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Alone this Yuletide

Chapter Text

Bilbo Baggins was not well known for frequenting the Green Dragon. He had often found that the raucous cheer coupled with the overly saturated smells of pipe weed, alcohol, and food just did not sit well with him in large quantities.

No, Bilbo preferred the peace and quiet of his home these past four years; ever since… well, ever since his mother passed away really.

However, peace and quiet at home was becoming harder and harder to find these days. What with potential suitors looking for any excuse to try and talk with him, not to mention the annual Yuletide celebrations looming (he had been wrangled into hosting a large number of his extended family this year), Bilbo had finally become irritated enough to leave his smial and try to find solace in the bottom of a cup.

It wasn't helping…

Swirling the ale about his mug, Bilbo grumbled quietly to himself and took another disconsolate swig.

He was seated in a quiet far corner, away from most other patrons in an attempt to convey that his own company was all he required, thank you very much. Thus far, he had been fortunate enough to be projecting an unsociable enough bearing that he had been left well alone.

If only the same could be said for when he was at home. He had barely laid his mother in the ground before the vultures came circling. A number of young lasses from different parts of the Shire seemed to have made it their mission in life to win him over. He had tried to be polite at first, enduring their visits and baking and flower wreaths with as good a humour as he could muster, but there was only so long his patience could hold out, and frankly four years of rejecting every suitor that came to call was starting to take its toll.

Perhaps if a few of them had been lads instead of lasses he'd have been more amenable, but still…

And then there was the family… Stars above, what was it that made extended family think they had any say at all in how he lived his life!? If he had to tolerate just one more simpering, clucking elderly relative telling him how lonely he must feel, and how dear Bungo had always envisioned lots of tiny fauntlings when he'd built Bag End; Bilbo was certain he might just expire.

That would certainly sort out the problem, he thought with grim good humour and another unhappy swallow of ale. They could get down to the business of squabbling over his home and belongings right quick then.

He'd even bemoaned his fate loudly to Drogo at the marketplace the other day in a vain and desperate attempt for word to get around that Master Baggins was not interested in any suitors.

In a quieter voice, he had then intoned earnestly. If only he could find someone wild enough to shut them all up, that would surely work. It had for his father at least. He wouldn't even have to marry, he just had to come up with some arrangement to pretend to be courting her…

Yule pic 1

Drogo had quickly shot the idea out of the sky though, patting Bilbo's shoulder consolingly, before taking a cautious step away from his somewhat wild-eyed cousin and stated that there wasn't any eligible lasses who fit such a description at present, and if there were they certainly wouldn't agree to a fake relationship.

Sighing, Bilbo set aside his mug for a few moments and let his head fall atop folded arms.

Maybe I could just up and disappear… leave Bag End to Drogo or Hamfast; they're good enough fellows. Perhaps I could go travelling, finally go on an adventure. Maybe even to the East!

Hmm, perhaps he'd had just a little too much ale, to be thinking quite such outlandish thoughts. He wasn't a tween anymore after all.

Lips tugging down into a miserable expression, Bilbo pointedly ignored the concerned looks being sent his way by the landlord and instead busied himself with reading the little notices pinned up along the wooden panelling behind the bar. Amongst the usual drivel of 'Lost - one green cloak', and 'Wheelbarrow for sale' were advertisements such as 'Wheelwright wanted' and 'Workers required for postal service'. These were what drew his attention, not least because one slip of parchment looked particularly out of place.

The parchment itself was thicker than the kind they used in the Shire; hardier and yellowing, and the writing upon it was as far removed from anything in the Shire as could be possible. It was Westron sure enough, but the handwriting was not the neatly rounded calligraphy a hobbit was accustomed to seeing; in fact, it was so sharp and angular, had Bilbo been anymore inebriated he might have had difficulty in reading it.

Clearly, whoever the notice writer was, Westron was not their first language.

Leaning closer to the parchment, Bilbo wrinkled his nose in mild interest as he read what was written there; only to blink in shock and nearly laugh aloud.

Casting a surreptitious glance about him, Bilbo leant across the bar and snagged the parchment, bringing it closer to his face in order to read over it again just to make sure it really said what he thought it did…

'Alone this Yuletide? Irritated with prying and nosey family members?

I am an out of work blacksmith currently trying to make my way by any means necessary that does not involve my resorting to thievery (prisons are most uncomfortable, I've unfortunate first hand experience). However, if you would like me to be your strictly platonic companion for any social function, but have me pretend that we are in a serious courtship, so as to torment your family and ward off unwanted suitors then I am more than obliging.

My services include:

Flirtatious overtures towards fellow guests, which you can pretend not to notice.

Start instigative discussions regarding politics or social and cultural differences between the races of Arda.

Propose to you in front of everyone.

Pretend to become more and more inebriated as the evening continues.

Start an actual physical fight with a family member of your choice, though I will warn you now that I might have a rather unfair advantage.

I require no pay, only the free meal I will receive as a guest.

If interested; please send your details by carrier pigeon to the encampment situated in Bindbale Woods, addressed to Thorin and we can arrange to meet at your earliest convenience to discuss these terms.'

Considering the amount of ale he had quaffed, it was very difficult for Bilbo not to collapse into gales of laughter as he read the parchment yet again, then once more just to be certain.

This was too perfect! A solution to his problem right in front of his nose, what luck!

Stuffing his sleeve into his mouth to prevent his joyous laughter from escaping and drawing the unwanted attention of any other hobbit in the vicinity, Bilbo hastily folded the notice and shoved it into the pocket of his jacket.

Grinning foolishly to himself, Bilbo quickly finished off his last ale and slipped out of his chair, tottering happily out of the Green Dragon and back up to his smial in order to prepare his response.

Chapter Text

Mornings following an excess of alcohol rarely find one in particularly good spirits. More often than not, the indulgences of the night before will let themselves be known with a terrific headache, perhaps nausea if one is unfortunate enough, and most certainly an undercurrent of shame depending upon the actions of the individual whilst intoxicated and whether or not they remember them.  

Bilbo, as it happened, was feeling a little of all three. He merely thanked whatever higher powers might be listening that he fell into the realm of the deeply unconscious before he did something abysmally stupid, like actually delivering the mess of a response he held in his hand now.

It wasn't merely the poor penmanship and smeared ink which had him cringing. Moreover, it was the lack of eloquence, propriety, and the downright idiocy which came to light as he re-read his note to this 'Thorin' individual.

In the cold light of day, the idea seemed more than a little ludicrous. He didn't know the first thing about 'Thorin'. Why, they could be some bandit or ruffian who simply wanted to procure the details of some poor unsuspecting lad or lass in order to steal their belongings! That wasn't even to mention, that rather embarrassingly, Bilbo had no notion of whether 'Thorin' was a lad or lass themselves. The name was not of the Shire-folk, nor of any person of the world of men, as far as he knew. That only left elves or dwarves…

It didn't sound Elvish… far too harsh on the tongue.

Quickly, as if afraid someone might somehow magically see his awful response; Bilbo crumpled the paper in his hand and discarded it upon the fire in the hearth as he puzzled over what to do next.

It was a ridiculous situation to get himself into, all things considered… not the least bit respectable. However, even now that he was sober, Bilbo had to admit it would be a very tidy solution to his problems.

It is only for the Yuletide, where's the harm? If Thorin hadn't wanted a response, they shouldn't have advertised such a outrageous thing in the first place. Besides, it might be fun to see the looks on all their faces when they're presented with… well a dwarf I assume, as my intended. It's about time I had myself some kind of adventure anyway, even one so small as this.

The voice in his head sounded far too much like that of his mother to be of much comfort, but it did speak some sense. He needed a way out of all these infuriating attempts to court him, and to dissuade his family from harrying him about finding a partner. This really was the only solution that seemed plausible.

Nodding to himself resolutely as he took a thoughtful bite of toast, Bilbo drummed his fingers atop the kitchen table as he ruminated over a written response once more, only to draw a blank.

He still wasn't certain whether 'Thorin' was the name of a dwarf or dwarrowdam, and he'd hate to start off their business transaction (of a sort) by possibly offending them. He huffed crossly and considered things.

Bindbale Woods…

Well, it wasn't like it was far at all. Thorin had asked for a written response, that was true, but it seemed foolish to waste paper, ink, and the energy of a carrier pigeon just to deliver a letter so short a distance as that.

Mind made up, and before he could get into another argument with himself; Bilbo drained the last of his tea and went to gather his jacket and walking stick, he'd go and visit this Thorin personally.

 


 

Thorin grumbled low in his throat as he poked at the pitifully small fire in front of his tent with a long stick. The foliage was damp with thawing frost, and as such the fire he'd made at daybreak in order to boil water and cook his meagre breakfast simply wasn't up to the task. Nay, it seemed the cursed thing was barely staying aflame through the sheer force of his own will.

"Curse this place, if the folk here can't be bothered to use my services, the least they could do is make sure this land provides decent kindling."

Deep down, Thorin knew he was being petulant; that he was blaming someone else for his own foul luck, and that logically there was no way for the Shire-folk to magic up a comfortable living experience for him out here in the woods.

He just hadn't expected to have those truths voiced at him.

"I say, it's not very fair of you to be blaming our lot for the state of the wood you're using now, is it?"

Thorin would never admit it, not even under torture, but he jolted in surprise at the unexpected voice behind him, and for one wild moment his head was full of the tales he'd heard on his way here of spirits, and wights, and spectres who lured travellers to their deaths.

He stood from his seat upon a fallen log, hand reaching for the sword at his hip even as he whirled to face the voice; only to feel indescribably silly as he was faced with the unassuming presence of one the Shire-folk themselves.

The hobbit before him was certainly familiar; well dressed for his kind in short trousers, waistcoat, and jacket, unruly honey curls, a sturdy walking stick in hand, and an amused tilt to his lips as he regarded Thorin with one eyebrow raised in question. It was the same hobbit he'd seen earlier this week at the marketplace; the one complaining about the irksome suitors.

"So sorry, did I startle you?"

"Not at all," Thorin grit out, decidedly put-out that he'd been caught acting like a jumpy dwarfling. Mahal, these hobbits must be light on their feet to make so little noise when approaching… then again they didn't wear shoes, maybe that explained it. "I was just-"

"Yes?" And there was that be-damned tilt to his lips again, cheeky little-

"Going to collect some more wood to try and salvage this pathetic excuse for a fire," Thorin growled at last, before realising that he was acting unaccountably rude towards someone who might actually prove to be a customer and so amended his words and softened his tone marginally. "How may I be of service, Master-"

"Baggins, Bilbo Baggins from Bag End." The smile this time was sincere and far warmer than Thorin expected, causing him to quickly avert his gaze. Folk around here were usually rather dismissive of dwarves. "You er, you wouldn't happen to be Thorin, would you?"

"Aye, Thorin Oakenshield, at your service." He sketched a small bow as was custom. "Was I recommended to you by someone?"

Truly, Thorin had no need to enquire and tried not to think upon the reason for Master Baggins' appearance, as it was rather embarrassing.

He had had a particularly bad day when he'd overheard the hobbit's plight at the marketplace. Work was thin on the ground, his funds were running low, and he had barely a decent amount to send home to Dís and her boys; he simply couldn't condone using what little coin he had on food for himself.

He'd been traversing the market in the vain hope that someone might need his expertise as a metalworker; a pony throwing a shoe, a wheel breaking on a cart, the nails needing replacing in a market stall… anything. Failing that, perhaps he could find some scraps ready for the compost that some kind soul might be willing to accept little to nothing for. He wouldn't beg or accept handouts though… he'd refuse, he had his pride after all. That was when he'd heard him…

The hobbit, Master Baggins, complaining loudly to another of his fellows over the multitude of suitors he'd had to endure and the Yuletide feast he was expected to host (and goodness knows that was only a façade for prying relatives to try to get him to court). Thorin had nearly snapped at the little fellow there and then; what right had he to whine about such trivial matters? How was something so inconsequential anything to worry over when there were folk out there who truly suffered? Miserable little rat-

Then, he had heard the quieter words he had given his companion… not that he was eavesdropping of course, and had struck upon an idea.

He had heard of how wonderfully hobbits ate; that their cooking was second to none in all of Middle Earth. He'd heard that their homes were warm and welcoming, full of light and very respectably underground much like a dwarf would prefer. He remembered all of this and nearly swayed on the spot at the thought, hungry as he was.

He couldn't accept payment for this, not at all… it would be… wrong, dishonest even. They would be deceiving this hobbits' relatives after all. However, he would not say no to a warm home for a day, or a good meal.

Thorin had wasted no time in retrieving some parchment and a stick of charcoal from his pack, scratching out the proposition and then tacking it as discreetly as possible in the one place he felt the hobbit might come across it. He had heard the Green Dragon was the main meeting place for folk in Hobbiton after all, though he despised the place for its name.

It had been a gamble at best, but now, with this 'Baggins' fellow before him, it had apparently worked, for Thorin could think of no other reason for this particular hobbit to be out in Bindbale Woods this morning.

"No, no… I don't need a- you said you were a blacksmith?" Bilbo reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved the note Thorin had written, slightly crumpled now, and handed it over to him. "I was rather wondering about this proposition though, you see I'm having a spot of bother with some rather persistent suitors and family members. I was hoping you might be able to help me."

Thorin accepted the note and read it over as if he'd never seen it before, stifling the urge to squirm at the ridiculousness of his situation. "I see… it did say to send your reply by pigeon. There was no need for you to come-"

"Oh, nonsense," Baggins replied breezily, waving a hand in a dismissive gesture. "I wasn't about to waste time writing a response when you're so close to where I live, and I enjoyed the walk to be honest."

"Very well." Thorin inclined his head. "So you are certain about- well we would essentially be hoodwinking your family."

Baggins had a defiant tilt to his chin that admittedly had Thorin thinking a little more highly of him; perhaps he was not just some flighty fool after all then. "I'm near sick to death of it all to be blunt, Master Oakenshield. I've borne it for as long as I can, been polite for as long as I can, and quite frankly I think it's time I found a way to get the lot of them off my back, so to speak."

Thorin nodded, the hobbits' problems might seem frivolous to him, but he could recognise desperation and determination when he saw it.

"Well then, perhaps you might wish to call me Thorin, rather than Master Oakenshield. If we're to be- ah… courting- acting as if we are courting. We should at least be on first name terms, correct?"

"O-oh! Oh yes, of course… and you must call me Bilbo."

Had Thorin not been feeling so ill at ease himself, he might have found the hobbits' sudden flustered response amusing, not to mention rather endearing.

"Bilbo," Thorin tried it out, an inexplicable smile threatening to curl his lips.

Bilbo looked up from his study of the woodland floor slightly startled, but quickly relaxed, letting his own uncertain smile widen into a quick flash of a grin. "Thorin," he replied.

The dwarf reached out a hand in order to shake the hobbits' and Bilbo returned the gesture with a firm shake of his own.

"It will be good doing business with you, I think, Mast- Thorin."

"Indeed." Business minded once more, and over the silly rush of embarrassment he'd felt upon Bilbo's arrival, Thorin ushered the hobbit over to the dying embers of the fire and bid him to sit down on the log beside him. "I believe we need to set up some kind of believable back-story to make this ruse convincing then."

Bilbo settled himself and laughed lightly, the edge of nervousness fading from his posture as well at Thorin's casual words. "Are you well versed in the guise of acting as a pretend partner?"

Thorin snorted and shook his head. "Not at all, but I suppose we will muddle along well enough."

"Oh, I should hope so. It wouldn't do for my family to suspect us of deceit. I just want some peace and quiet once Yuletide is over with… which er… that reminds me. Dwarves do not celebrate Yuletide."

It was not a question, and Thorin was surprised that Bilbo knew this. Apparently, his expression was easily readable, because Bilbo was quick to explain himself.

"I like to study other cultures you see, and I've spoken to dwarves who have passed through here before. You celebrate something called Durin's Day at the turn of your new year, but do not participate in Yuletide as we do."

"That is true." And Thorin was just a little impressed. It wasn't very often that an outsider showed any interest in their ways at all. Perhaps he'd been too quick and too harsh in his assumptions of this particular hobbit.

"You won't mind celebrating it then?"

"No, I am sure it will be quite interesting, and I'll admit-" here the dwarf allowed himself a small smile- "we dwarves are fond of celebrations of any kind, so long as there is good food, drink, and good cheer to be found."

This seemed to break the remaining ice between them, and soon the pair were deep in discussion over their plan for the Yuletide deception. Ideas thrown back and forth and believable theories for their meeting and relationship began to come to fruition.

It should be simple after all, to pretend to be in love. No harm in it at all, and once the ruse was complete they'd both have what they wanted; Bilbo some peace and quiet, and Thorin a decent meal before he left for Ered Luin.

Chapter Text

The hoar frost had all but melted under the watery winter sunlight by the time Thorin and Bilbo had concluded their discussion. The hobbit sat now with his fingers curled around a tin mug filled with a weak and bitter tea for warmth, a kindly given blanket thrown over his shoulders as he regarded the dwarf beside him.

Thorin was scratching away industriously on a scrap of parchment. A stickler for detail it seemed, he was determined to write down every nuance of their ploy so that it would not unravel like yarn at the slightest tug from any particularly sharp-minded relative.

He was handsome -Bilbo would allow that- in a very wild and foreign manner at least. Whereas hobbits preferred the look of softness about a potential partner, for them to be well groomed, well fed, and respectable, Thorin was all angular lines, broad muscle, and unkempt ruggedness. There was something quite exhilarating about such a difference, Bilbo supposed. It would certainly add to the shock he would give his family if nothing else.

Besides, Thorin's looks really were quite alluring…

Berating himself for such a turn of thought, Bilbo ducked his head in order to blow gently on his tea before taking another sip, eyes settling on the small, sputtering fire they had eventually managed to coax into life.

A sudden thought had Bilbo frowning; he set aside his mug and pulled the blanket tighter about his shoulders before speaking up. "I think we may have overlooked something."

Thorin grunted quietly to show he was listening, the stick of charcoal he'd been tapping thoughtfully against his lower lip as he re-read something he'd written had left a smudge, and Bilbo was momentarily distracted by wondering if it was more impolite to point it out or to leave him as he was.

The dwarf looked up from his paper when no immediate reply was forthcoming so as to give the hobbit his undivided attention. "What have we overlooked?"

"Yule celebrations last for six days in all, my family will be present for most of this time. There are a few amongst them who are not the brightest buttons in the box, but there are just as many who are sharper than a needle. If you were courting me, it would have been expected that you would have spent some time at my home as a guest before now. They'll soon notice if you dither about and not know your way around."

Thorin frowned at this revelation. He had presumed Yuletide would last for only a single day like other celebrations, not nearly a whole week! "I see... Are hobbit homes so hard to navigate?"

"Smials," Bilbo corrected promptly. "That's what we call our homes. Generally speaking, they're not hard to navigate, but mine is one of the biggest in the Shire and it will be telling if you look out of place whilst there. Besides that, there are many hobbits who wander these woods; it would look most odd if someone stumbled across you and your campsite. It would seem like we'd had some kind of quarrel and I'd thrown you out in the cold."

Thorin seemed mildly amused by this, his beard twitching with the barest of smiles, and Bilbo grinned in return with a helpless shrug, he supposed the notion of a fellow as small as he 'throwing out' a dwarf was quite entertaining.

"I wouldn't mind you coming to stay with me for a while, you know. To make it more convincing."

The dwarf's face was not easily readable as he dropped his gaze back to his writing, but there was a flicker of doubt, maybe suspicion in his gaze. It was a look which, given the attitude of other dwarves he had met before, was not entirely surprising to Bilbo.

"It would mean less fruitless battles with uncooperative fires," he wheedled.

"The fire was easily vanquished I'll have you know."

Bilbo almost thought he was jesting, but Thorin accompanied his answer with a cool, almost dismissive glare which had Bilbo glowering in return.

Shrugging off the blanket and rising to his feet, Bilbo took a moment to stretch out cramped legs before retrieving his walking stick and making as if to leave.

"Well, if you think it good fun to sit out here and freeze rather than take up the kind offer of a roof over your head for a few days, then by all means be my guest. I, on the other hand, have things to do at home. Rest assured however, that my family will see right through this subterfuge if you turn up at Yule looking like a lost faunt at a Lithe fayre."

Unable to help himself, Bilbo huffed and turned after taking naught but three steps, tapping his forefinger to his lower lip in order to illustrate his point to Thorin as he added, "You've a smudge of charcoal there by the way, make sure to wipe it off before going back into Hobbiton proper or you'll look like a fool."

Scowling as Bilbo turned away again, Thorin hastily rubbed his sleeve over his bottom lip before standing and following the hobbit, "Master Baggins."

"Yes? … I thought we established it was Bilbo. This really won't work very well if-"

Bilbo trailed off as Thorin held up a hand in order to dissuade him from speaking further.

"Aye, Bilbo. My apologies. I meant no slight against your offer or your home if that's what you thought. I'm just rather unused to being offered a place to stay without incurring a fee."

Bilbo's frown softened at that and he felt his hands unclench from the annoyed fists he'd curled them into. "Well, it is rather rude in these parts to decline someone's invitation home without a proper reason, but I suppose you weren't to know that. I'm not likely to charge you room and board, Thorin. You're doing me a great service in agreeing to help me with my family, that's payment enough, I should think."

Thorin rubbed at his beard distractedly and cast a glance back at his little campsite, before nodding jerkily. A hardy dwarf he may be, but it wasn't as if his kind made a habit of revelling in hardship when there was an alternative available.

"Your invitation is a kind one and I'll gladly take you up on it if you'll but give me a few minutes to pack my things."

"Of course." Bilbo's answering smile was bright and Thorin found it difficult to subdue his own in response.

Instead, the dwarf gave the hobbit another quick nod and turned back to his camp, dousing the fire and beginning to gather up his belongings.

 


 

Bag End was, for lack of a better word, lovely. True, the name was a touch odd, but Thorin could not deny just how warm and welcoming the place was.

The dwarf took off his surcoat and boots as instructed in the hallway, and shouldered his pack more securely as he wandered through the entranceway, eyes drinking in the details of Bilbo's home.

Built into the very hill, the hobbit house- smial was all rounded tunnels and wood panelling. Roots from the formidable oak tree growing atop the house twined hither and thither throughout and had actually been ingeniously incorporated into the structure and design; a symbiotic relationship made beautiful. Bilbo clearly cared much for the living tree above his home, and in return, the tree had offered strength and support to the roof and beams. Thorin had never seen such a thing before.

Tiled and wooden floors by turn were surprisingly warm underfoot, owing probably to the many hearths and stoves situated throughout the rooms. The décor was all warm hues and homey accents, funny little trinkets placed on shelves and along the corridors, stacks upon stacks of books in the spare room Bilbo clearly used as a miniature library and more still in his study. Every inch of his home spoke of comfort; from the plush armchair by the fireplace in the parlour, to the full-to-capacity pantry.

Even the lighting was warm… a soft glow about the place somehow reminded him of Erebor, a place so steeped in memory that he shied away from the comparison immediately, and almost gave way to petty jealousy.

He was sure Bilbo had every right to a place like this; he would not begrudge him that. He certainly wouldn't wish him to be displaced like he and his family and close kin were.

"Do you like it? I know it's not what you're used to, I hear dwarves like mountain homes best? But my father built it for my mother as a wedding gift, and I've always thought it was a pleasant place to call home," Bilbo nattered on animatedly at Thorin's side as he gave him an impromptu tour.

"Your home is very fine, Bilbo. You should be proud of your father's craftsmanship," Thorin replied sincerely and the answering grin he received was undeniably charming.

Coming to yet another door, Bilbo opened it and ushered Thorin inside revealing it to be a decent sized bedroom.

"You can set your pack down in here, Thorin. This will be your room whilst you're staying with me."

The room was not a patch on the room he had called his own back in Erebor, but it was certainly far more comfortable and a better size than the one he had in Ered Luin.

"This is not your bedroom, is it? I'm happy to stay at your request, but I refuse to chase you from your very bed."

Bilbo chuckled and shook his head. "Not at all, my room is next door. I've a few guest rooms, so you needn't worry yourself."

Relaxing somewhat at that revelation, Thorin set his pack down on the floor beside the bed and began to unpack. "Thank you for this, Bilbo."

"Thank you for posting that notice in the Green Dragon. I think you may have just saved my sanity."

"I would save your thanks until Yule is over if I were you, we cannot be entirely certain this will work, after all." Despite his words, Thorin felt a small smile usurp his lips at the hobbit's gratitude.

"Ah, don't sell yourself short, Thorin. I'm sure you'll make a fine suitor for me," Bilbo teased and turned to leave Thorin to his unpacking. "Let me know if you need anything, I'll go and make us some breakfast, shall I?"

"Isn't it passed breakfast time?" Thorin queried in confusion, he'd guess the hour well past dawn by now.

"First breakfast, yes, but just in time for second breakfast. Come along to the kitchen once you're finished in there," Bilbo called back as he made his way back down the hall.

"'Second breakfast?'" Thorin muttered to himself and shook his head as he returned to unpacking.

Perhaps he'd best add 'study hobbit culture' to his list as well. He had a feeling this plan was going to be more difficult to accomplish than he'd originally thought.

Chapter Text

Studying hobbit culture turned out to be an easier endeavour than he'd first anticipated. Whereas dwarves were notoriously secretive about their ways, hobbits it seemed were only too happy to chatter on about their history, their families, their traditions, and their general way of life. It was only a matter of asking a question and it would be answered without suspicion or preamble.

Perhaps these folk were simply too trusting.

Bilbo, for his part, proved to be excellent in the art of small talk, at least it seemed excellent to Thorin who was naturally a bit on the quiet side. The hobbit was obligingly answering any question the dwarf had and would often trail off into entertaining stories about this relative or that as the pair of them washed dishes following this 'second breakfast' of his; which by the by, had been wonderful. It seemed that the rumours about Shire cuisine were true then.

"… and that's why I'm not looking forward to having Lobelia here for Yule. I swear, if I have to hear just one more, "We're all so very concerned about you here all by yourself, Bilbo" I will burst!"

"And we can't be having that, it would put everyone off their food, most unpleasant," Thorin remarked dryly, lips twitching into an amused and somewhat sly smile.

"You're not a bit funny, Thorin. I do hope you realise that."

"I've two nephews who would beg to differ; they find my sense of humour very entertaining," Thorin returned easily.

"They must have a pitiable taste in jokes then, poor dears. Or perhaps they just find entertainment in how very bad your jokes are."

Thorin grumbled in mock offence and handed Bilbo another plate to dry which the hobbit accepted without even looking. His host had argued against him washing the dishes at first, but Thorin had insisted upon it; he may be a guest, but he was not lazy with chores.

It was a little disconcerting, Thorin mused, how at ease he felt here already. He'd only been in Master Baggins' home for a few hours, and already it felt somehow familiar and comforting… Thorin frowned to himself and put it out of his mind, chalking the sensation up to having had a good hot meal at last, and that the general air around Bag End was a welcoming one.

"How old are they?"

"Sorry?"

"Your nephews, how old are they? Are they very young?"

"Ah, no. Fíli is seventy-nine, and his younger brother Kíli is seventy-four. They're both of age, though they can still act like dwarflings from time to time."

"And that's certainly not through any influence of your own, you seem far too mature to lead dwarves astray and make them act like younglings again."

If there was a hint of teasing sarcasm to Bilbo's tone, then Thorin pointedly ignored it and valiantly attempted not to seem amused by the hobbit's attempts to needle him.

Seemingly disappointed that his attempts to rile Thorin had failed, Bilbo did his utmost not to look put-out which only furthered Thorin's amusement, but at length the hobbit hesitantly asked, "Dwarves are long lived, I have heard this, but you say your youngest nephew is seventy-four as if they are still fairly young… I hope it's not forward of me, but how old are you?"

"One hundred and ninety two," Thorin replied with a nonchalant shrug as he handed Bilbo the last mug to dry. "As a rule, people of my race are considered adults only when they reach forty years of age. Since I answered, perhaps you'll indulge me; how old are you, and when do hobbits come of age?"

"I am forty-eight, and we hobbits are considered adults once we reach thirty-three."

"I suppose we would be similar in age, were we of the same people."

"I suppose so," Bilbo, answered evenly, though his mind fairly boggled at the ages Thorin had told him. Imagine living so long and still looking as young as he did! It was quite something to wonder at… Imagine all the grand sights Thorin had seen in his time as well! Dwarves were far better travelled and more adventurous than hobbits after all, and Bilbo itched to bombard the dwarf with questions, the small adventurous part of his spirit within him stirred into curiosity.

Such was his mind focused on all the amazing things Thorin might have seen and done over the years that he failed to stop himself from opening his abysmally foolish mouth and adding. "You look good, for being nearly two hundred years old. Very handsome, I'd say."

It was only through years of learning the art of polite conversation and good manners at his father's knee that kept Bilbo from dashing from the kitchen then. He was not flirting with the dwarf who had kindly agreed to help rid him of his pesky suitors.

"Er, thank you." The reply was rather terse, and Bilbo felt all the worse for it, sneaking a glance at his companion and finding Thorin ruddy cheeked and all but glaring out of the window.

Curse it, what if he thinks I meant to sweet talk him? You complete idiot, Bilbo Baggins! He might just up and leave and then you'll be in the same sinking boat as before.

"Ah, what I mean is er… your race! They- they age rather well don't they."

Oh, do shut up, mouth.

"I suppose so, yes..."

It was perhaps a slightly hesitant answer. Maybe dwarves regarded age and attractiveness differently to hobbits. However, the scowl on Thorin's face did seem to soften, and the small curve of a tentative smile returned.

Bilbo let his shoulders relax then, though he did still send a half-hearted plea for the ground to swallow him up or maybe for the roots of the old oak to be obliging enough to come to life and strangle him where he stood. That would be marvellous.

They had finished tidying the kitchen in silence after that, Thorin retreating to his room shortly after. Bilbo quickly decided that such awkwardness between them simply would not do, and so went and attempted to strike up conversation once more.

Poking his head around the door to see that Thorin was now sat upon the bed and reading one of Bilbo's books, Bilbo piped up. "Yule is still two days away, and I have some decorating I need to do for the celebration. Would you like to come along with me to help gather some things?"

It seemed that this was just the thing to say to make Thorin forget Bilbo's foolish behaviour before, for the dwarf stood and set aside his book with an expression of interested curiosity on his face. "Decorations?"

"Oh yes, we decorate our smials for Yule you see. We use foliage from the forests; mostly greenery and berries, to brighten the place up and remind us of the coming spring and summer."

"Foliage and berries?" Thorin shook his head in bemusement, nose wrinkling with mild distaste. "That sounds suspiciously elvish to me."

"You're one of those who dislikes elves I assume?"

"Hn, not nearly as much as others of my kind might, but I'll admit there's little love lost between us."

"I should like to know more about all that someday," Bilbo murmured quietly before returning to their original topic. "As it stands, the idea of bringing the outdoors in is a very hobbitish tradition and nothing at all to do with elves. They don't even celebrate Yule so far as I know. Actually, the Rohirrim celebrate in much the same way as we do now that I think on it, so perhaps this type of thing isn't strictly hobbitish and I have heard tale of the people in Dale following similar traditions. They're all kin to the Northmen you see-"

At the mention of Dale, Thorin's head had shot up like a startled pony, his eyes widening infinitesimally and Bilbo's rambling explanation was cut short by the sudden motion.

"Are you alright, Thorin? Was I boring you? I am sorry, I do tend to natter on and completely lose my original purpose once I begin." Bilbo offered a slightly self-depreciating grin and a helpless shrug of his shoulders as Thorin breathed a small sigh of relief.

So the hobbit had only been chattering on as he was wont to do, and wasn't actually trying to bring up Dale (or anywhere else in that area) as a topic of discussion then, good.

"Not at all, Bilbo. It was quite interesting, and I'd be happy to join you in your search for decorations."

Apparently, this was the right answer to give, because Bilbo beamed at him and turned from the doorway beckoning Thorin to follow. "Excellent, it will be very useful having someone as tall as you help me this year."

Letting his posture relax from the tense hunch he'd unconsciously drawn himself into, Thorin marked his place in his book then stood to follow Bilbo out the smial and off into the fields and copses behind The Hill.

 


 

An hour later found the pair industriously gathering various types of flora from the variety surrounding Bilbo's home. Or rather, Bilbo was selecting the best flora, and Thorin was happy to be consigned to holding the baskets and being directed to sprigs and branches that his shorter companion simply could not reach.

Bilbo was shuffling from one hedgerow to another; small pruning shears in hand, as he deftly rummaged through prickly bushes and cut the most attractive looking branches to add to their growing collection. He had barely a scratch on him, whereas Thorin's hands were littered with tiny cuts at this point.

Bilbo had explained it away as having had years of practice in the art of growing things, but insisted that he was not nearly so good as his gardener and neighbour, Hamfast.

The thorny leafed menace with bright red berries (holly, Bilbo had called it) was not the only plant to be added to their baskets. Ivy and firs, and even a few flowers from Bilbo's own carefully tended garden were mixed in, including some late blooming chrysanthemums and delicate roses.

Thorin had to admit, that to the untrained eye, it was rather an appealing sight, even if he had little to no idea over the purpose of it all.

"We use candles and lanterns in our celebrations, not plants," Thorin added as they continued to chatter as they worked; discussing the various differences in their cultures.

"Ah, is that so? We do use candles as well, but we have to keep a careful eye on them; what with all the plant life around, not to mention the wood we use in our homes. It's rather a recipe for disaster if you leave them unattended you see."

"I can imagine. We dwarves are sensible enough to use stone in our homes, and all pesky woodland life is kept outside, thank you."

Thorin cast a surreptitious glance over to the hobbit to see how he'd taken that remark, only to find his companion grumbling good naturedly as he reached precariously into a bush for another sprig of holly. The grumbles turned to a soft yelp as a low hanging branch caught his ankle and scratched the bared skin there.

"We're also sensible enough to wear boots when trying to defeat said plant life," Thorin added and received one of Bilbo's abandoned mittens in his face as revenge. The hobbit had good aim, even when his concentration was elsewhere.

"We don't need boots, nasty, smelly things they are," Bilbo harrumphed as he finally managed to reach the desired branch and cut it cleanly, returning to Thorin's side to add it to one of the baskets. "I'm not trying to defeat the plant life anyway. It's all perfectly well and will continue to grow; I'm not daft enough to kill it."

"That's good to know. You're not daft enough to kill a bothersome thorn infested plant, but you are daft enough to get your ankles shredded because you will refuse to wear boots." Noticing the sour look he received for that remark, Thorin ducked his head to hide a grin and changed the topic quickly. "Have we got enough decorations yet do you think?"

"That should be enough," Bilbo hummed speculatively as he gave the baskets a quick look over before adding. "Just some mistletoe to finish I think. I don't care for the stuff personally, but my relatives love having any excuse…"

Thorin was not quite sure what to make of that bewildering comment and so kept quiet as Bilbo bustled away again, this time looking up to inspect the boughs of various trees. He was preoccupied in this way for a few minutes before making a small sound of triumph and beckoning Thorin over.

"Here we are… mistletoe. I don't think I'll be able to reach it though, even with the stepladder, I don't suppose you could-"

"Aye, at your service." Thorin rolled his eyes as if annoyed, though if he were being honest with himself he was quite happy to help; anything to pay back for the food and lodging.

Setting down the baskets, Thorin went and retrieved the stepladder he'd hefted along with them and set it against the tree Bilbo indicated to. In moments, he was amongst the branches of the tree and snipping away at a delicate looking plant with pale green leaves and white berries. Bilbo had referred to it as a parasite, and Thorin could find no logical idea as to why anyone would want it in their home, particularly because the berries were supposedly poisonous. However, it was not up to him to question the oddities of hobbit life.

"That reminds me. We should probably set some rules for physical affection." Bilbo's brow was furrowed in contemplation as Thorin came back down and added the last plant to the baskets, and Thorin wondered what about a parasitic plant had reminded the hobbit of physical affection, but decided it was probably best not to ask.

"What kind of rules?"

"Well just to take note of what we are both comfortable with and what would be considered proper… or rather what might be considered improper since we're trying to shock my relatives."

That look was back, Thorin noted. And the dwarf briefly wondered over how he was able to so easily read Bilbo's expressions having only known him for half a day. He quickly put that thought out of his mind though, as he recognised the expression on Bilbo's face to be one of mischief and the dwarf braced himself for whatever may come of it.

"And what would be considered… improper to a hobbit?" Thorin dared to ask.

"Oh nothing as bad as what you might be thinking," Bilbo laughed then, taking note of the wary look on the dwarf's face. "Hobbits are very demonstrative in love when in private, but in public we're very conservative. So to be quite honest, with my family, I think anything more than hand holding would startle them."

Thorin breathed easily again, and nodded in agreement. Dwarves were actually quite demonstrative both privately and in public. However, he was uncertain how other races would perceive such things, and from a personal standpoint, he had never had any experience with anything more than friendship or familial bonds. To try to act out physical affection with no prior knowledge could prove to be very awkward and likely uncomfortable.

Not to mention Bilbo's family would either think him an inept suitor for their relative; or worse still see straight through their lie and then it would all be for naught.

Bilbo had hefted one basket of their decorations against his hip and Thorin did the same with the other. The stepladder he carried over his shoulder with his free hand and together the pair began their trek back to Bilbo's.

"So your family wouldn't expect to see much in the way of physical affection whilst they're visiting," Thorin clarified.

"No, though as I say, since I was hoping to ward off any suitors by making them think I've a preference for wild and unruly partners, we can always be a little more forward… ah providing that would not be too uncomfortable for you of course. Just hand holding, as I suggested; perhaps arms around the waist, casual touches, kisses on the cheek, that sort of thing. We don't have to do anything too improper, just make sure the affection is a very present and constant thing. Their imaginations will supply the rest and I will be free of irritating folk trying to win me over."

Thorin had to admit, in his original plan he hadn't exactly considered physical affection as part of the ploy. However, he was now beginning to see what an idiotic oversight this had been. Perhaps he should have thought this through more carefully before posting that foolish notice… but then he did need food and the shelter from the cold was pleasant…

No, he was not about to shy away from the challenge now just because it presented him with something he was unfamiliar with. If Dwalin ever found out he'd been so cowardly, he'd laugh himself sick!

"That sounds… agreeable. It should not pose a problem, Bilbo."

"So long as you're sure. I'd hate for you to feel uncomfortable-"

"It will be fine, honestly," Thorin replied with a little more conviction than he truly felt. "We just have to make it convincing."

It really wasn't Bilbo that was the problem. He was a pleasant enough fellow, and didn't make him feel the least bit uneasy. If he could hazard a guess, being in anyway affectionate with Bilbo would prove pleasant enough. After all the hobbit didn't seem distressed by the idea so why should Thorin be? Not to mention that even though Bilbo didn't precisely match a dwarven standard of attractiveness, Thorin could easily admit that he had a certain… something about him. Something that made Thorin consider him charming and drew the dwarf in just a little. No, the problem was that Thorin just despised the possibility of looking a fool and he feared he might do before Yule was over.

As they walked back up the lane, Thorin decided it would be best to start as he meant to go on when he spied a pair of hobbits walking towards them.

Nodding at their approach and clearing his throat quietly to gain Bilbo's attention, Thorin murmured a quiet, "Well, should we practice?"

Bilbo blinked in confusion for a moment before realising what Thorin meant and beckoned for Thorin to hand the second basket to him so they'd both have one hand free. It was a bit of a struggle for Bilbo, owing to the sheer amount on greenery they'd gathered, but the hobbit managed to carry both baskets with one arm and caught up Thorin's now free hand in his own.

He had expected Thorin's hand to be warm; it had been when he'd shaken it back in the forest upon making their agreement. What he hadn't expected was for Thorin to intertwine their fingers together in an action that seemed rather more intimate than simply clasping joined hands.

It was nice; Bilbo thought and tried to keep the heat from crawling up his neck. This had to look normal… like they did this all the time; they were just making it convincing.

Bilbo told himself all this but it still didn't banish the warm flutter in his stomach as Thorin went so far as to let his thumb brush over Bilbo's own in a soft caress. Dwarven hands, Bilbo noted, were far larger than hobbit hands, strong and warm, and… yes quite pleasant to hold.

Pushing such thoughts from his mind, Bilbo offered a greeting to the hobbits they passed in the lane, and felt very pleased with himself when he cast a glance back over his shoulder to see them gossiping quietly between themselves once they assumed they had passed out of earshot. They were obvious in the way they tried to sneak looks back at Thorin and himself though, so there could be no mistaking what their topic of conversation was about.

Stifling a quiet chuckle of triumph, Bilbo gently squeezed Thorin's hand in gratitude and so they continued on back to Bag End, neither of them letting go.

Chapter Text

"Honestly Thorin, that was a wonderful way to start the rumour mill," Bilbo crowed as he was handed another sprig of holly from his dwarven helper later that day.

"Glad I could oblige," Thorin huffed a laugh at the sound of sheer delight in Bilbo's tone and watched Bilbo decorate the smial with interest.

The foliage really did look cheery, if a little unusual, neatly wrapped around the beams and tucked carefully into nooks along the walls. The additions to Bilbo's home somehow made the place even more inviting than before, and the smell from the fresh picked flowers and cut plant life was pleasing.

They had spent the better part of the afternoon decorating the smial, interspaced with adequate breaks for eating of course, and Bilbo was proving to be as every bit as fussy as Thorin had presumed on first meeting him. The hobbit was a perfectionist it seemed, and although Thorin was someone who could appreciate attention to detail, he really did wonder what all the fretting was about when these decorations would only wither and be removed in a week or so anyway. Weren't celebrations like this supposed to be fun? Bilbo was treating it as if he were going to be tried and executed if a single leaf were out of place, and so Thorin said so.

The cheerful countenance disappeared and the hobbit gave his guest such a look, that were it aimed at the flowers, would probably dry and shrivel them right there and then upon their stems.

"You clearly have not met anyone quite as tiresome as my extended family before then," Bilbo drawled at length, eyes narrowed as he pondered over the placement of a particularly troublesome chrysanthemum. "They simply love to criticise… not to my face mind you, but there are a good handful who are vicious gossips and adore any reason to judge another poorly."

Bilbo was frowning now, his lips twisted into an unhappy grimace as he pushed himself up onto his toes upon the chair he stood on, trying to tweak the foliage into a more regimented arrangement on one particular beam. Thorin had offered to decorate the higher places, being the taller of the two of them, but Bilbo had declined; admitting that he would probably only disapprove of Thorin's decorating and wouldn't wish to insult him.

The dwarf had been amused by this at first and had privately thought that nobody could be so pernickety, even if they did seem like a fussy little fellow on first impressions. It seemed that Bilbo had been honest in his self-assessment though, and Thorin was now more than a little tempted to wait until Bilbo had disappeared into one of the other rooms and then take the chance to rearrange the foliage to his own liking, just to annoy him.

He blamed his nephews for this sudden burgeoning sense of mischief.

Deciding that it would not do to gain his hosts' ire, Thorin reluctantly dismissed the idea, and instead waited until Bilbo had stepped down off the chair and gone to bustle over to rearrange something else before he caught his elbow and stopped him.

"Isn't the whole idea of my being here to convince your family members that you're not suitable for any of the potential partners they introduce you to? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I assume your family would think very well of all this.-" he waved his hand to indicate the very neat and tidily arranged Yule decorations- "What better way to put them and any suitors off by making it look an utter mess? You can say it was my influence that's changed you so."

Bilbo opened his mouth as if to argue, then closed it, blinking as if in wonderment at the dwarf before turning away and answering hesitantly. "My mother… she always loved the decorations to look natural and not a bit arranged. Quite a few of the family members on my father's side found it distasteful. They never had approved of her…"

Thorin cleared his throat awkwardly and attempted to apologise, fearing he'd dredged up bad memories or inadvertently upset Bilbo, only to have Bilbo turn to face him again with a bright grin and a grateful look on his face.

"It's a brilliant idea, Thorin. I really do hate having to spend so much time on arranging them anyway."  

Feeling relieved that he hadn't offended the hobbit in any manner, Thorin went to fetch a chair of his own and soon the pair were bickering over what would look best, or rather worst, placed where and how far down the ivy vines should trail ("wouldn't it be amusing to have them hang low enough to catch people's hair? I know it would drive Lobelia mad seeing things in such disarray!"). The conversation between them was light and carefree as they worked and Bilbo had to admit, this whole Yule preparation fiasco was a lot more enjoyable when it was done light-heartedly and with someone for company.

 


 

The sun had dipped low behind the hills by the time they finished, and Bilbo had prepared them (yet another) simple but enjoyable meal which they were now eating whilst sat on the floor of the parlour. Most unrespectable of course, but Bilbo felt he might as well make a good go of this whole 'wild and carefree' attitude he was going to impersonate once Yule was underway, and so had no complaints as they talked more than they ate and admired their afternoon's work.

The smial looked better than it had done in years.

Since his mother died, Bilbo had not the heart to decorate it as she had; with abandon and joy, not worrying whether colours clashed or sprigs hung at odd angles. Now, for the first time in what seemed an age, Bag End truly felt ready for Yule once more.

Ivy hung low from the ceiling and twined artfully about beams and trailed down walls, holly was pushed into any available nook and the large, bright chrysanthemums vied for space amongst roses and firs. Beautifully blown glass baubles had been taken out of storage and hung wherever they could find room, ribbons criss-crossed the ceiling and wrapped about the ivy, and left over acorns and pinecones had been added to the mixture; a bit past their prime now that they were in the dead of winter, but still appealing somehow. None of it coordinated, and all of it looked as if a troop of faunts had been let loose on his smial… and Bilbo found that rather than make the ache for his departed parents return with a vengeance, it made him happy and he loved the finished result.

"You're a very good cook, Master Baggins," Thorin complimented as he swiped bread around his bowl to mop up the last of their stew, pulling Bilbo from his reverie.

"You think so? There are plenty of others in Hobbiton who are better to be honest; but I'm glad you like the food… do you not cook?"

"I do, though it's not my strongest skill. Dís and her boys like my baking well enough, and I am quite good with simple dishes and soups, but you seem to have a real flair for any dish. At least that's how it seems to me."

The compliment warmed Bilbo and he tried to hide just how pleased it made him to hear it. There were a few disadvantages to living alone after all; one being that he only had himself to critique his own efforts, and though Bilbo wasn't the type who needed constant praise, it would have been nice to have someone else around to be grateful for his food on occasion.

"I suppose I just get more practice than you; what with you travelling a lot for work and us hobbits eating more meals than most," he replied.

Bilbo had been unsurprised to learn that dwarves ate fewer meals than hobbits, he'd found the same true of elves and men, but he decided only good could come of Thorin eating a little more whilst he was a guest here. He had noticed that his companion had not the bulk of other dwarves he had met, and when Thorin had reached up to hang some decorations in the doorway, Bilbo had been aggrieved to see a hint of visible ribs as his shirt had lifted

Clearly, Thorin hadn't been taking very good care of himself whilst out in the wilds, and thinking back to his notice it was little wonder. An 'out of work blacksmith' he'd referred to himself as and Bilbo certainly recalled the words 'trying to make my way by any means necessary that does not involve my resorting to thievery'.

They were blunt and honest words, words that tugged at something within the hobbit now that he thought back on them and made him all the more glad that he'd invited Thorin to stay.

All he'd wanted in payment for helping Bilbo in this bizarre scheme was a meal too… just how badly off was this dwarf?

Feeling ashamed that he hadn't thought of it sooner, Bilbo was still hesitant to bring the topic up lest he offend Thorin. After all, most people disliked their ill fortune being talked about, and dwarves were well known for their pride… but Bilbo felt he should try and understand his guest a bit better all the same.

"Thorin, do you mind if I ask you something?"

The dwarf took in Bilbo's hesitant tone and the way he was fiddling with his napkin and immediately felt the relaxed atmosphere that had previously wrapped about them like a blanket dissipate. He was wary yes, but he'd not begrudge Bilbo a question.

"Go on," he murmured, eyes flicking from the hobbit to his bowl again, the tension in Bilbo's voice was palpable and caused him to look away.

"Your notice said you were out of work and- well forgive me saying so, but only asking for a single meal as payment hardly seems adequate for what you're doing for me… are you- I mean, is everything well- with you… with your family-"

The hobbit's voice now was so soft and faltering, and full of sympathy that it caused Thorin's stomach to roil as if he'd swallowed sour milk. He could not stand pity, even if it was meant kindly.

"Enough," Thorin's voice was low but stern; his nostrils flared and jaw set in a sure sign of restrained anger.

"I just wanted to-… I'm sorry I shouldn't have-"

"No, you shouldn't." Thorin inwardly cringed at how cold and sharp the words sounded when he spoke them, but he didn't take them back. Instead he blundered on, realising what he was saying could very well spoil the tentative companionship he'd just gained today. "Nothing is well, though I do not see what business it is of yours. You're all the same. Learn someone's business, simper and pity them but do nothing of real note to help, then ridicule behind our backs-"

He knew what he was saying was unfair, but it was difficult not to show anger and resentment when asked about his situation so brazenly, and by someone whose only real concern in life was whether his family would pester him too much during annual festivities. However, if he was expecting Bilbo to quail at the words and retreat, he was sorely mistaken.

"Well that's a pleasant attitude isn't it?" Bilbo shot back. Gone was the gentle hesitation from before, instead the simmering anger in his words were a mirror to Thorin's own. "Just fine manners indeed. You all but made it my business when you wrote what you did in that notice. 'Out of work blacksmith' and 'by any means necessary' were your words, I believe. How can anyone possibly ignore that? You're thin and you mentioned jail- and- and how dare you presume I would ever ridicule someone for their circumstances!"

"Why shouldn't you? I have it on good authority that hobbits are vicious gossips when the mood takes them."

"And you think I would be!?"

"How should I know? I barely know you."

"Precisely, you don't know me. So don't you dare- don't you dare assume I'd be as spiteful and wicked as that."

It struck him all at once, just how much damage so few words had probably done, and Thorin gaped for a moment, struggling with half formed apologies and further recrimination warring on his tongue.

He had let bitterness and anger consume him for too long, and now he had verbally lashed out at someone who, although in his opinion was frivolous and rather silly, did actually seem sincere and quite kind.

And really, how could he blame Bilbo for being curious when his hunger fuelled mind had all but poured his personal affairs out onto a piece of parchment and pinned it up to be found.

"I- … Excuse me, please."

Thorin did not wait for Bilbo to speak again, rising to his feet, and for the first time in his life, backing down from an argument and retreating.

Bilbo let him go, a small part of him still fuming at the accusations flung his way, but mostly the hobbit felt sad on Thorin's behalf. There was a story there, a sombre one he was sure, and Bilbo sighed pinching the bridge of his nose and screwing up his eyes briefly as he heard the door to Thorin's room shut.

He really shouldn't have pried…

Gathering up their dinner things, Bilbo stood and went to the kitchen; cleaning a little more vigorously than usual due to his lingering anger. They both needed to calm down, Bilbo decided. He'd give Thorin some time to himself, and then try and smooth things over between them later.

 


 

Late evening found Bilbo pacing before his fireplace with a pipe between his lips, muttering softly to the portraits of his mother and father. It was a habit he'd picked up in the years since their deaths, and he found as much as a comfort, it was a way to help him think when posed with a problem. Sometimes it was almost as if he could hear their replies.

"He's just- he's surly and prickly you see. I mean, not too much really. For the most part it's been lovely having a bit of company today, and he's actually quite witty, good for conversation and all that… but he's hurting, and I would like to help him. Goodness knows, I know you'd say 'leave well alone, lad. Let him come to you'-" here he removed his pipe from his mouth and jabbed the stem at the painting of his father before he carried on.- "But I really don't think he's the type to ask for help, and I really think I should. I know you wouldn't wait around, Mum. I'm just not sure if anything I do or say would be appreciated…"

Clamping the pipe back between his teeth and puffing away irritably, Bilbo flopped back down into his armchair and kneaded his fingers against his forehead as he considered for the umpteenth time whether he should go and knock on Thorin's door or not.

In the end, it seemed his fretting was for naught, as a soft cough alerted Bilbo to Thorin's figure stood awkwardly in the doorway some long minutes later when his pipe was almost finished.

