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Oh, Son of A---

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“Oh son of a bitch. Trolls.”

And with that terribly clever assessment she jumped off her pony.

For they most definitely were. Three of them: enormous, crouched, already converted into epic garden statuary, and the reason her eyes were the size of dinner plates.

To start with, for all that she recognized them, they were huge and horrifying. To continue, they were already stone, the sun was up over the horizon, and the dwarves were thoroughly AWOL.

“Shit. Did I miss them? Oh that would be bad. Very very bad. Fuck, this was how I was going to confirm which canon this is. Fuck, did they get further ahead of me? How did they do that? What kind of magic ponies are they riding? Did that guy sell me a crappy pony? Wait no. Stop, just.... Think. Use your damn eyes.” She stepped farther into the campsite and yelped a bit when the thought occurred. “Fire! Check the fire, see if it’s still….Oh thank god, Yeee-ehh-eessss. Still warm. Yes. Good. Good. Last night then. Sorry boys, meant to avoid you all getting sacked, didn’t work out. Maybe if you’d listened to me or let me come with you before now we could have a prevented that. But you’re all a bunch of dumb bastards doomed to die stupid pointless deaths. Anyhow…. troll hoard. How do I find a troll hoard?”

She spun, rushing to grab her pack and the reins of the obstinate hell-spawn she had accidentally purchased in place of a pony. Or maybe all ponies were like this. She wasn’t sure. This was her first.

Thankfully, a group of fifteen left as obvious a trail traipsing through the woods on foot as they did when riding.

“Really boys, If I can track you, it’s not surprising that the orcs’ll keep finding you. If this does include Azog that is, which I hope it does not. I’d prefer him already having his head off. But I think those were orcs I heard. Or wargs. Not sure, didn’t sound friendly in any case. Or like wolves. Anyway, right, I think I can hear dwarves whinging up ahead, so, you--you grumpy pony bastard, can just stay here for the moment while I go make an ass of myself again and try to not get killed by those daft twats up there. They are not going to be happy about this visit either, since I might be the harbinger of wargs.”

She was not looking forward to wargs.

“It’s ok. Just think of the fandom.” She reminded herself. She looped the reins loosely over a branch to talk to the pony.

“Please don’t run away yet. If there aren’t orcs about to come through hunting, I’ll need you to be able to keep up. If they do show up, then run away okay? I’m pretty sure you’re evil, but I don’t want you getting eaten by an orc. Got all that?” She patted the pony’s shoulder and pulled her hand back quickly as he nipped at her.

She loosened the straps of her pack with one hand, clutching at her stick with the other.

This was it then.

Go time.

Finally.

Two months-- nearly at least-- of struggling to recall her brothers and dad talking about boy scouts. Two months of awkward, gross, miserable adventuring in the wilds of Middle Earth. Two months of ticks in… unpleasant places. Two months repeating the mantra that the fandom would never forgive her if she just fucked off back to the Green Dragon until she somehow woke up back in the real world. Two months to find the courage to stick by her guns and see if she could actually manage a live fix-it and keep the dumb bastards breathing. Two months of them getting angrier and angrier with each of her unappreciated arrivals.

Puking sounded nice right about then.

Two fucking months.

And now, knowing that the odds were very good that there was an orc pack nearby, with the Company close enough for her to eavesdrop for the first time in weeks, all she wanted was to hide behind a tree and have a nap. Or vomit. Either way.

Reminding herself that oxygen intake was important even when displaced to magical alternate planes of existence, she rolled her neck, nodded her head and walked forward.

 


 

Bilbo was sitting with the others, away from the troll hoard, perfectly content to get no closer to the foul stench rolling out of the mouth of the cave, thank you very much. He smelled enough like troll after a night in the sack half on top of the king -- not like that -- and would be only too happy to scrub himself down in the first river they found, even if it was freezing cold water and the fish considered his feet delectable. But instead, thanks to the dwarves that were giddily digging through a pile of filth to look for shiny pebbles, he was sitting on a log, nodding off.

The fear of potentially becoming someone’s snack had kept him going through the night. But now the sun was warm on his face and the tree beside him was looking rather comfortable. And maybe if he rolled up his blanket and placed it just so against the bark he  have a quick nap here before --

“THORIN!”

Apparently not. Most unfair.

Along with the others he jumped up, expecting an attack as Nori ran into the cluster. Thorin popped out of the cave, clearly thinking the same since his axe was already in hand.

Khulu?

Nori grimaced before he answered, “She’s back. Magajjajûna.” 

Thorin, and everyone else actually, groaned in annoyance.

Id-allâkh lukhalukh bintarg.”

Bilbo did not speak the supposedly secret language of the dwarves, but they spoke it around him rather a lot. He’d heard that particular insult levelled at him several times, including repeatedly the night before. So he glared until Thorin turned and noticed.

From his log, he was eye to eye with the dwarf, and felt a bit bolder than usual.

“I will eventually work out what that means, Thorin Oakenshield.” Because taunting grumpy, sleep-deprived kings wielding heavy axes was always an excellent idea.

“No you won’t, halfling. Ir-rûrîk’unsas ur’Khazad.”

“I’m better at languages than you know, Master Oakenshield.”

Biraibkhin-e.

“I plan to.”

Thorin didn’t answer that. Just narrowed his eyes slightly. Bilbo raised a sardonic eyebrow.

Thorin rarely answered when Bilbo slipped and let his inner Took take control. Luckily the Baggins in him made sure that the little victory smirk never got spotted.

But there was no time to gloat: Their inexplicably persistent follower was back.

’Follower’ was Bilbo’s term.

The dwarves tended towards the slightly more impolite end of the descriptive vocabulary spectrum. But she had brought him a bag of things he really ought to have remembered before running out his door, including several pocket handkerchiefs and his actual travelling coat, rather than the velvet number he had, for whatever reason, flitted off wearing. So he was disinclined to hate her just yet.

Not that he approved of her breaking into his hobbit hole, which she had obviously done to retrieve his belongings. But on the whole, she could hardly be counted as evil.

Annoying and rather stupid certainly, but not evil.

Bilbo and Bofur had spent many evenings on watch trying to work out why Thorin got so exceptionally grumpy whenever she appeared. Bofur figured it had to do with the fact that she was tracking them. That she could do it was upsetting his pride. Bilbo thought he just hated to be disobeyed. Though it wasn’t as if she understood when Thorin ordered her around.

It was also quite clear she didn’t care.

Whatever language or languages she spoke, they were nothing he had heard.

But as she didn’t understand a word of Common, their interactions had been….troubled from the start. Her manners were rough enough to rankle the dwarves. Even Gandalf had just tilted his head and puffed at his pipe while she had stood in his parlor and screamed what they collectively determined after her departure had been insults.

And now she was back.

Again.

Goody. Another three days of extra-bitchy-Thorin to look forward to.

“Thorin sonof Thrain. Isuperhateyou. Youmiserablepretentioussod.” She bowed crisply at the beginning of her speech sounding remarkably sweet and mannered. Especially compared to previous interactions. But Bilbo would have bet his pipe it wasn’t.  She had a little cheeky quirk to her lip that reminded him entirely too much of his Brandybuck cousins. She continued before Thorin could start yelling, “Greattoseeyouagain. Sorryaboutthetrolls. Entirelyyourfuckingfault. Yours. Iwouldhavebeenohsohappytowarnyou. Butno. Youwouldntletmetravelwithyou. Haveanicetimeinthatsack? Havefungettingsavedby Bilbo andby Gandalf?”

Thorin stood stiff when she spoke, more focused on his nephews who had trailed in behind her. “Fili. Kili. Where did you find the Magajjajûna this time?”

“Didn’t, Uncle. She just walked up, like she did first couple times.”

Well, that had Thorin’s attention.

“Why are you here?”

“Azog reallywantstokillyou Thorin. AndthefangirlswouldkillMEifImessthisupsooooooo. YeahImcomingwithyouthsitime. Becauseyousee: Noonelikesadead Durin.”

“Azog died of his wounds at Azanulbizar, child. Why speak of him now?”

Iamgoingtotravelto Erebor. Withorwithoutyou.”

“Answer the question.”

IfIgettheStonefirstcanIbeking?”

“You test my patience with this, lukhalukh.

Youvegotallthefacialexpressionofabagofrocks. Noideawhatyousaidthattime. Betitwasinsultingthough.”

“You have given us little reason to believe you do not conspire with our enemies.”

Bilbo snorted a bit and rolled his toes in the dirt. She had done so several times according to most of the members of the Company, but Thorin wasn’t one to forget her first impression.

The incoherent rambling had put them off. Insulting his dead forebears had cinched it though.

But somewhere between her arrival at his door in Bag End and her appearance in their camp two weeks outside the Shire, she had shucked off most of her strangeness. Her hair had been restrained. Yes, her attire was a blend of cultures and purposes and not quite right, although Bilbo couldn’t figure out why, but at least he could recognize the pieces.

Though, her boots and trousers remained quite odd, even under the leather wrapped around them.

Her manners, however, were not improved.

Atrophied in fact. Hardly surprising. They’d barely seen anyone else while travelling, and no one travelling East. The Company had each other to talk to. After the second unexpected arrival, Thorin had forbidden them all from speaking to her, hoping, Bilbo expected, that she would return home after they had escorted her from camp enough times. All it seemed to do was make her angrier.

So her mood now was on par with that first night. As if Bilbo hadn’t been confused enough by the bevy of dwarves emptying his pantry and larder, he had a bizarre female.... something... screaming at the other unwelcome guests in a foreign tongue. The yelling had barely fazed them. Then she managed to snatch a knife off of Fili--who was still catching sass for it-- to threaten vaguely towards beards and braids. It was enough to first silence and then enrage the room.

And they were escalating back to that point.

Grand.

Maybe he should go fetch Oin? Someone was going to be bleeding in the near future. Oin would want to be at hand to help after it started.  

He watched. Waited. And Bilbo couldn’t help frowning when she made a show of carefully shucking off her pack and bags, and dropping her heavy stick to the ground.

She was trying to be...what? Transparent? Non-threatening?

Maybe there wouldn’t be blood after all.

A quick gesture reminded the king she had no weapons on her, and she started talking. Not that they knew what she was saying.

But at least this time is sounded like she was trying to placate them. Trying to explain. Her tone was measured and even and maybe a bit pleading.

She really was making an effort.

For once.

Thorin was starting to soften his expression in the face of obvious apologies and subjugation. He relaxed his normal battle posture to a guarded slouch. She was making progress, and Bilbo thought that, given time, he could probably sort of the basics of her tongue.

So it was a shame when her efforts were interrupted.

“Thieves! Fire! Murder!”

Radagast.

The arrival of the odd, stammering, poo-dribbled wizard had set the dwarves into an uproar. First because an unknown madman had burst into their midst screaming warnings while riding a sledge drawn by giant rabbits. Which was odd, even for them. Second because with his arrival the odd young lass had lost her damn mind.

Twenty minutes on and she was still yelling.

Motherfuckingmiddleearth! goddamnhellshitbitchfuck. Sothisisntthebookthen. Itsthemovie! Atleastpartlythemovie! Damnyoupeterjackson! Youjusthadtoincludewargsandorcsright?! ItwasnteveninthefuckingbooksPJ! Someofitisntevenintheappendix! Thespiderswerentenoughforyou? Youmaliciouscocksucker?!” Whatever it meant, it sounded obscene. It was accompanied by some rather vulgar gesticulations and a significant tantrum with a branch that decimated an unsuspecting shrubbery. She continued, “Azog shouldhavediedat Azanulbizar! Bolg andhisarmyIcouldhandle! Thisisnotnecessarymisterjackson! Notatall! Noonelikesadead Durin misterjackson! And Fili and Kili arewaytoofuckingprettytodie! Haveyouseenthem?! GAH! whycouldntthisbethedamnbook?”

Vegetation effectively slain under the watch of Bilbo, Nori, Fili and Kili she finally started to calm down to a mutter.

“Been awhile since I’ve seen a lass get that upset. Last one was your amad.” Dwalin declared, returning and running a hand over his bald head as he spoke. There was a story to that, Bilbo was certain. “Did you catch any of that?”

Fili nodded, “Azog, Azanulbizar, and Durin, and our names, Fili and Kili that is. But we’ve heard all that before. And Bolg sounds familiar. Don’t know why though.”

“Another Orc. How’s she know so many orcs? And how’d she know who Thorin is if she’s not from Ered Luin?” Nori supplied.

“Dunno.”

“Actually, knowing about Bilbo’s snotrags was a lot weirder.”

“Handkerchiefs.”

“I think the oilskins still win out.”

“Uncle doesn’t trust her.”

“Wow, worked that out all on your own, did you brother?” Fili got shoved for that.

“Do you?”

“No.”

“He won’t leave a child alone out here. Not with trolls and all.”

“I don’t think she is that--a child I mean.” Fili said with Kili quickly concurring.

“Look at her. She’s a bit too...uh...buxom? to call a child.”

Bilbo snickered. Apparently buxom for dwarves was different than for hobbits. He would have called her lacking. Substantially. His fauntling nieces were better stacked before they were tweens. But the dwarves did look for a few moments before she noticed that the guarding had become staring. She also noticed the focus of the stares.

Gofuckyourselves.”

Dwalin chortled, “I don’t know what language she’s speakin’ but I’m pretty sure I know what about that one meant. I’ve heard it enough different ways by now.”

“Yeah. That was pretty clear. The hand gesture helped.”

“But the main point Dwalin. If she’s a dwarrow-dam, why doesn’t she have a beard?”

“She’s too young. Probably not more’n thirty.”

“But she’s too thin. Not starved, just too skinny to be a dwarrow.” Kili persisted.

They fell silent. She was. Even under the bizarre collection of clothing and cloth they could tell. That first night they’d been too dumb-struck to really pay any attention to more than the fact that she was screaming and possibly trying to kill Thorin.

“Mixed blood then?” Nori suggested.

“Maybe, she is a bit tall for a dwarrow dam.”

“Does look a bit like a shrunken elf.”

“Wrong ears.”

“Hobbit.”

“Too tall and wrong feet.”

“Still out here alone.”

“Has been since we left the Shire.”

“Maybe she’s not actually alone?”

“The orcs?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe the Rangers can keep ahold of her.”

“You think so?”

“Nope. Too stubborn.”

“See that’s why I’m still voting dwarrow-dam.”

“Still uncle’s decision.”

“Actually, here he comes.”

Thorin had stayed to speak with the wizards, but by the steam Bilbo could almost see wisping out his ears it hadn’t gone well. He wasted no time after joining them. “Has she said anything new? Any explanation?”

“Nothin’ Thorin, just a lotta yellin’.”

He turned to glare. Bilbo tried not to snicker. Dwarves apparently taught their kings nothing about diplomacy and manners but entire courses on how to stand majestically with dramatic lighting and their hair luffing in the breeze.

She must have seen him come back. It would have been hard to miss, Bilbo knew, stomping obnoxious majestic fellow that the King was, he didn’t exactly sneak through the woods like an elf.  

The lass marched over to them quickly, furious enough that they all shifted grips on their weapons. “Okaythisisnearlyaasfarfromidealasitcouldbe. Butwearegoingtorunoutoftime. Idontknowhowmuchgotcutinediting. Sowedothisrightnow. PleasePleasedontstabme.” Bilbo quirked his head. She was gearing up for something. On any day they saw her, she always seemed to be stuck between trying to help them and wanting to beat them to death with their own boots.

Today it looked like Thorin was about to get slapped again.

Bilbo hummed delightedly.

That had been a great moment. And he had deserved it, stealing her knife like that. The dwarf had been utterly insufferable for a full week after, but the gob-struck look Bilbo had promptly memorized had been worth it.

His inner Took trilled in anticipation at having a second image to ponder when he was being maligned and abused by their obtuse, obstinate leader.

But she didn’t.

She stopped midstride. She searched him up and down, eyes growing wider by the second. All the lovely anger that Bilbo had expected to result in slapping melted into terror. “Ohnononononono. Cock. Coooooooock.” Spinning on her heel she scurried towards Bilbo where he had been observing the scene. It was a pity he missed the protective way the Company jumped when she got close to him. It was rather sweet. For all the insults and bluster, they were rather fond of their hobbit. Especially after the ridiculous evening the night before.

Instead, he watched passively as she manhandled him for a moment.

Shit. ItisReallyeasytodisruptthingshere. Butyouneedyourswords. Ifnothingelse Gandalf needs Glamdring sohecantakecareofthe Balrog thatshangingoutin Moria.Thorin canjustfuckoffaboutOrcrist. AndSting. Ehhhhhhhh? No. Nonono. Youneedstingjustasmuch. Thatletteropenerisprettydamnimportant. Sam isgoingtoneedit. Sodoyou.”

She was upset again. Not angry, just upset.

With wizards murmuring behind him and dwarves glowering in front of him, Bilbo tried to look friendly. “Yes.” He added helpfully with his most winning smile.

Which is probably why she smirked, tugged at his coat--filthy as it was-- and ran off into the Trolls’ hoard.

He turned to see the others, gesturing impatiently for him to follow her. He gestured back, succinctly. Thorin sort of glared and flailed an arm at him, silently saying ‘get in the cave before we toss you in Burglar.’ With a groan of absolute disgust, and wishing once more to just lay down against a friendly looking tree and have a doze, dwarves be damned, he headed after her.

He had been right about the smell. It would be months before that particular stench worked its way out of his nostrils. Resigned to the fact that everything he ate in the foreseeable future would not only be miserable cram, but also lightly seasoned with a lingering scent of troll filth to boot, he stepped inside.

But she was scrambling through all of it with barely more than an occasional hurrrk of repressed retching. She was muttering again, low and fast.

In her defense, if Bilbo and Bofur were right, she had been travelling alone since the Shire; that was sure to shut off anyone’s internal censor. Plus she was speaking a lost tongue and couldn’t rightly talk to anyone. Didn’t help, he was sure.

Eventually she let out a sound of victory and then another, and after a few more muttered curses -- he thought they were curses, they sounded angry -- she shouted a third time and hurried towards him. Thorin had given several lengthy and painfully stilted lectures on how the Company was not to consort with her in any way as she was too mysterious to be trusted.

Of course he had also been flapping about and insisting Bilbo follow just now. Useless daft contradictory dwarf.

Bilbo jumped when she held out a small sword to him. A Sword. Well, if he was honest with himself, and he did always try to be, it was someone’s discarded knife. For him it looked right to be a short sword though. As if he had ever held a short sword, or any other sword or any weapon outside of the small armory the dwarves had unceremoniously dumped into his arms.

It was amazing he hadn’t gashed his arms open that night.

“For me?” He half-squeaked, glad the company had not followed them inside to hear his undignified expulsion. “Oh no, but I don’t-- I really. It’s very nice that is, but I don’t know how to use one.”

Away from the dwarves she smiled without her general venom, making a show of holding it to her chest then pressing it lightly into his hands.  “Well, of course, it would be terrible manners to turn down a gift. This is from you to me then?”

“For Me? You?” She stammered in Common, gesturing in the wrong direction.

Bilbo smirked. He was giddy. He was right. Had been from the start too. If Thorin had listened for half a sentence back in Bag End this all could have gone down far smoother. He corrected her, pointing, then took her hand to show he was saying it from her perspective and repeated it again.

“Thankyou Bilbo. Ifwedontgeteatenbywargsinthenextfewhours… wellmaybe…. yes. Illgiveyouyourotherpresent. Butfornow. Wargsorcsandrunning. Thenonto Rivendell. Dontworryyoulllikeit. Butnowwehavetohurrybacktothestubborntwitswaitingoutside.

He blinked, catching only two words. He should have known his giddiness wouldn’t last. There was a long road to travel between two words and full paragraphs.

She dragged him along with her, running them both straight into the advancing forms of Thorin and Dwalin. With a snort of “Ohteethreemuch?” She pushed past them and stood waiting on a large rock while they blustered about for a few moments.

“You should be grateful that your rash --”

Bilbo looked up from his very pretty elvish? Yes, definitely elvish, blade, when Thorin cut off. He had been picking off cobwebs and flicking off mud when he heard the sound responsible, but it was Thorin of all people shutting his trap that was interesting.

Yep.

She had pulled a sword on Thorin.

A gorgeous sword.

Not that the dwarves were paying attention to aesthetics.

And really, looking at it objectively from outside the circle of various weaponry now pointed at her, she had simply pulled the sword out, and it was only due to proximity that it seemed to be aimed at the king.  But with that myriad sharp implements at hand, Bilbo wasn’t going to speak up about the difference.

Smiling as if there weren’t half a dozen stabby deaths hovering around her she dropped the blade back into the sheath. Moving purposefully, she flipped it and held it towards Thorin.

She snapped a quick look over to Bilbo, and then said carefully, “For you. Orcrist. Thorin.” Then she unsheathed the other blade a few inches, nodding. “Glamdring. Gandalf.”

Accented, and with strange intonation, but Common tongue. As short as it was. Bilbo could have done a dance. If had gotten sleep the night before and had eaten since noon yesterday that is. He could feel the dwarves’ confusion.

OkaygladthatHodoringworked. Nowpleasedontstabmewithyourshinynewtoy. Whichyoureallydontdeserve. Butitwouldbeveryrude. Andwhilethatwouldbeparforthecourse… letsskipitshallwe?

“What is Orcrist?”

She hesitated, then tapped the sword.

“How know you the name of this blade?”

That was too much to ask. She frowned. “Sorryboys. Thatsasmuchtimeaswehaveforlanguagelessonstoday. Thereisdefinitelyanorcpacknearby. Wevegotthenecessariesfromthecave. Weshouldskedaddle.”

The dwarves looked to Bilbo. Because, having spent all of three minutes alone around her he should now be fluent.

“No idea.”

“I thought you were so much better at languages than I, burglar?”

Well. That certainly required retaliation, and the Took was happy to oblige.

She disagreed. “Bilbo! Isawthat. Flirtwithyourhunkydwarflater. Orcsandwargsnowplease. Thorin. Theyreallyneedtobethepriorityhere. Andwherethedizzyfuckdid Gandalf getoffto?” She spun, looking, then drew the blade she had named as Glamdring partly out of its filthy sheath.

It was glowing.

Fuck.”

Not much, but a faint blue was coming off it that couldn’t be explained by a trick of the eye or strange effect of the woods.

“A Magical weapon in a troll hoard?” Kili asked.

“Unlikely.”

“Bilbo. Thorin. Lookatyourfuckingswords. Nowforfuckssake!

She was furious.

They had no idea why.

So she was also frustrated.

“GANDALF!” She called, then knocked Fili’s sword out of her way to step closer to Thorin. She drew his new sword to show the glow to him and looked up at Bilbo.

Fortunately he had already followed suit, and had his small blade drawn.

“What is the meaning of this Magajjajûna?” The threat was obvious in his voice.

Thereareorcs.”

“Are these weapons spelled? Enchanted?”

Orcsyouhalfwit.”

“How did you know they were to be found here?”

Forfucks….stopthreateningmeandworkitout. Thereisabloodyorcpackcoming. Gandalf?!”

The wizards finally emerged from their conversation as the blade--Orcrist apparently--settled against her neck. Taking his cue, the other dwarves nearby did similar, effectively penning her in place while the wizard approached.

Bilbo joined them thinking that she might answer him more quickly than Thorin.

She didn’t turn to look at him.

Eye to eye with Thorin and ignoring the weapons, she held out the third blade vaguely towards the wizard, declaring, “Glamdring. Gandalf,” without breaking her glare.

“These are excellent swords. They were made by the high-elves of Gondolin.”

“What of it?” Thorin asked, also maintaining eye contact.

“The ancient magics still hold. The blades glow blue when Orcs or goblins are nearby.”

Damned dramatic Wizard.

Disturber of the peace indeed.

Though it wasn’t his declaration that sent them all scurrying. That simply alarmed them.

There was a rumbling growl nearby, and Bilbo jerked in place. He recognized the sound from their nights on the road.

Wargs.

Now, all of the dwarves were probably about to jump into action as they realized what was happening, but she was not willing to wait. She turned quickly and without warning, pointing up the hill.

They dwarves were forced to yank their weapons away. If they hadn’t, she would have been skewered by accident. Mostly by accident. Okay, Orcrist really wouldn’t have been such an accident. But mysterious as she was, they were not in the habit of killing stray, unarmed females.

And fast as they were, she still had a bit of blood dripping down her neck as they killed the beast.

“Warg scout! Which means an orc pack cannot be far behind!” Thorin shouted, and the world came crumbling down around Bilbo. Hearing them nearby was another thing altogether from having them rushing into their midst and dying a few steps away from him.

His mouth repeated the important information and then tumbled over itself while the wizard and the king argued. They were bickering about how to escape the pack.

Just standing there bickering like fauntlings over the last piece of buckleberry pie.

Like there wasn’t a dead warg on the ground just there.

Like they had all the time in the world to chat.

Like the ponies hadn’t just bolted.

Bilbo was starting to get properly Tookish, ready to step in and bash some heads together--verbally. Reaching the wizards to whap their heads would require a rather indecorous leap to achieve, and that would surely undermine any intimidation the resultant whapping would produce.

It was unnecessary though.

I’Khizi!” Well. That was the fastest the dwarves had ever stopped talking. He was sure of that. A couple had just given themselves whiplash. She continued, back in her normal gibbering tongue. “Sorrythatwasjustabouttheonly Khuzdul thatIknow. thatandsomeinsults. Radagast takethedamnsledandyour Rhosgoebel rabbitsandgosouth. Gandalf. everybodyelse. Rivendell.” There were a great many gestures involved, but after the brown wizard declared that the Rhosgoebel’s could outrun even Gundabad wargs, Gandalf stopped fighting.

She watched, pestering Radagast towards his sled.

Then froze with a hand touching her shoulder.

FuckfuckfuckIleftmypacks. Gandalf. Rivendell. Dontfuckthisup.”

She didn’t wait for an answer, just turned and sprinted towards where they had first found her.

Thorin let out a primal half-yell, half-groan of frustration and gestured. Kili, Fili, and Nori followed her. Sent to fetch their mysterious follower and prevent her being eaten by wargs. That way they could yell more later.

Then Gandalf was rattling off instructions. Thorin grabbed Bilbo by the arm, and they were running East with the sound of orcs and wargs on their heels.

Bilbo wasn’t exactly feeling confident.

 

 

Chapter Text

Bilbo Baggins was going to get himself eaten by a warg.

The general respectability of the Company would be pretty well soiled if that happened. Also, Dwalin had never seen anyone get away with so much backtalk to Thorin. For either reason, it was very important to Dwalin that the hobbit survive the day.

If possible.

But running from a pack of orc ridden wargs would be difficult if they had all slept soundly the night before, and had a hearty breakfast today.

Instead they were running powered by nothing more than force of will. Except the hobbit, who was not so much running as he was being dragged. Yes, his feet were moving, but there was a hand locked around his arm that was -- well, let’s call it gently -- encouraging him to move at a pace that matched the others. Dwalin would be asking his king about that particular action later. Again, assuming they were alive at the end of the day.

Which was looking likely while they were in the woods. Gandalf was leading them just south of due east, and the company was spread behind him. Dwalin was at the rear to watch for pursuit, and to break off to the princes, if need arose.

Thorin had given him a quick meaningful look and nod as the wizard gave orders. They had been shield brothers long enough for that to be all that was necessary.  No time for long-winded rambling when lives were on the line.

Of course, the lads were excellent fighters. And Nori had an unnatural talent for surviving when he shouldn’t. The three were easily the fastest runners, so they had been the clear choice to fetch her.

But they would have to cut across the woods to rendezvous and only had a vague gist of the direction to go.

All because of the lass.

If she got them killed or hurt, it would be a toss up on who would kill her first, Dwalin or Thorin. Maybe they could share.

He had to trust the lads though. He had trained them after all. He had seen what Kili could do when he wasn’t getting distracted by a passing skirt. He had seen what Fili could do when he wasn’t distracted by saving his brother.

They’d be fine.

The group reached the end of the trees and the wizard held there, listening, waiting before running forward again.

Dwalin could hear the cry of wargs in the distance.

Chasing the brown wizard most likely.

But some were closer, and from the north side of them. The wizard had led them south.

He gestured to Thorin who nodded sharply back and shushed the hobbit. Their burglar had managed to wrench his arm free, and was keeping apace of the others better than Dwalin would have expected. Excellent. Maybe the halfling would only get himself killed one day instead of getting them all killed.

Ahead of him, Ori fell jumping over a steep ditch. That was another one he had to watch out for. The hobbit had the excuse of having been raised amongst peaceful folks, but  the scribe was a dwarf, raised in Ered Luin, and should have been proficient in more than just that slingshot. He’d arrange some lessons.

Dwalin gestured at Dori who had turned to come back and help. Gestured, not shouted the khuzdul obscenity that was on his tongue. Shouting while trying to hide was never the best choice.

Dori didn’t always make the best choices.

“Is he alright?”

Dwalin glanced the scribe over as he hauled him to his feet and, finding nothing wrong, shoved him forward before gesturing an affirmative. When he stumbled himself a few minutes later, he was surprised and grateful for Ori’s arm which caught him in the chest and stopped him landing face first on the ground.

Ori nodded in acknowledgement of the faint “thank you” he signed without thinking. A quick push got the scribe back to the others.

Then they were back to the hunt, and they were still on the wrong end of it. 

 

 


 

 

Nori wasn’t certain if the clause in the contract covering release of obligation due to extraordinary obstacles could be invoked after the events of the past day, but if it could -- and if they could outrun or defeat the blasted orcs -- he planned to exercise it. Then he planned to bugger off. To Ered Luin and his criminal contacts eventually, probably to Bree first. There he could refill both his purse and his belly with ease and in relative comfort.

If they survived the day, which he wasn’t going to bet on. Dwarves had rarely been graced with a surplus of good fortune in the last few centuries.

Fili and Kili were just ahead of him, moving easily up and over fallen trees and boulders like the overgrown goats they were. Nori was by no means old, scarcely even middle aged in fact, but he couldn’t just rabbit his way over a boulder half as tall as he was.

Of course they wouldn’t have to be hurdling over the landscape if it weren’t for the obnoxious creature that kept trailing them.

Nori did not like her.

Mostly because Thorin turned into even more of a khulut’targtîth than normal whenever she showed up. Partly because Nori didn’t like to see folk get killed, and that little scrap of a thing was definitely going to die if she kept on like she was.

As far as they had seen, she had no weapon but a work knife, shorter than her hand and of no use when she inevitably got caught up by orcs or wolves or bandits. But worrying about it would make him start to feel responsible, and he didn’t have time for that either.

Thus: Nori did not like her.

His own brothers were enough of a problem. Neither of them had a lick of sense, and neither were as hard-shelled as the Men Nori consorted with. Maybe not a good comparison. His work involved some rather steely-eyed sorts.

And the gormless, incomprehensible little thing had sprinted off into the trees without a backwards glance. There were wargs about -- she knew that -- and she still took off running.

Yes, she was definitely going to come down with a case of dead sooner rather than later.

Hopefully not today. Not while he was watching.

They broke into the clearing in time to see her sliding to an undignified tumbling stop in the wet grass next to her packs. “Mahal wept woman! This was for your bags?” Kili yelled as he reached her.

The three dwarves were ready to haul her to her feet and sprint, but she kept yanking out of their grip to finish what she was doing. “LetmegoyouAsshat! Whyareyouevenhere? Youidiotshaveneverhelpedme? Nowyouare? StopthatIneedthatbag! Gimmethirtyseconds. Whythefuckareyouhelpingnow? Twomorestrapsaaaaaaannnnnd. Yesdonegogonow!” She finally conceded once her third bag was strapped in place, and with a jerk in the right direction, they all started running again.

Unarmed.

It was really the only thing Nori was thinking about as they hit the tree line once more, angling to catch the others. Their pudgy halfling was better prepared.

“What in Durin’s name is in those bags magajj?” Fili shouted angrily over his shoulder. The lads agreed with him then.

“Why would you run towards an orc pack?”

“Are you insane or suicidal?”

Shutupandrun.”

“How are you not dead yet?” Nori yelled at her when he grabbed her arm and pulled her faster forward.

The rangers deserved more credit if this area was safe enough for a solitary female whatever-she-was to travel for nearly two months without dying in a ditch along the road. The lads had pulled away a bit, bounding onto and over and under obstacles like damned amalfund prancers. And Nori was pretty well distracted by the bottomless well of stupid running next to him.

So no, he didn’t hear the Warg coming. And then he was too shocked to catch himself when he tripped after he did notice it.

He came to his senses in time to hear the lads’ startled shouts and running feet. He also got to watch the warg turn and angle towards her.

Great.

At least he was right about her being dead in the immediate future.

Small comforts, you know? He was going to watch her get et but at least he was right.

Except she had a club. Actually, she had Nori’s club; she must have snagged it as he fell. As Nori scrambled to his feet, and as the princes hurried back, she, calm as could be, clocked the charging warg across the face with it. She swung hard enough that the heavy weapon nearly took her over, and only caught herself at the last moment. The warg’s howl of pain and fury was extraordinarily loud as it picked itself up to finish its charge.

Nori yelled, and it sparked her into moving again. She slammed his club down like a hammer into the Warg’s skull just as the princes got there. The subsequent stabbing was unnecessary, though a good precaution.  

But now they had a new problem. She was just standing there, staring at a dead warg with bugged out eyes and an open mouth while bits of blood and brain and bone left tracks on her face and clothes.

“Nori what happened?” That was Fili, sounding, as he occasionally did, like the crown prince he was.

“I got tripped up, she got me club and then…” Nori trailed into a gesture since it was rather obvious what had happened after. Her hands were still on the staff. And she still hadn’t moved. He took back his weapon, with effort, and she still stared.

“First kill. Great.” Fili was right. At least, going by the poleaxed look she now had he was.

“Hey! Yes! Hey! Well done, Nice kill, We need to catch the others!” Kili shouted, shaking her by the shoulder.

Still no response.

“We don’t have time for this. Snap out of it or we leave you.” Fili said, grabbing her chin to force her to turn. Still nothing. Nori and Kili gave him significant looks. They had to get moving, they’d never actually leave her, and carrying her wasn’t really an option. “Ach, fine.”

So Fili slapped her: hard enough to snap her out of it, which was also hard enough to leave a neat pink handprint over her cheek.

The dwarves winced. She had no beard to cushion the hit.

It worked a tad better than expected. She was no longer dazed, which was excellent news. But as Nori reached for her other arm to help drag her along, she slapped Fili back.

Thatwasrudeyoufuckwit.”

Then grabbed him by his sleeve and started running.

It really wasn’t the time to be chuckling at the brief expression that had crossed both the lads’ faces. There were wargs and orcs and Durin knows what else hounding them. They hadn’t found the others yet. And they’d all probably be dead by dusk. But, that didn’t stop their gobsmacked jaw drops from being funny. Too young to think of stray lasses as ought but damsels in distress or in need of a rescue. More often than not in Nori’s experience, they proved to be some form of killer or another.

Maybe she wasn’t quite as vulnerable as he’d worried.

The lads bracketed her as they ran though, likely concerned they had done something wrong before.

They caught up with the others midway across a boulder strewn field, and they flung themselves behind a low hill when they heard the pack approach. It was hours of chasing and hiding. Running and ducking. And it was driving Nori crazy. One brother was having trouble keeping pace--he’d never acknowledge it, but Dori was struggling. The other brother kept getting too far ahead. Twice now a company member had dragged Ori back to safety behind a stone. And Nori couldn’t be everywhere at once.

Copses of trees, open plains, boulder fields; all of it had to be traversed and it was a damned miracle they hadn’t been found, killed, and gobbled down already. The land had opened up again after another clump of trees and they finally ran out of luck.

The pack that had nearly had them all afternoon was circling them, and other than some scattered rocks, there was no cover or shelter.

He heard Thorin bellow, “Stand your ground!”

He saw Ori trying to be brave with his slingshot, and his younger brother was obviously out of his mind with fear, since he was normally murder with that thing, and had just missed the warg’s eye entirely.

Gandalf was missing. He had no idea what had happened to the little creature.

Bilbo was beside Bofur and Bifur holding that little blue sword of his and looking about as intimidating as if it had been a ladle.

Most of the rest of the company was ranged too far apart to be helped by their fellows.

Terrible situation all around.

If they lived through this, Nori was most definitely going to bugger off. He’d drag his brothers with him, tie them up in the troll’s sacks if he had to and head for the first inn large enough to have a dicing table. He’d make a quick purse, or just rob the occupants blind, and head back home where life was miserable but just kept trudging onwards without anyone getting et by wargs.

It was a great plan. Now to make it to the first step.

Survive the next hour.

There was some shouting beside him, and he saw their visitor dragging Ori back from the approaching orcs exactly like their mother used to do to them in the market, her rambling interspersed angrily with Ori’s repeated name.  He wasn’t sure where they were going, but ‘further from wargs’ seemed like a reasonable start. That left Nori to focus on Dori.

Dori, who seemed ready to go on the offensive. The idiot.

Then there was an angry shout behind him.

He noticed after a moment that it came from the wizard. A day and a half without sleep had him a bit slow on the uptake. The rush of the fight could only keep him moving at speed for so long. Mercifully, the Wizard beckoned them all over, as if to safety. A quick flare of panic at where Ori had gotten to tightened Nori’s chest until he slid down the rock and found him below.

Climbing back up would have been miserable.

Warhorns, hoofbeats, and elves all thundered above them. Fortunately, the Company all had somehow made it safely into the hidden passage Gandalf had found.

Their success had been a matter of luck and nothing else. But when a dwarf finds himself lucky one day, he expects it to balance out on the next.

They’d had quite a bit of luck lately.

Nori knew the next days were going to blow.

 


 

 

Her hands wouldn’t stop trembling.

The running, the adrenaline and the re-appropriation of softball skills to kill a creature the size of a bear had her a bit disturbed.

She was away from the dwarves where they couldn’t see, but if she didn’t get it under control unknown quantity of dwarves, elves, and be-bothered hobbits would probably put up a fuss. Flexing them, shaking them, and a quick drink of water did nothing to help. So she just clenched them into fists and checked her packs.

“Stupid fucking Wargs. I hate you so much PJ. So. So Much.”

She waited to see Thorin slide down the stone into the passage before she started walking. The others she had already glanced over, looking for unexpected injuries. He was the last. She wasn’t sure what she’d have done if any of them had been hurt, other than hand over one of her bags to Oin and feel guilty. But other than a very faint trace of pink on Fili’s cheek from where she had slapped him, they were all well.

Based on the heat she could still feel, her own face was brighter.

Stupid miserable dwarves.

She started off down the passage, furious, and thought back on how very wrong she had been on her arrival here.

...............................

Just shy of two months earlier, as April drew to a close, she woke up in a lump with her purse and her water bottle under the Party Tree. Yes, the Party Tree. That one. The one in Hobbiton.

The only Party Tree that matters, really.

Because, apparently she was going to have the best dream ever tonight. It didn’t matter what stairwell or fire escape or bathroom floor she was actually dozing on, because sweet holy Tolkien.

Party. Tree.

She didn’t actually recall going out drinking or… ah…. indulging, but that happened sometimes. She hadn’t really done much of either in a few years, ever since graduation in fact, but this thing was already underway, so she didn’t feel like wasting time worrying about the how of it.

“Oh I am going to be so pissed off when I wake up. This is amazing. Look at those flowers! This is….WOW just. Well done brain, or booze, or drugs. Whatever is responsible for this. Okay. Actually, probably not smart to be thanking drugs. Anyways. Yes. So I guess this is like lucid dreaming then? Neat. Okay. Step one, Bag End. That’s always step one in figuring things out. And once I know what year it is in here-- or wait, can I just decide which one I want? That’d be nice. Oooh, can I just skip to happily ever after sexy times in...in...Gondor with Faramir! No! With Merry! No. Ooooooh. There it s. Erebor. Ohhhh yes please. Brain, can I just skip to that? One reclaimed Kingdom of the Longbeards please! One where the line of Durin was just a bit less idiotic and understood the point of staying together and wearing sturdy armor, and so are just sitting around merrily drinking and being ridiculously attractive lumps? No! Young Aragorn! Holy God I forgot about Young Hot Aragorn! That one please!”  She scrunched up her face and focused. “Okay apparently not. So there’s rules to this lucid dreaming thing. Very good to know.”

She left her purse and her coat by the tree, assuming they’d probably vanish when she stopped looking at them, and found Bag End easily enough. Not that it was hard. How did Thorin miss it? Biggest hill around, large tree on top, green door. Done and done.  Stepping inside the gate she looked around and did a bouncing jig in place. Because right there on the door, was a funny little glowing rune.

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

She couldn’t stop giggling.

“Dwarves dwarves dwarves dwarves dwarves. Yayayayayayay. Okay, I’m just the happiest little girl in the world now. Either world. All the worlds. Including magic imaginary hobbity dream world! I get to go on an adventure! Brain, I don’t know what I did to mess you up this badly, but I am going to do it all the time now. I don’t know what I drank, or smoked, or was dosed with, I don’t care if I’m unconscious in the rain behind a 7-11, but if that door opens and there are dwarves tormenting Bilbo, if I get to do the quest, I am going to have to do it more often. And fuck the consequences.”

She paused, glanced down. She was wearing her work clothes. Very odd. Her brain had conjured up all of Hobbiton down to individual flowers and plants but couldn’t be arsed to put her in something more appropriate? It had just left her in what she’d worn that day? Though, steel toed work boots and jeans was better than if her brain had her in a cocktail dress.

Actually.

Depending who opened the door, maybe a cocktail dress wouldn’t be so bad. Or some fitted riding leathers. She scrunched her face again, really hoping she’d look down to find something slinky when she opened them. Nope. Jeans. Work boots. Plain grey undershirt.

Lucid dreaming was super weird.

“Isn’t the whole point supposed to be that I can control the dream? Or maybe this is a drug thing? But shouldn’t it be less consistent? I mean, shouldn’t there be… I don’t know… the Burj Khalifa on the horizon or something? Things are going to be much harder if I have actually do some seducing. Hee, I said harder. Ahrrm. Right. Ok, fine, I was a fangirl, I can play by the rules. Well, sort of can.” She shook out her hands, quivering with happiness and knocked.

And because habits are hard to break, she knocked “Shave and a Haircut” just like her brother always did. Then clasped her hands behind her back and bounced on her heels while she waited. But after some shuffling and some grumbling beyond the door -- excellent sign, meant there actually were folks inside -- it eventually opened. Revealing a pair of brothers.

Problematically attractive brothers.

She hummed a bit at the sight before managing words.

“Oh sweet merciful fuck but wow. Yeah. Well now I really can’t let you just pop off and die. You’re way prettier in person. Not that I really think this dream thingy will last that long, so we’ll need to take advantage of the time now, won’t we? We can just skip the quest.” She winked and grinned, hearing herself, and Kili at least grinned back. “I can think of several activities to make up for the lack of it. Especially since I’m apparently dwarf-sized. So shouldn’t make the proportions all awkward. Aaaand apparently some combination of devastatingly attractive dwarves and weird lucid dreams has permanently disabled the mute button for my mouth, because I cannot seem to stop talking. Whatever. Dreaming. Ahrrm. Yes. Hi. Good evening.” She bobbed a half bow.

Two heads leaned to the side a bit, and, synchronized, tracked down, then back up again. They paused like they were about to speak, stopped, glanced at each other, then both heads tilted the other direction to keep staring at her.

They really were astoundingly pretty. All broad and silent and smelling like leather and the contents of Bilbo’s pantry. And just exuding this sense of strength and skill and--No, probably best not to go down that rabbit hole just yet. She at least wanted to get inside Bag End before the dream collapsed into carnal fantasy.

“Oh come on, it’s my dream, I can make a pass at you if I want. Can I come in? I figure you’ve eaten all the food by now, but I want to see the others too. I need to know how detailed my brain managed to make this so I can know how many times I need to re-read and re-watch before taking more of whatever did this and trying to get back here.

“I mean, I’m not surprised you two look super accurate. Lots of screen time, personal favorites, shamelessly because you’re just… wow. It’s absolutely not natural. It really isn’t, Fili.”

They flicked glances at each other and looked back with expressions that were less bemused and more wary.

“What? Does my brain want me to stay in character or something? Dammit Brain, can’t we just fast-forward? I don’t know how long I’ll be asleep.”

They turned to each other, and exchanged raised eyebrows, half nods, lip quirks and several significant looks back at her. It was practically twin-speak. Then Fili nodded sharply, and stepped away with a shouted, “Thorin! Akrisiki-ma milmal

That was odd.

She hadn’t looked at khuzdul in years. Yeah, there were a few notable phrases that stood out in her head, but mostly it was forgotten. Or maybe Sherlock had it right and it was just a question of finding it. Which her brain had apparently done since that sounded accurate enough for her to believe it.

She shook her head.

“Lucid dreaming is weird Kili. Super duper weird.”

The brunette tensed further.

She twitched. This was her dream, why were they acting so oddly?

Low rumbling khuzdul preambled Fili’s return with Thorin and Dwalin in tow.

“Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror. How are ya? Ready to take on Smaug and Azog? Do you mind if I take the lads here home as a door prize if I can keep ‘em alive? Or maybe take ‘em earlier? To be honest I’d prefer to just drag Fili off to a bed within the next few minutes and fuck until my brain decides to wake me up. But if that doesn’t work for you we can negotiate. I’ll leave your heir alone and settle for Kili as long as we throw Tauriel in on the deal too. Actually, who am I kidding, I'd take Tauriel any way I could get her.”

WhoinDurinsnameareyou?”

She gaped. The smile that had seemed permanently stretched over her cheeks faltered.

Answermebeforewedecidetheriskisnotworthourcuriosity.”

“Wait, what? Why can’t I understand you Thorin?” She glanced at the others. “Somebody else talk. Fili, use your words.”

ShesbeenlikethissinceshearrivedUncle.”

“Oh shit, why aren’t you speaking English? What is wrong with my brain?”

Gogetthewizard Kili.”

“Wait, but I have the names right? This is not fucking fair!”

Calmyourselflass.”

“What the fuck did you say? Why the fuck can’t I understand you? This is my dream! This is my brain! I should at least be able to talk to you ninnies!” Dwalin stepped forward into a more defensive position of Durin’s line as she flapped her arms. “Oh come off it Baldy. Most dangerous thing I’ve got right now is my shoes and I don’t think I could actually kick anyone to death. I was always shit at soccer. Also. This is a Dream! In MY head! So eventually it’s just going to flip sideways and we’ll all sit down for tea and crumpets with Jane Eyre and Gumby and call it a night.  So stop glaring at me!”

She slapped him across the arm and regretted it. Her fingers stung and she rolled them around a few times, frowning at the bald dwarf who was frowning right back, unfazed by her paltry attack.

Andwhathaveyoufoundhere?” The low baritone had to be Gandalf. She turned, and, yes, one enormous wizard in a rumpled grey robe had just ducked into the foyer.

“Shit, I was really hoping you at least would speak english and my brain was making up a thing for them. This is incredibly unfair. Best dream ever just got shot to hell ‘cause this isn’t working for me.”

Perhapsthisisabetterconversationtohaveindoors.”

Dwalin reached for her, and she fell back, off the first step, ready to run.

Even if she would be wasting a fabulous possibility, she could always just go get dream-drunk with a bunch of Hobbits at the Green Dragon until whatever this was wore off. Different kind of fun, but better than grumpy incomprehensible dwarves. Though she was starting to think that this was less of a glorious dream and more of a malicious drug induced hell.

Bringher.” Thorin ordered.

Strong hands caught her shoulders and suddenly she was in Bag End with the door clicking shut behind her.

...............................

 

She shook her head of the memory. It didn’t help to dwell on how completely she had ruined things that first night. Especially what she had said in the parlor.

They weren’t pleased with her marching off without them. Not that they were ever pleased with her. And answering what she was fairly certain was a query about her destination with a barked, “Rivendell!” had done nothing to ingratiate herself to them. At this rate, Thorin really would have her head off next time she pushed him.

“Fandom. Fandom. Fandom. Think of the Fandom. Think about the echoing screams of a million broken hearted Fangirls. And Fanboys. Mustn’t forget the fanboys. You’re representing a noble people, mustn’t let them down. Stabbing Thorin in the leg with a fork would definitely be letting them down. Fandom. Fandom. Fandom.”

Her original mantra was losing its usefulness. The temptation to make nice with the elves was growing even if it would nail shut any chance of the dwarves trusting her.

Rivendell was good enough for Bilbo, it could work for her.

She could learn Sindarin with the Elves. Maybe Quenya. She’d be the undisputed Queen of Nerds if she could manage full fluency before going home. They would probably even help her learn it, unlike the bastards that were tromping along behind her. Then, after the idiots got themselves killed, she could snag Bilbo on his way home, have a quick chat, and wrap up the Ring Quest easy peasy before Sauron even woke up properly.

“Besides,” She grumbled, “based on the math, there’s a twenty-something Estel in the Hidden Valley.” She heard what she had just said and started to giggle. She needed sleep. But if an eighty-seven year old Aragorn looked like she knew he did….Yes, staying in Rivendell was starting to sound better and better. “Sorry lads.”

Except.

She glanced over her shoulder at Thorin and Bilbo squabbling like kids on the playground. They were half an inch from pulling braids and tattling to teacher. Thorin stomped back up to Balin and Dwalin and the princes, fuming, but with a faint crinkling around his eyes like he was trying not to smile.

Bilbo was even worse, smirking outright, and downright smoldering at the leader of the company. Not for very long, mind, but she saw it.

They deserved -- No. Scratch that -- Bilbo deserved some happiness. If it made Thorin happy, that would be a byproduct. But Bilbo ought to have every chance of seeing that smolder reciprocated. Maybe she could manage it while they were in Rivendell. A bit of wine, some nice music, a bit more wine, maybe trip Bilbo into Thorin’s lap? That always seemed to work in fics. Maybe it would work here.

Then she could watch them march off towards the Goblins without guilt.

Right. She had a plan.

 


 

 

“It’s not like we can just shove her out of this little walk and go on our merry way, Thorin.” Balin finally snapped.

The king was whining, again, about the little scrap of a young’un that Mahal had seemingly saddled them with. Not that Balin was any happier about it, but he also wasn’t going to argue with strange wenches depositing packs of oilskins two days before a six day downpour. The incident back in the hobbit’s house before the start of all this was simply a lamentable confusion in his opinion.

He had, of course heard about it several times from his king in the first week. Balin had been inclined to agree with Thorin’s assessment that she was “at best mysterious and at worst malicious.” He had not pointed out that the ambiguity of his statement rendered any conclusions it drew useless.

Thorin could be rather stubborn.

This was part of why he had so doggedly refused to hear Balin and Bilbo’s suggestions that a person with no shared language likely had a completely separate base of reference for gestures as well. Except Thorin had considered it an insult to his grandfather, and that was the end of that.

Gandalf had offered no explanation for the passageway, nor any comment on the lass’ shout of “Rivendell.” But as Balin had seen a map in his lifetime, and had heard the Elvish horns blowing, he did not need it confirmed. They were walking to Rivendell.

Which was sure to plunge Thorin into an even darker mood.

After the journey so far, Balin, on the other hand, would be happy to treat with Elves in order to sleep in a bed and eat at a table.

“She is an unnecessary risk.” Thorin snapped back at him. Right. He had been conversing with the king.

“Will you at least allow one of us to speak with her? Just briefly? She has seemed more willing to--”

“No.”

“If she can learn a bit of language she may be able to explain--”

“I said no, Balin. Her intent is, as you have repeatedly informed me, obvious, but I will not allow her to join us. If she does not kill us in our sleep, she would be a liability larger than the halfling.”

“Excuse Me!” Bilbo yelled from behind them.

“Actually….” Kili said beside them before Thorin could turn to berate their burglar and further increase the betting pool. “Uh, actually Uncle, she’s not exactly defenseless.”

“How do you mean?”

“She killed a warg.”

Thorin stopped walking at that.

“You said she was unarmed.”

“She was. She stole Nori’s staff. Smashed its head in. Fi and I saw the uh… the aftermath. I mean, Fi stabbed it a bit, but it was already dying.” For just a moment Thorin’s face lost it’s scowl in deference to surprise. Balin took advantage of it.

“She also brought us those oilcloths.”

“And Mister Baggins’ coat.” Kili added. Balin could only hope that the younger Prince was trying to help change Thorin’s edict. They had not spoken about this.

“As well as his handkerchiefs.”

“She knew he’d left them.”

“And she knew that storm was coming.”

“And she gave you that elf-sword.”  

“It seemed she knew the swords were in there.”

“Maybe she can read portents or something, Uncle.”

“Such things have been seen before, Thorin.”

“I don’t trust her.” Dwalin interrupted, just as the king’s resolve was starting to waver.

Thorin waited a moment, looking at the small council around him. Balin was reminded briefly why he followed him. The king surveyed them each before settling his gaze on his heir.

“You have said nothing, Fili.”

“No, Uncle.”

“Would you trust her?”

“No.” Fili did not hesitate.

Thorin nodded, the decision made. Balin groaned internally; he would have to wait at least a few days before re-raising the argument. The princes split away, whispering too softly to overhear. Thorin slowed to walk beside the burglar once more, looking nonchalant; as if none of the others had noted the infatuation.

Balin slowed to find Gloin and increase his bet.

Chapter Text

Looking back later, while she trailed after them in the wilds beyond Bree with little to do but berate herself, she acknowledged that she couldn’t have made a worse impression without stabbing someone. Even then, as long as the stabbing had been mild, she might have gotten off as eccentrically dangerous.

Dwarves could respect that.

But no.

She had to go and bollocks it up while rambling about the recent history of Middle Earth. At the time, all she thought was that, apparently, the drug induced Dwarves in her brain were pretty picky about familial honor.

Once she realized they weren’t drug induced at all, she was shocked no one had disemboweled her on the spot.

They were sitting on plush chairs in a quiet room away from most of the company. The Durins, Dwalin, and Gandalf encircled her. Balin was trying to explain things to a recently awakened hobbit in the next room. The others were polishing off the last traces of food in the hobbit hole.

It had been going tolerably well. They were back to looking amused by her oddity as she rambled.

The protracted monologue of obscenities and insults directed at her own useless miserable brain was starting to stretch her creative capacity, but they were just observing in silence. There were brief detours in her tirade when she would point at one of the Durins and start lecturing on the singular importance of protecting the lineage. About chickens and baskets and how important armor was during battles. At one point she turned on Dwalin and berated him for several minutes on why the Princes couldn’t be trusted alone. Ever. At all. Not with ponies. Definitely not in battle.

The very short blade she had snatched off Fili’s belt was brandished back and forth as if she knew what she was doing. The dwarves watched it giving her the same look a child receives while playing pretend with their parents’ tools. How precious. Even when she gestured at Dwalin’s face and threatened to shave every hair, right down to the eyebrows, off his face if the Durin’s died, they all just watched. Like she was as intimidating as a houseplant.

When she actually touched his beard with the knife in the other hand, they had jumped up, shouting and threatening. It took a while to get them calmed back down with gestures and continued rambling.

And then there came a slight incident of foot-in-mouth disease.

“Oh, and by the way Thorin, do try to keep yourself and your hot nephews alive here. This is my brain and if this hell stretches on that long, I don’t want to watch them get all stabified and dead. I don’t seem to have much control over what’s going on here, but I’d like to avoid that. I mean, yeah, Azog.” She really should have noticed them all tense up. She wasn’t an idiot. She really should have noticed, “he must be pretty damn good in battle what with how he’s gonna kill you later and he’s missing a damn arm. I really did not need to see him, and him,” She pointed, “get all skewered and murdered. So just, in general, try to take him as a serious threat since he did skrrrrt Thror’s head right off last time you two hung out.”

Turns out some hand gestures cross language barriers just fine.

They could move damn fast when they wanted to. Which they did. So she found herself against a wall with Fili’s short daggers at her throat and murderous eyes pinning her in place.

Which made it official.

This was no longer the best dream ever.

In fact, probably bottom five at this rate. If she got stabbed and dreamt about jugular exsanguination it would probably oust that freaky ‘vampires keeping humanity as livestock’ dream from its position as the worst dream of her life. They were on similar themes after all.

Something about this being almost the best experience of her life was making it that much more frustrating that not a damn bit of it was playing out properly. Plus, she couldn’t wake up. And wow, but she had tried. Pretty much had done little else in the last hour. That was one thing she had been sure about with lucid dreaming. There were certain tricks to make sure a person woke up. She knew them. None of it had helped. So, the drugs, which were her theory until proven otherwise, were apparently too strong.

This wasn’t fun anymore.

And just in case her grandmother and the Matrix were right, she wanted to wake up from her dream, not die for real because her brain short circuited when she died here.

The dwarves were growling in what was probably khuzdul, and she hadn’t paid them a bit of attention since steel touched skin. It was hard to think past the threat long enough to sort out the nuances of their speech patterns and try to decipher the meaning.

The rules of this stupid dream didn’t make any damned sense. She had very much cocked it up though.

Time to backpedal that little faux pas then.

Her efforts didn’t go well.

 


 

Rivendell was Gorgeous. It was no wonder that Bilbo had wanted to stay forever. Sweeping arches, flowing streams, gentle waterfalls, magnificent vistas, and very pleasant elves.

True, the height difference was still rather alarming. It was like being a child again, except that, unlike the Men of Bree, the Elves would stand at a reasonable distance or sit to accommodate her height and keep her from craning her neck. And they did so without it seeming patronizing. Yes, overall, she was quite pleased with the elves.

The company was less so.

That Thorin’s head hadn’t been excused from his shoulders for his immense dickitude upon arrival, was a testament to the eternal patience of their hosts. Or maybe they didn’t know what the khuzdul he was muttering meant. She had vaguely recognized a few words, and could guess the rest of it. Appalling manners. Although, noticing Bilbo’s pinched glare at the back of Thorin’s head during the exchange had been delightful.

She had liked the elves immediately. She knew that she would be forever crazy about them from the moment Lindir escorted her away from the others -- first point -- and showed her a small room with a bed -- second point -- and a proper bathroom -- third point -- attached to it.

They did not know who she was. They had not spoken to her. Thorin had made a comment and a gesture that had a distinct tone of “screw that bitch” when they first arrived. Elrond had raised an eyebrow. But that was all.

Then Lindir had arrived at her elbow and, using mime, invited her to rest, bathe and eat. After a few ridiculous moments of charades, they even managed to communicate that yes, she would love a loan of clothing so she could wash what she wore. Silently gesturing in what was half sign language, half a bow, and half substantial looks of gratitude, she managed to thank him. He bowed, and smiled, and left her in the chamber alone where she flopped onto the bed and promptly fell asleep.

Elvish beds were magical, but sleeping forever would have meant missing dinner, and her stomach was not going to allow that.

She changed out of her disgusting clothing, wiped off the worst of the filth with the ewer of water, and slipped into the dress-like robe and trousers Lindir had left inside the door. Her hair was just going to have to stay in a horrid knotted bun. The clothes were soft and supple and smelled good. Nothing had smelled good in weeks. So, she held them to her face and basked in the blissful flowery scent. They were several shades of green-- of course they were, they were elvish -- but they fit better than she had hoped. Lindir was going to get hugged in half later.

Then she started laughing.

“Oooh boy but Thorin’s not going to be pleased with this. Don’t care. And these are probably kids clothes. Don’t care about that either. Sorry line of Durin, you’re gonna have to fend for yourselves, good luck on Ravenhill, say hi to Azog for me. I’ll try to warn you before you sneak off about the big stuff. I’m just going to live with the elves forever and ever and--”

She cut off at the knock.

Lindir was back.  

More bowing and miming had her following him, barefoot, into an open room, and a small table with just three chairs set away from the dwarves and other elves. Lindir and a blonde, stoic elf she didn’t recognize sat with her. They were quiet, pleasant company. And, as she was no longer convinced she was in a drug induced hallucination, didn’t make a pass at them, try to kill them, or threaten their honored kin.

It really helped keep everything civil.

Lesson learned there.

She kept her mouth shut altogether in fact. She would deal with the godforsaken language gap tomorrow. In the meantime, they could just think her mute.

Instead, she watched the dwarves. Other than a brief glance from Nori and Bilbo as she entered,  they hadn’t acknowledged her. They were too busy carousing and carrying on like roadtripping frat boys at a rival house. Which, she had to admit, was basically what they were.  

After several millennia of practice, the elves seemed to have perfected the fine art of ‘placid bitch face.’ It was admirable how well they all maintained their calm in the face of rambunctious dwarven terrors.

And, while they were learning to be calm they had also mastered wine. It was sweet but not overly so, fruity--which was perfect for the season and the annoyingly vegetarian meal, and substantially more intoxicating than it seemed. So she was having a very pleasant evening. She couldn’t help her giggle when Bilbo told off an elf; it looked like the elf had said something rude in Sindarin about Thorin; Bilbo had understood and forced an apology.  Thorin gawked like the hobbit had just descended from the heavens with heraldic trumpets blaring.

Excellent.

Maybe it really would be possible to achieve Bagginshield before the Company left.

That was excellent news. If she could shove the two of them together early, Bilbo might have enough influence by the time they got to Erebor to bitch-slap the gold sick king around the mountain a few times. She had no doubt of Bilbo’s ability to slap him around right now, but he wouldn’t if there was a chance he might get skewered for doing it. Consort status would be ideal, she determined. Although, how to be certain they didn’t snark themselves into a tiff without following them would be a challenge… Perhaps Balin could be recruited? He was watching bemusedly as well.

Her attention focused back to the present when she saw Elrond holding a sword.

Honestly, her first instinct was that Thorin had managed to outdo his base level of Insulting Prick and really go for the gold; maybe an insult to Elrond’s dead wife. Fortunately, she recognized the blade, and grabbed her wine glass to wait.

Elrond looked the blade over, “Thisis Orcrist, thegoblincleaver.”

And fifteen heads turned to look at her.

Smug.

That’s the only word for how she smiled back at them before toasting with her wine. Then, and it was entirely the wine’s fault, she pointed to Gandalf and said, “Glamdring.”

And fifteen heads spun to look at Elrond again. She didn’t notice the elves turning to look at her. The sword was drawn and examined and Elrond confirmed her announcement.

Very Smug. And a bit tipsy.

“I told you so.”

Lindir’s belated half strangled noise turned her back to him. “Myapologieslady. Weweretoldyoudidnotspeak. ”

“I feel like you’re expecting some kind of answer.” She said helplessly. So much for playing mute.

Whatisyournamelady?”

“Uh...what?”

Shedoesn’tspeakcommonmlord.” Bilbo said as he crossed the room amidst protest from the rest of the company. “Oranyotherlanguagewecouldrecognize.”

Nice as it was to have Bilbo smiling and chatting amiably with the elf, she was still miffed by the reminder that she didn’t have a damn clue what was being said about her.

Andyoutriedtheoldtongues? Andthesouthrontongue?” The blonde elf asked.

Indeedwedid. Ihadhopedlord Elrond mightrecognizeit. Itseemshedoesnot.”

“Nothisnotsomethingwehaveheard.”

Howdidsheknowthenameofthebladethen?” Lindir added.

Ahwell…” Bilbo hesitated, “Sheseemstoknownames.”

They were all three staring at her now, but at least the rest of the company had drifted back into their antics. She glared half-heartedly, then noticed that Thorin was watching Bilbo’s back with his usual dour glare.

“What? What’s going on now? Bilbo, you better not have made them hate me. I like it here. Rivendell is lovely. Please dont ruin this for me. Lindir, please let me stay here in the land of bathrooms and beds and tasty wine.”

And now they were all astounded by something.

Youhadnttoldheryournameyethadyou?”

NoIhadnot.”

Shedidthistoallofustoo. Sheshowedupandlistednamesandrelativesandlineages. Youare Lindir, correct?”

Lindir nodded. “Andhername?”

Bilbo frowned “Ohuh….hername...thatseemstobe--justgivemeaminutetorecall...thatis...” He turned back to the other dwarves, “Idontseemtorememberhername.”

Magajjuna.”

Lukhalukh.”

Annoyinglitt--”

Yesthankyou. Imeantherrealname.”

There was a moment of long uncomfortable silence.

Hasanyoneeveraskedhername?”

Very strange. Whatever they were discussing had all of the company, even Gandalf, squirming uncomfortably while the elves glared in disapproval. She ignored the need to yell at someone. She did want the elves to like her when the dwarves wandered off to the mountains to make bad decisions, and get nearly eaten several times over.  Bilbo turned back, looking contrite, with a faint blush on his cheeks. He blushed prettily. She glared.

Then, for some reason -- it must have been the wine -- her mind jumped to a flash of memory from one of the smuttier fanfics she had read, rendered almost as clearly as if she had lived it.

---Bilbo’s pretty blush rose higher, tinting his ears bright red as Thorin growled and slid his hand deeper into the hobbit’s trousers with every intention of seeing how far that blush would travel south before---

She shook her head sharply to dispel it and consciously set aside the wine in favor of water and more bread. She downed the water and looked back to the elves and the Company bickering about...something.

She needed to focus.

Instead it happened again.

---His rough hands were at her hips, holding her in his lap with a grip that couldn’t be fought. She ground down against him with a moan that was quickly echoed in the ranger’s throat. Sliding fingers slowly down to find the thighs exposed by her dress rucked between them, he gathered the edge and began pulling higher, exposing skin to the cool night air. A little whimper fell as dress and hands brushed past her breasts and---

She coughed hard enough that the blonde elf refilled her goblet.

That was...unique.

But Bilbo was looking at her apologetically. And the elves were, to a one, still glaring at the Company. Wondering what she missed while her mind was randomly digging through the porn archives at the back of her brain and reenacting them, she gestured in general query at her new favorite elf. Lindir nodded, but spoke to Bilbo first.

Youneverthoughttask? Andthenspokeofherillmanners? Ladymynameis Lindir,” he placed a hand against his chest, then gestured elegantly at the hobbit, “Bilbo.” He gestured to the blonde elf, “Glorfindel.” Then very deliberately, he gestured to her and waited.

And she was silent. Partially because a huge portion of her brain was devoted to staring at Glorfindel. Because she only knew of one elf named Glorfindel. That meant he was Glorfindel the Balrog Slayer. Glorfindel the Suddenly Obscenely Attractive. He who got cut from the movies for being too much a bamf. He who was probably sitting by her as a severely over-skilled guard. He who was faintly smirking which meant she must be gaping.

Crap.

Right, looking away.

But infatuation with the heroic elf of myth and legend was only part of why she hadn’t answered.

Obviously they were asking for her name. About time too since the mannerless nitwits had never bothered. But she absolutely could not give them her real name. One of the first things she learned while looking through Khuzdul was that her real name sounded remarkably like a particular word.

Something she’d rather not have them call her.

She had long since given up on pleasantly Mary Sueing her way through this hell, but running around being called the khuzdul word for ‘vagina-like’ was a step too far.

Yes, it was a polite, formal, nearly medical term, but still. Her real name was out of the question.

There was a line. Dammit.

But she also couldn’t just stare blankly at the elves while she thought of one.

Her stupid rebellious mouth was happy to fill in the silence.

“Freya.”

And while Lindir smiled politely and started what was likely a very formal set of introductions and apologies, her brain screamed at her mouth.

Because why why WHY had that just fallen out? That name that she had insisted on using on everything in middle school when it wasn’t cool to use her real name. When she was obsessed with mythology. How had her middle school self just taken over? Carol would have been better. Though, at least her useless rebellious mouth had grabbed something with a Norse root rather than say, Thai. But why had she said a name with the same base as Thorin’s dead brother? He was probably going to notice that. But, he couldn’t take offense to a similarity in names. Surely he-- no, no he was scowling, apparently he could take offense.

Excellent.

Great.

Good call mouth.

And there was no way to undo it.

So she smiled.

Apparently, her name was now Freya.

Could have been worse.

 


 

Nadadith, I get it if you’re confused since Dori’s just said that as a question, but I’m not asking. Get your pack together. Now. We’re chattin’ with Balin soon as we can grab him. We’re cancelin' out our contracts and departin’ at first light. We’ll stop back at that troll cave to get the gold buried there, and then we are going home.”

Ori said nothing. He just turned the page and continued writing notes on the past few days. “It was Bill, Tom and….Bert, wasn’t it?” Nori and Dori didn’t answer. “Yes, I remember now. Bert was the biggish one.”

“Ori.”

He persevered in his feigned deafness. He wanted to be asleep after the misery of the last days, but knew that his brothers would just haul him up if he tried. So since he was up, he thought he could at least put the time to use.

“And it was Kili who first concurred about the parasites yes?” He asked in place of acknowledging their conversation.

“We aren’t asking, Ori. You’re coming with us before we all get dead on this fool quest. We aren’t just going to leave you here. Amad’d never forgive us.”

Ori finished the line and set down his quill.

His brothers were nothing if not pig-headed, and he had enough experience with their obstinacy to know that anything less than a shovel to the back of the head was unlikely to change their minds. He lamented his lack of shovel for a second. Then looked up.

“You can’t cancel your contract.”

Binarnak targithul burg. Do you want to die for some fool mountain you’ve never even seen?” Nori snapped.

“No, brother, I don’t want to die, no one--”

“I saw you with the orcs. You’re not a fighter Ori. You’re a scribe. You’re gonna get killed.”

Ori swallowed, trying to look immovable. That... hadn’t been his best moment. He had fought wolves and bears before and once a small group of dwarven raiders, and had always been accurate with his sling, though rarely useful. The wargs… the orcs… had been terrifying. No point denying that. He should have done better. He needed to do better in the future. But the Company had survived. And if Mahal was going to see them through one hopeless situation, then he would continue to hope for success.

He finally spoke, “That’s not the point. You can’t cancel your contract.”

“Durinul brugn’abban I can’t!"

“You can’t cancel your contract without incurring a penalty, and not just what Balin, Dwalin and the King will do to you two if you try. I know, brothers, I helped Balin to write that section.” That was a lie. Or, maybe it would be better to say, he did help write it, but the ‘Troll Incident,’ as he was calling it in his notes, fit the requirements of the clause beautifully.

Any member of the company was entitled to walk away without argument.

Not that Ori intended to tell them that. If they were too stupid to have read the full terms, that was their own fault.

