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An Expected Journey

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An Expected Journey

He dreamed, as he so often did now.

“Would you have saved them, Bilbo Baggins?”

The old hobbit, stooped with age and the heavy weight of more than one hundred and thirty years, worried at the edge of the thin shawl that was draped across his shoulders. His clouded eyes could barely see his own hands, let alone the figure that stood beside him, hooded and dressed in brilliant white.

“Of course I would have. I was their friend and I failed them. I failed everyone, including myself.”

He was dreaming. He knew it because he didn’t feel the stutter in his heart any more or the pain in his hands that had begun to develop when he reached one hundred and twenty. It eventually became so bad that he could no longer write, and that had been nearly unbearable. All those letters he could never send, the stories he could never finish – the elves in Rivendell had offered to dictate for him but it hadn’t been the same. Their words were not his own, nor could they understand the heart behind them. It had been then that he had truly begun to feel the heavy hand of time pressing down upon his back. The last few years had seemed like nothing more than the long, regretful wait before the final end.

“There is no need to carry such painful memories with you. They made their own choices in the end, as did you.”

“But I could have done so much more! Maybe I could have saved them and then things would have been done properly. A Baggins always does things properly, or at least they should. I just wish…”

“What do you wish?”

“I wish I could have changed it all. I was always fond of happy endings and I was disappointed by this one.” He shook his head, frail white curls falling in blind eyes. Fili and Kili lain out under white sheet stained with blood, never to laugh or tease each other again. It had been a mercy that they died together. Blood had bubbled up from Thorin’s lips as he said his final goodbye and followed his nephews into the Halls, where no hobbit could follow. Bilbo saw their bodies often now, whenever he closed his eyes and didn’t have the energy to think of happier times.

A gentle hand settled on his shoulder. “Some things are fated to happen. It is impossible to change everything we wish we could have avoided, even the most painful. Because of you, the Ring of Power was brought to light and eventually destroyed thanks to your nephew, bringing balance and peace to the world once more. Would you have changed what brought peace to so many?”

“No, I wouldn’t have. But there were so many little things – helping the dwarves, being a better uncle to Frodo – maybe I could have prepared him better for the horrors he would have to endure. I read his account of things after his adventure and I think that he had an even harder time of things than I did. We both lost our hearts somewhere along the road.”

“You could not have known – “

“I was a fool of a hobbit and I hid my head in my garden dirt so that I would not see! Don’t tell me that I did everything I could have, because I know for a fact that didn’t! I was too lost in my books and my own grief to care and now I can’t help but think about all of the good I could have done if I had just opened my eyes a little bit wider! I know that I accused my friends of having more than their fair share of stubbornness, but now I realize that I was the most stubborn of them all.”

The old hobbit took a half-step forward and sank to his knees. His heart was fading and he knew, even in this dream, that his time was drawing to a close. “Now I won’t even get to say a proper goodbye to Frodo because I had the bad taste to die in my sleep. The only right thing I ever did in my life was walk out my front door and the worst was to come back again thinking that everything would be as it was before.”

“You will find peace hereafter. That is the nature of death. The land will welcome you into its arms and you will forget your regret and pain.”

“Another cowardly act. Now that death has come for me I find that I’m not ready to greet it yet.” Bilbo rubbed at his watery eyes with his sleeve and sniffled wetly. “Why did it have to be this way?”

“You still wish you could have changed the past?”

“Every day.”

The figure knelt beside him, enveloping the dying hobbit in robes that smelled like the deep woods and something sweet. Maybe apples. “There are some things that were not meant to be changed. Certain events may be altered or avoided altogether, but know that no matter what you do or how hard you fight some things will always come to pass.”

“What does it matter now?” He asked, his heart as heavy as stone in his breast. “No matter how much I may wish to, I can’t go back. I have neither the power nor the life left in me.”

“Would you have given your own life for theirs? Taken their pain and made it your own to change the course of history?”

“I would have and I would have done so gladly. So many people suffered and died because of me because I was a fool and a coward. I stood by and did nothing while they fought for what they believed in and now…now they’re dead. I will be soon as well and this will all just be another story in my books.”

“Look again. Perhaps you can indeed do more than you thought.” The figure waved a hand and the fog cleared. Bilbo gasped as suddenly everything came into focus, brighter and more vivid than he could remember seeing in more than a decade. They hovered above Valinor, the undying lands of the elves. He had taken a ship here in the company of Gandalf and Frodo and the last of the elves of Rivendell. In truth he hadn’t anticipated surviving the journey, but somehow he had stubbornly clung to life long enough to see the haunted look slowly fade from his nephew’s eyes. Frodo had contracted the same illness of the heart and spirit that had dogged Bilbo’s feet – no one had even quite understood and they hadn’t been able to move on.

An ancient hobbit lay in a soft bed below them. His eyes were closed. There was a breeze coming in through the open window that made his thin white curls stir slightly. The sheets lifted with each shallow breath and Bilbo realized that he was looking down at himself and that he was dying. There was a pale cast to his features that showed that he was not much longer for this world. Outside, Frodo sat in the garden the elves had gifted them, a book in one hand and a half-eaten apple in the other.  A smile made his face light up as he turned the page and there was an inner peace about him that helped to settle Bilbo’s fretful heart a little. His nephew would be happy here and maybe with time the pain of his wounds, the ones on his heart especially, would diminish. No doubt he would miss his uncle, but that was such a small thing that it hardly seemed to matter now.

“Change is a fickle thing. Remember this in your journey, Bilbo Baggins, and perhaps you will be able to alter history after all.”

The hobbit in the bed took its last breath and was still. Frodo closed his book.

Bilbo Baggins sighed with contentment, the morning sun warm on his face, and opened his eyes to see a very familiar wizard standing in front of him as he sat on the bench in front of Bag End.

Chapter Text

A cough rose up in his throat as Bilbo found himself inhaling a lungful of pipe smoke. It was entirely unexpected and the force of his hacking made him hunch over until it had passed. The pipe itself was set aside until he managed to compose himself, and once he had he looked at it curiously, wiping his eyes on the back of his free hand. If this was the afterlife, he would have much preferred to have the old carved pipe that he had gotten in the markets of Dale rather than the old cracked one he'd had for years before then. The other one had looked like a dragon. But a pipe was a pipe and the tobacco was clearly the kind he had always favored, so it seemed pointless to complain about the little things. Perhaps being dead was going to be much more comfortable and peaceful than he had originally anticipated. He’d expected to go back into the land, but maybe this was better.

The warm morning sun was blocked as a shadow fell over him and Bilbo looked up. 

"Gandalf!" He said in shock, doing his best not to let his mouth hang open too much (since that would have been very rude). "Don't tell me that you've died as well? I thought that wizards lasted forever, or close to it." 

"Died? I should think not! We wizards are quite long lasting. If you're under the impression that you've departed this world you’ve been smoking a bit more than pipe weed. Though I must admit, I'm quite pleased to find that you remember me. I haven't been in this part of the Shire in a number of years." 

The wizard looked as he always had and probably always would. A bit stooped, with tired gray eyes and bushy eyebrows showing out from under the ridge of his pointed hat. Both of his gnarled old hands were wrapped around his staff and it seemed to be the only thing holding the wizard up. Bilbo knew otherwise, though. Gandalf could be as spry as a rabbit in springtime when the situation called for it, leaping and dashing about as easily as a young hobbit. 

"Smoking something - ? Don't be ridiculous, this is just tobacco. How can you be here if wizards are supposed to live forever? Last time I saw you, you were speaking with Elrond in - in - wait a minute, what day is it?" A thought had begun to stir in the depths of his mind - a wonderful, terrible realization.

Gandalf's eyebrows had been steadily inching higher and higher towards the brim of his hat as he listened to Bilbo talk. "It is the twenty fifth Astron, in the year twenty nine forty one, unless I'm very much mistaken. Bilbo, my dear fellow, are you quite alright? You look very pale. How long have you been sitting out here?"

"Not long at all," said Bilbo, waving the last of the pipe smoke away from his face. There was a strange sort of stirring in his gut and he looked down. Brown trousers, ornate yellow vest (it had been one of his Sunday favorites), brass buttons… This was the very same outfit he'd been wearing the day that - that - it couldn't be. There was no magic on earth that could make something like this possible. His eyes widened as he stared up at the perplexed wizard. "Can I help you, Gandalf?" He asked, his voice rough.

"I think that I should be asking you that instead! You look quite unwell, Bilbo Baggins."

"I am better than I've been in more than eighty years," Bilbo snapped. "Now tell me why you are here!" 

Gandalf blinked at him. "I was looking for someone to share in an adventure," he replied slowly.

Change is a fickle thing.

"That's what I thought," Bilbo managed to reply faintly before darkness closed in and he fainted on the front bench. His pipe broke in half as it hit the walk. 

__________________________________

"Yes I'm quite alright, let me stand up you dratted wizard!"

"You will stay in that chair and sit quietly until I am certain that you won't go off and crack your head again and start spouting nonsense. For a hobbit of fifty you are oddly excitable." Gandalf ducked under the low chandelier, carrying a tray that looked small enough to belong to a dollhouse with him, two cups and a steaming teapot held on it.

"I'm not excitable; I am entirely respectable thank-you-very-much!" Bilbo once again tried to rise from his armchair and was stopped by a surprisingly strong hand on his shoulder as a cup of tea was pressed into his hands. "And I do not need tea!"

"I think at this point, my boy, we both need more than just tea." Bilbo watched in astonishment as the wizard produced a silver flask out of his robes and poured something decidedly pungent into both cups.

"Since when do wizards drink spirits?" He sniffed at the cup.

"Since when do ‘respectable’ hobbits claim to be dead when they are clearly doing very well? Did you fall into the river or eat a certain kind of mushroom you had never tried before?"

"I think I know enough about the world not to put strange mushrooms in my mouth, Gandalf. There is something very odd going on and I can't figure out if I truly have died or if this is all only a dream." Bilbo took a hearty mouthful of his doctored tea and found his eyes watering with the power of it. "That's quite strong," he wheezed.

"Which is why I am only sipping mine. Why on earth would you think this was all a dream?" Gandalf's kind eyes were full of concern and worry.

"Because I can't be here right now. I was in Valinor and -"

"How could you have gone to Valinor?" Gandalf interrupted. "That is an isle sacred to the elves, not meant for hobbits at all."

"I went with you and Elrond and Frodo and would you please not interrupt? This is confusing enough as is without having to answer all sorts of questions as well."

Gandalf pulled his own long pipe out of yet another fold in his robes and lit it with a snap of his fingers. It looked like they both needed something to calm their nerves in this stressful situation, in the wizard's case a bit more than spirits. He nodded for Bilbo to continue, though Bilbo could see that he was full of questions up to the top of his hat. 

"I lived until I was one hundred and thirty one. I passed old Took! I spent out the remains of my life in Rivendell and then I sailed to Valinor with the last of the high elves, in your company and the company of my nephew. I was barely there a week and I had the strangest dream. I was dying, you see. I could see myself as if I was a ghost looking from somewhere up high. Frodo was sitting outside and it was a nice, sunny day and there was a bit of a breeze. And there was a person there. They asked if I was satisfied with my life and I said no!"

"Did you now," mused Gandalf, puffing away at his pipe and filling the sitting room with a slightly burned smell. 

"There was so much more I could have done, you see. I wished I could have changed what I did or said, and what happened in the end and then next thing you know I wake up on my own front porch! My hair isn't white anymore!" He tugged on his thick curls firmly enough to yank them down in front of his eyes, regarding the honey-colored mop with something close to awe. "I was more than half blind and I couldn't write or walk properly anymore, and yet here I am, not a single year over fifty!"

"That is quite curious," replied the wizard, looking more than a little troubled. "If you have indeed lived out your live once already then you must be able to tell me why I'm here at all. Just out of idle curiosity, mind you. For the sake of proving your story." 

Bilbo fixed him with a sharp look. "You don't believe me." 

"My dear hobbit, if I came to you and passed out on your front step before claiming that I had lived more than eighty years of the future and then returned from it, don't you think you would question my story just as I am yours?"

There was no way to argue with that sort of logic. Bilbo slumped deeper into his armchair, noticing that none of the feathers had begun to push through the cushions just yet. That wouldn’t start for another five years or so as they grew more threadbare. "Fine," he agreed begrudgingly. "You're here to invite me on an adventure."

"As I told you only an hour ago."

"Yes yes, I know that. You want me to go with a company of thirteen dwarves to reclaim their lost kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug and recover the Arkenstone, the symbol of the line of Durin's divine right to rule. Shall I tell you all thirteen of their names and exactly what they sound like when they snore as well? Because I can, since I heard them often enough as you dragged us through half of Middle Earth. There was Gloin whose son is Gimli and his brother Oin. Bifur who has an ax in his head and Bofur and Bombur, Nori is a thief, Ori likes to knit and Dori worries over him like a mother hen. Dwalin has tattoos on his head and Balin is his brother, and then there are Fili and Kili whose uncle is Thorin and he is the King Under the Mountain. Satisfied?" Bilbo was still a bit flustered and cross. Even saying their names hurt a little bit because it reminded him about how desperately he missed them all. 

Gandalf looked as though he was about to drop his pipe. "Bilbo Baggins, I do believe that this is the first time I have been rendered properly speechless in nearly a century."

"And yet you still manage to talk about being speechless."

"You've somehow managed to turn back the hand of time and relive your entire life over again. There are many folk in this world who would go to great lengths to be granted that sort of gift."

"Yes well, I think I'm almost more proud about your near-speechlessness since I don't think it was anything that I did that caused this. We hobbits aren't exactly known for our time traveling powers." 

Gandalf shook his head and finished his tea in one long swallow. "Nor are wizards for that matter. I may have many powers, but returning folk from the dead is not one of them. You have met with a higher sort of power, Bilbo Baggins, and whatever you did or said to it has clearly caused this."

"There were just so many things I wish I could have done differently," Bilbo leaned forward and rubbed his face, feeling very old despite his younger body. "I could have saved so many people."

"Perhaps that's why you're here. Have you considered that you've been given a second chance to do things properly this time around?" Gandalf jabbed the end of his pipe at Bilbo, wreathing his face in smoke. "Not that I usually support meddling about in matters as important as this, but far be it from me to argue with the workings of those with this kind of power. Clearly there is something that you are meant to do."

I can save them, thought Bilbo, his eyes going wide behind his palms. I can make everything right this time and save everyone. I can keep Frodo from ever having to - 

There are some things that were not meant to be changed, a little voice reminded him.

"It said that some things can't be changed, Gandalf. What if this is all for nothing and it all just happens the same way all over again?" He looked up at the old wizard. "I don't know if I could bear another lifetime of that sort of torture."

"Torture? It must have been a very difficult life you led, Bilbo." Gandalf leaned forward and settled his hand against the flat of Bilbo's back from where he was settled somewhat awkwardly in the small chair across from him. It was much too small for the over-large wizard, but somehow he managed. 

"Not difficult so much as lonely. But this time things are going to be different." As he said it, a fiery sort of resolve took hold of him and took hold of his heart with an iron grip.

"Yes," he said slowly. "I think they just might be." With that he rose to his feet, narrowly avoiding hitting his head on one the ceiling. "Well, that's settled. I shall inform the others immediately."

"Wait, don't you want me to tell you what happens? With Smaug and Erebor and -" Bilbo jumped to his feet, and narrowly avoided dropping his half full teacup.

"No! No. Don't tell me. I believe that if I knew too much about what was to happen I would be more of a hindrance than a help. I tend to overthink these things, an unfortunate quality of most wizards. Instead I think you should simply do as you see fit and I shall bow down before your foreknowledge in this matter."

Bilbo couldn't help but gape a little bit at the wizard. "B-But what if I need to tell you something important? What if everything goes wrong anyway?"

"Then we shall figure that out when we come to it, not before. Now if you will excuse me, I have thirteen dwarves to send word to that I have found their burglar." He looked down at Bilbo. "And you are a burglar, aren't you, Master Baggins?"

His throat tight, Bilbo nodded. "The best."

"Excellent. Expect me this evening with the rest of the company." Gandalf ducked under a rounded beam, heading for the front door of Bag End with the help of his staff.

"I'll have a glass of red wine waiting," Bilbo called after him and he thought he heard the wizard laugh before the door swung shut behind him.

With a sigh Bilbo sank back into his chair and found that he was trembling from his fingertips all the way down to his toes. They were coming. He was going on the journey to Erebor all over again. 

And his house was in no way prepared to host thirteen hungry dwarves and one wizard.

"I need to make dinner!" He squeaked and leapt to his feet, his anxiety quickly pushed aside by a rush of adrenaline as he dashed into the kitchen. 

Chapter Text

Sausages sizzled over a cheerful hearth that was full to bursting with meat pies with flakey crusts and an entire side of beef that had been carved up into steaks and put onto a cast iron pan swimming with butter. A giant pot bubbled away next to the sausages, packed with vegetables fresh from his garden and tender pieces of lamb in a rich, thick broth. Several cakes and pies and loaves of brown bread already lined the windowsills and more than one hobbit child had been drawn to the open window, asking in high pitched voices if he was having a party and if they could have some pie too. He had sent them away with a bag of peppermint candies and that had been the end of their questions. 

Now he dashed about Bag End, flour smudged on his cheeks and in his hair, digging around for every last pillow and blanket and spare bit of floor he could find. Bag End may have been grand and lavish compared to some of the homes in the Shire, but it was no Brandy Hall which was meant to hold fifty or more guests at once. It would still be a tight squeeze to fit them all in, but at least this time his guests wouldn’t be sleeping on the kitchen benches. That had been a show of bad manners that he wasn't eager to repeat.

Linens were hung out on lines after they were washed with sweet lemon soap and he dragged the hall rugs out of harm's way so that they wouldn't be ruined by muddy boots. This time he was prepared.

A quick bath earlier in the day had left him with clean hair and rosy cheeks and he’d even taken the time to properly brush out the thick hair on the top of his feet. One did one’s best when guests were coming, after all. The whole time he worked Bilbo avoided thinking about how he would react when the Durins showed up on his doorstep. As Gandalf had said before – he would figure that out when he came to it.

A thundering knock sounded through the hole and Bilbo scorched his fingertips on the frying pan as he transferred the sausages to a platter.

"Ouch! Is it that time already?" A quick glance out the little round window showed him that night had indeed fallen. Time had gotten away from him as he rushed about and now he had to play host. 

"Coming!" He called, frantically dusting out his hair as he ran for the front door and pulled it open. Dwalin had his fist raised as if to knock again, but he paused as the green door with the glowing symbol scratched into it was pulled open. 

"Dwalin," the massive, scarred dwarf growled, sketching him a low bow. "At your service."

"Bilbo Baggins at yours!" At least this time he was in his nice coat and trousers rather than his dressing gown. That had hardly been a good first impression. "You're the first to arrive, but just in time for dinner. I expect the others will trail along eventually, but you're free to begin without them. Can I take your cloak?"

Dwalin stood just inside the door and blinked down at the hobbit. From what he had encountered of them, they seemed to be a generally suspicious and unfriendly lot, especially leery of outsiders. This one on the other hand seemed perfectly happy to let him inside and seemed to be of very good cheer as well. 

"Yeah, a’right. Here." The dwarf undid the heavy buckle of his cloak with deft fingers and handed it over to the little hobbit, who carefully took it and hung it on a peg in the hall without letting its edges brush the floor. "You say somethin’ about dinner?"

"I did indeed. I have stew and bread set out on the table already and you're more than welcome to it. I'll bring out the rest as it finishes cooking. Are you at all fond of maple cakes?"

Bilbo felt like he had cheated a bit, since he had found out about Dwalin's love of all things maple while they had been staying with Beorn, but he was not above taking advantage of such things in order to endear himself to the company early on. 

Dwalin followed Bilbo into the dining room he had cleared out to make room for the table and mismatched collection of chairs. "Aye, I am indeed master hobbit. Are you always in the habit of feeding your guests so well? Even ones you have na' met before?"

"Well, I think I'm a bit more open-minded than the rest of the Shire, but we do tend to feed all we come across. A full belly is the sign of a happy home, don't you agree?" He handed Dwalin a ceramic bowl and gestured to him to help himself from the heavy tureen of stew that sat in the middle of the table, bracketed by several loaves of bread that were still hot enough to be steaming. 

The dwarf just grunted in reply and took the bowl, apparently more than happy to replace conversation with a full mouth. While Dwalin settled himself at the table, Bilbo rushed back into the kitchen just in time to pull a platter of baked trout out of his oven and set it on a clear bit of counter to cool for a moment. He had barely let go of it when there came another knock at the door.

“That’ll be Balin,” he said quietly to himself and pushed back his hair in preparation. Unless his memory was failing him he had always got along wonderfully with the elder dwarf, sharing stories and conversation with ease. He had also been one of the few members of the Company to visit him after Erebor had been reclaimed. According to Frodo they had found his tomb in Moria and Bilbo found himself feeling quite ill thinking about it. Many of the company members should have been long dead and yet now here he was letting them into his home one by one like ghosts.  

“Brother!” Came a fond shout from the entry and Bilbo found that he’d been leaning against the curved wall of the hall with one hand balled up in his shirt and that Dwalin had answered the door in his place. Quickly he smoothed his clothes back into place and pushed down his rising distress, trotting forward to pull the door open wider. Dwalin and Balin stood there, hands on each other’s shoulders as they spoke fondly to one another, trading familiar insults that nearly had Bilbo running again so that he wouldn’t break.

“So sorry, I was in the kitchen. Good evening, welcome to Bag End. Bilbo Baggins at your service and your family’s.” Bilbo bowed low to the crimson-clad dwarf and found himself on the receiving end of a friendly smile that was only half hidden by a massive white beard.

“Balin,” replied the dwarf before bowing in return. “At your service. And yes, it is a good evening,” he agreed. “Though I think it might rain later.”

“Does it?” Bilbo leaned out of his door to check the weather for himself. It did indeed look a touch overcast. “I hope it doesn’t decide to. Nobody likes a wet start first thing in the morning.”

“Don’t be so dour, brother,” growled Dwalin as he dragged Balin further into the hobbit hole with a firm grip around his shoulders. “Come have some food and maybe that will better your mood. How was the journey?”

Bilbo watched the two of them disappear back into the house and felt his shoulders sag. This was going to be harder than he had thought. Keeping up a charade of polite interest rather than instant companionship was taking its toll on his nerves and he’d already bitten his tongue once to keep himself from blurting out something absurd. And Fili and Kili would be next if he wasn’t mistaken. Maybe he had time to take a quick smoke in the back before they arrived to settle himself; otherwise Bilbo had no idea how he was going to be able to keep himself from cracking right in half like his pipe had this morning. It was too bad Gandalf had taken his flask with him when he departed – the liquor was sounding more and more appealing. 

It didn’t take long for the next knock to sound on his door, but by then he had managed to get the platter of fish onto the table along with a plate piled high with steaks and a hollowed pumpkin filled with a rich soup. They had all been greeted with delight by the two brothers who were still trading stories about their travels to the Shire and seemed very comfortable right where they were.

“One moment, I’ll just get that and then bring out some honey rolls.” Bilbo made sure his shirt was still tucked in and couldn’t help but smile at Dwalin’s groan of appreciation at the mention of more food yet to come. He had tucked into the meal like a bear that hadn’t eaten since last season.

Luckily Bilbo knew perfectly well about the appetites of dwarfs and still had enough to keep the rest of his guests full until they departed. He’d even gone so far as to borrow a few supplies from Hamfast Gamgee down the way, in trade for a set of silver dining ware as a gift for his wife Bell. It wasn’t as though Bilbo would be using them where he was going, after all. And now the Sackville-Baggins wouldn’t be able to get their paws on the set.

He knew what was important now and the silverware wasn’t.

The two faces at the door nearly broke his heart right then and there. Fili stood there, cocksure and smug as ever, next to Kili who looked as though his brother had goosed him right before the door was pulled open. Knowing Fili, he probably had.

“Fili.”

“Kili.”

“At your service.” The bowed in synch and Bilbo couldn’t help but wonder if they did it naturally or if they’d had to practice.

“Good evening, Bilbo Baggins at your service,” he said quickly before Kili could start calling him ‘Boggins’ again. That had lasted for weeks and he was positive the young dwarf had done it just to aggravate him towards the end of it. It had only stopped when Dwalin had started cuffing Kili over his head whenever it happened. “Why don’t you come in and I’ll take your cloaks.” He was almost proud that his voice didn’t crack.

The princes seemed to take this as their due and tromped inside, instantly getting mud everywhere. They must have taken a shortcut through the pig pens, mused Bilbo. At least his rugs were safe from their mess this time. Kili had already vanished to check the rest of the place when Bilbo finished hanging up the cloaks and Fili was divesting himself of his blades and knives and laying them carefully on a bare table Bilbo had dragged in for that purpose. Dwalin’s hammer already lay there and it was quickly joined by short swords and more than a dozen small knives.   

“It’s nice, this place,” commented Kili as he appeared out of one of the side halls.

“Yes it is and if your boots are muddy you can take them off by the door,” said Bilbo, a bit more strictly than he had meant to.

Both brothers looked surprised and glanced at each other over Bilbo’s head. Fili gave a small shrug. “You’re the master of the house, Mister Baggins. Kili, shoes.”

A moment later there were two pairs of heavy boots, caked up to the tops in mud, sitting next to the door and cries of greeting from further in the house as the princes joined Dwalin and Balin at the table and drew drinks from the cask of ale that was tucked in the corner.

Bilbo stood next to the door and slowly shut it, staring at the shoes. The last time he had seen them they had been the only things visible of the two brothers, extending out from under a bloodstained sheet that somebody had had the decency to lay over the two corpses. Even in death they had been laid out side by side, their hands touching. Kili’s bow had been cut in two by an orc blade and they had never found Fili’s second short sword. They had been entombed right next to each other, inseparable to the end.

Tears flooded Bilbo’s eyes and he tried to dash them away on his sleeve, only to find that they were falling too hard to properly quench. What a terrible host he was, blubbering all over himself by the front door when there was nothing to cry about yet! He wanted to dash after the two of them and hold them as tightly as he could possibly manage, even though they didn’t know him yet. They had died far too young and never really had a chance to live. This time though he would make sure that they did. This time would be different if he had to take every blow for them.

With his eyes still red rimmed but the tears finally held back, Bilbo yanked open the door again just as Bofur raised his hand to pound on it. The rest of the company stood behind him, crowding in close and looking curiously over his shoulders. It was no wonder they had all fallen in the first time if they had been standing like that.

“Ah, hello there. Bilbo Baggins, at your service. If your boots are muddy please leave them by the door, weapons go on the table, and dinner is right down the hall and on the left. I’ll take your cloaks.”

Gandalf just smiled at him over the heads of the dwarfs and Bilbo gave the wizard a watery smile in return. 

Chapter Text

In between being piled high with eight different cloaks and nearly tripping over four more pairs of muddy boots left in the hall, Bilbo quickly found himself shuffled off into a corner by the wave of dwarfs heading for the dining room. There were cries of greeting and shouts and the sound of something breaking as it hit the floor, but the hobbit was more than happy not to be tossed into the thick of things right away. His face was buried in a cloak that smelled like somebody had spilled ink on it at some point, so it was probably Ori's. Ori, he remembered, who had died at Balin's side in Moria.

Luckily his hiccupping gasp was lost in the noise of the party going on in the other room and muffled by the pile of coats. Gandalf heard it anyway, or perhaps he simply noticed that the smallest member in the smial hadn't made a move to join the others.

Whatever the reason, he stayed behind as well, waiting until Bifur and Bofur had trotted off to the kitchen to fetch whatever food was left and bring it to the dining room. Bombur could be heard singing a rather raunchy song about a dwarf woman who had a beard as long as her lover's, but not on her face while Dwalin and Oin roared with laughter.

"Kili is playing the part of the bearded lady and is sitting on your side table with his feet on your mother’s silver serving platter," Gandalf murmured quietly, giving Bilbo a little nudge with his staff. "I would think that being such an upstanding hobbit, you might want to check this behavior."

Bilbo took a halting step forward and nearly dropped the cloaks right onto the muddy floor. "L-Let them do as they please. It's not as though we'll have much cause for mirth or laughter once we're on the road. Not heading off to stock up on fireworks or go to a party, are we?" One after another he hung the coats on the empty pegs on the walls until they were all filled and some held two or even three. But one was still missing. "How can I do this, Gandalf? How can I look at them and - and -" He hid his face in Ori’s cloak again and sniffled into it.

"Is the little hobbit a'right?" Bofur paused as he walked by with a roast chicken in each hand. There wasn’t a plate under either of them, so his gloves would probably smell like chicken for days. Bifur grunted behind him and muttered something in Khuzdul that was probably supposed to sound curious or comforting, but came out (as most things do when spoken in Khuzdul) kind of grumpy, like the dwarf had been gargling rocks.

"Oh aye Bifur, maybe he does need a bit of a drink. Come on then, Mister Baggins, we'll get you a drink and then you can leave off blubberin'. It wasn't a very nice vase anyway."

"What was that about a vase?" Bilbo looked up indignantly, scrunching his nose up and leveling the two dwarfs with a solid glare that he might have bestowed upon a naughty child.

"Well, one of the lads bumped it and it came down, but like I said, it was quite an ugly thing so I don't think you'll miss it much. Here, have this." Bofur traded Bifur one of the chickens for his mug and presented it to Bilbo before the two dwarfs vanished back into the dining room.

Bilbo found himself holding a tankard full of celery stalks and water.

“They’re certainly a lively lot, though I suppose you would know that already wouldn’t you?” Gandalf left his wizard staff and hat leaning in the corner, braced between what looked like Dori’s boots.

Setting the vegetable-laden mug on a table, Bilbo nodded miserably. “Last time they came I didn’t know I was going to be having guests. I didn’t have anything cooked or ready and they raided my larder until there wasn’t a crumb left. Not that there will be this time either, mind you, but at least I had enough time to clean up and cook a few things.” 

Fili ran by, closely pursued by Nori and Gloin, with what looked like a pumpkin pie held up over his head in an effort to keep it away from the other two dwarves. They nearly bowled over Gandalf where he stood and Bilbo got his foot trod on even though he did his best to scramble up onto the side table to get out of their way.

“S’rry Gandalf, Master Hobbit,” grunted Gloin as he made a grab for Fili’s collar and all three vanished the way Bifur and Bofur had gone. The sound of cheers filled the air and there was the sound of more things breaking as Fili made a mad dive over the table to keep away from his pursuers.

Bilbo glanced over at Gandalf and gave him a wry smile. “You should go in before they eat all of the trout with lemon. I left a couple bottles of red wine on the table.”

Gandalf nodded agreeably before following after the dwarfs. Bilbo stayed in the hall, finally alone. It was one thing to pine after his lost friends, but quite another to have them all descend on him at once like some sort of army. It was making his head spin, to be quite honest. “I should bring more tobacco with me this time around so that it doesn’t all get swiped,” he murmured as he pulled out the pipe he had burgled from Gandalf’s pocket moments ago and headed for the front door. A quick smoke would settle him right down and then he would be able to face his guests again before dessert started. Cooking all day and being surrounded by the smell of food had killed any appetite he might have had and the hobbit figured he would probably just keep a plate in the ice chest for snacking on once everyone had gone to –

A little shriek of alarm made its way past his lips and he nearly dropped his second pipe of the day when he saw the figure sitting on his front bench in the darkness. “What on this good green earth…?”

There was the sound of fabric shifting in the dark and a sudden burst of light as the figure struck a match and put it to his pipe. A curl of smoke drifted up and around a mane of dark hair and the brief light illuminated pale eyes and a permanent scowl.

There was a furious roar as the king fell, pierced by spears and arrows alike. His eyes had been full of a terrible rage that was only quenched when they finally glazed over and he was buried under a swarm of orcs.

Beorn wouldn’t reach him in time to save his life, and he would only be spared enough breath to say goodbye one last time. His kingdom would become Dain’s to rule over and protect in the years to follow and he would be buried with his nephews in a vault deep in the ground. Bilbo hadn’t stayed for the ceremony. Instead he had fled like the coward he was, all the way back to the Shire and lived the rest of his life quietly, knowing part of himself had died on that battlefield and been buried under the mountain too. 

“Thorin,” whispered Bilbo, his grip on Gandalf’s pipe so tight that the wood groaned beneath his fingers.   

If dwarf king was startled it was impossible to tell from his face in the meager light. “It seems you’ve heard of me, Master Hobbit. I’ve not had the pleasure of your name though.” It was a light chastisement that they weren’t exactly on first name terms.

Bilbo nearly ran. In fact he had already taken two steps back towards his front door when Thorin rose from the bench and that movement froze him in place like a rabbit that had been sighted by a wolf. All he could do was stand and tremble, trapped by the emotions that were gripping him by the throat in a stranglehold.

“It wasn’t my intention to scare you. I took advantage of your bench while I was gathering my thoughts.” Thorin nodded at one of the open round windows, which was glowing with candlelight and from which the voices of the rest of the company could be heard as they laughed and ate, not knowing that their leader wasn’t late but instead sat outside while they made merry.

“Your nephews told me about you,” Bilbo lied.

This seemed to placate the dwarf because he nodded and retook his seat, making Bilbo’s front bench look much smaller than it really was. “It’s good that they’ve arrived already, else I would have to go out and look for them in the dark and I wouldn’t relish the task at all. They have a habit of getting into trouble where it shouldn’t be possible to find any.”

“Yes, I know,” Bilbo agreed before he could stop himself.

Thorin quirked a dark brow at him and took a short pull on his pipe, letting the smoke drift out of his nose. No wonder his beard had always smelled of pipe smoke. “Have they already been causing you problems, Master Hobbit?”

“No no, not at all,” Bilbo hastily backpedaled. There was no way to say that he’d learned this through persona experience during the months he’d spent in their company when he had only know the brothers a sum total of an hour or two in this lifetime. “They just seem like the type. Full of energy and…life,” he finished lamely.

This seemed to be an acceptable enough answer, because Thorin simply shrugged as if he had realized this a long time ago. “They’re good lads when it comes down to it. So.” Bilbo trembled internally when those blue eyes fixed on him again. “You’re to be our burglar.”

“That’s what Gandalf has told me, and I don’t much like to argue with him.”

‘He looks more like a grocer than a burglar.’

“You don’t look much like a burglar.”

Come on Bilbo, the hobbit silently chided himself, you went on an adventure. You escaped from Mirkwood and fought orcs. Killed spiders bigger than ponies. You faced down a dragon. You can face down him too.

“What are burglars supposed to look like?” He asked, feeling brave enough that he went over sit next to Thorin and lit his own pipe.

That seemed to stump the dwarf for a minute, because he puffed away on his pipe for at least a minute before reluctantly answering, “Not like you.”

Bilbo snorted and the hot smoke burned the inside of his nose. “So I’ll get a haircut before we leave in the morning, shall I?” He didn’t see the dark look that was leveled at him, but he could feel it enough that it made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

“You’ve decided to join us?” Thorin blew a smoke ring that Bilbo couldn’t help but notice was a bit ragged around the edges, as if he hadn’t practiced enough to make a properly good one.

“Haven’t made up my mind yet.” Another lie. He was getting quite good at telling them. His own very lovely smoke ring zipped right through the middle of Thorin’s and kept going into the night. The dwarf made a small grunt that might have been appreciation. Of course it could have just as easily been irritation – sometimes it was hard to tell.

“Are you afraid, Master Hobbit?”

“I think only a fool wouldn’t be afraid, King Under the Mountain.”

“You are wiser than half of my company at least. Perhaps it will keep you alive if you decide to join us. Have you any experience at burglaring?”

The dwarf smelled of the road and the sweetness of tobacco.

“A bit, though not recently. The Shire tends to frown when you try to swipe somebody’s silver.” He smiled as he thought about how angry Lobelia had been when he had come back to reclaim his belongings and caught her making off with his spoons in her dress pockets. Hobbits in general weren’t very good at deception – it simply wasn’t in their nature. Then again, most hobbits hadn’t learned how to be quick and quiet the hard way like he had. The only dragons or trolls in Hobbiton were the ones in stories.

“We’ll be swiping more than silver, Master Hobbit. Be sure that you’re prepared for that before you agree to our journey. I suggest you return the wizard’s pipe before he notices its absence.” Thorin rose and tapped the burned out tobacco out of his pipe before turning towards the door as he prepared to go inside and face the rest of his company.

“If you don’t mind my asking, why were you sitting out here instead of going straight in?”

Thorin looked back at him with a grim expression. “If you had to tell your oldest friends that no help would be coming from their homelands, you would wait a while as well, Master Hobbit. I have many things to think about and am not eager to interrupt their mirth with bad news. Now if you’ll excuse me.” With a short nod, the king pushed open the green door and walked inside. The faint tune of ‘blunt the knives’ drifted out before it was cut off as it swung shut again and Bilbo was left alone with the lingering scent of smoke.

That went better than expected, he mused as he set Gandalf’s pipe down on the bench next to him.

Then Bilbo Baggins put his face into his hands and sobbed with what felt like the weight of the world slowly pushing him down.

Chapter Text

“They will not come.”

The slow words were enough to silence the entire company. Ori looked down at his mittens while Dori patted his hand. Gloin looked as though the veins in his temple was about to explode and Dwalin just stewed in silent fury.

Cowards. The word, though unspoken, seemed to be at the forefront of all of their minds, including Bilbo’s. Where had the dwarves of the Iron Hills been when Smaug had attacked them there on the hillside? Dain had sat comfortably in his own mountain and let them fend for themselves under the guise that it was their quest alone. No aid had been sent from any quarter and Bilbo felt a slow burn of resentment build in him as he gathered up a couple of candles to better light the dining room where everyone had gathered. Instead he had only appeared with his army when there had been a danger of losing the dragon’s treasure and then claimed a throne he had not earned. A king perhaps, but not the one that Erebor had deserved to have on her throne - a carrion crow with a crown.

“Bilbo, my dear fellow, let us have a little more- ah, thank you very much.” Gandalf took the offered candlestick and set it on the table as he pulled a piece of paper out of yet another one of his seemingly unending pockets. Bilbo wondered if perhaps his entire cloak was simply one never-ending pocket and contained all manner of useful wizarding things. When he leaned over, the hobbit casually slipped his pipe back into one of them and then went over to the little stool someone had set in a corner and settled himself on it with a biscuit. Thorin had a bowl of soup and a plate of fish and bread at his elbow, though he didn’t seem overly interested in either one. Perhaps the news he carried with him had made him lose his appetite, which Bilbo thought was a shame since it was to be the last decent meal they would have for a while (excluding breakfast tomorrow morning).

“Far to the east, over ranges and rivers, through woodlands and wastelands, lies a single solitary peak.”

The map was old, tattered at the edges and stained at the corners. Bilbo didn’t need to be able to see it from where he sat, he remembered it perfectly. Age had dulled some of his memories, turning them into things that seemed like dreams sometimes. Birthday parties, long walks, and even some of the important things had been lost to him, running away like painted colors in the rain. Although he felt sharp and young again, they remained stubbornly out of reach. Another life. Another time. He could only pray that he had held onto enough to see everyone safely through this time. If they failed because of him…there would be no rest for him in life, or in any afterlife that followed.

“The lonely mountain,” he whispered to himself, nibbling on a corner of the biscuit even though he wasn’t hungry.

Gloin spoke up from the other end of the table, his voice rumbling like a great drum (although it was a bit watery for all of the ale he’d quaffed with dinner). Ravens were returning to the mountain. As far as signs went, it wasn’t one that Bilbo would have held a candle to on an ordinary day. But this was hardly an ordinary day. In fact, as far as day went, this one was turning out to be quite extraordinary. He wondered what Oin would make of it, what sort of signs he’d see in the dead living again and a hobbit who had returned from the bitter end. No doubt he’d proclaim the entire venture doomed and refuse to have a thing to do with any of them. Bilbo smiled a bit and looked down at his hands while he tried to school his features back into seriousness. This was hardly the time for grave humor.

“- the reign of the beast will end.”

Were they already at this part? Bilbo sniffed loudly and looked up. “The dragon?”

“Oh yeah, Smaug the Terrible,” chimed in Bofur, who probably thought he was being helpful. “Chiefest and greatest calamity of our age.”

Everyone but Fili and Kili looked grim, but the brothers were too young to properly understand what a foe the rest of the dwarves saw in Smaug. Bilbo couldn’t help but envy them for their innocence; for all that it would be lost soon enough.

“Air-borne fire-breather, teeth like razors, claws like meat hooks, extremely fond of precious metals…”

Oh yes, he certainly had been. Smuag had lain on the loot of Ereborn like a king on a bed of fine silks. It had been a golden bath for him. Coins and jewels had poured off of him in rivers with every breath and boiled like the sea when he stirred. The entire place had stunk of fire and ash and the sharp tang of metal. Bilbo had hated it. The taste of it had lingered in the back of his throat for days and made him feel dirty, even on the inside.

And as for Smaug himself…Bilbo had thought he’d been afraid when faced with goblins in the caves. When he dueled with Gollum deep underground he’d been petrified. Orcs and elves and eagles alike had terrified him. But Smaug…he had been the worst. Even with the ring of invisibility on, Bilbo had only been able to stand and shake, frozen down to his soul when the dragon’s eye had swept over him. Such raw power he had never witnessed before and prayed to never have to ever again. It seemed that fate was having fun tormenting him if it would think to send him back to that monster’s terrible claws again. Would he be able to muster up the courage to do what needed to be done? Only time would tell.

The sound of a row broke him from his thoughts once more and he was happy to banish the memory of that terrible reptilian eye fixing on him.    

Shazara!” Roared Thorin, nearly upsetting his bowl right onto Bofur’s lap as he rose, looking furious. Bilbo had never had a chance to learn any Khuzdul besides a few filthy words Fili and Kili had taught him when their uncle hadn’t been around, so all could do was assume this meant something along the lines of ‘sit down and shut up’, because that’s exactly what everyone did. Even Gandalf looked slightly taken aback. Dwalin could roar just as fiercely, but he’d never had the same sort of commanding presence as Thorin. When a warrior shouted he was simply being loud. When a king shouted people took note.

“If we have read these signs do you not think others will have read them too? Rumors have begun to spread. The dragon Smaug has not been seen in sixty years. Eyes look east to the mountain, assessing, wondering, weighing the risk.”

Bilbo found himself leaning back against the slightly curved wall behind him, lacing his fingers together across his stomach and wishing that he hadn’t given back Gandalf’s pipe so quickly. He could have done with another smoke, but that wasn’t likely to happen just yet. He jumped when there was a sharp poke in his soft side and looked up to see Bifur offering him a rather crudely carved pipe with an inquisitive expression.

“Oh, thank you Bifur.” He nodded his head in case the dwarf with the ax in his head hadn’t understood him properly. It had always been a mystery to him exactly how much Bifur understood about what was being said to him. He only spoke Khudzul, but did he understand common? He had never bothered to ask, but Bofur might know. Bilbo made a mental note to ask the other dwarf about it when he had the chance. The tobacco it was stuffed with was a harsh, acrid sort, not at all sweet like his usual Old Toby. But it was better than nothing and helped to clear the fog from his head a little bit. All day he’d been running about in a daze, still half expecting to wake up at any moment and find himself back in his bed in Valinor, half blind and dying by inches. Each moment in this company was helping him to ground himself again, but it was a slow process. Every word he said had to be weighed so that he wouldn’t give himself away without meaning to.

“I should make a list,” he murmured to himself as he watched Gandalf hand over a familiar key. Bifur took his pipe back when it was offered and Bilbo smiled at him in thanks. The dwarf just grunted.  

“The task I have in mind will require stealth and no small amount of courage. But if we are careful and clever, I think it can be done.”

“That’s why we need a burglar!” Piped up Ori, looking stunned at his own brilliance. Fili and Kili both gave him admiring looks for having come to this conclusion. Bilbo just shook his head, unknowingly mirroring Balin who was doing the same thing. They were brave and had good hearts, but no one could say that the three young dwarves had an overabundance of brains to share between them. At least now he could technically say that he was older than they were, since he’d managed to live to the ripe age of one hundred and thirty one. It didn’t really matter here, but at least it made him feel a bit better about being stuck at fifty again.

He didn’t notice that everybody was looking at him until Gandalf spoke. “Hence why I have brought you all to the excellent home of Mister Baggins, whose larder you have all been depleting. You asked me to find the fourteenth member of your company and I have done so.”

“And do you have any experience burglar, Master Hobbit?” Asked Gloin, leaning forward on the table, his eyes serious. The rest of the company was watching him, even Gandalf, and Bilbo suddenly felt profoundly uncomfortable.

“A bit,” he answered. “I’m hardly what you would call an expert though.”

“Did he say he was an expert?” Called Oin from the other side of the room.

“No, I just said – look – fine yes, I’m an expert. I’m just a bit out of practice.”

“A single mistake can be the matter between life and death in the wilds, laddie. It’s hardly a place for gentlefolk such as yerself,” drawled Dwalin, who was clearly doubtful of his so called burglaring abilities. Bilbo could hardly blame him. He knew what he looked like. Soft. Comfortable. No scars or tattoos marred his body. In fact, in this life he had never stolen a thing in his life with exception of the virtue of a couple of pretty hobbit lasses and some produce from his gran’s garden. But it wasn’t the act so much as the will to do what needed to be done, or so he’d found out along the way.

“I can fight a bit,” he told Dwalin. “I’m not completely helpless. And I’m sure that I could burgle you all blind without you having noticed a thing. We hobbits can be light on our feet when the mood strikes us.”

“Is that so?” Asked Dwalin, his brow furrowed.

Bilbo just tossed him back the coin purse that had been attached to the dwarf’s belt when he first arrived.

For a moment there was complete silence as everyone looked at the purse. Then there was a roar of laughter and quite a lot of back pounding as several members choked on their ale. Bilbo just smiled to himself and flexed his fingers. It felt good to be useful, or at least perceived as somewhat. When he looked back up Thorin was giving him an appraising look.

“It seems Bilbo has more to offer than anyone expected, including myself,” said Gandalf as he patted down his robes. “Goodness me, where has my pipe gotten off to?”

“Try your left pocket,” answered Thorin.

“Ah, there it is, thank you. How did it get in there?”

Rather than answering, Thorin turned in his chair to look at Balin, who for once didn’t look like he’d been sucking on a lemon for the last hour. “Give him the contract.”

Balin pulled a sheaf of thick folded parchment out of his pocket and handed it across the table. Bilbo had to stand up to reach it. “It’s just the usual,” the old dwarf told him. Bilbo automatically reached for his front pocket where he’d kept a pair of spectacles when his eyes had begun to fail him, but found none there. Right, he was perfectly healthy here. “Summary of out-of-pocket expenses,” continued Balin as he sat back down. “Time required, funeral arrangements, so forth…”

“Right then.” The contract fell nearly to his ankles when he unfolded it. Funerals. Hopefully that would be something that he could avoid this time around. Watching his friends and the folk he had come to care for so strongly fall in battle wasn’t an experience he ever wanted to witness again. And hopefully wouldn’t have to if he could change things.

He skimmed the paper, not really caring about the words beyond wondering how they’d been able to convince folk like Dori to sign something like this. Of course, he was probably only along to keep an eye on Nori and Ori who seemed much more liable to get themselves into some sort of sticky mess along the way.

“Seems reasonable enough,” he finally admitted. “I’ll fetch a quill.”

Once the hobbit had trotted off into the depths of his twisting house, Thorin turned back to Gandalf. “He seems like a steady enough sort. For a hobbit.” The rest of the company had gone back to talking amongst themselves while polishing off the last of the biscuits.

“I think he may yet surprise you, Thorin Oakenshield. There is much more to Bilbo Baggins than meets the eyes – I can say that with complete certainty.”

“And I don’t suppose you’re going to enlighten me to what makes him so special?”

Gandalf just smiled.

“I don’t like secrets, wizard,” the king growled, his hands clenching into fists. There was something different about their burglar and whatever it was set him on edge. Maybe it was the little looks he kept catching whenever Bilbo looked up through his mop of curls with eyes that seemed too old and sad to belong to someone like him.

“You must trust me on this,” the wizard replied softly and that seemed to be the end of that as far as Gandalf was concerned, because he leaned back in his chair and began to eat the last biscuit, his eyes twinkling with merriment. Thorin wanted to continue to press him, but the hobbit reappeared at that moment, one hand holding a platter of little cakes and the other the parchment. There was a fresh signature at the bottom in wet black ink.

“I don’t suppose anyone has room for dessert?”

The cheer that went up was answer enough.

Much later that evening, the dwarves all gathered in the sitting room. Several belts had been loosened thanks to the hobbit’s good cooking and one too many peach turnovers. Thorin licked a bit of dark chocolate off his thumb and followed Dwalin in. There was a fire crackling in the hearth and he pulled out his pipe as he went to stand by it. Most of the others had pulled the dining room chairs in so that there was enough room for everyone. Nori was standing at the window, looking out into the night while Bombur sighed with good cheer from a seat against the wall. Fili and Kili were splitting a cookie in half, smiling and whispering to each other with their noses brushing.

At first he thought that their burglar had decided not to join them, but a second look showed a small figure curled up in the bedroom joining the sitting room. The hobbit had pulled out a little padded bench that wouldn’t have held any of them and settled himself on it, watching them all from the shadows with a quiet sort of expectancy that Thorin couldn’t understand. Gandalf sat nearby too, since he was much too large to fit in the room with thirteen dwarves.     

“Are you going to regale us with a song, Master Burglar?” Thorin asked, hoping that would jerk the hobbit out of his reverie.

Bilbo tensed for a moment. “Are you sure you don’t want to instead? I’m sure you’re much better than I am.”

“Quite sure,” Thorin replied with a small smirk. The night was a time for songs after all. Besides, it would be a good laugh if their burglar couldn’t carry a tune.

Bilbo chewed on his lip for a minute. He’d been looking forward to listening to the dwarves sing again, but apparently his attention had been noticed and now he was stuck in this predicament. He wasn’t a bard by any stretch of the imagination, but he wasn’t terrible either. “Alright, but if you could sing one after mine I would be grateful. I have a great fondness for dwarven song and music.”

“Then you have good taste, Master Baggins.” Nori turned away from the window and went to sit next to Ori, wrapping his arm around the younger’s shoulders. Ori just smiled.

Quickly Bilbo wracked his mind for something that he could sing that he wouldn’t mangle too badly. The little song he’d heard last time he’d been at the tavern in Bree came to mind and he cleared his throat, praying that he remembered all of the lines.  

 

“Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,

Flow gently, I'll sing thee a song in thy praise;

My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,

Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

 

Rather than looking into the fire as he sang, Bilbo looked out of his little window, keeping his eyes purposefully away from the company even though he could feel their on him. Nobody spoke when he finished, not even their notoriously nosy wizard and Bilbo quickly grew uncomfortable.

“I have blankets and cushions for everyone when you decide to turn in. I’ve moved your things to the spare rooms, so it shouldn’t be hard to find them. I’m – ah – I’m going to turn in. Early morning after all.” He quickly got off of his bench and raised a hand at the dwarves as he backed away. “Good night!”

And with that he scampered back to the kitchen. The smell of pies and fish and stew still hung heavy in the air. There was a single pillow and blanket set up in the corner and he sagged onto them, completely exhausted, almost too much to bother with weeping. His head had begun to throb painfully, but he wasn’t sure if it was just from the work he’d done or the stress of having to readjust to this new-old life. He sniffed wetly and rubbed between his eyes with his palm, trying to make the tightness fade enough to let him sleep.

From down the hall there came a deep rumbling, like thunder in the distance before the storm broke.

“Far o’er the Misty Mountains cold…”

And Bilbo discovered that he wasn’t too tired to cry just a little bit more. 

Chapter Text

Bilbo awoke the next morning before the sun had risen with a stuffy head and aches in his lower back and knees from sleeping on the floor. Maybe he could have found another cushion or blanket to pad the tile a bit more, but the dwarves had already been sleeping on the ground for who knew how long on their way here. He couldn’t begrudge them whatever comforts his hole had to spare, including all of his pillows. Even the embroidered ones.

The first thing he did was sneak into his library and snatch up a piece of loose parchment and a quill along with his nice inkpot. Balin and Dwalin were both sleeping in his twin armchairs, doing their best to out-snore each other. Dwalin’s were deep and nearly made the glass bottles on Bilbo’s shelf dance in place. Balin was a bit quieter, but he also made piercing whistling noises that Dwalin couldn’t hope to match. Between the two of them they could have kept the whole Shire awake all night. Luckily dwarves and hobbits were equally heavy sleepers, so he doubted anyone had so much as batted an eyelash at the noise.

All the same, Balin cracked open an eye at him from over the top of the green blanket he was burrowed under as Bilbo tried to slip back out again.

“You a’right laddie?”

Bilbo nearly spilled his inkpot all over the rug but managed to catch it at the last moment and only ended up with a couple drops on his hands. “Yes!” He whispered, keeping his voice low so as not to wake up Dwalin as well. “Just making a list and writing a couple of notes before I start packing. What to do with my house and…things,” he finished lamely as he backed towards the door. “I’ll start breakfast in a little while and then we can be on our way!”

There was no reply. Balin had already gone back to sleep, his whistling snore joining with his brother’s. Bilbo shook his head had made his careful, quiet way back to the kitchen. Coals still burned low in the stove and kept the chill of the early morning out of the room. Even though it was summer the nights could get chilly for those without a proper blanket. It sank into the ground – the same way that caves stayed cool made hobbit holes the same way. While it could be downright blissful during the hot days of summer it could also make it a bit less comfortable during the cooler nights.

He shivered as he added a couple pieces of wood to the stove and stirred up the coals with a poker so that the fire sprang back to life. The faintest hints of pink and yellow were beginning to appear over the rolling fields and he knew that it wouldn’t be much longer before the entire house started to stir. Dwarves weren’t early risers as a rule, but last time they had managed to slip away without waking him even once. Surely this time they would at least have time for breakfast before they set out so that he wouldn’t have to listen to his stomach complain for the first half day about missing breakfast. And second breakfast. And elevensies. It hadn’t been a perfect start by any stretch of the imagination, especially since he had left his lovely pocket handkerchiefs in his bedside table.

Well not this time. Sinking into a chair, Bilbo set the writing materials down in front of him and gave them a stern look. Then with a flourish he dipped his lovely raven quill into the ink and began to make his list.

‘Strictly Required’ said the first title. ‘Not Necessarily Necessary’ said the second, and the third read ‘Avoid At All Costs’. Bilbo chewed on his lip and hoped that he remembered all of the important parts that needed to be included in this part. “Find troll hoard and get swords,” he murmured as he wrote that same thing underneath the ‘strictly required’ category. ‘Fight trolls’ went into ‘Not Necessarily Necessary’ while ‘Get Chased by Orcs’ went into ‘Avoid At All Costs’. This went on for nearly an hour, with things being scratched out and rearranged as Bilbo remembered the little parts of his adventure from last time and wrote them down so that he would not forget. Maybe keeping this list would help him when the time came to counteract the ‘Avoid At All Costs’ part. The included getting captured by goblins, though he wasn’t quite sure how he was going to manage to do that and still get the ring, which fell under ‘Strictly Required’.

And down at the very bottom, in very neat handwriting, read ‘Let the Durins die’. The last and most terrible part of the entire undertaking. This time it wouldn’t come true, even if he had to tie them up and leave all of the dwarves in the dungeons of Mirkwood to keep them safe. There would be no funeral arrangements for this company if he had anything to say about it.

“Writing your will, Master Baggins?” Asked a voice behind him and Bilbo’s arm jerked, smudging the last sentence until it was nearly illegible. Thorin stood in the doorway and Bilbo felt something in him give a painful lurch. No doubt it was just his stomach demanding breakfast since there was no other reason that anything else should be doing anything that remotely resembled lurching.

“Will? No! Dear me, no. Just…making a list. Letters and whatnot. But I’m quite finished so I should start on breakfast instead of wasting time here. I haven’t even had time to pack yet.” Bilbo hurriedly pushed himself away from the table (after covering up his list with a stack of mail that lay on the table) and trotted over to the stove to see if it was hot enough to cook on yet. Luckily it was, so the hobbit began to grab out the food that he had hidden so that there would be enough for breakfast. Feeding dwarves wasn’t the easiest thing in the world and they had gone through everything he had put on the table as well as a couple of things he hadn’t. Luckily it didn’t seem as though they’d found the breakfast supplies, so Bilbo quickly got to mixing eggs and milk in a large bowl along with a heavy helping of cinnamon, all the while very aware of Thorin’s critical eyes.

The king was dressed in trousers and a loose blue shirt. His heavy furred boots were missing, no doubt somewhere in the pile by the door that had doubled in size overnight. It was almost odd, thought Bilbo, as he glanced back at Thorin over his shoulder as he pulled out a couple of loaves of bread and began to thickly slice them. There were no bruises or cuts on his face yet, nor did he move as if every step seemed to cause him pain as he had done once. It was funny that he would remember that, but it had seemed such an intimate thing, seeing that vulnerability. It had stayed with him for a long time after he had returned to the Shire, all of those little moments that he had clung to like wisps of smoke. Eventually some had slipped through his fingers, but others he had clung to as fiercely as if they had been his own children. Memories of long nights by the fire, songs, laughter, cries of rage and pain in the midst of battle.

“We did not intend to stay for breakfast,” said Thorin, picking up a piece of Bilbo’s mail and skimming it. Something about a cookbook somebody wanted to borrow and a garden show coming up in the next fortnight. The piece of parchment caught his eyes, but the only part he could see was the line that said ‘Strictly Required’, so he let it be.

“I’m sure whatever I make will be better than what you can eat on the back of a pony.” Bilbo replied a little bit sharply as he dropped a couple of pieces of the bread into the egg mixture and flipped them over. Instantly he felt bad for having a short temper – it was only partially Thorin’s fault that he hadn’t slept well.  A combination of a cold floor and dreams about blue eyes had given him a shorter temper than he might have had otherwise and he didn’t need to start off on the wrong foot with the company’s leader right away. The first time he had been looked down upon for being useless. He didn’t need to be in the same situation because he couldn’t keep a civil tongue in his head. After all, he wasn’t a sharp-tongued hobbit of one hundred and thirty one anymore. If he kept the same attitude he had developed he would quickly overstep himself.

“Sorry, I just thought it might be a nice thing to do for everyone. I don’t know how long you traveled to get here and I’m sure one more good meal can’t hurt anything. I was up early so that we could be on our way on time, even with a bit of extra food in us.” The bread went onto the hot stove top and instantly started sizzling cheerfully as the egg and cinnamon cooked into it.

Thorin opened his mouth as if to reply, but at that moment something that greatly resembled a ginger bear came into the kitchen. “Did someone say food?”

Bilbo guessed it was probably Gloin judging by the accent, and because he was closely followed by a yawning Oin. Neither of them seemed any the worse for wear after their night of eating and drinking which was fortunate. Riding a pony with a hangover would probably be a thoroughly unpleasant experience.

“Mister Baggins sir, do you have any tea?” Ori and Dori came in next and both of them hand an arm supporting a very unhappy Nori, who looked like he’d been run over by a cow sometime during the night. His elaborate hair had come halfway down and his eyes were bloodshot and heavily shadowed. “I’m afraid my brother had a bit too much to drink last night.”

Thorin and Glojn both roared with laughter, which made poor Nori gasp and turn white as he struggled to cover his ears and stop the noise. Finally the sun made an appearance over the hills and spilled into the kitchen which was growing steadily more crowded as the dwarves settled themselves at his little kitchen table. Oin had found the kettle and had filled it with water.

“There’s some herbs in a red tin in that cabinet,” Bilbo said a bit more loudly than necessary so the half-deaf dwarf would be able to hear him, gesturing to one of the top cabinets. “I use them for just these occasions.”

“Do you often find yourself indulging in too much drink, Master Baggins?” Asked Thorin, who was still reading his mail.

“No, but we hobbits are fond of parties and more than once I’ve had my guests complaining of the same sort of morning sickness. I learned which herbs help to mellow it from the Gamgees, all of whom are excellent gardeners and have an excellent knowledge of herbs and remedies.”

He’d actually spent most of a summer and autumn with the family, following them around while they tended to their farms and gardens. He’d written a book about it, jotting down all manner of notes about growing things and harvesting them, and how to dry rosemary properly and what sort of herbs could be used to treat infections or clot blood. It had been an interesting experience to say the least and he’d come away from it feeling like a much wiser hobbit.

A much wiser hobbit with a tea for hangovers.

Over the next hour most of the other dwarves found their way to the kitchen where they were presented with fresh fruit and toasted egg bread with cinnamon, along with piles of scrambled eggs and a blackberry cobbler that Thorin swiftly declared as his own and wouldn’t let anybody else touch, so they had to be content with apple turnovers instead. Bilbo was just glad that his pile of mail was left alone and carefully retrieved his list out from under the letters before it could be lost or forgotten.

Nori wasn’t the only casualty of the night of revelry. Gandalf come wobbling in looking a few years older than he had the night before and declared Bilbo a living miracle when he was handed his own cup of tea. Clearly the wizard couldn’t hold his wine as well as he thought. Bifur took a glass as well, but it was unclear if he actually had a hangover or just liked the taste of the pungent steeped herbs.

Of Fili and Kili there was no sign, so Bilbo ran off to wake them before they missed breakfast entirely.

Sometime during the night Kili had managed to crawl into Fili’s bed, leaving a trail of socks and sleeping trousers on the floor behind him, and the two brothers were wrapped around each other like puppies in a basket that was slightly too small for them. Kili had stolen most of the sheets and Fili’s legs were hanging over the foot of the bed. At least he’d managed to hang onto his pillow from the looks of things, but it was hard to tell through the tangle of sheets and hairy limbs. Bilbo sighed, almost tempted to let them sleep some more. But he knew that the brothers tended to end up sleeping together no matter where they laid their heads, so this wasn’t any different than countless other nights. The other dwarfs would laugh and shake their heads and tell them to stop leaving their clothes spread out all over the camp, so apparently this was nothing new or morally questionable to them.

The hobbit picked up Fili’s shirt and laid it over the foot of the bed where it wouldn’t be stepped on and then reached over to rub at the dwarf’s blonde mane. His hair was soft and warm. “Fili. Fili, wake up - there’s breakfast.”

The older dwarf mumbled something and pulled his pillow over his head.

“Fine, if that’s the way you want to play it I guess I’ll just let Bombur have your portions. Too bad though, since there were a couple turnovers still left a minute ago.”

“Did you say turnovers?” Kili’s head popped up, looking more like a bird’s nest than anything else. Nothing of his face was visible except for his lower lip and chin.

“Yes, but they’ll be gone in just a minute it you don’t hurry up.”

Fili hit the floor with a thud and a yelp as Kili gave him a sharp kick in the ribs and Bilbo took that to mean that they would soon be joining the others in the kitchen to make short work of the remainder of his larder. Luckily there was also cold ham and cheese and some boiled eggs if they weren’t quick enough to catch the last of the turnovers, so it wasn’t as though either of the brothers would starve. Bilbo quickly made his way back out of the guest bedroom and left Fili digging under the bed for his other sock while Kili stepped on him to get at his pants.

“Boys,” he sighed as he wandered to his own bedroom, trying to remember if his rucksack was in his closet or down in the cellar. This time he didn’t notice the eyes on him as Thorin watched him from the kitchen door, a tin of blackberry cobbler in one hand and a fork in the other, his brows drawn together as he watched the newest member of their company wander away. Most folk who found the brothers in such a way had not reacted as favorably as the hobbit. Perhaps their practices were different, but from the look Thorin had gotten as he made his way through the Shire yesterday, he had a feeling that wasn’t quite the way of things.

Thorin shook his head as his nephews stumble out of their room, still only half dressed and pulling at each other’s hair. Maybe Gandalf had managed to find the one hobbit in all of Hobbiton who might not prove to be an inconvenience. He took another bite of his cobbler and went back into the kitchen to join the discussion about which was worse, orcs or elves. Naturally the elves won.  

Once the dishes had been done and neatly stacked and the dwarves had gathered up their pipes and boots and instruments and coats and cloaks and extra socks and a book or two and boxes of matches and a couple extra biscuits for the road, they met Bilbo at the front door.

The hobbit was dressed in a smart red velvet coat and no shoes, but there was a bulging rucksack next to him that he an oilcloth cloak rolled up at the top in case of rain. He’d also remembered where he put his spare pipe and packed quite a lot more pipe weed this time, as well as a sealed tin of medical supplies and bandages and some salve that helped with saddle sores. There weren’t as many books in his bag as there were last time, and the two he’d bothered to pack at all were the useful sort like field manuals, not bedtime stories. He was forced to admit that he hadn’t put a lot of thought into what he’d brought along last time and had subsequently ended up with three pairs of trousers, no extra coat, and not nearly enough tobacco. At least this time he’d had a little while to get ready and the foreknowledge to know what he needed to prepare for. Rain, trolls, wargs…this time he was ready for them. He even had a kitchen knife strapped to his belt in case of emergencies since he didn’t have his little sword yet and all of the dwarf weapons were far too big for him.

“It’s not too late to back out, Master Baggins,” Thorin said as Bilbo locked his green door behind them. The ponies had been let loose on the hill to graze, but it was the work of a moment for the dwarves to gather them up again and have them standing in a line down on the lane below. Those who hadn’t already mounted were looking at him expectantly. Gandalf had already broken out his pipe and was smoking away atop his shaggy horse.

“I signed the contract, didn’t I?” Bilbo tucked the key and a note for Hamfast into his mailbox where he knew his neighbor would find it when he came by to water the tomatoes. In it were instructions for the care of Bag End until his return, with strict orders not to let the Sackville-Baggins family anywhere near it. It was the best he could do, all things considered.  Not that he’d have much time to worry about his hole once they were on the road. The list sat snug and secure in his coat pocket, reminding him of his duty.

“It would be very poor of me to try to cry off now, especially since I have my bag ready and all. It would take me all day to put everything away again and I’m not sure I quite feel up to that sort of stress right now. We hobbits have very delicate constitutions, don’t you know.” And with that he clambered up onto his pony’s back and settled himself there very comfortably, not quite above giving Thorin a smug look.

The dwarf just snorted while Bofur and Fili and Kili laughed from behind Bilbo.

“You tell ‘im lad. I’m sure you’ll do your whole village proud,” called Bofur as they set off, fourteen ponies and a horse making quite a parade down the narrow dirt roads of the Shire. Bilbo didn’t feel the need to say that he doubted anyone in this part of the world would be proud of him for going off with such ne’er-do-wells. No doubt he’d be branded as a pariah again, but that was assuming he ever came back at all. Just because he had last time didn’t mean he’d survive as easily this time around.

It wasn’t until they were well on their way and deep into the golden fields owned by the Proudfoots that Bilbo clapped a hand to his forehead, looking absolutely appalled with himself.

“I can’t believe it!” He wailed. The entire pony line came to a halt, looking at him with mixed expectancy and annoyance. Bilbo looked at Gandalf, his eyes wide.

“I’ve forgotten my damn handkerchief again!” 

Chapter Text

They traveled east.

With the warm morning sun on their faces and no sign of any clouds to block it out, it seemed as though the entire trip was off to a good start. Full of breakfast, the dwarves all seemed to be in relatively good cheer with the exception of Dwalin and Thorin who couldn’t have smiled if their lives depended on it.

Bilbo had figured out that if he breathed through his mouth and did his best not to ride behind too many other ponies, he could keep his hair allergies to a minimum. Because of that he ended up near the front of their little parade, with Nori behind him and Thorin and Dwalin ahead. Since neither of the leaders seemed inclined to talk to anybody but each other, the newly appointed burglar fell back slightly so that he could ride next to their resident sneak thief.

“I’d forgotten why it was hobbits don’t ride ponies,” he said conversationally.

Nori raised an eyebrow at him and Bilbo realized that they were actually long enough that they had ben braided up into the rest of his intricate hairstyle. The middle brother of the brothers Ri hadn’t been one of the company he’d ever been close to (which might explain why he had never come to visit once they had parted ways). “And why would that be, Master Hobbit?” Nori paused in his picking the dirt out from under his nails with one of his dozen small blades.

“Because our legs are too short to fit around their fat middles. I’ll be walking funny for days.” Bilbo made a face and did his best to adjust his seat so that he was riding more like the dwarves and less like a sack of very uncomfortable potatoes.

A snort of laughter came from his companion and that cheered Bilbo up a little bit even if it did nothing for his sore inner thighs. “Would you prefer to walk rather than ride? Then you could complain of sore feet rather than your legs.”

“I walk everywhere!” Bilbo replied cheerfully. “Long ones - sometimes all the way to Bree if I stop off at a relative’s place on the way there for the night. We hobbits have thick feet for walking, hence why very few of us keep ponies. We have a couple of oxen for ploughing fields and that’s quite big enough for us.” Although the Took family did keep quite a few horses and ponies for renting to travelers or for bringing to the fair in the spring and autumn for the fauntlings to ride about on and braid ribbons into their manes. Not many had much use for traveling on them though since very few hobbits ever traveled so far from home that they would need a beast of burden to bear them.  

“Well Bree is our destination for this eve, so you’ll have a chance to pick up your handkerchiefs before we leave in the morning. It’s the last bit of civilization for the next long while.”

Bofur’s pocket was folded carefully in Bilbo’s coat. He’s lost it last time, somewhere between Goblin Town and Mirkwood. This time he was determined to keep a better hold on the token of goodwill.

“I think I’ll be alright without any handkerchiefs, Mister Nori. It’s not as though they’d be much use in a fight after all.” That he sniffled right after that statement didn’t do much for his credibility but Nori just looked amused and tucked his blade into a sheathe under his cloak.

“Just Nori, Master Hobbit. I’m neither royalty nor respectable so I don’t stand much on formality.”

“Then you must call me Bilbo, for I’m master of nothing but Bag End and I’m afraid we’ve left it a fair ways back now with the pantry quite empty.”

“If you manage to survive this adventure I think that your reward will be enough to help you fill the larders of every hole in the Shire should you decide to. And then still have most of your share leftover afterward.”

“That’s not a bad idea at all…” If he survived that was. If not he supposed they could always put his part towards some other worthy cause. Planting vegetable gardens on the slopes of Erebor or something equally as frivolous. Dwarves and men alike would walk by and wonder what knob head had decided that planting pumpkins and tomatoes outside of a stronghold would be a good idea. Maybe they would put up a little sign that read ‘Here lies Bilbo Baggins. He was a decent sort as far as hobbits go.’

Thorin looked back over his shoulder to check on his nephews and make sure they hadn’t run off while no one was looking. They’d done that more than once when he and Dis had taken them traveling and come running back being chased by angry badgers or the like. Luckily Fili and Kili were busy tormenting Ori at the moment. The scribe had the bad luck to be riding between the brother and while one was engaging him in conversation the other would steal his knitting or his papers and get them hopelessly mussed while Ori flailed helplessly. That’s what he got for trying to keep track of his things and be polite at the same time. Thorin snorted and shook his head, barely sparring a half glance for their burglar. Well, maybe a full glance. Or two.

“An interesting sort for a Halfling,” rumbled Dwalin, who had noticed Thorin’s not-so-subtle looks backwards.

“I was checking on Fili and Kili,” he snapped, not at all pleased about being caught.  

Dwalin simply looked at him, seeing right through his bluster just as he had been able to do when they had been children.

The king sighed. “I suppose he is. I had never met a hobbit before yester’eve and if I hadn’t encountered several of his kind on the way to our burglar’s home I wouldn’t have known he was different.”

There was a nod of agreement from Dwalin. “Seem like an unfriendly, suspicious lot if ye ask me.”

“And are we not as well?”

“Don’t go comparin’ me to those rabbit folk.” Dwalin wrinkled his nose in clear distaste. “Big feet, big ears, too fond of gardening and gossipin’ by half if I saw correctly. If a single orc came through the entire place would collapse.”

“Don’t forget about the big eyes,” added Thorin, thinking about a particular pair of muddy blue-green ones. When he turned around again he found them fixed steadily on him. Rather than looking away though, the burglar simply inclined his head in acknowledgement and went back to whatever he was talking with Nori about. Probably gardening and gossip if Dwalin was right.

An interesting sort indeed…

It took them most of the day to get to Bree since Bifur’s pony had thrown a shoe halfway and they’d had to call a halt so that Dori could hammer it back on. It turned out that Dori was actually a tinker. He had a beautiful carved wooden box that sat on his pony’s hindquarters that was stuffed to the brim with tools ranging from hammers and chisels to files and nails and picks of all sizes. Bilbo very gratefully climbed down from his pony to watch as the grumbling dwarf hammered back on a spare horseshoe faster than the best blacksmiths in Bree. Even though he complained the entire time, Bilbo could see that he was secretly a bit pleased about being able to show off his usefulness.

“A bit of everything,” he said to Bilbo when the hobbit asked what it was he did exactly. “I fix things. Bit of cobbling, blacksmithing, jewelry-making…whatever needed to be done to keep Ori fed.” They had both climbed back onto their ponies and rejoined the train, sadly further to the back now. Bilbo sniffled into Bofur’s pocket, the scent of tobacco and fabric helping to keep out most of the pony hair.

Ori, who had escaped from Fili and Kili and only looked somewhat frazzled for it, just smiled. “Dori was more like me mum than mum was! She died early on – got sick - an’ then da’ died in a cave in at the Blue Mountains. So Dori took care of me mostly. Remember that one time that barkeep thought you were a woman?”

The older dwarf looked very sour. “Don’t remind me. I made that coat into a blanket the very next day and it was the last time I ever wore blue.”

“It looked very fetching on you!” Called back Nori, and Gloin and Oin both roared with laughter. Dori looked like he’d bitten into a lemon and threw a horseshoe nail at Nori. It stuck in his hair and Gandalf was forced to lean over and fish it out again.

The sun was starting to go down by the time they arrived in Bree. The place was still crowded though, on account of it being a Sunday in May. It was market day and folk from all over had come to buy and sell and chat with their neighbors and relatives. It was exactly the sort of day Bilbo would have come to town himself so that he could have a pint at the inn and settle down to listen to the stories of the travelers who were passing through. Sometimes he would bring one of his journals and write down what he heard so that he could put them into a story book one day. He’d written quite a lot back in these days – books about medicine and doctoring and the proper way to take walks in the summer versus the winter. The Baggins family had always been quite wealthy so it wasn’t as though he had to keep his own farms and get married and have a dozen children to help run it. Instead he had occupied himself quite nicely with his garden and in the writing of his books. There was an entire case dedicated to them, all written in the same neat hand and signed by Bilbo Baggins. Often times fauntlings would come by for tea so that he would read to them out of his story books – collections of things he had made up or heard from one of the travelers in the Prancing Pony. His cousins would come by to borrow his cookbooks and Hamfast liked to critique his gardening book and point out where he had gotten something wrong or needed to put in a footnote.

But he wasn’t here to collect stories this time.

“Bilbo Baggins where are you off to with all of those dwarves?” It was Primula Brandybuck, who had a basket of carrots on one hip and her latest beau Drogo on the other arm. Bilbo nodded to his cousin from the back of his pony. The two of them had drowned before reaching the age of sixty, he remembered. The funeral had been dreadful – their son Frodo had cried for nearly a week straight after Bilbo had returned with him to Bag End and had harbored a fear of deep water just like his uncle ever since. More than once he had awoken in the middle of the night with cold hands wrapped around his arm as his nephew snuck into his bed on account of nightmares.

But here in this age they were hale and healthy and not even wed yet.

“Off on an adventure, Prim. Don’t marry that idiot before I get back or I’ll have to be very cross indeed.” Bilbo shook a finger at her and both she and Drogo laughed. The Brandybucks and the Tooks had always been the more adventurous of the hobbits, so it wasn’t a surprise that she was taking his departure as well as she was.

“Well, don’t you go getting yourself killed by bandits or something equally as horrible, Bilbo. And bring me back a present! Hamfast will be looking after Bag End? I’ll give him a hand keeping the place tidy when I’m in the area.”

“Excellent, I appreciate it Prim. I expect we’ll be staying at the Prancing Pony tonight, so you can come by and have a drink and I’ll introduce you to the dwarves.”

Primula eyed the rest of the company, who had continued on towards the inn at the end of the street. “All nice tall handsome lads from the looks of it.” Drogo made a discontented noise and she elbowed him in his tummy. “Don’t give me that, what would I do with a dwarf? He’d eat me out of house and home faster than you do already. You go on now Bilbo, perhaps we’ll see you this evening.”

Bilbo gave them both a wave and kicked Mrytle in her sides to catch up with the dwarves, all of whom had already dismounted and were handing off the ponies to the stable master.

“Are all hobbits related?” Asked Ori curiously when Bilbo explained to him that Drogo was his cousin on his father’s side and Primula on his mother’s.   

“Heavens no, think of the inbreeding! But some clans marry into each other more often than not so anyone with fewer than a dozen cousins on either side is considered an anomaly. And there is the occasional pair of cousins who fall in love and decide to tie the knot, but they usually have the good sense to not have children.”

“It sounds as though they breed like rabbits as well,” said Dwalin, apparently talking to Thorin though loudly enough for everyone to hear him. “I wonder what else they have in common with them?”

“You won’t be finding out,” said Bilbo with annoyance at being compared to what he considered a rather high-strung creature. Maybe he had been that way when he had actually been fifty, but now he was a properly aged and experienced hobbit even if he didn’t look it anymore. He didn’t even take being able to see properly or walk without pain for granted. Though the walking without pain was a relative thing. He steadfastly refused to wince as he walked with a somewhat bow-legged gait into the Prancing Pony.

It wasn’t until the door had shut behind him that the dwarves all started laughing at their stiff little burglar.

Night came on quickly after they had gotten settled in their rooms. There hadn’t been many left open on account of it being market day, so the thirteen dwarves, one hobbit, and the wizard had gotten to cram themselves into the three remaining rooms and spread themselves out where there was space.

“Still better than sleepin’ on the road, mind you,” said Bofur cheerfully as he unrolled his bedroll next to Bilbo’s on the floor. The two of them may not have warranted a bed, but at least they got a place in front of the little hearth which would keep them toasty all night.

Earlier they had ventured out into the market and bought a few of the things they would require for traversing the Great East Road. Bilbo bought some rope and some herbs for fighting infection, though Oin assured him that he too had supplies for just that sort of occasion. “Better safe than sorry,” was Bilbo’s response and the old apothecary shrugged and went to look at jars of leeches being sold at the next stand.

“I’m not looking forward to rock digging into my back, I have to agree,” the hobbit yawned as he burrowed under his blanket with his feet showing at the bottom so that the fire could keep them warm. They were sharing a room with Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, and Gandalf had the bed because it was human-sized. Bombur was already fast asleep in the corner, leaning up against Bifur who was whittling something that looked like a headless chicken with intense concentration. Gandalf had yet to come up from the bar where he had been speaking with Thorin for the last hour after they had finished their dinner of stew and bread and quite a lot of ale.

“It’s not the rocks that’re the problem,” said Bofur as he started to undo his pigtails. “I’m not fond of the bugs or gettin’ rained on.”

“So why are you here?” Asked Bilbo curiously. “If you don’t like traveling so much, I mean.”

Bofur winked at him as he settled down under his blanket. “A dwarfs got ta’ make his fortune somehow, right? And ‘sides, the beer was free.”

And really, who could argue with free beer?

“I still don’t understand why you insisted on bringing the Halfling, Gandalf. This is not his business, nor does he have anything to lose like the rest of us do should we fail.”

“And you are as suspicious and close-minded as ever, Thorin Oakenshield. Can you not trust me in this?” Gandlaf’s face was wreathed in smoke. He hadn’t put down his pipe since they had departed bag End early that morning, nor did it seem he had any intention of doing so until they reached Erebor from the looks of things.

“Filching your pipe and Dwalin’s purse is hardly stealing gold out from under a dragon’s nose. I brought Nori for just such a purpose and instead you insist on bringing…him!” Thorin glowered into his half-empty stein as if this whole situation was his beer’s fault. It wasn’t that he had any sort of personal grudge against hobbits in general. In fact he would have been happy to never think of them again if he had the choice. But this particular hobbit was preying on his mind more than he should have.

“That hobbit has more to offer than any of your men. I think he may yet surprise you with his knowledge,” Gandalf replied mildly as he turned a smoke ring into a butterfly and sent it winging across the room.

“I cannot guarantee his safety.” Thorin knew his voice was short.

“Understood.”

“Nor will I be responsible for his fate.”

“I think, Thorin Oakenshield, you should be more concerned about how responsible he is for your fate rather than the other way around.”

Thorin had nothing to say to that, so he finished his drink and left the wizard’s company without saying goodnight. And if he paused outside of the room he knew the burglar was sharing with the other dwarves, he convinced himself that it was just to assure himself that his company slept soundly.   

Chapter Text

Fog hung heavy over the sleeping town when the company departed the next morning, hot cakes wrapped in napkins warming their coat pockets for breakfast later on the road. Bilbo started nibbling on his right away while it was still warm. This was the beginning and then best way to start anything was with a warm breakfast after all. There were many missed meals ahead of him that he wasn’t looking forward to at all, but at least his first breakfast on pony-back was sweet and had nuts and honey in it. Gandalf seemed to agree with him because the old wizard was already picking the crumbs out of his beard.  

Since the sun hadn’t risen yet the air was cold and damp and seemed to crawl into every uncomfortable place especially between his toes and the backs of his knees, which he didn’t particularly like.  

A sleepy watchman was the only one to see them off at the back gate.

“Heading for the Iron Hills?” He asked them as they paused at the head of the road. “Well good luck to you and yours. There’s bad things all down the road from here on, so watch your backs. Bandits and goblins alike seem to be coming out of the woodwork.”

“Thank you for your concern,” said Thorin in a tone that said that he didn’t really care for the watchman’s thoughts on the perilous road. They were dwarves after all, not a band of merchants ripe for the plucking.

Bilbo just shivered and sneezed into his makeshift handkerchief. Three times already he had caught himself thinking that he was too old for this sort of thing and then kicking himself for that mentality. Hobbits of fifty were considered to be in the prime of their life, so this couldn’t have come during a better year for him. He was hale and hearty, though if this damp and fog kept up that might be a swiftly declining state.

No getting homesick, Bilbo told himself after he found his thoughts wandering to warm, comfortable places that didn’t involve horse hair or saddle sores. He hadn’t lived in Bag End for years – the last of his days had been spent in Valinor and Rivendell before that, living in peace among the elves. They had proved to be wonderful hosts to old hobbits and many of them had seemed to grow fond of him and the stories he would regale them with when he’d had a glass of wine or two. But there had still been days when he had longed for his little hobbit hole even if he didn’t care for the neighbors overly much. Too nosey and close-minded by half. Half of them had never believed that he’d gone on an adventure at all, but rather smoked some rather potent pipe weed and fallen into a ditch for a bit.

And there had been some days when Bilbo wished that had been what happened. There would have been fewer tears and heartbreak in the end.

The line of ponies, led by Gandalf on his white horse, slowly trailed down the hill and away from Bree and what was no doubt that last speck of civilized living until Rivendell at the edge of the Misty Mountains. The fog didn’t lift until midday and by then almost everything and everyone was cold and damp. Bilbo was very happy he’d eaten his breakfast earlier before it had the chance to get soggy. He was riding with Nori on one side of him today and Dori on the other and was content to listen to the brothers quietly bicker about whose fault one thing or another had been. It usually ended with Dori red in the face and Nori looking very smug about some sort of trouble he’d caused to vex his brother.

From what Bilbo could piece together, the family had a rough time getting settled after the chaos Smaug caused. Refugees flooded the other dwarf settlements and everyone went through some rather lean years for a while after that.

“There wasn’t much call for a craftsman in a city where folk could barely afford food. Dori made by with his mending and Ori got hired on as an apprentice to Balin as a scribe, but when ends didn’t quite meet I found out that light fingers can be useful for more than just making thing.”

“You were constantly in and out of prison,” snapped Dori. “Bringing shame on our family until we had to deny being related to you so the guards would stop raiding our home looking for stolen goods.”

“You didn’t complain when I was bringing home extra food for Ori or blankets in the winter.”

“Yes but you didn’t have to keep at it once we had enough to be comfortable!”

The thief just shrugged. “It was what I was good at.”

“I’m good at gardening,” Bilbo chimed in, hoping to change the subject to something less volatile, but they both kept talking right over him and he doubted they’d heard him at all.

Nori’s lip curled. “You were good at getting caught by the guards and thrown in prison!”

“I was usually out by the next morning so I don’t know why you keep complaining!”

“You were out because you broke out, not because they let you out, don’t glamorize it!”

By now Ori had heard his brothers bickering and had fallen back nearly to the back of the line so that he wouldn’t have to listen to them. Bilbo suddenly felt very sorry for the young scribe if this was what he had to listen to all the time. When Dwalin turned on his pony and shot a dark look at the three of them the two brothers both shut their mouths and refused to look at each other again for the next hour. Bilbo simply shrunk down in his saddle and did his best to look very small so that he wouldn’t attract any more negative attention or get caught in the middle of another argument. It was a highly uncomfortable place to be he decided and made a mental note not to bring up the touchy subject if both of the dwarves were within hearing distance at the same time.

And so passed the first day. Towards the evening they came upon a farmhouse and the man who owned it was more than happy to let them bed down in his barn for the couple of gold coins Thorin passed him. The ponies mingled with a couple fat cows outside while the dwarves lay down their bedrolls in the sweet hay and Gloin started a small fire outside that they could sit around and have their supper. Bilbo was especially looking forward to this point, seeing as he had already missed four of his usual seven meals of the day and his stomach had taken to nibbling on his backbone for the last few hours, demanding that he give it a biscuit.

Luckily Bombur had more than a biscuit in his overlarge pack. A package of butcher paper-wrapped meat was removed and passed around. The chunks were fragrant with heavy spices and it looked and smelled like beef when Bilbo sniffed it. These chunks were quickly speared of blade tips and held over their fire to cook and the air was filled with the smell of toasting meat and spices. Kili caught his on fire by sitting to close and stuck it in his mouth without blowing it out first. The resulting yelp made everyone laugh except Fili, who was patting his brother on the back so that he wouldn’t choke or spit out his dinner. Even Thorin managed to look amused, though Bilbo had no idea how he did it without moving his mouth at all.

The grilled meat was followed up by an apple each, though they were still quite a bit sour since true apple season wouldn’t be for another few months. All of them would miss apple-picking, though Bilbo had a sneaking suspicion that very few of the dwarves had actually done anything of the like before. They were miners and craftsman for the most part, and warriors all. Not farmers like his people. Perhaps once this was all over, and assuming they survived it at all, he would plant some apple trees on the slope of the lonely mountain so one day the dwarves could enjoy them as well.

Oin was a solid presence at Bilbo’s back that night and kept him warm despite the lack of fire since there was no way to light one in the barn without sending them all up in flames. That was one thing that could be said for traveling with dwarves – it was hard to catch a chill with such hot-blooded folk about.

Most of the company went straight to sleep. The veterans of road travel who knew how to sleep anywhere and at any time. Bilbo wasn’t one of those folk, nor it seemed were Fili and Kili. They sat up talking to each other in a language that seemed unique to just the two of them for at least an hour. Bilbo watched them from under the corner of his own blanket, weary to his bones but unwilling to miss a moment of seeing them so healthy and full of good cheer. The quest had brought out the harsher side of everyone, the brothers included. They had grown lean and wary and towards the end the gold lust had consumed them nearly as much as it had Thorin. Gold and stone called to their blood and preyed on their minds just as it did the rest of their kind, and perhaps more so for that they were of Durin’s line. It had been so hard to slowly watch their eyes glaze over with lust for what gleamed and glittered rather than for the life they had cherished only days before. They had fought for what was theirs and they had died for it in the end.

Bilbo’s eyes slid to the lump that he knew was Thorin. The king slept deeply, untroubled by the quiet conversation between his nephews. There wasn’t much chance of an attack or an ambush in this place after all, and Fili and Kili were set to rouse Bifur for his turn at watch when they grew tired. It was impossible to tell how long the king had been traveling before he arrived at the Shire – no doubt most of the dwarves were already accustomed to sleeping where they could find a dry patch of ground and were grateful whenever it included a roof. Bilbo was suddenly even more grateful that he had managed to provide them with as many blankets and pillows as he did. Any small comfort for such wanderers had to be a welcome one. He knew that he wouldn’t have minded sleeping on the floor if he had an extra blanket or two and a pillow to lay his head on rather than a pile of hay. But that was miles behind him now and he had a job ahead of him the likes of which no hobbit had ever known. Or at least no hobbit that he had ever heard of.

His eyes slowly slid shut as the hobbit was lulled to sleep by the sound of quiet voices and soft laughter and the chirruping of crickets in the grass outside.

One day turned into two, and then into three as they traveled down the Great East Road. The days were quiet for the most part. Bilbo did his best not to get himself into trouble, though he did manage to get himself labeled as the worst rider of the group when he fell asleep in the saddle and slipped right over the side. His foot got tangled in one of the ropes holding his bag to the animal’s rear and he ended up very awake and hanging upside down while his ankle throbbed with pain and the dwarves all stopped their own mounts to laugh at his predicament. Well, all of them but Bifur who quickly dismounted and righted the burglar again. Bilbo tried to thank him while the dwarf brushed off his coat, but Bifur just grunted something in Khuzdul that sounded like it might have been a swear word because all of the dwarves laughed louder and handed him a bit of string out of his pocket.

He had no idea what the string was for, so he simply stashed it in his pocket and climbed back onto his pony, trying to ignore the burning in his ears and the feeling of utter mortification. Proper burglars didn’t fall asleep in their saddles, so what did that make him? A poor old hobbit playing at being a young burglar again when he hadn’t really stolen anything since he had spirited away the Arkenstone. Now shame replaced embarrassment and he hunched over in his saddle, determined to stay awake this time and not be seen as a liability.

“Did you not sleep properly last night?” Asked Thorin from behind him and Bilbo did his level best not to look suspicious. Of course he’d always been rotten at acting so his casual look probably came off more like constipated than anything else.

“No, fine. Just fine.” Actually Oin had rolled on him some time in the middle of the night and he had spent nearly an hour trying to crawl out from under him without damaging anything important. Like his spine. After that he had been too sore to get back to sleep again until close to dawn and then he’d been roused what felt like minutes later and told to get back on his blasted pony. His thighs and backside weren’t thanking him at all by now and he was ridiculously grateful that he’d brought a bit of salve to apply to the sore areas.

“I can’t afford to let you slow my men so that might get as much rest as a hobbit needs,” said Thorin and he sounded a little bit irritated, as if Bilbo had meant to fall off his pony and make a fool out of himself.

Bilbo gritted his teeth and reminded himself that Thorin was simply looking out for his company. But sometimes he could be so damn unpleasant about it that it was enough to drive a hobbit to drive. “It won’t happen again, I promise. I’m not fond of either hanging upside down or being laughed at.”

“But you’re so good at both, Master Hobbit!” Called up Bombur and his own pony danced about a bit as its rider exploded into uproarious laughter. The rest of the lot seemed to find this amusing as well because the entire company had to pause for a moment. That was when he first smelled it.

“Does anybody else smell something rotting?” Bilbo shifted around in his little saddle to look over his shoulder. Maybe some animal had died and been left by the side of the road, but the distinct, pungent smell seemed to indicate something larger than a rabbit or other brush land animal.  

“Aye,” said Balin, pausing his pony next to Bilbo and inhaling deeply. “There’s something foul about and I don’t like it.”

“Probably just a deer,” grumbled Dwalin, but he had already dismounted and had his massive war hammer in hand. Gandalf continue silently smoking at the back of the line, but his face had settled into lines that Bilbo recognized as his worried ones.

“Search the area,” snapped Thorin and everyone instantly obeyed. Bilbo yelped as he was caught by his collar and yanked back when he went to follow after Dori and Nori. “Stay here, Master Hobbit. We don’t need you disappearing into a rabbit hole and then have to waste more time digging you out again.”

“A rabbit hole?! Well I never – “

“Thorin! Over here!” It was Gloin and he was waving his axe over his head from atop a small rise on the side of the road. Instantly the other dwarves gave up their digging around in the bushes and towed their ponies behind them as they went to catch up.

It wasn’t a pretty sight. From what Bilbo could figure, a band a travelers had met their end in the small valley, probably chased off the road by whatever ambush they had encountered. The corpses were peppered with thick black arrows and horrible slicing wounds. Flies covered their eyes and mouths and the wounds on their dead horses. An overturned and half-burned cart lay on its side, empty of all its contents. Whatever had set upon the humans had made away with anything of value they might have been carrying and left the bodies to rot in the spring sunshine. There looked to be a few soldiers based on what armor he could see, but they had probably only been acting as an escort for the others. Whether they had been merchants or simply folk seeking a new home elsewhere it was impossible to say.

