Fighting back violent shivers, Bilbo wrapped his arms tightly around his midsection. He was curled tightly in as small a ball as he could manage, the thin blanket he had been given days ago by one of Thranduils healers did little to keep the biting cold at bay.
Winter had settled onto Erebor like the carrion crows that still picked at the fields beyond the mountain’s entrance, and what little fuel they had had been dedicated to the cook fires, leaving none to spare for ‘general comfort’ he had been told. He curled his toes as closely under his body as he could manage, the feeling was all but gone from his feet.
Crossly he gave the flickering lamp a halfhearted glare. Its small cheerful glow bounced and danced across the heavy tapestry that lined the far wall, untouched by the bitter cold of the stone. He was tired. Beyond tired really, exhausted. His thoughts were slurring together like different gravies on the same plate and he could barely focus. All he wanted was to sleep but he fought to stay awake.
It was deathly cold in the room that he had been given, and he feared that if he slept, he wouldn’t wake up.
Groaning he forced himself to his feet, body wracked with tremors, and shuffled slowly to the door. It took him three tries to turn the doorknob. Dimly he thought that, if he could make it to the kitchens, it might be a bit warmer there. He might be able to find a quiet corner to curl up in where he might not freeze to death.
Hunching his shoulders he cupped his hands over his mouth, huffing out a breath that did little to warm the skin, and curled through the air in a frost that was thick and heavy as smoke.
He looked up.
“What are you doing up? It’s the middle of the night.”
Of course it would be Thorin. He hadn’t seen the injured king for weeks since they had moved him along with the rest of the injured into the mountain, and now there he stood in all of his glory. His left arm was still in a sling, and with his right he leaned heavily on a thick crutch. A small lamp not unlike the one in Bilbo’s room hung from his left fist where it protruded past the sling.
He realized he had been staring silently for several moments, mind almost as numb from the cold as the rest of his body had become.
He really didn’t know what to say. It had been Kili that had brought him to his room several day ago and he had been so excited about it, explaining that the rooms were part of the palace and generally reserved for close relatives of the royal family. The prince had been so very proud of assigning the rooms to Bilbo, explaining how they had been prepared especially for him and he really hadn’t had the heart in the intervening time to ask where he had been expected to sleep.
Nowhere in the chambers that he had been given had he found anything at resembling a bed. There was something he was fairly certain was a bedroom, with heavy dressers, a thick trunk and a low padded bench tracing along a wall adorned with a heavy tapestry, but no bed. No windows, no padded furniture (which made sense given the lack of supplies at the moment) and not even a single blanket.
A heavy hand on his shoulder brought him out of his muddled thoughts. Thorin had crossed the space between them while he had been lost in his own mind and now stood close enough that Bilbo imagined he could feel the heat rolling off the other’s body.
Without deciding to he found himself leaning closer to the dwarf.
Balancing himself without the crutch, Thorin brought his hand up to cup the side of the hobbit’s face. “Bilbo? Bilbo your freezing cold. Your skin is like ice! Are you alright?”
The hobbit turned his face into that broad warm palm, nuzzling against it and Thorin’s frown deepened. He brushed his hand up the side of Bilbo’s face, the skin flushed beneath the chill. He had seen humans in the past who had taken a chill to deeply, seen how their minds and bodies slowed until they simply stopped. “Bilbo” he pressed, trying to get the hobbit to focus.
“Bilbo you’re too cold, we need to warm you up, why aren’t you in bed?”
The hobbit made a small sound against his palm and he felt his mouth moving, bending he brought his ear as close to the other’s mouth as he could. “What was that? Say it again Bilbo.”
“Coulnn’t fin ….bd..”
Bilbo was leaning fully into him now, lured by the heat of another body. He sighed. Shifting his hand back to grip the crutch. “Bilbo, you need to come with me. We need to get you warmed up.” He tried to herd the other into coming with him. Thankfully as he backed away the hobbit followed him, but slowly.
It was painstaking progress to lead the hobbit down the hallway, but thankfully it didn’t take long for his absence to be noticed. They were just reaching the first split in the hallway when Fili reached them. “Uncle? Bilbo!” he looked between the two uncertainly and Thorin nodded at Bilbo.
“Help me get him back to the room, he’s freezing. Apparently hobbits are worse in the cold than men.”
Quickly Fili stepped around him and pulled one of Bilbo’s arms aver his shoulder’s so he could half-carry the hobbit down the hallway. “I can’t believe we didn’t think of this sooner.” He muttered as he followed his uncle thumping slowly along the hall. At least now they were moving much faster although it was a bit distracting the way Bilbo kept nuzzling against him.
“Do me a favor Fili.” The blond prince looked up at his uncle.
“Don’t tell your brother how bad it is… I don’t think he realized hobbits are enough like men to die from cold even when their full grown.”
He thought about that for a moment. “He got sick in lake town but aside from that… I think your right. I never thought of it. But shouldn’t his bed have been plenty warm?”
Thorin paused outside the door to his rooms. “There may have been some miscommunication regarding his bed.”
He pushed the door open. Kili looked up from where he was leaning over the desk. “Back so soon?” he was grinning but his grin faded as his brother came into view half carrying, half dragging a nearly delirious Bilbo.
Thorin thumped past the desk on his crutch, tugging at the tie of his sling. “Get your boots off, we’re denning-down.”
Kili looked between his uncle and his brother “What happened to him?” he pushed away from the desk, rising to follow as Fili passed him, dragging Bilbo toward the bedroom.
Fili glanced back over his shoulder, biting his lip uncertainly then turned back, focusing on bringing Bilbo into the room where Thorin had settled on the narrow cusp of the den, pulling off his own bots with his good hand.
Bilbo’s head rolled against his shoulder and he coughed weakly, looking around the room with eyes that didn’t quite want to focus. “y’dun hve a bd n’ther” He observed.