“Do what you want brothers, but I am not going to betray them.” Yes, that was the word to use with Dori. His eldest brother snapped his mouth closed with a click. “And Nori, just sneak off if you decide to go, they’ll be able to fill in what happened if you go missing. It’ll be obvious since they know your history. That way you can avoid admitting you’re abandoning them.”

That was Nori taken care of.

Both were watching like he had turned into a two headed elf. Dwalin was right, Ori did need to stand up for himself more often.

That was the boldest he’d ever felt.

It felt good.

“I’ll see you in the morning. It’s been a busy few days.”

He snapped his book shut and strode from the room, hoping he looked more confident than he felt. It was a rush, talking like that to the brothers that had essentially raised him. Ori could count on one hand the times he had stood up to them about anything that mattered.

Refusing to eat leaves hardly counted.

All the same, he truly hoped they wouldn’t continue to argue, he didn’t know if he had the stones to repeat that performance in the near future.   





Bilbo flapped his hand in exasperation at the King, and answered the same question for the third time.

“Yes of course I said something Thorin, you don’t speak Sindarin, and it was completely inappropriate of him to insult you when you are a guest here.”

“But why?”

“Garden Goddess give me patience. Thorin. As I have told you, I said something because I wanted to. If it had been a comment about Balin or Bofur I would have done the same. I would have done the same for any of the Company.”

Bilbo’s nose twitched and he shook his head. Thorin was still looking him queerly. Like he had not seen the hobbit before. It was a look he received at least once every few days. The King’s initial opinion of him must have been deep below the ground for Bilbo to still be counted as a surprise.  

“You still think I’m not a real member of this Company, is that it? You still think of me as a green grocer and whatever else you saw when you met me. Thanks for that, next time a troll is about to eat one of them, I’ll just let be then, how’s that?”

At least he looked properly abashed. He stared over Bilbo’s shoulder trying to seem majestic in the moonlight, and failing, Biblo noted with a smirk. He added another mental tally to his list.

Wonderful game, discomfiting a King. He hadn’t known he’d had it in him.

It wasn’t that he disrespected Thorin, quite the opposite. The others had told him stories as they travelled; Thorin had taken up the mantle of responsibility decades before it should have fallen on his shoulders, while his kin still considered him a youth. His actions were as admirable as any he had ever heard. However, he had not had an inch, not one corner of his life to call his own. Bilbo blamed that for why he seemed to be permanently wearing a pair of burr-lined underthings.

The tension in him was so deeply ingrained that the hobbit had no idea what the king would look like if it ever broke. He wanted to know. Tooks were always the most curious of hobbits.

But he respected the dwarf deeply for what he had done.

Even if the hobbit could not resist the temptation of prodding at him. His facade of majestic indifference worked on the rest of the company, even seemed to work on the elves for the most part. Bilbo however, had employed a similar trick for years when dealing with his least pleasant relatives, and saw through it the very first time it wavered, all the way back in Bree.   

Also, when Bilbo was willing to examine it, he knew there was something else.

Something about Thorin Oakenshield seemed to provoke every last one of Bilbo’s Tookish impulses. And somewhere between the moment Thorin had grabbed his arm outside the troll’s cave, and when they crossed the bridge into Rivendell, there had been a shift. Nothing world changing, no, something dreadfully subtle. Too subtle for Bilbo to have identified it as of yet.

It was however, addictive.

Neither had slept in two days. By rights they should have been as thoroughly unconscious as the rest of the Company, as the rest of residents of Rivendell. But that twist had happened. And now neither was inclined to retire to their beds and rest. At least not to their own--

No, no. No.

He wasn’t sure of that just yet. Inappropriate to presume.

That change between them was the reason Thorin had grabbed the hobbit by the arm again, and dragged him to the balcony. The formal pretense had been to discuss his reasoning during dinner. Bilbo had dismissed that as a lie before it was fully spoken.

Unfortunately, Thorin had been a bit fixated in the conversation thus far.

As he finally surmounted his chagrin, Thorin managed to speak, “You - you are not a dwarf.”

“Very observant of you.”

“I mean that you owe no allegiance to our kind.”

“You mean I owe no allegiance to you.”

“I have said what I meant Mister Baggins.”

Bilbo smirked, “No you didn’t.”

“You presume to know what I mean better than I know myself?”

“No, of course not. But that wasn’t what you meant to say.”

He had gotten faster at cracking that facade. Or maybe it was just getting weaker. Either way, it was a lot easier now for Bilbo to provoke the King now than it had been in Bree. And he was rewarded with a soft furrowing of the brow and an odd tightness around the mouth. Maybe he would finally manage to evoke a smile tonight. Maybe, if he tried very very hard, and was very very lucky he might manage to get a response he could categorically declare to be flirting.

The hobbit couldn’t keep blindly flirting with someone who was possibly unaware and uninterested.

He needed confirmation.

“Are you intentionally trying to provoke me, Mister Baggins?”

“Yes.”

“Most would say provoking me is not wise.”

“Cowards.” he scoffed jokingly, “Now, provoking a dragon, burgling it? That is not wise. In fact, it’s likely to get me eaten right up.”

“I - that’s - this is hardly the subject of this conversation. We are discussing your actions this evening in relation to your sentiment toward the Elves of Rivendell and what further impact their negative opinions of our Company might have to encourage them to forestall and obfuscate our quest.”

It took every ounce of Baggins control not to cackle at that loquacious attempt to reclaim control of the conversational tide.

“Well, I’m sorry Master Oakenshield, if that is all you wish to discuss, it will have to wait until morning. After breakfast. Second breakfast, that is. I’m simply not interested in discussing so dry and tedious a subject so late at night.” He nodded a facsimile of a bow and began to depart.  Thorin caught him by the coat, as expected. Bilbo glanced from his sleeve to Thorin’s eyes, “Was there something else before we’re off to bed?”

He clipped the last word out precisely.

The Took was getting out of hand. Sleep deprivation. He wouldn’t have allowed it otherwise.

The Baggins dearly wanted to amend that statement, but was far too preoccupied watching a faint trace of pink rising above a dark beard to stop the Took from continuing.

“I expect you’re also thinking of putting a bed to good use.”

And the blush grew brighter.

How encouraging.

Wonderful game. Truly.

And the next move was to depart again.

Maybe, if Mister Bilbo Baggins had been born Mister Bilbo Took he wouldn’t have squeaked like a caught mouse when the coiled spring that was Thorin Oakenshield finally loosed. No matter, because it became obvious rather quickly that there was no objection to his startled exclamation. Instead there was a faint grin just starting to curl up the corners of his mouth.

More of a grin than Bilbo had ever managed to see before. It was charming.

All the dwarf had done, really, was pull the hobbit slightly. Just a tightening of his grip and what was, to him, a minute exertion.

It resulted in Bilbo falling. A bit. Into Thorin.

It may well have been a happy accident.  

Or It may have been a calculated action.

The hobbit hung for a moment, held up by the dwarf’s stronger arms, with his toes skimming the top of sturdy boots. Thorin had pulled him close, saving him, holding him tight against a chest so well muscled that Bilbo felt a bit self conscious at how his own must feel.

Then they waited. He was well aware his jaw had dropped somewhere in all that falling business, and was refusing to close back up, very much preferring to gawp at the painfully bright eyes that held his own in thrall. The Baggins was bewildered. The Took had fled.

And it only got worse a moment later when he found himself quite thoroughly kissed.

It was brief. And angry.

The snapping of a line that closes a trap.  

It was sharp and harsh and desperate. It was a promise and a possession. It set off a tumult of fireworks behind his eyes and stole the breath from his lungs.

And it ended far too soon.

It cut off as fast as it began.

They fell apart gasping, bare seconds after Bilbo had turned to leave. Thorin backed himself stiffly against a carved post, and Bilbo slumped on the railing behind him. It had been anything but unwelcome. Mostly it had just been so damned sudden that the dumbstruck hobbit had not even had time to respond to the… the plundering that had just occurred.

“Oh dear.”

“Lagb’uzurkai Zantulbasn’ulusdai.”

“Tho- Master Oakenshield, what in all Arda -”

“Good evening Master Halfling. Baggins. Burglar.”

And Thorin was gone, sweeping back indoors in a fit of majestic pique and leaving a gaping hobbit to try and make sense of what in the name of the makers had just occurred.

Chapter Text

The chamber where the company took their meal was a boisterous place as they pulled dried meat from their pockets to add to the otherwise vegetarian fare. Bilbo was not going to object to the fresh bread and fruit that the elves had provided, nor was he going to turn down an extra helping in the form of surreptitious pork.  

It wasn’t enough to fill his permanently grumbling belly, but it was more than they usually ate, and he was pleased. Until, at least, Thorin stalked into the room trailing stormclouds and grumbling in khuzdul.

He wished, not for the first time, that Hobbits had a secret language so he could grumble and insult his companions as he was certain they so often did around him. Then he recalled the event that had prompted the conversation that had resulted in the foul mood currently stalking to the opposite end of the table.

He smirked.

Hobbits in general might not, but this one did.

Thus Bilbo began swearing in Sindarin.

Which he refused to translate for an inquisitive Ori.

It was infantile of him, he knew. But it improved his mood to the point that he could look at the dwarf without wanting to throw the platter of pears at his stupid face.

Really, it wasn’t so much to expect an explanation of a stolen, impassioned kiss.  Instead, he had been left dazed and aroused on the damn balcony. Where it was chilly. And exposed. And solitary. Now, it seemed that the confusticating dwarf was going to ignore him.

While Bilbo had taken not one, not two, but three full breakfasts this morning in an effort to calm his nerves and make up for all those he had missed on the road, Thorin seemed to be abstaining from any food made by elvish hands.

Arrogant be-bothered sod.

Now he wasn’t even making eye contact when just the night before he--

Bilbo shouldn’t have thought about it again. He had to restart the elvish insults.

Ori was so very confused.

And there wasn’t even anyone to talk to about this great bloody mess. The rest of the company, he was quite certain, maintained a betting pool on the subject. He was disinclined to let it become public knowledge. Especially if the miserable cow of a king was going to revert to treatment Bilbo had not endured since Bree.

Perhaps Lord Elrond could give him some advice on proper punishment against behavior like this amongst dwarves.

For now, Bilbo glared.

He glowered.

He scowled.

And he ignored as the others speculated.

Bofur’s ineffable good cheer eventually drew him into conversation. Mostly it was about their hosts and whether Bilbo had overheard anything unseemly beyond the insult he had referenced. While he was absolutely on the side of the dwarves in this quest, he could not condone their behavior, specifically the table dancing that his favorite dwarf had demonstrated. So, Bilbo was gathering himself up to deliver a proper scolding and well and truly ruin Bofur’s mood when the gathering was interrupted.

By her.

Again.

Thorin’s face so dramatically transformed into petulant rage Bilbo could not help but laugh at it. If she - Freya - didn’t slap him today, the Hobbit was going to.

The brat.

Apparently, she was trying again. The genuine tone from before Radagast’s arrival had returned. Her hands were empty and spread before her in an obvious gesture of peace. She only got to speak for a few seconds before Thorin snapped.

He grabbed her by the arm and dragged her into the small side room. It muffled his voice, but not fully. Soon it was two voices shouting. After listening in awkward silence a few moments with the rest of the Company, it was Bilbo’s turn to lose his temper. Bofur, Dwalin and the princes tried to grab his arm as he crossed the room in a fury and barged into the conversation.

They had never seen what a Baggins past his patience was capable of doing.

“Confusticate the both of you. Sit Down!” He barked in his very best ‘give me back my prize-winning tomatoes Isengrim Took!’ voice. “Get in the chair Thorin.” He repeated with a second sharp gesture when the dwarf looked ready to rebel. Freya on the other hand had dropped promptly into a seat with a quirking grin and an approving gaze. Good behavior wouldn’t excuse her from the scolding she rightly deserved though.

“Are you incapable of having a conversation without yelling at someone, young lady? Without obscenity and violence? We’ve certainly seen no proof of it. Did your mother never bother to teach you manners? What would she think to see you behaving like this. And you!” He said, whirling on the now abashed dwarf, “Has it occurred to you for even a moment that if you would just listen to her for two minutes together she might stop bothering us? That if you let her convey whatever her message is it might be useful? Or at least allow us to understand what she has been doing this whole time? Clearly not, on both your parts, or I could still be enjoying my luncheon rather than mothering the two of you like a pair of Bracegirdle fauntlings.”

There was giggling behind him from the Company.

Of course they were eavesdropping.   

Well, were roles reversed, he would have too.

Instead he had two temporarily sheepish characters seated before him to reconnoiter and manage.

“Now. Freya, I know that you cannot simply tell us, but I am happy to help you to communicate -- no, you be quiet Thorin! -- to tell this idiot whatever it is you have been trying to say this whole time.”

She blinked rapidly at him, flicking her eyes between Bilbo and Thorin as if trying to decide who to address. Neither of them was looking particularly friendly. So, she spoke generally, to the room more than to either of them.

“Thorin. Bilbo. Justletmeexplainpartofthis. Ineedyoutolistenjustforonefuckingminuteok? Me? Erebor. Me Erebor. Itsimportant. Icantfigureouthowtoexplainallofthis. EverythingIknow. Therestoomuch. Andsotheonlyoptionisformetocometoo.” Her voice was low and fervent. “Ireallyhopethisisthrerightword. Me. Erebor. Please. Thorin. Please.”

Bilbo started at that. She must have picked up the pleasantry from the elves.

She’d never heard it from the dwarves.

It was a great enough shift from her normal tirades that even Thorin restrained the obvious impulse to yell at her. So Bilbo allowed him to speak.

Lukhalukh, we cannot allow you to journey to Erebor. But you seem to have some purpose in following us. What is it?”

“She’s not going to understand that. Also, don’t be insulting.” Bilbo interjected quickly. “Freya. You… follow… why?” He asked using the broadest, simplest gestures he could. Her frown intensified.

IdontthinkIcanexplainmyselfproperly. Canwejusttaketimeformetolearnabitoflanguage? Justalittetime. Justafewdays? Illtrytokeepyouawayfromthegoblinsifyouleftmecome. ThatwoulddodgeyoumeetingAzzz---thepaleorc. Thoughwewouldneedtofetchthering.”

Bilbo’s turn to frown. Time for more gesturing. “You. Erebor. Why? You. Follow. Why?”

Wowyoumustbegreatatcharades Bilbo. IthinkIunderstoodit.” She muttered as she pulled a packet of paper out of a pocket. “Ok. Okpleasepleaseplease Please donttakethisoneasathreat.” Carefully, she unfolded a sheet and slid it across the table to the cautiously optimistic pair.

This was, after all, the first time she had shown even the slightest indication that she understood them. Bilbo was thrilled. Maybe he could sit down to work out the fundamentals of language with her if she could keep her temper in check. Maybe he could enlist Bifur and supplement verbal language with some of his signs.

He was so hopeful.

Until he looked down.

The paper had a sketched, but accurate, version of the map Thorin so cherished. The runes were indicated not written, but the rest; the layout, the style, even the dragon marked in red over the mountain, were a match to the one that rested against the King’s chest.

In spite of the bared teeth and slight growl rumbling out of Thorin, she slid over a second piece of paper. This one had a similarly accurate sketch of the key Gandalf had revealed at Bag End upon it.

Iknowaboutyourquest. Iknowabout Smaug. Iknowwhatisgoingtohappen. Idontwantthelineof Durin tofail. Please. Letmehelp. Letmecometo Erebor. IswearIknowwhatscoming.” She either wasn’t watching, or wasn’t heeding the seething rage that was boiling off the dwarf in waves.

She slid over a third. Bilbo did not recognize it, but she pointed to the runes drawn within an oval, and said “Kíli.”

Stupid of her.

Bilbo did not understand the full connection, but even he knew that had been a damn foolish thing to say. Never include the sister-sons. That would be the first thing he taught her if he ever got to speak to her again.

Never even mention them.

In her case, try not to look directly at them either.

Without outright trying to kill his nephews, she could not have made Thorin distrust her any faster.

There was no chance of diverting the fight that exploded between them.

Thorin’s enraged shouts and her incredulous shrieking drew the dwarves to the door to peek in on the disturbance.

Justforfuckssakelistentome. Youthunderingtwatwaffle. Justlisten.”

“Should you come near our Company again we will have no choice but to permanently dispatch you, inbarathrag’binarkrâg.” 

Iknowthefutureyounumbnuttedtwerp. Letmehelpyou.”

Bintansikhiya-ê rukhs’ulbab mamural. Unless you would prefer to be dispatched now.” Thorin had his knife out again.

Giveitarestyouprick. Ifyouweregoingtokillmeyouwouldhavealready! Youhavent! Youarentsuchafuckingcoward. Youwouldntwaitifyouweregoingtokillme.

“Thorin. Freya. Would the two of you--”

Fuckoff Bilbo!”

I-khizi, halfling!” 

Bilbo didn’t need to know exactly what they meant. He was stunned enough to stay quiet. And he was irritated enough not to care when angry tears fell down her face. He was utterly frozen when she pulled a knife from Maker-knows-where and the two started to screaming over top of each other. None of the watchers moved. It was obvious who would win if it came to violence instead of threats.

It wasn’t her. Shockingly.

“--Come close to my nephews or my Company again--”

“--sweartoGodIwillletyoudieyoujackass--”

“--the suffering that will be exacted binizrên naragazsubj--” 

“--save Azog thetroubleofhuntingyouandjusttieyouto--”

“--even if we have to bargain with the mibilkhagas--”

“--insufferableclosemindedcocksuckingsonofawhore--”

At some point, one of the more reasonable dwarves must have run to alert their hosts.

Lindir, Glorfindel and Dwalin rushed the pair simultaneously to avert the elves scrubbing blood stains out of the mosaic floor that afternoon.  Dwalin put himself in front of his king without touching him; a stalwart force to temper his king’s fury and prevent a murder.

The elves wasted no time with such politesse and simply lifted her from the ground to remove her. She went silent, scowling and red faced while she was hauled away. Both rooms were still and sharply quiet.

No one had managed to speak yet, but they could hear a commotion in the hall.

A few seconds later she reappeared, defiantly striding into the room, having slipped from the hold of her jailers.

“Me. Erebor.” And with her oft-repeated declaration re-avowed, she permitted the Elves to remove her again.

The silence that fell after was oppressive.

“No member of this company,” Thorin proclaimed to the group after a tense minute, “No one is to speak to her. No one is to assist her. Do not even allow her in your presence. If the elves are unable to keep her here and if she follows us again she will be treated as naragazsubj. Fili. Kili. Itritî.” 

And he stomped out of the room.

Bilbo glanced at the stunned princes. At a furious Dwalin. At a slack-jawed Balin. At a dumbstruck Company.

"Right."

And followed after the king.

***

“What was that?” He said coolly by way of greeting when he found the king brooding in a private room.

“I don’t explain myself to you halfling.”

“Today you will.” Thorin turned, outraged, “No, today you will. Choose an event and explain it. Either tell me what in Eru’s name you think that lass just said to justify your response, or what in all Arda you meant last night. Which one would you like to discuss, hmm?”

That, at least, was enough to give him pause.

“She threatened my kin.”

“It was a piece of paper. She showed a few pieces of paper and she said Kili’s name. It was hardly a death threat. She was trying to talk to you before you started yelling. She was trying. For the first time she was trying. And you started a fight. And we still don’t know what she meant by it.”

“If she is more than a spy and a whore of the enemy than I--”

“You don’t know that.”

“How else does she know of the map and the key? Of who the Company is?”

“She could have dreams - or - or - visions.” It sounded exactly as ridiculous as he feared it would.

Thorin stared until Bilbo wilted under it. Then he spoke.

“Why do you argue for her?”

Bilbo bit back the automatic sass. As much as he wanted to banter with, or yell at, the dwarf, it was not the time.  

So he answered honestly. “Because I do not want to see you die, Thorin.” He swallowed, careful not to let honest turn into heartfelt. “I...yes….also. Because she keeps saying Azog. And if he lives, he will try to kill you. So I want to know whatever she can tell us, in case it might prove useful. Because, I do not want you to die.”

It was time to be fascinated by the utterly uninteresting bedlinens. He could almost hear the dwarf processing what he had heard.  Unfortunately the Took was still hiding in the root cellar after the kissing. Mister Baggins looked up, and began to prevaricate.

“That is...I would not want to see anyone die. As you have said, I’m hardly a warrior, and I would find myself upset by seeing any of the company--truly, any good sort of person-- dying. Even the elves to be frank. I’m hardly as accustomed to such events as yourself or Dwalin--ah - uh - not that I meant to reference those that you have lost. For I understand that you have experienced -- Ah. Right. I’ll just. Yes.” He trailed off to an uncomfortable stillness. Nose tweaking without his input, he nodded several times while plotting an escape from the too small room and the presence of the dwarf who was now in control of the aforementioned room.

His Took courage had chosen the worst of all times to abandon him.

The King had taken a step and effectively cut off the path back to the door.

“Is that what you meant to say?”

Bilbo’s head snapped up to look at the tiny little smirk that was taunting him with that question. Just the goad he needed.

“No. It isn’t.” He raised his chin and pressed into the dwarf’s space a bit, “I meant to say that if you refuse to listen to her when she may know something? When she could help you reclaim your home? Then you are too great a fool to waste my time on, Thorin Oakenshield.”

His expression became pinched as he forced himself not to look away.

Eventually, finally, after what felt like a few years of razor sharp eye contact and a tension in the air Bilbo was certain even the dragon could not top, Thorin finally spoke.

“I cannot trust her. As you have noted, I am familiar with loss. I will not endanger Fili and Kili.” It was not as final as his previous pronouncement though, and Bilbo knew better than to push at that moment. There would be further opportunity.

Unless Lord Elrond was willing to lock Freya in a cell -- if Rivendell even had cells -- until the Company reached the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo knew it would only be a question of how long it would take her to catch them up. She hadn’t been dissuaded by everything that had already been thrown at her. One more threat would matter little.

His silence was rewarded in the end when Thorin spoke in a haltingly imperious tone.

“As to the other matter of which you requested additional explanation.” He couldn’t help it. His eyes lit up and a little coal of interest flared bright and low in stomach. Nor could he help his nose twitching once more. “It was an unfortunate miscalculation on my part. I apologize and can solemnly promise you that nothing of the kind will happen again. My actions were indecent and unwanted. Your disinterest was clear.”

The teasing curl of arousal that had started to build flipped on itself as the words hit him, and Bilbo felt sick. And confused.

Clearly at least one of them was confused.

He watched the mask of studied indifference settle into place, hiding the smirk he had just been cherishing.

And that was not to be borne.

He opened his mouth to disabuse the dratted dwarf from his beliefs, but wasn’t fast enough.

For the second time in less than a day, Thorin vanished, and Bilbo was left slack-jawed in shock.

 


 

 

Bifur could sympathise with the young thing’s anger. He at least understood what was said to him, and he had both iglishmek and khuzdul to speak to others. Few beyond his kin understood him, but he at least had some who could. During trips into the towns of Men, Bifur always found himself in a terrible mood by the end of the day. Miming and gesticulating and faffing about for half an hour just to sort out a delivery date always dug at him.  

She couldn’t understand. She couldn’t speak. And she obviously had something she was desperate to say.

He would be pretty angry too.

Bifur had better sense though.

He wasn’t going to go throwing flash-bangs near a blaze. Thorin was like enough to explode as it was, and Bifur had seen enough mining accidents to want nothing to do with that.

So he stalked.

The elves assumed, like almost every other person outside of kin and company that since he did not speak Common tongue, he could not understand it. But the axe in his skull wasn’t so simple. He still knew what was said, even understood the occasional word of elvish -- which was why he had snickered at the burglar during lunch. Since no one thought he could understand them, they tended to keep talking in front of him long past the point when they would have otherwise stopped.

It made eavesdropping much easier.

He sat on a fragile bench in a flowery garden and listened in on the conversation between the lass and her captors.

Nonono. Stopit. Stopteachingmenicitiesandconjugation. Ineedtotellthemaboutthebattle. Aboutthespiders. Abouttheorcsandthegoblins.”

“Please lady, we understand your frustration, but Lord Elrond has requested we assist you in learning. I. You. Him. We.”

Theresmoreimportantthings. Ineednounsandverbs. Fuckinghellfine. I. You. Him. We.”

“That was very good. Now, I am. You are. He is. We are.”

Ohcomeonmybrainisdoingrandomcrapasitis. Ivegotpornhappeningattheleastconvenienttimes. Please. Justteachmeusefulwords.”

“I am Lindir. You are Freya. He is Glorfindel.”

Noconjugations. IdontcareifIsoundlikeTarzan. Ineedtoexplainwhatscoming. About Erebor.”

There was a long silence when Bifur assumed she was either fuming or pouting.

Uggggghhh. Stupidpornbrainthingy. Imgoingtohavetohateyoutoo. I am Freya. You are Lindy. He is Glory. Nowcanwepleasetalkabout Erebor?”

As casually as he could, which was very incidentally, Bifur shifted so he could watch them.  She was indicating a group walking, and another figure walking behind. That’d be herself following the company. And then peaked hands…. mountains? No. Just one. The Lonely Mountain.

TheLonelymountain. Erebor.” She set an imaginary something on her head. “Thorin. Thror. Thranduil. Girion. Isildur. FuckthatsallthekingsIknowof. Everyoneelseisfiftyyearsaway. ohwaitno. Thorin. Thror. Dain. Thranduil. Girion. Isildur.” With each name she gestured again, setting the same imaginary thing on her head.

Oh. Those stupid elves.

“Lady my apologies but I don’t take your meaning.”

“Uzbâd.” Bifur muttered, “Dai tagallibiya uzbâd, fundalukh.” The trio didn’t even glance in his direction.

He watched as she went through it all again, grumbling as she did. Then she cut off, pitching forward and looking glazed while her jaw slackened. After a few seconds she shook her head furiously.

The elves hardly noticed.

Stupidfuckingrandomporn….. Lookjustlook. Thror wasking. Thrain wellheneverreallywasbecausehewentcrazyafter Azanulbizar. Butthatsnotthepoint. Thorin?” She shook her head and repeated the gestured crown. The elves were still puzzling it out, and getting nowhere.

She growled wordlessly and stood up, shaking out her hands and spinning in a circle. Then stopped dead when she saw Bifur. Somehow. She knew. She must have. Bifur had spent enough time learning to watch facial expressions to be confident in what he saw. The blaze of anger she had been stoking petered out. A tiny hopeful smile rose in its place.

Freya stared directly into his eyes as she tried once more.

“Thorin. Erebor?” She indicated a crown. Shook her head. “Dain. Erebor.”

The blonde elf set a hand on her shoulder and drew her away.

“Apologies Master dwarf. We understand she is not to speak to any of your party. Come m’lady.” The brunette said with a bow before following.

Bifur would have preferred to stay nearby and keep listening. He would have hid in a whole mess of flowers to learn a bit more, but they would be watching for him now. And he had learned something. Two somethings in fact.

She was willing to try.

And something was going to happen to Thorin.

 


 

 

Eventually Bilbo managed to chase the dratted dwarf down again. He looked like he’d been found by a pack of orcs rather than a hobbit.

That was a bit unnecessary. Bilbo knew he was in a terrible mood over this whole debacle, but it wasn’t as if he could actually intimidate the confounded dwarf-king. He should have tried to calm down before beginning to hunt the source of his frustration.

Thorin made a little mollifying gesture while he stood that did nothing to help.

Of course Bilbo was still grumpy. And of course he knew they ought to have a conversation. Even if the king would be hopeless at that part.

They really ought to have had the conversation first. Unless that was what the disaster of a dialogue this morning had meant to be? The dwarf might have been that misguided. Irrelevant. They were here now. Thorin was caught on this sheltered balcony and his only options were to talk to the hobbit or take his chances hurdling the railing.

Luckily, Thorin opted to stay.

Which is how Bilbo was able to close the distance with a few confident steps.

The air was humming between them. Absolutely humming, and if Thorin was oblivious to it, Bilbo would have to make it more apparent.

“You did not give me a chance to speak this morning.”

The mask of indifference fractured with that one sentence, and a more charitable voice prompted the hobbit to be kind. He could see the slight hesitation in the way the dwarf was looking at him. He could see that he expected a tirade and a rejection. He could also see that there was still a tiny shard of hope that Thorin was trying not to acknowledge.

He wasn’t going to let that chance slip. So long as the bothersome, brooding dwarf was there, was still in arm’s reach with a hint of hope for a happier outcome, Bilbo could take a chance.

Whatever this was between them, it crackled in the air like lightning, bright, fast and exactly as likely to ruin them both.

The glimpse of hope grew, and that was his cue.

This time it began with Bilbo half climbing the dwarf to account for the difference in height. Clinging to the fur coat and balancing on the very tips of his toes. It began with Thorin’s hands sliding to support him before his mind had a chance to question what was happening. It began with Bilbo holding them there, denying his own impulse, trusting that the moonlit kiss last night was more truthful than the formal apology this morning, and it began with a fierce whisper when their lips were so close they tingled.

“Do not presume you know my mind without asking me.”

Maybe Thorin thought that was a commentary on the previous evening at first since he recoiled from the hobbit. However, any reluctance or regret was rapidly discarded.  

Should any soul ever want to chart the extreme ends of experience within the category of romantic kisses, Bilbo would be happy to claim that he had known both. Their first kiss was bathed in moonlight and a plundering that left him aching for more as if a part of his gut had just been torn away. It had been cutting and wild. Mind-melting in its intensity but far too fast to savor.

This one.

Bilbo let the words settle into Thorin first. He let the mask crumble as the king understood. He waited until their noses brushed with Thorin’s inviting tilt of his head.

By the time he closed the distance, the space between their lips had been charged to unbearable levels. A first touch. A second. A gentle pressure and a faint tracing with his tongue. But dwarves are not known for their patience; they are known for their greed. Thorin’s arms tightened, clutching at the hobbit in what the smaller one suspected was disbelief.  

Bilbo let the kiss break fully open.

He tilted his head and sweetly claimed with every ounce of hobbity courage he had. Thorin was, after all, a king, and between the two of them, had far more right to want to avoid such an entanglement. Oh but there was a gravelly moan that Bilbo thought he could listen to forever. It curled his toes, and he would have fallen if Thorin’s arms were not already holding him entirely. Bilbo returned the favor of the plundering he had been subject to, trying to convey how incredibly wrong Thorin’s assessment had been.

This was not the proper way to go about it. Proper would involve scones and tea and, well, words. But this seemed to be getting the job done.

Thorin learned quickly how very interested Bilbo was, and the hobbit knew the precise moment when disbelief and doubt were discarded.

An already exhaustingly perfect kiss turned and changed; it opened. He had no other word for it. It just suddenly stopped being two of them kissing. It wasn’t two anymore. It was just them. What he found in the dull glow of bliss was a homecoming Bilbo did not even know he had longed for. It was…

It was more than he knew how to handle.

They broke apart.

Bilbo was pressed against a wall, legs wrapped around the king’s waist, hands tangled in dark hair and braids -- and when had that happened?  They were flushed and panting. when Bilbo shifted slightly and his thoroughly tented trousers ground into the the king’s, it became obvious they were both inclined to proceed.

But they couldn’t.

Shouldn’t, rather.

They certainly could.

No. Wanton blissful abandon was one thing, but they really did need to have a conversation; even a stilted, awkward and largely unhelpful conversation would serve.

“Th--Master Oakenshield, I suppose it’s my turn to apologize.”

“Don’t. Don’t. That is -- You should call me by my name.” Thorin’s eyes fell closed.

“Then I will, Thorin.” Bilbo intended to return to the very boring conversation, but was waylaid by the spark that shot down his spine when Thorin pressed tighter with his hips. It wasn’t his fault that his jaw dropped and a keening moan fell out.

Though it did prompt a tender, “Bilbo” to be breathed against his ear.

Oh, the Shire would be scandalized by what was left of his reputation. Particularly his willingness to cast the last of it aside and begin pulling at buttons and laces.

Thankfully for the gossip back home, they were interrupted by a bucket of ice water in the shape of Lord Elrond’s arched eyebrow and equanimous visage. He didn’t say a word. Just stood for a moment on a nearby balcony to cast aspersion on the scene until Bilbo clumsily slid his feet to the ground once more.

He blushed, and if he had been willing to look up, would have seen a similar shade on the king’s cheeks. He wasn’t though. So he mumbled something about tea times that made no sense as they didn’t keep a proper meal schedule. They were on a quest, of course there wasn’t proper tea time. He really wasn’t handling this as well as he had hoped to.

Then, to change things up, he fled, leaving the dwarf he had just -- that he would rather be -- that was -- he wanted ---

He fled.

Chapter Text

---It had been too long. Far too long. Even in the life of an elf, even with the promise of eternity to reaffirm affections and savor the sweet taste of skin and sweat, it had been too long. He fell into Gildor still sore from battle, still with a sheen of blood and dirt across him, still with the rush and terror of the field fresh in his mind, and uncaring of the consequence. For it had been too long since he had parted the smooth hills and sunk into the tight wet valley of his lover---

Freya lifted her head off the table and dropped it back with a satisfying thunk.

“Stooooppppp iiiiiiiittttttt.”

The elves had tortured her for hours that morning with endless rounds of useless stupid conjugation. And through it all her brain was torturing her with this more and more. They had reached Rivendell four days earlier and this thing, whatever it was, had escalated every day.

The stray flash of porn was strange enough. Not entirely unwelcome to be honest after two months, but certainly strange that it kept floating up of its own accord.

At first there had been multi hour gaps before her subconscious wandered into a fit of erotica. That had been fine. She could derail that line of thinking fairly easily. Those gaps had shrunk to the point she had trouble focusing on the Elves long enough to play charades. Her brain was preoccupied with alternative tasks for hands.  When it got really bad she only had a few minutes, if that, to shake the various horizontal dancers out of her brain.

It was making her a little bit crazy.

It was making her a lot a bit horny.

---Bilbo cried out but his protests were swallowed down by Dwalin’s frantic mouth. He could hear the smirk as much as he felt it when the tattooed dwarf looked down the long arched line of Bilbo’s spine to where their king was buried hilt deep in his plush rounded arse. Blunt fingernails dragged over his scalp and drew his head lower to a second prize waiting, flush and aching, in Dwalin’s lap. The soft cushions beneath him weren’t friction enough, but at least they would keep him upright. His husbands were rarely inclined to rapid conclusion and the pillows would save him when his knees inevitably gave out. He whimpered around the head as Thorin finally, tortuously, languorously began to move---

Freya whimpered a bit too, shifted in the chair, and definitely did not roll her hips into the press of the foot she had tucked beneath her.

“Oh come on stop that. Not the OT3. Fucking hell. Dwalin is way too scary to think about that. He’s a tank. Stop making me think about that. I’m going to blush next time I see any of them as it is, but seriously, can’t you stick to the lesser porn, brain?”

She wrapped the pilfered blanket further over her face and hid in a fuzzy cave, head on the table. This wasn’t her room, where she could hide in the bed and at least try to take care of herself. But this was the only way she was going to get away from her hosts. And by hosts, she did mean jailors.

After the first day, after she managed to say something important to Bifur who she thought possibly had understood her, she just hadn’t had the patience to really try for language with the elves. But Glory and Lindy - and didn’t they bristle adorably when she called them that - kept chasing her down and insisting.

It was miserable.

She had pressing business to attend to, but they would find her if she returned to her room.

She had spent more of the last two days crying than she wanted to admit. The only thing that kept her from giving up on saving them was the tattered thread of her original mantra, and a mile high pile of stubborn she had built living with her older brothers.

Thorin had reinforced his rules against talking to her. He must have.

They ducked out of any room she entered. Even Bilbo.

Nori had the decency to look a bit guilty as he did, and Bifur could occasionally be found near enough to overhear and watch; his presence had her trying to give monologues entirely in mime, but didn’t know if they were working. There was only so much flapping about she could do before the Elves tried to give her medicated teas.

---Rough hands and smooth ageless skin collided once more, evicting a gaspy moan as he counted. The silence in between strikes was taut with the blaze of fiery waiting as the elf tried to say silent and still beneath the controlling hands of his lover. Age and race aside, they were as dear to each other as any could hope to be. If others didn’t grasp the appeal of submitting to to Gimli it mattered not at all. Because once the control slipped they would fall into softer passions that went deeper and truer for their rough preface---

That one left her coughing a bit. “Did I read that? Did I invent that?”

That was not really a ship she had sailed. It did not keep her from stopping, mouth caught in an O as she noticed a particularly shaped stone paper weight on the shelf.

“No. No. No. No.” She repeated in time with each knock of her head on the desk.This was unacceptable. There were lives on the line. The lives belonged to a group of jackasses, yes, but she was going to save them just for the pleasure of watching them have to thank her.

Unless she went crazy muddling through a pile of porn.

If it kept going like this she was going to try to get ahold of one of those teas. Maybe it could knock her out far enough to make this stop.

---the height difference never mattered once they fell into bed. There, as clothing was stripped by searching hands, nothing else would ever matter. The distraction of pressure and friction and hot wet yielding flesh was always too great a temptation to be bothered that the elf towered over him. Not that Kíli objected to spending most of his day eye level with the breasts he spent his evenings caressing and worshipping with hand and mouth and tongue---

Not. Fair. The gaps were tiny today. It didn’t make sense.

Yeah, some of this was cherry picked from really great stories. But some of it was from the strangest things she had ever opened. Things she had just clicked on because they were a rare ship so why not. Things she had not rightly thought about after reading it the first time. It was all still in her head though.

She glanced back at the paperweight and idly thought about a similar object in her bedside table back in the real world. The way the day was going, she was considering trading all three Durin’s if she could get back to the real world and to that drawer.

---This time he was determined to last longer. This time he would not spend until he had taken the time to properly repay the favor. But then they both knelt over him and began to take him, swallowing down his length til there was naught left, and rising with slow fierce suction and allowing the other to take her turn. Tauriel and Sigrid tormented him with breaks as they kissed, thirsty for each other, and shared the task of stroking him til he ached and begged them to resume---

“Maybe I can get Dwalin to punch me. Pretty sure I’d be out cold for a few hours.” She needed sleep. Real sleep, not what she was left with while this rolled onwards. This damnable descent into madness. It felt sort of like someone was digging through a folder, pulling things out, or going down a rabbit hole following links on wikipedia. Endlessly finding something similar or related, following that subject to another, opening each file to preview.

Someone was having a grand time exploring it all. Freya tossed her head, trying to focus before she was once again reduced to a mewling ball of pathetic aroused lady parts.

“Wait.”

It had taken longer than maybe it should have, but she was finally catching on. It felt exactly like someone was digging around. Someone else. It felt external. It had gotten worse in the last few days. Like someone getting either closer or stronger, maybe just more confident in what they were doing..

“Who the fuck? I mean, there’s been a lot of Bagginshield. And a lot of Kíli. But none of them could be responsible for this. And that might just be because I’ve read a lot of that. Who the fuck….”

She yanked the blanket tighter and curled on herself as another pulled her in to half watch and half relive it.   

---Anathema or not she could not help how she felt as her lover’s fingers thrust into her again. Harder and deeper with each stroke. She pleaded with her for more, always for more during their frenetic grappling. With her she could cast aside the studied calm of eternity and allow centuries of closely bridled want free to run under the tender crop of the only female Maiar---

Freya forced that one down. Not her cup of tea. Gandalf and Galadriel? No thanks. Even if that had been a female Gandalf. Which was better, but still. Wrinkly Gandalf parts? No.

Instead of fading like they had before when something was enough of a squick to really motivate her, it repeated. She was too surprised to shove off a second time. But once it finally let go, and it took its sweet damn time getting there, she was furious.

“Oh frickety fuck.”

She half sprinted out of her hiding place, heading for her room, expecting to find Lindir or Glorfindel grumpily waiting to deliver a lecture and a language lesson. She wasn’t going to let that happen, but hopefully they were feeling predictable today. She needed one of them to bring her to Elrond. Almost anyone else she could hunt down in Rivendell, but Elrond was slippery, he was always able to vanish. So. Fine. She would recruit help.

Instead of finding her elf-guard, she crashed into Fíli and Kíli.

And her brain took it as a prompt.

---They hadn’t known before, not at first, not when the two of them broke over each other like cresting waves, unable to stop the pull between them. Stripped of their tunics the brothers---

“Woaaaaahhh. Hey no. Stop. It’s a bit odd when it’s just actors but come on. Not. Ok. The boys are standing right in front of me.”

She knew it was impossible to blush to death. Her cheeks wanted to disprove that. Except she must have stumbled, since they had both grabbed an arm.

“Right in front of me.”

And that was not the best idea considering her mental state. There were even odds between her groping and kneeing them both in the balls.  Touching wasn’t good. Not at all. Especially not when they were looking honestly concerned. Nope. Not good. She was about half an inch from outright moaning which would do no good to anyone.

Deliberately, she straightened.

She pressed them both out of the way, and continued down the hall with her head held high and her face as impassive as it could be considering what she was thinking about. Which began with pondering how strong their grip had been and ended with her taking a careful catalog of every mark, scar and hair on each of them.

If they’d followed, she might not have maintained her control, and that knowledge reminded her why she was on the warpath.

Lindir was soon discovered and easily cowed. He brought her to an area of the house she had not seen before. Elrond seemed bemused behind his book to see his steward scurrying ahead of her like she might bite. She was considering that.

He was dressed too finely, had his circlet set on the table beside a tray of fruit and wine, and commanded the room with the power of several millennia of experience. She did not care at the moment. So the stood and scowled, waiting for him to look at her.

As soon as she had his attention, she slowly escalated to an explosion they probably heard in the valley below.

“Where the fuck is your mother-in-law Elrond? And what the fuck is wrong with the sex starved pervert? Because this is not ok. Not at all. I want her out of my damn head. Right now. Forever. I want her to fuck right off out of my brain and let me exist for ten damn minutes without seeing porn! So where the fuck is she Elrond? Where the dizzy fuck is Galadriel?”



 

 

“So we only have until Durin’s Day? Is that enough time?” Bilbo asked the king from the absolute opposite side of the garden. The king nodded. “Good. That’s good. Then it’s fortunate you allowed Lord Elrond to see your map.”

It was Midsummer’s Eve. Lithe by Shire reckoning. And Bilbo absolutely was not thinking about the traditions associated with that feast. There wasn’t going to be any sneaking off into the woods tonight. No, tonight they were going to have a conversation like reasonable adults of two respectable races not just launch at each other like lusty tweens. There would be no weaving of flower crowns. No frolicking at dawn through dew soaked grass. None of the unimaginably tender kisses Thorin gave that made Bilbo shiver at the memory.

Serious conversations.

They had been trying to manage that for days now. Truly. They had repeatedly attempted to discuss the madness that seemed to descend on them when they got close. They set multiple appointments to discuss whatever this was. It had resulted, every time, in them breathless and rumpled, falling away from each other before they could cross a line they had not known they had drawn.

Then there were all of the instances of one of them grabbing the other and wrenching them somewhere private and utterly wrecking them before flitting away in victory while the other mewled pleas for more. It was a war with many skirmishes a day and both of them thought themselves the winner. Of course, fully half the time, instead of a tangle of tongues and limbs and moaned entreaties, it became a shouting match on dwarven stupidity and hobbit fragility.

Passion levels in the two types of rendezvous were dead even.

The Company had not noticed yet. Only a matter of time. Especially on the road. They wouldn’t be able to do this on the road. It would be obvious. They were having enough trouble here where they could hide behind a closed door. On the road, if they wandered far enough off to not be heard, Dwalin would probably send a search party. Even if they weren’t heard, when their flushed cheeks and rucked clothing were noticed, they couldn’t quite claim they’d been sparring with their swords. Well.

Earlier today, straddling the king on a table and grinding needy erections slowly together, kissing him deeper everytime he tried to get up, Bilbo had accepted that they shouldn’t continue thusly. And while the thought wasn’t enough to stop what he was doing -- Balin calling them to dinner handled that -- it had eaten at him the rest of the day. It had pestered him while Elrond studied the map. It had bothered him while he trailed the group on their way to the waterfall chamber where he had been too distracted by an example of Mahal’s craftsmanship to pay much attention to the exquisite space he was standing in.

Which is why Bilbo was on the opposite side of the garden. Why they were in a garden at all for that matter. It was public. They would have to behave. Though if he was honest, there was no telling what would happen if they got within arm’s reach.

Their little furlough was ending. Bilbo fully expected them to be on their way before another day had passed. Then it would be the road and camping and mountain climbing and Eru knows what new torments awaited them.

“Master Baggins,” Thorin started again after looking up,  “Bilbo.” Then silenced himself, clearly rewriting his speech in his mind. The hobbit knew that look. It was going to be another round of self-recrimination and insistence that they behave properly in the future. This would make the fourth such speech. Every time, Bilbo had agreed. Every time, Thorin had been the one to crack and drag them into a dark corner to turn Bilbo into a quivering mess of boneless hobbit parts with that verbally incompetent mouth.

“You could have been nicer to Lord Elrond you know.” Bilbo interrupted cheekily, just to watch Thorin fight the curl of his lips. “He read the map for us. We wouldn’t have known we are on a timeline otherwise. We wouldn’t have known about Durin’s Day. And yet, you insisted on behaving like a petulant child.”

Moonlight was a very good look on Thorin Oakenshield.

“His disdain was plain to see, should I not respond in kind when our quest is being maligned?” And there was that infuriating half smirk.

“No you should exercise better manners.”

Thorin sighed, letting the trace of a smile dissipate. “This is not what we need to discuss at the present time. You are welcome to harangue my politesse once we continue our travels --”

“I’ll hold you to that.” Bilbo smirked.

“--but we must discuss...this.”

“‘This’? How terribly eloquent. Very well, what is it about ‘this’ you would like to discuss, Thorin?”

“The intention of such proceedings is generally -- intentions are generally stated and discussed long before interactions such as we have indulged in have developed to the state that they have. We have had no conversations of the kind. My actions have been regretful.”

“I don’t regret them.”

“Nevertheless, by the rules of propriety, our interactions have been highly dishonorable. I must amend them when we depart. We should cease this.”  Bilbo bit his lip and paid no attention to what was said after.

After a particularly blissful encounter in a pantry, Thorin had started discarding his mask as soon as they were alone. Now it was coming back. He was retreating, hiding behind the security that being a pompous ass afforded him. And while the Company’s Burglar understood why the King would need to do so, Bilbo couldn’t stand seeing Thorin like that.

Not now that he had seen him so freely unguarded. Not when Thorin had been so close to breaking into a full and genuine smile in front of him for the first damn time. Not today. Because it was Lithe, because Bilbo knew that in the Shire, couples were wandering out in the fields with fireflies in the air, and flowers woven in their curls, softly whispering sweet things to each other and savoring the evening. Today was not a day for regret and propriety. Quite the opposite.

They weren’t in the woods. These weren’t wildflowers. But they were still under the moon, surrounded by flowers and the sweet smell of grass and good earth.

It was Lithe, and a very small part of Bilbo, one he had tried ever so hard not to listen to, had been buzzing at the thought of getting to celebrate it properly for the first time since he really was a tween and not just acting like one. That small part had been nearly humming with the prospect of a proper Midsummer with the irascible, incomparable dwarf.

Instead, Thorin seemed to be sounding a death knell for their nascent -- for whatever it was that they were.

Who would have thought that at the end of the day it would be the hobbit to be called improper? Hobbiton would be in an uproar to hear it.

“You must understand the impropriety of our continued behavior.”

Bilbo nodded and wished he had any say over what his nose did when he got upset. He nodded some more, continuously, as if doing so long enough would convince him that he actually agreed with what was being said. That he was ok with ending the indefinably perfect thing they were pursuing.

He couldn’t stop looking at the flowers around them. Fuschia and red phlox, soft blue towers of sage, bright white aster, the last of the seasons peonies enormous and peachy even in the dim light.  

“Have you ever seen a Lithe festival, Thorin?” Bilbo asked quietly, not really waiting for an answer anymore than Thorin was listening to him.

“Our behavior, should we follow through tradition would cause tremendous problems. Ones that I, as a leader of my people can ill afford to indulge in.”

“I don’t know what traditions are kept by dwarves on Midsummer’s Eve, none I expect, but in the Shire, Lithe is considered to be --” A lover’s festival, but he mustn’t say that, “--very important.” He bent and plucked one of the peonies. It wasn’t as if Thorin would understand the symbolism.

“Our traditions and heritage define us. It’s all that my people have left. Breaking those traditions is not possible for me.” Thorin was just going to keep talking apparently, even though Bilbo was now wandering about, looking over the asters for the perfect one. He got distracted by the patch of bright little butter flowers carpeting the ground between two paths and smiled at them.

“We wander in the woods and the fields all night, and we gather flowers and we have dances and feasts in the morning. It’s all very--” Romantic. No. Not wise to say that either. “--festive.”

“It is difficult to defy those expectations, no matter what otherwise may be desired.” Now why did Thorin sound so strained?

“We bring flowers to everyone you can claim a friendship with in the morning, but that night, and at dawn, you bring posies only to those that --” No, wasn’t going to say that either. “-- to better acquaintances.”

He plucked a few of the little yellow flowers individually. Thorin was silent now, waiting for an response to his somber pronouncements. The dwarf was standing where he had taken position on first entering the garden. He hadn’t moved so much as a step. Bilbo was completing his small circuit, hands filled with blooms.

“When revelers return they’re decked in flowers. Garlands and posies and baskets full of them. Lasses wear their hair in lovely braids and they weave them right in.” He walked in front of Thorin, ignoring his earlier concerns about their actions.

The mood had shifted while they had both talked without the other hearing. It was sedated. Serene. They had never been like this before, and Bilbo wasn’t going to break the spell that settled over them.

He reached up and tucked a single bloom from the phlox behind the king’s ear with a gentle smile. The bright pink stood out brilliantly against the dark waves, and his hand lingered, brushing gently over a braid as he removed it. Bilbo hadn’t really heard what all Thorin had been rambling on about in that awful officious tone after the word cease. It was avoidance of the worst kind, but he hadn’t liked where that conversation had been headed. He would deal with the repercussions of his feigned deafness later, when they weren’t in a glorious garden with the confounded dwarf standing there looking like something plucked from a child’s tale.

The king really was unfairly handsome.

The contrast of the geometric patterns of his coat, armor and beads against the delicate curves of the sprig of phlox was wonderful.

He shouldn’t do what he was considering. It wasn’t appropriate no matter how he framed it. But Thorin was looking at him with an honest, sparkling kindness in his eyes that was entirely new. It just slipped right past all the usual instincts to be contrary and antagonizing and made him want to pull the confounded dwarf close and breathe him in, deep and slow until there was nothing left of him he didn’t know better than he knew himself.

“Sit,” Bilbo asked as he knelt in the grass, “It won’t be Lithe for me if I don’t do this for someone.” That was a lie. Then, when Thorin didn’t move; “Would you rather I find someone else?”

That was enough. Thorin knelt, then sat, and, on his knees, the hobbit edged closer. Little sprigs of coralbells were slipped into the twin braids, the reddish stems barely visible, leaving the delicate white drops to seemingly float.

It wasn’t fair to have the king looking at him so openly, not when the Shireling was trying not to be obvious in what he was thinking.

Thorin lifted a braid by the bead, inspecting the additions circumspectly. When his hand went to remove one, Bilbo grabbed it to stop him. “You wouldn’t want to insult Shire tradition, would you? Besides, if you take it out, I’m just going to replace it. May as well do what I tell you from the start.”  

He did not expect that thornless retort to work, let alone provoke the response it did. Thorin pulled out a single sprig, and placed it carefully above the dazed hobbit’s ear. Confident fingers ran along the edge of said ear, down his jaw and paused under his chin. He could not help but allow the king to tilt his head into better light. And then -- Sweet Yavanna watch over her children -- Thorin finally smiled. Truly smiled. Not the little play that happened in the corner of his mouth when Bilbo was particularly witty. Not a wry smirk. Just a wide, blithe smile.

It was too much to take all at once, and Bilbo would have dissembled had his mouth been capable of more than hanging dumbly, lips parted, and half a declaration he would absolutely regret stuck on his tongue. So he found another coralbell and replaced the one Thorin had returned.

Then he looked at his lap full of flowers and made up his mind to listen to the Took that was enthusiastically promising that this would never be understood. He started quickly weaving the stems into each other. It was a peculiar skill, one he had not even thought about for nearly two decades, but he recalled the particulars of quickly enough. Peonies were tied around the switchgrass. He added the white violets in bursts and covered it over in bright phlox. He placed every single bit of coralbell he had, smiling to think of how appropriate that meaning was. It would have gone faster if he had not been distracted throughout by glancing up.

The smile had relaxed, but had not dimmed, and he was fighting to not drown in it. Hobbits were wary of drowning, but Bilbo thought that he would be perfectly content with that fate so long as -- he shook that aside and looked back down one last time, tucking stems out of sight, making sure everything was just as he wanted.

“Tra...tradition. You understand.” He rasped, raising to his knees again to set the flower crown on Thorin’s head. It was still so wonderfully incongruous. His heart could not help thundering in his chest. Wry looks were cast at the petals hanging into his face, but the king made no move to throw it aside and decry the whole thing.

Utterly scandalous. A dwarf. A king. Not a single proper conversation held on the subject. And they’d known each other for barely two months.

Still.

Finest Midsummer’s night he had ever had.

Even if it was a lie.

How had that smile grown brighter? How had he thought that this was a good idea?

“Tradition?” Thorin asked guilelessly. Not trusting his voice, Bilbo nodded. “Are there others? Traditions, that is?”

He wasn’t the only one whose voice was a bit rough. Though, since Thorin was unaware of what had just been said, of what the crown meant, of what those flowers meant, it hardly made sense for the dwarf to be feeling as flummoxed as the hobbit who had woven the damn thing.  

Bilbo nodded again. That was so much safer.

Thorin found one of the remaining bunches of violets, and began sliding the white blooms individually into the curls atop his head. Whether Thorin understood it or not, it was absolutely melting Bilbo. So when he asked again about other traditions, Bilbo leaned in, hands delicately cupping the king’s cheeks, and kissed him.

This was new.

Not the kissing. They had done plenty of that in the last few days.

But this was delicate and patient and plainly, undeniably special. Maybe because they weren’t frantically scrabbling at each other. Maybe because they were acutely aware that they could be found, and were not rushing to hide. This wasn’t another battle between them. This wasn’t fiery.

When it ended, Bilbo felt terribly exposed, vulnerable to the point that he could not meet Thorin’s eyes. He was a very foolish hobbit to have listened to a Took. He was worse for having daydreamed about this earlier.

A very silly hobbit. This wasn’t what the two of them did. They grappled in cupboards and pantries and were permanently on the border between lust and resentment.

His nose twitched while he looked at the flowers that had fallen on the ground, and he gathered the courage to glance up again. Thorin’s smile was broader, brighter. It could have outshone the moon. Every inch of Bilbo lit up at the sight.

“What I was speaking of previously,” Oh, well, that put a damper on the glow in his pounding heart, “All of it was, or perhaps it is better to say that most of it was... that is, would you object to pretending for a time I never said such things? Despite what would be proper, simply forget for a time. That I ever said anything about…”

“Ceasing this?”

Thorin nodded once even as his hands moved behind Bilbo’s neck and pulled them back together, stopping when their foreheads rested together.

“Could we possibly instead…”

“Continue?”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”



 

Spying and eavesdropping were actions unbefitting the crown prince of the Line of Durin. He had heard that lecture plenty as a dwarfling. Instead of his mother’s, uncle’s, elder cousins’  and mentors’ tirades dissuading him from doing it, he just learned not to get caught. So it wasn’t hard for Fíli to reach the doorway he sought without being noticed.

Thorin would kill him if he found out. Unless Bifur could explain faster than his uncle could draw his blade. He and Kíli had been trying to track her down for days. She was either guarded by the elves or just plain missing during that entire time.

Now he had finally found her.

He checked the blades in his sleeves and belt, and edged closer.

Their insufferable follower was inside seated at a silver mirror with a short comb in hand working at the matted mess of her hair.

Even with all of the indoctrination that Balin had hammered into his head as a dwarfling -- and most of it had stuck -- he was hard pressed to find a compliment for the sight. She was in half the elf garb she had been wearing, and half her travelling gear. If her hair had a determinable color, it was impossible to tell at the moment. It -- she -- was a mess, top to bottom, and she was, as per the norm, muttering angrily under her breath non stop.

He and Kíli had, one day while riding, discussed their collective guilt. It was small, but present. She had travelled alone through the wilds following them. She had looked increasingly desperate with each appearance. It had been obvious that she had no experience travelling. And yet she had followed anyways. Even in the face of Thorin’s violent diatribes she had continued to repeat “Erebor” while pointing to herself. Even when Thorin had ordered the two of them and Dwalin to ‘encourage her’ not to follow. Even when Thorin took her only knife. Even when he took her bedroll.

She was stupid. Or malicious. Or both.

And definitely going to be killed if she tried to cross the Misty Mountains. Probably by Goblins, thinking about it. Which meant she was going to be eaten crossing the Misty Mountains.

Well, he and Nori had a plan for that already. Dangerous and suspicious wasn’t enough for him to want her dead, though with every interaction, that impulse got closer.

First though, he had to get answers about what Bifur had implied.

King Dain.

Dain.

He needed answers.

What? Whatdoyouwantnow? Thorin hasalreadymadehisdecisionclear. Areyouheretoreiterateit? Likeyoudo? Toobad. Iamgoingto Erebor. Youdumbfuckscannotstopme. Iamsavingyouridioticlives. SohelpmegodIwill. AndifIhavetostealthatpaperweighttogetthrough? Sofuckingbeit. Imtrappedinpornhell. Youlotarebeingjerks. AndIreallywantadamnburger. Sobeusefulorfuckoff.” She had jumped to her feet when he stepped into the room, spitting the words at him. There was only one exit though, and she wasn’t going to vanish into the halls again.

He was tired of chasing her through the corridors in the hopes of having whatever bastardized version of a conversation he could achieve.

This had been his only option. Cornering her. That didn’t mean he liked it. Their mystery guest had some foreknowledge that might save their Uncle on this quest, and he needed it before they left in the morning. And he wasn’t going to assume anything about himself or his brother until he got a few things confirmed.

It was a risk of course. Thorin was not a dwarf to contest. Whatever she had shown him that morning had him as angry as her comments about Thror back in Hobbiton. And Fíli had not thought that was possible.

A necessary risk.

And now for the second one.

“Bifur spoke to me. About what you told him. About Dain.”

She frowned, broke eye contact and sat again.

“No.” And she went back to her hair.

“You told him Dain would be King of Erebor.” He took a step nearer. “Well, he told me you said Erebor, Thorin and Dain and flapped around until he caught on. He came to talk to me.”

Other than a confused glance, she just kept working at the massive snarl.

“I need to know how it happened.”

He winced at the snapping sound as she tore at the hair. He used to have to salvage Kíli’s hair after his brother’s weeks’ long refusals to comb it resulted in a similar situation. The worst session had taken hours. But there were burrs involved that time.

“I need to save him.”

“Fíli.” She turned sharply, “YoudorealizeIdontknowwhatyouresayingright? Thatitisjustalongstreamofgibberish?” He waited, and she rolled her eyes, “Fíli words,” and shook her head pointing at herself.

Right.

In his defense he had not tried to speak to her since Bag End, and even then it had only been a few sentences. He still felt like an idiot. That didn’t fade when she scoffed, gestured with one hand, and turned away again. While he tried to sort out how to break down his question into mime -- and it was discouraging that Bifur had failed -- she continued struggling with her hair. She got more and more frustrated as she went, muttering and flinching and making no progress. The one small tendril that seemed to have escaped the chaos reached her middle back. The rest was tangled so densely it was barely to her shoulder blades.

Kíli’s had only been so bad the once. He still complained about it.

He was struggling to find a way to communicate time, looking to place the danger somewhere on their journey. He kept an eye on her, half expecting her to try slip out of the room to vanish again. Or throw another plate. Or steal one of his knives again. Instead she sat, and cursed, and attacked the snarl. Kíli used to do this. He would get his hair so snarled and tangled that their amad would give up on it. After a few days of suffering, Kíli always came to his older brother to ask for help.

She wasn’t going to, no matter how pathetic it became.

Eventually, inevitably, the comb got stuck.

He actually smirked at her misfortune. It wasn’t as if they had asked her to follow them across the wilds. If her hair tormented her for the rest of the evening, it was only small beginning of a recompense for how blasted annoying she had been to them. They’d had to add an extra to the watch through the night. Thorin had made them wipe all traces from their campsites.

It had been obnoxious and exhausting. And pointless.

Youknowwhatfuckit. Fuckit. Ialwayslikedpixiecuts.” She leaned across the table for a pair of scissors with angry tears threatening to fall.

Fíli did not decide to cross the room. He did not decide to stop her.

But he couldn’t just let her chop off her hair. He did not like her but that would just be… just no.

She was staring at him. Fíli had probably overstepped.

Except, her eyes had softened a bit, even while she grimaced. She was trying to pull her wrist out of his grip, not that she could, even as she leaned slightly into him. She was muttering under her breath, but it had none of the vitriol he had grown accustomed to. It sounded more plaintive than anything.

“No, Frey.” He took the scissors, hardly noticing he had instinctively shortened her name as he tucked them into his belt. “No. I am not going to let you cut your hair off, Frey. Give us the comb. I used to do this for Kí when he was an idiot. So. I did this a lot. You’re also an idiot, so I’m old hat at this.”

He laughed as she worked out what he intended. She blinked and sputtered and sort of cooed -- he didn’t have another word for that sound -- while her eyes went glassy for a few seconds. Then she shook her head. Absolutely gob-struck, staring between Fíli the comb and the knife. Like she did not know how to process someone doing something nice for her.

Fíli ignored the tickle of guilt.

There hadn’t been any kindness between herself and the company. In either direction. This wasn’t a kindness. This was keeping her from vanishing again.

A second chair joined hers, and he looked for a place to start.

If Mahal was feeling generous, by the time he was done she would feel charitable enough to answer his questions.

Waitno. Thorin willhaveahissyfitaboutthis. Hesaidnottotalktome. Atall. Uggggh. OkayhowdoI…. Thorin. Words. Me. No. Idontknowifhegetsasangryatyouasatmebut. Youshouldnt--” She had started escalating to her normal frustrating shouts.

Interrupting seemed the easiest way to go.

“No. I know. My Uncle told us not to discuss-- not to have any words with you.” He shrugged. “So shut up.” And to make his point clear, he pressed a finger over her lips.

It was wholly unexpected when she went doe-eyed and quieted into what he could only call compliance. He wasn’t about to argue, but it was still strange. He turned her head back to the mirror and started.

Salvaging Kíli’s hair had often devolved into wrestling matches. Frey just grimaced, and inhaled sharply when he accidentally yanked her head. He was right that it would take a while, but over the course of a silent hour he had the worst of it sorted. As he patiently detangled the last snarls against her scalp, he finally spoke, “Frey? Dain of Erebor?”

She jerked away and hissed at the pull of the comb. He pulled her back by the shoulder, and shifted to her side so he could see her face while he finished.

“Dain of Erebor?”

Frey watched him out of the corner of her eye while she chewed on the inside of her cheek. She nodded.

“Not Thorin? Not Kíli?”

She shook her head. “Not Fíli. Dain. Erebor.” And now she was acting quite interested in the floor. She moved to stand as he managed to pull the comb smoothly through the last of it. Given an opening she was going to be out the door and gone. So he pulled her back down, neatly parted the hair by her temple, and started braiding.

And hoped no one walked in on them.

Mahal protect him. Especially not Thorin.

The brushing was bad enough.

IguessFanonwaswrongabouthisthen.”

But it wasn’t as if he meant it.

He brushed the rest of the still gritty hair off her neck and over her opposite shoulder. She twitched.

ThoughIthinkImgoingtoneedacoldshowerafter.”

Or as if she understood it. She was blushing scarlet for some other reason. She was probably shifting in her seat to get more comfortable after sitting still for so long.

Still.

Best not to be caught

The laced round braid pulled the hair off her face while he prodded, “How is it Dain of Erebor? What do you think is going to happen to us? A battle? A coup? What do you think will happen to us? Fíli, Kíli, Thorin?”

He had finished the first braid before she answered. Then it was just a word, and spoken with great reluctance. “Azog.”

“So he’s alive? When? The Misty Mountains? The forest? The Lonely Mountain?” She tried to rise from the chair, so he kept her in place by starting a second braid on the other side. But his questions were beyond her understanding.

“Fíli?” Conflicted, she was glancing at him too rapidly for him to hold her gaze. Then with a steadying breath, she caught his hands, arrested the braiding, and finally made eye contact. “Fíli. Me Rivendell? Thorin, Fíli, Kíli...Azog. Me Erebor? Thorin, Fíli, Kíli...no Azog.” She swallowed and added emphatically. “Me. Erebor.”

That… wasn’t what he expected. Genuine, wide eyed declarations made no sense with what he had seen of her. Nor did genuine concern for their lives. Nor did what had sounded like a solemn oath. She was, for a moment at least, a different person.

They sat there in taut silence, midway through a braid, eyes locked, with her clutching his hands and enough tension in the air to spread on toast. She was intense, but now it had a tone of desperate resolution rather than aggravation. He wasn’t even aware that his jaw had dropped slightly and he had leaned closer in surprise.

So. Naturally, that was when Kíli found him.

At least it wasn’t Thorin.

He jumped up and away, abandoning the unfinished braid.

“Fíli! Well hello brother, pleasant afternoon? Uncle is looking for you. May I suggest we…?” The next time they sparred Fíli was going to wipe the ground with that smirk.

He followed Kíli out with just a nod back at her.

“Not a word Ki. I needed Frey to answer some questions.”

“Oh I’m sure you did, and I guess you got a positive response since you were--.”

“I used to braid yours.”

“Oh, right. Claiming her as family, are you?

“Ki?”

“Yes brother mine?”

“Shut up.”

 

 


 

It took several minutes for Frey to move. Because clearly. Obviously. Fanon had got it wrong. The damn dwarf had referenced Kíli. Obviously Fanon was wrong about the meaning of braiding in dwarvish society.

Or, she needed to set aside a few hours to blush. And possibly crotch-punch the presumptuous oaf.

She finished the abandoned braid and tied it off the end with the other piece of leather. No reason to not keep them. They were pretty. It had not a thing to do with who had done them nor what her mind had conjured up during the braiding. It wasn’t at all related to fanon thoughts of innuendo and proposition and bedrooms. Not attached the porn the braiding had prompted. Nope.

No.

Better.

It wasn’t that they were pretty. It was that they were effective. That was a much better excuse to keep them. Yes. Because her hair would get in her eyes otherwise.

That’s why.

But the mirror was still there, and she saw her face, still a bit doe-eyed and ingenue-like, and promptly began to blush. “I hate this place so much. It’s just a combination of all the almost good parts of...dammit. Stupid fucking attractive dork being all stupid and hot and helpful and sweet. Not fair.”

She hid in her room the rest of the night.

Eventually, long after the rest of Rivendell ate their supper, there was a knock at the door. She wouldn’t have let them in. But Nori didn’t wait for an invitation.

The star haired dwarf slipped inside with a tray, and closed the door behind him. It was presented with a bit of a flourish. Tea, bread, fruit, and even a bit of meat, which she knew must have come from the dwarves stocks. It was placed on the table with a generous smile before Nori sat to join her, grabbing a piece of bread and gesturing.

Thoughtyoudlikesomemeat. Yehaventhadanyhaveyou?” Nori grinned and pushed the plate closer to her, “Youknowlassifyoufollowus Thorin isgoingtohavekittensoverit. Thehalflingseemstohavetalkedhimofftheedgebutstill. Heaintgonnabehappytoseeyouagain. Donchagofollowinusto Erebor. Aintsafeforus. Youdgetetsureasstone. AndIdontwannaseethat.”

She smiled a bit at him. It was a strange day. Twice now a dwarf had been nice to her. That was unprecedented.

Maybe Thorin wasn’t oh-so-mad after all.

They ate for a moment in silence, until she coughed on the bread. Nori jumped up and put the cup of tea in her hands.

Goonlass. Drinkitdown. Youwontbehappyaboutthis. Weknowthat. But Fíli insistedwedosomething. Weknowyoudfollowafterotherwise.” He was smiling so genuinely Frey was a little thrown off. Not even Lindir smiled at her like that. Well, if one of the only dwarves showing her some kindness wanted her to drink some tea, she could be compliant for a few minutes.

Afterwards she was going to have to try and explain some things to Nori while she had the chance.

The tea wasn’t very good. A little cold, too bitter, and no sugar or cream to break the way it made her mouth feel grainy after swallowing. But Nori nodded encouragingly, so she downed the rest and returned to the food.

Why was Nori still here? He wasn’t eating, not after that first bite. She blinked and startled to realize she had almost fallen asleep.

Furious that her body was going to let her, she shoved herself to her feet and toppled forward immediately.

Nori caught her easily.

Comeonlass. Comeon Frey. Igottagetyainabedwithablanket. Elvesshouldcomecheckonyainthemorning. Youllbefine. Justdontfollowus. Byelass.”

The the idea of sleep was too tempting, and she drifted away as a blanket settled over her.

Chapter Text

“Do they think they’re being subtle?” Ori asked Balin, eyes wide in surprise.

Balin glanced over the scribe’s shoulder to the pair seated on the edge of camp, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, softly talking to each other as they looked over the rather stunning landscape and smoked. And it was stunning. Two days outside of the hidden valley had them in the foothills of the Misty Mountains. It made their travels harder in the days, but the vistas they were treated to, and the sunsets in particular, were exceptional.

The betting pool had been paid out not long after their pre-dawn departure from the elven house. Of all people, Bofur had won it, and was gloating to all the others. It had been obvious from the moment the company started out on the road that something had broken open between their leader and their burglar.

Balin for one, was pleased to see it.

Thorin hadn’t had much cause for happiness in the last hundred and forty years. If the hobbit had been able to see past the unpleasant surface, so much the better. Balin’s support for them had been absolute from the moment he had noticed his king’s regard reflected back -- somewhere before the Trollshaws -- but had turned into a vested interest during their first lunch break after Rivendell, when Bilbo wandered close and muttered something that left Thorin trying not to smile.

It had taken until they made camp that night for the rest of the company to cotton on to the obvious.

However, it was also clear that there was still plenty to bet upon.