“You wouldn’t have been able to see them from the road,” whispered Bilbo, his eyes wide as he took in the destruction. Behind him he could hear Ori emptying the contents of his stomach into the grass.

“No,” agreed Thorin in a hard tone. “They’ve probably been there for the better part of a week from the looks of it. Anyone traveling by wouldn’t have noticed them except for the smell.”

“Poor souls.” Balin tilted his head down in a moment of silent respect for the dead and the rest of the company did the same, removing their hats and closing their eyes. Bilbo looked at the grass and suppressed a silent shuddered. Had these folk been here the last time they had traveled by and they simply hadn’t noticed? Or were things already beginning to shift from the way they had once been because of some small action on his part?

After a minute had passed, Thorin straightened again. “We’ll burn the bodies. Check the arrows – I want to know if we need to be on guard for bandits or orcs.” His hand settled on the blade at his side as if he were even now imagining separating their heads from their necks. Oin was rubbing Ori’s back, trying to give some sort of comfort to the poor scribe for he still looked very ill and was white as a sheet.

Bilbo followed Bofur down the rise and stepped over the legs of one of the dead horses as he tried to control his own stomach. The smell was absolutely vile and overpowered his senses with the odor of rotting flesh. Dwalin hefted up the body of one of the guards and pulled him closer to where several of the other dwarves were assembling a makeshift pyre out of what dry wood and branches they could find. There wasn’t the time to give them a proper burial with the pace they had set, but the least they could do was make sure that the bodies wouldn’t be further desecrated by animals or the weather.

With a steadily sinking heart, Bilbo did what he could to help. He pulled boards off of the ruined horse cart and added them to the pile, not making a single noise when he cut his palm on a nail. There were more important things to deal with than a scratch right now.

“Oh no…” He whispered as he pulled away another board. A small, pale hand lay still in the grass, revealed by the sunlight in the newly made gap. The hobbit dropped to his belly and wriggled under the cart, ignoring the calls of ‘Bilbo, what are you doing’ from Bombur and Nori. It was cool and dark under the overturned cart. The heat of the sun hadn’t damaged this body quite as much as the others, but Bilbo still found himself shaking as he carefully gathered up the corpse of the child and pulled it back out with him. It had been a little girl, dressed in a soft yellow shift. One of her shoes was missing and her head was turned at an unnatural angle that suggested she had been killed when the cart flipped rather than by arrows and blades like the rest of the party. Perhaps that was a small mercy.

When he emerged, carefully dragging the body with him, the whole party seemed to sag with the weight of sorrow. There was nothing worse than the bodies of children, especially to dwarves. They had so few themselves that the loss of any young life was hard. Dori stepped forward to take the body from him but Bilbo quickly snapped “I can do it!” And wouldn’t let him take the girl.

Her eyes, which might have been blue before they glazed over, stared blankly at the sky as Bilbo scooped her up in his arms and started for the pyre.

Dwalin went over to stand by Thorin, his arms crossed and his brow furrowed as he watched the hobbit stumble under the weight of the human child. No doubt he was more used to hauling about bags of fertilizer than corpses, but he couldn’t help but find a small seed of admiration at the burglar’s resolve.

“Orcs,” he said shortly to their leader and Thorin’s face grew even darker if possible. “A raiding party, probably a dozen if na’ more. They rode wargs – there are prints in the grass. The humans didn’t stand a chance.”

“If I could get my hands on them I would burn them alive,” growled Thorin as he watched Bilbo carefully set down the girl next to the others and close her eyes. Then the burglar stood, brushed off the front of his trousers, and took off walking out into the field. “Where is he - ?”

Dwalin just shrugged. “He’s of a gentle folk. I’ll finish here if you wish to fetch him back a’for he falls in a ditch.”

“Or a rabbit hole.” Thorin sighed and started walking after Bilbo while the rest of the company finished building the pyre and began to lay the dozen or so bodies atop it.

By the time he’d caught up with the hobbit (who moved surprisingly quickly for his small size), Bilbo had fallen to his knees in the long grass and was carefully pulling up white flowers and arranging them into a delicate bundle. The field was awash with colorful flowers and fat bumblebees, but the hobbit only seemed interested in two kinds.

“We don’t have time for flowers, Master Hobbit. We must be on our way to make up for lost time on the road and there are orcs about now.”

“There are always orcs,” Bilbo replied in a deceptively calm voice. He selected two more flowers – one of them had a yellow center surrounded by white petals while the other looked more like a stalk with little white bells along its stem. When he turned to look at Thorin the king could see the sheen of unshed tears in his eyes, along with a startling strength that kept them contained. The bundle of flowers were cradled in his small hands. “Heather for protection. Daisies for innocence. Sometimes there has to be time for flowers, King Under the Mountain.”

And Bilbo left Thorin standing in the field among the bees and the flowers. When they pyre was lit the dwarves all sung a low, mournful song in khuzdul that Bilbo didn’t understand. The human child had a spray of white blossoms clutched between her cold hands. They burned brighter than anything else.

That night they stopped early and made their camp on the edge of a small ravine. With a sheer drop at one edge it provided them more protection than sleeping out in the open would. There was only one way in or out of their little hideout and any orc pack who thought to sneak up on them would have a nasty surprise waiting for them. That night they kept watch in groups of two rather than one. The day’s discovery had everyone on edge and strangely silent. No songs were sung from pony back and when they had stopped for lunch there hadn’t been any of the usual joking and rambunctious laughter. A pall had settled over the whole company and left them feeling empty.

Bilbo couldn’t sleep. Every time he shut his eyes all he saw were corpses looking back at him. He hadn’t seen Fili’s or Kili’s. He hadn’t been able to face that sort of pain and had run like the coward he was all the way back to the Shire before the funeral. He’d barely taken the time to say a proper goodbye to the survivors. Instead he had bolted like wargs were snapping at his heels, chased away by the memory of blue eyes clouding over as Thorin Oakenshield passed on to where he could not follow. Loyalty and a willing heart meant nothing to the dead. Nor did love.

It was that thought that had the hobbit on his feet again, his hands shaking like he had brushed up too closely to a lightning bolt.

“Bilbo?” Fili looked up at him from where he and Kili were taking their turn at watch, smoking next to the fire. Kili was sprawled on his side with his head in his brother’s lap and Fili was slowly stroking his dark hair with the hand that wasn’t holding his pipe. “What’s the matter?”

“Can’t sleep,” he replied as he walked over to sit on Fili’s other side. He accepted the offered pipe and puffed on it while he stared at the fire. The tobacco was rich and earthy and very clearly not from Hobbiton. And yet it was exactly what he needed right then. It curled around in his head and helped to muffle thoughts that he wasn’t sure he was ready to face yet.

“Not surprised. Nasty business, that.” Fili looked off into the darkened valley below them Kili seemed halfway asleep and didn’t say anything, having been lulled into a sense of security by his brother’s tender caresses.

All three of them jerked to attention when a howl broke through the relative silence.

“Orcs?” Whispered Bilbo as he handed Fili back his pipe.

“Probably. The low lands are crawling with ‘em. There’ll be dozens of ‘em out there.” This time Fili sounded more serious than joking. The evidence of the orc’s brutality had made what might have been a joke into a very real possibility.

Kili rolled his head back far enough that he could look at Bilbo upside down and then hobbit noticed that one of his hands had fallen to the blade that lay beside him. Just in case. “Uncle says they usually attack in the wee small hours of the morning when everyone’s asleep. But we have a watch set, so we should be – “

“If orcs came upon the three of you at this time, we would all be dead before we had time to grab our swords.”

Thorin was awake and he didn’t look happy about it. Then again, none of them were exactly in the highest of spirits, so perhaps his scowl was just residual. Bilbo dropped his eyes back down to the fire and didn’t say anything for fear of what might come out of his mouth.  

“We’re keeping watch!” Kili protested as he sat up, trying his best to look alert and failing miserably.

“Children and burglars,” Thorin snorted with disdain. “Oh yes, I’m sure everyone feels much safer.”

Both brothers looked absolutely horrified at being referred to as children, but Bilbo remembered that for all that they were in their seventies and eighties neither one was considered more than a youngster barely out of their tweens by dwarf standards. While he did feel sorry for blow to their egos, Bilbo did have to admit to himself that two young and sleepy dwarves and one hobbit did not make for a very good watch, especially with known danger in the area.

“It won’t happen again, uncle,” Kili said with his head lowered in shame. Thorin just grunted and stalked off into the dark in the direction of the ponies.

He anticipated it, but Bilbo still jumped a little bit when Balin came up next to him. “Don’t mind him, laddie.” The old dwarf’s voice was soft and soothing, like a balm on a burn and Bilbo found himself relaxing against his will. Balin had the same sort of presence as a grandfather – the kind who could bandage knees and tell stories and comfort you on the darkest of days. Bilbo knew he was too old for that sort of thing, but it still reassured him to have Balin at his side. An old friend who wasn’t a friend yet.

“Your uncle has always hated orcs more than most. No doubt today simply stirred up some dark memories for him. And for the rest of us as well,” Balin sighed.

Fili looked up in interest, smoke leaking out of the corners of his mouth. “Memories?”

Balin nodded and settled himself more comfortably against the rock face. “After the dragon took the lonely mountain King Thror tried to reclaim the ancient dwarf kingdom of Moria.”

Oh yes, this story, thought Bilbo.

“But our enemy had got there first. Moria had been taken by legions of orcs lead by the most vile of all their race – Azog the Defiler.”

Charging down the hill on the back of a white warg, his eyes blazing in the dark as he glared at his quarry with undisguised malice. A twisted hook where his arm had once been, tracing through the fur of his mount as he commanded one of the orcs to cut off Thorin’s head as the king lay helpless on the ground and the world burned around him…

Bilbo had stopped listening, losing himself to the sound of the wind and the memory of fire, but Fili jostled him as he shifted around and jerked him back to the present.

“That is when I saw him. A young dwarf prince facing down the pale orc. He stood alone against this terrible foe. His armor rent, wielding nothing but an oaken branch as a shield. Azog the Defiler learned that day that the line of Durin would not be so easily broken. Our forces rallied and drove the orcs back.”

‘The eagles are coming!’ He cried. It had to be enough. For all that the dwarves had banded together with the men and elves at the end, the army of orcs refused to be defeated. But now the eagles had arrived and Bilbo prayed that would be the last push the war needed to bring them victory and save the ones who had fallen. It had to be. Then a rock connected with the back of his head and darkness swallowed him whole.

 “ - and I thought to myself then, ‘There is one who I could follow. There is one I could call King’.”

By then most of the company was awake again and listening, though many of them had probably lived through it the first time and could recall the scent of death. It may have been a glorious story, but Bilbo knew how it was to be surrounded by enemies on all sides, too busy trying to keep your own head attached to your shoulders to worry if your friends were still alive. And then came the miserable fallout when the dead were counted and you realized exactly what you had lost…

A twig snapped across from him and he looked up, meeting Thorin’s eyes across the fire. The flickering light made the angles of his face harder and his eyes looked more yellow than blue. They caught and held his, and Bilbo feared that he saw some sort of speculation in them. A curiosity that had never really been leveled in his direction before. His list was safe in his pocket, reminding him of the heavy secret he carried like a lock around his heart. But those chains were slowly beginning to loosen and he knew he could only hold onto them for so long.

Eru give me strength.

“Get some sleep,” he told the company. “We have an early start tomorrow.”

Bilbo sagged back against the rock behind him when Thorin finally looked away and cursed himself for a fool three times over and once more in elvish. Bilbo Baggins, you utter knob brain. You were in love with him the whole time and you never once realized it.  

Chapter Text

“Mister Gandalf, can’t you do something about this deluge?” Called Dori. The eldest of the ‘Ri brothers was looking more and more like a mop as his neatly braided beard swelled up with water. It had been raining for the last three days and no one had been spared. Bilbo smiled humorlessly and hunched his shoulders in an attempt to keep the icy rainwater out of his collar. At least he’d remembered his oilskin this time, but in the end he had given it to Kili since he had left his at the Prancing Pony. At least the prince was warm and comfortable now, although he had been bragging to Fili for the last two days that their burglar liked him best. Fili hadn’t taken that well at all and took every opportunity to steal the waterproof cloak away from Kili just to spite him.

It was nice to know that no matter what he did or said, there was nothing he could do to change the weather. The same storm had swept them up last time and he knew it would blow over by the next morning. Until then everyone would have to tolerate being wet and grumpy. Bofur puffed away at his pipe, but it seemed like he was blowing more bubbles out of it than smoke since the bowl had filled with water and ruined whatever tobacco had been in it.

“It is raining, Master Dwarf!” Snapped back Gandalf. Even the wizard seemed irritable and the edges of his hat had begun to sag. Water began to pour off of the brim in a steady stream and onto the wizard’s long nose. “And it will continue to rain until the rain is done!” Bilbo couldn’t help but smile a little bit as he rode behind the wizard. Some things never changed and Gandalf would never cease to be grumpy when something went beyond his skills as a wizard. Most of the Shire didn’t think that his talents went beyond summoning a bit of fire to set off his trademark fireworks but clearly the dwarves thought a little bit higher. Killing hundreds of dragons and changing the weather indeed…

Bilbo sneezed into his wet velvet sleeve and huffed. He had spent many a rainy day after returning from Erebor sitting inside and enjoying not being wet. Sometimes he would think back to these few wet days and feel grateful that he wasn’t stuck outdoors with wet hair and smelling increasingly of wet horse with the beginnings of a cold settling itself very comfortably in his lungs.

But now he was, so all those days of feeling content with a book and a fire crackling at his toes while he dreamed of the past were now gone. Frodo wasn’t even a spark in his parent’s eyes yet and nobody was panicking over a magic ring and a war that could consume the world. No, the biggest dreams right now were of dragons and gold and somehow it seemed so innocent. The fate of the world didn’t hang in the balance right now. If the dwarves never disturbed Smaug he could have probably slept for another sixty years and no one would have had to deal with him until far later. It was an age of peace and prosperity that would quickly come crashing down with the rise of Sauron.

Just thinking about it made Bilbo feel vaguely ill. He was just a hobbit, not a wizard who could wrap his mind around great spells and magic like the one that had been worked upon him. And speaking of wizards…

“Gandalf,” he said quietly, giving his pony a little nudge with his heels so that he could ride up beside him.

“Hmm? Oh yes my dear boy, what can I do for you? And don’t ask me about the weather, I’m afraid that the answer is absolutely not. I may be a wizard but there are some things that are just ridiculous to request. Now if you wanted a fire started or a boulder split in twain I’m sure I could do something for you, but the best I could manage with this would be a very poor water-proofing spell that would only last for a few minutes at best so in the end it wouldn’t be worth the energy it took to cast.”

Bilbo tried to interrupt several times to say that he didn’t want to ask about stopping the rain at all, but Gandalf was determined to have his say and in the end he just gave up until he was quite sure that the wizard was done. Sometimes it just wasn’t worth the effort it took to be heard in this company since everyone was louder than him and seemed to have stronger opinions about most things. If it could be spoken about, the dwarves could probably argue about it. What was for dinner, which path was best for taking ponies on, which was the wettest, the strongest, the fastest, the smartest…well, maybe not the last one quite as much. That honor usually went to Gandalf simply because he had to be very wise to have gotten to be so old. The only thing Bilbo had won on the entire trip was the dubious honor of being the shortest and having the least amount of hair, neither of which he had been very happy about winning in the first place. So now he kept his mouth shut when they started up again and was glad they weren’t comparing penis sizes just yet. Or at least not in this weather they weren’t.

“I just wanted to ask you about some things,” he said, being purposefully vague as he glanced back behind them to make sure no one was within hearing range. Luckily the rain cut down on the noise substantially so it was hard to hear much of anything, let alone a quiet conversation. The best he could tell, Dwalin was yelling at Nori for something back a few yards and everyone else seemed content to stew in their own wet misery until they made camp for the night.

“There are many things you could ask me about, Bilbo Baggins, but I have a feeling that I already know what has been weighing on your mind lately.”

He sneezed again and the pony did the same. It seemed that no one was getting through this weather with any sort of cheer, Bofur excluded because he would have been cheerful in the middle of a blizzard.

“It’s just that,” Bilbo continued, wiping his nose on the pocket Bofur had given him in place of a handkerchief, “Everything feels different. Things have already happened that didn’t happen the first time around and I’m worried– “

“If you weren’t worried I would think you a bigger fool than most of these dwarves with exception of one or two who are especially so.”

That made Bilbo laugh, because he was fairly certain he could pick out exactly which dwarves Gandalf was referring to. “It’s just that things have been going differently since I left home, and I don’t know what I did to make that happen. You wouldn’t think that making breakfast and not showing up late would have changed things so much already.”

“Were you late? How very unlike you.”

“Well I wasn’t originally planning on going, if I must be honest. I told you that you had found the wrong hobbit and then had to run to catch up the next morning when I changed my mind.”

Gandalf let out a rough bark of laughter. “Now that would have been quite a sight. And I suppose you packed all of your books and wore your best Sunday coat as well?”

“You don’t need to make it sound so bad. Although I must say that coat was well and truly ruined by the end…”

The wizard just shook his head and Bilbo got the impression that he was smiling behind his wet beard. “As for changes, I can’t say I’m surprised. Can you honestly say that you’re the same hobbit who ran out of your door the first time? That you have the same thoughts and feelings and say the same things you once did?”

“No, of course not. I know what happens, so how can I – “

“That’s the point, Bilbo. You can’t. Compare yourself to a pebble that has been tossed in a flat pond. You create ripples and those ripples get bigger the further out they go. You’ve been thrown twice now, so you can’t expect to make the exact same ripples or to sink to the same place in the pond. Of course things will be different!”

“Now you have me worried about the big ripples,” Bilbo muttered and tried to sink down lower to less water would slide down the back of his neck.   

“There’s nothing you can do except what you believe to be right, my dear Bilbo. I think that’s all that anyone can ever do.”

Bilbo just silently prayed that when the time came he would know what the right thing was. So far everything had been looking very gray and muddled, like soup that hadn’t quite decided what flavor it wanted to be yet. All he could do was stir, maybe add in some herbs, and hope that it turned out better than his last attempt.

_________________________________

Later that afternoon Thorin called a halt to their precession and it was met with many groans of relief and a couple of whimpers as more than one company member found that the water had soaked through their pants and effectively glued them to their saddles.

A Traveler’s Tree stood next to the road, a massive old growth that the middle had rotted straight out of and left a cavernous hollow into which they could all fit comfortably. Even the ponies stayed relatively dry once they were tethered to the trunk since the branches of the cedar kept the worst of the downpour off of them. There were signs that the tree had been used as a place of refuge before, since Bombur uncovered the remains of an old fire in the middle of the hollow and there was evidence of smoke soot further up the inside of the trunk.

“Get a fire going,” Thorin commanded as he shed his heavy fur coat and hung it on a protruding branch so that it could dry out for a while. Most of the others followed his example and the company was very quickly stripped down to their underthings and huddled around the fire that had been started up in the ashes of the last one. Even Gandalf had unbent enough to hang up his gray cloak, revealing (unsurprising) loose grey trousers and an undershirt of the same color. Bilbo’s coat was dripping at the sleeves as he put it up and he heartily hoped that the fire and warmth would be enough to make it fresh again, else he’d be riding wet once more in the morning.  

The hollow tree was quickly filled with the sounds of grumbling and sneezes and sniffling as the company unwound from the long days of riding in less than ideal conditions. No one had expected it to be a pleasure trip by any means, but three days of rain was pushing the limits of everyone’s stamina. Even Dwalin looked more dour than usual and he was a seasoned warrior and traveler. Nori had unwound a couple of his intricate braids and was busy wringing water out of them while Dori tried to make Ori sit closer to the fire and Ori complained that sitting much close would set his beard alight.

“Fili set his beard on fire once,” Kili chirruped and then laughed and tried to roll away as Fili began to hit him about the head with one of his discarded boots.

“Aye, that he did,” rumbled Dwalin with a smirk. “It’s why his beard is so short – never grew back quite as fast as the rest of it after that.”

“I was only forty!” Fili shouted, trying to drown out Kili’s hysterical laughter as the rest of the company alternately chuckled and smirked at his expense. Bilbo’s lips quirked up in a smile as he watched their antics from beside Bifur.

“Tha’ doesn’t excuse it, lad. Next thing I know Thorin has dragged him home looking like a drowned rat with half of his face red and his whole beard charred right off. The fool had run about and tried to put the blaze out with his hands and Thorin had dumped him into the quenching barrel.”

“Dis just about had both of our heads for that,” Thorin muttered as he gave himself a shake like a wet dog and ended up drenching both of his nephews all over again.

“And I had to help cut the rest of it off so that it wouldn’t be lopsided and the neighbors kept asking when uncle had adopted a lady dwarf – Fili stop hitting me!”

It dissolved into chaos from there and Bilbo very wisely scooted backwards so that he didn’t get dragged into the fray and end up with a black eye or a bloody nose like the one Dori was already sporting as a result of being hit in the nose with somebody’s knee as the other alternately sought to drag Fili and Kili apart and join in the good-natured tussle. There had been no relief from the strain of travel – no ambushes or orcs or highway bandits on which to test their blades, so in the absence of and real challenge the dwarves turned on each other for satisfaction.

Balin settled himself next to Bilbo and sniffed delicately into a handkerchief that was embroidered with red thread and an ornate capital ‘B’ in one corner.

“Not joining the rest?” Bilbo asked with amusement and scooted an inch to the side so that he could avoid being squashed by Bofur. It looked like Dori had picked him up and thrown him right over the fire. Luckily Bofur seemed to take it in stride because he was up in a moment (albeit covered in dirt) and diving back into the tussle.

“Oh nay lad, I’m too old for such shenanigans. Maybe if I were a hundred years younger I could teach them all a thing or two, but I’m quite content with sitting right here for now.” Oin grunted in agreement from Balin’s other side and the two of them began to discuss the medicinal properties of a good cup of tea.

This is what I missed, the hobbit mused as he watched the fists and insults fly. Bombur was rolled unceremoniously out of the fight by a well-aimed kick, his massive braid in disarray. The fat dwarf picked himself up with an insulted sniff before retreating to find his trusty pot to make up some supper. Never a dull moment when you travel with dwarves. There wasn’t time for sitting down to read a good book, tea time was rare, often times they ate their lunch on the backs of their ponies so that they wouldn’t have to stop as often, and the weather could be downright deplorable.

“What are you smiling about, Halfling?” Thorin had managed to pull himself free and he stumbled over and sank down next to Bilbo. Kili, who had been clinging to one of his uncle’s boots, was dragged right back in again with a cry of despair. Bilbo was suddenly uncomfortably aware of how very warm it was inside the Traveler’s Tree and wrapped his arms around his drawn up knees.

“I was just thinking about how glad I am that I left home.” The first time and this time as well.

“Where you could have been warm and dry and not reeked of horse?” Thorin asked incredulously and his gingerly prodded at a bruise that was already beginning to blossom on his cheekbone courtesy of Ori and his sharp elbows.

“Where I would have been happy to live alone for the rest of my life and been cordial with my neighbors and chase hobbit kits out of my garden. I never would have been able to wrap my head around such an adventure before Gandalf decided to bring you all to my doorstep.” And now it felt like someone had thrown open a window and fresh air was pouring back into him, filling him up from his toes to the tip tops of his curly hair. Refreshing life with all of its wonders and he greeted it as if he was welcoming back an old friend he hadn’t known he was missing.

“Alone?” Thorin asked. “I didn’t see any signs of a companion in your home, but most of the others of your kind that I passed seemed happily paired or had children. No desire to settle down and have…kits, was it?”

 “Me? Kits? Oh heavens no.” Bilbo shook his head with a small smile and Thorin felt himself go a little bit red at the sight of it. The hobbit was downright pretty when he wasn’t moping or looking as grim as if a warg had eaten one of his closest friends. Not that he would ever admit it to anyone – it wouldn’t do for the leader of the company, and especially their king, to start mooning over their burglar. Dwalin would never let him live it down.

“Why not?” The king pressed. “You seem of a proper age for those sorts of things.”

Bilbo gave him a suspicious look, as if he was curious as to why Thorin was prying into his affairs. But once again good manners won out over suspicion. “It was never something I had any interest in. And even if I had…it just wasn’t possible. By the time I found someone – “ The hobbit broke off with a short cry as a shower of sparks was sent up when Nori went tumbling right through the fire.

Dwalin! Enough, all of you!” Roared Thorin. The massive dwarf had the good grace to look ashamed of himself as Nori picked himself and beat out the hot embers that clung to his underwear, glaring daggers back at Dwalin. Bombur was complaining about ashes in his soup and Dori was working very hard to pry Ori off of Fili. The scribe had a double handful of the prince’s hair and had been using it as a handle to pull him off of Kili. Everyone froze at their king’s bellow though, and the fight was over in seconds. Luckily the casualties were minor. Oin had Dori’s nose fixed in a moment by stuffing Balin’s nice handkerchief up both of his nostrils, Fili and Kili were both sporting black eyes, and Nori’s eyebrows had come unbraided. But most everyone was smiling and laughing, or at the very least seemed less tightly wound than they had been.

Thorin turned back to Bilbo, but found his burglar in deep conversation with Balin and Gandalf about the use of poppies in medicine, which was something he had no interest in at all. With a quiet grumble, for he had been interested to hear of the hobbit’s past, Thorin turned his attention back to the company. Most of them had gathered around Bombur’s soup pot to dish out their dinner. Nori was giving Dwalin a very cold shoulder and had settled himself between his brothers while he rebraided his hair.

Bilbo laughed as Oin finished a story about a dwarf who had come to him to help cure the boils that had sprung up all over him nearly overnight. It turned out his wife had slipped some certain herbs into his dinner the previous eve because she wanted a break from their usual nighttime exercises. He jumped when a thunderous sneeze rang out next to him and turned to see Thorin rubbing his nose into the blue sleeve of his undershirt. It seemed that even the mighty king wasn’t immune to the effects of the weather.

A moment later a rough piece of cloth was presented to him and Bilbo smiled again as he offered Bofur’s pocket to Thorin. “Handkerchief, your majesty?”

Thorin stared at the scrap of cloth for a moment and then accepted it to mop at his red nose. “Thank you.”

Across the fire, Bifur and Dwalin had pulled out their instruments and the Traveler’s Tree was quickly filled with a merry tune. Bofur cleared his throat and began to sing.

“If all the young ladies were little white rabbits

I'd be a hare and I'd teach 'em bad habits.

If all the young ladies were sweet fruits and berries

I'd handle their melons and nibble their cherries…”

And the company settled in very comfortably for the rainy night. 

Chapter Text

“It is a very good thing I was fond of your mother, Bilbo, otherwise I might have left you alone at the mercy of those hard-headed dwarves.”

“As she was of you, and I thank you for not, now would you please just listen to me and stay?” Bilbo crossed his arms and scowled up at Gandalf, feeling worried and a little bit sick. “We both know how stubborn they can be about some things and this is and probably always has been one of them.”

The wizard nodded in agreement, and both of the men turned to observe the burned-out shell of a house that the dwarves were currently making into a fit camp. Several of the older dwarves had gathered around Thorin and were casting furtive looks back at Gandalf as if in fear that he would turn them all into cats out of sheer irritation. Bilbo was on the verge of asking him to just so that he wouldn’t have to put up with the never ending mutters about elves. 

“He refuses to go to Rivendell,” Gandalf said, and there was a low anger in his voice that Bilbo had only heard very rarely and a long time ago. It was one of the things that had faded from his mind as if from a dream – that Gandalf could be very fierce and angry when the moment was right. Usually he liked to think of him as a kindly and eccentric gentleman who could simply do a bit of magic when the mood struck him. It took an act of will to recall that the man standing next to him was possibly the second most powerful wizard in middle earth, and he could probably turn the whole lot of them into tabby cats if he was pushed too far. “Lord Elrond could lend us much needed aid on this quest and yet he is too blind to see it.”

Bilbo decided not to mention that he already knew what the map said. For one thing he was looking forward to going back to Rivendell again. For another it would raise serious suspicions if the burglar knew what a map that could only be read by moonlight and was written in ancient dwarf said. If he wanted to remain subtle he would need to learn when the best times to keep his mouth shut were.

“I’ll try to talk to him. I’m not one of his subjects so it’s not as though he can behead me.” The list crinkled in Bilbo’s hand as he pulled it open to look at it. The constant rain had dampened the edges, but none of the ink had run yet and he was grateful for that since he hadn’t brought any ink or quills with him and Ori would no doubt ask what he wanted them for if Bilbo asked to borrow his.

And now we come to the chapter with the trolls, he mused. And he still had no idea what to do about it.

“Yes, perhaps you can get a bit of sense through that thick skull of his. And what would that be?” Gandalf leaned over his shoulder, looking down his long nose at the rumpled parchment.

Instantly he crumpled back up the paper so that the wizard couldn’t read his neat handwriting. “You told me not to tell you anything unless I needed to, so don’t try to cheat by reading my list either. You wizards always have to meddle in things and you especially. This is my private business and I’ll tell you about it when I think you need to know! Now I’ve already told you not to go stomping off in a huff so let that satisfy you.”

Gandalf looked completely taken aback. “Bilbo Baggins, you sound more like an old man than I think I ever have.”

“Sometimes I feel more like a thousand than one hundred and thirty one.”

A gnarled hand came to rest on his shoulder. “Whether you are fifty or one thousand plus one hundred and thirty one, I know you will do what needs to be done. I’ll stay for your sake since I know you would not ask otherwise. But I will request that you speak to Thorin and see if you can sway him at all in the matter of seeking Lord Elrond’s aid.”

“Yes fine, I’ll talk to him. Before that though, what do you know about mountain trolls?”

__________________________________

Thorin glowered down at his gauntlets as he leaned against one of the crumbling walls of what had once been a farmhouse. Orcs or mercenaries (or trolls as Bilbo knew very well) had probably fallen upon it a while ago since there was already ivy growing up over the crumbling stones. No bodies or bones had been turned up when they searched and he wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or not. Orcs were known to eat their victims on occasion and mercenaries quite often dealt in the slave trade. Sometimes there were worse fates than being killed in a raid and he quietly prayed to Mahal that whoever had lived here had received a swift and merciful end. 

“Tho – Master Oakenshield?”

He didn’t jump, but it was a close thing. There had been no sign that the hobbit was coming up beside him and somehow Bilbo had managed to stay right in his blind spot while not making a single sound as he came up. Perhaps those overlarge feet of his were good for something other than collecting mud.

Yes, but he washes them every evening, so they’re probably in a better state than half of us, he reminded himself. I can’t remember the last time Dwalin actually took off his boots. That made him cringe a little bit.

“Mister Baggins,” he acknowledged the big brown eyes that were staring up at him, feeling a little bit uncomfortable beneath the searching gaze. He was positive that the hobbit knew something, but what that something was he couldn’t begin to hazard a guess. There was simply an air about him that lead Thorin to believe that their burglar was hiding something. He’d managed to draw him into conversation last night in the Traveler’s Tree, but that had been a brief exchange and he hadn’t learned anything very useful from it except that his burglar was a bachelor and that there might have been someone he cared about at some point. But the rest remained a mystery and it was a little bit alarming how much he wanted to uncover it. Perhaps Bilbo had a looser mouth around some of the other company members and he made a mental note to question them as to the habits and past of their lone hobbit. Maybe Gandalf knew something.

But wait, Gandalf is mad enough to rain fire down on your head, so best avoid him until he settles down a bit.

At least Bilbo had kept their wizard from leaving them completely, though he was curious as to how. 

“I expect the wizard sent you over?” He growled and nearly kicked himself for sounding so hostile. Scaring Bilbo off would get him no closer to figuring out why the hobbit looked at them all in the same way he’d seen some dwarves gaze at gold and treasure. With fondness and something that seemed oddly close to love. But why would he? They had begun to travel together barely over a week ago and he would have remembered meeting a Halfling before that. There was simply no reason for it that he could figure out. Yes, he would definitely have to ask the wizard. 

“He suggested it, yes.” Bilbo said quietly and Thorin was the first one to break their eye contact.

“I will not go to Rivendell,” he said, trying to keep his tone firm more than bitter or sulky.

Bilbo pulled his pipe out of his coat pocket and stuffed it was a pinch of sweet hobbit tobacco. He took a deep breath of the smoke and let it slowly drift out of his mouth as they both turned to watch the rest of the company finish setting up camp. Gandalf had settled himself on a mossy stone and seemed to be muttering to himself. Fili and Kili were unloading the packs off of the ponies and Bombur was already digging through one of them in search of a slab of salted pork they were to have as supper. Bifur was chewing on a daisy.

“Alright,” Bilbo said agreeably.

“Don’t try to argue with me Halfling, in this I am firm. You may not be one of my subjects, but as a member of this company you agreed to follow – what?” Thorin frowned, trying to mentally backtrack.

“I said fine.” Bilbo puffed away at his long pipe, his expression mild.

“Didn’t the wizard send you over to convince me to change my mind?”

“Well he did, but judging by the look on your face that would be a pointless effort on my part, wouldn’t it?”

“I – yes. It would.” Damn this hobbit for being so confusing.

“Well then, I guess we don’t have anything else to talk about.”

They fell into silence, but while Bilbo seemed content with it Thorin quickly found himself struggling to fill it. Why did he feel the need to justify himself to a burglar? He was a king - he answered to no one and acted only on behalf of his subjects.

“Why would I seek aid from those who gave my people none when we needed it the most desperately?”

“You wouldn’t,” came the answer.

“Exactly. Gandalf seems to think that we would be welcome in that accursed city, but I know otherwise. They would seek to detain us and turn me away from my quest to reclaim my homeland.”

“Probably.” A small smoke ring went drifting off with the late afternoon breeze.

Curse this hobbit! “And there are probably others who can read the map. Others who aren’t elves.”

“Maybe one or two.”

“And we aren’t in need of supplies or aid at the moment so we can bypass it completely and I’ll consider myself better off for it.”

Bilbo just nodded, not seeming to care about his steadfast refusal. “As you wish your majesty.”

For some reason Thorin felt like even though Bilbo was the one agreeing with him the hobbit had still somehow managed to come out on the winning side of their argument. Not that it had been an argument, or he didn’t think there had been.

But maybe the elves could – no. No, no, and no again.

“Perhaps we should look around to see if there are any signs of more orcs?” Came Bilbo’s soft voice from his elbow.

“I give the commands here, Mister Baggins. I’ll thank you to remember that.” The snapped response made him feel better and worse at the same time and he covered up his discomfort by stalking off through the tall grass, calling to the others to scout the area. He didn’t see the smile that followed after him, though the smell of sweet pipe smoke lingered in his nose for long after.

__________________________________

Bilbo didn’t usually indulge in bad habits, but if he kept finding himself in such stressful situations he may very well take up chewing on his fingernails. So far there had been no sign of any danger, troll-based or otherwise. Several of the dwarves were still out scouting around though and the sun hadn’t quite set yet. As long as there was daylight they were safe, but the sun was dropping lower and lower with each passing minute.

“Bofur, I’m going to go look for Fili and Kili. They’ve been gone for a while and dinner is almost ready. Wouldn’t want them to miss it.”

“Tha’s a good lad, thanks for that. I think I saw ‘em head off into the trees tha’ way. Don’t be too long or Thorin might get worried.”

Bilbo snorted rudely. It had taken all of his patience and experience dealing with fussy hobbit fauntlings not to just snap at the king earlier and tell him that his skull was thicker than Dwalin’s hammer. But arguing with Thorin had never gotten him anywhere except frustrated with a pounding headache, so this time he had been sneaky. Only time would tell if it had paid off. “I wouldn’t count on that if I were you. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Bofur just shrugged and kept stirring the stew pot. Balin came up beside him and they both watched their burglar trot off into the trees and disappear. “That’s something about that hobbit,” murmured Balin and Bofur nodded in agreement.

“He’s seems a good sort though. I don’ think he means to cause trouble.”

“Sometimes trouble comes with good intentions.” The elderly dwarf raised his eyebrows meaningfully

“Och, aye I know. But hopefully his trouble isn’t the bad kind.”

__________________________________

The last rays of sunshine made the trees golden as Bilbo slipped into the forest and around a couple of the ponies. They had been turned loose to graze, but even they seemed to know the dangers that lurked nearby because few of them had strayed more than a few yards into the trees. He patted the flank of Oin’s shaggy gray beast as he moved around it, his eyes searching through the rapidly lengthening shadows for any sign that the brothers might have passed through on their rounds. A burglar he may be, but that didn’t make him a tracker by any stretch of the imagination. After he had returned to the Shire after the deaths of the Durins he had taken to going hunting a few times every summer. Usually he came back with a few fat rabbits and once or twice with a stag he had taken by surprise, but that was usually attributed to luck and stealth more than actual skill. Unless he wanted to risk raising his voice to call out and alert every nasty from here to Rivendell, he would just have to hope that one of the brothers would make a noise that he could follow to them.

No sound broke the silence of the woods and Bilbo paused where he stood, heart hammering. Surely Fili and Kili should have been making some sort of noise? They were hardly the most subtle members of the company.

“Fili? Kili?” He called softly. One of the ponies whickered at him from a nearby bramble but there was no reply from either brother.

“This is just what I need,” Bilbo muttered as he ducked around a stump, scanning the trees for signs of life. “Ponies, trolls, wizards, and now this. If I had a copper penny for every time – oh.”

That solved the mystery of where the brother had gotten off to. Both of them were sprawled at the foot of a gnarled old tree with their legs stretched out in front of them. Kili’s head was pillowed on Fili shoulder and both of them were snoring softly. Kili’s coat was stretched out over their legs.

“I suppose there hasn’t been much time for rest,” Bilbo murmured as he walked up. The brothers had been working harder than most to prove to Thorin that they were worthy members of the company and clearly it had begun to catch up with them. Bilbo would have happily left them to sleep if it hadn’t been for the prickling feeling that was crawling down the back of his neck. It was far too dangerous here to be unaware for even a few short minutes.

“No wonder you lost the ponies.” He said, coming to a stop in front of them with his hands proper on his hips. It would have been funny to watch their eyes snap open if he hadn’t been so worried for them a minute ago.

“B-Bilbo! W-we were just – just, um…um…This isn’t what it looks like.” Kili leapt to his feet so quickly that Fili tilted sideways into the leaves with a yelp.

Bilbo just gave him a flat look, eyes traveling from the leaves caught in his mused hair to where Fili was climbing to his feet with a yawn. “So what is it?”

“Give it up brother, we’ve been found out by the burglar.” Fili scrubbed his face with both hands. “We just snuck away for a quick pre-dinner nap, you know? It’s tiring being on the road this much and Thorin wouldn’t look too favorably on resting when there’s work to be done.”

“It was just for a few minutes,” Kili agreed.

“Well your few minutes are up. Now let’s round up the ponies and head back for dinner. I’m starving.”

“You know, Bilbo,” Kili sounded like he had been thinking and that was never a good thing.

“No, I most certainly do not know. What were you thinking sneaking away for a nap! There’s all manner of horrible things out here and you could have gotten yourselves killed.” Bilbo didn’t have to work very hard to hold on to his righteous indignation, but the looks the brothers were giving each other in the dark were making him nervous.

“You’ve been traveling with us for a while now,” Fili said, as if Bilbo hadn’t spoken at all.

“And we were just wondering…“ Continued Kili.

Fili had stepped up close enough behind the hobbit that he could feel the heat of him through his coat and it made the hair on the back of his neck nearly uncurl. “If you might like to, maybe - “

“I most certainly would not!” Bilbo said quite loudly, pushing himself away from the two dwarves who were grinning at him like twin cats who had found a mouse. “I don’t care what you dwarves do in your own time, but don’t drag me into it. That’s a whole barrel full of trouble that I don’t need.”

“No need to shout about it,” said Fili, still looking amused. “It was just a harmless invitation. I’m sure we could all have a bit of fun together.”

Bilbo shook himself. “I’m not interested in a bit of fun. You need to get back to camp before you miss dinner.” And before a troll came along and decided to have them all as a snack.

“I think he’s protesting too much, Brother,” murmured Kili and Fili nodded in agreement. Bilbo made a sound like a tea kettle boiling over and they both laughed. “Come on then, we’ll go back before our burglar explodes.” They each slung an arm around one of his shoulders as they started back for camp and Bilbo resisted giving each of them a good, hard pinch.

“We couldn’t have any fun with him if he went and did that.”

“Exactly. What was it you were saying about ponies, Bilbo?”

A thundering crash split the air in front of them as an entire tree was uprooted and toppled over inches from their boots. Instantly Bilbo seized both brothers by their hair and dragged them into the shadow of it, ignoring their cries of pain. They were quickly silenced when a troll the size of a small hill went tromping by, a struggling pony held under each of his fat arms. The troll stank of sweat and blood and something rotten and it was enough to make them all retch silently as he passed within mere feet of them. The two dwarves and the hobbit watched him go with wide eyes, covered in dirt and leaves from the upturned tree. Only when the monster had disappeared around one side of a boulder did they cautiously stand again.

“I told you that you’d lost them!” Snapped Bilbo.

The brothers just stared at him.

Chapter Text

It was decided that Bilbo would stay and keep an eye on the trolls and try to stall for time if they tried to eat the ponies while Fili and Kili ran back to fetch help.

“But Bilbo, you’re our official burglar. Can’t you just sneak in and burgle back the ponies?” Kili had asked while they crouched behind a mossy boulder.

On the other side of it they could hear the trolls, all three of them. They were sitting around a large fire made of beech logs and there was a spit over it that had several legs of mutton hanging on it. The fat from the meat was dripping off and collecting in an iron pot that was big enough that Bilbo and most of his neighbors could have comfortably bathed in it. The trolls sat all around it with jugs of some frothy sort of drink in barrels at their sides. They were giant creatures, bigger even than Bilbo had remembered or described them in the book he had written about his adventure. Being up a bit too close for comfort had quickly refreshed his memory and he also quickly recalled that he didn’t want to be anywhere near any of the three of them because they were all equally horrible.

“I cannot and I will not!” Bilbo had hissed back, pitching his voice so that it would be unlikely that they’d be overheard. “If I’m captured I’ll be sat on and squashed into jelly. Go get Gandalf and the rest of the company and then we can figure out a better plan than ‘send the burglar to fetch the ponies’.”

That had been the end of it and Fili and Kili had gotten up and run into the dark trees as quietly as they could, which wasn’t very quietly at all. Luckily the sound of them crashing through the underbrush was lost in the whinnies of the captured ponies and the arguing of the trolls.

“Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer,” grumbled one of the trolls (his name was Bert and he wasn’t at all fond of mutton) as he looked at the meat cooking on the spit with a bit of distaste. Bilbo, who had climbed up onto the boulder so that he could pear over the top of it, caught a whiff of the cooking meat and it made his stomach growl. No doubt the roasts would be perfectly lovely if they were cut up properly and put into a pie, but that was hardly relevant at the moment. If he was spotted the trolls would no doubt take it into consideration and then add him to such a pie as a bit of hobbit-flavored filler.

“Quit your gripping! These ain’t sheep. These is fresh nags!” Said William (who preferred to be called Bill by his friends and family) with a bit of glee. Clearly the trolls had been eating sheep for a while, accented with a certain farmer and his family Bilbo recalled grimly.  

“Oh. I don’t like horse, never have. Not enough fat on them.” Bert grumbled as the third troll (Tom) pulled one of the sheep legs off of the spit and took a massive bite out of it. It was still raw enough on the inside that the juices were pink and ran down his chin, making sharp hissing noises as the dripped into the fire.

When Bilbo felt a hand at his back he nearly jumped out of his skin, but it was only Bofur.

“What’cha find, Bilbo? Oi, Bifur, the hobbits found himself a trio of trolls!” This was all said very quietly. Dwarves may have been very brave and good in battle, but taking on three full grown mountain trolls at once was a bit of an undertaking even for thirteen of them, plus a hobbit and a wizard. The rest of the company was gathered at the base of the boulder on which Bilbo lay, with the exception of Bombur and Oin since they had stayed behind to keep an eye on their camp and the remaining ponies. Fili and Kili were both rubbing their ears as if someone had twisted them very hard and Bilbo didn’t feel sorry for them at all. They deserved it for wandering off into the dark when they knew that there was danger around. And he most certainly wasn’t thinking about what they had been up to at all – it wasn’t his business for all that they had invited him to join.

Bifur crawled up on Bilbo’s other side and grunted, looking down at the trolls with extreme dislike. Trolls and dwarves never seemed to get on well, no doubt because trolls didn’t mind eating dwarves when they could get them and keeping their possessions in their smelly hoards, where even now a certain set of elven blades that Bilbo was very keen to get his hands on rested. If it hadn’t been for those swords he might have tried to lead the company away from the trolls completely. Sadly he hadn’t been able to think of a way around that and there was no way to get at the cave without alerting the trolls to their presence. So a new plan would have to be concocted.

The hobbit slid down and boulder and landed lightly on his feet directly in front of Thorin. The king took a step back and just frowned, clearly not at all pleased about finding such trouble so close to their camp.

“There are three trolls,” Bilbo said gesturing back to the boulder that concealed them from view. “And they’ve nabbed our ponies and I think they plan to eat them. We’ve got to do something.”

“I suggested he burgle them back,” said Kili, but was silenced by an elbow in his gut from his brother and doubled over gasping for breath.   

“Don’t be a fool,” said Balin, who looked like he wanted to smack Kili over the head but Fili had beaten him to the pleasure of the abuse. “Risking our burglar against mountain trolls would be the height of idiocy. Clearly I’ve taught you nothing.”

“Yes, because risking me against a dragon is so much better,” Bilbo muttered sarcastically and he could have sworn he heard Thorin and Dwalin both snort.

Nori was crouched cat-like in a branch of a tree, his eyes glittering in the dark as he looked over the trolls and took stock of the situation. After a moment he swung down and landed squarely on top of Dwalin, prompting the massive dwarf to growl and do his best to dislodge him. “Bilbo might have had a chance against one troll, but not three. There’s a cave in the thicket behind them and trolls usually have a good haul from those whose bones they’ve used to pick their teeth.” Several members of the company winced at that description, as if they were imagining their own arms or legs being used for such a grizzly purpose. Nori executed a perfect flip off of Dwalin and landed in a perfect crouch next to Dori, who gave him the annoyed look that seemed reserved for younger brothers the world over.  

“One of Bifur’s war mates got himself offed by a troll,” Bofur whispered to Bilbo. “Poor sod. We think he was out scoutin’ and ran across one. We got a band together and killed the beast but it was too late for old Andor. Found his old spear in its hoard.” He nodded at the boar spear that Bifur had in a white-knuckled grip.

“There are not enough of us to deal with three trolls in combat,” Gandalf said quietly from the back of the group and everyone turned to look at him, a denial on every tongue but Bilbo’s. “Do not argue with me in this. I may be able to handle or two, but should they manage to capture even one of you they would be beyond our aid. I do not suggest a suicidal rush this early on in our journey.” Bilbo shot the wizard a relieved look. Hopefully this time he wouldn’t end up in a sack that smelled very strongly of rancid meat.

“So what do ye’ suggest?” Muttered Dwalin. “We jus’ let ‘em keep the ponies and go on our merry way?”

There was instantly a chorus of denials from the other dwarves, since none of them wanted to be the ones forced to walk while the others rode. In comparison to hobbits, dwarves tended to have smaller and softer feet. Even in their heavy boots walking for days on end could leave them footsore and grumpy. Bilbo almost suggested that he be the one to walk because it would be more comfortable for his poor backside, but decided that the offer wouldn’t change any minds and stayed silent instead.

“I do not suggest that, Master Dwalin, and if you will all be silent for a minute I’ll explain my plan.”

Thank Yavanna he has a plan, Bilbo thought in relief.

“What I have in mind will require someone quick and quiet who in isn’t prone to panic in a pinch,” continued the wizard.

It took a minute for Bilbo to realize that everyone was looking at him.

“What?”

Chapter Text

Everything went quiet when the hobbit walked into the middle of the troll camp.

Not right away of course since the trolls didn’t actually notice that Bilbo was standing there until he very loudly cleared his throat so that he could be heard over the talking and shouting and horrible jokes and the crackling of the fire.

Bert noticed him first and frowned down at him. “Ere, ‘oo are you?” He grunted. This got the attention of the other two and Bilbo found himself under close scrutiny by three very confused trolls. Clearly they weren’t used to having folk walk right into their camp since no creature with two brains to rub together would have done such an incredibly dense thing. So rather than snatching him up and stuffing him in a sack, Tom rubbed the top of his bald head and Bill kept chewing on his mouthful of mutton.

“Ah, I-I’m Bilbo Baggins.” Stuttered Bilbo. He hadn’t liked this plan of Gandalf’s at all because it had a high chance that he would end up getting himself tossed straight into the soup pot along with the mutton drippings.

“It’s all about the element of surprise,” Gandalf had said. “Trolls aren’t the smartest of creatures and they won’t be expecting it.”

Some of the dwarves hadn’t been happy at all about letting their burglar walk into such a dangerous situation, but since no one else had stepped forward with a better plan they had finally agreed with Gandalf in the end, albeit with a fair amount of muttering and grumbling. Bofur and Fili and Kili had been particularly vocal about not wanting Bilbo to be eaten by trolls and it had given the hobbit a very warm feeling in the area of his belly.  It was nice to feel wanted. Thorin had looked as surly as ever so it was hard to tell how he felt about the entire thing, but Bilbo had noticed that the line between his eyes was a little bit deeper than usual. Of course that might have just been because of the trolls.

Clearly Gandalf had been right about the element of surprise because none of the trolls had made any sort of threating movement towards him yet, but Bilbo was sure it was just a matter of time before they started wondering if he was edible. Even though he knew that there were several dwarves hiding in the dark, bristling with weapons and ready to jump to his aid should something go wrong, Bilbo couldn’t help the shiver of pure terror that went up his spine when Bert stood up, a rusty paring knife as long as a sword clutched in one meaty hand.

“Is ‘e a dwarf?” Called over Bill.

“Nah, too small for a dwarf, not enough ‘air.” The knife was jabbed in his general direction and he jumped back a step so as not to be skewered on it.

“I think ‘es a rabbit. Look’it ‘is feet.” Tom picked up his barrel of ale, took a long drink, and then belched loudly enough to put any of the dwarves to shame.

“I’m not a rabbit!” Bilbo replied, feeling a bit hot under the collar. He had nearly had it with being referred to as a rabbit. He’d faced down dragons and escaped from elves and gotten twelve dwarves all the way to Erebor. Was it too much to ask for a little bit of respect for that? Of course nobody here knew that he had done any of those things because technically he hadn’t yet, so perhaps he should have just resigned himself to the comparison. “I’m a skin changer!”

“A skin changer?” Bert repeated, looking more than a little flummoxed.

“I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a skin changer,” piped up Tom, who still wasn’t very keen on eating any mutton. “Are they good in a soup?”

Bert looked at Bilbo. “Is ye good in soup, rabbit skin changer thing?” He gestured very meanly with his knife as if to convince Bilbo that trying to escape would be a very bad idea.

Luckily Bilbo had no plans to go anywhere just yet, since turning tail and bolting hadn’t been part of Gandalf’s plan. “I-I don’t know, I’ve never been in a soup before. But I haven’t bathed recently so probably not. I’d taste like dirt and other horrid things.”

“Eh, let the little rabbit thing go,” grumbled Bill. He was very full of his own dinner and didn’t much feel like exerting himself to catching Bilbo. “He wouldn’t make more than a mouthful, not when he was skinned and boned.”

“That doesn’t seem pleasant at all,” commented Bilbo, sticking his hands into his pockets so that they wouldn’t sweat quite so profusely. Damn Gandalf and his plans! They always seemed to involve getting unfortunate hobbits into quite a lot of trouble.

“Shut your trap,” snapped Tom. “I want to eat him – I’ve never ‘ad skin changer before.”

“Do ye’ taste like rabbit?” Asked Bert and Bilbo nearly passed out at the foulness of his breath. “Might be nice if we held ‘im over the fire and roasted ‘im right up, even if ‘e does look a bit scrawny.”

“Poor little blighter, let ‘im go Bert!” It seemed like Bill had gone much further into his drink than the others because sober trolls were not in the habit of letting anything they catch go, even if it wasn’t very good for eating.

“No, I want to know if there’s more of these here rabbit changers around and then maybe we can make ‘em into a pie.” Bilbo just barely dodged under the meaty hand that was reaching for him to pick him up by his hair.

“I do like pie!” Tom was standing up now but was swiftly knocked back by Bill’s fist in his eyes.

“Sit down and eat your mutton. Bert! Drop ‘im!” clearly Bill didn’t think very much of having his mutton looked down upon by his two companions in favor of a skin changer who wouldn’t properly feed any of them.

“I haven’t got him you filthy fat-headed –“

It all went downhill from there because Bert put his foot into Bill’s gut and Tom got up and tripped over them both and fell into the fire with a yelp. It all dissolved into quite a row that went on for nearly an hour. Bilbo simply stood off to the side where he wasn’t likely to be trod upon and watched with a detached sort of bemusement. He was paid so little attention that at one point Bifur came around the corner, handed him a bowl of stew, and then went back to hiding again. Bilbo slowly ate it while he watched the trolls fight and wondered if perhaps the rest of Gandalf’s plan wouldn’t be necessary at all if the trolls simply fought all the way until dawn.

Of course that would have been far too convenient. A couple minutes after Bilbo had finished his dinner Bert looked up and spotted him. “You still ‘ere?”

That seemed to be the sign the other two needed to stop pulling at each other’s ears and look over as well. “What kind of skin changer ‘is you anyway?” Bill grunted, pulling his leg out of Tom’s hands.

“A very good one,” Bilbo replied. “I can turn into eleven dwarves as well as a hobbit, as you see.”

“What’s a hobbit?” Tom’s nose was bleeding a horrible sort of ichor.

“Do you have different flavors for all of those shapes?” Interrupted Bert as he looked around for where he’d left his knife.

Now Bill looked interested too. “I wouldn’t mind tryin’ a bite if he tasted like all that though I don’t much like dwarf.”

“Better than mutton,” grumped Bert, who had found his paring knife lying next to the fire and snatched it up. “Come ‘ere rabbit dwarf shifter thing an’ I’ll make sure it don’t hurt too much.”

Bilbo took another step backwards towards the dark trees, his heart once again racing in his chest. If this didn’t work he could end up skewered and then he couldn’t help anyone. “No, I don’t think I want to be killed today, so very sorry. Good evening!” And with that he sprinted off into the trees, his feet almost silent in the fallen leaves and his coat flapping behind him. Instantly there was an almighty din behind him as all three trolls gave chase, nearly climbing over each other in their haste to capture the hobbit.

The forest was dark and cool as he raced further away from the firelight, the trolls slowly gaining on him. They had the advantage of longer legs and no doubt would have caught him right away if it weren’t for the trees. Many of them were large enough that they were not knocked right over when the trolls rammed into them, but rather creaked and pushed back and forced them to go around. It was with only inches to spare that Bilbo dove down behind a log.

Out sprang Ori, whose legs had begun to cramp horribly while he had been hiding, and he took off running back towards the camp fire and away from where Bilbo now lay with his face pressed in the dirt under the log.

“Oi!” Cried Burt since he was in the front. “He turned into a dwarf!”

“Guess ‘e really is a skin changer,” agreed Bill, making a swipe at Ori as he ran by. Luckily Ori was too quick for him and managed to duck right under the troll’s arm with a small yelp before running even faster.

“Well get ‘im!” Shouted Tom and all three turned about as quickly as they could and took off after Ori.

From where he was hiding under the tree Bilbo breathed a sigh of relief. The other dwarves were hidden all around the troll’s camp site and it wasn’t too long before he heard another shout of surprise that told him Ori had made it to where Gloin was hiding and the trolls were now chasing after him instead.

The was a slight sound of leaves being crunched under boots and then Thorin was kneeling next to the log. “Burglar?” He said softly. From the distance there was a furious roar as Gloin traded places with Bifur, who had probably given one of the trolls a swift slash with his boar spear as he ran by.

“Yes, I’m here.” Bilbo wriggled out from under the log and did his best to brush some of the leaves off of his coat. Originally Dwalin had insisted that Thorin not be one of the ones to bait the trolls, but his denials had been quickly squashed when Thorin had declared that he would not send any member of his company into a situation that he would not face himself.

The only light came from the far off campfire now, so it was hard for Bilbo to see anything more than a vague shape in a fur-lined cloak. Even that made him feel a bit odd though. Ever since his revelation he had done his best to pretend that everything was normal, or at least as normal as things could be between a king and a burglar. It was easier to keep up appearances when he didn’t have to interact with Thorin very often so he had been doing his best to stay by the Ri brothers or other members of the company rather than risk ending up by Thorin. It was hard enough to watch himself so often with regards to the magic that had sent him back – not revealing how much he knew or simply breaking down completely and spilling the entire secret. Now it was compounded by having to hide even more. Hobbits didn’t fall for kings. They were a grounded people who wanted nothing more from life than a good harvest and seven meals a day.

But somewhere along the line he had stopped being a normal, grounded hobbit. Maybe he should have realized this a long time ago, after he returned and his neighbors declared him ‘odd’. When he wasn’t content to live in his books anymore and instead went out seeking stories on pony back with his nephew riding on his lap. They had spoken with elves traveling through Bree, sent letters with Ravens to the dwarves to ask for news of Erebor. His parties had been loud and filled with all sorts of curious folk, wizards and rangers alike. And yet never had he suspected that he had been so changed as to fall in love.

Had he simply been ignoring the empty space? It had snuck up on him several times before, leaving him cold and empty while he had looked out of his window in the Shire as if he expected a tall, strong figure to come striding up the walk and demand that his burglar return to the mountain. But he never had.

I suppose I left my heart buried with him under the mountain and then forgot I ever had one to begin with, Bilbo mused as he looked at Thorin in the dark. Some part of him wanted to reach out and grab the king, to pull him close and somehow prove that this was all real, that he was alive and not a cold shell like the one he had left behind. The sensible Baggins side of him quickly squashed that urge and reminded him that no matter what he might have felt, Thorin had not returned it.

And he never will, so quit imagining that you’re the hero of this story. This isn’t about you and it never was. You’re simply here to help where you can and when it’s over… You’ll go home.

It nearly broke his heart.

“You did well. I know many a dwarf who would have quailed before such a task.” Thorin shifted in order to make himself a bit more comfortable on the leaves.

Bilbo kept his back pressed against the log and pinched himself very very hard to bring himself back to the present. “It’s no bother, I’m glad that I could be of service. I suppose it’s what I signed the contract for.”

“I’m not certain the contract mentioned playacting for trolls,” Thorin replied and Bilbo heard the hint of humor in his usually dour voice.

“Maybe not, but – oh, here they come!” In a flash he was back under the log and Thorin was behind a tree. Kili dashed by, his eyes wide as trolls came roaring down on his heels and only just barely managed to trade places with his uncle before the trolls were upon them. One of the trolls hit the tree with a resounding crack that seemed to shake the whole forest. It toppled over with a groan and the sound of snapping wood and all Bilbo could do was watch with horror as it came crashing down and Thorin took off into the dark with the trolls shouting foul words after him as they struggled to keep up with the ‘skin changer’.

As soon as they had turned around again to chase after the hobbit-turned-dwarf Bilbo was scrambling for the tree. “Kili!” He hissed. “Kili! Are you alright?”

There was a moan from under the tree and it wasn’t at all like the one he had heard earlier. The young dwarf had been pinned under one of the heavier branches and was held fast to the leaves. Bilbo crouched next to his head and tried to assess the damage, ignoring the shouts of the trolls and the cries of pain as one of them must have dashed through the fire. Kili’s face was bleach white in the dark and he had a scratch over one of his eyes. “Stuck,” he whispered hoarsely, grabbing at Bilbo’s wrists and looking at him with fearful eyes. “You have to – Fili! Help!”

“It’s alright, don’t worry. Gandalf will help and then we can get Dwalin and Dori to lift this off of you. Just stay quiet and we’ll get you out of this. Fili is fine, I’m sure he is. Those trolls could never catch him.”

“Bilbo please – please find him. Please!” Kili was starting to hyperventilate, but Bilbo couldn’t tell if it was from the weight of the tree or fear for his brother. This had all been a game so far, even finding the dead on the side of the road hadn’t dimmed their enthusiasm. If anything it had only increased their appetite for danger and bloodshed. Now that there was real danger he could practically hear the gears clicking together in Kili’s skull. Somebody might actually get hurt. They might die if they weren’t careful.

“I’ll go fetch Fili,” he reassured Kili, trying to get his wrists free of the bruisingly hard grip. “Don’t worry. This will all be over soon and then we can get this tree off of you. Just stay there.” He received a short nod in reply and Kili finally let go. Bilbo couldn’t help but notice how very young he seemed in the dim firelight, barely more than a frightened child. The hobbit couldn’t help reaching out and setting a cold hand against his face. “I’ll find him. I promise.”

Then he was off, dashing through the dark as quickly as he could, desperately trying to remember where Fili had been sent to hide. Behind the boulder? No, that was Bofur. Nori was by the cave, Dwalin was up in the lowest branches of the twisted tree…In his haste he didn’t watch where he was going and his only warning was a panicked shout of “Bilbo!” from Dori as the trolls came roaring down upon him from across the clearing. This time he wasn’t fast enough to escape the outstretched hand that came at him.

“Got ‘im!” Cried Tom as he snatched up Bilbo in one meaty hand and gave him a hard squeeze. Bilbo couldn’t even scream as all the air was forced out of him. “Finally got you, nasty little skin rabbit thing!”

“I say we stick ‘im on a spit and roast ‘im up.” Said Burt, limping up to peer down at Bilbo. Apparently it had been his ankles that Bifur had slashed. There was the sound of crashing in the woods as the other dwarves raced to try to save their burglar, but it seemed hopeless. Already spots were beginning to swim in front of Bilbo’s eyes as he was suffocated in the troll’s grip. But I promised… He thought dimly.

“I say we toss ‘im in the soup pot! He’ll go further that way,” complained Bill, who’d had more than enough with running around in the dark for one evening.

“That’s quite enough of that!” Cried a fourth voice and all of the trolls turned to look at the tall wizard who had appeared on top of a boulder.

“Whoozat?” Asked Burt.

“I dunno,” replied Bill.

“Can we eat ‘im too?” Asked Tom.

With a mighty blow Gandalf brought his staff down on the boulder and it cracked in two, sending the first rays of morning light spilling right between the halves. Instantly the trolls howled with pain as their skin began to crackle and turn to granite wherever the light touched it. Bilbo finally got his first real breath as Tom’s fingers loosed, but no matter how he wriggled he couldn’t get free because the troll’s hand had already become completely petrified. It only took a few seconds for the trolls to turn completely to stone and once they had there was a long moment where everything seemed to go completely still. There was only the sound of birdsong above the trees.

And then there came the dwarves.

“Bilbo!” Bofur came dashing up and pulled frantically on one of Bilbo’s feet in an effort to dislodge him at only made him squeak as his abused ribs were jostled in the stone grip of the troll.

“Stop pulling, I’m stuck!” He cried and this seemed to be the signal for the rest of the dwarves to come running out of whatever hiding place they’d been crouched or stuck up in. Some of them were quite a ways out and it took them longer to make it back and some had been much closer since they had come running to try to help originally for all the good it had done. “Fili!” He cried when he saw the blonde dwarf come crawling out of where he’d been hiding in a blackberry bush. “Kili is stuck under a tree that way; you have to go help him!”

Fili went pale and ran off, shouting at the top of his lungs for his brother, followed closely by Dwalin and Ori and Dori. Thorin hadn’t come back either, so Bilbo assumed he had doubled back to check on his nephew.

“Bilbo Baggins, what have you gotten yourself into?” Gandalf asked mildly as he came around one side of a stone troll and regarded the hobbit with something close to amusement.

“A troll’s hand, please help me out,” he squeaked and Gandalf began to laugh which wasn’t helpful at all. The rest of the dwarves mostly milled around, unsure of what to do, and Bofur was worrying his hat between his hands and looking quite distressed.

“I can chop him right out,” Gloin offered, hefting his axe.

“No thank you, Master Gloin, I don’t think that will be necessary,” reassured the wizard.

In the end no axes were needed to get Bilbo free. Gandalf tapped his staff against Tom’s stone hand and two of the fingers crumbled away, leaving Bilbo free to slide out. His clothes were rumpled and he had scrapes on his back where the stone had chaffed him, but at least he hadn’t been shoved in a sack or used as a tissue.

“Well,” he said cheerfully as he brushed himself off. “I think that went rather well.”

“Speak for yourself,” Kili muttered as the rest of the dwarves made their way back into the clearing. He was still bleeding sluggishly from the cut on his face and he was holding his ribs as if they pained him, but Fili had his arm around his brother’s waist and was helping him along well enough. Thorin looked like a thundercloud.

“What happened to the plan?” He bellowed and Bilbo took a step backwards despite himself, his eyes darting around as if searching for some place to hide. Sadly Bifur was too far away for him to duck behind so all he could do was ball his hands into fists and pray that he’d be left with a small shred of dignity. “You were to stay hidden and let the rest of us handle the trolls!”

“He was trying to help me, uncle,” Kili called, looking like he wanted to start forward but was stopped by Fili’s hold on him.

“I’ll be dealing with you later!” Thorin snarled at his nephew and both of them shrank back behind one of the troll’s legs. “You were nearly killed because of your stupidity!” He rounded back on Bilbo again. “I should have known that you would be as senseless as the rest of your wretched kind.”

Bilbo flinched in pain. Luckily that was when Gandalf stepped between the two of them, breaking the line of sight with his long gray robes. “Now now, there was no harm done in the end except for a couple of bumps and bruises. Remember that Bilbo was also the one who baited the trolls in the first place and I’m sure he only meant to help Kili in the end. It all turned out for the best though! Now, why don’t we see about that cave that Nori saw earlier.”

The rest of the dwarves all murmured in agreement and began to pick their way across the destroyed campsite towards where the troll hoard lay in the dark, damp cave. Even Thorin followed after leveling a final dark look at Bilbo.

He was always like this, Bilbo tried to remind himself but it didn’t stop his fists from shaking at his sides as he stood rooted to the spot. Always hard and quick to anger when something didn’t go right. You should have expected it, really.

That small reassurance did nothing to stop the two fat tears of hurt that slid down his cheeks and fell silently into the leaves. But there was a warm hand at the small of his back and he blinked blearily back at Dori. The matronly dwarf smiled down at him and then took his hand. “It will be alright, Bilbo. You’ll see.” And together they walked back to join the others.

Chapter Text

‘As senseless as the rest of your wretched kind!’

It was easy for Bilbo to avoid Thorin after that. Rather than joining Dori and heading into the cave with the others he decided to go back and round up the ponies instead. Calls of ‘Nori, get a shovel!’ followed him as he tromped off into the brush, stepping over splintered branches that had been knocked down during the troll’s rampage. Considering his insides felt like they had turned into a writhing, hissing mass of snakes Bilbo wasn’t surprised that he felt a little bit sick.

What did you really expect? Thorin always did have a fearsome temper and clearly that was one of the things you forgot while you were busy getting too old to brush your own feet. Just because you’ve had a revelation about your previous feelings for him doesn’t mean that suddenly everything will be spring rain and apples. He isn’t the dwarf you fell for yet.

And if he kept changing things maybe he never would be.

“Mister Baggins!” Came a voice from behind him and for a moment Bilbo was tempted to pretend that he hadn’t heard and just keep walking. But his mother had always taught him to avoid being petty because it encouraged other sorts of bad behavior, so he stopped and did his best not to sigh as Ori came up next to him. “Where are you going? Everyone says that the cave is full of marvelous things, don’t you want to see?”

“No Ori, I do not wish to see. I’ve had quite enough of dwarves for one day and I don’t need to make it worse by coming between them and their treasure. I’m going to fetch the ponies so that they don’t all bolt off.”

Oin and Bombur had joined the others when they heard about the troll hoard, so the ponies were being left to their own devices along with most of the gear. It would be no hardship to gather them all up while the others crooned over the troll’s riches.

“Oh. I’ll go with you in that case! I don’t think there would be anything for me in that cave anyway.” Ori seemed to be in very high spirits considering he had been chased all about by monsters not long ago.

“Aren’t you interested in gold, Ori?” Bilbo asked curiously as he ducked under a branch and caught Minty by her bridal as she chomped at some short grass at the edge of the trees. The roars and noise the trolls had caused in the night had made most of the shaggy beasts huddle closer together and just made them easier to round up. The packs lay undisturbed back at their camp and Bilbo quickly stomped out the remains of the night’s fire and poured some water on it to extinguish the coals.

“Not particularly. My family was never miners nor did we work in the gem trade in Erebor according to Dori. I suppose we don’t have the same desire for it as some dwarves might so I don’t need to go getting my mittens dirty in that horrible place. Besides,” he added as he collected the reins of the three of the ponies and Gandalf’s horse, “it smells bad in there.”

Bilbo was startled into a laugh at that. “Yes, yes it does. I’ll take ponies and fresh air over death and rot any day.” Bilbo stuck his ring finger into his mouth and sucked on it. Over the course of the last day or two the cut he had gotten on the nail back at the massacre site had got red and a bit swollen and itchy. It was nothing to fret over but he would have preferred not to have it at all. That was the trouble with going on adventures – they were never as comfortable as you thought they would be.

It only took them a few minutes to round up all of the ponies, get them settled with their packs, and make sure nothing had been left behind. Ori found Bofur’s pipe in the grass and stashed in in the miner’s bag so that it wouldn’t be forgotten.

They spoke amiably on the way back to join the others and by the time they had made it most of the way Bilbo felt nearly back to normal. The aching hollowness in his chest had eased somewhat, helped along by good company and soft words. Ori had always been the shy type, preferring to stay in the shadows of his more overwhelming brothers rather than bring attention on himself. Bilbo knew how to tempt the youngest Ri into conversation though and they laughed about tea and what feathers made the best quills. Perhaps proving that he did indeed have a bit of tact, Ori stayed away from the topic of Thorin and his outburst. They lead the line of ponies into the clearing and left them standing next to the stone trolls.

“Ah, there you are Bilbo. We were wondering where you and young Ori had gone off to, but now it seems that you were thinking a bit ahead of the rest of us.” Gandalf walked over, his long robes swishing behind him. The hem had a bit of dirt and grime on it from where he had been exploring in the cave and in one hand he held a very familiar dagger. “Here. This is about your size.”

“I was just doing what needed to be done,” Bilbo replied softly as he accepted the weapon from the wizard. The sheath, though and covered in dirt and cobwebs, was as familiar to him as his own hands and something that felt ‘right’ snapped into place in his chest. Now he felt a step closer to being complete again because what was a proper burglar without his blade?  

“Thank you, Gandalf.”

“The blade is of Elvish make, which means it will glow blue when orcs or goblins are nearby.”

“Yes, it helps when one is being snuck up on I imagine,” Bilbo replied as he drew the blade and took a few practice swings. He had kept in practice with It for a little while once he return to the Shire, but without a proper sparring partner or enemy to practice on his skills had quickly deteriorated. He wasn’t exactly flailing wildly with it, but his form was sloppy and his footwork was almost nonexistent. Even so Ori took a quick step backwards so that he wasn’t close enough to be accidentally stabbed.

“Do you have much experience with a blade, Mister Baggins?” He asked, watching as Bilbo sheathed the sword and began to hook it onto his belt.

“Just Bilbo please, my father was Mister Baggins. And I do a little bit. More with kitchen knives I must confess but somehow I don’t think those will do me much good against anything we come across out here unless it needs to be nicely diced.” 

Gandalf chuckled and leaned on his staff, not at all concerned about being near an armed hobbit. “I don’t think you’ll need to worry about your culinary skills here, Bilbo. Our foes aren’t exactly the type to let their prisoners go on account of their salad-making skills.”

“What about roast chicken?” Bilbo asked with a smile and Ori snorted into his mittens.

“Nor that, though I think several members of our company might be convinced. But please remember Bilbo, now that you are properly equipped. True courage is about knowing not when to take a life but to spare one.” With that the wizard turned and made his way back over to join in the discussion about what was to be done next. It seemed, from what Bilbo could overhear, that Thorin was still set against seeking aid in Rivendell but at least he wasn’t shouting about it.

“Something’s comin’!” Bellowed Dwalin as he scooped up his war hammer and looked towards the trees. There was indeed a crashing noise coming from within the forest, as if something large was moving towards them at a great pace. Bilbo did his best to look as alarmed as the rest as they drew their weapons, but it was hard to manage when he knew what was coming. It felt like reading the last chapter of a book first so he knew what was going to happen before everyone who was reading it the proper way and hadn’t cheated.

Not that he had really cheated, but Bilbo had to admit that he had a distinct advantage over the rest.

So when Radagast the Brown burst out of the bushes on a sled towards by rabbits the size of hounds Bilbo was the only one who didn’t look surprised. He stayed over by the ponies with one hand tangled in Myrtle’s mane, wondering if they could perhaps talk on the road rather than waiting around for the orcs to catch up with them. Already his skin was beginning to prickle, knowing that they drew closer with each breath he drew.

Thieves! Fire! Murder!”

Fili and Kili slunk over to join Ori and Bilbo while the rest were occupied with either staring at the oddball wizard who had just spat out a bug or listening as he spoke to Gandalf about the trouble and danger that had come to the Greenwood. Bilbo only listened with half an ear so that he could refresh himself on the current situation.

“He’s a bit…” Fili cleared his throat, searching for the right word.

“Cracked?” Kili finished helpfully.

Bilbo shushed them both while Ori looked scandalized. “Just because he has birds nesting in his hair doesn’t mean he isn’t a wizard. Mind your manners.”

“He has birds in his hair? How did you see that?” Asked Ori, peering at the twitchy form of Radagast as he drew Gandalf away to speak to the gray wizard.

“Probably explains all of the shit on his face,” snorted Kili as he picked at the dried blood on his own. Fili licked the palm of his hand and began to rub fiercely at his brother’s face with it, ignoring the younger’s indignant cries. Clearly Kili hadn’t been too hurt by the tree landing on him if he had enough energy left in him to shout like a goblin had just shoved a hand down the back of his pants. 

The sense of urgency finally got the best of him and Bilbo climbed up onto his pony, well aware of the odd looks being directed at him by the three dwarves. “Don’t look at me like that. There’s a wizard over there shouting about danger and murder. I’d rather be prepared in case it’s managed to follow him rather than have to run away on foot with no supplies.”

The three others exchanged a look and were suddenly very intent on finding their own mounts. “That’s a good idea, Mist – Bilbo.” Said Ori and he gave his pony a little kick so that it came up next to Bilbo’s own.

“Yeah, since we all know how wizards attract trouble. Uncle!” Shouted Fili. Thorin looked up from where he had been in council with Dwalin, looking irritated at the interruption. “Can we talk on the road? No sense wasting time waiting around here.”

“Fili, I think that you can manage to wait a while so that I may –“ Gandalf began, but caught the meaningful look that Bilbo was giving him and twitched his long nose. “Perhaps moving along would be best,” he finally agreed. Radagast just jumped a little and glanced between Gandalf and Bilbo rapidly, nearly as high strung as the rabbits that were hooked up to his sled. Thorin grunted in agreement and the rest of the dwarves began to trail over to where the ponies were stamping restlessly in the grass, their nostrils flaring as if they too wanted to be away from what was coming. Bombur needed to be helped into his saddle and then Bofur noticed that his pipe was gone and had to be reassured that it was in his saddlebag. Getting started on their way again was always a production and seemed to take forever even though it was probably mere minutes before they were leaving the trolls behind. None of the dwarves were happy about being back on their ponies again since none of them had gotten any sleep the previous night, nor breakfast this morning and there was quite a bit of grumbling about it. Bilbo was too anxious to pay any mind to his own growling belly or to how dry his eyes felt. If he had been able to spur everyone onto a faster pace he would have done so, but there was no reason to do so just yet.

Or at least there wasn’t until the first howl sounded behind them.

“Wargs!” Bilbo shouted just as the first one burst out of the forest next to them and lunged directly at Gloin and his pony. It dropped with the dwarf’s axe buried between its eyes and the ponies instantly began to panic, bucking and stamping while their riders attempted to settle them down. Only Gandalf’s horse and Radagast’s rabbits seemed unaffected, but that was the way of the animals wizards kept about - they usually turned out to be as unusual as their masters. Another one of the hulking beasts leapt off of a boulder and this one succeeded in knocking Dwalin right out of his saddle. He went down with a roar but the warg was dead before it hit the ground with him, an arrow in one eye and a long throwing knife buried in its throat courtesy of Kili and Nori.

“Warg scouts!” Thorin snarled as he pulled hard on his pony’s reins to keep it from rearing. “Which means an orc pack is not far behind.”

Dori had dismounted to help pull the dead warg off of Dwalin and the rest of the company looked around in alarm as if they expected to have a dozen orcs plunge into the midst at any moment. Bilbo was ready to scream. Even Gandalf looked worried. “Who did you tell about your quest beyond your kin?” He snapped as he rode up next to Thorin.

“No one.”

“Who did you tell?!”

“No one I swear! What in Durin’s name is going on?”

“Do we really have time for this?” Cried Bilbo. “We must get away or they’ll be on us!”

“Your burglar has the right of it, Thorin Oakenshield. You are being hunted and your steeds cannot outrun what pursues you.”

__________________________________

If it hadn’t been for Radagast and his rabbits they would have been overwhelmed and killed in a matter of minutes. Luckily the batty old wizard had managed to draw off the scouts. The wargs, for all that they were much more intelligent than an average wolf, couldn’t seem to resist the scent of the wizard’s rabbits and had chased after him with an enthusiasm that couldn’t be curbed by their riders. With nearly twenty wargs and a dozen orc riders now trailing after him, Radagast disappeared into the foothills, shouting some very creative insults behind him as the orcs struggled to regain control of their hounds.

“Hurry!” Cried Gandalf as the company raced through a dip in the grassland. Their ponies ran as fast as they could but with the weight of the riders and the baggage there was no way they would be able to keep ahead of their pursuers if they were discovered.

The wind whipped at their faces and tore at their clothes as the rode. Bilbo’s heart was in his mouth and he was listening so hard that his ears began to throb, desperate to catch the first sign that they were being pursued. A single wrong move could spell their doom. If Radagast lead the orcs too close to their trail the wargs would no doubt fixate on the scent of dwarf and pony and leave the rabbits in favor of something juicier.

Please please please,” Bilbo whispered as he bent low across his pony’s neck. They had made it out of this once before, so they should be able to this time. The ponies made them faster but they also prevented them from taking Gandalf’s secret passage through the ravine. The Great Eastern Road lead straight into Rivendell but it was also more than an hour’s ride from where they now plunged through the open land.

“The ponies can’t take this pace for long!” Shouted Dori, but nobody answered him. They all knew the same thing. If they were caught on this mad dash they would be forced to fight. If they fought they would be overwhelmed. If they were overwhelmed they would all die and Erebor would remain in the claws of Smaug and Bilbo would have failed again.

The roar that ricocheted up from behind them felt like the final nail in Bilbo’s coffin and hot tears streaked back across his face as he stared ahead of them. There had to be something else, something he could do! Gandalf was up ahead of them, leading them in their race to Rivendell. Even Thorin didn’t seem to be complaining about their destination, though he probably thought the elves were only barely the lesser evil. But what could one hobbit do when they were already fleeing as quickly as they could? He had kept the ponies, their gear, their weapons, what else was there he could do to make sure they came out of this alive? The hoof beats of their mounts pounded in his head like thunder.

They had been spotted. Already the orcs and the warg scouts were pouring down the hills like rats. They shouted and snarled as they closed in on the company and Bilbo thought that he could already feel their teeth sinking into his flesh.

You failed, Bilbo Baggins. You thought that you could change what happened but instead you just made it worse with your stupidity! You really are the most senseless hobbit in existence.

But the dwarves weren’t going to go down without a fight. The minute the first warg came into range its rider dropped with an arrow in his chest. Kili had twisted around and was riding backwards on his pony, firing as quickly as he could at their pursuers. Some of his arrows found their marks, but not enough to make a difference. Ori too was adding his contribution to their offense. Rocks found eyes and throats and a warg went down into the dirt, blinded.

“Bifur! Wataban!” Cried Ori and Bifur instantly tossed his boar spear back to the youngest Ri. Bilbo’s jaw dropped as Ori hefted the spear in one hand and threw it hard enough to punch straight through the closest orc and down into his mount as well. Bombur started to cheer but it quickly turned into a yelp as a warg got too close and nearly bit his arm right off, horrible teeth missing by a hairsbreadth.

“Thorin!” Screamed Bilbo. They had been overtaken. The remaining wargs had circled around and cut them off from the road to Rivendell, drool pouring from their jaws. The orcs came up behind them, swords raised to take off their heads.

That was when the first elf arrow sprouted from an orc's chest.

The riders from Rivendell had arrived. 

Chapter Text

“Ouch! Brother, have a softer hand else I might think you a butcher more than a doctor.”

Oin just grunted and continued to wrap the bandage around his brother’s swollen ankle. There was no cut or sign of infection, so it seemed as though Gloin had simply stepped on a rock the wrong way and wrenched his ankle. No doubt while being chased by the trolls through the forest, which hadn’t been at all dignifying. “And you can quit your cryin’ lest I think you one of our hosts that had broken a dainty fingernail. What would Stori say should she see you in such a state?”

The mention of his wife had Gloin quickly shutting his mouth and just wincing whenever Oin would draw the bandages particularly tightly. When the limb was finally wrapped up the elder brother gave it a firm pat and Gloin swallowed a howl. He had been limping about on the damn thing for two days before Oin had seized him by the beard and dragged him off to get it properly treated since Gloin would let none of the elves within a five-foot radius of him.

Now the two elder dwarves sat in some sweet grass next to an ornamental pond. Neither of them seemed to be enjoying it at all.

“No battle,” grumbled Gloin as he collapsed backwards into the grass and stared up at the cloudless sky. “Nor proper food and even poorer hosts. When can we be away from here?” Already they had spent three days in Rivendell, and that was three too many for most of them. Thorin had been in council with Gandalf and Elrond for most of that, leaving the other members of the company to roam free and work what madness they could upon the serene dwelling of the elves.

“It’s not my place to say where or when we go, just to follow. If Thorin thinks we need to linger here then linger here we shall, at least for a while longer.” He began to wind back up the extra bandages and tucked the jar of salve into his medical bag where it wouldn’t crack open if it was jostled. The inside of the sturdy pouch was lined with needles of all kinds, several jars with careful labels, packets of dried herbs for everything from deep sleep to stomach troubles, and down at the bottom was nestled a rather wicked bone saw. The collection was the bare minimum of what he had chosen to bring along and he had already added to it by raiding the elves’ medical center. They had seemed willing enough to part with extra wrappings and some sweet-smelling glue that Oin had initially turned his lip up at but that the healers had assured him would bind even the most grievous wound together again. So into his bag it had gone and he had even remember enough of his manners (poor though they were) to remember to thank them for the aid. That had been the extent of his interaction with the folk of Rivendell and it was more than enough for the old dwarf. The high elves may not have been the ones to turn away from them at Erebor, but most were cut from the same cloth and Oin couldn’t find it in him to interact with them with anything more than the barest civility.

Gloin didn’t even bother with that much and openly insulted their hosts when they were within earshot. No one had bothered to ask him to refrain so the muttered ‘tree-shaggers’ and ‘pointy-eared buggers’ continued.

Both dwarves reclined in the grass and looked down at the pond, which Fili and Kili were dragging a reluctant Bilbo towards, one arm each holding onto their burglar while the other carried a fishing pole.

“I would not wish my Gimli on this quest,” Gloin said softly.

“Aye,” agreed Oin. “Too young and hotheaded by far. He would have thrown his axe straight at the trolls and gotten tossed into a pot for his bravery.”

Gloin chuckled and pulled a golden locket out of the top of his shirt, popping it open to regard the two tiny portraits inside of it with open fondness. “That he would have and then Stori would have cut off my beard for getting her boy cooked. He’ll have his chance eventually; I have no doubt about that. If trouble doesn’t find him he goes out and searches it out.”

“You were the same at his age if I remember correctly. Getting’ stuck in all manner of places and needin’ me to come fetch you from whatever cell or pit you’d managed to end up in.”

“You were in that cell with me half the time.”

“What was that? Can’t hear you brother, my ears must be failing me again.”

“You old bastard, I should knock you right round your head to knock those memories back to life.”

“Oh no, I’m quite content to have them where they were – properly forgotten.”

Both of them shook their heads at the same time and settled back on their elbows, content to watch the young princes torment the hobbit for a little while.

__________________________________

 “No, I really don’t want to stand in the pond I’ll be quite content to watch from the shore – oh dear that looks very deep!”

“Don’t be such a worrier; it barely goes up to your waist.” Fili tightened his grip on Bilbo’s arm and the three of them started forward into the pond. The fat fish darted away at the initial splash but came back again almost at once, curious to see if the invaders to their home had brought anything for them to eat. A couple very fat orange and yellow ones began to nibble on Bilbo’s toes, backing off when he kicked and then coming back for a second taste. Clearly the flavor of hobbit was new and intriguing.

“Up to my waist is more than deep enough, leave off!” Bilbo snapped and he finally managed to catch Fili in the nose with his elbow. The younger brother yelped and released him suddenly which caused all three of them to go toppling into the water. Bilbo was the first one to surface since he stood up almost at once and scrambled back for the safety of the low wall around the clear water. The bottom was lined with smooth stones and they shifted under his feet and made it difficult to run. Behind him he could hear Fili and Kili laughing and splashing each other, clearly not caring one whit about how deep or cold the water was. Grumbling to himself and already shivering Bilbo hauled himself up onto the wall and sat himself there very firmly, quite cross about getting his fresh clothes all wet. They clung to him uncomfortably in all of the wrong places.

The majority of hobbits weren’t fond of water that went up above their knees unless it was hot and in a bathtub. Few could swim and those who could usually couldn’t manage it for more than a minute or two before they sank straight to the bottom. More than one foolhardy hobbit tween had lost their lives to an overturned boat while fishing and Bilbo had lost one of his cousins on his Took side to just such an occurrence. He had no desire to tempt fate by ending up in water any deeper than his knees if he could help it.

Fili, looking like a half-drowned cat, pulled himself out of the water next to Bilbo. “Don’t like fish?”

“More like I don’t like what they live in,” Bilbo muttered, trying to squeeze some of the excess water out of his shirt and very grateful he had left his vest in his room today.

The elves had been the epitome of grace and good manners as they lead the harried and rumbled band of travelers down the road to Rivendell. One had even fallen back to retrieve Bifur’s boar spear from where it stuck out of one of the corpses, though he had tried to give it to Ori first since he had been the one to throw it. The orcs might have been capable of taking down a company of dwarves on pony back but the elven archers had been a factor they hadn’t taken into account. Those who had immediately been slain by the long swords and barrage of arrows had fled as quickly as their mounts could carry them, heading for the dubious safety of the forest where their wargs could maneuver more easily than the horses. A few escaped that way but the majority of the raiding band lay slain in the dry grass, left for the birds and wolves to pick at until someone returned to burn the corpses.

It had been a solemn procession that paused at the edge of the ravine that Rivendell lay nestled in like a bright jewel. If the elves were happy about their victory over the orc pack they didn’t make any show of it. Bilbo figured that they had probably been doing the exact same thing for years and after a while it wasn’t worth cheering over. Victory was all well and good, but death had never been something the hobbit had ever celebrated. Even the passing of his enemies had never lightened his heart.

Now he sat on the sun-warmed wall and accepted the fish pole that Kili passed to him, chewing contemplatively on the inside of his cheek. It had taken enormous restraint to not greet Elrond as if they were old friends. Many an evening he had spent in the company of the lord of Rivendell, reading or exchanging stories of a world that had long ago been forgotten or relegated to the dusty pages of history books. The elf would not have recognized him now as this was their first meeting. With that in mind he had nearly given himself away yet again by knowing exactly where the guest rooms were located and leading the way there without waiting for their elven escort. Balin had given him a sharp look as Bilbo hurriedly explained it off as ‘good hobbit sense’, but at least the old dwarf hadn’t pushed the matter. Thorin had just scowled as he was showed to his room by a dark-haired elf named Lindir.

No one had really been surprised to find their leader in such poor spirits. In Thorin’s mind all elves were guilty of the same sin. Bilbo had learned that after the dwarves had scattered in all direction Elrond had offered his services to those who had made it past the Misty Mountains, though few had accepted it. A couple had lingered for a while, mostly those with young children or the sick or elderly. The others had gone on with neither rest nor supplies, unwilling to take anything that might resemble pity from their sworn enemies. Bilbo’s bought of reverse psychology might have softened him to the idea of accepting their hospitality for a short while but that didn’t mean that the king was going to look or act at all grateful for it.

Fili reeled in a fat silver fish and stuffed it into a basket that was sitting behind them. The high elves served no meat at their dining table, but rather filling fruits and vegetables and roots along with fragrant oat breads. Bilbo was perfectly happy dining on the fare but the dwarves had quickly fallen to complaining about the lack of animal protein. Luckily one of the more practical elves had suggested the fish ponds and that had settled most of the arguments.

“This is almost too easy,” Kili mumbled as he too pulled in one of the curious fish but tossed it back on account of it being one of the yellow ones. They didn’t taste as good as the silver kind. “I could walk right in and pick them out like daisies.”

“And they’d probably say ‘thank you’ when you tossed them in a pan with a bit of lemon and wine,” Bilbo laughed.

“Stop iiiittttt, you’re making me hungry,” moaned Fili. “I’ve had naught but porridge and fruit for breakfast and that’s a far cry from sausage and bacon and potatoes. I’m going to waste away until I’m not wider than an elf.”

“I guess if you did you couldn’t complain that I only love you for your body, Fee,” Kili teased, leaning around Bilbo and giving his brother a quick poke in the side with the butt of his fishing pole. 

With a face that would have done any martyr proud, Fili reached up and stroked his own face. “As long as I can keep my beard, that’s all that matters. Without it I would be a hollow shell of a dwarf and never be able to show my face in public.”

“I show my face in public,” Kili mumbled, rubbing the faint shadow that decorated his jaw. It was barely peach fuzz by dwarven standards but it was still better than what Bilbo had been able to grow, even once he passed the ripe age of one hundred. He figured he got his clean face from the Took side since his grandfather on his father’s side had sported mutton chops that had been the envy of half of the Shire. 

“Don’t worry, I think you’d both be very handsome even without beards,” Bilbo said with a firm nod, recasting his line further out into the pond where the fattest silver fish were lazing about, sunning themselves. He didn’t realize that both brothers had fallen silent on either side of him until he reeled his line back in and turned to show Kili the thrashing fish on the end of it.

“What?” He looked over his shoulder and found Fili giving him a similar disbelieving look. “Do I have fish scales on my face?”

“You think we’d be handsome without beards?” Kili asked incredulously.

“Is that what you’re on about? Of course you would be. Not that you’re not nice to look on with them, so don’t be offended. Here Fili, take this.” The hobbit removed the hook from the mouth of his fish and handed it to the blond to put in the basket. No doubt they would be tasty once they were baked up properly with some sauce and vegetables to go along with them. “Now stop look at me like I’ve grown ram horns, I’m trying to fish.”

As if by some unspoken agreement both brother scooted a little bit closer to him before returning their attention to the pond and their future supper.

__________________________________

Bofur waved over at the princes and the Halfling as he walked by on the opposite side of the pond and got three waves and an anatomically impossible suggestion in Khudzul from Fili in return. It was lucky that Bilbo didn’t understand the language since it would have made him blush right down to his toes. Bofur didn’t mind though, he knew the princes meant it all in good fun and he took it as such, laughing and shaking his head as he kept walking to find where his brother and cousin had taken themselves off too. Elves weren’t all bad. They were fair enough to look up though not exactly the type he would ever consider pursuing. The miner would have been too afraid of mussing up one of them to ever try anything forward.

“There lived an old maid with her hair in a braid and a beard down to ‘er knees,” he hummed as he walked, enjoying the feeling of the sun.

