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Down the Road and Back Again

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Erectile dysfunction, Balin?” Thorin slammed the printed advertisement down in front of his adviser, barely missing the tip of Balin’s nose by an inch. “Do you have any idea what it felt like to hear about this from my nephews?”

“Now, Thorin, it’s not as bad as all that,” said Balin mildly. He pressed a fingertip against the freshly-printed line of Thorin’s two-dimensional head. When his finger came away, Thorin saw that it was smeared with ink. Well, he had rushed here before the ink had even dried, both literally and figuratively. This wasn’t the first time something of the kind had happened, either; next birthday, he’d ask Dís to stop badgering him about the fact that he didn’t need anything and give him a Mahal-damned laser printer. “They’ve not exactly said that you, well…”

Thorin ground his teeth. “That I have erectile dysfunction? I haven’t got a shirt on in that photo, Balin. It’s an advertisement for medication to treat erectile dysfunction. The connection’s just begging to be made.”

Dwalin snorted, finally pulling his face away from his phone. Thorin briefly amused himself with the thought of what sort of mining job he could consign Dwalin to if he hadn’t been family. “He’s got a point, brother.”

“Ah,” and now Balin sounded annoyed rather than disgustingly serene. “But it’s not a very fine point, is it?”

“Could be worse,” said Dwalin with a shrug. “We could still be findin’ out about the advert that ‘implies’” – he scornfully emphasized the word – “that he wears adult nappies.”

Thorin hit the table with his fist and immediately regretted it. While not hewn from the same hefty blocks of stone as the tables carved for great councils or mountain-wide ceremonial meals, Dwarf-carved granite of any thickness still hurt like a right bastard when one bashed one’s hand on it. “We barely survived that one at the last Gulbel,” he growled. “All anyone could talk about. We hardly even got to the real issues.”

That wouldn’t have been such a bad thing if ‘Great Council’ meant the weekly meetings he had with Balin and his like, but no – representatives of the seven Dwarven clans only journeyed to Erebor for a formal meeting once every three months. Unfortunately, if something amusing or humiliating were to come up then, everyone would take it home and there it would stick, much to the detriment of any problem that needed immediate attention. Twenty years ago, the public machinations Fíli went through to deal with his acne problem had been the talk of the council, and the bloody Internet had hardly been as easy to access as it was now. Sometimes Thorin had to wonder if anything good had, or ever would, come of Mannish technology.

Balin sighed, the sound echoing off the smooth stone walls of Thorin’s private council chamber as if the room itself wanted to express some mild level of prim disapproval. “Nothing came of it,” he said. “Everyone understands how deceptive advertisements can be, Thorin. Let’s not jump to conclusions, or at shadows.”

“I’m not jumping at shadows,” said Thorin. “This isn’t only my life, Balin, it’s the reputation of our entire country on the line. How long has that photo been floating around?”

Long enough to make me pull out my beard,” Balin mumbled in Khuzdul, so quiet that Thorin suspected he wouldn’t have caught the words if not for the room’s terrible acoustics, before switching to Westron again. “It’s true, the photograph is an inconvenience. Has Information Technology made any progress into finding out who took it?”

Dwalin set down his phone, plopping his massive elbows down on the table with an audible clunk. “Nori doesn’t think it’s been altered,” he said. “If it’s been Photoshopped, it’s too clever for him to tell and I don’t think that’s possible. He says he’ll keep going through the photo archives to see if it’s a cut-and-paste job.”

“Wouldn’t that be easier to detect?” Thorin asked. The literal type of cut-and-paste was far cruder than the work he’d seen of even the least-experienced Photoshop hobbyists.

“Last-ditch,” Dwalin answered. “The next step would be figurin’ out who took a whole photo of your top half with no shirt on and got past my husband to do it. Nori’s got some pride in him yet.”

Thorin massaged the top of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. Mahal’s stones, if the spymaster in all but name couldn’t puzzle this wretched business out, then no one could. Nori’s title was only Assistant Director of Information Technology because he said it would come with fewer assassination attempts. He was certainly as good at spying as anyone who had ever openly held the title. “Ask him to keep working,” he said. “Please. Tell him it’s at the king’s order if he complains. I’ve dealt with the effects of that photo for two months already.”

“We know,” Balin said. “You’ve not stopped talking about it.”

“I’ve a right to talk about it, don’t I?” said Thorin, and dared another glance at the advertisement. The medication in question was apparently called Viaron, probably the next-generation successor to Viagra, and in small print (but still bold red letters) across his belly, the damned circular claimed that nine out of ten physicians – Mannish, Dwarvish, Elvish, and Hobbitish, although he had no idea how they could come up with a consistent sample size out of all that – recommended this new and improved formula over the leading competitor.

“You’ve a right. What I don’t know,” Balin said, “is how we’re going to fix it.” He reached under the table with a groan, probably related to the chronic pain in his back that remained unfixable more than a century after Azanulbizar, and pulled out his laptop. “Now, we’ve got a few options. Nori could continue his work on tracing the source of the photograph. Do you want him to redouble his efforts to find who took it?”

Thorin looked up at the ceiling, the stone ribs of which came up to a point that worked well with the room’s shape. How many times had he sat here and stared upwards, trying to come up with a solution to a problem of agriculture in the mountain’s outlying lands, or a dispute between Man and Dwarf? The latter situation was likely the whole reason the photograph had been taken in the first place. “All I know is that the photo turned up after our conferences with Bard and Thranduil,” he said. “And I don’t remember half of that week.”

“Neither do I,” Dwalin confessed. “I’ve left it to Nori. Hell Week, I call that. The half that I do remember, that was just us walkin’ King Bard through his first set of trade shite. Why’d King Gervan have to choose this year to up and die?”

“No one chooses cancer,” said Thorin. “I do think he prepared Bard well. The timing isn’t his fault.” He watched Balin’s fingers pause in their typing. “Yes?”

“Have we thoroughly investigated everyone?” Balin asked. “Truly thoroughly, that is to say. I know we’ve questioned Bard. Could any of his children have, erm…Princess Sigrid, especially.”

Thorin couldn’t think of any time that they would have had the opportunity to sneak up on him. Practically the whole mountain had been up working the midnight forges for the week the Elvish and Mannish groups were there, not least since the old Master of Laketown demanded special accommodations to his rooms and they couldn’t very well kick him out without risking international uproar, especially in the middle of preparations for the Gulbel that would take place a scant three weeks after. “Bard and his family were nowhere near the royal quarters,” said Thorin. “Nor the baths, or – yes, I’m fairly sure I didn’t disrobe anywhere else.” Damn his memory. “I won’t have children questioned, Balin. Especially not those three. They have shown absolutely no signs of deceitfulness.”

“All right,” said Balin, letting out his breath very slowly. “Just King Bard, the Environmental Minister, and the low-level officials. I’ll have that done. Email would be easiest.”

“Whatever you need to do.”

Balin tapped one finger lightly on his trackpad. “Thorin, another option we have is to initiate a lawsuit.”

“What? No!” Thorin shouted before he could control himself. Dragging the courts into it? By all the Valar, that was the last thing he wanted. “Balin, a suit would be a public-relations nightmare and we have no one concrete to direct it against. Who would even take the case?” None of his lessons with Grandfather on law and politics had in any way prepared him for law in the Internet age, and as was increasingly common these days, Thorin suddenly found himself floundering for terms. “Would it be...defamation? I’ve never heard of any precedent for this sort of thing.”

“Defamation is a possibility,” said Balin. “There’s breach of privacy as well. If it can be proven that someone took the photo when you were in your quarters or the baths, we could argue that. You’ve a reasonable expectation of privacy there.” He stroked his beard with a thumb and forefinger, and his bushy white brows furrowed. “How much did ye read about the, what was it, Aranel case when it came out? This was…oh, thirty years ago? My memory is not what it was.”

The name rang a faint bell in Thorin’s head. “Something about photos in Valinor,” he said. Balin nodded. “She’s related to Thranduil’s wife. Someone did it under false pretenses – who was it, a pilot?” He didn’t even remember how he’d received the news, only that he’d laughed to hear it and then gone back to cleaning up the ink that Fíli had spilled while writing runes. If his nephews weren’t so terribly clumsy, Thorin suspected he’d never remember a thing; there would be no annoyances to which he could attach his memories.

Balin nodded even harder. “Along those lines. Just a moment, I’ll be right back.” He gathered up his laptop and hurried off, leaving Thorin and Dwalin at the table.

“Bad luck about the advert,” Dwalin said; there was real sympathy in his eyes, though the crinkles at the corners suggested merriment at Thorin’s expense. “Need me to crush some heads?”

Binjablûn,” Thorin said, “you’re the reason people stereotype Dwarves. Go train some hotheaded Dwarflings if you have such a strong urge to be violent.”

Dwalin gave him a rude hand gesture, one he’d obviously picked up from some of the more vulgar Mannish. A proper Dwarf, as Balin might say, didn’t tell people to perform such anatomically-impossible acts, and Dwalin likely never would have pulled such a stunt if his brother were still here. “My title’s General of Armies, not ‘brainless,’” he said. “Where’d you have been without me fifty years ago?”

“Still alive, thank you,” Thorin replied. “Because Dáin’s army provided the backup and your husband fired that shot. I think I’ll call you ‘useless’ instead of ‘brainless.’” He glanced down at his watch. Half three and his limbs were already disintegrating into exhausted jelly. Weekly grievances for three hours in the morning (because some traditions would just not die), five of consults with the Agricultural Minister after that to double-check the efficacy of this year’s crop growth, and now this. No lunch, even. If he couldn’t taunt Dwalin a bit, he would probably slit his wrists.

“Thorin, go lie down.” Dwalin leaned forward across the table. “You look like you’ll fall over any second now.”

Mahal, grant me the strength to not cry from frustration, Thorin thought. I can’t possibly deal with that again. “I’ll be able to lie down when Nori can give me concrete information on who’s sending out my image,” he said in a sharper tone than he’d intended. Guilt immediately stabbed at him. “I’m sorry.”

Dwalin waved his hand. “No need for that,” he said. “Believe me, I’m with you on this. I’ll get Nori on questioning whatever Mannish he finds suspicious. That’s the purview of Information Technology, aye, it is.” He winked. It was a very disturbing gesture on him. “Any other activities fall strictly under that, ye understand.”

Balin’s reappearance saved Thorin from having to warn Dwalin that Nori had best not get caught hacking emails. “Here!” his chief adviser puffed, waving a yellowed piece of paper in one hand as he sat down. “I knew I had it. Here’s the information on the Aranel case.”

“Another point to your organizational system.” Thorin straightened up in his chair. “What are the details?”

Balin brought the paper up to his face and squinted at it. Thorin rolled his eyes as discreetly as he could. There was something to be said about the stubbornness of Dwarves; for over fifty of his two-hundred-plus years, Balin had very obviously needed reading glasses. Woe betide the foolhardy Dwarf who told him so and got an ever-so-polite brushoff in return. “Alright, here it is,” Balin said, loudly clearing his throat. “They permitted a Mannish pilot to enter Valinor so Aranel could return from a visit, and he snapped a photo of her from the plane when she landed.” He shook his head. “Of course they saw the flash.”

“What happened?” Thorin asked. “Is there precedent for us?”

“Not particularly,” said Balin, and his face fell a bit. “Unfortunately. I do loathe this computerized age.” He tsked. “It was a single-photo contraption, so they took it off him and that was that. Thranduil only told me as a courtesy warning, just here.” He picked the letter up and waved it again. “Say what you will about him, but he was concerned it could happen to you.”

“Only because he didn’t want to rule the kingdom next door to a monarch with his private photos spread across the continent,” Thorin said. To say that there was no love lost between him and Thranduil would mean vastly underestimating the depth of their mutual feelings. He called it abject hatred on bad days; on good, he could admit their relationship tended more towards cordial animosity.

Balin wagged a finger at him. “Not now, Thorin.”

Dwalin snorted and caught Thorin’s eye. Thorin did his best to telepathically communicate his misery, and on some level, it must have worked; Dwalin raised an eyebrow and snorted again, this time at Balin. “Why’d ye bother bringing that thing in here if it won’t help?”

“I said there’s no precedent. I didn’t say there’s nothing we can use,” said Balin. He folded his arms across his robe-clad belly and arched his back in a familiar stretch against the back of his chair, squeezing his eyes shut and groaning. “Their council determined she had a reasonable right to expect privacy in the Undying Lands. A gag order came into play and the pilot lost his job.” He brought the letter up to the end of his nose and squinted. “Thranduil didn’t give me any more details. I think he mainly intended this letter as a veiled threat to stay out of Valinor.”

“Of course.” Thorin rubbed the tender areas over his brows with his fingertips. “We’d still have to get the international courts involved. We have no authority to keep a trial like this completely isolated.” An intra-Erebor issue, yes. Extraditing a Man (or, Mahal forbid, an Elf) to the mountain for a closed trial – no, everyone else’s armies would besiege the gates within a day. “Is there any chance I could simply give a press conference?” An hour or two, over and done. His personal life would only stand so much invasion before it ceased to be private.

Dwalin tilted his head. “Could work,” he said. “Bit of a catchall solution, isn’t it? We could tailor it. If Thorin said he wants his privacy respected…”

But even as Dwalin trailed off, Balin was already shaking his head. “We’d put ourselves at the mercy of everyone else’s good will,” he said. “I hate to say it would make us look weak, but – how to put this?” He twisted a fist in his beard. “It’s not our kingdom’s reputation I’m worried about, exactly. If you publicly disavowed the advertisements, very businesslike and glowering, yes, anyone who put out the photo after would learn that our dictate on the matter didn’t have any teeth. We can’t do anything.” He set his hands on the table, palms up. “The point is that without a source to aim at, we can’t go public.” He did (to his credit) look apologetic. “I’ll be vulgar about it: we have no short hairs to tug.”

Fablith,” Thorin said, seized by a sudden urge to smack his head into the table. Fíli could have this job, if he wanted it so badly as to intrude on the airing of grievances with unwanted suggestions. Perhaps even Kíli would make a better king than Thorin himself right about now.

Dwalin barked out a laugh. “Come on, Thorin, you can do better than that.”

“Do you want the direct translation,” Thorin said, “Or do you simply want me to curse you out in Westron?” He knew a few Sindarin curses that would curl King Thranduil’s lank curtain of hair. Dwalin, however, was likely to just laugh them off.

Balin cleared his throat - loudly - and flung his hands out in front of him. “The main issue here, Thorin,” he said, “is that we have no leverage. But there’s something else. A press conference naturally includes the press, and that would bring up a few rather unsavory questions.”

Thorin frowned. “Such as?”

“I assume you want to publicly disavow the advertisements, as I said,” said Balin. Thorin nodded. “Yes, of course you do. Well, were you to publicly disavow an advertisement that claims you’ve erectile dysfunction, then by necessity, you’d publicly refute claims of having erectile dysfunction. Explicitly, Thorin.”

Thorin felt, as much as heard, a dry croak squeaking its way out of his mouth, which he was certain had dropped open at some point. “Would I need…” He coughed hard into his hand to wet his stinging throat. “Would I need to say it so explicitly? ‘I do not have erectile dysfunction’?” In spite of the horrendous idea, his chest vibrated as his voice dropped down into the register he used for important announcements. Kingly matters and penile matters, what a terrible mix.

Dwalin snickered. “You’d have to, unless ye want people to come out and ask. ‘King Thorin, how’s your pocket rocket and set o’ jambags work?’ Can y’ imagine that coming out of the mouth of some Mannish?”

“Brother,” Balin said as Thorin’s entire body heated up to levels heretofore seen only in parts of the forges so dangerous that one couldn’t even work there with gloves and eye protection, “A pocket rocket is a vibrator, not a certain part of our king.”

“How d’ye know that?”

Balin paused for far, far too long, finally admitting, “I’m not illiterate in the Internet.”

Thorin, thankfully, did not gag; he could pride himself on that later. His cousin wasn’t so lucky. Dwalin’s face went first pale and then a bit green. “He’d also be refutin’ the idea that he wears adult nappies,” he said. “That’s more important. But if you still don’t think we should have a press conference, fine, no press conference.” Balin frowned, and inwardly, Thorin smiled. Balin would do well to have a taste of his own passive-aggressive medicine every now and again. “What’s your idea, then? Got to be something we can do, aye?”

“Are you certain I would have to do that?” Thorin blurted out. Mahal’s stones, surely there were other options besides completely airing his dirty laundry for weeks on end. “Even the Mannish know not to pry into my personal life.”

“They also don’t know much about the love lives of Dwarves in general,” Balin said. To his credit, he did look sad. Thorin suddenly, fervently wished that his father – decades dead – could pull him onto his lap and hold him like he had when Thorin was only a Dwarfling. He didn’t care if that meant crawling into a boggy grave somewhere in Mirkwood. “No one could pass up the opportunity to ask about Dwarves only…” He drummed the table in rhythm with all five fingers of one hand. “Loving once. It’s far too, ah, juicy of a subject.”

“And by loving, he means tuppin’ into the mattress,” said Dwalin. After a moment of thought, his eyes brightened. “They’d probably ask Thranduil if he’s even got anything down there anymore once they’re finished with you. That’s a plus, Thorin! We’d find out a wee bit about Thranduil’s shriveled –”

Balin interrupted with a firm “Not helpful, brother.” Then he got out of his seat and came over to Thorin, placing a gentle hand on his. “There’s another solution,” he said. “I’ve been trying to tell you so. Likely would have, if this lout didn’t keep interrupting.”

“Please tell me,” said Thorin, even as his headache started beating wavering lines into his field of vision with every throb of his pulse. “I need to rest for at least a minute. Otherwise I, ach.” He leaned forward and took his forehead in both hands. “I don’t know how long I can stay conscious.”

“Well, I’ll keep it as quick as I can,” Balin said. He squeezed Thorin’s hand. “What I thought is that we could hire an attorney for a private civil suit. A barrister, yes, I think that’s the correct term.”

“No,” Thorin said. “That’s worse than Mannish reporters asking after my personal business. How can I trust something this humiliating to…to…” To people who only began to see me as their king fifty years ago, he wanted to say, but Balin abhorred outright vanity in himself, and likely in Thorin as well. “There’s no other way?”

Balin’s eyes suddenly lit up. “Oh!” he said, nearly a shout – or as close as Balin ever got to shouting, anyway. “No, Thorin, I didn’t mean from here. Is that what you thought I meant? Outside the Mountain, of course. No Mannish from nearby. Would a Hobbit suit you?” He didn’t wait for Thorin to answer before continuing. “I could ask some of my contacts in the Red Mountains. Not the Iron Hills, of course. Dáin’s too close to you. Far Harad could pose a travel problem –“

“I see,” Thorin interrupted. There were worse ideas. “Are you certain this is our best option?”

Balin gave one short, decisive nod. “Aye, I am. I think you could win a defamation case against these companies if you put it as an unlawful thievery of images.” Thievery. Sometimes Thorin had to question what age Balin thought he still lived in. “Due diligence with emails, that sort of evidence. They’d have to provide it to prove they got the photo legally, and I’m sure they didn’t. If we went after the companies instead of the source, hmm. Yes.”

“Intellectual property rights,” put in Dwalin, who had remained so silent Thorin realized he had thought him asleep. “These are print ads. Came up in journalistic publications and the newspaper websites, very technically. We can’t legally make ‘em release their sources. Or were ye asleep in your schooling?”

“Brother,” said Balin, crossing his arms and raising one disapproving eyebrow, “there is a clear difference between an article and an advertisement.”

Thorin’s headache roared to a peak and he barely bit back a groan. “Wait,” he said. “Do these sites purchase ad space, or the ads themselves?”

Both of his cousins turned to stare at him with identical wide eyes, as if surprised that he knew anything about the Internet beyond the three-finger salute. He’d seen that look before from his nephews, and he would have these two bastards know that Balin’s undoubtedly encrypted vibrator purchases were not the only evidence of Internet know-how from the Line of Durin. “Good question,” Dwalin said. “Balin?”

“Hmm.” Balin slowly let his eyes roll up towards the ceiling and leaned backwards. His back emitted a sudden sharp crack that made Thorin wince, and Balin hissed through his teeth. “Better,” he said. “Now that’s a good question. If it’s ad space, we’ll certainly have a case. Brother, could Nori have a look at those sites?”

“I don’t think he’s got anything better to do today,” said Dwalin with a shrug. “Apart from –”

No,” Balin said (luckily sparing Thorin from having to do the same). “No.”

Dwalin made a rude noise through his pursed lips. “I meant to say sittin’ around on the computer and drinkin’ Lonely Mountain Dew,” he said. “That shite’s the reason he’s got to piss ten times a day. I ought to sue.”

“Thorin’s the one who needs to sue.” Balin leveled him a long stare. “And you know that’s not made here. Dáin still refuses to sell it back to us. Did you know I phoned him yesterday about it?” He sighed and let out a tsk. “Used to be fine stuff. Now it’s…it’s bloody Mannish soda. Dáin’s too smart for his own good.”

“Gets the Mannish to like us. He’s a genius.” Dwalin smiled. “Trade’s never gone so well since he joined us. Now, Thorin.” The avuncular concern in his voice reminded Thorin horribly of Balin, and when Dwalin felt his forehead, the feeling only worsened.

“Get off me.” He batted Dwalin’s hand away, then replaced it with his own. “Would it be irresponsible of me to go to bed?”

Dwalin and Balin shook their heads in tandem. “You’ll faint otherwise,” Balin told him. “Said as much yourself. I’ll draw up a list of candidates with Dwalin and you can have your choice.”

“Fine,” said Thorin. “Look up some barristers. Good ones. I’d prefer the Shire.” Without the assistance of those Hobbits, he would have no mountain to reclaim; Smaug would have destroyed it by now, and his nephews would still be growing up in the Blue Mountains, hungry and haunted by their family’s memories. “I should go.”

Dwalin grinned at him. “Go,” he said. “Kiss Dís and Víli and the lads hello for me. I’ll thrash Fíli the next time we play a game of strategy.”

“Truly, they’re effective,” Balin cut in, for some reason bringing up an argument that he and Thorin had long since thrashed out. “At Gulbel, Fíli conducted himself –”

“I know. You don’t need to convince me of the merits of board games.” Thorin bent slightly at the waist in the traditional goodbye. “Nori will have information for us soon, I hope. And I’ll be waiting for that list, Balin.”

Balin waved a hand at him. He had, Thorin observed idly, more age spots than the last time Thorin had looked. “Go,” he said. “Dwalin and I will close up.”

Thorin left quickly, needing no further invitation. Gone were the days in which the king personally oversaw the checking of the council chamber after every meeting, and he did not miss them. Dwalin’s marriage to the main culprit guilty of spying in the secret passages nullified a great deal of danger, at any rate.

He did have much to be grateful for, Thorin reflected as he moved through the corridor and the automatic lights flicked on with his passage, one by one. More than his grandfather, certainly. Thrór Dáinul had died without the ease of communication that his grandson enjoyed now, or the widespread vaccinations that might have saved the life of his son. But then if rumors had spread during his reign that he lacked the ability to perform in bed, no mass media would have existed to hear them.

Speaking of mass media…Thorin pulled his phone out of his trousers and turned it on, still walking. Allowing calls from his nephews was never a good idea during council meetings, but now that it was done, he supposed he had to face the lads sometime today.

Four missed calls, so they’d taken the hint after about two minutes. Thank Mahal for small mercies. But the texts –

From: Fíli
Uncle! Congratulations on the advert! I always knew you didn’t have it in you.

Thorin sighed and slumped against the rough stone wall, rubbing his forehead with his free hand. Bloody kids. The Mannish were right to use that goat-derived word if everyone’s children had the same ability to chew adults’ nerves to papery pulp.

From: Kíli
Congratulations, Uncle Thorin! You’re a meme!

That likely meant only one thing: social media was having a massive laugh.

From: Fíli
Is it true??? Inquiring minds want to know! *holds microphone up to your beard*

With a growl, Thorin punched the “2” key for the speed-dial. He didn’t wait for Fíli to answer after the ringing ended. “Fíli Vílul Durinul.”

An audible gulp, one that Thorin hoped was born of fright, sounded from the other end of the line. “Hi, Uncle Thorin,” Fíli said. “How was your meeting?”

“Never mind how my meeting was,” Thorin said. He pushed himself away from the wall and resumed his walk through the corridor to the royal quarters, following its spiraling pathway inward. Though they were meant to confuse anyone looking to make trouble for the royal family, he could walk these areas in his sleep. Unfortunately for Fíli, he could also simultaneously talk and walk. “You phoned me four times. I only read three of those wretched texts from you and your brother and that was enough for me. Why did you feel the need to contact me about the contents of my trousers?”

“Oh, Uncle, it was just a joke,” said Fíli. “We’re poking a bit of fun. We don’t really want to know, ‘course not – Kee, give me my tablet!” Something crashed on his end. “I’m trying to mark up those reports you sent me and Kíli keeps being a fucking prat, sorry, Uncle, I mean a prat.”

Thorin had to briefly stop one more time, just to smack his palm against the wall. “You haven’t really answered my question, so here’s another. Did your parents raise you to act like this?” He waited, but heard only silence. “Did I turn you in the wrong direction in training you to be king of this damned mountain?”

“Stop trying to make me feel guilty!” Fíli protested.

“Then search your memory,” Thorin said, “and try to remember what happened twenty years ago when all the news sources picked up the story of your acne cure. Does the term ‘do-it-yourself facial peel’ strike you as familiar?”

Fíli’s whimper told Thorin that he’d hit the heart of the mine. “I remember.”

“Then don’t revel in my humiliation,” Thorin told him shortly, and then more gently, “Are you home?”

“Old library. Kee and I are in one of the side rooms.”

“Then I’ll see you at home,” Thorin said. “I love you.”

He could almost hear Fíli’s smile. “You too,” his nephew said before hanging up.

Thorin pocketed his phone again and continued the rest of the journey to the royal quarters in a slightly better mood, save for his headache. The wavering vision had not improved with time and distance away from Balin and Dwalin, though the low lighting helped. Modern air filtering made it so that the walls no longer glistened, either. However, apart from that, Thorin could close his eyes and imagine himself an ancient Dwarf in any time he wished. No Internet, no texts, no easy ways for Thranduil to contact him if he wanted (and he hoped to Mahal that the wagstaff wouldn’t take the opportunity to do so over this).

Finally, the double doors he’d sought loomed in front of him and he let out a breath of relief. Home. He tapped the keypad next to the door with his keycard and watched with pleasure as a fiber-optic pattern of blue light swirled out from the center of each door before they slid apart to admit him. Brilliant work; he appreciated it even years after its installation. A click or beep could alert any evildoer in the area to his presence.

Bombur Boburul, barely of age and only just a journeyman in architecture at the time of their Quest, had had ample opportunity to blossom in skill since they reclaimed Erebor. When he looked at such work as Bombur could produce now, like this, Thorin found it easy to admit that blossom he had. That homage to the Doors of Durin, hope for the reclamation of another home they had lost, spoke of the poetry in his hands.

“Dís?” he called out as he entered the front hall, even more labyrinthine than the outer corridors. “Víli?” No answer. They must have still been away at work. Not that it mattered; his room was far enough away from theirs, as well as his nephews’, that he might as well have chosen to live by himself. They’d been well aware of his need for privacy when they chose their section of the royal quarters. Not for the first time, Thorin silently thanked Mahal for his sister having been born with some sense.

Another keycard tap got him into his own bedroom, illuminated a soft yellow from the afternoon sun casting its shadow over the side of the mountain. He’d come home to that view many a time and, as always, closed his eyes to let the warm rays touch his face. Even a Dwarf could appreciate sunshine. Those who had designed their quarters to wrap around the side of the mountain, incomprehensible as the schematic seemed to any Mannish privileged enough to be invited within, showed yet more Dwarven ingenuity. In the center of the mountain, where other peoples might keep their families most in need of protection, mine shafts and communication tunnels cut a straight line to the vulnerable royalty. On the outside, mountain stone two meters thick served as protection that had stood the test of time.

“Enough woolgathering,” he told himself. His grandfather himself would roll his eyes at such thoughts. Thorin turned his attention to his bed, which still lay unmade, and took time only to set an alarm for three hours and tug off his boots before he toppled onto the covers and slept.

His alarm – a five-second clip of a nationally-attended opera from last year – pulled him forcefully out of his nap what seemed like seconds later. Thorin opened his eyes with great difficulty, croaked a curse in Khuzdul, and reached to turn it off.

He had a number of emails, a few of which he could see had been mistakenly directed to him instead of his sister. He flagged them to forward on to her; the senders belonged to the Dwarven Economic Committee, and she’d need their information on conference organization for this year’s Gulbû-zizî . Another, from Nori, bore the cheeky subject line Lol look wat I got thru ur spam filter. Ignore. It was likely full of penises.

But Balin had come through already with a list of names that Thorin blinked at, with the ones Balin most favored marked with an asterisk. I would prefer the one at the top of the list, Balin wrote. His credentials are a bit less flashy than the others, but he’s had a steady record of civil victories. I’d like to send him a request email.

Thorin suspected that he would take anything at this point. Anything to keep him out of the limelight and prevent his headache from returning. “Bilbo Baggins,” he read aloud, the name pinging a memory in his brain. That family’s dealings with Dwarves had proven helpful in the past, and he needed help now.

Bilbo Baggins will work well for me, he typed with clumsy fingers. Send it.

Chapter Text

Ping.

Bilbo started, pinpointing the sound before glaring at his computer. He had a new email. “I should put you on silent,” he told the machine, which of course said nothing. Among the very few advantages of owning a computer was the ability to yell at it without being brained by an umbrella in return.

He turned his attention back to the electronic typewriter, a far more sensible machine even if he had needed time to get used to it, and attempted to relocate his stopping point. Old Clayhanger had had the temerity (in his family’s opinion, as related over many ales that Bilbo wasn’t quite sure they hadn’t spat into) to expire without updating his will to reflect which relatives most displeased him that week. Carl, Clayhanger’s eldest son, declared a family war on his fourth sister, Primrose, for insisting she’d not yet been written out, and that was where Bilbo came in.

The will’s outcome was simple enough: incontestable, as any one of the five barristers the family had consulted prior to Bilbo had undoubtedly told them. Gaffer Clayhanger’s feud with his daughter began a month before he died of a pulmonary embolism in his garden. He would have had plenty of time to write her out and stomp on the will if he had so chosen. Carl would just have to accept that he needed to share his father’s collection of crockery and old lolly sticks with all eight siblings.

Bilbo smirked – might be worthwhile to put that in his brief. Judge Noakes might get a laugh out of it before he finally drop-kicked the numerous Clayhangers out of his court and ended this interminable probate.

Ping.

“Bugger off, you!” Bilbo snapped. “I will throw you through the window.” If this was from some impatient little prat wanting his services, they’d likely not stop emailing until they got an answer. “Twenty minutes, Myrtle,” he told the typewriter, and relocated to the computer desk.

Most people in the Hobbiton area knew not to email him, so the foreign address wasn’t a surprise. The shocking bit was that the message came not from Bree or the Grey Havens, but from Erebor.

Mr Baggins, the email began,

I trust this message will remain private. Those in charge of such matters have taken especial care to encrypt it.

“Arse,” said Bilbo. Not that he had anyone to tell, but he wouldn’t be told what to do.

I serve as the chief adviser to King Thorin of Erebor, commonly titled Oakenshield. Recently, His Majesty has become the target of a malicious invasion of privacy and is suffering greatly. We have reason to believe that unlawful sources gained the instrument of said breach and litigation may thus prove fruitful.

King Thorin prefers to seek legal aid from outside the mountain. Your name appeared in my search and your record is admirable. We would like to officially contract you for an undetermined length of time to represent the case, beginning as soon as possible.

I understand that this prospect may not appeal to you. However, you will be generously compensated, provided courtesy lodging, board, and transportation within the mountain, and treated as an honoured guest of the Crown.

Please telephone me at the number provided at the foot of this email to tell me your response. I will answer at any time.

Cordially yours,
Balin Fundinul
Chief Adviser to King Thorin II Oakenshield
Associate Head of the Dwarven Economic Committee
Member of the Educators’ Guild

Bilbo gaped at the screen. No, ‘gaped’ wasn’t the right word if he could feel his jaw slowly dislocating. The King. Fifty years of shadowy stories after Dwarves’ last doings with his family and now they wanted to come to the Bagginses again. “Valar,” Bilbo muttered. Would his parents’ legacy never let any Baggins be done with adventures?

“It might not even be real, Bilbo,” he reminded himself aloud. “This might come from a spammer.” He couldn’t believe how many people were stupid enough to fall for those ridiculous ‘Prince of Bree’ emails. Funnily enough, no one ever managed to trace the IP addresses to anywhere in Bree. Most of them said ‘server error.’

But what if it was authentic? Did he even want to go to Erebor half-cocked for a possibly frivolous lawsuit?

Four in the afternoon. If this email really came from Erebor, it would only be seven in the evening there. “Valar dash it all,” Bilbo said, and went for the phone.

Someone picked up after a ring and a half. “Balin Fundinul speaking.”

One point in their favor for possibly not being a scammer. “Er, yes, hello,” Bilbo stammered. What in bloody fuck did one say in this situation? “I’m Bilbo Baggins. You emailed me? Something about the king of Erebor needing representation in a case.” If this were really the king’s adviser, he’d be able to provide the details. “Could I have specifics?”

“Oh, yes, of course,” said Balin, his tone pleasant. His accent was pleasant, too, light and lyrical with just the right amount of guttural consonants. Bilbo did remember hearing that accent from Dwarves in the Ered Luin when they came through the Shire, some on the way to Erebor and others heading toward parts unknown to him. “Yes, King Thorin’s case. Approximately two months ago, the mountain was hosting a joint delegation of Elvish and Mannish leaders while preparing for our quarterly Dwarven council. In that confusion, someone intruded on King Thorin’s privacy and snapped a photograph of him with his shirt off.”

Council. That was something he could verify. It meant going on the fucking computer again, but sometimes beggars couldn’t be choosers. “Hold on just a moment,” he said, shoved the phone between his shoulder and ear, and carefully dragged the cord to the computer desk. Quarterly Dwarven council, he typed into Google, and Google did in fact provide results.

“Quarterly council,” he said. “Right. Sorry I took so long. Just doing a bit of, ah, research.”

Balin laughed. “Making sure I am who I say I am, is that the way of it?” Before Bilbo could stumble over an apology, he added, “That’s exactly what I would do, lad. Anyhow, we’re rather in a bind. Not even our best computer experts have been able to pinpoint the source of the photo. Meanwhile, of course the electronic sphere has been exploding with terrible advertisements that use said photo as a background.” Only a royal adviser would use technical language like ‘said photo’ outside of a dry piece of writing. Another point in his favor. “The one that truly caught our attention was one…” Balin coughed. “Well, one implying that the king has, ah, issues in bed. ED, I think is the polite abbreviation.”

“Green Lady and Smith,” Bilbo said. Now here was someone with far larger problems than his. Colossal, non-erectile-dysfunction-sized problems. “It wouldn’t happen to be…true? I’m not asking!” he hastily corrected. “Oh, bugger. Bother! Forget I said that. It was highly unprofessional.”

Another laugh, this one a sudden peal. “It’s not as though we’ll be asking you to check personally,” said Balin in a tone that made Bilbo imagine him wiping tears of amusement from his eyes. “Whether or not the advertisement is true, its implications may qualify as slander. Possibly libel. We’re trying a different tack, though.”

“Which would be?”

“Unlawful acquisition of a private image,” Balin said. “This is something you would be familiar with, aye? Barristers in the Shire are compliant with Trans-Arda certifications.”

“Yes, of course.” He’d gone to the University of Bree, anyway, and the city was overrun with Men. Even if the administrators had wanted to keep to teaching Shire law in defiance of international legal standards, that would have hardly been possible with Bree’s population. “On what grounds would you base the claim of unlawful acquisition?”

Balin made a contemplative noise. “Well, you see, we’re doing a dual suit if we can find the source,” he said. “A two-pronged approach. Breach of reasonable right to privacy, first off. There’s no precedent, exactly, but the Aranel case from some time ago might give us a good starting point.”

Aranel - that sounded familiar. “A moment,” said Bilbo, and searched for the name – it did take a bit of time, but he found it. Yes, that was the case he’d seen during his law studies, one confined mostly to Elvish records. He knew his grubbing about for every fiddly bit of knowledge he could find, as his classmates put it, would come in handy one day. Sandyman could suck it. “So you intend to argue that the king had a right to privacy in…where? His own rooms?”

“He says he didn’t disrobe anywhere except his quarters and the communal baths,” Balin replied. “During those times, he invited no one except high-ranking delegates, and those people have already been questioned. If you’re about to give me some Melkor’s argument about public places –”

“Oh, no, let me stop you there,” Bilbo said. Semantic arguments were familiar ground. He’d debate with the best of them for good rollicking fun, no matter if they were the king’s adviser or not. “I wasn’t about to say that. If you’d listened, I would have said that his expectation of privacy created a safe space of sorts. Someone taking photographs through a peephole and other such insanity would violate that expectation.”

“As I thought,” said Balin, sounding utterly smug. “Now then, our second approach is illegal acquisition, or at least unethical. Our experts have checked. Those websites displaying the advertisements almost universally bought ad space, not the ads themselves. Slipping them in is thus a violation of intellectual property rights rather than a lawful purchase.”

Bilbo squinted at nothing as he chewed on the inside of his upper lip with his bottom teeth. Outside, a bird called. “So you’re…trying to smoke out the ad designers? Targeting the websites they bought ad space from?”

“Yes. And then the designers themselves, or the advertisers, whomever it is – we’ll sue them for acquisition of ill-gotten intellectual property.” Balin, who Bilbo was now about a hundred percent sure punctuated his words with gestures, ended his sentence with a throaty note of satisfaction that Bilbo thought probably came with a decisive nod. “This needn’t hinge on finding the source if we build a strong case against the advertisers for being sly.”

“You can’t possibly want to put this forward as a criminal case,” Bilbo said. “You’d be laughed out of any courtroom on the continent.”

“No, it would be under the jurisdiction of neith laws,” said Balin. “Civil court. We’d stick to the privacy and disbursement issues rather than addressing the contents of the advertisements themselves. That’s the best way of avoiding…unnecessary exposure for King Thorin.”

Leaning back in his computer chair, Bilbo twisted the phone cord around one finger. “You said at the beginning that you’re classifying those ads as falsifications. Slander and libel.”

“Classify among ourselves, yes,” Balin said. “We would only bring that classification forward as a last resort. The high-profile ones imply erectile dysfunction and adult nappies. I also received notification just in the last few hours of an advertisement for testing of sexually-transmitted diseases.”

Bilbo’s vision blurred, and no wonder; anyone’s eyes would have crossed upon hearing that. “STDs and erectile dysfunction.”

Balin gave a gusty sigh. “Exactly,” he said. “Apparently, King Thorin is the subject of a…a meme.”

“What’s that?”

“An Internet phenomenon. Most likely it was a young person, but whoever it was placed the medication ad next to the testing one and captioned it ‘I guess the pills worked.’” Balin paused. “You don’t know what a meme is, Mr. Baggins?”

“I try to avoid the Internet at all costs,” Bilbo told him. “That’s why I thought your email might have come from a non-Shire server. People around here know not to walk over my tomato plants or email me.”

“Oh!” Balin said. “I’m terribly sorry,” and he did sound apologetic. “Should I have telephoned?”

Suddenly, Bilbo’s stomach gurgled loudly (and painfully). “Oooh,” he said faintly. “Oh. Sorry, only –” He checked the clock on the wall. “Ah. It’s teatime. We Hobbits, er, eat seven meals a day. There are rather heavy consequences if we don’t.” Especially if he had to subsume tea into dinner, in which case supper would have to be far lighter than usual.

Balin smothered a sound that could have been a laugh; whatever it was, Bilbo scowled anyway. “I’m familiar with Hobbits,” Balin said. “Would you happen to be related to, let me see if I’m pronouncing them correctly. Bungo and Belladonna Baggins?”

“My parents,” Bilbo said. “How did you meet?”

“This would be fifty, fifty-two years ago now,” Balin said. “We’ve had our fiftieth reclamation anniversary, so I’ll have to check the exact dates. Perhaps you weren’t born yet. But your father is the reason we have our mountain now. His inventions…I don’t know the specifics, of course. I’m no engineer. I do remember that it was some sort of cannon carved out of a tree.” Another soft laugh. “Your mother, too. She stirred him up into such a frenzy of excitement about Dwarves using his inventions. Goodness, such interesting people!”

Bilbo couldn’t help laughing himself. “That’s them, all right,” he said. “I’m honored that you want my help.” Mum and Dad would both be proud, Dad maybe even more than Mum. His ingenuity extended far past the boundaries of what an average Hobbit considered odd, and though he’d held on to the title of ‘respectable,’ it was by the skin of his teeth and maybe some duct tape. “But you do know that my experience is almost entirely in local civil cases. Do you really want to hire me for something so high-profile?” He caught himself with a hiss that he hoped Balin couldn’t hear and slapped himself on the forehead. He was a Baggins of Bag End, dammit, and he couldn’t just tip his hand and go running off into the blue to represent people he didn’t even know. Especially not without hearing terms.

“I know your experience, Mr. Baggins. Your success is also unparalleled,” said Balin. “I’ve spent the last hour reviewing the records I have found for some of your knottier cases. May I ask what you’re currently working on?”

“Now wait just a moment,” Bilbo interjected, holding up one finger. “I’ve got no concrete evidence that you’re not having me on. Why do you want details of my cases? Have you been speaking to the Clay – my clients?”

There was a pause of several seconds before Balin spoke again. “I do apologize,” he said. “I promise that I’m not attempting to interfere. You’re quite right to be suspicious. Is there anything I can do to ease your mind? Video chat, perhaps?”

“Well,” said Bilbo, suddenly giddy. “You could put on the king and have him speak to me about this.” That itself was no guarantee that these people were authentic, but surely if Balin were scamming him, there would at least be another pause or some attempt to deflect. “I loathe doing things on the computer.”

Balin didn’t pause. “Absolutely,” he said. “Give me a minute or two, please. I think he’s currently in his quarters. May I put you on hold?”

“Oh, of course,” said Bilbo. His voice came out faint, pinched, like he was speaking to Auntie Camellia from far off. “Certainly. I’ll, er, wait.” There was a chance he had the opportunity to speak to an actual king. His head spun. I’m going to pass out. No, he absolutely would not pass out, because then he’d make a lunatic of himself over the phone to a Dwarven– aaaand Balin had a genuine hold with elevator music. Why was he surprised?

He closed his eyes and concentrated hard on breathing in and out, not an easy thing to do when his blood sounded like thunder in his ears. When the hold ended, he nearly fell out of the chair. “Hello,” a voice rasped into his ear. “Is this Bilbo Baggins?”

“Y-yes?” Bilbo pounded himself on the sternum and resumed in, thank everything, a normal voice. “Would this be King Thorin?”

“It would be,” said the voice. Deep, gritty, like someone poured caramel and chocolate over hazelnuts and served it on a great big platter, just for him. This was a king’s voice. “I understand you question my authenticity.”

“Not quite,” Bilbo said. “You see, I’m only trying to protect my interests. There’s a lot of Prince of Bree-type shite, I mean things. Going on. Yes. So you’re the king.”

Thorin made a noise that Bilbo couldn’t help thinking was a laugh at his expense. “I am,” he said. “As I’ve already told you. I trust that Balin has explained the necessity of our case.”

“Yes, he has,” said Bilbo, and dared to lean back farther. The chair creaked dangerously, and he mentally told it to fuck off. “That’s not why I asked to talk to you. Look, I hate to ask, but could you, er, provide some kind of proof?”

Thorin was silent for a moment. “I don’t know if that’s possible over the phone without divulging state secrets,” he said. “All I can tell you is that I am Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror.” The Rs rolled not out of his mouth but from somewhere farther back, almost swallowed. Khuzdul, Bilbo thought. At the very least, this was a Dwarf well-versed in his old tongue. If that wasn’t enough proof for him, then what was? He had to take the plunge sometime or risk getting called Boring Baggins by all and sundry.

“Well,” he said, “Balin mentioned compensation in his email. That and staying in Erebor. I’ve got to say, that’s a very generous offer.”

“Thank you.”

“Mm, well.” Bilbo looked around the computer desk for a pen and paper and found them in short order. This conversation would definitely require notes. “I’d like details, if you please. What’s the salary you were thinking of? Unless it’s rude to discuss such things, of course. In that case, just a figure number would be fine.” There, now maybe he could avoid offending anyone.

Thorin let out a long breath. “That…actually wasn’t discussed with me. We only decided today to hire a barrister. Balin?” There was a staticky noise, followed by unintelligible voices in the background, before Thorin got back on the line. “All right, Master Baggins. Our proposed salary is five hundred gold per week.”

“Five hundred – do you mean five hundred gildings?” Bilbo stammered. “I charge five hundred per month of work!” Perhaps that was a little low, but it wasn’t as though he needed money, and it was a sliding scale for those without any – but two thousand gildings a month? “And that’s full-time work!”

“We’re not hurting for money in Erebor, Master Baggins,” Thorin said. “This is an extremely important case and we want to compensate you fairly for your work if you choose to undertake it. In addition, any food you need will be provided.”

“All of it?” Bilbo asked before he could stop himself. “You do know a Hobbit’s meal schedule, right? I’m a typical Hobbit. That means I can pack it away quite neatly.” As if to remind him, his stomach growled again. “Bother. I’m missing teatime.”

Thorin obviously came from the same family as Balin, because Bilbo could just about hear him nodding. “You don’t need to answer right away,” he said. “We can send you an electronic contract.”

Wonderful, more computer shenanigans. “May I talk to Balin, er, Your Majesty?” Bilbo said. “I’d like to confirm things about your offer with him.”

“Yes,” said Thorin. “It’s been a pleasure, Master Baggins.”

“You don’t need to call me Master, you know,” Bilbo said. “Plain ‘Mister’ is fine.”

“You’re a master of your chosen profession, aren’t you?” Thorin asked, but his tone indicated he didn’t particularly require an answer. “You passed out of any apprenticeships a long time ago. Pardon my terminology, Mr. Baggins. I just tend to be old-fashioned in my words.” He chuckled. “I won’t use it if it bothers you. And I’ll put Balin back on now.”

Balin came back on the line before Bilbo could say thank you. “Has this helped, Mr. Baggins?”

“Yes, exceedingly fine,” Bilbo said. That was probably not grammatically correct. He’d definitely gone too long without brushing up on his grammar, not a good idea if he was going to go outside the realm of will contests and disputes about whose flowers had gotten planted on whose side of the hill anytime soon. “If I take this job, I’d prefer not to have any electronic contracts sent to me. I don’t much care for the speed of modern technology. Call me a Luddite if you will.”

“After Ludd the Orc, I take it,” said Balin. “Historically apt. Very well, Mr. Baggins. If you do choose to take the job, we can prepare a paper contract for you to sign here. No cost to you for returning to the Shire if you dislike the terms, of course.”

“No cost to me? Were you planning to get me there on your silver?” Bilbo said. “That’s incredibly generous. I can’t possibly accept…”

Balin picked up for him, thankfully, and that sentence died a natural death without Bilbo making a spluttering fool of himself. “I believe there’s an airstrip in the Shire, yes?”

“That and an international airport.”

“We’ll send a private plane for you tomorrow, if you decide tonight that you’d like to accept the offer on a probationary basis, on your terms, to be decided upon your arrival.”

Tomorrow?” Bilbo repeated. “Do you have any idea how long it would take to eat the contents of my pantry? Not to mention my refrigerator.” And the second pantry, and anything perishable in the wine cellar that he had hanging up to dry, and so on and so forth. Maybe he still had a wrapped caramel or five in his bedside table drawer, too. Mmm.

“Ah,” said Balin, not missing a beat. “We’ll send a private plane next week.”

This kingdom was not hurting for money, that was for certain. “I – I can get a house-sitter,” Bilbo said. “It’s not as though – look, give me a bit to consider the offer. It’s exceedingly generous. Shall I call you when I’ve had time to think it over? I suppose you’re probably missing dinner now as well.”

“Of course, of course,” Balin said. “Was there anything else you wanted to speak about?”

Bilbo shook his head. Wait, no, Balin couldn’t see that. Stupid. “No, that seems to be it,” he replied. “I’ll, er, talk to you later?” How was he supposed to end a conversation with a king’s adviser? Definitely not with that informal of a sign-off, he knew that much.

“Whenever you like,” Balin said. “I do mean that. I sleep very lightly.”

“I see.”

“Goodbye and good evening, Mr. Baggins. I look forward to speaking with you in future.”

“You, too,” Bilbo said hoarsely, his throat having gone dry without his noticing. The call ended with a soft boop as polite as everything Balin had said, but Bilbo could only sit there with the phone in his hand, listening to the dial tone. Well, until his stomach began to make evil noises.

Right. Teatime. Food: good for settling the stomach, the mind, and the mood. Bilbo couldn’t count the number of times he’d seen a fellow Hobbit get ‘hangry,’ as the expression went, when a meal was delayed. On top of the out-of-body experience that was his phone call to Erebor, he didn’t want to start feeling any hanger.

“Sorry, Myrtle,” he said. The brief would have to wait until after he’d eaten. Thank Estë the Gentle he’d dithered with the Clayhangers instead of giving them a definitive date on finishing the suit for them.

A cursory search of his refrigerator turned up a glazed lemon cake with poppy seeds, two half-eaten pots of preserve he’d retrieved from the cellar for breakfast that morning, quite a lot of bacon even for a Hobbit, and the fixings for tonight’s roast chicken. He frowned. Nothing really caught his fancy, and everyone knew that there was nothing worse for your stomach than eating something you weren’t in the mood for. Mannish doctors who said otherwise didn’t know what they were talking about – no wonder the Men complained about their stomach pains all the time.

“Market,” he said. He didn’t particularly feel like rummaging through his pantries, either. Today was a market day, likely with more prepared food than fresh due to the season; there would definitely be something he could have for a fast tea. More groceries, if he wanted overpriced fruits and vegetables, would necessitate a trip to the Mannish-style indoor store.

Bilbo grabbed his keys and, after opening the front door, decided against an overcoat. The April afternoon was more than sunny enough for an uncovered walk to Hobbiton Square.

On his way down the path, he found himself whistling, of all the things. Bleeding hell, not even four times his normal pay should have done that to him. “Dwarves,” he muttered. Perhaps he’d been subconsciously craving a shake-up to his life after all.

There were still plenty of stalls and booths up by the time he reached the square. Bilbo made a beeline towards the hot-pie stall, which sold all manner of pies from spinach to meat and smelled heavenly. The Hobbit huddled in front of him in the queue turned around and smiled. “Oh! Mister Bilbo!”

“Just Bilbo,” Bilbo corrected automatically – hellish class system, didn’t his relatives know it was the Seventh Age for all Hobbits rather than just them? – before he recognized the speaker. “Holman!” he exclaimed in return. “How are you?”

“I’m well.” Holman - Hob, if you knew him - held up his market basket. “Just getting a few things for the little ones. Eat like seedlings soaking up sunlight, they do.”

“That’s children for you,” Bilbo agreed, having seen plenty of cousins do the same thing. “You’re doing all right, then?” Hob was the son of one of Dad’s old friends from when he went to school in Tighfield, Old Hob having been an older Hobbit whom Dad had raved about for the inventive knots he knew how to make. His youngest had ended up moving to Bagshot Row when he came of age; he’d married a local lass, and Bilbo’s fondness for them both led him to pull out his wallet now. “Do you want me to get your pie? I skipped tea. Completely stupid, I know.”

Hob blinked at him, shuffling as the line moved. “You haven’t got to do that!” But then, with the irresistible Hobbit curiosity about food, “Why did you skip tea?”

“Had to call a potential client,” Bilbo said. It was mostly true. No, completely true. He didn’t have to share his plans with all and sundry. “Honestly, I’d like to get you some pie. I would buy all of Hobbiton a pie from this stall if I could. They’re fantastic.”

He was probably laying it on a bit thick, but at least Hob didn’t look offended at the offer. “Well, all right, then,” he said, shrugging. “Got to pay you back.”

“Have me over for supper sometime and share Begonia’s cupcakes,” Bilbo said. “I’ll eat five, see if I don’t.”

Now Hob smiled. “That’s fair. Oi, I think it’s our turn.”

