and Gimli hadn’t caught any, either, but Gimli was old enough to handle the disappointment with equanimity, and Katla was relieved not to have caught anything after watching Burar’s fish flop around on the bank until Fíli dispatched it.

He hadn’t quite figured out whether Fíli or Kíli had caught their fish, and from the sound of it, neither had they, as they were still bickering about it when the group reached the smithy yard and filed inside the building.

“Look, look, ‘amad!” Burin and Burar cried, running to their parents, holding their prizes aloft. “We caught dinner! Mister Bilbo showed us how and we caught dinner!”

Bombur and Rikka praised and petted the two boys, and consoled Katla when she sniffed over the fact that the fish were now dead. Fíli and Kíli went to their own mother--or so Bilbo assumed, as they used the same word Burin and Burar had used to address the dwarf lady, and she looked an awful lot like Thorin, though with darker blue eyes and a more feminine cast to her brow and jaw, and a silkier-looking, much longer beard--and held their fish aloft just as proudly, their quarrel forgotten. She grinned and hugged them, pressing a kiss to each of their cheeks.

Gimli went to his own parents with a rather downcast expression--perhaps he wasn’t taking his lack of success as well as Bilbo had thought.

“Oh, we don’t need any lunch, amad!” Katla said brightly. “Mister Bilbo fed us twice!”

He flushed when all of the dwarves present suddenly turned to look at him.

“He said hobbits eat seven meals a day!” Burar cried, still in awe of the fact.

“Yes, and he said that hobbits consider it very rude to eat in front of someone who didn’t bring any food,” Gimli added, “and so he brought enough to share, since it was his idea to go fishing and he knew we hadn’t had time to pack anything.”

Thorin was glowering suspiciously at Bilbo, but he said nothing.

He cleared his throat and straightened his spine. “Yes, that’s quite true. I wasn’t aware that dwarves don’t eat elevensies, though--next time, I won’t pack quite such a heavy elevensies, as the children were almost too full to eat any lunch.”

The dwarflings, Fíli, Kíli, and several of the adults brightened.

“Next time?” Burin piped up hopefully.

Bilbo smiled. “If you would like to, yes--and I very much hope you would. I had a very good time, and I hope you did, too.”

The dwarflings cheered and ran back over to hug him, assuring him excitedly that they had, in fact, had a wonderful time and they were very eager to go with him again. Bilbo laughed warmly, returning their hugs and promising that yes, he really meant it, and yes, they could keep their fishing poles, as they had certainly earned them.

By the time Bilbo managed to extricate himself, it was nearly teatime. To his surprise, Thorin walked him out, still eyeing him with clear suspicion. The expression rather put paid to Bilbo’s notion of the two of them sharing a lovely afternoon walk.

Ah, well.

“Halflings do not eat seven meals a day,” he said gruffly, so abrupt that Bilbo jumped.

He turned to look at this wary dwarf leader, trying to understand what he’d done to excite such scepticism. Thorin didn’t shift or squirm under the scrutiny, but his thin lips twisted, and his impossibly blue eyes softened with something like…well, on anyone else, Bilbo might have said it was something like fear, but he couldn’t imagine this dwarf being afraid of anything. When he looked beyond the fact that Thorin was very striking, he saw that his clothes, though originally made from high quality materials, were threadbare and ragged, patched in more than one place to hold them together, and his boots were worn almost through, the leather cracking away from the steel toes despite obvious care to try to preserve them.

The dwarflings and Thorin’s nephews had not had clothes and boots that looked like that. None of their belongings were new, but they fit well and they were still in good condition.

Thorin was the leader of this group of families. He had no reason to be suspicious of Bilbo, but he had no way of knowing that--and his caution had probably saved them all at least once in the past. The rest of the world wasn’t as safe as the Shire.

Bilbo smiled. “Yes, actually, we do. It’s why you all get funny looks when you leave your wares out in the market all day.”

The something-that-wasn’t-fear was gone, replaced with sharp, sudden comprehension. “Oh?”

“Yes--the market is active from the end of second breakfast until elevensies--that is, from about nine o’clock in the morning until around eleven--but then everyone heads home to eat and refresh their goods, perhaps settle down with a pint and a pipe, if they’re so inclined. It opens again after elevensies and closes at teatime--from around noon until four, and that’s the end of the day. The market doesn’t run every day, either. No one puts out goods on He’nsday or Sunday. It just looks odd, you lot putting up a table on those days, and leaving your table up all day from dusk until dawn--nobody’s going to buy anything then, anyway, and no respectable person wouldn’t go home to eat and relax. Anyhow, that’s how my neighbours see it.”

Thorin snorted. “Seven meals a day. No wonder you’re all so round and soft.”

Bilbo’s smile turned wry. “That is a compliment, around these parts.” He paused, ignoring Thorin’s clear disdain. “Actually, if you don’t mind another tip--don’t bother putting out those swords and daggers and things in the market, either.”

He blinked at Bilbo, his expression frozen somewhere between outrage and shock. “Why?”

He rolled his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug, hooking one thumb in his waistcoat and swinging his empty baskets a little. “They’re probably scaring off anyone who might otherwise come and have a look at the toys and cloth and tools you’re selling. Hobbits are peaceful folk--we have no use for an axe. Give us a hatchet to chop wood with, a scythe to cut hay with, perhaps a pocket knife to cut rope and twine--but no one is going to buy a sword or an axe or a warhammer from you, and they wouldn’t want to be accused of looking at such things. It might affect their reputation. Safer to steer clear of your table altogether.”

He sniffed and twiddled his nose then, wondering how much more he could safely say before Thorin tossed him in the Bywater.

Thorin frowned, apparently absorbing what he’d just been told. “You halflings…reputation and respectability--these are important to you?”

Hobbits,” Bilbo corrected sharply, “not halflings. Use that word in the market and you won’t have any customers, no matter what you put out to sell.”

Thorin just looked at him, unimpressed.

“And yes, those things are very important to us,” he continued, trying not to show how disgruntled he felt. “We don’t have warriors to boast about their deeds and command respect for how well they swing a sword--we have reputations, we have respectability. Show a disregard for propriety and watch your influence dry up and crumble away to nothing. A generous party or a well-served tea means more in the Shire than a bag full of gold. Take my advice or don’t, Master Dwarf, but I promise you that your purses will remain empty if you continue as you have.”

Thorin looked at him for a moment longer before grunting and turning away, back toward the smithy. “I shall take that under advisement, Master Baggins. Your kettle will be ready in the morning.”

He stomped off, though whether out of pique or simply because he was a great clodhopping dwarf, Bilbo couldn’t say. Bilbo shook his head and continued on his way. Dwarves, he decided, were altogether strange.

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

Dís was on him as soon as he walked in.

“What did you say to him? He’s still coming back, isn’t he?”

Thorin shouldered past her. “In the morning. For his kettle.”

She blanched, twisting one of her braids around her finger and tugging, a nervous habit from childhood. “Is he angry? What did you say?”

He could feel his face heating, and it had nothing to do with the forge. “Nothing. I didn’t say anything.”

Anything he’d meant to say, anyway. In his head, Thorin was eloquent and considerate and grateful, charming Master Baggins into allowing him to walk him home, perhaps learning his first name for certain and earning himself an invitation to a private meal with just the two of them.

In reality, he had all but called Master Baggins a liar, insulted his comely form and his race, and grunted at him like a cave troll.

Yes, he could see quite clearly why the person who could very well be his One didn’t seem to pay him much attention, when all Thorin could do was gawk at him and trip over his tongue and make a mess of things when he did finally single him out. If only he could control himself, he might stand a chance of making a good impression on Master Baggins--if it wasn’t too late for that already. Just how insulting was “halfling”? It was unclear. Nothing he’d said had angered him enough to make him storm off, but perhaps he simply considered such a response too rude--too unrespectable.

There lay a whole new layer of worries. If reputation and respectability were so important amongst hobbits, was Master Baggins endangering his stance in the community by spending time with a group of dwarrow? Would his influence--how had he put it? “Dry up and crumble away?”

Thorin had to put his people first, always, but the idea of ruining their benefactor didn’t sit well with him, and not just because he found him very attractive. If he’d looked as hideous as a very short elf, all pointy featured and slim, Thorin still could not have brought himself to wish him ill.

Perhaps it was for the best if Master Baggins stayed away from them. Perhaps it was for the best if he didn’t like Thorin at all. With any luck, they would be leaving to continue their journey East at some point anyway--hopefully sooner, rather than later--and the closer they were, the harder it would be to say goodbye, when the time came.

He was just being ridiculous, trying to get close to Master Baggins in the first place. He’d gone this long without finding anyone who might be his One. He was used to being alone, and he had greater worries than that sort of companionship. His people came first; his own desires were unimportant.

And what could he possibly offer Master Baggins that might tempt him? He was a twice-exiled king, first by dragon and then by his own people when they accused him of his family’s madness--he could barely clothe his small following, was failing to feed them, and it was Master Baggins who had put a roof over their heads, not him.

Even if he hadn’t been poor and clad in rags, Thorin was aware that he was hardly what anyone might call attractive. He was too tall, his nose was too straight, his waist too narrow, his limbs too slender, his hair too dark, his eyes too pale. His only advantage over Dwalin was that he’d not been afflicted with balding, and that score was evened by Dwalin’s much more attractive nose. A person feeling generous might term him “plain.”

It didn’t generally bother him--though he had often felt sorry for Dís, in their youth, before she found love despite her looks, and for Kíli when he was romantically snubbed by one person or another. He usually took Dwalin’s attitude, that looks were hardly important when it was his skill in the forge that put food on the table and his skill on the battlefield that kept his head attached to his shoulders.

But it bothered him now, when the mere sight of Master Baggins was enough to fill his stomach with butterflies, the sound of his laugh enough to fill his head with fluff. He had no money, no abilities a hobbit would value, and no looks to even recommend him as a bedwarmer. Master Baggins had already commented on the well-known good looks of Bombur--a bit too round and with pale blue eyes himself, but stout enough and with beautiful, plentiful red hair to have broken a few hearts when he married--so clearly he was a hobbit of taste. Glóin and Bombur were married, but Master Baggins was more likely to give the highly fashionable and gorgeous Dori a second look than the likes of Thorin Oakenshield.

Master Baggins was wealthy and handsome and respected, with a home of his own and, according to Nori, many properties to his name, which explained how he could afford to be so lenient and generous to them. He was, in short, everything Thorin was not. He had no reason to attach himself to a homeless, homely dwarf on a mission to fight a dragon.

Yes, he decided as he got back to work finishing the handle of the kettle. It was best for everyone if they kept their distance.

Chapter Text

The next morning, it was raining, but Bilbo put on his oiled cloak and hood and walked down to the smithy anyway. He wasn’t sure whether or not to be pleased when he saw that the dwarves had not set up their table in the market today--no one else had, either, as it was raining, so it didn’t necessarily mean that Thorin had relayed his advice to the other dwarves and decided not to set up until after nine o’clock, as any sensible hobbit would. The smithy door was shut for the first time Bilbo could recall since the dwarves moved in, but it swung open immediately at his knock.

“Good morning, Master Dwalin,” he said in as chipper a voice as he could manage in the face of the largest dwarf of the bunch, who was currently looking at him like he wanted to snap him in half. The fact that he certainly could, if he decided to do so, wiped out any comfort Bilbo might have taken from the fact that Dwalin was the brother of Balin, the friendly, white-haired dwarf.

Dwalin grunted and stepped aside. Bilbo took that as an invitation to enter and stepped in, lowering his hood.

“Mister Bilbo!” cried four high-pitched voices, and Bilbo once again found himself surrounded by dwarflings.

He chuckled, patting each of them in turn. “Good morning, good morning. How are you all today?”

“Hungry,” said Burar.

“Did you bring us anything to eat?” Katla added, her eyes shining as she looked up at him.

“Children!” Rikka gasped, horrified.

Bilbo chuckled again. “Oh, it’s quite all right, madam, quite all right! As it happens….”

Grinning, he pulled a parcel from under his cloak and presented it to the children. They snatched it from him and put it on one of the anvils, nearly preventing each other from unwrapping it in their hasty efforts to open it themselves. At last, they managed to peel it open, revealing a pile of cheese pastries Bilbo had baked that morning.

“What do you say?” Rikka scolded, still giving them the disappointed look perfected by mothers everywhere.

“Thank you, Mister Bilbo!” the children chorused, and each stuffed a pastry in their mouths. Fíli and Kíli appeared from somewhere in the back and stole pastries for themselves as well as for another young-looking dwarf, a skinny, tall male with reddish hair wearing the most knitted clothing Bilbo had ever seen on one person.

“Thank you, Master Baggins,” he said when Kíli handed him a pastry, smiling shyly.

“You’re welcome, Master Dwarf,” Bilbo said, bowing slightly and smiling his friendliest smile.

“Ori,” the young dwarf supplied.

“Master Ori,” he said, pleased. “You can just call me Bilbo.”

Ori blushed to the roots of his hair and mumbled something that might have been another thank-you.

“You’re here for this,” was all the warning Bilbo got before his new kettle was shoved against his chest. He scrambled to take hold of it, frowning at Thorin and wondering if he always phrased questions as statements.

“Yes,” he agreed, “and to see my young friends, here.”

Thorin’s scowl deepened, but Bilbo just stuck out his chin and set the kettle aside, turning back to the younger dwarves.

“What sorts of games are we playing today?” he asked kindly.

To his surprise, the dwarflings’ smiles dampened and they shuffled their feet.

“We’re not allowed to play inside,” Katla said sadly.

“There’s not enough room and we might get hurt, or hurt someone else,” Gimli added, sounding like he was quoting someone.

“Well, naturally, there’s not enough room to play with a ball,” Bilbo said reasonably, “or to play war like you were out in the dooryard, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to play other things.”

The dwarflings exchanged puzzled glances before looking up at him curiously.

“What else could we play?” Burar asked. “We don’t have a checkerboard.”

Now Bilbo was very glad about the other thing he had impulsively grabbed on his way out of his home. He pulled the deck of cards out of his pocket and grinned.

“How about I teach you a few games?”

Their gazes were worshipful and they agreed at great length and volume. Their families looked on worriedly at first as Bilbo settled on the floor among the little ones and the three young dwarves, making himself quite at home, but they relaxed little by little as it became apparent that he wasn’t going to teach them any adult games.

“Why is it called ‘Go Fish’?” Burin wondered after Bilbo explained the rules and started shuffling the cards.

He’d laid out his cloak to act as a clean surface for the cards, the wet side down. It would be filthy when they were through, but he thought the delight on the dwarflings’ faces was worth it.

“Because you’re fishing for the right card from the draw pile,” Bilbo said with a wink, dealing with practiced ease.

The rainy morning passed with the same ease as the previous day. Bilbo had always been good with children, always enjoyed their company and how easy they were to please as compared with adults--as long as they belonged to someone else at the end of the day--and he was happy to find that this translated over to dwarvish children without a hitch. He barely even noticed the adult dwarves in the room, murmuring to one another and watching him as he interacted with their precious young.

The children, for their part, seemed happy, too, laughing and giggling and poking one another playfully, munching on the pastries he brought them and looking much more relaxed than they had when he first arrived. Fíli, Kíli, and Ori seemed happy as well, despite being more reserved about it than the children. Bilbo didn’t keep track of who won, and his apparent disinterest in keeping score eased their natural competitiveness, keeping play light and fun.

He taught them how to play three more games before a gurgling tummy chimed the hour. At first he thought it was his own stomach--he had, after all, played straight through second breakfast and elevensies, and nearly through lunch as well--but Burin’s face went bright red and he mumbled an apology. They had long since run out of pastries, and the adult dwarves looked at one another nervously.

“Er--perhaps it’s time for you to be going, Master Baggins,” Rikka said, her own face reddening, her mortification clear.

Something clenched in Bilbo’s middle, the hurt gut reaction at not being offered to stay for lunch halfway to his tongue before he realised--they had nothing to offer him. They had nothing to feed their own children with, never mind him. It was plain in their shuffling feet, their downcast eyes. Bilbo pulled himself to his feet and couldn’t help a glance at Thorin. There was no open shame on his face as there was on the other dwarves, but Bilbo saw it nonetheless in the way his jaw tightened and his fists clenched, his eyes not quite meeting Bilbo’s despite glaring at him.

Bilbo swallowed back the automatic words and smiled at them all instead.

“Yes, you’re undoubtedly right--I hadn’t realised how late it was getting, and I’m meant to meet my aunt for tea! At this rate, I’ll be late. Well, perhaps another time. This was lovely, yet again, you’re lovely company, and I’d love to return the favour and have you up to my smial,” he said, allowing himself to babble because it kept them from interrupting before he could get the entirety of his offer out. “It’s the green door at the top of the hill, the end of Bagshot Row, you can’t miss it. Stop by any time, any time, I’m almost always in, and I do love company, whatever you might have heard! Please, do come and visit me! No, no, you hang on to the cards for me, Gimli--I expect you to give me a rematch sometime soon! Thank you again for a lovely morning and for my perfect new kettle, and don’t forget, tea is at four, but come any time! Good afternoon!”

He had stacked the cards and given them to Gimli, put on his cloak, and gathered up his new kettle while he was talking, and he made his escape before any of them could argue with him or get a word in at all. Bilbo smiled smugly at his triumph and only barely resisted the urge to whistle as he returned home, dropping off his lovely new kettle before changing his clothes and heading off to Aunt Camellia’s for tea.

It was dreadful, as always--but Bilbo didn’t waste the opportunity to sing the praises of his new kettle. He hadn’t even used it yet, but that was unimportant. He knew the right words to pique his gossipy aunt’s interest.

“Oh, and it’s so sturdy--but not too heavy! And you would think a dwarf-made kettle would be blocky and unseemly, but it looks quite well in my kitchen! It’s so terrifically useful that I almost don’t miss my father’s old kettle at all! I defy anyone to find a finer kettle in all the Shire. I wouldn’t part with it for a bag of gold or a week of mushrooms!”

By the time he left, there was a speculative gleam in Camellia’s eye. Bilbo was satisfied and had a congratulatory pipe when he went home to celebrate a job well done.

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

Thorin didn’t like taking a turn at the market, but with no work coming in, it was only fair for him to share the responsibility. It mostly consisted of sitting in the sun and trying to stay awake, leaving entirely too much time to think. He was almost grateful for Fíli and Kíli’s occasional antics breaking him out of his thoughts--almost, if they hadn’t caused the hobbits to give their table an even wider berth.

He finally sent them away after the lull of the hobbits’ break, and that seemed to be the signal two hobbit-women had been waiting for. He’d seen them earlier that morning, their pinched faces drawn up into squints as they whispered to one another. They had watched the dwarrow from across the market but made no move to approach.

