Actions

Work Header

Gemini

Chapter Text

 

The biscuits were the perfect shade of golden brown. Bilbo slid them off the hot baking sheet and into a waiting basket with a sigh of satisfaction. He always felt better after cooking, and following the wizard’s disconcerting visit that morning, he’d definitely been in need of some cheering.

And if Bella got wind of the fact that such a stranger had come visiting and she’d missed him… Or even worse, that Bilbo had neglected to invite him to dine with them! Well, she’d probably be in need of some cheering, too. The biscuits should serve nicely.

As should the roast pork.

And the smoked venison.

And the fried tomatoes.

And the sliced melon.

And the boiled potatoes.

And the steamed carrots.

And the bread pudding.

And the seed cakes.

It was when he could find no more room on the table for the basket of biscuits, that it occurred to Bilbo that he might have overdone it.

He surveyed the laden table and sighed. Supper was ready, and it smelled delicious, but there was a wizard in town, and his twin sister was over an hour late.

Perhaps he should whip himself up a quick snack.

Chapter Text

When the doorbell rang, Bilbo had been prepared to greet any of a variety of guests. Perhaps Holman Greenhand or his new apprentice, having spotted some fauntlings mucking about in the back garden again. Or Nellie Hardbottle from down the lane, in yet another bid to bribe him for his father’s blackberry-lavender scone recipe. Or, less pleasant, but far more likely, some distant and disgruntled relations, come to complain about Bella’s latest exploits. Or perhaps even Gandalf, still bent on wrangling respectable gentlehobbits into his idiotic adventure schemes.

What he had not expected, even in his wildest imaginings, was the bald, tattooed, and heavily armed dwarf who was in fact standing on the front step when Bilbo opened the door, clad only in his dressing gown.

“Dwalin, at yer service.”

Apparently, Bilbo’s stammered introduction was all the invitation the dwarf needed. He strode into the hall and began removing his gear.

“Do we know each other?” Bilbo spluttered.

The dwarf stared at him as though he’d gone simple. “No,” he grunted after a moment. He shucked out of his cloak, shoving it at Bilbo. “Which way, laddie? Is it down ‘ere?”

“Is what down where?” Bilbo called after the dwarf, who appeared to be following his nose down the hall and toward the kitchen.

“Supper,” was the reply. “‘E said there’d be food, an’ lots of it.”

Bilbo tossed the cloak haphazardly at the nearest coat peg and scrambled after the dwarf.

He had indeed been following his nose, for there he was, in Bilbo’s kitchen, sitting in Bilbo’s chair, devouring Bilbo’s fish off of Bilbo’s plate. Bilbo took a moment to be very thankful he was such a good cook. He’d hate to see what the dwarf would do with those axes on his back if he found the food lacking.

He shuffled quietly to perch on a chair in the corner and try to come up with a solution to this most unexpected problem. The matter would have to be handled with the utmost delicacy, he suspected, if he was going to keep his insides inside his body. He had absolutely no doubt that his dinner guest was proficient with each and every one of the weapons Bilbo could see arrayed upon his person.

The dwarf bit the head off the fish, and Bilbo was quite glad the fellow couldn’t see his flinch. Even Bella would have to be intimidated by this particular stranger, he assured himself.

“Very good this,” he said suddenly, around a mouthful of asparagus. Bilbo flinched again, and this time, the dwarf caught sight of the movement. He smirked slightly. “Any more?”

Bilbo swallowed back a scathing retort. Of course there was more! Where did the fellow think he was? Some human hovel? This was a hobbit hole, after all. But the only thing close at hand was the basket of biscuits on the window sill. They were onion and poppy seed, Bella’s favorite, but the alternative was putting the dwarf onto the feast in the dining room. He had heard of the prodigious appetites of dwarves, and he feared that once he started in, he’d never get rid of the brute. Better the dwarf think his meal ended with what was in the kitchen. The biscuits were a small price to pay for the safety of the meal and, hopefully, a very short visit.

Bilbo quickly pocketed a biscuit - they were Bella’s favorites, after all - and offered up the rest to the dwarf. “Help yourself.” As the dwarf began stuffing bits of biscuit in his mouth, Bilbo decided it was time to speak up. “It’s just that, um, I wasn’t expecting company…”

The dwarf simply stared at him, one bushy eyebrow raised, and Bilbo trailed off. He was going to die.

Then the doorbell rang again, and Bilbo nearly jumped out of his skin. “Tha’ll be the door,” the dwarf said slowly and clearly, as if he were speaking to a particularly slow child.

“Wha -? Oh, yes. Excuse me.”

 

Chapter Text

“I don’t like it, Ki,” Fili growled as his brother thunked two mugs onto the table and slid into the seat facing him.

Kili glanced around, one side of his mouth quirking upward skeptically. “What’s not to like, Fi? We could take this lot without even breaking a sweat.”

“That’s what I mean,” Fili answered darkly. He wrapped his hands around his ale but didn’t yet take a drink. Too many of the assembled halflings were looking their way. Too few looked friendly. “These are some mighty strong glares for folk who don’t seem to have a chance of backing ‘em up.” Sure, they had numbers, but that was about it, as far as he could tell. They were small and soft and round, dressed in the garish colors that adorned their gardens. They weren’t fighters. But he wasn’t sure what that made them instead.

He nodded toward a particularly venomous-looking halfling sitting in the corner. “Take that toadish character in green back behind you,” he said. “What does he think he can do? We’re missing something, Ki. We’ve got to be.” It was hard to explain, but Fili couldn’t help but feel uneasy. There just had to be something more to these strange little creatures than looks would suggest. Why else would Gandalf want Thorin to engage one of them in their quest? And what’s more, brave Thorin’s wrath in making the very suggestion? If a halfling could be expected to best a dragon when an army of dwarves could not…

Kili shrugged, unconcerned, and lifted his mug to drink. “I think you’re just - hey! Where’s my ale gone?”

That got his attention. “What?”

Kili tipped his mug toward Fili. It was half empty. “Did you drink it?” he demanded, punching Fili in the shoulder before he could even think to answer.

“What? No. Ki, I haven’t touched it.”

Kili didn’t look convinced. He snatched up Fili’s mug and peered inside. Fili took advantage of his brother’s momentary distraction to rub surreptitiously at his shoulder. He could feel it bruising already. “Yours is short too!” Kili exclaimed. “What’s the big idea?”

Both brothers about jumped out of their skin when three more mugs of ale and a plate of fruit tarts clattered onto the worn table between them, and Fili nearly skewered the cheerful lass who dropped into the seat beside him.

“Don’t take it personally - Old Wil always pours short for strangers,” she chirped, apparently unaware of her brush with death. Or of the intensified scowls now directed at their table. Fili half expected to burst into flames. “Bella Baggins, at your service.” The lass bobbed her head and then grinned expectantly.

“Fili,” he supplied slowly.

Kili was quicker to add his own name to the introduction, though his attention had already been snagged by the plate of tarts. When Fili saw his brother’s hand slide away from his knife and toward the sweets, he allowed himself to relax slightly. Kili’s stomach hadn’t led them astray yet. Well, not since that cask of dandelion wine when they were in their twenties, but that was completely beside the point.

Kili took an enormous bite of one tart, but Fili was relieved to note that he’d at least smelled it first. “’Ooks ‘ike ‘e pourth thort for ‘oo, too.” Kili sprayed them both with crumbs as he spoke. He downed the ale in one of his mugs in a single gulp, and then swept the back of his hand across his mouth. “Sorry. These are great!”

Bella laughed as she shook crumbs from her sandstone curls. “Forgiven.” She peered into her own mug and sighed. “Wil’s pouring may be lacking, but his wife’s cooking certainly isn’t. Alessia Bracegirdle’s blueberry tarts are local legend.” She glanced sideways at Fili as she took a more moderate drink from her own mug. “Your hands would be much better occupied with her tarts than your weapons,” she commented with a wry twist of her mouth. Perhaps she was not so unaware after all. “Terrifying though I know I seem, I really just thought the pair of you could use a friendly drink.”

Fili smiled back a little guiltily and relinquished his grip on the knife in his sleeve. He still had plenty of others in easy reach.

Just in case.

Kili grinned and flicked a bit of tart at him. “Don’t mind him, Bella. He’s just tense from being on the road. It’s sucked all the fun out of him.”

Fili flicked the morsel back at his brother. “Has not.” And even if it had, someone had to be the responsible one after Kili went and got them lost. ‘Shortcut,’ indeed.

Kili snatched up another tart from the plate. “Has so! You’re seeing threats everywhere. You’re worse than Mister Dwalin! Even unarmed, these halflings have you jumping at every shadow. And then you nearly kill the only friendly face in the whole place! Imagine - not even trusting a blueberry tart!” He took another huge bite to prove his point, and when he spoke again, he sprayed Fili and Bella with crumbs once more. “’M worried ‘bout choo, Fi. “S’not righ’.”

Bella glanced over her shoulder, then looked from one to the other of them with amber eyes as large as dinner plates. “Oh,” she breathed, leaning close over the worn wooden table. “But Fili is quite right to be on his guard, for your kind hasn’t any defense against our secret weapon.”

Kili swallowed with difficulty. “What’s that?” he croaked, leaning toward the halfling lass, his eyes growing wide to match hers.

“It’s a fearsome thing indeed. Makes even the biggest of big Men fall to pieces and go running back for the Wilds past Buckland.”

Though Fili suspected - or perhaps hoped for - a joke, he found himself listening just as attentively as his brother. He knew there had to be a reason Gandalf wanted a halfling along.

“It’s the Look.” And she leveled a truly impressive glare at Kili.

Fili burst out laughing, both at the halfling’s answer and the look of confused horror on his brother’s face.

Bella managed to hold her expression a second longer before she, too, broke down in laughter, Kili joining in almost immediately in obvious relief. She leaned back in her chair, taking her mug with her. “Oh, we’ll glare you to death, and no mistake,” she boasted, a raised eyebrow replacing her smile, and both dwarves ceased their laughter at once. Then she grinned again, an easy, crooked thing that made her eyes twinkle. “That’s about it though, I’m afraid, unless one can be killed by a short drink.”

“I hope you didn’t pay full price for these,” Fili commented, reaching for one of the mugs she’d brought them. It held even less ale than the first mug had.

Bella shrugged. “Seems cruel to deprive Wil of his petty revenge when there are real strangers about to bear the brunt of it. Usually, he has to content himself with shorting me, as I’m widely regarded as the strangest thing around these parts.”

She deftly snatched the last two tarts from the plate before Kili could grab one. She passed Fili one, but broke hers and passed half of it to Kili. Fili shot her a grateful look on his brother’s behalf, but Kili, for his part, was too busy inhaling the treat to thank her for it.

“But if you were hoping to get drunk tonight,” Bella continued, “you’d have had better luck at the Green Dragon in Bywater. It gets all the outside traffic. We’re a bit isolated here in the heart of the Shire.”

“So I’m learning,” Fili answered. “But we were told Hobbiton, and this place seemed as likely as any around here to hold a meeting about an adventure.”

The lass choked on the last bite of her tart.

Fili thumped her on the back in alarm, but as soon as her airway was clear of crumbs, she doubled over laughing. “You won’t find any adventures here, lads,” she panted as soon as she was able. “Even the mildest sort won’t come any closer than Bree, I’m afraid.”

“But Gandalf said Hobbiton,” Kili protested. “Very clearly!”

Bella frowned and took another drink, clearly thinking hard.

“What is it?” Fili asked. “Is something the matter?”

She shook her head. “Gandalf, you say? Old fellow dressed all in grey? Wears a pointed hat, as if he weren’t tall enough already?”

“That’s him!” Kili exclaimed, jostling the table in his excitement. “Have you seen him?”

“He’s hardly been seen around these parts since I was a child, but he was always fond of a good story, and turning dwarves loose on unsuspecting hobbits sounds like as good a start to a tale as any I’ve ever heard.”

Fili shared a grim look with his brother as Bella chuckled to herself and returned to her drink. “You think this is some sort of joke?” Fili inquired, careful to keep his face and tone from betraying his worry, while Kili looked downright offended at the very idea. If they weren’t careful, Kili was going to blunder right into revealing their whole quest in a room full of hostile halflings.

“Oh, yes,” Bella replied at once. “Though there are few enough around here who’ll see the humor in it. When news of you two gets out, there’ll be a scandal in the neighborhood! Old Wil may never recover!”

“Still,” Fili reasoned, trying to reassure himself and also keep Kili from causing a scene, “better a joke than a trap, I suppose.”

That notion backfired.

Kili jerked upright so quickly he nearly overturned the table. As it was, several of the halflings in the nearest seats shot them especially dirty looks at the clatter. “You don’t think it could be, do you?” Kili hissed. “A trap, I mean.”

“Of course not,” Bella soothed, beginning to pick up their overturned mugs. The short pouring was a good thing after all. All five had been empty, or near enough, when they’d fallen. The little bit of ale that seeped across the table was quickly mopped up with a rag Bella snagged off a passing server’s arm. The lass made eye contact with Kili when she spoke next, all laughter aside. “Gandalf may not have visited the Shire in ages, but I have had some dealings with him outside of it. He’s a good sort. A little meddlesome, but he means well, and that’s got to count for something, hasn’t it? And from what I understand, by the end of things, he’s usually righter than one would have expected at the beginning.”

Fili shot her another grateful smile for her efforts at calming his brother. And her words had gone a long way toward easing his own mind as well. Balin had seemed confident when he’d suggested the pair of them set out ahead at the edge of the Shire, but as the hours had passed and they’d grown more and more hopelessly lost in all the halflings’ tangled footpaths and hills, Fili had been unable to shake the growing suspicion that this whole thing was a test. One he was failing miserably. But this chance meeting made him feel as though he wasn’t botching absolutely everything. At the very least, they’d managed to secure an outside perspective on their wizard. He smiled to himself at the thought of Balin’s approving nod when he shared Bella’s vote of confidence at the meeting.

“Well,” Kili mused, interrupting Fili’s thoughts, “I hope you’re right about the wizard’s scheming.” He still didn’t look entirely convinced that the whole thing wasn’t some sort of elaborate trap. “I’d hate to have come so far out of our way to collect a burglar for nothing.”

“A burglar, you say?”

“Uncle didn’t think much of the idea at first, to be honest, but -”

Fili kicked Kili beneath the table before he could spill any more details. Their uncle would kill them. “Yes,” he interjected to distract Bella from Kili’s pained indignation. “But here we are. You haven’t heard anything about a burglar advertising around Hobbiton, have you?”

Bella laughed again at that. “Of course not! In my experience, that is not usually the sort of activity one advertises!”

“Oh, not petty burglars, or hobbyists, certainly,” Fili acknowledged, “but professional burglars quite frequently advertise their services so as to attract respectable clients. There’s nothing saying one cannot steal back something that is already one’s rightful property.”

Kili brightened suddenly, obviously picking up on Fili’s intent. “We’re on our way to visit kin in the Iron Hills,” he recited dutifully, only making the line sound slightly rehearsed, “but we’ve had some things stolen from our company.” He looked to Fili for approval of his addition to Balin’s sketchy cover story.

“Hardly the most auspicious start to a journey, as I’m sure you can imagine,” Fili added with a shrug, hoping to distract Bella from his brother’s blundering again.

Bella nodded sagely, but Fili could see the twinkle of laughter in her eyes once more. He let it go. Better she think them joking than lying. And it wasn’t a lie, not really. An entire mountain kingdom was probably just likely to be rather larger than whatever she was picturing they’d lost.

“Of course,” Bella said. “If Gandalf’s involved, I suppose it can’t be nearly as disreputable an affair as it sounds. But I’m afraid you still won’t find any burglars, professional or otherwise, advertising their craft here in Hobbiton. Hobbits, as a rule, frown upon burglary at any level of dedication.”

“But can you think of no one at all?” Kili asked forlornly. He fixed the lass with the same look he’d give their mother to coax her into allowing him a second helping of dessert.

Bella shook her head, and for a moment, Fili thought they might have at last met someone immune to Kili’s puppy dog eyes. But then she sighed. “I really can’t think of anyone who would fit your needs.” Fili waited. It was coming. He knew it, and Kili did too. Neither of them spoke, and sure enough, she continued after another sigh. “But perhaps we can have a spot of dinner, and you can tell me more about your adventure, and what it is, exactly, that Gandalf told you. Maybe then I’ll be able to think of who he could possibly have meant.”

