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Flowers and Flaws

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This is what you get for taking a stroll down memory lane, Bilbo thinks.

A stiff collar, a posh tie, and twenty-four kids looking at you as if you were sprouting two heads - it’s just a waistcoat has been on Bilbo’s tongue innumerable times today, but he has managed to avoid an open confrontation about his outfit so far. He fears it would not fare well for him after all, while pretending to be perfectly comfortable in his clothes may be the only dignified way out of this school-sized personal hell of his. Except for the fact that he may be forced to keep up with such a farce for the rest of the year, buying ties in town and ironing shirts at night hours, and getting to wear short sleeves only in incognito - Bilbo cannot stifle a groan at the thought.

“I may have forgotten to mention that we encourage a more informal attitude here,” Gandalf comments, not even trying to hide his amusement at Bilbo’s awful predicament - trust the old man to let you embarrass yourself on your very first day.

“Yes, you may have bloody forgotten to mention it,” Bilbo snorts, sending a couple of passing girls into giggles.

Gandalf pats his shoulder.

“My dear Bilbo, I’m sure that your pupils have appreciated your effort to look your best on your first meeting.”

“I must have failed to notice their appreciation, what with the staring and the sniggering.”

“You must know that you’re the first new teacher appointed in the last five years,” Gandalf reminds him, for what sounds like the umpteenth time. “Our students as well as their families are naturally very curious about your person and they will be watching you closely.”

“If this is your idea of a motivational talk, it’s quite appalling. I’ve never reacted very well to other people’s expectations, I’m sure you remember,” Bilbo murmurs, moving his gaze to the high stained glass windows looking down the cloister.

“I know you used to have a lot of peculiar ideas about other people’s expectations,” Gandalf comments, slowing down his pace as if to allow Bilbo to linger.

“It’s funny to hear the word peculiar used by a man who has devoted the last decade to turning some false-gothic mansion in a school - you know, that frenzy for turrets and gargoyles was already stale in the Nineteenth century and hardly looks better nowadays,” Bilbo says, without taking his eyes off the apple tree gleaming bronze and red down there. He knows there is also a stone well, though he cannot see it from the windows on the first floor for it is hidden under the fan of leaves.

The picture is cheap enough as it is, Bilbo thinks, trying to shrug off the soft feeling stirring in his chest at the sight. He has decided that he will not be satisfied with this new life of his and he will not take the bait - oh, he does know that Gandalf has brought him here because at this hour the small enclosed garden shows itself at an advantage from the upper floor’s windows.  

“I’m surprised that parents want their offsprings to grow up in such an outdated setting,” he comments.

“You’ll be more surprised to learn the sort of people who happen to like it,” Gandalf replies, leaving Bilbo with the impression that he has just read his heart. “Give yourself time, my friend. You may still find yourself very glad of your choice.”

Gandalf’s tone has not changed. It’s still the ever-teasing voice of reason; it brings Bilbo straight back to his childhood, and that is not the route his mind can take right now - he just cannot stand it.

“I have no choice,” he answers curtly, hurting himself on the sharp edges of his own tone.

Gandalf says nothing to that and they just keep looking at the apple tree while kids swarm out of the classrooms and down the stairs, swinging their schoolbags and hollering, exchanging invitations for a party or notes from their lessons; some of them call Bilbo Mister - and that’s just the most depressing thing.  

 

*

 

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Kíli’s eyes grow large and alarmed at being caught, then his expression brightens as he offers his best charming grin while he leans against the counter.  

“Doing my homework in the back?” he offers lightly.

“You could do it at home, couldn’t you?”

“I suppose I could...” Kíli drags his right feet on the floor, his grin slowly turning into a pout. “But Fíli has invited his new girlfriend home and I cannot concentrate as long as they keep kissing,” he confesses, pronouncing the word kissing with equal part fascination and repulsion, as can be managed only at thirteen.

It strongly reminds Thorin of his sister Dís, who probably accomplished ruining Thorin’s first love with her habit of glaring at the poor girl - though Thorin’s preference for males (undeclared then, but hardly less affecting) may have played a bigger role in the debacle.

Not only had Dís been clearly disgusted with the smooching part - and Thorin will admit that it had been awkward indeed, given both his inexperience and unwillingness - but she had suffered out of jealousy for her brother. Kíli will never say it out loud, obviously enough, yet it’s clear that he feels like he’s losing Fíli to the mysterious ways of love.

The thought is enough to soften Thorin.

“There might be some cake left back there,” he grunts.

“You’re the best, uncle,” Kíli replies - you’re the best being Kíli’s current favourite endearment, equally applied to people, things, and animals alike.

As if energies rushed back to him at the mention of the cake, Kíli hurries to the back of the shop, almost knocking down a vase of tulips in his haste. Thorin sighs and checks on the tulips, glancing suspiciously at the door behind the counter. He does not hear any sound coming from the small television he keeps there to convince Dís than he does not spend all his time brooding upon the flowers (Dís’s words), but keeps in touch with the world out there. The fact that no one but Kíli ever cares to turn the television on is well-known to Thorin and Dís, though they both pretend that Thorin watches the news from time to time, and also some cooking program to improve his skills - turning out a proper hard-boiled egg would be improvement enough, Fíli often reminds them.

Anyway it seems that Kíli is actually doing his homework or at least is pretending quite convincingly, so Thorin feels allowed to go back to his flowers. It is not that he minds Kíli’s presence in the back of the shop, Thorin likes having his nephews around and he has not entirely given up hope that they will inherit his passion for flowers - despite the fact that between them Dís, Kíli, and Fíli have managed to kill dozens of plants, frustrating Thorin’s attempts to smuggle even the most unpretentious flowers into their home.

But things may change - yes, they will surely grow into florists overnight, Dís’s voice sneers into Thorin’s head, despite the fact that Kíli’s two-week-old great passion is Astronomy and Fíli - well, Fíli is in love.

Still, Thorin will always grudgingly admit that his affection for his nephews is unaltered by their clear disregard for plants, and that’s something since Thorin can be quite passionate (borderline fanatical) when it comes to flowers. It is not just that he likes them. Liking flowers comes easy to most people; no, Thorin respects them, loves them, adores them. He’s definitely and (almost) shamelessly head over heels for them, and there’s no record that he has ever bestowed such fondness upon any boyfriend - this may account for how short-lived Thorin’s relationships tend to be.

There’s an amount of greediness to Thorin’s love for flowers and Dís has always pointed out that he loves flowers far more than being a florist, if the way he’s inclined to scare customers away is anything to go by. For a man who can handle flowers with the utmost consideration and talk to them in purrs (oh, he will deny this, but Dís just knows), Thorin can be surprisingly grumpy and has taken the art of frowning to such a refinement that one of his scowls will send a too-petulant customer scuttling back out the door in no time at all.

Customer care has never been Thorin’s strongest point as a florist, and Dís suspects that he would be quite glad to tend to flowers and plants without the interpersonal communication - though he would have less chances to practice his glaring and sulking then.

Yet he has to make a living somehow and being a florist is good enough for him. Dís thanks every god she can think of that things have turned out better than she expected - five years ago she was not so sure that Thorin would have accepted the quiet, retired life they have cut out for themselves in Derbyshire, but there they are and Dís has started to think in terms of happiness rather than survival.

So she does not really care if some customers are intimidated by Thorin’s attitude, for his talent with flowers has already made him a local celebrity and people from the neighbouring villages and little towns come to Hobbiton to buy from him. Thoroughly satisfied with their purchases, some frequent customers have gone as far as to throw some awkward praise in Thorin’s direction; since no one could really commend Thorin’s manners and expected to be believed, they have tried to compliment him on his eyes or the deep rumble of his slight Scottish accent. Thorin’s stony countenance at such attempts has already dissuaded most of his admirers, with the remarkable exception of a few old ladies nearing a century who are too short-sighted or too bold to give up their flirtation.

“I have made it through a war, my dear. I can manage a boy,” one of the said ladies declared once, then proceeded to eye Thorin from head to foot until even Dís felt compelled to blush.     

The point is that Thorin is quite good-looking, in a rugged, slightly menacing sort of way. This Dís reminds herself as often as not, for it rekindles her hopes for her brother’s love life - otherwise she would have to rely on his character or his attitude, and that would not fare well. Thorin’s style of courting may be one of the most painful things she has ever seen; even Fíli, who is but sixteen, is better at it. Therefore Dís always hopes that the right guy will be so smitten with Thorin’s blue eyes and large shoulders to ignore the rest for the first two or three months, giving Thorin some time to overcome his sullen moods and show his most darling self - the part of him that usually turns up only with his family and his oldest friends.

And flowers.  

 

“You bright thing, aren’t you growing very well?”

Thorin’s thumb runs on the smooth long stem, then it lightly presses the earth in the vase to ascertain its dampness. He hums to himself and the flowers, the yellow of the daffodils blooming all around him in the little hothouse he has built himself soon after buying the shop. Daffodils have a special place in Thorin’s heart for he loves to see them growing wild along brooks and through woods and meadows, their golden heads nodding when caught in the breeze as if they were whispering secrets to the water and the grass. He has been trying to grow them in the hothouse for some time now and these are the first batch he feels proud of, as they are most similar to their wild cousins flowering in Spring.

Even Kíli has been impressed.

“Wow. They look like G-stars.”

“What?”

“Like the Sun, uncle. Big, giant yellow stars.”

Kíli has also taken a picture with his mobile phone and sent it to Dís. Thorin is still checking on the hothouse heating system when he feels his phone buzzing in the pocket of his jeans. He finds a text from Dís, instructing him to take one vase of daffodils into the shop - she’s sure that customers will adore the flowers and Thorin should not keep them hidden in the hothouse all the time. Thorin snorts but does as he is told, for he knows from experience that Dís must have already sent another message to Kíli with orders to check on his uncle and report back to her.

And sure enough Kíli is waiting for him, perched on the counter - no matter how many times Thorin has told him that sitting on the counter will get his trousers damp, and plaster leaves and petals to his back.   

“Mum says that it would be better in the shop window, to catch the customers’ eyes,” Kíli pipes up.

Another buzzing informs Thorin that a second text from Dís has arrived, probably with the amendment about the shop window.

“Haven’t you got any homework to do?” he asks Kíli, while he carefully places the vase on the wooden desk used as a display for the shop window.

It was an old scratched thing left by the previous owner, who had clearly used it as a work bench. Thorin and Fíli spent an entire afternoon in Dís’s back garden sanding the splintered wood and painting it periwinkle blue. It’s the only ornament Thorin has ever allowed in his reign, for he thinks that the sight of flowers should be enough for his shop windows; he does not care for festooning and baubles, and neither should his customers.      

Still he has to admit to himself that the daffodils look marvellous there, their yellow emphasized by the contrast with the periwinkle blue of the desk.

“...lot of things to do for the Geography class,” Kíli is saying, though Thorin has missed the beginning of his answer. But now that the daffodils are in place, he turns back to Kíli and gestures him to get down from the counter. Kíli does it, without interrupting the flow of his narrative. “He’s weird, I think...not properly nuts, just a little batty. He says he comes from London, but he doesn’t look like someone from London. And he comes into the classroom like that, with this thing on, this waistcoat all green and flowers over it...”

“Wait, who?” Thorin asks, scratching his beard and feeling vaguely lost in Kíli’s ramblings.

His nephew gives him the same annoyed look Dís uses when he doesn’t listen to her.

“The new teacher, uncle. This Mr Boggins, the Geography one. He’s just arrived here from London.”

“A new teacher,” Thorin repeats, more than a little surprised.

It’s not as if Hobbiton gets a new inhabitant every day, let alone a teacher from London. He idly wonders where Gandalf may have found him and promises himself he’ll inquire about it as soon as he meets Gandalf again - Thorin will have obviously forgotten his intention by then.

“He said a lot about places to visit and leaving home to become a wanderer...” Kíli carries on, causing Thorin to frown at the idea that this new teacher has been entertaining a bunch of kids with poetic ideas of adventures rather than solid notions of Geography - like parallels and meridians, and all that stuff about continents drifting and changing names.  “...then he talked about maps and said he has a degree in drawing maps. Or collecting them, I’m not sure.”

“You mean that he has a degree in Cartography?”

“Yep, that,” Kíli shrugs. “And Headmaster Grey said my old friend when he introduced him, and I thought that maybe you know him, you being friends with Mr Grey and all..speaking of which, could you ask him to exempt me from French class? I hate French, it’s really stupid..”

“French is not stupid Kíli, though your teacher...” Thorin stops there, before saying anything about Mr Greenleaf.

He has never liked the man since the day he walked into his shop and called his lavender withered and slightly odourless; plus Thorin suspects Mr Greenleaf disfavours his nephews to slight him - this may be connected to the fact that Thorin replied to the words about his lavender with a comment about Mr Greenleaf’s nose being stuffed as well as his arse.

“Anyway, the answer is no Kíli, I won’t ask Mr Grey,” Thorin huffs, deciding to be adult about it. “But I can teach you some pranks your uncle Frerin experimented on me with. Don’t tell your mum.”

“Obviously,” Kíli answers, rolling his eyes. Then he grins and repeats: “You’re the best, uncle.” Thorin thinks it must count for something, twice in a day. At least until he hears Kíli saying while he returns to the back of the shop: “Mr Boggins may be the best teacher ever, I think. He might be really nutty and take us wandering instead of staying in class. Like being in scouts but without the oaths.”

“I don’t think he really means that,” Thorin replies, hoping he won’t be proved wrong.  

No one needs a pack of kids ambling up hills and through fields led by a stranger from London who probably doesn’t even know North from South - notwithstanding the fact that Thorin’s sense of direction is infamous.  

After Kíli has gone back to his homework and Dís has stopped texting him - not before she has received a pick of the daffodils in the shop window, Thorin returns to the hothouse. He’s perfectly absorbed by his flowers and his calculation about the right temperature to keep in the hothouse, when he hears the bell ring announcing that a customer has entered the shop. Thorin frowns and distractedly cleans his hands on his jeans, before taking a look at his watch - it’s almost closing hour and he feels vaguely annoyed at such a late customer.   

 

Thorin would be lying if he said that the first thing he notices are the tattoos.

Actually it takes him a considerable amount of time to even perceive them, though they should be almost impossible to ignore as they cover the stranger’s arms from wrist to elbow - and probably go even higher under the rolled-up sleeves of the stranger’s shirt, maybe as far as to travel over his shoulders and down his back.

Still, Thorin doesn’t see them at first.

He’s too indignant at the way the customer is leaning over the daffodils, clearly disregarding the normal boundaries between the customers’ space and the owner’s space, and stepping right into the shop window area. Thorin’s temper flares when he notices the customer touching his daffodils, as if Thorin’s shop was one of those places where you can go around fiddling and meddling just for the idiotic pleasure of it.

This is one of the reasons why Thorin takes the stranger for some sly kid who has happened to feel bored and has thought to enter the first place on his way to make mischief. The fact that the stranger is quite small and his face is half-hidden behind fashionable sunglasses contributes to deceive Thorin about his age.

“You, kid,” Thorin grunts, marching toward him.

Only when the stranger turns around and takes his glasses off does Thorin realise his mistake. He sees the light wrinkles at the corner of the guy’s eyes and the offended look he now wears - he’s not a kid, though he’s certainly a little man and younger than Thorin. Not too much younger however, he must be thirty-something and Thorin is nearly forty - ok, forty, but it doesn’t matter.

Along the sight of the man’s eyes alight with what may be annoyance and amusement in equal parts, also comes the consciousness that the stranger’s arms are tattooed in a swirl of black lines and patches of colours, and Thorin can already follow the patterns to discover flowers, a myriad of flowers patiently inked on the man’s skin. Air may have left Thorin’s lungs at the sight, but the guy’s words slam it back into them.

“Yes, old man?”

Thorin is many things at a time - irritated, suspicious, and fascinated. Fascinated with the tattoos and not with the man sporting them, though he has to concede that the guy looks nice (plump, brown-haired and grey-eyed sort of nice). Comely is the word which comes to Thorin’s mind and he knows too well that no one uses it for strangers walking into your shop and intruding upon your flowers.

“We’re closed,” Thorin says, resorting to such a defence against the man’s little smirk.

“Are you?” the stranger asks lazily, as if he was not very impressed with Thorin’s downright lie. Then his shoulders sag a little and he loses some of his smugness. “Sorry, I was just taking a look.”

“We’re not entirely closed,” Thorin feels compelled to amend, before he remembers the daffodils. “Still, we have a no touching policy here.”

“Wait, this shop has a policy? One forbidding me to...what, contaminate the flowers?” the stranger asks, regaining some of his boldness and showing a mocking contempt for the mere idea that a little florist shop in Derbyshire may have something like a policy.

Such a tone, and the traces of a posh, BBC-like accent are enough to tickle Thorin’s pride.

“My shop, my rules,” Thorin grits through his teeth, knowing he sounds ridiculous.

Thank heaven Kíli is still in the back.

“So, King of Flowers,” the stranger mocks him, “what other rules are in force?”

Entrance forbidden to strangers with beautifully crafted tattoos, Thorin thinks.

“Oh. Thanks.”

Wait, has he said that aloud? He has, damn him, judging from the surprised look on the guy’s face. Soon enough the surprise melts into self-satisfaction and Thorin just thinks that the stranger must be used to receiving compliments on his tattoos - in other words he has just made a fool of himself. And it’s strange considering that usually Thorin has to force himself to speak, rather than struggle to keep his mouth shut.

“I just happen to like flowers,” the guy adds, massaging his left wrist and looking around.

Thorin makes a noncommittal noise, for the statement affects him more than he cares to show. Get a grip, you moron, he repeats to himself before speaking.

“That’s fine,” he concedes with some difficulty, “do you mean to buy something?”

The guy looks at him as if he may give an impertinent answer to that, but he only shrugs.

“Taking a look, I don’t know yet. I may like those narcissus in the shop window.”

“The daffodils you mean.”

“Wouldn’t a rose by any other name...” the guy begins, eyes crinkling with mirth.

“I happen to prefer the common name and..”

“And your shop, your rules,” the stranger concludes in Thorin’s place. “My mother...” he starts with some energy, then he stops in his tracks. He gives another shrug and tilts his head to peer up at Thorin. “Give me a good reason to call them daffodils.”

“Narcissus was an idiot,” Thorin states, before even thinking.

“Oh, well, drowning himself for vanity does sound stupid,” the stranger admits, chuckling.

The sound catches Thorin by surprise, it is soft and vaguely silly, yet it makes him feel vulnerable. Words roll out of his mouth before he can swallow them. 

“No, because he was so engrossed in himself he was unable to notice that someone loved him, or at least respect that love.”

The stranger’s eyes grow larger and he stares as if Thorin might be somewhat dangerous. What’s even worse, Thorin agrees on the subject - he’s being a danger to himself and his dignity and he would take back his words if he could.

Thorin generally disregards how people may react to his attitude, and never has he wished to drastically change his manners to please others; he’s too proud and brutally honest to be ingratiating, and too stubborn to accept that human relationships live on daily compromises. So his efforts to be nicer have become fewer and fewer over the years, to the point that he usually prefers the company of flowers to that of human beings. Flowers at least reward Thorin’s attentions as humans do not; the time and feelings he pours into them are seldom wasted. He feels clever and capable around flowers, well-repaid of his love, whereas he’s as graceless and pitiful as a stranded whale when it comes to people.   

Still, he has always been able to count on the fact that most of the time the problem is that he talks too little and frowns too much - this is the refrain of Dís’s reproaches and Dwalin’s taunts, and a recurring complaint among his ex-partners. But this thing going on between him and the tattooed stranger is a disaster on a whole new level; this time the frowning is all right, but the non-talking part has short-circuited and Thorin has found himself talking to the stranger. And not the usual how much, which one, come back on Thursday for the composition rite reserved for customers, but an actual conversation where he talks about his preferences - like those for daffodils and small guys with gorgeous flower tattoos turning up in his shop.

What has possessed him to express his opinion about Narcissus’s myth and end up musing about love and rejection? Even one so ill-versed in engaging with the public as Thorin is knows that one doesn’t talk to customers that way; one does not talk love with customers - they were not even flirting, damn him, and suddenly Thorin’s tone has become too intimate and personal.

No wonder the guy has been unexpectedly reduced to silence.    

Thorin feels that he will just explode if he stands still another moment. He must do something, and that something is reaching the shop window in a couple of angry strides and grab the vase of daffodils. A moment later he’s pushing it against the stranger’s chest, regardless of the dirt crumbling out of the vase and the slightly panicked look that has appeared on the guy’s face at his approach.  

The daffodils’ petals tickle the stranger’s nose and for a moment Thorin thinks he’s going to sneeze, but something on Thorin’s face must convince the guy to hold it back.

“What, no, I cannot...” he squeaks instead.

He staggers, head tilting back to avoid the petals, with his arms awkwardly wound around the vase - Thorin is still holding it though, because he fears that the stranger may let it fall at any moment. They sort of fight for the vase - whether to keep it or to push it into the other’s hands is uncertain, and the stranger is puffing and blushing while Thorin - well Thorin can’t help noticing the freckles dusting the guy’s nose and cheeks.

“Seriously, I can’t just...”

“Ten pounds,” Thorin growls.

The stranger blinks.

He looks relieved - now that Thorin has stated a price there’s no way this guy could mistake this for a gift, and that would be just embarrassing, wouldn’t it? Thorin’s words have brought them back to their expected roles of florist and customer, and now the stranger’s grip on the vase seems a little firmer.

“Sure,” he nods, then bits his lower lip. “Can you hold it? Just have to reach for my wallet.” Thorin grunts and takes the vase from his hands, stoically pretending not to notice that his shirt’s front is a little damp. “Thank you...” the man mumbles, reaching for his wallet in the back pocket of his brown trousers. “Here.”

Thorin takes the ten pound note, while keeping the vase with one hand, and pushes it into his pocket. A half-smile appears on the stranger’s mouth.

“Shouldn’t you give me the daffodils now? And a receipt, thank you very much.”

When Thorin does that, the stranger smiles at him over the cash counter. It’s the swift, perfunctory smile usually reserved for this occasion, yet it kindles something in Thorin’s chest.

“Have a nice evening,” Thorin croaks - Dís’s lessons in politeness speaking through his mouth.

The result is unexpected though, for the stranger seems to think about it rather than accepting the bidding for the stock phrase it is. Thorin finds himself wondering what kind of evening is waiting for the stranger, and before he can check his thoughts the guy nods, just once.

“You too,” he says, taking the daffodils away with him.

When the door close behind him, Thorin is left with the ridiculous notion that he should have offered a shopping bag to the little man to carry the daffodils and he almost rushes to the door to call the stranger back.

 

*

 

Sitting on Lobelia’s couch, Bilbo feels drained.

This day is taking its toll on him - too many new beginnings he thinks, and they all feel like moving backward rather than forward. Now he would like to stretch on the couch and take some rest, just like that. He doesn’t though and even nods politely in time with Lobelia’s ramblings; funnily enough, the daffodils happen to be of some comfort. He has carried them into Lobelia and Otho’s home and placed them at his side on the couch, indifferent to Lobelia’s condescending smile as well as to Otho’s shocked expression - some flowers cannot really worsen their opinion of him and Bilbo has found out that daffodils are exactly the sort of company he can appreciate today.

It’s strange, since he did not even mean to buy them. Even stranger considering that he stepped into the shop with the firm intention of hating the man, not buying from him. Yet all Bilbo’s plans are going astray as of late, so it shouldn’t be surprising.

He can’t even remember the man’s name, but it must be somewhere in the sale documents; at least Bilbo is sure they have never met before, since he arranged the sale of his mother’s shop through an agent so as to avoid going back to Derbyshire. Neither can he fathom why he wanted to see the shop after all these years - whether to see it changed or to find something unaltered, surely he didn’t go there to meet the owner. He just didn’t think that he would be there, realising too late that the tall, dark, admittedly handsome guy was not a clerk but the very man Bilbo has sold his mother’s shop to out of grief and bitterness.

“Listen, I don’t want to seem pushy but I haven’t got all evening,” Bilbo says suddenly, interrupting Lobelia. For a moment she looks ugly, her eyes full of spite, then she smiles sweetly.

“Oh deary, of course you haven’t. Tired, yes. All the way from London...but you know, Otho is up there talking to him, explaining who you are and why you’re here. It’s not the sort of thing you can do lightly. Taking care of a kid is a huge responsibility, Bilbo.”

He would like to say I know, but he can’t - he doesn’t know actually, and he didn’t even want to find out.

“But you can count on us. After all the kid has been living with us since - well, you know. A darling child, though you’ll find him a little stubborn, a little wild at a times. You would be surprised by the sort of silly things going on in his head, but I think he can be corrected as long as you use a firm hand with him. Oh, there he is!”

There he is, Frodo Baggins, eleven years old and an orphan.

He stands by Otho’s side at the bottom of the stairs. Otho clearly means to push him toward the couch, but the kid must be one step away from running out of the door - a feeling Bilbo can relate to right now.

His resemblance to Drogo is striking - the Baggins’ look Bilbo’s mother would say. Small and brown-haired, with a fine round face and a mop of unruly curls which clearly displease Lobelia - she’s talking about his need for a cut - Frodo reminds Bilbo of Primula with his bright eyes.   

He’s clearly afraid of what is coming his way and Bilbo does not feel reassured, since he’s probably even more frightened than the kid is.

“Bag End is truly too big for you two, I’m sure that such a large house will not fit your needs. But Otho may help you with finding other accommodation, something more fitting,” Lobelia keeps on, as if she didn’t notice that Frodo has not spoken a single word, neither has Bilbo. “All those years while you were away Bilbo, I have always said to Otho what a pity that Bag End should remain empty, when surely there are some fine families around here who would gladly take care of it - it just needs some minor adjustments, and you know how your mother never really cared for modernization. Now, if you would just think...”

Frodo’s resemblance to Primula suddenly appears more vivid when his blue eyes soften unexpectedly - his gaze has just fallen on the daffodils at Bilbo’s side. Something stirs in Bilbo’s heart at the sight and his mind becomes a little clearer.

“Bag End won’t be empty anymore,” he says, feeling a little more confident about it for the first time in the last month.

Chapter Text

The Oakenshield? Seriously?”

Ori’s muffled chuckle comes through the phone and suddenly London feels farther away.

“This is not funny,” Bilbo sighs, picking at the creases of the sheet under him.

He smiles though, the sort of resigned smile that a character mocked by Fate would wear in a play - theatre has been one of the greatest pleasures of Bilbo’s (past) life and, with his natural flair for impressions, he has picked up some quirks and tricks from the actors he has seen on the stage (he may also have dated two or three actors over the years, including a guy with serious issues of split personality).

“Oh, but it is funny,” Ori retorts.

“I get it,” Bilbo replies, trying really hard not to whine, though it would be a considerable relief. “That man owes the place and bought himself the right to change the shop’s name. But you know, florists tend to prefer other sorts of names...like The Paradise of Flowers or Flowerland. Even something like Bob’s would have been better than The Oakenshield - it sounds just like a criminal den.”

“I don’t know, I find it pretty epic,” Ori muses. “So, how’s Bob?”

“Who?”

“Bob, the shop’s new owner.”

“Oh no,” Bilbo pushes his feet over the low table in front of the couch and leans against the headrest. “It was just an example. I don’t know his name. I should have it somewhere in the papers of the sale, but I can’t remember it - it all passed in a blur, you know.”

“Yeah, I was there at the time,” Ori pipes in and Bilbo is reminded of one of the reasons why he likes him.

Ori has this quiet, unassuming way about things and it’s very comforting to hear him refer casually to those days when Bilbo was an utter wreck and Ori had to nurse him back to a decent state of mind - enough to organize the funeral, sell the shop, and keep the house from falling into Lobelia’s clutches.

“And the man is not the type to keep a name tag on his shirt,” Bilbo adds, well-aware that a sudden renewal of his gratitude for Ori’s doings would be embarrassing to them both, while grumpy but handsome florist is a safer-ground topic.

“That’s interesting, since you’ve obvious issues with the name of his shop. You know what? It would be a perfect moniker in a fantasy novel - the Oakenshield, conqueror of worlds one flower at a time,” Ori announces, making sound of trumpets and then roaring in what could probably pass for the MGM lion if Ori wasn’t sniggering and ruining the effect. He sobers up to ask: “Does he wield a sword?”

“I fail to see the humour of it,” Bilbo replies, a little contemptuously.

“Said the man who named his tattoo machine gun Sting.”

“That’s good British humour, you know,” Bilbo hums.

“I hope you’re not trying too much British humour on the kids at school. Speaking of which, how’s the new job?” Ori inquires.

“Apart from the fact that the sly bugger sort of forgot to tell me that I didn’t need to dress as if I was two centuries late for a tea party? I believe one of the boys in Year 3 was still wearing his pyjama trousers and I’ve been asked if embroidered waistcoats are a thing in London at the moment,” Bilbo complains, shifting his phone from one ear to the other and making a mental note to buy a new earpiece since his old one has been lost in the mysterious depth of his luggage. Would that his waistcoat had been lost as well before he could wear it to school! “But, well, apart from that, I think teenagers are slightly repellent creatures and I strongly deny having ever been one of them.”

“I’m sure teenagers find us old boys repellent as well,” Ori laughs.

“Didn’t we get tattoos to be cool role models for kids?” Bilbo asks, then sighs. “Maybe that’s part of the problem - I’m not a teacher, no matter what Gandalf says about it. He’s been very understanding, offering me this job and all, but I don’t think this is going to work.”

“Do you dislike teaching so much?”

“Well, no. Actually I’m fine with going back to books and maps. I’ve been thinking about taking out my old maps, the ones I used to keep in my room when I was a kid, and showing them to the students. We could discuss the different methods of representation and how maps have changed over time along with the perception of space and distance. I think we should start with the local territory, you know, getting to see something of the Dales and understanding the difference between reality and representation, the actual grounds and what they can draw in their maps,” Bilbo explains, aware of the vague excitement he feels at the idea - and slightly annoyed at the smile Ori is probably wearing right now, listening to him getting keen on the perspectives offered by a teaching job in Derbyshire. “I loved studying Cartography at University,” he mutters in his defence. “I haven’t taken that road and become a scholar, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. A little.”

“I hope you’ll get to enjoy it more than a little. And if Gandalf offered you the job, I think you should trust his judgement. I like him you know, he may be a little out of touch sometimes, but - well, having a tattoo there at his age...that is what I’d call being cool,” Ori points out, adding a handful of os in an almost whistle.  

“Please Ori, I tried to forget that detail,” Bilbo groans, rubbing his face with his hand. “And you can’t judge people by their tattoos - it’s your artist’s instinct working against reason.”

“But I do think that Gandalf is a good judge of characters. I’d definitely play in his team and if he chose you...well, give it a shot at least.”

“What do you think I’m doing here?” Bilbo offers in turn, and it comes out a little crisp.

“Let me think. You’re probably sitting somewhere - in the kitchen I’d say or the drawing room - brooding over the past and what could’ve been, and who you are, and talking may have made you a little hungry, so you’re probably thinking about that little Caribbean place in Bethnal Green where you like to grab a bite from time to time because you adore their duck rolls and the furniture is so pretty and...wait, you haven’t taken the sheets off the furniture yet, have you?” Ori asks accusingly.

Bilbo looks around the room - the room which was his mother’s favourite.

All the furniture hides beneath white sheets, an army of misshapen ghosts gathered around him. And he, who has deserted this place for years, their captain.

“Bilbo, are you still there?”

Ori’s voice, lined with concern, hauls Bilbo straight back from the brink of his memories - from the picture of the room as it was in his mother’s time, overflowing with flowers and trifles, a little ugly as familiar and beloved things grow to be sometimes. Now it lies under the sheets, the corpse of a room. It makes Bilbo cold to think of it, but he’s even more frightened to lift the sheets to see what’s left beneath them.

“Yes, still here,” he says, without even trying to conceal how it upsets him to still be trapped here with his memories and his guilt.

“Listen, you should take the sheets away. Burn them, possibly. I’m not even saying this for you, but for the kid. You can’t make him live like that - you have to make an effort.”

“Am I not here? I’ve left my life behind for him, that’s effort enough,” Bilbo snaps, though he immediately regrets it. The bitter tang the words have left in his mouth is worse than the aftertaste of the Chinese food he and Frodo have been eating this last week - and that’s saying a lot. “Sorry, tired. I’ve cleaned up my old room and one of the guest rooms, but...I need some time for the rest of the house. It wasn’t just my childhood fancy - this house is really big.”

“What about the kitchen?” Ori asks, as relentless as he can be.

“We had take-away food,” Bilbo mutters under his breath, feeling vaguely ashamed.

He can indeed cook quite well and he has built himself a wonderful reputation as a host in London - giving parties and cooking for a dozen guests at a time, discovering new places all around the town and even flirting with the idea of managing his own little food connoisseur blog.

But it doesn’t matter as long as he feels like an intruder into his own house. He’s been tiptoeing around, as if someone could come up at any moment and shoo him away or - worse still - challenge his right to live in the house he left.

So he and Frodo have been eating their dinners perched on a couple of stools, both pretending to be so clumsy with the chopsticks and forced to look down at their food all the time - thank heavens the kid has lunch at school and in the morning they can pick up some breakfast on the way. Bilbo knows very well that it can’t go on like this, and Frodo isn’t the only one who needs some healthy dietary habits; Bilbo himself can’t cope with this new life without regular good food and possibly a second breakfast on Sunday.

“I can’t think of take-away in Derbyshire. You should be living on pudding and baked treats!”

“You’ve a stereotyped vision of life in the country, London boy,” Bilbo snorts. “But I may try out a couple of traditional recipes sooner or later. For the sake of Frodo’s growth.”

“Apropos, how’s the kid?” Ori inquires, as if what they’ve been discussing up to now wasn’t all about Bilbo trying to take care of Frodo to comply with his parents’ wish.

“He doesn’t talk too much,” Bilbo admits, shuffling his feet on the table nervously and focusing his gaze on the little hole in his right sock. “The teachers say he’s a good sort of kid, not the most popular in his year but he has made a few close friends. Good marks, especially English and Science, and no disciplinary problems. He’s become quieter lately and sometimes his attention drifts, but they say that’s to be expected after what he has gone through.”

Bilbo hasn’t dared to ask the teachers what quieter means. Saying that Frodo doesn’t talk too much is an euphemism - he has said no more than a hundred words to Bilbo since he moved into Bag End a week ago. The most recurrent word Frodo uses with him is bye and every time Bilbo thinks that the kid isn’t really sure that they’re not parting for good. There must have been one time when he said bye to his parents and they didn’t make it back, and there’s no way Bilbo can reassure the kid; he still doesn’t know how to say I’m here to stay, for his heart isn’t in it.

“Where do they come from?” has been Frodo’s best attempt at conversation so far.