Kili, coming up behind them, sounded confused. “Of course he has a bed. Well, a den because we’re dwarves and all, but it’s basically the same thing.” Understanding dawned suddenly as he glanced back to Thorin who was now pulling back the heavy curtain wall and reaching past it to rest the small lamp he still carried on the shelf inside where it wouldn’t catch on the thick pile of furs within. “He didn’t know where the den was?”
“Kili” Fili shrugged out from under Bilbo’s arm as he caught his brother’s attention “Either help me with him, or help Uncle.”
The younger brother huffed at being ignored but stepped past him to help Thorin heave himself through the smallish gap behind the heavy tapestry and into the pile of furs beyond. Once he had settled Fili half drug Bilbo to the entrance. The hobbit blinked at the hole. “y’bry yr bed?” he sounded almost exasperated. “Dw’rvs….”
Fili chuckled lightly. “Yes, yes I know. Dwarves are weird. Now crawl on through and go cuddle with Uncle, get warmed up, but no funny business, Kili and I will be in there in just a minute.” Thorin gave his heir a thoroughly unimpressed look a he drug the hobbit into the warm nest of furs.
Fili chuckled and sat back on the ledge so he could tug off his own boots then sighed. Kili was sitting on the ledge opposite the den entrance from him, chewing on his lip and looking dejected. “Kili?”
Kili looked up at him and he reached across to tug his little brother into a hug. “Hey, it’s okay. You didn’t know. But it’s okay now, we’ll take of him. Now come on, get your boots off, we’re all tired so let’s den down and get some sleep.”
Nodding Kili sat back and pulled off his own boots, crawling into the den after his brother.
Inside the den was a small cavern, the roof rounded like an overturned bowl just high enough that at its tallest point Thorin would be able to kneel up on his knees and not quite hit his head against it. Small gems and bright stones set into the ceiling and walls in complex geometric patterns glittered in the weak light of the lamp.
Thorin had pushed himself to the far end of the rounded space, tucking a barely lucid Bilbo close against his chest and using his good arm to pull a thick pelt over him as his nephews crawled in close, settling down close against them. Furs and blankets were pulled up over bodies as the air in the small confined space quickly warmed with the combined body heat of three grown dwarves and settled over one small, nearly hypothermic hobbit, lulling him finally into safety and sleep.
His bed was moving. Random, abrupt movements that jostled him rudely, trying to drag him from the warm confines of sleep and he did. Not. Want. To. Wake. Up.
Against his back was a line of heat, above him a thick weight of blankets cozy and soft and warm, below him something equally soft, sweet smelling and easy to snuggle down into. Before him warmth abruptly disappeared, letting a draft of cool air thrust its way along his face and down his chest, finding every nook and cranny into his shirt. Groaning and mumbling against the intrusion he shifted and rolled, turning to face into the heat that had been behind him, flailing lazily with one arm until the blankets cocooned back around his body, trapping the remaining heat close.
Dimly he heard voices, a soft laugh, whispered conversation, a shift of the warmth he was nuzzled against and a soft yelp, then quiet and a small amount of more shifting as the bed re-settled and a heavy band of warm slid around him, pulling him closer into the warm thing and he went easily, bonelessly. Dimly he recalled being cold, so cold he had thought he would never be warm ever again. So cold he thought that cold would be the last thing he ever felt.
He nuzzled into the warm against his face, it was all around him, here. Wherever here was. Warm was all around him heavy and musky and close.
He sighed softly in contentment and let sleep reclaim him.
Thorin grumbled softly as Kili and Fili’s voices faded as they left the chamber beyond the den to start their day with simultaneous promises to return with Oin (just to be safe) and plenty of breakfast (to be extra safe). Bilbo seemed to be deeply asleep again already which was honestly somewhat concerning. The way he had groaned and complained when the boys had started shifting and crawling around, extracting themselves from the warm pile of furs, he had been convinced the hobbit would be sitting up at any moment. No doubt he would have been upset and embarrassed to realize where he was but the dwarf king couldn’t find it within him to care.
The fact that he still slept however was strange, he hadn’t seemed to need much more sleep than the dwarves during their journey, unless the cold had given him an illness, like the water in laketown had. Cautiously he brushed his free hand across Bilbo’s brow again, it didn’t feel feverish but… watching his face closely Thorin leaned in slowly and carefully smelled him.
His breath was somewhat stale, the unpleasant odor of the elven lembas bread that made up the majority of their rations clinging to his skin, but Thorin did not smell any traces of the sour-sweet smell of sickness that had perfumed the air around him in laketown. Relieved he slid his good arm around Bilbo’s waist and tugged him slightly closer, settling in to wait for his nephews to return with food and Oin.
Fili had re-lit the small oil lamp on the ledge earlier before he and his brother had left, and now in the dim light Thorin looked at the small hobbit nestled against him. Ever since his waking after the great battle, clear-headed and flooded with shame for his actions, he had tried to deny the feelings of care and dedication that filled him when his thoughts turned to their burglar. He knew what he wanted, he wanted Bilbo beside him, as his companion, his consort, perhaps even if Mahal were greatly kind, the sire of his young.
But the dwarves and the hobbit had each learned much about each other’s cultures during their shared adventure, and Bilbo had been quite adamant when he had learned of Dwalin’s courting of Nori. That sort of relationship between ‘males’ simply did not happen in the Shire. No one had brought up the subject of bearing males at the time, for once the dwarves all seemed to be of a mind, if marriage between males was so unthinkable for hobbits, what would his reaction be to the idea of males that carried and birthed?
He sighed and lay back after a while, resting against the heavy cushions that lined the deep hollow of the den, closing his eyes and dozing off as he waited for his sister’s sons to return.
