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Loyalty, Honor, Heart

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Bilbo wakes up when the van stops; he's found that as dangerous as it is to sleep around the kappas, unconsciousness is usually the better part of valor.

"Where are we?" The question's reflexive by now - hour seventy-thousand of this horribly thought-out adventure. He misses his dorm room. He misses his Kindle. He misses his weed - whatever skunky shit these guys smoke is some kind of bat guano cut with lawn clippings.

"Kentucky? I think?" Bofur says. He's looking around on the floor, lifting first one of Bilbo's legs, then the other. "Campsite off the highway." He makes a satisfied noise and crawls halfway under the seat, emerging a few seconds later dusty and clutching at his piccolo. "Victory, motherfucker."

Bilbo has managed to get his eyes all the way open by this time. "Campsite as in a site where you pay to camp and there are actual facilities?" Last night Gloin'd gotten the van stuck in a pothole halfway up a mountain and the general consensus had been "fuck it, let's drink the five cases of Budwiser we've got in the back." Bilbo struggles to untangle himself from his blanket. "Or campsites like last night?"

"Hey," Bofur says, grinning delightedly, "That rhymed! We'll make a warrior poet of you yet, Bags."

"Baggins - it's Bilbo Baggins," but Bofur's already crawling out toward the front of the - Bilbo realizes - empty van. He scootches out (he'd been crammed in back with Kili and Fili and Bombur, who'd been holding a farting championship since Pennsylvania: Bilbo had gone to sleep only because killing himself then and there wouldn't have saved him) and steps right in a pile of cow shit. He knows it's cow shit, because there's a cow blinking at him from about three feet away.

"Uh," Bilbo says.

"Just give her a push," Bofur calls from somewhere up ahead. "She only charged us a couple times."

Bilbo scurries after him. "We're in the middle of a cow pasture?"

"They're better than watchdogs," Bofur said. "Come on, step lively, the boys already have camp set up up the hill."

Someone's started a fire with an array of canned goods half-heartedly propped up against one side, and Ori's busy toasting giant marshmallows and handing them out. Nori, Dori, Oin and Balin are all arguing over, presumably, directions, with Dori poking at his iPad and Balin waving a map around. Gloin's on the phone to his girlfriend, presumably, judging by the look of concussed devotion on his face. Bombur's signing with Bifur, whose HUR HUR HUR dirty old man laugh has (according to his cousin Bofur) not changed since he lost his hearing at age thirteen, setting fireworks off in the basement. Bilbo took Intro to Sign Language his freshman year and can read "tits" and "blonde" before he forces himself to look away. The twins are nowhere to be seen, although that's par for the course; and Dwalin's--

"Oh Jesus, I'm going to be sick," Bilbo realizes.

"Y'all right?" Balin calls.

"Your secretary is skinning Thumper," Bilbo says.

Balin looks over, his eyebrows in his hairline. "We didn't stop for lunch," he says, in that tone of voice he has when he thinks he's explained everything.

"Never killed your own supper?" Dwalin asks. He grabs something - inside - the rabbit and rips it out. There's a very very squishy sound.

"No, I prefer it be killed by others. Although I did once take a farm-to-table class in Park Slope during my gap year," Bilbo adds, because talking is better than listening to the sounds that are coming from Dwalin's corner of the camp.

"Practically a woodsman," Thorin rumbles from directly behind him, and Bilbo is very good about not shrieking.

"Where's Gandalf?" Bilbo asks.

Thorin shrugs, which is Thorin for "We had a stupid fight about my thesis again and he zoomed off in his Miata to stay at the nearby Holiday Inn rather than camp out with us losers."


Despite Ori's enthusiasm for s'Mores, Bofur's really the only one who knows how to make edible food out of refried beans, an entire rabbit, and a skillet that somebody stole from the dining hall. They all receive their ceremonial red plastic cup full of dinner and collapse around the fireplace, scooping it out with their fingers and mostly getting it in their beards (Thorin had started it the first year he'd been in the frat, according to Balin; pretty much every relative Thorin has ever had ever has died of cancer, and he'd bullied all the other pledges into growing beards for No Shave November. After he became president his junior year, pretty much everybody in Alpha Tau Kappa grew a beard big enough to wrap around their necks, with the exception of Ori, Kili, and Bofur - and Thorin, who keeps his beard maintained at Thoughtful Lumberjack lengths).