As soon as Bilbo explained that he had bought the daffodils from The Oakenshield shop, Frodo nodded as if he’d already thought of it and was vaguely pleased to have been right. Then he left the car with his customary bye and the topic has never come up again since.

“You should come here on a weekend,” Ori suggests. “You know, take the kid to see the mummies at the British Museum and to a play - Shakespeare does wonders at his age. And then you could show him around a little, introduce him to some of your favourite restaurants, maybe stop at the shop...”

“Sure, sooner or later,” Bilbo hums, nodding to the empty room.

He’s not going to tell Ori that he and Frodo won’t leave Bag End anytime soon - the school psychologist has spoken against it. The kid needs stability, something to rely on while he faces his loss; Frodo has faced so many changes throughout the last months that Bilbo must be very careful of the kind of life he’s offering the kid. He can’t pretend that Frodo will be okay with moving to another city all of sudden - Bilbo must pretend that he’s okay with moving to another city and another job all of sudden, fuck the life he has chosen for himself (this is not what the school psychologist said, but Bilbo heard it all the same).

What really bothers Bilbo is the fact that the psychologist (a Mrs Galadriel), Gandalf, and even Ori are all convinced that Frodo needs him, while it’s quite clear that Frodo doesn’t share their view and Bilbo can’t really find any fault with that (he didn’t need Frodo either, but that’s life for you, a never-ending feeling of powerlessness).

“How are things going at the shop?” Bilbo asks, partly from a disguised wish to bathe in self-pity.

“Oh you know, nothing exciting,” Ori downplays - it’s clear that he’s trying to guess what Bilbo can take right now, but in the end he gives up and admits: “People have been asking about you. No one does flowers better than you do and flowers... god, Bilbo, this is a new age for floral tattoos! I’ve turned down a few customers because they wanted your special watercolour design and that’s not really my area. Some pics of your work have been going around on Tumblr and Instagram, it was a pity to tell them that you won’t be around for some time. I couldn’t send them to Derbyshire, could I?”

“No, obviously not,” Bilbo answers, though he cannot keep some bitterness from his voice. “Here I’m Mr Baggins, teacher. No Sting for me here.”

“I could bring you Sting, you know.”

“And then what? Open a tattoo shop here? Come on, these lovely people would probably start a witch-hunt if they suspected me of inking their sons and daughters.”

“Aren’t you exaggerating?” Ori asks, sounding too amused for Bilbo’s taste. “Maybe when you were a kid the place was a little backward and suffocating, but things must have changed. Your mother lived there most of her life and she wasn’t exactly narrow-minded nor fearful to speak her mind.”

“That’s why she terrorised our neighbours and relatives,” Bilbo deadpans. Ori is probably on the verge of saying something funny, but Bilbo cuts in. “I think - well, I think it would be better if she was in my place. She would know how to take care of the kid.”

It sounds too much like a confession and it shouldn’t be so difficult.

“See, then you must have learnt from her.”

Bilbo snorts at Ori’s comment. He would gladly find something sharp to say on the subject, but Frodo appears by the couch, managing to sneak up on Bilbo and make him drop his phone in surprise - the kid has a burglar’s soft pace, something which must have come to Frodo from Bilbo himself through a strange genetic route. From the few words Frodo gets past his lips, Bilbo guesses that there’s something wrong with the water temperature of the shower. He picks up the phone, promises Ori that he’ll call another time, and then proceeds with trying to prove to Frodo that he has a vague idea of how to fix things - starting with the shower.

 

*

 

The second time the tattooed stranger shows up at the shop, Thorin doesn’t notice him at first because he’s assisting Mrs Took - something which requires, as Mrs Took likes to remind Thorin as frequently as possible, the florist’s full and unwavering attention. So it takes Thorin a while before he realises that there’s another customer in the shop and a single glance to recognise the stranger with the flower tattoos.

With that recognition comes the desire for the ground to open up under him and swallow him whole.

Of course the stranger has to come back while Thorin is dealing with Mrs Took, so that their second encounter can be more embarrassing than the first one, as if Thorin hadn’t embarrassed himself enough during the course of their first meeting a couple of weeks ago.

What bothers him most is the fact that at the back of his mind Thorin has been fancying a second meeting with this little man whose skin is in full bloom. He hasn’t lingered on the details of such a chance, shy as he is of daydreaming, but he’s fairly sure that Mrs Took wasn’t included in any of his (blurred) fantasies. Moreover, Thorin hasn’t really thought about seeing the stranger again, since he has taken for granted that the man was just making his way through Hobbiton and he would never return to the shop.

However the stranger is there, real enough to make Thorin’s breath catch in his throat and his hands sweat in the pockets of his jeans while he observes the man moving effortlessly from one bunch of flowers to the other, gliding on light feet in Thorin’s territory.

Reality crashes in on Thorin in the shape of the handle of Mrs Took’s umbrella, poking him in the ribs.

“I’ve not made it to my age to be ignored,” the old lady declares, adjusting her steel rimmed glasses on her nose and giving Thorin a scathing look; it’s a blessing that Thorin is tall so that if he sags a little under Mrs Took’s stare, it may not be too evident. “Now, let me see the plants you have here, handsome.”

Thorin cringes at the endearment and hardly fights back the temptation to turn around and see if the stranger is close enough to catch Mrs Took’s words.

“You may want to go with sage,” Thorin grits out between his teeth, making to grab one of the terracotta vases from the display where he keeps the herbs.

“I’ve already got two of those in my garden,” Mrs Took sighs, tapping her umbrella on the floor with some impatience, like a teacher before a pupil who hasn’t answered her question correctly. “You should come see them - the poor darlings, still suffering from last Winter! You should indulge a lady for once in your life, silly boy that you are.”

Whatever Thorin may have pictured in his mind concerning his second meeting with the stranger, it’s shattered in the wake of Mrs Took’s flirting. This is not just the cute (Dís would say) borderline annoying (Thorin would add) flattering and pampering some of the older clients save for Thorin, neither the awkward and unsuccessful flirting some of the old (and younger) ladies engage for the sake of their gardens as well as the florist’s rugged charm. Oh no, this is blatant flirting and Mrs Took has been known for a while to be perfectly unabashed by Thorin’s disgruntled temper.

Fíli suggested that Mrs Took may have contributed to the change in the German plans for a terrestrial invasion during the Second World War, for who would ever invade a country defended by such unyielding ladies? Indeed you would think that she had kept the Germans at bay single-handedly, given the powerful speeches she can give upon the subject of the war she had lived through - she even looks a little like Churchill, Kíli pointed out one day.

Yet more than Churchill Mrs Took idolises her own ancestor, one Bandobras Took who fought in the Napoleonic Wars. The fact that this heroic figure in Mrs Took’s family tree is supposed to have wielded a club as a weapon is proof, in Thorin’s opinion, of the old lady being the most unreliable narrator, while Fíli and Kíli consider this detail the very point of Bandobras and sure evidence of his being Mrs Took’s ancestor - doesn’t she look like she could use her umbrella to club an entire troop of French fops?

With such blood in her veins, no beating around the bush can be expected on Mrs Took’s part. And it would be all part of Thorin’s (sometimes exasperating) routine in the shop, if not for the tattooed stranger. Thorin has been thinking about the sort of things he could tell about the flowers inked on the man’s skin and of course the man must be back to see him while he’s in the process of being wooed by an old lady.

“You must be used to heads turning at your passage, Mr Florist,” Mrs Took muses, “but it takes more than a pretty face - though very pretty indeed - to convince a woman to give up her freedom.”

Thorin makes a noise, one born from frustration and vague horror at the idea of what’s to come. Not that Mrs Took seems to care about it, while she keeps examining the plants on display with the same methodical and slightly greedy care with which she looks at Thorin between one comment and the next.  

“My third husband was particularly bothersome in that regard, always pretending to give his opinion on every topic; pretending - hear, hear! - to have a substantial view on the topic of the 1940 bombing. As if he had been old enough to remember them. I was old enough and living the London life, and a rowdy life was that!, with the ration queues and the officers, the sirens and the we might be dead tomorrow sort of romance. Now, don’t look so shocked, boy, I’m old enough to say whatever I want and if I want to admit that love was a little careless and desperate then, I shall do so.”

“I’m sure it was,” Thorin humbly mumbles.

Sure enough he is desperate enough to catch sight of the tattooed stranger at the corner of his eye, just to make sure that he’s still mid-way between leaving the shop and listening to Mrs Took’s ramblings - or possibly doing neither of those things.

“I’ve had my own share of reckless amours in my time,” the old lady carries on, perfectly untouched by the fact that Thorin is trying to convince her to choose a plant - any plant - and put an end to his sufferings. “Men were reckless then, not like you pampered boys always waiting for someone else to take the reins, playing the hard-to-catch card in order to be flattered.”

“I can assure you that I don’t...” Thorin tries to interrupt her, as soon as he perceives the stranger moving dangerously closer.

“Don’t. Don’t deny it - do you think I don’t know all these tricks? I’ve been using them for decades before you were born,” Mrs Took retorts, giving Thorin the sort of wink which suggests that said decades won’t get in the way of her inexorable courtship. “Just the other day I was telling your sister that the men of your generation are all big babies. You’ve been raised up in a soft world, all television shows and tight trousers - speaking of which, don’t you think your trousers are far too tight? Not that I mind taking a good look, but it might be bad for your circulation.”

Thorin practically chokes on air at the last comment. His trousers are not overly tight; they are perfectly normal-sized, though it may be admitted that Thorin may have been thinking about the new stock of tulip bulbs while he was setting the washing machine and this may have resulted in some slight shrinking. But one would hardly notice if old ladies minded their own business rather than eyeing their florist’s thighs.

Then Thorin hears a muffled noise - a barely disguised chuckle. He raises his gaze from the parsley and thyme plants, whose position he has been shifting needlessly in an effort to ignore the worst parts of Mrs Took’s flirting, and he finds the stranger beside the gardening tools rack looking utterly amused.

When their eyes meet the little man beams at him and Thorin...

“What has gotten into you, bumpkin?” Mrs Took inquires - unnecessarily loudly if you ask Thorin - while she checks him out from head to foot. “Your face has gone red. There, that’s exactly the sort of circulation problem I was talking about - tight trousers squeezing all the blood up to your head.”

That’s when the stranger loses it and lets out a bark of laughter.  

Thorin ponders the opportunity of hiding himself among the cactuses - their thorns would provide the right amount of distress his mind needs in order to cope with his confused feelings, since he’s torn between the displeasure of being laughed at and the pleasure of hearing the stranger’s laughter.

Not that it could be described as musical, silvery, or other terms people uses to appreciate one’s laughter (Thorin had some of them thrown at him in the past); it’s rather a sneeze, turning into something a little too high-pitched before crashing down in a proper roll of laughter. It’s, in other words, a slightly embarrassing sort of laughter. Yet Thorin likes it and he would probably join in if he wasn’t so petrified in humiliation.

“Young man, haven’t you been taught that sneaking up on people is rude?”

If Thorin’s mind flinches in horror at the prospect of Mrs Took addressing the tattooed stranger, the man doesn’t seem any more comfortable with the idea and tries to enact a quick retreat. It ends up with the stranger bumping into the tools rack and Thorin’s instinct (developed throughout years of babysitting Fíli and Kíli) kicking in to stop the man’s fall.

Even if the man keeps his balance admirably and avoids the couple of tools that have fallen on the floor, it’s too late for Thorin to stop. They don’t actually touch - just a brush of Thorin’s thumb on the hollow of the man’s elbow, fingertips grazing over the folded sleeve - but it makes Thorin feel slightly giddy when the stranger looks up at him. Damn the sunglasses, which have fallen down on the man’s nose and hide his expression from Thorin.

A moment later the man is mumbling an apology, though it’s offered to Mrs Took.

“Nothing of that now, don’t try shyness on me for I won’t have it,” the old lady warns the stranger. “Not from the neighbourhood, are you? From London, I suppose?” she asks, without concealing her disapproval at his look.

Unexpectedly enough, the man looks a little subdued under her scrutiny and even Thorin feels vaguely comforted by the fact that Mrs Took is proving to be a tough nut even for the stranger. Of the smug smile and sharp talk he offered Thorin last time nothing shows - instead, the man just nods and then averts his eyes from Mrs Took’s gaze. 

“Very well, then,” she goes on, “since you couldn’t wait your turn to be served by Mr Thorin here, you might as well suggest which herb should I buy for my garden. You should know something about flowers and plants since you’ve so many of them doodled on your arms.”

Colour rises to the stranger’s cheeks. Thorin doesn’t even linger on the fact that this must be the gallant instinct Dís always suggests he to show more frequently in public; he simply turns to the herb display and lifts one little purple-glazed vase.

Rosemary,” he says, presenting it to Mrs Took.

The old lady must be impressed with Thorin’s firm - masculine, Dís would purr - tone, since she stops dead in her tracks and, rather than starting a new offensive on the stranger, looks at Thorin with hardly disguised pleasure.

“Rosemary,” Mrs Took repeats, raising her brow and examining the vase in Thorin’s hands.

“You’ll have to take good care of it, especially during the harshest Winter months. Though it’s quite easy to grow, both in pots and gardens, it may suffer in our weather - protect it from frost and don’t over-water it, it prefers dry grounds. And sun, give it as much light as possible. It’ll give off a pleasant scent and keep away the pests, you’ll use its needles for cooking and its flowers will add a touch of colour to your collection of herbs - this one here will sprout indigo flowers and it’ll do very well indoors. If you can keep it from the cold and find it a place in your little hothouse where you grow the herbs and the tomatoes, it’ll be worthy, I can promise you as much.”

Mrs Took looks him straight in the eye and Thorin holds her gaze. He’s vaguely aware that this burst of eloquence on his part must have made her suspicious, while the stranger - oh no, Thorin doesn’t suppose anything on this man. He’s only aware that the little man is still there at his side.

“You’ve got me, handsome,” Mrs Took declares after a few moments of thrilling silence. With the sort of quickness you wouldn’t expect from people over ninety, she snaps the smallest branch from the rosemary. “Lean down, my boy,” she orders and Thorin is too dazed to refuse. Mrs Took places the rosemary just behind his ear, slipping it through Thorin’s dark (with some grey, Dís reminds him) hair and looking as if she has just crowned in laurels the winner of some competition - for her heart, probably. “I’ll buy the rosemary and take good care of it. Put a bow on the vase, blue like your pretty eyes,” she requests, beaming and brandishing her umbrella like a sceptre.

Rosemary-crowned and slightly flustered as he is, for once Thorin decides to play it cool (Fíli may have spent a Sunday afternoon explaining to him what this means) - in other words he plans to turn around and look at the stranger and shrug as if to say she’s a good person, odd as you wish, but she takes good care of her garden and she’s an admirable woman and would you like to...He’s still focused on the effort of putting so many things in a single glance and getting his head around why it should be so important, when he actually turns around and realises that there’s no one else in the shop except him and Mrs Took.   

 

*

 

No matter how much she loves flirting with the florist, there are many other things Adamanta Took enjoys as well, and one of them is having a cup of chamomile tea before going to bed. No husband has ever been able to change Adamanta’s habit to sit down to her chamomile tea late in the evening, sipped from the same old cup which has survived the Battle of Britain and three marriages - in good and bad times.

Yet there’s nothing particular about this moment. Adamanta doesn’t actually like chamomile tea, but the flavour brings her back to her childhood and the thousand cups her mother gave her in the hope that it would temper Adamanta’s tantrums. Chamomile did nothing in that regard, but it’s a focal point - she can concentrate on its most familiar flavour to sort out her thoughts.

Winston and Bandobras help as well, with their purring and their warm lithe bodies brushing against her ankles or jumping in her lap - they are both the last descendants of a long line of Winstons and Bandobrases, and they are both female (a fact that has never bothered Adamanta when naming her cats).

On evenings like this one, when Adamanta has something to narrate - her new rosemary, still wrapped in the blue bow - she misses Belladonna. They had grown closer over the last years and Belladonna used to call on Adamanta from time to time or invite her to Bag End. They would speak ill of the Sackville-Bagginses, try to reconstruct their family tree and understand how many times removed their cousinship was, have tea with pastries, and talk about their loves - one for Belladonna, many for Adamanta, but that didn’t matter to either of them. That’s gone, and though many things have done the same throughout her life, Adamanta hasn’t learnt the art of letting go yet. She clutches at her memories, living on but never properly forgetting.

So it’s only natural that when her thoughts wrap around Belladonna Baggins née Took, something slots in place. She suddenly knows who she met in Thorin’s shop - scratch that, in Belladonna’s shop, today.

Bilbo Baggins.

There was something compelling about the little man, something she couldn’t quite place. Now she sees that the stranger is not a stranger but someone coming back, like a ghost appearing in broad daylight. The very son of Belladonna Took, the estranged boy who left to go on an adventure and never came back; she wonders why she hasn’t seen it sooner, for the man is not so different from the child he was - the child who used to wander through dales and through woods, looking for the elves of his mother’s bedtime stories, and then reappearing where and when you weren’t expecting him.

If Belladonna’s son is back, this is going to be interesting.        

Chapter Text

The third time Bilbo has lunch at Bombur’s is a Wednesday.

His two previous visits have convinced him that the food served at Bombur’s is well above the average around here, so he feels entitled to be a little adventurous and he orders the coq au Chardonnay. Bofur - co-owner and Bombur’s brother, as Bilbo had been dutifully informed his first time here - takes his order and suggests that he try out the scalloped potatoes with the chicken.

“I could, couldn’t I?” Bilbo mutters, then he scrunches up his nose and shakes his head. “No, thank you, just the coq please. And still water, not cold, thank you very much.”

“Ok,” Bofur drawls a little, tongue peeking out between his teeth as he makes a note in his pad. “While you wait, you may want to think about Bombur’s rhubarb tart for dessert. It’s quite famous around here,” he winks, “and it usually finishes in no time. If you’re interested, I can put a slice aside for you.”

Bilbo takes a look at the counter where pies, brioches, and other sweets are on display. He makes a little noise at the back of his throat when he catches sight of the half tart; its surface is a delicate rhubarb pink, the crust the lightest brown, and Bilbo can say that there’s some vanilla cream involved in the filling. Before he can think twice about it, he finds himself nodding.

Bofur smiles broadly - this might be his line of business, but he manages to appear genuinely delighted at Bilbo’s enjoyment of their cuisine. In truth, Ori always says that Bilbo’s pleasure in food is nothing short of contagious, and that’s why restaurant and café owners are always quite happy to have him sitting at one of their tables. You should make food commercials was one of the regular jokes when things weren’t going so well with the tattoo parlour.   

Nonetheless, as soon as Bofur brings him his water and moves on to another table, Bilbo feels a spark of guilt in his chest. He’s having lunch here at this cosy place with its glass veranda looking out on a small back garden and vintage furniture painted in white, grey, and lilac, while Frodo has to buy his lunch at the school cafeteria with the money Bilbo gave him this morning before taking him to school. Life is most unfair, a cynical voice suggests in Bilbo’s head and his shoulders sag a little - he feels vaguely pathetic.

He could have brought Frodo here to have lunch together, but truth is that the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. And now that he’s thinking about it he doesn’t like the idea. Taking Frodo here with him would mean sharing his newly-found haven of tranquillity and good food with someone who clearly hates his guts - well, maybe that’s too visceral an emotion to ascribe to an eleven year old, but they have been quarrelling throughout the weekend and into the new week. An ugly, half-choked, and pointless thing, with Bilbo biting back bitter remarks about what he has left behind to take care of Frodo and Frodo trying to pick up the fight at any cost in his peculiarly passive, holier than thou way - Bilbo can’t even remember what his complaints were about. He’s just generally angry at Bilbo, and Bilbo gets it. Frodo doesn’t want him around, he doesn’t care for any replacement or consolation, and he wants his parents back so much that he’s ready to tear the world apart with the sheer force of his silences and his dull stares.

Just a few weeks in and Bilbo’s already thinking about taking a step back. He might be the wrong person for the role of Frodo’s guardian and adopted single parent, so it might be better to admit it sooner rather than later, before he ruins Frodo’s chances at a vaguely balanced adolescence for good. Yet there’s the fact that Drogo and Primula chose him, and no one else; so this time you don’t run away, Bilbo repeats to himself every night before going to bed, knowing that his need to make amends dwells deeper than his sense of responsibility toward Frodo.

“Here’s your coq au Chardonnay,” Bofur says, putting before Bilbo a little pan filled with brown-gold bits of chicken drowned in whiteish cream and sprinkled with chopped parsley.

When Bilbo’s nose catches the smoky aroma of the wine, mingled with the subtler note of parsley and the earthy smell of mushrooms, his mouth starts to water. You actually make calf-eyes at the food, Ori would point out, laughing.     

If Bilbo was a lesser gourmand, he would let his self-reproach spoil his lunch. But he’s too much of a food-lover to disregard the fleeting pleasure of this chicken in white wine cream, so he means to enjoy each and every mouthful. While the first bite of tender meat melts a little on his tongue (oh my, there’s also bacon involved, he can just taste it, enhancing the other flavours...), he blesses the day (Monday) he decided that he had had enough of the school’s canteen. Not that it’s so bad, since Gandalf has set some standards for the food served to the kids, but spending all his lunches there has been sharpening Bilbo’s sense of disorientation - something that, for one so fond of maps, sounds quite ironic.

These last weeks Bilbo has been dividing his time between school and home, the former filled with the challenges of his future as a teacher and the latter with memories. The present - the space he inhabits with Frodo - has been a nightmare. Who could blame him for wanting some private space neither floating toward an uncertain future nor falling into a loop of remembrance?

For the time being, his lunch break is that space. He has been trying different places here and there around Hobbiton, but Bombur’s stands out for the quality of the food and the atmosphere. The clientele at lunch is a quiet assortment of clerks eating salads and badmouthing their bosses, workers popping in for a quick coffee and a sandwich, a couple of old people slowly sipping their tea in the seats closer to the back garden. No kids at this time of the day nor any colleague from the school; no happy families either.    

With its black walls covered in chalk drawings - mostly abstract and geometric patterns - and toy planes curiously hanging over the counter, the place looks a little queer, as if the owner and his associates couldn’t agree about what they meant to create and ended up with something bizarre, ridiculous in its own way, which doesn’t really suit any of them. But it grows on you, Bilbo thinks, with the unexpected 80s music and the loud personalities of the owners (minus Bifur, who is the least talkative of the three but has a penchant for keeping the place neat and tidy). The amazing food helps obviously, Bilbo wouldn’t be here otherwise.

They clearly use fresh ingredients, their menu varying every day according to the chef’s purchases and his inspiration, and what they achieve is a surprisingly good balance of traditional and fancier recipes. Here at Bombur’s Bilbo ate one of the best apple pies of his life;  that’s quite something considering how many he’s had over the years, since it’s one of Bilbo’s rules to check out a new place - start with the simpler, more unassuming things. If one messes up with the apple pie, it won’t have many chances to win Bilbo’s heart and stomach. Bombur’s passed the test with honours on Monday, so it’s the third day in a row that Bilbo has come here.

 

Bombur’s is a little further down the street from the flower shop. Bilbo doesn’t realise it the first time he takes his lunch here, somewhat distracted by the roasted cauliflower and chickpea salad and then by the generous slice of apple pie accompanied by the most delicate vanilla sauce; at least until he sees the florist himself walking through the door.

“Hello Thorin,” Bofur greets him, raising his eyes from the blueberry and white chocolate muffins he was disposing on a tray (Bilbo may have thought about buying one to take back to school for a snack). “The usual?”

The florist - Thorin Bilbo repeats in his mind, barely refraining from trying to pronounce the uncommon name out loud - only nods, then leans ever so slightly toward the counter to see what’s there today.

“And a pear and honey muffin to take away, please,” he adds, somewhat gruffly as if he did not mean to indulge but he couldn’t resist - a detail that arouses Bilbo’s sympathy.

His voice is deep like Bilbo remembers it from his two visits to the shop, and the way his blue shirt clings to his shoulders and over his back is very nice. He looks slightly different than he does in his shop, with his hands shoved down the pockets of his dark jeans and his big body looking as if he’s trying to be less conspicuous. He’s less imposing out of his reign and there’s an awkwardness to him that pulls a smile from Bilbo’s lips. He guesses that the florist doesn’t like to wait by the counter with a couple of people queuing behind him; he sees him gulp down his coffee hastily and almost crush the paper bag with the muffin in his big hands when he takes it from Bofur.

It’s then that Bilbo truly appreciate the fact that Bombur’s is not far from his mother’s - that is to say Thorin’s - shop. If Bofur remembers the florist’s usual, it can only mean that Thorin is something of a regular customer here; he probably turns up for a coffee or a snack during the day, maybe even eats lunch at one of the tables from time to time.

The thought is a little baffling, for the simple reason that Bilbo has not learnt yet how to connect all the dots of this new life of his. He didn’t expect that man to show up during his lunch, but even in London the world is incredibly small, smaller here in Hobbiton. He’s quite natural that Thorin had his own favourite places to grab a bite in the area; actually it’s Bilbo who’s far from his workplace (the school is placed in Hobbiton’s outskirts and it takes him fifteen-twenty minutes by bike to reach the oldest part of the small town).

Thorin pays then takes his leave, marching out onto the street.

Bilbo hasn’t even had a chance to be noticed. The florist was in too much of a hurry to pay any attention and Bilbo is sitting at a corner table, half-hidden behind a small piece of bookcase loaded with dog-eared books, local tourism brochures, a couple of manuals about wood carvings. Now that Thorin is gone, Bilbo wonders whether he would have liked being spotted or not.

In truth the man may not remember him at all, though the odds that someone remembers Bilbo for his tattoos are quite high on average. But then what would they have said to each other? They’re not even proper acquaintances and Bilbo muses about the impropriety of springing on a stranger something along the lines of hello, I sold you this shop and I sort of hate how you changed it and made it your own. Still, he spies Thorin’s retreat through the window glass, until he’s but a blurry point of blue down the street.

 

That’s, more or less, how Bilbo ends up sitting outside in the garden on Tuesday, his second time at Bombur’s. It’s a fine October day and the season is warmer than it should be at this time of the year. Yet it’s not the only reason he’s decided to take a seat in the little back garden enclosed by crumbling walls - they look old enough that Bilbo wonders what sort of place was this before. He doesn’t remember anything of the sort before Bombur’s and he thinks that it might have been a private old house once, one of those archaic stone cottages that were Hobbiton’s backbone in the old days - like Bag End. But the historic interest is not what takes Bilbo to the garden either.

It’s rather the desire to avoid any meeting with Thorin, coupled with the allure of a pretty garden on a rare sunny day. He decided, while he was cycling down the main road, that he has no reason to take any interest in the shop he sold years ago. No matter how ridiculously good Thorin looked while he was letting old Mrs Took put a rosemary branch behind his ear, Bilbo’s not in the mood for flirting. He has to make a living for him and Frodo in Hobbiton, and he can’t play the part of the captivating stranger coming in town for the express purpose of charming the local florist off his feet.

That would be exactly the sort of complication that might ruin his chances here. The amount of rumours and awkwardness characterising on-going and past flirts is unappealing - just think at the horror of bumping into your one-night stand every time you take a stroll in town. Plus, being gay in Hobbiton has never been anywhere near funny; ok, maybe Hobbiton has grown out of its prejudices during Bilbo’s absence, but he’s not up to testing that out on his own skin.

He’s surely running ahead, considering that they met only twice and the fact that Thorin blushed and paid him - his tattoos actually - a compliment, doesn’t mean that he’s interested in men and single; yet Bilbo is also his father’s son, so he’s far more prudent than his usually wispy manners may let on. It’s not what Bilbo needs, for he must focus on the job, Frodo, himself; so no ogling nor teasing allowed.

He feels a little grim though, despite the fact that the garden is enchanting and that there’s just the right amount of onion in his goat cheese and herb frittata to improve the other flavours without being overwhelming. There’s also a glass of white wine - Soave, from Italy - on the table; dry and slightly bitter, it’s not enough to make him feel light-headed, but it contributes to the delusion of being elsewhere.

Still, despite the comforts of solitude (strangely there’s no one else eating outside) and of a tasty meal, Bilbo is nervous. He keeps stealing glances toward the interior of the bistro, wondering if the florist will show up today.

He does.

He comes in when Bilbo has almost given up, and obviously doesn’t spare a glance at the veranda opened on the garden. He takes his coffee standing by the counter like the day before, but this time Bilbo is sitting on the opposite side so he can see Thorin’s face. He’s thoughtful, unsmiling, and drinks the coffee at once. His grey shirt is a little humid on the front and there’s some dirt on his jeans; he must have been working till late. He says keep the change to Bifur when he pays, then goes out like a sudden gush of wind.

God, what a drama queen Bilbo thinks. His flowers aren’t likely to be on fire.

It’s fortunate that Bilbo has decided he doesn’t care about how the shop is doing.   

 

“Hello.”

Bilbo almost falls down, bike and all, and it takes a strong hand on the handlebars to steady him. It reminds him of the other time when he almost fell in the flower shop - Thorin will start to think that he does want to fall at his feet and the thought is so hilarious that Bilbo chuckles.

“Sorry, nothing to do with you,” he points out, as soon as he notices Thorin’s frown.

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” the man offers in return.

“You didn’t.” Thorin says nothing to that and Bilbo takes his chance to dismount from his bike, like he was going to do a few moments ago before being caught.

Point is that people with a voice like Thorin’s shouldn’t be allowed to go around throwing hellos; Bilbo can manage tolerably well as long as he knows what’s awaiting him and he’s facing Thorin, but the unexpected, toes-curling low notes of Thorin’s voice climbing up his spine might have caused some serious harm - thus depriving the kids of the Second Year of his lesson on climate change scheduled for this afternoon.

“Well, I’m on my way to buy some muffins,” Bilbo adds, wondering whether he may leave his bike leaning against the lamppost and slip into Bombur’s, basically fleeing, without seeming too rude.

It’s Thursday; he already had his (fourth) lunch at Bombur’s and he was heading back to school on his bike, but then his guilty conscience suggested that he might at least buy something for Frodo for once.

“How are the daffodils?”

Bilbo’s mind reels a little at that. First, he didn’t expect Thorin the florist to speak again; actually he didn’t look like he could speak again for the rest of his life, so stony and closed was his expression - the man is a fucking menhir sometimes. Second, Thorin hasn’t asked about how Bilbo is doing here (that would have been awkward but nice), but about the daffodils he forced upon Bilbo and that’s just a little hurtful to Bilbo’s pride. Captivating stranger my balls he thinks.

“Fine, I suppose,” he answers, maybe a bit grudgingly.

“You...suppose?” Thorin repeats, narrowing his gaze on Bilbo - right, there’s even a hint of contempt in his voice, as if he couldn’t accept such a careless answer.

Actually the daffodils are more than fine. They’re the only thing Bilbo has done right by Frodo, or so it seems. The kid takes care of them, watering them and checking on them with an open fondness that makes Bilbo’s breath catch every time -for then he’s reminded of how young Frodo is, how lonely, and how full of hurt love. He agrees with Mrs Galadriel that Frodo’s interest in flowers is a good sign and might work as some kind of therapy; still, he isn’t ready to suggest that the kid might take his interest as far as to tend Bag End’s garden, once Belladonna’s reign and now a muddle which queerly suits Bilbo’s state of mind.

He obviously knows how useless it would be to explain any of that to the florist, so he shrugs.

“They were a gift,” he says, and if he feels a little revengeful at how dismissive his words sound, it’s Bilbo’s business and no one else’s. And sure enough Thorin looks disappointed. He nods, throws a glance at the windows of Bombur’s, then takes a step back as if he had suddenly realised that he was still holding Bilbo’s bike. The flinch which accompanies the gesture annoys Bilbo and puts him in a wicked mood. “So, are you in the habit of forcing your customers to buy your flowers?” he asks abruptly.

It’s Thorin’s turn to stagger. His nostrils flare a little, his gaze hardens.

“You did want to buy the daffodils,” he points out, speaking slowly as if he was talking with a child.

That might very well be what Bilbo feels right now, considering that he smirks mischievously.

“Oh no, get your facts right,” he scolds the florist in the tone he has been practicing with his pupils at school. “I said that I liked the daffodils and I was thinking about it. You practically coerced me into buying them.”

“It was a suggestion!” Thorin hisses, apparently trying to bury his hands deeper in the pockets of his faded jeans. Dear me, Bilbo thinks fleetingly, Mrs Took wasn’t so off the mark about their tightness and then, in quick succession, that’s an unfair pair of thighs.  

“I’m sure that shoving a vase of flowers into my chest couldn’t be describing as suggesting anything.”

Thorin gapes for a brief moment, then his jaw tightens and he takes his hands out of his pockets. Before Bilbo can realise what’s happening, the ridiculous man is fishing out his wallet from his back pocket and a moment later he’s forcing a ten pound note into Bilbo’s hand.

“What? Are you serious?” Bilbo gapes, but Thorin has already retreated and he’s left with the crumpled note in his palm. “Take back your bloody money now,” he grits through his teeth, suddenly conscious that they’re in the street before Bombur’s and Thorin has given him ten pounds, and passers-by are looking at them with hardly disguised interest.

The florist, as if Bilbo swearing has just given him the right to look haughty, straightens his back and marches straight into Bombur’s. There are a few things Bilbo could do at this point. He could follow Thorin inside and speak his mind, focusing on the reasons why Thorin is a big git; he could make a show of dumping the ten pound note in one of the flower pots on the window sill, taking care that Thorin sees him; he could tear the note to confetti and throw the pieces into the gutter. Instead he puts it away, adjust his sunglasses on his nose, and rides back to school (late for the lesson on climate change), thinking how he might tell Frodo that they have to give back the daffodils.

 

He doesn’t obviously. He can’t even think about how to broach the subject with Frodo, since it sounds most preposterous even to his ears. Ori laughs all the way through his account of what he’s started calling The Daffodils’ Affair. Ori’s is a retelling in the tone and words (torrid and mysterious are recurring ones) of a hard boiled novel, with Thorin in the inappropriate role of the dark lady.

“He may glare a lot but not in a seductive way,” Bilbo sighs when he calls Ori over the weekend.

“A stranger in town, money, flowers...you couldn’t ask for more,” Ori sniggers.

“I’m hardly a stranger in Hobbiton,” Bilbo protests half-heartedly.

“So you might as well be a good neighbour and say hello to the florist one of these days.”

“We’re hardly neighbours, we don’t live in the same part of Hobbiton.”

“How can you say that? You can’t be sure that he doesn’t live nearby, unless you’ve been paying extra attention to your neighbours Mr Baggins,” Ori points out. “Besides, you must admit that you’re seeing him quite often considering that probably you’re not even neighbours. Come on, the man has already given you flowers, the rest is in the script.”

“He didn’t give me flowers; he forced me to buy them and then, confronted with this reality, he gave me back my money to...to annoy me.”  

