Amongst Ori’s artwork, a framed photograph hung on the wall of Thorin’s office. A statuesque blonde in a smart dress stood arm in arm with a worn-looking shorter man in a service uniform. Behind them was a freshly-painted door, above which hung a large sign with only the first few letters visible. Thorin knew what it said though - Erebor.
It was first version that had ever existed, run by his grandmother, the blonde in the photograph. She’d been beyond brave to do so. Thorin often wished he’d known her better, that she’d lived longer so that he could have talked to her about what she’d faced and how she’d coped with danger and betrayal always just around the corner.
Balin smiled whenever he looked at that photograph, he remembered Thorin’s grandmother well.
“A fine woman,” he’d pronounced, on more than one occasion. “They don’t make them like her anymore, mores the pity.”
Thorin, who had heard stories about his grandmother’s bravery since childhood, could only agree. Though perhaps it was better than his grandmother was no longer around, he was almost certain that she’d have been disappointed with how he was handling her impressive legacy.
Mr Baggins refused to see things Thorin’s way. He shook his head and poured more tea.
“You can’t be expected to run things the way she did. I mean, there were different laws, weren’t there? And different expectations.”
That was true enough, and Thorin nodded slowly. He was lucky to have someone like Bilbo Baggins, who accepted Fili and Kili so readily and encouraged Ori and always got his silverware back from Nori. Bilbo was absolutely unique, and didn’t seem to realise it. He made cakes and pies and custard and happily let Thorin’s family make a home for themselves in his café.
“As long as you pay, don’t stain the furniture, or cause property damage, why wouldn’t I?” was his endlessly-practical reply whenever Thorin questioned him about it.
“Thorin,” Bilbo called for his attention again, eyes soft and earnest and so warm. “You’re not disappointing anyone.”
Thorin managed something of a smile back. His grandmother would have liked Bilbo, that he was certain of. At least he’d gotten something right.
Kenley hadn't been anything like Bilbo – he'd been dark-haired with thick stubble and piercing eyes. He'd made Thorin laugh when he'd least expected it, dragging smiles out of him when his thoughts were consumed by Erebor and by worry for his sister and nephews. Kenley had wrapped his arms around Thorin and had laughed in his ear, drinking and telling stories as well as any of Thorin's closest friends.
That should have been a sign, shouldn't it? Someone so like those Thorin loved best? Someone too good to be true?
Then a few of Erebor's drink deliveries hadn't turned up, and very close-to-the-truth gossip began spreading online, Durin secrets that few knew. Thank God Thorin hadn't said anything about Fili and Kili's relationship. Bifur had started tracking the activity in and out of Dragon's Den a lot more closely after that, though Smaug couldn't be directly tied to any of Erebor's bad luck. But the man who was spotted in a side alley near Dragon's Den, revealed to be Kenley? Thorin didn't believe in coincidences.
Dwalin greeted Kenley the next time he visited the club, giving him a very specific message to take back to Smaug.
Bilbo was nothing like Kenley. Even Dwalin liked him.
“When were you going to tell me that you had Bifur run a background check on me?” Bilbo looked at him directly when he spoke, calm with a clear undercurrent of hurt. “Were you going to tell me at all?”
Thorin flinched and began to draw his hands away from Bilbo's bare feet, but Bilbo stopped him, soft fingers folding over Thorin's harder callused skin.
“I know...” he paused and then nodded and smiled a little. “I know. And I don't push because it's your story to tell in your own time. But some things I shouldn't have to wait to hear.”
It was reasonable. Thorin nodded slowly and relaxed his hands. “Some things never get talked about.”
“So you check into the background of anybody who becomes part of your family's life. It makes sense, I don't like the idea of it happening to me, but I get it, I do.” Bilbo's squeezed Thorin's hands. “I'd rather we talked about it though. Is there anything else I need to know? Did you look into my parents? My friends?”
Thorin nodded. “Nothing detailed, police records, any patterns that suggested links to Dragon's Den.”
“You know you could have asked me about any of that.”
Bilbo was looking firm and open, but no matter how unlike Kenley he was, Thorin had been fooled before, and that fact leashed him tightly, for his own safety and for the safety of his family and Erebor. Since meeting Bilbo however, he'd found himself wanting to talk more and he had the distinct feeling, especially from how his family interacted with Bilbo, that any secrets he revealed would stay secrets.
But experience strained his answer. “People lie.”
Fili was becoming more than proficient in Erebor. Thorin put him in charge for a night and settled down at the bar. Bombur served him a particularly good ale, his thick braid of red hair looping down his back.
“It goes lovely with Mr Baggins's chicken pie,” he informed Thorin.