It wasn’t often he had the chance to relax like this, and though many of the company was eager to be away as quickly as possible he wouldn’t have really minded lingering for a few days. His family hailed from Ered Luin and thus had little quarrel with the elven folk though their interactions were rare. Before he had embarked on this fool’s errand most of his time had been spent in the mines, chipping away at solid stone for hours on end in search of silver and emeralds. It hadn’t been an extravagant life or a comfortable one by any stretch of the imagination, but it had suited him well enough. His fingers had been broken so often by falling rocks and misused tools that his knuckles were permanently swollen and he wore knitted gloves now to hide them. The twisted hands of a miner weren’t fit to be looked upon by any, especially not royalty and the upper class dwarves he now found himself a companion to. Warriors and princes and scribes, and somehow he had fallen in with all of them and counted himself lucky for it.

None of the friends or family he had left behind in Ered Luin could have held a candle to the fine company Thorin Oakenshield had put together. From a people composed of wanderers and renegades he had somehow found the most loyal and noble dwarves, the only level-headed hobbit west of the Misty Mountains, and a wizard to aid them on their journey. It seemed almost impossible for them to fail, even if Smaug still resided in the mountain.

He pulled his pipe out of his pocket and lit it with a match, puffing away on it as he walked, still humming.

“Oi, Bof!” Bombur hailed him from where he stood next to the pen that had been hastily constructed for all of the ponies. The graceful horse watched the fat animals over the wooden rails, apparently fascinated. They didn’t spare Bofur a single glance as he ambled up and stood with his brother, watching the horses watch the ponies.

“Where’s Bifur?” Bofur asked, tipping back his hat so that he could watch one of the horses whiny at the ponies. It went completely ignored.

“Sitting with Balin in the library last I saw of him. Seems content to stay right there for a while, but I’d rather be on the road.” The fat dwarf rubbed his stomach with an expression of pure agony. “The food here is terrible. I’d rather eat cram for a month straight than more of those vegetables. Not good for the constitution at all.”

“It’s not as bad as all tha’. Saw the lads down fishin’ so you might have something to toss in a pan this evenin’. ‘Sides, we can’t go anywhere ‘til Thorin says so and he’s stuck with that Lord Elrond fellow and Gandalf talkin’ about that map of his.”

Bombur just grunted, not completely appeased by the promise of fish.

“We talking about Gandalf?”

Both Bofur and Bombur yelped in surprise to find Nori standing in between them, calmly smoking while he watched the ponies as if he’d been there the entire time.

“Where’d you come from?” Gasped Bofur, rubbing his chest to try to calm his racing heart.

Nori gestured vaguely with his pipe. “Around. Anyway, if you see Dwalin around tell ‘im I’m headin’ up to that lovely sitting room on the second floor. There’s a good chap.” And off went the thief again, as casually as you please, leaving a trail of spicy pipe smoke behind him.

“What was that about?” Asked Bombur as he pulled a biscuit out of his pocket and began to chew on the edge of it.

“No idea. Gives me the willies, he does.”

“Not the good kind of willies I’m assuming,” said Bombur with a sly smile.

Bofur snorted and swatted some of the crumbs out of his brother’s beard. “Not that one, no. I’d be too afraid of wakin’ up and find my hat missin’ if I took up with him. Not like his brother.”

“Who, Ori?”

“What? No, Dori.” Bofur sighed wistfully and leaned against the rail with a silly smile plastered across his face. “He’s such a gentleman.”

“And out of your league,” grunted Bombur. He’d seen this time and again – Bofur would find someone completely inappropriate and sigh and smile over them for a couple of months before drinking himself into a stupor to forget. Sometimes they fell for his brother’s charm and good nature and then went back home when they were done slumming it up with the miner and left him with a broken heart. “Don’t go falling for him, brother. It’ll end badly for everyone and we don’t have enough drink for you to manage that.”

Bofur rubbed the back of his neck and looked bashful. “Aye, I suppose you’re right. Am I allowed to look at least?”

“Just don’t let him catch you at it. I heard he once punched some bloke who got too handsy so hard his head popped right off and went through a window.”

“He’s perfect.”

__________________________________

The sitting room on the second floor, they’d said. Dwalin dashed up the stairs, his face red and his hands balled into fists. A pair of elves shrieked and dodged out of his way when he barreled around a corner and nearly bowled them right over. He didn’t stop to apologize.

The thief had been in his room. It had been immediately obvious – the open window, the rumbled bed he had landed on, and the little note left on his bedside table would have been the final sign that would have cemented it even if he had been too thick to notice the other things.

It had simply been signed ‘N’ and been left right where his knuckle-dusters had been lying when he’d last left them there. Damn everything, he never should have taken them off in the first place! Clearly locking his door hadn’t been enough to deter Nori from coming in, though he’d assumed the sheer cliff face that his room look out on would have been enough to keep the thief from trying anything. He’d been wrong.

“Thief!” he growled, skidding to a halt on the smooth marble floors, glaring into the sitting room. Nori was perched on the rail of the balcony and had the gall to look surprised when Dwalin appeared. Half of his long red hair was down and he was pulling an elven brush through it in long, even strokes. No doubt the brush was another one of his ‘acquired’ goods.

“That was fast. I would have thought I had at least another half hour before you got - !” Nori’s words were cut off when a massive hand caught him around his throat and nearly had him tipping over backwards and right off of the balcony. The brush went clattering out of his hand as the thief reached up to grab Dwalin’s wrist, his face turning a fetching shade of red.

“I want them back,” Dwalin snapped, doing his best to ignore the handful of hair that had gotten wrapped around his fingers when he struck. The combination of Nori’s warm skin and his damn hair was doing all sorts of things to him that it probably shouldn’t have been considering the situation. And it felt all too familiar.   

They had met this way, years earlier back in Ered Luin when Dwalin had been the captain of the city guards and Nori had been a simple sneak thief. Rumor had it that he had worked his way up to a position of power within the Thieves Guild, but that hadn’t mattered when Dwalin had caught him with a hand around the neck of his black shirt and thrown him against a wall. And the thief had the audacity to flirt with him while Dwalin had been hauling him off to prison! It had been a scenario that had been repeated multiple times over the next few years and each one seemed to drive Dwalin a little bit further into rage-fueled madness. No cell had been able to hold Nori for more than a day and he’d escaped even when placed under 24 hour watch. That time they’d found the cell door ripped right off its hinges and the guard unconscious and he’d know Nori had the sort of friends that could make life very difficult. After that the thief had disappeared for almost ten years and hadn’t reappeared until Thorin had declared the start of their venture. Dwalin had nearly had an aneurism seeing the dwarf he’d worked so hard to imprison standing there with Balin’s protégé scribe and Dori, owner of the best tea shop in all of Ered Luin, claiming to be their brother. He had looked so smug, standing there with his flashing hazel eyes and his cocky smile…

But Thorin had kept him from throttling Nori right then and there and he’d been forced to tolerate his presence ever since. Or at least until now.

“You took something of mine thief, and now not even Thorin can keep me from punishing you for it.” Especially since the king was trapped in yet another meeting with Elrond and Gandalf and wouldn’t know about this incident until it was long over.

Nori made a strangled noise around his fingers and Dwalin suddenly felt something sharp pricking his inner thigh. A glance down had him freezing in place because Nori had somehow managed to produce a little silver knife out of somewhere and it was currently threatening a place that no dwarf wanted sharp things anywhere close to. No one had ever accused Dwalin of being the most intelligent son spawned by Fundin, but he knew when he’d been outmaneuvered. His knuckles cracked as he slowly removed his hand from Nori’s neck.

“That’s better,” he wheezed, rubbing his neck with the hand that wasn’t holding the blade. Already bruises were beginning to form where Dwalin’s fingers had dug through the soft tunic. “No need to be so enthusiastic, Dwalin. It’s not as though I was planning on going anywhere. In fact I thought you might appreciate the little bread crumb trail I left for you so that you could find me.”

“I’ll always find you,” Dwalin snarled, not daring to close the small gap between them less he risk damaging something on the thief’s blade. “I want what you stole from me, thief, and I intend to collect.” Everything felt very warm, warmer than the summer sun might have made them naturally. Maybe it was the fury that was racing through his veins. He refused to believe it was anything else but couldn’t help but notice that when Nori smiled at him the temperature climbed another degree or two.

“You’ll have to search me for it in that case, since a good thief never gives away his hiding places.” Nori pulled back the knife and flipped it between his fingers as if it was a coin. With his hands unbound he could use it at any time and Dwalin knew it. One wrong move and he’d find himself gelded.

For a moment the warrior stood there, frozen in place. He couldn’t truly mean – of course there had always been a certain tension between them but he had always assumed that it was a teasing sort of hatred. The leg that hooked around the back of his knee and dragged him forward a stumbling step until he was pressed flush against the thief told him that he might have been off by a little bit.

“I’ll tell you what – you give me what I want and I’ll give you back what I stole. That should have us both walking away happy. Now ask me what it is I want.”

Dwalin’s tongue felt too big for his mouth. This couldn’t be happening – shouldn’t be happening! If any of his men could have seen him like this he would have been laughed right out of the mountain. Dwalin, mighty upholder of law and order, acting like he was a randy dwarf of twenty because of a loose-haired thief.

Nori leaned forward, his sharp smile fixed firmly in place and to his horror Dwalin found himself hardening in arousal. His attempt to escape backwards was met with another blade pressed up between his legs. Clearly all of those times he’d managed to capture the thief had either been pure luck or Nori had been humoring him because if he’d always been this good with his blades Dwalin would have lost fingers.

“I want you to fuck me, guardsman. Fuck me so hard that I feel it all the way to Erebor. I’ve got an itch that needs scratching and I’ve decided you’re just the dwarf to do the job. Do it well enough and you might just get your knuckle dusters back before I decide to melt them down for scrap.”

The noise that left Dwalin’s mouth wasn’t a moan. It wasn’t anything like a moan. Except, horrifyingly, it managed to turn into exactly that and he leaned forward, not caring about the knife’s bite.

“Nori, I was just looking for you and – Nori what are you doing to poor Dwalin?” Two hands seized Dwalin by the back of his tunic and dragged him backwards, away from the knife and the thief and his evil, evil smile. He turned to chase off whoever it was who had dared separate him from his quarry and found himself looking down at the other two Ri brothers. Ori was fiddling with a loose thread on his mittens and would make eye contact. Dori’s eyes on the other hand swept him from head to toe, taking in his rapid breathing, pin prick pupils, and the state of his pants. “Well clearly we arrived right in the nick of time. Come along Nori, I wanted to speak with you about something private.”

Dwalin nearly protested when he felt the thief slither off of the balcony wall behind him but the way Nori pressed himself up against his backside before ducking around him made his brain go missing again.

“Maybe next time. Don’t’ worry, I’ll keep a close eye on them for you until then.”

A close eye on – his knuckle dusters! Nori was already walking away with Dori holding onto his elbow and as Dwalin reached out to catch him a hand closed around his wrist with such crushing power that it nearly brought him to his knees. The old guardsman stared in shock down at Ori, who was holding him in place with one hand and a sheepish expression.

“Please don’t, Dori wouldn’t like it,” he murmured before releasing Dwalin and hurrying after his brothers.

Nori winked at him over his shoulders as the three brothers disappeared around a corner and all Dwalin could do was stand there, massaging his bruised wrist and wondering when his life had gotten so complicated.

__________________________________

“I’m going to throttle that damn thief!” Dwalin roared as he stormed into the library and threw himself into one of the delicate chairs next to his brother.

Balin carefully turned the page of the manuscript he was reading and adjusted his glasses. “I’ll assume you’re referring to young Nori, since the hobbit is a burglar rather than a thief.”

“Of course I mean Nori! He’s been a bloody thorn in my side for years and now he’s decided to – “

“Please don’t shout brother, we are in a place of learning after all.”

You might make the elves cry,” commented Bifur in Khuzdul as he used a miniature blade to carve away at a chunk of wood cradled in his hands. Bifur and Balin could quite often be found in each other’s company. The two dwarves went back a long way together, long before Smaug had attacked Erebor. Bifur had fought side by side with the two brothers in many battles and had saved them from a blade on more than one occasion. The axe that was buried in his forehead had been put there by an orc who had been swinging it at Balin’s back. Since then the two dwarves had been nearly inseparable.

“Fuck the bloody elves!”

“I’d rather not.”    

The injury may have damage Bifur’s ability to speak Westron and occasionally he had moments where his mind would drift, but his dry humor had remained.

“Calm down, brother. Alarming our hosts will do nothing to change your situation. I suggest you retire early this eve and apply your mind to a proper solution to whatever it is that is plaguing you.”

“Oh I’ll give him a proper solution right up his – “

“Brother.”

“What!?”

Bifur just rolled his eyes and kept carving.

“Bifur and I were just discussing our smallest companion before you interrupted us. We’ve both noticed a certain strangeness about him that neither of us have ever witnessed in any of his kind.” Balin removed his glasses and carefully tucked them away into the top pocket of his coat.

“So what, he doesn’t scream and faint at the first sign of trouble? S’not that strange.” Dwalin growled as he rubbed his bare knuckles.

“He has a look about him when he thinks no one is watching,” said Bifur as he blew his wood shavings onto the floor. “And in the way he watches all of us.”

Balin nodded and slid off of the chair to return his book to one of the many shelves that surrounded them. “Aye, Bifur has the right of it. It’s a look I well recognize.”

“So what’s the look? Not sure I like the thought of being watched by a Halfling, no matter what the cause.”

“We think the hobbit is a widower who was wed to a dwarf.”

Silence fell over the library.

“What?”

“It’s true, brother. When Frár was killed in Erebor I found myself doing the same on more than one occasion.”

And I for Iari,” murmured Bifur sadly. Both dwarves had lost wives to the wrath of the dragon and perhaps that had been what made them seek out each other’s company even more so than the battles they had fought together. Lost love made allies out of even the most distant folk.

“But the way the hobbit looks at this company makes me think that perhaps he loved a dwarf at some point and lost them.”

“What?” This time it wasn’t Dwalin who spoke, but a rather shell-shocked Thorin who stood in the doorway.

“Ah, Thorin,” Balin greeted their king with a jovial nod. “We were just discussing your burglar. How did the meeting go?”

Thorin stepped into the library and rubbed at his face, looking more haggard than he had for the entire journey. “The elf will attempt to read the map this evening. I would like to request your presence during it because I value your good sense. Now what was the about the burglar?”

Balin shrugged and Bifur snorted into his beard. Dwalin had fallen to muttering to himself and shaking his head over the strangeness of Halflings.

“We simply said that he has the look of one who has buried their heart. I know it well.” The old dwarf looked up at Thorin from under his bushy white brows. “As do you. Perhaps you would not treat him so harshly if he has known the same pain as you.”

Thorin only hung his head and would not meet Balin’s eyes. 

Chapter Text

“You are not the only guardian of Middle Earth.” Elrond’s eyes were flat and irritated as he turned to go. The moon shone down brightly on the ledge with its crystal table and a cool breeze had picked up, making the spray of the waterfall wash back upon those who stood there. Thorin quickly gathered up his map and folded it into an inner pocket over his fur coat so that it wouldn’t get too wet. It was lucky the parchment it had been penned into was so hearty or else it probably would have either melted or torn into a hundred pieces from the abuse it had been put through since they left the Shire. The dwarf king didn’t always have a light hand with his belongings.      

“There’s just one more small matter, Lord Elrond.” Gandalf put his hand on Bilbo’s shoulder to keep him in place and leveled a look over at where Thorin and Balin were muttering to each other. “It is not a matter that concerns dwarves, so I suggest you seek out your beds or your companions. I heard a rumor of fried fish if you are fast enough to get to it before the others finish it.”

That seemed to decide both of them because the dwarves turned on their heels and headed for the narrow staircase that would take them back up to the main part of the city. Thorin glanced back at Bilbo over his shoulder before he left but didn’t say anything.

Probably wondering if Elrond is going to try to turn me against him, Bilbo thought a little bit sourly. Thorin had been shooting him cryptic looks all day and they were starting to get on his nerves. If the king wanted something he should have just said so rather than making Bilbo guess what he might have been doing wrong this time. Maybe he hadn’t liked how comfortable his burglar was in the presence of the elves.  There were just some behaviors Bilbo couldn’t curb and his natural respect and agreeability towards their hosts was one of them. Most of them he knew by name and he’d made a point of seeking out the ones he’d gotten along the best with in his old life and introducing himself all over again. Most of them had been distantly friendly and as polite as one would be with a stranger.

Elrond stepped back to allow the dwarves to step by him and then returned to Gandalf’s side, still looking a bit out of sorts. The stubbornness of dwarves could test the patience of anybody and Thorin was one of the worst of his kind when it came to dealing with elves. Bilbo shuddered to think of the hole he might have dug himself into without Gandalf there to mediate.

The old wizard leaned on his staff and shook his head. “My apologies, Lord Elrond. Had I known how poorly he would conduct himself I might have spirited away the map and had you read it privately.”

“He is a dwarf. I expected nothing less from him, though I might have been pleasantly surprised had he conducted himself to the standards of his forefathers. I stood with Thrór on more than one occasion and found him to be nearly tolerable. It doesn’t seem that his composure was inherited.”

“He’s not all bad,” murmured Bilbo and Gandalf squeezed his shoulder to silence him.

“As for the matter I wished to discuss with you, I recently came across a situation that I had never before encountered and wished to seek your council on it. It is a rather…delicate matter.”

The elf lord’s eyes drifted down to Bilbo. “Concerning the Halfling?”

“I’m standing right here, you know. And my name is not ‘the Halfling’ as everyone seems to think,” Bilbo snapped as he shrugged off Gandalf’s hand. The wizard had approached him earlier about the possibility of asking Elrond for aid concerning his apparent resurrection and Bilbo had been more than happy to agree. If Gandalf was clueless on the subject then there was a possibility that maybe Elrond could lend a hand in some way. But that didn’t mean he had to stand there and be spoken about as if he were a tree stump that had fewer brains that a squirrel.

There was a short silence and then Elrond nodded, conceding the point. “As you wish. What troubles would you speak to me of, Bilbo Baggins of the Shire?”

And slowly, piece by piece with a couple of interjections by Gandalf, the story came out. He was careful to make no mention of what he had seen or experiences the first time, only mentioning that as he spoke and acted the world seemed to be shifting around him to change the course of history. Elrond stood silently the whole time, apparently unmoved except for the creases that had appeared on his forehead and between his eyes that showed he was taking the entire thing very seriously. 

“- and then we came here except not quite in the same way since we managed to round up the ponies and use them to travel a bit faster.”

Gandalf and Elrond exchanged a glance.

“And the company?”

“Suspects nothing,” confirmed Gandalf. “As far as I can tell they only think that I have found a rather remarkable hobbit. Bilbo has kept his secret held very close, better than another might have in his place and I think he should be commended for that.”

Bilbo ducked his head, not entirely comfortable with the praise.

“Indeed,” agreed Elrond. “I have only encountered the minya nosta, the Twice Born, once in my life. She was a young human girl who claimed to have been sent back from the brink of death in order aid her family in their venture to reclaim their lands from goblins. I was there when she breathed her last with an arrow in her breast, broken in body and spirit for she claimed that she had twice failed and could not be redeemed. I thought it merely the ravings of one who was meeting death until you told me this.”

“So it’s happened before?” Asked Bilbo eagerly, his spirits lifting.

“Perhaps many times, but if they succeeded in changing time itself there would be no way to prove it. Had we met in this first life of yours, Mister Baggins?”

 “Yes, I would have considered us friends. I lived here for several years once I had grown into an old hobbit.”

“And yet if I had not heard your story I might not have believed it because I retain no spiritual memory of this other life. The people you met and loved before your death do not exist yet and may never depending on how you act to change the world around you.” Elrond gestured at the crystal table. “You must have known what the map said and could have said so and avoided Rivendell altogether. And yet you did not so that you wouldn’t reveal yourself. I do not know what you have been pulled back for, but these are the sort of choices you will have to continue to make if you choose to continue on.”

“I have to keep going,” Bilbo murmured. “If I don’t and I tell them to turn back I would have failed before I really got started. I’m a Baggins. I see things through.” If his hands were shaking when he shoved them in his coat pockets he tried not to pay them any mind.

“So be it.”

Elrond’s words had a firm finality to it that felt heavier than the fists of the trolls. There hadn’t been any choice for Bilbo from the beginning and with every step onwards his resolve only became more firm. The Durins would live, even if he had to take their place in the afterlife as payment.

Again a hand settled on his shoulder, but this one was light with long, delicate fingers. “If there is anything I can do to help you on your quest, Twice Born, you have only to ask.”

“Thank you heru en amin. Somehow I’ll muddle my way through. I usually do.” Bilbo bowed as low as dictated for Elrond’s station and took a step backward, more than ready to retire to his room for the evening. His soul felt as worn and thin as old paper and the thought of the long journey and the perils that still lay ahead of him felt larger than ever. If he failed and they all died at the hands of the giants or the orcs would he be damned? Would he haunt the world as a lonely spirit whose vow had never been fulfilled, trapped between life and death?

Right now he just wanted a soft bed and a cup of tea.

A thought occurred to him as Gandalf and Elrond turn to leave. “Excuse me, Lord Elrond!” He hurried after them, his hand raised. “I don’t suppose you have much sway with an elf king by the name of Thranduil?”

__________________________________

“I was sleeping in the garden when I saw you first

He'd put me deep, deep under so that he could work

And like the dawn you broke the dark and my whole earth shook

I was sleeping in the garden when I – Thorin!” Bilbo yelped and pressed a hand to his heart to try to calm it as he sagged against the wall of his room.

The dwarf king rose from where he’d been sitting in a chair in the corner, his face lined with concern. “It wasn’t my intention to scare you to death, burglar. I would have waited outside until you arrived but I kept getting asked if I had lost my way.”

“It’s alright; I had a couple of years to have scared off. I’ll save the rest of them for Smaug if you don’t mind.” Bilbo stood there, not sure if he should shut the door behind him or leave it open as an escape in case Thorin decided to start shouting at him again. The king’s expression seemed more concerned than furious though, so he slowly nudged the door mostly shut with his heel. Perhaps he’d just come by to make sure Bilbo made it back to his room unmolested by the elves. “I was just going to have a smoke on the balcony if you want to join me.”

For a moment Thorin just stood there, still cast in deep shadows in the corner. No candles had been lit since the sun fell and now the only light came from the brilliant moon that shone through the open balcony doors. “Yes, thank you.”

“I didn’t think I would ever hear those words come out of your mouth,” Bilbo mused as he walked out onto the white marble balcony and settled himself on the bench there. His toes barely brushed the floor when he sat since the room had been designed with elves in mind. The bed felt big enough to fit the entire company of dwarves into. Not that he would have wanted to since some of them snored loudly enough to wake the dead and would probably roll on him and squash him into jelly.

Thorin snorted as he walked over to rail and pulled his square-bowled pipe out of his coat pocket. “I’ve said ‘thank you’ to you before. There’s no need to imply that I’ve forgotten my manners completely.”

They shared a match and the smell of sweet Old Toby and the more pungent dwarf pipe weed soon filled the air. “Terribly sorry, you did say it once when I leant you my handkerchief.”

“Surely before that when you welcomed us into your home?”

“No, not once.”

“Breakfast?”

“Not then either.”

“Not even when – “ The dwarf trailed off, looking angry with himself. “It seems I have indeed forgotten my manners. I thank you, Bilbo Baggins, for the aid you have rendered unto both myself and my kin over these last weeks.”

Bilbo smiled and blew a neat smoke ring out into the cool night air. It was lifted up by the breeze and quickly vanished. “You’re welcome, your majesty. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

“You weren’t the one saying it,” Thorin grumbled as he sat down on the bench next to Bilbo. The hobbit was suddenly uncomfortably aware of how warm his companion was and of how the fur that lined the dwarf’s greatcoat brushed against the back of his hand as softly as a kiss.

 “Sometimes the right words are the hardest ones to say. I would know since I used to spend my days employing them.”

“So you were a politician as well as a burglar?” Thorin chuckled as he stared off into the silver night, smoke trailing out of the corners of his mouth as he spoke.

“Hardly. I’ll leave that sort of nonsense to the Thrain and his ilk. I was a writer, and I supposed I technically still am. Of course I’m not nearly as dedicated as Ori but it’s how I pass the time. I come from a line of gentle-hobbits on my mother’s side and we’ve never needed to work farms or run shops. She spent her youth adventuring and then turned to herbalism once she’d settled down. I just write.”

“Truly?” Thorin looked at him with genuine interest and Bilbo was grateful that the monochrome light helped to hide the flush that rose in his cheeks and ears at the close scrutiny. “I would have taken you more for a grocer than a writer.”

And there went the rosy glow. “Well I’m sure that the Shire would have an overabundance of grocers if everyone did what you thought they did,” he snapped. “I may not look like much but I’ve done a thing or two in my time that would – “

“Peace, Halfling, I meant no offense. You simply surprised me. I know that your kind tends to leave peaceful and unremarkable lives and – “

Bilbo nodded, still a little bit annoyed. He’d thought that he’d managed to dodge the ‘grocer’ comment until now. “And assumed most of us would be farmers or the like, I know. But I’m not and that’s the way of things.”

Thorin tried to blow a smoke ring to match Bilbo’s, but it merely came out as a puff and made him cough. “I-I see,” he rasped. “I won’t insult you further by asking if you write books for children.”

The hobbit snorted at his companion’s discomfort. “You have to hold it in your throat without breathing it in. And yes, occasionally I’d write stories. On Sundays I’d be drowning in kits that came by for tea and cake and they’d beg me to read them out loud. I never got around to having them illustrated though. Maybe I’ll ask Ori if – well. Mostly I wrote about doing things. Taking walks, the best way to harvest apples, how to make a proper compress for cow kicks. That sort of thing.”

Once again Thorin tried his luck with a smoke ring and this time it came out as a wobbly square shape. “Anything I might have read?”

“That’s unlikely. I never bothered to publish or copy them so I imagine they’re still sitting very comfortably on my shelves back at home.”

The king made a noncommittal noise in the back of his throat. “Maybe I’ll read them some day.”  

“Perhaps.”

They sat in silence for a long while after that and a couple of bats flapped by overhead, pursued by an owl. Their pipe smoke drifted away lazily, dipping and swirling on the breeze before dissolving into nothing more than a pleasant memory.

“I feel that I also owe you an apology.” Thorin finally broke the silence and Bilbo jumped, since he’d managed to slip into daydreaming while watching the play of the moonlight on the waterfalls.

“Whatever for?”

Thorin glanced down at his hands. “I’ve been harsher on you than you have deserved. You’ve done nothing but your best and I haven’t been a gracious leader towards you. You may not be one of my subjects but you’ve been more helpful than half of them since we left your home.”

A shy smile stole its way across Bilbo’s face. “It’s alright. I know how y – how dwarves can be. Stubborn and suspicious to the core.”

He received a barking laugh in reply. “Aye, I suppose we can be. Was yours?”

Bilbo looked up in surprise. “Was my what?”

Thorin nodded at him. “Your dwarf. Balin and Bifur said that they figured you to have been wed to one before and perhaps you had lost them. From the way you watched everyone,” he said in explanation when Bilbo looked stunned. “Were they correct?”

Little tingles of adrenaline were working their way through every one of Bilbo’s nerves and they were making his insides ache abominably, especially in the region of his heart. He sternly told it to mind its own business. As casually as he could manage the hobbit got up and tapped the spent ash from his pipe out over the rail and watched it drift away. “We weren’t married. I don’t think that he ever noticed that I cared for him as much as I did.” He shook his head. “Even I didn’t realize how much I had until it was too late.”

It was lucky that Thorin didn’t follow him to the rail. He might have seen the naked emotion on his burglar’s face as he stared out at the night.

“Such is the way of things. If I had known I would lose my family so quickly I might have told them how much I cared before we went into battle.”

“We’d had a fight,” whispered Bilbo. “A terrible one and it was all my fault. I thought that I was acting in his best interests but he couldn’t see it that way. He thought I had betrayed him and for a moment I thought he was going to kill me for it, but I still loved him even then. Isn’t that funny? He forgave me before he died but I never forgave myself. I was too much of a coward and I ran before his kin could even put him in the ground.”

When Thorin said nothing Bilbo kept talking. He couldn’t seem to stop himself now. “He was a good dwarf; he cared about his family more than anything else in the world. And he was so brave…saved my life more than once. There was a fire about him that you couldn’t help to be drawn to even though you knew you would burn yourself on it in the end. Maybe it was his conviction. I doubt he’d have returned my feelings, but just standing by his side was enough for me. There are some days that I missed him so much that I thought I would die of it and I think I would have if I hadn’t had Frodo.”

“Frodo?”

“My nephew. He – “

Wasn’t born yet.

“He’s still very young.” Not even conceived. “No doubt he’ll grow into a bright and intelligent lad. But he helped ground me and now that I’m here it doesn’t seem as terrible as it once did.” He looked over his shoulder and smiled at the dwarf. The only one he’d ever wanted to stand by. “Maybe it’s my chance to make amends.”  

Whatever Thorin had been about to say was interrupted as the door was pushed open and Gandalf stalked into the room, looking stressed and irritated. “Thorin, gather your company. It’s time you were all away from this place and you must do it secretly or all might be lost. Saruman has arrived in Rivendell.” 

Chapter Text

By the time the sun rose the next morning there was no sign of the thirteen dwarves or their hobbit in Rivendell. The ponies were gone from their pen and the horses looked more than a little forlorn about losing their source of entertainment. The kitchens were in a state of such disrepair that the head chef fainted dead away when he discovered the mess. How the band had managed to steal away so silently was a mystery – not even the sentries had spotted them as they snuck off up the secret path carved in the side of the ravine and made their way into the wilds.

No riders followed after them and most of the elves seemed to consider themselves well-rid of their guests with the exception of the polite hobbit.

Not for the first time Bilbo found himself grumbling about how he was too old for such sneaking about as they continued the long ride towards the Misty Mountain. His thighs hadn’t had a chance to recover from the weeks of riding and throbbed uncomfortably the minute he had climbed onto the back of his long-suffering pony.

“But Bilbo, you can’t be more than one hundred and fifty or so,” said Kili as the young prince rode up on his left side.

“Don’t date our burglar, brother. I’m sure he isn’t even one hundred and thirty,” said Fili from the back of his own pony and he leaned sideways and gave Bilbo a poke in his ribs.

Bilbo swatted at his hand and scowled. “I beg your pardon! One hundred and thirty indeed, I’ll have you know that I turned fifty last September. Hobbits only reach one hundred and thirty if they are very healthy and more than a little lucky.” And he’d been lucky enough to make it one year past that before succumbing to death. Not that it had really been death, simply that start of another adventure.

Once again he found himself on the receiving end of two dumbfounded looks. I seem to be getting those quite a lot lately, he thought to himself and snapped the reins of his pony to pull away from the two nosy troublemakers. He needn’t have bother though since less than a minute of frantic whispering between themselves later both princes rocketed ahead of him, bouncing on the backs of their ponies like jumping beans until they were riding up next to the uncle and talking to him in wildly animated voices that managed to blend together well enough that it was hard to actually hear what they were talking about.

Not that he had to guess at their topic since Thorin abruptly turned in his saddle and sent a look of shock back at him. It was impossible for Bilbo to contain his eye roll.

Dwarves. Really.

They stopped for a bit of lunch at midday. It consisted of several fat fish that they had scooped out of the pond on their way out and they were swiftly scaled and de-boned and tossed into Bombur’s pot. The creamy soup that was produced was filling and hot, with potatoes and some fresh vegetables to accent the sweet fish. Ori studiously avoided every bit of his celery but Bifur seemed happy to trade his fish for the unwanted greens.

“Here laddie, it’s good for the dregs.” Balin passed Bilbo a chunk of fragrant bread with rosemary in it and Bilbo happily used it to soak up the last bits of his soup. “Don’t mind the princes too much. They’re young and know little of the world.”

“I don’t really care as long as they don’t start treating me like a child,” Bilbo mumbled around a mouthful of bread. “I assure you that I’m well into middle age for my kind. More on a level with Gloin or Bofur than with them, though I may be younger than both in years.”

“Aye, I know it. I had the pleasure of knowing a hobbit or two in my time and know the sands of time travel faster for you than they do for us. Not many would know though, since both of us tend to be private about such things.” Balin pulled the crust off of his own piece of bread and munched on it with obvious enjoyment. “I’ll set the others straight so they don’t get the wrong sort of idea.”

“It might be a bit late for that,” the burglar replied dourly as he noticed the speculative looks he was already beginning to get from the rest of the company. “I’m not a child!” He raised his voice so that the rest of them could hear him. “I’m middle aged for a hobbit, so you can quit looking at me like I should be clinging to my mother’s skirts!”

All eyes suddenly found something else to suddenly be very interested in and Fili and Kili looked crestfallen before burying their faces in their lunch. No doubt they had been looking forward to corrupting the ‘youngest’ member of their company. Not that he would have let them even if he’d been younger - hobbits were born with more sense than those two shared between them and that sense was currently telling him ‘nothing but trouble will come of getting involved with those boys’ in a very stern tone of voice. Besides, he had never regarded them as anything more than tweens and he wasn’t interested in getting involved with them. His heart lay with their uncle and he wasn’t interested in splitting it into parts to share. Fili and Kili had always occupied a certain space in it, but it was in the same way that Frodo had – as family love and nothing more.

It didn’t take long for them to extinguish their campfire and then they were on their way once more. The day turned into night and they made camp on the edge of the road and had a dinner of roasted rabbit and the rest of the rosemary bread with a couple of toasted apples with cinnamon for dessert. Bofur entertained them all about how a friend of his had broken the nose off of a statue of Dain by trying to carve after ten pints of honeyed mead. The general consensus had been that the statue had looked better for the damage and it had eventually been broken down so as not to offend the ruler of the Iron Hills too badly. Several of the dwarves laughed so hard that their eyes grew glassy with tears. Bilbo just smiled and chewed on his rabbit.

For three days they traveled further and further east. The weather grew colder as the land sloped upwards and the chill of the Misty Mountains washed down upon them. The tops of them were still decorated with snow and the small rivers that washed down from their slopes were complete ice melt stripping down to their skin the minute they found a pool deep enough. ‘To wash off the smell of elf’ they said when Bilbo gaped at them and dubbed them all insane. The hobbit stayed comfortably on the shore and brushed his feet with a comb he’d tucked into a protected pocket of his rucksack while the other laughed and splashed each other. By the time the dwarves strangled out of the water their hair was plastered to their heads and their teeth were chattering and their bits had shrunk up to the point that they could have all been mistaken for rather hairy lady-dwarves. Bilbo did his best not to laugh but Dwalin caught his smirk and threatened to toss him in the pool clothes and all to see how much he shriveled up.

They reached the foot of the mountain path late on the fourth day. There they paused, all eyes trained on the foreboding peaks that rose above their heads like jagged teeth. Bilbo shivered and hunched his shoulders. He knew of no other route through the mountain so the road had been their only option. Perhaps with the ponies with them they would be able to make good enough time to make it past the rock giants and the goblins caves before the storm hit them and brought disaster with it. Would having the ponies make things worse? They were ahead by a full day as far as Bilbo could remember, so maybe that would give them the time they needed to get through the mountains safely. Of course, last time he’d thought he was doing well by changing the course of history they had nearly been run down on the road by orcs and killed. Sweat broke out of his brow despite the icy wind.

 “We’ll rest here for the night,” called back Thorin. “There’s no use traveling in the mountains in the dark or we may lose one of the ponies over the edge.”

This declaration was met with complete agreement from everyone else and they all groaned and stretched as they clambered off of their mounts and stretched their tired legs. Bilbo and Oin dug out their tins of salve for saddle sores and those who were sore enough stripped down to their small clothes and smeared the minty paste on the insides of their thighs.

So when three strangers suddenly appeared in the middle of their camp half of them were literally caught with their pants down.

Thorin roared with fury as a blade appeared at his neck and the two other dwarves had Dwalin pined to the ground with blades at each of his eyes. For a moment no one dared to move until another blade, long and hooked and as sharp as a razor came to rest against the throat of the dwarf who had his blade at Thorin’s neck.

“You’ll be wanting to put that down right now, friend,” said Nori in a deadly calm voice.

“Nori?”

“Ferran?”

Bilbo watched in bemusement from where he sat on a rock with his trousers around his ankles and his hands covered in salve as every knife disappeared in the blink of an eye and Nori embraced the dwarf who had been just threatening Thorin’s jugular.

“What just happened?” Whispered Ori as he struggled to get his own pants back on. The poor scribe clearly wasn’t used to spending days on horseback and his legs had been black and blue.

“I-I’m not quite sure. It looks like Nori knows them though.”

Dori stalked over, looking like a thunderhead. “No doubt some of his back alley friends from when he was wandering around who knows where. Never let him bring them home though – they would have stolen everything that wasn’t nailed down and probably smashed my tea pots.”

“Maybe,” mumbled Ori. “But they don’t seem that bad.”

“They were going to stab – “

“Maybe it’s just how those kinda folk say hello,” Bofur said around his pipe stem as he wandered over, buttoning up his pants and smelling like salve and smoke.

The glare the miner got for his efforts would have made anyone else feel about as tall as a field mouse. Luckily Bofur’s good nature seemed to diffuse the brunt of it and the remainder bounced off of his hat. Or maybe the cow eyes he was giving the irate Dori made him immune to his wrath.

The three dwarves were indeed old friends of Nori’s and had traveled with him between Ered Luin and Rohan while they smuggled a king’s ransom worth of rubies out of the mountain. Ferran was in charge of their little band. He was an older dwarf with jet black hair and a beard that he had braided around his throat like a choker necklace. Yerthic and Varthic were twins, even younger than Fili and Kili. Their eyes were dark and darted around like feral beasts and their hands never strayed far from the blades at their hips. They spoke in short words and only when Ferran spoke to them directly. Otherwise any attempt to engage them in conversation was met with suspicious looks and snarls.

“We’ve come in from the East, travelin’ about and testin’ the waters over that way.” Ferrin had settled himself next to Nori around their fire that evening, clearly understanding that no one else particularly wanted to be next to him after the entrance he’d made.

“Aye, we’re heading that way ourselves. Heading up to meet Dain and see if he could use a few more workers.” It was the cover story they had come up with after their departure for Rivendell, just in case they needed to explain why such a large party of dwarves was heading east with no wagons like the usual caravans.

“Turnin’ to honest work, Nori? I thought better of you.”

“Well I have my brothers to look after now, and Dori doesn’t like me bringing home the king’s crown and hiding it under his bed.”

The firelight made Dori’s furious eyes practically glow with wrath and Bilbo had to wonder for a moment if Nori had indeed done such a thing. The way Thorin tensed next to him made it even more probable.  

“I don’t doubt it. You never told me your brother was such a looker.” Ferran winked at Dori across the fire and it was only Ori and Dwalin’s grips on his sleeves that kept the stout dwarf from going after Ferran like a wild boar. Nori just puffed at his pipe and didn’t say anything, which was probably for the best.

“Anyway, you don’t want to be takin’ the mountain path if you’re headin’ for Dain’s mountain. The giants have been kickin’ up a fuss lately. Lost two of our boys to their battles and half of our gear. That’s why we came down on your camp like we did – just to snag a thing or two and be on our way so getting’ back up home would be a bit more comfy. No hard feelings, right?”

“Not a one, I would have done the same to you.”

“You always were a good sort. But hear this, I’ve been havin’ a bit of a think and I’ve come up with that you should come up with us! Got ourselves a nice little nook carved out of the Misties and were snug as a bear in his bolt hole.”

Eyebrows shot up all over the camp. “But what about the goblins?” Asked Bombur around his mouthful of apple.

“They don’t bother us none,” growled Varthic. “Got ourselves some traps.”

“They tried once. Never again,” agreed Yerthic.

“We don’t want to impose,” snapped Thorin in a way that made it very clear that he wasn’t keen on bedding down with whatever sort of folk Ferran and the twins would keep company with. Thieves and cutthroats tended to band together no matter what their breeding or species.

Ferran happily accepted a bowl of stew and slurped at it noisily. Even an attack by bandits hadn’t been enough to keep Bombur from setting up supper and it gave everyone something to do with their hands other than reach for their weapons. “Well it you’re still set on headin’ east, you can use our tunnel through. Doesn’t go th’ whole way but it’ll get you past some of the hardships. Comes out at the river and there’s a bandit tribe or two that way, but it’s safer than the high pass right now what with the giants and the goblins. Ain’t safe these days, I’m tellin’ you.”

If Nori felt any pride at this fortuitous discovery he kept it off of his face. “That’s a kindness, Ferran.”

“Well you helped me out of a tight spot or two, ‘S the least I can do. Hope you can stay for a bit though - the boys‘ll all be happy to see you. I was just wonderin’ to meself the other day where you’d got off to, but now I see you took up with your of vagabonds. Life’s funny that way, eh?”

Very funny indeed, thought Bilbo as he spooned stew into his mouth and did his best to inch a little bit closer to Thorin without anybody noticing.

It looked like fate was on his side after all. 

Chapter Text

It took two days to travel north but Bilbo was too happy about not having to brave the mountain and the giants to complain about a couple extra days of traveling via pony. There had been a bit of grumbling from the others dwarves about this but none of them seemed to have a death wish and that was exactly what awaited them if they chose to take the High Pass. If they weren’t crushed by the overactive stone giants then they were sure to become prisoners of the goblins who were known to enjoy a bit of dwarf flesh now and then. The idea had made several of them go rather gray and after that the muttering about the extra travel time had become much quieter. It began to drizzle on the second day as a storm blew in from the west and covered everything in a heavy fog as the warm summer wind met the snow on the Misty Mountains. It cloaked everything and seemed to seep into every nook and cranny it could get its chill fingers into. Even this couldn’t diminish Bilbo’s good cheer, though he stopped smiling quite so much when his nose began to run like a faucet.

“Good,” grumbled Gloin from his right side when Bilbo had to stop humming to blow his nose for what felt like the hundredth time. The banker’s massive beard had appeared to have smelled to twice its usual size as it soaked up water like a sponge and he had to keep pushing it down to see over the top of it. “The smilin’ was startin’ ta get on my nerves. I don’t care what anyone else says, nobody is meant to be that happy in this weather.”

At least the congestion was good for one thing – he didn’t have to put up with the stink of wet pony and wetter dwarf. For all that they had scrubbed themselves clean just recently the water made their clothes cling to them and the smell of horsehair rubbed off on everything and made everyone wrinkle their noses. Bilbo just sniffled wetly. Varthic and Yerthic remained sullenly silent and rode at the back of their little party, speaking to no one but each other. Fili and Kili seemed the most disheartened by this since the twins were the first dwarves they’d met since departing who were anywhere close to their ages with the exception of Ori, and it seemed that the twins wanted nothing to do with any of them.

Everyone was well ready to have a bit of a break from the weather by the time they reached the thieves’ den. Without Ferran to guide them in Bilbo didn’t think that they ever would have found the place since it was so well concealed. Indeed, the entrance appeared to be just one of thousands of other stones and boulders that lay at the foot of the mountains until Ferran gave a short whistle by sticking two of his fingers in his mouth. Then one of the rocks seemed to crumble into itself as two more dwarves emerged. They were almost as feral-looking as the twins, with their beards done up into tight braids close to their faces. A gray cloth done up to match the surrounding stones had been draped over a cleverly constructed metal frame and it easily disguised the tunnel that lay beneath it. It was tall and wide enough that they could have ridden their ponies straight through, but the beasts were quickly commandeered by the two new dwarves, who Bilbo learned were named Bantor and Vaun.

Seeing the others gathering up their gear before the ponies were lead away, Bilbo did the same. He didn’t know when the next time he’d have a chance to see Myrtle again so it was probably best that he kept his things close. They were in a bolt hole after all – there was no telling whether he’d have anything left at all if he let his knapsack get out of his sight. If Nori had sticky fingers what would a whole band of thieves be like? The hobbit clutched his bag a bit tighter and stayed firmly glued to Bofur’s side as they were lead through the tunnels. Of the lot of them only the miner seemed at all comfortable with their impromptu lodgings, though Bilbo suspected he would have been equally happy in a cave or on the side of a mountain.

“It’ll all turn out well enough, you’ll see” he comforted the hobbit and rested a gloved hand on his shoulder. “These’re Nori’s folk and if they got a way through the mountain that don’t involve goblins or the like I’m all for it. ‘Sides, maybe they’ll have somethin’ other than stew and cram to spare if we can do a bit of tradin’.”

The thieves’ den seemed to wind through and through like an ant nest, with interconnecting tunnels and great open spaces lit only by torches that emitted a foul, black smoke.

“Used to be goblin tunnels,” Ferran told them as they climbed up a ladder to yet another level. “We drove ‘em out a couple years back and took the place over since. They didn’t like havin’ us here but we showed ‘em we can hold our own against anything they send after us. They don’t come close much anymore, just the stupid ones and they don’t ever make it back to their hives again.”

Dark eyes watched their every step though when Bilbo turned to look back over his shoulder there was no one there. The folk of this particular mountain were quick and keen enough to not be spotted when they didn’t want to be. Only whispers reached his ears and the sound of soft leather boots on stone. Bofur’s hand tightened on his shoulder as if to reassure him. It only made him feel marginally better. This wasn’t anything like Erebor – it was tight and smelled like smoke and blood. However long the goblins had been gone the stench of them still hung in their air and made his stomach twist. The quicker they were out of this haunted place the happier he would be. The tunnel may have been a better choice than the High Pass, but this place felt twisted in some way. No good folk dwelled in these tunnels, only the sort who would cheerfully slit your throat while you were sleeping for the beads in your hair. Bilbo ducked his head and tried not to look at the stains on the walls too closely. Fili and Kili crowded up against his back, seeming almost as nervous as he was. They each grabbed one of his hands and hung onto it as they all followed Ferran ever deeper into the tunnels and the warmth of their grip helped to steady him a little more.

He had to be braver than this. It had fallen on him to look after the Durins after all and if he shrunk away from new dangerous like a fainting flower he wouldn’t be doing a very good job of it. The folded list in his pocket reminded him of his duty. So he hung onto their hands and did his best to look as intimidating as a hobbit could manage when he was underground and surrounded by thieves and murderers. Apparently it worked well enough because no one approached them, though that was more likely because of the way Dwalin kept both of his axes in his hands.

“And ‘ere we are at our lavish guest rooms!” Crowed Ferran and Bilbo heard Nori laugh from up ahead. “Only got three of ‘em so you can split’m up as ya see fit. Get comfy for a bit and I’ll be back ‘for you know it and we’ll have a bite. The boss is gonna want a chat with all of you lot so don’t go wanderin’ much. Nobody got the time to go look for you if you get turned around if you get my drift.”

Thorin growled.

It didn’t need to be said that Thorin and his nephews would take one of the rooms, but everyone seemed surprised when the brothers insisted that Bilbo be allowed to room with them as well.

“No, I really don’t need to. I’m small; I can just fit in a corner in one of the other rooms. No one will even know I’m there.”

“Aye, the lad can bed down with us, don’t worry your heads,” agreed Bofur.

The uproar that went up from Fili and Kili made all of them, including Dwalin and Thorin, take a step backwards.

“No we want him – “

“He won’t take up any space at – “

“- and he doesn’t roll over or snore – “

“- doesn’t smell like pony – “

“- he likes us – “

“You’ve all been hogging him, so it’s our turn!”

“Enough!” Bellowed Thorin, which instantly put an end to the one-sided argument, though the brothers still managed to look more than a little mutinous. “The Halfling will stay in our room during our stay in this place. Divide the other two up among you as you see fit.” And with that the king turned and disappeared through the rickety wooden door, leaving the rest of them standing out in the tunnel.

“I really wish he’d stop calling me that,” mumbled Bilbo as he scuffed his heels across the uneven floor, not really wanting to go into the little room where he’d be packed in with the Durins. He would have been much happier with Balin or Bofur or the Ri brothers just because they didn’t make his insides twist up like tree roots. But at least now he could keep an eye on all three of them. That Thorin thought him a widower made everything so much easier now – it explained away the times they’d caught him watching and the wistful expression he hadn’t known he’d worn.

Oh why did I have to decide that I was in love with the most stubborn, rude dwarf east of the sea? I could have settled down with a perfectly lovely hobbit woman and had too many children who would have turned my hair gray before I reached sixty, but no, I had to go and get myself attached to a dwarf who died before I’d known him for a proper year and left me to live out the rest of my life in a misery I didn’t know I was even living.

And it had indeed been miserable, heartbreakingly so because he hadn’t known how unhappy he’d been. Frodo had helped to chase away the loneliness and the emptiness of Bag End, but there had been a space in him that had remained stubbornly empty.

And it’ll stay that way, he told himself sternly. He isn’t the same dwarf you knew and you can’t afford to be mooning over him like a calf. The first thing to do is make sure that everyone survives this mad journey. Then you can figure out how to keep going on after you have to let him go again.

The rooms were small and dark, but they were better than camping on the side of the mountain in the rain. The was one rickety bed covered with threadbare sheets in each one as well as a chair and a writing desk of sorts though Bilbo doubted that anyone in this place would have used it for penning very many letters. Thorin had already shed his overcoat and hung it over the back of the chair by the time the rest of the company split into groups to check out their own accommodations.

“So we’re staying the night?” Asked Kili as he collapsed onto the bed with a sigh. The frame creaked alarmingly but managed to hold his weight.

“I’ll decide that once we meet the master of this foul place. If he turns out to be as slimy as the rest of the inhabitants we might be best making for the tunnel as quickly as possible. I don’t trust anyone here not to sneak in while we sleep and bury their blades in our hearts if they discover who it is they’re harboring.”

“Now that’s no way to speak of old friends, is it?” Came a foreign voice from the doorway. Instantly Bilbo’s hand snapped to the handle of Sting and he had it halfway drawn before Thorin’s hand on his arm stilled him. 

An imposing figure stood in the door, lit from behind by one of the torches. The dwarf was large, as large as Dwalin if Bilbo had to hazard a guess which would have put him at nearly five feet high without his boots on. He had a long beard that had been braided into a single plait that was so long he could tuck it into his belt, while the rest of his mane had been broken up into hundreds of smaller braids that went down to his waist. There wasn’t a single strand of hair that hadn’t been woven into the mass and the way it moved reminded Bilbo very much of a nest of snakes he had uncovered one summer after his walking stick had gone right through the ground and into their coiling, hissing mass.

“Karhon!” Shouted Fili and leapt at the dwarf with his arms wide. “We thought you were dead! Mum cried for days, you should have seen her. She would beat you over the head with her mace if she knew that you were walking around!”

Bilbo was keenly aware that Thorin’s hand had tightened and it wasn’t to hold him back any more. The king was practically vibrating with tension.

The dwarf, Karhon, caught Fili with one arm and Bilbo winced as the two bashed their foreheads together in the universal dwarf greeting. No wonder they had so few brains or common sense – it was all shaken out of them before they had reached their majority. Kili had rolled right off the bed again and was chattering with his dwarf while the other dwarf laughed with obvious good humor.

A quick glance backwards showed his that Thorin wasn’t nearly as happy to see Karhon as his nephews. “Do we not like him?” The hobbit murmured softly.

Thorin grunted and released his hold so that Bilbo could sheathe his sword. “I’m not sure yet. Stay on your guard.” Then he approached the other dwarf, his steps measured as if he wasn’t sure of his welcome. “Karhon. You caused us all a lot of grief.”

“Ah so now I’m worth your attention!” Roared Karhon. His voice was expansive enough that Bilbo could feel it in his belly, but it didn’t seem to hold any of the ill will that Thorin had expected. “And here I thought you were goin’ to leave me with these warg pups to yip at for the rest of the evenin’. Get over here you bastard.” A highly undignified noise was forced out of Thorin’s lungs as Karhon reached out and seized him by the front of his coat and cracked their heads together. The king stumbled back looking dazed while his nephews did their best to hide their snickers behind hacking coughs.

“Never thought I’d see the day when I’d find you lot here as my guests. Had I known you were passin’ through I might have had somebody dust the place a bit. Put some flowers on the pillows.”

“I wouldn’t have minded,” mumbled Bilbo as he sniffled into his sleeve, but nobody heard him over the laughter and the sudden burst of conversation. Fili was doing his best to fill the other dwarf in on their adventures while Kili continued on about how Dis was going to rip Karhon’s arms off when she found out he was alive. Thorin seemed content to seize the bigger dwarf by the front of his dark blue cape and give him a good hard shake, swearing at him in Khuzdul. Bilbo just stood well back and watched the reunion. Whoever this dwarf was he had clearly been close to the Durins before his ‘demise’. That didn’t necessarily make him safe in the hobbit’s mind, but at least he had risen above the ranks of the rest of the denizens of this forsaken hole in the mountain.

It took a few minutes but eventually the din died down a bit and Thorin stopped cursing. Bilbo suspected that he had simply used up his entire vocabulary’s worth of bad words.

“Hey hey, you said Balin’s here too? That old rascal I haven’t seen him since he came by sobbin’ because his brother had shaved all his hair off to get those tattoos of his. We’ll all catch up over a bit of dinner, eh? Tell me the whole story, I know Fili said somethin’ bout trolls and that’s always good fun.” Karhon turned for the door but paused when Kili yelped.

“What happened to your hand?”

“Hm? Oh this thing?” The dwarf lifted up his right arm and Bilbo saw that it ended in a well-wrapped stump rather than a proper limb. Since it was swathed in velvet and cloth rather than bandages he figured it must have been an old wound rather than a fresh one, but clearly it was recent enough that had hadn’t had it the last time he had encountered the brothers.

The dwarf smiled and gave his beard a tug with his other hand. “Skinny old wolf took it off. Would have taken the other one with it if not for your uncle. I get along alright without it though.” He glanced over at Thorin and the two of them shared ‘a look’. “Before we run off to round up the others though, I got to have a talk with you three and maybe the rest as well. It might not be best if you go about announcing that you’re who you are – this lot won’t take well to it. They got no love for you and yours, Thorin. Your da’ and back on weren’t kind to law breakers and Dwalin tossed more than his fair share in a cell. Just don’t let ‘em see you too close and you should be fine. We’ll get you on your way again before any trouble can come about. Be a shame to see you gone so soon after we’ve met again, eh?”

“A shame indeed,” murmured Thorin, but he seemed to accept this and gestured for Bilbo to follow after them as they left the little bedroom to collect the others for dinner.

Bilbo kept his sword buckled onto his belt just in case.

__________________________________

Dinner was a rather easy affair once all was said and done. Most of the other dwarves seemed overjoyed to see Karhon, though they managed to restrain themselves until they were in a private dining room that Karhon had assured them was safe from any prying eyes. Then the whole lot of them burst into laughter and cheering and conversations, praising their good luck at running across him and besieging him with questions about how he had come to dwell in such a place when the last they had heard he had met his end out on the road. Bilbo dragged his own chair into the corner after he had collected a plate of what tasted like bear meat and some slightly stale bread. At least the drink was good and he happily indulged himself in a second cup as he listened with half an ear to the back and forth talk. It reminded him very much of another dinner that he had been an outsider in, a long time ago.

In bits and pieces the story came out. Karhon had been one of the refugees of Erebor who had settled in the Blue Mountains along with Thorin. He had fought next to Balin and Dwalin at Moria and had been one of their closest friends until he had suddenly vanished thirty years earlier and had been announced as dead while traveling. Cleary those reports had been false because he had traveled east and met with some petty thieves traveling back the way he had come. They had come up with a business venture.

“With the elves?” Dwalin asked in disgust.

“Don’t pull that face with me,” Karhon grunted around his mouthful of meat. “They were more than happy to take our work. We traded with craftsmen in all of our cities and sent the stuff off to them. You know how they like the shinies. Got medicine, wine, and chocolate in return and sent that back into the markets. Turned a pretty penny doing it too.”

Nori’s smile could have split his face in half. “Better than starving in the mountains.”

“Knew I always liked you for a reason, Nori.”

“Nah, you just liked my pretty face.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Karhon said amiably and everyone laughed into their dinner. The tension faded somewhere between the first and third round of ale and by the time the time the last of the food had been done away with everyone was relaxing comfortably into their chairs and loosening their belts a bit.

Bilbo had curled up with his feet tucked under him. It was probably too much to hope for a hot bath here, but they were bound to have some form of running water if they lived in a place like this year-round. He’d test his bravery in the morning and see what he could find. The master of the den seemed to realize that everyone was full and tired from their travels because he rose and stretched with a groan.

“I’m getting too old for this sort of excitement. I’m headin’ to my bed and I suggest you lot do the same. Tomorrow we’ll have a nice long chat about bring you to my little kingdom and what I can do to get you out of it again. I know this may be safer than the mountain, but I’d still sleep with one eye open. I might have the final word here but that doesn’t mean my men won’t test it now and again just to see if I still have sharp teeth.” The dwarf grinned wolfishly. “Which I do.”

With those encouraging words at their backs the company dispersed back to their rooms. The moment the door shut behind them Fili and Kili instantly began to strip out of their coats and boots and climbed into the single bed. Kili set to unbraiding his brother’s hair and they both kept up a steady stream of chatter about what Dis was going to do to Karhon when she discovered that their old friend had been keeping them in the dark about his survival for thirty-odd years. Bilbo winced when they described in exquisite detail what they’d seen their mother do with a carving knife to a drunk who had gotten too friendly.  

“And then remember when she – Bilbo, what are you doing?”

Bilbo looked up from his bag. “Undoing my bedroll?”

Kili looked crestfallen. “But we wanted you to sleep with us!” Fili nodded in agreement and then winced when Kili pulled on his braid.

Feeling heat rise up in his face again, Bilbo busied himself with the straps that held his blanket on again. “There’s hardly room for three in that little bed. I don’t mind sleeping on the floor. Besides, where will your uncle sleep?”

“I’ll be taking the chair,” grumbled Thorin from where he’d been leaning against the wall, apparently lost in thought.

“See? It’s fine. Besides, you’re warm and what if we catch a chill and then die horribly in our sleep?”

“You certainly didn’t inherit your tendency for dramatics from Thorin’s side of the family.” But he allowed himself to be cajoled into the rickety bed anyway if only because he knew it would be warmer than sleeping on the floor and he wasn’t at all fond of denying himself simple comforts when they were there for the taking. “The minute one of you gets too handsy I’m going to do the same thing to you with my sword that your mum did to that drunk, you hear me?”

The brothers went pale and instantly agreed to keep their hands to themselves and Bilbo found himself very comfortably situated between the two of them once he’d rid himself of his coat. Fili pressed up against his right side so that Bilbo’s head was tucked under his chin while Kili wriggled down a bit lower and wrapped his arms around the hobbit’s waist. Both of them seemed more than happy with this arrangement though Bilbo had a feeling he’d be waking up with both of them having rolled on top of him some time during the night. When the cold had started to set in on their journey he had often found himself rolling closer to one of two of the dwarves to share body heat. Usually it was Bofur because he was the most amiable and didn’t snore as badly as some of the others, but Fili and Kili had apparently felt cheated out of their turn at burglar-snuggling and were making up for it. Instantly Bilbo felt a bit suffocated from the heat pressing in on him from both sides, but it was still better than sleeping on the floor. Thorin gave him an amused look as he settled himself in the chair by the door with his legs stretched out in front of him and his arms crossed against his chest.

It took Fili and Kili less than a minute to fall asleep and their soft snores ruffled Bilbo’s hair. Rather than joining them though, the hobbit lay awake and traced the cracks in the stone ceiling with his eyes. There was something that still wasn’t adding up to him. Everyone else had been perfectly happy to see their host again with the exception of Thorin. Why had he been so tense when Karhon had first appeared? He had seemed the epitome of friendliness and yet Thorin had doubted his welcome. Whatever was between the two dwarves hadn’t been brought to light over dinner, so now Bilbo turned it over in his head while he waited for sleep to take him. Did he present a danger? Was he hiding some dark intentions towards the company or was Thorin simply being paranoid over nothing?

A quick glance across the room showed him that Thorin’s head had fallen forward onto his chest and that he was breathing as slowly as his nephews. They’d all been tired and the heavy meal they’d been treated to had done nothing to help keep them awake. The king sniffed in his sleep and slid a bit lower in the chair and Bilbo sighed.

A minute later he had managed to remove himself from the tight grips of the slumbering brothers and was undoing the clasps on his blanket again. The floor was cold and slightly damp beneath his feet and he cringed as he cross the little room and carefully draped the olive-colored wool blanket over Thorin’s chest and legs. The king didn’t stir. In sleep the lines that time and stress had etched around his eyes were lessened somewhat and gave Bilbo a better idea of what he must have looked like what he’d been younger. Before he had grown so jaded and bitter. Maybe his blue eyes had been warm at some point rather than always carrying the shadow of suspicion and anger that they did now.

“What am I going to do with you?” Bilbo whispered as he leaned in and ever so gently pressed his lips against the corner of Thorin’s mouth.

__________________________________

Thorin watched the hobbit trot back over to the bed and wriggle back into the arms of his nephews from under his eyelashes. He had been close to sleep when he’d heard Bilbo shuffling around, but it had been the feeling of the blanket being set over him that had jerked him back to full awareness. He hadn’t moved or adjusted his breathing though, not wanting to spook the hobbit. Indeed, he hadn’t even opened his eyes until he had felt the kiss. It was impossible to mistake for anything else, even if he had wanted to.

It had taken every ounce of his self-control not to jump of stiffen in his chair at the feeling. It had been a long time since he had last felt another’s lips. In Ered Luin he had been too busy trying to keep his family and people alive to take a lover, and by the time they were comfortably situated again he had lost most of the desire to take one at all. There had been the occasional warm body, but that had always been more to release tension when battle or work wasn’t enough more than out of any desire for an emotional connection.

This was another kettle of fish altogether. Bilbo had indeed confessed to being a widower, and to a male dwarf at that, but he had also said that his love had never been returned. Did the kiss mean that he was open to being courted again? Or was it only a gesture of affection between comrades? Hobbits seemed like more touch-oriented people than dwarves so for all he knew it could have meant nothing at all.

Somehow he knew that wasn’t the case.

What is he going to do indeed, he thought as he shut his eyes again, blocking out the sight of that curly hair tucked securely between his nephews. More importantly, what am I going to do?

He could only hope that morning would bring some sort of revelation about how to deal with his stubborn, vexing, and thoroughly perplexing burglar. 

Karhon by asparklethatisblue

Karhon by asparklethatisblue

Chapter Text

When Bilbo awoke the next morning (or at least he assumed it was morning since there was no way to see the sun from the tunnel to tell properly) there was no sign of Thorin. His greatcoat was gone from the back of the chair and his pack was missing from the small pile against the wall. Fili and Kili had indeed managed to thrash around in their sleep and Fili was lying with one arm and one leg thrown over Bilbo while Kili had rolled away from both of them and stolen all of the blankets. Bilbo huffed and spit out part of Fili’s mustache before giving the young prince a hard enough shove to roll him off.

“That is the last time I share a bed with either of you. I feel half smothered and I’m bound to have bruises from your jabbing elbows,” he reprimanded them both as he clambered out of bed and pulled on his coat. The only answer he received was a snore.

Since both of the boys seemed determined to sleep until somebody tipped them out onto the floor Bilbo decided to take a private moment to amend his list. The poor piece of parchment was crinkled and tattered at all of the corners and the ink had bled terribly over half of it. Next time he saw Ori he would have to beg a new piece off of the scribe and somehow avoid telling him what he wanted it for.

 

‘Strictly Required’

 - Find troll hoard and get swords

 - Talk to Elrond

 - Get magic ring

 - Go to Beorn’s house

 - Get Thranduil’s help with final battle

 - Talk to Bard and the Master about an alliance with Erebor

 - Kill Smaug

 - Kill Azog

 - Kill Bolg

 - Reclaim Erebor

 - Go home

 

‘Not Necessarily Necessary’

 - Fight trolls

 - Get chased by orcs to Rivendell

 - Get captured by goblins

 - Fall down a ravine and talk to Gollum

 - Get cornered on cliff

 - Get lost in Mirkwood

 - Get imprisoned by Thranduil

 - Set Smaug on Laketown

 - Fight against the men and elves

 - Get hit in the head with a rock

 

‘Avoid At All Costs’

 - Let the Durins Die

 

Bilbo stopped in his scribbling and tapped the tip of his quill against his bottom lip, thinking about all of the things that they had been through already that he never would have thought to include on his list. Entirely new adventures that had forced him to think on the fly and adapt, most of them brought about because of something he’d said or done. Keeping hold of the ponies had put them ahead of schedule and that had put them into Ferran’s path, and subsequently brought them to the thieves’ den. No amount of foreknowledge could help him in a place he had never seen or been before and Bilbo suddenly felt very blind. How was he supposed to keep an eye on everyone and keep them out of danger if he didn’t know what sort of dangers were coming?

“You’ll just have to be quick and smart, Bilbo Baggins,” he whispered to himself as he tucked the list back into his coat pocket and slipped the quill and ink into his bag. There was nothing else he could do but his best right now and his best didn’t include sitting around and worrying about the what-ifs.

Kili rolled over in bed so that his face was mashed against the belly of his brother’s night shirt and mumbled something about ham. Bilbo crossed the room to stand next to the bed and looked down at his two charges. They seemed so much younger now than they had when he had first met them, but perhaps that was just because he was seeing them out of older eyes. Their exuberance and constant energy was something he had never been able to understand until he had figured out that in hobbit years they would have hardly been half his own age. Barely more than children who had never seen true battle.

Tentatively reaching out, Bilbo caught a strand of Kili’s hair and rubbed it between his fingers. It was soft and tangled so he carefully began to work out the knots he found, smoothing back the unruly mane. Had Thorin’s been this untamable when he had been younger? Now he kept more or less under control but Bilbo could easily imagine that it had been very much like Kili’s at some point, with a mind of its own and a habit of attracting twigs and knots in equal measure. Not that his had been any different Bilbo thought ruefully. Every evening Belladonna had fussed over him and threatened to cut the whole mop clean off if he didn’t stop getting mud and all manner of sticky things caught in it. Beneath his hands Kili shifted in his sleep and curled up tighter against Fili.

“Mum?” He yawned.

Bilbo just made a shushing noise and kept untangling the young dwarf’s hair. Fili cracked open an eye at him from over the top of Kili’s head. “Time to get up?” He asked softly.

“I don’t think so, or else somebody would have come to fetch us. I’m going to go look for a bath and then maybe we can find something for breakfast that isn’t infested with vermin or seasoned with goblin blood.”

“I like that idea.” The prince’s eyes shut again and he was asleep again before Bilbo could say another word. Everyone had been pushing themselves hard since they left Rivendell and sleeping in a real bed was a luxury that was almost too good to pass on by getting up early. The desire to find somewhere to bathe was only slightly more tempting than wriggling his way back between the warm and drowsy brothers for a couple more hours of sleep. It was too bad that the best kitchen he could find around here was probably a pot over a fire and that really wasn’t the best thing for making pastries with, otherwise he could have done something with the few apples they had leftover in their packs. So a bath it was and then probably leftover stew to settle his complaining belly.

The hobbit slipped out of the door as quietly as he could, his pack clutched in one hand so that he didn’t have to leave it behind where it might get nabbed by some unsavory type who came snooping around where they weren’t wanted. The tunnel stretched off in either direction and Bilbo found himself at a loss for which way to go to search out some sort of water source. In fact he probably couldn’t have found his way back to the entrance if anyone had asked him. It was only because Ferran had been leading them that he had made it this far into the maze in the first place.

“Confound these dwarves and their fondness for dark and damp places,” he muttered as he shouldered his pack and started down one of the halves. Back to Karhon’s dining room it was, then. Maybe the smuggler lord could point him in the right direction before one of his subjects decided a plump hobbit would make an easy mark and robbed him blind.

“This is a bit more damp than we usually prefer, master hobbit,” came a voice from behind him and Bilbo squeezed his eyes shut as it sent a shiver right up from the soles of his feet to the tips of his ears. “Might I ask where you’re off wandering to without an escort?”

“I’m not a delicate lady who needs a chaperon to make sure she stays out of trouble,” Bilbo said sourly, turning about to fix Thorin with a baleful glare. How did he manage to always turn up when Bilbo least wanted to see him? The kiss last night had drained him of almost all of his bravery where Thorin was concerned and now he just wanted to retreat completely and mull it over for a bit. It was damn lucky he hadn’t been caught in his moment of absolute insanity – no doubt the dwarf wouldn’t have responded at all favorably to such an advance. Luckily nothing had come of it and he had been able to spend the rest of the night in a sleep so deep that no distressing dreams regarding a certain king had been able to intrude.

“If you were a lady you might have hair long enough to braid and that would work in your favor in this company,” Throin said reasonably, his thick fingers busy redoing the twin braids that usually hung over his ears. The rest of his hair was wet and wild as if he’d just recently washed it and that was the only thing that helped Bilbo rip his mesmerized gaze away from the delicate movements. Dwarves and their braids had always been a source of fascination to him. That such a thing could be considered effeminate by certain races such as men and hobbits and yet still represent a warrior’s pride and other such important meanings for dwarves intrigued Bilbo to no end. Some braids meant marriage and children while others stood for honor won in battle and each had their own special way of being twined. Thorin’s were probably for either royalty or battle-honor. Bilbo had never asked.

“Well it’s a moot point because I am neither a lady nor do I wear any braids since I’m a hobbit and am unlikely to magically grow a beard or long hair as fine as yours. Did you come from a bath?”

Thorin had paused in his braiding, his hands stilling while still tangled in the dark strands and his brow furrowed as if he was thinking rather hard about something. “Yes,” he finally said. Whatever conclusion he had come to during that long moment had clearly not been meant for hobbit ears.

Then again, I have to wonder if he’s actually thinking half the time or just looking fierce for the sake of it, Bilbo thought to himself and tried not to smile. The line of Durin was very famous for their bravery and battle prowess but that didn’t mean that they were the quickest or most intelligent line to ever walk beneath the mountains. 

“Yes and…” Bilbo drawled. “Where might I find one?”

That seemed to shake the king out of his questionable thoughts. “Back the way I have come from. I’ll show you. It wouldn’t serve any of us well if you got lost and we had to waste time bringing you back again.”

“I’m not the one who got lost twice on his way through the Shire.” Bilbo shook his head as he followed after Thorin and ran straight into his back when the dwarf froze. “What?”

The dwarf king turned and looked down at him, suspicion glittering in his eyes. “How did you know I got lost twice? I was sitting on your porch when first we met so you couldn’t have known that.”

Bilbo’s mind went blank as he stared up at Thorin, his mouth moving soundlessly as his mind raced, searching for a lie. How had he been so careless? Had he simply grown too comfortable with his company to remember how carefully he needed to watch his tongue? “I – I – I,” he stuttered, “I h-heard Dwalin talking about your sense of direction. I was just j-joking. Sorry, won’t happen again.”

Thorin’s glare eased slightly and he nodded a bit before continuing down the tunnel, Bilbo trailing in his wake and shaking in reaction. That had been too close.

“He does like to go on about that. Once in Erebor we both wandered off into the ruby mines and were separated. I was lost for nearly six hours before Dwalin and a few of the miners managed to find me again. After that my father didn’t trust me out on my own further than the main halls and assigned Dwalin as my bodyguard because he had the sense to notice which way he was walking. I tend to pay attention to things other than whether I turned right or left at the last fork in the road.”

“So should I really trust you to lead me to the baths?” The skepticism in the Hobbit’s voice was very evident.

Thorin’s barking laugh echoed down the empty tunnel. “It’s straight ahead, burglar. No need to worry about getting turned around with me here. Neither of us would ever live it down.”

And he was right, although the description of ‘baths’ had been stretched a bit. Instead Bilbo was met with an open cavern about as big as Bag End. The floor was sunken slightly so that the icy water that dripped off of the stalactites above collected in the middle. It wouldn’t have come up to his middle in the deepest part but it was better than nothing.

“I don’t suppose there’s any soap?” He asked wistfully and sighed when Thorin shook his head. “I suppose that would have been too much to hope for with this lot.” At least none of the thieves were down at the moment. No doubt they were out doing their jobs or still in bed. Whatever the time was his internal clock told him that it was still before second breakfast.

“You should be grateful they allowed us into the mountain at all. These people are notoriously suspicious and rarely let outsiders like us intrude. Without Nori’s connections we might have had to take our chances with the giants and the goblins and that’s a fight I am glad to have avoided, even for this.”

“You have no idea,” Bilbo muttered as he shed his coat and vest and folded them up carefully at the edge of the pool and his fingers were already working at the buttons of his shirt when he noticed that Thorin was still standing there with his arms crossed and didn’t seem to have any plans to leave. “Do you mind?”

“No.”

“I prefer my privacy when I bathe, if you don’t mind.”

“There may not be any goblins but I don’t think that it’s safe enough for anyone to be wandering about alone, even if it is just for a bath.”

“You were here by yourself,” Bilbo pointed out, feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Even when they had found a river along the journey to wash in he had preferred to go a bit upstream so that he could have as much privacy as a bush or a rock could afford him. It wasn’t that he was shy – had he been his proper age he would have said that he was too old for a silly thing like modesty (he considered his form quite fine as far as hobbits went). The problem had come about the first time he had sat on the edge of the river a month earlier and watched as Thorin pulled off his shirt. The blood had drained straight out of his brain and headed for warmer parts, leaving him as red as his coat and very flustered indeed. After that he had taken to bathing alone and the dwarves had just assumed it was a ‘hobbit thing’.

Apparently that wasn’t going to fly this time. Oh why couldn’t it have been Oin or Bombur he had run into? Then he wouldn’t have had to worry about making things awkward.

“I was here with Karhon, discussing what to do once we have made it through the mountains.” Thorin settled himself on a rock and stretched out his legs, making himself comfortable.

Clearly there was no way to get around it this time. Bilbo could only hope that the torch-lit chamber was dark enough to hide his flush as he stripped out of the rest of his clothes and submerged himself in the frigid water as quickly as possible. If that wasn’t enough to cool his libido he didn’t know what would. “So tell me about Karhon,” he said as he scrubbed at his arms, desperate for anything to distract him from the eyes that he could feel on the back of his neck.

 The silence from behind him made him think that Thorin was going to ignore his question and he resigned himself to a quiet, awkward bath. But then the dwarf king sighed.

“Karhon and I knew each other in Erebor before Smaug came. He was one of my father’s friends and one of the best craftsmen in the kingdom. He created beads and crowns for royalty and was always very close to my family. After we were forced to flee he stayed with us as we traveled to the Blue Mountains. We were met with a…tense situation.”

Bilbo ducked under the water to scrub at his hair and Thorin was courteous enough to wait until he surfaced again, sputtering and blinking the water out of his eyes. “What happened?”

“We were homeless,”” Thorin said, his voice rough. “Injured and starving. Our relationship with the dwarves of Ered Luin had always been strained and their king, Borar, was not eager to take in so many more people. He demanded a price to shelter my people, so I gave him the only thing I had. The Consort’s Ring. Karhon had crafted it for my mother and it had passed to me when she died so that I could give it to my consort. When he found out what I had traded for our safety we fought. He said that our family’s jewels were sacred and shouldn’t be given out to starving wolves and I didn’t see him again for three years.”

Bilbo looked back over his shoulder, intrigued despite himself. “So was all of that paranoia all over a fight?”

Thorin scowled at him. “It isn’t paranoia. The next time I heard about Karhon it was from Dwalin. He had been caught attempting to steal the Consort’s Ring and had been sentenced to death. I made it in time to stop the execution but the King had already enacted the Law of Hands and cut off on of Karhon’s as a price for stealing. The two of them had never gotten on well and I think that Borar reveled in his chance to see Karhon brought so low. I managed to convince Borar to exile him instead. The Consort’s Ring was never recovered and the next day I learned that a squad of warriors had been sent after him. Borar informed me that he would continue to give my people aid even without the ring as long as he had the satisfaction of having Karhon’s head. Until that moment I hadn’t realized that the animosity between them ran so deeply. The warriors returned with a heavily mutilated head and I thought it to be Karhon’s by the hair. Apparently it was not if he’s been here. He always was a sly old dwarf…”

Thorin trailed off, looking thoughtful. By now Bilbo had scrubbed himself pink using his fingernails and one of the scuffing stones that lined the edges of the pool and was beginning to shiver. “Shouldn’t you have been happy to see him if you thought he was dead? You were friends after all.”

Thorin shook his head and then propped his chin on his fist. “No. He never forgave me for giving away what should have been my birthright. He stole it back so that it could remain in the line of Durin and as thanks I had him exiled. He would have preferred to hang, believing that he had done the right thing. Instead I forced him out into what would surely just be a slower death by disease because of his wound or starvation. I was young and stupid for thinking that was a kinder fate.”

“He was your friend! Of course you didn’t want him to die.” Bilbo took his chances and clambered out of the bath, using his coat to quickly dry off before stepping back into his underthings and trousers. When he looked back up Thorin had politely averted his eyes.

“That is no excuse. By pardoning Karhon I showed that I did not respect him, his work, or his loyalty to my family line. He spat at my feet before they threw him out of the city.”

His face was so miserable that Bilbo couldn’t stop himself from going over and putting a wet hand on his shoulder. The Baggins side of him said ‘that’s quite enough, thank you’ while the Took half was doing hand stands while screaming ‘just hug him you fool!’

Reason won, but it was a close thing.

“He seemed happy to see you, and he’s agreed to help us get through the mountains. If that isn’t some sort of forgiveness I don’t know what is.”

“Perhaps, but I don’t – “

They were interrupted by the sound of running footsteps in the tunnel. Bilbo quickly took a step back and removed his hand from Thorin’s shoulder as Nori came around the corner, his normally elaborate hair in disarray. “Sorry to interrupt,” he panted, “but we got a bit of a problem.”

Bilbo was forced back another step and nearly tipped right back into the pool as Thorin rose. “What problem?”

Nori’s quick fingers began to wind and unwind a bit of string in what Bilbo recognized as a nervous habit. “Well you see, I was havin’ a bit of a look around and came across a storage room near the tunnel outta here. These lads have enough explosives stuffed in there to bring down the whole mountain if they had a mind to, but I overheard a few lads talking and it ain’t this mountain they’ve got a mind to bring down.”

Thorin’s eyes went as hard as tempered steel. “Erebor.”

Chapter Text

“Did you really think you were the only one to read the signs?”

__________________________________

Karhon hadn’t been in the dining room when Thorin stormed in a few minutes later with Bilbo and Nori at his heels. A couple of thugs looked up and sneered at them as the trio made their way back to their rooms, though they were quelled by a dark look from Nori that promised knives to the kidneys should they entertain the thought of anything more than unfriendly looks. Thorin and his companions didn’t exactly blend well in the den – Dwalin practically shouted ‘uptight guard’ and the rest could hardly be mistaken for anything less than genteel folk or honest workers.

Bilbo stuck close to Nori’s side, not willing to test Thorin’s temper just yet. The king was in a mood the likes of which Bilbo hadn’t seen in over eighty years when that wrath had been directed at him. Nori seemed to understand that Bilbo had no desire to be near Thorin just yet and managed to position himself so that no matter how the tunnels twisted and turned he managed to be between their company’s leader and the burglar. For all that he and Thorin had managed to speak civilly while he had bathed and seemed to becoming something akin to friends Bilbo couldn’t help but shy away when Thorin’s anger reared its head. It reminded him too much of how the fire in the king’s eyes had turned to ice and hatred while he dangled Bilbo over the edge of the high walls of Erebor.

“By the beard of Durin! I wish I had Gandalf here! Curse him for his choice of you! May his beard wither! As for you I will throw you to the rocks!”

Bilbo cringed and fell back a little further. It had been a long time since he had last entertained thoughts of that dark day when he had nearly met his end at the hands of one he thought a friend, but bearing witness to Thorin’s anger as Karhon had brought it back to the forefront of his mind. He much preferred remembering Thorin’s rare smile and his loyalty to his comrades more than the gold-lust madness that had descended on him towards the end. That was just another problem he’d have to figure out how to overcome before they made it to the mountain and that one seemed even more daunting than escaping from the thieves’ den or even defeating Smaug. How did one defend against a sickness of the mind? He should have asked Elrond while he’d had the chance but it was far too late for that now.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to the stream,” he mumbled to himself and ignored the curious look that Nori gave him over his shoulder.

Half of the company was still sleeping when they got back to the rooms they had been given, but most roused the moment they entered and were on their feet and pulling on their boots less than a minute later. Ori was awake and writing in a tattered book in the corner with Balin smoking next to him, but both the pipe and the book disappeared into the depths their packs the minute everyone else started to gather their gear. It took less than five minutes for all of them to be travel-ready and assembled in one of the small cavern rooms.

“Balin, you and Dwalin and Nori are with me. We’re going to find an old friend and get to the bottom of whatever’s going on. The rest of you - be on your guard. Once these dwarves discover that we aren’t here as friends they may decide to turn on us.” 

Nori glanced at Bilbo while the selected few tromped out, their swords at their sides, and then jerked his head for the burglar to follow after them. With a quick glance back at the others Bilbo trotted back to Nori’s side and stayed there. Dori and Bifur could easily look after the others – no dwarf that might have held back the company had been brought along. The princes could hold their own in a fight and even Ori seemed to have inherited his eldest brother’s unnatural strength. They could hold of a couple of thieves without Bilbo there to look after them for at least a little while. There was no reason for alarm yet – hopefully Karhon would be able to lay their fears to rest and then they could collect the ponies and be on their way without too much fuss.

“Oh, why do things never go as planned?”

Balin fell back a few steps to walk on his other side, his arms crossed behind his back and a kindly smile on his face despite the gravity of their situation. “I might be more worried if everything was going perfectly well. In my experience that’s when the worst trouble tends to come up. A little setback like this will be handled in short order, you’ll see.”

“Are you supposed to be the pessimist?” Bilbo asked in surprise.

The elderly dwarf chuckled and shook his head, making his beard bounce. “There’s little point in it right now. Would it change where we are?”

“Probably not.”

“And would Thorin be in a better state by my pointing out that we might be in a wee bit of trouble?”

“I think I see where this is going.”

Looks were shot at them from every dark corner and nook in the caverns they passed. Dice games were paused as the players watched the king storm by with his entourage. There was no way to mistake him for anything but one who commanded power as he was, with his coat billowing out as his sides. Thorin walked as if anyone who thought to get in his way would be cut down and then stepped over while they bled out their lifeblood on the ground. Bilbo tried to ignore the whispers but they came at him from every side until he was tempted to shove his fingers in his ears so that he wouldn’t have to listen to them. The gossip didn’t seem to bother any of the dwarves or perhaps they just weren’t listening for the hissed words. Every shadow seemed to hold a knife and glittering eyes to the hobbit and his hand fell to the pommel of his sword and rested there, ready to draw the little blade should the need arise.

“Out for blood, Thorin? Hope it ain’t mine. Beds weren’t clean enough to suit you?”

The bowl of a pipe flared from down one of the pitch black side passages and illuminated Karhon’s harsh face and iron eyes. His hundreds of braids swayed around his shoulders and down his back as he walked up to greet them, a pungent, sour-smelling smoke wreathing his face in gray tendrils. Little silver beads glittered at the end of each one and Bilbo shrunk back behind Balin a bit more, sweat breaking out all along the back of his neck. The craftsman dwarf had seemed amiable enough at first, but there was a hardness to him now that scared him even more than finding Dwalin on his front step had. There was power enough to even match Thorin’s wrath in him, as if Karhon was more comfortable in his rank and his own skin than the king had ever been and knew how to use it to its best advantage. His handless stump was tucked into a pocket in his broad brown coat, hidden from view.

Thorin stepped forward, his teeth bared like a feral dog. “We’ve found the explosives, Karhon. Tell me that you don’t plan to use them on my mountain.” It wasn’t a request.

One dark eyebrow rose as Karhon inhaled deeply and breathed out a plume of smoke right into Thorin’s face. “And if I do?”

“Then we’re going to have a disagreement.”

“Oh is that all? Didn’t think you were such a diplomat. That was always Frerin’s job, to keep you from rushin’ in where you had no hope of victory. Course he ain’t here to do that anymore, is he?”

Dwalin stepped forward with a snarl, his hands snapping to his axes but was stopped by Balin’s hand against his arm.

“Aye, Frerin fell defending his kin and we mourned for him in our own time, as did you if I remember correctly. We simply wish to understand why you seek to destroy our homeland. I know that you dreamt of reclaiming it one day, Karhon, but it seems that something has changed your mind.”

Karhon seemed to consider this for a minute and finally nodded in reluctant agreement. “I’ll bow to sense this time since our little king never had much of it.” A hint of a smile curved his lips beneath his black mustache. “Let’s go somewhere a bit more private, eh? Seems a bit silly to talk of plots and fire out in the hall.”

Once again Bilbo took up the rear as Karhon lead them further into the mountain tunnels, his eyes darting back and forth and over his shoulder. Dark figures emerged from the tunnels they passed, their knives glittering in the torchlight and Bilbo began to wish that they had risked the giants and the goblins after all. At least they attacked from the front rather than sliding up from behind with a smile as cold as ice.  

__________________________________

They were lead to a workroom of sorts. There were a couple of rickety chairs set against one wall, but the majority of the space was taken up by sturdy stone tables and picks and chisels of all sizes. Lumps of pure gold and silver lay waiting to be shaped on the corner of one of the tables and a small forge in the corner burned brilliantly yellow and made the little cave room seem as hot as fire. Dwalin tugged at the fur ruff around his neck the minute they stepped in. Nori skulked along one of the walls, his fingertips trailing lightly over the various tools as if he was imagining which could be easily scooped up and used as a weapon.

“I’ve kept up my little hobby, as you can see.” Karhon gestured at the rest of the room as he hooked one of the chairs with his boot and sank into it.

“Aye, ye always did like yer pretty things.” Dwalin didn’t sit but rather took up a post by the door with his axes still clutched in his hands, ready to strike down any who thought to intrude upon their meeting.

Karhon shrugged and kicked the chair back onto its back legs, massaging the stump of his right hand casually. Bilbo doubted he even realized he was doing it. “Gotta keep busy somehow when I’m not runnin’ things. I got no need to gamble or fight down here so I do what-else. Not quite as easy now as back in the day, but I stumble on.”

“I didn’t come here to talk about your baubles, Karhon. Tell me about the explosives.” Thorin hadn’t taken a seat either and he crossed his arms across his chest in a clearly defensive stance. Bilbo fought the urge to roll his eyes and stationed himself on the other side of the door, across from Dwalin. The guard gave him a sideways look but didn’t shoo him back to Balin’s side. A pile of rings and silver bracelets twinkled at him out of the corner of his eye but he ignored them. Karhon may have once been a master craftsman according to Thorin, but gems and gold had never been important to hobbits. A couple of coppers could buy a good dinner and a pint of ale down at the Green Dragon, but that was about as far as most of them cared to interact with coin. Everything else worked on a barter system. Farmer Deepdelver would slaughter a pig or two every Sunday and folk would trade fruits or vegetables or other services in return for the fresh meat. Bilbo was a gentlehobbit and a writer, so while he had the coin to pay for whatever struck his fancy, half the time it would be turned down in return for some nicely written party invitations or other such thing that required him to ply his quill more than his pocketbook.

Realizing that his mind had wander, Bilbo sniffed and jerked his attention back to the dwarves. The tension hadn’t abated at all, though that was hardly surprising. One of Nori’s blades made a snick-snick-snick noise as he twirled it.

“Did you really think you were the only one to read the signs, Thorin?”

Thorin growled low in his throat but didn’t reply.

“We’ve seen the ravens heading east. My scouts report that there has been no smoke or fire from the gate in o’er sixty years. Who would keep a better eye on a fortune the likes of which lays in Erebor than thieves?” A wicked smiled curled his lips. “Did you really think that you would be able to reclaim it with your handful of fools? I know why you’ve turned your eyes east, Thorin, king of nothin’. Others might believe your story about seekin’ out Dain in the Iron Hills, but I remember how often you spoke of reclaimin’ your mountain. You’re following the ravens and in the end you’ll die a fool’s death for being unprepared.”

“And you are?” Snarled Thorin. “With your explosives? Do you think Smaug will just let you come in and lay them around his belly so you can blow him to the western shores?”

“Nay, Thorin.” replied Karhon, as calmly as if they were discussing the weather. “I plan to bring the entire mountain down on his head and crush him like the worm he is. I think it’s a better plan than whatever foolishness you’ve managed to concoct.”

“My foolishness won’t destroy our home!”

“Your home, Thorin!” Karhon was on his feet again and the chair clattered backwards. “Not mine. You made sure of that when you threw away my loyalty to your family as if it was made of brass.”

“I was trying to save your life, you fool!”

“By destroying my cause! By givin’ away my life’s work to those who hadn’t earned the right to lick your damn boots! No, it’s not my home. It can crumble to rubble for all I care and then we can dig the spoils right out from under Smaug’s rottin’ corpse. It’s just a matter of havin’ the right tools to do it with.” The dwarf leaned forward until his face was inches from Thorin’s and everyone in the room tensed. “I don’t hate you for what you did, Thorin. T’was the action of a lad who didn’t understand purpose yet. But you have to see that your quest is doomed. You cannot defeat Smaug with your company.”

Bilbo snorted and leveled a glare at Karhon that would have set his braids on fire if there had been any real power behind it. The honor of killing Smaug had fallen to Bard rather than any of the dwarves but he could hardly say that.

But there was no sign of this lot or their promised dragon-killing explosion last time, so something must have happened to stop them without us getting involved.

Whatever it had been, it wasn’t helping them now. 

“I would rather have my company than all of the fireworks you’ve stashed in this entire mountain. They fight for their home and for honor, not just wealth.”

“Homes can be rebuilt,” counted Karhon. “Lives can’t. You would risk them all to dragon fire? I knew you as a young fool once, but it seems you haven’t outgrown it yet. Will you not stand by sense and go with me to the mountain? We could kill the dragon together and reclaim the gold and glory we lost all those years ago.”

Thorin took a step back, bristling with barely restrained fury. “I will not. You have sunk into madness, Karhon and I refuse to let you carry out your twisted plan when Erebor can still be reclaimed.”

Karhon seemed to deflate slightly, his beads clattering as a few of his braids fell over his shoulders. “I should have known you would not stand by me in this either. Perhaps you’ll change your mind when you’ve had a while to think it over. See it sense overcomes your passion for once. Ferran? Escort our guests down to the storage room and let ‘em stew for a bit.”

Bilbo had two second to think before the door swung open and he was trapped between it and the wall. From where he was pinned he heard the sounds of a shout and then a scuffle. Blades clanged and there was a thunderous bang as a table was overturned and the craft tools went spilling across the floor. He pushed frantically at the door to get out from behind it, but the table had been shoved up against it and he was stuck fast, the buttons of his vest catching on the handle and holding him in place. All he could do was listen as Dwalin roared in fury, but eventually that faded along with the rest of the noise as his friends were subdued and presumably dragged off.

Silence fell.

“Bilbo Baggins, you are a thoroughly useless burglar,” he whispered to himself as he finally managed to unhook his buttons and slip out from behind the door.

 As if the situation wasn’t bad enough already, the hobbit froze in place as a pair of hard gray eyes snapped to him. It seemed that Karhon hadn’t followed after his men on their way to shove Thorin and the rest into the storage room. Instead he had his one hand wrapped around the edge of the craft table as if he meant to put the room back to rights.

“Well. Seems like we looked o'er a little mouse.”

All Bilbo could do was squeak.

Chapter Text

Ori was the first to notice that they were missing the smallest member of their group.

The cave they had been shoved into was cold and smelled very strongly of black powder. There were no torches to illuminate the inside so the moment Thorin and the others were shoved inside and the door was shut behind them they were plunged into complete blackness. Being dwarves most of them were used to small, dark places so it only took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the dark. What they found wasn’t a very comforting sight.

The rest of the company had been captured while Thorin argued with Karhon and they had been disarmed and had their hands tied in front of them. Now they were all shoved together in a small room whose sides were stacked high with wooden barrels, from which the pungent smell was issuing from. Gloin rubbed his wrists once Nori had cut through the ties with one of the many blades he kept secreted away on his person and seemed about ready to pop with indignation.

“They came with a wee bit of breakfast and got us while we were occupied. Had blades at all of our throats and you don’t say ‘no’ to that. Should’a seen it comin’, but Oin was checkin’ for poison in th’ food. Didn’t think they’d go up against bigger fighters, not this sort.” He turned his head and spat. “Filthy bastards. No honor to share between the lot of ‘em.”

Luckily there hadn’t been much in the way of injuries. Bombur had a slice across his cheek where one of the thieves had sliced him while herding them into the storage room, but Oin was already tending to that and the round dwarf seemed more upset that he had been parted from his pack than at the little hurt.