It was indeed their turn. “What do you want, then?” Bilbo asked. He squinted at the menu. “Oh, look, they’ve got a seasonal pie. Radish and lamb with onion.” His mouth watered. Would the onion and lamb fat balance out the sweetness of the spring radishes after they’d been cooked down? Now was the time to find out.

Hob’s smile widened and he licked his lips. “Sounds lovely.”

“Four of those seasonal pies,” Bilbo told the Hobbit behind the counter, a Hobbit he didn’t know. Probably a visiting Bolger cousin or niece.

“Coming up.”

He paid, handing Hob his two pies with a reminder to give Begonia and the kids his love, before deciding to wander around a bit with his own pies in hand. Somewhere between the table selling decorative clay pots and another selling cabbage seeds, he heard footsteps behind him, followed by a voice. “Bilbo Baggins!”

Bilbo swallowed his mouthful of pie and reluctantly turned. “Good afternoon, Lobelia.”

“Good afternoon to you,” she shot back. As usual, she carried her trusty basket and umbrella; however, in deference to the season, the latter had a light green ribbon tied around the handle. “What has you eating at the market like this? Run out of things for tea?”

“Not at all,” Bilbo said. “A Hobbit has a perfect right to expand his palate if he has a mind to.” What an absolutely terrible hat. She might have a valid thing or two to say about his lying-around-the-house jeans if he was correctly interpreting her once-over, but that was still a terrible hat.

Lobelia slowly nodded. “He does,” she said, her gaze sharpening. “You oughtn’t be out of the house in that getup.”

“Neither should you.” Bilbo lowered his voice – you never knew where and when children might be listening. “Is Otho so disappointing between the sheets that you just had to get away?”

“Not at all.” If Lobelia were an animal at that moment, she definitely would have been something with frightening eyes and sharp teeth, so predatorily satisfied was her face. “Rather the opposite.”

“Wait, seriously?” Bilbo said. “Otho?” His cousin had always proven himself a disappointing person in other regards, having decided to fully embrace the life of a gentle-Hobbit of leisure as soon as he was old enough to know that a silver spoon fit comfortably in his mouth. “I don’t believe it.”

Lobelia wiggled her eyebrows. “Believe it.” She looked around furtively, then stuck out her tongue and wiggled that, too. “And he likes it.”

“That is patently unfair,” Bilbo said, and took an enormous bite of his pie. He chewed defiantly at Lobelia, then held out the second pie as soon as he’d swallowed. “I’m not the only one taking the market air at teatime, am I? You’d best eat before you waste away on six meals.”

“I’ve already eaten,” said Lobelia with a sniff, but she did take the pie. “What’s in this one?”

“Radish, onion, and lamb,” Bilbo said. “Quite good.”

Lobelia took a cautious bite and pondered it, then took a bigger one. Juice dripped down her chin, and she moaned happily before wiping it away. “So I think I should assume from your attitude,” she said, “that you haven’t found anyone to actually satisfy you, greedy little thing.”

Bilbo put on a haughty voice. “Indeed not. I’ll thank you not to taunt me about it, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins.” They could tolerate each other for short periods, but this was why he didn’t make a point of being friends with her. She was sharp enough to hit his sore spots and did so on purpose all too often.

Lobelia folded her arms across her chest, pie hanging from one hand, and leaned on one leg. “So you haven’t found that sort of satisfaction,” she said. “You just rattle around all day in that big smial. What, exactly, are you still doing in the Shire?”

Bilbo pursed his lips instead of snapping back. She wasn’t wrong, was she? Boring job fixing other people’s petty problems when they could have fixed them on their own. Same meals every day, often taken at the same time. He was the son of people with a bit more spark and he’d whistled at the thought of leaving, so what was he waiting for? “I’m not going to stay in the Shire,” he said, making a final split-second judgment. “Not for a while, at least.”

Lobelia raised an eyebrow. “Then what are you going to do?”

Bilbo grinned. “I’m going on an adventure.”

Chapter Text

Bilbo’s heart pounded as the plane taxied to a slow stop a mere hundred feet or so away from him. This was it. He supposed he could always get out of it, but he didn’t want to and now he was going to Erebor. He tightly clutched the handle of his carry-on suitcase, which he’d stuffed full of food the night before. No telling which meal he might miss in those two hours or more switching time zones over the surface of Arda.

He trotted around to the side of the plane with his suitcase dragging behind him, just as an airport attendant on a cherry-picker next to his pile of luggage pulled open a hatch on the side of the plane and brought down a set of metal stairs. “What’s the ‘REA’ stand for?” Bilbo asked, pointing towards the plane’s elegant blue logo.

“Royal Erebor Airlines,” said the Man. Well, Bilbo thought, I’m officially a complete idiot. “This is where I leave you. Enjoy your trip.”

As soon as the employee had driven away on his cherry-picker, a round Dwarf-lass in long black pants and a blue over-jacket came down the steps and immediately grabbed Bilbo in a hug. Bilbo gasped in a futile effort to recover his wind. “I’m Hrona Imul,” she said. “You must be Bilbo Baggins. We’re all of us really excited to meet you at Erebor.”

Bilbo sucked in his breath when she let go after what seemed like forever. “Bilbo Baggins, yes,” he said, then stuck out his hand for her to shake. “It’s lovely to meet you. Er, Mistress Imul, is it?”

“Call me Hrona,” she said, then took his hand and shook it hard. “And I’ll call you Bilbo, if that’s all right.” Bilbo nodded; he couldn’t bear to see her stop beaming, she looked that happy to see him. “You’ll be a hero in Erebor, ye will. We wouldn’t have a mountain without your parents!” Bilbo noted that her accent was lighter than Balin’s, with more twists than swallowed vowels. He’d almost say that it danced.

“Well,” he said, cheeks heating up, “that was all a very long time ago, wasn’t it? I had nothing to do with it.” In fact, that night the Dwarves had shown up and feasted in his parents’ smial had quite a lot to do with him, Mum having grabbed Dad and dragged him into - not now, Bilbo. “Shall we get on?”

Hrona nodded and finally let go of his hand, though she didn’t appear one bit embarrassed at holding on to it for so long. Bilbo spread his fingers wide and shook his wrist. She had quite a grip. “I’ll be your copilot today,” she said, and pointed at his luggage. “Is that what you’ve brought?”

“Should I have brought more?” Bilbo asked, wrong-footed all of a sudden. “I’ve got no idea what the proper amount of…I could go home and get more clothes?” he said hesitantly, but stopped when Hrona began to laugh. “All right, that’s a no.”

“If it’s not enough, we’ve got shops that can make aught for a Hobbit,” she said, “or you could have your clothes sent, couldn’t ye?”

“I suppose,” Bilbo replied. Hob had nearly cried when Bilbo asked him to watch the smial for a few months – move in Begonia and the children, of course, what sort of person did Hob take him for? – and take care of the gardens. He’d written Hob a check for a full three months, with the promise of more if he stayed longer, and stuffed one of his freezers with enough ice cream to keep Hob and Begonia’s ten children happy for at least a week. “I’ve got friends smial-sitting for me, but I’d prefer if they didn’t go into my bedroom. Especially the children.”

Hrona shrugged. “Isn’t that how it always is?” she said. “Can’t keep kids out of anything. I’ve got five myself, me and Bombur.”

“Bombur?”

“Me husband,” Hrona said. “He was on the Quest for Erebor! We got ourselves married right when I got to Erebor after. Now he’s an engineer workin’ for King Thorin himself, and I’m a pilot.” She smiled and spread her arms wide. “Not bad for people who didn’t think we could make ends meet down in the mines. It’s poor livin’ in the towns of Men sometimes.”

“Oh,” said Bilbo. “Well, that’s quite good for you. Er.” He rubbed his hands vigorously up and down his arms; a cold wind was kicking up. “Not to be rude, but could I get into the plane?”

Hrona looked around and held up a finger to test the wind. “Aye, sure,” she said. “I’ll just put your things in the hatch. You can go on and get in. And you’ll never half guess who my copilot is!”

Bilbo supposed it must have been someone terribly important, but guessing took second place to gawking as soon as he got up the stairs. The inside of the plane was beautiful. Eight seats that looked like overstuffed armchairs (and reclined, Bilbo had no doubt) sat in clusters of four, upholstered in deep blue leather. Between them, a television rested on a low table, and soft recessed lighting at the edges of the curved ceiling showed off the blue-and-gold geometric carpet pattern to a high advantage. Someone had closed all the shutters, and in that sudden gold-accented darkness, he felt as though he’d stepped into the night sky.

“Goodness,” he said faintly, and heard the thump of his belongings being loaded into the cargo hatch somewhere below him. “This is certainly luxury travel.”

The click of an intercom made him jump. “Good morning, Mr. Boggins, this is your captain speaking,” someone said. “I’m Prince Kíli, and don’t worry, my brother and I both have our pilots’ licenses. If you look to your left, you’ll see lots of luxury travel, and if you look to your right, you’ll see more. Feel free to have a seat, and make sure to buckle yourself in or Uncle will have my head.”

“The prince?” Bilbo said. The king had sent his nephew to bring Bilbo to Erebor? What level of honor had Thorin and Balin neglected to tell him about? “I’m assuming you can hear me.”

Click. “Yup.”

“Your stuff’s all settled in the boot,” Hrona said from behind him, and pulled the stairs up, doing up the latches as Bilbo watched. “Just buckle yourself up wherever you like, and I’ll bring you some snacks as soon as we’re in the air. Will you be wantin’ gum or anything? We’ve got sugar-free if you’re concerned about your teeth.”

Bilbo wordlessly chose the nearest seat and buckled himself in. He couldn’t repress a happy sigh; the chair was even more comfortable than it looked. It felt as though he were sinking into a very secure pit of quicksand, which likely meant memory foam. “Where should I put my carry-on?”

“I’ll take that,” Hrona said, and slid the suitcase into an overhead compartment. “It’s just until we’re secure in the air, Bilbo. You can walk around and get it after the seatbelt sign is off.”

“Yes, thanks,” said Bilbo. “And by the way, I don’t know if Prince Kíli is going to hear this, but it’s Baggins. My surname’s not Boggins.”

“Roger that,” said Kíli over the intercom. “So sorry. We haven’t had much time to get familiar with your name, Fíli and me. Uncle’s been shut up with Balin and Dwalin since you said yes, except when he’s been down in the forge. I think he’s afraid you’ll fall in, you know, because you’re a Hobbit and you don’t know how forges work.”

Hrona tapped Bilbo on the shoulder and, when he looked her way, proffered several packs of gum. “Thanks,” said Bilbo, choosing a cherry-flavored one. “Is he always that, er, effusive?”

“’Course!” Kíli said. “What, you mean that’s not normal for you?” He paused. “Well, I’m just probably too much like Dad. ‘Amad says he’s a chronic oversharer and she wishes she was the only one to raise me sometimes.”

Hrona burst out in snorting giggles and dropped the rest of the gum. “Ah, Mahal damn it,” she said as she bent over to pick them up. “Kíli, lad, why don’t you get us up in the air? You can tell Bilbo here all about your mam and dad in Erebor. How’s that?”

“Over and out,” said Kíli. “You’d better stay buckled up, Mr. Boggins. Fuck! Sorry, I mean Baggins. Anyway, Hrona and I will start the plane.”

“Start the plane,” Bilbo mumbled to himself. How long had Kíli had his pilot’s license, anyway? Luckily, Hrona didn’t seem concerned; she just got into the cockpit and, a few moments later, Bilbo felt the plane begin to move.

He held his breath through the takeoff, but it went smoothly; he enjoyed the stomach swoop when the plane started rising, always his favorite part of flying (certainly not the snacks, which were never in large enough portions). “We’re up in the air,” said Kíli once they were more or less horizontal. “I think in a few minutes, you can get up and do whatever you want. I mean, not anything. Just…don’t go crazy.”

Bilbo cracked a smile at that. King Thorin would most likely have his nephew’s head if Bilbo did anything crazy on the plane.

“You can move now if ye want,” Hrona told him after the promised few minutes, pointing to the seatbelt sign. As Kíli had promised, it was dark now. “Brought any books? Movies? We’ve got some of all that.” She briskly moved from window to window, opening each halfway.

“No, I mostly brought food,” Bilbo said. “Out of curiosity, why does a private plane even need that sign? You could just tell me to put on my seat belt.”

“We’re very concerned about safety here at Royal Erebor Airlines,” said Kíli in an affected tone. “And – wargshit, I forgot to tell you. The in-flight movie is either The Battle of Beleriand, some Mannish romantic comedy, or home movies that Fíli and I made. They’re really good,” he wheedled.

Bilbo chewed on his thumb to keep from laughing. “I’ll take the romantic comedy in a bit, thanks,” he said. “Right now, I’m peckish…Hrona, you haven’t got to do that,” he added as Hrona brightened and started towards the back of the plane. “You’re copilot, right? This, er, isn’t because you’re a lass, is it?”

“This is your captain speaking.”

Bilbo repressed a sigh. Wouldn’t do to reprimand a prince, not at all. “Yes, Kíli, we know.” Not that he was about to use a princely title. All eagerness, Kíli reminded him of some of his tweenage cousins.

“Yes. Anyway. Hrona’s not in the kitchen because she’s a Dwarrowdam. It’s because –”

“Because me husband made the food,” Hrona interrupted, plate in hand. She must, Bilbo thought, have made it up beforehand to have brought it so fast. “I promised him I’d be up close and personal to see if ye liked it. Wonderful talent with food, Bombur has.” She put the plate on the small table in front of Bilbo, smiling proudly.

Bilbo licked his lips. “I can see that! What are those?” They looked rather like the scones he liked to make for tea, and Hrona had provided small pots of jam and honey beside them, heightening the resemblance.

“Oat scones,” said Hrona. “Recipe from the Blue Mountains. We’ve got wonderful oats growin’ there.” She laid a fork on the plate. “Bombur’s put a bit of sharp cheese in these, just a bit. Got some herbs in there, too. Savory, but they’re great with honey and jam. Do ye want butter, too?”

Bilbo picked up one of the scones. He only intended to taste it, but as soon as he glanced back at his hands, he found that the entire thing was gone. “Eru’s mercy,” he said. Crumbs covered the front of his shirt and waistcoat. “Is that cheese or magic?”

Hrona’s laughter came out in a pleased peal this time. “I’ll tell Bom ye asked!” she said. “No, it’s only cheese. Here, try one with honey and jam both.”

Bilbo did. Again, he did his best to savor his scone, but it disappeared faster than he could say ‘I want that out of my mouth and into my tum.’ Wiping off his mouth as politely as he could, he said, “You said your husband is an architect, right?”

“Mm-hm,” said Hrona. “I told ye he came on the Quest, right?” Bilbo nodded. “Well! He’s done some amazing things. Designed the light pattern on the doors to the royal quarters itself! What d’ye think of that?”

Bilbo rather suspected he stared at her. A few more crumbs fell out of his open mouth, and he wiped his lower lip in embarrassment. “You’ve certainly got a right to be proud of him,” he said. “I have to ask, whatever is he doing as an architect? This is phenomenal food. Is he master of two crafts?” He didn’t need the Internet to know the bare minimum about how Dwarves termed their craftspeople. Growing up less than a day’s drive from the Ered Luin, with a mother who had visited on at least one occasion before she married Dad, it was hard not to.

Hrona’s cheeks went pink. “Well! That’s so kind of ye to say!” She shook her head, grinning from ear to ear. “Fancy that, you thinkin’ we’ve got a double master in the house. No, Bom only does this for fun. Architecture’s his true calling.”

“I’ll say this,” said Bilbo. “If he were to open up a restaurant in the Shire, he’d be the wealthiest person there in days.”

“I’ll tell him ye said so,” Hrona said. “He really ought to open one. I know that and I don’t know very much about food. Except for eatin’ it, of course!” She chuckled. “All right, let me get something else. It’s buckwheat biscuits with lemon and rosemary in.”

Bilbo put his fingertips against his mouth to keep from drooling. “Yes, please.”

Kíli had the good grace to remain quiet through the buckwheat biscuits and the fried bits of goat meat-egg-and-goat-cheese fried with breadcrumbs. He didn’t even make any noise (except for a few snickers over the intercom) when the romantic comedy came on and Bilbo engrossed himself in the story of two Mannish who…did something so predictable that he couldn’t remember the plot from one scene to another.

About halfway through the credits, where Bilbo was hoping for a stinger scene, Kíli spoke up. “Lady and gentle-Hobbit, we’re approaching our descent into Erebor,” he said. “If you look out the window, you’ll see that we’re directly over Mirkwood.” He stifled a laugh. “I’m doing a barrel roll and fucking with their radar!”

“Wait, no, no, no!” Bilbo shouted, just as Hrona pulled his plate of movie snacks (crispy fried corn) away from him and buckled both him and herself into seats. “Kíli, no!”

And then the plane flipped over.

Bilbo was certain he screamed. Before his heart could settle back into a beat that wasn’t heart-attack irregular, the plane was back in its usual configuration and a person who wasn’t Kíli was sending a message over the intercom. “Kíli,” they said in a long-suffering tone, “is that you?”

“Over and out!” Kíli chirped. Bilbo didn’t have the stomach right then to tell him he’d misused the term.

“Don’t do that again,” said the Elf. “We don’t want to have to summon King Thranduil.”

“Oh, Mahal, no,” Kíli said. “I’ve learned my lesson, I swear.”

The Elf was silent for a moment. “See that you have,” they finally said. “I know this isn’t the first time.” Then the transmission clicked off.

Bilbo looked down and saw his hands, white-knuckled, clutching the arms of his chair. He couldn’t stop breathing hard through his nose. “My heart’s racing,” he said. “Green Lady.”

“Kíli,” Hrona scolded, “don’t be a wee shit.”

“Sorry,” said Kíli, and to his credit, he did sound as though he regretted it.

Bilbo slowly unclenched his hands over the course of their descent and made sure to pop his ears regularly. He didn’t want a headache on top of a fright. This was by far the weirdest plane ride he’d ever been on, and whether or not he liked it remained to be seen.

“Lady and gentle-Hobbit,” said Kíli when the terrain beneath them began to clear, “if you look out the window, you’ll see the Lonely Mountain, or the Kingdom of Erebor.”

Bilbo crossed his fingers and fervently hoped that this wouldn’t involve another barrel roll before he did so. Surely Kíli wouldn’t risk the wrath of his uncle for the sake of some fun. Then he saw the mountain in question (which in itself was impressive, given his distance from the windows) and all thoughts of Kíli abruptly left his head. “Oh…wow.”

Erebor rose up from the scrubby outlying trees and stony fields around it with a magnificence that felt like some sort of pride. The tiny buildings that ringed it couldn’t compare; it was as if Aule the Smith had sat down among the Dwarves He created to tell them a story. Bilbo couldn’t see the snow-capped top that he’d imagined, but as the plane moved, silver squares flashed rainbow light against the deep gray stone. “What’s that?” he asked.

“What’s what? Those? Solar panels,” Kíli said. “That’s how we get a lot of our energy. Up top, we’ve got wind turbines, and the River Running helps a lot. We reuse the energy out of the forges, too.”

“Amazing,” Bilbo whispered. “A clean kingdom. It’s beautiful, Kíli.”

“Thank you,” said Kíli. His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. “Um. If you look below us, you’ll see, er, Nori! Yes!” He slapped his hands against the control panel so hard that Bilbo could hear it even without the intercom. “And he’s mooning us! You can’t see it, but I can. Time to buzz the mountain.”

Bilbo opened his mouth to ask who Nori was or maybe scream at Kíli to stop executing maneuvers, he wasn’t sure which, when the plane swooped alarmingly to one side. “Yeah!” Kíli cheered. “That’ll show his pasty arse!”

The plane straightened, then swooped to the other side before Bilbo could take full inventory of the sloshing contents of his digestive system. “Kíli, stop!” he shouted through the hand over his mouth. “You’re going to make me throw up!”

Kíli abruptly righted the plane, but Bilbo still sat rigid with his hand still clamped in a death grip over his mouth. “Ah, lad, been a bit of a turn,” Hrona sighed, reaching across the space between them to pat his hand. “Kíli, that was a terrible thing to do. I’ll be havin’ more words with you when we land.”

“We’re landing now,” Kíli said (nearly squeaked, really). “Erm. Look down and you’ll see the, um, let me open up a transmission. Erebor, are you there?”

“Aye, we’re here. Prince Kíli?” said a voice Bilbo didn’t recognize. Neither Balin nor Thorin, then. “Opening the hatch now. You’re right on schedule.”

“Thank you,” said Kíli. He breathed out loudly. Bilbo couldn’t imagine that landing had been any easier on his stomach than on Bilbo’s own, even for having undoubtedly done it before. “All right. If you look down, you’ll see the airplane hatch opening. We’ll get brought down to the underground tunnels and that’ll take us to the hangar.”

Bilbo concentrated very hard on not projectile vomiting while the plane made a slow, smooth vertical landing, and felt his body relax when they juddered to a stop on a solid surface. As promised, machinery then brought them downward and a hatch closed over the plane, leaving them in darkness. “This is the underground tunnel?” Bilbo asked.

“Not quite,” said Hrona. “Here, we’re going forward on a conveyer belt and…there it is.” The plane began to move again. “This is takin’ us through those tunnels Kíli told ye about. Hear that?”

Bilbo cocked his head. “That whooshing sound?”

Hrona nodded. “Alcohol. Sprayin’ down the plane. That’s to kill anything that might’ve gotten on the wheels from the Shire. Parasites, that sort of thing. It’s happened before.”

“You don’t want anything invasive,” Bilbo guessed, and earned himself another nod.

“Exactly. They’ve gotten parasites before in other places. Almost wiped out a wheat field down in Umbar a few years ago.”

The plane soon coasted to a stop. Bilbo unbuckled his seat belt, but found himself unable to stand; he could only sit half-hunched, doubled over his belly with his hands awkwardly around his knees. “I’m not feeling well,” he said.

“It’s this one’s fault,” said Hrona. “Here, have a look at him. I’ll bring him ‘round.”

“Ow!” Kíli yelped. At that, Bilbo just had to look up. Hrona had her erstwhile copilot by the ear, and now she pulled him over to Bilbo’s seat. “Ow, Hrona, I’m sorry!” He didn’t look very Dwarvish, Bilbo observed, but perhaps that was because he was young – or because he was wearing jeans. Kíli’s wavy brown hair came down to his shoulders, and the softness of his features reminded Bilbo of some of the Stoorish Hobbits he’d met in his life. Some of them could grow stubble like Kíli, too.

“It’s…just don’t do it again,” said Bilbo. His stomach was still roiling. “Is it time to get out now? I feel like it’s time to get out.”

Hrona unbuckled his seat belt and pulled him up out of the chair. “Aye, it’s time to get out. Come on, let’s get ye up on your legs, Bilbo. You’ll feel better after a bit of time on the ground.” She went to the hatch and opened it, then lowered the stairs down.

“How on Arda do you do that?” Bilbo said. “The angle – doesn’t it kill your arms?”

Hrona flexed. “Dwarvish muscles,” she said. “We’re all a bit like that, unless we’re Dwarflings. Come on, then.”

Bilbo lurched forward, but he had to hang on to the rail nearest the stairs instead of going down them like someone whose gastrointestinal system hadn’t just been violently rearranged. Down, Bilbo, just go down one step, he told himself. After that one step, though, he stopped again. “I’m going to throw up,” he announced. “So sorry…”

“I’ve got ye,” said Hrona, and whipped out a garbage bag (opaque, thank the Valar) from a dispenser in the wall.

“Is he well?” came someone’s voice from a farther distance. A familiar voice.

Sodding hell, Bilbo thought, and realized mid-heave that his introduction to the King of Erebor was, and would always be, him puking into an empty trash bag held by someone else. He couldn’t think of anything worse, not even wetting his trousers, because at least he could conceal or explain that away.

His head throbbed by the time he was finished. “I’ll take care of this,” said Hrona, tying off the bag, after which she grabbed Kíli by the ear once again, led him down the steps, and then downright dragged him out a door that Bilbo could only discern by her fading voice. “Mahal-damned kid! What’d’ye think you were doin’? I oughta hit ye with this!”

Bilbo made it the rest of the way down the stairs, holding onto the railing the whole time. “Sorry I can’t put these back up,” he said, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Er. This is a terrible introduction.” The two Dwarves in front of him had to be Thorin and Balin; the one in front, with puffy white hair, deep red robes, and an expression that clearly said he was all-seeing and all-knowing, was obviously the king. “I’m Bilbo Baggins,” he said, and bowed to the Dwarf. Clever of him to have a big bloke for an adviser; he had to be doubling as a bodyguard. “At your service, your Majesty.”

“Thank you,” said the big Dwarf. Oh. Not Balin. Bilbo could feel himself blanch, and he knew that he’d just made his second gigantic mistake of the day. If they would have him after this, then it would be nothing short of a miracle. “At your service and your family’s, Mr. Baggins.”

“Bugger,” said Bilbo. “I mean thank you! I, ah, all right.” He held out his hand for Thorin to shake and dared a look up at his face as he did. And by up, he meant really up.

Shit.

The barrister part of Bilbo’s brain lit up with inventory. Dark hair, some of it braided, all of it interspersed with silver. Beard in a neat braid down to the collar of his shirt – linen, no doubt, and fine, unwrinkled linen, too. Eyes like a winter pond under its covering of ice, and a chest…Yavanna banged on the bloody anvil, what kind of fool would ever believe this person had erectile dysfunction? “H-hello,” he said, and cursed the technophobic day he’d decided not to look Thorin up on the computer beforehand. But no, Balin said everything would be provided here, and look where he was now. “So you’re the king.”

Thorin bowed slightly. “So you are the barrister.”

Bilbo gulped in case anything else had decided to come up, but no, that was just his nerves rising. “You don’t look like a – like the prototypical king,” he said, catching himself just in time to avoid saying that Thorin didn’t look like a king at all.

Thorin chuckled. Bilbo could practically feel the noise in his own chest. “And you look more like a grocer than a barrister,” he said.

Just like that, the bubble burst. “Excuse me?” Bilbo snapped. “Are you implying I look like the sort of person to…to stand at a till all day and let myself be harangued by arseholes?” Belatedly, he thought that perhaps he oughtn’t have sworn at a king who wanted to give him money. No matter. It was done.

Thorin frowned and cocked his head. “Is there something wrong with that sort of person?”

Oh dear. He might not have meant the insult after all. “Nothing at all,” said Bilbo, and then his stomach betrayed him with a growl closer to a snarl. “What time is it here, out of curiosity?”

Balin shook back his sleeve and checked the silver watch around his wrist. “Half two.”

“I’ve missed two meals,” Bilbo said. “No, three. I didn’t officially have second breakfast and it’s past the normal time for elevenses and lunch. I rather lost the surrogate second breakfast.” He ruefully nodded at the plane. “I hate to ask, but is there any chance I could eat before we begin work?”

Balin nodded, rubbing his hands together. Were it not for his warm and genuine smile, Bilbo thought he’d look like a Bond villain, or maybe the villain’s fluffy white Orocarni cat. “That’s not a problem,” he said. “Let’s just take a trip to one of our council rooms and I’ll find something. Have you got any preference?”

Bilbo considered that for all of three seconds. “No, I’m fine with anything, as long as there’s enough of it.”

“Excellent,” Balin said. “Thorin, I’m assuming you’ll drive us back?”

Thorin nodded once, brusquely. “I left my car in the garage a few levels up. Mr. Baggins, will your stomach tolerate a lift?” He raised one eyebrow.

“I’m sure I can make it without losing the remains of my breakfast, thanks ever so,” said Bilbo. He truly did loathe being mocked.

“Very well,” said Thorin, and pointed. “The plane should be unloaded in a few minutes. Your things will be brought up. Our exit is just there.”

Bilbo thanked his stars that the glass walls of the lift turned to metal at about waist level; despite his reply to Thorin’s question, he really didn’t want to have to watch the ground drop away at a truly ridiculous speed. With that horrifying possibility off the table, he was free to admire the quickly-moving dark walls of the shaft. “I must say, I wouldn’t expect you to do your own driving,” he said.

Thorin’s thick brows went up, both of them this time. “Why?”

Balin made a noise that could have been disapproving, but as Bilbo guessed it was for Thorin, he pressed on. “Safety concerns?”

“Ah, I see.” The lift stopped soundlessly and Thorin led them out before continuing. “I thought you wished to accuse me of…” He shook his head. “Never mind. As for safety, I am well-monitored when I drive. Anyone who wants to do me harm must first go through Nori Stone.” He held out an electronic key and a car lit up in the darkness of the garage.

“Spymaster in all but name,” Balin explained as they got into Thorin’s car (Bilbo in the backseat), before Bilbo could ask. “You’ll be learning state secrets working for us, anyhow.”

Thorin expertly backed the car out of its spot and drove through a low, wide exit into a tunnel lit with the same kind of recessed lighting that Bilbo remembered from the plane. Luckily - for him as well as any otherwise hapless drivers, he supposed – this incarnation was much brighter. “Lovely roads,” he said.

Thorin’s broad shoulders stiffened, though Bilbo couldn’t fathom why. “Thank you,” he said slowly, space evident between the words. “We updated it significantly after the Reclamation. There are vents to keep any vehicle’s heat from changing the mountain’s bio-insulation.”

“That’s amazing,” Bilbo said. “Really.”

“Thank you,” said Balin, leaning over the back of the seat to smile at him. “It’s about ten miles to our destination. We’ll arrive soon. Would you like to listen to some music?”

“No, thanks,” said Bilbo. “I’ll be quite all right.”

So they spent the rest of the drive in silence, which gave Bilbo time to observe the way the roads curved – not enough to make him dizzy, but enough to let him know that they were spiraling upward around the outside of the mountain. He gazed out the window, feeling like a fauntling on his first car trip to visit Mum’s family in Tuckborough for Yule, and watched the walls whiz by. Occasionally a flash of metal broke up the stone like a bolt of lightning, and he had to rub his eyes to make sure they weren’t just shadows from sleep deprivation.

Eventually, Thorin rounded a sharp curve and slowed, pulling up to a touchpad before a large stone door. He held a card against the pad and the door slid apart to let them in. Lights came on as he drove through and revealed a smaller garage than the one they’d left, with maybe twenty parking spots that Bilbo could see. “This is the royal garage,” said Balin. “For the royal family and visitors. The noble quarters have one nearby. Bit bigger, since there are more of us.”

Bilbo got out and stretched his arms over his head, then stretched his legs. “Question,” he said. “Did I see veins of metal in the road walls, or was that just my imagination?”

“You saw them, I’m sure,” said Thorin as he began to walk away from the car. “There are many small veins that we haven’t mined. We tend to leave them if they would disturb the structural integrity of the mountain or simply aren’t necessary.”

“Well, if you afford to pay me five hundred gildings a week, you certainly don’t need to mine everything you can stick a pickax into,” Bilbo remarked.

Thorin snorted, but as he was in front, Bilbo couldn’t see his facial expression. “That may be true,” he said, and pressed his keycard against another touchpad next to the doors of a small lift; they promptly opened, and he ushered Bilbo and Balin inside. “This will take us to the council rooms.”

This lift whizzed them up only one level, at which point Balin took the lead, drawing an old-fashioned silver key from his robe pocket and opening the nearest door. “This will do,” he said. “Now, we’ve got two options. Either I could fetch some leftovers from home, or I could order something from a restaurant. Thorin, Mr. Baggins, what do you think?”

Politeness would dictate that Bilbo decline with a gracious ‘neither.’ His roaring stomach said something else entirely. “It’s your choice,” he said. “What sort of leftovers were you talking about?”

Balin’s eyes twinkled like the Yulefather out of an old children’s illustration. “I’ve some cold sandwiches from yesterday,” he said. “I don’t think your belly will be satisfied with that, Mr. Baggins. You have missed three full meals. Thorin, why don’t I phone your nephews and ask them to pick something up from the soup shop? That should be nice and filling.”

“The one near the main forges,” Thorin said, “or the one by the threadcrafters’ guild hall?”

“I think the one by the guild hall will do,” said Balin. “They make a wonderful spring-onion soup this time of year. We grow them just within the border, Mr. Baggins,” he added, turning to Bilbo, “so they’re quite local. The soup has a lovely bit of smoked pork in it as well.”

Bilbo surreptitiously, or so he hoped, punched a fist into his stomach to keep it from voicing its agreement. “That will suit just fine, Mr. Fundinul,” he said.

“Balin,” Balin corrected. “We’ll be working together quite a while if your contract is to your satisfaction. May I call you Bilbo?” Bilbo nodded. “That’s settled. Thorin, might I call one of your nephews?”

“Fíli,” Thorin said. “Kíli won’t be out of Hrona’s clutches for some time. He deserves it.”

“Oh, dear,” said Bilbo.

Thorin looked at him and briefly closed his eyes. “Mr. Baggins, I must apologize for Kíli’s shenanigans on the plane. You have my word, I won’t allow either him or his brother to fly you back to the Shire when the time comes. I’ve half a mind to ask that their licenses be revoked.”

“That’s…kind,” said Bilbo. What could he say? No one had ever threatened to ban a family member from an activity they enjoyed on his behalf. His cousins hadn’t even been punished the one time they got his head stuck through the fork of a tree in Tuckborough. Mum hadn’t spoken to Uncle Isembard for a month after. “Well. I’ll have whichever soup you two agree on.”

Balin pulled a phone out of the seemingly endless depths of his pockets and punched in a number as he unlocked the door. “Yes, hello, Fíli,” he said. “Mr. Baggins has arrived from the Shire. Would you go to Asmakshâlakel and buy three…no, I think four orders of the seasonal special?” He paused. “No, I can’t ask your brother. He’s being punished.”

Bilbo faintly heard the voice on the other end of the line ask “What the fuck did he do?”

“Language,” said Balin. “He got up to some shenanigans. Ask Hrona Imul if you’d like details.” Pause. “Yes, I’ll reimburse you.” Pause. “Erm. Hmm. Four orders of crispy chips as well, piping hot if they can make them. Pay extra if you must. And – what sort of drink do you like, Mr. Baggins?”

“Dandelion and burdock, please,” Bilbo said. Balin and Thorin gave him identical squints of confusion. “Oh. You don’t know what that is, do you?” What else would keep his stomach under control? “Ginger ale or ginger beer, then. Whatever you’ve got.” He held a hand against his abdomen.

“A ginger beer and three cups of water as well,” Balin told Fíli, “and some good hot tea in case that doesn’t settle Mr. Baggins’s belly. Erebor-style, not tourist, lemon and honey on the side. And four of those muffins they’ve got, the ones bigger than your fist.” Bilbo couldn’t help eyeing Thorin’s fist, making Balin chuckle. “You don’t need to ask me if you can get one, Fíli. I’m not your ‘Amad. Yes, that’ll be all.” He ended the call and re-stashed his phone. “Would you mind having a look at your contract while we wait, Bilbo?” he asked, making Bilbo’s head spin with the smooth transition from fond family member to adviser.

Bilbo held up a finger, then gave himself an internal once-over. No, his head wasn’t spinning enough to preclude intelligent thought. “That’s fine,” he said. “Have you got a copy?”

“Would you like to have your laptop brought up?” Thorin asked.

Obviously no one had told him about the computer situation. Red tape, Bilbo presumed. Poor communication: the bane of bureaucrats everywhere. “I haven’t got one,” he said. “Balin told me there wouldn’t be a problem with a hard copy. I do have an electronic typewriter, if that will do.”

“Typewriter?” Thorin echoed.

Yes,” Bilbo said, feeling a bit peevish (and Tookish). Hadn’t Thorin met…well, other people before? “Not everyone is as gadget-savvy as you Dwarves, you know.”

Thorin swept his arm towards the table in the center of the room, a beautiful circle of red-and-black-mottled stone surrounded by padded stone chairs with high backs. “By all means, take a seat, Mr. Baggins. Would you prefer an oil lamp as well? Balin, have we any quills and ink bottles in our stores?”

Bilbo rolled his eyes all the way to the ceiling. “No need to be a prat, King Thorin Oakenshield. Some of us have progressed beyond puberty in terms of maturity.”

“I am not immature,” Thorin growled. “I’ve simply moved with the times.”

“Bilbo! Thorin!” Balin pushed between them, an arm on each chest, and shoved lightly. Bilbo still stumbled back. This Dwarf had obviously not spent his entire life riding a desk instead of a pony, or a car, as the case might be. “Have I got to discipline you like children?” He turned his bushy-browed glare on Bilbo first. “You mustn’t bait someone so much older than you, Mr. Baggins. He’s seen more technology come and go than you could imagine. And you, Thorin, should be aware that I’ve already made arrangements for a hard copy of the contract. Is using a photocopier such an imposition?”

“Balin, we do our best to make this a paperless kingdom for a reason,” Thorin said, and glared right back. “Some of us don’t have the resources of the Shire.”

Bilbo reared back and, almost without thinking, began to roll up his sleeves. “You absolutely did not just say that,” he said. Fine. He could still give Thorin a right good smack to the head or the bollocks, even if his sport of choice was conkers.

Thorin put his hands on his hips. Fuck it all, those were impressive muscles. Bilbo shrank back a little – was fighting him really such a good idea? “Come at me if you must,” Thorin said as he stared him down, “but I would prefer you didn’t for your own safety.”

“No threats, Thorin!” Balin shook a finger in his face, which Thorin blinked at. “You two will not bait each other.”

“That wasn’t a threat,” Thorin said. “It was a warning.”

“Then no warnings.” Balin brought his hands up to his face and massaged the sides of his prominent nose. “I realize Kíli has artificially heightened everyone’s concerns here, but that’s no excuse to lose one’s sense of self-preservation. Bilbo, that goes for you, too.”

Bilbo considered a retort, but no, it definitely wasn’t worth it. Balin looked like he could kick some serious arse if pushed. Instead, he flopped down in one of the chairs and saw Thorin do the same thing across the table. “So, that soup restaurant,” he said. “What does that name mean? Er, asmak…I can’t pronounce it.”

“A Khuzdul word,” said Balin, his smile back in place. Something told Bilbo it wasn’t fake, either; Balin just looked relieved that he and Thorin had stopped – oh, Valar. All the Valar and Eru in Valinor, he’d just fought with a king. What in the name of all things good had come over him? “It means ‘soup of all soups.’ A bit unimaginative, I know.”

Bilbo pulled his hair a bit on the unspoken pretext of fixing it and tried to pretend that he wasn’t quietly dying inside. “Soup of all soups,” he said. “Does the name speak for itself? You did say it was good.”

“Very much so,” said Balin, and sat down, taking a rolled-up sheaf of paper out of his robe. How many hidden pockets did that thing have? Did he carry an emergency set of jumper cables in there, too? “Now let’s have at it. Put your skills to work, Barrister Baggins!”

Bilbo took the contract with no small amount of relief. Finally, some actual work.

He spent the next half an hour or so in silence (billing for rich clients had put calculating time without a watch into his brain’s muscle memory, or whatever the mechanism was), putting check marks next to each clause with the red pen that Balin provided. Whoever typed up the contract had been considerate enough to put in parenthetical translations of each Khuzdul term, and the offered compensation was terribly generous. Five hundred gildings a week, of course, lodging in the royal quarters, accommodations including meal vouchers for when work went overtime – ooh, that one wasn’t bad. In fact, everything seemed in order. Nearly. “Wait, what’s this word?” Bilbo said, and tapped the word in question with his pen. “Incineration? You’re not suggesting I’m going to be set on fire, are you?”

“Incineration!” Balin started in place, and for a moment, Bilbo wondered if he’d fallen asleep. “Very good, Bilbo, very good indeed. You caught it!” He actually clapped his hands together in delight. “That’s a very old style of wording a particular clause. Namely, should our case turn out unfavorably, no compensation will be forthcoming.”

“Wait, wait, you mean I wouldn’t be paid unless you win?” Bilbo slammed his hand down on the sheet of paper he’d been marking. “That’s not on. No deal.” He’d probably just lost himself a job, he knew. At least he’d been able to experience a very interesting plane ride, and Balin had promised transportation back to the Shire.

But Balin was laughing, of all the things, and even Thorin had a smile on his face. It was a very nice smile. “That was only a test,” said Balin. “Forgive a Dwarf his amusements, please. I did have to ensure you’d be thorough.” He reached over and took the page. “I’ll be taking that out. You have my word, everything else in the contract is as it should be.

A knock sounded before Bilbo could reply (luckily for him, as his first impulse was to say something along the lines of ‘Dwarves are mad!’, or a comment on the cliché of it all). “That will be my nephew,” said Thorin. “Come in, Fíli.”

Prince Fíli looked nothing like Thorin in coloring, but by his strong features, they could have been father and son. Bilbo suddenly recalled Hrona telling him that Princess Dís’s sons were Thorin’s heirs, and idly wondered what the king’s sister looked like. “Hello there, all!” said Fíli in a pleasant light baritone as he put three full bags of food on the table. Nothing like his uncle’s voice, Bilbo thought, then pinched himself under the table. “Hello, Balin, Uncle. And my brother said you’re Mr. Boggins!”

Baggins,” Bilbo corrected. “Pleased to meet you, Prince Fíli.” He held out his hand, which Fíli shook. “Thank you for bringing food.”

“Not a problem.” Fíli dug into the bags and doled out food without being asked. So he was politer than his brother, and more put-together, too – Bilbo observed the neat braids in his mustache and half-pulled-back hair. He wore nattier clothes than Kíli as well. “Here you are, Mr. Baggins. Two soups, two chips, two muffins, ginger beer, water, tea, spoon. Look, they gave you some buns.”

Bilbo dug in at once, even as Fíli gave Balin and Thorin their meals. He couldn’t help it, nor could he help the moan that he let out at his first spoonful of soup. They’d put something wonderfully fatty in it, maybe that pork; the golden broth glistened with droplets of fat on top. He dipped a section of warm bun in and closed his eyes to savor it. “Thiff ivh amazhing.”

“Isn’t it?” said Fíli. “I love their squash soup. They serve it in the autumn. Have these two been keeping you nice and bored?”

“Show some respect to ‘these two,’” Balin told him, blowing on his soup. “Go find my brother and get him to work you over in the training yard if you’re spoiling for a fight.”

Fíli saluted. “Might do,” he said cheerfully. “Time for me to go study kinging. ‘Amad says she wants to have dinner with you tonight, Uncle.”

“Tell her I will.” Thorin bit into a chip. “And tell your brother I want words with both of you after this. Please dig him out from wherever he’s hiding.”

“Yes, Uncle,” Fíli sighed. “Love you, Uncle.”

“I love you, too, Fíli,” said Thorin. Bilbo stared. Why should that surprise him? Whatever the reason, it did, and warmed him as well. Or that could have been the soup. “But don’t try to deflect. I’ll see you later.”

Fíli was grinning as he left, so Bilbo didn’t think he was all that worried about the prospect of being in trouble. “Your brother?” he said, waving a hand at Balin.

“Dwalin Fundinul, General of Armies,” said Thorin, “and Balin’s brother. We’re third cousins.”

“And childhood friends,” Balin added. “Before the dragon, you’d rarely see them apart. It always baffled our parents that the heir presumptive preferred sleeping in Dwalin’s bedroom to sleeping in his own.”

Thorin’s cheeks, Bilbo observed with glee, were pink. “We were Dwarflings,” he muttered, and dug into his soup anew. “His mother made better breakfast than my da. Mr. Baggins, if you’ve finished your soup, you may want to try the muffins.”

Bilbo looked down. The soup – both containers – had indeed disappeared, along with half the chips. “How did that happen?” he said with a shrug. Well, that was life for you. He turned his attention to the muffins, which… “That’s not a muffin. That’s practically a cake!” Each had to be at least half the size of one of Thorin’s enormous hands, although perhaps fist-size was a bit of an exaggeration.

“They’re as good as one,” Thorin said. The look on his face could have been either amusement or mockery; Bilbo tentatively decided on benefit of the doubt. “Try one. These look like they have lemon and oat in.”

They did, and before Bilbo knew it, they were quite gone. His stomach rumbled, but this time it was a happy noise of digestion. “Bloody wow.” He found the rest of the contract, which lay far enough away from his food to have avoided stains. “Should we finish, then?”

“You go ahead if you’d like,” said Balin as he munched on a bun. “I’ll answer any questions you might have.”

Apart from noting a few spelling mistakes, which Balin confirmed were indeed typos rather than more attempts to put one over on him (Bilbo was fairly sure that ‘share’ was not supposed to be ‘shear’), nothing else looked amiss. “This is well-written,” said Bilbo, and would have said more but for a huge yawn. It seemed he had also finished his chips while writing. “Bother everything, I’m sorry. What time is it?”

“Four-fifteen,” said Thorin.

Bilbo did a bit of calculating, which took longer than usual due to his fogged brain, and yawned again. “I think I need some sleep,” he said. “I’ve been up since four in the morning, my time. I know that’s only nine hours, but I’m exhausted.”

“Yes, certainly,” Balin said, and stood up. Bilbo would have sworn he heard something creak. How old was Balin, anyway? “Your things should have been taken up to your rooms. Shall I show you there? Thorin has business to settle with his nephews, I believe.”

“I do,” said Thorin, “unless either of you need me.”

Balin went over to Bilbo’s chair and laid a paternal hand on his shoulder. “I’ll be taking Bilbo, then. Best of luck with the lads. They deserve a scolding.”

Bilbo followed Balin on leaden legs, and he truly did mean to pay attention to the surroundings – which he thought were likely very beautiful – but it seemed that he had only just blinked before Balin was steering him towards an unassuming stone door. “Here’s your room, lad,” said Balin in a softly amused tone. “I’ll have a keycard made for you and give it to you tomorrow. Same thing with a new copy of the contract. I’m sorry again about the test.”

Bilbo rubbed his eyes to keep the lids from drooping. He was not successful. “It’s all right,” he said, swaying in place. “I’m just tired. Could I…?”

“Oh, of course.” Balin tapped a keycard against its pad, making the doors separate with a whoosh. Erebor is like Star Trek, Bilbo thought. It just had fewer Men and the old-fashioned key was more like Alice in Wonderland. Yes, he really had to be tired if he was thinking about children’s television. “Now, I must tell you that this is technically the Consort’s Suite. You’re here for ease of communication only, so please don’t allow the location to make you feel uncomfortable. You have your own private loo, of course.”

Bilbo yawned yet again. “I’ll sleep anywhere I can collapse,” he said, and noted in the back of his mind that that sentence also made very little sense.

“Collapse away,” said Balin, and led him into the bedroom, where Bilbo found a vaguely bed-shaped lump and promptly collapsed onto it. Yes, that was definitely a bed. “Goodness, you are tired.”

“Mmph,” Bilbo said. What a soft pillow. Perfect to rest his face on. He maneuvered his feet so that they weren’t hanging off the bed and burrowed in deeper. Yes, this was a perfect setup for a nap, or possibly hibernation. Contracts could wait forever if this bed would always be here.

He felt the blankets being pulled up over his body, cool sheets against his feet and legs where his trousers had ridden up. “Sleep well, Mr. Baggins,” said Balin. Mm, tucking in. That was unexpected. Dwarves were so nice. “I’ll leave contact information on your bedside table. There’s a telephone on the wall.” He patted Bilbo’s back through the covers. “Take as long as you like.”

So he did.

Chapter Text

Thorin found Kíli, thanks to Fíli’s information, at the burger restaurant three levels below the noble quarters – same floor as the royal quarters, but Bofur Boburul claimed that the exact positioning made all the difference, since he could smell burgers through the vents. “I’m not happy with you two,” he said as he sat down across the table from his nephews. Kíli had an enormous bite of burger in his mouth and a petrified expression on his face. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to shout. But what on Arda were you thinking?

“Wait,” said Fíli indignantly, “how am I in trouble? I wasn’t flying the plane.”

“You and your brother both begged to let me fly it, if you recall,” Thorin said. “Unless your memory has been completely erased. I know it hasn’t, so let me go on, if you will.” He raised one eyebrow at Fíli and watched him squirm. “Did you give him the idea for those stunts?”

“No, Uncle.”

Thorin clenched his jaw just long enough to keep from saying anything stupid. “Fíli,” he said instead, “Bilbo Baggins vomited as soon as he exited the plane. He looked violently ill for some time after. I’d like to extract apologies from all responsible as quietly as I can. Do you want an incident with the Shire?”

“There wouldn’t be,” Kíli said. “He’s not a –”

“I don’t care what he is or isn’t.” Thorin held up his hand and continued quietly, “Mr. Baggins is a guest. What’s more, he’s a representative of his people, as we are of ours.” Kíli looked down at his mustard-smeared plate. “I don’t know what you did, Kíli. I don’t care to know the specifics unless you’re stubborn enough not to apologize. I do know that you were reckless and irresponsible, and I’m disappointed.”

A long silence ensued, but Fíli was the one to break it. “I’m sorry, Uncle,” he said. “Look, I just told Kíli that he could give Mr. Baggins a lark. I didn’t tell him to go barrel-rolling over Mirkwood.”

Thorin revised the hopeful conclusion he’d come to while walking to the restaurant. Things could, in fact, get worse. “Kíli Vilul of Durin,” he said, watching the blood drain from Kíli’s face, “did you play the barnstormer over Mirkwood Forest again?

“Only one roll!” Kíli said, loudly enough for Fíli to shush him and slap his shoulder. “And I buzzed the mountain, but that was only because Nori was mooning the plane up on the ramparts.”

“I’ll be speaking with Nori,” said Thorin. Dwalin, too, since he apparently refused to even suggest that Nori not do shite like that. “It doesn’t excuse you. Tell me, did the Elves contact you yet again to tell you to stop?”

“Yes,” Kíli mumbled into his food. “But they didn’t sound mad.”

Ammunition was ammunition for Thranduil, whether or not his air-traffic controllers were truly angry at Kíli rather than just annoyed. “I’d prefer not to give the King of the Greenwood more reason to hate me,” Thorin said. They did look sufficiently contrite at that, so he let himself finally smile. “At least you listen to me. Fíli, by ‘studying kinging’, did you mean you’ve completed those reports for me?”

“Finished and filed,” said Fíli. “Bofur got me that extra information about mine safety. Health inspections have been passed, mines have been examined. They thought there might have been star metal in one of them, but it just turned out to be too much wall-stripping making everyone cough.”

“That’s troubling,” Thorin said, and frowned. Out-of-control mine supervisors and workers had largely caused problems in the immediate post-Reclamation years, when Erebor’s prosperity in trade as well as gold hadn’t yet been reestablished and the mountain needed a stockpile of fresh ore. “What do you want to do?”

Fíli lifted his chin and – suddenly, startlingly – his face transformed into some version of what Thorin saw in the mirror each morning. The same as every time it happened, Thorin’s heart lightened a bit. Yes, Fíli would be a fine king someday. “It’s already taken care of,” his nephew said. “I met with the mine managers to see if there are any supervisors responsible. Best conclusion we can come to is that it’s the tools.” He shrugged. “Is there anything in the budget for a mass replacement?”

“Dull tools are always a primary concern,” said Thorin. “The electric ones especially. I’ll contact the financial council to see about a fund allotment. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Fíli.” Dwarves were, for reasons far better known to medical professionals than to Thorin himself, effectively immune to many of the causes of lung cancer that affected Mannish. That didn’t mean they couldn’t land themselves in the hospital with pneumonia over them. “A few more months and this could have been serious. Will you ask Bofur to keep an eye out for suspicious activity?”

“Already done. We can’t be a hundred percent sure it’s tools.”

Thorin smiled, reached for his wallet, and took out a five-gilding note. “This is on me. I assume you’ve had much more to eat than that.” He laid the money down between Fíli and Kíli. “Enjoy yourselves and get dessert if you want. You’re good lads.” Kíli opened his mouth to speak, but Thorin forestalled it. “You won’t be in my good books if you continue to play with airplanes, Kíli, so don’t ask.”

“All right, Uncle,” Kíli sighed. “I’ll try to behave.”

Thorin nodded once, briskly, and got up. “If you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment for dinner with your parents,” he said. “I need to speak to both of them about the state of affairs, or I would ask if it’s all right for me to join you. I’ll see you both tomorrow.”

He was, as always, thankful that the lads frequented this restaurant enough (and that the kingdom was insular enough) for the proprietors and customers not to gawk at him as he passed. King Gervan had once told him that he almost preferred Erebor to Dale, for the sole reason that the shift from a disorganized community in Esgaroth to the Kingdom of Dale fifty years ago had made for an uncomfortable lack of private life in the royal family. People tended, as he said, to gawk and demand autographs.