Without preamble, Thorin took a single step forward and spoke quietly. "I have come to ask your forgiveness, I should not have reacted the way I did and I am sorry for it. If you would be so kind as to permit me- I will only intrude on you for the night, and I will be ready to leave by morning."

The apology Bilbo was grateful for, but Thorin's announcement was rather unexpected and he scrambled to make sense of it. "Wait- you think I want… oh, you really do have a flair for the dramatic don't you?"

"It was wrong of me to speak to you like that. As you said, I don't know you near well enough to cast such judgements and I really should not take up anymore of your time."

Were it not for the truly guilty look on Thorin's face, Bilbo might have laughed at the dwarf's overreaction to their little spat. He tamped down the urge though, not wishing to make Thorin feel worse, and murmured quietly in reply, "I'm not about to kick you out you know. I shouldn't have pried into matters that are obviously sensitive, it's only natural you'd get upset."

"Yes but there's no excuse for-"

"Thorin, for pity's sake, can we just forgive and forget? Look, call me selfish but I would very much like to keep you around at least for a few more days. Providing you want to stay of course…" Bilbo stood, pausing to tap out the ashes from his pipe in the fireplace and set it aside on the table beside his armchair before approaching Thorin.

Thorin's features softened and he at last let his gaze meet Bilbo's, his expression no longer quite so abashed. He offered the hobbit a slow twitch of his lips before replying, "You're just afraid you won't find another pretend partner so close to Yule."

"Yes, just so. So you see I'm afraid you simply have to stay. If you like we could consider this our first lover's tiff. It will certainly give more credibility to our relationship, don't you think?"

The remaining tension between them melted at that and Thorin shook his head in disbelief. "You are impossible."

"Odd, I could say the same about you. We're well matched it seems."

"Yes… I am sorry though, if I caused any offence."

"What rot, you've caused nothing but mild irritation. If you wish to make it up to me though, you can help in preparing some food tomorrow for Yule."

"Gladly, though I thought we established you were the better cook."

"I would like to try some dwarvish food, if that's not too presumptuous of me. It seems only right if you're my intended that we share things like that."

Thorin inclined his head and reached out to take Bilbo's hand to shake on it. "That sounds fair."

"Well now, how about a proper peace offering?"

Pulling away from Thorin, Bilbo ushered his guest into the kitchen and before the stove. There, simmering gently was a large saucepan full of a heady, sweet smelling mixture that Thorin leant in to sniff at curiously. Whatever it was, the concoction smelled very good.

"What is it?"

"Wine, mixed with fruit and spices to give it more flavour. We call it mulled wine," Bilbo replied.

Retrieving two mugs, Bilbo ladled a good amount of the drink into each before passing one to Thorin.

Thorin sniffed once more before taking a cautious sip and almost immediately took another larger swallow of the wine, heedless of the scalding it might give his tongue. It was very good; red wine made sweet and delectable by the fruits, the spices adding a subtle kick to it that left his tongue tingling and a delicious aroma in his nose.

"I've never tasted anything like this before." He nodded appreciatively as Bilbo steered him back into the parlour in order to sit down on one of the comfortable couches before the fireplace. "As a rule dwarves stick to ale. I'm afraid I make quite a bad dwarf, for I prefer wine. Perhaps I just have a taste for sweeter things."

"A terrible dwarf indeed, personally I've always preferred ale." Bilbo grinned as he took a seat beside Thorin; close but not so close that the proximity would be considered uncomfortable.

"Perhaps you and I should trade places then," Thorin teased and sipped at his wine steadily.

"Goodness no, I could never pass for a dwarf! The boots alone would topple me and I would be swamped under all those layers… not to mention I've seen you all have a penchant for greeting one another with head-butts and I would be knocked senseless in a moment if subjected to such rough treatment."

"Ah, a pity that. You had best keep to your hobbitsh ways then, Master Baggins."

"Bilbo," he corrected promptly. "And yes, a hobbit I shall happily remain."

Comfortable silence enveloped them after this. Only one or two candles had been lit in the parlour, and coupled with the light from the crackling fire, the room was shadowed but still cast in a comforting glow. The firelight played over Bilbo's features as Thorin stole a glance at his host; it darkened his eyes and made his hair shine in a way that had Thorin promptly taking a larger mouthful of wine and nearly choking on it.

Bilbo snickered at the way he spluttered and gave him a companionable pat on the back before they returned to quiet once more.

Thorin frowned slightly, considering again the argument they had had earlier, and came to the conclusion that really he had been more in the wrong than Bilbo. As far as he could tell, the hobbit's concern had been genuine, and his wish to know Thorin's plight was not out of a nosey desire to spread gossip; it was sincere.

Not to mention, Bilbo had offered him food and a place to stay. True, he was doing Bilbo a favour in turn, but the hobbit had been nothing but open with Thorin over his life.

Well then…

"You- you asked if there was anything wrong with me… with my family," he started voice soft with uncertainty.

"Yes, but Thorin I should not have pried so when we've only just met. I just wished to understand you better-"

"Peace, Bilbo. It is fine I overreacted after all. If you still wish to know, I am willing to tell you. I owe you this much after the openness you have shown me in turn. You've spoken so freely of your family and culture, and I have given you but the bare bones of my circumstances."

Bilbo mulled it over for a few moments before replying, "If you are willing to tell me, I'd gladly hear your story, Thorin."

"Who said there was a story?" A sad, slow smile appeared on the dwarf's face. A smile full of a grief so old it was almost tangible and lingered about them like the stirring notes of a violin. A smile that tugged at Bilbo's heartstrings something terrible.

"Everyone is a story, Thorin. I'd imagine you have quite a few you could tell."

"Enough to fill your library at least." He seemed to collect himself somewhat and took another small swallow of mulled wine as if to garner his courage before he continued. "Very well, I shall tell you everything."

Much like a fauntling readying himself for a tale a mother would spin before bed, Bilbo settled himself on the couch more comfortably, tucking his feet up beside him and unconsciously leaning a little closer to his companion.

Noting his attentive audience, Thorin began. "I do not hale from Ered Luin originally. My family, long ago now of course to you hobbits, lived in the kingdom of Erebor."

A minute widening of Bilbo's eyes told Thorin that his suppositions were correct. "You have heard of it then?"

"Yes, yes of course. I've read a few books on Erebor, and the traders mention it from time to time when they pass through here."

"Then you're aware that it is a large kingdom, very prosperous."

"The most prosperous dwarven kingdom," Bilbo chipped in as if he were a conscientious student trying to impress a tutor. "Probably the most prosperous in all of Middle Earth."

"Quite." For all his affirmation, there was a sorry lack of pride in the dwarf's eyes, and Bilbo was struck once more by the lingering sorrow his gaze held. Whatever his connection with Erebor, it was not a happy one.

"My grandfather ruled there for many a year. His name was Thror. I am not certain if you have heard of him, after a time his reign was… not something to boast of-"

"Wait… Thorin please- you're- are you telling me that you're royalty? A prince!?" Bilbo jolted in surprise and nearly upset his wine, he carefully set it aside so he could give Thorin his full attention.

Hobbits did not take much stock in things like royalty having none of their own, but Bilbo was an avid reader, and had heard much of the royalty in the lands outside the Shire. It was enough to make him just a little impressed despite his misgivings of the general idea.

"I was royalty. My direct family can no longer stake a claim to the throne."

Bilbo quietened from his soft sputtering, and watched the dwarf transfixed. He knew now, something bad must have happened to have Thorin lose his place as a member of the royal family, and so held his tongue. To interrupt now with questions may put Thorin off entirely.

"My grandfather was a good king in his youth; brave and honourable. Swift both of mind and of blade when it was needed. However, a shadow started to fall over him as he grew older. Simply being prosperous was no longer enough for him… he started to hoard gold and covet gems more than his own kin. He would spend hours alone in the treasury and rebuke- even offer violence to anyone who dared interrupt his solitude there."

Unable to stop himself Bilbo reached out a hand and placed it comfortingly atop Thorin's. The dwarf blinked in surprise at the unexpected contact, but merely placed his own hand on Bilbo's, a slight tremor present in it as he forged on.

"We have a name for it, this sickness my grandfather began succumbing to. We call it 'Dragon Sickness'. It is a sickness of the mind, Bilbo. One who develops it cannot see beyond their own greed and need for material wealth. They will gather treasure to them as if they are a dragon in body, and they will even risk their own lives to protect it against others. Kingdoms mean nothing to them anymore, family means nothing to them anymore… their own wellbeing- He… he was very sick."

"Thorin, I am so sorry. I can't say I know how you feel, to lose someone that way… but you have my sympathy all the same, for what it's worth."

Thorin's smile was a bitter thing, but he gave Bilbo's hand a gentle squeeze to show his words were appreciated despite this. "That's not the worst of it though. Dragon Sickness has a very real threat in it; it is given in the name. Were grandfather a simple merchant or commoner, it would not have mattered so much. He could have hoarded all he wished and never posed a threat to his people, for it would not have ever been enough, but a king-? Bilbo when people tell of Erebor's wealth it is not done so lightly. I cannot describe the sheer vastness of the treasure hoard; the overwhelming amount of gold, jewels, precious artwork, weapons… anything of any value you could wish to find could have been found in our very treasury and that amount of wealth is tempting. Dragons covet gold above all else; so fiercely it would make my grandfathers' love for it pale in comparison… there aren't many now; a few in the north still, but one is more than enough to pose a very real danger."

Bilbo frowned and shuffled a little closer to Thorin, having a horrible feeling he knew where this story might lead now.

"Grandfather was becoming more and more erratic; he was shirking duties simply to wander the halls and gaze upon his wealth; he was refusing to help those in need and even those who he owed payment to. He was gathering more and more treasure to himself and we all knew it would only be a matter of time before a dragon would be able to sense the immense quantity of it. It simply couldn't be allowed to continue, you understand.

"So, there was a meeting held amongst the court and the nobles. It was decided that Thror was no longer fit to rule. If he didn't attract a dragon to us he'd likely lead us to war, or else everyone who suffered from his greed would incite an uprising and there would be blood shed.

"We deposed him. We decided he could not be trusted to have the kingdom's best interests at heart any longer and we removed him from power.

"Grandfather- it nearly killed him. Being torn from the gold like that and confined for both his own safety and all who had opposed him. He looked like a wild animal; he was so desperate-… We had hoped that removing him from the presence of the gold might calm him and that in time he would come back to himself. However, being in the mountain was still far too close to have any effect. We dwarves, we understand the mind quite well; we have folk whose whole lives are devoted to helping heal the minds of those who are suffering illness of it, but Dragon Sickness has always eluded even our experts. It is quite rare to see it, especially in such a violent and all consuming severity as my grandfather had it and he just could not heal. He was prone to violent outbursts, even refused food and drink for a time…

"In the end it was decided that the safest course of action was to have my grandfather leave Erebor entirely.

"My father had been acting as regent in my grandfather's stead, but when he heard of this, he decided he could not leave my grandfather to face exile alone. Nor could any of his family and close friends.

"We contacted my uncle Náin in the Iron Hills, and he agreed to accept the crown and rule Erebor. I am glad for it; Erebor has flourished ever since. The gold is no longer so much that it will tempt a dragon, and my cousin Dáin will make a fine king when the time comes."

"Thorin I'm-" Bilbo swallowed his words, unsure that more sympathy would be appreciated; instead, he tried to find something else to say and murmured somewhat redundantly. "So, your family travelled to Ered Luin and settled there? You've been living there and working as a blacksmith ever since."

"If it had but been that easy." Thorin's smile was wry, and just a little angry, and he ducked his head to hide it from Bilbo. "Grandfather grew more like himself the further we travelled from Erebor. It was the most heartening thing I had seen in years, and with help from a healer and the presence of us, he was soon much better. However, he still had that same drive… that need to gather wealth and power. Instead of settling down in Ered Luin and living out his days as a noble; Grandfather began gaining supporters and an army. You have to understand he was… very charismatic, persuasive. In his prime, he had been a daring warrior, a cunning tactician, and wonderful diplomat. People from Ered Luin saw only that, as did many of Náin's people in the Iron Hills.  

"Grandfather proposed that we take back the ancient kingdom of Khazad-dûm, and needless to say he had a lot of support. Many dwarves wished to see that once great kingdom restored to them as it had been taken over by orcs… I'm not sure if you know the story…"

"Not well, but I have heard of it in passing, please go on."

"We marched on Khazad-dûm in hopes we could oust the plague of orcs that had accumulated there, but it was not to be. We- won the battle, it is known now as the Battle of Azanulbizar, but… it was more akin to a massacre." Thorin paused, swallowing thickly and taking a steadying breath before forcing himself to continue, his voice hoarse. "My grandfather, my brother Frerin… Dís's husband- so many died there… my father too- he well he went missing and no body was found but- it is presumed-" Thorin paused briefly again, keenly aware of the way Bilbo shifted at his side. Instead of looking at his companion for fear of what his expression might hold, Thorin took a few uneven breaths before continuing.

"After the battle, that was when the rumours began. We dwarves have a tendency towards superstition you see, and too many ills had befallen our family not to have it talked about. There were many who thought our family cursed after the battle, and although dwarves generally try to look to our own, we were- unconsciously perhaps, shunned in some ways. We found it difficult to find work, harder still to trade goods even when we had work. Some who we thought close friends decided not to associate with us any longer, and word even reached some close villages of men. We had a place to call home; this much is true, but little to call our own beside each other. It is why I came to the Shire looking for work in the dead of winter. Gossips you say you are, but it seems that hobbits do not care for dwarven gossip or our superstitions. I had not reckoned on Yuletide however, so now- well, now I thought I might gain a meal and place to stay from you in exchange for my help before I have to head back home… That is if you do not mind a cursed dwarf under your roof, Bilbo."

As Thorin finished he offered Bilbo another wry look before fiddling with his mug of cooling wine pensively as if facing judgement.

The hobbit blinked stinging eyes and swallowed around the lump that had seemed to rise in his throat as Thorin spoke, and in lieu of speaking, which he found too difficult at present; Bilbo simply launched himself at the dwarf and wrapped his arms around him in a fierce hug. The wine of course went flying, but Bilbo found he couldn't care one whit for the stain that would surely be on the hearth rug now.

Thorin had grunted at the impact, and made a soft, slightly startled noise at being treated thusly. However, he didn't seem to mind; at least he hadn't pushed Bilbo away or shouted at him for taking liberties. In fact, the dwarf had tentatively returned the embrace, and had Bilbo been able to see his face, he would have noted shock, true enough, but also mild disbelief and no small amount of gratitude.

"That's rubbish and you know it!" Bilbo finally muttered voice thick and barely audible. "Curses indeed, what utter nonsense. You've been dealt a rotten hand, I'll grant you, but there's no need to be shooing you off my property out of fear of some silly superstition."

"Thank you-" Thorin's voice too, quaked and nearly broke before he cleared his throat and attempted to divert the hobbit's attention elsewhere, his cheeks colouring somewhat. "I do believe you may have just ruined your rug though."

"Sod the rug," Bilbo grumbled. "Blasted thing is probably older than you anyway."

"Should I take that as an insult?"

"No, no just as a comparison. Both you and the rug are fine for your ages."

"I'm eternally flattered to be likened to your hearth rug then," Thorin snorted, and though his voice still held emotion; it was lighter than a few moments before. "I have to say in my defence though, that I think my hair is more impressive than your rug's tattered fringe… and I do hope I'm not quite as threadbare and faded-"

"Oh, hush. You don't get to tell me such personal, emotional things and then make daft jokes. It isn't proper."

To Bilbo's deep embarrassment, he found that as he pulled away from Thorin he had to quickly avert his gaze to discreetly dab at his eyes with his sleeve. It was awful, utterly awful what Thorin and his family had had to endure, but he couldn't let Thorin think he was pitying him. He didn't know him well, but he knew enough to know Thorin would dislike such a thing. He was a dwarf, and one from a line of kings no less, he shouldn't have to deal with an overemotional hobbit on top of everything else.

"Bilbo." Thorin's voice pulled Bilbo from his mental scolding of himself, and he turned to find that Thorin had leant in very close. "Thank you for listening to me. It- I hadn't wished to speak of it at first… but somehow, it seems a little easier, having you know it all."

"Like lancing a wound I suppose… my Da used to say that you have to speak about the bad in order to ease the pain. Having someone share your troubles, even if only by telling them, it halves the burden."

"Wise words."

"Hm, he always was-"

To Bilbo's shock, Thorin moved closer still, until the dwarf's forehead was pressed warmly to Bilbo's own. He kept it there for a short while, and then moved away.

Had Bilbo not seen similar behaviour between dwarves who passed through the Shire on occasion he might have wondered at the implication. However, the hobbit saw the gesture for what it was; an act of friendly affection. Still, it didn't prevent the flush that spread up his neck and to the tips of his ears.

"I- um… does this make us friends then?" Bilbo would have quite happily gone back into the kitchen and consumed the entire pan full of wine just to forget the pathetic question he'd just uttered, and felt all the more mortified when Thorin actually laughed.

"Yes, Bilbo. I would say this makes us friends."

"Hm… good! That's very good."

"I'm glad you think so." Thorin smiled, though there was still a lingering shadow in his eyes from the memory of the tale he'd told, and Bilbo was hard pressed not to hug him again.

"Right, well… I suppose I should probably… oh bugger it, the wine really has stained badly," Bilbo huffed upon finally noticing the mess on his hearthrug, and Thorin suppressed another quiet snort of amusement.

"I can clean it if you'd like-"

"No, no you're the guest and it's my fault for being so impulsive. Go and get some rest. I'm expecting a good deal of help with the food tomorrow after all."

Bilbo rose to his feet the same time as Thorin, and the dwarf gave a polite little bow before taking his leave.

"Goodnight then, Bilbo… and thank you again."

"Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me, it couldn't have been easy," Bilbo murmured and distractedly began inspecting the damage on the rug, and so missed the fond look Thorin sent him before he left the room.

Chapter Text

Thorin woke, and for a short time was inexplicably confused by his surroundings. Even before opening his eyes, he could tell that he was somewhere unfamiliar. The lack of wind rustling the bare branches of trees and of cold air creeping beneath his blankets to chill him were the most marked differences. No longer was he lying on cold, frosty ground either; where sharp stones and uneven tree roots threatened to cause him discomfort through the pad of his bedroll.

Therefore, he could not be outside in his makeshift camp any longer.

He wondered if perhaps he had dreamed being in the Shire, and that he was in fact back in Ered Luin within the walls of his sister's home… But no, the mattress at his back was of far better quality, the quilt thick and warm, and even the light shining on his face against eyes still shut in defiance of waking was different; stronger than the pale and shivering sunlight they had in Ered Luin.

A soft pop and crackle from the banked hearth in the room finally pulled Thorin fully from sleep and he reluctantly opened his eyes, memory flooding back to him as the last muzzy vestiges of unconsciousness melted away.

That was right; he was in Bilbo's home. He had met the hobbit in Bindbale Woods and had been invited back so as to make their ruse more convincing. He had helped with the decorating of Bilbo's smial and… they had argued, and Thorin had all but spilled his secrets to the hobbit as a sign of goodwill afterwards.

Embarrassment curdled in Thorin's gut, and his face felt hot with shame. He barely knew Bilbo and had confessed his family's past to him so readily.

Bilbo had taken it all in stride though, and had offered his sympathy, and strangely, Thorin found that he didn't mind receiving sympathy from him. He wasn't insincere, nor condescending with it. Thorin's new companion seemed to have simply wished to make him feel better.

The dwarf stifled a soft groan of embarrassment again regardless, and pinched the bridge of his nose as he screwed his eyes shut against the view of Bilbo's guestroom ceiling.

He had been foolishly overemotional, but even so, Thorin had found himself quietly comforted by Bilbo's presence and the embrace he had given him- and that was quite enough of that stream of thought! A show of kindness did not equal anything more than that.

Grumbling quietly, Thorin pushed himself up onto his elbows only to startle and nearly fall back onto the mattress again when a knock came at his closed door.

"Thorin, are you awake? I'm about to make breakfast if you'd like some."

"Yes, I'm awake, and thank you," the dwarf mumbled around a yawn and frowned at the door when a quiet laugh reached him through the wood.

"You don't sound very awake." A pause and then, "If you've any laundry that needs doing, leave it by the door and I'll deal with it later."

"Aye, thank ye." Thorin always found his accent was markedly thicker when he wasn't quite awake, and the smile in Bilbo's voice as he retreated telling him to be quick about joining him for breakfast let Thorin know that the hobbit had noticed it as well.

Thorin finally dragged himself from bed and cast a slightly longing look at it once more before straightening the quilt and pillow diligently. After sleeping for some weeks on hard winter earth, it seemed he was greedy upon spending a night in a real bed again especially one as nice as this, and he had a notion if he were allowed to he might hibernate the winter months away here like a bear.

It was no small thing having slept so well. Thorin felt as if last night had been the best nights' sleep he had had in ages. Considering he had told Bilbo of his past shortly before retiring for the evening, he had expected his dreams to be fraught with memory and grief, but somehow the nightmares had eluded him this time (owing perhaps to the comfortable surroundings he found himself in), and Thorin felt all the lighter for it.

Thorin shuffled to the adjoining bathroom, washing and pulling on fresh clothes before stooping before the small mirror on the nightstand back in his room where he brushed out the snarls in his hair and re-braided it. Gathering up his travel worn clothes from the day before, Thorin deposited them beside the door as Bilbo had requested, but found the idea of giving his host extra laundry to be uncharitable of him, and so said as much as he wandered into the kitchen and sat down at the table.

"We can take turns if it really bothers you so much." Bilbo shrugged off Thorin's concerns and set a faintly steaming bowl of porridge before him.

Thorin politely waited until Bilbo had collected a bowl for himself and had taken a seat opposite him before starting on his breakfast enthusiastically. The porridge was nothing like the thin and slightly lumpy stuff they often ended up with in Ered Luin. Here the texture was thick and creamy, the taste flavoursome and subtly nutty with an undercurrent of spice. Thorin liberally drizzled honey into his bowl before returning to his demolishment of the food before him, the speed at which he ate causing Bilbo to chuckle over the rim of his teacup as he observed him.

"I take it you like it then? I'm glad. My mother taught me that this is the best way to eat porridge, and no other way will suffice."

Around a mouthful, Thorin replied. "You must return with me to Ered Luin to teach our folk your recipe. You'll be a hero amongst us." The praise was laid on a little thick perhaps, but Thorin meant it sincerely.

"It's just breakfast, Thorin." Bilbo ducked his head to hide a pleased grin all the same though and Thorin smiled back, happy that he'd complimented his host so.

"You mentioned something about wishing to cook food for Yule today?" Thorin asked, recalling their conversation from the night before.

"Oh, yes. And I do believe you agreed to show me some dwarvish recipes, but we'll be requiring more ingredients I think." Bilbo sipped his tea and looked at Thorin contemplatively. "Would you mind accompanying me to the market this morning? It will be helpful to have another pair of hands to carry the produce."

"Ah," Thorin affected a look of wounded pride. "I am to be a pack horse for you during my stay I see." Shaking his head and fighting a smile. Thorin polished off his porridge in record time and was quick to soothe any concern he may have caused Bilbo. "I would be happy to help you with your purchases, Bilbo."

"Thank you." Bilbo scrutinised Thorin's empty bowl with something akin to wonder and added. "If you want more, please help yourself to a second helping, there's some left in the saucepan."

Thorin did not require any further prompting and readily made his way over to the stove, ladling porridge into his bowl once more as Bilbo tried to valiantly stave off laughter.

After cleaning away the breakfast things, Bilbo went and donned his warmest jacket and grabbed a basket for the market trip, Thorin following suit at Bilbo's premonition of today promising to be colder than yesterday, and since these lands were his hosts' home, Thorin was inclined to believe him.

"I'll do the laundry when we return, we need to make sure we're at the marketplace early, elsewise all the best produce will have been snaffled by others," Bilbo explained as he ushered Thorin out the front door. Upon seeing a hobbit coming down the way, Bilbo took Thorin's hand in his own as they made their way down from Bag End towards the market. "Hope you don't mind, but best to remain consistent in these things, wouldn't you agree?"

Thorin had not been startled to feel Bilbo's fingers entwine with his own once more; in fact, he had rather expected it given that he was the one to suggest such things the day before. Still, it was a new feeling to walk hand in hand with another, the only time Thorin had felt need to in the past had been when his nephews had been very young and prone to wandering off if not kept close.

They spoke of inconsequential things as they made their way into Hobbiton market, Thorin occasionally drawing a laugh from Bilbo with some observation or another, and in no time at all the pair were more engrossed in one another's company and purchasing goods, than the curious looks they were gaining from the other Hobbits in the marketplace.

"Are there any ingredients you'll need for your dishes, Thorin?" Bilbo asked as they paused beside a stall filled with sweet treats and cakes.

"Hm, I will need some potatoes which you have purchased already, and if it is not too much trouble just some -" Thorin trailed off and frowned at the approaching figure of one of the marketplace patrons. A hobbit woman with an exceedingly sour expression and gaudy taste in clothes was bearing down on them as other hobbits moved wisely out of her path. "A friend of yours, Bilbo?" Thorin murmured quietly in Bilbo's ear.

Bilbo had been admiring a particularly intricately designed pastry. It was ornate without looking too theatrical, and clearly a triumph for the baker who puffed up with pride as Bilbo praised her skill, and so he had not seen the approach of the angry looking woman until she was upon them. He turned at Thorin's words and suppressed a small groan of despair at the sight of her causing Thorin to quirk a brow.

This was not someone Bilbo was fond of then, and evidently, the feeling was mutual.

"Bilbo Baggins, just what do you think you are doing?" The woman's voice was just shrill enough to make Thorin wince, and he decided that Bilbo's dislike was probably well founded from that alone.

Bilbo affected a look of complete disinterest as he met the woman's gaze and made a show of rearranging the items in his basket before deigning to reply to her. "Good morning to you as well, Lobelia. Terribly cold out is it not; enough to cloud the breath… or maybe you are just spitting smoke like a wyrm. I'm afraid I can't quite tell."

Lobelia blustered but did not quite rise to the bait as Bilbo had thought she might. Instead, she lowered her voice to a near hiss, which only enhanced the draconian qualities, Bilbo thought with a small thrill of amusement. She then took hold of Bilbo's elbow to sharply pull him away from Thorin in order to speak without the dwarf hearing (or so she thought). "Are you completely mad, Bilbo? Cavorting about with a dwarf of all things! You're causing quite a scene."

"Hardly cavorting, cousin dearest; we're doing the same as you are, shopping," Bilbo fairly drawled, his tone very unimpressed. It was a tone that caused Thorin's lip to twitch suspiciously, though his gaze was still narrowed at the rude hobbit that had interrupted them.

"You know exactly what I mean, Bilbo. Folk are saying you were seen holding hands with this- this creature and it will give us a bad name, you mark my words."

"Lobelia, I cannot see why you're concerning yourself with my name when yours is Sackville-Baggins. As to what people are saying about us, well it is hardly any of their business is it."

"It is their business when you bring one of their lot into Hobbiton. Greedy, grasping things they are and you know I'm right. Have you given any thought to the idea that he might be giving you overtures of friendship simply to rob you? Him and his ilk are all alike."

Thorin had bristled at Lobelia's rudeness then, and Bilbo could sense him nearly looming behind them, no doubt wishing to defend his race against such pernicious words. True, Bilbo had wanted to cause a sensation, but he would rather it not dissolve into something ugly that could very well land Thorin in trouble with the shirriffs if Lobelia decided to tell tales.

"Lobelia," Bilbo started before Thorin could interrupt them, taking her hand and firmly removing it from his elbow. "Thorin is a wonderful fellow, kind and very trustworthy. If we have been seen holding hands, and 'cavorting' as you so eloquently put it, then it is quite clear there is a reason for it. Thorin and I are courting, and have been for some time. He has come to visit me for Yule, and his arrival was a wonderful surprise." Here Bilbo had raised his voice so that the gaggle of nosey passers-by trying to listen in on the scene could hear clearly, and he turned to give Thorin an utterly charming smile.

Thorin faltered for a moment, still angered by this Lobelia woman's attitude, but caught on quickly and returned Bilbo's smile with a soft one of his own. Deciding it would be better to show Bilbo's words were true rather than leave it to words alone; Thorin gently tugged his host back to his side, lifting Bilbo's hand to brush a kiss to his knuckles. To his credit, Bilbo did not look the least bit surprised and simply grinned, admonishing Thorin for being a 'hopeless sap'.

They were both treated to the sight of Lobelia looking completely pole-axed, and after stuttering and fumbling for something to say, the unpleasant relation of Bilbo's gave an affronted sounding huff and turned up her nose at them before storming off.

The crowd dispersed shortly after that, though there were a couple of disapproving looks sent Thorin's way. He ignored them, gazing back without even a flicker of shame and Bilbo suppressed a quiet snort of laughter as he turned back to the pastry stall, apologising to the owner for causing a ruckus.

The hobbit lass selling pastries only laughed the apology off, telling Bilbo that it had been amusing to see Lobelia left so out of sorts, and offered them both a friendly wink before slipping them a few free treats. "It is Yule after all. Hope you have a good one, Mister Baggins."

"Thank you, m'dear. And a Merry Yule to you and your family too." Bilbo passed Thorin one of the pastries before chomping on his own, and the pair shuffled away from the stall and further into the market.

"Sorry about her," Bilbo mumbled as he selected a number of carrots on offer some minutes later and handed over the correct coins to the stall owner. "I had hoped you wouldn't have to suffer her presence until the day after tomorrow at least, unfortunately it was not to be," he waited until they were out of earshot before adding. "I do hope her wicked tongue hasn't given you second thoughts, though I wouldn't blame you if it had."

"No, not at all. I will admit I don't take kindly to my kin being spoken about so cruelly, but if anything that little show has made me more determined to aid you. I could not leave you to suffer her company over Yule in good conscience. "

Bilbo chuckled, placing the carrots into the basket Thorin held. "My hero, whatever would I do without you?"

"Be driven mad by foul relatives, no doubt."

"Oh, they're not all as bad as that. I'm afraid you've just had a poor sampling- ah speaking of which…" Bilbo nodded towards an approaching figure, hand raised in greeting. "Drogo! Hullo there."

A younger hobbit than either Bilbo or Lobelia approached them, dark haired and smiling in a friendly manner and Thorin found that he did not mind the look of this one. "Bilbo, I'd heard that you were around here."

"Humph, I bet you did. Gums flapping already are they?"

"Oh Bilbo, you know they will be. It's halfway around Hobbiton already, you courting a dwarf-" here Drogo paused and offered a polite bow of greeting to Thorin- "Glad to make your acquaintance I'm sure, sir. Begging your pardon for all the gossip and such, we just don't get many dwarves around these parts, not them that stay for any length of time at least, most are just traders passing through you understand."

Thorin inclined his head and offered Drogo his hand who shook it warmly. "Quite alright, Master… Drogo was it? Bilbo has given me fair warning about how much hobbits love to gossip."

Bilbo spluttered, ready to deny Thorin's words, but Drogo simply laughed, taking the accusation in good humour. "Yes, just Drogo if you please. I believe we are to be family eventually after all. And he would say that about his own people, miserable old grouch," Drogo teased, grinning at Bilbo who glowered back. "Not to worry, we're not all quite as unfriendly as Missus Lobelia."

"I'm sure you're not," Thorin allowed and stepped away from Bilbo as for the second time that morning, his 'intended' was ushered away from his side. This time though, Thorin felt no ill intent in the action, especially since Drogo uttered a polite little "Please excuse us for a moment, sir," and so busied himself with looking over some decorative carvings for sale on a nearby table.

Bilbo was going to protest being interrupted in his shopping once more, but Drogo stopped him with a few quiet words. Words which nearly had Bilbo smacking himself in the forehead with a palm; he reined in the impulse… just. How could he have forgotten? "I thought you said you wanted to find a pretend partner to scare off the suitors, but isn't picking a dwarf laying it on a bit thick, Cous'?"

Bilbo wetted his lips nervously, and thought quickly. He could let Drogo know of the plan, but that would run the risk of Drogo accidentally revealing it. His dear cousin was a fine young fellow, and very honourable, but he was a gentle soul and quite easily led by his peers still. It would only take a little wheedling and Drogo would babble to anyone who asked, bless him. Alternatively, he could lie through his teeth… he disliked fooling one of his favourite relatives so, but he really could not see any other way.

"It isn't a pretend, Drogo," Bilbo spoke quickly, voice hushed as he recited the story he and Thorin had come up with for any who asked about their relationship. "Thorin and I met a couple of years back. You remember that summer I went to Bree for a few weeks? We met there. Thorin was working as a blacksmith and farrier, I had to go visit him as my pony had thrown her shoe and he was the only one who was free at the time. We… well we got talking and decided to meet for a drink once Thorin finished work. We just got along well you see and grew close whilst I was there. Anyway, when it was time for me to leave for home, Thorin revealed he had to return to the mountains. I had no idea if I would ever see him again, though by then I loved him dearly. That is why I kept turning down suitors and wanted a fake relationship, not a real one. When Thorin turned up out of the blue yesterday I was amazed. I had no idea his feelings ran deep enough for him to seek me out again, but he has, and he intends to stay over Yule."

Bilbo was aware the story was a little slapdash at best, and he wasn't quite sure whether his tone was earnest enough or not, but thankfully Drogo seemed to believe him. The younger hobbit's eyes widened at the tale, and he grinned, giving Bilbo's shoulder a friendly pat. "Well now, I never knew you were such a romantic, Bilbo! That is a tale fine enough for one your books I'd wager. What luck that he returned to you, eh? Tell me, are you to be married soon?"

Bilbo blinked in shock, though really he should have expected as much, Drogo always had been a forthright lad. "Well, er-"

"Given a little time, yes. I think we need to spend a bit longer in one another's company before we go jumping into marriage." Thorin saved Bilbo from fumbling too long over an answer by smoothly stepping in, and Drogo flushed that his bold question had been overheard by the dwarf. "Forgive my eavesdropping, Drogo. I just wished to make sure that Bilbo was not being bothered over his relationship with a greedy, grasping dwarf."

Bilbo gave Thorin a sharp look, wanting to defend his younger cousin, but Drogo was quick to reassure the dwarf, despite Thorin's carefully light tone. "Oh not at all, Thorin, sir! I wouldn't ever do such an awful thing as that. And please do pardon Lobelia her ignorance. Not all us hobbits think that way of dwarves."

"It's quite alright, Drogo. I know you are not the one at fault. You seem like a good friend and relation to Bilbo. Who knows, perhaps we will even wish for you to play an important role in our wedding when we get around to it."

Bilbo made an odd little noise that was quieted by Thorin taking his hand once more, and Drogo looked pleased as punch at the implication of Thorin's words. "Well now, that would be a fine thing." Drogo puffed up happily before turning and giving Bilbo a wide smile and going to walk away. "I had best be off, was hoping to meet up with Prim in a bit. I'll see you both at Yule then I suppose; have a good day!"

Bilbo waved at Drogo's retreating back, and made sure he was far enough away not to hear before giving Thorin's hand a warning little squeeze and muttering. "What did you go and say that for? That will be all over Hobbiton in no time too, and then folk will be expecting us to be married by Thrimidge or something equally silly."

"Relax, Bilbo. It was simply a way to distract him from asking too many questions at present. We still need to work on the finer points of our story so we are not tripped up by anything unexpected."

"Yes but-but hinting at an impending marriage, Thorin? We're not getting married! And my family will be most upset if you up and leave after Yule when they're expecting us to be making forthcoming wedding arrangements or something."

"We know we're not getting married, and that is what matters." Thorin seemed irritatingly unperturbed over the potential cat he had just released amongst the pigeons. "Let's just take these things one problem at a time, and we can always tell your relatives that Drogo was mistaken in what we told him… that he became overexcited by the idea or some such. After all, we knew one another but a few weeks in Bree, and then were tragically separated by circumstance. You have pined for me ever since, dear heart," Thorin winked at Bilbo and then laughed as a carrot swiped at his head menacingly, brandished by the flustered hobbit. "My point being, that hardly seems enough time, even with the romantic reunion at Yule, for us to decide that we should be wed."

Bilbo seemed to get his flush under control and harrumphed, pointing the carrot at Thorin's face in mock threat. "It was you who wrote you might propose during Yule in your notice; forgive me for not forgetting that little gem. Take heed, I might just hold you to it. Then you will really be in a pickle, my friend. Either we will have to go through with a fake wedding, or you will be run out of the Shire by my family for 'leading me on'."

Thorin's laughter was a deep and rolling thing that had Bilbo fighting back another flush, he made up for it by finally giving into petty impulse and chucking the carrot at the back of Thorin's head as he turned to leave. It bounced off and fell to the ground, and frankly, Bilbo was rather impressed it didn't somehow become tangled in those long thick locks the dwarf had.

Thorin rubbed the back of his head and turned to give Bilbo a flat look before bending to pick up the discarded carrot and popping it back in his basket. "And here I thought you were supposed to be an upstanding and mature hobbit, Bilbo."

"I never pretended to be, you just assumed," Bilbo shot back and fell into step beside his companion, fighting back a grin. Thorin nudged him with his shoulder and the pair continued bickering good naturedly as they finished their shopping.

They were nearly out of the marketplace when Bilbo made a small sound of realisation and hurriedly pushed his basket into Thorin's already full arms. "So sorry, I forgot something important back there, would you be a dear," -he emphasised the word for effect- "And take all this up to Bag End? I won't be long, I promise."

Thorin gave the hobbit a quizzical look but acquiesced all the same, arranging the baskets and packages more comfortably in his grip and left Bilbo to scurry back down the path to purchase whatever it was he had forgotten.

 


 

Thorin was putting away the groceries in the pantry when Bilbo returned from the market, the hobbit's arms full of a sizeable package wrapped in brown paper and so indecipherable to the dwarf. Whatever had been purchased held no discernable shape, and certainly was not more foodstuffs as Bilbo whisked it away to his room instead of handing it over to Thorin when the dwarf poked his head out of the pantry as Bilbo passed by.

"You managed to find what you had forgotten then?" The question was a redundant one of course, but the dwarf's curiosity was piqued and he wanted someway to draw attention to the package in hopes Bilbo might reveal to him what it was.

"Yes I did. I see you put away the food, thank you for that." Bilbo clearly was not in the mood to discuss the item he had bought as he smoothly changed topic and made a point of shutting his bedroom door behind him once the package had been deposited there.

Doing his utmost not to frown, Thorin nodded in reply. "Most of it, I have left the ingredients you wanted to use today in the kitchen."

"Good, I think you will enjoy Yule food, Thorin. Shall we get started then?" Busily rolling up his sleeves passed his elbow, Bilbo beckoned Thorin to follow him back through the atrium and into the kitchen.

Deciding that the package was of no import, and that the idea of spending an afternoon making food with Bilbo sounded far more appealing than trying to pry unwilling information from the hobbit, Thorin followed suit, rolling up his own sleeves as he walked to the kitchen with Bilbo.

 


 

Thus began a peaceful afternoon spent by in large both cooking and talking. It was impressive really, Bilbo thought as they moved about the kitchen almost synchronised and flawless, that they did not need to tell the other where to move, or what they needed to use next or get to. Instead, the pair found that they could quite easily tell where the other needed to be or what cooking implement might be needed next, and so continued on as if in a concerted dance about the room, never once straying from their topic of conversation to ask the other for assistance.

Bilbo laughed at one of Thorin's stories involving his mischievous nephews as he crouched before the stove to check on the bread he was baking, and turned the conversation back around to their cultures and differing traditions where celebrations such as this were concerned.

He had learnt that dwarves did not celebrate Yule. Rather their New Year was earlier during the autumn and known as Durin's Day, and Bilbo was innately curious to find out more.

"Are there similarities between us in so far as the food we eat for our celebrations?" Bilbo queried as he returned to the sausages sizzling in the skillet (a snack just for them as they worked, and not to be kept for Yule like most of the other food they were preparing).

"For the most part we share similar tastes I would say." Thorin nodded, glancing up from his own task of shredding potatoes. "Though for some of my kin those sausages there might prove an issue."

Bilbo stilled momentarily, wondering if perhaps Thorin was merely teasing him, but felt the need to ask anyway. "Is there something wrong with them?"

"Ah, no not at all, it is more the fact that some dwarves prefer not to eat pork."

Bilbo's shoulders sagged in disappointment and he gave the sausages he was preparing a wistful look before realising Thorin had said 'some' and not 'all'. "Why is that? Oh and please, do tell me if there is anything you do not wish to eat, Thorin. I'd hate for you to feel obligated-"

"No, it is fine. My immediate family and those in Ered Luin will eat pork happily enough. My cousin Dáin on the other hand, and those hailing from the Iron Hills, they would not. They find it distasteful."

"Interesting," Bilbo murmured but did not pry further here, he knew the dwarves to be secretive after all, and he wouldn't like to talk about Thorin's cousin without him being present as well.

They continued in silence for a short while as Thorin joined Bilbo at the stove, taking a frying pan of his own and adding the shredded potato, some flour, and egg. Bilbo watched with interest as he was setting aside the sausages on a plate, covering them to keep them warm. He was at Thorin's side again in a moment, peering over his shoulder speculatively.

"What are these?"

Thorin smiled, obviously expecting the question as he turned the frying potatoes over neatly, they were turning golden brown and smelled delicious to Bilbo. "In my language we call them Shargh-galath. Roughly translated to your tongue, they would probably be called 'flat delight'. These ones in particular are potato pancakes. We eat them during our Durin's Day celebration, they are quite popular."

Thorin was humming a quiet tune under his breath as he slid the potato pancakes onto a plate and passed Bilbo a fork, nodding to indicate he try them. "We mostly eat 'em savoury, sometimes seasoned with onion or cheese, but some dwarves prefer them sweeter and use apples or sugar for that."

Bilbo speared one of the potato pancakes on his fork and blew on it gently to cool it before taking a bite and chewing thoughtfully. The hobbit had never tried this dish before, they were simple, but very good; a light and crispy texture from the frying and subtly flavoured. He very quickly finished off his first and readily took another when offered, praising the dwarf between bites. "These are lovely, Thorin."

"Thank you." Thorin had lifted the cover on the plate Bilbo set aside and filched a sausage to eat with his own pancakes. "There are other dishes we have for Durin's Day besides this of course."

"What others are there?"

The dwarf grinned, pleased at Bilbo's enthusiastic tone and set aside his plate once finished so he could list off other foods as Bilbo returned to making food for Yule. Naturally, only certain foods would be able to be kept for any length of time and stay fresh. So today, it seemed Bilbo was mostly preparing breads and desserts, or anything that could be placed in his pantry and not spoil. The meats and vegetables would mostly have to wait until the day his guests came for the feast, Thorin had been told.

The dwarf had suggested that this seemed a lot of work for just one hobbit, to which Bilbo had slyly revealed that he was hardly alone now, and surely, his dear intended would not leave Bilbo to slave alone over a stove.

Thorin had been highly amused by Bilbo's crafty way of wrangling help, but asked how he had managed in other years before Thorin's arrival. The hobbit had confessed that before this year he had not hosted Yule for anyone other than himself were he not invited to join extended family elsewhere, and the last time he had hosted here in his home, he had had his mother alive and well helping him to cook.

Thankfully, Bilbo had not seemed upset by this turn in the conversation, so Thorin had not offered too much sympathy, lest it not be gratefully received. He had given Bilbo's hand a brief and gentle squeeze and offered him an encouraging smile, but no more than that, and the topic was soon forgotten as they had started cooking soon after.

"We make oil cakes… we call them Halwakhfad; they are sweetened cakes fried in fat, they can be eaten plain or else given any number of flavours depending on one's preference, strawberry jam is most common to eat with them though. We also make buttermilk bread, oatmeal and walnut bread, and spice cake, there are many treats and sweet pies that-"

Bilbo cut him off with bright laughter, giving him an apologetic look as he removed a loaf of bread from the oven. "You weren't lying last night when you claimed to have a taste for sweet things, are there any savoury dishes served at Durin's Day, or are all dwarves as fond of sweets as you are?"

Thorin swiped some batter from a bowl that Bilbo intended to use for a cake and was shot a scathing look from the hobbit for such rudeness. "I was about to tell you of the savoury dishes."

"A likely story, you had forgotten them if that faraway look in your eyes was anything to go by. I should know, I have young cousins, you would be as bad as any one of them."

Thorin made a point of stealing some more cake mixture before he was shooed away from the bowl and continued as if Bilbo had never interrupted him. "As for savoury dishes we have plenty of those too. Roast chicken, meat pies, cheeses, stews, and joints of roast beef to name but a few."

"There is a severe lack of vegetables amongst that lot."

Thorin flicked some flour at the hobbit and was rewarded with a dishcloth to his face. "Do not criticise my people and their culture, little rabbit. Vegetables are evil things grown from the ground that are sent to twist our minds and turn us into elves should we eat them."

"You're speaking utter tripe now, I can tell. I was wrong you're not as bad as any one of my cousins, you're as bad as all of them! Obsessed with sweet treats and unwilling to stomach vegetables… you are a child Master Oakenshield, a young faunt who needs to learn to eat proper food."

"I would hardly call leaves and roots 'proper food', Bilbo."

"Well call it what you wish, you will be eating some at Yule even if I have to sit on you and feed them to you myself. It would be incredibly rude of you not to."

Bilbo had not seemed to realise just how his threat had sounded and carried on with his work, blissfully unaware of the flustered dwarf he had left in the wake of such words. Managing somehow to banish the flush high on his cheeks, Thorin muttered a petulant sounding, "I would pay good coin to see you try. I doubt such a small creature could over power a dwarf."

"Do not underestimate me, Thorin," Bilbo replied singsong, but no more was said on the matter as Bilbo became thoroughly engrossed in preparing more food.

The afternoon continued in this way, with light hearted chatter and dishes being made (and often sampled), Thorin even managed to recall his sister's recipe for a particularly good batch of oil cakes, and Bilbo declared them so good that he requested Thorin might make them for Yule.

"That is if it is not against your culture to do so. I know it's not Durin's Day, and we're not dwarves, but I think in the spirit of the season, it would be lovely to have some of your dishes alongside our own."

Thorin had happily agreed, and felt warmed to the core by the idea. After all, Durin's Day for his family this year had been rather meagre, to have an opportunity to celebrate properly; even if it was on the wrong day and with folk who were not his kin, was still oddly pleasing.

It was a shame he could not send for his family… Bilbo would probably welcome them, but unfortunately, Ered Luin was too far for them to make the trip in time now. Still, perhaps he could beg some ingredients from Bilbo (he was not above this if it was for his family and not himself), and make Dís and her boys some proper Durin's Day food once he returned home.

"-There is wassail singing, fauntlings go from house to house and sing for treats. We also burn the Yule log on the fire… Hm, what else… There are gifts to give one another of course. And on the final night of Yule we take the wilted decorations from our smials and burn them on a big bonfire down by the Party Tree. It is a way of symbolising the end of old things and the beginning of new. We make wishes over the fire, sing songs and tell stories… I think that is it. Oh! On occasion Gandalf will pay a visit and light fireworks, but I haven't seen him in these parts for a good few years now, so I wouldn't expect him to come this year."

"Tharkûn?" Thorin's interest was piqued by the name. Not that he had ignored the rest, gracious no, the hobbits' Yule traditions were very interesting; but he had not expected these folk to know of the wandering wizard.

"Sorry?" Bilbo blinked in confusion at the unusual word.

"Ah, apologies, you said Gandalf sometimes visited? Tharkûn is our name for him."

"Oh, I was not aware you knew him as well! Why, yes. He is quite fond of the Shire, but as I said, I have not seen him in several years, so I wouldn't get your hopes up."

"He was a good friend to my grandfather and father, but I barely knew him myself, I was merely surprised you knew him."

"It is much the same for me, my mother and Gandalf were very good friends back before I was even born. She used to go on adventures with him; I only met him once or twice as a young lad."

"Aye, he comes and goes as he chooses from what I recall, and very much enjoys sticking his nose into affairs that are not his concern."

Bilbo snickered and patted Thorin's arm as he wandered by to check on his cake. "That savours strongly of bitter past experience, but yes, you are not wrong there."

Snorting, Thorin turned the conversation back to traditions of their people, and in return for Bilbo's explanation of Yule festivities, Thorin gave his own for Durin's Day.

"For us the New Year is about welcoming light into the world during the darkest months. Most think living in mountains we do not worry about such things, but we actually value light more than most. Durin's Day is celebrated by lighting candles, as I mentioned before, and releasing paper lanterns into the sky before dawn on the first day of our New Year. We have feasts and give gifts much as you do. There is singing and dancing as well, but we also tell fortunes." Bilbo shuffled a little closer, face alight with interest, and Thorin continued, feeling pleased. "We divine the fortunes of our future by using molten metal. Tin is the most common. We melt it down and pour it into a bucket of cold water. The shape the cooled metal then takes is how we tell the future."

"How so?"

"Either we use the metal shape itself as a means to interpret the portents, or else we rotate the metal in candlelight to create shadows, whose shapes are then interpreted that way. They are not only literal shapes of course, they can be perceived symbolically as well. For example if the tin takes on a bubbled appearance, it is usually a good sign of wealth in your future."

Bilbo looked quite excited by the idea, offering Thorin a mug of tea he had just brewed. "Is it only certain people who can tell the future from the metal, or can anyone do it?"

Thorin took a thoughtful sip of tea, smiling at the eager looking hobbit. "Most dwarves know how to interpret the shapes, though naturally some are better than others. I have been told I'm quite good at it, though a relation of mine, Óin, is far better." Noting the soft parting of Bilbo's lips and widening of his eyes, Thorin supposed the hobbit was more than a little intrigued by the idea, and so decided to be gracious. "If you like, on the last night of Yule I can divine some shapes for you. True, it is not Durin's Day, but a New Year is a New Year no matter the culture. I'm sure whatever powers lend themselves to the tin melting for us would do the same for you."

He expected that there might be some of his kind; the old and suspicious, those so set in their ways that they balked at any change presented to them that might frown upon his offer. However, the sight of Bilbo's beatific expression was more than worth any admonishments he might have faced.

And so ended the day. Thorin and Bilbo had a small supper together in the parlour (they had sampled so much food over the course of the afternoon that really neither of them was very hungry). Sitting then upon the same couch as the night before, Bilbo read from one of his books and Thorin set to work on mending some of the worse tears in one of his shirts.

It was a peaceful atmosphere, Thorin decided. Something about spending time with Bilbo reminded him of being at home; safe and happy. It was a feeling that reminded him of family, and this in turn prompted thoughts of Dís, Fíli, and Kíli. He would have to write to them tomorrow just to let them know he would be back later than expected. He should have been on the road home already now, after all.

Resolving to do just that, Thorin got back to work on his shirt, pulled from his task only when Bilbo found a particularly humorous passage he wished to share from his book, or some interesting point that they would both discuss at length before falling comfortably quiet once more. It was during one of these quiet moments that Thorin glanced up from his stitches and caught sight of Bilbo's face, turned just so that the light from the fire played over his hair and skin in a way that made Thorin's breath catch in his throat much as it had done the night before.

He was not one to lie to himself, he never had been, and it was only right to acknowledge that despite their differences, Bilbo was attractive, in an unconventional sort of way.

He could do worse in a partner, he supposed, even a pretend one… Thorin lowered his gaze again and tried to fight back the flush he could sense creeping up his neck. If he was not careful, it was quite likely he could start thinking something foolish. Like how Bilbo would make quite an agreeable partner for real.

 

Chapter Text

The last day before Yule dawned crisp and very cold with a threat of snow in the air, and passed in a manner very similar to the previous. Thorin woke later than he was accustomed to; taking time to bathe and dress in fresh clothes before joining Bilbo for breakfast, and then began an industrious day of cleaning and cooking in preparation for the arrival of Bilbo's family on the morrow.

It was a pleasant way to pass the time, Thorin surmised, and he found himself falling into a comfortable routine as if he had always lived thusly in Bilbo's home.

It would certainly add to the illusion of them being a proper couple, he supposed.

It was shortly before luncheon that Thorin remembered the promise he had made himself to write to his sister and nephews, and so asked Bilbo if he would mind carrying on his chores alone for a bit whilst he did so.