As she surged to her feet and headed for the bar, Kili flashed a triumphant grin across the table. Fili nodded in acknowledgment of his mastery, but couldn’t help a few words of caution as well. “We still have to be careful what we say, Ki. Uncle won’t like us giving everything away to a stranger.”

“But it’s to get help,” Kili reasoned. “After all, if we can’t find this supposed burglar, what’s to say any of the others can either? We could be heroes, Fi, and find him before anyone else!”

“Gandalf will know him, if he can recommend him,” Fili reminded him. “And the others, at least, might remember the fellow’s name.”

Kili pouted at his tone. “How is it my fault that you didn’t listen on your turn?”

“I was trying,” Fili shot back, “but someone was pulling faces behind Gandalf’s back the entire time, ruining my concentration.” It really was unfair. He hadn’t known of Balin’s plan to send them ahead. If he had, he would have made Kili listen to Gandalf’s instructions as well, and then they would both know the burglar’s name, and they wouldn’t be in this predicament at all. They could have stopped and asked for proper directions to the fellow’s house, instead of trying to make sense of the garbled nonsense Kili had rattled off about “pretunies.”

Kili opened his mouth to argue, but was interrupted by Bella returning to her seat with a huff. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Kitchen’s closed,” Bella snapped, just as a serving girl whisked past their table with plates piled high with roast pork and potatoes. She pressed her lips into a thin line.

Kili was aghast, and Fili suspected his own face wasn’t much more composed. “But-”

Bella cut Kili off. “Well, it’s closed to us, anyway. Wil wants us out. ‘Putting his patrons off their drinking,’ he says, with all our talk of adventuring and burgling. Ill-tempered old goat.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then forced a bright smile. “There’s nothing for it,” she declared. “You’ll have to come home with me. Bilbo will have cooked something up, I’m sure, late as I am, and if not, then there’s plenty of cold food in the pantry for all of us.”

“Bilbo?” Fili asked. Of course a lass with a smile like that would have someone waiting at home.

“Oh, yes. He’ll probably be much more help than I could be. He’s much more sociable, you see, and has a good ear for gossip. Perhaps he’s heard something about this burglar of yours. And if not, then at the very least, he’s got a library full of maps and things, and we can get you two pointed in the right direction. I’m sure there must be any number of places that sound like ‘Hobbiton’ if one is distracted from listening.”

“Of course we’ll come!” Kili exclaimed at once, not bothering to consult his older brother.

For his part, Bella’s sly smile was enough to make Fili forgive her for overhearing their argument - it seemed these halflings had exceptional hearing, information which he filed away for later - but at the same time, he couldn’t forget the weight of responsibility on his shoulders in Thorin’s absence. “I don’t know,” he murmured reluctantly. “That’s a generous offer, but we’re to meet the rest of our party tonight, if we can find them. We probably shouldn’t go wandering about the countryside at random. Uncle always says it’s important to stay where you are when you’re lost, and let the others find you.”

“Uncle has a good deal of experience at being lost,” Kili piped up helpfully.

“No more than most,” Fili shot back in his uncle’s defense. “And it’s sound advice, anyway. The others have a much better chance of finding us if we just stay put.”

“We could always leave a message with Wil, in case any of your friends come looking for you here,” Bella suggested.

Fili was skeptical, to say the least. Could the peevish barkeeper really be trusted to pass along a message faithfully?

Bella must have read the look on his face. “It’ll be fine,” she assured him. “Old Wil may be petty and vengeful when it comes to strangers, but he won’t hesitate to send those strangers in another hobbit’s direction if given half a chance. Odds are, you’d have been sent up my way sooner or later, if I hadn’t met you here first. Come on. Good food and a good night’s sleep - not to mention better company than this lot -” she gestured at the still-glaring halflings scattered around the room “- will set you up right proper for whatever the morning will bring.” She leaned forward conspiratorially. “And there’s a strawberry-rhubarb pie in it for you if you’ll at least walk me home. You’re my excuse, you see. I’m abominably late for supper, but if I go home and start spinning tales of drinking with dwarves, Bilbo will never believe me. The only way I’m getting off the hook tonight is if I bring you lot around as -”

The lass’s face went suddenly blank.

Well, not blank, exactly. Fili was sure it was supposed to be something resembling politely cheery, but it was off somehow. Like a pane of spun sugar. Sickly sweet, but fragile, with no substance underneath. He was just about to ask what was wrong when a shadow fell across their table.

“Cousin Belladonna!” The voice was just as rotund at the rest of the green-clad hobbit, and Fili inwardly cringed at his false cheer, as if the fellow hadn’t just spent the last half hour glaring daggers at their table. It explained Bella’s face, at least.

“Cousin Otho,” she replied, her tone just as false as his. Fili noticed her knuckles were white around the handle of her empty mug. “I didn’t see you there. Would you care to join me and my friends for a drink?”

Fili saw Kili open his mouth to protest and kicked him under the table again. Better to let the lass handle her relations herself. For now, at least.

“Goodness, no!” Otho forced a chuckle that was as false as everything else about him. He tucked his hands into the pockets of his gaudy green waistcoat. “I was just about to head home to the missus. Getting late, you know, and supper’s waiting. But I’d be happy to walk you home, Belladonna. The Hill isn’t too far out of my way, after all, and you wouldn’t want to keep Bilbo waiting up too long.”

Bella made a big show of looking past Otho and out the darkened window. “Oh, Sweet Lady! You’re right,” she gasped, and Fili had to admire how realistic she made her astonishment seem. “He expected us home ages ago!”

Noting Bella’s ‘us’ at the same time Otho did, but taking it as an invitation, Fili spoke up, doing his best to match her performance. He peered out the window and then hung his head, reaching for his pack. “Sorry about that, Bell. But you know Kili and his ‘shortcuts.’” He elbowed Kili, who elbowed him back with a scowl.

Bella laughed. “Well, I know you do. You don’t have to take them, you know.” She smiled warmly at the indignant Kili, her facade temporarily abandoned. “Even if he does give you his Look.”

All three of them burst out laughing at that, leaving poor Otho to sputter and try to come up with a way to retake control of a situation that was obviously not going at all as he’d planned.

Bella was the first to come back to herself. “Oh, dear,” she breathed. “I’m afraid this isn’t making us any less late, is it? We’d best be going, lads.” She rose and turned back to Otho with an - almost - apologetic smile. “Sorry to run, cousin, but you know how Bilbo is about his cooking. If his supper is ruined, I’ll never hear the end of it. Give my best to Lobelia, won’t you?” She didn’t wait for an answer from her cousin before issuing orders to the dwarves. “You lads can go gather your things, and I’ll settle matters with Wil and meet you out front.”

“Cousin Otho,” Fili intoned gravely as he stood. He bowed with an exaggerated flourish.

“Pleasure,” Kili added, mimicking Fili’s bow. It was all Fili could do not to laugh at the look of shocked dismay on the poor halfling’s face. His face had become nearly as green as his shirt. They collected their packs from the heap beneath the table, and Fili adopted his best princely strut. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Kili doing the same, and they left the poor fellow standing, completely befuddled, beside their table.

They both burst into laughter as soon as they stepped out into the lane and the door swung shut behind them.

“Bella is a natural,” Kili declared. “I thought he’d faint when she said we were expected!”

“Poor fellow didn’t know what hit him,” Fili agreed, adjusting his pack to sit more evenly across his shoulders. “Do you really think that sour old barman will send the others our way?”

Kili shrugged. “I don’t know, but Bella should know how to handle her own people, right?”

“She should. And waiting at her house for the others can’t put us in much worse of a position than waiting here would, I suppose.”

Kili’s eyes got dreamy. “Especially if there’s pie…”

“You always think with your stomach, Ki,” Fili chided, chuckling.

“Well, it got us excellent blueberry tarts and a good joke, didn’t it? And pie! These halflings know how to get things done! Imagine if Bella’s pie is even half as good as those tarts… Maybe that’s why Gandalf wants a halfling along - someone has to sweeten Uncle Thorin up, or he’s liable to kill everyone before we even lay eyes on the mountain.”

“If that’s his plan, he’ll have to hire two - one to cook Uncle’s pies, and one to cook Dwalin’s. Otherwise Uncle will never get so much as a bite!”

It felt good just to laugh for a bit. Maybe Kili was right, Fili reflected, and he had been too serious since they went on ahead of the company. What had being serious gotten him? Lost in the dark. Everything seemed to be turning out alright after all, so why worry?

“I just hope we wind up with someone like Bella,” Kili confided. “A pie from that Otho character would probably just make everyone sick.”

Fili’s smile faded in spite of his resolve to stop worrying. “You don’t think she’s having any trouble in there, do you?”

By unspoken agreement, they both dropped their packs behind the bushes at the side of the road and started for the door. Fili took the lead, and Kili fell in half a step behind him, watching his back as always.

Suddenly, the door flew open, and Bella came storming out, dragging a very startled-looking Otho along behind her. “…one whit what sort of company you think that makes me, Otho Sackville-Baggins!” She spun to face the stout halfling, and Fili realized that instead of her holding him, it was he who held her wrist in a bruising grip. The stupid sod had apparently been too shocked to let go when Bella started moving.

“You having any trouble, Bell?” Kili growled, his eyes on her arm too.

“None at all,” Bella replied, trying to twist out of his grip. “Oh, Otho!” she exclaims, stomping her foot. “Let go of me this instant!”

That seemed to bring the fellow back to his senses somewhat. But instead of releasing the lass, he dragged her around in front of himself, like a shield. “Now, see here,” he stammered, his eyes darting wildly between the two armed dwarves. Neither had drawn a weapon yet, but both Fili and Kili had taken up defensive stances, and neither of them looked kindly on the halfling’s treatment of their new friend. “I’ll call the Sherriff on you!”

“For what?” Fili asked, taking a step forward and resting his hand on the hilt of one of his swords.

“Yeah,” Kili agreed. “Far as I can see, the only one causing trouble here is you.” Kili stepped forward as well, and Otho backed away, dragging Bella with him.

“See, Belladonna? I told you these strange folk shouldn’t be trusted. Troublemakers, the lot! Who knows what sort of trouble you’d have gotten yourself into if I hadn’t been here!”

Fili saw Bella’s jaw clench. “I’d release the lass right now, if I was you,” Fili stated slowly and calmly. He moved his hand away from his sword.

If the halfling had had a lick of sense, he’d have backed down by now, but Fili hadn’t forgotten the powerful glares this stammering idiot had directed their way back in the tavern. Nor had he forgotten the wizard’s stubborn insistence that they hire a halfling to handle a dragon. Despite the amused smirk growing on his brother’s face, Fili wasn’t ready to count this fellow out just yet. Not until Bella was safely out of his grasp.

“You can’t tell me what to do,” Otho declared, trying to wave a very disgruntled Bella in front of him by way of proof. “Belladonna is my cousin, and I say what she -”

Bella elbowed him in the face with her free arm, spinning to follow through and drop with him to the ground. “Don’t call me Belladonna,” she snarled, tearing her arm out of his grasp. She ducked back into the building as Otho’s startled silence gave way to pained howls. Judging from the blood pouring through his fingers, she’d broken his nose.

“Come on, lads,” Bella said briskly as she came back out, a pack slung over her shoulder and a walking stick in her hand. “I do believe I owe you a pie.”

Chapter Text

Bilbo had mixed feelings upon opening the door.

On the one hand, the person on the other side was another dwarf, which, as far as Bilbo was concerned, could hardly be considered a good thing on its own. But on the other hand, this particular dwarf seemed much less intimidating than the first one. In fact, Bilbo decided he’d go so far as to describe the newcomer as almost grandfatherly. Based on this new dwarf’s rich dress, outlandish though it was, and his polite introduction and commentary on the weather, Bilbo almost immediately came to the comforting conclusion that this was a gentledwarf.

A potential ally.

His conclusion was confirmed when the newcomer’s first action upon entering his home was to put a stop to the other dwarf’s plundering of the cookie jar.

All his plans - simple, comforting ones that mostly involved the newcomer revealing himself to be here for the express purpose of collecting the first dwarf, then Bilbo sending him off with a pie for his troubles - evaporated in an instant when the pair of dwarves smashed their heads together with a pair of matching grins.

He’s as wild as the first, Bilbo thought, a little faintly, too flabbergasted to stop them moving next into his pantry.

Then the dwarves’ words registered. The wild dwarf had greeted the grandfatherly one as a brother. Bilbo, of all people, could understand the way siblings could influence one another. How many times had he engaged in play fighting in the garden, just to please Bella? Or crisscrossed the Shire to fetch her back again after she’d gone gallivanting off in search of elves?

Perhaps these dwarves were no different. Perhaps the second dwarf might yet be reasoned with. And at least he didn’t appear to be armed, which made it slightly less likely that he’d kill Bilbo if he caused offense.

A block of Bilbo’s best blue cheese came flying out of the pantry, narrowly missing his ear, and Bilbo found he could remain silent no longer. “Excuse me,” he began, adopting his best impression of his father’s impeccable manners, even as the dwarves continued ransacking his pantry. “I hate to interrupt, but I’m not entirely sure you’re in the right house.”

The dwarves ignored him entirely.

Bilbo soldiered on. “It’s not that I don’t like visitors. I like visitors as much as the next hobbit, but I do like to know them before they come, er, visiting.”

The first dwarf poured an ale for his brother, who murmured his approval and began digging through a shelf of last summer’s preserves.

“The thing is,” Bilbo continued, becoming rather more stern than he had originally planned, in the face of the dwarves’ continued refusal to listen to reason. “I don’t know either of you, not in the slightest. I don’t mean to be blunt, but I, uh, but I had to speak my mind. I’m sorry.”

He nearly quailed before the look they both suddenly leveled at him. He saw enough of the wild brother in the genteel one’s face to realize he had seriously underestimated him.

He was certain he was going to die.

“Apology accepted.”

Bilbo blinked, but both dwarves turned back to the task of pouring drinks as if they had not just frightened Bilbo out of his wits, and what’s more, completely ignored all his polite hints to leave his home. “Now, see here!” Bilbo raised a finger this time in support of the tongue lashing he was about to give these two, but he was interrupted by an alarmingly loud crash in the entry hall.

He froze.

The pair of dwarves turned toward Bilbo once more. The first dwarf adopted a tone of patience and suggested gently, “Ye might wanna see to tha’.”

Jolted, Bilbo looked back to the two dwarves still standing in his pantry in time to see the wild one share a pitying look with the grandfatherly one. He realized he was still pointing his finger accusingly at the pair, and quickly lowered it. “Ah, yes. Yes, of course. Please excuse me for a moment. Please, make yourselves at home.”

It wasn’t until he was creeping down the hall and caught the wild dwarf’s mutter of “simpleton” that Bilbo realized he had just managed to welcome the very dwarves he’d just spent the last quarter hour trying to shoo out the door. He was in the middle of cursing his father’s manners when he heard other voices in the hall.

“…daresay these floors have seen worse,” one was saying. One that sounded suspiciously like Bella’s. The voice was definitely female, and at worst, Bilbo reasoned, even a female dwarf would have to be a fair bit easier to confront than the male ones.

“Careful now,” came another voice, decidedly more masculine than the first, and Bilbo paused, afraid of what sort of dwarf this new male might be. “I’ve just had ‘em sharpened. Watch that one, Bell!”

At his sister’s name, Bilbo peeked around the corner, alarmed, to see his sister and two unfamiliar figures crawling about on the floor runner, dragging several somethings into a pile. “Bella?”

His sister whirled at the sound of his voice. She had an armload of knives, of all things! “Bilbo! Did we startle you?”

“A… a bit.”

Bella climbed to her feet, as did the two strangers, who, Bilbo realized with a pang of disappointment, brought the total number of dwarves currently in his home up to four.

And Bella seemed to know them.

Because of course she did.

“Bilbo, may I introduce Fili,” the golden haired dwarf bowed with his arms full of yet more knives, “and his brother Kili.” The dark haired one followed his brother’s example, his arms occupied with an empty quiver and a dozen or so arrows, and the wild dwarf’s cloak, which they must have tripped on when they came in the door.

Bella passed her armload to the golden dwarf and skipped over to Bilbo’s side, taking his arm in hers. “And this is my brother Bilbo,” she chirped brightly. “You can put your weapons in the hall closet. I’ve just got to drop my pack in my room, and then we’ll see about dinner - and that pie!”