“So now it’s a gift,” Ori concludes and happily ignores Bilbo’s groan. “You should stop by the shop to say hello and thank you. It might make you feel better to know that you’ve got a flair for saying thank you very much like you’re insulting someone.”

Bilbo avoids Bombur’s for a few days into the new week. He lunches at school, receives unrequited advice from the French teacher about how to deal with the more exuberant kids, discusses with Gandalf the possibility of taking his students for a stroll across the Dales. And he corrects so many essays that he’s no longer sure that his English won’t be affected by the creative approach to grammar of some of his pupils.

On Friday he feels particularly hungry and he decides to eat at Bombur’s, no matter who he might meet there. He takes his oatcakes and a slice of Bakewell tart to the garden, despite the fact that the temperature has dropped since the last time he was here.

The garden is, indeed, lovely.

Bilbo recognises mostly sweet peas, some sage and lavender, little patches of lady’s mantles and foxgloves; all of them growing in what his mother used to call staged chaos. The natural, a little off-hand look can be achieved only by careful planning and thorough knowledge of plants and soil; and Bilbo sees his mother’s loving hand in every pretty garden. This time, though, he thinks about Thorin as well.

“You’ve got a nice garden out there,” he says to Bofur, before leaving.

“Thorin’s got a talent with flowers and plants,” Bofur answers with a smile. Bilbo isn’t really surprised, but something else must show on his face because Bofur quickly adds: “Tall fellow, a little broody but a real gentleman,” clearly misinterpreting Bilbo’s expression and overestimating Thorin’s inclination for being a gentlemen, in Bilbo’s opinion. “You may have seen him taking his coffee here sometimes. Everyone in town knows his flower shop, and people come all the way from Sheffield and Derby for him,” he concludes, obviously taking pride in the local florist’s celebrity.

Somehow this leads Bilbo at The Oakenshield the day after.

He can almost feel the ten pound note burning a hole in his wallet while he walks through the door and he’s greeted by the sight of Thorin crouched among flower pots. The florist is humming what sounds like some out-of-date lullaby (of the sort which doesn’t seem adequate for children if you listen carefully to its verses talking about lost loves, dark moors, and ghosts), while he pets the stems of the sweet peas gathered around him. The flowers are indigo blue, deep red, and whit, swarming butterflies around the man crouched on the ground with his dark hair tied up in a bun. The bun is what gets to Bilbo - it’s clearly more comfortable for Thorin to keep his hair that way while he’s working, but it’s also incredibly cute. And Bilbo has never been known for abusing the word cute - that would be Ori.

“Hello?” he tries out, maybe a little less smooth than he would have liked to be.

Not that there’s anything smooth about the way Thorin springs to his feet and then stands there, looking alternatively close to growling and panicking. He doesn’t look, either way, the sort of person who could turn this into idle, ice-breaking chatting.

“You,” he says at last.

“That’s Bilbo, by the way,” Bilbo replies because, well, no better time than now to introduce himself. Apparently Thorin doesn’t know what to do with his name, because he says nothing. “The daffodils are doing quite fine in my opinion, but I guess the person who’s taking care of them could do with some tips.”

Thorin visibly relaxes.  

“I thought you meant to...”

“...give you back the ten pounds?” Bilbo concludes in his place, smiling vaguely. “I did mean it.”

“Changed your mind then?” Thorin inquires with some wariness.

“We might...call it a gift?” Bilbo hears himself say. The blush it brings to Thorin’s cheeks is gratifying. “Though I suppose you should first like me for that.” A sweet talker would not miss such a flirtatious remark, but Thorin just seems dumbstruck, as if he could not fathom any possible answer to that. It makes Bilbo feel slightly ridiculous and quite arrogant. He clears his throat and, more honestly, he adds: “I saw the garden at Bombur’s. They told me it’s yours and...I happen to like it.”

Once upon a time, Belladonna Baggins’ tomatoes used to win the district prize every year, to the great pride of her husband and son. Now Thorin’s face reminds Bilbo of those ripe red tomatoes his mother would eventually bring to their table dressed in oil and oregano.

“Ok,” Thorin grunts - but dear god, the man does know how to blush.

Strangely Bilbo feels a little desperate to make him talk, so he steps forward to take a better look at the sweet peas Thorin was taking care of - well, singing to. They’re really something, climbing boldly up their wooden supports, dripping flowers everywhere, the varieties of colours and shades wider and far more compelling than he thought. Some present thin red veins and dots like orchids, others are such a delicate tone that you would think them painted in watercolours.

“You planted many of these in the garden at Bombur’s. Why?”

It’s clear from Thorin’s expression that he’s not used to having his choice of garden design questioned. He obliges nonetheless, his eyes shifting from Bilbo to the flowers.

“They’re unpretentious little fellows, these,” he says. “Quite popular if you want - half the gardens in Hobbiton have them, but I think that sometimes people just want to find themselves at home and Bombur’s has got that atmosphere...it grows familiar quickly, doesn’t it? I thought that sweet peas would do well there, besides they’re not so hard to grow even if you don’t have too much time to devote to your garden.”

“It was a good choice, I’d like to see the garden in Spring. I mean, I may still be around then,” he says, feeling that he has to practice this sort of thing aloud more often - this talking about his future in Hobbiton.

“Good,” Thorin nods and probably doesn’t realise that he’s spoken aloud until he spots Bilbo’s smile - then he looks vaguely mortified.

It’s silly, but Bilbo feels a little comforted by the fact that the florist likes the idea of having him around - let alone the fact that the way he’s just admitted it is adorable. It’s not exactly like making friends, but it’s the closest thing to it in the face of Bilbo’s sense of being utterly lost at the time of his home-coming.

“I hope it’ll be good,” he admits, quite open-heartedly this time. “And I like sweet peas. Actually, they were among the first flowers I got tattooed on my left arm.”

Thorin’s eyes - Bilbo may have noticed how blue they are on their very first meeting - light up a little. His gaze flicks to Bilbo’s arm, though it’s still covered by his shirt. Bilbo can’t help smiling; he unbuttons the left cuff of his shirt, then folds the sleeve up to his elbow. He extends his arm, offering it to Thorin’s gaze. He’s accustomed to showing his tattoos, even to strangers; he used to do it to promote his work and invite people to visit his tattoo parlour, but he has always indulged some curiosity and Thorin’s is not unpleasant. The man keeps at a respectful distance and he doesn’t dare look down until Bilbo says:

“See, these are sweet peas in blossom,” and pushes his forearm a little higher toward Thorin. “Don’t worry if you don’t recognise them,” he chuckles, “they were my first attempt at watercolour-like tattoos more than a few years ago and I did them on my own with my right hand. So they don’t look exactly...”

“They’re good,” Thorin interrupts him - apparently good plays a major part in his vocabulary.

“Are they? Thank you,” Bilbo smiles, tapping his forearm with his fingertips. “You see, I wasn’t very good with the more nuanced parts and so they came out a little too dark. While I love the sort of colours you’ve got there,” he admits, tilting his head toward the sweet peas in the vases. “All those whites with drops of red and blue, and the vanilla ones? Here I couldn’t achieve the right...you know, lightness. Too marked, too murky.”

“Are you fishing for compliments?” Thorin asks bluntly. It catches Bilbo off guard, he’s used to being teased for his little vanities but not...exposed so. He bits his lower lip and he’s on the verge of replying why not?, when the florist speaks again. “They work well with the rest. You’ve an entire garden there.”

Bilbo’s cheeks feel a little warmer. He hides his smile, bowing his head and brushing his thumb over the sweet peas he wears on the inside of his forearm.

“I’m fond of them. I learnt a lot about this style of tattooing after this first try, so I know they could have been far better but...well, at the time I stayed in a horrible place without a single garden in sight, and there was always this awful smell in the building. I thought that having some sweet peas on my skin might help me forget the smell.”

“Did it work?”

“Actually it didn’t,” Bilbo sighs. Then he steals another glance at Thorin’s sweet peas. “Would you mind if I took some pictures with my phone?”

“What for?” Thorin inquires, frowning a little suspiciously.

“Oh, the usual,” Bilbo shrugs. “Stealing the flowers’ soul and so on.” Thorin stares at him for a moment, then something that’s not a proper smile (but neither is it a proper grimace) dawns on his mouth. “Come on,” Bilbo coos to him, “it’s for my work. I want to have some references for my tattoos.”

Thorin doesn’t seem completely happy with the idea, feeding Bilbo’s opinion that the man might be a little fanatical when it comes to flowers, but he takes a step back and gives Bilbo room. Bilbo takes out his phone and starts photographing the sweet peas, adjusting the settings a couple of times and moving around the plants to spot the best clumps of flowers.

“So you’re a tattooist,” Thorin says suddenly.

Bilbo just hums, hoping that it might be considered a completely noncommittal answer. He can’t go over his employment status right now, and not with a stranger. It would imply indulging in other topics, like the fact that Bilbo used to play with his Lego in that same spot where Thorin is standing, arms folded and gaze never really leaving his beloved flowers.

“Thank you very much,” Bilbo says, when he feels that he has taken enough pictures for a work he’s no longer doing. “I fear I can’t offer you a percentage on the design I’ll create from these,” he points out, half-smiling, “but I may offer to give you a free tattoo should you...”

“There’s no need,” Thorin says, so hurriedly that it comes out quite brisk.

“Do you already have one?” Bilbo inquires, because he’s suddenly very eager to know whether that broad-shouldered, apparently well-muscled but lean body sports any tattoos. It’s purely professional interest, quite obviously.

But Thorin shakes his head, denying Bilbo the thrill of asking where.

“I’m...well, I do have this something for needles...”

“Fear, you mean?”

And it must be quite strong, since Thorin visibly gulps down at the mere mention.

“It’s all right,” Bilbo reassures him. “I mean, I’m not offended from a professional point of view or anything of the sort. Yet you do like my tattoos.”

“I like flowers,” Thorin corrects him, in what must be a huge understatement.

“Right,” Bilbo nods. “I should be going...”

And he really should, since he has skipped his lunch break to come here to the shop, but now it’s late anyway and he must get back to school. Thorin nods, leaving Bilbo no other option than to retreat toward the door. It’s on the threshold that Bilbo turns and says:

“King of Flowers! You know what sweet pea stands for, don’t you? Thank you for the lovely time.”

Chapter Text

Bilbo keeps stopping by once or twice a week throughout October and November.

The days have grown shorter and Thorin closes the shop earlier this time of year, though his business is quite steady and promises to increase as Christmas gets closer by the day. Dís writes down notes and sends him messages about how he should deck the windows and the interior of the shop this year - and Thorin stubbornly ignores them.

In truth most of her ideas meet and exceed the clients’ expectations, so the shop’s seasonal decorations are widely praised and imitated in town; however, some opposition on Thorin’s part is customary, like the mistletoe she likes to hang around the shop (Thorin suspects she does it for the wicked pleasure of supplying Mrs Took and other old ladies with a chance to kiss their florist on the cheek, giggling like schoolgirls). If this year the thought of mistletoe over his head doesn’t displease Thorin so much, it’s his business and no one else’s; the same goes for the possible connection of such a new open-mindedness about mistletoe with a certain tattoo artist.

Despite the fact that he hasn’t started to work with ribbons and origami (Dís’s decoration plans for this Christmas involve an army of origami snow-flakes, notwithstanding the fact that Thorin has never managed a single origami in his whole life), Thorin feels a little festive nowadays.

Fíli, who took his girlfriend to visit the shop a couple of weeks ago, expressed his disappointment.

“Well, thank you uncle. I told her about you and made a more than decent impression of your best frowns, so she was quite into meeting you...and when we got into the shop the other day you were smiling. Smiling!” he repeated, to make sure that his mother, his uncle, and Kíli could appreciate the magnitude of the betrayal.  “And then you were all nice and dreamy. Now she probably thinks I’m an idiot.”

“You are,” Kíli mouthed, then he said aloud. “I like your smile, uncle. And mum agrees with me, don’t you mum?”

“I wonder what or who has got your bear-persona on the run,” Dís mused instead, so that she strategically avoided siding with either of her sons and turned her attention back to her brother.

Thorin kept chewing on the meat pie, trying to communicate with the steady and regular work of his jaws that he had nothing to say on the subject. Luckily for him, the on-going feud between Fíli and Kíli, fed by the former’s fixation with his girlfriend and consequent jealousy of the latter, caused enough disturbance to their Sunday’s lunch to make Dís forget to question him further, at least for the time being.  

 

Bilbo’s visits are mostly short and he usually pops in around lunch break.

If there are no other customers he talks a little, their conversation often kindled by some flowers on display or plant Thorin is taking care of, but more or less easily flowing to other topics; if Thorin is busy or Bilbo is in a hurry, he just waves through the window.

Once Bilbo bowed to him from the sidewalk, making Thorin burst into laughter before a quite shocked customer. The King of Flowers joke should annoy him or have grown stale by now, yet he has to admit that he’s become a little fond of it. It makes him feel ridiculous at his age, but also brings a smile to Bilbo’s eyes (speaking of which, they’re clematis-blue with a hint of purple in mid-shadow), while something warm nests between Thorin’s ribs.

There isn’t much else beside this.

Their conversations never last longer than a quarter of an hour, most frequently they amount to less, and Thorin has never found it easy to open up on personal topics. Given time and patience he might do that with Bilbo, but it’s an idle thought he hasn’t actually put into practice. Besides, Bilbo himself doesn’t share many details of his life. Thorin knows that he’s a tattoo artist from London and that quite sums it up (he doesn’t even know where he lives in town, let alone why he’s in Hobbiton at all), but those are barely scraps of the person Bilbo might be under his playful, good-humoured manners.

Sometimes Thorin feels that their words may grow more intimate at any moment, but there’s never time and he’s never been truly good at encouraging confidence from others, let alone flirting. Not that Thorin has taken up the idea of flirting with a customer, one who can have him tongue-tied with the way his nose twitches when he’s either very annoyed or very amused - or breathing in the scent of some flower.

Yet Thorin can’t deny that their acquaintance has been running quite smoothly for some time.

They both like flowers, Thorin’s shop and Bilbo’s skin being solid proof of that, and Thorin has found the little man anything but ignorant about gardening. He might not share Thorin’s extensive - compulsive, Dís would say - knowledge of flowers, plants, and herbs, but he’s quite competent. Better still, he doesn’t mind when Thorin gets a little animated about a flower and almost monopolises the conversation.

Bilbo takes other pictures for his tattoo designs, but he also buys flowers from time to time and Thorin is too shy to keep him from paying for them. He also resists the temptation of trying to guess a pattern in the man’s purchases, speculating on whom he buys flowers for, where he takes the plants to, and so on - though Bilbo sometimes tells him about how well the African violet is doing or how beautiful the chrysanthemums looked on his Sunday’s table.

It is at times like these that Thorin would like to possess those social skills he generally despises. He wishes for smoothness and ease, for the right words in his mouth at the right moment (and not a couple of hours after Bilbo has left the shop), and for the talent of sweet-talking Bilbo into - into what? In truth he hasn’t thought this through; into asking him out, supplies a voice in Thorin’s head, though a date would mean striving to convince Bilbo to go on a second date and it doesn’t appear a simple task, given Thorin’s quite impressive background of first-date-only relationships.

Then, one day at the beginning of December, Bilbo comes in earlier than usual.

His cheeks are red with cold, his eyes a little teary for he has been cycling against the crisp wind; he’s wearing more layers of clothes that Thorin has ever seen on a single human being. He’s also unbearably cute (is cute a word Thorin has even used since he turned twelve?). Bilbo stands on the threshold, grinning sheepishly at Thorin while he unzips his pea coat and takes a paper bag out.

“I thought you might be hungry,” he says - and it comes out so familiar that Thorin’s heart skips a beat.

It isn’t planned and never before has either of them alluded to sharing their lunch break, though a couple of times they bumped into each other at Bombur’s (it seems that Bilbo has become something of a regular customer there). Both meetings resolved in an awkward greeting and a passing comment on Thorin’s preference for black coffee, and both times Thorin wondered whether he should have joined the man at his table. He didn’t though, so Bilbo’s appearance with a bag from Bombur’s thrills him.

Mind you, it’s not a date.

All the same, it feels quite intimate. Especially since Thorin turns the Closed sign on the door and locks it, so that it’s just the two of them. Not that many customers stop by during the lunch hours, and even Dís and the boys rarely show up at this time of the day, but locking the door feels like tracing a line around him and Bilbo.

“It’s only natural, isn’t it?” Bilbo offers, while he perches himself on a high stool by the counter. Thorin has swept its surface and covered it with a piece of red paper for a tablecloth. There’re also paper cups and a bottle of still water. “I mean, I’d have stopped by anyway, so we may as well grab a bite together.”

“We may,” Thorin answers, somewhat lamely. Then he clears his throat and shots a look at the paper bag. “So, what do we have?”

The question, as simple as it is, appears to delight Bilbo. He puts some flourish in his manners, revealing the content of the Bombur’s bag as if it were the silver tray of some posh restaurant. He takes out four bundles, lines them up and taps his index finger lightly on the first one on his left.

“Hearty sourdough bread slathered up with green mayonnaise - basil, tarragon and chives blend so well that it would be enough to gobble up an entire loaf...but it gets better when you think of all that’s between those two slices of bread: a treasure in greens made up of cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli. And they added pickled onions to the package, and Bombur’s pickles are one of the reasons why that place is so great - I mean, they’ve got a flair for pickling and you can taste it in their onions, so savoury and still so sweet. But you haven’t heard the best part yet: there’s mozzarella in there, fresh and cool as you dream it,” Bilbo smiles, probably taking a breath for the first time since he began.

Then he’s back to speaking, so quick and lively that Thorin feels vaguely shocked.

This abundance of words about food isn’t anything Thorin is used to. Most of his meals fall into three categories: the ones he shares with his sister and the boys (Dís is a solid, reliable cook, and her cookery is nourishing and plentiful, if not varied); the ones he eats by himself (he may be a better cook than his sister is but he almost never cares for preparing something more complicated than a sandwich); the ones he has at Bombur’s - and that’s when he might be caught indulging in fancier food.

Point is that Durins eat their food but do not speak of it. Not beside some gruff compliments for Dís’s efforts at Christmas or Fíli’s complaints about being tired of apple pie every other Sunday.

On the other hand there’s this little tattooed man with his language overflowing with colours, smells, and flavours, dripping adjectives and small exclamations of pleasure; a language as layered and surprising as the food he’s describing, and Thorin wonders if every inch of Bilbo is like this - this slightly overwhelming pattern, equal parts familiar and unexpected, like the flowers he wears on his skin.

This show Bilbo is giving sounds like the sort of pretentious gibberish one gets from stylish magazines or TV shows, not something one would say in real life - though it may be a London thing. To his surprise, Thorin discovers that he doesn’t truly mind the talking. Bilbo is too convincing for his own good and it makes Thorin’s mouth water - something he wisely decides to keep to himself, lest Bilbo think him some kind of uncivilised bumpkin hitting on him (for the record Thorin isn’t, though he may have a hard time defining what he’s doing instead).

Truth is that Bilbo’s trying to impress him and does it so openly, so un-selfconsciously, that it charms Thorin out of his shell. He feels the corner of his mouth rise in a half-smile, his gaze turn warmer upon the man, his tongue flicker in his mouth as if it were about to take a chance at Bilbo’s ridiculous vocabulary - scrumptious, piquant, tantalising, delectable, flavoursome.

“As you see, a lot of greens involved,” Bilbo says when he has described in detail all four sandwiches. “I figured you wouldn’t be averse to that, being a florist and all...but I also reckon a big boy like you could do with some meat, so we’ve got chicken breast and meatballs here and here,” he reminds Thorin, pointing to two of the four sandwiches. Thorin’s brain is still reeling a little, so Bilbo’s nose wrinkles up and he adds quickly: “You must know that I’m perfectly able to eat all four sandwiches on my own.”

That’s what wrenches a laugh from Thorin’s throat.

“God, no,” he says, feeling his cheeks heat up. He takes hold of one of the sandwiches, trying to convince Bilbo that there’s nothing wrong with his appetite. Thorin isn’t above admitting that he would eat stale bread to keep Bilbo around a little longer this time, but Bombur’s sandwiches do look and smell fantastic, fancy description or not. “I’ll take the one with chicken breast and the other with...burrata?”

“That’s right, burrata. Italian godsend cheese,” Bilbo sighs wistfully, and Thorin would gladly give up his sandwich, but the man just winks at him. “You’ll thank me later for that. I can’t believe Bombur got hold of something like this here.”

“What do you mean?” Thorin asks, frowning.

“Well, Hobbiton is hardly London.”

It stings a little, because Thorin would have never claimed otherwise - he may live in Hobbiton, but he’s aware of what’s out there and doesn’t need any reminder about it. But it’s also because Thorin has grown to be somewhat proud of the home and the life he has built for himself here in town.

“Right. Life happens only there,” he grumbles, before taking his first bite.

“I thought so once,” Bilbo admits, his gaze dropping. “Then I...” he falters and bites into his sandwich.

“Then you moved to the countryside?” Thorin supplies. Bilbo blinks, then nods.

“Yeah, that. It does wonders for one’s arrogance,” he says with a soft smile. Thorin can’t help mirroring that smile. Bilbo’s perception of his own flaws is captivating, especially since it leaves Thorin to wonder how deep and brave that knowledge is - he, for example, has never been very good at analysing his own heart and admitting his failures, so Bilbo’s openness is a riddle, like a magic trick. “I’m trying to get to know Hobbiton without comparing it to London and its ways, but as you see I’m not very good at it.”

“It’s ok, I think. The point is to try to appreciate the differences, isn’t it?”

“Well, I do appreciate that I can get some treats at Bombur’s when I thought that I’d be stuck with a couple of smelly pubs. No offence meant.”

“No offence taken,” Thorin raises an eyebrow. “I’m not a regular client of the local pubs.”

“No? Big boy doesn’t spend his evenings playing darts and lifting pints?” Bilbo asks, but he’s smiling again and Thorin understands that he’s being teased - teased about how he spends his evenings.

He clears his throat, takes another bite.

“I almost blinded my sister with a dart when I was ten,” he explains. “So darts are out of the question, since I’d hear my sister screaming bloody murder in my head all the time.”

Bilbo laughs, causing Thorin’s cheeks to colour slightly with pride - who said Thorin Durin couldn’t be funny? Dís, always her, and maybe some ex-boyfriends (most of them, actually).  

“Ok, no talent with darts - except in a fight - and you’ve got a sister,” Bilbo resumes.

“Have you?”

“No, I’m quite on my own.”

“I’m sorry,” Thorin replies without thinking - he regrets his words the moment they leave his mouth.

Bilbo’s eyes grow larger, but then he goes back to chewing his sandwich, nodding ever so slightly.

“No one to throw darts at,” he points out with some humour. “Does your sister live here?”

“No. I mean, yes, but not with me,” Thorin fumbles a little with his answer. “Somewhere else,” he adds idiotically. “In a house.”

“I meant in Hobbiton, not here in the shop,” Bilbo giggles. “You don’t live in the shop either, do you?” he asks, as if he wanted to make sure. “Though I can just picture you, guarding your flowers day and night like a knight of old watching over the...”

“I live in a house,” Thorin interrupts the man, before his face can burst into flames. Not that realising what he has just said makes things better. Nor what his traitorous mouth adds a moment later. “Alone.”

“Jolly good,” Bilbo grins, and it’s so wicked and so sweet that Thorin’s breath catches - he’d still slap himself numb though.

Musing on his own deficiencies when it comes to talking, Thorin deems it wiser to keep to eating for a short while - the burrata melts in his mouth just like Bilbo promised, fresh and tender, though it’s difficult to focus on his own sandwiches when Bilbo’s so vocal while he eats. He hums, sighs, and a couple of times Thorin thinks that the man is dangerously close to moaning - dangerously for Thorin’s state of mind.

Quite clearly Bilbo enjoys his food, eating it not less than talking about it. The plumpness of his body - something Thorin can’t help comparing to the ripeness of a fruit in his head - speaks of generous meals and comfort, and Thorin speculates about what it would be like to get Bilbo for a whole meal, buzzing like a bee over a long string of dishes, from appetizers to the dessert.  

“So, what do you do in the evening then?” Bilbo inquires, when he has gulped down the last bite of his first sandwich.

“Some reading.”

“Do you wear glasses for that?”

“I...yes, how did you know?”

“Sometimes you touch your face as if you expect to find glasses upon your nose,” Bilbo explains, mimicking the gesture of someone pushing his glasses up. “Like this.”

“I didn’t realise,” Thorin murmurs, his mind timidly grasping the fact that Bilbo noticed it.

“I’m very observant,” Bilbo teases him, as if he guessed the trail of his thoughts.

Yet Thorin is far from pleased at the discovery. He had never worn glasses until a few months ago, when Dís - worried about the too-frequent headaches he had been suffering for a while - had consulted their family doctor and then booked a check-up with an oculist. Far-sightedness, the oculist had declared, and required Thorin to wear glasses to read. Something Thorin cordially hates. He thinks them a proper encumbrance and the idea that he has acquired some sort of glasses-related quirk is utterly annoying.

“Don’t pull that face, as if I had just caught you wearing yellow socks and sandals,” Bilbo chuckles. “I find the glasses thing very endearing. Plus, I’m a little short-sighted and I’m wearing my lenses right now. But I do have a pair of glasses in my backpack. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” he suggests in what can only be described as a mischievous grin. Thorin gapes, so Bilbo twist a little on his stool and reaches for his backpack. “In a sign of good will...” he says.    

And when he turns again, he’s wearing glasses. Rimless one, silver at the temples and the bridge. Thorin figures out that they were supposed to give Bilbo a sterner look - as if he were a banker or a professor; it doesn’t quite work though, at least not when the man is smiling like that and squinting a little.

“Can I take them off?” he asks after a few moments. “With the lenses and the glasses as well, it’s all kind of blurry. And it’s your turn.”

It can’t be really avoided, besides, it seems just a trifling thing compared to what it was a few moments before. So Thorin goes to the back of the shop to pick up his glasses. Bilbo has just put his own away, tucked in his backpack, when he lifts his head and sees Thorin fiddling with the glasses in his hands.

“Really? Now you’re teasing me.”

Thorin bits back a little retort - it’s not as if I’m stripping for you -  since that trail of thought would be most unwise. Instead he mans up and puts on the glasses. He blinks, then dares a peek at Bilbo’s face. The man looks almost thoughtful. Then he sighs, takes another bite at his second sandwich and chews without a word. Thorin feels deflated, despite the fact that he wouldn’t be able to pinpoint his expectations about wearing a pair of sodding glasses, so he hastily takes them off.

“Better,” Bilbo comments. “The tight jeans, the bun, now the glasses. I won’t even mention the fact that we’re surrounded by flowers. You’re trying too hard to seduce me, King of Flowers,” he sighs. Thorin can’t help laughing - in relief, but also to pretend that his heart didn’t give a jerk against his ribs. Bilbo laughs too, then adds: “Sorry, but you got that smouldering look on your face - a bit of a glare, in truth, and it seemed just the kind of thing a guy is supposed to fall for. If he’s interested in men, obviously.”

“And you...” Thorin begins.

“I am. You too, I dare suppose.” Thorin nods just once. It doesn’t feel particularly important - he already knew and he’s sure that Bilbo knew about him as well. So it’s no more than a mere formality and Bilbo seems to share his opinion, since he swiftly moves on. “Well, what do you like to read when you put your pretty glasses on? Crime-fiction? Classics? Romance?” he inquires.

“I’m not into fiction. I prefer scientific works.” Then, before Bilbo can ask or worse try to guess, Thorin sheepishly adds: “On flowers.”

“No,” Bilbo breathes, eyes growing round. He knits his brow. “Seriously? Dear me, you work all day here and then you go home...and spend your free time reading about flowers?”

“I read history works as well,” Thorin points out, somewhat meekly. Then his pride kicks in and he throws a challenging glance at the little man. “Why shouldn’t I...”

Bilbo interrupts him, lifting his hand.

“Sorry,” he says, though he doesn’t look sorry in the least. “It’s just that you seem quite obsessed.”

“You’re the one with flowers tattooed on god knows what percentage of your body,” Thorin snaps, practically at the same time that the other amends his words with:

Passionate.” Then Bilbo catches on to what Thorin has just said. His expression doesn’t darken, but his voice is slightly colder when he patiently explains: “I’ve got more than flowers on my skin, if that’s what you meant to ask.”

Thorin wasn’t asking anything, that’s obvious enough; in fact he was trying to fight fire with fire. Of all the words for the love he bears for flowers, obsession is the one Thorin dislikes most of all. It brings a bitter taste to his mouth, clouding his mind and twisting his feelings about this stranger who’ll probably go back to London before Thorin has sorted his thoughts about him.

Speaking of which, Bilbo’s words prickle at the back of Thorin’s head - he may not have meant to ask it, but now he wants to know what, and where, concerning tattoos that aren’t flowers. Show me - he might just say it aloud, and see for himself whether Bilbo would be surprised or not this time. The mere thought makes Thorin feel bolder, so he leans forward with his elbows on the counter, his eyes trained on the little man’s round face.

“So, King of Flowers,” Bilbo says, holding Thorin’s gaze. The smile has come back, but it’s a little stiff. Then, all of sudden, Bilbo shudders and looks down at his hands. “Sorry. I swear I’m not such a judgemental prick usually,” he says in a rush. “I didn’t mean to make fun of your love for flowers. Oh right, I did mean it, but not in a bad way. Actually it’s good to see such dedication, I really appreciate it. It reminds me...oh, never mind! It’s just that I’m a little out of my depth here in Hobbiton and I haven’t figured out what’s going on with my life at the moment,” he splutters.

He’s less charming this way, now that he has lost some of his coolness, yet he’s more honest and Thorin finds himself subtly compelled by the change. And even if neither of them has moved, Thorin senses Bilbo’s physical proximity more vividly than before. Still, Bilbo’s words sound quite ominous, since they seem to suggest that whatever is going on between them has no place in his life for the time being.  

It saddens Thorin, more than it should at this early point in their acquaintance.

“I don’t mean to meddle,” he says roughly, though most of the time he feels like Bilbo is meddling with him. Yet his defiant words bring some relief to the man’s eyes.

“I like it here in your shop, you know,” Bilbo says warmly. “So thank you for...having me here?”

“You brought the sandwiches,” Thorin points out gruffly.

“You’re welcome,” Bilbo replies. Then he opens Bombur’s paper bag again. “And I got your coffee! Though it may be a little cold by now...”

It is really too cold for Thorin’s taste, but he gulps it down without thinking twice.

“Have you always wanted to be a tattoo artist?” he asks, putting the cup down.

Thorin doesn’t know if Bilbo, after what he’s just said about himself and his life, is willing to go on with whatever they’re doing. Still he has to try.

“Oh no,” Bilbo chuckles and Thorin’s chest feels less tight. “I liked to draw when I was a child, mostly flowers and plants...I suppose that’s where it all started. Yet I also liked stories and food, and I haven’t turned into a writer nor a cook, so maybe it doesn’t signify anything - the sort of child I was, I mean. Anyway, that’s not what I had on my mind when I was growing up.”

“What was that then?”

“I wanted to be an explorer,” Bilbo whispers, pretending to share a great secret with Thorin. Then he smiles again. “I used to disappear for hours at a time, all in the hope of discovering something amazing in the neighbourhood,” he says with a little twinkle in his eyes that Thorin would call flirting - if his mouth wasn’t dry.

“You may find that the neighbourhoods here are quite interesting,” Thorin answers at last, and he’s rewarded by Bilbo’s grin. He lowers his gaze before he continues. “The...the Derbyshire Dales have got some of the most exquisite scenery in Britain. You won’t see imposing peaks or white cliffs, but the green hills are a beauty to behold, punctured with hamlets and old mansions, and streaked with streams and woods. There’re wild pansies thriving in those deep valleys cut into the hills, bluebells gleaming through the shadows of the woodland, carpets of white anemones revealed by the receding snow, and cowslips, orchids, rock roses, saxifrages...” Thorin stops then and steals a glance at Bilbo.

The man doesn’t look put off by the (anti-climatic Fíli would say) turn taken by Thorin’s speech; he’s looking at Thorin with interest, perfectly focused on what he has to say on the Derbyshire Dales. A fleeting picture appears at the back of Thorin’s mind - of he and Bilbo at a council meeting, supporting new actions for the protection of the dales and then leaving together to eat something at Bombur’s, and hear Bofur say “And here we’ve Bilbo and Thorin” - or “Thorin and Bilbo”, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a nice picture, the sort of daydream Thorin shouldn’t indulge in. He shoos it away, frowning.

And just when he’s trying not to think of the future, Bilbo forces him to think of the past.

You, now. Have you always wanted to be a florist?” Bilbo asks, narrowing his eyes.

If Bilbo had not answered the same question before, it would be harder. Still, as it is, Thorin feels the old pain twist inside him, probing at the jagged contour of his peace - it’s peace like scar tissue, thick and pale, unmistakable for unmarred skin.

He’s aware that he’s hunching his back, as if he could hide his great regrets and his greater remorse, and it’s the flash of pity in Bilbo’s eyes that holds the wave back - Thorin won’t have anyone’s pity, least of all Bilbo’s.

“I didn’t. I wasn’t meant for this and I never thought...” he frowns, while he presses his thumb against the edge of the counter. “But then the lives we create for ourselves are a strange things, aren’t they? The will of our fathers and mothers, the opportunities of our birth, what we call our inclinations...all these forces and more shape and define us. And once you think you are this, and this only, something you’ve grown to know and maybe even love, it’s then that you must turn into something else.”

“Into the King of Flowers,” Bilbo murmurs, but there’s no mockery in his voice this time. In fact, there’s some sadness to it, and sadness makes him look almost vulnerable. “You’re not from here,” he says before Thorin can react to that vulnerability.

“I came here from Germany,” he says instead. “I had been in Dublin before. Before Dublin in Leeds and before Leeds in Manchester. Before Manchester there was Glasgow and before Glasgow...” Thorin shrugs. “Somewhere in the North of Scotland, you wouldn’t know the place. My sister and I...we came a long way.”

A very long and tiring way, and Thorin had thought about burning bridges rather than building new ones for a long time; so Dís had to take care of herself, the children, and her big fool of a brother as well. Therefore it would have been more correct to say that Dís had come a long way and dragged him along, even when he was more of a burden than anything else.

“And...was it along the way that you turned up a florist?”

“Something like that,” Thorin nods. “It started to help me...deal with other things.” Rage. Guilt. “Then it became something more. You see, I love flowers like a man caught in a shipwreck loves the island where he was cast off, though it doesn’t look anything like his home.”

“I thought such a man would hate that island of his exile,” Bilbo replies, looking sharply at him.

“I thought myself exiled for too long,” Thorin murmurs - only he and Dís know for how long. “Now I want to think that a man has a right to build another home for himself.”