There were now three pools going. The first was waiting for them to make some kind of official statement -- Balin had firmly placed his coin in the ‘post-quest’ category there. This was Thorin after all.  The second was waiting for them to, as his brother put it so eloquently, “start knocking boots instead of dancing ‘round it.” The third, Balin had not bet on. Nor did he condone those that had.

It was, in brief, a bet on how long it would take before they fell apart and who would be at fault.

Though to look at the two of them at the moment, that purse would never pay out.

“No laddie,” Balin said at last, “Don’t think they do. I think they just expect us not to say anything about it.” He gave the young dwarf a pointed look and waited for the accepting nod. “Thank you. There’s no need to be bothering them about it. Besides, any interference will invalidate the purse for you. So best keep it to yourself.”

Ori nodded again and finished the last of his stew.

Kíli had brought down a doe that afternoon, and none of them were going to argue with properly fresh meat. The food at Rivendell had been a bit lean for their tastes.

“Laddie, you told me that you’d explain what is was that you and your brothers were shouting about. Didn’t sound much like a nice chat about the weather.”

“Aye, what was all that hollerin’?” Dwalin said, dropping onto a log with his usual charmless harumph.

“It -- ah. It was about the contracts. But it’s not anything to worry about now.”

Balin chewed on the end of his unlit pipe, surveying the uncomfortably squirming dwarf. That had been a rather vague reply, and Ori was rarely indirect, though, Balin had been trying to teach him how.

He had not heard much of the fight between the brothers ‘Ri, but enough snatches and quotes had carried to make it clear it wasn’t a simple spat about who was going to gather firewood that day. After a few moments, he found the likely guess, and asked, apropos of nothing, “The trolls?”

Ori’s head popped up in time with Dwalin’s, but where the first was astounded, the other was wary. He and his brother had discussed the possibility that they’d lose fully half the company due to that mess.

“Yes. How did you know that?” Ori asked.

“The trolls do fit that clause rather nicely don’t they, lad? But, what seems a bit strange is that all three of you are still here. I would have thought at least one of you would have had the nonce to reread the contract. And surely you recalled the phrasing.”

“Oh. I...uh... may have talked with them.”

Dwalin’s booming laugh caught the attention of the rest of the camp for a moment. “Talking. That what ya call that? What do you do to someone when ya yell then?”

Ori looked up defiantly. “I’ve never had to, Mister Dwalin. Talking takes care of most of them.”

Dwalin considered for a moment, then laughed louder. Ori was trying to look unflappable. It wasn’t going well, but Balin knew his apprentice better than most. He could already tell that there was something more than the admiration of a noted warrior in the scribe’s eyes when he looked to Balin’s brother. He just wasn’t sure yet quite what he was seeing.

There had been rumors a decade or two back about another of the ‘Ri brothers. Of course, the two of them had been in the middle of a contest of will at the time. Nori had broken into the royal chambers no less than a dozen times in the space of a year to leave notes and presents for the princes. Dwalin still didn’t know how it had been managed. Needless to say, the pair had yelled and fought and sparred in the ring rather more than hated rivals tended to.

Naturally, rumors had flown. Ered Luin was rather insular in winter, and gossip was a thriving trade.

But nothing was ever announced, no beads were exchanged, no braids were plaited in anyone’s hair. Nothing was ever said, so Balin could make no comment, and could not properly ask what had occurred, if anything.

So Balin smiled noncommittally at his brother who was watching the young scribe like he had just found that a kitten had claws after all.  

“Took my advice then, did ya? Decided to try bein’ a bit bolder when your kin starts in on ya?” Dwalin half saluted with his waterskin, and Ori’s face lit up like a blaze.

“I did.”

“Just the once?”

“No, I uh. Back in Rivendell, the first night.”

“Oh,” Balin interrupted, “Is that was Nori wanted to talk about, then?”

Ori nodded, “They wanted us all to head back to the Blue Mountains.”

Dwalin smirked and leaned in, “And ya...talked with them then, too?”

Yes, whatever may or may not have occurred in the past, it seemed that a different Ri brother was intrigued by the clumsy efforts of his brother now. Balin said nothing, and did not wait, did not want to intrude, just slipped away and across the camp to Glóin’s side.

“Glóin m’lad. How would you feel about opening up another purse?”

 


 

 

Thorin and his nephews were sparring in camp as the sun went down.

“You must begin learning to defend yourself.” He had said as he insisted that Bilbo observe. That way, supposedly, he would see proper technique and be better able to mimic it later. Watching though, was resulting in little education and a great deal of speculation. For instance, what Thorin would look like with Orcrist, his namesake shield, and no shirt. Though he had to speculate on what that last part would look like.

Of course, it wasn’t helping that the whole of middle earth seemed to be conspiring to paint him a beautiful picture. Or maybe it was just by favor of Mahal that the dwarven-king had the gift to traipse about the wilderness with a permanent light breeze and a back glow of golden sunlight.

Bilbo wasn’t objecting.

Let no power in control of such things take his commentary as a complaint.

Quite the opposite.

Later, Thorin and he would sit with their pipes in companionable silence, not actually touching, but content as they had every night since leaving Rivendell. There weren’t enough trees about for them to use them to advantage.Though, both were clearly inclined to find a sheltering cave, or tree, or maybe just a large rock. It was all a bit surreal, and still made his mind drift off from time to time while they marched onwards.

He hadn’t behaved like this since he and Marigold Bolger had spent the better part of their teens in various haylofts and wildflower fields.

This was even better.

Bilbo was quite certain that he’d think fondly of Rivendell for the rest of his days, no matter what happened on the quest or between Thorin and himself. It was always going to be a soft spot for him. He even had an offer to stay at Rivendell permanently. After a particularly vicious verbal spar that had been overheard by a certain elven lord, Elrond had offered him a home for as long as Bilbo pleased. He had declined, politely, stating that he was contracted to the company, and he would not go back on his word.

He had memorized the offer though, if he ever needed to taunt Thorin.

Yes, the memory of Rivendell was always going to make him smile. On Midsummer in particular.

Luckily, Thorin was either oblivious, insouciant or too uncomfortable to ask for details about all the flower weaving and decoration Bilbo had subjected him to. And unless he was asked directly, he wasn’t about to volunteer what he had actually done.

Though, at the moment, he was content to just watch the spinning terror that was his -- that was Thorin. He was armed with Orcrist, and had his shield in place, and was running his nephews in circles. True, Kíli preferred his bow, but was anything but unskilled with his sword, and Fíli had two of them, by all that’s green. Neither had landed a hit yet. Not a one.

Thorin on the other hand was sporting that tiny curl of a smile that had first caught Bilbo’s interest. He parried another strike from Kíli, pushing him back a few steps. Then he knocked his heir to the ground before spinning to do the same to the younger who was attempting to tackle him. After the lengthy lead up, it was all completed in rapid sequence and apparently served as an end to the session.  

The spectacle really had done nothing to teach him about fighting form.  Of course, by the way Thorin was staring at him as he helped his nephews to their feet, it may have all been a pretense for the dwarf to show off. A pretense Bilbo was happy to indulge.

Bilbo jumped when Bofur dropped down next to him with a bowl of stew.

“How’re ya doin’ Bilbo?” Ever effable, hat jaunty as it hadn’t been in weeks, Bofur seemed as pleased as Bilbo. For different reasons he assumed.

“Well,” Bilbo said with a grimace for the pine needles that had just blown into his meal, “I think I am already looking forward to our next stop in a real town. As much as I enjoy the company of you all, I still prefer a bed to the dirt.”

“Oh I’m sure you do.” Bofur sniggered. “You seemed right happy in Rivendell. Plannin’ on runnin’ off to live with the elves?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. No. I signed that contract after all. I’d just prefer it if we could travel and have all the comforts of my smial -- most particularly my larder and cellar -- at our disposal. Is it really so much to ask that I be able to have a meal without fishing part of the scenery out of it?” Bilbo flicked the last of the pine away and took a bite. It was passable, but not promising, since game would be more scarce as they progressed and the fare wasn’t likely to improve.

Bofur was laughing again, but obviously trying not to.

Bilbo elbowed him, and laughed back when a bit of the stew spilled on his hand. “What’s all this chuckling about, bâha-e?”

“Ah Ah Ah little hobbit, don’t go saying that where the others can hear ya. Don’t want to ruin your fun do ya?”

Bilbo smiled magnanimously. Bofur’s inadvertent translations had been the start of Bilbo’s knowledge of khuzdul. It was hardly that secret a language. The conjugations were a bit complicated, yes, but that was the only real hurdle. Between Bifur using it constantly in tandem with easily deciphered iglishmek and Bofur answering his kin by repeating things in Common tongue, Bilbo had built a decent working knowledge of the language before anyone had noticed. Certainly enough to stay ahead of the majestic numpty who was once again staring with a look that made it clear he disapproved of the open landscape.

The hobbit didn’t wink, but he was fairly sure he had conveyed the sentiment, even without the motion.

Bofur was watching him though.

He didn’t say a word. Just rolled his moustache and gazed at his friend significantly.

Thank Eru for the dwarves and their bizarre rules of propriety.

“Don’t think I’ve seen you this addled by being on the road for more’n a month, Bilbo. Wishin’ you were back in the elf-house?”

“Something like that.” He couldn’t help taunting Bofur a bit. “I had a wonderful time in Rivendell.” But as his friend sputtered, Bilbo took pity on him and continued, “No, no. Its just that by the time we’d reached Rivendell, I think I had nearly forgotten what a proper bed even felt like. We hadn’t had tea in ages, and the fact that I got to take a real bath without any fish nibbling at my feet? Absolutely wonderful is all. Now we’re back out here, and yes, I miss having all of that.” He shrugged, “Nothing I won’t get over with a few weeks of whining.”

It was easier not to think about Bag End when he and Thorin were sparring, verbally or otherwise. He could let himself focus on his next quip and rejoinder. But there were times like this, when he really thought back to the comfort of his kitchen and his armchair, when he wanted nothing more than to curl up with a book, or laze a day away with a huge bag of pipe weed. He missed it fiercely of course.

He just filled in the hole by taunting Thorin whenever possible.

Speaking of which, their leader had wandered over with his own bowl.

“Tomorrow Fíli will begin teaching you.”

Never one for pleasantries.

“Oh, hello Thorin, nice of you to join us, pleasant evening, enjoying your dinner?” Thorin was not amused, “Now then, tomorrow Fíli will be teaching me what, exactly?” The dwarf nodded to the blade Bilbo had left against a nearby boulder. “You’re joking.”

“I am not.”

“Weren’t planning to ask me before arranging this? Thought you’d just tell me and I’d follow your orders?” Maybe Bilbo had meant to sound teasing, but his real response slipped through, and he heard how affronted it sounded.

“Yes.”

They were in another staring match. It shouldn’t have been surprising, they’d had four truly blissful days without descending into sniping and bickering. Some sort of record that. Bilbo settled in, rolling his toes in the earth and setting his jaw. He hadn’t backed down before the whole long mess of Trolls and sacks and wargs and Rivendell, and he wasn’t going to now.

It must have been obvious that this was about to start, because Bofur jumped up and grabbed both of their bowls.

“Think the both of ya’re about done here, why don’t I take those for ya?” And he scurried away. Not far. Bilbo was sure Bofur, and most probably the rest of the company was just behind the group of low stones, listening.

“So which part has your hackles up, Master Baggins? My expectation that you will do as ordered? Or that I expect you to be able to use that elvish pin without hurting yourself or another in the company?” His jaw clicked as it snapped shut. “You’ll work with Fíli until you’re not a danger, then Dwalin will take over.”

There was a little hint of amusement, but overall, it was not a pleasant exit as the dwarf walked away.

Bilbo grumbled at having lost the argument, grumbled that he hadn’t even made an argument, and he kept grumbling as he stomped away for his evening smoke, alone.


 

 

“And you’re certain she drank it?”

“O’course she did. Tipped right over. Besides, we’re a week out. She’d be out here already if’n she hadn’t. The elves’ll keep her there, no need to fret. Same’s I told you the last three times you asked.”

“My thanks Nori. And you’ll--”

“I’ll be keepin it under my beard, doncha worry bout that. Didn’t want to see her to get ‘et anymore’n you did. Seems we’re rid of her now, though.”

And with a sharp nod, Nori slipped back across the camp, snagging Óin’s trumpet and Bofur’s hat along the way. Fíli watched him go with a shake of his head. That was one problem off his list at least. Kíli had finally given up the ghost on mocking him about his method of obtaining information and finally started to discuss real plans and protections.

They had to keep their uncle alive.

No matter the cost.

Maybe they could get Dwalin into their little conspiracy. He wouldn’t like the source of the information, but Bifur could explain what he had seen once more. It should be enough to win him over.  If it wasn’t, well, Fíli could be pretty persuasive on his own, and with Kíli helping, getting what they wanted was all but guaranteed. Especially from Dwalin. It was the only advantage of Dwalin seeing them as dwarflings still.

They hadn’t explained what they knew to Nori or the others yet. For now it was a conspiracy of three puzzling out how to keep their uncle safe. Bifur was unexpectedly sharp with strategy. Fíli berated himself in a voice that sounded an awful lot like his Amad’s about underestimating someone.

The problem was, he and Kí and Bifur had been puzzling for a week as they hiked up into the mountains, and had no real plans. They had goals, that was it. Hard to come up with a plan when the list of options for Thorin to endanger his life were limitless.

Just about the only certainty was that if Azog was alive, Thorin would lose his damn mind. Would almost certainly do something monumentally stupid. That was all they had decided. That his uncle was an idiot on this subject.

He sighed.

They would have to try again in the morning.

The mountains were infested with goblins and orcs, all three knew that it was a likely location, and coupled with how frantic Freya had seemed, Fíli was anxious.

He was the only one though.

With the sun hovering on the horizon and painting the world dramatically, the company was happily lounging over the landscape. Some were smoking. Some were gnawing on nuts from the trees they had passed earlier. Most were just enjoying the calm.

Then there was Bilbo. He was flopped against a rock in exhaustion. Day three of training at least had gone a little better the first two.

But, at least tonight Fíli wasn’t bandaging anything. The leather wraps had helped enormously. He had tried his best to get his sword out of the way of the hobbit’s leg, but he was fighting decades of muscle memory that insisted weapons went forward, not backward. It was almost surprising that he hadn’t slashed just on instinct.

The gash on Bilbo’s arm was his fault too. But, indirectly. Yesterday they had wrapped his blade to keep Bilbo safe. They hadn’t thought they needed to wrap Bilbo’s little dagger. Fíli knew he could dodge any strikes.

But then Bilbo had actually managed to block Fíli’s sword, and, without enough strength behind the parry, the blade had knocked back, ruined the shirt, and opened his arm. He wasn’t sure if the injury or the bother of repairing the garment had caused Bilbo’s foul mood.

No matter.

Tonight, he had wrapped both blades and insisted Bilbo wear Ori’s long tunic. It was better than no protection.

All of which meant that they hadn’t cut off early due to blood, and Bilbo was exhausted. By the time Fíli had taken pity and declared them done, the hobbit had been almost shaking trying to get the blade over his head to block. Throughout each of their sessions, Thorin had hovered.

He thought he was so subtle.

Thorin had never been subtle in his life.

Berating Fíli for injuring Bilbo, then berating Bilbo for getting injured had been testament to that, and there was probably a hushed conversation happening over whether his little rambling tirade counted as a declaration of intent.

It didn’t if it was up to Fíli. Not that his post-quest bet had anything to do with his opinion.

His mind was wandering as he waited for their meal to be done.

“They’d best say something before I accidentally call him uncle. This is getting out of hand.” Kíli declared as joined his brother. “Don’t think that Thorin would take kindly to that.”

“You don’t say, Kí? I think Thorin’s as likely to deck you as give you middle watch if you slip up like that.”

The brothers shook their heads as they watched Thorin wander casually to Bilbo and speak for a moment before nonchalantly stepping away from camp. At least Bilbo had the sense wait a few minutes before following with a limp and a smirk.

“How’s his training going?”

Fíli rolled his eyes, “You’ve watched us, you know it’s not going well.”

Kíli chuckled, but fell silent when Fíli didn’t join in. “What? Something wrong?”

“We’ve got to have a plan, nadadith.”

“We’ve got a plan, nadadzanid. Don’t let Thorin die.”

“Great. Nice plan. Lets try again with a few more details shall we?”

“Fine. If the pale orc shows up --”

“Thorin is going to charge him.”

“Not if we charge him first.”

 


 

 

Stupid breathtaking sunset.

Stupid majestic king.

Stupid training.

Stupid stupid quest.

And he was out of pipeweed.

So Bilbo sat on a log a ways outside of camp, and glowered, since he had no other recourse. This was one of those days when he wanted to punch Mr Bumptious right in the nose and march his hobbity feet right back to the Shire. The snipping had been escalating for days, but today it had broken into a vicious fight. There had been fewer of those since Rivendell -- it used to be several a week -- and that just irritated him more.

It didn’t seem unreasonable to think that the tosspot could find it in him to just speak to him like an adult, considering that they were still regularly sneaking off from the others to kiss like the end of the world was coming. But no. Thorin bloody Oakenshield had only the two linguistic styles. There was the officious, wordy, insensible King voice that brooked no arguments and refused to pause for logic. Then there was the dark, growling, lusty Thorin voice that could curl Bilbo’s toes instantly.

And he was not allowed to switch to the King voice when Bilbo was half-molten by the Thorin voice.

And for it to be a lecture about taking his training with Fíli more seriously?

He was a Hobbit, by all that’s good and green, not a warrior. He was never going to be a warrior. He had let Fíli try, and yes, Bilbo no longer flailed about quite so randomly. And yes, he no longer worried he’d take his own foot off with his blade. But, that was about as far as he was going to go.

He could train until the hair on his feet turned grey, he was never going to be able to outmatch the dwarves.  

Not that Thorin listened to that argument. Nor to the argument that his arm was still tingling and weak from failing to block a blow yesterday. Nor the argument that he just wanted an evening without being bludgeoned.

So Thorin had tried to seduce him into compliance with that incredible voice of his, and then order him to go train. Bilbo’s response when he heard the command had been a bit more vulgar than a proper hobbit should even know, let alone speak aloud. Fortunately Thorin had understood the depth of the very hobbity insult and shut his mouth at once. It had dropped open again when Bilbo really lost his temper and started shouting in no less than three languages.

By the time Bilbo reached for the khuzdul insults, he was well aware he had probably crossed a line, and did not care. He was only vaguely aware of what it meant to call someone a “amalfund fasl-ilbêb lalkhith” but Bofur had winced when Bifur had used it a few days earlier.

Thorin had snapped then, and they started shouting and threatening without any context, just character blows and general insults. They never once mentioned what they were actually arguing about.

Of course the argument -- fight, battle, possibly best to call it a verbal assault -- had taken place within range of the others. Of course they had listened in. Of course. Because there was no privacy or decency to be had on the road.  

He scowled and grumbled and pitched a rock haphazardly into the trees below. Then another. And another. Then all the rocks nearby him.

Bilbo turned to find more, and found Thorin standing a few steps away. Looking as utterly incredible as he always did, with his insufferable King face plastered on.

“Do you intend to banish every stone in the vicinity, Master Burglar?” This whole formal business when they were alone was not a good sign. But Bilbo wasn’t in the mood to deal with it. If Thorin got to act like a child, so did he.

“Yes. I do. You rock-headed dolt. So you can be on your way.” Just to be spiteful, he turned his back and heaved another half dozen stones to clatter into the trees.

Stupid majestic king.

Bilbo was exhausted, and sore, and having been reintroduced to the glory of fluffy wool stuffed pillows he wanted his own back. And all the annoyances of the road that he hadn’t paid attention to while he and Thorin hiked side by side and talked the day away were starkly obvious when he was alone. No one was forcing Ori to do weapons training, and he probably needed it as badly as Bilbo. But Bilbo was being treated differently. He was being treated like something that needed protection because he was clearly too weak to handle himself.

Weaker than the dwarves, fine. He could admit that.

But he didn’t want to hear about it all the time.

He only realized he had sunk back onto the log when he noticed his Majesty join him.

Bilbo scooted a bit farther away, feeling petty.

“You have to continue training.” If it hadn’t been said with such a blatantly false layer of pretension, Bilbo would have jumped back to yelling. A glance confirmed it. Thorin was trying very hard to hold onto his mask.

Tempting though it was to prod and poke and force the King to be mature and emotionally deeper than his favorite silver teaspoons, Bilbo knew it would only make a bigger mess. And, anger put to the side, he intended to stay with the company. They were insufferable, but he was fond of them all. The twit seated next to him in particular.

“Fine, I’ll continue. Not that it will do any good.” Bilbo clipped, “But I’m taking the evening off before my arm gets so sore it snaps in two.”

Thorin acquiesced to that with a nod. And they sat in silence, too far apart for Bilbo to feel the waves of warmth that normally kept him cozy. Eventually the anger in the air tempered. Cautiously, Thorin shifted closer an inch at a time, until Bilbo surrendered and leaned into his arm.

“Bilbo, we should discuss--”

“No.”

“It would only be appropriate that--”

“Nope.”

“But it is importa--”

“No Thorin. I don’t want to watch you trip over your own feet trying to be eloquent right now. If you insist on talking, find another subject.”

The sun sank lower; the trees were tipped in gold and the forest below was exquisite. Tomorrow they would be into the mountains properly. They had made camp just beside the marker for the start of the high pass. It was at least two days to cross. Probably more. Bilbo was not looking forward to it. Except that they would be unlikely to find a clearing large enough for Fíli to be able to beat on him.  

“Earlier,” Thorin began, “you used several insults you should not even know.”

“Oh, what? Because I’ve led such a clean and closeted life in the Shire? Well excuse me Mr--”

“No. Because they were in khuzdul.”

“Oh.” Bilbo shrank back down.

“How did you come to learn them?”

“Why should I tell you?”

“Because I’ve asked, and because it is Ir-rûrîk’unsas ur’Khazad.”

Bilbo grinned, still not deigning to look at what was surely a very frustrated king.

Aktibi.”

Thorin growled something too low for Bilbo to hear, and the hobbit couldn’t help the snort of laughter.

“How?”

“As I’ve told you many many times Thorin Oakenshield,“ Bilbo turned, letting go of his grudge and anger, “I’m very skilled with tongues.”

Chapter Text

It was waking up in a guarded room with Hobbits staring at her like a zoo animal that gave her brain the push it needed.

It should have been obvious from the get go. A solid decade of fantasizing on the possibility should have made her more inclined to see it for what it really was, but practical realism had delayed the notion surfacing.

But she was finally coming around to the realization that there was a chance-- a possibility rather -- a slim, tiny, infinitesimal -- a fragment of a chance, not even worth considering -- that she wasn’t dreaming.

Maybe.

That consideration didn’t become an epiphany until they brought her a second meal before nine o’clock. That, for whatever reason, not the feet or the ears or the foreign language, but second breakfast, made her really start looking around. Really start to observe.

She had spent a couple of years buried deep in the fandom; deep enough to have gone through all the production art books and ogle all the details. She had learned a bit of khuzdul and sindarin from reading too much fanfiction, but she had never really learned how to speak it. There were a lot of names and clips of dialogue memorized, of course, just from keeping the movies on in the background while fiddling online or cleaning the house; so she had some very specific phrases permanently emblazoned in her mind, but nothing all that useful. Unless she needed to lead a charge into battle.  Then she was set.

But as she stared at the world around her, it was obvious that she could not have fabricated all of this detail from the remnants of memory she had. There was just too much.

And if she hadn’t invented it….then….

She did Not faint.

She did lose control of her knees and fall to the ground hyperventilating.

Poor hobbits didn’t know what to do with that, so they set a cup of tea and a small cake next to her and stepped away to give her some privacy. A little hysterical giggle kept trying to burble out of her throat. She kept shoving it down, hoping to avoid seeming any madder than she already did. It was insistent though. Everytime she wandered up to a new thought it tried to spill out.

If she really was, and it was impossible, of course, but if. IF. Then it was a major blessing they hadn’t understood her after all.

Blood rose in her cheeks. Not the sweetly precious blush people talked about when they were being romantic. It was more of the scaldingly hot, ‘look like you’ve been sprinting a marathon during an Australian heatwave’, sort of look. The hobbits thought she had taken sick. They came in with cool water and a cup of earthy bitter tea they made her drink. Her stammering attempts to explain that it was shame were lost on them.

But since rumors of their cooking skills were not exaggerated, she ate what they brought. Athelford seemed especially pleased by her appetite at elevenses, and eventually left her alone while he had a pipe.

She promptly climbed out the window. Simple.

Breaking into Bag End was equally simple.

By a look around, it seemed like Bilbo had taken his mad dash not too long before she broke the lock on the back door.

So she sat in Bilbo’s chair, cursed the dwarves for eating everything, and panicked for half a day.

Then ran to the party tree and retrieved her things. Then panicked more. Then took the single dose of tylenol in her bag to quell the caffeine headache trying to rip her eyes out. Then lost her temper and smashed her useless powerless phone to death with a fire poker.

It wasn’t her most productive day.

Finally, as afternoon waned, she shoved logic into the back of her mind, took hold of her courage, and started to plan.

“I need supplies. I need food. I need travel gear.”

She had, well, not much, in her purse.

An ace bandage, tweezers, a few half empty tubes of nail glue, a period cup a friend had given her as a joke, some alcohol wipes, a bag of peppermints, and a decent travel sewing kit were potentially useful. The rest was garbage and credit cards and worthless paper money. She didn’t even have her penknife with her.

That was when she decided to rob Bag End.

Lobelia was never going to get to steal the spoons.

As she dug through Bilbo’s closets and cupboards for small valuables that didn’t seem like heirlooms, she found a proper travelling coat, several packs and a bedroll musty enough that it must have been his mother’s. Yes, there was a bit of guilt as she bundled up his things to sell, but this was important. More than he could understand.

Hopefully, he’d forgive her if she managed to save Thorin’s life so they could have epic throne sex. No one that likes sex argues with epic throne sex after all.

She grabbed a map, grumbling.

“Its supposed to take, what? A week to get to Bree? Or is it a few days? Either way. That’s going to suck so hard. I don’t have a horse, well, pony I guess, since I’m apparently dwarf sized. Or am I tall hobbit? I don’t fucking care. Cock. I’m just going to have to walk there. Balls. Balls. Balls. Ok, um, if I see a pony, I’m stealing it, simple as that. Aaannnnndd. Fuck. I’m so not in shape to keep up with them when the shit hits the fan and they start sprinting left and right. Why couldn’t this have happened four years ago when I was still on the team and you know, in the fandom. I am not a natural sprinter. Maybe Gimli was lying. Actually, better if he wasn’t. Need them to be alive at the end of this. Speed is good.”

She started to pace.

“Ok so, well, first I’m going to have to fricking jog to Bree since I can’t exactly sell Bilbo’s stuff here. They’d notice. That’d spoil things. Also, jogging, good practice, I need to keep that up until I convince them to let me join them. So I guess I’ll be jogging daily, pony or not. And probably just lifting heavy things as I can. I need to get back in shape. And I have to get a move on. It should take them a week, maybe less.  I don’t know.

“Oh fuck. Oh balls. Peter Jackson. Mother fucking Peter Jackson. Is this book or movie? That’s important. I hope its book. Please be book. Fuck you PJ. I loved the movies, but please let this be book. Let it just be movie aesthetic. Book plot. I don’t know it quite as well, but it should be easier to save them. No Azog. That’d be useful.

“Oh merciful tap-dancing Moses. Ok enemies. Right. Fucking hell there’s a lot. Orcs? Yes. Wargs. Trolls. Goblins. Stone giants. Spiders. Elves-- do they count? Fuck it, Thrandy does. Elves. Dragon. If this is movieverse, four dozen random monsters they crammed into the final battle I don’t even know the names of. Yeah. Yesssss. Oh wait, and bats. Yeah. Okay. I need a weapon so I can kill things. All of the things. Maybe just a big fuck-all stick, then I can just whack them until they’re dead. I really need to learn a ranged weapon too. Fuck. I need food. I need some way to convince them to listen. Thaaaaaat’s not going to be easy. Pretty sure they hate me. I can’t believe I said I wanted to….God. I am so glad they don’t know english.”

She looked back at the table of various things, looked at the packs she had found, looked at the dusky Shire outside the window. A bit of helpless, hysterical laughter slipped out.

“How the fuck am I going to do this?”  

But, in the end it wasn’t really her decision. It was too irresistible. She just had to find a way. Besides, if all this madness wasn’t real, then there was no harm in following along and playing. And, if it was real? Then how could she not try?

Anyways, the fandom would never forgive her if she didn’t.

 


 

 

Fuck the Fandom.

That was her first coherent thought once she clawed her way to consciousness.

Frey woke slowly, dragging herself up out of the haze that seemed insistent she stay asleep. A bright afternoon sun pierced through the window and burned in her eyes as she blinked them awake. Her mind was still muddy, but something was obviously wrong.

Exhausted as she had been since arriving in Rivendell she doubted she would have slept past lunch. It had been mid-evening last she remembered. It was midafternoon now. She was starving, more than a few missed meals deserved. And she badly needed a toilet. Therefore she had been asleep for quite some time. A day, most likely, someone would have woken her if she’d slept longer than that, surely.

“How did I sleep through almost a whole day?” she grumbled as she found the bathroom. Finally getting to pee let the last of the haze clear, events resolved in her mind, and she found her first coherent thought.

Because everyone has a line, and hers had just been crossed. Thus.

Fuck. The. Fandom.

For a moment, she stood, fuming, with a pair of scissors in her hand, ready to hunt down and shave bald every last one of those assholes. Even Bilbo. Even Bilbo’s feet. But tempting as vengeance was, the instinct to throw in the towel was too strong.

As her blistering tirade faded out, she realised a second fact. She must have been out for more than a day. And the Elves must have been in on it. Because she needed another betrayal before breakfast.

She spun, fully ready to hack off every bit pretty elvish hair her reach allowed, and found the door was locked from the outside. Frey’s tattered temper shattered. It may not have been the door’s fault, but it did bear the brunt of her anger. Poor thing. When she was done verbally and physically venting her frustration about an entire universe an hour later, all the lovely carvings were obliterated, and her shoulder hurt. Her throat was hoarse and she had heard the faint murmuring of her jailers.

Well. Fuck them.

She climbed back into bed.

 


 

That trader had cheated her. There was no way of knowing by how much, but he had been far too happy when they were done to have not. But she had no idea what the silverware was worth in the real world, let alone in Bree. The rest of it was even more a mystery. And even if she did, she had no idea what the conversion rate would be. So she had gone up to a merchant and played dumb. Literally and figuratively.

She felt a bit bad about selling Bilbo’s things to the seedy looking fellow; it would probably all be melted down by morning. Hopefully by the time he returned, if he returned, he would just blame Lobelia. She was more hopeful that this all would go to plan and Bilbo would just live happily ever after with Thorin at the mountain.  But it got her enough coin to purchase food, bargaining chips, clothes, camp supplies and leave a pile after.

It needed to be enough for a pony. She wasn’t going to catch them without a pony.

She looked over the things she had already and crammed what she could into the packs she had taken from Bag End. The package of oilskins was heavy and smelled terrible, but, then, everything smelled terrible in Bree. After mucking her her way across the Shire, she smelled terrible.

It was all a matched set now.

She sniffed the waterskins and winced, grateful she had her normal one with her still.

But she slung it all on her back anyway, and marched off, following the smell, to find someone who would sell her a ride.

The less said about that debacle of an interpretive dance routine the better.

The fierce looking man took the rest of her coins in the end. And she felt like she had begged for the privilege. All of them, and then pointed her towards the last stall, where a scruffy greyish pony was munching on a flowering bush through the window.

An hour later she was on the edge of Bree, half dragging the pony along, having given up on mounting for the time being. She had barely managed to get her bags on him. And he had bitten at her. Not that she could go complain to the man. He had vanished right after. In fact, it was possible the pony wasn’t even his.

She wasn’t going to think about that. She had a Company to chase down. Then convince she wasn’t evil or insane. Then save.

She was probably a solid two days behind them, and about to step into the wild.

Goody.

This was going to go well.

 


 

 

For all that the elves seemed to be assisting the dwarves’ objective that Freya stay in Rivendell, they weren’t doing a very good job watching after her. After a day spent in her room with a tableful of food, she was very bored and even more annoyed.

The porn had abated but not vanished, and she was blissfully alone in her room. Unfortunately, couldn’t banish the spectre of who was in her brain long enough to do anything about her need for a one woman spelunking expedition.

She had to assume that the White Council had done their thing. She was quite certain that the Company was gone. And, she guessed that Galadriel -- Frey was certain it was her even if Elrond had been less than forthcoming -- was too busy to be as frequently pornographic as she had been.

So Frey snuck out. Because apparently the good people of Middle Earth didn’t ever think to lock their windows. And, with a bit of a detour in the middle, she made her way to a lovely garden and basked in the midday sun.

Now, Elves were inscrutable most of the time. She knew this. Placid bitch face and all that. Glory though, when he found her a few hours later, had the decency to at least look mildly impressed.

“Don’t worry Glory. I’m not escaping past this here garden right here.” Frey smiled sloppily, hoisting a bottle in salute. It was one of six in the grass around her. One was empty already. The one in her hand she had just opened. Elves made great wine. And while it wasn’t the most noble of plans, she intended to sit in the grass and drink Elrond’s wine until she passed out. And if there was any mercy in this hell she was living in, she would wake up back home where she would have a scalding hot shower, and then probably go promptly back to drinking until she forgot all of this forever.

Glory was watching her refill her cup with a queer expression. “You are awarethatthecompany you arrivedwithhasdepartedfor Erebor?” Playing language games while drunk was extra hard. “You are goingto follow themto Erebor?”

Luckily Glorfindel had spent enough time around her to have gotten good at making his questions clear. Freya laughed and shook her head vehemently.

“Nope. No. Nuh-uh. No Erebor for me, Glory. I am going to stay in Rivendell. And hope I get to go home pdq. But in the meantime, I plan on drinking most of Elrond’s stock of wine. This wine.” She held up the bottle to show him. “This one is excellent Glorfy. Sorry, Glory. I’m going to drink all of it. Every bit.” She beamed an inebriated grin and a tiny little smile appeared on the elf.

“You will not follow themtotheLonelyMountain?”

“I told you! I’m staying in Rivendell! Maybe forever. Cheers!” She tipped the cup back and emptied it.

By the time she looked back down, Glory had vanished. She giggled and started bouncing back and forth as she started humming a song. Then she realized what she was singing and laughed harder, refilling her cup. She reached behind her to the flower bushes and plucked one. The enormous bloom had just been set into the cup -- an effort to be classy -- when she heard someone return.

Glory was back.

With a blanket, a large basket, and three more bottles of wine tucked against his side. She cheered, flung her arms in the air, and ducked as wine fell on her head.

Best. Day. Ever.

Who the hell would argue with drinking with a hero of ancient legends who looked like a blonde Adonis?

Most of the next bottle went into him. He gestured her quiet as he emptied a bottle in what she was sure was him saying, ‘I need to catch up.’ She had concurred and helpfully kept his cup full. Then he drank another. And another before she finished her second bottle. Elves. He wasn’t red faced, that would be too indecorous for an elf, but he was moving far too meticulously for him to be unaffected.

Before she drank past the point of caring, she had wondered why the elf was supporting her excellent plan for the day. He must have had a reason to day drink like a college freshman. That was now gone. Then her new best friend pulled out a pouch and a pipe, and it was really gone.

It was Shire weed.

Dear God. No wonder Gandalf loved the Shire. It knocked her on her ass in minutes and kept her there as the sun started to sink.

It wasn’t surprising when she switched from humming the song that had been in her head all afternoon to singing it while bouncing her head back and forth in time with the rhythm in her mind -- which had nothing to do the rhythm she was humming by the way.  It was, however, a thoroughly appropriate song for her to be singing. Highly apropos. And it was a delightful shock when Glorfindel tried to join in.

“Sow me the ayy to oh home?”

She froze with a huge smile before tackle hugging him.

“I didn’t even know you guys could get drunk! You- You’re as wasted as I am.” She yelled, sitting on his chest and ruffling his hair.

Then she promptly started teaching. Glory was a fast learner. Learned the lyrics faster than she was learning Westron that’s for damn sure. And while he didn’t know what he was saying, he was liking it. By late afternoon he had it down perfectly. And he was the one who insisted they stand and dance, not her.

Not dance. Jump. Stomp. Flail.

They didn’t notice they were being watched.

“Show me the way to go home! Bum Bum Bum! I’m tired and I wanna go to bed! Bum bum ba bum!” She shouted -- it couldn’t actually be called singing anymore -- before pointing back at him.

“I had a little drink about an hour ago! And it got right to my head!”

“Wherever I may roam!”

He joined her voice as he tried to refill her cup. Most of it watered the grass.

“On land or sea or foam! You will always hear me singing this song--” Glory cut off, cup to his mouth, stomping, and she finished the last lyric alone. At the top of her lungs.

“Show me the way to go home!”

He grabbed her shoulder to keep her still, shushing her laughter, and very carefully set an empty bottle on her head. Once he finally had it balanced they both cheered. Which of course knocked it off again. Sober, he would have caught it. Drunk, he juggled it a moment before it hit the grass and rolled away.

She downed her cup and looked back at her drinking partner, “Next you need to learn ‘If all the Young Ladies’ Glory! Then we can sing about rude sex with the womens!”

But he wasn’t looking at her. He was staring over her shoulder like cops had just arrived.

Which they sort of had. Lindir and Elrond were standing at the entrance to the garden.

They had taken inscrutable to a whole new level. Their expressions wouldn’t have shifted if they had found her riding a balrog. In either sense of the word. They would have done the same single blink and the same lifted eyebrow that she and Glory were now receiving.

He snickered unhelpfully. He had probably gotten in trouble for this before.

“Hiiii. Lindy, you’re no longer my favorite elf. Glory is. Sorry.”

She waved with the bottle after she took another drink.

Thereissomeoneherewhowouldspeakwith you.” Frey frowned, glancing at Glory. He was much better at enunciating. She would have to have him repeat things so she could understand them from now on. The two elves parted and Lady Galadriel walked gracefully into the room all magnificent and beautiful and insufferably innocent looking.

Frey blinked. Frowned. Cursed. Flung the wine in her face. And ran for it.

Glorfindel snorted in laughter behind her.

 


 

She took a long slow calming breath and counted her packs for the eighth time, as if something could have gotten lost since the last time she stopped to do it, about three steps earlier.

There was no more space to stall in though. She was practically in their camp, and they really needed to keep a tighter watch. This was just sad. She had almost had a panic attack barely thirty steps from their fire and they still hadn’t noticed her. If she had any luck they’d be shocked enough to let her pull a bit of interpretive dance and try to explain what all that mess in Bag End was about. This was too important for her not to grow a spine and try.

It had to work. She had to find away. No one wanted dead Durins.

She threw one last silent prayer at the universe and forced herself to walk.

Glóin jumped about two feet when she emerged from the underbrush. His shout got everyone else’s attention, and her hope evaporated in front of her.

That was a lot of weapons.

Even Bilbo had a little knife in his hand.

Whatisshedoinghere?”

Howdidshefollowus?”

“Glóin whatkindofwatchareyoukeeping?”

Howdidshegetawayfromthehobbits?”

Theyreonlyhobbits. Whatdidyouexpect Kíli?”

Whatdoyouwantdonewithher?”

Every last one of the weapons was pointed at her. For a minute she got lost trying to decide if Dwalin’s axes or Kíli’s bow was more terrifying to her. She had promised herself that she would be perfectly behaved this time. That she would stay calm and not insult them. It was her only hope of repairing what she broke that first night and she knew it.  

Pretending she was confident, she nodded at them. No one tried to kill her for it. So she walked towards the befuddled dwarves, into the center of camp, and dropped the heaviest pack on the ground.

“I brought you presents. You’ll need these, but you don’t know it yet. I hope its true no matter the canon. And yes Thorin, this is me trying to apologize.” She knelt and flicked open the ties to show them the neatly folded and ungodly heavy oilskins. They looked curious now.

But with a few short steps towards the hobbit, she replaced that curiosity with animosity.

“Yeah, okay, didn’t expect you all to be that fond of him yet. That’s good though. Bilbo is good people. And I’m not trying to hurt him. I think he’s great. But okay. Plan A failed. Plan B it is then.”

She abandoned trying to get closer and held out a bundle towards the now heavily guarded burglar. “This is for you. Better jacket. Because the velvet really is ridiculous, Bilbo. Also your handkerchiefs.”

Plan B was to now drop it and walk out of camp, putting her life in the faith that Kíli wouldn’t shoot her in the back. Plan B did not consider that they might stop her leaving at all. Yet, when she bowed and tried to leave, Dwalin and the princes blocked her path. Nori and Dori stepped up on the other side and she found herself facing down Thorin.

This wasn’t going well.

Only advantage to getting killed right that second was that the law of poorly written stories might come into play. And she could go back home now instead of in seven months. That wouldn’t be so bad.

Sowhatstheplanthen?” Bofur said at her side, knife in hand instead of his mattock.

“I’m sorry guys. I’ll leave. I’m happy to come back after it rains and all the oilcloths make sense. I’m hoping you listen then because Wow you aren’t going to listen right now. Please don’t kill me.”

Shecannotbetrusted Thorin.” Dwalin said, and she knew it wasn’t good, whatever he had said.

Ihvetoagree. Shefollowedusintothewild. Shespokeof Azog.”

“Hey wait. Why did you say Azog. No need to talk about Azog. I already know I insulted you on accident when I mentioned Azog and Thror but I totally didn’t mean it like that alright?”

Wemaybebetterservedbykillinghernow.”

Thatsabitharshuncle.”

Necessary.”

“What the fuck are you guys talking about? Why do you look like that, Thorin?” She stared at the dwarf-king, and jumped back at the hatred there. “Oh ball sucking hell.”

Then strong hands tried to lock on her arms. But she hadn’t grown up with three brothers without learning how to get out of wrestling holds, and every instinct kicked in when she felt someone grabbing at her. She didn’t even notice it was Fíli until she had already wrenched away and elbowed him in the face.

Not her smartest move.

Now the dwarves had switched fully from ‘cautious and grumpy’ to ‘defensive and angry.’ The sad little knife she had bought in Bree was in her hand and just as soon as her mouth remembered how to work, she intended to apologize and talk until they listened. Plan B was shot, so she was proceeding directly to Plan F, pull a Bilbo and talk until they opted not to kill her.

But the escapes that worked against her brothers weren’t really on the same level as a troop of battle trained dwarves, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that when Fíli grabbed her the second time, she wasn’t able to slip away. And of all things to think while Thorin stalked towards her and the company braced for a likely execution, her mind was giggling that she was going to die in Fíli’s arms and wasn’t that just ridiculously fairytale-esque. Though if it was a fairytale, Fíli would hate her less.

Stupid Middle Earth.

Youcantkillher.”

Bilbo’s voice stilled the rest.

Excusemeburglar? Didyouhavesomethingtosay?”

“Bilbo? What’s going on?”

Youarentgoingtokillher. Dontbe-- Sheisasingleperson. Quitemadbythesoundofit. Howevershebroughtusgifts.”

Youexpectmetolethergo? Soshecankillusinthenight?”

Noofcoursenot.”

She really wished she knew what was happening. At all. Any of it. Bilbo was standing with his hands on his hips and fussing at Thorin. Thorin, for his part was scowling back at him. She was busy looking at his hand hovering above his knife’s hilt.   

Iwillnotleaveherarmed.”

Thendont.” Bilbo shrugged.

Andyoullbetakingmiddlewatch.”

Fine.”

She watched Thorin step closer and winced, certain her eyes were hugely wide. He took her forgotten knife from her hand, shoved it in his belt and nodded to Fíli. He dropped her arms.

“Hey that’s mine you-- you jerk!”

Youmaygothen.” He gestured for her to depart.

“Well. Uh. Thank you?” She took a step, but stopped. He was still looking murdery. Except, she didn’t have any choice but to try. “Um. That’s my only knife. I need it.” She held out her hand and waited. No one moved, so she pointed, gestured and held her hand back out. “I need my knife. It’s tiny, and it’s dull, but I want it. It is the only half-sharp object I have! Give it back.”

Between the adrenaline, the exhaustion, and the frustration of trying to charade her way through the conversation, she knew her temper was about to break.

“Give it the fuck back Thorin. It’s not like you need it. You’ve got four more that I can see right now. Gimme!”

Thorin smirked mirthlessly. He pulled out her knife and considered. Then snapped the blade off the hilt.

She gaped. He placed it in her outstretched hand, where she promptly cut her palm trying to grab the pieces.

And then she lost it.

“You insufferable fucking twat-gobbler! You Jackass! You Prick! That’s my only fucking knife, Asshole. That’s my only blade! Do you think I’m just going to gnaw through tree branches? Am I supposed to just not eat any meat? You oaf. You fuckfaced cock. You.. I just. What. You fucking--” She took a step in, dropping the now useless blade, and slapped him across the face as hard as she could, leaving a trail of her blood on his cheek. Everyone went silent, staring between the steam coming out of her ears and the gawping outrage on his face. She didn’t know what she was expecting. A new knife? An apology? Retaliation?

But before Thorin, or, far more likely, Dwalin, could come to their senses and kill her for it, they all heard a resigned, “Nope.”

Bilbo pushed past the stunned dwarves, grabbed her by the collar, and marched her far into the woods, muttering under his breath. He pushed her to keep walking when they had walked for a quarter of an hour.  

Go. Dontcomebackorhewillkillyou. Youillmanneredrabblerouser. Thankyouforthegifts. Goodnight.” And he turned to walk back to his camp.

She was too shocked to try to reply.

 


 

Frey was not hiding from Galadriel anymore than she was hiding from Elrond and Lindir.  That is to say, she was hiding, certainly, she just wasn’t singling the Golden Lady out for special treatment. She was also hiding from Glorfindel, but only because she was sure he would drag her off to the others rather than invite her to drink more. Gandalf had definitely vanished off somewhere, though she was quite certain it wasn’t after the Company. Useless tardy bugger.

She had spent three days hiding in corners of Rivendell, sneaking into the kitchens for food, and for one splendid afternoon, sitting next to a barrel of ale in the cellar with a cup that never had to be empty. If she had wanted to confront Galadriel before, that had been forgotten when memories of the Dark Queen look she could pull had reminded her that it may not be the best idea. Especially after the wine and the white dress.  

So Frey hid.

Since she knew that Galadriel could climb into her brain from wherever she was in Rivendell, she didn’t feel too guilty. There had been little glancing touches at her mind since they had met. But she didn’t expect the ever placid, golden Lady of Lothlorien to sneak attack her in a garden. The shriek, and the stumble backwards into a shrub must have looked especially ridiculous since it quirked up the corners of the elf’s mouth.

“No. Leave me alone. If you want to rifle through the porn some more do it while I’m asleep, I don’t need to know what you’re looking at. You’re a bit kinky, and it’s weird for me.”

Follow.

“Did you just -- what was that? That wasn’t words. It was just there all of a sudden. Right, I shouldn’t be surprised. You do that sort of thing. Anyhow. I’m not going anywhere.”

Follow.

“Oh ok, you’re going to play the other side now? After everyone else in this valley conspired to drug me and keep me here? That’s cute.”

Follow.

“No.”

FOLLOW.

“Why the hell should I?” Frey snapped, ”You’re in my damn brain at the moment, talking to me telepathically or something. You know the history. I have fucking tried enough. I’m not doing it. I’m going to sit around Rivendell and learn elvish and get drunk with Glorfindel a lot, and pray I get to go home asap.”

Galadriel smiled silently, a perfect image of grace and compassion. But at the same time, grabbed some fragment of smut and transformed it fully from a memory of words to a memory of experience.

----his hands roved lower, finding the bottom of the shirt and slowly drawing it upwards, dragging over flushed, impatient skin and following with hot wet open mouthed kisses.----

The images faded, and she had to take a moment before speaking since breathy squeaking wouldn’t help her sound resolute. That had been brief, but rather more intense than the idle thumbing through porn and observed flashes of fucking she had been subjected to so far.

“Well that’s a neat trick, making me really relive it. However. No. I’m not going to get killed over the chance for some sex. I can get some elsewhere, thank you very much. Also, I think that was Bagginshield you grabbed, so a bit odd, as I haven’t got those parts. You couldn’t have grabbed Kíliel or something?”

----Soft brushes of trailing fingers left burning paths in their wake as Arwen drew her hands up the bared expanse of the shieldmaiden’s legs. One arm was wrapped about her lover’s chest, holding her against her own and she ducked her head to suck a mark on the side of her neck. The sharp sting was a maddening contrast to the way the hand ghosted over the pearl of her pleasure, just parting her enough to give her hope without giving her any relief as she was teased beyond the limit of her silence. She moaned----

Freya slowly exhaled through clenched teeth, blinking.

“Ok, yes, good. I do have those parts. Though that wasn’t my point. Also, that was your granddaughter, so, awkward, but uh… ahrrm. Still not going to work.”

Beatific smile still firmly in place, Galadriel sent an impression of something deeper and cleaner than lust or passion. Frey identified it before it could manifest as imagery, and laughed aloud, breaking the spell of it.

“Yeah, that’s not really gonna do it either, sweetie. I got bopped over here without warning, I’ll probably get bopped back out the same way at some point. I’m not living in a rom-com. I’m not going to pull an Ariel and abandon my family back in the real world. You aren’t going to tempt me with the potentials of love or with anything else.”

Galadriel’s expression darkened just a bit, and the glittering light in her eyes changed.

----Fíli was standing on the ledge, held captive before Azog on the tower at Ravenhill. His fear was overwhelmed by his desperate shout to save his kin. Fetid breath rushed past him as the pale orc laughed, and thrust the rough blade through armor and flesh alike. The soaring rush of pain that bloomed in his chest quickly overtook all thought. He could hear the cruel laugh behind him. He could feel as the blade stuttered in time with that laugh, sawing slightly against bone and flesh and sending waves of agony crashing against what was left of his hold on consciousness. And as the world went grey in his eyes, he began to fall----

Galadriel let the image fade away, her faintly smug expression showing her confidence in her tactic. Unfounded confidence.

It hadn’t even been a forced experience, just a memory of a story.

“Nope. Sorry. ‘Valar Morghullis’ you know? That includes dwarves too. I feel a bit bad, and I’d get murdered if anyone ever finds out back home I let them go die without trying to help, but I just wont tell anyone about this ridiculous place when I get back. Problem solved.”

----Bilbo fell to the ice beside Thorin, seeing the wound and knowing, even before the dwarf could speak, that there was no hope. It was too much. The injuries were too severe. Despite the blood sodden leathers catching most, there was a growing stain of red below the king. He would have stopped it, would have saved him, would have done whatever the Valar asked so long as he was able to prevent this. But Bilbo could already see the light fading within him----

She laughed long at that attempt.

“Well Lady, you clearly aren’t paying attention if you think invoking the death of the biggest jackass I’ve ever met is going to change my mind. Right now I’m more inclined to be responsible for it. Besides I’ve seen the movie. A lot. I know that scene. I’ve read more explorations of that moment than you can even fathom. It isn’t going to work. I’m immune. Give up. Leave me alone. I am not going to follow them. They’ll sort out Smaug and the three of them will get killed in battle. It’s worked before it will do just fine now. And don’t you tell me it matters that much, the elves have never given a fuck about what happened to the dwarves.”

She was building into a bit of a rant, enjoying having a target for her frustration that was more expressive than furniture.

The world shifted.

She stopped talking.

The air flickered with something cold and sharp. Like electricity charging the air. Galadriel’s mien went cold, twisted, and an unseen power wrapped tightly around the younger woman. Frey knew what it was even as it started, but that did nothing to mitigate the horror that filled her looking into a pair of deadly star-filled eyes.

Then the elf-witch dragged her deeply into a constructed memory, and forced her to live it in it’s horrifying entirety.

---Thorin was straining against the rope holding him hard enough to tear at flesh, trying to reach their burglar. But as the hobbit’s screams grew more broken, as he began to lose the fight for his life, as Thorin was forced to watch, he lost the strength to resist. It crumbled with each gasp and sob and shriek. Bilbo was just a gentle creature of the the green fields of the Shire who had stayed too loyal to the company that had insulted and derided him.

He had come to help them in Goblintown when he should have fled.

He had been caught attempting to free them.

He had tried to fight, stay strong, stay brave, but as the goblins’ knife first broke skin to peel back flesh in long strips from his stomach and feet to throw onto a hot pan, Bilbo had begun to scream, and had not stopped. Would not stop. Not until death stilled his tongue. So Thorin offered the only comfort he could, and stared into the hobbit’s weeping, pleading face and held that gaze as their burglar, their quest, and their hope died under sickly black Goblin blades. Stared, while a goblin lapped at the pooling blood. Stared, while the horrid scent of charring meat gagged them all, and stared as Bilbo’s eyes lost their spark of life.

By the time the goblins turned to the rest of the company they had no more will to resist and Thorin welcomed it when the Goblin-king himself---

“Stop that!” Frey screamed, wrenching back, ripping her mind free.

She was on the floor, panting, bent over a bench and trying not to hit the elf before her. There was no way to hide the hoarseness in her voice when she managed to speak, “Just, just s-s-stop, please. That...it isn’t fair. That isn’t what will happen. Bilbo is too smart for that. That was a nightmare -- even in the story -- and the story wasn’t very... very good. Just torture porn. That isn’t going to happen. The fandom is pretty well fucked-up in the head, we have killed and tortured them hundreds of ways, and even we never… even we only made that a nightmare.”

A sense of bleak potential made Galadriel’s opinion obvious.

The edge of a knife.

Galadriel dragged Frey rapidly back through the few moments she had spent around the company since her arrival. Showed her how just a knock at the door had changed things. How Bilbo throwing her from his house had put him in good standing with the dwarves. How he had found his courage early, fought with Thorin and drawn them together. How near they had come to missing the swords in the troll hoard. How easily her presence could have gotten them all killed in the mad flight to Rivendell. How the quest teetered on the brink of failure.

“Then I should stay away from them! Obviously! Not keep messing things up.”

Another flash of images that recalled the scent of burning flesh.

“No. Stop. That -- what happened to him, it wasn’t real, it’s too far, it doesn’t happen here. It’s not like that. It won’t be. They will at least complete the quest. Even if it just reverts to canon, even if the Durins die. Erebor, Dale, Smaug, Azog, Bolg. All of that. They’ll still do all that.”

The fierce gaze softened. There was a gentle vision of sun-bright gold wrapping protectively around a deep blue shape, which was curling and twisting in beautiful forms to guard the gold. She saw Thorin’s hand linger on Bilbo’s chest after they parted. She saw Bilbo’s hand raise to touch a sprig of flowers in his hair, silent and unwilling to break the spell as a bright little light lit his features.

Change.

Possibility.

Bilbo would be more reckless now. He would be rash. Protective. An idiot. Thorin would be worse. If one of them fell, the quest would fall with them. Frey had always thought so, but having met them, she now knew how incontrovertibly true that was.

She stayed on the ground, breathing, brushing away tears before they could fall. Impossibly, endlessly angry.

Galadriel waited, silent and compassionate, as if she hadn’t just forced someone to go through death and torture to prove a point.

Although the point had been taken.

Frey shook off the last of the shaking and rose. There was no way she could be held responsible for the fate of the quest. It was a terrible plan.

“Fine. Then dig around in my head some more, scoop out everything they need to know and dump it into Glorfindel. Send his ass off to protect them. He might be useful at least! He could explain. He could, you know, talk!”

You.

“Bullshit. Send someone who can, I don’t know, use a sword? Or light a fire? Or ride a damned horse?! Send the goddamn balrog-slayer! I bet he can handle Smaug just fine!” She climbed back to her feet, trying to ignore the way her legs were trembling and the frustrated tears that had always shown up at the worst times, “Whatever, Ok. Thorin wouldn’t be happy to see an elf. So send Aragorn! He’s a bloody ranger and it’ll make later alliances much easier to set up. I’ve already proved I’m pretty well crap at this!”

She got an image of herself, standing alone before a glittering lady and a broad, dark, bearded man who towered over her in height and presence.

“What was that?” She hesitated, digging through every bit of Tolkien lore she could recall, “Oh! OH! Mahal? And...lady faaaacccce...uh, balls, what is her name...gardens, hobbits, Yvonne. No, Yavanne. Yavanna! Yes, there we go, Mahal and Yavanna? What do they have to do with all this besides it being a dwarvish quest with a side order of hobbit?”

Her throat tightened briefly at the resonant memory she had just relived and her poor word choice.

You.

Fine, they chose me, makes as much sense as me being here in the first place. Fine, I‘ve got all this history sort of memorized, and that’s great. But I’m terrible at this, and the boys really do hate me, give it to someone else. Anyone else.”

Her mind started to flicker with images of stories, bright pinpoint flashes of the quest refracted and reflected over and over in a thousand variations. Permutations and alternatives and choices and substitutions of just the scene on the cliff buffeted her. It was chaos, and by the time it faded away, even Frey was struggling to pick them apart, let alone find the two canon options. The Lady smiled almost sheepishly, with a soft apologetic shrug.

Frey gawked for a long time before she managed to speak.

“You can’t hand it to someone else because you can’t tell the difference? Oh cock gobbling hell….there’s too much fanfiction in my head?! Did you just tell me that I’ve read too much fanfiction so its all muddled up and you can’t tell what’s canon and what isn’t!? Merciful fuck! That’s just. That’s actual irony is what that is. I’m a huge fangirl, so I know it all, but I’m a huge fangirl, so you can’t sort it out? So I have to do this?”

She folded her arms and shook her head, but she had already put together the rest of Galadriel’s implication.

Frey cursed softly, “Fucking bloody hell. The Valar are just idiots aren’t they? Goddamn useless, stubborn, rash, dumbass, godforsaken, whining, miserable assholes. They clearly don’t actually want the idiots to live if they think I’m the man for the job. And I assume you aren’t going to let me wait for them to die and then pop over with some elves to slay a dragon or something? Gah. Just fuck this stupid, awful, terrible, horrid fucking world. And fuck you Lady. And fuck the line of Durin and all of the rest of them too while you’re at it.”

Then she straightened. “Fine. But they are six days ahead of me, the stone giants are going to destroy the pathway, I don’t know shit about mountain climbing and even if I catch them, they’ll probably just throw me off a cliff.”  

Don’t let them.

“Yeah. Great advice. Thanks.” She scrubbed at her face, and sighed, “Get me Aragorn, or Glorfindel, or both. I’m going to need some things. And set aside a couple hours Lady, I have to explain some stuff about Dol Guldor and the Necromancer.”

Chapter Text

Bilbo Baggins, son of Belladonna and Bungo, grandson of the Thain and Master of Bag End had had enough.

There were thirteen dwarves in his house. There was a Wizard in his house.

They had emptied his larder, they had tossed about his dishes. There was mud on the floor and his mother’s glory box. His doilies were ruined. His wine cellar was picked over. He had missed his supper while they ate theirs. They had sung and drank and made merry, and then taunted him with death and incineration.

And now, Bilbo was done. He wanted them out. He’d have nothing more to do with them, and was of a mind to take up a lamp and go hide behind the farthest barrels in his cellar until the confusticated dwarves all wandered off on their madcap quest to get themselves eaten by a dragon.

Except he couldn’t.

Because there was some mad little creature in his parlor throwing a fit and yelling at all the other unwanted guests. He wanted nothing more than to retreat to his office, barricade the door and smoke his way through an entire bag of Longbottom. But no.

Not quite appropriate. He was a Baggins. He had to uphold the name. He couldn’t go behaving like some common Proudfoot. He couldn’t just abandon his guests like that. Especially after fainting as he had. Balin had tried to be kind, but seemed to have all the bedside manner of a Sackville-Baggins. He hadn’t even been offered a cup of tea. Bilbo had to make one himself. Even after the dwarves had…

Really. It didn’t bear thinking about again.

He had had more than enough of this nonsense. Yes, yes. He had pondered the idea of running off with them. He had contemplated how delightful it would be to see the elves and all the places he had read about in his father’s books and heard about in his mother’s stories.

But really. They couldn’t expect him to sign on to face a dragon.

After all, he was only a hobbit. And as this dragon of theirs was unlikely to want to have tea and a scone and chat through til supper about his prize winners and his success at conkers last week, he wasn’t having it.

And that was that.

They’d been somewhat quelled by the arrival of the tremendously rude though undeniably handsome dwarf that was apparently their leader. At least, to the point that his dishes had ceased flying about. They were still calm. Mostly because they were eavesdropping to the best of their ability on what was happening in the room next door where she was continuing to scream and yell.

Oh he only hoped that there wasn’t anyone walking up the road since they would surely hear this racket, and the gossips would dance a jig to find something new to nettle him with.

He would pay a visit to the Gamgees in the morning to apologize for all this bother.

If they would even speak to him after all this association with dwarves and crazy people.

Well, in any case, he wanted her to stop yelling more than he wanted to hide in the cellar, so he walked away from the dwarves in his dining parlor. Not that they were paying him the least bit of attention.  In the kitchen he made a fresh cup of chamomile tea, and pulled a scone from the plate he had hidden while the big bald dwarf had eaten his fish.

The manners of these dwarves, really!

Then, tea and scone were set on a piece of his lovely everyday dishware with a matching cup. Manners were one thing, but he wasn’t going to go trusting a crazy woman with his westfarthing rose and lavender set, obviously. And off he went.

The tide of the argument had ebbed and flowed between her and the handsome imperious arse since she had arrived. At the moment, she was blathering on in whatever language she spoke, and gesturing excessively. Bilbo marched straight up to her, then stared until she faltered and went silently submissive.

“That’s enough of that young lady.”

She was hardly any more intimidating than Lobelia, and he had long since mastered the fine art of defeating those tirades. That’s all that this was. Delivered in a foreign language and by the sound of it more vulgarity than substance, but just the same, a tirade. She was also just barely taller than he was. She was wearing a sack of a shirt and, Eru save him trousers. And not even properly loose trousers. They were, he had to admit, fitted.

Yes, this was certainly going to rile up the local gossips if they caught wind of it.  

So he stared her down until she obeyed his gesture and sunk into a chair, looking rather sheepish.

He pushed the tea across to her, and motioned for her to drink some. Then he glanced behind him at the other unwanted guests, and found, to his amusement, that they were nearly as stunned as she was. The two young ones were so far gone as to be a bit slack-jawed. Apparently the concept of ‘not yelling’ had not occurred to any of them.

Mr. Grumpy Britches was apprising him with a calculating eye. All the better. Not that he’d be going with them, but he’d prefer not to part with them thinking so ill of him.

The peace lasted for all of five minutes while she drank and ate.

Then she stood, the dwarves reached for weapons, and she lost her temper.

First the cup and then the plate were tossed, no, pitched across the room to shatter on the wall behind Master Sourpuss. His startled alarm was delightful, and Bilbo would have been happy to stand and snicker at it, but there were bigger issues at hand.

One. The dwarves seemed ready to properly attack her now, and Bilbo wasn’t inclined to try and get blood stains out of the hardwood.

Two. He had liked that cup. He used it nearly every morning.

Three. Bilbo. Was. Done.

So while the dwarves threatened and blustered at her, the hobbit stood back up and grabbed her by the ear.

Then, deciding that having a bit of peace in his house was worth the inevitable gossip, he dragged her out of the parlor, down the hall and to the door. There was a great deal of shouting behind him that he ignored. She wasn’t even fighting. Why the dwarves were feeling so threatened by this silly little thing he was unsure, but he was going to settle this.

Keeping her ear twisted exactly as he would a mischievous faunt’s, he hauled her down the lane, all the way to the small building by the Green Dragon where the bounders were, understandably, confused.

“No, no. I’m sorry, I’ve no idea who she is. Anymore than I know what she’s saying. But she was in my house and she’s causing me a great deal of trouble, and she broke my favorite cup, and I’ll not have her there any longer. I leave her in your care. And I’d suggest you slip her some calming tea before she goes off in another fit. Good Evening Gentlemen!”

And marched clear back to his smial under the hill.

Where thirteen dwarves and a wizard were waiting, chagrined and shocked by turn.

“What is it then? What have you done? What else of mine have you ruined?” He snipped at them.

“Not a thing Mr Boggins.” The blonde elbowed him quickly, “Baggins. Master Baggins.”

“What is it then Master Dwarves? Do you object to the way I dealt with her? Would you rather have her back to keep trading threats over the top of my great-uncle’s table?”

But they didn’t answer. Instead, the perpetually displeased ninny-hammer nodded to Gandalf, “Perhaps he will have some use in our quest after all.” And wasn’t that just the rudest reaction to his assistance he had ever heard? He was fully set to tell Mr. Nothing-is-good-Enough off when the dwarf turned, and half curled a smile in the faintest hint of humor and appreciation.

Bilbo forgot what he had planned to say.

It was a good thing Bilbo was well decided that he wouldn’t be travelling with them in the morning. A few more looks like that, and he knew he’d find himself quite entirely besotted with Master Oakenshield.

 


 

The mother-maker must have taken him in hand during that abysmal experience. There was no other way he could have lived through that thrice accursed hell of rain and terror.

Thorin had clutched him by the arm the moment Balin had pointed out the stone giant rising from the cliff, and while the grip became painful as they hurried along the path, it had been a comfort to him when his feet slid and he stumbled in the darkness between flashes of lightning.

Then Thorin had shoved him towards safety when a boulder tumbled down to the path and they had been separated. For a moment they were both stretched towards the other, unable to close the distance.

No matter how they had been fighting since the blissful delusion of Rivendell, Bilbo had seen the guilty horror in Thorin’s eyes when the mountain side stood up and that miserable ride had begun. He had heard the rasped cries of his name and the prince’s as the company ran to them after. Thorin pinned him in place with the intensity of his stare, ensuring he was uninjured.

Bilbo had barely been able to do more than try and put his feet beneath him again when all he wanted to do was bury his face in the crook of Thorin’s neck and hide within the great furred coat.

Not that he could, but the instinct was overwhelming.

He thought he was safe after living through a ride on a stone giant in the midst of a squabble with its neighbor. Bilbo shook when he rose, and simply wasn’t thinking at all when he took a step backwards and fell. Now he was looking up, too scared to speak or cry for help.

The wind around him was too strong and too loud for him to hear if the others had noticed, and his own stupid voice was blocked by the lump in his throat. He clutched tighter to the stone and his feet scrabbled at the cliff.

And as he hung there, his mind wandered back to Rivendell and the image of the king crowned in flowers and smiling at him like Bilbo had hung the moon. It wasn’t the time to be thinking of that. He ought to be convincing his mouth to work so he could call to his dwarves and avoid a long drop and sudden stop. But his mind was quit entirely preoccupied with the memory of hair beneath his hands and a forge-hot warmth surrounding him.

All belonging to a dwarf that was just above, and completely unaware of his imminent demise.

“Bilbo!”

Bofur had noticed. Thank Eru for him at least.

His friend was trying to reach him but failing. Bilbo’s hands were sliding on the wet stone and a delirious part of his mind was laughing that he hadn’t had the temerity to be killed by the creature of myth and legend rather than by his own idiocy. But he just couldn’t manage to lift himself.

Then Thorin, eternally dramatic Thorin, half jumped off the cliff, nearly scaring Bilbo to death. He wrenched the hobbit high enough for the others to grab before snagging Dwalin’s hand and climbing up himself. The company stumbled along to a cave and hurried inside. The hobbit sat, trying to be discreet in his distress near the entrance, wishing he could drag Thorin away and lean for a moment against the unshakable strength of the dwarf until his own returned.

For at the moment he had not a whit.

He also wanted to say thank you for the life saving business. Probably even with words.

The rain had slackened to a mist by the time the company was situated.

Bilbo had laid out his bedroll, grateful it wasn’t fully soaked, only thoroughly moist. He was sitting on it, ignoring Bofur’s concerned queries and offer of a pipe, trying not to be jealous of Fíli and Kíli’s proximity to their uncle for the evening. They were likely just as anxious, and maybe even more in need of a loan of strength.

Then there was a hand on his shoulder and without questioning it, without so much as a smirk -- a first -- he rose and followed.

They stepped out of the cave and a few steps from the entrance, into a little hollow, protected from wind and rain, and more importantly, away from the abyss he had nearly been lost to.

He really looked at Thorin in the flickering lightning and dull glow of the moon behind the clouds, and smiled weakly. Apparently a thunder battle was the line at which Thorin could no longer maintain his impeccable majesticness. He was tense, soaked and frazzled, but still had his chin held high. Bilbo caught his sleeve and tried to pull him closer, rather single-mindedly focused on the prospect of contact with that chest and feeling safe for two minutes together to banish the lingering prospect of death. But Thorin refused to shift. And he kept the hobbit at arm’s length when Bilbo attempted to close the distance himself.

Before Bilbo could ask why, the king growled wordlessly, and snapped his eyes to the hobbit’s.

“Do you have no sense? You could have been killed.”

“I -- I’m sorry. What?” Of all the things he had thought might happen when Thorin had beckoned, this fire-breathing tone had been far down the list. His mind was trying and failing to catch up with the anger now directed at him.

“You could have been killed three times over in the last hours, do not pretend you are unaware of it. You nearly died even after the danger was gone. You stepped off the edge!”

“Now hang on, I’m aware of that, but you cannot possibly be angry at me because I was on the ledge with the others, Thorin. Their lives were in danger as well.” He was trying to be reasonable, and if not reasonable then playful. But it was becoming obvious that he was not talking to Thorin, he was talking to the Leader of the Company. And he was not happy with the Company’s burglar.

The two had hardly spoken since starting on the high pass yesterday morning, and certainly had not been alone. The slightly sour tone they had started with had fermented into something truly rank, the consequence of which was the way they now bristled at each other.

“It’s become obvious you have no place amongst us Master Baggins. You have no skill in combat and now you cannot even be trusted to walk a path without endangering yourself.”

“It’s -- If -- It is raining and I slipped!” Bilbo was too flustered to reply properly.

“You are unwilling to even attempt to learn to use your sword.” Thorin continued, shouting furiously, “We would be better off giving your weapon to Ori and leaving you to cower behind a nearby tree. You are more danger than help with it. What use do you claim to have in my Company?”

The outrage in Bilbo’s chest finally cleared away the fog of his fear and let him defend himself.

“You hired me as a burglar not a warrior!”