Finding Thorin sitting alone must have given them the nerve to approach, because they meandered their way over, doing a poor job of pretending to peruse the other wares as they went. They stopped before his table and looked at him like he was a particularly offensive worm in their path. One of them was clutching her umbrella like an axe; Thorin kept one eye on it as he attempted a friendly greeting, forcing his lips into a fixed smile despite their attitudes.

They ignored his polite “good afternoon.”

“I’m told that one of you lot made a kettle for my nephew, Bilbo Baggins,” the older of the pair said.

Her voice was rather shrill, despite her efforts to speak lowly, and her tone was condescending, raising Thorin’s hackles. He tamped down his irritation almost instinctively. He’d spent far too long in the lands of Men, forced to grit his teeth and allow insult to pass unremarked and unchallenged. Perhaps that was simply his destined lot in life.

He gathered himself when he realised their eyes had narrowed. Apparently a response was expected.

“Yes.”

“Yes?” the one with the umbrella snapped.

He could see no family resemblance between them up close, but their manners were equally unpleasant. In-laws, perhaps?

“Yes, I made a kettle for B--Master Baggins,” he said, his jaw tightening as he struggled to keep his tone civil.

Umbrella-hobbit gave a haughty sniff. “I saw it this morning, Mother,” she said, as though Thorin hadn’t answered at all. “When I dropped in on Bilbo for breakfast. It…is quite nice. For a dwarf-made kettle. You can’t tell a dwarf ever touched it.”

Thorin clenched his fists under the table, his jaw creaking with the effort of keeping his expression as bland as possible.

“Hmph.” Umbrella-hobbit’s mother or stepmother or mother-in-law, whatever she was, turned back to him, her narrow eyes considering. “I want to commission two kettles from you--but I want them to be better than Bilbo Baggins’s kettle. Do you understand?”

He breathed out slowly through his nose, trying to concentrate on the request, rather than the mode in which it was made.

Two kettles that were “better” than Master Baggins’s--a family rivalry, then. A large part of Thorin quailed at the idea of helping these horrible people to one-up their kind and generous relative. However, his pride--and Master Baggins’s--were less important than putting food on the table. Perhaps, if they liked the kettles well enough, this would lead to more work.

“I can do that,” he said with a reluctant nod. “What would constitute a ‘better’ kettle?”

The pair of them lit up with wicked smiles, and they settled all the details. He learned their names in the course of the transaction--Camellia and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins--and he thought he understood Master Baggins’s joke about preferring dwarves to Sackville-Bagginses now.

He much preferred the dragon squatting in his home to these two.

It wasn’t long after their business was concluded that Óin, Glóin, and Lilja arrived to relieve him, and he hurried back to the smithy as quickly as he could without running.

Dís looked up when he entered, brows raised. “What calamity has you in such a fluster this time?”

“I have work,” he announced, brimming with excitement now despite the circumstances, despite the unpleasantness of the hobbit-women who had commissioned his work--he could finally earn something. “I need to make two kettles. I need good steel.”

He handed off the bag of coins to Balin, who immediately settled down with Nori to start counting and planning to get what he needed.

“Kettles again?” Bofur piped up with his ever-present grin. “Have all the halflings started breaking their kettles at teatime?”

“Hobbits,” Thorin corrected absently. “It seems they’re jealous of Master Baggins’s kettle. They want their own, but lighter, ‘prettier,’ so I need steel instead of iron.”

That brought comprehension to every face, and this fact about hobbits was filed away.

Balin shook his head, frowning. “There might not be any left over.”

“I told them they could pay for the labour after the kettles were finished.”

It wasn’t how dwarrow conducted business, and it made all of them uncomfortable, but the hobbits were suspicious enough. No one could censure him for the arrangement when demanding full payment up front might have lost him the commission entirely.

Nori clucked his tongue and gathered up the coins. “Then we’d best get you what you need right away so you can get started.”

Legally,” said Dori, his scowl fearsome.

Nori didn’t appear to be intimidated in the slightest. “Sure. Legally. Unless I run out of money and still need more stuff,” he added, right before he slipped out the door, leaving Dori to squawk and fume impotently.

Balin gave him a sympathetic pat on the back.

Thorin just shook his head and tapped Fíli on the shoulder. “Come and help me with the plans.”

His eldest sister-son grinned like a child given a present and happily settled down with him, though he became suitably serious when Thorin got out some parchment and began plotting a new design.

It would be inaccurate to claim that the floodgates opened after that. Rather, a slow trickle of work began as word spread among the hobbits about the three new kettles. There were still days when Thorin found himself with nothing constructive to do, as the work that came in was all small jobs--fixing locks, or making kettles or hooks or latches for gates, things he could do in his sleep.

The pay was, unfortunately, as stingy as the work. Balin and Glóin were masters at making coin stretch further than logic would suggest was possible, but it was an inescapable reality that they required food to live, and food was not free. There simply wasn’t enough money left over to put any by, and no savings meant they could not afford to leave, any more than they would be able to afford to stay.

“Bilbo said we didn’t have to pay any rent for three or four months,” Fíli said one night when the bleak future had settled on them all a little too heavily, the atmosphere in the crowded smithy gloomy and quiet. “Even if he meant three, we still have time to earn it.”

“We still don’t know how much it will be,” Balin reminded him glumly.

“And how are we meant to earn more than we are when the hobbits aren’t buying?” Dori added, nudging his shoulder against Balin’s.

Kíli looked up from the vambrace he was trying to repair, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Well, not around here, but there are other villages around? Fíli and I could go scout around for work.”

“If there is, we might be able to work our way across the Shire and get to Bree that way,” Fíli said.

Both boys were bright with determination and hopefulness.

Thorin sighed, shame curdling in his gut. It shouldn’t fall to them to fix the mistakes of their elders.

“By yourselves?” Rikka said, chewing her lip, glancing at the back room where the children were already asleep.

They had not gone to bed hungry, and Thorin could find some satisfaction in that this time, when it was his labour, rather than Master Baggins’s generosity, that had filled their bellies.

Dís smiled sharply. “My boys can handle themselves.”

Nori spoke up before it could develop into an argument. “Doesn’t matter. It was a good thought, but I’ve already been advertisin’ when I’ve been out gettin’ supplies. Folks in this whole forsaken country don’t want nothing to do with dwarves, even just to hire them. We’re as good off as we’re gonna get, here, where at least Master Baggins is around.”

Yes, Thorin thought, with mingled shame and pleasure. Master Baggins is truly a blessing.

He had been making an effort to get to know all of them, not just the children. He’d even spent an hour or so watching Dwalin sharpen his axes and attempting to make conversation the other day.

Although Thorin had noted that Master Baggins had made no attempt to speak to him privately again. A part of him was relieved, but mostly it left him feeling rather dejected, all too aware of the bad impression he had made the one time they were alone.

The gifts of food had continued as well, always presented without ceremony so that their dignity remained mostly intact, and in such ways that they couldn’t refuse without insulting him. If there was any damage to his reputation from these activities, Master Baggins gave no sign of it that he could tell.

“I wonder if he would accept buttons as payment,” Ori said unhappily, tossing down his knitting and earning a tsk from Dori.

“Or rabbits,” Kíli said with a grin.

“Bombur’s cakes!” Bofur put in.

They all laughed and began speculating on what hobbits would find valuable besides money.

Thorin kept quiet, unwilling to break the mood now that it had lifted. He couldn’t tear his thoughts from their situation and his despair at ever changing it.

Tomorrow--tomorrow forever hung over his head, stealing his sleep away and dragging his shoulders down. If the others could find hope and a little happiness for themselves, he wouldn’t begrudge them that.

Chapter Text

Bilbo met all twenty of the dwarves over the next couple of weeks. None of them had taken him up on his repeated invitation to come and visit him at home, but he persisted, dropping by every couple of days to play with the dwarflings, Fíli, Kíli, and Ori, and to visit with the friendlier dwarves.

Bofur, Bombur, and Balin, in particular, seemed to stop whatever they were doing to come and chat with him for a few minutes whenever they spotted him around the smithy or in the market. Bilbo was delighted and quickly found things in common with them.

Bofur shared his love for adventurous stories, though his were a deal more gruesome than Bilbo’s, and soon they were swapping tales at every meeting. Bombur had an almost hobbitish love for food, though he was still quite dwarvish in his stubborn aversion to green things, but he and Bilbo found comfort and companionship in swapping recipes every chance they got. Bilbo sometimes cooked or baked a recipe Bombur had given him and then brought it to the smithy for a taste test by all the dwarves, and Bombur would happily give him tips on how to improve it the next time he made it.

Balin was a different sort altogether. He seemed to be very educated in comparison to his companions, or at least he wasn’t afraid of showing it, and he and Bilbo found a variety of topics to discuss that soon had the other dwarves and hobbits steering clear if they saw the two of them with their heads bent together. Elvish political histories were of little interest to anyone, Bilbo reflected with amusement. Although Ori would sometimes creep closer to listen, unsure of his welcome. Bilbo waved him over after a few times of this, and though he was very quiet during the discussions, it soon became apparent to both Bilbo and Balin that Ori was learned, too, and interested in expanding that education. Balin seemed to take the younger dwarf under his wing, then, much to Bilbo’s pleasure, as he often saw them together, sometimes accompanied by Ori’s eldest brother, Dori.

Bilbo contributed to Ori’s education by lending him books, and it was that which led to Dori becoming friendly toward him. Like Bombur, Dori was almost hobbit-like, in his way, as he had an eye for a respectable appearance and a deep concern for propriety and manners which Bilbo had found to be all but nonexistent among dwarves. After Dori got over his protectiveness of Ori, the pair of them got on famously, and Bilbo even went so far as to introduce Dori to a couple of his more open-minded aunts. They all but adopted him as soon as he started going on about tea blends.

He learned the rest of their names, but didn’t get particularly close to any of the rest of the male dwarves. Nori, Dori and Ori’s brother, was amusing and nice, relaxing company when he could be found, but he was rarely about the smithy, which made Dori grumble a great deal. Bifur seemed friendly towards Bilbo, too, but the language barrier complicated things quite a bit. Óin, Glóin’s brother, was extremely hard of hearing, which restricted the amount of conversation they could engage in. They were on friendly enough terms, though--at least, Óin waved when he saw Bilbo, which was more than he got from Dwalin or Thorin, who both continued to glower at him as though he was personally responsible for every misfortune that had ever befallen them.

There were only three adult women, but all of them seemed to like Bilbo, as far as he could tell. Rikka, of course, liked him because of his good relations with her and Bombur’s children--and, he suspected, because the time he spent with them gave her a break, which she needed very much. It wasn’t that Bombur didn’t help, but it was very obvious that he was the one the children went to for hugs and comfort and games, and she was the one who had to maintain order. She was just as busy working as the rest of them, when they could get work--weaving fine cloth with Dori--and she was carrying their fourth child to boot, though that was apparently a great secret. Bilbo pretended not to know, and brought little parcels of food, especially meat pies, that just happened to fall into her work basket as he passed by.

Lilja, Glóin’s wife, was like her husband in looks and manner. Neither of them had much to say to Bilbo, but their son’s fondness for him at least made them well disposed towards him. They greeted him loudly with wide grins and hearty backslaps that nearly sent him sprawling before continuing on with their business.

Glóin, it seemed, did something that jingled--the funny jingling noise he’d heard the first time he stopped by, which Bilbo now suspected was the sound of gems and coins being counted, meaning that Glóin was in charge of their finances. It certainly explained why the dwarf had kept his distance at first. His wife, on the other hand, did something with axes that Bilbo didn’t want to know about.

The last of the women was, as Bilbo had suspected, Fíli and Kíli’s mother and Thorin’s sister. Her name was Dís, and of the dwarves crammed into the smithy, only she and Balin could make Thorin do anything. Balin persuaded and cajoled, and he phrased things in such a way that Thorin acquiesced without sacrificing his pride.

Dís, on the other hand, was much more amusing to watch. After Bilbo mentioned to her that he’d given Thorin some tips on how to make their market stall more successful, she nearly hollered the building down, scolding Thorin for ignoring the expertise of a local. His ears and cheeks turned a rather spectacular shade of red under her verbal assault, and other than a weak protest that she was younger than him and couldn’t tell him what to do, he hadn’t tried to defend himself.

“Yes, I am younger,” Dís snapped, making no effort to lower her voice. “Which apparently means that unlike you, I haven’t yet succumbed to the ravages of age!”

She then proceeded to snarl something in Khuzdûl, and Thorin fled the smithy like there was a warg on his tail. Fíli and Kíli had gone pale at whatever she said and disappeared seemingly into thin air as soon as she turned away from the door.

Bilbo applauded from his seat on an anvil, grinning. “Oh, good show! I haven’t seen a quality scolding like that since my grandmother caught my grandfather with his fingers in her prize-winning jam!”

Dís preened a bit and went back to her jewelry repairing.

Thereafter, the dwarves’ table of goods followed the casual hobbit market schedule with clockwork precision, and the weapons disappeared from the goods on display.

Outside of incidents like that, she and Thorin got along very well, and it was obvious even to Bilbo that they were close. Thorin seemed to be taking the place of their father in Fíli and Kíli’s lives. Bilbo was curious, but he knew better than to ask what had happened to their actual father.

It was Dís and her sons who finally took Bilbo up on his repeated invitations, a few days after she and Thorin’s tiff over the market.

Bilbo had just been about to start on making himself dinner when the bell rang. He hesitated briefly, considering ignoring it in case it was Lobelia, back for round two of the day’s argument, but the possibility that it could be someone else was too tempting to ignore.

“Coming!” he cried, scampering to the door.

He threw it open and gaped for a moment before breaking into a wide grin at the sight of the three dwarves on his doorstep. He stepped back and swept his arm wide in invitation.

“Come in, come in! Oh, I’m so glad you came by! I was just about to start dinner, and I have something for the children, if you wouldn’t mind.”

Bilbo hadn’t realised they looked nervous until their faces relaxed minutely and they stepped inside. Dís returned his smile, albeit a more reserved version, and gestured at her sons.

“Cloaks off, boys, and wipe your boots,” she murmured to them before speaking more loudly for Bilbo’s benefit.

He’d noticed before that they didn’t seem to know that a hobbit’s hearing was just as keen as an elf’s, if not more so, and he had no intention of enlightening them, lest he embarrass them, particularly since they only spoke under their breath around him in order to instruct their young, as Dís had just done.

“Thank you for your kind invitation,” Dís said warmly, hanging her cloak on one of the pegs. “I found that I could no longer resist my curiosity about seeing your home. It is quite lovely.”

Bilbo puffed out his chest, pleased, and rocked on the balls of his feet. “Thank you! I’m fond of it myself. Oh, I’m so very glad you came. I was going to make myself half a chicken for dinner, but I believe I have a roast that should feed all of us. How does that sound?”

Fíli and Kíli cheered before she could answer, bouncing in place in their efforts to contain their youthful energy. Bilbo laughed and ushered the three of them into his sitting room where he set them up with tea and biscuits while he went off to start dinner.

It had been far too long since Bilbo had guests he actually wanted around, and so he was unable to restrain himself from chattering away the whole time. They didn’t seem to mind, if their amused smiles and cheerful replies were any indication. Dís, in particular, was looking at him with the expression usually reserved for mothers looking at their children, when said children are being harmlessly silly, by the time he laid dinner on the table. He wasn’t sure whether or not that was a good thing, but he took it in stride.

The conversation was so lively and pleasant, in fact, that they sat lingering over the remnants for so long that supper came around. They seemed a bit wide-eyed when he invited them to stay for that, too, but they politely accepted. If they ate less than he did of the chicken and potatoes he prepared, he reminded himself that they were dwarves, who apparently did not eat a sensible amount of food.

At last, it was so late that Bilbo reluctantly accepted Dís’s hint that they should be going and walked them to the door. His only consolations were the disappointed expressions worn by Fíli and Kíli, and the fact that they accepted the basket of hand pies he pressed on them.

“You said you had something for the children as well?” Dís said curiously.

Bilbo snapped his fingers. “Right! One moment!”

He raced off back to his study and returned a moment later with the copper shade in hand.

The dwarves immediately perked up, their eyes alight with interest that outweighed their tiredness.

“You never said you could work metal,” Fíli said, studying the shade keenly.

Bilbo flushed. “Oh--I don’t, really, it’s only that I know how to make these.”

Kíli took it from Fíli, turning it over in his hands with a frown. “Why do you have this inner frame here? It will block the light and only part of the figures you cut out will be visible.”

Bilbo grinned then. “I’ll show you.”

He fetched a candle, lit it, and set it on the floor before dousing the other lights in the hall. Kíli returned the shade at his gesture, and he carefully lowered the shade over the candle, making sure the open frame was directed at a bare space of wall. A bear and a rabbit were illuminated on the wall through the cutouts in the copper.

“See?” Kíli said. “Only some of the cutouts are visible.”

“Ah, but watch!” he said lightly, and gave the outer part of the shade a gentle spin.

As the shade spun, the illuminated figures appeared to move--the rabbit hopping after the bear as it trundled along. The shade gradually slowed to a stop.

“That’s quite charming,” Dís said with a warm smile. “The children will love it.”

I love it,” Kíli said, picking it up to examine it once again, peering inside to see how the frames moved.

Fíli nodded approvingly. “You’ll have to show us how to make these sometime.”

Bilbo thought he might burst with pleasure. “I would be glad to! Any time you like.”

That seemed to please them more than anything else he’d said that evening, and they said very friendly goodnights, indeed, taking the shade and the basket with them and waving all the way to his garden gate.

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

Thorin carefully turned the delicate copper shade in his hands. It was a simple construction, as he had learned to expect from anything hobbits made, but clever enough, in its way. The shades were able to spin because of a couple of tiny gears, and a liberal amount of oil to make them glide more easily. A dwarf could make such a device in their sleep, but they were unlikely to do so, as they could make much greater amusements when they had the proper materials at hand, like the mechanical flying, singing birds Bifur was known for.

Nonetheless, the children were delighted with it and refused to go to sleep without watching it at least once each night. Master Baggins’s artistry with the figures he had cut from the copper was beyond reproach, as the bear and the rabbit appeared almost real when the movement of the shade gave them life.

“He said he would teach us how to make them,” Kíli had burst out excitedly as soon as they returned, before anyone knew what he was talking about.

Both of his sister-sons were eager at the prospect, but they hadn’t had an opportunity to take Bilbo up on his offer in the days since. The reason for this was that they finally had work to do.

As Master Baggins had told him, adapting their table to the ways of the hobbits had emboldened them. The lazy hours made them look more favourably on the dwarrow, and the removal of the weapons from the goods on display made them approach openly. In no time at all, they were buying some of what they saw and commissioning unique items.