“So you bought this shop,” Bilbo suggests, in a guarded manner that Thorin doesn’t really notice at first - but he will think of it later. “Why Oakenshield? It’s an unusual name for a florist shop.”

“Oh that,” Thorin can’t keep a bit of pride out of his voice. His back straightens and he feels his muscles relax. “It was my grandmother’s family name. Eijkenskialdi, she changed it to Oakenshield when she moved to Scotland from Iceland and married my grandfather. She was a great woman and I remember her tending her garden - she managed to get her plants through even the harshest winters...”

“Very fitting,” Bilbo interrupts him, somewhat hastily. “The oak stands for stability, doesn’t it?”

“For stability, family, and honour. Yes, I chose the name for that reason as well.”

“As a good omen,” Bilbo says in his place. “What about the previous owner? I mean, this was...”

“Well, yes, it was a florist shop even before my arrival. I think it was quite a famous establishment in town, you know...old, traditional business, almost no profit to speak of. It was rotting away in truth, I don’t think the old lady could have gone on like that for many years; the bank would have taken everything, and maybe even her home...” Thorin muses. “But then she died first.”

“What was she like?” Bilbo asks. If his voice trembles, Thorin doesn’t notice then.

“Well, I got the shop from her son. Never seen him, he sent an intermediary...I think he didn’t want to have anything to do with the business, he must have fallen out with his mother long before - at least she let me think so when I asked her if I couldn’t talk business with someone else in her family,” he explains. “I mean, the woman - Mrs Took - might have been formidable in her old days, or at least people around here say that, but she refused my offers for almost a year. A fucking year. Staying at some inn in town and trying to talk her into selling, making a higher offer, not knowing if I could afford that...she wasn’t all right in the head, if you know what I mean. Old people grow like that sometimes, just out of loneliness and their jealous love for their old life; she couldn’t let the shop go as long as she was alive.” Thorin shakes his head. “The funny thing was that the more she refused to sell, the more I set my heart to buying this place, even if it needed some serious improvements to work.”

Thorin doesn’t know why he’s being so open about it all. Maybe because he’s never shared this little success of his with anyone outside his family and it seems important that Bilbo knows how he has come to own the Oakenshield - how he has come to be who he is today.

“You got it in the end, didn’t you?” Bilbo comments, playing with his paper napkin.

“I did. I was sorry for the old lady when she died. But she was downright batty and...”

Bilbo stands up. He looks at Thorin, straight in the eye. His shoulders are stiff and Thorin thinks, for one exhilarating moment, that the man is going to punch him. But he only says:

“Fuck you,” simple and dry, then grabs his backpack, turns on his heels and storms out of the shop.

And Thorin has no damn idea what that was all about.

Chapter Text

Christmas may be her favourite time of the year - though chasing butterflies in the garden in Spring has its perks. Yet it’s difficult to think of something better than lying on the rug by the fireplace, dozing off in the warmth or licking one’s fur until its perfectly clean and smooth; besides, Christmas means plenty of playthings hung all over the place - baubles and ribbons, bells and garlands, to her and Winston’s delight.

They aren’t kittens anymore, so they know how Christmas works; still, they couldn’t help but be thrown into a frenzy of delight when Adamanta - like every year - took out the old boxes where she keeps the decorations. Their rapture amused Adamanta and she gave them some old ribbons to chew on while she decked the fake tree in the hall (Bandobras may have never got over the fact that it’s not a real tree with a real bark where she could sharpen her claws).    

Now sprawled on the rug, Bandobras is focusing on nibbling at the faded red ribbon while by her side Winston is meticulously licks the fur on her stomach, when the house bell rings and Adamanta cleans her hands on the apron she always wears when she’s kneading the dough. Bandobras’s ears rise, but she doesn’t need to turn her head nor move from the rug - she can hear the two women at the door as if they were in the same room.

“Oh dearie, I wasn’t expecting you so soon,” Adamanta says, but she isn’t annoyed at all - Bandobras can discern all her moods and undertones. “Here, give me your coat.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you,” the other woman feels compelled to say over the rustle of the coat she’s taking off, “but I promised Fíli that we’d go shopping together later - he’s looking for a present for his girlfriend and he needs some motherly advice on that.”

“It’s all right,” Adamanta says, quite firmly. They take some steps toward the kitchen. “It was very nice of you to call and I can’t wait to taste your zabaglione. My oven is heating up for my first batch of cookies - you know, the ones my grandfather used to dip into a cup of spiced wine saying that it was the best prevention against seasonal colds.”

“Did it work?”

“Against the cold? Oh no, but then he was too tipsy to complain about it and that was good enough.”

The woman called Dís laughs - Bandobras knows her quite well, since she drops by at least once a week. She never fails to bring something (a bowl of soup or a slice of her apple pie), ask for something (a couple of eggs or a pinch of salt), or find more creative reasons to check in on Adamanta.

Bandobras is quite sure that the woman called Dís has grown very fond of Adamanta and keeps an eye on her, like Bandobras looks out for Winston now that she’s getting older and slower. Yet, while Winston openly relies on her, Adamanta would never admit that she needs some help at her age or at least someone to talk to - so Dís’s ruses are necessary to keep her pride intact. Bandobras feels for Dís something that humans would call gratitude, for she understands that her and Winston’s health and happiness depend on Adamanta’s health and happiness, and a caring neighbour contributes to both. Plus there’s the fact that Bandobras cannot imagine her life without Adamanta, no more than she could picture in her mind a life without Winston - they’ve always been there, even before she could see and she was but a tiny ball of fur and hunger.

The only thing Bandobras doesn’t like about Dís is the little human called Kíli, her younger pup. Some years ago he used to pull at Bandobras’s tail; though now she allows him to pet her at his leisure, this doesn’t mean that she has forgotten the undignified treatment he reserved her in his prime - sooner or later she’ll scratch his hands and his face (only not today, she ends up thinking every time Kíli shows up and starts stroking her back and feeding her bits of tender fish).

All in all, it’s good to have Dís and her sons around the house from time to time; Bandobras expresses her approval by purring when Dís enters the drawing room.

“Hello beautiful,” the woman says, flashing her quick, bright smile at the two cats lazing by the fire. “I almost forgot! There’s some minced meat for them as well in the bag,” Dís informs Adamanta, raising her voice so that the old woman can hear her from the kitchen where she’s taking out the zabaglione bottle from a paper bag.

Bandobras gets up at that and scuttles toward Dís to rub against her legs. Her trousers are a little damp and there’s snow lining her shoes, though she has cleaned most of it off on the rug at the entrance. Dís is taller than Adamanta and a bit stouter, with strong, warm thighs a cat could sleep on for hours at a time, and a sharp nose she’s now rubbing into the neck of her jumper.

“Quite a cold winter we’ve got this year,” Dís comments, rubbing her frozen cheeks as well. “Kíli is very excited about all this snow, but I hope it won’t keep falling or it’ll become a nuisance. I heard some mums talking about closing the school earlier should the weather get worse.”

“I’m sure Mr Grey will choose for the best,” Adamanta replies, while she carries in a tray with the teapot, two cups, and a plate of lemon cakes. She hushes Dís’s protests, urging her to take a seat and try the lemon cake she bought at Bombur’s yesterday. “The old man is insufferable and I’ve always told my cousin Belladonna that much,” she continues when she’s seated on her favourite armchair - Winston has jumped into her lap and she’s purring shamelessly, “but his school is one of the best things that has ever happened to our community. It was damn time our children got a proper education.”

“I agree. A few years ago I wasn’t so sure about Fíli and Kíli going to school here,” Dís remembers, while she raises the cup to her lips. “At the time I had a job in Manchester and I thought about enrolling my sons in town...but then Thorin had just started with the shop and leaving didn’t seem a great idea after all, neither did coming and going between Manchester and Hobbiton.”

“It turned out all nice, didn’t it? The shop and your children in Mr Grey’s school. And your studio in Hobbiton as well. Oh, I heard some very flattering things about how you restored those old holes by the river mill!”

“Did you? Well, the works finished in time and in truth I’m very proud of that project...” Dís murmurs, her lips stirring in a smile. Then she raises her head and shrugs, suddenly looking younger and prettier in her urge to talk about her work. “Most people think that being an architect is all about building, while restoring is considered something of a...lower step in our profession. But I differ on that point - when so much has already been built, we should think more about restoring, renewing; there’re so many valuable buildings that can be saved and brought to new life. You can’t imagine how lovely those old cottages were, even in their state of decay!”

“Congratulations on your well-deserved success my dear, you’ll have one more thing to celebrate at Christmas,” Adamanta nods, while she rubs Winston’s head. Bandobras, for her part, has settled down to playing with the laces of Dís’s shoes, while she listens lazily to the women’s chatter. “And your brother may soon have a new row of gardens to tend to,” she adds, winking.

Dís chuckles at that, then leans down to tickle Bandobras between her ears.

“As long as the cottages’ owners don’t mind my brother’s grumpy face, I guess so.” Bandobras pushes her tender nose against Dís’s palm, inhaling the woman’s odour - a whiff of lemon from the cake she has been eating, a layer of lavender soap, then something like ink and paper from her habit of sketching on a notebook to record her ideas. “Speaking of which, have you been at the shop lately? I’m very satisfied with this year’s decorations - there’s origami all over the place, and you should really take a look at those gorgeous snow roses Thorin’s got.”

“I will if the snow melts,” Adamanta promises, “hoping that your brother will be in a better mood than last time. He should know that a handsome face isn’t an excuse for rudeness.”

“What? Oh, the big idiot!” Dís exclaims, straightening her back. “I’m going to kick him so hard,” she mutters, making a face. Then she looks at Mrs Took apologetically. “I’ll tell him to make amends, he should know better than mistreat you. And I’m very sorry on his behalf, sometimes he forgets that being human and friendly isn’t a bad thing in his line of work - quite the contrary...and business aside, smiling twice a day won’t kill him.”

“Now don’t worry, my dear,” Adamanta puts an end to Dís’s complaints. “Your brother apologised on the spot like the gentleman he is under his bearskin...besides he’s too handsome for my own good, so I couldn’t keep being annoyed with him for a long time. Yet, he’s in quite a foul mood - don’t you think so?”

“Is he?” Dís repeats, then she bits her lower lip. “I’ve been so focused on that project that I may have missed something...but yes, he’s in a foul mood,” she agrees at last. “Fouler than his average.”

“It may have something to do with Bilbo,” Adamanta hums, though she’s apparently more interested in feeding Winston some cake from her bony fingers.

There’s a moment of stunned silence, during which Bandobras wonders whether she may be able to chew the most desirable hem of Dís’s trousers without incurring Adamanta’s reproach. Then Dís breathes out:   

“Who’s Bilbo?”  

 

*

 

“So, tell me about this Bilbo.” The way Thorin seems to choke on air is a good sign - at least this means that Mrs Took was right: whatever is going on, it has to do with this Bilbo-guy. “I brought you chocolate pudding, by the way,” Dís adds, spying her brother’s face to be sure that it doesn’t turn blue.

“You’re supposed to bribe me and coax me into talking...not just show up at my door and throw your demands at me, sister,” Thorin growls at last, though he moves aside to let her enter his house.

Dís doesn’t hesitate and marches in, slightly swindling the bag with the bowl of chocolate pudding - one of her brother’s major weaknesses and the perfect way to pretend that they’re going to have a friendly chat.

They aren’t, obviously; this is Dís extorting a confession from Thorin, nothing less.

“Come on, it’s Bombur’s and not just some poor excuse for a chocolate dessert from the supermarket,” she points out to sweeten the shock.

Thorin shakes his head, but he closes the door quietly and helps Dís out of her coat - though he does it in order to get the bag with the pudding as well.

“Thank you for the present,” he mumbles, though he sounds extremely suspicious. A ridiculous notion, since Dís has done nothing to hide her intentions - that is, to know everything about this Bilbo. “It doesn’t mean that you’re welcome to...pry,” he adds, furrowing his brow.

“So there’s something to pry into,” she replies, quick enough to make him roll his eyes.

“There’s nothing,” Thorin replies, and it may be the hint of sadness in his voice that reminds Dís of the boy who used to hide the bruises and scratches of a rugby match or a fight, and once even a broken wrist.

Why he did so has always been a mystery to Dís, since Thorin had been a most loved child who shouldn’t have questioned the fact that he would have been helped and cared for. Pride always played a part in it, she understands, but more than that it was a sort of shyness of pain and the stubborn idea that he had to bear it alone and spare others any inconvenience.

Adult life may have taught Thorin to ask for help and he may have humbled himself over the years under the weight of failure, but still the old instinct to keep his sorrows to himself kicks in from time to time. Sometimes Dís wonders whether she would prefer to have him unbroken, his armour unblemished, no cracks in his shell, or would she trade the scars for someone as unfeeling as their grandfather had grown in his last years. She wonders, but the answer is always the same.

“Come, let’s have a talk,” she says, smiling sweetly and patting the place at her side on the couch. “You can take a spoon and have a go at the pudding meanwhile.”

Thorin grunts and ostentatiously puts the pudding away, then he sits down on the armchair (thus turning down her invitation to sit beside her), stretches his long legs and crosses his arms over his chest. He looks at her with a belligerent air, as if daring Dís to get answers out of him. Oh well, that’s serious.

“Where’re Fíli and Kíli?” he asks.

“Both at home, but I promised them that I’d be back in an hour and we’d have pizza for dinner, so you’d better be quick,” she warns him. Yet the thought of her sons - together with that of Thorin’s love for them - mollifies her as usual and she can’t help but go into details. “You know, Kíli has been doing very well in geography this term...I think he gets on quite well with the new teacher. While Fíli has been quarrelling with his girlfriend lately; I guess they’re a little bored after a few months of seeing each other multiple times a day, but neither of them has mustered up enough courage to end it.”

“I hope you haven’t told him that,” Thorin murmurs, but his gaze is sterner than his voice.

“Oh no...actually I think it’s kind of sweet of him to take these first loves so seriously,” Dís comments, though she’s teasing Thorin rather than her son’s views on love. “The other day he was quite troubled because he thought that his love for her would last forever, and now forever is going to be a little shorter than he expected. When he gets so tangled in the idea of being honourable and true to his word he reminds me of you, despite the fact that my son is far more well-versed than you in flirting and courting.”

“You’ve grown cynical, sister.”

“I don’t think so. I still have hopes for you...I’m a romantic at heart,” she winks at him. “Yet I know that love is hard,” and who more than us could know that, “and I’ve got enough good sense to see through this teenage crush. She’s a good girl and I do like her, but she and Fíli will turn the page quite soon - at least Kíli will stop pestering his brother out of jealousy. Now, let’s talk about your crush.”

“There’s no crush to talk about,” Thorin denies, but he has never been very good at not-blushing. He turns a delicious beet-red and Dís smiles fondly at her idiot of a brother. At that, Thorin snorts and adds: “Do you know him?”

The question, delivered with such simplicity, is heavy with a strangely compelling urge. He does like him, Dís thinks - and he’s half annoyed half thrilled at the mere thought of talking about this Bilbo with her, as if that could make the man more real.

“I don’t,” she admits. “That’s why I’d like to hear what you’ve got to say about this Bilbo...and if he’s the reason why you’re in such a gloomy mood.”

She might not have noticed before, but Thorin’s countenance is darker than usual - there’s a nervousness to the way he looks at her, as if he’s expecting bad news.

“He did nothing,” Thorin says at first. Then he seems to weigh his own words before continuing. “No, he did tell me fuck you; I don’t know why though, so I’m not sure that it was about me...”

Oh sweet - he doesn’t know, Dís realises with some pity.  

“I’m sure it’s not your first time nor will it be your last, considering that nice personality of yours,” she jokes though, studying Thorin’s face. “What did you do?”

“Me? I was just talking,” Thorin snaps.

“That’s something not many of your dates could say of you.”

“It wasn’t a date,” he grits through his teeth. “And I was...at ease.” That’s wonderful or terrifying, or both, she thinks in rapid succession.“We were just talking about the shop. I replayed that conversation in my head time after time, and I said nothing wrong.”

“I think that talking about the shop might be the very thing,” Dís admits cautiously.

“What do you mean?” Thorin frowns. Then he shudders and tilts his head. “Wait a moment. You haven’t said how you got his name, you said you didn’t...”

“Mrs Took told me. She and some of her friends who drop by your shop from time to time happened to see you two talking. Flirting - whatever has been going on. So I had a little talk with her about this man.”

“She met him once,” Thorin recalls without any effort, “and it’s not her business nor anyone else’s,” he points out, annoyance sharpening his voice. “She doesn’t know him.”

“She thought so at the time,” Dís agrees, repeating Mrs Took’s words. “But later she remembered him.”

“Wait, remembered? What does that mean?”

“Thorin, Bilbo is from Hobbiton.”

The moment she says it, she hates this Bilbo a little.

Thorin has never taken lies well and this time is no different. His shoulders stiffen, his eyes narrow, and his voice is cold when he commands:

“Tell me about it.”

There’s no way around it, so she makes it as simple as possible.

“He’s Belladonna Took’s son.”

“Fuck.” Then a grim smile curves Thorin’s mouth, coupled with some colour on his cheekbones. “Well, at last it makes sense. I said something about how crazy the woman was.”

“Perfect, you insulted his mother,” Dís sighs.

“I didn’t know she was his mother, he never said a fucking thing about it. I suppose he’s furious, but - you know what? - I should be furious as well. He...” Thorin struggles to find the right word, but he gives up and his mouth closes in a grimace.

“Ok, you feel cheated,” Dís supplies, though he doesn’t seem happy with that choice of word. “I get it, but I think I can also get his reasons for saying nothing...” she points out, trying hard to be fair toward someone who may have hurt her brother. Yet Thorin has got flaws as well and no one knows that better than her. “I mean, Bilbo probably wanted to take a look at the shop in the beginning, but I don’t think he returned all those times to observe the changes you made. Nor to snatch back the shop. Mrs Took says that he...”

“I’m not interested,” Thorin interrupts her hastily.

“Sure, you’re not interested” Dís can’t help smiling. “Anyway, you’re right, this Bilbo-guy must talk for himself...but you two did get on well, didn’t you? You wouldn’t be moping so, if you didn’t.”

“He didn’t even tell me that he’s from Hobbiton,” Thorin repeats, stubbornly.

“Oh the man has a right to keep his secrets to himself,” she insists, putting Thorin’s feelings to the test.

“He hasn’t,” he retorts. “Not if...” he stops abruptly and glares at her. “Let him keep his secrets. If I said something wrong, he deserved it for sneaking into my shop like a burglar...”

“And what did he steal, I wonder?” Dís asks, earning another look from Thorin.

“He lied. Omitted. Whatever you say. The apple never falls very far from the tree, does it?”

“Oh, stop it.” It’s Dís’s turn to look reproachful. “You hated the poor woman.”

“What? I didn’t...she was just...” he babbles, a little restless in the armchair.

“She stood between you and what you wanted, of course you did,” Dís rolls her eyes. “You disliked her so much. I get it, our grandfather ruined us all and you wanted to save Mrs Took’s shop, you wanted it so badly that you despised her because she was old and no longer able to keep up with the business, and she was batty like grandpa.” She realises that she has stunned Thorin into silence, so she soldiers on. “But Mrs Took wasn’t unkind. She wasn’t obsessed like he was.”

“Like I was - is that what you want to say?” Thorin asks coldly.

“Don’t go there again, brother,” she scolds him. “You’re not him. You...almost got there, but you didn’t. And you’re happy here, in your slap-worthy way,” she points out, leaning forward until she can put her hand on his right knee and give it an affectionate squeeze. He mumbles something under his breath that could be a harsh comment, but the light in his eyes has grown a little kinder. “That’s why I’d like you to get in contact with this Bilbo and say sorry,” she adds. “Regardless of what you mean to do next.”

“I don’t know how.”

“It would make you feel better I think.”

“I mean that I don’t have any address or number.”

“Seriously? What did you do all this time? Mrs Took says it has been going on for months...”

“Good grief, is she writing a novel about it?” Thorin snarls. “We talked, I just didn’t get his number, ok? Besides...he must come to me of his own free will.”

If Adamanta is really writing a novel about those two, it must be set in the Middle-Ages, Dís muses; it would account for the missed exchange of mobile numbers as well as for Thorin’s old-fashioned resolve not to take things into his own hands. Apparently the knight must fight his way to her brother’s ivory tower.

Dís only hopes that her brother’s beau will prove less obdurate on the subject, since she has no intention of seeing Thorin moping away the Christmas holidays.

“I think I’m going to take a spoonful of that pudding,” she hears him say.

“I’m going to need one as well,” she sighs.

 

*

 

“I was supposed to inherit this shop,” Bilbo says first.

He’s keeping his hands folded in his lap, his head slightly tilted, his legs straight down the stool. He notices that the pose belongs to Professor Baggins and his (hopefully) prim, responsible ways - Bilbo reckons that leading a double-life always generates this sort of confusion. Plus it does feel like an exam, though he’s the one being examined.

“I used to spend a lot of time here when I was a child,” he continues, doing his best to focus on the place. The shop has real walls, ceilings, and floors; the shop is a cage for Bilbo’s emotions, taming them into a shape he can describe to another human being.

Even if that human being is just looking at him from time to time without speaking, without making this easier - nor more difficult than it is, Bilbo is honest enough to admit. It’s unfair and alarming that someone who can blush as prettily as Thorin might be so unreadable at times.  

“She’d take me here after school. I’d do my homework while she tended the flowers. She’d help with my essays - she had this way with words, this instinct for enchantment...she used such simple words, but in a most compelling way. I think she could have been a writer, except for the fact that she couldn’t sit down to write for a long time. She’d talk though, she’d talk you into almost anything.”

Thorin is a strange kind of listener. While others would strive to make their attention and participation as evident as possible to the speaker to flatter and encourage his confidence, Thorin will continue doing something else while Bilbo is speaking. It comes partly from shyness, for clearly Thorin prefers to look at him when he thinks Bilbo is unaware of his gaze, but also from restlessness. He can’t keep still, unless he’s annoyed and glaring; no, Thorin must keep his hands busy, his eyes often averted.

The first times Bilbo dropped by the shop for a word with Thorin, he felt a little insulted by this attitude. It was unflattering to someone like Bilbo, who could be brilliant and captivating - a talker just like his mother.

Yet Thorin did listen. He would surprise Bilbo with his neat answers and his memory for what Bilbo said or did during their time together. So Bilbo sincerely hopes that Thorin’s listening this time as well, for he’s not likely to repeat all that is saying and it would be a great waste of heart on Bilbo’s part if Thorin wasn’t paying attention.

“Yet it was my father who helped me with maths, she had no flair for that,” Bilbo keeps on, though his voice falters a little when Thorin stands up and goes to get some flowers. “My father kept the shop’s accounts in order, since he excelled in the management of our properties like most of his relatives did. He knew how to keep things; he kept her, when everyone thought she’d fly away like a leaf stolen by the wind, sooner or later. But she - she knew how to change things and she thought to change them for the better. So she always tried to change the people she loved. She made him bold and stubborn, so that he married her against his family’s disapproval. I don’t mean that he was unhappy with her, in fact they were the happiest pair of fools I’ve ever met...never mind, that’s not what I came here to say.”

Bilbo frowns and pinches the bridge of his nose. He tries again to guess what Thorin’s thinking, but he can’t see enough of his face while the man keeps working around, picking up flowers with the utmost concentration, examining them, cutting their stems.

Plus the light is a little dim, for half the lights in the shop have been turned off. It was closing time when Bilbo came; an intentional choice on his part, because he has no idea where Thorin lives and he could only reach him at the shop, but at the same time he wanted to grant him the opportunity of closing the door in his face. During opening hours Thorin could not properly keep him out, so Bilbo preferred to come here later, when the florist was already rolling down the shutters and the sign on the door was turned to closed.

Bilbo even knocked on the door and waited - a little nervously, but he did his best to conceal that - while Thorin looked at him through the glass door. Bilbo looked back, finding first surprise, then a soft pleased look that was almost immediately replaced by a flicker of anger, finally an endearingly familiar frown on the florist’s face.  

“The shop, right. It should have been mine. She dreamt it and she expected me to dream of flowers as well. I liked it here - the smell, the colours, her hands moving through leaves and through stalks, the made-up songs she hummed while she worked,” he can’t help evoking her ghost, pale against the pretty colours of the flowers in Thorin’s shop. And he can’t help comparing the way he moves among flowers to the way she did. “She taught me the names of the plants, their uses, their meanings. I’ve forgotten a lot, but there’s still so much in my head. Flowers inside my skull, what do you say?”

Thorin says nothing. He just sits in front of Bilbo now, and they’re separated by no more - and no less - than the width of the counter table. There are several different kind of flowers on the table. He starts working with his scissors, removing leaves, cleaning stems, his blue eyes mirrored by the stalks of blue hyacinths.

It makes Bilbo’s thin thread of patience snap. His next words come in a rush, resentment and remorse give them speed and edges.  

“I hated the guts of this town. I hated how people talked behind my back, their pettiness, their mean ways to make me feel inadequate and wrong. And nothing ever happened, that’s what I hated most. I don’t think my parents were surprised when I said I meant to study in London and they must have thought it would do me good to see the world outside - to go on an adventure, she said. I just wanted to get out.”

Bilbo’s voice has almost caught in his throat. He doesn’t know whether it’s from what he’s admitting or from the gentle way Thorin’s hands can handle flowers.

“I did,” Bilbo says more softly. “At the beginning I’d come back every two weeks. Then once a month. Then once every three. I started to drop by only during the holidays. Every time I came back it was more difficult than the previous time...I felt drained by the fact that my heart was living in two places at once and never quite mending.”

More blue to compete with Thorin’s eyes; the irises he lays on the counter top beside the hyacinths are simply gorgeous, their petals slightly ruffled with a golden tongue glistening inside the cornflower blue corolla. Bilbo sighs.  

“I didn’t hate them or our house, and I’m truly sorry if they thought that - I could hear in their voices on the phone that they thought that. But I didn’t. I loved them and it hurt, because I hated Hobbiton and the miserable state of mind I was in when I stayed here. If only they’d lived in London, if only she had not been so keen on me helping her with the shop and following her into the business...” he shrugs, or rather he trembles - he can’t think of what could have been for too long without choking on regrets. “I didn’t know what to do with my degree, except for the fact that it would take me away from Hobbiton. It was around that time my father died. I came back for his funeral and she thought I’d come back to take the shop off her hands. I didn’t. I didn’t want it. I know she felt betrayed, but I couldn’t stay. I felt as if it’d kill me. It was a ridiculous notion, but I acted upon it, so I left. I left her behind and she never forgave me for that.”

Thorin leaves the counter again. For a very brief moment, Bilbo thinks that the florist is going to give him a hug or something like that; some comfort. He doesn’t and Bilbo feels somewhat relieved - he wouldn’t know what to do should Thorin put his arms around him. Something quite stupid and inopportune, probably.

“I’d call her from time to time,” he adds, while Thorin busies himself with tulips. “She came to London a couple of times, but it was awkward. She wouldn’t talk of selling the shop and moving to London; maybe I didn’t try very hard to convince her. She became increasingly engrossed in the shop, she wouldn’t talk of anything else. Yes, I thought she was nutty and I didn’t want her to be in my life,” he says, sounding petulant even to his own ears. He bits his lower lip. “I was so very wrong and I’m so very sorry, but it’s done. She’s not here and the shop is yours.”

Thorin doesn’t seem touched by the non-revelation and Bilbo feels his cheeks heat up a little, while the man takes care of the tulips he has just laid on the counter.

Still Bilbo forces himself to speak, in a tone that’s half serious and half mocking.

“I swear I never wanted it, so you can be the King of Flowers...just take care of it, all right?” His words come out more pathetic than witty, so he feels quite deflated when he mumbles on: “I wanted to take a look and see for myself how the shop was doing - it’s doing great,” Bilbo admits - and for fuck’s sake, it’s true. “You’re doing great. She would’ve liked you. She’d have preferred you over me.”

That’s when Thorin lifts his eyes from the flowers.

“No one could ever prefer me over you,” he says in a grave tone.

He’s so serious that Bilbo could laugh, but he doesn’t - he’s actually closer to shedding a tear or two. Yet he manages to raise his brow and flash Thorin a coy smile.

“I happen to do so, at the moment.”

Thorin blushes - such a welcome sight after the cold welcome and the prolonged silence! - then snorts when he catches sight of Bilbo’s smile.

“Look,” the florist says gruffly, lowering his gaze.

Bilbo does, swallowing down any protest at the command. He doesn’t see immediately. Pretty flowers always get to him, but...then he realises that there’s no reason for Thorin to have been picking up flowers at this hour in the evening. It was for want of something to do while he was listening, but also to speak.  

And Thorin speaks of how much Bilbo’s friendship means to him, offering him irises; he offers peace with the blue hyacinths and consolation with the white poppies. While the purple hyacinths say I’m sorry, and those are most numerous among the others.

Bilbo gapes a little, then looks up again. Thorin is not smiling, but he seems to quietly enjoy Bilbo’s expression right now. For the first time, Bilbo allows himself to think Thorin handsome.

“You should apologise as well,” the florist points out.

“I’m sorry,” Bilbo says, meaning it. “I am. I didn’t mean to mess up like that. I wasn’t ready to talk about it and you must admit that it was...awkward, you owning this shop and all.”

“I wouldn’t have asked you to tell me everything about yourself just like that,” Thorin retorts, looking slightly offended. Yet, before Bilbo can amend his words, he asks: “Will you go out with me?”

Chapter Text

Sometimes Frodo still wonders why Bilbo Baggins, of all people.

Lately, though, he gets what his parents saw in Bilbo - he can be very funny and amiable when he’s in a fair mood, and it’s easy to like him then. Not that Bilbo has ever been unkind or harsh, nor has he tried to bully Frodo into giving up his pain like Lobelia used to do when he was living in her house - maybe she thought it was for the best, trying to make Frodo react...but he couldn’t help hating it.

No, Bilbo has been quite patient, to the point that Frodo suspected that he didn’t care too much about him. He didn’t want to talk about his parents (or anything else), yet he had felt disappointed when Bilbo had stopped trying to get him to talk so early in their cohabitation. Frodo was angry at the beginning, angry all the time; so he doesn’t blame Bilbo for all the bad, hurtful things going on inside him. He blames Bilbo for not doing anything about it though, for being so clearly out of his depth and so unhappy with their arrangement.

I’ve got the only right to sadness, Frodo would have liked to shout - he may have actually done that once, without any apparent reason except for Bilbo’s frowning and sighing over his students’ essays.

Maybe his parents should have thought twice before choosing Bilbo Baggins - they should have made sure, at least, that he did want to take care of a kid. This is the one thing Frodo blames on his parents, this and them being dead.

Yet since the holidays things are getting better, though Frodo doesn’t like to think too much about it for fear that he may be mistaken and that he may be betraying his pain for a fleeting relief.

All the same, living with Bilbo is undeniably easier nowadays. They still don’t talk too much, but the silence is lighter. They’re more at ease with each other and they no longer jump in nervous surprise each time they happen to meet in the great house; when Bilbo gets home and says hello or good evening, Frodo answers and - more importantly - means it.

Yes, Bilbo can be a cool guy.

Now, for example, he’s cooking pancakes for breakfast - it has become a sort of Sunday habit for them, since they signed their first truce over a plate of pancakes on a cold morning between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Obviously enough, Frodo had not looked forward the holidays, guessing that he would miss his parents more than ever, especially while he was stuck with Bilbo in Bag End. He had been right, but at the same time it had turned out less awful than expected. One morning, Frodo had woken up to the sound of the radio transmitting Christmas songs and he had followed the sound to find Bilbo in the kitchen in his dressing gown, cooking pancakes. Frodo had felt a little suspicious looking at that little man who had seemed so miserable and dull most of the time, and who was now cooking, humming, and dancing around.

Bilbo had indeed shuddered when he had caught sight of Frodo, but he had managed a broad smile and put a plate on the table for the child.

“Mum’s weren’t so good,” Frodo had commented, after his third pancake.

He had felt a little bold, speaking of her, and a little ashamed for admitting that Bilbo’s pancakes were far better than hers.    

“But she could cook a perfect roast,” Bilbo had replied.

Frodo had agreed and they had ended up talking about his favourite dishes.

“I can’t cook like her,” Bilbo had said when they had finished off the pancakes and drunk more hot chocolate. “But I can try to cook something you like, experiment a little.”

It had sounded like a perfectly sensible plan.

“You know,” Bilbo says, while he flips the pancakes in the pan, “as soon as the weather grows warmer, I’d like to do something for the garden. My mother would have a fit if she saw it, all nettles and bald patches,” he frowns, as he always does when he talks about his mother - though Frodo doesn’t mind, since there’s also a certain softness to Bilbo’s eyes when he speaks of Belladonna and her love for flowers.

Frodo, who likes flowers and plants a great deal, has grown fond of Belladonna, even if the only thing he remembers about her is the way her hands smelt like earth. Yet she’s still there in Bilbo’s childhood tales, in the enamelled pots and embroidered napkins, in the old photos in silver frames and the names engraved in the fireplace’s mantel shelf.

“I think that the roses may flower,” Frodo says cautiously.

“I agree. And other flowers as well, if we...” Bilbo stops, taking his time to slip the pancakes onto the plates Frodo has taken out of the cabinet. Frodo tries to hide his excitement, but he can see that Bilbo is smiling, though he pretends not to know. “There’s quite a lot to do before Spring though: thinking in advance about what should be planted, what must be uprooted, and what can be saved. There’re gardening tools to replace, seeds to buy, and one drawing or two may help to get an idea of what would suit Bag End’s garden.”

A plan, Frodo thinks, almost dazed with the pleasure of it.

“Won’t you just restore Belladonna’s garden?” he cannot help asking though.

“No, I don’t think so,” Bilbo replies after a short while. “Some of it, yes, but not all. It must be new and somewhat different, it couldn’t be otherwise.”

Frodo nods in understanding, but he’s no longer able to bite back the question that he’s been dying to ask.

“Can I help?”

Bilbo smiles broadly, without trying to hide his relief and his gladness at that.

“I was hoping that you would help me Frodo,” he declares, taking his seat at the table. “Now, can you hand me the syrup, please?”

 

*

 

The end of love is a strange mood.

It feels as if things which seemed perfectly sound a few weeks ago were silly and vaguely uninteresting - or worse, meaningless. The world, which had taken a sharper turn when he had fallen in love, is now out of focus and no longer participates in Fíli’s feelings - he can’t find the colour of her hair and eyes in the foliage and grass as he did in Autumn, her laughter doesn’t follow him anymore.

Maybe it’s all that snow that fell during the holidays, a big white-out over their story.