“Because you can never be a warrior!”

“I never said I was!”

“Then what purpose do you have?”

“Bu -- Burglary!”

“And you’ve done nothing of the kind!”

“Nothing in my contract required I do anything before we reach your wretched mountain!”

“Your contract requires that you not be a burden on us before such a time!”

“A Burden?! Well excuse me if I’ve not been raised wandering the wilds like a barbarian, but I had no need of weapons until you lot blundered into my life and dragged me off on your damned fool suicide quest.”

Thorin snarled back at him, “You’re right, you’re far too civilized to find a place amongst us. You’d hate to hurt your soft little hands.”

“I do everything that is asked of me --”

“Sword training!” Thorin interrupted.

“I have tried! Fíli declared it impossible on this Eru-accursed path. I was willing.”

“You have fought against my authority since I met you.”

“Because you’re a moron and need someone to reintroduce you to common sense twice a day or you’d have gotten us all killed by now!”

The dwarf’s face went dark and Bilbo could see the last bits of Thorin vanish behind the formality of the king.

“You have no use to us, Hobbit. Why should I not send you back to Rivendell this instant? Unless you can persuade me since you’re so clever with words.” The spiteful twist in his tone destroyed the determination Bilbo had been clinging to. It was too sharp, too intense, too vile to have been spoken by the same dwarf who had whispered sweet things as they sat in golden sunsets and breathed each other deep.

And Bilbo wilted under it.

“I -- I -- understood the, uh, the Sindarin at Riven--”

Binsalb aglâbu Mibilkhagâs.”

Bilbo exhaled, clenching his fists to his sides. He couldn’t even look up. “And I k--ept the tr--tr--trolls from eating --”

"You nearly got us killed by the trolls when you let them catch you. You cannot fight. You cannot hunt. You are not strong enough. You are not fast enough. You insult our heritage by learning Khuzdul. You disparage our homeland and our craft each day. You have no use on our journey or in our Company, halfling. The only thing you have been of use for thus far has been these last weeks to--"

Thorin cut himself off.

A mercy.

Had he continued, Bilbo was not certain he would kept his control on his emotions. There was precious little left of it as it was and Bilbo truly did not know which way they would have broken. Then the miserable oaf opened his mouth as if to continue, and Bilbo interrupted coldly, in as sharp a tone as he could muster.

“Do not finish that sentence, dwarf.” His throat was tight, restraining the outburst he needed to unleash. The wind was howling in the cracks of the rocks. The rain was driven on it to bite at his face. Everything around him was cold, save for the roll of heat that seemed to follow the dwarf.

The same waves that he had grown so used to, taken such comfort in these last weeks, that he now fought not to lean into.

He just wanted one moment of comfort so he could think clearly again.

“I have endeavoured to be brave enough to be considered worthy of my place in the company. I can see that was hopeless from the start. As I am of no use to you, I will be on my way as soon as the sun rises.” Thorin wasn’t the only one to know how to hide behind a facade of antipathy. And Bilbo would be damned if he was going to show a weakness to the heartless bastard, “Unless you think I might endanger someone during the night with my incompetence? Should I go now?

“Would you like to explain to the others yourself why you sent me off? That way you can present it as you see fit so that nothing so paltry as a differing opinion will muddy your flawless leadership.”

He was being cruel and he knew it. He simply did not care. He saw the flicker of obvious dismay on his -- on the confounded dwarf’s face, but rather than reach out and try to soften a response from the idiot, he took it as a target for his pointedly calculated attack.

“Or would you rather I stay so you can retain an avenue to vent your frustration? Or so you can continue to advantage of what you’ve had the opportunity of these last weeks? Is that what dwarves do? Use things? I’m certain if the dragon doesn’t eat you you’ll be more than able to afford to buy someone who will never say a word against you. There will be dwarves lining up to fall into your arms.”

“Do not insult my kind, halfling.”

“Why not, you insult mine daily.”

“I have not. Not since you and I --” Thorin stopped with a sick look.

And some note of viciousness eroded Bilbo’s anger until all that was left was bitterness. He scowled at the dwarf, hating that the moon had emerged from the clouds to light him in a parody of that wonderful night. He laughed ruthlessly at the dwarf and his own foolish broken heart.

“You can just forget that there ever was anything... here. Between us. At all. Forget about Rivendell and the flowers. Throw them out for all I care. It was just a joke anyway.”

Thorin’s eyes narrowed.

“I disposed of them that night. Why would I keep them? They wilted and died at once.”

Bilbo swallowed at the incredulous tone. It wasn’t the insult it would have been had Thorin understood what he was saying, but it gnawed at Bilbo in spite of that. But no. It didn’t matter. He hadn’t really meant it then, he didn’t mean it now, so it should not matter to discard the idea.

His chest still ached.

It had been worse than foolish to even indulge the fancy.

“I’ll speak to Balin about cancelling my contract then.”

“Yes.”

Bilbo had no idea what was in the blasted dwarf’s ridiculous head, but he was sure he did not want to know. If this was what had slipped past the rigid censor that controlled the king’s careful tongue, then the thoughts in his head must be too cruel to even consider.  

“I’ll depart at first light. Goodbye Master Dwarf.”

Thorin nodded before giving a stilted half-bow and vanishing around the corner.

Bilbo stood for a long time in the dark, glaring at the moon and focusing on how terrible the dwarf was in every way. Eventually, he had shored up his walls enough to want to leave immediately, and walked back to the cave. And while he did lay down, he was only waiting for the others to fall to sleep before he could slip away and be rid of the blasted lot of them.

He should never have come.

 


 

 

Contrary to the general opinion of the populace of Middle Earth, Freya was not an idiot. She wouldn’t claim to be a genius, but she was trying to get this right. Which is why she had shamelessly begged to have someone travel with her. Glory would have been ideal because, see above, Balrog-slayer, also, lovely drinking buddy, but she would have taken a stable hand as long as they knew how to ride a horse and speak Westron.

They had refused her. Galadriel gave her some vague reference to disrupting events. Frey gave her the finger.

Glory had stood next to her at the mural of the Last Alliance and provided Westron words for all the things she pointed to. Then he had introduced her to his horse Asphodel who was entirely too tall for her to ever be comfortable near. She left the next morning scowling, with all the supplies she asked for and a sympathetic look from a few of the elves and no one riding with her.

Even with Glorfindel’s horse and the map he had given her, even with Galadriel shoving images of the road she needed into her brain, even with full packs, and all the supplies she had asked for and a spiked hammer at her hip, she had only just caught up to the company. The horse she had sent back when she reached the too narrow paths midway through the foothills. And not knowing how far ahead the Company was, she had walked each day until she was too exhausted to continue.

It still hadn’t been enough. They were still ahead of her.

And the stone giants were awake.

She could just barely hear the dwarves shouting as she watched the giants fight.

She was so fucked.

Her shouts of frustration did jack-crap to help the dwarves on the giant or to stop the other giant from hurling a boulder the size of a house and destroying the path she needed. Her open mouth only made her feel worse as she gulped in a veritable wave of rain and choked and spluttered on it.

There wasn’t any choice but to cower against the cliffside and watch because she’d be damned before she tried to cross through an active shitstorm like this.

But, apparently she hadn’t managed to ruin the quest yet, since the giant collapsed and she heard no sounds of keening or mourning in the wind, only faint cheers. The idiots had all survived then.

Which left her with another problem. Even with the rain stopped. Even with what she had figured out climbing this far up the vague impression of a path that Galadriel had generously called a road. Even with everything now at her disposal, it didn’t matter, because the damn giant had just destroyed the damn thing.

She couldn’t recall if this was supposed to have happened. If the giants had destroyed part of the path in canon. It didn't matter though, because as she edged around the corner, she could clearly see that it was gone now.

Fan-fucking-tastic.

“Galadriel isn’t going to be happy if I turn around. So find a way.”

Lightning burst in a long sequence as the storm died down.

“Oh no. No. No. Find another way self. Because fuck that.”

In the longer moment of light she had seen a narrow ledge leftover. Not even the width of her foot at times. She hauled forward, muttering nonstop about her obvious imminent death. Which it would have been if she had not slid her foot tentatively onto it. It crumbled and fell away instantly.

There was no time to backtrack and find an alternate road.

Below the ruined road, maybe ten feet down, there was a sloped area made from the debris of the landslide the giant had caused. Because walking across an unsettled landslide was a great idea. That certainly wouldn’t get her killed horrifically.

As if it would help, she tied her length of fancy elvish rope around a heavy boulder, harnessed the other end around herself, and slid off the ledge until she had it by her fingertips. “Screw you Peter Jackson. Right in the ear you asshole. Fuck you PJ. Distant thunder battle wasn’t good enough? Dickwad.”

She dropped as gently as she could onto the rubble, and luckily, didn’t disrupt the balance. That was good since she didn’t have the arm strength to climb up the rope, if it even held. With barely enough light to see her hand, she edged across slowly.

Except.

“Fuck. Need to move faster. Have to get across. Goblin trap. Frickity hell. Have to go faster.” She tried, but the slide area rumbled and shifted under her feet halfway across the distance. Faster wasn’t happening.

“Okay, stay calm. You can do this. Magic elvish rope’s got your back. Just need to get over this, get to the boys. Get them out of the cave. Tell them about the goblins. The… fuck. The…. Fuckity fuck…. what is the word for goblins? Fuck. Balls. Shit.”

She clutched at the rope and felt along for the next step she could take.

“Stupid useless brain. You forgot the only useful word. The only goddamn word we need, and you don’t remember it. You useless organ. Okay so I’ll just -- aah! Ah! Ohhhhhhh sweeeet mother of Abraham Lincoln -- Fucking rocks. Gonna die. So gonna die. Doesn’t matter I forgot the word. Gonna die right here. Saves Thorin the trouble. Just -- ahhhhh --- Okay. Pretty sure I’m just gonna be dead by morning, one way or another. So glad I can’t really see for shit right now.”

Then she felt the debris slope away in front of her. Lightning flashed. She was at the end of it.

Now she had to climb up this side. Excellent.

“Okay, right, okay, worry about failing your vocab test later, self. Scale the fucking cliff now. You still have your rope, you aren’t gonna fall into the giant valley and splatter all over the place. Because you have magic elfy rope and it’s not like they’ve ever betrayed you before. Fuckers.”

The monologue helped.

It kept her mind from fixating on what was she was doing. But when she collapsed on the path, arms shaking; the clouds parted, the moon shone, and she could see what she was climbing above. She shuddered.

“Please work.”

She yanked on the rope a few times, vexed, and felt it give. Coiled in her lap a moment later, she smiled at it before continuing.

“Well what do you know? Real elvish rope.”

 


 

Bofur overheard the fight. Luckily the rest were too far inside the cave. He didn’t want his friend to get turned into gossip in the coming days. Not that any of them would dare gab about it while Thorin was near enough to overhear and subsequently snick their head off with that shiny ancient blade of his. It was a shame they hadn’t made it public. Bofur would’ve liked to talk a bit of sense into his hobbity friend.

Balin probably wanted to scold the king like a toddler by this point.

They had all watched the bickering grow fiercer in the last few days. They had known something was coming, and as most of them had money riding on it, no one had wanted to see it come to pass, well, except Bifur, who had a bet expiring within the week.

But it wasn’t public, so he couldn’t comment. Neither Thorin nor the hobbit had a braid, nor so much as a verbal understanding; there was nothing he could say, and, much as he wanted to drag his friend back to Thorin and whack their heads together until they saw sense, he had to keep his mouth shut.

He would have. Bofur was crass, but this was a question of privacy and decency.

Except that he was on watch when Bilbo decided to depart.

Broke his heart.

He knew the moment Bilbo stepped in front of him what was happening. He just couldn’t stop it.

“Where do ya think yer going?”

“Rivendell, and then back to Bag End.”

“Ye can’t.”

“Yes I can. I’m not wanted or needed here. That’s been made clear.”

“Ye are needed, You do plenty.”

“I really don’t.”

“If this is about what Thorin said about--”

“No it’s about --” Bilbo cut off with a frown, “You heard that.”

“Aye. Didn’t mean to, but I was settin by the entrance here, and the two of you weren’t what I’d call quiet.”

Bilbo’s face was flushed, even in the dim moonlight. He seemed smaller than he had since the first time they had met. Just a little broken thing. He fidgeted. He tweaked his nose.

His tone when he answered was missing his usual impudence.

“I just want to go back to where I’m supposed to be. And that’s not here. Not with all of you. I’m just not made for this. He’s right. You all will be much better off without me. I know that. Say goodbye to them all for me. If you survive all this, then, well, Tea is at four, I’d appreciate a note ahead of time, but I’ll forgive you just showing up.”

There was such a vulnerability to him then, such a show of self-doubt and fear, that Bofur nearly woke up another to take the watch. He could see Bilbo back down the mountain and rejoin the others after.

Bilbo wouldn’t allow that. Bilbo wouldn’t want them to be without one of their number, wouldn’t want to impose.

“Don’t suppose I can talk you round, can I?”

He shook his head.

“I should get on my way before the storm starts up again. There was a cave a few hours back, I’ll stop there.”

Thorin was going to catch an earful over this. And not just from Bofur, though he planned to be first in line. He held out a hand, and when Bilbo quite politely shook it, the dwarf pulled him into a tight hug.

“Good luck Bilbo. Mahazrali-me akyâl’ulkhad.”

Du astu-ya baha.” He grinned, “Never tell him how I learned. It makes him crazy that he hasn’t found out how I’ve done it.”

“Oh, aye, I’ll keep yer secret, even if ye won’t listen to reason.”

And Bilbo turned to walk away. The path was broken a bit, but the Hobbit was patient enough to keep his feet beneath him. Luckily there was enough of the moon shining through the dissipating clouds to light the mountains and see him safe.  

Bofur watched until he vanished around a bend, pretending he didn’t hear the echo of a strangled sob. When he was gone, truly gone, Bofur turned back to the cave’s interior and his sleeping companions. Tucked into damp bedrolls and soggy cloaks, not a one of them looked comfortable, and his pity extended as far as eleven of them. The King looked to be well and truly miserable. Only fair. He was shifting and fidgeting, and Bofur watched his back for several minutes before he shook his head. That dwarf was not asleep.

Which meant he had heard that. Heard it and said nothing.

They’d all known the two of them were sneaking off together on a regular basis; Bofur’s purse was fatter for it. They’d all known they bickered as much as they vanished into the trees. Based on Bilbo’s response, there had been a bit more between them than just a helping hand between friends. Though, maybe that had only been on the hobbit’s side of things since the king was still lying there instead of going off after their hobbit.  

Thorin would definitely be hearing about it if that was the case.

He made a face and gnawed on his pipe a bit. There was the matter of the third purse. Technically it should pay out. But he had refused to place a bet, him and Balin had felt it to be a bit too rude towards their friends. He was also the only one here, other than the arse of a king they were following, to know what had happened.

He decided to keep his mouth shut.

If he told anyone, they’d want to know what he’d heard, and Bofur wasn’t inclined to repeat what had been said. Wasn’t polite the first time. Wouldn’t be better the second time. Leaning his head against the stone behind him, he settled in for the rest of his watch, trying to think of what to say when Nori woke for his shift, or when he talked to Thorin about the hobbit in the morning.

It was going to be a mite unpleasant in the Company for a while.

 

***

 

It wasn’t long before he heard it. Hadn’t had time to come up with any kind of excuse for letting their hobbit leave. Hadn’t even finished his pipe.

NoIdontcareif Thorin wasbeingadick. Hesalwaysadick.”

“Excuse me, but I don’t see that you have any right to do this.”

Youhaveadestiny. Wehavetogetthatstupidring.”

“Let go of my arm if you please.”

Itsnotlikeyoucangoback. Thepathisgonedude.”

“I am going home, thank you very much.”

Shutupandwalk Bilbo.”

Bofur groaned.

Because, How. Just. How.

Why would also be a nice answer, but Bofur had the stone sense to say that climbing up that path in the dark should have been impossible. Down would have been hard enough.

So he was fussing over the How.

He was on his feet, just outside the cave when she appeared, soaked to the bone, slung over in packs, and dragging Bilbo by the wrist. His first look was really for Bilbo, who was disgruntled more than angry and incredulously looking back at him. They had a brief communal shrug for the mule-headed tenacity of the lass.

She had the packs they had seen her with before over her back and twin elvish bags strapped to her thighs. There was a small spiked hammer at her side and a coil of rope over her shoulder. Her hair was caught in a braided bun, and her cloak was clinging to her shoulders. Bofur had pulled a shaggy old dog out of a river once. She made that memory look composed.

She scowled at the cave.

Then she shoved Bilbo into Bofur’s arms and spoke vehemently.

Dontlethimleave. Weneedhim Bofur.” Both of them watched as she rolled her neck and glanced up quickly. “Alright Mahal. Youwantedmehere. Trytokeephimfromkillingme. Thunderingtwatwaffle.”  

Then she stepped into the cave and clapped her hands, shouting, “Wakeupyoubastards!”

Bofur couldn’t help snickering at the explosion of flailing limbs that followed. Kíli got half to his feet before losing his balance and crashing back down onto Ori. Dwalin blindly reached for his axes before he noticed who it was and relaxed a bit in exasperation. Bombur made a sound that was half a yelp and half a groan that made Bofur chuckle harder.

The silly little thing was damn good at throwing them out of step.

Durinul’sharb’abban magajjajuna.” Thorin muttered, refusing to rise past sitting.

“No. Thorin. Please.” She said emphatically, dropping to the ground next to him and grabbing his arm, “Youhavetogetup. Youhavetogetoutofthiscaverightnow Thorin. Lookat Orcrist. BecauseIforgotthewordforgoblin. Thorin. Orcrist. Rightfuckingnowifyoudontmind.” She shouted the last bit over her shoulder as she rushed away.

She was scrambling around the cave, handing packs out and shoving weapons into hands, which was a bit of a bold move in Bofur’s opinion. Most people wouldn’t have helped arm a group of dwarves who had orders to kill her.

Not that Bofur was planning on doing that. The lulkhith hadn’t hurt anyone, and to hear Bifur mumble about it, she might have some purpose in all this beyond turning their leader an especially vivid shade of outraged purple. So he just watched with Bilbo from the mouth of the cave, as she ran about and babbled. Everyone was fully awake now, standing or working their way to that point, waiting on Thorin’s decision before doing anything about her return.

She froze when she noticed they had her encircled, and started talking again, sounding desperate and frantic and hysterical.

“Please. Please. Please. Please. Wedonthavetime. Wehavetogetoutofhere. Followmeoutside. Killmethere. BecausetherearegoblinsandIforgottheword. Idontwanttodealwithgoblins. Plusiftheysee Thorin theyllcall Azog. Dontwatnttodealwiththat. Shouldsimplifythingslater. Sojusttrustme. Follow. Please. Thorin. Nori. Bifur. Please. Follow me.” She turned, shoved a pack into Fíli’s arms and repeated, “Please.”

The group was silent.

God! IfIstab Ori willyouchaseme?”

None of them were moving.

“Please, Fíli. Please. Idontknowhowlongwehave.” She stared at the prince and brushed a braid over her shoulder.

“Uncle?” She turned to look at Thorin while Fíli questioned reluctantly, “Naragazsubj?” Bofur wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to kill her then.

“Gaahhhhh. Thorin lookat Orcrist. Fuckingfricketyfuck. Justlook! Please!” She was intense, almost shaking. She sounded like she was trying not to scream.

Thorin drew his short knife, contemplating her with a scowl.

Thatsnot Orcrist youfuckwit!”

She reached for his sword, but wisely pulled her hand back at his brandished weapon. So instead she turned, pushed her way swiftly between Nori and Ori, and headed towards Bilbo.

Bofur hefted his mattock.

But all she did was point emphatically at the elvish sword Bilbo carried and babbled.

He drew it partway, then fully. It was glowing a bright blue.

Frick. Fuck. Frickityfuckityfrickfrickfuckfuck.”

“What’s that then?” Nori called from the clump of the others in the center of the cave.

“Gandalf told me that it would glow when Orcs or Goblins were near.” Bilbo’s voice was soft, but must have carried.

The company shifted into defensive positions immediately. Freya spun back with a triumphant shout, “Goblins! Ha! Thatstheword!” She pointed enthusiastically at the ground. “Goblins!” She spun an arm at all of them, and gestured outside. “Me. You follow. Becausegoddamit. Goblins! Goblins! Goblins!”

They all looked at Thorin then.

But it was Bifur who spoke. “Ikriti-diya.”

Thorin hesitated.

Nodded.

And before any of them could move, they heard the deep groan of a mechanism moving.

Sonofabitch! NO! No! No! No! Motherfuckersonofabitch. Moveit! Thisissnottheplanatall. Gimmeyourhand!” She jumped onto a small boulder, stretching an arm back towards the nearest dwarf, trying to grab ahold of Kíli while he spun and looked for the danger.

Bilbo and Bofur watched the floor open and plummet their companions into a dark world where the high shrieks of goblin laughter echoed.

The sound of their friends’ yelling faded in seconds.

They were separated. This was not good.

“What do we do Bofur?” Bilbo yelled, looking between them rapidly “Freya! How did you know that? Bofur! One of you! We have to help them! What do we do? Do we follow?”

“We gotta have a plan. We’re gonna go after them.” Bofur grabbed him by the shoulder to pull him away from the chasm into hell.

Dammitall. Fuckfuckfuck. Iwasntfastenough. Thisisbad. Verybad. Veryverybad. Needthering. Havetosavetheidiots. Jesustapdancingchristthiscouldntbemuchworse. Wehavetofindaway.”

“Bofur! What do we do? Do we follow?”

Idontknowwhattodo. Ididntplanforthisone. Icantfightfuckinggoblins.”

Bofur stared down at the hobbit, shaking his head a bit. The little burglar wasn’t going to be much help against an entire goblin army.

Fuckit. Gotnochoice.

They had to follow though. They couldn’t leave the Company in the power of the goblins. He would just have to do what he could keep his friend alive through this little suicide mission.

Goddamitthisisgoingtosuck.”

But Freya was already moving. She had jumped from her refuge to the solid ground by the entrance.  She sheathed Bilbo’s glowing blade, and locked a hand on them both.

Newplan. Dontletthemnotice Thorin. Otherwisekeepcanon.

Bofur barely had time to shout before she pushed them in, jumping just after.

Hitting the chute knocked the air from his lungs in a rough cry.

He damn near killed Bilbo by mistake on that stone slide when he lost his hammer and saw it chase the hobbit. He could hear the goblins around them. Hear shrieks and calls. But in the dark, it was all too fast for him to do more than curse and tumble.  She had done this. If this killed them? Any of them. If she got them hurt, Bofur was going to make sure she got the same twice over.

They landed in a caged net with some of the others, and Bofur rolled off quick as he could. He dragged Bilbo out with him. He tried to keep the hobbit away from the claws and teeth of the Goblins that descended on them, but couldn’t protect him fully. He could see part of the company ahead, already being led down dark broken bridges where surely they would all be taken and killed.

This was going to shit rather fast.

Nori and the lads were still struggling, still armed, and had killed at least one goblin. Terrible idea. It was only making them angrier, and they had no way to get out of this hole.

Shepherded across an outcropping of stone towards a ratty bridge, he had Bilbo tucked against him, safe. Hidden. Bofur could feel the way Bilbo was shaking, and only hoped he hadn’t taken an injury. They were going to get out of this.

Bofur wasn’t considering any other outcome.

They’d need every hand available to them. Even Bilbo’s. Even Freya’s.

He was so intent on protecting Bilbo in fact, that he hadn’t paid attention to her after cursing her in the first few seconds of his fall. He thought that he had seen Nori treating her the way he was Bilbo. He knew had seen Fíli trying to keep her from the Goblin’s attention. Nothing good would come of it if she or Bilbo were spotted. Goblins enjoyed playing with anything that looked innocent. He’d heard enough stories.

She and Bilbo were going to get targeted.

It wouldn’t be pretty.

Bofur wasn’t thinking about her. So, he started when she suddenly rushed to his side, a goblin trying to gain purchase on her arm. Nori and Fíli were ahead of them now. She must have pulled away from them.

She snagged Bilbo by the coat.

Turned. Yanked him from hiding.

Bofur was too shocked to react.

He just froze, confused. She was framed in torchlight with their hobbit clutched by the lapel of his coat.  

Imsosorry Bilbo. Goodluck.” Her voice cracked. She was terrified.

Rightly so since the goblin had finally managed a real grip and he could see claws digging into skin beneath her shredded coat sleeve. But afraid or not, she moved confidently.

Too confidently.

With a sharp move, the hobbit was used to bludgeon off her attacker.

A pair of goblins caught Bofur when he lunged, trying to help.  

He could only watch.

Then she took two steps, and flung both Bilbo and the goblin off the edge, into the blackness beyond. She caught herself, windmilling her arms to avoid a similar fate.

The hobbit vanished with a shriek.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Frey had fucked up. Badly. And she knew it. She had known it when the trap opened. She had known it when she hit the stone chute of the goblins' trap. She had known it when Nori had shoved her down, out of sight of the goblins and hidden her between himself and Fíli. She had known it when they crossed the bridge and she saw Bofur was dragging Bilbo along. And oh but had she known it went she flung him off the edge.

She had killed him. She was sure. His survival had been luck in either canon, the exact right place, the exact right time, and a convenient patch of mushrooms.

If Bilbo was dead, then the rest of them were fucked. No way around that. There was no way she’d manage to find the ring, outwit Gollum, tackle an orc, kill the spiders, escape a prison, face a dragon and avert a war. One of those? Maybe. All of them? Not a chance.

They were all so utterly, wholly, painfully fucked.

The memory of seeing him fall was burning into her skull as it played on repeat, and she barely paid attention to the trek down to the goblin king. Not that she could have seen much even if she had tried. Nori and the princes were keeping her away from the claws and prodding spears of their captors, but to do so she was crouched over and there was always someone blocking her vision. She tried to look up several times only to be be firmly shoved back down.

Struck mute from killing the lynchpin of the entire quest, she could only comply.

How long it took to reach the, for lack of a better descriptor, throne room, she was not sure, but her neck and back ached. It could have been a few hours or it could have been a few minutes. It didn't matter, Frey was quite sure she was going to die here. The hysterical cacophony in her head agreed. She'd been pretty sure that death was coming ever since she saw half a damn mountain stand up and start trying to settle a grudge with its neighbor.

Now it was just a question of when.

Her knees hit the ground before she knew they had reached their destination. Nori had a hand on her neck, keeping her there, and she could tell that at least two others were bracketing her. The vibration of the floor from all the stomping finally reminded her ears to try working again, and she gurgled on a laugh. “Oh balls, they’re actually singing. This is actually happening. They didn’t make this shit up. The fuckers are up there--”

A dwarven boot kicked her hard in the leg.

Right. Shutting up was probably the better choice.

Though, she'd prefer to die laughing if it was a option.

Yeah. She was definitely hysterical. The last traces of her sanity were aware of that.

Between Ori’s legs she could see the goblin king climb onto his throne and start to taunt. She glanced through every gap she could, looking for an escape, looking for Gandalf, looking for anything that might help, she wasn’t entirely sure what. A fresh wave of shrieking laughter bounced through the air, and she couldn’t help it.

She flashbacked to what Galadriel had shown her. Made her relive. That smell filled her nose, screams echoed in her ears. Bilbo’s dying eyes flashed and blended with the sight of him falling into darkness. But Bilbo wasn’t here. So either Ori, or... Fuck. Shit. Yeah, she was humped.

The dwarves were shouting.

Didn’t matter what they said. They weren’t escaping this without a fight. Without Gandalf. Where the fuck was Gandalf?

The Goblin king yelled something threatening.

Then everyone was moving at once.

Goblins rushed forward into the group, grabbing at weapons and roughly shoving the Company around as they were divested of packs and defenses. Nori grabbed her arm and ripped her sideways, just as Fíli stepped to where she had been and was disarmed. Before she could look up, or find out what was happening, another hand wrenched her the opposite direction, shredding her jeans and her knees on the boards of the platform.

They were trying to keep her safe.

No, they were trying to keep her hidden.

And that realization just scared her more. If the dwarves -- these dwarves -- these bastards who regularly threatened her, were hiding her, what the hell would the Goblins do when they eventually found her?

Had Galadriel grabbed that vision for accuracy not hyperbole?

Yeah.

She was so hopelessly humped.

There wasn’t time for the panic attack she wanted to drop into, so Frey bit her lip and clenched her fists and focused on how much her knees hurt. Focused on all the boots around her. Those were Nori. Those were Bofur. The pair over there was probably Thorin.

Thorin. Jackass. Useless awful royal assbutt.

She latched onto anger and dug in her mental heels.

The dwarves were talking again.

The goblins were yelling.

Thorin’s boots started to walk forward. Then Óin was moving instead.

Anger was good.

The engine in her brain finally started firing again. She glanced to the other side. Kíli’s boots. Ori’s boots.

And then Fíli’s boots. Still with tiny axes. The goblins hadn’t noticed them. But Fíli couldn’t reach down to grab them without being obvious about it.

Youllhavetospeakup. Yourboysbrokemytrumpet!”

It took half breaking Nori’s thumb to get him to let go of her arm. She crawled through their legs while the focus was on the healer.

The king yelled again.

And then Bofur was talking.

She pressed two axes into Fíli’s hand, and glanced up long enough to see his confused nod, then turned to get the others to Kíli.

The goblin king screamed enormously, their captors flinched, and she caught Bofur by the thighs to keep him from tripping over her.

Bringupthemangler! Bringupthebonebreaker!” She saw Thorin’s boots start to move. This had to be what she thought it was. It just had to be.

Which meant Thorin was about to fuck them all over by announcing his presence. Noble protective jackass. He was about to step forward and shout. Frey shook her head frantically, trying to reach his coat. He could stab her for it later. They needed to dodge Azog. Had to. She did not want to do that boss fight.

Startwiththeyoungest.”

“Fuck.” She lunged, ready to wrestle Thorin to the ground if that’s what it took.

The King was pointing at Ori, the goblins were moving to grab him. She was stretching to reach the king of self sacrifice and stupidity.

But instead of Thorin’s pronouncement, she heard Bofur yell. A hand closed on her arm, pulled her to her feet and out of the protection of the circle of dwarves. She was flung down on the platform in front of the goitered sack of a goblin king.

 


 

Bilbo hurt.

His side, his wrist, his head.

His heart.

His hands were scratched up and his ankle twinged under pressure.

But he was alive.

And since the last thing he remembered was the horror in Bofur’s face, Bilbo was going to take whatever cold comfort he could find. Starting with: he was alive.

It was silent, wherever he was. Perfectly quiet and perfectly black. With his hand directly before his eyes he still couldn’t see it was there. Bilbo shuddered, wishing all at once for a dwarf’s incredible vision as well as their stone sense and courage. But he had none of that.

Belatedly he remembered, and reached for his little sword.

Fíli would have laughed that he had forgotten about it for so long. Except, it wasn’t on his belt. That was not good. Not at all. He knew he was properly pathetic with it, in spite of the prince’s efforts, but it would have been better than nothing. On hands and knees he crawled in the darkness, searching and feeling nothing but stone and loose pebbles outside the thick patch of mushrooms he had awoken amongst.

He looked up, but the bright points of the torches were tiny. How Bilbo had survived the fall was a mystery he planned not to think about. Climbing up was out of the question.

But the dwarves had been talking about the Misty Mountains these last few days. They had been talking about all the old cave systems and how deep and labyrinthine they were. Maybe there was no hope for him down here. Maybe he would die in this forgotten corner of these miserable mountains. Or maybe he could find a path through it and he could breathe fresh air again.

He hoped that it would be the latter.

The blasted dwarves would never let him forget this if they heard. He’d fallen off another cliff, and lost his bloody sword to boot. Hopefully he could find a path back out of the mountains on the western slope. With luck there might be an elven patrol nearby and he could get somewhere safe before he found another way for his softness to get him killed.

He closed his eyes, though it made no difference in the dark. He really was of no help to his friends.

A whisper of sound broke the calm of the air.

Bilbo recalled the twist of concern that Thorin had shown when talking about the goblins. Thorin. Oh dear. Bilbo looked up, as if he could see where the dwarf had gone. As if he could help. Thorin had not said it, but he had been worried about the high pass, about their safety. And now maybe Bilbo was the only one left alive. Perhaps he ought to be thanking Freya for shoving him towards a possible splattery death. The others had all been in the clutches of the horde of foul pale monsters when he fell. They could be dead for all he knew. Killed and eaten and lost. He could have lost Tho -- the dwarves -- already.

No.

No that couldn’t be. If Bilbo Baggins, more grocer than burglar, useless and a burden, was still alive then surely his indefatigable dwarves were as well.

If his dwarves were above him, still in the hands of goblins, he should help them.

Ought to.

Wanted to.

He wanted to take up a sword and charge the goblin army and take back his dwarves and save Thorin.

But there was nothing he could do. His only weapon was gone. He figured that the pull at his hip he had felt just after landing in the goblin cage had likely been it being snatched. Fat lot of good that knowledge did for him now. He hadn’t even tried to keep it. He was no warrior, just a burglar, and a poor one at that. And hadn’t he been told to take his leave of them?

His chest ached bluntly at the memory.

He had never followed the officious lout’s orders before, but this time he planned to obey.

He would leave and let the warriors deal with the warrior’s work.

With a soft humph he got to his feet, pocketing a few handfuls of stones.

It wouldn’t do for him to be totally unable to defend himself. Not that he expected to be able to put his missiles to use since he couldn’t see, but it kept him from hearing a voice berate him. It was a voice that sounded remarkably like a certain dwarven lummox.

Bilbo nodded and started edging away from the mushroom patch. He slid his toes over the ground, checking for dangers. So he moved very slowly.

Not more than five steps away, his foot touched something yielding. It was too cool to be alive, too warm to not have been recently and squished frightfully under his toes.

The goblin.

The one that she had thrown over with him.  

Which meant it so easily could have been him lying in a puddle of his own intestines. He shuddered and shook, and clapped a hand over his mouth to take back his control.

He gagged at the wet squelching noise as he lifted his foot.  He dragged his foot over the cold stone again and again, trying to get as much off as he could, but not brave enough to touch his foot with his hand.

So he stepped over the splattered corpse, and continued.

First there was just a wall, and as he followed its line, he began to panic that it was a closed space he had landed in, not part of the caves, and that his only hope would be to climb all the way up the way he had come down. Thankfully, he found a tunnel.

Anything was better than trying to go up.

When the tunnel was narrow, he kept a hand on either side, feeling for side passages, and trying to decide if it was good that the floor was sloping ever downwards.

He tripped over stones, snagged his toes on sharp rocks, blessed his hardy feet, and continued to walk.

Why had he ever thought he was fit to go on an adventure? This wasn’t just a question of missing supper. He shivered, alone in the dark. He was hardly able to survive even with his dwarves protecting him. Without them, it was certainly hopeless.

He would have sat down right then to have a cry, but for the thought that his mother would never approve of such maudlin self-indulgence. She had taken on plenty of adventures and come out the other side with a smile on her face. And while he was no match for his mother, he didn’t want to shame her. He knew he would hear about in the afterlife if he did.

He kept walking.

He tripped again.

A bassy chime caught his attention. Instinct as much as curiosity bent him over to grope about and find the source. It was cold, and metal, and round. Into his pocket it went. He was supposed to be a burglar after all.

At first he thought it was just his eyes wishing for it, longing for enough light to see what lay ahead. But as he travelled further and further down into the mountain, he grew certain. There was a light ahead. It was pale and otherworldly, not the sunlight he wanted to see, but anything would be better than the dark that pressed so close around him.

Step by sliding step he approached, terrified at the chance of finding more goblins, shaking at the prospect of being captured. The only sound he heard was a faint lap of water.

There was a lake.

And Bilbo couldn’t swim.

In the pale glow he could see far enough to know he could not cross it. He could see the outcroppings of stone and walls of the cavern that showed tunnels and crevices to give him hope, but they weren’t where he could go. The lake had cut them off from him.  

There hadn’t been another tunnel on the path. He hadn’t felt one. This was the only hope.

And all because he was a hobbit, he couldn’t get out. He heard memories in his mind of the dwarves offering to teach him to swim after that day at the river. He had slipped, and been dragged, soaked and shaky, to the banks by the princes. They had eventually extracted the confession of his ignorance. But he had convinced them to swear, thanks to a gift of pipe weed, to keep quiet about it. So he hadn’t learned to swim. He hadn’t wanted to admit it to Thorin. He hadn’t wanted to make a fool of himself in front of the dwarf.

If only he had been a bit bolder then, he would be able to get out of this dark hole now.

Out came one of the stones from his pocket, and with a soft curse, he hurled it towards a large stone jutting from the water. It bounced with a clink, then splashed into the lake. He threw another and another. His aim was still sure.

Clink. Splash.

Clink. Splash.

Again and again, exhausting his frustration and emptying his pockets. With the last stone in hand he cursed anew, but it never followed the rest.

“Does it want to play a game?” He jumped at the sudden inquisitive voice behind him, “It has a good arm, precious. Does it want to play with us?”



 

Kíli, ishi-mâ.” That was all Fíli had to say. Kíli glanced, saw Nori helping to keep Frey hidden and joined their efforts. It wasn’t going to last. Not a chance. Not if they couldn’t find a way to break free of the ranks of goblins shepherding them over bridges and pathways, forcing them deep into the caves that made up Goblintown.

It really wasn’t going to work if she kept trying to stand up.

He was going to have to talk to his brother about his need to save idiots from themselves after they got through this. This was hardly the first time he had insisted on trying to save someone with a death wish. Usually it worked out, but this was a lost cause if she didn’t keep her damned head down.

Somehow, he and the others kept her from standing up. Somehow, none of them managed to provoke the goblins into skewering them. Somehow, they made it through song and taunt. They managed to keep her hidden as they were disarmed.

He caught Dwalin’s eye and the guard nodded. His uncle was being held back from doing anything rash.

Two axes were pressed into his palm, and he jumped at it. Freya was already crawling away, already beyond his grasp.

The goblins boiled over at Bofur’s stalling tactics, and the king thundered. Kíli shifted his weight to loan some support to the scribe who was starting to shake, still waiting for a chance to start a daring escape and counter attack.

Instead it got worse.

One moment he and Fíli and Nori were shielding Freya from the goblin’s attention, trying to keep them from seeing her hiding on the ground.

Then the Goblin King turned and pointed to Ori.

“Start with the youngest one!”

Ori leaned farther into him, trying to get away but not having any way to do so.

His Uncle was already moving to gain the King’s attention, to protect their youngest member. Of course he was. Thorin would never let one of his Company suffer more than he did.

Before he could, Bofur shouted.

Two kings spun to look. So did every other set of eyes in the vicinity.

“You want someone to play with? Take this, then.” And the dwarf reached back, grabbed Frey by the arm and hauled her out of the protection of the circle. Kíli felt his fingers catch on leather as he latched onto his brother without thinking. She hit the ground, cursing as two goblins lunged forward.

Kíli tightened his arm, hoping Fíli could keep his calm. He knew what Fíli and Nori had done to keep her from following them, what they had done to keep her alive. But they were going to get out of this, and the two of them trying to charge the goblins now was going to do more harm than good.

He would think about what had prompted Bofur after they escaped.

A strangled scream sounded from behind the goblins.

He felt a twinge of reproach. At least in part, this was their fault.

This wasn’t going to be good.

Freya was pulled up to her feet and shown to the disgusting crowned goblin by the ugly creature that had a hand caught in her hair. She wrenched, and her bun came apart. Before she could get away, it caught the end of her braid and lifted, keeping her on her toes, just outside of arm’s reach. She couldn’t fight back. There was a scuffling sound and muffled shouting from the company around them, but Kíli was too preoccupied with his brother’s wide eyes to know what caused it. Distantly, he was aware that Ori was in a similar position, half wrapped around Nori.

The ex-thief was as likely to be livid over the girl as he was over the threat against his brother. Either way, the two were about to snap.

“Don’t get yourself killed, Fí. Don’t be an idiot. That’s my job remember? You can’t do anything to help right now. We have a bigger problem.” Kíli whispered when her obscenities got louder and his brother tried to advance. Fíli exhaled a fraction of the violent energy he was steeped in, allowing Kíli to turn and watch.

She had no sense of self preservation. Less than him, and he’d heard about that lack in a few dozen lectures from Thorin and his mother.

With all the goblins staring at her, he found Dwalin’s eyes and in quick iglishmek, asked about a plan. There was a chance that with their captors distracted by her antics they would be able to break free. But Dwalin signed no, and for Kíli to wait for a signal. He looked back to Freya.

She still couldn’t reach to hit her captor, but had found a way to resist. Her hands were clutching the goblin’s forearm and slowly pulling his claw from her hair. They should have used a bigger goblin. She was succeeding. The fat king was watching it with delight.

Kíli grimaced at it. That was worse than if they just had her head off.

Nothing good would come out of that look. A prolonged life, generally a mercy, would be a hell if it was spent in the goblin’s control. Better than orcs, but not by much. He noticed the guilt from his brother and shifted the axe in his hand to a throwing hold.

He had always been the better shot. He also was willing to take the shot.

The goblin snarled at her, flecks of spit shooting through the air. She hissed back at it. Kicked it in the leg. Pulled her head in the opposite direction and left the goblin with a handful of hair and a ruined braid. Then she stomped it in the knee hard enough to put it on the ground.

She was shaking. That was obvious, even from behind the mass of dwarves and goblins between him and where she was.

A second goblin reached for her and she slapped his hand away before hissing at it. The goblin, the guards, the Company, and Freya, turned to look at the fetid king.

The king laughed and pointed his skull-capped sceptre in her face.

Freya smacked it aside and spat at him. He just laughed louder.

“And why did you bring this with you?”

None of the dwarves said a word.

Heygoiterface. Dontlookatthem. Lookatmeinstead. See? Hihowyoudoing? Imalreadyfuckedhere. SoImjustgonnatryandpulla Bilbo seeifIcantalkuntilthewizardgetshisassdownhere. Imnotascuteasheis. Buthey. Dontknowwhereheis. Itsaproblem. Mighthavekilledhim. AndwowbutIhopethewizardisntlate.

The king was staring at her with the same annoyed confusion everyone directed at her.

“What are you?”

She coughed and recoiled as the king leaned in and the sack of flesh swung to brush against her.

Ohhhhhhhhhhmyyyyyygodddddddd. Thatsdisgusting. Withthegoiterandtheopensoresandthesmell. Motherofgod. Thesmell. Itsworsethan Bree.”

The guard reached for her again and she turned, slapped its hand once, twice, thrice, as it tried to get ahold of her packs. She’d kept them all.

Stopthat.” she slapped at reaching claws again, “Stop. Youreuglybutyourelittle. Icantakeyou.  And -- motherofcockstop -- ifIthinkaboutthisIm -- stopit -- gonnapuke -- stopit!” It growled at her and she screamed right back. It stepped forward and she slapped it across the face. As it clawed towards her again, she went insane. She started pummelling it with flappy-armed blows as she shrieked, “stopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopit!”

Like he’d noted before: she seemed to have a death wish.

Then she rammed it, and it tumbled off the edge.

Everything went silent. Well, after the goblin’s cry cut off with a wet splat, it went silent. She huffed in a few breaths and stared over the edge.

The obese boil started to chuckle, and the horde joined him. Laughter wasn’t supposed to sound like that. Threatening. Nauseating. Kíli didn’t like it.

“I think we have a game to play with you.”

Fíli lunged a bit, but caught himself with a sharp exhale. Nori had to be stopped by Ori and Fíli. The goblins grabbed her arms and this time she couldn’t get out. It was a reflection of what the Company had faced with Bilbo and the trolls. But there was no offer this time, no banter and threat. They weren’t going to be asked.

But as he had then, Thorin stopped it. He yelled and took a step forward, pulling away from Dwalin and Óin to make himself obvious.

“Offering to trade dwarf?” the king said as he spun. Then he saw who it was and boomed a great taunting laugh into the air, “Well, well, well. Greetings, King under the Mountain, ohhh but wait. I’m forgetting. I’m the only one with a mountain here. Which makes you nobody, really.”

Hey! ImprettysureIknowwhatshappeningoverthere! Dontdoitugly. Dontdothat. Dontyoudoit! Nosendingmessages. Nocreepytinygoblin! Nozipline! Staylookingatme.”

“Thorin son of Thrain. I know someone who would pay a pretty price for your head. Just a head mind, not the rest.”

“Goblin! You goblin. Youfatuglypieceofshit. Dontlookatthemajestictwerp. Lookatme.”

Both kings were ignoring her yelping and escape attempts.

“An old enemy.”

Motherfuckinghell.”

“A pale orc astride a white warg.”

Mememememememe. Lookatme. Dontyoufuckingdoit.”

Thorin stayed silent, glowering at his enemy, but most of the Company was turned to Freya, who was still spectacularly captive, and nodding at them in return, eyes ferine.

“Send word to the pale orc. Tell him I have found his prize.”

Cocksuckinghell.” Kíli followed her look to his brother, who was staring in dawning horror as she nodded more, “Wereallfucked.”

 


 

“Excuse me? Pa -- pla -- play what?”

“The game!” It crooned, crawling over the rock and into better light. It was pale and spindly and hunched. It moved primally and the wide bright eyes in its gaunt face seemed almost comically innocent.

Bilbo looked out to the target rock and down to the small stone in his hand.

Innocent expressions didn’t always signify a kind heart. And how could anything kind live in such a terrible place? But this last stone was too small to cause any damage to the thing, so Bilbo repeated.

“Game? Like, like what I was doing just now?”

“Yes yes yes. We finds the stones and throw them at the rock.” It perched atop a boulder above his head like a huge plumeless bird and rocked back and forth in its eagerness.

“Uhhh.”

This wasn’t the time to play a children’s game. He needed to get out of these dratted tunnels, away from these accursed mountains and depart for good from the thrice damned suicidal Company. He did not have time to play a game with some wretched goblin runt.

“Maybe it doesn’t like us precious.” The voice was so different that Bilbo whipped his head about to look for the newcomer. But the skulking thing was the only one there, hunched farther than before, starting to snarl, “Nasty little creature. Maybe it’s just here to hurts us precious. Shouldn’t let it. Shouldn’t trust it.”

Bilbo had opened his mouth to babble something about not being there to hurt it, but pulled up short when the thing turned and answered itself.

“It’s just a little thing. Can’t hurt us, no it can’t precious.”

“What is it then? Not a goblin, no, no it’s not. Gollum. Gollum.” Bilbo flinched at the hacked cough and reached for a sword that wasn’t there. Oh, he was just not cut out for these things.

He was so distracted he didn’t notice it had come closer and he shrieked when it spoke just beside his ear.

“What is it precious? What? What?”

“I, uh… I’m a Bag - Baggins. I’m a Baggins.”

“A Baggins?”

“Yes, I’m Bilbo Baggins of the Shire.”

“Does the Bagginses like games?”

“No! No games.” It interrupted itself with a snarl, “Doesn’t like it. Doesn’t trust it. Kill it. Eats it.” Bilbo’s heart seized up as he heard that and stumbled backwards shouting out a reply.

“No! No! I like games! I want to play the game! Let’s play.” The bright eyed one was back as soon as Bilbo spoke. Between the two, this was who he wanted to speak to. So, he continued, “But if I play will you help me? After that is? Would you help me find a way out? You see, I’m not supposed to be here.”

For a moment Bilbo wasn’t sure which side of the creature was watching him or if it wasn’t some third facet to be met and avoided. Eventually it’s appraisal concluded and the dark voice turned to speak in its gravelly tone.

“If the Baggins wins, we show it the way out. But the Baggins has to win first.”

“And - and if -- if I don’t?”

“Then we eats it.”

And oh dear but it was quite serious about that. Why oh why did every confounded creature he met on this blighted adventure seem to be set on eating him? Hobbits were all for eating, yes, but quite entirely opposed to being eaten themselves. Bilbo shoved his hand into his pocket, very much wishing that he was even a fraction the warrior that his dwarves were. They would never have found themselves here, about to be eaten if their aim faltered. They wouldn’t have lost their sword. They wouldn’t have run out of stones.

His fingers, wishing there was some large stone hiding in his pocket he could use in his defense, closed instead on the bit of metal he had found in the tunnel.

Thinking about it now, it was probably a ring.

Perhaps he could bargain the ring for a safe escort to an exit. Then he could skip this game playing business.

It would just be payment.

Easy.

Bilbo looked at the thing as it coughed another phlegmy gollum and thought it was impossible. There was no way this sickly twisted thing was going to trade some scrap of metal when there was a chance at a proper meal.

It must not get to eat much. The only things here would be any fish in the lake and…

Bilbo straightened, “No. No. I’m sorry, I can’t let you eat me, but I can show you where there was a great big goblin. You could eat all of it. Its close by.”

It gollumed again. Narrowed its eyes.

It nodded.

Not that Bilbo trusted for a second that it wouldn’t attack him given the chance. He just didn’t have any other choice. So he knelt on the lake shore and gathered up a few stones.

“What… uh… what is the game?”

Gollum -- he couldn’t help calling it that, it kept making that awful noise -- hurried over and pointed across the lake. Bilbo could only faintly see the bit of rock in the water. But Gollum threw. Clink. Splash.

And it started laughing.

“If the Bagginses misses, we wins. And if the precious misses the Baggins wins.”

He huffed air through his nose, resigned, “Fair enough.”

Clink. Splash.

Well, that was one.

Two, three, four and five went well for both of them.

Six clinked twice before splashing, and for a moment the hungry glint in Gollum’s eyes lit up the cavern and Bilbo thought he was about to be attacked.

But the nice one came back.

They passed ten each. Fifteen.

Bilbo wasn’t sure how long they had been down there, and they weren’t speaking at all, so the silence pressed around him, interrupted only by the sound of stones hitting, the scrape of sand and gravel when they reached for new ones, and the ever present echo in his mind of the creatures first bargain.

So Bilbo’s world was reduced to Scrape. Clink. Splash. We Eats It.

He was, understandably, rather tense, and thought at first he was imagining the scent of forthcoming attack in the air. But after he threw successfully a twenty-seventh stone, there was a frustrated shriek and a crash.

Gollum launched himself forward.

Its long grasping hands were incredibly strong as they closed around Bilbo’s throat. Bilbo managed to suck in one last breath as he saw what was coming. He grappled and kicked and fought to get away. The broken rocks beneath him were cutting into his back, and the little light in the cavern was dancing with bright flashes of light as the world closed in around him.

The hissing, snarling, vicious face above him with its gappy teeth tucked over its upper lip had no sympathy, and Bilbo didn’t have the strength to get away.

A voice that sounded too much like his dwarf’s was laughing gently at his naivety for having trusted this thing at all when Bilbo ran out of air.

The darkness closed over top of him.

The last thing he saw was a triumphant open maw.

 


 

They were lucky that Goblins were stupid enough to taunt and sing at them instead of proceeding directly to all the torture and beating and eating of them that they were going on about.  If they’d actually gotten it started, the lot of them would be dead already. It was almost more annoying to have to hear about it.

That was a terrible thought.

But this was a terrible day that would probably end in terrible deaths for at least a few of them before they managed to escape. Kíli wasn’t that worried about his mind wandering into inappropriate commentary.

For now, they were getting a recital and a bit of a play.

Well, she was having a less benign time. After shoving her back and forth a few times she had tried to get away. It hadn’t worked, but she managed to kick one of them in the crotch. And then the face when it fell down. Now they were pointing their weapons, but not getting closer before the arrival of the much ballyhooed devices of pain and torture.

Thorin was still standing at the front of the group, as if he could glare the goblin king into submission.

Dwalin was as close as he could be without occupying the same space, and looked ready to take on the entire population to be able to get them to safety.

No longer burdened with keeping Freya hidden, he and Fíli and Nori had blinked and gestured and signed their way to a short plan. It wasn’t much. The goblins had the rest of his blades, but he had two of Fíli’s axes at least. Her retrieval of them had been a windfall. They’d do in a pinch until he could get to the pile of weapons they had stolen.

Now they just needed an opportunity.

Kíli heard the screech from a goblin and spun to see a sword clatter from its hands. They were picking through their weapons and packs like wolves over a kill, but something had scared them all back. A huge lumpy goblin bent over, out of sight, and rose with something caught on the end of a spear.

The company went still as they saw an elvish dagger dangling by the scabbard's ties.

He thought at first that he imagined the breathy “Bilbo,” that labelled it. Then he turned and saw his uncle’s face. Thorin was looking wildly over the group, searching, and failing to find the hobbit amongst them. His face fell as he realized that he was not there.

Dwalin set a hand on his shoulder.

Kíli hadn’t seen their burglar since that first platform. Since he had landed on the others while he and his brother had tried to kill the goblins attacking Ori. He had thought the hobbit was still with them. He couldn’t have gotten away in the middle of a horde. But Kíli hadn’t seen him. Not since Bofur had snagged him and pulled him close. He flicked a look to Bofur, who was staring furiously at Freya. Which made no sense. She, though, had gone pale, and her expression was pained as she muttered too quietly to hear and gaped at the blade while it was paraded in front of the King.

“And why do you travel with Elvish Blades, Hmmmmmm?”

Before any in the company could answer, could reclaim their wits, there was a second shriek, and Kíli caught a glimpse of his uncle’s found weapon in the air before it landed, half out of its sheath and glowing a steady blue.

“I know that blade! It is the Biter! The Cleaver!”

The goblins boiled over like ants and the world changed from taunts and awful songs to screams and harsh whips. There would be no escaping this unless something drastic happened. He heard an execution command split the air.  Kíli crashed into his brother while dodging a blow, and they nodded as one.

First things first.

They needed swords.

The axe buried easily in the skull of a goblin and Kíli kept it there to steer the dying goblin as a shield.

“Nori!”

He saw the thief glance, but couldn’t delay to wait and see more. There was a goblin pinning his uncle down, blade held high, and Dwalin was buried under three more. He threw at the same moment as Fíli. He had always been the better shot, but today they both threw true.

The goblin slumped over at once.

Then a blast of light brighter than any lightning or firework he had seen burst in the air and everyone, goblin or dwarf, was blown off their feet.

He didn’t need to hear Gandalf’s order twice.

With a wrench, he pulled the axe from his goblin shield’s head and rushed for the weapon pile, hurdling the goblins in his way. His brother’s twin swords were first and he tossed them over. Now guarded, he slung quiver and belt back in place, snagged two more blades of unknown ownership and began calling for others as he heaved weapons at them. Thorin had Orcrist in hand felling two goblins to a swing and wresting Balin from beneath another. Dwalin was at his back, and shouted his thanks when Kíli tossed him Grasper and Keeper. Ori snatched Dwalin’s warhammer and immediately knocked a towering beast of a goblin off the edge. Company members swarmed to him, arming themselves and rushing to join the rest until the pile was gone and the group was headed back over the bridge following Gandalf’s bright staff.

Nadadith! Come on!” Fíli shouted, knocking another goblin into the dark. He was holding the bridge, waiting for Kíli to join them.  Snatching a handful of the arrows from the ground, he abandoned the rest -- he’d make more after they got out -- and followed.

The claw that caught his leg came out of nowhere.

He crashed to the ground, and it was on him. It was all drool and sharp teeth straining to reach him and merciless hands digging into his shoulders and holding him down.

Iklifumun Nadad!”  Fíli yelled, and by the sound, was crossing back through the stream of goblins to help. Probably best. His sword had fallen, and if he let go of the goblin’s arms, it would have his throat torn out before he could grab the blade.

The rest of the company was too far ahead to help.

Fíli had been forced to abandon the bridge to come to his aid.

The two of them needed to catch up before they were cut off entirely.

So he just needed to resolve this latest development.

Maybe he could headbutt it.

It bared its teeth and drooled.

Maybe not.

Instead of headbutting, and instead of Fíli reaching him, the side of the goblin’s head crumpled beneath a hammer’s blow.

And Freya shoved the now very dead goblin off to help him to his feet.

ThanksforleavingmebehindyouDick! Comeon!” She looked feral. There was a one handed hammer in her right hand and Bilbo’s little sword in the other. And she still, Mahal only knew how, had all of those packs on her. She pointed, “Growabrain Kíli! Letsgo!”

He started cutting through the last of the goblins still alive on the throne platform.

She was somewhere behind him.

They reached Fíli.

And then there was just running.

And killing goblins.

Lots of goblins.

They traversed bridges and outcroppings and stairs and ladders and suicidal jumps over crevasses and goblins were swarming over them at every turn.  

He had killed more of them than he could count by the time they had reached the others. There were still more. He could see Thorin and Dwalin at the front with Gandalf, clearing a path with the experience of a lifetime of war. He and Fíli and Freya were at the end, and he was nearly out of arrows. He was only firing at the archers ahead of them now. It was all he could do to help keep them from being overwhelmed.

Gandalf let out another blast of light with his staff and they were able to get a lead on their pursuers.

Kíli turned at the sound of a yelp and a flurry of incomprehensible screaming to see a goblin holding Frey by the braid, towing her down a side path. He moved to go back and help. She had saved his life before. He shouldn’t just leave her behind again.

Fíli hadn’t noticed yet and was still running forward with the rest. He shouted for Fí to guard his return, and didn’t wait for an answer before he ran. The few goblins in the way were easy enough to dispatch.  

She looked up as she flailed, trying to hack at the goblin. She saw Kíli coming and shook her head vehemently, still yelling.

He continued in spite of the goblins closing the path behind him.

With an exasperated groan and a twist, she slashed the bright blue blade up, and cut off the braid without hesitation. Freed, she rushed for her other weapon.

Kíli put an arrow through her former thwarted captor’s throat as she snatched her small hammer from the ground, and they hurried to catch the rest. He shoved her towards Fíli who had started making his way back to them, and saw him double-take at the close cropped hair. He locked onto her arm all the same, and pulled her along. Not that it lasted long. As soon as a new wave of attackers hit them, she pulled away, and he had to redraw his second sword.

He had already fired his last arrow before the pack of goblins crashed into them from above. Kíli hit the post of the platform wrestling with a great beast of a goblin. Using every dirty trick Dwalin had ever shown him, he got away and skewered it. He climbed to his feet and swept up with his blade. The largest of them was killed in a splatter of ichor as he faced down the others near him.

He knocked off another with a kick and turned to see Fíli and Frey pressed back to back in a swarm of attackers. Blood was dripping down his brother’s swords he cut through anything in reach. The glow of the elvish blade was pock-marked by the blood on it, and was wielded with less grace than in the hand of the hobbit it belonged to, but paired with merciless swings of the hammer, Frey was holding them back. It wasn’t an elegant thing, but she was moving counter to Fíli, guarding him with effective, if haphazard, swings.

As Kíli cut through the enemy to reach them, he caught a glimpse of her slamming the hammer into another face.

Kíli reached them and the tide turned. The last half dozen goblins fell. Fíli caught her by the arm and dragged her to him to check the weeping cut across her shoulder blade. She yanked free and swept a hand over the blood on his cheek and temple, nodding at the small cut she found.

Then she flicked him, directly over the little gash.

Stopalmostdying.” She snapped.

And for a moment they just... glowered at each other.

Making a note to mock his brother for this after they got out of the cave, he gave them both a jarring push to get them running again. There were more goblins coming. The Company was still in sight for the moment, but wouldn’t be for long.

Kíli pulled a full quiver from a corpse and they ran again.

They got there just in time to be cut off by the goblin king himself.

“You thought you could escape me?”

Frey shoved Kíli closer to the center of the bridge while Gandalf faced the colossally foul creature. He kept a nocked arrow trained on the goblins at their rear, and watched her dragging Ori, then Fíli to the middle as well. Gandalf was challenging the monstrous goblin. Frey pulled the rope off her shoulder and started lashing it to the post. Fíli had ignored her request and moved to defend her from the goblins that were edging ever closer to the Company. By the look his brother threw over his shoulder, neither of them understood what she was trying to achieve.

But they weren’t going to question it now.

The Goblin king howled in pain.

Craponacracker. Pleaseletthiswork.” She shoved rope at Ori and Bifur and Fíli. She threw an end at Kíli. Frey was rushing towards the others when there was a crack.

And the platform fell.

Nori caught her as she lost balance, pinning her to the wood with a length of rope in his hand.

It plummeted down and crashed and cracked and jarred his bones while it headed to the ground.

A loud cry of relieved pain escaped his throat when it stopped, converting to a confused warble when Frey rolled over him and off the remains of the bridge, dragging Ori with her.

Then the Goblin king landed on them.

That wasn't pleasant.

But more goblins were coming.

Kíli stared up the walls as they swarmed down like roaches, wondering for half a breath how there could be so damned many of them.

But Thorin grabbed his arm and pulled.

They ran on, and the sight of sunlight had never been more beautiful. The bright glow drew them on as they hacked through the last of the guards near the gate, tumbling in disarray out the mouth of the cave.

Still they ran.

They only stopped when the the gate was out of sight.

The quiet of the forest was almost unnatural.

“Dori, Ori, and Bombur. We’re all here.” Gandalf counted them off. “And... her.” He muttered under his breath.

All of them were shaken and exhausted but at least they could finally take a minute to breathe.

But Kíli was only staring at Thorin.

His muscles were screaming and his stomach was growling at him, but he’d already checked that Fíli was mostly uninjured. They all were. A testament to the skill of dwarves. Scrapes and scratches but nothing serious. And in the stillness of the forest, all of his hurts were compounding and threatening to overwhelm the frantic energy of what they had just survived.

He was tingling with energy and pain.

But Thorin looked like he was staring at a corpse.

Kíli knew why before Gandalf noticed and yelled, “Where’s Bilbo? Where is our burglar?”

The anger was pointed at all of them, but it was Thorin’s head that dropped, his eyes that closed after a flickered look up at the mountain they had just escaped. Kíli looked as well, seeing the sun setting behind them, and lacking the will to feel cheered by the luck that had seen them through to the eastern side.

Bilbo was gone. Lost. Dead. Somewhere in the caves they had barely survived.

He saw Freya standing further up the slope, staring towards the mountains as well, shifting between her feet, and fidgeting with the elvish blade in her hand.

Kíli climbed back up to make sure she wasn’t injured. Bruises and cuts. The one on her shoulder had already stopped bleeding. Her hair was brushing her shoulders in a tattered line.

And as he watched, her feral determination was melting into fear.

Nonononono. Comeon. Comeon. Yavanna Mahal someone. Youbetterhavehelpedhim. Youresupposedtoprotecthim. Hebetterbeokay. Comeon. Comeon Bilbo. Whereareyou?” She was whispering quickly

“What happened to him?” The wizard thundered.

Kíli stared past her at the others. They were silent

“I’ll tell you what happened!” Bofur shouted after a moment. “She killed him!”

Kíli looked between the miner and the girl, trying to make sense of the pronouncement.

“How’d you two even get in there with us?” Fíli asked. “You and Bilbo were outside the cave.”

“Her.”

“What?” That was Thorin’s deadly soft voice.

“She threw us in there with the goblins, but I had him safe with me. Then she grabbed him an’ threw him off the edge. It weren’t an accident. She pulled him away from me, and she killed him. ”

The Company was silent for a while, and Kíli wasn’t the only one watching her now. However, he was the only one who could see her terror. The only one who could see as she blinked back tears. The only one who heard her prayer-like murmurs, “Goddammityoucantbedead. Bilbo please. dontbedead. dontbedead. dontbedead. Comeon. Youreclever. Youreunarmedbutyourecleverasfuck. Youcandoit. Theresnowaytheyletyoudie. Getouthere. Comeon Bilbo.”

Something was wrong. Or missing. He knew no one expected him to think, but he hadn’t been raised second in line for an ancient throne without spending a few decades learning to think things through. Kíli didn’t understand one pebble in the mountain of events he was sorting through, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t what it looked like.

“That’s why ya handed her to them?” Nori yelled, pushing Bofur a few feet. “Do ya know what they woulda done?”

“Yeah, if someone was gonna get tortured an’ killed, I’d rather it be her than yer brother. And so would you, Nori!”

“No. nonono. Thisistakingtoolong. Weareprettyclosetocanon. Thesuninsetting. Heshouldbeherealready. Heneedshelp. Ivegotta. fuckfuckfuck. Ivegotta -- Idontknow -- Ivegottagoback. Ihavetogogethim. Icanfindthepath. IthinkIcan. Icanfindhim. Hesnotdead. Notanoption. Soheisnt. Ijusthavetogofindhim.”

She turned, and jumped to see Thorin and Bofur standing a step away. Kíli shifted uncomfortably. She’d helped Ori, helped him, saved his life if he was honest, protected his brother. If she had killed Bilbo though, Thorin was about to do what he had been threatening from the beginning. Courting unofficially or not, Thorin was going to kill her, and he didn’t think anyone was going to stop him.

Nori and Fíli and Bifur were standing behind him reluctantly. Gandalf was off to the side watching the mountain they had run down. The rest were down the hill watching this unfold.

Everything was going to hell again. So much for a chance to breathe.

Kíli was still standing next to her, and watching his brother’s conflicted expression.

The sword in Thorin’s hand was left over from their escape, but was no less a threat.

LookIknow. Butyouhavetowait. Stabmeafter. Ineedtogogethimfirst.

She lashed the sheath to her belt and slid in the elvish blade. “Bilbo.” She pointed back at the the mountains, staring at Bifur and gesturing, “Bilbo. Goblins. Me. Bilbo. We are follow. You? Erebor. Bilbo me are follow.”

She had gotten clearer since they had last played this game. Thorin looked over her shoulder towards the mountain, just a faint bit of hope declawing the murderous intent.

“Dwarves. Gandalf. Erebor. Me. Bilbo.” Thorin looked like he was about to charge the goblins alone. Frey extended her hands to block him, “No. No. No. No Thorin. Me Bilbo. You no Bilbo. You Erebor.” She shook her head and stepped off her rock, down to his level, turning -- or, trying to turn him the other direction. “You Erebor. Rightfuckingnowifyouplease.”

Iktriti-diya.” 

“And why should we do that Bif? I saw what she did!”

Khama jalajubulai Gairurukhsgirîn. Ra kalakai khajami anbâr!” 

“You don’t know that.”

Aktibi-hû.” 

Fíli caught Kíli’s attention again, and flicked his eyes between Thorin and Freya then up to the cave. Oh, that was what he intended. Kíli opened his mouth to get there first, but wasn’t fast enough.

“I’ll go with her Uncle. We’ll find Bilbo and catch up.” Fíli announced.

She was shaking her head before Thorin could open his mouth and reject the plan.

Nopenopenope. No. No. Fíli. Azog. Thorin. Azog. Rivendell Fíli? Fíli please. Thorin Azog. Me: Bilbo. You: Thorin.” Her voice quavered.

Kíli and the others could only watch as Fíli’s face went wide, then collapsed, and finally hardened into resolution. He stepped closer, and spoke very clearly for her, “What you said - the words - to me at Rivendell? About Thorin and Azog? Is it now?”

“You spoke to her at Rivendell, irakdashat?” Thorin’s voice cracked, still caught up in the concern for their missing member, but got angrier as he heard more repetitions of the pale orc’s name.

“We will discuss that later, Uncle,” Fíli said dismissively.

And if the situation hadn’t seemed dire before, every dwarf recognized the severity of the situation now.

Fili continued without looking at the king. “Frey, Azog? Thorin?” he repeated.

He gestured towards the braid falling out of her shorn hair.

She nodded, motioning towards the hills above them. “Wargs. Azog. Orcs. Illgoget Bilbo. IfuckedupsoIllgethimback. You Erebor. We are follow. You Fíli? Thorin is no Azog.”

His brother stared at her for a moment, and Kíli quickly reviewed the snatch of conversation he had heard in Rivendell as well as the day long planning sessions they had taken on the road. Fíli only had to make eye contact. The surety in his gaze was enough.

Kíli shuddered as he signalled a confirmation. The exhaustion and pain of the last day was forgotten under the necessity of what they had to do now.

His brother finally turned, every inch the crown prince.

“Uncle, we’re about to be attacked by Azog.”

Frey started unhooking a pack, gesturing at Nori to come take it. Bifur had a firm hand on Bofur’s shoulder and was murmuring in low fast khuzdul. Explaining what he had heard in Rivendell no doubt. The others and Gandalf were gathering to run, waiting for the order when a long howl rent the air.

“No. No! Bilbo!” Frey spun, gasping, “Ihavetogogethim!”

There was a blaze in Thorin’s normally icy eyes. Kíli was watching it, not sure he wouldn’t have to prevent some kind of rash charge. So he saw when his uncle made the choice. The light there was tamped down brutally, returning him to the dispassionate leader he so often was. He shut down the fear and the concern, and was already looking for defensible ground nearby.

Not that there was any.

Frey made it two steps up the hill before Fíli grabbed her by the pack and refused to let go.

“Out of the frying pan,” Bofur said tersely.

“And into the fire.” Gandalf continued.

“We run!”  Thorin ordered after he had surveyed the area once more.

Kíli watched his uncle while everyone else scooped up the last dropped packs and hoisted weapons. He lingered with his eyes up the slope for one moment longer, lips moving silently, before jogging to lead them.   

The forest shuddered with warg cries, closer and closer, and the company, now only thirteen, raced to outrun them.

Chapter Text

The thing. The creature. Gollum.

That face above him as the world faded into monochrome.

The stench of the cavern.

The feel of broken stones.

There were…. sounds. Muttered words and angry speech.

There was an argument.

He shivered.

He was freezing. After long minutes, he realized his clothes were soaked.

His pack was missing.

Bilbo turned his head carefully, still spinning and nauseous.

His vision cleared slowly, but he could see a faint shadow moving in dim light.

“‘S’not fair precious. We cheated precious.”

“It wasn’t cheating.”

“It was precious. We didn’t throw it right precious.”

“We can eats the Baggins. It was tricksy. Would have hurt us precious. Would have cheated us. Made us let it go without a bite of anything crunchable.”

“No. The Baggins wanted to play. We never get to play.”

Bilbo recalled pieces.

“We can eat the Baggins and the goblins. We know where it came from, we do. Where it fell. We can have them both precious.”

Bilbo trembled and remembered. Though his arms felt heavy and his head was swimming, he looked the other way. A short slope down to the water. Shallow water he hoped. And not far beyond, an opening in the cavern wall. A tunnel. And maybe, maybe his nose wasn’t tricking him, and the air on that side smelled fresher.