As the two new dwarves finished gathering up the fallen weapons and began attempting to stack them in the bottom of the rather cluttered hall closet, Bella leaned close to her brother. “Dwarves, Bilbo!” she whispered breathlessly. “Dwarves! In the Shire!” She danced away down the hall with a dreamy grin. “Can you believe it?”

Bilbo winced as the pile of weapons crashed down against the hastily shut closet door.

Yes.

Yes, he could.

Chapter Text

“Come along, Ori. We don’t want to keep Mister Gandalf and our new burglar waiting.” Dori tried in vain to hustle her youngest sister along from where she’d stopped — yet again — in the lane.

“Hang on, Dori,” Ori answered, pulling a sketchbook and charcoal out of one of her many pockets. “I just want a quick sketch. Isn’t this view charming? I’ll bet it’s even prettier in the daylight.”

“It’s a door,” Nori said flatly from somewhere behind them. Dori tried not to put too much thought into why her middle sister was behind them again, when she’d gone on ahead earlier. She probably wouldn’t approve.

Ori hummed an absentminded agreement, her charcoal already flying across the page in light, practiced strokes.

“Come on,” Nori moaned at the sound of a doorbell up ahead, herding her two sisters toward the gate with her arms thrown wide. Ori looked surprised by Nori’s impatience, but Dori wasn’t. She probably had money riding on some aspect of this meeting and was anxious to get her payout. Once, Dori would have been upset by such a notion, but Nori was so good at her money games, they could hardly be called gambling anymore.

Ori ducked out from under her sister’s arm with the ease of long practice and stepped back into the lane to put the finishing touches on her drawing. Dori tried to follow, but as she was normally the one doing the herding, rather than being herded herself, she was easily stopped by Nori’s grip on her arm. “Leave her,” she ordered with an eye roll, and she dragged Dori along through the garden. She probably needed Dori to witness for whatever she’d bet on.

By the time they reached Gandalf and the others waiting on the stoop, Ori had finished and caught up to them. She hastily stuffed her art supplies back into her pockets. Dori straightened her scarf and wiped a smudge of charcoal off her nose, but Nori ducked away from similar treatment, using their youngest sister as a shield. “Oh, no, you don’t!”

Dori was about to hiss a reproach, when an angry voice drifted through the round green door. Apparently, any hopes she might have had of making a good first impression were in vain.

“…some clot head’s idea of a joke, I can only say, it is in very poor taste!”

Light flooded into the front garden from the suddenly opened door. For once, Dori’s sisters’ antics seemed to have been more helpful than not. They saved the three of them from being part of the very undignified heap of dazzled dwarves lying in the hobbit’s front hall. Nori looked quite smug about that fact, as if she’d somehow managed to plan to be one of the few left standing. Dori swatted her shoulder, and the smirk disappeared.

“Gandalf.”

Dori was quite certain that she’d never dare treat a wizard to a Look like the one the hobbit gave Mr Gandalf then. Even Thorin would never dare give him such a Look - at least not to his face. She couldn’t decide whether this display of audacity heralded the end of the burglar or the beginning of the end of the dragon.

Then someone small had tackled Gandalf about the waist, and the wizard was laughing. Next thing Dori knew, Nori was helping a little hobbit lass pull Bombur off the top of the pile, and Ori was squeaking at Dori to let her go, and the male hobbit still hadn’t been turned into anything unnatural, so Dori dared begin to hope. She relinquished her death grip on her youngest sister, and they both joined the effort of righting all their toppled companions.

Soon, all the dwarves were on their feet once more, and the lass turned her attention to greeting them all properly. “Bella Baggins, at your service,” she said with a curtsy and a smile. “And this is my brother, Bilbo.” She dragged the male hobbit forward from the muddy trunk he’d been sitting on.

He opened his mouth to say something, but all he managed was a sort of strangled moan, and he gave up on the notion of speech in short order. Instead, he made an effort at a polite nod to each of them, but between the mud stains all up and down his trousers, and the patched dressing gown that had slipped its ties, and the sheer number of times he had to nod to greet them all, he ended up looking rather ridiculous anyway.

Dori stomped on Nori’s foot, and the chuckle that had been bubbling up was quickly transformed into a cough. “Dori, daughter of Kori, at your service,” Dori offered quickly. Ori followed suit at once, and soon, all of the dwarves had introduced themselves.

The lass pointed them in the direction of the dining room, with instructions to make themselves at home, while her brother spluttered indignantly behind her shoulder. “Really, Bilbo, you’re being silly,” she hissed between the clenched teeth of her smile as the dwarves trooped by. Miss Baggins caught the wizard’s arm near the end of the line, and her brother followed them all down the hall, still grumbling to himself.

Dori’s sharp eyes didn’t miss the single gold coin that passed from Bofur’s hand to Nori’s as they moved around a bend in the corridor. Dori shook her head and decided to hang back and straighten the entryway. A few of the dwarves - and Dori was proud to say that both her sisters were among them - had managed to get their cloaks and scarves onto the numerous pegs by the door, but most seemed to have just tossed them in that general direction and hoped for the best. Really, it was a wonder no one had tripped on their way through.

The cloaks all straightened and hanging, Dori turned her attention to the luggage scattered all over the floor. They’d left the bulk of their supplies with the ponies in Bywater, but thirteen dwarves’ necessaries still made for a great deal of clutter. She had half a mind to snag one of the others to help her, but when the next three to pass through the hall bearing furniture were Dwalin, Kili, and deaf old Oin, she decided she’d be better off handling the matter herself.

“You don’t have to do that,” said a soft voice.

Dori whirled with a boot in hand and gasped out something less than polite, caught unawares by Miss Baggins’ return. She winced at her exclamation, but the lass had just scared her half to death, so perhaps she would excuse her language.

Miss Baggins smiled a little ruefully at having startled her. “I’m sorry. But you don’t have to do all that, you know.”

Dori smiled back and returned to her search for the boot’s mate. Judging by the smell, it was Kili’s, which meant the missing one could be literally anywhere. “Don’t worry,” she answered breezily. “I’m no victim. I’ll pick up now, but rest assured, the lads will get an earful about it later. They should know better than this.”

“But you’re a guest,” Miss Baggins insisted, kneeling down to pair off boots alongside Dori. “My mother didn’t raise me to make dinner guests work for their meal.”

“Come now,” Dori chided gently, giving up on finding Kili’s other boot for the time being. It’d turn up sooner or later, and if not, he’d go barefoot for a few miles and learn to keep better track of his things. “Judging by your brother’s reaction to our arrival, I would have to guess that this is something of an unexpected party. Besides, I wouldn’t imagine that we are exactly the sort of dinner guests your mother raised you to entertain.”

The hobbit shook her head with a tinkling laugh. “You’d be surprised! Though, I must confess, when I invited Fili and Kili to have supper while they waited for the rest of the company, I hadn’t exactly bargained on their company being quite so large!”

Dori joined her host’s laughter. “It would be just like those two to let something like that ‘slip.’ They’re probably having a good laugh over it now.”

“As are we, it would seem.”

Dori agreed, but Mr Baggins, having recovered from the initial shock of the dwarves’ arrival, seemed to be of a different mind on the matter. He stormed into the hall on Bifur’s heels. “Those are my plates! Excuse me! Not my wine!” He paused further down the hall as he tried to divert the current of dwarves bearing items into the dining room. He aimed an exasperated glare at his sister as he shoved at Bofur. “Put that back! Put it back!” He stood on tiptoe to wave at Gloin, who was just coming out of the pantry. “Not the jam, please!” Gloin ignored him and pushed by, but Mr Baggins had already spotted another offender and begun elbowing his way toward the pantry, like a salmon swimming upstream.

“Is your brother quite alright?”

Miss Baggins laughed as Bombur waddled out of the pantry under the weight of three entire wheels of cheese, and all her brother could think to do about it was inquire about which utensil he was planning to use on them. “I think it’s good for him,” she said finally, as he straightened his suspenders and looked unduly pleased with himself at his handling of the matter.

“Pardon me,” Oin growled as he stomped past them with a rickety-looking chair in his arms.

“Oh, dear.”

“What is it?” Dori asked, concerned.

“That’s Grandpa Mungo’s chair,” Miss Baggins answered, pushing the satchel she was holding into Dori’s hands and beginning to follow Oin. “I doubt if Bilbo —”

Bilbo didn’t. “That’s antique —  not for sitting on!”

She sighed as he sent Oin back the way he’d come. She stopped the elderly dwarf before he could take the chair back. “It’s alright,” she said loudly, obviously having spotted his ear trumpet. “Just take it through here.” She directed Oin through a side door into the parlor. “The dining room is just on the other side of the kitchen. Just take care when you sit down the first time. It’s a bit creaky, but if it doesn’t drop you right away, you should be fine.”

“Thank ye, lass.”

Once Oin was gone, Miss Baggins leaned against the door frame with her eyes closed and pinched the bridge of her nose, as if she had a headache coming on. Given the chaos that had suddenly invaded her home, Dori couldn’t blame her. “Really,” the hobbit demanded of no one in particular, “what else is everyone supposed to sit on, if not the chairs?”

“I really am willing to help, Miss Baggins,” Dori offered. “Only direct me to where I can be of the most use.”

“Just Bella,” she answered, cracking one eye open. She appeared torn between propriety and a desire to have an ally in this mad dinner party fiasco. Then, from further in the smial, Mr Baggins began shouting something about a map, and Bella’s mind was made up. “Could you perhaps make sure everyone has drinks, at least?”

Dori bowed. “Of course, Bella.”

Bilbo shouted something else, and a very disgruntled Nori slunk out of the dining room with Bofur in tow, the miner initiating a tug-of-war with a string of sausages in an obvious bid to cheer her up.

Bella closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then another. “There’s wine and ale in the cellar, through the pantry, and cups over the sink in the kitchen. I’d expect Gandalf remembers where everything is, if you have any questions.”

“Where are you going?” Dori asked, as Bella started off in the direction of the dining room.

“I’m going to see if I can find a cupboard big enough to hold my brother, before he gets himself killed.”

“No one here would harm our host,” Dori hastened to assure her. “We have better manners than that, at least.”

“You might, but I’m not sure I do,” Bella replied with a crooked grin. “Perhaps the wardrobe in the front bedroom….”

Chapter Text

“What, in Durin’s name, is a petunia?”

Thorin squinted at his hastily scribbled directions in the weak moonlight, but the parchment didn’t have an answer for him. He cursed and kicked a fencepost, but it didn’t have anything more to say on the subject than the parchment had.

All the little, grassy hills looked the same in the dark - much as they had done in the daylight, only now all their garish flowers were muted into greys and blues instead of reds and yellows. How Gandalf expected him to find one halfling’s little hidey-hole in a whole field of them, he would never understand.

He kicked the fencepost again, his reinforced boots protecting his toes.

“Oi! You there!”

Thorin started and spun, his hand automatically reaching for the axe strapped across his back. A diminuitive little man, who could only be a halfling, was scuttling down the garden path, brandishing a rake.

“What d’you think yer doin’?” he demanded, thrusting the business end of the rake right up under Thorin’s nose.

Thorin held his hands out to his sides in a gesture of surrender. “My apologies, Master…”

“Holman Greenhand, I’ll have you know,” the halfling snapped. “Rightful caretaker of this here fencepost you seem so intent on vandalising!”

“My apologies, Master Greenhand,” Thorin repeated. “I seem to have lost my way.”

“Oh?” the halfling questioned absently, leaning down to inspect the post for damage, heedless of the rake’s dangerous swaying in Thorin’s face. “Got it in for one fencepost in particular then?”

Thorin called to mind a vision of Balin and schooled his expression into one of his advisor’s polite calm. “Not at all, Master Greenhand. I am afraid I am late to a meeting at the home of a - “ he consulted his parchment once more, though the gathering clouds were quickly robbing him of usable light “- Master Boggins. Have you heard of him?”

The halfling straightened, puffing his chest in sudden, inexplicable indignation. “Heard of him? Lad, ain’t no one in these parts heard of a ‘Boggins!’ No such person!” He lowered the rake and seemed to take in Thorin’s appearance for the first time. “Could be it’s ‘Baggins’ yer after, but even so, you look more like the sort of company Miss Baggins would keep, than what her brother would.”

“Even so,” Thorin answered, holding that image of Balin’s vapid smile firmly in his mind’s eye. He had no idea what the halfling could mean about this Miss Baggins - indeed, he suspected there was an insult buried somewhere in that statement - but it was more of a lead than he’d had in hours. He was quite ready to be done with wandering these Maker-forsaken footpaths for the night, searching for a clump of petunias. “Would you be so kind as to direct me to the home of this Miss Baggins, Master Greenhand?”

The halfling squinted up at him, considering. “Seems to me, anyone who was invited to such a meetin’ ought to know the first thing about where it was to take place,” he mused. Thorin opened his mouth to respond, but the halfling shrugged suddenly and continued. “But then, yer not the first dwarf to come up this way tonight, so I suppose you may as well join yer fellows. Make it easier on the Sherriff if he has to collect you lot later on. Give my best to Miss Baggins, will you?”

The halfling turned away and started up the path to his door again.

“Wait!” Thorin shouted after him, pride be damned. He was not going to spend any more of this night wandering the hillsides and being threatened with rakes. “Where am I to find her?”

“Right next door, o’ course,” the halfling called without looking back. He waved vaguely up the hill in the direction of the snaking foot path Thorin had already been following. “And don’t be defacin’ any more fenceposts, you hear?”

Thorin didn’t dignify that with an answer.

Chapter Text

Dori found the wine, ale, and cups exactly where Bella had said they would be. She also found a kettle on the stove, and an impressive assortment of dried herbs for teas on the shelf above. She made quick work of preparing a pot of chamomile first, deciding that Bella could probably benefit from its calming effects, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt her brother, either.

Fortified by the little ritual of preparing the tea, Dori loaded the pot and some cups onto a tray and waded into the fray to find the hobbits.

Balin, standing with Oin in a spot well clear of the chaos in the dining room, flagged her down first. “Is that chamomile I smell?”

“Good notion, that,” Oin praised, taking cups for himself and Balin.

“Have either of you seen Bella?” Dori asked as she poured for the two elderly dwarves.

“Aye.” Balin sipped his tea and hummed in appreciation. “I think I saw Ori helping her bring chairs from one of the back rooms a little while ago.”

“Ah, Dori,” Oin exclaimed, “you make the best cup of tea this side of the Misty Mountains! I still say you should’ve opened a shop back in Ered Luin. I’d have sent all my patients your way, and they’d have finally quit all their grousing about taking their medicine.”

Dori blushed in pleasure at the compliment, but when she spoke, she had to fight down the bitterness that wanted to creep into her voice. “Thank you, Oin, but as I’ve told you before, sewing a new coat fetches a prettier price than pouring a cup of tea — even if it is the best.”

Life since Erebor hadn’t been easy, and after their elder brother’s death at Azanulbizar, finances had become even tighter. Nori’s work took the edge off things, but Dori would work her fingers to the bone before she allowed herself to become dependent upon such dishonesty.

“Perhaps, once Ori finishes with her Mastery, a career shift might be more feasible,” Balin suggested with a grandfatherly hand on her shoulder. “Her record of our quest should do it, and two years early, too! She’ll have a post in court once this venture is over, if I have anything to say about it.”

“You are too kind, Balin. You always have been.”

“Nonsense. Ori’s earned it. She’s a bright lass, and hardworking on top of it. You’ve done your parents proud, Dori.”

She blushed again. “Thank you, Balin. But for now, I’m afraid I must find our hostess. I do believe she’s earned a cup of my tea before it goes cold.”

“She has, at that,” Oin agreed, raising his teacup in salute. “And see that brother of hers has a cup, too. He needs a little settling.”

Balin joined the toast, and Dori bustled off down the hall, weaving her way through the throng of dwarves still bearing food into the dining room. Bilbo’s shouting was curiously absent, and Dori wondered if Bella hadn’t been serious about locking him in a closet.

A shout sounded from the dining room, and then Bella came through the door with the reamains of a roasted pork loin. “There’s plenty more on the table,” she called back over her shoulder.

Dori followed her into the kitchen. Kili nearly upset the tea tray, darting in the door under Dori’s arm, but Bella smacked his hand away from the platter when he tried to steal back some of the roast.