There’s some sadness at the way it has deflated over the months, but it’s a sadness that feels like a duty to perform rather than a proper emotion. In truth, even if she put a stop to it, Fíli is enjoying the change - more time to himself and to hang out with his mates, and there’s this pleasant sensation of the muscles of his personality no longer obliged to keep in shape hoping that she could stay in love with him.

The most amusing thing, though, is how Kíli has grown to like her at last, after months of sullen moods and annoying comments.

“She’s not so bad,” Kíli admitted only the day before. “She’s still too tall for you, and you two were disgusting, but she knows the name of a lot of stars, you know?”

So Kíli has taken up the annoying habit of talking to her if they bump into each other at school. Fíli feared that they might be talking about him, but they only discuss stars and planets, and Kíli’s even thinking of taking up archery because she’s something of a regional champion.

After all the efforts Fíli put into convincing Kíli to like Tauriel when they were a couple, this is untimely - and ironic. Yet Fíli can’t deny that he was tired of Kíli’s hostility and he’s glad that things are no longer so tense between them. She’s a grand girl, that’s for sure; it may take some time, but Fíli hopes that they’ll be friends one day, even if he feels so awkward around her lately.

“Now turn to page 254,” Professor Baggins says.

Fíli shudders, abandoning his train of thought about Tauriel. He feels sorry for getting so distracted during the lesson, especially because he has become somewhat fond of Baggins.

At the beginning he didn’t even know why Kíli was so enthusiastic about the man - well, it was kind of interesting to discover that he had a lot of tattoos and came from London, but Fíli is not so easily impressed (and cousin Dwalin has tattoos on his head, so he’s way cooler than some posh professor with flowers on his arms). Besides, on his first week Baggins caught Fíli texting Tauriel during his lesson and that wasn’t a nice way to begin the term - one of those things Fíli feels a little ashamed about in retrospect...after all, he could have just waited a couple of hours, since he and Tauriel spent so much time together even without the constant trading of messages during school hours.  

Anyway Baggins is a good teacher and maybe more than that; he’s a decent human being, down-to-earth but with a good touch of imagination. Most students are quite happy to attend his lessons and they’re looking forward to the four-day trip to the country he has been talking about for some time.

Fíli wasn’t so interested in the whole plan at the beginning, but now that winter is slipping by, he feels that he could really do with sleeping under the stars and walking through the woods, and all the activities Professor Baggins is arranging for his students. Kíli’s class will participate as well, and they say that the Headmaster will accompany them for a couple of days. Younger students like Kíli are obviously the most eager about the treasure hunt, but Fíli and his mates are not above the excitement.

Waiting for the trip, they’re studying the local landscape and revising their camping knowledge. Baggins is very keen on safety and comfort, and he wants to make sure that every student is prepared for the trip.

“I will count on your help, as senior students, to keep an eye on your younger companions,” Baggins says, after reading a paragraph or two about the flora in the dales. “There’s nothing wrong with a bit of adventure, but I mean to get you all back in good shape. Try to make this enjoyable or I’ll personally see to making the rest of this term miserable,” he points out, smiling.

The first weeks, some of the students thought that the new Professor would be a piece of cake.

They were deceived by his easy laughter and the roundness of his features, as well as by his prim clothes. But Baggins is far more sturdy than they gave him credit for at the beginning. He’s always very polite and usually very sensible, but there’s firmness in his gentleness and his logic is almost bossy at times. He may often smile and never raise his voice, yet they no longer doubt that he’s in charge and he’s not going to be fooled. So almost everyone tries to be on his good side.

After all there are advantages to that. His lessons are interesting, good talker as he is, and he’s clearly passionate about his subject. Besides he organises activities for them in the open and the homework is never too much. A couple of girls in the other class are said to have a crush on him - well, there’s always someone with a crush on this or that professor, so it’s not really surprising. Fíli thinks that he’s gay, though there’s never been any direct hint to that.

Actually Baggins is very discreet about his private life. Though he talks about the places he visited when he’s trying to make them understand a concept through practical examples, and sometimes drops a comment or two about his time in London, he never gets too personal. Fíli doesn’t even know where the Professor lives, though he heard something about a house with a silly name (End of Something, he can’t remember). He feels quite sure that Baggins has no kids, though he’s older than he looks - Kíli says that he must be as old as uncle Thorin. He certainly looks less rugged and bear-like than their uncle though, and Fíli can’t make any satisfying comparison between them.

There’re different stories (and various degrees of realism about them) circulating about Baggins and why he came to Hobbiton. Some say that he had to become the guardian of an orphaned kid (which sounds just like Dickens, so Fíli dismisses the idea); others that he was getting away from troubles in London (thrilling, but again too fictional for Fíli’s taste). He prefers to trust Baggins’ own words about it.

“It’s my first time teaching,” he admitted on the very first day. “I didn’t think I’d teach here in Hobbiton, but here I am and I hope to get it right for you and me as well.”

So the man was probably out of a job and ended up in Hobbiton because he knew the Headmaster. Nothing more complicated than that, considering Professor Grey has always been known for cultivating strange friendships and enrolling his friends as teachers in his school. After all, he was the one who encouraged Fíli’s family to settle down in Hobbiton, because he was an old friend of their grandfather Thrór, and meant to help - though uncle Thorin always mutters about Gandalf’s penchant for meddling.

Back to Baggins, Tauriel says that he must have a boyfriend somewhere in the neighbourhood. She thinks that would be the sort of good reason to move from London to Hobbiton, that and the Dales - that’s one thing Fíli regrets: Tauriel and uncle Thorin would have got on so well, both being so interested in the preservation of the natural and historical sites around Hobbiton.

Yet Fíli has never heard or seen anything about this boyfriend of Baggins’, so he may not exist at all. Though it’s true that Professor Baggins seldom takes his meals in the school canteen, and he’s often seen riding his bike or driving his blue Toyota to and from school.

He probably goes into town to meet someone at lunch, Tauriel surmises when Fíli bumps into her during the interval. He’s not keen on discussing the Geography teacher’s love life - it’s so uninteresting, and Fíli doesn’t really like prying (that’s for your mother, his uncle Thorin’s voice supplies), but at the same time he doesn’t mean to pass on the opportunity of talking to Tauriel, like they were just friends.

“He’s really a cute one,” Tauriel points out, while she takes another spoonful of strawberry yogurt - she does love yogurt, and she always seems to have one at hand for the short breaks between lessons.   

“He’s old,” Fíli grunts, feeling vaguely jealous - but not truly.

“Under forty,” she retorts. “Isn’t your uncle the same age? Different build, sure. And your uncle is all tall and dark.”

Fíli doesn’t think he could stand hearing Tauriel calling Thorin cute, but fortunately she doesn’t.

“I don’t understand why you’re so interested in his private life.”

“Well, I like him. He’s one of the best teachers this year and I’d be glad if he stayed for the next year. If he had a boyfriend in Hobbiton, I think he wouldn’t leave so soon,” she patiently explains. “He’s good with the younger kids, but he manages with the older students as well. He gets respect after a while, and that’s the sign of a good teacher.”

“Don’t tell me that he has replaced Professor Greenleaf in your heart!” Fíli teases her, smiling.

“That’s very different,” she hums, though her eyes are shining with amusement. “Professor Greenleaf is a most accomplished teacher and his knowledge of French literature is apparently boundless. And he dresses gorgeously on top of that. I mean, did you see his new Italian suit? That man is so inspiring, I think he could be royalty or something like that.” Tauriel probably catches him rolling his eyes, because she adds: “Oh, piss off. I know he’s something of an ass sometimes, but if you or Kíli cared a little more about his lessons and tried to practice your French...”

“Baggins gets on quite well with him though,” Fíli reckons. “That may be in his favour at the end of the year. Everybody knows that Greenleaf has a lot of power over the school’s council so Baggins will need his support if he wants to stay.”

“I think that if he wanted to stay, the Headmaster would make sure of it,” Tauriel says with conviction. “They’re old friends. Actually, I’m surprised you don’t know more about him than the rest of us. Isn’t Professor Grey an old family friend of the Vilinsons?”

“Not of the Vilinsons,” Fíli replies with a shrug. “Of the Durins, my mum and my uncle’s family. But he pops up when you aren’t expecting him at all, no invitation whatsoever. So I haven’t talked with him about Baggins yet and I don’t like approaching him at school, though mum and uncle Thorin are on a first name basis with him.”

“You should ask him if Professor Baggins will stay then,” Tauriel suggests.

“Why don’t you ask Professor Baggins instead?”

“I did,” she confesses.

“Really? What did he say?”

“Well, he laughed at first,” she recalls, frowning. “I don’t think he expected me to ask, though it was quite natural, you know. Most of my classmates like him and we’ve been wondering about next year for a while. Then he stopped laughing, but he wasn’t completely serious - you know, he has this way of smiling without doing a proper smile.” Tauriel tries to imitate Professor Baggins’ smile-not-smile, but she can’t - she’s the sort of person who either smiles or not. “Anyway, he said something like ‘Who would have thought I’d say this? But yeah, I may like it here’. Strange thing to say, isn’t it?”

“Why?”

“Well, he’s an adult,” Tauriel snorts. “He’s supposed to have plans. And that didn’t sound like one. He can’t just...go with the moment, he must figure it out at some point!”

“He may have had a plan,” Fíli points out, feeling for Professor Baggins and his...unsteadiness. He straightens his back a little and holds Tauriel’s gaze. “He may have changed his mind, things are always different than you expect. So there’s nothing wrong with having doubts and second thoughts.”

“I didn’t say that and I wasn’t talking about you,” Tauriel replies, vaguely annoyed.

“Maybe,” Fíli spits. Or maybe you were. “Anyway, he might not have wanted to talk about it with you or he may be really confused about the future. Either way, there’s nothing strange about that. He probably came here from London or whatever, and he wasn’t sure whether he’d like it here. That’s just human, ok? Now he’s blending in, making friends, getting used to Hobbiton. Things are looking better, and you’re calling that strange.”

“Now you’re talking about yourself,” Tauriel deadpans.

Fíli would like to come up with some angry remark, but the bell rings and they both go back to their classroom. He’s annoyed with her, because she’s obviously smart enough to understand the reasons for his vehement defence of Baggins’ reasons: since he has been in Bilbo’s place so many times, he knows what it means moving to another city and needing time to adjust. Besides adults aren’t always so full of plans like Tauriel thinks, neither do they know how to fix things more than a kid would. Fíli learnt that a long time ago, when he moved from town to town at his mother’s and uncle’s heels; Kíli was too young to remember, but Fíli does, and he’s glad that they settled in Hobbiton at last.

They’re good here at last. Even uncle seems to have found what he was looking for after all those long years of wandering - or he has decided to look for something closer at hand.   

Maybe it’ll be the same for Professor Baggins.

 

*

 

“Yeah, I saw the new pics you uploaded in the archive,” Ori mutters, his iPhone squeezed between his cheek and his shoulder while he tries to reach the tin of spaghetti in the cupboard. “Gosh, my diet has gone wild since you left. I should have picked up some of your cooking skills along the way.” The can falls down, hits him in the head, and rolls on the floor. “Fuck. No, wait, not you Bil. I’m fine, it was only a food can. Though I hope you feel a little guilty about your poor friend Ori. Why don’t you find me some Derbyshire guy with a flair for cooking solid meals?” he whines. “Tattoos would be appreciated. I’m sure your Scottish florist must know someone.”

 Ori hears Bilbo’s snort of embarrassed laughter on the other end. He smiles to himself, while he rubs the top of his head - the point hit by the tin smarts slightly and he’ll probably end up with a proper bump, but there’s no further damage. And he can have his spaghetti with some sliced vegetables for dinner, though the thought of the sort of feast Bilbo could have cooked is quite bitter at the moment.

“I’m so very sorry,” Bilbo says then, as if guessing Ori’s thoughts. “You should have tried those recipes I sent you by e-mail.”

“I did and they were horrible,” Ori mutters. “Anyway, back to the pics, they’re all very inspiring. I think I’m going to develop some new designs based on the anemones - if that’s ok with you.”

“Sure,” Bilbo replies. “You could work them into a proper pattern, since they can be stylized so easily. Or work on a single flower, I think it would work very well on a shoulder.”

“I googled them,” Ori hums, while he takes out a pan. “I was thinking of this whole new series of bouquets for different targets - the art of combining different flowers to convey what’s in your heart and all that. So there may be a section about love, another about friendship...after all you’re doing research,” he says, pretending that’s an off-hand comment.

“Oh stop it,” Bilbo huffs into the phone. “I know you’re dying to ask how the other night went, but...”

“Don’t tell me he hasn’t kissed you silly yet,” Ori interrupts him.

“He hasn’t,” Bilbo replies, and Ori would bet his spaghetti that there’s some annoyance in his friend’s voice. “We’re still...seeing how it goes. I mean, I’m not even sure that’s a good idea, with my responsibility toward Frodo and the fact that I don’t know how long I’ll stay here...”

“But you did consent to dating him,” Ori points out.

“Well, it doesn’t mean that I can’t change my mind or I must...” Bilbo mutters, clearly irritated.

“I wasn’t suggesting that. Only that I suppose you like the man to some degree.”

“He’s...” Bilbo begins, but then he stops. “You know what? The first date was a disaster. He thought so as well, I could see it in his eyes.” Bilbo may not have said it, but Ori has heard beautiful eyes all the same, in the small sight escaping his friend’s lips. “We went to a small but quite elegant restaurant outside town. Neither of us had ever been there and it was silly of me to choose something like that. He was so very nervous and I guess I was too; he didn’t like the place nor the food, and he seemed annoyed with the way I was trying to talk him out of his shell, as if I had forced him to go out with me. So we argued.”

“You did?” Ori squeaks in surprise.

“About flowers,” Bilbo confesses in a grunt. “We argued about the damned flowers, because I thought it would be so nice to discuss my ideas for Bag End’s garden with him and ask for his advice, but then he had to impose his opinion and...oh gods I wanted to slap him in front of the waiter. And he didn’t leave me time to take dessert, can you believe it? He was in such a hurry to leave and then I said that...”

“Bil, wait. Wait. If it was so awful, why did you two go out a second time?”

Silence on the other hand of the line. Then Bilbo’s voice, softer and shyer.

“Because when we got out of the restaurant I was fumbling for the car key in my pocket and he was already on his motorbike - we had agreed to meet at the restaurant, just to take it easy...and he asked me to go on a second date with him. He was rude and I don’t know what he was trying to do - I suspect he didn’t expect to hear me say yes, but it served him well.”

“Wow,” Ori comments, slightly stunned. “You guys are seriously twisted.”

“We were both quite furious at the time. And he made a couple of very disturbing remarks about how I had kept information from him - using those exact words, as if he were MI5 or something like that. The utter prick.” A pause, during which Ori finally puts the pan on the heat. “But then he sort of smiled when I said yes. He didn’t mean to and he frowned after that, but it was...well, he’s got a good smile.”

“I hoped you saw more of that smile on the second date.”

“Oh yes!” Bilbo replies, so pleased that he immediately checks himself. “I mean, we decided to go for something less pretentious. We had a cuppa at a cosy tearoom, talked a little. He was apparently afraid that I wouldn’t show up, but I did want to see him.”

“But no kisses.”

“We held hands,” Bilbo huffs. “A little. Twenty or thirty seconds.”

“That’s very sweet.”

“He is. Sweet.” Bilbo clears his throat after that and Ori can actually feel his friend’s blush over the phone. “Still a prick sometimes. And I can’t even think how he can be so stubborn, let alone the fact that he’s terrible at flirting. You know, he gave me flowers.”

“The anemones? I suspected that...they stand for anticipation, right? I’m sure he’s looking forward to...”

“Yes, yes, but that’s not the point,” Bilbo says a little hurriedly, as if thinking about what the florist may be looking forward to would threaten his composure. “The point is that he didn’t bring me flowers in a bouquet or something equally normal considering the circumstances. No, he dragged me into the shop one morning I had dropped by to bring him a chocolate croissant. I was heading to school and I hadn’t any time, and that brute let me think that he was...well, you know, we were alone, it was quite dark, we sort of tripped into each other. But no, he just wanted to shove the stupid anemones into my arms.”

“Oh you bought him a croissant!” Ori chuckles, perfectly happy with the image. “And you got up earlier to do that, didn’t you? Then you probably thought that he was going to smooch you. But the man is a proper gentleman, shining armour and all, and he just gave you some pretty flowers - with what I’d call a promise. Now you can hardly wait for what will come next.”

Another silence, and Ori knows that Bilbo is boiling with annoyance and embarrassment, but also a touch of strange pleasure at the idea of this reticent big man giving him flowers.

“Oh, I hate the fact that you know me so well, Ori,” Bilbo says at last.

 

*

 

“So, what’s he like?”

Thorin rolls his eyes and says nothing, while he pushes the cart down the aisle. Dís asked for his help with the weekly grocery shopping, but he should have known that there was something fishy behind her sudden need of him (bollocks, Dís is perfectly capable of shopping on her own - actually Thorin feels more of a hindrance when it comes to navigating through the ridiculously complicated maze of the local Tesco).

“Oh, come on!” she pouts, slipping half a dozen tuna tins into the cart - Dís eats it from the tin when the boys are not at home and she’s in a hurry, an old habit of hers. “Three dates and I know next to nothing about him. You keep me in the dark! What if he’s a dangerous criminal and you’re putting yourself in danger?”

“He’s not a criminal,” Thorin replies, though he feels vaguely guilty about the fact that their chats are still in the not-too-personal-stuff area after the outburst about Bilbo’s past and his relationship with his mother before Christmas. They’re taking things slowly, right? “And there were just a couple of dates.”

“But he keeps dropping by at the shop.”

“And Mrs Took keeps spying on us, I suppose,” Thorin grunts.

“It’s not her fault nor mine if I can’t drop by during the day, between my work and the boys. Otherwise I would have been able to bump into Mr Bilbo, wouldn’t I?” she points out, while she scans the shelves to check the prices of tomato soup. “You’re so bloody secretive about it.”

“It’s supposed to be something private, Dís.”

“We’re family, there’s nothing private about it,” she snorts. Thorin frowns, feeling that she’s trying to corner him - something that he never likes, about Bilbo less than ever. “Look, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t pry. Yet I’m so curious about him and you know...” I worry about you, her blue eyes suggest. Thorin only nods in acknowledgement, and she goes on. “You seem quite happy with how things are going, so I can’t help wondering what sort of man he is. Maybe I can’t stand being cut off from your life...”

Thorin shudders at her words. He gruffly throws his arm around her shoulders and squeezes her a bit against his side, though it works more awkwardly than it does with Kíli.

“You aren’t,” he denies.

“Ok...take your time with your beau then,” she sighs, but her eyes are lit up with mirth.

She likes calling Bilbo Thorin’s beau as much as Thorin detests it. The word always seems so oddly wrong for the way Bilbo looks when he laughs at Thorin’s floundering jokes, or how his eyelids fluttered closed when Thorin took his hand in his for the first time, while they were waiting for their tea. Even while they were having that awful quarrel on their very first date, part of Thorin’s mind was occupied with the revelation of how tasty Bilbo looked with his cheeks red and his eyes bright with fury. He would have liked to smell the heated skin as he would do with a flower in full-bloom - the thought had left him almost choking on his wine (the only decent thing about that horridly smart restaurant).

He’d like to go on a third date. They said they would but they haven’t found time yet, though Thorin is almost giddy with impatience. The other day Bilbo brought him a chocolate croissant - so he remembered what Thorin had said about his preference for chocolate, and that had prompted Thorin to take the man into the shop at such an early hour without knowing what he might do at any moment. Probably cornering him among flowers and kissing him, kissing his mouth and his wrists, and each petal inked on his skin - oh, the thought of the other tattoos hidden under Bilbo’s clothes is enough to kindle Thorin’s imagination into a scorching fire! But he did his best to control himself and fortunately found some anemones to hide his confusion as well as something a little more...obtrusive than that - damn tight trousers.

At least after that he managed to say:

“I wanted to call you, but I haven’t got your number.”

It had been stupid of them, hadn’t it? Going out without exchanging numbers, they couldn’t have warned the other if something had come up and prevented one of them from making it.

Anyway, it was a good choice to distract Bilbo and tactically retreat behind the counter.

“Here,” Bilbo said, scribbling his number down on a scrap of wrapping paper.

So now Bilbo’s number is memorised on Thorin’s phone. He could just call him and hear his voice, or maybe text him - though there’s something annoying about how small the keys are compared to Thorin’s fingers. But Bilbo wished him goodnight just the other day when he didn’t show up at the shop, so maybe it would be all right for Thorin to send a message and...

“Thorin, will you stop making cow-eyes at the cereal boxes now?

Chapter Text

Time: 4.18 am

From: Thorin

To: Bilbo

Hlo

 

Time: 4.20 am

From: Bilbo

To: Thorin

Thorin? Is that you?

 

Time: 4.28 am

From: Thorin

To: Bilbo

Yes

 

Time: 4.29 am

From: Bilbo

To: Thorin

It’s 4 am

 

Time: 4.41 am

From: Thorin

To: Bilbo

But it’s fine, really. I was looking forward to hearing from you.

 

Time: 4.53 am

From: Bilbo

To: Thorin

Thorin? You still there?

 

Time: 4.56 am

From: Thorin

To: Bilbo

Yes

 

Time: 4.59 am

From: Bilbo

To: Thorin

I understand typing is not your thing ;P I wondered when you’d use my number...you ok? Can’t sleep & making myself a cuppa  

 

Time: 5.03 am

From: Thorin

To: Bilbo

I’m ok

 

Time: 5.06 am

From: Bilbo

To: Thorin

So...next week the cinema on Cedar Lane shows a bunch of Hitchcock’s films and I happen to like them. Dinner and film? Pick a day. Don’t say no, I promise to cover your eyes if anything scary happens and buy you well-buttered popcorn   

 

Time: 5.07 am

From: Thorin

To: Bilbo

Friday

 

Time: 5.08 am

From: Bilbo

To: Thorin

Perfect ;) Good morning Thorin

 

*

 

Bilbo has no idea how he has ended up on Thorin’s couch.

That’s quite annoying, considering that Bilbo is a man of habit, despite what his early career may suggest. Enrolling in London at a time when none of his peers went farther than Manchester, getting a degree in something so oddly unfashionable like Cartography (it’s so cheap, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins argues, I suppose he wasn’t brilliant enough to turn into a doctor or a lawyer), then setting the aforementioned degree aside, and making a living as a tattoo artist - well, that’s enough to make Bilbo a revolutionary by Hobbiton’s standards. Yet he considers himself a neat, methodical man with a great love of comfort.

It was probably Thorin who invited him in, but Bilbo can’t recall the exact words - though, Thorin being Thorin, they were probably few and unadorned. Or maybe it was Bilbo himself who suggested it.

Perhaps they both fumbled with words and glances, until walking Thorin to his door seemed quite natural, and the offer of a cup of tea was the polite outcome of the short walk in the rain from Bilbo’s car to Thorin’s front door.

Point is that Bilbo shouldn’t be so bewitched by the florist’s gruff manners and rare smiles to forget how on earth he agreed to sit on Thorin’s couch and wait for a cuppa. And since that’s bad enough without Thorin in the room, it can only get worse once he gets back from the kitchen with the teapot, cups, and that lovely frown of his that Bilbo can’t help wanting to smooth.

Trying to calm his nerves, Bilbo takes some time to look around, though he doesn’t dare rise from the couch. His knees have already betrayed him twice this night, and he doesn’t fancy being caught while inspecting the florist’s house; he just feels a tingle up his spine at the idea that this - the slightly worn-out leather couch, the sober dark-wood furniture, the stone fireplace cramped between the plain shelves of a bookcase bursting with paperbacks - is Thorin’s. He’s also slightly surprised that there aren’t many plants in sight (except a couple of bonsai trees perched on shelves), and that the colours of the room are so dim compared to the beautiful range of nuances on display in the shop.

Yet it does suit Thorin - his broodier, graver self - and the house is just big enough for one, maybe two.

There’s not even a proper entrance: the front door opens on the small drawing room where Bilbo sits, and there’s no television around, though there’s an old thick laptop on the low table. Then there must be the kitchen where Thorin is making tea, maybe even a backdoor garden; while a winding staircase that looks as if it has been built recently rises from the drawing room to the first floor - bedroom and bathroom, probably.

It’s all very tiny, and humorously so, such an undersized cottage seems inadequate to Thorin’s bulk, the same way Bilbo’s Toyota looked really small when Thorin sat in the passenger seat by Bilbo’s side. In truth they were supposed to meet at the cinema, but it was raining and Thorin has no car (only his motorbike and the shop’s small truck), so Bilbo offered to pick him up from home. It was worth it for the sight of Thorin’s limbs confined in the Toyota and the way he kept his head ostentatiously tilted, like some king trapped into a carriage not of his liking.

It also meant that Thorin’s hand closed upon Bilbo’s on the gear stick, as soon as the car stopped in front of the florist’s house.

They kept talking - discussing Vertigo’s characters and symbolism, whether James Stewart’s Scottie was more or less compelling than Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest, and agreeing on the fact that Kim Novak was very good, but Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly were another thing entirely.  

Yet the warm, solid weight of Thorin’s hand stayed there, pinning Bilbo’s heart to the spot - he could feel the beats drumming in his wrist, louder than the words on his tongue and brighter than the lights of the cars passing by. It’s not surprising that Bilbo felt weak in the knees when he got out of the car...supposedly to walk Thorin to the door, and then go back home safe and sound.

Here, as he swipes his right thumb over the patch of skin Thorin touched, Bilbo is neither safe nor sound.

He tells himself that he  just doesn’t want to be late - Frodo may have never admitted it, but he tends to grow a little anxious when Bilbo isn’t at home in the evening, as if he may never come back; so it would be better to pack up his desires and doubts, say goodnight, and go home.

But in truth, it’s not all about Frodo, it’s also about the fact that Bilbo may be too old to have a crush on anyone, and his life too complicated to sort out the ways of his heart. And Thorin is...a handful, with his wistful blue eyes and his deep voice, his obsession for flowers and his annoying manners.

Yet you’d like to have your hands full of him, a treacherous voice suggests to Bilbo’s mind.

It’s undeniable at this point; he likes the man, from head to shoes, and the more time they spend together the more Bilbo can’t shrug it away. It would have been simpler if Thorin were just a handsome boy (especially this night, in his dark grey jumper), but he’s a brilliant, rough man with the bearing of a king and a heart...oh, Bilbo can’t even begin about Thorin’s heart.

He presses his hands on his heated cheeks, hoping that he’ll stop blushing before Thorin’s return. Damn, damn, he chants in his mind, wondering if he could just slip out of the door without being seen.

“I like black tea.”

Bilbo almost jumps to his feet at Thorin’s voice and sudden return to the drawing room. Bilbo swallows and does his best to look at ease, rather than like someone who was pondering the opportunity of stealing away. Part of his mind registers with a certain amusement that Thorin hasn’t asked him about his favoured tea blends, neither has he expressed his hope that Bilbo may appreciate black tea - Thorin is all statements, questions don’t suit him. Prick, Bilbo thinks, with unmistakable fondness.

Thorin puts the tray down on the low table. Two white mugs, a dark teapot, the jug of milk - nothing fancy except for a little silver sugar bowl that looks like a family heirloom. Then he sits on the couch, close but not close enough for their elbows to touch.

“I like your house,” Bilbo says after a while, mug raised to his lips.

Thorin, still pouring milk into his mug, quirks an eyebrow at Bilbo - who actually said that to break the silence, but now feels compelled to defend his opinion in the face of Thorin’s scepticism.

“Looks a little rough, but in a good way - it’s got a straightforward, honest look about it. Don’t you think so?” Bilbo inquiries, realising with a halt that he could have been talking about Thorin as well.  

“It’s small,” the man points out, apparently still thinking about the house.

“I find it comfortable,” Bilbo retorts. “And it isn’t small in a nasty-hole way, like some properties I’ve come across in London...really, you should see a couple of flats I lived in when I was in my twenties! But this is more than fine,” he muses, patting the armrest of the couch.

Fine,” Thorin snorts, then he hastily swallows down some tea.

Bilbo is under the impression that Thorin’s annoyed, though he can’t fathom why.

“How long have you been living here?”

“A year, more or less. I lived with my sister when we moved to Hobbiton, but then...”

“...you needed your own place,” Bilbo guesses.

He’s rewarded with a curt nod.

“I spend most of my time at work anyway, and it...took me a while to get the money to buy the shop,” Thorin says, so bluntly that Bilbo almost misses how Thorin’s pride flags at the simplest mention of his tight circumstances.

“I understand,” Bilbo says softly, willing to tread carefully on such grounds. “You chose well then,” he adds, taking another look at the room. “The furniture looks great, as if it were...”

“It was made for it,” Thorin interrupts him, cheeks a little darker. “I enjoy some carpentry from time to time, and I thought that it would be easier to build my own furniture than to fit in some IKEA thing,” he explains a little haughtily, and Bilbo suspects that revulsion for standardised furniture may have played a greater role in Thorin’s choice than any consideration about other advantages.

“You’re very talented then. Didn’t you say that your sister is an architect? It must run in the family, the flair for building things. Or growing things,” Bilbo suggests, smiling - after all it’s one of the things he likes most about Thorin, this talent of his for gardening and crafting.

Thorin seems to weigh the compliment and for a moment looks almost troubled by it, but in the end he relaxes against the back of the couch, his arm negligently thrown behind Bilbo’s head, and looks at his guest.

“Tell me about your house,” he demands, blue eyes searching Bilbo’s face.

“Oh, Bag End,” Bilbo sighs, not realising that he has immediately thought about Bag End rather than the flat he shares in London with Ori. “My father built it for my mother when they married. Quite soppy, isn’t it?” he says, but he doesn’t feel dismissive of such a token of love, despite his words. Thorin’s keen glance encourages him to go on. “Well, it’s a big house, full of rooms and passages, but very airy and bright - my mother used to fill it with flowers and stories, and it seemed as if there was always water boiling in the kettle, and cookies and preserves in the pantry.” Bilbo’s a little breathless at the recollections, strangely vivid as they are - as if Thorin’s quiet attention might work as a magnifying glass. Ruefully, he confesses: “When I was a kid it was my favourite place in the world, that and the dales where I would look for elves.”

“I’d look for dwarves and their treasures in the caves up North,” Thorin murmurs, trading in childhood memories.

There’s something warm burning at the bottom of his blue gaze, and the corner of his mouth curls ever so slightly - the promise of a smile. The memory is not completely happy though; Bilbo guesses it from the way Thorin’s jaw clenches as soon as he’s done speaking, dispelling that ghost of a smile.

“You lived in a mining town then,” Bilbo speculates, unable to let the matter rest - it seems as if he can’t let anything rest when Thorin’s involved.

“Once upon a time,” Thorin replies, his gaze growing a little eerie. He licks his bottom lip and, for a moment, Bilbo thinks that he’ll say no more on the subject, but Thorin just shifts his body on the couch and goes on. “There was a big house then, probably bigger and richer than your Bag End.”

Bilbo’s nose twitches at the crude remark but he remains silent - there’s nothing but bitterness in Thorin’s boasting.

“It was neither comfortable nor fine. Our house, the mines, the very mountain - they were us and we hardly knew anything beyond that landscape. We were, in a way, very naive,” Thorin admits, his fingers pinching his neatly cropped beard. “But we were kings then, and we lived accordingly.”

Such words would sound ridiculous in another man’s mouth. Yet Thorin manages to sound as silly making small talk as he sounds strikingly compelling when he engages in serious conversation. Strangers would take him for a stupid brute should they try to engage him in weather-talking, but who wouldn’t capitulate before the raw charm of Thorin’s old-fashioned curt eloquence?

Maybe he and his family were never proper kings, but Thorin learnt how to speak like one from a play, driven by the blind and therefore powerful belief in his own dignity and a generic distaste for all that’s too mundane.

And Bilbo, who has never been one to turn down a good story, can’t help falling harder and deeper. Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings, he recites in his head.

His hand moves before he can think twice about it, and lands on Thorin’s knee, almost mimicking the way the florist touched his hand in the car. Bilbo meant to give but a light squeeze - in sympathy, or something like it. He doesn’t though, his fingers too surprised to close upon Thorin’s knee, his wrist throbbing with the beats of his heart, his eyes almost refusing to meet Thorin’s.

Thorin obviously doesn’t help in the least, with his breath hitching noisily and his body growing stiff. If he was but a spectator, Bilbo would laugh at the difficulties of the proceedings - for heaven’s sake! They’re both adults and still they fare no better than teenagers in the throes of passions.

Still, a less practical side of Bilbo’s mind suggests, there’s some beauty to be found in such shyness.

Point is that they’re not just being timid; they’re as wary as people learn to be after disappointments, and this means that they both have a history and a heart they wouldn’t offer to just anyone.

Whatever trail of thought Thorin has been following on his own, his thumb presses against Bilbo’s, a soft nudging that’s not meant to dislodge Bilbo’s hand from Thorin’s knee rather than acknowledge the gesture. It would be too much strain for Thorin to smile right now, but Bilbo can do with the intensity of his gaze, far more open and demonstrative than the rest of his face.

“I’m not sorry to be here though,” Thorin says calmly.

Bilbo says nothing. He understands what Thorin means, and it’s flattering - Thorin wouldn’t trade this moment with Bilbo for a hollow crown; at the same time Bilbo doesn’t want to lie and he’s not sure if times like this, or the way he and Frodo have started to tell each other about their day over dinner, are worth what he left behind. In other words, he still doesn’t know if he’s clinging to the pleasure of being with Thorin just because he’s coping and making the best of the circumstances - is he adapting or falling in love?

Looking into Thorin’s face the answer comes too easy, and that’s why Bilbo feels so wary.

“I like it here,” he says at last - it’s an understatement, but a safe one.

Thorin seems to accept it, as if he hadn’t truly expected anything better - Bilbo feels slightly annoyed at the thought that the florist can be so arrogant and yet so unassuming about his ability to be held dear. That’s probably why Bilbo boldly seizes Thorin’s hand, enclosing it in both of his to prevent the man from slipping away.

Thorin’s hand is warm and solid between his, which are quite a bit smaller in comparison. It’s also a little rough, the skin crisscrossed by hair-thin scars and wounds from his daily work with thorns, cold water, and shears. It’s hard for Bilbo not to put his mouth upon the calloused skin and breathe in what flower perfume may linger in its folds.

“You know, I got lost a few times on my wanderings as a kid” Bilbo asks, smiling to hide the tremble in his voice. If Thorin is put-off by the change of topic, he manages to hide it quite well, though he’s clearly surprised and maybe a little distracted by the phenomenon of their intertwined hands. “Did it ever happen to you?”

Thorin laughs a rich, earthy laugh.

“Often,” he admits, “to the point that my cousins made a laughing stock of my sense of direction.”