With a groan Thorin sat up, rubbing his face with both hands without thinking and wincing and cursing softly as white hot lances of pain rain up his bad shoulder. Unfortunately for him it was Kili who had returned first, with Oin in tow, and the healer may have been hard of hearing but his sight was undamaged.
“I thought I told you to rest that arm laddie!” he berated as he crawled through the opening into the den, dragging his own large forced gas lantern that cast a sharp, bright glow into the small space. Bilbo groaned and rolled as the light hit his face, flapping a hand around the bedding until he found a loose cushion to pull over his over his eyes and mumbling something garbled about a market, hens and tomatoes. Thorin took the opportunity to nudge him with one knee, using his good hand to pull the cushion away from shielding his face. “Alright burglar, that’s quite enough. It’s time to be waking up now.”
Kili grinned and started poking at the poor hobbit, intent of pestering him fully awake as Oin fussed over Thorin’s shoulder, helping the king pull his tunic up over his head and off so that he could inspect the bandages that covered his many healing wounds. As Kili tried to pull Bilbo’s eyelids open the healer carefully prodded the slightly puckered skin around the thickly scabbed over stitches, watching for the blood flow under the skin and assuring himself that since the last time he had looked, only the day before, no deadly infections had set themselves upon the monarchs wounds. Thankfully however much the dwarves may have complained about having their wounds tended by Elves following the great battle, the Elven healers had certainly known their craft, and his wounds were clean and well on their way to be fully healed.
The sharp yelps from the other side of the den caught their attention, apparently the young dwarf had retrieved the water skin from the den ledge and had decided that slowly dripping a small measure of cold water down the hobbits neck would be a clever way of full waking him.
In Kili’s defense it certainly worked, Bilbo was sitting up and looking more or less awake.
In Bilbo’s defense, no one could really blame him for ‘accidently’ elbowing Kili in the face as he flailed awake.
Thorin sighed as Oin abandoned his side to shove a handful of hastily grabbed gauze against his nephew’s split lip.
“I apologize for him.” Bilbo jumped a bit as Thorin spoke, and looked around wide eyed at where he was
“Am I… Did you…?” He seemed to shake himself a bit “Is this your bed?” he finally managed to say.
Thorin shifted his weight back, sitting and drawing one leg up, hooking his good arm around his knee as he nodded. “I happened across you late last night in the hallways, you were half froze and nearly incoherent. This was the simplest way to warm you up.” The hobbit was turning an alarming shade of red as the healer decided that Kili was not in immediate danger and started to crawl over to check on the hobbit.
“You’re rather a bit warm now” Oin groused. “Hopefully you haven’t caught a fever. Are you supposed to be that red? Have you burned your face?”
Testily he batted the healer’s hands away from his face. “I do Not have a fever! And I’m not burned I’m blushing because I’m embarrassed!”
Fili’s head poked through the curtain. “Nothing to be embarrassed about Mr. Boggins. Dwarves sleep together with family all the time, especially when the weather is bad like this. It’s perfectly normal.”
Bilbo huffed, batting again at in’s hands as the healer tried to lift his shirt to listen to his heart. “Stop that! I am fine! And it is NOT normal for hobbits!”
Thorin frowned. “Would you rather I had left you in the hallway to freeze to death? You seemed not very far from doing precisely that.”
That brought Bilbo to stillness, Oin triumphantly grasping his wrist to count out his pulse.
Thorin nodded in triumph. “I thought as much. Well, Oin?”
The healer nodded in satisfaction. “Well however he was last night, today he is doing quite well. You on the other hand need to rest that shoulder! One good pull on it before it’s done healing and you could lose the use of it entirely!” he waggled a finger at the king as he gathered up his small collection of supplies. Thorin nodded with a sigh, resigning himself to another day of effectively doing nothing except paperwork.
He sat back against the wall of the den as Kili lit the forced gas lamp that was normally kept on the ledge so that when Oin left there would still be plenty of light inside the windowless chamber.
After the healer left Fili came in, carefully holding a thick ceramic bowl with a lid to keep the steam in. He set it carefully on the ledge and settled against the pillows. “I brought some breakfast for you Bilbo. It’s not the normal stuff tho.” He shrugged. “Apparently one for the teams clearing the lower chambers found one of the farming caverns…”
Bilbo gave him an odd look. “You farm underground?”
“A bit” Fili nodded. “There isn’t much that grows down there though so it’s kind of limited, and it’s not really something that most dwarves really like but I remembered you liked the different vegetables and stuff in Rivendell so I figured you mighty give it a try.” He picked up the bowl again and held it out to the hobbit.
Gingerly Bilbo took the bowl and opened the lid. He froze when the aroma hit his nose. “Fili, this…. This is mushroom soup.”
He winced. “Yea, I know. I’m sorry but that’s what we have right now.”
The hobbit visibly shook himself. “No, no of course. Forgive me, I was being silly. Of course you would have mushrooms here, they like the dark places, a mountain makes perfect sense.” He spoke a bit too fast and kept his gaze low, face reddening just a bit once more and as soon as the words were out of his mouth he busied himself with the soup.
Thorin raised a brow and did not miss the glance his nephews shared. That was most certainly not normal behavior for the hobbit, but it was familiar.
“Bilbo….” He started carefully. “Why are you embarrassed about soup?”
Now the hobbit was going fully red for sure, and he sputtered a bit. “I am not embarrassed!”
Kili grinned. “Oh you totally are! You’re red as a ruby! C’mon, tell us! You have to! Did my brother just like, totally insult your honor or something? Is giving someone mushrooms like, really really rude to hobbits?” He wheedled.
Bilbo cradled the bowl of soup between his hands, watching the steam curl lazily into the cool air. “Well it’s not rude.” He said finally, voice soft. “It rather sort of… the opposite I suppose.” He looked up at them and stated firmly “I know you only brought this because it was what Bombur had. I know there were no other intentions behind it. But for further reference, just so we are all clear, in the Shire mushrooms are rather a delicacy. They are hard to find, hard to farm, and expensive. Rarely sold. Bringing someone a meal of mushrooms, or just mushroom uncooked is… well…”
He looked down again and Thorin began to grow suspicious he may know where this conversation was going.