Bilbo waved him off, insisting that he would be fine, and paused in his task of making sandwiches for them in order to take a peek out the window at the clouds which were beginning to roll in; heavy and iron grey.

"If you need to send the letter today, I would get it to the post office as quickly as you can. I've a feeling we might see some snow this Yule, and it will hinder the carrier pigeons if it starts before the end of the day."

Thorin frowned at the news but inclined his head gratefully all the same. "And where might I find the post office?"

"There's one down in Bywater." And seeing the confused expression on the dwarf's face, Bilbo set aside the butter knife and gently tugged his guest over to the scrubbed table.

There he scribbled a quick map on a scrap of paper for Thorin to use. "Just follow the road down from Bag End and through Hobbiton's marketplace. Take the left road," - Here he paused to run a finger down the trail he'd marked out and Thorin nodded leaning close to see- "and carry on down until you reach another cluster of smials and buildings. They are built near a large pond, the Bywater. The post office is there; just ask someone if you cannot find it. It should only take you an hour or so to get there… maybe less with those long legs of yours. If you reach a large stone however, you've gone too far; that's the Three Farthing Stone."

"Straight down from your home, take the left turn, and down again to Bywater… if I see a large stone I've gone too far," Thorin repeated the instructions to himself in a quiet murmur. He accepted the small, hastily scrawled map from Bilbo; studying it with the air of someone going on a grand and perilous quest, not simply down to the next village.

Bilbo hid a smile. "Would you like me to post it for you, and you can carry on making food for me here instead?"

"No, no not at all, I will find it easily enough, thank you."

Deciding to leave the dwarf to it, Bilbo handed Thorin a plate of sandwiches and a cup of blackberry tea to have whilst he wrote his letter, then turned his attention back to his chores.

 


 

Thorin had intended to keep his letter relatively short, giving his sister only the barest details to explain his delay. However, he soon realised that if he did not send an adequate reason, Dís would likely hound him for information by sending back another letter.

In the end, Thorin resigned himself to outlining the whole plan he had arranged with Bilbo and inwardly cringed at how odd it sounded when put into words. Dís and his nephews would tease him something terrible when he returned to Ered Luin he just knew it!

He was thankful to find that even when detailing the hare-brained scheme, by making his runes a little smaller than normal, he was able to ensure his letter took up no more than two sides of a page of parchment. For this he was glad; it would mean paying less money and the pigeon would be able to deliver it all the quicker.

Glancing out of his bedroom window as he stood from the small desk and stretched, Thorin noted the dark clouds Bilbo had pointed out earlier had moved that much closer in the time it had taken him to write his letter. Cursing softly, Thorin rolled the letter into a tight scroll and retrieved some coins and a cloak from his packs. He would have to hurry if he wanted the letter a safe distance away from the Shire before the snow started.

 


 

An hour or so, Bilbo had said, an hour to reach Bywater and post his letter and then an hour to return.

The afternoon had progressed well in Bilbo's opinion. All the food he had needed to prepare beforehand should be finished by the end of the day and in part, it was thanks to Thorin that he would accomplish this.

The dwarf was a fine cook, though he did not have the finesse most hobbits valued, he could follow instructions and recipes to the letter and even knew a few tricks to improve taste or shorten preparation time. Bilbo supposed it was only par the course given that dwarves had many more decades to hone such skills than hobbits did. Still, it had been pleasant spending his time with Thorin in the kitchen.

Which brought him neatly back to the question of where was he?

The sun was beginning to set, the days short this time of year and nights long, and if Thorin did not return soon he suspected the dwarf would find the roads confusing by night. In the time Thorin had been gone Bilbo had managed not only to finish off his food preparation, but also send a note down into the marketplace with one of his neighbours regarding something he wished to purchase at the tailors.

It wasn't only the time taken that was worrying Bilbo though, there was also the matter of…

The snow had only just started, fat, fluffy flakes drifting gently from a darkening sky. However, if Thorin took much longer he might find himself stuck outside in a snowstorm. Dwarves were tough, this he knew, but even a dwarf would surely find it difficult to weather heavy snow for too long without shelter.

Would Thorin ask one of the other hobbits for help?... No that was unlikely, Bilbo snorted softly. He barely knew the dwarf but could tell he was the independent and stubborn type.

Bilbo chewed his lower lip in concern as he discarded his apron. The warmth caused by continuous cooking had warmed the smial up beautifully causing the windows to steam and Bilbo to abandon his waistcoat and roll up the sleeves of his shirt. His hair would be an unruly mess from the humidity he was sure.

Trotting to the window, Bilbo wiped away the steam with his hand to peer out in hopes he might see Thorin coming up the way.

No… and the snow had started to fall heavier now too.

"Blast it… he had better not come down with a cold," Bilbo grumbled in a vain attempt to mask his concern.

Banking the hearth fire low and making sure the stove was safe to leave, Bilbo hurried to the door, grabbing his thickest coat, cloak, and a walking stick. He was nearly out the front door when he remembered it might be best to take a lantern. If he was out looking for long then he would only run the risk of becoming lost himself in the dark and with snow changing the look of the landscape.

He had only just lit the lantern, walking determinedly to the front door again in order to start his search; when the door opened and nearly hit him in the face.

"Goodness, Thorin! Where in Arda did you get to?" Dropping his walking stick and setting down the lantern, Bilbo rushed to close the door behind the dwarf, noting the thick layer of snow upon his shoulders and dusting his hair. "Into the parlour with you, quickly, before you freeze!"

"I'm quite alright, Bilbo. This storm is little in comparison to those we get in the mountains."

"All the same you have been out in it far too long for my liking- No! Do not fret about the boots, just get into the parlour and warm up." Bilbo shooed Thorin along the passageway, tone firm.

Thorin's manner was mildly amused as he paused in the entranceway to the parlour to shuck off his boots and cloak despite Bilbo's protests. The hobbit's hearthrug had already come under the onslaught of wine previously; he would dislike adding mud and snow to the list of messes he inadvertently caused during his stay here.

"As to where I got to," Thorin returned to Bilbo's first question. "I'm afraid I got a little turned around."

"Turned around? Thorin it is practically a straight road down from here to Bywater… I drew you a map!"

"Be that as it may." Thorin sat down on the couch, his voice reticent and only just keeping the embarrassment at bay. "Reading maps has never been a particular strength of mine. The Three Farthing Stone is an interesting landmark."

Bilbo turned his head to hide his smile at Thorin trying to affect a light and conversational tone over all this. So he had missed Bywater completely after all then.

"Surely even if you had missed Bywater, it shouldn't have taken as long as this," Bilbo clucked his tongue, ducking into the kitchen to fetch Thorin a hot drink.

Thorin followed him part of the way to try to explain himself. "I met with a few hobbit children after I had posted my letter. Their cat was stuck up a tree nearby and they were worried about the impending snowstorm. They thought she might freeze."

It was only now, as he handed Thorin a mug of hot tea that Bilbo noticed the myriad of scratches covering the dwarf's hands.

"Oh dear…"

"Biscuit was rather adverse to a strange dwarf plucking her from her perch," Thorin muttered, half amused half exasperated as he took a small sip of his drink. "After she was safe and the children had taken her home, I found I had unfortunately forgotten the way back… your smials all look very similar."

"But most of the doors are different colours- oh never mind." Bilbo gave up trying to rationalise everything and instead took a seat next to Thorin as he settled himself on the couch once more.

"It had begun to snow as well… the landscape started to look quite different in a short space of time." Thorin tried to defend himself again and Bilbo rolled his eyes with a smile, letting it be.

"I suppose this is not your home, so I should not expect you to know your way around," Bilbo allowed.

"No, indeed not; were we within the halls of Ered Luin, I could probably walk them blindfolded."

"Truly?" Bilbo gave Thorin sceptical look and the dwarf scowled back at being doubted so.

"Yes, truly. We dwarves have a natural sense of the world around us when we are within mountains or caves. It is very rare for one of us to become lost when surrounded by rock and stone. Rolling hills, sky, and grass on the other hand… that tends to confuse us. There is no… no anchor there. No strong sense to keep our minds tethered to the earth and prevent us from wandering astray."

Bilbo had not heard of that before, and looked at Thorin with renewed interest. The dwarf seemed to correctly interpret his expression and smiled.

"Not a word of this to others though, you know how my people are."

"Did you just reveal some great dwarven secret to me?"

"Not precisely," Thorin coughed lightly, and Bilbo could not help but suspect the truth of that answer. "It is not as if I offered to teach you Khuzdûl."

"Hm, fair enough… So what you are trying to tell me is that dwarves can… sense the mountains and things around them? Like I would be able to hear a stream before I smell or see it?"

"In a way, yes; though perhaps not so strong as that. It is simply something we feel in our flesh and bones." Thorin escaped the explanation with a shrug as if he could not describe it better than that.

"I think I understand," Bilbo murmured, then was reminded of Thorin's hands and their sorry state as the dwarf set his half-empty mug on the small table. "Oh and look, we need to do something about those scratches and get you a blanket too."

"That really isn't necessary-" Thorin tried to protest but Bilbo was already bustling away to find what he needed.

 


 

Having Bilbo tend to his cuts had been more than a little distracting, and Thorin had to remind himself several times that Bilbo was simply playing the part of a good host, nothing more. It was quite difficult to maintain such a thought when the hobbit's fingers insisted on brushing over the skin of his hands so gently though...

With cuts freshly cleaned, and a dressing placed on a particularly vicious looking one (though Thorin had objected to that), and a warm blanket around his shoulders; Thorin felt less like he might freeze and far more comfortable.

"Your letter will make it to your sister safely, then?" Bilbo asked as he set about cleaning the kitchen and putting the food that he had made in the larder for the night.

"Yes, the post master believes it should reach her by tomorrow, providing the snow does not force the pigeon to seek shelter. He left before it started though, so I am hopeful."

"That is good." The hobbit paused, fiddling with the wash rag before continuing, Thorin noticing the slight nervousness surrounding him. "My family will be here quite early tomorrow, before luncheon I should imagine."

Thorin had nearly forgotten about Bilbo's family! "Ah, of course…"

And of course there was that matter.

"Bilbo, I'm afraid to say I don't believe I will have anything suitable to wear for this Yule holiday." Thorin had seen a few of the waistcoats Bilbo had been debating over this morning (he had even gone so far as to ask Thorin's opinion on them). Despite the fashion being odd to a dwarf's eyes, he could appreciate that they were of the finest quality and beautifully tailored. Nothing Thorin owned, let alone had with him now, would come even close to matching up.

Suddenly, what had seemed like a piffling matter the other day somehow became all the more important when faced with impending judgement from the hobbit's family.

Bilbo seemed unperturbed though, laughing off the concern; the sound of it not at all unkind, but surprising to Thorin.

"I would not worry yourself. Remember, I am trying to put my family off finding me potential suitors by letting them think I am interested in unrespectable and wild folk." At Thorin's raised brow Bilbo amended with a quick, "no offence meant of course. What I mean to say is, the more wild you look, the less likely they are to bother with me. They will think my tastes odd for a hobbit and so give up trying to sway me."

Thorin mulled the idea over for a few moments before acquiescing with a nod. "That sounds about right. Saving perhaps the farmers on the very outskirts of the Shire, all the hobbits in these parts appear very well dressed and… proper. My appearance will definitely put them off."

"O-oh! That isn't to say you are unattractive or anything, or that you look like a bandit or something, gracious no!" Bilbo was quick to reassure and Thorin snorted his amusement, cheeks warming a little.

"I understand well, Bilbo. There is no need to fret over insulting me."

The hobbit relaxed instantly, a warm smile stealing over his face which Thorin could not help but return.

"Well, now we have that sorted; I'd best be off to bed. I'll have to wake early to make the food that needs preparing tomorrow before they arrive," Bilbo hummed contemplatively before standing and stretching, his fingers reaching toward the ceiling.

"Did you want my help in the morning?"

"Oh no, there's no need for both of us to be up early; you have a lie in," Bilbo offered kindly, making his way over to the door and flashing the dwarf a mischievous look. "Goodnight, Thorin. Try to have your wits about you tomorrow, you'll need them!"

And with that slightly ominous parting, Bilbo left.

 


 

This day Thorin woke to the sounds of pots and pans clattering and the undeniably delicious smells of someone cooking. He knew immediately where he was on waking now, and again he was struck by just how quickly he had come to feel at home here.

Deciding these thoughts were best left for another day, Thorin pulled himself reluctantly from the warm mound of blankets and made his way to the washroom to wash and get dressed. The flagstone floor of the washroom was cold beneath his bare feet, and he hissed, dancing on the spot for a moment until he acclimatised to the chill.

A quick glance out the window told him it was still snowing outside.

What hobbits needed, Thorin decided resolutely, was a more efficient way to heat their homes. Erebor had always been warm in the dead of winter; even the stone floors had retained heat thanks to their fine engineers devising clever ways to siphon off excess heat from the forges and warm Erebor sufficiently.

Ered Luin had less effective means of course, being a poorer region. Still, he stood by his thoughts on the matter…

Washing quickly and putting on his clothes, Thorin grimaced slightly at the state of them. They were clean, Bilbo had done wonders with that; but they were still obviously old and threadbare… plain too, no ornamentation or brighter colours as one would expect at a celebration.

Well if it was what Bilbo thought was best… Thorin made a point to carefully brush out his hair and braid it properly; if he did not have the appropriate attire, he would at least make himself presentable in other ways.

When Thorin eventually made his way into the kitchen, it was to find Bilbo in a tizzy. He ran from this surface to that, first chopping vegetables in one place, and then running to stir a pot of sauce warming on the stove. His hair was a bedraggled; curling mess thanks to the heat and much like yesterday, he had abandoned his usual waistcoat and rolled up his shirtsleeves above the elbow.

"Bilbo, you should have asked me for help, you are running yourself ragged out here," Thorin accused, trying very hard not to smile.

"Good morning, Thorin. A happy Yule to you; please move." Bilbo darted by, Thorin barely avoiding the rushing hobbit as he went to retrieve something from the pantry.

Upon his return, the hobbit found Thorin had calmly taken over chopping the vegetables and could have quite happily kissed him such was his relief.

"Oh, you really didn't have to-"

"If I don't want you passing out in a dead faint from stress and leaving me to deal with your family, then I very much think that I do." Thorin's words were placating, almost gentle, and like a balm, they calmed Bilbo's panic almost instantly.

"Thank you."

"You are welcome."

They continued working in silence for a short while, until Bilbo's fretting turned to another matter entirely. His family would be here soon, and he was adamant they go over their story one more time.

"- and make sure not to give them the idea we did anything… untoward during my time in Bree. I'm uncertain how worldly you dwarves are, but I'm certain there is one or two of my kin who will take offence to the idea of- well- that, since we barely knew one another then."

Thorin coughed and then chuckled at the colour high on Bilbo's cheeks, agreeing readily to his wishes.

"Oh! But wait… maybe we should? I mean they expect me to be all unrespectable and- hm, what do you think?"

"Bilbo, I honestly think we should just leave this discussion well alone. I'm fervently hoping your family will just stay away from such topics."

"Of course, I suppose I'm thinking a little too much into- Oh dear, oh no, no no no that cannot be the time, I still have to-"

"Bilbo!" Thorin raised his voice to catch the hobbit's attention. Bilbo jumped and turned to face him, just a little wild eyed. "Calm down, breathe for goodness sake, and go and get changed. I will finish up here."

To Thorin's amusement, Bilbo did precisely as asked without a single complaint or argument. The hobbit stopped in his tracks, took one deep, shaky breath, followed by a few more steadier ones, and then nodded to his guest before leaving the kitchen without another word… and if Thorin found that reaction both amusing and entirely too endearing he was wise enough to keep the thought well buried.

 


 

Bilbo returned just as Thorin was finishing the preparations to the food and the bell rung.

"They're early, of course they're early. The Sackville-Bagginses are always bloody early." Thorin heard the hobbit mumble ungraciously as he stomped by.

"Cheer up, Bilbo. It is Yule remember?"

Thorin was certain that if the glare his host just levelled him with could kill, they would have had to send his corpse back home to Ered Luin, and poor Bilbo would be left to fend off suitors by himself once more.

Stifling his laughter, he took a moment to appraise Bilbo's choice of outfit. Thorin was not exactly the paragon of fashion, especially not where hobbit fashion was concerned, but Bilbo did look very... nice, yes that was a safe description: dark trousers, cream shirt, and a gold waistcoat with a subtle pattern which seemed to echo the overall rich and warm atmosphere the hobbits' home exuded.

Bilbo all but wrenched open the door only for his irritated scowl to melt away at whoever was stood before him and he let out a relieved huff of laughter.

"Prim! Oh my dear, it is lovely to see you, I thought you were… somebody else."

The young hobbit lass stood outside all but launched herself at Bilbo, wrapping her arms around his neck in a formidable hug that nearly had Bilbo choking. "Prim, Prim, please- I can't actually-"

"You thought I was Lobelia and Otho didn't you? Admit it!" The young woman crowed delightedly and was finally pulled away from strangling Bilbo by her father, Gorbadoc.

"Let's not strangle the life out of our poor host, Primula."

"Gorbadoc," Bilbo wheezed and offered the older hobbit a friendly handshake. "Lovely to see you too."

"All the better for gettin' your breath back I'd imagine." His eyes twinkling merrily, Gorbadoc stepped over the threshold followed closely by Primula and his wife Mirabella.

Primula's sister Amaranth was not far behind, but Bilbo quickly noted that the rest of their brood was not present. Gorbadoc had explained a few weeks back that his other children had chosen to spend Yule with other branches of their family or else with friends. Bilbo had not minded naturally, it was a few less to cook for! Still, he was pleased to see the rest of them, and ushered them inside properly before shutting the door.

It was then the family stopped and noticed Thorin lingering in the hallway as if unsure whether to make himself known or not. Realising that introductions were in order, despite the family probably having heard about Thorin through gossip already, Bilbo took his place beside the dwarf in a show of reassurance.

"Thorin, I would like you to meet my Uncle Gorbadoc, Aunt Mirabella, and cousins Primula and Amaranth."

Stepping forward, Thorin offered a hand to each of them in turn, smiling as politely as he knew how under the scrutiny of the formidable looking Gorbadoc. "A pleasure to meet you all, I'm Thorin."

"So we have heard." Mirabella's lips twitched. "I should have known any child of my sister's would be unlikely to stick to tradition, good for you, Bilbo!"

Gorbadoc gave a suspiciously amused sounding cough and Amaranth giggled. Primula however, who had seemed so overjoyed to be here at first, had gone very quiet after hearing Thorin's name and was now eyeing him suspiciously. She graciously accepted the handshake all the same and quickly returned to her exuberant chatter leaving Bilbo to wonder if he had imagined her odd reaction.

Guiding his guests into the kitchen, Bilbo had barely made sure they all had drinks before the bell rang again.

And thus set the tone for the next half an hour. Bilbo and Thorin greeting family members at the door and ushering them inside out of the cold (the snow had finally stopped, but it had settled in large drifts around his smial meaning his guests had to almost wade through).

"I should have swept the path," Bilbo muttered to himself distractedly as he poured drinks for the newly arrived Fosco and Ruby, their three children Dora, Dudo, and of course, Drogo were busily chatting to Primula and Amaranth.

"I can do that later if you'd like, Bilbo. You're going to exhaust yourself by the end of today." Thorin offered.

Smiling, Bilbo waved him off and was about to strike up a conversation with Fosco when the doorbell rang announcing the arrival of his last guests.

Wonderful, the Sackville-Bagginses.

"Why is it me who gets to suffer them this year?" Bilbo muttered out of the corner of his mouth to Primula as he passed causing the young woman to smother her giggles unsuccessfully.

"We all have to bear their company at some point, Cousin."

Forcing a smile on his face, Bilbo opened the door to find his least liked relations standing sour-faced at the door. "Ah, Bilbo, I would have thought you'd have more sense than to leave this snow piled up outside. The dwarf not up to sweeping, is he?"

Bilbo was fairly certain his smile was turning into a caricature of the expression, he could already feel a slight tic in his cheek through his efforts to hold it steady. "Lobelia, Otho, a happy Yule to you as well; we were wondering when you'd show up."

They were unusually late, though frankly Bilbo was not complaining; the least time spent in their company the better.

Otho sniffed disdainfully, removing his ostentatious hat as he swept passed Bilbo. "We'd have been here sooner if the shirriffs had bothered to sweep the roads properly, we could hardly get out our front door."

I must remember to thank the shirriffs, Bilbo thought with grim good humour and led his cousins into the parlour.

Almost immediately Otho saw fit to criticise the decorations ("Even more of a mess than old Belladonna's used to be." Bilbo heard him remark to his wife in a stage whisper). Bilbo managed to ignore the comment, consoling himself with imagining what inventive yet subtle insults his mother might have bitten back with.

However, it was when Lobelia looked over at Thorin and smirked patronizingly in his direction some time later that Bilbo felt his hackles raise.

I swear they have yet to be in my home an hour and they are already causing mischief.

Until now, Thorin had wisely kept away from Bilbo's less pleasant relations, deciding instead to spend his time speaking with Drogo (whom he had already met), and Gorbadoc, who he seemed to get along well with.

Thorin and Gorbadoc were animatedly discussing the differences in hobbit and dwarf architecture, Thorin appearing pleased when Gorbadoc claimed the dwarves were far better at such things, when Lobelia sidled over close enough to add her two coins worth.

"Oh yes, dwarven architecture seems very fine indeed. It is a pity the same cannot be said for their tailoring though. You must agree, Master Dwarf, hobbits far excel in this area when compared to your own people." She made a point of critically eyeing the somewhat frayed hem of Thorin's shirt as she spoke, leaving little room to guess at what she was implying.

Bilbo was suddenly feeling a great deal of remorse over telling Thorin not to worry over his attire after all. He had naively expected his relations to find Thorin's clothing unsuitable, yes, but had not thought any of them would so openly comment on it.

Thorin seemed to hold himself a little tenser, his jaw tightening as he levelled Lobelia with a very flat look, but Bilbo could detect a flash of shame there too, and it made Bilbo feel all the worse.

"I rather think clothing is more a matter of taste." Bilbo had crossed the room in a moment, noting the lull in chatter around them and pushed passed Lobelia to link his arm through Thorin's. "I for one think dwarven clothing is perfectly fine, very practical; a far sight better than wearing an Astron hamper atop ones head."

This time it was Bilbo who made a point of critically eyeing Lobelia's outfit, or more pointedly, the garish hat that she had left on one of the chairs.

Not even enough decency to hang it up with the coats; I hope it gets sat on! Bilbo thought hotly.

Without waiting for his rude cousin to collect herself enough to offer a retort, Bilbo quickly guided Thorin out into the kitchen under the guise of checking on the food. The sound of polite chatter from the other guests trying valiantly to disguise laughter followed them out the room.

"I am so sorry, she really is the most infuriating- rude- miserable… well I won't finish that remark but, honestly!"

To his surprise, Thorin chuckled and gave Bilbo a fond look. "I should thank you for defending my honour, I think."

"Oh it was hardly that, I just can't abide her rudeness. Besides, there's nothing wrong with your clothes, you've just actually worked in them that's all… I am sorry though; I should have realised she might be rude. Perhaps we should abandon the 'wild and unkempt attire' idea?"

Thorin shook his head, but his voice was patient as he reminded the hobbit. "I haven't actually got anything else to wear, Bilbo. All my other clothes are in a similar state to this."

"Ah… of course." and Bilbo felt rather foolish for having forgotten Thorin's situation as quickly as he had done.

"Don't fret; I've had worse criticism than hers in my time. I can tolerate it for a few days."

"If you're sure…"

"Quite sure… Have I mentioned you've quite the sharp tongue on you?" Thorin sent the hobbit a roguish sort of smile causing Bilbo to duck his head, feeling both amused and embarrassed.

"I have been told as much by others before, so I am aware of the matter."

"You would get along well with some of my friends and family back home I think." Thorin smiled as if he approved and then nodded towards the parlour. "Should we rejoin the fun?"

From the other room Bilbo could hear good natured but loud bickering between Fosco and Gorbadoc, and Amaranth was apparently needling Dora about something.

"Yes, we'd best keep an eye on them, there's no telling what trouble my family will get up to if left alone for too long."

Linking his arm back through Thorin's, Bilbo went to walk through the doorway only to be stopped by Mirabella's boisterous laughter. "Ah now, Bilbo my lad, you escaped once before we could stop you, we'll not be letting you get away with it this time!"

Bilbo stopped suddenly, Thorin beside him, both sporting confused looks on their faces. "What are you talking abo-" Mirabella pointed triumphantly to something above their heads and Bilbo groaned, surely he hadn't hung any there of all places…

… but then Thorin had been the one to help him decorate… and judging from the utterly baffled way the dwarf was staring at the plant above their heads, he had no idea about the tradition surrounding the pestilence that was mistletoe.

I really should have made sure to explain all our traditions to Thorin…

Chapter Text

"Bilbo?" Thorin was frowning at the hobbit in confusion, clearly not understanding the situation at all.

And really, who could blame him? It was becoming clear to Bilbo now that dwarves did not view mistletoe in the same way as hobbits. He had been foolish to assume Thorin might have knowledge of the tradition given their cultural differences after all.

"Bless me, you don't mean to tell me you haven't explained mistletoe to the poor dear, do you? I'd have thought you youngsters would have loved to put it to good use." Mirabella looked as if she was enjoying this show far too much for Bilbo's liking and he sent a scowl in his aunt's direction.

"What is there to explain?" Thorin was looking properly bewildered by the whole affair and Bilbo felt a prickling sense of guilt and embarrassment creep into his stomach over having to clarify it to him in front of others.

"Over Yule one of the plants we decorate our smials with is this one." Bilbo pointed to the confounded foliage above their heads to illustrate his point. "There's a tradition amongst hobbits that if two people are caught beneath the mistletoe, they should… they should share a kiss."

Thorin's expression was a mask of dawning realisation and mild surprise as Bilbo fumbled to continue his explanation.

"You pick a berry, like so," -reaching up, Bilbo plucked one of the small white berries from the sprig and offered it to Thorin- "and present it to the person you are to kiss. You just- … discard the berry on the fire later and make a wish if you so please. Once all the berries from the sprig are gone, that mistletoe cannot be kissed under anymore."

"I see…" Thorin's voice was quiet as he rolled the berry absently around his palm, inspecting it as if it might give him more answers to this unusual practice.

Bilbo tried to suppress the urge to wince or scurry off somewhere to hide. They had not agreed on kissing, not proper kissing anyway, whilst making their plans; what if Thorin was angry about being trapped so?

"Well go on then!" The blustering voice of Dudo caused them both to start. They had almost forgotten they had an audience. "Enough talk now, the tradition must be observed."

Bilbo was tempted to scowl at him too, but he reined in the impulse. He was not some petulant tween caught under the mistletoe with some neighbour he detested; he was standing beneath it with the dwarf who was meant to be courting him. To look reluctant would only cause suspicion.

"Just kiss him!" Amaranth threw her hands up as if despairing of them both for dawdling so and Bilbo decided it would be best not to linger over the matter any further.

Stepping forward and into Thorin's space, the hobbit pushed himself up onto his toes, eyes apologetic as he tilted his head up to whisper Thorin's words back at him from a couple of days prior; quiet enough so none but the dwarf could hear. "We just have to make it convincing, yes?"

Despite the conviction of his words, Bilbo hesitated. The dwarf's chin caught gently between his thumb and forefinger as Bilbo leant closer, eyes hooded as his gaze flitted over flushed cheeks and nose before settling on lips that were close enough for them to be sharing breaths.

They stayed in this manner for no more than a heartbeat, as before Bilbo could gather his nerve, it was Thorin who ducked his head and closed the remaining distance between them, mouth pressing firmly to Bilbo's.

For an awful moment, everything felt entirely wrong. The room was silent and Bilbo could tell his family were witnessing the awkwardness between them. Thorin's hands remained half-clenched by his sides, and Bilbo felt somehow disconnected and still one step too far away from his 'partner' for this to look anything but forced.

Then, as if realising that something more was needed, Thorin relaxed; one hand raising to cup Bilbo's jaw and his other arm slipping around the hobbit's waist to pull him closer. Lips, which had been pressed into a thin, stubborn line as they kissed softened and parted slightly, their gentleness making Bilbo's pulse kick.

Thorin was warm, his presence inexplicably comforting despite the embarrassing situation they had found themselves in. The dwarf smelled like Bilbo's own soap, a heady mix of cloves and lavender that somehow complemented the slightly inviting, musky scent of his long hair and skin. It almost seemed as if Thorin was smiling, Bilbo thought. The hobbit's arms had moved to cross comfortably around Thorin's shoulders at some point during the kiss and had brought them closer still.

Just as Thorin had been the one to begin the kiss, he was the first to draw away. The action of it seemed unhurried and, to the uninformed, probably looked reluctant. Bilbo knew better however, and felt his face was probably redder than a setting sun as he realised just how much he had clung to the dwarf and kissed with such enthusiasm.

Poor Thorin was probably mortified!

Bilbo could only hope that he saw it purely as an act (which of course it was, naturally), and did not think Bilbo had taken undue liberties. He would hate for things to become stilted between them if Thorin was cross at the situation.

The sounds of Bilbo's family around them became clear through the contented but distracting hum that had settled in the hobbit's mind and he found he could only now hear the cheeky remarks of his cousins, tittering laughs of his aunt and uncle, and barely uttered susurrations of disapproval from Lobelia and Otho.

"A good first mistletoe kiss for this Yule, I think," Drogo pronounced in a satisfied sort of way and Bilbo felt the tips of his ears become hot with the knowledge that he had in fact just been watched whilst rather enthusiastically kissing a near perfect stranger.

Thorin's expression was unreadable when Bilbo gathered the courage to look him in the eye, but at least he did not appear irritated or offended by what had happened.

Bilbo opened his mouth to say something, what precisely he was not entirely sure, merely feeling the need to fill the space and silence between them with something, when he was interrupted by the ringing of his doorbell.

"Oh!... oh that will be Hamfast with the log I expect," Bilbo announced to nobody in particular, and quickly ducked out of the room in order to go and answer the front door.

Bilbo's assumption was proven correct as he opened the door to find the friendly, smiling face of his neighbour waiting there; though at this moment in time his merry eyes were barely visible above a stack of logs he held in his arms.

"Hullo, Mister Bilbo! A Merry Yule to you," he puffed genially, and then nodded awkwardly to the top-most log in his stack. "Got a Yule log for you here, Farmer Maggot sent them along day 'afore yesterday."

Bilbo hurried to lighten his neighbour's burden and smiled gratefully at his friend and gardener as he accepted the Yule log from him.

It was tradition that Yule logs were never bought, but gifted by others. It was fortunate that the rather insular farmer who lived in the outskirts of East Farthing was fond enough both of a lot of the clan in Buckland, and of a few up in Bagshot Row to remember them every year. Living as far out as he did, Farmer Maggot never had any troubles finding enough Yule logs to go around. Hobbits preferred trees that had died or fallen naturally of course, and would only cut a tree down for their tradition if there was no other option.

"Merry Yule, Hamfast, thank you for delivering the Yule log," Bilbo replied. "Have you the time to come in for something to eat and drink? We'd be happy to have you stay for a little bit."

"Ah, very kind of you, but I'd best be delivering the rest of these up the 'Row. Bell won't be at all amused if I dally, we've got the whole brood visiting this year. I need to get back quick and help her with the feast," Hamfast chortled, the sound merry and rather proud. "I'll happily pop by another day though."

"And we'll gladly have you," Bilbo responded amiably. "You're welcome anytime you like over Yule, my friend."

"Thank you, thank you." Hamfast shifted the logs more securely in his grip and was now able to rest his chin atop them to keep them steady. "I'll be seeing you soon then!"

Bilbo waved him off and Hamfast shuffled carefully back down the snow covered path and onto the next smial.

"I was right, the Yule log is here," Bilbo announced as he wandered back into the parlour. "We should get it lighted before we start on the feast."

There was a cheer from the other hobbits present, but Thorin had settled for looking politely bemused, and much as with the mistletoe, Bilbo realised he should explain this practice to the dwarf as well. True, he had mentioned the burning of the Yule log in passing, but he had not explained the particulars of the tradition.

The parlour's hearth had been emptied of its' usual firewood and kept swept clean this day for this very purpose, and Bilbo urged Thorin closer now as he set the log in the fireplace so that he could explain.

Having Thorin near so soon after the kiss made it a little difficult to concentrate on his task, Bilbo thought, but he made a brave effort of trying to appear nonchalant.

They were a couple, this was commonplace for them, he repeated to himself sternly as he began decorating the log with some leftover greenery. He spoke aloud of the tradition for Thorin's benefit alone, and the other hobbits gathered were polite enough not to interrupt.

"This is the Yule log I mentioned to you. We decorate it and light it and let it burn through the night. After this we let it smoulder for the six days of Yule and then put it out properly."

"Whatever for?" Thorin's tone was confused, but held polite interest.

Bilbo accepted the small bag of flour and bottle of wine from Gorbadoc who had disappeared into the kitchen to fetch them and considered Thorin's question, ignoring the soft snort of derision from Lobelia that was clearly a response to the dwarf's lack of knowledge over the tradition.

"To persuade the sun to shine warm and long again, or so the story goes," Bilbo replied easily with an amused tilt of his lips. "These six days over Yule are the shortest of the year. It is said that if the Yule log burns for all six, it will be a good year to follow."

Leaning curiously over the gathering of hobbits at the hearth, Thorin noticed there was something decidedly ceremonial about this practice. The log had been set in the clean hearth and decorated with the same greenery that adorned Bilbo's smial. To this Bilbo had added a dusting of flour ("For food and plenty next year." Drogo had kindly explained), and splashed with wine ("Makes the log feel 'welcome' or so they say," Mirabella had chuckled).

Bilbo stood and shuffled over to a small desk, from where he retrieved a wooden box in the drawer. Inside was a charred lump of wood that he set light to using one of the candles offered to him by Primula and then set alight the Yule log with it.

"We keep a bit of the Yule log from the previous year and use it to light the current Yule log, " Bilbo explained readily when he noticed the curious look Thorin sent his way. "There is a lot of tradition surrounding it, admittedly we've forgotten some of the meaning to it over the years, but some customs are nice to keep going."

Thorin had to agree, there were plenty of rituals and beliefs that his people upheld that were no longer fully understood, but there was something comforting in that familiarity, and Thorin could respect that.

"What kind of wood is it?" Thorin questioned quietly as each hobbit approached the hearth in turn in order to make a wish, or so he was told.

"Oak, that's the most popular anyway, and it was always my Da's favourite… like the tree above our home. Lighting it is meant to encourage healing, strength, and wisdom."

"I see." Unable to help himself, Thorin caught Bilbo's eye with a slightly mischievous look and added. "Are you sure the poor oak over Bag End won't be offended? You are burning the same type of tree-"

A sharp elbow jabbed him in the stomach causing his breath to catch and making him utter a grunt.

"Don't joke, this is meant to be serious and solemn," Bilbo admonished but Thorin was relieved to see the hobbit was grinning. It was good to see that the kiss had not made things awkward between them.

"My apologies… you said oak was the most popular? What other woods do you use then?"

"Ah, let me see… there is ash, which is meant to bring protection, prosperity, and health. Then there is birch…"

Bilbo was off, explaining every different type of wood which could be used for a Yule log, and knowledgeably throwing in little titbits of information regarding related customs here and there as well.

Thorin listened intently, asking questions on occasion, and genuinely enjoying the discussion. He liked the idea so much in fact, that when Bilbo called them all to gather in the kitchen so they could start on the feast, Thorin lingered behind a few moments.

He had seen Bilbo's relations throwing little twigs, ribbon, or acorns onto the burning log before making their wishes, and he wanted to do the same… After all, hadn't Bilbo said it was the correct thing to do with the berry? Retrieving the mistletoe berry Bilbo had given him from his pocket; Thorin cast it into the hearth and made his own wish for the New Year as well.

 


 

The first feast of the Yule holiday had gone remarkably well in Bilbo's opinion. There had not been any arguments, and everyone had complimented the food he had made for them, even the Sackville-Bagginses had only praise to offer (even though Lobelia had worn a slightly pinched expression when she realised one of the dishes she had so thoroughly enjoyed had been a dwarvish recipe from Thorin).

Bilbo was busily washing dishes with Thorin's help as the rest of his guests told stories and played games in the dining room when Primula came to find him.

"Bilbo, I don't suppose I could have a moment of your time to speak with you about something important, could I?"

The polite request seemed only to be that; for politeness sake, as the forthright young woman had already taken Bilbo by the elbow and steered him away from the sink, giving Thorin a brisk nod of acknowledgement as he took over the task of washing up.

Bilbo bristled as he was led out of the kitchen and along the hallway into the study, not used to his younger cousin (brazen as she could be), showing such rudeness.

"Prim! Primula, you can't just drag me off whenever you-"

"Do you truly think we're all so dim-witted that not even one of us would see what is going on here?" Primula interrupted, fists planted firmly on her hips as she glowered at her cousin.

"What are you talking about?" despite feigning innocent confusion, Bilbo had a horrible sneaking suspicion of what the young hobbit lass was about to say.

"I saw the notice, Bilbo. The one in the Green Dragon that was advertising the services of a fake suitor! How daft did you think we would have to be not to realise the Thorin who wrote the notice, and your Thorin were one and the same?"

"I-" Bilbo's eyes darted about the room, fearing that the rest of his guests might somehow be listening in. He was panicked, cornered, and feeling a mounting sort of despair that their plan had so easily been ruined, and so asked the only question which seemed to matter at this moment in time. "Who else knows?"

Noticing Bilbo's upset expression, Primula's ire softened somewhat and she rolled her eyes with an exasperated sounding snort. "So far as I can tell you have been lucky, there is nobody else yet."

Bilbo let out a slightly tremulous breath and ran a distracted hand through his curls. "You are sure?"

"Quite sure. That notice of his was only in the Green Dragon for the better part of a day before you obviously saw and removed it. I was in there to meet Amaranth for luncheon when I noticed it, but you know how folk around here are… nobody else was even bothering to look over the notice board."

This was true enough; Bilbo thought and felt some of the nervous tension bleed from his countenance. As he had told Thorin before, hobbits were natural gossips. As such, it was commonplace for most folk to know of a lost cloak or openings for a wheelwright before a notice was even penned. The notice board of the Green Dragon was more a formality than anything. Therefore, it was more than likely that a curious Brandybuck lass and a desperate Baggins were the only two to have even glanced in the notice boards' general direction at all this week.

"… Old Brockhouse might have noticed it," Primula considered aloud, referring to the landlord. "But you know as well as I that he's not one to go spreading others' business around."

"Then why are you telling me all this, Prim? You must know how wretched I have felt over dealing with all those confounded suitors for the past few years, I merely thought this was the best possible way to be rid of them."

"Because it's dishonest, Bilbo! This isn't like you at all. You're taking us all for fools and being reckless too. Just how much do you know about Thorin anyway-?"

"I know enough," Bilbo snapped. He immediately felt ashamed for his loss of temper around one of his dearest relatives though and thereafter continued in a gentler tone. "Do you not think I considered the possibility he might be unscrupulous? He has been nothing but a gentledwarf since he first entered my home and he simply wishes to have a warm place to stay over Yule… He… he is having a rather difficult time of it, Prim and that is all I can say on the matter without breaking his confidence."

The stubborn furrow in Primula's brow softened and she huffed a sigh. "Even if he is a good sort, either one or both of you will end up hurt and I'm worried for you."

"How so?" Bilbo frowned in confusion, unsure what Primula was trying to say.

"You both seem very comfortable in one another's company already, Bilbo. That kiss was no small act either. You mark my words, Cousin; either you will fall for him proper or he will for you, and then where will you both be?"

"That's- that is utterly preposterous! Completely off the mark!" Bilbo blustered, painfully aware of the way his cheeks were warming; through anger or something else, he would not like to say. "A-and furthermore," he continued, harping back to Primula's earlier accusation. "How do you know this isn't like me? I'm as much a Took as a Baggins, and we are prone to reckless behaviour when the occasion calls for it and this situation, my dear, certainly calls for some bold action."

Primula shook her head, expression a little disappointed, perhaps even sad, and Bilbo felt his irritation piqued again by her presumptuous manner, his voice sharp and demanding when he spoke next. "Are you going to tell anyone of our plan?"

"Oh, Bilbo you know I wouldn't do that to you," she sighed looking quite offended that he had even had to ask. "I just want you to promise to be careful. Crotchety as you can be, you are one of my favourite relations. I'd just hate to see you get your heart broken."

The defensive anger left Bilbo as an incredulous little snatch of laughter then, and he ducked his head to hide the guilt-ridden expression on his face. "You always were a blunt little thing, even as a faunt. I am sorry I was so short with you, Primula that was utterly boorish of me… I daresay I do deserve the title of 'Crotchety Cousin'."

Primula chortled, finally stepping closer to pat Bilbo's arm fondly. "Actually there was a motion in town I overheard to name you 'Mad Baggins' since you've taken up with a dwarf."

"'Mad Baggins'?" Bilbo laughed properly then, a gleam of his mother's old mischief shining in his eyes. "Oh, my father would have a thing or two to say about that! I can't say I mind one bit though."

Primula snorted, rolling her eyes once more as she bid Bilbo to follow her back out of the study. "As much a Took as a Baggins indeed! Where your father would privately throw a fit of conniption, your mother would laugh at such a title and you, my dear, simply revel in your notoriety."

"I wouldn't say I revel in it… I merely think a touch of the ridiculous in life is good for one's health."

Primula shook her head as if disbelieving that she could be related to such a hobbit. She left him at the entrance to the kitchen where Thorin was finishing off his chores and wandered off to find her sister. There had been talk of a snowball fight after all, and she rather wanted to try to best Drogo and Dudo.

Bilbo had barely made it to Thorin's side when he buried his face in his hands and groaned quietly; partly from lingering guilt over how badly he had taken Primula's questioning, and partly from embarrassment over what she had insinuated was between him and Thorin… He could hardly look at the dwarf now!

"Bilbo, are you alright?"

And that gentle, concerned tone of voice really wasn't helping matters one bit!

"Not exactly," Bilbo admitted, realising it would be best to let Thorin know of what had occurred between Primula and he. "Prim knows, Thorin… she saw your notice in the Green Dragon. That must be why she looked so distant when I introduced you earlier today… she was on to us from the very beginning."

Thorin uttered what seemed to be a curse in his own tongue and glanced apologetically at Bilbo as the hobbit finally gathered the courage to meet his gaze without colouring in embarrassment. "So our ruse is over then?"

"No, no… she agreed to keep it a secret. We will just have to hope nobody else saw the notice as well; Prim didn't seem to think anyone else had. That notice board is not often looked at you see."

Thorin sighed his relief and scrubbed a hand over his beard in contemplation. "I should have used a false name… utterly stupid of me not to of course. I should have realised more than one hobbit might see it."

"Forethought not your strongest suit then?" After the tense confrontation in the study, Bilbo simply had to tease to gain a little levity on the situation.

Thorin grumbled, shoving him lightly with his shoulder. "Nor yours it seems. I'm not the only one who could have foreseen this outcome."

"And here I thought you were supposed to be the master tactician, saving poor hobbits from a life of being pestered. Instead, I find you are-"

"- That is quite enough from you," Thorin interrupted and splashed some of the soapy water in the sink at his companion.

Bilbo yelped and tried unsuccessfully to dodge a soaking whilst Thorin looked entirely too smug about splashing Bilbo's fine waistcoat with dishwater.

"Think it's too late to give you a false name? We could say you are Borin or something…"

"Borin?" Thorin cringed. Bilbo had of course chosen the name on a whim, but that had actually been the name of one of Balin and Dwalin's ancestors, and a more tedious, fastidious, and miserly old dwarf you could never meet.

"Indeed! Borin, noble dwarf of Ered Luin; who swept into Hobbiton in order to save a poor bachelor from being hounded by-"

Bilbo nearly shrieked as Thorin turned from the sink, hands full of soapsuds that he smeared liberally onto Bilbo's head, large hands rubbing the small bubbles into the hobbit's hair.

"T-Thorin!"

"I thought I was Borin now?"

"No, Borin is a fine and upstanding dwarf, you are simply a menace to hobbitkind!"

Bilbo squirmed out of Thorin's grip and made a dive for the sink, sloshing a great wave of dishwater over the rim towards his attacker.

The dwarf shouted in surprise as he was doused in soapy water, flinging the dishcloth at the hobbit in revenge.

"If I'm a menace then I shall have to try harder to deserve the title, soaking cheeky gentlehobbits hardly seems adequate."

"I swear if you splash me again-"

"Everything alright in here?" Ruby was standing at the entrance to the kitchen, trying to stifle her giggles behind her palm.

"Oh, Ruby! Yes, yes of course. Thorin and I were just finishing washing up…" Bilbo trailed off eyeing the sloshed water over the floor and countertop that had resulted from their impromptu fight.

"So I see," Ruby snickered and then nodded toward the darkening sky beyond the window. "Dudo, Drogo, Prim, and Amaranth have all gone outside for a snowball fight before it gets too dark, I was just wondering if you wanted to join them."

"Ah, no fear there, Ruby; with the greatest of respect your sons cheat something dreadful."

"Ah, well do I know it." Ruby's eyes danced in amusement, though she settled her gaze on Thorin. "I had heard you dwarves were more used to this kind of weather though… I wondered if perhaps you wished to help Bilbo even the score using your expertise."

Thorin nodded, stepping passed Bilbo in order to address Ruby properly, but not without taking one last handful of bubbles and wiping them on top of Bilbo's head as he did, all with a perfectly innocent expression. Bilbo spluttered indignantly.

"I'd hardly call it expertise, but I did help raise my nephews; they loved playing in the snow any chance they had whilst growing up."

"Wonderful!" Ruby clapped plump palms together with a grin. "Dry yourselves off then and we'll meet you outside in a few-"

"Ah, perhaps not, my dear." Fosco had appeared behind his wife, looking slightly troubled. "The weather seems to be taking a turn for the worse; the lads and Gorbadoc's girls are coming back inside now."

"For the worse?" Bilbo frowned and bustled over to the window, peering out at the scene beyond was a little difficult owing to the lack of light outside and the glare from the flickering candles lit within.

Fosco was right, at some point between speaking with Primula and Ruby coming to invite them outside, it had started to snow again, heavily too… more so than yesterday even.

"Ah, that doesn't bode well…"

Thorin joined him at the window, looking outside as well and shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. "We have worse weather in Ered Luin quite frequently, I shouldn't think it will be too much of a hindrance."

"For dwarves, perhaps not," Fosco harrumphed and shook his head. "We Shire folk very rarely get weather this bad."

"Our climate is more temperate that yours I believe, Thorin; as a rule our winters are mild and snow is never usually this deep if we even get it at all," Bilbo murmured, breath fogging the glass of the window before he stepped back.

"The last time we saw snow as deep as this was-" Ruby cut herself off and cleared her throat delicately and Thorin could see the concerned way she wrung her hands.

"Try not to fret, Ruby. The conditions are quite different this time; it is later in the season and there has been no early frosts or poor harvests. I'm positive this is just a passing thing."

Thorin glanced between Ruby and Bilbo who had attempted to comfort her, a part of him curious to know why they were so concerned over a snowstorm, but seeing the harried air Ruby had about her, he decided it was probably wiser to wait until he and Bilbo were alone.

The hobbits who had been staging a snowball fight came careening into the kitchen at that moment, red in cheeks and at the tips of their noses and dripping slush from their hair and clothes as they begged for snacks and hot drinks.

"Ruddy awful weather out there!" Dudo exclaimed as he ladled himself out some mulled wine and passed another cup of it to his brother. "How in the world are we going to get back home, Da?"

"We can't walk in this!" Ruby looked horrified at the mere thought, and again Thorin was struck by just how worried the hobbits seemed of the turn in the weather.

"Come now, dear; it's not at all far to the Ivy Bush, we can stop there for the night-"

"Unlikely." The new voice was Otho as he swept in to help himself to some biscuits. "They'll be overrun if folk are scattered all over Hobbiton visiting relatives."

Otho made a valid point; during Yule, hobbits travelled all around the Shire from family member to family member, spending time with every one that they could, be it just a few hours or a day or two. Bilbo had expected his kin to stay until the evening and then move on to another family smial to stay overnight, or else go down to one of the inns if they could not make it home. However, with the bad weather, people would be in a more desperate situation and the inns were far more likely to be full.

"Now, let us not be so silly about all this. I shan't have any of you wandering about in this weather for a place to stay when I have enough room here. You're all welcome to stay the night you know," Bilbo offered.

It was a mark of just how his relatives knew Bilbo preferred his privacy that they looked mildly surprised by the offer, and Bilbo inwardly cringed at the revelation. Surely, they hadn't thought he would be so callous as to let them go wandering off in such bad weather.

"Are you sure, Bilbo?" The question was from Primula, who for some reason flicked a sceptical gaze towards Thorin.

Ah…

Bag End had six bedrooms in all; Bilbo's own, the room that had once been Bilbo's parents', and four spare rooms that were used for guests.

It would have been an easy thing to split the rooms between married couples and then one of the spare rooms for Dudo and Drogo and the other for Prim, Amaranth, and Dora. Bilbo had forgotten that Thorin was using the guest room next to him however, meaning there were less rooms to go around.

And at this point most of his relatives would find it an odd thing if Bilbo shied away from sharing a room with his intended…

Clearly, forethought is not my strong suit either. Bilbo reflected glumly and promised himself that he would apologise to Thorin for accusing him of being the thoughtless one when his mouth had just dug a neat little hole for the two of them as well.

Affecting an air of forced cheer, Bilbo blundered on. "Of course I'm sure, Prim. I'm not so unsociable as to turn you all out into the cold!"

Mirabella and Gorbadoc chuckled merrily, and Lobelia was giving Bilbo a shrewd look with one eyebrow raised but wisely kept her thoughts on the topic to herself.

 


 

Gorbadoc, Fosco, and Otho retired to the smoking room a short while later to play a card game of some description. Gorbadoc had invited Thorin as well, but the dwarf had declined since he was unaware of the rules of the game.

Truly, it was less this fact that prevented him from joining them, but rather the furtive worried looks Bilbo kept sending his way that hinted to Thorin that his friend likely wanted to speak with him about something.

Excusing himself from a discussion with Dora and Drogo over the benefits of farming, Thorin snuck into the kitchen on the pretence of refilling his glass, but then exited the room through the other door and made his way to the study where he found Bilbo fretting quietly with a book in his hands. He was distracted and not even reading it, this much Thorin could tell from a glance.

"Is everything alright, Bilbo?"

"Ah, not quite I'm afraid… I believe I may have gone and dropped us in hot water." Bilbo set the book down and worried with the cuffs of his shirt as he spoke.

"How so?"

Bilbo needed no further prompting and massaged his temples, eyes screwed shut as he confessed the problem. "Bag End has six bedrooms including my own. I just invited our guests to spend the night."

"And why is that- oh." Thorin seemed to have calculated the number of people and the likely sleeping arrangements just as he went to question further and stopped himself from continuing needlessly.

"Yes, my er… my family will assume that you will be staying in my room with me. We could tell them that we are not sharing but… well it would seem rather odd to them and it would only mean that a couple of my guests will have to find another place to stay so-"

"You need me to move my belongings into your room for the night, yes?" Thorin's tone was brisk and surprisingly blasé about the whole problem and Bilbo felt some of his own nerves recede at the dwarf's easy acceptance of this.

"Yes… I am terribly sorry, Thorin. I hope you won't find it too awkward."

"No, not at all, I can sleep on the floor easily enough."

"What? No, no no, that is absurd I won't have a guest sleeping on the floor!"

"Bilbo, I was sleeping in the woods for quite a while ere you invited me here," Thorin reasoned. "I have my bedroll and a blanket, being out of the cold is more than enough for me."

Bilbo nearly shuddered at the reminder that had he not found Thorin that day, the poor dwarf would likely still be trying to battle the elements in this weather, but shook his head in disagreement all the same.