Thorin prowled around like a caged animal, alternately banging at the door and bellowing fit to wake every goblin in the mountain. Most of his curses were directed at a certain jeweler-turned-smuggler, but that was hardly surprising. Nori, who had been sniffing and poking about in their prison, waited until the king had quieted somewhat before he approached him.

“There’s no way out but the door, and that’s solid enough to keep us in for now. Only lock seems to be on the handle outside and I can’t pick it through there.”

“And what of the barrels? I can smell as well as any of you – they contain powder.”

“Aye, they’re full of the stuff. Must be some of the firepower Karhon bragged of.”

“Can we use it to break free?”

Bofur went stiff as a board at that. “Ah – no. Can’t do it, yer majesty. Makin’ a small explosion is easy enough, but doin’ it in here it could spread too easy and then we’d all just be little bits not fit for bein’ sewn back together proper. Saw it happen once back home. Poor bugger was trying to blow a couple of rocks he didn’ feel like movin’ and the spark caught the barrel behind him too. Wasn’t enough left of him to send back to his missus. Lovely funeral though, come to think of it.”

Thorin spat a few choice words at that, but didn’t press the matter. Bofur, as a miner, would know better than most about the dangers of using the black powder and he didn’t relish the thought of being the first king to not have enough of a corpse left to bury in the mountain.

“Lemme try the door.” Nori ducked behind Thorin as the king resumed his pacing and rapped on the thick wood with his knuckles. “Hey Ferran? You out there? Come on mate, don’t go cold on me now. This lot smells terrible and you’ve shut me up with ‘em in this little tiny cell. What’d I do to deserve this? Is this about that thing with yer sister again, ‘cause I thought we settled that way back when.”

There was a chuckle and the sound of boots coming closer to the door. “No can do, Nori. Got my orders from the boss and I don’t fancy him usin’ one of his little torches on my tender bits.”

“That’s understandable, but I’m not askin’ you to let us go wandering all over the mountain. Just me, fer old time’s sake. Won’t cause a drop of trouble, on my mam’s grave.”

Silence. Then – “I want to Nori. You and I go way back, you know? Always thought your brother was a looker, even if he didn’t let us come by for a bite. Can’t do it though.”

“Ferran – “

“Can’t trust you any more. You know what they say about thieves who bed down with the righteous folk. Eventually one of ‘ems gonna talk and then there’ll be blood in the alleys. You’ve been beddin’ with the wrong sort and the Nori I knew wouldn’t ‘ave done that if his life depended on it. Thought better of you.”

This time it was Dwalin’s turn to stiffen, though it would have been hard to notice the subtle tightening of his muscles with as dark as it was. Clearly they had both been foolish to think that anywhere would be completely private.

“That was just a one-time thing, Ferran. Just scratchin’ and itch, you know – “

“Can’t do it. I’m sorry for that, maybe Karhon will come around eventually and spring you. But I ain’t riskin’ my neck for a turn-about.”

That seemed to be the end of the matter because Ferran’s footsteps moved off again and no answer came when Nori shouted after him.

Ori crept up behind Dori and tugged on his older brother’s sleeve.

“What is it?”

Ori glanced down at his boots and then back up, agitated. “Do you know where Bilbo is? I don’t think he’s here.  Or at least I can’t find him.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dori snapped as he straightened his sleeve. “Of course he’s…” Dori turned in a full circle, looking for their rogue burglar. When there was no sign of him, he went over and began to check behind barrels.

“What are you looking for?” Balin asked quietly when Dori got close enough.

Dori’s face was set in grim lines. “Ori was looking for Bilbo. I don’t believe he’s here.”

“Last I saw of him…oh dear.”

“Now what?” Snarled Thorin as he stomped by, his hands clenching and unclenching at his side as if he was longing to have a sword in them.

“We may have encountered a slight problem,” Balin said quietly enough that no guard wgo might have been standing outside of the storage room could have heard him. The rest of the company could though and there were several groans as they all clearly wondered what else could go wrong.

“What, Balin? We are unarmed and trapped in a room that could very well blow us all to the halls of waiting. What is one more problem compared to that?”

“Mister Baggins seems to have gone missing.”

The entire room went silent. Someone swore under their breath in Khuzdul.

“He was there, in the room with us,” whispered Thorin. “I did not tell him to come, and he was left behind with that traitor.”  He turned to where he knew Dwalin was standing. “We’re getting out of here. Now.”

Even in the darkness Dwalin’s smile was frightening. “Aye, my king.”

Chapter Text

“I-oh–oh dear,” Bilbo stammered, feeling like a blade was at his throat even though the dwarf hadn’t moved. He had no magic ring to vanish with and Gandalf wasn’t going to conveniently appear to rescue him because wizards never did anything on other people’s time. One of his hands tried to grab at his sword but his hand was shaking so badly that his grip on the hilt slipped and sting went clattering to the floor and gleamed between them, as useless as a dead cat now that there was no one to wield it.

He was going to die, gutted on the floor by some horrible jeweler’s pick, and the rest of the company probably wouldn’t notice he was gone until Gandalf finally showed up and got them all out of the mountain and somebody thought to go ‘where is that blasted burglar?’ He’d be cursed and forgotten and left to rot in some nasty little cave where the goblins would crawl in and pick at his bones and take all of his lovely vest buttons. He’d gotten one second chance to make things right but it seemed unlikely that he would be getting another one. Another life wasted and why? Because he’d been a fool and dropped his sword. No, he wouldn’t be saving anyone and he’d been a fool to think that he could even try. Hobbits were meant to be comfortable, quiet folk. They didn’t go on adventures or save kings.

But he had to try.

The hobbit lunged for his sword, driven on by cold fear and adrenaline. He wasn’t very quick or graceful about it and was very surprised to find his head still on his shoulders when he stood again, his hands still shaking but this time with his sword held properly between the, pointed at Karhon.

The dwarf hadn’t moved. If anything he seemed more amused than furious to see that one of his captives had been overlooked. With his single hand he righted the table and then began to scoop his tools back up onto it from where they had been scattered across the floor.

“I wouldn’t suggest runnin’.  I don’t care how quick those little legs o’ yours move, my men are on the alert now that we know you aren’t here to play nice. You’ll find yourself pulled away and gutted faster than I can catch up t’ spare you.”

Bilbo gulped and rethought his decision to start backing towards the door. He didn’t have any plan beyond ‘don’t die’ at the moment, so the longer he could put off that fate the happier he would be. Right now facing down Karhon seemed only slightly safer than risking his neck with the dozens of other cutthroats in the mountain, or ending up in one of the goblin-infested tunnels. He doubted he would be so easily ignored a second time, no matter what nook or cranny he found to tuck himself into.

“I’m not going to run,” Bilbo said, trying to infuse a confidence he didn’t feel into his voice. “I’m going to rescue my dwarves and then we’ll be on our way. No need to make this into a fight that neither of us wants.” At least his blade wasn’t shaking so much now that he knew Karhon wasn’t going to come over the table at him with one of the clamps on top of it. He’d been in fights before, but never against seasoned warriors unless sparring practice with his dwarves some eighty-odd years ago counted. They’d gone easy on him then and he had a sneaky feeling that Karhon wouldn’t give him nearly as many handicaps because of his stature and inexperience.

“An’ whoever said that I didn’t want a fight? It’d be nice to see a bit of a spark for once out of those old bastards. Any who can’t fight properly for what they believe in may as well lay down an’ die in a ditch t’ be picked at by the ravens. I don’t need a king or heroes who go off t’ get themselves killed in a fool’s errand.”

“It isn’t!” Bilbo protested, his feet glued to the cold dirt floor, preventing him from either backing towards the door or pressing his advantage and advancing. He was armed. The dwarf was not. But Karhon also had the ability to call in an unknown amount of backup and no doubt had the power to simply overturn the table again and trap Bilbo right under it like he’d been crushed behind the door. “I know they can do it. So maybe they don’t all believe in the same cause. In fact I’m fairly certain that half of them are only here because they were promised free ale. But they believe in each other and I’ve seen them fight for theirs brothers and their friends and I think that’s more important than the quest.”

“More important than reclaiming their lost homeland and treasure enough to make them all kings ten times over?”

“Where I come from we put more value on our kin than on what lines our pockets. They fight for what they believe in – their family and their cause, and if that isn’t enough to see Erebor reclaimed…” Bilbo trailed off. Dain on the throne. Thorin buried with the Arkenstone clasped between his hands. Dis weeping bitterly at the tombs of her children who had died too young fighting for a home they had never known. His eyes hardened and he felt strength surge back into his arms. The tip of his sword steadied and it seemed as though the terrified little hobbit had suddenly settled into himself and become something much more fierce. “If that isn’t enough then I’ll do it for them.”

There was a rumble from outside the craft room and the ground beneath their feet trembled and dust rained down from the ceiling, lining Bilbo’s hair with streaks of gray. He didn’t dare blink even though his eyes watered. Any show of weakness might have been enough of a reason for the dwarf across from him to attack.

For a moment the tension seemed to wane as Karhon looked away from him and towards the door, but he didn’t seem too alarmed by the sound of the explosion. “We’ve laid charges in some of the tunnels for when the goblins decide to get brave. Not unlike yourself, little hobbit, but hopefully I won’t be havin’ to put you down like one of those. I don’t fancy killin’ any of you lot, just changin’ your minds a bit.”

“Oh yes, because locking everyone up is the perfect way to do that,” Bilbo snapped, his ears pricked for the sound of another explosion.

He wasn’t disappointed as another charge went off and a second wave of dust came down and made him sneeze. Shouts echoed down the tunnels and he jumped as Karhon finally stepped away from the table and grabbed a curved sword with golden rings dangling from the guard that had been tucked away under one of the counters. It was big enough to cut Bilbo clean in two and the hobbit raised his own blade a bit higher. It suddenly felt woefully undersized.

“You willin’ to fight for your comrades?” Karhon growled as he stalked forwards. Bilbo backpedaled as quickly as he could without tripping over his own feet.

“Yes! But that doesn’t mean that has to be the first plan!”

“Karhon!” A strange dwarf ran into the room, nearly hitting Bilbo with the door again. He had a trickle of blood leaking out of a gash above his eyebrow and down into his tightly braided gray beard and mustache. “Somethin’s riled up the goblins. They’ve got past the tunnel bombs and they jus’ keep comin’. The boys‘v got ‘em held back for now but I dunno how long until they get pushed back. I ain’t seen the like since we first chased ‘em outta here.”

“Go rouse the others. Get everyone who isn’t fightin’ set on movin’ the goods out the front way and every dwarf under seventy gets out first, you know the’ drill.”

The bleeding dwarf gave a quick nod and ran back the way he had come, shouting at the top of his lungs for anyone sleeping to be up and about in between cries of ‘goblin raid’.

Karhon’s sword tip swung around faster than Bilbo could bring up his own to block, too distracted by the thought of goblins finding his dwarves while they were trapped and no doubt unarmed. It would be a slaughter. But his attention was dragged back to the present when the sword cut a little slice across his neck and a drop of blood rolled down and stained the top of his shirt.

“I’ll give you this one kindness, Halfling. If you can find your way to the chamber I’ve locked your company in and manage to free them, perhaps you deserve to continue on with your mad quest. If the goblins get to you first your little sword will not save you and if I catch you…you’ll be joinin’ them in imprisonment. Now get outta my way, I have goblins to put down before they put a torch to my powder.” With a single sweep of his arm Karhon roughly shoved Bilbo out of the way so that he nearly fell over and went dashing off towards the direction that screams were beginning to echo up from.

Bilbo steadied himself and stepped out into the tunnel. Several of the torches had been snatched up by passing smugglers and it left the underground passage dark and cold. The faint shrieks and clang of metal against metal that was coming from the left wasn’t at all comforting, so Bilbo instantly decided he liked the idea of going right instead. Besides, he was pretty sure that was the way he had heard his dwarves being dragged off, so that was as good a lead as any. Off he ran, his bare feet making soft slapping noises against the rock. Sting was still cold and lightless in his hands, showing him that no goblins had made it this far into Karhon’s little kingdom just yet. His biggest worry at the moment was either getting lost or finding himself on the receiving end of one of the smuggler’s knives. Each and every one of them was probably faster and had seen more fights than Bilbo had – they knew how to use the dark shadows to their advantage.

Luckily there was no gleam of a blade in the dark tunnels he passed.

During his summer hunting trips in the Shire Bilbo had learned to track deer through the quiet forests based on their tracks and where he knew the streams flowed the freshest. Rabbit warrens were easy enough to set snares at. But locating thirteen dwarves in a mountain where he didn’t dare risk simply shouting for them? That was a bit harder.

There were scuff marks on the walls but he couldn’t tell if they were from Dwalin’s knuckle dusters as he swung at one of the smugglers, or just a rough patch in the tunnel. Loose gravel rolled under his feet. Had Balin slipped on it as they dragged him along by his sleeves? And the shimmer of a dark, unidentifiable liquid that he nearly ended up stepping in… “Please be safe,” he whispered as he stepped over it and hurried along as fast as he dared. Some guardian he was. Not only had he nearly gotten himself gutted, but he had managed to lose the entire company while he was at it.

Of course, they no doubt thought that he had run off to try to save his own sorry hide.

“We will not be seeing our burglar again. He is long gone.”

 He wasn’t there to magically appear with the help of a golden ring this time. Gandalf wasn’t there to lead them all to safety. No, he was cold and alone now and his eyes began to water out of fear and frustration. He could almost believe that he could feel Karhon’s breath on the back of his neck and the shrieks of goblins growing ever closer. If he was caught they’d all be trapped, but at least they’d be together. If he was killed? There was no saying what would happen. Maybe the dwarves would be able to free themselves. No doubt Thorin would think that he had run all the way back home and left them to rot.

“I will not end up as a corpse in a forgotten corner; I’ve come too far for that!” Bilbo hissed, hurriedly wiping his eyes on his ragged sleeve. There was no time to feel scared or sorry for himself right now, not when he needed all of his wits and cunning about him. The Baggins half of him was shoved into a very small, dark corner of his mind where it could snivel in peace while he worked. He’d deal with it later.

If there was a later.

Of course, that didn’t mean that he was being a complete foolhardy adventurer. That would make him no better than the rest of the company. When he heard voices and heavy footsteps coming his way Bilbo quickly tucked himself into a side passage and pressed himself up against the rocky wall as tightly as he could, very much wishing that he’d worn his dove gray vest instead of his red one today. It would have blended in much better. Sadly the gray one was tucked away in his pack, which had no doubt been confiscated along with the rest of their things. Not only did he have to find the company, but he also needed to figure out where their packs were or they’d be stuck in the mountain with no food or supplies and that would be as bad as how they had ended up the first time around.

None of the dwarves who hurried by with axes and picks and several knives as long as his arm noticed the gleam of the crimson thread in the torchlight. They had bigger problems on their hands than one rogue hobbit and those problems smelled very strongly of unwashed goblin.

Off he set again, doing his best to put as much distance between himself and Karhon as possible. The only one who had ever scared him more was Thorin, with his eyes glazed with gold lust. Both of them had taken him away from the company, one by force and one by exile. This time he refused to stay gone.

Every door he passed he knocked on and when they were unlocked he peeked inside. Most were empty; others held chests or tatty bedrolls. All were empty. The tunnels bent and twisted in on themselves and Bilbo was lost more quickly than he would have thought possible. After an hour of searching like this and growing more and more turned around Bilbo felt his nerves beginning to stretch to the breaking point. The only noises to break the dead silence were the crackling of the torches and once in a while a far off scream and the sound of thundering of heavy boots.

Or at least so he thought until he heard a crunching noise from a tunnel to his left that arched upwards like a slide. Very quickly he scrambled up it on his hands and knees and carefully peeked over the top, ignoring the throbbing in his hands where he’d scratched them on the sharp rocks.

“Oi! Settle down you lot or th’ goblins’ll be on us thanks to your ruckus!”

A lone guard, a dwarf Bilbo didn’t recognize, stood in the hall up ahead. Two long knives hung at his belt and there was a line of several more wrapping around his broad chest. Bilbo’s eyes widened when the guard turned. In his hand was Bifur’s boar spear, which he had been using to jab at the heavy wooden door behind him.

“Finally,” he breathed, his shoulders sagging in relief. Now it was just a matter of getting past the guard and stealing the key to the room.

The dwarf didn’t seem impressed with his job as a guard, because he set to picking at his fingernails with one of his knives and sat down with his back against the tunnel wall, ignoring the bone-rattling thuds that occasionally shook the entire door frame. Either it had been going on for a while or he had enough confidence in the door that it wasn’t worth his attention. Bilbo crept up out of the tunnel mouth and kept his belly flat to the floor as he inched forward. He could avoid attracting the guard’s attention if he was very careful and quiet. Going up against someone who could wield knives was an exercise in futility. Once long ago had had tried to spar with Nori and he had been disarmed and laid out flat on his back before he could even think that it might have been a bad idea. The entire company had laughed at his dumbfounded expression and Nori had told him in no uncertain terms that hobbit legs were just a touch too short to make them properly quick. The only advantage he had was his light-footedness and his size and that people tended to underestimate him because of it. Hopefully that would be enough.

His palm was sweaty where it was wrapped around Sting and he skirted around the ring of torchlight as slowly as a mouse that had seen a lean and hungry alley cat.  His stomach was in tight knots and he had to clench his teeth to keep them from chattering.

Sneak up behind him and then hit him in the head with the pommel of your sword to knock him out. It’ll be easy, he told himself. Then he remembered how thick dwarf skulls tended to be and paused. Maybe that wasn’t such a good plan after all. 

As he stood there, his sword half raised while he contemplated how best to go about getting rid of the guard without killing him, a terrible sound rang out. It was loud and seemed to fill every inch of the tunnel. Bilbo’s eyes slid shut in horror as his stomach finished telling all and sundry that he had missed breakfast.

So much for the element of surprise…

“Who’s there?” The dwarf was on his feet, Bifur’s spear clutched in one hand and a knife in the other as his eyes darted around and he backed up until he was standing in front of the door. “Show yerself!” His eyes searched the tunnel and he actually looked right over Bilbo once before catching sight of him a moment later when the torchlight caught on Sting’s edge and it flashed in the dark. “Ah, th’ runt. Lucky I caught ye or we’d have to look all over jus’ta toss ye in wiff this lot.”

“I’m not here to be locked up,” Bilbo said, his voice much higher than usual as he brandished his sword. “Just give me the key and we won’t have any trouble.”

The guard laughed. It was an ugly sound that made him sound like his lungs were full of phlegm and cave dust and he coughed wetly and spat afterward, making Bilbo cringe.

“Ain’t worth th’ skin on my back t’ let you get away with’at. Now come o’er here and I’ll toss ye right in. Elsewise I’ll jus’ have t’ gut ye instead. I don’ care one way or th’ other, been a while since I ‘ad a good tussle, though I doubt yer much good for – “

Bilbo screamed and fell backwards as the door next to the guard came crashing down with a tremendous crash and landed directly on top of the guard, crushing him into the floor. Dwalin stood in the opening, his face red and his hands bleeding around his knuckle dusters. He turned and looked over his shoulder.

“Now THAT’S how you get through a locked door. Beats pickin’ it any day o’ the week.”

“We would have been out of there an hour ago if it hadn’t been a padlock. I hate bein’ on the wrong side of those. Could have at least put us in a room with bars so I could reach through…”

The rest of the dwarves came flooding out and all of them made sure to walk right over the door their guard was trapped under, smashing him even further into the stone. None of them appeared to have seen Bilbo where he sat against the wall, still too stunned by their sudden entrance to stand up yet.

Thorin was the last one out of the cell and he looked as furious as a bear that had been awoken in the middle of December.  A quick gesture and Dwalin lifted the door off of the fallen dwarf and picked him up by the neck of his coat, hoisting him up high enough that his toes weren’t brushing the ground. The guard had two black eyes and was bleeding copiously from his nose.

“I’m going to ask you two questions,” the king told the dazed dwarf in a deadly quiet voice. “If I think that you are lying to me or if you cry for help, my associates here will begin to remove pieces of your anatomy and showing them to you. Are we clear?”

The dwarf nodded frantically, his eyes glazed with pain and fear.

“My first question – do you know where the hobbit is?”

The dwarf nodded again, his eyes darting sideways to where Bilbo had finally gotten to his feet and was brushing off the seat of his trousers.

“Good, you’re still useful to me. If any harm has come to him I’ll be inflicting the same injuries on you three times over,” Thorin said softly, “So I suggest you lead us to him quickly before I double that.”

“Well I scraped up my hands a bit and my nose feels a big squashed from when I was stuck behind the door, but I think I’d rather have that than have a door fall on me like this fellow.”

Gloin and Bofur nearly jumped right out of their boots since they were standing with their backs to him and the rest of the company turned around and all of them instantly started talking at the same time. The general feeling seemed to be that they were very happy to see him because his back was pat by several of them and Fili and Kili squeezed him so tight that he thought his eyes were going to pop out for a minute.

“Easiest rescue I’ve ever seen,” muttered Dwalin and he gave their prisoner a shake to keep him docile.

“Rescue?” Bilbo cried and untangled himself from where Oin was looking at his scratched palm and Dori was trying to get some of the rock dust out of his hair. “But I was coming to rescue you! I was just convincing the guard to give me his keys, wasn’t I?” He asked the miserable dwarf.

“Aye, ‘e was. ‘ad his little sword and e’erythin’.” Two of his teeth were missing now.

 “We didn’t need rescuing,” growled Thorin, who was standing stiffly with his arms crossed. At least his livid expression had eased somewhat. “I – we thought that you had been taken by Karhon and were on our way back to retrieve you.”

“Yes, well he – oh! I completely forgot! There’s a goblin raid going on, they broke through the bombs that they’d put in the tunnels. Karhon went to help, but if he finishes with the goblins he said he’s going to come after me and lock me up too. Oh dear…”

“We won’t let him, Bilbo, don’t worry!” Ori balled his mitten-covered hands into fists and managed to look about as threatening as Bofur’s hat.  

“Sadly we have no weapons to fight off an attack with, Ori. I don’t imagine that our fists will be much good against armed goblins or smugglers should they come across us.” Balin pointed out reasonably and Ori seemed to wilt.

Thorin shook himself and turned back to their captive. “Which brings me to my second question. Our gear?”

“N-next door o’er. All of it, bags an’ the lot. Karhon wouldn’t let us touch a lick o’ it.”

“So he still has a bit of honor left. Dwalin?”

“Aye?”

“Put him back where you found him.”

__________________________________

Not ten minutes later Bilbo found himself running along with his hand in Dori’s so that he wouldn’t ‘wander off and give us all a scare’ again, his little rucksack snugly on his back. They had considered going off to find the ponies again, but Nori was certain that they were being kept outside the mountain on the side they had entered through. Taking the time to go back and fetch them would waste valuable time and none of them could concentrate on keeping the beasts safe and fight goblins or smugglers at the same time. It was a bit of a pinch, but they finally decided to leave them behind and continue on foot. Bombur grumbled about this a bit as he shouldered his heavy cooking pot, but Bofur cheerfully reminded him that at least he didn’t have to leave everything behind.

“Better to go on with our bags than nothin’ at all!” He said optimistically as he tightened the straps on his own pack and hoisted up his mattock.

They had interrogated the dwarf guard a bit more before Dwalin shoved him back under the heavy door. All it had taken was Dori stepping forward to snap one of his fingers like a matchstick before he told them which way the tunnel to the east side of the Misty Mountains was and then they had left him to snivel into the floor again. Bilbo might have felt a bit sorrier for him if the fellow hadn’t threatened to gut him only a little while earlier.

Away they went, dodging down tunnels and around corners. Luckily Thorin had chosen to let Nori lead the way rather than do it himself or they might have never gotten anywhere except into deeper trouble. Not once did they run into any more of Karhon’s dwarves. Either they were all busy repelling the goblins or they had been tasked with moving supplies and gear out of the tunnels. Wherever they were, Bilbo was just happy not to have to get into a fight with any of them. It would have slowed them all even more than not knowing the exact lay of the land. Goblins they could handle. They tended to be rather stupid and not have a broad knowledge about fighting tactics. Some could shoot, most used clubs or spikes or rusty blades. All could be dealt with faster than Bombur could whip up a pot of rabbit stew.

But there were no goblins either. The tunnels loomed long and empty as they made their escape through them, slowly but surely making their way unmolested towards the other side of the mountain. The tunnel wouldn’t take them all the way to the other side, but it would take them most of the way. After that they could follow the river canyon the rest of the way out assuming that the hill bandits didn’t give them any trouble. Although with Bilbo’s luck lately that seemed highly unlikely.

Whatever shred of it he had left gave out when they had nearly escaped. Bilbo could already smell the fresh air when the goblins came screaming up behind them, howling and shouting and brandishing their claws and swords.

“More dwarves!” One of them shrieked and Bilbo found himself shoved behind Dori as the dozen or so goblins swarmed them. Before he could shout that he wasn’t completely helpless the fight was over and Thorin, Dwalin, Gloin, and Dori were splattered with goblin blood while the others made sure that there were no more down the tunnels next to them. A couple of shrieks sounded back as Bifur and Oin flushed out a couple more who had been lying in wait for them to pass and made short work of them.

That was when Bilbo was seized from behind and a curved sword was pressed against his throat for the second time that day.

“Karhon!” Thorin snarled, his own sword raised as he stalked forward as if he intended to strike down the jeweler when he stood. “Release my burglar and maybe I’ll leave a few pieces of you behind for the goblins to pick their teeth with.”

“I thought he might have made it when I found my storage room empty. Half expected to find him on the wrong end of a goblin blade like half of my men.” Bilbo flinched as something began to drip into his hair and ran down into his eyes. He couldn’t see Karhon, but the dwarf’s long braids that brushed the sides of his face felt sticky.

“Dead?” Dwalin asked, his hands tight on his hammer.

“Aye, and the goblins aren’t far behind me. There were too many of them to keep back and any who haven’t made it out the front by now are beyond carin’. I won’t be far behind them now.” The sword at Bilbo’s throat shook once and he shrank back and shut his eyes, trying to ignore the blood that was now drying on his face. There was too much of it for it to be splashes from slain goblins.

“Since I’ll be sending you to meet them if you don’t lower your blade!” Thorin snapped.

“Not you, my king. I’m a dead dwarf walkin’ even now. Took a blade in my side already and my eye ain’t workin’ any more. But I won’t see those bastards take everythin’ from me. I still think you’re a fool who’ll end badly, but you I thought I could change your mind. Guess I should’ve remembered how stubborn your da’ was too.” Finally the sword dropped by a few inches, though Bilbo didn’t dare move yet. “Would you fight for what you believe in, Thorin?”

“I would.”

“And what is it that you’re fightin’ for? Gold and glory?”

Thorin’s eyes dropped to Bilbo and the hobbit stared back, blue eyes meeting terrified brown. “The pride of my people. My kin. My friends.” Claws scrambled on stone back behind the company and several of them shifted nervously. The goblins wouldn’t take long to find them now and being trapped in the narrow tunnel was as good as a death sentence. If there was one thing that the goblins had on their side it was superior numbers. They didn’t care if ten of their number fell. The dead would be dragged away and replaced with twenty more.  

“Maybe we can talk outside,” Gloin growled, as he hefted his axes, glancing nervously back the way they had come.

“I won’t let them follow you,” said Karhon, and he pushed Bilbo forward with a large hand at the small of his back, but not before he pressed something small and hard into the hobbit’s left hand. Bilbo nearly dropped it as Ori caught him before he could smack his nose on the floor. “Go. Maybe stubbornness and a few good dwarves can reclaim our home after all. Go!”

They went. Balin and Dwalin both nodded to the wounded dwarf as they passed by and made for the tunnel to the outside. Karhon, bruised and bleeding too much to live for long now that Bilbo got a proper look at him, stopped Thorin with a hand on his arm as he tried to shuffle Bilbo ahead of him.  

“Don’t think too ill of me for tryin’ to do what I thought was best, aye? Might not have been the right way t’ go about it, but I would have given you back your crown, my king.”

Thorin just nodded shortly, but it seemed to be enough for Karhon because he sighed and dropped his head, seemingly deaf to the cries of the goblins as they found the blood trail their quarry had left behind.

Dayamu Khuzan-ai menu, Thorin.” The braided dwarf seized one of the torches in the wall and charged forward, leaving the company to look after him.

“He can’t mean to take them all on by himself?” Asked Bofur, mystified.

It was Bifur who put the pieces together first. He pulled frantically at Bofur’s sleeve, bodily dragging him towards the exit, his eyes wide and frantic as he shouted in Khudzul. The other dwarves paled and Thorin physically snatched up Bilbo and carried him as they all ran as quickly as their legs could carry them.

“What is it?” He cried as he struggled not to drop Sting or the thing Karhon had pushed into his hand.

“The mountain is full of powder and that fool just ran off with a torch. What do you think it is?” The dwarf snapped as he ran a little faster.

They barely made it to the outside air when the mountain shuddered like some great beast had risen up under it and rolled over. The sky was heavy with gray clouds and the ground squashed and squelched beneath their feet as they ran but the rain did nothing to stop the wave of heat and white-hot fire that blasted from the tunnel exit like dragon breath. It turned the trees and plants closest to dust and the stone itself seemed to scream in agony as it cracked, chipped, and finally crumbled with a roar. The thieves’ den and its master were gone. 

Chapter Text

Thorin’s feet hurt.

Of course, he was certain that everyone else was currently suffering from the same affliction so he did his best to ignore the twinges that shot up from the soles of his feet into his ankles and then stabbed at his calves. He was used to walking for long periods of time, though he preferred riding when he could afford a pony or a ride in the back of a merchant’s cart. This chaotic sprinting hadn’t done him any favors and he was already feeling it. 

Their flight down into the river valley from the mouth of the cave had taken its toll on all of them. Rocks had churned beneath their feet as the tunnels collapsed and caused many of them to fall to their knees, only to be dragged back up again as the fire ate away at the land. It had chased them for nearly an hour until they had reached a point in the river that was shallow enough for them to escape to the opposite shore and finally away from the flames licking at their heels. Dwalin’s beard was a bit bushier now since he had brought up the back of the back and been closest to the searing flames as they fled from the destruction. Thorin watched as his oldest friend tried his best to keep the frizzy mess out of his face and then finally tied it down with a strip of leather to keep it out of his eyes.

None of them were exactly looking their best. Many of them were splattered with goblin blood and enough cave dust to turn their hair gray.

Since they had started running no one had spoken at all much beyond warning their companions of especially slick spots in the river bank or to make sure that no one was hurt. A couple of singed eyebrows and scraped hands seemed to be the worst of it, though a couple of them had gotten completely soaked through when Fili slipped on the opposite bank of the river and fell right back in and floated a few yards downstream before Kili and Ori splashed in after him and they all came out completely drenched and shivering.

Thorin hadn’t even had the heart to tell them off for it because they had all looked so thoroughly wretched.

Bilbo coughed miserably next to him and he spared half a glance for the hobbit as they picked their way along the edge of the river. His burglar’s hair was liberally streaked with gray dust and it had settled on his face as well and made him look twice as old and four times more tired than he usually did. And Karhon’s blood still gleamed wetly on his face, smudged where Bilbo had brushed at it with his coat sleeve.

At least now his face matches his eyes, Thorin thought as he stepped over an exposed root and waited to see if Bilbo could clamber over it without rolling right down into the river like a barrel. He’d met many a dwarf with haunted eyes, though most of those had gone gray with age and had fought in battles that were only remembered in books. They’d seen their friends slaughtered. Their families. They had known terror and hardship and it had changed them. Thorin knew the eyes of those who were tired of life because he saw them looking back at him every time he glanced into a mirror or still water. His were tainted by anger and bitterness while Bilbo’s held only a deep sorrow and weariness. There was no way to tell what had put it there, but Thorin couldn’t deny that a sickness had settled in his belly when their eyes had met across the curve of Karhon’s blade. Hobbits were gentle folk, everyone knew that even those who had never met one. Creatures of the land who lead quiet, comfortable lives. They weren’t the type to go out adventuring and end up on the wrong end of swords, or at least they hadn’t been until he had agreed to drag this one out of his home and out onto the road to watch him grow grim and gaunt.

He volunteered to go, he reminded himself, but it did little to settled the guilt that was twisting up his insides. Every one of his dwarves knew what they were here for – they had something to gain at the end of their journey should they succeed. All would be famous and wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, settled in Erebor with the bones of Smaug at their feet.

Bilbo?

So far the hobbit hadn’t truly joined in while the others dreamed about what they wanted when they had their share of the gold. Bombur planned to buy as much chocolate as he could get his hands on and make a cake as big as he was. Bofur wanted some new mining picks. Gloin planned on moving his family into the finest quarters Erebor has to offer short of the royal quarters. Kili had boasted that he would fill a bathtub with sapphires and bathe in it and nobody had told him ‘no’ because if they were successful he could do just that. Bilbo had just smiled and laughed along with the others, brushing off the question with some ridiculous answer like ‘cover all of Erebor in rose bushes’ or ‘line the entire East Road in gold bricks’ when it was posed to him. It was clear that the hobbit cared little for the gold or glory of their quest. So why, Thorin mused, had he come at all? 

The rain kept up, a miserable drizzle that quelled any conversation that might have helped to lighten the dismal mood. It wasn’t heavy enough to force them to seek shelter, but it was just wet enough to seep in everywhere and make the dust and blood on their faces tacky. Finally as the light began to fail even more Thorin called a halt to their slog. The river had split in front of them and a slim branch of it disappeared into a low cave in the side of the mountain while the rest rushed on eastward. It was the most defensible position they’d come across and everyone gratefully settled down under a copse of scraggly pine trees and shed their packs.

Bifur and Balin went off to scout out the cave mouth while the rest of them scrounged around for any bit of wood that wasn’t as wet as they were. The few pieces they found produced a thick, oily smoke when they tried to light them.

“Might as well put up a flag and shout that we’re camping here,” grumbled Oin as he stomped out the feeble flame and everyone nodded sadly, wishing that they were anywhere else but here, surrounded by bandits and goblins in an unfriendly a very wet valley.

“The cave goes back as far as we can see and smells of dark things,” reported Balin as Bifur helped him get settled on a stump. “There are a few blind fish swimmin’ around at the mouth of it though if anyone feels like tryin’ their luck at scooping them out. I don’t see much point to it if we have no fire to cook them over.”

In the end they made do with strips of dried venison laid over cram, and everyone was very grateful when Bilbo produced a handful of parchment-wrapped toffees from his own pack and shared them around.

“You don’t belong here,” Thorin said as he managed to unglue his back teeth where the sweet had stuck them together. Bilbo had finished passing out his sweets and retreated back to where he seemed to have stationed himself at Thorin’s side. The Halfling had barely strayed more than ten feet from him since Thorin had hauled him out of the cave, though he hadn’t spoken a single word of thanks or anything else. He’d half expected the hobbit to break down in hysterical tears or begin to talk unendingly, but neither had come about. The silence was almost worse.

Naturally the stricken look that he was given by the hobbit instantly made him forget everything he had planned on adding on to the rest of his statement to temper it and had the added effect of making him seem like an utter bastard.

“And where else should I be, Master Oakenshield?” Bilbo asked coldly, the first words he had spoken since that morning. They chilled him right to his bones and made him feel utterly chastised. It was only with great strength that he kept himself from ducking his head and looking at his boots.  

“I didn’t intend to word that so poorly,” he tried to explain, scooping up a handful of wet pine needles and systematically breaking them into little pieces so that he had something to do with his hands. At least the rest of the dwarves hadn’t heard him insult their burglar. Most of them had already unrolled their bedrolls for lack of anything else to do. Some were talking quietly among themselves and Nori and Bofur were playing dice for who would take first watch.

“I’m not sure I want you to try it again. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be. In fact I would go so far as to say that I have to be here. Don’t insult me by trying to tell me otherwise because I won’t be turning around in tears to head back home.” The hobbit’s voice was decided sour and he was fiddling with something in his coat pocket, refusing to as much as look up. Thorin almost regretted opening his mouth at all. Having Bilbo walk at his side for so long had been…comfortable.

“I only meant that your kind aren’t usually in danger of having their throats cut or trapped under mountains. You belong…”

“In our gardens? Making bread? Doing comfortable things?”

“Yes exactly,” Thorin agreed in relief, but that was apparently the wrong thing to say because Bilbo’s eyes suddenly snapped up to his and they seemed much less weary and snapped with little copper sparks or irritation.

“No. I belong here. At your side, watching over you. And you had better get used to it because short of getting killed by goblins or something equally as horrible I won’t be going anywhere. Now please stop talking or I might have to throw something at you.”

Thorin’s jaw dropped. “How – what – you!” He spluttered, the pine needles falling from his hands as he gaped at the hobbit next to him.

“Yes, me. You aren’t my king after all, so I’m allowed to call you an idiot when you deserve it. So do me a favor and never imply that I shouldn’t be here again. I don’t care about being wet or cold or hungry. I’d rather be all of those things at once than back in my warm hole while you – all of you – were out here. That isn’t the way things are going to be.”

“You’re nearly as opinionated as a dwarf,” Thorin grumbled, feeling disgruntled and almost like he had fallen off his pony. His ears felt very hot despite the cold drizzle and he suddenly realized that Bilbo wouldn’t hesitate to make good on his threat to throw something at him. His burglar had a spine of mithril hidden under his ample tummy and brightly-colored vests and that was something he had to admire.

“I like to think that I’m no more so than your average hobbit,” Bilbo said, seeming a bit mollified now. At least he wasn’t frowning any more.

“If all hobbits are as strong-willed as you, I should have brought a hundred of them and not bothered with asking Dain for aid. You would have all chased Smaug right out of the mountain by being cross with him. He’d think himself well rid of the place.”

“You’d have to pry us all out of our front doors first! I like to pride myself in being slightly more open-minded and adventurous than my neighbors, especially in regards to dwarves and dragons. Oh, I forgot.” Bilbo reached over and held out his hand. Something gleamed in it in the last of the low light and he tipped it into Thorin’s cupped palms.

The dwarf’s heart stopped for a moment when his hands closed around the familiar shape of the warm metal. It was too dark to make out the color, but he knew it as if it was a piece of him. A thick golden band that branch apart like vines to twine around an emerald as big as the pad of his thumb. For years he had worn it on a golden chain around his neck, only to remove it when –

“Karhon put it in my hand before he pushed me away. I don’t know what to do with it though, so he probably wanted me to give it to you.”

Thorin’s throat closed up as he traced the edges of the ring with a finger. “It’s mine,” he said roughly. “Or rather it is mine to safe keep....I never believed I would see it again.”

Underneath one of the other trees Bofur won the dice game and claimed first watch while Nori grumbled as he crawled into his own bedroll. Ori was curled up with his back pressed against Dori’s and Bombur was already out cold, snoring loudly enough that it sounded like far off thunder.

“An heirloom?” Bilbo tucked his feet underneath him and buttoned up the front of his coat to keep warm and Thorin was shedding his overcoat before he even knew what he was doing and offering it. He’d done the same for his nephews more than once over the course of their journey, but this was the first time he had even thought about doing so for anyone else. It was just gratitude, he told himself. Bilbo had proved his worth more than once in the past few weeks and he was more delicate than any of the other members of their company. Not as hearty or quick in a fight for all that he was quick and had been able to keep them out of trouble more than once.

And he was most certainly not staring when Bilbo slowly accepted his greatcoat and draped it around his slight shoulders, his face buried in the warg fur that lined the collar.

“Of sorts.” How best to explain what the Consort’s ring meant to him? Thorin turned it over and over in his hands as if reacquainting himself with its weight. “You said that you have loved before. What was it like?”

Bilbo’s eyes widened and he seemed to shrink in on himself for a moment, but answered before Thorin could take back his question.

“It’s…It’s like everything good in the world has suddenly come true at the same time and yet it hurts more than anything I’ve ever felt before. It rips you up on the inside every day because every word you say matters. Every time your eyes meet it makes you ache in places you didn’t know you had before. It’s beautiful and terrible because, well, because it makes you do things that you never thought you would ever do before. I’ve never been as brave or as weak as I was when I was with him.”

Thorin played with the ring while he listened, not sure why the words should strike him so deeply. It wasn’t as though he’d ever loved someone in the way that Bilbo described, and he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to if it was as painful as the hobbit made it out to be. He’d seen men laid low by the deaths of their loved ones before, their lovers and wives, and it was not a fate that he would wish on even his worst enemy. The only finger the ring would fit on of his was his pinkie and it was tight enough that it stopped at his first knuckle. His mother had always had small hands for a dwarf.

“I’ve never felt such a thing. I love my sister and my nephews. I would do anything for them.”

“Like retake kingdoms?” Bilbo asked and Thorin could hear the smile in his voice.

“Aye, just so. This ring was made for my mother by a master craftsman who died for what he believed in. He put everything he was into his work and it was said that his heart beat in every piece, especially in those worn by Fris, Consort to Thráin, Prince of Erebor.” It was dark enough that he couldn’t even see his hands or the ring on his little finger any more, but he could see the emerald in his mind’s eye. “I don’t know if he loved my mother. Perhaps he did, since he reacted so strongly when I was forced to give up his last connection to her. She died before Smaug came – killed when a section of the ruby mines caved in while she was walking there. I don’t think either Karhon or Thráin were the same after that. My father couldn’t bear to look upon anything that reminded him of her, so he gave me her ring for when I took a consort of my own.”

He couldn’t remember the last time he had talked so much to someone who was a practical stranger, but he felt he had to explain now. Somehow he had to show Bilbo why he’d been held with a blade at his neck for the sake of a ring and a purpose.  

"She was my friend...but I did not love her as one cherishes their One. Yet she was meant to be my queen and I would have given this ring to her. “

Bilbo made a little choking noise next to him but it turned into a cough. “What was her name?”

“Belren. Her father was a noble in our court and we had been promised to one another for several years. We were never anything more than friends though. She was in love with Freran and I did not begrudge her for it. He was always more charming than he had a right to be. But we got on well enough. She loved to cook and I reaped the reward of that for some time.”

“Ah, so you’ve always been a glutton for good cooking.”

“Aye, though your blackberry concoction was better than hers were, if it settles you at all.”

“I’m very flattered. Practically swooning.”

 Thorin snorted and felt a smile work its way across his face. Bilbo’s dry humor had a way of sneaking up on him and he couldn’t help but enjoy it. “As you should be. You shouldn’t worry about the competition though. Belren was killed when Smaug took the mountain. Many of the women spent their time in and around our treasury, since they were as precious to us as any amount of gold and jewels and often made the finest craftsmen. So when Smaug came…”

“He went to the treasury first,” Bilbo said softly, his horror evident.

“Yes. There were few survivors from that part of the city. The rest were either crushed or incinerated. My betrothed was among them, but I did not feel her loss as keenly as I should have. I enjoyed her company, yes, but I did not love her.” He looked over at where he knew Bilbo must have been sitting, though the rain clouds obscured any moonlight that might have helped him see better.  “Could you love another, knowing that your first is gone?”

The pause was as thick as the weather. While he waited Thorin lifted up the ring until it brushed against the corner of his mouth where Bilbo’s lips had touched it just last night. Did hobbits give their affections as freely as that, or were they something to be cherished? Now that they were safe again he had more time to think about it. Kisses were sacred, private things to dwarves, shared only between lovers and wedded couples. Did hobbits exchange them as easily as saying ‘good morning’? And why did that thought make him feel so put out? Thorin gave himself a shake to try to regain his senses but he wasn’t sure how much good it did. He had awoken the next morning to find that his nephews had wrapped themselves around the burglar like creeper vines. It had both pleased him to see them opening up to someone who wasn’t family and irritated him at the same time for wondering what it would be like to take their place.

“I don’t know,” Bilbo finally answered and there was a shifting noise as he resettled himself. “Last time it didn’t end well for anyone, and what’s to say it would the second time? I’m just not sure if I would willingly put myself through that again. Besides,” he added softly, “it would take a lot to ever measure up to him.”

Could a king measure up? Surely I could do ten times better than this fool who couldn’t see what was standing so resolutely next to him.

It only took a moment for him to decide. Reaching out, Thorin felt around in the dark until he found Bilbo’s shoulder under the fur of his great coat and followed it down until he was grasping the hobbit’s hand. It was cold in his own and he held it for a moment, trying to impart a bit of warmth into it before he pressed the gold and emerald ring back into it.

“It’s much safer with you, Halfling.”

“But Thorin – “

“I have enough to worry about between my company and reclaiming my homeland without having to worry about a ring falling out of my pocket as well. That can be your burden to bear for me.”

“Ah yes, because I really needed another one...” Bilbo muttered. “Fine, I’ll look after your ring but I’m giving it back the minute we get to Erebor. I don’t need gems cluttering up my coat space. I reserve that for camellia and carnations, thank you very much. Now if you don’t mind I’ll be turning in. I’m much too old to be up at all hours. It isn’t good for my health.”

Thorin blinked, a bit startled, but managed to retain some of his grace. “Of course. We all need some rest after that. Good night, Bilbo.”

“Good night, Thorin.”

And he most certainly did not think about how nice it was to hear his name said so gently as he finally pried off his wet boots and shook the river rocks out of them.

Not even a little.  

_________________________________

It took less than an hour for the remainder of the company to settle into their bedrolls and all of them were quickly asleep.

All of them except Bilbo. He lay awake, his head pillowed on one of his arms while he played with the Consort’s ring in the other. Thorin’s heavy coat lay over him, keeping out the worst of the evening chill. It smelled quite unpleasantly of goblin blood and damp, dirty things, but underneath all of that there was the scent of iron and musk that he knew was Thorin. Such a little thing, but he clung to it. It was a living memory to him, a reminder of other rainy days and other conversations that had never happened and probably never would. Could he love again? The dwarf he had cleaved to was gone in a way, and he could never be exactly the same again because history had changed.

“Stop being such a worry wart,” he mumbled to himself, tucking the ring into his vest pocket and buttoning it shut so there was no chance it would fall out. There would be no sleep for him tonight – right now he had a job to do that couldn’t be put off by little things like sore feet or being tired.

Tonight he was going to get his magic ring back.    

Chapter Text

It wasn’t hard to sneak out of camp. All of the dwarves were heavy sleepers and even more since they had just spent the last full day fighting and running for their lives. That sort of exercise lent itself to very tired dwarves and not a single one stirred as Bilbo slowly picked his way over and around their slumbering forms. There was no fire to see his way by so he was forced to inch along, guided by the sound of snores and the feel of blankets against his searching fingertips. Once he nearly trod right on Dori because he was a quiet sleeper and Ori had taken his blanket, but managed to backpedal enough that he simply ended up sitting down rather abruptly rather than awakening the eldest Ri. Bilbo doubted Dori would have taken well to being walked upon and gave him a wide berth so that he wouldn’t end up with every bone in his body broken twice over because of Dori’s bad habit of destroying anything that surprised him while he was sleeping.

Thankfully that was the worst of what it took to escape from camp. With a little rustling noise Bilbo got up from his hands and knees and carefully dusted off the hems of his trousers so that there were no pine needles still stuck to them that could poke him through the cloth. He may have been sneaking away to do some rather suspicious things but that didn’t mean he had to do it with dirt and leaves and other such dirty things stuck all over him and making him look like a wild hobbit kit.

A little light flared in front of his face and Bilbo clapped a hand to his mouth so that he wouldn’t yelp and alert all of the dwarves.

‘It’s just a firefly, you knob head,” he whispered softly and reached out in the dark to where he’d last seen the bug. Something small and ticklish alighted on his thumb and crawled onto his sleeve, illuminating a small spot of the tattered cotton.

‘Bilbo! It’s time to come in for dinner!’

‘But Mum – Sandy says she got a fish down at the creek as big as her whole head and I want to show her that there’s naught but fingerlings in that silly – “

‘Oh look at the state of you. You’ve got leaves in your collar and fireflies in your hair. Now come here and sit on my lap and I’ll tell you a story about my adventures while I get them out.’

Belladonna had never scolded him for missing his supper because he’d gone off on some imaginary adventure. The parents of the other hobbit kits had despaired over him, saying that nothing good could come of growing up so wild and that he was a terrible influence on his friends because he would often drag them along as well. More than once he had come home sopping wet because he’d fallen in the brook looking for fairies and one very memorable spring he had been driven all the way up a tree by a wild boar who hadn’t been pleased to find him wandering about it the forest.

It was bittersweet to look back on it all, now that Belladonna and Bungo were long dead and home was so far behind him. It left the memory of the taste of sweet summer apples in his mouth.

“We had fireflies there too,” the old hobbit whispered to the insect as it flew away, lighting up once more before it was lost in the tree branches with its fellows. “I suppose some things never change, no matter where or when you wander.”

“Bilbo? Why aren’t ye sleepin’?”

There was a wave of pungent, cheap-smelling tobacco smoke and the flare of low embers in a pipe bowl not two feet from where Bilbo was standing, talking to lightning bugs. If the hobbit had ever had one to compare this to, he would have easily said that he had a heart attack at that moment. It seized in his chest and he broke out in a cold sweat. They only upside to the wave of startled terror was that his throat closed up too and kept him from screaming so loud that they would have heard him in Valinor.

‘Probably just some silly hobbit who thought he could be sneaky enough to get through a camp full of dwarves without being detected,’ the elves there would say and then delicately laugh and go back to their tea.

“B-Bofur! You nearly killed me of fright!” He hissed in the direction that he’d seen the little light from the dwarf’s pipe. “Don’t you know better than to go sneaking up on hobbits in the dark?”

“I wasn’t sneakin’, lad. I’ve been sittin’ here the whole time havin’ a nice smoke. Not much else to do since I’m still on watch. Well done not troddin’ all over Dori. I thought for sure ye were goin’ t’ step right on him.”

“You are not being at all helpful!”

“Happened a bit quick for me to do anythin’ about it.”

“How did you even see me anyway? I can’t see my hand in front of my face, but I’m pretty sure it’s wet because of this miserable drizzle.” This was taking up valuable time that he could have been using to get into the river cave and follow it to Gollum’s cave, but leaving Bofur to watch him go and report back to the others that he was off after a magic ring that he shouldn’t have known was there was out of the question.

“I’m a miner, lad. Leastwise I was before I got hired on as an adventurer for this lot. I see better in the dark than I do in daylight - not as many colors to get in th’ way, ye know?”

“Ah, not really, no.”

“Well tha’s the way of it for me at least. Now where’re ye goin’? S’not safe for you t’ be wanderin’ about in the dark. Anythin’ could happen to ye and none of us’d be happy about that.”

Where do you think you’re goin’?

Back to Rivendell.

No, no. You can't turn back now. You're part of the company. You're one of us.

“I was just taking a walk since I couldn’t sleep. It’s not as though I was going to run away and leave you out in this horrible place.” Bilbo looked down at where he was fairly certain his feet were. No, he wouldn’t be entertaining any thoughts of leaving this time. Even if he’d suddenly had a drastic change of heart (which he hadn’t) there would have been no way to get back to Rivendell without going straight through Goblin Town and that wasn’t a journey Bilbo had any desire to undertake.

They need you and you need that ring, he told himself firmly. He’d just have to get around Bofur somehow.

“Course ye wouldn’t! Ye’re our hobbit now. The young princes have taken a shinin’ to ye and everybody thinks ye’re a good sort. They looked half sick when we realized you’d got left behind in the caves. We were ready to rip down the walls t’ get ye back again.”

Something warm and ticklish settled in the pit of Bilbo’s belly and he rubbed it though his vest, fingers curling against the delicate needlework patterns. “That’s – That’s very nice to hear. Thank you Bofur.”

“Ah don’t ye worry yer head o’er it. Ye helped get us out of a tight spot or two and it’s the least we could do t’ return the favor. Now where was your walk goin’ to take ye? I could go with if you don’t mind a bit of company since my watch is up and I’m not quite set on bed just yet.”

“That’s really not necessary, I was just going to - “

“Thorin said ye weren’t to go off on yer own again. I’d be in all sorts of trouble if I let ye wander away.” There was a brief flare as Bofur tapped out the bowl of his pipe against the bottom of his shoe and then ground out the ashes. The pipe smoke smell was quickly washed away by the drizzle and replaced with moss and other such wet things. A frog croaked down by the riverbed. 

Guilt set in, no doubt just as Bofur had intended it to. “Did he really say that or are you just making it up so you can go with me?”

“Would I lie to ye?” There was so much honey in Bofur’s voice that Bilbo was surprised a swarm of bees didn’t magically appear.

“I don’t think so,” he drawled, “but stretching the truth isn’t the same as lying.”

Bofur snorted in the dark and there was a rustling noise as he shook his head. “Aye, I tell Bombur that all th’ time and he still says I’m just makin’ things sound prettier than they are. I don’t see much harm in it if nobody gets hurt. My mum used to say I had th’ gift of gab on account of me talkin’ to everyone who walked in our door and – “

“That’s very nice Bofur, but I really do have to be going on that walk now. I don’t need you to go with me; I should only be gone for a few minutes. An hour.”

Longer if Gollum brains me with a rock.

 “I won’t hear of it. Jus’ let me get Oin up to take over and we’ll be off to wherever it is ye got yer heart set on. Always thought company was better than walkin’ about alone, ‘specially in places like this. Just ain’t safe, ‘specially for gentlefolk like ye.” Before Bilbo could stop him there was the sound of wet footsteps and a couple of grunts in the dark as Bofur picked his way across the dwarves to where Oin was sleeping and roused the old medic. It was obvious that Bofur had better night vision since it sounded like he had managed the whole trip without stepping on anyone. The hobbit scrubbed at his face with his hands and then winced when it pulled at the cuts on his palms.

It wasn’t a bad idea to take Bofur with him. Having a dwarf who could see in the dark and was good in a fight by his side could be very handy if worst came to worst. So much of it hinged on his ability to keep a secret though and Bofur was the chattiest dwarf in the company and then some. Like he’d said – he had the gift of gab. If he saw Bilbo fetching a ring that he shouldn’t have known was there would he tell someone? Would he finally be found out as the dwarves added up all of the little times he’d slipped up or put his foot in his mouth?

“There we go, Oin’s all set up with his pipe and we can be off for a bit of a jaunt before bed. Now where was it ye wanted to go explorin’?”

“The river cave,” Bilbo mumbled and jumped when a mitten-clad hand took his and began to lead him away from camp. It was rare to see Bofur without his hand coverings. Even when they bathed he often kept them on under the guise of ‘washin’ the muck outta them’. Bilbo had only seen the dwarf’s hands once, long after the Durins had been buried under the mountain and he had returned to the Shire. Bofur, Bifur, and Dori had all made the trip to come and help him move to Rivendell on the eve of his hundred and eleventh birthday and a string had come out of one of Bofur’s mittens while they’d been packing. Bilbo had offered to mend them for him.

It hadn’t been a pretty sight.

Bofur’s hands were what Bilbo might have considered ruined if the dwarf couldn’t still use them to hold his mattock and do his own braids. His knuckles looked like they’d been broken so many times by tools or rocks that they were permanently swollen. Dirt was ingrained under every nail and nicks and scars made his skin into a twisted mess. Bilbo squeezed his eyes shut and let Bofur pull him along to the river cave. It was a heavy burden to know secrets no one had ever told him and in that moment he felt very very glad to have his friend leading him into the darkness.  

“I don’t much like river caves,” Bofur was saying; apparently glad to keep talking even if Bilbo was only listening with half an ear. The hobbit stumbled over an exposed root but Bofur used his grip on his hand to keep him on his feet. “Too hard to lose things in the water and then it gets into your socks although I guess ye wouldn’t have to worry much about tha’, would you? On account of not wearing any socks.”

Bilbo just made a noncommittal noise and clutched Bofur’s hand even tighter. He didn’t like not being able to see and knew it would have taken him much longer to find his way without Bofur’s help. He could hear the river ahead of them but couldn’t tell how close they were until freezing cold water closed around the tips of his toes and sent a great wrenching shiver all the way up his body.

“We’re at the mouth of the cave,” said Bofur softly. There was no need for such a quiet voice, but Bilbo could feel the chill breeze that crept from the mouth of the cavern as well as the dwarf and it seemed to carry the scent of bad things. Of rot and death and the stench of things with slime and scales. “It doesn’t seem like a place any good man or beast’d go happily. Can we can go back to camp now?”

“No,” came the whispered reply as Bilbo starred blindly into what he assumed must have been the mouth of the cave. “I have to go in.”

“No you don’t! That’s just foolishness to think that any good can come from wanderin’ about in there. We’d be best off just goin’ right back to our bedrolls and forgettin’ all about this wretched place. Surely there’s some other cave ye’d rather go have a look at?” Bofur’s grip tightened on his hand until it was almost painful.

Bilbo shook his head, his honey curls falling into his eyes. There was a tugging beneath his breastbone that felt as though someone had tied a hook there and was slowly drawing him forward. He took a short step forward, deeper into the water.

“Bofur…”

“Aye?”

“Can you keep a secret?”

“Well, I suppose that depends on how important it was. If it’s anythin’ at all to do with this place I imagine ye got to have a good reasonin’ behind it.”

“I do. The best reason you could ever imagine and I can’t tell you what it is. I just need you to trust me. There’s something I need to get in there and if I don’t…” He trailed off and swallowed hard, not wanting to contemplate what would happen if he left the ring in Gollum’s possession.

Bofur was silent for a minute, as if he was turning a very heavy thought over and over in his head and looking at it from every angle to check for flaws. “Will it help the quest? This thing we’re goin’ after?”

Helping to stab spiders in Mirkwood. To escape from imprisonment at the hands of Thranduil. To sneak past dragons in Erebor. “I don’t think that we could possibly succeed without it.”

“Well then. I don’t see any reason to tell the others about this. Far as I’m concerned we’re just out for a bit of fresh air and anything that ye come across is yer business. I’m just along for the company after all. And to make sure ye don’t tip into the river since it’s a bit on the cold side.”

“Bofur?”

“Aye?”

“You’re the best friend a hobbit could ask for.”

“Oh now you’re goin’ to go and make me blush, get on with ye.” 

Chapter Text

Just once Bilbo would have liked to know how it felt for everything to go the way it was supposed to. For ten minutes he wanted things to be alright, where he could sit down for a cup of tea and know that he didn’t have to worry or fret about a single thing in the entire world. Hobbits were simple folk by nature and yet somehow he’d managed to be the center of one big ball of trouble that he was certain was driving him to an early grave just from the sheer stress of everything. At the rate things were going he’d be buried before his next birthday.

His hands curled helplessly into fists, fingernails digging into his palms like teeth. There had been times before when he had felt helpless – in most fights he was all but useless. When Kili had been trapped under the tree by the rampaging trolls had been the same.

But never before had Bilbo felt as sick and powerless as he did now, with the weight of the ring in his vest pocket and Bofur’s anxious eyes fixed on his. The worst part was that he knew that the dwarf wasn’t scared for himself, even though he was the one with blood running into his eyes and a rock as sharp as a blade poised to slice his neck open. No, he was scared for the hobbit who had dragged him into this mess in the first place and that made bile rise in Bilbo’s throat. Once again he had managed to lead his friends into a danger of his own making and couldn’t do a thing to make it better.

It had all started out so well though, with the exception of the dark and the oozy smell. Bofur had kept up a steady stream on inane chatter which Bilbo had only needed to make the occasional ‘mm’ noise in reply to as he concentrated on not slipping on moss-covered stones and slipping into the river. The miner kept a firm grip on his hand so that the one time he did nearly take a tumble Bofur had simply lifted him right off of his feet and set him back on firmer ground. The relief that came with not being alone in such a horrible place had been enormous. Any reservations he might have had earlier were quickly washed away by the feeling of being safe. The last time he’d ventured into this part of the mountain he had taken a fall down a ravine, ripped up his hands terribly, and nearly been scared right out of his wits. Having Bofur up ahead of him, with his mattock in one hand and the other wrapped securely around Bilbo’s own was a feeling the likes of which he hadn’t felt in a long time.

“And so I can’t just go up to him and say ‘you fancy a bit of a walk about with me’ because he’d probably turn his nose right up at the state of my clothes and then I’d be in all sorts of trouble. Problem is I’ve known the whole clan since I was just a lad and was getting’ into all sorts of scrapes and I don’t think he’s forgotten ‘bout the time I lost it in his best tea pot. That was eighty-odd years back, but Dori’s got a memory like a trap.”

“Dori?”

“Aye, who’d you think I was talkin’ about this whole time? And have you seen ‘is hair? How does he keep it lookin’ so nice when we’re so busy runnin’ about and fightin’ every second of the day? Bombur keep’s mine up else it’d just be one big knot, but not Dori. He’s just so…polished. I saw a moonstone once in the market back at Ered Luin and he’s like that. Just so smooth and pretty.”

Bilbo blinked and scrunched his eyebrows together, trying to remember if Bofur had been this tied up over Dori the first time around. Maybe he’d just been too wrapped up in his pain and home sickness to notice.

“Bofur, you know that he could kill you by glaring at you too hard, right?”

“Oh aye, part of the charm in my mind. I’m not a fragile sort so I’m not much worried about it. I jus’ don’t know how to go about talkin’ to him.”

What did he know about Dori? He was a tinker, but Ori had also told him that Dori owned a tea shop back in Ered Luin and wanted to –

“You know he wants to open a restaurant if we reclaim Erebor. You could always talk to him about that, he’d probably be happy to tell you about it. Everyone likes to talk about their dreams after all.” Or at least he hoped that Dori did since he was a bit more closed-mouthed than Ori. Nori could talk almost as well as Bofur, and yet he never seemed to let anything slip and could always turn the conversation away from topics he wasn’t keen on. Dori seemed content to sit in silence and keep an eye on his younger brothers, so whether he’d actually want to talk about his future venture was a gamble.

“Does he really? Aye, I think I could go on about that for a while. Good idea, Bilbo.”

And on they walked. Eventually the cave began to grow marginally less dark, but it was hard to say whether bits of moonlight were coming in through holes in the side of the mountain or the torches from goblin town were simply reaching them all the way down in the river caves. All Bilbo knew was that he was beginning to be able to see the outline of his feet and avoid the bigger stones without having to rely on Bofur to keep him from walking straight into them, and that was better than nothing at all. For nearly an hour they had gone on like this, and eventually even Bofur seemed to run out of things to say as the weight of the mountain pressed down on them. There were times when they had to venture into the water to avoid the extremely low ceiling and one very horrible moment when they actually had to hold their breaths and swim under a low-hanging ledge. Bilbo nearly balked at that point, but Bofur promised that it would only be a few seconds and ended up towing the hobbit along with him until they reached air again. Both of them were shivering and sopping wet by the end of it and Bilbo was beginning to wonder if he was perhaps just best off leaving the ring exactly where it was and moving on without it.

Naturally it had been then that he had found the damn thing. The tunnel had opened up into a familiar cavern. There hadn’t been any need to silence his friend because Bofur had picked up on the need for silence and was content to take a step back and creep along silently behind the burglar, his mattock at the ready should any danger arise. If the dwarf wondered why Bilbo seemed to know exactly where he was going, he said nothing. Maybe he didn’t care. Maybe he had simply chalked it up to ‘good hobbit sense’, which was exactly how Bilbo was going to describe it if anyone asked where he had gotten off to and how he had found his way in and out.

“I’m looking for something,” he whispered to Bofur as quietly as he could. There was no telling if the creature Gollum was about, and if he was Bilbo had no desire to let him know that they had come in looking for his ‘precious’. “It will be small, a little golden ring. Don’t touch it if you find it though, I don’t think it would be very safe for dwarves.” That it was gold was bad enough, but combined with the dark magic that it was filled with the ring might prove to be nearly irresistible to his companions. It was far better off where it belonged – in his pocket.

“As you say, lad. I’ll keep my eyes open for your little bauble.”

What if Gollum still has it? Bilbo wondered as his eyes swept the darkness, trying to pick up a glint of gold in the gloom. What if we have to find him and take it back by force? It wouldn’t be hard to overpower the creature, but keeping him from following after them once they had the ring would be nigh on impossible and they couldn’t kill him without destroying the very fabric of the future. Everything hinged on fetching the ring and leaving Gollum alive to play his part later on, and that felt very much like walking on a high wire in a traveling circus. One wrong move and Bilbo would fall and take the whole show with him. No more second chances. He had to get it right the first time.

And then he stepped on something cold and round.

For a moment all he could do was stand there, eye blank and mouth slack.

“No,” he murmured. It couldn’t be that easy. Nothing was ever that easy, especially when it concerned him. Bilbo Baggins didn’t just go adventuring; he got into every sort of trouble imaginable first. Deadly situations were a daily occurrence. He didn’t walk into a mountain, find exactly what he was looking for right away, and walk out again without something going horribly wrong. His life simply didn’t work that way.

“Bilbo?” Bofur came up behind him and clasped his shoulder. “What is it?”

“It’s too easy.” Bilbo pulled his foot back and looked down at the ring that was gleaming wetly right where he’d been standing. As if he was watching himself in a dream, he slowly kneeled and picked up the thing. It was cold, like it had been lying forgotten for a while with no flesh to warm it. Or had it always been cold? It had been so long since he had last seen it that he couldn’t remember, though he would always know exactly how it felt to put it on. Like a little bit of his life was being sucked away and replaced with ice and somehow he had never cared at all. It had been a game to him, turning invisible. It made him powerful and special and everything he had never been before. Now that he held it again it all came rushing back and seemed to eat at him like leeches. He wanted to put it on right away and know the joy of its sinister presence. Hear the whispers in his ears. But at the same time he also wanted to drop it back again and run until he forgot about it entirely. Sadly he could do neither.

Instead he tucked it into his vest pocket where it knocked against Thorin’s ring. For some reason this soothed him a little bit, knowing that there was something that he treasured more than the ring of power. The Consort’s Ring had no magic in it other than the joy that had been put into its crafting. It didn’t make him invisible and it didn’t comfort him with whispered words every time he put it on. It was simply a piece of jewelry that he had been trusted with and that made it infinitely more precious.

“Well. That didn’t take much more than a minute or two now, did it?” Bofur scratched at his hair under his hat, nonplussed.

“I suppose not. Can we go back now?” Bilbo slipped his pinkie finger through the loop of the Consort’s Ring in his pocket so that the gem was pressed into his palm. It was warm.

“Oh yeah, I’m all for that. Let’s get out of this nasty place; it smells too much like goblin for me.”

“Me too,” Bilbo agreed and he was more than happy to follow after the miner as they made their way back down the edge of the underground river.

Of course then everything had gone horribly wrong.

Bofur crumpled up ahead of him, body hitting the floor with a hard cracking noise as a rock was smashed into his head. His mattock went clattering away into the dark, useless.

“Bofur!” Bilbo screamed as he rushed forward, no longer caring if anyone heard him, but there was a flash of movement and suddenly a sickly thin, pale creature was crouched over the body of his friend, a rock as sharp as a razor pressed against his exposed neck.

“No closer precioussss, no closer! What is it? What does it wants?” Giant pale eyes blinked owlishly at the hobbit and Bilbo fumbled with his sword and drew it, pointing it at Gollum. Not that it would do him any good, of course. The monster would have Bofur spilling his lifeblood out into the wet rocks before he could get a proper blow in. He was helpless.

“My name is B-Bilbo Baggins of the Shire,” he stuttered, feeling a great sense of déjà vu.   

“Bagginses? What is a Bagginses?” Gollum cocked his head to the side, but the rock didn’t move an inch much to Bilbo’s dismay. Bofur twitched once and his eyes opened up, though they were dazed and unfocused.

Praise Aulë for the thick skulls of dwarves.

“Bilbo, run! Get away,” the dwarf said hoarsely, not daring to move. Gollum made a hissing noise at him and pressed the rock down harder, drawing a thin line of blood.

“Stupid dwarf. It will be quiet and then praps we will eats it even though it doesn’t taste very nice. Like dirt, dwarfs are, but better than goblinses.” Gollum seemed to know that he held the advantage even though Bilbo was the one with the sword, because his gap-toothed smile appeared and made both the dwarf and the hobbit cringe.

“But dwarves aren’t nearly as tasty as hobbits!” Bilbo cried as quickly as he could. As far as distractions went it wasn’t the best, but it was the only thing he could think of at the moment.

“Bilbo, no!”

“Hobbitses? We haven’t had a hobbit before.” Gollum rocked back onto his heels. “Is it tasty?” It cooed. “Is it juicy?”

“Yes, very. We’re the most delicious creatures in the world so you’d just be ruining your dinner if you ate that nasty dwarf before you ate me. He probably tastes like coal.”

Bofur made an indignant noise that was ignored by everyone.

Gollum made a choking noise deep in his throat and took a couple of hop-shuffle steps closer to Bilbo, thankfully leaving Bofur where he lay. The dwarf was in no condition to help though, his head was still bleeding profusely and his mattock was nowhere to be found. “So we can eats the hobbitses? We don’t want the dwarf any more, too many bones.”

Sting’s point didn’t waver. “Yes, you can eat me. But only,” he added even as Gollum made to lunge forward, the rock clutched in his hand, “if you beat me at a game.”

“A game? We likes games.” It seemed to promise of play was more appealing than food, especially the sort of games that ended with such a promised treat.

“I know you do. We’re going to play a game of riddles, just the two of us. No need to drag that dwarf or anyone else into it, that wouldn’t be any fun at all.”

Gollum nodded frantically and watched as Bilbo sheathed his sword in a show of false good faith. “We does! We likes riddles. And if we win we gets to eat the hobbitses.”

“And if I win you have to let us go again.”

“Yes yes yes,” Gollum said quickly as he dropped his rock and hopped up onto a boulder so that he could keep an eye on both intruders. “Baggins first! Give us a riddle and then we’ll eats it whole.”

And so the game began.  

Chapter Text

Gollum didn’t always have the ring. In fact more and more often these days he would leave it on his little island home in the middle of the river-fed lake. There were a few other things that he stored there, a couple of shiny rocks and bones that he had decided were well-formed. Sometimes he would steal trophies off of the goblins that he ate, claws and teeth and bit of scrap cloth and metal. For a little while he had tried to keep their eyes, but even floating them in one of the stagnant pools hadn’t been enough to keep them from rotting and he’d done away with that particular collection by eating them.

The ring had, in fact, tired of Gollum some time ago. It had tried to seek a new master before, goblins who came wandering by but they had never seen it and other creatures that happened upon the caves. It had eaten at Gollum’s mind and spirit to the point where there was little of any use left and thus it had chosen to move on. An object as full of evil power as it was had a sort of awareness about it, and when it sensed that another was drawing near it had once again abandoned its current owner. Now it rested snuggly inside Bilbo’s pocket, waiting for the moment the hobbit would slip it on and it could begin to poison him with dark words and darker thoughts until he was nothing more than a shell.

All it had to do was wait.

As for Gollum, he hadn’t missed his birthday present yet. Once he had worn it in a little pocket he had sewn into his loincloth, but it fell out so often now that he only carried it about with him when he was hunting for goblins or other nasty creatures that it helped to be invisible when he was going after. It spent most of its time in a hole under a stone on his island and once in a while he would come back when he couldn’t bear to be parted from it any longer and he would whisper and croon to it in his high, childish voice, sometimes imagining that it was talking back to him because it had been so long since he had last spoken to anyone with any sort of sense. Goblins weren’t exactly the best conversationalists.

Tonight Gollum had been out hunting goblins, but he had caught a small, weak one that had wandered too far from the torchlight and smashed its head in with a rock until it was hard to tell if it had even had a face to begin with. It had been a scrawny little thing, more bone than meat, but he had cracked those open too and sucked out the marrow. Now that he was presented with a dwarf and a round thing that called itself a ‘hobbit’ he found that he wasn’t quite as full as he had originally thought himself to be. They would make a wonderful dessert and probably keep him satisfied for quite a while. All he had to do was win this little word game (which he practiced with himself at least once every moon cycle) and he’d have a tasty little treat to gorge himself on.

Meanwhile Bilbo was sucking hard on his bottom lip, trying not to rush over to Bofur to make sure that he wasn’t about to bleed out. Gollum would probably snatch up another one of his rocks and decide to finish them off right then and there if he didn’t observe the rules of the game, and those rules didn’t include stalling for time by checking on dwarves.

Back when he had been in his eighties and shortly after he had adopted Frodo Bilbo had written a small book of poetry and riddles to keep the boy entertained. In the front had been a short note that read ‘to be used should one ever find oneself in a life or death situation where all hinges on a good riddle or two’. No one had ever understood it and most had chalked it up to Bilbo’s continuing eccentricities. After all, no hobbit that had gone adventuring could ever be considered truly in their right mind. The little book had joined the others he had penned on his bookshelf and was only dragged down when Frodo or one of his friends needed something to page through when it was too wet or too cold out to go hunting frogs or stealing tomatoes. In it Bilbo had written down any riddle he could possibly remember ever having heard and made up a few himself. They had been interspersed with poems about all sorts of things and snippets of dwarven songs that he could remember from late nights around campfires. Half of those had been too explicit to put in a children’s book though, so he had toned them down quite a bit to preserve his nephew’s innocence.

That had been a long time ago and he had forgotten half or the things he had written. In desperation he tried to bring forth Frodo’s childish voice, remembering when the boy had used to sit in his lap in front of the fire and read out loud.

‘Uncle, why are you so sad?’

‘Sad? Nonsense. Why should I be sad? We just had a lovely dinner and there’s blueberry crumble waiting for us on the counter once we finish here.’

‘But you’re crying on my hair again, Uncle.’

Bilbo took a deep shuddering breath and shoved his hands deeply into his coat pockets so that they would stop shaking. He was an old hand at this. He would trounce Gollum and get Bofur out and back to the others before anyone noticed they were missing, he just had to.

“Reaching stiffly for the sky,
I bare my fingers when it's cold
In warmth I wear an emerald glove
And in between I dress in gold”

Sadly Gollum didn’t have to think too hard over that one. He had never heard anything like it before and it had been a good many years since he had last ventured outside of his cave to see the seasons changing, but there were some things that not even twisted creatures like himself forgot. The smell of clean and air and the ever changing colors of –

“Trees!” He crowed, lifting his skinny fists up and shaking them in victory. “It is treeses, my precious! Too easy. Too easy for us, yes. Now it is our turn.”

It had been just like this.

Maybe it had always and would always be like this.

Somehow he’d known, in some deep, dark little corner of himself, that he would always end up back here. In this cave, facing down this creature with fear in his heart and a ring in his pocket. It was who he was and what he was meant to do. Bilbo Baggins told riddles and stole Objects of Great Power. The ring of Sauron. A golden cup out from under the nose of a fire-breathing dragon. It was simply the way things were and now it seemed that it was one of those unchangeable things that would always happen. Even if he had turned around and traveled west instead of east he would have somehow ended up right back here again, through some twist of fate. He needed to find the ring because that was how fate intended for things to happen.

But maybe this time he could be so much more than what he’d been before.

They played on.

Most of Gollum’s riddles were familiar to him, and for that he was eternally grateful. Half of them he had gotten last time only by sheer luck alone, such as when the fish had leapt out of the water and landed straight on his feet and that had turned out to be the answer in the end. Because of this Bilbo tried to make sure that most of his own riddles focused on the bright things in life. Things that grew or smelled sweet or flew. They were a sharp contrast but apparently Gollum remembered enough of his life before the ring ate his life that he was able to get most of them with relative ease. There were a few moments when Bilbo’s heart leapt because his opponent was having a particularly hard time with one of his puzzles, only to sink in disappointment when it was finally guessed and Gollum would gloat and praise his own cleverness and wonder aloud to himself how Bilbo’s legs might taste. It was more than a little disconcerting how he would lick his lips and how his enormous eyes would gleam in the dark while he hopped and crawled over the boulders like a spider.

The only upside of the entire situation was that while Gollum crept about Bilbo was also able to maneuver himself around until he was standing next to Bofur, his hand never straying far from where Sting hung at his waist just in case he had cause to draw it. The dwarf had picked himself up enough to lean back against one of the wet boulders and was tentatively touching at the sizeable lump on his head, his hat cradled in his lap. Blood stained the soft sheepskin lining and made it a shade darker in the dim cave. At least he’d had the sense so far not to try to interrupt. Instead he sat quietly and when Bilbo groped backwards, unwilling to take his eyes off of Gollum for even an instant less he lose track of him in the dark, Bofur’s hand wrapped around his own and the slightly damp material of his mitten was more comforting than his little sword.

The stalemate lasted for what felt like an eternity, though in reality probably wasn’t more than a quarter hour at the most. As it wore on Gollum became more and more convinced that the goblin he had eaten up earlier hadn’t been a proper meal at all and what he really, desperately wanted was the hobbit. In fact he was nearly starving! It felt like he hadn’t eaten in ages and the thought of something sweet and juicy that wasn’t fish or bat was simply too tasty to resist. Even if the hobbit won their game it would be easy to hit him with a rock as quickly as anything and then he’d have had his game and his dinner at the same time. The dwarf he could drag into the river and drown so that it wouldn’t bother him anymore.

“One more riddle, precious. Just one. Then we’ll eats it.”

“Or let us go if I win,” Bilbo reminded the creature and it hissed in displeasure, an expression of sheer fury and distaste covering its features before it was wiped away and replaced with a mask of good humor.

“Of course precious, of course we’ll let it go if it wins!” Gollum had crawled up onto the highest boulder, in the best position to leap down upon its quarry once the game had come to an end.  

“Tha’ thing isn’t goin’ t’ let us go anywhere, Bilbo.” Bofur whispered behind him and squeezed his hand in an unnecessary warning.

“I know. I’ll figure out something. Do you think you can run if we have to?”

“I’ll manage, don’t worry ‘bout me. Just keep yer wits about ye.”

“What are they talking about, precious? What are they whispering about, do we think? Nothing, finish it! Yes yes yes, we’ll give it our riddle, precious.” Gollum settled low on his rock, his long, thin fingers digging into the wet nooks and crannies where bugs and other small slimy creatures slithered in to hide.

The hair stood up on the back of Bilbo’s neck and he hunched his shoulders to try to keep back the chill that had crept into his insides and settled there like a chip of ice.   

“Man loves it more than life,
“Fears more than death or mortal strife
The poor has it, the rich require,
What happy men desire,
The miser spends and spendthrift saves
And all carry to their graves.”

He hadn’t noticed it until now, but a sort of confidence had been holding him up. It hadn’t been anything proud or conceited, but rather a quiet sort of knowledge that he knew what was coming and could field any of the riddles that Gollum threw at him simply because he’d heard them before. After all, how many riddles could a creature who lived in the dark with no company know?

More than just the ones he’d heard before, apparently. He’d expected the riddle with the answer ‘time’, but it hadn’t come. Instead he’d been presented with this twisting tangle of words and his hands broke out in a cold sweat. If he couldn’t answer it he had two options – the first was to fight for his life and hope that he could stab Gollum before he had his brains bashed out with a rock. The second was to put on the ring and try to take out the creature that way but reveal what it was to Bofur and risk him telling the others. Traveling into a cave in the middle of the night was suspicious. Going in for something that he shouldn’t have known was there was even more so. But going in after a specific ring that he knew would turn him invisible and that he knew would aid them in overcoming Smaug? That was downright unbelievable.

“G-give me a moment,” he stuttered, pulling his hand free of Bofur’s so that he could twist his fingers together as he thought. Half of his brain, the steady and sensible Baggins side, was puzzling over the riddle. Happy men desire? More happiness? Something for others? But the spendthrift wouldn’t give anything to anyone else, so that couldn’t be right. Meanwhile the other half, the emotional and flighty Took side, was panicking over what would happen if the company found out about his secret. Would they hate him? Turn him away because he hadn’t been able to properly keep them out of danger? Or would they keep him and demand to know everything that he had seen but could never tell them for fear of changing too much? What would Thorin do, knowing that he was leading his nephews to their deaths? He hadn’t been there to see their mother mourn at their graves since he had lain cold and still in his own.

And would he hate Bilbo for staying silent all this time?

“Is it stuck, precious? It thinks and thinks and says nothing, so maybe we shall have it after all!”

“He’s figuring it out, give ‘im a minute!” Snapped Bofur as he jammed his hat back on his head, shooting a dark look across the cave at where Gollum had begun to pick at a fish skeleton that lay on the rock next to him. “You nasty bugger, leave off!”

Bilbo jumped and looked back at where the dwarf was frowning so hard it looked like his face might stick that way. “I don’t think I’ve heard you lose your temper like that, Bofur.”

“It’s nothin’. I jus’ don’t like seein’ smaller gentlefolk get picked at. Riles me right – “

“That’s it!”

This time everybody jumped. Bilbo whirled on his heel, his wet coat flaring out behind him and pointed triumphantly up at where Gollum was staring down at them, the fish bones forgotten. “The answer! It’s nothing. The poor have nothing, the rich require nothing, and I know that you take nothing with you to the grave! Ha!” He felt so triumphant that he stomped his foot and sent a couple of rocks clattering down into the river with a splash.

Gollum wasn’t nearly as pleased. He howled and screeched and threw a couple of rocks, though none of them seemed to be directly aimed at them. It was the sort of tantrum that a hobbit kit might throw when he was denied dessert or a sweet that they had been looking forward to, which, Bilbo thought, was exactly what Gollum had missed out on.   

“Not fair precious, not fair! It had help from the nasty dwarf and that’s cheating! Cheating! We must have one more and if we guesses it we win the hobbit flesh. Just one more guess!”

The word ‘flesh’ had Bilbo shuddering, but he stood firm. “Alright, we’ll do it your way. One more and then we’ll be on our way and have no more trouble from you. I’m cold and wet and tired and have better things to be doing than mucking about in here with you.”

“Aye, a cuppa coffee would perk me right up,” mumbled Bofur from behind him and Bilbo heard him climb to his feet, though the shuffling noises and soft groan he made proved it wasn’t as casually done as Bofur might have liked it to be. Thick skull or not Bilbo was still worried about his friend – even Dwalin wouldn’t have bounced back from a braining like that right away. 

“Yes! Just give it to us, we’re starving! Skin and fish bones and – “

“If you want me to give you the riddle then you have to stop talking!” Bilbo snapped, not at all impressed. Now that he’d seen Gollum’s fit of hysterics he had realized exactly what he was dealing with – a child. It may have once been something else, something civilized that walked in the sun, but now it was a monster with the mind of a child twisted by dark things. And he was a hobbit, and old, old hobbit who had dealt with more children than he could count. Over the course of his life Bilbo’s cousins and second cousins and third cousins had gone on to marry and breed like, well, hobbits. He had bounced dozens of babies on his knee and gotten toothless smiles for it. He’d read to them on rainy days, with Frodo on one side and three Bradybucks or Tooks and a Tugg or Proudfoot or two thrown in for variety on the other. And he’d given them solid smacks when he’d caught them getting into trouble and because known as ‘stern Uncle Bilbo’ to more than a few because of the glares that he could deal out as easily as smiles. It was just a matter of knowing how to control them, and the same could be said for Gollum.

“You’ll have your riddle and then when you lose we’ll be going. If you go back on your end of the bargain I’ll have to deal with you and you won’t like it one bit. Now be quiet.”

Bilbo breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth.

“If you break me
I do not stop working.
If you touch me
I may be snared.
If you lose me
Nothing will matter.”

With that he stepped back until he was standing next to Bofur again, both of them watching while the creature on the rock muttered and hissed to himself, trying to figure out the answer lest his prey slip through his fingers.

“Tha’ one should stump ‘im for a bit. Where’d you learn all those riddles, Bilbo? I know a song or three m’self but I was never much good with those puzzly sorts of things.”

 “I wrote a book about them a long time ago. Seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do at the time and you’d be surprised how many riddles hobbits know once you start picking their brains for them. The Old Took knew about two hundred of them. The only problem was he couldn’t remember half of the answers either.”

“Ha! Oh that’s grand, that is. Sounds like a fine place, I wish we could ‘ave stayed a bit longer. “

“It’s the best place, it truly is. The people are good, so is the food and drink, and it always feels like home. I would say that the only thing it doesn’t have is a bit of excitement to make your heart race once in a while. No adventures or battles, and I expect most of the folk there would like it to stay that way.”

Gollum let out a hissing wail and clawed at his scalp in frustration but they both ignored him.

“Not you?”

“No, I find I quite like having unexpected guests, even if there are more than a few of them and they track mud into my entry.”

“And break a few of yer dishes.”

“And break a few of my – wait, which dishes?”

Bofur managed a soft laugh that was only a shadow of his usual good cheer.  “You’ve got an old soul, lad. Probably born scowling at your poor ma’am and complainin’ about the mess of it all.”

“I’ll have you know that I earned every bit of my old soul the hard way and I don’t mean by tormenting my mother.”

It was a very odd sort of conversation to be having at the moment but Bilbo felt a little bit lighter for it, as if he had less to worry about even though things were still looking grim. The dice had been cast and there was nothing to do but wait while Gollum tried to figure out the answer to the last riddle of their game. If he got it they would have to fight. If he didn’t they’d probably still have to, but at least they both knew what they were up against.

“It- It’s, yes precious! It is, it has to be! But how does he know? Doesn’t matter. It’s our birthday present! Nothing matters, nothing! Cannot break it and it snares us, yes it does precious!“

“So you say that answer is your birthday preci – present? Good lord, now he’s got me saying it.”

“Not a healthy habit, that,” Bofur said with a slow nod so that he wouldn’t get lightheaded.

“Thank you Bofur, I never would have guessed. Is that your final answer?” He called up to the monster on the boulder and Gollum nodded frantically, his mouth open just enough that two or three of his jagged teeth were visible. “Then you’re wrong! The right answer was ‘a heart’, which means that you,” Bilbo drew his sword and jabbed it up at Gollum, “have to let us be on our way. Go back to your fish bones and other creepy crawly things, we have a schedule to keep and I detest being late.”

Gollum’s wail mixed with Bofur’s whoop of elation and both echoed through the cave like thunder. Bilbo hoped it didn’t alert any goblins because he’d had quite enough of those since yesterday to last him for another lifetime.

“It isn’t fair precious, it isn’t fair! We didn’t – we can’t – we don’t want toooo – “

“Bofur, do you see your mattock?” Bilbo asked, backing up slowly with his sword still pointed at where Gollum was screeching fit to wake the dead and rolling around atop his rock.

“Aye, it’s a bit to the left. I’ll grab it then?”

“That might be a good idea, because we’re going now.”

“No!” Screamed Gollum, scrambling back to his hands and knees. “They can’t leave! We wants the hobbitses!”

“Well you lost the game so I’m afraid you can’t have me. Good luck with the next hobbit that wanders through though. Good night!” There was a clatter as Bofur picked up his mattock and then he was back, grasping Bilbo’s hand so that they could start their way back up the river and out of the horrible cave, the ring in their possession.

Gollum snarled at them, more animal than anything else and his hands went to a little pocket in his loincloth.

‘No doubt going for his birthday present’ Bilbo thought grimly as he took another step backwards. Well that present was already safely tucked away in his vest pocket and Gollum would find the answer to his riddle. Nothing.

It seemed that was exactly the case because Gollum’s eyes flew open wide and a look of abject horror came over his face. “Precious? Precious?! NO! Gone! The precious is gone!” Skinny fingers shoved themselves into holes in the rock, digging, searching desperately for something that wasn’t there. “Where is it? Where is it?!”

“What’re you lookin’ for?”

“Bofur, no! Let’s just go!” Bilbo squeezed his hand hard and tried to convey his urgency. Now wasn’t the time for Bofur to employ his gift of gab.

“Mustn’t ask us! None of the nasty dwarf’s business!”

“Now tha’s jus’ rude. I was jus’ goin’ ta say that if tha’ present yer lookin’ for is a small bit o’ somethin’ shiny then I saw it back down tha’ way, a ways down.” Bofur gave his brow a tap. “Dwarf eyes, good at spottin’ things in the dark.”

Without waiting around to bid them goodbye Gollum was off like a shot, dashing into the dark with a lingering cry of “Precious!”

Whether or not Bofur had actually seen something or was simply making a good opening for them to escape Bilbo didn’t ask. He was too busy being hauled along so fast that he nearly tripped over his feet. They ran, weapons in their hands and Bilbo was quite certain that if he didn’t manage to keep up properly he would fall and impale himself right on his own sword and that would be an ironic end to his adventure.

Bilbo Baggins. Got the ring of power and then ended up stabbing himself right through the belly. Idiot.

They didn’t even slow until they reached the point where the river came up to the roof of the tunnel and they had to swim under it again. This time Bilbo was just as fast as Bofur and actually surfaced first, spitting and spluttering in his haste to get out of the cold water and away from Gollum, who had no doubt discovered that he had been deceived by now. More than anything he wanted to get back to their camp and curl up under his blanket, maybe between Fili and Kili for warmth, and sleep away the last few hours until dawn in peace.

“That was horrible and I want to go to bed,” Bilbo muttered with his teeth chattering as he trotted along. Being in the dark for so long had made his eyes used enough to it that he could make out the biggest rocks and step over them, though the small loose ones still made him stumble.

“After a good stiff drink. Jus’ tell Dori he can carry me the rest of the way to the mountain since I’ll be dead to th’ world ‘til then.”

“I’ll be sure to let him know when we get there. Bofur?”

“Aye?”

“Thanks for coming with me. I don’t know how far I would have made it without you.”

“I’m sure ye would’ve been fine. Ye knew all the riddles after all. Might have thought you’d done it all before if it weren’t for tha’ last one. Maybe hobbits are jus’ good at these sorts o’ things, I would’ve lost on the first – “

“Bofur, stop!”

Bilbo seized the dwarf by his sleeve and dragged him back into the shadows of the tunnel wall. They had nearly reached the mouth of the tunnel, enough so that moonlight had nearly washed over their toes. The clouds had cleared away while they were dueling with Gollum and now the little valley was awash in silver light. And Bilbo had seen movement passing right in front of them as more than a dozen goblins started into the water, crossing it to reach the other side. They were talking loudly and gesturing with their short blades and knives. Some of them were laughing and making crude gestures at each other, but that was hardly surprising. Bilbo and Bofur watched them pass with wide eyes, hardly daring to move. Against five or six goblins they could have handled themselves, but against this many it would have been a slaughter. These were the big sort of goblins, the warriors, the quickest and cleverest that the Misty Mountains had to offer. They stayed hidden.

“Oh yeah, his kingship wants us out here trompin around in the dark. Don’t say no to the king or you’ll end up sat on!”

One of the other goblins shuddered. “Not me! I’m not complaining at all! If is majesty wants those dwarves I’ll drag them all back meself to keep im happy!”

“Eh, we’ll get those hill rats to deliver em right to the back door and take em from there. They’ve probably got em all tied up like presents by now and they’ll be easy ta get in that way.”

“Maybe they’re dead a-ready. Dead presents are my favorite kind!”

“Well I don’t remember right if that orc said they ad to be alive. And who says he needs all of em?”

That made all of them screech with laughter as they clambered out of the water again and headed off towards where the dwarves had made camp and, apparently, been captured by hill bandits if the goblins were to be relieved.

Bofur and Bilbo stayed hidden for a long minute or two until they were sure that more reinforcements wouldn’t be arriving. Then they exchanged a look, sleep completely forgotten, and both of them took off running down the river bank.

Chapter Text

They called themselves the Corcur.

Once they had been men of the kingdom of Rhudaur and followed in the dark steps of Angmar, but when the witch king’s armies were broken the hill men were left scattered and leaderless. One tribe fled to the Misty Mountains, to seek a new home in its snowy and goblin-infested peaks and there they found the Bitter Stair and Helegrod, which they claimed as their new seat of power. From there they molested travelers and merchants going to and from Rivendell, which vexed the elves terribly, but the men knew the mountains better than the elves and could not be driven out. Instead they festered in the mountains, ever loyal to Angmar. Over time they had built up a fragile alliance with the goblins in the south and even created something the vaguely resembled trade if you didn’t look at it too hard. The goblins traded the goods and pack animals that they had stolen from travelers in return for live prisoners that the hill men took during their raids on small villages and farms. It may not have been the most beneficial or humane trade but neither group complained about it too much unless there was a shortage of one or the other.

The Goblin King had not gotten to his throne just by his sheer size. He also had a mind as quick as any of his subject’s blades, so when he discovered that the pale orc Azog was offering a reward handsome enough to make even a goblin’s head turn he sent word to all of the mountains.

“Keep your eyes open,” he had told the Corcur the last time they had come, with prison cages full of crying women and half-dead farming men. “If you find any dwarves passing through the mountains I want them. I will pay you five times what you get for any of these.” He had gestured at the humans, who had shrieked and curled in on themselves, as if that would protect them somehow.