The toys and cloth were particularly popular, and Bofur, Bifur, Dori, and Rikka had hardly had a dull moment since. The jewelry was less popular, though Dís had observed that the more subdued pieces had sold very quickly. She and Kíli were spending a lot of time dismantling the gaudier or overly large pieces and reworking them into new pieces that would fit the hobbits’ tastes better. They still weren’t managing to put anything by yet, but they were all eating properly again, which was a relief enough in itself, and business was continuing to grow, slowly but steadily.

Thorin’s only regret was letting his pride get the better of him for so long, refusing to take Master Baggins’s advice because he was convinced he knew better. It was foolish of him, as Dís had pointed out in no uncertain terms. He was a dwarf, not a hobbit--how could he know better than a hobbit what would appeal to that folk? It was no different from when he had dismissed Nori’s concerns about his chosen campsite. If he had listened to Nori about the spot being in the likely path of the group of bandits known to haunt the area between Mithlond and the White Downs, they wouldn’t have been tricked and lost their ponies and supplies.

Neither occasion was the first time his pride had got the better of him, Thorin reflected with a wry shake of his head, setting the shade on an anvil. He very much doubted it would be the last time, either; pride seemed to be an inescapable flaw in his reasoning.

It was pride, too, that kept him from accompanying Dís, Fíli, and Kíli up to Master Baggins’s home--Bag End was its name, according to Dís--for dinner that evening. He hadn’t been specifically invited, he had said, and so he would not go.

“He didn’t specifically invite us, either,” Fíli replied with a poorly hidden roll of his eyes. “But he said all of us were welcome, so we’re going.”

“If you don’t want to come, you could just say so,” Dís added, fastening her cloak. “You needn’t make excuses.”

Thorin had almost swallowed his tongue at that, for the minor reason that it was unlike his sister to so wildly misread him, and for the more important reason that he very much did want to go, but he wanted Master Baggins to want him to go, and yet he did not wish to admit to such thoughts. They had gone without him and returned with full bellies and high spirits, and Thorin was ashamed to admit that he had sulked for most of the following day as they shared stories of their host with the others. Therefore, he did not admit it, and instead insisted that he was concentrating on his work, whatever Dís said on the subject.

Pride continued to keep him from the pleasure of Master Baggins’s company. The others had gone, in pairs and threes or family units, for lunch or dinner each day since, and always returned full and happy, and bearing more food for the others in a basket from Master Baggins. Each time, he was invited by whoever was going up on that occasion, and each time, he declined, claiming work or fatigue.

Although it was not only pride that held him back, he thought as he watched Balin and Dwalin put on their cloaks. Master Baggins was not found so often around the smithy, now that he was entertaining one group of dwarrow or another in his home, but when he was, he took little note of Thorin.

Sometimes he thought Master Baggins might be watching him hammering out some metal or working the bellows, but when he glanced over, the handsome hobbit’s gaze was elsewhere, his cheeks a little red from the combination of the heat of the forge and the steadily warming fresh summer days. On those rare occasions that their gazes met, Thorin found Master Baggins’s face full of the placid kindliness he showed to everyone who wasn’t a Sackville-Baggins, only his eyes unreadable to Thorin’s own unpracticed gaze.

He was, Thorin concluded glumly, of little consequence in Bilbo Baggins’s world. He had no one to blame but himself, after the terrible first impression he’d made, and it seemed that if he wished to rectify that impression at any point before they left the Shire, he would have to set aside his pride and create the opportunity to do so.

He had long suspected that Balin had some ability to read another’s thoughts, and the suspicion crossed his mind again when Balin chose that moment to come over to him, as though he heard what Thorin was thinking and took it as his cue.

“Clever little thing, that,” he said, gesturing toward the shade between them.

Thorin gave a noncommittal shrug and set it aside with an air of finality. “Entertaining enough for the pebbles.”

Balin huffed, but there was amusement and something like sympathy in his gaze. “You’re welcome to come with us--even if I do think you and Dwalin might have it out over the biscuits.”

He could imagine it--turning up at Bag End, the round green door swinging wide to welcome them--the bright smile falling from Master Baggins’s face, replaced with that polite version when he spotted Thorin, the dismissive turn from the dwarf who had all but called him a liar to his face.

“Oh,” he’d say, all distant friendliness. “I wasn’t expecting him. Well, the more the merrier.”

Thorin shuddered and masked it with a cough. “No, thank you. I have much to do in the morning. I…ought to turn in early.”

Balin raised his brows. “Are you sure?”

“Quite sure.”

He turned away and began putting away his tools for the evening to emphasise how sure he was. He heard Balin sigh behind him, but he made no further entreaty.

Next time, Thorin promised himself. Next time.

Chapter Text

Bilbo welcomed Balin and Dwalin with his usual cheerfulness, but he couldn’t help glancing down the path behind them, looking in vain for a tall, dark figure. He had never come before, so there was no reason for tonight to be any different. Still, it bothered him, the way a single grain of sand in one’s clothes might bother at the skin until it was red and uncomfortable.

“No one else with you?” Bilbo asked as they hung their cloaks on the visitor pegs, although it was clear that they were alone.

Balin raised his brows. “No, laddie, it’s only us for this evening. Were you expecting someone?”

“Oh, no, no! Of course not! And I am very pleased to have you!”

He set out Dwalin’s favourite oat and honey biscuits early to prove it. As it happened, the way to Dwalin’s heart was through food, and he hadn’t been the subject of one of Dwalin’s glares since the first time he tasted one of those biscuits.

He gave them a hearty dinner, as always, as further proof that he was pleased with just them for company. It was only after, when Dwalin was snoring in front of the fire, and he and Balin were sitting with their pipes, blowing lazy smoke rings, that he dared to broach the topic again.

“I have been very happy to have all of you,” he said, choosing his words with care and attempting to sound unconcerned. “I like cooking and baking for more than just myself, and you are all excellent company. Only…. I have wondered, on occasion--just in passing, you know--why Thorin has never joined any of you when you come to visit. I understand that he is probably a very busy fellow, but it would ease my mind to know that he isn’t simply avoiding me. I should hate to think that I’ve given him offence without knowing.”

Truth be told, Bilbo had wondered about it more than just in passing. He had wondered about it quite often, in fact. He was actually thinking about Thorin so often that he was starting to wonder if his fascination with the dwarf wasn’t a bit unhealthy.

It was more than just his looks, though Thorin was undeniably striking. He hadn’t noticed right away, but after he had, he couldn’t stop noticing. He looked so different from anyone Bilbo had ever met that he thought it must be impossible for anyone to look at him without falling a bit in love. He was so regal and graceful--not like an elf, but in his own distinct way that set him apart from anyone else. His eyes were so very blue and so intense that it was a real struggle not to lose himself in them on those rare occasions when Thorin looked his way.

And the less said about the strength in his hands and how his muscles rippled when he worked, the better….

But there was more to Thorin than his physical appeal. After all, what had led to Bilbo noticing his physical attributes in the first place was realising the poor condition of his clothing as opposed to his companions’. He saw more evidence of it all the time--Thorin took great care of his people in every way he could.

He was always working at something, it seemed to Bilbo. Early in their acquaintance, before there was much paying work, he’d even seen Thorin take up a broom and start sweeping, and on another occasion, spotted him up to his elbows in suds, helping to wash their dishes and cookware right alongside Rikka. He didn’t sit idle while his people worked.

He was protective of them, too. Sometimes he looked up from whatever he was working on and his gaze touched on each individual dwarf--counting them, making sure everyone was there and safe. Once, when Bilbo and his following of young dwarves had returned a little later than planned from a fishing trip, Thorin had been waiting at the gate to the dooryard, on his tiptoes and neck craned as he tried to peer over the hill for a sign of them. Bilbo’s heart had skipped a beat then, and again when Thorin folded his nephews into an embrace, touching his forehead to each of theirs in turn.

The little ones hadn’t been left out, either. He touched each of them on the top of the head with a large hand, gesture and expression both unusually gentle for the defensive dwarf.

He was always gentle with the four dwarflings, and often uncommonly indulgent. Bilbo hadn’t been able to hold in his chuckles the day he arrived to find Katla sitting on Thorin’s shoulders and braiding dandelions into his hair while Burin and Burar sat in his lap and tugged the braids she’d finished loose again, tossing the limp dandelions into a pile. It was, from what Bilbo understood of dwarvish custom, extremely indulgent of Thorin, as the three youngest dwarflings were not his kin, and as such had no business touching his hair. But he’d sat, relaxed and unprotesting, almost dozing in the sun while they played with his mane of dark hair, like a great sleepy hound overrun with pups. It was a rare peaceful, unguarded moment, and Bilbo regretted breaking it with his mirth.

Perhaps that had been the offence that kept Thorin away from Bag End.

“Have I ever told you,” Balin said slowly, startling Bilbo from his thoughts so badly he almost dropped his pipe. “Have I ever told you of the Battle of Azanulbizar?”

Bilbo blinked at him for a moment, contemplating excusing him for what sounded like a very rough cough, and then slowly shook his head. Balin had shared many dwarvish stories, but that was not a familiar word in the least.

He puffed at his pipe. “Hmm.” After a long pause, he nodded to himself. “It was a long time ago, at least by hobbit reckoning, I suppose. Your father mayn’t have been alive, if I recall hobbit lifetimes correctly. Some of us in this Company took part in it--Dori and Bifur and Óin, Dwalin. Myself. And Thorin.”

Bilbo turned to face Balin more fully, tucking his feet up and settling in respectfully. Balin very rarely shared stories that involved the personal history of this group of dwarves, and this particular story was clearly painful, if the way his speech and manner stiffened was any indication. He still knew nothing of where his dwarves had come from or how they ended up here, other than that they hailed from Ered Luin, so it was no hardship at all to listen--he thirsted for more intimate knowledge of this little group.

Especially Thorin, he thought, and then pushed the thought away.

“I told you the story of Durin and the fall of Khazad-dûm?”

Bilbo nodded mutely. He’d dreamt of flame and shadow that night, and woken with a nameless terror squeezing his throat that had him wanting to fly to the smithy and throw himself in one of the dwarves’ arms for comfort.

Balin hummed. “Our king, Thrór, wanted to reclaim Khazad-dûm. We had been at war with the orcs a long time….”

He listened with awe and sorrow as Balin related the awful story of the battle. So many lives were lost, including the king himself.

“His son, Thráin, went missing during the battle, before anyone could have acknowledged him as our new king. Instead, it fell to his grandson to lead us. Thorin--”

“Thorin!” Bilbo squeaked, nearly rousing Dwalin.

Balin smiled for the first time since he began the tale. “Yes, Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór--though he is more commonly known as Thorin Oakenshield since the battle.”

He was afraid he might swallow his own tongue if he tried to speak, and so he said nothing to this. To think--Thorin, a king! And working as a blacksmith in his smithy!

He felt strangely as though he must have fallen asleep over one of his books and now his dreams wandered through the story on their own. Warrior kings didn’t just pop up in rags and beg charity from humble hobbits--life wasn’t that interesting. Bilbo wasn’t that interesting. He thought it amazing enough to have had a group of dwarves trundle into his smithy and his life without one of them turning out to be a king.

Which meant he had a whole group of royals for tenants, he realised with a feeling like his insides were shrinking. Balin and Dwalin were Thorin’s cousins, somewhere up the line, as were Glóin, Gimli, and Óin, and Dori, Nori, and Ori were related, too, in some unclear way. Not to mention Dís, Thorin’s sister, who was a princess, and her sons, the princes.

Balin seemed even more amused, but he sobered as he continued, telling of how Thorin had fought and wounded Azog, the leader of the orcs, and rallied the dwarves to drive the remainder of the orc army back into Khazad-dûm. They had failed to retake it and lost many of their people in the effort, including Dís and Thorin’s brother, Frerin, and Dís’s husband. Bilbo’s chest ached to hear it, a hand unconsciously pressing over his sternum as though the touch could soothe it away.

The older dwarf smiled kindly upon noticing the gesture and patted Bilbo’s arm.

“It was a long time ago now, so the grief is not so near any of us. And it was not completely in vain. That battle ended the war between us and the orcs, and the orcs were so reduced in number that it has been safer for everyone since.” He sighed. “I don’t believe you’ve given offence, lad. It’s more likely that Thorin is simply standing on ceremony.”

Bilbo blinked, his mind scrambling to keep up with the abrupt turn. It was several moments before he connected this answer with what he’d said before Balin began telling of the Battle of Azanulbizar.

“Oh,” he said dumbly. Then he shook his head to throw off the daze. “You mean that because Thorin’s a king, he won’t come without a formal invitation?”

He still had some of that lovely blue paper with the gilt edges from the invitations for his last birthday party, and he could draw very attractive letters when the occasion called for it….

Balin made a considering noise. “I don’t think a formal invitation is necessary--but a personal one, rather than the friendly blanket invitation to all, perhaps?”

He fidgeted with his pipe, though it had gone out without his notice. “Would that be appropriate?”

Was he even supposed to speak to Thorin? Having never met a king, he wasn’t clear on the proper etiquette.

It was even further muddled by Thorin’s apparent position as a king by birth, but little else. He wasn’t travelling with a great vanguard in shining armour, but in a ragtag group that was on the brink of starvation when Bilbo met them. He wasn’t king of Khazad-dûm, obviously, since Balin had just explained that it had not been retaken, and if he was king of Ered Luin, why would he leave with practically nothing?

Balin chuckled. “I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. You are still our landlord, and Thorin has no court or seneschal for you to apply to for an audience. Even if there were, I believe Thorin would prefer you to speak to him directly.”

That seemed a curious statement, particularly with the mild emphasis on “you,” but Bilbo shrugged it off. It was somehow worse to think that Thorin had not come because he was a king than it had been to think it was because Bilbo had unknowingly offended him. The latter thought made him unhappy; the former spawned an army of butterflies in his stomach.

It made sense, now, why Thorin was like no one Bilbo had ever met, and he was struck with an uncomfortable squirming feeling. He felt less. It wasn’t familiar, and it wasn’t welcome--but he couldn’t seem to shake it.

A king. What would he want with a simple hobbit?

“Well,” said Bilbo with a faint smile, “I might ask him round for dinner, then, when I see him again.”

When I feel like getting laughed out of the smithy.

Balin’s smile was broad. “Good! I’m certain he will be delighted.”

Bilbo was not so certain, but he was determined to try anyway--for the sake of being polite, he assured himself quickly, and no other reason.

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

It was a hot, humid day. Thorin could handle the heat, as could any dwarf, but the beautiful blue sky, normally so unnerving to a dwarf, seemed particularly inviting today. He threw open the door and every shutter to let the gentle summer breeze in, listening to the birds in the fields and the children playing in the dooryard while he worked.

Other than Bombur watching the children in the dooryard, Thorin was alone today. Nori was off scouting the area again, while the others were either in the market or off fishing or hunting, though the latter seemed a useless task. All of the birds and squirrels and other edible creatures had long ago learned to hide or flee when they saw anyone reach for a rock or an arrow, and there seemed to be nothing large in the Shire, as Fíli and Kíli had complained more than once of never finding a single trace of a hind or stag in their ambles through the woods.

The loveliness of the day and the ease of the work made it difficult to keep his mind from wandering. As was usual of late, it wandered to B--Master Baggins. Balin and Dwalin had seemed particularly satisfied when they returned from dinner with Master Baggins three days ago, and Balin kept shooting Thorin knowing smiles when he thought no one was looking. It was very peculiar, but as Thorin hadn’t the faintest clue what it was about, he pretended not to notice.

Since then, all of the others had been to Bag End again for one meal or another, in larger groups now. Even Nori had gone again for tea, despite declaring the previous time that once was enough for him. He returned saying, yet again, that he wouldn’t go back a third time and he’d only gone for Ori’s sake--but he cupped the cluster of little pink, pea-like flowers that Master Baggins had gifted him so reverently that Thorin realised it was all talk. The thief didn’t find a ready welcome everywhere; it was clear that he cherished Master Baggins’s easy friendship, whatever he said on the matter.

He wasn’t certain who had gone to Bag End while the market was closed, since they were so scattered today, but lunch was long over now, the heat of the day coming on. Whichever of them planned to go for dinner would come back soon to clean up as best they could.

Still Thorin was too cowardly to go along. Too torn, in truth, between his conflicting impulses and feelings. Though he was finding work again, he remained poor and ugly--he was still burdened with the task of securing a future for his people. He was still too proud to admit that what he wanted was for Master Baggins to seek him out, to desire his company the way Thorin desired his…to feel the pull that just might mean they were meant for one another.

As though Thorin’s thoughts had summoned him, he turned to put down his tools and found Master Baggins perched on the empty anvil, watching him with a faint, distant smile, his chin propped on his fists, his elbows on his knees, the breeze from the open windows ruffling his curls.

It took great force of will not to drop everything with a very undignified noise, but Thorin managed to restrain his surprised reaction to a soft intake of breath and a pause in his movements.

Master Baggins sat up straight, dropping his hands to his knees, swinging his big hairy feet. “Sorry. I didn’t want to disturb you while you were working, your--” He paused and his face twisted. “Master Oakenshield.”

Thorin twitched, his hammer clanging when he set it down. “Thorin. Just Thorin.” He noted how sharp he sounded and belatedly added, “Please.”

Master Baggins smiled. His eyes seemed to turn a shade darker when he smiled, as though he was tapping a deeper vein of joy. Thorin told himself to stop staring.

“Call me Bilbo, then, please. Thorin.”

His heart skipped at the sound of his name on Bilbo’s lips. It was not said at all the way a dwarf would say it, hard and rolling, but lightly, the vowels lilting and the consonants soft. It was perfect.

“Bilbo,” he agreed quietly.

His smile seemed to soften in response, the humour draining from it to leave something gentler in its wake. He cleared his throat and hopped down from the anvil, the expression flitting away before Thorin could understand it.

“Thorin. I, um….” He cleared his throat and hooked his fingers in his waistcoat pockets, a habit Thorin had noted many times, but which never failed to amuse him. “I came to ask--that is, would you come to dinner this evening?”

He stared, he was sure of it. His mouth was closed, this he knew because his tongue suddenly seemed too large for it, scraping painfully against his teeth, but this was his only consolation. His eyes were glued to Bilbo’s rapidly reddening face, however, and there seemed to be nothing he could do about it.

“It’s just that I’d noticed you hadn’t been,” Bilbo rambled on, squirming a little at Thorin’s silence. “I didn’t want you to feel unwelcome, and--well, Balin said that perhaps you simply needed to hear it from me, and so I--here I am. I want you to know that you are. Welcome, that is. To any meal. Even the ones you dwarves don’t normally eat. I’d be happy to have you.”

Thorin really tried to say something. Truly. It was just that his jaws seemed to be glued together and he had forgotten how to breathe.

Bilbo wanted him to come--had gone out of his way to tell him so--had noticed Thorin’s absence and disliked it enough to do something about it. He had to be dreaming.