Blanching, he crammed his hand in his pocket for the last rock. The ring started to slip out, and fearing the noise it would make, he crammed it on a finger just before he forced himself to roll. The water was icy but mercifully shallow enough that he could struggle across the stretch to the bank. He heard the creature cry out when his head was above water, but could not stop. Nor worry. He crawled onto the shore and to his feet.

In just a few steps, he was tucked into a crevice along the tunnel wall, waiting to see if Gollum followed, and forcing himself to stay quiet.

He heard its furious panting and the slap of wet feet on stone. He recoiled, pulling tighter into the little gap and hoping against hope it would not see him in the almost lightless corner.

The feet drew closer, closer, Bilbo had stopped breathing, clutching the stone in his hand.

And they moved away with a faint whispered litany asking where he was.

He stayed there a long time.

He was cold and sick, but he waited until he was sure it was gone before he slid from between the rocks and began to creep down the tunnel. The creature had gone somewhere. Maybe whatever luck had kept it from seeing him would help him find an exit.

The world spun around him and he clung to the wall.

A few more burning breaths let it pass, and he stumbled onward.

Bilbo hadn’t thought farther than getting away from Gollum and out of the cavern with the lake. His feet were moving out of habit more than intention following the wet tracks from Gollum for as long as they were visible.

And then they weren’t.

They faded out just before a crossroads and Bilbo could only stare, mind too addled to think.

A horrible scream barrelled down the hallway and sent Bilbo ricocheting backwards.

“Nooooo! Where is it! Precious! Lost! Lost! Baaaaagginnnnns!”

He didn’t wait. Or think.

He just ran.

The sound came from one side of the crossroad, so Bilbo took the other, tripping and clumsy and harried. When he collapsed against the wall to heave up bile and choke on air, he was about to break down.

Its cries and pleas had finally faded. But Bilbo was lost. More than he had been before and he would not have believed that possible.

Never had he longed for home with such a passion. The quiet serenity of the Shire, even if it did lack the adventures his childish heart yearned after, was where he was meant to be. He let his head rest against the wall, resisting the need deep in his chest to lay down and wait for goblins and cave dwelling monsters to find him and end his misery.

It would be easier to simply surrender to his fate. No one would ever know how he fell. No one would ever tell his dwarves that he had lost his life without defending it.

And he was just so lost.

Except this tunnel glowed like the others did not. There was a soft glow of fire in one direction, and a faint bit of what Bilbo hoped more than anything was daylight in the other.

He crept towards it, restraining his own optimism. He sent silent pleas to the Valar that he would see the sun again, and moved the last steps around the corner to stare into the final chamber. A guardroom and an armory. Filled to bursting with raging goblins.

He whimpered. Or, he would have, but his throat was too raw to do more than release a pained exhale.

Miraculously, they had not seen him yet, and hands shaking, he took a cautious, silent step, retreating into the tunnel.

He heard a deep chiming clang and shook his head at a sudden shift in pressure.

Bilbo felt more than he heard the tone of the Goblin’s rumbling change.

They were staring right at him.

His throat released a horrified squawk and he could not explain what possessed him to respond as he did.

Bilbo dropped to his knees and grabbed back the ring that had slipped off his finger. It slid on, and he rolled sideways with a headache already on the rise.

And he cowered there, pressed against the wall, and wished he was braver.

But the claws and spears and arrows did not come.

Instead there was confused shouting and the goblins jerked to a halt, looking around and shoving each other.

“Where’s he gone?”

“What happened!”

“He was here!”

“He’s in the tunnel! Find him! Follow him!”

Bilbo uncoiled from his frightened ball and stood up, astounded. The goblins could not see him. He looked down. He could see himself. He was just as filthy and solid and present as he had ever been. So why…

His eyes tracked to his hand, and the queer gold ring he had hardly looked at yet.

But that was impossible. A magic ring? Just lying forgotten on the ground in a goblin cave?

Then another troop of goblins marched past him, and the butt of a spear clipped him in the arm. Its owner glanced, looked right at him, but did not respond beyond a grunt. Thank Eru for his poor bruised throat, else he would have shrieked for sure.

Bilbo snuck along behind the troop, dodging weapons and goblins alike, slipping through the crowd towards the door. He was almost there. He was almost back in sunlight at last, when a commanding voice brought the bustling activity to a halt. Not knowing what made him think staying longer with the foul things was even close to wise, he pressed against a blank stretch of wall, and listened to the sequence of growled commands in a black speech that Bilbo could not understand.

Fortunately, the goblins near him cursed and grumbled in Common.

“--stealing our prize--”

“--They killed our king, our people--”

“--don’t challenge the pale orc!”

“--Azog gets what he wants--”

“--should have killed Oakenshield when he had him!”

“--it’s still our prize--”

“--let him get away--”

“--we can get there faster--”

“--Azog is nearby--”

Bilbo could barely breathe. Not because his throat screamed in pain with each rush of breath, which it did, but because it seemed his chest was constricted too tightly to allow any air into his lungs.

Azog. Oh Eru. Thorin.

Which meant he was still alive. Which meant the others may be as well.

He had hoped they were of course, but it was another thing altogether to hear it.

He slid along the wall to where the was door cracked open. Just the feel of sunlight was enough to bolster his courage. And with a mighty wrench, he passed through, leaving most of his buttons on the floor of the cave. He didn’t look back.

Sunlight.

Dirt.

Grass.

Trees.

He got away from the cave, staggering down the slope until he could see it no more, and sat down on a log.

He slipped off the ring and shook his head.

Alright. Yes. The ring had hidden him from the goblins somehow. Which was good.

He felt...different… wearing it. But it had kept him alive. So he clutched it in a fist, and cast about for any sign that the others had escaped. It was a fool’s hope, but he needed it. There was no guarantee that they would have left through that gate, and a place so large would surely have dozens of exits.

Bilbo rolled his toes in the dirt and breathed as deeply as he could.

He coughed on the pain, which only made it worse.

Then he saw the shadows cast away from the mountain.

He was on the eastern slope. To go back, to go home, he would have to cross them again. Alone. And that sounded even worse.

There was the chance of his death and consumption, of course. Adventures seemed to involve that regularly. There was the chance he would not be able to find his way. There was his empty pack and his unarmed state to consider as well.

And while all of that was true, none of it was the reason he was looking to the East.

It was because going home alone meant abandoning the others. He had regretted leaving the moment he had exited that cave. He just hadn’t had the gumption then to turn around and upbraid the emotionally stunted misanthrope for his appalling comments. Bilbo wasn’t sure he had the courage to do so now to be honest.  

But if they had made it out of those caves, then, well, they would need all the help they could get.

He tweaked his nose.

Nope.

He had signed a contract, and hadn’t properly cancelled if before the floor fell out. And a Baggins didn’t go back on that. Even if they had signed to assist the most muleheaded, denigrating dwarf that their creator had ever brought to existence.

Yes, he had been leaving before, and that had been a terrible decision. He could almost thank Freya for forcing him to turn around, less so for that incident with the Goblins.  

Yes, Thorin had been more of an insensitive prick than usual during that fight. But it wasn’t actually all that far out of character. Kissing aside, Thorin had never once said a kind thing to him. Fortunately the rest of the company made up the difference between the king’s words and his actions.

Bofur and Bifur were his friends, and regularly did what they could to help him adjust to living on the road. Fíli had been as patient as possible helping him with his sword. Ori traded stories. He and Bombur had talked for days on end about food and family and comfort. The rest had accepted him as one of their own, which was a big step considering how reclusive dwarves could be.

He was not going to abandon them.

If this was one of his books he was sure the dwarves would come find him and there would be dramatic speeches and possibly some tremendously romantic kissing. He could just be swept off his feet by the drama of it all. Maybe he would even give a speech of his own.

Instead, he heard a warg howling.

He was on his feet at once. He didn't know what he was going to be able to do. Or how he was going to help. That didn’t matter.

He was going to be there for them.

He just needed to find them.

He filled his pockets with rocks. He slipped on the ring, grabbed two larger stones, and waited, ready to run.

Sure enough, a moment later, there were more howls.

And where there were wargs hunting, his dwarves must be nearby.

 


 

 

 

They were coming for them. For him.

Hunting him down.

And they had nowhere to go. The wargs had corralled and chased them to the edge of a great cliff. The few that his company had killed made little difference to the small army that was in pursuit.

He heard the wizard’s command and saw everyone rush to comply. Dwalin practically threw Ori into a tree when the scribe struggled to reach a handhold. Bifur and Bofur were already high into the branches. Óin and Glóin were clamoring up a trunk nearby.

Thorin counted once he found a perch.

Himself, twelve and a wizard.

Twelve.

His eyes strayed back to the ridgeline above the trees where the hobbit was lost.

Thorin knew he was at fault for the hobbit’s death as surely as if he had killed him with his own hand. Had he not driven him away, it would have been him that Bilbo had reached towards. He would have kept him safe. He would never have allowed anyone or anything to bring their burglar to harm.

But he could do nothing for him now.

Had he been alone, he would have returned to the caves and not come out again until he had their erstwhile burglar safely at his side. Had he been alone he would likely have abandoned the quest back in Rivendell to live in quiet comfort with the insufferably fussy, incredible creature.

Neither was an option now.

Bilbo was gone.

Azog was coming.

Azog was alive, and was coming, and in the torrent of anxious fear, that thought burned bright and clear. The answering thought was equally certain.

He wasn’t going to be alive much longer.

“Gandalf! Callthegoddamneagles! Calltheeaglesof Manwë! Doitnow!

He would handle her after. Once they had defeated the enemy snapping at their feet, he would confirm that Bofur had spoken true. And if he had, he would kill her, as he should have at the first sign of risk.

Had he trusted his instincts, they would have been rid of her the first time she walked into their camp on the outskirts of the Shire. But he had tried to be generous as the world had never been to him. A mistake. The world did not care when a single life was lost. It did not care now that Bilbo was gone.

Thorin gritted his teeth and shoved the rising pain aside.

The tree he was on swayed under leaping attacks by the wargs.

Kíli was on the tree beside him, bow over his shoulder unused.

“Kíli!” He roared, “Shoot them.”

The look he got in return was split between agreement and exasperation. His nephew’s quiver was empty. Thorin reached for his own, and found it missing entirely; it had never been reclaimed in the goblin caves.

He had no plan, no escape for his kin and companions.

It had been almost a hundred and forty years since he had last seen the pale orc, but he felt it in his bones the moment the fell beast stepped into sight.

Had he not been warned, had he not expected to see the spectre of the enemy of his line, he may have leapt from the tree that moment, and wargs be damned. He had shifted his grip on Orcrist without thinking, preparing to drop. Bifur’s boot kicked his shoulder from the branch above.

Nî astu sazrali lanzablâgu rukhsund, idmê!”

Thorin looked between the protesting warrior and the wargs. He looked at Azog, darkly chuckling in a deep, twisted impression of laughter.

There was no survival or escape for them in this fight. Surely it would be better to finish what he should have at Azanulbizar than to die in the jaw of a ravening nameless warg.  It would be better to let his last breaths have meaning after a lifetime of impotence in defense of his people.

No! Verybad Thorin! Youstayinthatgodforsakentree!”

Azog gave an order and the wargs attacked with a new fury, tearing at branches and using their bulk to batter at the trunks. The tree beside his shook, trembled, swayed, and he could only watch as it tipped. Those still in it held as long as possible, leaping to another at the last moment with grunts of pain at the impact.

But Thorin had no time to check their health.

His tree rattled beneath his feet and scant seconds later he was taking a jump of his own, crashing into rough bark to the sound of the wargs’ continued baying.

They had no defense against this.

Thorin leapt into the last tree on the cliffside roaring. The tree he had been in tumbled off the cliff with a crack, narrowly missing him as it fell, and whipping into his branch as it passed.

Azog laughed.

The wargs fell back a moment to allow their masters time to draw near.  

It would not matter. This fight would not end so simply. Azog would never let him die so easy a death. Thorin stared at the creature that had killed his grandfather, that had harried his people, and slaughtered them on the fields of Azanulbizar. That he had failed to kill there.

Unwanted, his mind echoed his memory with others. All the failings of his life -- and there were many -- that threatened to overwhelm him whenever he examined them. For now it was just flashes of pain. Thror. Víli. The slums of Ered Luin. The Trolls. The stone giants. Bilbo.

The last thing he had said to the hobbit -- to his hobbit. He had called him useless, pointless, weak. A camp follower and a whore. He had died without ever hearing all the things Thorin had meant to say. The old sick feeling of failure oozed out from his chest and chilled him.

A gust of wind swayed the tree by several feet.

He could not get lost in guilt now. He had to proceed. He had to protect his Company, his kin. The onus of culpability would be borne later. Now he had to focus on the threat at hand.

He glanced below at the narrow jut of stone to which the roots still clung and cursed. He looked behind at the fall that awaited them.

Thorin would not die in a tree. He would not be killed by a fall after a lifetime in battle. If he was to fail here, it would be on his own terms. He could hear his nephews shouting above him, and her shrieking below him.

Then a flaming brand flew past him and bounced off an attacking warg.

The intolerable wizard was making himself useful at last. The distraction in Goblintown had been appreciated, but Thorin had been certain they would have found another way had he not arrived.

Now though, the air was filling with light and flame as pinecones were set ablaze and hurled aground. The dry pine needles lit easily, and a wall of flame quickly rose to protect them.

Fire was protecting him as it never had before.  

Though the original quandary remained. They still had no escape or plan to turn the tide of battle in their favor. Azog’s obsessive need to end the line of Durin remained. It could serve. The pale orc would insist on fighting him alone, seeking to see done what it failed to do before. Thorin shifted his namesake onto his arm properly, sneaking a glance at the others.

He would not fail again. In this if nothing else, he would find justice.

They were distracted, cheering for their temporary reprieve.

He glanced below to where he would jump.

Freya had climbed to stand on her branch, and stared up at him, shaking her head, stretching out to reach him, “No. Please. No. Thorin. No. No Azog.” Her voice barely carried to him over the crackle of fire and the whining of the wargs.

She had some gift of foresight. He would not deny that. But she used it to malicious effect. If he survived this act, he was going to kill her for what she had done.

But even so, Thorin would not waste this opportunity to avenge his grandfather and protect his ingadân.

“Fíli!” She shouted. His heir whipped about to look, and Thorin knew he had to go now before he was stopped.

He stepped.

The tree creaked.

Instinct made him clutch the branch.

The tree fell back, and for a moment, Thorin believed that it would not stop. That the last root would snap, that the rock holding it would betray them, and they would fall to an ignominious death. Instead it caught with a shuddering bounce, perilously dangling them over the gorge.

Stroking at the fur of the enormous white warg, Azog drew closer, framed by flames and cruelly spitting insults. He was going to watch as they fell. There was no need for the orc to do anything more to ensure their demise, and he was going to paint them with shame without another step. Their perch was doomed, and with it, their lives.

Thorin was boiling. He was shaking, trying to hold back the rage and hate and fear that slithered in his mind. He could not fail in this again. He would not. His kin would be furious, and even he knew that the action was foolhardy at best, but balanced against the prospect of surrendering to fate, he listened to the encouragement of his anger.

Very well.

If their fate was assured, then he could not deny himself the opportunity for vengeance.

He would face the pale orc once more.

“Fíli! Kíli! NO! Keepyourassesinthetree!”

Faster than he could hoist himself to standing, he saw his heirs charging down the trunk, blades in hand to challenge the enemy of their lineage. His own shout of denial did no more to slow them than hers had. He rolled his weight on top of the branch, about to move to their defense.

He could not let them stand alone.

The snap of the branch reverberated in his bones and it fell, dangling by a shred of wood and bark. Thorin stretched. Safety was out of reach. He could see the others on the tree in similar predicaments.

Ori fell, snatching Dori’s leg to avert a longer drop.

Dwalin was scrambling for purchase on the narrow limb he clutched.

The creaking warnings of the branches chilled his blood as he watched helplessly while the Company tried to follow and support the princes.

The princes. His sister-sons and heirs.

They had stepped onto the cliff, unbothered by fire and moving as one. Decades of training together were obvious as they moved to engage the orcs that charged them. Azog held back, staring over the fight towards Thorin, taunting and challenging him to join them.

Thorin could not watch this. He could not watch his beloved nephews fall in a fight that should be his. There was too much swelling in him not to though. Pride and fear battled, and Thorin could only stare. If they fell, it would be yet two more deaths in the tally of his life to weigh him down until his end, and for which he would be judged in death.

But for all his pain, he could not look away.

Kíli stepped out and ducked low, slashing his sword across the wargs side and dodging the orc rider’s blade. Fíli stood fast, and sunk one blade deep, ramming it through the beast’s jaw and out the top of its head. He had to abandon it to get away from the spear rushing towards his chest, but clipped the staff away with his second.

The two met on the far side of their foes, falling into defense of the other.

They faced the mountless orcs, unbowed by their superior height, and waited patiently for an opportunity to strike. Thorin had trained them, and trained with them for a lifetime; he had never seen them move with greater purpose and skill than in that moment.

New enemies approached.

Azog still watched, and Thorin could see the malicious glint that forewarned him of the danger to the boys.

An orc feinted out, drawing Fíli away long enough for another to charge Kíli’s flank. The brothers separated. Two more wargs drove forward, and the younger rolled to escape a deadly pounce. The elder was forced to retreat, nearly to the corpse of the first warg he had slain. He lunged, stabbing the orc and running to retrieve his blade’s twin.

While he sought it’s other half, his brother was penned in by enemies.

Thorin shouted warning -- a broken garbled sound that did no good.

Azog approached unnoticed on his white mount, clawed arm aloft in the beginning of a swing Kíli did not know was coming. It connected with a wet crunch that carried over the familiar sound of battle and dropped the world from beneath him more surely than had the branch let go.

The dwarf was knocked to his knees with a cry, pitching forward to one arm, the other wrapped over his side. He was straining to get back to his feet. Defenseless for a moment, a warg closed its jaw around his arm and side, and Thorin knew that ribs were cracking beneath those teeth.

It toyed with him a moment, then flung him aside.

Kíli fell with his arms splayed, and did not move. Dwalin’s ferocious roar shocked the orcs into a moment’s pause that Fíli took advantage of immediately. He had not seen the blow, hande not seen the warg, and could not see his brother’s form on the ground from where he stood, but pushed towards where he had last been in spite of that.

Thorin snarled, baring his teeth at Azog’s taunting gestures.

“Birintura cobdetul.”

It was Fíli’s voice in his mind, dutifully translating the black speech during a lesson in Ered Luin. His youthful voice that echoed in a bored tone, “Bring me the dwarf’s head.”

Dwalin wailed, flinging himself up, only to have the branch break beneath him and leave him more helpless than before.

Fíli heard it. He must have, because he yanked his second blade free and charged into the wargs without thought. He was knocked to the ground.

Dwalin had always told Thorin that nothing would ever best Fíli in a fight as long as he wasn’t trying to save his brother at the same time. They both had known that the greatest weakness that could be opened in the prince was to see his brother’s life in danger.

Thorin knew the ripping whirl of terror that shredded the chest when a beloved’s life was at risk. He had felt it too recently. The vision of Bilbo’s wide eyes staring dully up at him flickered against memory of the usual fire they held. There was no way to make amends for what he had said and done, for the fear-prompted outburst he had used to push his hobbit away. He could not right that wrong.

But he could save his nephews.

He could keep them from feeling the same twist of guilty pain for failing a loved one.

This should have been his fight.

He should have finished what he began outside of Khazâd-dum.

He would not fail again.

Thorin reached again for the secure branch above him, and saw it tear further.  

He clung, and saw the company trying and failing to do similar. A scream caught his attention long enough to see the wizard save Dori and Ori with his staff, straining to hold the weight as he braced himself on the narrow top of the trunk.

If he could have reached the branch, if there had been a chance of reaching it before his broken segment gave way, he would have tried. But every movement tore it that much more.

He could not help his boys.

Fíli clamored back to his feet on the cliff, bellowing a cry and charging his brother’s captors again. They blocked most of Thorin’s view, and he only had a glimpse of his younger heir, still sprawled on his back and unmoving, head rolled back and throat exposed. The massive orc above him held his weapon to Kíli’s neck.

The long dirty scimitar flashed in the firelight as it was raised.

And Fíli wasn’t going to get there fast enough.

Thorin was going to watch another death he should have stopped.

Thorin’s keening yell was mirrored by a inconsolable feminine shriek and Fíli’s agonized roar.

The blade didn’t fall.

The orc wielding it did.

The wargs blocking his view moved. One turned to drive Fíli back to the cliff’s edge. The other leapt towards Azog.

And he saw a small figure over Kíli, wielding the prince’s dropped sword.

The hobbit seemed even smaller facing the orcs.

Thorin couldn’t breathe.

OhFuckYES!”

He could see tears and scratches over the sturdy leather coat. He could see bruises and blood on him. He could see a ring of dark bruises around his neck.

But all that mattered was that he was seeing him again.

Bright and burning, relief joined the battle of emotion in his mind. Torn between joy that he had survived and fury that he was in the middle of a battle, he could not speak. Bilbo had survived. Bilbo had not left them, had not abandoned him. He should have. He had every right. Yet here he was, standing where Thorin should have been, protecting Kíli.

But Thorin was a warrior, trained to this, suited to this.

Bilbo stood there in spite of what he was, intractable and even at a distance, even from behind, Thorin knew his hobbit’s face was alight with fierce determination. He was a force of nature once he dug in his furry feet.

Before the executioner could advance, Bilbo charged, tackling it to the still burning ground and stabbed until it stopped twitching. He rose and held the sword before him. It was too large, and took most of his focus just to keep it upright. But he held his ground. Practically astride the fallen dwarf, he was undaunted, waiting for the next attack.

Azog pointed his clawed arm too casually at the hobbit.

A warg snarled in answer to the command.

Thorin was transfixed. He could not look away from Bilbo’s foolhardy defense of his heir. He was fearless in the face of his doom. He glowed in the firelight, and Thorin watched the blood dripping on his leg.

This was not a fight Bilbo could win. He could not even survive it.

Guilt and horror nearly overwhelmed him.

A cry burst behind him.

Dwalin had found his feet, and dragged Bifur up with him.

“Go!” Thorin screamed when they reached to help. Everything that mattered was on the cliff, if they saved him him but lost those three, he did not know how he would survive.

They went.

They crashed into the orcs’ flank with the blind fury of defiance and split. Dwalin took the head off the orc stalking towards Bilbo in a single blow, and dropped at Kíli’s side a moment. He turned to sign that Kíli lived. But he wasted no more time before engaging the warg that came for him.

Bifur slammed his boar spear into the side of the closest warg, ripping open the thing’s side as he withdrew it. He sidestepped the spill of blood and organs and with Fíli, pressed out and away from the ledge. His nephew was trying to move for his brother, still frantic and unaware of his brother’s state.

“He lives!” Dwalin shouted in reassurance as he battled another warg. Fire leapt up on fresh tinder, caging them on one side of the cliff while it burned too high to cross.

Bilbo was alone again.

But more of the Company was joining the fight. Balin and Bofur joined his defense just as Bilbo rolled from the snapping jaws of the white warg.

Ohfuckno! NO! NO!”

Thorin lunged for a thin branch, and cried out when both it and his first slipped further.

Ahead of him he saw Freya climbing onto the top of the branch clumsily. She looked to him for a moment, conflicted, “Illberightback Thorin! Hedroppedthering! Dontfall!

And she ran down the trunk, into the center of the battle.

In the already chaotic fight, she was an unknown, and Thorin watched for every sign of betrayal.

She slipped away from Bifur’s outstretched arm, lunged away from Dwalin’s effort to block her, and slid to a stop beside the pale orc. He knew she was yelling as she went, but could not hear what nonsense she spoke. She was on her knees in leaves and dirt, within arm's reach of Azog when a warg engaged Dwalin, blocking his sightline. When they moved, something had changed. She was trying to crawl away, trying to get to her feet as the white warg sniffed in interest .

Azog paid no attention until he heard Fíli shout and charge. The warg snapped at her feet as she tried to retreat from the commander.

Fíli’s glancing blow was not enough to so much as slow the creature, but Freya took advantage of the distraction it had bought and climbed to her feet to run. She crammed a hand into her pack, storing something as she abandoned the others to the battle. Thorin watched her return with disgust, seeing Fíli struggle to hold the fell beast at bay. He was pressed back at once, endangered and cut off from aid. He barely avoided tooth and claw and blade as he fought alone against the pale orc and his mount.

He was standing in the jaws of death because of her idiotic run into the clash, and his nephew's need to help the innocent.

But she was no innocent. Gifted, yes, but no creature of goodness would bring his Company into such risks. No one but a servant of the enemy would throw Bilbo from a cliff. No one but a slave of darkness would complicate a battlefield to get so close to the enemy’s commander.

She did not stop running at the cliff’s edge, scrambling up and onto the fragile branch he grasped. Wrapping legs and arm around it, she extended her hand.

Every moment of distrust and danger he had sensed about her warred with his self-preservation. The sight of her just now, rushing to gain something from Azog was all too clear. She was a threat and without honor. She had just now left his kin in danger, brought them to greater danger with her needless, pointless charge. She had not drawn a weapon, she had not attempted to defend them or herself.

Now she offered an arm.

To take it would give her the chance to kill him.

The branch groaned, a second break beginning to form between her and the trunk. She noted it as well, and stretched closer.

“Thorin! Justtakemyhandandgetyourassoutthere! Theyfuckingneedyou!”

She stretched farther still.

Thorin could see Fíli trying to find a weakness in the pale orc.

He flung himself up, feeling his branch tear away as he caught her arm. Hand locked tight on hers, the sudden shift of weight dropped them both to a jerked stop. She screamed in pain. Only an elbow and a knee held them above a fall.

His only guarantee of survival was his grip on her, and her will to live.

She struggled to hold on, and he knew she was too weak to lift him.

Climbup!” She jerked her head and held his gaze until he complied.

She smothered the scream in her throat when he used her as a ladder to regain the trunk of the tree. Freya lay there for a moment, trying to roll atop the branch, but lacking the strength to do it.

Drowning in echoes of the risks she had brought them to, shaking with thoughts of how close to destruction she had brought them, Thorin snapped.

He hauled her up by the coat, gripping her arm tightly as soon as he had put her feet beneath her. Thorin ignored the whimper of pain, just as he ignored the wet blood beneath his hand.

His knife pressed to her throat.

She deserved to die and more for what she had wrought. She had known this was coming and still had not stopped it. Every injury to his company rested on her shoulders. And what she had done to Bilbo---

His mind went still.

This was what he should have done long ago. He should have killed Azog when he had the chance. He would not make the same mistake again.

But before he could draw the honed steel over her throat, he heard a name cried out on the cliff that overwhelmed every instinct.

“Bilbo!”

Dwalin’s battle-hardened voice never broke like that.

Thorin spun, dropping her, and barely felt the hand that clawed at his leg.

He could not see his shield-brother. He could not see Bilbo.

But Dwalin never sounded like that.

He hefted his shield and drew Orcrist before racing into battle.

Goddammit Thorin youjackass -- Fuckfuckfuck -- helpme!

He heard her yell behind him, but could focus on nothing but reaching them.

Ohfuckno! No! No! NO!” Her yelling turned to a fading shriek.

Orcrist was already in motion, swinging to open the stomach of the warg in his path when a great dark shape swept it up and flung it off the cliff. Another and another soared down with piercing cries, tossing their enemies into the dark.

His eye found Dwalin, standing above their burglar, while the stouthearted hobbit braced himself on Kili’s blade and forced himself back to standing.

Thorin almost collapsed in gratitude. But there was no time. He spun, searching the darkening sky for their saviours, and casting thanks to the Valar for their rescue.

Eagles.

Enormous Eagles.

They decimated the orc pack in seconds.

As he watched, they swooped in to evacuate his companions, grabbing them in huge talons. His heart stuttered when he watched the eagle grab Bilbo and drop him. But his hobbit appeared on the back of another a moment later, terrified hands clutching at feathers. Thorin sheathed his blade and rushed towards his fallen sister-son in time to see a gentle claw close around him and lift.

Then he was picked up without warning, tossed, and landed on a feathered back.

He saw the tree lose the fight with gravity and plunge off the cliff.

In the fading light he counted the others, and found all fourteen of his Company.

A stuttered exhalation of relief fell out of him. Then he saw a slack form in an eagle’s claw, and his chest seized once more.

“Kíli! Kíli!” The wind dragged away his words before they reached him, and Thorin could not see any sign of life. He would not know his fate until they reached wherever the Eagles were bringing them. But the others were all awake and alive. Dwalin signed again and again that Kili lived, and Thorin watched his youngest for long minutes, willing the dwarf to move and confirm it.

But he stayed still. Thorin had to look away.

He found Bilbo on a eagle nearby, and before the night swallowed him, Thorin memorized the face that stared back with wet cheeks and furious joy.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Fíli would have been more impressed with riding a giant eagle if his brother was with him. Or conscious.

This was not what they had planned.

He had watched the eagle bearing Kíli until the dark grew dense. Then he had to wait through long cold hours, burrowed into feathers and holding at bay his amad's weeping accusations. If he had to tell her he had failed, it would break her. It would break him.

So he tried to take refuge in sleep after the madness of the last day, and failed at that as well. His comfort was knowing Thorin was alive. They had averted that at least.

Azog survived. Fíli had seen him astride his warg as the eagle had snatched him off the cliff.

Bilbo had been on the cliff.

Fíli had no idea how he had come to be there, but he had seen a glimpse of the hobbit standing over Kíli, defending the fallen dwarf against orcs that towered over him.  

Long after the darkness made it impossible to tell, he realized he had not looked for Freya when he tried to count the company members. It would have to wait.

The sky was smudged with pale pink light by the time the eagle he rode began to circle down to a spire of stone that stood out in the landscape. The small figures atop it couldn’t be identified until he was nearly there. But by the time the eagle had landed, and he slid off its back, Fili had seen what was happening.

Bofur has his mattock out, and was spitting a low livid rant of khuzdul.

Freya was standing opposite him, silent for once, with hammer in hand.

They were bare seconds from descending into violence.

This was not good. Of all the people to have arrived first, there could not have been a worse combination. Well, Frey and Thorin, but then there would have been nothing for Fíli to do, since she would have already been murdered, and he could have just listened to his body and collapsed in a heap while he waited to see if his brother was dead.

Instead he kept walking.  

He stepped past the dwarf without comment, and waited for the rant to fade away. While he did, he noted her torn, bloody sleeve, the dark stain on the leg she was favoring, and a thin red line below her jaw. There was also the more obvious wave of indignation hovering around her that made him scowl. He did not have time for this.

Bofur was still going. Freya had not looked away from the miner.

Fíli turned impatiently, and the rant ended.

“We can’t trust her, lad.”

Shifting into a stance of command in spite of his exhaustion and doubt, he retorted, “I did not say we were.”

“You’ve got your back turned on her an’ she’s armed. You trust her.”

He could see more eagles approaching. The riders were unknown. With the wrong set this was going to become far more complicated.  So he turned back to her and held out a hand for her weapon.

Nopenothappening Fíli.”

“Frey.”

“Bofur hastriedtokillmetwicealready. Didyouknowthat? Thorin hastoo. Fuckergavemethis.” She pointed to her neck, “Thorin! Thenhethrewmeoffabloodytree! Sosorry. Youcanthavemyweapon. Idonttrustyou.”

The hammer shifted to a better grip.

“Frey.”

Toughcookiescutie. Idonttrustyouallnottothrowmetomydeath. Youlikesymbolism. Icanttrustyounottotryandkillme. Whichisprettyshitty. Isavedhisfuckinglife.

Dwalin, Gloin and Oin were circling above. He had no allies for this amongst them.

“Frey, please?” He gestured again, using what Kíli called his Crown Prince Voice. She didn’t surrender the weapon, but she did slacken her hold on it and hesitate. He had her disarmed before she knew he was closing the distance. The hammer was tucked in his belt and the blade kept in hand.

She started talking several times but descended into outraged stammering several times. She was several steps past furious, but didn’t attack beyond smacking him once in the arm.

If Thorin stabsmeitisyourfault.”

He shoved Bilbo’s sword at Bofur.

“There. Disarmed. Give that to Bilbo.”

“Still can’t--”

“It is not your decision to make. It’s my Uncle’s.”

Bofur’s grin was anticipatory. The miner was probably right about what Thorin’s decision would be.

The three he had seen slid onto the stone, relieved to be out of the air. Dwalin stormed over, headed for FílI.

“What were ya thinking lad?” He thundered as he manhandled the prince, checking for serious injury. The warrior and weapons master wasn’t going to believe anything Fíli said, so he just waited until Dwalin had found there to be no injury. “Ya coulda been killed with that damn-fool charge.”

His commanding voice had never worked on Dwalin, but he tried.

“I wasn’t.”

Kíli however… He shut down that line of speculation as soon as he noticed it rise, and cast his eyes skyward again. He could see more Eagles approaching.

It was only Dwalin’s frown over his shoulder that called his attention to Frey in time to stop her slipping past him. Why she was headed towards Bofur, when he was still furious and guarding her with his hammer in eager hands he couldn't fathom.

She grunted in aggravation when Fíli intercepted her.

Jackasses. Allofyou. Iamtryingtohelp. Ibroughtthingsincaseofthis! Ithoughtitdbe Thorin! Butits Kili andIlikehimmore. Sofuckyou! Andletmehelp!

She shoved, trying to get around him. He, Dwalin and Bofur all moved at once.

He pulled her out of the way of Bofur’s lunge. Dwalin stepped between and caught the miner by the shoulder. For a few seconds it seemed like one or the other was going to snap and start the fight he had interrupted. After a quick appraisal, he was convinced it would be her, bare-handed and feral.

An eagle’s shriek cut through the air. They all looked up at the form held gently in its claw.

Then it was chaos.

Kíli was set down and Óin hurried to his side. Fíli’s world narrowed to his brother and nothing else.

His brother did not react save for the lifeless flop of limbs as he was settled on a section of smooth stone. Fíli could not move from where he stood beside Dwalin on the opposite side of the rock. Glóin dropped at his Kili'’s side to help.

“He’s alive, laddie.” Glóin shouted.

Fíli exhaled sharply a breath he didn’t know he had been holding. Dwalin caught him by the elbow and kept him upright. But the Company’s healer was working too frantically for him to be comforted by that declaration. From where he stood, Fili couldn’t see what was being treated.

Dammit Bofur! Justletmehelp! Orgivethisto Óin! Justgiveittohim! Youmistrustfulasswipe! Takethemedicinebefore Kíli dies!”

He didn’t even notice the Wizard’s arrival, only seeing him when Óin stepped aside.

Gandalf passed a hand over Kíli’s face, muttering too low to hear. Most of the others were landing around them, climbing off backs, and tumbling to stops as they were set down from eagle talons. It was several long minutes he watched, not knowing what the wizard was doing, or how serious the injuries were.

Then Kíli shifted.

A deep breath later, he rolled to his side and tried to sit up.

Fíli was already running.

He ignored the healer’s shout about injuries. Ignored Gandalf’s startled grumble. Ignored his brother’s efforts to move on his own. Just hauled him into an armor denting hug and refused to let go.

He would have come to his senses and let go of his wounded brother after a few seconds if Kili hadn’t been holding on just as tightly. The terror of having to see his brother buried faded to the back of his mind where it normally lived. He wasn’t quite crying, but he couldn’t slow down his breathing, couldn’t stop the mild tremble in his fingers, and couldn’t stop the shake of his chest.

It took a long time before either of them got themselves under control. Maybe the others were speaking, yelling, fighting. Maybe they’d all been eaten by trolls. If they were, he couldn’t hear them. And he didn’t care.

“We charge him first,” Fíli muttered into the shoulder he was pressed against, “terrible plan nadadith.”

“Worked didn’t it? I told you it would.”

“Next time we need a better plan, alright?”

“No reason to change what isn’t broken.”

“Mahal, you always were the stupid one.”

Kíli chuckled and gasped. They broke apart carefully, Fíli half-holding him up. Then Thorin crashed into them both.

“Sorry we didn’t kill him uncle.” He mumbled after Thorin relaxed his hold enough for Fili to breathe.

“Yeah, sorry about getting hurt Uncle.”

“My two brave, stupid boys. Ingadânê” Thorin replied, pulling them in by the neck to knock all their foreheads together. He didn’t seem able to find more to say than that. Which was just as well, since Fíli knew his uncle's tendency to ramble on at the least convenient times.

The moment stretched long and sweet between them, a balm after the last day of misery and threat. It came apart naturally, still in silence atop the tower of stone. But the end of that moment seemed to break the spell holding the others back.

There was a great deal of shouting, and Fíli got pounded on the back long enough that he felt a bruise forming. They were more merciful with Kíli.

“I think I remember getting hit. I know I remember the warg but I must have blacked out after,” Kíli said once all the hugging died back down, with a proud grin on his face, “how did you get to me, nadad? There were at least two wargs and their riders between us.”

Fíli flinched at the confidence behind the question. It hadn’t occurred to Kili that his brother had failed him. Azog’s command sounded in his mind again.

“I didn’t.” He couldn’t manage to say more.

His brother wasn’t able to hide the flash of betrayal fast enough, but didn’t say a thing about it. Fíli had been cut off, and hadn’t seen what saved Kíli’s life.

Dwalin leaned in and got their attention.

“Bilbo saved you lad.”

Both brothers whipped around to see the hobbit. He’d been sitting on a rough boulder, slumped and exhausted, but leapt to his feet as the attention of thirteen dwarves settled on him. He looked nervous. Fíli could feel his Uncle’s proud joy like a beacon of light. It would have been hard to miss.

“That hobbit took care of the orc about to have your head off laddie, then he stayed with ya til we could get to him.” Kíli was frozen and incredulous watching the uncomfortable burglar fidget. Then both brothers were rushing the hobbit, scooping him into a tight embrace and shouting thanks at him.

Iseehowitis. Hegetshugged. Igetthreatened. Fuckyouguys. Softballedtwerps.” Fíli saw her standing behind Bofur, holding a pack.

Bilbo squirmed out of their arms after a few moments, grinning broadly and earnestly. Kíli tilted the hobbit’s head up to look at the vicious bruising that circled his neck.

“How’d you get this? One of the orcs grab you?”

“No I--” And Bilbo’s voice failed him. What little there had been that is. He croaked more than he spoke, then broke into a pathetic coughing fit. Fíli winced, and felt the company do the same behind him. There was a short burst of movement as everyone checked. The few water skins they had kept through Goblintown were empty, rolled in the bottom of the few packs that they still had.

But Bilbo couldn’t seem to stop that terrible wheezing hack.

OhsweetholyTolkien Bofur wouldyoujustletme? Finefuckyoutoo -- IhopeBeorneatsyou. Oy, Fili!”

He turned. She had a hand on the staff of the mattock. There was a waterskin in her other. It seemed full, and as soon as she had his attention, she tossed it to him.

Sorryaboutallthat Bilbo. Hopeithelps.” She shouted.

Bilbo gulped the water, coughed harder, and tried again with small sips. He got himself under control and smiled at them both a bit teary, but it turned to a rigid frown as he saw someone coming. Thorin was almost able to capture the hobbit in an embrace, but Bilbo stepped back, and an unexpectedly fervent glare locked over his features. He shook his head slowly and waggled his finger back and forth. Not willing to risk coughing again, he silently fought with Thorin, neither of them so much as moving.

Something must have happened there. Between them. Something unpleasant.

He glanced to Kíli. Yes, he had seen it too.

It was only more obvious when Bilbo corked the skin, curtly nodded and stepped away, pointedly dodging contact with Thorin. He crossed the spire and stood in front of Freya, defying Bofur’s attempt to stop him. What was passing between them, Fíli could not say; he was busy playing crutch to his brother.

Eventually, Bilbo held out the waterskin.

She shook her head and pressed it back towards him.

Justkeepit Bilbo. Incasetheidiotsdecidetokillme. Idontthinkyoufuckershaveany.” She nodded at his neck, and Fíli barely heard when she said, “Gollum?”

It sounded sympathetic. It sounded worried.

Bilbo jumped back so fast Fíli thought it was a threat. Thorin certainly believed so. He was at Bilbo’s side, knife in hand in seconds. The hobbit squeaked when he tried to talk.

Ohfrickingfuckthisagain?”

“What does Gollum mean? Did she force you into the Goblin trap?” The king asked, weapon at her throat. Fíli finally knackered on to what she had meant earlier, pointing at her neck, and could see her paper-thin patience fading.

Bilbo hemmed and hawed before nodding.

Youknowwhen Bilbo savedyourlifeyouhuggedhim.”

“Did she throw you off the bridge?”

Bilbo didn’t respond, studying her. His hand was settled lightly over the bruise on his neck.

NotsayingIwantahug. Butlessofthestabbingwouldbegreat.”

“I already told ya she did, Thorin.” Bofur interrupted.

The hobbit flinched. Fíli turned when he was nudged by his brother. Kíli asked in iglishmek why Fíli wasn’t saying anything, and the only answer he could find was that this was Thorin’s decision.

Thorin’s very clearly already made decision.

Lookyoufuckfacedbastard. Justonceletmeexplainthings. Letmetry. Withoutyoutryingtostabme. Iamsooveryoutryingtostabme. Andifyouwouldjustfuckinglistentomywordsforonce? Maybeyournephewouldnthavealmostdied.

They had managed to prevent Azog killing their uncle. Granted, they would have to remain vigilant since the pale orc would surely return, but now that they knew about it, now that they knew about her warning, Freya’s task was done. He signed as much to Kíli. The response was concise and vulgar.

He repeated his comment. Kíli signed that she had saved his life, then faltered, and added, ‘a little.’

Fíli looked back to the pair on the edge. His uncle had her by the arm, holding her off balance as he and Bilbo held a silent conversation of their own. Their's was all in expressions and glances.  

Whatever was happening between them was beyond his ability to decipher right now.

Bofur at least had stepped back, not that it had stopped the victorious smirk. It was like nothing he had seen on the miner’s face in the decades he had known him. But, he knew that Bofur had a fiercely loyal streak in him. And his time as a miner had been preceded by a lengthy time guarding caravans. It was the main reason he was on the quest at all. Once someone tripped him from his normal jocular self, he became vicious.

“Did she throw you, Bilbo?” Thorin repeated clearly.

Bilbo nodded.

Fíli meant to look at his brother, a reminder of the luck and good fortune they had seen in the last day. His eyes caught on Frey’s instead as Thorin rocked her over the edge, hissing in Khuzdul.

Terror and betrayal and anger.

She was clinging to Thorin’s wrist, but it would do nothing to stop the blade he held. Her hammer on his belt weighed him down more than its size should have. He grabbed Nori as he moved to intervene, signing ‘Thorin is the king’ when a murderous stare shifted to him. They could do what they wanted to try to keep her out of death’s path, but they could not challenge the ruling that Thorin was stating, peppered with vehement curses.

The Company could not do anything.

Either through ignorance or apathy or courage, Bilbo disregarded that fact.

The hobbit caught her arm and Thorin’s at the same time, guiding her back to safety and matching the King glare for glare. He carefully cleared his throat to speak at a croak, “No. Complicated. Wait.”

Fili had to watch and find out with the rest whether Thorin would listen.

His uncle wasn’t going to, and this wasn’t the time to think about why he felt twisted about that. Nori wrenched his arm away and crossed the stone. The thief didn’t touch Thorin, just caught Frey by the strap of her pack and pulled her away from the king.

“Don’t know whatcha think yer doin’ uzbad.”

“I am protecting my Company from one that has threatened and endangered them.”

Thanksforthat Nori. Butdontpisshimoff. Hemightthinkyourehelpingme."

“Would ya stop an’ think?” Nori shouted, ignoring her, “Just a bit, maybe, before you kill someone that saved yer life?”

Fíli and Kíli shot looks to each other, unsure what he was on about.

“She did nothing of the kind.”

“I saw ya on the tree. You tellin me you coulda gotten off that branch without her help?”

Fuckinghellwhatsgoingon?”

“That does not outweigh her other actions.” Thorin replied.

“She tried to kill our hobbit!” Bofur interrupted.

“Shut it Bofur! What actions are those Thorin?” Thorin turned to look at Bilbo. “We’re gettin’ ta that. Before then. What actions? When she brought supplies? When she gave ya that shiny elf sword? Iklifumun, she was trying to get us outta tha’ cave! She knew there were gonna be a whole mess of Goblins in there an’ she followed us in. She got ya off that branch an’ ya turned around an’ tried ta kill her. Why can’t ya see she’s tryin’ ta help?”

“She tossed Bilbo --” Bofur challenged.

Areyoudefendingme Nori? OhmygodIthinkyouare.”

“-- an’ me into the trap with you all!”

“She knew what was comin’ an’ she didn’t run screamin’ the other way even though she doesn’t know what she’s doin’. Even after how we've treated her!"

OhfuckyesGo Nori.”

“If she knew what was coming she should have prevented it.” Thorin said brandishing the knife at her again.

“She’s tryin!”

“She’s failing.”

“Cause you don’t let her say nothin’!”

“Because she cannot speak!”

“Yes she can.” Fíli said softly. Not softly enough. All four turned to look at him. Kíli elbowed him hard, and he kept talking. “She can…. If you let her try.”

DidIhitmyhead? Areyouinsufferableassholesactuallydefendingme? AmIasleep? HaveIdied?”

Takhlikiya.

“She does, she tries Uncle.” Kíli added.

“Yeah, Bifur watched in Rivendell. She tries.” Bifur was nodding and signing additions beside Nori, corroborating the arguments being made. “An’ about Bilbo? If we’re right, an’ she’s been tryin’ ta help? What’d she think woulda happened ta him if he’d been with us that woulda made her think throwin’ him off a cliff would be a good idea?”

Fíli saw Bilbo pale, but turned to her again. She was absolutely lost, unable to keep up with the rapid yelling. She was nervous.

Thorin had clearly not thought of it like that. Neither had Fíli to be honest. He went back through the last two days. The storm, the giants, the cave, the goblins. Considering when she had arrived, she had been in that storm. She may have been in the Thunder battle. There was her frantic effort to get them out of the cave. There was what Nori had said about the tree. There was her defense of them with the goblins.

There was how they had treated her since first seeing her outside the Shire.

He looked back to her, pondering what in Mahal’s name she was doing here. He would have given up on them long ago. She was still here and still provoking Thorin’s legendary temper.

While he reconsidered the last weeks, Thorin was staring at Bilbo’s shaking head. He was momentarily distracted.

She snatched Thorin’s knife from his hand.

Fully half the dwarves watching let out little shocked noises. The rest let out larger ones.

She held it disdainfully between finger and thumb. Reasonable; it had been at her throat more than enough for her to dislike it.

She waited only long enough to have Thorin’s attention before lobbing the knife off the edge.

Whoops.”

And she held the King’s eye in silent challenge.

The look she put on after was conspicuously innocent.

Imsorrywasthatyours? Didyouwantthat? Toobad. Idontknowwhatshappening. Plus? Tiredofyoutryingtogutme.”

Fíli gaped along with the others. Bilbo snagged Thorin’s arm to keep him in place. Nori pulled her away by a step and slightly behind where he could defend her.

Gandalf’s chuckle broke the moment, and despite Thorin’s frustration, the company started to join in, breaking the tension.

“I think that was retaliation for what ya did ta her knife.” Dwalin added helpfully.

It was being suppressed as much as they could, but the last day had drawn them through the wringer, and exhaustion was starting to show.

Bilbo took advantage of the distraction and pushed Thorin to get him walking away from those that had just fought him. He was still muttering about how he did not trust her, would not ever trust her. Gandalf crossed to him and they began to mutter back and forth.

Their hobbit turned back to Frey, contemplating her. Fíli moved to join them, but then Kíli gasped in pain, and his world narrowed down to his brother and nothing else.

“Sit back down lad, the wizard’s told me he fixed yer insides but that yer probably still bleeding and just don’t know it.” Óin appeared beside them with a flask.

“Can’t this wait?”

Óin didn’t say a word to that, but a moment later, Kíli was out of his gambeson, and peeling the shirt free of the blood stuck to it. His side and back were covered, and two broken wheals were raised above the more banal mess of scratches, swelling and forming bruises. The whole thing wrapped around from naval to spine on his right side. Even with whatever the wizard had done, he wasn’t going to be in fighting form for a week at least.

Fíli was more exhausted than he thought.

Again, he had missed an arrival until they were in front of him.

Frey held out a pack to Óin.

Fromtheelves. Elves. For Kíli.” She flicked the pack open and pointed, “Kíli.”

The bag was stuffed with elvish medicine. Bandages, jars and vials of ointments, and a pack of very finely made needles with a spool of silk thread.

Óin glanced at the bag, opened a jar, then went to work.

Needle threaded and wounds wiped clean, Óin had Kíli drink again before he began stitching closed the gashes and punctures.

He should have been paying more attention to the others, but Kíli had grabbed his hand and was doing his best to break most of the bones there. It was the only sign of pain he gave, but was enough to keep Fíli from walking or looking away.

Once bandages were being wrapped over the poulticed wounds, Kíli let go and smirked in reassurance. Fíli finally noticed the rest of the Company.

Most were slumped in various positions across the rock, sorting through what little had survived the caves. Weapons mostly. A few empty water skins. A few handfuls of cram that had been in pockets rather than packs. No blankets or bed rolls.

Ori was leaning into Dwalin with closed eyes and a warhammer across his lap.

Thorin and Bilbo were still standing, checking the scrapes and cuts and bruises the other had, and looking, in almost every way, like they hated each other. Except for the way that they paused for a few seconds at a time, vulnerable and clinging. Beyond his throat, Bilbo had a few minor injuries, and something on his leg that made Thorin frantic until Bilbo convinced him otherwise.

Fíli felt like he was intruding, so forced himself to look away.

Nori and Bifur were plotting in high-speed iglishmek. Blocked by their bodies and faster than Fíli could follow, it was a mystery until he caught sight of a double flick-twist of fingers by Bifur’s face. ‘Idiot girl.’ Well, those two were probably sorting out a way to keep her alive long enough to get her away from the Company. They could be trusted with that.

It seemed all the others were well, uninjured save minor annoyances, and if that wasn’t a miracle handed directly down from the Maker, nothing was. Everyone, even Gandalf, was retreating towards sleep by unspoken agreement.

He turned once more, ready to roll his coat into a pillow and finally rest.

Instead he saw Thorin glowering at Bilbo and Freya who were gesturing through a conversation, seated on the first step of the rough stairs. Between his missing voice and her missing language, it was a disaster. But they were finding a way. She had stripped off the largest two packs and was flicking looks between the bags, Bilbo, and the Company. Fíli remembered the medical supplies she had brought, knowing Kíli would need them.

No, knowing someone would need them. He had heard her panicked scream when Kíli fell. That had been a surprise to her. She had warned them that Thorin would be killed by Azog, so she had expected Thorin to fight him. Still she had hauled a bag of medicine up the mountains, defended it against the grasping claws of goblins, and managed to keep it when they had all lost theirs. For someone who had repeatedly threatened her. Who she hated.

He jumped at the tap on his arm, startled out of his drowsy wandering. Bilbo smiled weakly. He held out a piece of waybread.

“I thought you lost your pack?”

Bilbo nodded.

“So how do you have this?”

He tilted his head back towards her and shrugged before opening the pack to show him the full contents. Waybread and dried meat and a half dozen tightly rolled waterskins.

“We cannot trust her Master Baggins.” Thorin said suddenly, appearing at his other side. “Even the wizard knows not what to make of her. If you will not let me rid us of her, we must be more cautious. Those could be poisoned.”

Bilbo glared back sardonically and took a bite. Thorin flinched, but accepted the piece Bilbo gave him afterwards. The hobbit walked on, passing out food to everyone.

They nibbled at the dry elvish bread.

“She is dangerous.”

“Not at the moment, Uncle, leave off.” Fíli snapped without thinking. When the frustrated ire turned on him, he pointed. “Not at the moment. I think between us all we can defend against that.”

Frey was asleep. Sitting on the first step, she was lost to the world, head slumped forward and bobbing.

Thorin scoffed.

“Take first watch, Nori on second, Bifur on third.”

That was the last thing he wanted to do. He would have preferred fighting Azog again. That would have kept him awake at least. But Thorin’s scowl, as well as the others on the list, made it clear that this was a punishment, so Fíli conjured a contrary grin from the dregs of his energy.

“Of course Uncle.”

 


 

 

The little trilling sound was obnoxious. Very obnoxious. When she finally found her phone she just sort of slapped it until it stopped making that noise.

Which it did somewhat reluctantly. Only to start up again a moment later. When it refused to stop she crammed it into the sofa cushions and sat up wobbily. Apartment. Alarm. Work. Bus.

Right.

Coffee was going to be necessary. All of the coffee. Maybe she could run by Starbucks on the way. There was a gift card around somewhere.

Yes. There it was, under the fish tank. Gift card.

Which meant now there needed to be clothes as she had apparently slept in her uniform the night before. Very weird. Wasn’t even comfortable.

She rubbed at her neck and scratched her nails through her hair, yawning, fighting the impulse to curl right back up on the hideous pink thrift store sofa and go to sleep. She’d bought the damn thing thinking it would be impossible to sleep on it, and wow but she had never been more wrong.

Not an option.

Coffee: yes.

Sleeping: no.  

She shook it off and stepped to join the back of the line. Why were the occupants of a coffee shop always so damned loud? Hypercaffeinated air? Was that written into the wifi terms of service?

They needed to shut up. There was something important she had forgotten and she knew that if they would just zip it, she would be able to suss out what it was. Important wasn’t enough to get along with. She needed to go somewhere, was that it? Something was lost, and she needed to find it?

Or maybe someone was lost?

Maybe if these idiots would all just cram a foot in it, she could find the thing dancing around on the edge of her mind.

Hmmmm. Barista. Big. Big Coffee. All the coffee. Now please.

They only had strawberry milk on the bar though. Delicious yes, but not in coffee. Back to her fridge then. Oh good, she had half and half.

Chunky.

She did not have half and half.

She did have a new phone. Very shiny. It needed to be stored in the fridge to charge. The cold air kept the battery strong.

That lingering sense of forgotten knowledge plucked at her again. There was something she needed to remember.

Smiling, she sat down at the fancy table. With a dreadfully sharp knife she sliced off a bite of the frankly perfect steak and grinned at it before eating. Steak, red meat, no, just protein, any protein shouldn’t have been so delicious. Why was protein so incredibly tasty all of a sudden? This was easily the best meal she had ever tasted.

There were hasselbacked potatoes with sour cream oozing down the sides with bacon and chives sprinkled liberally over the top. There was fresh bread under a towel with butter in a bowl next to it. There was chicken satay. There was a chocolate sundae with more whipped cream than the bowl could contain. There was a bowl of broccoli. There was spanikopita. There was a thing of bubbly queso and chorizo with brightly colored chips. There were chili cheese tater tots. There was watermelon.

All of it went together brilliantly.

There was even a funny looking bottle of wine.

That meant something.

No clue what, but something.

There was a bag full of flatbread things. That was… the bag…

It was almost there. Out of the shadows on the edge of her brain. It was just hovering, waiting for her to take one more step and see it.

She looked back at the bag. Oh Right.

Erebor.

She turned around and stumbled on a small mountain of gold. It slid beneath her and she rode the wave of it to the ground. It was all hers of course. The low grumbling behind her caught her attention and she looked at Smaug.

He looked back.

She scowled.

He snarled.

She stuck out her tongue.

He licked her.

That was gross.

She gestured and he bowed low, submitting. A bright flame burst over him, green and white and blue eating away at scales and making him glow from within, ethereal and hollow. His jaw stretched wide in silent pain and he arched high, wings outstretched while they melted and dripped flaming sheets to the ground. His bones lasted longest, deep shadows amidst the blaze, sketching the creature that he had once been.

It burned and ate at him until there was nothing left but an outline of ash settled over the uncountable pile of golden wealth.

She turned at a sound behind her and saw the army of orcs and trolls approaching. With a shake of her head and a pointed finger they turned obediently and marched the other way.

With her coffee back in hand she placed a furry pink cushion on the throne and sat down, watching a triple wedding. First Bilbo and Thorin, then Bifur and Dori, then Legolas and Tauriel.

But no.

That wasn’t right.

Gimli pulled off his Tauriel mask and stilts with a laugh and the wedding continued. Much better.

She reached for a second cup of coffee from the counter and found Kíli staring her down behind a nocked arrow. There was no warning before it flew and blood streamed down her chest to flood the room, drowning all the gold in crimson.

 


 

Frey jolted awake, short of breath, sunblind and deeply disturbed. Mentally that is. Her mind was still quite entirely confused by whatever had just happened inside her skull. It hadn’t felt like a dream. It felt oddly lifelike. It felt like Galadriel and the porn. But Galadriel wasn’t around. At least, she had better not be around. There was that whole Dol Guldor situation to sort out on her end. Plus, that dream hadn’t been nearly pornographic enough. It had to be a normal dream then. It was just unusual, and long, and too realistic to easily be brushed aside.

So yes, mentally, Frey was rather off kilter.

Physically she wasn’t uncomfortable so much as she was in agony and unaware of her surroundings.

She rolled forward, hoping to give her screaming spine an adjustment period before she asked it to sit up. She jerked again when a hand caught her arm.

Her eyes popped open and she whimpered. She wasn’t more than a foot from falling off the ledge and down the very steep, very rough, very fatal stairs.

At least she was fully awake now. She had even forgotten how much her back hurt.

Adrenaline.

The hand had helped her to sit up before she bothered to see who it was, and since she was already scooching back from death on her butt, she just continued the action when she saw Fíli.

The company and the wizard were asleep, slumped across each other and lying on what packs and coats they had left. Ori was asleep on Dwalin’s shoulder. Bombur was rolled into his own tummy. Nori was using Bofur as a pillow. Bilbo was as far from Thorin as possible. Gandalf reclined against a stone.

The sun was high and hot, but none of them cared, too exhausted to be bothered by something so paltry.

And keeping watch was Fíli. Who had kept Bofur from attacking her and then let Thorin dangle her over an edge without lifting a finger. Who had then joined Nori’s defense of her. Who had disarmed her. Who had just saved her life.

Fíli didn’t make sense.

With the way her life had gone lately, Frey wasn’t a particular fan of things that didn’t make sense. Case in point, Middle Earth was not currently high on her list of faves.

He answered her quizzical glare.

“You almostrolledofftheedge.” He gestured to her, twisting his fingers and pointed down the stairs. She glanced again at the steep cuts in the side of the Carrock and took his meaning.

“Well, Thanks for explaining that at least. But I had caught on. Sort of obvious.”

“You shouldprobably go. You canleavebeforetheotherswake. Igotyourbags. You canreturnto Rivendell. Idontthinkhistemperwillhold. Idontthink you wanttodie. Go backto Rivendell.”

Wonderful, they were going to start back with this again.

“No Fíli, you silly dwarf. I am going to go to Erebor, and keep your dumbasses alive. Even if you are fucking bastards to me every step of the way. All this is just getting started. Me go Erebor.”

“Frey. Thorin? You?” He pointed at her neck. “Go. Otherwisehewilldothatagain.”

“Wasn’t surprising. He does that alot. It’s just what we do now. I scream at him, he threatens to kill me. It’s our thing. Besides, I got rid of his favorite ‘threaten to kill me’ knife.”

“Frey.” That was the tone of someone expecting to be obeyed.

“No.” That was too bad for him.

“Azog didnotkill Thorin. You cangobackwhereitissafe. Weknownow. We willwatchoutfor Azog. You cangolearntotalk. Maybe you canreturnonedayandexplain. Maybe Nori isrightand you canproveit.” He was talking too fast for her to follow along. Once he noticed her impatient grump, he blew out a long breath. “Thorin no Azog. Frey Go.”

He was gesturing to clarify, speaking as clearly as possible, really trying to get his point across. She was exhausted and shaken and injured and fed up. It took a while, but eventually she found his point.

“Ohhhh. Wow. You are a pretty pony aren’t you? Fucking hell. You’re worse than Bilbo. Or is this just the obligatory ‘I do believe the worst is behind us’ moment on the Carrock?” Giggling was a bit rude, but she couldn’t stop.

Silly optimistic dwarf.

She had such an urge to pat him on the head like a puppy.

She gestured broadly to show the past, “Thorin no Azog.” She pointed to the bit of mountain in the distance. “Erebor? Thorin Azog. Kili Bolg. You Azog. And in between? More shit than you can imagine.”

She laughed again, sympathetic to his wounded expression, but not enough to sugarcoat it. Even if she’d had the words to do so.

“Me go Erebor,” she concluded.  

She started to rise, groaning as the cut on her leg pulled, and feeling fresh blood leak. Keeping Thorin from going splat hadn’t been fun. The tree branch she had been wrapped over had ripped open her arm and thigh. They were only slowly bleeding though, so she was going to ignore it until she found water.

He noticed her pain, but didn’t do anything when she waved him off. On her feet, she counted the company, all dozing, all alive. Fourteen. And a Wizard. It hadn’t seemed so damned dangerous watching it from her couch. It hadn’t seemed like death was going to be quite as likely as it had been the last few days. But all of them had survived. She had survived. It was a miracle to say the least. And apparently optimism was contagious. For the first time in months she was starting to feel a tiny bit of confidence in actually succeeding at this ludicrous, impossible task.

She’d survived Goblintown. She’d survived the cliff. Thorin hadn’t managed to kill her. Nori and Bifur and Fili had actually defended her. She had chucked Bilbo off a random cliff and he had lived. Her private hell was a bit less bleak than normal.

Optimistic wasn’t the same as well rested, and she didn’t realize Fili had stood up as well until he turned her around. He looked more like his uncle when he was angry. Well, frustrated. Angry for dwarves seemed to always include weaponry. “Frey. You--” he cut off and lowered his voice, “you cannotgoto Erebor andgetkilledbecauseofus. Ifithasntbeennoticedthisisdangerous. You dontknowwhatyouredoing. You areworsethan Bilbo.”

“I still don’t know what you’re saying. Remember?”

Stopdoingthisbefore Thorin takesyourheadoff.”

“Still don’t know. Let’s stick with tradition.”

Heistheking.”

“Me go Erebor.” She did her best to sound immovable.

“Ach. You mustbeinsane.”

“Me go Erebor.” Absolutely intractable.

Areyoutryingtogetkilled? Thisisworsethan Kíli andhisplantocharge Azog. Do you not stopandthink? Thisisgoingtogohorribly. Youlldie. Myunclewillgloat. Nori willthrowafit. Wouldyoupleasejustgobackto Rivendell? Andnotdie? Isthattoomuchtoask?”

Frey let him sputter for a minute, holding back the yawn on the consideration that it would probably be rather insulting. He was confusing, yes, but currently in the ally column.

But she was tired. When he hesitated in his softly hissed, impassioned tirade, she pinched her fingers shut in front of him and shushed.

His eyebrows tightened and he glowered in silence.

“Get over it. Me go Erebor. I don’t care if you want me there. If you all kick me out again, I will go make friends with Beorn, and I swear to God I will. I will so ride that motherfucking giant bear into battle and save your ass, dont you think I won’t! But for now, fuck off Fíli. I had to chase you up a mountain and then we ran away from Goblins for a day straight. I want to be asleep. So shush it, you nitwit. I’m claiming that rock as a barrier against falling and splattering myself to death, and I am going the fuck to sleep. Shush.”

She dropped the pack off her back onto the ground as a pillow, and collapsed on it. And she only smirked a little at the frustrated grumbling that walked away from her.  

Chapter Text

Yeah. Nori should have buggered off to Bree with his brothers when he’d had the chance.

Sod the contract. Sod his reputation. Sod the Durins.

He hadn’t signed up for goblins and orcs and wargs and almost getting eaten again, and then being carried off by eagles.

But now Bree, Ered Luin,and the whole relative safety of the West, was all firmly on the wrong side of the Mountains. He’d happily curl up in a cook pot for Smaug before he went back through them at the present. If -- and it was unlikely -- but If he could convince Dori and Ori to turn back, they’d still have too much against them to make it through in one piece.

Besides, he’d now thrown his lot in with the Lass.

Possibly not his best notion.

Definitely not his best delivery. Thorin was going to hold that teensy disagreement against him til he was balder than Dwalin. Since there was no avoiding that, there was no point trying to backtrack from his stance.

Which is why he was sitting up in the gathering dark waiting instead of leaning into the softest looking pile of dirt he could find. Fortunately, he wasn’t the only one to have rankled their leader.

Nori and Bifur stretched sore muscles on the boulder they had claimed. They were two days out from the Carrock, and according to the Wizard, at least another day from the home of his friend, whoever that was. Every member of the company was aching and groaning. They had barely stopped since they started climbing down the Carrock, only resting at night long enough to wait out the darkest hours before they continued.

Thorin, Bofur, Fíli and Bilbo regularly scouted both ahead and behind, looking for signs of the wargs they could heard calling.

The could have moved faster, but were limited by the youngest Durin.

Kíli was still weak, but his distinctly not-dead state was more than enough luck to keep their morale afloat while they slogged forward. None of them could even complain so long as the lad was still moving and making jokes.

If only they had something more to eat than the elven crap Bilbo was parsing out to them, the days wouldn’t be so bad. Not that Nori was arguing with Freya managing to secure food for them. Any food was better than none. He just wished it had, well, flavor. He was needy that way. The dried meat had been devoured before they climbed off the giant rock.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, but he and Bifur had spent most of their day indulging in an act of stupidity. They were discussing the perfect meal. Everything they had listed involved a hefty seasoning, be it meat or potato or bread. They had waxed poetic on the subject of excellent ale through most of the afternoon and early evening. They had compared the perfect dessert as they walked beneath the moon and stars. When the moon began to set, Thorin had called a halt beside a stream, and most of the company had instantly piled together to start dozing.

Nori was on watch again because the company’s leader could be a right vindictive bastard when he wanted to. Part and parcel with being King.

Unsurprising.

Supremely annoying.

Nice to see the young princes catching hell for it too, though, their’s was largely verbal.

On top of stealing his sleep, Thorin had charged them with keeping an eye on Freya during the day, so they had been marching at the tail of the group. Bifur was good enough company, especially since they both spoke fast enough iglishmek that they could gossip without calling down the wrath of the others.

He really hoped that Bilbo got his voice back soon so the hobbit could shout down the king’s temper like he so clearly wanted to do.

Being stranded at the end of the company had advantages. Nori was renowned for his habit of watching people, and Bifur was similarly inclined.  So he had easily seen the warmly protective looks Dwalin kept throwing at his little brother. He had seen the distinctly less innocent looks aimed at the warrior when he looked away. Nori had also caught the approving appraisal that passed between Dwalin and Balin on the subject.

That was no way to start a courtship. They were getting the steps a bit out of order. Besides, if Dori noticed, he’d have a conniption. There’d be yelling, maybe hitting. Didn’t need that while they were on the run from wargs.

Next time Nori got a chance to talk at Ori he’d try and steer them in a more productive direction. Hopefully towards an obliging clump of trees.

No sense getting into all of Dori’s formalities if they didn’t dance well together.

It was possible that Nori and Dori had different opinions on these things.

Bifur had asked when he caught Nori grinning, and had to explain the whole convoluted mess of his and Dwalin’s history.

The disaster of trying to rob the sleeping guards, and resorting to a fool’s gambit to avoid those knuckle dusters being introduced to his jaw. Kissing the enormous guardsman had been far more pleasant than shattered bones. They’d spent a couple years running into each other in dark corners, but they never even talked about anything else. Wouldn’t have been seemly for the captain of the King’s Guards to be found canoodling with one of the more prolific thieves in the Blue Mountains.

After about a decade they learned to keep their trousers on around each other. That was around the same time Nori started hearing rumours about assassins and poisons and the princes. He told Dwalin, naturally.

He was an honorable thief.

For a while after, whenever he heard something important, he’d get himself arrested to pass it on without suspicion. Then it all went to hell in the worst ways possible. So he buggered off to safer, greener pastures, and Dwalin had been in a strop at him ever since.

Bifur smirked through the whole story, but didn’t push. He may have been crass, but he had good manners.

Nori’d been less pleased to be caught admiring a certain miner’s finer features. Bifur actually had to define that particular sign in khuzdul, and Nori was still convinced that it had been invented by the dwarf. Iglishmek rarely got so… specific.

Funniest of all to watch was the king and the hobbit. No, wrong, funniest was watching Glóin watch the two of them. Since the banker held the purses, he was waiting for any sign that one of them needed to be paid out to a winner. The fact that Glóin had kept the purses and the book, but not his pack or best knife was earning him the wholehearted mocking of the others.

But the pair in question were just ridiculous.

They would scowl and stomp and refuse to be within arm’s reach of each other. They snapped at anyone who tried to speak to them. In Bilbo’s case, literally, since he couldn’t say more than a word without coughing. But whenever the other couldn’t see, they were pining like lovesick elves. And Maker preserve anyone that got in the way when one or the other winced in pain. The other half would just suddenly appear next to them, angrily fussing.

Dori’s complaints about the impropriety of laughing and making jokes while hunted by wargs had only made Nori and Bifur laugh harder.

There was no better time for it. Imminent disaster made it all funnier. Only other option would have been honest, and he couldn’t have that.   

AtleastyoutwoturnaroundwhenIpee. Unlikestupid Dwalin. Youcanturnback. Igluedmyarmbacktogether. Thankgodfornailglue. AndthatInevercleanmypurse. AndIhaveaspare

He glanced over his shoulder. Frey had finished her business and was sitting at the shallow stream, refilling a waterskin. He could just see her in the last light of the moon. She dumped water over her leg a few times. Muttering, she picked at the fabric and slowly peeled it off her skin. After a stream of what Nori would bet his braids was obscene, she got the fabric to let go, and scooped more water over it.

Fuckinghell. Thatsnotgood.”

An enormous roar rattled the night. Not a warg. And not happy.

GoddammitIbetthatsBeorn.”

Nori got to his feet. He dragged Bifur up as well, holding his staff tighter, and waited for her to join them. The rest of camp was already established. Not that there was more than a fire and a bit of an area cleared of large rocks and branches. Wasn’t as if they had anything else to do.

She stepped beside them with a pinched look a moment later. The moon was vanishing behind the mountain and stealing the last light.

