The dark-haired Hobbit was just settling down for his evening meal when the bell at his front door rang.
The last time someone had been at his door at this late an hour, it had been one of the younger Sandydowns who had broken the clasp on their mother’s favourite necklace – desperate for their resident smith to fix it before she noticed.
Sighing lightly, Thorin got up to check on his visitor. Perhaps someone had broken all their cutlery and risked starving to death by missing dinner. He would even take another kettle emergency so long as it wasn’t a certain Miss Toadfoot looking for an evening walk. He had run dry of pleasant excuses long ago, and if he ended up losing his temper it would be the final nail in the coffin for his reputation. Not that he cared very much about it, but as someone forced to depend on customers to make a living, reputation did play a fairly big part into things.
The person at the door however, was neither a Sandydown nor any other sort of panicked nor amorous Hobbit. In fact, he wasn’t a Hobbit at all.
“Dwalin,” the Dwarf – because it had to be a Dwarf - said with a small bow. “At your service.”
"May I ask your business?" Thorin asked, and put his hand against the Dwarf’s chest when he made to enter uninvited. He refused to be intimidated by the look the bearded stranger gave him and held his ground. The Dwarf might look as if he had a bear as a not-so-distant relative, but if he had wished to do harm Thorin supposed the greeting would have been a lot less cordial.
“I wouldn’t say no to supper, lad,” the Dwarf drawled and crossed his arms over his barrel-like chest.
“Neither would I,” Thorin said impassively and crossed his arms as well, showing off the muscles from half a lifetime working the forge. “However, someone interrupted me.”
They spent several moments staring at each other before the Dwarf snorted.
"Gandalf said we would meet here and the mark is on the door, plain as day. What is the problem, eh, lad?"
"Gandalf,” Thorin stated and briefly shut his eyes. That meddling… Thorin had thought he’d seen a grey shadow skulk by earlier that day, but had merely passed it off as another bunch of curious children.
"About as tall as your ceiling,” Dwalin said and glanced upward. “Wizard? Seem familiar?"
Thorin considered just shutting the door in the Dwarf’s face. But… he did owe Gandalf, and a Durin always paid what they owed, however high the price.
Sighing, Thorin raked a hand through his short curls and stepped aside to allow the Dwarf to enter, knowing full well that he would regret it later. But what was the use of crying over a lost button when your shirt had already been made into rags?
Shrugging off his travelling cloak, Dwalin scanned Thorin’s hallway.
“Which way, laddie?” he enquired and sniffed. “Is it down here?”
“Is what down where?” Thorin asked and stepped aside once again as Dwalin threw the cloak at him. Looking at his cloak now resting on Thorin’s admittedly not too clean floor, Dwalin laughed and slapped Thorin on the back on his way into Thorin’s Hobbit hole.
“Supper, of course. He said there would be food, and lots of it.”
Oh, Thorin was already regretting not slamming and locking the door shut.
Hours later Thorin had learnt a valuable lesson. It was never too late to slam a door shut and throw away its key. At this point, he was completely prepared to do it with himself on the outside if it would spare him another moment of sharing his space with a dozen Dwarfs and a deranged wizard. He didn’t care about his food, he was past caring about the noise, and he especially didn’t care what his neighbours would think. But if Dwalin did not stop patting his head and calling him ‘laddie’, he would go down to his smithy, get his hammer, and see if it would stick to the bald Dwarf’s head as well as the axe had apparently stuck to the other fellow’s.
Grabbing his pipe Thorin set for the peace and relative quiet of his bench outside, making sure to use his large feet for loud stomping as he went. After this he owed Gandalf nothing. Nothing. The wizard could be choking on his own hat and Thorin would politely bid him a good day and leave him to suffocate.
He had just made it into the hallway when someone knocked, quite heavily, on the door.
“Wonderful,” Thorin muttered between clenched teeth and consciously had to loosen his grip on the pipe to avoid breaking it. “First there came one, then another, then two, then eight. If this isn’t at least a baker’s dozen, I won’t be able to contain my disappointment.”
Jerking open the door Thorin was once again taken off guard by an unexpected figure standing outside it.
At first he wasn’t even sure the newcomer belonged with the party of Dwarfs. He wasn’t very large, not even to a Hobbit, being shorter and slighter than all Thorin’s other ‘guests’, except possibly the youngest ones.
There was something in the way that he carried himself, however, that made Thorin realise there was something special about him.