Thorin nodded; he believed that. Dis had a fondness for Bilbo's chicken pie and frequently told Thorin to marry Bilbo for the recipe. Bilbo hadn't looked horrified at the suggestion. He'd told Dis that he'd take chicken pie off the menu if she let her sons know about her ultimatum though. Extremely wise.
Thorin drank a mouthful of ale and kept an eye on Fili, who was talking to Dwalin about something up on the balcony. Pride warmed him as much as the ale did; Fili loved Erebor and felt its significance deep in his bones, Thorin could see that clearly. No doubt he'd have Kili's help and together, they'd see that Erebor continued. Maybe they'd change it in some way, applying their own ideas. They'd always walked to their own tune. Thorin admired that. Sometimes he was jealous of it.
“You're Thorin, obviously.”
Thorin turned, still thumbing through a mining book, and found himself faced with a woman wearing a very intent expression. She was familiar, Thorin realised, in fact she had strong traces of Bilbo in her features. Ah, of course. He remembered Bombur's stories and Bilbo’s warnings.
“And you are Belladonna.”
She shook his hand firmly and looked him over thoroughly. Thorin was reminded of Dis, and that if it was anyone in his family bringing home company, he would be equally as interested. He straightened his posture and didn’t comment as Bilbo’s mother looked him up and down.
She smiled, her jewellery jingling loudly as she moved. “Good. Come along, you're buying me lunch.”
Thorin was startled into a laugh. He could clearly see Bilbo in her behaviour, in her forthrightness and welcoming attitude. He wondered what it had been like, being raised by someone like that.
“But what will your son say?” he asked, rare amusement outside of Erebor rich in his voice.
Belladonna smiled wickedly and took his arm. With a sudden fervour, Thorin hoped he'd get to see a similar expression on Bilbo's face. “He'll be horrified, of course.”
Thorin laughed, and accompanied her to a fine local restaurant where Belladonna called her son, to let him know that she’d borrowed his boyfriend for a few hours, you don’t mind, do you? He was wandering around your café like a lost soul, and you’re busy with suppliers until late. Thorin heard the increased volume of Bilbo’s voice but Belladonna merely smiled and hung up. She smiled at Thorin as he poured her a cup of tea.
“Bilbo’s trained you well.”
Thorin allowed himself a small private smile as he tucked into a passable steak. Perhaps. Perhaps that was a good thing.
Belladonna asked a lot of questions and Thorin found himself answering at length. Bifur’s research had revealed Belladonna’s background - an upscale family with a decent heart. It had revealed that Bilbo came by his warmth and good-heartedness honestly. She squeezed Thorin’s hand when he paused frequently in his stories and didn’t push him.
“Don’t stop talking to Bilbo,” she said as she paid for lunch. “And come to dinner next Wednesday.”
She had a lot in common with Dis, Thorin reflected, watching as she walked briskly away, her jewellery clinking with every step.
He sent Bilbo a careful text I like your mother.
Don’t be fooled.
They swapped text messages throughout the afternoon as Thorin tended to Erebor business – meetings and the usual mountain of paperwork. Then a little while before Erebor was due to open, he visited Violet Nights. Something indie-sounding was playing on the radio; a couple were leafing through some cookery books and a gentleman in tweed was eating a slice of Victoria sponge. Fragrant steam trailed out of the kitchen and, as Thorin stepped closer, Bilbo’s humming got louder.
Something warmed Thorin as he caught sight of Bilbo’s golden curls and busy hands. It was no wonder Fili, Kili, and the others frequented the café. It was a place entirely filled with Bilbo’s personality. At Erebor only Thorin’s office reflected a hint of who he was. He hoped Bilbo would visit it one day.
“Ah, hello.” Bilbo smiled at him through the steam. “I’m having an experiment, so keep the fire extinguisher on hand, please.”
Thorin did, and watched hungrily as Bilbo worked, his hands quick and skilled as he measured and sliced ingredients, boiled water, and rolled pastry. It was Bilbo in his element, creating something delicious for people to enjoy. Thorin felt lighter just from watching. It was Bilbo’s gift.
Bilbo stood in front of him, holding a heaped spoon up, a cupped hand beneath it, just in case. Thorin opened his mouth without pause, because Bilbo had been feeding the Durins for months now and they’d been far from complaining. Thorin hadn’t ever complained about the café’s food either, he trusted Bilbo to feed both himself and his family.
Thorin trusted Bilbo.
The taste was sharp and sweet, and well-balanced. Thorin couldn’t stop staring at Bilbo. He wrapped a hand around Bilbo’s wrist and gently kissed the fingers that clasped the spoon. Something sparked brightly in Bilbo’s eyes and his lips curved upwards.