Except in a dream, he would be able to answer with all the eloquence and charm he always managed to muster for speeches, and not simply stare at Bilbo while the kindly hobbit’s face fell and he grew visibly more uncomfortable.

“It’s…it’s quite all right if you’d rather not,” he said after several long moments. “I understand. Although I--”

“I’ll come,” Thorin blurted, much gruffer and louder than he would have liked, but at least they were words, and even something approaching the right words, too.

Bilbo blinked, startled, his hands frozen halfway out of his pockets.

“I will come,” he repeated in a more normal voice. “To your dinner tonight. I…thank you.”

He was treated to another bright smile, a flash of perfect teeth and warm eyes like the brief glow of a firefly.

“Do you like duck? I’ve a new recipe I want to try out. Mrs Bracegirdle made it for her son’s last birthday party and I finally convinced her to share her secret with me, though I had to swear not to share it with anyone else. Not that you’d want to know--only Bombur might be a bit disappointed, which is a shame, though I might be able to teach him how, which isn’t technically breaking my promise. Still, I might wait until I’ve practiced it a few times.”

Thorin smiled at this enthusiastic outpouring of words. Bilbo truly wanted him to come--he would not be so pleased otherwise. Perhaps all hope was not lost. Now he just had to refrain from accidentally implying that Bilbo was an ugly liar again and they just might manage to be friends.

“I like duck,” he said when Bilbo paused for breath. “What time shall I call?”

Another brief, dazzling smile. He tended to huff out a little breath each time he smiled wide enough to show his teeth.

“Oh, I generally serve dinner around six, though you’re welcome to drop by a little early if you’d like. I think Dwalin was planning to come tonight, too, and I always make sure there’s something sweet before dinner for him to nibble on.” Bilbo chuckled at that. “Well, I say nibble, but really, he inhales anything sweet, so if you’d like to sample any, you’d best get there before he does.”

Thorin huffed out a laugh. “It’s a curse of the line of Durin, I’m afraid--we all of us have a bit of a sweet tooth, though some of us hide it better than others.”

He tilted his head with a mock considering look. “That would explain why all of my biscuit jars are empty after Dís has been around, even though I’ve never seen her eat a single one.”

He lowered his voice and leaned in as though imparting a great secret. “She lines her pockets with them when no one is watching and eats them later. It’s a trick she learned when we were children, and her skill has only improved with age.”

That seemed to catch Bilbo by surprise and he let out a peal of delighted laughter, his head thrown back and his eyes crinkled with mirth. Thorin grinned unabashedly at this success, giddy warmth pooling in his middle.

“Well,” said Bilbo, wiping the corner of his eyes with his handkerchief, “I’ll make extra, then, in case the entirety of the line of Durin descends. I wouldn’t want any fights to break out over the last biscuit.”

“A very real possibility,” Thorin said with mock solemnity. “I once almost lost a finger to Dwalin over a lone pastry.”

Granted, they were very small children at the time, so Dwalin’s attempt to bite his finger off when he grabbed the last pastry made a great deal more sense back then, and was extremely unlikely to occur again.

Bilbo laughed again, and he felt very pleased, indeed. Even after Bilbo left, he went to fill their washing tub and clean up with a lighter heart than usual. He was able, if only for one afternoon, to forget his burdens and just think of Bilbo’s smile and the sound of his laugh.

Dwalin noticed, when he came in and joined Thorin at the tub.

“What’re you smiling about?” he asked, gruff with surprise.

“I’m going to dinner with you,” Thorin said, “so you’ll have to attempt some manners tonight.”

Dwalin snorted. “About time. Dís finally kick you in the pants over it?”

He stepped away from the tub and wiped his wet hands and arms on a clean cloth, attempting to appear nonchalant.

“No. I haven’t seen her since this morning.”

Dwalin’s eyes narrowed. “Then who? Balin?”

Thorin cleared his throat and looked away, pulling on his only decent tunic. “Bilbo came by this afternoon and invited me.”

His brows rose almost to where his hairline had once been. “Bilbo, now, is it?”

Thorin pretended not to have heard, continuing to dress. He didn’t wear even his lightest armour to work the forge, but he would look more presentable in it than in only a tunic. He would need to rebraid his hair, too.

Dwalin’s chuckle, low and rough, interrupted his thoughts. “Oh, I see. Balin said it might be that way.”

He frowned at his friend. “Be what way?”

Dwalin shook his head, his eyes dancing. “Dís thinks you hate Bilbo, but Balin said it might be something else, as he’s never seen you act like this to anyone. I haven’t, either--like you were embarrassed to be in the same room with ’im, like you felt shabby around ’im. I thought Balin was seein’ something that wasn’t there, but he had you pegged.”

He could feel his face heating and he shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t hate him.”

Dwalin just smiled. “No.”

Somehow, it was worse than if he’d teased Thorin mercilessly about maybe finding his One. At least that would have given Thorin an excuse to give him a knock around the head with a blunt object.

Between Dwalin’s amused smiles and Balin’s knowing looks, Thorin was thoroughly out of sorts by the time they walked up to Bag End, accompanied by Dís, Fíli, and Kíli. It didn’t help that Dís spent the whole walk lecturing him about smiling and being polite and using his manners and not letting on to Bilbo that he was anything less than pleased to be there. Thorin grunted and huffed short responses, entirely too nervous to set her straight and only growing more nervous with each step.

His breath caught in his throat when Kíli enthusiastically rang the bell. A shout echoed from inside and the round green door swung wide in welcome, just as he had imagined. Also just as he’d pictured, Bilbo smiled brightly when he saw them.

“Yes, very good, Kíli,” he said with an annoyed huff. “Don’t pull it out of the wall, if you please!”

He tensed when Bilbo’s gaze turned to him--but there his imaginings failed him, as Bilbo’s smile did not falter. If anything, it only grew, his eyes darkening and crinkling, his teeth making a brief appearance between his lips.

“I’m so glad you could come. Come in, come in!”

He waved them all in, hanging their cloaks on the pegs that lined the entryway. Thorin looked around in bewilderment as Bilbo and his sister-sons disappeared through one of the many round doorways lining the hall, their chattering turning muffled with distance.

It was nicer than he’d thought it would be--clean and warm, and filled with a gentle glow that reminded him faintly of the golden light of the halls of Erebor in his youth. He felt a throb of homesickness in his chest and swallowed thickly. There was no reason for it, he scolded himself. There was nothing about this snug hole of curving wood and neat furnishings that was even a little like the grand, sweeping halls of Erebor, the green stone and rivers of gold.

Yet he hadn’t felt this homesickness so strongly, like a taste in his mouth, a thickness in his throat, in decades.

He didn’t realise how long he’d stood frozen in the entryway until Bilbo appeared at his side.

“Are you all right?” the hobbit asked, almost brusquely, though his eyes were soft.

Thorin relaxed his hand and let it fall, only just noticing his grip on the front of his mail.

“Yes,” he rasped, because it was all he could muster.

Bilbo’s gaze turned assessing, but he didn’t challenge the response. “Good! Just this way, I laid out some tarts in the sitting room, though Dwalin has a head start on you. I did warn you, so don’t blame me if they’re all gone! Oh, watch your head there--I’m afraid my father didn’t have dwarves in mind when he built Bag End!”

Dwalin was seated in an armchair that wasn’t quite large enough for him, his cheeks stuffed like a chipmunk and his beard full of crumbs. He hunched over the tray of remaining tarts with a glare when he spotted Thorin, oblivious to Dís sneaking one on her way past. She went through another doorway to the kitchen, where Fíli and Kíli were standing over a little stove and whispering.

“Boys, keep your fingers out of the sauce,” Bilbo called out, resuming his diatribe on how the market hadn’t had the tea Balin preferred without missing a beat.

Fíli and Kíli tucked their hands behind their backs with guilty glances over their shoulders. Dís cuffed them lightly anyway and settled at the kitchen table with her tart.

Balin was seated near the window, puffing his pipe with a drowsy look. There was an empty chair there, or across from Dwalin by the hearth, but to Thorin’s surprise and pleasure, Bilbo steered him into the kitchen and pressed him into the chair across from Dís. He scuttled over to a cupboard and pulled out a full tray of tarts, setting it between them on the table with a sly wink.

“I had a feeling we might need this,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “Don’t let Dwalin see you.”

Fíli and Kíli bolted over with stifled laughs, quickly seizing a few tarts for themselves, and Dís looked delighted. He hadn’t seen his family so joyful and relaxed in far too long, and that, more than anything else, eased the ache in his chest until he could breathe again. He looked warmly at Bilbo, who had turned back to his dinner preparations, humming tunelessly in lieu of more cheerful rambling.

“You said your father built this home?” he asked after he had brushed the crumbs out of his beard and into his palm, checking the table for any he might have missed.

It was a hopeless endeavour, he realised when he glanced over at his sister-sons and their spray of crumbs. They at least had the sense to adopt guilty expressions and slow their tart consumption when they noticed his look. Dís shot him a puzzled glance, but he ignored it.

“Oh, yes,” Bilbo said brightly without pausing in his work. “My father--Bungo Baggins was his name--he was terribly in love with my mother, Belladonna, from the time they were tweens. She wasn’t ready to settle down yet, being a Took and all, so my father promised to wait for her. She told me once that she figured he would find someone new and forget about her in the meantime, but whilst she was off having her first adventure, my father worked to build his fortune until he could afford to buy the Hill. She went off on her second adventure, and he began excavating the top of the Hill for a smial that would hold a large family plus a few guests besides.

“By the time she returned from her third adventure, he had finished Bag End, and though it had been nearly twenty years since he confessed his love to her and she went away, he loved her still, and went to Tuckborough to fetch her from the Great Smials. He brought her to Bag End and told her, ‘I love you, I have always loved you, wherever you are, and so I built you a place you can always come home to, and I’ll be here waiting for you at the end of every journey.’”

Something lurched in Thorin’s chest at that sentiment and he pretended to be studying the kettle he had made, hanging above the hearth. Dís tried to catch his eye again, but he resolutely avoided her searching gaze.

Kíli sighed dreamily. “That’s lovely. How could she resist?”

Bilbo shot them a quick grin. “She couldn’t. They married that spring. My mother went on a few more adventures after that, and my father was always waiting for her to come home and tell him everything she’d seen and done. He wrote all of it down, as though it was some important history, and she told me once that she eventually gave up adventuring because whenever she was away, all she could think of was getting home to him, and when she was home with him, she stopped thinking about all the places she wanted to see instead. It was another few years after that they had me, and, well--to borrow a phrase from my mother, being a parent is its own adventure!”

Dís barked out a laugh. “Indeed, it is! I could not have put it better.”

“But surely you weren’t much of an adventure, Bilbo,” Fíli said with a grin. “You’re so polite and mannerly and neat.”

He looked at them with a rather wistful expression for a moment. “Oh, I wasn’t always. Once upon a time, I could have given even you two a run for your money!”

He winked when they chuckled and pulled a large roasting pan, almost too large to fit, out of his little oven.

Thorin sprang to his feet. “I can help.”

He took the pan from Bilbo so quickly that the hobbit bobbled, his mouth forming an O of surprise.

“Well! Thank you, Thorin--if you would just put it on the table in the dining room, just through there, on the trivet, please,” he said when he recovered, giving Thorin that soft look again.

He obeyed gladly, warm with satisfaction and pleasure. He hazarded a guess that the “trivet” was the colourful knitted circle in the centre of the table--though he would have used the term in reference to an iron tripod for cooking over the fire--and set the hot pan on it with great care.

“You never let us help!” Kíli cried mournfully.

“Because most of the food mysteriously disappears when you ‘help,’” Bilbo said dryly. “Now clean up your mess or there won’t be any pudding for you after dinner.”

Thorin returned in time to see Dís’s smug expression as her sons bolted into motion--apparently, she was as pleased as he was by Bilbo’s ability to handle Fíli and Kíli.

And, perhaps, as secretly touched as he was by how Bilbo brought out the childish, playful side in them. Too often, they had to act older than their years, particularly Fíli. The warmth he felt toward Bilbo only increased, and he felt himself relaxing in response, some of his cares lifting from his shoulders in this place of kindness and ease.

Bilbo gestured back toward the dining room with the spoon he’d been using to stir the sauce, judging by the drops that splattered everywhere at the movement.

“Oh, dear! Drat it--no, boys, that was my mess, I’ll get that, thank you. Thorin, would you please set the table? The plates and everything are in the cabinet in the dining room.”

Thorin attempted to give Bilbo to understand that nothing could delight him more, that he was honoured to help in any way he could, tripped over his own tongue, and settled for hurrying off to do as Bilbo had asked.

He shook his head at himself as he set out the plates and flatware. Where did his ability to speak go when he was near Bilbo? At this rate, Bilbo was going to think that his chief form of communication was a series of grunts and chokes. He could only hope that his expression was illustrative of what he meant, even if he couldn’t find the words.

Chapter Text

Bilbo thought it very likely that Thorin couldn’t decide whether he hated Bilbo or liked him tolerably. He spent most of dinner sitting silently, his expression unreadable, though his table manners remained irreproachable. When he did speak, it was abrupt and curt. Yet he was helpful, even drying dishes without having to be asked when Bilbo set about cleaning up, which rather disproved Bilbo’s theory that Thorin’s silence was a sullen response to being asked to help before the meal.

He was also the only one of the dwarves who hadn’t pushed his peas off to the side of his plate and neglected to eat them, Bilbo noted with mingled amusement and pleasure. His nose wrinkled at the taste, but he had eaten every single thing on his plate without comment, leaving it nearly clean enough to be put away.

Bilbo might have thought of this mannerly and considerate behaviour as a sign of Thorin’s royal status if he hadn’t cleaned up after Dís and her sons so many times already. As it was, he put it down to Thorin himself and it pleased him enough to relax a bit.

It had also helped immensely that Thorin couldn’t find his way in Bag End, and that he’d been so quick to offer his assistance. Whatever remaining nerves Bilbo had felt about Thorin being a king were all but settled by this very normal behaviour. He was still the same dwarf he’d been before Bilbo found out--helpful and noble and just a little bit lost in the Shire.

“I thought I would show the boys how to make those shades tonight,” he said casually as Thorin put the last of the plates up for him. “Are you interested?”

Thorin looked at him sharply, but the expression melted into a small smile, the first of the evening, before Bilbo could become too intimidated.

He looked very lovely when he smiled, Bilbo thought. Young and light and altogether too beautiful.

“I am,” he said, with that regal air that made so much sense now. “It is not a craft of great monetary value, but I find myself most curious. We do not often work with copper.”

Bilbo tried not to blush, reminding himself that the dwarves were likely humouring him with their interest. They had no need of such a novelty, but if they did, they were so clever with metals that they could have figured it out for themselves easily enough. Still, it was pleasing, and he set up the materials they would need in the sitting room with a jaunty tune on his lips.

“Now,” he said, clapping his hands once. “Ordinarily, I would set up in my father’s workshop, downstairs, but it’s rather cramped--I would have to show you one at a time, and we’d be at it all night! But this will do well enough.”

“There is a downstairs?” Fíli asked, peering around as though he’d somehow missed a door in that very room.

Bilbo chuckled. “Yes, I can show you later. It’s nowhere near as complex as a dwarven settlement, but there are a few rooms down below. The wine cellar, for one, and the root cellar, and the second pantry, and a few other storage areas. My father’s workshop was there because my mother didn’t like the dust tracking through the halls up here, but no other living areas exist down there. A dwarf, I’m sure, would be quite happy to be a little further underground in a bedroom with no windows, but we hobbits like a lot of sunlight, though we prefer to be underground. Having our bedrooms on the uppermost level, where we can have windows, balances those two preferences quite nicely.”

“Very practical,” Thorin said in that same abrupt way he’d spoken for most of the evening.

Bilbo longed for him to loosen again, to speak easily and almost friendly, as he had in the smithy after he accepted Bilbo’s invitation to dinner.

Still, it was a compliment, whereas the last time they had spoken of hobbits and their customs, Thorin had made it perfectly clear how ridiculous and useless he thought them. This was a vast improvement, and Bilbo communicated his approval with a wide smile. For some reason, that made Thorin stare at him very intensely, as though he’d done something offensive.

Dwarves. Honestly.

He gave up on attempting to figure out Thorin Oakenshield for the evening, or to win his good opinion, and returned his attention to the lesson.

“All right, first I’m going to make a shade with a dancing goat to show you how it’s done,” Bilbo said cheerfully. “It’s very important to plan what scene you’re going to show before you get started, because if you change your mind partway through, you can’t mend the parts you’ve already cut out, or the copper will be too heavy in the patched spot and the shade won’t spin correctly.”

He knew Fíli and Kíli were interested, but to his surprise, all six dwarves watched with rapt attention. Well, it was metalwork, he supposed--dwarves were born interested in such things. After he had completed one of his own and entertained all of their questions, he delighted them further by bringing out supplies for them to make their own.

“I’m going to make a troll!” Kíli proclaimed.

“Nobody wants to see a troll,” Fíli said loftily.

Kíli snorted. “What are you going to make, then?”

“An elf tripping over his own feet, of course.”

They got to work in their own corner of the room, occasionally grabbing Bilbo to show him something or ask about a point they’d forgotten. Dwalin had refrained from making his own, content to polish off the rest of the tarts from earlier, but Dís, Balin, and Thorin were more independent.

That is, they were until it came time to place the tiny gears that articulated to make the outer shade move. Bilbo’s fingers were smaller, and nimbler even than theirs, and so they each in turn called for his assistance.

“I’m sure with practice, we’ll manage,” Dís said cheerfully when it was her turn, “but for this evening, I would like to be able to show the children these right away when we return.”

Bilbo told her he thought it a very fine idea and moved on to Balin.

“Where did you learn to do this?” Thorin asked after the gears were in place on his shade.

Bilbo glanced at him, his voice going unintentionally soft as memory returned. “It was my father’s invention. He and my mother were always trying to find new ways to entertain me, when I was small--and particularly ways to get me to go to sleep. My mother would bring home new songs and puzzles. I believe she even learnt to play the flute for me. My father made up stories and told me of my mother’s adventures.

“But sometimes they couldn’t sit with me for that long, waiting for me to get sleepy, because of one thing or another, and so my father made one of these to keep me company. His was much more extraordinary--it could be wound up so that it was still spinning hours later, long after I’d fallen asleep, and it fit over an oil lamp instead of a candle. It showed two birds in flight, carrying a ribbon that seemed to float on the breeze…. I never got tired of it. I used it long after I had outgrown it, just because I liked looking at it so much.”

Thorin was looking at him strangely, his brows knit and his lips parted.

He shook himself, smiling sheepishly. “Sorry--you didn’t need to hear all of that. Anyway, my father showed me how, when I was older, though I never mastered the winding mechanism.”

“There is no need to apologise,” he said in a low voice.