The Zigil-‘urm had just arrived in the station when Thorin checked, so he showed his ID and caught it across the mountain, then took the lift back home. No one answered when he called out in the entryway, but it was after five; Dís liked to eat early, so she had to be here. “Dís?” He found the door to Dís and Víli’s wing of the quarters and knocked hard. “Are you here?”

Footsteps sounded behind the door, and Víli opened it a few seconds later, red-faced from some activity that Thorin undoubtedly would regret hearing about if he asked. “Thorin, hello,” he said. “You’re here for dinner, right? Dís asked Bombur to make up a takeaway. Come in!”

“I can smell it,” Thorin said as he obeyed. Víli led him down the corridor, his blond braids bouncing in their half-knotted arrangement on the back of his head. “What sort of takeaway?”

“Nothing fancy,” said Víli. “Goat steaks with mashed beans on the side. Marlel, your brother’s here.” He swept through the kitchen doorway and over to the table, then kissed Dís on the cheek from behind. “Have you started yet?”

“Not yet. Sit down, everything’s ready.” Dís indicated the serving dishes on the table, then continued after Thorin and Víli had taken their seats, “Neither of us had the energy to cook today. Bombur’s food is much better than either of ours, you know that.”

Thorin filled up his plate and took a drink from the ale tankard next to it. “You know I have no complaints,” he said. “How have you been today?”

“I’ve been all right,” said Dís. “Mostly working on budget concerns for the tools issue Fíli sent me. Did he tell you about that?”

“Yes, just now. I think he’s handled it well.” Thorin separated some of his meat and stirred it into the pile of mashed beans, then watched Dís do the same. They had always had nearly identical tastes in food, yet another similarity that people remarked on. Dís’s eyes were brown like ‘Amad’s rather than blue, and she kept her wavy black hair braided much more elaborately than Thorin or either of her sons did, but Thorin remembered hearing as a child that they could have been twins save for the age difference. “Is there room?”

“It’ll be about ten thousand gildings for a mass replace if none of the electric tools need maintenance,” Dís said, and took a bite, adjusting the loops of her beard against her jawline with her free hand. “I think it’s just the manual ones. Someone should have checked those workhorses a long time ago.”

Víli drank some ale and belched quietly, then said, “I haven’t heard any complaining from the Miners’ Guild, but some of those are pretentious shits. Wouldn’t admit anything was wrong if they were on fire. Do you want me to do some poking around with Bofur?”

“Just let me know if anything turns up on its own,” Thorin said. “This doesn’t require a formal inquest, but thank you for the offer. By the way, I spoke to both Fíli and Kíli about what happened today.”

“The plane,” Dís said, rolling her eyes. “Hrona told me all about it as soon as they got in. I’d soon as not have them both on their knees, apologizing to this Hobbit of yours. Mahal…what a mess.” She scratched at the corner of one eye, then used her napkin to wipe away the kohl on her thumb. “I can only assume they’re avoiding Víli and me.”

“He’s not my Hobbit.”

Dís shrugged. “Semantics, semantics. What matters is that he hasn’t run off yet, or so I’ve heard. Balin took him to bed, didn’t he?”

“He did,” Thorin said.

“Then our sons haven’t run him off.” Dís touched Víli’s hand, and Víli grabbed hers; they smiled at each other for a moment before Dís turned back to Thorin. “Well, enough about your mines and heirs. You worry so much about everyone else’s health, you never have a care for your own. How is this Hobbit barrister? What’s he like?”

Attractive. Thorin cleared his throat. “He knows what he’s doing,” he said. “Sniffed out Balin’s incineration clause on an empty stomach.”

“Aye, we all heard about the vom.” Víli snickered, then continued, “All right, he’s competent. Dís asked what he’s like. If he’s anything like you, whoever took that photo won’t stand a chance.”

Víli’s faith in him was flattering, and though Víli might joke as much as his sons, Thorin knew it wasn’t empty flattery. Víli had keen eyes and he knew how to use them; if he thought they could win, then maybe they could. “He’s opinionated,” he said. “Very much so. He has his little list of demands. Insists he won’t use a computer and Balin says he still has a land line.” He could feel himself picking up steam, hands lifting off the table to gesture, but he couldn’t even begin to think of how to stop. “Mahal’s stones, who does that?”

Víli and Dís exchanged a long look, and Dís’s mouth twitched. That was never good. “Thorin,” she said, “if you’re not careful, anyone might think you’re carrying a torch for him.”

“A torch?” Thorin stared at her as the words clanged in his head – and then the gilding dropped. “Wait, you think I lust after him?”

“I didn’t say that,” said Dís. “Thorin, I’m sorry if I gave you that impression. But–” and now the sly look was back – “I was thinking more about…numbers.”

“Numbers?”

“Zeroes,” she said, “and ones.”

Of fucking course. Had Thorin not already sworn himself silly under his breath on the way to the burger restaurant, he might have said just that. “Careful, sister,” he said, “or you’ll sound like a Mannish stereotype.”

“I was the one who told her, actually,” said Víli, mouth full. “Kíli and Fíli texted me after you talked to them, said you were very concerned about Mr. Baggins. Kíli said ‘super concerned.’”

“Why is everyone so interested in finding out whether or not I have a One?” Thorin demanded.

Víli laughed. “Because you’re king,” he said. “Everyone cares.”

Thorin silently dug into his food anew, and thanks to Mahal, Dís and Víli took the hint. For the rest of dinner, their conversation centered mainly on the yearly student exchange between the Orocarni University of Science and Technology and Durin University’s sub-college of the same bent. Dís let him know that sufficient funding had come up to expand the student numbers by ten percent this year, and Thorin promised to speak at the opening assembly if he could.

Such was the life of a king: ninety percent administration, five percent fights over funding, five percent ceremony. But to take care of his people as they deserved, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nevertheless, Thorin’s thoughts weren’t nearly so cooperative as the other participants in the conversation were. By the time Víli got up to fetch ice cream from the refrigerator, his head was full of that Hobbit and his indignant voice. Smith be damned, indignant everything. Why did his body have to choose now to awaken? Had he tempted fate by mentioning lust?

“Thorin?” Víli poked his chin with a spoon. “Ice cream? It’s got nuts in.”

Thorin glanced at the full bowl Víli was offering. “I don’t think I’m hungry anymore, thank you,” he said. Oh, shite. He had a problem, and if he delayed much longer, it would be visible through his trousers. “I think I’d best catch up on my work,” he said, which at least was true. What he had in mind wouldn’t take up the entire evening, and most likely, he’d have plenty of time to work before bed.

“We understand,” said Dís. “Don’t worry about it. Will I see you soon?”

“As soon as I can find time,” Thorin replied. “My schedule’s full tomorrow as far as I know.” Full of the Hobbit and his law and his fussy needs. “You can make an appointment, if you don’t find that undignified.”

“Ori Rorul’s got the job of your schedule now, hasn’t he?” said Víli. Thorin clenched his hands into fists under the table. It wasn’t Víli’s fault, but any more small talk and he suspected he wouldn’t be able to keep his crisis under control. Bilbo Baggins had done something to him.

But with long years of being King came ironclad self-control, and so Thorin nodded. “Balin made him my secretary as well as his training for court scribe,” he said. “Of course, it’s all on computers now, but his calligraphy is excellent. He’s using it in his Mastery project.”

“He’s a good lad,” said Dís. “Thorin, you said you’ve got work to do, so I’ll make an appointment with Ori or something. Good night, brother. I love you.”

Thorin went around the table to touch his forehead to hers, the traditional all-purpose gesture for family and other loved ones, then made an Iglishmêk gesture of good-bye at Víli – he understood it better than Khuzdul, having grown up with Bifur and his uneven coherence in spoken language – and left their wing.

The royal quarters were perhaps the only area of the mountain that hadn’t been meticulously plotted out. Instead, rooms had been built haphazardly grouped together, with long stretches of hall and stone between them. Dís and Víli’s wing (and the lads’, but they still didn’t count as adults) felt like it lay all the way across the mountain on nights when he had to stumble over to talk to his sister about some emergency. But in most cases, he valued his privacy, and privacy was what he needed most right now.

Thorin walked briskly through the public rooms and a section of dimly-lit corridor, then opened up the king’s wing and found his own chambers a bit farther on. “Home,” he sighed, though no one could hear him. Balin said he’d put the Hobbit up in the consort’s suite, of all the ridiculous places, but the walls were thick. And if they weren’t, Balin had also reported that Bilbo was sleeping so deeply that Smaug’s return from the dead wouldn’t wake him.

But Bilbo Baggins was one wall away and that didn’t bloody help his problem.

He sighed, went into his bedroom, and drew back the curtains on the bed to sit down and take off his boots. Once that was finished, his trousers came off and he had a look at his problem for the first time that night. It had progressed from a problem to a full-out erection, which he stroked perfunctorily to take the edge off. “Mahal!” All right, so more than an edge.

His computer still sat on the bedside table, a stone outcrop within the curtains that had been carved out of the wall long ago, and he brought it over. Bilbo Baggins’s hands looked so small and smooth, even dimpled, nothing like his own callused ones (large even for a Dwarf) with tendons straining across the backs. Just the thought of such a hand rubbing its way up and down his cock, detouring at his stones, perhaps rummaging even farther back in curiosity…

Thorin swallowed hard and watched said cock twitch in the lamplight. Bilbo most likely had one of his own; what would he think of Thorin’s? ‘Ooh,’ Thorin could imagine him saying, ‘that’s a lovely big one. Nicer than a –’ what in every imaginable hell did Hobbits think about during sex? – ‘a fine big turnip.’

“Wonderful,” Thorin groaned, and leaned his head back until it clunked gently against the wall. That couldn’t possibly be realistic. Cocks were not shaped at all like turnips. If he tried to imagine Hobbitish dialogue while masturbating, he would likely have no erection left, but that was what his computer was for. And Nori’s firewall, provided Nori hadn’t been lying through his teeth and talking out his arse when he swore up and down it was the best in Erebor.

His favorite website of this sort was organized by multiple rubrics: type of person, type of plot, type of bodies the participants had, and so on. The quality was excellent; in fact, a few of the people who helped him to reclaim Erebor itself had either starred in some of the films or worked behind the scenes (most notably Bofur, who still drew a good paycheck on occasion off the royalties from In the Forge).

In fact - probably hypocritically, considering the fact that the photo had him so upset, he mused - he’d once thought of participating in erotic videos himself, sixty or so years ago when the technology was new and he still had no kingdom. The idea of the regulation, the friendships and not-infrequent marriages that resulted from the closeness of the actors, and the questionnaires where he could choose his favorite partners and scenes all appealed to him, but he knew he was no Bombur Boburul or even Glóin. Fifty years of ever-increasing prosperity in Erebor had given him some small measure of thickness around the waist; still, it seemed his branch of the Line of Durin was cursed to be small.

It also wouldn’t do to imagine one’s king wanking whenever one came to him with a matter that required a straight face, or so Dwalin had said when he talked him out of it. No matter the pride those who engaged in it took in their work – and rightfully so – the act of sex was just inherently…strange. And a bit laughable.

Thorin hovered over the ‘By Race’ tab and selected ‘Hobbit’ from the drop-down menu. Bloody hell, but he had a weakness for Hobbits. That night in the smial when Bungo Baggins cheerfully handed over the plans to the cannon that would kill Smaug all those months later, Thorin had had to expend all of his control to avoid asking both husband and wife to bed - primarily the husband. Bilbo had to be some relation to them (the Bagginses, he seemed to recall, were a large family) and that certainly helped explain the attraction.

“Hm,” he said. They’d posted some new videos since he last visited the site. He clicked on ‘A Morning in Bed,’ which turned out to contain two male Hobbits. A screengrab showed them gazing at each other with adoration; when Thorin scrolled down to the informational paragraph (with the plot of the video, trigger warnings, and so forth – standard fare), he read that the pair were married. All the better. Thorin could never resist a bit of affection, probably because so few options for the romantic sort existed in his own life. Or so Glóin said, the last time he got drunk and played psychologist.

“No more.” His voice sounded hoarse to his own ears, something that heralded extreme arousal for him. Time to watch the video before his thoughts could turn too maudlin.

The plot began much as Thorin expected from the title, with Corbo and Almo feeding each other bits of breakfast in bed. He suspected they’d enjoyed that bit even more than the kissing and fondling that came after. Came…no pun intended was the last coherent thought that Thorin could force out before his brain shut off entirely in favor of a bit of Dwarf see, Dwarf do.

He climaxed about the same time as the first of the Hobbits did, to many murmurs of how wonderful he was from his husband, then stroked himself lightly until sex turned to cuddling and the video finished. He then lay there panting until he could muster the energy to go clean himself up in the loo.

Of course, cleaning up turned into a bath. He’d successfully argued for the preservation of the royal baths post-Reclamation, and this one – smooth, marbled blue stone so unique to Erebor that it had no formal name, with natural veins of bright metals left in the walls and gems set into the taps – relaxed him every time. “Mmm,” he rumbled, settling into the steaming water. “Mahal.

Wherever Mahal was, Thorin didn’t think he would at all mind being invoked after a good wank. And good it had been; Thorin would swear he could still feel his heartbeat in his stones.

So. ‘My darling’ certainly wasn’t out of the realm of how Hobbits as a whole spoke during sex, and while ‘poor lad, you’ve got a dreadful swollen bit’ was ridiculous, the actors hadn’t laughed. But if Bilbo were to say it, then what?

Thorin squeezed his eyes shut and let out a moan of “Fuck,” then reached for the shampoo to avoid palming himself all over again. Dwarves (like Hobbits, dammit, and unlike the Men who couldn’t be smug about this) could come more than once, no matter the sex. Thorin had more often than not spent a happy afternoon having off five times or more when he was young. But now, thrice in an hour more than satisfied him, and with all the goings-on now, more than once would be irresponsible; what if someone needed him?

His shampoo smelled of Near Harad’s famous lavender. On a diplomatic visit two years ago, he’d come across a gift shop on the edge of a field of the herb and bought ten bottles each, shampoo and conditioner (soap, too, but those went to Dís). Cheered and considerably more relaxed by the warm water and deep scent, Thorin sang a few verses of ‘Do the Dragon Dangle’ as he finished washing up. No one was around to hear him, after all. “Oh, dangle, oh, dangle, do the dragon dangle, swaying up a wangle in the hall, hall, hall, hey! Do it, do it…”

He was still whistling the ending strains when he got out of the bath and dried off. Happy nonsense songs like that had been all the rage when Dwarves could finally come streaming into the mountain. Someone from the Blue Mountains had written this particular foot-stomper as an ode to Smaug’s preserved head, which currently hung in the entryway of the Museum of Natural Science.

When he finally left the humid bathroom, the clock on his bedside table said it was just past seven. If he ‘got over himself,’ as Nori liked to put it, long enough to delegate the details of Bilbo’s contract and human-resources paperwork to Balin and the mine budget to Fíli and Dís, then he could probably get away with going to bed by ten. The dark circles under his eyes had practically developed their own gravitational pull lately.

Thorin got back into bed, opened his laptop again, and went into his email. There were a few reminders about his promise to make an appearance at the agricultural trade school outside the mountain, which he appreciated; otherwise, he knew he would run the risk of forgetting. Then there was another email from Nori, this one titled ‘More shite wot I seen in the spam filter.’ Nori transliterated the worst of his accent into the written word on occasion, most likely to make steam come out of Thorin’s ears. Might as well give him some attention and get it over with, Thorin thought, and clicked on the email with a heavy sigh.

Nori had considerately cut-and-pasted images from his spam-filter finds into the body of the email. Death threats, marriage offers, the rare Prince of Bree bit that Thorin could only suppose Nori had added for fun, and then there were the many, many penises. He liked seeing penises well enough, but Thorin had absolutely never been able to fathom why the Mannish got off (not literally, ugh) on showing their penises to unwilling members of other races.

He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. Yes, he knew, he thought far too harshly of the Mannish. But when one race had disproportionately, gleefully, oh-so-considerately taken on the burden of kicking the stuffing out of any Dwarves that they encountered and shouting names that wouldn’t be fit to call a foaming pig, perhaps Thorin had a right. And they did show their penises a fair bit; that couldn’t be disputed.

Thorin checked his texts next, noting with a nod that Óin had agreed to come and give Bilbo the first part of his skin test for consumption here in the royal quarters, rather than making a very jet-lagged and probably snappish Hobbit travel all the way to Erebor National Hospital on his second day in the mountain.

Then, of course, his phone rang. Would he get no respite today? “Hello,” Thorin said, reclining back on his pillows. “Who is this?”

“Guess who.”

“I don’t need to guess, Nori Stone,” Thorin growled. “Or should I call you Rorul, since you choose to annoy me so often?”

“Oi!” said Nori. “Don’t bring me mam into this! Right bastard, she was, and you know it. So, you been getting those emails?”

Thorin ground his teeth hard enough to make the bones of his head ache. “Yes, I’ve been getting them,” he said. “I had the bad idea to look at one just now. What makes you think I have any desire to see other people’s ideas on how to…let’s see, and I quote, ‘make me scream’ in bed?”

“Thought you could use a laugh,” Nori said, and then snickered. “Anyway, you gotta admit it’s pretty funny. How much more Prince of Bree you think I ought to look at before I just hack those shitheads?”

“To be honest,” said Thorin, “I thought that was you.” Cooking up phony emails certainly seemed like something in Nori’s wheelhouse, as Fíli might say. Or whatever the kids were saying lately; Thorin considered himself old enough to be exempt from trying to keep up.

“Nah,” Nori said. “I’m not that bored. Or stupid. Work off that many servers, I’d get so many viruses, it’d look like the plague on my hard drive. Who wants to deal with that?” He took a big gulp of something, probably either fizzy or alcoholic.

Thorin pulled on a strand of his damp beard. “How many of the common viruses have you written, Nori?”

Another slurp. “Not important. Anyway – aw, look who’s come in! That’s Biccies! Lookit that girl. Who’s a good little mam? Who’s gonna make some big pups?”

A pit warg, obviously. Thorin couldn’t help a smile. He went down to Dwalin and Nori’s at least five times a month to look at the pit wargs and their pups; being dive-bombed and licked until he thought his beard would come off did wonders for his state of mind. “Why on Arda do you call her that?”

“’Cos when she had her first litter, we saw the ultrasound. She was stuffed so full of pups, looked like a box of biscuits.” Nori made a kissing noise. “Aw, come here, lass. Oh, who’s lyin’ down now? Who wants a tummy rub? You got pups in there. Oh! Someone just kicked me left hand!”

As cute as it was to listen to Nori fawn over pit wargs – so named for the pits that Smaug had left after his spectacular explosion, and around which Nori had built fences to let those first hybrid warg-dog pups play and fight in safety – Thorin did have other things to do. “Gimli has been telling his parents that he wants one of your pups,” he said. “Will you find one that might fit him?”

“Sure, soon as I talk to his ‘adad,” said Nori. “Don’t want Glóin breathin’ fire on me because I gave his kid a pet and he wasn’t allowed.”

“Fair point,” Thorin said.

Nori snickered, and Thorin stiffened up in reflex. “And I know what you been doing just now,” Nori said.

Thorin let out a wordless snarl into the phone from deep in his throat. “I’m currently instigating a suit for breach of privacy,” he said when he felt he could talk without screaming, “and I’m perfectly happy to add you to the list.”

“Oi,” said Nori, “you know you wouldn’t find out nothing about those death threats if I wasn’t in the mood to crawl in the vents all the time.”

It could have been worse. At least Nori didn’t care for hidden cameras, which he decried to Thorin as unreliable (and then added “and sneaky, too, of course” on at the end far too quickly). “Please tell me you didn’t stay to see everything.”

“Left when the vid started playing. Don’t worry, I just listened, didn’t watch.” Nori made a rude noise. “I saw enough of your bits when we was questing.”

“And I yours.” Thorin pursed his lips. He’d also seen plenty of Nori’s bits since then, namely the time he entered the laundry room at his and Dwalin’s house to get a towel for a pit warg pup who had messed himself, and found Nori and Dwalin atop the running dryer. What nearly made him give back his key then and there was the fact that they hadn’t even stopped. “Is this conversation over now? I have things to do.”

“Aye. Thanks for telling me about Gimli,” said Nori. “I’ll get on Glóin for permission tonight. Talk to you later. And Thorin, one of the things they used your photo for is an advert for a kids’ football league. Thought you might wanna know.”

Suddenly, Thorin remembered why his afternoon had gone downhill in the first place. “By the way, if you ever moon planes again,” he began, and realized from the dial tone that Nori had already hung up. Some people only existed to make his life more difficult.

But then, when you were a king, quite a lot of things existed to make your life more difficult. More so in an age where they could find you in an instant, or your image. At least a children’s football league wasn’t another of the filthy ads they’d found. He did not have a sexually-transmitted disease, nor did he need testing for them!

At least Bilbo Baggins would be able to help with the advertisements, if he didn’t sleep through his time here. Thorin glanced at the wall that separated his suite from Bilbo’s, then shook his head and stood back up. He still had a lot to sign off on before he could go to bed, and it was time to get to it.

Chapter Text

The Zigil-‘urm was bloody fast. Not vomit-his-brains-up fast like Kíli’s flying, but fast enough. Bilbo held on tightly to the rail nearest his seat with both white-knuckled hands and kept his eyes locked on the Dwarves around him. Anything to avoid looking out the window. Every time he dared a glance, the walls flashed by quickly enough to make his head spin.

The chubby, bright-eyed Dwarfling sitting across from him wiggled in her seat. ‘Her,’ definitely, because Bilbo was certain he’d heard her mother call her a name with a female ending when they boarded the train a few stops after him. “’Amad,” she said, pointing at the floor near Bilbo’s feet, “dat lad, he, he’s got no shoes.”

“Amardís,” scolded her mother, who wore her thick black hair in three braids wrapped around her head, “that’s rude. He’s a Hobbit – they don’t wear shoes.” She tugged Amardís closer. “I’m sorry about my daughter.”

“It’s quite all right,” Bilbo said, then addressed his next words to Amardís. “We Hobbits don’t need shoes, dear. We have nice big feet with warm hair on them, see?” He lifted a foot to show her the bottom, and she tracked the movement with her mouth open in an ‘o.’ Probably about five in Hobbit years, which would make her fifteen or so, perhaps.

The girl got out of her seat and ambled over to him, much steadier on her little feet than Bilbo himself. He’d thought he was about to fall over when the train first started moving. “I gotta get clothes,” she announced. “’Amad and me, we’re going to the shop. Can I touch?” She held her hand over his foot, dark brown skin against light brown hair. In her blue romper, she was even more adorable than his cousins. “Touch the pretty foot?”

“Yes, of course.” Bilbo smiled and nodded at Amardís’s mother as Amardís gently petted his foot. Goodness, he didn’t think he’d met a Dwarf so far who wasn’t gorgeous. She would probably be just his type if he weren’t gay. “Don’t worry, she’s not bothering me at all.”

Amardís’s mother relaxed and smiled back. “That’s good to know,” she said, just as the stop was announced - something shops, a Khuzdul word that Bilbo would not flatter himself he could even begin to understand. “Little ruby, it’s our stop,” she said, and Amardís obediently got up to follow her. “I don’t know how well you’ll remember this early in the morning, but I’m Lanís in the Department of Physics at Durin University.” She began to herd Amardís through the door and threw over her shoulder, “In case you want to speak again.”

“I will!” Bilbo called after her, and repeated Lanís, Lanís to himself as the doors closed.

Balin had assured him that the name of his stop was read out in Westron, not Khuzdul, but Bilbo still waited in nervous anticipation until the train slowed a few stops later and the announcer’s cool voice came over the intercom. “Erebor National Hospital, this is the stop for Erebor National Hospital.” He jumped up from his seat, clutching his bag, and hurried out with the flow of Dwarves across the tiled station floor. Up one flight of stairs, just like Balin instructed, and then the hospital had to be – yes, right there.

Erebor National Hospital looked as though it could have been a scale model of the mountain’s architecture itself, cylindrical gray stone with rounds of windows interspersed between solid levels. Even at – Bilbo checked his watch – seven in the morning, lights shone out from the jutting façade proper as well as the recessed wings on either side. This hospital was undoubtedly much larger than it looked, and he suppressed a whistle. Hobbiton wasn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere; of course they had hospitals. But he would defy any Hobbit to stand here and be able to prevent their jaw from dropping.

Bilbo squared his shoulders and marched forward. It wouldn’t do to let himself be mesmerized by everything shiny and beautiful in Erebor if he planned on working here without embarrassing himself.

He headed towards the main entrance, which said ‘Emergency’ in bright neon letters in both Khuzdul and Westron. Employee Services, Balin had told him, was down the stairs just to the right of the emergency department, and signs would point him the rest of the way there after he found the basement. Bilbo allowed himself a few moments, once inside, to stand there with his hands on his hips and appreciate the fact that it wasn’t a white-plastic-and-chrome nightmare like hospitals in every futuristic movie that existed.

The stairs were clearly marked with a sign, also in both Khuzdul and Westron – it seemed that being bilingual was treasured here; he’d have to see if someone would agree that he could learn Khuzdul – so Bilbo took them downward and checked a map posted on the wall for the location of Employee Services. Óin Gróinul, apparently the chief of medicine of Erebor National Hospital, had done him the honor of coming all the way to the royal quarters two days before to give him his consumption test on the inside of his forearm, but Bilbo supposed one couldn’t pull an important doctor away from his work like that every day. And good, he was early. An appointment this early was a travesty and he’d still made it.

A bell chimed when he opened the door, and the Dwarf sitting at the desk inside looked up. “Hello there,” said Bilbo, and cleared his throat, feeling more than a bit awkward. He’d never had one of these before, working from home as he did; what on Arda would they do? Take a photo, get out a special machine to read something on his arm? “I’m Bilbo Baggins. I’ve come to have my, er, consumption test read?”

“Oh, yes.” The Dwarf typed something into the computer and stood up. “You’ve an appointment. Just hold your arm out over the desk, Mr. Baggins. This won’t take more than a minute.”

Bilbo rolled up the sleeve of his button-down and held his forearm out for inspection. He expected a cursory look, maybe a murmur of some medical terminology that he couldn’t understand, and then instructions to go on his way; the tech had said it wouldn’t take long. He didn’t expect the tech’s eyes to go wide with what looked like fright, or for him to stiffen up in place like he was about to run. “What is it?” he asked. “Is something wrong?”

“Mr. Baggins,” the tech said quietly, “how many members of the royal family have you come into contact with since your arrival here?”

What did that have to do with anything? He very clearly wasn’t ill. Bilbo didn’t need a medical degree to know he was feeling just fine. “King Thorin,” he said, “and Balin Fundinul, oh, and I met Dwalin. And Prince Kíli and Prince Fíli. Princess Dís and Prince Consort, er…Víli. Yes, that’s his name. They all sound similar.”

“So all of them.”

“Yes.”

The tech ran around the side of the desk, grabbed Bilbo by the shoulders, and pushed him down into a nearby chair with so much force that Bilbo’s entire body jolted. “Stay where you are,” he said, frantic, and ran back to the desk, picking up a phone and punching in a number. “I need Chief Gróinul,” he said. “Now! This is a lockdown situation!” And then he spat out a string of frenzied Khuzdul that made Bilbo’s eyes cross with how fast it was.

“What in the name of all things good is going on?” Bilbo demanded. “I’m not ill!” The tech ignored him in favor of speaking into the phone; he didn’t even look at him save for one scared glance. “Honestly, I don’t - ooh.” He clapped his hands over his ears as a long alarm began to sound, higher-pitched and much more grating than even the smoke alarm back home. “Bugger!”

The alarm sounded a few more times and Bilbo squeezed his eyes shut, only to open them when the sound abruptly stopped, thank Eru. The tech was still talking, but now his speech was slow enough that Bilbo thought he could pick out individual words. “Mâmrazi, Gróinul Basatâlel,” he said. “Binashfâkh id-murdel. Inkhi. Khamnel.”

“That’s incorrect!” Bilbo said indignantly, and once again, he was ignored. “I have not got murder! Or committed murder, or whatever it is you’re saying. I’m a respectable Hobbit.”

Khamnel,” the tech repeated, and hung up. “Mr. Baggins,” he said in a voice more accented than before, undoubtedly from shouting in Khuzdul about something he didn’t even have the manners to tell Bilbo about if it concerned him, “please stay in place. Dr. Gróinul will arrive in a few minutes to examine you.”

That’s what you said about the test, Bilbo thought grumpily, but sat on the thought and vowed to remain silent until Óin Gróinul came down and explained what in all potential hells was going on.

At least this estimate was honest. Within five minutes, Dr. Gróinul burst through the door, wearing gloves and…oh, for fuck’s sake, a surgical mask. “Where is he?” he said. “I need to get him in an exam room if he’s got consumption.”

“Consumption?” Bilbo said. “Is that what this is all about?” Dr. Gróinul spun in his direction. “I promise you, I have been healthy all my life. No sign of consumption anywhere in my family. Can you please tell me why this person thinks I’ve put the royal family in danger?”

The doctor’s eyes narrowed. “Show me your arm,” he said. “The one I injected. Now, please.”

Bilbo held out his arm again and crossed the fingers of his other hand behind his back in the hope that this wouldn’t lead to another meltdown. “How does this tell anyone I’m ill?”

Dr. Gróinul’s eyes crinkled. Then he tore off his surgical mask and, of all the things, burst into howls of laughter.

This was not happening. Early-morning appointments that should have been easy and now someone thought he had consumption and the chief of medicine of an entire hospital was laughing at him. He had to be asleep and this had to be a nightmare. “Would you stop that!” He got up from his seat and into Dr. Gróinul’s face, hands on hips, every hair (he was sure) on his head and feet bristling. Dr. Gróinul just continued to laugh. “This is not funny!”

“They – they get the vaccine!” Dr. Gróinul got out between peals of laughter. “Ye clot, they get the consumption vaccine in the Shire. Makes a reaction on the test. He’s not got murdel!

“Mahal, I had no idea,” said the tech, and despite the fact that he’d locked down an entire office and possibly thrown the hospital into a panic – Bilbo didn’t want to know what had happened on the other end of that phone call – over nothing, Bilbo felt for him. “I am so sorry.”

Dr. Gróinul wiped his eyes and coughed out a few more laughs. “That’s all right,” he said. “We don’t see too many Hobbits here. Bilbo, I apologize for the confusion.” He stuck out his hand. “Call me Óin.”

“What does that have to do with the test?” Bilbo said, and reluctantly shook Óin’s hand. It nearly swallowed his own hand whole. “I thought it was meant to test if I have consumption!”

“It tests if you’ve got an immune response against it,” Óin explained. “People who get vaccinated have a false positive. There aren’t very many around here who get the jab anymore.” He turned to the tech. “Here, lad, there’s a history lesson in this.” He stroked his beard. “A bit after the mountain was lost…let’s say thirty, fifty years after, the Hobbits were starting to build bigger cities. ‘Course, they all have so many wee ones, they all came down with the consumption in those crowded places. So when the vaccine came out, they were the first ones as got jabbed. They still do it.”

The tech’s eyes bulged, and Bilbo took his hands off his hips, only to tighten them into fists. “Are you saying we brought the consumption on ourselves?” he said. “Who are the people living a million side by side in a mountain?”

“Quarter million,” Óin corrected. “And we had the plumbin’ from the beginning.”

Bilbo threw up his hands. They were getting a lot of exercise today. “Consumption is a lung disease!”

“It can strike anywhere, to be accurate,” said the tech, who looked very glad to be on solid, comprehensible ground again. “The most dangerous forms occur in the bloodstream and in the spine. It spreads through close contact. Most people’s immune systems are competent enough to handle it, though.”

“And it can lie dormant in there for years,” added Óin. “That’s why this one got scared. Thought maybe you’d been exposed and it was comin’ back.” He took Bilbo’s arm again and brought the mark on the underside up to eye level. “See there, that’s a fair big welt. Lots of reaction. Maybe your system started failing.”

“Well, it hasn’t,” Bilbo said, and snatched his arm back. “Why did you say we didn’t have plumbing? And why in the name of the Valar did you say I had murder?”

“Murder? Oh, murdel.” Óin nodded sagely. “Our name for consumption. Means ‘death of all deaths.’ Anyway, as for the plumbin’, if everyone’s takin’ in some of each other’s shite, that’ll lower the immune system.” Bilbo’s hands curled into fists. “Nothing personal there, Bilbo. Just remember I’m a doctor. I’ve seen more dead –” he pronounced it ‘deed’ – “bodies than you’d ever care to look at.” He adjusted his lab coat and preened a bit. Perhaps he had the right to it. Bilbo didn’t want to think about how many years he’d been practicing, and how many medical techniques he’d mistakenly used before they were exposed as quackery. “Lots of Orcs. Few Elves. Lots of Men and Dwarves. Not so many Hobbits, though. You lot don’t die around me.” He sounded almost disappointed, much to Bilbo’s horror.

The tech cleared his throat. “I’m so terribly sorry about the confusion,” he said. “Please believe me, I only meant it for the good of everyone in the mountain. You did say you’ve been in contact with the royal family.”

Óin waved this off with a dismissive hand. “They’ve got good constitutions to a one,” he said. “We’ve got vaccines, too. Neither of the lads’ve had so much as the itchin’ pox. Now, Bilbo.” He leaned against the desk with a grunt. “Sorry, that’s me back. I’ll order ye a chest X-ray now and send ye up to Radiology. Shouldn’t take more than an hour if there’s not any emergent cases in there.”

“I couldn’t put anyone out,” said Bilbo, then realized - again - the ridiculousness of the situation. “I need a minute. Just give me a minute.” He reached into his bag and, cursing himself the entire time for a spineless wretch, pulled out his new smartphone.

Ugh, ugh. Technology; he would swear he was allergic. Was there an allergy that made your hand tremble in disgust when you picked up the thing in question? He clumsily swiped his thumb across the phone screen, navigated past the generic background that he absolutely would not change out of the principle of the thing, and found his contacts. Balin had, thoughtfully, programmed in all the numbers he thought he needed before pressing the phone onto Bilbo.

One ring. Two. Bilbo waited, tapping his foot impatiently, but it was all in vain. Thorin’s voicemail droned into his ear. Was the shithead sleeping? “You have reached the voicemail of Thorin Thrainul. I am not currently available to speak with you. Please leave a message with your name, number, and problem, and I will return your call as soon as I can. If this is a mistaken call, please contact the Office of Guest Information Technology outside the Lonely Mountain to find the correct number.

That took the Valar-damned cake. Bilbo knew exactly where his call would be rerouted if he tried Thorin’s oh-so-helpful advice: straight to Nori Stone, so-called information technology expert, whose bright white arse was the reason Bilbo had disgraced himself in front of Thorin and who, upon meeting Bilbo the day before, had called him a ‘shortarse’ and mussed his hair. No one did that. And no one, king or not, tried to redirect him to such a person. “Thorin,” he said, pouring every bit of effort that he could into keeping his voice level, “I can’t believe you made me get this bloody smartphone and don’t even have the good grace to pick up.”

The tech left the room (at least someone had a sense of self-preservation in all this), but Óin stayed right where he was and doubled over with laughter all over again. “You’re callin’ the king?

Bilbo held the phone away from his face and hissed “The king’s a friend of yours!”, just so that Thorin couldn’t accuse him of being any ruder than he already was if he got this message. “Thorin? Seriously,” he said, phone once again at his ear. “All right, I might be talking to myself at this point, but I’m sitting in Erebor National Hospital at absolute arse in the morning and your – your fucking chief of medicine and his fucking tech – would you stop laughing, Óin?” he interrupted himself. Fuck not swearing in front of important Dwarves. No more policing himself. He’d just been accused of spreading consumption to the entire royal family, and Hobbits in general had been accused of he didn’t even know what. “This is entirely your fault!”

“That’s ‘entirely yer fault, Doctor’ t’you,” Óin said with a snicker. His cheeks were turning alarmingly red.

That was what he got, Bilbo thought smugly, for laughing at his misfortunes. “No, I’m not about to call you by your title.” What did it matter if Thorin heard? “I’ll call you a doctor over my rotting corpse.”

Óin perked up at once. “Really? I could study that, then?”

“That was not an offer!” Bilbo all but shrieked. “Thorin! Why am I even still on the phone? Get your bum to hospital this instant!” And that was when the answering machine cut him off with an odious beeeeeeeep.

Bilbo clenched his teeth, squeezed his eyes shut, and breathed hard as he listened to Óin’s laughing fit gradually end. “Are we quite done?” he said. “Have we satisfied ourselves that I haven’t got any lung diseases now?”

“No lung diseases,” Óin agreed. “The chest X-ray is just a formality. Anyone who comes up positive gets it. ‘S’just people who’ve worked with a lot of sickies, usually. I’ve met some –”

Bilbo jumped in place as his phone blared out a ring. Maybe Thorin hadn’t been asleep. It was also possible that he was now angry, which definitely explained the way Bilbo’s hand shook when he picked up now. “Hello?”

“You rang,” said Thorin, whose voice sounded much more amused than angry. It seemed everyone would be laughing at Bilbo today. “What happened?”

“My consumption test came up falsely positive and the technician who read it nearly scared the daylights out of me,” said Bilbo. “The Chief of Medicine came down here and he’s been laughing at me ever since.”

Thorin gave a sigh with so much of his voice in it that it nearly rumbled. “You’re angry.”

“Of course I’m angry,” Bilbo replied, and adjusted his grip on the phone. He was holding it hard enough for his sweaty palm to make the plastic cover slippery.

“Do you need me to come to hospital?” Thorin asked. “I will if it’s necessary. This sounds like an emergency situation, of a sort.”

Bilbo sneaked a look Óin’s way. Óin had stopped laughing and was now gazing at him with the sort of scientific zeal that Bilbo thought he probably gave to those interesting dead specimens he’d talked about. “Óin told me he wants me to have a chest X-ray,” he said, “just to make sure all the ducks are in a row, that sort of thing. Meet me in…was it Radiology?” Óin nodded. “Yes, Radiology, and we’ll discuss this.”

“Radiology,” Thorin repeated, and cleared his throat. Had he just woken up? Worse, had Bilbo woken him up? He had definitely not meant to be this demanding when he got here, no, not at all. Even if Thorin had made him use the latest and most useless in modern technology. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Thank you,” said Bilbo. “Thank you so much, Thorin. I didn’t mean…well, you know what I didn’t mean.”

Thorin laughed softly. “It’s no trouble,” he said. At least he had the good grace to lie well in an awkward situation. “If that’s all, I’ll see you soon.”

“Yes, thank you,” said Bilbo, and hung up before Thorin could, then looked back at Óin. “He says he’ll be in Radiology shortly,” he said. “And apparently it’s no trouble.”

“I’ll put in the order,” Óin said. “And I’ll tell ‘em to keep ye waiting until Thorin gets there. Shouldn’t be long. It’ll take him half an hour at most.” He switched to leaning his other side against the desk and made a contented noise. “Have I said how much I love this hospital? I love this hospital. Close to everything except for the mines, and that’s why we’ve got the Trauma Centre down there.”

“The what?” Well, Erebor did have a quarter million people. Bilbo knew he shouldn’t be so foolish as to assume that the country only had one hospital.

Óin nodded. “Erebor Workers Hospital and Trauma Centre,” he said. “Then there’s Durin University Hospital, and those are all the big ones. Plenty of small clinics, though. No one’s wantin’ for medical services here.”

“I see why you’re proud.” This went beyond industrious and into genius, especially if it had only been fifty years since any medical buildings in here had been moldering away while a dragon sat in the mountain’s treasury and shed his scales among the piles of gold. “Well, then.” Bilbo clasped his hands. “I think I can find my way to Radiology.” He stuck out his hand. If he’d been angry when Óin held out his own to shake, then at least he could end this meeting on a better note than it began. “I’ll see you…somewhere in the mountain. Not here, I hope. I don’t intend to be ill.”

Óin chortled something in Khuzdul, which Bilbo didn’t particularly care to have translated as it was likely at his expense, and sent Bilbo on his way with a wave of his hand and a reminder of “Radiology is two floors up.”

Bilbo followed the signs, found the department easily, and told the pleasant administrative Dwarf (who was wearing a truly outlandish number of piercings; if they didn’t set off metal detectors when this brave person went to the airport, then he would be truly surprised) about his situation.

“Just a moment,” the Dwarf said, holding up one finger as he deftly typed with his free hand. “All right, I see your order. Just fill out this form.” Bilbo noted with relief that he didn’t even bat an eyelid at Bilbo having to wait for the king, which Óin had likely made very visible note of. He didn’t think he could take being ridiculed or stared at any more today.

A magazine lay open next to one of the ornately-carved stone chairs in the waiting room, so Bilbo took the seat and picked up the magazine; Khazad Yarns, the cover said in an elegant font, complete with a picture of numerous balls of yarn spilling out of an overturned basket. Maybe this was a sign that his day would start to look up soon.

Bilbo quickly filled out the patient information form (name, race, past medical history, all the general boilerplate things) in short order and put it back on the desk. Then he picked up and didn’t look away from the magazine, which turned out to be a delightful combination of patterns, yarn for sale, and advice on color combinations, until someone’s presence in front of him blocked out the overhead lights. “Good morning, Thorin.” He set the magazine aside.

“And to you.” Thorin sat down next to him, and Bilbo nearly fell out of his chair at the shocking realization that Thorin was wearing pajamas. His bright purple sweatpants had the words ‘Durin University’ in metallic gold down the powerful thigh nearest Bilbo, and he had on a baggy red sweatshirt that advertised the Museum of Natural Science. Being a king probably earned him free clothes, Bilbo realized – and there was indeed a king here. A king in sweats, and no one seemed to give a damn. Yes, his morning could reach new heights of out-of-body experience.

He only realized he was staring when Thorin shifted in place and frowned at him. “Are you all right?” Thorin asked. “Did Óin mistreat you?”

“Hm? Mistreat? No, no, of course not!” Bilbo’s cheeks went hot. Wonderful, now he probably looked like Thorin’s sweatshirt. “I mean,” he added, “no more than I said.”

“You,” said Thorin, “are a very demanding Hobbit. Is that a characteristic of barristers as a whole?”

“I’m not sure,” Bilbo said. Thorin’s eyes crinkled at the corners like Óin’s. Were they related? “Is sleeping late a characteristic of all kings?”

Thorin actually rolled his eyes at him. What a prick! “So much for ‘absolute arse in the morning,’ Mr. Baggins,” he said, “but I’ll let it go. What were you planning for the rest of your day after this procedure?”

“I don’t know. Do you and Balin need me?”

Thorin shook his head. Bilbo observed that the places in Thorin’s hair where he normally had braids were as loose and curly as the rest of his hair, cementing his suspicion that Thorin had just gotten out of bed. It was strangely adorable. “I’m reviewing some planned changes to this year’s product exports,” he said. “Balin may want you to do further research. Apart from that, I assume you’d like to find some food?”

“I’ll explore,” said Bilbo. “I do live here, at least for the time being.” The reams of employment paperwork he’d been filling out for the past two days certainly said as much. So did the trips he took with Balin and his hulking brother, Dwalin, to various bureaus of this and agencies of that. “Thank you for…er, checking, I suppose. It will be time for second breakfast when I get out.”

Thorin directed his grin at the floor. “Second breakfast,” he echoed. Bilbo didn’t know why he bothered. His food habits were none of Thorin’s business.

A door across the room opened and someone in scrubs – a nurse, Bilbo thought – poked their elaborately-styled head out. “Bilbo Baggins?”

“Do you want me to wait here until you’re out?” Thorin asked. “I could direct you regarding the train stops.”

“Thank you, but I’d like to explore on my own,” Bilbo said, getting up from his chair. “I don’t think I’m very fit company. Far too irritable at the moment.”

Thorin acknowledged this with a nod, and Bilbo followed the nurse out of the waiting room.

Apart from the X-ray machine needing an adjustment downwards to accommodate Bilbo’s lack of height (“don’t worry, there are Dwarves here about your height!” the radiologist said, which only made Bilbo grumpier), the procedure was easy enough and Bilbo left less than an hour after he’d arrived in the department. It had been more than two hours since he left his rooms, though, and now he was hungry. He made an executive decision to use the train to go look for sustenance and went back to the Zigil-‘urm.

Sanzigil Station bustled more now than it had earlier, likely because of the work rush. To Bilbo’s pleasant surprise, a stand that he hadn’t previously noticed was open as well, so he bought some fruit-filled oatmeal and fresh-roasted cinnamon almonds for second breakfast.

It’s a good thing they’re paying me so well, Bilbo thought as he settled down onto a bench to eat. He’d almost certainly blown a good portion of his first week’s salary on food to stock his new kitchen, and that had been him with some measure of self-control. Going to the market in Erebor was nothing like at home. Here, the food shops converged in one central courtyard to sell fresh food – everything from flour to meat, encompassing all the vegetables in between – in one of a thousand or so open-air markets every single day. A few of the older shopkeepers he’d spoken to had never even heard of a multi-department grocery store before.

Bilbo had wandered from shop to shop until his cart was full and his wallet empty, and wondered if perhaps he was in love. Then he’d set to cooking, which gave him the opportunity to smell the food’s quality up close, and fallen even harder.

He crunched the last of his almonds and threw the bag, oatmeal container, and spoon – all made of materials that would compost easily, according to what Balin had mentioned about food and agriculture on his first day – into the nearest garbage container. Then he had a look at the station map. It seemed like the station segment two levels below had some exciting destinations; the names were all in Khuzdul. If he was here for an adventure, then why not go all the way?

The nearest set of stairs took him down a fraction of a level to the lift, and he caught that downwards with a group of elderly Dwarves who kept looking at him and laughing in Khuzdul. Hobbits were probably a novelty to them, too, but he hoped he wouldn’t serve as a source of amusement for too much longer.

But the lift dinged at his level before he could build up a good head of steam, and thankfully, the Dwarves didn’t follow. Bilbo felt his spirits lift a bit as he went to wait for the train and, a few minutes later, got on.

He chose his stop at random. “Milîn Station,” the voice called after a few stops, and Bilbo got up. All this Khuzdul had him intrigued. What would he find here? More food? Shops? Offices? He did hope that he wasn’t about to enter somewhere he had no right to be.

As he got off, Bilbo noted that he was the only one who did so, which only solidified his thought that this was some sort of place of employment. Well, finding out who did what sorts of work here would be an adventure in and of itself, wouldn’t it?

This station was smaller and more richly decorated than Sanzigil Station, with bright stone tiles on the wall, flowing into abstract patterns of many colors that reminded him somehow of water. Bilbo stood and admired them for a few minutes, letting his eyes leap from pattern to pattern; they didn’t want to stay in place. The mosaic drew the eye.

“Can’t stay here all day,” he muttered to himself after five minutes there, going by the clock on his new (blasted) phone. “It’s time to explore.” He climbed a short set of stairs out of the station and found himself in an atrium, smaller than the one leading to the hospital, with hallways branching out all around it like wheel-spokes. The signs here were all in Khuzdul, and Bilbo felt sweat form on his forehead. If he were to disturb something integral to Dwarvish culture…if – no. They would have said something before he got off the train if it wasn’t allowed.

Taking a deep breath, he puffed out his chest and strode through the atrium to enter the nearest corridor, then blinked. The lighting beneath the low stone ceiling was soft and recessed, much like that on the plane, and there was nothing but a series of nondescript doors as far as the eye could see. Each had a small blue light bulb next to it, along with a number. Flats, he thought. All-Dwarf flats. He did hope the inhabitants spoke Westron.

“Pardon,” someone said in a deep voice, brushing past him. Bilbo started, shaking his head, and saw a tall Dwarf with short, spiked hair – daring, wasn’t it, to do that here? – passing by. “I have an appointment.”

“Appointment?” Bilbo repeated. “What sort?”

The Dwarf turned on his heel and took a few steps back towards Bilbo. His bright purple hair matched his stud earrings very nicely; Bilbo didn’t know very much about gems, but he thought they were probably amethyst. Begonia’s engagement ring from Hob had a large one in it. “Sort?” His tone implied that there was something lacking in Bilbo’s head if he didn’t know. “Only me and her. Were you wanting to be a third? I’m not in the mood.”

“Er, uh.” Bilbo blushed, though he had no idea why. “Jolly good. On your way, then.” He waved a hand. “Thank you.”

The Dwarf gave him one last look and turned back, then walked a fair way down the hall – almost out of Bilbo’s line of sight – and knocked on a door there, which opened within a few moments to let him in. There went his only source of help. Appointments? What on Arda? Though the low ceiling reminded him comfortingly of a smial, Bilbo didn’t think he’d been as ill at ease in Erebor yet. “Oh, dear,” he said, louder than he’d intended by the ringing of his voice off the walls, and then added more quietly, “I’m very lost.”

He shuffled from foot to foot a few times, then jumped, stifling a yelp, when he heard a lock turn, followed by one of the doors opening. “Hello?” Another Dwarf stepped out into the hall, this one dressed in a flowing chestnut-brown robe in the same shape as Balin’s, but with hair as dark as Thorin’s. Her eyes lit on Bilbo, and she approached him, standing closely enough that Bilbo could smell that she wore some pleasantly rich, musky perfume. “Do you have an appointment, or are you a walk-in?” Her accent reminded him a bit of Hrona’s.

“Walk-in?” Bilbo squeaked. “I…I…this is just a…er, what’s your name?”

“Durís,” she said, and the neutrally curious look on her face melted into sympathy. “You don’t know where you are, then? Or…did you get here by the Zigil-‘urm? You don’t know what the station name means, do you?”

“Not at all,” Bilbo said. “I don’t speak any Khuzdul.”

Durís leaned closer. “Ah,” she said. “Let me explain. Milîn means ‘place of pleasures.’”

“Place –” Then it hit him. Bilbo’s whole body went hot. Here he was, wandering about and disturbing those private appointments, and now he’d disturbed a worker? “Oh, dear. Oh, dear.” His lips felt numb. “You’re a – and I’m here, and – bother it all! I’m so sorry.” He gulped in some air. “I’m not interested, and I – I’m false advertising!” Thorin would have him out on his ear if he knew. Bilbo might have the day off, but he was certain he wasn’t meant to be loafing about and being intimate during work hours, on the treasury’s silver.

She put her arm around his shoulders with a smile. “You’re shaking,” she said. “Do they not have districts like this where you’re from?”

“N-not at all,” Bilbo said. “Not districts. A few do it on their own, but it’s mostly friends or spouses that you, er…” He was no stranger to sex, nor was hardly any Hobbit of his age, but no one in the Shire ran a country-wide business of doing this in person. “Please stop me if I’m making a hash of this.”

Durís vigorously shook her head. “Not at all, love,” she said. “You can’t help being unfamiliar with Erebor, can you? Tell you what.” She squeezed his shoulder. “Come in for tea and we’ll be friends. I won’t assume y’want a session.”

Tea sounded fantastic. “Oh, good,” Bilbo said, and followed Durís into her rooms after she let go of him. “I’m gay, anyhow.”

“I know,” she said, shutting the door behind them. “I could tell it right off.”

“Oh.” Well, that was foolish. She’d probably been in the business long enough that she could spot any sexual orientation on sight. “What sorts of tea do you have?”

Durís steered him through the entryway, which had a truly lovely umbrella stand made of a mottled pink stone, and into a small kitchen, the walls of which were a cheerful red. “All sorts,” she said once she’d sat him down. “I don’t like the black stuff meself, but some of my customers do. You can have some if y’want.” She crossed to some cupboards by the stove and opened one. “I’ve got some apple-and-orange with mulling spices. Bit of lemon with raspberry left, now that one’s got lots of caffeine. Mint and ginger for a sour stomach. How’s yours?”

“A bit rumbly,” Bilbo admitted. The second breakfast had been delicious, but not nearly as voluminous as what he usually had at home. “But I couldn’t possibly impose.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” said Durís, and pulled down a canister of tea, then opened the refrigerator. “I’ve got lemon bars that’ll go well with this honeybush tea. I’ve a mind to fry some eggs, too. How d’you like yours?” She took out a carton, followed by a full pan of lemon bars.

Bilbo’s mouth watered. “Over easy, if you please,” he said. “Those look delicious.”

“Thanks,” she said. “You’re too kind. Are all Hobbits like you?”

Is that a characteristic of barristers as a whole? Bilbo blinked. Durís’s thick black hair, blue eyes, and large nose did lend her a fair resemblance to Thorin. “You don’t want that,” he said. “Other Hobbits don’t like me all that well, as a whole.”

“Maybe Dwarves will,” Durís remarked, and Bilbo smiled to himself.