“Oh, mine is illustrious!” Bilbo exclaims, squeezing Thorin’s hand a little. “But I was eager to wait for the elves to come out of their hides, and then there would always be something interesting a little farther away, so I kept walking and walking until I was too far from home and horribly hungry.”

“You poor thing,” Thorin’s eyes are alight with mirth at the picture of a far younger Bilbo gone hungry in the middle of his adventure through the woods. “Once my mother had to brush off dozens of tiny spiders that had crawled under my clothes and through my hair during one of my luckless expeditions. It sort of put me off exploring the mines...for a couple of weeks.”

“My father tried to quench my adventurous streak by suggesting that I could end up meeting a dangerous bear in the woods,” Bilbo remembers, “but it only spurred me on - I imagined that the bear would feed me bread and honey in a sort of Goldilocks-plot.”

“I can see you in Little Bear’s bed,” Thorin murmurs in what was probably meant to be a very innocuous remark. But they have shifted slightly closer, Bilbo is absent-mindedly caressing the man’s wrist, and Thorin’s cheeks glow when the picture of Bilbo in a bed turns a little less ingénue in both their minds.

“So,” Bilbo says, clearing his throat, “that’s how I got my taste for drawing. I’d imagine or write stories about my adventures, and draw maps for them...trying to record my favourite spots, and adding a few details like dragons, treasures, and tree-houses.”

“Maybe I should ask you to draw maps for me,” Thorin suggests, his voice lower. “So that I won’t get lost like I used to do.”

With a voice like that, Bilbo could just close his eyes and let himself be lulled into rash decisions, but he manages to do worse than that, because his eyes are open when he leans toward Thorin and whispers, as if they were partners in crime.

“Would you like to see some maps?”

 

*

 

Maybe they haven’t known each other a long time, but Thorin immediately recognises that expression on Bilbo’s face - half mischievous and half courageous. It thrills Thorin, a bolt of excitement running up his spine, and licking at his neck and his cheeks like fire. He’s blushing but it doesn’t matter; he nods, though he can’t possibly guess what might be so dangerous about maps - maps are supposed to put things and spaces in the right order, to guide one’s steps, and tell exactly where you are and where you can get to from here.

So it’s with a slight perception of unreality that Thorin sees Bilbo turn on the couch, then grab the hem of his jumper and lift it up to his shoulders. Bilbo’s back is now bare before Thorin’s eyes, and it takes him a few seconds to understand that this isn’t Bilbo undressing himself rather than Bilbo showing himself.

The effect on Thorin’s self-control might be devastating, if not for his awareness that Bilbo is sharing with him more than an expanse of warm skin - there’s ink, and there are stories and paths drawn all over the arch of Bilbo’s back, and it feels like the lining of Bilbo’s own mind. If the flowers on Bilbo’s arms are his heart blooming on his skin, he dons the engravings of his mind on his back.

It leaves Thorin breathless, like unexpected beauty.

He realises that he could just wind his arm around Bilbo’s waist and drag the smaller man into his lap; he could kiss and bite his skin; he could slide his hand inside Bilbo’s trousers, and make him gasp and plead. But the sight fills Thorin with reverence, and the passion that could burst into flames burns lower but steadier in Thorin’s mind as well as in his body.

We haven’t even kissed yet he thinks vaguely, while his thumb draws a circle around the small bump of one of Bilbo’s vertebras. Bilbo jolts a little at the touch, then relaxes into it again like a cat - Thorin would indeed be delighted to hear him purr, and it becomes a short-term goal for him.

There’s a stylised small village on the hill of Bilbo’s vertebra where Thorin’s thumb rests. Tiny houses, pointed roofs, a thread of smoke - all disappear under Thorin’s fingertips, before he moves his fingers upward to follow the path that leaves the village for the world. The road marks Bilbo’s spine to the next vertebra, but then it bends to avoid the little heap of ruins there, and turns left toward the thick fir-wood. There’s a bear at the heart of the wood, and a flight of dark birds above it. The path runs out of the wood, towards a distant cliff on Bilbo’s shoulder blade - by the time Thorin has got there Bilbo’s skin trembles in small ripples like tidal waves washing over the miniature world painted on his skin.

“I may have lost my way,” Thorin murmurs against the tattooed skin, knowing that his breath falls warm over Bilbo’s back.

Bilbo makes a noise that’s only a half-laugh, the other half is a moan that goes straight to Thorin’s brain and groin. Climbing down from the ink-cliff and his excitement, Thorin chooses another path, this one winding eastward and then downward, crossing a river and finding some rest in the patch of freckles that blossom in the vast meadows below Bilbo’s right shoulder.

Then Thorin’s fingertips move farther south, skimming over mountains and lakes, lingering on the most peculiar details of that map of wonders and terrors - for there are also wolves and bats, and a spider waiting in his nest. It’s too much for Thorin’s eyes to take it all in in a single glance, and his fingers wander until they’re lost somewhere on Bilbo’s plump waist.

“I may have lost my way twice,” he says then, his ears filled with the sound of Bilbo’s hitching breath.

The ink doesn’t spread toward Bilbo’s front, but there’s a path etched in Thorin’s mind by now.

His fingertips dart forward, across and over Bilbo’s side, working their way toward his chest. He bends a little further, and Bilbo is almost in his arms now, while his hand roams over Bilbo’s chest (smooth, hairless skin that probably glimmers pink right now, if its heat is anything to go by).

Thorin’s fingertips feel the soft flesh around a nipple, and Bilbo may have possibly said his name - or it’s Bilbo’s heart drumming it straight up Thorin’s fingers, wrist, arm, until the delicious call echoes through the shaking folds of Thorin’s brain.

This might be the most erotic moment Thorin has ever experienced.

And it’s with Bilbo’s heartbeat on the tips of his fingers that he says:

“I’ve found my way home.”

His voice is husky and Bilbo quivers so hard that he presses his heart right into Thorin’s palm. Then his head is turning, his eyes bright and cheeks red. His lips part with an impatient noise and Thorin, his head hurting from how hard he’s thinking about kissing Bilbo right now, finds that he’s already leaning over Bilbo’s shoulder.

 

That’s when Bilbo’s phone goes off.

The ring cuts right through the warm haze of their almost-but-not-quite kiss. Bilbo shakes his head and Thorin thinks - hopes - that he’s going to ignore his phone, but Bilbo goes through his coat with one hand, while the other scrambles to drag down the turtleneck and jumper.

“Hello...yes...” he huffs into the phone, squeezing it between cheek and shoulder to use both his hands to cover his torso. Thorin has already backed away, and lays rigid against the couch, looking at Bilbo without quite understanding. “Frodo, I’m coming back right away, ok? Ok.”

Frodo, Thorin’s mind registers. His fingertips feels scorched, his thoughts disoriented. Details of the map tattooed on Bilbo’s back blister at the back of Thorin’s mind, but they doesn’t make any sense now - the way is closed again.  

Bilbo puts down the phone, slips it back into the pocket of his coat; only then does he turn again, and looks apologetically at Thorin.

“I’m so very sorry,” he murmurs, hands fiddling with his jumper - no, not fiddling: fixing it, straightening and smoothing, washing away the traces of Thorin’s touch. He looks so guilty and ill-at-ease now that Thorin feels immediately furious about it all. “I must really go.”

He’s already putting on his coat, flattening his curls. For a terrible moment, he seems on the verge of offering his hand to Thorin - who would probably bite it right now. Thorin leads him to the door (in other words: Thorin rises on his feet, and the room is so small that it’s enough to push Bilbo against the main door).  

A few moments later Thorin is alone, Bilbo’s Toyota isn’t parked in the lane anymore. Thorin can’t recall if he has replied to Bilbo’s last question.

See you?

Chapter Text

Bilbo has never really got over the habit of writing with his nose almost touching the paper. He tilts his head so much that he looks on the verge of falling asleep over his students’ essays, though Gandalf knows better than that. Actually, it’s very easy to conjure up the picture of an eight-year-old Bilbo drawing a map on his notebook surrounded by crayons and ink bottles, with his fingers stained and his hair mussed up by Belladonna’s fond caresses. And if Gandalf tries a little harder, he can smell the cookies cooling down on the tray and hear the sound of Bungo’s footsteps down the hall.

“Sorry, I didn’t hear you knocking.”

As usual, Bilbo manages to sound equal parts polite and annoyed by Gandalf’s intrusion into his office. Neither impression is likely to discourage Gandalf though, no matter how many times Bilbo’s nose may twitch to show his displeasure at the interruption - never underestimate how seriously a Baggins will face an obligation, and that’s probably one of the reasons why Bilbo has turned out to be such a good, committed teacher.

“I’m here to speak about the accident,” Gandalf announces, taking a seat that hasn’t been offered yet - Bilbo’s nose doesn’t fail to twitch at the presumption and Gandalf has to stifle a chuckle (he really shouldn’t tease the poor lad like that, but it’s good for Bilbo when he grows too pompous).

“Didn’t you receive my report?” Bilbo asks, still holding his pen. “I sent it in this morning, as soon as I got to school.”

That means that he wrote it last night without wasting any moment, Gandalf deduces - that’s how far and deep a Baggins’ sense of duty goes.

“In these cases, we allow a twenty-four-hour period to file in the report,” he points out.

“I know, I read it in the school’s rules,” Bilbo retorts, a little bristly. “But...”

“You couldn’t wait until morning,” Gandalf supplies. Bilbo makes a gesture that could mean anything, from an admission to fuck off. “And that’s very considerate, my dear Bilbo.”

Bilbo puts down the pen, straightens his back, and shoots an unimpressed glance at Gandalf.

“I’m waiting for the second part of your opinion.”

“You may have felt the need to ease down your guilt. I think it’s very important for you to understand that, despite what may be going on in your head and what some people may say, it wasn’t your fault.”

“I know that,” Bilbo replies, a little too quickly. His smile wavers.

“I’m happy to hear you say it,” and I hope you believe it in your heart as well, Gandalf thinks. “Being able to understand when it’s not our fault is as important as accepting our responsibilities. Some people may hurt themselves and others as deeply over their misplaced guilt as others do through their negligence.”

“Thank god I’m not over-conscientious then,” Bilbo says with a light-heartedness he clearly doesn’t feel.

“You may find very interesting to go through the old school reports related to these kinds of accidents,” Gandalf suggests. Bilbo opens his mouth to protest, but Gandalf precedes him. “I suppose you’re going to keep organising outdoor trips for your pupils, and those reports may provide you with a useful perspective on the variety of accidents that normally occur during such trips. Bad colds, insect bites, mud-covered clothes, allergies are the most common occurrences, but you’ll get a wide range of bruises and bumps, burns and cuts. And obviously what your pupil experienced this time - a sprained ankle.”

“It could have been worse,” Bilbo says in a strangled voice.

“It could have,” Gandalf admits, nodding slowly. “But it wasn’t worse. And it could have happened at school, at home, at the supermarket.”

“Slipping off a slope and falling between rocks and trees at the supermarket?”

“You never know what may wait for you in the next aisle,” Gandalf replies, nonplussed. “Accidents happen and there’s no amount of care on your part or anyone else’s that can prevent all of them. I read your report, and I talked with Mr Greenleaf as well as with the doctor who took care of your pupil when he got to A and E. There’s nothing to suggest any negligence on your part.”

“I could have lied in the report, and Thranduil disapproves of kids straying off the path, so I’m sure that he found all possible faults with the kid’s behaviour. But Thranduil wasn’t even there when it happened, he was behind with the other class. When the kid fell, it was just me and some of his classmates.”

“But you didn’t lie.”

“I didn’t, but that’s not the point,” Bilbo sighs.

“So, what’s the point?”

Bilbo seems to struggle with his thoughts for a few moments. Then he puts both his hands on the desk, and holds Gandalf’s gaze.

“If it happened to Frodo, I would be furious.”

He has come a long way. Gandalf remembers Bilbo’s panic-stricken voice on the phone, many months ago - last time I saw him he was a baby, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know if I can like him, I just can’t. Still, his heart is learning, no matter how many doubts can still weigh on his mind.  

“I’m sure that Mrs Vilinson was furious when she got the news,” Gandalf says instead. “But I’ve been talking to her on the phone this very morning, while you were in class.”

“You did?” Bilbo shudders, then he lowers his eyes. “I meant to call her, but I wasn’t sure about what I was supposed to say...and then I just have all these papers on my plate, and I keep thinking what she would ask...”

“She’s remarkable,” Gandalf interrupts him. “She has been raising her two sons without a husband at her side for a long time; he died in a mine accident when her younger son was only a baby, and they weren’t well-off then. I think you’d like her, she’s a woman of Belladonna’s mould - creative, wilful, and warm-hearted. I suggest you call her, the sooner the better, and give her a chance to thank you.”

“Thank me?”

Bilbo does sound incredulous and Gandalf sighs.

“As you said before, it could have been worse. If you hadn’t been keeping a close eye on the kids, immediately called the ambulance, reached the kid first and examined his injuries while waiting for the paramedics, kept him from moving and eased the pain with the first aid kit you had brought with you, called me to wait at the hospital for the ambulance and sent Fíli and Mr Beorn along with Kíli, while you and Mr Greenleaf took care of the other kids...”

“Ok, ok, I get it,” Bilbo says ruefully.

“You did well, my friend,” Gandalf says. “You acted quickly and you were level-headed in the face of the emergency.”

“I was pretty scared” Bilbo mumbles.

“It brought the best out of you then. You were frightened for the kid’s safety, and yet you didn’t back away or panic. You behaved competently, as I would expect from a teacher of this school. And as I’d hope from an adoptive parent.”

Bilbo scratches his right temple at that, and makes a face.

“Things with Frodo are...improving,” he says, his voice low as if he didn’t dare hope. “You should come to dinner one of these evenings. He clearly considers you way cooler than me.”

“I’ll come,” Gandalf accepts. “And if the weather will improve soon, I might...”

“Bring the fireworks?” Bilbo precedes him, eyes suddenly alight. He immediately tries to hide his child-like excitement at the idea, but Gandalf can’t help laughing at the small man’s eager look.

“Some things never change, do they Bilbo Baggins?”

“Oh stop,” Bilbo snorts, making a gesture as if to shush away Gandalf’s teasing. “I’m just concerned for the garden of Bag End. It’s in ruin as it is, we don’t need to set fire to the surviving plants.”

“At least you’d be forced to do something about that. Belladonna’s garden deserves better.”

“Frodo and I agree on this point, and we’re actually making plans,” Bilbo confesses a little proudly.

“That’s very good to hear! I may even suggest a very competent florist who may give you a hand...” Gandalf offers, as casually as possible.

He’s not sure that this might be the right time to suggest that the florist who bought Belladonna’s shop may be the very man for the job - after all Bilbo is dealing with a lot lately, and Thorin can be...trying. But the two of them should meet, and in truth Gandalf should have thought about this before - actually the more he thinks about it, the more it seems a perfectly promising (though slightly dangerous) plan.

He’s on the verge of speaking about it, when Beorn, the Science teacher, knocks and asks for Gandalf’s attention concerning some updates to the tutoring schedule. Beorn and Bilbo exchange a few pleasantries, then Gandalf leaves with the former, while he promises himself to talk to Bilbo about Thorin at the next chance.

 

*

 

Bilbo wouldn’t admit it aloud, but he does feel relieved after his talk with Gandalf. He had been worrying about Kíli Vilinson the whole night, and today’s first lesson was quite dull compared to his standards. He promises himself that he’ll do better for the next hour with the Second Year, and tries to concentrate on the pile of essays waiting for a mark, but he can’t help re-examining the events of the day before - his lesson in the wood, Beorn encouraging the students to collect specimens, Thranduil walking around with his nose in the air...and Vilinson’s fall.

What ill-luck! Things had been going very well so far and in a few hours they would have returned to Hobbiton anyway. Then the muddy ground, Kíli’s vivacity, and Bilbo’s oversight did the deed. At least the kid is fine apart from his ankle, and the doctors assured them that there wouldn’t be any lasting damage.

It’s enough to feel easier about the accident, yet Bilbo will feel truly reassured only after talking to Mrs Vilinson. Speaking of whom, he’s quite sure that he has never met her, though they spoke on the phone - she couldn’t make it to the parent-teacher meetings before Christmas, so she asked Bilbo if she could phone him at the school’s office about her two boys. They didn’t talk too much at the time, and only about Fíli’s and Kíli’s performances at school, so he hasn’t really any opinion about her character.

He’s just about to call the school’s secretary for Mrs Vilinson’s phone number, when his phone rings. He lifts the receiver to his ear.

“Yes Mr Alfrid?” he asks, noticing that the call comes from the secretary’s desk.

“Professor Baggins, I’m so very sorry,” the voice on the other end says, sounding quite distressed. “I tried to tell him that he couldn’t...but Mr Vilinson...I’m here with him and...”

There’s someone barking in the background - Bilbo can’t quite catch the words, but Mr Vilinson does sound irritated. A moment later the communication ends, leaving Bilbo a little astounded - Mr Vilinson died, he tells himself, unsure whether he has misheard the name or this is some other relative...

And that’s when the door of Bilbo’s office bangs open and Thorin marches in.

 

Bilbo doesn’t make any connection yet.

He does notice that there’s a wild look on Thorin’s face as he’s more focused on the lovely colour rising to his unfair cheekbones, the stormy light sharpening the blue of his eyes, the fierce tangle of black and grey hair falling on his large shoulders.

That’s enough for Bilbo to realise how much he has missed the sight of Thorin - they haven’t seen each other since last Friday when they went to watch Vertigo at the cinema and then Bilbo had to get back home when Frodo panicked about his delay. Therefore Bilbo can’t begin to say how good it is to see Thorin now, especially after yesterday’s mess, and all he can think of is that it’s such a kind, perfect thought on Thorin’s part to call on him today.  

Then two thoughts hit Bilbo in rapid succession.

First, there’s no reason for Thorin to look in for him at the school, because Bilbo has never told him about working as a Geography teacher. Second, Thorin’s expression turns to shock the next moment - mouth gaping around a word (an insult?) stuck in his throat, eyes bulging, a vein pulsing in his temple; so, he didn’t expect this either. In an instant, Thorin’s eyes narrow upon Bilbo and he’s clearly retracing his steps to the first emotion that led him here - not, as Bilbo naively supposed at first, passion, but biblical wrath.

“You!” he growls.

Resorting to that cold-headed attitude Gandalf praised earlier, Bilbo only lifts an eyebrow.

“I must have failed to hear you knock on my door, Mr...Vilinson, is it? The secretary...”

“The damned secretary got it wrong,” Thorin snorts. “I said that I’m here as Kíli Vilinson’s uncle - he’s my sister’s son.”

Mrs Vilinson is a remarkable, wilful woman - Bilbo can see the relationship now, down to the big nose Thorin shares with Fíli and the sort of cheekbones Kíli may grow into one day, and the family’s penchant for long hair. He should have noticed it before, shouldn’t he?

“Oh,” he sighs, for a moment quite overwhelmed. His instinct would like him to walk around the desk and throw himself into the man’s arms. He’s not sure who’s talking - Bilbo or Professor Baggins - when he gestures for Thorin to pull up a chair. “Please, sit down. It’s all right,” he adds, seeing the secretary on the threshold, trembling like a leaf. “Please close the door Mr Alfrid.”      

When Bilbo turns his eyes back to Thorin, the man is still standing on his feet, thumbs hooked in the pocket of his dark jeans, leather jacket hanging open over a grey jumper. Bilbo partly gives in to the temptation and steps in front of the desk, leaning slightly against it for support while he holds Thorin’s burning gaze.

“I’ll have you know that I hold you responsible,” the man declares, letting Bilbo guess that he would probably slap him with his glove if he had one.

“Responsible for?” Bilbo asks, willing to narrow down Thorin’s fury to one or two objects, since he can think of several reasons Thorin might want to bite his head off right now.

“Kíli’s accident.”

“I filed in my report, and the Principal of this school talked to Kíli’s mother this very morning; there’s nothing to discuss about it and the circumstances have already been cleared up.”

“I’m his uncle and I mean to have an explanation.”

“You should talk with your sister then.”

“Don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t...” Thorin begins, then he stops and steadies his voice. “The children were under your responsibility.”

“They were,” Bilbo admits. “But I won’t answer for the common dangers of a woodland track, neither for Kíli’s imprudence.”

Half an hour before, Bilbo would have probably felt at fault, but Gandalf’s words have sunk in and Thorin’s aggressive stance is doing the rest - without even realising it, Bilbo now feels quite confident that Thorin Durin has no right to accuse him of negligence.

“Are you implying that Kíli is to blame?” Thorin thunders, taking a step forward.

“I am stating,” Bilbo corrects him, “that your nephew was at fault since he didn’t follow the path as he was asked to and was engaged in some ill-considered game with his friend Gimli.” Feeling a little protective of Kíli’s exuberance though, Bilbo adds: “It’s perfectly natural at his age, though he should have paid more attention and followed the rules I gave them for their own safety.”

“If you had been concerned with their safety you wouldn’t have led them to such perils!” Thorin snaps, his hands twitching at his sides now.

“Perils? Perils?” Bilbo repeats, astonishment and irritation working his voice to a pitch. “Please, listen to yourself...this is the most idiotic...”

“Didn’t you put Kíli in danger?”

“I didn’t put anyone in danger! The school’s rules provide us teachers with the chance of organising one-day or several-day trips for educational purposes. My project had the school council approval and three teachers, me included, accompanied the students, looking after them the whole time. What happened to Kíli was a minor accident and...”

“You call it minor?”

“A sprained ankle, for heaven’s sake!” Bilbo cries, slightly exasperated.

“He could have been lamed!” Thorin shouts back.

At that Bilbo raises his index finger and shakes it before Thorin’s stupid face.

“What on earth are you talking about? He sprained his ankle and that’s all...”

“He could...” Thorin begins.

“Again?” Bilbo interrupts him, annoyed. “Speaking of could and couldn’t, I could slap your big nose right now and...”

“Are you threatening me?” Thorin asks bluntly, hunching his shoulder as if to wait for the blow.

“You’re the one trying to intimidate me, with your six-foot bulk and your wrath-of-the-gods look, I bet there were Vikings who looked cuddlier than you right now!”

“You...you...” Thorin stutters, apparently distracted by Bilbo’s comment on his looks - something that, as usual, manages to bring a blush to his cheeks. It’s hard to ignore it and not be as charmed as ever by the colour rising to Thorin’s face, but Bilbo manages it somehow.

“You come here, shout and insult my choices as a teacher...” he complains instead.

“You call yourself a teacher when your pupils get hurt!”

“It does happen, I’m sorry, ok? That doesn’t give you the right to yell in my face!”

“You’re yelling at me!”

“Because you’re an arrogant prick who thinks he can walk in here and give me a piece of his potty mind!”

They’re standing in front of each other now, their chests almost touching, Bilbo craning his neck to hold Thorin’s murderous gaze, Thorin looking down at him as if he wanted to bend him upon his knees and spank him like a rebellious child.

Truth is, Bilbo realises with a little intake of breath, that there’s something very appealing about Thorin going berserk about his nephew’s safety; he can definitely see the allure of a protective, affectionate man who feels so strongly about his nephew’s wellbeing - even if it turns him into a giant idiot.  

“Someone must stop you from dragging our kids on all sort of expeditions...” the above-mentioned idiot insists.

“We asked for the parents’ authorisation to take the kids on a trip, and your sister gave hers!” Bilbo rolls his eyes, a little exasperated. “Look, I refuse to discuss Kíli’s case with you, I’m not legally bound to...”

“I’m his bloody uncle,” Thorin grits through his teeth.

“Well, I’m very sorry for Kíli then, since his uncle is completely bonkers,” Bilbo snaps.

“You’re an irresponsible arse!” Thorin retorts.

“You...” Bilbo begins, at this point ready to fire back some adequate insult.

He doesn’t have time for that though, since Thorin ducks down to kiss him.

Like a drowning man - and Bilbo may be drowning as well, because he hasn’t really had time to take a deep breath before this, so he breathes noisily through his nose and flails his hand against Thorin’s shoulders (mind you, should Bilbo faint right now it would be from lack of oxygen, not from the kiss).

Thorin’s nose seems to be in the way, no matter the angle of the kiss - they do change the angle twice or thrice; Bilbo’s fingers get tangled into Thorin’s hair and he inadvertently manages to yank the man’s head down (never mind that Thorin takes it as an invitation to plunge his tongue deeper into Bilbo’s mouth). They’re both going to get a sore neck from all the stretching and bending going on.

Still, they should have done it sooner, and possibly without a shouting match as a prelude. Anyway it shouldn’t have happened in Bilbo’s office at school or with Thorin seething with rage - Bilbo can practically feel it under the palm of his hands when he slides them down the hard planes of Thorin’s chest. Yes, they should have probably had dinner before, and kissed with their mouths still tasting of chocolate dessert. Thorin’s couch had seemed such a good place for smooching and canoodling, especially compared to the edge of the desk digging into Bilbo’s backside every time Thorin gets over-enthusiastic.

But Thorin’s mouth. Oh Thorin’s mouth is something. More than.

Bilbo can’t help being a little curt about it - he would like to wax poetic about the delights of Thorin’s mouth, but all he gets to do now is humming and whimpering. There’s Thorin’s thumb pressing just at the corner of his lips, wet with their mingled spit, and Thorin’s tongue pushing against his, thrusting, lapping; there’s also Thorin’s beard tickling his chin and Bilbo will sport a massive beard burn all around his mouth if they keep on like this.

Thorin’s large hand is gently closed around Bilbo’s smaller skull, cradling his mop of curls and warming his right ear - Thorin’s fingertips slide down the edge of Bilbo’s ear, causing Bilbo to shudder with fierce hunger. A moment later Thorin’s arm winds around his waist and hoists Bilbo up, until he’s sitting on his desk..shame on you Bilbo Baggins - he’s sitting on his pupils’ essays while Thorin’s lips ghost over his.

“The nerve of you,” Bilbo whispers, blinking.

He realises that he closed his eyes while they were kissing, and it seems a pity; now that he can take a look at Thorin, he can’t help thinking that he has hardly ever seen anything more beautiful than Thorin’s face right now, for all the mingled feelings of annoyance, wariness, and lust Bilbo can detect in his expression.

Bilbo can’t help moving his tongue inside his mouth, tasting a little of Thorin there. He can also feel the weight of Thorin’s gaze upon his lips, before the man rests his forehead against Bilbo’s...though it may be more a way to keep their mouths apart than an intimate gesture.

“You lied to me,” Thorin states.

The change of topic surprises and disheartens Bilbo, despite the fact that he should have expected it. Thorin takes a step back and Bilbo’s hands fall down to rest on his thighs, fists closing and opening. He feels the loss of the warmth, and absent-mindedly thinks that Thorin’s body is something he would like to wrap around himself.

“I didn’t lie,” he argues, feeling more like a child before a teacher now that Thorin’s gaze has grown so stern, while his feet dangle down the desk not quite reaching the floor. “I omitted.”

“You told me you were a tattoo artist.”

“I’m a teacher and a tattoo artist,” Bilbo insists. He’s feeling vaguely hysterical, what with the passionate kiss, and disappointment written all over Thorin’s dear face. “I’ve got a tattoo parlour in London, but I had to come back to Hobbiton and Gandalf...”

“Gandalf,” Thorin repeats, surprise softening his scowl for a brief moment.

“He’s a family friend. When he learnt about my troubles, he offered me a job at the school.” Then, in order to prevent the remark he can guess in Thorin’s frown, he adds: “I’ve a degree in Cartography, I’m not some...impostor, whatever you may think about my qualities as a teacher.”

“Professor Baggins,” Thorin said slowly. “Bilbo Baggins then. I didn’t realise. Your mother...”

“...was a Took. My father was a Baggins, so...” Bilbo offers his hand, though he hates the way his arm shakes. “Bilbo Baggins, at your service. How do you do?”

Thorin doesn’t take his hand, and Bilbo’s heart falls. He pushes his hand into his lap, cheeks burning with humiliation. Then he gasps at the touch of Thorin’s fingers under his chin, but he lets him tilt his head up.

“Why didn’t you tell me? Is it going to always be like this with you? Secrets?”

There’s sadness in Thorin’s voice, but his words seem to suggest that there’s still a chance and Bilbo holds to that for dear life, his hand now on Thorin’s wrist.  

“No, no. This was...it wasn’t like about my mother’s shop. That was about my past, this was about you.”

“About me?” Thorin frowns and his fingers press a little harder around Bilbo’s chin. “Did I encourage you to lie to me?” he asks, his gaze sharper and his voice lower.

“No...I wanted you to like me,” Bilbo confesses in a rush. “I reckon it might sound very silly, but I feared that you would find me being a Professor very...” oh, it isn’t easy to talk with Thorin’s eyes burning upon him! “...boring. Listen, it doesn’t make sense now, but I preferred the other Bilbo, the one living an exciting life in London, not this country teacher. And you noticed me for my tattoos in the first place, and you seem always interested when I talk about my job as a tattoo artist, plus I got to take pictures of your flowers and so we kept seeing each other, and...”

“Stop, Bilbo, stop.”

He does, biting his lower lip and trying hard not to blink, lest he miss even the smallest shift in Thorin’s expression. Thorin pinches his nose, squeezing his eyes closed as he does when he’s trying to concentrate on something particularly troubling and annoying.

“I am a florist,” he says at last, his head straight and his gaze heavy. “Am I boring?”

Bilbo gapes, frankly astonished.

“You’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met,” he blurts out, his cheeks immediately heating up.

A warmer light flickers in Thorin’s eyes, but his tone is still level when he reminds Bilbo:

“You lied.”

“I omitted,” Bilbo corrects him for the second time.

At some point Thorin’s hand has cupped his cheek, and now his palm rests warm against Bilbo’s skin.

“As you omitted your boyfriend?” he asks, perfectly serious - that’s why Bilbo understands this is not a joke, since he doesn’t have any idea who Thorin could be talking about. His surprise must be showing, because Thorin adds - more uncertain: “Frodo.”

“Frodo is my first and second cousin, once removed either way!” Bilbo cries, his lips splitting into a large smile. He can’t help beaming at the relief, lined with a good deal of genealogical confusion, that immediately softens Thorin’s expression . “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Bilbo repeats, smiling and frowning, already guessing that he’ll be forgiven, and therefore slightly overexcited with gratitude; a little overwrought too, at the idea of all that strain that he has been putting into living two lives and keeping Thorin out of one.

“You must catch up with a few things,” Bilbo says naively, leaning into Thorin’s touch like a cat. “I can’t believe I’ve got so far without telling you everything, and I’m sorry, so sorry...I should have, it’s very clear that I’m a fool of a Baggins. And you, you wonderful man,” he practically purrs into Thorin’s hand, pleased by the heat he can feel on his cheeks and see on Thorin’s face, “...I’m Frodo’s guardian, he lost his parents last year in a boating accident, and they chose me to take care of him, so I had to do something even if I didn’t feel ready for that. Frodo has always lived here and Primula and Drogo were very clear about the fact that they wished him to be raised in the country, and the psychologist and the lawyer agreed that it would be bad for him to move from Hobbiton, leaving school and all that, anyway I left my job in London, came here with all those thoughts about my mother and how I disappointed her...”

“I’m really mad at you right now,” Thorin interrupts him, covering Bilbo’s mouth with his large hand. “For this, and for Kíli’s accident,” Thorin sighs, then takes his hand away to pull Bilbo into another kiss.  

 Some time ago Bilbo acknowledged - only to himself - that he truly likes Thorin’s smell. He can’t quite place it, it seems to have nothing to do with flowers against all odds; it’s like clean, dry earth, and like rocks and metal. It’s warm and makes Bilbo’s mouth water at the thought of discovering how it may spike up in Thorin’s armpits or crotch. But even like this, with Thorin’s hair falling all around his face and his lips sealed to Bilbo’s, the smell is so close and so interesting, something to pursue and cherish.

Suddenly Thorin tears his mouth away and Bilbo shamelessly clutches at him, hands reaching for his face, his beard, his strong arms. He feels Thorin’s smile against his cheek.

“Apple blossoms,” Thorin pours into his ear, while he works with both hands at the cuff of Bilbo’s shirt. He unbuttons it and then rolls it up a little, uncovering the first patch of flowers. “Apple blossoms,” he repeats, caressing the small flowers in bloom inside Bilbo’s arm.

Bilbo looks down at the tattoo, then back at Thorin. The answer comes to him more slowly than it would have done if he hadn’t been kissed so thoroughly.

“Oh. Oh.” He almost giggles, giddy and enamoured as he is.

Better things to come, the flowers say.

Thorin bends his head to kiss the apple blossoms reverently. His mouth is wet, warm; it thrills Bilbo down to his toes to have those lips latched to his skin. He caresses Thorin’s head, tugs at his hair to have another kiss before speaking again.

“I think...I think that I need a florist,” he says, chuckling at the idea that he does need someone to help him and Frodo with Bag End’s garden, and that he does need Thorin (whose confused frown is warmly familiar) to kiss him again like this very soon.   

Chapter Text

Butter cakes and lemon cakes, spiced apple muffins and chamomile cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies and the glorious dark chocolate tart that Bilbo was still decorating with sugared raspberries and violets when his guests arrived. There’s also a large teapot, hand-painted with flowers and birds, and a smaller light-blue one, and a little army of teacups of all shapes and sizes (as if Bilbo couldn’t really choose between the fine china for the adults and the sturdier cups more likely to bear the sometimes rough handling of the boys - and Thorin actually). Then the sugar bowl, the milk jug, and as many napkins as dealing with kids, food, and gardening may require.

Dís surveys all, a rapid check she can’t really help, though she has to admit that Bilbo seems to have thought about everything, including the luxury of two blends of tea - Earl Grey and a more exotic Sencha tea with dried cherries. Neither can Dís ignore the fact that all the food looks and smells lovely, and that there’s more than enough for everyone - to the point she feels vaguely irritated by Bilbo’s blatant display of skills and forethought. She considers her annoyance misplaced though, and the chamomile cupcake she snatched up and gobbled down earlier has done a lot to sweeten her temper.

Besides, chocolate seems to be a prominent ingredient among the snacks Bilbo cooked for his guests, and he let something slip about how the Sencha tea would taste great with the chocolate tart. If Dís has any weakness, it’s being easily mollified by seeing her loved ones cared for. Only her own brother, as blind as Thorin can be in the matters of the heart, may not have noticed that Bilbo took great care in including so much chocolate - Thorin’s soft spot when it comes to desserts - in his culinary efforts.

So Dís feels a little less resentful over Bilbo’s latest machinations.

 

Thorin had been forced to tell her everything from the beginning this time, because Bilbo’s present occupation would put him and Dís face to face sooner or later, and the whole business was awkward enough without any untimely epiphany on Dís’s part that Professor Baggins, Kíli’s and Fíli’s Geography teacher, is Thorin’s beau. Let alone how Kíli and Fíli may have reacted! Trust them to join forces and grow very tiresome when it comes to teasing their uncle on such matters; or they could have become over-protective, more or less unconsciously mimicking their mother’s instinctive behaviour when Thorin’s heart is involved.