The hill men cared little for dwarves but they liked goods and horses and gold quite a lot, so five times their usual going rate was too good an offer to ignore. For days they scoured the hills, but dwarves rarely passed over the Misty Mountains and the thieves in their den could not be lured out no matter what lure or tactic they used. Most thought it a foolhardy hunt that only wasted resources and man power but their leader, a scarred man who went by the name of Hador, insisted that they continue their scouting even though it seemed as though no dwarf would be foolish enough to venture as far north as the mountains where they roamed. It was a well-known fact that the hill tribes roamed the northern peaks and most travelers chose to take the giant and goblin-held High Pass rather than risk being captured by the Corcur. They weren’t known for their mercy or for giving quick deaths.

It was the explosion that drew their attention that fateful evening. It was rare that scouting parties pressed so far into goblin territory, but the raids that summer hadn’t been as good as they usually were and it had driven the hill men and their hunting dogs even further out than usual in search of game or caravans. The sound of the blast had carried for miles and alerted almost every creature on the mountain. The goblins had lost too many in the attack to be eager to pick through the rubble until the worst of the fires had died down.

The Corcur had no such reservations.

They swarmed down from the hills, their slavering dogs held back by lengths of thick chain, only to discover that the easternmost entrance to the mountain had been completely caved in and ravaged by black powder-fueled flames. It kept them at bay for several hours, milling about to see if any survivors pushed their way through from the other side, but when none emerged they set to digging out the cave in themselves. There was little to find within. Many of the tunnels had collapsed and those that hadn’t were in danger of. Nothing had been spared by the blast and the only thing that the hill men found that was of interested were dozens of charred goblin skeletons and a few that might have been dwarf at one point. A few of them suggested that they bring these bones to the goblin king and see if he would give them anything for them, but these voices were silenced. The king did not suffer arrogance lightly and they would likely end up as corpses themselves if they tried to bring in such meager offerings. It seemed as though there would be nothing the salvage from whatever trap or accident had destroyed the thieves’ den.  

Just as they had given it up as a hopeless effort and begun to turn back to the northern peaks one of the dogs had begun to strain against his chain, snarling and snapping. It didn’t take the others long to pick up the scent either, even disguised as it was by the smell of ash.

Dwarf.

The hunt was on.

For all that Thorin and his company had been quick in their flight from the collapsing caverns and the resulting fire they hadn’t run as if to avoid pursuit. Once the Corcur had the scent the trail was easy to follow, marked as it was by boot prints and broken branches. Had they known what was following after them the company might have taken more care, but the damage was done and the hill men closed in just as the night did around the slumbering dwarves.

__________________________________

Thorin was not asleep despite the fact that he wasn’t due to take his turn at watch until much closer to sunrise. Instead he sat awake, his pipe clamped firmly between his teeth as he puffed away in a manner that suggested that the resident king and leader was a bit irate. And he was.

What else was he supposed to be when he was awoken in the dead of night by the sound of voices only to find his burglar deep in personal conversation with that flighty miner? Bofur was good enough in a fight and always seemed to have a song at the end of the day, but he wasn’t the first dwarf Thorin expected Bilbo to turn to.

You can’t have thought that he would come to you with his troubles, he chastised himself more than a little bitterly and sat up just in time to watch the hobbit and the dwarf disappear into the dark once Bofur had woken his watch relief. It wasn’t any of his business who his company members chose to dally with as long as it didn’t endanger the company or the quest, but that didn’t make the acid burn that settled in his belly abate in the slightest. He was the one Bilbo had kissed that night in the caves, not Bofur. Unless hobbits were free with their affections even after the death of their one? Bilbo had told him that his affections had never been returned by his love so surely whatever dwarf he had grown attached to couldn’t have been his soul mate or else the feelings would have been reciprocated. Was the hobbit unattached after all, even if he didn’t realize it?

It seemed a ridiculous idea but Thorin had seen evidence more than once that hobbits were in no way the same as dwarves. Maybe they had more than one singular love that existed in the world and could recover from their deaths more easily. In fact, thinking back to their first meeting Thorin realized that Bilbo had appeared ill for quite some time, with a pale cast to his face and trembling hands. Lately he seemed much livelier but if it had been Bofur, thoughtless ham-handed Bofur who had put the flush back in the halfling’s cheeks…

Thorin bit down on the stem of his pipe so hard that it was a miracle that the thing didn’t snap right in half. The spicy, pungent tobacco did next to nothing to quiet his temper. It was the halfling’s choice who he took an interest in and if he was going to be so unwise in his selection then Thorin would say nothing on the matter. Not a single damn word.

He glanced back at the dark path the two had taken down to the river for what must have been the hundredth time and still there was no sign of the rogue lovers returning. At this rate they wouldn’t be back in time for breakfast and the company would be delayed even more. If Gandalf had been there Thorin might have demanded that he send a hex after them to interrupt their play and send them running back, but the wizard was nowhere to be found either and that rankled him even more. At this rate he’d be lucky if Fili and Kili were still at his side by the time they reached Erebor. Clearly everyone else was determined to run off on their own private business.

With a growl of temper Thorin pushed himself to his feet and scooped up his coat. He’d be hanged if he lost control of his own men so early into the journey. The pair of idiot lovers could contain themselves until they reached safety and where they weren’t endangering the entire company by wandering off to fuck and perhaps alert unforeseen enemies. He’d beat some sense into Bofur and maybe that would teach Bilbo the error of his ways as well. The idea of having the miner’s bruised and bloody face beneath his fists was far too appealing.

The muffled growl was his only warning that they were no longer along and it came far too late to make any difference.

__________________________________

It wasn’t hard to get close to the camp again. Neither the hill men nor the goblins had posted any sort of guard, rightly thinking that the massive fire they’d started and the howling and shouting  would keep away most anyone who came wandering by. Indeed, any beast or man with half a brain would have given the place as wide a berth as possible, but Bilbo and Bofur ventured in anyway. They had a vested interest in the goings-on of that dreadful meeting.

They crept along behind a line of thick bushes, doing their best not to listen to the screams and shouting that were coming from where they had left the rest of the company. Rushing in blindly would only get them captured or killed and then they’d be no use to anyone. Eventually Bilbo nearly ran face-first into a pine tree and Bofur used his mattock to hook one of the lower branches and haul himself up into it to get a better look. Sadly this lower branch was still much too high for Bilbo to be able to do the same, so Bofur had to lean backwards with his legs hooked over the branch and give him a hand up. They settled themselves there just high enough to see what all of the commotion was about.   

“Oh no,” Bilbo whispered, pressing one hand against his stomach and the other to his mouth so that no other sounds could escape.

It was a scene that would become one of his darkest nightmares.

There were at least twenty of the hill bandits, all of them clad in rough fabric that was torn at the knees and stained around the sleeves with who knew what. They were a shabby lot with long, greasy hair and eyes wild enough to match those of the ten dogs that prowled around their legs. Their dogs weren’t as big as wargs, but they snapped and slobbered just as viciously. Mixed in among the dogs and the men were the troop of goblins that they had seen crossing the river from the mouth of the cave. The lot of them had built up a massive fire in the center of what had been their little camp and it cast a fiery red and yellow glow over everything, making it look sharp and feral.

Most of the dwarves had been tied at their hands and their ankles by lengths of thick rope and sat back to back near the fire, though not close enough to be burned by it. Dwalin and Dori had been tied thrice over around their knees and by a thick length around their necks to keep them under control and both were sporting bruises and slices and every dwarf had rips in their clothes from the struggle. Dwalin lay on his side facing away from the tree were they hid, fighting at his bonds and roaring into the gag they’d shoved into his mouth. Gloin was using words that would have gotten his mouth washed out with dish soap in the Shire and Nori had one of the dogs practically standing on him, growling down at him every time the dwarf tried to shift, no doubt trying to get his bound hands to one of the many knives hidden on his person without success.

“They must’ve fought somethin’ fierce,” Bofur whispered as he took in the whole sight with wide eyes. Now that he took the time to notice, many of the hill men had indeed wrapped rags around their arms or legs where they looked to have been slice with something sharp or were sporting black eyes and there were two pairs of boots sticking out of a bush in the shadows that weren’t moving at all. For being taken unaware the dwarves had at least managed to rouse themselves fast enough to give their attackers a proper welcome.   

Neither the gathering nor the participants were the worst of what there was to see though. That right was reserved for the two groups of hill men and the ‘entertainment’ they had set up to amuse themselves until the goblins arrived to barter.

Poor Ori had been dragged into a circle of dogs and men and was being jabbed at with long spears, his beloved journal clutched to his chest as he tried to avoid each teasing thrust. They only sent him backwards into the ones waiting for him behind, like a deer caught in a thorn bush with nowhere safe to turn. Already he was covered in dozens of scratches and Bilbo saw that he had only barely missed losing his right eye when the terrified dwarf turned around to duck under yet another drive because there was a long bleeding scratch directly under it and one of his gloves was crimson. Tears streaked through the dirt and blood on his face and his breath was coming in frantic, heaving gasps. Ori might have been strong like his brother, but surrounded as he was there was nowhere for him to find an opening for either attack or escape. Bofur growled next to him, but they had little time to watch the show that Ori was being forced into because a screaming cry seized their attention and they leaned around the trunk of their tree to see what new horror the night had concocted for them.

Kili had tumbled onto his side as he pulled away from Oin’s support behind him. The young dwarf had a split lip and his hair was messy enough that it was almost impossible to see his face, but that didn’t keep his words from carrying up to where Bilbo and Bofur watched with horror.

“No, Fili! You bastards, let him go! Fili!”

But even Kili’s frantic cries were nearly drowned out by Thorin’s howl of fury and the laughter of the Corcur and the goblins as the blond prince was dragged away by his bound hands, kicking and shouting for all he was worth, to where the biggest goblin and a bandit who looked like half of his face had been ripped off by a bear stood. Back at the group Thorin had managed to get to his feet despite being hobbled and had thrown off the goblin that had tried to push him back again. The only thing that stopped him from going after his nephew was the rope around his neck. It snapped tight with a sharp cracking sound and Thorin was ripped right off his feet with a choking noise while the goblins shrieked with mirth. Bilbo winced and raised his hand to his own throat in sympathy.

“We have to do something now or we may not have another chance.” He tried to keep his voice as quiet as possible so that the dog’s keen ears wouldn’t pick up on it over the din of the camp. There was no such thing as too careful in a situation like this. Below them Fili was trying to bite the hand of the big Corcur but was scared into stillness when the human drew a knife as long as his forearm out of a sheath at the small of his back. It was as big as any of the swords that the dwarves wielded but in the hands of the human it practically looked like a butter knife. Even from as far away as he was Bilbo could see that the edge of it was jagged and flecked with rust.

“Tell me ye got a better plan than runnin’ in there and going ‘drop yer weapons pretty please’.”

“Why must you ruin all of my best ideas?”

“Well the cave and yer bit of jewelry were all well an’ good, but this’s pushin’ things a bit.”

“Oh hush, I’m thinking.”

And he had to think fast because Fili now lay struggling at the feet of the Corcur leader, his eyes wide and frightened until a vicious kick to his middle by an iron-toed boot made him go as limp as a boned fish. Thorin bellowed again, but the rope around his neck went taught again, keeping him well away from Fili and half-throttling him in the process.

A cold sweat broke out on Bilbo’s forehead and he chewed hard on his bottom lip as he thought, discarding idea after idea as he found a flaw that would get them captured or killed.

“That’s twelve dwarves; all trussed up like hens and whole enough to suit anyone.” The bandit coughed and spat out a glob of slime that hit Fili’s cheek. The prince didn’t move, though Bilbo couldn’t tell if he was unconscious or not.

“Eh, King never said whether he wanted ‘em alive or not. Don’t matter much to us, long as they don’t cause trouble when we haul ‘em in.”

“And our payment?”

“You’ll get it when we get ‘em inside. Got it all stocked up jus’ in case ye did come across much interestin, though we was startin’ to think not.

A couple of the Corcur growled at this and there was a pained yelp from Ori as one of the javelins carved a red line into his leg. It collapsed under him and his journal tumbled away as he fell into the mud and curled up into a ball. Dori screamed and his face went crimson as he fought to rip apart the ropes that kept him away from his brother, but to no avail.

“Bilbo! Think faster, we’re runnin’ out of time.”

“I know I know, I just – wait. Wait, I think I have something. Listen, I need you to try to sneak into camp without anyone noticing you. Pretend that you’ve been there the whole time and wrap some untied rope around your wrists and ankles so they won’t think anything is wrong – I have a bit of it in my pack over to the side there by that bush. See if you can free any of the others, alright? I’m going to cause a distraction and hopefully we’ll be able to slip away during that.”

“What’re you going to do? You’ll be caught right away if you try to get into that lot.”

The hobbit’s smile was small, but there was a steadiness behind it. “They can’t catch what they can’t see. Don’t worry about me, just go help the others and be ready to run. Your part is more dangerous than mine, so be careful.”

 Bofur gave him a quick nod before using his mattock to swing down out of the tree and into the darkness below. There was a soft crunch as he landed in the wet pine needles but it went unnoticed and Bilbo’s racing heart slowed a little as he watched the dwarf’s shadowy figure move off towards the far side of the camp. Now he just had to do his part before Fili ended up on the edge of that rusty blade. His eyes snapped back to the unmoving prince and his captors, who were arguing about whether the agreed price had been two horses and three bags of goods per dwarf or three horses and two bags off goods. There was no way that they could take on so many enemies in the state they were.

The hobbit made sure that Sting was sheathed firmly at his side and began to shimmy out across his branch, holding tight to the one above his head in case he lost his footing. The wood was wet and slippery with moss and rain water and it was slow going and more than once a piece of the bark flaked off and went tumbling down and nearly landed on one of the dogs. The beast turned in a circle, growling and smashing its flat face into the ground to sniff about, but it didn’t look up and Bilbo only barely held in his sigh of relief.

“It was two horses and three bags and if you don’t like it I’ll take it up with that fat king of yours personally and bring your head with me!”

Another few steps brought him almost directly over the arguing pair.

“Fine! But if the king don’t like it it’ll be you he comes after first! Now get the lot of ‘em down to the back door and make it quick. Sun’ll be comin’ up soon and it hurts my eyes. Get on with it!” The goblin scowled and made a slashing motion with his claws. The Corcur ignored him and turned to watch the band leader, leaving off on tormenting the poor dwarves for a moment while they waited for their orders.

“One last thing. I’m thinkin’ I want a bit of a souvenir for all the hard work we did tonight, digging and chasing down these here dwarves.” He moved too fast for Bilbo to think about dropping in to stop him and before he could even loosen his grip on the branch above his head the hill bandit had reached down and seized Fili by his hair, his knife moving in a downward arch of silver and rust.

Kili screamed; a high, broken sound. Thorin roared and fought like a caged animal and the rest of the dwarves struggled against their bonds as if they could somehow rip their way free of them.

The bandit held up a thick handful of golden hair and Fili dropped back to the ground with a hard thump and whimper, curling back into a ball with his knees pressed against his chest, the ragged ends of his shorn hair tangling over his eyes, no strand long enough to even reach his shoulders any more.  

“That’ll make a pretty decoration for the women folk. Might braid it into a nice vest for me – dwarves always got the nicest hair for that sort of work. Good as animal pelt it is.”

Bilbo moved. One hand plunged into his pocket and he slipped on the ring even as he let go of the branch and plummeted towards the ground. He’d thought it would be an easy thing to don, like it had always been before. A bit cold and gray around the edges of his vision, but nothing to fuss about.

He’d been so wrong.

In the two seconds it took him to land behind the goblin band leader an icy fist wrapped itself around his heart and twisted it viciously enough to make his vision go white. It knew. Somehow the ring could tell that he knew what it held and it wasn’t pleased. It was harder to manipulate those who knew what evil it carried inside of it and it wanted to be far away from Bilbo Baggins. There would be no returning to its master in the hands of this hobbit, so the only way to further its own cause was to find a new bearer. Painful tendrils lashed at the hobbit again and again, trying to make him let go of it, to take it off and drop it where a goblin or one of the bandits could pick it up instead, but as Bilbo’s feet hit the ground he made as tight a fist as he could and held on. There wasn’t any way he could let the ring go now, even though it was driving icicles into the very fabric of his being. He needed it and he hated it so because of that. For the pain it had caused him and would no doubt cause his family if Frodo was forced to carry it one day. By Eru did he hate it…

The goblin made a curious sound and began to turn to investigate the crunching sound that had come from behind it, drawing its short sword. There was nothing there. The moment it turned back however its arm short forward as if propelled by invisible hands and the sword sank deep into the belly of the Corcur, all the way to the hilt.

The human stilled, the golden strands of Fili’s hair slowly falling out of his grasp as he looked down at the sword protruding from his middle. As slowly as death he looked back up at the goblin, which had gone pale even beneath its rot-colored skin tone.

“Men! We have been betrayed! Kill the lot of them!” The Corcur roared, staggering backwards a single step and drawing a huge mace from over his shoulder, which he managed to bring down with a roar. The goblin’s head exploded in a shower of gray matter and bone and the Corcur collapsed backwards, succumbing to the blade in his gut as the camp erupted with a roar. Swords and daggers and hammers were drawn as the humans and the goblins collided with shrieks of bloodlust and pain. Here the winner would take everything and the loser wouldn’t have enough life left in them to slink away to lick their wounds.

The second the attention turned away from the first corpses Bilbo slid off the ring and nearly wept with relief as the pain and freezing cold abated. The cursed piece of jewelry was shoved back into his pocket and he buttoned it shut to make sure that it didn’t go rolling out and into worse hands.  The he dashed to Fili’s side and fell to his knees next to the prince, grabbing his shoulders and pushing him onto his face so that he could untie the ropes that bound his hands together.

“Fili! Get up, we have to go!”

Fili whimpered and ground his face into the dirt and pine needles, his whole body shaking. “Bilbo – he cut it off, it’s all gone. I can’t – “

“You can! Now get up this instant or I’ll pinch you somewhere you don’t’ want me to! We have to rescue the others, so save feeling sorry for yourself until later.”

Some part of that seemed to get through to him, though Bilbo wasn’t sure whether it was the bit about the pinching or helping the others.

“Kili?”

“Kili’s fine for now, but we have to go or now of us are going to be. On your feet!” The last of the ropes fell away under his hands. Luckily the knots hadn’t been overly complex, just sturdy and tight so it hadn’t taken very long to get them undone. He could only hope that Bofur had managed to get a few of the others free as well otherwise it would take valuable time to get everyone free and by then the battle that was raging around them might have settled. A goblin shrieked and fell to the ground next to them, its chest caved in from a hammer swing and they both rolled out of the way to avoid its thrashing death throes. Fili staggered to his feet, one arm wrapped around his middle as if he had damaged something, but at least he wasn’t fretting over his hair anymore. Together they ran as quickly as they could across the wet pine needles, ducking under sword swings and over bodies in their mad dash to get back to the others.

“Ho! Come on then, I’ve had enough of this lot! No manners!” Bofur hailed them and waved his hat as they slid to a stop. The miner had managed to get Gloin, Dwalin, Bombur, Nori, and Bifur undone during the chaos and the moment he finished slicing through Oin’s binds with a long boot knife the old healer dwarf dashed over and scooped up Ori where he lay in a heap. A dead dog and two more bandits lay nearby with signs that they had been hit by a heavy blunt object and Bilbo tried to ignore the bits of blood and hair on the edges of Bofur’s mattock. Whatever it took to free the others would be acceptable, even if it did turn his stomach a little.

Sting came out and Bilbo began to saw at Dori’s bonds. Before he was even halfway through the tinker shredded the last of the rope and ripped away the ones at his ankles with a shout of anger and a couple of choice words that should have sent both the bandits and the goblins running for the hills. The second he was free Dori seized Ori from Oin and slung the youngest Ri over his shoulder, not willing to put him down for a moment. Bilbo knew exactly how he felt as he turned to find that Fili had already freed his brother and the two had seized hold of each other like lifelines, their faces pale and streaked with tears.

“Come on then, grab what you can and let’s be off!” Cried Balin as he shed the last of his bindings and ran for where their weapons had been left in a pile. A goblin had picked up the old scribe’s sword but he was swiftly dispatched by a pointed boot to the groin. Most of the others followed his lead but Thorin was a bit slower because he was still grappling with the noose around his neck even as Bofur fought to undo the ties around his boots. Every yank at the thing only made it tighter and it looked like the king was going to strangle himself to death before their captors noticed them and finished the job. Bilbo ran back for them and grabbed Thorin by his wrists.

“Stop pulling, you’re just making it worse! For one time in your life would you just hold still and let me help?” Bilbo ignored the baleful glare that was leveled at him and pulled the rope apart at the knot so that it fell limply to the ground. Expecting a ferocious tirade to come down on his head Bilbo was shocked when Thorin stayed dead silent and pushed his way past, heading for where his sword and pack lay rather than berating the burglar for arriving late. He and Bofur shared a quick, started glance and then followed after, their weapons at hand as they waited for everyone to arm themselves. Bombur managed to snag Ori’s journal out from under the body of one of the Corcur dogs and nearly got himself carved up like a holiday roast when he stumbled between a bandit and a goblin going at it with knives. Bifour managed to grab him by his beard loop and pull him out of harm’s way in the nick of time, but it was a close thing.

“Let’s go, quickly!” Bilbo called, not wanting anything more to do with goblins or being captured for a good long while. He’d had quite enough of both and just wanted to be finished for a little while.

With most of the packs and all of the weapons reclaimed the company plunged into the underbrush, not paying any heed to the sharp branches and thorns that whipped at their faces and arms as they fought through bushes and thickets down to the river’s edge and then along the bank of it, moving as fast as they could with arms and legs left bloodless by the tight ropes. Ori was in no condition to run at all and Dori was slowed by his weight, while Fili and Kili limped along with their arms slung around each other’s shoulders in an attempt to support one another. Bofur was up in front, his sharp eyes picking out the safest path while Thorin and Bilbo brought up the rear, their swords in their hands as they continuously glanced back over their shoulders for pursuers.

It didn’t take long for them to appear. With a great howl three hunting dogs dashed around the river bank, their fur ashy blue and flecked with red in the dusky morning light that had just barely begun to illuminate the forest. Behind them came their masters. At least ten of the bandits had survived the battle with the goblins, though many of them were sporting slices or broken ribs enough to slow them. Even with those handicaps they were still gaining on the company because of their longer legs.

“Catch ‘em, lads!” Cried one of the bandits as he brandished what looked like a harvesting sickle. “Cut open their bellies and take their packs! Won’t be a total loss!”  

One of the dogs lunged at Thorin’s ankles and its head went rolling away and the dwarf swung down with his sword and severed it completely. The two remaining dogs yelped and sniffed at the corpse for a second until the cries of the bandits spurred them on again and they snarled as they leapt forward, spurred on by the smell of blood.

Even as they leapt Bilbo and Thorin stopped and turned, their swords raised to face them down. Dwalin and a few of the others shouted behind them, but he was too far away to reach them in time.

The dogs they could handle. The men?

“I’m glad I’m at your side,” Bilbo whispered. If this was the end he wanted Thorin to at least know that much. The dogs howled as they jumped, teeth bared, ready to rip out their throats. Bilbo raised his sword, preparing to swing, and –

A blinding flash lit up the river, making everyone take a step backwards. They dogs yelped and dropped into the mud, legs pedaling as they fought to get away from this new enemy. The Corcur drew up short; weapons lowering slightly as they pawed at their eyes and one began to scream that he had been blinded.

Gandalf had finally arrived.

The wizard stood up to his ankles in the cold water, gnarled staff raised and robes hanging from his bony arms like the tatty wings of an old crow. “You think to test the wrath of a wizard do you?” He bellowed. “Go! Go back to your mountains and your snow and haunt this place no longer!” The staff came down with a mighty crack and the river swelled beneath their feet until it became a wall nearly ten feet high. The bandits, showing more intelligence than Bilbo would have credited them with, turned and ran with the water bearing down on them until they were out of sight.

The hobbit sagged, his relief and exhaustion so great that his sword point got buried in the mud.

“Gandalf! Thank goodness, I was worried there for a moment.”

The wizard gave him an amused look as he sloshed his way out of the water. The rest of the company had assembled on the banks, all of them talking at once though neither Bilbo nor Gandalf paid them much mind.

“Just for a moment, Bilbo? You have steadier nerves than even your mother and I thought her to be the most level headed hobbit west of Rivendell.”  

“Must run in the blood. Can we please go now? I’m hungry and I desperately want to have a lie down.” It took a herculean effort to raise his sword enough to get the mud off of it and sheath it again and then his arms fell limply to his sides, drained of the adrenaline that had fueled him earlier.

Gandalf was back. All would be well.

Chapter Text

It was a very odd sort of dream; the sort that made sense while you were dreaming it but when you awoke you realized that none of it had ever made any sense at all. 

Bilbo was running through Bag End. The halls were much larger than they were in reality, stretching up into the darkness, and there seemed to be a great many more rooms as well. One for silver spoons, one for vests, and one for gardening tools (even though he wouldn’t have kept his tools inside. He had a shed for that). But there were also rooms for decidedly odd things like swords and armor, things that no respectable hobbit would have had in their homes and yet they felt like they belonged there anyway. One by one he opened doors and peered inside to see what he would find therein. It wasn’t that he was looking for anything specifically; it was more of a sense that he would know why he had been looking when he found whatever it was. It seemed perfectly normal until he came to the empty room. 

“Hello?” He stepped in and peered around into the darkness, his brow furrowed in confusion. Unlike the other rooms this one was cold and dark and seemed to not hold much of anything.

This is a room for dark things.

The ceiling was so high that there seemed to be no end to it, and when he turned to look at the door it too had grown so tall that a full grown human would have had a hard time reaching the knob. He felt no bigger than a field mouse here, and a very undersized field mouse at that. A soot ball could have knocked him head over heels, but there didn’t appear to be any nor breath of wind to stir them.

As he turned for the door to leave the room and continue to the next he saw something in the corner, in the shadow that the massive door had cast. If he hadn’t been looking in the exact right direction he might have missed it completely and left without ever knowing that he had overlooked something.

But there it was. A golden ring.

He picked it up carefully and cradled it in his hands as if it was a small bird rather than a bit of jewelry. For all that it couldn’t have weighed more than a feather it seemed unbearably heavy and he needed both hands to keep it from breaking his wrists like twigs.

“There you are,” Bilbo whispered to it. “Was I looking for you? I can’t seem to remember right now, but I know it was something important.”

Put it down, it does not belong to you. Another should carry it. One more worthy.

No, you need it. Don’t let go of it for anything.

Drop it, it will bring only pain!

Hold on! It will save everything!

And destroy it in the end.

Keep –

No –

There was a scuffing noise behind him and the hobbit spun around in time to see a shadow slide past the open door, which had shrunk back to normal size again. “Hello?” Bilbo called after it, walking back into the endless hall of doors. “Excuse me, but what are you doing in my house?” 

There was no one there.

For all that there was nothing to cast it, the shadow continued to work its way down the wall, its shape becoming sharper the further away it got and Bilbo found himself chasing after it, his feet making no noise as he dashed away from the dark room with the heavy ring still clutched tightly in his sweaty hands.

“Hello! Wait! Come back!”

The shadow dipped and wavered as it passed over closed door, sometimes disappearing completely as it rounded corners only to come back into sight again when Bilbo followed after, determined to figure out exactly what had invaded his sanctuary. A wraith? A ghost?

No matter how fast he walked he couldn’t seem to catch up and finally he broke into a run. The ring grew hot in his fist as he ran as fast as he could, trying to reach the shadow. He recognized that shape – he remembered its broad shoulders and billowing coat as intimately as if they had been carved on the very fabric of his being – he was a shadow of a memory.

“Please stop, don’t go that way! Look, I found it! I can save everyone with it, I’m trying! Please! I’m trying!” He shouted after it, raising the ring up, trying to show the shadow. It was the key to everything; it had to be. If the ring couldn’t help him save them this time then there was no magic on earth that could make things right. The floor slanted beneath his feet suddenly and Bilbo fell forward, his hands smacking into the floor as he tried to keep from falling backwards and losing every step he had gained. The ring slipped out of his hands and bounced once, twice, and then it was gone. It had abandoned him.

The shadow kept walking with a confident stride, unhindered by the slope, growing further and further away and heading for the door at the end of the tunnel. Unlike Bilbo’s brilliantly green front door this one was painted red. It was peeling at the bottom, revealing a smoky blackness underneath and a sickly yellow light was trickling out from under it. It wasn’t a door Bilbo ever wanted to go near but it seemed to be the shadow’s destination.

Bilbo watched, clinging to the tilted floor, as the shadow peeled itself off of the wall and took shape, shedding its darkness like fog until only shreds clung to its sleeves and the heels of its boots.

 “No, Tho - !”

Oily tendrils of blackness shot out of the floor and wrapped around his mouth, poured down his throat, silencing him so that he couldn’t cry out. They held him down, twining around his legs and arms when he tried to pull them away. He couldn’t breathe. He could barely see as the stuff started to cover his eyes. He was being dragged into the floor and Bilbo knew that he was the one who was supposed to be the shadow now, trapped forever in that in between place. But somehow he had to warn…about the…

Bilbo’s eyes snapped open and he nearly screamed as he found himself staring at a pair of massive golden eyes. It took him a long moment to calm down enough to realize that they were not in fact eyes, but eye spots. The moth that had landed on his nose while he slept seemed to sense his regard and fanned its wings once, twice, before it took off and fluttered out of sight.

With a groan the hobbit sat up, but it was a bit too quickly and his head spun wildly enough that he had to lean forward and brace his forehead against his drawn up legs and wait for the dizziness to pass. There were leaves in his hair – they scratched his arms while he concentrated on breathing as slowly and deeply as he could manage until he felt more like himself again. The sound of talking and a bit of laughter met his ears when his heartbeat quieted enough to hear them and he realized that they must have made camp at some point, though he didn’t remember when he had fallen asleep. The last thing he remembered was running along behind Bifur as they put as much distance between themselves and the battle as they could. Had he fallen asleep on his feet? His nose didn’t feel raw so at least he had managed not to land on his face. Bilbo rubbed the appendage in question and finally looked up.

This time there really was a pair of eyes looking back at him, except these were icy blue rather than golden.

“Thorin,” Bilbo whispered.

Chapter Text

Bilbo made a noise that was trapped somewhere between a shriek and saying ‘good morning’ and simply came out as ‘eee-orning’.

Thorin wasn’t impressed. While Bilbo scrambled to find his feet the dwarf king stood from where he’d been sitting on an exposed root and walked away without a word, leaving Bilbo feeling very muzzy headed and confused. Had it been something he’d said?

A leaf was plucked out of his hair, followed quickly by two more while he took a proper look around to see where fate had landed them this time. The rest of the company had spread themselves out over a small clearing in the trees and there was a fire going in the middle of it, over which dangled a fat black cooking pot and tea pot that only had a few chips in it. The sun shone down from the east, revealing that it must have been about midmorning. Gandalf sat with his back to one of the trees next to Balin, and both of them were deep in quiet conversation and smoking. That the wizard was back with them again brought him no end of relief. It seemed to be true that wizards showed up exactly when they meant to, as long as ‘when they meant to’ meant ‘at the very last moment possible’.

No one was tied up – good. There didn’t seem to be any immediate signs of danger – even better. His coat had gone missing, along with everything in his pockets – very very bad. The soggy remains of his list were in there, along with…wait, no. He patted the buttoned front pocket of his vest and felt the familiar shape of the ring nestled therein. Not gone yet. That was something, but that also meant that Thorin’s ring was still missing.

“Gandalf, have you seen my coat?” He asked as he made his way over to the wizard, straightening his vest and tucking his undershirt back into the tops of his trousers as he walked. Goodness gracious his feet were sore. Of course, at this age he hadn’t built up the same callouses from long walking trips that he had by the time he reached seventy so he was still as soft as a gentle hobbit was supposed to be. A few more weeks of hard roads and lean rations would no doubt put him right back into the same lean shape that he’d once been in before the softness of old age caught up with him again. For now he’d just avoid stepping on too many sharp rocks.

Balin toasted him with his pipe as he came up. “Mister Baggins. You gave us all quite a start when you decided to take a nap in the middle of our flight.”

Bilbo went crimson in embarrassment and spluttered a bit, not quite sure how to give a proper accounting of himself, since professional burglars weren’t exactly known for giving up the ghost right in the middle of the action like he’d apparently done.

“Now now, as I’ve told you Balin, hobbits are not quite as hardy as dwarves. They need more rest and food than you do and Bilbo has clearly not been getting enough of one or the other. I expected you to take better care of my guest.” Gandalf raised his eyebrows at Balin and blew a smoke ring that turned itself into a lizard that went crawling away up into the branches of the tree he was leaning against.

“None of us have been having an easy time of things, Master Gandalf,” Balin protested, but there was no ire in his voice and he winked at Bilbo from under one bushy white brow. “But now that we’re out of that mess, thanks quite a bit to Mister Baggins I might add, I think that he deserves a bit of a rest.”

“Yes, well,” Bilbo said, mollified. “I’m sure any of you would have done the same.”

“Perhaps. But I’m not sure many would have been able to drop in as quietly as you and turn the entire camp into a battleground to cover our escape.”

Gandalf chuckled. “I do believe that I told you that he had quite a bit to offer the company. It seems that we can add ‘rescuing dwarves’ to Bilbo’s list of talents.”

“I’m, ah, very light-footed. Good for that sort of thing, don’t you know. Gandalf? My coat?” This was straying too close to the ‘what were you doing before everyone was captured?’ question for his liking and he hadn’t had time to come up with a suitable excuse yet other than ‘I went on a very long walk in the pitch dark and fell in the river. Oh yes, and Bofur came too’, which wasn’t very believable at all when it came down to it.

“Last I saw of it Dori had confiscated it and was going to mend the sleeve. One of them tore right off when you decided that you’d had enough of our company.”

“Aye, Thorin grabbed it so you wouldn’t fall on your face and it came off clean. Luckily the second one didn’t or you’d be nursing a black eye or the like. Then again,” the old dwarf mused, “you’d match the rest of us is you had a battle wound or two.”

“I scratched up my hands a bit,” Bilbo admitted, showing Balin his ragged palms and scraped knuckles. They were observed and tutted over before Balin patted his wrist in a grandfatherly manner that almost made Bilbo laugh. He’d long ago passed the age where that was appropriate, but Balin was well into his two hundreds and would probably always be older than Bilbo no matter how many times he managed to reincarnate. It was simply the way of things – Balin was an elder and treated everyone as if they were troublemaking tweens (even Gandalf on occasion).

“You get Oin to look those over for you - wouldn’t do for our burglar to take ill from a scratch. He’ll wrap you up once he finishes tending to Ori.”

Gandalf nodded sagely and both of them made shooing motions at Bilbo with their pipes. Feeling very much dismissed Bilbo left the two conniving old men to their chit chat and turned back to the rest of the little camp, his hand occasionally straying to the little shape in his front pocket as if to assure himself that it was still there. The memory of the pain and ice that had swallowed him when he put it on wasn’t a pleasant one but it certainly acted as a good deterrent towards putting it on again. As long as it didn’t decide to roll off while he was sleeping it could sit in his pocket as stay there until he reached Erebor. After all, he was a master burglar and master burglars couldn’t always rely on rings of invisibility.

On the heels of the terror that had pursued them for the last few days it felt almost surreal to be able to take a deep breath and know that he didn’t have to run or hide. The little camp was at peace. Bombur was doctoring his soup with a sprig of rosemary, deep in conversation with Gloin about how well their wives cooked, while it seemed that his brother and cousin had followed Bilbo’s example. Bofur was asleep and snoring fit to wake the dead with his hat over his face, its floppy ears drooping over his unbraided pigtails. Bifur had cuddled up to his boar spear with his back against a tree, his beard fluttering with each breath.

Bilbo couldn’t help but smile a little as he stepped over Bofur’s heavy boots. All of them deserved a bit of rest. Hopefully they hadn’t found themselves too far north to pay Beorn a visit – Bilbo found himself longing for the shape shifter’s comfortable lodge and lovely gardens more than a little bit. And real beds…

A ragged moan broke through his reverie and he grimaced. Not all of them had made it out completely whole. Rather than continue the few steps to where he could see Oin and Dori bandaging up a loudly complaining Ori he made for where Fili was sprawled on the ground with his face buried in his brother’s lap. The prince made another pathetic noise as Bilbo walked up. Kili was speaking in rapid Khuzdul and touching the uneven ends of Fili’s hair, his eyes wide and uncertain. The young prince shot Bilbo a look of mixed horror and relief as he walked up, clearly thankful that someone who might know what to do had come along.

‘Where did their grouch of an uncle run off to?’ Bilbo wondered as he crouched down on his heels next to the princes and gave Kili what he hoped was a reassuring smile. Thorin should have been at their sides, comforting them after the scare that they’d all been put through, not playing strong and silent on the other side of the camp. He fought so hard to get to Fili during their capture after all; it seemed very odd that he wouldn’t be the one here instead of the burglar.

“Now what’s the cause for all this fuss?” Bilbo asked softly, using the same tone he’d used before on hobbit kits when they’d fallen or stubbed their toes and weren’t sure whether or not they wanted to cry about it.

Fili didn’t budge but his stranglehold on Kili’s waist seemed to ease a little.

“That human – “ he spat something in Khuzdul that Bilbo assumed was very unflattering, “ – d-did you see what he did?” Kili’s voice broke for a moment before he took a deep breath to try to regain his composure, his hands buried in what was left of his brother’s hair. Fili’s long golden mane had been sheared short enough that the back of his neck was visible in places. The knife had cut awkwardly enough to leave some strands long enough to brush the prince’s shoulders while others had nearly been shaved off completely.

“It’s not so bad,” Bilbo lies, reaching out to ruffle what was left of the prince’s hair. “Did I ever tell you about the time my great uncle Crado convinced me to let him trim my hair? It used to be quite long when I was a kit and was constantly falling in my eyes then. I should have known better than to let him considering he was a butcher, but there I was a few hours later with a bald stripe going right down the middle of my head and one of my ears bleeding. My mother didn’t let him come to visit until I was in my tweens after that and I still have a scar from it. See?” He leaned in and turned his head so that they could see the thin white line where his uncle had nearly lopped the tip of his ear off with a razor blade.

Kili made a horrified noise and reached out to touch the scar. His rough fingers sent a tingling jolt through Bilbo – his ears had always been sensitive. It was a very personal thing for hobbits to allow their ears to be touched, even more so than kissing and it was usually reserved for bed play. The burglar made sure to hold himself very still while Kili explored and then again when Fili made a red-eyed appearance to investigate as well. Pretty soon he had two princes pawing at his hair and his ears, trying to talk over one another all the while.  

“How long did it take to grow – “

“Did it hurt?”

“What was he using, an axe?”

“Uncle Thorin would have beaten him until he – “

“Do hobbits really cut their hair?”

“Is it that curly by itself or do you have to – “

“Do you think you could fix – “

If he’d let them Bilbo knew that the two brothers could have easily talked until lunch time. But at least Fili was sitting up and not moaning like he’d had all of his ribs broken instead of a bit of his hair and Kili wasn’t on the verge of panicked tears. He considered that a good exchange for having his ears and hair molested a bit, but finally shooed away the curious fingers when he’d had enough. A violently pink blush had settled itself over his cheekbones and ears, but hopefully the princes wouldn’t think anything of it. For all that they could be surprisingly childlike in their fears and interests he also had to keep in mind that they were young adults in dwarven culture and had propositioned him on more than one occasion. It wouldn’t do to treat them as if he weren’t aware of either their status or the way they could go from puppies to wolves in the time it took to say ‘stop touching my ears’.

So he flapped his hands like an old maid and made shushing noises at both of them until the brothers fell silent and looked up at him expectantly.

“Of course it grew back, that’s the nature of hair! There’s no need to carry on like it’s the end of the world.” For a moment he was tempted to pull of Fili’s mustache to make his point, but he’d already pushed his luck enough with ruffling his hair earlier. Dwarves could be a bit off about having their hair touched, especially by those who weren’t kin. While they had grown close over their travels Bilbo wasn’t sure that he’d reached the point with the princes where they’d be comfortable with having a hobbit messing about with their hair. His ears were one thing, but they didn’t know about the standard that came with that sort of touch whereas he knew enough about dwarven culture not to play around with Fili’s mustache. He’d probably be even more protective of it now that the rest of his hair had met an unfortunate demise.

“But look at it!” Fili whined, grabbing a double handful of the long strands that framed his face and pulling on them wretchedly. “Now it looks horrible and I’ll never be able to live it down!”

“I’d be more worried about that kick you got rather than your hair,” Bilbo pointed out, ever the voice of reason. “Give it a couple of years and it will all grow back in again. We just need to give it all a trim and maybe put some new braids in it and it’ll be as good as new.” 

Both princes’ eyes widened.

“Trim it?!”

“You’re going to braid it?”

“But it’s already short!”

“I know it’s short, but would you rather have it be evenly short and look nice or keep looking like a - a beaver with a mustache that somebody went at with a pair of rusty shears?” Bilbo snapped, standing up and propping his hands on his hips. They may have been young dwarves, but a bit of lost hair was hardly worth the protest they were making over it.  

Fili’s hands snapped up to his head and he looked over at Kili.

“He’s kind of right, you do look a bit silly like that,” the younger prince mumbled and then yelped when Fili gave him a solid thump over the back of his head.

“Of course I’m right; I’m the only one in this entire camp with a bit of sense with the exception of Gandalf. Now I’m going to get Dori so that he can do something about it and we can all stop listening to you cry about it.

“I wasn’t crying! And I thought you said that you were going to do it?” The betrayed look that Fili gave him almost made Bilbo cave, but he gave himself a solid pinch and steeled himself against the prince’s big brown eyes.

“Don’t be ridiculous, I’m not a hairdresser. The most I’ve done is trim my nephew’s bangs, and those were curly. I don’t know the first thing about cutting dwarf hair so you’d probably end up looking like Dwalin if you let me do it.” He nearly laughed at how pale both of them went. “I’ll go find Dori and I’m sure he’ll have you back to normal in no time. Just no more theatrics or I’ll suggest to him that your mustache needs to be a bit shorter as well.”  

With the agonized cries of the princes ringing in his ears Bilbo turned on his heel and headed over to where Ori was trying to stop Oin from shoving gauze up his nose.

Dori had his red coat spread over his lap, but both of the sleeves looked like they were properly attached now. The eldest Ri was busy trying to keep his youngest brother from running away from Oin’s less than gentle ministrations and Bilbo schooled his features into something slightly more serious. He doubted either of the elder dwarves would appreciate him laughing at their struggles and Ori would probably go red right to his hair and then refuse to be doctored anymore.

“Good morning!”

“Ah, good morning Mister Baggins,” Dori greeted him as he came up. “I trust you had a good rest?”

“I think it would have been better if I hadn’t woken up to find that I’d decided to start it in the middle of running. I hope I wasn’t out for very long, it’s all very embarrassing.” Bilbo rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly and then winced when it tugged at the raw skin on his hands. He’d gotten used to the dull throbbing there that he kept surprising himself when he looked at his palms. Crawling about in caves and trees had done him no favors and he didn’t have tough, work-roughened hands like most of the dwarves. Or at least he didn’t yet.

“No more than three hours or so,” the tinker assured him as he held onto one of Ori’s wrists so that Oin could slather salve on a shallow cut on his shoulder.

“Dori, let go! I’m fine; I don’t need to be – ouch! Stop it!”

“Lad, yer worse than Gloin with an aching tooth. Now hold still an’ let me finish or else I’ll let it go an’ fester.” Oin had a needle held between two of his teeth and a very small pair of magnifying glasses perched on the end of his nose so that he could see what he was doing. Apparently Ori’s caterwauling was loud enough that even the half deaf doctor could hear it with ease. However the threat of infection had Ori settling down a bit and Dori was able to let him go without the youngest scampering off to lick his wounds.

“You can have your book back when Oin has finished with you and not a second before. I don’t care if you think you’re going to forget the details. I’d rather have the whole thing be a few sentences shorter and not have to clean any more blood out of your clothes.”

“Speaking of clothes,” Bilbo said quickly, seizing his chance.

Dori made a startled noise and held up Bilbo’s walking coat. “Of course, there we are Mister Baggins. I’m afraid I can’t say that it’s as good as new, but I trimmed the stray threads at the edges and the sleeve should hold up for a while longer. There were some soggy bits of paper in one of the pockets but they were quite ruined, so I hope that you don’t mind that I threw them away.”

Bilbo’s heart stopped for a moment and then picked back up at its proper rate. If his list had been ruined than there was no chance of any of the dwarves reading it, so it didn’t matter that Dori had done him the favor of cleaning out his pockets. “It’s alright; it was just a bit of nonsense. I can always rewrite it later on if I want to.” It would give him something to work on once – if they reached Beorn’s house. “I don’t suppose there was a ring in there as well?”

“Oh yes, I left it in your left pocket. Wouldn’t want something like that to go wandering now, would we?” Maybe it was just his imagination, but Dori’s voice sounded practically smug as he handed over the red jacket. Of course the wink that followed most certainly wasn’t and Bilbo went the exact same color as his coat as he snatched it back.

“No, since I’m just looking after it. Thank you for fixing it though.” In desperation he turned to Oin. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Eh?” Said Oin, looking up from another scratch on Ori’s arm and peering at the hobbit over the top of his glasses. “What was that about smelt?”

“I asked if there was anything I could do to help!” Bilbo ignored Dori’s amused cough from behind him.

“Oh, that’s different.” Oin reached behind him and shoved a roll of bandages and a tin of salve into Bilbo’s hands. “Go check on Thorin. He probably strangled himself with that rope.”

“I’ll bring some tea over when it’s ready,” added Dori.

Bilbo made a little ‘ah’ noise as he remembered why he’d wanted to talk to Dori in the first place. “Dori, Fili’s hair looks dreadful. Do you think that you could see if you could even it out a little bit and make him look a little less like an orc went at him with a pair of garden shears?”

The sly expression melted right off of Dori’s face and was replaced by irritation and sorrow. “My tool chest was left behind during our escape and my scissors were in it. I’d help if I had anything left but my own knife and he might not be eager to repeat that experience.”

“Oh dear, I’m so sorry Dori. It was a lovely box.” More than once he’d found himself borrowing things out of it along the road – it had seemed bottomless and full of every sort of useful thing a body could ever want or need. There had probably been an entire kit for hair care inside of it and now it was lost. “I have a little pair of silver scissors in my pack if you think you might be able to use those. They’re just little things that I use for mending but they’d probably be better than your knife for hair trimming.”

Dori stood and gave Ori a very stern look that clearly said ‘behave or else’. “Thank you, I’ll go fetch them and tend to the prince. I’m sure his uncle will want to put a few braids in it once I’ve finished, if you’d be so kind as to pass on the word.”

“I’ll do that,” Bilbo agreed as he carefully juggled the bandages and medicine that Oin had given him and looked around for where Thorin had sequestered himself. The king had sat down between two tree roots and had his head tucked down against his check as if he were napping, though it was hard to tell from where Bilbo was standing. He gave Ori a smile which the young dwarf returned halfheartedly before heading off to badger the king into submission.

Thorin didn’t look up as he approached, though Bilbo made no attempt to quiet his steps. It wouldn’t do to startle him since Orcrist was always close to Thorin’s hand and the last thing Bilbo wanted was to end up of the wrong end of the elvish blade because he’d been trying to help. That would be just his luck and then Oin really would have something to fix up on him other than scratched up hands. Sword wounds weren’t on his mental list of things to get done before lunch.

“I brought you a gift,” he said cheerfully as he came up, holding the salve and the bandages up so that Thorin could see them. The baleful look that the king gave both showed that his temper hadn’t improved in the least since Bilbo had woken up to his scowling face.  He silently hoped that it hadn’t set the tone for the rest of the day, but from the looks of things Thorin was determined to stay sunk in his dark mood and that didn’t bode well for Bilbo. “It isn’t nasty medicine so there’s no need to make faces at me. Oin just wanted me to take a look at your neck while he tends to Ori. I wouldn’t argue because I promise you that he’ll be far less gentle than me if you wait for him to do it instead. He may be a doctor but his bedside manners are dreadful.”

The grunt he got seemed to be permission enough to move in closer, So Bilbo settled himself on one of the tree roots and started unscrewing the tin of salve. He wasn’t entirely sure what was in it (medical work had never been one of his strong points even though he’d written a book about it somewhere in his mid-nineties), but it smelled vaguely of lemon and sage so it couldn’t be entirely bad. In fact it smelled quite a bit better than half of the things that he’d been eating lately but he managed to refrain from putting any of it in his mouth. “I’ll need you to pull down your shirt so I can see if you’ve managed to open up your windpipe with all that thrashing about. If you have we might need a bit more than bandages so you’re lucky that I’m handy with a needle and thread. I made most of my own clothes, you know. My father taught me how when I was just a kit because he could sew better than half of the tailors in Hobbiton. He made me my first Sunday vest for going to the apple blossom festival and it was my favorite until I outgrew it. I used it as the inside lining to my yellow one with the buttercups embroidered on it. The entire thing took me a week to do because my eyes kept burning when I’d work on it for more than a few hours.”

Thorin gave him another disgruntled look and then began to pull at the neck of his coat and under tunic once he saw that Bilbo would be perfectly content to sit there and talk if he didn’t comply with the hobbit’s orders. Rather than simply pulling down the neck of his shirt however, which would have no doubt been easiest way to do things, Thorin undid his belt and shrugged out of his coat before pulling his silver blue tunic up over his head and dumping it into Bilbo’s lap.    

“I beg your pardon, I’m being a medic rather than a tailor today, and with all technicality I’m actually a writer who just knows a little bit about both so you can just take this back right now and stick it – oh Thorin…”

The dwarf’s neck was a mangled wreck of black and purple bruises, ringed by sickly shades of yellow and green. Bilbo tentatively reached out and brushed one of his fingers across the darkest part of the discoloration and when he drew his hand back it was sticky with blood. The rope had rubbed hard enough to leave burns and then burn and break the skin while Thorin fought to get to his nephew.

Nausea settled in Bilbo’s stomach and he swallowed down bile. He’d seen the same thing happen to a fox that had gotten caught in a snare trap one summer and the beast had died shortly after from suffocation. No doubt Thorin would have done the same if he’d kept fighting.

“How dense can you be?” Bilbo snapped, nearly dropping the salve as he scooped up a generous handful of it. “Why didn’t you say something sooner!? I’ve known some stubborn dwarves in my life Thorin Oakenshield, but you are and always will be the most thickheaded fool I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across! Anyone else would have enough sense in them to actually mention that they’d nearly killed themselves on a bit of rope, but not you! You had to go off and sulk about it!”

The cream was thick and a fair amount of it ended up on Thorin’s jaw and collarbone as Bilbo did his best to cover every mark that he could get his hands on, ignoring the occasional grunt of discomfort from his unhappy patient. “It couldn’t have hurt any more to go and ask Oin to wrap you up after he was finished! You’re lucky that he remembered that you were doing your best imitation of a landed fish a few hours ago or else you might have had to wait until we got to Beo – well until we got wherever we’re going next. What would have happened if you got an infection? Or a fever? I don’t care if you don’t want to talk to me, but you should have at least told Dwalin or Gandalf or somebody!”

There were tears building up in his eyes and he blinked them away furiously, too angry to bother with them just yet. It’s just the stress, he told himself and then immediately realized that it was a lie.

It was how close he’d come to losing him again.

“I understand not wanting to look weak. Truly. I’m a hobbit in a company of dwarves and a wizard – the only thing I have to be proud of is how quiet I can be and that I’m easily overlooked in a fight but even I’m not too proud to admit when I need help.” He pressed the end of the bandage against Thorin’s neck to hold it in place while he wound the rest of it up until he could secure it. Having his collar chaffing against the open wounds while they ran had probably been agony and at least the wrappings would provide a bit of protection against any more damage. Getting dirt and loose threads inside the cuts wouldn’t be good. “What would Fili and Kili have done if it had gotten worse, did you even stop to think about that? They’re just boys and they were on the edge of tears because Fili got his hair cut off. What if you’d died?” Bilbo wanted to wrap his hands around Thorin’s throat and give him a good hard shake. The only thing that stopped him was that he didn’t want to accidentally undo the bandages he’d just finished applying.

Thorin had slowly slumped down as Bilbo berated him until his shoulders were occupying the same space as his ears.

Don’t look at his shoulders, you’re mad at him. I don’t care how nice they are.

With a sigh Bilbo sat back and began to wind back up what was left of the wraps. “I’m beginning to think I should have just locked you all in my cellar and not let you come in the first place. Trolls, thieves, bandits, orcs – it’s too dangerous out here for you dwarves to be wandering about like this. So what if you can fight, so can most of the world. Even I know which end of a sword to hold onto and look at me!” He tucked the bandages into his pocket and held out his hands to illustrate. Thorin’s eyes flicked over to him warily, as if he was waiting to be yelled at again.

“I’m a hobbit. We’re hardly the most threatening folk and yet here I am.” Again, he added silently. “If I had been more like my father I would have fed you all and sent you on your way the next morning and not given this whole thing a second thought. But I didn’t because I care about what happens to you! To all of you! So if you aren’t going to take care of yourself for your own sake, please do it for mine and for your nephews. Things are hard enough without having to worry about you too.”

Dragging his freshly repaired sleeve across his face Bilbo sniffed hard to compose himself again. “And that’s all I have to say on the matter. Now will you please tell me what I’ve done to deserve the silent treatment you’ve been giving me?”

For the first time since he’d woken up he was blessed with the king’s crooked smile. It was small and more than a little pained, but it was better than the scowls and grimaces that he’d been wearing. He crooked a finger at Bilbo, who leaned in curiously.

Throat hurts,” Thorin rasped, so softly that he was barely audible.

No wonder he hadn’t been talking to anybody.

“Your throat – oh! Dwarves! I’m finished with the lot of you!” Bilbo leapt to his feet, seized Thorin by both of his ears and glared down at him. “Sometimes I think you’re more trouble than you’re worth. Now go braid Fili’s hair before I give you another piece of my mind.” Before he could think better of it Bilbo leaned down and pressed a hard kiss between Thorin’s eyes and then stomped off before he could see the king’s reaction.

You only live once, he told himself. Usually.

“And how did you find our company’s leader?” Gandalf asked him laughingly as Bilbo came back over.

“Disagreeable,” Bilbo replied instantly as he sat down next to the wizard and shrugged back out of his coat.  

“Hopefully my news will put you in a better frame of mind in that case. I have an acquaintance that I have not seen in a number of years who lives a little ways south and east of where we currently are. If all goes well I think that we should be able to seek refuge with him for a little while and get some much deserved rest.”

“Gandalf, as long as I get a proper nap I don’t really care what we do next. You be in charge for a little while, I’m too tired to do anything else with this lot today. Now if you’d be so kind as to wake me for lunch…”

And with that Bilbo balled up his coat, tucked it under his head, and promptly went back to sleep in the grass with his nose full of the smell of pipe smoke. 

Chapter Text

They lost the trail all at the mountains. Where any other group would have taken the high pass, even with the risk of giants and goblins, their quarry had instead turned north and a few hours later the scent had disappeared completely. Luckily they knew which way to go even without the boot prints or the stink of dwarf and pony to follow. The warg riders turned east and plunged into the deep mountains where no trail had ever or would ever be blazed. No caravan could traverse the steep peaks, nor would adventurers tempt the wrath of the beasts that called the mountain home.

A cavalry of mounted orcs, on the other hand, had nothing to fear. For four days they rode as if the fell beasts of Moria snapped at their heels, until both mount and rider foamed at the mouth from their exertions. They ate anything unfortunate enough to cross their path ad rested only when it had grown too dark for the wargs to travel.

Their leader drove them relentlessly, as if he were possessed by a demon of revenge that pushed him ever further. At night his squad would sleep far from his side least he awaken in a dream-fueled rage and strangle them where they lay. Not out of loyalty did they follow him, but rather out of fear. Any sort of death would be kinder than the one that awaited them at his hands should they fail or betray him.

So they rode.

Some despaired that they would ever find the trail again. The Misty Mountains were vast and the tunnels that ran beneath them were as treacherous as the overland terrain. None dared voice these worries though. They knew better. It was to cries of mingled relief and bloodlust that on the fourth day one of the free running wargs threw back its head and howled - the signal that it had once more pick ed up the scent of dwarf. The hunt was on.

It wasn’t dwarf that they found when they stopped with the sun slipping below the tree line and ash staining the paws of the wargs. After several hours of traveling through a sunken river valley the rider came upon a scene that none of them had expected.

Crows cawed and exploded up into the trees when they dashed into the destroyed camp. Empty-eyed corpses stared up at them from the dirt, though quite a few of those no longer had eyes to stare with. The crows had plucked them out, taking their share of the grizzly feast. The entire clearing reeked of rotting flesh and fat flies crawled in and out of gaping mouths and wounds alike. None of the riders were upset by the bodies, they’d killed enough that the scent of death only made them hungry. Two of the wargs began a tug-of-war with the bloated body of what has once been a hunting dog. Its guts spilled out onto the ground when they ripped it in half and the instantly the crows were back to pick at the pieces.

“Wha’s this?” One of the orcs sneered, swinging down off its scrawny gray warg to poke at the face of a dead Corcur bandit with a goblin sword buried deep in his belly. “Men and goblins? Fightin’ over a prize, we thinks?”

“Prob-ly some trader haul. Dunno where it went though, wouldn’t mind a bit of fresh grub if that’s what it was.”

“Least the dogs’re happy!” Crowed a third, watching as the wargs fought and snapped at each other over what was left of the bodies.

All of them fell silent when their leader doe forward into the middle of the massacre, his meat hook of a hand twisted tightly in to the rough white fur of his mount.

Azog.

There are no merchants,” he growled in his mother tongue. Not once had he ever lowered himself to the language of the rats – to dirty his mouth with Common was the worst sort of atrocity. Azog allowed his band to use it simply because they were lower than him and rats could not be expected to understand. He was pure and as such would only speak in the purest of languages. The Black Speech. 

The massive albino orc dismounted with a ‘thump’. His warg turned her head to nip at him but she knew not to draw blood. Azog was the only living being that she would allow to ride her – perhaps they saw a kindred spirit in one another. Two great creatures who refused to know anything but violence and blood. Azog had found her as a pup, half-starved and nearly dead from an elf arrow in her neck.  He had allowed her to eat from the body of the very elf that had shot her and since then she had refused to stray from his side. Any who threatened her master met a swift end at her jaws. She was Throquuk – the one who would devour all and who would carry him to victory.

Only the scent of decay registered on his senses when he inhaled. With a grunt Azog kicked over a body and peered at the ground beneath it as if it would tell him what had happened to spark the conflict. This was indeed an area where goblin and bandit territory overlapped, but the last time he’d crossed the mountains the two species had had an agreement of sorts in place to keep them from going after each other’s throats too often. It wasn’t very surprising to see that something had snapped, but it was a strange place for it. Usually Azog wouldn’t have stopped his hunt for such an annoyance, but that it lay square in the path of his quarry and practically at the back door to Goblin Town was interesting enough to pause for.

“Search them!” Azog roared and all of his troops scrambled to obey and began to paw through the remains. None of them could have said what they were actually searching for until –

 “I found sumfin!” Cried an orc with a ferocious under bite as he popped out of a bush with a blood-spattered box held in his arms. As quickly as he could without tripping over any of the bodies the orc hauled it over to where Azog stood beside Throquuk and presented the rather ordinary looking chest to his master. Azog looked it over skeptically, but something about the lock caught his eye. It was of good workmanship, they type that would be hard to pick or smash off with the handle of a knife. Not goblin work.

“Open it.”

The orc immediately dropped the box and began to smash at the lock with the blade of his knife, which resulted in nothing more than the occasional shower of sparks and muttered curse when the knife slipped and the orc scratched himself with it. Azog waited. He waited for a long while before he finally lost patience with the fool and delivered a sharp kick that sent him flying into the side of one of the wargs. The beast growled and danced away while the orc lay in a groaning pile, clutching at his side and moaning. His fellows backed away as Azog reached down and twisted the lock off with one great wrench of his iron hand. The box was filled with all sorts of useful things – horseshoe nails, three different kinds of hammer, assorted metalworking tools, needles (both for sewing skin and for knitting), six kinds of thread, two pairs of scissors, and a chisel. A tinker box.

Azog laughed as he rose from a crouch, one of the pairs of scissors held loosely between his pale fingers. The dwarves had been through and it seemed that both the bandits and the goblins had seen them come and go.

“Mount. We ride to pay a visit to the Goblin King and see exactly what he knows about our prey…” 

Chapter Text

The clover was soft, fragrant and heavy with hundreds of pink and white flowers that bent gently when Bilbo settled his little basket onto it and then himself next to it. It was a bit hot out, enough so that the hobbit knew he might start to sweat if it weren’t for the breeze that was carrying the buzzing of hundreds of bees to his ears. They zipped over his head and around his bare toes, some pausing to look at him as if to ask exactly what he was doing sitting in the middle of their fields with a picnic basket. They were massive fuzzy things, with yellow stripes that shone like dragon gold and were almost as big as his fist! If they had taken it into their heads they probably could have carried him right away without trying very hard. But Bilbo meant no harm to either their hives or their flowers, so they left him alone once they had decided he wasn’t as interesting as the clover or the cockscomb and hyssop scattered throughout it.

Bilbo waved off one of the oversized insects and settled back onto his elbows with a sigh of utter contentment. Finally he had a bit of time to himself and he planned to enjoy it as completely as he could until he was forced to rejoin the company and their host for dinner. The basket next to him was full of all sorts of good things that had been put together for him when he’d requested a snack and he’d been sent off with a good loaf of crusty bread, a jar of honey, a bottle of sweet olive oil, and a bunch of fat green grapes. Although any other hobbit might have considered that a rather meager snack it felt like everything Bilbo had ever wanted. He dug under the lid of a basket and plucked out one of the grapes. It was tart and juicy on his tongue and so much better than any of the stews or dry cram biscuits that they’d been eating lately that it nearly had him in raptures. If there was a paradise in the world this had to be it.

They had arrived early that morning, after yet another long day and night of walking through the forest and crossing the Great River of the Wilderland. That had been an adventure all of its own – last time they had been able to bypass the river with the help of the eagles and the only place it had given them any trouble was at the foot of the Carrock, which it bordered on both sides. This time they had been forced to find a shallow bit over which they’d be able to cross without losing their packs or being forced to swim too much, which was lucky because neither dwarves nor hobbits are particularly good swimmers and Bilbo sank like a stone. Dwalin was forced to tow him through the deepest bits like a fishing trap and by the time they all managed to get out they were completely soaked through and covered in pinching crayfish. Bombur had happily gathered those up and made them into a muddy-tasting stew for lunch. The next morning brought a great lift in spirits when Gandalf announced that they were close to the home of his acquaintance (who actually wasn’t his acquaintance at all, but rather a friend of a friend since he knew Radagast) and for once Bilbo was very happy to take the back seat and let the wizard work his special brand of magic that involved convincing a very bad-tempered skin changer into letting thirteen dwarves and one hobbit stay in his home while they recovered from their ordeal.

Beorn was an immense bear of a man, which seemed appropriate since that was indeed what he became when he had a mind to. Gandalf had dragged Bilbo along when they first arrived at the gate to his lodge and the burglar had sat quietly next to him while he told their story to their host, trying his best not to doze off right where he sat. The other dwarves wandered over in pairs as Gandalf summoned them until they were all there, the story was told, and Bilbo had completely nodded off with his arms crossed and his head tucked against his chest and missed the whole thing. When he awoke again their host had gone and most of the dwarves had scattered off to investigate the gardens or their quarters or to find a bite to eat. Gandalf still sat next to him, smoking and smiling in a way that showed that he was indeed very pleased with himself.

“I’m afraid you missed quite a good story, Bilbo,” he said when he noticed that the hobbit had jerked awake at last. “If I do say so myself.”

“That’s alright,” Bilbo said as he stretched and yawned. “I’d heard that one already and I think there were only a couple differences this time around.”   

The remainder of the morning had been spent reacquainting himself with Beorn’s oversized lodge and the barns and stables. Most of the land inside the hedge that had grown up to keep out unwanted visitors was covered by gardens in riots of brilliant colors, where Beorn’s bees had buzzed about with the legs fat and heavy with pollen. The other animals were equally unusual in that they all seemed to understand exactly what everyone was saying. The sleek white ponies took up their packs in their teeth and took them away to parts unknown, while several gray dogs played chaperone while the company spread out and explored. Bilbo’s hound in particular had been a very sweet bitch with a white splotch on her nose and ear. She had followed after him wherever he went and made sure he didn’t wander too close to the beehives and risk being stung. When he’d finally assured himself that everything was how it was supposed to be and that all of the dwarves were comfortable (Bofur and Ori were busy talking to the horses who had come up to the fence of the pasture, while the others had either retired for a nap or lunch) he had finally asked the dog if there was a nice place where he could sun himself without being interrupted. It was time for some peace and quiet.

Here he was about an hour later, the late morning sun warm on his face with a basket of treats next to him, up to his elbows in clover and as happy as a hobbit could be.

Well, almost.

It had been ages since he had properly sunned himself. At Bag End when he’d been able to he had often enjoyed lying about on the soft grass that covered the back half of his porch and simply napping in the sun. He’d come back in an hour or two later with a very slight sunburn from his ears to his ankles and then take a cool shower to complete the whole ritual. In the summer it wasn’t odd for the entire Shire to take a midafternoon break from their goings about to simply find a soft patch of ground and lay down for a bit, either to nap or to watch the clouds or butterflies. The tranquil moments of peace helped everyone keep their tempers in check during the hottest months and Bilbo decided he was more than overdue for an hour or three after the stress of dealing with his dwarves for so long without a rest.

With a yawn the hobbit flopped backwards into the clover and indulged in a full body stretch that left him feeling limp and boneless. With no apparent haste he began to undo the buttons on his loose cotton shirt so that it fell to the sides and he could feel the sunshine on his whole torso.

Bliss.

There were no dwarves here. No ponies or hounds. No troublemaking wizards. No orcs or goblins or bandits. No worries, no tension, no temptation.

And speaking of temptation…

At long last Bilbo allowed himself to remember.  Between crawling about underground and running for his life he had barely had a moment to stop and think about – well –

Unbidden the memory of his hands against Thorin’s neck rose, along with the phantom smell of musk and sweat. They made his stomach perform an interesting little cartwheel and he swallowed hard, only remembering after a moment that there was no one there to cast him disapproving looks. For weeks, in fact ever since his revelation that night when his eyes had met Thorin’s across their fire, he had been denying and flat out ignoring his attraction to the dwarven king. It wasn’t appropriate, he’d told himself a hundred times. It was never meant to be that way, a thousand times. He would never have you, just once in the dark. Protector and friend, but never lover.

But that didn’t mean that he couldn’t dream about it now, here amongst the bees and the clover, and then maybe he could forget about it a little bit faster and move on. So he dreamed.

The sensation of a rough beard against his lip during that stolen kiss. Knowing that Thorin had watched while he disrobed for his bath in the thieves’ den. His eyes closed, blocking out the flowers and the sun so that he could focus on the warm feeling that was coming to live like stirred coals in his belly. With his teeth gently digging into his lower lip Bilbo settled his hand on his sternum and began to trace little circles against his bare skin. If there was one thing that was lacking during an adventure it was privacy for personal moments like this, so he intended to enjoy it while he could.

Newly-calloused fingertips moved over to one of his nipples and pinched and rubbed it until it pebbled beneath his ministrations. Youth was wasted on the young, he decided. It had been years since  he’d had anything that resembled a sex drive, and while he hadn’t exactly been a monk after he had returned from his adventure it wasn’t as though he’d had a string of nameless lovers either. One or two with whom he had eventually settled into an easy friendship with had satisfied him well enough and as he got on in years and adopted Frodo that need had been pushed down even further. Maybe he just hadn’t known what it was he’d been longing for the whole time.

Well now he did and it was making his blood race and all of his nerves spark quickly to life. His breath came more quickly as his free hand began to creep its way down his belly, tickling and caressing his newly sensitive skin. What would Thorin’s hands feel like, if they had been the ones touching him instead of his own? They would be much larger, hot and rough from years of hard living and sword play. His touches would be confident and completely dominating; as if he knew that everything he laid his hands upon was his and would always be. Unconsciously Bilbo’s own touches became more sure as they mimicked the imagined touches, torturing himself by dragging his blunt nails across his belly before finally – finally – undoing the laces of his pants and plunged his hand down inside to cup himself.

The pace he set was slow, almost leisurely compared to the eagerness that he had begun with. There was no hurry after all. The morning and afternoon stretched before him, hours without complications where he could simply…enjoy. Without any sort of lubrication he was forced to stay gentle, keeping his touches light and more teasing than anything else. His shaft was more than half hard just from his fantasies and as soon as he began to pay it attention it grew to press eagerly against his palm. It had been so long since he’d last had time to indulge like this that he hardly knew what to do with himself, but luckily his erection knew exactly what it wanted. Long dark hair and icy eyes, a voice so deep that it made his toes curl, and –

Immediately he froze. “Oh for the love of all things that grow…” He’d specifically come all the way out here for privacy and had told Gandalf before he left that he didn’t want to be disturbed unless it was an emergency. 

 But was it indeed an emergency? His eyes snapped open and he tilted his head back just enough to be able to see Thorin looking down at him, the color blooming on his cheekbones a stark contrast to the bandage around his throat. In that instant Bilbo decided that no sort of emergency was worth this even if someone was bleeding out on Beorn’s lovely wood floor. A goblin attack would have been preferable.

Stop it you ninny, he reprimanded himself. You’re one hundred and thirty one years old – more than old enough to not be embarrassed by things like this. He’s already got an eyeful so it’s pointless to try to act like you were doing something else. Act your age.

If his nerves survived this ordeal he deserved a lot more than honey and grapes. After a deep breath to steel himself Bilbo raised an eyebrow at the king and, without removing his hand from his pants, said what he thought was one of his bravest comments to date.

“At your service.”    

For a long moment Thorin seemed content to simply stare at him, his mouth slightly open and his hands limp at his sides. The king had shed his heavy overcoat and sword alike, and might have seemed practically approachable if it weren’t for the thunderous scowl lines that always bracketed his mouth and between his eyebrows. Those lines were softened by surprise at the moment but Bilbo had little doubt that they’d return full force at any moment. Might as well enjoy the view while I can.

Thorin made a strangled noise that might have been an attempt to form words or maybe just a noise of outrage that found itself stopped up by his mangled throat. Whatever it was sounded too much like a tea kettle releasing steam for Bilbo not to smile and that just made the dwarf go even redder until his entire face was practically crimson.

“I – Bilbo – what – “ He rasped, apparently lacking anything that might resemble words.

I’m not helping him find them either. He’s the one who interrupted me, so he deserves to squirm a bit for it. Of course licking his bottom lip where he’d been biting it was probably overdoing things a tad but at the moment he didn’t really care for propriety. His erection wasn’t in the least put off and actually seemed even more eager to continue than ever thanks to the sudden appearance of Bilbo’s fantasies. He silently tried to tell it to behave itself but it simply throbbed mightily against his hand and demanded that he continued with his stroking. He ignored it for the moment since that would probably just send Thorin into a complete fit.

“Gandalf!” The dwarf finally managed to bark and then winced and touched his throat since the outburst had probably strained his sore throat. “He told me where to find you,” he whispered in a much lower tone of voice.

I am going to fill that wizard’s pillow with bumble bees, Bilbo decided.  

“Did he need something?” He prompted.

“No, he told me where I might find you. I didn’t know that I would be – “

“Yes well you did, so you might as well finish what you came here for so I can get back to it.”

Ah, there was the scowl again. “I wanted to thank you. For what you did.”

“I’ll assume you mean for the bit with the goblins and the bandits.”

“And with my nephews.”

“Well they were easy to deal with compared to my Frodo. Are you going to thank me for doctoring your neck while you’re at it?”

“Thank you for doctoring my neck,” Thorin said, managing to sound both half-strangled and cross at the same time.

They both fell silent after that until Bilbo gave his erection a slow, obvious stroke that left him feeling breathless. It wasn’t that he minded Thorin’s eyes on him, but he would have preferred it a bit more if they hadn’t been so accusing. “Was there anything else?”

Thorin was still rather red around his ears but his eyes hadn't turned away yet. Bilbo had practically turned this into a challenge and the dwarf couldn’t back down now that he was here. "Still you surprise me Bilbo Baggins. Are all of your kind so brazen or just you?"

Brazen? Well that was a new one, though it did seem to apply to the moment rather well even if it was more irritation and stubbornness driving him than actual brazenness. “Oh, not just me I promise, although I suppose nobody would know that since we don’t tend to like strangers much. But I just don’t think that we have as many hang ups as you dwarves. We’re just built for comfortable things.” He looked down at himself and smiled, his thumb rubbing softly against the tip of his cock, which was just barely hidden from sight by the flap of his trousers. “And I’m very comfortable right now.” Between the sun and the clover and the company of the dwarf that he’d defied death to save? Yes, he was comfortable.

Thorin wouldn't look away. He couldn't look away. The exiled king raked at his thoughts, trying to clear them, but their line of conversation only led him right back to one thing that had been dogging his mind for a long while. "You kissed me," came the rasped statement. Usually it would have sounded like an accusation, but not this time. This time it was simply a confused dwarf trying his best to understand. "I wasn't asleep. In the cave," he clarified.

It was the last thing that Bilbo had been expecting. Since Thorin had come upon him he’d expected the king to storm off like he usually did, or say something to make it clear that he didn’t approve of Bilbo’s personal activities. Not that. “Y-you weren’t?” The hobbit stammered, frozen in place by a combination of horror and (belated) embarrassment. Somehow that kiss had been so much more personal than any of this, and that he’d been awake for it? “Thorin, I’m sorry for that. I didn’t mean anything by it – “

Raising a hand the dwarf motioned for the burglar to calm himself. "It's alright. I enjoyed it."

On the edge of stumbling into yet another apology and halfway back to his feet already Bilbo had to pause and think that one through for a moment. “You did?”

Thorin only nodded, his eyes finally taking their time as they roamed over the hobbit before moving back to take in the surprised expression.

His heart had migrated into his mouth, but he couldn’t have said when it had done so. All Bilbo knew was that the amount of blood pounding in his ears was making it very hard to hear anything else. Ever so slowly his soft brown eyes rose from where they’d been fixed at the same level as Thorin’s collarbone until they met the dwarf’s, and there they stayed. He knew he must look a mess, with his shirt hanging open and his pants undone, and he was no doubt blushing from his head to his toes, but somehow he couldn’t find it in him to care just yet.

“And?”

The king was jerked out of his daze and he breathed in as if he had forgotten how to for a moment. "I would not be disinclined to try it again." He admitted.

This had to be a dream. Any second now one of them was going to disappear or be swallowed up by shadows and Bilbo was going to wake up flat on his back and know that none of it could ever come true because kings and burglars never had happy endings outside of story books. Sliding back into the clover (since his knees had chosen that moment to become jelly) Bilbo chewed hard on his bottom lip. Just this once, whispered a voice. Just to make one happy memory. Please.

“I don’t suppose you’d want to try it now?” He whispered.

The quiet response drew Thorin in. The dwarf lowered himself carefully, mindful of his injuries, until he was crouching as closely as possible until he was practically hovering over the burglar. There he could smell not just the musky scent of arousal coming off Bilbo, but the ever present hint of flowers and earth that was warm and reassuring.

"I insist on it." 

Chapter Text

In story books spells were broken by true love’s kiss. Passion was instantly ignited into a raging inferno that consumed the lovers body and soul. Wishes were made on such kisses.

Such lightning didn’t strike during this kiss, but one wish was made – a wish for more. Just a little more for just a little longer.

It started slowly, as neither of them quite knew what to do now that they were face to face. Their lips hovered inches apart, breathes mingling as each waited for the other to move first. When neither made a move Bilbo couldn’t help but smile at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. Never once had he been as cautious about something as simple as a kiss.

“Look at us, like a pair of tweens who aren’t sure what to do with themselves.”

With that he closed the distance, leaning on his hands to keep his balance, until their foreheads touched. “Hello there.”

Thorin's mouth opened as if he intended to shoot down the implication that he didn't know what he was doing, but Bilbo's forehead meeting his own silenced him. The king's expression melted to something unguarded and instantly endearing. Years fell away as his expression softened.

"Good morning." Tilting his head the tips of their noses brushed in an intimate gesture. It was repeated and their breaths mingled as they both sighed. "You still look very flushed, Master Hobbit."

“I’m not the only one who is a bit on the red side. You, your highness, are blushing as well as any May Day queen.” A hand came up and gently ran along the curve of one of Thorin’s cheeks, feeling the warmth there.  The dwarf started to draw back but the touch stopped him. There was uncertainty in his eyes, as if he truly didn't know how to continue but he did lean forward to brush their lips awkwardly, no doubt trying to regain control of the moment. Neither of them had ever learned to let others take control, and while Bilbo might not have been raised to be a king he had been taught how to properly run an estate of some standing. The lord of Bag End manor and the exiled king of Erebor had finally reached a point where one would have to back down.

The instant their lips brushed Bilbo forgot about everything. He forgot about the journey, the dragon, his task. He forgot about the sun on his face and the fact that his pants were still open and that anyone could come along and catch them. He even forgot how to breathe for a minute. All he knew was that Thorin was properly awake this time and that he was being kissed. The soft press of their lips was hesitant at first until Bilbo remembered that he wasn’t just supposed to sit there like a bump on a log. A slight tilt of his head brought them more closely together until he could properly press his mouth to Thorin’s, first in the middle and then at each corner. Feeling the way his mustache and beard tickled and tasting the unique flavor that he was coming to learn was ‘Thorin’ - rich and a little sweet from the medicinal tea that Dori had been forcing on him since they had arrived early that morning.

I should be gentle, he reminded himself. The king was hardly in top form and this kiss could end sooner than desired if he wasn’t careful with his hands. Ever so slowly he raised them and cradled Thorin’s face between his palms, making sure not to brush the bandages.

The hobbit was proving himself very bold and Thorin wasn't entirely sure what to make of it. The kisses were careful, but there was a wanting behind them that the dwarf could not deny wanting to satisfy. When those hands came up the larger male pressed back into the kiss with a renewed confidence, making a small noise against Bilbo's lips.

A bee zipped by, paused for a minute to see what was going on, and then lost interest and went merrily on its way again with absolutely no interest in the antics going on in the flower fields. Neither Bilbo nor Thorin noticed it, too wrapped up in each other to pay any mind to much else. Bilbo swallowed the noise and returned it with one of his own – a soft breathy moan that he hadn’t intended to release at all, but really, could he be blamed? Already his lips were ablaze with sensitivity from the rasp of Thorin’s beard and he had a feeling that they were going to be red and flushed for hours afterwards. Taking his cue from Thorin’s eagerness he licked the dwarf’s lower lip and then sucked it between his teeth so that he could softly bite down on it. 

Thorin jerked back when Bilbo worried his lower lip between his teeth, sucking in a quick breath. He tried to protest but was silenced again when the kiss was deepened. It was his turn to moan, letting the burglar keep his moment of triumph before fighting back the adventurous tongue to map out Bilbo's mouth for himself. As the kiss was progressing the dwarf was situating himself over the other, using the hand that wasn't supporting his weight to tangle in the honey curls and keep Bilbo's head turned as he liked it.

The tight hand in his hair was making his bones melt until he was practically limp and Bilbo had to quickly take his hands from Thorin’s face and ball them in the front of his loose blue shirt to keep himself from falling forward and completely embarrassing himself. It wasn’t as though he was unpracticed after all, but this – this was so much more than anything he’d ever dreamed of. Maybe it wasn’t an exceptional kiss and stories would most definitely not be written about it, but to him it felt like the more spectacular kiss that had ever been given in the world. Thorin’s tongue was hot and wet in his mouth and sucked on it eagerly, goose bumps rising all up and down his arms despite the sunshine. Something had awoken when their lips had brushed and now the fire was building. As much as they both seemed to want to continue the kiss Thorin had to break it, reluctantly removing his fingers from the soft hair and instead holding Bilbo still at the hips as he freed himself from the kiss. The dwarf was panting, his face still flushed as his eyes raked down over the hobbit's form. His eyes landed on the open pants and the leaking head of Bilbo's erection visible from his new vantage point.

"Bilbo…May I?" He lifted one of his hands from Bilbo’s hips and brought it up to trace the delicate flesh just under his navel.

Until then Bilbo had nearly forgotten that he’s been engaged in other activities before Thorin came along and filled his head with golden bubbles. He hiccuped and felt heat wash over his face until he was as red as the cockscomb flowers around them. Surely he couldn’t mean to…? Mesmerized, Bilbo watched Thorin’s rough fingers as they stroked his belly, incapable of even blinking lest he miss a single motion. Desire blasted through his veins until everything grew a little fuzzy around the edges and every inch of his being was focused on that one hand. He shouldn’t say yes. The previously stolen kisses had been greedy and one freely given should have been enough. Yet it wasn’t and he should have known that he would never be.

Somehow he managed to rally himself enough to give a short, sharp nod.

The nod was permission enough and the exiled king leaned down to seal their lips together again. Despite his injuries Thorin was hovering over the hobbit, encouraging the heated kiss as the hand on Bilbo's belly drifted down and he touched the soft tip. A rough finger pressed against his slit, momentarily blocking it so precum couldn't escape. Pressing their foreheads together again the kiss was stopped and the larger male looked down between them, staring at the arousal between them as his fingers teased at the sensitive head.

“I-I’m not made of glass,” Bilbo whispered before leaning back onto his elbows so that he could see without getting in the way. 

With a huff Thorin sat up to better situate himself. His knees were nestled on either side of Bilbo's legs as he jerked the other's trousers down further to fully expose him. Sitting up as he was it was easier to see as the hard cock stood full and wanting under their piercing gazes. Taking in the burglar's words Thorin wrapped thick fingers around the shaft and squeezed lightly before he started to stroke slowly, trying to get a feel for what made Bilbo squirm.

It was so much so fast that Bilbo could hardly keep up now. When Thorin straddled his legs he managed a soft squeak before the dwarf had seized his previously ignored erection in one hard hand. The intense pleasure was so great that his hips thrust helplessly upwards and the rest of him fell back into the cover, where he hit his head hard enough on the ground that he saw stars for a moment.

"Careful." The clover was only so soft under them and though the hit hadn't looked hard Thorin stopped his stroking to roll his thumb over the flushed head and press against the slit again. His other hand pressed against the smaller's chest, intent on holding him still before he continued. "I want you to remember this." His grip tightened again and he pulled at the hard cock at a quick pace.

As if he could ever forget. This moment was as inscribed on him as words on a page that would never be drawn over or erased, simply laid bare for all to see. Bilbo Baggins was a fool who had fallen for a dwarf and now there was no hope for him at all.

That dwarf, however, clearly had no idea what he was doing.

“Stop, T-Thorin, stop! It’s too rough!” Bilbo gasped, seizing Thorin’s wrists in an attempt to slow his pace. Perhaps he wasn’t made of glass but that didn’t mean that such indelicate treatment wouldn’t leave him sore and aching after the fact. “You’ll have me limping in minutes if you keep that up.”

Immediately the hold was released and Thorin jerked back as if burned. "I'm sorry," he breathed, looking more worried about hurting the hobbit than upset about having to stop. He should have known better and floundered for what to do now. Before he had to even ask, however, he spotted the basket and leaned over to drag it closer and dig through the contents.

"I hope you didn't need this." The olive oil was produced and Thorin was popping it open and covering his palm before the hobbit could protest. When his fingers were slick he spread the substance over the burglar's erection, then dumped another generous amount over his palm and tossed the bottle aside to return to his work. With the addition of oil there was no harsh friction, just a sweet glide and tight pressure as his hand circled back around the hardened prick.

“It was just for – ahn!” For lack of anything else to do with them Bilbo shoved his hands into his own hair and pulled hard on it, trying desperately not to spill then and there. Hobbits weren’t exactly known for their stamina and he’d set himself up for a leisurely session. This was the exact opposite. This was hard. It was fast and slippery and messy and he squeezed his eyes shut as they began to water from the combined pain and pleasure. “Oh, oh sweet – you can’t – “ His heels worked frantically in the clover, trying to find some sort of purchase to help him push closer.

Settling his weight on Bilbo's legs Thorin returned his hand to the other's chest and held him still as he worked the smaller male to a frenzy. That it was him making the hobbit squirm and moan was enough to drive the dwarf to press on. He licked his lower lip and hummed his approval at the noises Bilbo was letting go, encouraging it to continue.

What had begun as a morning of simple pleasures and stolen moments had turned into a firestorm. With Thorin’s weight heavy on his legs Bilbo found himself well and truly trapped. Even if he had wanted to escape he wouldn’t have been able to shift the dwarf enough to get free. His arms were weak, his knees going numb, and his tongue felt far too large for his mouth. All he could manage were strangled moans of ecstasy as he pulled at his curls and finally stuffed the side of his hand into his mouth to stifle his cries. This was too real to be a dream, too much and he wasn’t sure how much longer he’d be able to stand it before he flew apart at the seams.

"That's it…" There was no relief from the pressure, not with Bilbo looking so beautiful under him. "I want to hear you." The hand on the hobbit's chest moved and he pushed Bilbo's arm up above his head, pinning his wrist so he couldn't stifle those moans and cries as the tension rose to its peak.

There were teeth marks in his hand and precum seeping from his tip and all Bilbo could do was whimper as his spine arched and the clover began to stain his open shirt as he writhed. He was trapped. Stretched out like an offering with Thorin’s hand still wrapped around his cock. It felt so different than anything he had ever known, never before had he been so well and truly dominated. It was wrong, and yet as he tugged helplessly at the hand that held his wrists above his head he realized that nothing had ever felt so right.

“Thoirin, I-stop, I’m going to – “

"Isn't this what you wanted?" The dwarf did slow his pace, but he didn't stop. He just wanted to see the hobbit cum, expecting it to be a grand display. "Do you really want me to stop?"

No, no he didn’t. In fact stopping was the last thing he wanted right now, but he also hadn’t expected the king to want to dirty himself at the end. The firm grip and burning hot look that Thorin was giving him made Bilbo gulp and shake his head frantically. “No, please don’t stop. Please.”

The stroking increased in pace again at the admittance, Thorin breathing steadily as the hobbit lost control. "I won't. Not until you beg." He promised.

Whether the statement was a promise or a threat was unclear, but whichever it was it acted like lighting the fuse on a firework. Bilbo moaned helplessly as he began to shake, pleasure arcing through his veins until he was as tense as a bowstring. All it took was looking up at Thorin through his eyelashes and seeing those cold blue eyes looking back at him to make him snap.

With a gasp Bilbo’s entire body tensed as he tried to curl in on himself, pulling against the weight on his thighs and wrists as he came. 

There wasn't a chance of the dwarf letting Bilbo go as he came and he only groaned at the sight. He kept pumping the hobbit through his orgasm, never blinking so he wouldn't miss a single moment of the wonderful expressions or the delicious view his position gave.

It didn’t take long until Bilbo became too overstimulated to stand any more of the hard strokes, his body sagging against Thorin’s hold as all of the tension drained out of him and left him limp and hypersensitive. “That’s enough,” he whispered roughly before clearing his throat. “Please, you can stop now.”

Thorin didn't stop right away, just gradually slowed his pace until his hand was still and only a callused thumb was stroking the head. The entire mess was smeared around, warm and sticky over Bilbo's belly and his hand before Thorin leaned down and brushed their noses together. "That was very good." Their breath mingled and he tried not to chuckle in the aftermath. "Come to my room at dusk Bilbo Baggins." It was a simple command, filled with promise, before Thorin's weight disappeared and he was heading back towards the lodge with a rather stiff and uncomfortable looking gait.

All Bilbo could do was lie in the clover for a long time after that, watching the clouds and bees goes by and trying to figure out exactly where he’d left his sanity. Probably in the same place that he’d left the rest of the contents of his brain he mused, since his logic and sense of self-preservation seemed to have gone missing as well. Maybe he’d lost them back at Beorn’s home, since their lack was the only explanation he could come up with for what had just happened. A sensible hobbit wouldn’t have gotten caught during such an indelicate moment. A sensible hobbit wouldn’t have suggested another kiss. A sensible hobbit wouldn’t have acted like a rabbit in mating season the moment their love wandered along. And a sensible hobbit wouldn’t be considering doing it all over again!

Now he was left here feeling more than a little debauched with a rock digging into his hip and his spendings drying on his belly while he lay about like a lack wit.

“Well,” he said finally, more for his own benefit than anything else. “It’s probably best this didn’t happen the first time around. I doubt I would have survived the experience.” With that he sat up and reached for his picnic basket and a bit of lunch. 

Chapter Text

He wasn’t going to come.

Thorin bit down on the inside of his cheek so that he wouldn’t grind his teeth together as he paced, occasionally shooting maddened glances at the closed door. Had he overstepped himself somehow in telling Bilbo to come to his room? After all, as had been pointed out to him on more than one occasion, he wasn’t the king of the halflings and had little to no say in what they did.  Maybe he hadn’t been specific enough as to the when of it? Dinner had come and gone and the company had mostly retired to the back porch for a smoke, their bellies full of cornbread with thick honey butter, mushrooms with sage and breadcrumbs, and fresh berries swimming in cream. It had been a meal fit for a king for all that it had been prepared by dogs, though there had been no sign of their host during it.

Afterwards he had made his excuses after a few minutes, saying that his throat pained him too much to join in the session, and had given Bilbo what he’d thought to be a telling look. From the way his burglar’s eyes had widened as he choked on his pipe smoke Thorin had figured that he’d been properly understood.

Apparently not.

Unused to having his commands disobeyed Thorin had begun to pace after the first ten minutes without a knock. Thirty found him at the window, looking out into the dark and worrying that he had somehow managed to insult Bilbo. Forty had him back to pacing and cursing himself for being a fool and thinking that the blasted hobbit would do anything he was told. No doubt he was still out with the others and laughing to himself about the way he’d tied their leader up in knots and left him wanting.

And by Aulë did he want. Coming upon Bilbo earlier that morning had been a shock, but not nearly as much as the undiluted craving that had shot through him like water from a geyser. When those soft brown eyes had turned up to him with more than a little irritation at being interrupted reflected in them he had nearly been lost for words and had tripped over his tongue like a dwarf half his age. It hadn’t been his finest moment, nor had been what followed. Even as he had made his way back across the grass, his throat throbbing from the noises that had escaped him during their kiss and his fingers sticky with olive oil and cum, he had realized that he had all but disgraced himself with his lack of finesse. It didn’t matter that Bilbo had seemed to enjoy it based on the noises he’d been making. For goodness sake, he’d all but forced himself on the hobbit towards the end, pinning him to the ground and using his superior strength and weight to hold him immobile. It had been exciting.

Now an hour into his wait his cock still pressed eagerly up against the front of his pants, its enthusiasm undimmed by the unexpected wait. Thorin had been ready to tumble the hobbit right then and there in the grass, to rip his soft pants the rest of the way off and fuck that sleepy, satisfied look right off of his face.

Somehow he’d managed to restrain himself, though it had been a close thing. Only by the barest of threads had he been able to hold onto his self-control and then only a long wait by the horse pastures in the fresh air had been enough to keep him from embarrassing himself in front of the rest of the dwarves with his well-bitten lips and red face. It was just pure luck that his loose tunic was long enough to cover the front of his pants; otherwise he never would have been able to show his face at dinner. Dwalin never would have let him live it down.

A tentative knock at the closed door jerked him from his self-depreciating thoughts and in a moment he was across the room and yanking open the overlarge door with such force that it nearly bounced off of the wall before he caught hold of the edge again.

Bilbo stood in the doorway, dressed in a freshly laundered shirt with a green vest and dark brown pants (different ones than he’d been wearing that morning). His hand was raised as if to knock again but he took a step backwards when he saw the scowl that was gracing Thorin’s face.

“You’re late.”

“You never specific a time other than ‘dusk’, so I can’t be late. In fact I could have shown up at dusk tomorrow and still been on time.” With a quick look in either direction Bilbo ducked under the arm Thorin was using to hold the door open and let himself inside. The rest of the dwarves had been made up beds in the main hall (Bilbo had a little nest of blankets and soft hay in the corner) and only Thorin and Gandalf had been given rooms of their own thanks to their status. Beorn’s home clearly hadn’t been built with guests in mind because Thorin’s room smelled as though it was usually used to store straw and Gandalf’s had had barrels full of ale and mead stacked against two of the walls. The wizard hadn’t complained.