"Be that as it may, I cannot make you take the floor in good conscience-"

"You aren't making me do anything, I choose to-"

"And I choose to say that it won't be borne. If anyone is to have the floor it will be me; you are a guest, Thorin."

"Yes, and surely as a guest I have the right to choose where I sleep."

"Not if I say that it is inadequate." Bilbo was being petulant now; he knew it, but the thought of having a guest sleep on his floor and not in a bed was an unpleasant one. Da would be most disappointed in him if he were still alive.

Outside in the hallway, Bilbo heard the sound of voices growing closer and he hushed Thorin with a look.

"Best not to be caught bickering about this now lest it raise suspicion, we can discuss it later before we sleep." Bilbo picked up his book again to signal that the discussion was over, and waved the dwarf off as he tried to hide his flushed face behind the pages of his book.

Thorin grumbled as he was dismissed in such a fashion before leaving to room to go to return to his discussion on farming with Bilbo's relatives. It was preposterous for them to argue over something so inconsequential, Thorin thought to himself. After all, they were both sensible adults and they were only going to be sharing a room for one night.

Chapter Text

"I was meaning to ask you something," Thorin began carefully later that evening as he hefted his pack into Bilbo's room. "Your kin, they seemed very distressed over the state of the weather. Fosco mentioned snow being something of a rarity here, but does as much snow as this cause you such problems?"

"It is not so much the amount of snow as the ominous feeling that comes with it." Bilbo's reply was measured, a little guarded, and Thorin wondered if he was still irritated over their argument concerning the sleeping arrangements.

"What do you mean?"

Bilbo caught Thorin's eye as he moved about the room; banking the fire in the small hearth, turning back the duvet and coverlet, and extinguishing a few of the candles in preparation for sleep. "In Ered Luin you may be used to such weather, here we are not and it brings back bad memories."

Thorin removed his brush and a small, chipped hand mirror from his pack, setting them on the washstand. Turning his full attention on the hobbit once more, Thorin settled himself on the hearthrug, his pack in his lap as he waited for Bilbo to continue his explanation.

"Twenty seven years ago The Shire had a very unfortunate harvest. Rain had been heavy and many of the crops had failed, as such the winter stores were low. Now, this would not have been too much of a problem if we could have provisions sent to us from further a field and an easy winter for us to recuperate; unfortunately the winter this particular year turned out to be very harsh. We had the first frosts in Winterfilth, which is unheard of in our area! What crops were still in the ground ready for harvest were utterly destroyed and it meant that food would need to be strictly rationed until the cold spell passed us by…"

Bilbo distractedly smoothed the duvet, frowning at the mattress clearly lost in a memory before he gave himself a little shake and padded over to join Thorin on the hearthrug, sitting tailor style before his companion.

"It didn't… pass us by I mean… none of us Shire folk had ever seen the like; days upon days of snow fell without end, deeper than the snowfall we've had today and it only continued to get worse. The roads were impassable since we were not accustomed to such weather, and provisions from Bree and other areas couldn't reach us… we were essentially trapped and had to shore up in our holes, ration what we could and hope for the best."

Bilbo was frowning again, looking down at the rug in a distracted manner as his hands came up to rub at his arms as if warding off a chill. "Then the wolves came… great hulking things they were. They had crossed the frozen river, the Brandywine, up in the North Moors and were joined by a fair number of orcs. I suppose things were bad all over and their pickings were slim up there." Bilbo smiled, though it was a tight, grim little thing. "They clearly thought hobbits would make easy prey."

Thorin tensed slightly, his grip on his pack tightening as he watched the flicker of emotion play over Bilbo's features, but he dared not ask anything lest he upset his friend further.

Bilbo seemed to realise that Thorin wanted to hear more though, and so forged on, fingers now fiddling with his sleeve cuffs and unable to focus or stop fidgeting.

"We were told by the Rangers to stay inside whenever possible. They helped, and Gandalf did too. They stopped what attacks they could and got food to us so we wouldn't starve, but of course there were… casualties, as is to be expected. Some succumbed to the cold or the lack of food… mostly the very old or young or those that were sick already, you know. There were a few that were picked off by the wolves and orcs though. Some of us hoped we could go out and hunt or gather some food, others just wanted to defend their homes and went out to drive them off, as you can imagine it didn't usually end well for them; we can fight when pushed into a corner, we're not completely helpless, but we're not warriors."

"I'm beginning to think you might be a hardier people than you give yourselves credit for."

Bilbo flashed Thorin a smile, a true one this time and nodded, allowing that. "Well, Mum certainly was. She actually fought one of the blighters off don't you know, one of the wolves."

"How did she manage that?" Thorin felt on safer footing to speak now, since Bilbo seemed decidedly lighter at the memory of his mother's heroics, and so set about unpacking the last few items from his bag.

"Oh, it was quite something, let me tell you! I had come down with a fever you see, and Mama knew I needed something from the apothecary and that she would have to wander down into Bywater to get it. We had been told to wait for assistance, but the Rangers were all busy down in Buckland defending folk there, and Gandalf was off retrieving food for us; I was getting sicker and Mum realised she would have to do something or else I might not recover. Da was beside himself, he didn't want her to go alone, but Mum made him swear to stay with me and look after me until she returned… I will always remember that you know, until she returned she said not if. She was just so certain and sure of herself; I always admired that about her

"I was lucid enough to hear that, and I argued it; told her I'd be fine on my own. It wasn't as if I was a faunt y'see, I was only six years from being of age. Mum wasn't having any of it though, she told us both to stay put and took up that sword I have hanging in my study. It was hers you know, gifted to her by an elf when she was younger and off on one of her adventures… probably a bit too big for a hobbit really, but Mum didn't care about that."

"What happened next?" Thorin would have been more cautious in his questioning had he had any inkling of a terrible end for Bilbo's mother. However, he had already been told that she had only died fairly recently, and so was confident enough that his words would not upset Bilbo or bring back bad memories.

"Well, Mum had nearly made it to Bywater when the thing attacked her- I have read books on wolves you know, and these wolves weren't quite like the ones I've heard of. They normally hunt in packs, but this one was a loner. With food being so scarce, perhaps their usual allegiances had been stretched too thin and they sought merely to feed their own bellies; every wolf for themselves, that sort of thing… Anyway, Mum told us later what happened, but she had tried to make it seem a trifling thing. It was only after Andwise Roper came to see us after the snows melted enough that we learnt the whole tale, he had seen it happen out his window but was unable to get out his door to try and help Mum. This great beast came skulking out of the tree line on Mum's left, out of her line of sight, and was going to try and make quick work of it by relying on stealth…. It must have been too hungry and careless though because Mum heard it coming. She leapt out of its way when it pounced, and hit it first with the flat of her blade hoping to ward it off. It was no good though; this thing had no sense of self-preservation left, desperate as it was.

"Andwise said it circled Mum for ages, snarling and growling, lunging at her every so often and hoping to catch her off guard. Eventually Mum decided to go on the offensive rather than just try to keep the wolf at bay. Andwise said he had never seen anything like it! "Moved with the grace of one of them elves she did, Mister Baggins," he told my Da. "Lightning quick she was and twice as deadly"."

To Thorin's amusement, Bilbo had stood during the telling of his story and mimed out the fight, brandishing an imaginary sword himself. His footwork was atrocious, the dwarf thought with a fond twitch of his lips, but it gave the tale a nice illustration.

"Mum killed the thing, and then carried on to Bywater like nothing had happened. She managed to get the herbs to ease my fever, and those down in Bywater were ever so shocked to see her just stroll up to the apothecary with a sword in hand like it was the most natural thing in the world to do."

Bilbo's eyes were bright now, he looked far happier than he had done when explaining his family's upset over the snow and Thorin was glad for it.

Seeming to notice the amused glint in Thorin's eyes, Bilbo sent him a lopsided grin and flopped back down onto the rug as if embarrassed. "Well so… yes hm, I went rather off topic there, but that is why my family was so nervous about the state of the weather. Anyone who lived through that winter… the Fell Winter we call it, are just so scared it may happen again some day."

"If it were to, I do believe you would stand a fighting chance if your mother's bravery is any indication."

Bilbo looked proud but shook his head all the same. "That is kind of you to say, but Mum was something of an odd duck here in Hobbiton. I'm not sure how well others would fare…"

"You have much the same spirit, I think."

"Oh no, I'm far more like my old Da, surely you saw their portraits in the parlour. Everyone always says how like my father I am."

It was true enough, Thorin supposed, at least in looks. Bilbo was built sturdy, with an affable and pleasingly charming countenance about him like the elder hobbit in the portrait. His hair held a golden tinge, much like his father's, and his ears were similar too.

However, Thorin could definitely see much of Belladonna in Bilbo too. The same nose, the same intelligent eyes under level brows, and the definite air of mischief and courage that had been captured perfectly in paint was present in real life in Bilbo too.

"I saw the portraits, yes. You do look quite like your father, but you certainly have something of your mother about you. She was very pretty you know; fairer even than the flower she was named for."

"Ah, if she were alive now to hear you say that she'd probably laugh, pinch your cheeks, and call you a silver-tongued fool... Da would glare something fierce as well."

"He would not need to worry, as lovely as your mother was, I'd not dare to flirt… besides..." Thorin tugged on one of his earlobes, and flicked his gaze away from Bilbo for a moment. "I would have thought it obvious due to my willingness in pretending to be your partner; I do not find myself attracted to womenfolk."

The unease Thorin displayed was not through shame, not at all. He was comfortable with his sexuality and could find nothing to be sorry for. Amongst dwarves, such things were commonplace. However, he was aware that within the world of men ran a prejudice oftentimes quite violent against those who preferred their own sex; to those who identified as a sex they were not given at birth, or who in any way shape or form did not conform to their race's very narrow views of what was 'normal'.

Thorin was unsure if hobbits shared such views, but a sudden concern crept upon him regarding their subterfuge. Had Bilbo only agreed to this because taking a male partner would be seen as very outlandish and so more likely to dissuade his former suitors? Was Bilbo simply a good enough actor that he could pretend to be comfortable with this when in fact he might usually frown on such behaviour? Bilbo had not seemed at all uncomfortable around him, but then some of those hobbits in the marketplace had looked disapproving and-

"Perhaps not so obvious, there are those who are attracted to both men and women," Bilbo's casual shrug and easy way of speaking immediately soothed every worry Thorin had. "As it happens, I'm much the same as you. It would have been a bit odd of me agreeing to this if I wasn't."

"I suppose that is true, though you could just be a very fine actor." Thorin gave voice to his earlier thoughts, though he was no longer particularly convinced of this earlier belief thanks to Bilbo's assurance.

Bilbo laughed at that. "No, I'm a hopeless actor, lying is something I find rather difficult to do successfully-" he cut himself off with a large yawn. "Oh, excuse me. Do remind me some time to tell you of my apple scrumping incident in Grandma Took's garden. That will prove to you that I can't lie one bit!"

"Perhaps you should sleep, Bilbo." Thorin looked at the hobbit pointedly as he stifled another yawn. "If I remember correctly you have been awake and busy since before dawn, you deserve some rest."

"Ah, yes, quite… probably for the best." Bilbo gave his guest a tired smile. "If you'll just move yourself from the hearthrug, I'll just grab myself a pillow and blanket and you may have the bed-"

"And thus we return to our previous argument," Thorin interrupted with a raised brow, folding his arms belligerently. "I am not about to let you sleep on the floor, Master Baggins. You will take your bed and I shall sleep here."

"You will do no such thing! Thorin, for pity's sake you're my guest; at least allow me to offer you a bed for the sake of politeness-"

"You may offer it, and I may refuse it," Thorin smirked and settled himself on the rug more comfortably, looking for all the world like he might plant himself there, sprout roots, and take up permanent residence such was the finality with which he spoke. "I highly doubt you will be able to physically move me from this spot."

Oh of all the hardheaded, childish things…

"You! You really do mean to test my patience don't you?"

"Oh most certainly, Bilbo. However since you were so kind to point out that I am a guest, I doubt you will offer me much rebuke."

Bilbo was no fool and knew full well when to pick his battles. If he disputed this matter, the argument would merely end up going in circles and getting neither of them anywhere at all; and if he took Thorin up on his physical challenge, Bilbo would be easily bested.

Bilbo snorted in exasperation and threw up his hands in a show of defeat before stomping over to a chest of drawers and retrieving his nightshirt and making his way over to the adjoining washroom, grumbling all the way. "Fine, fine, take the floor if you are so bloody keen on it. If you wake up with a bad back though, you'll not be getting any sympathy from me."

Thorin's triumphant little chuckle followed him out of the room mockingly. He would certainly have to get his own back before Yule was over somehow.

 


 

Bilbo took his time in preparing for bed, just to be contrary, and when he returned to the bedroom it was to find Thorin sprawled on the hearthrug reading a book and already dressed down for the night… and apparently for the dwarf 'dressed down' consisted of removing his tunic and changing into a pair of looser fitting breeches.

Did he not have a nightshirt? What in the world, had he been sleeping in whilst out in the wilds?

Bilbo tore his gaze away from his guest deciding it would be best not to ask, he would hate for Thorin to think he had been staring after all… which he emphatically hadn't been doing, because staring was rude… He did wonder about those tattoos though… did they mean anything?

Coughing awkwardly and turning his face from the sight of Thorin lying before the fireplace, Bilbo fussed with the bed quilt before trusting himself to speak. "The washroom is free now."

"So I see, thank you." Thorin stretched lazily and offered Bilbo an amused look before making his way over to the adjoining room.

Bilbo glared at the dwarf's retreating back and tugged at the collar of his nightshirt self-consciously, were nightshirts such a foreign concept to dwarves?

He could steal Thorin's place in front of the fire whilst the dwarf was off cleaning his teeth… but Bilbo had a horrible feeling that upon his return Thorin would simply heft Bilbo over his shoulder and deposit him back on the bed, bad manners be damned.

Deciding in this instance that discretion was likely the better part of valour, Bilbo admitted defeat in this particular argument and so clambered into bed, snuffing out all but two candles so that Thorin could still see what he was doing once he returned.

 


 

Bilbo must have fallen asleep in the short time between clambering into bed and Thorin returning, because when he woke it was to a room in darkness; the only discernible light was from the glowing embers in the fireplace.

It was cold!

Bilbo shivered and drew the duvet and quilt over himself again, he had clearly kicked it off whilst moving in sleep and the chill in the room was likely what had woken him.

The snow had not stopped it seemed, and before the fireplace Thorin was restlessly moving beneath his own blanket, a quiet snort of discomfort reaching his sensitive ears.

"You are going to freeze down there." The susurration of Bilbo's voice carried to his guest easily in the still quiet of the room and Thorin jerked his head up from his pillow quickly to look over at Bilbo.

The dwarf's eyes were odd in the dark, Bilbo mused. From the little light granted by the embers, the hobbit could see that his friend's pupils nearly usurped his irises entirely; furthermore, Bilbo could spy a queer glow within them like the eyes of a cat.

Bilbo swallowed, equal parts entranced and unnerved by the sight, before speaking again.

"This really is foolish you know, it is far too cold in here for you not to be using a bed."

"If you think I will freeze down here, I do not wish to think what will become of you if we trade places," Thorin grumbled.

Bilbo rolled his eyes in the gloom and pulled back the duvet, ignoring the cold air that began to steal the warmth from his bed. "I'm no longer suggesting a trade, thank you. Unlike some, I am not a glutton for punishment. I was going to suggest that we might as well share the bed. It is big enough, and it seems like the most sensible course of action here. Neither of us has to suffer a hard floor this way, and two of us together beneath the duvet will be warmer."

Thorin hesitated, the silhouette of his posture tense against the firelight and Bilbo caught his lower lip between his teeth, afraid for a moment that he had perhaps overstepped the mark and offended Thorin somehow with his suggestion.

"Alright… if you are sure," Thorin murmured at length, rising to his feet and bringing his blanket with him to place over the bed as an extra layer.

"Quite sure," Bilbo replied quietly and shuffled further over in bed to make room for Thorin.

He was right of course; the large four-poster bed he owned was plenty big enough for them both. It had been an indulgent purchase after Bilbo had become sole master of Bag End. The hobbit had a tendency to move around in sleep quite a bit, and the bigger his bed, the less likely he was to end up waking rather painfully as he hit the floor. Truly, this bed was perhaps quite a bit bigger than he really needed, but Bilbo was fond of it and not above buying himself the occasional extravagance- as his wardrobe could attest.

"Thank you." Thorin settled himself on Bilbo's left, worming beneath the covers and pulling them up to his chin causing Bilbo to hide a smile.

The proud fool had been cold after all.

"You're welcome," yawning as he spoke; Bilbo settled his head back onto his pillow and attempted to appear as relaxed as possible.

This was fine, they were hardly near each other, and it was a practical solution to their argument. Thorin was in the bed just as Bilbo had wished… though not quite the way he had intended- and gracious if that didn't sound quite odd in his own head… and the dwarf now wouldn't have to suffer a hard floor or cold room.

It was practical… nothing odd about it at all… so why in the world was his heart beating a staccato rhythm behind his ribs? Surely loud enough for Thorin to hear.

Bilbo tried not to look at his companion for too long, feeling it might make things awkward. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness now and Bilbo could easily see the fine figure Thorin cut when not hidden under layers of clothing. He was a little on the thin side as Bilbo had noticed before, and his heart still ached at the knowledge that most dwarves were not built this way, but the hobbit could well appreciate just how lovely he appeared despite this. His tattoos and scars were not off putting at all, as some of his fellow hobbits might assume… they were interesting… attractive in their own way.

He was close too, close enough to touch, close enough to pull against him and wrap his arms around-

Ridiculous… utterly ridiculous. He was tired that was all, tired and in need of a good restful sleep to banish such thoughts from his mind.

If he slept, the silly nervousness he felt would disappear and so too would his rather brazen thoughts.

Turning his back to Thorin for good measure, Bilbo clamped his eyes shut and willed himself back to sleep.

 


 

Though Thorin had slept soundly through the night, his dreams and half-formed thoughts had been somewhat troubled. Always lingering on and returning to the hobbit he was pretending to be courting; Thorin found that every time his mind would quiet, it would only be a matter of time before clever eyes and a charming grin would pervade his thoughts and ensnare his dreams anew.

Dreams in which the courtship was real and Thorin woke to Bilbo peppering his face with playful kisses, or else sitting on the bench in Bilbo's garden and talking quietly of anything and nothing at all on a summer's evening. There were dreams Thorin wished to remain in forever, and others he shied away from, but none remained within his grasp for long.

So it was that Thorin woke to find it morning and discover that he had a tension headache building in his temples and behind his eyes.

It was only technically morning, Thorin thought. Bilbo's bedroom was still dim this much he could tell even from behind shut eyelids, and when he cracked open his eyes to try to gauge the time properly, he felt his breath stutter in his chest.

He had woken to a feeling of contentment and delicious warmth, and now that his mind was finally pulled from its muzzy and incoherent state, it was easy to tell why he felt so comfortable.

During the course of the night, Bilbo had rolled over to face him. It seemed that their proximity was also far closer than when they had fallen asleep… far closer.

The first thing Thorin noticed was that Bilbo's unconscious self had decided to appropriate half of his pillow, their faces were now so close Bilbo's nose was brushing Thorin's own and Thorin could feel every soft breath the hobbit took against his lips, see every tiny tremor of his eyelashes before him.

Thorin swallowed and stayed very very still.

Bilbo had also thrown one careless arm over Thorin, and their legs had become entangled so that chests and bellies were pressed together.

It wasn't as if Bilbo could be solely to blame, Thorin thought, slightly giddy with nerves; for his own arm had moved to encircle the hobbit's waist at some point during the night.

The gallant thing to do would be to try to extricate himself from Bilbo's hold, but that might wake him and then… well…

It would be very awkward…

Thorin took a steadying breath, attempted to think of a way to remove himself from Bilbo's presence without risking his friend waking, and quickly decided there was none.

Bilbo whispered something to himself as he slept and Thorin barely breathed at all then, afraid the hobbit was waking, but after a moment in which Bilbo frowned, fidgeted, and then relaxed again, Thorin realised his friend was not even close to consciousness yet.

Bilbo's presence was soothing, the room quiet, and beneath the layers of duvet, quilt, and blanket, Thorin was delightfully warm. Despite his better judgement, Thorin felt himself lulled by this, his eyes fluttering closed even as he tried to fight to stay awake so that he could try to sort out this predicament.

Well, perhaps sleeping a little longer wouldn't be such a bad thing…

 


 

"It's still snowing…?"

"Yes."

"You don't think that-"

"No, Bilbo, everything is fine. This is just one snowstorm and it will pass soon, you will see."

"You are always so very sure of yourself."

"Hm, of course I am."

Bilbo felt mirth bubble up in his chest as he reluctantly opened his eyes to face the day. Thorin was already awake, watching him quietly. For a moment Bilbo was struck at the oddity of seeing Thorin wearing his tunic once more, but chalked the appearance of it up to the cold night they had endured. Thorin must have retrieved it during the night and put it back on.

The hobbit also noted, as was often the case, he had shifted around in sleep and their limbs had become entangled, not that Thorin seemed to mind if the pleased expression in his eyes was anything to go by.

The dwarf's face was close to his own, one arm looped around him whilst his other hand drifted up to comb gentle fingers through his curls.

They were so close, so warm and comfortable…

Bilbo leaned into the touch, which moved from his curls to the shell of his ear and then his cheek, tilting his head up slightly…

"I believe our guests might be awake already."

"Hm, they can wait…"

Thorin gifted him with a winsome grin and pulled him close, catching Bilbo's lower lip teasingly between his teeth and-

… And the knock on Bilbo's door jolted the hobbit out of sleep so violently he almost fell off the bed.

That was… that had been-

"Y-yes?"

 


 

Thorin opened Bilbo's bedroom door and peeked in cautiously when he had heard the muffled cursing. Thankfully, it seemed nothing was amiss apart from Bilbo looking decidedly sleep ruffled and rather peeved.

"My apologies… you were sleeping so deeply I thought it would be best that I made breakfast for your guests this morning. I was just coming to let you know that it is ready if you want any."

Thorin had woken again shortly after indulging himself in a longer nap, and this time he had gathered his wits enough to manage to remove himself from the comforting presence of his hobbit host.

He had still been flustered by their proximity, and the dwarf was embarrassed to admit to himself that he had been sorely tempted to stay where he was. However, he could hear sounds of others in the smial waking this time, and as they were meant to be the hosts, it would not do to leave Bilbo's guests waiting.

Therefore, Thorin had managed to ease himself from Bilbo's bed without waking the hobbit and alerting him to their rather… compromising position, and had readied himself for the day.

When he had returned from the washroom to find his companion sleeping still, Thorin had decided that Bilbo was likely still tired from all the work he had done the previous day, and so decided to leave Bilbo to rest a little longer.

He still looked rather out of sorts even now though…

"Are you alright, Bilbo?"

"Yes, yes I'm fine, thank you for waking me."

Thorin nodded in reply and decided to leave Bilbo to get ready, shutting the door behind him Thorin could swear he heard the hobbit mutter something along the lines of 'dreams like that will be the end of me', and Thorin hoped his friend hadn't had nightmares plaguing him during the night. They never boded well for a productive day.

Chapter Text

There was something decidedly reassuring about having a full breakfast table when one was feeling embarrassed over certain events. The hubbub and chatter, the jostling and distractions all made it wonderfully easy to forget the uncomfortable dream he had had before waking that morning.

Bilbo was not such a fool that he would lie to himself over this. He had dreamed of Thorin kissing him and holding him in sleep, and his dream self had thoroughly enjoyed it.

The hobbit could feel the tension settled in his shoulders and the heat at the tips of his ears as he bent his head over his breakfast and attacked the plate of eggs and bacon with a ferocity one would usually see in starving folk.

Thankfully, with the aforementioned clamour around his usually quiet breakfast table that morning, not one of his guests seemed to notice Bilbo's discomfort and slightly jumpy countenance. Not even Thorin…

And really, it was not unexpected he should have had such a dream, he supposed. Thinking about it rationally, it was no surprise that the dwarf had wandered into his unconscious thoughts. Here he was, staying with Bilbo and pretending to be courting him, they had spent the last few days practicing an affectionate act to present to his family, they had kissed, circumstances had dictated that they share a bed, and… Bilbo was honest enough to admit that Thorin was handsome… charming… kind and- well yes, there was no shame in his mind conjuring such scenarios when faced with all of that, it would be enough to confuse anyone.

He was not to blame, there was nothing wrong and nothing to be ashamed of and his mind had simply read too much into everything and created an odd little dream. If he stopped thinking about it, his embarrassment would soon pass and he need not ever worry about it again. Why, perhaps even Thorin had been plagued by such odd thoughts given their ruse!

Feeling better about the situation, Bilbo allowed himself to sit a little straighter and meet the gaze of his companions once more, even joining in with a conversation between Prim and Ruby over the merits of having goose for a Yule feast versus having turkey.

He felt so much better in fact that he sent Thorin a friendly grin as the dwarf passed him a plate of crumpets that were being shared around the table. The calm that had settled over him was once again shattered as Thorin returned his smile however, the curl of those lips and hint of teeth conjuring the earlier image of dream Thorin's teasing kiss…

Bugger…

 


 

It continued to snow up until luncheon, and it was a mark of how closely the hobbits in Bag End had been keeping an eye on the weather as the morning progressed that they cheered when the snow abated and the heavy clouds began to clear to make way for brilliantly blue skies and bright winter sunshine.

It was a fortunate thing, Thorin mused, for he had noticed the fretful energy the hobbits seemed to accrue whilst being cooped up so; it seemed just as dwarves were made for mountains and smith work, hobbits were made for warm sun, green lands, and to be outside in both as often as possible.

As if to prove Thorin's suppositions, Bilbo wasted no time at all in bundling himself up in a few extra layers and grabbing a spade and broom before making his way outside into crisp cold air, letting his guests know he was going to sweep the path.

Bilbo lost himself in his work, keeping his mind firmly on his task and refused to let his thoughts wander to events that had past this morning, or how Prim's outlandish notion of Bilbo falling in love with Thorin for real hardly seemed as unlikely as first professed in light of that dream.

No, Bilbo certainly wasn't paying any mind to those kinds of thoughts, thank you very much, and only paused in his determined sweeping of the snow in order to call greetings to passers-by. There weren't too many hobbits wandering The Hill with the snow so thick upon the ground, but a resolute few were doggedly making their way to other family member's smials and he spied the odd neighbour out in their gardens doing the same as he. The shirriffs made their way along the path after a time as well, sweeping the snow into embankments so that folk walking around Hobbiton might have an easier journey.

Bilbo requested they stop for a moment seeing how tired they looked and scurried back inside bringing the stalwart group of lads and lasses a hot drink and some biscuits each, which were very gratefully received. The group didn't dare tarry long, knowing they had a lot of work still to do before they could head home to their own smials, but lingered long enough to gulp their tea, eat their biscuits, and chat amiably with Bilbo for a few minutes before they were off again, clearing the pathway with renewed vigour.

Bilbo had barely begun his own sweeping once more when a new voice interrupted the return of his determined 'not-thinking'.

"Greetings, you wouldn't happen to be a Master Baggins, would you?"

Bilbo frowned, eyes still lowered as he swept. The new voice was not one he knew; besides the fact that most folk in Hobbiton wouldn't need to enquire after his name, the voice itself was unusual; an odd sort of rasp caused an underlying hiss to the words, and the accent was gruff and mountain-bred, consonants clipped and tone blunt.

"Indeed I would happen to be he, my good sir, and who might I ask do I have the pleasure of-" Bilbo looked up from his work and blinked both in confusion and against the glare of refracted sunlight shining off the snow.

There was nobody there.

"How peculiar… I could have sworn-"

"Over here, if you please." Bilbo jumped at the return of the mystery voice and turned his head to see a large, stately looking raven strutting along his fence.

"I'm terribly sorry but you-"

"Roäc, son of Carc, at your service." The raven cocked his head at Bilbo, eyes bright and intelligent and perhaps a little mocking. "I have reason to believe you have one Thorin Oakenshield staying with you."

"Er, yes, yes I do- did you want- I mean I'm not completely used to talking ravens so please forgive me… you wished to speak with-"

"Not the most eloquent of hosts are you," the large bird jibed, tucking his head beneath a large wing and beginning to preen in a dismissive sort of manner.

Bilbo felt himself glower at the bird and gripped his broom a little tighter, taking a step towards the self-important raven on his fence. "Now see here, either you show some manners or you can jolly well-"

"Bilbo, is everything alright? I thought I heard- ah, Roäc!"

Bilbo turned with a scowl still writ on his features to find Thorin had come to the front door of the smial.

"Yes, Roäc. Is this your bird, Thorin?" Bilbo huffed.

"I am nobody's pet!" Roäc sounded mightily affronted, but all the same seemed happy enough to fly over to Thorin with two wing beats and settle on his outstretched arm.

"Roäc is a friend of our family, as are many of his kin, Bilbo," Thorin clarified. "He is a raven of Erebor, fine and intelligent birds they are. They delivered messages for us when we still lived there in return for food and shelter, gold scrap if they could get it. Roäc and his family came with us to Ered Luin even though the rewards here are lesser than at Erebor."

Bilbo was tempted to point out that that description sounded exactly like a pet to him just to annoy the bird, but the gentle way Thorin treated Roäc stayed the hobbit's tongue.

"You have news for me, my friend?"

"That I do." He did not hasten to give said news however; instead he looked pointedly at Bilbo and then uttered something to Thorin in a low croak which Bilbo had not the least chance of understanding.

Thorin nodded and gave Bilbo an apologetic smile. "Excuse us for a moment please, Bilbo."

With that, the talking began anew. There was no need for Thorin and Roäc to go elsewhere, for whatever they were saying was quite clearly in another language and try as he might, Bilbo could not pick up a single word of it.

He did try, as he pretended to finish his sweeping; as poorly mannered as it could be to listen in on another's conversation, the hobbit was curious and wished to find out what had brought the raven from Ered Luin in order to speak with Thorin.

It wasn't any dialect Bilbo had ever heard, he thought with a frown, it did not even sound like Khuzdûl… If he did not know any better, Bilbo could have almost sworn they were speaking merely in a series of croaks and clicks just as he would expect a bird like Roäc to communicate in normally with their own kind.

Once or twice, Bilbo glanced up from his work in order to see if he could garner anything from Thorin's facial expressions. From beneath his fringe, Bilbo could tell that it thankfully was not bad news; the dwarf did not seem especially upset or angry, though he was frowning a little.

Roäc spoke once more and this time Thorin's reaction was more marked; his frown deepened, he flushed to the roots of his hair, and when he replied to the raven Bilbo could tell the dwarf was flustered and terse.

Roäc spread his wings and flapped, throwing back his head and vocalised an odd noise that Bilbo could only describe as a cackle; clearly, Thorin's reaction amused him.

It was as the raven danced from foot to foot upon Thorin's arm that Bilbo then noticed that Roäc had a small scroll bound to his leg, Bilbo wondered at it for a moment before Thorin reached out and awkwardly untied the scroll with his free hand.

"Bilbo," Thorin began, and Bilbo nearly started, afraid that he had been too obvious in watching their interaction.

"Yes?"

Setting aside his broom and scrubbing his hands, numb from the cold, on his trouser legs, Bilbo approached the pair trying not to look too guilty.

"Roäc did come to speak with me, but it seems that my sister wished to send you a letter also… her conditions for doing this would be that you read her letter alone as apparently I 'hover' and am 'too nosey by far'," Thorin finished with a glare at the raven as he handed the small scroll to Bilbo.

"Oh," Bilbo fought to keep his amusement in check. "Thank you, Roäc… and thank you to your sister too, Thorin."

Bilbo slipped the letter into his pocket to read later as had been requested.

A few moments past in which Thorin and Roäc spoke in that odd language again before the raven ruffled his feathers importantly and turned his head towards the sky, speaking in Westron this time, presumably for Bilbo's benefit.

"Well, I had best make my way back to Ered Luin then, 'ere that blasted snow begins anew."

"The snow will return? Do you know for certain?" Bilbo could not keep the thinly veiled concern out of his voice and he felt a little silly when Thorin gave him a sympathetic look.

Roäc, however, offered no such niceties in his reply. "I'm no fortune teller to know such things, Master Baggins! I can no more foretell the weather than you can divine events from the stars."

"I can divine the stars quite well actually," Bilbo sniffed imperiously, his concern over the possibility of more snow quickly replaced by irritation over the bird's attitude. "They warned me just the other night of an immanent meeting I would endure with a wicked tongued plucked chicken. In my folly I disregarded them, but now-"

That cackling rasp was back, the one that Bilbo suspected was the raven's version of laughter. He turned to face Thorin and spoke as if Bilbo was not even there, the cheek of it! "Oh, I do like this one! He's taking none of my sauce. Always thought these little rabbits would fear saying boo to a goose, seems I was wrong."

"Rabbit?" Bilbo squawked as if offended, completely disregarding that Thorin had jestingly called him such once before.

"Oh, aye. Small, big ears and feet… your lot seem pretty productive in making wee chicks as well from what I've seen flying around these parts, lots of little ones about."

"Roäc," Thorin mumbled warningly.

"I'm going to snatch you bald, then you really will be a plucked chicken and we'll eat you for Yule," Bilbo threatened without much heat. Roäc might be impertinent, but Bilbo could appreciate a good verbal sparring partner when he met them.

Roäc's eyes gleamed with good humour and he leapt from Thorin's arm as Bilbo mimed as if to swipe at him. "Ah, though you are not quite as quick as a rabbit I see."

Bilbo grumbled and glowered at the bird who was now perched atop Thorin's head.

"A pleasure to meet you, Master Baggins, I regret we haven't the time to chat longer. Perhaps I'll come back someday and have a root around your vegetable garden there. I'm quite sure you grow some lovely things."

"Don't you bloody dare."

Cackling once more, Roäc flapped his heavy wings and took off, circling the garden as he gained height. "I will see you back in Ered Luin after this 'Yule', Thorin. Have a pleasant time."

Bilbo stood mouth slightly agape as he watched the rude bird circle his garden once more and then head off west.

"Well I never…" Bilbo shook his head and clearly was unsure of what else to say after that, for he simply wandered off to retrieve his broom.

Lips twitching, Thorin went to console his friend. "You will have to forgive him, Bilbo. He is an incredibly intelligent raven, but in the end he is just that; a raven, and he and his kin do have a taste for mischief. He does seem fond of you already, you know. He only antagonises people he truly likes."

"He didn't antagonise you," and although there was a hint of disbelief in Bilbo's voice, he did appear happier at this revelation.

"Trust me," Thorin answered, inwardly cringing as he recalled what Roäc had said to him. "He did."

 


 

As the afternoon progressed and the weather continued to hold, Bilbo excused himself from Thorin and his relations in order to pop back down to the market. He assured them he would not be long and waved off Thorin's offer of company as politely as possible.

Following yesterday's initial meeting with his family, Bilbo was all the more glad he had chosen to purchase what he had, but would rather Thorin not be around whilst he collected them. They would make a fine Yule present he thought, and since Thorin was supposed to be his intended, it was only right he give him something. He had thought as much before and had purchased something at the marketplace the other day, working on it secretly ever since. However, the single gift alone had not seemed adequate and after what he had learned following Thorin's tale of his family's history, he honestly felt Thorin was deserving of something a bit grander. The gift he had been working on so far simply wasn't up to snuff. Thank goodness he had had the foresight to order something more then...

Yule gifts were originally given on the last night of Yule. However, over the years the residents of the Shire had found that attempting to do that usually ended up being an unsuccessful venture. Not only did they have to contend with over excitable faunts begging for their gifts for days on end, but also with so many branches of family trees scattered through the Four Farthings, it was far easier to simply open gifts as they were received rather than waiting for an allotted time.

As such, Bilbo intended to give out his gifts to the family members currently at Bag End this very afternoon. This way, should the weather remain stable and any of them decide to move on to other relatives this evening, they would have their presents with them.

It was only as he made his way back from the market some time later that he took the time to read Dís' letter. He had been reminded of its presence quite by chance as he had rooted in his pockets for some spare coin to pay for his purchases and his fingers had brushed the little scroll of paper.

Now, with his basket slung over one arm, Bilbo unrolled the parchment and read as he walked.

Dís' calligraphy was better than Thorin's when it came to writing Westron, Bilbo decided. The penmanship was neat and flowing, properly rounded with all the correct accents compared to Thorin's whose written Westron, from what he recalled from the notice, was angular and sharp.

To Master Bilbo Baggins, greetings,

Though I have not had the pleasure of meeting you in person, I am quite sure that by now you know of my name, my dear sir.

As I am sure you are aware, my brother recently sent a letter to me explaining his prolonged absence from our halls. I must confess to a little confusion when I received word that Thorin had chosen to stay with you in order to aid you in some elaborate ruse to trick your family.

Though my brother assured me that you are an honourable sort, I thought it only proper that I send you a letter in order to make my own sentiments on the matter known.

Bilbo paused and wetted his lips nervously, suddenly rather reluctant to keep reading. He had heard of the protectiveness of dwarves, how they fiercely defended their friends and family, and any offence made against one of them was as bad as hurting them all.

Steeling himself, Bilbo forced himself to continue reading.

I am not certain I can condone such an outlandish idea, Master Baggins. However, I must confess reading about it amused me no end.

My brother is not one to take on a task such as this lightly; he himself is honourable and dislikes the idea of lying in order to make life easier for oneself, though we are all guilty of doing so.

As such, I would like to take this moment to thank you-

Here, Bilbo blinked, frowning in confusion as he re-read the somewhat confusing portion of the letter, wondering briefly if perhaps Dís had made an error in translation. But no…

For Thorin to suggest and agree to such terms, he must have been feeling particularly desperate. He tells me that you are giving him room and board in your home whilst you carry out your (admittedly foolish) plan, that you offer him excellent food, and have been nothing but kind since the moment the two of you met in Bindbale Woods.

So for this, I do thank you very heartily, Master Baggins.

Thorin has his failings, as do we all, and one of his is pride. He will refuse help for as long as he is able and refuse to admit when he is struggling too.

He will probably never tell you the sheer amount he has given up in order to keep myself and my boys well fed and comfortable here in Ered Luin, but know that I am eternally grateful to him, and am now grateful to you in turn for offering him a place to stay over this 'Yule' of yours. I must say, Thorin explained a few details and it does sound like an enjoyable festival! My brother could use some frivolity in his life you know, and I do believe this will provide him some much-needed respite before he returns home.

I do wish you both the best in your plan, and that it works so you are no longer pestered by irritating suitors.

Master Baggins, I must ask you one thing, however-

Please be careful with my brother.

He probably seemed quite gruff on first meeting, and doubtless rather closed off and taciturn up to a point. Please trust me when I say that this is not his true self. You may have already come to realise that Thorin has a very good heart and quite a gentle soul. He is strong, stronger than many dwarves I know, but- and please do not reveal to him that I told you this- he does have a side to him that is rather hopelessly romantic.

I am sure you would never intentionally hurt him, but I do fear that this plan of yours might cause one or both of you pain before Yule is over-

Bilbo had stopped walking now, stood at the side of the path not too far from Bag End as he hastened to read the rest of the letter before returning home, heedless of the cold breeze making him shiver.

Dís' words were so like Prim's warning that Bilbo felt rather unnerved.

I am not sure what Thorin has told you of our culture, if anything at all, but I feel I must inform you that dwarves love but once in our lives if we love at all. Should Thorin's heart begin to believe this trickery to be true, it will be very hard on him when the time comes for him to depart.

I urge you, Bilbo. Please do not give Thorin false hope should you feel nothing for him and he start to truly show affection for you.

As I said before, I am quite certain you would never do such a thing intentionally, but please keep my words in mind. With this plan, it may become difficult for the two of you to realise what feelings are real and what you have contrived to hoodwink your family.

It seemed as if Dís had wished to write more here, but the few words she had begun writing were struck through so thoroughly that Bilbo could not read them. Instead, the letter finished with-

Thank you again, Master Baggins, for taking Thorin in during this cold spell, and I hope that someday we may meet properly.

Warmest regards, and a merry Yule to you,

Dís, daughter of Thrain.

Bilbo sucked a breath between his teeth and stared unblinking at the letter in his hand for a few moments more before he tucked it back into his jacket pocket.

Dís was concerned, as was Prim… it was only natural of course; they were close relatives and simply worried for them.

They needn't worry though, Bilbo resolved as he made his way briskly back up to Bag End. Thorin and he were sensible; they wouldn't let this pretend relationship ensnare them as fully as that.

As Bilbo made his way into Bag End and down the hallway to his room to hide his purchases, he caught sight of Thorin talking and laughing with Drogo and Prim and pointedly ignored the warm flutter in his chest.

He just had to remember this was pretend; they just had to remember this was pretend, and no daft dreams or suggestions from overly concerned relatives would change that.

Chapter Text

As afternoon turned to evening, Lobelia and Otho announced that they were going to head off to visit another family member, but would likely be returning to Bag End at some point over the next few days.

Though Bilbo would be rather pleased to see the back of them, his conscience would not rest if he let them depart without giving them gifts.

He had explained briefly to Thorin earlier about the hobbits' practice of coming and going to one another's homes over Yule, so Thorin had not been too surprised to learn that while Lobelia and Otho would be leaving, the rest of Bilbo's guests wished to stay longer. With the snow still so thick on the ground despite the diligent work of the shirriffs, it would be difficult for them to return to their home smials for the time being.

Ruby had sent a note along to her cousin to let her know that they would be delayed by one more night but then would make their way down to visit them before she and her family intended to return to spend the remaining few days with Bilbo again.  As for Gorbadoc and his brood, they were happy to stay for as long as Bilbo would have them, as they had not made any plans set in stone so to speak.

Bilbo had scurried away to his room as soon as Lobelia had announced her intention to leave and had not come out since as he put the last finishing touches to Thorin's present and wrapped every gift in brown paper tied with ribbon.

He had felt it was probably bad manners to leave his guests alone for too long. Thankfully, Thorin had already proved himself an apt host and enjoyable company. As such, Bilbo did not feel too guilty in taking his time over completing his gifts and eventually emerged from his room laden under an armful of parcels of varying sizes.

His guests were most appreciative, readily helping him to lighten his burden by each locating the gift addressed to them and accepting it with heartfelt thanks (even the Sackville-Bagginses, Bilbo noted with some amusement).

Settling himself in his armchair, Bilbo watched fondly as the group of assembled hobbits opened their gifts with enthusiasm.

Gorbadoc received a book on Shire history, and Mirabella a new set of paints and brushes. For Primula and Amaranth Bilbo had ventured into Michel Delving several weeks ago and purchased them both a pretty necklace each. They were nothing extravagant of course, but the floral shaped pendants Bilbo had felt would suit their tastes quite well.

To Ruby, Bilbo had given some packets of seeds and a trowel, knowing as he did her deep love for gardening. Whereas Fosco received a few balls of yarn and new knitting needles as he (and his wife come to that) were very fond of creating knitted clothes to give to family or sell in the marketplace.

Drogo was given a fine new pipe made by one Ned Ferny (a well sought after pipe maker who lived in South Farthing); Dudo a recipe book Bilbo had seen the lad admiring down in Bywater recently, and Dora a new shawl and a set of finely embroidered handkerchiefs.

Otho was gifted some buttons which were, in Bilbo's opinion, gaudy and far too loud for any coat. However, Bilbo knew Otho would think them a talking point and very fine. Lobelia on the other hand received a new umbrella. As garish in colour as many of her favoured bonnets, Bilbo was surprised to see just how happy she seemed with it. Usually his prickly cousin would do her utmost to seem unaffected by presents, but today Bilbo actually witnessed a rare, sincere smile sent his way as she admired her gift and twittered excitedly about it to the long-suffering Otho.

Naturally, Bilbo's guests had each brought a gift with them to give to him and as Bilbo set about opening his own presents, he had to stifle laughter when he found that more often than not he had received a book. He was immensely grateful of course; one could never have too many books, he just hadn't quite realised that his relatives knew him as well as that.

Not all were books of course. Gorbadoc had presented him with some very lovely cufflinks, and to his glee, Lobelia rather sheepishly gifted him with not only a tastefully knitted scarf, but also a small selection of suspiciously familiar silver spoons.

"I believe there may have been a slight mix up at the last party down by the Party Tree, Cousin," she babbled. "It seems as if I may have mistaken some of your spoons for mine, it was most silly of me. I had meant to return them sooner but it quite slipped my mind until dear Otho reminded me just before Yule."

Catching Primula's eye was nearly his undoing, and Bilbo had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing outright. He, and likely everyone else present knew what utter codswallop that was. Bilbo had not attended the last party of the summer. During this gathering, everyone who went contributed where they could by bringing food, drink, crockery, and cutlery to share around in one great feast. Even if he had gone, he certainly would not have taken his mother's best silver to be used by all and sundry.

The most likely explanation was that Lobelia had stuffed a few of the spoons in her pocket the last time she had called visiting, and the spoons had since been recognised as Bilbo's property by some other well meaning hobbit when they went to visit Lobelia. It was a guilty conscience (or the thought that someone might tell Bilbo), which had likely prompted her to return them.

In truth, Bilbo had not noticed their absence. He used his mother's old dishes and cutlery so rarely it was more the principle of the matter, but Bilbo was simply happy that they had been returned… though perhaps he should count them in future.

Thorin had not been in the room as the gifts were exchanged as he had been finishing tidying up in the kitchen. However, he had entered now, drying his hands on a dishtowel as he smiled at the hobbits opening their gifts and Drogo shook his head abashedly as he turned his attention to the dwarf.

"I do feel quite rotten though, Bilbo. We haven't brought anything for Thorin! He arrived so close to Yule and with no prior notice that we simply didn't have time to find anything suitable."

Thorin flushed, seemingly uneasy over the faces turned his way and waved off their concern. "That is quite unnecessary I assure you-"

"Ah, well I suppose he will just have to make do with something from me then." Bilbo interrupted and smiled cheekily as he lifted the last two parcels that were tucked down beside him on the armchair.

"Bilbo-" Thorin's face was one of bemusement as he approached (oddly cautious, Bilbo noted) and was handed the two parcels.

"It really isn't anything special, but I wanted to get you something." Bilbo pressed the bundles into Thorin's hands with a hesitant smile, observing the furrow between Thorin's brows with some trepidation.

Had he done wrong in giving Thorin presents? Was it perhaps against dwarven custom?

The rest of Bilbo's family seemed not to notice the stiff and formal way Thorin received the presents and instead clamoured for him to open them at once, their enthusiasm almost tangible.

Bilbo was oddly happy that Thorin had been received into the fold so naturally, despite their earlier plan to make Thorin 'unsuitable'. And Bilbo wondered at that for a moment before turning his attention to the dwarf who was now unwrapping his gifts with some measure of reluctance.

The first gift Bilbo had bought had been the day they traversed the marketplace together. He had wanted to buy Thorin something from the moment the dwarf had entered his home; a thank you of sorts for the help he was offering Bilbo. When he had seen the material in the tailors shop that day, he just had to return to buy it.

It was a cloak; a thick, warm, woollen, finely made thing in a blue that complemented Thorin's eyes wonderfully. Lined with fur it was, and actually rather too big for a hobbit. The tailor had been thankful to be rid of it if truth were known. A merchant in Bree, in return for some Shire made wool had given him it, and although the fabric was lovely it just hadn't been the right size or style for anyone in Hobbiton and the tailor had been sorely tempted to cut the thing up and make use of the fabric in some other way.

He had been so pleased that Bilbo had taken an interest in it that he had all but given it away.

Therefore, Bilbo had bought it, along with some pale grey thread that appeared almost silvery in the light and matched the clasps wonderfully, and had worked over the coming days embroidering dwarven motifs along the hem and about the collar so as to make it more attractive to one of Thorin's kind.

The second gift had been purchased some days later. After laundering Thorin's clothes, Bilbo had noted the sorry state of them; threadbare, patched, and ill suited to winter. However, no matter how much he itched to help the dwarf, Bilbo knew any charity would be ill looked upon.

It was only after Thorin's tale of his family's exile and the battle that followed at Azanulbizar that Bilbo sought to find out more regarding Thorin's history.

What he found tucked away amongst his own shelves quite forgotten was the proof he needed to present Thorin with something more to further show his gratitude.

Bilbo had found that the battle had quite likely and completely indirectly of course, saved the Shire from a fouler fate. Had the dwarves not ousted as many orcs as they did, their numbers would have only increased in Khazad-dûm. Had they been allowed to fester and linger where they were, Bilbo now had no doubt in his mind that at the turn of the Fell Winter, his people would have faced certain annihilation at the hands of desperate orcs who would have undoubtedly heard of the bounties of the Shire and its peaceful inhabitants.

Thorin had unwittingly saved them, and if a new set of clothes was all Bilbo could provide, then he would gladly do it.

So, the hobbit had sent a note off to his tailor, begging a few warm shirts and breeches be made to the measurements he provided (offering to launder the dwarf's clothes had been a fortuitous turn of events after all). He had collected the clothes just earlier today. Bilbo had never been more grateful that hobbits tended to continue their trades right through until the last day of Yule.

Well, that was until he had watched Thorin unwrap his presents and felt his heart sink at the carefully neutral expression the dwarf now wore.

"What a lovely cloak." Mirabella enthused with a wide smile, taking up the free trailing end of the fur-lined garment in her hands and admiring it from every angle. "Is this your embroidery work here, Bilbo?"

"Ah, yes." Bilbo found he could not quite meet Thorin's eyes now, but offered his aunt the best grin he could muster. "I do hope I didn't embroider anything inappropriate, I looked up dwarven decorative patterns and simply tried to guess which Thorin might like."

"Ah, old Belladonna adding those adventurous books to Bungo's collection was a good thing after all, eh?" Fosco chortled.

"They certainly came in handy, yes."

"The motifs are lovely, Bilbo. You chose well."

Bilbo flicked his eyes back to Thorin as the dwarf spoke unexpectedly relief filling him at once, only to falter again, at how strained Thorin's smile appeared.

"Thank you for the presents, I had not expected any, but you are very kind to give them."

"You're welcome…"

Bilbo was merely thankful that his family seemed not to realise just how forced Thorin's words sounded. Instead, the group chattered on amiably about the gifts at large.

It was during this hubbub of nattering that Thorin sidled closer to Bilbo and murmured in a voice so quiet only Bilbo would hear, "I am… grateful for your efforts, but you really should not have-"

"If you do not like them I can always return-"

"No… no, it is not that I- I shall explain later."

"My apologies, if I've somehow offended you," Bilbo replied, a small flicker of upset anger stirring within him. True, perhaps he should have checked with Thorin first or else researched the matter more thoroughly, but they were gifts, and it was the height of bad manners amongst hobbits to rebuff a gift, even if one did not really want it.

"Bilbo-"

"- I say, that's a fair point," Otho chimed in. The conversation, which both Thorin and Bilbo had missed, seemed to have turned towards them again. "Where is your gift to Bilbo, Master Dwarf?"

Oh dear… oh dear no, this could quite easily become messy if Thorin's well-bred impassivity on the subject was riled thanks to a misplaced comment by Otho of all people.

"Thorin has not a gift to give me," Bilbo spoke quickly, giving the dwarf a furtive, pleading look not to snap at his cousin. "I'm afraid it was something of an oversight on my part. I failed to tell him of all the Shire Yule traditions and sprung these presents on him as a surprise."

Bilbo turned, aiming what he hoped was a besotted smile at the dwarf.

"Besides, Drogo said as much himself; Thorin came to Hobbiton far too close to Yule for anything to really be done about gifts to or from him. Not to mention dwarves don't actually celebrate Yule so- well it would be rather impertinent to expect something from one who does not celebrate as we do."

Bilbo was well aware that he was rambling, and likely laying it on a bit thick in an effort to retain the peace. However, his relations seemed generally placated at the explanation of the unintentional slight Bilbo had been shown in not receiving a gift from his own intended.

He did note Otho and Lobelia's shared look of scepticism, and Gorbadoc and Primula's dismayed frowns though, and eagerly changed the subject lest anyone decided to probe further.

"Right, who wants some mulled wine before Otho and Lobelia leave us?"