He took a deep breath. “It’s considered a very traditional, very formal way of asking someone to court, or more normally a very respectable way to ask the one you are courting to marry.”
There was a moment of silence then Kili fell into the bedding, laughing uproariously while his brother was the one now red and sputtering.
Bilbo flapped a hand at him. “Oh I know you didn’t mean anything like that! Don’t you worry! It just surprised me is all and I was a bit silly.”
Fili nodded vigorously. “I like you mister Boggins, really I do! But not like that!”
Kili’s head popped up, hair frazzled and flying in every direction. His expression was gleeful. “Oh wait ‘till I tell Ori you proposed to our burglar!”
Thorin sighed as the comment sparked off a sudden, rambunctious wrestling match between the pair, Bilbo scrambling away as quick as he could manage with the bowl of soup still cradled close to chest clearly fearing spilling his breakfast.
Grumbling he caught Fili by the back of his neck with his good arm, and Kili in the ribs with his foot. “Both of you, Out! Now! You know the rules!” He heaved them at the hole in the wall as best he could, thankfully they both cooperated, taking the scuffle out into the cold.
Relaxing his grip on the bowl slightly Bilbo gave him a curious look. “Rules?” he inquired, taking another sip of his soup.
Soup that could have been a proposal. Thorin drug his eyes away from the bowl, filing what he had just learned away for later contemplation. He cleared his throat.
“Dens have very specific rules that are nearly universal among dwarves. No wrestling or fighting is one of them. No food that creates crumbs is another, which is probably part of why Fili brought you soup instead of bread.”
Bilbo nodded and opened his mouth to ask something else but was cut off by Kili poking his head back in through the heavy curtain. “And No Sex in the Den!”
The cushion Thorin threw at him hit the curtain harmlessly as his nephew retreated, laughter growing dim as he and his brother left the room beyond to find warmer clothes for the day.
Reddening again the hobbit glanced at the dwarf who was nodding “Aye that is a pretty universal rule as well. Dens are for raising a family, not starting one.”
“So this sort of bed is called a den?”
He nodded again. “We have beds like men as well, but the frames are often wood, and what little of that that remains is to be used for the cookfires and to help the start of repairs until good lumber can be brought down the river after the thaw, so between that and the cold, dens are being used instead. Without the forges going to provide enough heat most will sleep as families anyways, and dens are designed for that so they really are the best option for right now.”
Bilbo was nodding, using his fingers to pluck thick slices of mushroom from the thin soup, clearly savoring the earthy, nutty flavor. “I couldn’t find the bed, or den rather, in my room. I never would have thought to look for a buried chamber like this and I must admit, I didn’t want to seem ungrateful or rude after everything that happened so even if I should have asked, I didn’t. I want to thank you for this, and I will need to thank Fili and Kili as well. I don’t think I have ever been so chilled in all my life, not even the fell winter when the Brandywine river froze clear over, I think for a while there I thought I would die from the cold. Just, go to sleep and never wake.”
Thorin frowned heavily. “You should have asked right away. No one would have considered you ungrateful, and I don’t think you’re even capable of being rude.” He held up a hand against the quiet protest. “At least, not what a dwarf would consider rude at any rate.” That earned him a wry grin and a nod of agreement. “We would have found a solution. Invited you here or sent you to stay with another of the families, if you would prefer that. The ‘Urs perhaps?” He tried very hard to keep his tone level and even and not betray his feelings on the matter, even if the thought of Bilbo denning down with someone else, someone like Bofur for example made his stomach clench.
Bilbo finished the last of the soup and set the bowl aside on the ledge, carefully settling the lid in place. “Honestly I think I would rather stay here at this point, rather than explaining to everyone how I nearly froze to death from nothing more than my own misguided sense of propriety. Even if I’m rather sure Fili and Kili will have already spread the tale and all will know by dinner how silly I have been.”
The dwarf hummed in agreement, shifting a bit as his injured shoulder throbbed. Bilbo gave him a concerned look. “Are you alright? It’s just I haven’t seen you barely at all since…” he trailed off somewhat uncertainly.
He rubbed at his shoulder. “I’m healing well enough. I haven’t been around much, Oin has me more or less confined in here until he is satisfied.”
The hobbit drew his knees up to his chest, hugging his legs. “Oh. So I guess you’re basically still bed ridden then? In a way I mean…”
He chuckled. “I suppose. It doesn’t stop Balin from coming in every day with paperwork and council reports for me to look over.”
Bilbo was silent for a while, looking up at the patterns carved into the ceiling of the den, lined through with traceries of reflective metal and stone. “It is lucky I suppose then, that you have these buried beds, sorry, dens, but I don’t understand. Why have two kinds of beds? You said these dens are for families?”
He nodded “Young dwarves, especially newborns, are quite susceptible to cold so most stay completely in the family den for the first year or so of their lives, and most when it is very cold still sleep with siblings or their parents until they are fully developed, or as we say ‘tempered’. I’m sure you noticed during our quest on the colder nights Fili stayed quite close to Kili and myself, he’s not tempered completely and still has chills some nights.”
Bilbo cocked his head, thinking. “But I thought Kili was the younger?”
“He is” Thorin hesitated. Well. When Bilbo had discovered Dwalin and Nori’s courtship no one had mentioned it because the hobbit had clearly already been quite upset. “There are basically three sorts of dwarves, and they all mature a bit differently.” Bilbo looked curious so he continued. “The first to fully temper are usually the dams, those like my sister who carry young often are mature enough to leave the family den for good in their late sixties, even if they won’t be considered of age until their seventy-fifth year. Fili is the most common sort and they temper late, he will probably be past his chills in another few years, in his mid-eighties or so, most are.”