In no time, each of them had a heaping plate of food and a cup of tea (Bilbo’s with cream, Durís’s without), and Bilbo tucked in happily. “So,” said Durís, “you really didn’t know?”

“Nm,” Bilbo said, and swallowed. “I just wanted to explore. You, er…”

“Erotic work, aye,” she confirmed. “We’re the Blue Light District up here. Blue lights, that’s how the Mannish used to signify it in the old days. Pretty even mix of all kinds among us.”

“How many of you are there?” Bilbo asked.

Durís took a few bites, her brow furrowed in thought. “Few hundred,” she said, “maybe around a thousand now. Not everyone goes to the guild meetings.”

Of course there was a guild. Bilbo, much to his surprise, was no longer blushing. Erotic work was normal here, so why should he be? “Do you, er, freelance, or is everything set by the government?”

“Bit of both,” said Durís, dragging the tines of her fork through her food. “I’m registered, of course, and I pay taxes. I get blood tests every month free, and if there’s an abusive customer and I don’t report them, I could be sanctioned for endangering others.” Bilbo nodded; that sounded reasonable. “Apart from that, I set m’own appointments and make m’own hours. I’ve got protection from the government if anyone wants to hurt me. And everything’s online now, so it’s fair easy to see everything I’ve got going on.”

“I know a few friends who’d love your job,” Bilbo said into his mug, and slurped some of the tea. Hobbits loved sex as a whole, prudes though they apparently were compared to these Dwarves, and although the act wasn’t spoken of in public, there were many who made erotic vids.

“Not surprised,” said Durís. “It’s a good one. I take two or three appointments a day when I’m working – depends how intense they are. It’s about twenty gildings a session, after taxes.”

Bilbo did some calculations in his head. Average of two and a half sessions a day, twenty gildings a session, assuming five workdays a week like most professions, times four weeks, times twelve months… “Wow.” That was over twelve thousand gildings a year, with a monthly take-home of at least twice what he charged a month per case in the Shire. “You do well, then? If that’s not imprudent to say.”

“Not at all,” said Durís. “I do well. And so do my customers.” She winked at him. “If that’s not imprudent to say to you, Mr…I didn’t get your name.”

“I forgot.” Bilbo clapped himself on the forehead. “I’m Bilbo Baggins. I’ve got a question, too.” He finished off a lemon bar. “Your name, Durís. The Dwarves come from the Line of Durin, yes? The royal family, at least? Is your name not considered…blasphemous, then?”

“Not at all,” Durís said, “but I can see why you’d think so. I’m almost all Longbeard meself, Mam and Da both. Of course, we’re far removed off the main royal line, but I’ve still got the Durin nose.” She tapped it with her forefinger. “Now I’ll ask, Bilbo Baggins, how’s a Hobbit come to be in Erebor? We don’t see many of you.”

Bilbo reached for the teapot. “Now that’s a rather funny story,” he said, “especially for someone in your profession.” He could explain in broad strokes without revealing state secrets, couldn’t he, and the memes were already well-known across Arda (and especially Erebor) anyway. “This will take a while.”

Durís perched her elbows on the table. “I’ve got time.”

“All right, then,” said Bilbo, and settled in for tea with a new friend.

Chapter Text

Thorin rubbed his eyes, moving the pile of papers on his left side to join the one on his right. “Innocent dissemination,” he said. “Is that really a viable defense?”

Neith laws have precedent for that, yes,” Bilbo answered. He looked just as exhausted as Thorin felt. Even the ends of his curls were drooping; it made a nice complement to the dark circles under his eyes. Thorin suspected he looked just as worn out, since they’d been working on the case for the past – he checked his watch – ten hours. In broader terms, they’d been stuck on dry points of law for three weeks.

He rifled through the papers and noted, as he pulled one out, that his hands were shaking. When was the last time he’d eaten? Bilbo certainly hadn’t complained, but since he was usually very vocal about when he did and didn’t have to eat, that probably meant he had sunk dangerously deep into barrister headspace. That didn’t bode well for their collective mental health. “Here’s the list of ISPs that Nori’s gotten so far,” he said. “The worst of the ads are hosted on sites that originate from some of the biggest networks, unfortunately.”

“Not ArdaNet,” Bilbo groaned.

“Unfortunately,” Thorin repeated with a nod. “ArdaNet, some local things in Rohan and Gondor, Rhûn Broadband, the Iron – wait, no, not the Iron Hills.” His head was swimming; that probably explained why he was seeing things. “Dáin knows I’d be on him in a minute if he let that through.”

“Dáin’s your cousin?” asked Bilbo through a yawn.

Thorin shuffled the papers back into their previous order. “Second cousin. He’s Lord of the Iron Hills.” As terrible as it was to wish something like this on another person, he couldn’t help but wonder if all the legal frippery might have been over much sooner if the mysterious photographer had taken a photo of Dáin instead of himself. Dáin knew how to cut through wargshit like this with a few well-placed calls. As it was, the ads were so far entangled in the Internet that not even Dáin could help him, and Thorin had certainly asked.

“Right. Well.” Bilbo typed something into his new laptop. At least he’d given up squalling about how little he wanted to use it. The electric typewriter, much to Thorin’s amusement, only allowed him to see a few lines at a time; not much use for an enormous case like this. “So the good news is that we have options. Innocent dissemination isn’t an ironclad defense. It’s like the insanity defense in criminal cases – you have to have solid evidence that there was no wrongdoing, not evidence that there was.”

“And this is wrongdoing,” said Thorin, gesturing at all the paperwork. “Not these, I mean. The advertisements.”

“We’ve established that,” Bilbo replied. “A breach of privacy suit is likely our best option, and the least drawn-out. It’s only a matter of finding out whom to direct it against, and anticipating possible defenses. I feel like I’m strategizing how to knock on the door to a dragon’s lair.” He ran his hands through his curls. “No wonder you lot hired me. You certainly need me.”

Thorin stiffened automatically, then let out his indrawn breath and concentrated hard on not letting that statement get to him. Bilbo probably hadn’t meant it as an insult, just as a toss-away statement of his own legal prowess. “We could have not done, you know,” he said. “There’s technically no need for a barrister’s representation in a civil case.”

“Well, are you sacking me?” said Bilbo without looking up.

“No.”

Bilbo jabbed a key. “Then stuff it.” He held out a hand before Thorin could tell him that he was the one who could stuff something somewhere, as he wanted to. “Could I see that list again?” Thorin handed it over, and Bilbo flicked his eyes over it, then suddenly sank his head into his hands with a groan.

“What?” Thorin demanded. “Is it worse?”

“Brandyband is a Shire-based provider,” said Bilbo, voice muffled and full of despair. “The ads have reached the Shire. Valar, my relatives have probably seen these.”

“That’s…” Thorin found himself at a loss for words. Turnabout is fair play, whispered a nasty voice in his head. It sounded very much like Nori. Hadn’t he spent enough time touching himself over Hobbits? They had a right to look at him and…Mahal, he wasn’t even nude in that photo, unless they were Photoshopping him over there. These thoughts were not productive. “Embarrassing, perhaps, but do they even know you’re over here? And they probably saw the advertisements long before any of their websites picked them up to host.”

Bilbo let out another groan. “Probably. I told a few people – it’s got to be all over the Shire by now. I didn’t tell them exactly what I’m doing, thank goodness. They just think I’ve got a barrister job, I think.” He lifted his face out of his hands, his expression clearing just a bit. “Do you want me to look up which of those ads originate in the Shire? It’s a matter of a reverse Google search, I think. Blasted computers.”

Thorin wasn’t sure what there was to curse about regarding Google, but if he knew Bilbo – and he thought he could flatter himself that he did, a bit, after nearly a month of work – he knew that Bilbo never missed the opportunity to unleash invective at his computer and computers in general. “Go on.”

After a few minutes of silently clacking away at his keyboard, Bilbo sighed loudly. “There’s one for Mother and Father Burrows’s Cough Syrup,” he said. “That’s not too bad. Old brand, rather outdated. The mum on the logo is actually wearing a bonnet.”

“Mm,” said Thorin. There was no real need to see the advertisement if it was innocuous. “Anything else?”

“Er. Hmmmm.” Bilbo rested his chin in his hand. “Let’s see. I – oh, dear. Oh, dear, the Green Dragon’s got ahold of it.”

“Who?”

Bilbo spun the computer around, and Thorin was treated to the sight of his shirtless body superimposed on a picture of a small, round building, complete with a smoking chimney that suggested a homey atmosphere. “The inn and pub at Bywater,” he said. “Very popular. Look, they’ve put the catchphrase.” He cleared his throat and, seemingly without thinking about it, launched into a jingle, snapping his fingers on the beat. “The only brew for the brave and true comes from the Green Dragon! Bottoms up!” He spoke the last words and mimed downing a pint of something, only to blush a very attractive pink.

Once he’d finished chortling, to Bilbo’s great displeasure, if one went by his glare; Thorin leaned forward in his chair and grinned at the Hobbit stewing across the table. There was very nearly steam coming out of his ears. “That’s rather a Dwarvish jingle for a Hobbitish inn,” he pointed out.

“Oh, well,” said Bilbo as he deflated slightly, “attract the younger set, all that. It was always on the telly when I was a fauntling. Mum and Dad would plop me down in front of the old rabbit-ears set and then they’d…well.” He shuddered. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

Neither would Thorin. He had walked in on his own parents at least once before Smaug arrived. “I’ll leave that to your imagination,” he said. “We…” He stopped and held a hand against his stomach, which growled back at him. “Never mind that,” he amended. Now that he thought about it, his head had begun to spin some time ago. Legal work was never a good idea when one couldn’t concentrate for an empty stomach. Perhaps ten hours was enough for today. “Should we stop and eat?”

“Huh,” said Bilbo. Slowly, a horrified look overtook his face. “Oh, dear. How many meals have I missed?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” Thorin answered. “I’m hungry, so you must have missed quite a few.” Mahal, he hoped he hadn’t inadvertently starved Bilbo. Who knew how long they could go without food and not run into adverse effects? Not him, certainly. “At any rate, I’m sorry. What would you like?”

A ping interrupted Bilbo before he could answer. “Just a minute,” Bilbo said in a long-suffering sort of way, and clicked something. “Buggery…dingle-dongle! It’s another email from your spymaster, or whatever he’s calling himself. Could you tell him to please leave me alone?”

“I’ll talk to him,” Thorin said, mentally filing away ‘buggery dingle-dongle.’ He could whip that one out later if Bilbo got too pointed with his insults. “What does he want?”

“He wants me to come over to his home,” said Bilbo, then brightened. “Do you suppose there might be food involved? It would save us the trouble of having to go out somewhere or ransack the refrigerators.”

“We’ll have to see,” Thorin said, got up, and pushed in his chair. Nori had dropped in on him enough times (usually without his permission, he might add); he and Dwalin could use a little surprise in the form of Bilbo and himself appearing at their door. “Nori always has food lying about. We’ll go see what he has now.” He made an executive decision not to mention the pit wargs. No telling if Bilbo might be afraid of them. If he was, then warning him might do more harm than good, considering the things usually didn’t show up in Dwalin and Nori’s house of their own volition – a few of the cuddlier dams excepted. There was Nori’s pet, but he was such a marshmallow that he’d probably put his feet up in the submissive position and take a nap with his tongue out on sight of them. Most likely, he would just stay in the bedroom and sleep, as was his habit. “I’m sure they’ll be glad to see you. Nori deserves to have the tables turned on him as well.”

Bilbo clapped his hands and bounced up from his seat. “Jolly good!” he said, packing his laptop away into its case with his usual tentative care, as if the thing were about to bite him. “Where do they live?”

Thorin held the door open for Bilbo as they exited. “Outside the mountain,” he said, “but not far. I don’t consider it ‘going out somewhere,’ since they’re halfway to family anyway.”

“Oh, outside the mountain?” Bilbo shifted his laptop case to a more secure position under his arm. “How strange. I thought all you Dwarves liked to live in it. Sun allergy, I heard a while back.” He glanced at Thorin. “But that’s not at all correct, is it? I thought it was a bit suspicious when I heard it.”

Sun allergy, Thorin thought with a snort. As far as wild theories about Dwarves went, it was innocuous. “Not at all,” he agreed. “They’ve had a tunnel road installed for years so friends can go to their home without going outside. At least that’s what they say – really, it’s so Nori can scurry directly into the mountain and still maintain his precious privacy.”

He saw, in his peripheral vision, Bilbo roll his eyes. “It’s a good thing we like him, isn’t it?”

“It is.” Thorin stopped by a corridor light. “If you would like, we can drop your laptop off in your rooms before we go.”

“Yes,” said Bilbo, “I think I’ll do that. Give me some time to freshen up as well, if that’s to your fancy. I think I smell after a long day of law.”

He did, but it wasn’t an offensive smell, and Thorin wasn’t about to let him know that he liked it. Whatever soap that Bilbo used seemed to mingle with his sweat and waft across the conference table every day until it drove Thorin nearly mad. He’d had to learn to deal with it very quickly indeed. “Shower if you want to,” he said. “We don’t need to be there at any specific time, or at all, if you’d rather check the refrigerator than make the journey.” Bilbo had expressed a desire not to do that very thing, but Dwalin and Nori did live some distance away.

He deposited himself and Bilbo in the royal quarters and worked on a few overdue presentation revisions for Gulbû-zizî while he waited for Bilbo to finish in the shower. While the Dwarven Economic Committee didn’t meet for another three months, the Council of Coins would occur scant weeks after the summer Gulbel and he anticipated another Hell Week in the making (as occurred every so often). If only he could delegate his Great Council appearances and only show up once a year or so, like the rotating officials from the other clans. The downside of being a king, he supposed, among many.

A knock on the bedroom door startled him out of his concentration mid-edit. “Thorin?” said Bilbo. “I do want to go. You’re not too busy, are you?”

Thorin couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm. It probably wasn’t. When Bilbo wanted to take a potshot at him, he tended to be more obvious. “No, I’m ready to leave if you are,” he said, closed his computer, and opened the door. Bilbo’s light brown curls were wet, but he hadn’t changed out of anything except his pinstriped shirt, having replaced it with another pinstriped one in blue instead of green.

“No need to wear a jacket, I assume,” said Bilbo, snapping his bracers between his thumbs and forefingers. Yet another ridiculously old-fashioned mannerism of his. Thorin knew he was familiar with short sleeves and jeans, since he sometimes wore them, but mostly it seemed he wore bracers and pantaloons just to make everyone look at him that little bit more strangely. “Goodness, it’s cold in the mountains. In the Shire, I’d already have plenty of sprouts in the garden.”

“No, you’re right,” Thorin answered. “We won’t be going outdoors. I’ll take the highway.” He inclined his head towards the door and Bilbo, taking the hint, followed him out of the royal quarters and down to the garage.

He followed the same route as he’d taken to bring Bilbo up from the airport, the spiral pathway around the inner edge of the mountain, differing only in that he took the second eastern exit instead of the first to access Nori and Dwalin’s tunnel with his keycard. “I’m assuming you’re one of very few who can get in that way,” Bilbo spoke up when the tunnel door opened to admit them.

“You assume correctly,” said Thorin, watching the lights switch on as they passed. “I can assure you, it’s protected just as heavily on the other side. Nori’s way of a compromise between paranoia and his need to crawl through the vents like a rat, I suppose.”

“Oh, dear,” said Bilbo. He looked rather disconcerted at that, but kept his mouth closed for the short remainder of the subterranean drive, only speaking when Thorin parked in the five-spot lot beneath Dwalin and Nori’s house and turned off the car. “Are we going to take another lift?” he asked then.

Thorin shook his head, got out, and held the door for Bilbo so he could do the same. “Stairs,” he said, indicating them. Bilbo trailed after him as he pressed his card against the reader, went up the enclosed staircase (which always served to make him feel more than a bit claustrophobic), and repeated the card process again at the top. Nori’s paranoia won out here, he had always thought.

The door beeped and slid open, revealing Dwalin and Nori’s front hall. As usual, though neither strong nor unpleasant, there was a distinct smell of dog. Warg. Pit warg, really, a hybrid of the two in both species and smell. “Hello?” Thorin called out. “This is Thorin. I’ve brought Bilbo Baggins.” No answer. He waited a few moments before trying again. “Nori? Dwalin?”

“I don’t think anyone’s home,” Bilbo ventured; Thorin heard the automatic door shut behind him after he came through it. “Shall we try again another time?”

“They’ll be home,” Thorin said. While Nori prided himself on his slippery qualities and unpredictability, he was rather more predictable to those who knew him than to the general populace. In all likelihood, he was holed up somewhere in this house, and now it was Thorin’s mission to find him.

The house was small. Oh, the rooms were hardly cramped, but there were only a few of them. Thorin could count them off by heart now: kitchen, Nori and Dwalin’s bedroom, utility room, the real utility room full of Nori’s computers that functioned as a place for their odder guests to “crash,” loo full of Nori’s hair products and Dwalin’s tattoo-care elixirs (plus a few drawers full of lube), sitting room with an enormous television and a bookshelf full of various video games. Thorin led Bilbo through the living room and the kitchen, with a muttered “Watch your step.” There was every chance Bilbo would step on a pup if one of them wandered in, and while not small, they were smaller than a Hobbit.

He and Bilbo had just stepped past the kitchen island when one hand closed around Thorin’s neck and another pressed a knife against his right carotid artery. “Speak your piece,” Nori growled into his ear. Behind him, Bilbo peeped out a gasp.

“Put that away.” Thorin shoved him off, fervently hoping that Bilbo hadn’t just wet himself. “Don’t be ridiculous, Nori, we’re not intruders.”

“Ah, I knew that.” Nori’s face split into a grin and he returned the knife to its empty spot on the magnetic kitchen rack, between a fish cleaver and a delicate knife that Thorin thought might be used for cutting tomatoes. “Thought I’d give the Hobbit a scare. Initiation.” He crossed his arms and leaned into Bilbo’s personal space. Bilbo, of course, leaned backwards. “So this is the famous Bilbo Baggins. What d’you have in yer arsenal, then?”

“Many things,” Thorin cut in, “but the most pressing is an empty stomach. We thought we would take you up on your many invitations to dine with you. What do you have in the refrigerator?”

He would have sworn he heard Bilbo breathe a sigh of relief when Nori drew back, stroking his beard in apparent thought. “Er,” he said. “Hmm. Lemme see.” He loped over to the refrigerator and pulled it open, then stuck his entire head inside, save for the elaborate braid that fell down his back and held his whole hairstyle together. “What’re your feelings on leftover grilled cheese?”

“Anything else?” Thorin asked. He would not subject Bilbo to coagulated cheese and picked-over toppings his first time as a guest in another Dwarf’s home.

“Got some pickled veg. How’s that?”

“That sounds lovely,” Bilbo said, and Nori withdrew with a large, plastic-wrap-covered dish in his hands. “Ooh, did you pickle those yourself?”

Nori banged the plate down on the table and grabbed three mismatched plastic plates out of the nearest cupboard. “Nah, ‘s’a friend,” he said. “I don’t have the patience for that. Oi, Dwal, look who’s come to visit.”

Dwalin, thankfully with a shirt on (he didn’t always wear one during naps, and his rumpled look attested to him having just taken one), came through the doorway leading to the hall and sat down at the table without ceremony. “Evening, Thorin,” he said. “Mr. Baggins. Come for dinner?”

“Stealin’ our food, aye,” said Nori, and winked at Thorin. “Just jokin’. Hold on, I’ll get some crackers or rice or something to mix in.”

“The leftover chicken,” Dwalin suggested. “Fried cutlets. We’ve got a few stashed away from two days ago.”

“Huh. Really?” Nori said, but got up and went back to the refrigerator anyway. “Thought you ate all of those.”

“Ach, no. Wanted ‘em for a midnight snack and forgot.”

With their strange dinner finally, finally resolved, and Dwalin and Nori having exchanged kisses that made it very uncomfortable to look them in the face after, Thorin settled in to eat and saw Bilbo do the same. “My goodness, these are briny,” said Bilbo after a few mouthfuls of vegetables. “I can taste the herbs. Is that dill?”

Nori shrugged. “Couldn’t say.”

“It’s very good.” Bilbo licked his lips. “Thank you for having us.”

“Not a problem,” Dwalin said. “We’ve been wantin’ to have –”

And then Bilbo let out a scream of pure terror.

Thorin’s fork fell out of his hand and hit the table; out of instinct, he stood up as Bilbo bolted from his seat and crammed himself into the farthest corner of the room between the oven and the refrigerator. “What is that?” he cried, pointing a shaking finger at the door. “Is that a warg?”

“Huh?” Nori looked startled for just a moment before he started chuckling. “No, no…well, yeah. That’s me pet.” He took the thing by his collar and brought him over to the table, where the warg turned around three times and curled up on his outspread feet, already drooling. “His name’s Big Boffer. Fun story there wiv his name. Before he was neutered, he was always tryin’ to hump the furniture. I’n’t that right, Big Boffer?” He scratched Big Boffer’s ruff.

Thorin could have kicked himself a thousand times. Why hadn’t he factored the smell of food into his decision not to tell Bilbo about the pit wargs? That always brought dogs of any stripe running as fast as their legs could carry them. “I’m sorry, Mr. Baggins.”

“Bilbo,” said Bilbo faintly. Big Boffer gave a contented boof and wiggled his chin on top of Nori’s boots. “That is a full-blooded warg. And you…you said he’s tame?”

“Didn’t,” replied Nori with a shrug, “but he is. That’s a good boy, he is. Found him wanderin’ around outside a few years ago and he just came on in. I figured he wandered off from some Orc clan or other, something like that.”

It took a few minutes of suspicious staring, during which Big Boffer didn’t move an inch save for his tail thumping the floor, but Bilbo crept out of his corner and sat back down at the table. “A tame warg,” he said. “Who would have thought?”

“Us,” Dwalin said, and reached down to scratch Big Boffer himself. “Good lad. Ach, he’s so good. Except when he sits on the bed and overheats everything and slobbers on us. So big and heavy, aren’t ye?”

“And they act like dogs?” Bilbo asked.

“They’re close enough to interbreed, so aye, I guess.” Nori shrugged again. “Acts like a dog, drools like a warg, fierce as a warg when y’get too close to me and I don’t want you to. Has Thorin told you I breed these sweet pups?”

Bilbo stared. “Well!” he said. “I…you’ve got to understand, the last time I saw a warg up close, it was during what we called the Fell Winter. They came over the Brandywine. Feral ones, not even trained for drudge work. Wargs and wolves. The Rangers couldn’t keep them away.” He shivered, and Thorin suddenly recalled that winter, its icy, dry cold that no number of space heaters could keep away. Even in Erebor, the winter had been worse than usual, and everyone had heard the news out of Eriador about their horrors. “Nor the Orcs that came over, either.” He snapped his head up, as if just remembering where he was, and added quickly, “Not affiliated with any nation, of course. I don’t mean to imply…”

“There’s Orcs and Orcs,” Dwalin interrupted. Bilbo looked more than a little relieved. “Right. Shall we finish and have dessert in the livin’ room? Biscuits taste best there.”

“Biscuits,” Nori muttered. “Right, Dwal, thanks for remindin’ me. I gotta check on the lassies later.”

‘Lassies’ meant pregnant pit wargs, and if that meant that there was a visit to the pit-warg barn in his future, Thorin would be a very happy Dwarf indeed. He couldn’t keep the smile off his face, albeit a slight one, as they finished their dinner and decamped into the living room with a heaping plate of chocolate-chip cookies, four smaller plates, and four glasses of goat milk (which, like the dessert, were Dwalin’s idea).

Big Boffer followed them in, of course. Like the well-behaved lad he was, though, he sat by Dwalin’s chair and pointedly gave all of them puppy eyes instead of jumping up to steal a cookie. Dwalin finally sighed and gave him one, which he wolfed – or was it warged? – down. “Bad lad,” he said. “We’re lucky he’s so big that the chocolate won’t hurt him.”

“I love chocolate,” said Bilbo, mouth full of cookie, and addressed his next words to Big Boffer. “So do you, don’t you? Yes, you do. You’re an enormous bloody warg who loves his chocolate biccies.”

“You been eatin’ those pretty fast,” Nori pointed out, and pointed likewise at Bilbo’s empty plate. “Chocolate fan?”

“Oh, yes,” Bilbo told him, and reached for more cookies. “I’ve got shares in the chocolate greenhouses in the Shire. They’ve grown there all year for generations. I’ve even tasted the pods when they’re fresh. Surprisingly good.” He took a comparatively small bite of the next cookie. “Are these fresh-baked?”

Dwalin nodded and took another one himself. Thorin followed suit. “Aye,” Dwalin said. “This morning.” In that case, the fact that Dwalin hadn’t eaten them all himself was Mahal’s own miracle. Thorin could only assume that there had been more appetizing sweets in the house at the time (no longer, obviously).

Bilbo’s eyes wandered around the living room, resting on this and that with a barrister’s practiced eye. Thorin certainly hoped he wasn’t sizing everything up for its worth. “This is a lovely home.”

“Why, thank you.” Nori preened in his seat, which mostly consisted of plucking at his beard and getting crumbs in it. “Corking good of you to say so, Master Baggins, quite good.”

“If yer quite finished,” Dwalin growled.

“Oh, no, I can take a joke,” Bilbo said. “I’ve made…what’s that?” He pointed at the lightbox mounted on the far wall. “Is there something in there? If it’s not impolite for me to ask.”

Nori smiled and went to the box, then took the protective cloth off it. “Come over and see, if y’want,” he said. “There’s nothin’ private in there.”

Much like my life, Thorin thought uncharitably, watching while Bilbo got up and looked at the contents of the box. “It’s not going to bite you, either,” he said, having noticed Bilbo’s nervous steps.

“I didn’t expect so,” Bilbo answered. “Oh!” He came closer to the box. “You’ve got a print of the magazine cover! The one with the dragon’s arrival!” Bouncing on his toes, he pointed at the contents of the box, which were protected by a special UV-free light.

Nori’s lazy smile expanded. “Not a print, lad,” he said. “The original.”

“The - !” Bilbo whirled around. “You didn’t…” His eyes swept the room from Thorin to Dwalin to Nori, who looked like a cat who’d stolen the cream and publicly licked it up where no one could do anything about it. “You didn’t steal it, did you?”

“What you been tellin’ him about me?” Nori asked Dwalin, who smirked and shrugged. “Ah, it’s all right. I didn’t steal it. Even I wouldn’t do that. Sit back down, Bilbo, and have a biccie. I’ll tell you a story.”

“All right.” Bilbo’s brow was still furrowed in complete suspicion as he obeyed. “Tell me first, if you came by that legitimately, do you have the negatives?”

Nori didn’t miss a beat. “It’s too old for negatives,” he said. “But if you’re asking if I’ve got the plate, then yeah, I have.”

Bilbo’s mouth dropped open. Thorin couldn’t hide his own smile. He’d heard this story himself many a time; in fact, he’d been there when some of the events in question happened. Well, all of them, really. “Close your mouth, Bilbo, you’ll let in flies.”

Nori settled himself ostentatiously into his chair, flung his legs over one arm, and cleared his throat. “All right, me lad,” he said, “listen good. Me dad was a pathetic waste of sperm, but he was good for two things: stickin’ it in Mam and running away. The day the dragon came, he was in Dale. Mahal knows what he was doing there. Probably just skint, wanted to see what he could get gold for. With me so far?”

Bilbo nodded. “I think so.”

“Right, good. So there Dad was, mindin’ his own business, and up comes the dragon. Now Dad had this box camera. It was one of the first. Thorin here remembers when there weren’t no cameras at all, aye?” Nori gestured at him.

“I don’t,” Thorin said stiffly. “I was young when the first photographs were taken.” Including the one he kept safe in his quarters, but that was neither here nor there.

“You’re no fun,” said Nori, and made a face at him. “Right. Dad sees the dragon hoverin’ over Dale, looking like he wants to murder everyone in there. Dad’s got some cleverness to him, so he gets out the camera and aims. No time to set up the…what is it? Tripod, that thingy. Had to have a minute’s exposure back then – that’s why Smaug’s wings’re all blurry. He wasn’t keeping still.”

“Of course he wasn’t,” Thorin murmured. Mahal, he remembered that day. It had taken him years to free his mind of the screams, the wind rushing in his ears as Smaug flew into and took over everything he loved, the stench as people burned. Of course it still hurt; of course the nightmares still took him. But they didn’t throw him to his knees anymore.

Nori glanced at him and cocked his head. “Thorin’s got it,” he said in a slightly more modulated tone. “That bastard Smaug took the mountain. Dad went wandering with everyone else, and set up his little darkroom first chance he could. Then he just kept the photo with him and I got born a few years later. ‘Course, he died when I was still wet behind the ears. No idea why when he ‘adn’t seen Mam or me in years, but he left me that camera and everything what went with it.”

“Including the photo?” Bilbo ventured.

“You’ve got it,” said Nori, pointing finger-guns at Bilbo and kicking his feet up and down. “I was just of age when we went on the Quest for Erebor. Had practically everything I owned on me. Wasn’t even married to this big lug yet.” He made a kissy noise, which Dwalin (seemingly reluctantly) returned. “They needed to put it in the news when Smaug died, right? And Life Magazine wasn’t doing so well then. Not enough readers. I saw the writing on the wall and I said to them, awright, why don’t I sell you the rights to this photo? Put a pretty dragon on the cover, good news story. And that,” he finished magisterially, “is why practically the whole media owes me a favor and I’ve got that photo in my living room.”

Now Bilbo’s jaw hung practically to the floor. Nori looked as though he were about to burst with pride at himself, and disagree as he might with his methods, Thorin could see why. It had been a long time since Nori got a reaction like this out of someone with his story. It was true, too – Thorin had been there to see his smug face when the magazine fell all over itself to accept his photo. “Your father…” Bilbo said, then trailed off, seemingly unable to finish his sentence. “Wow.”

“Mm-hm.” Nori levered himself up off the armchair and covered the lightbox up again. “Hope you don’t mind. Got to keep that from fading. Big Boffer, don’t rub your arse on the carpet. That’s disgusting.”

Dwalin stroked Big Boffer’s side. “He’s not got worms,” he told Nori. “He had that checkup two weeks ago, remember? Probably just him actin’ oot.”

“Is he lonely?” Bilbo asked. “He’s not got any wargs to play with here, has he? Away from the Orc clans and all that.”

“He has the pit wargs to play with,” said Thorin. “He’s able to get into the barn.” The warg was far too clever for his own good, likely because he had Nori for a parent of sorts. “Sometimes the pit wargs come up here and play with him, too.”

Nori held up a finger and turned to Dwalin. “They express his anal glands at the vet?” he said.

Dwalin thought for a moment. “Don’t think so,” he said, and at Nori’s groan, added “Why? Should they have?”

“Looks like I’ll be doin’ that after these two head home,” Nori said, head in his hands. “Well, awright. Bilbo, you wanna go see the pit warg barn? I can show you Big Boffer’s not lonely. Don’t worry, they’re smaller, and none of ‘em’ll hurt you.”

Thorin immediately found himself hoping that Bilbo would say yes. It had been far too long since he’d visited the barn; his at-least-weekly visits had been cut off with Bilbo’s arrival and the subsequent massive amounts of paperwork they’d been doing since then. It was probably fair to say that he missed the blighters. “I’ll make sure they don’t knock you over,” he offered.

Bilbo glared daggers at him. “I don’t need help in avoiding any sort of dog,” he sniffed. “I’m certainly not afraid. Nori, I shall take you up on your offer.” He stood up and slapped some imaginary dust off his trousers. “Will we go now?”

They did. Flanked by Dwalin, Nori led Bilbo and Thorin to the nondescript door between his computer room and the loo, which he opened to reveal a set of stairs leading to a well-lit passage with dirt walls. “Convenient when the weather’s cold,” he said by way of explanation, and started down the steps. “Well, come on.”

The warm passageway was short, with a staircase only a minute’s walk to the other end. Nori took the lead there, too, opening the door that led – as Thorin knew well – to the nexus of the pit warg barns: the socializing grounds.

He breathed in deeply, happily, as he went in and stamped his feet on the dirt floor. The place smelled like clean pups and milk and slightly like puppy shit, but as that was mostly processed milk, it wasn’t terrible. All around, in between the variously-colored moving lumps of mothers and pups, the individual pens and hallways that divided them led out from the circular room like spokes on a wheel. “Hello,” he crooned, not quite caring if Bilbo thought he was mad for it, and knelt down by the first nursing mother he saw. “Who’s this?”

“Aww, ‘s’gotta be Biccies,” said Nori. “Aye, it is. She had her pups a few weeks ago. Look at ‘em, they’re just gettin’ their eyes open.”

One of the pups detached from its mother, who opened one eye and put out her tongue at Thorin, and flopped over towards him on enormous, unsteady feet. Then it opened its mouth and yawned. “That’s a sweet pup,” said Thorin, sat down cross-legged, and scooped the puppy into his lap. If it wandered away from its ‘Amad, then it was fair game for pettings.

“They’re so gentle,” said Bilbo in wonder behind him. “They’re not coming to…hold on…” Thorin looked behind him and caught Bilbo squatting down, petting a pup just old enough that its fuzzy dun-colored fur had begun to grow in shaggy. “Hello there. What’s your name?”

“They don’t have them yet.” This came from Dwalin, whom Thorin was not surprised to see on his back, covered by a very large pit warg and a not-insignificant amount of drool. “This lass wants to play tug o’ war. Ach, where’s a toy? Coom here. Grrrr.” He picked up a knotted piece of rope and held it out for the pit warg, who leapt off him and obligingly grabbed it.

“Usually, their families give ‘em names,” said Nori. He stood in the middle of the room with his hands on his hips, seemingly proud of his territory. Well, he had a right to be. He was the original breeder, and all the pit wargs loved him; even with staff to take over the bulk of the caretaking, Nori was down here whenever his schedule permitted him. He even bottle-fed the pups sometimes, which Thorin never would have believed if he hadn’t seen it. “They’ll get adopted when they’re a couple months older, like those.” He pointed out a robust, unanimously active litter, all of whom were growling happily and pouncing on each other. “Oi, you! Chewin’ your brother’s ear. That’s a fierce pup.”

Bilbo sat back on his haunches. “How do you know that’s a male pup?”

“Set o’ danglers,” said Dwalin. “Trick of the trade.”

“Oh.” Bilbo’s ears went pink. Thorin rebuked himself for looking to see if they had; what business was it of his if those pointed ears blushed? He was never this interested in Thranduil’s. “Will you have them neutered when they’re old enough?”

Nori nodded. “Of course. We’ve got a couple of vets on staff here.” The glass door to one of the hallways opened and a young Dwarrowdam came in, carrying two large bowls of food. “Hello there, Imra. All’s well with the lads outside?”

“Yeah, they’re having some fun out there,” she said, and bent down to put the food bowls in the center of the room. A pup leapt up and bit the end of her braid, and she eased it away with a laugh; the one pup was soon followed by all of those that could walk and their mothers. “I don’t think anyone’s in heat now, Nori. We can probably let the males in with the females.”

“Thank Mahal for seasonal heats,” said Nori. “Just watch ‘em, make sure they don’t sit on the pups or get too violent. The mums don’t usually sit on the pups,” he added, addressing this to Bilbo, “but the dads can get a wee bit overenthusiastic with ‘em.”

Bilbo, by now, had two puppies – the youngest, by Thorin’s reckoning – in his arms and another one sitting on his furry feet, attempting to bite his toes. “I suppose that’s them taking the term ‘babysitting’ far too literally,” he said, and broke into giggles. Imra smiled, too, and left the way she’d come.

Some sort of goodwill, a soft feeling brought on by the sight of Bilbo with puppies in his arms, surged up in Thorin’s chest. “Maybe you’d like to have a pup when you go back to the Shire,” he suggested, and surprised himself by how little he liked the idea of Bilbo leaving Erebor. It already seemed as though the mountain would be boring with him gone.

“What?” Bilbo nearly dropped one of the pups, but it climbed up onto his shoulder. His wince made Thorin think that it had also dug in its claws. “Really?”

“They get huge, you know,” Nori warned. “Two hundred pounds, some of ‘em even bigger. You sure you want that in the Shire?”

“Well, I’ll have to think about it.” The hug Bilbo gave the pups suggested he wouldn’t have to think about it very hard, but Thorin declined to comment to that effect.


(Commissioned from the amazing hattedhedgehog!)

It was a great deal of playing later (and being knocked on his back like Dwalin) that Thorin thought to check his watch again. “Oh,” he said. If he didn’t get to sleep soon, he’d have no energy for tomorrow. This case was sapping everything he had. “It’s nearly ten. I’m sorry, but I think we need to leave.” He gave Bilbo an apologetic look and repeated, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” said Bilbo. He looked a bit disappointed himself, but he didn’t protest, instead standing up and giving the pit warg mother he’d been petting one last rub on her ears. “I think I’ve worn myself out anyway. Dwalin, Nori, thank you so much for this. Thorin, I think we can show ourselves out, don’t you?”

“We’ll go, too,” Dwalin told him. “That warg’s anal glands won’t express themselves, will they, Nori?”

Nori glared. “Shut up.”

Bilbo fell asleep in the front seat on the way back; evidently, he wasn’t lying about being tired out. If Thorin drove a bit under the speed limit and took the longest route to prolong it, pointedly refusing to glance over and see that Bilbo was still adorably asleep - well, that was no one’s business but his own.

What on Arda had Balin gotten him into?

Chapter Text

Bilbo felt his forehead connect with the hard stone of Durís’s kitchen table, but he barely felt the pain. It didn’t have a patch on the headache he’d felt building for hours. “My life is awful,” he moaned.

“So’s mine,” said Durís, patting him on the shoulder. Even that ached more than it should have, Dwarven strength aside. “’S’why I took the day off. Do y’want to talk about it?”

“Tea first.”

“What I was thinking,” she replied. Bilbo waited until he heard the electric kettle start to burble before lifting his head. Durís filled two cups and pushed one across the table. “All right, talk.”

Bilbo stirred the tea strainer in the cup and ran a hand through his hair, which didn’t make his curls any neater. He’d been messing them up all day, but it was for a good reason. “I’ve had to write so many legal briefs today,” he said. “No, sorry, that doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’ve been writing and revising.

“Ooh,” said Durís with a wince. “That bad?”

“You’ve no idea,” Bilbo said. “I’ve had to write – I don’t even know. I’ve forgotten how many versions.” First the preliminary, which in and of itself had taken up the better part of a week, and then came the worst part. “I’ve got what, twenty different versions? The one in Gondor goes through the King’s Bench Division and for the Umbar one, it’s Chancery, so I had to rewrite the whole fucking thing. Changed the format so it approached the case more like other on-paper crime shite.” He gulped in a huge breath. Rants were refreshing, but they stole air like nothing else. “And then I accidentally copy-pasted that intro into my Shire version and it deleted what I had before when I tried to get it back. I hate technology!”

Durís’s eyes widened. “Drink,” she said, pointing to his cup. Bilbo gladly obeyed. “Mahal wept, Bilbo. You’re workin’ yourself to the bone.”

“Yes, well.” Bilbo sipped his tea, bumped his lip on the strainer, and got up to set it in the sink. “Not that Thorin’s got it any easier,” he continued once he’d sat back down. “He’s got to approve everything on top of that Gulbel they’ve got going on right now. I’ve hardly seen him. Honestly, I’m petrified he’ll read the drafts and tell me we’re working at cross-purposes.”

“Aye, Gulbel,” said Durís. “So he kicked you out, then? Lots of meetings?”

“I mean…not exactly.” Why was he defending Thorin? There wasn’t a thing that needed defending about the reason he was here. “He and Balin just told me I’d be working on my own this week. They’re so busy, and there are so many extra people here.”

Durís drank deeply from her mug. “Don’t I know it! That’s why my life’s awful right now. Athletic client from the Blue Mountains.”

Athletic? Bilbo looked at her. There didn’t appear to be anything wrong, but… “Are you all right? Is this one of those things you’ve got to report?”

“Oh!” She vigorously shook her head; her long hair went flying, and Bilbo blinked at the sensation of wind in his face. “Nothin’ like that. It’s only my muscles are so sore, I had to cancel today’s appointments. There were two of them.” She shrugged. “Might have to reschedule, but what can you do? Firebeards are fiery in bed. Fun, too.” She winked.

Bilbo still couldn’t get over the fact that here, a rollicking good tumble was something you could make a career of, and be taxed on to boot. His life, he thought, would have been far more enjoyable if he had had the opportunity to make it his career as well. He could have made Bag-End a bed and breakfast of sorts, only with a second meaning attached to the word ‘bed.’ “Er,” he finally said, noting with some satisfaction that the heat in his face wasn’t nearly as intense as it had been the first time he was here. “So, Firebeards. Have they all got red ones, then?”

“Some,” Durís answered. “But they’ve all got these absolutely enormous hands.”

Mmm, enormous hands. What would it be like to do it with a Dwarf from each of the seven clans? Bilbo could only imagine the lovely soreness after those nights.

“Bilbo!”

“Huh?” Bilbo blinked and focused his eyes on Durís, who by now was giggling madly. “Oh, bloody hell. It’s not my fault I haven’t…well, done that in ages!”

“Therapy’s ten gildings the hour,” she quipped, “and it’s not my specialty.”

Bilbo massaged his forehead with his fingertips; even the skin felt tender. “Oh, bugger off,” he said, making sure not to put any heat into the words. “I don’t need therapy. I need a bit of –”

“Rumpy-pumpy?”

“Ugh!” Bilbo recoiled. “Oh, Valar, now I’m never going to be able to have sex again!” He pointed at Durís. “Stop laughing. That’s an order from the royal barrister.”

Durís took a few seconds to get herself under control and wiped her eyes. “No such thing as a royal barrister, lad,” she said. “You’ve got no authority over me. So, want me to set ye up with one of my friends? He’d probably knock off a couple gildings if it’s a referral.”

Now there was an idea. Still and all, the idea made him a bit uncomfortable. “No, thanks,” he said. “I’d probably be constantly calculating how much I’m paying per minute. Maths, that’s the barrister’s intrusive thought. Thanks anyway.” It wasn’t a lie. Sometimes when he just couldn’t write up legal language for another second, he sat in the conference room and let himself imagine how much Thorin and Balin were paying him per minute, or even per second. It was less boring than writing pre-action proceedings and trying to decide which one court would best take a physical suit so he could avoid filling out a dozen claim forms.

He'd thought it would help matters that he was trying to avoid a physical suit by flexing some legal power through the post, but if the servers didn’t back down, they needed a contingency plan. If, if, if – that was his life. Still much more interesting than the Clayhangers. He needed to get Lobelia a cake (store-bought, of course; his generosity didn’t extend that far) for giving him the punt in the arse that he needed.

“That’s all right,” said Durís, shrugging. “Didn’t think you would. I just wanted to put it out there. Is that your phone?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Bilbo reached into his pocket, where his blasted phone was buzzing, and looked at the screen. Right, there was his alarm. “Balin’s lunch hour. I promised him I’d deliver the general preliminary draft while he’s got a moment. Sorry I can’t stay.”

“No problem. Can’t imagine he’s any less busy than you, what with Gulbel.” Durís drank some of her tea and wiggled in her seat. “Nope, still sore. Can’t take any make-up clients while you’re gone. I think I’ll have a good nap.”

Bilbo stood up and put his mug in the sink, then gave Durís’s shoulders a brief massage. She slumped against the table with a happy noise. “Hope your nap goes well,” he said. “Should I come visit tomorrow? I’ll bring biscuits. That’s the best thing if you’re sore.”

“Mm-hm, sure.” She waved weakly at him. “Go. I’ll talk to you later.”

If she was that tired, then he wouldn’t take up any more of her time. Bilbo couldn’t imagine how tired she must be – even the walking holiday he’d once taken to Frogmorton hadn’t made him that sore. She probably had ibuprofen for it, too.

The half-hour or so it took to get to the noble quarters passed in peace. No one bothered him on the train, so Bilbo took his copy of the first Harry Potrion book out of his messenger bag and read through two more chapters. Thorin couldn’t believe it when he said he hadn’t read the series. “It’s about a magical half-Elf who isn’t insufferable,” he’d said, and pressed a brand-new set of books on Bilbo the next day. And they said Dwarves weren’t generous.

He’d expected the noble quarters to be bustling, but they were in fact deserted; the electric torches on the wall didn’t show any flickering movements ahead. Well, that was all right. Probably everyone was either taking their lunch in the conference rooms or had gone out to forage at the local restaurants. “Fine, then,” Bilbo said, snapping his bracers. Why that action annoyed Thorin, he had no idea. Thorin could get prickly at the oddest things. Hob would laugh if he said so in a letter – he’d told Bilbo often enough in his subtle Hob-ish way that he was prickly, and would probably consider it a taste of his own medicine.

Something solid bumped into his leg. Bilbo startled, his bag nearly slipping off his shoulder. “I say!” he said, and looked down. “What’s this?”

A small pig – small enough to only reach Bilbo’s hip, at least – looked up at him with what looked very much like a smile. Its black eyes glittered in the light. Grunt.

“Are you someone’s pet?” Bilbo asked. Immediately, he rolled his eyes at himself. Of course the pig wouldn’t…but no, the pig turned around, and he could make out the text on the top of its vest. “Delivery Pig,” he read. “How clever!”

The pig grunted again and nudged his hand. “I don’t know what you want,” said Bilbo, “unless it’s my cheese puffs, but I’m sure I’m not allowed to – oh, there we are.” The light glinted on the gold embroidery on its side: I Love Treats!

So the cheese puffs went to the pig, which Bilbo observed (as it was eating) had two small covered baskets on a sort of girdle cinch. “On your way, then,” he told it awkwardly after it was finished, saluting. To his relief, the pig gave him a gesture that might have been a nod and trotted on its way, not looking at all like it had been distracted from its former goal. He’d never forgive himself if he were the cause of someone failing to get an important package.

Balin’s door was cherry-red and cheerful, and unlike the door to the royal quarters, simply unlocked with a click rather than sliding apart when Bilbo pressed his keycard against it. “Just come in, lad,” Balin had said, and though it felt a bit odd, he did. “Balin?” he called. Light, pleasant jazz music played from a source he couldn’t see, and the walls were covered with tapestries as warm-toned as the door. “I’ve brought the prelims for you.”

“Bilbo!” Balin exclaimed as he came through a door, rubbing his hands together. “I’m so sorry, I thought you’d be a bit later. I needed the necessary.”

That was more information than Bilbo needed. Old people were the same the world over, it seemed. “Mm. Well. I’ve got the prelims. Here.” He took the folder out of his bag and proffered it; Balin took it with a nod. “The rest of the drafts are nearly done. I’ve got work to do on Umbar, Gondor, and the Northern Rhûn Federation. Thank goodness there’s a single constitution among those countries!”

“Ah, Northern Rhûn,” said Balin. “Wonderful hot springs there. You’d best watch out for the volcanoes, though.”

Bilbo had heard the news about those same volcanoes causing difficulty with flyovers a few years before, and he didn’t think he cared to risk it himself. It would singe the hair right off his feet if he got caught in an eruption, among other things. He’d never be able to show his face in the Shire again. “Is there anything else you’d like from me?” he asked.

“I don’t think so.” Balin looked at the ornately-carved clock on the wall, which was made out of some dark stone that Bilbo couldn’t identify. Two months into his Erebor adventure and he could still barely tell marble from granite. Granite was the rough one, wasn’t it? Or was that marble? “Bilbo, have you done much exploring here yet?”

“I’ve gone to Milîn plenty of times,” Bilbo said, and felt himself color up. What would Balin think – that he was some sort of sex maniac? “Not that way!” Balin raised a bushy eyebrow. “I’ve got a new friend there. We like to have tea and talk.”

“However you choose to spend your time is fine,” Balin told him. “No, I ask because I thought you might be gettin’ bored. There are some quite nice museums down on the first level of the mountain, if that’s your fancy.”

Bilbo scratched his chin. “Come to think of it, it might be,” he remarked. “I don’t think I’ve visited a museum since…” There had still been snow on the ground. January, maybe? “It’s been a while, anyway!” He cleared his throat. “What sorts of museums have you got? Art?” The Dwarvish art he’d seen thus far in the mountain had been just stunning.

Balin leaned against a wall and massaged his back with both hands. Bilbo hid a smile. He’d seen that move often enough in the Shire among expecting mothers, though he’d learned from a quiet question to Thorin that in this case, it was from an old injury. The Battle of Azanulbizar, it was (the name of which Bilbo could only pronounce slowly and with a lot of mistakes). “We’ve got plenty. There’s the Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, that’s the contemporary one with art from lots of different peoples. The Museum of Natural Science is my favorite.”

“Museum of Natural Science,” Bilbo repeated. Hadn’t that been the logo on Thorin’s sweatshirt? Yes, definitely; he remembered how it stretched across that powerful chest. He rubbed his hands up and down his upper arms, shivering all of a sudden. “That sounds like fun. Is there an admissions fee?” Not that he couldn’t afford it, especially now.

“No, it’s free. Tax-funded.” Balin took another glance at the clock. “I ought to be going back to the conferences now. Looks good for the Chief Adviser to be early, ye know. Do you need directions?”

“Absolutely,” Bilbo said. “First level, you said?”

“Aye,” said Balin. “Go out from Sanzigil Station on its…hmm, third floor, I think. Take the blue line to Shubtu Station. It’s Khuzdul for ‘intelligence.’ There’s a graphic to that effect if you get confused.” He smiled. “It’s meant to help the children learn their directions.” Bilbo returned the smile. “Once you get to Shubtu, go down to the ground floor. There will be signs to guide you from there.”

Dwarvish history was bloody amazing. Bilbo had little doubt that Dwarvish natural history would be so as well. “Thanks so much,” he told Balin. “Now please don’t think I’ll be loitering there all day. You’ll be able to reach me long before your meetings end.”

“Take your time, laddie,” Balin said, grimacing. “We’re hammering out standardization of public funding today. Terribly boring stuff. It’s lucky that Dís takes the lead on most of it.”

Bilbo had never found words strong enough to describe how much he sincerely loathed anything to do with boilerplate meetings. It was a large part of why he worked alone back home, but the irony of his choice of career as a civil barrister was not entirely lost on him. He tended to try his best not to think about it. “My condolences.”

“My thanks. Could I offer ye something to eat first?”

Bilbo did his routine belly check and shook his head. “No, thanks. I had elevenses before I went to my friend’s house.”

Balin gracefully acquiesced to that and thanked him for the folder, and Bilbo headed out. A museum day sounded lovelier and lovelier by the instant; he wasn’t about to spoil it by sticking around here any longer than he had to.

The directions Balin gave him turned out to be one floor off on the front end, but as there was nowhere he really had to be, Bilbo wasn’t too bothered. Two more chapters of Harry Potrion and a subway transfer later, he was standing in front of the museum.

Like most of those he’d seen here (not that there were many; what he told Balin about how he used his time was not a lie), this building had an elaborate front carved out of the dark mountain stone. It looked rather like a northern Mannish castle, save for being not quite as craggy and a bit more industrial in design.

Well, this outing was off to a good start already. Bilbo whistled a happy note and fell into step behind a group of Dwarflings, on a school trip unless he missed his guess, through the tall double doors.

“Hello there,” he said, detouring by the front desk in an alcove off the front lobby. “Er, where do you think I ought to start?”

“We have some new exhibits in,” said the receptionist – an Elf, surprisingly enough, or not. Bilbo had seen the population stats for the mountain. Several thousand of Erebor’s quarter million people were Men or Elves. Some of them had to have jobs, at least. “My recommendation is the newest one. It’s on the second floor and details the history of different kinds of dragons in Middle Earth.” She gave an apologetic shrug. “We’d have loved to have it for the fiftieth anniversary of the Reclamation last year, but unfortunately, it’s a traveling exhibit.”

Ooh, dragons. “I’m not bothered,” Bilbo replied. The art museum back home swapped out exhibits all the time, and he went infrequently enough that there was always something new for him to look (or gawp) at. “I’ll just go wander, then.”

Admission was free, as Balin said, but Bilbo dropped five silvers in the clear plastic donation box anyway. Never hurt to be generous.

The dragon exhibit upstairs turned out to be both new and interactive, which certainly explained the hordes of children. An animatronic dragon moved so fluidly as to practically dance just past the entrance, and the kids all ‘oooh’ed in awe, save for those who shrieked in fear. Bilbo would have been ashamed to call himself one of the latter if he hadn’t managed to stifle his scream behind his hand. Once he’d gotten past that hurdle, though, the rest of the exhibit was fantastic.