 


 

Following the momentary tension between he and Bilbo following the gift giving, Thorin had done his utmost to avoid the hobbit for the remainder of the evening. It was a difficult feat, given that they were in close quarters and supposed to be in love, but Thorin managed to split his time between speaking as animatedly as possible with Bilbo's relatives and slinking away to the kitchen under the guise of checking on food and drink.

Unfortunately, he could not avoid Bilbo for the entirety of the night however, owing to the fact that once again they were sharing a room.

Now that Lobelia and Otho had left, Thorin could have slept elsewhere. However, the family would undoubtedly notice, and the last thing they needed was suspicious questions.

It was not that Thorin disliked the gifts; on the contrary, he admired the time, effort, and no doubt the money that had been spent on the clothes. They were beautifully made; Bilbo's embroidery a touching, personal addition which only made Thorin's heart clench. They were clearly durable, looked warm and comfortable, and were in colours and styles that Thorin himself would have happily chosen back in the days where he had the luxury of affording such things. There were even tucks in the shirts… a hopeful sign no doubt; that Bilbo wished for the garments to be long wearing and that should Thorins' fortunes change for the better he might fill out his clothes properly once more.

… On the other hand, maybe he intended them to be given to Fíli and Kíli once Thorin grew tired of them, and the tucks were present so that the garments might be adjusted accordingly for them.

Whatever the reasoning, Thorin could appreciate just how much thought Bilbo had put into his presents.

… It was simply that his heart could not accept them for what they were.

There were two reasons this was so; the first he was ashamed to say was petty pride. Thorin had lived so long through his own means and efforts that to receive charity now seemed almost as grave as an insult. It was a reflex he was slowly learning to overcome in Bilbo's presence, but it did not dull the sting of shame he felt whenever Bilbo gave him something freely or offered him kind reassurance.

The other reason he tried his best to shy away from, but it gnawed at him until he could not afford to ignore it.

Following the message from his sister and Roäc's subsequent teasing earlier today, Thorin had started to become painfully aware of his growing regard for Bilbo. He had felt a flutter of it before, but had successfully managed to push it aside. Now though, he could deny it no longer...

Bilbo was a kind and generous creature, fair and with a sharp wit and strong spirit. All attributes Thorin greatly admired in any person. The way they had seemed to so seamlessly fall into a routine together, how comfortable he felt in Bilbo's presence, how easy it was for him to converse with his relatives… Thorin had foolishly let his heart begin to think their little subterfuge might be something more.

It was his sister who, not unkindly, reminded him not to let his hopes grow too high or let his heart be won over by what would probably amount to nothing more than an act. It was Roäc who had teased Thorin for the way his eyes lingered on the hobbit as he swept the garden path, and suggested perhaps he whisk Bilbo away to Ered Luin when the time came for Thorin to leave.

Ludicrous of course… Bilbo would wither in a place like Ered Luin; Thorin had nothing to offer him, and he already had ample evidence that hobbits needed their temperate climates and green lands to thrive. He could not deprive Bilbo of his home and comforts, no matter what his heart had started to long for.

To then be given a present… two presents in fact. Presents of such quality and thoughtfulness… Thorin had been quite at a loss as to how to react.

Dwarves did not give presents lightly, and those like Thorin who had little to give were even more careful. To have received something so lovely from Bilbo and have nothing to offer in return had only enforced the sad truth that this was hopeless.

No, it was far better to remain distant and simply polite until he had to leave, than to long for something that could not be.

This resolute thought accompanied Thorin throughout the evening and lasted until he was brushing out his hair in preparation for bed and Bilbo appeared.

"Alright, now we are alone you can tell me bluntly, you do not like the gifts," Bilbo mumbled in lieu of a greeting as he shut the door behind him, lips pressed in a thin line. 

Thorin sighed, setting aside his brush and turning to face Bilbo. "I promise you, I like them immensely it is just that-"

"Just what; dwarves do not give gifts or something? Have I committed some kind of- of dwarven social misstep? Because I would have you tell me if-"

"No, no I swear it is not that, and truly Bilbo, I am grateful for the gifts and I do like them… I just- I cannot accept charity like this."

Bilbo made an odd sound in his throat then, somewhere between an exasperated snort and a groan, bringing his hands to his forehead to massage at his temples. "You stubborn- you completely daft clot-"

Thorin may have taken offence to such words had he not been utterly focused in keeping his tongue from uttering the other reason he could not accept the clothes.

"Thorin, I swear I am not giving you these out of charity- a- silly need to provide for you, I'd not do you the dishonour! Yes, I feel badly for what you and your family have gone through, but I promise you these gifts are a way for me to say thank you."

"For our plan? Bilbo you have already thanked me enough by letting me stay, please do not pretend that-"

"Not that," Bilbo huffed and waved a hand dismissively as he sat on the edge of the bed, frowning at Thorin.

The dwarf gave him a rather flat and disbelieving look and so Bilbo amended with, "Alright, it is partly that. When I bought the cloak; that was intended to be a thank you for your help over Yule. However the rest of the clothes were not-"

"What then?"

Bilbo huffed, blowing an errant lock of hair out of his eyes and levelled Thorin with an even gaze.

"You remember telling me about your family and what happened at Azanulbizar, yes?"

"Yes, but-"

"I decided to read up on the battle a little more after what you told me. Thorin, you may not realise it but the actions of your family and friends have done more good than you could have imagined."

"Khazad-dûm is still not ours… we defeated the majority of the enemy but…"

"Yes, yes I know and I am sorry for that, but what was it you just said there: 'we defeated the majority of the enemy'. Thorin, that did so much for us, entirely indirectly of course but… When I told you of the Fell Winter, I mentioned orcs as well as wolves attacked us."

"Yes?"

"Think for a moment if you will. Had your kin not slain so many orcs at Azanulbizar and the Fell Winter had still come to pass, where do you think the starving orcs there would have turned?"

"To surrounding lands… and- you think they would have come all the way to the Shire?"

"I see no reason why they wouldn't have tried their luck. The Rangers protect our borders, but they are not invincible. Many have heard of how fertile our lands are and how peaceful we are as a race. In the dead of that winter with little food and supplies to aid them, I believe they would have attempted to join those orcs and wolves from the north in order to overrun the Shire. Thorin, we would have been completely wiped out if that had happened."

"Yes, but there is no certainty to these suppositions of yours."

"No, that is true enough, but frankly I am just eternally grateful there was no opportunity to find out. I am sorry for what you have been through, but I am so grateful to your people as well, even if it is needlessly. I just wanted a way to say thank you properly, and I thought perhaps some new clothes might be a good way to do it given the harsh weather."

Shame washed over Thorin in a hot wave, and much like Bilbo had done the night Thorin told his tale, the dwarf found himself moving impulsively to kneel before the hobbit and enveloping him in a strong embrace.

"They are, they are certainly the most wonderful gifts I have received in a long time," Thorin mumbled quietly into the crook of Bilbo's neck, arms tightening slightly around his friend.

Bilbo had at first tensed at the sudden display of affection, but relaxed quite promptly, allowing his own arms to return the embrace as he nuzzled his face against Thorin's shoulder, a bright grin stealing over his features as he closed his eyes contentedly.

"I'm glad you like them, and that I didn't offend you. I do hope my family and I didn't make you uncomfortable with all this though."

"Never… though I'll admit I feel rather ashamed; I have nothing I can offer you as a present in return for-"

Bilbo blinked his eyes open in surprise as Thorin cut himself off abruptly and extricated himself from Bilbo's hold to sit back on his haunches. He would be lying if he said he was not disappointed by the loss of contact.

"... Well, I don't precisely have anything worthy, but I did just think of something I have that might suffice," Thorin murmured contemplatively and stood to walk over to his pack.

Bilbo tried to peer over curiously to what Thorin was retrieving, but the dwarf's body blocked his view.

Thorin rummaged around for a few moments, then seemed to fiddle with his hair before he returned to Bilbo's side.

He was holding a thin strip of leather, slightly worn but still respectable enough. On it, he had threaded one of his hair beads; the braid at Thorin's left temple now hung loose and partially unravelled.

"It isn't much, but would you accept this? I'm afraid the metal of the bead is nothing precious, and the leather is hardly the best quality but-"

"Of course I'll accept it! Thorin, thank you so much," Bilbo interrupted warmly, eyes crinkled with the breadth of his smile.

The dwarf was left rather bewildered by the depth of Bilbo's gratitude for so small a token, for the way the hobbit had reacted it was as if he had presented him with gold or mithril.

Trying to fight the flush from his cheeks, Thorin tied the ends of the leather strip together so that it would serve as a pendent of sorts and slipped it over Bilbo's head, the bead sitting at the hollow of his throat.

"It is lovely, Thorin. Really, thank you." Bilbo admired the bead closely now, catching it between thumb and forefinger and nearly going cross eyed as he took in the tiny etched details.

Thorin swallowed thickly, nodding his reply even though Bilbo could not see him. The hobbit did not know what it meant to give hair beads of course, but it was not as if Thorin had braided it into his hair… No that would be most improper without explaining matters properly to Bilbo.

Still, it was nice to make believe, his heart insisted. He had offered Bilbo a hair bead and Bilbo had accepted. It was only pretend and nothing would ever come of it, but for now, it filled Thorin with a simple joy to see Bilbo wearing a bead of his, even if it was only about his neck.

Now with the tension between them regarding the presents eased, the pair fell into quiet conversation as they readied themselves for bed, joking over the antics of Bilbo's relatives and discussing what tomorrow may bring.

When Bilbo suggested he and Thorin share the bed again - "Because it is still so cold even if it's not snowing any more," - Bilbo had insisted. Thorin had offered no argument at all, and had climbed into bed gratefully.

And, if when they woke the next morning the pair shared a moment of awkward silence and wide eyed staring due to being securely wrapped in the other's arms, neither of them deigned to speak of it, and so started the next day.

 


 

The next couple of days meandered along at a sedate pace; each full of Bilbo's family coming and going like small flocks of birds.

Thorin often found it difficult to keep up with the names and who was related to Bilbo and in what way. However, the dwarf found that what had seemed at first to be a daunting prospect was quickly becoming something thoroughly enjoyable.

He had gone from wanting to appear unsuitable and outlandish to Bilbo's relations, to wishing to receive their good opinion and if he knew the reason for this, he was quick to ignore it. Bilbo did not seem to mind the change in their plan either; in fact, he seemed rather taken with it and would beam every time his choice of partner was praised.

The two of them were quite an indomitable force in the kitchen, and their efforts were well praised by friend and family alike.

Hamfast stopped by with his brood during the afternoon of the third day of Yule, and Thorin was nearly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of little ones running about him. He explained to a laughing Hamfast that dwarves very rarely saw children in such a large number in a single family, and Hamfast had jokingly picked up his youngest, depositing him onto Thorin's lap and teased that he could happily adopt one or two from him if he so wished. They were words that prompted an offended squawk from a couple of his children, and a light cuff to the back of his head from his wife.

By the end of the afternoon though, those same children who had seemed so offended by the prospect of being given to a dwarf, were actually begging to stay with him and Bilbo longer. Thorin proved to be very popular with the young hobbits, their sense of adventure not yet tampered by respectability and adulthood, lapped up his stories of battles and perilous quests, and shrieked with mirth when he chased them about the smial pretending to be a monster.

Bilbo's cheeks hurt through laughter by the time Hamfast had managed to round up his unruly family, and tried valiantly to stave off that warm flutter in his heart when Bell praised Bilbo in finding 'a very fine dwarf indeed'.

As the third day bled seamlessly into the fourth, both hobbit and dwarf found their heads awhirl by the antics of those around them. Indeed, Bilbo had not intended to cater for so many, but it seemed his dwarf was something of a sensation being spoke of with high praise around Hobbiton, and so Bilbo found that more than just immediate family turned up to wish them a Merry Yule and partake in some food.

The mistletoe still proved to be both a blessing and hindrance as it had the first day. Although both Bilbo and Thorin were careful not to get caught beneath it again, there was inevitably one or two times they crossed paths in the busy smial beneath the plant and tradition dictated they kiss.

Each time, Bilbo found his heart swelling with joy, and Thorin found his arms were more and more reluctant to release Bilbo once the kisses were done, especially whenever he caught sight of his bead on the necklace Bilbo so proudly wore for all to see.

Now and then one would be caught beneath the mistletoe with a family member or simple acquaintance, and so awkward or amusing kisses were shared to cheeks and foreheads between them.

One such kiss that had Bilbo cheering however, was between an unsuspecting Primula and Drogo.

Much like Bilbo and Thorin, the pair were caught beneath the sprig in the entranceway to the kitchen. However, where Bilbo expected a shy and courteous Drogo to press a chaste kiss to Primula's cheek, Primula herself and grasped Drogo by the lapels of his waistcoat, pulled him in and kissed him soundly on the mouth, causing the others present to laugh and offer applause.

"Oh… are they-?"

Bilbo grinned at the oblivious dwarf's hesitant question and nodded towards the pair. "About ruddy time too if you ask me, they've been dancing around each other for an age now, daft pair."

The hobbit allowed himself a self-satisfied sip of his tea as he swung his legs where he sat perched on the arm of his couch. It was his mistletoe that had caused the joyful revelation after all, so he felt he was probably entitled to feel just a little smug.

This was certainly the most pleasant Yule Bilbo could ever remember having since before his parents had died, and he found that it was quite easy to let the days drift by in a happy haze of family, friends, gifts, food, drink, merry-making, and Thorin's company.

He was so caught up in the joyful celebration in fact, that it came as a rather nasty surprise when he woke the next day to realise it was now already the fifth day of Yule.

Chapter Text

If Thorin noticed the pall that seemed to weigh upon Bilbo's shoulders that morning as they dressed, the dwarf made no mention of it. Perhaps the hobbit was simply tired; after all running around after a small troop of your family and playing the diligent host was likely to have that effect on a person after five days.

In fact, it was not until Bilbo voiced a quiet little observation as they stood together in the kitchen kneading dough that Thorin had any notion of what might actually be causing his friend to appear so glum.

"It is the fifth day of Yule today," Bilbo murmured apropos of nothing.

"That it is," Thorin agreed as he thought back on the last few days spent in Bilbo's home.

It had been pleasant… more than pleasant in fact. Saving the few tense moments with a handful of Bilbo's more disapproving and stuffy relatives, Thorin had never felt more at ease or accepted outside of his own family before in all his life.

He had become good friends with many of Bilbo's relations. With Drogo, Gorbadoc, and Fosco Thorin found a brotherly sort of camaraderie, sharing tales and laughter with the same ease he found in the likes of Balin and Dwalin.

With Dora, he had discovered a shared interest in crafting and metalwork. She had told him shyly that it was not a particularly usual past time for a hobbit lass, but was happy that she had finally found someone she could talk to about it. She was a quiet young thing, a trait that Thorin could understand given his own relative unease in social situations. They enjoyed their time talking quietly together as the other hobbits raucously danced or sang or played loud parlour games, and Thorin felt it was almost like finding a long lost niece.

Ruby had taken to mothering him something fierce, dishing out larger portions of food just for him and fussing over his well-being at any given moment. Thorin did appreciate the sentiment, the protective streak in the hobbit reminding him of his own mother, and to an extent dear Dís. However, he had to try to smother amusement every time Ruby expressed such a caring air given that he was actually so much older than her. To be mothered by someone actually young enough to be one's own daughter would have had many a dwarf laughing, but Thorin would hate to upset Ruby by appearing ungrateful in doing so.

Then there was Bilbo himself. Though Thorin felt affection for most of Bilbo's relatives, it quite paled in comparison to the burgeoning feelings he was becoming aware of where his friend was concerned.

Bilbo, who had essentially taken him in and given him a warm, safe place to stay over Yule. The hobbit would probably sputter and try to deny such things if questioned, insisting it was all just to aid the ruse, but Thorin was learning to see past Bilbo's polite refutations where such things were concerned. He had presented him with new clothes, good food and cheer, and despite a few small disagreements along the way; Bilbo had proven himself to be a firm and loyal companion. He accepted Thorin for who he was and cared not one jot about his past or the rumours of a cursed bloodline.

And Thorin was trying very hard not to think on how much this particular hobbit now meant to him; because Bilbo was right, it was the fifth day and after tomorrow… well…

As if reading his mind, Bilbo sighed softly and stopped his near furious kneading of the bread dough, snorting as he frowned and poked at the misshapen lump.

"You'll overwork it," Thorin warned, attempting both a wan smile and a change of topic.

"Too late, already have." Bilbo returned the attempt of a smile with one of his own and flicked some flour at Thorin.

The dwarf grumbled half heartedly, and handed over his own much more successfully kneaded dough with a look of smug pride… it was a look which earned him a wonderfully sincere laugh and another face full of flour.

"Tell me some more about Dis. I'd like to know how she's managed to handle a brutish ruffian like yourself for as long as she has."

"Brutish ruffian, is it? Odd, considering I'm not the one flinging flour around like an unruly dwarfling."

"Oh hush, smug dwarves need taking down a peg or two else their heads grow too large to fit through doorways don't you know."

"I was not aware of that fact, no. Another odd occurrence, considering I am a dwarf myself; you'd have thought I'd know of such a thing by now."

"Well you can't be expected to know everything." Bilbo patted him arm with a patronizing little smile, prompting Thorin to reach over and poke Bilbo's waist in revenge, eliciting a small squeak from the cheeky hobbit.

Smiling at the amusing little sound, Thorin settled into contemplation for a moment. "Dís is… well…"

"You admire her greatly." It was an observation, not a question.

"Aye." This seemed to be all the further prompting Thorin needed as his eyes grew soft with affection as he thought of his family. "If ever there was a dwarrowdam to admire and wish to follow even unto the Halls it would be her. I have never seen another dwarf with such strength as her, Bilbo. After Azanulbizar, with so many of our family and friends slain, it was she who gathered our wits and raised our spirits when they had fallen so low. She had as much right to grieve as any. It was not only her grandfather, father, and brother slain, but her beloved also. She had two young boys to raise alone and people who depended on her despite how wretched she must have felt."

"She sounds like a very strong dwarrowdam."

"That she is, both in mind and in form." All at once, Thorin's demeanour changed. Where he had started to worry Bilbo with that look introspection and sadness, he was quite suddenly grinning again. "Do you know she once bested Dwalin of all people in a wrestling match?"

"Truly?" Bilbo laughed his surprise.

Thorin had told him plenty of tales over the past few days about his cousin and shield brother. A large, hulking specimen of a dwarf was Dwalin; strong, no-nonsense, and as fierce a warrior as they came. He even wore tattoos upon his bald head or so Bilbo had been told, and if the discomfort of gaining those inked patterns was anything like Thorin had described… well to have them on one's head must prove the wearer either very brave, foolish, or perhaps a little of both.

Though he knew women of all races to be tough in their own ways, Bilbo still found the idea of Thorin's younger sister wrestling this Dwalin character into submission to be an amusing mental image. He had never met a dwarrowdam and so had no idea what one may look like… apparently, they also grew beards, but more than that he did not know. His mind had thus conjured an image of a tiny woman much like young Primula sporting a terrific amount of hair upon her chin and giving a feral roar as she neatly tossed a far larger opponent over her shoulder.

"Yes indeed, she told me after that she wants to try and best Dori next."

Dori was a dwarf that Bilbo had only heard mention of in passing. Also related to Thorin, he was supposedly the strongest dwarf in Ered Luin despite his prim and proper appearance. From the little he had heard of this gentledwarf, Bilbo felt he might not have seemed too out of place in the Shire amongst hobbits. Apparently, the fellow had a taste for fine foods and teas and loved all types of needlecraft and poetry, and despite Thorin's bloodline being somewhat ostracised, Dori had managed to use his strength to his advantage in getting himself and his youngest brother Ori far better jobs than the rest of their kin. He helped the rest financially wherever possible, and Bilbo felt should he ever meet Dori he should like to buy him a few good drinks of thanks on Thorin's behalf.

Bilbo laughed again. "You know from what you have told me, it wouldn't surprise me if Dís manages to accomplish just that. She sounds quite the stubborn thing."

"Ah, yes it is a terrible family trait." Thorin's eyes were alight with mirth and Bilbo realised that Thorin was more proud of their family penchant for stubborn behaviour than many a hobbit would be. Must be a dwarf thing, he decided.

The pair fell into comfortable conversation after that. The gloom of first light dispelled with lighthearted chatter and humorous tales as they worked on breakfast for their guests who were still abed.

In time, Thorin returned to their original topic of his sister, and concluded his estimation of her to Bilbo with a final heartfelt opinion. "You know, if there were any in our line who I could call a leader, it would be her… Dís; she would make an excellent queen for our people… a far better queen than I would make king I assure you."

Bilbo smiled, the affection in Thorin's voice near palpable, and Bilbo could not help but feel such a wash of admiration and affection for these dwarves and of course Thorin in particular.

"I'm not so sure about that, you would make a very fine king I think, Thorin… It is probably not my place to say, and I know I do not know much of anything about dwarves and your way of life, but I do know this. You would be a wonderful king… or you would if you weren't currently sporting half a bag of flour in your beard."

The last he had added mostly for some levity, for as he had spoken Thorin's gaze had grown so soft that Bilbo feared what he might be tempted to do or confess if the dwarf continued to look at him like that. However, it was the truth. Since flinging the flour playfully at Thorin, his friend had been oblivious to the fine powder that had turned his beard snowy white.

Bilbo felt his traitorous heart skip as Thorin mock glowered at him and turned away to wipe at his beard with his sleeve. He would probably age quite well Bilbo thought giddily as he imagined Thorin with hair and beard white not from flour but from old age. And wouldn't it be something to be with Thorin all those years and witness that change.

"Did you intend to leave me looking like this all morning? You do know my sister would avenge me of this abuse, yes? She can be as protective as a bear with her cubs."

Bilbo snickered, then grimaced remembering the letter he received. "Oh yes, I don't even need to imagine."

Thorin caught on immediately and smirked. "You know I would quite like to know what it was my sister wrote to you about-"

"No fear, I am not betraying her trust by showing you!"

Nor yet dare I show you because I do not think my heart could stand the embarrassment… or the upset should you react to what she said unfavourably.

It was one thing to lose himself in daydreams of an impossible future with the dwarf, and quite another to have those feelings laid bare through the warnings of a devoted sister and face Thorin's denial or rejection.

"Besides," Bilbo added trying desperately to divert Thorin's attention. "You don't fool me one bit, you can defend your own honour quite sufficiently I should think."

"Oh, most certainly."

He should have realised the danger then he supposed, in the cool, collected way Thorin spoke. However, Bilbo's mind was still focused on just how Thorin might react should he ever discover what Dís had said to him in her letter and just what she had insinuated could grow between them.

Therefore, Bilbo only became aware of the looming danger far too late. One moment Thorin was neatly brushing flour from his beard over by the sink, the next he had returned to where Bilbo was stood, promptly stepping into his personal space so they were nearly pressed chest to chest.

Thorin leaned closer, Bilbo swallowed as his breath hitched and-

The confounded dwarf upended an entire cup of flour atop Bilbo's head.

It was the water fight from a few nights ago all over again.

Bilbo shrieked and gave chase to the dwarf whose laughter sounded far too wicked to be so easily forgiven.

And that was how Bilbo's family found them after Bilbo's shout had woken them.

They had traipsed to the kitchen one by one, bleary eyed and reproachful to find that breakfast had not even been properly started, and their hobbit host and his intended were chasing one another about the room like faunts, the both of them covered in flour.

They watched in equal parts amusement and dismay as the large dwarf feinted left, then moved right, catching a squirming Bilbo up in his arms and holding him so that the hobbits' back was pressed to his chest.

Bilbo wriggled and drove back his elbow, both laughing and admonishing the dwarf, though his struggles seemed not to bother Thorin one bit. He flinched at the elbow jabbed at his stomach but kept a firm hold on his captive, squeezing affectionately.

Thorin turned and was the first to notice their audience and grinned, entirely unrepentant as Bilbo spluttered and floundered over apologies to his kin, now very red in the face.

"It may interest you to know that Bilbo started it."

Bilbo's high-pitched and indignant denials only made Thorin feel all the happier.

 


 

Breakfast was eventually served, though Bilbo's family took it upon themselves to make their own; shooing their host and the dwarf out of the kitchen to clean themselves up.

Mirabella had taken it upon herself to chide them both for wasting good ingredients, and though Thorin did feel guilty owing to how he knew just how wrong it was to be wasteful of food, he found that it couldn't dampen his spirit especially when Bilbo recovered from his embarrassment enough to snicker at his aunt's reprimands.

He told Thorin later as he stepped out of the washroom, clothes changed and hair now flour free, that it reminded him of getting in trouble as a fauntling and they were always good memories.

 


 

The morning continued in much the same fashion, care-free and good fun as the younger hobbits disappeared outside for their long awaited snowball fight, and Thorin settled into a lively conversation with Mirabella regarding Bilbo's mother and the trouble she and Bilbo's aunt would so often get in as youngsters.

Bilbo made himself scarce shortly after luncheon, claiming he had some produce to buy down in the marketplace, and as all shops and stalls would be closed tomorrow for the final day of Yule, it was best he got everything he needed now.

Amaranth, who was worn out from the snowball fight and so had retreated indoors, offered to go with him. Bilbo agreed to her company and so the pair set off.

Thorin smirked over the rim of his teacup as they passed him on their way to the front door and reminded Bilbo to get more flour, for which Bilbo rewarded the dwarf by sticking his tongue out at him most childishly.

Drogo came into Bag End a short while later, short of breath and grinning. He claimed that Hamfast's children wanted to join their snowball fight, and as the numbers would soon mean an unfair advantage on one side, they needed Thorin to aid them.

Thorin personally felt he was probably too old for snowball fights, but he had never had the heart to deny younglings; especially when they reminded him far too much of Fíli and Kíli in their younger years.

The scene Amaranth and Bilbo returned to was like a battlefield in miniature. Let it never be said that dwarves were not the finest architects in Middle Earth.

What had clearly started as a simple snowball fight amongst tweens, fauntlings, and a couple of adults who should probably know better, had quickly transformed into a tactical and organised assault.

Mounds of snow around The Hill had been constructed into makeshift parapets and lookouts. There were cleverly concealed hideaways to aid the fauntlings in sneaking from one place to another without being barraged by snowballs, and Thorin seemed to have arranged his team into some semblance of a small army.

"Thorin, for pity's sake, it's meant to be a game not a war on Hobbiton!" Bilbo laughed in exasperation when he caught sight of his friend crouched behind a pile of snow near the path.

"They are enjoying themselves." Thorin frowned, head popping up from behind the relative safety of his hiding spot. "I just thought it would make things more exciting if they had something to defend rather than just running to and fro and pelting one another with snow."

"Be that as it may, aren't you a little too old to be haring about across The Hill?"

Amaranth was trying to smother her laughter by burying her face in her shawl as Thorin scowled in reply, forgetting quite conveniently that he had deemed himself too old for this not even three hours past.

"I'm hardly haring about anywhere at the moment." He pointed out, indicating to his hiding spot. "And I'm not as old as all that, Bilbo."

"If you say so, dear."

"Hmph, I do say so, and besides if I am so old then how is it that- duck!"

Bilbo and Amaranth moved aside just in time for Thorin to end up with a face full of snow from a cackling Drogo across the way. Clearly, distracting him from the fight had been a bad idea.

"Well we'll just be on our way then," Amaranth giggled as she neatly side-stepped another snowball and trotted back up to the front door of Bag End, arms laden with packages of food.

Bilbo, Thorin noticed, was equally burdened and though Thorin had a sneaking suspicion that not all the food in there was for Yule and Bilbo's family alone, Thorin did not question this… In part because Dudo chose that moment to pelt Thorin with several snowballs at once.

 


 

The afternoon wore on, and it was only when all of Bilbo's relations and Thorin had dragged themselves back inside, red faced and snow soaked, and quite exhausted, that Mirabella announced that they were going to go wassailing once the sun had set.

As Thorin had found with other Yule traditions over the last few days, he need only glance questioningly at Bilbo to receive an explanation. The same was true now, and Bilbo returned Thorin's slightly sleepy, curious look with a fond one of his own as he leaned closer to Thorin's ear to explain the tradition fully whilst the rest of his family chattered animatedly together.

"We go door-to-door, singing and offering a drink from the wassail bowl in exchange for gifts." Seeing that Thorin only looked marginally less confused, Bilbo elaborated. "It is a way to invite good health to those we sing to in the coming year. We offer a drink from the wassail bowl… a goblet of wood usually, full of mulled wine, punch, or spiced ale. In return, they give us gifts as thanks for the song and well wishes. It is usually just something small-"

"Food related, no doubt," Thorin teased, his eyes half closed as he seemed to be fighting the urge to drift off where he sat.

Bilbo sniffed as if offended by the assumption, but did not refute it, mumbling something about pudding being a popular gift, which caused a slow smile to bloom on Thorin's face.

"There is orchard wassailing too you know. We sing to the health of the trees so we might get a good harvest next year. They always make such an awful racket when they go and do that though… Oh dear, you really are tired aren't you." Bilbo chuckled warmly as Thorin's blinks became slower and longer, his head lolling slightly.

"'M fine. Jus' need a short while to sit quietly and then I'll join you all on your-"- a large yawn interrupted Thorin's words- "… your wassailing."

"No you don't. The both of us can stay here instead," Bilbo said firmly. "They'll not miss us, and I don't care much for wassailing myself anyway."

Well, that was partially true. Bilbo loved to sing, and he had a feeling Thorin's voice would be lovely to hear lifted in song too. However, being in a large crowd had never appealed to him when he could rather be at home reading, and the thought of spending this evening with Thorin and Thorin alone was far more enticing.

Letting Thorin be as he fought not to doze, Bilbo went to Mirabella and nodded towards him, stating that the two of them would stay at Bag End.

Thankfully, his forthright and oftentimes stubborn aunt did not seem put out by this at all and simply chuckled affectionately at the sight of Thorin drifting in and out of sleep. "Overdid it running around after that lot earlier, eh? Not to worry, Bilbo; you both stay here."

Therefore, when the time came for the others to leave, Bilbo was comfortably curled up at a sleeping Thorin's side on the couch with a book in hand; pointedly ignoring the teasing comments of Dudo and Drogo about the two of them needing 'alone time'.

Fosco tutted and scolded the pair lightly, ushering them out the door before Gorbadoc, Primula, and the rest of Bilbo's relations, all of them nattering over which songs would best to be sung and which smials to visit first.

And just like that, Bag End was silent.

The silence enveloped Bilbo like a blanket, punctuated only by Thorin's soft snores and the hobbit felt his heart flutter when he glanced at his side to see that Thorin's hand had unconsciously reached to curl around the hem of Bilbo's shirt in sleep.

If they could only stay like this forever then…

But no. Bilbo had to be sensible.

It was difficult to do so, but in an effort to prove his point, Bilbo gently extricated the edge of his shirt from Thorins' grip and wandered over to his armchair instead. There he sat alone and made a valiant effort to read his book, even if his gaze was drawn to the dwarf's sleeping figure more than once.

It was nearly an hour before Thorin woke and the dwarf said nothing as he sat up properly and blinked groggily around the room, eyes finally settling on Bilbo, but his gaze was oddly reproachful.

He stood and ambled over to where Bilbo was seated beside the fireplace. The Yule log was still burning there, the smell of the burning wood and the greenery they had thrown onto it at various intervals over Yule lending an inviting aroma to the room.

Thorin felt Bilbo appeared very peaceful there, and wondered if he should perhaps leave the hobbit to his book; he seemed thoroughly engrossed in the story before him and had not even lifted his head to acknowledge Thorin's presence. However, the dwarf found he dearly wanted the quiet and calming company Bilbo always seemed to provide and so decided to be selfish just this once. Settling himself before Bilbo's armchair, he let his back rest against the chair near his friends' legs as he admired the way the tiny flames flickered and danced in the hearth.

After a time of course, sitting quietly looking into the fire as he dwelled on certain thoughts began to grow tiresome and Thorin was just pondering going to find a book of his own when he found himself quietly admiring the face above him instead. It took only a glance for Thorin to be caught unawares by the sheer expressiveness in those soft features. Lines speaking of joyous laughter and broad smiles fanned the corners of the eyes and mouth, and Thorin remembered the bizarre practice of those folk in the world of men, who tried to emulate the ageless look of the elves and so went to elaborate and oftentimes dangerous extents to prolong the appearance of youth. (He had even heard rumours of the nobility in Gondor adopting a fashion trend of the Easterlings and using kohl round their eyes that was made with dark lead! Surely, they must know of the risks-)…

And Thorin was baffled.

Dwarves held no such stock in these odd views; if one did not show their age, how could anyone know they had even lived? Where was the evidence that they had loved, laughed, or struggled at all? Love of an appearance was but a small part of attraction to another, but how beautifully someone's face or body could tell a story of their life with scars, marks, lines, or freckled skin was something all dwarves could admire.

He did not know if hobbits held such lofty and frankly ridiculous notions of retaining unmarred skin as men did, but he had not yet seen it, and the smallest most selfish part of him could only be glad for it.

Bilbo was lovely in the firelight, he had thought this more than once before, his face awash with quiet contentment as he read his book; eyes bright and simply full of life and wonder as he was thoroughly absorbed in whatever tale the pages spun… such a comely creature. It was not only his looks, but his spirit and hidden fire that Thorin had seen sparks of over the past few days, his quick wit, intelligence, and gentle manners… and Thorin simply longed to- but that was impossible....

Thorin bit back a sigh and pushed such thoughts from his mind, he was here to help Bilbo by pretending to be his intended; it had never been his intention to develop true feelings for someone who was a friend and essentially a business partner. He supposed he was simply reacting to the false displays of affection and their close proximity… it was only natural having never had a romantic partner before that his heart should yearn when any amount of romantic inclination was displayed, no matter how false.

It was all good levelheaded reasoning… Unfortunately, it only eased his mind up until the moment he felt gentle fingers tangling in his hair. 

Thorin sat very still, his breath catching in his throat for a moment, and chanced another look at Bilbo by tilting his head back slightly.

The hobbit clearly had no notion of what he was doing, ensnared by the book as he was. The barest hint of a smile was pulling at his lips now as whatever he read seemed to give him joy and those fingers in Thorin's hair combed through in absent-minded strokes.

It was an intimate gesture amongst dwarves, but Thorin could forgive Bilbo not knowing the implications, as he was not one of his people. However, there was only so much Thorin could endure without his heart aching and stomach fluttering in response.

Gently, so as not to pull Bilbo from the thrall of his story, Thorin caught the hobbit's hand and untangled Bilbo's fingers from his hair, tugging his hand down to rest upon his chest where he brushed his thumb over the soft skin at Bilbo's knuckles and along the line of his wrist.

Again, Bilbo seemed not to notice, merely turning a page and gusting out a happy sigh of his own. From his place upon the floor, Thorin felt a helpless smile usurp his mouth despite the ache growing in his heart.  He could pretend; a traitorous little part of his mind supplied. Pretend for just a few moments that all of this was real and that he and Bilbo were truly a couple, and so he tilted his head back against Bilbo's hip; eyes falling closed as he kept the hobbits' hand in his grasp.

 


 

Brushing his fingers through Thorin's hair had been an unconscious action at first, the story weaving such a spell over him that Bilbo barely realised what he was doing until he had felt Thorin lean into his touch.

The hobbit had expected Thorin to pull away and maybe chastise him for being so forward, but instead the dwarf had remained still and, dare Bilbo say, content beneath his ministrations.

After a short time, Thorin had moved. However, it was not to pull away and sit elsewhere, but to take Bilbo's hand in his and rest it over his chest. It was Bilbo's turn to be surprised then, as he let his fingers dance over the wash-softened fabric of Thorin's shirt, the warmth from the skin beneath and the steady thud of Thorin's heart were near intoxicating to feel. And so, Bilbo let his façade of being utterly enthralled by his book remain so he might enjoy the close proximity of Thorin a little longer.

He knew for certain what it was he felt for Thorin; Bilbo was not the kind of hobbit to fool himself so thoroughly and deny what was becoming frighteningly obvious with each passing moment and intimate gesture. However, the sad fact remained that all of this was meant to be pretend, a show and a play put on for everyone else, and Bilbo felt an odd hollowness in his chest as he remembered once more that the day after tomorrow, all of this would come to an end. Thorin would return home and it was very unlikely their paths would ever cross again.

The realisation hit Bilbo with such force that he was devoid of breath for a moment, his fingers curling in Thorin's shirt as he swallowed thickly and set his book aside.

Primula had been right all along of course; this had been a terrible idea… in the end it was only going to hurt them… or at the very least Bilbo.

Because the fact remained that Thorin was a dwarf, a prince when all was said and done, even if he was living in exile. So why in all of Middle Earth would he ever feel anything more than friendship for a hobbit?

Thorin had noticed Bilbo's sudden tense posture it seemed, as he tilted his head back to look at him quizzically… and drat him for daring to look so gentle and concerned! Those eyes fixing on his were far too imploring and Bilbo was hard pressed not to lean down and kiss him, consequences be hanged.

It took every ounce of Baggins sensibility and fortitude, but Bilbo managed not to, though his eyes did flick to Thorin's lips for longer than he thought could be deemed appropriate.

Rather than risk doing something cataclysmically foolish, Bilbo cleared his throat delicately and offered Thorin a slightly tremulous smile before speaking. "Perhaps I should fetch us some tea, before they all come back and raid the kitchen again."

"Tea would be appreciated, thank you," Thorin replied evenly, though his gaze still held an odd reluctance and a smidgen of the concern he had displayed not moments before.

Thorin gently released his hand, and Bilbo stood from the armchair, shuffling quickly into the kitchen where he took a moment to collect himself, his breathing just a touch erratic given the utterly irrational sadness that had swept over him at the notion of Thorin leaving.

He took his time making the tea and arranging a few sandwiches and leftover biscuits on the tray as well before returning to the parlour. Thorin stood as he entered, approaching the door and politely relieving Bilbo of his burden; a reflexive action and simply born from good manners, it was only as Thorin stepped back that he remembered the menace which hung above the doorway.

Bilbo followed the dwarf's gaze up and huffed in frustration as he caught sight of the mistletoe, narrowing his eyes as he examined it and then shaking his head. "Never mind, I don't think there's a berry left on it so-"

But of course there was, because the powers-that-be loved little jokes like this and for some reason found Bilbo to be the most hilarious punch line. The hobbit could only offer a half-hearted glare at the plant for its betrayal as Thorin set aside the tray and reached up to pluck the last, tiny shrivelled berry from the mistletoe plant to present to him, letting it tumble into Bilbo's open palm like an offering.

Bilbo pocketed it, and as per tradition pushed himself up onto his toes slightly in order to offer the dwarf a kiss. With his guests out wassailing and nobody present to witness them, a kiss on the cheek or even the forehead should have easily sufficed. However, Bilbo could still feel the bitter sadness roiling in his chest over Thorin's impending departure, and in truth, he wanted this one last chance to be utterly selfish.

If Thorin disliked it, all he had to do was push Bilbo away or tell him so… and Bilbo could always blame this on the fact that they had been so demonstrative in their affections over the past few days that Bilbo had become accustomed to it and simply forgotten… It was a weak excuse, but still it might prevent things from becoming too awkward…

One hand had rested upon Thorin's shoulder to steady himself, and the other was cupping his cheek as he guided the dwarf's head down to banish the scant inches between them. Bilbo's eyes had fluttered closed reflexively, Thorin's breath warm on his cheek, and their lips had barely touched when the front door opened and his family all but tumbled back into Bag End. The clamour was instantaneous; all of them laughing, carousing, and chattering cheerfully as they brushed snow from their feet. The noise caused Bilbo to freeze where he was, Thorin letting out a soft, slightly shaky breath. Had Bilbo the nerve, he may have even been tempted to call it an exasperated sort of sigh, but surely not…

It was Drogo who spied them as he dithered in the entranceway and crowed in delight, gaining the attention of the rest of the family. "I knew those two would be the ones to find the last berry, what did I tell you?"

Bilbo turned his head slightly, so he might offer rebuttal, his eyes still wide at being caught out, but Drogo laughed and waved him off before Bilbo could utter a word. "Carry on then, don't mind us."

Well… at least I have an excuse now. Bilbo felt a surge of hot guilt at how he had almost kissed Thorin on the lips for no good reason and without asking first; Thorin would not have expected that given the lack of an audience and Bilbo had nearly taken advantage of the situation.

It was shame that stayed his movements, and then Bilbo found himself almost reluctantly pressing his lips to Thorin's own. His eyes barely closed, and from his peripheral vision, Bilbo noticed the worried frown on Drogo's face and the suspicion clouding Primula's. However, just as Bilbo was going to move away, Thorin's arm curled around Bilbo's waist and pulled him flush against his body, lips slanting more firmly to Bilbo's as he stole a kiss this time.

Embarrassment and guilt gave way, replaced almost instantaneously by longing and Bilbo found the tension bleeding out of him as soft lips grazed his. Slipping both arms around Thorin's shoulders and letting his fingers card through the hair at the back of the dwarf's neck, Bilbo let his eyes fall closed properly, lips parting to deepen the kiss.

The tittering laughter and cheeky remarks of his family were barely heard; especially when Thorin's hand lifted from Bilbo's waist to tuck a stray lock of hair behind his ear and gently brush his thumb across his cheek. A happy sigh was what finally pulled them apart, neither of them quite sure which of them had uttered it.

Bilbo's hands were still buried in Thorin's hair, keeping him close, and he smiled up at the dwarf through his lashes, only to laugh lightly when Thorin leant back in to press a feather light kiss to the tip of his nose.

Completely daft of course…

"Well now, that was certainly a fine kiss to finish the mistletoe off with." The voice was Ruby's, far too full of amusement for Bilbo's liking and causing he and Thorin to spring apart like a pair of guilty tweens.

"An' as fine as it was, we'd all like to get into the kitchen there, Bilbo. You indolent pair of love-struck fools may not have noticed whilst you've been cosied away in here, but it is cold out and we need something to warm us up." The indomitable force that was Gorbadoc drawled and came pushing to the fore of the throng of hobbits standing in Bilbo's entranceway. 

"Y-yes, quite, my apologies." Bilbo stepped back and out of the circle of Thorin's arms, flashing the dwarf a quick smile before bustling off to fill the kettle with more water to boil; their own tea from earlier now quite forgotten.

As the crowd of hobbits settled around the large kitchen table for tea and treats, Thorin watched Bilbo as surreptitiously as possible. He could not have been mistaken before they were interrupted; Bilbo had been intending to kiss his lips. The question was why he would though, when there had been no reason for him to do so.

 


 

Bilbo's guilt over the kiss lingered until they retired for bed that night, and as was often the way when dwelling on something, Bilbo's mind had conjured all kinds of unpleasant scenarios whereby Thorin would confront him over why he had planned to kiss him on the lips and then reject him when Bilbo inevitably let the truth slip.

However, as was also the case with dwelling on such things, these worries proved to be moot.

Thorin did not seem perturbed by the kiss, nor did he seem angry with Bilbo.

It was enough so that Bilbo relaxed as he dressed down for bed, but that relief could not ease the pointed ache in his chest at the constant taunt that seemed to repeat in his mind like a cruel chant; tomorrow was their last day together.

I could tell him, Bilbo thought as he clambered into bed and waited for Thorin to return from the washroom and blow out the candles. I could confess that my feelings have grown beyond friendship…

Because really, there was no point in denying it. He had made peace with the all too obvious fact as the day had worn on. He was in love with Thorin. And as irregular and ridiculous and downright trite as it sounded even in his own mind, there was nothing he could do to prevent it now.

Thorin's presence had burrowed its way into his heart and taken root there as assuredly as if it was always meant to be.

But it isn't meant to be, is it… He will leave once Yule is done and you will let him go because this is selfish and wrong and Dís and Primula were utterly right. We will only hurt one another… Besides, there is no way of knowing if Thorin even feels the same.

Unless I confess…

No, he could not. It would not be kind to either of them, and though he was tempted and he knew somewhere his mother would likely be tearing her hair out with frustration over his cowardice, Bilbo could not summon the courage to find out whether Thorin felt the same way about him.

Bilbo threw the duvet over himself as he lay down; resolving to pretend to be sleeping once Thorin returned so that he would not be tempted to talk to the dwarf and so closed his eyes and calmed his breathing.

He heard Thorin enter the room quietly a few minutes later, pausing to blow out the candles as he settled himself at Bilbo's side.

Bilbo gave Thorin no indication he was still awake, though he felt he might bite off his own tongue through the effort of keeping the words he longed to say choked back and behind his teeth.

And he may have remained that way, pretending to sleep whilst simultaneously fighting to stay awake so he might enjoy Thorin's presence just a little longer, had Thorin not chosen to tentatively reach out and curl an arm around Bilbo's waist.

Bilbo tensed for a moment, and Thorin noticed as he quickly made to move away an apology half-formed on his lips before Bilbo's hand stopped him from moving and instead guided Thorin's arm back to its' place at his waist.

Neither mentioned the odd little moment, neither had the courage to question it.

Instead, Bilbo murmured a sleepy. "Tomorrow is the last day."

"…Yes."

"You will… you will be leaving the day after that?"

"I do n- … yes."

"I have some food for your trip that I bought today, and some treats that will keep until Ered Luin, for your family. I'm sure Fíli and Kíli will enjoy them."

"You didn't have to-"

"I wanted to."

Thorin offered no argument, and Bilbo was reminded that though the dwarf was proud and would refuse charity for himself, for his family he was more than willing to accept.

"… Thank you."

"You are more than welcome, Thorin."

It was odd, talking with his eyes still firmly shut, the dark like a wall between them, but Bilbo knew if he opened his eyes and made out Thorin's face in the gloom any semblance of control he still retained would be lost.

"Bilbo, I-" Whatever Thorin had been about to say was cut off as the dwarf sighed raggedly and pulled Bilbo a little closer, murmuring instead. "What happens on the last day of Yule?"

Bilbo smiled, a brittle little thing, as he felt the affection in his heart bloom and ache all at once and after taking a moment to even out his breathing, Bilbo began to speak. "I may have mentioned before, though I'm sure you noticed anyway how the decorations are starting to wither?"

"I- I hadn't liked to mention it but-"

Bilbo chuckled in spite of everything and continued. "Tomorrow we will take them down and build a bonfire with them in the field where the Party Tree stands. We make wishes on them and the party there lasts long into the night…"

Bilbo continued to explain the traditions of the last day of Yule, the tightness in his throat easing as speaking of the day still to come helped to distract him just a little.

And even though he was too much of a coward to say anything, and even though he could not be sure of Thorin's own feelings. At least they were comfortable enough around one another to ignore the fact that Thorin was still embracing Bilbo as the hobbit drifted off to sleep with his face hidden in the crook of Thorin's neck.

Chapter Text

The knowledge of Thorin's inevitable return to Ered Luin following Yule had hindered Bilbo's sleep for most of the night. He would drift off only to dream of the hallways and rooms of Bag End empty once more, cold and devoid of joy. Or else some terrible spectre would haunt his thoughts; taunting the hobbit with visions of Thorin's demise whilst travelling the road home.

He would twist and turn in sleep and then wake to find the dwarf still before him, arms a warm and immovable weight around his waist. He would sigh, shiver at the lingering image of his dreams, and then fall back into fitful rest.

It was no surprise then that upon waking Bilbo found that the sun was already indicating it was high time for second breakfast, if not later still! The sound of his relatives moving about the smial was like a splash of cold water to his face, waking him effectively. Just because he was moping over Thorin's impending departure did not mean he could shirk his duties as host!

The aforementioned dwarf was only just waking himself, Bilbo realised with fond exasperation. His attempts to sit up were thwarted by the circle of Thorin's arms, and Bilbo's dour mood was at once quashed at the sight of long, tangled hair obscuring a baleful glare.

"I presumed that given this was the last day of Yule and you had mentioned all hobbits had this day to themselves, that we might be permitted to wake some time after dawn."

"It is very much after dawn," Bilbo replied with raised eyebrows. "I had not thought you so slothful."

"I am not, but I did not sleep well, so a little more time would have been appreciated."

Bilbo inwardly cringed at the reply and tamped down his guilt, hoping beyond hope that his own disturbed rest had not been the cause for Thorin's.

"Breakfast waits for no hobbit… or dwarf," Bilbo chimed in with false brightness. "We had best get up; we cannot leave my poor relatives to their own devices when we are supposed to be hosting them."

Thorin mumbled something unintelligible. It was soft and guttural, most likely a curse in Khuzdûl, but he still reluctantly pushed himself up onto his elbows when Bilbo shifted and moved away from him.

There was a part of Bilbo that would have loved to stay longer and maybe, if he were bold enough, question Thorin as to why he had chosen to hold him through the night.

It was most likely a friendly gesture, or to ward off the cold, but Bilbo could not bring himself to ask and his heart shied away from the hopeful possibility of any other reason.

Bilbo left Thorin to get ready alone and shuffled out into the kitchen still in his nightshirt and dressing gown. It was not particularly respectable, but Bilbo felt the keen need to apologise to his family before doing anything else.

Mirabella saw him first and chuckled at his dishevelled state. His aunt bustled over to run fingers through Bilbo's hair in an action so reminiscent of his mother that Bilbo nearly pulled away in alarm. He resisted the urge, barely, and mumbled a quiet apology for waking so late.

"Oh stuff and nonsense, you have run yourself ragged after us these last few days. I dare say you and Thorin have earned a little time to yourselves," Mirabella replied stoutly and Bilbo firmly refused to think on the likelihood of there being any hidden meaning in his aunt's words. "As it is we thought we would get started on taking the decorations down ourselves… or perhaps I should say that Dinodas and Dodinas thought they would and everyone else just rather joined in."

Bilbo blinked in surprise and peered over his aunt's shoulder to see that yes, that was his family clambering on stools and unravelling wreaths and vines to collect in a pile over by the front door. His two trouble making cousins had arrived early that morning, it transpired, and had taken it upon themselves to 'help'.

"Oh, but I shouldn't let guests-"

"Enough of that." Mirabella grinned and gave Bilbo a push back in the direction of his room. "Get dressed and have something to eat first, then you and your dwarf may help us. And stop your fussing, I'll make sure the boys don't break anything important."

Unable to argue with his aunt's level-headed reasoning, Bilbo sighed and returned to his room, passing Thorin with a wan grin and retreating to the washroom to make himself presentable.

He returned to the kitchen a short while later to a plate of toast and jam and a cup of tea waiting for him. The smile Thorin offered him as he glanced up from being besieged with questions from the two newcomers let Bilbo know that his dwarf was responsible for the appearance of breakfast, and Bilbo felt that tug of longing grow more pronounced as he tried not to appear too obvious in watching Thorin interact with his family.

It was a lovely scene, Bilbo thought. Thorin seemed to have been accepted by most of his relations even though that had not been the original intention. Yet Bilbo was happier for it, and all at once saddened that this would soon cease to be.

Once upon a time, Bilbo would have relished being the only person to inhabit Bag End. He valued his own company and peace and quiet above most other things. Though he could not now say that that had changed completely, the memory of his dream of a home empty of all save himself was teasing the edges of his mind cruelly, and Bilbo found it was not quite as an enticing prospect as it may once have been.

Gorbadoc and Primula appearing from the hallway interrupted his contemplation then, and Bilbo frowned in confusion as his uncle muttered something too quiet for any but Thorin to hear in the dwarf's ear.

This in itself may not have worried Bilbo, but the grave look on his uncle's face and the hand on Thorin's elbow as he steered the dwarf out of the room was a concern.

Had there been a message? Some bad news?

Bilbo was already standing, making to follow the pair when Primula stopped him, her face awash with guilt.

"Bilbo, I am so sorry-"

"Prim, what in the world?-"

"I-I told Da about the plan."

" What? Prim, why-?"

"Da's been a bit suspicious from the start, you know, but he hid it well." Primula was wringing her hands in her skirts now, looking wretched, and Bilbo was merely grateful that the rest of his family was too busy to have noticed anything amiss. "Then last night, after we got back from wassailing, he said that there just wasn't something quite right about the two of you… I tried to stand up for Thorin and just explain that it was probably 'cause he's a dwarf, you were courting differently and all… but I- I ended up saying more than I meant to and he wheedled the whole thing out of me, Bilbo."