He waved a dismissive hand. Thorin was certainly the most polite dwarf of the bunch, outside of perhaps Dori and Balin. Dori was practically a hobbit anyway--just a very strong one with a shamefully small appetite.

“No, I know I tend to ramble--”

“My mother,” Thorin cut him off, and then stopped, flicking guilty eyes to Bilbo’s briefly.

Bilbo hardly dared to breathe. The others were working happily--or in Dwalin’s case, snoozing in post-dinner bliss--and took no notice of them. There was a strange tension between the two of them, like a string pulled taut, that hadn’t been there before.

Or was he imagining it?

Thorin didn’t speak. Bilbo eased himself into the chair across from his, afraid of breaking the string. It felt like they were on the precipice of understanding, and he didn’t want to do anything to break it.

“Your mother?” he prompted, barely above a whisper.

Thorin’s eyes met his again and skittered away. He couldn’t read the emotion in them.

“I was not difficult about going to sleep as a child,” he began again, almost under his breath, the words slow as though he was choosing each one with great care. “My days were full of lessons both physical and mental as far back as I can recall, so that I was quite exhausted, almost eager to retire to bed every night. The exceptions were when Frerin and then Dís were born--Frerin was our brother.”

Bilbo swallowed at the echo of the old grief of losing his brother that flashed across Thorin’s face and resisted the urge to reach out, to offer comfort. He was well acquainted with grief, but he didn’t know Thorin well enough to take such a liberty.

“I was so excited to finally meet them after they were born that I didn’t want to go to sleep--I wanted to stay up and play with them, and watch them sleep, and talk to them all night, and stand guard over them.”

He smiled faintly at the memory; Bilbo couldn’t help but smile, too. Thorin looked so very fond, his gaze drifting to Dís and his nephews.

“Of course, I wasn’t allowed to stay up all night, and likely would have fallen asleep if I tried, at least when Frerin was a babe, as I was still a small child then. My father loved us, but he was somewhat…distant, until we were old enough to hold an axe. I don’t think he knew what to do with small children. I was very close to my grandfather, but he was rather strict--rules must be observed, and when it was time for bed, it was time for bed. But my mother understood, so she made me get ready for bed, but she carried the bassinet into my room, so I could be near the baby, and sang us both to sleep.”

Bilbo blinked hard against the sting in his eyes. “She sounds like a very wise, lovely mother.”

Thorin’s smile grew as he turned back to Bilbo. “She was.” He cleared his throat, dropping his gaze to his shade. “She died when we were still young, the three of us. At the time I thought it the worst thing that could have happened…later, I thought it was better that she was already gone, before we lost our home.”

He couldn’t help his face crinkling with confusion. Based on what he knew of dwarvish lifespans, that didn’t add up. Thorin was still in his prime, but he was not young now, and surely it hadn’t been that long since they left their home. Curiosity burned up his throat and moved his tongue before he could think better of it.

“Ered Luin?”

Thorin’s expression closed, like a door slamming shut. “Erebor.”

He said nothing more, working on finishing his shade, and Bilbo didn’t press him, though the response had raised more questions than it answered. The moment was lost.

Instead, he plied Dwalin and Dís with some biscuits he’d hidden away, and Balin with tea, and teased them about supper, which earned him a collective, resounding groan. He laughed merrily and they laughed with him.

In truth, he hadn’t bothered making supper, even for himself, in a long time, as even Bombur wasn’t equal to a hobbit meal schedule. He could be induced to take a little snack and some more dessert, but not a full meal. Bilbo hadn’t made it up about hobbits considering it rude to eat a meal in front of others who were not eating, and he would much rather have the company than supper, so he had abandoned the meal entirely. Though it still amused him to tease the dwarves about their pitiful stomachs!

“I think the children will like mine the best,” Kíli said proudly, holding aloft his finished shade and giving it a spin.

Bilbo smiled. “Let’s have a look at it and see.”

They each tried their shades in turn. Kíli had, indeed, made a troll lumbering along, while Fíli’s shade depicted an elf with comically large ears falling in a heap and getting up again and again and again, which made all of the dwarves laugh. Bilbo just smiled and shook his head. Dís’s shade was more complex than theirs, and the seeming movement of the figure of a charging dwarf swinging an axe appeared more lifelike than the boys’, probably owing to her greater experience in crafting anything. They were appropriately impressed by their mother’s display of skill and cheered for her.

Balin’s shade was accepted just as heartily, though his had nothing to do with dwarvish pride. He had chosen to depict a hedgehog trundling along, appearing to sniff the ground, and the precision of each spike on its back appealed to them. Bilbo was impressed by that one as well, as he hadn’t made anything nearly so complex the first time he made one under his father’s careful guidance.

He wasn’t sure afterward whether Thorin’s shade was his favourite because it was beautiful or because of Thorin’s reason for choosing that particular design.

He had depicted a pony galloping across a plain, its mane and tail waving with each stride, the grass under its hooves bending under an invisible breeze. It was just as detailed and skilful as Balin’s and Dís’s, but when Fíli mentioned that it might fetch a good price at the market, since hobbits seemed to have nothing against ponies, he shook his head.

“It’s for Burin,” he said quietly. “He almost sold his toy pony to help us buy food, and I know it’s precious to him. He’s a good lad.”

Bilbo’s heart melted, and he was very warm to Thorin when they eventually parted for the night.

For his part, Thorin wouldn’t meet his gaze. He wasn’t quite shuffling his feet, but he seemed almost sheepish in his manner. It might have been a trick of the light, as Thorin was standing outside the open door and the moon was not full, but he even thought he might be blushing under his beard. He couldn’t imagine a reason for any of this behaviour and waited, rather bewildered, for Thorin to say whatever was on his mind.

“I…enjoyed myself greatly this evening,” he said stiltedly. “I thank you for your hospitality. And the copper-working lesson.”

He smiled and offered Thorin a little bow. “It was my pleasure. I hope you’ll come again. As I said, I would be happy to have you any time.”

Thorin smiled back, small and tentative, almost, and Bilbo wondered again at what had him so nervous. He turned to leave, only to turn back after two steps.

“I am sorry,” he said, still quite stiff and formal despite his fingers worrying at the fraying hem of his cloak. “I did not mean to be rude earlier, when you enquired about our home.”

Well, that explained it. He waved a cheerful hand.

“Oh, don’t worry about that! It was rude of me to pry. I’m just glad you enjoyed yourself.”

Thorin bobbed his head in an awkward nod and turned to leave again, only to turn back a second time.

“What happened to the shade your father made you?” he asked, and now he was more relaxed, his stance easy and unconsciously regal, his voice light with curiosity. “The one that could wind up?”

Bilbo’s nose twitched and he sniffed, his smile dimming. “It broke, a few years after he died. A long time ago now.”

“Ah.” His gaze unfocused for a moment. “Good evening.”

He really did go this time, leaving a bemused Bilbo to bid good evening to his back.

After they were out of sight, Bilbo puttered around for a while, cleaning up what little disarray remained. He tried to settle in with a book, but his smial seemed almost disturbingly quiet, the popping of the fire and the ticking of the clock loud enough to disrupt his concentration.

He gave it up as a bad job and retired to bed early, though the quiet kept him from sleep for a long time.

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

They had barely shut the circular smithy door before Dís rounded on him.

“What was all that tonight?” she demanded. “I thought you hated Bilbo, and yet you were stammering and blushing like a pebble! That wasn’t exactly what I meant when I told you to be polite. I meant for you to make conversation! Instead, you act as though you’ve taken ill! What’s got into you? Are you ill?”

Thorin was taken aback at first, but she peered at him with clear puzzlement, rather than anger. Still, he would have to answer her. Balin and Dwalin had disappeared into the back room as soon as she opened her mouth, and Fíli and Kíli motioned to their shades before following, snickering behind their hands at his plight.

No help there, as usual.

He sighed. “I have never said I hated Bilbo, Dís,” he said as patiently as he could, shrugging out of his cloak and stepping around her.

She followed at his heels. “Then why were you so short with him? You barely spoke all evening, and when you did, you--”

She stopped short, her mouth frozen, rocking back on her heels as though the realisation had literally knocked into her. Thorin waited with his arms folded around his cloak, the corners of his mouth drawing down unhappily.

Her finger rose to point at him. “You--”

He turned away, tossing his cloak over the nearest anvil. His fingers fumbled with the buckles of his vambraces. Dís came around in front of him to look at his face, but she made no move to help.

“You--” She shook her head, tugging at the end of her beard. “You felt it, didn’t you? That feeling, like lightning in your limbs, and butterflies in your stomach.”

“More like a bee’s nest,” he muttered.

“And…Bilbo makes you feel that. For the first time?”

He nodded without looking up. He set aside the first vambrace and turned his attention to the other.

Dís batted his hands away and took over with deft movements. “Why didn’t you tell me? All this time I thought you were being rude because you were too proud to accept his charity--it never occurred to me that you might have…other feelings for him getting in the way.”

His face felt hot and he resisted the urge to confide in her--to tell her what sweet agony it was to be around Bilbo, to tell her how he’d never felt anything like this before and how certain it made him that Bilbo must be his One, because surely no one else was as kind and funny and stubborn as Bilbo and he would have met them by now in his decades of travel if they did exist.

He didn’t say any of that.

“What would be the point? We’ll be leaving as soon as we have enough coin, and Bilbo will stay here, in his home. The last thing I needed to do was bring it up and make you fret about it when it will all come to naught.”

Dís helped him pull off his brigandine and frowned at him severely. “I do not fret,” she grumbled.

He just raised his brows.

Her lips quirked. “Fine, I may occasionally fret a bit. It’s unavoidable with all you boys running round, getting yourselves into trouble.”

Thorin scowled. “I do not get myself into trouble--I’m not one of your sons.”

“Oh, no, you’re much worse.”

His scowl fell into a pout despite his best efforts, and Dís laughed, finally relaxing as they put away their things.

“Very well, so you don’t intend to pursue Bilbo,” she said, giving him a look that conveyed better than any words how stupid she thought that. “Then why the blushing and stammering around him? I thought you were doing an impression of Kíli during his youthful infatuation phase at first.”

Thorin’s face heated all over again at the unflattering comparison. “He is still…. I cannot…. He…. Bilbo is….”

He gave up. There was no way to say what he felt without sounding like a complete and utter sap.

Dís softened, touching his arm. “He is still kind and generous,” she finished for him, with no mockery in her tone.

He swallowed and nodded once, silent and miserable.

She smiled. “I understand. We are all very fond of him.” Her eyes regained their mischievous twinkle. “Particularly of how he keeps Fíli and Kíli in line. In his house, I feel I can relax for the first time in almost a century.”

He huffed out a laugh despite himself. It was quite impressive, all the more so because Bilbo never once raised his voice to them in true anger. He groused and grouched and complained quite as often as he sang and hummed and told stories, but Thorin eventually likened it to the grumbles and snuffling of an unprovoked badger--it sounded annoyed, but it was just noise, with no real ire behind it at all. As the evening wore on, he even began to find it a comfort, in part because his near-constant chatter was often the only thing that kept him from unintentionally sneaking up on his guests.

She patted him gently, knocking her forehead against his. “To bed, nadad. We have another long day ahead of us.”

“Are you my sister or my mother?” he teased, and dodged her swipe at his head, laughing.

She laughed with him, her eyes sparkling with joy and something like awe.

Thorin pushed away the heaviness gathering in his stomach at the realisation that his own sister regarded him with awe simply because he was unreservedly playful for a moment, for the first time in far too long, instead wrapping an arm around her and offering her a smile. Dís gladly pressed into his side, giving him a light punch in the ribs, and they made their way to the back room.

Chapter Text

Thorin came often, after that. Bilbo tried not to show how delighted that made him, treating him much the same as he did any of his new dwarf friends. He couldn’t help a little favouritism--after he found out about Thorin’s predilection for blackberries, dishes and treats and things with blackberries as a component found their way onto the table more often than not--but he justified it to himself that Thorin was the neatest, cleanest, and most helpful of the dwarves, so he naturally deserved a little extra consideration. He wasn’t sure he entirely believed himself, but the excuse satisfied him well enough to keep him from dwelling on the matter further.

Still, he saw the children--and the almost-not-quite-children-anymore dwarves--more often than any of the other dwarves, and that pleased him well enough. They spent the lovely weeks of summer tagging along with him more often than not, learning the best fishing spots and the things that were and weren’t safe to eat near the wooded paths of the Shire. He even started bringing them along on some of his social visits to his least irritating relatives and neighbours, and the dwarflings took to hobbit manners very well for those occasions, charming their hosts enough to send them home with a few treats. It might have helped the reputations of the older dwarves, except that hobbits, like the other races of Middle-earth, shared a fondness for children of any folk that did not necessarily extend to the grown-up versions.

Bilbo thought that a great pity, as the more time he spent amongst the dwarves, the more he liked them.

Oh, they were rowdy and gruff, and had terrible manners for the most part, but they were also merry company, and as the summer wore on, he found that they could be very kind, indeed.

“You really don’t have to do that,” Bilbo said for the umpteenth time, shuffling awkwardly in his bathroom doorway. “I can always hire someone.”

“Sure, you could,” said Nori, raising his braided brows. “But why would you when we can do it easy as blinkin’ and we’re already here anyway?”

He could hardly argue with that. Well, and there was the fact that his pipes were likely in need of repair because of the dwarves in the first place--they’d got better about it as time went on, but he still shuddered to think of the state of his bathroom that first week they started visiting.

Bofur looked up long enough to waggle a wrench at him. “An’ if you try and pay us, we’ll bring you all the mushrooms to be found in the Shire.”

Bilbo huffed, smothering a grin. “I should never have told you how we hobbits settle things.”

“I like the idea,” Dori piped up, not at all strained despite the fact that he had three long, heavy pipes tucked under his arm. “Trying to outdo one another with kindness. It’s a lot less messy. When we dwarves can’t settle a dispute over payment and who owes who, weapons get involved.”

“And occasionally arrests,” Nori added cheerfully.

“That only happens when you steal things,” Bofur said while Dori glared at his brother. “And then it’s pretty clear who owes who.”

“Not if they stole from you first!”

Dori opened his mouth, but any argument was cut off by Bilbo losing the battle against his laughter.

“What’s the longest you’ve gone trying to settle things the hobbit way?” Bofur asked.

Bilbo wiped his face, unable to cage his grin again. “Oh, I think my personal record was three weeks. Mrs Cotton and I finally called a truce when I couldn’t think of anything to top her gooseberry pie. It’s terribly good, you know. Everyone in Hobbiton has been trying to get her recipe for years, but she’s kept tight-lipped about it. The longest feud I’ve ever heard of wasn’t around here, it was over in Buckland. They don’t do things our way so much--they’re a wilder bunch--but when they do, they don’t hold back. It was an eight-year competition of trading kindnesses between one of the Brandybucks and a Bolger, or so they say. The story goes that they’d exhausted all the hobbit ways--exchanging food and flowers and such--so they had to move on to Mannish and dwarvish gifts and favours. Only ended when it turned out the Bolger was allergic to silver and broke out in a rash after being given a silver chain, or so they say. After that, the Master of Buckland told them they’d better call it even before someone got killed.”

Nori guffawed. “Killing with kindness! Whoever heard of it?”

Bofur crawled out from under the sink and heaved himself to his feet. “Well, we’d better call this one even now. Wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt,” he said with a wink.

But of course, it wasn’t the end of it, because when Bilbo’s front door developed a squeak, there were five dwarves immediately gathered round it searching for the root of the problem. When his woodpile got low, the next day dwarves appeared with logs and refilled it. When one of his chairs broke--entirely unrelated to any dwarvish mischief--Thorin carried it down to the smithy himself and returned with it repaired and reinforced.

It went against his hobbitish instincts, but Bilbo eventually stopped keeping track of all the kindnesses exchanged between them. They were a part of the fabric of his life now, in a way none of his fellow hobbits were, and he accepted their company and their help with quiet gratitude. His smial was rarely empty now, but when it was, he found his feet carrying him out of it, seeking the company of one of his dwarves. He found himself with the dwarflings more often than the others--but almost as often he found himself sitting near the forge, watching Thorin work. Thorin concentrated intensely while he worked, rarely speaking or looking up even when he noticed someone else around, but Bilbo found he didn’t mind at all. He was content to watch in silence, a bit awestruck when a piece of ugly metal was transformed into a pot or a ladle or a plough blade.

It wasn’t just that these were things hobbits needed--any hobbit blacksmith worth their keep could make such items, perfectly serviceable and respectable enough for any customer. It was that when Thorin made them, they were beautiful. A cauldron for stew wasn’t just a cauldron when Thorin made it--there were delicate designs around the lip, and the handle looked as though it was growing out of the rest of the pot and yet still moved easily, and the metal shone. To Bilbo, who knew nothing of the trade, it was like magic.

Thorin eyed him one day with that narrow stare he’d at first mistaken for suspicion but had since come to understand was merely curiosity. Thorin’s face had a tendency to look much darker than he really meant sometimes. Bilbo had relaxed considerably around Thorin after he realised that.

“Don’t you get bored?” Thorin asked, wiping his hands on a rag. “Sitting there for hours while I pound metal?”

Bilbo waved his pipe to indicate the pile of raw metal and then the shining kettle Thorin had just finished. “You turned that into that. I confess I don’t understand it no matter how many times I watch, but I feel privileged to witness such fine work all the same.”

Thorin turned almost as red as the fire in his forge, but he smiled at Bilbo so warmly that Bilbo felt as hot as the forge.

If, after that, he tried to draw another of those warm, soft smiles from Thorin every day, well, that was nobody else’s business. And if he succeeded more often than not, that was nobody else’s business, either.

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

Autumn started to come to the Shire. The tips of the leaves took on a golden-red hue and the last of the late summer blooms put forth their dazzling colours. The hobbits sold pumpkins and cabbage and apples at the market instead of green beans and cucumbers and tomatoes. The smell of cinnamon filled the air, and the hobbits went about in bright orange and red and yellow. It was a beautiful atmosphere in a beautiful country.

It was beautiful, and Thorin hated it.

He was honest enough with himself to admit that some of his hatred was unfair, and more than a bit selfish. As soon as the first of September rolled around, Bilbo became too busy to visit the forge so often. With their contact limited to dinner most evenings, Thorin had no time alone with him. He hadn’t realised how much he’d come to depend on those quiet afternoons together until Bilbo no longer had the time for them.

The other reason was much less selfish, though, and so Thorin couldn’t bring himself to change his attitude. As temperate as the Shire was, nights on the dirt floor of the smithy were cold. They kept the forge burning all night for heat, and they put the children in the middle, piled with blankets, which helped, but Thorin knew that it would only grow worse as autumn wore on and winter set in.

He was thinking these morose thoughts at dinner one night. To his surprise, Bilbo took notice.

“What’s bothering you?” Bilbo asked quietly when they went to do the washing up, as was their custom. “Is it anything I can help with?”