Bilbo yanks his satchel out from the pile of backpacks and suitcases and (in Ori's case) plastic bags and rummages around until he finds his Swiss Army Eating Utensil, and carefully unfolds the spoon. It isn't bad; maybe Bofur's plan to start an all-organic diner after he graduates isn't such a breathtakingly stupid idea after all.

"Hey, Bags," Bofur calls, "Do me a favor, take these over to the Wonder Twins. They're down the hill guarding the van."

"They're down the hill guarding the weed," Dori corrects.

"They're down the hill," Bofur amends, and holds out the cups.

Bilbo's about to protest when he hears Balin saying something to Ori about honor and pride. Last night Bilbo had been subjected to hours upon hours of discussion about the purpose of their roadtrip -- "Quest," Thorin had corrected -- from Bowdoin to Stanford. He'd already heard most of it when Professor Gandalf had conned him into coming along in exchange for a chance to do an independent study next year on the development of brewing as a factor in the Revolutionary War: Alpha Tau Kappa's legendary shot glass collection, put on the line during an intercollegiate mathlete grudge match in 1952. Saved from the grasping hands of Smaug University by a solid defeat, and then stolen - stolen - the following day. There could be no doubt as to the culprit. Thorin found pictures on the Smaug Mathlete facebook page of them drinking from the glasses only last year.

And so the frat decided: Spring Break 2012, they would regain their honor and their shot glasses. Balin made t-shirts; Thorin was writing the whole thing up as part of his thesis on the Quest Journey and The Performative Nature of American Masculinity. Professor Gandalf, as far as Bilbo could tell, was along because he was a freak.

So Bilbo doesn't really need to hear another Ring Cycle's worth of stories about the enmity between the Bowdoin Dwarves and the Smaug Dragons. He scrapes the last of his share out from the bottom of his cup and climbs to his feet. "Happy to do it," he chirps as Balin clears his throat and addresses the rest of the group, "It was a dark morning, when we realized--"

The walk back down is pleasant, although Bilbo's aware that there are cows lurking in the shadows; it's a full moon out and the path doesn't have any rocks or tree roots for him to watch out for (his Vibram Five-Fingered Gloves are really comfortable, but they probably weren't the best footwear to have when trekking cross-country with a bunch of deranged frat boys who think that being part of a bearded mathlete fraternity is going to get you a girlfriend).

He finds Kili and Fili. He doesn't find the van. "Slight hiccup in plans," Fili says, crouching down and peering at something on the ground. "Here are the tire tracks."

"Isn't here also where the van was?" Bilbo asks.

"Yes, right, it was. Past tense," Kili says. Bilbo opens his mouth to squawk at him when Fili claps a hand over each of their mouths.

"Guys," he whispers, low and urgent. "Guys. Follow me." And he takes off down the dirt road.

They hear the screeching ("What is that noise?" asks Bilbo. "Garth Brooks," answers Kili, looking solemn) before they see where it's coming from; a run-down house that looks like something straight out of Deliverance, with the school's van parked haphazardly on the lawn. "What state are we in again?" Bilbo asks, feeling new urgency with the question.

"I don't see anyone," Kili reports. "But they're probably around there somewhere."

"You think?" Bilbo hisses.

"Look, just - here," Fili says, and grabs the cups from Bilbo. "You're the one who took two years of kendo, right? So you're really good at sneaking up on people." Fili makes up for his total lack of understanding what kendo is by a bright winning smile. "Just sneak up and see if there's anybody around, and if there isn't, just - you know. Steal it back."

"Steal it back?" There are so many bad parts to this plan that Bilbo can only think of, "What if the door's locked?"

"Well, you're the lockpicker, right? That's why we brought you along anyway." Kili claps him on the back, hard. "Just go and pick the door and, whatever, jump the cablings."

"Jump the cablings," Bilbo repeats blankly. He needs to stop repeating things.

"We'll be right behind you, it's perfectly safe," Kili adds.

"And remember, if you get into trouble, scream once like a porn star and moan twice like a gay porn star."

Bilbo sighs. Goddamn Professor Gandalf. He should never've told him about that Groupon "Living Off The Grid" class he'd taken during his gap year living in Greenpoint.