So, Thorin had to talk, and at the end of that conversation Dís was quite angry at that little trickster of a Baggins. She couldn’t really understand whether the man was an idiot or didn’t care about Thorin, but either way she began to think him a threat to Thorin’s happiness rather than a chance to gain it.

She had been very cross for days then, up until Sunday after lunch, when she and Thorin were washing the dishes together as usual.

“He asked me to help him with his garden at Bag End,” Thorin said suddenly, while he was meticulously drying a pan with a soft cloth.

“Bag End?” Dís repeated, frowning at the soapy water in the sink.

“It’s the name of his home, up the hill.”

“Oh well, what a distinguished gentleman you found for yourself...even a name for his bloody house,” she commented, a little sourly. Thorin fell silent then. When she raised her eyes to him, he looked just like a kicked puppy. She sighed. “I suppose you mean to accept the job,” she added, more - but not too much - softly.

Thorin didn’t answer to that. Instead he said:

“He invited me to tea next Sunday. Frodo, his ward, will be there.”

Dís was almost on the verge of asking what this had to do with Thorin working in the garden, but the point is that she’s a single parent and knew what the invitation means - commitment. Bilbo wanted Thorin to meet Frodo because the boy is part of his life, and for the first time Bilbo isn’t trying to keep Thorin out of it.

And it’s all too sudden and too early, but it’s the eternal dilemma of the single parent in the face of the chance of a new relationship: whether to wait for the relationship to thrive before introducing the partner to the kids (with the risk of exposing them to disappointment and loss, should something go wrong between the grown-ups), or do that earlier in the relationship with the implication that if it doesn’t work for the kids, it can’t work for the adults either.

It’s like having two hearts, and each one of them beats at its own rhythm.

Dís can’t honestly say if Bilbo is doing the right thing for at least one of the people involved, but she felt the first pang of pity for him and his predicament then. She looked at Thorin, trying to guess how much he could read through the lines of Bilbo’s invitation.

Her brother’s face was closed though, and she knew the uselessness of asking:

“How do you feel about that?” She wasn’t surprised to meet one of Thorin’s finest frowns, then silence. She smiled. “Do you remember when we lived in Dresden and I was dating that Liverpudlian lawyer? I thought it was such a good idea to introduce him to Fíli and Kíli...I remember that afterwards he said something about the fact that he was an agnostic, but they were really close to convincing him of the reality of evil like in evil creatures from hell. He was nice though, he didn’t let me pay for his ruined suit.”

Thorin grinned at the remembrance, a fact that reminded Dís that at the time she had suspected Thorin of not discouraging Kíli and Fíli enough from those little stunts of theirs.

“I would advise you to wear something you don’t mind throwing away after your family date.”

“Frodo is a well-behaved boy,” Thorin pointed out, loyal to what he must have heard from Bilbo.

“I’d say the same of Kíli and Fíli to a potential victim,” Dís deadpanned, feeling inclined to be a little cruel.  

“He asked me to bring you and the boys with me,” Thorin replied, dropping the bomb without any warning. Dís isn’t above admitting that she hadn’t seen that coming.

“What? Why?”

“Frodo is eleven, and Kíli just thirteen...and Fíli is not a bully even if he’s older...”

“Ok, ok, I get it. They may get on tolerably well,” she conceded, “ and it may be easier for Frodo if there’re other people around.” She said for Frodo, but she included Thorin as well in her head. “It does make sense.”

“So you’ll come,” Thorin said bluntly.

“If I get a proper invitation.”

 

So the invitation was sent and it was as proper an invitation as Dís has ever seen one - via traditional mail, hand-written in a curiously complicated calligraphy on a rice paper sheet, with Bilbo’s proposition for Dís to take Fíli and Kíli to meet Frodo and spend one afternoon at Bag End, with the assurance that there would be refreshments. No word about Thorin, but when Dís phoned the number at the bottom of the invitation, Bilbo sounded pleased and his voice got warmer as soon as Thorin was on his lips.

Next Sunday has come and it’s probably the finest day they have had since the New Year.

Like all mothers, Dís possesses the uncanny ability to do several things at once while keeping a watchful eye on her children. So, while she arranges the cakes and the cookies on a tray, she takes a glance out of the round window to see both her boys help Frodo with a dead shrub they’re removing. Thorin is close by, giving advice and taking care that no one gets hurt in the proceedings; Bilbo is a little further off, and he’s looking at Thorin. It is immediately evident that he thinks that he’s not being seen by anyone, for his face shows such naked, raw longing that Dís feels uncomfortable. It will be increasingly difficult to be annoyed with Bilbo Baggins the Liar (as she tries again to name him in her head), if he keeps up with that shameless mooning over Thorin.   

A moment before she can lower her gaze, Bilbo’s eyes turn to the window and he sees her. He freezes, then waves with an awkward smile. He says something she can’t hear from inside, then walks toward the main door. She hears his footsteps and his quiet voice behind her back.

“Please, you shouldn’t be here working,” he pleads.

“Come on, we can manage to carry everything out at once with two trays,” she replies, without looking at him yet.

“Thank you,” he says, leaving her under the impression that Bilbo’s gratitude is directed at more than helping him with the refreshments.

“I ate one of the cupcakes,” she blurts out - it seems that she can be as awkward as Thorin sometimes.

Bilbo laughs and she has to admit that he does have a pleasant laugh.

“Did you? Well, I ate two before you came here,” he confesses, winking without any shame.

She can’t help smiling back and she lifts up the first tray with the food. She guesses that Bilbo prefers to take care of the teapots and cups on the other tray. He has sensibly left the door open, so that they have no difficulty getting out of the house with their burden. They put the trays down on the outdoor table Bilbo and Thorin took out to the garden earlier.

It seems that these implements haven’t been used in five years, but Dís didn’t say anything about the dust and Bilbo fretted about cleaning the table...after all no-one expected the day to get so bright and warm. They had just planned to take a look at the garden, discuss Bilbo’s and Frodo’s ideas and compare them with Thorin’s professional advice, then maybe work a little in the garden, just to give the boys something practical to do, then tea would be served inside.

But the sky is cornflower blue, the air just crisp enough to remind them that it isn’t Spring yet, the sun scatters gold over the roofs and the irregular patches of grass, and the boys look like they’re having the time of their life. And not only the boys - both Thorin and Bilbo have been working with them. Their trousers sport stains of grass and mud (there’s even a little smear of earth on Thorin’s forehead, that Bilbo takes care to remove with his handkerchief), their cheeks are pink, their eyes bright; Thorin took off his coat, Bilbo unbuttoned his jacket, and they look like two planets never leaving each other’s orbit.  

Dís herself feels quite enamoured with the moment, for Bag End is a lovely house that stands at the top of the hill, at the end of a paved roads that winds down between two rows of cottages. The neighbourhood is something from a fairy-tale illustration, with the thatched roofs and vines climbing over stone walls, doors painted in green, red, and white; trees that will bear fruit, and flowers that will blossoms under the small ground-floor windows, wisps of white and grey smoke from the chimneys, cats stretching and blinking, perched over mailboxes and drainpipes.

If Thorin really does this - creating a new garden for Bag End - it could be some of his best work to date. Dís is not indifferent to the sort of professional reputation one could build upon such a project, neither is she ignorant of the fact that the stakes are higher than Thorin’s professional gain.

“Mrs Vilinson, can I have some butter cake?”

“Call me Dís,” she replies to Frodo, who’s eyeing the cake closer to her. The kid gives a tentative smile, like someone who’s not really apt at making new friends at the moment, especially grown-ups. “Here, Kíli, pass this on to Frodo,” she directs her son.

She discreetly watches as Frodo tackles the slice of cake, and she wonders whether Bilbo realises how much the kid already resembles him - at least they eat in the same methodical and relentless way, one item at a time rather than amassing food on the plate like her boys do. Both Bilbo and Frodo chew with their mouths fastidiously closed, but clearly taking delight in food, though Bilbo is more eloquent about it while Frodo’s appreciation is all about humming and smiling and asking politely for more.

For all his slightly intimidating appetite, Frodo is a charming boy. He’s got a soulful face (whether it’s the result of his loss or not she can’t tell) with large blue eyes he tends to cast down too frequently. Kíli liked him from the start - one of those strange and sudden likings Kíli takes sometimes, and that often overwhelm the recipient of his attentions. Yet Frodo doesn’t seem disturbed by Kíli’s enthusiasm, maybe because Fíli takes care to restrain his younger brother. Dís especially likes the way Frodo seems to thrive in the warmth of Kíli’s vivacity and Fíli’s protectiveness; in a few hours, the kid has grown more confident and cheerful, and now he’s talking with her boys about school and plants.             

Even Thorin, who’s not so good with children he doesn’t know, gets along well with Frodo. Bilbo seems a little dazed at the way Thorin and Frodo hit it off, despite the fact that they should have seen it coming - gardening is one of the few things Thorin bonds about quite easily, and Frodo loves plants. So he’s clearly in awe of Thorin’s competence, while Thorin’s flaws are always less obvious when he talks about flowers and his shyness is far less crippling when he can put his hands and wits to good use with plants.

All this - Kíli and Fíli’s practiced coordinated pranks, Frodo giggling with his mouth full, Thorin trying to keep up with his grumpy-uncle persona while his mouth twitches in a smile - affects Bilbo. It is only in noticing how the merry atmosphere seems to act as a balm to him that Dís realises how nervous Bilbo must have been regarding this afternoon.

And how challenging and sometime solitary his life must have felt over the past months.  

“Have you tried the chamomile cupcakes?” Bilbo asks, suddenly turning toward her with the offer of another cupcake. The mirth in his eyes says that he remembers Dís’s admission of her preference earlier.  She takes the cupcake, hardly refraining from grinning.

“I shouldn’t have taken the boys with me. They’ll probably give me no rest for weeks about my inferior cooking skills,” she grumbles instead.

“I’m willing to provide you with as many cupcakes as you wish.”

“Is this an attempt to corrupt me, Master Baggins?” Dís asks lazily. Bilbo blushes though.

“It’s just...Frodo gets on well with your boys, Mrs Vilinson. He isn’t a solitary lad and he’s got a few very close childhood friends, but I think it may do him good to focus on...other things.”

There’s some hint of sorrow behind Bilbo’s words, and Dís’s heart aches for Frodo’s great loss.

“Sure,” she replies, nodding. “Kíli and Fíli like him, I see no reason for them not to spend time together. And sooner or later Frodo will get into their school, won’t he?”

For some reason Bilbo grows a little thoughtful then and he takes his cup of tea to his lips.

“But I suppose that Frodo isn’t the only one on your mind when you try to get into my good graces.”

Bilbo almost chokes on his tea at Dís’s off-hand comment and she coolly pats him on his back, while shooting a reassuring it’s nothing stare at her brother, obviously concerned with Bilbo’s red face and bulging eyes.

“Come on, I didn’t mean to reproach you for that,” Dís reassures Bilbo. “I mean to take it as a solid proof of your interest in my brother.”

Bilbo seems to catch up with her tone and the fact that she might as easily take it another way entirely, and become his sworn enemy. She smiles, he smiles back - she guesses that she doesn’t need to add anything else and that her little speech has been understood.

“Maybe you should send me a list of your favourite cakes,” he says with dry humour.

Dís laughs. At the corner of her eye she sees Thorin looking a little worried about what may be going on between her and Bilbo. She’s almost sure that he told her something about not threatening Bilbo before they came here - he has this theory about the fact that she may intimidate the man. Bollocks, if Bilbo hasn’t been intimidated by Thorin’s ridiculous scene about Kíli’s accident, he won’t be put off by her...interested advice.

So she only flashes a smile for her brother’s sake, and turns back to Bilbo to examine him with regard to his culinary skills.

In truth she was a little disappointed when she first set eyes on him.

She had expected to meet someone more handsome, while Bilbo is just cute. He’s on the small side and a little round, with a pleasant but hardly striking face. He would probably look less ordinary if he showed his tattooed arms, but it’s not warm enough for that.

Yet, by the time the boys where working in the garden and Bilbo was providing them with big gloves and gardening tools, she had caught up with the fact that he has amiable manners, a merry inclination, and a good sense of humour; plus he’s attentive toward Thorin, inconspicuously watchful of her brother’s mood shifts and almost comically predicting his needs.

They look good together, though the point may be that they do look together, despite being in the middle of an unexpected tea party among noisy boys and a ruin of brambles, twigs, and leaves scattered all around them. Dís already feels a little lonely at the thought that Thorin will have less time for her and the boys from now on; it’s selfish and ungenerous, but she can’t help this pinch of hostility, blurred with more or less realistic suspicions about Bilbo’s ability to make her brother happy.

He better be an extraordinary cook, she thinks grimly.

 

*

 

Wisteria vines for the backdoor - bunches of fat lilac flowers hanging down on the grey stones that the sun bakes in Spring and Summer; while the North corner, whose walls are soft with green and rust moss, will do with plants apt to bleaker conditions - like an interesting variety of Eastern clematis with golden flowers, but less exotic choices like wild ginger, ferns, cyclamens, lilies of the valley will do as well for the shade. Violets, there must be white violets to remind them that this is their chance.

If Bilbo will be amenable to planting a few trees, snowdrops, bluebells, and anemones will grow among their roots; while sage, rosemary, foxgloves, and catnips will thrive at the borders and under the windows. And what’s even better is that there’s space enough for growing patches of strawberries and raspberries, roses and lavender, even pumpkins, carrots, and sweet onions if Bilbo wishes so.

Thorin feels almost dizzy at the thought of how beautiful this garden may turn out, and wondering about all the implements that could suit it - from stone paths to running water, from a swing to...and then there’s Bilbo turning his head up, nuzzling Thorin’s bearded jaw with his eyes half-closed and a delicious sound at the back of his throat, and maybe that’s another reason for Thorin’s dizziness.

“I think you like Bag End more than its owner,” Bilbo complains, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

They’re sitting on the iron bench in the back garden. Thorin isn’t sure about how they ended up here all alone, but he strongly suspects that Dís has something to do with it. He’s not going to complain though, since he enjoyed his time with Frodo and his nephews but he was really looking forward to kissing Bilbo. He does that, tilting his head until he can cover Bilbo’s mouth with his.

It’s a lazy, over-sweet kiss.

Thorin’s tongue tastes chocolate and cinnamon, and there’s sugar at the corner of Bilbo’s mouth. He can almost smell the flowers he’s going to plant in this garden, or maybe it’s just the soap, clean smell of Bilbo’s skin and hair. Bilbo leans against him and soon his small hands find their way under Thorin’s parka, to nestle upon his warm chest.

They have already discovered that neither of them, given the right amount of privacy and ease, minds cuddling. Bilbo has even developed a particular liking for burrowing himself in Thorin’s coat as if he meant to spend what remains of the cold season there, and he never complains about the weight of Thorin’s arms around him.

He actually makes a delighted little noise when Thorin’s arm, already on his shoulders, slips down and drags him closer by the waist, so that their kiss deepens. Bilbo just lets his head fall back and offers his mouth to Thorin, who feels obliged to plunder it with his tongue, his other hand firmly planted on Bilbo’s knee.

“...still very good at kissing the owner though,” Bilbo sighs when they surface for breath.

“I’m not sure what you’ll pay me for, Master Baggins,” Thorin retorts.

Happiness and kisses act as a strong wine on him, so that he has grown flirtatious over the last few days. Bilbo said that he doesn’t mind as long as Thorin keeps blushing so prettily (a declaration that promptly set Thorin’s cheeks on fire).

“You and your sister, calling me Master Baggins...” Bilbo rolls his eyes.

“You love playing the master of the house,” Thorin points out without resentment.

Bilbo frowns, but a kiss on the nose prompts that little twitch Thorin can’t resist. So he doesn’t, and just slips his tongue past Bilbo’s lips again. The moan he gets in return is very rewarding.

They keep kissing for a while, Bilbo saying a lot of silly, soft things in-between the kisses. Thorin has always been wary of praise, but these seep under his skin, mingle with his blood, and warm him over and over, lulling his distrust into a blissful sleep. He, on the other hand, isn’t so good with words, doesn’t feel so; he’d like to sing Bilbo’s beauty right now, but he can only take take take from that beauty.

He’s a little ashamed of having developed so evident an addiction after so little time. His only comfort is that Bilbo looks no better than him, with his curls all mussed up and his mouth red - Thorin only wishes that they will be spared Kíli’s comments, but he knows that almost no hope lays in that direction and that they may even be the object of his sister’s far more terrifying dry humour.

But they’re safe from the Durins’ sense of humour for the moment and Bilbo curls in his arm, as content as Thorin as ever seen him. It’s with his thoughts swimming around Bilbo that Thorin absent-mindedly pulls out his pipe from the pocket of his coat. He’s filling it when he realises that Bilbo is staring. He has never smoked in Bilbo’s company before - because he seldom smokes in anyone’s company, his pipe being one of those pleasures he strongly prefers to savour alone.

Yet the place is quiet, the picture of the garden-to-be blurred against the still bleak reality, Bilbo’s body lovely pressed against his side, Thorin’s stomach full of chocolate tart.

He shifts a little on the bench, his fingers around the pipe.

“You mind?” Thorin asks gruffly, when he’s still debating if he minds smoking in Bilbo’s company.

“My mother smoked a pipe,” Bilbo replies, before he lowers his gaze and settles again in Thorin’s arms. It’s not a proper answer and Thorin remains still, without quite knowing what to do. “It was considered very eccentric, quite un-womanlike to smoke a pipe when she was a girl. But she liked it and my father didn’t mind as long as she smoked out of the house. So I would catch her at it here in the back garden.”

There’s longing in Bilbo’s voice for that childhood memory - longing but no pain. That’s why Thorin goes on, finishing filling his pipe, pressing the tobacco, and then lighting it with a match. He hears the little intake of breath coming from Bilbo and closes his lips over the stem of the pipe, before adjusting their pose so that he can smoke without dislodging Bilbo from his arms. He breathes in, the fragrant smell of tobacco blends with the other smells and tastes of this afternoon. The wood of the pipe is warm in his hand, the air colder as the sun goes down.

If happiness has a shape, it’s Bilbo’s hand resting right upon his heart.

“You know, Gandalf used to come to our house to share a pipe with my mother from time to time.”

“I still find it suspicious that he knows both our families so well,” Thorin remarks with a frown.

“Oh, he’s always up to something,” Bilbo agrees. “Though his plans usually involves fireworks. Oh, we should ask him to put on a proper show for the boys!”

“Yes, keep them distracted...” Thorin hums, casting a sideway glance at Bilbo. The other man grins.

“Shame on you. I was concerned with the boys’ enjoyment.”

“And I with mine. And yours.”

Bilbo shivers a little at that and Thorin can say it’s not from the cold - your voice, Bilbo confessed a couple of days ago, while they were kissing in the back of the shop like a couple of teenagers...no one could blame Thorin for making the best of the information. He’s ready to whisper something even more improper when Bilbo’s phone goes off.

For a moment Bilbo looks worried, but then he probably remembers that Frodo is with Dís and she would just look for them if need be. He’s probably debating whether to take the call or not, but Thorin nudges him before taking another drag from his pipe. Bilbo looks at the phone and just turns the ringtone off.

“Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. I’ll call her back later,” he explains, pulling a face. “She’s a relative, but we can’t stand each other. She’s a busybody and a bigot, and she stole one of my silver spoons last time she came by for tea.”

“A family of burglars...” Thorin comments, half-closing his eyes and watching the clear sky.

“What do you mean?” Bilbo asks, confused.

“You, stealing my breath...” Thorin suggests, casting him a brief glance.

“Prick,” Bilbo chuckles, affectionately.

“Do you want to try?” Thorin offers, rising the pipe.

When Bilbo nods, he’s still the one holding it when Bilbo’s mouth closes around the stem - and that’s a sight that confirms Thorin’s previous accusation of burglary. Bilbo is apparently pleased by what he sees on Thorin’s face, because his lips tighten around the pipe and give a totally unnecessary twitch when he sucks the smoke in.

Thorin mentally curses himself when he’s reminded by Kíli’s shrill voice (coming from the front garden) that they’re not completely alone. Apparently less concerned, Bilbo shapes his mouth into an ‘o’ and blows the smoke right through it, a perfect ring that floats over their heads before being dispelled by a gust of wind. Bilbo even manages to wink at Thorin, over-pleased with himself.

“Beginner’s luck,” Thorin growls, taking back his pipe and replacing it with his tongue.

It’s the hungriest kiss they have shared this afternoon, tasting of smoke, chocolate, tea; Bilbo’s hands are latched to Thorin’s neck, Thorin’s fingers stroking Bilbo’s hair and ear a little roughly. The delight of having Bilbo sucking on his tongue is somewhat marred by the sound of the boys’ laughter - not that Thorin resents them for it, but it reminds him that they must keep to kisses and he shouldn’t haul Bilbo into his lap right here and now.

So he ends the kiss, rumbling a bit at the back of his throat and trying not to focus on Bilbo’s ragged breath. They both remain silent for a while, Thorin smoking his pipe and Bilbo holding his other hand, brushing his knuckles with his thumb.

“I can almost see...” Bilbo begins unexpectedly, “...another me, staying here, never leaving this garden and Hobbiton, growing old and plump...”

Thorin feels a little squeeze at his heart, while he listens to Bilbo and pictures him older, his curls grey and more wrinkles around his blue-grey eyes. Before he can picture someone else beside that older Bilbo, he points out:

“You are plump.”

“...growing old and plump,” Bilbo insists, shooting him a dirty glance. “And wearing old-fashioned waistcoats, spending hours in the armchair by the fire, doing nothing meaningful - a perfect, anonymous bourgeois drowning in the country.”

There’s a strange mixture of bitterness and regret, longing and contempt there, as if Bilbo hates and loves that picture at the same time.

“Not the sort of man you would have noticed, anyway. Without tattoos and...”

“You think I like you for your tattoos,” Thorin grunts.

Bilbo shudders - he can’t have missed the way Thorin has stiffened, nor the irritation in his voice.

Thorin is too upset to look at Bilbo’s face right now, but he keeps his eyes locked to the great oak tree that for decades has been growing here, its branches hunched toward Bag End as if to enclose the house in an embrace.

“I like you because even if you didn’t wear your beauty on your skin, it would be there,” he doesn’t say where, for it’s a long list - in your heart, in your mind, on your tongue, at the corner of your eye, in your smile, under your fingers, through your hair, between your words... “It would be there,” he repeats, his throat tight, “just a little less visible.”

Bilbo says nothing, no matter how long Thorin waits.

Then Bilbo moves his head away from Thorin’s shoulder and Thorin feels almost ill. He brings a hand to his chest, where the pain is sharper, and it’s how he feels that his jumper is a little damp where Bilbo’s face was a moment before. He takes a look at Bilbo then, noticing how very bright his eyes are.

Bilbo squeezes his hand, and Thorin squeezes back.  

Chapter Text

Thorin is something of an expert when it comes to remorse.

Give him something to feel guilty about and he will go through each and every stage of self-reproach, self-loathing, self-destructive behaviour, agonising over a hundred if-questions, reliving the facts in his mind, dissecting his deeds without any mercy.

Therefore, waking up to no remorse at all comes as a surprise. It seems that this time Thorin can’t bring himself to regret his actions - in fact he’s going to cherish the memory of Bilbo’s bare shoulder in the dim light of morning for a long time. Whether it’s wisdom or selfishness, Thorin can’t tell; probably both.

It’s in this subdued, soft mood that Thorin lowers his head to brush Bilbo’s skin with his lips. Bilbo mutters something that could be the umpteenth complaint about how Thorin’s beard tickles, but he doesn’t wake up - or at least he pretends not to. Thorin doesn’t mind either way, as long as he can relish the heavy warmth of Bilbo’s body sprawled above his and the steady rhythm of Bilbo’s heart beating right against Thorin’s ribs.

In truth, Thorin’s limbs feel slightly numb and, in retrospect, they should have probably made it to the bed upstairs, or at least washed themselves before falling asleep. They didn’t though and Thorin’s neck is going to hurt like hell, let alone the fact that the way their bodies seem to have been glued together in a few points is not entirely pleasant.

Yet the spare blankets were a good idea, as the way Bilbo is happily burrowed into them suggests. Thorin can’t help adjusting the blankets once again, even if Bilbo is well-wrapped up, both in blankets and strong arms. Bilbo must have decided that such gentleness deserves something, because he cracks one eye open and smiles at Thorin, despite the fact that half his face must be numb after being pressed against Thorin’s chest for so long, so that his smile looks a little crooked.

“Good morning,” he whispers, his fingers closing around locks of Thorin’s dark hair and tugging - it’s sweet pain exploding in Thorin’s light head.

Their kiss tastes like sour wine and sex, it feels graceless with their mouths dry and Thorin’s hair in the way; good, nonetheless. After they settle for pressing their foreheads together, Thorin’s big nose poking Bilbo’s cheek, Bilbo’s nimble fingers blindly braiding Thorin’s long hair.

Thorin feels tender, tender like a wound.

That’s when Bilbo’s words cut in.

“I must ask you for time to think,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut. Look at me, Thorin thinks. “You know that.”

“I do,” Thorin can’t help admitting.

Bilbo probably thinks that’s enough, but Thorin isn’t done with him, not yet. He presses his big hands up and down Bilbo’s arms, their bare skin rippling with warmth under his rough touch, as if he could pick up all the flowers there.

“You love that kid,” Thorin says. It’s blunt, and it’s cruel. Still, not enough. “And maybe you love me.”

Bilbo almost jerks away from his touch, but his body ends up leaning back into it - it’s only his gaze that burns with outrage at Thorin’s betrayal.

“That’s unfair,” he hisses. “You prick.”

Thorin doesn’t argue. He kisses Bilbo again.

 

*

 

Most lovers delude themselves into feeling that they have never loved so well and so dearly as they do now: they need to know that their last affection is superior to all those which have preceded it. And Thorin is no exception to that. Still, there is some truth in his case, for he has never liked anyone as he likes Bilbo.

In the past, Thorin fell in love out of rage - as if a relationship could make him forget the ugly feelings bottling up inside him; out of lust for a smile or a body he would soon grow tired of; sometimes even out of spite for the prejudices against his sexual orientation; he fell in love out of loneliness, out of a feeling of misplacement, out of misery.  

This time is different though. His feelings for Bilbo have nothing to do with any of that, nor is Thorin leading an unhappy life in Hobbiton - actually he and Dís are doing well for themselves and the boys, the flower shop pays enough, and Thorin almost never misses what could have been. Bilbo is no prize, nor consolation.  

Point is that this time Bilbo is the point.

 

This may be the reason why Thorin has never spent much energy creating a setting for a date before. He frets over details that he would have never taken into account if it weren’t for the fact that Bilbo may take some pleasure in them, and that seems reason enough to mull over the silliest things. Unfortunately Thorin has ruled out the possibility of asking for Dís’s advice on the subject - there’re lines he doesn’t care cross, not even for Bilbo’s sake, and asking his sister to help him with the preparations for his date would be too much for Thorin’s nerves.

Especially this time - their very first date after that family meeting at Bag End.

Thorin suspects that this may be a turning point, despite the fact that he taught himself to keep his expectations at bay a long time ago. Yet they bubble and bloom in his mind, where he can still retrace the faint, thrilling taste of his I like you, mingled with the chocolate flavour of their kisses in the back garden and the warmth of Bilbo’s nose nuzzling his throat.

Plus, Dís allowed Kíli to invite Frodo over for the weekend. They are going to have homemade pizza, then Dís is going take them to the cinema; Frodo will sleep in Kíli’s room, where Thorin has placed a spare bed a few hours ago. Fíli promised to get up early and ride his bike to Bombur’s tomorrow’s morning to buy fresh croissants for breakfast.

The implications of such a plan threaten to make Thorin giddy - definitely not a state of heart you would usually associate with this brooding, grumpy, 6.2-foot-tall man. But the idea that he and Bilbo may have the whole night to themselves lingers at the edge of Thorin’s mind, no matter how furiously he tries to focus on minor issues like the propriety of providing snacks considering that Bilbo will come by only after dinner, or the disorienting variety of scented candles on sale at Tesco.

Speaking of which, is shopping at Tesco appropriate or will it reveal Thorin’s ineptitude at dating? Should he look for a more specific and expensive candle-dealers?

The worst part is that Thorin fully appreciates the ridiculousness of those questions, and he’s dimly aware that in the end the answers won’t matter in the great scheme of things going on between him and Bilbo. Yet he can’t help agonizing over trivialities - it must be a coping mechanism, as if it could keep him from falling in love like this, like being plunged into the sea without any chance to take a deep breath before hitting water.

So he flails his hands around, grasping complicated recipes for exotic appetizers, kinky props he blushes to think of, background music that would probably make him sleepy... in short, all the paraphernalia popping up from his research on Google (apparently the only alternative to talking with Dís or calling Dwalin).

The number of websites claiming to reveal all the secrets of a perfect date is alarming, the pictures coming with the tips look fake, more than a few plans sound downright senseless; but most of the suggestions just don’t ring true - they share nothing with Thorin’s feelings about Bilbo. Nonetheless, he  stubbornly reads as much as he can, going through the sites methodically to be sure that he won’t overlook anything, that he won’t miss his chance this time - that there will be no disappointment, no failure.

He knows that there’s no formula that can grant him that, but he must try, for he’s the sort of person who thrives as long as he can do something and withers with inaction.

 

Yet, by the end of the day, Thorin’s temper has turned for the worse.

The smell of candles is making him sick; he tested them one by one and he has to thrust open all the windows of his small house in order to dispel the cloud of scented smoke that’s making his eyes water. He still debates whether the rose petals on the floor would be a good idea after all, but he’s unwilling to pick them up from the bin, where he threw them in a fit of rage a couple of hours ago, together with the salmon canapés that looked too showy and scarcely filling.

Should Bilbo be hungry, he will offer him bread and cheese, he decides grimly.

He tried a new rug, but it kept getting in the way and making him stumble; he tried a few knick knacks he borrowed (stole) from Dís’s, but they didn’t look half as good on his shelves or on the mantelpiece; he tried cushions, but he spilled a glass of wine on them (while he was testing the wine and the setting), so he had to remove them and the couch doesn’t look worse for their absence. In short, despite the on-line advice to create the right atmosphere, his house looks as it always does: cramped and dim-lighted, a bear’s den compared to Bilbo’s beautiful house up the hill.

The only thing Thorin feels good about is the vase of purple lilacs he brought from the shop on a sudden inspiration. Their fragrance isn’t overwhelming - just lingering at the corner of the room, reminding Thorin that a shrub or two of lilacs would do very well in Bag End’s garden. The fact that the flowers may be considered a statement about his feelings for Bilbo doesn’t elude Thorin, but he doesn’t find in his heart to remove them from the room - whether this should be ascribed to his love for flowers or his growing fondness for Bilbo it’s hard to decide.

What is certain is that when Bilbo rings at the door, Thorin feels that his shirt is hopelessly creased, his hair wild, his heart wilder. He opens the door nonetheless, and the sight of Bilbo on the threshold, half of his face hidden in his woollen scarf, is enough to make him grin.

“Hey,” Bilbo says, his voice a little muffled by the scarf but his eyes alight with the same pleasure Thorin feels pooling in his stomach.

They stand there for an unreasonable long moment, just looking at each other before Thorin reminds himself that making your date wait at the door while you are desperately rummaging through your head for an appropriate compliment  is never listed among the best tips for an unforgettable evening. Especially when the nights are still quite cold and the only thing you have come up with is beaming idiotically at the poor man trembling at your door.  

“Hey,” Thorin repeats at last, making way for Bilbo to enter.

“Thank you,” Bilbo says, ever polite. “I was just starting to wonder if I should have said some secret password or brought a magic key or paid some toll to step in. You do look like some beautiful troll guarding an infamous gate.”

Thorin frowns, unsure whether he’s supposed to focus on the beautiful or the troll part of Bilbo’s teasing. He suspects that Bilbo may mean both - like when he lays small bites on Thorin’s neck and jaw, and then fussily soothes the sting with kisses. Indeed Thorin should have asked for the payment of a kiss upon Bilbo’s entrance, but this kind of familiarity may be too rushed. So he says nothing and settles for assisting his guest in taking off his coat and scarf.

He immediately notices that something is off about Bilbo, despite all the appearance of good mood that the small man is putting on, there’s some shyness in the way he lets Thorin help him remove his upper layer of clothes - he’s not quite looking at Thorin and frantically fills the silence with witty comments about his week at school.

Thorin’s heart clenches in sympathy, because he thinks he knows what’s bothering Bilbo - they have the whole night to themselves this time, Dís will take care of Frodo, and Bilbo doesn’t need to rush back home this night. If he wants, if they want...gods Thorin thinks, biting his tongue.

He may be old-fashioned, but he believes that if he takes Bilbo to his bed, everything will change. And, like most things concerning Bilbo seem to be, the thought is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, because Thorin wants more, in that greedy, absolute way that comes so easily to him. But the past taught him that wanting something isn’t enough, that his spirit can be broken and his efforts defeated. He also knows that there’s something ruinous about his greediness, it can make him blind, so blind...

So he curbs his desire, despite the fact that he feels sharply aware of Bilbo’s body close to his, of the smell of his herbal shampoo, of the light from the fireplace painting his round face in gold and amber.

“Do you mind if I check on Frodo?” Bilbo suddenly asks, peering up at Thorin’s face - so close to his, since Thorin was leaning toward him despite all his best intentions, like a moth wandering closer to the flame.  

“Go on,” Thorin answers, forcing himself to relax against the back of the couch despite the tingling in his spine.

Bilbo bits his lower lip, then nods and takes his phone out. Thorin watches him and patiently waits, after all happy to oblige him in this regard - actually he has to tell himself that he doesn’t need to do the same and check on the boys and his sister as he usually does in the evening, since Bilbo’s call will do for them all.

“Yes, yes...he’s being a gentleman,” Bilbo mutters into the phone, and Thorin guesses that Dís may have suggested something different.

He groans, easily imagining the kind of teasing Bilbo is undergoing right now at the hands of his sister, so he makes to snatch the phone, but Bilbo rolls his eyes and pushes Thorin away planting a hand on his chest. It’s enough to make Thorin sigh and no one could blame him if he pushes back a little against the touch, revelling in how small Bilbo’s hand looks on his chest. Judging from the way the other man’s fingers clutch at his shirt - creases be damned - Bilbo may find some pleasure as well in the sight and the contact.  

Then Bilbo’s tone changes, his hand slips away and Thorin knows that Frodo is on the phone now.

“All right? Did you like the pizza? Ok, ok, I’m going to end the call now, since you’re in the queue for the tickets. Say hello to Dís, Kíli, and Fíli for me, ok?” Bilbo puts his phone on the low table, and throws a side-glance at Thorin. “Frodo says hello.”