Bilbo's stomach dropped and he heaved a sigh, suddenly regretting bothering with breakfast at all. "It's… it's quite alright, Prim. I suppose it was foolish of us to think we could pull this off without a hitch."

So it was all for nothing then? Gorbadoc would not agree to keep others in the dark as Primula had, and Bilbo's plight would be right back to where he had started: fending off suitors. Only this time it would feel all the worse knowing now how he felt for Thorin.

Deciding there was nothing else to do for the moment, Bilbo reluctantly joined his relations in taking down the remainder of his decorations. He was more of a hindrance than a help, his eyes flicking to the doorway Gorbadoc and Thorin had gone through so frequently that he dropped many a decoration. His ears so attuned to hear if there were raised voices that he did not even register the tinkling of glass when he let one of his mother's old ornaments break upon the floor.

His family clearly noticed his distraction by then and the conspicuous absence of Thorin and Gorbadoc but said nothing to Bilbo of it. Instead, they murmured amongst themselves as to the possible reason for Bilbo's sudden nervousness and Gorbadoc's need to speak privately with Thorin.

It was Drogo who boldly suggested that perhaps Thorin was asking for Gorbadoc's blessing to wed Bilbo, and when Bilbo finally acknowledged those words and the happy exclamations of his relations, the hobbit felt his stomach roil with despair once more.

 


 

"You are quite the accomplished actor, for a dwarf. I had not been made aware that such a skill was valued amongst your folk's crafts."

"Master Brandybuck, I am afraid I don't understand what this is-"

"I would ask that you do not spin anymore lies." Gone was the friendly, jovial hobbit that Thorin had grown quite fond of over Yule. Instead, Gorbadoc now held himself as tall as possible, his gaze steely.

"My daughter has told me everything of this little charade, Master Dwarf, and I must say I find it utterly abhorrent."

Thorin's heart sank at this revelation, but he attempted to explain himself all the same. "It was not our intention to cause any offence-"

"And yet you have. You might think us simple, unintelligent folk. The kind who are beneath you, but if you truly think you can use my nephew-"

"I think no such thing! And I would not use Bilbo to my own ends."

"Primula tells me the idea was yours; that you wrote the notice Bilbo found in the Green Dragon."

"Aye, I wrote it, but it was only because I overheard Bilbo saying how he wished to dissuade his family and suitors from bothering him and I needed-"

Gorbadoc looked near thunderous, and despite being more than a head taller than Bilbo's uncle, Thorin felt oddly cowed. " What did you need?"

"Food," Thorin bit out, embarrassed and ashamed. "I needed food. My family struggles and I had not made as much money as I needed. I could not spend what I had earned on food for myself. Bilbo did not realise at first that he was helping me as much as I was helping him, but over time, he became aware of my situation. I swear to you, I would not use your nephew callously."

Gorbadoc's righteous anger eased just a little then, and his gaze softened to something that Thorin was more accustomed to seeing on the hobbit's face. Still, he looked utterly unimpressed with the situation and it was clear he wanted answers.

"I will admit, when I first overheard your nephew complaining about his suitors, my assumption was that he was a silly fellow and ungrateful with his lot in life. However, after he offered to let me stay here I came to realise that there is more to him than I first thought. He is kind, honourable, and from what he and others have told me I am not at all surprised he was desperate enough to ask for my help in avoiding some loveless marriage simply to satisfy everyone else."

Gorbadoc huffed and ran a hand through his curls, giving Thorin a shrewd glance as if trying to deduce his motivations and the truth behind his words.

"And here I must agree with you, though it shames me to admit to it… I have long noticed Bilbo's dislike of the suitors that have been haunting his steps, yet I said nothing against it when perhaps I should have done. He is as spirited as old Belladonna you know, and I simply assumed that he would give those who bothered him what for. However, I always forget he's just as much like Bungo… such a polite gentlehobbit he was, never raised his voice to anyone if he could help it, and perhaps that is one trait that simply does not suit Bilbo."

Thorin, despite the gravity of the situation, felt his lips twitch. "I can assure you that Bilbo does know how to fight his own corner when the need arises, Master Brandybuck. I think that maybe he was just afraid to upset those he cared about by appearing rude."

"I still dislike being made the fool, Master Dwarf, as would any of our kind."

"You have my apologies for any slight we have caused with our plan, and Bilbo's too I am sure."

"Be that as it may, I would urge you both to tell the truth-"

"- But what of the suitors, those that are pestering Bilbo?"

"I will see to it that Bilbo is left well alone now I know of the depth of his disregard for these matters."

It was selfish, and likely made him no better than any other hobbit attempting to woo Bilbo, but Thorin could not help the hollow sensation that gnawed at his heart at this prospect.

After today he would likely never see Bilbo again, but if he could just pretend for a little longer…

"Would it not simply be easier for us to go on pretending? This way there is more assurance that Bilbo will not be bothered since everyone will still think he is in a relationship."

Something passed over Gorbadoc's features at Thorin's words, a sort of gentle understanding and an oddly knowing look. "And why is it that a dwarf of Ered Luin would agree to carry on with such deception with a simple Shire hobbit if it was no longer needed?"

Thorin's breath caught at the unexpected question and he suddenly felt inexplicably cornered.

"I- "

"You may have my forgiveness for fooling us with your act, Thorin, but do not presume that I will forgive any further lies from you."

"I have… grown fond of him, Master Brandybuck."

"And is it safe to assume that you've yet to tell my nephew of your 'fondness' for him."

"I have not and nor shall I."

Thorin had taken to speaking to the floor, unwilling to meet Gorbadoc's gaze lest he see disgust and anger there. It would be only just, of course. He truly was behaving no better than the suitors Bilbo so disdained; skulking about with false pretences and wishing for more time in Bilbo's company even though his regard for Bilbo was obviously far stronger than Bilbo's for him. He would merely be grateful if Gorbadoc did not insist he leave immediately, though Bilbo's uncle would be well within his right to do so.

"And why will you not?"

The question mildly surprised him, and Thorin flicked his eyes to Gorbadoc's face briefly once more, only to feel startled at the gentle smile there.

"Because Bilbo has had more than enough trouble with unworthy suitors, Master Brandybuck, I would not wish to add myself to that list and cause him more irritation."

"A noble reason, but I fear you may have entirely the wrong idea over who constitutes an unworthy suitor. Furthermore, I would urge you to consider Bilbo's feelings on the matter a little more. I cannot claim to know my nephew's heart, but I do not believe he would be quite so willing to trade kisses and share a room with one who he would reject."

"Sir?"

"For goodness sake, I am telling you to let him know him how you feel, lad."

"I leave on the morrow, I have to return home-"

"All the more reason to tell him then," Gorbadoc interrupted firmly.

Thorin's mind was left reeling. Bilbo's uncle was essentially giving his blessing when not moments before he had been so angry because of their subterfuge. What had made him change his mind so quickly?

Seeing the confusion on the dwarf's face, Gorbadoc took pity on him and spoke again. "I had had some suspicions about this relationship from the beginning, I confess. It all happened so quickly, your turning up for Yule and all, that I wondered at it. Bilbo may have his mother's adventurous spirit, but he has always been a sensible lad, too. To get involved with a dwarf whilst visiting Bree and tell no one about it before now seemed like a rather outlandish tale, though I took his word on it as truth. Then there was the hesitancy you sometimes displayed around one another. We hobbits may seem private, conservative sorts, but with those we love, we are usually very open. However, I presumed this was due to your separation after Bree and that you were simply unsure how to act around one another now you had reunited again.

"It was not until last night and the looks you shared before that kiss that I truly suspected something was amiss. Primula's reaction persuaded me to question her about it. She told me everything only after I expressed concern over your level of attachment to Bilbo, whether you truly felt love for him or not. She sprung to your defence most admirably, but unfortunately, a little too enthusiastically, she rather ah… spilled the beans over the whole thing whilst attempting to vouch for you both.

"I am afraid to say I quite jumped to the wrong conclusion. I thought perhaps that Primula and Bilbo had both misplaced their trust in you, and that you were simply looking to further your own ends by using my nephew. I could see that he- well, let us just say I was concerned for his wellbeing and thought to confront you about all this."

"And now?" Thorin's voice felt oddly hoarse, his eyes beseeching as he looked at Bilbo's uncle as if the elder hobbit may give some indication as to what he should do.

"And now I see that I was utterly wrong to doubt you. It is clear that you are truly in love with my nephew and only have his best interests at heart."

Thorin swallowed thickly, an odd sort of panic rising within him. To have it stated so bluntly… no teasing, no mild suggestion as his sister and Roäc had done, just the fact of the matter so clearly set before him… it was alarming.

"Thank you… I- I am sorry for-"

"Oh hush, I should ask your forgiveness for besmirching your good name. I should not have assumed the worst of you; I rather thought I was above all that at my time of life."

"You were merely concerned for Bilbo." Thorin felt an unsteady smile start to usurp his lips, one which Gorbadoc returned. "He is lucky to have such a caring uncle."

"Hm, well… caring and just a little too interfering might be more on the mark for a lot of us, poor boy."

Gorbadoc moved finally, relaxing completely from his defensive stance and walking over to Thorin to clap him on the shoulder in a friendly manner as he guided him back towards the door.

"Do think on what I said, won't you? Tell him, I truly believe that in this case Bilbo would not mind such a confession."

Thorin looked startled at the reminder and shook his head emphatically, but not without adding, "And what of the plan?"

"I dislike liars no matter the reason… but in this instance I believe you may be correct. It will make matters far easier for Bilbo if folk around here continue to believe he is still in a relationship. Carry on as you were if you cannot muster the courage to tell Bilbo how you really feel, but I'd rather you not do my nephew the disservice of denying your feelings."

Thorin felt a prickle of irritation regarding the subtle jab at his cowardice, but held his tongue, nodding once to Gorbadoc and exiting the room. He needed to find Bilbo and tell him of all this.

 


 

"- So, Gorbadoc will not let on to the others, the same as Primula promised me."

Bilbo let out a relieved sigh as Thorin nodded and took a fortifying gulp of chamomile tea.

"Thank goodness, another disaster averted then."

In the end, Thorin's retelling of the conversation that took place between Gorbadoc and himself had been slightly amended.

The elder hobbit had been right in one assumption at least: Thorin was too much of a coward to tell Bilbo how he felt. He had glossed over the part of their conversation where Thorin had admitted to feeling more than friendship for Bilbo.

When Thorin had emerged from the room and seen Bilbo's worried face, he had known that Bilbo had been told by Primula what it was Gorbadoc wanted to discuss, and so had been quick to take him aside and assuage his concerns.

The others had not seemed to notice, as instead they clamoured for Gorbadoc's attention, all asking if Thorin had asked for his blessing to marry Bilbo.

Thorin had been shocked at that, and Bilbo had turned a charming shade of red as he shook his head, a wry grin on his face.

"My family do so love a wedding, it was the most obvious thing they could think you would want to speak to Gorbadoc privately about," he mumbled quietly at Thorin's side.

Gorbadoc was shooing his children and younger relatives away, denying such a conversation took place.

"I wanted to ask him about mining," the elder hobbit huffed irritably.

" Mining ?"

"But surely Cousin Bilbo and Thorin will be wed soon-"

"Why could you not speak to him about that here ?"

"Because you are all far too loud to hear myself think," Gorbadoc complained, eyes crinkling in mirth as he ruffled his sons' hair, causing Dinodas and Dodinas to protest over such treatment; they were far too old to be treated like fauntlings!

Thorin felt his heart clench at their antics; the pair of troublemakers who had arrived only that morning from their brother Rorimac's smial to visit Bilbo put him strongly in mind of Fíli and Kíli.

He would see them soon, though it was a bittersweet feeling. He would see his family again, but be leaving Bilbo to do so.

Before that though…

"Did you not mention something about a bonfire and a party?" Thorin asked conversationally, hoping to divert attention away from the family's talk of marriage.

"Ah, yes. We have taken down all the decorations" -Bilbo nodded to the pile by the door- "and as I mentioned last night, once the sun begins to set we will take them down to the Party Tree where they will be burnt and-"

"-And let us not forget the music!"

"The ale!"

"Dancing until dawn," Amaranth chimed in.

"Indeed," Bilbo rolled his eyes with a grin. "This is where you discover that having younger cousins will lead to an early grave."

"And that doesn't sound at all ominous."

 


 

Despite snow still covering the ground, all the hobbits in Hobbiton seemed incredibly enthusiastic at the prospect of a party, even if it meant braving the cold to participate.

Thankfully, there had been no fresh snowfall, and what remained was not as deep as it had been. Matters were helped tremendously by the presence of the large bonfire that had been constructed down in the field. It was situated far enough from the trees that there would be no risk of damage, but the pile of decorations was formidable and once lit the fire would burn for a long time and offer much needed warmth to the partygoers.

Thorin looked about himself in awe. He had not visited this area of Hobbiton before, and the Party Tree was quite impressive. Brightly coloured lanterns were strung amongst the branches, glowing like stars. Ribbons and ornaments hung here and there and the field itself was filled with tents and tables and bunting and tiny flickering candles.

An impromptu stage had been erected at one end of the field where a troupe of hobbits was tuning instruments. They appeared very happy at the prospect of playing the music for the celebration and had been plied with warm blankets, treats, and hot drinks whilst they waited.

Table upon table of food dotted the field and more still were in the tents, and Thorin was reminded yet again that hobbits, much like dwarves, adored any cause for a feast. The dwarf was surprised there was enough produce left in the Shire given how richly they had eaten over Yule, but enticing smells of cooking pervaded the air and made Thorin's stomach growl appreciatively.

Then of course, there was the sheer number of hobbits crowding the field. Thorin was nearly overwhelmed by how many people had turned up for this last night of Yule. He had not been aware that so many folk even lived here!

At his side, Bilbo's presence was as much a comfort as it was a distraction. All the hobbits had dressed in their best finery for the evening, and even though his form was now mostly hidden beneath scarf, mittens, and a large fur lined coat; Thorin knew that Bilbo looked wonderful.

He had been mildly surprised that his friend had chosen blues and silvers as the colours he wore that evening, when until now the dwarf had seen him favour warmer tones of reds, greens, and earthy hues.

Yet the change suited Bilbo, even his cousins had said as much, and Thorin tried to ignore the fact that not only did he and Bilbo match with their chosen colours, but also that these colours were of Durin's line.

Had Bilbo been a dwarf living in Ered Luin's halls, he would have been proclaiming to all and sundry that he considered himself part of Thorin's family, and the implications of that were enough to unsettle Thorin just a little.

He did not know, of course he didn't… but still… in Durin blue and with Thorin's bead glinting at the hollow of his throat, Thorin found it very difficult not to act on Gorbadoc's advice and confess all to the hobbit there and then.

"Ah, wonderful, they managed to clear some of the snow from the field." Bilbo had been chattering cheerfully with his arm linked in Thorin's since they left Bag End, but Thorin had barely heard a word of it, wrapped up as he was in his own thoughts. He heard now though, as he forced himself to listen properly, and hummed quietly in reply.

It seemed the shirriffs had ignored tradition in taking a day off from work at least in this respect. It became apparent that they had arrived at the field earlier that day in order to sweep away as much snow as they were able from the area before the stage, presumably to make walking around the field and dancing easier.

The grass beneath was sparse and browning, and more than likely the hobbits would suffer with muddy feet before the night was through, but at least it would be marginally easier to dance here than attempting to tromp through a good few inches of snow.

As the group made their way over to the bonfire to add their decorations to the pile to be lit, Bilbo and his kin called out greetings to others and wishes of happy Yule to those they had not been able to visit. Each time they stopped to speak with someone, Bilbo would gently squeeze Thorin's arm to gain his attention and whisper who was who.

It was interesting to discover more of Bilbo's friends and relations of course, but Thorin tried to ignore the traitorous little part of him that was enjoying Bilbo's close proximity and warm breath against his ear most of all.

It was during such introductions that Rosa Baggins was the one to point out their matching colours and declared them both to be looking 'very smart indeed', which drew a short laugh from Bilbo and a pleased smile from Thorin.

More than ever was he grateful for Bilbo's kind gift of new clothes. In his old, travel-worn garments, he would have looked downright pitiable at such a party. Now, with fine new trousers, shirt, and tunic, and the wonderfully warm, regal-coloured cloak, Thorin felt far more presentable.

It took them longer to reach the bonfire than it should have done what with all the introductions to make and relations to catch up with, but Bilbo assured it was mostly due to Thorin's presence.

"You are new, and dwarves aren't a particularly common sight in these parts if you recall," Bilbo nattered on animatedly, though there was something a little sad in his gaze that had Thorin wishing to lead Bilbo somewhere quiet so he might ask if anything was wrong.

"So I am an attraction then? Like some interesting act in a travelling circus or some exotic animal?"

Thorin attempted to appear annoyed, and for a moment, it worked. Bilbo looked aghast and quickly shuffled round to stand before Thorin and place an apologetic hand against his chest.

"Oh goodness, no, no of course not we would never- oh-… oh you absolute rotter, you're teasing me!"

Thorin's shoulders shook from the effort not to laugh at Bilbo's panicked apologies and the hobbit swatted his shoulder scowling something fierce.

"Don't do that to me, I thought you were upset!"

"I am sorry, Bilbo. You were just so earnest-"

"You see if I get you a slice of pie now," Bilbo sniffed and pretended to ignore Thorin's dismayed objections of this punishment completely, but his smile gave him away.

And really, Thorin thought it was entirely worth it. He would gladly earn Bilbo's enmity and be denied pie if it meant chasing away those shadows which had clouded his eyes all day.

 


 

The party was truly an enjoyable affair, and the bonfire was impressive just in itself.

Bilbo had explained wishes were made as the edifice of old decorations was lit, and Thorin found himself glancing to his side, his own wistful wish fresh in his mind as he reached out and caught Bilbo's mitten-covered hand in his own.

Bilbo returned the gaze, and Thorin could not quite tell if the wavering in his smile was a trick of the firelight or if it was caused by the same sorrow that had seemed to follow Bilbo for most of the day. All he knew was that he suddenly had very little desire to let go of Bilbo's hand, and if the tightening of the hobbit's grip was any indication, neither did he.

Neither had long to dwell on this matter though, as they were soon surrounded by family all vying to go to this table first or dance to that music next, and Thorin found himself pulled hither and thither by Bilbo's relations as they gossiped and celebrated as only hobbits could.

By the time the moon was high in the sky and the stars just visible beyond the orange glow of the bonfire and haze of heather grey smoke, most folk had forgone cloaks and coats as dancing and mugs of hot cider proved to warm them up sufficiently despite how their breaths clouded before them in the night air.

Thorin himself found that he was never short of dancing partners even though he had proclaimed that his dancing skills were severely lacking. It seemed that he had been partially right in his jest over being an attraction, and most hobbits wanted to see how dwarves danced.

Thorin insisted he was a very poor specimen, and promised to bring some of his more light-footed relatives the next time there was a celebration in the Shire. It was a promise easily given, but Thorin tried not to dwell on how difficult it may prove to actually keep.

Bell Gamgee laughed uproariously at the number of times Thorin apologised when she danced with him as she had to spring out of the way of his booted feet on more than one occasion.

It was as they were taking a turn near one of the trestle tables that Bell spied Bilbo and Hamfast watching them in amusement and was quick to push the dwarf off in Bilbo's direction as she snagged her husband from Bilbo's side in one fluid motion.

"You are a very capable dancer, Master Dwarf, but I fear your beloved might be feeling a little left out," she giggled as she led her husband in a fast-paced dance back into the throng.

Thorin fetched up grinning and breathless before Bilbo and offered his hand with a gallant bow. "Care to dance then, Master Baggins?"

Bilbo accepted the outstretched hand with his own, and Thorin revelled in the fact that Bilbo had removed his coat and mittens along with most of the others present. His hands were a little chilled, due in part to his standing around by the tables, but they would soon warm up if Thorin kept hold of them.

"Only if you let me stand on your feet, Master Oakenshield. I saw you out there and you are a hazard."

Thorin laughed outright at the mercilessly honest answer he received and drew Bilbo close. "You are the first not to be polite about it, thank you."

"Well there is polite and then there's suffering for no real cause. I don't intend to do that."

Bilbo was quick to step up onto Thorin's boots, pushing himself up onto his toes and clinging to him as the dwarf began to dance again.

It was wonderfully distracting to have Bilbo held so close against him, but a good deal more difficult to dance when one had a hobbit standing on one's feet. However, it did mean that Thorin did not run the risk of crushing said hobbit's poor toes, so overall it was not such a bad way to dance.

They spun in circles until Bilbo squeaked that he was dizzy and moved in an ungainly fashion through the crowd of hobbits.

It was only when the next song finished and Bilbo begged to pause for a rest that Thorin remembered his promise from a few days ago.

"Bilbo, you remember I mentioned the tin melting?"

"Oh! Yes, of course."

"Traditionally, if this were a Durin's Day celebration, the tin would be melted and signs read before midnight. It is getting rather late, did you still want to-"

"That is a lovely idea actually. Please don't misunderstand, I do love a good party, but this is just a bit too much for me." Bilbo nodded towards the crowds of hobbits dancing and singing and feasting, and Thorin inclined his head in agreement.

Bilbo was quick to collect his coat, scarf, mittens, and Thorin's cloak from the tent they were being kept in and managed to spot Ruby in the crowd shortly after, letting her know that they were returning to Bag End.

She offered them a playful wink and reassured them that the rest of the family would not return until much later, which prompted a scowl from Bilbo and a huff of embarrassment from Thorin at the implication… honestly.

"Sorry about her, she's a real terror once she had had a drink or two. We're just fortunate she hasn't drunk much whilst at Bag End." Bilbo felt the need to apologise as he walked hand in hand with Thorin back up the hill.

He was well aware why he had foregone his mittens (now stuffed in his coat pockets) and chosen to link his fingers with Thorin's, but refused to admit it was entirely hopeless now.

Just a few hours left until Thorin would return home…

Thorin did not seem to mind the contact in the least, and Bilbo was a little confused by this. There was nobody around to see them, so holding hands was not needed… unless of course… well there was no point thinking on it now, was there.

 


 

Entering Bag End was rather reminiscent of dunking one's head beneath warm bath water. The noise and clamour from the party outside was abruptly silenced as soon as the door was shut, and the pair found that the sudden lack of music and chatter was oddly stifling.

"Right, so… it is tin you need yes?" Bilbo was quick to divest himself of his thick coat and amble towards the kitchen, letting Thorin trail along behind.

"Any metal will suffice really, but tin is traditional."

"I have some spoons that will work I think."

"If they have been used by yourself then all the better… Óin claims it is always good to have some- some personal energy about the metal as it were."

"I see," Bilbo mumbled distractedly as he rooted through his kitchen drawers.

Ah, yes that would do, one of the old tin teaspoons; he used them often but would not lament the loss of one to the purpose of divining.

Thorin had taken the time to hang up his cloak and retrieve a bowl from his pack that he filled with cold water and a small but robust ladle that would withstand the temperature of a candle flame whilst heating the tin sufficiently.

Taking one of the candleholders from Bilbo's mantelpiece, Thorin set the wick of the candle alight and placed it on the stone hearth just as Bilbo returned from the kitchen with his tin spoon.

"Is this alright?"

"Yes, that should work."

Settling on the rug in front of Thorin, the hobbit watched with interest as Thorin looked the spoon over critically before setting it in his ladle and playing it over the flame of the candle.

"Are there… words or anything you need to say?" Bilbo asked, feeling rather foolish.

Thorin smiled, his eyes dancing in the firelight, but his amusement was the friendly sort, not mocking in the slightest.

"No, this is not magic in the sense that men or indeed hobbits would assume. We dwarves are not wizards after all, though we do hold some element of magical ability about us. This is merely knowing how to read the signs given to us… well, providing this works as expected considering it is not actually Durin's Day."

It could transpire that the tin showed him nothing of import at all and he would hate to get Bilbo's hopes up only to dash them.

Thankfully, the tin melted obligingly. Slowly at first, then quicker as the ladle heated, the silvery spoon turning first into an indistinguishable lump and then a puddle of metal.

Thorin glanced up and noted just how entranced Bilbo appeared, the sight of the hobbit watching the process so reverently making his heart skip a beat.

Averting his gaze, Thorin moved the ladle carefully to the bowl before turning it over and letting the molten tin fall into the cold water with a hiss and a puff of steam.

Bilbo jumped a little at the sudden sound but leant closer so that he could watch the shape take form in the water, his shoulder brushing Thorin's.

Excitable, Thorin thought fondly, the widening of Bilbo's eyes and soft curling of his parted lips all too apparent. Bilbo loved to learn new things, and for one shining moment, Thorin allowed himself to be swept up in a daydream where he whisked Bilbo away to Ered Luin and taught him all there was to know about his culture.

"What shape has it taken?" Bilbo asked at length. His voice was quiet, clearly not wishing to hurry the dwarf, but confused over how long Thorin was taking all the same.

Thorin shook himself from his reverie and cleared his throat in mild embarrassment before leaning over to look at the shape in the water.

To outsiders the metal would appear as a misshapen lump, but to those dwarves who had learnt to divine tin, the shape spoke volumes.

Thorin picked the little piece of tin, now quite cool, out of the water and weighed it in his hand, turning it this way and that contemplatively before holding it up to the firelight and watching the play of shadows over the metal.

"May I see it?"

Bilbo's voice was softly curious and Thorin handed the metal shape over readily despite the way his heart hurt at the knowledge he had just gleaned from Bilbo's divination.

Love. There was love in Bilbo's future and it was a future that Thorin was not going to be part of.

"It is quite pretty," Bilbo allowed, though he was politely bemused as he turned the metal lump over in his palm trying to make sense of it. "Did you see what it meant for me?"

"Yes." It was something of a struggle to get the word out, but Thorin managed.

Bilbo's eyes flicked from the metal to Thorin's conflicted face and his smile dropped minutely. "Oh! Oh dear, is it misfortune?"

All at once, Thorin felt bad for making Bilbo worry if even for a moment and he forced a tight-lipped smile, shaking his head. "No, Bilbo. Quite the opposite in fact."

"Oh, well that's alright then."

"Love."

"S-sorry?"

"The tin is telling me that you will find love this coming year."

"Well that is- no, nono, no that cannot be true."

Thorin laughed, though the sound was a little bitter. "I am merely telling you what I see, Bilbo."

"No, I mean I don't disbelieve you it's just that- I- I can't find love in the coming year."

Thorin's chest tightened at the look Bilbo was giving him, the metal clutched between his hands and face so full of conviction… and oh, how Thorin longed to lean just a little closer and-

"You will make someone very happy, you know. There is no need to fret." Thorin all but forced the words from his throat.

"No, no you don't understand- blast it, Thorin! I can't fall in love in the future because I am in love already!"

"W-what?"

"With you ! I am in love with you already! So how can I possibly-"

Distantly, Bilbo registered there were loud cheers and singing coming from the field where the Party Tree stood as he spoke, and he realised with muted shock that it must be past midnight.

The start of the New Year.

"You are in love with me?" The question bordered on incredulous and Bilbo found he could no sooner meet the dwarf's gaze than he could learn to turn invisible.

He would reject him, surely…

Bilbo lifted his chin, jaw set stubbornly even as he desperately sought to let his eyes settle anywhere but on Thorin. "Yes, yes I am."

"How-? When-?"

"It actually- well it wasn't really that difficult to fall for you if truth be known… as to when- Well, I can't really say for sure, it has all become quite muddled what with our plan and all, but if I may speak plain? I think perhaps it has been developing slowly since I first met you."

Thorin was silent, unnervingly so, and Bilbo, who was still unable to meet his gaze, found himself rambling in order to explain himself and hopefully soothe some of the tension between them before the hammer fell and Thorin told him he did not feel the same.

"I know it is far too short a time for love to have developed, and I know it was never the intention of either of us to fall for the other in reality but- well, there it is. I find that I am quite taken with you and I am sorry if this is something you never wanted, I truly am. I did wonder if perhaps there was some reciprocation on your part, but that was likely just due to our ruse and- well you leave on the morrow so you need not trouble yourself about this. I will not mention it again-"

Bilbo had made as if to stand and leave; head bowed and one palm pressed to the floor as he went to push himself to his feet, only for Thorin to finally rouse himself from his seemingly shocked silence and reach out to grasp Bilbo's wrist.

"You love me- truly?"

Thorin's voice was oddly hoarse and Bilbo found he could not move, but did now find the courage to look Thorin in the eye, irritated as he was at the dwarf's apparent inattention.

"I just said I was didn't I?" Bilbo answered tartly, cheeks flaming with shame. "Please do not- do not toy with me and do me the discourtesy of not listening when I have just told you something very difficult to admit to-"

Bilbo did not have the time to register that the expression Thorin wore was not one of distaste or impending awkwardness but of surprised joy and wonder for the dwarf had given a light tug on his wrist, causing Bilbo to overbalance and topple into Thorin's arms, flailing legs barely missing the bowl of water beside them.

"T-Thorin!"

"You love me."

"Yes I think we established that, what in the world are you-"

Lips meeting his were probably a sufficient enough answer to Bilbo's unfinished question and bewildered state of mind.

Perhaps, Bilbo thought utterly pole-axed, his feelings were not unrequited after all.

 


 

The kiss had not lasted long. It was short and sweet, chaste even, as Thorin pulled back to gauge Bilbo's reaction.

For one final moment, Bilbo had a wavering sense of doubt, his mind crowing that some previously missed mistletoe could be the reason for Thorin's attentions. However, a brief glance up assured him that there was no hint of it around, and that Thorin's actions had truly been all his own.

Thorin's large hand still encircled his wrist, fingers brushing softly over his skin as if to reassure and Bilbo felt a giddy swoop in his stomach as he finally acknowledged that this was real . Thorin loved him just as he loved Thorin, and there was no reason to doubt or hold back anymore.

Gently extricating his wrist from Thorin's hold, Bilbo pushed himself up to his knees and closer to Thorin. Resting one hand on the dwarf's chest, Bilbo was entranced by the way Thorin's heart beat beneath his palm, strong and steady and slightly quicker than he expected, his fingers lightly curling in the fabric of Thorin's shirt for a moment as he marvelled at that heartbeat before he looked up into the other's eyes.

Thorin was smiling, the expression soft and utterly loving as he patiently waited on Bilbo to make the next move.

The hobbit was certain that his cheeks were warmer than the flames of the party's bonfire by now, but he forged on regardless, determined to return Thorin's kiss.

Bilbo left his hand resting upon Thorin's chest and moved the other up to cup the dwarf's jaw, his thumb brushing reverently over his cheek as he tried to commit every detail of Thorin's face to memory.

They had gravitated closer, sharing breaths before Bilbo's eyes fluttered closed and he closed the distance between them.

And truly, he thought as their kiss deepened, this was not so different from those shared beneath the mistletoe. Indeed the same loving attention and care was conveyed through soft caresses and bodies pulled closer, but now there was no question of how much of this was an act and how much was true. All of it was, and perhaps it always had been, and if they had not been such oblivious fools to start with, they may have realised this sooner.

Thorin's arms had curled around Bilbo's waist and pulled the hobbit into his lap, uttering a pleased sound as Bilbo parted his lips and allowed the kiss to turn from something quite tentative and careful to something passionate.

Soft nips to lips with teeth and a satisfied growl on Thorin's part caused the kisses to become as playful as they were fervent, and Bilbo laughed against Thorin's mouth as the dwarf raised a hand to tangle in his curls and massage his scalp. Thorin moved away infinitesimally then, only to swoop back in and pepper the rest of the hobbit's face with kisses.

Kisses to cheeks and chin, forehead, temple, eyelids, and nose. Bilbo's laughter was adoring and infectious, causing the dwarf to chuckle as well as he nuzzled the shell of Bilbo's ear then moved lower to mouth gently at his neck.

The sensation of Bilbo's pulse kicking beneath his lips was a pleasant one, as was the hitched gasp the hobbit breathed in light of such impropriety.

Endearments tripped from Thorin's tongue as easily as if he was always meant to say them.

Amralizu

‘Ukrad

Amrâlimê

Ghivashel

Bilbo snorted in amusement, lightly tugging on Thorin's hair to gain his attention and make him move away from the attention he was lavishing on Bilbo's neck.

"I haven't the faintest idea of what you just said." Bilbo's tone was as dry as ever, but the flush on his cheeks and how his eyes had darkened with desire betrayed him, and let Thorin know just how affected the hobbit was by his ministrations.

He could not help but feel just a little smug.

"Translations can wait for another time, but the general idea is that I love you."

"Well that's good to know, but I had rather gathered they weren't insults-"

Thorin grinned and cut off any further cheeky remarks with more kisses.

 


 

"I could come with you."

The words were softly spoken between one kiss and another and seemed as inconsequential as breathing, but held within them was the weight of an oath, and oh, how Thorin longed to agree to them, but he knew he could not.

They had not moved from their spot before the fire since they had confessed their feelings long minutes before, but they were now at least situated a little more comfortably; Bilbo curled properly in Thorin's lap as the dwarf held him securely.

"I would like nothing more, Bilbo. However, you know as well as I that you cannot."

In his heart of hearts Bilbo did know, though perhaps he did not know as well as Thorin the whys and wherefores, but he knew that following Thorin back to Ered Luin would be utterly selfish of him. It was but a small fantasy; his imagination enthusiastically disregarding reason in light of how he wished to remain by Thorin's side.

He had seen how little Thorin and his family had to call their own, and to add another person to their burden would be an uncaring act.  

"I know… I am sorry, I should not have said-"

"Were circumstances different I would not hesitate to take you with me but- There would not be enough for you there, Bilbo. My life is a frugal one, and though I've every confidence you would do your best to make the most of it, it would be far more hazardous for you than for us dwarves. We are made to endure hardship, we can survive with less. I do not mean it as a slight against you, but I fear life in Ered Luin with my family would prove too much for you to bear. You would have only three meals a day, and nothing quite as hearty as the fare you are accustomed to here. The climate is far harsher in the mountains, the work more perilous, and even the road home can prove dangerous as it is not protected as the Shire is."

Had Thorin spoken to him thus a few days ago, Bilbo may have mistaken this reasoning as patronizingly criticizing. However, now he was aware of the depth of the dwarf's feelings for him, he could see the warnings against him travelling to Ered Luin for what they really were: Thorin cared for him, and was concerned for his safety and happiness. And even though a part of Bilbo would love nothing more than to prove Thorin wrong and display the fortitude of a hobbit; he knew deep down that Thorin was right.

For all he had dreamed of adventure as a faunt: Bilbo was inexperienced and far too reliant on his home comforts now to make such a drastic change without unfortunate consequences.

If he moved to Ered Luin with Thorin, the dwarf would continually fret over him. Their food would be further rationed, their money stretched thinner, and Bilbo would have little to offer them in return. He was a scholar, a fair hand at spinning a tale or cooking a fine meal when given decent ingredients. He could sew tolerably well, and keep a garden with the best of them when he had help from his neighbour. However, he doubted any of these traits would help much in a mountain home where work was thin on the ground and resources little, at least where this particular family was concerned.

Bilbo nodded, though it was a quick, jerky little thing speaking of deep unhappiness, and the hobbit did his utmost not to let that sadness show on his face, as it would not be fair to Thorin.

A hand cupping his cheek and lips pressed to the crease forming between his brows effectively pulled Bilbo out of his brooding. He huffed softly, the sound closer to laughter than exasperation as Thorin moved to brush another kiss to Bilbo's mouth and murmured quietly against his lips.

"I cannot take you with me and offer you a home, not for the time being at least. But there is something I would like to do to prove just how deep my feelings for you are, if you would allow it."

"And what might that be?"

"The bead that I gave to you"-Thorin lifted his free hand to fiddle with the cord at Bilbo's neck upon which was hung the dwarf's bead- "I should very much like to braid it in your hair."

Bilbo leant back, a quizzical tilt to his brows and quirk to his lips. "Is this another dwarven thing?"

The dwarf grumbled, having quite forgotten that Bilbo would not know the significance and hummed in agreement.

"Yes, it is. Amongst my kind our braids have many different meanings." He paused in order to touch one of his own braids and draw Bilbo's attention to it. "We use them to let others know of our trade and chosen crafts, our family, our deeds in battle. Some are decorative only and change as fashion dictates, others… others are used to mourn those lost or celebrate new life, we announce our marital and relationship status with them as well" -here Thorin looked rather shy- "I should like to give you a braid and I would wear one too, as a way to let others know that we are courting, that is - if you want to."

The look of confusion had cleared quickly from Bilbo's face as Thorin had explained the meaning behind their braids, and the hobbit was now smiling, lips parted and eyes crinkling at the corners. "Of course I want to."

"It certainly would help remind others here that you should not be bothered by suitors," Thorin teased and was rewarded with a playful nudge to his shoulder.

"Oh hush, I am no longer worried about all that… though I am a little concerned that my hair might be too short for this braiding business."

Bilbo eyed Thorin's long curls and gave a gentle tug to his own short ones to highlight the comparison.

"You could always grow it," Thorin suggested with a grin. The very idea of Bilbo letting his hair grow to the length typical dwarves would prefer to wear their own left a warm and happy fizz in his stomach. "Though as it stands, I believe I can braid your hair without any problems. The braid itself will be rather short, but it will look well enough I think."

Bilbo did not answer Thorin's suggestion of growing hair, but the contemplative look he sent the dwarf spoke volumes. Bilbo would likely consider the idea, at the very least.

"Alright." Bilbo nodded, reaching up to untie the cord around his neck and handing the bead to Thorin once it was free before shuffling off his lap and turning his back on the dwarf so he could reach his hair properly. "I am more than happy to accept your braid, Thorin."

There was little to stop Thorin's heart from soaring with joy at Bilbo's agreement, save for the bitter knowledge that they would be parted come morning.

Still, they had the rest of the night together. And in this moment, sitting before the hearth as Thorin combed his fingers through Bilbo's hair, speaking quietly of everything and nothing at once together, Thorin decided he could not feel happier if he tried.

Chapter Text

Pale winter sun greeted Bilbo when he entered the kitchen the next morning, the soft golden light danced through dust motes and bathed the room in a warm glow, it was an overall cheerful atmosphere that was at unfortunate odds with the hobbit's impending sense of burgeoning grief.

He scowled at the cheerful weather; eyes narrowed against the light, as he shuffled past the kitchen table and made his way to the parlour.

He had no right to feel maudlin he knew this deep down. He had managed to confess his feelings to Thorin and those same feelings were returned. He should be feeling joyous, but the simple fact remained that Thorin would leave today, and Bilbo knew not when he would see the dwarf again.

Oh, Thorin had promised they would be reunited, that much was true. He had murmured the oath into Bilbo's ear, nuzzling his hair as he did so scant hours before as they lay curled in one another's arms.

The sad truth was however, that neither of them could tell just how long it would take that oath to be fulfilled.

Thorin could not say for sure when circumstances would allow his return and Bilbo could not demand an answer in good conscience, not when Thorin's family relied on him and struggled still.

The miserable air that surrounded Bilbo vanished as he stepped through into the parlour and was met with such a ridiculous sight, however.

Dinodas and Dodinas had clearly returned from the Yule party after the rest of the family and thought it wise to sleep here rather than risk waking anyone.

As such, the pair were sprawled in an ungainly heap on the couch. Dinodas lying nearly upside down, head and arms near resting on the floor, and one large furry foot jammed in the face of his hapless brother who was curled as unobtrusively, but still precariously, as possible with his own legs slung over the arm of the couch.

How on Earth either of them were still sleeping in such uncomfortable positions eluded Bilbo, and he felt laughter bubbling to his lips despite his earlier unhappiness.

"'Morning, lads! Good party I trust?" Bilbo called out to them, voice loud and bright.

The result was instantaneous. Startled yelps, wild flailing of limbs, and both his cousins went tumbling to the floor with piteous, pained groans.

A little cruel perhaps, but amusing all the same.

"Bilbo, why -" Dinodas whined.

"You're bloody evil, you know that right?" Dodinas' voice was muffled as he was unfortunately half trapped beneath his brother.

"So sorry boys, I couldn't resist."

Bilbo was not so cruel as to leave them there, but his kind hearted attempt to help them both to their feet proved his undoing when the pair decided to pull Bilbo down with them and sent him sprawling on the floor with a shout of surprise as well… brats!

Huffing as he tried to maintain some modicum of dignity, and sitting up to glower at his miscreant cousins, Bilbo came to conclusion that perhaps he should have just left them sleeping. It would have saved him the stares at least. For Dinodas, always the most astute of the pair, had caught sight of Bilbo's braid and with an unsubtle nudge to his brother's ribs, leaned a little closer to get a good look.

"Here, Cous', what's this then?"

"Your hair wasn't braided yesterday, was it?"

"Looks a bit like the ones Mister Thorin wears. Oh! That is the bead you were wearing round your neck isn't it?"

"Er, yes-"

Dinodas' eyes were shrewd as the appraised Bilbo's appearance, before jumping to conclusions. "I say, did you go and get yourself married without telling us?"

" What -!?"

"Well it's just that braid seems rather dwarven-"

"You n' Thorin have been courting-"

"Oh, and you snuck off from the party very early last night."

Bilbo did not think nearing midnight could be considered early and was about to say as much when he was saved by the appearance of Mirabella. His aunt stood over them with folded arms and quirked brow, a smile playing about her lips as she regarded the trio on the floor.

"I do hope you boys aren't badgering your cousin when he has been so kind as to host us these past few days."

"Mum! No, that's not it at all-"

"We just wanted to know if he and Thorin were wed now and-"

"Enough of that," Mirabella interrupted firmly. "Get yourselves up off the floor and go help your sisters get ready to leave."

She shooed them off smartly and sent Bilbo and apologetic grin as he scrambled to his feet now free of his overbearing cousins. "We won't stay beyond second breakfast, love. As much as I enjoyed visiting you, I think you have seen quite enough of us, hm?"

Bilbo flushed a little ashamed that his relations knew him that well. He enjoyed visitors as much as the next hobbit, this much was true, but having family around for any longer than a few hours at a time tended to leave him feeling rather out of sorts and drained of energy.

To play host to such a number of them all the way through Yule really had been trying, despite how much he loved his closer relations.

"Oh, don't fret so, dear heart. You are just like your mother you know. She was an independent sort, never much for playing hostess to relations for long. Not all of us enjoy such things, so there's no need for you to be feeling badly about it."

Bilbo dusted off his nightshirt before giving his aunt a grateful smile. "Thank you, Aunt Mira."

"Now, what were my boys pestering you about?"

Bilbo was not fooled even for a moment, if she had not heard the conversation in its entirety then the quick flick of her eyes to his braid spoke volumes. She had at least some small idea of what they were discussing.

"It is quite true what they said, they wished to know if Thorin and I had somehow been wed in the few short hours since the party." Bilbo rolled his eyes at the notion and gave the braid in his hair a smart flick with his forefinger to draw his aunt's attention to it. "They saw this in my hair."

"It is quite pretty. Does it hold some sort of significance to dwarves?"

With Dinodas and Dodinas Bilbo might be reluctant to reply, but with his dear aunt, it was a different matter entirely. She and Belladonna had always been close, and Bilbo had always been fond of Mirabella because of this. He knew that she was not prone to idle gossip or judging others for their choices much like his mother, and so felt no reluctance in explaining the significance of dwarf braids to her.

"-it lets others know that we are courting, you see," he finished, just a little quietly.

"Why had you not worn it before?"

The question was only asked out of kind curiosity, but Bilbo grimaced inwardly all the same. He could not very well tell his aunt it was because they hadn't actually been courting until now.

"I suppose everything was still quite new to us. We hadn't wished to rush things too much…" Bilbo then decided that perhaps some truth was better than none and continued. They would know soon enough anyway. "Thorin unfortunately has to leave for a while though- he… he wanted this to be a sort of reminder- a promise he would return I suppose."

" Leaving ? Oh, but whatever for? He's barely just got here."

"He has family in Ered Luin; it is a week or so journey from here and he needs to return to them."

"A week away or more? Oh, my dear, but that is so far!"

He supposed that to hobbits, travelling any further than the next town was seen as adventurous at the best of times. The notion then that someone would travel so far as to need a week or more to reach their destination was near unheard of! To his family, the news that Bilbo's intended would be leaving to go somewhere so far away might be met with disbelief and upset, he only hoped none of them would inadvertently make Thorin feel guilty for doing so.

"It is just the way of things, Aunt Mira. He is a dwarf after all; I can't very well expect him to give up his way of life simply to stay with me indefinitely."  

"I suppose not…" Mirabella allowed, though she looked quite upset on Bilbo's behalf at this revelation. "Well, there's little else for it. I stand by what I said; we will make sure we are all out of your hair before luncheon. Hopefully that may give you a little time of peace and quiet with Thorin before he has to leave himself."

"Thank you."

Nodding once, Mirabella reached out to give Bilbo's hands a quick, reassuring squeeze before she was off, bustling back through the halls of the smial and calling for Gorbadoc to get his 'lazy old behind out of bed'.

 


 

Mirabella was as good as her word. Proving she could be just as stalwart as her sister, she succeeded in wrangling not only her own family, but Fosco's family too out of their rooms and to the kitchen table in record time.

Bilbo's family voiced their dismay heartily when he broke the news of Thorin's impending departure, but Bilbo was relieved to find that not one of them made Thorin feel bad about his decision, nor tried to cajole him into staying longer. Though they were obviously upset for Bilbo, each of them knew the importance of family, and none would begrudge the dwarf returning to his.

Thorin, for his part, had sat quietly at the table looking politely bemused as each hobbit in turn offered their well wishes and quite a few friendly handshakes and embraces. He had accepted each gracefully, if a little bashfully, clearly still not used to so much attention at once.

Bilbo made sure to give Thorin second helpings of everything, seeing as the dwarf had been last to the table that morning (he had slept late, then began packing whilst Bilbo was making breakfast it transpired), and had what seemed to the hobbits to be quite a gruelling trek ahead of him. A little extra food in his belly would only be for the better in Bilbo's opinion.

Thorin, though clearly grateful for the food, seemed to crave Bilbo's presence more. He had pulled his seat very close to Bilbo's and if anyone noticed how they seemed to entwine their fingers atop the table whenever possible, Bilbo's family showed enough restraint not to comment.

It was only as Thorin made to stand and retrieve the dishes to wash that the dwarf caught Gorbadoc's gaze. The elder hobbit let his bushy eyebrows rise infinitesimally and gave a discreet nod between the couple, to which Thorin felt his lips quirk in a tentative grin and offered a nod in response. Bilbo's uncle looked rather pleased at that.

 


 

Bilbo's visitors left them shortly after second breakfast that morning as promised. Bilbo stood at the front door arm in arm with Thorin as he waved them off down the lane, each of them calling back farewells and well wishes, as well as promises to have Bilbo to visit them soon and their hopes to see Thorin again in the future.

Thorin felt Bilbo all but sag against him once they were out of sight, and for a moment the dwarf felt concerned, worried that Bilbo was upset by their departure, until he looked down to see that his hobbit wore a wan but tender smile.

"I do truly love them all dearly, but they really can be exhausting," Bilbo said by way of explanation when he glanced up and noticed Thorin studying him.

"Some peace for you at last then." Thorin grinned as he led Bilbo back into Bag End, only to have the smile fade when they shut the door and the dwarf was struck by just how large and empty Bilbo's home was when nobody else was there to occupy it. He had not noticed it before Bilbo's family came to stay as there was no comparison to be made, but now…

And he was soon to depart as well…

He might well think that his home in Ered Luin was far too small to house as many dwarves as it did, but Thorin thought he would rather have a home too small and filled with those he loved, than own a place as large as this and have no-one.

Bilbo, keen as ever, correctly interpreted Thorin's expression; the way his eyes roved around the empty hallways, the slight downturn of his mouth, and how he swallowed hard as if biting back some guilt-ridden remark. The hobbit felt grateful warmth war with the lingering sorrow he had suppressed all morning before sighing and turning so he was standing before his dwarf.

Pushing himself up onto his toes, Bilbo cupped a bristly jaw in his hands before swooping in for a quick, gentle kiss, which succeeded in banishing the ghosts from Thorin's gaze.

"I have lived here alone for quite a few years now, you know. I'm not about to wither and fade just because my family has returned to their homes and you are leaving."

Thorin said nothing to that, though his saddened countenance did seem to ease at the reassurance, and he simply pulled Bilbo closer, nuzzling into the curls atop Bilbo's head, arms surrounding the hobbit in a way that left him feeling wonderfully comforted.

Closing his eyes, Bilbo buried his nose in the folds of Thorin's shirt, inhaling deeply and smiling to himself despite the tightening in his throat. At length, the hobbit realised that Thorin's lips were moving against the crown of his head and he concentrated, listening to hear softly murmured terms of endearment interspersed with heartfelt promises to return.

"I know you will, you daft thing, but I know your family comes first so I daresay its best we finish packing for your journey home, yes?"

He did so hate being practical about these things, but it was only right to do so. He could not afford to be selfish in this.

"I suppose so," Thorin's voice held a hint of incredulous laughter and he pressed a firm kiss to Bilbo's forehead before continuing. "I will need to leave before afternoon tea if I'm to make decent progress today."

Thorin was correct of course, the days were short this time of year, and though his kind could navigate far better in the dark than most other races; to travel alone at night was never a safe decision for anyone. Better to head out early and travel as far as possible by the light of day than risk leaving later and travelling after sunset.

Pressing another kiss to Thorin's cheek, Bilbo stepped away, taking the dwarf's hand and leading him back towards their room.

"You carry on in here whilst I go fetch that food I bought for your trip- ah I do hope it will all fit though, there is quite a bit of it after all… bother… it won't weigh you down too much will it? I'd hate to hinder you-" Bilbo dithered and his babbling made Thorin fight back laughter.

 


 

To Thorin's endeared amusement, Bilbo was still fussing even as they finished preparations for Thorin's departure following a hasty luncheon.

"Perhaps you should take my mother's old sword, or I could have one of the Rangers guide you a little way-"

" Ghivashel , I already own a sword and I did travel all the way from Erebor to Ered Luin, I assure you that is a far greater distance than this, and far more perilous terrain as well. I will be fine, I promise you."

"I know I- well no, I don't not really… but I do trust you and you'd best not make me regret that," Bilbo grumbled. "I mean it, Thorin. Don't you dare let yourself get hurt or maimed or- or eaten, otherwise I'll do something most foolish-" -here he fell into distracted muttering as he double checked the pack holding Thorin's food- "like running off into the wild to hunt down whatever hurt you."

Thorin bit back another soft laugh at that and felt warmth bloom in his chest. This hobbit, who knew little of the outside world, spoke those words with enough conviction that it would put even the stoutest dwarven heart to shame.

Had Bilbo been born a dwarf himself, Thorin had no doubt he would have made a fine warrior.

"I will have to make sure to keep my word then. I simply cannot have you running off into the blue to exact vengeance… I saw your imaginary sword swinging and footwork when you told me that story about your Ma… it was pitiful."

Thorin did not bother to stifle his laughter this time when Bilbo squawked in an offended fashion and lightly punched his arm in revenge.

 


 

In far too short a time, the pair was standing once more outside the green door of Bag End. This time though Thorin was dressed for travelling and laden with packs, his sword once more sheathed at his waist.

Bilbo swallowed thickly as he let his eyes flit down the lane, on the clear blue sky, on the melting snow in the fields, anywhere so that he could blink away the tears that threatened to make his vision swim before he could dare look at Thorin again.

Do not be a fool. You will see him again, and Thorin does not need a teary-eyed self-pitying hobbit to make him feel bad as he leaves.

Wrapping his arms around Thorin and hiding his face in his cloak seemed like as good a way to hide his sadness as any and he took a few moments to calm his shaky breaths and compose himself.

Thorin's arms had embraced him readily, and Bilbo allowed himself a tremulous smile as the dwarf muttered more Khuzdûl endearments with a voice rough from his own sorrow.

"You really do need to tell me what all those words mean some day. It's not very polite," Bilbo, chided teasingly, his voice still thick with emotion but now even enough to be heard without a waver. "If you don't I will have to start giving you names in Hobbitish to even the odds."

"It is not usually something we allow outsiders to learn as I'm sure you know… but perhaps I can bend the rules a little." Thorin's reply was soft and nonchalant as if they were merely chatting over tea and he was not about to leave.

