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Just Beyond the Reach

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Bilbo really did like Thorin. Some (mainly Bilbo himself) would even argue he liked his friend a tad too much for anyone's good: He liked to look at Thorin, admire the way his body moved, cherish every little touch the two of them shared. Once Bilbo had even been bold enough to reach out and actually stroke Thorin's long hair. Thorin hadn't said anything about it, not then, nor since, but his eyes had darkened, as he had gazed at Bilbo and Bilbo could have sworn the king had leaned into the touch just the slightest bit, before Bilbo had lost his courage and withdrawn his hand.

Still, as much as Bilbo loved his friend, sometimes he found the dwarf king to be utterly impossible. Like now, when they were enjoying a perfectly lovely dinner with Fili, Kili and Balin, and, out of nowhere, Thorin decided to introduce Bilbo to a giant (of a dwarf) with blonde hair and a long beard; she was called Gladur and – if Bilbo understood Thorin's words correctly, which he, well, did – she was supposed to spend the rest of her life by Bilbo's side as his protector.

"No," Bilbo said, scandalized, pointing the king with a spoon and shaking his head, "Thorin, no. I'm sure she is a great warrior, but I really don't need – or want – a personal guard, thank you very much. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, as you should know by now."

"I'm not questioning your skills, halfling," Thorin said impatiently, "but now that I'm a king, there are those who would gladly try to use you against me. I am only preventing that from happening, as there is enough inconvenience with rebuilding the kingdom as it is."

That wasn't entirely true: Rebuilding of Erebor was going off very well. Every day there were more dwarves returning home, and Thorin was highly respected both as a king and as a dwarf among the returning dwarves. Bilbo knew that mining had already begun in some parts of the mountain and sometimes he thought he could hear distant echoes of pickaxes hitting stone. Even the palace itself looked a lot nicer now that it had been "cleaned and redecorated", and Bilbo found himself rather liking this new, more lively Erebor with its newly-crowned king. He did miss Bag End, sometimes painfully so, but, in all honesty, he was in no hurry to get back home just yet.

"My safe-keeping is not a duty of yours, Thorin Oakenshield," Bilbo still felt the need to point out.

A dark look passed over Thorin's face at his words.

"As long as you stay in my kingdom, Bilbo Baggins," Thorin said, sticking a knife into his steak more violently than strictly necessary, "keeping you safe is my right."

As Bilbo watched, Thorin took a large bite out of the steak and proceeded to chew it. Bilbo scoffed and opened his mouth, but didn't quite manage to say anything, as a bowl full of steaks was pushed in front of his face.

"More meat?" Balin asked hurriedly, holding the bowl in front of Bilbo. "I think it would be wise of you to stuff your mouth full with food right about now, laddie, or at least before you say anything else."

Bilbo ignored the advice, crossing his arms and leaning back against his chair instead. Sighing, Balin put the bowl down onto the table, his gaze travelling nervously from Bilbo to Thorin and back again.

"I'm not even a member of your household," Bilbo said and Thorin halted his chewing. "Why haven't you appointed personal guards to Fili and Kili, for instance, but are now offering one for me? Surely your own kin are more likely to be used against you than I am."

"Yes, please, do get us involved," Fili mumbled, picking his liver casserole with a knife.

"Indeed," Kili agreed. "No better way to spent the evening than getting stuck in the middle of one of uncle and Bilbo's arguments..."

The brothers glanced at their uncle, but Thorin seemed to ignore both of them, dividing his attention between food and Bilbo instead. The king washed the piece of steak down with ale and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, his eyes never leaving Bilbo's face.

"Fili and Kili are their own guards," Thorin said gruffly, his brow furrowing, as if explaining things was beneath him. "They keep each other safe; I couldn't possibly offer them anything better."

"You don't need to offer anything to me, either," Bilbo sighed, taking a handkerchief and wiping the corners of his mouth with it. Momentarily, his thought flew into his pocket, around the golden ring he always kept hidden in there – his own personal secret...

"I already have everything I need," he added and dabbed his mouth with the handkerchief with as much sophistication as he could muster, as he knew his behaving overly sophisticated annoyed Thorin to no end.

As expected, Thorin traced the dabbing with his eyes, clenching the knife in his hand.

"Do not try my patience, hobbit," Thorin said gruffly. "I have shown you great leniency in the past, but should you keep provoking me, I will give in to my urges and shake you. Such a delicate being like you might have trouble taking it."