Bilbo could say with some shame that he pressed his nose up against the glass like he was a child himself, because he did. He pressed buttons and sat through instructional videos while wiggling in anticipation as he hadn’t done since he was a faunt, and when there was an honest-to-Valar hands-on tasting section, he didn’t hesitate to swoop down and try it (the mystery rock was revealed to be halite, a food source for primordial dragons; of course they ate salt).

It was the shouting of an indignant Dwarfling that finally brought Bilbo out of his zeal. “Oi! You took my spot!” The Dwarfling tugged on his shirt, scowling beneath a floppy knitted hat that looked just adorable. “I was gonna eat that.”

“Oh, dear.” Bilbo pulled back, fingers still in his mouth. “I’m terribly sorry. It was your turn, wasn’t it?”

The Dwarfling scowled at him, which was equally adorable. “My turn.”

Bilbo left as soon as the teacher started getting involved, and followed a map back down to the first floor until he came to what was undoubtedly the crown jewel – pun very much intended in the privacy of his head – of the Museum of Natural History: the gems and minerals exhibit. It was nearly packed full even in the middle of the day on a non-holiday, or maybe it was a holiday. He’d never been told how exactly the mountain treated Gulbel.

He didn’t think to check the time until he’d thoroughly exhausted himself by spiraling around to look at every single shiny thing in the exhibit, and by then, it was nearly three. His stomach gurgled angrily at him, and he winced, grabbing a handful of his belly. Ugh, now he’d missed lunch.

Just out of the exhibit’s exit, though, a surprise drove all thoughts of food out of his mind. “Thorin!” he exclaimed happily, then noticed the five Dwarves surrounding Thorin. They were not familiar to him. Shit. Gulbel. “I mean, er, King Thorin. Sorry!”

Two of the Dwarves broke out in laughter. Thorin smiled, though, so he probably hadn’t made too much of a blunder. “My name is fine,” he said. “Ambassadors, this is Master Bilbo Baggins, the barrister I spoke of. He’s done us a great favor in coming all the way from the Shire to work on such an important case.”

Heat rose up in Bilbo’s stomach and neck, warming his whole face to the top of his forehead and the tips of his ears. “At your service!” he said, and made a small bow to the ambassadors in general. Though only one approached Thorin’s height, Bilbo still had the impression that he was being surveyed by a grove of six trees. “The pleasure is all mine, I’m sure. I didn’t expect to be called here for something so important.” Thorin had said ‘important’ already, he realized too late. They would think he was a fool. “I didn’t know your meetings finished already.”

“And we are at your service,” said Thorin. “We’ve decided to adjourn for a few hours. Bilbo, if I may introduce our guests?” He gestured towards the group of Dwarves, and Bilbo nodded. “This is Hathri Nyrathul, Minister of Agriculture for the Stiffbeard clan. Maron Forger is the second-in-command to the Ironfists’ Head of Foundry.” Each Dwarf nodded and bowed in turn as he indicated them. “Inna Verul is the head of the Blacklocks and president of the University of the Red Mountains, in which capacity she’s serving here.” Head of a clan, staring at him? Bilbo felt faint. “Sognir Thekkul is the Guildsmaster for the Southern Stonefoots, and Dáin Ironfoot is Lord of the Iron Hills.”

“Well, my goodness,” Bilbo answered, and swallowed to wet his dry throat. “Honored to meet you. And Dáin Ironfoot I’ve heard about, of course.” He extended his hand to Dáin, whose mustache had obviously been styled to look like tusks – Dwalin had mentioned that the Iron Hills raised pigs for fun and profit (mostly to train for transportation and battle, but some to eat). Bilbo didn’t dare get too close to the tusk tips for fear of putting an eye out.

Dáin shook his hand without getting too close, though, and that helped set his mind at ease. “Lovely to meet ye, Master Baggins!” he said. His accent reminded Bilbo of Balin and Dwalin; he must have had the same influences as they did. “I’ve heard about ye. Gettin’ my cousin out of a bit of trouble.”

“Baggins?” said…yes, Inna Verul. He would have to learn these names if he didn’t want to embarrass them. “From that business with Smaug the Terrible?”

“My parents,” Bilbo answered, wondering just how many times he would have to repeat that before these conferences were over. “Pleased to know your regard, I’m sure.”

The agricultural minister, whose name quite escaped Bilbo but whose hair and robes were spectacularly covered with the same velvet-ribbon trim, said something in Khuzdul that elicited a definite reaction in the form of narrowed eyebrows and, in Thorin’s case, pursed lips. “I’m sure your brother would be pleased with the comparison, but this is not the time,” Thorin said.

“Excuse me?” Bilbo demanded. “What exactly did he say?”

“That you’ve got hairier feet than his brother,” Dáin translated, “and he wondered why you weren’t wearing any shoes.”

Oh. That wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. Little Amardís had asked the same question on the Zigil-‘urm that first time. “We don’t wear them,” Bilbo said with a shrug, feeling the tension leave him.

“The ambassador meant no offense,” said Thorin. “Not everyone has had the same opportunities to become familiar with Hobbit customs. Not to worry, Minister. There is nothing unsanitary about the habit.”

Nothing unsanitary, well, it had best not be, since he bathed his feet thoroughly every day! “No offense taken.” Bilbo made another bow, this one more awkward. “Ought I let you through? This exhibit is lovely. I enjoyed seeing all the gems.” People were detouring around them to get in and out, and he didn’t want to take up more space or time here than he had to.

The group of ambassadors went through the entrance, but Thorin stayed behind, a small smile on his face as he looked down at Bilbo. Not down on him, thankfully, because if he’d done that, he would have gotten a good punch in the bollocks long ago. You learned the difference quickly when you were a Hobbit. “What was your favorite part of the gem exhibit?” he asked.

“I…wait, do you really want to know? You’re not just being polite?” Bilbo said. Thorin had to have seen thousands of gems in his lifetime so far, if not millions.

“Of course not.” Thorin frowned, looking affronted, as if the very idea was offensive. “I want to know.”

“Mm, well, I liked the sapphires,” Bilbo told him. They came in all colors; he liked the classic blue ones best, especially the ones with the star-like light refractions in the middle, but there had been a very beautiful light-blue one that reminded him of Thorin’s eyes. He’d spent much more time than he cared to admit staring at it. “They were arranged very nicely. The rubies, too.”

Thorin chuckled. “So the barrister likes his shiny things after all,” he said. “Careful or we’ll make a burglar out of you yet, like Nori.”

Nori!” Bilbo put his hands on his hips. “I’ll have you know that I’m a good deal subtler than he is.” Which was a lie, of course. He wouldn’t be able to wiggle through the vents like Nori did. While Bilbo’s fat belly was technically barely larger than Nori’s Dwarvish-built middle, Nori was somehow lithe enough to be able to move through them with no problems. Bilbo had heard him at it through the ceiling once.

“Mm, of course.” Thorin flexed his hands and glanced into the enormous lobby. “I take it you’ve seen the main attraction already. What did you think of it?”

“Main attraction?” Bilbo said, scratching his head. “Do you mean the new exhibit? History of Dragons? I’ve already been to that. It was jolly good, except for me accidentally cutting into the queue in front of some child.”

Thorin raised an eyebrow at him. “Child – no, I don’t want to know. The main attraction,” he repeated as his eyes grew wide. “Mahal, you really haven’t seen it, have you?”

“Seen what, exactly?” Bilbo barked, throwing up his hands in exasperation. “Don’t be dense on purpose. It doesn’t become you.”

Thorin took his arm and led him the short distance to the lobby, which was ringed by the circular museum floors on all of the levels. “Look up,” he said.

Bilbo did, and his head swam.

At least three hundred feet above him dangled a fantastically-preserved, unmistakably real dragon’s head, suspended on a net of fine chains that gleamed against the dark ceiling. It couldn’t be any dragon, no, not with those red scales. “Bugger me,” he said softly. “That’s…”

“Smaug,” said Thorin. “That’s him. Preserved and taxidermied by the best. He tends to be the main attraction here.” He gave Bilbo’s shoulder a single pat, then retreated as if shy; Bilbo couldn’t see his face with his eyes glued to the ceiling as they were. “This is what your father helped destroy. Are you all right?”

“Guh,” Bilbo said, more in Smaug’s direction than in Thorin’s. Dad had built the blueprints for a cannon that was capable of killing that and blasting it to pieces. By all that was green and growing, he’d thought it impressive when Dad was banned from the annual pumpkin judging for booby-trapping the competition with explosives – and they’d only showered passersby with squash guts! But this…this…

“Bilbo?”

“Nope,” said Bilbo, and his legs gave out from under him.

In the flash of a second that he actually spent falling, he fully expected to hit the floor and sustain some sort of concussion. Instead, he felt Thorin catch him from behind with huge, warm hands, and the floor tilted back to its rightful configuration as Thorin stood him back up. “Steady on, Master Barrister,” he said, a laugh in the lines around his eyes.

“Goodness.” Bilbo’s heart pounded with adrenaline. “Thank you. I’d have killed myself in my own stupidity there.” His eyes drifted back towards the ceiling and he irritably snapped them back to their current level. No use being rescued just to fall again. “I’m not used to sights like that.”

“You really didn’t see it?” Thorin said. “It’s hanging right in the middle of the round-hall.”

“Well,” said Bilbo, “I was only up to the second floor.”

That seemed a good enough excuse for Thorin, who shrugged and gave Bilbo’s back one last awkward pat. Bilbo found himself wishing that that hand would linger. It was so very warm, and it was cold in here, and that was absolutely the only reason. “I should probably join the ambassadors,” Thorin said. “It was my idea to bring them here. They’ll think me ungracious.”

“We can’t have that,” said Bilbo in all seriousness. Although he might have used sarcasm in that sentence for anyone else, Thorin had the circles under his eyes to prove how hard he worked at being king. “Go on, impress your cousin and the rest of them. I’ll make supper for Dáin sometime this week if there’s time.”

“He’ll enjoy that,” Thorin said. “Now here’s something you’ll enjoy. Across the way, just behind that pillar, there’s a small glass case with a permanent installation about the reclamation. I think it would be a good idea for you to see it.”

Bilbo obeyed, and very pointedly (and with great effort) did not watch Thorin and his backside disappear through the entrance to the exhibit. And seeing as he now had more time than previously anticipated to wander the museum to his heart’s content, he also had plenty of time – which he used well as he stood dumbfounded in front of the glass case, gazing at the splintered remains of the cannon he’d never gotten to see – to ruminate on how very unethical were those thoughts he’d begun to have towards his client.

In Hobbiton, Mum and Dad were the tattered sort of respectable; here, they were far-away heroes. At home, Bilbo would never have had the opportunity to interact with a king, unless you counted the Thain. What else, he wondered, would be different for him in Erebor - especially in regards to kings?

Chapter Text

It was amazing how efficient Nori was at getting what he wanted. All he had to do was send out a vague text on the last day of Gulbel, COMPANY PARTY @ MY BROTHERS HOUSE!!!!!, to a listserv of his own devising, and here they were. “Company reunion party,” Nori had clarified over the phone after Thorin texted him a confused series of question marks. “Your Company, King Blockhead. Now we’ve got a Baggins over here, we can finally party like it’s the Sixth Age again.”

“We’re all exhausted,” Thorin had countered. “Gulbel’s barely over. How do you expect anyone to survive a party, let alone planning one? Mahal only knows whose plans you’re interrupting to get them over –”

“You leave that to me,” Nori said, cutting him off in a manner that made Thorin wish he could emulate his esteemed ancestors and make heads roll. “Just leave all the details to me.”

He had certainly made good on his word. All of it. Including his implicit promise to commandeer his brothers’ house for the party, Dori and Ori’s quarters being considerably larger than the ones Nori shared with Dwalin to accommodate Dori’s many, many crafting hobbies. Thorin had been here for half an hour and he’d not yet seen Dori take a break from bustling around; in fact, even now as guests were streaming in, he was stirring a crystal bowl of ruby-red punch with the concentration of an artist.

“Dori, let me do that,” said Thorin, moving towards the bowl and holding his hand out for the ladle. “I’m sure people want to see you.”

“Yes! Please!” Dori practically slapped the ladle into Thorin’s hand and rushed off towards the door, tossing “I’m going to kill my blasted brother!” over his shoulder.

Thorin gave the punch a few more stirs, nodded appreciatively at the carved ice ring in the bowl (likely hand-carved rather than made from a mold, since Dori would rather expire on the spot than take the easy way out of anything), and surreptitiously ladled some of the liquid into one of the waiting glasses. A sip proved that it was full of mead and berry juice, with plenty of labanzall for extra kick. This table would be popular tonight, without a doubt.

“Could ye gimme some o’ that?”

Thorin didn’t need to turn around to identify the inquirer’s spotty, auburn-headed identity, but he did anyway. “Gimli, do your parents know you want to drink?” He took another sip from his glass. “I won’t be responsible for allowing you to disobey them on this.”

“Ach, come off it, I’m past the age of consent,” Gimli wheedled. “I’ve gone sixty-four this year.” Thorin scanned Gimli’s beard – yes, he’d had that braid put in. He’d be entitled to another, with a fastening bead carved in the sigil of Glóin’s line, when he reached the age of majority in another eleven years. “Please, cousin? Just a wee bit.”

Thorin pursed his lips. “When Fíli and Kíli are here, you may drink if you check in with them,” he said. It would be a good responsibility exercise for his nephews. “I mean every hour, Gimli. No overindulging, either. Surely your uncle’s told you what happens when you drink too much alcohol.”

“No, come on!” Gimli clapped his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes shut. “He’s always gettin’ on about that. The decreased blood density from the booze reaches the inner ear,” he sing-songed, “An’ it depresses the cuphole or whatever the bleedin’ thing is, and that makes ye stumble about like a gowk and throw up your guts. I’ve heard it all.”

So Óin had been telling him all the right things. Good. “I’m pleased you don’t take all this lightly,” said Thorin, hoping the sarcasm wouldn’t be lost on his young cousin. In-betweens had opinions of themselves that rarely matched their true abilities. Fíli and Kíli had been just the same, before they grew out of trying to peel the skin off their faces and grew into egging each other on towards ridiculous stunts like flying a plane upside down. He’d made Kíli sit in on the angry call Thranduil made the day after Bilbo arrived. It was no less than he deserved.

Gimli hesitated, but thanks to the Seven Fathers, he nodded. “They’ll be here soon, then?”

Thorin shook his head. “Don’t be so eager to intoxicate yourself,” he said. “Now get on with you, lad. There’s food for the taking. You don’t want everyone else to eat it all first, do you?”

Gimli grinned, showing his teeth fully – a great contrast to a few months ago, Thorin remembered, when the braces he’d still worn had made him almost too embarrassed to open his mouth too wide. Poor lad; these were always awkward times, no matter how pigheaded the Dwarfling. “Ye mean so the Hobbit doesn’t eat it all!”

Excuse me!” came Bilbo’s voice from behind them. Thorin whirled, narrowly avoiding having his hair hit him in the face, and saw Bilbo with one hand on his generous hip; the other held a plate full of food. It was so full, in fact, that Thorin wondered how it didn’t wobble in Bilbo’s hand. They must have strong wrists for this, he found himself thinking. “You. What’s your name?” Bilbo pointed at Gimli with the hand not holding food.

Gimli scuffed his boot against Dori’s clean floor, which would probably earn a scream later when Dori noticed. He looked like he wanted very much to hide behind someone’s legs or skirt like a Dwarfling again. “Gimli, son of Glóin,” he mumbled, his cheeks red. “Sorry, Mr. Hobbit.”

“That’s Baggins,” Bilbo said, his expression softening. He put his arm down and picked up a piece of roasted chicken with it instead. “You’re just a lad, aren’t you? Glóin’s son. I believe I’ve met your mother. She had quite the photo of you in her locket, yes, indeed.”

“You’ve met Sima?” said Thorin. “I didn’t know you’d been to the crafting levels.”

“Well…” Now it was Bilbo’s turn to go pink, right on time; the flush on Gimli’s face was already fading. “If I walk, I can think a bit better,” he explained. “I ended up in the noble quarters once. Sima and I ended up looking at photos of her family for at least an hour.”

Gimli let out a strangled ‘urk’ and clasped his hands in front of him. “Please tell me ‘Amad didn’t show ye the photo of me naked in the…in the…”

“Naked in the tub. Yes, she showed it to me, I’m afraid.” Bilbo didn’t look at all sorry, and Thorin didn’t blame him. He’d seen that picture half a dozen times himself, and it never got any less funny. The grin on little Gimli’s face was just too self-congratulatory, and he had two teeth missing into the bargain. “At least you were covered in bubbles there, my lad. Now, am I going to hear any more comments on my – ooh, punch!” He quickly put his plate down on the table and filled a glass with both punch and gusto. “What’s in here?”

“Quite a bit of alcohol,” Thorin told him. “That and juice. I suspect Dori may have pulverized fresh berries to put in, if I know him.” Not nearly as well as he knew Nori, of course. Nori had barely been of age on the Quest, and Ori fifty years younger; Dori, after scolding and cajoling and finally throwing his hands up in the air with the declaration that he supposed Nori was an adult and could do as he liked, had stayed behind in Ered Luin with the little one. Given all the time he’d spent with her, Dís knew Dori better than Thorin did. They had even started their own knitting group.

Bilbo smiled and toasted him with the glass. “Bottoms up!” he said, and threw the contents back in one gulp. Then he shivered in such pleasure that goosebumps rose on Thorin’s arms. Enough of this. He’s in your employ. “I say, that’s tremendous stuff!”

“I’m gonna go find m’uncle,” Gimli said, his voice barely rising from its previous mumble, and dashed off.

Bilbo slammed the glass back down and looked around with an expression of abject terror. “Oh, bother, Óin’s here?” He pursed his lips. “I’m off!”

Of course, he took the time to refill his glass (and grab his plate) before dashing away.

Thorin couldn’t even roll his eyes at how this had all played out; it was only practical to avoid ambushes. But now he was holding the bag in this situation, Mahal dammit. He’d never liked or been any good at party situations. Fuck Nori for getting him into this one (not literally, much as Nori did enjoy offering).

He took some punch himself and, slowly sipping at it, migrated through Dori’s generous quarters until he found the best sitting-room. Much like what he’d heard of Hobbits, Dori had more than one of them. “Hello, Mr. Thorin,” said Ori from the couch. Just as Bilbo did, he had a full plate of food with him, but his was mostly dessert. “Are you avoiding people, too?”

“Yes, rather. Do you dislike the party?” Thorin asked. He suspected the answer wouldn’t quite be a ‘no’; Ori would have shut himself away in his room if he were truly miserable. The lad looked meek, but he had a spine under all of those jumpers.

Ori shook his head. “It’s just that it’s so loud in the kitchen,” he said. A burst of laughter from that general direction drifted their way, and he winced, briefly holding his hands against his ears. “I need a sensory break.”

“I understand,” Thorin said, and racked his brain for some detail about Ori’s Mastery project that he could ask about. Disgraceful – Ori had had a whole university subsection named for him when he was still a Dwarfling, and Thorin couldn’t even remember a project. “Tell me,” he finally began, surrendering with reluctance to his lack of memory, “How is your project going?”

Ori sat straight up from his slouch as his face brightened. “Oh, wonderfully! I’m doing a full illustrated illumination of a poem I wrote about your Quest. It’ll be a bound book when I’m finished. I’ve got real gold leaf and everything!”

His enthusiasm was infectious. Thorin could feel it infecting him with a smile. “That’s very flattering, Ori,” he said. “May I read it when it’s finished?”

“Mm-hm. I’ll have to have an exhibition – it’ll be in the art school atrium, if you want to look at it there,” said Ori; suddenly, he went pink and bit into a pastry. “Only I don’t think my poetry is very good. Maybe you shouldn’t.”

Thorin really needed to have that talk with Dori about letting his brother have some pride in himself. It was a very long time coming. “I’m sure that’s not true, Ori. I didn’t even know you wrote poetry.” Well, that wasn’t quite right. He had always rather suspected that Ori wrote poetry of the sort Dwarflings churned out mid-puberty.

“I, um, I do. I don’t really talk about it.” More blushing. Bullseye, then. Fíli and Kíli’s behavior rarely steered him wrong. “It’s usually, um.” Ori ate another piece of dessert, looking down at his lap. “Do you think Mr. Víli might want to come see the book, since he was on the Quest? And Princess Dís and your…and the – the princes?” Ori squeaked out the last word.

Oh. Oh. Thorin did love when he was right. Good news for Ori, too, not that Thorin was about to tell him: his nephews’ eyes landed on anything and everything these days, but sometimes they did linger on Ori. Ah, the fun of observing this nonsense as an adult. “I’m sure my sister’s family would be privileged to attend your exhibition,” he said. “All you need to do is finish the project.”

Ori stuffed yet another pastry in his mouth, clearly far too pleased to talk, so Thorin let him alone and downed the last of his punch. It was nice not to be constantly hammered with words for once.

At least until Dori came charging in, sweaty-faced and short of breath, a wet spot on his blue velvet tunic. “Ori, why aren’t you soc – oh, hello, Thorin. I didn’t know you were in here. Thought you went off somewhere or other.”

“Yes,” Thorin said, “Ori was just taking a sensory break with me.” Ori’s look of abject gratitude wouldn’t have been out of place on a doe-eyed doll. “Are we wanted in the kitchen?”

Dori shook his head and waved a hand. “I only wondered,” he said. “There’s plenty of food if you want it. No need to worry about your barrister friend eating it all.” Why was everyone making such untoward remarks about Bilbo? Thorin had seen him eat plenty of times, and he wasn’t that much of a vacuum. “Speaking of, he’s quite an interesting fellow.”

“His name is Bilbo,” Thorin began, and caught himself at the intensity in his voice. “What do you mean, interesting? Has he started telling you about his cousins?”

“Which cousin? The over-anxious one with the medicated twitch or the married-in one with the fashion sense of a Trollshaws resident?” Dori asked, and Ori stifled a giggle.

“Flambard and Lobelia,” Thorin answered absently. Talking about his cousins? Yes, Bilbo was definitely having fun. Envy pinched at him – parties entertained everyone else, and here he was, alone in a parlor with a shy kid.

Ori shifted in place beside him. “You know all his cousins?” he burst out. “Wow! He’s got to have hundreds!”

These people needed to stop getting their information about other races from the Internet. “Dozens,” Thorin said. Now seemed as good a time as any to extricate himself and put in some time with the others. He stood, punch glass still in hand, and nodded at both Dori and Ori. “I’ll see you both later. Thank you for the conversation.”

He carried his glass into the kitchen and set it down on the center marble island, scant feet away from where Bilbo leaned against the counter, laughing. The warmth of his body radiated, it seemed, all the way to Thorin’s bared forearms beneath his rolled-up sleeves. “Thorin!” Bilbo exclaimed, and held his arms out in a generous, expansive manner. His bright clothing glowed in Dori’s neat kitchen of gray and white stone. “Have something to drink. Some food. You must be starving.”

People laughed, but thankfully, only a few. Thorin couldn’t have borne seeing Bilbo tipsy (from the rich color of his cheeks and his over-bright eyes, he definitely was) and subject to humiliation he wouldn’t remember later. Víli and Dís had clustered in a far corner and had their heads turned to each other, talking, while Fíli and Kíli stalked around the kitchen with drinks in hand – where was Gimli? Thorin shook his head; he’d look for him later. The rest of his reunited Company had scattered themselves about, mostly crammed in ones or twos around the kitchen table, which was piled high with steaming food. Always food with this Company, he thought. It had been just the same at the home of Belladonna and Bungo Baggins, and just as generous. “Have you met everyone?” he asked.

“Oh, yes. There’s Fíli, Kíli, Dís, Víli,” Bilbo began, pointing at each person in turn, “Dori, Nori, and Ori except only Nori was on the Quest, Glóin and Sima and they love to talk about Gimli, and Gimli’s somewhere, and Bofur and Bombur and Bifur with the scar, and finally…” He pointed at Thorin now, his finger waving unsteadily in midair. “The leader of this esteemed Company, Thorin Oakenshield!”

Thorin smiled and gently pushed Bilbo’s arm back down. It seemed to want to linger in the air. How much had Bilbo had to – ah. His eyes landed on the counter full of bottles that twinkled enticingly from across the room. Nori’s doing, no doubt. “I haven’t led these fine people for a long time, Mr. Baggins,” he said.

“Bilbo!” Bilbo insisted, leaning forward. His alcohol-drenched breath hit Thorin full in the face. “Do call me by my name, Thorin. I’ve got it. You won’t wear it out.” He took Thorin’s forearm in a surprisingly strong grip. “Now go get yourself some food, will you? You Dwarves will waste away to nothing. Got to start eating on a proper schedule, you know. Ridiculous!”

Now that Thorin thought about it, his empty stomach did ache. “Alright, Bilbo,” he said. “I’ll get some food. I do think you’ve had enough of all those alcoholic drinks. What have you had?”

Bilbo stuck up a hand and began to count down on his fingers as he spoke, although Thorin couldn’t imagine why he needed numbers to remember the types. “Punch. Mead, wine, landsdull…”

Labanzall,” Thorin interjected. “White pale-ale. We make it from tuber plants.”

“That! Yes!” Bilbo did a brief dance in place. In all the hubbub of drunkenly merry chatter rising around them, Thorin didn’t think anyone had seen or heard. “Delicious when you mix it in with things. There’s rather a lot of soda. Lonely Mountain Dew, isn’t it?” He smacked his lips. “Doesn’t taste like the dew off a mountain at all! False ad – advertising!”

“Better false than libelous,” Thorin said. Bilbo cocked his head at him, quizzical as a confused dog. Mahal, he didn’t even connect it with the adverts now? “You have had a lot to drink, haven’t you?” He held his hand against Bilbo’s back and let it stay there a moment, suddenly too shy to pat him. There was something endearing about a drunk Bilbo, a Bilbo off his guard, saying whatever he liked. “I’ll go eat. Keep yourself safe.”

He pushed himself through the throng of Dwarves – they were a small number in all, as they had been when they marched through the relative wilds of Sixth Age Arda to slay the terror of their lives, but they crowded Dori’s kitchen now – and muscled in between Óin and Bombur at the food table. “Good evening,” he said, and grabbed a plate, followed by one of the first foods he saw: a diamond-shaped honey pastry, flaky and golden. Dori usually had to be begged to fry those up for any gathering, since (as he put it) they were all ingrates who devoured the things and left none for the poor cook.

A cupful of hot stew from the ornamental cauldron in the center of the table, equally golden with fatty broth, was the next thing he grabbed; soon, his plate was as loaded as Bilbo’s. In fact, he realized, that was probably not Bilbo’s first plate. If he’d been drinking as much as he’d said, then he would have passed out long before, save for the Hobbitish appetite.

Shamukh!”

Someone grabbed his arm in greeting, and Thorin would have been able to tell who it was with his eyes closed. “Bifur, shamukh,” he said. “Zûr astu?” The respectful form of address would do, despite the informal greeting. Bifur had more than earned his place as a renowned crafter.

Bifur smiled and tapped the craggy scar in his forehead; it had healed long ago, but no one knew why it still provoked that tic, nor why Bifur preferred Khuzdul to Westron. Perhaps no one ever would, not even Bifur himself. “Mahrekmi id-zantulbasn-zu,” he said. “Mahalâl, hû.”

Khama hu zulul,” said Thorin. It wasn’t a question. His stomach twisted again, but this time it was with an emotion he couldn’t name; all he knew was that he wouldn’t be in Bilbo’s place right now for a thousand gold.

Bifur shrugged. His mouth twitched through his beard; it wasn’t a smile, but it was close enough to one that Thorin’s back stiffened. Something inappropriate was coming. “Salabbibîn?

Mahal. Thorin choked on nothing and gasped for air in a desperate bid to keep everyone else from noticing. After a few pounds of the chest, he croaked out “No,” and just in case Bifur hadn’t gotten the point, added “I’khiz. Shazara.” If Nori wasn’t spreading around his Internet history, then how had everyone suddenly gained the ability to read his fucking mind? He hadn’t missed Dori’s look, either. His being able to name someone’s cousins didn’t mean a damned thing, Mahal blast it.

Bifur mimed zipping his mouth shut, but Thorin saw how his hand moved after; it was subtle, it was skillful, and it was definitely that gesture. Even as Thorin glared, Bifur mimed a few other things that didn’t need translation unless you were on a certain level of the mountain and wanted to know the pay scale. “Sazrali…no?” He winked.

Thorin clenched his jaw and snorted hard (like a pig that had been running too hard, he realized – not attractive at all). “No. And I don’t need people meddling in my personal life, Bifur.”

“Eh,” said Bifur, shrugged, and turned back to the food, throwing one last wink over his shoulder before he reached for a plate. Thorin let out his breath in relief; the subject was closed, then. Bifur was not Nori, poking away at a subject until the person with whom he was speaking either blew up or started crying. At least some people in this mountain had been born with survival instincts.

He took his plate, a fork, and a napkin in one hand and his glass in the other, then went back to the punch table to fill up again. The bowl was only half-full, even this early into the party; he spared a hope that Dori had made more. The stuff was delicious, and if there was a delicious drink to be had, the guests likely wouldn’t be satisfied with mead or labanzall - not even the mead made with mountain honey, which had won awards in a Gondor tasting.

Sima and Glóin walked past, and Sima caught his eye, breaking off her conversation with Glóin mid-sentence. “Thorin, have ye seen Gimli?”

“No,” Thorin said. “I’m sorry, I told him he had to stay with Fíli and Kíli if he wanted to drink.”

“Told ye,” said Glóin, shaking his head at his wife. “That lad doesn’t know when to stop. Probably sittin’ in a corner somewhere with a spinnin’ head.” He chuckled and made his eyebrows dance at Thorin. Lucky bastard, with a talent like that. “Thanks for trying.”

Thorin shrugged one shoulder apologetically. “I knew I couldn’t control him entirely,” he said. “He was too adamant. The young ones have to learn from their own stupidity, don’t they?”

“Aye, and I puked up m’guts more times than I can count, true enough,” Sima replied. “I learned before I turned a hundred. So will he. Come on, let’s go find him, husband o’mine.”

With another laugh, Glóin disappeared with Sima down the corridor leading to the nearest lavatory. Thorin could practically smell the air-freshening powder from there. Dori favored one with roses and violets both; while a pleasant smell, it meant his clothes smelled like a Hobbit’s garden all day. Thorin much preferred his lavender.

Dís caught him as he was making a general circle around the public part of the house, in some alcove that Thorin didn’t know the name of, but which sported a very beautiful blue porcelain vase. “Thorin, glad I caught you,” she said. “I finished my reports about the Gulbel stuff they discussed in the finance meetings. Do you want the short version now, or do you just want to wait until I can email you the documents?”

Thorin did want the short version – anything to keep away from whatever scene would result when Glóin and Sima found their son – and Dís obliged him with it while he made his way through his food. The pooled accounts budget for the seven clans was short on discretionary funding this year, apparently, but it wasn’t as though the budget itself was a shoestring unable to spare it; the money had gone to ship repair on the Sea of Rhûn, the uniquely brackish water of which tended to be hard on wood. “So we don’t spend as much on the conferences this year,” Thorin said. “I’ll ask Fíli about the status of the tool investigation, too. No news is good news so far, but if we have to tighten our belts, we’ll tighten them.”

“He hasn’t said anything,” Dís said. “I’m more concerned about research and development costs through the university. Grant requests in the ISSE have gone up by another five and a half hundred thousand gildings this year.”

“Can we spare the money?” Thorin asked. “I don’t want them to have to cut into the endowment. At the same time…” He shook his head. “I hate to tell the national fund to turn down research with real potential.” The Iron School of Science and Engineering, subsection of Durin University, shared students and money with the King Thrain School of Medicine and Health Sciences in the center of the mountain. Thorin had had the privilege of touring one of the biomedical engineering labs exactly once, and once was enough. How did the kids learn everything they had to know there?

Dís tapped her fingers against her lips; her fingernails were a shimmering blue. “They don’t tell me the individual projects,” she said. “All I get is the totals for approval and withdrawal. I could send out a memo to the university and ask if the labs can cut down proposed spending by a few percent or something. We might be able to get them all approved then. The ones that made the review cut, of course.”

“When’s the deadline for that?”

“This week, but we can push it back,” Dís told him. “I’m not concerned about that. Scientists will work the midnight forges if it means they’ll get their money. Oh!” She shook her head. “I can’t believe – all right, there’s something I wanted to tell you, but I forgot before. One of Dain’s subordinates caught me after our meetings and told me this was worrying him. You know how they’ve been coordinating the Lonely Mountain Dew flavors to go through Dale?”

“Aye, testing the new ones,” Thorin said. He was glad he’d been able to talk Dain out of blue raspberry. That flavor did not belong in a bottle, or anywhere outside of someone’s deranged head, really. “All right, tell me.”

Dís frowned. “It’s nothing he can really prove,” she said, “but they had to rescind nearly ten percent of their distribution to Laketown. The public relations rep Veran spoke to said that there’s been some money gone missing there.”

“Did he suspect embezzlement?” Thorin asked. His frown likely echoed Dís’s, as he felt his brows drawing together and the skin of his forehead pulling in. “The old Master’s a complete shit, but he hasn’t outright stooped to that yet.”

His sister shrugged. “Put Nori on it,” she said. “I’m more worried about his toady. What’s he called – Afi?”

“Alfrid.”

“Yes, him,” said Dís. “The ugly one.”

Dís,” Thorin remonstrated, putting just a bit of heat behind it. Alfrid’s thick brows and buck teeth didn’t do his pointed features any favors, but they would have been neutral enough features if not for his shifty manner. There was nothing that Thorin could truly put his finger on to condemn him; still, Alfrid wasn’t trustworthy. He was sure of it. “What about him?”

“He could easily be the one embezzling,” Dís explained. “Or he could be helping the Master hide whatever he’s taken. Again, ask Nori. You have enough to do. I think you’d forget to check.”

He wasn’t that old. Did Dís think he had one foot in the grave already? “Thank you so much,” said Thorin with a snort. “All right, let him know. I need to make another appearance, but after that, I think I might go.”

“Just don’t be a buzzkill,” said Dís, and kissed his cheek. “I’ll go find Víli. We’ll need to go get some sleep in about an hour, anyway.”

He returned the gesture and went for more punch, taking his empty plate with him for ease of cleanup on Dori’s part. It wasn’t until he had refilled and downed the contents of his glass one more time that he realized how much his head had fuzzed over the course of the conversation. It wasn’t drunkenness, quite, but everything swooped around him a little when he turned too fast. Last glass, then, since this wasn’t the night he’d choose to start building up his tolerance again.

Bilbo, though – Mahal. He was fully red-faced when Thorin re-entered the kitchen, and his voice rose into a crescendo of a laugh as he came through the door. “You think living in a smial is so wonderful,” he said, obviously a rebuttal to someone or other. “But oh, no, it’s not. Every morning, I…I’ve got to get up on the roof, yes, and shovel off the cow plops!”

Thorin bit the inside of his lip to keep from snorting; no one else had the same compunction, though, as the room erupted in laughter. Bofur Boburul, leaning on his elbow next to Bilbo with a look on his face that clearly said he’d never had so much fun in his life, outright let his head flop back with it. “Listen to him!” Bofur howled. “Dealin’ with cows. Oughta try a mountain goat. Those wee bastards climb.”

Bilbo’s eyes crossed and he held up one finger. “No, no, no,” he said. “You’ve got it wrong. It’s quite annoying. I swore quite a lot in front of Hob Gamgee one time, oh, yes. He asked what short – sort of language it was for a good morning.”

That got another laugh. Best go before he embarrasses himself, Thorin said, and went over to stand at Bilbo’s other side, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Bilbo,” he said, “are you enjoying yourself?”

Bilbo whipped his head around and his mouth fell open. “Thorin!” he said. “Didn’t know you were here.”

“You came in with me,” Thorin told him, and now he did let himself smile.

“No, not here. Here here.” Bilbo waved his arms. “Kitchen. Dori makes quite good food, did I tell you that? Almost as good as a Hobbit’s food.” He looked furtively about and leaned in. “’Course,” he whispered loudly, “I can’t say that. The Green Lady will come after me.”

“I’m sure Mahal will intercede,” said Thorin, smiling. “If you decide to give Dori a compliment.” Is this what had been hiding under all the fuss and bluster? The razor competence in law? Maybe he needed to ask Bilbo to places with alcohol more often, but…no. If he did that, would he be able to control himself (his lips, his hands, his mind that wanted)?

Bilbo grabbed Thorin’s collar and pulled him even closer. From here, a scattering of freckles popped into focus across his nose and cheeks, and Thorin could see the hazel of his eyes lost in his dilated pupils. “You’re a good Dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield,” he said. “You’re a king. He’s got to listen to you.”

“Mahal?” Thorin said.

“Mm-hm.” Bilbo let go of him, and Thorin staggered back a step or two. The air of the kitchen felt so cold on his face. “You can in – insertcede. Can’t he?” he asked, raising his voice. Everyone obligingly raised theirs in agreement. “See, you can. Other people say so.”

Insertcede? “How much have you had to drink, Bilbo?” Thorin asked.

“Ummm.” Bilbo sucked in his cheeks and stared up at the ceiling. “Some of it.”

“That’s about right,” Bofur put in. Going by his own flushed cheeks, he was fairly far gone himself. But then, this was the same Dwarf who’d put himself under the table in Laketown fifty years ago; it was like the Quest all over again, never mind a reunion.

Come to think of it, with the Hobbit and the free-flowing drinks and the food and the laughter, this could have been that night in the Bagginses’ smial. Cow shit, though, ugh. He wouldn’t want to live in one of those. “I’d like you to find some juice to drink, Bilbo,” he said. “I’ll take you home soon. You’ll get ill otherwise.”

Bofur blinked at him. “Home?”

“The royal quarters,” Thorin corrected. “My home. Is everyone here sauced?” Now the room was too hot. “I need the water closet.”

“Aye,” Bofur said, “all right. I’ll make sure he gets some o’ that juice down his gullet. Bom, too.” He flapped his arm at the food table, and Bombur waved with one hand, the other busy playing with the parsley garnishes on top of the dish of smoked goat strips.

Well, he could trust Bombur, and he supposed Bilbo was an adult. Technically.

Adults don’t act like this, he thought, staring resolutely into the middle distance as he walked to the loo. Children do. And there was Gimli, bearing out his thoughts entirely through vomiting into Dori’s good silver urn while Glóin held back his hair. “You found him,” Thorin said. “Will he be all right?”

“Soon as he sleeps it off,” said Glóin laconically. “Said he didnae know how he got here, but he knew ‘twas painful!” He barked out a laugh. “Little cloud-head. He’ll learn better once this is all over.”

At least he wasn’t that badly off, and neither was Bilbo. He found the loo without stumbling on the way and splashed some water on his face at the smooth stone sink. The mirror showed that he was disheveled, certainly, but no more than if he’d taken a long nap and neglected to brush his hair afterwards. This wouldn’t lead to sorrow in the morning and hypersensitivity to light, he decided with no small measure of relief.

Bilbo was talking again when he returned to the kitchen. “ – quite dead, yes, they’d love this,” he said to an enraptured Bofur, giggled, and booped him on the nose with an outstretched forefinger. “You Dwarves’ve all got so much hair on your faces. Doesn’t it get hot in the summer?”

“Oh, a wee bit,” said Bofur, gazing at Bilbo’s finger with his eyes crossed. “You’ve not got nowt there. Just on yer feet.”

“Bilbo,” Thorin interjected, “it’s time to go.” He put an arm around Bilbo’s back and firmly, but gently (he hoped – it wouldn’t do to have Bilbo think of him as a brute) steered him away from the clump of eagerly-listening Dwarves. “Fíli, Kíli.”

“Mmph?” said Kíli, popping into view. Where he’d been hiding, Thorin didn’t even want to know. At least the food hanging out of his mouth was some variety of green.

Thorin raised his best ‘I’m not amused’ eyebrow at him. “When I say to keep an eye on your cousin, I mean that you need to keep an eye on him,” he said.

Kíli ‘mmph’ed again, swallowed, and said, “We did. He kept slipping away. Slippery wee blighter. One time, he said he had to go to the loo, and what were we supposed to do, follow him?”

He had a point there, Thorin had to admit. “All right. Well, tell your parents I’ve taken Bilbo back to the royal quarters.” He wouldn’t make the mistake of saying ‘home’ again with these terrible busybodies about. “He’s had more than enough to drink.”

Kíli gave him an effusive promise that he’d make it up to him by trying to watch what Fíli drank, a promise Thorin had no doubt that he wouldn’t keep, and cleared a path for them to the door. It would have been more meaningful if he hadn’t kept yelling “Make way, Hobbit with a food baby!” all the way there, but it was the thought that counted. Maybe.

“Wait!” Bilbo shouted, just before they reached the door, and grabbed Thorin’s shoulder in a death grip. “Wait, Thorin.” His eyes focused on Thorin’s, still dilated, and Thorin could have sworn he briefly felt his heart stop. “Thorin, I forgetted. We can’t go yet. Bofur said we’ve got to do Dwarvish dancing.”

“Dwarvish dancing!” whooped Bofur, and Thorin was suddenly pulled back into the center of the kitchen (he wasn’t quite sure by whom). “Right, Bif, chuck your MP3 into Dori’s speakers. Put on something lively.”

Thorin crossed his arms. He wasn’t going to get out of this without a fight, was he? This was definitely not the mountain he wanted to die on. “Fine,” he said. “One song. But nothing sacred, Bofur.”

Bifur clapped his hands. “Imgimi,” he called, tapping the sleek black speaker over Dori’s kitchen television. “Ori?”

“I’ll fetch ‘im,” said Nori. He came back a few moments later, dragging not one but both brothers by the hands. “Come on, now, Ori, you gotta be a little social at a party. You’re half the reason I went on this bloody Quest.”

“I don’t want to,” Ori whined; it looked like he was doing his best to hide behind his fringe and deep in his jumper. “I have work in the morning, Nori. I’m doing Mr. Thorin’s appointments.”

“Then grab Mr. Thorin’s hand,” said Nori, and forcibly linked Ori and Thorin’s hands together. Ori’s were surprisingly dry and callused for someone who seemed so…well, young. “Awright, Bilbo, get on Thorin’s other side. The rest of you heard Bifur – circle up!”

Bifur hit the power button on the speakers as soon as a rough circle formed, hands in hands, and the strains of the Harvest Song blasted out. Thorin’s head snapped up. He’d heard this song in the years since they retook Erebor like this, but somehow, in a crowded kitchen, he wanted to dance so much more than in a decorated hall.

Not that the Harvest Song was typically punk rock, but ah, well.

“One, two, three!” Nori said, and the circle of Dwarves spun left, then right. Thorin felt his legs automatically move in the weaving steps of the grapevine. One and two and one and two, and suddenly, Grandfather had Thorin’s tiny hands in his own huge ones again, moving him around the throne room while his father played the fiddle.

Ori danced along to his left, face furrowed in concentration but feet moving skillfully, while on his right, Bilbo could only giggle and stumble. He squeezed Thorin’s hand. “I can’t do this – can you?” he whispered. Thorin hoped no one else could hear him over the music.

“Hey! Hey! Hey! And switch!” said Nori. The circle twirled around to the other side, one and two. Fast fiddle music pierced the drum-heavy melody, almost like ‘Adad’s favorite pieces. Thorin bit his lower lip hard, but he couldn’t stop a smile. Who would have guessed that a Hobbit would ever be party to the most Dwarvish of traditions? Probably not Bilbo, if he even remembered this tomorrow.

They danced around and around until finally, the song ended and their circle broke apart. Thorin held a hand against the back of his forehead, satisfied himself that the room was spinning more slowly with every passing second, and made to lead Bilbo away when he was steady. “All right,” he said loudly, “now we really do have to leave.”

Dori wiped his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief and held out an arm to block Nori, who was very clearly about to object. “No, Nori,” he said. “Thorin, go before my brother pulls you in for another one of those. He’s being friendly tonight.”

“Thank you,” said Thorin – and, in a word, scarpered.

Bilbo, for his part, mumbled legalese into Thorin’s shoulder all the way back to the Consort’s Suite. “Nnngtll the fuckin’ Gondor-ers it’s not a nnfllprpsss” was all that Thorin could make out when Bilbo finally lifted his head away at the door to his rooms and promptly plopped it onto his shoulder again.

“Don’t worry about the Gondorians,” Thorin told him, and dug out his keycard to let Bilbo in. He was in no shape to do it himself.

“Mmm,” said Bilbo. “Love you, Dad,” and then the door shut behind him.

Dad? Thorin shook his head. Hobbits, he thought, and went to see if he could find anything in the freezer to counteract the still-palpable heat in his face.

Chapter Text

“Yes, a large of the sausage special,” Bilbo said into the phone, “and a medium of the everything special, and two larges of just plain cheese. And two liters of the orange squash fizz.”

“Any dessert or salad?” asked the Dwarf on the other end of the line – at least Bilbo assumed he was a Dwarf. The stupid Internet had assured him that although this restaurant specialized in Gondorian cheesy bread, it was thoroughly Dwarvish in milieu.

“No, I’ll be all right,” Bilbo answered. He’d consumed a frankly shocking amount of salad for his lunch, and two meals later, he didn’t quite feel hungry for more greens. As for dessert, there were leftover lava brownies in the refrigerator. It had taken quite a bit of work to make them ooze like lava cake, at that. They did better refrigerated. “Now, this is on meal vouchers from the Royal Account,” he added. He’d had to verify that with Balin, back when he’d first gotten to Erebor, but it turned out that he could automatically charge his meals to the account if he worked through dinnertime. It was already past six and he’d just finished. “They’re two gildings each.”

The background noise on the other end grew muffled, and Bilbo thought he could hear typing. “Give me a minute to work that out,” the Dwarf mumbled. “Right,” he said a minute or so later, “that’s a little over two vouchers. I can make it an even three if you want two orders of breadsticks with dipping sauce.”

“Done.”

“Right. Good. Just need the account number.”

Bilbo gave it to him, confirmed that the cheesy bread would be delivered in forty-five minutes at the latest, and settled back, satisfied, into bed to look over his email progress for the day. He’d sent off cease-and-desists to ten of the major servers thus far, just to see if he could forestall having to actually see them in court, and only one of them had emailed back to call him a tosser (Brandyband, naturally; he’d expected no less, but them, he thought he’d enjoy seeing in court after that). The others had given no reply as yet. He could wait, though. Stubborn trees sometimes bore the most delicious fruit, as Dad used to say.

Apart from that, he’d arranged for tea tomorrow with Physics Department Lanis and her daughter, whose care center she said had a holiday. It would be a much-needed hour out of what he suspected would be a nightmare of a day; Balin had sent the revisions from Gulbel week back to him and used so much red pen that the pages looked like Bathory the Goblin had gotten ahold of them. Green Lady curse old people, Bilbo thought; it was uncharitable, he knew. Sometimes, those who abused senior privileges just pushed his buttons.

His computer pinged; there was a new message from Nori. Of course – just as he’d gotten off work. Bilbo rolled his eyes, but opened it anyway. Apparently, Nori had had the brilliant idea some time ago of trying to find and trace the original photo (something Bilbo suspected even he could have thought of) to get to its IP source, whatever that meant. Damn technology. Whatever the terminology was that Bilbo undoubtedly had to look up for the purpose of strengthening the case, Nori thought that the photo came from somewhere within a hundred-mile radius of Erebor.

“As if that narrows anything down,” Bilbo muttered. With that information, one might as well throw one’s hands in the air and give up. As far as he was concerned, it told him absolutely nothing except that the photo was taken in Erebor and then maybe uploaded somewhere nearby, and if even Nori couldn’t get past more encryption than that…

Well, fuck it, then. He’d have to focus extra hard on the intellectual property rights dispute. Balin himself was hard at work with court logistics issues, in which he had the benefit of many years of experience on Bilbo. Avoiding extra work if he could, as far as Bilbo was concerned, was a blessing in these harrowing – his stomach gurgled – and extremely hungry times.

“Enough of you!” he told the computer, and decisively snapped it shut. While Thorin might call him a technophobe all he liked, Bilbo was quite proud of it, and he had better things to do now that he had a bit of free time. He picked up the fifth Harry Potrion book, which lay bookmarked on his bedside table, and flipped to where he’d last stopped.

The Patronus Charm, now there was a bit of magic that he could use on his worst days, dementors or no dementors. If the opportunity to use it meant that he had to be caught on a dark street with an odious cousin, well…

He was staring at the book, trying to puzzle out which odious cousin would be worth spending time with to find out the form of his corporeal Patronus, when someone knocked on his door. “Come in,” Bilbo said, and put the book back on the bedside table. “Mmm, something smells terribly good.”

The door whooshed open and Thorin appeared, his arms full of boxes; the smell suddenly hit Bilbo in the face with hot, bready deliciousness. “It should,” he said, his tone amused. “Your pizza is here.”

“My what?” Bilbo asked. “Wait, is that the cheesy bread?”

Pizza,” Thorin repeated, and set the boxes down. “The Gondorian word. Didn’t you see it on the website?”

“Oh, pee-tzah,” Bilbo said. “I thought it was pronounced pizz-ah.” Blast it all, if only he’d learned Old Gondorian when he had the chance in university. He could have become well-versed in so many more types of foods.

Thorin snorted. “That sounds like a term for someone who’s wet themselves,” he said, “slurred out of a drunken mouth.”

“You have the oddest turns of phrase,” Bilbo told him. The smell of the boxes was going to drive him mad. “Wait,” he added as something occurred to him, “did you go down to the garage entrance for this? I’ve always picked up my delivery there.” It was a security risk, Nori had explained, for just anyone to have the codes to the royal quarters. Case in point, he’d said, and pointed at himself.

“This place is a bit different,” said Thorin. “Fíli and Kíli order from Gondor Style so often, we considered it easier to have them come up here. It’s a sacrifice we’ve made for their sake, but…” He gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Dwarflings will be Dwarflings.”

Bilbo chuckled and bobbed his head as a smile formed. “Dwarflings,” he said. “They’ll always be tiny to you, won’t they?”

“As if they were still sitting on my knee,” said Thorin. He opened his mouth again, then closed it, his eyes drifting down towards the floor. All of a sudden, as if by some abrupt trick of the light, he looked that much more hulking and awkward in the middle of the floor than he had. “I hope you like the pizza. Er, cheesy bread, if that makes you more comfortable.”

Bilbo gathered the boxes close to him and watched Thorin as he turned to leave. “Thorin, wait,” he said. “You obviously want to say something. Will you just sit and say it?” He patted the end of the bed when Thorin turned back around. “I’ll even share.” Though it was a wrench to say and do, he nodded and lifted one of the boxes.

Thorin hesitated, pressing his lips together. “You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to,” Bilbo hastened to add. This Dwarf employed him, and Bilbo only just now thought they might be in a place where their initial awkwardness had turned to, well…that aside, how much worse would their work sessions be if he had to start again from square one? “Never mind. You don’t need to tell me everything that goes on in your head. I’m sorry I pushed.”

“No, you could…I had…” Thorin sighed. “There was something,” he said after a pause. “I – could I sit? You said…” He indicated the bed. “I’m sorry. I’ve never been good at such things.”

“Of course,” Bilbo said. “Please sit.” He felt a frown crease his forehead, and faintly, an alarm started clanging a warning in the back of his mind. “Is something wrong, Thorin?” he asked after Thorin had situated himself. “You can tell me.”

Thorin breathed out loudly and slowly through his nose, resting one hand on his left knee and tracing the pattern of Bilbo’s bedspread with the fingers of the other. “The party,” he said, “a few nights ago.”

Bilbo waited, but it seemed as though Thorin was waiting for him to continue this thread. “Yes, that party,” he said. “What about it?”

“You were drunk.”

“Excuse me,” Bilbo said, straightening up in place, “but I don’t think it’s your business to comment on that.” Thorin had enjoyed himself, hadn’t he? And Bilbo certainly hadn’t been ill in front of the others, like certain young Dwarves he knew. In fact, he hadn’t been ill at all, during or after (Balin admitted to some jealousy the next day).

Thorin held out a hand, eyes wide. “No, not that,” he said. “I wasn’t about to – no. I’m not commenting on the…the drunkenness. I wanted to know if you remembered something you said about, ah.” He swallowed. “Someone had died, I think you said.”

“Oh! Yes, that. Bombur wanted to know…” He trailed off as Thorin’s face began to crumple into an expression he hadn’t seen before, and wasn’t sure he ever wanted to again. “Thorin, what’s wrong?”