Thorin hesitated. On the one hand, he knew Bilbo would help--he did so every time he realised there was a problem, no matter how it put him out. But on the other, it likely would put Bilbo out. He would either help them find a warmer place to stay for the cold months, which would require no small amount of effort on his part, given their limited means, or he would simply open his own home to them. It was just Bilbo’s nature--if he saw someone in need, he helped.

He closed his mouth and forced a smile. “I haven’t seen you so often around the forge of late.”

Bilbo sighed, and Thorin was selfishly gratified that Bilbo seemed as unhappy about that as he was.

“No,” he said, shaking his head and scrubbing unnecessarily hard on one of his plates. “I haven’t had time. It’s the time of year when I total up my income and check in on all my tenants, and it’s all such a bother. On top of that, it’s also my birthday next week, so I’ve been up to my ears in party preparations. It’s my fiftieth, so I’m afraid everyone’s expecting better presents than they would for one of the odd ones, like the forty-seventh or the fifty-third. It’s all rather a bother.”

Thorin’s brow wrinkled. He was familiar by now with hobbitish lifespans, but-- “You give everyone else presents on your birthday?”

Bilbo shot him a surprised glance. “Oh, dwarves do it the Mannish way, do they? Well, yes, it’s a hobbit tradition, to give presents on one’s birthday. Everyone who comes to my party will get a present--which is part of the bother, as I only invite my relatives and neighbours and the people I like, but everyone else will turn up anyway, so I’ve got to make sure there are presents for all of them, too, and enough food, and all that sort of thing. You will be coming, won’t you? You and the others? It won’t be my birthday without you, you know.”

He was well used to Bilbo’s abrupt changes of subject, too, but this one made him do a double-take anyway.

“We--”

He swallowed, a warm feeling spreading through him. It won’t be my birthday without you.

“Of course we’ll come,” he said, softly to try to hide the thickness in his throat. “If you want us there.”

Bilbo smiled at him, one of those rare gentle smiles that stole Thorin’s breath. “I do.”

They stood smiling at each other for long enough that Thorin might have felt foolish when Dwalin interrupted if Bilbo hadn’t startled so badly that he knew he wasn’t alone in being lost.

Chapter Text

Bilbo’s party went off as all of his parties did. He’d been nervous about the dwarves--not for their own sakes, but because he had some very rude relations--but while there were a few disgruntled looks and a bit of muttering from some quarters, most of the hobbits accepted them easily in the spirit of merrymaking. The dwarflings folded into the gaggle of fauntlings almost immediately, and Rikka was soon surrounded by well-meaning hobbits asking questions about her now obvious pregnancy. Bombur found a place by the cookfire, talking food, which made him very popular within minutes. Bofur and Nori led the bulk of the rest of them over to the kegs of ale, and that was that--most hobbits had no quarrel with any folk who simply wanted to eat and drink with them.

Thorin had obviously warned the rest of the dwarves about the hobbit practice of giving presents, because that went off without a hitch as well. None of them had put him in the rather embarrassing situation of having to accept a present in front of his fellow hobbits--they would have considered it unpardonably rude on his part, to accept a birthday present on his own birthday--and they accepted their presents from him with smiles and thanks.

As for Thorin himself…Bilbo knew he was handsome, but if he’d been in any doubt about it before, it was gone now. He’d never seen him look so kingly, either. He wore a deep blue tunic that set off his impossibly blue eyes, embroidered with those uniquely dwarven geometric designs that suited him so well, and his hair was neatly braided and shining, the beads and clasps as freshly polished as his belt buckle, all of it flashing in the firelight. Even his beard, short as it was, appeared to have been freshly washed, combed, and oiled. He usually smelled like sweat and metal and heat, but now he smelled like soap and oil and cinnamon.

The best part of all was that he was smiling, truly and warmly, without having to be nudged or teased, his eyes sparkling and his whole demeanour relaxed.

Bilbo had no idea what any of the other people at his party were wearing or how they styled their hair. They might have danced round him naked and he wouldn’t have had a clue.

“Bilbo?”

Thorin’s gentle concern knocked him from his daze. He snapped his mouth shut and shook himself.

“Sorry--er, I mean. You look--” He broke off, certain that his face was glowing red enough to be seen from Valinor. “I’m so glad you came. How are you enjoying the party so far?”

The concern eased and Thorin’s smile returned--and if Bilbo wasn’t very much mistaken, he leaned closer.

“Very much,” he said easily. “Thank you for inviting us. It’s been--too long since we were last able to enjoy ourselves so freely.”

Something in Bilbo eased in response and he was able to offer a genuine smile of his own. “I’m glad. I worry about you, you know. You work too hard--all of you do, but you especially.”

Thorin shrugged, falling into step with him as Bilbo gestured toward the buffet table. “We dwarves enjoy working, but I admit that it has been a bit too much even for us since we left Ered Luin.”

Bilbo hesitated, eyeing him while pretending to deliberate over which meat he wanted. The dwarves’ past did not come up often--usually it was Balin telling a story or letting him in on some reason for the others suddenly going quiet on those occasions that it did. He still didn’t understand how they had ended up here, in such dire straits to boot, but he was reluctant to ruin Thorin’s good mood just to satisfy his curiosity.

Thorin caught his look and his smile turned a little sad. “It was not by choice.”

His breath hitched. “Oh,” he said quietly to the basket of rolls.

Thorin sighed, tilting his head toward the tables. “Let us sit and eat, and I will tell you.”

Bilbo hurried to follow him, his pulse fluttering in his fingertips. A part of him was eager for the story, to finally have an answer to the questions that had gnawed at him since the dwarves first arrived. The rest of him was worried--that Thorin wouldn’t be able to enjoy himself, that the party would be ruined--that somehow hearing it would change things between them? He wasn’t certain.

Fortunately, he was a hobbit, and even a hobbit as reserved as he was bound to be rather nosy. It was simply in their natures, and so he forced his worries aside, listening with rapt attention.

“I suppose Balin has told you who I am,” Thorin said, frowning a little.

Bilbo nodded, even though it wasn’t a question. “A king, I gather. I’m afraid I’m not very familiar with dwarven kingdoms, so much of it went over my head, but I understand that you inherited largely because of a battle?”

Thorin hummed in agreement, poking at his food. “Yes, the Battle of Azanulbizar.”

“It sounded very sad for you and your people,” he offered quietly.

“It was.” His frown deepened. “Our people settled in Ered Luin because we had lost Erebor and we failed to retake Khazad-dûm, but…there is little there. Little of everything. We mine iron, and coal, but not enough to feed everyone. We farm the land around us, but it is rocky and rough, and yields small plants when it yields anything at all. It is not like here,” he said, gesturing outward with a wistful smile on his face.

Bilbo swallowed as he took in the hobbits around them, dancing and drinking and eating and laughing without a care.

Thorin glanced at him and seemed to read his look again. “I don’t begrudge your people their plenty--I only wish that we had thought to trade with your people. But we have ever looked inward, and I’m ashamed to admit that dwarves, myself included, have never thought much of hobbits, when we thought of them at all.”

He smiled crookedly. “We don’t do much to alter opinions. We look inward, too--it is our preference to be ignored, I suppose. We both have our faults.”

Thorin inclined his head at the concession. “While I might blame our lack of success on our lack of farming skills, which are fair enough in good conditions but nothing to the skill of your people in that area, there was little to forage as well, and it was not very many years before we had overhunted the game to compensate.”

Bilbo blinked, sitting back in his chair. “Your people were starving.”

“Yes. We knew the day would come, and we had spent years arguing about it, but no solution was ever reached. We are overcrowded, underfed, and unable to alter our situation.” Thorin paused, a pained expression flitting across his face. “I grew…desperate. I was their leader, it was my responsibility to provide for my people, but…I failed. I could see no other options open to us--save one. To take back Erebor.”

Bilbo shook his head and swallowed his last bit of potatoes. “Was that somehow a problem?”

To his surprise, Thorin chuckled. “You’ve never heard of Erebor, then.”

He searched his memory, but nothing turned up. “I’ve only heard you mention it before--and Balin, once or twice, I think. I understand it was your home, before Ered Luin, and Balin called it the Lonely Mountain, so I understand that it’s a mountain, but I haven’t the faintest idea where it is or why you lost it or why taking it back would be difficult. Was there a dwarvish civil war?”

“There was a dragon.”

Bilbo spewed half-chewed roll all over the table and spent the next few minutes coughing. Thorin patted his back to try to help until Bilbo waved him away.

“Sorry,” he croaked, wiping his eyes, “but did you say dragon? As in a real dragon, with wings and breathing fire and sleeping on piles of gold?”

There was a dark sort of humour in Thorin’s face that Bilbo wasn’t sure he liked.

“Yes, a real, fire-breathing, gold-hoarding dragon.”

Bilbo blinked. “Oh. Well, I can see where that would present a problem.”

Thorin snorted. “Aye, just a small problem. I believed--I believe that an army of dwarves, properly outfitted and with the element of surprise, could destroy the beast. I was alone in my belief. My council turned against me. They said--” His face spasmed with pain again. “They said that it was madness, like the madness that took my father and grandfather before me. I insisted there was no other way, that we would all starve and die if we did nothing, but….”

“They exiled you,” Bilbo said unhappily, scowling at his empty plate. “Instead of presenting a better plan.”

“Essentially.” He sighed. “My kin came with me--and Bifur and Bofur, and Bombur and his family. They’re all that remained loyal to me, and for that, they share my exile.”

He pushed his mostly-full plate toward Bilbo, evidently mistaking Bilbo’s scowl for hunger. He debated it for a moment, but if Thorin really wasn’t going to eat it…there was no problem that didn’t look better on a full stomach, and anyway, no healthy, respectable hobbit would let a full plate of food go to waste.

“The least they could have done was send you out with enough supplies,” he said around a mouthful of ham.

Thorin shot him an amused glance. “They did. We were given enough carts and ponies, some coin, and food enough to last us to Bree.”

Bilbo’s eyes went wide. “But you didn’t make it to Bree. What happened?”

The amusement fled, replaced by a full scowl, his eyes going hard as flint. “We were stupid--I was stupid, and we were tricked. Nori warned me against camping near the river, as he’d heard rumours of bandits in the area. I ignored him--the children were exhausted, Rikka was showing signs of her condition, and the ponies were in need of a rest. In the dead of night, some of the bandits knocked out the watch and stole away with the children. When the alarm was finally raised, all of us panicked and all but three of us went after the bandits who’d taken the children. The remaining bandits overwhelmed the three we’d left behind, knocked them out, and stole our ponies and most of our supplies. The bandits with the children scattered and left them in different spots so that we spent most of the night rounding all of them up. By the time we returned, all of the bandits were long gone and we were too exhausted to give chase, and they were on our ponies while we were on foot. The trail went cold, and we had to continue on with what little we had left.”

“And you made it here,” Bilbo added, nudging him a little to draw him from his angry thoughts.

Thorin looked at him, visibly softening. “Yes. We made it here, and you saved our lives.”

Bilbo’s face heated. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I just--”

“No, you did,” Thorin interrupted, firm but not angry. “We were starving, Bilbo, and we had almost nothing left to barter or sell. You saved our lives. None of us will ever forget that.”

Bilbo looked at him. He didn’t want gratitude, he realised, suddenly, fiercely. He didn’t want gratitude from Thorin, in particular.

“I had an ulterior motive,” he said.

He watched Thorin’s head snap up, his nostrils flaring, his eyes hardening--now that was suspicion.

Bilbo smiled faintly. “I was lonely, before you all came. Other hobbits don’t understand me. I want to know about the world, and talk with different kinds of people, from everywhere, and to them, that makes me--odd. So they never really want much to do with me. They respect me because I am well-off, not because of who I am. I don’t understand them, either, and as much as I have always tried to fit in, just so I wouldn’t be alone, I could never quite manage it. Then your people came, and none of you seem to like me any less no matter how odd you find me--you still come over for tea all the same, and I can’t tell you how happy it makes me. It gives me so much joy to look after the little ones, to watch Bifur and Bofur carve their toys, to cook meals alongside Bombur, for more than just me--to listen to Balin’s stories and watch Fíli and Kíli’s antics.” He paused, swallowing down the lump trying to rise in his throat. “To do the washing up beside you, to sit in my garden and smoke with you, instead of alone. So you see, whatever kindness I do you is really quite selfish. I’m not lonely anymore, not with all of you around.”

And he didn’t want them to leave. It was on the tip of his tongue, but he bit the words back. He wouldn’t lay his happiness on Thorin’s shoulders like that--he had too many burdens to carry as it was. What was the happiness of one hobbit against the livelihood of an entire people?

Thorin had softened as he listened, the suspicion dissolving, and Bilbo wasn’t quite sure what his expression meant now. He’d never seen it before. His eyes were shining and his lips were parted, his knuckles white on the armrest of his chair. He was leaning so close now that Bilbo could feel the heat radiating off of him.

“You are not odd,” Thorin said finally, his deep voice resonating in Bilbo’s chest. “You are the kindliest soul I have ever met.”

Bilbo snorted, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I just told you I’m selfish.”

Thorin smiled then, crooked but just as warm and sincere as before they sat down to talk. “You saved us before you ever knew you would enjoy our company, or we yours. And loneliness doesn’t make you underhanded, nor undermine your generosity.” He hesitated then. “In truth, I--”

“Bilbo! Come dance with us!” Kíli cried as he bounded up to the table, knocking into it so hard that the dishes rattled.

“Yes, you have to come!” Fíli agreed, grabbing his arm and hauling him from his chair.

“We don’t know any of the hobbit dances and we need you to show us!” Ori added fretfully.

Before Bilbo could voice a protest, he was yanked onto the dance floor, being spun in rather too enthusiastic circles. He spent most of the rest of the night being passed from one dwarf to the next. He didn’t get a chance to speak with Thorin alone again--though he saw Thorin watching him once or twice, an almost wistful smile on his face, as he relaxed at the tables with a tankard and a few older hobbits.

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

Thorin really, really hated autumn in the Shire.

“We need more buckets!” Óin bellowed.

“If we put any more buckets down, there won’t be any room to sleep!” Dís shouted back--only half because of Óin’s partial deafness.

Because of course the roof would spring about three hundred leaks all at the same time during the first thunderstorm of the season. They couldn’t even attempt to patch it until morning, not with the sky ablaze with lightning and the wind whipping hard enough to blow a hobbit off of a roof.

“You expect to sleep with this going on?!” Lilja snarled, slamming the last bucket down under one of the bigger leaks.

The children were sitting wide-eyed in the only dry corner, hugging Ori and doing their best to be brave.

“That’s enough, all of you!” Balin said, uncharacteristically losing his temper.

“Balin is right,” Thorin said, nodding firmly and sending the children a reassuring smile. “Shouting at each other isn’t helping anything. We need to--”

He was cut off by a pained cry.

Because of course during the night of the worst weather the Shire had seen in over a decade, Rikka would go into labour.

“Can’t you do something?” Bombur asked plaintively when it became apparent that it was real labour.

“Me?” Dís echoed, rearing back. “Just because I’m a mother, you think I know how to midwife? Lilja and I together couldn’t do the job, because having babies doesn’t make you a midwife!”

“None of us have that skill,” Dori said, frowning. “We need help.”

“Help from who, Mahal?” Nori sneered. “If you hadn’t noticed, he isn’t exactly accepting prayers lately.”

“Bilbo.”

Everyone stopped talking and looked at him, and that was when Thorin realised that he was the one who’d spoken. He stared back, not retracting his answer.

“Bilbo isn’t a midwife, though,” Kíli said, tilting his head.

Bofur thumped him on the shoulder. “You’ve only been up an hour later than normal. How are you sleep-deprived already? Bilbo’s not a midwife, but I bet he’ll know where to find one!”

Thorin nodded gratefully. “Exactly. We’ll get her to Bilbo’s home, and he’ll know where to find help.”

“But will hobbit midwives be able to help a dwarf?” Glóin asked, his brow furrowed with concern.

“It has to be better than just hoping that nothing goes wrong,” Dís said firmly.

It was easier said than done. Dwalin and Dori carried Rikka while Bombur and Bofur held a tarp over her to protect her from the worst of the whipping rain and wind. Balin led the way up to Bag End, as they couldn’t get a torch or a lamp to stay lit, and Thorin was convinced that Balin could find his way just about anywhere in the blackest night, so long as he’d gone that way once before. It was a skill he envied.

Dís and Lilja came along, too, to help keep Rikka calm and remind her to breathe, despite their assertions that they wouldn’t be able to do anything. Thorin was the only one not doing anything, bringing up the rear. He ought to have stayed behind with the others, to help look after the children and see if he could do anything about the roof…but the promise of seeing Bilbo was too strong. Even though he’d just seen him a few hours ago, at dinner, just like always.

You’re pathetic, you know that, right? he thought despairingly.

The windows of Bag End were shuttered, with no light peeking through the cracks, but Bilbo answered the door after a few minutes anyway, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and tugging his dressing gown closed. He woke quickly when Balin explained what was going on, ushering them in with a sober expression.

“Take her through to my bedroom--yes, that one there, it’s the biggest,” he said, pulling off his dressing gown and reaching for his cloak.

The others disappeared down the hallway. Thorin tried not to fidget as he watched Bilbo prepare to go out in the weather.

“If you tell me where to go, I could fetch whoever you think can help us,” he said quickly.

Bilbo shook his head. “There’s no one in Hobbiton. Trust me, it’s faster this way. I can find my way in the dark better than you could--for all your dwarf eyes, you haven’t lived here your whole life, but I have. I could find my way blindfolded, even on a night like tonight.”

Thorin conceded the wisdom of that. “I’m sorry to--”

“Don’t you dare apologise for this!” Bilbo said sharply, though there was no heat in his eyes, only compassion. “Babies come when they will, with no regard for the time nor the weather! I’m glad you came to me--better I get a bit wet than Rikka have to suffer through this alone. Now, you’re welcome to anything you need while I’m gone, just help yourselves. Where are the others?”

Bilbo was walking while he talked, so Thorin ended up walking him to the door.

“They’re still in the smithy.”

Bilbo frowned as thunder snapped and rumbled through the dark again. “You’d best fetch them here. The children shouldn’t be so far from their parents on a night like tonight, and there’s more than enough room for everyone. It’s safer than the smithy.”

Thorin bit back his automatic objection; Bilbo was right, so there was no point in arguing.

“I will.”

“Good.”

Bilbo nodded and opened the door, almost immediately soaking wet.

“Bilbo!” Thorin cried, almost instinctively.

He turned back, questioning with his eyes.

“Be safe.”

Bilbo smiled and disappeared into the dark.

Thorin blew out a breath and tightened his own cloak around himself before racing back out into the night.