“Besides,” Bilbo continued as he looked at the sizeable room with its high windows and a bed in the corner big enough for a giant, “it’s not entirely my fault that I’m behind your schedule. Gloin started telling stories about Gimli and then had to show me every painting of his wife he keeps in his front pocket. I was trapped by my own good manners.”

Most of Thorin’s irritation was rendered null by that and he felt a little bit foolish for worrying himself stupid for the last hour. He hadn’t specific a time for Bilbo to visit him and it probably would have looked suspicious if the hobbit had excused himself immediately after Thorin had left.

Naturally now that he was here Thorin found himself at a loss for what to do. Now that the moment was here, now that the hobbit was in his room and well within his grasp Thorin was back to his uncertainty. Were hobbits the same as dwarves, would Bilbo want to just jump right into bed and get started? Not that the exiled king wanted this to go by so quickly; Thorin wanted to take his time with this, to explore and find out just what Bilbo liked and completely dominate the burglar's senses. Rather than make himself look even more impatient by opening his mouth again he pushed the door shut and got up on his toes to throw the heavy bolt. There wouldn’t be any interruptions or distractions tonight if he had anything to say about it.

"I trust you are well aware of why I asked you here?" Unfinished business. Curiosity. Desire. If Bilbo didn't want it he wouldn't have come, but after his behavior earlier it was better to keep this slow. For a long moment he received no answer except a continuous view of the back of Bilbo’s vest. The hobbit hadn’t turned to face him since he’d entered the room even though he must have heard the door shut behind him and known that they were alone now. He seemed to be thinking, one of those hobbit-like traits that always took far too long in Thorin’s mind.

“Yes, I think so.” Finally he turned around. There was no trace of a blush or hesitation this time, just a sort of gravity that belied his relatively young age. Then again, hobbits were considered adults in their thirties so perhaps they just matured differently. “I’m still deciding whether I want it or not though.”

This wasn't a spur of the moment thing anymore. This was controlled and both of them had the time to think. Bilbo had the time to change his mind. That thought had the dwarf drawing in a breath to calm himself before he closed the distance between them. He wasn't approaching with an air of threat or even trying to exert authority over the hobbit - using power and brute force would only drive Bilbo to be defensive and then they'd never get anywhere. Instead he approached as an equal, throwing a tight leash around his desire as he stood before the source on even ground. He was a king without a crown and that made him…no one. Just an ordinary dwarf who stood before a rather extraordinary hobbit. 

When he looked at Bilbo it was with a veiled longing, desperately wanting to raise his hands to touch again, but this time willing to wait for the right moment to ask. "Would you really come here without knowing?" This wasn't the same as the first night in Bag End when he'd presented Bilbo with a contact and a proposition. This wasn't possibly signing his life away, but still it seemed to be weighed down on his burglar as if it had the same stakes.

“No.” It was barely a whisper but it seemed to echo in the room. “I just…”

Thorin had to lean down to properly hear his companion. He couldn't do this, not unless there were no doubts. "I will not force you, Bilbo Baggins, I wouldn't even consider it. I will not lie to you either." The dwarf's eyes burned now, much as they had earlier. "Earlier when I found you, as sloppy as we were, it was breathtaking. I wanted, and I still want, everything you have to offer."

That seemed to startle Bilbo a little bit. “And if I can’t give you everything?”

"I know what 'stop' and 'no' mean. I will not take what you do not offer." Thorin's stubborn streak stood proud outside of the bedroom, his very determination to continue his quest the proof. Intimate situations like these were different. He had taken a few lovers since they were driven from Erebor, but they had been few and far in between. During the times where he’d had someone to turn to in the dark he had done his best to be attentive to their needs. The loyalty and trust that developed between lovers and his people as a whole were especially important now that they were broken and scattered. Even though Bilbo wasn’t a dwarf and hadn’t suffered the same sort of hardships Thorin refused to descend to his baser instincts and forget         that he should count himself as lucky that Bilbo had shown up at all.

Bilbo ‘s smile was bittersweet. “That wasn’t really what I meant, but I suppose it’ll do. Now, ahem,” he reached out and gently fingered the hem of Thorin’s tunic, “do you know what it is exactly you want from me, Thorin Oakenshield? More specifically than ‘everything’, that is.” As quickly as it had appeared the melancholy vanished to be replaced with the smallest spark of teasing.

Once again Thorin was not prepared for such a response and the first hints of red touched his ears in his embarrassment. Still, Bilbo's hands were on him and this was permission enough to touch. The dwarf's fingers sunk into short hair, combing through as fingertips massaged over the hobbit's scalp. It was an intimate gesture amongst dwarves to touch another's hair, but this was the one thing that Bilbo hadn't seemed to mind and the king just couldn't help himself.

"I want you bare and on that bed for starters."

Rather than stripping as commanded, Bilbo tilted his head back into Thorin’s questing hands and groaned softly in pleasure at the feeling of blunt nails scraping across his head and the nape of his neck where it was covered by his curls. Deft hands lifted up the edge of Thorin’s shirt until he could trace the bare skin above the waistband of his trousers.

“I could say the same, your majesty.”

"Then we're wasting time." Those hands moved to Bilbo's waist and a smirk coupled with a warning of 'I'm going to lift you' were all the hobbit was given before he was hoisted off the floor. It was a short distance to the bed, but it was also pretty high off the floor for them and the dwarf didn't give a second thought to setting his companion up on top. To make up for the handling he stripped off his tunic to give Bilbo a proper look at what his hands had been questing for. "We have a lot of space up there to make use of."

“There’s plenty of time to waste when we have all night,” Bilbo replied mulishly from on top of the bed, clearly not at all enamored with his quick trip to the top of the exceedingly high bed. His protests trailed off when Thorin pulled off his shirt, his eyes going bright with greed and desire as they followed the line of thick hair from the king’s chest all the way down to where it disappeared under the top of his pants. “Or I suppose we could go a little faster, alright.” He leaned down and offered Thorin a hand up.

The nervousness that had been curling in his belly vanished and Thorin took the offered hand so that he could take his place next to Bilbo on the bed. Though bare-chested his boots hadn't been discarded and as he returned to touching the hobbit's hair and teasing the tips of his ears he showed no desire to continue with his disrobing. "I will explore every inch of you Bilbo Baggins before this night is done."

“T-That sounds wonderf – oh yes, please keep doing that…”Bilbo shivered and sagged into Thorin’s lap as his ears were petted, going completely pliant.

Thorin couldn’t help but feel very pleased with himself. "Let’s get you out of these clothes. You’ll be more comfortable." With a reaction like that Thorin didn't want to let up on his touches for even a moment. One hand did have to drop to tug at the fabric of Bilbo's shirt before he found a button of his vest and started undoing them. In return he got a groan of appreciation and Bilbo turned his head so that Thorin could have better access to the ear he was playing with. This brought him to eye level with the dwarf’s hair-covered sternum.

“May I?” The words echoed the ones Thorin has spoken earlier that day, waiting for the go ahead to touch.

"Get this vest and shirt off and you may." The buttons were being stubborn, but Thorin wasn't frustrated enough to ruin Bilbo's new clothes. Yet. "Why did you dress up like this?" Not that he didn’t appreciate the effort the vest just seemed a bit like overkill to him, more of something that one would wear to an outing rather than a midnight rendezvous. Maybe hobbits just liked dressing up to impress their lovers? The idea was a pleasing one, he had to admit.

“Let me do that, you have fat fingers.” Bilbo shooed Thorin’s hands away and undid the golden buttons as quickly as he could. “I wanted to look nice and I told you that I hadn’t made up my mind yet. Did you expect me to show up completely naked?” He shrugged out of the vest and tossed it down to the foot of the bed so that it wouldn’t get rumpled should they roll on it.

"No." With the vest out of the way the dwarf was free to tug away the soft white shirt as well, baring Bilbo’s chest and belly at last. It was so different, but still the thick fingers fell to the silky flesh and traced over the collarbone before moving down. It was an examination that had Thorin's brows drawing together as he curled his fingers around the other's chest under his arms, rubbing his thumbs in careful circles. As if to contrast the rough and overeager touches the two of them had indulged in earlier, each of these were slow and each carefully considered before it was carried out. Bilbo shivered as Thorin’s hands moved across his smooth, soft skin before twining his own fingers in the dwarf’s thick chest hair and giving it a light pull as if to draw him closer.

Thorin grunted with the pull before his fingers sought and pinched the hobbit's nipples. "Don't pull it out." He warned quietly. "It'd be a pain to re-grow."

“Ouch! Not so hard, those are sensitive. You dwarves may have been created from stone but I can’t say the same for – Thorin…” Bilbo paused, his fingers still firmly tangled. He leaned in close enough that Thorin could smell the soap he must have bathed with. “Are those tattoos?

"Hm?" The king had to look down and tried to follow where Bilbo was looking. "Yes. I have many." Removing his hands he could push his tangled hair back over his shoulders and show off the intricate ink designs that ran down his shoulders and chest. Most of them were obscured by his thick body hair, but the lines of them were more obvious up close. "Once this quest is over I intend to get more."

“More? How did you even get these done with this pelt of yours?” Bilbo did his best to part the dark curls on Thorin’s chest to expose the swirling lines and geometric patterns, but it was a mostly futile effort that had the hobbit blowing air out of his nose in aggravation.

"I had those put on when I was young. The hair was removed for the process and it grew back. Eventually," he added, remembering how badly his chest had itched during the first few weeks afterwards.

It was cute watching the way Bilbo tried to get a good look at the markings. A perfect distraction as Thorin set his hand against the unguarded ass and squeezed. "Tattoos and piercings are very common amongst us, Bilbo Baggins. You do not have any sort of similar practices in the Shire?"

“Of course we don’t. Anyone with such things would be looked upon as a complete scoundrel. Not that I wasn’t already mind you, but I wasn’t about to go and look like – oi!” He left of trying to figure out it the lines made up a larger picture and twisted around to grab Thorin’s wrists. “I can’t believe you just did that.”

"You seemed happily distracted." Not only had the king dared once, but when his hands weren't beaten off he squeezed again. "I must admit I'm enjoying what I see so far."

“I think you mean ‘what you feel’,” the hobbit grumbled, shifting so that he was slightly more upright. A harsh blush had appeared on his cheekbones and the tips of his ears and once again he seemed unable to look directly at Thorin. 

"Yours ears are delightful." Thorin actually found the nerve to lean down and try to latch his teeth onto one of the sensitive tips, something he’d never tried before or even imagined that he would ever want to try. The reaction he got from it made his tentative foray completely worthwhile.

“They most certainly are n– oh! Oh g-goodness gracious, Thorin!” Instantly Bilbo went rigid, as if steel had been shot into his spine and then removed the moment later. It was clear that he was doing his best to maintain some sort of illusion of control over himself, but it was crumbling like a house of sand.

When the hobbit shifted his weight forward and pressed just right against his confined erection Thorin groaned and pressed the other closer. "I want to see all of you before we continue."

For some reason his words seemed to have startling effect on Bilbo. With a soft cry the hobbit leaned over and buried his face against Thorin’s shoulder, his shoulders shaking and both hands pressing down hard between his still-clothed legs.

"Bilbo?" Thorin stopped and tried to get the hobbit to sit up again. "After what we did in that field there's nothing for you to be embarrassed about."

"You can't talk like that," Bilbo said breathily as he sat up, the flush having spread all across his face and down his neck. "Not when you're playing with my ears. At this rate I won't have any clean pants left..."

Already the hobbit was being picked up and laid on his back. "Then we'd better get you out of them." Fingers tucked in at the waistband of Bilbo's trousers, tugging once before opening them. He pressed against the noticeable bulge unapologetically in the process, smirking.

Bilbo squeaked and wriggled, trying to keep Thorin's hands out of his pants. "Now stop that, I just - even I can't go again so soon, just let me breathe for a moment!"

"Wait you-"

Well that was a touch embarrassing.

Bilbo had already cum once and he hadn't even noticed it! Still, it didn't stop the dwarf from getting the hobbit out of the rest of his clothes, swallowing thickly when he saw the mess that had been smeared across Bilbo’s soft lower belly. "I hadn't realized you'd already finished…"

Bilbo looked down at himself and rubbed his hipbone, looking more than a little bashful. “Well I wouldn’t say finished. That was just one and I imagine I’ll have a few more if you keep at it like that for the next little while.” Soft fingertips trailed up the underside of his shaft, gently caressing the still-hard flesh to milk himself through the mild aftershocks. “I’ll last a little bit longer next time, I promise.”

"That quickly?" Dwarves tended to last a long while, drawing out the pleasure to a single, mind-numbing peak. "How many will you last through?" Thorin's eyes were following the little motions as Bilbo touched himself, but his own hands moved down past the hobbit’s hips to massage just above his knees.

“Ah, I’m not sure. When I was younger – although I suppose that wasn’t that long ago now that I think about it – I think my record was somewhere around twelve. That was when I was courting Ruby Brambles and she was…well. You know.” Bilbo drew his legs up slightly, as if he wasn’t entirely sure about Thorin’s grip on his legs. Considering the way the dwarf had held him down earlier that was understandable.

Thorin tried to imagine the aftermath of twelve orgasms. The hobbit beneath him would be a mess, absolutely lost in his haze and utterly satisfied after such a session. Inappropriate or not the very image had the dwarf's face heating up and his own cock throbbing, reminding him that it had not received any special attention yet.

"That would explain the large families I passed." Seeing the shift Thorin moved to touch only one leg at a time. He started at the knee, tickling behind it before he moved down to examine the large, hairy feet. When he pressed against the sole his curiosity was satisfied; the dwarf couldn't understand how hobbits could walk about bare-foot and with skin like leather on the bottom of the foot it was understandable. "Your feet are not hardened at birth are they?"

“N-no, they aren’t. I suppose it just comes of not wearing shoes. Thorin, do you think you could,” he gave his foot a little tug to pull it from the dwarf’s curious grip, “there. They aren’t as well kept as I’d like after all of that walking.”

"They look fine to me." Leaning over the other again Thorin pressed his thumbs against the inside of Bilbo's thighs and rubbed against the skin. When he pushed his weight against them he meant to part his companion's legs, examining the mess that had been made.

Bilbo gasped and made a sputtering noise that managed to sound both indignant and anticipatory at the same time. His small hands dove into Thorin’s hair and tugged fretfully. “You shouldn’t – stop looking at me like that! I thought that you wanted to have sex, not look me over like a pig at market.”

"I’m not – ah," those hands were quickly dislodged from his hair and Thorin once again pinned the hobbit beneath him. His hips were pressed firmly against his companions and he ground down against him once, breathing in deeply to keep control of himself. "I told you I would see every inch of you before we began. Didn't you want the same?"

The hobbit’s pupils dilated until only the thinnest rim of copper was visible around the edges. “Yes,” he whispered before biting down on his bottom lip and pulling at the hands around his wrists. Thorin fit perfectly in the soft cradle of Bilbo’s bare thighs and his pants rubbed him properly pink everywhere they touched.

"Then listen carefully. I'm going to sit up and you will have to finish undressing me. Once you've had your fill you're going to turn over and let me finish my look." Thorin didn't feel like he needed to wait for a confirmation of understanding, rolling his hips one more time before he sat up and raised his arms so they were out of the way. Since he wasn’t looking any more he missed the flash of irritation that crossed Bilbo’s face. Maybe if he had noticed he might have treaded a bit more carefully, but the warning sign went by unheeded.

In a whisper of flesh against rough homespun sheets Bilbo righted himself and rubbed his wrist. “I will, but you aren’t to hold me down again unless I ask you to. I’ve had quite enough of that for one day.”

It wasn’t a request.

"Very well." The exiled king could understand not wanting to be held down and had to remind himself he'd already been pushing his luck earlier that day. In the field he'd wanted to keep Bilbo from thrashing so he wouldn't hurt himself, but here there was no reason to fear accidental damage unless one of them fell off the bed.

“I’m glad we understand each other.” All of the stuttering and shy glances were gone now as Bilbo settled himself on his knees in front of Thorin and began to undo the laces that tied his pants shut. They were tighter than usual thanks to the erection that was tenting the front, but Bilbo’s nimble fingers quickly got the knots undone and then pulled back the overlapping covers until the king’s cock was exposed to the warm air. “There we are,” Bilbo said, with something akin to admiration in his voice.

The rush of air that escaped Thorin was in pleasant relief as he was finally freed. His cock was thick, swollen in his want and sensitive with how long it had gone ignored. "Much better. Now we're a bit more on equal ground."

“I never thought I would say this, but you talk too much.” With only a heartbeat of hesitation Bilbo reached out and closed both hands around the thickest part of him, squeezing it tightly to elicit some sort of reaction.

The reaction was immediate. Thorin gave a short yelp, the outburst probably hurting his damaged throat more than his low-volume conversations had been. His hips jerked so he pushed against those hands, the sensation overwhelming in its suddenness. "There's oil on the bedside table. Don't think you can finish me off so easily."

“Finish you off?” Repeated the hobbit. “Goodness no, why ever would I want to do that? I just wanted to see how you would react. Now lie back, I’m not done with my turn looking yet.”

There was a noncommittal reply as Thorin laid himself back. Even in such a vulnerable position the dwarf had an air of confidence that he still had a hold on the power for this. It was Bilbo's turn after all and if he wanted to admire than he wasn't about to stop the hobbit from getting his fill. Soon enough he intended to have the young male beneath him again, squirming and moaning as he filled him in a very different way.

That was all the encouragement Bilbo needed to move forward. Bracing his hands on Thorin's splayed legs the hobbit crawled up his reclined body until he was level with Thorin's collar bone. His body was pliant and soft but the teeth that scraped across the dwarf's skin were anything but. "I like the way you smell, king under the mountain."

A jolt of arousal shot down Thorin's spine and he choked back a moan. Those teeth were harsh, but didn't break skin. He had to restrain himself from pushing the hobbit away and stop any more bruises from being laid on his flesh. "I thought this was for looking, not for leaving more marks."

"You were the one who said it was for looking, not me." Bilbo licked the teeth marks he'd left before moving down a little bit further. Thorin's cock rubbed against his belly and made them both shift and moan. "Oh that's perfect..."

"Careful," Thorin warned breathlessly, "or I may cut your turn short."

Brown eyes flicked up to meet blue ones. "Do you want me to stop?"

There was a tense moment between them before Thorin shook his head. "No." This felt…oddly familiar. Probably because their situation had been flipped earlier and he didn't realize it until he noticed how amused his companion looked.

Bilbo smiled at his answer. "I'm glad. I wasn't nearly finished yet." Kisses that were peppered down his chest were feather-light, purposefully teasing and not nearly enough.

Most dwarves only worked with their hands. Thorin had heard of a few pairs using their mouths in bed play - with the risk of getting the piercings and decorations tangled it was only in private and with close lovers that any indulged. Bilbo seemed unconcerned so hobbits were no doubt just different when it came to foreplay. It certainly made the king curious and he sat up on his elbows to watch as Bilbo moved down. Languid kisses were placed on each of his ribs, down his sides, his left hipbone was licked and nibbled on, and yet Bilbo managed to stay away from where they both knew Thorin wanted his mouth the most. Occasionally down-soft curls would brush against his shaft as the hobbit shifted his attention to another not quite spot. It would have seemed like a torturous game if it hadn’t been for how hard Bilbo was breathing by the time he sat up again, soft whimpers escaping him with every exhale. Sweat trailed down his temples and the sides of his neck and his eyes were unfocused.

“Say please,” he whispered.

Even with his neck as sore as it was low rumbles and groans were pulled from the dwarf's throat as Bilbo continued. He wasn't the only one affected, far from it if the look on his companion's face was anything to go by, but oh how Thorin wanted those sweet lips wrapped around him in that moment. It was what he’d been tortured with the image of, the promise in every little brush and nibble, but Bilbo had so far kept that prize from him.

Still a fraction of the king's pride reeled him in before he could beg . "I never asked you to stop in the first place."

"I'm finished with my turn."

“Then that means it's mine again." It was a battle of wills now. Two dominant personalities clashing and Thorin was too stubborn to give up and ask. It seemed like they were going to be trapped in a stalemate, with one of them unwilling to bend and the other determined to have their way in the end. They stared at each other for agonizing seconds; the only sound that of the crickets outside and their uneven breathing.

It could be said that Bilbo broke first, but it wasn’t to concede the battle. Without breaking eye contact the hobbit leaned down, wrapped one of his hands around Thorin’s cock to steady it, and slowly dragged his tongue across its flushed tip.

"A-Ah…Mahal that's-!" Bilbo's tongue was like velvet over the head of his arousal and Thorin dropped back to lie flat as the sensation washed over his oversensitive nerves.

“Yes?” Bilbo prompted.

"That was …amazing."

“Well, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Sadly my ‘turn’, as you put it, is over so I suppose that’s the end of it.” Bilbo raised his eyebrows and thinned his lips in mock disappointment as he leaned back and settled himself against a pillow that was nearly as big as he was with his fingers laced together over his still-sticky belly. “Such a shame.”

That wasn't fair. Jerking up again Thorin managed to look absolutely stupefied. Bilbo was completely serious though, having no intention of continuing...unless he asked. Covering his face the dwarf grumbled to himself in Khuzdul, grinding out his frustrations before he returned to a tongue that his companion would understand. "Please."

"I've gotten a 'please' and a 'thank you' out of you in the same day. It must be my birthday."

"Bilbo!"

"My mistake, that isn't until September."

"Are you quite finished yet?"

"I think we established earlier that I wasn't."

Already broadly grinning at the frustration he was causing, Bilbo broke into a laugh and shook his head. "I suppose you're right. Instead I should be rewarding you for your good manners." He crooked a finger at Thorin and licked his bottom lip, as if to recall the taste of him.

Though bristling at the summoning where Bilbo had laid back looked more comfortable. Shifting his position Thorin leaned into the large pillows so the propped him up, spreading his legs out as he gave the hobbit an expectant look. In an act of mercy Bilbo didn’t make him wait anymore. Instead he leaned over, braced one hand on Thorin’s stomach and the other on one of his hard legs. Soft lips closed around the very tip of his erection and the hobbit gave it a gentle suck. Thorin smothered himself with a hand over his mouth, his head rolling to the side as his eyes fluttered closed. Even if it had cost a bit of his pride the soft touch of Bilbo's lips and the gentle pressure made it worth it. Those torturous lips moved down lower until the entire head of his cock was enclosed in the tight, wet heat of Bilbo's mouth. The hobbit seemed content to stop there, suckling at him first soft and then harder as if Bilbo had decided that he liked what was in his mouth.

"Mmm…" Even with the hand over his mouth the dwarf's moan could still be heard through his fingers. His other hand searched the covers of the bed for something to grasp before he set them in Bilbo's hair as the pressure increased. He pet the curls then found an ear to caress so he wasn't the only one moaning in bliss.

A garbled sound managed to make it out of Bilbo's mouth, something between a yelp and a groan and the very tip of his teeth rubbed against the underside of Thorin's shaft when the dwarf began to stroke his ear.

"Ah…Don't bite." The older male's hand was pushed up into his own hair, grasping and then relaxing in the thick mane as he panted. He did not stop with the attention to Bilbo's ear, but he did gnash his teeth a bit more as he forced back any other noise the burglar was trying to work out of him.

When Bilbo pulled back a thin line of saliva still trailed from his bottom lip to Thorin's vividly flushed tip.

"S-sorry, didn't mean to. It's just that - mmm..." He leaned hard into Thorin's hand, his eyes fluttering shut in complete bliss.

"You can finish from this can't you?" He scraped a short nail against the rim of the sensitive ear. "You love it."

"Yesss," the hobbit hissed, his hips giving a half jerk that brought his cock up against Thorin's still-clothed leg. "Oh yes, so much."

"Keep sucking then burglar. You said you could have multiple orgasms and you will. Once you've spilled again I'll fuck you with my fingers and only after you can't take any more will I fuck you senseless." He stopped stroking the ear but he didn't release it just yet. It was a promise to continue if he got what he wanted.

"Oh sweet springtime..." Bilbo ducked his head and took a deep breath, as if trying to gather himself. There was already a small wet spot on Thorin's pants from the hobbit's precum as he ground himself against his leg, but somehow the burglar managed to pull himself together and swallowed down Thorin's cock with a ferocious enthusiasm. The return of stimulation was more than satisfactory. The dwarf held up his promise and started to rub and tickle the ear again as Bilbo excitedly suckled his erection. It was like his companion wanted to pull every last bit of fluid from his body all at once, but for now he was just getting precum. Similar to the amount being rubbed against his pant leg no doubt, but the hobbit was much more enthusiastic than he was about finding immediate release.

The breathy hums and whines that were managing to make their way out of Bilbo's throat were practically sinful. The hobbit began to bob his head, taking in more and more of Thorin's length until his jaw probably hurt from being stretched so wide. One of his shaking hands dug into the line of thick dark hair that trailed down Thorin's belly and the other covered his fingers where the dwarf was rubbing his ear. The movement was a new factor and Thorin couldn’t help but wonder when the next time he'd be able to let the hobbit do this would be. Judging by the way Bilbo was squirming and groaning around his arousal the other was getting off very well on this as well. It was a lot to take in and the dwarf couldn't help himself as he trust up into the hot mouth, wanting more of the blissful sensations.

Instantly Bilbo reared back, his throat convulsing as Thorin's cock rammed into it, making him gag and cough. "Thor - ack" The surprise paired with the sharp pinch Thorin had given his ear when he thrust was apparently too much for the overwhelmed hobbit. With a whimpering cry he came, his hips working furiously as cum splashed up along Thorin's pants.

There it was. Even if he lost the heat of Bilbo's mouth Thorin got to watch as the burglar came undone and lost himself to another orgasm. Dirty clothes could be washed and the king simply rubbed the hobbit's back and made low, soothing sounds.

When the other seemed to calm down Thorin wasn't quite as gentle. He lifted Bilbo up and deposited him into the pillows next to him on his back, rolling to the side of the bed to grab the jar of oil he'd procured for this. "Pick your position. Back or stomach. You know what's coming next."

"Back! No, stomach! Back! I don't know!" Bilbo wailed, clawing at the sheets with tears pooling in his eyes.

"Shhhh." Turning back over Thorin set a leg between Bilbo's and leaned over the frustrated hobbit. "Calm down, you've got time." Setting the sealed jar beside them for now Thorin leaned down to press their foreheads together. It was meant to comfort, the dwarf trying to keep their eyes locked so he could be a solid and sure thing through the haze of lust.

Gradually Bilbo's breathing evened out again and the frantic look left his face. After a moment when he realized that he wasn't going to be rushed into anything. Weak hands reached up and stroked Thorin's beard.

“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” he murmured as he pet.

"I'm not going anywhere." The air was shared between them and Thorin pressed into that hand. "Even when we leave you will be by my side."

Keeping the contact while Bilbo explored his beard the dwarf tried to shift his position and get completely between the smaller's legs. Even as his cock strained for attention, demanding they move quickly but the king found it in himself to go slow again. "Are you ready?"

“I’ve been ready. I was ready an hour ago!”

"Would you like another kiss?" Thorin picked up the oil again, opening the jar and spreading it over his fingers. The space between them was already burning again and the cool fluid dripped off his hand and onto Bilbo's belly. He only spread it around with a thumb before dipping his hand between the hobbit's legs and spreading his cheeks. "It might help you calm down."

In answer Bilbo sat up on his elbows and crushed his mouth up against Thorin's even as the dwarf spread him on one slick finger, gasping and moaning into his mouth. The hands that had been rubbing at his beard speared up into his long hair and sent it cascading down around both of them, blocking out the dim candlelight. Both of them were getting lost in the rush of want. Thorin closed his eyes and just breathed as he let the hobbit have control of every kiss, inviting him to explore and enjoy whatever he wanted as he prepared him below. The first finger did not stay alone for long, a few shallow thrusts before he was sliding in a second alongside it. It was easier to spread his companion open, but by the gods was he tight. For fear of hurting the smaller before he was ready the fingers were brought together and he only thrust them deeply, curling them as he drew them out.

"Oh - oh!" Bilbo gasped and bucked under him, breaking their kiss so that he could duck his head. Ever so carefully he stroked the bandages that still covered Thorin's throat, making small and broken sounds with every thrust. "G-gracious, I - Thorin!"

Thorin shuddered, his skin was glistening with a fresh sheen of sweat. "How long has it been?" What he felt didn't line up with what he'd assumed of the hobbit. He'd seen Bilbo run off into the woods with another of his own company, but laid beneath him now his body didn't at all support his suspicion that their alone time had been spent in pleasure.

"What?" Came the confused query from underneath him.

The dwarf spread his thick fingers again as he thrust them back in. "This. Since you've had someone. I don't want to hurt you."

"Aah!" Bilbo yanked on his hair and quaked beneath the sensual onslaught. "Oh, I can't think - " He shook his head and he bit down hard on his bottom lip. "Four or five years? Maybe longer?"

Long enough. A third finger joined in the preparation and Thorin growled low. He was suddenly far more pleased with this, drinking in Bilbo's unraveling again. "I could keep you like this all night." He breathed. "Wearing you down, breaking you…how long until you start to beg?"

Glazed brown eyes gazed up at him. "I - " He panted and then broke off to catch his breath when Thorin's third finger stretched him wide. "I'm Belladonna's son. I don't beg. B-but I will say 'please' if I - if I - if -!" For the third time that evening Bilbo tried to curl in on himself and wailed as he orgasmed, his inner muscles clamping down on Thorin's fingers painfully hard.

The groan that escaped from the dwarf was loud. Not nearly as loud as Bilbo's wail, but he had to hold himself still as his companion came apart beneath him. His fingers stayed buried in the hobbit's body and he twisted them to see what sort of reaction he could still draw out while Bilbo was still oversensitive.

"That's three." Just in case the burglar had lost track; Thorin certainly hadn't and his cock wasn't letting him forget it.

"Talking...too much..." Bilbo panted, dragging his fingers through the mess he'd made of his belly and abdomen, his cock red and flushed where it was lying against on his hip. "Give me a moment, that was...oh please no, ah!" His back arched, pushing him up and into Thorin as the dwarf scissored his fingers. "I said a moment!"

"I barely moved." Thorin teased. "Hold still and you won't even feel it soon enough. You'll want to be very relaxed for the next round."

"I'm feeling everything you do, you obtuse dwarf!" A quick punch was delivered to his shoulder, though there was little force or real irritation behind it.

The three fingers were spread again as he drew them out. Thorin sat up so he could get a good look at the mess that had been made and at just how open Bilbo was when he left each digit in to the first knuckle. "It doesn't look like my attentions have gone unappreciated."

"Are you dwarves as slow with this as you are with everything else? We're going to be here until tomorrow night at this rate." Bilbo pushed his sweaty curls out of his eyes and gave Thorin as fierce a glare as he could manage when he was naked and had cum rolling down his sides.

"We don't finish as fast as you hobbits seem to. We relish in the burn and the build to a hard, long finish." Thorin twisted his fingers around one last time before withdrawing them and taking up the oil to spread over his leaking cock.

Bilbo didn't reply. He was too busy watching Thorin oil his shaft until it was nigh unto dripping with the stuff. Both hands twisted into the sheets and he brought up his legs as if unsure what exactly to do with them now that he wasn't being touched. Once he’d prepared himself the dwarf hooked his hands under Bilbo's knees and lifted them up, keeping his legs open to better expose the other. His full arousal was pressed against the hobbit's body, the thick shaft sliding between his spread cheeks and over the prepared hole without actually penetrating. Thorin knew his companion had said he wouldn't beg, but that didn't mean he couldn't try to get something.

What he did get was a very bad word spat at him. Rather than covering his mouth and looking ashamed with himself like any other young hobbit might have had they been caught using profanity in such an intimate situation Bilbo simply reached down and grabbed Thorin by his hips, digging in with his blunt nails. “Some time tonight, please!”

"Impatient hm?" One leg was released and Thorin grabbed himself, checking that the oil was spread properly before holding himself steady and lining up with the waiting hole. The brief pause it took to re-situate himself was all the warning given before the dwarf was pushing into the blissfully tight heat. Thanks to the preparation and the fluid there was no resistance, just overwhelming pressure that made the larger male's breath catch.

Bilbo clearly felt a little bit more than just pressure because the hobbit yelped and began to shove at Thorin’s stomach. “Too fast, too fast, too fast! Cherry blossoms you’re big!”

Thorin's hips jerked back so hard he pulled completely out. He huffed and grabbed himself again, pressing the tip back against Bilbo’s opening and plugging it up. "Sorry. Let me-" He grabbed the oil again and spread a bit more along his shaft, pulling back and then pushing back in. As long as there was no protest he'd just keep with the shallow thrusts until Bilbo was ready. "How's that?"

“Better,” came the panted reply, though there were still lines of stress around the hobbit’s eyes and mouth, made all the deeper by the candlelight.  “Sorry, wasn’t expecting that. It’s been a while and you’re a bit bigger than a hobbit.” His erection had softened from the surprise and pain.

Snaking a hand between them Thorin tucked his fingers around the fading erection and spread the excess oil around before giving a careful pump. “I was overeager. It won't happen again." As the promise was whispered the dwarf leaned down and pressed his lips to Bilbo's neck. He sucked at the skin lightly to start a mark. Bilbo interrupted that when he turned his head so that their lips met again and his tongue swept into Thorin’s mouth, instantly taking control as it twined around Thorin’s and teased at the corners of his lips.

“I know, you just surprised me,” he gasped when they broke apart again. “Just let me – there.” Lightly furred legs came up to wrap around Thorin’s rocking hips and his pants fell down to his knees. “That’s – oh that one was much nicer – that’s better, isn’t it?”

Thorin dove back down to dominate a second kiss, encouraged by the other's enthusiasm. With Bilbo's new angle it felt like an easier slide in and he tested for a bit more depth. He didn't stop stroking the hobbit's cock, keeping a pace with his thrusting.

"You tell me, burglar." The eager kiss was broken and the dwarf returned to his mark.

“No, please – “ Thorin found himself grabbed by one of his ears the side of his face and pulled back until he was looking down at Bilbo’s face again. “Please don’t call me that. Just this once please say my name. You can never use it again after this if you don’t want to, but I don’t want to be the burglar right now. Just say my name.”

Dragged from his place again the dwarf nearly lost his balance and his cock ended up slipping out again. He grunted and braced himself again, meeting Bilbo's gaze evenly. "I…" Thorin hadn't even realized he hadn't been using his companion's name. "Bilbo." He rubbed their noses together, the gesture still rather intimate despite the heat still radiating off of them. "You have more than earned being called by your name if that is what you desire."

Even if the jar was almost empty Thorin dumped the rest of it into his hand, pressing two fingers into Bilbo to make sure he was still slick. The rest was trailed up between his thighs, over the returned erection and around on Bilbo's belly. He grasped his own cock again, pressing back in. "Now let me hear you Bilbo. Moan for me."

For once his command went unquestioned.

A high, trembling cry ripped itself from Bilbo’s throat, filling the room with the sound of agonized pleasure and the slap of flesh against flesh. Hair was pulled. Braids came undone. Sweat dripped onto the sheets as they rocked against each other, lost to carnal intoxication and the heady scent of lust. The bed creaked with every thrust and the room had begun to feel over-warm. Long scratch marks were left trailing across Thorin’s back and shoulders, teeth marks on Bilbo’s collarbone and neck. Somewhere between the awkwardness and fumbling touches a spark had caught and now it roared through each of them in equal measure.

“T-Thorin” Bilbo gasped as he reached up to push the king’s trailing hair away from his face. “Give me more, I want – I want everything.”

Once the two of them heated up there was no stopping them. Bilbo did nothing but encourage the frenzy and soon Thorin was losing his control. His labored breaths and quick moans burned his throat but it didn't stop him. There was just a sliver of control left and Bilbo’s demand was to be rid of it. Who was he to deny Bilbo what he wanted? Especially when his body was gripping him so wonderfully and he looked absolutely beautiful with that needy expression on his face.

"So be it." Thorin buried himself to the root, groaning in earnest when the inner walls held so deliciously. Not one to let the heat entice him just yet the dwarf kept his harsh pace with the new depth, claiming Bilbo entirely.

"Getting close…" After all the foreplay, the build and the teasing, Thorin was surprised he wasn't already at his peak. It wouldn't do to finish and not have Bilbo completely senseless beneath him. He held off a little longer, going so far as to cheat and lock his teeth back around one of the hobbit's ears. Luckily for both of them that was all it took to catapult Bilbo right into another orgasm and he muffled his shriek against Thorin’s mouth so that the dwarf was forced to swallow it as cum splashed between their bellies.

“Now. Now now now now,” Bilbo chanted before he bit down on Thorin’s bottom lip hard enough to hurt.

Thorin choked as the suffocating heat only got tighter and plunged back into the hobbit when he finally came. He had to hold tight to Bilbo's hips and hold the smaller male still as his whole body shook. Wave after wave of pleasure washed over him and each was accompanied with a surge of cum to fill the willing body beneath him. The larger form curled overtop the other, hiding him from view as they both basked in their moment of utter euphoria.

Naturally the hobbit recovered the fastest of the two. “I don’t mean to be a bother, but you’re crushing me.”

The best that could be done was the exiled-king hoisting himself up onto his elbows so he could rub his beard against Bilbo's smooth cheek. He didn't want to pull out, absolutely hooked on the heat holding him so firmly. "Better?"

"A bit." Bilbo gingerly unhooked one of his legs let it fall back onto the bed. Both of them hissed when this shifted Thorin back a bit, testing their oversensitive parts. "That was..."

Interrupting Bilbo before he could finish his breathy exclamation Thorin slid the rest of the way out, disappointed in the loss, but not feeling it nearly as much as the hobbit would be.

"Go on." Rolling to the side an arm was laid over the bare form beside him, Thorin's expression surprisingly soft and satisfied compared to the serious intensity he usually wore. "I thoroughly enjoyed that."

"As did - goodness gracious look at the mess you made of me." Bilbo had gotten up onto his elbows and was staring down at his body, which was a mess of bites marks, hickies, and beard rash. There was also a noticeable wet spot forming on the sheets between his legs as Thorin's copious spendings began to trickle down his abused bum. "How did we manage that?"

"Don't question it." The weight of the arm increased as Thorin tried to pull his companion to lie back down. He was drifting, completely spent. "Just rest a moment."

Bilbo smiled down at him, rubbing at the purple bruise that was already appearing on his neck. “You rest. I’m going to get cleaned up a little bit and then – “

It was the last thing Thorin heard before he fell asleep.

--------------------------------------------------

“Well how do you like that?” Bilbo stared down at the snoring dwarf. One moment those blue eyes had been gazing up at him, hazy with languid pleasure and the next Thorin was utterly dead to the world with his head buried in his pillow. He’d heard of some kinds liking to nap after sex but this was taking things to an extreme.

“I suppose I should be grateful he didn’t nod off right in the middle.” A sharp twinge speared through him when Bilbo sat up to move to the edge of the bed. He was positive that there was a handkerchief in his pants pocket that he could at least use to mop himself up a little bit (one of the dogs had given him two or three of them that morning and he’d had to cut them into quarters so that they weren’t each as big as a dinner napkin). It had been more than the four or five years he’d told Thorin since he had last done something that strenuous. After a certain age he’d simply stopped being interested in satisfying any sort of carnal itch, so it had been more like forty years since he had last indulged and his body was telling him in no uncertain terms that it had been used a little bit harder than usual. “Maybe harder than ever before,” he grumbled as he fumbled with his pants. So what if his fifty year old self had been a bit more free with his affections than he had grown to be? That didn’t mean that being fucked into the bed by a dwarf of Thorin’s size wasn’t going to leave an ache or two.

There he paused, his thoughts coming to a screeching halt fast enough to give him whiplash.

Fucked into the bed.

By Thorin.

Bilbo turned as slowly as if he had been turned to stone, afraid to breathe too loudly lest he break the spell that had settled over him. The steady pounding of his heartbeat in his ears was too loud.

What had he done?

Thorin lay where he had fallen, half of his clothes still on and one arm thrown out as if even in sleep he was reaching out to pull Bilbo to him. Every inch of his skin glistened with sweat and the smell of sex lingered so heavily in the air that Bilbo could taste it. Or perhaps that was simply the taste of precum thay lingered on his tongue from when he’d –

“Oh no,” he groaned, burying his face in his hands. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this! The only thing he’d been sent to do was to protect the Durins and he was fairly certain that letting Thorin talk him into bed didn’t qualify as ‘protecting’. Sex was a distraction he didn’t need.

Love was even more so.

This hadn’t happened last time, so where had he changed things along the way to make it come about? Had he changed Thorin somehow without knowing it and forced this on both of them? Worry and stress began to chew at his insides like a disease. He should have said no. He should have stayed with the company and never come to Thorin’s room.

But it was so good, he groaned internally. And you’ve been wanting it for so, so long how could you possibly say no?  

I should have been stronger than this.

It’s just for one night –

It can only be for one night! After this mooning over him could be what gets everyone killed.

That was as good as a bucket of cold water. As quickly as he could Bilbo cleaned himself up and reached for his shirt. This was enough. It had to be enough. Tomorrow morning he could go back to how things were supposed to be and lock away this memory with his few other good ones, to be turned over in his mind and smiled at when he couldn’t sleep. Right now though he needed to be gone before Thorin woke.  

The least I can do is take his shoes off, that can’t be comfortable.

With his shift on but still unbuttoned Bilbo carefully crawled back across the expanse of the bed until he was kneeling next to Thorin’s heavy boots. His bum burned and his hips ached from the pounding he’d taken but he did his best to ignore them as he worked at the ties. They were proving much more difficult than the ones on Thorin’s pants – don’t think about that!

He shook his head to rid himself of them image and then tucked his hair back behind his ears before giving the first boot a firm pull to get it off. With as hard as Thorin had cum he would probably sleep through an earthquake.

“Why the shirt?”

Or maybe not.

Bilbo yelped and looked up to find Thorin watching him through half-lidded eyes. The dwarf king hadn’t moved except to resettle his outstretched arm so that he could trace one of the scratch marks Bilbo had left on his opposite shoulder. “Going somewhere?”

“I – I just thought that – “

“Stop thinking. Come here.”

It wasn’t for a very long time afterwards that Bilbo found the strength to think at all. 

Chapter Text

The scratching at the door was soft, enough so that Bilbo might have missed it if he wasn’t already awake. Waking early was a habit that he had gotten into a long time ago and never really shaken with the exception of when he had passed one hundred and twenty and begun to fall asleep at odd hours and in the middle of conversations. Luckily that wasn’t something that had carried over with his reincarnation, so rather than sleeping through first and second breakfast like the rest of Beorn’s house seemed determined to do Bilbo was busy doing his best to wriggle out from under a very heavy and hairy arm without waking the dwarf next to him. This time he wasn’t stopping to take off anyone’s boots (not that there were any to bother with now. Thorin had managed to kick off the remainder of his clothes sometime during the night and now said boots lay on their sides next to the oversized bed).

It hadn’t been an entirely unpleasant way to wake up; feeling warm and safe with his back pressed against Thorin’s chest and their knees tucked up like matching puzzle pieces. Of course that hadn’t been quite enough to lull him back to sleep because the moment he’d shifted with the intention of rolling over the culmination of all of the night’s activities had made itself known. Bilbo had only barely managed to swallow his squeak of pain and dismay when he realized that he ached from his head to his toes and more than ached in certain areas. Bite marks on his neck and shoulders throbbed and there were bruises in the shape of fingers on his upper arms that began to send up a clamor the moment he put pressure on them. And that said nothing about the state of his rear or his poor abused member! Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined getting beard chafe marks on his cock but now that he had he couldn’t say that he recommended it. Next time he would have to make sure that Thorin was a bit more careful with his facial hair.

“There isn’t going to be a next time,” he reminded himself as he slithered off the side of the bed and stifled a whimper when the movement stretched his sore muscles. “There wasn’t even supposed to be a first time! Here I was thinking that I was too old for such ridiculousness. It’s distracting, that’s what it is.”

His shirt had ended up under the bed and his trousers on a chair by the door. How they had gotten there he had no idea. As for his lovely vest, it had ended up in a wrinkled mess directly underneath Thorin. Bilbo deemed it a lost cause and decided to come back to fetch it later once the room was unoccupied. If he tried to get it now it was likely that he’d rouse the king and that was the last thing he wanted when he’d just made up his mind not to give into temptation again. Besides, it was unlikely he’d be able to walk for the next two or three days if he did decide to indulge. The discomfort that had settled in his limbs and belly were more than enough to convince him to take things easy for the next little while. Why did dwarves have to be so much more…everything? They bit more, they fucked harder, never before had Bilbo felt so well-used and it had left him limping.

The scratching had come right as he was finishing buttoning up his rumpled shirt and instantly a bolt of panic shot through him. What if it was Dwalin? Or Fili and Kili? He wasn’t going to be able to talk his way out of this one with an excuse that he’d been checking on Thorin’s neck bandages and then he’d be in all sorts of hot water. For one wild moment he considered simply hiding behind the door and pretending that no one was awake, but that would only prompt the person outside to scratch louder and possibly wake up Thorin. There was nothing for it, he’d simply have to think up some story on the fly and pray that no one thought ill of him for what he’d been doing.

“I never thought that being a hobbit would be so stressful,” he whispered as he got up on his toes and unlocked the door. The scratching stopped the moment he cracked it open and a thin nose poked itself inside. It wasn’t a dwarf nose and Bilbo breathed a sigh of relief as one of Beorn’s dog servants looked at him curiously around the edge. It was a greyhound-type beast, with very short gray fur and giant eyes and it whined at him when he sagged against the door frame.

“Sorry, you scared a year off my life. I really shouldn’t worry so much; it isn’t good for my health. I’m going to have a nervous breakdown before all of this is over, I just know it.” 

The dog’s pink tongue lolled out of the side of its mouth and its ears twitched before it backed up out of the door again. Not entirely sure what it wanted, Bilbo gave his vest one last longing look before he followed after the creature and shut the door behind him, leaving Thorin asleep. The soft click of the latch sounded very final. It had to be final, Bilbo reminded himself and he bit the inside of his cheek to tamp down on his disappointment. There was no sort of future for a king and a burglar outside of fairy tales. Once Thorin was king of his mountain Bilbo would – what would he do? Fade away? Go back to the Shire? Assuming he survived the experience in the first place, that is.

Would you have given your own life for theirs?”

He would have. He still would if it came to that, though that wasn’t exactly his first choice for how things would end.

“Damn dwarves and damn one of them in particu – oh, is that a towel?” Luckily it was in the nature of hobbits not to hold onto sorrows or their troubles for too long when they were presented with a distraction and the fluffy cotton towel that the greyhound was holding out to him on its front paws was exactly the right sort of diversion from his morbid thoughts. “I don’t suppose there’s a bathtub somewhere to go along with this?”

The morning was looking up as the hound yipped and dropped to all fours, leaving Bilbo to hold the towel and follow after to somewhere that he could hopefully soak away his aches and worries for a little while before a proper breakfast.

__________________________________

‘Strictly Required’

 - Find troll hoard and get swords - check

 - Talk to Elrond - check

 - Get ring - check

 - Go to Beorn’s house - check

 - Get Thranduil’s help with final battle

 - Talk to Bard and the Master about an alliance with Erebor

 - Kill Smaug

 - Kill Azog

 - Kill Bolg

 - Reclaim Erebor

 - Go home

 

‘Not Necessarily Necessary’

 - Fight trolls – Bypassed by running

 - Get chased by orcs to Rivendell – check

 - Get captured by goblins

 - Fall down a ravine and talk to Gollum

 - Get cornered on cliff

-Replaced by thieves’ den, underwater cave, hill bandits and Gollum - check

 - Get lost in Mirkwood

 - Get imprisoned by Thranduil

 - Set Smaug on Laketown

 - Fight against the men and elves

 - Get hit in the head with a rock

 

‘Avoid At All Costs’

 - Let the Durins Die

 

“Good morning!”

It took quite a lot of self-control for Bilbo not to drop his quill when Ori came into the kitchen. The dwarf’s hair was wet and his bandages looked to have been freshly changed – there was also a dog following after him with a hand towel in its mouth, mopping up the drips that he was leaving behind. As casually as he could manage Bilbo slid his newly re-written list to his other side as Ori clambered up onto the long bench at the dining table across from him.

“And to you,” he replied agreeably. The bath had done wonders and left him feeling cheerful and clean for the first time in, well, he didn’t really want to think about the last time he’d been able to bathe with soap was. It made his skin crawl a little bit. “How are your – ah – battle wounds?”

Ori reached out and dragged the fresh loaf of bread and the honey pot across the table. “Good! Good. Oin says I might have some scars, and I really hope so because then I’ll look like a dwarf proper.”

“And you can show them off to all of the lady dwarves.” It was meant to be teasing but Bilbo zeroed in when Ori went suspiciously red and busied himself dunking his pieces of bread into the honey, not answering. “Or is there someone in particular that you’d want to show them to?”

A sticky mumble was the only answer he got. One of the dogs reached up and pushed a pile of what looked like pancakes with sweet cream onto the table and Bilbo took one with a word of thanks. The animals had been running two and fro for the last hour since he had emerged from the bath and requested a quill and paper, all of them cooking and sweeping as they made ready for breakfast. Feeding thirteen dwarves, one hobbit, a wizard, and a bear shifter was no small task and the massive kitchen had begun to smell more heavenly by the second. Sadly there were no sausages or thick slices of bacon because Beorn’s household did not indulge in meat, but there were roasted tomatoes with melted cheese on them, piles of fluffy scrambled eggs, bowls of fresh fruits and berries, and big wooden jugs full of what Bilbo had discovered was apple juice when he did his best to pour a glass without spilling it everywhere. He’d only been partially successful.

“Come on now Ori, it’s not like I’m going to tell anyone. Is it a secret? Does she know that you like her?” 

“She’d best know since he’s been mooning over her since he was eleven and she broke his nose when he told her that she was pretty.” Dori came in, followed closely by Bombur and Gloin. All three clambered up onto the high bench and Bilbo shifted his list a little bit more out of view, leaning on it with his elbow and praying he wasn’t smudging the fresh ink too terribly. This would probably be one of the few chances he got to revise the thing for a while and he wanted to have it fresh in his mind before they ventured into Mirkwood. After all, that was where things began to get really complicated.

“Oh aye, I remember when I first met my Stori. Bloodied my lip she did, middle of a bar fight, and Oin was up all night tellin’ me about how she was trouble. Married her the next year and never been happier.” Gloin smoothed down his damp beard and began to slide his silver beads back into it while Ori turned even redder and tried to bury himself in a bowl of strawberries.

“Well Maylin was never one to sit idly by and look pretty, even when she was a babe. I remembered Dwalin bringing her into my tea shop every morning he didn’t have duty and she would stand on the table and tell Ori about all of the things he’d done wrong while they were playing house the day before. She didn’t think very highly of your housekeeping, did she?” Dori smiled over at Ori, who mutely shook his head.

“Dwalin would bring her by?” Bilbo was finding this whole thing very interesting. He’d been so miserable and homesick the first time he’d gone through with this madcap adventure that he had never bothered to get to know the other dwarves very well past their battle experience. “Where they related?”

“We talkin’ about Maylin?” Dwalin came in at that moment, wearing nothing but his pants and a towel across his shoulders. “That gel has a skull thick enough for two dwarves. You know she went into the guard the minute she turned fifty? Jus’ like her da’, though you should’a seen the face she made at me when I said she might wan’t t’ give bodyguardin’ a chance instead. Less chance o’ getting’ shanked in a back alley. You’d a thought I spit in her ale.” Dwalin heaved himself up onto the bench next to Dori and instantly got bath water all over everything. “’Da’, she says to me, ‘If I wanted a cushy fatso t’ look after I would’a got a cat.’ Bought her a halberd th’ next day so she’d start talkin’ t’ me again.”

“You have a daughter?!” Nori had appeared from nowhere down at the other end of the table. Bilbo nearly dropped his juice and Gloin choked on his eggs. “Since when?”

Dwalin looked confused as he took the honey pot from Ori. “Since her mum popped her out, I expect. Nice lass, not really the motherin’ type though so I got Maylin when she went off with a caravan. Pretty black hair and the biggest – “

“Yes thank you, I get the picture. And you didn’t mention this why?”

“You never asked.”

It went on like this for quite a while, so Bilbo busied himself with a pot of jam and a piece of semi-warm toast while he made small adjustments to his list. No one was looking so he felt relatively safe in doing so. Or at least until Ori decided to peek up at him from under his wet hair.

“What are you working on?” He asked quietly, pitching his voice so as not to attract the attention of the other dwarves, most of whom had dissolved into talking about the beards of their lovers and what length and color was the most attractive. Nori had decided to stay out of the conversation and was shooting Dwalin dark looks every time the warrior wasn’t looking. 

Bilbo had been in the middle of putting a check mark next to ‘Go to Beorn’s house’ when Ori spoke and the sudden attention made his hand wobble enough that the check turned into something that resembled a musical note. “Pardon? Oh, this. It’s just a, ah, a list. Of things I need to get done.”

“Things back at your home?” Ori shifted a bit closer and Bilbo leaned forward to cover up the parchment.

“Something like that.”

“It was a lovely place, the Shire. Very green. In fact I don’t think I’d seen somethin’ so fresh-looking in my whole life. What is it folks do all day that they need lists to keep track of it? Seemed simple enough to me.”

“Yes, well, there’s more to it than just sitting around all day and smoking with your feet up. A lot of the folk in the Shire are farmers, which means they’re up at the crack of dawn with the cows and the pigs and whatnot, and then there are fields and gardens to be tended to and market day is every Sunday. Everyone and their grandmother dresses up and comes out to trade and gossip for the day. There are also festivals and birthday parties and weddings going on all the time, so you have to factor in time for those – it can get quite busy when it comes down to it.”

Now the summer was drawing to a close it would nearly be time for the annual apple-picking party. It went on for three days and three nights and everyone went out picnicking in their finest outfits and made pies and crisps and cider until the whole Shire smelled of apples well into October.

“Looks like I’ll be missing a couple parties this year,” Bilbo murmured to himself and used his quill to doodle a tiny apple in the bottom corner of his list. “But that’s alright, I don’t really mind. This is more important than apples after all.”

“Apples?” Ori stuffed a giant spoonful of pure honey straight into his mouth and Gloin had to pound him on the back when he started to suffocate on the sticky stuff.

“They’re round. You put them in your mouth,” Bilbo added, doing his best to keep a straight face.

“I can think of a lot of things that fit that description,” Nori muttered around his mouthful of blackberries and cream.

Fili and Kili chose that moment to walk in, as the table erupted with laughter and shouting about other round things, their hair rumpled from how they’d been sleeping on it. Each of the brothers clambered up onto the bench, Fili on Bilbo’s right and Kili on his left before sinking down in sync and pillowing their hands and on their arms as if they had every intention of going right back to sleep at the table. Bilbo quickly folded up his list and tucked it into his pocket.

“Wha’re we talkin’ bout?” Kili yawned.

“Apples. I was telling Ori about what sort of things we do in the Shire and then – “

“Cherries!”

“Tomatoes!”

“Tits!”

Bofur! Manners.” That came from Dori.

“As you see.” Bilbo finished and Fili snorted before patting around to find Bilbo’s half full glass of juice. The prince’s sheared hair now fell in fairly even layers since Dori had taken Bilbo’s silver scissors to it. A couple of longer braids had been put in at the front and the shorter strands at the back had been twined together to give it the illusion of more length that was simply bound up tightly. It wasn’t FIli’s usual look by any stretch of the imagination and the intricate coils would probably fall out the minute there was a fight, but for now the prince seemed happy enough with the arrangement. At least he wasn’t brooding into his juice cup over it like most of the other dwarves would be doing had their situations been reversed.

“So what, lay around all day an’ smoke?” Fili wiped his mustache on his sleeve. “Not too hard a life.”

“Now really, I was just telling Ori that isn’t how it is at all!”

“Yes, he goes to parties too,” Ori chimed in helpfully and Bilbo groaned while both of the princes started to snicker at his expense.

Clearly there was no way to salvage his dignity now. “I also write books and take hunting trips and play darts,” he added. Maybe those would help to balance out the bad of ‘laying around and going to parties’.  It didn’t seem to because both of the princes and Ori were now deep in conversation about which was more exhausting – having a good smoke or getting ready for a night out and all three of them ignored him.

“Darts?” Nori again and this time Bilbo managed not to drop anything when the thief wriggled his way into the space between Bilbo and Kili, shoving the prince face-first into a bowl of porridge.

“Yes, every Thursday with Ham and Todd Longfoot from down the lane. Beat the pants off them every time but they kept coming back for some reason or another. Here Kili, take my napkin.” He passed it around Nori to the spluttering prince as Kili tried to use his fingers to get the porridge out of his eyes.

“So you’re good at throwing things?” Nori pressed, looking very intent.

“Ah, yes I suppose I am. Birds and squirrels used to flee when they saw me coming when I was a youth since I could knock them right out of trees with a skipping stone. I guess I had an eye for it. Why?”  

The thief was already climbing off the bench again and heading for the door without having touched a bite. “Meet me out front after breakfast. I have an idea.”

“But your ideas are always – !“ Too late, Nori was gone.

Fili leaned over in front of Bilbo and scrubbed at his brother’s face with another napkin, making Kili yelp and try to pull away. “Are always what?”

“They always get me into trouble in one way or another. It would be rude to hide in my bed though, so I might as well get whatever it is over with.” Bilbo sighed and scooped up his quill and inkpot before Kili could knock them over reaching for a spoon. “Wish me luck.”

“Luck,” both princes and Ori returned as Bilbo scrambled off the bench and turned with the intention of returning the writing tools to one of the dogs before seeing what sort of trouble Nori had concocted for him. It was only natural that there was someone standing directly behind him when he spun around and completely understandable that this startled him fiercely and he upended the ink pot all over this person’s shirtfront and his own hands.

Of course it was Thorin.

The two of them stared down at the growing black stain that was quickly spreading across Thorin’s shirt down to the bottom edges.

“Not quite the ‘good morning’ I expected,” Thorin said after a long moment during which everyone at the breakfast table watched in utter silence.

“You – you! Dwarves!” Bilbo went brilliantly red and shoved the half-empty jar of ink at Thorin before stalking off, doing his best not to limp and preserve his tattered dignity.   

Every eye at the table turned to the king once the hobbit was out of sight.

“Wha’ did you do?” Kili asked with his mouth full of pancakes.

“How is this my fault?” Thorin growled before climbing up between his nephews for breakfast. 

Chapter Text

“If you prick yourself on that end you’ll be dead in under a minute.”

Biblo hastily jerked his hands away from the steel needle Nori was holding out to show him and tucked them into his pockets so that he wouldn’t be tempted to touch anything else the thief offered him.

“Remind me never to take anything from you ever again.”

Nori grinned and made the needle vanish into some pocket or another with a quick flick of his wrist. “Even if it’s food?”

“Well food is a completely different manner. I would probably take that from a troll if it smelled good enough.” Bilbo walked over to stand beside the hay bale that he and Nori had wrestled out of Beorn’s barn a few minutes earlier. There were still pieces of hay stuck in his hair and in the pockets of his decidedly wrinkled vest. He had fetched it out of Thorin’s room while the king was at breakfast, all the while doing his best to calm the flush that seemed to have permanently settled in his ears and face. Of all of the clumsy idiotic things to do after a night of passion, spilling good ink all over one’s partner had to top the list. And then he had all but sworn at Thorin before running away – the height of poor manners. Had his mother been alive to witness it she would have smacked him over the head and sent him out without any lunch to think about what he’d done. In place of that he retreated into his own self-imposed exile and run out to meet Nori. It wasn’t avoiding Thorin, it was simply avoiding another embarrassing confrontation, he told himself as he pulled hay out from his collar and let the wind whisk it away.

“I should ‘ave known a hobbit would take food from any ne’er-do-well. Bad habit that, anybody could slip a bit’a hemlock into your stew and then where’d you be?”

“Dead, I imagine. But really, who would want to poison a hobbit in the first place? The only time anybody dies of something like that is when kits put the wrong sort of mushroom in their mouths and that’s always a tragedy.” He could think of two funerals that he’d attended because of that. Each one had been terrible and the parents of the babes had carried the weight of it for years, but there was little that could be done except try to warn their children about the hazards of eating things that they found out and about, especially the pretty red mushrooms that grew in the forest every springtime.

Nori made a sympathetic noise and moved to stand on the other side of the hay bale. “Aye, no child should have t’ die before their time like that, no matter what their kind. Anyhow, that’s not why I called you out from the table.” A scrap of cloth was removed from Nori’s pocket and pinned to the middle of the hay with a throwing dagger. “I’ve been thinkin’ t’ myself e’er since you got that little pig sticker of yours. It works well enough, but you don’t have the arm for it.”

“I beg your pardon!”

The smirk Nori gave him was enough to have Bilbo wishing that he’d strapped Sting on that morning just so that he could show Nori exactly what sort of ‘arm’ he had for it. The thief wouldn’t be smiling nearly as much when he was singing in a slightly higher note…

“My arm is perfectly fine.”

“I didn’ mean that arm, Bilbo.”    

The hobbit’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I didn’t either, but if you really want to play that game I’ll be happy to oblige. After all, you know what they say about hobbits with big feet.” Bilbo turned one of his in the grass and felt very satisfied when Nori’s eyebrows shot up.

“Nah, ne’er heard that one. What’d they say?”

“Nothing, we all have big feet. You dwarves are so thick sometimes; I don’t know how you manage to tell your brains from loose rocks. Now where did I put my pipe?” It was a poor excuse to look away, but Bilbo needed some way to hide his smile so that he wouldn’t laugh straight in Nori’s face, so he set to patting his pockets as if his pipe was hidden in one of them (it was actually tucked safely into his rucksack back in the lodge).

The needle made a reappearance and Nori began to flip the thing between his fingers like a silver fish. “As I was sayin’,” he said, sounding as long suffering as any hobbit who had just had their toes trod on, “Yer arm is too short for that blade. No chance of a killin’ blow unless y’er right up under whoever you happen t’ be stabbin’ at.”

“I’m alright with being up close; it’s what I have to do! Otherwise what do you expect me to do, throw it the next time we’re attacked by goblins?” Sting was his sword after all and it had served him more than well up to this point. He was loath to turn it in for whatever it was Nori had in mind.

“I’m not goin’ t’ take yer knife from you, simmer down.”

“It isn’t a knife, it’s a short sword and I really don’t think that –“

The words died in his mouth when the poisoned needle Nori was playing with suddenly flashed and ended up pointed directly at his Adam’s apple. Instantly he raised his hands and tried not to swallow lest the tip break his skin and leave him foaming at the mouth on the grass. It wasn’t the sort of fate he’d imagined for himself, dead because he’d pissed off Nori. The amused gleam had left the thief’s eyes and his hand was as still as granite, the very essence of deadly seriousness.

“Is it as fast as that?” He asked quietly.

“No,” Bilbo whispered. Dragonflies weren’t that fast. Speeding arrows looked like they were standing still compared to how quick and quiet Nori could be.

“I’ve been watchin’ you, Bilbo. You an’ yer sword. You ‘ave some skill with it, but not a lot. Yer swings are wide, yer blocks are nonexistent. You ‘aven’t had a partner to spar with to keep you in practice an’ it shows. You need somethin’ that suits you a bit more. Jus’ for emergencies, mind you.” The needle was gone again, once more weaving through Nori’s fingers and Bilbo sucked in a deep breath of air, not realizing that he’d been holding his breath. Torn between anger and curiosity he stayed quiet, rubbing his neck as if he could still feel the prick of steel at it.

“Anyway, wanted t’ give you these. Don’t use ‘em much since they ain’t as fast as I’d like. Much prefer my knives, but they work nicely if you give ‘em a minute or two t’ kick in properly. Should suit you well enough if you got a good enough eye for it, like you said.” A small leather parcel was pulled out of Nori’s belt pouch and Bilbo gave the thief a stern look before he accepted it.

“This isn’t poisoned too, is it?” He joked.

“Nah, those’re on the inside.”

“Oh! I didn’t mean – I was just joking!” Bilbo held the pouch as it if was made of spun sugar that would explode if he looked at it too hard.

“I wasn’t.” Nori reached out and undid the small hook at the front. “That can be undone quickly, or you can jus’ leave it open like I usually do. Got the set off of an assassin I met in a tavern. He was from the south and traded ‘em to me for a tip that turned out well for ‘im. Now they’re yours.” The unhook flap was pulled back, revealing a neat row of steel needles, each with their own separate strap to hold them in place and each as long as Bilbo’s hand and as thick as his smallest finger. They weren’t flat like knives, but rather fat in the middle and tapered to a fine point at each end. There were twenty in all, and four of them had a red string tied around their middles. “These ones already have a toxin on ‘em, dried, to be used when you ‘ave a need. The rest you can throw at eyes or neck, or poison ‘em yerself if you ‘ave the time.”

“Poison them myself?” Bilbo repeated, his eyes glued to the cold gleam of metal in his hands and wondering what it would feel like to have one of the bolts go right through your eye. Why, it was long enough to go clear through to your brain if thrown properly! The hobbit shuddered and tried not to feel sick. Imaginary deaths were very low on the list of things that should rattle his nerves.

Nori tapped the four small bottles that were secured in tiny pockets at the base of the needles. Each held a small amount of liquid and each was a different color. There was a small symbol carved in the leather in front of each, no doubt to help distinguish their contents. “Right here. A bit of oil cloth goes over the top to keep ‘em watertight and then when you need ‘em, just stick the pin right in and give it a throw. Just don’t get it on yer hands and remember to put a new cloth o’er it each time or you might get it somewhere you didn’ plan on. ‘ad a friend go out that way, right in the middle o’ eatin’. Got a bit on his knife an’ jus dropped dead. Found out ‘is poisons ‘ad been leakin all o’er the place. Marvel ‘e lived as long as ‘e did.”

“That’s very comforting, thank you. Are you sure I’m really cut out for something like this? Throwing darts is one thing, but poisons? Eyeballs? That sounds quite horrible, I must admit.”  

“You like livin’?”

Well when he put it that way… ”Yes, of course I do. I just thought I was doing an alright job of staying that way without having anything like this on my person.”

“Think of it as backup, if you want. Most company members have a secondary weapon or can get their hands on one if it comes t’ that. You should have more than yer sword. Now listen up, I’ll say this once. This first one ‘ere,” he tapped the first bottle with his needle (which Bilbo noticed did not have a string around it, so Nori had lied about it being poisoned), “comes from these southern frogs. Bleeds right outta their skin an’ the locals put it in tiny bottles an’ sell it to folks like me. Worth its weight in gold and as hard t’ get yer hands on as stardust. Works in under a minute – locks up yer muscles as tight as wire an’ stops yer heart not long after.”

“It sounds atrocious.”

“Wait ‘til you hear about the others. This one’s usually a powder but I mix it with a little bit’a water t’ make it stick t’ the metal. It’ll knock you out cold and you’ll start convulsin’ and you’ll suffocate on account of yer lungs not workin’ anymore.”

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Swallow it, I ain’t done yet. This third one’s nice, comes from roots of a plant in the west - it’ll give you fever dreams b’fore blood starts comin’ outta every place you can think of.”

“Every place?” Your knees are not wobbly, he told himself. Don’t be a weak little kit.

“All at once, though I ‘aven’t seen folk really notice. Too lost in their own heads t’ notice, if y’ ask me, but I’ve only used it twice so I may be wrong. Fourth one does th’ same as th’ third, but it won’t kill ya. Fever dreams, bleedin’, but it’ll put ‘em into a deep death-sleep f’r a day or so. Plenty long enough to move ‘em or finish ‘em with a knife if you ‘ave a mind to. Jus’ remember to wrap ‘em up again when ye’r done, like I said.” Nori slipped his own needle into the pouch next to the others and left Bilbo holding them and looking more than a little bit green with his knees knocking together.

“They’re just for emergencies, right?” The hobbit rasped, tracing one of the symbols on the poison bottles with a delicate finger.

Nori shrugged. “Every fight is an emergency if y’ask me. If you might die seems like a good time t’ use whatever’s at hand.”

If it will save someone’s life? I’d use it without hesitation. The sick feeling vanished the instant Bilbo imagined Fili crumpled at the feet of the bandit. He would use poison and every other backstabbing method every dreamed up to keep his family safe. They aren’t your family here in this place and time, so don’t think like that. Not until everyone is safe and you’re well away again.

Small hands tightened on the deadly bundle before Bilbo twisted around and began fastening it to his belt, so that it hung at his side and he could easily reach in and pull out one of the needles that wasn’t poisoned. It gleamed in his fingers and he turned it over a couple times, accustoming his hand to the weight of the thing. It was lighter than the darts he was used to throwing, but not as heavy as a good skipping stone or a nine-pin ball. The hay bale with the cloth pinned to it made more sense now.

“Target practice?” He asked, glancing at Nori.

“Couple’a practice throws can’t hurt,” the thief said with a charming smile as he backed up a few paces. It was probably for the best – Bilbo knew that all Nori had to go on was his own claims of being good at darts. If the needle went flying off on his first throw nobody wanted to be in sticking range of the sharp ends.

It didn’t. As if he was drawing it out of the pouch, Bilbo curled his hand and flicked the needle at the haystack. It flipped end over end three times and plunged deeply into the hay, slicing through the very corner of the cloth target. Bilbo released the breath he’d been holding and checked his palm to make sure he hadn’t accidentally cut himself on the release.

“You’ll want t’ keep the poisoned end up, holdin’ it like this.” Nori stepped forward and showed Bilbo how to properly grasp the second needle. “S’not a dart, so the hold is different. We’ll get you a good pair’a gloves too, just in case.”

“Better safe than sorry I suppose.” Bilbo held onto the second needle like Nori had shown him and threw again. It sped towards the target like lightning and this time it hit a bit closer to the middle of the scrap.

Nori nodded in approval. “Not too bad. Bit’a practice and we’ll make a killer outta you yet.”

“Just what I always dreamed of,” Bilbo muttered as he threw two more needles in rapid succession, doing his best to aim with the increased weight in mind rather than on pure impulse. One of them ended up next to the first in the corner, but the other sank directly into the middle of the cloth and stuck there. Bilbo dusted off his hands with no small amount of pride. Who would have ever guessed that his talent for darts and throwing rocks would come in handy for more than aggravating giant spiders? And he had to admit that poisoned needles were probably a bit more effective than stones.

“You should practice on movin’ targets too. On a real enemy you’ll be aimin’ for th’ eyes and major arteries.” Nori ran a finger down the side of his neck. “Course poking one’a those most anywhere will usually work, it’s just faster in certain spots. Oi, Bombur! Come o’er here and let Bilbo have a few practice throws, eh? Live targets are always th’ best.”

The fat dwarf had been walking by on his way back to the house with his arms full of apples. “Not on your life!” He sped on his way, two or three of the apples falling out of his arms and rolling away into the grass. Bilbo tried not to laugh as he walked over and retrieved one, tossing it between his hands as he walked back over to where Nori was yanking the needles out of their makeshift target.

“That wasn’t very nice.”

“Never claimed t’ be nice. Here.” He dropped the metal into Bilbo’s free hand and took the apple from him in return. “Though you know what is nice? Those nice suck marks on your neck. Get those as a present or did you pay ‘em back in kind?”

“Nori!” Bilbo nearly stabbed himself with the needles as he clapped his hands to the sides of his neck. His scarf usually covered that part of him so he’d been relatively confident that no one would notice the purple marks that decorated his neck and collarbones courtesy of Thorin’s mouth. Clearly he’d been wrong. “They’re just – I wasn’t – “

“I’m not interrogatin’ ye. Got a couple of my own, nothing wrong with a bit of bed play t’ take the edge off after a fight.” Nori pulled back his own collar to reveal dark bruises in the shape of teeth marks. Bilbo had a feeling he knew exactly who had put them there too and tried not to look too hard. There were simply some things he didn’t need to think about and whatever it was Nori and Dwalin got up to in their free time was one of those things. “Doubt anyone noticed that you didn’t come t’ bed last night. The lot of ‘em, well, most at any rate, went right t’ sleep without so much as a ‘good night’. Think we were all happy not t’ be sleeping on the ground again.”

“I can’t really blame them. But it was just a onetime thing, so I promise you’ll be finding me in my own bed tonight.” He’d managed to stay fairly well detached during most of the previous night and had done his best to view it as Thorin and Nori did – taking the edge off. There was little to no emotion involved and no risk of losing one’s heart just because of a night of sex. Sadly Bilbo’s had been lost long ago and that one night had worn at the brick wall he’d built around it. It’s like a drug, he realized. I couldn’t resist one taste, but two or three might do me in for good.

It was much safer to leave it at once at keep his head on straight rather than risk distraction at the worst possible time. That had been the beginning and his end of anything to do with Thorin beyond their quest to reclaim the mountain.

“Now tha’s a shame. Is the king really such a bad lay that ye’d be done after once?”

Bilbo’s next needle went zipping off backwards and nearly stuck a sheep that’d been meandering by. It bleated in distress and bolted off for safer grazing.

“No! No of course he isn’t, it’s just that – “ He broke off and bought himself a bit of time by running back to retrieve the needle and shouting an apology after the sheep. “It’s just that I don’t think that I’m cut out for that sort of thing,” he finished.

Nori nodded sagely. “Too sore for more, eh?”

It was difficult, but Bilbo managed to keep from knocking Nori over the head with his fist like he would have done to any hobbit with the brass to say such a thing to his face. “I would wash your mouth out with soap if I had any on me.”

“Jus’ don’t stick me with with your new toys else we’ll really ‘ave a misunderstandin’. Now see if you can hit this.” The apple went spinning up into the air and Bilbo let his next needle fly. 

Chapter Text

For four days the company rested, safe and full and comfortable thanks to Beorn’s hospitality. Not that they saw very much of their host – by day he could be found working around the beehives (where none of them dared to get too close) or in the barn with his horses. At night he was not to be seen, though Bilbo knew that was when Beorn roamed the forest and the fields in the form of a great black bear, larger than any sort of warg or beast he’d seen. One night while he sat outside smoking with Gandalf he thought that he saw a huge shape making its way through the wildflower fields and couldn’t help but remember how that very shape had reared above the great battle at the foot of Erebor, spears and arrows jutting from its shoulders and sides as it roared in defiance and slashed orcs and goblins alike clean in half with its claws. The giant could be a mighty ally indeed, and Bilbo wouldn’t have forsaken his food or his lodge for anything in the world.

Except late in the evening of their fourth day Gandalf insisted that they would be pressing on the following morning now that they were all fit to travel and their packs had been restocked. This was met with many a groan and grumble, but everyone knew that Erebor lay ahead and behind them there was only trouble to be had. Goblins and bandits alike would be bearing down on them should they linger much longer, determined to repay the injury that the company had caused to each side.

Not to mention Azog, who is probably snapping at our heels even now, Bilbo realized as he checked his pack the next morning. If that wasn’t a good cause for haste then he didn’t know what was. His pony looked back and snorted at him, as if it could tell that his thoughts had taken a morbid turn. Beorn had lent them the ponies and they were to carry the company as far as the edge of Mirkwood, for which Bilbo was heartily grateful. The creatures were study and fleet of foot and could cover the same amount of ground in one day as they might have done in three on foot. Bilbo’s own mount was a pretty little tan thing with a white belly and blaze down the middle of his face.

“I’ll call you Bill, if you don’t mind too terribly. My nephew told me about a pony they used on their own adventure who was a good sort, so you have rather large hooves to fill now.”

The pony seemed to think this over for a minute and then shook his head in an agreeable manner that had the hobbit smiling. That was one thing settled at least. The early morning air was thick with the smell of fog and grass and it reminded him very much of autumn mornings in the Shire, when the clouds would hang so low in the sky that they would seem to kiss the cornfields and everyone would stay inside for an extra ten minutes for a second cup of tea.

“Mount up! Let’s get a move on.” Thorin rode by on his own dark brown pony, looking about as happy to be up and on his way as a bear pulled out of its den in midwinter. Clearly there wouldn’t be a second cup of tea this morning. Luckily there had been enough time to wrap up breakfast in large napkins so that they could eat on the road. Bilbo’s own was tucked into his coat pocket and was warming up his side nicely, so there was little cause for him to be grumpy about their early start or bad-tempered leader.

Around him the dwarves pulled themselves into their saddles and settled in for what was bound to be a long ride until lunch. Gandalf was already happily situated atop his own much longer horse, chewing on orange segments and picking the white fleshy pulp of it out of his beard.

“Good-bye!” He called back to the dogs and the sheep who were watching them go. A couple of them waved back and the litter of puppies started to whine and howl. “Thank you for being so helpful!” They had been, in fact. Over the last few days Bilbo had spent most of his time cooking over Beorn’s hearth. The dogs had shown him how to make the honey cakes that they had with most meals, as well as a sticky bar made with nuts, dried fruits, crushed oats, and all held together by honey. It was very filling for its small size and Bilbo had made several batches of these and secreted them away between everyone’s packs. They had run out of supplies long before they reached Thranduil’s kingdom last time and Bilbo didn’t relish the thought of feeling that overwhelming hunger again anytime soon. The extra supplies would help them get a little bit further.

With Gandalf and Balin in the lead, the company made their slow way towards the gate in the hedges that would take them outside of Beorn’s home. Fili and Kili were already munching on their toast and egg sandwiches and busy making bits of fried egg hang out of their mouths like tongues, which they would blow on to make them flop around until Dwalin knocked Fili over the head and he nearly spit his out. Bilbo tried not to laugh and broke of a piece of the crust of his own sandwich to nibble on as they passed by the hedge. The gate swung shut behind them and finally they were on their way again.

“Burglar. A word.”

Well, almost on their way. The toast crust got caught in his throat and Bilbo pounded on his chest and coughed to clear it again. Bombur patted him on the back as he rode by and gave him a sympathetic look before moving on. Bofur wasn’t any help at all, since he just whispered ‘ooh, you’re in trouble!’ and then left Bilbo to fall back to the end of the line where Thorin rode.  

It wasn’t so much that he’d been avoiding the king for the last few days per say, he’d just found things to do that kept him well away from wherever Thorin was. The dwarf rarely ventured into the kitchens except during meals and the rest of his time was spent sparring or repairing damaged weaponry. As for the evenings, Bilbo had made a habit of staying up late with Gandalf and Balin and then having the convenient excuse of being absolutely exhausted so that he could crawl into his own small bed in the corner. Not that he wanted to. It was far less comfortable than Thorin’s mattress and he already missed the sensation of waking up pressed against a warm body. He had stuck to his resolve not to give in to the king’s charms again though, and that meant a cold bed and no security at all except for the emerald ring that he kept tucked in his vest pocket to remind him of his duty and the trust placed in him. It was a cold comfort.

Why did being in love have to be so troublesome? The worst sort of things could happen when one’s head was clouded by it and the closer he grew to Thorin the greater the chances of being caught in his lie would be. What if he let something slip in the wee small hours of the morning? Already it was a trial to not say anything about the danger they were riding towards, about the hunger and the darkness and the spiders, let alone the orcs on their trail. Bilbo squeezed his eyes shut as Thorin rode up next to him and took a steadying breath. He would be strong. He would be firm in his choices and stick by them, even if he didn’t like it. It was the only thing he could do.

“I didn’t forget my handkerchief this time; I have three of them in my bag.” His feeble attempt at a joke fell flat when Thorin’s face didn’t budge from its stern lines. The dwarf had sought him out twice more during their stay, clearly attempting to figure out exactly what had happened between them to make Bilbo spurn his nighttime company. When each time Bilbo had found an excuse to run away without an explanation (since he doubted Thorin would understand his reasoning) Thorin had seemed to give up and after that hadn’t so much as given him a sideways glance for the last two days. It had made things both easier and infinitely more painful for Bilbo, knowing that he had broken off what he had yearned after for so long.

“I wasn’t going to ask after your pocket kerchiefs. They’re the least of my concerns at this time.”

“Ah. Well then.” Bilbo sunk a bit lower in his saddle and tried not to make eye contact.

"What I wanted was to make sure your mind was stable and it stays that way."

“My mind?” Bilbo asked in confusion. That had been the last thing he’d expected. “I imagine that it’s alright, why wouldn’t it be?”

"I want you to understand that from here on out you cannot be a distraction."

There were several heartbeats of silence during which Bilbo’s mind raced furiously trying to make sense of what he’d just been told. Thorin wanted him in a solid enough mental state that he could understand that he couldn’t be a distraction? When he was the one who was worried about the one being distracted in the first place? A steady throb started up in Bilbo’s temples, though he did his best to keep from frowning since that would just put them both on the defensive.

“I don’t recall ever being a distraction before now. You assume a lot, your majesty, that sleeping together once would have changed that.”

"Then there won't be any problems." Thorin kept his somber expression forward. "I need you as a burglar. Erebor needs to be the top priority of every member of this company."

You ended it and now I’m ending any chance of starting again. Don’t distract me or the company or you’ll have become a liability.

It wasn’t hard to read between the lines.

“Erebor is and has always been my ‘top priority’, as you put it. More than you know. Is there anything else?”

Thorin seemed satisfied with the response and accepted that he and Bilbo had reached an understanding and he shook his head, completely oblivious to the hobbit's shift in mood. "No, that was all."

“I suppose we’re done in that case.” Bilbo gave Bill a tap with his heels and the pony picked up his pace until they were both well away from the most unbelievably dense king who had ever roamed over the Misty Mountains.

For nearly an hour he chewed on his bottom lip, until it cracked and bled and his breakfast had gone stone cold in his pocket. Was it resentment that was making him so twisted up? Maybe a bit. Hurt? More than a bit. It seemed a bit ironic to be put down in this way when he had been trying to do the same thing for the last few days. Neither of them needed the stress of any sort of relationship, he reminded himself. The focus, as Thorin had so clearly put it, was on the quest. The mountain. The dragon and the crown.

Not on the tight fist that had closed around his heart when Thorin had called him ‘burglar’.

One night won’t make him start using your name, you know. One night that you very clearly made the only night and were just told to leave in the past.

“Don’t fret o’er it too much, laddie. Thorin has always been…”

“Thick headed?”   Bilbo glanced over at Balin, who offered him a sympathetic smile. There was no way the old dwarf could have heard what they were talking about since he had been riding at the front, but it wasn’t hard to see that some sort of rift had been created between the burglar and the king. Thorin was now glued to Dwalin’s side at the front of the company while Bilbo had fallen all the way to the back and had begun to lag, lost in his own head.

“The word ‘driven’ is brought to mind.” The old dwarf leaned back in his saddle, his back nestled against his bed roll. “Ever since Smaug came to Erebor his father and his grandfather thought of little but reclaiming their home. Thorin was a mere twenty four years of age when we were forced into the wilds, a child by our standards. I was with him for most of it, but not all. Thror and Thrain were as driven as he is now, and they infected him with their dreams of victory. They only grew stronger in him when they fell.”

“I know,” murmured Bilbo, sucking on his bloody lip. “It isn’t his fault – “

“Now I’m not sayin’ that,” interrupted Balin. “One thing I learned at his side is that a prince is a prince, whether he has a throne or not. He can be as rude and pig headed as any dwarf, and a bit more so when he’s upset. And I’ll tell you – these last few days? He’s been nigh unbearable.”

Bilbo couldn’t help the petty feeling of satisfaction that spread through him at that. At least he hadn’t been the only one upset. “It’s still nothing though. I’m a burglar, along to do a burglar’s job and that’s the end of it. Anything more than that is simply distracting.”

“Hmm, maybe not just a burglar.”  Balin raised his eyebrows meaningfully before he kicked his pony forward and left Bilbo staring after him.

He couldn’t know, could he? Surely this was still about his dealings with Thorin or his eventual role in taking the mountain back. That had to be it. Bilbo nodded and nudged Bill forward again to catch back up to the back of the pony line, singing softly to himself.

“Long is the road that leads me home 

And longer still when I walk alone. 

Bitter is the thought of all that time 

Spent searching for something I'll never find.

Take this burden away from me 

And bury it before it buries me. ”

__________________________________

The mornings grew progressively cooler with each morning they awoke. Three nights they spent under the stars, wrapped up in their bedrolls with their heads pillowed on their coats and the ponies grazing nearby, with a small grass-fed fire flickering in the middle. Bilbo found his bedtime company claimed by Fili and Kili with a surprising regularity, though they both claimed they were simply protecting him from any passing wolves who wanted a quick snack. Bilbo noticed that there were no teasing grabs in the dark as there would have once been, though. Either Thorin had warned the two brothers off or they had done away with any designs on the company’s hobbit. If he had been the betting sort (which he could be in the right situations) he would have put a coin or two on the second, since he was the one who woke up with Fili’s hair tickling his nose and Kili snoring into his vest, both of them pressed to his sides like children.

During the days they saw nothing except long grasses and birds that darted between the scattered trees. Once Ori spotted a heard of red deer who were lounging in the shade, but no one felt much need to disturb them by shooting. It would simply make them lose time to dress the carcass and they had nothing to smoke it over in the middle of the day. The deer watched them go without as much as an ear flick of interest.

Early on the fourth day they reached the forest. It had been visible the evening before, when they made camp, but no one wanted to venture into that wall of darkness with the sky already growing dark. Even Gandalf had seemed uneasy and that night the air had been thick with the cries of bats and the growls of unseen beasts that dwelled in Mirkwood. Even the next morning they had been slower to repack their things and mount the ponies, dragging their heels more and more until they finally stood at the foot of the gnarled old trees and faced the all-encompassing darkness that lay beyond. It almost seemed as though the forest was swallowing up every trace of sunlight that managed to break through the thick boughs, leaving none for the root-twisted floor. Nothing grew but the trees and the thin strands of ivy that climbed up the trunks and no birdsong came from the pitch.

“That watching and waiting feeling,” Bilbo remembered. He’d felt it before, when he had stood in this very spot so long ago, feeling very sorry for himself and wishing for more breakfast. Now he wasn’t hungry at all.  

“Well, here is Mirkwood!” said Gandalf. “The greatest of the forests of the Northern world. I hope you like the look of it. Now you must send back these excellent ponies you have borrowed.”

Bilbo was very sorry to see Bill go, but he knew that Beorn cherished his beasts as if they were his own children and wouldn’t take kindly to have them absconded with. The idea of an angry shape shifter pursuing them into Mirkwood wasn’t a pleasant thought at all, so Bilbo relieved his mount of its packs and then gave it one last scratch on the nose and a few quiet words of thanks for making the journey more bearable than it might have been otherwise. A few members of the company weren’t at all happy to have to send the ponies home and were very vocal about it until Gandalf pointed out that should Beorn decide to come after them to reclaim the animals, it would be very unlikely that they would ever reach the other side of Mirkwood completely whole. That silenced any complaints and the ponies were very quickly sent on their way. Even as Bilbo watched a dark shape broke off from the forest and followed after them, lumbering along on four legs as large as some of the trees before them. Beorn looked after what was his.

That was also were the company (Bilbo excluded because he had been waiting for this) discovered that they wouldn’t only be leaving the ponies behind.

“I have some pressing business in the south,” Gandalf told them, looking very important atop his borrowed horse. “And I am already late through looking after the lot of you. With any luck we will meet again at some later date, but until that day comes it will be up to Mister Baggins to look after you. I have told you before that he has more about him than you guess, and you will find that out before long.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I need to happen,” Bilbo muttered under his breath as he shouldered his rucksack.

“And remember! Don’t stray from the path or you’re not likely to ever find it again and then I doubt we’ll meet on any day in the future. Keep your spirits up, hope for the best, and with a bit of luck you might just make it out in one piece. Good-bye!”

With that their wizard was gone, riding off into the West and leaving them standing amongst the twisted roots of Mirkwood with their heavy packs and their heavier hearts. Now they really were on their own.

When Gandalf was finally lost from view Bilbo heaved a great sigh. “Well, I suppose we’d best be on our way before the sun is gone again.”

There was general (if not entirely happy) agreement and with that the company turned their backs to the light and plunged into the forest. It didn’t take long for them to disappear into the darkness. 

Chapter Text

On average hobbits spent about half of their lives underground. Their homes were generally built into the sides of hills and had a generous layer of dirt and grass over the tops to keep them nicely cool in the summer and toasty warm in the winter. Between time spent sleeping and cooking and avoiding the hottest parts of the day by retreating indoors most hobbits were very comfortable with spending time in enclosed and dark places.

Not so with Mirkwood. Bilbo doubted any hobbit had traveled in or out of the forest in several hundred years. Even the adventurous sort tended to avoid such blatantly dangerous places, but in his case he had little choice in the matter. There was no quick way around the dark woods and they had passed the Edge of the Wild long ago. Even the clear paths weren’t safe. So it was that the beasts and bugs of Mirkwood got their first look at a hobbit (and quite a lot of dwarves) as they picked their way down the trail, stepping over exposed roots and grumbling quietly to themselves about the fickleness of wizards and wondering when they were going to stop for lunch and looking back over their shoulders to make sure nothing was creeping up behind them. Bilbo for one kept his eyes pointed a bit more upwards than the others, scanning the thick branches for any traces of webbing or legs. All too well he remembered how the spiders had snatched them up like plump lady bugs when they were lost and hungry and that was one fate he was determined to avoid. There were webs, nasty thick things in the branches and stretched between whole tress, but there was no sign of their spinners nor did any of the webs encroach on the path. Whatever danger or magic warded the way through seemed to keep the nasty creatures at bay, or at least for now.

Even with the fragile beams of sunlight that broke through the branches to light their way, the travel was slow. Every root they passed seemed determined to trip somebody up and the path was little more than a strip of slightly worn down earth and was nearly impossible to see in some places. More than once they had to backtrack a bit because they had accidentally wandered off it and nearly gotten lost.

“Can you see very well?” Bilbo murmured to Bofur about five hours into their first day’s walk. He had been sticking close to the miner’s side, remembering how much better his companionship had made him feel while traversing the underground river to Gollum’s cave. But even Bofur’s usually high spirits had been dampened by the wet darkness.

“Nah, s’not the same kinda dark I’m used to. No moon, no torch, none of th’ right echoes t’ tell where yer goin’. Woods dark is different than cave dark, so I’ll be fallin’ on mah nose as often as you.” The dwarf pulled his hat a little bit lower on his head and shot a nervous glance over his shoulder. Balin and Thorin walked in the front, slicing away at branches that hung too low for them to see where they were going, while Bifur, Dwalin, and Gloin had fallen to the back with their weapons close at hand. No one was happy here and every corner they rounded seemed to promise an ambush or horror waiting to leap out of the darkness to consume them.

But none appeared.

The near-constant tension was exhausting. Being spooked by every rustling in the underbrush or creak of the tress left the company feeling high strung and irritable and the call to stop and make camp was met with sighs of relief. The light had begun to fade and no one wanted to try to follow the path once the sun had set completely. Gloin tried to light a fire, but the wood was all damp and it stank and let off quite a lot of black smoke. What little warmth and light it gave off simply served to attract the thousands of moths who seemed to have been waiting for such a thing. The descended on the camp in a huge swarm and the company hurriedly stomped out the little fire while trying their best to keep the bugs from getting into their clothes and eyes.

“I forgot about that part,” Bilbo muttered to himself as he pulled one of them out of the neck of his shirt and tossed it away, feeling very unhappy and more than a little hungry. When something massive swooped down directly in front of him he couldn’t help but shriek and cover his eyes. The bats were as bad as the moths – they were bigger than he was an as black as midnight. They ate the moths but seemed large enough to carry off one of the dwarves if they’d had a mind to. That night and every night following the company huddled together without a fire and took their comfort in having a living body at their sides. It wasn’t pleasant or comfortable by any stretch of the imagination, but it was better than summoning the moths and bats back again. 

For days they traveled, the monotony and ill humor of the forest weighing down on everyone’s spirits. There were no animals to be seen except for some stringy, mean-looking squirrels, but thanks to the extra rations they had packed (on Bilbo’s advice since none of them knew how far the forest stretched) no one was hungry enough to try to shoot them down.

“Besides,” Bilbo said as he and Bofur and Kili watched one hiss at them and dash away, “they probably taste terrible if they live in a place like this.”