“Bilbo,” Thorin said, “who died?”

Oh, no. There was no way he hadn’t known – except the subject only came up at the museum – Green Lady, was it possible? Had they all been so out of touch with each other all those years that Thorin didn’t even know who he was? “My parents,” Bilbo said. “Bungo and Belladonna Baggins.”

“Oh,” said Thorin. “Oh.”

Bilbo watched as Thorin fell forward, and held out a hand, but Thorin wasn’t truly falling; his head landed on his knees, and as he drew in on himself, shaking as if caught in a snowstorm, Bilbo realized that he was crying.

Oh, Valar.

“Thorin?” he ventured, and, creeping across the bed, laid a hand on Thorin’s broad back. “Thorin, I’m so sorry. It never came up. I would have told you earlier if I’d known.” Another shiver shook Thorin’s body, this one accompanied by a quiet sob that tore at Bilbo’s heart. “I never meant for it to be sprung on you like that.”

At home, it was only ever a happy, far-away legend, the king that they sent off not to die, but to triumphantly reclaim his kingdom. “They’re busy,” Mum said in that first decade, whenever Bilbo asked after the Dwarf-king who stayed in their house, Mummy!, and then Gandalf failed to show up for years after that to give them some way to contact the Dwarves. The Internet had existed for these last twenty or thirty years, of course, but by the time email addresses and easy contact were a thing, Mum and Dad were both dead. And Bilbo…

Bilbo stifled a whimper. Was his technophobia responsible for this? Was this fresh news of long-ago death his fault? If he could have prevented this raw, anguished pain…

“I am so sorry,” he repeated in a whisper. “Thorin, I’m so very sorry. I should’ve tried to get in touch. If I hadn’t hated the Internet, I could have – I might have…”

“You could have written a letter,” Thorin got out, in a soft, unsteady voice that wobbled and shook. Bilbo couldn’t even imagine the amount of effort it took to keep from crying even for that that long.

“Yes, that’s right,” he said. “I could have. We could have. I wish we’d tried harder.” Thorin clutched at himself harder, more choked-off sobs coming from where his face hid. “Thorin, try to let it out, won’t you?” He scooted closer and wrapped his arms around as much of Thorin as he could, never mind the discomfort of trying to contort himself. Thorin needed comfort. He needed a friend. “Please don’t hold back, dear. I’m here.”

Thorin didn’t uncurl completely at the touch (Bilbo did have to qualify that in his head, over and over, just to keep from going into shock), but unbelievably, he responded, leaning against Bilbo with his face in Bilbo’s side. His long black hair cascaded over Bilbo’s lap and tickled the stretch of bare skin above his ankles, where the foot hair didn’t grow. “That’s it,” Bilbo said, and dared to stroke Thorin’s hair. It felt so strange; the cuticle was soft and obviously well-cared-for, but the texture was wiry and coarse, almost like fur - enough, Dwarves don’t need any more animal comparisons, especially not from you! “There you go. Let it out.” That bore repeating, certainly, in the face of Thorin’s more anal-retentive tendencies.

Whether or not that was the best idea remained to be seen, as within about a second, Bilbo found himself with his arms full of weeping Dwarf. No, bawling Dwarf – Thorin quickly proved to be an ugly crier of the most impressive caliber, snuffling and gulping against Bilbo’s shoulder and clinging to him hard.

“Well, better out than,” Bilbo began, then made an abrupt decision not to finish that sentence. Thorin needed more than platitudes. “They liked you very much, you know,” he said instead. “I’m sure they would have loved to stay in contact if they’d known how.”

“They – they were my friends,” Thorin managed to get out, “but we…we only…knew each other a night.”

“That’s right,” Bilbo soothed. His friends. His heart ached for the lonely lost prince Thorin must have spent so much of his life as, so eager for companionship that he’d latched onto a pair of friendly Hobbits and kept them in the back of his mind for fifty years. As much of a loner as Bilbo himself could be, he still couldn’t imagine that. Could it even have been possible that he'd...well, developed feelings for them? Touch starvation often made people latch on to the nearest -

Wait. One night? That meant something rather special (and brain bleach-y, in Bilbo's not so humble opinion). Maybe he could even get a laugh out of Thorin. "You know," he said, "I've got a reason for that night being special, myself."

Thorin paused, but that seemed more a function of needing to breathe than of second thoughts. "Yes?"

"That night with your Quest was significant for me, as well my parents."

Thorin, who Bilbo realized with relief had stopped shaking, nodded into his shoulder. “You said. I know. You were never mentioned, but...”

“You really don’t,” Bilbo told him. “That’s the night I was conceived.”

Thorin jolted in place. Bilbo supposed it was his right. Few people took the trouble to figure out that he was conceived at Yule, and even fewer knew about the timing of Thorin’s Company. Especially not a Dwarf who (please let my gaydar be correct, please, Valar, I’ve been such a good boy this year – no, month – week – this morning, at least) might find the timing of Bilbo's conception very awkward if he had any interest in him, given how old he'd been even back then. “Conceived,” Thorin echoed in a voice much steadier than it had been in a while.

“Oh, yes,” said Bilbo, wincing at the memory of what he'd just disclosed. Parents were disgusting. "Now, look. I know my parents missed you. They spoke about you all the time, you know?" He squeezed Thorin's shoulder, trying for rather more heartiness than he felt himself. "Why don't we celebrate them by sharing this cheesy bread? I haven't ordered any vegetables on the meat bread."

“That’s revolting,” said Thorin, then, “Mahal’s stones, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.” He hiccupped softly. “I – I need to clean my face.”

“You – oh.” Now that he thought of it, his shoulder was very wet, but Bilbo couldn’t bring himself to be disgusted over tears of grief. He rummaged in his pockets, first the sides and then the back. “Fuck, I’ve forgotten my handkerchief.” If Thorin would give him a moment, he could run and get one in a trice.

Thorin shifted away, his face turned towards the far wall. “May I use your lavatory?” he asked in a husky voice.

All right, he was one of those criers. Bilbo inwardly shrugged at himself; everyone had the right to privacy. “Of course,” he said. “It’s just there.”

“Thank you.” Thorin got up, not quite quickly enough to avoid revealing his red eyes and wet face. If only, Bilbo found himself thinking, he could kiss it better. He sat on his hands instead and let Thorin shut himself in the loo. A moment later, he heard the fan click on.

In deference to Thorin’s unspoken discomfort, Bilbo didn’t strain his ears to listen past the sound of the fan. He could hear the sink running well enough, anyway, and Thorin dealing with the results of his crying. Did anyone have the right to be so adorable when they cried, when Bilbo himself was a mess the unfortunate times it happened to him? Ugly cute, the Internet called things like that, perhaps as opposed to just plain ugly like ordinary people. Perhaps the Internet had some merit.

Thorin didn’t take long to compose himself, emerging from the loo within a couple of minutes. His eyes and nose had gone bright pink with whatever attention he’d paid them. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m sorry I disturbed your dinner,” he said, his eyes not quite meeting Bilbo’s. Was the poor thing embarrassed? He’d have to fix that.

“No, stop that,” Bilbo said. “I offered to share my dinner and I will. It’s on your vouchers, anyway. Sit down.” He gave the blankets as aggressive of a pat as he could. “Come on, if you’ve got to blame yourself for something, at least make it just the cheesy bread going cold or something.”

That drew a smile from Thorin, who sat down again and reached for the topmost box. “These top two are breadsticks,” he said. “Do you want to try them first, or the cheesy bread?”

“Cheesy bread,” Bilbo said at once. “What sort of dunce do you take me for? I can have breadsticks any old time.” He separated out the breadsticks and pushed one of the cheesy bread boxes towards Thorin. “Here, you can –”“ Take the sausage special, he almost said, but at the implications of such an end to the sentence, he made a rather impressive but completely unintentional gacking noise instead and finished with “You can have some of this. Or the everything. I’m not terribly picky.” He reached for one of the boxes marked ‘cheese.’

“Wait,” said Thorin, catching Bilbo’s outstretched wrist in a warm hand. “You’ll want a plate. Is it all right if I take some from your kitchen?”

“Of course,” Bilbo answered. Thorin got up and nearly ran off through the door that led to Bilbo’s kitchen. For his part, Bilbo ogled Thorin’s arse as it passed, but chastised himself as soon as Thorin disappeared. Respect, whispered an inner voice that sounded uncomfortably like his father’s. Decorum. Thorin was newly grieving, still barely holding it together for all Bilbo knew. Melting heart and functioning eyes or no, this was hardly the time to gawp at him.

Thorin returned shortly with two plates and a stack of napkins. “Cheesy bread is messy when it’s hot,” he said, and smiled. “I may have just saved you from ruining your clothes.”

“How very noble of you!” Bilbo teased, taking a plate and a napkin and opening up his box. The smell gusted out at him in a wave of utter deliciousness; right away, his mouth began to water. “Oh, fuck.”

Thorin’s smile widened. “Go on, try it.”

Bilbo closed his eyes on instinct before he did, which turned out to be the best decision he ever made. Without the burden of sight, everything became that much more amplified.

The first sensation that caught his attention was the feel of his teeth sinking through thick cheese into the soft bread – soft, but firm. Then came the taste: salty, burnt cheese, sweet and spicy tomato, and the bread…no, he wouldn’t even try to describe that. “Oh, fuck,” he moaned again, and couldn’t find it in him to give a shit that his mouth was full.

“So you like it,” said Thorin. His voice came through the food haze as if from very far away, but it was amused all the same.

“Mm-hmm.” Bilbo finished his bite and took another. There were at least three kinds of cheese on top, maybe four. Eating the whole thing would probably clear that mystery right up.

“Good. My nephews might actually eat things that aren’t made of grease if they learn they have competition.” Thorin unscrewed the top of the soda bottle. “Or they may ask to make group orders with you. I would advise you to tell them no. Do you have any drinking glasses in here?”

Mouth once again full, Bilbo pointed to the kitchen. In the time that it took for Thorin to get there and back again, Bilbo polished off his lovely crusty slice and ate another, then began gearing up for a third.

“I put ice in these,” Thorin said as he returned to the bed and handed Bilbo a glass. “Squash soda is much better cold, in my opinion.”

Bilbo poured himself a glassful and nodded. “Quite,” he said. “Are you hungry? I did offer you that sausage pizza.” Best to do as the Gondorians did, or at least speak like they did, when eating their food.

Thorin wordlessly tucked in at Bilbo’s command. For a pleasant while, there was no sound in the room but that of their chewing. In that time, Bilbo managed a fourth slice of the cheese pizza and half of the everything special; the veg was surprisingly delicious.

A belch from Thorin and the lovely ache in his own stomach finally notified Bilbo that it was time to stop. “My goodness, I have at least enough for supper after this,” he remarked. This wasn’t the first of the rare times his eyes were bigger than his tum, and given the quality of the food he’d enjoyed here thus far, he hoped it wouldn’t be the last.

“It’s a good deal, then,” said Thorin, but winced immediately after.

Odd. “Whatever is the matter?”

“Noth –” Thorin shook his head, cutting himself off mid-sentence. “No, this concerns the case.” He sighed heavily. “Another meme came out today in the vein of what I said. It’s beyond insulting.”

Bilbo slurped the last of his drink and set the glass aside, his barrister side (somewhat between the Baggins and the Took sides, he’d always thought) already itching for a challenge. “Do tell.”

“Adjustable – rate – mortgage,” Thorin ground out with a thunderous expression. “They’re advertising it with my image. The meme contains the phrase ‘So that’s how they got the mountain back.’ Of all the things –”

“How is that offensive?” Bilbo asked, cocking his head.

“It’s…!” Thorin turned his glare on Bilbo, but it softened within seconds. “Ah. You’re genuinely asking. It’s a direct reference to the idea of greedy, grasping Dwarves.” He shivered; the movement made him look not so much angry as small and scared, set upon by the world. “As if we reclaimed our homeland by bilking others.”

All that on top of new grief? No wonder his reactions had been so violently emotional. “This surfaced today?” said Bilbo. Thorin nodded. “Why didn’t you tell me first thing?”

“If you’d taken the time to Google the photo or my name, you would already know!” Thorin snapped. Bilbo blinked, and Thorin sagged in place. “I apologize. You did not deserve that.”

“No, maybe I did.” It had taken three days in Erebor for him to look at the photo at all, and then what had he gone and done when he saw it? A big fat nothing, none of that Googling. It had to be some sort of negligence, or neglecting his due diligence, or some other ridiculousness like that. As awful as the Internet was…well…would Thorin have cried in his arms if he’d tried to familiarize himself with it twenty years ago? Somehow, Bilbo suspected not. “I’ll start Googling you every day from now on,” Bilbo said. “I have to stay on top of these adverts.”

Thorin inclined his head. “Thank you,” he said.

Bilbo shrugged. “Well,” he said, “five hundred gildings a week, after all. For what it’s worth, the meme is wrong. I’ve never seen a Dwarf more generous in my life.”

“I…ah…thank you.” Thorin’s gaze flicked to the floor; his long eyelashes cast shadows against his cheeks, which Bilbo thought might be reddening.

“No, I mean it,” Bilbo insisted. He wanted to see that blush spread across Thorin’s cheeks and down his neck – what he could see of it past the beard, anyway. Honestly, he had to wonder how infrequently Thorin received compliments if this was how he reacted to one so innocuous and true. “I don’t just mean Erebor’s treasury, Thorin. I mean you.” He indicated the Potrion books on the far bed table. “That’s just one example. You gave me that set and I didn’t even have to ask.”

Thorin cleared his throat and looked in the direction of the kitchen door before his eyes met Bilbo’s again. “Bilbo,” he said, “I have something I’d like to show you.”

“Oh?”

Instead of answering, Thorin got up and held out his hand to Bilbo; Bilbo was suddenly reminded of the scene from that film, Valar blast if he could remember the name, where that thief pretending to be a prince extended his hand to a princess and asked if she trusted him. “Come with me.”

Another adventure? Bilbo’s heartbeat quickened in his chest. “All right,” he said. Where was Thorin about to take him? Not another trip to see Dwalin and Nori, surely, or another museum. I have something I’d like to show you. That had to mean something personal.

Thorin led him out the door and, much to Bilbo’s surprise, stopped at the door next to his own – the Royal Suite, not the Consort’s. Now Bilbo’s heart sped up even more in excitement; he had never, he realized, been to Thorin’s rooms. Thorin hadn’t been to his before today, either, apart from knocks on the door to remind him of appointments, but that was a bit different, wasn’t it?

The door slid open and Bilbo followed Thorin into a room surprisingly similar to his own in design. That was where the similarity ended. Unlike the Consort’s Suite, decorated in unassuming browns and dark brownish-reds, Thorin’s bedroom shone with deep, resplendent shades of blue from curtains to bedcover to carpet. The velvet bedcover, so plush-looking that it shimmered in the combination of lamplight and dying daylight through the window, was of the deepest shade. The others were brighter, less night than deep sea in sunlight, and…oh, he was woolgathering, but he was in Thorin’s room and –

“Bilbo, would you like to sit down?” Thorin was waving at the couch across the room from his bed, more of a bluish-green than a true blue, which sat in front of a lovely braided rug in a lighter shade of the same color and directly adjacent to a large flat-screen television that took up a good portion of the wall. The idea of Thorin watching trashy telly tickled him, and Bilbo smiled. “Bilbo?”

“Oh! Yes.” Bilbo went to the couch and sat down, closing his eyes in bliss. The upholstery was made of some sort of microfiber that mimicked leather, and it felt amazing. “So what is it that you wanted to show me?” he asked.

“Just a moment,” said Thorin. Bilbo craned his neck around to watch as Thorin disappeared into a closet. The sounds of rummaging ensued, along with a tuneless hum that made Bilbo smile again, and then Thorin came back with a box in his hand. “I’ll ask you not to touch this,” he said, sitting down next to Bilbo. “It’s very old.”

Bilbo opened the top of the box and peered down in curiosity. “Oh. This isn’t a box.” It was, in fact, a square of some material mounted on top of a solid box, and in that square was an image. “Is this an old photograph?”

Thorin chuckled, and the vibration of it thrummed through Bilbo’s side. “It is,” he said. “What do you see?”

Bilbo squinted at the photograph. “A very distinguished-looking Dwarf – oh, is that your grandfather?” The timing of photography worked out just right for the Dwarf pictured in a crown (admittedly rather squatter than Thorin, but still distinguished-looking) to be King Thror. He wore robes of a deep color, embroidered in shining thread, and there was some sort of zigzag contraption in his beard. Dad probably would have known what that was.

“It is,” said Thorin. “He’s sitting on his throne. Do you see? That’s the same stone design you saw when I took you to open court.”

Bilbo had fallen asleep in open court, but he didn’t really want to bring that up now. He’d gotten enough laughter for it then. “Mm. It’s a very nice design,” he said. “Intricate. There are talented stone-carvers here.”

Thorin nodded and, moving closer – his arm almost around Bilbo’s shoulders, in fact so close that Bilbo felt the heat radiating off him – pointed to the photograph. “Now who do you think is in his lap?”

Bilbo took another look at the photograph. Wait. That wasn’t a bundle in the King’s lap after all. The infant that King Thror was holding had a mop of thick, dark hair and equally black brows, with both tiny, blurred hands clasped around a glass bottle positioned at its mouth. The bit of face that Bilbo could see around the bottle was so serious, so intent…but it couldn’t be. “Tell me that’s not you!”

Now Thorin laughed a deep belly laugh that seemed to come all the way up from his toes. “Right in one, Master Barrister,” he said. “You have keen eyes. That is indeed your current King, as he appeared in the lap of the previous one.”

“Oh, goodness.” Bilbo reached out a finger, caught himself, and clenched a fist before he could touch the delicate photograph and ruin it. “Look at you! Such a sweet little thing, Thorin. How could you ever grow up to be so tall?” He hunched over the photo and brought his face as close as he could. In proportion with a grown Dwarf, Baby Thorin looked no larger than a fauntling, and Bilbo’s mouth itched with the urge to blurble his little tummy.

“Mahal, there’s no need to put it like that,” Thorin said, but he still smiled. “You remarked on the generosity of Dwarves, Bilbo. I’ve showed you this so that I can tell you a story about our generosity.”

“Do tell.” Bilbo shuffled his bum so that he sat right against the back of the couch, which was really very comfortable.

Thorin cleared his throat. “My mother and father were both busy that day,” he said, “so my grandfather took me to court with him, as he did from time to time. At this point, I was two. I was crawling, but not walking yet. When I was old enough to be interested, Grandfather told me that I tended to stay on his lap and behave myself those days.”

“I’m sure,” Bilbo replied. Now he wanted to put those little hands in his mouth and nom nom nom on them to make that serious expression turn into a squeal of delight. “Is that the Dwarvish generosity you wanted to tell me about?”

“Let me finish,” said Thorin. Bilbo shivered at the gust of breath on the back of his neck, and somehow, Thorin was still not touching him. How was that possible? “They were known as daguerrotypes back then, called after Dagar the Orc. This is, in fact, one of the first known photographs in existence.”

Bilbo dropped his hands down to his thighs, as they’d been inching closer to the box again. Now he really didn’t want to touch it. “It must be very old!”

“Yes,” Thorin answered. “As I said, I was two years old. Dagar came to Grandfather’s court to ask for patronage. Artists often did so for many years prior to our current Age.”

“I knew that.”

Thorin blushed just a bit; it was adorable, and now Bilbo had to deal with the bloody fucking cognitive dissonance of wanting to have a good tumble with the adult version of the infant in the photo. Valar preserve him. “Pardon me. I wasn’t sure.”

Bilbo shrugged. “Dad was well-versed in all sorts of art history,” he said. “Had a bit of a darkroom himself. He wasn’t ever any good, though.”

“I imagine he would have enjoyed seeing this,” said Thorin, and for a moment, his voice wavered as his brows knit. Then his face cleared. “I shouldn’t digress. Dagar came to Grandfather’s court with his equipment, gave a formal request for patronage, and offered to give a demonstration. I was obliging enough to hold still for the exposure time, except for my hands. Then he developed the photo in his little tent and gave it to Grandfather.”

Bilbo had a fairly good idea of where the story was going now, but for the fun of it, he asked anyway. “Is this where Dwarvish generosity comes in?”

Thorin chuckled and leaned back against the couch. “Yes,” he said. “Grandfather agreed to sponsor his habit. As for whether or not it was successful, you’ve seen the webcam photos Fíli and Kíli like to send me.”

“How the mighty have fallen,” Bilbo mock-muttered. Thorin snorted, covering his mouth with one hand. “Well, I see you come by that generosity honestly, at any rate.”

Thorin gently took the photograph from him and put the lid back on. “I like to think so,” he said, and then smiled down at Bilbo for a very long moment.

Eru, those eyes. Those eyelashes, those kissable lips, that soft-looking beard. Bilbo wanted to tug it out of its braid and run his fingers through the hair, then pull on it to bring Thorin’s mouth to his. “What is it?” he finally asked faintly. “Have I got that pi-azza sauce on my face?” Wonderful, now he’d gone and forgotten how to pronounce it.

That seemed to snap Thorin out of whatever reverie he was in; he startled and blinked, breaking that mesmerizing gaze so suddenly that Bilbo was almost sorry he’d said anything. “No,” he said. “Your face is clean. Do you want to watch any television with me?” He pointed to the flatscreen. “I have Bobbo’s Burgers in my queue.”

Bobbo’s Burgers? So Thorin really did like everything having to do with Hobbits. “That’s one of my favorite programs,” Bilbo said. “I’ll watch with you as long as you’ve got popcorn to eat with it. I’ll be peckish again in a while.” If he couldn’t have a long cuddle with Thorin on the couch, at least sitting there in horrid sexual frustration while feeling his body heat would allow him some time in his presence.

Thorin nodded. “That can be arranged,” he said, and with a decisive movement, reached for the remote.

Chapter Text

The end of the sixth month of the year rolled into the seventh with warm, humid winds in the mornings, and preparations for Gulbû-zizî began in earnest. Dis oversaw most of that, so unlike Gulbel, Thorin was exempt from much of the stress. He could thank Mahal, and his sister, for sparing him that extra sweat.

The downside of such sparing was that he had more time to work with Bilbo, and concurrently think about things he’d been trying to hide. How much his body responded, for instance, when he watched Bilbo type something on his annoyingly clattery electric typewriter with his tongue sticking out of his mouth. Or how Bilbo’s legs looked in the shorts he’d taken to wearing with the change in weather, those fat, pale, bare calves that broadened into enormous hairy feet. He wore short-sleeved button-down shirts with them, which Fíli and Kíli called ‘disgustingly uncool.’ Somehow, they made him more endearing.

Today’s shirt had ‘Westfarthing Conkers Club’ embroidered on the breast pocket in bright red thread that matched Bilbo’s shorts. They weren’t strictly necessary, though, as Thorin had suggested taking refuge in one of the conference rooms even earlier than usual; the rooms were cool and quiet, banishing some of the humidity that permeated even the climate-controlled mountain in the middle of summer. Bilbo had happily agreed and brought along three bottles of fizzy lemonade, too.

“Well,” Bilbo said, tapping his fingers decisively on the tabletop, “the Green Dragon’s taken down their advert. I think the ones through Brandyband have been disappearing, too.”

Thorin wanted to pump his fists in the air and cheer, but since Bilbo would have trouble understanding the Khuzdul he would have liked to use, he settled for a smile and an echoing tap of his fist on the table. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Will Proudfoot’s finally emailed me back about it.” Bilbo pointed to his computer screen. “I don’t think he’s happy about it, but still.” He gave Thorin a smile that showed far too many teeth to be anything but sinister. “I had to use all my barrister’s tricks on him. It was quite fun.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. I implied that a few of the judges around the Shire owe me favors, and it’s not a lie.” Bilbo winked. “I’m sure Judge Barrowes would be very receptive to having this case in her courtroom, if it came down to it. Of course, I’d rather not. Will would rather not as of a few minutes ago, either.”

Fewer advertisements to deal with would make for a happier Thorin, if this trend continued. The number had stayed relatively steady recently, barring slight fluctuations, with the only changes being the identity of the ads themselves. The series of ads for a clothing line in Gondor that involved Photoshopping various pieces of clothing onto him and getting rid of the ones he had on (in favor of some sort of lingerie) hadn’t lasted long, thanks to Nori’s Gondorian contacts. Those ads embarrassed him almost as much as the erectile-dysfunction implications; no one who knew him would think titillation or withholding anything from other people, should he ever have the opportunity to – he sneaked a look at Bilbo – well, they would know it wasn’t in his personality. He’d heard plenty of lies about himself and his people already. It was enough now.

“Thank you,” he said. “I have to thank you for all that you’ve done, Bilbo.” The words sounded so clumsy. “You, ah…we wouldn’t have come this far if not for you. If you continue like this, I think some of the color may come back to Balin’s hair.”

“What color was Balin’s hair?” Bilbo asked, wrinkling his nose.

“You know,” Thorin said, “I don’t even remember.” He’d begun graying at such a young age, and Thorin had been younger still, only a Dwarfling. “Some sort of brown, perhaps.”

“Like Dwalin’s?”

Thorin nodded. “I think so. Balin is just lucky to have kept his hair. He’s not the sort to give himself tattoos so his head would stand out, if he went bald. And he doesn’t have the face for an unadorned head.”

“That’s terribly catty,” said Bilbo, chuckling. “Balin wouldn’t thank you for saying such things about him, I don’t think.”

“There’s nothing to thank me for,” Thorin answered. “Those are his words, not mine.”

Now Bilbo giggled. “Oh, some good news, by the way,” he said. “The Court of Bree is open to claim forms. I’ve been having a lively email exchange with them. Everyone else seems to be ignoring me, because I’m not actually the king.” He rolled his eyes and stuck his middle finger up at the ceiling, a gesture that Fíli and Kíli had reliably informed Thorin was a close equivalent of their dragon hand-sign. “It might not be a bad idea to do it there. Plenty of the adverts have come from Mannish territory. Bree’s got a good mixture of races we can scare into compliance, and I’m licensed to practice there. Technically.”

“Could we win?”

“If I have anything to say about it, yes,” said Bilbo, puffing up his chest. “I don’t want to play my cards yet, though. They’re asking for documents for further consideration. All I’ve given them so far are links to the ads, and the screenshots of the old ones. None of Nori’s dubious coding business. We could ostensibly present the case as just wanting to make the adverts in their jurisdiction go away, even if everyone knew what we really meant.”

Thorin had just been about to ask; he was rather glad Bilbo had spared him the trouble. “You think the rest of the advertisers might stand down if we target the Breeland ones?” he asked. Many Men, and a juicy number of the companies who had created the more offensive ads, resided in the stretch of land from the east bank of the Brandywine River to Imladris, including the Trollshaws (which had produced a meme about Thorin’s arsecheeks turning to stone in daylight).

“I do think we’ve got a viable case here, yes,” said Bilbo, rubbing his chin as he looked at the computer screen.

“That doesn’t sound altogether promising,” Thorin told him. Bilbo was usually more direct than that when he talked to him, although his legal briefs were masterpieces of passive-aggressive legalese.

Bilbo shut his laptop. “I’m sorry,” he said, “it’s only I’m so bored.” He rested his elbows on the table and thunked his head down between them. “Remember that Troll meme? I feel like my bum’s turned to stone and fused to this buggering chair. And my head’s swimming. How do you do all this kinging longer than three months and not lose your mind?”

Thorin had rather expected Bilbo to crack before this, never mind that it had been closer to two and a half months than three. “With great difficulty,” he said. “That’s why Balin and I hired you. We thought that more of those advertisements might make me hurl myself off the ramparts.” With Bilbo here to diffuse the worst of the steam that came out of his ears, though, those times seemed strangely far away.

“Flattering,” said Bilbo into the table. “Blegh. This tastes awful.” He sat back up, face flushed from lying prone. “Right. Back to the daily grind. Forgive me my whingeing, please. I’ve got claim forms to download and pre-emptively fill out, because apparently, my brain won’t stop making me take on extra work.”

“No one will fault you for taking a break,” Thorin said. “Balin’s had one all day.” Bilbo spent his last break comforting you, you selfish - He cut off the guilty whisper in his mind with a shake of his head. “Would you like something to eat?”

Bilbo tilted his head. “Mm, no,” he said after a moment. “Thank you, though. I’ve been feeling a bit fuller recently, if you can believe it.” Thorin could, but he widened his eyes in mock-horror instead, which got the ridiculous scowl from Bilbo that he’d sought. “Oh, stop that, you. It’s not as though I’ve been complaining my whole stay here, is it?”

“No, you’ve been remarkably…accommodating.” As much as yelling at him over the phone could be considered accommodating. It was true that Bilbo didn’t seem the type to make petty complaints. “You do deserve a break, Bilbo. You could take the rest of the day off if you wanted – didn’t you say there was a film you wanted to watch?”

“Mm, if I never see another screen, it’ll be too soon,” Bilbo said heatedly, kneading his forehead with his fingers. Thorin always smiled inwardly to see it; Bilbo had, as Dwalin once told him, picked up the gesture from him. “I want to go outdoors. Stomp my feet in the dirt or something. I’d even take visiting your agricultural school.”

“Dirt,” Thorin mused. The agricultural school was busy, since so many things were in season, but it was a long drive down the highway and out of the mountain to get there, not to mention that the heat might be oppressive. Pity; Bilbo had expressed such joy when fresh cherries, both sweet and sour, appeared at the market the past week. “I –” And then the thought hit him.

I want to dig my feet in the dirt, ‘Amad had said, laughing, with her boots off and her toes moving in the soft black dirt of her tomato patch. ‘Adad had had him and Frerin cart the soil up from the base of the mountain; rumor had it that, long ago, Erebor had been a volcano. It explained the fertility of the land for things that would grow in their cold winters.

He hadn’t gone back to her garden since the last time he sat there with her, more than a century now. His heart still hurt to think about it. Could he show something so intimate to an outsider? No, not an outsider, a Hobbit. Bilbo. Bilbo, who had held him while he wept all over him, and then shared his pizza. If he could show Bilbo one of the oldest photographs in the world, then why couldn’t he do this?

“Bilbo,” he said, “I have a garden for you to stomp your feet in, if you’d like to come with me.”

Bilbo lit up, straightening in his chair as if he were a plant himself, newly exposed to nourishing sunlight. “Yes, please! Let’s just put away our things first. No need to have them stolen.”

Thorin followed him out of the room, and for once, he had to almost run to keep up. Bilbo really was excited, then. Now, if only he could remember how to get into the bloody garden.

He retraced the steps in his head, from the stone bench under an overhang that shaded him from the sun as a Dwarfling, out a short hallway to…yes. Right, well, he’d promised Bilbo a garden, not a lack of awkwardness. “Bilbo,” he said as the doors of the royal quarters opened, “I’m going to have to go into your room again to show you the garden. Is that all right?”

“Mm? Of course.” Bilbo looked down at his outfit. “I don’t need to change clothes for this, do I? I won’t be doing any actual gardening myself.”

Who gardens in red shorts? Thorin wanted to ask, but he kept it to himself. No telling when Bilbo’s temper might get the best of him, and he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of a funny but rather disturbing rant…again.

Bilbo let them into his room, and Thorin headed for the kitchen. There was an alcove – his mother had put a craft table there, in the years before modern technology helped them split the individual suites into true apartments – and he felt along the wall for the seams of the door and the keyhole. “What are you doing?” Bilbo asked behind him.

“Finding things,” Thorin muttered, squatting down. What if the key had fallen out somewhere, or if ‘Amad had had it on her when she left the mountain? He might be able to get a locksmith (or Nori, more likely) to come in here and burst the door open, but the inconvenience, and the intimacy of the space… “Got it!” He scooped the tiny key out of the depression near the floor where it lay, and put it into the keyhole as he stood back up, turning it gently. “Fuck.”

“Hm?”

Thorin rattled the key in the hole. “It’s stuck.”

Bilbo started giggling behind him, and Thorin rolled his eyes. He shouldn’t have expected anything different. “Sorry,” said Bilbo, “just, it’s stuck…all right, I’ll shut up now. Can you jiggle it a bit?” Thorin almost lost the last word in another flood of giggles. Hobbits. Yet again, Hobbits. Perhaps it was a bit funny, but he wasn’t about to let Bilbo know he thought so.

He moved the key carefully in the lock, up and down and around. Suddenly, with more of a creak than a click, the tumblers turned. Thorin turned around and grinned at Bilbo, who echoed it, and then opened the door. The small hallway leading to the garden smelled musty. “This will be in disrepair, most likely,” he warned Bilbo as they walked through it. “My mother grew a few tomato plants like you do, but it’s been years.”

“How do you know that I grow tomatoes?” Bilbo asked.

“You told Balin so, your first conversation with him.” Thorin felt along the end of the passage, found the doorknob, and pushed the door to the ledge open. “This was her garden, and I’d like to share it with you.”

The door opened and the afternoon sunlight hit them, fresh and warm, before Bilbo could say anything. Thorin’s eyes closed. “Oh.” How long had it been since he’d left the mountain? Weeks? If this was how a person was meant to feel all the time, then he must have been wilting before. “Mmm.” His voice came out in a rumble. “Smell the air, Bilbo. I used to sit here with my mother before the mountain fell.”

“It smells of tomato!” Bilbo exclaimed. “I can smell it still.”

Thorin opened his eyes, shading them with his hand until they focused against the sunlight. When he could finally see properly, his eyes fell on the object nearest him – green. Somehow, it had lived. “’Amad’s tomatoes,” he whispered. “Look, a plant survived, Bilbo. It must like the sunlight.”

A plant?” Bilbo repeated. “Er, Thorin, you’re going to want to look around.”

He did.

And he gasped.

Spreading out in all directions from the single plant, dozens upon dozens of tomato plants crowded each other for room in the sunlight. They spilled down through the fence around the ledge and leaned through the bars. Nearly every plant sported heavy fruit that pulled it towards the soil, though ‘Amad’s carefully-driven stakes were gone. Green leaves, dark red fruit, the blue sky, and the humid smell of plants and dirt – Thorin’s head spun. “Mahal,” he said. “Oh, Mahal.” And he sat down on the ground.

His earliest memory of this ledge superimposed itself over the image before his eyes. Mother pounded in the stakes herself with her sleeves rolled up, showing her hairy arms, and the sweet in Thorin’s mouth colored the sunny day with the taste of butter and cream and caramel. He sucked on it, and his mother rested her hands on her hips in triumph. Look, Thorin. Sometime soon, these plants will fruit with the best of them!

“Look at all of these!” said Bilbo in a tone of wonder, and waded out into the middle of the patch as Thorin watched. He put his hands on his hips, slowly turning. “Green Lady’s bounty, look – those, and those…oh, that one!” He reached for a plant, but stopped before his hand could close around a tomato so ripe that it was nearly dropping off its stem, and looked at Thorin worriedly. “Could I take one, Thorin? I don’t want to dishonor your mother’s memory.”

“I don’t think you could,” said Thorin, and then coughed to clear his throat. “Dishonor her, I mean. Take all the tomatoes you want.” Mother would have loved to see him here. No, Bilbo was no Dwarf. He still seemed so well in place when he bent over, inadvertently showing Thorin his arse in the red shorts, and picked the tomato he’d chosen.

Bilbo turned the tomato around in his hand, surveying it with what looked to Thorin like a practiced and critical eye. “I almost wish I could liveblog this,” he said. “That’s one use for technology, isn’t it? Preserve wonderful food experiences for posterity.” His eyes closed as he bit into it, then popped wide open. “Oh,” he moaned, a waterfall of juice flowing out of his mouth and down his chin. “Oh – oh, Valar, Thorin. This tomato – I think…I think they…” He swallowed and wiped his mouth. “They’re heirloom tomatoes, Thorin.”

“What does that mean?”

“They bred with each other and made a richer product,” Bilbo explained. “How long have they been here, Thorin? A hundred years?” He took another enormous bite.

“Well over,” Thorin said, watching the trail of the juice down Bilbo’s face and neck. His lips were awash in it, and every few seconds, the tip of his tongue flicked out to lick them. Thorin couldn’t tell how hot his face was, exactly, but it felt like a thousand degrees. His trousers had grown equally uncomfortable in the past minute. “Do you, ah, want to sit down?”

Bilbo looked up from his tomato, eyes unfocused. “Hm?”

Thorin pointed to the overhang near the door, under which the stone bench still rested. “There’s a seat. You could…”

Bilbo’s eyes refocused, this time on Thorin. “Yes,” he said, then – as if just realizing where Thorin was – added “Get off the ground, Thorin. You’ll get wet dirt on your knickers.”

“Through my trousers?” Thorin said as he obeyed and went to the bench. Better to sit out of the sun.

“Well, maybe not the dirt.” Bilbo joined him, then chuckled. “The look on your face! See, you’ve just sat down on it. I can tell.”

Thorin shifted in place as discreetly as he could to avoid giving Bilbo the satisfaction of knowing he was right, dammit. At least his trousers were just damp, not terribly wet. “So you’ve enjoyed your tomato?”

Bilbo licked his lips again, and Thorin found himself shifting closer. “It’s wonderful,” Bilbo said. “Look how beautiful this one is. I picked it up when you were coming over here. See?” He brought out another plump tomato and pointed to a splotch of black on the deep red skin. “They’re like that on the inside, too. It’s a sign of all the interbreeding over the years.”

Thorin traced the tomato’s smooth, warm skin with one finger. How he wished he could trace Bilbo’s skin the same way – not like he was a piece of food at all, but like he was a lover. “It looks delicious,” he said. “Is it better than your tomatoes in the Shire?”

Bilbo hesitated, weighing the tomato in his palm. “Try it,” he finally said, and brought the fruit up to Thorin’s face. The freckles on his nose popped into view again as he moved closer; Thorin gulped to see them. “Go on, Thorin, take a bite. I don’t know about better than all the tomatoes in the Shire, but it’s probably even better than when you were a lad.”

Thorin’s breath came in pants, short and hard. He leaned forward and, boldly, outright breathed over Bilbo’s fingers; the Hobbit shivered. Mahal, I’m his client. What am I doing? Is this even legal? But it had been so long since he learned what a One was, and never had he met someone who lit up his heart and his trousers like the swirling blue lights on the door –

He took a bite. The rich, tart tomato flavor filled his mouth, so much so that the juice dripping out seemed only an expression of the taste. Far away, he heard Bilbo moan; the answering rumble in his own throat told him, faintly, that he was doing so, too.

Swallowing, he opened his eyes (he’d closed them, then), wiped his chin, and took the tomato from Bilbo’s unresisting hand. “Bilbo?” he whispered. Bilbo’s enormous hazel eyes stared into his, mere inches away.

“Thorin?” Bilbo said, his voice just as hushed.

Thorin took the hand that still hung there in the air and rubbed his mouth against it, more like a cat’s gesture of affection or the thunk of foreheads that shield-brothers performed than a true kiss. “Mm?”

Bilbo jumped in place much more forcefully than such a small gesture might warrant. Thorin found his breath coming even faster. “Your beard tickles,” Bilbo told him – indignant, of course, but not quite as much as he was capable of. Thorin had seen the worst of it on Bilbo’s third day here and he had survived. This was nothing.

He brought his arms around to Bilbo’s back until they met in the shallow depression just above the curve of his arse. “Is this all right?” he asked. Bilbo nodded, vigorous as a bobble-headed doll, and Thorin pulled him close. With a bit of shifting, he ended up leaning against the bench’s arm with Bilbo atop him, half sitting in his lap and half lying down. Mother used to hang her beading over this arm, came a thought unbidden into his head. He bit down hard on the side of his tongue to forestall his nervous laughter. “Are we doing this?”

Bilbo’s eyebrows quirked, and that spark of mischievous sarcasm leapt into his eyes. “Doing what?”

“You’re a prat,” said Thorin, and kissed him.

Bilbo’s mouth tasted like tomato. And breath, of course. I know what a Hobbit mouth tastes like. The thought made him dizzy, or maybe it was just the lack of oxygen to his brain. Bilbo’s lips were sealed over his, their hips pressed together, Bilbo’s not-inconsiderable weight on top of him, and that noise he made…oh. He was a loud kisser.

The realization made Thorin’s head spin even more, and he had to pull away. “Am I terrible?” he asked, after gulping in enough air to satisfy his body’s oxygen requirements. His mouth felt wet and sensitive.

“Terrible?” Bilbo echoed. Dazedly, he ran a hand over his face. “I’ve got beard burn already.” A hysterical giggle escaped him, just like Thorin had been tempted to emit when they began this. Whatever this would turn out to be. “What do you mean, terrible?”

“I’ve never.” Thorin gestured between them as best he could. What was in Bilbo’s pocket, a bloody roll of coins? He shifted to get rid of the obstruction, and Bilbo drew in a thin breath, then let it out in a soft, high-pitched almost-wail. Valar in Valinor, that wasn’t…Bilbo had…because of him. Bilbo had an erection. Because of him.

Does not compute! Nori snarked in his head.

“Never what?”

“This.” Frustrated, Thorin swept his arms wide; the motion threw him off-balance, sending him back against the arm of the bench and making him wince. Where were his words? This was an occasion rivaling only the necessary pleasantries he could spew out to other politicians when Erebor desperately needed something, and his tongue was fucking tied. “This, er, stuff. Activity. I’ve never…”

“Never had sex,” Bilbo finished. He shook his head hard. “No. No, that’s impossible. You’re so beautiful!”

Thorin’s heart stuttered in his chest. “You think I’m beautiful?”

Bilbo blinked at him. “Thorin,” he said in a tone implying more than his usual amount of annoyance with the world in general, “if no one’s ever told you they want to get their leg over with you, then they’re absolute morons. You’re lovely. And you’re smart and I’ve never met a king like you. I’ve never met any fucking kings. I can’t think today!” He banged on the sides of his head with his fists.

Thorin couldn’t help a laugh. “Then the feeling is mutual. I’m not thinking very well myself.”

“That would be because all our blood’s gone straight to our pricks,” Bilbo said. “Look, are you sure you want to do this with me? I’m not much of a first time. I don’t even feel like much of a barrister these days.”

Thorin grabbed Bilbo’s face in his hands. “Don’t talk about yourself that way,” he growled, then upon seeing Bilbo’s look of surprise, backtracked. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just…I want this very much. Don’t insult yourself. Please.”

“You do like me,” Bilbo said, and took Thorin’s mouth in another kiss.

Suddenly, there were fireworks going off in his head, and some instinct he couldn’t ever remember experiencing made Thorin grab Bilbo by the hips and pull him them firmly against his own. “Ohfuck.” Their mouths were still pressed together, and Thorin felt as much as heard Bilbo mumble something similar into his. He didn’t know what it was – he wasn’t sure he cared. It could have been some kind of curse against Dwarvish kissing techniques, for all he knew. He didn’t care; all he wanted was Bilbo’s weight on his hips and Bilbo’s erection against his own, sounds traveling from Bilbo’s mouth to his and back with every movement, and there, there, there there there.

The pressure bloomed into pleasure, and Thorin convulsed. “Bilbo!” he said, but it couldn’t be a warning if he was already there and he didn’t care. He held Bilbo tightly against him and shivered, gasping – it felt as if a fever had broken inside him.

He didn’t have to wait long for Bilbo to succumb to the same ailment. “Oh, Valar,” Bilbo began, and devolved into a long, mumbled string of “fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck” as he squirmed against Thorin’s body and his legs clenched around Thorin’s thighs. “Fuck me,” he finished dazedly, staring into Thorin’s eyes. Then he flopped down so that his head lay on Thorin’s chest.

Thorin held him as close as he could. He could feel Bilbo’s warm skin, messy now with sweat, and a thundering heartbeat to match his own. “What do we do now?” he whispered.

Bilbo’s head popped up like an indignant mole’s. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I absolutely will not let you fuck and leave after how hard you just made me come. I have no intention of letting you go. Months I’ve wanted you, bloody months!”

“You…” There wasn’t enough time for that. “You’ve only known me three months.”

“Two and a half,” Bilbo corrected in a supercilious tone. So he did remember.

“Two and half, then. Are you saying you’ve wanted me since the beginning?” Thorin asked. What if his under-the-table problem that first night hadn’t been his alone? Could he dare to hope? Not that Bilbo could likely hear him through the walls, of course; they were multiple feet thick, and the stone provided its own soundproofing, much to Nori’s vocalized displeasure. But a Dwarf could dream.

Bilbo nodded. “When I saw you, I wished I’d had the brains to look up your photograph beforehand. You might not have caught me so off guard.” He ran a hand over Thorin’s chest. “I see your chest hair.”

“Through my shirt?” Thorin looked down. Ah, there it was. It looked like their good old-fashioned grinding session (thanks again to Fíli and Kíli, he knew all about that ridiculous phrase, as well as ‘hand-to-gland combat’) had wrenched the neckline of his shirt far enough to the side that the carpet on his chest had become visible. Combined with the messy hair in his field of vision, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked more debauched outside the privacy of his own bedroom. The state of Bilbo’s hair, combined with that, would leave absolutely no doubt that they’d been together in doing whatever people might think they were doing. “Maybe we ought to take this inside.”

“I think that’s a good idea.” But before he got up, Bilbo pressed a kiss to Thorin’s collarbone; it made him shiver. “Shall we go to your room?”

Thorin wordlessly held out his hand in reply, and Bilbo took it. His palm was damp with sweat, but that was all right; surely Thorin’s hands weren’t in the best shape, either. “I presume the tomatoes can wait,” he said, and squeezed Bilbo’s hand gently.

“Oh, the tomatoes are going straight to Bombur as soon as I can get back out here,” said Bilbo, eyes suddenly alight with food lust; at this point, Thorin flattered himself that he could tell it apart from the regular kind. “But now – fuck. I got carried away…no, fuck that, I just had sexual relations with a client.”

“Sexual relations?” Thorin echoed. In my mother’s garden, no less. He frowned and with an almost physical push, shoved the thought into the back of his mind. ‘Amad, he was sure, would understand. Bilbo was perhaps the only person in the mountain who could show that level of appreciation for her tomatoes. “Are you the president of Ithilien now?” Surely Bilbo wasn’t brainless enough to think Thorin hadn’t thoroughly worried over the client factor himself.

Bilbo gave him the dirtiest possible look. “I’m just glad that it’s got no bearing on the case,” he said. “You’d better believe I started researching ethics laws here as soon as my brain caught up with my prick. I’m not about to do anything illegal with you.”

He had to admit that that was a fair point. “So what will you do, then?” Thorin said. His heart began to beat faster again, and he broke their hands apart, cupping Bilbo’s face in one hand and leaning in close. The sun shone down brightly around them, warming the air, and he fancied that he could feel the stone warming, too, as if it lived. “If you’d like to finish what we started…tell me.”

Bilbo’s teeth flashed in a wicked grin. “I’m telling you now. Show me.”

Chapter Text

They ran back down the hallway, through the kitchen, and into Bilbo’s room – not the Consort’s Suite anymore, but truly Bilbo’s, if Thorin were to be honest with himself – like two Dwarflings of sixty. Dwarflings on television, admittedly, since they held hands the entire time.

Thorin’s heart pounded, but he realized soon enough that he shouldn’t have worried. Bilbo yanked him down onto the bed with a tug that made him lose his balance and clung, laughing, when Thorin landed. “I’ve got to take my trousers off,” Bilbo said, “or they’ll stick to me.”

“You’re wearing shorts,” Thorin pointed out, and waited for the explosion, still holding Bilbo’s hand.

“Oh, quiet, you.” Bilbo rolled over and poked Thorin’s nose. Then, letting go of Thorin’s hand, he unzipped his shorts and kicked them off, along with his pants. “There. Much less disgusting.”

Thorin took a moment to admire what he saw before taking off his shoes and his own sticky trousers. “We match. What should we do about it?”

Bilbo pulled him close and kissed him. He did have a very hot pattern of squirming while kissing, at least in the few kisses that Thorin had shared with him so far. “I don’t make a habit of having sex with my shirt on,” he said as Thorin licked his lips, already missing Bilbo’s mouth. “I’ve had quite a bit of it, too.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” said Thorin. His heart was racing again – by all things good, he wanted to pull Bilbo’s shirt off and see all of him. The lower curve of his belly swelled out from under the edge of that ridiculous conkers shirt; Thorin’s fingers twitched, wanting and unsteady. What if he touched him wrong, or wasn’t as good as those previous partners in making him feel like the beauty he was?

“Thorin. Stop fucking thinking and get over here and bugger me.”

Thorin forced his eyes to refocus (if he wasn’t careful, his feelings were going to turn his life into a bloody soft-focus episode of Star Trek) and awkwardly reached out with both arms. Bilbo cuddled him right away. “Did you, ah, mean that literally?”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Bilbo said into his neck. “I can be quite the top, you know, but I think we’ve got time to explore that later.”

Thorin shifted; he was responding already. Fortunately for him, with Bilbo so close, his erection was evident to both of them. “Oh, isn’t that nice?” said Bilbo, and wrapped himself even more tightly around Thorin. Somehow, he ended up with a knee between Thorin’s legs, and Thorin pressed down on it without thinking. “Seems I’m not alone.”

Thorin groaned. It would have been obvious to anyone with a functioning nervous system that Bilbo was hard, too. “Have you got condoms?”

Bilbo pulled back with a frown and shook his head. “No,” he said. “Didn’t bring any, didn’t buy any here. I didn’t think I’d be getting laid – sorry, having sex. I don’t mean to imply you’re just a lay. Fucking Mannish telly.”

Thorin shook his head and waved a dismissive hand in front of Bilbo’s face. “I have some,” he said, fervently hoping that the sweat on his forehead wasn’t too obvious. “Do you want to finish this in my bedroom?”

“Why would you have…oh.” Bilbo nodded decisively. “Toys, I’m guessing?”

Thorin sucked his lower lip into his mouth. “I know it’s strange.”

“No, not at all. You like penetration. There’s hardly a need for a cock to do that. Or you like vibrators, in which case there’s no need at all.”

“Both,” Thorin told him. “I rather like both.”

A bright pink flush flowed up Bilbo’s neck, out to his ears, and all the way to his hairline. “Goodness me, I didn’t think you liked so many things in bed,” he said.

“You’ve been thinking about me, then?” His cock liked that idea very much. “About what I like to do to myself in bed? I like to watch vids and touch myself, and sometimes I use toys.”

Bilbo shook his head hard, making his curls fly in all directions. “Stop that or this will be over far too soon!” he exclaimed. “Mm, vids, eh?” A speculative expression began to grow on his face. “Dare I hope?”

“Hobbit vids, if that’s what you’re hoping,” Thorin said. Bilbo moaned and shoved his face back into the crook of Thorin’s neck; his breath felt wonderful there, and Thorin shivered a little more with each gust. “So should we move this to my bedroom?”

“Yes, dammit!” Bilbo slapped him on one arse cheek. “Sorry. Got carried away. Anyway, yes.”

Thorin maneuvered himself out of Bilbo’s grasp, pulled off his own shirt, and lifted Bilbo into his arms. “How about this? Do you like big, strong Dwarves?” That sounded terribly cheesy. He’d probably heard it in a vid at some point and forgotten.

“Yes, I do!” Bilbo put his arms around Thorin’s neck, squeezing tightly and burrowing his face in again. “You’re so big and strong, aren’t you? How do you get like that riding a desk?”

“I work in the forge.” Thorin stopped at the wall nearest Bilbo’s room – this was the time to ask. “Bilbo, there’s a hidden door here that leads from the Royal Suite to the Consort’s Suite. Do you mind if I use it to take us in?”

“Hidden door?” Bilbo repeated, sounding miffed. “Bugger, I should’ve guessed. Go ahead and use it. I’m glad you haven’t before now.”

Thorin shifted Bilbo in his arms and ran his hand down the regular line of stonework in the wall, a contrast to the otherwise alternating pattern of carved shapes, and pressed his thumb in the slight depression about halfway down the line. Like the door to his mother’s garden, the mechanism for this door still worked, and it slid open with a creak. Thorin turned to ease Bilbo through the passage, pushed the door on the other side open with his shoulder, and heard the first entrance shut behind him as they came into Bilbo’s room. “My father,” he said, putting Bilbo down on the unmade bed, “used to use that passage to visit my mother. I used it myself when I had nightmares and wanted both of my parents with me.”

“Mmm, now we’re using it for the same purpose…no.” Bilbo cut himself off with a disgusted face. “No thoughts of parental sex. I forbid it, Self.” He made a fist and lightly hit himself on the side of the head, much to Thorin’s amusement. “There. Now, where are your condoms?”