They’d be up at dawn. He nodded to Fíli to confirm he’d wake the lad for second watch and settled in to wait for the end of his shift or a bloody attack. Whichever came first.

 


 

 She tied another pretty ribbon on the long stretch of elvish rope and admired her work. One by one she attached the lengths of ribbon to dwarven wrists. She’d arranged all of them in a lovely rainbow and had been nice enough to align each dwarf with an appropriate color. Thorin got blue obviously.

Bilbo got added to the end with the rope itself and she ignored his hissing and whining about how it stung. There wasn’t another choice. They needed to go to Erebor, and since she couldn’t trust the dwarves not to wander off and get eaten she just had to duckling them along.

Everyone smiled appreciatively at her excellent plan.

They walked into the forest.

It wasn’t pleasant, but every time they killed one of the orcs they encountered, they exploded and she found food and new weapons. Most of them were garbage, but she could sell them later when they went to town.

There were still spiders.

Mirkwood always had spiders. These seemed big in the distance, but when she had to fight them they shrank down to scale and she smooshed them beneath her boots.

Much better.

Much easier.

Bilbo was still whining at the back of the line. Apparently the rope was burning him. Silly hobbit.

She had to take his knife away to get him to stop trying to escape. She gagged him. The whining was annoying and she had more important things to do. Like get them all to Erebor in one piece and defeat a dragon.

Not a problem. Smaug would do what she told him to.

She smiled at the pretty necklace she was wearing. Well, she smiled at the pretty pendant on the chain.

Bilbo was whining again. Then he suddenly wasn’t.

With a new knife in his hands he attacked her, clawing at hair and face until she managed to get out one of the blades Fíli had given her. The others weren’t helping. Just watching. She buried it to the hilt in his stomach and wrenched it back out again. He fell bleeding and whimpering.

She picked up Sting and his knife, plus the bag of coins and a wheel of cheese.

“Much better.” Fíli said.

Yes, this would be much better.

She wandered back along to the line to peck a kiss against his lips and tweak his moustache.

The others all nodded along.

With a tug on their leash, she kept walking through the forest til it faded through grey into the pale gold glow of dawn.

 


 

“Doin’ alright there lass?” Nori asked quietly. She waved him away and glared til he shrugged. Dark circles ringed her eyes. She hadn’t slept well. That was obvious. Of course, on the edge of camp, away from the fire, without a coat or cloak and listening to wargs howling in the dark wasn’t exactly a recipe for a comforting rest.

This seemed like something more. Now that Nori was looking at her properly instead of while scurrying across the wild, she seemed shaky, and was definitely wincing whenever she shifted. He’d caught her leaning against trees whenever they paused.

None of that mattered much compared to what else he’d noticed.

She’d hardly said anything since yesterday.

So Nori kept close, trying to find the cause.

They were waiting while the wizard found his friend’s home, which had left them resting for a moment while he looked for signs.

“Why?” Dwalin said as introduction. Nori jumped half out of his trousers at the sudden arrival.

“Might need a bit more’n that. Why what?”

“Why are ye protectin’ her?”

“Aw, an’ here I thought you were comin’ to chat about my dear nadadith.”

Dwalin continued as if Nori hadn’t spoken at all.

“I always took ya for loyal. Even after you -- even after all that.” He frowned.

“Still am.”

“Thorin doesn’t like her.”

“Doesn’t have to. Lass saved his life.” Unconvinced, Dwalin waited for Nori to continue. “She did. After you n Bifur got up to go give a hand to the lads, she got up, ran off the tree for somethin’ -- didn’t see what.”

“Yes, I saw her in the fight.”

“Yeah. An’ after, she got back on the tree and got Thorin off that branch.”

“How? She isn’t strong enough to lift him.”

“Didn’t.”

“So how--”

“Climbed out on one that was about to snap itself off and kill her, and let Thorin climb right up. They near fell, and she screamed something awful doing it. Then Thorin pulled her up an put his knife at her throat.”

“Her an’ Bilbo --”

“Then he dropped her off that tree.” Nori ploughed on.

“She’s threatened us.”

“Nope. She hasn’t.”

“Come on, ya aren’t tellin’ me tha’ lass is comin’ along ta help.” Dwalin’s brogue always thickened when he was frustrated. Nori watched him out the corner of his eye. “After tha’ mess in the hobbit hole? An’ the knife?”

Nori would have preferred to let Dwalin sort it out on his own, but he didn’t feel like waiting the hours that could waste. Frey was leaning against a tree trunk with her eyes closed, but the rest of the Company was far enough away not to be paying attention. He set a hand on the Guardsman’s chest.

“Dwalin? I ever lie ta ya?”

“No, you just ran off without tellin us about tha last plot on the princes.”

Nori snatched his hand back. He knew he ought let it slide. Nothing good would come of talking about it for the hundredth time. But his mouth got away from him for a moment.

“You know why I left, bazir binuzrabul.” Not that they were going to talk about it. Dwalin conceded that without offering any kindness.

Thirty some odd years past and Dwalin still held it against him.

“You really need me to walk ya through it all lulkh? Actually look and think for half a minute an’ you’re gonna see it on yer own. She’s an idiot, I’ll grant, but just cause it doesn’t look it, doesn’t mean she’s not tryin’ damn hard to help.”

He grabbed Frey’s arm and hauled her out of her impromptu nap, half dragging her through the rest of the company and away from Dwalin’s scowl.

It was midmorning on the fourth day after their lucky break with the eagles when they found the house of Gandalf’s friend. They were exhausted. They wanted nothing more than to reach a destination. Then they could give everyone a chance to take a quick breath and sort out how they were going to continue.

But instead of marching up and saying good morning to whoever Gandalf’s mysterious associate was, he’d insisted they go up to him slowly. A few at a time in fact.

He and Bilbo were to go first, to meet this Beorn person, which went over spectacularly with Thorin.

The Wizard assigned an order to everyone else’s arrival, instructing them to come when he whistled. Nori chuckled at the way they’d all just agreed to come along like pups. They really were looking forward to sleeping with a roof over their heads.

Naturally him and Bif were set to come along last, guarding Frey until the end. They were supposed to leave her behind. Leave her on the outside of the hedge while they decided if the risk was worth their host meeting her.

One advantage to the leagues deep language gap was that they could talk about her without worrying about being polite. It was a short, rude chat to be sure. Thorin insisted they wait and appraise this person before they acknowledge her presence.

She stared when Gandalf walked away with the still mute hobbit. She frowned and grumbled when Thorin and Balin followed after a whistle.

By the time Bombur nodded and walked off, she was muttering non stop.

Thisisbadboys. Thisisntcanon. Eithercanon. Itssortabook. Butnotreally. Wewereatthe Carrock nottheaerie. TherehavebeenwargshuntingandIheard Beorn. Butwearentbeingchasedbyhim. Justfuckingdandy. Becausethiswasntenoughfunbefore.

Bifur turned from watching the woods and glanced at her, still sitting on the ground.

Wearesofuckedifthisisbothcanons. Ifitsbothatonce? Imfucked. HowdoIknowwhatscoming? BecauseIneedthistobeharder. JustGah. FuckyouPJ. FuckyoutooTolkien.” She scrubbed her palms over her face and shook her hair out of her eyes.

Durinultarg mê sasakhabiya gurud.”

Nori had already opened his mouth to concur, when she looked right at Bifur and repeated.

“Durinultarg me sask somethingsomething?”

Bifur smiled sideways at her.

Asakhabi.”

“Asakhabi.”

Gurud.”

“Gurud.”

Durinultarg asakhabi gurud.”

“Durinultarg aska -- asakhabi gurud?”

“Aye, ya do lass.” Nori laughed as she finished. He smacked Bifur in the shoulder, “Don’t get ‘er in more trouble with Thorin.”

Shugim.”

OkaybutwhatdidIsay?”

“Thorin’s been hell on us as it is.”

Hu mahadrulni.”

“Durinultarg asakhabi gurud?” She repeated. “Durin? Thorin?”

“Gonna be hard enough to talk him round to this without you teachin her Khuzdul.”

“Bifur! Nori!” They turned, “WhatdidIsay? Helpmeouthere. Durinultarg asakhabi gurud.”

Nori watched her gesturing and her confusion, then took pity and began walking her through it. Durin was easy enough. So was beard. Look terrible failed a few times, but pointing at her face and faking a dead expression got through. He assumed so based on the gesture. She’d used it a few times before.

Bifur was choosing a new phrase when they heard the whistle. With a last glance at the woods around them, and a universal ‘stay there’ gesture, they walked away from her.

Soilljuststayherethen? GuardforOrcs? Youknowyoudidntactuallyexplainright? YoureluckyIknoweverything Nori youstarheadedwanker!”

That sounded more like the obstinate whelp they had come to know. She was probably just exhausted. Maybe trying not to offend Thorin. Reasonable and smart choices.

Inside the hedgerow they found a sprawling collection of buildings, fields, animals, and trees. All of it neatly tended and well defended. As they came around a bank of trees they found the rest of the company in a clump behind Gandalf. He wouldn’t call it cowering -- dwarves didn’t do that -- but maybe sheltering was the way to put it.

The wizard was talking to the biggest man Nori had ever seen.

Nori had travelled. He had met a lot of folk.

Biggest man Nori had ever seen.

The fellow made Gandalf look small.

They joined the others and bowed, introducing themselves and getting waved off before they could reach the customary ‘at your service.’ Beorn instead rounded back on Gandalf and rumbled, “Finish up and we’ll see how I feel about your request.”

Nori saw the way Kíli was leaning into Fíli, and couldn’t have missed the glazed look. All of them looked skittish and exhausted.

“Unless,” Beorn continued, “there are more of you hiding out there? Is this all of you finally?”

“Yes.” Thorin said with finality. “Fourteen.”

“Fifteen.” Nori’s weren’t the only eyes that widened at Beorn’s grouchy retort. “You forgot the wizard.”

The company exhaled.

Gandalf hesitated, but continued weaving the story. He explained their rescue by the eagles and the flight through the night to the Carrock on the edge of Beorn’s land. Their lost supplies were lamented with just enough tragedy to call forth a bit of sympathy, not enough to seem grasping.

The story concluded with the healing of Kíli, who looked uncomfortable as he was inspected by the huge man.Then that gaze shifted to Bilbo. Thorin twitched in an automatic need to protect him.

“So you challenged the orcs?”

Bilbo squirmed and pursed his lips, tweaking his nose. But as it was obvious that Beorn was waiting for answer, their hobbit gently cleared his throat and tried to speak.

He squeaked instead.

“What’s wrong with you, bunny?” The company snickered at the nickname. Bilbo squawked trying to protest, which only made him cough harder. Thorin uncorked a skin to place in his hand. When he had himself back under control he raised his chin at Beorn and nodded shortly.

“Very well then.” The giant said at length, “I have no love of dwarves. You are cruel and violent. You are blind to those you deem less than your own.” He looked down at Bilbo, “But orcs I hate more. You need rest and food in safety while your injured recover their strength. The orcs will not stop hunting you. But nor will they enter my lands.”

To a one, the Company relaxed. Even Thorin allowed the usual tension of his stance to loosen slightly.

Their host surveyed them, about to speak further, when he was interrupted.

A newly arrived horse knickered a few feet away, and Beorn immediately ran a gentle hand over their haunch, almost looking like he was listening. Must have been, in fact. Because when the horse stopped whickering, Beorn snarled at them all and strode away towards the gap in the hedge. The one they had entered through.

There were a few awkward breaths while they watched the receding giant. The quiet didn’t last long.

“Ah.”

“So much for that.”

“This isn’t going to be good.”

“Nope.”

“Did he talk to that horse, wizard?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“He is a shape-changer. A giant bear.”

“He’s a what!”

“And you brought us here?”

“Why didn’t you tell us before now?”

“That was him we heard in the woods?”

“Should we go help him?”

“What can she do to him, he’s enormous.”

“I think the bear can handle itself.”

“Himself.”

“That’s the one.”

“Should we go help her?”

“Is he gonna try an eat us?”

“Gather our things.” Thorin began, looking around the area, “We will likely need to move on tonight. We will attempt to purchase new supplies from this man, if she does not provoke him into expelling us all immediately.”

“I heard a stream comin in,” Dwalin said, “We can at least refill the skins.”

“You will not be able to cross the forest without supplies.” Gandalf declared. “And there are no others to trade with in these parts. Unless you wish to travel back to the mountains and ask the goblins nicely if you can have your bedrolls back.”

They heard a distant yelp.

“I believe our host has found the lass.” Balin groused.

Bifur rammed an elbow into Nori’s side to get his attention and asked if he’d left her a weapon. Shaking his head, he couldn’t decide if it was better or worse that she was unarmed. On the one hand, Frey would probably try to stab him. On the other, he’d just left her defenseless.

Against a bear.

He hadn’t made up his mind before they heard the faint echoes of an angry voice they all knew too well. Thorin cursed colorfully and at length. He had a point; last thing they needed was for her to anger Beorn. They needed his help.

Gandalf huffed and busied himself looking for his pipe, or his coin purse, or whatever it was a wizard pretended was interesting when a giant looked ready to eat the lot of them.

And didn’t that fly in the face of sense. A wizard looking cowed. And the bear upset for who knew what reason.

Then Nori realized that they’d been asked if there were any more of them.

And the company had lied.

Slung over his shoulder, slapping him in the back, was Frey.

Dammitall Beorn wouldyoujustputmedown? Icanwalkfine.

“She knows his name too.” Nori turned at Fíli’s voice. The prince was still subtly playing crutch to his brother, but had an oddly appraising look as he watched their host vanish into the house. He hadn’t said a word to them, not so much as looked at them.

“Gather the--” Thorin began, at the same time Bilbo tried to speak. The hobbit’s pathetic painful chirp claimed their leader’s attention; a glance and a nod was all it took for Nori to confirm a plan.

Nori, Bifur, Kíli and Fíli moved closer to the still open door. The quick shrill shriek moved them all quite a bit faster. Bifur got there first, peeking around the corner, then jerking out of the way as their host reappeared.

“Why did you not treat her injuries?”

That was pointed at Thorin. Most of the company winced; the rest just looked confused.

The day was just getting better and better.

Nori had known she had a few cuts, but it hadn’t seemed like anything critical; what he’d seen looked like scrapes. Except, the man wouldn’t have been so angry about a scratch. And Nori had spent the day trying to tell if she was injured.

He should have tried harder.

“She is not a member of my company.”

“Yet she travelled with you.”

“She has followed us for some time. She has no association with us.”

“So you would allow her wounds to fester because she is not of your kind?” His voice was dangerously soft. No one answered, hearing the echo of his previous accusation.. “The wizard says you travelled at speed from the Carrock. That one,” he pointed to Kíli, “has been well tended. Which of you helped her to travel?”

Nori was going to need to have words with his brothers later about selling out family. Both of them stared at him after Beorn’s query, which was more than enough to draw his attention.

“You let her walk on that leg?”

Fast talking his way out of imprisonment was one of his strong points, and Nori knew it. But in the face of someone three times his size, flexing huge muscles as his hands clenched in aggravation was enough to render him mute.    

Beorn drew himself up to his full height.

“Get off my land.”

His voice rumbled, and not even Gandalf argued when Beorn went back inside. Nori could almost hear him talking to Frey. Could just barely hear her reply. If he’d tried he could have picked out words. Instead, most of his attention was on Thorin as he made a choice. A terse nod and a quiet, “We’re leaving,” was all he gave.

They needed supplies and a rest, but not at the cost of a fight. As they always had, the dwarves would have to find their way alone.  

Whatsgoingon? -- owmotherfuckerthathurts -- wherearethedwarves?” The yelling carried better.

Nori cinched the strap of his knife belt, and joined up with the others.

“Ori, Dori, refill the skins at the stream over there. Everyone else, gather what you can that seems edible as we get out of here.”

They barely made it ten steps.

“No. No. No. Dwarf! Thorin! Bilbo! Getbackhere. Nori!” He spun in place. She was a damn sight paler than she had been, and was obviously favoring her left leg as she came after them. There was a crumpled mess of bloody bandage in her hand which she was cramming into her pack. The leg of her trousers was torn open, and as soon as she had a free hand, she used it to hold the fabric together.

His death wish theory seemed more likely with every step she took.

Especially when Beorn stormed after her.

Frey was hobbling at first, but broke into a run when Beorn emerged. Shouting, she got ahead of the group and held her arms out to the side to corrall them all. Nori tried to come up with a descriptor for her that didn’t make him feel bad about ignoring her injuries, but kept coming back to ‘alarmingly pale.’

Beorn had a point about their treatment of her.

Thorin made to move past her and she hopped into his path.

Whereareyougoing? Youhavestayhere. Firstoff: Theresabattlelaterandyouneedhim. Second: Kíli. Third: orcsandwargsand Azog.” She was balancing on her good leg, gingerly catching her balance with the other.

“You said she was not a part of your company.”

“She is not.” Thorin addressed Beorn officially. “She has followed of her own will.”

“Was she with you when the orcs attacked?”

Nori wanted to amend the king’s curt reply with a mention of what she had done for them, but angering either of them didn’t seem wise.

“And she was injured then?”

“So it would seem.”

Beorn growled at them and rolled his shoulder with bared teeth. Nori hoped he’d imagined the way it grew larger for an instant. Even Gandalf stepped back. He reached for Frey, clearly done with the conversation.

She dodged away from his hand and into the group of dwarves.

“I go dwarf.” Another reach, and she ducked under his arm to take refuge behind Bifur. “No! Me! I go dwarf!”

“Dwarves not dwarf.”

She nodded at Kíli.

“I go dwarves.” And she crossed her arms in a clear sign of refusal.

“You need to stay here.”

“Dwarves go? Me go. I go.”

“Your leg is festering and the dwarves have no care to tend it.”

He reached out to grab her again, and she scurried backwards, manhandling an exasperated Balin in front of her.

“She does not speak Common.” Beorn grumbled.

“You know, we’ve noticed that.” Nori mumbled. Regretted that instantly.

“What does she speak?”

“Don’t know.” Nori answered, since stubborn wouldn’t really count as a language.

She avoided his hand again, hurrying towards Kíli and Fíli. “Beorn. Stopthat! Stoptryingtopickmeup Beorn. No. Dwarves not go. Please. Please? He? Kíli?” She poked him hard in the side. He squawked and clutched at his bandaged wounds. “Orcs! Wargs. Azog. Dwarves not go. Orcs!” She stumbled away from him, pointing beyond the hedge, and seemed to run out of words. “Orcs.” She held up her fist. “Dwarves.” She held out her other hand flat.

And she smashed her fist into her palm over and over shouting “Orcs. Dwarves. Orcs. Dwarves. Orcs. Dwarves.”  

When she retreated again, out the back of the Company, with Beorn in pursuit, she tripped. Yelping and hopping away, she clapped a hand over her thigh.

Ohmotherof -- itsfine. Justbleedingagain. Itsfine. Hrrrrrrmmm. Breathingisgood. Keepbreathing. No! Stopdoingthat Beorn! No!”

Nori stepped closer and caught her elbow to keep her from tipping sideways.  

“The dwarves are not welcome here. You will not go. Because of your leg.” Beorn pointed.

Lookpapabear. Iknowmylegisfuckinginfected. Idliketostay. But Dwarves go?”

“You will not go.”

“I Go. I follow. Itssortamythingnow. Ifollowtheseassholesplaces.”

Beorn swept a hand down to grab her and she had to double back, yanking away from Nori. She got back to the center of the Company and tried to stand up straight. It wasn’t going to help against the giant looming over them all, but she tried. When Beorn’s threatening growl set them all retreating, she clung to Dwalin’s coat to stay upright. The hand that had been at her leg shot up to point at him.

“Beorn! Stopthat. Imeanit.

He froze.

Freya looked smug until she noticed the rest of the company had stopped as well. Dwalin looked down at her, then to her leg, then back to her hand, which was covered in blood. She tracked his gaze.

Dwalin caught her arm to take some of her weight. She shrugged him off.

Ohfuckyou. Imawoman. Idealwithworsethanthiseachmonth. Itsfine. Youdidntcarebefore. Stoppretendingtonow.

Nori watched as she and the shape-changer competed in obstinacy. She broke it. Rolling her neck one way then the other with loud pops and cracks, she squared her shoulders. With a tilt of her head that seemed to be a challenge she nodded. Then she spun and headed for the gap in the hedge. It had to be a bluff. He had never seen her bluff before this, but surely not even she was stupid enough to walk alone into the wild like that.

Except she was almost to the hedge.

Frey didn’t turn back.

Not until Beorn caved. “The dwarves can stay.”

“Dwarves not go?” she shouted over her shoulder.

Beorn nodded. Frey nodded. The company waited.

With a gesture from Beorn, they all started to edge towards the house again. Frey skirted around him, sticking close to the company. Nori -- actually, any of them -- could see her flinching with each step. The four previous conspirators plotted again, slowing down to find a plan. Bifur was going to walk by Kíli. Fíli and Nori, least likely to get hit for it, were going to grab Frey.

It took them too long to sort it out.

Dwalin caught her by the pack when she got close, and swept her into his arms. While she hissed out a long breath and paled further, he caught Nori’s eye, just long enough to be intentional. Then he strode off towards the house, ignoring her efforts to get her feet back on the ground.  

Thorin had stopped walking. He opened his mouth to shout, but never got the chance.

“That little hedgehog is very protective of your Company Thorin Oakenshield.” Beorn interrupted, “Only a dwarf would refuse to return that.”

The shapechanger followed Dwalin, telling him where to take her. Nori watched the King. For the first time since before the Goblins, he looked like he might be thinking instead of reacting. Recovery be damned, they were going to have to have this conversation today.

 


 

Chaos at this level would have been perfectly normal at a festival or a market day. It would have been reasonable in the busy streets of the towns of men to have this much bickering. In a battle, this flood of insults would have been expected.

But this was just the Company seated at a table, having a chat.

A long overdue chat.

There were three groups. Thorin, Glóin, Bofur and Dori were firm in their distrust. Fíli, Kíli, Bifur and Nori were adamant in their opposition. Dwalin and the rest were just listening.

Much as he’d like to pretend that Nori’s comment had nothing to do with it, Dwalin knew that there was a reason he had been a bit more open-minded that morning. Not that he’d made a decision, but he was listening to both factions. As for carrying Frey into the shapechanger’s home, that had been expedience born of battlefield experience. He’d seen enough -- Mahal’s sake, he’d had enough infected wounds to know how much it could hurt to walk on one.

Hers wasn’t fatal or anything like that, but that didn't make it pleasant. And it had needed to be dealt with soon as it could so it didn’t turn into something worse. Before Beorn had kicked him out of the room and into the main hall with the rest of the company, he had watched the water sluice off her leg tinged pink.

She needed stitches. First the shapechanger would have to lance that infection.

He’d listened with half an ear while the rest shouted, trying to make sure that she was being treated based on whatever sounds drifted through the door. So far he hadn’t heard more than one breathy squeak.

He’d heard more than enough from the lot he was sitting with though.

“Because she did save my life Uncle!” Kíli shouted, pulling Dwalin’s attention once again. “The goblin had me pinned, and Fi wouldn’t have made it back in time.”

“An she saved mine from tha’ Warg!”

“We do not know she did not alert the wargs. Her arrival preceded them by too little.”

“We’d chased her off every time she showed up!”

“Why would she continue to return if she isn’t trying to help?”

“She’s watching us. Spying.”

“We have faced more dangers on this quest than expected, Nori. She knew of our quest before she arrived in Bag End. What’s to say she is not tracking us?”

“Because she’s not!”

“A fine argument brother.”

“Bugger off Dori, she’s not. You really think that little thing knows how to track?”   

“Obviously she does as she was able to follow us from the Shire.”

“And, every time she showed up something awful happened soon after!”

“Not every time, Bofur.”

“Most of em, Nori.”

“Of course they do, she’s tried to warn us about them.”

“You don’t know that.”

“After Rivendell she--

“She threw Bilbo!”

“I’m not denying that! But it is possible that --” Kíli cut off when Bilbo began pounding his fist on the table. He kept it up til they all looked, then slid a piece of paper over to Ori.

Their scribe dutifully took it and read aloud, “She was scared when she pushed me. Terrified, I’d say. Reluctant too. I don’t know why she did, but it wasn’t her first plan. And in the cave, she tried to get you all out.”

“And we didn’t listen.” Nori finished. Bilbo agreed.

“She tried grabbing me when the floor started to go.”

“Then why did she run into the fight with Azog?”

“Maybe we should ask her that. Instead of just guessing.”

“She will not be able to explain.” Dwalin had seen that look in his King’s eyes before. Too many times. Every time they’d found a new plot against the boys, it had come back. Everytime he heard a new set of a lies from a new ambassador or supposed prophet, it got darker.

Thorin had been betrayed by false seers too many times in his life, starting with the one that told his grandfather no harm would come to Erebor in his lifetime. Playing on the superstitions of dwarves, one of them had come to Ered Luin, speaking in tongues and whispering of a dark fate on the horizon. And it was, Dwalin had to admit. The guards had found that bastard in the lads’ bedchamber, slipping poison into the water pitcher.

Thorin had run the man through with enough force to chip the stone of the wall. It had only gotten worse as time went on, as rumors of the decline of the Longbeards spread.

Conspiracy had claimed too many, and Thorin held himself responsible for every death. Especially Vili.

“She does not speak, so she cannot explain. Even if she is, as you have suggested, a seer, that does not mean she has our interests in mind. And we cannot know since she cannot communicate.”

Dwalin took a drink in the harsh silence. Cream. Of course. Cream. Couldn’t have been mead or ale, just plain cream. As the tankard was set back on the table, he could see something passing between Bifur and the princes.

Finally, when the air seemed ready to crack apart from the tension, Fíli spoke for the first time since the arguing erupted. “She can. She does. Tell them Bifur.”

Uzbad Dain du Erebor.” His voice didn’t waver, but he said it to the table.  

The chaos was back. Dwalin roared a denial, slamming his hand onto wood with enough force to rattle his cream. Glóin was swearing oaths a fresh allegiance. Ori yelled wordlessly before starting on fervent refusals. Only the line of Durin was calm. The younger two from a place of foreknowledge. The king from shock.

Again they were brought to silence by the furious pounding of the hobbit’s fist on the table top. He gestured a question. Nobody wanted to answer. None of them wanted to explain that implication.

“Thor---rin?” The hobbit asked, voice breaking up to a near-soundless chirp at the end.

“My cousin Dain is in line for the throne.” His eyes flicked to his nephews. “After Kíli.”

It took Bilbo twelve seconds to react. Dwalin counted as their burglar’s face hardened.

Bilbo finally looked away, snatching back the paper and charcoal from Ori which he began to scribble on at once.

“She said the same to me, Thorin.” Fíli said, “Then she -- well, she vowed not to let it happen. Near as I can tell, she vowed to see you crowned King under the Mountain.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I said. She told Bifur about Dain when she saw him at Rivendell. Bifur told me. I asked her about it,” Fíli shoved his brother to cut off whatever he was starting to say, “and she said that she was going to Erebor to prevent it.”

“She also mentioned Azog coming after you.” Kíli added.

“That he was going to --” The crown prince let the sentence stop.

“Which is why the two of you decided to charge the orcs alone, I assume?”

“Yes, Uncle.”

Thorin was still furious. Dwalin was proud. The both of them were dumb as a bag of slag, but he would have done the same had he known. Only issue outstanding was that they hadn’t talked to him about it first. He could have backed them up a bit better.

“Worked out fine.” Kíli sulked, then yelped at the elbow to his injuries, “Hey! That’s not nice nadad. It did work out fine, we’re all alive.”

“And you think that’s enough to warrant trusting her?”

Fíli hesitated, and in the silence, Bofur’s derisive retort exploded the Company back to shouting.  He was getting sick of this. They’d been at it since midday.

Dwalin ignored the insults and yelling, catching the eye of his brother. Balin had shouted questions into the mess the first few times it had happened, but had spent most of his time listening. Now he inclined his head towards Nori and his supporters, then to Óin. That was another convert. He found himself on the receiving end of a pointed gaze, and had to shrug a concession.

He didn’t trust her, but he wanted to know more.

“So how does she know all of it then?” Dori asked.

“Portents don’t get that specific.”

“Visions, then.”

“A seer? Bah.”

“Does it matter how?”

“Of course it matters Ori!”

As they continued to fight, Bilbo strode around the table, creasing the paper again and again. He stood with Dwalin between Thorin and himself and extended the sheet to the King. When it was accepted, he left.

The bruising was an impressive necklace of yellow and purple. His voice was nearly shot, and he was slumped like he’d be happy to sleep for a week. But Dwalin had to like the intractable glare he had leveled at Thorin.

The king would have read the message and chased him down right then, but the door banged open and the shapechanger towered over them.

Beorn’s reappearance shut down the bickering as well. He surveyed them disdainfully. “One of you is a healer.”

“Aye. That’ll be me.”

“I need an additional pair of hands. She is…”’

“Bein’ difficult?” Nori asked with a smirk, blithely ignoring the scowls of the detractors, “We’ve noticed that too. Do you need a healer or just hands?”

“A healer would be better suited to the task.”

Dwalin could see Nori getting ready to lie his braids off, but Óin got there first. The Company’s healer rose from the table with the elvish bag of medicines and gestured for the shapechanger to lead the way. They vanished behind the door, and the fraught tension snapped.

Maybe it would have come back in a moment, Dwalin expected so. Before it had a chance, the wizard wandered in from wherever he had gone off to. After an awkward silence, they split apart into smaller groups.  Gandalf commandeered Bilbo, taking him across the room for a conversation that was half low murmurs and half written.

Balin, Ori, Glóin and Bifur and Bombur claimed more bread and huddled their heads in discussion. It was easy to see Bifur and Ori concurring, and bringing the others along with the argument.

Dori and Bofur dragged stools to sit closer to Dwalin and the rest.

“Just because the lass helped you once don’t mean she’s on our side, Fíli.” Bofur said patronizingly.

“Thorin is correct, she has not given enough proof of her loyalty.”

“What more do ya want Dori?” Nori snapped, “Was she supposed ta duel Azog, Bofur? Would that have been enough? Want ‘er to take on Smaug all on her lonesome? Will that bring ya around? Or will ya want her to pop off and reclaim Moria too before ya listen to a word she says?”

“Be quiet, all of you.” The king hissed. His resolve was wavering under the press of exhaustion. Bilbo’s wrecked coughs carried over the other other conversation, and Thorin looked up to check on the hobbit.

Fíli took advantage of the moment.

“Thorin, Uncle, even if you don’t trust her, you need to let me talk to her. We thought she had told us everything important while we were at Rivendell. Dain and Azog seemed like more than enough, then we thought that she followed because of the goblin trap, but…” Fíli looked back to his brother who replied with a substantial grimace. He pressed on, “But she knew Beorn’s name. And on the Carrock she told me that Azog will come back for you, and I believe she knows when that is. I think she knows more, knows all of it. She knows inconsequential things, or maybe they aren’t, and we just think they are. But she knows too much. Our whole quest, I think.”

“She could be lying to manipulate you.”

“She hasn’t yet.”

Ingadan, you know why I do not have faith in her.”  

“Yes,” he allowed, “but we cannot let the opportunity pass. We will be cautious.”

“And if she asks to travel with the Company in return for whatever she can tell us? Will you gamble with the lives of your companions?”

Dwalin saw the lads wilt. So he answered, “Thorin. If she’s travelling with us, we know where she is and what she’s doing. You can try and leave her behind with the bear, but you and I know it won’t keep her from following. Unless you’re gonna kill her.”

There was a long quiet moment in which the King appraised at them all.

Uzbadê,” Fíli said eventually, formally, “Have I given you cause to question my loyalty or judgement?” Thorin flinched but shook his head, “Then...please. Trust me on this. I’m willing to vouch for her.” Kíli got shoved in the ribs again to keep him silent.

Dwalin did his best not to seem surprised, and failed fantastically at it.

“Speak to her then, irak-dashat. And tomorrow, we will speak again.”

Thorin rose, crossing to the hobbit who was still hacking and wheezing.

Chapter Text

 

Ohfrickingfuuuuuuckyoudicklickingcunt Óin. Thathurt!”

Kíli cleared his throat uncomfortably and nudged Fíli. With a shrug that turned into a frown at another shriek behind the door, Fíli kept quiet.

They and Nori had come to talk to Frey while Óin worked on her leg. They had thought that  being treated by the indomitable healer would mean they could speak easily. She wouldn’t be able to escape. She would have to sit and listen and hopefully answer their questions with enough detail and coherence that they could take solid information to their uncle.

In retrospect, Fíli should have known the plan was crap as soon as Kíli suggested it.

After all, Kíli had suggested it.

He rubbed at the sore spot on his arm. If he hadn’t deflected it, the mug would have hit him square in the nose.  

Fíli planned to gloss over that part when they spoke with Thorin.

They should have knocked first. If they had, they wouldn’t have been snarled at by Beorn, they wouldn’t have been lectured by Óin, and his arm wouldn’t hurt. They also wouldn’t have seen just how infected her leg was.

Now there was guilt.

Beorn had her leg pinned to the table while Óin was bent over the injury. Their arrival caused her to jolt, which caused Óin to sink a little blade deep in her leg. After clapping a bandage over it, the healer had turned to lecture. Frey had emptied the last of whatever was in the enormous stein and pitched it at Fíli’s head midway through the tirade. She had nice aim.

They fled back to the hall shortly after that. So now they were waiting for a second opportunity.

He was not hopeful about their success in light of their first efforts.

His arm hurt more than he’d expected. Even through his gambeson, it was bruising. If he had moved a little faster, he would have caught it with the vambrace instead.

Kíli snickered at him and tried to put on an innocent face when Fíli rounded on him. “Something to say nadadith?”

“Not a thing nadad’ugmal. Nice catch.”

“Sure you don’t want to propose another excellent plan to almost get us killed?”

“We could always go play keep away with Bilbo and Uncle.” Kíli popped his eyebrows up and grinned. Fíli chuckled.

“I’ve got enough bruises, thanks. You can play that one on your own. But if your stitches slip while you run for cover, Óin’s going to tie you to a chair and lecture til your beard comes in.”

“Wasn’t planning for Thorin to notice what I was doing. It’s called being subtle.”

“Subtle? Sure that’s not elvish?”

”Oh it is, it’s the art of ‘not get caught so you don’t get your arse pummelled.’ See, this is why I’ve always been the smart one, Fí. I know these things.”

Whatever Fíli meant to say was stopped by the short scream in the next room. Óin’s voice, too loud like always was, carried easily.

“Bah! Keep that up lass and I’ll catch the artery next time and I won’t be minded to fix it!”

Sorrysorrysorry. Imsorryforthat Óin. Illtrynottomove. Butyouarecuttingthingsoffme. Andyougavemeboozenotanasthesia. Unlessyouhavesecretmorphine?”

Kíli shoved him and gave him a knowing look it was better not to acknowledge. Instead he looked over his brother’s slouch against the wall.  He was more tired than he wanted to admit. So Fíli walked down the hall, and came back with a small barrel under each arm. Small for Beorn. They were about to be used as chairs. He forced Kíli onto one, knowing his brother would fight it if anything was said. The long sigh as he headed away to find more bread and honey confirmed how much his side was hurting him.

Had anything been said, Kíli would have denied it and probably started doing something stupid, like climbing the pillars or doing backflips to prove he was hale and ready to fight. Which he was not. He was however, an impressive rainbow of bruises.

Fíli had more than enough practice to know how to keep Kíli in line.

He tossed half a loaf of bread at his brother when he returned and slumped onto the second barrel.

“Nori and Bofur?”

“Not yet.”

So they snacked on bread.

Nori and Bofur were… somewhere. The miner had come with them when they first went to talk to Frey, and made a few comments in khuzdul under his breath. Nori hadn’t taken kindly to it, and had dragged him off to argue. Eventually one or both of them would be back. Possibly in need of Óin’s attention.

“So do you have a plan for this?” Kíli asked around a mouthful of bread, “Or are we just going to try barging back in on a half dressed lass and get things thrown at us again? You may have noticed some small faults in that approach.”

“We are going to talk to her.”

“Not really her strong point.”

“We will be patient.”

“Not really our strong point.”

“Are you planning on being helpful brother or just more of this?”

Kíli crammed the last of the bread in his face and smirked. Wonderful.

“Just going to ask her about Dain then?”

“And the dragon. And anything else we can manage to ask and have her understand.”

“And after?”

They both studied the door at the sound of a repeated pounding of wood against wood.

Fíli shrugged, “Then we try to convince her to stop following us.”

Kíli snorted at that and they leaned into the wall to continue their wait. Disagreeable or not, Kíli had a point, they did need some kind of plan to communicate with her once Óin allowed it. Drawing might help. They’d need to recruit Ori or Bilbo though. Neither of the brothers were going to be able to do much more than scribble general shapes. Or maybe they would need to start with more basic language?

He smoothed his beard. He wasn’t sure where to start for that. It wasn’t like they could use translations to help her. Every word she had was born out of context and some ridiculous song and dance. It was like teaching a toddler.  And he needed to ask about specifics and the timelines of future events.

Maybe he could convince Dwalin to hand over his flask after they were done. They were going to need it. Or maybe Beorn would share whatever they had poured into Freya.

“You know she’s going to follow no matter what we say, brother.” Fíli decided against answering that. “Ha. Well, this could be worse you know.”

“How so? And why are you… giggling?”

“I was just --” Kíli broke off to laugh, “just thinking, She’s been following us since the Shire, right? So she’s probably been trying to find us for even longer. What if--” more giggling, “what if she’d pulled what she did, but at Ered Luin?”

“They would have thrown her from the city. Why is this funny to you?”

“You aren’t -- I mean, what if amad heard about ‘Dain of Erebor’ before we left?” His smile was about to split his face. “Really. Nadad, just start thinking about what our amad would have done to Thorin if she heard about that…”

Grinning back, Fíli finally saw what Kíli was getting at, “She’d have chased him round the mountain with her hammer.”

“To start! Probably would have cornered him in the main hall with Deathless in her other hand and started in on the lecture.”

“Think we’d have been able to get to the stables before she turned on us?”

“Wouldn’t matter! Even if we did! She’d have chased us down and dragged us back by the beards.”

“What beard?”

Itrik hu.”

He laughed at his brother’s retort.

“We’d have to split up.”

“Good point Fí, she can’t chase us both at once.”

“Of course, whoever get’s caught wouldn’t see the outside of the house for about a decade. And wouldn’t be allowed out of the mountain for about five.”

“Yeeaaah, but the other one would probably still be running when they hit Rhun. Don’t worry Fí, I’d have told you all about it when I got back.” Fíli smacked him in the arm. Kíli retaliated with another laugh, “How did Uncle convince her not to come along? Dwalin refused to tell me.”

“You didn’t hear? I mean, you didn’t hear it from wherever you were at the time?”

“I was on watch Fíli! They weren’t that loud!”

He snorted on a laugh and was about to launch into the story of that minor familial battle when the door swung open with a bang. Óin stalked out with his bag of supplies and a furious expression, without a word to them.

They stood awkwardly in the hall before deciding that they couldn’t possibly make a worse entrance than the first time, and stepped inside. When they had first seen her, Nori’s cursing had been creative, lengthy, and directed at his own failure to notice the injury in the three days he had been guarding her while they travelled. It was fortunate Nori was somewhere shouting at Bofur instead of seeing her now.

Even Kíli’s good humor evaporated on sight.

She was biting down hard on her fist, and the sheen of sweat was obvious in the cool room. Beorn ignored them, and continued to wrap the bandage around her leg. The first pack of cloth covered an alarming portion of her leg, and he was moving gently, not wrapping it tight enough to hurt.

She was shaking in spite of that. Head to toe.

Fíli looked to his brother, who had brought a hand up to his side with a dark scowl directed at something Fíli couldn’t identify.

The shapechanger finished what he was doing and prepared to lift and move her, but the hissing sound she made stopped him. So he set a blanket beside her and left her where she sat on the table. He was rising up, towering over them with his impressive stature when Oin returned. The healer marched into the almost silent room with a tray of food and a pair of mugs in hand. He set it all on the table, and Frey finally opened her eyes.

“Beorn?” She asked after hesitating over it for a long moment.

“Eat. You will need it.” He placed a thick slice of bread in her hand.

Sureyoudonthaveanycodeine? Morphine? Idtakeapunchbowlofrawopiumrightnow.”

Óin checked a bandage on her arm, and was apparently satisfied with whatever was beneath it. He nodded at the work Beorn had done. He was investigating something mostly healed near her ankle when she spoke again, around bread and honey.

“No. No. Óin. Dontworryaboutthat. Itriedtoshavemylegsat Rivendell. Didntwork. Stupididea.” She dismissed his concern, and since it was healing cleanly, he didn’t press. Though, how she had gotten a cut beneath her boot was a puzzle.

Eventually Óin pushed one of the mugs at her. “Right, I’ll go get some tea made for ya to help with the pain. Eat all of that.”

A quick glance kept Kíli in the room with her and Beorn while Fíli chased the Company’s healer into the hallway to ask, “What happened? She was fine. She walked on it for three days.”

“Aye, which is why it was such a mess to clean.”

“Soap?” Well-read Fíli may have been, but he had never been taught much healing beyond how to stop the flow of blood until a real healer could arrive. So the look he received was appropriately judgemental of his ignorance. Which grated. “...Not soap?”

“We had to lance the -- stab -- the infection to get all the pus out, then we had to cut away the dead flesh around the gash. Nori said it was a tree branch as what did it. It was a rough cut. Lass has got a fever started, and I know many a dwarf that would have sat down and cried rather than walk on that leg. She didn’t hardly acknowledge it until we started treating it. She made up for lost time after that, which is how I stabbed her thrice more. But still impressive she kept up.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m on your side about this now, lad. I’ll bring some tea.”

“That’s five.” he muttered as the healer left. Six if he was reading Bilbo right. Ori and Dwalin were also leaning in her favor. Balin was going to keep quiet, but he was leaning even further.

To convince the others, he needed new arguments.

It seemed that no one had moved while he had been gone. Freya hadn’t even thrown anything at Kíli. His brother must have kept quiet.

“Frey?” He asked from a respectable distance.

“Fíli. Kíli.”

“You plan to speak to her?” The man growled.

“We need to in order to convince the others to trust her.”

“Trust.”

“Yes, not all of them do yet.” Kíli added.

“Is that why she was not treated?”

“We did not know she was in need,” Fíli defended, “We were not aware of her injury, she did not comment on it, and when I did try to check after she indicated she was in pain, she rejected the offer. If I had known the severity, I would have insisted.”

“Even if the others objected.” Kíli said defiantly.  

“I have seen creatures walk for days on injuries worse than this.” Beorn allowed. “I have also seen lesser wounds kill far stronger men than she.”

“Our healer is very talented, and has elvish supplies.” Fíli had the sudden feeling that he was back in one of Balin’s lectures, being taken to task on formal negotiations with hostile parties. A quick tilt of his head reminded him of how large Beorn was. Maybe the sensation wasn’t too far off the mark. “And I hope that there will not be further need, but if she sustains any further injury while travelling with us, we will be sure to check them.”

“I was told she was not a member of your company.”

“She wasn’t before.” he stressed. Kíli had the right of it; like it or not, she’d be coming along with them.

“You are not like most dwarves.” Beorn concluded after a long consideration.

Fíli restrained a smirk. “Yes I am.”

The room had a strange feeling after that. Kíli was flicking his eyes between his brother and Beorn. Fíli madly hoped he hadn’t managed some slight that would see all the dwarves thrown out of the hedge on the asses before the sun had set. Maybe Beorn would have. Maybe he was about to take offense. Maybe he was about to laugh.

But whatever he was about to do, it was aborted when Freya spoke.

Areyoutalkingaboutmeoverthere? BecauseIreallyfuckinghatethat.”

The mug was back down and she had abandoned the food. She had the blanket clenched in fists around her waist, and she was swaying, but she was standing. This looked more like the follower that had Thorin convinced she was trying to kill them all in the night. She had that intractable glower back. Yes, she was visibly trembling, yes she was too pale, but her jaw was set. She managed one step, and that elicited a high gasp.

Beorn was a very large man. He could have crossed back to her in a single stride had Fíli not slipped past him faster than the shapechanger could respond.

There was no asking, Fíli just put her on the bench as carefully as he could before sitting himself. Kíli joined them, though he remained standing. The plate of food was slid next to her hand as Beorn protectively sat down behind her.

She pushed it away, gesturing a question to Fíli with a terse, “Words?”

“Yes, Frey. Thorin asked us to talk to you.”

“Words. Talk. Arethosearerelated? Butyoudontlookstressedsoiguess Thorin saidthiswasokay.”

“Talk” He gestured to mime the action, She nodded. “We need to know more. You talked about Azog and about Dain.”

“Dain kingof Erebor.”

“Yes. We want to know more about King Dain.”

“‘King’ Dain? King Thorin? King Thror? ‘King’?” She mimed a crown.

“Yes, King. What else? Bolg? Azog? Thorin?” He knew his uncle did not want them to mention the quest before anyone outside the Company or their own kin, but he could only hope that the shapechanger would not make the connection. He also hoped that Kíli would keep his mouth shut.  

Frey must have understood his gesturing.

She vacillated a moment, then grimaced apologetically. She tried to shift forward, hands already starting to move in reenactment of something. Her leg had been forgotten. Eyes shot wide and unseeing, she listed backwards with her teeth grinding together.

Matdani zud.” Kíli muttered. It was the rare valid point from his brother. If he could have, he would have concurred, and taken their leave until she was improved. Unfortunately, he had to speak to his uncle this evening. For that to be anything other than a disaster, he needed more.

Lona.”

Patient as Balin had always insisted he would need to be, Fíli sat silently. Beorn glowered over her to the two dwarves. It occurred to him as he waited that if the shapechanger did decide to attack, the only weapons he had were a few small blades and Frey’s hammer. Kíli only had a work knife. Any defense would be his responsibility. She whimpered when she forced herself to sit up, and Beorn only looked angrier at them. As if they had forced her to do so.

Fíli would have preferred to avoid a conflict at all.

“Fíli.” She was apologetic again. “Thror? Girion? Isildur? You adad?” She counted them on one hand, then covered that hand with the other. “Ineedthewordfordeadboys.” Fíli had no idea what she was looking for and shrugged helplessly.

After an exasperated flail that ended with a rude gesture, she walked two fingers along the table, and mimed an exaggerated death. Complete with sound effects. “Thror. Frerin. Girion.”

“Death?” Kíli half shouted. He did a quick enactment, “Death? Thorin and Azog? You were warning us about Thorin’s death?”

Her eyes squinted but she slowly agreed, “StillnotsureIvegotthisright. Letsseethough. Thror? Death. Azog? Not death. Thorin, not death. Girion, death. Yes?” This wasn’t the time for grammar, so Fíli nodded. There was that hesitation again, “Fíli? Uh….. Smaug…”

“Not dead is he?”

“Not death.” She shook her head. “Waitasecond. Dead? Not ‘Dead.’” Fíli confirmed that, absolutely not grinning at her, then pushed the plate towards her again. Beorn’s glower had faded into a puzzled frown. “Yeahinthatcase. Smaug not dead. Supersorrytobethebearerofthatnews. Buthopefullly Thorin willthinkofaplanthisway. CauseIvegotnothing.”

“What do you think to learn from her?”

“Whatever we can.” Kíli quipped.

The look they received made it clear that the answer wasn’t good enough. And the tone was unwelcome.

“You’ve never met her before have you?” Fíli interjected, “But she knew your name before meeting you, didn’t she? We didn’t tell it to her.”

“Fíli, thisismoreimportant.” She shushed them both and pulled their attention back, “Smaug? Girion almostkilledhim. Girion? Bard? Kíli. Elves. Smaug not dead.” She mimed firing a bow. “Smaug dead. Bard istheheirof Girion. Hehasablackarrowaaaand..... Ihavenofrickingcluehowtomimethat.”

“We need to kill Smaug with a bow?” Kíli guessed. “That’s been tried. It didn’t go well, Freya. Even with a windlance. We all know the story. A bow won’t kill him.”

“Kí, apparently it will.”

“Come on brother, no, don’t make that be the answer.” he pleaded.

“It is the answer, she just told us.”

Whatareyoutwoonabout?”

“But,” he scrunched up his face, “Fí, me and uncle are the only archers in the company who are any good. And Thorin only hunts with his. Which makes me the only archer.”

“Yes.”

“Yes!”

“What’s your point?”

Kíli leaned back and his mouth flapped soundlessly for a moment, “You’ve just said I have to do it!” He forgot some times how young he was. How young they both were, really. Seventy-seven years old, sure. Past the age of maturity, yes. But Kíli looked like he was about thirty suddenly, helpless and frantic. It reminded him all too clearly of when they had been in their thirties.

Óin’s return interrupted their rising agitation.

The tea was pressed into Freya’s hand, and the healer waited for her to drink it. Willowbark, by the bitter smell. That was best, she was still trembling.

She took one look and set it down.

“No.”

“What’s that lass? You need to drink it!”

She was fuming beneath the sweating and shaking.

“No.”

Beorn tried to return the cup to her hand.

“No!” She managed to stand, half collapsing when she put weight on her leg, and blanching with a whimper. “Imnotdrinkingit. Aftertheshit Nori pulledin Rivendell? Imnotdrinkingthetea. I go dwarves. Sosorrybutno. No!”

Neither Óin nor Beorn was pleased about her standing up. They both reached for her, and she hobbled backwards to evade them. Fíli had already put together what was happening. Beorn found it a moment later and asked in a deadly low voice, “Why does she not trust you?”

Kíli glared and signed, “don’t lie.”

Kíli was right.

Unfortunately.

“She was given a sleeping medicine in Rivendell without knowing what it was. That is why she does not want to drink the tea.”

For a moment, Fíli thought there was a thunderstorm approaching, but the rumble was coming from Beorn. Oddly enough, Óin had also rounded to glare.

This whole evening was just getting out of hand. They’d had a plan. They were going to chat with Frey, learn what they could, convince Thorin, and then gorge on bread and honey and cream. Instead….this was happening. He and Kíli had been laughing not half an hour earlier.

Hopefully he would be able to persuade her to drink the tea. Hopefully he would convince her that they trusted her. Hopefully Beorn wasn’t about to lose his temper.

Except that she had no concept of the word, and Fíli hadn’t the first idea of how to convey it to her. His brother had no idea either.

There was too much of a mess between them. Too much endangerment and shunning and disarming.

Oh, that was an idea.

Fíli reached for her hammer from his belt, intending to return it to her.

He made it a step and hadn’t drawn it yet.

She retreated, more obstinate than afraid, heading towards the shapechanger. The moment her intent to take refuge was clear, Beorn lifted her into the air.

Waitnostopthat Beorn!”

And they vanished out of the room.

Fíli turned, defeated.

“Well, we have something at least. Let’s go find Thorin.”

 


 

They had waited too long to speak. That much was obvious.  

Bilbo hadn’t wanted to have this conversation when he was still scribbling arguments on paper. Now the air between them was thick and uncomfortable, and all the spark and fire they had nurtured in Rivendell was gone.

No, not gone. Just, absent during the day.

For all that Bilbo refused to stay in the room if Thorin began a conversation with him, usually pointing to his throat before exiting with a vulgar gesticulation, night was different. They had arrived at Beorn’s home, injured, exhausted, and plagued with Freya’s continued existence, but they had slept under a roof in relative safety and privacy.

Thorin had claimed a place slightly apart from the others. Sleep did not come easily to him that first night. There was his nephews’ faltering confidence that the wrym lived and insistence that fairy stories told truths. There were the implications their words carried. There was Kili’s injury. And there was the lingering foul mood that the madness of their time in in the mountains had forced on him.

His mind was swimming.

Compounding that, despite his best intentions, he had not been able to speak to their burglar. After escaping his nephews, and then Balin, and then Dwalin and then Gandalf, supper was being served. He knew better than to interrupt Bilbo at a meal. Considering that they had barely eaten in days, Thorin knew better than to even attempt a conversation then.

Bilbo vanished to take his rest while Fíli and Kíli tripped over their words and explanations. So he retired that night to his own blanket and corner, far away from the others and opened the note he had been given at last. Bilbo had started and scratched out several sentences that could not be deciphered. A few words were visible. Please and Don’t namely.

Then below the mess was written in a very clear hand, “Don’t you dare let that happen Thorin Oakenshield. I will not allow it.” A worry he had not known he was holding faded slightly. Along with it went a portion of the foul mood that had clung to him since the Goblins. He closed his eyes, clutching the piece of paper and willing his body to surrender to sleep. It did no good, but Thorin was nothing if not resolute.

He would stay immobile and allow his body if not his mind to rest.

Determined as he was to achieve sleep, he did not notice the sound of approaching feet.  In fact, by the time he had heard and looked up, Bilbo was already budging him over.

“Master Bagg--” Thorin cut off at the gesture and waited. Bilbo dropped to the straw and tucked himself against Thorin’s side with his head pressed over his chest. As they hadn’t reconciled, or spoken, or apologized, Thorin was more than a bit shocked. “Would you --”

Bilbo clapped a hand over Thorin’s mouth, returning it there every time Thorin tried to speak. Eventually the battle was lost and they lay in silence except for the murmurs of the Company in the next room. It was comfortable. After the week they had just survived, it was needed. Bilbo fell asleep first, half wrapped around him as if ensuring that Thorin would not vanish in the night.

Despite their various and extensive explorations of each other while pressed into closets and against trees, they had never done this. They had never fallen asleep together.

Thorin regretted the oversight.

It was more pleasant than he had dreamt.

He ran his fingers through soft curls until peaceful sleep claimed him.

When he woke in the morning, his -- the hobbit was gone, already wolfing through breakfast like he had never seen food before even though he had eaten as much as any two of them yesterday. They spent most of the day awkwardly catching the other looking, but Thorin did not try to speak. The second evening went as the first had.

Wordless solace.

Though, that night Bilbo slipped his fingers between Thorin’s and held tight.

It was… frustrating for Thorin. He would have preferred to have explained and offered apology for his behavior, and hopefully received one in kind, the moment they had landed on the Carrock. Or as they trekked towards this waypoint. Or that first night. He was not accustomed to being forced to inaction. It was driving him slightly mad. His temper kept the Company at a distance.

While he knew that his temper was unpleasant to the others, he felt it justified.

He had thought Bilbo safely on the road back to Rivendell. Then thought him taken by goblins. Then thought him dead. Then he had appeared as if sent by the Valar in time to save his nephew from execution. Thorin had fairly hummed with the need to bury his face in the hobbit’s curls atop that jut of rock and hold him until the fear had subsided.

Instead Bilbo had backed away from him. Which had then left Thorin more confused than ever as they travelled away from the Carrock with a heavy pit in his gut and a tension in his chest. Bilbo would not so much as meet his eye. Yet, when Thorin’s arm, strained in fighting free from an entire mountain’s worth of goblins, had pained him, the hobbit had been angrily fussing at him to shift his weapons and surviving pack to the other shoulder.

Given his preference they would have travelled on already.

This rest was necessary for the Company. Thorin knew that. He would just have to overlook the looming deadline in the fall. They were past the point of exhaustion, limping on wounds and trying to regain their bearings.

Beorn was a generous host after the initial rough start. On the second day began preparing packs and supplies to outfit them to survive the forest. The bear had even sequestered their follower away from them except for Óin’s services as a healer. It was an unexpected and blissful benefit of their stay. But this was the third afternoon they had spent, and he still had not been able to speak to Bilbo.

It would not stand.

Balin had given him an indirect lecture and reprimand on the subject after breakfast. Thorin did not know how Balin knew of the words the pair had spoken after the stone giants, but hearing his callous words referenced was enough to goad him into action he should never have delayed.  

The silence would not permitted to stretch further.

Bilbo would not be pleased over having to write his part of the conversation, but it would have to serve. Thorin was not going to wait another Mahal knew how many days before he could hammer out this problem.

For what felt like the thousandth time in the last month, Bilbo surprised him.

“Yes. Hello. Follow.” The hobbit declared the moment he was located.

That was how they found themselves hidden behind the enormous flowers of Beorn’s fields.

“Your voice has returned.”

“Mostly.” His voice cracked a fragment in that word, eliciting a grumpy tweak of his nose that Thorin badly wanted to kiss. He restrained himself.

“And you are willing to speak to me now? Or will I be shushed like a disobedient child again?”

“Are you going to act like a child, Thorin?”

“I have not so far.”

Bilbo cleared his throat after a long moment of accusation. The unmitigated cheek of the hobbit was almost a relief. Days of indifferent silence were miserable. And, while he did not want to admit to enjoying it, Bilbo’s barbs and quips caused him to chuckle more than scowl.

The blissful days in Rivendell had blinded Thorin to the dangers of the road, and it was unsurprising, now that he looked on it from a place of safety and mental calm, that he had overreacted to Bilbo’s life being in danger. He had most certainly overreacted. He hoped to pass it off as only such, and not be forced to explain why his reaction had been so strong.

With luck Bilbo would believe that he had been spurred by stress, exhaustion, and the intensity of the thunder battle. The other option, the truth, was best left unknown.

Bilbo had never given any indication of welcome to such a thing.

Thorin wrenched himself out of his rumination and jumped to talk before Bilbo’s opening mouth could begin speaking.

“I apologize for my words in the high pass. And my behavior towards you in the days prior to it.” He rushed out in tone that sounded vaguely sincere. After a long exhale, and in control of the moment for a little while longer, he continued, “I apologize Bi -- Master Baggins. I have seen too many fall before their time. Seeing your life endangered so many times in so short an order caused me to see more possibilities of such, and I responded as if you could not withstand them. You certainly have proven your capacity on our quest and I hope that in my offering you this--”

“Bilbo.”

“Excuse me?”

“You can still call me Bilbo, Thorin.”

Getting hit by a landslide couldn’t have more quickly eradicated his capacity for rational thought. Bilbo had spoken with a softness that wriggled its way into Thorin’s mind and upset all the order there. It was a tone that had been absent since Rivendell.

“No, don’t get that face yet. You were awful.” Thorin’s exuberant joy faltered at that, “Those weeks travelling to the mountains -- you were horrid. Then, in the pass -- Thorin, you called me little better than -- well, nothing you said to me should be repeated.”

“Neither of us spoke with any consideration, I believe.”

“Neither?” His voice squeaked up and broke. He coughed and ploughed onward, “Neither? Yes, I may have lost my temper with your insults, but it was entirely at your prompting! I had nearly fallen to my death, you could have died in that bloody storm and Giant fight, and you -- Did you know I followed you out of that cave thinking you were concerned for me? And instead you started to -- the nerve of you Thorin Oakenshield! I’ll have you know that if I didn’t --” His voice broke once more, vanishing almost entirely.

The loss of it again set Bilbo fuming, and Thorin hid his mirth behind a century of practice maintaining a calm mien. He stomped his foot and twitched his nose with closed eyes. While he wasn’t looking, Thorin allowed himself to briefly grin, hiding it before Bilbo’s eyes reopened and he was pinned still by hobbity ire.

We had,” more throat clearing, “In Rivendell we attempted to discuss… this.” he finished ineffectually.

“Yes, so we did.” Doubt crept in around the edges of his mind. “Do you feel that such a discussion is now prudent? I can tell you that my sentiments have not changed.” Nor were they likely too, but he was quite sure that elucidating precisely how he would want to alter their interactions at the present time would be ill advised. It was an overwhelming request for any dwarf, and for a hobbit, it would require a great deal a tact. A commodity which, after two centuries, Thorin admitted, to himself at least, he was not predisposed to using well.

Bilbo was nodding repeatedly.

“You would like us to behave appropriately and professionally, and I think that after -- after the pass, I think you may be right. That this must… end. I would prefer to end on more friendly terms, but there it is. An easy opportunity to conclude this has arisen and I think we would be quite foolish not to take it, Thorin….uhm…. Regarding my intruding on your evenings these last two days, I, uhm, I wanted to be sure of your safety, and that’s all there is to that. I’m sorry.” He barely made it through without his voice vanishing into squeaks and hoarse croaks.

Bewildered and almost reeling, Thorin interrupted, “You apologize for taking comfort in my presence but not for what you said to me on the pass?”

“You were the one to start that.”

“You escalated it.”

“You told me I had no place in the company.”

“You left us.”

“You told me to! You--” Whatever else Bilbo meant to say was lost as his voice absconded with his fragile temper.

Amidst faint squeaks and hoarse croaks, Bilbo gestured and mouthed a litany of insults at him. Several of which were in khuzdul. None of which were things Thorin would have guessed Bilbo to know. As it ran on, Thorin recalled what had just been saying about their conversations in Rivendell.

Apparently he had not understood Thorin’s intention about proper behavior. Bilbo intended to cut off the burgeoning relationship entirely.

Which was unacceptable.

His mute tirade faltered and faded and Thorin gently reached towards him, attempting to look less severe than he usually did. He stopped, not yet touching, waiting for permission, perfectly willing to forget the harsh words they had traded if Bilbo allowed it.

Bilbo’s eyes snapped up, still fiery, met his and, as Thorin watched, melted.

Anger gave way to a glow of affection that transcended the beauty of any craft Thorin had seen in his life. Gingerly, he let his hand brush against the hobbit’s smooth cheek, and did not try to restrain his smile when Bilbo leaned into it.

It was not forgiveness, but he was not watching him walk away, and Thorin was willing to take what luck he could for now. Hidden behind enormous flowers, surrounded by nothing more dangerous than the buzz of bees, he traced Bilbo’s jaw and lightly glanced a touch over the vicious bruising that circled his neck. Half-healed, it was a riotous mash of colors. He still did not know how he had gained them, and Thorin’s mind was happy to supply several dozen horrifying possibilities.

He pushed the images aside.

Whatever the cause, he had prevailed.

“One day, I would like to know this story.” Reproachful and abashed, Bilbo shook his head uncomfortably. “Not today, Bilbo, but one day.”

Thorin startled when he felt a hand slide along the edge of his tunic, pausing over a new slash in the leather.  An inquisitive eyebrow made him snort. “I must assume you’d like to hear that story as well?” The first reaction was feigned disinterest, but the hand tightened, pulling him ever so slightly closer, and eventually a smirk played at the edges of his lips.

“Bilbo, I told you that you were unfit to join our quest. I called you a grocer and -- and worse. I have doubted your suitability, your skill, your strength and your wisdom. I thought you too soft. I thought you too kind to survive in the wild. For many weeks, I thought you had no place amongst us.”

Thorin pressed his thumb over Bilbo’s parted mouth to prevent him attempting to speak, “You saved my nephew’s life. You somehow survived and escaped a goblin cave where we required the assistance of a wizard to do the same. You evaded capture. You brought down orcs and wargs, and I am only too aware that you were unarmed until you retrieved Kíli’s sword. I should never have doubted you. I can think of no one I trust or value more.”

He wanted to crush Bilbo into an embrace. Badly. With effort he kept himself to a slow caress over his cheek, allowing his fingers to brush through curls.

The outrage brought on by Thorin’s initial honesty had dissipated. His mouth opened, and all that came out was a croak. Frustration overtook the hobbit’s features as he tried and failed to speak. And Thorin was not going to comment on how charming it was.  He could see the aggravation peaking, and expected to be shoved away so Bilbo could resort to whatever it was hobbits did when past their patience.

He expected it would be somewhat less than intimidating, but likely quite amusing to watch.

So it was an extremely pleasant surprise when the hand on his coat tightened and he was hauled into a tender kiss.

He had thought a hug to be too high a hope.

Instead there was the press of lips against his own seemingly attempting to say what Bilbo’s throat disallowed.

They broke apart slowly. Thorin too overcome with relief to consider speech. Bilbo’s resurrected mutism silencing him just as surely. Then Bilbo very carefully mouthed another word in khuzdul.

Thorin needed to learn who was teaching him. And hit them.

But Bilbo was smirking again, well aware of how insulting that word was. Not to mention the glee at Thorin’s constant irritation that he could not explain how he learned it. Bilbo brought their foreheads together and they both stood and breathed for long minutes, warmed by the sun and content in the safety of Beorn’s garden.

So close, he felt as much as he saw the questioning look, and gesture between the two of them.

“Bilbo,” he finally managed refusing to move away, “a moment ago, you suggested that we end… this…” He danced his fingers over Bilbo’s chest in definition, “in light of our…recent discord.”

It felt like every muscle in the hobbit tensed.

“I must confess that, unless you insist, I have no intention of being parted from you. Even though you will continue to voice insubordination and sow chaos in battles. No. You will, there’s no reason to deny it, Bilbo. You are incapable of doing otherwise. But, I would rather you be by my side.”

There. That was a decent balance between a proper reply to his question, and what he wanted to say. Enough to be clear, not enough to scare him away just as he had him back in his arms.

The beaming smile he received was answer enough.

 


 

 

The fields of Pellenor were burning in front of her eyes, and there was screaming in the air. Smaug swept down again, casting more flames upon men and orcs alike. She nodded and pointed, and a swarm of undead, on their side this time, swept over it, destroying the army of the enemy.

Cheering behind her made her turn to see the four hobbits. Bilbo, Rosie, Pippin and Lobelia. Yes. Wait. No. That wasn’t right. Where was Frodo? Why were they in Osgilliath?

Lobelia screamed, pointed, and they all turned around again.

Dol Guldur loomed above them and the trees around them were reaching out to grab them with long twisted branches. The dirt beneath her feet was quavering, shifting, like it might swallow them up at any point. A massive battle was sending sparks and gluts of fire raining down on them. Gandalf was battling the Balrog.

Wait. That wasn’t right either.

Snow fell on them on a mountain and the Balrog plummeted down in smoke.

Orcs screamed and Gandalf was captured by the enemy. Hmm. Well. That happened when someone wandered off to scout a stronghold of the enemy alone.

The dwarves concurred.

She sat down with a sippy cup of whiskey and turned off the tv. That way she could hear the conversation in the kitchen easier.

“Just do it now and be done with it.”

“Do we have to?”

“She’ll keep following and we can’t trust her.”

“You’ll do it Fíli. She trusts you.”

“Do you want to use Sting?”

“Might be best, we need to leave at first light, and she can’t follow again.”

“And we can’t just tie her up?”

“Might not work.”

“Might be necessary to finish it at all.”

“Can’t the wizard help?”

“Yeah Mithrandir?”

“I think rope.”

She was sitting on her sofa. Stupid cheap pink velour piece of crap sofa. She was just sitting there, frozen, listening to the dwarves talk about knives and swords and rope and her.

Stupid fucking traitorous dwarves.

“Got a point. Easy to take her.”

“So, do you want Sting, Fíli?”

“I’ve got plenty of knives, thanks.”

A hand touched her wrist. She wrenched sideways, too slow to escape it, but fast enough to distance herself. Her eyes snapped open and she saw Fíli standing next to her. The crabwalk-esque scrabbling retreat she pulled had her out of his grip and on the other end of the bench before her mind had fully awoken. It also left her leg throbbing.

However, the pain in her leg had her confident that she had actually woken up and Fíli wasn’t about to murder her.

Didsomethinghappen Frey?”

It was strange that not understanding the dwarves had become a comfort. When they talked in her dreams, she understood them. Her brain’s insistence that they were trying to kill her was getting tiresome.

“Shit these dreams are getting out of hand.” She muttered into her hands as she scrubbed at her face.

It was the third afternoon there, and she had apparently fallen asleep by the kitchen. Not that she could explain why she’d fallen asleep. It hadn’t been planned. But ever since that medieval farce of a medical procedure she had been exhausted and shaky.

Beorn apparently took this to mean she was fragile.

After refusing to drink the tea Óin had brought that night -- and she had no intention of drinking anything from the dwarves again after Rivendell -- she had retreated to hide behind the shapechanger so they couldn’t try to force her. Frey had intended to explain a bit more, mixed with every insult she could think of, but Beorn had scooped her into his arms before she could start. He had put her in what could only be his bed, and his various dogs had all piled in to surround her. She had fallen asleep not long after, annoyed with the dwarves, annoyed with Beorn, slightly drunk off the sweet, potent booze they had poured into her in place of opiates, and very cozy in a pile of puppies.

Could have been much worse.

Beorn had stuck around with her through the night. Or, she thought he did. It was fuzzy. She woke up shaky and lost from nightmares over and over again, and was fairly sure someone had helped her drink some water at some point in the night. He was definitely there early in the morning with a platter of bread and more of the best butter she’d ever tasted. Which she devoured. So much better than lembas.

All was well. Beorn had her back, the army of oddly sentient dogs was on her side, and the dwarves were less antagonistic than they had been. Her brain was having too much fun with dreams, but she could handle that. It was just dreams.

Then she tried to leave the room.

That wasn’t allowed.

If it had been one of the dwarves trying to keep her there she would have hit them until they let her out, but she couldn’t bring herself to smack the entirely earnest and and way too cuddly dogs. Hitting Beorn had about as much impact as slapping the wall.

So there she had sat for a day and a half, trying to find an escape plan, and hoping that the dwarves didn’t scamper off without her. Again. They were loud enough while conscious that she knew they were still about. At night at least one of them snored like an approaching train.

She didn’t see much of Beorn on the second morning, though she could hear his rumbling conversation somewhere nearby.

One of the dogs had come over mid morning, sniffed her bandages and barked.

Just like that she was allowed out of the room.

She climbed into her still filthy, half torn apart jeans before venturing out to the rest of the house. They needed to be sewn back together, but for now at least the important bits would be covered.

Not that she’d made it far, since she had fallen asleep ten steps away at the empty table.

And woken up at the no longer empty table. She blinked away the dream and the remnants of sleep to look around. There were dwarves. Most of them. Including Bofur right behind her on the bench. That realization was enough to fling her to her feet.

Are you suretheresnothingwrong? You dontlookwell.” Fili tried again.

Sasakhabiya gurud.” Bifur added from her other side.

Frey jumped about two feet.

She wasn’t normally this skittish. She didn’t like it. Side effect of being feverish and unmedicated. She really didn’t like that it made them all look at her like she was delicate. That perception wasn’t going to help convince them that she’d be coming along.  Lacking a solution, she grunted inarticulately waved a hand dismissively, spun to leave, and crashed into Gandalf’s stomach.

The world careened sideways, and a few dozen images, flashes from the movies and excerpts of stories played in her eyes. All of them included Gandalf. They had been blendered into a smorgasbord of clips, but they were all there.