He treated her to his infamous puppy dog eyes, but she remained unmoved. “You’ll get no more pity from me,” she said, flicking the tip of his nose with a wooden spoon. “If I’d had any sort of willpower at all, I’d have left you and your company to the mercy of Old Wil and his short pouring!”

“Aw, Bell,” Kili whined. “You don’t mean that.” He held his hands up in surrender.

“I do,” she snapped. Dori looked up from refilling the kettle at her tone. She could see a hint of a smile twitching at the corner of her mouth.

Kili, though, was too busy inspecting the holes in his stockings to see it. “I’m sorry, Bell,” he said. “Do you need me to help you with anything?”

“Now that you mention it, can you go and wrestle some of the carrots away from your friends? And a couple of boiled potatoes?”

Before she had even finished speaking, Kili was dashing out of the kitchen. There was the sound of a scuffle in the dining room, and a pained cry, and then the youngest prince strutted back into the kitchen. “Carrots and potatoes, milady,” he said with a flourish.

Bella giggled. “Why, thank you, kind sir.” The took the proffered bowl and then waved him away, wielding her spoon like a royal scepter. “Now go forth and eat pie.” She giggled again, breaking character. “Before Master Dwalin finishes the last of it!”

Kili’s eyes went wide with horror, and he tore out of the kitchen at top speed, hollering as he went. “Dwalin! Don’t you dare eat my pie!”

Dori handed Bella a cup of tea as they both laughed. Bella thanked her and inhaled the sweet steam. “What is that?” she asked. Dori only smiled and waited for Bella to try a sip. “Chamomile… Chamomile and…” She took another sip, and her eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Is that strawberry?”

Dori smiled as Bella took another drink. “It’s something my mother used to do, adding sliced strawberries while the tea was brewing.”

“I never thought to do that,” Bella murmured. She took another thoughtful sip of the tea. “I like it,” she finally said with a smile. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” Dori surveyed the plates of leftovers arrayed on the counter. “Is there anything else I can help with? This water will take a minute or two.”

“Gandalf said we’re expecting one more member of your company. Since most of supper has already been demolished, I thought I’d pull together a quick stew. It’s not much, but at least it’ll be presentable.”

“I’m sure that will be perfectly adequate,” Dori answered, while privately thinking that they’d all had more than enough stew of late. Bombur was a terrific cook, and he could work wonders with camp rations, but there were only so many ways to make a stew. There was no way Dori was telling their hostess that, though. It was Thorin’s own fault if he got lost and missed supper. Half the company had volunteered to accompany him to the meeting, and then on to the Shire, but he’d been too proud to accept help. He’d get what he’d get, and he’d simply have to be grateful for it.

“Will you cut me a sprig of rosemary?” Bella asked, shaking Dori from her thoughts. “It’s there in the window.”

“Of course.”

“Thank you. For all your help tonight.”

“It’s nothing.” Dori added the rosemary to the pot. “I like to be useful.” On that note, she strained the tea into the teapot, added a few more cups to the tray, and whisked it out of the kitchen. Not three steps down the hall, she nearly ran into Gandalf, who was counting off dwarves on his fingers.

“Excuse me, Mister Gandalf. Can I tempt you with a cup of chamomile?” She raised the pot hopefully, but the wizard declined.

“No, thank you, Dori. A little red wine for me, I think.”

Dori swallowed a petty chuckle when Gandalf turned and immediately hit his head on the chandelier. He deserved it, she decided, for all the trouble he was causing with this meeting.

She sidestepped Nori and Bilbo further down the hall, as they argued over a basket of rather squashed tomatoes, of all things. Their host was going downhill quick, if he was picking actual fights over the produce. She attempted to offer tea, but Nori was having too much fun to pay her any attention, and the hobbit was far too worked up to register anyone beyond his current adversary.

Dori sighed and continued on to the wine cellar. Not having any ideas about the various Shire vintages in the wine rack, Dori grabbed a bottle at random and tucked it under her arm.

Just outside the cellar, she was nearly run over by Fili and Kili, who appeared to be having far too good a time for her peace of mind. It was their fault, as much as the wizard’s, that the hobbits had had no idea just how many dwarves would be descending upon their home. Dori wrangled both princes into serving ale to keep them occupied for a little while at least.

Back in the kitchen, Dori found Bella sifting flour into a tiny cup to thicken the stew. Halfway to the cupboard for the wineglasses, Dori paused, struck by sudden inspiration. “Are you finished with that?” she asked, gesturing to the little measuring cup.

Bella answered that she was, too busy beating the stew into submission to pay much attention to what Dori was doing. It wasn’t until Dori had rinsed the tiny cup in the sink and filled it with wine — it only took a little more than a tablespoon’s worth to accomplish the feat — that Bella paused in her cooking to ask her what on earth she was doing.

“Mister Gandalf asked for a little red wine,” Dori replied matter-of-factly, trying to wrestle the cork back into the bottle.

“But we have bigger glasses,” Bella pointed out, obviously confused.

“I know, but I think he desrves a little share of the vexation this evening, don’t you?” She winked and was pleased to see Bella grin mischievously in return.

“Perhaps a very little share,” she agreed.

Dori raised the measuring cup in mock salute, then headed out ot make her delivery. Gandalf hadn’t moved very far from where she’d left him, but he was engaged in conversation with Dwalin, discussing Thorin’s whereabouts and lateness. Dori added the king to her growing list of people to blame for this evening’s events. Without their leader there to give them the go-ahead, they couldn’t even tell the hobbits why they were all gathered in their home.

“Mister Gandalf?” The wizard turned from his conversation with Dwalin, and Dori held up the miniscule cup. “A little glass of red wine, as requested.” Gandalf looked a little bewildered by the size of the glass and Dori’s apparent perfect unconcern about it. “It’s got a fruity bouquet.”

“Ah.” Gandalf smiled as if he, too, was unfazed by the meager offering, and took the glass. “Cheers.” He downed the wine, but a burst of cheering drew Dori’s attention before he could ask for any more.

She peeked into the dining room on her way by and was horrified to see Fili walking down the center of the table, distributing mugs of ale. She shot a withering look at her sisters, who were down at the far end of the table near Bombur and carrying on like any of the males. Ori subsided somewhat, but Nori had long since perfected the art of ignoring Dori’s scowls. Dori knew she’d have to give up that particular cause as lost, at least for the moment. She continued down the hall, knowing it’d be better for her stress level if she didn’t watch any more of the company’s antics for a while.

She was just coming back to the kitchen once more, when she overheard raised voices coming from inside it.

“…understand what they’re doing in our house!” There was no mistaking Bilbo’s shrill voice.

“If it were a party from Brandy Hall come traipsing in here tonight, you wouldn’t be making near so much fuss,” Bella answered with deliberate care, obviously working to keep her voice even and remain calm.

“That’s different! They’re family. I don’t know any of these people!” Bilbo was all but shouting, and Dori wondered briefly how such a small fellow could stand to be so wound up for such a long time. One would think he’d wear himself out sooner rather than later.

“You’ll get no sympathy from me on that score, Bilbo Baggins.”

“But—”

“Introductions have been made,” Bella said coldly. “They all know you.”

“That makes no difference! What will the neighbors think, when word gets out about us inviting sword- and axe-wielding ruffians from who-knows-where into our house in the dead of night!”

“They’re respectable merchants from the Blue Mountains, travelling to visit kin in the Iron Hills, which you’d know if you’d spent a jot of your energy on welcoming your guests, instead of trying to chase them out the door! And they’re here for supper while they wait for the remainder of their companions.”

Bilbo nearly bowled Dori over as he stormed out of the kitchen. “Excuse me,” she gasped, but Bilbo didn’t even look her way. She understood the trouble her company was causing the hobbits tonight, but honestly, there was such a thing as good grace. At least one of their hosts had it. Or used to, Dori amended silently as she entered the kitchen to see Bella slamming things around in agitation.

“Are you all right?” Dori asked, moving without being asked to stir the stew she could smell beginning to scorch over the fire.

Bella stopped scrubbing at a spot of spilled wine on the table. “I’m fine,” she snapped, but then she seemed to deflate. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be cross. This is all just a tad overwhelming, and I’m afraid Bilbo isn’t being much help.”

“It is a terrible imposition,” Dori pointed out gently. When Bella started to protest, she held up a hand. “It’s all right. We all know it is, but you bear it admirably. And we are grateful. Your brother…” She paused for a moment to choose her next words carefully. “Well, from what it sounds like, your brother had just a little less warning than you did. This is obviously not how he expected to be spending his evening.”

“I know. I’m just disappointed. He could have handled things more graciously.”

Bifur walked in without a word and began washing the dishes already stacked in the sink.

“You don’t have to do that,” Bella protested tiredly. “I’ll get there.”

Bifur just grunted and signed something over his shoulder. Bella looked to Dori, who shrugged. “Er—ducks?”

Suddenly, a plate came flying through the door, missing Dori’s topknot by mere inches. Bella cried out, but Bifur’s hand darted up, and he caught it without even looking. Bilbo’s piercing cry followed it. “Excuse me! That’s my mother’s West Farthing crockery! It’s over a hundred years old!” Rather than putting a stop to the flying dishes, Bilbo’s shout seemed to encourage them. More and more plates and bowls and pieces of silverware came sailing through the door.

Bella and Dori retreated to the far side of the kitchen, where they would be safe from the careening dishes. Dori could see Bella’s white-knuckled grip on the back of the nearest chair as Bifur made miraculous catch after catch, all without looking up from the sink even once.

Before long, a song started up, and the dishes began flying to the beat, as the sounds of drumming, stomping, and Bofur’s flute carried through the halls. Bifur began tossing clean dishes over his shoulder again, and Dori darted forward to catch them before they could crash to the floor. Bella was right at her side seconds later, and Dori passed the dishes to her, so she could stack them in neat piles on the table.

As the stream of dirty dishes tapered off, Bombur and Oin wandered into the kitchen and out again with rags and scrub brushes, and Ori even grabbed a mop and a bucket of water, which the princes quickly confiscated. They flung the water out across the floor in the hall and then started up a spinning dance with the mop, passing it from one to the other and back again, until they’d disappeared around the corner into the dining room.

With a final, resounding chorus of “That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!” the rest of the dwarves trooped into hte kitchen. Bilbo was the last one to arrive, looking fit to burst.

But when he found all the dishes done, and the kitchen — as well, Dori was sure, as the rest of the home — sparkling clean, all the bluster went right out of him. As if they’d leave the place in such a state. No. They might behave like wild things when the mood struck, but they were civilized beings who did, in fact, know how to clean up after a good party.

Chapter Text

Right next door turned out to be up and around the side of the hill, through yet another sprawling garden, up a little set of stone steps, and then back along the hill in the other direction again.

And he still couldn’t find the actual door. The only indication that Thorin had in fact found another dwelling, was the sudden profusion of little, round windows set into the hillside and glowing merrily from the light of lamps and fires within.

In a fit of pique, he kicked another fencepost. Some small, absurd part of him actually expected to be accosted by another rake-wielding halfling, but no one noticed his abuse of the post. He kicked it again for good measure, but there was still no response, so he slumped down on the ground to think.

Why was nothing ever easy?

Why couldn’t the other clans have backed his plan? He’d counted on Dain, at least, to see his side of things, to support his arguments against the council. If he had, then he wouldn’t be relying on this mad scheme of the wizard’s to get his home back. He could have marched on the mountain in proper Dwarvish fashion and retaken it once and for all.

But no. The clans needed proof of the Maker’s favor before they’d come to his aid. It rankled that they’d put more stock in the event of Mahal allowing a halfling to steal the Arkenstone for him, than they would in his rightful claim of blood and honor. He and his father had ruled Erebor at his grandfather’s side before the dragon. And with Thrain gone now, there was no one with a better claim than his own. No one who’d fought so hard and so long to keep their people together and safe.

But it was a halfling who would decide his fate and that of his people.

Maybe the clans should make the halfling King Under the Mountain and be done with it. He could rule with a golden rake.

Thorin flopped down on his back in the thick grass with a humorless laugh, and naturally, that was when he spotted the door, glowing very faintly with the greenish light of the rune scratched upon it.

He sat up again so quickly that he bashed his head on the crossbeam of the fence. Once the stars faded from his vision, he clambered to his feet. He was half-alfraid to look for the door again, afraid it had been merely a figment of his imagination.

But there it was, with a garden gate and a post box not fifty feet further down the path.

Thorin hesitated before knocking. All the way to the door, he’d heard his dwarves singing and carrying on, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to disrupt their merrymaking, not when he brought only bad news and a worse mood.

He smirked a little as he heard the indignant shouting of someone - undoubtedly the halfling - rising above the final chorus. Idiot couldn’t even recognize a simple cleaning song when he heard one. His smile grew. There was no way this halfling would last the journey. No way he’d even sign on with such ruffians.

It was a quest for dwarves, and dwarves would see it done.

He waited for the laughter to die down before he knocked. Gandalf’s ominous “He’s here” carried through the door, and Thorin set his shoulders. It wouldn’t do to appear less than deserving of the wizard’s tone, after all.

Chapter Text

 “I lost my way.” Balin’s eyebrows shot up of their own accord. “Twice,” Thorin amended with a self-deprecating smile, but Balin knew better. His eyebrows climbed even higher, but Thorin resolutely turned away, rather than be coerced into admitting just how long he’d actually been wandering about the countryside on account of his pride. “Wouldn’t have found it at all, had it not been for that mark on the door,” he conceded, somehow managing to make it sound like anything but a concession.

All Master Baggins’ hard-won good grace seemed to leave him again with that statement. “Mark?! There’s no mark on that door! It was painted a week ago!”

Balin winced at the tone, but Gandalf countered it with one of patient condescension. “There is a mark,” he said quietly but firmly. “I put it there myself.” He straightened, and his tone acquired something of formality and occasion. “Bilbo Baggins, allow me to introduce the leader of our company, Thorin Oakenshield.”

If Balin had hoped Thorin might make a good first impression upon his host, he had hoped in vain. Thorin immediately launched a barrage of mortifying questions at the hobbit. Balin suspected it was done to buy the king some time to think. After all, Bilbo Baggins was nobody’s idea of a burglar, so discovering he was the reason for this whole detour to the Shire…

Balin sighed. Regardless of the reason for Thorin’s attitude, he could feel Miss Baggins behind him, growing more and more agitated by the second as the questions continued and her brother did his best to match the king’s haughtiness, with no great degree of success.

Having apparently finished with his thinking, Thorin turned with a smirk to the assembled dwarves. “He looks more like a grocer than a burglar,” he declared.

Apparently, that was the last straw.

Miss Baggins shoved her way between Balin and Kili and stepped up to her brother’s side. “Of course he does,” she snapped over the guffawing of the dwarves.

Instant silence fell.

“A burglar who looked like a burglar would never make it ten steps out his front door, would he?”

Nori snorted at that, but none of the others dared so much as a breath.

The hobbit lass raised her eyebrows, as though challenging anyone present to find fault with her next statement, and Balin cringed in anticipation. “But a king outside his kingdom should take care with his manners,” she said evenly, chin raised to look Thorin in the eye, “lest he be mistaken for less.”

Gandalf looked as though he’d dearly love to laugh, but he contented himself with the tiniest of twinkles in his eye as he awaited Thorin’s response.

The king stared the little lass down, and she stared right back, while her brother looked torn between continued indignation and a sort of horrified awe. Balin willed Thorin to be gracious, or even amused. Anything but angry.

“Indeed,” Thorin rumbled at last, with half a bow and the ghost of a smile, and all the tension seemed to go out of the room in a rush.

The princes were at the hobbit’s side in an instant, eager to be the ones to introduce their plucky little friend to their uncle, but she beat them to it. “Bella Baggins, at your service, your majesty,” she chirped with the barest sketch of a bow. “Your reputation precedes you.”

Balin took a moment to be impressed at the way she conceded his title without conceding the point, but then he remembered himself. He elbowed the dazed Fili into action before Thorin could take offense. For once, the elder prince caught on right away. “Bell’s saved you food in the kitchen, Uncle,” he said hastily.

If the lass was surprised to learn her friends were royalty, she didn’t show it. She merely chuckled at Kili’s mournful addition, that Dwalin had eaten all the pie, and led the way toward the kitchen.