To keep themselves entertained the dwarves mostly spoke of Erebor. Several members of the company had never seen the mountain before; including Fili and Kili for all that its throne was their birthright. Dwalin liked to speak about the armory and the great halls he had once patrolled as a guard while Thorin and Frerin did their best to trip him up on his rounds by stringing wires across hallways and flicking things at him when he wasn’t looking. The story made everyone laugh for a little while. Bilbo had a hard time imagining Thorin every being as carefree as Dwalin described. It seemed he’d once had much more in common with his nephews before time and battle had beaten it out of him. As for the rest of the dwarves, they contented themselves with dreaming about the treasure chamber and laughing about what good luck they would have if they arrived to find Smaug dead and the mountain unguarded.

That would be good luck indeed, thought Bilbo. Sadly it wasn’t going to happen. Even now he knew that Smaug simply slumbered, buried in mountains of gold and silver and rivers of gemstones with them plastered up against his belly in a shining coat of armor the likes of which did not exist anywhere else in Middle Earth. And he was the lucky burglar who got to go in first to figure out what to do about him.

It was their water that began to run out first.

Ori noticed it when he went to take a drink and found water skin less than a quarter full. They had refilled them all before starting into Mirkwood, but there had been no safe place to do the same since they had started more than a week ago. Rationing was all well and good, but lips had begun to crack and throats had gone dry since only a few sips were allotted every day. Those sips had added up and packs had gotten noticeably lighter as their water and rations began to run low.

“I’ve been hungry before,” Ori murmured as he tucked away his water skin and looked down at his mitten-covered hands. “That’s alright. But I don’t think that I like being thirsty very much. Oh, I wish it would rain…”

If it did rain none of it managed to reach them through the thick canopy and when they finally did make it to water it was the sort that Bilbo wouldn’t have put in his mouth for every fine tea cup in the world.

“This must be the river that Beorn warned us about,” Thorin said, voicing what all of them had been thinking as they stood on the bank of the enchanted river. Perhaps through some trick of the dim light the waters appeared as black as ink and Bilbo doubted that any fish could survive in them. A single drop would make the drinker fall into a deep sleep and they would lose memories depending on how much of the drink they had indulged in. Sadly Bombur had gotten quite a mouthful when he had fallen in last time, spooked by a -

Bilbo narrowed his eyes and scanned the woods across the river, looking for any sign that the troublemaking deer was about, but he saw nothing but glittering insect eyes looking back at him.

“What are you looking for?” Dori asked from beside him, squinting as if he could make out the far bank as well.

“Nothing, thought I heard something,” Bilbo said briskly. Maybe they had made good enough time that they wouldn’t be run down this time and risk one of the company having a tumble into the hexed water. “Is that a boat over there? Tied up on the other side?”

It was a masterful subject change if he did say so himself.

There was indeed a boat and Bilbo received several pats on the back for having such sharp eyes, for no one else had been able to see the shape of the little river boat in the gloom. A bit of guilt took root in the hobbit and he ducked his head and ran away to the back of the group so that he didn’t have to listen to the others talk about how ‘useful’ he was. Somehow he felt like he had peeked at the back of the story to see how it ended and was simply using it to make things easier without telling anyone. Of course, it hadn’t been his idea to cheat fate in the first place, but it was the little things like this that made him feel absolutely terrible for deceiving everyone.

I’m not really that useful! He wanted to shout. I’m fat and comfortable and I like to cook and every important thing I’ve ever tried to do has turned around on me and gone terribly wrong!

His only real use came from his foreknowledge and if anyone ever found out about that his life would essentially be over. The trust of the company would be lost. Thorin’s trust, for what it was worth. All he would be good for was for telling them what was coming next, and that could very well doom the entire quest. What would the dwarves have done if he’d warned them about the trolls or goblin town? No doubt they would have charged in with their swords drawn and then have been defeated and eaten before ever crossing the Misty Mountains. Better to stay silent and live with the guilt of knowing the dangers that lay ahead rather than ruin the entire venture.

The dwarves decided that while Dori may have been the strongest of the company it was most definitely Fili and Kili who had the sharpest eyes of everyone, with the exception of Bilbo since he couldn’t have thrown a rope all the way across the deep rushing water to reach the boat. In the end it was Fili who managed to hook the thing with a grappling hook and, with the help of Kili, Oin, and Gloin, tow the craft back to their own bank. It was tied to the opposite side and everyone went tumbling onto their backsides when the rope fastening it there finally snapped and the craft went zipping across the dark water to where the rest of them stood.

“I wonder whose boat it is?” Bilbo mused as the dwarves picked themselves up and brushed moss and dirt off of their trousers, looking more than a little irritated at their little trip backwards.

“Who cares?” Cried Bombur as they walked down to the edge of the water. “It’s not as though we plan to sink it, so they can’t begrudge us borrowing it for a few minutes.”

Thorin was standing off to the side with his arms crossed, looking rather irritable. “I’ll cross first, and Fili, Balin and Bilbo with me. We’ll check the other shore for danger before – “

“Excuse me!” Bilbo interrupted with his hand raised. All eyes turned to him and he suddenly felt more than a little bit uncomfortable. “So sorry. I’d just like to say that I’d much prefer to cross last if it’s all the same to anyone. I’m not the best at checking for danger and we hobbits aren’t good friends with water, especially the deep and fast flowing kind. It would make much more sense to take Gloin if you ask em, he’s a much better fighter in case there turns out to be something dangerous.”

Glojn puffed up with importance and there were murmurs of agreement amongst the others. It was true that Bilbo was one of the least useful people when it came to a head-on fight, though he had proved to be very handy in sneak attacks. While he had managed to free them all from bandits and done his best to get them out of the storage room under the mountain, Bilbo’s main fighting tactic had always proved to be ‘swing his sword around and hope for the best’. He had indeed improved with his needle throwing thanks to the days of practice at Beorn’s house, but needles weren’t swords or axes and took time to take effect. Although Thorin looked mutinous they eventually agreed to send Gloin over in the first boat instead and that Bilbo would be in the last group along with Bombur.

“Are all hobbits really that bad at swimming?” Oin asked curiously, leaning in close with his ear trumpet raised to catch Bilbo’s reply.

The hobbit had settled himself on a root, his eyes fixed on the opposite bank as Fili and Glojn clambered into the boat to steady it for Balin. “Not all of us actually, mostly those of Harfoot descent. There are different kinds of hobbits though – those who have Stoor blood in them tend to be better with water and live along rivers to be fishermen and whatnot. You find quite a lot of them in Bree and Buckland, and a fair few of their children in the Southfarthing.” He smiled at the old healer and rubbed his chin. “Some of them can even grow beards if they put their mind to it, and they wear these great old boots so their feet aren’t always getting wet.”

Oin made an interested sound and sat down next to him with a groan. “So there are different kinds of hobbits? Fancy that. I’d say you aren’t one of these Stoor-type folk if you’re in no hurry to cross.” He nodded at the river and Bilbo made no attempt to disguise his shudder and look of distaste.

“No, no Stoor in me. My father was a simple Harfoot and would have drowned in the bathtub if it had been deep enough. We tend to sink as if we were wearing shoes made out of iron – straight to the bottom. I fell in a pond when I was just a kit and my mum had to jump in after me and drag me out again while wearing her pearls and Sunday dress. She said that I’d just been sitting on the bottom watching the sun beams.” Bilbo smiled at his knees, suddenly missing Belladonna with a sharp, fierce ache reserved for mothers.

The two of them watched as the first boatload of dwarves towed themselves across the river, making sure not to get a single drop on their bare skin. When they had disembarked on the other side and checked the bushes and trees, Dwalin and Dori pulled the boat back to their side with the tow rope and Oin got to his feet with a grumble so that he could join them in the second crossing. Bilbo tried not to bite his fingernails as he watched with his heart in his mouth as he waited for something to go wrong. Maybe the deer wouldn’t show up this time and bowl them all over, but something else was bound to happen that he hadn’t been able to plan for. That seemed to be the law for this time around – he could prevent some things but he always paid for avoiding trouble in the most spectacular way possible. He had traded goblins for thieves and orcs for bandits. How would he pay this time for trying to help?

Every time the boat came back sweat rolled down his neck to his kerchief and dampened the palms of his hands and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it but sit on his root and pray until it was at last his turn and it was only himself and Bombur who were left on the shore. The rest of the dwarves waved and hollered at them from the opposite bank and Bilbo finally shuffled into the little boat after Bombur and sat himself as low as he could.

“Don’t worry,” Bombur said with a jovial smile, clearly pleased about not being left until the very last yet again. “The rest made it across and if Kili could do it without jittering himself right out of the boat we can too.”

That made Bilbo snort hard enough to hurt his nose and before he’d finished rubbing it they had already been towed halfway across the river and were in the middle of the current. Had he been too tired and hungry to be properly terrified the first time around? Now he was petrified. What if he fell in? Maybe he simply hadn’t been smart enough to be afraid – now he knew about the deep sleep and memory loss brought on by the water and that was something he could not afford.

“Come on, nearly there!” Fili called. 

“If I fall in, please tell Thorin that he’s a clot head for me, would you?” Bilbo looked up at Bombur and the fat dwarf winked at him before turning in his seat to catch Bifur’s hand as they finally reached the shore. The boat rocked and rattled a bit as Bombur disembarked, but after a moment of pulling and disorganization there were thirteen dwarves all gathered on dry land without a slip to be had and Bilbo finally breathed a sigh of relief. That was one adventure he was happy to be finished with.

“Let’s go Mister Boggins, can’t have you holding everybody up!” Kili teased as he reached out for Bilbo’s hand.

That was when he heard it – the sound of crashing through the underbrush, loud and growing more so as it got closer.

“Kili!” Thorin shouted and immediately Kili left off trying to pull Bilbo out of the boat and seized his bow, fitting an arrow as the stag came charging out of the underbrush, heading straight for the company with its antlers lowered. It was a massive creature, with powerful shoulders and hindquarters and antlers that would have made even seasoned hunters stare in awe. Every dwarf leapt out of the way as it plowed through them towards the river and the little boat bobbing at its edge.

“Don’t shoot!” Bilbo cried even as it bore down on him, hooves slashing at the air. Frozen, the hobbit could do nothing but stare as the stag gathered itself and leapt, using the edge of the boat as a springboard to propel itself clear across the river to the other side. If Bilbo hadn’t been so busy tumbling head over heels he might have been amazed to see how close he came to having his head bashed in by the stag’s hooves as it sailed over him.

Instead he only had time for one strangled yelp before he was falling face-first towards what was left of their rapidly sinking boat.

This is it. If I don’t drown I’ll forget everything. I’ll forget –

All of a sudden his necktie went taught as a noose and his thoughts were cut off as quickly as his air supply. Feeling like his neck was about to snap and with his stomach in his mouth, Bilbo was unceremoniously hauled forward onto the shore and into a very hard body, sending both of them backwards and into the mud with a splat. Wheezing, Bilbo scrubbed at his eyes with his sleeve and gawked down at Thorin, who was lying underneath him with mud splashed all over his coat and what was left of Bilbo’s necktie clutched in his hand. They stared at each other for a long moment while the rest of the company picked themselves up and shouted rude words after the deer.

“I’m not going to forget you,” Bilbo whispered when he could finally breathe again. “Never.”  

Chapter Text

There were some things that Bilbo Baggins knew for certain. He knew exactly when to pick tomatoes so that they would be the most delicious. He knew how to mend scraped knees and soothe broken hearts. He knew how to sit quietly and listen.

And he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was going to die here, half drowned in a muddy puddle with the sound of his own screams ringing in his ears and darkness closing in on him from all sides. This time there was no one to save him and no way for him to save himself. Sting had fallen from his hand long ago and the needles that Nori had given him were scattered, lost in the rain puddles and wet leaves, leaving him with nothing to protect himself with. There was mud in his mouth and nose and eyes, blinding him, and every time he opened his mouth to scream he simply choked on more water.

“No! Let me go!” He screamed, desperately lashing backwards with his foot, but something crunched and he shrieked with pain, agony the likes of which he hadn’t known before consuming him. The coppery scent of blood reached him through the mud and rot, making him sick to his stomach. All around him there was noise – shouting, screams, and a horrible, brutal laughter, but none of it made any sense to him now. Everything had narrowed down to its basest form for Bilbo, leaving only the need to escape and to hide in the smallest hole he could manage to fit himself in. The whites showed all the way around his eyes as he clawed at the soggy ground only to be dragged backwards again and then hoisted into the air by his foot.

Fetid breath washed over him and he nearly gagged, tears pouring up over his forehead as he was held upside down. Every nerve in his leg was alive and screaming with pain as huge teeth dug deeper and deeper into his flesh to hold him up. 

Akashuga,” said a voice from above him, a voice he recognized from his nightmares.

Azog.

“Please, please,” he whispered, not sure what he was begging for. The orc wasn’t merciful. The moment he was done toying with his catch Bilbo would probably end up as a snack that screamed for his warg, whose mouth he was currently hanging out of.

“Bilbo!” He thought he heard someone scream, but it was almost inaudible over the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears. There was nothing he could do. He had no backup plan for this, no trick hidden in his pockets or up his sleeves. Even the Ring couldn’t help him here – turning invisible wouldn’t get him free.

At least he wouldn’t go out crying. With every last shred of energy he possessed, Bilbo curled up and seized the beast’s nose, pulling at the sensitive tissue and digging in with his fingernails until the white warg yelped and dropped him. It wasn’t a long fall, but Bilbo had the misfortune to land feet-first and instantly crumpled, his legs going straight out from under him in a flash of searing pain. He may have screamed. It didn’t matter though, because he felt cool metal press up against his forearm when he pushed himself up and scrambled for the loose needle even as Azog and his mount reared over him, the warg’s mouth open wide as it lunged at its fallen prize.

From somewhere in the forest there was the sound of a single horn. 

Chapter Text

“ – after him – “

“Mallen pelu e' n'alaquel en' sen!”

“Get you filthy hands off – “

“Tira ten' rashwe!”

”Bind them, bring ano – “

“ – too much, my – “

“Don’t touch him!”

“ – faster, you have to help...shouldn’t move him like this, but we have to hurry or else - “

“Bilbo!”

__________________________________

“What!” Bilbo shot straight up like a jackhammer and then groaned, grinding the palms of his hands into his eyes to stave off the wave of dizziness and nausea that swamped him. The last time he’d felt this hung over he’d offered to try Fatty’s newest batch of homemade spirits and he hadn’t made it home until the moon had set the next day.

“I’m never drinking again. Or at the very least not until next week.” he moaned without opening his eyes, flopping backwards and pulling the blankets up to his neck so that he could properly ball himself up and sleep away his pain. A nice long nap and he’d be back to his old self – his foot caught on something before he made it onto his side and he made a face into his pillow. Tugging fruitlessly for a moment Bilbo wondered if he’d somehow balled himself up in his sheets enough to get stuck or Frodo had put socks on him again while he was sleeping. The rascal. No one in the Shire wore socks but his nephew got a kick out of putting them on him while he was napping just to watch his poor uncle trip over his own toes trying to get them off again. Just what he needed on top of his hangover.

“Frodo, I’ve told you before that if you insist on buying socks at market to torment me with I’ll be forced to – “

“Ah, you’ve awoken,” came a cool voice that was most definitely not his nephew. Startled, Bilbo froze in place with his face pressed into his pillow for a moment before rolling back onto his back and cracking his eyes open do that he wouldn’t make himself sick again. An unfamiliar elf with a narrow face and long, dark hair stood at the foot of a bed that wasn’t his cozy four-poster in Bag End. White sheets covered him from the waist down with the exception of his right leg, which was suspended in a simple sling by a wooden frame.

“Y-yes?” Bilbo stuttered, staring down at the bandages that wrapped him all the way up to his knee. No wonder he’d thought he was wearing socks. “What happened? Where am I?” His head was swimming like goldfish in a glass bowl, trying to piece together the floating bits of memory that he had left. They’d crossed the river. He’d almost fallen in and Thorin had caught him. Then?

Nothing.

“You are resting in the infirmary of the Woodland Realm, ruled by the Elvenking. It is by his grace and mercy that you still draw breath, for he came upon you during a royal hunt and saw fit to drive away the orcs.” The elf’s face reflected the barest hint of a sneer on the last word, as if it had tasted bad in his mouth. “I am Lanthiron, head healer in this kingdom.”

“I see,” Bilbo replied weakly, leaning back into the soft pillows behind him. How could he have lost that much time? “I’m afraid I don’t remember very much.”

Lanthiron nodded and moved to the side of the bed, his hands folded serenely in front of him. “That is to be expected. You went through substantial trauma before our lord arrived, including a blow to the head if the stories of your companions are to be believed.”

That was enough to snap Bilbo back to the present. “My compa – yes! Are they here? Are they alright?” He asked frantically, his hands balling up in the sheets as he tried to sit up again. A particularly nasty throb went through his hip and sent him back again, gasping with pain.

I think that perhaps a bit more medicine would do you good. We have never had the opportunity to use them on halflings before, so it was unknown how much we should administer to you to alleviate your pain. I will call for another dose, please do not distress yourself further.” Lanthiron leaned down and lifted up a glass bottle filled with some acidic-looking green concoction.

“I beg your pardon!” Bilbo snapped, not at all happy with the proceedings. ”I wake up, I’m hurt, I’m stuck in a bed that isn’t my own, and you won’t tell me anything about the dwarves I’ve been traveling with! How do you expect me not to be distressed? And now you want to drug me because I’m worried! I’ve seen better manners from goblins!”

“I think that you’ve had quite enough excitement for the moment, Master Halfling. I am simply doing as I see fit to ensure your continuing health. Please open your mouth.” The elf pushed a spoon filled with the green medicine towards him but Bilbo mulishly shut it instead, refusing to be bullied by some overgrown Sindar. More than he wanted to know what had happened he wanted to know what the fate of the dwarves had been, and he wasn’t going to learn that if he was flying as high as a kite or unconscious because of what the healer was trying to make him swallow.

“You insist on being difficult about this?” The healer prompted, still holding out the spoon as if he expected Bilbo to lean forward and meekly take his medicine.

It was a trick. Bilbo had used it on Frodo more than once when he’d had colds or the flu – wait until the patient opened their mouth to answer and then quickly slip the spoonful of medicine in their mouths, much to their disgust. Instead the hobbit nodded sharply, refusing to be baited. Lanthiron wasn’t pleased by his infantile obstinacy, judging by his mildly disgusted expression.

“If I bring one of these dwarves to you to speak for a moment will you see sense and allow me to tend to you properly?” The spoon retreated.

Another nod and Bilbo’s heart began to race.

Lanthiron sighed and set the medicine back on the carved wooden table next to the bed. “I will have the guards bring one up, though you should know that you will be watched to ensure your safety. We have no quarrel with halflings, even ones trespassing in the Greenwood, but it is for our Lord to decide your fate once you are well. Until then you are my charge. Do not –“ he added as he glided out the high door out of the sick room, “attempt to rise. You may cause more damage than I will be able to properly mend.”

“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere!” Bilbo called after him before flopping back again and leveling a dark look at his suspended foot. Now he recognized the fog in his head as that which accompanied athelas, a powerful painkiller that was created by grinding a common herb into a paste and then extracting the juice of it. No doubt that was what was sitting in the bottle at his elbow. Carefully he lifted a hand and probed at his head. A thick bandage was wrapped around his temples; pressing most of his hair flat to his skull and making it itch terribly. The head trauma the healer had mentioned. How had he gotten it though? Snippets of words surfaced when he concentrated, some screaming, but the rest remained stubbornly hidden and eluded his every attempt to retrace his steps. Bilbo blew out a frustrated breath and crossed his arms, alternating between looking at his foot and back at the door, wondering who would be brought to see him. If it was Bifur he would be out of luck since he didn’t speak a word of Khuzdul and didn’t feel up to interpreting the dwarf’s sign language, although even Bifur would be better than being left on his own and imagining the worst.

Minutes passed, agonizingly long.

Of all of the rooms and halls and twisting passages of the Woodland Realm, the infirmary was unfamiliar to Bilbo. He had never wandered here when he had skulked, invisible, through the place on his first visit. Most of his time had been spent in the kitchens and the dungeons when he wasn’t trying to find a way to escape. The had been long, stressful weeks and he had lost more than two stone of weight just because he was only able to eat what he could steal or what the company managed to slip him from their own meager prison rations. He had slept in cold corners, curled up under his coat, and lived in a near constant state of paranoia that he would be discovered and imprisoned. Laying in a comfortable bed and being fussed over felt more strange than any of that and now that very same paranoia had returned, wondering when the other tea cup would drop.

Finally the sound of footsteps reached his ears and he held his breath in anticipation. Lanthiron reappeared at the door, his head turned as he sternly lectured whoever was behind him.

“You are not to linger for long, only until my patient has been assured enough to accept further treatment. Please do not touch or jostle him or attempt to give him anything that may compromise his health, as he is in a very delicate state.”

“I am not delicate!” Bilbo called.

“Mister Baggins?” Came a voice and Bilbo almost shouted with joy as a squat dwarf with a long white beard peered around the healer’s robes.

“Balin!”

“Ah, there ye are laddie! We were all wonderin’ where you’d been whisked off to and they wouldn’t say a word about how ye were. Kili was nigh hysterical, sure you’d been eaten up and were no longer with us and he was upsettin’ the rest.” The elderly dwarf all but shoved Lanthiron out of his way and puttered over to Bilbo’s bedside, climbing up onto the chair there with as much dignity as he could muster considering it was much too big for him.

“The rest? So everyone is alright?””

“Oh aye, right as rain other than a few scratches and bites t’ split between the lot of us, but nothing much t’ complain about compared to you. Gave those who saw it a proper scare and Gloin is complaining of having white in his beard now. You’re lucky to be alive, you know.”

The tightness in Bilbo’s chest eased somewhat and he breathed easier. “I’ll have to take your word for that. I’m afraid I don’t remember much of the whole incident, or whatever lead up to it.”

“Don’t remember?” Balin repeated, his eyebrows rising up until they nearly touched his hairline. “I don’t see how one could possibly forget such a – “

“My patient has suffered a minor head wound,” Lanthiron interrupted as he walked by with an armful of clean bandages, looking very sour. “You may recall that the guards were forced to pry him out from under the corpse of a warg, so it is not out of the question that he perhaps made contact with a root or a rock when it landed on him. It’s a miracle he wasn’t smothered.”

Bilbo’s stomach lurched. “I feel so much better now, thank you.”

“If you feel poorly I suggest you simply take your medicine and cease fretting over what has been. Putting your mind towards healing will speed the process.”

Balin didn’t say anything to this, staying silent until Lanthiron had deposited the bandages and retreated back to the door to talk with the elven guard who stood there, keeping a sharp eye on both patient and visitor.

“I hate t’ say it, but he’s right. You aren’t any use to anyone if they’ve got you bundled up here and feelin’ poorly. You should rest.” Balin’s hand was warm and dry on his shoulder.

“I’ll be able to do that properly once I know what happened otherwise I won’t be able to stop thinking about it and I’ll probably give myself a worse headache than I already have.” In fact he was beginning to feel very uncomfortable all over, especially his foot. It was impossible to tell how bad the wound was since Lanthiron would probably restrain him if he tried to take off the bandages, but whatever had happened it was most certainly starting to hurt as the medicine wore off. “So please just get on with it and I’ll be sure to tell you if I’m not feeling up to more.”

“If you’re sure,” Balin said slowly as he reached into his coat as if to pull out his pipe and then stopped, no doubt thinking better of it since he was in an infirmary. “When were you last with us?”

“The whole time I imagine, but the last thing I remember was getting across the river in the boat.”

“Oh now that was quite a bit of excitement. Didn’t have much like it for a while after, so you aren’t missin’ much there. Gathered up our things for the most part – Bombur’s pot got washed downstream when that stag went through, and picked back up the path. Not much else to tell about that part other than it started gettin’ cold at night after a week or so and we used up the last of the pipe weed. I remember you weren’t too pleased about that, but we all had our little troubles by then. Water was nearly gone; food was startin’ to run down as well. Then somebody had the bright idea to send you up a tree to get our bearings.”  

“Oh great,” Bilbo moaned, pillowing his head in his hands. “Did I fall out?”

“Nah,” Balin chuckled, “but it was a close thing. You kept sayin’ how we should have sent Kili up instead since he’s a better climber, but Kili had stepped in a hole just that day and turned his ankle around. You’d have thought we’d chopped off his whole foot by the way he carried on about it until Thorin told him to man up and act like a proper dwarf.”

“That wasn’t very nice of him.”

“None of us were quite ourselves. High tempers made things a bit tight. Anyway, Bofur gave you his hat to keep sticks out of your hair and up you went. Did a good enough job of it too; Dwalin was ready to catch you if you slipped – just in case. You were up there long enough that we thought one of the bats had carried you off and Thorin was about ready to climb up and fetch you when down you came.”

The idea of being carried off by one of the Mirkwood bats had Bilbo grimacing. “No bats got me, I assume?”

“Not a one. Must like the taste of moth more than hobbit,” Balin said with a cheery wink. “Turns out you’d managed to net somethin’ in Bofur’s hat and it had taken a while – showed it off when you got down and were as pleased as a miner who’d come across a mithril vein. T’was a butterfly, as bright blue as any sapphire I’d ever seen. It hung about for a moment and then flew off once you’d opened up the hat, but everyone liked the look of it and it made the spirits lift a bit. Turns out we were in a valley of sorts, so it was hard to tell where the edge was until we got to higher ground. Not quite what anyone wanted to hear, but it was better than nothin’.”

Blue butterflies. He could almost feel them whirling around him like a cobalt tornado. The smell of autumn leaves. It wasn’t a memory though, or not a proper one. He didn’t remember catching any of them so it had to be a flashback to the first time he’d been sent up that wretched tree. “It sounds beautiful,” Bilbo said softly, playing with the bandage where it had fallen down over his eyebrow.

“Mmm, the last bit of hope we had after that. Took us another two days to get out of the valley and then it started to rain buckets. Turned everything to mud and little rivers, but we were able to refill our water skins.” Balin’s eyes fell to his hands and Bilbo suddenly felt nervous.

“What then?” The hobbit prompted, somehow knowing that he wouldn’t like the answer.

“That,” Balin sighed, “was when Azog came. He and more than a dozen warg riders came up the path behind us, scattered us. Some of us climbed up into one of the trees while the others were chased into the brush, off the path. As I recall it was you, me, Bifur, Gloin, and Kili up in that old oak with Azog and five orcs under us. They had bows but the rain threw off their aim. We thought we were safe for the moment but we didn’t count on what else was in the tree with us.”

“Spiders,” Bilbo whispered.

“The owners of those webs we’d been seein’ since we first entered the forest. As big as ponies they were and they’d heard us climb up you see, and come down to investigate. We fought them off for as long as we could but one stung Bifur and he went limp and we were forced lower to keep out of their grasp. Low enough for that beast of Azog’s to rear up and grab you by your coat bottom.” Balin swallowed hard, his hand clenching and loosening in his lap. “Dragged you right out before anyone could do a thing.”

“It’s not your fault. If there were spiders too you couldn’t have done anything.”

“That doesn’t make it better!” Balin snapped sharply, making the healer look up and take a step towards the bed, looking irritated.

“It’s fine! I’m fine.” Bilbo waved Lanthiron away. “I’ll take the medicine in just a minute, I promise.” That didn’t seem to placate the elf very much, but at least he didn’t try to send Balin away. Gingerly Bilbo reached out and patted Balin’s wrist. “Really, I don’t blame anyone for anything. I don’t even remember it, so it’s hard to be cross at anyone except Azog.”

“You weren’t the one who had to watch when that beast grabbed your foot and shook you like a child’s rag doll. We all thought you were dead, lad. You just stopped screamin’ after a bit and all we could do was try and keep the spiders off us and not get caught ourselves. Luckily I think the noise lead the others back and Thorin lead the charge, but we all knew it was hopeless. Against just the orcs we might have fared well enough, but with their mounts too it was just a matter of time. Nearly scared my beard right off when you got up again and got loose. I don’t know what happened, but somehow you managed to get one of those stickers Nori gave you right up through the roof of the warg’s mouth. Must have hit its brain because it went down like a cave in right on top of you.”

“That was when the Royal Hunt arrived,” Lanthiron said from behind Balin, his arms folded in front of him and looking like he wanted to stab the old dwarf with a needle the size of his arm. “They chased the orcs off and slew several before graciously escorting you all here rather than leaving you to rot in the forest.”

“And Azog?” Bilbo pressed, trying very hard not to imagine getting shaken around by his poor foot.

“Escaped,” Balin said morbidly. “Thorin did not take it well, nor being ‘escorted’ by Thranduil. He nearly stabbed the elf king when they wouldn’t tell us whether you lived or not. The elves have put us in cells until Thranduil decides what to do with us.”  

“You should be grateful that he spared you at all,” Lanthiron snapped, picking back up the spoon and medicine bottle. “You and your company have already broken three noses and more fingers than I can count of the guards who were sent to give you food and water. I think it’s time for you to return to your cell, dwarf. You are upsetting my patient.”

“He isn’t upsetting – ulp!” Bilbo gagged as Lanthiron shoved the spoon into his mouth and swallowed reflexively. The medicine was vaguely sweet and tasted of crush mint and grassy things and the moment it hit his stomach it spread out a cool feeling that instantly settled his insides and began to work away at the numerous aches that had blossomed while Balin spoke. “You tricked me,” he accused the elf thickly.

“My people have no quarrel with halflings, and thus I will treat you to the full extent of my ability. Even if you don’t want me to. Your leg needs time and extensive work; otherwise I can’t be sure that you will ever walk again. You’ve already lost one of your toes and I need to examine the rest. Now please rest and let the medicine run its course.”

“Balin?” Bilbo asked softly, unnatural fatigue already taking root and making him slur his words. “Tell them I’m alright? I’ll make it better. I will…”

“I’ll tell them, laddie. Be at ease.”

The last thing Bilbo saw before his eyes slid shut was Lanthiron ushering Balin and his guard out the door and shutting it behind him. 

Chapter Text

“Are ye sure you’re a’right?”

“Fine. I already said so, didn’t I?”

“Aye, but tha’ doesn’t make it true.”

Bilbo sighed and looked down at his hands where they were covered by Bofur’s mitten-clad one. They had grown thin and pale, more than he could ever remember seeing them before. There was no sunlight to be found in the infirmary and Bilbo felt sure that before long he wouldn’t need to put on the Ring to turn invisible. He’d simply be so pale that he would fade into the background and disappear.

The infirmary was kept purposefully dim so as not to be hard on the eyes of those therein, but it also made it hard to tell the passage of time. Much of the Woodland Realm lay beneath the surface of the forest, built along the massive roots from the trees above. The formed intricate living bridges and arbors from which hung fey lanterns and luminescent moss which seemed to grow there naturally. In a very few places the sun broke through the trees and the earth and cast singular beams of golden autumn light. Of course, Bilbo saw none of this because he remained effectively trapped by his foot and the ever-watchful eye of Lanthiron in the cool, shadowy infirmary which was lit only by lanterns. The hobbit had learned to judge time by how often he was given tea to deaden his pain and by when his foot was cleaned and bandaged.

Once a day (as far as Bilbo could figure) Lanthiron and one of his aids would appear and declare that it was time for Bilbo’s bandages to be changed and then dose him with something that made his head swim and his muscles all turn to jelly. The elves would quickly unwrap his foot, rub some sort of lotion that felt as good as cool water on a sunburn all over it, and then rewrap the whole thing in clean linens before declaring him ‘much improved’. Bilbo might have felt spoiled if he hadn’t caught a glimpse of his mangled limb once before they had begun their work. It was covered in thick, ropey scars that twined from the tips of his toes all the way up to his kneecap where he’d been laid open by the warg’s teeth. Lanthiron told him it was a blessing that those teeth hadn’t managed to sever one of the big arteries in his leg since he would have surely bled to death before help arrived, but that didn’t stop Bilbo from gaping in horror at his poor, shaved foot and the bare spot where his pinkie toe had once been. After that he made sure to avert his eyes whenever it came time for his treatment – once was more than enough. He may not remember being caught and tortured by Azog and his orcs but that didn’t mean that he needed a constant reminder of the incident every time he looked down.

“War wounds, laddie,” Balin told him the second time he was allowed in. “We all have a few, even those who haven’t seen real war or battle.”

“Or haven’t seen it yet.” Bilbo had replied dourly and then couldn’t be roused from his bleak mood for the rest of the dwarf’s visit.  

After that he struck a deal with Lanthiron that he wouldn’t cause trouble or refuse when the elf wanted to pour more of his herbal concoctions down his throat if he was allowed to have more company.

“Hobbbits are social creatures!” He’d claimed when Lanthiron had given him a suspicious look. “If we’re left on our own with no good companionship we’ll wither away and then I won’t get better at all.”

The elf had taken mild offense to being labeled ‘poor company’ (not that he’d said so, but Bilbo had learned how to interpret the healer’s moods based on how high or low his eyebrows were), but he had relented and the next time the door had opened it revealed Bofur and the same prison guard who had escorted Balin.

“S’okay if you don’t feel good, nobody thinks ill of ye for not bein’ stuck down in a cell with the rest of us. Better here than down there and gettin’ th’ rot or somethin’ similar.” Bofur’s brown eyes were soft and concerned and it felt like a balm on Bilbo’s raw edges.

“I’m just worried,” he confessed, taking his hand back and using it to push his hair out of his eyes. If Bofur noticed the dark purple bruises underneath them he was tactful enough not to comment for once. “I know that Thorin and Thranduil don’t exactly get on well – “

“Ta put it mildly.” Bofur’s smile was small and held no real mirth.

“Exactly. I just know that now that he has us all locked up and under guard he won’t be eager to let us go without a fight. I just need to figure out what to do about it.”

“It’s not your trouble, Bilbo. Ye see that they aren’t bothered by ye since there isn’t even a watch at th’ door. I hate t’ say it, but ye may be the only one getting’ outta here unless some magic brings th’ wizard back again t’ plead our cause. But it’s not so bad,” the dwarf added. “Three meals and they’re even cooked well enough, and the cells have cots which is better than what we’ve been sleepin’ on. Sort’a a little vacation if ye ask me.”

Bilbo nodded and fretted with the corner of the bed sheet. Elrond had given him a letter to give to Thranduil if they encountered any problem with the king of the Woodland Realm, but it had been long lost somewhere between Beorn’s house and where Azog had caught up to them in Mirkwood. According to Balin, many of their packs had been savaged by the orcs and wargs and several items had either been damaged or lost completely – Elrond’s letter included. It had merely been a letter of council, but it would have been useful to have the elf king on their side in the end. Now all Bilbo had to rely on were his wits and charm, neither of which he could use to great effect with his foot held up in a sling. Kings didn’t visit lowly hobbits in the infirmary after all.  

“But everyone is still alright?”

“As far as I can tell. They drag us out once in a while down to th’ throne room so the king his’self can ask us what we’re doin’ and where we’re goin’, but so far we’ve kept mum. Haven’t seen much of Thorin ‘cept when they march him by once a day since they’ve got him in a deeper cell than th’ rest of us. Seems fine though. Like I said, don’t worry ‘bout us. We’ll find some way t’ get out and then we’ll be on our way again afore ye know it.”

That was when Lanthiron decided to come back and deemed that Bilbo had had enough company for one day and Bofur was taken away by the guard who had been standing just outside the door.

Left to his own devices Bilbo had little to do but worry and try to plan ahead even though he knew nothing was certain. The healer had returned his tattered coat to him and Bilbo was relieved to find that both rings were still in his pocket. The ring of power went into the pocket of the robe he’d been given and the Consort’s ring hung loose on his thumb, where he would turn it in circles to watch the lantern light reflect off of the emerald. The days dripped out from under him like molasses, blending together until he nearly forgot how long he had been trapped. Deeper and deeper his spirits sank, left with no sunshine and only a single visitor a day. The dwarves tried to cheer him up as best they could, but none of them had a workable plan for convincing Thranduil to release them or for escaping from their cells and the lack of news was even more disheartening.

“It is common for victims of an attack to have low spirits,” Lanthiron told him one evening as he helped Bilbo sit up and carefully fed him a spoonful of medicine. Bilbo didn’t have the strength or heart to reply and simply sagged back against his pillow and sank back into his thoughts, missing the worried look the healer gave him.

“It’s like winter,” he whispered to Dori, who was knitting in the chair next to his bed a few days later. They were the first words he’d spoken since the eldest Ri had been allowed in – a depression had sunk into his very bones and left him listless and uninterested in anything that went on around him. Even thoughts of escape and reunion with the company had taken a backseat to the weight that had settled over him. At night he would awaken in a cold sweat with his heart racing only to have the magnitude of what had happened and what might still happen come crashing down on him again and leave him sleepless. Was it really so hopeless?

“Winter?” The dwarf prompted, his wooden needles still, and Bilbo realized that his attention had wandered again.

“When I was twenty one there was a terrible winter. It lasted for months and months and we nearly starved because the snow had ruined the fall harvest and lasted so long that nothing could be planted. Wolves came out of the forest and killed all of the game and we couldn’t stir out of doors for fear of being eaten ourselves. I remember three of them took up station right on our porch, as if they knew that my parents and I were inside…” Bilbo swallowed hard, trying hard not to think about the howls that had sounded through the Shire every night until the May thaw. “But everything was always cold and dark and I began to think that I would never see another cheerful thing as long as I lived. It was very hard not to simply lie down and sleep forever just to end the terrible waiting.”

“We won’t be here forever,” Dori tried to soothe him, but they both knew that nothing he said could change a thing. “Just be well again and then we’ll decide on what happens next. They’re doing their best to convince us that we’re going to rot here but I think that you’re the one who believes it the most. You listen to me, Mister Baggins. You’ve gotten us out of a scrape or two before, so this time just let us figure out what happens and we’ll have you back on your feet proper before you know it.”  

Always they spoke of escaping and Bilbo was the only one who knew for sure how hopeless that dream was. The locks on the prison cells could not be picked and the guard patrols were far too regular to sneak out even if he managed to steal the key again. He’d been lucky last time. This time they knew who he was and had him under close watch and the chances that he’d be able to pull off a similar escape as last time were next to nothing. Dori left soon after, the green scarf he’d been knitting trailing sadly behind him as his guard tried not to step on it. This wasn’t a sickness that could be cured with tea or herbs; it went far too deep for those to touch.

“I’m just a hobbit,” he said to himself, squeezing his eyes shut tightly when there was no one to see, the Consort’s ring cutting into his palm. “What if it’s too much? What if I can’t? Why did it have to be me?!” Bilbo shouted at the ceiling and that was enough to have Lanthiron hastening back into the sick room to sedate him.

It must have been hours later when he finally opened his eyes again, though for all Bilbo knew it could have been days. He had lost so much time that he didn’t know if Durin’s Day had already passed him by while he slept, lost in memories and dreams of fire and teeth.

Watery brown eyes gazed back at him when he carefully turned his head on the pillow and there was a sniffle. Bilbo blinked a couple of times to clear the haze that had settled over his eyes and squinted so he could make out who was leaning on the side of his bed.

“Kili?” 

“The elf said he had to give you something,” the prince said thickly. “He said you’re sick and that he doesn’t know if you’re going to get better.” Kili’s hair was bedraggled, hanging in his face and full of knots as if he’d been sleeping on it and then not bothering to finger-comb it when he woke. It made him look very young and nothing like the grown, confident dwarf that he usually tried to portray.

“I wouldn’t exactly say sick- “ Bilbo started but Kili glared at him so fiercely that he fell silent. Clearly the prince had inherited more from his uncle than just his hair color.

“You look like you just got dragged out of your own tomb,” the dwarf said bluntly, his words thick as if he was trying not to let his voice crack. “Everyone is worried sick about you and we can’t do anything. They took Dwalin away and he hasn’t come back and I don’t know where Thorin is and they’ve got Fili all the way down the hall and then that elf comes down and says you’ve had a fit or something and he wanted Oin to come up, but I - I lied and said that I could fix you but – but – but I can’t!” With a wail Kili let his head fall forward onto his folded arms. “They said to be nice because you’re fragile and now I’ve messed that up too…Dori is going to smash my head against the bars again, I just know it.”

“Dori did what?” Bilbo pushed himself up a bit straighter. His head was still cloudy from whatever Lanthiron had forced on him and everything had a very strange purple tint to it, but it only took him two tries to be able to reach over and lift up part of Kili’s bangs to see if Dori had managed to crack the prince’s skull. There was only a faint bruise, a love tap considering that Dori probably could have squashed Kili’s head like a watermelon if he wanted to. “Why would he do that?”

“He said that I was caterwauling too much and needed to let everybody sleep,” Kili mumbled, not looking up from the cradle of his arms.  

“In that case he was probably right. You’re lucky he didn’t flick you between the eyes – I saw him do that to one of the goblins in the mountain and it dropped like a rock. The bars were more forgiving.” Bilbo carefully patted Kili’s head where it wasn’t bruised. “Was it okay after that?”

“That was a week ago! We’ve been stuck in this horrible place for almost three weeks and nobody has any – “ Kili hiccuped and looked up, “ – any idea about what to do without Thorin. Bofur said you might run away and leave us here since you were the only one who could, but then you got sick and now you’re going to die!”

“Don’t be so dramatic, I’m not going to – “

“I tried to shoot it.” Kili’s voice was quiet, deathly so. “That warg, when it got you. I didn’t even care about Azog, I just wanted it to let go of you. But there was a spider and it was as big as I was and it bit my string in half and Bifur wouldn’t let me climb down!” The dwarf reached up and grabbed Bilbo’s hand where it rested on his head, squeezing it hard enough that Bilbo winced. “I tried and I thought you were dead. You can’t die, not when you were supposed to be getting better. We won’t go without you.”

“Kili! For the last time, I’m not going to die. I’m not sick, truly.” Or at least not bodily ill. But seeing Kili’s anguish and tear-filled eyes made something inside him harder and Bilbo used it like a lid to push down the self-pity and depression that had been dragging at him. Somebody needed him and he couldn’t fall to pieces while there was still so much at stake. At least not yet.

“But Dori and Bofur said – “

“Well they said wrong. My foot just needed some extra time to get better. Look! Perfectly fine now.” As quickly as he could so that he wouldn’t have too much time to fret about it, Bilbo yanked his foot out of the sling it had been resting in every day and gave his ankle a tentative turn. “I can even stand and walk now,” he fibbed.

Kili gave him a flat look, completely unconvinced. “You’re lying to make me feel better, I know you are.”

“I am not! Look, give me a hand up and I’ll prove it.” His bluff had been called and now he had to live it down. Was the scarring too extensive for him to walk? What if something had been cut and he couldn’t put any weight on it? A burglar with only one working leg wasn’t a very effective one and he knew that if he couldn’t keep up, then he would probably be either left behind here or in Lake Town if they even made it that far. It was now or never and Bilbo didn’t relish the idea of spending another month trapped in bed with only his dark mood to keep him company.  

Kili finally sat back and climbed off of his chair, reaching up so that Bilbo could grab his hands and lower himself down. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Hush, you wouldn’t know a good idea if it crawled into bed with you and asked for breakfast the next morning.” The sheets went slithering to the floor as Bilbo let himself fall out of bed with them, putting all of his weight on his left foot and only barely brushing the floor with the wrapped toes of his right. “Just give me your shoulder.”

All of the blood had rushed down to his feet and legs and both suddenly felt very weak and full of pins and needles, but by clinging to Kili’s shoulder like a lifeline Bilbo was able to put his other foot down and balance there, waiting to see if either gave out and sent him tumbling to the wooden floor.

Neither did.  

Ever so slowly Bilbo let his legs take more of his weight until he was standing freely without hanging off of the prince. Kili practically vibrated in place, no doubt ready to reach out and catch him if something went wrong. The concern written on his face gave Bilbo the confidence to lean forward and take a step. It was short and sent a throb of pain through his ankle, but no more than it would have had he simply twisted the thing rather than had it gnawed on. That first hesitant step was followed by another and then another, until Bilbo had limped around the chair and stopped with his hand resting on its arm. His legs were shaking and he felt much more winded than he should have from such a short excursion, but that he was still upright and more or less mobile felt like a Smaug-sized victory.

“See? I told you I was fine.”

“Mister Baggins!” The door was flung open and Lanthiron came rushing in, moving faster than Bilbo had ever seen him go. “What are you doing? You could damage your foot and undo all of the work we’ve put into it!”

Kili went as white as a sheet and did his best to make himself look small behind Bilbo, backing down before the wrath of the healer. It shot a bolt of steel straight into Bilbo’s spine.

“I thank you for your concern, but as you can see I am perfectly capable of looking after myself now. Your assistance has been greatly appreciated, but now the only thing I want is a stick to lean on and an audience with King Thranduil. If you could do that for me I’d be much obliged.”

It was time to move on, whether he was ready or not. 

Chapter Text

‘No more being a fainting flower, you’ve had quite enough time for that. Now there’s work to be done.’

Bilbo’s hand tightened on the rough end of the walking stick he’d been given to help him hobble along. It was a pretty enough thing except for the part where he was fairly certain it had been hurriedly cut in half to accommodate someone of his size rather than the willowy elves. It worked well enough as a cane though, and he leaned on it heavily as his foot began to throb in protest of the sudden addition of weight and use.

It hadn’t been long after he’d made his demand to Lanthiron that an escort of three elven guards had come to collect him from the infirmary. Kili had been whisked off, no doubt back to his cell, and Bilbo had found himself hobbling along with an elf on either side of him and one at the front to lead the way. It was a small mercy that they kept their steps short and slow so that he wouldn’t have to hurry too much and he suspected that the healer had had a few words with them not to overexert his patient before Bilbo had been taken away to stand before Thranduil.

There was sunlight in the throne room, and Bilbo made sure to situate himself in one of them when his escort finally stopped, soaking it up like a fish who had too long been denied a sip of water. So blissful was it just to feel the feeble, golden rays upon his face that it took a long time for him to notice that he had the eyes of the entire chamber upon him, including those of the Elvenking.

Autumn had come to Mirkwood and the crown of the king had grown to match, with blood-red berries and crimson leaves to decorate its branches. Sadly for all of the warm colors that adorned the king none of them could reach the ice that had grown behind his blue eyes. Though the way that he leaned upon his throne of wood and antlers was casual and controlled and his hands were loose around his carven staff, Bilbo knew that he would have to tread very carefully or he too would find himself thrown into a cell in the deepest parts of the forest kingdom.

“At long last I see the Halfling who has been keeping my healer in such a state. You have caused quite a stir in my kingdom, both with the manner of your arrival and the company you kept with you. Tell me, what is your name and what brings you to the Woodland Realm?” Thranduil sounded uninterested but because of the quiet whispers that filled the room around him after he had spoken Bilbo knew that more hung on his answer than just the usual ‘hello, how are you, what brings you over for tea’.

“Hail Thranduil, son of Oropher, Elvenking of the Woodland Realm. May your reign last as long as the trees.” Bilbo bowed as low as he could over the top of his cane, knowing that his formal greeting would be a ruined if he wobbled and fell over. 

"Rise, Halfling. If I had realized I had a poet in my infirmary I may have summoned you myself." The icy gaze never left the hobbit as his attention was focused. The rest of the room and its occupants were only shadows to the king.  “Now continue, for I still desire your name and your business and am unused to being kept waiting."

“My name is Bilbo Baggins and my business is a grave one.” Like Elrond before him, Thranduil had to know some of the details. That didn’t mean Bilbo was going to let loose his tongue and spill all to the Elvenking, but it may ease his way a bit if Thranduil knew not to deny fate by detaining him or the rest of the company. “I have traveled from the Shire through Rivendell and spoken with Lord Elrond, from whom I once bore a message that was to be delivered to you.”

He hadn’t spoken this formally since he was a lad and had gotten his hands on a book of poetry. Belladonna had laughed at him for a solid month until he’d gone back to his usual way of talking.

A fine platinum brow was raised. If there had been a message from Lord Elrond someone would have found it on Bilbo when he'd been brought in. "Yet you no longer carry this message. I think this sounds very convenient on your part."

“Not at all, sir. Your majesty. The contents concerned me and my company, so if it was eaten by the same warg that got its teeth into me I would call that more inconvenient than anything else.” His foot, while still bandaged to the knee, had been covered by a very high-topped black boot that neatly covered most of the wrappings. Lanthiron had insisted on these and then looked mildly insulted when Bilbo tried to insist that he didn’t wear shoes. Apparently the healer had requested them specifically made to fit Bilbo so that there was less of a chance of him picking up a rock or something unhealthy in his wounds. Since he would have looked like a clot head walking around with one foot shod and the other bare Bilbo had been forced to put on both of the shoes and now wiggled his toes uncomfortably in them. Lanthiron may have been right about wearing them for safety, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. Besides, the tall black boots looked utterly ridiculous underneath his trousers (which had been returned to him along with the rest of his clothes, freshly mended and laundered, before he had been taken to see Thranduil. Clearly kings were not likely to be impressed by bare bandages and white night robes).

"Your business, Mister Baggins. As you are the one who requested this sudden audience you would be wise not to waste this generously given time." Thranduil crossed one booted foot over his knee and had the audacity to look bored.

A bit put off by Thranduil’s indifference, Bilbo had to fight to find his words again. He hadn’t spoken with the Elvenking in his own kingdom – most of his time before had been spent hiding in dark corners and stealing little bits of food when he could. It most certainly had not been spent standing in court for all and sundry to look at.

“I, well, that’s a bit complicated.”

"Then you will want to start explaining immediately."

So much for elves being the patient sort. Although, Bilbo reminded himself, if he’d had a dungeon full of dwarves who had been trespassing around and didn’t know why, he might be a bit snappish too.

Had it been anyone else Bilbo might have gotten cross and asked if he should wait for a better time. After all, he was the one who was hurting, sore, and unhappy while he doubted Thranduil had anything more pressing to do than plan some elaborate party. Sadly the King was also the one who held the majority of the cards in this courtly game so the most Bilbo could do was swallow his irritation and put on the face that he usually reserved for when he was trying to be polite to Lobelia.

“The whole story, or at least the important part as far as I’m concerned, start about eighty years in the future. As I lay dying I was spoken to by someone, though I couldn’t tell you who they were or what their purpose was in approaching someone like me. I was asked if I could change history, would I.”

Thranduil remained unmoved, slowly spinning his staff between his long, spider-like fingers. “That is a mighty claim.”

“Especially for someone like me, I know. I’m not a king or a hero or particularly important when it all comes down to it. I had a hard time believing it myself until I woke up on my front bench and was fifty again.”

Titters and whispers erupted around the room and Bilbo felt the back of his neck grow hot. He was used to be looked down on when he was outside the Shire, but that didn’t chase away the feeling of embarrassment and shame.

“Yes, I’m not five thousand and twelve like the rest of you and any great deeds I might have done haven’t happened yet, but at least I’m polite enough not to laugh about it!”

That quieted them somewhat. Even Thranduil’s eyebrows rose and with a wave of his hand the last of the whispers died away.  “If what you say is true then you should have no issue with telling me why you were returned to this state and what it has to do with why you were found trespassing in my lands with known enemies of my kingdom.”

“And why we should believe him at all,” added another voice, which came from a pale red-haired lady elf who stood near the throne next to an elf that looked like a slightly younger version of Thranduil. The king’s son, Bilbo realized. This must be the elf that Frodo would travel with one day.

“You make a valid point, Captain. How are we to be sure that this isn’t all an elaborate story that was concocted while our guest languished in his sick bed? Indeed, the message you claim to have carried is gone and can provide nothing to support you. So, Halfling, what is to prevent me from simply commanding Tauriel to add you to my dungeon with the rest of my miniscule captives?”

The captain laid a delicate hand on the hilt of the long sword that hung from her belt and the prince looked a little bit alarmed.

“I wouldn’t recommend that,” Bilbo said quietly, his hands tightening on his stick as he faked a confidence he hadn’t felt in a long, long time. “I have met you before, Elvenking, and I saw your wisdom and dignity. That king listened to reason when it was offered and I offer it again here - I know that you are no one’s fool so I beg you to hear me out before condemning me for trying to save you from your own prejudices.”

“If you insult my liege there will not be enough of you left to put in the dungeon for the rats to gnaw upon.”

“Tauriel,” Thranduil chastised.

Legolas stared at his companion. “There are rats in the dungeon?”

“Legolas!” The prince was shushed by both his father and the captain, who looked as irritated as Bilbo had ever seen an elf manage to look (and he’d been witness to the time Elrond had nearly been tipped over a balcony in Rivendell by a group of human travelers and their oversized packs. He’d been sure the lord was about to burst a vein in his forehead).

“I know I don’t have any proof but my word,” Bilbo interrupted, taking a hesitant step forward. “And that’s not much to go on. You don’t know me, after all. For all any of you know I could be a thief and a liar and you should put me in your dungeon until I turn to dust. But I know what’s going to happen and I also know that if I don’t succeed in my quest that lives that are precious to me will be lost. I beseech you for your aid, Elvenking. Last time I was a guest in your kingdom I traveled only in the darkest places and thought you to be a tyrant when you imprisoned my friends, but with older, wiser eyes I see more clearly – you fear for the safety of your lands and your people.”

It might have been a trick of the dusky light but Bilbo thought he saw Thranduil’s eyes dart to his son for a moment before they returned to their indifferent perusal of his guest and court.

“Do not think that you know what my fears are, Halfling. You tread a fine line between holding my interest and rousing my temper.”

“I know that you think the dwarves in your dungeon are traveling to Erebor and that they’ll wake the dragon who might still sleep beneath the mountain. And you’d be right. Thorin Oakenshield, who I’m sure you’ve locked in the deepest, darkest cell in this whole place, intends to reclaim his birthright – from the claws of Smaug himself if he has to.”

The room erupted.

Well that certainly got their attention,’ Bilbo thought, a touch sarcastically. If there was one way to stir up a room full of elves, it was to mention a dragon. Especially when that dragon was currently occupying a mountain no more than a day or two away as the raven flew. As whispers and curses and shouts for order flew over his head, Bilbo shifted in his new shoes to try to ease some of the discomfort that was creeping through his wounded foot. It gave a particularly nasty throb and he left off, trying to fight down the bile that rose in his throat. An adventurer and burglar he might be, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t avoid pain when he could help it. After all, he was a hobbit when it came right down to it, and hobbits were quite fond of being comfortable. The raw scar tissue and missing toe weren’t comfortable at all, especially when he’d already been standing on them for the better part of two hours. Too bad it didn’t look as though anyone who be bringing him a stool to perch on.

“They’re more like children than half of the hobbit kits I’ve bounced on my knee…” He murmured to himself.

Not more than a heartbeat later Thranduil finally lost his veil of calm and shot to his feet with a hissed “Enough!” that sent his couriers hurrying back to the walls, their luminous eyes gleaming as the light began to fade from the throne room. Night was coming and the Elvenking stood resplendent on his throne of wood and bone, his face made of hard angles and shadow as he glared down at the wretched hobbit that had the misfortune to be standing in the middle of his throne room, leaning on a little wooden stick. Like silver wings his robes flared around him as he strode down the steps of his dais until he loomed over Bilbo and the hobbit took an instinctive step backwards that nonetheless left him craning his neck to look up at the king, sweat beading on his forehead and dampening the palms of his hands. “You have brought chaos and disorder to my court and I will not stand for it. Tell me what you know of Smaug and then I will decide whether or not to believe your words at all.”

Courage, think of your friends in the dungeon. He isn’t as bad as Smaug by any stretch of the imagination.

“I’m afraid I can’t, sorry.”

“You can’t?” Thranduil repeated.

“No. You can bully and sneer at me all you like, but on this I’m firm. I won’t tell you single thing until you agree to let the dwarves and me continue on our way. I don’t think they’re enjoying your accommodations, quite frankly. “

“You seek to bargain with me when what you know could affect thousands?” Thranduil snarled. “My people have lived in the shadow of that cursed mountain and the name Smaug for sixty years and you want me to release the very dwarves who wish to go and stir it awake again!”

“I never said they would wake Smaug, or whether he was still even alive,” Bilbo said coolly, refusing to show more weakness than he already had. He was too old and had done too much to be antagonized by Thranduil. Already he had stood before the king’s cold indifference – his wrath would be no different. “Nor will I. Trolls and orcs and goblins have already tried to stop us and you won’t be the one who succeeds. Now I say that I’m from the future and I’ll stand by it. You can either bargain with me and maybe learn something that might help save the lives of your people, or you can continue to be stubborn and not get another word out of me.”

Thranduil looked like he wanted to throttle him where he stood and Bilbo raised his head belligerently, teeth clenched, refusing to be cowed.

“Father, you know that he speaks truthfully,” Legolas called from his place at Tauriel’s side. “Do not torment the Halfling further – he simply confirms what the messengers from Lórien have already told us – ouch! Tauriel…” The captain had driven her elbow into the prince’s ribs rather violently.

There was movement from the right side of the room and three elves stepped forward. All three had long, white-blond hair and hawkish noses and had slightly rounder faces than the Sindarin elves. All three bowed sharply to Thranduil, their war helmets tucked underneath their arms and bows strapped across their backs. Either they had been about to leave or had recently arrived.

“Forgive me your majesty, but I too must interject. My brothers and I have come carrying the word of my lady Galadriel concerning this very matter.”

“Haldir,” Thranduil said with irritation. “Rumil, Orophin, marchwardens of Lórien. I have heard your words already and do not need them repeated a second time so that my court may have further fuel for their gossip.” 

“It may be too bold of me, sire, but when we arrived yestereve my brothers and I were most surprised to find that you had imprisoned Thorin Oakenshield and his company on charges of trespassing, when until this point most travelers had gone along the path unhindered.”

“Those travelers were not dwarves.”

Bilbo let out a quiet, relieved sigh as Thranduil swept about and returned to his throne. Legolas gave the hobbit a pitying look before following.

“Perhaps not, but these dwarves traveled with a Twice Born who is of great interest to our lady. She has learned of his revival from Gandalf the Grey and Lord Elrond and wanted it made known to you that his quest is supported by those west of the Misty Mountains.”

“I know this and yet it is my kingdom they traveled through and mine which will be the first to burn should Smaug take offense to being trod upon by their inelegant boots! If this Halfling knows what the future holds then he should tell me here and now so that I may work to circumvent this!”

Desperately Bilbo wanted to blurt out that Mirkwood would not be destroyed by Smaug. Even if there was nothing he could change about how the dragon awoke and burned Laketown, eventually Bard would be the one to destroy him before he caused the elves even a drop of trouble. But he couldn’t. If Thranduil knew that there was even the smallest chance that Smaug could awaken and turn against his people there would be no force in the world that would convince him to allow the company to move forward. The king was too wary of the dragon, and with good reason since Smaug’s wrath could be devastating.

“I’m terribly sorry, but I really can’t say anything more until you can give me a show of good faith to build on. If you keep us locked up then you’ll never know whether Smaug is still alive in Erebor or if he will awaken and burn everything from here to the Great Sea to ash.”

The gasps of horror from around the room were enough to tell Bilbo that his bluff had been effective. The crimson leaves on Thranduil’s crown seemed to drain of color even as the Elvenking went rigid on his throne, clearly imagining the destruction Smaug could wreak if left unchecked.

“If this could truly come to pass…no doubt it would be because of the foolishness of the dwarves who want to reclaim their mountain. Tell me this, Halfling. Is Smaug awoken because of Thorin Oakenshield?”

“No, Elvenking. He is not.” Because I’m the one who wakes up Smaug. “And that’s all I’ll say about it. The next move is yours and for all of our sakes I hope it is a wise one.”

Silence fell.

Every elf in the throne room seemed to be holding their breath. No one twitched. No whispers were passed. Every eye in the room was fixed on Thranduil, waiting. Watching. Ready to see whether their king’s next words would doom them all.

“The dwarves will be moved to guest quarters,” Thranduil said, though the words seemed to have been dragged up out of somewhere unpleasant. “And kept under constant guard. But not – “ he added quickly, “Thorin Oakenshield. I do not trust him around my people as he has proved that he will not lay aside his grudge and will no doubt seek to do them harm. This is all I will agree to at this time.” Thranduil’s carven staff was leveled at where Bilbo stood. “But this is not over. We will speak again on this dire matter, Halfling. Soon.”

Though his mouth seemed as dry as the southern deserts, Bilbo’s voice was steady. “I look forward to it.”

“Tauriel. Escort our guest and his companion to their new quarters. I expect you personally to keep an eye on our Twice Born since it would make me deeply unhappy to have him come to any harm…”

“Yes, my liege.”

“Companion?” Bilbo asked as the captain came over to stand next to him, settling one surprisingly strong hand on his shoulder to steer him. It wasn’t until he had wobbled his way around did he see who Thranduil had been referencing. Ori stood to the side of the door, in the shadow of one of the court guards. His mitten-clad hands were balled in the fabric of his cardigan and he was staring at Bilbo as if the hobbit had suddenly sprouted wings and begun to breathe fire and speak in tongues. Bilbo’s blood instantly went cold.

“Oh dear…”

__________________________________

The walk to their new quarters was a tense and quiet one. Tauriel marched behind them while two other guards went ahead, leading the way past lanterns that brightened even as the sunlight from outside faded away to nothing. Ori didn’t try to speak and with every step Bilbo felt his spirits sink lower. If there was anyone he had wanted to alienate the least, it would have been Ori. The scribe’s sweet temperament mad him a comfort to talk to and often during the journey they had sat together in the evenings and compared notes and sketches and ideas for things they wanted to write one day (or in Bilbo’s case re-write).

Now he walked two steps behind Bilbo and refused to look up at him. How much had he heard? Clearly enough if his behavior was any indicator. Not wanting to alarm him further, Bilbo didn’t attempted to make any sort of conversation and simply tucked his hand into the pockets of his vest, playing with the Consort’s Ring as he attempted not to trip over his shoes. The last thing he needed right now was a broken nose to add to his misery. It was difficult for Bilbo to even enjoy his surroundings, so worried was he. The twisting bridges made of living trees and the ceilings that practically disappeared up into the rich darkness of the Mirkwood underground were lost on him, though the earthy smell of the place did help to put him in a slightly better frame of mind. At least they weren’t being chased by orcs or spiders here and it smelled like growing things. There were certainly worse places to be captured.

A while later, after they had passed by the infirmary and a long feast hall where Thranduil’s subjects were busy carousing to the tune of several barrels of wine, they reached a long hallways of wooden doors.

“Here are the guest quarters,” Tauriel said with no inflection in her voice. The elf didn’t appear to be impressed by her demotion to guard duty. “You are to remain in your rooms unless summoned by my liege. Should you think to disobey either myself or my men will return you to them by force if necessary. Are we clear?”

“Yes yes, be good or we’ll be spanked for it. Now will you please show me to my room so that I can sit down before I fall down?”

The elf’s sharp green eyes narrowed, but she didn’t rebuke Bilbo for his rudeness. He knew what they needed to know and to treat him like a common prisoner was the fastest way to seal his lips permanently. “This one, Master Halfling. I trust you’ll find the accommodations pleasant.” The door on the left swung open when she pressed her hand to the wood, revealing a spacious room lit by fey lanterns with a single bed and a chair and a small open space to the outside that let in fresh air. It was sparse, but it wasn’t full of bugs and the bed seemed to be whispering Bilbo’s name even as he stood in the door. He nearly whimpered.

“It’s fine, thank you,” he managed. “And if you don’t mind, would it be alright if Ori stayed with me for a little while? I need someone to help me take off these dreadful shoes.”   

Tauriel looked as though she wanted to refuse, but there was no way that she could and still maintain the illusion of hospitality. “For a short time. I will return and collect him once the other dwarves have been transferred to their new rooms. We wouldn’t want you to push yourself too much, Master Halfling. After all, you are only recently recovered enough to be up after a terrible attack.”

“You don’t need to remind me, thanks. I was there.” It didn’t matter that he didn’t remember the whole thing – that was something he was quite glad of to be honest. People didn’t need to be telling him about it every time he turned around and potentially unburying those memories. Rather than wait around for an apology he was pretty sure wasn’t going to come, Bilbo hobbled into his room and promptly sank into the elf-sized armchair, his walking stick clattering to the floor beside him. Like an apple that had been left on the sill for too long Bilbo felt himself slowly deflating until even his ears were drooping and he felt as though every bone in his body had been removed while he wasn’t paying attention.

It had been a very long day.

The door shut with a click.

For a time there was silence, broken only by the sound of Ori scuffing his feet against the wooden floor. It was enough to lull Bilbo into a half-trance while he watched colors dart back and forth across the backs of his eyelids. Here it was easy to pretend that nothing had gone wrong. Or at least it was until Ori finally managed to pull together the scraps of his courage and took a step forward.

“Bilbo?”

“Yes?”

“Did you really need help taking off your shoes?”

Bilbo cracked open one eye and then shut it again. “Not particularly. I may not have worn shoes before but I’m fairly certain that I can get them off since they button up the inside. I do have some experience with buttons.”

“Oh.”

It was quiet again.

This time it took until Bilbo had nearly fallen asleep before Ori spoke again.

“Bilbo?”

“Mm?”

“Was it true?”

There it was. “Was what true?” Bilbo asked mildly, too sleepy and comfortable in his chair to get tense again. Either Ori would accept it and agree to help him or he’d be turned over to the rest of the company as a traitor. There was little he could do now except answer Ori’s questions as he had done for Thranduil.

“What you said, about the dragon and – and doing it all over again?”

“How much did you hear?”

“I think I came in right after you, so most of it.” Ori shuffled over and sat down on the bed, his hands tucked underneath him as he kicked his legs back and forth, still staring very hard at the toes of his boots. “They wanted someone for you to lean on when you went back to the infirmary and I volunteered. The others did too, but I guess I looked less…”

“Prone to violence?” Bilbo’s lips turned up in a small smile.

The young dwarf had the good grace to look embarrassed. “Yes, I suppose so. I probably should have come and help you stand or said something, but then I started listening and…”

“I imagine it wasn’t quite what you expected to hear.” Bilbo stretched his legs out and rotated his ankles around, trying to ease some of the soreness. “But yes, it is true. I’m sorry that I’ve been hiding things from all of you, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. If the others found out – “

Ori blanched. “Oh dear.”

“Exactly. It’s been hard enough keeping everyone alive and away from certain dangers this time around without having to worry about being questioned about every step we take or what dangers we have yet to face. I’ve done my best so far, but things have already changed.”

There was a patting noise and Bilbo opened his eyes again to find Ori checking all of his pockets and pulling out a scrap of parchment. “What sort of changes? Can you tell me? Were the trolls here last time? I want to write it down, this absolutely fascinating.”

And just like that the tension was broken. There were no accusations of being a traitor or demands to know what was still coming. It seemed that for Ori this was simple another marvelous tale that needed to be properly recorded and illustrated.

“Ori, you know that if anybody else saw what you’d written I might be found out and I don’t think I’m ready to be held upside down by my ankles over somewhere high like some of the company would do if they found out what sort of secrets I’ve been keeping.”

“They wouldn’t!” Ori said, aghast. Bilbo gave him an ‘oh really’ look that had the scribe ducking his head again. He remembered Thorin doing exactly that when he discovered that Bilbo had given the Arkenstone to the enemies camped outside of their front gates. “Okay, so maybe some of them would. Do you really think that hiding it is a good idea though? I mean, what if we could help?”

Bilbo chewed on the inside of his cheek. “I’m not sure if you could. I mean, think about it this way. The first time I went on this adventure we were all captured by those trolls and ended up in smelly sacks that smelled like dead sheep. They were going to roast us over their fire and the only reason we got away was because Gandalf came along and I managed to stall for time a bit.”

“None of that running about that we did? I thought that was brilliant except for the part at the end where you got nabbed.” There was a quill on the little desk in the corner and Ori plucked it up eagerly and instantly began to scribble on his parchment.

“No, I’m afraid we all got nabbed that time and rather easily too. It wasn’t our finest hour. The point is, what if I’d told you all that there were trolls in the woods? Would Thorin have led us off somewhere else and possibly into something worse that I didn’t know about? I just don’t know how to predict everything so most of the time I’ve just been making it up as I go along and hoping for the best. At least we’re all still alive right now, so I’m grateful for that. Somehow I don’t get the feeling that if I don’t get things right this time around I’ll be given another go at it.” The top buttons on his shoes were the hardest ones to undo since they were tight around his calves, but when Bilbo finally managed to get his fingernails underneath them they popped free and he was able to peel away his shoes.

Ori seemed to be thinking this over, chewing on the tip of his new quill. “So what you’re saying is that it’s best we not know anything or else we might make it worse?”

“Well that doesn’t sound very nice when you say it that way, but you have the right idea. I know what the ending is like, so I should be the one to get us there the right way.” One of the boots fell to the floor and Bilbo flexed his naked foot with a sigh of relief, not caring that all of the hair had been squashed flat. Hobbits weren’t meant to wear shoes – that’s why their feet were tougher than leather. But if Lanthiron thought they would help protect his wounds a bit better then he would just have to suffer the indignity for a little while longer. “It sort of feels like I read ahead to the last chapter in a book but the author keeps going back and making changes in the middle that I wasn’t expecting. I just don’t know if it’s all going to turn out the same.” Hopefully it wouldn’t and then they would all get a happy ending.

“Are - Were Dori and Nori okay? In the end?”

Bilbo’s fingers stilled on the buttons of his second boot, which was tighter on account of the bandages underneath it. “Ori…”

“I know you said you shouldn’t say because it could change things,” Ori added quickly, “and if you don’t want to tell me that’s okay. I just thought I would ask. Just in case.”

There was a quick mental tug-of-war. Half of Bilbo wanted to stay quiet on the subject while the other wanted to blurt out everything and set the dwarf’s mind at rest. “When I returned home at the end of everything they were both still alive. But,” he said quickly before Ori’s brilliant smile could get to him, “That doesn’t mean they will be this time. Like I said, things have been changing. You still have to look out for each other or something bad might happen.”

Ori nodded, his usually soft eyes going hard and determined. “I will. We always look after each other, it’s what family does. But I still want to write down everything that happened before, if you don’t mind. When you have time to tell me. I write in my own shorthand – even Nori can’t read it so you don’t have to worry about being found out through me. I’m good at keeping secrets.” Ori turned the paper around to show Bilbo a seemingly random scrawl of common letters and what must have been Khuzdul. “It might make a good story later on, when everything is over.”

With his second boot disposed of, Bilbo carefully propped his foot on a little stool and settled back more comfortably. “It just might. Well, where to start? You should probably know that the first time you all showed up at my door I wasn’t at all prepared for visitors and was still in my dressing gown. Having a bunch of dwarves tumble in and start raiding my pantry put me in quite a mood and it all seemed to go downhill from there…”

When Tauriel returned an hour later to collect Ori, she found the scribe scribbling furiously away at a very crowded piece of parchment. Bilbo was fast asleep in his armchair, snoring quietly with his head pillowed on his chest. 

Chapter Text

It was damp that began to wear on him first. It wasn’t a noticeable damp, or at least it hadn’t been at first, but there was a distinct difference between being underground in a forest and being underground in a mountain. In Erebor the dark had been comforting, knowing there was always stone at his back; a dry, steady presence that never failed to make him feel a little bit stronger. Even in the Blue Mountain the iron in the stone had sung to him. It wasn’t gold and jewels with their siren songs, but it had been enough to help him see his way when things had gotten tight and hopeless.

But here it was different – this was a dirty place. Moss had made its way down one of the walls of his prison cell, feeding on the drops of water that fell from the ceiling and made the whole place smell faintly of rot and water. It wasn’t strong, it wasn’t clean, it was filthy and wet earth and Thorin hated it with every fiber of his being. For the first week he had been able to ignore the constant sound of dripping and crumbling noises when dirt would fall out of the ceiling or the walls. Every day after that it had grown harder to tune out until even the smallest sound grated on his nerves and he felt as though he would never be dry again.

The king had known despair before, but not this sort. This was the worst of every sort of anguish – not knowing whether Fili and Kili were safe or whether the rest of the company was suffering like he was. Whether Bilbo was alive at all. The most he had seen of any of them was when they dragged him out of this pit and up to the throne room so that Thranduil could question him. At first he had railed at the elf, spewing curses and promises of revenge if he wasn’t released. All that had gotten him was a cuff by his guard and no supper. That had lasted for a while, until there was no change in their situation for nearly three weeks. After that his resolve began to wither away with his spirits and he sunk into a sullen silence whenever he was brought out. Clearly Thranduil had tired of him because for the last few days he had been left to himself.

Thorin wasn’t sure if he was grateful for that or not. Now the only company he had was the guards who brought him food and water twice a day and they rarely spoke to him. A jingle of keys had him looking up from where his head had fallen onto his chest but he quickly shut his eyes again. He was chained. Ragged. Weak. He didn’t need to see the pity or censure in the guard’s eyes to know it. It was best just to retreat back into himself and pray that one day it would end one way or another.

The dripping continued.

 __________________________________

It wasn’t hard to sneak by the guard at the door. All he had to do was stuff a couple of cushions under his blankets to make it look like there was someone tucked up underneath them and then slip out behind them when they came to leave dinner on the desk. Either Thranduil had ordered his people not to disturb Bilbo or the elves were simply non-intrusive, because the one who brought in the tray didn’t as much as glance towards the ‘occupied’ bed. Ignoring the rush of screaming and throbbing pain in his head, Bilbo and his magic ring had limped out the door and headed for the dungeon. With any luck Thorin was in the same cell that Thranduil had stuck him in last time and he wouldn’t be left to wander the halls all night with the Ring whispering all sorts of unpleasantness in his ear. It had taken him nearly an hour to work up the courage to put it on. After the last disastrous attempt that had left him nearly incapacitated Bilbo hadn’t been eager to don the thing again anytime soon. Sadly there hadn’t appeared to be any other choice, so finally he had simply reached out and slipped the thing on, prepared for the ice and the terrible voices.

He hadn’t been disappointed, but it hadn’t been as bad as last time either. No doubt it was because he knew what to expect and pain always seemed less when he knew what was coming, but that didn’t make it exactly pleasant. Nails scrambled at his insides, ice flooded his veins, but he didn’t gasp. He didn’t drop to the floor and clutch at his head. Instead Bilbo very carefully opened up a kitchen cupboard in the back of his mind and shooed all of the unpleasantness into it before locking it shut. After that it was easier to tune out as he slowly made his way down to Thranduil’s dungeons, leaning on the walls for support. Everything was still there, simply muted. After all, he’d already hurt enough in reality to be too bothered by a make-believe pain.

It took a little while for Bilbo to get down to the deepest, darkest part of the Woodland Realm. He had to move slowly since he hadn’t put his boots back on and didn’t want to accidentally step on a root or a rock, and he also had to wait and hide in the shadows whenever anyone would go by. He may have been invisible for all intents and purposes, but he still cast a wispy shadow when he stood in the light and didn’t want anyone to catch sight of his hobbit-sized smudge.

His luck held for what felt like the first time in months and he was able to make it most of the way without any sort of difficulty other than his throbbing foot. That was when he heard it.

“I believe it is your turn to bring the prisoner his meal.”

“Oh no, not again. All he does is glare at me when I do it. I don’t know why, it isn’t as though I’ve done anything to offend him.”

“At least you aren’t Telimas. I heard that he’s still bed-bound after that dwarf dragged him against the bars. That was why our King had him chained.”

“Such a violent race… yes alright, give me the tray. I’ll bring it down but I won’t unbind him for all the wine in the cellars. He can eat with one hand and stay far away from me.”

“That may be the wisest course of action.”

Bilbo pressed himself flush up against the wall as two elves walked by, one with a tray in his hands and the other with a key. If all of the other dwarves had been moved to their own rooms like Thranduil had promised, then they must have been talking about Thorin. As quietly as he could Bilbo trailed after the pair, making sure not to let his bandaged foot drag on the ground and alert them that they were no longer alone.

He didn’t have to travel far. The cell wasn’t too far from the guard station the two had come out of and was only illuminated by the single lantern that hung on the wall outside. Not even the bioluminescence could properly pierce the black and left most of the cell swathed in darkness. In it somewhere was Thorin. It was a simple enough matter to slip in behind the guard when he unlocked the barred door with the heavy ring of keys on his belt. 

Neither the guard with the food nor the one keeping watch at the door made any attempt to speak and there was no sound from the shadows to indicate that Thorin was there at all. The clatter of the tray being set down on the stone floor was oddly loud and not a moment later both guards were out of the cell and the door had been relocked, trapping Bilbo inside as neatly as you please.

Crouched in the darkest corner as he was, Bilbo dared not move or even breathe until the gate had been shut and locked again behind him and silence returned to the cell. Slowly he slid off the ring and tucked it into his vest pocket again, breathing a sigh of relief as it felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders upon its removal. There had never before existed a more wretched piece of jewelry, he decided. Not until his pocket was safely buttoned again did he scan the cell for its other occupant.

“Thorin?”  

There was no response or movement in the shadows. Bilbo squinted, but it did little to help him see.

“Thorin, it’s dark in here and if I trip over a rock and land on my face I’m not going to be very happy.”

Easing his way to his feet, Bilbo began to feel his way along one of the walls. It was slick with moss and didn’t have very many firm edges for him to hold onto, but it was better than walking blindly and hoping for the best.

Meanwhile, slumped in the corner of the cell with his hair curtained around his face and his wrists hanging limply from the shackles that bound him to the wall, Thorin was trying to convince himself that he was only hearing things. It had been so long since he had been stuck in this pit that he couldn’t say exactly how much time had passed. It was enough that when things were very quiet he would imagine that he could hear the faint voices of his companions drifting down from far above him. No doubt it had only ever been his imagination and now it was playing an even crueler trick on him. Guilt (or even more terrifying, madness) had finally caught up with him and it sounded like Bilbo Baggins.  There hadn’t been any way for him to discover whether the burglar had survived the orc ambush but it was easy to assume the worst since the last he had seen of Bilbo was his broken, bloody form being loaded onto the back of a horse.

"I'm sorry." His voice was rough and sore with disuse.

Bilbo paused, not particularly liking the rusty voice in the dark. He squinted into the corner it had come from but saw nothing. “I don’t know why you would be, it’s not as though you’ve done anything other than get yourself locked up.”

Thorin sucked in a breath and shifted, the chains holding him rattling quietly. "I couldn't stop them, Azog and - I just let it happen and I just - Bilbo I'm sorry."

“You weren’t even there so what could you have done? It’s not as though I blame you for – oh goodness, they really did chain you up, didn’t they? That seems a bit cruel…” Small hands brushed against the manacles around Thorin’s wrists as Bilbo explored them. They were thick, iron shackles connected by a long length of chain that had been looped through a ring further up on the wall. The whole thing made it so that whoever was wearing it could touch the ground if they were sitting, but only if the opposite arm was raised as high as it could go.

The close proximity alerted Thorin that he was not in fact hearing things. The dwarf jolted at the touch before he jerked his head up and opened his eyes. Between the natural ability all dwarves had to see in the dark and his long incarceration, the king had no problem seeing the hobbit crouched in front of him. "Bilbo you're here!”

“Keep your voice down. Of course I’m here, where else would I be?” Bilbo said a little crossly as he tried to ascertain what sort of damage Thorin had managed to do to himself with the chains. His fingers met torn skin and scabs around the manacles but there wasn’t the slipperiness of fresh blood either. That was something. “What have you gotten yourself into, stubborn old dwarf?” His hands trailed away from the chains and instantly got caught by Thorin’s wild mane. “Goodness, your hair is a rat’s nest; I wish I’d thought to get my comb out of my pack.” Bilbo crouched in front of where Thorin was slumped with his back pressed into the corner and tucked the dwarf’s matted, oily hair behind his ears. It was hard to see exactly how bad Thorin looked, but he got enough of an idea. The dwarf’s eyes were sunken and his face looked far too lean. “Your beard has gotten scraggly,” Bilbo tried to tease, brushing his thumbs across the bruises under Thorin’s eyes as if he could fix them by wishing them gone.

He could almost feel Thorin’s gaze on him as the dwarf looked him over. “You’re pale and thin.  They have not been treating you well."

“Thank you, you’re very flattering. They’ve been very kind to me, really. I just had a bit of a bad spell for a little while. I’m better now, truly.” As casually as he could Bilbo shifted his mangled foot behind him so that Thorin couldn’t see the bandages.

“How did you find this place?" Thorin's eyes hardened and he looked to the bars of his cell. "Did he send you here? Is he trying to use you?"

"Thorin! Look at me." The dwarf's face was caught between Bilbo's hands and dragged up until their eyes met. "I snuck out. I wanted to find out where they were keeping you. Calm down."

It took a moment, but Thorin eventually sank back again as the tension left him. “You always were resourceful. I should have guessed as much, but they've told me nothing, and I’ve returned the favor. I don't know what happened to the others since I last saw them in their cells – Fili and Kili – but I'm relieved to see you alive at least. I only hope you have a plan for escaping again, Bilbo. I don't want you to get caught just because of me."

“The others are fine, as far as I know. I spoke with Thranduil and he’s had them all transferred to better rooms. I couldn’t convince him to do the same for you, even with as persuasive as I am.” Using the sleeve of his coat Bilbo tried to scrub away some of the dirt on Thorin’s face, but it seemed to be a hopeless battle. “I don’t think he trusts you. Can’t imagine why.”

"He's afraid." The chains jingled again as the dwarf tried to better situate himself against the damp wall. "I tried to escape once. One of his guards stood close enough that I could reach him and I tried to take his keys. Having his face smashed against the bars upset his head a bit."

"It did - I heard some of the guards talking. Next time you might try asking politely. That's always worked much better for me."

"If that elf has his way I will never leave this dungeon. He will leave me here to rot and my kin along with me."

Thorin's beaky nose was caught in a tight grip and given a hard jerk, making him grunt. "You're being dramatic,” Bilbo sighed. “Nobody is going to rot, I'll have us all out of here before you know it. Although if you look this bad when we do escape I doubt anyone will recognize you."

"How?” The dwarf whispered back nasally. “If you've spoken to that tree-shagger you'll know he won't bargain and there are guards just down the passage at all times." That was part of the reason Thorin was so quiet in addition to the fact that his voice hadn't seen this much use in the better part of a month.

"I'll think of something. Even if I have to shove you in a wine cask and send you down river, we will be getting out of here."

He’d expected a laugh or at least a smile at his little joke, but when Thorin turned his face away worry began to stir in the bottom of Bilbo’s stomach. "Well now, what's all this? I thought you'd be happy to see me." Bilbo's voice was low and soothing as he settled his hand on the back of Thorin's neck and rubbed gently. "There's really no need to fret. Before you know it we'll all be back together again and you'll have your cold, drafty mountain."

"Your presence is...grounding. I just did not think you would be so comfortable coming to find me. Not with the way I've treated you."

"Oh yes, I recall your command not to be 'distracting'. Shall I leave you to yourself so as not to disturb your thoughts? I could always come back again later." Catching hold of one of Thorin's tangled locks, Bilbo began to carefully finger-comb out the knots.

"No! I should have never said that to you."

Instantly Bilbo clapped both of his hands over Thorin's mouth to silence him. "Hush, if you're too loud someone will hear us and then I'll have to leave again. I was only teasing you, I know you didn’t really mean – well yes, you did but I could understand your reasoning."

His voice was stopped, but the stormy eyes still showed regret. With as low as Thorin's spirits had sunk his emotions were raw and he wore it all out in the open. No doubt he would have been mortified to be seen by any of the others in such a state, but they were his subjects and Bilbo was not. There was no need to play king here.

"I'm sorry I made you worry," Bilbo whispered. "I'm sorry. It's horrible down here and I know you're miserable. I'll make it better, I promise. I can still fix this." He leaned forward and pressed their foreheads together, holding there for a moment and trying to soak up the nearness of Thorin. It wasn't safe, it wasn't as private as he would have liked, but it felt wondrously good all the same. The touch was pressed into. It seemed that Thorin needed the comfort and warmth of another being as much as Bilbo wanted this moment. Both of them had been alone for so long now, Thorin stuck with the silence and the dampness and Bilbo in the sterile infirmary that that they needed the distraction and the support of someone familiar.

It was hard to say how long they stayed like that, simply enjoying each other's company. It was probably no more than a few minutes, but it mended the little cuts on Bilbo's soul like a balm. The pain and suffering and loneliness slowly faded until they were simply memories and he could feel Thorin's nose pressed against his, his fingers buried in the king's tangled hair. Eventually though his foot began to protest his awkwardly crouched position and he had to move again. "Let me see what I can do with your hair."

Luckily Thorin submitted easily to the grooming. Quiet murmurs of apology for the state of the long locks went ignored. Bilbo knew that a dwarf's hair was a great pride in their society so to let it get to such a state was probably shameful to the exiled king. Not that there was anything Thorin could have done about it since he had been unwilling to let any of his captors touch him without threatening them. The hobbit wove and untangled as best he could with his fingers, though some of the knots were beyond his talents - only a thorough washing and brush would restore Thorin's hair, but at least he didn't look like he had just spent the last month wallowing in a dungeon. "Now here, look up and I'll wash your face. All I've got is Bofur's pocket as a handkerchief but I imagine it'll do well enough." The edge of the rough piece of cloth was dipped into the water that had been brought on the supper tray and Bilbo began to use it to scrub at the dirt and flecks of blood on Thorin's face and neck.

Most would have been shocked with how compliant the king was being. He lifted his head, turned it this way and that and let Bilbo tend to him without undue protest. Having his hair untangled and his face and neck cleaned did enough for his spirits that he could lean forward again and touch his forehead to Bilbo's again. "Thank you."

In the dark it was easy for Bilbo to feel brave, so it was a simple matter to tilt his head a little bit so that their lips brushed. "You're welcome."

Rather than chase after the whisper of a touch when Bilbo pulled back, Thorin seemed to retreat back into himself again. "I thought you didn't want..."

"I was a bit busy being mad at you, if you recall."

"From before. Before I told you to not be a distraction."

That was right. After their one night together he had done his best to avoid Thorin, thinking that the best course of action was for them not to get attached. Losing Thorin again...it was unthinkable. "I was scared."

Thorin's whole body tensed up and instantly Bilbo knew he’d misspoken. The dwarf's frustration was evident as he grit his teeth and closed his eyes in shame.

"Not of you! Or - or any of what we did! That part was lovely. I was scared of something happening - what if we got distracted because we were carrying on? I'm not exactly dwarven nobility either, I doubt it's appropriate - "

"No one would question you." Thorin rushed to interrupt. "Not in our company. We know your worth; you've more than proven yourself. And they all know that I wouldn’t tolerate anything ill said against you."

"I know, but - it's complicated. It wasn't that I didn't want you." The damp cloth was dropped and Bilbo's hands returned to Thorin's face, curling in the hollows of his cheeks.

"And now?"

"I don't think that there's any danger we need to worry about right now."

There was a short silence between them. "Right now?"

Bilbo's lips returned, pressing soft and hungry against Thorin's jaw. It seemed that he did indeed mean right now.

"Bilbo there are guards!" The dwarf hissed.

"So you had best be quiet if you don't want to get caught," the hobbit whispered back.

The chains rattled as Thorin leaned into his cuffs. "I can't do this chained up. How am I supposed to...?"

The realization that he could do as he pleased and Thorin wouldn't be able to grab him or pin him down was heady and Bilbo hoped that Thorin couldn't see his grin in the dark. The dwarf was far too used to being in charge. "All you have to do is keep quiet. I'll do the rest." In a flash his hands were on the ties of Thorin's tunic, undoing the laces all the way to the bottom until it sagged open and he could bury his hands in the thick, dark hair across the dwarf's chest. Something wild had awakened in him and now it refused to be lulled back to sleep again.

Thorin captivated eyes followed Bilbo’s hands before he managed to shake himself and turned his attention to the bars. "This isn't a good idea."

“I’m not so fat-headed to think all of my ideas are good. But sometimes a bit of bad is good for the spirit.” It took a bit of feeling around, but Bilbo managed to find Thorin’s nipple and began to tease it until it pebbled under his fingers.

"Bilbo..." Thorin swallowed and kept his voice low as he ducked his head. "What if they hear?"

"They won't if you aren't noisy." Warm lips pressed into the hollow of Thorin’s throat and began to trail downwards, across his collar bones one at a time and then down his sternum.

"Don't-!" Raising one arm up Thorin could get the other down in an attempt to grab Bilbo and keep him from getting lower. "I don't trust my own voice. I don't want you to get caught."

"You have better self-control than that; quit trying to pull my hair!" Bilbo hissed, ducking under Thorin's grasping hand and ending up all but sprawled in his lap.

Thorin made a frustrated noise when Bilbo dropped down out of reach. "That doesn't mean we need to test the ears of elves."

There was a sigh from somewhere around the vicinity of Thorin's hip. "Thorin, I've been chewed on, thrown about, nearly crushed, poked, prodded, drugged, and interrogated in the last month. Are you really trying to tell me to leave off right now? Besides, the guardroom had a door. I imagine they probably closed it when they went back," Bilbo murmured, feeling Thorin's muscles relax a little bit beneath his hands as the dwarf gave over. It was so nice to finally be able to touch someone again, even if the situation wasn't exactly ideal.

"I'll keep quiet. Just," Thorin tried to move his legs beneath Bilbo's weight, "don't do anything surprising."

"I can't do that much with you trussed up like that, don't worry." It wasn't hard to push Thorin's legs far enough apart that Bilbo could make a cozy little space for himself between them. It seemed like their jailors had left washing water once in a while, because Thorin didn't smell terrible. Just sort of damp and musky, like the woods after a hard rain. "I missed you."

"Did they tell you I was here?" Thorin’s legs twitched when Bilbo settled between them. "Or did you figure it out on your own?"

"Yes, I missed you too, Bilbo. Thanks for coming all the way down here to make sure that I was alright even though your foot hurt like bollocks, Bilbo," the hobbit grumbled, giving Thorin's side a hard pinch through his unlaced tunic. "Of course, it was no trouble. None at all. I would have done it for anyone."

"Ouch!" Thorin tried to jerk himself away from the pinching fingers. "Of course I missed you and I...I needed you. You'd never let those elves hurt the others no matter your condition and I should have known better than to doubt your own survival."

It wasn't exactly a declaration of undying love, but it did help to settle Bilbo's tousled feathers a little bit. He snorted and rubbed the spot he had pinched. "Thorin, you may be a king but I think that you should let someone else be the diplomat. You're better with a sword than with words." It wasn't hard to lean up and press a kiss to Thorin's bristled chin. "And right now I'd appreciate it if you didn't use them at all for a little while."

Their jailors had stripped him of most of his finery, leaving him in only his loose undershirt, his trousers, and his heavy boots. The boots Bilbo didn’t even bother with – they would take far too long to remove and putting them back on again when he had to make his escape would be a hassle. As his eyes adjusted to the dark it was easier for Bilbo to see the way the dark blue tunic hung loose from Thorin’s shoulders, open from his neck all the way down to his belly. With a sigh of appreciation Bilbo stroked the back of his knuckles down the dwarf’s ribs, familiarizing himself with them all over again. It wasn’t a strenuous task.

The dwarf inhaled deeply and puffed up like a bird putting on a display and Bilbo had to work to hold in his laugh when he felt Thorin rise up under his hands. “You aren’t impressing anybody,” he lied, his amusement evident as he leaned in close again and tickled his way down the dwarf’s sides. This wasn't meant to be a time to worry or fight; right then it was just the two of them and it was a relief that went deeper than the physical being able to laugh and touch and simply bask in each other’s company even if it was only for a short while.

Thorin squirmed under the light touch against his ribs. "Yet your hands continue to explore." The dwarf breathed, a hint of humor in his voice. "You must not be disappointed."

“No, or at least not yet. Give me a minute and then I’ll decide if you still pass muster.” Bilbo made a mental note to look into Thorin’s reaction to having his ribs played with later on. If the dwarf turned out to be ticklish that was definitely something he wanted to explore properly. Sliding down a bit more, Bilbo twisted onto his side between Thorin’s spread legs so that he could keep his weight off his foot and rubbed his nose against Thorin’s hip where it met his pants.

Already the dwarf was hardening and he rolled his hips so Bilbo couldn't ignore that fact. "You won't be," he promised, his very voice dropping from the strained rasp to a husky one.

Since he wouldn't have been disappointed even if Thorin had bow legs and knobbly knees, Bilbo was fairly certain he was right. After all, even though he was very nicely formed as far as dwarves went, hobbits had different standards for what was pleasing. But it was Thorin and that was all that mattered. Thorin with his rough voice and noble intentions. His dedication. History may have changed but some things never would and Bilbo clung to that like a candle in a dark place as he leaned up and caught Thorin's lips in a burning kiss that he wished could go on until he melted into a puddle in the dwarf's lap. Thorin didn't try to add any ferocity to the kiss, only responded and nipped at Bilbo’s lips until he could deepen it. The fire burning between them was only strengthened as they came together and the chains were strained against, making them clatter.