The new chaos in her skull was enough to keep her from noticing that the world really had careened sideways, and she had tipped backward halfway into a faint. Helpful as ever, the dwarves shouted a warning right before she hit the ground and cracked her skull. Frey managed to avoid blacking out, and quick check assured her it only felt like she was bleeding. The result of which being that there was no reason not to push away from Óin, Dwalin, and Kíli and attempt to murder Gandalf.

She finally had an explanation for the dreams.

He deserved this.

The porn had been aggravating. No denying that. It had been aggravating and six kinds of not ok, and led to uncomfortable thoughts and a lot of blushing.

But dreaming about death and murder and mayhem over and over? Waking up from nightmares all sweaty and confused every damn time she fell asleep? Ever since the bloody Carrock?

That was just cruel.

Plus, the wizard was probably bloody confused by the dreams where she was playing on her computer. Or driving.

There it was though, the answer on why her brain had been so traitorous. Once again, the powers-that-be in Middle Earth had decided that rooting around her skull sounded just dandy.

Fucking White Council.

“You!?” She shouted, incredulous, and repeated it in Westron once she remembered. “First of all old man, learn some damn manners. Second stop making me think about various horrible deaths. Third, I hope you were confused as fuck by the time I dreamt about Magneto! Fourth, just… just stop doing that shit!” She flapped her hands at him.

One of the dwarves cautiously started to grab her arm. She smacked whoever’s hand without turning.

If she had thought about the audience behind her, she would have censored herself, or excused the pair of them to another location to shout at him. She also would have tried to speak coherently and patiently. She wasn’t thinking things through.

Frey rarely thought things through.

“Just. Fuck. Gandalf, you cannot just dig through a person’s brain! Also. Wait. If you watched all that along with me, why the shit are you still here? Why am I? I murdered Bilbo in at least three of them. You saw Minas Tirith fall. You saw me sneaking around watching people smut it up while wearing the ring. You saw Smaug. You saw the fucking nazgul. The Witch King of Angmar was hunting Bilbo and your ass is still hanging out here blowing damn smoke rings around the room?

“How has the world not come apart? Aren’t you supposed to be in charge of it? Protecting it? Aren’t you supposed to help you crappy excuse for a Wizard? I know you’re going to wander off right when the Dwarves need you, you pot head hippie burnout son of a whore. But I was sort of hoping you’d be smarter than this!

“No, no, no,” she muttered, “I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, it took you how many millennia to do your homework about Sauron’s favorite piece of jewelry? If I didn’t need you to kill that Balrog later I swear I’d steal back my hammer and break your foot. And your pipe! And I honestly dont know which one would piss you off more, you ass!”

Gandalf was watching her with the insufferably placid expression that Elrond had used on her when she yelled at him about Galadriel. Apparently the White Council taught people how to be unflappable.

Unlike the Lord of Rivendell, Gandlaf hummed, and looked ready to reply.

“No,” she cut him off in Westron, regretting how close she had gotten as a crick formed in her neck, “No. You. You talk Galadriel? Rivendell? Did you talk to her about Dol Guldur? Please say you did. Please? It took me like six damn hours to get it all told to her, and that was with her digging around in my head. And I think she only really understood half of it. Please say you had a chat with Galadriel?”

“Dol Guldur?”

“Yes, Dol Guldur. Where the necromancer is. Where Radagast told you to go. You talk Galadriel Dol Guldur?”

That constipated frown could only mean he had not.

“Stupid hippie.”

The hand tried to grab her arm again. She smacked it again.

“Listen to me Gandalf. You. Radagast. Fuck I don’t know what that place is called. Nazgul tombs? Fuck it. You and Radagast go nazgul. Or, just listen to me, and go straight to Dol Guldur and bitch slap the necromancer around a bit. Quick advice. Bring hands with you this time. Cause it’s totally a trap. Talk Galadriel. Galadriel Gandalf words.”

Howdo you knowofthesethings? Have you seenit?” Gandalf asked her in that slow patient tone that had seemed grandfatherly and kind until she heard it in person.

It was irritating.

Shesnotgoingtounderstandya.”  Dwalin interrupted before she could speak.

“I have no idea what you just said.”

Butitshouldbeattempted. If Fíli and Nori arecorrectitmayproveofuse.”

“Ya thinktheladsareright?” Nori said from somewhere behind her.

Sowhydidntyasaysobefore?”

Gandalf hummed a not-answer to Dwalin’s question.

“Look, Gandalf. I don’t give a shit what they’re talking to you about.” She took a step back from the wizard and began speaking as much Westron as she could, very slowly as she mimed. “I have seen,” she really hoped the fragments of baby sign language would help, “Seen. Dol Guldur. You. The bloody white council. Saruman, Galadriel, Elrond. You go Dol Guldur. Fight. Or death is going to have a field day.”

The wizard reached towards her. She took another step away. Bumped into Dwalin. It startled her long enough that Gandalf was able to press fingers to her forehead. Everything went blurry.

First it seemed she was just dizzy, then she realized it was dozens of images playing in her eyes at once. He did not have the control that the Lady of Lorien did. It spared her learning about his kink of choice, which was a relief, but left her reeling and nauseated.

It was chaos.

There was no way he was catching any of it. She knew what she was looking for, and still couldn’t do more than identify brief glimpses. Aragorn charging the Black Gates. Thorin dead. Fireworks. Dale bright and alive. Bilbo wearing a crown. The Shire burning. Tom Bombadil.

Gandalf was muttering, much like he had while healing Kíli.

It wasn’t working.

So she tried to drag him to an image or a scene that would actually help. He resisted her control enough that she missed, and for a moment they were both flooded with something utterly unhelpful.

----dressed in red silk and pearls, Ian’s hair was coiffed magnificently like the Dame’s, as predictions of the year’s oscar winners tripped out sweetly. Chucking Jimmy under the chin and flirting charmingly----

Frey smacked Gandalf’s hand away from her face to stop it.

“Sorry. Sorry. Uhmm… You weren’t supposed to see that. I’m hoping that without the beard… and not in this outfit... I mean. That was….” She shook her head and gestured for Gandalf to try again.

The wizard took the vision of, essentially himself dressed as a woman, in stride faster than she would have hoped, only gaping for a moment before setting fingers against her brow.

This time he didn’t fight her.

For a moment, not much, but hopefully enough, she focused on what she wanted him to see. Luckily Gandalf’s story had rarely been a focus in the fics she had read, so there were only a dozen or so ideas in the mess, and in all of them, the bastard went to Dol Guldur to investigate. What happened after that was a wreck, but that one damn thing was clear.

Really, it was only a few seconds before she lost track of what was happening and it descended back into total madness. Gandalf, still curious, proceeded to root around long after she’d lost her sense of which way was up. Eyes locked on his face without knowing it, when he stopped, and her vision cleared, he was squinting and muttering.

Verywellthen. Ifthatishowitmustbe.”

He pulled his hand away and Frey blinked at a glacial pace.

Galadriel’s porn capades had left her flustered and aroused. That had been like an egg beater to the grey matter.

“I believe I havesomepressingbusinessawaytothesouth. Whereis Thorin?”

Frey watched him duck out of the door with all the faculty of a drug addled puppy. Nodded. Something large and beardy was in front of her. Didn’t exactly narrow the field. Whoever it was was talking.

Her head didn’t feel right.

Another slow blink.

Oh.

That’s what was happening.

“Nope.”

She had time to be proud of remembering the word in Westron.

Then she fainted on Dwalin.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“I didn’t say you were right.”

“Aye, you said you were wrong.”

“Didn’t say that either.”

“Wellllll…..Ya did, but I can be the better dwarf today and let ya pretend, Dwalin.”

Dwalin humphed. Then he pointed to the darkening bruise on Nori’s cheek and waited for an explanation.

“Bofur and I had a wee disagreement.” Nori divulged, “I won.”  

Dwalin doubted that. Neither of them won. Bofur had limped into breakfast like someone had caught him in the stones with his own hammer. Nori’s face was all colorful. Nori wasn’t going to admit it though, so all Dwalin could do was grunt, and wait.

“Yeah, alright fine. Might’ve been a draw.” Nori shrugged, “But you didn’t come find me so we could chat about Bofur did ya? Pretty sure ya came to find me to talk about the lass, and how ya changed yer mind about her.”

“Haven’t changed my mind.”

“That so? It wasn’t you that scooped her up and kept her from walking on that leg? Wasn’t you that I saw remindin’ Óin he needed to check in on her? Wasn’t you that got all flustered and worried after the Wizard did, well, whatever that was to her an’ she collapsed right in front of ya?”

“Haven’t changed my mind.” Dwalin repeated, shifting against the wall and regretting coming to talk to the thief at all.

“Don’t gimme that!” Nori snapped, “Ya told off Thorin! Ya stood there and ya told him he had to start listening because even the bloody wizard was listening to her! And ya caught her when she went all sideways on us! Ya don’t trust her, anyone can see that. I don’t hardly trust her. But ya changed yer mind, ya want her coming with us. I won’t bother ya too much if ya tell me why. If ya don’t --” He smirked, “-- I’ll just go have a chat with me little brother.”

Dwalin growled at that and rolled his knuckles.

“Seems like she might know things.”

“Seems?” Nori grinned, victorious, “Aye, does seem that way, since she’s gone and proved it a couple of times over now.”

“She hasn’t proved--”

“Don’t make me do the list again.”

Dwalin gnawed on his cheek before spitting out, “Fine.”

“So why’d ya come over to have this lovely little chat?” Nori smiled wide, tilting his head to watch, “Just lettin me know that you were —“

“She’s gonna travel with us.” Dwalin interrupted, more than done with Nori’s endless needling. “The lad’s are set on it, an’ Thorin’ll cave to em. Even if he don’t listen to the lads, I’ll lay out my last coin that Bilbo’s decided on it, and we both know he’ll get what he wants. Óin’s got that look of his. You’ve got that look like you’ll knife anyone as what disagrees with ya. Ori and Bifur’ve teamed up and been snapping at Dori, not that it’s going oh so well. Balin’s doing that silent lecturing thing he does.”

“And you want her to come along.”

Punching Nori when he was already three shades of bruised wouldn’t be quite right. So instead he answered with a frown, “If she is out to kill us all, I’d rather have her in reach of my axes, aye.”

Nori made a sound of pitying agreement.

“So when we’re done supping on bread and drinking cream,” and Dwalin may have said that word with a tone reserved for torture and violence, “she’ll come along. And she ain’t gonna travel with us like she has been. We’ve got enough fun coming up for us with that iklifumuni khuthâzu forest and the mibilkhagas in it. Don’t want to complicate matters more. She pulls too much attention to herself. She doesn’t know what she’s doin’. She doesn’t really know how to fight. She can’t be along making it harder for us.”

“What’s your point?”

Dwalin sighed and gestured vaguely at Nori’s chest. “Have ya got a spare? That lass’s gonna have to travel like a dwarf if she’s gonna come along.”

Nori made a showy, considering face before tucking a hand in his pocket and pulling out a roll of cloth and lacing.

Of course he had a spare.

*****

Dwalin hadn’t really parsed out the process on this.

After as much time as she’d spent chasing after them, trying to get them to talk to her, he hadn’t figured on her vanishing whenever he went to talk to her. Besides, it wasn’t that long ago that Oin had been cutting bits off her leg to get her healing, the lass shouldn’t have been so damn spry.

Chewing on the side of his mouth and growling, Dwalin didn’t notice when Ori stepped next to him.

It was just nice that none of the others were around to hear that particular little squeak. They’d have given him shit for it for a decade. Ori just grinned sweetly.

“Something wrong Mister Dwalin?”

“Just trying to chase down that” he stumbled for words and resorted to a list of khuzdul insults that Ori seemed a bit shocked by. He never knew how to talk to the scribe, even once he had started to want to talk to him. He wasn’t bookish, he didn’t know the histories, he couldn’t talk about the ancient poets, or compare the politics of the other kingdoms. It wasn’t his suit. So he did this instead: floundering about and making an ass of himself.

“Why?”

“Yer brother’s loaning her this, and thought it’d be fun to make me deal with her.”

Ori kinda nodded at that, sympathetic to Nori’s difficult nature, then he chuckled, and then laughed aloud, “Oh, I’m not gonna let him forget this, he kept his spare binder but not his favorite knife.” He abruptly stopped, and looked a bit awkward, “Oh, I’m uh, I’m sorry. It’s just, he’s always going on about that knife of his, well, all of his knives actually, and how I ought to carry more. And how I ought to keep better track of my own weapons and —“

“Not like we didn’t all lose a few things to the Goblins. Haven’t seen your slingshot since we got through.” Yes, good. Weaponry. This was a conversation he knew how to have.

“Oh, I’ve still got it, Kíli tucked it into a pocket while we ran.”

“Ya didn’t have a weapon during all that?”

Ori’s expression pinched. Dwalin’s tone had been a bit more patronizing than he’d meant it to be. But then brown eyes looked back up, bewildered.

“You didn’t— that is, I thought that you had noticed before — I had your hammer. Still have it actually.”

“You’ve been using my hammer?” Dwalin hadn’t meant to sound incredulous, but his hammer was about the size of Ori, and he’d had it made specially.

For a minute there, it looked like Ori was going to wilt, but he settled himself a bit sturdier on his feet, and straightened his spine.

“Yes. And I’m not planning to give it back Mister Dwalin. I found it. I’m keeping it. Now then, you said you were looking for Freya. I’ll help.” He nodded and turned away. If he hadn’t, he would have seen Dwalin’s happy grin at the nerve of that taunt. As it was, Dwalin was only too content to tag along, and if he did so from a pace or two behind, he could hardly be blamed.

 


 

The day was balmy and bright, breakfast was delicious and filling, and her leg no longer throbbed with every single movement, just most of them. It was a good day to be Frey even if Dwalin had been chasing her back and forth across the garden this morning flapping fabric in her face. Why the warrior was so intent on her wearing a bra, she wasn’t quite sure, especially since she had one on that actually fit her. However, it wasn’t really the time to antagonize any of them more than she already had. So she took the thing and nodded like she understood when Dwalin talked for a few minutes. Ori had helpfully mimed a few things, but since she knew what a bra was, it seemed a bit unnecessary.

No matter, they let let her alone after she’d said yes enough times.

She’d been able to find Beorn, and begged him to give them more supplies. Many more. So the ponies were doubly laden, and she’d promised to send them back once they reached Mirkwood. Then she’d found her own packs, and added to the remaining lembas as much food as she could.

Then she retreated to this lovely little bit of water and started scrubbing; herself, her clothes, anything and everything. Didn’t even bother to strip, and let the clothes dry on her back.  

Her toes twiddled in the river while her boots baked in the sun a few rocks over. If there was any mercy in Middle Earth it would help kill the smell. Wearing them for two weeks straight as she slogged up the mountains, and then through all that fun with the goblins, had made them ripe enough to knock her on her ass when she removed them.

She was considering going full on hobbit if the smell didn’t fade. Yes, her feet weren’t quite as hardy, but they could probably catch up pretty quickly.

Well, nothing for it but to wait since it wasn’t like she had a bottle of bleach hidden in her bag. Nice as that would have been.

“Oh no, come on, owwwwwww.” She groaned as her body cramped again. Apparently the backache that morning hadn’t been from sleeping curled up with a puppy. She nearly bent in half before it loosened enough she could breathe normally, “Fine. Better now than in the forest I guess. Rather have neither, but don’t think anyone can hysterectomy me right quick. Not without killing me horrifically.”

She dug in her pocket for the cup, knowing she’d need to boil it without the others noticing. That’d be a hell of thing to try to explain. Silicone would never pass as natural. And there was no way in hell she would use it without disinfecting it. And the idea of explaining exactly how and Where it was used was just a step too far. Several steps actually.

Her fingers searched for the modern relic; instead they found a circle of gold.

Right. She still had that.

Since the Company was opposed to her being anywhere near Bilbo alone it wasn’t as if handing it back had been simple. Yes, she could have passed it on via one of the dwarves who didn’t hate her, or via Beorn, but that would have required her to go through a whole song and dance to explain what was happening. And would have risked someone falling to ringlust, and that wouldn’t have been a good thing. Of that she was sure.

Holding onto it had simply been pragmatic. That was all.

With the way a lot of the dwarves still tensed and all of them stared every time she walked into a room she could hardly have stealthily returned the thing. Yelling at Gandalf until he fled had impacted their opinions a bit. Besides, it wasn’t as if she’d worn it. She wasn’t that stupid. She knew better than to allow it a foothold like that.

Provoking Thorin would seem like a rational plan in comparison.

And Frey wasn’t that dumb. It was obvious that the dwarves didn’t trust her, which meant she would have to work twice as hard as she thought to pull this off. Not that it had been a walk in the park thus far. Middle Earth was just a big barrel of things that wanted to kill her. And eat her. The fact that she was alive, that she had managed to track them, that she hadn’t just keeled over of middle earth’s equivalent of dysentery was kind of remarkable.

She was desperate for a bit of divine inspiration. Some clue on how to make them listen. Or to let her talk. Really, the latter would make everything so much easier.

Pictionary and charades would help, but illustrating broad concepts wasn’t going to happen. Smaug was easy to draw. Geopolitical conflict between the ruling kingdoms of the east? Not so much.

She needed a trump card, or a cheat code. Something.

Fuck it, maybe she should just keep it. Bilbo could get on without it. And if she had it, she could sneak down past Smaug, who had certainly never smelled anything like her, and nick the arkenstone. She could maybe learn archery from Kíli and kill him. Being a Dragonslayer would be nice. There might be a parade. Ticker tape. Giant inflatable versions of herself.

Never mind. Those would be terrifying.

The ring in her palm caught the light beautifully.

The sun was warm, the stream was lovely, and everything just felt right.

Bilbo really didn’t know what he was doing with it anyway. He’d just use it to escape annoying relatives, maybe to surprise Thorin in the bath if that mess ended with a second crown.

It could be so much more.

It could be useful.

She could fix the whole mess.

She could make sure that everything worked out properly. All she would need to do is keep the ring.

Even her cramps were gone, or faded, or something. She didn’t hurt. And wasn’t that just a blessing? To actually be comfortable and happy for five damn minutes on her vacation in hell? It was bliss.

She could do with more of that.

Keep it safe.

That made sense.

She could have what she wanted if she just kept it like the precious thing it was.

She whispered the word as her fingers reached to touch it.

The world torqued sideways and she jolted at a sudden headache.

Frey’s hand spasmed as it tried to fist around the ring and fling it away at the same time. She scrambled backwards over the rock she was sitting on, eyes never leaving the circle of gold on the dirt where it had fallen.

This was very very bad.

Catastrophically bad.

Utterly, impossibly, disastrously bad.

“Ohhhhhhhh. Son of a ball sucking -- oh shit, Shit, balls, fuck, hell, damn, ass -- Nope. Nope. Okay, what the fuck do I do? Bastardy awful stupid Sauron and his stupid jackass horcrux bullshit ruining my vacation here in hell."

Well, obviously, she needed to pick it up and take it to Bilbo. That wasn’t the same as wearing it, so it wouldn’t be a big deal. Just grab the damned thing and --

“Nooooo. Oh baaalllllss."

It was just a ring. A pretty band of gold. The trees reflected on its curves, distorting them and containing them. It was the single bright point amid the dull mire of the dirt beneath it. Of the world around it. It was a gift, and she could not tear her eyes away from it. Why would she want to?

Why would she need to look away from something so perfect? So important?

She was cold.

She was wet.

She finally realized that her fall had dumped her neatly into the stream. Cold mountain water was soaking her again, and she had only just noticed. Her rock, formerly in the sun, was now firmly in the shade.

That settled it.

Dripping wet, she hauled herself onto the bank, searching for a stick.

Like she was picking up a particularly horrifying bug, she slipped the end through the ring and let it slide to hit the connecting branch.

“Bilbo! Bilbo! Where the hell are you!?”

Frey sounded hysterical. Frey didn’t care. She was half dressed, barefoot and dripping wet. She didn’t care about that either.

“Bilbo get your miserable halfling ass out here and take back satan’s costume jewelry! I mean it Bilbo! Get the fuck out here where I can see you!”

The dwarves that were lounging about the sunlight flung themselves to their feet as they heard her bellowing approach, looking at the distance for attackers. About half of them trailed after her as she continued her search. Some of them were probably chasing thinking she was about to attack their hobbit, but she couldn’t be bothered to give a damn what they thought just then.

Evil magic ring had to be the priority.

It was evil after all.

“Where are you Bilbo!? I don’t even want to look at this thing! There’s a reason hobbits make the best Ringbearers! Y’all don’t want shit! I want all kinds of things! I want a jacuzzi! I want a goddamn steak! Where did you go?! Get out here before I trade this thing for a venti frappucino and some Midol! Where the fuck are you? You aren’t invisible, I’ve got the fucking thing that lets you do that! Which means I’m going to find you Bilbo Baggins! Where the fuck --”

She batted away a low bough to cut beneath an enormous oak tree, on her way to the flower fields, and stopped dead. Frey was still holding out the branch with the ring, but had absolutely forgotten what she was doing. Walking in on a hobbit pinned to a tree by the dwarf who seemed to have mistook said hobbit for a popsicle had that effect.

Thorin was completely unbothered by being interrupted mid-lick, laughed actually, with his hands still on bare hips. Bilbo jumped away with some awkward fumbling of his hands out of hair and scrambling for his coat to provide himself some decency.

Frey just gaped like a caught fish while the hobbit strode over with what dignity he could while bareassed beneath a tree. Then her mind caught up and a blush burned over her cheeks.

Ohmyring.”

He plucked it from the end of the stick and awkwardly held it when he realized he had no pockets he could reach without shifting his coat.

There was a moment when Freya stared helplessly at Bilbo, not sure if she should flee before Thorin stopped laughing, or if she should start trying to explain the ring while she had the chance. Bilbo was looking at her expectantly. Her mind just couldn’t seem to sort out what it needed to do.

The sound of the rest of the dwarves approaching behind her served to get her moving again, and she fled as Thorin’s laugh chased her.

“Frey?” Nori asked at the front of the group.

“No. No. No. No.” She flung her arms out to the side, flapping at them to try and get them walking any direction but where they were about to go, “Let’s everyone go another direction. No need to be looking in that direction. Nope. None. Privacy is great. Nope. Not that way. Go. Get along. Walk. Go.”

Fíli and Nori mumbled to each other.

Giveusamoment.” Fíli said to the rest, then stepped forward with Nori and gave her a look she was used to receiving as they asked what she assumed was, ‘What the hell was that?’

She blushed harder.

Scrubbed at her eyes.

Nori took Fili’s cue and headed toward the tree to investigate.

And that would be worse.

So she smacked him with the stick that she had been too flummoxed to drop, and said, “Bagginshield.”

Quizzical stares.

“Bagg—in—shield.”

Still didn’t work.

Pointedly staring at Nori, she gestured helplessly for a moment, then groaned, knowing what would work. If Nori had a mind as dirty as fanon thought, it would work just fine.

She took pity on the nephew and tilted Nori aside, resorting to the only gesture that could rapidly convey what she had just seen.

“Bilbo? Thorin?”

Now, in her defense, she was startled and confused by the ring, then gobsmacked by what she had walked in to see.

All the same, she regretted it instantly when she mimed a blow job. Nori watched her in shock for long enough that she actually repeated it, thinking it had been unclear. The second time she added tongue to cheek action.

Then he started to snicker.

Fíli had edged closer while she was focused on the star headed jerk that was now giggling like a madman. She knew Fíli had seen the tail end of the motion, and was hoping that she wouldn’t have to go for a third performance. Fíli mumbled in what Frey was pretty sure was khuzdul.

Nori burst out into cackles, and managed a single word in reply.

Then the crown prince of the line of Durin turned a delightful scarlet.

All the way from his beard to his ears. Bright red. Even what she could see of his neck. Bright. Bloody. Red.

That was a great sight, and she’d have taken a moment to memorize it, or mock him, even though she was a similar shade, except, there was a very distinctive rhythmic sound from behind her. Frey was willing to cave to a great many things, but this was a step or a hundred too far, even for her.

Panicking a bit, she smacked both dwarves, babbling loudly and between the three, corralled the rest across the field, back toward the house. Not that she was paying much attention. She had new goals. Very very important goals.

Away from where she was to start. Then she needed a distraction.

Somewhere in that house there had to be alcohol, and she had a dwobbit blow job in her brain now.

Hopefully with enough of the former she could erase the latter.

 


 

Bilbo turned back to Thorin, slipping the ring into the inner pocket of his coat that he couldn’t reach before. It was a wise decision. There wasn’t enough time for more than that before Thorin had snagged him.

He quite sincerely hoped that Beorn wasn’t able to talk to the trees as well as he was able to speak with the animals. This particular oak was getting quite a spectacular show.

Oh sweet Yavanna have mercy on her child, but Bilbo could understand why she was married to the maker of the Dwarves. He’d already known that Thorin kissed like he’d been poisoned and the only cure was hobbit. He had already experienced just how blasted strong Thorin was when he decided to trap him against a wall in some empty office and nibble and nip and suck his way from the tip of his ear to the hollow of his throat and back up the other side. And Bilbo couldn’t have gotten away even if he’d been inclined to try.

Those hands, the muscles. The scars, which he knew it was entirely unhobbitish to find so attractive -- but that crop had already been reaped, thank you very much -- just made him seem to be a legend writ in front of him. The way Thorin, full of apologies, and a frantic need to make clear how much Bilbo meant to him, had been converting him into a useless pile of former hobbit at every opportunity, and demurring at Bilbo’s every offer to reciprocate.

Yes, fine, alright, it may have been motivated by a bit of a sarcastic retort from Bilbo while they wandered in the gardens.

Well, of course, yes, there wasn’t any denying that Bilbo had possibly implied that Thorin needed to make amends.

There was a chance he’d muttered something about putting Thorin’s mouth to better use than the insults he’d spat in the mountains and the kisses that had begun to apologize.

That it had resulted in Thorin on his knees, while Bilbo struggled not to snatch him bald was just a fortunate happenstance.

Not that Bilbo argued when a furred coat was tossed to the ground and he was pressed into it, nor when Thorin’s mouth closed over the head without warning or pause. He did try not to make any noise as he was sucked off with more skill than he’d known existed in this world. A voice in the back corner of his mind tried to mention that his superfluous compliments were likely due a combination of thrill and terror and deprivation in the last weeks.

He ignored that voice.

Namely because Thorin’s tongue was tracing circles and his hand was pumping and, oh but it was just amazing. Thorin was a fast study, and while this was new territory for them, what with the lack of clothing, apparently the handful of minutes practice he’d had before they were interrupted were enough to tell the dwarf how to master the art.

Bilbo whimpered a bit as Thorin picked up the pace, and planned to say something about teasing being a rather rude way to apologize, but then there were fingers on his tongue and his mind shut down.

He sucked them in deeper, grateful for Thorin’s long reach, and flickered his tongue against the seam between the two.

A pleased growl reverberated around him, and Bilbo had a new reason to love that incredible bass voice. That had felt like nothing he’d ever imagined. And his desire for it to happen again must have been obvious, or, more likely, he’d just bitten down on the knuckles he could feel between his teeth, but for whatever reason, Thorin rumbled once more.

And, with a cry, Bilbo came.

It would have been polite to offer a helping hand, or hands, or mouth, or really whatever Thorin felt inclined towards putting to use. Before Bilbo had blinked the fireworks out of his eyes though, Thorin had finished himself in a few sharp strokes, spilling over his hand and the grass.

They both moaned as they tangled over each other, nuzzling gently closer and breathing hard. Thorin might not have had any appreciation for the way the chirping of birds made a song with the wind and the rustling leaves, but Bilbo did. There wasn’t much better in this world than to lie in a garden after a bit of sex. It was calm and relaxing and the way Thorin scooped him closer and closer until finally just settling a mostly boneless hobbit on his chest cemented a small smile on Bilbo’s face.

Thorin draped his discarded shirt over Bilbo’s exposed bum and gave it a light pat.

“Ridiculous dwarf.”

“I’ll not contest that description.”

“Very good, otherwise you’d just lose the argument, because you are, clearly, a dwarf, and you believe that you can reclaim your mountain with a company of thirteen, even though the wizard who most of us were thinking would be quite helpful has decided to wander off with barely more than a by your leave.” He tempered his retort with the gentle tracing of his fingers over the tattoos on Thorin’s chest.

“We do not need him.”

“Mmm, some of us might disagree there. Though, I suppose we are replacing Gandalf with Freya. Maybe she’ll be more useful.”

Not the best thing to mention. Even in post-coital languor, Thorin tensed below him. Bilbo had planned to bring this up today. He had overheard Dwalin’s little tirade, watched Balin’s very subtle lecture, and knew that the right move from him would end the discussion. Then they could know what was going on at long last.

“Don’t be like that.”

“It is difficult for me to trust those newly met.” Thorin growled. There was something about the way he said it, about his tone, that had Bilbo lifting on an elbow to meet his eye.

“Is that for me or for her?”

The answer was obvious before Thorin looked away and whispered, “Both.”

“Why is that?”

“It is not… after Frerin was lost, and Víli…. No, that would not be enough for you to understand. The explanation is far broader than you may wish it to be. I can see you want to correct whatever it is I say, and I can assure that it is not so simple.”

Kissing Thorin from above him always made Bilbo’s head spin a bit. Even tender kisses like this to encourage him. “Are you willing to tell me? Or will I need to pry the details out of your kin? They tend to be rather talkative.”

That wasn’t meant to sound threatening. He hadn’t even considered making it a threat until he saw the way that Thorin was closing off every entrance. Then Bilbo twisted his words to make them a strike and make it entirely clear that Bilbo was going to have this story in the open today, whether he heard it from Thorin or in pieces from Dwalin and Balin and the boys.

“Will you allow me a moment to gather my thoughts? Or must I begin at once?” The wry smile was belied by the tightness of his voice, so Bilbo just nodded, and settled down against his chest.

He traced lines and blocks and knots of ink over skin, and waited.

 


 

 

Thorin could feel the moment when Bilbo dozed off.

Hardly surprising considering what they had been doing.  

His fingers ceased their movements and his breathing relaxed. Thorin lifted his head to press a kiss to his hobbit’s hair. Answering the question would be an unpleasant thing.

It was hardly a clear answer in his own mind. Even now, days after the danger had passed and he was no longer overcome with a frantic need to keep his Company safe from her, it was difficult to explain why he so distrusted her.

A memory so distant it had not emerged in his mind until he lay on an eagles back was at the crux of it. The implications of that memory though…. They were preposterous, he knew that. He knew that it was impossible for his memory from Azanulbizar to be the same person.

And yet, impossible or not, his gut reaction was to distrust her. His instant thought on seeing her in the Shire had been that she was a traitor and a risk. His only instinct had been to keep her as far from his Company as possible.

But the one then, whoever that had been. They had carried a scar that bisected their eyebrow. It would still be visible. Not to mention her age. It couldn’t have been Freya.

Which meant that he now had to explain to Bilbo why he was so overwrought on the subject, without sounding utterly mad.

Perhaps if he explained the attempts on the boys?

Bilbo understood that protectiveness. He would understand once Thorin had told him a few of the stories that there had been efforts against the boys’ lives that so closely matched her actions as to be almost comical. He had laughed several times over the situation, seeing her try to claim prophecy or an inexplicable knowledge of things that could aid them.

He had heard that lie before.

And he would never trust such a speaker.

There lay the problem.

He could not trust her, but it seemed every other member of the Company did, save Bofur, Dori and himself.

Thorin had heard lectures and tirades from his oldest friends. His nephews had sworn on their own honor that she could be trusted, and still, he could not look at her and see anything but a viper in the grass.

Dwalin was right about one matter though.

If he did not trust her then the best place to keep her was close. Within range of orcrist, ideally.

That matter was already decided.

What was left was placating the hobbit currently nuzzling into his chest.

Bilbo wanted to understand, as he always did. That curiosity was surely how Bilbo had learned as much khuzdul as he had. That determination had saved his nephews’ lives.

Thorin was going to have to answer. And he owed it to Bilbo to give him a truthful answer.

Whatever they were, and Thorin had no word for it given he could still taste salt on his tongue, despite the lack of braids, but whatever they were, and whatever they were going to become in the future, Thorin would not lie to him.

Except the truth would not cast him a favorable light.

He growled without knowing it.

“You think too loud.” Bilbo mumbled.

Thorin ran curls over his fingers, sorting knots and snarls.  “Did I wake you with my thinking?”

“Wasn’t asleep.”

“Yes you were, there was very nearly drool. Did I tire you out? I would have thought a hobbit to have better stamina, after all you —”

Bilbo cut off the teasing insinuation with a kiss.

“Shush you. I’ll have you know that hobbit stamina is nothing to be trifled with.” He was up on his elbows, still naked and still tucked against Thorin with nothing more to cover him than the undershirt Thorin and thrown over him. The dwarf at least had retained his breeches.

Languidly, he kissed him, and tightened his hand over the plump curve of his ass.

“No, nope, you aren’t— Thorin — no, you aren’t going to distract me!” Bilbo said between kisses. “We can distract each other after, but you sir, promised me an explanation. You just wanted a moment to gather your thoughts. Well. Have you gathered them?”

“Such as they are.”

“I’ll accept whatever you have to give at this point.”

Thorin pecked a kiss to Bilbo’s nose and slid his hand around a hip.

Bilbo jumped up and shimmied into his trousers before returning to sit at his side. “There, see? No distractions, and no canoodling, until you manage to stumble your way through whatever it is that you really ought to have told me before.”

Bilbo crossed his arms over his bare chest, and it was such a false show of bravado that Thorin could not help but smile.  

“Come over here then.” He held out his arms towards his hobbit, and once the glower had dissolved, Bilbo settled back into him.

Really, all this moving back and forth was unnecessary and irritating.

“Balin told you of the greater events of Azanulbizar, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Did he tell you of my brother Frerin?”

“Only that he fell during the battle.”

Thorin made a somewhat strangled grunting noise in aggravation. If Balin had recounted the entirety of the story Thorin would be saved this trouble and the subsequent ridicule.

“A few days before the final battle, a stranger arrived in camp. They were brought to my tent where I was meeting with Frerin and Fundin, planning the offensive for the coming days. The guards labelled her a prophet. She was a slight thing, and I must admit that I payed little attention to her as she rambled.”

“Thorin….” That was a tone that made it clear Bilbo already doubted him.

“Let me continue,” Thorin interrupted the scowling tone, “All I truly recall of them is this: A strange accent, limited vocabulary, and a scar over their eye. But since they were rambling about Azog wanting to kill us, which were entirely aware of, we soon dismissed her. I did not see her again. We entered the battle, following plans that should have succeeded had the Pale orc not managed to reach my grandfather and break the vanguard that defended him. You know of what occurred then.”

Bilbo squeezed his hand in a show of solidarity and consolation.

“After the battle, a runner came to me at speed, to tell me that Frerin was in the healing tents, and asking for me. He was hardly coherent, he was,” He swallowed, still raw at the memory of the sight inside that tent, “he was dying, and far beyond any mortal’s skill to save. But he spoke with great purpose. I do not know how much of what he told me was true. I do not know if any of it was true. The pain made it difficult for him to speak, and it surely had clouded his judgement.

“He told me that the stranger had appeared near him on the field during the battle and, despite having no skill with a weapon, sought to protect him.” Thorin smiled, “My brother was ever the optimist. He always hoped that those he met would be just the same as the stories he’d read as a child. He turned his back on her as she fought, and continued the battle. The next he knew she was gone, the orcs had advanced without her there to hold them back, and he was cut off from the remainder of his force.”

“Thorin don’t tell me that you think—“

“I do not. I know that would be impossible. I am only telling you this because I cannot seem to separate the thoughts. And this was far from the only time that such a thing has occurred.

“Dwarves are a superstitious people, Óin should be evidence enough of that. We are prone to believe every prophet and seer that crosses our paths.”

“Not you.”

“No, I have rarely believed them. Ever since the seer that came to Erebor promising a glorious future. His declarations were only just faded from their echoes when the dragon attacked. Then the portents swore that we would take Khazad-dum back from the enemy.”

“They may have believed they spoke the truth.” Bilbo interjected.

He snarled at that.

“It does not matter what they believed. Even if they believed they told the truth, all that they did was subvert the safety and protection of my people.” Bilbo stroked along his arm until Thorin calmed again.

“My apologies.”

“And this is why you do not trust her?”

“There is more.”

“Of course there is.”

“And what does that mean?”

“That means nothing is ever simple with you dwarves. So go on, tell me the rest, and maybe it will start to make sense.”

“There have been several attempts to break the line of Durin by attacking my ingadân.”

“Several? How many times, they’re barely adults.”

Thorin glared substantially at that, even though Bilbo could not see his face. “Repeated attempts.” Nine that he knew of, four that had actually reached the boys. He knew every one of them, he knew every dwarf that had been implicated in them, and he knew what each of them had looked like dead. Most by his own hand. But he did not plan to tell Bilbo that. “Assassins rarely care about the age of their target.”

“And this relates how?”

“Multiple times they managed to incorporate themselves into the council or the guard. They came with all the right words and all the right promises. They swore to protect the line of Durin, to keep it safe, and then broke that oath. You will have to forgive my reluctance to blindly trust someone incapable of even answering our questions.”

Bilbo tensed in his arms, and Thorin forced himself to stop the escalating yell.

“The worst was just after Fíli turned thirty. There was a dwarf from the Firebeard clan, who came claiming that he was the court seer. He claimed all manner of things that my council wanted to hear. And they believed him. They overruled my reluctance to allow his presence.”

The dwarf had been charming and kind, never a rude word, never started a fight. He was temperate, and gentle with the dwarflings. He had spent six months building that persona, until even Thorin had begun to doubt his unease about him.

“Then one night the household was woken by Kili’s screaming for help.” His voice broke saying it, but he knew that any omission or falsity would be noticed by his too clever hobbit. “We ran, of course, and found Kíli in the hall. Their father Víli got there first. He managed to get the dwarf off of Fíli, but did not survive. He had run in unarmed, and did not think before leaping to defend his eldest.”

Bilbo had turned when Thorin had grown emotional, and watched with sympathy and anger as the tale concluded.

“Had I followed my instinct, it would never have happened, and the boys would have their father.”

His hobbit waited for more, and pressed a gentle kiss to his forehead when none came. “Thorin, I understand that you worry. You should it seems. I understand that there have been terrible events in your past that you never wish to happen again. I even understand that whatever happened at Azanulbizar reminds you of Freya.” Thorin scowled at the name and Bilbo repeated it testily, “Freya, however, has not — goodness sake, if she wanted you dead she has had opportunity. If she wanted to hurt the boys, she could have. She — Listen to me Thorin, she chased us up a mountain through a storm. She followed us across the wilds. And I know you have heard this from Balin, and from Dwalin and from the boys, but you are going to hear it again from me, and may your maker have mercy on you if you don’t listen this time, Thorin Oakenshield.

“When she followed us into the mountains, she believed that you were going to be killed by Azog, and, no, I do not know what she believed was waiting for me with the Goblins, but I do believe she was trying to help. After everything you had done to drive her away, she still followed and carried medicine for you. You do not have to like her. You do not have to trust her. You must allow her to travel with us, and you must allow Ori and the boys and I to speak to her and try to find out what else she believes is coming.

“You are willing to put your faith in the thirteen of us to reclaim a mountain over nothing more than Gandalf’s good word in our chances. Put your faith in us now, please Thorin. I swear we will not allow her any opportunity to hurt them, but if she knows even a single thing that will help me to keep you alive, then it is worth the risk.”

Bilbo was frowning, and finished with his mouth in a taut line, holding back something more that he was trying not to say aloud.

“Bilbo…”

“I think it should be more than clear by now that I don’t want you to die Thorin, please stop asking me to explain that.”

“I wasn’t.  Bilbo, I wasn’t. I already have agreed for her to travel with us, which perhaps I should have said at the beginning of this. I would like you to speak with her. I trust you.”

“I thought you didn’t trust easily.” he grumped.

“I don’t.”

“So why—“ Thorin had a hand around the back of Bilbo’s head and pulled him in for a lengthy kiss. “Not — fair — answer — question.”

He brought their foreheads together.

Amralîme.

Bilbo humped, “I don’t know that word. I’ve not heard it before.”

Thorin smirked, “I should hope not.”

 


 

Freya was drunk.

Not excessively. She would probably still be able to stand if she tried, not that she had in the last few hours. But most definitely drunk.

Nori had seen a lot of folks get drunk.

Something of an expert on the subject now.

She was right at that sweet point where he could ask for her coin purse and she’d just hand it over.

But as she had no coin purse, he’d found another way to amuse himself.

His kid brother had spent a few hours talking at her, explaining some of the more fundamental bits and pieces of language that she looked increasingly grateful to know. She now had a decent understanding of questions and the more basic answers. She also had a number of useful object words that she had delightedly pointed out upon learning them. It had been going great. Learning was happening.

Even Dwalin had snuck into the corner to keep an eye on things and nod approvingly at Ori’s successes.

Then Dori had come in, and Nori had added another word to Frey’s vocabulary.

It’s not like he’d know that she was going to repeat after him when he told Dori to take the stick out of his ass.

But she did. And with remarkable clarity.

Naturally, Dori had stomped back out the door in a huff. Ori had followed, trying to apologize. Before the door shut, they’d all heard Ori shouting that she hadn’t known what she said.

There were a few quiet moments before Dwalin started to chuckle in the corner.

It was getting rather too obvious that there was an infatuation there. Nori already had a plan to help Ori show off that brand new spine of his.

But that wasn’t the point.

After the language learning fell apart, Fíli and Kíli had gone looking for something to eat. Their bear-host had been missing all day, without a word of explanation, and there was only so long a young dwarf could go before they started gnawing on their own arm.

In their defense, they did come back with bread and  honey. They just also came back with a barrel of mead and a Man-sized cup. It hadn’t Freya taken more than a few seconds to realize what it was and commandeer the cup, flicking Kíli in the ear when he tried to take it back.

After emptying it, they had sat in a circle, mostly on the ground; the princes, Dwalin, Nori and Frey, and passed the cup around.

Usually the pisswater that men made and tried to pass off as alcohol had about as much kick as a kitten. This wasn’t the normal drink he had encountered. It didn’t even taste like spirits, that was the worst of it. It tasted sweet and mellow and just felt nice and warm as they drank it.

So it wasn’t until Frey shrieked as a tiny spider ran over her leg that Nori really noticed how much she’d had to drink.

It was nothing poisonous, hardly even big enough that they’d feel a bite from it. So it was a few steps past bizarre that Frey attempted to smash it to death. She noticed the look she was getting, and snapped back at them with a scowl of judgement, “Youhavenoidea. None. Noneofyougetityet. Youhavenoideajusthowmuchyouregoingtohatethem.”

“So what do you have against spiders?” Kíli asked while rescuing the thing and tossing it toward the corner.

“Spi—ders?”

Kíli mimed and repeated.

“Spiders. Mirkwood.” She sort of spat the word out.

“You hate spiders because of Mirkwood lass?”

“Mirkwood is spiders.” She said haltingly. “Spiders?” she framed a little space between her fingers and shook her head. “No. Mirkwood? Spiders.” She held her arms out to show something the size of a pony. “Spiders.”

Dwarves knew that many of the other races weren’t fond of spiders. Since there were some nasty characters in history descended from giant spiders made by the enemy, it made some sense. But for the most part, they’d never minded the little fellows.

So they laughed at her hyperbole.

Loudly.

OhyouthinkImjoking? Adorable. Giveitamonthyoutwats. Giantfuckallspidersaregoingtotrytoeatyou. Becauseeverythingtriestoeatyou. Youninniesmustbedelicious. Thenyoullbeonmyside. Jackasses.” A second spider crawled up onto her hand, and she beat it to death with enough force to kill an orc.

“Frey, don’t worry, we’ll protect you from the spiders in Mirkwood.” Kíli said with a patronizing pat on her arm.

She leaned toward him, snagging the cup from his hand. “Ohyouregonnaowemeanapology, Kíli.”

She refused to give the cup back til after it was empty.

Now here they were. Very drunk, and playing a game with the lass that had plagued them for months. Because it turned out that, when she was drunk, she’d copy just about anything they prompted her to say.

Mibilkhagas.”

“Mybulkhaggis.”

Sort of copy.

“Never trust an elf.“ Kíli added sagely.

“Ne’er trust an elf. Wait. Whataboutelves? Ilikeelves. Well. Ilike Glorfindel. Hespretty. Wegotdrunkin Rivendell.”

Kakhaf.” Dwalin muttered.

“Kakhaf.”

“Not Khuzdul.” Fíli growled.

“Not Khuzdul.” She dutifully repeated, “Oh Fili, butIknewthosewordsalready.”

“Don’t make my uncle angrier.”

“Don’t make my un—uncle angier.”

“Maybe that’s the point.” Nori snapped back.

“Maybe thasss the point.”

“You bastard, I thought you didn’t want her to get killed?”

“You basta—mmgh.” Fíli clapped a hand over her mouth. He seemed to be all set to try and lecture Dwalin and Nori for it, but pulled his hand back with a shout. While he wiped his palm on his trouser leg, she stuck out her tongue and gestured at Dwalin.

“Words?”

“I smell awful.” Dwalin smirked behind his beard.

“I smell awful.”

“Orc licking whore.”

“Orc licking whore. Orc? Whyareyouhavingmesay orc, Nori?”

“Nori, behave.”

“Yeah, otherwise Fili’s going to get all grumpy.”

“Fart.”

“Fart.”

“Are you two younger than us?”

“Shit.”

“Shit.”

“This is ridiculous.”

When it had turned into a contest between Dwalin and Nori on who could find the most ridiculous thing for her to say, he wasn’t sure, but Nori wanted to win.

Karhk.”

“Karhk.” That got Nori smacked by both princes.

Faslk.” Dwalin retaliated.

“Falsk. No. Fasal. Fasalk. Faslak. Faslk. Faslk? Faslk!” She echoed, tripping over the syllables. She had made it much worse with most of her slips. It just made two of the dwarves laugh harder. The other two were starting to blush. Which they should have known better than to do. Never let someone see where to hit. Nori flashed a look at Dwalin, and saw the same amusement there.

They were going to have to torment the boys.

Binikhgis fasli.”

“Bin—Binikhgis fasli.”

Marlumên.” Dwalin said with a smug look at the prince.

“Dwalin…” Fíli threatened.

“Marlumên!”

Faslake.”

“Nori!” Fíli snapped, and Dwalin and Nori cackled.

Instead of the usual repetition, there was only silence.

Under her breath, she started to mutter, very softly, trying to solve a puzzle while clouded by drink. “Waitasecond. Fasl? DontIknowthatword? WhydoIknowthatword? Fasl. Fasl. Faslk?”

She looked up, staring at Fili’s annoyance, then at Nori and Dwalin’s amusement.

“Faslk.”

Nori knew that Frey had known a few words of khuzdul. Nothing much of use, but she’d used them once or twice.

He hadn’t expected her to know the know the word for cock.

Suddenly the lass they’d come to know was back. Standing and shouting and flapping at them like an angry bird, and about as dangerous.

Youjackass! Whatthefuckhaveyoubeenmakingmesay? Itrustedyou! Youtraitoroussonofacocksuckingwhore! Okayfine. Iobviouslydontmindswearing! ButIliketoknowImdoingit! Comeon! Letsgofight! Rightnow! Youdruggedme! AndIthinkyoujustmademeproposition Fíli! Letsgo! Outside! Rightnow Nori!”

Kíli pulled her back down, and shoved the cup in her hand. Fíli shifted to keep her from lunging over and trying to beat Nori.

All to the best. She was a bit ruffled.

He made a show of refilling the cup and handing it back to her, letting her drink it down a second time. Mead was helpful in getting her forgiveness, and after a few minutes of the boys glaring and her muttering, she got distracted by her own shoe.

The dwarves reclaimed the cup and started drinking again, mostly quiet, and Nori could still feel the grump in the room.

Into that mood, she interrupted, “I am Dwalin.”

It was a decent mimic of his growly voice.

They cheered hard enough at that she ended up doing more with a broad smile. Her version of Ori had been all wide eyes and considering looks, but she ended it with a substantial look and wink at Dwalin, that none of them missed. Not any more than they missed the way Dwalin went bit pink at being called out on it.

She was taking a bit of her own back.

Nori knocked her sideways when her impersonation of him involved pinching her nose.

Whatswrongwiththat?” She laughed from the ground, “Itswhatyousoundlike! Also,” She pointed right at him and declared, “Bofur.” with the same look she’d given Dwalin.

The guard looked at Nori for a long minute and chuckled tauntingly.

The princes were as well, only interrupted when she tapped Kíli on the shoulder to get his attention.

She copied his doe eyes so well that Fíli spat mead. Then she dropped her jaw lower, shuffled hair into her face and glared. Fíli laughed so hard she had to stop and smack him in the back to try and help him breathe.

Sillyliondwarf,” she murmured as she patted him on the head once he was back to normal.

Frey didn’t seem to be quite so angry when she was drunk. Matter of fact, if anyone was asking for Nori’s opinion, they ought to just keep her drunk from here to the mountain.  Much more pleasant to sit with. Much more forgiving.

But he looked up in time to see her Thorin impression and struck a line through that plan.

Their fearless leader wasn’t going to take kindly to it if he ever saw it. She scowled, and grumped, and growled, slipping her own name into the muttering. Then Fíli held up a hand in a fake puppet and labelled it Bilbo.

Freya switched at once to blinking and half swooning. The boys cracked up louder than before.

“Even she can see it! Ha! Can’t they just make an announcement already?” Kíli yelled.

“Course she can see it, she walked in on em having at it, lad.”

The other three dwarves spun to look at him, and Nori smirked. He’d thought that Fíli had understood what he was seeing before. Apparently not.

“We’re gonna have to tell Gloin. There’s a purse’ll need to pay out.” Dwalin half shouted. He was more sober than the rest, but that didn’t say much. “You saw ‘em lass? Thorin and Bilbo?” Dwalin ended with waggled eyebrows.

“Thorin and Bilbo?” She repeated blankly.

“You saw them.”

“Fíli Idontunderstand. Oh no. IthinkIhadtoomuchofthisstuff. Is Dwalin angryatme? Heseemsangry.

She tilted over to try and whisper secretly. Came out at full volume. And he didn’t had a damned clue what she was saying.

“Frey,” Nori snapped his fingers and got her attention. He pointed and gestured his way through a question, “You saw Thorin and Bilbo today, yeah?”

She blinked a bit slowly and Nori decided that she’d not be having any more of the mead. Then her whole face lit up and she nodded, catching up to what had been asked.

“Oh! OH! YesIdidsee — Yes. Yes. Thorin and Bilbo.” She nodded enthusiastically, then tried to copy the way Dwalin had wiggled his eyebrows to imply a bit of horizontal dancing. It went poorly. Her eyebrows didn’t seem to care what she wanted them to do, and she eventually tried to force them to move using her hands. “Fuckittheydontwanndothat.”

She gave up.

“Thorin. Bilbo.” And she pumped an imaginary cock in front of her face.

Somehow that was enough to crack through the shell of drunken abandon and get the princes to realize they were talking about their uncle. The both of them went from laughing to horrified so fast they probably hurt themselves. Frey noticed. Pumped her hand again and said seriously, “Bilbo. Thorin. Faslk.”

Then dissolved into laughter of her own against Kíli’s shoulder.

Dwalin picked it up from there, tormenting the boys with a lewd set of comments Nori was only too happy to support.

“So Thorin finally managed to find a helping hand, did he?”

“Helping mouth I’m pretty sure.”

“Aye, seems more like by what she’s saying.”

“Ya know the hobbit loves to eat.”

WaitIthinkyouhaveitbackwards.”

“Probably pretty good at it.”

“Better be if he’s kneeling for a king.”

Hangonyoutwoassholes.”

“Not that Thorin’ll mind either way.”

The boys were trying to blush themselves out of existence, and Dwalin and Nori, drunk enough by now to not care, were amending their descriptions with a few gestures of their own. Nori’s miming got him smacked in the arm.

Frey was back to glaring.

“No. No.” She held up a finger and sounded so serious they boys came up from hiding in their hands. Their mistake. “Thorin?” she tapped her knees and pointed at her mouth. “Bilbo? Falsk.” She gestured at her crotch.

Frey nodded shortly, like everything was all cleared up after that.

“Now hang on lass. Yer gonna tell me that Thorin was the one on his knees?”

She puzzled at Dwalin a minute, “Thorin wasveryhappywith Bilbo allpantslessandinhismouth. Dontjudge Dwalin. Itsreallyfun.” She wagged her finger at them before getting distracted looking for the cup with the mead. It was empty, and hiding behind Kíli, not that she needed to know that.

“Thorin?” Dwalin tapped his knees.

She tapped her knees with a crooked smile.

Dwalin returned it, then bellowed as he jumped to his feet, “Gloin! Gloin, where are ya? You owe me coin!”

 


 

Fíli wasn’t sure how any of the five of them had managed to even stand up the next morning, let alone climb onto ponies. He was fairly sure he was still drunk.

If they managed to reclaim the mountain, he was going to spend most of his share buying any quantity of that mead that Beorn would be willing to sell him. It had been enough to put them all pretty soundly on their collective asses. They were dwarves, that meant it had to be something pretty incredible. There were substantial gaps in his memory of the previous evening. That was just impressive.

He drank another water skin empty and saw his brother with the heels of his hands digging into his eyes. Dwalin just looked grumpy, but hadn’t even greeted Ori, so he must be half dead.

Nori had clearly stolen something from Oin’s bag since he wasn’t tipped sideways over a log.

The rest of the company had chuckled and placed bets on their discomfort.

Freya was green.

Covered in packs once again, no longer limping, and hugging an uncomfortable looking Beorn around the middle.

But decidedly green.

The shape changer removed her, and placed her on the pony at the end of the group.

Thorin shouted for them to move out.

Fíli wasn’t the only one who flinched.

At least they weren’t expecting any problems until they got to Mirkwood, and at least now he  could try to keep their follower from getting killed chasing after them.

Well.

After the headache went away.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

When Balin had agreed to help Thorin reclaim the mountain -- or more likely, die along the way if the beginning of their journey was a fair estimation -- he had expected to be what he had always been, an advisor. He would provide rational advice, he would present arguments and support for Thorin as they travelled, and, if by grace of Mahal, they actually succeeded, he would almost certainly need to serve as an ambassador and attempt to placate relations between the hotheaded heir of Durin and, well, everyone in the surrounding area.

He had not anticipated having to babysit a group of children.

Yet.

He couldn’t even decide who was the worst. His brother and their scribe were gawping at each other whenever they could. They were also attempting to talk, or maybe they were attempting to flirt. It was unclear. Which made it horrid to watch. His brother seemed to spend most of his time floundering and then apologizing for some flub. Ori would just babble on about things that Dwalin failed to follow.

They were absurd but in their defense, they hadn’t done anything untoward, just acted like they were about thirty as they rode their ponies beside each other all day long.

Balin couldn’t fault them, no matter how irritating it was to watch them be so unspeakably bad at everything they tried.

He could however, fault Nori and Bofur. The both of them were covered in bruises. Most of which seemed to be fist shaped. Not all. Their beards weren’t quite enough to hide several impressive purple constellations on their necks.

Not that they were admitting to this.

Only thing for it was to put them on opposite watches, and beg a favor from Oin, equally annoyed with all this nonsense. With a half deaf healer repeating everything he heard at the top of his lungs as he rode between them, it at least curtailed the proliferation of the bruises.

At the front of the line was his biggest irritation.

Thorin and Bilbo.

Balin had taken to grumbling whenever he saw either of them. There may have been a few moments when they weren’t riding beside each other, but those were rare. He had considered calling Thorin out on his behavior in camp one night after a particularly flirtatious day. He wasn’t in the mood to spar though. So instead he, and the rest of the company, tried to avert their eyes. With Dwalin’s assurance that another bet had to be payed out, the company was on tenterhooks waiting for one or the other of them to verbally acknowledge the relationship.

Their standards were slipping. Glóin was now willing to pay out based on the first time one of them used an endearment within earshot of a company member.

This meant that at all times someone had the unenviable job of trying to eavesdrop on them.

Balin had flatly refused to take up that burden.

So he rode in the middle of the group, able to see all of the misbehavior, from all of the various pairings that were really rather ridiculous since they were riding toward their doom in the form of an angry fire drake.

Fíli and Kíli had informed him that the worm lived.

It had dampened his mood somewhat.

There was, after all, a reason that the dwarves of Erebor had fled the mountain. They hadn’t been able to kill the thing. Girion had tried. With the best weapon available, and an open shot as it flew overhead, Girion, one of the best archers alive at the time, had been unable to kill the beast.

Their only true archer was Kíli.

Balin wasn’t hopeful.

Not that he doubted the lad’s skill, but well, dragons weren’t quite the same as bringing down a stag.

He sighed and glanced over his shoulder at the boys. Fíli was glaring as Kíli teased him over something. It was good to see that their spirits hadn’t fallen in the face of the task ahead, or the traumas behind.

Now, if they could just sort out something resembling a plan, Balin might remember how to smile.

Again, he wasn’t overly hopeful.

Because they had a new problem. One that no matter how he tried to pretend otherwise, Balin could not pretend he had seen coming.

Freya was avoiding them. Or, as well as she could while travelling with them.

Of all the things to have happened after months of her endless, infuriating pursuit, none of them would have expected it. Yet that was how it seemed to be going. No matter who tried to edge closer to her, no matter how they delayed, she would find a way to fall back, out of range to speak, or would edge her pony to the side of the line, out of comfortable earshot.

He had been told that the lass had chatted and listened to Ori on the last day at Beorn’s, that she had been half decent company after a quantity of mead had been poured down her throat.

Something in that interaction must have put her off from talking to them. She wasn’t talking to any of them, but Dwalin and Nori had been treated to some vulgar gestures whenever they got close.

The lads had slightly better luck.

But she still wouldn’t talk to them.

This was their last day of riding, and they would reach the forest by mid afternoon. Beorn had made it clear that the ponies were to be returned before they stepped onto the forest path. The last three days had been easy, which had no doubt contributed to the concentrated infantile behavior.

The evenings were spent running Ori and Bilbo through sparring exercises while Kíli eased back into using his bow after being gnawed on by a warg. With luck, the practice would increase Bilbo’s time before dying in a fight from two blows to five, maybe ten if the orc was particularly slow. Compared to how much fuss as he’d given on the subject as they left Rivendell, their hobbit was strangely agreeable on the subject.

Probably because he was working with Thorin now. And if he improved, he was going to get to whack him.

Ori had surprised everyone but Nori by being unexpectedly quick on the uptake. Since he had apparently laid claim to Dwalin’s hammer, he was being trained by Dwalin.

That was a bit uncomfortable to watch for Balin. Only because they did their best flirting then. Best, but still awkward and stilted.

He and Óin and Dori always sat to the side, ignoring all of the shenanigans around them. On the far side of camp, so far from the others it barely counted as being in camp, Freya would sit and stare out into the woods, not even coming closer to obtain food.

Balin sighed on a low stream of grumbled annoyances. Then he pulled on the reins and dropped behind to speak with Fíli and Kíli. They were the best hope he had to find out what had happened to change her song. They also needed to start thinking of a plan to kill a dragon. Thorin certainly hadn’t thought of one.

“Afternoon, Balin.” Fíli greeted, overriding whatever his brother had been saying. More teasing most likely.

“Lads. How much do the two of you recall about dragons from your lessons?” There was no sense in starting with the lesser problem. “Do you recall their weaknesses and their strengths? You remember the stories about Girion?”

Kíli groaned into his hands. “Oh no, you too. Balin, not you too. Fí already keeps saying I have to slay the thing. Can’t we just start training everyone else? Maybe Dwalin is great with a bow and just doesn’t know it yet!”

“He’s not.” He answered flatly. Balin had seen that effort. It wasn’t pretty.

“Then let’s just stop by the elves! They’re great with bows. I’ll give them half my share!”

Balin stared until Kíli melted back down with another groan.

“No one said you had to slay the dragon, laddie.”

“Fíli did!”

Fíli was smiling and trying not to. It was mostly soft amusement, but there was a definite vein of pride in it as well. Balin agreed. If Kíli could be given an appropriate weapon, and could be kept out of his own mind, and the doubts that always plagued him, he had as much a chance of killing Smaug as Girion had ever had.

Of course, Kíli really only had two attitudes. Cocksure to the point that he was reckless—as exemplified by their idiotic charge off of the tree. Or, hounded by every jab and insult that had been spit at him by visiting dwarves from the other clans.

Given his choice, he’d rather have the confidently obnoxious one face down the dragon.

“And I’m not saying that you have to kill the worm, but you are an archer. And we have good reason to think that it will take an archer to fell him. We have plenty of time to think of how it will be done before we get there.”

Some of the tension slipped out of him, and he nodded, trusting his childhood tutor.

“But we do need to find a plan.”

“Maybe Frey knows something else that’s more helpful.” Kíli volunteered, turning in the saddle to look for her.

She was separate again, riding along the side of the column, and looking into the patches of trees nearby as if she expected to see something.

Balin didn’t say anything. Didn’t ask. He just shifted his best authoritative scowl onto Fíli and waited. It didn’t take long.

“I don’t know. Balin, I don't know.” The prince dragged a hand over his beard, “That first day she was a bit the worse for wear. Well, all of us were, as you know. Beorn makes excellent mead, and we really ought to try to get the recipe or purchase some after Kíli kills the dragon and we have a party.”

“See Balin!”

“But that first day was just recovery.”

Balin nodded, ignoring the younger heir. He’d actually won the purse on which of them would fall of the saddle first. It was Kíli.

“I didn’t think about it then. I thought she was just trying to avoid the shouting and the yelling. But she didn’t take the tea that Óin handed round at lunch. And it’s just gotten worse since. She won’t even talk to Ori.”

He must have missed Ori attempting that. He had known that the scribe had managed to teach her a number of useful words, and had been quite eager to work with her again. Ori enjoyed teaching enormously. He was also the least imposing of any of them, and she was still dodging him.

“Has anything else happened?”

“Nothing particular.”

“Fí. You ought to tell him.”

Fili’s growl was so close to the one Thorin used so often that Balin looked up for the Company’s leader.

“It’s not — och, fine Kí.” The prince turned and began to choose his words carefully. “You have noticed that she does not sleep near the rest of us when we make camp?”

Balin nodded. He was going to have to start up their lessons again. Between their excellent assessments on the presence of doors and their recent decision making skills, they clearly were in need of a reminder of the benefits of educated thinking.

“I thought it was just because she doesn’t like us much. Which, considering the last few months, I understand. Myself and Nori did drug her. Uncle has tried to kill her. You know all of this—“ He cut off and fiddled with his mustache again.

So Kíli jumped in to help. “We were on middle watch that first night because Uncle overheard us talking ‘bout New Uncle Bilbo.”

“Thank you Kíli, I was getting there. We were on middle watch. You know how it is on middle watch, not really all the way awake and so you think you have heard something that isn’t truly there?”

“Lad, is there a point to all this?”

“She has nightmares.” Kíli said shortly. “Bad ones.”

“So does Thorin, lad. Most of us do.”

Fíli and Kíli looked at each other for a moment. They’d always been able to hold a conversation without needing to speak.

“Not like this.”

“You agree that she’s some kind of seer, Balin?” Fíli pressed, “I think the dreams are what she sees. When she sees. We woke her, and she didn’t look… good. I checked on her again the next night and didn’t see any sign of a dream, but last night I did, and woke her again. Uh, after, she got up and walked into the dark for a while, talking to herself the whole time. Nori was on watch. He said she came back when the sun started to rise.

“And on the Carrock, I think she was having one then, too. She almost fell down the stairs.”

“Fili’s been paying close attention to her, Balin.” Kíli added brightly.

Fíli shoved him.

“I have, because she knows what is coming, and none of us have liked the things that she has alluded to.”

“King Dain.”

“King Dain.” Fíli agreed.

“So what do you plan to do about it then, Fíli?” Balin asked, consciously using the tone he did with Thorin when operating in his formal capacity as an advisor. The prince heard it, recognized it, and raised his chin as he considered an answer.

“She does not trust us. That is is at the heart of the problem. She does not trust we do not mean her harm. She does not believe she is safe around us. So she is unwilling to talk to us. We need to know what she has seen. So we must convince her that she is a part of the company.”

“She’s not a part of the company nadad. Did you not hear uncle’s speech on that?”

“I did. That is the other problem. Thorin.”

“So what do you want to do about it?”

“We have to find a way to include her.”

“Even if she doesn’t want to be?”

“Aye.”

Kíli snorted, “Because it went so well when we tried to force her to do something before brother.”

Balin looked up at the sky and hummed a moment. The grey clouds moving toward them from the north promised that the warm day would not last.

“We will be in the forest by nightfall. The path is narrow, and she’ll not have much choice but to stay close while there. Unless she has less respect for her own life than we think, she will need to come closer. Then you can try to speak to her.”

“Ori.”

Balin and Kíli shared a quick look before turning back to Fíli. He returned it with obvious exasperation. “Last night when I woke her from a dream she tried to break my nose. We’ll send Ori. Bilbo too if we can separate him from Uncle.”

The three sorted out the lesser details, and continued their ride, enjoying the mercy of the ponies for as long as possible. Before the weather turned they had found the path, freed the animals, shouldered heavy packs, and begun to walk.

She stayed on the edge for a long time, staring at the receding ponies, searching for something Balin could not guess. He just heard her muttering Beorn’s name amidst a longer stream of incomprehensible gibberish. When she saw him watching she cut off and shook off his gestured concern.

The lads had been right, she wasn’t looking well.

Despite Fíli and Kili’s best efforts to coerce her forward to join the rest, Freya remained at the rear of the procession, and didn’t speak to any of them as they began the more dangerous task of crossing Mirkwood.

 


 

Mirkwood was not a pleasant place.

Ori was trying his best to make their journey seem appropriately noble and glorious. They were trying to reclaim their ancestral home from a dragon, it was somewhat inherent that the tale of it be noble and glorious.

Mirkwood was trying to prevent that.

Try as he did when he wrote down notes each evening, Mirkwood refused to seem glorious.

That might have had to do with the fact that they were having a bit of trouble keeping track of the path. They had been warned, repeatedly and at great length by the shape changer who had hosted them that if they lost the path they were going to die horrible deaths. But it was like the path didn’t want them on it. If Ori looked up from the half hidden stones for more than a step or two, he found himself pulled back to it by either his brothers or Dwalin.

And he most certainly didn’t fuss each time it was Dwalin, or worry that it was lowering the warrior’s opinion of him.

Fine. He was worrying. Extensively. And once, he actually fell over in his worry, but since it had been Dwalin that caught him…Well. He took better care after that point. There was no need to seem helpless.

Balin had taken one look at the path, one look at Thorin, and marched to the front to lead them through. Ori’s mentor had travelled it before, and recalled at least a general shape of where it was supposed to be. Thorin had wandered off it so many times already that Bilbo had threatened to tie a rope about his waist and lead him like a pony until they reached the other side. Whatever Thorin’s quiet reply had been made Bilbo turn bright red.

The first night under the trees wasn’t that bad all things considered.

They lit a fire, and swatted at the enormous moths and beetles that pestered them. Annoying, but not much worse than any other night. The princes sat down on either side of him, and, in very soft whispers asked him to try and talk to Freya again in the morning. They were hoping he could teach her a bit more language. Or learn something.

He had no objection, since he had noticed how she kept herself apart from all of the others. She had also never put on the binder Nori had loaned to her, despite agreeing to when they had finally caught her.

Ori woke eager and pleased.

The day went downhill from there.

The sheer force of concentration required to get one foot placed in front of the other was alarming. The trees crowded above them, and by midday the canopy was so dense, the company was trapped in a permanent dusk. They sat on roots and rocks and chewed on the dried fruit and flat bread they carried.

Personally, he thought their packs were overstuffed. Ori knew how large the forest was, and how long it should take to cross it— just about three weeks. He also know how much they ate, and how much they carried. It was a bit excessive.

More than a bit.

But better to have sore shoulders than an empty stomach. He smiled at that thought, and hoped he would remember it when he wrote notes that night.

When they started again, Fíli and Kíli were pointing and gesturing and encouraging him to go talk to Frey. They had taken up the rear of the line and were going to keep her from slipping behind.

Ori had already noted that the forest was worse at some times than at others. Sometimes just for a few steps, sometimes for a few hours, but there were definite patches of the forest where it felt terribly oppressive. Currently they were in one of the relatively pleasant and lively patches, so he allowed himself to be coerced.

“Hello.” He said it clearly and waved broadly as he stepped next to her.

“Ori.” That was not the voice of someone eager for company.

And the response from Fíli when he tried to step back was a bit of fairly explicit iglishmek.

He replied in kind.

There were advantages to being related to Nori. Today it was Fíli’s shocked outrage.

“Freya, I thought I would teach you more words.”

“No. Spiders.” She said, still staring suspiciously at a bit of cobweb as she walked.

Well, alright. Kíli had told him she seemed to have an aversion to spiders. However, they really did need her able to talk in more than mono phrases like a toddler.

Time to put his foot down. He actually tripped right after thinking that, and had to lunge to regain his balance. But he managed to gather some confidence before he spoke.

“Yes. Words.”

She didn't quite meet his eye, and she didn’t quite smile, but she did get close. Ori took it as permission, and picked up from where they had left off at Beorn’s.

“Yes. Well. You did very well with the questions that I was teaching you before, I suppose we should continue with the more useful words. Objects and such. Since we’re here and there’s not too much to look at I suppose we can start with this. Tree.” He pointed.

She pointed to a scrawny shrub. “Tree?”

“Bush.”

“Tree?” She tried again, and tapped a vine as they passed it.

“That’s a vine. That’s a tree.”

“Thassa tree.”

“That is a tree.”

She paused on the path a moment and shook her head. “That is? Isthislikewhentheelvestaughtmeconjugation? Isitlike He is? She is? Isthatwordljustageneralmeaning? Justagenerallabel? That? That is tree. That is vine. That is okactuallyidontknowwhatthefuckthatthingis. That is Bombur. That and that and that and that?” She pointed to objects by turn and then looked at him for confirmation.