As the others drifted back toward the dining room to reset chairs and refill drinks, Master Baggins was left standing on the mat, looking for all the world as though he’d been turned to stone. Balin took pity on the shellshocked hobbit and sent gentle Ori to bring him along with them at the tail of the group.

The three of them were nearly bowled over as Kili came tearing down the hall, crowing that Dwalin hadn’t gotten all of the pie after all. “There’s a pie safe in the hallway!” he exclaimed at the top of his voice. “Imagine! A safe, just for pie! These halflings are clever folk!”

There was a small uproar from the dining room, and Balin rounded the corner in time to see Kili curled protectively around a plate as Nori and Bofur tried to wrestle it away from him, and Dwalin and Gloin shouted at him from the other side of the table. Bombur was creeping along the wall toward Kili and the others, while Dori was trying unsuccessfully to peel Nori off of Kili’s arm, and Oin was shouting at Gloin to keep it down - he wanted to hear more about the pie. Only Bifur seemed more interested in the spectacle of the fight than the prospect of pie, and Ori was busy settling Master Baggins down with a cup of Dori’s tea in the quietest corner of the room.

“She’s bringing more!” Kili howled as Bombur plowed his way in from the side and picked up the prince entirely, apparently set on shaking the pie out of his grasp. “Fili!”

“Oi!” Fili shouted from the doorway behind Balin’s shoulder, nearly scaring him out of his skin. The elder prince had a stack of plates in one hand, and two pies balanced precariously in the other. “Any gentledwarf who wants pie - “

There was a great scraping as chairs were righted, and suddenly all the combatants were seated at the table, as though they’d been waiting there politely all along.

“That’s better,” Fili said, eyeing them all sternly, looking more like his mother in that moment than Balin had yet seen. Kili crouched where Bombur dropped him and all but inhaled his pie before joining the others at the table as his brother passed out plates. Thorin entered a moment later with a steaming bowl of stew in hand, and Miss Baggins brought up the rear with another pair of pies and an armload of silverware.

There was blessed quiet for a while as the pie was devoured. It was really quite excellent, and fully worth the fuss Kili had put up about it, but finally, Balin could stand the wait no longer. Though he knew Thorin could have no good news — he would have shared it straight off if he had — Balin had to ask. “What news from the meeting in Ered Luin? Did they all come?”

“Aye. Envoys from all seven kingdoms,” Thorin answered, but he took another slow bite of stew as the other dwarves cheered, and Balin’s fears were confirmed. He winced at Dwalin’s hopeful inquiry after Dain’s position. If Dain were coming, he would have come with Thorin.

“They will not come,” Thorin answered lowly. “They say this quest is ours, and ours alone.”

As the others murmured their disappointment, Master Baggins at last looked up, fortified by Dori’s tea. “Y-you’re going on a quest?”

Balin couldn’t help the flash of annoyance that crossed his features when he caught sight of Gandalf’s startled look, as if he’d forgotten all about their host. As if the hobbit hadn’t been the reason for this whole trip. It confirmed Balin’s suspicion — as if any further confirmation were necessary at this point — that poor Master Baggins had had absolutely no idea what they were doing there, despite the wizard’s assurances of a warm welcome.

He noticed a similar look of annoyance on Thorin’s face, though it was directed at the hobbit, rather than the wizard. Clearly, whatever truth there might have been in the lass’s words at the door, Thorin did not believe for an instant that Bilbo Baggins could possibly be anything more formidable than a grocer.

Balin only half-listened as Gandalf revealed the map of Erebor and a key to a hidden door. He paid enough attention to keep the fools from getting too far astray of reality in their grand planning, but the rest of his focus was on the whispered discussion going on at the far end of the table, where the lass was sandwiched between the two princes. Anything that could keep the princes’ interest for that long was sure to cause nothing but headaches for the rest of them.

He suspected their plotting involved getting the lass a place in the company. As the lads’ plans went, it wasn’t a terrible one, at least not on the surface of it. The lass was plucky. He’d give her that. And far more adaptable than he’d have expected, given the other hobbits they’d encountered since entering the Shire. But in spite of all that, Balin could not imagine the princes meeting with much success in this endeavor, which only meant they’d cause more trouble.

“Balin, give him the contract,” Thorin growled.

Balin wrenched his attention back and dug in a pocket for the burglar’s contract. “It’s just the usual summary of out-of-pocket expenses, time required, remuneration, funeral arrangements, so forth,” Balin assured the startled hobbit as he began to unwind the yards of parchment.

Master Baggins stepped back to read through the contract, and Thorin took the opportunity to have a few private words with the wizard. After a moment, they came to an agreement, and both straightened, though neither looked particularly happy. Thorin’s frown grew deeper as he caught sight of his nephews and the hobbit lass, still with their heads together, though their growing grins seemed to indicate they were coming to an agreement of their own. Clearly, Thorin shared Balin’s opinion regarding the plotting of princes.

“Lacerations…” Baggins drawled loudly, drawing every eye in the room. “Evisceration. Incineration!”

Bofur, ever helpful, confirmed. “Oh, aye. He’ll melt the flesh off your bones in the blink of an eye.”

The hobbit looked a bit green. “You all right, laddie?” Balin asked, half-rising from his chair. The last thing they needed was their host collapsing on them. They still needed a place to stay for the night, after all.

Said host took a deep, steadying breath and then perked up considerably. He nodded to himself, then smiled and nodded again. He folded the contract back up in obvious triumph, and then slapped it back down in front of Balin. “What about Bella?”

“I’ll do it.”

Her brother hit the floor.

There was a beat of startled silence, and Balin had time to silently lament the loss of the beds before chaos erupted.

Dwalin and Gloin immediately declared the whole idea ridiculous. Kili leapt to the lass’s defense, quite literally jumping up onto the table to make his point when the two elder dwarves refused to be swayed. Dori and Nori began arguing with one another. Bofur insisted the lass should have a chance. Bifur knocked over a half-full mug of ale with the vehemence of his gesturing, though which side he was on is anyone’s guess, for both his cousins were too busy debating between themselves to bother translating the rapid Iglishmêk for the rest of them. Fili was plowing a path through the uproar so the lass could check on her brother, and Oin kept loudly demanding to know what had gotten everyone so worked up.

“Sit down, Kili.” Thorin’s command cut through the din, and silence fell at once. All the dwarves sank back into their chairs. Without looking over his shoulder, Thorin asked the lass, “Is he all right?”

It was Fili who answered, scooping up the dazed hobbit. “He’ll be fine. Just a little knock to the head.”

“Take him through here,” the lass requested. “He just needs to sit quietly for a moment.”

An expectant silence filled the room, though Balin already knew what Thorin’s answer would be. “I will not have a lass along on this journey,” he said at last, his voice a mixture of annoyance and fatigue.

“What of Dori and her sisters?” Balin asked, careful to keep any hint of challenge out of his voice. He merely meant to make Thorin stop and think. It wouldn’t do to make thoughtless declarations and draw battle lines rashly. “Do you mean to leave them behind?”

The three dams stiffened in their seats, but Thorin answered immediately. “They are different,” he growled. “As you well know, Balin.”

Fili piped up as he came back through the doorway. “Why not give her a chance, Uncle? She’s tougher than she looks.”

“Yes,” Kili agreed. “She bested her cousin just this evening! And anyway, you’ve already agreed to take Mister Bilbo.”

The argument surged back into action after that, with each dwarf shouting to be heard over all the others. Nearest Balin could tell, the dwarves for the lass outnumbered those against her, but only just. And then there was their conviction on the matter to consider. While he himself saw no reason not to take her along — she could hardly be less qualified than Ori or Bombur — he did not see enough marks in her favor that he would argue the point against Thorin, if it came down to it.

Thorin shoved himself to his feet. “Enough! I will not take responsibility for a coddled little halfling lass on a quest to face a dragon! I was foolish to agree to take on her brother, but I will take him if I must, for the wizard insists.”

“And if the wizard insists upon her as well?” Gandalf asked around his pipe. When Thorin merely glowered at him, he continued. “You tasked me with finding the fourteenth member of this company —”

Thorin rounded angrily on the wizard, but his voice was rock steady. “And you have selected Master Baggins. At my count, he is number fourteen. We have no need of a fifteenth. She will not come.”

Chapter Text

 

“Far over the Misty Mountains cold,

To dungeons deep and caverns old

We must away, ‘ere break of day,

To find our long forgotten gold.”

 

The other dwarves joined in the song one by one, until the whole room thrummed with the intensity of it.

 

“The pines were roaring on the height.

The winds were moaning in the night.

The fire was red. It flaming spread.

The trees like torches blazed with light.”

 

Though there were more verses to the song, Thorin realized singing was making him feel both better and worse at the same time, and he trailed off.

These dwarves, his company, they understood, and they allowed the sound to fade away into the air. They felt it too: the weight of all that past, present, and uncertain future hanging over their heads. Sometimes it felt as though it was enough to crush him into dust. And there was no hope in the song. Only pain and the grim task he’d laid before them.

Suddenly seized with a strong desire to be anywhere but there, Thorin put out his pipe and tucked it into a pocket. Contrary to Balin’s worst fears, the company had not been ejected from the smial following their host’s fainting spell, and Thorin murmured to his dwarves to enjoy the warmth and security. He wasn’t sure where he was going in this home that wasn’t his, but he just needed to get away, to allow his dwarves a chance at reclaiming some of the good cheer he’d interrupted earlier.

He wandered the curving hallways for a while, losing himself in the architecture. He couldn’t help but marvel at the halflings’ skill in delving through such soft soil. He’d expected something more like a rabbit warren, with oozing worms and stinking leaf rot all around, but this place was snug and pleasant, though rather lacking in right angles for his taste.

He was studying the peculiar way a support beam arced around a polished tree root in the main hall, when raised voices drew his attention to the closed study.

“I can’t believe you!”

“Bella, don’t start.”

Master Baggins, arguing with his sister about sleeping arrangements after all. Well, his company were no strangers to sleeping on the ground. With their supplies in Bywater, it would be inconvenient to be ejected from the smial at this time of night, but they had dealt with much worse. He was about to step in and tell the halflings as much, absolve them of any responsibility, but the lass’s next words brought him up short.

“What if it was Bag End?”

“Excuse me?” Baggins sounded exhausted. Thorin couldn’t blame him on that score, knowing now how little warning the halfling had been given of his company’s arrival.

“You heard me. What if it was West Farthing crockery and Longbottom Leaf that dragons coveted? And no Tooks or Brandybucks or even greedy Sackville-Bagginses would help you?”

“Bella, I feel for them. I really do.”

There was a pause, and Thorin felt a flash of hope. Absurd as it was, he wanted the lass to win this argument, to convince her brother to take his side like the clans refused to do. Even if he did not want her on this journey, he found it suddenly important that even one other being in Middle Earth cared what happened to his dwarves.

“No.” Thorin could hear the resolve harden into steel in her brother’s voice. Thorin’s disappointment was tempered with surprise that the little fellow had such conviction in him, after everything. “Bella, it’s just too dangerous! I can’t allow you to go. It’s completely out of the question. I’m sorry.”

“You can’t allow me to go,” his sister repeated flatly. Maker, but he knew that tone… Just as he knew the Look that went with it, though it was Dis’s ice blue gaze he pictured, rather than the lass’s honey brown. He had a sinking feeling the lass meant to follow them, whether he consented to her presence or not.

“Belladonna Baggins, be serious for once in your life! Don’t you give me that look! You are a Baggins of Bag End, for all you pretend at being a Took. And for a Baggins of Bag End to go traipsing across the Wilds with a troop of homeless dwarves… You’d be ruined!”

“You sound like Otho.”

“Now, Bella —”

“No.” Bella cut him off angrily, tears clear in her voice. “It is not for you — or anyone — to allow me to do anything. I will help these dwarves because it is the right thing to do, danger be damned. And if there is not enough room in my precious reputation for such honor as that, then damn my reputation, too!”

Thorin knew what came next.

Conscious of how little his own sister would like to be seen in such a state, he ducked into the nearest room. Sure enough, no sooner had Thorin gotten the door shut, than the door to the study banged open, and the sounds of sniffling and hurried footsteps passed down the hall.

“Not hiding, are we?”

Thorin whirled and realized he’d taken refuge in Balin’s temporary quarters. His advisor continued with his bedtime preparations as though it was perfectly natural for people to burst into his room uninvited late at night.

There was only one bed in the room, but Thorin spied another blanket and a pillow laid out on the window seat. “Are you sharing with Dwalin then?” he asked. The window seat would be a little cramped for the burly warrior, but still a luxury after the journey from Ered Luin.

“Don’t change the subject,” Balin scolded without looking up. He slipped off his socks and tucked them into the tops of his boots. He wriggled his bare toes in the thick carpet beside the bed.

Thorin scowled. “The halflings are fighting about accompanying us.” He didn’t voice his guilty suspicion that the lass had been crying over the matter — though he realized now that there was some larger issue between the siblings that was only being exacerbated by their presence.

Balin sank into the soft bed with a contented sigh. “They both seem hard-headed, in their own ways.” He peered up at Thorin with one eye. “I take it, then, that we have lost our burglar? And you are still set against Miss Baggins for the task?”

Thorin flopped back against the door with an exasperated huff. “Are you going to argue for her? I doubt you could put the matter any more eloquently than she did herself, just now.”

Balin sighed and closed his eyes once more. “Ah, well, probably for the best. The odds were always against us. After all, what are we? Merchants, miners, tinkers, toy-makers… Hardly the stuff of legend.”

Thorin lurched upright, taken with a sudden fit of loyalty to these dwarves who had already proven so loyal to him. “I will take every one of these dwarves over an army from the Iron Hills,” he growled, “for when I called upon them, they came. Loyalty. Honor. A willing heart. I can ask no more than that.”

“Still,” Balin mused, tucking his hands behind his head, “willing though she may be, I cannot say that I see the wisdom in taking a young, untried hobbit lass across the world with us to face a dragon.”

“Irresponsible at best,” Thorin agreed.

Balin hummed thoughtfully. “We’ve enough on our plate with Bifur’s injury and young Ori and those troublemaking nephews of yours to look after. Speaking of the lads, they’ll take the news hard, I’m afraid. They’ve already grown attached to our would-be burglaress.”

“Too attached. She’s already a distraction.”

“What will you do about Dori and her sisters, then?”

Thorin scoffed. “Meaning what? They’re family. They —”

“—are as warm-blooded as any of the rest of us. I, myself, would ask Dori for an evening stroll, if I thought she’d accept out of anything beyond a sense of obligation.”

Thorin took a moment to consider that. He and Dwalin had grown up with Bori, been nigh inseparable before the dragon, and in the early Wandering Years. All three of them had sworn blood oaths to look after one another’s families before Azanulbizar, though it was Thorin and Dwalin who’d had to follow through. They’d cared for their fallen friend’s three sisters as best they could, as much as the eldest dam’s pride would allow, and Balin’s smooth manner and kindly nature had been invaluable help in that task.

Dori was a force of nature, like Dis, and it was difficult for Thorin to think of her as the object of anyone’s romantic interest. Nori was much the same in his mind, though he had heard plenty of rumors of her various entanglements, both romantic and otherwise. She’d proven time and again that she could handle such matters for herself, so Thorin had found even her current relationship with the miner easy to put out of his mind. She’d be the first one to cut her losses if it became an impediment in this venture. And as for little Ori… He knew Dwalin had a soft spot for her, but he also knew both she and Dwalin were far too focused on their respective goals to allow for any real distractions.

“They’re different,” Thorin said at last, lamely.

Balin let that particular point go, and Thorin was grateful for his charity. “The wizard will have something to say about your decision, too,” Balin mused. “But better that, than have her along for the duration, I suppose. As friendly as he appears to be with the lass, and with the impression you’ve made this evening, she’d be sure to take his side in every little matter. There’ll be enough butting of heads in this venture without the wizard having such an outspoken ally.”

“At least she has some spine,” Thorin countered. He hated to admit it, but he was still stinging a bit from her rebuke at the door. “More than her worrywart grocer of a brother has shown, at any rate.”

“Ah, go easy on the lad, Thorin. Gandalf has used him terribly tonight. I thought it a prank at first, or perhaps a case of shock or second thoughts stemming from meeting Dwalin first, out of us all… But from what I’ve gathered, we were completely unexpected. Thank the Maker your nephews bumped into Miss Baggins before we all got here! She’d have seen us out in no uncertain terms, I’m afraid, if we’d all shown up completely unannounced on her watch.”