Thorin shook his head. One would think that he, as the king, would be businesslike in bed, but Bilbo seemed to be filling that role very nicely. Barristers all had sticks up their arses, and he hoped to replace that stick with – well, enough of that. “Kissing first,” he said, “and I want to run my hands all over you.” His voice rumbled deep in his throat. “Could I take off your shirt?”

Bilbo shook his head. “I’ll do you one better.” He wriggled into a sitting position and pulled off his shirt, then threw it to the floor and crossed his arms with the most self-satisfied expression Thorin had ever seen. “Oh, Valar, those are nipple piercings. Come here,” he said, beckoning with one finger. “I want some of those kisses.”

Thorin eagerly complied. Bilbo lay on top of him once they’d finished getting into position, and Thorin’s head lay on a comfortable pillow, all the better to keep kissing for a long time without a crick in his neck. Bilbo’s lips were so warm, and he used his tongue so well. Thorin was no stranger to how people could kiss each other, of course – he was well over a century old, not some naïve Dwarfling – but most of the vids he’d seen didn’t show people detouring from the mouth to the earlobe to the very side of the neck down where the blood pulsed. Most neck-biting took place in the front of the throat, like a gesture of dominance, not this tenderness.

He couldn’t have imagined that the edges of his ears would be so sensitive, either. They certainly hadn’t felt like this when he’d had his piercings put in.

“Bilbo,” he gasped as Bilbo’s tongue ran over the outside of his ear again, “that feels…” He was hard as stone against Bilbo’s leg, and he could feel sweat running down his forehead and the sides of his face. “Could we…”

Bilbo pulled back and looked down at Thorin, licking his lips. They were swollen with kissing, and his cheeks sported an angry flush that Thorin ruefully realized would probably turn into even worse beard burn than Bilbo had noted outside. “You’re terribly good at this.” While not as husky as Thorin’s, his voice had dropped a few notes or so with arousal. It was bloody hot.

Thorin darted forward and sucked Bilbo’s earlobe into his mouth by way of a reply. Bilbo’s gasp satisfied him very well, so he continued on as Bilbo had done to him. The skin behind Bilbo’s ear seemed to be the most sensitive part, though, along with the tip; Thorin paid them some careful attention and listened to Bilbo make noise, all the while reaching out to stroke his palms up and down Bilbo’s plump chest and –

Bzzt.

Thorin pulled away from Bilbo as the sound went through his brain, sharp as a whip-crack. “Whuh?” He shook his head and pinpointed the source: his phone, which was vibrating on his bed table. “Shite.”

Bilbo uttered something partway between a groan and a growl. “Fuck, have you got to get that?”

Thorin fumbled the phone close enough that he could read it with a craned neck and swiped his thumb over the screen. “Nori,” he said. “He’s been leaving messages.” Five of them. Whatever it was, the son of a warg could wait.

“I’m going to kill Nori later,” Bilbo mumbled. “Right. Condoms?”

For someone who’d had enough sex before to make him irresistible in bed, Bilbo didn’t seem to remember how much stimulation one wanted during one’s first time. At least Thorin thought Bilbo had probably been the same way his first time; if he was this sensitive now, how had he been then? “Let me touch you first,” he said. Then, in case that sounded too imperious, he added “Please?”

“Forget killing Nori, you’re going to kill me,” said Bilbo. “All right. Come here and touch my nipples.” He sat up against the pillows, and Thorin moved back to let him get into position unhindered. “They’re sensitive.”

Thorin licked his lips. Bilbo’s nipples certainly looked sensitive. They were pinker than his own, which were brown if you could get past his chest hair to see them (as he hoped Bilbo would). “As you wish,” he said, Princess Bride-style, and leaned forward.

It took a bit of trial and error, but Thorin eventually found that Bilbo liked to sit in his lap, with Thorin cupping his chest from behind and rubbing his nipples with his thumbs. “Oh,” Bilbo said, pressing his arse against him, “mm, lovely. Yes…ooh…are those c-calluses?”

“Forging,” said Thorin between hard, heavy breaths. How could those Hobbits talk during sex? He could barely breathe. “What…do you want?”

“Well!” Bilbo nimbly flipped over in Thorin’s grasp and put his hands on his chest, one just to the side of each nipple. “Those piercings…how long ago were they done?”

“When we retook Erebor.”

Bilbo leaned forward; Thorin guessed that he was going to touch, but all thoughts evaporated in a haze of lust when instead, Bilbo fastened his mouth around one nipple and began to flick the ring with his tongue.

After that, he lost track of both time and what they were doing. All he knew was that his nipples received ample attention, and so did his hips and his neck and the ticklish parts of his pelvis just above and to the sides of his cock. Bilbo seemed to like it when he squeaked, given how much he attacked Thorin’s neck at the sound.

But it was Bilbo who broke away and ended it. “All right, I want it in me,” he said, “and I think I’m going to explode if we do any more of this. Lovely as it is,” he added quickly. “I’m not complaining.”

“No,” said Thorin, “you’re right.” Again, how he was able to talk right now, he had no idea. “Condoms?”

“Condoms,” Bilbo agreed. “Where are they?”

“Just a minute.” Thorin got up on wobbly legs and went to the closet, where he dug into his dresser and came up with a half-full package of condoms and a bottle of lube just full enough for their purposes. “Here,” he said when he emerged. “Are you allergic to latex or lubricants?”

Bilbo shook his head. “Neither, thank goodness. Had a partner once, though – he couldn’t have any of the water-based lubes. Anyway…wait, is that window open?” He pointed to the window in question, which Thorin kept open a crack in the summer, with the curtains pulled apart.

“It’s for the smell,” Thorin explained. “Mountain air. Do you want me to close it?”

“No, no.” Bilbo shook his head. “We’re so high up, there can’t possibly be any allergens. And who is there to see inside? You haven’t exactly got neighbors.”

Thorin snorted. His nearest neighbors were Fíli and Kíli, who kept a flat (if it could be called that) close to their parents’ section of the royal quarters. “If I have neighbors, then they know I have swords,” he said. His nephews were smart enough not to walk in on him, not when smartphones existed. “So…do you want me to turn around?”

“I quite like the view of your arse,” Bilbo said. Thorin coughed. “Yes, you do like being complimented, don’t you? Well, come over here and give me a good buggering. I’m good at getting myself ready for that, if you’d like to watch.”

Thorin scrambled back to the bed and avoided falling over in the process, for which he inwardly congratulated himself. Bilbo took the box of condoms and gave it a glance. “Yes, those should feel just fine. And…still hard. That’s beautiful.”

“Bilbo, stop.” Thorin wiped his forehead, which felt as though it was on fire. “Please. I’m not used to people – telling me I’m – well…”

Bilbo blinked. “But you are,” he said. “I’ve said it before. You’re gorgeous and sweet and the loveliest king I’ve ever seen. Loveliest person, actually, and I want to prove it to you. And I’d like to rub myself all over you, please.”

Thorin looked down and smiled despite himself. “We already did that.”

“Then bother that rerun and let’s continue in a different line.”

How could it be a true rerun if he’d only done it the once? His skin prickled even now as he thought about it. “You want a buggering, then.” He gulped after getting the words out.

“Mm-hm.” Bilbo looked him up and down yet again with long, lingering sweeps of his gaze. “Out of curiosity, how long are you? I assume you’ve measured.”

“Oh. My…” Thorin took himself in his palm, just to make Bilbo squirm; it had the desired effect. “Seven inches or so, maybe closer to seven and a half.” He wasn’t as long as Dwalin, whom he’d seen bathing when they were younger and again whenever he and Nori were having an exhibitionist moment, but he didn’t understand why that was anything to be ashamed of, as the Mannish seemed to think.

Bilbo pursed his lips, considering. “I’ve had toys about your size, definitely,” he said. “It won’t be anything I can’t handle. Lovely handle, too.”

“Good,” Thorin said. “I mean...thank you.” No one in the vids ever had to deal with this sort of etiquette. “Are you ready for…” He racked his brain for anything he’d heard on the subject the last time he was anywhere near the Shire. “...a bit of how’s your father?”

There was a disbelieving noise from the bed. Thorin watched as Bilbo stared back at him, his face disbelieving. “Dead, thanks,” he said acerbically, “and now I’m flaccid.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” Dammit, he couldn’t do anything right. “Do you want to stop?”

“What? No. Are you joking?” Bilbo held a fist to his mouth and chuckled. “Just...how old are your tastes? What do you listen to - ragtime?”

Thorin coughed on an unexpected laugh of his own. “I’ve not listened to ragtime lately, no,” he said. “What can I do to help?”

“Thorin,” said Bilbo, shaking his head, “you are so cute.” He stroked himself up and down a few times, and Thorin watched hungrily as his eyes closed and he moaned softly. “There now,” he gasped once he’d composed himself, “shall you give me a bit of prep, or do you want to watch me do it?” His erection had returned at a shocking speed, Thorin saw.

“Watch,” said Thorin immediately – then, in case he’d offended Bilbo, he added “The angle. I – I’ve never done it in a forward way. I might hurt you.” The thought occurred that it was perhaps more likely Bilbo would break him. He’d heard at least one story about people dying during sex, but they could have been urban legends, and they did tend to star old Mannish with heart conditions. And young wives. Were those stories about legitimate death during sex, come to think of it, or were they about poisoning?

Bilbo tilted his head, then shrugged. “Fair enough,” he said. “Now hand over the lube, please, and enjoy the show.”

Well, Bilbo was the expert. Thorin did as he was told and settled against the pillows as Bilbo began to…fuck. ‘Prep’ wasn’t the right word for it. Bilbo wiggled in place and thrust his hips forward around the two and then three fingers he put inside himself. “Oh, that’s good,” Bilbo ground out. “Mm! I’ll…nnn! Have a fun time with you. There, it’s good you’re w-watching, hm? This takes skill to do.”

Thorin could feel sweat running down the backs of his knees, and down his front – he touched himself to see what the problem was, and found his hand wet. “Bilbo, I think I’m leaking,” he said. It didn’t usually happen in such quantities.

That startled a laugh out of Bilbo, who took out his fingers, reached forward, and then drew his hand back. “Oh, fuck, I’ve got to wash my hands,” he said. “Valar. Bloody comedy of errors. Be right back.” He leaped off the bed, but turned around before he reached the loo. “Get on your back,” he said in a voice gone suddenly low and purring. “I want to be on top.”

Thorin slammed down onto the bed before he could even think to do it, and stared at the ceiling, panting as if he’d run a race rather than just watched Bilbo do something unbelievably hot in front of him. If this didn’t kill him, then it would at least knock ten years off his life by giving him some sort of heart condition.

“I’m back.” Bilbo’s face suddenly appeared in his field of vision, breaking into a beautiful smile. No, more than beautiful – it was arousing, just like everything else Bilbo was doing right now. “Thorin, you didn’t have to go completely supine!”

“You said ‘on your back,’” Thorin mumbled. “I got on it.” If he tried to sit up now, he would probably fall back down. All of his blood was either in his head or in his cock.

“If that’s the way you want to be, I can work with it.” Bilbo disappeared, but by his contemplative noise, Thorin knew he was far from gone. “Maybe this can be an all-sensory thing. May I sit myself down?”

An unnameable sound burst from Thorin’s throat. “Whatever you want,” he said, and threw an arm over his eyes. All this sensation was too much: Bilbo’s sultry voice and the sight of him and the cool air on his naked body, especially his erection. “Have me.”

“I think I will.” Bilbo kissed his belly, making it quiver, and a soft blooping sound later, stroked Thorin’s cock with a cool, wet hand that was followed quickly by the unmistakable feel of a condom. He would have to be completely dead from the waist down to be unable to puzzle that one out – and Bilbo was climbing on him now, and…

Then he sat down.

This wasn’t a little death. It was a huge one, except no one’s breath heaved like this after they had died. Not that Thorin knew of.

“That feels good,” Bilbo said from somewhere far away, and then somehow, it got better. He moved, and Thorin jolted in place, pressing his hands flat against the bed – as the tiny semblance of sense left in his head suggested – to keep himself from rolling over and dislodging Bilbo.

Then suddenly, he wasn’t far away, not anymore; Thorin pressed up against Bilbo’s weight on top of him, feeling sweat on his forehead and in his eyes, the prickling hair sticking to his back, heat between them and around him. “Bilbo,” he gasped.

Bilbo wiggled on top of him. By his noises, Thorin could only imagine the expression on his face. “Ohh. You f-feel so good in me.” He squeezed slowly around Thorin, probably purposefully; that was definitely in his wheelhouse. Stop fucking thinking about wheelhouses. Fíli and Kíli had infected his brain and why wouldn’t it bloody go away?

Thorin squeezed his eyes shut and gripped Bilbo’s hips. Bilbo was right; this was better as an ‘all-sensory thing’ – and then Bilbo moved and Thorin let out a moan. The air between them was boiling hot, and so was Bilbo around him. Khuzdul spilled from his lips, a fluid counterpoint to the equally fluid sounds and the movements and…he wasn’t going to last – “Bilbo!”

Bilbo’s weight sank back on Thorin’s thighs and he cried out Thorin’s name. Wetness streaked up Thorin’s belly all the way to his chest. “Fuck,” Thorin gritted out, seized by a moment of irrational pride (it was his first time, not Bilbo’s, and yet he’d outlasted Bilbo, but not for long) before he tightened his hands on Bilbo’s fleshy hips and rocked up and down.

“Bilbo, Bilbo, Bilbo!” His chest felt as if it were going to burst. Above him, Bilbo’s blurry face was still creased in ecstasy, as if he weren’t oversensitive, but waiting for Thorin to reach his pleasure with him. Inside him. Oh, fuck.

His second climax of the day made him throw back his head and silently open his mouth, rather than scream as the intensity warranted. He shook in place and brought his hand up to his mouth to bite, wishing that Bilbo were closer so that he could bite his neck or kiss him deep and hard, and then it had washed over him, leaving him behind like a piece of beach glass the tide forgot. His head flopped back on the pillow, and all of a sudden, he felt as if he could sleep forever.

“Goodness,” Bilbo sighed, wiggling off him. Although he likely tried to be gentle, Thorin still hiccupped in pleasure and pain when his oversensitive cock protested at the motion. “Shall I take off your condom?”

“Mm.” Bilbo could cut his throat for all he cared, and he’d die happy and sated. Limp, too. Better to be limp when your relatives buried you in stone, or else you might be embarrassed in Mahal’s Halls.

Bilbo peeled the thing off him; a sound of rubber squealing against itself told him Bilbo was tying it off, and the next thing he knew, he had an armful of Hobbit. A very hot and sweaty armful of Hobbit that made Thorin feel as if he were in a forge, to be sure, but he was hardly about to push him away. “Are you sure that was your first time?” Bilbo asked. “I came my brains out.”

“That’s blunt,” Thorin said. He kissed the top of Bilbo’s head and wound his fingers into the curls by one ear. “Are you saying I was satisfactory in bed?”

“’Satisfactory’?” Bilbo repeated incredulously. “You clodpole. Didn’t I just tell you you’re amazing?” He burrowed his face into Thorin’s neck, which Thorin would judge was his favorite place if he were a betting Dwarf, and followed a kiss with a buzzing blurble that made Thorin jump in place. “There, I’ve gotten you back good and proper.”

Thorin pulled back just enough to wipe off his neck and pull a face at Bilbo, who just laughed. “Stop that!” he said in his best King Voice, which didn’t work one bit. “Are you a grown Hobbit or one of my nephews?”

“Ugh, don’t make me throw up,” Bilbo groaned, and rested his head on Thorin’s shoulder this time, with a hand on his chest. It felt protective, like Bilbo could keep him from any harm, small though he was. “You know, there’s something interesting I keep forgetting to say. Back home, we call children born as close together as your nephews ‘Shirish twins.’”

Although he thought he could guess where that phrase came from, Thorin snorted nonetheless. “And why would that be a term?”

“Oh, there are children in the Shire born within a year or so of each other,” Bilbo replied. “None of us can keep our hands off each other, even after a birth.” He stroked Thorin’s chest hair, then gently ran his fingers through it. “Valar above, you’re hairy. It’s wonderful.” He bumped his forehead against Thorin’s sternum. “I want to lie on top of you sometime and rub my nips against it.”

Thorin whimpered. “Stop talking or you’ll make me hard again,” he said, not quite sure whether that was a threat or a promise. “And I’ll touch yours sometime. Assuming you want to do this again?” His voice trailed off in a humiliatingly unsure tone, threatening to break.

Bilbo sat up, stretched his arms over his head, and looked Thorin full in the face. “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I do.” He took Thorin’s face in his hands and, wonder of all wonders, clunked their foreheads together. So he’d been observing their customs after all, even if it was only Balin and Dwalin – Mahal, now Thorin really felt as if he could cry. “I said I’d stay after our bit in the garden. I’m not leaving now.”

“You’d better not,” Thorin said, grabbing Bilbo all the harder. One of his hands nearly covered the small of Bilbo’s back, even plump as it was. “You took my – what do people call it? My card?”

“V-card,” said Bilbo, and burst into giggles. “I swiped your V-card, King Thorin.”

“Don’t call me a king now, of all times,” Thorin said, unable to help a smile of his own. He lifted his head to get his hair off his forehead, and that was when his eyes met a pair across the room that were definitely not supposed to be there.

There, hanging on a rope with a camera in his hand, staring him open-mouthed in the face, was Alfrid of Lake-town.

Thorin was on his feet before he realized that he was moving, so quickly that his head spun with the whipping movement of his hair. “I’khiz!” he shouted. Dimly, he registered the click of a camera flash, but the edges of his vision were black and the center was red and his hands itched to tear apart this horse’s ass who had ruined his life -

And then Alfrid wasn’t in the window anymore, but flying through it, a triumphant tune of some sort screeching out of Nori’s mouth as he kicked him into the room. Alfrid landed face-first on the floor with a wet, crunching thunk, and Nori scrambled in after him – only catching himself on the edge of the window once – to stand over him with his hands on his hips.

Thorin was dimly aware that his mouth had fallen open.

“Well?” Nori demanded, and took a deep breath. “I caught Alfrid, da-da-da,” he sang, “he was the shithead who got you, da-da-da-da-da!

“Is there a reason you’re wearing that hat?” Thorin pointed at his head with a shaking hand; that was when his brain registered the tune. “And singing the Moria Smith theme song?”

“You would know that,” said Nori in an exasperated tone, “if you’d’ve picked up your bloody phone. I called you five fuckin’ times about finding the source! What’ve you been doing?” His eyes, darting around the room, settled on Bilbo – and widened. So did his smile. “Mahal’s fuckin’ Hobbit-scented beard, that’s what you been doing. You cashed in your V-card to a Hobbit!”

It was Bilbo’s turn to have his mouth fall open. “I…” He looked at Thorin, then at Nori, and then back at Thorin. “I told you that was what they called it!” he said, his voice slightly hysterical. “I…Nori. Nori, you are a knob. What are you even doing here?”

Nori shoved the unconscious body on the floor contemptuously with his foot. “Like I just told you,” he said, “I’m savin’ your arse. After some very valiant coding and all that good shit –”

“You mean you gave up another night that you would have played video games instead of sleeping?” Thorin interjected.

“Right, you can shut up.” Nori hopped over Alfrid and, much to Thorin’s horror, looked both of them up and down with appreciative eyes. “Nice,” he said. “Not bad. Did you know I lost my V-card to a Goblin?”

Bilbo’s expression turned queasy. “What’s this about Dwarves only loving once, then?”

“Doesn’t apply if you’re me and you’re young and you’re also randy.” Nori sat down on the edge of the bed. “His name’s Oorn. I get a booty call from him sometimes. Those guys live a stupid long time.”

“Oorn?” Bilbo repeated. “As in ‘urn’?”

Nori snickered. “Aye. Taught himself to read out of a Mannish funeral catalog, ain’t that a laugh? Gotta keep tellin’ him I’m married, though. He’s always forgetting I’m married. Dwalin gets pretty mad.”

“I…” Thorin shook his head. Somehow, he’d managed to be acquainted with Nori for decades and had still never heard this story. This seemed, oddly, like the best place for him to learn about it; the situation was beyond surreal. “Shouldn’t we be…doing something about that?” He pointed to Alfrid. Alfrid. His head swam with sudden dizziness. Could it really be so simple – one culprit? One oddball photographing him through the window when he was too tired to notice?

“Oi!” Nori punched him in the arm. “Get your head outta the clouds and get your naked buns outta bed.” He leaped off to stand over Alfrid again. “Da-da-da-da, da-da-da, tie this pigfucker up with something before he wakes up and leaves! Da-da-da-da, da-da-da, I solved the prob-lem, I rule and da-da-da, da-da-da, da-daaaaaaa…Nori is the man, bwomp!”

And then his hat fell off.

Chapter Text

Alfrid’s eyes snapped open a mere instant before he started screaming.

Then again, Bilbo thought, having Óin’s face so close to yours that it was practically smashed into your nose would do that to anyone.

Óin didn’t even blink. Placidly, he took the jeweler’s loupe out of his eye and slowly stood up, massaging his lower back. “Aye, he’s healthy,” he announced in a tone that would be surprisingly calm for anyone else. Bilbo still wasn’t sure if it was put-upon or if he really had seen so much as to be jaded beyond belief. “There’s a good, responsive pupil there. Oi, shut yer mouth, ye whingin’ little dangler!” he snapped at Alfrid. “I’ve not done nowt!”

Bilbo shaded his eyes as the overhead light began to flicker on and off. “Nori, stop that,” he said.

“Tryin’ to go for a creepy ambiance here.” Nori loped over to the chair they’d dragged Alfrid to after his ill-fated encounter with the floor, and took a long look at their prisoner. He’d stopped screaming, only to replace it with low, mumbling whimpers that Bilbo didn’t care to try to make out. “Bleedin’ hell, does this bloke ever shut up? Or brush his teeth?” He patted Alfrid’s chin. “Try an Oral-B next time, wanker. And I don’t mean the fun sort.”

“Y-y-you can’t do anything to m-me,” Alfrid said, wiggling into a straighter position in the chair, as Bilbo rolled his eyes. Nori would do well to keep his sexual comments to himself. “I-I’m a citizen of Dale. The M-Master of Laketown needs me. I’ll get a…an injunction!”

“And what? We’ll pay with our lives and our kingdom?” Nori’s eye-roll was far more splendid, Bilbo had to admit, than anything he himself could have come up with. His expressions were truly works of art. “It ain’t a crime to ask a criminal what the fuck he’s doin’. And you know, there’s not a clear definition of what it means to ask. Ever look that up, me lad?” He leaned in, not as close as Óin had been but close enough. Alfrid peeped in fright and leaned back so hard that the chair momentarily tipped.

Bilbo tilted his head at Thorin and crooked a finger. Thorin didn’t seem to understand, but still followed Bilbo into the nearest nook in the living-room wall. Dwarvish architecture could be so convenient. “Tell me we’re not actually torturing him,” Bilbo whispered. “We just had sex. Do you want human-rights violations on top of that?”

“We’re not torturing him,” Thorin whispered back, his hand on Bilbo’s back as warm as a hearth fire. Bilbo shivered; suddenly, the rest of him felt very cold, and he wanted little more than to lie back down in bed with Thorin and finish their cuddle. “His hands aren’t even tied up. I think he’s too stupid to realize.”

Bilbo blinked, and narrowed his eyes at the scene. “Bother me with a rolling pin, you’re right.” Alfrid was aware enough of his hands to bite his filthy nails, but not enough to realize that he could use them for other purposes? He didn’t care how old the Master of Laketown was, or to whose family he owed favors; this was a horrible choice of toady. How he mustered enough the brains to hide the sources of his photo from them, Bilbo couldn’t possibly imagine.

Well, not so much of a toady as a pithed frog. And whether or not he admitted to having taken the photo here and now, Bilbo knew the truth, and he would have it out of him.

“I’m here under false pretenses!” Alfrid insisted from the center of the living room. Apparently, having Nori in his face had, paradoxically, made him bolder; his lower lip pouted out like a small child’s and he looked seconds away from a childlike temper tantrum. “You can’t hold me! I’m the Master of Laketown’s First Aide.”

“Too bad he doesn’t mean a plaster,” Thorin muttered, and Bilbo stifled a snicker. “That old shit could put him on those ulcerated tree trunks he calls legs.”

“Thorin!”

Thorin shook his head. “It’s not a snap judgment of his health,” he said. “He walks about in shorts.”

Bilbo raised an eyebrow. “So do I.” Save for now, as he was clothed in a much-too-big pair of Thorin’s sweats. They smelled wonderful; he would have loved to bury his nose in them. The only downside was that he feared tripping over the legs.

“Yes, well…” Thorin’s eyes darted from side to side. “Have you seen him? He looks like Baron Harkonnen’s ugly brother.”

Bilbo had indeed caught a glimpse of the Master during Gulbel, just long enough to remember what he looked like now. The idea of, well, that - plus shorts - was just horrifying. "That’s neither here nor there. What we need to do now is…well…” What did they do now, clap him in irons? They had him clapped in Nori for now, and Bilbo fervently hoped that would be enough.

The Nori in question poked Alfrid hard in the nose. “I got all night, you know,” he said, raising both eyebrows. “And I got plenty of knife experience. Know how many species I’ve gotten in fights wiv? It’s a lot.” Bilbo had a sneaking suspicion that he was exaggerating his accent. And there was a knife in his hand, of course. “Know something else? I –”

“Nori,” said Thorin, thank fuck, “put that away.” Bilbo let out a relieved breath. “We don’t torture people in here.” He straightened his back, and suddenly he seemed to stand a thousand feet tall. Alfrid shrank in his chair, whimpering. “There’s no law against questioning people in here all night, however. Nori is right about that. We will have the truth from you. I refuse to use any sort of force, but we will have it.”

Bleeding hell, Bilbo thought, and gulped. If he were Alfrid, he would be pissing himself; Alfrid looked very close, at that. Green Lady, he hoped he would never be on the receiving end of a criminal investigation here. “All night, you say?” he ventured. His stomach growled unhappily. Sex burned quite a few calories, didn’t it?

Nori nodded. “Sorry, you might have to miss a meal or two, short stuff,” he said. To his credit, he did look sorry.

The fucker in the chair, however, did not. A smirk spread across his face, and even before he opened his mouth, Bilbo knew that something volcanically offensive was going to come out. “Oh, too bad, the Hobbit might miss a meal,” he said. “Didn’t get enough of the king in there? I saw him taking you.”

His mouth kept moving, but Bilbo didn’t hear a thing. His vision narrowed in on Alfrid’s smug face like a gunsight; in fact, he could almost see it blinking. No one insulted his eating habits and got away with it. “Listen here, you,” he growled, stalking forward, and jabbed his finger into Alfrid’s face even harder than Nori had. “I am not just a Hobbit. I’m a bleeding barrister, and I’m licensed across two continents. I’ve also never lost a case. If you say one more word, I’ll have you up in front of the nearest court, and I can guarantee that by the time I’m through with you, you’re going to be ripped to shreds for the Valar and all the world to see! Now talk!”

Alfrid blinked up at him, belatedly recoiled, and burst into disgusting tears. “’S’just for fun!” he bawled. “You can’t do nothin’!” Bilbo advanced, fists up – he really hoped he wouldn’t have to use them – and Alfrid drew his legs up to his chest. “W-w-what do you wanna know?”

“Everything,” Thorin said, and nodded at Bilbo, whose legs suddenly felt as if they’d turned to water. He stepped back with a glance that he hoped showed his gratitude, and Thorin took his place. “We want to know the entire series of events that led up to tonight.”

Alfrid gulped and rubbed his eyes with his fists, then hiccupped. “I g-got a shit life,” he said. “You know how much I earn? Two gildings a week from the Master, and h-he says I can’t have a pug! But he gives me l-lodging in the broom cupboard, so I guess that’s not so bad…”

Bilbo blinked at him and felt his mouth fall open. What the fuck? he mouthed in Thorin’s direction. Thorin shrugged.

“…and I…I’m hung like a Hobbit…”

“WHAT?” This, after Alfrid had seen him naked?

“…and, and,” said Alfrid, who didn’t seem to have heard him at all, “one t-time I stole the Master’s wig and put it on one of the dock p-pugs and when he asked me who did it I blamed my sister, and sh-she came by and slapped meeeeeeeee!” He trailed off in an earsplitting wail, and after that, they got little more out of him than incoherent babble.

For twenty minutes.

All they could do was stand around and watch like complete idiots as Alfrid cried himself into a tenuous submission. Bilbo was hugely relieved when Dwalin and Óin took him down to the jail (medical treatment first, Óin assured them all), but that still left him with the problem of having absolutely no valuable information out of Alfrid. Namely, who had tasked him with taking the photo, and whether or not that had anything to do with the money that Thorin told him had gone missing.

Then of course he had to notify Alfrid’s employer, which left Bilbo frowning down at the desk in Thorin’s room two days later, pen in hand. The results of several failed attempts at the letter Balin deemed vitally necessary lay before him.

Dear Man I shouldn’t call master of anything

Dear Master of Neglect and Corruption

You wanker,

I can’t believe anyone thinks you deserve any sort of letter when your chief lackey caught me in the middle of

Bilbo groaned and threw his pen against the wall, where it clattered to the floor without the satisfying crack he craved. “Dash it all,” he said. “I have writer’s block.”

Thorin’s fingers stilled on his keyboard. “You know, you don’t need to write to that horse’s arse,” he said. “He’s the one who should be worried, not you. Let the police force handle notifications. I’m sure I could ask Dwalin to do it.”

“Not when Alfrid is very capable of making threats!” Oh, how he wished he hadn’t already thrown his pen. He very much would have liked to throw it now. “Have you any idea how many arrows we’ve dodged so far?”

“Alfrid is still in the mountain,” Thorin pointed out. “He’s not about to put out any stories, if that’s what you mean. Please don’t throw anything else – I like my wall.”

It wasn’t as though he’d even chipped the carvings, Bilbo thought grumpily. He needed to lift weights or something; the memory of how he’d stood by while Thorin and Nori dragged a full-grown Man out of this very room still embarrassed him. Stood by naked, as the icing on the cake, before Thorin thought to get him some sweats. “I’ve got nothing to throw, except my laptop.” Now there was an idea.

“Please don’t throw your laptop, then.” A smile momentarily brightened Thorin’s drawn face. “Pardon my humor. You know I’m as worried as you are.”

“I know,” Bilbo said. He knew Thorin wasn’t sleeping. The only reason he’d insisted on working in Thorin’s room instead of his favorite conference room was the infinitesimal chance that Thorin might find the bed irresistible and decide to take a nap. “I also know that you know how slippery Alfrid is. Holding him inside the mountain is no guarantee against him causing trouble. If he finds a sympathetic guard or something…”

Thorin rolled his eyes. “That might be a concern if this were still the Third Age,” he said. “I’m more worried he might steal your hypothetical guard’s smartphone and wreak havoc.” He sighed. “I’m beginning to see why you avoid the Internet.”

“That advert would have circulated whether or not you avoided the Internet,” Bilbo said. At once, he nearly kicked himself. Bilbo Baggins, in a situation that made him defend the Internet? Had Arda turned on its head?

Thorin nodded slowly at that. “Fair point. The Internet did bring it to my attention.”

“That and your nephews.” Fíli and Kíli had sent no memes about Dwarves and Hobbits since Alfrid’s capture, nor did they even seem aware that Alfrid had chosen a non-random reason to try photographing Thorin again. If they didn’t know, and if Nori had somehow kept himself from talking, then they could at least be assured that Alfrid’s lockup was keeping them safe for now. Bilbo could also be assured - and he had checked, oh, yes he had - that what Alfrid had done was not only highly illegal, but also grounds for said lockup, with ample precedent before it. Always good to know that a punishment was perfectly ethical and legal, even if it had taken place privately.

Frowning at the keyboard, Thorin began to type again. “Hold on a moment, I’m doing another Google,” he said. Bilbo pinched his nose to avoid snorting. Thorin did show his age at times like this. “Dwarves and Hobbits, nothing. I’m not paranoid for checking so many times, am I?”

This time, Bilbo didn’t bother trying to hide his snort. “Hardly,” he said. “I’d do the same, if I were in – just a minute, that’s my phone.” He bared his teeth like a pit warg at the thing, which was vibrating on the desk, and picked it up. “Yes?”

“Oi there. It’s Nori.”

“Yes, Nori. I could tell that from your voice,” Bilbo said. “What’s going on?”

“Alfrid’s camera,” Nori said. “You know, the one what I smashed?” Bilbo rolled his eyes, but let Nori keep going. He obviously had some sort of point he was trying to make here. “It had a memory card in, and I yoinked it. Bilbo, it’s bad.”

Bilbo had always found the saying “his blood went cold” to be utterly cliché, but he would swear that his own dropped a few degrees now. Goosebumps rippled down his arms, and looking down, he saw the hairs there standing straight up. “What sort of bad?” he asked, and his voice rang hollow in his ears.

Nori sighed so deeply that it crackled into Bilbo’s ear like microphone interference. “The thing’s hooked into the bloody Master of Laketown’s computer. Every time he takes a photo, it automatically sends.”

What?” He was suddenly very glad to be sitting down. “Is that even possible?”

“Wouldn’t be tellin’ you if it wasn’t!” Nori snapped. “Sorry. Yeah. I got into it and all of a sudden, there I was, looking at the Master’s bedroom.”

“I’m putting you on speaker,” said Bilbo faintly – well, it had to be faintly, because Thorin’s gaze had turned from bewildered to concerned. He put the phone down and punched the speaker button with a shaking thumb. “Please do say that again.”

“Alfrid’s bleedin’ memory card. Master of Laketown’s computer. Got into the webcam. Saw his gross room. Do I need to say it again, or have the two of you got it this time?” Nori’s voice clanged faintly, as if it were coming from inside a loo.

Thorin bolted up from the bed, his laptop bouncing against the comforter, and ran to Bilbo’s side to crouch there with a hand on his shoulder. The warmth immediately, incredibly, slowed Bilbo’s racing heart. “Are you sure?” asked Thorin in a sharp tone. “How have you ever had the occasion to see the Master of Laketown’s bedroom? Have you been sneaking about there?”

“Yes, I’m sure, I’m getting to that, and no, I wouldn’t sneak into his room if you paid me,” Nori said, but what Bilbo heard beneath that was you’re a couple of idiots. Which, to be fair, Nori had said to them after he and Thorin had finished dragging Alfrid into the living room. “You think the only moles I’ve got are the ones here?”

“I thought you had rats here, not moles,” Thorin said. “They crawl in the vents when you can’t, don’t they? Or have I just revealed the secret methods of a completely different Dwarf with no boundaries?” He raised an eyebrow at Bilbo, which might have been meant as a joke. At this juncture, Bilbo was in no shape to tell. Rats? he mouthed at Thorin, who shook his head and continued. “Please reveal your sources.”

A rude noise came from the other end of the line. “Fuck no, I ain’t revealin’ my sources,” Nori said. “You gotta trust me. You haven’t got killed yet, and that’s because of me. I’m sure I saw into that bastard’s bedroom, and thank Mahal he wasn’t there, ‘cause it means he didn’t see me. Now we need to fix it. Fast.”

“If it’s sending automatically…” said Bilbo in dawning horror, his words trailing off. He hadn’t thought his blood could run any colder. Oh shit, oh shit.

“The Master has whatever photo Alfrid just took,” Thorin said. Bilbo could see the clenched muscles in his jaw bulging. “He has blackmail material on me. Why did it take you so long to find the original photo, Nori? We could have prevented this!”

“I’m your bleedin’ spymaster, not a miracle worker,” Nori retorted. “I bet you couldn’t have figured it out even with all the information I’ve got now. ‘S’easier to look back and figure out how someone did it than try to figure it out with nothing.”

Bilbo poked Thorin in the arm, shook his head, and pointed to the phone to indicate that it was his turn to speak now, thank you very much. Thorin obligingly sat down in place, but Bilbo absolutely refused to take the time to observe how adorable he was on the floor. “Well, now you’ve got the information,” he said. “How?”

“The lighting,” said Nori; Bilbo blinked in confusion. “He got someone to Photoshop out the lighting so you can’t see what angle it was taken from, or maybe did it himself. I dunno what that perv’s got on his computer. Made a new image, sent it through a few VPNs, sold it to Mahal knows how many people.”

“Then it’s possible he – “

“So he hung outside my window…how many times?” Thorin interrupted. “How many times has he watched me dressing or undressing or…or…” He fisted his hands in his hair, head dropping down. “I should have…I could have done something. Closed the curtains.”

A clicking noise on the other end heralded Nori tapping his fingers against the phone. Bilbo could only imagine how long it had been since he’d cut his nails. “Look, you were lucky I know how to work a grappling hook,” he said. “Can’t deny that one. But it’s not your fault some pervy Man decided you’re a good mark. Not your fault you’ve got a great body, either. You got a reasonable expectation to privacy in your own room.”

“That’s exactly the basis of our suit,” Bilbo said, “assuming the thing actually has to go to court.” Shit. Did Alfrid have a case against them now? Would he talk? Funny how now that they had a solid basis for a suit, Bilbo found himself dreading the prospect more than ever. “So what do we do? The Master’s got our photos now. Are we completely buggered here?”

“Hold on. Hm.” Nori’s voice dropped to a mutter; now it seemed more likely that he was talking to himself than to them. “No guarantee the Master even sees everything…Mahal knows how many people his shithead’s takin’ photos of. What’s…hmm…” There was a long pause, during which Bilbo cocked his head inquiringly at Thorin and received only a shrug in return. Thorin, apparently, was as confused about Nori’s motives as Bilbo himself was.

“Wait!” Nori finally said. “Got an idea. Hold on.” That was when the ceiling vent beside the desk popped open, and he tumbled out to land on his feet with the grace of a cat.

Bilbo squawked and stumbled backwards. Luckily, Thorin’s bed was there to break his fall, and he took advantage of that fact to fall hard. “Nori, you fucker!” Now that the immediate danger was out of the way, his pulse was – thank goodness – fading in his ears. “How long were you in there?” His location certainly explained the metallic echo that had been present during the call.

Rather than the clichéd, sneering ‘Long enough’ that Bilbo half-expected, Nori answered with an insouciant “’Round the time I called. Sneaking around’s part of my day job, didn’t you know that? Spymaster and all.”

“Nori, this is not the time to have fun,” Thorin said. If it were any other time, Bilbo would have laughed. Such a stereotype of a stubborn, stuffy king. “Either start talking or get out of my quarters. You’re technically breaking the law.”

“Technicalities, ha!” said Nori, and Bilbo struggled up to his elbows, then into a proper cross-legged sit. Thorin had taken his seat at the desk, and as Bilbo watched, Nori hopped up onto it and wiggled his arse. “So here’s my idea. We bluff the Master.”

“Bluff,” Thorin repeated. “Are you certain he’s smart enough for that?”

Privately, Bilbo agreed. What he’d heard of the Master gave him the impression that he was about as intelligent as a brick, and any attempt to bandy words with him would go over a bit less easily than a lead balloon. “What sort of bluff?” he asked, rather than voicing that thought.

Nori cleared his throat. “So,” he said, his legs swinging rhythmically at the edge of the desk, “we don’t know if the Master knows Alfrid was here. Could’ve sent him, could’ve not. I mean, maybe Alfrid takes photos of everyone to get dirt on ‘em, and could be the Master doesn’t look at them all. We got Alfrid here, so he definitely didn’t get to send the Master a message to look at the snap he got of you two.”

“All right,” said Thorin cautiously. His eyes narrowed. “What cover story do you want to use?”

“Not me,” Nori said. “You. I can’t be involved in this, ‘cause if they know what I am or what I do, the game’s up. You gotta go under a pretext.”

Bilbo found himself nodding, despite the fact that the plan sounded more half-baked than one of Dad’s cakes when he decided to go find Mum in the middle of baking. “What’s our pretext?”

“Alfrid’s here. You pretend to think he got sent on a normal trip and decided to stay for a few days. Some kind of vacation.” Nori held up a hand and ticked off on his fingers. “He hasn’t been using his phone because…bad reception? I ain’t ever seen the Master using one, so he wouldn’t know. Now, Alfrid wants you two to intercede with the Master about some kind of deal for Laketown. The soda thing?”

Thorin opened and closed his mouth a few times, clearly in deep thought, and then sat back, blinking dazedly. “Yes,” he said. “It’s a sounder plan than anything I might come up with. We have to remember that we can’t legally hold Alfrid longer than three days.”

Ugh. Bilbo could see where this was headed. “So we have to go tomorrow?” he said. There was, after all, no question of Thorin going alone. Bilbo knew he was deeply involved in this now; there was no way that photos of his naked body entwined with Thorin’s would circulate around the Internet if he had anything to say about it. “Or today, I suppose, but it would be rude to impose. Might make him suspicious, too, wouldn’t you say?”

“Whereas if we make a friendly overture, he’ll fall for it hook, line, and sinker,” Thorin replied. “Believe me, I know how he works. That Man has no concept of sarcasm. Or manipulation that he’s not directing at someone else,” he added. “So. Yes, Bilbo and I can go. Do you think he has any idea what purpose Bilbo serves here?”

“He could,” Nori said. “Don’t know what kind of information Alfrid’s been feeding him. I think we’d have heard about it, though – he might sit on something like this, but otherwise, he’s not that smart.”

That made sense to Bilbo. “Yes, that sounds about right,” he said. “I suppose that means I’ve got to compose another letter. Or email.”

“Aye.” Nori swung his legs against the desk. “I could help, if you want.”

Bilbo might have accepted, save for the wink that told him Nori was anything but sincere. “Oh, stop that nonsense and get out of our room,” he snapped. “Oh, bother, I mean Thorin’s room. Whatever I…stop laughing! Go bugger a horse – I know you want to!” He’d heard that from a Rohirrim classmate once, and found it quite fitting.

“It’s pronounced ‘Dwalin,’” Nori said, still chortling, “but all right. I’ll get outta your hair, you two.”

Thorin jerked his thumb at the opposite side of the room with a stony expression. “Use the door this time, for Mahal’s sake.”

So Nori did. Whistling. Of course.

Bilbo sighed, half in relief and half in exasperation, and got up, leaning his head against Thorin’s shoulder as soon as Nori had gone. If there was ever a time for unsolicited intimacy, then this was it, but Thorin’s reaction wasn’t that of someone reacting to unwanted contact. “If you think he’s exasperating now,” Thorin said against the top of Bilbo’s head, “think of how I must have felt all these years.”

“Don’t remind me. I’ll feel like I’m grave-robbing.” Thorin smelled so good. Bilbo had heard him splashing in the shower earlier, and had successfully fought off the urge to join him by the skin of his teeth. He knew the protocol for the first time with a lover under any other circumstances: phoning after a day or two, walks in the market, banging anywhere and everywhere with loud and fervent enthusiasm, all that old-style courting. In this situation, with their disparate ranks and the fact that they’d been caught shagging by a greasy Man, he had to admit to himself that he was stumped.

“That’s not what it means. Grave-robbing is what Nori does,” said Thorin, and ran his hand down Bilbo’s back. “Is this all right?”

Poor Thorin – so new to casual touching. It was flattering, almost, to know that he was the recipient of every loving touch (save for family, of course) that Thorin had ever directed at another person. But even if he had had experience, Bilbo would have not have begrudged him the memories, or the touch; he was his own person. His own Dwarf, and oh, that was a lovely back rub. “Mmm,” said Bilbo, and arched his back. “How many of these have you done? For family or anything, I mean?”

“Dwalin likes back rubs,” Thorin said, keeping up with his strokes all the while. “We used to pummel each other’s backs after a fight, if we weren’t too grieved to do it. Not…not after the Battle of Azanulbizar, obviously.”

“Of course not,” said Bilbo. How odd, to hear it spoken of as if it had happened yesterday; the Battle of Azanulbizar had taken place even before his parents were born. Yet they were dead, and hadn’t been young when they died either, and there Thorin sat with him looking barely older than Bilbo himself. Well, perhaps Bilbo could pride himself on a bit less gray hair. “Hm, so you’ve kept the skills, it seems. What would you think of becoming a professional masseur?”

Thorin snorted. “If I should give up my day job, you mean?”

“Well, if you were ever to choose something other than king, what job would you like?”

Thorin hmmed against Bilbo’s head. “Lounge singer?” he suggested after a pause. “Actor? I do like to sing. I don’t often do it, but I do like it.”

“If you ever feel like you should have a different job, come to the Shire and try it, then.” Bilbo squeezed harder and finally disentangled himself, albeit with regret. “You know, if being king gets too tiresome.”

There was something tender in Thorin’s eyes that, Bilbo sternly reminded himself, he was far too busy to analyze at this juncture. “I believe we have a letter to compose,” Thorin said after clearing his throat. “Do you want to do the honors? I’ll sign what you write. It’ll give you a chance to test your diplomatic skills.”

Right. Time to go into barrister mode. Bilbo intertwined his fingers and flexed them until the joints let out a collective satisfying crack, then pointed to the bed. “Do fuck off and let me write, then. Put on your headphones and watch something trashy on your laptop. I’ll be done as soon as possible.”

With that, he watched Thorin do as he was told (a heady feeling, to be honest), and set to it. An hour and three drafts later, he finally thought he might have something workable.

To the esteemed Master of Laketown,

I was greatly surprised to find, upon a leisure visit from your councilor Alfrid, that I have been remiss in visiting your portion of the great Kingdom of Dale. Such a realisation saddened me greatly. Laketown is an integral part of Dale’s economy and culture, and no doubt it is due to your esteemed presence there that the city has prospered.

While I understand that such a request is on short notice, would you be amenable to a royal visit tomorrow? I would like to rectify my great mistake in not paying you one sooner. I can only say, though it is a poor excuse, that I have been busy with other matters. Still, I should have prioritised your city.

I would like to bring with me Mr Bilbo Baggins, a barrister of the Shire who is currently aiding the Crown in an administrative capacity. He and I would both be extremely grateful if you would do us the honour of extending an invitation. While I would like to speak with you about matters of state, I have nothing in mind too sensitive for him to hear. In addition, I am sure he would enjoy seeing Laketown’s bounty. Hobbits, I have heard, are fond of fish delicacies.

I eagerly await your reply, at your convenience.

Yours most sincerely,
Thorin son of Thráin son of Thrór
King Under the Mountain of Erebor

Thorin raised an eyebrow once he’d finished reading. “Could you have made me any more self-flagellating in this letter?” he asked. “Please don’t answer that. I don’t think I want to know.”

“What?” Bilbo raised an eyebrow right back, thank you very much, although he privately doubted his was as impressive as Thorin’s. “Do you want me to do it over again?”

“No.” Thorin shook his head slowly. “No,” he repeated with a growing grin. “I think this will serve.”

Chapter Text

There was a small face panting up at him, its rubbery lips curved into one of the biggest smiles that Thorin had ever seen. “These things give me the creeps,” he said. The pug, which probably had no idea of his feelings, continued to stare at him and express its love through strange breathing patterns. Its curly tail wagged furiously back and forth. “Even the pit wargs don’t act like this.”

“Well, they do look a bit like the pit wargs, don’t you think?” Bilbo said, and squatted to pet the pug. “Oh, who’s a sweet dog? Good doggie.” The pug leapt into his arms at once and pressed its spade-shaped muzzle against Bilbo’s right ear, then began to lick. Bilbo squealed. “Oh! That tickles!”

“They don’t look like the pit wargs,” said Thorin, but reached over and petted the pug anyway once Bilbo had stood up. “At least this one is friendly. We need to bring one to the Master’s house, anyway.” Right – someone might be listening. “You know…because Alfrid wants one and we’re going to negotiate.”

“I understand.” Bilbo rolled his eyes. “You know what? That’s better than the soda plan. I can work with it. Let’s not stand in a train station, Thorin. I have no idea what’s on the floor.”

The train station was cleaner than some. They’d driven earlier that day to Dale, where King Bard was kind enough to let them park Thorin’s car under the palace (once Bilbo had uttered the words “Master of Laketown,” Bard had held up a hand and told him to say no more), then taken the bullet train to the mainland Esgaroth station. If they wanted to go to Laketown proper, as Thorin had done before, they would have to take a ferry; this time, though, Thorin would be staying on dry land. The Master lived in a sumptuous house on the mainland, of course. Probably thought the smell of fish was low-class.

Come to think of it, Thorin had never been served fish when he had the dubious pleasure (none) of dining there. All the protein was beef or chicken, the former of which could be produced on the mainland, albeit at a much higher cost. Some of the lake-dwellers kept chickens, so it was rather surprising that the Master served chicken himself, given his tastes. All he knew was that Bilbo would not be receiving any fish delicacies in the Master’s house, much as Thorin had thrown that into his letter for the halibut (as he might have said aloud, if that were likely to appeal to Bilbo’s sense of humor – it would more likely get him an elbow to the stomach than a laugh, though).

“Come on,” he said, offering a hand to Bilbo. Bilbo took it with the hand not actively engaged in holding the pug. “We can walk to the Master’s house from here. This part of the city isn’t very large.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Bilbo. “I’d like some fresh air.”

No one looked at them strangely as they left the station, which led Thorin to think that perhaps pug-carrying was more of a pastime here than he’d previously thought. In fact, another pug yapped at them from someone’s carrier on the way out, earning an answering yap and wag from Bilbo’s shoulder goblin.

“What are we going to call this little boy?” Bilbo asked once they’d gone through the exit and started down the walking path. “I’m thinking Nighttime. He’s got black fur, hasn’t he?”

“That’s a terrible name for a dog,” said Thorin, and hissed when Bilbo hit his shoulder. “Ow! Stop that! Anyway, we’re hardly keeping him. I have Fíli and Kíli at home.”

“Not something you’ve got to keep alive so your sister won’t kill you?” said Bilbo, stroking the pug’s head. “Haven’t you ever wanted an actual pet? Those pit wargs are just adorable. I’m seriously thinking of taking Nori up on his offer when I go back to the Shire.”

Thorin tried his best to ignore the pang of pain at ‘go back to the Shire,’ and cleared his throat. The thought of Bilbo leaving was getting harder and harder to bear by the day, not that it had ever been easy since those horrible things called feelings started to take over his head. “I suppose I have,” he said, “but pets deserve owners who aren’t away all day. Pit wargs would need to go for several walks in the time I’m gone, and I live alone.”

“Oh. I didn’t really think of that.” Bilbo shifted the pug in his arms. “That’s a lazy boy, isn’t he? He doesn’t want down. Anyway, in the Shire, I could let a pit warg out even when I’m not home. There’s nowhere for one to run to where there isn’t someone to bring it back.”

“He’s a creepy boy,” said Thorin. “I don’t want him staring at me like that. Look – he’s drooling on your shoulder.”

“Is he?” Bilbo kissed the pug’s head. Mahal, was there anything this furry little Orc could do that Bilbo wouldn’t find adorable? He was normally so fastidious about his clothes. The pug, meanwhile, kept on staring and wagging. “I think he loves you. Yes, he does.”

The path forked, and Thorin stopped for a second to gauge where they were before nodding and continuing. He remembered the way. Bilbo followed him down the path and caught back up with him without missing a step. “The people of Esgaroth take care of these pugs,” Thorin said. “Thought you might like to know that. They’re all microchipped and given their shots yearly and all those important things.”

“So they’re a bit like the cats in Erebor?” Bilbo asked.

“Yes, exactly,” Thorin replied, and scratched at his chest. Though Bard had said they didn’t need to say any more, of course they had, just to make sure their hidden wires were permissible. Even if the Master found out and objected, he wouldn’t have a case with the approval of Dale’s king for their criminal investigation. It itched like Melkor against Thorin’s chest hair, though. He hated tape. “I don’t think I’ve ever asked if you like cats.”

“I do!” said Bilbo. “Haven’t you seen me petting them? I love kitties. Yes, I love you, too.” He kissed his pug’s head. “I bet you’d love to meet a cat, wouldn’t you? You’d lick it and lick it, and then it would bite your nose! Grahhghrrrrr.” He made biting noises at the dog, which answered him by licking his face.

Thorin stifled a snort as Bilbo sputtered and wiped his face on his shoulder. “That’s what you get,” he said. “There.” He pointed. “Do you see that enormous house at the end of the row?”

“House?” Bilbo said, and shuddered. “I’d call it more of an eyesore myself. Is that meant to be a castle?”