Bilbo cocked his head. “So there are three types of dwarves, your sister as a child-bearer is one, and Fili is another, I’m guessing You are Kili are both of the third sort?”
“You didn’t tell me what those other two sorts are, is it something I’m not allowed to know? Like your secret language?”
He sighed. “Not exactly, mostly it’s just… awkward to explain. I presume they do not have those like us where you are from, men do not have them, nor elves from what I have seen. it may be difficult to understand at first. “He paused a moment, Bilbo’s expression curious and patient as he waited. “Fili’s sort is what most call male, able only to sire young, while Kili and I, well there is no word for it in common and as you said we do not share our language with those who are not dwarves, but we can both sire and bear dwarflings. Our sort are the rarest and we don’t temper quite as soon as dam’s, but sooner than males.”
Bilbo blinked. “So you can…” his tone was wary, uncertain. “Have babies. Like, inside you. If you…..” he bit his lip uncertainly. “Um… with a man, a male I mean. A dwarf that was male, you could….”
He nodded. “I could, although the best of my bearing years are behind me so even if I were to court at this point it would be unlikely, but my cycles have not yet abandoned me.”
The other said a soft ‘oh’ and was silent after that, thinking.
Thorin decided to ask the question he had been wanting answered for quite some time now. “I wonder” he began, and Bilbo looked up at him. “If hobbits would consider the idea of two that were male courting more acceptable if they had those like us who were male but could bear young.”
Bilbo considered that. “But you’re not. Not really I mean. Not really male, if you can have babies then aren’t you something different? Something that isn’t male or female?”
He shrugged. “To be honest dwarves have never really held much store in how other folk divide their sexes and people, different clothes, different names, different crafts. For us there isn’t much difference. Some can only bear, most can only sire, and a gifted few can do both. Beyond that there isn’t much of a difference although only pairings that bear offspring are considered by our terms ‘married’ pairings that are barren between the two, for whatever reason if it by choice or type, are ‘bonded’. “
“So a pairing that can have children is more desirable than a pairing that can’t.”
He shook his head. “No, the pairings are considered equally valid, the different words simply mean ‘this pair has children’ and ‘this pair has no children’. It’s not about the pair, it’s about the young. Children are very honored among dwarves. Many pairings are bonded until they are blessed enough by Mahal to become married.”
Bilbo was silent again for a moment. “So now that you have your home back will you court? Have children?”
He sighed, long and heavy. “I have considered it. I would rather dearly love to bear of my own but always wished for my own young ones to be born here, to open their eyes first to the same den as I, as my father, as so many of their ancestors. Now that I have that available to me…” he shrugged “I don’t know. There have been few who have caught my eye ever in the years, and fewer still I would wish to bear the children of. What if you burglar? When you return a hero to your home will you find some comely hobbit lass and fill that empty hole of a home with hobbits even smaller than yourself?”
It hurt even to ask but he did want to know, and even if it would not be with him, he did want for Bilbo to be happy.
The hobbit laughed softly. “A hero? I would think by now you would know hobbits better than that O’ king. No when I return home it will likely be considered a great shame. Hobbits do Not go adventuring, at least, not Proper hobbits. No I shall never be considered very proper ever again I suppose. Mad perhaps, but not proper.” Thorin frowned deeply.
“Beyond that, I am well established as a confirmed bachelor so even those lasses who are willing to overlook a bit of adventuring will not be calling. I doubt I shall have many visitors at all, at least, not very soon. Fauntlings perhaps, looking for a good story.” He smiles soft and sweet and Thorin’s hearty ached. “Fauntlings always want a good story. That little tiff with the trolls would be quite the hit with them I suppose.”
“A confirmed bachelor?”
Bilbo’s face turned ruddy again as he blushed. Goodness, how many times was that in one conversation? It had to be some sort of record. The hobbit nodded slightly.
“Well, as I said, hobbits simply do not do some things. And like any folk, there are some who…. Well…” He was clearly uncomfortable. “It just means that I’m not the sort to be looking for a lass to marry, that’s all.” He finished in a rush, scooting toward the opening of the den. “Now where is the nearest bathroom from here? Only, I do hope the plumbing hasn’t froze in last night’s insufferable cold!” In his haste he very nearly scooted right into Balin who was arriving with a stack of paperwork for Thorin to look over.
“Oh, excuse me laddie.” The white haired dwarf moved aside for the hobbit to scoot past him, watching with a smile as he levered himself out of the den and quickly wrapped his arms around his waist, breath pluming into a thick cloud of white as he abruptly discovered that day had brought little respite from the intense cold. Balin reached into the den to grab a thick pelt from the top of the pile. “Here, wrap this around yourself, need to find a better coat for you somewhere with this chill.” He told him kindly.
Bilbo bobbed his head in thanks as he wrapped the fur around his shoulders, it was still warm from their bodies and smelled of the strong earthy musk that he had come to associate with dwarves. Any other situation he would protest against the need to find him a coat when surely other’s needed it more, except it was becoming clear rather quickly that dwarves were simply far better suited to this climate than he was. Instead he merely smiled with an embarrassed agreement and quickly set off to find a restroom, and some distance from Thorin and his embarrassing questions!
Balin raised a curious brow at Thorin as he scooted to sit just inside the edge of the den with his boots on the ledge beyond. “The cold finally getting to him then?”
Thorin’s response was an unhappy rumble. “He couldn’t find the den in the room that Kili gave him, didn’t know to look for one. He was nearly froze to death when I found him in the hallway last night. Oin’s already seen him this morning and he seems to be recovered well enough.”
His adviser nodded with a thoughtful hum and Thorin craned his neck to look around him. “Is he gone?” he asked with voice pitched low.
Checking back over his shoulder to be sure, Balin nodded. “Yes, he seems to be. Why?”