Thorin bowed his head. “I’m being unfair,” he conceded. He thought back to what he’d overheard from the study. “Master Baggins is concerned for his sister, though he seems to value their reputation more than her safety.”

“I gather we are not the sort of company one should keep here in the Shire.”

Thorin snorted at that. “No, old friend,” he agreed sadly. “We are not the sort of company most would choose to keep since the coming of the dragon.” He could not keep the bitterness from his voice as he added, softly, “Not even our kin, Balin. Not even Dain.”

“I know, old friend,” Balin murmured.

A knock on the door startled them both out of their thoughts.

“Come,” Balin called.

“Balin, have you seen —” Kili started as he opened the door. “Oh! Uncle! Bella says to let you know your room is ready, and to tell you she’ll be just down the hall if you need anything. She’s sharing with Dori, but she says don’t hesitate to knock if something comes up.”

“Actually, Kili,” Thorin sighed, “ask her to come in here, please.”

Balin’s eyebrows rose in silent question, but Thorin ignored him. He’d made a decision.

Chapter Text

“She’s in!”

Before Dwalin could respond, Kili was off, stolen cookie in hand. He almost bowled Thorin over not ten feet down the hall. Grinning from ear to ear, he barely slowed to gasp out a hasty “Sorry, Uncle,” before ricocheting off a curved support beam and tearing off down another tunnel-like hallway.

Dwalin continued down the hall at his more dignified pace, pulling another cookie from inside his vest — he’d long since learned to carry a spare whenever the princes were around.

Thorin winced as another crash sounded from the direction Kili had gone. Clearly, the lack of proper corners and angles was getting the better of the younger prince. Dwalin barked out a laugh and clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Rumor has it, ye’ve let the lass sign on after all. An’ by rumor, I mean Kili.”

“News travels fast.”

“It’s true then?” Dwalin had figured it for a plot on the princes’ part: spread the rumor and hope either Balin produced a contract for the lass on their word alone, or the company got so used to the idea, that their uncle would have no choice but to sign her on or risk a mutiny.

Thorin nodded tiredly, clearly already having doubts about his decision. “She can be very… persuasive.”

Dwalin scanned his friend’s face for anything suggestive, but then he caught himself. This was Thorin. There was no one in the company less likely to be persuaded in that manner.

Thorin must have caught the look on his face. He shoved him to make him stop it. “So help me, Dwalin,” he growled, a mix of alarm and irritation taking over his face, “if she’s inspiring such thoughts already, I’ll toss her contract in the fire myself, and we’ll be out of the Shire before sunrise.”

Dwalin cringed. Out of the Shire with only thirteen, and an angry wizard on top of that. And he had no doubt that when Gloin started moaning about all their ill luck, Thorin would send him straight to Dwalin as the cause. “Peace, Thorin,” Dwalin soothed, his hands up in surrender. “Ye’ve nothing to fear from me. Honor the contract, now it’s made. Only way to know if ye’ve done right. Come on. Let’s ‘ave a smoke.”

Dwalin led the way out into the front garden. The bench was a bit damp, but apparently even the rainstorms in the Shire came in miniature form, so they sat anyway.

“So,” Dwalin ventured, after the tobacco had gone some small way toward smoothing Thorin’s ruffled feathers. “What did convince ye then, if it wasn’t ‘er feminine wiles?” He braced himself, hoping for a punch or another shove to lighten the atmosphere, but Thorin didn’t move, beyond letting all the tension drain out of his shoulders. He slumped forward to brace his elbows on his knees, head hanging. It was a weightier matter than Dwalin had first thought. “Ye want me to fetch Balin?”

Balin had always been better at handling such things. Where Dwalin was content to let a decision, once made, simply run its course, Balin was the one who analyzed every side of an issue, checking and rechecking their course. He was sure Balin was much better suited to Thorin’s present mood, but Thorin chuckled darkly and shook his head. “It’s a discussion with him that’s gotten me into this mess.”

“I can’t believe Balin would argue for signing on a halfling lass!”

“He didn’t,” Thorin clarified. He took a few thoughtful puffs on his pipe. “He argued my side in the matter, the bastard.” He realized what he’d said and patted Dwalin’s leg clumsily without looking up. “No offense meant.”

Dwalin laughed. “None taken — I hate it when ‘e’s right.” Thorin tensed beside him, and Dwalin was quick to continue, lest Thorin think he was siding against him somehow. “It’s yer choice in the end, is all. Balin just ‘as a knack for making us choose for ourselves.”

Thorin nodded but didn’t speak. Thinking.

“What is it that convinced ye, Thorin?” Dwalin asked again eventually. If he could get his friend to tell him the root of his decision, maybe he could convince him to follow it through.

I’ll do it,” Thorin answered, quoting the lass. “Like we were asking for a volunteer to scrub pots after dinner.”

“Ye worred she doesn’ take it seriously?” Dwalin asked. Thorin shook his head, and Dwalin knew his friend had heard her crying too. “What then? We all joined up because ye called. I’d like to think tha’ went a long way in recommendin’ us, an’, well, she’s done just about the same thing, hasn’ she?”

Thorin sighed and sat back against the bench again. “That’s the truth of it. She volunteered like it was the most natural thing in the world. And with all the wizard’s talk about the virtues of hobbits in this endeavor…”

“…an’ all yer nephews’ whining…”

“…and all Gloin’s lecturing on omens and portents…”

“…all his bellyachin’ if ye left us at thirteen, ye mean…”

“…and half the company in favor of her joining…”

It was a valiant effort at staying serious, but Dwalin knew he had him on the run now. “…an’ since Dori would make ye do yer own mendin’ for the duration if ye turned the lass down on account of bein’ a lass…”

“…and since I’ve decided to assign you to keep her alive from here to the mountain…”

“What?”

“…since Ori can look after herself…”

Dwalin tackled Thorin off the bench and into the weeds.

Chapter Text

“So, what brings you two up here so early in the morning?” Bilbo asked, pouring tea for his unexpected guests. “If it’s about the front garden, I really have no idea what happened out there. I’m terribly sorry for the extra work, but it was all in fine order when I had my last smoke before supper last night.”

Holman Greenhand waved away Bilbo’s concern. “Not to worry, Mister Bilbo. Ham and I’ll have that put to rights in no time at all. It’ll take more’n a few trampled daisies to set us back, eh, Ham?”

Hamfast nodded. Then shook his head hastily. The poor lad still hadn’t managed to settle around Bilbo, despite his and Holman’s best efforts over the past few weeks.

“I just can’t imagine what happened out there,” Bilbo laughed, passing the sugar bowl to Hamfast. “Looks like the whole garden was trampled by an oliphaunt!”

Holman waved away Hamfast’s silent offer of the sugar bowl. “Well, it may have been yer, well, er, guests, Mister Bilbo. If you don’t mind me sayin’ so, that is. Rather, er… mixed party you had up here last night, by all accounts.”

They sipped their tea in silence for a few moments, while Bilbo tried to imagine what the gardener could mean. His splitting headache and muddy dressing gown both pointed to rather a rough night, but aside from the squashed plants out front, everything seemed to be in order around the smial.

Finally, obviously uncomfortable, Holman seemed to brace himself up, and he spoke at last. “Which brings us to the reason we’re up here, Mister Bilbo. Young Ham has a bit of, well, a bit of a tale to tell you, and I think it’s best you hear it from him, if you’re willing.”

Bilbo had a sinking feeling Hamfast’s tale would have something to do with Bella. The thought made him feel unaccountably wretched — even moreso than his hangover had been doing — and he was struck with the notion that he might have a part in the story, and it might not be a terribly heroic one. Still, if there was one lesson he’d taken from his parents, it was to face up to a problem, rather than hide from it. He took one more fortifying sip of his tea. “Go ahead, Master Hamfast.”

Hamfast turned bright red and seemed suddenly intent on finishing every last drop of his tea, though it was surely still far too hot for that to be a comfortable endeavor.

“None of that now, Ham,” Holman scolded, relieving the lad of his cup. “If you can tell it to Bell Goodchild, you can certainly tell it to Mister Bilbo!”

Hamfast fidgeted with his teaspoon. “Well, Mister Bilbo, you see… I didn’t mean nothing by it, honest. Just Bell, that is, Miss Goodchild, well, she’s…”

“Ain’t a soul in the Shire don’t know you’re sweet on her, Ham. Get on with the story.”

Hamfast, bright red again, right to the tips of his ears, did as he was told. “Well, after that business down at Old Wil’s last night, everyone was —”

The doorbell cut him off, followed by a flurry of knocking that made Bilbo’s head throb. He looked from the pair of hobbits seated at his table, toward the rattling front door, and back again. “Oh, bother,” he said. “I’m terribly sorry, but I’d best see what that’s all about, before they knock the door in.”

“Of course,” Holman said at once.

The bell rang again, followed by yet more pounding on the door, and Bilbo began to suspect disgruntled relatives were the culprits: only Sackville-Bagginses ever engaged in such theatrics so early in the morning. “I’m coming,” Bilbo shouted crossly, tugging his dressing gown more securely around himself.

Bilbo opened the door and sighed.

Disgruntled relatives.

Otho Sackville-Baggins nearly fell through the door, so intent was he on beating upon it. Beside him was his new wife Lobelia, her hand poised to ring the bell yet again, and Bilbo’s aunt Camellia hovered self-importantly behind the pair.

“Green Lady!” Bilbo exclaimed as Otho stumbled upright and straightened his jacket. “Whatever happened to your face, Otho?” He dimly remembered Bella beginning to cry. You sound like Otho. Had he taken their cousin’s side in some argument last night?

“Belladonna happened, Bilbo,” Camellia answered coldly. “Once again, I wake to find that Tookish sister of yours has wreaked utter havoc upon this family. Utter havoc!”

Bilbo desperately did not want to deal with that. Certainly not before he’d spoken with Bella. “I’m dreadfully sorry, Aunt Camellia, but I’ve got Masters Greenhand and Gamgee in for tea just now, and —”

“Marvelous,” his aunt declared, breezing past Bilbo with her son and new daughter-by-marriage in tow. “We’d love a cup.”

Holman and Hamfast, ever the gentlehobbits, gave up their chairs to the new arrivals, so Bilbo sent Hamfast into the dining room to fetch a couple more chairs while he put on another kettle of water. The lad seemed grateful for a task to keep him busy.

A telltale squeak drew Bilbo’s attention. “Wait!” he shouted, whirling to see Holman about to sit on Grandpa Mungo’s chair. “Not that one!” He turned to Hamfast, who had just returned with a third chair for Bilbo. “You were supposed to be getting chairs from the dining room, Hamfast,” he scolded gently, perplexed as to why the younger hobbit would have gone all the way to the sitting room for that particular chair.

“I-I did, Mister Bilbo.”

Bilbo sent him in for a different chair, muttering to himself about what the antique could have been doing in the dining room.

“Bilbo,” Aunt Camellia hissed. “I really don’t know that this is an appropriate conversation to be having in front of the help.”

Bilbo blinked. “Why on earth shouldn’t I talk about misplaced chairs in front of my gardeners?”

“Bilbo Baggins!” his aunt boomed. “I meant the conversation about your sister!”

Bilbo winced at her volume but refused to rise to his aunt’s manner. He’d weathered far too many a storm on this particular front to be much affected. He continued making tea. “Oh, you mean that business about Otho’s nose. Well, honestly, if Otho and Bella got into a fight last night, I’d imagine half the Shire’s heard about it by now, so I cannot see what difference the presence of my really very excellent gardeners could possibly make. More tea, Holman?”

Camellia flushed at being passed over for the first cup of tea.

“Er, no,” Holman said, glancing between Bilbo and his offended aunt and back again. “Thank you, Mister Bilbo.”

“And you, Master Hamfast?”

“Yes, please, sir,” the lad squeaked. He was sandwiched between Holman and Otho, and he looked positively terrified.

Camellia huffed to herself. Then cleared her throat. Then coughed. And huffed again.

“Aunt Camellia,” Bilbo snapped, setting a plate of lemon balm cookies down in front of the two gardeners, “I am well aware that you have not been served.”

“Well—”

However,” Bilbo continued, cutting across her and continuing to serve the help, “I would like to point out that Masters Greenhand and Gamgee are my guests. I invited them in for a cup of tea this morning, a courtesy which I did not, in fact, have a chance to extend to you three, before you barged in here, evicted my friends from their seats, and proceeded to abuse them for holding a most noble profession. I have had it up to here with un… er… uninvited… guests…” He took a deep breath to steady his nerves. There was something tickling at the back of his mind — something he was fairly certain was unpleasant. Bilbo shook his head and simply sat, outright refusing to serve the Sackville-Bagginses. Bella would be proud of him.

“Well,” Camellia snapped. “Well! If you are not concerned about the rumors that will be started, then why should I be?” She paused as though hoping Bilbo might reconsider their audience, but he only took a bite of a cookie and waited, determined not to be flustered by his aunt’s domineering manner. She huffed once more. “Otho was injured in trying to defend your sister from dwarves! A whole troupe of axe-wielding ruffians from the other side of the Wild!”

Hamfast bounced excitedly in his seat, nearly causing Holman to overturn his teacup. “That’s why I’m here, Mister Bilbo! My Bell saw her down in the market. Said they were on their way to slay a troll!”

“Dragon, actually,” Bilbo corrected absently as he poured himself another cup of tea. A moment later, his mind caught up with his mouth, and he set the teapot down hard enough to crack it. Weak tea seeped out over the tablecloth, but Bilbo paid no mind to the spreading stain.

“I seen her headed out Bywater way early this morning, Mister Bilbo! Sporting two great big packs, she was, as if she means to be off with them dwarves a good long while.”

Camellia looked rather put out that Hamfast had stolen her story. She made a vain attempt to regain control. “It’s that wizard who’s —”

Gandalf. Erebor. The dragon.

I’ll do it.

“I’ve, uh, I’m sorry,” Bilbo stammered, surging to his feet. “I’ve got to go.”

He stood, but Otho stepped in his way, apparently done with being ignored. “You’d best get that sister of yours in check, Bilbo Baggins, for if she insists upon carrying on in such a way, we’ll have no choice but to wash our hands of her. And you, too, by association.” He jabbed one thick finger into Bilbo’s chest. “You may be willing to risk your good name for your wild, Tookish, shameful excuse for a sister —”

Bilbo punched him.

Then dashed down the hall.

Back in his bedroom, he exchanged his dressing gown for trousers and grabbed his favorite red jacket. He came back out, straightening his suspenders as he went, to find Holman standing in the front hall. “Watch over the place, would you, Holman?” he asked, tossing on his jacket. “And, er,” he glanced toward the kitchen, where he could still hear the female Sackville-Bagginses wailing and carrying on. “Show that lot out, would you? I’m terribly sorry about all this.”

“Nonsense, Mister Bilbo. Ham and I’ll take care of everything.” Holman handed Bilbo his walking stick and a sheaf of parchment labelled in ornate handwriting. “Bella’s left this for you, too, Mr Bilbo. Said I was to give it to you if you showed signs of wanting to leave, and only then.” Bilbo started to unfold the parchment, but Holman all but pushed him out the door. “No time for that now. She said you’d be late. Off you go then. Don’t worry about a thing!”

Chapter Text

“Yer halfling’s going to cost us our campsite,” Gloin snapped at Fili for what had to be the seventh or eighth time.

“She’s not my anything,” Fili hissed once more, going just as red in the face as he had the first time Gloin had made the implication.

That was Bofur’s cue. “Typical female,” he crowed from right behind the pair, making them both jump violently, in spite of the fact that he’d done exactly the same thing not five minutes earlier.

Nori, urging her pony on past their place in the middle of the column, swatted the back of Bofur’s head hard enough to knock his hat into the tall grass beside the road. “Make that joke again,” she called over her shoulder, raising a frying pan from her pony’s luggage almost casually, “and it won’t be my hand.”

Bofur didn’t doubt her for a second, but that didn’t mean he had to give up on his game entirely. The scenery in this part of the world was beautiful, but they’d been staring too long at this one patch of it, and Bofur was bored. “Tell Gloin to quit his grousing then!” he hollered after her as he slid off his pony to reclaim his hat.