Bilbo couldn't help the shiver that ran down his spine at the words. Still, he lifted his chin in defiance and eyed his friend over the table.

"To shake me, you'd have to catch me first," he challenged and ignored the way Fili, Kili and Balin slumped down on their seats as if trying to act invisible. "And that, my dear friend, is not easily done. Not easily done at all."

"Are all halflings like you?" Thorin inquired and Bilbo thought he heard a slight note of both curiosity and exasperation in the king's voice.

"I would think so," Bilbo admitted after careful consideration. "I'm quite an ordinary hobbit, average in most ways – or at least I used to be."

"I find that hard to believe. You must be one of a kind, Bilbo Baggins, even among your own kin."

Whether that was meant as a compliment was difficult to tell, but Bilbo decided to take it as such in any case.

"Likewise, Thorin Oakenshield," he said. "You are most unique as well."

Thorin gave him a dry smile.

"What a relief," Kili let out a breath and straightened his back. "For a moment there, I thought I'd had to cover my eyes, if I didn't want to watch something horrible happening."

"I, as well, thought I'd had to cover my eyes," Fili admitted, "in case something horrible was going to happen right here on the table. Or perhaps on the floor, or against a pillar."

The brothers met each other's gaze and snickered, only to freeze and fell silent immediately afterwards, as Thorin gave them an icy glare. Balin slumped further down towards the floor, taking a pie and a tankard of ale with him.

The blonde dwarf, Gladur, shifted her feet a bit, drawing Bilbo's attention to her. Bilbo sighed and rubbed his face, looking at Thorin through his spread fingers.

"I appreciate that you care for my well-being," he said sincerely and Thorin inclined his head to acknowledge the words, "but I'm a hobbit and we hobbits value our privacy. I won't have a personal guard, not now, nor ever. I'll look after myself."

"This matter has already been settled," Thorin said, his focus on his steak once more. "Gladur will guard you, like it or not. She has sworn to protect you with her life. Such an oath is not easily given nor broken by any dwarf. You would do well to feel grateful and humble for I have granted you the honour of having a royal guard protecting you at all times. Many dwarves would give an eye for such an honour."

"Oh, you want my eye now, do you," Bilbo spluttered, because he was too stunned and exasperated over Thorin's shameless deeds to have anything better to say – how dared the king appoint Gladur to guard Bilbo for the rest of Bilbo's or hers life without even asking Bilbo first! It was one thing to care for a friend's safety and another to give him a living shadow.

By the time Thorin finally raised his gaze to look at Bilbo, Bilbo was shaking with anger.

"I'll show you!" Bilbo seethed, pointing his spoon yet again at Thorin who merely raised an eyebrow at his outburst. "I swear I'll show you, Thorin. I'll show you that I don't need anyone guarding me. I will spend the next seven days and nights in the two upper levels of Erebor – and, yet, none of your most observant dwarves will know I'm there. You try catching me, Thorin Oakenshield! You try that! Use your best warriors and still you won't find me. I'm hiding in your own palace and you cannot catch me, even if you'll try! I don't need you or your warriors to protect me – I, too, can be my own guard – you'll see!"

With that, Bilbo let the spoon drop onto the table and quickly stood up, ignoring the four stunned faces staring straight at him. He hurried into the hallway, passed by three busy dwarves and curled up between two large statues to get some shield from any curious looks. There, he then fished in his pocket for the Ring and slipped it onto his middle finger just as frowning Thorin marched into the hallway, his cape flowing ever so impressively behind him.

Thorin looked one way, then the other, his frown deepening, as he couldn't immediately locate Bilbo's whereabouts in the long, straight hallway. Bilbo, now invisible due to wearing the Ring, stood up quietly and tiptoed to stand next to his friend. Thorin glanced at his side, looking straight at Bilbo, but turned his head away almost as quickly, having apparently no idea his friend was so near to him.
As Thorin let out a quiet, exasperated huff and stepped by him, proceeding to march along the long hallway with quick, even strides, glancing behind every statue and pillar on his way, Bilbo couldn't help but smirk. He raised his hand to look at the Ring. It shone mysteriously in the torchlight, as if holding all the secrets of the Time itself. Bilbo admired it, smiling. What a useful magic ring, indeed!