There was an oddly excited gleam in the king’s eye and he gestured his advisor closer and told him in a low conspiratorial whisper. “I am going to need your help, and Bombur’s, but you must swear to breath not a word of this to anyone, especially not my nephews, or Bilbo. Absolutely not Bilbo, he cannot hear a single whisper of this!”
Balin looked at him sharply and he grinned. “I have until the spring thaw to learn how to properly cook mushrooms.”
Bushy white eyebrows nearly disappeared in Balin’s hairline.
Bilbo hummed softly to himself as he sipped his mug of hot tea. Spring had been creeping slowly toward the mountain over the recent weeks, the snow driven back enough that supplies from Mirkwood and beyond had finally made it to Erebor, much to the delight of everyone. From the few dwarrrow that had stayed to use the winter month to prepare the mountain for the caravans that would be coming soon, to the folk from laketown who had sheltered in the entry levels of the mountain even the simplest of fresh rations brought cheer. For Bilbo the most eagerly received news had been the receipt of a full barrel packed with rich dark tea leaves, of which he had quickly collected his share.
Now he sat in a carved stone window, the glass of which had long ago been destroyed by Smaug, and its sills cleared or glass and metal shards more recently by the repair crews, although new glass would not be fitted for quite some time. A heavy pelt that had been shaped into a very basic robe or jacket held the remaining chill at bay as he watched the sudden, icy rainstorm that had begun with little warning shortly after the lunch hour busily trying to wash away the stubborn snowdrifts at Erebor’s feet.
As cold as it was he had not expected rain to come to the mountain for weeks yet, and it was startling to think that his pathway home might be open to travel much sooner than he had been expecting. He had come to find himself in an odd state of limbo as the winter wore on, and he had learned far more of dwarves and their ways during those cold and last afternoons than he had ever imagined on the road.
Most striking to him had been that, with the mountain cloaked in freezing cold and rations tight the dwarves had all but hibernated. There seemed to be no end to how long they could linger in the cozy warmth of their dens, and once he had become comfortable retreating to the den shared by the royal family whenever the cold became too much he found that there was nearly always at least one of them present. It had been startling to him the first time Balin had come ‘round asking after free space, and embarrassing to the hobbit when he had no hesitation in explaining that Dwalin was spending the night with Nori who was apparently intent on being the one to bear the first dwarfling born in Erebor since the desolation, so then den they normally shared was empty.
It soon became clear that dwarves avoided sleeping alone when they could, as after that first night it seemed the elderly dwarf spent more nights with his royal cousins than with his brother, but the den they shared seemed to have been planned for a large family and all were able to fit in the space easily.
He sipped slowly at the still heavenly hot tea in his mug. There was no honey, milk or sugar to add to it, and he had only one flavor, but by the green lady he had tea again. And it was likely that soon he could start the journey home.
And the more he considered that possibility the more he wondered if he truly wanted to go. As shameful as it was to admit, there had been times during the winter, when the lamp was low and the den silent but for the steady deep breathing of the dwarves (who didn’t snore nearly so loud as they had above ground, another odd discovery to contemplate) he had let his imagination wander. During those times of warm, calm peace he occasionally dreamed, and occasionally pretended while lying awake, that the steady bulk that often settled behind him pressed close for reasons other than the creeping chill. That when Thorin shifted in his sleep and slung an arm around Bilbo’s slim body it was done while waking, pulling him closer for comfort that had little to do with the weather.
Ah, but those were fanciful imaginations!
He remembered clearly enough the King’s confession of wanting to have children now that his kingdom was reclaimed and in the process of being restored. Even if that wasn’t something that most certainly required the, ahem, ‘help’ of another dwarf, it was certainly something that a king should be settling with some high noble or lord for, not some fussy little hobbit, far from home and of no special standing among his people. And regardless of what he may dream of, and desire in the depth of the night, he was a Baggins, and what would folks think of him? Bad enough he hared off on some wild adventure with dwarves and a wizard! If he returned wedded, or bonded rather, to… to another… to a male?
Why should it matter what they may think a whisper in the back of his mind asked him. Why should you even care about returning home? All you would need to do is go back just long enough to put things in order, pass Bag End on to someone deserving, Prim and Drogo perhaps, and then you could be happy here! Wedding to a King!
But that would require for Thorin to share my regard for him. He reminded himself sternly. And I should find it hard to believe that after all that has passed between us, regretted and forgiven each of our actions may have been, that he should see me as any more than a cautiously regarded friend.
As it was while he may have taken to sleeping in the royal den, once Thorin was well enough recovered to be about as he wished, Bilbo had seen little more of him than he had before that first night. It had been thoroughly depressing, as had been Bombur’s unexpected insistence that he should dedicate himself to pursuits that did not include working in the kitchens. He had to have had offended the rotund dwarf with shock and upset as seeing something as delicate and lovely as chanterelles being tossed in to stew with heavy portabellas until their flavors were an overcooked and indistinguishable mess that no respectable hobbit would ever subject such lovely mushrooms to. It was the only explanation he could think of.
Having been quite politely but firmly barred from the kitchens he had found himself at a loss. His one respite from overwhelming boredom had come in the form of dear, sweet Ori, who upon discovering one of the smaller library annexes was accessible and in fairly good condition, had quickly enlisted Bilbo’s help with the books. The further discovery of bound but unused journals in a storage room had then resulted in the dwarf settling down regularly with the hobbit to learn everything he could manage of hobbit culture, for future generations.
Those long afternoons had quickly become the only thing he had to really look forward to in some ways. Odd, rambling conversations of everything from family recipes, to the succession of the Thains, to seasonal celebrations and wedding customs.