“Quit your grousing then!” Nori shouted back down the line, the smile clear in her voice.

“I’m not grousing!” Gloin bellowed back, angry as a box full of badgers.

The scandalized clucking of a halfling matron passing by on her way back toward Bywater made the whole joke worthwhile. Bofur tipped his hat to her and chuckled to himself as he climbed back into the saddle.

Gloin took a deep breath, but it didn’t do much to calm him. “I am merely pointing out that the halfling cannot sit a pony! We were late starting out and only getting later! We’ll be lucky to make the East Road by next week at this rate!”

“She’ll get the hang of it,” Fili insisted.

Kili was quick to join his brother’s assurances. “She stayed on longer that time.”

“That campsite has water,” Gloin began, counting off the points in its favor on his fingers, as he had done three times already. “It’s sheltered from the wind.”

“The clearing is large enough for all of us to keep together,” Kili recited, raising a finger of his own and leaning in to hold it alongside Gloin’s.

“There’s plenty of good firewood nearby,” Fili added from Gloin’s other side.

“It’s defensible!” Gloin bellowed, swatting their hands away.

“Really, Gloin,” Kili said in mock seriousness, “what are we going to defend ourselves against? Weeds?” He picked a bit of thistle off of Bofur’s hat and flicked it at his brother.

“Rabid weeds,” Bofur said with grim resignation. “They’ll latch on and take root in the night, make us sneeze ourselves to pieces by dawn.”

“Halflings,” Gloin corrected lowly, with a dark look back toward the scandalized halfling matron.

“Ah, rabid halflings,” Bofur clarified. “Wilder than wild. Best to surrender now. We really don’t stand a chance.”

Fili rolled his eyes at Bofur. “I haven’t seen anything more formidable than a rake or a shovel around here. I really don’t think—”

“Ooh,” Kili interrupted, “or that pointy stick-thing that one fellow used to chase a rabbit out of his garden back there!”

“Rabid rabbits!” Bofur exclaimed. “Now there’s a threat! We’re done for!”

A self-conscious laugh drew their attention to the rear of the line, where Bella was dusting off her trousers. “At least I come by it naturally,” she was saying. “Hobbits, as a rule, don’t ride, you see. Terrific walkers, the lot of us.” She waved away Ori’s attempt to help her back up onto her pony. “I’ll get it,” she assured them all loudly. “Just give me a moment.”

She tried to mount the pony again, but tipped right over its back. She rolled once more and climbed back up to her feet. She laughed again, and Gloin turned his pony sharply to put some distance between him and the offending halfling.

Bella managed to mount up at last, and they began down the road, though Thorin refrained from giving an actual order to that effect. Bofur suspected he was afraid of startling the lass into falling off the pony again. They all just sort of started meandering in the same general direction by unspoken agreement.

After a few plodding steps, the halfling let out an alarmed squeak, which he heard Nori mimic under her breath from up ahead, no doubt with an eye roll to go along with it.

“I’m fine,” Bella called up the line to no one in particular. “Not to worry!”

Bofur slowed his pony. With her record, she wouldn’t be fine for long, and he’d missed the last two falls. He didn’t want to miss the next one. He couldn’t for the life of him imagine how the little lass kept avoiding injury. More lives than an alley cat, that one, and none of the grace.

Sure enough, no sooner had Bofur drawn up even with the halfling, than she tried to adjust her seat and slipped sideways again. She lurched back past her center and toppled off the far side of the pony. She came up after a moment, rubbing her rear end. Bombur caught hold of her pony’s reins, but she didn’t make any move to take them from him.

“Ye alright, lass?” Oin asked, reining his pony to a halt beside her.

“I just need a moment,” Bella answered, twisting carefully.

“Give it a bit of a stretch,” Bofur offered. “If ye can touch yer toes, yer probably alright.”

“Thanks,” Bella chirped with a crooked smile. It was honestly no wonder Fili was smitten. Shame about the riding though.

“Like the view?” Nori asked, materializing on her pony at Bofur’s side. His pipe was clenched between her teeth, though how she’d picked his pocket from atop her own pony, Bofur had no idea.

“I can think of one I’d like better,” he teased. He took the pipe back and lit it for her as Bella climbed carefully back onto her pony.

“Here, Bella,” Ori said kindly, riding up alongside her as they started moving again. “I have an idea that might be some help. While you’re sitting, imagine there’s a ball of yarn right here.” She touched a spot right between Bella’s shoulder blades. “Shoulders back. You’ve got to keep it there. Don’t let it fall, and you won’t either.”

The halfling sat up almost comically straight, and her pony lurched forward at the pressure of her heels. She hauled back on the reins, and her pony veered sideways into Dwalin’s, knocking his luggage off balance. The bags and packs crashed to the ground in a noisy jumble.

Thorin called a halt as Dwalin cursed loudly and dismounted.

Bella started to dismount to help him right his fallen luggage, but Thorin called out to stop her. “Miss Baggins, as you’ve at least managed to keep your seat this time, perhaps it would be best if you refrained from leaving it.”

“Of course,” Bella answered, turning back around in her saddle, and dislodging one of her own packs in the process. She’d shown up at the Green Dragon that morning lugging two — one creased and stiff, as though it had spent the better part of the last decade in the bottom of a closet, and the other garishly patched in a dozen different fabrics. Bofur had wondered at all the repairs, when it would be so much easier to simply purchase a new pack, but if she was always this clumsy, it was entirely possible that was her new pack. “Oh! I’m terribly sorry!”

“It’s a con,” Nori murmured, almost too low for Bofur to hear amid the round of groaning and cursing up and down the line. Nori’s pony crowded his away from the halfling and Nori’s sisters, who’d rushed in to help clean up the mess.

“What? What makes ye say that?” The halfling’s cheeks and pointed ears were bright red with embarrassment. Nothing phony about that.

“The wizard. He knows her, worked damn hard to get either her or her brother into this company.”

“Aye, but —”

“So why,” Nori continued, “is he having so much fun watching her try to get herself kicked out of it again?”

Bofur looked, and sure enough, the wizard’s eyes were twinkling merrily beneath the brim of his hat. “What’s their angle, then?” he asked.

She nodded toward the halfling again. “Not sure yet, but she’s not having a good time of it. Not anymore. Keeps looking back down the road. Either she’s homesick already,” she shook her head in disgust, “or whatever she’s stalling us for isn’t happening.”

“Could be she’s hoping her brother’ll show after all,” Bofur offered.

“Could be Gloin’s got the right of it,” Nori hissed, eyeing the tall hedges now lining either side of the road, “and we have trouble coming. Such as it is.” She passed Bofur’s pipe back and shook her head as Bella’s pony drifted sideways, away from the dwarves who were trying to put her pack back on it. “I was expecting more guts and good sense, from what I saw last night. Must’ve been the drink talking.”

“Yours or hers?” Bofur teased, eager to lift Nori out of her grim imaginings.

Nori huffed. “Both.” She grinned suddenly. “How much you want to bet Thorin rips up her contract altogether?”

“I give it ‘til the end of the day,” Dwalin growled, hefting his pack back up onto his pony.

Gloin’s voice rumbled easily back down the path between the hedges. “Yer halfling’s going to cost us our campsite!”

Chapter Text

“Wait!” Bilbo panted, all thoughts of decorum long since flown from his head. He hadn’t run like that since he was a fauntling.

It had taken him most of the day before just to figure out where Bella had actually gone. Hobbits loved a scandal, and anyone Bilbo had asked for information had been only too happy to give him their every opinion on the matter of dwarves in the Shire. This one bought out all Wala Cotton’s loaves of bread with his queer coins — and no jam, can you imagine? That one picked up Peony Proudfoot’s handkerchief — she probably dropped it on purpose, the incorrigible little hussy. Another one asked Durand Twofoot if he could sketch that pig of his — naw, Azalea, that one was a lady dwarf, I’m sure of it. Bella herself had it out with Perris Clayhanger over one of his oilskins — told her she was much too hard on his merchandise, if she needed a new one already.

When he’d finally reached the Green Dragon late that afternoon and found out the dwarves had already left with Bella, he’d set off immediately to catch them. He’d made it as far as Posco Brownlock’s before dark, traded the secret of his grandfather’s apple strudel and their mother’s story of the fall of Erebor for a night in Posco’s guest room, and been off at sunrise to have one more try at catching up to them.

“Wait!”

The dwarves stopped, their whole flock of ponies snorting and stamping at the sudden halt. Their leader — the exiled king from their mother’s stories! — looked murderous at the disruption.

“Ah! Bilbo!” Gandalf called merrily from atop his great, tall horse. “I’m afraid you nearly missed us, dear fellow!”

The wild dwarf from his doorstep spoke up when Bilbo was unable to respond right away. “Ye here to take ‘er home with ye, then?”

“Take her home with me?” Bilbo puffed himself up in spite of his shortness of breath. He was not Otho Sackville-Baggins. “Take her home? My sister is not a sack of potatoes, Master Dwarf, to be taken anywhere!”

“My brother meant no offense, Master Baggins,” the grandfatherly one soothed. “Only, as her guardian, you would be within your rights to break the contract she’s signed, if you saw fit to do so.”

“Break it? No, I’m not here to break it.” He held up the rumpled sheaf of parchment Bella had left for him. He’d had a chance to read through it at Posco’s. It was another contract. Unsigned.

The apology from his sister, he’d tucked into the pocket of his waistcoat.

“I’m here to help.”

Bella was off her pony gracefully in an instant, and Bilbo spared a moment’s thought for where in the world she could have learned to do such a thing, but then she had tackled him and crushed all the hard-won air from his lungs with the force of her hug. “Oh, Bilbo!”

Bilbo spat some of his sister’s hair out of his mouth. “If… if, er, anyone has a… a pen?” he gasped out over her shoulder.

“I’ve got one,” a little dwarf in a knitted scarf squeaked, looking rather surprised at her own daring.

Bella spun so that Bilbo could use her back as a writing desk. She beamed as he passed the signed contract up to the grandfatherly dwarf — whose name Bilbo would now have to learn, he realized.

“May I ask what changed your mind?” Gandalf asked, eyes twinkling.

“I’ve just had a visit from some very disgruntled relations, and it’s reminded me what’s important. That’s all.”

The grandfatherly dwarf smiled and folded up the parchment with practiced ease. “Everything seems to be in order. Welcome, Master Baggins, to the Company of Thorin Oakenshield.”

“We have our burglar already,” Thorin called from the head of the line, looking anything but welcoming. “We have no need of two — especially when the second has made his reluctance to join us abundantly clear.”

Bilbo opened his mouth to argue, but the wild dwarf beat him to it. “You’d hardly allow Dis to go off on her own, Thorin,” he rumbled, the sound rolling down the path between the hills.

Thorin wheeled his mount to continue on. “Give him a pony then,” he snarled, “and let us hope he is a more adept rider than his sister.”

Confused by the comment, but even more alarmed at the prospect of riding one of the shaggy beasts himself, Bilbo attempted to refuse. His protests were ignored. Bella shushed him, kissed his cheek, and headed back to her own pony in the middle of the line.

Two young dwarves hoisted Bilbo up and set him atop a shaggy little pony half loaded with luggage.

“Fili,” said the blonde one, riding up along one side of him.

“And Kili,” said the dark haired one with an identical grin from his other side.

“Er, Bilbo Baggins.”

“Oh, we know,” said Fili.

“We introduced ourselves the other night,” Kili explained, “but you seemed a tad distracted at the time.”

“Oh, um, a tad,” said Bilbo, more than a little embarrassed at this reminder of that fiasco of a dinner party.

“So we thought we’d reintroduce ourselves.”

“Just in case.”

“I appreciate your thoughtfulness,” Bilbo answered slowly. “Thank you.”

They rode on in companionable silence for a while, and Bilbo slowly realized this riding thing wasn’t half so hard as he’d feared. He was sure to be sore by the time they stopped for the night, but for now, it was fine. A nice rest for his aching feet, if he was being honest. Even with his fondness for walking holidays, he had covered a lot of ground in a day, and now that he was off his feet, he was most definitely feeling the abuse he’d put them through.

After a little while, a suspicion began to form in his mind that Fili and Kili were waiting for something to happen. They stuck close to him on their ponies and kept shooting strange looks his way, or glancing at one another and then away again, as if they were sharing in some secret joke. “Er… Can I help you?”

“Are you doing alright there, Mister Baggins?” Kili asked.

“Quite comfortable in the saddle?” Fili asked.

“Yes, quite comfortable, I suppose,” Bilbo answered. Something was going on. “Why do you —” He sneezed violently. Then again. He reached for a pocket handkerchief, but he had none. All curiosity about their strange behavior flew right out of his head at his horrifying realization. “Wait! Stop! We have to go back!”

The whole company stopped to see what was the matter, and Bilbo quailed before the king’s glare. And he wasn’t the only one who seemed more than a little miffed at the interruption. One fierce-looking red-headed dwarf ahead of Bella looked particularly murderous.

“What on earth is the matter?” Gandalf asked.

“I haven’t packed a thing!” Gandalf waved a hand, and the others all started moving again, as if nothing at all was the matter. “Gandalf!” Bilbo exclaimed in exasperation. “I cannot go running off into the blue without so much as a change of trousers!”

“My dear fellow,” Gandalf said kindly, “your sister never doubted you for a moment.”

“Well, perhaps a moment,” Fili argued.

Kili nodded sadly. “When we settled for camp last night without you.” He brightened. “But she didn’t throw your pack in the fire or anything!”

“No,” Fili agreed with a smile. “So we know that deep down —”

“— deep, deep down —”

“— she knew you’d come in the end.”

“Really?” Bilbo sneezed again, into his sleeve this time, and pat his pockets once more, to no avail. “But I didn’t even know I was coming until I was rushing out my door after p— er, well, punching Otho.”

“What’s an Otho?” a hatted dwarf — Bafur? Bufur? No, Bofur — asked.

“He’s our—”

Kili cut across him. “He’s this really ghastly cousin! Terrible, glaring, little fellow all dressed in green!”

“Idiot,” Fili added.

Kili nodded. “Yeah. Complete idiot, of course. He tried to rescue Bella from our clutches that night we met.”

“Ruffians that we are —”

“Outnumbered as she was —”

“—she needed all sorts of rescuing,” Fili finished with a smirk that set his ridiculous mustache braids swinging. Bilbo had the fleeting thought that he ought to possibly be offended by that somehow, but then Kili was talking again, and he had to struggle to keep up.

“Oh, yes! But then he used Bella like a shield,” Kili took hold of his brother’s wrist to demonstrate. “Waved her right around—”

“Or tried to, anyway.”

“Well, yeah,” Kili admitted, glaring briefly at his brother. “It’d be hard to actually wave a halfling around —”

“Take some real upper body strength, that,” Fili agreed, as if it was something he’d tried himself.

“Point is, he got handsy, and she broke his nose!”

“You should have heard his howling,” Fili laughed. “Thought for sure he was done. But you say you had a run in with him too?”

“What happened?” Kili demanded.

“Well, er,” Bilbo stammered, searching for a suitably dramatic way to tell the tale. “I, uh, I punched him. For insulting my sister, I mean. He called her, well, awful things. That is, he showed up in a terrible temper early yesterday morning, and then he got on about Bella. Well, I’d refused to serve them tea — Otho and his wife and his mother, that is — and he was just generally, er, ghastly about the whole business, getting right in my face about keeping her under control, so I, well, I suppose I punched him. That’s, er, it.”

Gandalf laughed outright at that.

“Well,” Bilbo huffed. “Well. Anyway… You were saying Bella knew I’d come?”

“Ah, yes,” Gandalf answered, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. “I daresay that when we stop for the evening, you will find that everything you need is in her second pack. She delayed us several hours with her antics yesterday, so that you might have a chance at catching us, which is why we cannot stop to look for a handkerchief now.”

“I knew it was a ploy!” Kili exclaimed, before he and his brother spurred their ponies up the line.

“Delayed you?” Bilbo asked. “How? How on earth could my sister delay the whole lot of you?”

Gandalf didn’t answer at once, and Bilbo saw Fili and Kili ease up behind Bella’s pony. His sister was busy chatting with the little dwarf in the knitted scarf and paid them no mind at all until they spooked her pony with a branch and set it charging wildly up the line. She managed to keep her seat and check its progress just before it reached Thorin. The king turned on her with another glare as the other dwarves laughed.