The noise made Bilbo's eyes fly open again and he pulled back. "Don't hurt yourself," he murmured.

Thorin breathed out and his eyes barely fluttered open. "If these chains were gone I would have you properly."

"I don't imagine this is the cleanest place for that, if I must be perfectly honest."

"And still here we are." Thorin had enough room to lean forward and press lips to Bilbo's ear. It was only when the hobbit was sitting up as he was that he could reach, but he would take the chance given.

"I was planning on - ooh, yes, that's lovely. You can keep doing that..." It was almost like being drunk. For so long it seemed that there was only pain and misery to be had, but with Thorin's legs on either side of him and his mouth pressing against the sensitive curve of his ear, Bilbo felt practically intoxicated.

"Shh." Another kiss was pressed against Bilbo’s sensitive lobe before Thorin’s too clever tongue began to trace along the rim. The very tip was caught and gently nibbled. If it had been more private Bilbo would have moaned. If it had been more private he would have gasped and cooed and probably let Thorin continue on until he was breathless and sobbing with the pleasure of having his ears played with. But it wasn't. He couldn't. So with barely a peep Bilbo quickly yanked his head away and slithered back down again, out of reach of Thorin's devilish mouth and chained hands.

"Later," he whispered. There were going to be so many 'laters'...

Thorin leaned as far as the chains allowed as he tried to follow Bilbo's retreat. "If you stole the keys and freed me we wouldn't have to wait."

Bilbo just shook his head as he began to undo the ties of Thorin's pants with shaking hands. There was too much risk of being caught if he attempted that since both guards were awake and would no doubt notice if their keys went walking. “I’m a burglar, not a thief. We’ll just have to go without for now.”

With a heavy sigh Thorin leaned back against the mossy wall and turned his eyes up. He didn't need to watch to know exactly what Bilbo was doing. As the ties were loosened the pressure grew more bearable until the hobbit released him from his trousers. Already a half full erection rose eagerly for attention from the equally excited fingers that had struggled with the laces.

There was too little time to properly admire Thorin’s thick length as it pressed greedily into his hands. The guards could return at any moment and every second was one more stolen. Rather than giving the chained dwarf the attention he deserved, Bilbo quickly leaned forward and swallowed up the tip of him, lapping away at his slit and the salty musk he found there.

There was no stopping Thorin’s quiet groan and Bilbo's warm mouth and soft, tantalizing tongue were almost the cause of their discovery as the dwarf fought to contain his gasps and cries. Soon enough his breath was coming quicker, the tip of his cock beginning to ooze precum as the stimulation continued. "Bilbo...ah..."

"Shh," the hobbit cautioned him before he hooked his fingers in the tops of Thorins’ trousers and urged his hips up so that he could tug them lower, exposing the king down to his knees. The stone was cold against bare skin, but being chained up kept Thorin from protesting against the further removal of his clothes. He still grunted quietly to show his displeasure. "Why did you do that?"

"When I say 'shh', that does not mean 'start talking'," Bilbo snapped. "If I have to tell you again I'm going to have to go and leave you with your pants down. They'll come back at this rate and I don't fancy being locked up next door." It was an effective threat – the idea of being discovered by elves in such a vulnerable position was enough to make Thorin’s mouth shut with a snap.

When there was no forthcoming reply Bilbo allowed himself a small smile of victory before he lowered his head and began to trace the thickest vein of Thorin's shaft with his tongue. Bossing Thorin around was usually about as successful as using one's head to smash through a stone wall, but once in a while logic could win him over and Bilbo was able to bend the dwarf to his will. Of course Thorin would never admit to being beaten. He refused to look as Bilbo returned to licking contently at the hot flesh of his erection. Instead he worked his jaw and seemed content to concentrate on simply breathing.

From down the hall came the sound of laughter from the guardroom. Every bit of Bilbo's sensible Baggins side was shouting that this was a Spectacularly Bad Idea, but when Thorin rolled his hips forward in a mute plea for more there was no way that he could deny him. It was so easy to soften his throat and let Thorin thrust into his willing mouth. The dwarf happily took the opportunity. From the way his muscles were tight and trembling Bilbo knew he was trying not to lose control, but Thorin couldn't help trusting into the delicious warmth.

‘Greedy’ Bilbo thought to himself as he pulled back a bit so as not to choke, but there was no real ire behind it. It wasn’t Thorin’s fault that he was a built a bit more liberally than most hobbits, so Bilbo simply hummed in encouragement and glanced up through his curly hair at Thorin, enjoying the multitude of expressions that were passing across his face in rapid succession. A particularly hard suck made the dwarf’s jaw tighten and whenever Bilbo pulled back to swirl his tongue across the tip Thorin looked practically rapturous. Biting his lips and gasping like a drowning man seemed to be the only things keeping Thorin from moaning out loud. He huffed when Bilbo lowered his head again and sucked hard all the way back up to the tip, the warmth and the pressure already beginning to overwhelm him.

The salty taste of precum was filling Bilbo's mouth and when he pulled back to breathe a sticky drop of it clung to his bottom lip. It wasn't his favorite flavor by far, but it was something he knew he could come to crave if this was what it was associated with. It was addicting seeing Thorin choke back his pleasure like this. A small, wicked voice began to wonder just how far he could push the king before he broke. The chains clicked and jingled as Thorin pulled them - the dwarf wanted nothing more than to be free in that moment to give Bilbo a reason to cry out. Bilbo doubted Thorin had ever had hold back like this or been put in such a helpless position before, and maybe it was cruel but he couldn’t help but enjoy it.

"You're so handsome." The words slipped out unbidden, but were true nonetheless. Even when ragged and gaunt from imprisonment Thorin was striking. Sweat gleamed as it trailed down the side of his neck, tracing the tendons there before coming to rest in the hollows of his collarbone. Bilbo's mouth watered to lick it away but his foot was already protesting how much he had shifted about and he knew that it wasn't a good idea to test it. Instead he pillowed his head on Thorin's thigh and let both of his hands run down their inside until he could cup the dwarf's sac, massaging it with skillful hands. Thorin convulsed under his hands, although whether he was shying away from the praise or the new touch was unclear. He was weak. Dirty. Chained. Hardly the state for a proper king, but that didn’t seem to matter when Bilbo was touching him. Even the phantom touches left from Bilbo's mouth were enough as he let go of a breathy sigh as cum shot from the red tip of his cock and splashed across Bilbo’s startled face.

"Oh!" Bilbo jolted and instantly clapped a hand over his mouth to silence his exclamation, glancing worriedly towards the bars. There was nothing, but his heart continued to race as he used his sleeve to wipe the cum off his face and out of his hair. "Give a lad a bit of warning, would you?" He shouldn’t have been surprised though. After all, Thorin had been locked up and alone for so long that it was surprising he’d lasted as long as this. His ego was probably smarting though.

The look Thorin gave his companion was only tempered by his post orgasm-haze. The both of them were a mess thanks to his copious spendings and the dwarf couldn't say one word on it thanks to Bilbo’s threat of leaving him exposed for the guards to find.

"Fine, you can talk. Just don't be too loud or else..." The promise hung between them as Bilbo finished cleaning up his face and shifted uncomfortably, the combination of his own erection that was trapped behind the laces of his pants and the weight on his leg conspiring against him.

"How was I supposed to warn you? I can't say I'm used to that sort of treatment." Thorin’s voice was rusty, as if his imposed silence had rubbed it completely raw.

"Are you complaining? Truly?"

"No, you asked!" Thorin hissed. "I wasn't complaining, just…" He made a helpless gesture with his chained hands.

"So sorry your majesty, was my touch not reverent enough? Let me try again and I'll give a better reckoning of myself..." As if he could let a comment like that go uncontested. Although Thorin must have still been oversensitive from his release, Bilbo's hands returned to his half-hard cock and began a slow, firm pump that he knew would drive Thorin up the wall he was leaning against. Instantly Thorin dug the heels of his boots dug into the floor as he tried to push away from the over-stimulation.

"Better?" Bilbo asked, wickedness in his voice as he worked the frantic king. He was going to pay for this later but it was impossible to resist when Thorin was writhing in front of him.

The dwarf was still whispering when he opened his mouth again, which was a miracle in and of itself, but it was much higher pitched. "I wasn't complaining...before."

"Mmm, is that so? Well, then I'm sure you won't mind if I'm not quite finished yet." His jaw was sore from the rough treatment earlier, so he laved his attention on Thorin's meltingly soft tip instead, licking and suckling away the last traces of his release. He wasn’t what he would consider ‘experienced’ when it came to such an action since most of his lovers later in his life had been lady hobbits, but the theory never changed that much. The pursuit of pleasure was a worthy effort and all it took was knowing where to press his tongue, how hard to suck and just when to lift his head so Thorin couldn't push further in.

The dwarf would probably be sore later but the near painful pleasure was so intense that a quiet moan escaped and Thorin was so lost he didn't even seem to notice. This time he wasn't hushed because Bilbo was just as consumed. One of Thorin's legs was pressed flush against his back where he was sprawled between them, the desperation and lust infecting him like a poison. His mouth was hot and wild, working as feverishly as his hands to bring Thorin to the edge again. Stormy blue eyes locked with devious brown in a battle of wills and Bilbo reached up and slipped two of his fingers into his mouth alongside Thorin's shaft, licking them until they were drenched. Thorin didn’t notice.

Or rather, he didn’t notice them until Bilbo was pushing them between his splayed legs, between his buttocks, pushing them against his hole. They were warm and slippery with spit, the caress firm and insistent until Bilbo finally pushed one of them inside of him up to the knuckle.

With the air between them hot with passion Thorin only half registered the press at first. When the first finger pressed in he gasped and tried to dig into the ground with his heels again to get away, but with the way they were tangled he was trapped. There was a hint of distress that passed through his expression, uncertainty, before the attentions of Bilbo's talented tongue wiped it away. Clearly Bilbo was determined to push him all the way to the edge of insanity because that finger began to curl, pressing against him and up, rubbing against him in the most invasive, intimate way possible. "Say when," Bilbo murmured against his cock.

"Mahal's hammer...When what?” Thorin shuddered, pulling hard at his manacles with his hands wrapped around the chains so that the metal wouldn’t savage his wrists. Bilbo knew the exact moment he touched the right place inside his lover. The look on his face was a ferocious mixture of the pleasure and shock when he was forced to a second orgasm too close to the previous one to have been allowed enough time to completely recover. This time Bilbo was ready for it, thankfully. He swallowed Thorin's release, milking him for every last drop and not letting up on his relentless assault on the dwarf's overstimulated senses until he was gasping and boneless.

Later this ordeal could be reflected on and Thorin could reason out that it was payback. The time he'd spent with Bilbo in Beorn's he'd done nearly this exact thing to his companion. He'd pulled the smaller male to the edge and then dragged him well beyond it until he was incoherent. As if was, when his gasps and breathing started to get too loud he tried to squeeze Bilbo with his legs, to pull back, to do anything to just make the touches stop. His softening cock fell from Bilbo's lips with a wet popping noise and the hobbit finally pulled his finger back and reached up to rub his sore jaw, looking like the fox that had gotten into the hen house.

“Now that was much better.”

Thorin looked like he’d been run over by a heard of ponies. The chained dwarf was exhausted - his head had dropped forward and his eyelids were already starting to close as his mind drifted, trying to take him to sleep so he could recover.

“Someone probably heard us, I should go. I’ll be back soon and have you out of here before you can say ‘tea time’.”

"You have a plan?" Although fatigue was making it difficult to concentrate, Thorin wasn't so far gone that he couldn't still whisper back. He wanted more than anything to be free of this cell and to continue on to the mountain and hadn't had any other hint of hope save this since his capture.

“Most of one.” It took a fair bit of urging, but Bilbo managed to get Thorin to lift his hips up again so that he could refasten the king’s trousers. “Just try not to cause any more trouble, okay?”

"I make no promises." Thorin was too tired to be defensive about Bilbo touching him and easily gave in and was redressed.

"Just don't hit - " Bilbo froze in the act of relacing Thorin's tunic, his eyes wide like a deer as the sound of voices drifted down the dungeon hallway to them.

"I'm certain I heard another voice."

"Don't be foolish, who in their right mind would descend to this level? We would have seen them walk by the door."

"I understand, but I think that we should make our rounds all the same."

Bilbo's eyes met Thorin's. "Good bye," he whispered.

"Don't get caught."

"I won't, I'll be back before you know it."

A gentle kiss was pressed against the corner of Thorin’s lax mouth - the same as had been done all those weeks ago back in the thieves’ den and then Bilbo was gone as if he had never been.

 

__________________________________

“Miss Tauriel?”

“What?” The captain snapped, spinning on the heel of her boot, ready to rip into whoever thought to interrupt her on her way back to her quarters. All she wanted right now was a long bath and a fresh uniform so that she could get back to work. Her time with the brothers had been pleasant and more than a little amusing, but now she was ready to work out the ache in her back and get back to work. Or at least until she saw the Halfling standing directly behind her.

“Master Baggins. I was under the impression that you were confined to your room.” How had he gotten past the guards anyway? Forget about doubling their daily exercises, she was going to triple them for this.

“And I was under the impression that I was a guest rather than a prisoner. I simply took a short walk through the halls to ease the ache in my leg. It’s good for the health, you know. Walking.” The Halfling’s expression was mild as he nodded at his bandaged foot. Tauriel instantly knew she wasn’t being told the entire story, but she could hardly pick up the hobbit and shake or threaten it out of him. Mister Baggins was indeed a guest and Thranduil wouldn’t take well to being told that his captain was assaulting the Twice-Born.

“Indeed. Might I escort you back to your room if you are finished with your ‘walk’?”

“That would be marvelous, thank you. Tell me Miss Tauriel, are you well acquainted with the prince of this kingdom?” The hobbit was limping more than a little bit as they walked but Tauriel didn’t offer him her hand. They all had their pride.

“Prince Legolas and I are very familiar. I would consider him my closest friend.” There couldn’t be any harm in that tidbit of information. It was common knowledge that she and Legolas had always favored each other’s company.

“Good! You see, I was having a bit of a think and I remembered something that might interest you about him.”

Tauriel stopped, her brow furrowed. “That might interest me?” She repeated.

The Halfling nodded, a crafty look about him that made Tauriel feel like she was being left out of a private joke. “Oh yes. I mean, it hasn’t happened yet and you probably shouldn’t tell him about it, but I think you would find it rather amusing.”

“Do tell, Master Baggins.” Now her interest had been caught.

“That’s just the thing though – I’m in a bit of a bind what with all of these dwarves I’ve been traveling with being locked up. It seems counterproductive to just go blurting out secrets without expecting anything in return.”

“I’m not the one you need to bargain with for favors. Thranduil has control over your company, not me.” Of course he wanted something.

“No, but I think that you could be more than a little bit helpful and you wouldn’t even be betraying the order of your king.” Bilbo’s smile grew. “It’s a very good secret.”  

Tauriel glanced back the way she had come. “Fine. Tell me your secret, Twice-Born.”   

Chapter Text

“Don’t put my beads in your mouth, darling. They can’t taste very good.”

“Aye, there are much tastier things to stick in there.”

“Thrain!”

“What love, he’s too young to understand.”

“You’d be surprised what young ears pick up. Hold him for a moment so I can get that thing out of his mouth before he swallows it.”

Namad?

A great black beard run through with gray filled his vision and a dwarf who had always seemed as vast as the mountain itself.

Adad?

“Up we go! Look at this handsome lad - smile for you Ada, there we are! He’s got your smile, Fris.”

“Thank goodness he doesn’t have yours or I might mistake him for a bear cub.”

“Oh no, I’m the only bear here and I’m going to eat up my lovely wife!”

“Thrain! Stop that at once, you’ll drop Thorin.”

This – this can’t be - you’re–

There was the taste of copper in his mouth and he tried to spit it out but his body didn’t seem to be listening to him. All he could do was watch as a pair of golden eyes appeared in the dark depths of Thrain’s bead and a raven pushed its way out of the dwarf’s chest, staring at him while his parents laughed together, unaware that anything was wrong.

“Dead!” It croaked at him. “They’re dead! You’re dead! You’ll all be dead!”

I’m not! Not yet!

The raven cawed at him as it spread its wings. “Not yet. Beware, son of Thrain!”

Beware what? What’s happening? Tell me!

“Beware! There are worse things than dragons in your cursed mountain. Beware the blue knife and the dragon’s fire for they shall ride together!”

The copper bead in his mouth melted and poured down his throat, as hot as if it was molten and sought to burn him alive from the inside out. The raven’s laughter echoed in his ears and he tried to shut his eyes and block it out, but Thrain’s hands tightened on his sides and his father’s skin crawled. Every inch of him exploded with black feathers and a hundred black ravens peeled off of him, shredding armor and skin and destroying everything that had been the great prince even as Thorin struggled to do something. Anything. He was trapped in this nightmare though, held fast as gentle hands became twisted claws.

Adad! Adad, no!

The last raven took flight and Thorin started to shake as Smaug gazed down at him, bloodied teeth bared in a twisted parody of a smile. His hide gleamed with rubies and coins and they fell around him in a golden rain.

“Beware the dragon’s fire, ha!” He roared, his voice so loud and terrible that Thorin thought his ears would bleed from it. “I took it once and now it will be mine forever!”

Namad, run! Run! Smaug is here!

Vris had her back to Thorin and Smaug, dressed in royal blue with her long black hair done up in the elaborate rings Thorin remembered her putting in before they would go to sit in court. When she turned everything seemed to slow. Even the fire in his chest faded as he looked upon her blackened, charred visage and the empty eye sockets that were still smoking.

“Be brave, my treasure.”

Thorin screamed as Vris dissolved into ashes and Smaug’s mouth opened up and swallowed him whole.

The darkness came as a relief.

__________________________________

Shhh…

Once when they had been much younger he and Frerin had escaped from their lessons and gone wandering about on the slopes of the mountain. Too young for their stone sense to tell them where was safe to walk, Frerin had gotten himself stranded up on a patch of loose gravel and Thorin had been the one to go up to fetch him back down again. He’d only made it halfway before the stones had gone out from under his feet and sent him tumbling back down, right into a boulder. Frerin had gotten a nice scratch down his cheekbone and torn up palms when he’d come running after. Thorin had broken his collarbone and been stuck in bed for the entire next week. When they’d both recovered Vris had beaten them both within an inch of their lives for worrying her so much.

This hurt a lot more than a broken collar bone or his mother’s wooden spoon.

Shhh…

Blue eyes slowly opened and Thorin regarded the bright cloudless sky with bemusement. When was the last time he’d heard the wind in the grass like this? It seemed like a very long time ago. If this was a dream he liked it much more than the last one – there was a distinct lack of dragons for one thing. The sun felt like the warmth kiss on his face and he sighed, letting his eyes shut again so that he could enjoy it a little longer before he awoke in chains again.

“Oi, don’t be driftin’ off you lay-about.” A hard finger poked him in the side and Thorin made a face.

“Go away you fat arse, I’m sleeping.”

“No you aren’t, I saw you open your eyes and I’m bored of sittin’ here playing nursemaid.”

Thorin opened his eyes again and leveled Dwalin with as much of a glare as he could manage with the sun shining right in his eyes. “Looks like I’ve really gone mad if I’m dreaming about your ugly face.”

“Look who’s talkin’! You look like a warg drug you through a cow field by your hair.” Dwalin was sitting next to him, braiding together a couple of pieces of brown grass into a war knot. He had his knuckle dusters on and his axes lay next to him and the dwarf seemed healthy enough with the exception of the colorful bruise on his cheekbone and the general gauntness of his face.

Clearly not a dream, but for some reason he had no memory about how he’d come to be lying in the grass with his coat over his legs and what felt like a bedroll pillowing his head. A bird flew by overhead, something small and brown. Thorin watched it until it was out of sight.

“Do you remember the blue dress?” He asked quietly.

“Vris’ blue dress?”

Thorin nodded, trying not to aggravate the headache that he could feel lurking behind his eyes and in his temples.

“Yeah,” Dwalin sighed, dropping his grass knot and leaning back on his hands. “Thought she was th’ prettiest thing in the mountain when she’d wear it to court. Think half the mountain was in love with your mum.”

“I was dreaming about - shit.” As quickly as he could Thorin rolled over onto his hands and knees and was quietly sick into the grass. His stomach didn’t seem to care that it was completely empty and there was nothing left to lose - it twisted like all of his guts had turned into biting, toxic cobras. Dwalin came over and silently held his hair away from his face. When he finally managed to stop heaving he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. It came away crimson.

“What happened?” He breathed as he sat back, staring at the stain.

Dwalin let go of his hair and gave his back a soft pat before he settled back on his heels. “We made it out. Mostly thanks to your hobbit, but most of the lads ain’t too pleased with how he managed it. He gave me this when I said so.” He tapped the bruise on his cheekbone.

“Bilbo hit you?” Thorin’s nausea was momentarily forgotten.

“Yeah, got right up on his toes and popped me a good one. Think he was aiming for my eye but couldn’t get up high enough to make it. Anyway, figured watching o’er you until he simmered down was probably best so he didn’t go after me with his little pig sticker of a sword. Or those needles.”

Thorin’s stomach tried to rebel again but he grit his teeth and forced it down, looking around to try to distract himself from how terrible he felt. The rest of the company was spread out in the dead grass. Some were napping while others were talking quietly or going through their packs. Just a short way away from where they were all gathered was a fast-flowing river with rocky shores and beyond that…It could only be Lake-Town, sitting on stilts out in the lake like a mangy half-dead water bird that hadn’t seen a good meal in many a year. “And how exactly did he manage it?” He asked slowly, eyes trailing up from the town to what he knew lay beyond it.

Erebor.

A bolt of longing and dread shot down his spine and made him shiver.

Beware the blue knife and the dragon’s fire…

“Sorry, what?” Dwalin had started to talk and he’d missed everything, too lost in his own thoughts to notice that he was being addressed.

Dwalin shook his grey head and gestured towards the mountain. “Seems so close, but I don’t remember feelin’ this way before. Like there’s something hangin’ o’er it.”

“Like a curse.”

“I don’t believe in curses. Babe stories if you ask me. But there’s somethin’ off and I don’t like it.”

"A dragon slumbers amongst our gold. Perhaps that is what bothers you."

"Might be. And t' think - I'd finally stopped dreaming about fire and now we're headin' right back again! Bunch’a fools we are...at least we're outta the dungeon, eh?" He nudged Thorin with his elbow. "Forgot how good fresh air smells."

Thorin’s stomach churned, but the burn wasn't enough to send him back to the grass. Instead he winced and lowered his head, refusing to let Dwalin see his weakness. "Great beings are always called fools before they are recognized. What we are doing will matter. We will…we will have our home back."

"Breathe, you idiot. Got to get that poison outta you before we get anythin' back. Some king you'd make, getting your throne back and pukin' blood all o'er it first thing.”

"Poison?"

"Oh, right. I was tellin' you about that. That's how Bilbo got you out." Dwalin nodded his head back behind him. There was Bilbo, looking frazzled and more than a little upset as he spoke with three mounted elves on white horses. He was wearing a pair of tall black boots that looked very strange with his short pants and his coat was sopping wet. The hobbit was making some wild gestures and at least two of the elves looked like they were trying not to laugh at him.

The king's mind, clouded as it was, took a few extra seconds to process that information. When he finally felt the full effect of what Dwalin said his body tensed and he turned to look at the floundering hobbit. "He poisoned me? How?!" Bilbo could have killed him. He hadn't even given any sort of warning!

"Not quite sure, he won't talk to anyone about it. Balin had a fit when he found out what was happenin'. I've never seen him so made before. All I know is he somehow managed to talk that elf bastard into lettin' us walk free. Not you though. Think he wanted to keep you locked up until everyone forgot you were ever alive." Dwalin stuck a piece of grass in the corner of his mouth and chewed on it for a minute before spitting it out again. "Bloody mess if you ask me."

Before Thorin could say more he started to cough and bent over, arms wrapped tightly around his middle until the nausea passed. He wouldn't put it passed Thranduil to keep him locked away, but he'd gone from the darkness to this grassy hill and that was a lot of time in between. The king hated losing time. "He poisoned me. He didn't tell me - I need to know what he was thinking." Thorin tried to get his feet under him, to rise so he could confront their burglar.

"Oi! Oin made you up something nasty and got it down you - said it would help, but I don't think rushin' around is goin' t' help much. Sit yer arse down." A quick jerk on his sleeve had Thorin toppling over again. "You're gonna get me in trouble too if you keep that up."

Sitting next to him was not just a guard. It was Dwalin, his friend, his shield brother. Dwalin who had been punched by a hobbit for his sake and who sat over him now to keep him safe. Bilbo's temper was not to be underestimated and still here Dwalin sat. Thorin didn't try to move again, too proud to ask for support when his vision swam, but not so much so to ignore that he was sick. "Next time I throw up it's going to be on you."

"Wouldn't expect anythin' less, but you should also know that if you do I'm makin’ you eat it."

Thorin allowed himself a smile and nudged his friend. "I'm poisoned. You would do more damage?"

"I'd punch you in the sack if it'd keep you from hurtin' yourself more, idiot."

Since it was coming from Dwalin it was easy for Thorin to stay calm under the verbal threat. He did turn away when he thought he was about to be sick again, but after swallowing the urge he breathed out shakily. His sights were still set on Bilbo again, his mind racing with questions and his anger and betrayal quickly crowding out logical thinking. "What else happened?"

Dwalin pulled on his beard, looking uncomfortable. "Well, what were we supposed to do? No one much liked it, but they sent us off with those three over there and all our gear too. Bofur noticed that Bilbo made himself scarce while we were gettin' everythin' ready t' go and then we were off. We'd planned t' give 'em the slip part way and come back for you," he added.

"And then when he reappeared I came with him?"

"Not really," Dwalin hedged, now not even looking at Thorin. "There was a bit of a commotion and we left before we could figure out what was goin' on. Your hobbit rode up with one of them," he jerked his head at the three elves, one of whom had dismounted and was shaking Bilbo's hand. "Anyway, your two boys just about had a fit, thinkin' we'd left you behind on purpose. After we got far enough away I dragged the burglar off the horse and gave him a bit of a shake. That's when he hit me and showed me that you'd been wrapped up in one of the bedrolls."

"What?!"

"I said the same."

Thorin knew he was getting too worked up for his condition, but he pressed on. "What deal did he make with the elves?"

"I dunno. Nobody does - he won't say. But judgin' by how you were wrapped up I'm guessin' Thranduil wasn't really on board with it."

Thorin's expression said it all. Even if he was still choking on his own blood. A glance at Dwalin sidetracked his plans for interrogation, however. "What else is wrong?" His friend had a look about him, like he was embarrassed.

"You mean other than you heavin' up your own guts?"

"You said Oin treated me."

"Well, mostly. You'll probably be tender for a bit accordin' to Nori since he made the stuff." Dwalin looked down at his hands and started to play with his knuckle dusters. "I should've had your back though. Never should have left you there even for a minute."

Of course Nori had something to do with the poison. "The elves outnumbered us. They dragged us away when we were weakened and intentionally separated us. I don't blame you, Dwalin."

The dwarf grunted, clearly not convinced. "I just want to know why they didn't come after us. It's been hours, they've gotta know you're gone by now. I know the hobbit was in thick with the doc, but still..."

"We'll question him when he sees fit to grace us with his presence again."

"Oh see, now you're mad and I just know you're goin' t' take it out on the poor bugger."

"He poisoned me."

The warrior mulled that over for a second, picking and dropping more grass. "Yeah, I guess he did."

"You're not angry anymore?"

"I am, but there's not much to do about it, eh? Gloin already tried to dump in the river and he came right out again and shouted a fair bit before goin' off over with that lot." Even as they watched the elf remounted again and the three of them turned their horses and disappeared back into Mirkwood.

At least the elves were gone – that was something. "We're moving." Thorin breathed. "We need to get away from the woods and then we'll question the hobbit."

"You sure you aren't going to start hackin' up blood again if you try t' get up? I can just bring him o'er here instead." Dwalin stood with a groan and pressed both hands to his back. "I'm gettin' too old for this."

"Help me up. I need to be able to walk to get to the mountain."

"Nah, we'll just carry you all the way, what with you bein' royalty and all. Ori can find some rose petals t' throw about."

"Dwalin."

"Okay okay, give me your arm."

Together they managed to get Thorin to his feet. His heavy coat fell off his legs and into the grass. A couple of the company members looked over and seemed cheered to see Thorin upright again; Balin beamed and Ori waved from where he was leaning on Dori. Thorin only groaned and had to swallow thickly to avoid living up to his threat of throwing up on his friend. "We need to move. I want everyone gathered and supplies accounted for before we decide what to do."

“And what about him?”

Thorin wiped his mouth and watched as Bilbo picked his way through the grass and back to Bofur’s side. The miner slung an arm around the hobbit’s soggy shoulders and gave him a squeeze before winding Bilbo’s entire head up in his multicolored scarf. Thorin assured himself that it was simply the residual poison making him feel sick, nothing else. The burn in his guts suddenly felt much more personal though.    

"I will deal with him - I want to know what he bargained with to free us. Then we’ll decide on our next move. If we have the means we're moving straight on to the mountain. If not we'll need to go into Lake-Town to resupply."

"They'll probably have a boat or two that we can use o’er there. That'll be the fastest way t’ get where we’re goin’."

Given his state Thorin would concede to having a slight lack of judgment. There was no telling how long it would be until he could walk without support either. "Fine, we’ll go pay a call on the humans. I'll need your voice to get the others moving."

Dwalin nodded. "We’ll get a list started of what we have left. I'd not be surprised if those bastards didn't return quite everything. I doubt many tears would’ve been shed if we ended up a meal for spiders before we made it out again."

"There aren’t spiders here." Thorin started shifting his weight, testing to see if he could support himself and remove the burden from Dwalin. "And we’ll be gone before anything else decides to come looking."

"A'right, best get started. Sit down before you fall down, idiot. I'll send the burglar o'er and get everyone else movin'."

"I'm already standing, I might as well walk."

Dwalin's eyebrows shot up and he let go of Thorin's arm. "Go on then, walk."

Thorin kept his feet under himself for a few seconds before he sunk back down to the grass. It was as dignified as he could manage and at least he didn't fall over, but the pain it caused almost wasn't worth it.

"Told you," Dwalin said smugly.

"Just get going."

__________________________________

“ – but I really think that was taking things a bit far!”

Bofur nodded in sympathy and pulled his pipe out of one of the inside pockets of his coat. “They may’ve overreacted a bit, but you can hardly blame ‘em.”

“I can and I will!” Bilbo replied hotly, sinking a bit lower and using the end of Bofur’s scarf to try to dry off his hair a little. “I’ve gotten everyone out mostly whole and all I get in return is shaken, shouted at, and dumped in a freezing cold river! Thank you for helping me out, by the way,” he added as an afterthought. Somehow he’d been under the delusion that he would be able to make it all the way to Lake-Town without ending up soaked to the bone. What a happy thought that had been.

“T’was wrong of the lads t’ do that an’ most of us know it. They’re just a bit overprotective. We’ve only got one king, you know, and you’ve made him go and spit up most of his insides.” A curl of smoke went up from the bowl of Bofur’s pipe as he lit it with a match and then passed it to Bilbo. The hobbit accepted it gratefully, needing the calming smoke it in the worst sort of way.

“I couldn’t think of anything else,” he said miserably. “I know it was a terrible idea, but Nori said that needle wouldn’t kill him so I figured it was worth a shot. Thranduil wasn’t going to let him go willingly.”

“Aye, I’m surprised he was goin’ t’ let any of us go. You’ve got a silver tongue when you put your mind to it if you managed to talk him into that.”

“Hopefully I can use it again to keep Dwalin from throttling me in my – “

“None of that, Halfling,” a rumbling voice said from behind him and Bilbo instantly swallowed a mouthful of pipe smoke and started to gag.

Bofur’s mitten-clad hand pounded him on the back and he dimly heard his friend telling Dwalin to quit sneaking up on people and to ‘give the poor blighter a break’.  

“I’ll give him a break when he deserves one. Come on, his majesty wants words. Not you,” he added when Bofur began to scramble up.

“It’s fine.” Bilbo tried to sound reassuring when Bofur looked like he wanted to argue. “He’s too far away from the river to throw me in. I’ll just be a minute.” It was too bad he didn’t actually feel as confident as he acted. The last thing he wanted right now was to fight with Thorin. In fact he would have been perfectly happy to find a hole in the ground and hide in it until he was certain the king wouldn’t try to run him through with Orcrist. “Might I hold onto this for a minute?” He raised the pipe.

“Aye, it’s all yours.” Bofur slowly sat back down, looking like a dog who had been given a swat and wasn’t sure what to do about it.  

“Thanks, I’ll be right back after I give ‘his majesty’ a piece of my mind. Don’t touch me,” he snapped when Dwalin started to take his elbow. “I’m not one of you, nor am I a child. I can find my own way.” Clamping the stem of Bofur’s pipe firmly between his teeth Bilbo set off across the grass with the guardsman on his heels. When he saw Thorin turn his head and spit a mouthful of blood out on the grass he did his best not to turn right around again and run back to Bofur’s comforting side.

The king’s frown was set deeply and judging by the way he refused to look up showed exactly how much he loathed not being able to stand on his own.

At least he can’t loom over me, Bilbo thought, winding one of his hands into Bofur’s ugly scarf. Not that Thorin was any less intimidating while he was sitting.

"Sit down, Bilbo. Dwalin, make sure the others are going to be ready when I'm finished."

Bilbo tried his best not to look at the red that stained Thorin’s shirtfront and sleeves and the flecks of it on his lips. He’d done his best to make sure that the king had been comfortable when he’d been loaded onto the back of Haldir’s horse, but there had only been so much he’d been able to do. His worst fear, what had kept him constantly checking to make sure that Thorin still breathed, was that the dwarf would choke to death on his own blood while they rode. He looked down at the toes of his black boots as he sat, waiting. He would defend what he had done, but that didn’t mean he’d done the right thing.

It took a moment of silent assurances between the three before Dwalin seemed convinced that his king wasn't going to beat the hobbit and left to organize the rest of the company. Only once he was out of earshot did Thorin start his questioning. "I can't remember you returning to my cell, but it has already been confirmed that you poisoned me. The company was allowed to leave and given no explanation why. Tell me what you gave those elves and why you felt it was necessary to almost kill me without telling me first."

“Technically I don’t have to tell you anything since I’m not one of your subjects,” Bilbo pointed out, pulling the pipe out of his mouth for a moment so that he could speak properly. Both of them were treading on very thin ice – Thorin’s temper and Bilbo’s secrets never seemed to mesh well.  

"Then how am I supposed to know I can trust you? We both know Thranduil planned to keep me locked away as long as he could and now I find myself unshackled. Because of you."

He’d known this was coming, but that didn’t stop the spear of pain that struck Bilbo right through his chest. Secrets hurt, and sometimes they hurt the keeper most of all. He hoped what he was feeling didn’t show on his face and did his best to hide it by taking another puff on his borrowed pipe.

“Have I not done enough up to now to have earned that trust?”

"I don't trust the company you chose to work with. You’ve told nothing to your companions, to those you expect to trust you. We've kept no secrets from you."

Bilbo couldn’t stop his wince. “No, you’ve all been very hospitable,” he admitted. “Truth be told, you feel more like my family now than my actual blood relations.”

"Then tell me." Thorin urged.

“I – I knew something. Something Thranduil didn’t. He let us go because I blackmailed him and that’s all there is to it. I’m not proud of it, but I did what I felt I had to so that we could be free. I would never betray you.” Thranduil knew of Thorin’s quest, this was true, but Bilbo didn’t think that knowledge would have changed anything. The elf king was old and wise and had probably guessed why they were passing through the moment they’d fallen into his hands.

Bilbo knew he was being too vague and Thorin's temper wouldn't allow for that. "You knew something? And you won’t tell me what that thing is? You continue to hide things from me!" The exiled king accused. "It can’t be unimportant if you won’t even tell those you claim as friends. This is your last chance burglar."

“My last chance?” Bilbo repeated. “Until what? Until you send me away? Send me home? Or will you just dump me in the river like Gloin did and hope that this time someone doesn’t drag me out?”

The dwarf pressed a hand to his chest and looked away. "We're going to Lake-Town." His voice was strained. "Make sure you're ready to travel."

The hobbit sat, frozen in place with the pipe held loosely in his hand. “That’s it? Is that really all?”   

"Until you're honest with me, yes. Just get your story straight before - before we move on. Your stubborn streak does not mean the rest of the company should have to sit out here when we could be getting proper food and beds in Lake-Town."

Lost for words for the first time in a long while, Bilbo could only nod. Honesty was the one thing he couldn’t give to Thorin, not the kind he wanted. The king could never understand why he did what he did, what drove him. That Bilbo would give up everything to keep him alive and happy. The hobbit climbed to his feet and scuffed his boots in a patch of dirt for a second, but no sudden inspiration or witty reply came to him. He took in Thorin’s pale, stormy face and knew he had lost this battle and maybe Thorin’s trust along with it.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry. I wish I’d been able to come up with a better plan. I didn’t want to hurt you.”

Thorin didn’t look at him. "Get out of my sight, burglar."

Bilbo left. It was either that or crumble. 

Chapter Text

“Your Majesty?”

No one moved. Few dared to breathe. There were no whispers in the court of the elven king.

Long, pale fingertips pressed lightly against Thranduil’s forehead. He had bowed his head ever so slightly and his eyes were shut. It was almost a pose of supplication – he prayed for patience and composure, two things he had always prided himself on. Right now they were being sorely tested and to lose his temper in front of his subjects was unreasonable. His wrath was saved for very special occasions, usually saved for when he was alone and there was no one nearby to hear him, and as of yet he had not decided if this was one of them.

“Explain,” he said, voice barely more than a whisper, but everyone in the room heard him all the same. They hung on his words for they decided the fate of the kingdom.

Two guards who routinely patrolled the long halls stood in front of the dais. Haedirn stood in front. More than once Thranduil had spoken to her as she stood watch at the gate to the outside or at the doors to the court or armory. She was competent and brave, her eye known as one of the sharpest in the forest. Now she stood before him, her trembling only noticeable in her hands and in the minute catch of her breath. Behind her was Methanar, his arms locked at his sides, as motionless as if he had been injected with spider venom. There was a sharp bitterness in his eyes that showed just how unhappy he was at having failed. Thranduil was a benevolent king, but he was still a king. Those who failed him were punished for it and rarely were there repeat offenders.  

“My king,” Haedirn said, “Methanar and I were commanded to stand watch outside of the dwarf’s cell while the rest of our…guests were making ready to depart. It was assumed they would be unhappy to leave one of their own behind and might try to stage an escape.”

“And they were successful,” Thranduil drawled. Legolas made a small noise where he was standing next to his father’s throne but was wise enough not to open his mouth and possibly make things worse for the young guardswoman.

“Yes,” Haedirn murmured, her head bowed as she dropped to one knee.

Methanar did the same, long hair obscuring his face. “The fault is ours for our lax attention and we freely give our lives in exchange for the ones that escaped on our watch, if it should please you.”

“That will hardly be necessary,” Tauriel said curtly from where she stood before the throne, two long knives sheathed at her belt and her face as hard as carved marble. “Rise and complete your report.”

“Yes Captain. It was an hour after dawn when I noticed the change in the prisoner. He began to rave about fire and dragons and we feared that he would injure himself in some way because he was not currently chained. He did not respond to our prompts to calm himself and we originally thought his agitation was the result of stress. Haedirn noticed after a moment that he had begun to bleed copiously from the mouth, too much for it to be the result of a bitten tongue.”

Lanthiron stepped forward from where he had been standing back against the wall. “As they should have, they brought him to me immediately for treatment. I deduced that a toxin had been introduced to the dwarf’s system, via a needle to the upper arm through the sleeve of his tunic. Based on the placement he could not have administered it himself.”

“So our guest was poisoned,” Thranduil murmured, looking far from put off by this. “It seems lucky that his guards were soft-hearted enough to bring him to the healer.”

Tauriel looked pained at that. “My king, that fault lies squarely on my shoulders. I spoke with the Twice-Born and it was he that convinced me to post Haedirn and Methanar at the dwarf’s cell. Both are competent, but the Halfling made a compelling argument to assign soldiers who had no personal grudges against the dwarves as his temporary cell wardens. He said that Thorin Oakenshield had suffered enough on their journey and didn’t want to leave him knowing that he was in cruel or unconcerned hands.”

“You have a soft heart, Captain. But I admit that it was a clever request. Another might have left him in his cell to suffer rather than bringing him to the infirmary for treatment. What happened once he was left in your care?” The king’s attention turned back to Lanithron, one of the few who seemed unaffected by his wrath. The healer was an old elf, nearly as old and Thranduil himself, and they had spent too much time in each other’s company for this upheaval to damage their calm.

“I discovered that the toxin was a nonfatal one and was in the process of brewing a potion that would decrease its effects when I was called away on an urgent matter.”

“The scouting company that was pursuing the orc known as Azog and his warg riders returned, two of them gravely injured,” Tauriel supplied. “One of them had taken an arrow to his shoulder and the other had been scored by a toxic blade.”

“Indeed. I rushed to treat them and now both are making a recovery.”

“I assume that your other patient went missing while you were away.” Thranduil began to rub tiny circles around one of his temples to lessen the pressure that was building there. This day was turning out absolutely splendid.

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Haedirn again. “Methanar and I stood watch outside of the infirmary – “

“I don’t like soldiers in my workspace unless they’re being treated, as you know. They disturb my patients.” Lanthiron cast a sideways look towards where Tauriel and her soldiers stood at attention, a hint of aggravation in his gaze.    

“As you have told me more than once, healer. Continue.”

“We were standing watch to ensure that the prisoner did not try to escape when the Marchwardens Rumil and Orophin approached, stating that they had been sent by their brother Haldir to collect medical supplies for their journey back to Lorien. They carried saddlebags with them but we thought nothing of it and let them enter. Since the prisoner was rendered immobile by the toxin we saw no harm in it.”

“They smuggled him out in the saddlebag,” Methanar said dourly, looking down at the toes of his boots. “We didn’t suspect anything until Lord Lanthiron came back and requested that we inform him as to the location of the prisoner.”  

“Galadriel and Celeborn may see it as an act of aggression if we pursue the Marchwardens,” Legolas murmured quietly.

There would be no satisfaction found in punishing the three Silvan elves. The last thing he wanted was to gain the animosity of his own kind, especially at a time like this. If Thorin Oakenshield and his company had made it this far, they no doubt had the blessings of both Elrond and Galadriel. He had already tempted fate by holding them for as long as he had and bringing them back again to further hinder their quest to retake the mountain would put a definite strain on his relationship with those west of the Misty Mountains.

As for the Twice-Born, what was to stop him from turning against Thranduil completely? As the only one who could conceivably guess what was going to come to pass, Bilbo Baggins held a great deal of power whether he knew it or not. Just as he had threatened, Smaug could come swooping down on them any day and burn everything and all of them to ash. A dragon was not a force to be trifled with and that seemed to be exactly what the Halfling intended to do. Smaug could conceivably awaken at any point, and if Bilbo was imprisoned in Thranduil’s dungeons, who could say that he hadn’t been on his way to prevent such a thing? The chances were too many and the consequences were too great for any action to be a wise one now.

“Your Majesty?” Tauriel stepped forward, her eyes serious and weapons at the ready. If he had commanded it she would have hunted down the company and slaughtered the lot of them without hesitation. It was the mark of a good captain, both her viciousness and her loyalty. With this new development though, Thranduil looked at her and found himself beginning to wonder if there was something more than bloodlust running through her veins. ”What are your orders?”  

“Nothing. We do nothing. I will not lose my kingdom to chance and the whim of a Halfling.” His hands dropped to the arms of his throne and he clutched it tightly enough to make his knuckles go white. “Methanar. Haedirn.”

The two shamed guards snapped to attention.

“You’ll have your chance to prove your competency. Travel to Lake-Town, but I expect you to be very discreet. Watch over the dwarves and the Twice-Born and report back to me should you discover anything of interest.” Now the whispers started. “We will be ready to act one way or the other. The Woodland Realm will not be taken while sleeping like an aging beast. Captain, I expect your troops to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. Prepare as if for war.”

“My king!”

Thranduil rose from his throne, leaving his blood-red cape draped over the colossal antlers that made up its frame. “As for the rest of you, make yourselves ready to move on Erebor. We may have some new neighbors to call upon soon enough.”

The court erupted as he swept down from the dais, his son at his heels.

Ada?”

“Yes, Legolas?” The two of them left the main chamber behind them, though the voices of the elves behind them were loud enough to carry for quite a distance.

“Do you know why Tauriel has been smirking at me all day? It has becoming quite unnerving.”

“I’m sure that it is nothing of any importance.”

__________________________________

Far to the north at the edge of Mirkwood three figures burst from the shadows of the trees, traveling faster than most horses could ever dream of. The tongues of their mounts lolled between bloodstained fangs and their hot breath blossomed thickly in the cool evening air. The trees had grown too close together to make for easy travel or combat, so the wide expanse of the rocky fields they charged into was more than welcomed.

Nothing else came from the forest to pursue them. Either the Mirkwood elves had lost the trail of their quarry or had turned back home, considering themselves well rid of the intruders.

Azog spat onto the ground, steering his mangy warg up onto a boulder so that he could get a better look around. The beast was a sad one, smaller and skinnier than his Throquuk, with jutting hip bones and tattered ears. His beloved white warg, the only companion he had ever tolerated, lay dead far behind him, a needle driven deep into her brain by the most unlikely attacker that he could imagine.

The Halfling will suffer before I kill him,” he growled in Black Speech, staring back towards the forest. Him and every dwarf who dared to travel with the line of Durin. Thorin had taken his arm. Now this upstart bit of meat had taken his mount. It would not be tolerated.

“Master?” There were only two orcs left of those he had brought with him – the rest had either been lost to the forest or slaughtered by the elves who dwelled therein. He felt no sorrow for their loss; they had been a scouting party, nothing more. The two that were left would serve a purpose and then he would think on them no more.

I will go north.” Azog pointed behind him and gestured towards the mountains with his iron claw. “To Gundabad to gather my troops and prepare for war. You both…” He turned to look behind him. “Tell the goblin king that I am calling in his debt.”

Beyond the fields and the trees there lay a single mountain. Azog didn’t care whether or not there was a dragon sleeping under it, in his eyes there was only one target. The orc and goblin armies would go to Erebor and with his remaining hand he would destroy the last of the line of Durin and the Halfling that had taken his Throquuk from him. 

Chapter Text

It had begun to drizzle early that morning, though no one was really surprised. The only thing anyone said about it was that they were surprised it hadn’t turned to snow or sleet yet. Whatever it was, it was thoroughly miserable and Bilbo found himself wishing with every fiber of his being that it would just blow over and be done with as he scrambled out of the second story window of the house they had been given. A wickedly cold breeze blew up the legs of his trousers as he dangled by his fingertips, trying to stretch down far enough for the toes of his boots to reach the drain spout below him, but it was just an inch or two too far. So there he dangled with his bits completely frozen, wishing he had proper winter clothes and praying that no one looked out of their window and spotted him. That would have been the icing on the cake that this day was turning out to be.

A quick breath and he let go of the sill, pressing his hands flat to the wall to keep himself upright as he landed with a ‘thunk’ on the wooden spout. For a moment he tottered there, eyes wide, not daring to budge, until he realized that the whole thing was not going to crumble underneath him like he’d originally thought. After that it was just a matter of shimmying down the pipe to solid ground. Well, mostly solid. The wooden boards under his boots turned out to be more than a little slick and he yelped and clung to the rain barrel next to him to keep from toppling right over onto his rear.

“Lake-Town. Ha! It should have been dubbed ‘Misery-Town on Stilts’,” he mumbled as he righted himself and picked his way across the wet, icy walkway that was crusted with things he didn’t want to think about too hard.

Lake-Town wasn’t overwhelmingly large like the Woodland Realm had been – it was all laid out around a small central harbor and a series of canals that people climbed in and out of using slippery ropes and ladders. Some of the more wealthy folk, who were few and far in between, had actual steps down to their boats. The town itself sat about twelve feet above the water lines and the thick wooden posts that held the whole place up were covered in barnacles and shiny, sharp-looking mussels. There was only one bridge to the land with a little guard house to oversee it. At least they hadn’t been charged a fare to use the bridge as it seemed most other travelers were – the guards had been too busy gawking at them to demand that they turn out their coin purses. The house they’d been put up in had been nice enough.

Except it only had one door.

Using that door to slip out would have been much easier than the window but that wasn’t an option and hadn’t been in the last three days. His only real goal in coming here at all was to speak to Bard, the human who had shot Smaug right out of the sky. Having a descendant of Girion, the last Lord of Dale, on his side could prove more than a little bit useful, especially if it meant he could keep the humans from knocking down Erebor’s gates when the company took back the mountain. He’d seen what happened when Thorin had been threatened in his own home and wasn’t exactly eager to repeat the experience.

That being said, it had been fiendishly hard to find a moment to slip away to contact the bowman. It seemed like every waking moment was spent either being interrogated by Ori as he scribbled notes with a lovely gull quill that he’d found in Lake-Town’s market or under close watch by the other members of the company. Several of them, Fili and Kili included, hadn’t quite forgiven him for his unorthodox escape method and even though he hadn’t done a single suspicious thing since they’d become guests of the Master of Lake-Town, it seemed they weren’t going to give him the chance to. Thorin hadn’t spoken a word to him or even given him a second glance. Suddenly Bilbo knew how a good-natured dog who had suddenly bitten its master’s hand felt. Things would never be quite the same between himself and the company again and he privately mourned the loss of that intimacy.

The only option left to him had been the window in the little room he’d been given. Going out the door would have assured him an escort and ditching the dwarves had turned out to be nearly impossible. The magic ring stayed sealed in his vest pocket, unused. This wasn’t the time to use dark magic when a bit of upper body strength and steady feet would do the trick. Bilbo smiled bitterly to himself as he made his way around a corner and skirted the edge of what smelled like a fishery. What sort of burglar was one who could only sneak about when he was invisible?

At least there hadn’t been many dwarves left in the house to possibly catch him on his way out. Thorin and some of the more important dwarves had been summoned to dine at the Master’s grand home, to discuss their journey and future plans. Thorin would probably grunt through the whole meal and remain as close-mouthed as ever. Humans weren’t as bad as elves, but the Master of Lake-Town made Bilbo feel as disgusting as if he’d just swallowed a mouthful of oily, wriggling eels.

The hobbit sniffed despondently and popped up his coat collar to try to keep some of the wet off his neck. If Thorin wanted to stay cold and distant for the rest of their journey that was his decision. He hadn’t been resurrected to make friends or fall in love. Right now his only purpose was to ensure the safety and survival of the company and their royal line and if he trod on a few toes to do that? So be it.

“Run home to your ma, lad. It’s dangerous out here, ‘specially if the guards catch you out wanderin’.”

Bilbo glanced up at the fisherman, a man with more gray in his beard than black, and the human did a double-take when he saw an adult’s face in what he had taken for a child’s body.

“I thank you for your concern,” Bilbo said coolly, staying well out of reach in case the fellow decided to make a grab at him. “But I think that I’m exactly where I need to be. I seek Bard the Bowman. Do you know where I might find him?”

“You a dwarf?” The man asked, his gray brows drawn together in confusion.

“Do you see a beard?”

The man shook his head.

“So I must not be a dwarf. The Bowman, if you please?”

The fisherman stooped and picked up a basket that was half-filled with crawly little things that reminded Bilbo of grey-red bugs with little tails and long whiskers. They flipped about and snapped their tiny claws together and made tiny snipping noises that reminded Bilbo of butter popping in a hot pan, which was where he was imagining that lot was headed.

“Haven’t seen ‘im in a day or two. Last I heard he’d gone land-side to hunt a bit. Might be wrong though. Oi, Reson! You seen Bard?”

“Nah, but his boat’s gone,” replied a man across the canal. He had a basket of black mussels slung over his shoulders and Bilbo could smell him even across the water.

“My missus say’s he due back today though,” said a passerby who had stopped to gawk at Bilbo. “Was talkin’ to ‘is youngest and she said t’was a quick trip. Goin’ after deer or sommat.”

“Anythin’ but more fish,” agreed the fisherman who had told Bilbo to go home. Bilbo didn’t see anything wrong with fish but he suspected that these men and the rest of Lake-Town got more than their fair share of it what with living in the middle of the water. Red meat would probably fetch a fine price at the market if Bard planned on selling it. Most of what the company had been eating had been fish and he had little doubt that a bit of venison would be more than welcome at the table.

“Could one of you gentlemen possibly point me towards where he docks his boat? Maybe I’ll be able to catch him when he gets back.”

“Heh, gentlemen. Wait ‘til I tell the missus that. She’ll laugh so hard she’ll pop that babe right out.”

“Don’t pay no mind t’ that idiot, little master. Bard usually docks at the north side’a town. Longest dock, right out at th’ end. Can’t miss it, jus’ go through there and ‘round th’ corner.” The mussel man pointed back behind them and then picked up another bag of the briny water creatures.

Bilbo thanked the men and went hastily on his way before he had to listen to any more of their off-color jokes. He got enough of those from the dwarves and he was ready for slightly more civilized company. Sadly, other than Smaug, he was pretty sure there weren’t any real gentlemen from here to Rivendell. Maybe someday he’d be able to retire there again to discuss philosophy and language with Elrond. Hobbits were good to talk about food and gardening with, dwarves were always good for a laugh or a history discussion, and men could prattle on about just about anything. Elves on the other hand were perfect for a quiet talk over wine, which was most definitely what Bilbo wanted as he made his hazardous way across the wet wood, dashing from dry spot to dry spot so he didn’t end up soaked to the bone before he made it back to the house.

Twice more he was told to go home by the men he passed and a woman with a child on each hip asked him if he was lost. By the time he made it to the longest dock on the north side of town he was wet, shivering, and thoroughly done with just about everyone. If it had been at all possible he would have wished himself back in bed with a hot cup of tea on the nightstand with no one to bother him for at least a fortnight.

Instead he settled himself on the edge of a capped rain barrel and did up the top button of his coat. For the first time he was grateful for the black boots the Mirkwood elves had given him – for all that they were a little bit cramped they were still warm and kept the water out. Back in the Shire most folk had special slippers made of leather and sheep wool they saved especially for winter, but his tall boots that went all the way to his knees were about as far removed from those as a thoroughbred horse was from a farm pony. Finally people left him alone. The rain began to pick up but he stayed mostly dry thanks to a roof overhang. The rest of Lake-Town sought the shelter of their homes. Bilbo kept his eyes on the water.

Out on the lake a flock of pale water birds drifted lazily across the rippling surface, unmoved by the rain that dripped off their feathers. They were born, they lived, and they died on the Long Lake, caring not one whit for dragons or gold or even time. Through the rain and the fog the hung over the water Bilbo could pretend that their wings were instead sails far out on the horizon.

White sails.

It seemed like so long ago now. Months had passed since he had first woken up on his front step, confused and feeling like the weight of all of Middle Earth had suddenly been dropped on his shoulders. That weight had only grown and now it bent his spine forward and left purple shadows under his eyes where there had previously been none. In his last life it had taken him until he was a hundred and twenty to feel as old as he did now. He and Ham had once liked to joke that youth was wasted on the young. It was clear that youth was simply a state of mind and he couldn’t figure out how to get it back. His body was young, his eyes were keen and his hands were steady.

His spirit was what was tired. 

How am I supposed to know I can trust you?

Have I not done enough up to now to have earned that trust?

No. His secrets were the weight that curved his back, the weight of years and knowledge and the horror he had seen and had to prevent.

One of the birds alighted on the dock and ruffled its feathers, sending out crystalline drops of rain.

“If only I was as carefree as you,” Bilbo murmured, watching it. He wouldn’t have given up being here to mend history for anything, but at times like this, when he was cold and alone, he couldn’t help but think about how much easier it would have been to pass on peacefully. Dwarves had their hallowed halls to go to when they died, to feast and craft until the end of time. Hobbits, on the other hand, rarely spoke about what came after. You lived, you died. If anyone was the deity of the hobbits it was probably Yavanna, mother of the growing things, and so most figured that they simply returned to the earth and air when they passed on. Bilbo had quietly hoped that somehow he would see his fallen friends and companions when he finally followed, but that hadn’t happened.

Instead he was stuck here while they looked at him with censure and suspicion. He would have given anything to keep them safe, his own life if he had to. They would never know that though, and hopefully when everything came to an end he’d simply be able to slink home and learn to live alone.

He would have to wait a little while longer to rest.

“Do you sail?”

Bilbo was too sunk in his own melancholy to even manage a proper start. A man stood next to him. He had a lean face, lined with creases created by hard living and lean years. His hair was long and fell about his face, giving it a ghostly cast in the dim light. At his feet lay the carcass of a young stag with a small hole piercing its throat as if from the shaft of an arrow. Bard the Bowman had docked while Bilbo’s attention was fixed on the gulls.  

“No, I’m afraid not. Or at least not yet.” Bilbo offered his hand to the man. “Bilbo Baggins, hobbit and smallest member of the company of Thorin Oakenshield.”

Bard took the offered hand and gave it a short shake. His was cold and wet from working the oars of his little boat, but there was a firmness to it that managed to be reassuring. “Bard. Did you want a word with me, Mister Baggins? I can’t think of any other reason to be out here when you’ve got a fine house to be waiting out the weather in.”

“A fine house and poor company, I’m afraid. The cold is infinitely preferable.”

“I thought a king would be more sensitive to the needs of his people,” Bard commented shrewdly, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall of the building behind them.

“I’m not one of his people, just a specialist of sorts brought along to make a lucky number of travelers. That’s not why I’m out here though.” The gulls shrieked out on the docks, but Bilbo didn’t look at them. He had to be clever again and that took all of his concentration and attention. There could be no space left for despondency to creep in. Bard wouldn’t be bluffed like Thranduil – he was too rooted in reality and far more inclined to take action than the more passive elven king. Bard would require more…material promises.

“So why are you here? If you’re looking to buy venison I’m afraid you’ll have to wait your turn. My children need feeding more than the Master’s guests.”

Children? That might make things slightly more difficult. If Bard had a family to look after, any chance that Smaug would wake and descend on Lake-Town would be looked at poorly.

Thranduil had his kingdom and Bard has his, Bilbo reminded himself. They were both powerful in their own right even if they were vastly different in looks and temperament.

“You know, I’ve done a fair bit of reading.” He said, looking off towards the water again. “I especially like history books, though they’re hard to come by where I live. Most folk in the Shire either don’t read at all or prefer books about gardening.”

“You won’t find many here either. Those who have the ability or time to spend reading usually choose not to, while the rest of us have to spend our waking hours trying to support our families.”

“I’ve noticed this. Not that I mean to insult your town – “ He added.

“It’s not mine. Far from it. We of Lake-Town live meager lives.” Bard looked up at the roof hanging over their heads. Moss grew along the edges and more than one of the planks was almost completely rotten through. “Every penny we earn is taxed and there is naught we can do about except pull our belts a bit tighter and work harder.”

“Far from the Dale I read about in my books. Your ancestor was Lord there, wasn’t he?” Bilbo rubbed the toes of his boots together.

“Until he was killed by the dragon that most folk consider legend now. The best the people of Dale could manage after the scouring was this miserable heap of wood and they would have died the first winter without the aid given by the elves nearby. We trade with them and it keeps our homes from falling down. We are no Dale, Mister Baggins.”

“But you could be. Not here of course, this place is a blight. What if you could rebuild Dale?” Give a bit of bait to check for interest. His full hand remained hidden close to his chest, but he had a hand of good cards. Hopefully Bard wouldn’t decide to cut out before he’d seen them all.

The ragged man laughed bitterly. “You forget about what slumbers under the mountain. Some may have forgotten or pretend to have, but I haven’t. And what would I rebuild with? Fish? Rotten wood? Even the gold the Master sits so comfortably on wouldn’t be enough to scrub away the damage and I doubt your King is going to be sending us boats filled with treasure, even if the songs say so.”

“No. Thorin is suspicious and his kingdom is probably worse off than Dale. At least that doesn’t have a dragon laying on it. I don’t think sending off boats of hard-won gold will be the first thing on his mind.” 

“So what exactly is the point in me standing here in the cold with my stag getting wet? For you to talk about the past and tell me not to get my hopes for any sort of reward or alliance with the dwarves?”

He was smart, Bilbo would give him that. “No. As I said, Thorin won’t be sending boats of treasure, but I have a fourteenth share of every coin in Erebor should we reclaim it, and I have little use for it. I could easily be persuaded to part with half of it.”

Bard went still. “That’s a generous share. You would be a fool not to partake in it.”

“What use do I have for gold and gems? I’m a hobbit. I can’t eat it and it won’t sprout if I plant it. There aren’t enough horses from here to the Misty Mountains for me to get it all back home, so it seems to me I’d be much better off investing it in a cause that will help everyone involved.”

“To say…”

“Rebuilding Dale.”

Bard’s gloved hand came up and he rubbed his mouth. “Why talk to me about this? The Master is the one in charge here, not I.”

Oh yes, he was very much interested in what Bilbo had to offer, though still cautious.

“The Master doesn’t command the people’s loyalty here – you do. If that isn’t enough for you, perhaps I have a fondness for bloodlines. Dale was prosperous under your ancestor’s leadership, maybe it will bloom again under yours. You aren’t a stupid man; you have to see what I’m offering you.”

“I also see what lies between you and that fourteenth share!” Bard snapped. “You may gain a king’s ransom if you succeed in taking Erebor, but what if you fail? What if Smaug still sleeps underneath that mountain? Thorin Oakenshield will wake the dragon and it will rein fire and death down on Lake-Town. I value the lives of my children and my people more than any amount of gold.”

“I wouldn’t have offered it if you didn’t.” The rain began to lessen again, though the clouds and fog remained as heavy as ever. Bilbo knew that on a clear day he’d be able to see Erebor across the water, but for now it remained hidden from sight. “As for the dragon, I have a bit of experience with them. If Smaug is still alive I’ll do my best to keep his wrath turned away from Lake-Town.”

“Experience with dragons?” Bard repeated skeptically.

“I told you I was a specialist.” A specialist thief, not dragon-killer, but Bard didn’t need to know that part.

Bard thought on that for a while, rubbing his beard and playing with a bowstring that was coiled in the pocket of his coat. “You kill the dragon, or he’s already dead. Thorin Oakenshield and his dwarves reclaim Erebor. What is it that you want from me in exchange for this half of a fourteenth share?”

Bilbo felt a surge of elation that made him practically giddy. Bard wasn’t won over yet, but that the bowman was considering the possibility that he was offering was exactly the sort of victory he so sorely needed. Where Bard went the people of Lake-Town would follow and to have them backing Thorin would be a proper alliance.

“Your aid. From what I hear of things, Erebor is in shambles and I doubt it’s going to be repaired overnight. Nor will Dale. All I ask is that Lake-Town doesn’t press Thorin for either aid or gold for one year. I’ll draw up a treaty that half of my share is delivered into your hands and that it will be used to aid the people, encourage trade between the elves, your city, and Erebor, and to rebuild Dale with you as its new Lord.”

“Those are far simpler terms than I expected, Mister Baggins. How do I know if the king of Erebor will agree to a contract signed by his specialist?”  

“Thorin isn’t a fool. Trade and help will always be welcome, even if he doesn’t always trust those he works with.” Even his own burglar. Bilbo had to shut his eyes for a moment and breathed in the cold air through his nose before letting it out through his mouth. “The other thing I want might be slightly more dangerous.”

Bard said nothing.

“The Durins have powerful enemies. Orcs. Goblins. We’ve encountered Azog the Defiler once on our journey already – I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”

“Who hasn’t?” Bard replied shortly. “I suppose his death was sung of too soon.”

“It was. He intends to kill all of the Durins and I don’t plan on allowing it. In return for the promised share, I ask for the help of you and the men of Lake-Town if we come under siege. I’m not asking for you to throw your lives away,” he added hastily when he saw Bard’s expression darken. “But a few archers couldn’t hurt too much. Just…consider it. Few things worth fighting for were gained without bloodshed, though I wish they were.”

Together they idled there, watching the lake and the gulls as they fought over scraps of fish. The rain barrel was cold and uncomfortable under Bilbo, but he dared not move yet. The last part had been a gamble – the aid of the men against Azog and his hoards would be valuable, but if Bard decided that the payoff wasn’t worth the possible sacrifice it would all be for naught and then they could really be in trouble. So he stayed still even though his legs had both gone to sleep and his hands felt like twin blocks of ice where they rested on the edge of the barrel. He waited.  

“I’ll think on it,” Bard finally said. “There are those I would speak to before agreeing to or turning down your offer.”

Bilbo tried not to let his relief show. “Thank you. I don’t think we’ll be spending much longer here, so if you could do so with a bit of haste it might be best. I don’t know if any messages will be able to reach us once we get to Erebor.” 

“You’ll have your answer, one way or another. Now excuse me, my children are waiting for me.” Bard leaned down and swung the limp body of the stag up and over his shoulder. It gazed back at Bilbo out of milky white eyes as Bard carried it down the walkway and around the corner, leaving only a couple of drops of blood behind. They were quickly washed away by the drizzle.

“Well,” Bilbo said to his hands as he folded them in his lap to stop them from shaking. “I suppose that went better than I expected.”

It was a while before he was able to climb down from lip of the barrel; his strength had been sapped by his talk with Bard and left him feeling like a kitten that had been dragged out of a stream. There was no one out now save the last of the fisherman hauling in their catch before the sun went down, and none of them gave Bilbo more than a second glance as he crept down the walkway, trying to stay dry. They all had better things to do. If one of them had been paying attention to the hobbit in the faded red coat they might have seen the arm that reached out of the shadowy space between two of the wooden shacks that wrapped around his throat and dragged him in where the light couldn’t find him.

“Take your hands off me, how dare you – Thorin!” The arm around his throat was crushingly strong but released him the moment he was out of sight of the docks. Bilbo pulled back on the punch he’d been about to throw when he recognized the face glowering at him. “You’re lucky I didn’t have my sword or I might have run you right through! What are you doing skulking about in the rain? I thought you were at a dinner with the Master.” It was more words than he’d spoken to the dwarf since their fight on the edge of the lake.

“I might ask you the same thing, burglar. I set my company to keep an eye on you and now I find you out wandering the docks and speaking with men.”

They were back to ‘Burglar’ again. Wonderful.

The poison had long since been flushed from Thorin’s body, but there were still signs that he hadn’t handled it or his incarceration at Thranduil’s hands particularly well. His eyes and cheeks remained stubbornly sunken no matter how much he ate or drank at supper.

“You set them on me?” Bilbo said, his eyes widening in outrage. “Like watchdogs over a common criminal?”

“To them you might as well be,” Thorin growled. “You poisoned me and I am not just the leader of this expedition but their rightful king. Anyone else would have been executed.”

“So what, you spared me because we slept together? Or is it because you still need me to sneak into your horrible mountain and report back?”

Thorin’s silence told him everything he needed to know. His heart sank to somewhere around the vicinity of his stomach and stayed there.

“I see,” he said faintly. “Really, I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, you’ve made it obviously clear that I’m not one of you and nothing I do will ever make it so. I’m sure everyone will be relieved to have me off their hands when Smaug gobbles me up like an appetizer. One less traitor to Erebor’s golden crown to worry about.”

“I did not waylay you to discuss your purpose in this company.” Thorin’s voice was as cold as stone and just as unyielding. “I want to know who you charmed into letting you out and why you were speaking to that human. I won’t risk having the details of this journey leaked because one hobbit cannot keep his mouth closed.”

Bilbo decided right then and there that he’d had enough of this abuse. He may have loved Thorin and been willing to do anything for him, but that ‘anything’ did not include being used as a doormat to be trod upon by uncaring feet. “This one hobbit,” he said coolly, “has had quite enough of being insulted and shouted at for one day. For your information I climbed out the window because Oin and Dori were guarding the front door, apparently on your orders and I wasn’t speaking with the man about anything to do with whatever secret plans you seem to have. Now I’m going to go back in the same way and have a lie down. Good evening.”

When he’d lived in the Shire Bilbo had had a collection of rather ugly white dishes that Lobelia had foisted on him after her wedding party, deeming them ‘ugly enough to traumatize children’. Whenever he’d been upset or angry he would take out one of the plates and hurl it with great relish at his garden wall. Eventually he’d had enough pieces to make a nice little mosaic tabletop out of. Maybe the kitchen would lend him a cracked plate or two to throw and work off a little some of the boiling emotions in his gut.

The moment he turned to go however, he was once again seized and this time his back was pushed hard enough into the wall next to him to make him yelp with pain. Thorin seized his wrists and pinned them over his head and Bilbo felt rough splinters prick at the back of his bare hands.

“I didn’t give you permission to leave, burglar! I wasn’t done with you yet. As of late you’ve become withdrawn and secretive and I don’t like it. You’re to telling what you’re scheming this instant and then we might be able to move on from this.”

Slowly Bilbo raised his eyes to look at where Thorin was holding his hands immobile. “Let. Go. Of. Me.”

Thorin’s brows drew together, but he didn’t let go. “That wasn’t what I – “

“I once asked you not to hold me down unless I asked you to and those words are the furthest thing from my mind at the moment. Release me at once or I’ll consider it a breach of my trust.”

“A breach of your trust? What about my trust?” The grip on his wrists vanished and Bilbo rubbed the delicate bones, feeling colder than the weather should have warranted.

“No, Thorin. I’ve apologized for that and made it clear that if I could have done something else I would have. I’m through with being punished for it. The only thing left you have to force on me is hurt pride and suspicion, neither of which I have the energy for right now. Later you can rage at me and shout. Strike me if you want just to show that you’re still in control of your rogue burglar. I’m sure the others would be very impressed.”

Thorin looked stricken. “I would never – “

“Wouldn’t you? You seem very happy to manhandle me in every other way so you must not be far from it. I wouldn’t blame you though. I’m sure you’d have justified it in your head before your fist ever landed. The hobbit deserves this. He’s betrayed me. Talking – how dare he! – with humans after he snuck out for a breath of air. It can’t be tolerated. Isn’t that right?” He took a step forward, still holding onto his wrist, and had the bitter satisfaction of seeing Thorin take a step back.

“No Bilbo, I – “

“Oh, so I’m Bilbo again? What happened to ‘Burglar’? I don’t want to hear my name on your tongue right now, Thorin Oakenshield. I’m not feeling generous enough to share it or anything else with you. You have no idea what I’ve sacrificed for you, and you probably never will. I gave up my home, my family, my life for you! I’ve had knives at my throat and fire at my back and warg teeth in my flesh all because I chose to come on this suicidal adventure for you! And you don’t understand that!” The rain poured down the crack between the two houses that sheltered them, wetting his hair and the toes of his boots. “I don’t expect you to. Or even to try. Everyone knows that you have bigger things on your mind than hobbits and their hurt feelings. So just…leave me alone. Please. At least for a little while.”

Bilbo held up his hand to stop anything Thorin might have said. “I’m just too tired. Now, if it should please your majesty, I’ll wish you a good evening.”

If Thorin nodded or made a move, Bilbo didn’t see it. He had already turned and walked away, leaving the king standing there in the cold, wet alley. He felt no sense of pride or accomplishment for talking Thorin down, it wasn’t something that he took any sort of pleasure in. They were both miserable and hurt but he was done letting Thorin takes pieces of it out of his spirit. If Thorin and some of the other dwarves wanted to keep looking at him with suspicion, that was their right. His friendship wouldn’t be forced on them any longer.

“Bilbo!” Bofur, Bofur, Balin, Nori and Ori were at the dining room table when he pushed open the front door and strode inside, startling Gloin who had been sitting in the front room, no doubt to catch him if he tried to leave. “What were you doin’ wanderin’ about out there? It’s comin’ down in buckets!”

“Oh dear, you’re soaked,” Ori said fretfully, snatching up his napkin and climbing down from his bench.

“Leave it!” Dwalin snapped from the kitchen. “How’d you get out?”

“I climbed out the window. Lock it if you must, but I don’t plan on repeating the experience any time soon. Now I’m going to bed, I’ve had a rather trying day.”

“Wouldn’t you like a bite of dinner first? We have some lovely fresh venison.” Bombur appeared in the kitchen doorway, a ladle in one hand.

“Very kind of you to offer, but I’m not hungry. Goodnight.” 

Chapter Text

There was a bird on the windowsill. It was a brown creature with a white speckled breast, small enough that it could have comfortably rested in the palm of Bilbo’s hand if it had been so inclined. It had settled itself in the corner with all of its feathers fluffed up against the brisk wind, facing away from the thin glass behind which Bilbo watched it over the top of his book. The hobbit was tempted to open the window to try to cajole the thrush inside but he was certain that his good intention would only startle it and send it fluttering off. So he stayed in bed and turned the page, glancing up once in a while to see if it was still there.

It was the only company he’d had all morning.

It was long past breakfast time and even though his stomach rumbled uncomfortably as the smell of cooking drifted under his closed door, Bilbo ignored it. He simply wasn’t in the mood to put up with dwarves and their dour moods and didn’t much feel like calling for a tray to be brought up. Maybe he would creep down in time for lunch but for now he was content to lay on top of his blankets with his shoes off and his foot propped up on a pillow to air out. Lanthiron had sent a salve with him to smooth on the red scar tissue when it began to pain him. It had begun to throb rather nastily about an hour ago, no doubt from the exercise he had put it through the day before. Climbing out of a window and trotting around in the rain hadn’t been at all good for him and now he was paying the price for that. Elf healing was miraculous stuff but it could only do so much.

At least he wasn’t sick. That was one thing that he was glad hadn’t come to pass. Last time he’d been in Lake-Town he’d caught a terrible chill and spent days coughing and sniffling up a storm and generally making a snotty mess out of himself. He’d take a sore foot over that, though the sore heart he would have happily given up in trade. It hurt more.

Luckily his sleep had been untroubled by any dreams that he could recall but upon waking the enormity of what he’d done had come crashing back down on him again. He’d shouted at Thorin before, it was impossible not to when the dwarf had a skull as thick as a stone wall, but this was different. He’d been so good about keeping his frustrations and pain to himself over the past few months and all of a sudden it had all come pouring out of him in one go. There hadn’t even been any more anger or irritation left afterwards; just a yawning emptiness that made him never want to leave his borrowed room again. Logic said he’d eventually have to when hunger drove him out, but until then he was going to nurse his hurts, both physical and emotional, until he was ready to face the company again.

‘- used today mainly as a bitter tonic, and in natural pest control. As the name implies – ‘

Bilbo realized that he’d been looking at the same sentence over and over again without actually reading it for the last minute and finally closed his book with a sigh, resting it on his stomach. His mind just wasn’t in the mood for herbal remedies today it seemed. It was the only book he’d packed that he still had left. The other one, the one full of maps and drawings, had been lost when the bandits raided their camp back in the Misty Mountains. It was probably just a handful of pages scattered across the landscape now, but it didn’t really matter. It was just a book.

“They’re just things,” Bilbo murmured as he laced his fingers together over the leather back of the book. “No need to get attached.” He was lucky that he’d retained as much as he had. His battered old rucksack lay next to his bed, still filled with most of the things that he’d started with from home so long ago. Not that it really mattered. He’d only packed the necessities and little more (other than his spare pipe and he had no idea where that had gotten off to).

The thrush fluffed itself again and then took off, startled into flight as a knock sounded on Bilbo’s door. The hobbit gave the window a mournful look and wished that he could escape from the unwanted interruption just as easily.

“Ori, I told you that I’m not feeling well. I’ll talk to you this evening.”

The scribe had already been by twice that morning to check on him and both times Bilbo had turned him away at the door. It was nice being able to confide in someone now, but at the moment he simply didn’t feel like being questioned and stared at over the top of a notebook like he was a new breed of show pony.

The door opened despite his protests, toed along by a steel-capped boot.

Bilbo shrank down in his bed, trying to hide below the collar of his white shirt as Thorin stepped inside. He was very clearly not Ori and also the very last person Bilbo felt like dealing with. He was barely dressed, still in bed with his foot up, and not ready to fight with the king.

“Terribly sorry, but as you can see I’m not exactly in a state to entertain,” he said shortly as he opened his book back up and hid his face in it. It would work well enough as a shield between him and Thorin’s wrath. He couldn’t help but glance over the top of the cover to try to gauge exactly how much trouble he was in for losing control the day before.

Thorin looked as though he was on the edge of saying something and kept thinking better of it. A tray was held gingerly between his hands, a bit too big to be made with dwarves or hobbits in mind. On it there was a bowl of oatmeal with a golden piece of fried fish on it. Much to his embarrassment his stomach let out a loud growl at the sight of the food, reminding him that not only had he skipped dinner, but breakfast now as well. Not that he’d been getting many proper meals lately between going hungry in Mirkwood and rations of medicine and weak broths in the infirmary of the Woodland Realm. Anyone else he might have happily taken the peace offering from, but since Thorin was the one offering it he remained wary of it.   

He watched as the dwarf’s eyes trailed down to his maimed foot and then quickly jerked away. It wasn’t pretty between the missing toe and rope-like scars going all the way up to his knee but Bilbo was grateful that he hadn’t lost the leg entirely. That he could still walk on it was his idea of very good luck. 

With dark and uncertain eyes, Thorin pushed the door shut again and slowly approached, setting the tray at the foot of the bed. He didn’t quite shuffle his feet, but the posture reminded Bilbo very much of the time that Frodo had thrown a frog into his friend Rosemary’s face and then been made to apologize to both her and her mother. He hadn’t touched a frog again for nearly a year after that, so great was his shame. 

“Did you want something?” Bilbo finally asked just to break the silence, though it did nothing to diffuse the tension that hung in the air.

A myriad of conflicting emotions played across Thorin’s face as he stood at the foot of the bed, his hands clenching and unclenching at his sides as he fought with himself. Finally one of those restless hands reached up and the dwarf rubbed at his sternum through the travel worn fabric of his tunic.

“I’m sorry.”

“Very kind of you to say so,” Bilbo said shortly, raising his book up just enough that he couldn’t see Thorin anymore. It was very rude, but it seemed the best thing to do. “Now please, I’m sure you have something better to do than make peace with the burglar.”

There was no sound of the dwarf’s footsteps retreating. “I don’t.”

A page turned. "Alright, I accept your apology. I think that it’s best that we both move on now. I am your employee after all. It wouldn't do for either of us to hold grudges since neither of us has the time to focus on that." He turned another page. “Good morning.”

"Bilbo, I'm not only apologizing for yesterday." Thorin reached out and pushed the book down. "For everything I said. For doubting you. I walked for a while after you left me in that alley and I know that I was wrong for turning on you like that. You have been nothing but loyal to me and this company and have assured our safety this far. You are one of us, and isolating you is not what I sought to do."

With a sigh Bilbo let the book return to its resting place on his stomach. "No, but it happened anyway and there's not much that can be done about it now. I'm sorry for what I did. I would say it a thousand times if it would change anything.” He glanced up at Thorin and gave him a half smile. "I guess I can't always get everything right."

“You shouldn’t have to.” The king settled himself on the edge of the bed, careful not to upset the breakfast tray as he nudged it a bit closer to Bilbo under the guise of making a place for himself to sit. “This quest is my responsibility, as are those who signed the contract to join on with me. If Dwalin had been the one to aid in our escape by poisoning me I would have accepted that it was the only option and not questioned it as I did with you.”

“You’ve known Dwalin a lot longer than you’ve known me.”

Thorin gave him a wry smile. “I’m not sleeping with Dwalin.”

“You aren’t sleeping with me either,” Bilbo plucked the piece of fried fish off the top of the breakfast bowl and nibbled on a corner of it. It was still hot.

“No, I suppose not after…”

Bilbo glanced up and narrowed his eyes at the dwarf as Thorin started twisting one of his silver rings around and around on his finger. “Don’t you give me those sad eyes. Kili does the exact same thing when he wants something and now I know who he learned it from.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You liar, you’re doing it right now!”

Like ice, the wall that had risen between them slowly began to melt. It wasn’t completely gone, maybe it would never be, but for the first time in days Bilbo felt something like warmth inside of him. The fish was gone before he’d realized he’d eaten the whole thing and he reached for the bowl of oatmeal it had rested on, his appetite restored.

“Kili learned that face from his mother, I assure you. I remember very well the times she used it on our father to get her way, and then on Frerin and me”

“It must be a Durin trait,” Bilbo said around a mouthful of oatmeal sweetened with what tasted like clover honey. “Because you do it just as well as your nephews. Luckily I’m a hard-hearted hobbit and I’m not falling for it.”

“I’m not trying to make you fall for anything but your own breakfast.” Thorin retorted. “Bombur told me that you didn’t stay for dinner and I hadn’t seen you come down this morning.”

Come down and be given sideways looks by Balin and Dwalin and have Fili and Kili suddenly have somewhere important to be if he joined them at the table? “No, I preferred my own company this morning.”

“I’ll talk to them,” Thorin said shortly. “All of them. You won’t be a prisoner on this quest, nor a pariah. I know my nephews enjoy your company and they’ve shunned it on my wishes only, not their own.”

“I understand, Thorin. They’re your relatives, not mine. I would be leery about breaking bread with someone who had poisoned my favorite uncle too. I might even be a bit more extreme than just keeping away like they’ve been doing. I suppose being tossed in the river was the least of my worries with as loyal as they are to you.” His spoon stilled in his bowl as he looked down at the milky dregs in the bottom.

“They’re also loyal to you. As I said, I’ll speak with them and make it known that we’ve made peace with each other and I won’t stand for you to be mistreated any further.”

“You don’t need to – “

“I said I’d talk to them!”

They stared at each other in silence until Bilbo leaned forward and set his bowl back on the tray with a clatter.

“Fine.”

“Bilbo, I didn’t mean to shout. You just bring out the – “

“Don’t you dare try to blame your horrific temper on me, Thorin Oakenshield! Rouse it I may, but you’re the one who lets it come out of your mouth rather than thinking rationally about it like most people would.” Bilbo seized his book and chucked it at the dwarf before flopping back against his pillow. “You have worse manners than a mountain troll.”

Thorin caught the book and lowered it with an astonished expression. “I can’t believe you just threw your book at me.”

“And you can shove it up your – “

“Bilbo!”

Bilbo just crossed his arms and glared.

Thorin, perhaps sensing that he was out-stubborned for once, took the book and the empty tray and set them on the floor before resettling himself on the edge of the bed with a sigh. He rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands and sighed loudly. For a moment Bilbo could pretend that everything was fine again and they were nipping at each other for the sheer entertainment of it instead of out of any true anger. It was a happy little day dream.

“You’re infuriating,” Thorin grumbled from behind his hands.

“And you’re a bad tempered blow-hard. We’re a matched set.” The hobbit sat forward and rested his elbows on his drawn-up knees so that he could be at the same level. “What are we doing, Thorin?”

The king lowered his hands and rested them on his legs instead, looking up at the wooden ceiling. "You’re talking about how we are made for each other. I’m sitting here quietly.”

“That doesn’t explain what we’re doing. It’s a ridiculous dance that neither of us knows the steps to and half the time I’m convinced we’re about to trip and fall flat on our faces.”

Thorin snorted. "I am certain that we’ve already done that. We’re simply too stubborn to give in and keep getting back up."

"Well, I know you have. I was talking about me." Bilbo didn't bother to try to hide his smile.

"You wouldn't keep trying if you weren't just as determined. It's what we..."

Want. It hung between them unsaid.

Bilbo reached out and caught one of the dangling strands of Thorin's hair, giving it a soft tug backwards. "Don't try to figure out what I want, Thorin. You'll just end up giving yourself a headache."

The dwarf grunted. "Then tell me."

I want you to live. I want Fili and Kili to live. I want Smaug to have never come to Erebor. I want to figure out how to close this hole in my heart that you keep making bigger without knowing. I want to be happy again.

“I want a kiss,” was all he said and pulled a little harder on Thorin’s hair to tilt his head back. He wanted to be just a little bit selfish. Here, in the shadow of the mountain, it was easier than ever to imagine the worst and if this gave him one spark to hold onto in his darker moments, it might make things just a little bit more bearable. 

In his surprise Thorin didn’t even try to catch himself as he fell back. Lying down he was forced to look up at Bilbo, seeming as much curious as he was shocked. "A kiss?"

"I believe I said that, yes. I feel as though I've earned one after what you've put me through." So he claimed it, leaning down and covering Thorin's mouth with his own. It was a soft kiss, no tongues or teeth or anything else distracting. Just one proper kiss.

Despite all of tension, the distrust and heated exchanges, Thorin melted into the gentle touch of their lips. One of his hands came up as if to cup behind the Bilbo's head, to deepen the intimate kiss, but instead he only played with the curls. He knew his place in this. Bilbo had initiated this kiss and had not asked for him to add to it.

"You can touch," Bilbo said softly. "I didn't like seeing you in chains in the dungeon. Just...be gentle." He wasn’t yet sure how far he wanted to take this yet. It could end with one kiss, it could turn into more. Thorin’s blunt fingers pressing into his scalp weren’t helping him make up his mind at all, so when Thorin sought another kiss he gave into it to give himself more time to think. This one he wanted deep and slow in the hope that it would help them both find a comfortable place to rest in each other's presence.

Thankfully Bilbo didn't feel overwhelmed or as if he was being challenged for who was leading the kiss. This was different. Even as he opened under Thorin's soft touches they both knew that Thorin was the one who was silently asking for permission. It was only by Bilbo's say-so that they were here at all and at any point he could change his mind and send the other away.

And they both knew that if he did, Thorin would go without a fight.

Already Bilbo’s power over the situation had been acknowledged. Thorin was careful in his quest for more, starting with just the kiss and then bringing his other hand into the play when he wasn’t rebuffed. His fingers grazed across Bilbo’s pointed ear, but there was no sharp spike of pleasure. Instead it was more muted since his desire was only the smallest of embers. Bilbo leaned into the touch anyway, his eyes soft as he enjoyed the feeling of Thorin’s rough fingertips against his skin. When he decided that he’d had his fill of that, he pulled Thorin’s hand back by the wrist and pressed a soft kiss to the dwarf’s palm.

"Bilbo?" When his hand was pulled away the dwarf looked worried, clearly concerned that he had done something wrong.

“Would you stay?” Bilbo murmured against his hand. “Even if you knew it won’t be quite the same?” It could never be. Whereas before they’d been willing to change to try to fit each other, now there were jagged edges that were bound to collide. They weren’t perfect fits no matter what Bilbo had claimed. They’d hurt and been hurt in return and those wounds were still raw despite the apologies that had been traded.

"So long as you will have me."

A soft finger traced the crease between Thorin's brows and then trailed down the bridge of his nose and across his lips. "I'll have you."

Thorin he caught his hand and shifted as if to sit up. "I promise I will not leave you."

"Don't make promises you can't keep. In fact, don't make me any promises. I'm foolish enough to want to hold you to them." The hobbit’s hand tangled in Thorin's long hair and used it to keep the king from sitting up. He tucked both of his feet underneath himself and leaned over Thorin, kissing him well enough to press him flat against the rumpled covers. For a moment he thought Thorin would push back, insist on being the one on top, but then he seemed to relax and went pliant under Bilbo’s hands. 

It wasn’t submission so much as trust that had Thorin’s lips parting as Bilbo kissed him, their breaths mingling and teeth scraping against each other’s lips as moved to get ever closer. Bilbo’s hands speared into Thorin’s hair and he used his grip to tilt the dwarf’s head to a better angle, tongue delving into his mouth so that they twined wetly together. Thorin’s next breath came out as a soft whimper.

Goosebumps rose up all over Bilbo’s arms and prickled across the back of his neck at the sound and he knew he’d never get tired of hearing it. Of being the one who brought it out of the usually stoic king. When he pulled back he felt Thorin’s hand curl around the back of his head, brushing against his ear again and this time it made him shiver.

“Will you let me have you?” He whispered against the corner of Thorin’s reddened mouth. Beneath him Thorin jerked and his grip on Bilbo’s hair tightened just enough to make the hobbit close his eyes.

“You – But I…”

Bilbo waited, his legs tucked carefully underneath him and his face brushing against Thorin’s as the king cleared his throat and tried to find his words. His fingers gentled and began to stroke rather than restrain, curling through the soft ebony strands and spreading them out across the sheets.

“Yes,” he finally murmured, strength and surety coming back into his voice. “I will allow it. But I want to touch you first and collect everything I was denied the last time we were together.”  

“Oh, yes please. I didn’t like having you chained up like that.” Bilbo pulled back and caught Thorin’s hand again, gently touching at the faint bruises that were still evident there from his captivity. A bit of rope or scarf play was all well and good, but those shackles had been cruel and he much preferred Thorin having his hands free when they were like this. They were far too wicked to be bound for very long.

“Nor did I.” Thorin leaned up on his elbows. “Lay back, my burglar. I’ll have my reward before you have yours.”

“It’s a good thing I’m the patient sort,” Bilbo sighed as he settled back onto his pillow again and gently bit down on one of his knuckles to keep from laughing as he watched Thorin roll back onto his hands and knees. His hair had gone wild around his face and between that and his untrimmed beard the dwarf reminded him very strongly of a bear coming out in the spring and blinking in the light.  That comparison only lasted until the other crawled over him and settled himself very firmly between his legs, keeping them spread with his sheer mass and then Bilbo very quickly forgot about anything having to do with bears.

“Thorin,” he said warningly as the dwarf started to press kisses against his bare neck.

“I’m simply ridding you of your clothes, don’t worry.” Broad fingers began at his collar bone and undid the button there before moving down to the next and then the next until Bilbo’s shirt gaped open at his sides and Thorin was able to coax it off him entirely. It was pushed aside and lost among the sheets as the dwarf gently rubbed the skin over Bilbo’s sternum. “You’ve gotten slender,” he said quietly.

“I think we all have – oh,” Bilbo breathed as Thorin’s hands covered his sides and squeezed before shifting up so that his thumbs brushed over Bilbo’s nipples and made them tighten. He shifted restlessly, legs tightening around Thorin’s hips as the dwarf began his erotic torture. Teeth dug into his neck and then the bite was soothed by a warm tongue that made Bilbo squeak as it traced the marks left behind.

"It doesn’t matter. You are still comely to my eyes." Thorin continued his slow torment, determined to draw out and savor the sounds that Bilbo had denied him while he’d been locked away in that jail cell. For now Bilbo was content to be his. He trailed his lips down to tease a nipple even as his fingers slipped down to undo the ties at Bilbo's waist.

The flattery wasn’t necessary but Bilbo couldn’t help but preen a little bit under it, a flush rising to his cheeks and the tips of his ears as he looked away. “Thank you.”

Thorin seemed determined to have him bare so he could worship every inch of flesh. He knew for a fact that dwarves not naturally affectionate to those outside of their close circle, but Thorin seemed content to make an exception with him. Without piercings or braids to get tangled Thorin was bolder about nipping at progressively lower spots, pulling the waistband of Bilbo’s trousers down as he went. They slid down easily. The ties didn't provide much of a hindrance since Bilbo hadn't bothered to do them up completely that morning. He hadn't anticipated having visitors after all.

"Careful," Bilbo warned as he pulled his feet gingerly through the leg, trying to keep his salve from rubbing off on it too badly.

A flash of guilt traveled across Thorin’s face but he pressed on regardless, making sure to kiss Bilbo until he'd freed the hobbit of his trousers and small clothes, rough fingers curling around his hips and thumbs rubbing in soothing circles. "Are you still alright?"

"I'm fine," Bilbo reassured him. "I just didn't want to make a mess out of my pants. That seems to happen quite a lot around you..."

That earned him a warm chuckle and Thorin pressed their foreheads together as he dragged his fingertips over Bilbo's thighs. "I shall bare the blame for that gladly."

It was too tempting to resist so Bilbo leaned up enough that he could rub their noses together. "I'm sure you will, but not this morning."

"No, the only mess that will be made is the one I am about to make of you." As if he couldn’t resist, Thorin sought another kiss. This one with a hint of the passion they had shared in their more heated moments. Bilbo nipped at the dwarf's bottom lip and combed his fingers through his beard, tugging at it to keep him close until Thorin moved his mouth down again. He focused on Bilbo's belly, tracing over the soft flesh with his tongue as he massaged the hobbit's inner thighs.

“Do you remember what you did for me in that cell?” He murmured.

“Y-yes.” Bilbo's breath was coming faster now. Every time Thori