When the Company left Hobbiton, Bilbo had been too afraid of being left behind to make a fuss about the rationing. And, anyway, it made sense that they would have to tighten their belts while travelling. While on walking holidays, Bilbo had rationed, before. Perhaps not so extremely, but why make a fuss about it?
In Imladris, the Dwarrow had been too distressed by the lack of meat to notice Bilbo polishing off his food, and even some of theirs. Naturally, when the Company stuck together and ate from their rations, no one thought that the hobbit wouldn’t want food. Finally, he’d felt full, and slept well.
At Beorn’s house, the portions were so large, Bilbo was in heaven. He could eat to his heart’s delight, and although his status had been vastly improved thanks to his defence of Thorin, none of the Dwarrow noticed quite how much Bilbo ate. Only Beorn himself had made mention, laughing as he watched Bilbo gorge himself.
Mirkwood had been the worst. First, they’d rationed for the trip, and then he’d been invisible. It should have made stealing easier, but the truth was, elves were sharp. It was only luck that the guards had gotten drunk on their feast day. While preparing for said feast; however, the kitchen was tightly guarded and Bilbo had barely eaten. He’d thought he might be better off giving himself up to the Elvin King than to starve to death—for surely that was the worst death possible, even though that damnable contract had said nothing about starvation as a form of death. The Dwarrow really did overlook the worst possible death—and, if he’d known that starvation was so likely, perhaps Bilbo would have rethought his decision to come. Perhaps, though likely not.
Then, they arrived in Laketown, where Bilbo was under far too much scrutiny, and the proximity to the Mountain, well, Bilbo was not nerveless, and apparently, the prospect of facing a dragon was enough to knot his stomach. That, or maybe he had simply become too accustomed to a state of hunger. He wasn’t entirely certain. The days that followed had been bad. He’d confronted Smaug, then there had been the horrible waiting, and finally the battle. Understandably, food had been scarce, but Bilbo did not complain.
Now, however, things were different. They had won the battle, and Thranduil had brought stores from Mirkwood. Even the Dwarrow accepted the Elvin King’s aid and so Bilbo knew that rations were no longer so tightly controlled. As a highly prized member of the Company, he’d been given chambers in the Mountain. To his joy, he had a fireplace and had been informed that it was quite serviceable—which was good because it was painfully cold. Heat, however, was an afterthought. Instead, he’d immediately gone to the food stores. As a member of said Company, no one questioned him when he demanded supplies—and he had demanded a lot.
Alone in his room, Bilbo surveyed his handiwork with a smile. His fireplace now had metal racks that he’d cobbled together. Moreover, thanks to the lax guard, his room was now filled with groceries. His stomach growled in anticipation. Bilbo began to hum as he made his preparations.
“We didn’t want to question him,” Thorin stared at the nervous guard. He was not alone, many of the Company were with him as they listened in disbelief to the man. Well, disbelief, and some nervousness. Why would their hobbit need so much food? Was something wrong? they wondered--the latter fear echoing in the King’s mind in particular. “Sire, he took enough rations to feed a family for nigh on a month!”
“I will investigate,” Thorin finally said. The man, looking relieved, bowed low and departed.
“What do you think that was about?” Fíli asked.
“I have no idea,” Thorin replied truthfully. “Are there more?” he turned to Balin.
“Not today,” his advisor replied.
“Let’s go to dinner, we can ask Bilbo about this matter there,” Thorin announced. Behind him, Fíli shot a look in his brother’s direction as they left the throne room, and catching on, the younger Durin departed to wrangle the rest of the Company.
To their disappointment; however, Bilbo did not turn up for dinner. Still, they knew that he had enough food so they figured that their questions could wait until morning. Still tired and healing from their own wounds, the Company dispersed for an early night.
The next morning, most of the Dwarrow were not too worried when Bilbo failed to turn up to breakfast. While they were still quite curious about the matter it had been a long few days. He had looked rather wan, they reasoned so, perhaps, he was having a lie-in. When he did not come to lunch, even though they knew he had food, they began to worry in earnest. Burning with curiosity, Fíli and Kíli stopped by his room. From the corridor, they heard singing and sounds of life, and although tempted to knock, figured he just wanted to be left alone. The hobbit did not turn up to dinner either, but there was a minor attack on the outskirts of the camp, so most of the Company were not there to worry.
In the morning, however, Bilbo was once more absent from breakfast, and the Dwarrow’s patience ran out. Their hobbit, they knew, was different from them, but this was abnormal according to all standards. They had to do something.
Bilbo was halfway through second breakfast and contemplating which cake to have with elevensies when the racket began. There were a lot of footsteps, some shouting, and then a cacophony of banging on his door. Bilbo scowled, setting down his fork and knife with a melancholy look at his plate of sausages and eggs before he went to the door. He opened it, more gently than he had in Bag End, and found all thirteen Dwarrow on his doorstep.
“Are you okay?” Kíli demanded, his voice frantic with fright.
“Why, yes,” Bilbo frowned. “I’m quite alright, why wouldn’t I be?”
“You haven’t come out for days!” Fíli protested.
“Has it been days?” Bilbo frowned. Without windows, it was hard to tell at times how much time had passed, but he had eaten a lot yesterday, and he was on breakfast again now. He had lost himself in his cooking, forgetting about the rest of the world. Guiltily, his eye caught on his pantry—or well, his bedroom-turned-pantry.
“Yes,” Thorin replied, and Bilbo felt his stomach do some odd flip flop.
“Oh,” Bilbo managed. “But, please, come in! It’s a little late to make everyone a full second breakfast, but I’m certain no one would mind an early elevensies,” he eyed the clock. He’d had a lie in this morning, and it was close enough to eleven.
The Dwarrow trooped in, their eyes going wide as they surveyed the food that Bilbo had prepared.