Bilbo chuckled, removing his face from the fur of Thorin's cloak so that he could affectionately press his forehead to his dwarf's.

"Stay safe." A soft sigh exhaled a pause and then Bilbo confessed with a quiet. "I will miss you. I love you."

Thorin's own breath stuttered and he took a moment to revel in this feeling once more before he would have to leave. The feeling of Bilbo's warm and sturdy frame in his arms, the gentle press of smooth skin at his brow, their shared breaths and every gentle brush of their noses and lips, the tangle of emotions knotting his heart a mirror for the way Bilbo's fingers entangled his hair, as if trying to pull him closer and closer still.

"I love you as well, and I will miss you terribly," Thorin replied. "I will be sure to let you know when I am safely back in Ered Luin."

Bilbo's lips on his smiled but trembled slightly, and after another few kisses, Bilbo reluctantly pulled himself away; stepping back but entwining their fingers and squeezing gently.

"Say hullo to your family for me won't you?"

"I shall. I think they would be eager to meet you." A small tilt appeared on Thorin's lips as he adjusted his pack more comfortably and added. "Especially considering all this food you've gifted us."

Bilbo sniffled and grinned, eyes over-bright and a little red-rimmed. "Farewell, Thorin."

"Farewell, Bilbo."

One last lingering kiss was shared and then Thorin turned and left, Bilbo once more left watching until he was out of sight.

 


 

The first few days without Thorin were probably the worst. Even though the ache in Bilbo's chest would not leave for a long time hence; the initial parting had been made more poignant by Bilbo having become accustomed to having more company in his smial over Yuletide.

The smial was quiet, deathly so, and Bilbo was reminded so strongly of the atmosphere the first few days following his mother's death that he found any desire to eat or clean or read fled him completely.

Every creak of the wooden floors settling or every crackle of the fireplace was Thorin just in the next room, or his family walking his hallways.

Bilbo would force himself into a task only to momentarily forget that he was alone and so turn expecting to see someone with him ready and willing to talk or help or join him in a meal.

Bilbo was sensible though. He was not one of those tragic heroes or heroines in a story who would pine and lament their absent loves and let their mind and health suffer for it, he simply refused to be. The notion was foolish and he had lived a long time without a beloved before now, and had lived completely alone for four of those years since his mother died.

He would be fine; he just needed a little time to adjust again.

And it was true.

Though his heart ached fiercely and dreams of Thorin returning to his side oft plagued him, Bilbo was first and foremost his parents' son. He was the son of an adventurous, brave, and resourceful Took as well as a sensible, competent, and logical Baggins.

If his parents were around to see him mope, they would have a thing or two to say and make no mistake. Bilbo rather fancied he could hear their very words when he passed by their portraits with his pipe that evening, and giggled to himself in imagining just how they would sympathise but at the same time try to cajole him into being happy and productive once more.

 


 

And so Bilbo accepted the ache in his heart with soft acceptance, whilst all the while doing his best not to let the sadness consume him.

He visited his aunts and uncles as promised following Yule and chatted amicably with his cousins. He invited Hamfast and his family over for dinner and did his best to keep his garden looking respectable despite the frosts.

He ate alone but banished his loneliness with reading and writing, and made sure every hearth in Bag End had fires in their grates, the crackling of the fires was an excellent way to ward off the chills and quiet that came from being the only person in his home once more.

The storm arrived on the eleventh day following Thorin's departure, and though Bilbo was fairly certain Thorin should have made his way home by now, he could not dispel the anxiety, which hollowed his stomach and made him wring his hands and fret as he watched the sleety rain lash at shuddering windows.

At least it was not cold enough for snow now, but still…

The storm passed and Bilbo stepped out of his front door the following morning to crisp, cold air, an opaline blue sky, dewy grass… and a very bedraggled looking raven sitting disconsolately on his garden fence.

"Oh good gracious," Bilbo did try not to laugh, honestly. It was a losing battle however. "Roäc… is that you?"

Roäc -for it was indeed he- glared .

"'Bout time you got up!" He croaked by way of greeting. "I've been sat here with drenched feathers for far too long."

"I am sorry, Roäc. I just didn't expect to see you- Oh, oh goodness is it Thorin, is he-"

"Your dwarf is just fine, Master Baggins. And would be rather offended at the implication that your first assumption was that he would not be, I'd wager." The raven gave Bilbo an imperious look down his sharp beak and then squawked. "Well, don't just stand there lollygagging, aren't you going to invite me in to dry?"

It was rather tempting just to leave the ill-tempered bird where he sat in his misery, but Bilbo could not help but feel oddly fond of the prickly mannered creature and so strode up to the raven to offer his arm.

With such waterlogged feathers, it was little surprise Roäc could not fly to him and Bilbo had to stifle more laughter as the heavy bird waddled onto his outstretched arm, grumbling all the way.

Offering sincere apologies, Bilbo turned and walked back into the house with his new guest.

 


 

Roäc was a lot more amiable once he had been gently towel dried, fed scraps from Bilbo's table, and offered a warm spot by the fire in the parlour.

He sat there now, preening his feathers and chatting with Bilbo as the hobbit cooked him some sausage.

"I came to tell you that Thorin has made it back home safely. He was quite adamant that you be informed lest you 'come haring after him with the intention of killing every possible threat to his well being between the Shire and Ered Luin' were his words, I believe." Roäc paused, tucking his head beneath his wing in order to run his beak through his tertiary feathers before continuing, his voice measured. "I would just like to say now that I think you are quite good for one another. Indeed, Thorin has seemed far more content since his time spent with you, though it is quite clear the gravel brained dolt is pining something awful."

Bilbo paused as he cut the cooked sausage into bite size pieces for his guest, his cheeks undoubtedly warm at Roäc's admission. "He- he misses me too then."

Roäc made a noise in his throat that sounded quite rude and fixed his beady stare on Bilbo with a tilt to his head as if he were trying to figure out if the hobbit could really be quite so obtuse. "You would be doing him a disservice to think otherwise."

"Of course, my apologies." Bilbo walked over to the fireplace, and crouched to set the little dish filled with sausage meat down beside the raven.

Roäc tucked in with gusto, his dark eyes gleaming as he ate. "And it is not a wonder he was so fond of this place, the food is certainly good."

Bilbo's lips curled into an irresistible smile, and he was half tempted to reach out and pet the bird; only for the kindly feelings to be quashed when Roäc finished his food, hopped over, and decided to use Bilbo's trouser leg as a makeshift napkin, wiping his beak against the fabric and leaving a smear of grease.

Bilbo huffed despairingly, Roäc cackled, and just like that, Bilbo found that somehow he could not bring himself to dislike the troublesome bird. He had character and a sharp wit to match his temper and Bilbo found himself oddly fond of Thorin's friend already.

"I have a message too from the Lady Dís," Roäc added as if as an afterthought and Bilbo rolled his eyes at having not been made aware of this fact before now.

"What was the message?"

"Her ladyship wished to thank you most profusely for the food you sent along with Thorin. It has helped the family a little and she states that you are 'a dear, kindly little soul'" -here Bilbo blushed to the roots of his hair, but dared not interrupt- "She also thinks, and I quite agree, that my services should be utilised in order to soften the blow of the separation between yourself and Thorin."

Bilbo blinked in surprise, his embarrassment from Dís's praise quite forgotten. "You would agree to relay messages between the two of us?"

Bilbo's voice was perhaps a little too enthusiastic, for Roäc turned his head and seemed to be attempting to hold back more amused cackles at Bilbo's expense. He nodded his head all the same, a quick jerky bob, a motion likely picked up from the dwarves.

"Just so, Master Baggins. Though I am afraid, I will draw the line at reciting poorly made love poetry. You will have to write that in a letter for me to carry for I refuse to speak it."

Had Bilbo not been red faced in embarrassment he probably would have laughed at the disdainful countenance the crotchety raven wore.

"I- I would not expect such thing from you, Master Roäc."

"Hmph, good."

Roäc hopped from one foot to the other, ruffling his feathers experimentally.

"I would also request not to be sent out in any storms. I have had quite enough of rain water for the time being I believe."

"Thorin actually asked you to go out into that storm!?" Bilbo cried, jumping to conclusions. "I thought you had just become caught up in it before you arrived this morning. He should have let you wait until it had passed! He-"

"Well…" Roäc turned his head, and if birds were capable of such an expression, Bilbo might say the raven looked rather sheepish. "He was quite desperate to send the news to you that he was safe, that much is true. However, he was not aware of the impending storm… I may have neglected to tell him of my concerns for its arrival and headed out regardless."

Why, you softhearted old fool . Bilbo's misplaced concern dissipated at Roäc's explanation and a warm smile stole over his features, any previous irritation towards the raven's attitude had melted away completely at this revelation.

Flying through a storm like that really must have exhausted poor Roäc…

"You know," Bilbo murmured, not wishing to seem as if he were pitying the bird. "I did hear talk down in the market yesterday of the likelihood of more storms in the coming days. Perhaps you should stay here for a day or two… just until we are sure you won't be hindered again."

Roäc looked up at Bilbo, his head canted to one side and eyes glittering as he seemed to read between the lines of the hobbit's excuse. He spoke not a word of it however and instead hopped up onto Bilbo's knee, stretching his neck so that he could give Bilbo's braid an affectionate little tug with his beak.

"I would be grateful to stay a while indeed."

 


 

Three days later when Bilbo sent Roäc on his way into clear skies with a small scroll bound to his leg, it was to include, amongst well wishes and endearments, an explanation for Roäc's late return and praises lavished upon the bird who was apparently not so hardhearted as one might first think.

It was to be the first letter of many in the coming months.

Chapter Text

Dís had always known she had a soft-hearted fool for a brother. The signs were there even when they were mere dwarflings growing up in Erebor.

Thorin would always be the one to take the blame for any mischief she or Frerin got themselves into, he would be the one to sneak them sweets, or come up with the most imaginative games. All this, even though he was older and would not have been blamed for preferring company his own age rather than trailing after his tiny siblings.

As they grew, Thorin would be the only one to willingly study poetry or secret away tales of romance from the library (only to vehemently deny owning such things when his friends would question and tease).

Stern but kind, loyal and brave, a stoic young dwarf who harboured a secret quixotic heart.

Even after all the ills that befell their family, Dís would still occasionally find her eldest brother reading an old dog-eared book of love poetry whenever he snatched a few quiet moments alone before bed.

Whereas she had always been more pragmatic and cynical especially after finding and then losing her One, and dear Frerin had always outright scoffed at the idea of romance. It was Thorin, gruff and bluster Thorin, who held belief of the sweetest notions of love close to his heart.

And doesn't this just prove it. The dwarrowdam thought with fingers pressed to her lips in order to hide her smile.

She stood, partially hidden by the doorframe to the combined kitchen and living area of their home, and watched with affectionate amusement as her brother's eyes grew soft and his expression downright smitten as he read.

Thorin had received his latest letter from Bilbo it seemed.

He laughed aloud at something in the letter and let a finger trace over the inked words there, jolting in surprise as Dís finally made her presence known and entered the room proper.

"What news from the Shire?"

"How do you know this is from the Shire?" Thorin raised a quizzical brow and attempted to look calm and collected, as if his younger sister had not just startled him as much as she had.

"Because I highly doubt any of Bofur's reports on mining quotas would make you blush like a love struck dolt."

Thorin winced at the reminder of work he had yet to do and decided not to bother retorting to Dís's jibe.

The Ur family was well acquainted with Thorin's. During the battle of Azanulbizar, one of their fellows, a toymaker by the name of Bifur, had been grievously wounded whilst fighting back to back with Frerin. To this day, he still sported the head of a throwing axe in his skull. It could not safely be removed as far as the healers could tell and it had left poor Bifur with a variety of afflictions, not least his inability to communicate in anything but Khuzdûl and Iglishmêk.

After the battle, Thorin had been sure that the Ur family would want nothing to do with Thorin or his kin because of this. He assumed they would take heed of the rumours surrounding the line of Durin's misfortune and distance themselves.

Thorin had been pleasantly surprised to find that the Ur family not only ignored such rumours, but instead made a point from there on to remain close to and defend Thorin's relations.

When the exiled prince had wondered at this during a visit to the family's home to see Bifur, Bofur had simply snorted and declared. "'s not right, the way they're treatin' ye. Load of old shale to boot, ye ain't cursed."

"But Bifur's injury might not have happened if-"

"Enough o' that. If there was truly a curse on you lot, d'ye think Bifur would even be here today to tell the tale? I'm jus' thankful I've still got my cousin alive and well. And he is well, no matter what others might think… a bit quieter than he used to be, but he's still the same dwarf."

Bifur had smiled warmly at Thorin from his cot and signed out his hearty agreement. Frerin had saved him from further harm, ultimately at the cost of his own life. Bifur would forever be grateful for that and the Ur family would always stand by the line of Durin.

Over the following years, the Ur's had proved their words true. Bofur, knowing that Thorin and Balin had been trained in many different skills for ruling and advising back in Erebor, was often keen to have them look over plans and ledgers for the mines he worked in. He always made sure to give Thorin and Balin the credit when things went well in an attempt to alleviate some of the rumours regarding their family being steeped in misfortune.

Once healed as much as could be expected, Bifur had returned to work as a toymaker and tinker, and had happily taken Fíli on as an apprentice, so that the younger dwarf might learn new skills and hopefully gain a lucrative employment in the future.

As for Bombur, his wife, and their large brood, they always made sure to slip Thorin's family more rations if money and food became scarce for them in winter and were the first to invite them to any celebration.

'Blushing like a love struck dolt' was all well and good, but the mention of Bofur had succeeded in reminding him that there was work to be done, and he really needed to look over those figures for the miner before the end of the week. 

Carefully folding the letter to finish reading later, Thorin pocketed it and gave his sister a calculating look.

"I trust you are not about to try and cajole me into returning to the Shire again are you?"

"Now, whyever would I do such a thing?" Dís cooed, adopting a look of guilelessness.

"Do not pretend to not know of what I speak, Dís." Thorin replied, his tone blunt. "You have not been at all subtle. You hinted at this 'ere the end of my first week back here had even passed."

"Is it really so wrong of me to want happiness for my dear elder brother and to try and convince him that we would all survive just fine without him being here?" She huffed, clearly annoyed at what she assumed was Thorin's obstinacy.

"Survive you might, but thrive you would not. Dís, you know as well as I that until life is more stable for us we cannot afford to be frivolous."

"I'd hardly call returning to your One 'frivolous', Nadad." Dís muttered her retort and Thorin pretended not to hear.

Cynical over romance she may be, but Dís loved her family dearly and the thought that Thorin was denying himself happiness simply did not sit well with her at all. Grumbling, Dís caught Thorin's elbow as he moved to leave the room and tugged him down in order to tap her forehead affectionately to his. "At least think on it, Thorin. We would get by if you did choose to leave, surely you realise that our family and friends would not see us struggle."

Thorin made a sound like a long-suffering and frustrated sort of sigh that left Dís sorely tempted to twist his ear, but to his credit, he did not argue with her, merely giving the barest hint of a nod as he stepped back.

"If fortune chooses to favour us this year, I will think on it then-"

Dís frowned, not at all satisfied with so tenuous an answer and forged ahead stubbornly; giving voice to a concern that had plagued her in the weeks since Thorin's return. "You may be content to wait on these matters, but is Bilbo?"

Thorin froze, half out the door, the slight hunch to his shoulders the only indication that his sister's words had clearly struck a nerve.

"I am not saying this to be callous, Thorin. I am simply worried for you both. 'If fortune chooses to favour us this year' you say, but what if it does not? What if we continue as we have for many years yet?-"

"Dís," Thorin's voice held a warning. "Enough please."

Dís frowned at Thorin's back, but did not continue and Thorin took his chance to leave, but not without a final remark that was spoken with no small amount of conviction.

"And do not do Bilbo or myself the dishonour of assuming we have not thought on this or that our feelings are too fickle to stand separation."

Dís waited until her brother was well and truly gone before allowing herself to flop onto one of the kitchen chairs and massage her temples with a groan of annoyance.

That had not gone at all as she had hoped. She had not wished to upset her brother, nor cast doubts over his relationship. She had only wished to try to make Thorin see reason and actually do something for himself for once in his life.

"Bloody dense as granite and twice as difficult," she muttered uncharitably.

It was her eldest who found her in such an attitude not minutes later, and stifled a grin at his mother's ill tempered susurrations over 'block-headed brothers' as he wandered over to the stove to make himself a mug of tea.

"Uncle Thorin giving you a headache again, Ma?"

"If you ever become half as stubborn as he, I am leaving you all to go live with elves I swear it," Dís mumbled dramatically from behind her hands causing Fíli to chuckle at the childishness in the action; it reminded him strongly of how Kíli would act when in one of his moods.

Without prompting, Fíli made a second mug of tea along with his own and set it before his mother, taking a seat opposite her and smiling genially when she finally removed her hands from her face and took solace in the warm drink.

"Thank you, Madtithbirzul."

"So, what did Uncle do this time?" Fíli asked without preamble, wrinkling his nose a little at the childish endearment.

That seemed to be all the prompting Dís needed, for she was quick to launch into a retelling of their argument punctuated with lamentations over just how abysmally stubborn her brother was. Fíli was hard-pressed not to laugh at that, for his mother had proven herself on numerous occasions to be just as bad as his uncle where sheer pig-headedness was concerned… What was that saying the men used? Something about a pot and a kettle…

"-So you are worried that either both of them will be hurt by the time and the distance apart, or that Bilbo's affections might not be as constant as Uncle's?" Fíli surmised as his mother finished her tirade and took a heartening swallow of tea.

"Yes, but your uncle's face was like a thunder cloud when I dared hint at it."

"I think my face would look that way if I was in his place too, Ma," Fíli said as delicately as possible. "You did just indirectly call their whole relationship into question."

Dís huffed, but did look a tad contrite, once again prompting a fond smile from her son just over how similar she and Kíli could be. Their hearts were in the right place, but Mahal knew the pair of them really could put their feet in it when trying to argue a point.

"I just want to make sure Thorin will not be hurt. I am happy for him, truly, but this is not a usual pairing and things could become difficult what with cultural differences and the distance."

"Why not write to Bilbo again?" Fíli suggested at length. "It might ease your mind to get to know him a little better."

Fíli regretted the idea almost as soon as he uttered it, for his mother got that look about her; the one with the too wide smile and slightly wild eyes that told anyone who knew her well that she had a plan.

"A marvellous suggestion! I will write to Master Baggins at once. I'm sure I can find out directly just how strongly the hobbit feels for Thorin if I simply ask him."

"Oh no, Ma- no I didn't mean-"

Dís was already on her feet however, as single minded as any dwarf could be as she ruffled her son's hair fondly and swept off to presumably go and write a letter.

Fíli sighed, sending a silent apology to this Bilbo Baggins fellow, and deciding that perhaps it wasn't only his mother and Kíli who could put their feet in it.

"More tea needed I think… and a smoke," he mumbled, hoping against hope that Thorin would not find out about this.

 


 

Dís would be lying if she said she had not been blunt in her letter to Bilbo. For all that she liked the idea of Thorin and Bilbo together, she wanted to make sure that Bilbo's affections were not some passing fancy more than she wished to befriend the hobbit at this time.

From the little she had learnt of this hobbit, she knew him to be decorous unto a point, but also possessing a sharp wit, a stubborn streak to rival her brother's own, and an attitude that did not allow him to suffer fools easily.

It came as no small surprise then that Bilbo's reply was curt, caustic, and bordering on impertinent.

It seemed that just as Thorin had taken offence to Dís's lack of faith, so too had Bilbo.

He had not even taken the time to write her a letter, but had instead dictated his response to her raven (she had dared not send Roäc, as she did not trust him to keep his beak shut around Thorin about this). The raven she had used looked positively gleeful at being able to speak so frankly to a dwarf, mischievous creatures that they were, and her beady eyes were glittering with ill contained humour as she awaited Dís's reaction.

"If I may, Lady Dís; I believe Roäc was quite right in his estimation of Master Baggins. I do not believe you have anything to fear." The raven, Brynhild, croaked as she finished relaying the message.

If the raven was expecting anger, she was entirely wrong on that point. Dís had listened to the polite but sharply worded message from Master Baggins with mounting amusement, and had finally given in to her mirth, laughing loud enough to make Brynhild ruffle her feathers in alarm at the sudden noise.

"Oh dear, I must apologise to him at once, he is clearly upset with me. I do love his spirit though, Roäc was not wrong there at all."

Brynhild was amused to see Dís still trying to contain delighted peals of laughter, and so wasted no time in fluttering closer to the dwarrowdam and repeating Bilbo's message again, her voice pitched to sound more like the hobbits' than her own. It was an action that only led to further helpless guffaws from Dís and she waved the raven away with a hand as she fought to catch her breath.

"Away with you, I've a proper letter to write."

 


 

It was to be the start of a steadfast friendship between Master Baggins and Thorin's sister. Following their somewhat tense correspondence before, Dís had worried at first that Master Baggins might be wary of any further communication between them. However, she soon found that her brother's umral was an understanding sort, and better still, he shared a lot of her humour and opinions on matters. It did not take long for the two of them to strike up a regular correspondence using Brynhild and a few of the other ravens living in Khagal'abbad.

Dís had intended to keep her letters to and from Bilbo a secret, if only because her brother was a suspicious old coot and she really did not wish to suffer his lectures on politeness and propriety, as if they were still in Erebor and such a thing mattered now anyway.

Unfortunately, her amusement's secrecy was short lived. She had not explained to Bilbo that she had neglected to let Thorin know of their letters, and so could not really fault the hobbit when he mentioned them to Thorin part way through Âfanak.

"Were you ever planning on telling me that you were sending ravens to Bilbo as well, Dís?" Thorin's voice was even but his heavy brows were drawn down in mild displeasure.

Dís managed to bite back the annoyed huff at being found out and instead looked up from her book and peered over the rim of her spectacles at her brother, the very picture of innocence.

"Am I not allowed to befriend Bilbo?"

"Aye, you are allowed, but you do have a habit of meddling."

"I do no such thing," Dís spluttered, utterly scandalised.

"You do meddle at times, Ma." It was Fíli who answered, voice quiet and amused, the braids of his moustache twitching up with his grin.

He was sitting before the hearth, one of Bombur's cooking pots in his lap as he tried to fix the handle that had worked loose earlier that day. Bombur promised him a good price if he managed to fix it quickly, desperate as the cook was for it to be returned to him.

Dís glared at her eldest, feeling thoroughly betrayed, only to be distracted by Kíli's voice, loud and accusing from his spot on the threadbare couch besides a smiling Balin.

"That's not very fair, Mum! You've been writing Mister Bilbo and we haven't even had a chance to say hello ourselves!"

"Nor shall you," Thorin grumped.

"Uncle! Whyever not?" Kíli's tone had taken on a quality that in a younger dwarf might be called a whine. Fíli was quite content to refer to it as thus regardless of age.

"Because I'm sure Bilbo has better things to do with his time than answering letters from half of the residents of Khagal'abbad."

"Oh, don't exaggerate so, Nadad." Dís sighed, removing her spectacles and setting aside her book so she could give her full attention to the conversation.

"Uncle is just jealous that we might take away some of Bilbo's attention," Fíli piped up, eyes alight with mischief.

"Oh no, I'd imagine the true reason for your Uncle's reluctance in letting you write to Bilbo stems from the fear that you might reveal embarrassing tales of his past." Balin supplied genially, eyes twinkling as he tried to coerce Kíli back into continuing writing their half-finished note to the head of the Merchant's Guild.

Kíli was hoping to join the guild and find employment in delivering goods to other towns and villages, those of men as well as dwarves. Dís had not been keen upon first hearing the idea, but Balin had convinced her that leaving the mountains every so often would be good for such a restless soul as Kíli. He was here tonight in order to help Kíli write his request.

The withering look Thorin sent Balin's way only served to prove that the older dwarf's guess was right on the mark and he could not contain the gleeful chuckle that escaped him as he added a nonchalant. "He's no need to worry about you doing so. I've already made sure Master Baggins knows the lot."

Kíli promptly burst into boisterous laughter, Fíli snorted and ducked his head, and Thorin's face paled the same time he barked an indignant, "What!?"

"You've been writing to him as well, Balin? How lovely." Dís grinned, seemingly ignoring her brother's outburst.

"Oh, now that really is unfair," Fíli harrumphed, conveniently forgetting that he had thought Kíli was whining when he had pointed this out before. "Ma and Balin get to write to Bilbo and we don't?"

"I don't see why you can't, Fíli. The hobbit will be your uncle by marriage in due time I'd wager, I'd say it's best you start to get to know him now." Dís said as she folded her hands across her middle looking entirely too pleased with proceedings whilst smirking at her brother.

"Dís!"

"Dís does have a point, Thorin. It would do the lads good to be in contact with someone other than a dwarf if nothing else. Things are far too insular for youngsters here." Balin added his two copper worth reasonably.

Thorin could only sigh, surrounded it seemed on all sides and simply grumbled, "And Bilbo thinks his family is tiresome."

 


 

Thorin had hoped that his nephews might have forgotten about the idea of writing to Bilbo. Their lives were busy after all, and neither nephew had ever expressed much interest in writing letters simply for the enjoyment of doing so... at least he had always found it terribly difficult to get them to write to relatives when they were dwarflings anyway.

Unfortunately, it seemed that in this case the idea of simultaneously befriending a hobbit and aggravating their uncle was too strong a lure, and so Thorin could only resign himself to his family's whims when he returned from blacksmithing five days later to find Fíli and Kíli both bickering over a sheet of parchment at the kitchen table.

"Kí, give the quill here, you're utterly hopeless! It's Master Baggins not Boggins!"

"Well how am I to know? These Shire-folk all have such odd sounding names."

"Look just hand it over, you'll smudge it all otherwise-"

"I have the neater hand of the two of us; so I'll be the one to write this."

"Troll dung! Your hand might be neater but you can't even remember his name rightly, just-"

"Ack, Fíli, you're going to spill the ink!"

"I won't if you just give me the quill-"

Thorin shook his head, somewhere between amused and exasperated, and decided to simply leave them to it.

 


 

If Bilbo was at all bemused by the magnitude of letters and messages he received from Thorin's family, he certainly made no mention of it.

In every correspondence Bilbo sent to Thorin he always seemed very grateful to be receiving the kind attentions of Balin, Dís, Fíli, and Kíli and seemed to cherish it as much as he did Thorin's.

Thorin in turn was immensely thankful to Roäc and the other ravens who had deemed it their task to keep he and Bilbo in regular contact with one another. Though he had noticed that Roäc always seemed a little miffed when another raven would be asked to go in his stead. The curmudgeonly bird apparently thought this was his task and his alone, but Thorin always made sure to sneak his favourite raven a few treats so as to sweeten his temper and let him know just how appreciated he was.

Indeed, the chance the ravens gave Thorin to keep in contact with Bilbo always lightened his mood and thoughts significantly. Next to spending time with his family, there was little else better than returning home from the forge or the mines to find another letter or dictated message from Bilbo waiting for him.

On occasion, there were gifts too. And it seemed that Bilbo was more than willing to make use of the dwarven caravans that passed by the Shire rather than burden the poor ravens with heavy packages.

At first, Thorin had felt uneasy in accepting more still from Bilbo. However, the way his nephews' faces lit up at the sweets and preserves that arrived for them during Âfmuhudtuzakh and then his sister's surprised delight at the fine cloth in time for Muhudtuzakhmerag was enough to placate any lingering doubt he might have had in accepting 'charity'.

Balin too received the odd gift, mostly stationary or books that the hobbit felt the elderly dwarf might enjoy; one particular stack of parchment was accompanied by a note that simply read 'To replace the lot that Fíli and Kíli stole and spilt ink over'.

Thorin was amused the day that he received a package of seeds along with Bilbo's letter of all things. The bag looked slightly worse for wear, and Roäc would not quite meet his eyes when Thorin wondered if a raven's beak had perhaps made that hole there and relieved the package of some of its' contents.

Reading the letter, Thorin found that Bilbo had been told by Balin of how plant life in mountainous regions was often on the sparse side. The hobbit had been upset at the very idea and so had procured some seeds from Hamfast that would thrive in such a climate. He instructed that Thorin should plant them, and that the herbs, small hardy vegetables, and alpine strawberries that would grow from them would taste lovely.

Thorin was not sure if he would make a good gardener or not, but he followed the instructions diligently and became quite protective over the little plot of land he had adopted for himself outside their halls. His protectiveness was rewarded in the following weeks as the first tender shoots of new plant-life began to break forth from the earth, and it filled Thorin with an odd sort of pride to know he had accomplished something very 'Hobbit-y' as Kíli had called it.

The dwarves themselves could not always afford to return Bilbo's kindness with gifts of their own, but Bilbo clearly understood, and Thorin's family did try all the same.

Fíli fashioned Bilbo a lovely set of brass buttons (with some help on the design from Kíli and Thorin), Dís sent him a skein of yarn made from the soft wool of the region's mountain goats, and Balin was happy to send Bilbo some books on dwarven lore that he had translated into Westron himself. However, he did stress that Bilbo should keep them a secret from other hobbits, it was not strictly proper to be sharing so much of their history with an outsider after all.

More than giving or receiving gifts though, Thorin was happiest when reading of Bilbo's day-to-day life in the Shire. He would sit beside the fire smiling at the entertaining way Bilbo would relay stories of his family and the mischief his numerous cousins would get themselves into.

- Prim and Drogo are properly courting now, did I tell you? I'm sorely tempted to send them a bunch of mistletoe, I still can't help but feel a bit smug about that, seeing as it was my mistletoe they kissed under at Yule, silly I know but still-

-Those daft Tooks will get themselves eaten someday I just know it! A whole horde of the little rascals went traipsing off into the Old Forest the other day. I had to go help the Bounders find them. It was well after dark before we got back. Thank goodness, I thought to take Mother's sword; I was certain something would attack us! You may laugh, Mister Oakenshield, but that place is enough to scare the stuffing right out of a fellow!-

-Finally managed to find out where that old meddler Gandalf has been. He was in Bree recently don't you know? I was there myself to visit the fayre passing through. Such wonderful items they were selling, I simply must tell you more about them in another letter, though I'm sure you've probably heard of most of them before being a dwarf and travelling around and all, but there were even spices from Harad and cloth, tobacco, and wine from Rhûn! I have never seen so many things from so far away.

As for Gandalf, I met up with him in the Prancing Pony. He told me he has recently been travelling out east. Something to do with two other wizards he'd lost track of some time ago. How do wizards even lose track of one another anyway?-

The sights he was describing though, they sound so wonderful, Thorin! If I were more of an adventurous sort, I should like to see them: Mountains and deep forests, strange creatures, rushing rivers and vast deserts. I never did get to hear if he found his wizard friends, we went off on a bit of a tangent I'm afraid. However, he did ask me to tell you that Erebor is doing very well. He stayed there for a short while to visit your uncle, King Náin; I swear Gandalf must know every person in Middle Earth! … Come to think of it, I'm not even sure how he knew that I was in contact with you. I hadn't even had time to tell him about Yule!-

- It will be Lithe soon, and the Mid-Year Festival will take place. I am looking forward to it quite a lot this year. I won't have to worry about anyone trying to catch my eye or ask me to dance as I am with you and the festival is for couples or for finding a partner. I think I am getting better at the braiding by the way. It was always so messy and uneven at first, but it's certainly getting better and the bead stays in place perfectly now-

 


 

It was a day for lovers. Thorin had discovered a little more about it from Balin, this Mid-Year Festival that Bilbo had mentioned in his last letter.

Every mid-year the hobbits would gather for a grand party. In the evening bonfires were lit and those couples already wed would jump over them for luck. Those who did not have a partner might look to seek one and would wear certain flowers in their hair to attract the attentions of a sweetheart.

It sounded like a pleasant event, and Thorin was deeply sorry he could not be there to spend the day with Bilbo.

"Why not send him a gift then?" Dís suggested when Thorin told her of the festival that evening over supper. "If you cannot be there yourself, it would be nice to give him something to show you are thinking of him."

"Dís he knows I think of him, and I do not really have much time to make anything before-"

"There's no need to make him something extravagant, you know that." Dís waved a hand dismissively and took another spoonful of stew and sip of ale before continuing. "I was thinking maybe you should give him something that is already waiting to be given."

"Which would be?" Thorin frowned, chewing thoughtfully on a slice of bread as he tried to puzzle out Dís's train of thought.

"You know Mother would want you to give it to him. There's no reason in waiting around for Fíli or Kíli to find someone, they would agree with me."

Without another word, Dís stood from the table and left the kitchen to go to her room, returning shortly after with an old, worn box.

Thorin's eyes widened in recognition and he shook his head almost imperceptibly. "If you will not wait for Fíli or Kíli, we might as well sell it for the money it would give us-"

"You don't mean that," Dís interrupted breezily. "Circumstances have been worse and we never sold it then. You wouldn't dare anyway; Mother would box your ears when you reached the Halls if you did."

For all the item inside was precious, Dís set the box down quite unceremoniously before Thorin.

"Send it to him. Mahal knows, you have given him a bead, a braid, and a promise, but that is hardly worthy of a dwarven courtship. Poor or not, we can offer Bilbo this."

Thorin sighed, recognising the determination in Dís's tone; he would not win this argument, and so lifted the lid of the box to admire the jewellery inside.

Thrain had made this for Frís as his first courting gift. It was a necklace, very simple in design, no more than a fine chain really, but the metal it was made from was precious beyond measure, mithril.  It was delicate looking despite the strength of the metal it was made from and a pure, silvery hue. A pretty thing and something that Frís had worn all her days.

Following the misfortune at Azanulbizar and the steady decline of their income, Thorin and Dís had sold most of their family's jewellery and heirlooms to men for too small a price just to survive. Dís had refused to sell their mother's necklace, however. Knowing others would not understand its true value; she had secreted it away and decided that they would honour their mother's wish instead. A courting gift it had been, and a courting gift it would remain.

With Frerin sadly dead and Dís already married before their mother died, there was only Thorin and her own sons left to potentially use the necklace as a courting gift, however.

Fíli did not seem to particularly care for such attachments, choosing instead to pour his heart and soul into crafting. Kíli, on the other hand, while far more likely to fall beard over boots for someone; simply did not seem to put as much stock in tradition as other dwarves. Dís surmised that even if Kíli did fall in love, he probably would not bother with courting gifts… and frankly, Dís would not be at all surprised if her flighty younger son one day returned from trading goods in some far-flung place to introduce them all to an elf he had married whilst on the road.

It was a pretty necklace, Dís allowed, but a bit too plain for her liking. She wrinkled her nose critically as she appraised the necklace and shrugged broad shoulders at her brother.

"Could do with a pendant or something really. We've no mithril to call our own, but I'm sure you could knock something together and send it to Bilbo in time for this festival of his." Finishing the last of her ale, Dís clapped Thorin firmly on the shoulder and left him to think on it and wash the dishes.

 


 

The necklace was a success. The heartfelt letter Bilbo sent in response was rambling and charmingly full of mistakes, as if he had written it in an emotional rush as soon as Roäc had arrived with his gift.

More amusing and endearing than the letter was the fact that Bilbo had asked Roäc to do something for him that left Dís and her sons near weeping with laughter.

The haughty bird had shifted from foot to foot as Thorin had read the letter with a grin lighting his eyes, and finally Roäc had had enough and croaked irritably that Thorin should come closer to him.

Thorin did, confusion causing him to tilt his head, only to startle as Roäc fluttered up to meet him, pressing his beak as gently as possible to various parts of Thorin's face and making odd little noises as he did, like one would hear from kisses.

"The wee rabbit footed menace wanted me to give you those," Roäc grumbled, thoroughly put out by all the laughter.

Thorin wasn't sure whether to be flattered or embarrassed, or possibly a little disgusted considering Roäc's breath smelled strongly of his last meal (some kind of foul carrion, Thorin would guess), which was something the dratted raven had probably intentionally planned as petty vengeance.

Well, at least he knew Bilbo liked his gift.

 


 

It was a some time after this, during Âfhumryanj that Thorin's family received another letter. This one was not from Bilbo, however.

A sharp rapping on her window had woken Dís. She had spent all of last night working into the small hours of the morning with some of the scribes (they were attempting to catalogue the library more efficiently) and so her brother and sons had left her this morning to sleep in.

Grumbling, her mind decidedly woolly, Dís grabbed her dressing gown and threw it on before stumbling to the window and frowning in confusion at the raven that perched outside. 

It was not any of the ravens she recognised.

"You have a message for me?" She mumbled around a yawn as she opened the window and let the large, dignified looking bird in.

Its feather's were far sleeker and shinier than the ravens they kept here, Dís noted, and it was clearly better fed.

"Yes, I have a letter here for you, Lady Dís." The raven stated in a formal voice, holding out a leg to reveal the scroll bound to it.

More confused than ever, Dís gently untied the scroll and unrolled it, eyes barely flicking over the words written there to alight on the seal of Erebor at the bottom instead.

The dwarves of Erebor never wrote to them these days…

Mere moments later found Dís entering the kitchen to where her brother and sons were eating their breakfasts.

Thorin looked up first and noticed the raven perched on his sister's shoulder and the way her thick brows drew together, fingers twiddling her beard braids pensively.

"Dís, is something wrong? Whose raven is that?"

Fíli and Kíli looked up then, Fíli nudging his brother and nodding toward the raven with raised brows, mouthing 'Erebor' to his surprised younger sibling.

Dís wetted her lips, glancing down at the letter again as if for confirmation before replying. "I've just received a letter from Erebor. It's from Cousin Dáin… Uncle Náin has abdicated."

Chapter Text

Life in the Shire had continued quite normally since Thorin's departure. With the passing of the winter storms, it became easier for Roäc to travel between Ered Luin and Bag End, relaying all manner of letters and small tokens.

The raven did not seem to mind; in fact, he had confessed to Bilbo that the regular flights made for excellent exercise. Ered Luin did not have as much need for messenger ravens as Erebor did, and so the birds that had followed the line of Durin from their ancestral home had found their lives quite sedentary in the years since. Roäc, it seemed, was grateful for the diverting change in his routine.

It was not only Roäc who came to visit Bilbo, however. 

The raven who sat upon his fence this morning was not Roäc, this much Bilbo could tell. He had become accustomed to how Thorin's raven looked and sounded over the last few weeks, and this raven was somewhat different. They were smaller and more compact for one thing, and as Bilbo approached, he could see that whereas Roäc's eyes were a fierce and steely grey, this raven had eyes that appeared greener in hue.

It could just be an ordinary raven passing by, but the intelligent cant to the glossy head and the calm way the bird stretched its wings as Bilbo drew level with it told a different story.

"May I help you?" Bilbo asked, no longer feeling foolish in talking to birds as if they would answer back, now that he had spent so long around Roäc.

"Master Baggins?"

Certainly not Roäc then. This voice was not as brusque as Thorin's friend.

"Yes."

"I am Brynhild. Lady Dís sent me to give you a letter." The raven stuck out her leg for Bilbo to untie the scroll, and hopped onto the hobbit's shoulder when Bilbo invited her inside.

He read as he walked, and Brynhild watched in interest as the expressive hobbit's face morphed from simply curious to outright indignant the further he read.

"How dare she!"

The sudden exclamation was enough to ruffle Brynhild's feathers, but not nearly enough to dislodge her from Bilbo's shoulder or dampen her mirth.

"Is there a problem?"

"Yes, there is a problem and I expect you jolly well know it, too! Thorin's sister is all but accusing me of- of having a dalliance with her brother and doubting that I will remain faithful if our separation lasts too long! That is absurd, unconscionable! How could she even think I would hurt Thorin in such a manner-"

Bilbo had taken to pacing the hallway of his smial as he ranted, steps brisk and brimming with offended anger. It was all Brynhild could do to keep her seat on his shoulder, and she dug her claws into the plush fabric of his waistcoat, opening her wings to keep her balance. She noted the stranglehold Bilbo had on the letter and did her utmost not to cackle at the odd little creature's plight. Roäc was right: this was entertaining!

"Perhaps you would like to send milady a response? To assuage her fears and clear up any… confusion."

Bilbo turned his head to look at the bird, brow furrowed in a deep frown and lips still twisted in annoyance.

"Yes, yes I think I shall."

"I will leave you to your letter writing, then-"

"No, I don't believe I shall send a letter, some things simply need to be said . Would you be able to relay a message to Lady Dís if I dictate one to you? Roäc has done so a couple of times for Thorin and myself."

Brynhild's eyes positively gleamed. "I would be happy to do so, Master Baggins."

 


 

Bilbo had been a little concerned, once Brynhild had left and his temper mellowed, that he might have overstepped the mark. He had not been rude, gracious no, but the reply he had spoken to Brynhild had been curt and bordering on sarcastic and Bilbo knew by now that ravens could relay the tone of a message very accurately.

He had fretted for a day or two after that, worried that perhaps he would offend Dís. After all, she was only trying to protect her brother… and Bilbo quite liked the tales he had heard of her and had hoped they might become friends.

Thankfully, his worry was for naught. Brynhild returned a scant few days later bearing another letter for Bilbo and this one was far friendlier and certainly apologetic.

Bilbo smiled as he read, invited Brynhild inside once more, and decided that perhaps striking up a correspondence with Dís as well would be no bad thing.

 


 

As unsure as their first correspondence had been, Bilbo soon found that Dís had a personality that closely matched his own in certain respects. It was quickly becoming as much a joy to see Brynhild perched on his garden fence as it was to see Roäc.

Dís always had such interesting tales from both Ered Luin and Erebor to tell him, little snippets of family life that Thorin had either not thought to include or else forgotten in his own letters, and there was wit and humour aplenty to share with the dwarrowdam whenever he told her of the exploits of his own relations.

As Solmath sped by and Rethe fast approached, Roäc and Brynhild were joined by yet another raven. The three birds never crossed paths, though, and Bilbo did wonder at that. Was Thorin even aware that others were writing to him as well? Bilbo found he could not feel anything but elated when he received another message.

The third raven was a soft-spoken individual with more in the way of manners about him than the other two. He was known as Ragnvaldr and was friends with one of Thorin's cousins, Balin.

Balin himself seemed like a jovial, intelligent fellow from what Bilbo could gather from his letters and from what Ragnvaldr told him. There was a definite fatherly quality in how he spoke about Thorin, and in time, how he conversed with Bilbo gained that paternal air, as well.

When Bilbo fell ill partway through Rethe, it was dear Balin who stoutly told Bilbo to get proper rest and even sent along a few recipes for hearty soups from a friendly cook he knew. Bilbo was not surprised to find instructions were also included for an elixir to help ease his chesty cough from one of Ered Luin's healers, Óin. 

Bilbo blew his red-rimmed nose and smiled, croaking out his quiet thanks to Ragnvaldr. His head felt as if it was stuffed with cotton wool, but he was certain that Thorin had mentioned an 'Óin' before. Was he not the fellow who could divine the melted tin and read portents?

Bilbo decided to think on it properly later when his mind was clear again. Perhaps most of Ered Luin's inhabitants simply knew one another, just like in the Shire.

Balin, like Dís, certainly had interesting tales to tell, and the week and a half Bilbo spent a-bed with his lurgy was made more bearable by the near constant stream of kindly letters from Thorin's cousin. He was grateful, though his raw throat was less than happy when tales of Thorin's youth Balin regaled him with rendered the hobbit near-choking with laughter.

In that time, Bilbo found that his own family could be just as diligent. He did not often fall ill, sharing his parents' strong constitutions, but when he did it usually took the wind from his sails for a short while. He was incredibly touched when Ruby came to call during the worst of his illness and spent most of a day with him, making sure he was comfortable and looked after. Mirabella and Gorbadoc popped 'round as well, and though Mirabella claimed she did not have the patience with the sick that Ruby had, she still made sure Bilbo had good company.

Bilbo shared with them some of the letters he had received from Ered Luin and was happy to see that his family thought Thorin's relations were 'very sweet' and declared all of them were 'fine folk indeed, it would be lovely to meet them'.

Bilbo's sickness ran its course, and on the first day he felt he could leave his smial and tackle his garden again, it was to find yet another raven perched on his fence.

The hobbit laughed and held out an arm for the newcomer, chattering to her easily as she presented him with a sheaf of ink stained, and scrappy paper.

Dear Master Boggins Baggins,

This is Fíli and Kíli, Thorin's nephews. We just wished to write to you to thank you for the lovely treats you sent us after Yule, and to introduce ourselves properly-

And so set the tone for the coming months. Thorin, Dís, Balin, Fíli, and Kíli all seemed to take to writing to Bilbo with enthusiasm, and Bilbo often found himself travelling down to Bywater in order to procure more paper and ink just to keep up with them all. He was always sure to check that the small flock of ravens that frequented his smial were kept well-fed and well-rested, and was sure to thank them as heartily as the dwarves who sent him their messages and well wishes.

When Bilbo discovered from some dwarven traders that there was a festival during Astron to herald the coming of spring, Bilbo was quick to send along some gifts with the caravan headed to Ered Luin. Sweets and preserves for Thorin's nephews, and some fine cloth for Dís. He recalled her mentioning how she would dearly love to make herself a new dress for the warmer months, for she so often wore breeches and tunics and they could become stifling. Therefore, Bilbo felt that the lightweight material he had purchased in a fetching shade of purple would be up to that task admirably and so felt justified in sending it to her.

Bilbo had fretted briefly, over whether Thorin and his family would see all this as unnecessary charity. However, none of the letters that followed showed any hint of this, and so Bilbo felt it was safe to continue. Hobbits, after all, did enjoy giving presents to those they cared for and considered family.

Food packages were always popular gifts with Thorin's nephews, as were books for Balin. He had also sent the dwarf some more stationary after he lamented that Fíli and Kíli had used and subsequently spilt ink all over his supplies.

He discovered from Balin, too, during a discussion over the geography of the Shire versus Ered Luin, that the dwarves had a difficult time growing their own foodstuffs in such a mountainous region, and so often relied on trade. Something that - Bilbo was all too aware of - could be costly, especially for a family who had little money to spare.

The letter prompted him to send some packets of seeds and instructions to Thorin with his next message and despite the bemused thanks that he received, Bilbo knew that Thorin would make good use of his gift. The hobbit was certain that the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that resulted from his careful tending would only help his family if times became particularly hard again.

Bilbo found, to his delight, that he received a few gifts in return as well. As thanks for the sweets, Fíli had made a set of brass buttons for him, and the hobbit was entranced by their beauty and quality, sewing them onto one of his favourite waistcoats as soon as the boys' raven had delivered them. Dís sent along some soft wool, dyed in gorgeous rich shades of red, and although Bilbo was not a particularly proficient knitter, he resolved to make himself a new scarf from the wool. It would be luxuriously soft and warm.

Balin, too, sent presents. They arrived with the same traders that he had sent his own gifts with. They were returning from Ered Luin and stopped off at Bag End in order to give Bilbo a parcel clearly too heavy for the ravens.

Bilbo thanked the traders and had them stay for luncheon, much to their polite confusion and gratitude. They were not used to hobbits being quite so open with their hospitality, they confessed, and had half-expected Bilbo to accept the parcel and then shut the door in their faces.

Before Yule, Bilbo may have been able to understand why. To the more nervous Shire inhabitants, these traders were a rough-looking bunch, all travel-worn clothes, wild beards, and bristling with weapons (merely for their own protection whilst travelling on the road with wares to sell, they were quick to reassure).

Now though, Bilbo could see the dwarves for who they truly were. Insular folk, admittedly, but kindly and loyal, holding a deep love for their kin and culture close to their hearts.

It was lovely to talk with these dwarves over a meal, and their initial wariness eased as soon as they noticed the courting braid in his hair. They were quick to open up then, happily chatting with the hobbit about their families and friends, their jobs, what crafts they excelled at, the adventures they had had, and the trials they had faced.

They told him that they were heading to the great fayre held in Bree at the end of Thrimidge, just as soon as they had finished trading in the small towns and villages south of the Shire.

One dwarrowdam, a slightly intimidating but friendly sort known as Ganila, offered to stop by Bag End again so that Bilbo might join them at the fayre. It would be slightly out of their way, she told him, but for one who was near enough kin already, they would be happy to make a detour.

"'Tis a sight to behold, Master Baggins, truly! So many different people of all races and wondrous items from far-flung places. Have you really never been before?"

"To the Bree Fayre? Never. Though I have visited Bree itself, a number of times in the past, I have never been there at this time of year. The prospect of attending a fayre, so crowded and full of big folk, would put most hobbits off even considering it." There was something about Bilbo's countenance, despite the wariness in his voice, which caused Ganila to smile, however. There was a spark of sorts in his eyes and an excited little tilt to his lips. Therefore, the dwarrowdam was not at all surprised when the hobbit continued. "However, I should very much like to join you, if it wouldn't be too much trouble."

"None at all!" It was Flói who answered. A burly, brawny, but irrepressibly cheery fellow who, by Bilbo's estimation, had eaten at least half of the seedcake he had offered them all.

Ganila rolled her eyes at having been answered for, but inclined her head to Bilbo and grinned all the same. "In that case, Master Baggins, we shall return for you in three weeks."

Luncheon was finished and more definite plans were made after which the group was off, leaving the hobbit with a brimming sense of excitement and a pantry sorely depleted.

 


 

The days passed and Bilbo found himself frequenting Hobbiton marketplace and even the shops as far away as Michel Delving as he prepared for his upcoming trip. His mother would be pleased that he was travelling again, and this would certainly be something more interesting to write about in his letters to Ered Luin once he returned home.

He ran into Drogo fairly frequently, and was happy to discover that he and Prim had officially started courting since Yule. Poor Drogo was running himself ragged trying to think of the perfect gift to give his beloved on his upcoming birthday, though, which prompted laughter from Bilbo.

"Drogo, your birthday isn't until Afterlithe!"

"I know, I know, but I want to find something special…"

"You know, I'm headed to the Bree Fayre in a couple of weeks. If you give me an idea of the manner of thing you'd like to give to Prim, I could look for a gift whilst I'm there."

"That is very kind of you, but I want it to be from me, you know? Something I found or made myself- Oh! Oh, I say, 'cous. Do you think your new dwarf friends would let me come along too? I wouldn't be a bother, I swear."

"Well, I hardly know them myself and-"

"Oh please, Bilbo. We can but ask them, yes? If they're not happy with the idea I'll not come, but I think I must try. I simply cannot go to Bree alone like you would, but I'd wager I'd find something perfect for Prim there."

Bilbo sighed at the earnest tone in Drogo's voice, and took a moment to wonder at his usually quiet and entirely Baggins relative. Primula had certainly brought him out of his shell, it seemed.

"Oh, very well, but if your mother comes for my blood for 'leading you astray' you have to defend me from her!"

"Of course, of course. It will be fine though- Ah, if you're to leave so soon I'd best go pack-"

"Drogo, it's not for another two weeks-"

"No, these trips abroad must be planned , Bilbo, and planned properly!"

Drogo was off before Bilbo could think to stop him, leaving the somewhat overwhelmed hobbit to sigh exasperatedly over what had just occurred…

Well at least the Baggins in him has not been entirely snuffed out by the influence of a Brandybuck lass.

 


 

Though Bilbo could safely say that being invited to the Bree Fayre by a group of dwarves was the most exciting thing that had happened to him in a number of months, there were still some adventures that could be had within the very borders of the Shire.

Just three days after his fateful meeting with Drogo down in the marketplace, Bilbo was disturbed from second breakfast by someone hammering urgently on his door.

"Not even enough manners to use the ruddy bell," Bilbo groused as he set aside his tea and marched to his front door scowling.

There at his door, with a fist raised ready to knock again was one of his distant Took relatives. This early in the morning, Bilbo was ashamed to say that he could not remember their name, not for all the pipe weed in the South Farthing. They seemed to be in an awful tizzy and Bilbo spied the hobbit's pony and trap outside his gate; the pony's withers were flecked with sweat as if his owner had kept him at a gallop for a long while.

"What in the world is going on? Is there some sort of trouble?" Deciding that pleasantries could wait given his visitor's harried appearance, Bilbo got straight to the heart of the matter.