It was late when Bilbo returned. Thorin had long since brought the rest of his people into Bag End, and the children were as settled as possible in one of the guest rooms. It was quieter, here, under the Hill, so Thorin had hope that they might be able to get some sleep tonight.

The adults were too restless to find any sleep. Most of them were sitting around or pacing in the sitting room, after getting fires started in the hearths and water boiling in the kitchen in case it was needed.

Bilbo and his companion were drenched when they arrived, but the bent elderly hobbit-woman nearly smacked the towel out of Glóin’s hand when he offered it to her.

“There’s no time for that! Which way?” she yelled in a creaky voice. “Never mind! I hear her!”

She disappeared into Bilbo’s bedroom without a glance at the rest of them. Bilbo accepted the towel from Glóin in her stead, smiling grimly.

“That was….” Nori trailed off, lost for words for once.

“Old Verbena,” Bilbo supplied, shrugging. “She’s cranky and rude, but she’s the best hobbit midwife in the West Farthing. She lives past Bywater, almost to Three Farthing Stone, that’s why it took so long. That and I ran all the way there, but she couldn’t run going the other way.”

“I don’t think it matters,” Fíli said. “Nothing much has happened yet. I think we’re in for a long night.”

“Then after I get into some dry clothes, we may as well have some tea and a snack,” Bilbo said brightly.

That was exactly what they did. While none of them could truly relax, Bilbo took charge in such a way that the frenzied tension ebbed into a watchful rest. Thorin sat as near to Bilbo as he dared, taking comfort from Bilbo’s projected aura of calm. All of them jumped when Rikka’s screams renewed, but Bilbo would simply wave them back to their chairs and remind them that they would be sent for if they were needed, and calm would descend again.

Bilbo wasn’t really as calm as he seemed--his fingers tapping incessantly against the side of his mug gave him away--but Thorin appreciated the pretence.

The storm finally subsided, and the light of pre-dawn had given everything a fuzzy grey-blue glow when the cry of an infant finally broke the air. They all exchanged smiles and sighs of relief, but the tension didn’t completely fade until Balin emerged into the sitting room, smiling widely, his eyes twinkling.

“Mother and babe are both well, thanks to that hobbit-woman you brought,” Balin said, exhausted but happy. “There were a few frightening moments, but they’re both just fine.”

“Is it a boy or a girl?” Bofur asked, his grin brightening with renewed energy.

Bifur popped up from his seat and signed the same question rapidly.

“A girl,” said Balin, “and Bombur and Rikka have decided to name her Billa.”

Bilbo’s eyes went round. “Billa?”

“Yes, Billa--for Bilbo, her godfather!” Bofur crowed, and ran into the bedroom on Bifur’s heels.

Thorin smiled proudly and clapped Bilbo on the back. “It’s a very great honour! You should be proud.”

“Oh, I am!” said Bilbo, and burst into tears.

He wasn’t the only one. The birth of a girl was rare among their people and cause for celebration, and after being up all night, there were more than a few teary eyes among them. Dori was blubbering on Nori’s shoulder (which Nori looked truly alarmed about), and even Dwalin looked to be on the verge of shedding a few tears from sheer relief that everything had turned out well.

“Perhaps we should all get some sleep,” Thorin said, rubbing his own stinging eyes. “We have a roof to repair later on, and it’s been a long night for all of us.”

Bilbo sniffled and peered out of his handkerchief. “Roof to repair? What roof to repair?”

Thorin froze. He hadn’t meant to mention that. “Er….”

Fíli rolled his eyes. “The smithy roof nearly fell apart last night. The wind was too much for it and there was no escaping the leaks. If you hadn’t suggested it, Kíli and I were ready to beg to spend the night here just for somewhere dry to sleep. Now that the rain has stopped, we need to fix it, before the next storm comes and drenches us all again.”

Bilbo’s face cleared immediately. “Why didn’t you tell me that last night?!”

“We had other concerns on our minds,” Kíli pointed out dryly, and mimed holding a baby.

“Well, now you don’t,” Bilbo snapped. “How are you all sleeping in there anyway? There can’t possibly be that many beds in that little space. I thought some of you were renting rooms elsewhere or something.”

“No, we….” Kíli hesitated, apparently just then becoming aware of the danger Thorin had already seen in Bilbo’s flashing eyes.

“You what?”

“We sleep on the floor, on our bedrolls,” Ori admitted in a very timid voice.

Bilbo ground his jaw and didn’t look at any of them for a long, silent moment. Then he sighed and looked up at Thorin.

“Why don’t you just stay here?” he asked, his weariness plain. “You know I’ve plenty of room, and that can’t possibly be comfortable. The smithy isn’t meant to be lived in. It’s going to be too cold over the winter, and here you can have your own rooms and real beds. It will be better for the children.”

Thorin wavered. They had already trespassed on Bilbo’s kindness so much, but the offer was very tempting for a large number of reasons--just one of which was the pleading eyes on every face in the room. There was also the fact that Bilbo himself had admitted his loneliness to Thorin not a week ago. It was very likely this arrangement would suit him just as well as it suited Thorin and his people.

“If…you’re certain it wouldn’t be too great of an inconvenience,” he said at last, “then we would love to stay.”

Bilbo lit up, his exhaustion lifting as though Thorin had cast a spell over him. “No inconvenience at all! Just let me get the beds made while you fetch the rest of your things!”

Thorin watched, bemused, as Bilbo leapt from his seat and scurried down the hall as lightly as a goat, as though he hadn’t been awake all night after running miles in the midst of a thunderstorm.

“Hobbits are strange,” said Nori, “but I like this one. Let’s keep him.”

Thorin snorted, but he smiled all the way back to the smithy.

Chapter Text

Bag End was crowded, and noisy, and messier than ever. He couldn’t keep the pantries full, he was only alone when he excused himself to the bathroom (and then only for ten minutes before the banging at the door and cries of “But I’ve got to go!” started in), and he’d rolled up his mother’s rug in the main hall and replaced it with one he didn’t care for so that he wouldn’t have to worry about mud getting tracked in.

He’d never been happier that he could recall in his entire life.

Not that there weren’t adjustments to be made. Dwarves ate a lot, but not so often, so Bilbo took to making himself a lot of portable snacks between meals. Balin and Ori had practically taken over his study, so Bilbo moved his more personal writings under his bed and crossed his fingers that nobody got bored enough to invade his bedroom. Billa, adorable tiny newborn that she was, woke them all with her cries in the middle of the night--but Bilbo had what he considered a very pleasing solution to the lack of sleep.

“Come on,” he said mysteriously, tugging Thorin’s sleeve.

Thorin reluctantly set down his tools and followed. He’d taken over Bilbo’s father’s old workroom whenever he wasn’t at the forge, mostly fiddling with gears and tiny little pieces of metal that Bilbo didn’t see the purpose of.

“Where are we going?” Thorin asked as Bilbo led him deeper under the hill, his reluctance replaced with curiosity.

Bilbo stopped at a dead end and popped the panel off the wall. Inside, there was a small, unfinished space, lit with a lamp he’d placed ahead of time, and which he’d filled with extra blankets and pillows.

“We’re taking a nap,” Bilbo whispered theatrically, “in the only space in the smial no one else knows about.”

Thorin looked amused, but he allowed himself to be tugged into the little room, kneeling on one of the blankets while Bilbo pulled the panel back in front of the opening. There was a professional sort of curiosity in his eyes as he ran a hand over the packed dirt wall and the bracing beams.

“What is this place?” he asked.

“Shh!” Bilbo joked. “No one else can know!”

Thorin smirked and obligingly lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “What is this place?”

Bilbo fluffed up a couple of pillows and made a show of getting comfortable. “Well. My parents originally planned to have quite a large family. He was the eldest of five children, and she was one of twelve, so they wanted to end up somewhere in the middle--hence the many guest rooms.”

Twelve?” Thorin echoed, his eyes wide.

“Well, that’s quite a lot even for a hobbit, I admit,” Bilbo said, shrugging. “But that plan didn’t work out--they had trouble conceiving. They’d given up by the time I came along, and I was the only one. My father started a new tunnel to add even more bedrooms after he and my mother moved in, but he gave up when it became apparent that they weren’t going to need them--he just put a panel in to cover the beginnings of the work he’d already done, and here we are.”

“So…what are we doing here?”

Bilbo huffed and nudged Thorin’s knee with his foot. “I told you, we’re taking a nap.”

Thorin shot him another amused look. “I don’t need a nap.”

“Remind me you said that when the baby wakes everyone up at half two and you fall asleep in your tea again.”

Thorin tilted his head, appearing to consider that, and nodded once before lying down beside Bilbo in the nest of blankets.

Bilbo smiled to himself and fell asleep with a snoring dwarf’s breath ruffling his hair.

Naptimes weren’t the only time Bilbo got to be near Thorin. He still worked at the forge every day, and whenever Bilbo needed a break from all the chaos that had enveloped Bag End, he went down to watch Thorin work. He found it more soothing than ever.

Then there were the evenings, fewer and farther between as winter rapidly settled in, when it wasn’t too cold for them to sit out on Bilbo’s garden bench and smoke their pipes. Bilbo cherished those times most of all, when Thorin was awake but relaxed and he smiled a lot.

“Your Shire weed is growing on me,” Thorin commented one evening.

They were shivering, huddled in their cloaks and pressed up against each other from shoulder to knee, but it was worth it not to be indoors while Billa cried, and Fíli and Kíli blamed each other for waking her up, and Dís and Dwalin yelled at them both, and Balin tried to calm everybody down, and the children shouted because everyone else was shouting, and Bofur started the rest up in a rousing song that was meant to lull the baby to sleep but only made her cry louder, and Bilbo’s ears rang until he couldn’t hear himself think.

“Old Toby,” Bilbo said, nodding and taking a pleased draw from his pipe. “Some prefer Longbottom Leaf, but Old Toby is the best of the best.”

“It’s mellower than dwarvish varieties.”

Bilbo chuckled. “We’re mellower than dwarves. Are you really surprised?”

Thorin smiled. “No, I suppose not.” He paused, glancing at Bilbo out of the corner of his eye. “Perhaps I’m developing a taste for mellower things.”

He bit down on the end of his pipe and tried to control the manic grin trying to spread across his face. The tips of his ears felt hot, suddenly, instead of numb with cold.

“Oh, yes?” he said, carefully nonchalant.

“Yes,” Thorin said, his voice so low that it sent pleasant tingles through Bilbo’s middle. “Like quiet smokes in the cold. And afternoon naps. Or perhaps it’s just the company.”

There was no controlling the grin now. Not that he’d been doing very well before.

“I thought kings preferred nobler company,” he said lightly.

Thorin’s chuckle was a low rumble that he felt more than heard. “This king prefers hobbits with an inexplicable fondness for elvish poetry.”

Bilbo feigned surprise, widening his eyes and affecting an innocent tone. “I had no idea you were so close to Rosie Boffin. Did she tell you the one about--?”

He was cut off with a frustrated growl, and a pair of lips pressed against his own. He’d barely registered them before they were gone. Thorin pulled back looking startled and ashamed.

“I’m--I’m sorry, Bilbo, I--”

Bilbo rolled his eyes. “You apologise too much,” he said, and yanked Thorin back down for another kiss.

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

Winter was a much better season in the Shire, Thorin decided. There was more work, for one thing, as the denizens of Hobbiton and the surrounding areas discovered that dwarrow were useful for chopping wood and clearing blocked chimneys and other such labour. There were delicious foods as well--warm spiced mead and those wonderful sweet cinnamon buns that Bilbo said his mother used to bake. There were snowball fights to amuse the children and hunting for pine nuts in the woods.

Best of all, though, there were cozy evenings in front of the fire, curled up with Bilbo and a book. There was huddling for warmth in the market while waiting for the butcher to wrap up their order, and Bilbo’s arm linked with his. There were nights in Bilbo’s bed, breathing his scent and whispering their private thoughts to one another, where no one else could hear. There was reaching out for Bilbo’s hand and finding it reaching for his, too, their fingers lacing together and the utter, complete surety that he had found his One.

There was the smile on Bilbo’s face that let him know that he felt it, too.

“Why do you always do that?”

Bilbo’s flush deepened and he smiled guiltily. “Do what?”

Thorin finished wiping up his workspace for the day, quirking a brow at his lover. “You turn red and you look away when I look at you while I’m working.”

“Oh, that,” Bilbo said lightly, swinging his feet.

Thorin knew him well enough now to see through the act. He prowled over and placed a hand on either side of Bilbo’s hips on the anvil, levelling him with a serious look.

“Yes, that,” he said, pitching his voice low in a way that always seemed to please Bilbo and make him capitulate.

Not this time. Bilbo just kept that silly placid hobbit smile fixed on his face, though the redness in his cheeks had spread up his ears and down his neck.

Thorin sighed and straightened. “I know my form is…displeasing, but I--”

What?!

Thorin jumped a little, startled by Bilbo’s squawk. He blinked, nonplussed in the face of Bilbo’s gaping mouth and wide eyes.

Suddenly, Bilbo growled and grabbed him by the front of his tunic, yanking him down for a kiss. Thorin obliged gladly--he would never turn away a sign of Bilbo’s affection--though he remained confused by Bilbo’s reaction.

Bilbo broke the kiss but didn’t release his tunic. “Now, you listen here, Thorin Oakenshield. I don’t know what silly dwarvish nonsense this is, but I don’t find your form displeasing in the slightest. Rather the opposite, in fact.”

Thorin’s brow wrinkled. “I…beg your pardon?”

“You had better! Spouting such nonsense,” Bilbo grumbled, his fingers loosening from his tunic in favour of sliding across the plane of Thorin’s chest. “Displeasing, indeed. As though you didn’t know I liked looking at you.”

Thorin froze, his eyes shooting wide. “You….”

“Don’t play coy! You know I--” Bilbo stopped, his head tilting. “You don’t, do you? You really don’t.”

He slowly brought his hands up, tracing up Thorin’s neck. Thorin shivered as Bilbo’s fingers threaded through his beard to settle on his cheeks. Bilbo tenderly pressed a kiss to his nose.

“Thorin…I think you’re beautiful,” he said lowly. “I turn red and look away when you’re working because I’m embarrassed about how much I love looking at you. You’re strong…and graceful, and so, so beautiful.”

Thorin couldn’t contain another shudder, laying a hand over Bilbo’s to keep it on his cheek. “Dwarves don’t…. I’m not considered….”

Bilbo darted forward to press another kiss to his nose.

“Beautiful.”

He pressed a kiss to his brow.

“Beautiful.”

Another kiss to Thorin’s knuckles.

“Beautiful.”

And another to kiss to his other hand.

“Beautiful.”

Thorin let out a wordless moan and captured Bilbo’s lips with his own. He had no idea how he’d been so lucky as to find someone who thought him beautiful, of all things, but he never wanted to let him go. He recalled with a thrill of pleasure Bilbo’s appreciation of his forging skill and began crafting pendants and fine chains and circlets in his head. Bilbo would look magnificent, if he had anything to say of it--with the wealth of Erebor, he could drape Bilbo in the rarest gems, in gold and mithril, in any form Bilbo desired it.

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

Bilbo thought he’d never been happier before--he was wrong. This, being with Thorin, was the happiest he’d ever felt in his entire life. Sometimes he thought he might burst with it. Thorin was sweet and gentle and soft when they were alone, and even among company, he was rarely out of contact with Bilbo, his regal, remote expression softening when he looked Bilbo’s way. He was thoughtful and helpful, even if Bilbo didn’t always quite understand the thoughtfulness.

“Er--thank you?” he said when Thorin presented him with a twisted silver cuff studded with small stone chips.

Thorin seemed pleased enough with that reaction, and the fact that Bilbo wore the cuff on his wrist thereafter. It was Balin who noticed Bilbo’s puzzlement and took pity on him.

“The cuff is styled in such a way that any dwarf would know it means ‘one who is exalted,’” Balin explained patiently, amusement and a bit of fond exasperation twisting his smile. “In the days of Thorin’s grandfather, it was a common way of expressing that you adore the one you’re courting and won’t take kindly to anyone interfering--whether by attempting to court you themselves or by meddling to speed things along in the interest of helping.”

Bilbo’s face heated and he restrained the urge to point out that he and Thorin had gone a bit beyond simply courting. Certainly Bilbo had courted and been courted a few times in his youth, and he’d never taken any of them to his bed.

“And the little stones?” he asked instead.

Balin’s smile widened. “The red ones are jasper, which are used to signify that he finds joy in you and you’re under his protection. The blue ones are topaz--a poor dwarf’s choice to represent love, when emeralds are not available or too expensive. It’s a bit old-fashioned of him, but a very fine piece of work to present you with.”

“Oh.” Bilbo ran a finger over the twisted silver, vaguely resembling vines. “I should thank him more properly, then.”

It was the wrong time of year for flowers, so Bilbo baked him a blackberry pie made from preserves and found other ways to express his appreciation and reciprocation later that night. Thorin kept blushing the next day every time he looked at Bilbo, but he was clearly very pleased.

If there was a blemish on any of those lovely winter days, it was that sometimes, when they were out and about, Thorin would stop and look East, and his face would cloud over, his mind far away from the Shire. Bilbo would tug his hand to get his attention again, and the moment would pass as though it had never been. Bilbo did his best to dismiss those moments from his mind, though they increased with frequency as the weather improved and the dwarves’ purses fattened with coin.

Chapter Text

“What are you doing?”

Thorin jumped despite himself. Dís frowned at him, looking neither triumphant nor amused. Whatever she wanted must be serious, then.

He sighed. “I’m building a shade for Bilbo. One that winds up, like his father made for him.”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”

He shook his head slowly. “No, actually, I don’t.”

Her frown deepened and she stepped further into the room, waving a hand at the jumble of pieces on the worktable.

“You’re making Bilbo another gift. You’re courting him, openly and freely.” Dís caught his eye, her mouth pressed in a thin line. “And I saw you with Balin and Dwalin and Fíli this morning, looking over maps. Making travel plans.”

Thorin stiffened, quickly turning his attention to packing away his tools. “And?”

“This is exactly why you were reluctant to be around him in the first place!” she cried, obviously losing the rein on her temper. “You told me so yourself, that you didn’t want to get involved with him because you knew you’d be leaving him in the end! You can have Bilbo or you can have Erebor, but you can’t have both!”

He clenched his jaw. “I will come back for him, after.”

“If we’re not all dead,” Dís said dryly.

He whipped around to glare at her. “What is that supposed to mean?”

She threw up her hands. “We’re going up against Smaug, Thorin--a dragon who laid waste to our people! The odds were never in our favour to begin with, but now, with only a handful of us….”

That--that stung. Thorin felt it like a knife in the gut. He tried not to let her see his hands tremble. No matter what happened, he’d always been able to count on her belief in him. Without that, he felt…lost.