And if the fur-lined coat and rich cloth wasn’t clue enough, the way his hallway had suddenly become very crowded with bowing Dwarfs certainly painted the picture that whoever this was, he was not without importance.
“Thorin Oakenshield,” Gandalf began, and Thorin started a little at the use of that name. He hadn't known that Gandalf was even aware of it. How much had the old man been snooping around? “May I introduce the leader of our company –”
The Dwarf held up his hand to Gandalf in a signal for quiet and gave a short but courteous bow as he held Thorin’s gaze.
“Bilbo Baggins, at your service,” he said and finally stepped inside, a bemused Thorin giving way almost without thought. Whoever this was, if he would dare to quiet Gandalf – well, perhaps this night still had a chance to turn for the better.
As he came into the light Thorin wondered how he had ever mistaken this Bilbo Baggins for a Hobbit. Rough honey coloured locks and braids flowed a good way down his back in a manner proper folk would talk about for the next age, contrasting sharply with the neatly trimmed beard and moustache. His face was youthful still, but lined with wrinkles earned not only from time but also from squinting at the sun and facing howling winds.
There was also something in his eyes. Something Thorin couldn’t put words to, but whatever it was, it wasn’t something he had ever seen in the eyes of a fellow Hobbit – or of anyone else.
“This is our Hobbit, then?” Bilbo asked of Gandalf, and Thorin felt his eyes widen in horror. No. The Dwarf clearly had not meant it in any way that would be acceptable, like ‘oh, this is the poor Hobbit mad enough to owe Gandalf the Grey a favour and thusly ending up having his pantry pillaged by a dozen Dwarfs’. No.
“I am not your Hobbit,” Thorin growled, before Gandalf had the chance to make matters worse.
“Thorin, my dear boy,” Gandalf mumbled and took his arm, making the Hobbit glare daggers at him as he couldn’t shake of the wizards strong grip. “May I see you outside for a moment?”
Stopping what likely would have resulted in Thorin being turned into a toad for actually trying to choke a wizard with his hat, Bilbo took a step forward and put his hand on Gandalf’s arm, making him drop Thorin’s.
“You have not told him, then?” the Dwarf enquired softly, but with steel in his voice. “I saw the look on his face. You expect him to leave his home and yet you do not have enough decency to tell him why?”
Never before had Thorin seen Gandalf look apologetic. Well, except for… Shaking his head to clear the unwanted memories, Thorin crossed his arms and met Bilbo’s gaze straight on.
“I have been told nothing.”
Shooting Gandalf a piercing glare Bilbo then turned a small apologetic smile at the Hobbit.
“My apologies, Mister Oakenshield,” the Dwarf said and inclined his head. “If you would be willing, let us start again.” Here, to the Dwarf’s clear discomfiture, his stomach gave a noisy rumble.
To the side, one of the Dwarfs – one of the young ones with dark hair and almost no beard – snickered, and Bilbo shot him an exasperated but clearly fond glare.
“While we talk, might I trouble you for something to eat?” Bilbo asked and removed his coat.
“If there is anything left,” Thorin said coldly and turned to glare at the assembled Dwarfs crowding the doorway to the kitchen.
“I will see to it,” a Dwarf with intricate braids set into his grey hair said, and disappeared towards the kitchen.
Growling, Thorin strode after him. He had had quite enough of Dwarfs in his pantry for one night.
A short time later found the Dwarfs once again crowed around Thorin’s table, albeit this time in a much more orderly way.
Banishing the Dwarfs from his kitchen, Thorin had found enough to make a stew and put it together, getting himself a bowl as he still hadn’t managed to eat. As he brought it to Bilbo he was once again mystified by the way the other Dwarfs deferred to this fellow as they, upon his request, efficiently and even quietly cleared a seat for him next to their leader.
“Again, my apologies, Mister Oakenshield,” the Dwarf said and nodded his thanks as he was given the bowl with stew. “I was under the impression that you would be informed, and more importantly asked regarding our presence here.”
Feeling mollified, Thorin frowned, as he had no intention of being mollified just yet. He might not be the most typical of Hobbits, what with his lack of appreciation for gardening and meaningless social gatherings – but he wouldn’t suffer pantry pillaging gladly.
He turned the frown on Gandalf who, to Thorin’s great annoyance but miniscule surprise, played at being completely innocent.