Really, upon reflection in some ways it was strange that he should find himself uneager to return home, his winter in Erebor had been a long melancholy journey of muted desires, and lingering disappointments. But at the same time the thought of retracing their entire journey alone, to settle once more into the bright and cheery shire alone, and settle once more in his cozy armchair alone, with a good book alone, full pipe and larder stuffed with savory and sweet treats, alone, did not stir any great amount of excitement.
Or maybe the stresses and chaos of the journey, and the roaring fears, angers, and passions of the final days leading up the battle, not to mention the battle itself, had simply used up all of the emotions he had remaining. He felt drained, empty, lost. As if he was waiting, as if the entire mountain was waiting, for some great decision to be reached, or some great happening to occur, before it could once again draw a proper breath. It felt like hanging in that moment between breaths.
It felt like having all the fire inside him banked to patient embers by the billowing cold that slowly abated, but had not yet truly gone.
It felt like all the colors of the world had bled slowly into a uniform, soggy grey.
It felt like someone was tugging at his sleeve and Oh! Dear! He blinked as Ori’s voice cut through the heavy fog of his musings and pulled him heartily and fully back into awareness. There was warmth seeping from the mug into his hands, and spiced in the air, curling slowly up from the surface of his tea. The fur of his jacket bunched and itched in odd distracting patches as the falling rain outside slowly revealed the vibrant greens of pine trees as it divested them steadily of their snowy blankets. He turned to face Ori whose cardigan was a chaotic geometric mess of reds and yellows and greens, some of the only colors of wool that had been available, and his expression was unmistakably concerned.
“Is everything alright Bilbo?”
He forced himself to smile and discovered that it didn’t need any forcing at all, it came easily as he looked his friend over, taking note of the thin silver pen that Fili had gifted him with the week before, tucked safely behind one ear where it was safe and always close at hand.
Dwarves courted with crafted gifts, he had been told. And the first must always be something that showed their understanding of their intended, something that reflected not their own craft and ability but those of the one they wished to court, to prove their attentions.
“Oh I’m fine, just getting lost in my own wondering mind. A good cup of tea and a quiet place will do that you know, send your thoughts off thinking in all sorts of directions until you scarcely know your own way back.”
The young dwarf relaxed, laughing softly. “I suppose. That’s a good reason for writing though, so you can retrace your steps.”
He grinned broadly and slipped off the windowsill, careful not to spill his tea. “Precisely! Now then, speaking of writing, I suppose you’ll be wanting to work a bit more on that book on hobbits then I suppose.”
Curiously, Ori looked a cross between embarrassed, and excited. “Actually no, I’m sorry to say. His Highness asked me to fetch you, he has something he wishes to speak with you about.” He stepped back, angling his body to invite Bilbo to walk with him.
“Oh really?” he wondered aloud as he fell into step with the young dwarf. “That’s odd, unless he wants me to speak to the elves on his behalf again.” The cheer in his voice seemed clearly false and he was painfully sure that Ori could hear it too. “Or perhaps he simply wishes to get a better idea of when I will be off, although I’m not sure how large a concern that really is.”
Ori glanced over at him, chewing uncertainly on his lower lip. “So you’re really leaving then? You’ve decided for certain?”
“Well, to be honest I’m not certain that anything is for certain right now. I’ve been considering…” he thought for a moment and was thankful that Ori did not push, having grown accustomed to the way he sometimes paused mid-sentence to consider what he was saying. “Well I’ve been rather considering that, if there is a place here, if I am welcome, I may stay for a while longer. Or at the very least return shortly. Only, it occurs to me that there I so much rebuilding to do that every pair of hands available should be a help, and it’s no secret that hobbits are quite skilled at growing things. I think I should like to return to the shire once the way is clear, and then come back across the mountains once more, perhaps I could manage to meet up with some of your people returning this way from the west, and bring with me seeds and cuttings to start here. Get some proper tomatoes and such growing. I’m sure Bombur at least would appreciate the effort.”
He considered the thought for another moment. “Assuming that is, that such an action would be welcome.”
Ori all but vibrated with his eagerness. “Oh I’m certain it would master Baggins!” he told him adamantly. No one really wants to see you go, you’re one of us now, you know. There will always be a place here for you, anyone will say the same.”
He smiled softly at the younger dwarf as they drew to a halt at the door that lead into the private wing of the royal quarters. “Well, as I said, it’s a consideration. Nothing has really been decided yet.” He nodded at the door. “Are you coming in as well?”
Ori’s eyes widened slightly and he quickly stepped back, hands raised. “Oh no, no! No he asked for you only, and was quite adamant. I’m sure whatever he has to a-talk to you about it’s rather important and you should hurry in, I will see you later!” with that he turned, striding quickly down the hallway.
Bilbo watched him go for a moment, head cocked in confusion. Strange. He seemed rather flustered. Well. Whatever it was it could wait. He squared his shoulders. He had not had much opportunity to speak with the leader of their company, now the King, alone in quite some time, and with the way it seemed as though Thorin had been avoiding him lately he really had no idea what it could be that he wanted to talk to him about. Resolutely he pushed the door open, stepping through and latching it firmly behind himself.
He was a Baggins after all.
The short hallway beyond the door was quiet and he could see the flickering light of a fire dancing across the stones further down, where it escaped the open doorway into the room that was Thorin’s current ‘office’. It was a place where every rare scrap of parchment to be found in the mountain seemed to be gathered, and all of it targeting at creating headaches in whosoever was the unfortunate soul to death with it. Usually that was Thorin, although Kili and Fili had been helping him, judging from their nightly complaining sessions.
With a determined huff he marched down the short corridor and into the office.
And stopped dead in his tracks.
The mounds of paperwork that usually buried the one table in the room had been cleared away and a second chair settled across the table from the first. The table itself was set for a dinner, lacking any real linens there was of course no table cloth, nor even napkins, but the settings had been carefully placed with a highly polished dining set that had no doubt been found in the treasury at some point. Silver so fine it was nearly white gleamed in the light of tall creamy candles, honey and rose colored gold lining every piece is a delicate accent. The plates were covered by wide domed warming lids and Thorin himself stood just beyond the table, just turning from his contemplation of the low crackling fire in the hearth.