“If you thought there was no hope, then why did you come along in the first place?” he ground out, tightly controlling his throat and jaw so his voice wouldn’t betray him with a waver. “You could have stayed in Ered Luin, led our people--”

“I couldn’t let you try it alone,” Dís said, an edge of regret in her tone. “And I knew you would, if you had to.”

Thorin snorted. “Nothing has changed. I still will, if I must.”

“Everything has changed! Thorin, we don’t need Erebor anymore--don’t you see? We could stay here--”

He dodged her hand when she reached for him. “Stay here and live off of hobbit charity for the rest of our lives? No.”

She let out a noise somewhere between a sigh and a screech. “It isn’t charity when it’s family! Bilbo loves you, Thorin. He’d do anything for you--for any of us.”

“Then he’ll wait for my return.”

He’d never seen Dís so close to screaming with frustration. She tugged at her hair, her beard, and swiped at her wet eyes, but to her credit, her voice was nearly normal when she spoke again.

Why are you so set on this? We could have a good life here. It isn’t necessary to reclaim Erebor!”

Thorin didn’t know how to explain it to her. There was a pull, deep inside him, calling him East--and an ache that had never truly gone away, not since that day when Smaug descended and set their lives ablaze.

He would happily have ignored both of those things to stay with Bilbo, if it was just for himself. But this was about more than what he wanted.

“It’s my duty, Dís,” he said quietly. “I must. You know this.”

She backed off, folding her arms--closing off. The blank look on her face told him everything he needed to know.

She couldn’t argue with duty to their people. It was her duty, too.

“You’re going to have to tell Bilbo, sooner or later. And I don’t want to be there when you do.”

She walked out without giving him a chance to respond.

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

Bilbo had no idea what was bothering Thorin, but it was getting more and more difficult to get his attention. The last of the snow had melted and the first buds of spring were emerging, but the warming weather seemed to make Thorin more distant, rather than less.

A part of him was quietly panicking. This was hardly the first time he’d lost a potential companion--they all tended to get bored with him, sooner or later, and the feeling was generally mutual by the time they got around to breaking it off. This time, though, Bilbo wasn’t ready to give Thorin up. He didn’t think he ever would be.

He’d got used to it, somehow--to having a snoring dwarf beside him, to always having a hand to hold, a warm body to lean against, another person to just be there with him, to draw strength and comfort from. He could no longer imagine sitting by his fire alone with his books. It would be too quiet without Thorin’s soft, even breaths and the quiet rustling as he turned the page in his own book.

But, he reminded himself once again, you are a grown hobbit. You can handle this calmly, and you will, when he decides he’s had enough of you.

There was a strange part to it all that Bilbo couldn’t quite figure out--for all his distracted behaviour during the day, at night Thorin still clutched him close, holding him tight like he was afraid Bilbo would disappear if he loosened his grip just a little. It was odd, if he really was getting tired of Bilbo.

Perhaps it was a dwarf thing.

He tried to put all of it from his mind, and as Thorin spent less time with him, he turned his own attention to the children.

“Why are we making these out of paper?” Gimli asked, even as he obediently pasted the bottom of the paper to the little square wooden base. “Won’t they catch fire?”

“They might,” Bilbo said, grinning, “but it won’t matter if they do, because they’ll be out on the water.”

That made all the children look up, gaping.

“On the water?” Burar echoed.

“Yes! You see, we make them out of paper and a piece of light wood because these are floating lanterns,” he said, showing them his own completed lantern once again. “There will be a spring festival next week, as I’m sure you’re all aware, and that night, at the end of the party, after it’s dark, we’ll light little candles, put them in the base, and then push our lanterns out onto the Water. It looks very beautiful--you’ll see.”

“Do you think amad will want to make one of these?” Katla wondered.

Bilbo shrugged, smiling, and gestured at the table full of paper, paints, dried flower petals and other supplies. “You could certainly ask her. I have plenty of supplies--anyone can make one who wants to. In fact, I’m sure Fíli and Kíli would love to.”

“I’ll go ask them!” said Burin, and tore off to find them.

“These flower petals are boring. I want to put gems on mine,” Burar said.

Bilbo opened his mouth, but a voice from behind him beat him to it.

“I think it will probably sink if you do that.”

Bilbo whirled. “Thorin.”

Thorin attempted a smile. Bilbo swallowed and tucked his hands in his pockets to hide their sudden tremor. Well, here it comes.

“Bilbo--may I speak with you privately for a moment?”

He nodded and followed Thorin silently, trying to ignore how that lovely deep voice still made his heart skip.

They arrived at the little dead space that had become their private napping nook. It was a miracle that no one else had found it after all this time. Bilbo was certain that if they had, the space would have been constantly occupied by one dwarf or another seeking solitude. As it was, the cozy arrangement of blankets and pillows that provided them respite from the rest of the world remained undisturbed.

Bilbo sat himself as far from Thorin as he could manage in the small space. He wasn’t sure he could get through this if they were touching. He stared at his hands, twisting and untwisting the hem of one of the blankets.

“Bilbo.”

He forced a bland smile to his face and looked up. Thorin’s expression was troubled, as it was so often now.

He was a Baggins. He could get through this with his dignity intact.

“Yes, Thorin? What did you want to talk about?”

Thorin opened his mouth. No sound emerged. He closed it again, and a brief flash of pain crossed his face.

Bilbo’s heart clenched. “You don’t have to say it. I understand.”

Thorin’s head snapped up, his eyes wide. “Say what?”

He grimaced. “You don’t love me anymore. It’s okay, I--”

No! That’s not--!”

Thorin broke off, grabbing him by the back of the neck and pulling him in for a rough kiss. Bilbo returned it, though he was confused and not reassured at all. There was still pain and desperation in all of Thorin’s movements, in the short, wild kiss.

“Then…what is it?” Bilbo asked when Thorin’s grip on him eased enough for them to look at each other properly. “You’re worrying me.”

Thorin’s eyes closed briefly. “I’m sorry.”

He slipped his hand to the back of Thorin’s neck, mirroring his grip on him, offering what comfort he could. “Don’t apologise--tell me what’s wrong.”

He swallowed hard enough that Bilbo could hear it. “We--have enough money to leave,” he said, just barely above a whisper.

Bilbo went very still. “Leave?”

Thorin nodded, the skin of their foreheads rubbing together. “We can get to Bree and buy new ponies and supplies, plus plenty leftover besides.”

He withdrew his hand, leaning back against Thorin’s hand on his neck so their foreheads no longer touched. “But…. Leave? Where…?”

Thorin winced. “Bilbo…we must continue on to Erebor, as we planned. We’ve tarried here too long as it is--”

Bilbo pushed Thorin’s arm away, jerking out of his grip. “But I thought you were happy here!” With me…. “Your people aren’t starving anymore, and you were happy….”

He sighed, dropping his hand to the blankets. “We are happy--I am happy here, but this isn’t just about the people I have with me. My people in Ered Luin are still starving, and I can’t just turn my back on them.”

“But they exiled you!” Bilbo said hotly, even as he flushed with guilt for pointing that out.

“That doesn’t make them any less my responsibility,” Thorin said patiently, his expression more pained than ever. “They are still my people, even if they no longer want me as their king. If I can help them, I must try.”

He couldn’t argue with that--he really couldn’t, no matter how selfishly he wanted Thorin with him. He couldn’t ask anyone to let their people starve because it would make him unhappy if they left.

“And how exactly do you plan to take back Erebor from a dragon?” he demanded instead, folding his arms. “I don’t know much about dragons, but I know enough to understand that it’s not a matter of just waltzing up and asking it politely if it wouldn’t mind vacating the premises!”

Thorin shook his head wearily. “There is a stone--if we can retrieve it from the hoard, the dwarves will rally to me and we can--”

Bilbo laughed. He couldn’t help it. It was a bitter, ugly sound. He didn’t like himself very much at the moment, but he really couldn’t help it. It hurt.

Thorin’s lips thinned. “Bilbo, please. I’ll come back for you, after it’s done. This is just something I have to do. Please try to understand.”

“I do. I do understand,” Bilbo said coldly. “I understand that you’re going to die trying to fetch a rock to make the other dwarves listen to you.”

His eyes went hard. “We’re not going to die.”

“It’s a bloody dragon, Thorin! I won’t hold my breath for you to come back.”

Bilbo stood and left without a backward glance, fuming. He thought perhaps it might have hurt less if Thorin had simply said he didn’t love him anymore. The thought of Thorin dying, killed by a dragon….

He pushed the thought away ruthlessly.

“Bilbo? Are you all right?” Fíli asked when he stomped back into the sitting room.

He forced a smile, willing the tension from his shoulders. “Just fine, Fíli, just fine. How are we coming along with the lanterns, then?”

Chapter Text

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Dwalin said with a shrug. “We probably are going to die.”

Thorin shot him a glare, but his friend was, as always, unimpressed. “Does no one have any faith in me at all?”

Dwalin shook his head. “It’s not a matter of faith in you. You know we’d all go to Mordor and back with you and be thankful for the opportunity. But it is a dragon. I was there when Smaug came, too, remember? We lost a lot of fine warriors that day. We can’t fight that beast, and we don’t have a real plan. Right now, it doesn’t look good for us unless we can come up with something better than ‘sneak in, steal the Stone, hope the beast doesn’t wake up, and hit it with sharp objects if it does.’”

True, it was a bad plan, if it could be called a plan at all.

“My original plan was ‘attack Smaug with an army while he sleeps,’ but that would require an actual army,” he said, somewhat bitterly.

That was a good plan, if only he could have got some cooperation.

“Well, this plan could come off, too, if we could find someone sneaky enough,” Dwalin said consolingly, though Thorin noted that he still kept the plate of biscuits to himself.

He raised a brow. “Don’t let Nori hear you say that.”

Dwalin snorted. “Nori’s sneaky, all right, but I caught him myself enough times to say with certainty that he’s not quite good enough to sneak past a dragon, and I’ll say it to his face if he really wants to go round again. I haven’t had a good fight in far too long.”

For a moment, Thorin thought of Bilbo--how he startled people without meaning to, his tread so light even when he was walking normally that none of them heard him coming if he wasn’t chattering about something--but he dismissed it.

“I’m sure you’ll have plenty of good fights in the days to come,” he said, clapping Dwalin on the shoulder.

“I could have a good fight now if Nori wasn’t a coward!

He tilted his head, listening, and returned to his biscuits with a disappointed grunt when Nori didn’t appear from the woodwork.

Thorin sighed and stood. “Let me know if you find him--I need to know if he’ll be ready to go in a week’s time, after the two of you are done beating each other bloody.”

Dwalin waved a hand in acknowledgment, and Thorin wandered off, seeking solitude--preferably somewhere that didn’t remind him of Bilbo.

It probably wasn’t wise to wait out the week, not now that Bilbo was furious with him. Oh, he knew better than to think that Bilbo would turn them out, but it wouldn’t be comfortable for either of them.

But the children and his sister-sons would be disappointed if they left before the hobbits’ spring festival, now that Bilbo had told them all about it and begun involving them in preparations.

And Thorin didn’t want to leave any sooner than he had to. He felt like he was being torn in two--one part of him pulling him East, and the other holding on tooth and nail to the Shire, to Bag End--to Bilbo. He’d finally found his One, and he never wanted to let go.

Time had never frozen for him before, and it didn’t now. The week dragged on, no matter how hard he willed the days to slow. He saw little of Bilbo--he suspected his hobbit was avoiding him.

He could hardly blame him. He would’ve been furious if Bilbo had told him he was leaving him for a suicide mission, too. He hadn’t felt like that was what it was before, but everyone else seemed to think they were doomed, and with Bilbo angry with him, everything felt…heavier. Or perhaps he felt more tired.

Even the festival wasn’t the joy that Bilbo’s birthday or the Yule festivities had been. Thorin found the food tasted like ash and the music sounded dissonant to his ears. He kept to himself, unable to bear the mindless chatter of the hobbits this time. His eyes drifted to Bilbo more often than not. Bilbo didn’t look at him.

They were leaving in the morning. He was sure Bilbo knew that, though he hadn’t been able to tell him himself. He’d wanted to say goodbye, before they left, but….

“Stay.”

Thorin jumped. When had Dís developed such a knack for sneaking up on him?

She looked at him grimly. “Stay. Fíli and Kíli made floating water lanterns and they want you to see. Stay, for them.”

He sighed and nodded, waiting for nightfall.

It truly was a worthwhile sight, when it came. The hobbits all gathered on the banks of the Bywater and lit their paper lanterns, gently setting them adrift on the water. They floated out into the darkness together until it looked like a sea of stars.

A small, warm hand slipped into his.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it,” Bilbo murmured.

Thorin drew a slow breath, squeezing Bilbo’s hand. “It is.”

“It’s symbolic, you know. You’re supposed to put your hopes for the new year into the lantern, and sending them down the Water is supposed to carry them to Ulmo, who will bring them to Yavanna for us when he brings her news of the coming of spring.”

He kept his voice low, matching Bilbo’s, afraid of breaking the peace that had settled over and between them.

“And what did you hope for?”

Bilbo finally looked up at him, his eyes shining in the dim light. “I don’t want to say. It was selfish of me.”

Thorin’s breath hitched. He squeezed Bilbo’s hand again. “I would stay if I could--”

“I know,” Bilbo interrupted gently. “I know. You have to do what’s best for your people. I understand.”

He leaned against Thorin then, and he gladly wrapped an arm around Bilbo, revelling in his warmth, his scent.

“I’ll come back for you,” he whispered into Bilbo’s hair.

He would. If he had to drag himself back to the Shire on his hands and knees, he would come back for his Bilbo, his One.

Bilbo put a hand on his chest, tracing the geometric shapes on the front of his tunic. “Stay with me tonight.”

Thorin held him tighter. “Yes.”

⤧⤧⤧⤧⤧

It was silent. Completely and utterly silent.

Bilbo sat on the floor before his hearth, staring around him, feeling as though Bag End had suddenly become a different place, somewhere he’d never seen before in his life.

The dwarves had gone at first light, after an early breakfast. Bilbo’s ribs ached from the bone-crushing hugs he’d received from every single one of his dwarves. He had wept, despite his best efforts, but he was hardly alone. The children cried harder than anyone, and the pastries Bilbo gave them did nothing to quell their tears--rather the reverse. Even Billa cried, though she was a baby, so that was understandable. Only Thorin’s eyes were dry, though his face was ashen and he didn’t speak much.

“We’ll bring you back a dragon tooth!” Kíli had boasted through his tears.

“And golden dishes!” Bofur added, grinning wetly.

They likely wouldn’t bring him back anything, since they would probably be killed by a dragon. He’d never see them again.

“This is for you,” Thorin said, low and empty, as he handed over a small box.

Bilbo opened it and stared at the little lamp and shade in his hands. It was smaller than the one his father had made for him, but much more intricate. There were leaves and flowers etched into the copper, and small chips of topaz set around the base of the lamp. Thorin had somehow set small pieces of coloured glass in the openings so that the birds flying would be blue and the ribbon floating between them would be red. The detail was exquisite, and Bilbo had no doubt that when he used the little key in the base to wind it up, the birds would look like real birds flying through the air.

“It’s beautiful,” he choked out. “Really. Beautiful.”

“To keep you company, until I come back,” Thorin said, and then Bilbo was in his arms. They didn’t say anything more, but they didn’t need to.

Thorin likely wouldn’t be coming back, and this was all Bilbo would have left of him.

Bilbo stared at the lamp and shade, sitting on the floor in front of him.

Why was he just sitting here, then? The people he loved most in the world--his true family, the dwarf he loved more than anyone he’d ever met--were off on a suicidal quest, so why was he still here? Why wasn’t he with them? He’d certainly live longer if he stayed put--but to what end? To live the rest of his life lonely and full of grief?

When he could be with them, fighting beside them, seeing the world hand in hand with Thorin?

He could hear the clock ticking.

He wasn’t his father. He couldn’t just sit here and wait.

He bolted to his feet, his fingers buzzing, his heart racing. He had many preparations to see to in a very short amount of time. They already had an hour’s head start on him, and he didn’t know how long they would tarry in Bree if he couldn’t catch up before then.

The wind-up shade and lamp was the first thing he packed.

By evening, the keys to Bag End and letters to all the necessary people were in his gardener’s hands, and Bilbo was pulling a laden pony as fast as he could along the Road. He didn’t pause to speak to anybody, or someone might have told him that he had the biggest, silliest grin they’d ever seen plastered across his face.

He likely wouldn’t have cared anyway.

He caught up with his dwarves, pulling their new cart and pony, the next morning. He broke into a run as soon as he spotted them, ignoring his pony’s disgruntled huff as it struggled to keep up.

“Wait! Wait!” he shouted.

Thorin brought them to a halt and watched his approach with wide eyes. “Bilbo! What--”

“Take me with you!” Bilbo burst out, panting heavily. “I don’t care what lies at the end of the Road, as long as I’m with you! Take me with you!”

Thorin stared for a moment longer--and then he broke out in the most radiant smile Bilbo had ever seen. He held out his hand, and Bilbo took it, and they resumed walking, ignoring the cheers and the catcalls of the other dwarves.

There would be a dragon and gold and more trouble than they bargained for before the end, but all that mattered was that they would face every adventure together.

Bilbo couldn’t wait to start his first adventure, with Thorin at his side.

Bag End would be waiting for them when they were ready to return to it, but stepping onto the Road with his dwarves, he was already home.

(End)

 

Epilogue

To the Mayor of Hobbiton:

It has been decided by the ONLY SENSIBLE PEOPLE in my Company that an Adventure as grand as the one I am about to partake in is too dangerous for children. As such, I have sent the children and their mothers back to Hobbiton with this letter communicating my wishes whilst I am on my Adventure.

As the OFFICIAL GODFATHER of the dwarves Gimli, Burar, Burin, Katla, and Billa, I am officially appointing the aforementioned dwarves as my HEIRS to BAG END and all the inherent RIGHTS, MONIES, AND PROPERTIES thereof. However, as the aforementioned dwarves are too young to see to the duties and responsibilities of the Master of Bag End in my absence, I have appointed the dwarves Lilja and Rikka as the Executors of Bag End, and they will act on the behalf of the Heirs and in my stead whilst I am away.

If ANYONE (Lobelia) has an issue with any of these appointments, then they may speak to the Thain, to whom I have also sent a letter of this nature, as well as a copy of the OFFICIAL CONTRACT laying out the details.

Also note that I have authorised Lilja to use ANY MEASURES that she deems necessary if ANYONE (Lobelia) so much as TOUCHES my silver spoons!

I expect my Heirs and Executors to be RESPECTED and WELL-TREATED by EVERYONE (including Lobelia) whilst I am away, and FURTHERMORE, I expect to still have both spoons and tomatoes when my family and I return!

Sincerely,

Bilbo Baggins, Esq.
Temporarily at the Inn of the Prancing Pony
Bree