“Will you hear us out?” Bilbo inquired between spoonfuls of stew.
Grudgingly Thorin nodded and took up his own spoon, ignoring the huge smile coming from the same young Dwarf that had snickered at Bilbo earlier. He was also prepared to ignore the loud whisper of “I knew Uncle would-”
“Kíli,” Bilbo warned, not as prepared to ignore the youngster as Thorin was.
The blond Dwarf seated next to Kíli elbowed him, which caused Kíli to likely stomp on his foot as the blond’s knees then smacked the table and made the two bowls jump, but just when it looked like it would escalate into a scuffle Bilbo broke it up with a snapped:
“I will send you back to your mother if you continue to behave like children. In barrels if you won’t go voluntarily.”
Drooping slightly they both settled down with mumbled apologies.
“We meant no offence.”
As silence fell upon the table, Gandalf rose to his feet and pulled out what seemed to be a map.
“Far to the East, over ranges and rivers, beyond woodlands and wastelands, lies a single solitary peak.”
Thorin scanned the map now spread on the table, reading the names of places far beyond the reaches of the Shire.
“The Lonely Mountain,” he murmured, surprised at hearing his own voice as he had had no intention to speak.
“The Lonely Mountain,” Bilbo echoed. “Erebor.” His voice seemed to re-animate the rest of the Dwarfs and thereby sparked one most insane explanations and discussion Thorin had ever been part of.
Dragons, returning birds, and prophecy? Mountains of gold and stolen homes? A quest to destroy said dragon by entering an invisible door on an unreadable map, and they wanted him to act as a burglar?
“I am no burglar,” he stated, finding again that his arms had crossed in front of his chest. “I am a smith, and if you would like for me to make you armour-”
“What does a Hobbit know of armour?” one of the Dwarfs called from down the table.
“Have you ever even been in a fight?” another questioned.
A new debate broke out regarding if Hobbits had ever gone to war at all, and Thorin rose from the table, biting his tongue lest he say something he would later regret.
Silently he collected his pipe yet again, and this time his attempt to reach the outside was met with success.
The night air was almost chilly compared to the stuffy heat he had left, but it did not succeed in cooling his temper. When the door creaked behind him he bit down on the pipe hard enough to hurt his teeth.
“If you’ve come to tell me of the uselessness of Hobbits, please hold your tongue,” he snapped without looking back. Or if you are Gandalf, he thought, I hope you-
“And if I have not?” The voice of Bilbo interrupted his thoughts and a glance showed the Dwarf making his way down the narrow path, looking strangely at home between wild bushy greens and sweet flowers.
“Then you may still go back inside and leave me be,” Thorin stated and stared out into the night. “I trust that you will all be gone by the morning.”
“We will,” Bilbo agreed and stopped by the side of the bench. “May I?” he inquired and gestured to the place beside Thorin.
Shrugging Thorin continued to stare at the quiet landscape, smoking his pipe.
“Gandalf says we need you,” Bilbo stated, voice low and sincere.
“So I did hear,” Thorin said flatly. “Though it was not the only thing being said.”
“Unlike my companions - and again I would offer my apologies on their behalf - unlike them, Gandalf has the annoying habit of very rarely being wrong.”
The statement lured an edged smile to briefly play across Thorin’s lips, for it was true indeed.
“You do not know us, and have no reason to trust yourself to our quest. Indeed -” the Dwarf waved his hand towards the distant horizon, “- I can’t promise your safety on the road, or a happy ending to our tale when we finally do reach Erebor.”
The Dwarf’s eyes were distant, fixed on something not visible to Thorin’s eyes.
“And perhaps it is unfair to ask this of you, but when has fairness ever entered into any being’s existence?”
Turning to face Thorin directly, Bilbo put his hand on the Hobbit’s stained shirtsleeve.
The Dwarf’s fingers were scarred and rough, just like his own, and even of a similar size. From inside his own shirt, Bilbo used his free hand to pull out the contract Thorin had refused to read earlier.
“You know our path. I would ask that you would take this and once more consider our request. For that alone I would be in your debt.”
Rising, Bilbo then placed the contract beside Thorin on the bench and rejoined his Company. His people, Thorin realized after remembering that the blond Dwarf was either prince or king of a people in exile. The story of the Dwarf’s father and grandfather had never been completed.
Thorin remained on the bench long after, pipe forgotten in one hand, and gaze locked to the East.