“Let us just say that your sister has not cast herself as the most capable horsewoman in the company.”

Thorin and Bella exchanged some quiet, but unmistakably angry, words at the head of the line. Bella dismounted with a glare of her own and marched back to where the princes were still snickering, not far ahead of Bilbo and Gandalf’s place.

She swatted Fili’s knee. “I’m to ride with you.”

Kili laughed at the horrified look on his brother’s face as Bofur whistled suggestively. Bella’s cheeks colored, and Bilbo could tell from the determined look in her eyes that she was already plotting her revenge on the young dwarves.

Fili shifted to make room for Bella, and she mounted up in front of him.

“Bella,” Bilbo called, anxious to distract her from her vengeance. He’d been on the receiving end of it far too many times to take the matter lightly. “Please tell me you’ve packed us some handkerchiefs.”

Bella didn’t answer, and Bilbo’s heart sank. He sneezed again.

“Your sister seems a bit distracted just now,” Bofur teased, “but you can use this.” He tossed him a shred of his own tunic to serve the purpose.

Bella staunchly refused to rise to the bait. She sat stiffly in front of Fili, who, for his part, seemed to be trying to give off the impression that riding with a hobbit in his arms was the object of their prank all along, while nervously trying to keep Bella from thinking that was the case. He’d clearly caught the look in her eyes as well.

Minutes passed into miles, and nothing more happened between the pair of them, and Bilbo dared hope that his sister might not mind riding with Fili so much after all.

He should have known better.

It was late in the afternoon, as they were taking turns in fording a small stream, that Bilbo heard a shocked whinny and a shout and a splash. He looked back and saw to his horror that Fili was in the water.

“Oops,” Bella said with a smirk. She deftly calmed the pony again and steered it around Fili to fall in beside Bilbo. “Tricky creatures, aren’t they?”

“Dwarves or ponies?” Bilbo asked, watching Fili shake water from his hair like a dog as he laughed.

“Definitely the ponies,” Bella answered. She screeched as muddy water splattered them both.

“This means war, Bell,” Fili called.

“You don’t stand a chance,” Kili added, grinning.

Bella looked positively delighted at the prospect. She beamed at Bilbo. “We’re going on an adventure, Bilbo! Dwarves and ponies, and who knows what else is waiting out there for us! Just think of the stories we’ll have to tell when we get back!”

Bilbo spotted Thorin’s thunderous expression before the dwarf king turned back to the path ahead. All in all, Bilbo reflected, it was probably not the most auspicious start to an adventure.

Chapter Text

To say that Gloin was unhappy would have been a grievous understatement.

Discontented. Miffed. Irritated. All fell well short of the mark.

Mutinous would hit closer to the truth, but then what would be the sense in mutinying against the venture he was largely responsible for financing?

He had been saddled with babysitting the halfling — the male half of the duo — while the rest of the company went about purchasing supplies, replacing gear, and securing lodgings for the night in Bree. He’d tried to talk Dori into taking on the lad along with the lass, but she’d said something about feminine supplies, and Gloin had quickly found somewhere else to be.

With Bilbo Baggins.

Who was currently staring up at the Man-sized buildings with some species of idiotic wonder.

“Never seen an inn before, lad?” Gloin growled, shoving Baggins ahead of himself and toward the market stalls down the street.

“Of course I have,” the halfling answered sharply. He pulled away from Gloin and ducked a Man carrying a crate of chickens. “But that particular inn is the Prancing Pony.”

“Aye. I can read the sign just as well as you. Better even, I’d wager, as I’m taller.”

Baggins seemed impervious to Gloin’s tone. “That will be the place for us to get beds, Master Gloin. Mark my words.”

“Consider them marked.” Gloin grabbed the halfling’s arm and towed him down the crowded street.

The Prancing Pony… It’s right out of one of my mother’s adventure stories! They cater to all sorts there, she said. You’d pay for a room and never know who your neighbor was: another hobbit, a Man, a wandering elf headed for the Grey Havens… She even said once, she saw a, uh, a dwarf.” Baggins caught Gloin’s glare and seemed to remember who he was babbling at. “Anyway,” he continued primly, “my point is, there’s no such thing as an outsider at the Prancing Pony.”

Gloin stomped on ahead, leaving his companion still gawping at the inn. By the time he’d put his eyes back in his head and caught up, Gloin had purchased his new ledger book and was ready to find the rest of the company.

But, of course, Baggins had other ideas.

“First of all, Master Gloin,” he said, when Gloin informed him it was time to head back, “I need handkerchiefs. My sister neglected to pack a single one — really, she’d forget her head if it wasn’t so firmly attached to her shoulders — and I cannot continue using that scrap off Bofur’s shirt. I understand it was well-meant, but when proper handkerchiefs are so close at hand, I really must replace it.”

“Handkerchiefs!” Gloin began, but the halfling held up a hand, as though Gloin were some whiny dwarfling in need of a telling off.

“If you do not want to accompany me, by all means, go back without me. I am perfectly capable of buying handkerchiefs on my own, thank you very much.”

Gloin barked a laugh. “First of all, Master Bilbo, we are to stick together. Thorin would have my hide if I returned without one of our burglars. Second,” he continued over the start of the halfling’s retort, “I’ve seen the sort of rubbish you and your sister have brought along. Wouldn’t trust a halfling’s eye to buy so much as a feather pen!”

Baggins spun on his heel and marched back toward the market stalls with his nose in the air, muttering to himself about “assaults on his common sense.”

He tripped on a goose.

Gloin sighed and followed through the honking gaggle, lest their burglar break his neck or some other such nonsense. He’d be damned if something was going to happen to the idiot on his watch.

By the time Baggins had passed on empty-handed from the third merchant selling handkerchiefs, Gloin was ready to knock him over the head and carry him back, member of the company or not. “Here, now,” he said, picking up a yellow handkerchief embroidered with garish orange roses and breaking into his most reasonable, supportive tone, the one he used to ease young Gimli out of a tantrum. “What about this one?”

Baggins giggled shrilly and snatched away the handkerchief before the halfling selling it could get a good look. He tucked it hastily beneath a stack of other fabric.

“What’s wrong with that one?” Gloin groused. “It’d match yer waistcoat.”

“Master Gloin,” the halfling hissed, inexplicably embarrassed, “there is a proper way of such things. A language, if you will.”

“And what’s that orange rose supposed to mean then?”

“Passion” Baggins giggled again, peering around to make sure no one was listening too closely. “Passionate love.”

Gloin could feel his cheeks burning. Nonsense. He snatched up another handkerchief, this one white with some fluffy-looking yellow and orange blooms in the corners. “And I suppose this one is for beauty or some such?”

“Mourning,” Baggins corrected. He flipped quickly through a stack of handkerchiefs, pointing out the embroidery on each one. “There’s rosemary for remembrance, and daisies for farewell, acacia for secret love… Ooh! I think this one will do nicely!” He held up a pale blue handkerchief edged with clusters of little, white flowers. “Hawthorn and lily-of-the-valley!”

“And what’re those ones for?” Gloin asked in spite of himself. He didn’t want to get sucked into the halfling’s nonsense, but his enthusiasm was rather catching, especially after nearly boring Gloin to tears at the last three stalls.

“Hope and happiness returning,” he answered cheerily. He picked up another cloth beside it, this one with clusters of leaves, and grinned at Gloin. “And oak leaves for bravery.”

Gloin just rolled his eyes. It’d take more than some oak leaves on a snot rag to make Bilbo Baggins brave enough to face down a dragon. But at least he was done. Baggins paid for his handkerchiefs, and Gloin hustled the halfling back to find the rest of the company. As they walked, Gloin felt his mood improving, in spite of Baggins’ ridiculous prattle about the language of flowers. He would soon be rid of his charge and free to pass the remainder of the afternoon as he saw fit. His ledger book was due for a balancing, especially after everyone’s shopping, and he had some repair work to do on his pack, after the lass had dumped it into the road the day before while pretending she couldn’t ride.

Suddenly, Gloin became aware that he was no longer hearing all about harebell for grief or mushrooms for suspicion, and he turned to see that the halfling had stopped dead in the middle of the market. Gloin growled and stomped back to his side. “What’s the matter now?” he demanded.

The halfling held up a hand for quiet. He was staring intently at a stall across the way, where Gloin could see Bombur and Bofur haggling for grain. He could just barely hear them above the din of the crowded market.

“Baggins—”

“Nine silver for a single sack of barley!” Baggins hissed, throwing up his hands. “I wouldn’t pay a copper above six, and that’s for Robur Tunnely’s best North Farthing grain, mind you! It’s five and a half for anyone else’s. Nine silver, my furry left foot!” He stomped said foot for emphasis.

“We paid near twelve per sack in the Shire,” Gloin protested, fishing his old ledger book out of his pocket to prove it.

“Twelve!” The halfling looked likely to combust at the sight of Gloin’s neat accounting of their food stores. “And sixteen for a side of bacon! It’s a wonder you lot have any money left!” He thrust the ledger book back into Gloin’s hands and stormed off toward the stall where Bombur and Bofur were still haggling.

Gloin snagged his coat sleeve and dragged him to a halt. “Just wait a minute now,” he growled. “Don’t know what sort of grain you’ve been buying, lad. Everyone knows prices are higher at this end of the world. And I won’t have you putting off the merchant just when they seem likely to hit upon a bargain.”

“A bargain! That’s what you’d call being overcharged by half or more? A bargain! Highway robbery is more like it! And I won’t have you squandering the company’s money when I can do something about it.”

Gloin tried to snag the indignant halfling’s sleeve again before he could cause trouble, but the little fellow was a quick one. He marched right over to Bombur’s side, and Gloin wouldn’t have been surprised to see steam coming out of his ears, so worked up had he gotten himself. It was a recipe for trouble, but Gloin couldn’t see a way out of it. He’d already drawn some glares for catching hold of the halfling the first time. If he wasn’t inclined to come willingly, there was no way Gloin could wrestle him out of the market without drawing more unpleasant attention.

Bombur looked bewildered at the halfling’s sudden arrival, and then even more confused when Baggins scolded him soundly for leaving him waiting at the other end of the market half the morning. Then, suddenly, all the fire went out of him, and he was complimenting the merchant. “At least they’ve found some quality goods,” he was saying as Gloin arrived in their midst. Baggins waved a hand at Gloin as he inspected a tray of dried fish. “Master Gloin would have had us overpay by half at a stall down the way for goods that weren’t even half so fine.”

Gloin puffed himself up to give Baggins a piece of his mind, but then Bofur had hold of his arm and was dragging him back to the well near the center of the market. “Come on,” he coaxed. “Bombur can keep an eye on him for now. Let’s head back.”

But as annoyed as Gloin has been about babysitting, he was even more irritated that Bilbo had found a way out of it when he could not, so he dug in his heels and insisted on staying. “The halfling is my responsibility.”

Bofur sighed and let go. “Fine then. We can keep an eye on things just fine from here.” He flopped down onto the edge of the well and lit his pipe.

Bombur and Bilbo and the merchant talked for a good long while, and Gloin quickly grew impatient, but Bofur wouldn’t let him go over and interrupt their chatting and laughing and discussing goods. The merchant kept bringing out boxes and jars and bags for their inspection. Baggins would peek inside, or smell the contents, or weigh various produce in the palm of his hand, before gesturing for Bombur to do the same. The fools spent a full five minutes fondling a turnip.

Gloin passed the time absently picking bits of cracked mortar out of the wall around the well.

More and more items were presented. Some went into one heap, some into another, while the merchant’s boy took notes on a slip of paper. Finally, they seemed to come to an agreement, for Bombur passed over a great deal of coin. The merchant produced a little drawstring bag, into which he tossed a pinch of some ground spices. He looked to the halfling for confirmation. Baggins pointed to another bowl of spices, and the merchant threw in a little of that, too. The pair conversed for a moment or two, both eying a barrel of apples critically, before Bombur piped up. The merchant passed Baggins the bag and gestured expansively at his table full of spices. The halfling moved into action at once, waving both Bombur and the merchant forward to sniff at this bowl or that, or two or three together. Bombur held the bag as he added spices, some by the handful, others just a pinch.

“What do ye think they’re doin’?” Bofur asked, as they passed the bag around to take turns smelling its contents.

“Testing my patience,” Gloin growled.

Baggins and Bombur wandered over to the well, the latter merrily swinging that little drawstring bag as they chatted animatedly about shaved cinnamon and ground nutmeg. The idiots were proud of themselves!

Gloin lurched upright, opening his mouth to give them a piece of his mind, but the brick he’d been leaning against gave way and tumbled into the well with an echoing splash.

Baggins shoved the receipt slip at his chest without a word. As the halfling turned to go, Gloin looked down to see a great long list of supplies on the slip, and all at better prices than any he would have expected. “So, where is all this then?” he demanded of Baggins, who did not turn.

“They’re delivering it all to the Prancing Pony for us,” Bombur gushed happily. He began regaling Bofur with the thrilling tale of Bilbo’s haggling, but Gloin was still reeling.

“How do you know we’ll be at the Prancing Pony?” he demanded.

“Balin got us a good deal on a couple of rooms to share,” Bofur answered. “Dwarf-sized and all. Real stroke of luck, that. Thorin said the last time he was here, they’d been full up.”

“Where do you think you’re going?” Gloin bellowed after Baggins.

“The Prancing Pony,” he answered over his shoulder. “I’ve a kitchen to commandeer.” He ducked around another halfling pushing a cart, and then he was simply gone.

Gloin looked back down at the receipt slip, taking in the total price once more. “What’re all these apples on here for?” he demanded, determined to find fault with the halfling’s shopping, just on principal at this point. “Cranberries? Twelve pounds of sugar! Why are we wasting good coin on such luxuries? What am I going to tell Thorin?”

“Bilbo spotted the apples,” Bombur answered cheerfully. “Absolutely gorgeous, they were, too, but just starting to bruise sitting in the fellow’s stall. Bilbo is making cobbler tonight for everyone. He sold us the apples at half price in exchange for a serving and the recipe. ‘Better that, than throw them to the hogs,’ he said. He threw in the bag of spices and a pound of cranberries for free! There’s to be quite the party at the Prancing Pony tonight!”

They returned to the Prancing Pony to find Nori and Dwalin overseeing the delivery of their food supplies in the yard. Even though he’d seen the receipt, Gloin realized he’d seriously underestimated the power of hobbit cooking in this part of the world. Half a dozen passersby had stopped to help already, and the merchant’s boy approached Bombur as they entered the yard, to ask if it was alright for the rest of them to stay for a bit of cobbler as well.

Bombur was only too happy with the additions. There was a cheer at that, and Thorin stormed outside to see what all the fuss was about. “What’s all this?”

More and more supplies were being dropped off, and Dwalin and Nori had their hands full trying to reorganize everything to make for even loads on the ponies. “Food,” Dwalin said. “We’ll need at least one more pack pony.”

Thorin rounded on Bombur and Bofur. “How much did you spend on all this?” Sacks of grain and carrots and potatoes and turnips, paper-wrapped packs of dried meat and fish and fruit, crates of honey cakes, bags of travel biscuits, a whole string of garlic, a couple braids of onions, packets of spices, and a whole barrel of bruised apples. If they’d paid their usual prices for this haul, it’d have made quite the dent in their budget. Gloin still couldn’t quite wrap his mind around it.

Bombur quailed before the king’s glare, but Bofur looked likely to launch into one of his convoluted stories by way of explanation.

“It seems the halfling has a knack for making a deal,” Gloin interjected grudgingly, before Bofur could annoy Thorin even further. He handed over the receipt. “Spent only what we’d allotted for this stop, plus a recipe and dinner tonight for the merchant.” Gloin shook his head. “And the help, it would seem.”

“Where are the apples?” Kili shouted, tearing out of the inn at top speed. “We need the apples!” He snagged Bombur’s sleeve as he skidded to a halt in front of Gloin and the others, grinning like a maniac. “Bilbo said you’d know where the cranberries had got to.” Bombur and Bofur turned to follow him inside. “You can help too, Dwalin, if you want any more hobbit pie,” Kili added over his shoulder.

“Aye,” Bofur agreed. “Be a good fellow and bring the apples, won’t ye?”

Dwalin shrugged helplessly at Thorin and passed the saddlebag he’d been loading to Gloin. He hefted the barrel of apples and followed Kili inside.