“Preparing for a feast?” Bofur asked in a friendly manner.
“No,” Bilbo frowned as he brought cakes, scones, breads, muffins, croissants, and danishes over. “Tea?” he asked, oblivious to their wide eyes.
“Is this what you’ve been doing for the past day?” Dori interrupted—unable to contain himself.
“Well, it’s just the basics, nothing all that fancy, but I know we have to wait until spring at least to have real trade routes,” Bilbo said as he put the kettle on.
“What do you mean the basics?” Kíli frowned, a blueberry muffin in each hand—they really were divine.
“Well, you know, any elevensies ought to have a plate with pastries, and they can be re-used if necessary for first breakfast and even afternoon tea. Though sandwiches are better for afternoon tea I suppose,” Bilbo replied with a shrug.
“Afternoon tea?” multiple voices questioned at once.
“Why naturally, I mean, this really is almost as embarrassing as the dinner I had to serve you from my pantry,” Bilbo replied, pouring out the tea-kettle, so he missed the looks of incredulity on the Dwarrow’s faces.
“What was embarrassing about that?” Dwalin demanded.
“Well, it was just cold food and a bit of stew, nothing fancy, and not much food either,” Bilbo still felt the tips of his ears warning at the recollection. It was true that they’d emptied his pantry, but what else could be expected given that he had no real food to serve them?
“And eating this much is normal?” Ori asked, almost timidly.
“Well, faunts may eat more, and pregnant women,” Bilbo replied. “I suppose too it depends a little on what you can afford, and what is in season,” he carried the first tray of tea over.
“So how many meals in total?” Ori asked, after Dori had placed an elbow in his side.
“Six, or even seven, whenever we can get them,” Bilbo replied, doctoring his cup and moving to find a place to sit, palming a few pastries on his way. “I typically favour the seven,” he admitted taking his seat.
“Meals a day?” Dori blurted.
“Well, I really didn’t need seven, but I had the time and resources to prepare the seven, so I usually had all seven,” Bilbo nodded.
“We only eat three times, if that,” Ori said, his voice a little hollow as the realization struck.
“I know,” Bilbo replied before he could think of a more diplomatic response.
“So, you were starving yourself the whole time we were on the Quest?” Kíli asked, his eyes going wide.
“I mean,” Bilbo stammered, “well, we all tightened our belts.”
“But we are used to doing that, you were never conditioned to do so,” Thorin interjected. Bilbo looked over to him and saw that the king was regarding him with an odd expression on his face.
“I was rather large at the start though, it wasn’t horrible for me to get back in shape.” Bilbo didn’t know why he was trying to justify the truth that Thorin had voiced. Even the notion of “getting in shape” was preposterous in the Shire—where the larger your middle the more respectable you were. Not to mention, the king had a point—Bilbo had starved on those first few days. It had been horrible, and he had thought that he would expire—but he’d been so desperate to gain acceptance he hadn’t said anything.
“It was my job to ensure the welfare of my Company. As your Leader, I was to guide and protect you, especially in cases when you could not do so for yourselves. In this endeavour, I failed you. For that, I can never apologize enough,” Thorin’s Durin-blue gaze locked with Bilbo’s. The hobbit felt his ears go red in embarrassment. Why he felt such an emotion, he was not certain.
Together, the Company had gone to hell and back together—they knew so much intimate information about each other from surviving and living together. Still, to have Thorin stand here and apologize to him? Bilbo felt the overwhelming desire to tell the King it was nothing—to insist that even being able to be a member of Thorin Oakenshield’s Company was a just exchange for the lack of food. Bilbo nearly fell to his knees to profess the truth, but then he came abruptly back to himself—and reality.
“I mean, you couldn’t have known, you didn’t really know much about hobbits after all,” he said.
“You are right,” Thorin nodded thoughtfully. “And it is a fault that we must all beg your forgiveness for. We have overlooked many of your traditions, too caught up in our own mission.” Thorin moved closer, and Bilbo felt his heart flutter in his chest as he caught a whiff of Thorin’s scent. He had not been this close to the King since they had travelled together—the chairs in that damn council room set so far apart.
“Wh-what?” Bilbo stammered, still looking up into Thorin’s face. It was a beautiful face, he thought, especially now that they all had access to plumbing, hygiene had gotten so much better.
“Will you, Bilbo Baggins, do us the honour of explaining hobbit culture to us?” Thorin asked.
“Oh, well, of course,” Bilbo nodded, still stammering.
“I would like that very much,” Thorin was still standing very close, and Bilbo fought the urge to reach out and take the king’s hand. “Erebor would be all the stronger if we were to establish a true partnership with the Shire and your people,” Thorin was continuing, and just like that Bilbo felt as though he’d once more fallen from the elves’ cellars into the icy river.
“Well, naturally, I would be happy to make the introductions,” Bilbo heard himself say, as he returned to his seat. He tried desperately not to hold on to the hurt, but it was unavoidable. He could not completely forget it.
“Will you tell us more now though?” Ori asked.
“About hobbit culture,” Kíli nodded.
“Well, I suppose I ought to,” Bilbo nodded thoughtfully. “Concerning hobbits,” he sighed. “Where to begin?” he smiled at his audience—or most of it. He resigned not to look at the king again—for that was too dangerous.
As the hobbit launched into his story, he looked attentively at his audience. His gaze scanned the room though he pointedly ignored the King’s gaze. As a result, he was the only one who failed to notice the way that Thorin hung on to each and every word he spoke about meals, mead, and pipeweed. The hobbit had a lot to say on all of the topics and, as interesting as it all was, none of the Dwarrow were nearly as attentive as their King—whose lips quirked in a little smile, that even reached his eyes—not that the Hobbit saw.