"Mister Bilbo, we were wondering if you could help us. Da sent me here to fetch you, he remembered your family used to be good with adventuring and all, y'see, and that your ma had a sword and-"

"Please slow down, I can barely understand what you're trying to say." Although his relative's babbling was causing Bilbo to feel uneasy as well, he made sure to keep his voice firm and the lad before him actually paused to take what must have been a much-needed breath before he continued.

"It's my younger sister and some of our cousins, Mister Bilbo. They were staying with family down in Buckland and wandered off during the night, we think they went into the Old Forest! It's not safe in there for such little fauntlings. Da sent me to get you because he recalled how adventurous old Belladonna was and how she had a sword. We thought perhaps you could help."

Despite his irritation over having a perfectly good second breakfast interrupted, Bilbo needed to hear no more. Face set in grim lines, Bilbo nodded once to the young Took at the door and rushed back inside to grab some essentials and his mother's sword.

To anyone outside the Shire such upset might have seemed overdramatic. However, all hobbits knew of the dangers that lurked within the Old Forest and for a troop of fauntlings to have wandered in there and not yet return was ill news.

"Have the Bounders been notified? It's all very well and good coming to fetch me, but they'd likely know more about traversing the forest than I." Bilbo asked with a note of authority as he returned and climbed up onto the trap with the younger hobbit.

"Oh, yes. Da sent for 'em as soon as he realised Daisy and our cousins were missing."

"Good. We'd best get along-"

Bilbo wondered when he would learn to keep his thoughts to himself as the Took lad flicked the reins sharply and sent the pony into an immediate canter. Thrown back into his precarious seat, Bilbo gave a small hum of discontent but did not have the heart to tell his worried companion to slow down and so elected simply to hang on for dear life as they made their way down the hill and through Hobbiton.

They reached the edge of the Old Forest later that afternoon, and although Bilbo had hoped that the fauntlings might have been found during the time it had taken for him to arrive from Hobbiton, it was unfortunately not to be. It now seemed more and more likely that they would be searching for the youngsters in the failing light.

Jumping down from the trap, Bilbo gave the pony a pat of thanks and watched as his younger relative was embraced by an older hobbit who Bilbo recognised to be Isembold; this was one of his children, then.

"Good work, Ferdie."

Turning to Bilbo, Isembold nodded meaningfully at the sword at Bilbo's hip and the bag of supplies on his back.

"Thank you for coming, Bilbo. The Bounders have begun a search of the forest already, but you know what that place is like. Stray too far and you become hopelessly lost. I know you're no Bounder yourself, but you do own a weapon and are as spirited as Belladonna, we could really use all the help we can get."

"Of course I will help. We'll find them Isembold, I promise."

Bilbo certainly sounded more confident than he felt, but one look at Isembold's face, somehow far older than he recalled when lined with worry, had Bilbo's stomach in knots.

 


 

It took their group until well after nightfall to find the lost little hobbits, and Bilbo was more thankful than ever for his mother's sword. Each screech of an owl or call of a fox was an orc waiting to strike, each hushed murmur of wind or creak of the trees was some spirit coming to drag him away. If he was scared, then how must those poor fauntlings feel by now?

Bilbo kept a tight grip on his sword throughout the search, whilst his companion, a stalwart Proudfoot lass and Bounder, held their torch aloft and kept a sharp eye out.

In the end it was not even he and his Bounder companion that found them, but one of the others from Brandy Hall who had volunteered.

Three short blasts on a horn signalled the end of their search, and Bilbo sighed his relief, noting the relaxation in his companion's tense shoulders also as they turned and made their way back, following the line of string they had been given to help them stay on a true path.

It transpired that the fauntlings had not gone very far into the forest at all, but that the paths around them had suddenly changed and seemed strange. Foolish though the children were for entering the forest in the first place, Bilbo had to admit it was smart of them to decide to stay put rather than wander off to try and find their way back. They had been huddled in a piteous little group in a clearing ringed by large stones when they were found, and could not seem to understand why it had taken anyone so long to find them as they had been calling for help, or why the paths had seemed change in the first place.

"We only wanted to go on an adventure," Daisy sniffled into her father's shoulder, being coddled as much as she was scolded, along with the others. "But we couldn’t find the way back and the trees were whispering."

"The Old Forest is not a good place to have your adventures," one of the Bounders stated firmly, but as kindly as possible. "If you had gone further in than you had, we might never have found you. We tell you to stay out of there for a reason."

Daisy nodded, lip wobbling, and hid her face once more.

One of her friends and cousins piped up with a tremulous little voice. "The trees were moving even when there was no wind, and it sounded like they was tellin' us to go further in. They was angry when Milo broke off a branch 'cause he wanted a weapon and then all the paths changed and the air was strange."

"As they would be," Isembold shook his head and hefted little Daisy into his arms as he stood up. "The trees in there are angry at the felling our ancestors did . They don't like visitors to the forest and will try to mislead you, lad. That's why we've warned you against going in there."

The young hobbit nodded solemnly and reached out to grip his mother's skirts in reassurance.

The trek back to Brandy Hall felt a lot brighter once they left the shadow of the Old Forest, and Bilbo was invited to stay for the night rather than travel back to Bag End in the dark.

It was overall quite an enjoyable end to the day. His distant cousins and family friends staying up late, even the fauntlings, to enjoy well-earned meals and light-hearted stories so as to forget the gloom of the forest.

And the trip was not for naught, as Isembold had heard of Bilbo's impending journey to Bree and so gave him a very nice waterproof cloak to borrow before he left.

Nearing summer, he should hopefully not have need of it, but summer storms could occur and it would be nice not to arrive in Bree wet through and get himself sick.

 


 

Visiting Bree Fayre turned out to be most enjoyable. Bilbo had been sure to let the ravens know that he would not be at Bag End for a short while, but would be amongst friends. Roäc had seemed satisfied with the idea, telling Bilbo that he needed to 'stretch his wings more' and that his companions were all fine, trustworthy dwarves.

The aforementioned dwarves returned as promised and were thankfully perfectly happy to let Drogo join them. They found his company to be interesting and seemed to like speaking with him whilst on the road. Though not as knowledgeable about travelling as the dwarves or even Bilbo, Drogo certainly gave the journey his very best, always happy to offer his skills in cooking and cleaning in camp. They became cautious friends over the few days it took to reach Bree and the dwarves were mightily amused by the younger hobbit's staring when they finally entered the busy town.

"He looks like one of our rams, all slack-jawed and staring so," Flói teased good-naturedly.

Drogo did not seem to hear him and bustled off to go and look at a promising-looking stall selling jewellery from the East with nary a word to anyone.

Bilbo laughed as Flói quickly went to join him, the kindly dwarf making sure to steer Drogo through the thick of the crowds.

"Best to leave him with Flói, he'll make sure he doesn't get trampled," Ganila grinned and clapped her hands together as she added in a more business-like tone. "Me an' the rest have got some buying and selling to do. I trust you know your way around, having been to Bree before an' all? We'll be staying overnight at the Prancing Pony, so be sure to join us there this evening and then tomorrow we'll give you a tour of the fayre."

Bilbo nodded, grateful for the offer, and wished his companions luck with their business before wandering off to look at the wares for sale himself.

 


 

There were many surprising things to see at the fayre, strange items and ingredients Bilbo had never seen the like of before. New sights and new smells and tastes there were aplenty, and new people to meet as well. There were not a lot of hobbits that lived in Bree and so Bilbo found that those folk from far away such as Harad and Rhûn had seldom even heard of his kind before. Just as he was interested in learning about them, they seemed equally interested in him as well, Bilbo found himself nearly overwhelmed with polite questions and genial chats with these visitors to Bree.

The most surprising thing he found in Bree however was not any exotic trinket or unusually spiced cake, but the presence of a certain wizard in the Prancing Pony that very evening.

Bilbo had just settled down with a mug of ale and a plate of cold meats, cheeses, and bread when he spied the familiar figure of Gandalf across the room.

Excusing himself from the company of dwarves and Drogo, Bilbo made his way over and was quite gratified that his sudden appearance made the old man startle. Almost imperceptibly, it was true, but Bilbo noticed the surprise writ across his features.

"Good evening, Gandalf. Fancy seeing you here."

"Why, Bilbo Baggins, this is a surprise. It has been a long time." The grey wizard's eyes twinkled merrily, and Bilbo had a sneaking suspicion that perhaps his appearance had not surprised Gandalf as much as he inferred or Bilbo would have liked to believe.  

"Far too long," Bilbo replied cordially and took a seat opposite his mother's old friend. "What brings you to Bree?"

"Ah, the fayre of course. Such a wonderful event it is; so full of life. I try to attend whenever I am free to do so. I assume that is why you are here also."

"Yes, I arrived just today with my cousin Drogo and a company of dwarves who are trading here."

"Dwarves you say?" And there it was again, that damnable twinkle. "I am glad to hear that you've not lost your curiosity about the other peoples of Middle Earth, my dear fellow."

"Well- yes, I mean no- I find speaking with the dwarves quite agreeable, and their culture is most interesting."

"And are they free in telling you about their culture?"

Bilbo could not help but feel that he was somehow being led in this conversation and may wind up answering questions he had no desire to answer, and so decided to redirect their topic somewhat.

"Hmm, well not exactly free with telling me about it all. Anyway, I am curious to know why it has been so long since we saw you in the Shire."

If this was a verbal victory, and Bilbo very much doubted it was, it was only because Gandalf was allowing him to win. Still, the old wizard did not pry further and decided to indulge Bilbo in his question.

"Wizards are a busy sort, Master Baggins. We cannot simply go where we wish and when we wish." Gandalf replied with an offended air.

"Somehow I do not believe that," Bilbo muttered low under his breath, hoping that Gandalf did not hear.

He recalled very well how Gandalf would turn up at the most unexpected of times simply to enjoy a summer in the Shire, or a party, or to regale a much younger version of himself with tales of his daring mother. Belladonna would always laugh and declare that he would give Bilbo 'dangerous ideas', but she had always looked rather pleased at the prospect as well.

"As it is," Gandalf continued. "I have been far to the east, searching for two of my fellow wizards. Unfortunately, I lost contact with them quite some time ago. I had hoped to speak with them again…"

Once he began, Gandalf was as eager to share his tales, as he had been when Bilbo was a faunt. As the evening wore on, Bilbo invited Gandalf to sit with Drogo and the dwarves and the wizard happily obliged, making mention of how he had visited Erebor to see how King Náin fared these days.

The dwarves were curious, and many of their group who had never been to the great dwarven kingdom were full of questions for their guest.

Gandalf answered them all as best he could, and if his eyes occasionally strayed to the braid hanging in front of Bilbo's ear, he made no mention of it.

 


 

The trip to Bree lasted several days, the dwarves taking their time in purchasing and selling what they needed for the best price possible. Drogo was grateful as this gave him time to find Primula the perfect gift, and Bilbo was happy just to spend his days wandering the market stalls and taking in the cheerful, frenetic atmosphere of the fayre.

Gandalf stayed with their group for a time, seemingly content to offer the dwarves his advice on any particular unknown item and its worth if they requested it (after all, if dwarves were long-lived and well-travelled, then wizards were all the more so, and sometimes their advice could be invaluable). He also took time to show Bilbo around the lesser-known places at the fayre, for which Bilbo was very grateful. He would not have seen nearly as many interesting sights if he had not had the wizard for company.

Finally, visitors to the fayre began to slow to a trickle, and the stall owners started to pack up to move on to their next town. The dwarves, Bilbo, Drogo, and Gandalf left that day. Gandalf travelled with them for a league or so before announcing that his destination was further to the west than theirs, and so offered his farewells and well-wishes as they reached a fork in the road. Bilbo called after him to invite him to tea whenever he wished, for meddler or no, the wizard was a good friend.

The journey back to Hobbiton was uneventful, though the steadily warming weather did make the trek back a little more uncomfortable than when they had started out.

For the most part they were content to simply talk about the fayre and their purchases, and all of them admired the brooch that Drogo had finally decided on for Primula. A beautiful thing it was, silver shaped into a small posy of flowers, studded with gems of various hues.

"I'm thinking perhaps I should gift this to Prim at the Mid-Year Festival rather than my birthday," Drogo confided to Bilbo. "It seems a little too ostentatious for a birthday mathom."

Bilbo agreed. Usually birthday mathoms were little items a hobbit already owned and gifted to friends and relatives. This brooch, so beautifully made and fine-looking would be far more fitting to give during Lithe.

The reminder of the Mid-Year Festival did admittedly leave Bilbo feeling rather maudlin, though he could not think why until he reached Bag End and was reminded of how empty his smial was once the dwarves had gone on their way once more.

Lithe was a time for lovers, and his just so happened to be in Ered Luin and would not be around for him to ask for a dance at the festival.

Bilbo was quick to push away any sadness, reminding himself that at least this year he would not have to worry about anyone pestering him for a dance. He was a hobbit courting already; word had spread like wildfire after Yule and by now, everyone knew what the braid in Bilbo's hair signified.

There was something quite gratifying about that.

Especially because his hair seemed to be something of an annoyance to Lobelia…

Bilbo had barely set his pack down after returning from Bree before he was off out the door again in order to re-supply his pantry. In fact, he had not even bothered to change from his travelling clothes. He had decided he might as well buy some necessities first and then consider a long bath and a clean set of clothes after.

In the months following Yule, Bilbo had decided that if he was going to wear the braid of a dwarf, he might as well attempt to grow his hair like one (it was practical after all, as it made braiding much easier). His curls, which before Yule had barely reached the nape of his neck, had now grown to brush his shoulders.

Bilbo found that he quite liked wearing his hair longer, and as he walked down to Hobbiton's marketplace in plain, sturdy clothes still dusty from travel, he realised that he must make quite a surprising sight for the more well-to-do residents of the Shire.

It was not surprising, then, that when he ran into Lobelia at Missus Boffins' fruit stall, his cousin looked entirely unimpressed with his appearance.

Bilbo correctly interpreted the expression on her face and smiled brightly, making sure to push a long lock of hair back behind his ear as if to make a point as he wished her a good afternoon.

His prickly cousin seemed as if she dearly wished to say something, to berate him or disparage the way he looked, but bit her tongue and decided against it. For no matter how odd Lobelia found Bilbo’s new appearance, the people of Hobbiton had heard nothing but good things about Thorin, and to speak ill of how Bilbo, and by extension the dwarf, looked would likely be frowned upon. Lobelia did love to make a scene, but she was not so foolish as to do so at the cost of her own reputation.

Still, seeing his cousin so irritated by his very appearance did give Bilbo a small and slightly petty sense of joy and it was a feeling that buoyed him through the twinge of loneliness he experienced when he returned home.

Chapter Text

The letters began anew shortly after Bilbo's return; his friends in Ered Luin had been interested to hear of his time in Bree and the dwarves he met. Kíli claimed that Flói was 'ruddy brilliant company' (he had met him on a few occasions thanks to Balin) and that he hoped he would get to travel with him when he began trading outside the mountains himself.

Thorin it seemed had realised the significance of Lithe and the Mid-Year Festival. For shortly before Lithe, Bilbo received both a message and a gift.

Roäc landed on Bilbo's fence as the hobbit attempted to dig ground baked hard from the sun, his wings making so soft a sound that Bilbo did not realise he was there before he spoke.

"I doubt you'll get through that lot with anything less than a mattock, Master Baggins."

The sound of his voice caused the hobbit to jump and yelp, falling backwards onto his bottom.

Naturally, Roäc cackled.  

"Oh, and you'd know all about gardening would you?" Bilbo demanded tartly, glaring up from under the brim of his sunhat at the bird.

"Just enough to know which of your vegetables taste best and where the juiciest worms are," Roäc shot back smugly. "I live with dwarves, Master Baggins. I flatter myself that I know at least a little of how digging works, even if I do not partake in it myself."

Bilbo snorted.

"I also know that if you do not put some aloe on that twitchy nose of yours, it will be red raw on the 'morrow."

Bilbo stood, dusting off his breeches and then holding out an arm to the sardonic bird. "Duly noted. What have you for me today, my friend?"

"A message and a present from your love-struck dwarf."

Retreating under the cool shade of one of Bag End's apple trees, Bilbo set Roäc on one of the low branches and untied the worn and faded velvet pouch on his leg. It was very light, and Bilbo was half-tempted to tease Roäc and accuse him of losing the gift. However, he could easily discern a small lump of a shape within the pouch and so resisted the urge. Roäc was always a very diligent messenger and proud of that.

Tipping the pouch into his hand, Bilbo was surprised when a silvery length of chain slid like water into his palm, onto which was threaded the semblance of an acorn. It was not a true acorn, but an excellent likeness of one, carved from wood by the look of things.

Bilbo held up the necklace before him and admired it in every light, his voice quiet and just a touch reverent when he finally spoke. "It's beautiful."  

Roäc leaned in, giving the chain a little tap with his beak. "This is mithril, one of the rarest metals in Middle Earth, not to mention the strongest. It is highly prized amongst all races, and this chain originally belonged to Thorin's mother."

"It is that precious? Oh but surely I can't-"

"If you are about to state that you cannot accept such a gift because of it's worth and Thorin's circumstances I will peck you," Roäc drawled. "The lady Dís told me this was a courting gift passed through the family. As neither Fíli nor Kíli have shown any interest in courting as of yet, the family was more than happy for Thorin to give this to you."

Bilbo swallowed the argument that had been on the tip of his tongue and nodded, letting his fingertips trace over the fine chain admiringly. "… And the acorn?"

"Dís felt, and Thorin agreed, that the necklace was a little plain, lovely as it is. Thorin wished for it to be a little more personal, so he carved that acorn as a pendant for you. He felt there was a connection: the oak tree above your home, and his epithet."

Bilbo nodded in understanding, a rather besotted smile stealing over his features.

"Did Thorin tell you the tale of how he came to bear that name?"

"Yes, in the battle of Azanulbizar. He told me over Yule."

"Correct. The wood he carved that acorn from was from that oaken branch. He still keeps the shield, and has modified it somewhat over the years. This piece of wood was an off-cut. I doubt you hobbits would find that terribly romantic, but it is rather a bold declaration for a dwarf to gift their One something made of an old weapon or shield. It symbolises that their love guards and strengthens their heart."  

Bilbo, Roäc thought, looked utterly moonstruck, as daft as the raven had ever seen him.

"He wished to let you know that he is sorry he cannot be here for your Mid-Year Festival, but hopes that this gift will show his affections and be of some consolation."

"Soppy old dwarf." Bilbo's voice was entirely affectionate.

"Hm, he is that."

"As are you," Bilbo teased and was pleased by Roäc's offended sputtering and denials. "Though you are a wonderful messenger, too, worthy of a few treats I daresay."

That placated the raven nicely, and he fluffed his feathers in a self-satisfied manner. "Sausages? Maybe some bacon bits?"

"Oh, certainly. I also have a return message for Thorin if you would be amenable."

Roäc agreed readily, though rather regretted it moments later when he was showered with kisses to return to the dwarf and had to bat the laughing hobbit away with his wings.

 


 

For all Bilbo still felt the odd tug of loneliness, especially during the Mid-Year Festival, he quickly found that the beautiful necklace he had taken to wearing all the time was something of a charm for him, and he would toy with it whenever a sense of longing would threaten to overtake him. It gave him a wonderful feeling of comfort.

The year marched steadily on, Winterfilth bringing with it his birthday, which was celebrated grandly in the Shire, and quietly by way of heartfelt letters and small gifts to and from Ered Luin. His dwarves had been most surprised by the hobbit custom of giving gifts to others on one's birthday, but were grateful all the same, as was Bilbo for the presents he received in turn.

With the progression of the month came with it a crisper turn in the weather, celebrations of the last harvests in preparation for winter, and a most unexpected letter from Dís.

Bilbo received it early one morning whilst sleepily cooking breakfast. He ushered Roäc in his window, inviting him to help himself to scraps. The raven was uncharacteristically quiet, and that immediately set Bilbo on edge.

He set aside the plate of toast in front of him in favour of unfurling the letter and reading, suddenly not caring one whit if his food went cold. Roäc was there to finish it anyway.

Dear Bilbo,

I am writing to let you know that we have received some shocking news from Erebor.

Our Uncle Náin, King Under the Mountain, has abdicated.

Bilbo frowned. It was quite unusual for dwarven rulers to abdicate, from what he had learnt of their ways. Usually they reigned until their deaths. However, he supposed ill health could not be ruled out, and Thror had been deposed due to an unsound mind. So maybe it was not as unheard of as he assumed.

The news came as something as a surprise to us, and although we have been assured that Uncle Náin is in good health and all is well in Erebor politically, it seems that our uncle feels that age is slowly catching up to him. As such, he claims that he wishes to spend the rest of his years in a position that is, to quote his own words, 'not quite so bloody stressful'. He was after all a lord of the Iron Hills, not a king, and his kingship of Erebor happened quite unexpectedly.

Though our uncle is a good dwarf, and was a fair and just ruler, he did take stock in the rumours that claimed our bloodline was cursed. As such, we did not hear much from him in the past years, nor did we receive aid or trade following Azanulbizar. We do not begrudge him this, for these rumours took on a life all their own, and must have seemed such an ill omen by the time they reached Erebor.

However, our cousin Dáin, who is Náin's son and heir, is a very modern sort. He has never stood by convention quite so sternly, nor is he at all superstitious.

He has in fact kindly offered us a place back in Erebor, should we wish it.

Bilbo paused in his reading, his throat tightening with icy dread, and his stomach falling somewhere down by his furry toes.

Erebor was a world away.

And though life would certainly be easier for Thorin's family there, if Thorin lived so far away then-

He forced himself to keep reading, sensing Roäc's eyes upon him, only to let out a shuddering breath of relief, followed by a feeling of hot guilt creeping up the back of his neck at the words that awaited him.

However, even though Erebor is our ancestral home, I confess it has not felt like home for many a year and the rest of the family agrees with me. We have therefore let Dáin know that we will not be joining him in Erebor, and he is happy for us. Indeed, now that his father no longer rules, and many of his advisors are retiring their positions themselves, Dáin has promised us financial aid to lessen our burdens. This will be a great boon to us and we feel we will be far happier remaining in Ered Luin with the family and friends we have here, now that we will be able to afford to do so comfortably.

This is also wonderful news considering the upcoming Durin's Day celebrations next month. For the first time in many a year, we will be able to celebrate properly! I have to confess I feel quite like a dwarfling again. This will be wonderful.

Bilbo laughed then, Dís's joy practically palpable in the letter. He was certain that if she was excited, then Fíli and Kíli must be near insufferable with it. He would have to send Thorin his condolences.

Roäc had fluttered over to the hobbit's side at the sound of his relief and laughter and perched upon his shoulder, quiet, throaty, cooing sounds in Bilbo's ear let him know that the raven was happy with this outcome also.

I should warn you that letters from Ered Luin might cease for a short time during our celebrations. I apologise, but this is an important event for us dwarves and we are always incredibly busy leading up to and on Durin's Day.

We shall however, be sending you a gift, and I want no arguments, Bilbo! We can afford this now and we would be happy if you would accept, after all you have given us.

We will be sure to send it along with the next caravan passing the Shire.

Remaining ever at your service and with much love and best wishes for Durin's Day,

Dís.

"Goodness knows what she plans to send if it requires sending it along with the caravan." Bilbo chuckled and tickled Roäc's throat with a gentle forefinger.

The raven made a sound akin to a purr and shut his eyes cat-like before answering. "Well, Balin has sent you books that way before, as we cannot carry them. I should imagine it is something along those lines. Do not fuss; I doubt it is a statue or anything too big to fit in your smial."

Bilbo paled at the thought and Roäc chuckled wickedly.

The hobbit nibbled his lower lip thoughtfully for a moment and the raven could see there was something conflicting in his thoughts. "Out with it. You're fretting over something."

"I'm just- they are happy in Ered Luin, aren't they?"

A sharp nip to Bilbo's finger had him uttering a pained shout and he flapped his hand to dispel the sting as soon as Roäc released him.

"What was that for!?"

"You were feeling sorry for yourself. Thinking so much of your influence that you assumed Thorin and his kin might have chosen Ered Luin over Erebor because they were afraid of hurting you."

"I was n-"

"Do not lie to me, you wee scrap."

"Well what did you expect me to think? Erebor would be a far better place for them wouldn't it?"

"Yes and no. Erebor is their ancestral home. There are elements of it that they miss and would dearly love to see again. However, Ered Luin provided them a place to live when they were essentially exiles. They have friends there, family, and now that they will have enough coin to thrive, they will have a comfortable life there too… and yes, there was you to consider as well, but you were only one of many factors in their decision, Master Baggins."

Bilbo was examining the finger Roäc had bitten for broken skin, and though he made a show of it there was no real damage; he merely wanted a distraction from the deep embarrassment he felt over his being scolded by a bird. He had not felt quite so foolish in many a year. Roäc was right of course: his train of thought bordered on conceited to presume that the main reason for Thorin's family deciding to stay would be that they would not wish to cause him pain.

He was glad that was not the case, though; he would have felt guilty for the rest of his days if his friends had denied themselves a chance to return home purely because of a tentative romance between himself and Thorin.

Roäc noticed the red splashed across Bilbo's cheeks and warming his ears, and clucked affectionately as Bilbo frowned, prodding at his bitten finger.

"Oh come now, I didn't even break the skin. Thorin can tell you I am capable of a lot worse when you really vex me."

"You have bitten him as well?" Bilbo looked up to offer Roäc a wry smile.

"Plenty of times. Fool of a dwarf likes to feel sorry for himself more than is healthy. Someone has to knock sense back into that thick skull of his."

"You are a harsh little crow you know." Bilbo grumbled but gave in and scritched along Roäc's back when the bird wriggled beneath his hand, happy to ignore the intentional slight against his lineage.

"And yet, an excellent messenger… which reminds me, I don't suppose there's a chance of some eggs today, is there?"

Bilbo huffed, trying not to laugh at the raven's brazen attitude, but went to fetch him some eggs all the same.

 


 

As Winterfilth drew to a close and Blotmath began, Bilbo found that Dís had spoken true. There was a sorry lack of messages arriving from Ered Luin this month. However, Bilbo was incredibly happy to know that this was due to his friends preparing to participate in the celebration of their New Year.  

He had read a little about Durin's Day in the books Balin had sent him, and coupled with the traditions Thorin had explained, Bilbo felt he now had quite a good idea of what the holiday entailed. It sounded like a very joyous event, and Bilbo had made sure to send Ragnvaldr back the last time he visited with well wishes for a prosperous Durin's Day along with a tiny good luck charm for each of the dwarves he knew.

The air was growing chilly now, and with heavy leaden skies prowling overhead this day, Bilbo was grateful for the scarf he had knitted with the wool Dís had sent him some months ago.

The hobbit hummed a quiet tune, breath gusting like a cloud before him as he marched back up the Hill after spending his day traversing Frogmorton. He had been fortunate enough to beg a lift on one of the farmer's carts who had been headed that way, but had had to walk back. He was looking forward to a warm hearth and an evening of quiet reading in his favourite armchair as soon as he reached Bag End; the sun had set a short time ago and the paltry heat of the day had gone with it. Still, it was pleasant to be out in the fresh air, even if it was cold, and Bilbo found he was enjoying the exercise. It would mean he would have a healthy appetite for dinner if nothing else, and he considered what might make a good meal this evening… fish, perhaps.

It was as he rounded the corner into Bagshot Row and neared Bag End that Bilbo noticed something slightly unusual.

Someone was waiting for him at his gate.

Bilbo frowned and tried to recall if he had made any appointments or arrangements that he might have forgotten but decided he certainly had none.

The silhouette of the individual was indistinct at this distance in the dark but as he drew nearer Bilbo realised that whoever was waiting for him could not be a hobbit, they were too tall. Further than that though, Bilbo could not tell. It could be a dwarf, he supposed, the shape was not tall enough to be one of the Rangers.

Whoever they were, they had obviously travelled some distance to end up outside his home. They had a pony with them that was laden with packs.

Maybe it's one of the traders I met… but surely they are all back at Ered Luin by now for Durin's Day. I hope they haven't run into any trouble.

Once close enough to be within earshot, Bilbo called out to the figure by his gate. It was not the most articulate greeting he had ever offered, in part because Bilbo suddenly realised just who was stood outside his smial as the figure offered his pony some treats whilst crooning praises to it in Khuzdûl, in a voice that was unmistakable.

"Thorin?"

"Bilbo." Thorin's grin as he turned to face the hobbit puffing his way up the hill was certainly something to behold, and as if by magic Bilbo didn't feel the cold quite as much anymore.

Bilbo stopped an arm's length from Thorin, a part of him unsure if this might not be some odd dream he was having. Dream or no, this was certainly Thorin, though. He looked just as handsome as Bilbo recalled from Yule… which somehow seemed so very long ago now.

It was rather bothersome, Bilbo thought a little uncharitably, that Thorin should look so good after apparently travelling all the way from Ered Luin, while he probably looked an absolute mess all red faced and breathless just from a brisk walk from Frogmorton.

There was a moment of awkward silence whilst the pair looked one another over before Thorin reached out a tentative hand and brushed his fingertips through the lengthening curls of Bilbo's hair.

"You grew it."

Bilbo would adamantly deny that his breath hitched in that moment, but he could be forgiven for acting like a tween in light of the soft wonder in Thorin's voice and the way his eyes and smile positively lit his face.

"Well yes I- it just seemed… proper somehow."

"It suits you."

Bilbo laughed at that, his own hand reaching up to catch Thorin's, whose fingertips were still fiddling with his hair, and press his lips briefly to the dwarf's palm.

"You would say that wouldn't you; you're a dwarf."

"Hm, perhaps I am a little biased, especially as it is you we're speaking of."

Bilbo fought back another laugh and felt the wary hesitation that had initially surrounded them disappear as he stepped closer and Thorin's arm tentatively slipped around his waist.

"Not that I'm not happy to see you," Bilbo tilted his head, wishing to understand just what was happening before they went any further. "But what in the world are you doing here? I thought you would be back in Ered Luin, celebrating Durin's Day."

Thorin's eyes crinkled with ill-contained mirth as he spoke with mock solemnity. "Cast out by my very own family. No sooner had Dáin written to us to let us know that he would be aiding us from now on did Dís and her demon sons turn on me. They told me that if I did not take this opportunity to come and see you then they would lock me out of Ered Luin themselves and make sure I went down in history as the 'the most ridiculous gravel-brained idiot to have ever lived'."

Bilbo snorted, trying hard to suppress elated giggles. "That sounds awful."

"Truly. Though seeing you, I feel I may be able to forgive them."

"Thank goodness for that." Bilbo was certain that his face was glowing, but he felt too elated to care. "How long did you plan to visit for?"

Thorin ducked his head, a little shy, and murmured. "For just as long as you'll have me."

"But- but Thorin your family-"

"- Love me, and I love them, but there is not any real need for me to be in Ered Luin now that I know they will be cared for. If you would have me, I should like to stay here for the rest of my days." Thorin looked up; a hint of worry in his face as he looked over Bilbo's as if searching for an answer. "Of course, if you would prefer it remain only a visit then of course-"

And that is quite enough of that, Bilbo thought firmly before surging forward to pull Thorin into a kiss.

Long moments were lost as the pair kissed, until Bilbo pulled back the smallest amount to murmur a breathless answer against Thorin's lips. "Stay. Stay here with me."

Thorin grinned, nuzzling his nose against Bilbo's and nodded. Behind them Thorin's pony shifted from hoof to hoof and sighed as if impatient. Bilbo snickered.

"I think your pony might be a little bored of standing at the gate."

Thorin grumbled, unable to dispel his smile and turned to give the pony's neck a pat despite the fact she had interrupted them.

"Perhaps we should go inside. Your hands are cold, Ghivashel." Thorin suggested as noticed the way Bilbo had tucked his wind-reddened hands beneath his arms for warmth.

"Of course. We won't be able to find a stable for your pony until tomorrow though; will they be alright in my garden until then?"

"She will be fine. She's mountain bred-" here Thorin gave the pony's shaggy coat a little tug to emphasise his point before he started relieving her of the packs she carried. "and used to colder weather than this. I would worry more for your vegetable garden than I would for her. Besides, she has a blanket."

Bilbo helped Thorin unload his belongings before untying the pony's reins from his gate and leading her into the garden. "It's sheltered here, high hedges and trees, and there are no plants I grow that will harm her, so she should be fine until morning," the hobbit reassured.

Thorin nodded gratefully and hefted his bags into his arms, Bilbo trailing along behind carrying a few packs as well.

Bag End was just as Thorin remembered: warm and inviting, decorated in rich colours and interesting trinkets and filled with the simple feeling of home.

He marvelled at the sense of peace he felt here as he bathed and changed into clean nightclothes whilst Bilbo set about making them both something to eat.

It was the same feeling he had around Bilbo. An easy sense of 'rightness' that was difficult to properly define but quickly becoming such a comfortable sensation that Thorin wondered how he had ever lived without it.

The only hint of unease either of them had expressed was when Bilbo went to set Thorin's packs down in his room rather than the guest room, and the hobbit had mumbled something about having shared a bed whilst under the pretence of a relationship over Yule, so why should they shy away from it now?

Thorin had been surprised at how bluntly Bilbo had stated it, but had readily agreed and had found it difficult to keep from smiling since.

Clean and warm once more, Thorin settled himself on the couch in the parlour beside Bilbo as they ate, the conversation as light-hearted and easy as it had been during Yule.

They curled up together after that, trading tales of the months they had spent apart and forgotten to mention in letters.

"- I am so happy you are here, Thorin, but did you not want to celebrate Durin's Day with your family?"

"I am celebrating with them," Thorin grinned when Bilbo shot him an exasperated look and twined their fingers together. "You are family as well, you know… or near enough." He lifted Bilbo's courting braid to his lips to emphasise his point but was quick to reassure the hobbit as well. "I celebrated with them a little early. Not the proper day for it exactly, but it was a fine party all the same."

Bilbo seemed placated by this and leaned in to rest his head on Thorin's shoulder. "You are sure you won't be too bored in the Shire? You know we're hardly an adventurous bunch."

"I think I've had quite enough of adventure in my life. Besides, I'm sure I can find something to do. I've worked as a blacksmith before… it didn't end particularly well, but-"

"Has that got anything to do with your notice's confession of having been in prison?" Bilbo asked, voice just a little teasing. He was comfortable enough now to know that his words would not offend the dwarf.

"I'm still refusing to tell you that tale," Thorin insisted stoutly.

"I'm sure I'll wheedle it out of you at some point."

"Awful hobbit."

"Stubborn dwarf."

"Completely evil…" Another gentle tug to Bilbo's courting braid to soften the words.

"But you still love me." A kiss pressed to a bearded cheek and then again to smiling lips. "Welcome home, Thorin."

Chapter Text

In the months following his return, Thorin had settled into life in Bag End most comfortably.

With time and good food, the remaining indication of Thorin's hard life disappeared from his physique: the hint of ribs and gaunt cheeks that had so concerned Bilbo upon their first meeting now ceased to be, and Thorin, too, seemed pleased with the change in himself.

It had been pleasant to spend another Yuletide with Bilbo and his family, as well. Now that they did not have to keep their guard up and play at courting, and Thorin wasn't compelled to navigate hobbit customs quite so carefully for fear of causing offence, the pair found that spending the festive season together was even more enjoyable than last year.

As the long winter months drew on, Bilbo found that his dwarf became restless if he was confined for any length of time, as he suspected might be the case, and so was quick to offer Thorin's help in shovelling snow or running errands for friends and neighbours just to keep him occupied.

Thorin always seemed grateful for it, stating that although living a peaceful life was wonderful after a lifetime of hard work, that same hard work was what he was used to and it would take some time to break the habit of feeling that he needed to do something to earn his keep.

The dwarf had only been jesting when he had suggested working as a blacksmith the night he returned to Bag End, since he assumed that Hobbiton had their own. However, whilst on one of his daily strolls with Bilbo through the little winding lanes of his new home they passed an abandoned forge and Bilbo nodded to it meaningfully.

"You know, if you feel as though you need to work, or you require a hobby of some kind," Bilbo started conversationally, "Our smithy passed away without leaving an apprentice some six or seven years ago. We have been using the services of a blacksmith in Michel Delving, but he simply cannot keep up with demand, especially during harvest season. Our only other option is to send our repairs all the way to Bree, but that takes far too long."

Thorin remained quiet on the matter, but he did look over the forge with a contemplative eye as they walked passed.

"You still haven't told me why blacksmithing didn't 'end particularly well' for you." Bilbo eyed Thorin with a sly grin, which only prompted an even slyer grin from Thorin and more of that conspicuous silence.

It was not that Thorin was too ashamed to tell the tale, more that it had become something of a game between them now. Bilbo would try to draw the story out of Thorin or guess what it might entail, and Thorin would do his utmost not to give his beloved any clue of the truth.

There was not really much to tell anyway, Thorin thought. He tugged Bilbo closer to his side and ignored his hobbit's disappointed grumble at being denied an answer yet again. The dwarf's unfortunate brush with the law had only occurred because a man who had employed him refused to pay when Thorin sorely needed the money, and the outcome of that argument had come to involve a brawl, some well-placed punches on Thorin's part, and an unclean pigsty.

Still, it was fun to tease Bilbo and see him come up with more and more ludicrous reasons for how he might have ended up in jail, so Thorin would probably wait a while longer yet before telling him the real tale.

Bilbo did not mention the abandoned forge again on their walk, but Thorin returned the very next day to critically survey the repairs that might be needed to make the building functional once more.

 


 

By the time Mid-year's Day came to pass, Bilbo had put in a good word with the Thain to secure permission to reopen Hobbiton forge, Thorin had repaired the years of neglect to the building, and the dwarf had even secured himself an apprentice. 

Thorin had recalled Dora's interest in crafting and metalwork almost as soon as he had started working and gained his first customers. Though having an apprentice was not strictly necessary, it was always helpful to have an extra pair of hands around the place, and Thorin confided to Bilbo that this might be just the thing to give his quieter cousin some self-confidence.

Dora was thrilled at the prospect and took to the work with gusto. Though she was still a reserved hobbit, Thorin found his apprentice had a keen mind, a thoughtful and observant nature, and gave others very good advice.

More often than not, Dora could be found at the forge with Thorin, donned in breeches and a shirt (quite unusual for a Baggins lass, but necessary around fire and hot metal), and chattering amiably with the dwarf she had come to view as something of a kindly uncle as much as a teacher.

Fíli and Kíli would like her, Thorin surmised, and rather hoped they might one day get to meet her. However, he had a sense of foreboding that if his nephews took Dora under their wing, that quiet and affable nature might morph into something quite wild.

 


 

Thorin found, that overall, he was very well-accepted within the Shire. This was especially true for the younger hobbits, who found the addition of a dwarf to the town to be quite wonderful. After all, Thorin was excellent fun to play games with, and would play the part of 'monster' or 'tree' or 'mountain' admirably.

He did miss his family, though, and was thankful that the same ravens who had eased his separation from Bilbo were only too happy to carry messages to and from Thorin's family as well.

It certainly helped, though Thorin knew it would never quite replace being able to actually see or touch or speak to his family members.

There was one of his kin he was able to see on occasion though: Kíli. His youngest nephew had secured employment in the Merchant's Guild and was now allowed to join caravans of traders travelling the land to sell their wares. He would always make sure to stop by for a night or two when his company passed the Shire, and Thorin and Bilbo always eagerly received him, happy to hear tales of his adventures or of life back in Ered Luin.

Apparently, Ered Luin was even looking into a trade deal with the Greenwood near Erebor, so Kíli was hopeful that someday he might even get to travel as far as that. Thorin was quite sure Dís would be aghast when she found out, but she would hardly be able to deny that this life certainly suited her youngest son.

If Bilbo noticed the wistful looks Thorin sometimes sent west, he was kind enough not to mention it, instead lavishing his dwarf with more attention than usual and making his favourite foods. Thorin knew that returning to Ered Luin was not a viable option. Even with aid from Dáin, life there certainly would not suit a hobbit, and now that he had the forge to run, Thorin felt a sense of duty as well as a deeply contented sense of belonging here in the Shire.

The letters sufficed well enough, and Thorin was happy. The odd pang of homesickness grew slowly less and less noticeable as the months passed, and Thorin found that Bilbo's family could be as much his as they were the hobbit's.

 


 

Ravens were a common sight at Bag End these days, but they usually stayed longer than the large one Thorin saw taking off from their garden as he returned home from the forge one evening in Wedmath.

He found Bilbo tending the potatoes and carrots and frowned quizzically at how Bilbo had not seemed to notice the raven at all.

"Was that Roäc?" Even as he asked, Thorin knew it could not have been; the wings were a smidge too large, and the way the raven flew was not right for it to be his friend.

"Hm?" Bilbo followed Thorin's gaze to the retreating black shape in the sky and shook his head. "No, I think it was just a wild raven, probably hoping to try their luck in my garden. Too bad for them that I'm out here, they’ll not be stealing any food today."

That sounded plausible: Bilbo did often have trouble with pests stealing what he grew, after all, and Thorin thought no more of it as Roäc himself turned up with his usual correspondence the next day anyway.

 


 

"Did you know that they are building some new smials beyond the Hill?" Thorin asked by way of greeting when Bilbo came to visit him at the forge one day.

"Oh yes, I had heard of it. That land used to belong to my mother and father long ago, you know, but I hadn't any need for it so I gave it to the Thain some time ago to use for whatever the town might need… within reason of course. Naturally some of the families around here are growing larger and they thought it was a good idea to make a few more homes."

"I hope you won't mind having a few more neighbours then," Thorin teased. "We might end up having to invite them 'round for tea." Bilbo sniffed, pretending to be affronted by the suggestion that he was unsociable. Dora at least was polite enough to stifle her giggles.

 


 

It was not until Winterfilth the next year that Thorin noticed that the new hobbit homes had been completed, and Thorin asked Bilbo with no small measure of curiosity if he had heard when their new neighbours might move in.

Bilbo seemed quite endeared by Thorin's eager question, but explained that moving house was a bother at this time of year when the weather was often foul just before the Yule festivities, so he would not expect to see any newcomers until after then.

"-And then my peace shall be forever ruined." Bilbo joked melodramatically.

 


 

Foreyule arrived that year with a frost so reminiscent of the day Thorin and Bilbo met in Bindbale woods that it made the dwarf feel quite nostalgic.

They were sitting together before the fireplace, Bilbo scribbling something in his book and Thorin attempting to patch one of his shirts while admiring the vibrant red the sunset had painted the sky through one of the little windows.

They spoke little, merely enjoying one another's quiet company and the cosy atmosphere, the Yule decorations lent the room, when a knock at the door had Thorin setting aside his sewing with a small frown.

"Were you expecting anyone?"

"It could be Hamfast with the Yule log. Will you go and answer the door please? I'm sorry, but I've just reached a really good bit." There was an oddly satisfied smile in Bilbo's voice as he waved Thorin away with his quill.

Not bothering to wonder at why his hobbit seemed so pleased with himself, Thorin tolerantly went to do as Bilbo asked.

"Good evening, Ham-" Thorin trailed off.

"Good to see you too cousin, but I ain't no 'Ham'." Dwalin stood on Bag End's doorstep, grinning broadly.

There was a moment of hesitation, before Dwalin hauled Thorin in for a good and solid headbutt.

"Dwalin, what on Earth-"

"Ah, good evening, Dwalin." Bilbo had sneaked up behind them, smiling far too widely for any of this to be coincidence. "I'd appreciate you not doing that to me."

"Ah, so this is the wee 'rabbit-footed menace' Roäc has mentioned." Dwalin pushed past Thorin, leaving his cousin to shut the door for him. He never was one for too many niceties, and drew the hobbit in for a rough hug. "Good to meet you at last, laddie. Been takin' good care of this one, I hear." Dwalin jerked a thumb back at a rather pole-axed Thorin, and then stalked off down the hallway loudly wondering if there was any supper available.

"Bilbo, what is going-"

The doorbell ringing interrupted Thorin's question, and Bilbo blinked up at him all doe-eyed innocence. "That'll be the door again. Would you be a dear, whilst I go see to our guest?"

Maybe Dwalin was just passing through like Kíli had a habit of doing, and Bilbo had simply neglected to tell him that they would be having him over for supper?

That theory seemed unlikely when Thorin opened the door to find Balin standing before him, smiling genially.

"Balin-"

"Good evening, Thorin. Am I late?"

"Late for what?"

Balin did not reply as he spied Dwalin over Thorin's shoulder, and was quick to bustle into Bag End, scolding his brother for not waiting for him.

Suspicion had started to grow in Thorin's mind, though it was difficult to feel anything but joy at seeing two of his relations again.

Two, which quickly became five when he answered another ring at the doorbell only to nearly be knocked off his feet as two younger dwarves tackled him.

"Uncle!"

"See, Fí, I told you he'd put on weight. Looks all proper now, doesn't he?"

"Boys, for goodness’ sake, let your poor uncle breathe!"

" Dís ?"

Bilbo was laughing in the entranceway, a sound that petered off into a surprised yelp when he was subjected to the same treatment from Thorin's nephews and his sister.

"Wonderful to finally meet you, Bilbo-"

"I loved those new shirts you sent me for Durin's Day, did Uncle tell you red is my favourite colour, or did you guess-"

"It's great to see you again, Uncle Boggins!"

"Kíli, I swear if you call me that one more time-"

Thorin felt a slow sense of realisation dawn on him and managed to pluck Bilbo from the grasp of his family, narrowing his eyes at the hobbit but unable to hide the pleased expression on his face.

"Did you invite them over for Yule?"

"Ahem, well- I er, I wanted it to be a surprise." Bilbo flushed, smoothing down his waistcoat until Thorin caught his hand to brush a kiss to Bilbo's knuckles.

"Thank you."

"It er… it's not only this lot though," Bilbo confessed.

Thorin did not have the time express his surprise as the doorbell rang yet again and Dís helpfully answered this time, opening the door so suddenly that it sent the whole crowd of dwarves standing beyond tumbling into the smial atop one another in an ungainly heap.

Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur were there, as were Thorin's cousins Óin, and Glóin, and so too were Dori, Nori, and Ori.

"You invited all of them?" There was little need for the question when the answer was before his very eyes, currently extricating themselves from their undignified pile, but Thorin still felt he needed some kind of confirmation.

"Of course. I could see how much you missed them, even with the letters the ravens carried for us. Balin helped me arrange it all, and Dáin too-"

" Dáin? Dáin knew about this?"

"Ah yes, you remember the raven you saw and mistook for Roäc some time ago? He was from Erebor, and Dáin had a favour to ask me, but wished for me to keep it secret. It was quite difficult to keep this from you, you know. I hope you're not too upset-"

"Why would I be upset?" Thorin was quick to reassure, tugging Bilbo close and pressing his lips to the hobbit's forehead.

"Well, I have gone behind your back…"

"To do something very sweet and surprise me. You succeeded admirably."

Bilbo chuckled and pulled back so he could take Thorin's hands between his own, sparing a glance to their nosey audience who stood in various states of interest and amusement in the hallway. "I am glad you all made it here in time for supper. Shall we go eat?"

 


 

Thorin felt as if there were still some explanations to be given. He was not upset in the least, he had spoken the truth, but he was intrigued as to how Bilbo had kept this so secret… and what they were to do about feeding all his relations and where they planned to stay the night, amongst other things.

"Bombur, you and Glóin did not bring your families, I noticed." Thorin stated, the question unasked but certainly there as they all crowded round the kitchen table some time later.

Bilbo had somehow managed to gain provisions enough to feed this small army and hide it all from Thorin in the days leading up to Foreyule. It was quite impressive, and everyone seemed pleased with the array of dishes on offer. Thorin suspected that Balin had a hand in letting Bilbo know everyone's preferences.

"Oh indeed not. There's still quite a bit to pack and arrange for the move, so my dear-heart and Glóin's missus stayed behind with the wee ones to make sure everything was ready."

"The move?"

"Oh… er, perhaps you had best ask Bilbo." Bombur looked embarrassed, as if he had said something he was not meant to, and so busied himself with turning to Nori and striking up an animated conversation with him.

Thorin caught Bilbo's arm as he passed by with another dish of potatoes (Bombur had helped cook, and Dori, Fíli, and Ori were all happy to help Bilbo serve), and indicated for him to sit down.

Bilbo noticed Thorin's questioning expression and fidgeted a little, taking a few forkfuls of food before Thorin spoke up. "What was this I heard from Bombur about a move?"

"Ah, well." Bilbo shot the rotund dwarf a betrayed sort of look and Bombur glanced back apologetically. "That was meant to be the other part of the surprise."

Bilbo decided the best thing to do was to tell Thorin the whole tale start to finish, and so leaned in close as the rest of their guests continued to chat, eat, sing, and laugh amongst themselves.

He explained to Thorin that Dáin had contacted him with a request. The dwarf king, though happy that his extended family would be well-provided-for in Ered Luin, knew that some of them would like to have the opportunity to make a new life for themselves elsewhere, somewhere with no bad memories at all. He had heard that Thorin had moved to the Shire to be with Bilbo, and wondered if the hobbits might be amenable to allowing more of their kin to stay.

Bilbo had replied that he was unsure if they would have homes enough for so many dwarves moving in at once, so Dáin had blithely suggested building some new homes for them, and that he would help fund the project.

The hobbit had been shocked by such a request stated so baldly, but had promised to look into it, and set about contacting Thorin's family in Ered Luin, and the Thain of the Shire, in order to get permission to build new smials.

"The new homes behind the Hill, they are-"

"For your family, if they want them, yes."

"Bilbo…"

"I know not all of them will be able to stay permanently. Dáin rather overlooked that in his excitement, I think. They have families and lives and work back in Ered Luin-" here Bilbo paused to nod towards Bombur and Glóin, and Kíli, too. "However, we wanted them to have that choice, and the opportunity to at least visit every once in awhile if they could not stay. Ered Luin is only a week's travel from here, after all."

Uncaring that his family and friends were there to witness it, Thorin grinned and bodily pulled Bilbo into his lap, wrapping his arms around him like a vine and nuzzling his cheek. "Thank you. To both you and Dáin… I shall have to write to him-"

"Thorin! Oh, honestly, put me down you daft lump." Bilbo was laughing despite the obvious embarrassment of Thorin's nephews -and a few of the others- teasing and laughing at the spectacle they made.

"Very well, if you insist." Thorin went to relinquish his hold, but was stopped by crowing laughter from Kíli.

"Not quite yet. I think there's a tradition that must be observed first."

Thorin grumbled, knowing full well what he would see when he glanced up to where his youngest nephew pointed above them.

A grinning Bofur stood behind them, holding a sprig of mistletoe above their heads.

"Heard about this from a lass down in the marketplace. You two fools are acting so love-struck, you might as well make good use of it."

Bilbo, to Thorin's surprise, shrugged. Plucking a berry readily from the sprig and dropping it into Thorin's hand. "Some of your kin seem a trifle confused, Thorin. It would only be proper to explain it to them."

It was true, Thorin thought, as he spared their guests a glance, all of whom had paused to watch the couple intently.

Thorin laughed, recalling his own confusion the first time he was caught under the mistletoe with Bilbo. "That seems fair."

He rolled the berry round his palm for a moment, calling up the words he remembered Bilbo speaking to him during their first Yule, and then explained with a smile.

"Over Yule one of the plants we decorate our smials with is this one." Thorin pointed to the foliage above their heads to illustrate his point. "There's a tradition amongst hobbits… and some dwarves now, too, I suppose, that if two people are caught beneath the mistletoe, they should share a kiss."

He grinned at Bilbo, who had realised the words were the same he had used himself, and tried not to laugh.

"You pick a berry, like so," he indicated the one Bilbo had given him, "and present it to the person you are to kiss. Then you discard the berry in the fire later and make a wish, if you so please. Once all the berries from the sprig are gone, that mistletoe cannot be kissed under anymore."

"That sounds like a very sweet tradition." Dís smiled.

"Oh it is,” Bilbo replied. “Sometimes it causes trouble, but for the most part it's-"

Thorin did not let Bilbo chatter on anymore. Catching the hobbit's chin between thumb and forefinger, Thorin leaned in and kissed him soundly. The murmured 'Merry Yuletide' against his lips was felt more than heard over the raucous laughter and whooping cheers of his family.