There were only two places set at the table.
He swallowed dryly. This was… unexpected. He had already had no idea what Thorin could possibly wish to discuss with him, but something about this setting filled him with dread.
Whatever conversation they were about to have, it would change things. Irreparably. This would send them across a bridge from which there was no returning. of that one thing at least he was certain.
Numbly he crossed the room, barely aware of the chill in the stones beneath his feet. It took more than one try to convince his voice to work.
“What… what is this? Ori said you… wished to speak to me? About something?”
The dwarf nodded slowly. “Master Baggins.” He began, voice low and deep and Bilbo felt something in his chest tighten. This was it, he suddenly realized. This was goodbye. “You have done myself and my people a great service, in your accompaniment on our quest, and in the days that have followed since. I understand that the passes will soon be cleared and you will be returning to the west soon.”
He fought the urge to close his eyes as Thorin pressed on with what sounded like a rather rehearsed speech. Now that it was all coming to an end he realized he didn’t want it to.
“Bearing that in mind I wished to make clear to you my regards. Be sure that you understand fully what you have come to mean not only for me family and people, but for myself.” Large warm hands settled on his shoulders, guiding him to the table and mutely he sat. He didn’t know how he would possibly be able to eat a single bit with his stomach heavy with lead as it was in that moment. The very thought of food left him feeling sour and ill.
Thorin settled his hand on the top of the warming dome in front of him, pausing a moment. “And I wish to be clear, that I do not expect acceptance of any sort, I know it is not the hobbit way. I simply wished to, well, I already said it but I wished to make regards clear.”
Had his mind not been blank with the dread of a last meal to be shared with his dear friend, who he was only just accepting that he wished was more than a friend, Thorin’s words may have had a swifter impact. As it was it took several moments of staring blankly at the plate in front of him before he finally looked up, confused, at the dwarf standing at his shoulder.
“I… I don’t…. mushrooms?” his voice was barely above a whisper, mind working furiously to catch up with what was happening, with what he was seeing.
The plate was covered in mushrooms. Firm white button mushrooms sliced thin and sautéed in butter and garlic, piled generously on a small bed of pasta. A thick portabella cap with it stem cleaned away and the hollow stuffed with sausage that was liberally studded with more mushroom chunks. Lacey delicate chanterelles piled atop a thin pastry, baked into place with cheese and herbs. All of them hobbit recipes that he could only vaguely recall sharing with Bombur when he tried to explain to the large dwarf the wonderful ways that mushrooms could be prepared. The delicious and lovely ways they were sometimes presented for a very traditional… oh…. But….?
He swallowed thickly. “Thorin… you… you know what… mushrooms mean… to a hobbit? They aren’t just…. They aren’t like other foods. For a hobbit, giving someone mushrooms…” he felt lightheaded, as if he were about to faint. This was not happening. This could NOT be happening.
The dwarf king lowered himself to one knee beside Bilbo’s chair so that they were of a height. Oh so gently he reached out and cradled one of the hobbit’s shaking hands between his own wide, callused palms. “I know Bilbo. I was there when you told Fili and Ori has also been most… informative.”
Ori? Had the younger dwarf been pumping him for information? Well, of course he had, for the book but, had it not all been for the book? And should he be upset about that? Later, he decided. That was something to consider later.
Thorin glanced up from where he was holding Bilbo’s hand, eyes careful and guarded. “And to be perfectly clear, this was made by me. All of it. And it took quite some practice. But I made these things with my own hands…” his voice, already soft dropped to nearly a whisper. “As is proper for a dwarf, after all.”
He briefly recalled Fili’s endless failed attempts to make Ori a pen that was just perfect, how he had wondered why he didn’t simply buy one, or commission someone better at the finer intricacies of such a work to make one.
Because Mister Boggins he had answered cheekily. Its not a courting gift if it’s not made with your own two hands. And if it takes more work, that’s even better. It shows how dedicated you are. If it was easy, it wouldn’t mean as much.
He blinked and as if in a dream reached out with his free hand, gently brushing at the edge of Thorin’s hair. The dwarf closed his eyes, leaning slightly into the light touch. “But what about…” his mind raced, recalling every little thing he had told himself that was why something like this was completely and utterly impossible.
“You’re a king, you can’t just…. I’m just a hobbit. It can’t be right, it can’t be proper.” He protested weakly.
Thorin brought one hand up to cup Bilbo’s hand against the side of his face, opening his eyes to look at him.
“We have no laws declaring who can and cannot court or bond. And I am given to understand that you trace direct lineage to three of the oldest and most respected families in the shire, that you can claim to be a, what was the word, Thain? Through multiple family lines. That the current leader of your entire people is the son of your mother’s brother.
By dwarven reckoning that makes you at least a lord, and certainly not just anything. But even if it wasn’t true, it wouldn’t matter. Even if you hadn’t helped us reclaim our home from a dragon when our blood kin turned their backs on us, even if you had not risked your very life for us it would not matter.
You are whom I have chosen, and that is all that matters.”
Bilbo stared at him in awed silence, at loss for words.
Shoulders slackening slightly Thorin’s eyes fell again. “But as I said, I understand that it is not the hobbit way, I simply wished for you to… to know how I feel. How I regard you.” He said, pulling away.
Not the hobbit…? Oh…OH!
Nearly panicking he surged forward, nearly throwing himself out of the chair and forcing the dwarf to catch him, eyes wide and startled. “Oh bugger the hobbit way!” he declared, small hands sliding up across Thorin’s shoulders and around his neck, pulling him close. “Yes. Yes a thousand time yes you confounded dwarf! Yes I accept your courtship!”
And with that he kissed him.