“He’s a great kid,” Thorin says warmly.

“He is,” Bilbo replies, a little ruefully.

“You must know,” Thorin starts, “that Frodo’s part in your life doesn’t...”

“Please, don’t tell me that it doesn’t change anything,” Bilbo interrupts him sharply. Thorin stiffens, the feeling of being reproached too close to a rejection. He turns his head away, but Bilbo’s small hand immediately lands on his cheek. “Sorry,” Bilbo mumbles, his thumb stroking Thorin’s cheekbone. “I’m being snappish.”

The regret in Bilbo’s voice is enough to make Thorin look back at him, the nervousness on Bilbo’s face is enough to make Thorin speak.  

“It doesn’t change my...”

“I have something to tell you.”

I need to see you, Bilbo messaged him a few days ago.

Thorin was assisting a customer at the shop when his phone buzzed in his pocket, so he read it later in the back shop. By then, Bilbo had sent a second message - When are you free? The curtness was unusual on Bilbo’s part; he mostly sends exceedingly long and articulate messages that Thorin rereads from time to time, mulling over each word.

Yes, Thorin typed back, without reflecting on the fact that it wasn’t a proper answer. Satuday he added in a second message, missing the r and cursing under his breath when he noticed it (he knows that there’s a way for his phone to help him with the typing, but he just can’t be bothered with it - it sounds a little humiliating, regardless of the fact that Dís argues that everyone uses that system nowadays).

He felt relieved when Bilbo’s reply came.

That would be perfect. Dís called me yesterday to ask if I would be amenable to letting Frodo sleep over at hers over the weekend. Apparently your nephews promised to show him their latest videogames, while your sister’s homemade pizza is legendary...I’m very tempted to give it a try, but I think I’ll let the young people enjoy themselves, while we old things have a glass of wine at your house. Sorry, I’m getting carried away, what do you think? You can say no, I’ll just pout for a couple of weeks.

That message sounded more like Bilbo - a long, slightly confusing, grin-inducing kind of message. It was easy to picture his smile while he was typing it and vanquished the unpleasant impression that there may be something wrong with Bilbo’s request to see him. Actually, it wasn’t so bad to think that Bilbo may sound needy from time to time, too eager to see Thorin to compose a longer message.

I need to see you, Thorin repeated in his mind, smiling idiotically at the empty vases stocked in the back of the shop before replying: Ok time? They settled for 9 o’clock, because apparently Bilbo had a few relatives to meet for dinner after taking Frodo to Dís’s.

“I don’t want to repeat the same mistake again,” Bilbo continues, looking down at his hands in his lap before raising his eyes again to meet Thorin’s.

Bilbo looks just like a brave little soldier facing danger, and the sight is both endearing and disturbing, considering they are not at war - they aren’t, right? No matter how hard and fast Thorin’s heart drums in his chest, how hard and fast his blood marches in his veins, how hard and fast his skin burns for Bilbo’s touch. This time Thorin wants peace, of the kind they could have in each other’s arms.

“I haven’t been very honest about my mother and then about Frodo, and I regret if I have ever made you feel undeserving of my confidence. Actually there’s no one I would rather talk to right now...”

Thorin can’t help frowning at the unexpected grave twist taken by Bilbo’s mood, but there’s a hint of anguish in Bilbo’s voice that beckons Thorin’s protective instincts.

“Tell me,” he asks Bilbo, his voice low and as gentle as he can manage.

Bilbo nods, just once.

“I received an offer.”

An offer. It sounds ominously business-like, Thorin registers.

“I told you that I had to meet my relatives. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and her husband.” Lobelia. A missed call and a few sarcastic comments, that sums up everything Thorin knows about her. “When Frodo’s parents died, they took Frodo in. That was before it was made official that I was going to be his guardian, before I could move to Hobbiton. At the time she let me understand that she didn’t believe me capable of dealing with a child - she’s got a boy, you know, so she thinks that she knows everything about parenting while I...”

“She’s wrong,” Thorin grunts.

Bilbo falters a little at the interruption, but he flashes a weak, slightly incredulous smile of gratitude.

“Anyway, they seemed ok with the idea that I would take him off their hands. I can’t really blame them for it, after all no one expected Prim and Drogo...” Bilbo swallows with some difficulty, before going on. “I mean, I wasn’t so eager to find myself burdened with a child either, so I suppose it was natural on their part to feel relieved when at last I accepted becoming Frodo’s guardian.”

“You could have refused,” Thorin points out, slightly surprised.

Morally, no,” Bilbo argues, his nose twitching in annoyance. “But since Prim and Drogo never really asked me anything nor had I ever signed any papers, it was my right to refuse.”

“What would have happened to Frodo?”

“There were other relatives in line to take care of him. Lobelia, for example. You see, I think it was very cunning on Prim’s part to put the Sackville-Baggins just behind me in line to become Frodo’s guardians - just her idea of a practical joke, and the best way to encourage me to accept. As if she was telling me that I was Frodo’s best shot and I couldn’t really say no.” Bilbo cards a hand through his curls, then shrugs. “Fuck, I was so angry at her for...for dying and for thinking that it would be all well to give me her son.”

“What’s the offer?” Thorin asks bluntly, because guessing would be ridiculously easy now - but he has to let Bilbo speak first.

“They will take Frodo,” Bilbo says bluntly. The fact that he can’t bring himself to say adopt or take care of should be considered answer enough, but Bilbo carries on. “If I give them Bag End.”

“The decision should be simple then,” Thorin cuts in, more coldly than he intended.

“It isn’t,” Bilbo protests, looking hurt at Thorin’s remark.

“It’s blackmail.”

“It’s an offer,” Bilbo insists. “They are offering me a chance to get my life back. I had plans, you know,” he reminds Thorin, his tone rising slightly. “And Frodo would grow up in Hobbiton like his parents wanted, he would have a family and not...me. Bag End...Bag End will be Frodo’s, okay? I’ll give it to him, and they will have to treat him well or I...I will...” he stops there, almost trembling with unexpected rage.

There’s a bitter taste in Thorin’s mouth. He’s disappointed in Bilbo, he can’t help that; though part of his mind knows that he shouldn’t judge him so harshly, that Bilbo’s sense of being trapped and his fear of not doing enough for Frodo are two sides of the same coin. Thorin was there once, turning that coin in his hand with the same dreadful interrogative on his mind - would they be better with or without me?

That’s what spurs Thorin’s next words.

“We owned mines in the North. Our wealth had come from mining for more than three hundred years, maybe more. We had lands and factories too, and houses; gods, we owned entire villages. More than that, we owned mountains. Can you imagine what it is to know that such a grand, beautiful thing - a mountain - belongs to you?” Thorin shakes his head, the corner of his mouth twitching in the ghost of a smile at the recollection of a past long gone. “The people - the people who lived there, who worked there, who died there - were our people. Had been, for hundreds of years. They bowed when my great-grandfather went among them, riding his horse; they took off their caps in my grandfather’s and my father’s time. My time though...it never really came, my time.”

Bilbo’s eyes are on Thorin’s face, his hand on his. The touch is a thin, tremulous thread between Thorin’s memories and the small living room, tugging slightly at his heart.   

Madness came first,” he continues, knowing that he’s indulging what Dís would call his flair for drama. “My mother called it so and maybe she was right, for it was a form of madness, but to my grandfather it was the purest, strongest ambition. It had driven his ancestors to success and wealth, he couldn’t see why he shouldn’t do the same and try to double our family’s treasure. Yet times had changed, we had to compete with other companies, and our mines...maybe we asked too much of the mountain,” Thorin admits, though with some displeasure - admitting his faults has never been his stronger trait.  

“We thought that the mountain would never stop bestowing its gifts upon us, but it was exhausted. Still, what we had would have been enough to live in comfort - no, in luxury - for a long time. It wasn’t enough for my grandfather though, so he made deals, he broke them, he lost so much money...so much money,” Thorin repeats, his voice growing a little hollow. “When he died, my father was left in the clutches of the lawyers and the banks. So he inherited some kind of madness, haunted as he was with the idea that something could be done - something different from watching them tear our world apart. He struggled and he fought - to no avail, for we were too deep into failure. It broke his heart, my mother said. And he broke hers, when he and my younger brother died in a mine accident.”

He must stop, at least for a moment. This moment resembles another they went through together, but there was Bilbo talking about his past then; it seemed easier to listen to Bilbo’s confession about his mother, easier to choose flowers to say I understand, I forgive you. Thorin’s fingers wrap around Bilbo’s wrist, as if he could close his hand around the flowers tattooed there and smother their petals.  

“We buried them side by side, up in the North. My mother too,” he says curtly. “Then it was my turn to go mad.” He covers his face with his hand, just a few moments before facing Bilbo again. “You see, I couldn’t let the matter rest and accept that our lives had changed. Dís warned me, but I didn’t listen. I forced our cousins and our friends to support me in a desperate attempt to regain what was lost, and thus put everyone in danger - financial and moral danger. I wasn’t...I wasn’t very good then. I was a young fool and I did a few things I’m ashamed of, but at the time they seemed the only way...”

“You did it for your family,” Bilbo says softly.

“Yes, I did. I thought Dís deserved that. I deserved that,” Thorin corrects himself, feeling his throat clench painfully. “But in the end it was less about us than about my pride and my greediness...I just couldn’t accept a happiness that wasn’t the one I had been promised. And I failed, Bilbo. We ended up poorer than ever, relatives refused to have anything to do with me - with us. We had to leave, leave our mountain behind us. We...we wandered, and I felt that I was exiled and happiness denied me forever.”

Bilbo’s hand holds his tightly, small fingers digging into Thorin’s palm. The pain is soothing.

“Dís’s husband left us. Dís denies it, but I think I drove him away with my grief. Several times we were very close to getting our heads above water, but then I would ruin everything, one way or another. I was a burden to the ones I loved, until...until I came here and,” started to heal, Dís says in his mind.

Bilbo gently raises Thorin’s hand to his lips. He kisses it, like one would kiss a child’s cut to make it feel better. Thorin feels the impulse to laugh, but it remains stuck in his throat. He only leans toward Bilbo, once again the moth flying toward the flame - or the flower reaching for the sunlight.

“What would you have me learn from this story, Thorin?” Bilbo asks, voice soft and sad.      

“It’s my story,” Thorin replies, while he moves on the couch to take the small man into his arms. Bilbo goes without struggle, though his body feels alert and not pliant. “It’s me. And I want you to know me.”

Bilbo’s kiss may be a sign that he accepts it - he accepts Thorin, but it could be just a kiss. Nonetheless, it’s enough to leave Thorin grasping at Bilbo and at the couch, delaying and accelerating the fall, the bitterness on his tongue melting away in the growing warmth of their kiss.

“There’s a tattoo on my right shoulder - bramble, for remorse,” Bilbo gasps, when Thorin’s hands slip under his jumper and his teeth torment the tender flesh of his earlobe.

In the morning, Thorin will kiss that shoulder, disregarding its warning - let that thorn draw blood, if it must.    

“This is probably a mistake,” Thorin admits in a whisper.

Neither of them stops the fall though - it is as if the more they feel like continents drifting apart, the more they must try to crush themselves together.

Chapter Text

“Learning from history and all that gibberish?”

Gandalf nods, wondering what possessed him when he decided to invite Mrs Adamanta Took for tea in his office. Well, actually he knows what - he had a plan about a few special lectures dedicated to World War II, including speeches and Q&A featuring a few locals who had lived through those years. And apparently Mrs Took is considered an authority in the field, if for no other reason than she’s in the habit of bullying everyone whose opinion isn’t consistent with hers.

Gandalf isn’t sure that it will make for a rigorous lesson about WWII, but he may settle for challenging - for his nerves, if not for the students themselves. At least, he tries to comfort himself, Adamanta will be a wonderful example of how the spirit can thrive under duress; though Gandalf suspects that she was a formidable and definitely intimidating woman even before the war.

“I’m not sure that I will be amenable to sharing my dear memories with a thousand people at a time,” she adds - Gandalf has already learnt that she enjoys playing coy, something a little bewildering considering her most respectable age.

“Hundreds,” he corrects her blandly.

“So, imagine me before a thousand people, sacrificing my experience to their eager young minds...”

“Well, I’d say that a few students will probably keep playing with their phones...” Gandalf mutters, trying very hard not to correct her again about the number of people who will probably attend the meeting in the lecture hall, nor remark about their commitment to the subject - but one has to try to provide young people with some perspective, right? It’s the very point of teaching, and teaching history in particular.

“I shall think about it,” Adamanta declares, straightening her back and looking meaningfully at Gandalf.

“Oh, well. Thank you. So much. My utmost gratitude,” he offers, knowing that she expects to be flattered now that she has decided to participate in the project - yes, she has already done that despite her claim that she will think about it. She just doesn’t like rush decisions, though she takes them all the time - family trait, Gandalf thinks. “Two sugars?”

Tea is always a good answer to quite everything. Even Gandalf, while he stirs the drink in his cup, feels considerably better about his meeting with Mrs Took: the woman is insufferable, but she’s strong and cunning, and sometimes she reminds Gandalf of Belladonna.

“Oh, look who’s there,” Adamanta says all of sudden.

Gandalf’s study on the upper floor felt a little stifling and over-heated today, so he opened the windows looking over the school’s inner gardens to let some fresh air in. It’s September, but the air is still warm and pleasant; flowers blossom in gardens and meadows, though the leaves on the trees are already turning from green to yellow. The temperature will drop soon enough and these must be the last sunny days for this year, so most people are trying to enjoy them as much as possible - picnics, football matches, short trip in the Dales seem to be very popular now that the warm season is coming to an end.

Time is never so precious as when you’ve got little of it, Gandalf muses, for he’s the kind of old man who turns even the most mundane facts into wisdom (your teacher-complex, Bungo Baggins used to call it, and he was right like good friends often happen to be).  

Adamanta has been leaning toward the open window, glancing at the gardens below. Gandalf does the same now, so he immediately spots the man working in the gardens.

Kneeling among the plants, blue gloves on his hands and his hair in a bun to keep it out the way, Thorin Durin is tending to the school gardens. He moves in and out of the shadow of the apple tree, carrying his tools around, never taking any rest.

“A truly born-florist,” Adamanta muses.

“He would probably disagree,” Gandalf suggests, though he can’t help noticing that Thorin could hardly look more comfortable than he does now, while he works alone in the sweet light of the afternoon, earth on his clothes and the sun warming his neck. “He has come a long way.”

“Young people would argue about the sun rising in the East,” Adamanta mutters, before catching up with Gandalf’s last remark. “From Scotland,” she nods. “His sister told me a little about their family history.”

Gandalf wonders how much the Durins tell of their family history nowadays. Not too much and not too frequently, he suspects; but it’s to be expected, since they’re such proud, stubborn people. They made a few friends though, and Gandalf has high hopes for the future of the Durins in Hobbiton.

For some strange reason, Hobbiton seems to be a natural haven for wanderers - Gandalf among them. It may be the landscape and the quality of the air; it may be the historic value of its rows of cottages; it may be about the people living here, but in the end people are people everywhere, for the good and for the bad. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Gandalf’s annoyance at the narrow-minded local ways always mingles with a certain fondness for these country people, half sound and half dreamy as they are - just like one Bilbo Baggins.  

Speaking of whom, Gandalf wonders how he’s doing in London. He heard from him a couple of weeks ago and Bilbo sounded quite at peace, but the call was cut short by some emergency about the tattoo parlour.

“He’s a charmer,” Adamanta says. “Thorin Durin,” she adds, as if he guessed that Gandalf’s thoughts have been straying...not that the description of Thorin as a charmer would have failed to confound Gandalf at any other time.

In truth he remembers what old Balin used to say about Thorin - Balin being his cousin and a sort of fatherly figure for him and his sister, he can be considered quite an authority on the subject. On a bad day Thorin can be as charming as an axe driven through your skull: one of those folkloristic and vivid figures of speech the Durin family is very fond of, supposedly the heritage of the long-gone times when their ancestors carried axes on their backs and terrified people for fun, raiding villages and hoarding treasures. Fortunately, Thorin prefers gardening scissors nowadays, though his frowns may still kindle terror in many a heart.

“Strong as an oak, competent, hardworking. He’s got a voice that could sing women into love,” Mrs Took goes on, unfazed. Gandalf would like to think that she’s forgotten his presence, but he fears that Adamanta remembers very well that she’s not just talking to herself. “And handsome on top of that.”

Gandalf coughs some tea onto the carpet, but he manages to restore his dignity quite soon - working with kids taught him that. The smile Adamanta flashes at him is nothing short of flirty, as if the awful woman expected Gandalf to prove that he’s no less apt than Thorin Durin to be considered a decent, handsome catch for a respectable lady like Mrs Adamanta Took.

Gandalf would rather be engaged in some perilous and hopeless quest than to Mrs Took, so he hooks a finger in the collar of his shirt and clears his throat, while he looks around to find some less dangerous topic to move on to. He ends up looking out the window, where Thorin is still crouched among the plants. But he’s no longer alone, for there’s someone crossing the gardens to approach the florist.

“Well I never!” Gandalf grunts, forgetting all about Mrs Took’s intimidating style of flirting the very moment he recognises Bilbo Baggins down there.

“You never?” Adamanta repeats, raising an eyebrow. “My dear Professor, I’ve always thought that your observation skills were greatly exaggerated, but for you to miss that...”

“I thought that they didn’t know each other,” Gandalf meekly protests, too stunned to do anything else.

“Oh my, do you really think that the son of Belladonna could be back in town without sneaking around his mother’s shop?” Adamanta sighs, and her disappointment makes Gandalf feel like a reprimanded child. “Of course they know each other! And of course told you nothing about it...now, what does this suggest?”

 

*

 

Bilbo feels a little weak at the knees. That’s ridiculous, especially considering that he has been mentally preparing himself for the meeting, hidden in the archway that opens on the gardens. Well, mostly he has been looking at Thorin for something like ten minutes, which does sound slightly creepy, but it isn’t really. It’s just that they haven’t seen each other in a while (three months, nine days, and a handful of hours Bilbo did not care to count) and Thorin looks especially striking while gardening. It makes Bilbo’s heart ache just to look at him, with his ridiculous, passionate focus on the flowers so that he never suspects Bilbo’s presence until they’re face to face, a few steps apart.

“Hello,” Bilbo says softly, as if this could be enough to wipe away that startled look on Thorin’s face.

Thorin grunts something that Bilbo is willing to consider a polite greeting, but he seems quite annoyed by being caught at work, kneeling among the plants. When Thorin hastily gets up to his feet, Bilbo realises that maybe he should have warned him of his coming, rather than popping up out of thin air.

Yes, Thorin should have had the chance to turn him down.

Bilbo squeezes his eyes shut  for a moment, trying to focus. He closes and opens his fist, then he manages a weak smile and gestures to the flowers and the plants surrounding them.

“The baby’s breath is such a delightful touch,” he comments, looking with some affection at the tiny white flowers shining in the sun like snow crystals among the grass. Then he spots a patch of salmon pink flowers a little further away. “The dahlias too! And there...lavender, isn’t it?”

Thorin nods, but keeps looking at him with some wariness. It hurts Bilbo to notice that, but he struggles to carry on this apparently one-sided conversation.

“I especially like that corner with the bellflowers and the lilies of the valley,” he points out, turning toward that side of the garden. “And the primroses that blossomed last Spring were incredible! I confess that I picked up a few of them, to keep them pressed into books. Oh, I know it’s unfashionable nowadays and you probably prefer fresh, living flowers, but I like...I like keeping things.”   

Thorin’s very blue eyes narrow - Bilbo’s particular choice of flowers is not lost on him. 

“Bilbo,” he says, maybe a little warningly, as if Bilbo may have stepped too far.

“Tell me what you are working on,” Bilbo replies hurriedly, because he hopes that talking about flowers will help them - or at least it could distract Thorin long enough to leave Bilbo time to rethink his strategy.

“Autumn chores,” Thorin replies at last, probably after a short debate with himself. Bilbo would like to link his arm with Thorin’s and let himself be led on a tour of the school gardens, but the look on Thorin’s face is so unwelcoming that Bilbo doesn’t dare utter a single “King of Flowers” joke.

“Cutting bushes and shrubs, tidying borders, adding a few evergreens, and seeing how the plants are faring. Pruning the roses there,” Thorin says, with a movement of his head toward the damask rose bush buzzing with bumblebees, “and creating a frame for the dahlias here - they have grown too tall to support themselves. There’re also a few sick plants I’m going to take to my greenhouse before restoring them to the gardens.”

Thorin’s voice is still guarded, but his gaze softens while he inspects the gardens with unmistakable pride and affection. Bilbo can’t help stealing looks at him while he speaks, noticing how Thorin’s skin has grown a little darker under the sun, and there’s a gleam of sweat at his temples and on his neck - Bilbo can imagine how warm the skin would feel under his hands, and how salty under his mouth.

“You know, I hated these gardens since the first time I saw them,” Bilbo suddenly says. “I was up there,” he gestures with his hand, “in Gandalf’s study, more than a year ago. I was reading my contract to teach here at the school, and maybe I had already decided, maybe I hadn’t, but I saw these gardens from the window and I thought that they were so ridiculously lovely that the gardener must be some hideous, pompous git. And then my first day of school - which was awful by the way, thank you very much - I looked at them again from one of the windows on the upper floor: the apple tree looked like a postcard drawing. I thought Gandalf was playing his cards very well, showing me pretty gardens and forbidden fruits, trapping me here to be terrified and bossed by kids, drowning in the quiet, respectable country.”

Thorin’s face is a masterpiece of confusion, displeasure, and something akin to fondness. Bilbo’s heart somersaults against his ribs, for Thorin’s frown is like coming home. He moves a little closer, but not too much, for he fears that if he doesn’t tread softly Thorin will turn away from him, and that’s not something Bilbo could endure right now.

“So...how,” how are you? Bilbo would like to know - yes, how do you feel about me making a fool of myself because I’d really like to kiss you now, but he settles for something less...intense. “How’s Dís? And the boys?”

“Still up North with our cousins,” Thorin replies, blue eyes fixed on Bilbo’s face with so much intensity that Bilbo has to keep himself from hiding behind his own hands like a child.

“Oh, your stay in Scotland was...was it all right?” Bilbo asks, feeling that his words are inadequate.

He hopes that his voice, at least, will convey to Thorin how deeply he cares about the answer.

He and Thorin had talked about it - of how Dís thought that it was about time for them to take a trip to the old places, and stay with their cousins Balin and Dwalin who still lived in Scotland. In the face of Thorin’s horrified first reaction at the very idea of getting back North, she stubbornly maintained that the kids would enjoy themselves and that they all needed some holidays.

“She says that we’ve got far enough from what happened there,” Thorin had said to Bilbo on the phone, his voice a mixture of anguish and contempt for his own fears. Bilbo had never been so remorseful about being in London as he had been then, when he had but his words to comfort Thorin.

But he kept calling Thorin for several days in a row, slowly talking his feelings out of their shell, gently walking around Thorin’s walls, divesting him of his armour until they both felt safe enough to discuss the implications of Thorin’s trip to Scotland.

It was Bilbo who convinced Thorin to abandon the idea that he could suffer some sort of relapse into his old obsessions just by visiting his cousins up North, or by taking Fíli and Kíli trekking in the mountains. And it was Bilbo that got Thorin excited about devoting some of his time there to planning and starting a small garden at his cousin Dwalin’s house, using only local plants - something that amused Dís to no end, since apparently Dwalin was forced to accept the project lest he took the wind out of Thorin’s sails, but he swore to have his revenge on this Bilbo Baggins for every damned flower that would bloom in his backyard.

Well, Ori wanted to be introduced to some charming relative of Thorin’s, didn’t he?

Unfortunately, Thorin’s agreement to Dís’s plans for the summer also meant that he and Bilbo did not get to see each other. It was already difficult with Bilbo’s plans in the way, but Thorin’s time in Scotland made it impossible for them to meet during the Summer.

We didn’t have any luck, that’s all, Bilbo repeats himself for the umpteenth time, trying not to think that Thorin could have found a way if he really wanted...but that would be unfair, because Bilbo himself met a few unforeseen circumstances that kept him from going to see Thorin in Hobbiton. For example, his car broke down. And then there were all those problems with the tattoo parlour and he just couldn’t leave Ori to deal with them all by himself. And one time the train to Derbyshire was cancelled, and...

...and we should just have met somewhere, Bilbo thinks, dread pooling in his stomach.

There were phone calls - lovely ones, most of them, though they quarrelled a few times and once Bilbo was so distressed that he hung up on Thorin, as if they were melodramatic teenagers. There were also texts, especially on Bilbo’s part (well, maybe too many texts on his part, he should have sent fewer and with a far lower character count).

In other words, they tried to keep in touch.

But Bilbo has never felt so painfully out of touch as he feels now in the school gardens, trying to guess Thorin’s thoughts and failing miserably.  

 

“Yes, it was all right,” Thorin replies bluntly, as if he didn’t really care to talk about it with Bilbo. It’s enough for Bilbo’s spirit to sink and maybe Thorin takes pity on him, because he adds: “Balin taught Kíli to fish and he even tried to fish with his bow - well, it didn’t go well, as you may imagine,” Thorin mumbles, making a face. “While Fíli has taken it into his head to buy a motorbike with the money he could earn from some part-time job on the weekend, and Dís is furious with Dwalin, because he talked too much about when he and I were younger and rode our motorbikes up and down the mountains.”

  “Oh, Fíli was obviously impressed,” Bilbo comments, smiling at the picture of a younger Thorin in his leather jacket, riding his motorbike. “He looks up to you, you know that.”

“Does he?” Thorin repeats, showing some surprise.

His lack of self-confidence in this regard is quite endearing and Bilbo can’t help going on.

“Sure. Maybe he no longer shows it as I’m sure he used to do when he was a child...but he respects and loves you. It’s always uncle said that and uncle would do this. And I think you had your part into growing him into such a thoughtful, trustworthy boy,” Bilbo says in all honesty. “Though he’s far more well-versed than you in texting, considering how many texts he sends during the school hours.”

“I told him so many times...” Thorin begins gruffly, then he caresses his beard and looks more closely at Bilbo. “I’m sorry if I didn’t answer all your texts, but...my hands...”

They are monstrously bigger in the gardening gloves, so that Bilbo chuckles - partly because of the relief he feels washing over him at the first sign that maybe it’s not all lost between him and Thorin.

“It’s ok, really,” he says, grasping Thorin’s hands with his own. “You read my texts though?”

“Several times,” Thorin replies.

The admission brings a lovely blush to his cheeks. Bilbo can’t help squeezing Thorin’s fingers through the thick gloves, but he huffs in disappointment and twitches his nose.

“Just...can we take these off?” he asks, pinching slightly at the gloves.

When Thorin nods, Bilbo peels them off of his hands and lets them fall on the ground, with a suggestive wink. Thorin barks a laugh at that, but he just hums low in his throat when Bilbo’s fingers touch his.

“How’s Frodo?” Thorin asks, eyes locked on their intertwined fingers.

“Oh, he had a lot of fun in London! I didn’t dare hope for that, but apparently he’s more adventurous than I gave him credit for,” Bilbo admits with a small smile. “We went to many plays and a few musicals. He got on well with Ori...corrected a couple of our flower designs - you should’ve seen him, the brat! He reminded me of you when he got all high and mighty about the shape of this leaf and the proportions of that flower,” he whispers, his thumb caressing Thorin’s palm in a circular, soothing motion.

Yet there’s some shadow lingering at the bottom of Thorin’s gaze.

“What?” Bilbo inquires, studying the man’s expression.

“So he liked London,” Thorin states quietly.

“Yes, he did...” Bilbo tugs gently at Thorin’s hand, and the man lets himself be dragged a little closer, until Bilbo has to crane his neck to look at this face. “But after all, I think Hobbiton is a better place to raise a kid,” he muses, trying to keep his voice level - though he can’t help the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth when Thorin’s eyes grow larger.

“So you...” Thorin begins, but he’s immediately at a loss for words and he just holds Bilbo’s hand tighter.

“I told you that I’d come back,” Bilbo points out.

Because he actually did, before leaving for London with Frodo.

Ori needed his help fixing a few things about the tattoo parlour since they had agreed that Bilbo would remain a partner in the enterprise, investing in the parlour and contributing to developing new designs though not actually working there. Plus Bilbo wanted Frodo to know more about his life and his friends, so taking him to meet Ori and visit the parlour had seemed a good idea. They passed the Summer in London, visiting museums and shops, cooking together, discussing flower tattoos, and spending many afternoons exploring parks and gardens in and out London.

And you mooning over Thorin, Ori often said.

Well, Bilbo enjoyed the vacation and did appreciate the chance to settle his affairs with Ori. He even worked from time to time in the parlour, inking a few old clients of his and assisting Ori with some of his most complicated designs. Rediscovering London through Frodo’s enthusiastic eyes was fun, and there was that time when they were looking at the swans at Kensington and Frodo called him uncle instead of Bilbo. And then he did the same the day after and the day after that, so they settled for uncle and nephew, that by the way was less complicated than the something-removed cousin business.

Yet Bilbo missed Thorin throughout all those months and now it feels as if all his nostalgia has come back full force, and it’s quite foolish since there are no longer miles and miles separating them, but no more than a step and a few breaths.  

“I told you that I’d come back,” Bilbo repeats, a little louder.

“You might have changed your mind,” Thorin replies.

It sounds equal parts matter-of-fact and sheepish, but there’s also an interrogative behind those words - have you changed your mind? Oh my, Bilbo thinks with some giddiness, he did miss me too.

“No,” he answers firmly, his hands slipping up Thorin’s arms - if he has to stifle a little moan at the feeling of the muscles flexing under his touch no one could really blame him...I mean, have you seen his biceps? “I prefer it here.”

“Did you think about it well enough?” Thorin grunts, apparently restraining himself from...what?

The possibilities are thrilling, but Bilbo does his best to remain focused and actually frowns a little at Thorin’s words.

“You know, someone told me that it was a very easy decision to take,” he reminds Thorin.

“Bilbo...” Thorin sighs. “It was hastily spoken. It wasn’t...”

“Hush,” Bilbo commands.

It’s very well that Thorin promptly obeys, because Bilbo can get on his tiptoes and kiss him. The feeling of Thorin’s mouth pressed to his is so lovely and long-wished-for that Bilbo forgets some of his dignity and gives a strangled moan - oh, he will deny it later, but right now he can only think of Thorin’s beard rasping against his smooth chin and the push of Thorin’s tongue between his lips.

Thorin easily turns Bilbo into a burglar at times like this, for Bilbo’s hands can’t help stealing as much as they can, fingers carding through Thorin’s hair and loosening his bun, palms brushing over his bearded jaw, thumbs running down the tendons of his neck. Thorin’s skin is a little damp, as Bilbo expected it to be; it slips under his fingertips, burning hot, and the smell of sweat and earth makes Bilbo think of being in a bed with Thorin.

It’s also a good thing that Thorin is holding him by his waist, so that Bilbo can be as overwhelmed as he wishes and doesn’t need to worry too much about keeping his balance. He can actually drown in Thorin’s arms, his own thrown around Thorin’s neck; neither does he mind when he’s hoisted up and finds himself with his back against the trunk of the apple tree, his mouth plundered and his whole body buzzing with delight, louder than the bumblebees flying over the roses.

The bark of the apple tree, scraping and rubbing at his back, seems a meaningless, far-off thing compared to Thorin’s mouth and the blue of his eyes shining through his half-closed eyelids. The sky vanishes from Bilbo’s sight behind Thorin’s head and the foliage; only the fragrance of the flowers and plants still remind Bilbo of the gardens, but mingled with the smell of Thorin’s body pressing closer and closer, till there’s not even the memory of the distance left between them. They kiss fervently, they kiss gently, they kiss until their lips feel swollen and their hearts blown up, like flowers showing their ripe golden core.

While Bilbo keeps caressing Thorin’s face in sweet amazement, Thorin tilts his head.

“I know what it means to...to renounce. Are you going to be happy here?”

He doesn’t say with me, but it’s there all the same and it makes Bilbo smile until his cheeks hurt just to think about being with Thorin. His fingertips trace the lines of Thorin’s face, ever so slowly.     

“You’ll have to keep an eye on me all the time to prevent me from pouting,” Bilbo teases, half hoping that he will have another kiss for that.

Thorin blushes and snorts, and isn’t that a most endearing combination?

“Have you...have you thought about opening a tattoo parlour here in Hobbiton? So you could...”

“In Hobbiton?” Bilbo grins. “I’m not sure that the people here would feel adventurous enough for that. Except Mrs Took and maybe Gandalf...”

“I’m sure...” Thorin frowns and then his eyes look just so lovely beseeching. “You could ink me.”

For a moment the idea is very, very appealing. Thorin’s broad back would be a perfect canvas for Bilbo’s flowers - and what a garden he could draw down Thorin’s strong arms and thighs! Then Bilbo could return the favour and name every flower on Thorin’s skin, whispering its name and meaning before kissing and mouthing his way up and down Thorin’s bare body - a feast of flowers laid before him. But Bilbo remembers very well that Thorin fears needles, so the tempting dream vanishes like a puff of smoke caught by the wind.

“You can’t ask me to ink you to convince me to stay,” Bilbo points out, smiling softly.

Thorin gapes a little at that, while his mind processes what Bilbo has just said.

Convince you? But...” he objects, cheeks flaming red and the beginning of hurt in his eyes. Bilbo has to kiss that shadow away immediately, with his hands cupping Thorin’s face and his lips seeking his. “You may,” Thorin insists between the kisses, “you may like me more with...”

“Thorin!” Bilbo heaves a sigh. He looks at Thorin gravelly. “I couldn’t possibly like you more.”

The hurt is back on Thorin’s face, and Bilbo wonders how on earth the man can be so idiotic at times. He will just have to knock some sense into his head, probably with kisses - yeah, more kisses sound like a brilliant idea.  Thorin even makes to step back like a frightened fawn, but Bilbo is quicker and just catches him by his arms, and he’s already pulling Thorin back to him when he says it:

“Thorin. I love you.”

The stunned look on Thorin’s face is slightly offensive - hasn’t Bilbo done his best to suggest the same concept in a few phone calls and several texts over the last month? Ok, maybe he has never actually said those words before and so this would be a first...suddenly the novelty of them catches up with Bilbo and he blushes tomato red.

Oh, the pair of them have no control over their blood circulation!  

When Thorin leans in for the next kiss, with such a reverent and fervent look upon his ridiculously handsome face that Bilbo may be undone right now, Bilbo decides it’s not the right time to point out that there’s an old woman - Mrs Took? What the... - looking at them from one of the upper windows, and giving them the thumbs-up.

Later, maybe, to get the bloom of roses to Thorin’s cheeks.