Yes, it was. Thorin hardly felt the need to confirm it. “You can already tell what his tastes are like, then.” The ersatz castle was built of yellow stones, suspiciously close to gold, that he had a sneaking suspicion were really some sort of plastic – they looked like plasticine, anyway. The roofs of each individual jutting section were gold as well, much shinier than the walls. “Flattery, flattery, flattery. That’s how you get him.” Someone needed to tell the Master that even when people still lived in castles on a semi-routine basis, windows had never been that elaborately mullioned.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Bilbo said. They walked the rest of the way to the house in silence, whereupon Bilbo shuddered, gagged, and reached out to touch the side of the house. “Is this vinyl? Repurposed vinyl siding?”

“You’d probably know more about that than I do,” Thorin said, all the while inwardly rejoicing. He knew it was plastic! “Should we go in, then?”

Bilbo shrugged. “I don’t think I want to any more than you do, but we all make sacrifices.” An expression of utter woe, as if he were the most put-upon person in the world, made its way onto his face. “Onward!”

They walked up the stairs to the door, and Thorin inwardly noted that the railings seemed to be even more elaborately flowery and scrolled than the last time he’d visited. No wonder his sister suspected embezzlement if this was what the Master was spending Laketown’s money on. “Here we are,” Bilbo muttered, and knocked.

The door swung open to reveal a lackey Thorin didn’t recognize. “You must be the King of Erebor and Master Baggins,” he said, and ushered them inside. At least this one was less talkative and unctuous than Alfrid, who would have been gushing at them from the first second he saw them. Bloody boot-licker. “The Master is in his study. Right this way.”

The Master himself was reclining on a plush red sofa when they arrived, as if he needed to be any more cliché (who the fuck was he trying to impress?). Thorin heard Bilbo suck in a breath through his teeth, probably at the room’s opulence. Everything was either red or gold, save for the oak furnishings and the enormous entertainment system, complete with desktop computer, on an equally enormous table. “The chair legs have feet,” Bilbo whispered, his voice so strained that it sounded as if he were going to either burst out laughing or pop a hernia.

“They do,” Thorin whispered back as quietly as he could. “I wouldn’t mention it.”

Luckily, the Master didn’t seem to have heard. “Hello!” he called, and got up from the sofa to shake their hands. “It’s excellent to see you, King Thorin. I was very pleased about your email. Who’s this?” He cocked his head at the pug, which cocked its own head back at him. The Simple Warg head-tilt, Nori called it. “Have you got a pet now?”

“I have no time for a pet,” Thorin said, smiling with enough fake earnestness to make his face feel creaky. “This is the matter I wanted to talk with you about, Master Sten. Alfrid has been on holiday in Erebor, and trusted me enough to pour out his heart. He would very much like a pet, specifically one of these, but he says it’s not allowed.”

Master Sten, ha! More like Master Stench.

“Is that so?” The Master pursed his lips and took a few steps backward. Good. He’s off his guard. Thorin exchanged a glance with Bilbo and satisfied himself that he’d communicated just that. “Ah, could I offer you any refreshment?”

Thorin chewed on his lower lip to keep the satisfaction off his face and, with another furtive look at Bilbo, said his line on cue. “That would be excellent,” he said. “Do you have any Lonely Mountain Dew in that new Apple Morning flavor? I heard it’s been distributed here.” Apple Morning, ha. That was a terrible pun on morning dew, but it made Dáin laugh.

More importantly, it was one of the flavors that Dis’s envoy had reported cut from the Laketown order, just like he’d planned.

Surprise, and perhaps fear, flitted across the Master’s face before he composed himself. “I don’t believe we’ve received that one yet,” he said. “Are you sure it’s been released?”

Thorin put on his most serious face. This was almost fun. “Yes, I’m sure,” he said. “I had a conversation with my cousin about it several months ago, and he’s the Head of Distribution. He knows everything there is to know about those drinks.” He stroked his chin as if in deep thought. “He told me they’d made it to Dale proper and Esgaroth, but perhaps…”

“Yes, yes, surely he was mistaken! An easy mistake.” The Master clapped his hands together once, perfunctorily. “I could serve you the original flavor. Will that do for you as well, Mister…Baggins, was it?”

“You have it right.” Bilbo bobbed a little in place, impressively not dislodging the pug. Even that, Thorin knew, had to be killing him inside. There was no way Bilbo would bow to the likes of this decadent…this decadent numbnuts. “I’m terribly sorry, but would there happen to be a place we can sit? My feet are hurting me terribly.”

The Master looked at Bilbo’s feet and burst into laughter. Thorin could almost feel the steam coming off Bilbo, who was still doing an admirable job of holding in his thoughts. “Ought to wear shoes!” said the Master. “Ought to wear shoes. Then your feet won’t hurt so much. I always wear them when I’m outside the house.” He patted Bilbo’s shoulder. “Then, I don’t know so much about what Hobbits like. Come, sit down.” He crossed back to his couch and pointed at two chairs across the dining table from it. “I’ll have Leif bring us all some food. Leif!” he bellowed. Thorin winced.

Leif appeared at the door to the study, seemingly unruffled. “Yes, sir?”

“Some Lonely Mountain Dew for our guests and myself, in our best glasses. And…well, some appetizers. Whatever you’d like, as long as they’re fit for the visitors.” The Master kissed his fingertips. “As fast as possible. Off you go, Leif!”

The lackey disappeared as fast as he’d come, and the Master leaned back with an almost-fond sort of sigh. “Not as good as the last one,” he said. “Doesn’t appreciate how good he has it. I’ll be glad to have Alfrid back when he’s finished with his – er, holiday. You did say that’s what it is, yes?”

Oh, there was no fucking way he wasn’t behind this somehow. It was as plain as the sizable nose on Thorin’s face that the Master knew damn well what Alfrid’s purpose was in the mountain, but didn’t know that he and Bilbo knew. Now to keep him from knowing that they knew that he knew, and prevent the slide into even more slippery turns of politics that would result from that rabbit hole of utter shit. “Yes. What else would it be?” Thorin widened his eyes and adopted a Simple Warg head-tilt of his own. “Was he meant to come with official news or something along those lines?”

They sat down, and the pug jumped out of Bilbo’s lap before the Master could reply. Bilbo jumped into the silence with a question of his own, and from the shrewd look on his face, there was blood in the water. “Alfrid seems to be very close to you,” he said. “That’s wonderful in an assistant, that sort of loyalty. Did you send him to the Mountain for his health?”

“Mm, no,” said the Master. “I had no idea he was going. How good for him.”

Thorin felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. Nori. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I need the toilet. I’m terribly sorry, but is there one I can use?”

“Yes, just down the hall,” the Master said. “Of course, I wouldn’t presume to know its quality. I have my own.”

Thorin made a rude gesture behind his back rather than at the wanker, quite a feat of self-control if he could brag about it. “In that case, why don’t I bring Master Baggins with me?” he said. “Hobbits have smaller fingers. He would be better suited to change the toilet roll.”

The Master nodded in approval. “You’ve trained him well, for whatever you’re paying him,” he said jovially. “Yes, go ahead.”

They found the loo with ease, whereupon they turned on the fan and Bilbo subsequently turned on him. “Smaller fingers?” he hissed. “Changing the fucking bog roll? If you keep insulting me like this, you’ll be sleeping in a cold bed! Alone!”

“I had to make him think I treat people like he does, and you know it,” Thorin replied, and took his phone out of his pocket. Bilbo growled. “I’m sorry, all right? Just a moment.” He pressed a button on his phone and the speed dial did the rest. “Nori?”

“You’re hooked up fine,” Nori said, without even a greeting. “I’m hearin’ everything. Bit of a gasbag, isn’t he?”

Thorin raised his eyebrows. “You’re telling me. What’s next?”

“Keep him talking, for the love of Mahal,” Nori replied. “Thorin’s floundering out there. Bilbo, keep going at ‘im with barrister-type questions. For the love of fuck, don’t get off the Alfrid subject. We can’t keep him here much longer.”

“How long?” said Thorin.

“I’m talkin’ hours before things get suspicious.”

Fablith. That was less time than Thorin had thought. “We’ll do our best. Now I’ve got to get off the phone. He thinks I’m, ah, dropping my children off at the pool.”

Bilbo convulsed in silent laughter, but Nori gagged on the other end. “Do me a favor and don’t ever try to do slang again,” he said. “’How’s your father?’”

“Shut up or I’ll get you on spying charges, too,” Thorin said, shoving his phone between his ear and his shoulder so he could hold his palms against his cheeks. They were on fire. “No more vents. I’ll tell Dwalin if I have to.”

“Fine. Fine, I’ll stop getting caught. Now go back in there.”

“Fine,” Thorin said back at him, and then just in case the Master was straining his ears for the sounds of foreign races doing what was necessary, he flushed.

He came back shaking his hands back and forth as if he’d washed them, with Bilbo right behind him, practically vibrating with annoyance – Thorin could tell even without being able to see him. “I apologize,” he said, and they sat back down. “Nature called and I listened.” Another Fíli and Kíli-ism. It felt awkward in his mouth.

Bilbo leaned forward across the table. “Now, about your assistant. Surely you had some idea? It’s not even been three days and you have another assistant hired already. Perhaps he emailed you and you forgot. It happens to the best of us.”

The Master nodded vigorously. “That must have been it. But I do have quite a few fresh young people lined up to be my assistant. This is quite a prime job, you know.”

“Oh, I should think so.” Bilbo returned the nod with wide eyes. “I do still wonder why Alfrid isn’t allowed to have a pet. Someone so loyal would surely find a way to take care of both you and a dog. Aren’t the dogs in the mountain wonderful, Thorin?”

Thorin cleared his throat. “Er, yes.” And then he saw an opportunity. “Not the dogs, though. Pit wargs. They’re nearly as large as wargs, but I haven’t seen a friendlier beast. Unless they encounter someone with less than noble intentions towards their people, of course.” The Master’s face went fractionally paler. “I’ve recently met a few who are more than capable of ripping arms off.” Well, they would be once they were grown.

“You…you keep things like that in your mountain?” the Master sputtered, shrinking back in his seat. “It’s no – ah, there you are, Leif.” The color came back into his face as his assistant walked back in, a cupholder slung over one elbow and his arms full of plates. “It’s time for us to eat now.”

The plates were certainly not full of ‘appetizers’ in any sense of the word. Thorin could have made at least one full meal out of the fancy eggs alone, much less the tiny cakes and what he thought were meat pies (Bilbo could tear through them by himself, of course, but he could practically eat bricks). Did the Master keep this fare on hand just to impress people, or was he eating it himself? Either way, that was dozens of gildings a week down the drain. He knew what those ingredients cost.

Bilbo seemed to be of the same mind; he chewed slowly on the appetizers, sneaking looks at the Master under his eyelashes every few bites. The pug, meanwhile, pawed at Thorin’s leg and whined. “I can give him a treat, if that’s all right,” Thorin said. The Master mumbled something, and Thorin slipped a bit of meat pie to the dog, who let out a happy yarf! and started chewing loudly under the table.

As soon as he’d finished eating, the Master slammed his plate down and pointed at Thorin. “Now, as I was saying – it’s no wonder your mountain is unsafe if you let that sort of beast in there! What other parts are unsafe, I wonder?”

And you needed five minutes to think up the rest of that sentence? Thorin thought, and disguised his noise of satisfaction with a cough. “What do you mean, unsafe? Are you trying to imply something?”

“No, no.” The Master crossed his arms. “What’s this I heard about malfunctioning tools, then, eh? You’ve not even got the stomach to go public about it!”

Thorin froze in place, and for a moment, his blood did, too. “The tools?” he echoed. “They were inspected a week and a half ago!” Who’d been talking? Not Fíli, who had been in charge of the inspection. Not Kíli, not Dis, who suspected the Master and Alfrid of the –

That was it. Embezzlement. And what better way to distract from embezzlement than with photos of a king practically in the altogether?

Thorin caught Bilbo’s eye and nodded, hoping beyond hope that Bilbo got the message.

“Hm,” said Bilbo, and cleared his throat. “Now I’m no expert, Master…Sten? Was that it? Anyhow, I’m certainly not an expert in broken tools, but King Thorin has recently devoted many hours to official inspection of the mine shafts. That would allay your concerns, wouldn’t it?” He narrowed his eyes and cocked his head just dramatically enough that Thorin knew he was faking. “Hold on just a moment. What you said about not going public – have you got insider knowledge of things going on in the mountain? How interesting.”

“Interesting, ha!” The Master’s laugh was entirely without humor, but it was more than serious enough. Line, pick, and quarry, Thorin thought, and prayed that he was correct. “If I didn’t have insider knowledge, this city wouldn’t know anything about how unsafe your kingdom is! Terrible kingdom! Alfrid certainly…” He cut himself off and clutched at his throat, staring at them with eyes of an animal caught in a trap.

And Bilbo closed in for the kill. His lips parted to show his teeth, which Thorin was surprised he didn’t lick like a predator. “Yes, interesting,” he echoed. “You would know, of course, that stealing classified information or taking illicit photos of the royal family is punishable by prosecution, as listed in the criminal codes of both Erebor and Dale.”

“I -!”

“Master Sten,” said Bilbo, “might we have a look at the contents of your computer?”

At that, the Master rallied. “You’ll have a look at no such thing!” he blustered, and popped out of his seat. “What evidence do you have to search me, eh? No warrant! You’d have displayed that sort of thing when you got in. No, you won’t be looking on my computer or anything else. You’ll be leaving my home right this minute.”

“Master Sten,” said Thorin; his voice rumbled out as hard as stone and as cold as ice, surprising even him. “We have your primary operative in police custody as well as his camera. Analysis shows it connects a steady stream of photographs directly to your computer. We have every right to search your computer if it contains sensitive information about either of us.”

The Master sneered, put his hands on his hips, and spread his feet apart, as if preparing to charge. “I already know about that sordid bit of fun you two had,” he said. “I’ve got those files now, and they’re already sent out, and there’s nothing you can do.”

“Liar,” Thorin replied. “I would have seen my own body on the news again if you had, and you’re not subtle enough to keep those things to yourself more than two days. Whatever you did last time is –”

“I did nothing!” the Master interrupted him. “You have no proof, you bloody dirty – you can’t accuse me!” He cast around wildly and snatched the knife that came with one of the dishes off the table, pointing it at Bilbo. “There’s nothing you can do.”

“Bilbo!” Thorin cried, and by instinct jumped to shield Bilbo even as the Master took a single step towards them.

But Bilbo sidestepped him. “Oh, allow me,” he said, and faster than Thorin could put together what he was doing, a brown blur flew out of his hand and straight into the Master’s forehead. It connected with a meaty thunk, and the Master staggered, dropping the knife and then himself staggering down onto the end of his couch with a dazed look on his face.

Thorin wasn’t quite sure if his jaw had dropped, but he knew he was staring by the way Bilbo’s eyebrow rose. “What?” Bilbo said. “You mean you don’t carry a conker around with you? Haven’t you seen my shirts, Thorin?”

Conkers Club. Mahal. “You mean to say you’re actually good at that?”

“Yes, and I’ll yell at you later. Now for the love of the Valar, go tie him up or something before he comes at us again!”

Thorin hastened to do as he was told. The Master only put up a token protest in the form of a whimper when Thorin untied the golden cord around one of the ornate curtains and tied it around his wrists. “You’ll be getting worse from both of us if you try to attack us again,” he said. “I know enough self-defense to incapacitate you. Now what do we do?” He directed that last sentence towards Bilbo.

“I,” Bilbo began, then snapped his head around. “Wait, what’s that noise?” He pointed out the window. “It sounds like there are people outside.”

Of course, it was right then that Thorin’s phone chose to vibrate. He answered with no small amount of annoyance. “Hello?”

“Oi, Thorin, you did good,” Nori said, his voice more garbled than it had been during the last call. In fact, it sounded like he was on the move, if not in the vents, as was his usual haunt. “Confession on wire, that’s the ticket! Bilbo’s the most bloody brilliant barrister I’ve ever seen. Heard, whatever.”

Thorin looked at Bilbo, who had his eyebrows raised, and nodded. He could fill him in on the details of those compliments later. “If I’m still on wire, why am I not hearing microphone feedback?” he asked.

“I turned it off once we got what we needed. Actually, did I hear someone fall down?”

Thorin cast his eyes towards the Master. Apparently, the Man was smart enough to stay in his seat with his arms bound rather than try to escape out the window, although he was eyeing it with longing. “Bilbo threw a conker at him and he sat down very hard,” he said. “It was in self-defense. He was coming towards us and I think he meant us both harm.”

“Wait, he threw a what at the Master? He conquered him?” Nori echoed. “What the fuck kind of hobbies do Hobbits have?”

“No, no, conkers, not – Bilbo, what’s a conker?” Thorin covered the phone with his palm and turned to Bilbo. “Nori is confused about the pronunciation.”

“A conker is a horse chestnut,” Bilbo said. “It’s a game we play in the Shire. We varnish them and then bash them against each other until one of them cracks.”

Well, that explained why he was so good at throwing the things, and such a game fit well with Bilbo’s vicious side. Thorin thought he would do well not to underestimate Hobbits if this sport were as big of a deal as Bilbo’s polo shirt made it out to be. “A conker is a horse chestnut,” he told Nori. “He threw it at the Master’s forehead. Is there a reason you’re calling now besides congratulating us?”

“Threw it at the…awright, I’m getting Bilbo to teach me a few lessons in how to be dangerous,” Nori said, and whistled. “So, come outside, yeah? Bring the Master. I think I figured out a way we can finally nail him.”

Thorin opened his mouth to ask what that way might be, but Nori had already hung up. Why did this always happen to him? “You,” he said. “Sten.” He wasn’t calling him Master anymore, not if someone held a knife to his throat and demanded it. He’d already been violated enough. “You’re coming outdoors with us to face justice.”

He and Bilbo each took the arm of a visibly sulking Master (personally, if it had been him, Thorin would have been careful to give the impression that he was shitting-his-trousers scared rather than sulk) and wordlessly frog-marched him down the stairs of his mansion. “Thorin, watch out,” Bilbo finally said near the end.

“What…?” Then a small figure darted out from behind Thorin’s legs and ran down the rest of the steps in front of him, yapping happily. “I see. Good of you to warn me before I broke my neck.”

“Wish you bleeding had,” the Master muttered from where he hung between them.

Shut up, you, Thorin was about to say, and a quick glance at Bilbo showed him to be practically glowing in a way Thorin hadn’t seen since the last (and first) time they were intimate. Most likely, he was inwardly salivating about all the lovely sentences he could have a judge smite the wretch with. Thorin had spent enough time with Balin to know all about legal salivation.

At first when the door opened, he thought the blinding light before him was the sun – and then he saw the flashbulbs, followed shortly by hearing the noise.

“Thorin, over here!” Nori shouted, and Thorin let go of the Master to follow his waving hands. He was once again wearing his fedora, which Thorin briefly and desperately hoped wasn’t about to become his new ‘thing,’ along with an ear-to-ear smile of pure triumph. “Remember that favor I said Life owes me?”

“What?” Thorin yelled. The reporters’ questions were a shouted jumble behind him, and he couldn’t begin to imagine how Bilbo was faring.

“Favor!” Nori yelled back. “Well, I alerted the media!”

A seed of hope took hold in Thorin’s chest and bloomed then and there. If Nori was behind the reporters and the cameras, then maybe their angle could be, would be – would he come out of this untarnished?

Suddenly, he was surrounded. “King Thorin, what are your thoughts on the embezzlement of Laketown?” a reporter asked, shoving a microphone practically into his mouth.

“Are you planning to sue Alfrid and the Master for defamation?”

“How do you feel about them violating your privacy?”

“Will we finally see a royal wedding?”

“Will Bilbo get a crown and legal honors?”

Crown? Oh, fuck, they were talking about their relationship. Small price to pay for having the media on his side, but that reminded him of the more important things he had to attend to. Thorin stood on his tiptoes and craned his neck to see through the spaces between Man after clustering Man. Between one reporter’s arm and another’s leg, he found Bilbo equally besieged, indeed looking like he was about to pass out. Thorin recognized that look from his day at the museum. “Let me through!” he roared, then softened his tone to backtrack. “You’ll have your answers in a minute. I need to see to Mr. Baggins.”

The reporters parted to let him pass, both his group and Bilbo’s; he took Bilbo by the arm and noted that, up close, his face had turned gray. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Bilbo slowly turned his head and met Thorin’s gaze with a dazed one of his own. “We’ve got them on our side?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“That pug’s all right?”

“It was the last time I saw it.” The pug would probably be happier with lots of people to give it bits of food and let it yarf at them than with two people using it as a decoy.

“Oh, good,” Bilbo said, and luckily Thorin caught him before he could hit the ground.

Chapter Text

Three weeks to the day after the last of the advertisements – out of Gondor, which had held out the longest against the media pressure to stop violating King Thorin’s intellectual property - disappeared from the Internet, Bilbo found his hands moving without his consent. He cursed them as they folded a shirt, slid it mechanically into his suitcase, and reached for a pair of trousers. “Struck by lightning,” he mumbled. It wasn’t even a swear, far too soft for the feelings raging in his head, but somehow, swearing seemed like too much effort right now. “Where’s my good belt?”

“You left it in your bathroom, last time you dressed there.”

“Gah!” Bilbo bolted back from his kneeling position next to the suitcase, fell on his bum, and got back up with difficulty. He had to have gained at least three pounds in his belly during his time in Erebor. “Don’t frighten me like that, Thorin!”

Thorin blinked. “Oh,” he said. “I – I didn’t realize I was so sudden.”

Bilbo went back onto his knees, then thought better of it and pushed himself up onto his feet instead. “You weren’t,” he said with a sigh. “I’m sorry. It’s me, not you. I shouldn’t have waited until my last…well, I mean, the last minute to pack. No, I shouldn’t have.” My last day in Erebor. He thought that had he said that, it might have ripped him to bits right in front of Thorin. Tiny, greasy, Hobbity bits. “You didn’t, er, come in here to help me, did you?”

Thorin came over to him and put an arm around his back, squeezing just firmly enough to make some of the tension leave Bilbo’s body, as if Thorin had drained him. “You don’t have to go,” he said. “Your plane isn’t going to leave for several hours. I could cancel it and there wouldn’t be any inconvenience.”

“No, no,” Bilbo said, and turned his face into Thorin’s shoulder. As tempting as the offer was, a Baggins didn’t go back on his word. Besides, if he didn’t leave on time, he suspected he would stay here forever and leave Bag End in a sort of suspended animation, and that would just be disrespectful to his parents’ memories. “I told Hob last week I’d be back today. He’ll have cleared everyone out of the smial by now.”

“Will you have to buy food before you go back?”

“Probably,” Bilbo replied. “They’ll probably have cleared out everything except the cold cellar. Yes, I have one. Not a word out of you.” He mostly used it as a wine cellar, but much like his ancestors, he also kept smoked meats and cheeses down there. Why fix what wasn’t broken? “I’ll get there well before evening, but I still shouldn’t miss many meals. I get –”

“ – hangry,” Thorin finished, and smiled ruefully into the distance. “I remember when you told me that phrase. Do you need to eat before you go?”

Bilbo gnawed on his lower lip. “I suppose I’ll be able to choke something down,” he said. He didn’t feel very hungry, perhaps for the first time in his life (save for times when he’d just eaten). It felt as though food would lodge in his throat, truth be told. “Just got to finish this packing.”

“Bilbo,” said Thorin gently as Bilbo turned out of his embrace, “I mean it. There’s no need for you to leave. There are plenty of barristers here who would be happy to have you as a law partner. I could…I don’t know, I could send someone to clear out your house?” The desperation and want in his voice were barely restrained, but Bilbo appreciated it so much that he was trying to restrain them. Thorin, he’d found in their months of interaction, abhorred coercion. Even with Alfrid.

“Stop,” said Bilbo. The lump in his throat was too big for him to swallow around now. He kept his face turned away from Thorin, petrified that if he raised his voice, he’d start crying. “I’ve been stretching out my welcome as long as I’ve been able, Thorin. I can’t keep draining the Treasury when I’m not doing what I’m paid for anymore. The case is over.”

“You wouldn’t be draining it,” Thorin protested, but the tone of his voice told Bilbo that he’d won. Or lost, whichever. He’d won the argument, but lost the happiness, maybe. Wealthy or not, he couldn’t stay in Erebor without a job, and he refused to draw from the Treasury if he weren’t doing anything to deserve it. He wasn’t a citizen; there would be no basic income for him.

Maybe someday, he thought, and immediately cursed himself for an optimistic fool. There was only one circumstance under which he would willingly become a citizen, and that was if Thorin – no, he wouldn’t let himself hope.

“If you don’t mind,” he said quietly, “I’d like to be by myself when I pack.”

Thorin nodded. “All right,” he said. “I’ll see you when you’re finished?”

“Yes. I should be out soon.”

Thorin left through the secret door, but even after he’d gone, Bilbo found that his hands wouldn’t obey him again. This time, though, they wouldn’t pack. He tried getting up and going to the closet, but no matter how hard he strained, he couldn’t make himself pull his shorts out of the dresser or the shirts off their hangers.

Erebor had been an adventure. No, it was an adventure. He’d seen pit wargs and the reindeer fields outside the mountain, and he’d gone to get an ice cream dish called a Stone Giant with that Ori child (the ice cream had left him full, too), and how could he leave when he hadn’t even had the opportunity to see what they did with the old mines yet? Nori kept promising to take him.

If he had any courage at all, he’d stay. Cut ties with the Shire, find a job, make a clean break instead of dragging out any potential settling of his affairs for what he knew would be months. Perhaps he was nothing but a coward after all.

The newspapers certainly didn’t think much of him. They were kind, but he didn’t much care for the comments about how he was a ‘diminutive barrister,’ or the headline that asked if Thorin was in a new ‘royal-lationship.’ Of course, there was very little he could do about those. Unlike Alfrid’s photos, any press nowadays came from public photos and quotes, and he couldn’t ban non-libelous extrapolation.

Fucking Alfrid. Bilbo sighed and leaned his head against the dresser, and miraculously, his limbs came unlocked. He grabbed two armfuls of clothing and carted them back to his suitcase, fuming all the while. That fucking Man still made his blood boil, though he’d given some minimal testimony on their side. Well, Bilbo supposed that two richly-deserved days in a holding cell would do that to anyone.

The rest of the packing came easily to him, and went too quickly. After he’d gone and pulled his good leather belt out of the bathroom and zipped up the last of his suitcases, he stood over the lot and sighed, hands on his hips. Save for the unmade bed, it was as if he’d never been here.

“Better hope I left a mark on the people,” he muttered, and gathered up his suitcases to haul them into the corridor. It would take two trips for sure, but he didn’t want to call Thorin in to help. There were some things he could do by himself.

Thorin found him there anyway; his door (not theirs, not if Bilbo wasn’t going to live there anymore) slid open right when he finished pulling out his luggage. “Are you finished?” he asked.

“Yes,” Bilbo said, and bit back the ‘unfortunately’ that he dearly wanted to let slip. No use making Thorin feel guilty when this situation wasn’t either of their faults – well, save for the fact that they’d solved the problem that Bilbo had been hired to solve in the first place, and Bilbo firmly refused to take responsibility for his own competence as though it were a bad thing.

“You mentioned not wanting to eat,” Thorin said. “Is there anything that you’ve really wanted to do before you board the plane? I don’t have any meetings, or anything else that can’t wait.”

Bilbo tapped his chin. Things involving his usual amount of food were out, and he didn’t think that another visit to the pit wargs would do very much good for his state of being, since he couldn’t bloody well see the things in the Shire. In addition, whenever a group of them descended on him for a massive lick-fest, he felt filthy even after washing. “What about the old mines?” he finally suggested. “It’s as good a place as any.”

To Bilbo’s confusion, Thorin froze in place. “The old mines,” he echoed. “I’m not sure that…that’s the best place for you to go right before you leave. It might be too…”

“Too what?” Bilbo asked. “Do you think it might be too depressing for me? Thorin, I’m not about to sulk on the plane ride because I think an old mine is too dark and dank. Or you think I’m going to break something, is that it?”

“Bilbo!” Thorin interrupted, laughing, before he could finish ranting. He was getting quite good at that, Bilbo reflected with more than a little inner grumpiness. “I’ll gladly take you. You just took me off guard. Actually, the mines aren’t far from the airstrip.”

“Wait, you have mines by the airport? Isn’t that unsafe?” Bilbo said. When Thorin tilted his head, he added, “I mean that they might collapse and things like that.”

Thorin’s curious expression softened. “Oh,” he said. “We thought of all the potential situations before we built. Believe me, the mines are reinforced and they’re extremely safe. We don’t wait until everything of value has been stripped out before we close them.”

“Mm,” said Bilbo. That did make him feel a bit better. “Right, then. Old mines it is. Should I bring my things with me?”

Thorin nodded. “I can put them in my car.”

Something tightened in Bilbo’s belly. This would, he realized, be the last car ride he took with Thorin for a long time, if he ever came back. Who was he even trying to fool? Thorin would phone and email and then he’d decide that…decide that long-distance wasn’t worth sustaining, or something, and Bilbo wasn’t going to try to turn a no into a yes. “All right,” he said. “You’ll help me carry them?” Thorin nodded. “Good. You’re, er, rather freakishly muscular. Compared to a Hobbit, I mean.”

That got a snort out of Thorin, who picked up the nearest of the suitcases and gestured for Bilbo to follow him. Bilbo grabbed the lightest and ran to follow him. The least he could do was be helpful.

It took two trips, but within ten minutes, Bilbo’s luggage was in the car and the two of them were on their way to the mountain highway. “So how old are these old mines, exactly?” Bilbo ventured after a few uncomfortable minutes of silence. “Are we talking from before the Reclamation?”

“Mahal, no,” Thorin said, rumbling a laugh. “We abandon mines every ten years or so. I’ll take you to the most recent ones. They’re a little less – well, less boring to look at, I think. We’ve done better things with them than the older ones.”

“Hm.” Bilbo chewed on his lip, then cleared his throat. “Now I don’t know very much about mining. I’m sorry, is that shameful to say? I’ve been here more than five months.”

Thorin laughed again, this laugh far deeper than the previous one. I’m going to miss that laugh. “At the risk of sounding racist, you’re not expected to know anything about mines. You’re a Hobbit, and you haven’t been here all that long. Even Fíli only knows as much as he knows because he’ll be the king someday.”

“Does that ever make you sad?” The words were out before Bilbo could control himself.

Thorin’s brow tightened, visible even from the side. “What do you mean?”

“Well, if he’s king, that means either you’ve abdicated or…Or.” Bilbo gulped.

“Or I’m dead,” Thorin said. “Yes, I’ve thought about it. I’ve had to think about it ever since my sister and I decided her sons would be my heirs.” The words would have been harsh if not for the gentleness of his voice. “If Mahal grants me the years, I will be an old Dwarf when the time comes for Fíli to be king, and I’ll have taught him everything I know when I go to the Halls.”

“Valar willing, that won’t be for a long time yet,” Bilbo said. He resisted the urge to pat Thorin’s arm, even lovely as it was protruding from his rolled-up sleeve. He and Thorin hadn’t done anything in this car – yet – but he’d wanted to, and oh, Thorin had blushed so red when he suggested it. Maybe later, he’d said. But here later was, and they hadn’t yet. Shut up, Bilbo, you sound like you’re ancient.

They both lapsed into silence after that. Bilbo spent the rest of the drive looking out the window, watching the veins of metal go by. He would swear he saw more colors in the walls every time Thorin drove him somewhere. Idly, he wondered what Lobelia would think of the walls, and smirked. Dirty, she’d call them, and she’d say that the metals belonged in a necklace somewhere rather than stuck where no one could get to them.

Thorin went through an exit and parked in a large, well-lit lot, perhaps a quarter full of cars. In fact, it looked better kept-up than the royal lots. “Are the abandoned mines a tourist attraction, then?” Bilbo said with a laugh as Thorin turned off the car, waving his arm. “There are quite a few people.”

“People do work here,” Thorin said once they were out and the car was locked. “As for tourism, I did offer to take you and you did accept. What’s that if not a tourist attraction?”

“Point taken,” Bilbo conceded. “Or – we’re near the current mines, aren’t we?”

“Some of them.”

Bilbo shrugged. “Then maybe people just like to park here and walk.”

They walked up a short flight of concrete stairs that led them to a cavernous room, shaped like an upturned bell with a ceiling that flared out in a concentric circle. “Lovely place,” said Bilbo. It smelled like the specific kind of fresh, damp dirt that you found in a well-plowed field, all full of growing things. “It doesn’t smell like a mine.”

“That’s because it’s – you’ll see.” Thorin clapped Bilbo’s back and went to the glass-fronted desk in the middle of the room. “I’d like to bring Mr. Baggins to see the abandoned mines,” he said, then leaned in and said something Bilbo couldn’t catch. Probably Khuzdul, too, the paranoid bugger. “What’s the ticket price?” he said, finally audible again, as he straightened up.

“Two gildings,” said the clerk, and Thorin handed over two coins. “Do you need a tour?”

“No, I’m familiar with the area. I’ve been here before. Thank you anyway.” Thorin came back to Bilbo and touched his hand, just briefly enough for Bilbo to feel the warmth of his body. “Are you ready to go, Bilbo?”

“Mm-hm.”

Thorin seemed to need no further encouragement. He strode towards a set of double doors at the far end of the anteroom (although how there could be a far end when the room was round and the desk was in the middle, Bilbo had no idea) and Bilbo followed.

The doors opened smoothly in front of him and closed behind, giving Bilbo the sudden impression of an equally sudden passage from day into night. The corridor they had entered was lit only with electric torches and its stone walls sparkled with damp. In fact, the very air felt humid. “I didn’t know you had to keep this place wet,” Bilbo said. “Does it all crumble or something if it’s not?”

He could only see Thorin from the side, but Bilbo thought that there might be a smile playing on Thorin’s lips. The sneaky baggage knew something. “No,” Thorin said, “not the stone. Will you follow me?”

“One last time,” Bilbo mumbled, and saw Thorin’s shoulders shake in obvious merriment in front of him. “Right. I’m just on tenterhooks here, Thorin. I believe I shall die if I don’t get over this cliffhanger this minute. Do you write thriller novels?”

“Oh, shut up,” Thorin shot back over his shoulder. “You were the one who wanted to come here. I promise you’ll like what you see.”

“Is it you naked? Because I do rather like seeing that.”

Thorin grumbled something under his breath that sounded like ‘hush,’ clearly not about to dignify him with a response. Probably the right choice. There were times that Bilbo left dignity behind in the dust, he knew, and he quite deserved a good cold shoulder now. “Here.” He pointed to a door with ‘1-4’ on it in bright metal letters. “This should do.”

“What will do?” Bilbo asked, but Thorin ignored him, instead standing in front of the door until it slid open and leading Bilbo onto a stone outcrop that led directly to a deep drop. The walls here were surprisingly well-lit with more electric torches. “Ooh, smells good in here. What is this, a way to give me a taste of the Shire?”

“In a way.” Thorin pressed a button on a nearby control panel and the resulting klaxon sound made Bilbo jump. “Don’t worry.” He put a soothing hand on Bilbo’s shoulder. “You don’t need to be jumpy in here. That’s just an alert that the machine is bringing the mine cart up.”

“What mine – oh, there it is.” A metal platform slid up to their level with a smooth rumbling of gears. “You know, this is rather silly, but I always imagined that mine carts were…you know, manually operated. Yanking on pulleys and all that.”

Thorin’s laugh boomed off the walls as he beckoned Bilbo forward to the cart. “Yanking on pulleys? What Age do you think we’re stuck in?”

“Fuck off.”

“I’ll take that to mean the Fifth Age. Everything is electric now.”

They got onto the cart and Thorin pressed a button on a sleek metal display panel, sending it down again. Lights came on in the walls every few feet as they went slowly along. “Oh, that’s clever,” said Bilbo. “Motion-activated. I suppose that saves energy.”

“It does,” said Thorin, and pushed the button again; the cart came to a stop without even a judder. “Bilbo,” he said, turning to face Bilbo and – surprisingly – framing Bilbo’s face in his big hands, “it isn’t that I didn’t want to show you this, but I thought it might come across as trying to coerce you to stay. What we do with the empty mines, I mean. You’re…er. You’re going to like it, so please know…”

“Thorin. What is going on?”

Now Thorin smiled, taking his hands away. “Look around,” he said. “This is what we do here.”

“Not dead bodies, I hope,” Bilbo mumbled, knowing damn well that Thorin could hear him. He wanted to prolong that smile and maybe even get a laugh out of it. As he scanned the walls of the mine, he smirked a bit when Thorin did indeed start laughing; he got one over on the –

The walls. Were covered. With mushrooms.

The squeak that Bilbo felt come out of him was not exactly human, more like air escaping from a balloon at an absurdly high pitch than anything a Hobbit would naturally produce. Well, when they were faced with this bounty, who wouldn’t naturally produce it? “Thorin.” He cleared his throat. “This is the motherlode of all mushrooms. What…how? How?

“Are you all right?” Thorin asked.

“Mushrooms!” Bilbo insisted. He felt a bit as though he were in a country where he didn’t speak the language, with no choice but to repeat himself and flail his arms about like an idiot. That trip to Old Arnor had not been pleasant. “Mushrooms, Thorin! A Hobbit’s favorite food! How did you ever get this many?”

“Yes, mushrooms.” Thorin sounded amused now, rather than concerned for Bilbo’s sanity as he had a moment earlier. Bilbo turned to him just in time to see the crinkles around his eyes as he smiled. “They’re exceptionally easy to grow and a good source of protein. We’ve been turning abandoned mines into mushroom farms for decades now. There are different patches of soil on the walls with different types of spores in each, so there’s a good variety in every mine.”

Bilbo let his mouth hang open as he pivoted to take in the entirety of the glory around him. There were brown mushrooms, white mushrooms, spotted mushrooms – ooh, was that Chicken of the Forest on chunks of rotting log? – and just there, a patch of purple mushrooms with lovely blue spots shone in the light. Familiar blue spots. “Thorin, are those the sort of mushrooms that…”

“Ah. That is the Restricted Section.” Thorin didn’t look one bit guilty, either.

“You grow hallucinogenic mushrooms in your mines.” Bilbo let both of his eyebrows rise, and decided to let the joke pass by. There were more important things to think about now, namely mushrooms. Even the smell of the dirt was making him salivate.

Thorin’s expression crumpled. “I thought you liked Harry Potrion.”

“Busy!” Bilbo insisted. “I do. Just…busy! Mushrooms!” He did his level best to point to each mushroom patch in turn, and succeeded only in hitting himself on the head next to his right eye. “Ow. Mushrooms! Green Lady, how many kinds do you have in this mountain? Do you grow other kinds in the other mines?”

“Yes, some,” Thorin said. “They’re picked every few days. Actually, it’s permitted to come down and pick them oneself.”

Fuck. Bilbo could smell a setup; it was in the makeup of every barrister, blood in the water and all that. “You brought me down here to…” He could barely dare to hope. “Thorin. Why did you bring me down here?”

The expression on Thorin’s face was entirely too innocent, as was the smile playing on his mouth. “Reason?”

“Thorin, don’t try to bullshit a barrister. You will not win.”

Now Thorin laughed again, laying a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder. “Of course I brought you down here for that,” he said. “You said you wanted to see the mines. I thought I’d give you what everyone has the opportunity to get if they choose to come down here.”

“Everyone,” Bilbo repeated. Hope bubbled up in his chest. “Wait, does that mean I can pick some mushrooms?” His hands began to shake, or maybe he was only imagining that. Mushrooms made him think in dramatic metaphor, and hands shaking – oh, bugger it all. “Please, Thorin, tell me I get to pick some mushrooms.” All the mushrooms, preferably.

Thorin smirked and pulled a bag out of his clothing. “Try not to go wild with the hallucinogenic mushrooms, please. They generate a good deal of revenue when they’re sold to Elves.”

“You’re an absolute wanker,” said Bilbo, and grabbed the bag. “Fucking wanker, did you know that?”

“I’ve been told something of the kind before.”

Bilbo didn’t stay facing him long enough to see what his expression was. He reached out to the mushrooms, just in control enough of his facilities to avoid falling over the side of the cart, and let the world fall away.

Only Thorin’s voice brought him out of his ecstasy of grabbing and sniffing and stowing and even licking a few times (well, more than a few). “Bilbo.” Thorin’s voice came from far away, and the hand on Bilbo’s shoulder felt disembodied. Bilbo paused halfway through what he realized was a piece of Chicken of the Forest that he’d stuffed in his mouth. “I need to take you to the airport.”

“Oh.” All of the color, even the blue spots on the mushrooms that he thought might be glowing, leached out of his view. Oh. “Yes, all right. That’s right.” Heaviness rose in his throat and he gulped it back. Don’t you fucking start crying.

He didn’t cry as Thorin took him and his bulging bag of mushrooms out of the mine, past the front desk, and back to the car. He didn’t cry as Thorin drove an exit over to the airport. He absolutely didn’t cry when Thorin helped him bring his things through the airport terminal and into the security line, past the bustle of Dwarves going on happier trips to who only knew where.

Then, of course, he had to open his stupid fucking mouth when Thorin asked him if he wanted him to stay. “I…” said Bilbo, and his eyes welled up, right in front of the people passing by him, the security guards, and the people at the burger restaurant across the way. “Fuck,” he mumbled, wiping his face. “I’m fine, only a bit angry about the security line. I just need to get on the plane, all right?” Better to be rude than cry all over the place.

“Bilbo.” Thorin came over and enfolded him in a hug, right in front of everyone. There weren’t any camera flashes, at least, so Bilbo let himself cling helplessly. “It’s going to be all right,” said Thorin, in a deep, husky voice that shook more than a bit. At least he wasn’t alone, Bilbo thought. “If you’d like to stay, I’m sure we can arrange it. Without salary, if you prefer. You said your financial situation is stable.”

Bilbo allowed himself to keep hugging Thorin a few moments longer, then broke away and held Thorin at arm’s length. Thorin’s bright blue eyes were suspiciously shiny. “Thorin,” he said, “I am coming back. Even if it takes a while, I’ll come back here sometime. Maybe…maybe to stay.” Even as the Baggins side of him was screaming that he couldn’t possibly leave Bag End, the Took side was telling the Baggins side to sod off, because there was a Dwarf in front of him whom he couldn’t imagine living without. “It might be to stay, yeah.”

“I…” Thorin darted a look all around them, then - oh, dear Green Lady - sank down onto one knee with a groan. “I’m too old for this. Fuck. Anyway.” He looked up into Bilbo’s face, guileless, and for a dizzying moment Bilbo wondered if this was what it was like for Thorin every day, looking down at Bilbo himself. “Bilbo, will you, um, marry me?”

Bilbo blinked at him. “Did you just trip over your words?” Oh, confusticate and bebother it, that was hardly the thing to ask. “Did you just ask what I think you asked?”

“To marry me?” Thorin said, and his face flushed from his neck up to the top of his forehead. If beards could flush, Bilbo imagined that that would be pink, too. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to ask just as you left…you should make the decision yourself, but…I just thought if you’re coming back anyway…”

“Thorin,” said Bilbo, and put his hands on either side of Thorin’s head. He was suddenly quite dizzy, much like when he skipped a meal and had to make it up later. “I…”

“Give ‘im an answer already!” someone shouted from far away. “Valar blimey, didn’t you ‘ear his knees crack?”

Bilbo automatically made a rude gesture at the Dwarf with multicolored hair who walked by, then turned back to Thorin, this time letting his hands hang at his sides. “I need to think about it,” he said quietly. “But I promise you, I will come back. Marriage is an enormous deal. Shire weddings – you’ve never been to one. They’re awful. And it’s a commitment, so. Yeah. Please get up, because I promise I’m taking this seriously.”

Thorin nodded and clambered to his feet. “I appreciate your honesty,” he said in a tone that Bilbo couldn’t quite parse. “Your decision is your own, and even if you decide you don’t want to wed, you ought to know that I love you.”

The bottom of Bilbo’s stomach abruptly dropped several levels, if that could even happen in the bottom story of a mountain. “You love me?” His voice squeaked on the last word, and he cleared his throat, hoping that no one had heard.

Thorin nodded. “Is that all right with you?”

Bilbo flew forward and grabbed Thorin in a hug so firm that Thorin squeaked right back at him. Fancy that; maybe he’d gained some muscle after all from the walking he’d been doing. Or something. He was fairly sure that walking didn’t give you muscle in your arms – maybe in that core the fitness enthusiasts were always talking about? “I love you,” he said into Thorin’s chest, which smelled like sweat. No matter. Not everything smelled like roses, and life wasn’t a neatly packaged thing, and he’d take love where he could get it – and give it, too. “I love you back. Too. Whatever. Please believe me, I do.”

He would have stood there forever with Thorin’s arms around him, but a tap on his shoulder interrupted him. Bilbo whirled around in irritation and saw a very bedraggled Nori, covered in sweat, in front of him. Even his hair looked droopy. “What is it?” he snapped. “Why is it always you?”

“Knock that off,” Nori panted. “Had to find you. Speed-walked in with your present, y’wanker.”

Present. The word pinged an alarm in him. “Oh, fuck,” Bilbo said, a laugh bursting out of him. “It’s my fucking birthday. Twenty-second of September. I’m fifty-one today and I forgot!” He’d never forgotten a birthday in his life. He may have ‘forgotten’ to throw parties and give mathoms away, but not the day itself.

“Well, happy birthday,” Nori said, shrugging. “You got a present. I ran it over here fast as I could when I remembered you were leaving.”

“Yes, we’ve already established that you worked hard to get here,” Bilbo said, rolling his eyes. “Why are you here?”

Nori wiped his forehead. “Couldn’t let you go without your present. Good thing, seeing as it’s your birthday and all,” he said. “I know, I know, short notice, but I’m pretty sure you’ll like this kind of present. You been playin’ with him whenever you come visit.”

Him?” Bilbo repeated, and for the first time, his eyes landed on the carrier a few feet away. His belly fluttered, and the feeling only got worse when the carrier whined. “Is that a pup for me?”

“Aye,” said Nori with a smirk and an emphatic, completely unnecessary nod. “For you. I got a big bag of warg food in the plane already – you should be set for a while. And I gotta go soon, ‘cause I’m giving three to their forever homes later. You like him?”

Bilbo allowed himself a bit of satisfaction when the hug he deployed got a grunt out of Nori, too. “Got it, short stuff,” Nori wheezed. “Your fuckin’ belly got me in the knackers.”

“That’s a lie, and I’ll actually hit you in the knackers if you call me that again.” Bilbo stepped away from the hug and knelt next to the carrier. A pair of enormous brown eyes peered at him through the door lattice. “Hello, little boy!”

“I think he’s more of a big boy,” said Thorin, “just in the interest of full accuracy.”

“I don’t really care.” Bilbo stuck three fingers through the lattice and let the pup lick him. “He’s wonderful, Nori. It’ll be like I’m still in Erebor every time I look at him. Oh! That tickles!” The pit warg had stuck his tongue between Bilbo’s fingers, and he was a rather enthusiastic licker.

Nori patted the top of the carrier. “So I did good?”

By the Smith (Bilbo wasn’t brave enough to invoke the Khuzdul name, even in the privacy of his head), he was like a pit warg himself. They did like to beg for treats and acknowledgment. “Yes, Nori. He’s a fantastic gift.” Making a kissy face at his pup, he added, “I’m going to let you out on the plane and we’ll have such a petting, yes, we will!”

“I’ll carry him to the plane if you want me to,” Thorin said. “He’s probably very heavy.”

Bilbo shook his head. IF he was going to marry this Dwarf, he didn’t need everyone in Erebor thinking Hobbits were lazy. If he wasn’t, he still preferred not to be seen as a weakling. “I’ll be all right,” he said, and picked up the carrier with both of his hands on the handle. “Oof. He is heavy.”

“Well, your door’s over there,” said Nori, pointing. “Goes to the private terminals.” How someone could say something helpful and at the same time seem so unhelpful, Bilbo had no idea. It was a talent.

He nodded anyway. “I can get him if you bring my luggage to the plane,” he said. “But first…come here, Thorin.” He crooked a finger and watched Thorin approach. “One last thing.” It was, after all, his birthday.

“Wait, before you mack on his face,” said Nori, “Thorin. You tell him your news?”

Thorin’s eyes went wide. “No, I forgot! Bilbo, Dís came to me this morning with news. She’s pregnant.”

“Oh!” Bilbo said, practically jumping up and down in place with how much his bum was wiggling. “That’s wonderful! I’ve got to knit some baby clothes.” Wait, he’d never done those before, just scarves. “I’ve got to hire someone to knit some baby clothes. Now I’ve really got to come back, haven’t I?”

Thorin’s entire beard threatened to split with the grin on his face. “Perhaps.”

Fuck reporters and anything they had to say about Thorin’s ‘royal-lationship.’ Bilbo grabbed Thorin and kissed him hard and deep, shivering happily when Thorin’s hands settled on his waist. How far he’d come from Boring Baggins!

“You dropped your ‘shrooms on the floor,” said Nori. “Can I have ‘em?”

Bilbo broke off the kiss and grabbed the bag. Mushrooms were more important than lips. “You most certainly may not! These little bleeders are mine.”

Thorin ran a hand over his mouth. Bilbo realized ruefully that he himself would probably be showing Thorin’s special beard burn by the time he got back to the Shire. He needed to start thinking these things through. “Do you want company, Bilbo?” Thorin asked.

“You know, I actually think I’ll be all right,” Bilbo told him. There was a pup to distract him from loneliness now, and mushrooms to sample at home if not on the plane, and stupid email. He was going to use the landline when he rang Thorin, though. “I’ll talk to you soon.”

“When you have time,” Thorin said.

Bilbo nodded. “Of course. And I love you.” Valar, that felt better to say every time. Someday, he hoped, it would feel entirely natural.

He shoved the bag of mushrooms securely under his arm, hefted the carrier, and started forward – with a lighter heart than before – towards what he hoped would no longer be the only home he’d ever know.

Chapter Text

Dear Thorin,

I suppose I’ve got to use fucking email now, but you’ll drag the courtesies of literacy out of my cold, dead hands. And I don’t intend to let my hands be cold and/or dead any time soon.

I’m sorry that I’ve not gotten back to you sooner. It’s been enough of a job unpacking the various foodstuffs I brought into the house, consuming enough of them not to be light-headed, putting my clothes and new trinkets into their rightful places, and settling in the pit warg. Please do thank Nori for him, by the way. I know I already thanked him, but the pup is a darling.

Speaking of which, he has a name now. On the plane ride, he managed to get into my things and consume an entire pound package of Minto’s Mint Cake, which he proudly deposited at my feet several hours later when we were just outside Bag End. I have thus decided to call him Minto. He has proven himself a little hellion so far; he eats his food messily and his enormous paws have already scratched up two of my antique furniture pieces. He also insists on sleeping at the end of my bed, which he has done even though it’s not yet time for bed. I suspect this is going to overheat my feet like you wouldn’t believe. Still, I believe I love him.

It doesn’t hurt that the Gamgees’ two youngest fauntlings have come calling at my door three times this evening, asking for an audience with him. He’ll be big enough for them to ride soon, I think. That ought to give him some exercise. I just hope he doesn’t suddenly come down with a yearning to chase the cows off the roof. They’ll likely bash in his poor little thick skull with those hooves of theirs.

Hob remembered my birthday, even if I didn’t. I came home to a lovely cake waiting for me on the small dining-table in my kitchen. It was lemon with chocolate frosting, and I enjoyed it immensely. Perhaps I’ll treat myself to another tomorrow, since thinking about it has made me hungry for cake all over again. I also may have a mushroom or two. Ahem. They seem as though they’ll be quite delicious, don’t you think?

I miss Erebor already. There are so many things there that I wish I’d had the time to do, like go down into the mines and see the fresh metal veins, and see the gem workshops, and so much more. I’m sure I’ll think of them later when I’m lying in bed, and kick myself for not remembering them now. Most of all, I miss you.

Please tell Dís congratulations from me about her news. How far along is she? If she’s telling people, she’s got to be past the first third of the pregnancy, yes? I wish I could have stayed!

I don’t look forward to the types of clients I’ll be seeing here in the Shire, either. The Clayhangers were the worst of it, but

SHIT, I NEVER BILLED THE CLAYHANGERS

Love,
Bilbo.

P.S. Before I run, the answer to your question is yes. Yes, I will.
P.P.S. Please tell Nori that if he keeps sending me Prince of Bree, I will happily kill him.
P.P.P.S. Please don’t tell Dwalin I said that.
P4S: Have I mentioned I love you? Because I rather think I do.