Ori beamed back and nodded. He pointed at just about everything around them labeling each with the same phrase. She probably only caught half. But it was progress. Once he had run out of things in the forest to label, he started to flounder.

They walked a little while in silence, and Ori didn’t notice she was drifting further from him with each step until the hiss from the princes caught his attention.

Yes. She was doing it again. They had warned him she would. She was slowly walking at a greater distance, placing herself between Ori and Dori ahead of him. Her eyes were fixated a few people down the line though, watching Bilbo intently for minutes at a time before shaking her head and searching the trees around them. She was still a bit pale, probably from the infection. She also had dark smudges below her eyes.

He needed to keep her attention then, since it seemed to wander off at random times. And he didn't know any other plant words.

He was a well read dwarf, but he was a dwarf in the end.

The idea came to him in a flash and he beamed. “Freya?”

Skittish, that was probably the best way for how she was behaving. Spooked and skittish, like a caught animal, and Ori didn’t know why. It wasn’t as if he was a particularly intimidating dwarf, no matter how much he wished it was otherwise.

She didn’t run though.

“Hand.”  He held it up and pointed to it.

She agreed hesitantly and repeated. The accent really was awful. But he would address that later.

So Ori began to label every body part he could think of, with a few notable exceptions. He moved onto clothing, and then to weapons. Which she struggled with horribly. Ori’s efforts to mime the use of them had been met with a blank gaze.

Behind him, he knew that Fíli and Kíli were listening in, watching them more than keeping rear guard as they were supposed to be doing.

By the time they were setting up a fire for the night he had her full attention, and she was occasionally stopping him to ask more detailed questions. She struggled with some words so much he gave up. Fletching wasn’t worth the effort, even after Kíli loaned them an arrow as reference. So he left that at ‘arrow’ and moved on.

Scabbard was also a lost cause. She just couldn’t get the word out of her mouth.

He sat on a little pile of goodness knows what that was at a decent height for a seat. He left the stone next to it open, hoping she would take the invitation.

Ori saw her look from the circle of the company to the rock, and remained standing outside that invisible line of inclusion. She was still on the path. Mostly.

“Freya?” He gestured to the rock.

For a thin, awkward moment, he thought she would cave and sit down. Then her eyes looked behind Ori and he didn’t need to turn to know who was glaring at her from the other side of the camp.

“No.”

She walked away, and managed to get past the princes while they dropped packs onto the ground. Frey sat down against a tree, just close enough to be seen by whoever was on watch, but not a step closer.

Ori frowned at her, and tossed an iglishmek insult at Kíli when he got received look of offended indignation. If it was so easy to keep her in one place, they shouldn’t have any problem doing it.

“Don’t let Dori see you saying that.”

Dwalin sat on the rock with a weary groan and a little smile.

“Nori teach you that?”

“No.” Ori smiled a bit before answering somewhat bashfully, “Balin.”

The laugh it earned was loud and unexpected. “My brother?”

“Kíli spilled a bowl of stew on a manuscript he was supposed to study.”

“Didn’t think you took lessons with the lads.”

“I didn’t. I was three rooms down the hall.”

And there was that laugh again.

Dwalin was a lot less intimidating when he was laughing like that. No, that wasn’t true. He was still Dwalin. So he was still intimidating. He could still pick one of them up and use them as a club if he wanted. He could still face down an army for his king. Ori had seen him in Goblintown, there was going to be no need to exaggerate in the chronicle about how much Dwalin did to get them to the Lonely Mountain.

“Sup’ll be done soon enough once they manage to find enough wood that’s not soaked through or rotten.”

“Yes.”

Oh wonderful, they were back to these strange stilted conversations that they had. When they spoke. When they didn’t just ride next to each other and quite obviously not talk except for what Ori was convinced were either accidental insults or a very rude litany of all of his faults.

Not tonight.

Ori had had a fairly good day, and wasn’t going to let Dwalin stammer his way into an insult again.

“If this is about your hammer, don’t bother asking. I told you, I’m keeping it.”

He said it with finality and looked away, noticing Dori’s cautious frown, and the fact that the boys had scared Frey even further off from the group as they tried to talk to her.

“That’s that then? I don’t get a vote on it?”

“Well, no. You lost it, and I found it, and I like it rather a lot. Feels good in the hand, and it’s much more powerful than anything I’ve had before.” His intention had been to sincerely compliment the weapon. Dwalin really was quite proud of it. Weaponry seemed to be the only thing they could speak about without stammering. Ori didn’t really hear what he said until Dwalin started turning pink and looking with great focus at the dirt in his knuckle dusters.

He could almost hear Nori snickering in his mind.

Oh damn. Blast. Damn. That wasn’t how that was supposed to have gone.

That just made him sound far more forward that he would ever have the courage to be.

He was still worrying at his mistake when Dwalin cleared his throat.

“Well, if you’re so set on keeping it, one of these days we’ll have a go so I can see if you know how to use it proper.”

Then the pink on his cheeks deepened and the grizzled warrior walked to the opposite side of camp to set next to his brother and face into the trees around them.

So sure that he had made some further error, it took him a few minutes to hear it.

The gloom of Mirkwood had one advantage. No one noticed as he hid his face in his notes.

 

***

 

The next day was spent much as the first. Marching forward, trying to remember any detail that seemed important, trying to get Freya to walk beside him so he could list more words for her, and test what she remembered. It went poorly the second day. He started by reviewing and she was so distracted she got almost everything wrong.

Ori must have taught her too many words at once. Unless confusing trees and feet was a normal problem. He doubted that.

Fíli and Kíli had actually had the nerve to whine at him when she managed to escape him for the third time. Quite a lot of nerve that, considering that the pair of them sent her flitting off every time they approached. But the princes had never had a good sense of disproportionate reactions.

Once he managed to get away from the pair, still grousing that Ori should have tried harder, he was greeted by Dwalin bringing him a bowl of stew.

It wasn't very good.

Nothing tasted good in Mirkwood. The same dried fruit that had been flavorful and bright as they rode to the forest tasted like leather under the trees.

“Thank you.”

“Tastes awful.”

Ori waited a moment to see if further would be said. When it didn’t, he filled the space, “Yes, Mister Beorn did tell us that the forest is under some kind of affliction. I don’t know what it does, but I’m sure you have felt it. Everything is… well the word I keep using in my notes is that it feels  grey here. I know that it isn’t. There is plenty of color, and I wrote about that as well. But it does feel grey doesn’t it? And I think that’s why the food tastes like this. If grey had a taste, this is what I imagine it would be like. Not that colors have tastes. That would just be preposterous. All the same, there is something affecting everything in this forest, and I do wish I knew what it was.”

A side effect of being a scribe was that he could be a bit garrulous. It wasn’t his fault that the puzzle of this forest and its strange smells and it’s strange sensation was both important to the chronicle and absolutely stumping him. Ori was interested.

By the way that Dwalin was frozen with his spoon midway to his mouth, Ori was the only one who was interested.

“Yes, well, I’ll just let you eat then.”

Ori walked to Nori and sat down, never minding that his brother was hissing insults at Bofur.

That hadn’t gone quite right.

Next time he had a chance to talk to Dwalin he needed to sound less like a babbling dwarfing and more like a practiced scholar. He’d have hoped to sound like a warrior, but Ori knew when something was hopeless.

Not that he had another chance to talk to Dwalin for a few days.

As they moved deeper into the woods, there was a growing sense that they were being watched. It put all of them on edge, and Dwalin, as Thorin’s chief guard, spent most of the day and night at his side. He seemed a bit uncomfortable there, not that Ori spent the days watching him or anything like that. Ori supposed it was because of whatever Bilbo and Thorin were whispering to each other that Dwalin kept looking over his shoulder.

He spent most of his time just remembering how to walk, and had to abandon his efforts to teach Freya words as they travelled.

She would tolerate a few, but hardly more than that during lunch, and in the evening, she recited everything she could remember.

Ori didn’t stop pestering her until she listed them all, so by the fourth day of the routine, she began as soon as he approached.

“Foot. Boot. Leg. Belt. Bag. Fasl. Khark. Shirt. Finger.” She finished. She had a patently false innocence painted on her face.

Ori squeaked at her, and was hardly the only one. It was a small camp, and most of the others heard her nightly recitation. Nori and Dwalin started giggling.

Thorin’s reaction wasn’t so cheery. Ori had the misfortune of making eye contact with the king and saw the way he was scowling. Bilbo caught his arm and pulled him away from the others.

They started on yet another argument. Quite an angry one in fact. No. Bilbo was angry. Thorin was perfectly calm.

Ori turned back to Freya, hoping she recalled the words for questions because he most certainly wanted to know if his brother was responsible for this.

She was already gone.

She was back to the edge of camp, dropping the packs from her back, and leaving the ones on her legs as she tucked against a log.

“She doesn’t trust us.” Fíli groused.

“Why would she?” Ori had heard enough of the whining on this subject in the last few days. They apparently believed that she should have happily believed everything they told her the moment they started speaking to her. As if the months before had never happened. “How long did it take her to gain our trust, months? And she had to — she went through Goblintown and then ran straight at Azog! And then helped Thorin, who tried to kill her! And! She still doesn’t have it, Fíli. The Compnay doesn’t trust her. You don’t trust her. If we trusted her she might trust us, but all you’ve done is bother her all the time. Can’t you see she isn’t well?”

Chastened, Fíli fiddled with his mustache. “I trust her.” It was low but vehement.  

Ori snorted. “So why do you still have her weapon on your belt?”

“She won’t let me talk to her.”

“So why don’t you just set it with her things one night when you’re on watch?” Fíli didn’t answer, though he did his best impersonation of his uncle’s scowl.

“I don’t think it would be wise for her to wake with a weapon.”

“I told you. You don’t trust her.” Ori was done with the roundabout conversation.

“Ori, I do, she is a part of the Company now, she needs to understand that, and you’re the only one who she seems to speak to. You have to convince her she’s one of us. Then she might tell us what is happening and why she spends her nights—”

“What do you want me to do? I can’t make her trust us.”

“You were right, about her hammer. Give it back to her. She won’t think you’re attacking her. Just take it over and give it back.” Fíli brought out the hammer and tried to press it into Ori’s hands. Which seemed like a terrible idea to Ori.

“Don’t.”

Ori’s eyes nearly fell out of his head at the rumble of Thorin’s voice beside him. Thorin stepped closer and there was no longer a way for him to escape, caught between two bristling dwarves who seemed intent on having an argument over the top of his head.  This had to be just about the worst place he could be standing in the entire camp. But when he turned to his brothers for aid, they were too busy watching the silent battle happening between the king and his heir.

Ingadan, she is travelling with us as we agreed, but she is not a member of the company. I do not want her armed.” His voice wasn’t angry, but it was immovable.

“She is travelling with us, that makes her a member of the Company. Can we really afford not to have every available hand for defense?”

“Defense against what? We haven’t seen something larger than a squirrel in days. None of us are going to attack her. The only result of giving her a weapon would be to allow her to cause us harm.”

“Any of us could bring her down if she were to try. Ori could defeat her — Bilbo could defeat her!” Bilbo shouted an objection. Ori just tried to not be noticed. “She’s hardly any good with it. It’s not a risk.”

“Then there is no purpose in giving it to her.”

Oddly, it was Fíli who was getting frustrated. He rarely did, and in the face of Thorin’s calm it was only more obvious.

“She deserves to be able to defend herself. We have not seen anything, but we were warned of the dangers of this place!”

“And one of those warnings was that the forest would attempt to lead us astray, show us things that are not there. That it would deceive us. Given her temperament I would prefer to avoid her being armed in such a situation.”

“But what about everything else?”

“If we are attacked by the squirrels?”

Ori was fairly sure that was a joke, but wasn’t about to look up at the king to confirm it. Fíli tightened his fists. Ori watched and shrank down, trying to be even less noticeable. Not that he thought this would escalate like that. Not between the line of Durin. But he had to admit that the forest had caused some very strange mood swings in them all.

“If we are attacked, she would have no defense.”

“If we are attacked, she is within the protection of the group, so she will not be at risk. As you have said, she is not skilled with a weapon. Arming her serves no purpose.”

“With Gandalf’s departure we are only fifteen!”

“Fourteen.”

“Fifteen, uzbad.”

“Fourteen, rayad.”

Ori winced and looked across the bit of clearing. Freya was watching, and Ori regretted what they had learned today.

She knew how to count to twenty. She’d been quite interested in the number fourteen.

She looked like she was chewing on a lemon.

“Uncle, this forest is cursed,” Fíli began again, impassioned, “It is not safe. You have warned us all time and again to be on our guard. If she is included in our party, if she is—“

“Fíli!”

Her sharp voice turned every head. She looked between the two for a moment. “AsmuchasIhateadmittingthatprickisright. Heisright. Fourteen, Fíli. Imnotpartofthecompany.”

Then she walked back to where she usually did and sat.

Ori had been quite right.

Mirkwood was not a pleasant place.

 


 

Given his preference Thorin would have been glad to see every last tree in the blasted forest hacked down and used as kindling for the great forges. Coal would burn better, but the temptation of burning the whole of the forest into tiny embers and ash was particularly tempting. He could have the ash made into soap and he could scrub his royal arse with it.

They had been here for a week. No. Ten days. Nine days? He thought so. It may have been longer.

He would need to ask Ori to confirm it. Their scribe at least seemed able to keep track of the passage of time thanks to his book of notes.

Their packs were lightening. Even knowing that he ought to worry over that implication, he could not stop being grateful that the straps dug in less, and that, beside him, Bilbo was flinching less as he walked.

Thorin had already transferred a quantity of the weight from Bilbo’s bag to his own. In small increments so that it wouldn’t be noticed, of course.

The Company was fractious and snarling at each other as they walked.

Some days were worse than others. Some hours were especially terrible. Some days Thorin almost couldn't tell that Bilbo walked beside him. His hobbit would say nothing for an entire day’s walk, and would simply stare at the ground and the canopy of sickly leaves above them.

Then there were days when they all laughed and joked and while they never managed to break into song, they were happy through the march. Their packs felt lighter on those days.

They walked faster. They were happier. The air was less foul and they could think more clearly.

This had been one of those days.

It was fortunate. Otherwise they may have broken into a fight.

When they all slowed to a stop, spreading out over the area, his company was all staring at the same thing. A broken bridge they could not cross. Beorn had told them of the dangers of the forest before their departure. He had told them of the confusion that suffused the air. He had told them that there were toxic plants. He had told them that the first major water they crossed was poisoned, and the could not so much as touch it.

Then the shapeshifter had informed them that there was, luckily, a bridge over it.

Or, as it turned out, a broken bridge.

“Alright, what do we do now?” Bilbo chirped.

“We must find a way to cross it.”

“Very nice. Well spotted, Thorin. Is this the one that Beorn spoke of? The river of sleep?”

“We must assume so.”

“Right, then swimming through it is out. Which is good, since I can’t swim.”

Thorin turned from their newest problem to stare, “You cannot swim?”

“Hobbits don’t swim Thorin. It’s hardly just me.”

“You need to learn.”

He looked stricken over the suggestion. “Perhaps one day. But not in this. Though I do fancy a nap. If only I could have something to tire me out first.” It really was a good day if Bilbo was teasing him.

Cheeky hobbit.

“I do believe between the two of us it is you and not I who would object to the lack of privacy. Or have I misjudged that?” The pair was away from the others, standing atop the former bridge. No one would hear their conversation, though they might have noticed current Bilbo’s slack jaw sputters of outrage.  

“Th— Thorin, you wouldn’t dare.”

“Dare what?”

Bilbo frowned, no, pouted, and Thorin badly wanted to kiss the bothersome creature. But he really would object to being so public about it all. Besides, so long as they didn’t acknowledge the bond, they didn’t have to be subjected to the Company’s commentary. Thorin was willing to bend tradition and propriety, and keep his hands to himself for the sake of that peace.

But still, as his hobbit tried to intimidate him, he very much wanted to kiss him into oblivion.

“Uncle Thorin! We think we can see a boat!”

He spun, startled, to see his younger nephew pointing across the river.

However, he could see nothing through the gloom. Bilbo took another step forward on the bridge and began to nod.

“Yes, I do believe that is a boat. Fíli, are you still carrying that rope?”

In short order they had a hook and rope together, and Nori was elected to throw it across by Dwalin.  He missed twice, the hook catching on nothing as it was pulled back toward them. All of them looked askance at the wet line, but there was no choice except to hope that a small amount of water would not be enough to harm them. Bilbo ran over to point more clearly, and on the third throw, they all cheered at the sound.

The craft was too small to carry them all, and shoddily built. It had to serve though.

They decided to cross in small groups, leaving Bombur’s disproportionate bulk to the last, riding with Bilbo. Before climbing into the boat with Nori, Bofur and Dwalin, Freya hurried to Kíli.

“Kíli, waitasecond. Imnotsurewhatshappeningbecausethisisbookcanon. AndIneverlikedthispart. Therehasntbeenmuchoftit. Butthisisdefinitelybookcanon. Becausewellboat. AndIdontknowifwereonschedule. ButIthinktheresgoingtobeadeer. AndIdontwanttocarry Bombur. Loveya Bombur, buthellnotothat. Kíli. Arrow and bow. Eyes for….food? squirrel? Ori youhaventtaughtmethisword. Wehaventseenany. AndIdontknowwhatsoundtheymake. Likeatall.”

Ori and Bilbo both joined her.

She was too serious for Thorin to stop them. She just seemed utterly sincere as she tried to get Kíli to do something for her. His brilliant hobbit watched her flailing for a moment, and said decisively, “There’s going to be an elk. Kíli, keep your bow out. Maybe we can have a proper meal.”

Satisfied as soon as Kíli had half nocked an arrow, Freya climbed into the craft without complaint.

It went smoothly.

That was surprising considering the luck that they had possessed so far in their journey, but Thorin was not going to contest successfully crossing a magical river without mishap. Bilbo was smirking at him from the boat as they pulled it nearer. Bombur sat somewhat grumpily behind him.

They were the last, and then they could continue. The sooner the better.

The forest was getting worse by the day.

There had been more arguments. More sniping and backtalk. He was confident that it was not a matter of true insubordination, but of this thrice accursed, elf-plagued forest. They would walk longer each day, he decided, and try to be free of it within another week.

Thorin turned to the sound of approaching hooves, as did almost every other person on the bank.

Freya spun the other way, running toward the bank and shouting, “Bombur, down! Fuckssakeduckyouidiot! Down!”

It was Bilbo that flung an arm over Bombur’s shoulder and pulled him down. The stag burst through them all, and made to leap to the bridge.

It crashed back down before it began, an arrow buried in its neck.

There was a moment of perfect stillness as every eye travelled from their newly found dinner, to Kíli, then to Freya. Then a cheer rose for Kíli, and the meat they would get to have that night and in the morning. Thorin and Dwalin resumed hauling on the rope to bring over their last two companions.

“Frey.” Thorin heard Ori’s eagerness, and was begrudgingly grateful that he would not have to ask himself, “You saw that, yes?” He was speaking deliberately, and though Thorin did not turn, he knew that the dwarf was miming to help her understand.

“No. That no.”

“But you told us about it. Well, we thought you said it was an elk, but I think that’s close enough! That was incredible! You know things that small? You know about the little things, not just the big ones? But why were you yelling at Bombur? What did you think would happen? We have to teach you faster. There’s so much you need to tell us!”

“No. Ori. I eyes… shitthisisweird. Iwasntthinking. Idontknowwhatshappening. Ihatenotknowing. Ori. I eyes—“

“Saw.”

“Saw?”

“Saw.”

“I saw? Bombur water. Bombur and water. Sleep. YouhavenoideahowmuchIhatethisbytheway. Ichangedit. Ijustdidntwanttocarryhim. Butnowthingswillbedifferent. Whichmakesmeuseless.”

“Are you alright?”

Differentisbad Ori! Everytimeitsdifferent? Itsworse. Mirkwood isalreadyawful. Thisisgoingtojustbeshittasticallyawfulnow.” She was getting shrill and she raised her voice.

Bilbo climbed out of the boat and bypassed Thorin to stand directly in front of Freya. “Young lady,” He began in a tone that Thorin knew meant his hobbit had made a decision and would not be swayed, “You are going to to sit with myself and Ori from now on whenever at all possible and we are going to try to teach you enough language that you can actually be of use, and I don’t want to hear a word about it. Or from you Thorin! Actually, Thorin? Are we going to wait while we butcher the deer or carry it with us?”

He glanced over. The company had already begun.

Bilbo saw it as well and nodded.

He caught Ori and Freya by the wrists and hauled them away from the water, already muttering quickly with the scribe to establish what she knew best.

Bilbo had clearly reached the same conclusion as Ori and Thorin, and anyone else who had been paying attention. She knew far more than broad events and names.

By the time the Company was done done and there was meat wrapped in clean cloths to cook that night, Bilbo was frustrated and rubbing at a headache.

Dinner was merry that night. The company was livelier than they had been in a week, and even the air seemed brighter. Then full dark fell, and the smoke from the fire faded without meat cooking above it. All that was left was a clean glow of light.

Thorin had never seen so many bugs and moths and beetles as were in the air then. Everyone pulled cloaks over their mouths to avoid eating them, and batted at them over and over.

Eventually the effort was greater than the heat of the fire. They banked it down to nothing, ridding themselves of the flutter of wings in their faces, and leaving them in an oppressive dark for the first time. None of them liked it. The dark was more dangerous. Those on watch could do little but listen to the constant hum of forest sounds.

There was one advantage.

Bilbo shifted closer with his bedroll until he was nuzzled against Thorin’s side. In the dark a tender kiss found his lips, and he drifted into sleep more content than he had thought possible amidst the miring torture of Mirkwood.

 

***

 

The next night was the same, too many bugs for them to maintain the fire, and as Thorin began to sleep, he would have sworn he saw eyes watching them from between the trees.

In the morning he dismissed it as a trick of sleep.

It was hard to think of danger and despair with a hobbit curled by him. Thorin woke before the dawn, and would gently shift Bilbo aside to a distance that would not necessitate him admitting the bond publicly. Theirs was a strange and inappropriate courtship, if this was a courtship at all, and not merely a dalliance, but Thorin did not want to endanger it by letting the Company get their teeth into it.

The next day they passed over some unseen line of demarcation into a truly loathsome area of the forest. The air was heavy and rank. The ground beneath them was treacherous. All of them found themselves stumbling, tripping, confused and snappish. Thorin followed Dwalin and Balin, who moved ever slower as the path tried to evade their sight.

It was a marvel they kept walking. Sometimes one or another of them would just stop and stare into the distance.

Freya would stop and stare at Bilbo. Always at Bilbo.

There was a corner of himself that celebrated not returning her weapon, that still thought she might be dangerous. That still thought that she might somehow, against all reason and order, have been the same as the stranger from Azanulbizar.

But it was a quiet voice. Easily shaken aside by basic reason.

Even if it was true, there was no one near. Not elves or orcs or life at all. After seeing the deer, they had seen almost nothing. Save bugs. There was no one about to betray them to, and Fíli was correct that any one of them could defeat her if necessary.

So they walked ever onwards, slowly drowning in a thick soup of bewilderment and mood swings.

It was nearly dusk when he heard a clicking above him.

The easy answer was to blame a bird.

However, they hadn’t seen a bird in almost two weeks.

They were going to stop at the next clearing of any kind that they encountered, unnaturally weary as they were. He had ordered that. He had looked them over. Counted to fourteen and decided that they needed to stop as soon as they could.

Thorin looked to Bilbo where he walked beside Freya. His hobbit’s continuous prattle of words and questions for her had been intermittent today. They had made little progress from what he overheard. She had barely replied at all, spent most of the day lost in thought, staring at the hobbit with a furrowed brow and an intermittent twitch in her hand. The rest she spent watching the treetops above them.

Bilbo was slumped as he walked, exhausted and massaging a headache usually after he had spent a few hours walking beside her on a good day.

This had not been a good day. He was particularly exhausted and distracted.

The clicking got louder, closer.

The company continued to walk as Thorin waited, listening. He was at the tail of the group before long, having waved off everyone that paused to offer help or ask a question.

And the clicking grew louder. It was nebulously familiar. But the answer to the mystery was not forthcoming. he saw the company continue ahead. He watched them walk, struggling on ground he knew was passable but could not seem to traverse. They were spread out far, a long thin line across the forest that, in the dying light, he could not see the front of.

He shook his head and growled, heaving in a deep breath before he surveyed the area again.

He could see nothing, but his head was mercifully clearer now than it had been a moment before. Not enough to process what he was hearing though. The click click click sounded louder now, more menacing. But still the answer of what it was drifted out of his reach.

Thorin forced his feet to move, forced himself to walk, and was nearly back to the others, almost to the rear of the line when the sound of a branches shifting made him freeze once more.

There was no more warning than that before two huge spiders fell upon them.

The were enormous and furious.

Dazed, bleary, the company replied slower than they should have. It took a second or two for most of them to recognize what they were seeing. It took precious seconds more before weapons were drawn. And they were spread thinly apart from each other.

Lives were saved by the hissing and spitting that the spiders did.

One was advancing on Dwalin near the front. A massive foul creature that continued to click as it bobbed and looked for an opening. The warrior, long trained and very talented, was trying to pull an axe from his back. His closest aid was Ori, who was still only half trained.

The other was advancing on Bilbo.

He was smaller than the rest of them, and Thorin knew the thing saw him as an easy meal. In a burst that was almost painful, the last haze cleared from his mind under the onslaught of panic and battle rage.

Thorin ran, feet moving surely, and he could feel the revived focus of the others as he tried to reach his hobbit. In that moment he did not consider the lass that had been beside him at all. There was a spider as large as a warg bearing down on Bilbo, and nothing would prevent him killing it. He could not see Bilbo behind its body, and had no way of knowing if Bilbo had even managed to defend himself.

Guilt and fear and the memory of too many deaths was slamming into him as he ran.

When he got there he found Freya standing with her arm outstretched, a branch in her other hand, bashing the spider in the face to keep it back. Bilbo was behind her, fumbling with his sword, trying to draw it and help.

Thorin killed the thing in a single thrust at the same time he heard the wet squelch of a crushed body. Orcrist still pinning the spider down, he glanced up and saw Ori, of all the company, Ori, with a confident smile, and the handle of a war hammer in his hand.

The head of it was buried in a pile of goo and broken flesh that had been the spider attacking Dwalin.

He left orcrist where it was and pulled Bilbo into an embrace, too concerned to care that the Company would take it as a declaration. Smaller hands clung to his clothes and Bilbo was panting as if he had been fighting and not grappling with the hilt of a blade while protected by an unarmed crazed lass. The sight of her there had thrown Thorin of his track. He didn’t know how to reconcile her actions with his judgement of her.  It had to wait to be examined.

Bilbo shivered against him. Not caring, not thinking, he ducked his head down and pressed a kiss to Bilbo’s hair, pulled back, looked him over for injuries, and finding none, crushed him once more in an embrace.

He looked up as he heard laughter rising behind him.

But it was not directed at them.

His sister sons were standing beside Freya; Nori and Dwalin and Ori were just behind them. She was pointing furiously at the spider, then poking Kíli in the chest, then pointing back to the spider.

Everyone but Kíli was was wiping tears from their eyes. Now that Thorin was thinking about something beyond the body clasped against his, he realized that Frey was yelling. Excessively.

She hadn’t done that in a while.

WhatdidItellyou Kíli? WhatdidItellyou? Ifuckingtoldyou! Itoldyou! Iwarnedyou!GiantFuckingSpiders! Butnooooo. Youwereajerkaboutit! Youmadefunofme! Howdoyoufeelnowbastard!? Gigantic. Fuckall. Spiders. Lookat Thorin and Bilbo! Allfuckingterrifiedofthespiders!”

Kíli made a halfhearted placating gesture and she shouted wordlessly. Then she recalled that they didn’t speak whatever tongue she did.

“Beorns? Spiders? Hahaha? No. No! Spiders! Big Spiders. No shitIforgottheword. No not big spiders. Mirkwood is Big Spiders! Anddidyoulistentome? Noofcoursenot! No! Becauseyouneverlistentomeandyouretotallygonnadie! Wait. Shit.

She stopped her tirade abruptly with Kíli looking a bit pink and hiding in his hands as his brother cackled beside him.

Waitnoshit. Sweetmotherof… Well…well. Smokeemifyouvegotemfolks. Werefuckedpeople. Thatswhatweare. Fuckedeightwaystosunday. Thatsus. Becausethisiswrong.” She spun in a circle looking up the trunks of trees and trying to see into foliage. The majority of the company was standing on the fringes, keeping watch against further attacks by the creatures. There had been nothing else. No sound save leaves in a breeze that did not reach them below the canopy, and a faint buzz.

Therearentsupposedtobespidersyet. Somethingisdifferent. Differentisbad. Soentirelyfucked.

On the outskirts of his mind, Thorin could almost see the fog of confusion encroaching once more. He shook his head again to keep it at bay. He would not let it reclaim his mind. Not when he needed to keep his Company safe. Bilbo still had his face pressed into the gap between his furs.

And Thorin would much prefer to focus on Bilbo than on her meaningless ranting display.

“I don’t think I like this forest.” He muttered into Thorin’s tunic. Thorin kissed his hair again.

“I have never liked any forest, so I may not be the best judge to help you determine its quality.”

“How much further?”

Thorin wished he knew that himself. He tried to think of how long they had been there, and how long it should take to cross the blasted thing. But when he did start thinking, when he stopped pushing away the haze with both hands, it began to return.

“I do not know.” He finally answered.

“But we’ll get through this.” how he managed to make the sentence both a question and an order was beyond Thorin’s understanding. Though, he understood the doubt in it.

“Of course. Dwarves are entirely too proud to die in a forest like some elf.”

“You know, maybe if you were nicer to the forest it would be nicer to us.”

“I suspect you are teasing me, burglar.”

“Me? Tease you? That’s outrageous. That’s slanderous. I would never. How dare you Thorin Oakenshield? Tease you? Bah.”

Still hidden in the furs, Thorin had to settle for feeling the cheeky grin rather than seeing it.

Glóin clearing his throat was enough to remind Thorin of the others. Most were still watching the trees, but only with half an eye. He was wrapped around Bilbo, and the hobbit was clinging to him too tightly to be dislodged.

“Ah, So… Anything to say Thorin?”

“Yes,” he said formally, quite ready to be done with the charade if it meant he did not have to let go. But Bilbo shook his head urgently. So Thorin changed intention and killed the words that were on his tongue, “There may be more of these creatures around, we will continue walking as long as there is light, to put as much distance as possible between us as we can.”

Itdoesntmatterwhathesaidguys. Weresoveryveryfucked. Justgrabyouranklesnow.

They groaned in disappointment, but set about following the command.

When they looked away, he tried again to pull Bilbo away from his chest.

“You know that this is all I wanted that night with the Stone Giants,” Bilbo said at last, pulling back and smiling at him. “I wanted to just hide in your fur until I recalled how to be brave. See how much better this is? All I needed. Now we can go on.”

Bilbo grinned encouragingly. He really did seem to be past the fear that had paralyzed him.

Thorin glanced over his shoulder before ducking to kiss Bilbo properly.

Mmmph— None of that. Not, hrmm. Not where they can see. Besides we do need to get walking again, I don't fancy meeting anymore of those— Fíli?” Bilbo dropped his affectionate tone like he was scalded.

“Thorin.”

His face fell as fast as Bilbo’s did.

Fili’s voice was serious, formal, and laced with a mix of horror and panic.

“We’ve lost the path.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Fili was smiling at her, and it just wasn't fair. He had saved her life, he had yelled at Thorin, he had told her she was pretty, and now he was smiling.

Not fair.

Then he winked.

Very not fair.

Now, if only they weren't lost in the middle of Mirkwood and going to die horribly she could do something about this whole winking business.

That would make things much easier for what she had decided needed to be the new plan. Clearly no good came of her changing events, so she needed to just lock up all the dwarves somewhere safe and hope that Bard did the thing. The boys obviously had no plan.

But the smiling.

Not fair.

He was all pretty and the forest was all... not.

Not at all.

They were lost. There were spiders. Early. Plus. The little bastards kept climbing into her shirt, and that was just about the worst thing she could think of. She smashed two more into the very pretty lacy cups of her very pretty lacy bra, and glared at the fire attracting all the damnable bugs.

Couldn't even pour water on it and kill the thing since she knew they were running out of water fast. And the only other thing she had was a handle of vodka. Terrible idea that.

Stupid forest.

Her bra was itchy. Probably all the dead spiders she'd smooshed into it. Easily solved. Off it went.

Oh, and there was that smile again.

Shit.

She threw her coat at him as well. It couldn't possibly make her life any worse than it currently was. Evil forest. Hunted by spiders. Thorin all grumpy. Though, to be perfectly fair, he was almost always grumpy.

Fili followed her, because fanon and canon were wrong about dwarves and their permanent residence on the ace spectrum and Fili knew what was what. Thank god. Or Mahal. Or PJ. Whoever. She hid behind a tree, and waited. It didn't take him long to chase her down and press her into a tree. Then it was just tongues and lips and teeth and bodies smashed together and entirely too many clothes in the way.

They did have to pause to smoosh a few more spiders.

Bastards.

No big deal, they were getting good at it.

Everything was lovely, and there wasn't much more she could ask for, except, maybe a bed, and fewer clothes. Actually. Definitely fewer clothes, because she was pretty sure that there were tattoos and she very much wanted to see them. She deserved to see them. And Tattoos deserved to be seen.

Pretty indigo ink and lovely stark lines drawing attention in and down? Yes. Very much deserving of attention. Which she was happy to give.

The piercing panicked scream from back at camp wasn't enough to stop them. Nor was the sound of an orc horn in the air.  

Watching an arrow sprout from his neck did the trick though. But only because choking on his own blood meant he had stopped the excellent make out session.

She frowned at him as he bled out on her shirt, slowly sliding to the ground and clawing at the shaft. That was annoying. She was going to have to wash her clothes. And she was out of soap.

And it had spoiled the chance of sex.

"Rude, Fili."

He gurgled non-committally.

She stripped the clothes into the sink and ran the tap, listing all the various ways that he had just inconvenienced her while he twitched on the carpet. Fortunately, she’d already had her bra off. She liked that bra--not that she knew where it was now. Silver lace and blue ribbons and fancy strapping. Behind Fili, around him, one by one, the rest of the company collapsed from wounds she could not predict. Dwalin lost his head. Thorin killed Bilbo. Ori was crushed. Some of the others just fell sideways, bleeding for no reason at all. Like something out of a horror movie or the X-Files.

She just whined and bitched as she scrubbed the blood out of her shirt, knowing and not caring that it had all been her fault.

A band of gold fell out of the pocket as she scrubbed, and she caught it before it went down the drain.

It really was pretty.

Probably prettier than her. But hopefully Fili wouldn’t think so.

Except he was dead. So it really didn’t matter.

On went the ring and she admired her hand.

It would be better if she could show it off though. And for that she needed the dwarves back.

Easy enough. She had the ring. The ring could do anything. She only had to ask and maybe pay back a favor or two one day. Easy.

Time to pull a Piemaker.

One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine Ten Eleven Twelve Thirteen.

Right.

Hobbit.

Fourteen.

But Bilbo might want the ring back. Hmm.

No Hobbit.

Bye again Bilbo. Thorin would just have to make hearteyes at someone else. Maybe Dwalin. Maybe Bofur. Maybe both.

They were all discussing how pretty the ring was when the orcs came back out of the trees with wargs and spiders at their backs.

They stabbed her first, but she lasted long enough to glare as the others fell down once more.

***

Waking up from a dream like that was a bitch.

She was on her feet in the middle of the night, probably scaring the living hell out of whoever was on watch, climbing over and through the camp, counting dwarves. Frey was pretty sure she ate at least a few bugs before she managed to count to fourteen. Bilbo was half hidden by Thorin, and she didn't need that kind of stress. Not right now. They needed to start sleeping in obvious, clear, individual shapes so there wouldn’t be any of this trouble with thinking that someone had gone missing.

Bofur and Thorin were judging her where they sat on watch. She could feel them both staring.

Didn't matter.

Fourteen. Excellent number.

Then, having realized that they hadn't all just been slaughtered by orcs or magic invisible attackers, or crushed by trolls, that she hadn't just been making out with Fili, and that neither Galadriel nor Gandalf was around, she began to hyperventilate. Because there were nightmares, and then there were dreams like that. They were quintessentially different. They felt like she was living them, and she really thought she had been done with them after the wizard had decided to knock her unconscious and fuck off to deal with Sauron’s alter ego.

She was supposed to be done with them. Frey had fixed it by getting Gandalf gone. She had only had other weird dreams in the last few weeks because of hormones. Also because of the psychedelic forest.

The forest was bad enough. She had ruined more than enough things while they were underneath the trees. She didn't need to have wacky magic dreams as well.

It wasn't as if this was the first time she had woken up like this. She didn't always remember it so clearly, but then, whoever was on watch would usually come over and kick her if she was making noise. Waking up mid dream seemed to mean she lost the thread of it for some reason.

But, well. Neither Thorin nor Bofur gave a damn if she was having a rough night’s sleep.

Didn't matter.

The dreams were getting worse, that was what mattered.

The dreams were getting worse. And a lot less subtle.

Her feet must have decided that she needed to get the hell and gone away from the others, because by the time she had calmed herself down enough to actually think, the fire was a distant glow, providing just enough light she could see that there were tree trunks between her and it.

"This is bad." Frey whispered, "First off just watched the boys die, just watched all of them die. Didn't even try to stop it. That's not a great sign. Second, I shouldn’t be fucking having dreams at all. Not those kind of dreams. Gandalf left. Third. Bad decisions happened.”

Maybe it was just a really spectacularly bad normal nightmare?

And maybe tomorrow morning Thorin would give her a big damn hug.

Right.

No.

Nope.

"Fuck. Cock. Balls. Shit." Frey kicked the tree next to her hard enough she may have finally dented the steel toe in her boot.

Frey wasn’t as idiotic as everyone believed. All evidence to the contrary put aside, she did have a brain, and used it when possible. She just, well, hadn’t lately. Now that she was actually thinking with a half clear head, instead of the circuitous rambling her brain did when she had previously tried to explain away the resurgence in her creepy-ass dreams, she could see the answer.

There was only one answer after all.

One terrible horrible answer.

A single terrible horrible awful entirely obvious now that she thought about it answer.

The Ring.

She kicked the tree again.

Definitely dented her shoe that time. And she didn't stop kicking as she ranted.

"It's gotta be the ring. No wonder Gandalf was so fucking confused when I was bitching at him, it wasn't him! It was the fucking ring, sitting in my fucking pocket. I am an idiot." She picked up a stick and smashed it into the tree. It shattered and she bent over for another one. “I didn’t even wear the damned thing! I just—I touched it, that’s all. I picked it up and I put in my damn pocket because Bilbo dropped the damn thing and I couldn’t just let the orcs snatch it up and ughhhhhhhh. Right, right, blithering hell. Fine. So, apparently, I’m of the race of men. Apparently, I mean, I must be, despite being dwarf sized. Me, Isilidur and Boromir can just have a club. There’ll be tee shirts. ‘Corrupted by the ring.’ And on the back ‘It was super easy.’ Shit. Fuck. Shit. This is so very bad.

“Buggery fuck. Just. Shit. Oh-- Oh crap, I’ve been using it in my dreams, does that count? I don’t know. I wanted them to not be dead. That’s normal. But then I killed Bilbo. Less normal. Fuck. Shit. Do the dreams count? Gahhhhh. Fuck fuck fuck frickety fuckity frick fracking fuck. This really couldn’t be any worse.”

There wasn’t anything for it though. Not really.

If it wasn’t for the forest, and the elves, and the spiders, and the dragon, and the goddamn army, and the singular importance of saving the lives of the damn dumbass Durins, she would just go. She would just walk away and head for Lorien or Rivendell, whichever was further from the ring, and hope that if she talked long enough, and shoved enough images at people, they'd come up to speed.

Then it could be their problem.

Except she was stuck in the middle of Mirkwood. “God. Damn. It. Everything. Just. Buggery fuck.”

Frey couldn’t leave the idiots without warning them about everything else that was going to try to kill them. After all, that list was fairly extensive.

Of course, they’d believe it now. Wasn’t that just great? Ever since the deer and the spiders, they had been talking to her like she walked on air, like she knew every detail of what was to come. If she got asked one more time if there was going to another deer coming through, she might have to punch someone. She didn’t care if they were hungry. She was too. She couldn’t predict the movements of the local fauna.  She was still shocked she had predicted the one.

She slapped the tree with what was left of the branch. They thought she knew every miniscule detail.

Frey knew nothing anymore. Well. No. Dragon and Goldlust and an Army. Those were all still probably going to happen. Azog was a determined jackass. Unless goldlust could be remedied via blowjob, that would happen too. Everything smaller than that was a wash.

And Mirkwood was just getting worse and worse.

She had caught herself staring at Bilbo. Over and over in the last few days she had realized she was gawping at him. That had been weird enough, but now knowing that it hadn’t been his pretty face she was looking at?

She hit the tree again.

Soon as she could, she needed to get away from them. She had to. No ifs, ands, or buts. Ringlust wasn’t something to tempt. Boromir taught her that.

But then she wouldn’t be there to protect them.

“Ughhhhhhhhh.”

She wouldn’t be there to keep them safe. She would have to abandon them to their fate, and it might revert back to canon and that was unacceptable.

Actually.

Neither option was acceptable.

Boromir was an upright and honorable citizen and he still tried to kill Frodo. She wasn't about to pretend she was honorable. She probably would kill Bilbo, snag the ring and run off to make a date with the Dark Lord. Or just sell them all out to Azog for a steak and a smoothie.

Her and Isildur were a matched set of useless.

If she left, she needed to get the rest of it through to them before she did. Which would be easier if Gandalf was still around to dig through her skull. Maybe the elves? Except Thorin and elves were a terrible combo plate. Yes, sure, the dwarves had taught her a bit more language. Yes, fine, she actually understood things they said from time to time. It wasn’t going to be enough for her to explain the clusterfuck of a time they were about to have to slog through.

She would just have to try. Try, and doodle, and pantomime, and then do what they had wanted from the beginning and get the hell away from them.

If they’d let her.

Shit.

Now that they thought she could see every useless detail of every day, they might not want her to leave. Too bad. Once they were in a good position, Frey was done. Happily ever after would have to happen without her. She’d have a private party with Glory, and they’d drink all the wine in Rivendell.

That was that. Decision made.

A tiny part of her mind gawked at the fact that the haze of the forest wasn’t bothering her in that moment as she thought it through. But then, most of her mind was screaming arguments back and forth about the Ring. Far too many of the shouts were for her to take the ring and take it now. Make it hers and never let go.

Take the ring, take power, and ensure everyone she liked got their happy ending.

And they didn’t want to be quiet. Hence the decision.

“Miserable piece of magic bullshit. You ass. You whore. I hate you so much Sauron. You’re ruining my opportunity for happy. You’re ruining any and all opportunities for sex. Also you’re evil and kill folk. Also, why can’t you just be all cuddly and nice and easy to kill. Why do you have to ruin everything? You fucking, cockgobbling shit sucking, cunt punching--"

"Freya?"

 


 

Two days after the spiders attacked, Thorin’s company was becoming more and more affected by the filthy haze under the trees. Without the path beneath their feet it was only too easy to be lost in the swirl of delusion and delirium. Some of them had managed to shake it aside. Not permanently, but it seemed that so long as Thorin kept his focus on his mind, on the importance of what came next, and on Bilbo, he could keep his wits about him.

His wits were not pleased with the situation.

It was not beyond hope, but the chances of them reaching the Mountain in time, or at all, were dwindling.

Since the others were more impaired, he took a watch every night. They kept doubles now, staring away from the firelight, looking for any glimmer of a spider’s eyes. They listened for any scrap of sound as something moved toward them.

Bofur was on the other side of camp. He was cogent half the time, and the rest he seemed to get lost in musings and jokes that only he had heard. He was not bickering as many of the others were.

Thorin shifted, and returned his hand to running through Bilbo’s hair. It was the only part of him visible. The rest was hidden away beneath blankets and cloaks.

The moths were still plaguing them.

With a flick, Thorin killed another that hand landed on his leg.

Perhaps it was only because hobbits were more attuned to the disease upon the forest, but Bilbo was clearly affected by the forest far worse than the rest. When he was affected at all. As they had walked, Bilbo had explained that sometimes the air was so thick with decay he could barely breathe, and that two or three steps later, it would feel entirely different.

He had likened it to fog, to clouds, to patches of disease. None of them seemed to satisfy the hobbit’s understanding.

So Thorin kept close during the day, and closer still at night.

His hobbit was having nightmares. He wasn’t acknowledging them, but Thorin watched him tremble and twitch while he slept. Each time, he would try to ease his hobbit out of them, and then feigned ignorance of what had caused Bilbo to wake. Which was what he was doing now.

Bilbo had begun to twist,shifting as if to escape some imagined foe, and Thorin carded his fingers through the curls in his lap, easing him awake.

When he sat up in a jolt, Thorin caught him by the shoulders and let him lay back down.

“You’re well.”

Bilbo nodded.

Then he curled tighter into Thorin’s leg with a hand clutching at the fur of his coat.

The rest of camp was undisturbed. Not even Bofur had turned to check.

As Bilbo began to doze back off, Thorin turned to follow a nearby rustle of leaves. Freya was where she usually was, far on the edge of the camp. Despite Thorin’s efforts to speak to her since the spiders, to thank her, she had grown more standoffish.

Without another option, Thorin had spoken to his nephews about her during one of the rare bright patches of the forest.

After an initial reluctance, they had begun. Bilbo had already told him about how she had dived to place herself in between himself and the spider that day. Bilbo’s subsequent lecture on the incivility of his continued distrust had been enough to crack some of Thorin’s shell. Not entirely. Which his sister-sons knew. They talked through more than an hour, repeating themselves and struggling to maintain a clear thought.

They explained enough.

Freya was taking her cue from Thorin’s actions. So long as Thorin did not consider her to be a member of the company, she would keep herself distant. In light of the rising danger of the forest, her self imposed exile would see her killed. The hammer Fili had tried to return to her was still on Thorin’s belt. She had not asked for it, and since she had not allowed Thorin near enough to attempt a conversation, he had not really considered returning it.

Before the fractured conversation could conclude, Fili had stopped them walking to present a strange request.

"If she is having a nightmare, watch her when she wakes." Fili had asked.

"She should be woken if she has night terrors."

“No,” Fíli interrupted too quickly, “no she shouldn't."

Thorin had acquiesced, not knowing what would cause his compassionate nephew to sanction another's suffering.

Watching her as she tossed her head, he understood.

Nightmares and imagined horrors were common; he had suffered from them since Smaug came. And these were severe enough that he would have woken a fellow warrior if they had just been memory. This was something different. Fili's hesitation made sense, and Thorin filled the holes in the patchy request and the bizarre conversation with his nephews.

So when she woke from her visions, Thorin was watching her, rather than the forest around them. Freya clamored through the camp, counting quietly, increasingly panicked until she noticed Bilbo beside him.

Then she groaned and walked into the dark without weapon or light to protect herself.

Thorin hesitated.

Little good had come of their previous interactions. No. It was perhaps better to say that no good had come of them. But Bilbo’s tirade still echoed, and someone would need to pursue her, to keep her from getting eaten by a spider if nothing else. Bofur wasn’t an option.

He grabbed a branch and turned gingerly to throw it at Fili to get his attention. Instead, Bilbo sat up, and poked him in the side.

“Don’t even think about it Thorin. You’re going.”

“I don’t believe that would be wise.”

“I don’t believe I was asking.” Bilbo hauled himself up to sit on the log Thorin had claimed. “I’ll take the watch til you return. Go talk to her, drag her back to camp, something. Oh,” Bilbo tapped the hammer’s head, “Give her that, and do your best not to threaten her life when you do.”

In the dim shadows of the low fire, Thorin saw the immovable expression, and kissed his forehead.

“Go on you ridiculous thing, before she gets even more lost than we are.” There was a little hint of genuine concern in his order. There was a little bit of the fear that they were all too lost to possibly survive, but Bilbo poked him again, and Thorin had no choice but to rise.

With a nod to Bofur’s curious glance, he settled his weapons in place, and followed her path into the dark.

She had stopped no more than twenty steps away, muttering and talking to herself as she bashed at a tree with a branch.

“Freya.” He interrupted her as she escalated to higher volumes.

Jesustapdancingchrist.”

He caught her by the arm as she startled to keep her from falling. The way she recoiled from him reminded him of their previous interactions, and he gestured broadly that he meant no harm. She still stared at him as if he was a danger though. Then her eyes flicked over to the trees, then to the camp, and were just as scared there.

His nephews had had some luck in extracting knowledge from her. Bilbo and Ori did as well. While Thorin had never truly tried, he was relatively certain that he would have none. Nevertheless, he needed to make an attempt.

As he often did, Thorin proceeded directly.

"You saw something while you slept." She took a moment, shaking her head and Thorin repeated the statement as simply as he could. "You sleep. You saw."

She nodded reluctantly, still leaning away from him.

"What?"

"OhShityoureactuallyaskingme. Thorin younevertalktome. Likeatall. Idontknowwhyyouretalkingnow. Andwwwwoooowwww. Ijusthadanideayoullhate. OhhhhboyyyyyamIsorryforthis. ButIdontknowifIllgetasecondchance. AndImadeadecision. Justnow. AndsinceImgoingcrazy. AndsoImightneedtorunawayforever. Ihavetousethis. WhichmeansIneedtowarnyou. Ohfuckingballs. Ithinkthisistheonlywayyoulllisten.” She babbled at him for a moment before pausing to think, "Thorin. I saw. Yes. I sleep and I saw." She began in her shaky Westron.

Thorin nodded.

"Thorin. I saw. Shitpleasedontkillmefortellingyouthis. Itsonlysortofalie. I saw Bilbo. Dead." She flinched back as she said it, as if expecting him to attack. Not that Thorin paid it much attention. He was caught on the pronouncement.

She clearly did not refer to a peaceful passing in old age.

"No."

She didn't reply to that. Freya just met his eyes and waited, fidgeting, but not backing down. It was dark enough that he could only just see her, despite his superior vision at night.

"No."

"Thorin. Dontbedumb. Imean. Imlying. Iamtotallylyingtoyou. Butyoudontknowthat. YouallthinkIcanpredicteverythingbecauseofBambi. Soyouaregoingtobelieveme. Evenifyoudontwantto.” She crossed her arms and glared until Thorin managed to force himself to ask for more detail or explanation.

It was the last thing he wanted. Hearing about it would be a torture with no guarantee that he could prevent it. He might be forced to see it begin and be helpless to stop it one day.

"How? When?"

"Erebor."

"Smaug?" Thorin's blood went cold. He knew the job as it was listed in the contract. His hobbit was contracted to steal the arkenstone from the dragon. A dragon she had repeatedly assured them was entirely alive. He would have the contract changed, thrown out. He would stop Bilbo from risking his life like that, and they would find another answer to the problem looming at the end of their quest.

But she shook her head and muttered, "YouwillsooooookillmeifyoufindoutIlied. Butjustincasewedogetoutofthisforestandkill Smaug andmanagealltherestlikecanon. Justincaseyouneedtoknowthis." She caught his eye again in the barely there light of the fire behind them, and tapped him on the chest. "You."

"No." He spat. He didn't know he had stepped back toward camp until she set a hand on his chest to stop him.

"Thorin. You Erebor? You are Thror. You are Thror? Bilbo is dead. And Imreallyhopingyoudontkillmeforwarningyou."

“I would never hurt him, I would never let him come to harm. Whatever lies you spin, you will not convince me that I would do that.” He knew she would not understand him, and knew that he was speaking to himself more than he was to her.

She didn’t respond, or react. Freya looked at him calmly, compassionately, and while there was a flare of distrust at the change in her behavior, it still felt true.

Beyond true.

Prophetic.

“How? Why?”

Youllbecomeobssessedwithyourshinyrock. Withthegold. Theresarmiesandwarandasiege. Idontknowhowtoexplainanyofthis. Fuckityfuck. Okummmmm. NopeIdontknowhowtoexplain. Okaysothearkenstone? Wait. Shityoudidntreact. Doesthatwordnotcount? Whatthefuck? Arkenstoneisaname! Okayfinefinefine. Thorin. Thror? Rock?” She gestured a shape in her hands, “Rock of Thror? You want white rock?”

She floundered another moment.

“The arkenstone?” Thorin asked.

“Arkenstone?”

“The king’s jewel. Revered by all dwarves, and proof of the right to rule Erebor.”

Freya blinked at him. “ImgoingtoassumeImright. You want Arkenstone. Bilbo is go Arkenstone. You sword, orcrist? Bilbo is dead.”

“I would never hurt him.” He hissed.

She waited.

The Arkenstone was the focus of the quest, it would let him call for aid from the other clans of the dwarves. It would see him properly called king.

It was not more important to him than Bilbo. He would not hurt Bilbo for that stone. He had seen his grandfather fall to obsession with it. He had seen how everything else was pushed aside in favor of adoration of that gem.

He would never be like that. Thorin would never allow himself that weakness. He knew the damage that it could cause, and had vowed to himself time and again in his life that he would never become his grandfather.

However. Malicious or not, untrustworthy or not, rude, insulting, tactless and insufferable as she had been, Freya had yet to speak false.

The deer, the medicine, the spiders, the names of weapons and strangers.

She had never spoken false.

She was not wholly sane. She was a risk, but she was not a liar.

Freya had no love for Thorin, as he had none for her, but she had put herself in risk to help Bilbo before. She had stared at him for days and made Thorin’s gut twist, seeing the danger only. Then, unarmed, she had protected him.

In Goblintown -- which he tried not to think of -- she had tried to kill him. Thorin thought she had. Was sure she had. But she had a gift of prophecy. There was no way for him to deny that now. Which meant the only explanation for what had happened….

Thorin swallowed to keep himself from getting sick.

Bilbo and the others had hinted at the prospect. No, they had told him this, and he had refused to hear it.

That, if she did not mean them harm, then the only reason she had to have risked Bilbo’s life, was in deference to a greater threat.

He stared at her, recalling the tortures that the goblin king had promised. What he had intended to do to her, to all of them. What goblins did to things that seemed innocent. Thorin recalled the way she had tried to keep focus on herself, and accepted with a weight in his gut, that she had traded for Bilbo’s fate. And in repayment, he had tried to kill her.

She had been ready to return to the goblin caves to find Bilbo, maybe more ready than Thorin had been.

“Thorin. Yourebrusingmyarm. Ifyouregonnakillmedoitfast. Causeyouvegotsomecrazyonyourfacerightnow.”

She clawed his fingers off her shoulder, where he had grabbed her in a panic. Thorin had barely been present, barely thinking, but she had done nothing to threaten him.

Freya did not like him, and did not trust him. Had not in any conversation or interaction.

Ice flooded his veins as the pieces fell together.

She had seen Thorin kill Bilbo.

It was no wonder she snarled and snapped at Thorin’s every flare of temper.

“Thorin, you are good? DidIbreakyou? Ifyoukeelovertheyregonnablameme.”

He straightened.

Freya wasn’t touching him, just watching, arms extended and unsure of what to do. He caught one of her hands, and pressed the hammer into it. There wasn’t any hope of explaining his shift in thought. Nor did it help that he still did not want her near them. She protected Bilbo though.

She was gaping at him, then at the weapon, then back at him.

Imconfused. Wearentabouttoduelorsomething? Because… Ireallythoughtyoudbeangrieraboutthis.”

“Freya.” He interrupted. “You do not want Bilbo-- dead.” His voice caught as he said it.

She nodded solemnly.

“You do not want Fili or Kili dead.”

She nodded emphatically.

“If you have seen such things then it is only reasonable--”

“Thorin.” She interrupted, “And I not want you dead. King Thorin of Erebor.” The energy and anger she normally directed at him was turned into something fiercely protective.

Thorin shook aside the shock of her allegiance, and continued. They both still were holding the hammer’s handle, and he gripped her hand. “You will keep them safe.”

“What safe -- what is safe?”

“Safe is not dead.”

“Yes. I want safe. Fili, Kili, Bilbo, Thorin.”

“You will keep them safe. Fili. Kili. Bilbo. I will protect myself.”

She blinked at him a few times before she exhaled and spoke. All he could understand of it was the exhaustion. And the resignation. “Dammittohell. Ijusthadadamnplan. Dontaskmetokeepthemalive. Please Thorin? Dontaskmetokeepthemalive. Idontevenknowhowanymore. Youremuchbetteratthis. Ineedtogetthefuckawayfromallofyou. Especiallyawayfromyourboyfriend.” She was shaking her head, over and over, denying it, then caved, “Fuckinghellfine. Safe.”

She clapped her hand to join their grip.

Butlook. You are Thror?” It was half a threat the way she intoned his grandfather’s name.

“I expect nothing less.” He stopped her.

She startled, catching the tone of what he had said if not the meaning.

“Thorin? I am… howdoIexplainringlust? Youknowwhat? Illsavethatforanotherday. I want safe Bilbo, Fili, Kili, and Thorin.” She insisted on the last one. “Youreanidiot. Thisisgoingtogoterribly.”

He withdrew his hands, leaving the weapon in hers as a token of trust, and glanced over his shoulder to the camp. She was utterly mad, but would keep them safe if she could. Even from him. She believed the risk lay in Erebor, but was already watching them, already wary of Thorin. As she should be. The strain of madness in his veins was always a risk.

In the meantime, he had to keep her alive.

He escorted her back, and stopped her when she tried to sit on the edge of camp. Against her protests, he pulled her to the center of camp, and made her lay back down to rest where they would be able to protect her.

 


 

Hobbits were supposed to be fond of all places that were green and growing. It was carved into their bones as surely as a need to gather shiny rocks was present in the dwarves. So, at some level, Bilbo was aware that the forest of Mirkwood ought to be a place he enjoyed.

He did not.

It was sick.

Sicker than many a plant or tree he had seen die the next day in the Shire.

It was green, yes, but it wasn't a shade that inspired great faith in him. It was never vibrant, never a good shade of green. No, the forest was smothering under something foul, and Bilbo was quite sure that even if every hobbit in the Shire turned their attention to the place, it would remain exactly as miserable as it currently was.

Wretched place.

And wretched company. With the notable exception of his dwarf, the company was half useless, and half fighting. His dwarf was half lost in thought, and half blindly focused on getting them out of the place.

Someone had to be.

And it was better than the others.

Bilbo had taken several minutes to convince himself that he was even walking in the correct direction that morning. It wasn't a terribly encouraging sign if anyone was asking him, which they weren't. Other than Thorin, hardly anyone was speaking to him at all. Freya outright fled when he tried to walk beside her. The rest of the company was only half coherent. There had been a few clear days after those spiders had attacked. They had all been more useful. They had known what was happening around them, and they made good time.

Not that they knew where they were going. Or which direction they needed to take. And it was just so blasted overwhelming in the eternal dusky dark.

Bilbo was seriously considering retracting his request that Thorin keep his mouth shut on any formal announcements. That way at least he could hold onto his damn hand as they trudged onward. It helped. Not just to calm the persistent pleading need to be beside him.

It properly helped.

Each night when they laid down in a patch of Eru-knew-what while divebombed by hundreds of bugs, they would lean into each other and clasp hands and it was the only time of the day when Bilbo felt like he could think in a straight line.

The others knew, of course they knew. Bilbo wasn't pretending that he wasn't regularly climbing the company's leader like he was a handsy tree. He just didn't want to cope with bad jokes and lecherous commentary and implications about suitability. Not on top of everything else.

And if Bilbo was also a touch worried about the implications of a formal relationship with someone that was going to become King of Erebor, that was no one's business but his own. It was a perfectly reasonable concern.

But he didn't plan to mention it to anyone.

The idea of having to defend his interest was more than distasteful, and tended to lead him to the image of himself on a platform, attempting to sway over the full population of Erebor that he deserved to keep their King. The dwarves tended to be armed. And angry.

Sometimes they turned into orcs and attacked. Sometimes they turned into spiders. One time they turned into pies.

The forest really wasn’t doing well by him.

"Bilbo?"

Oh dear. He must have stopped walking again. Thorin was in front of his face, and he hadn't noticed until warm hands had slid onto his shoulders. By the glower, it hadn’t been the first effort to gain Bilbo's attention.

Bugger.

"Do we even know if we're going in the right direction Thorin? I mean that, do we even know if we're walking where we are supposed to? That is, we aren't, we know we aren't, what with how we lost the bloody path, but that's not what I meant."

"Bilbo, calm down."

"I am calm!"

Shouting always helped to reinforce that point. Thorin's mouth quirked into a half smile and the hands on Bilbo's shoulders pulled him into a tight hug. That was all it took to settle the maelstrom of delusion into something that Bilbo could ignore.

"We will get out of here. And, there are much greater challenges we will need to overcome."

"That's hardly encouraging."

"It wasn't meant to be. It was simply a truth." Thorin's voice had a bit of something hidden beneath it, but Bilbo didn't have the energy or the wherewithal to try and find it. He certainly didn't have the capacity to bully it out of the dwarf. Possibly later than night.

"For all we know, we're walking due south, Mr I got Lost in Hobbiton." He poked Thoin in the side, "Twice."

"And what do you propose we do then, oh Master Burglar?"

Pressed against Thorin, his mind decided to be helpful, and Bilbo grinned. "I suppose we need a change of view."

********

Bilbo gulped a deep breath as he managed to get above the canopy and could have shouted in delight. It was bright and sunny and clean and wonderful. He would happily sit on top of this tree until the sun set and the spiders appeared and they all got eaten. At least that way he'd still remember what the sky looked like. He'd know what it was like to breathe and have it feel healthy.

Had he been travelling alone, and not with a great clomping party of dwarves, he would probably have considered just climbing from tree to tree and ducking his head above the leaves to breathe whenever he needed to do so. But, if he was travelling alone, he'd have long since thrown up his hands and gone back to his smial. So, the question was a bit silly.

Bright blue butterflies fluttered in the air around him and he decided that they were much better than the dusty grey cousins that were driving him to distraction each night.

And best of all, in the distance, he could see the Mountain.

He shouted down to the others, but heard no reply. Reasonable. He was rather high above them, and there was a great mess of tree and leaf and everything else between him and them.

Though, more likely, they were still standing at the base of the tree trying to calm down Freya.

She had not liked his proposed idea that he climb a tree and confirm where they needed to go. Not at all. Hysterical was probably the word for it. Bofur had provided a few that were somewhat less polite.

They were also appropriate.

But Bilbo had refused to budge. They needed to know where they were going, and even the chance that she was worried over something she had seen wasn’t going to stop him. They needed to know where they were, how much farther they needed to travel. Their packs were light, and getting lighter. They needed to stop wandering in circles and get it right from here on out.

Up above the trees, it all seemed perfectly easy.

Freya had been increasingly strange in the last days, though, looking back, Bilbo could now notice that Thorin had been more tolerant of her ever since that night they had spoken. There was a story there he didn't know, and he made a mental note to get the answer out of Thorin as soon as he climbed back to the ground.

Bilbo took another happy breath, and reminded himself that the others were probably panicking a bit over his prolonged absence.

A few more minutes couldn't hurt.

Fresh air was restorative.

He needed to be thinking at his best when he descended.

And the more he pondered it, the stranger it was that Thorin had begun to -- well, trust would be an exaggeration -- accept Freya. He knew that she had the hammer they had previously denied her. Bilbo knew that something was making her loonier than she had been, and had to hope it was an effect of the forest and not her true colors showing.

Other than trying to protect him from a spider, she made him a bit uncomfortable. Like she always knew where he was.

"Stop gathering wool, Bilbo. The dwarves aren't going to suddenly find the path, which means you'll need to go give them a helpful shove in the right direction."

With one last huge gulp of sweet, sweet, blessedly clean air, he ducked down and began his descent.

Barely halfway down, he leaned over a branch to shout to Thorin that he knew which way to go, and abruptly stopped.

They were gone, and fear caught him like a blow.

They were gone and the forest was too full of danger for him to think it an innocuous absence.

Bilbo began clamoring down faster, moving as fast as he ever had as a thieving faunt back home, and as he dropped onto the ground, he finally heard the shout off to his left. It was a dwarf, that was what mattered, and he had his little sword out when he chased after the noise. The two spiders before, they had seemed as foul as any creature could be, creatures of darkness and evil. The company had all believed that they would not be attacked during the day. They had kept careful watch from dusk to dawn, but had thought that they were safe in the barely there light of day.

They'd been wrong.

His company was scattered.

Kili was backed against a tree, firing off arrows too quick to track, and having sporadic impact on the fight. Thorin and Dwalin were nearest, and it seemed they were trying to fall back toward where they had been.

Bilbo didn't stop as he ran, not until he was at Thorin's side. His dwarf noticed his arrival as Bilbo slammed his little sword down into the head of a beast as it tried to flank around them..

"Bilbo!" His name was a relieved gasp, but Thorin's voice turned intense with his next words. "We need to join with the others."

Bilbo nodded, reaching for his pocket. "I'm going to disappear. No! I'll explain later, Thorin."

Not bothering to wait for permission, he slid on the ring and half tackled the second spider that Dwalin was holding back with frenzied blows. Some rather vulgar khuzdul cursing chased after him, and Bilbo knew he would need to make amends for, in all probability, scaring the boots off of Thorin.

That had to be later. For now, he felt clear headed for the first time in weeks, and his dwarves needed him. Much as he had leaving the goblin caves, he pushed aside the prudent fears and charged into danger. This time, however, he was invisible.

That was both a blessing and a curse.

Nori's staff nearly caught him in the face on a back swing. The spiders couldn't see him. But now he could understand their hissing and spitting as words.

"Kill them! Grab them! Sting them and eat them!"

"Drag them away and drain them dry!"

"That one! That one! Grab that one!"

Bilbo hadn't a clue which of the things was speaking, but they all seemed to be in agreement on their plan to eat the company.

And apparently this need to eat other people was just a unifying element of the world that his mother and his books had failed to mention.

From below, he shoved his blade into the gut of a spider about to reach Ori, and heard it shriek, “It stings! Stings!” as it collapsed.

Bilbo tried to count the dwarves as he fought. He wanted to be sure that this cluster of them had them all. But it wasn't as if they were all going to stand in a neat line and let Bilbo bop them on the head as he numbered them.

At the least, Bombur was missing. His bulk made that obvious. When the dwarves next had the advantage, Bilbo left the group of them, and ran a loop, ducking the stingers and legs that got in his way, and cutting through them when he could spare the time.

But there was no Bombur.

There was a tremendous clicking chorus rising as he ran, and he looked into the murk beyond the nearest trees to see more, many more, spiders coming for them.

He abandoned his search and ran back.

Slipping the ring back off, to Thorin's obvious relief, he shouted, "More coming!"

"Where are the others?"

In the momentary calm, he looked them over. There was more than one face missing.

"I didn't see them."

"They were driven off. We were separated back by the tree you climbed, you didn't see them?" Kili yelled, even as he tried to keep himself from running. Bilbo looked around the circle again, and found out why.

Fili was missing.

Bilbo turned back to see the same panic in Thorin’s face. Both of them were about to charge what sounded like an advancing army.

But the clicking was nearly on them, and the rustle of leaves and branches could not be ignored. Bilbo shook his head, grabbed Thorin’s arm, and saw Dwalin catch Kili’s aborted escape. He shouted for them all to run.

It was pointless.

They could not outdistance the spiders. There was no hope of them reaching safe ground or even defensible ground. They didn’t know where they were. Bilbo had lost track of which way was north. Even if he had known, they didn’t know where they could run to that would offer them a respite. But the Company was not going to let their enemy win easily.

Now that he knew their weak points, Kili was felling them with frighteningly fast shots from his bow and a vicious shadow on his face. Dwalin and Ori were holding off three between them, and as soon as one of the spiders drew close enough, they were sure to end the thing.

Thorin was ferocious. Orcrist sliced through bodies and legs as if they were nothing.

Everyone was doing what they could, but the spiders were seemingly endless.

A spider fell from the trees above them, landing on Kili, targeted for the bow in his hands. Bilbo was hidden by the ring's power, but heard the spiders shout and cheer as Kili fell. He didn't even have time for fear. He certainly had no time to try and help. The spider dropped, dead, pinning the prince in place, but shielding him from the others.

Bilbo spun to look up, automatically thinking of the eagles, never mind that it was impossible. So he watched, unseen, as elves appeared from branches and bushes, wielding deadly sharp blades and bows that killed the spiders nearly as fast as Kili had.

There was a shift in the air as they arrived, as if they carried a cloud of clean air with them, and the spiders recoiled. Shrieking about the elves and about the fight, the bulk of the spiders retreated. The rest died under elvish weapons.

Bilbo was going to remove the ring. He was going to reappear and stand beside Thorin. But the leader of the elvish company turned with with an unforgiving mein, and Bilbo elected to remain hidden for the time.

It was a wise decision. As Kili managed to hoist the corpse off of him, the weapons of the elves turned on the dwarves.

"What business do you have on elvish land?"

"I wouldn't have thought elves would tolerate such creatures to live on their land." Thorin spat with a glance at the spider corpses around them.

The blonde leader was too slow to answer. A red headed warrior got there first, "We do not, as should be obvious, even to you, Master dwarf." She answered as she wrenched a blade out of the spider that had been atop Kili. With a comfortably familiar move, she swept the ichor from the weapon and resheathed it. Bilbo started when she reached out a hand to help Kili to his feet.

Not that the dwarf prince took it. He clamored upright on his own, no matter how he winced. He stepped toward his fallen bow, but the elf's respect did not extend that far. She escorted him to the others, and joined the guard encircling them.

"You have not answered my question Dwarf." The blonde leader was less respectful. Bilbo managed to duck below an elvish arm and sidled next to Thorin. All he could do was slip their hands together, but it was enough. A little of the fury was dissipated, and Thorin actually answered with a tiny measure of tact.

"We are travelling East to our kin, and were attacked by those creatures. There was no evidence of this being elvish land." Bilbo squeezed his hand tighter.

"I would think that dwarves would be familiar with having fell creatures living uninvited in their homes." Thorin's hand squeezed painfully, but he kept his tongue, "Yours is a small party to have crossed the forest. How many have you lost? Nine is hardly a caravan. And you have carry no goods. Has the forest been so challenging?"

Thorin's grip got even tighter.

"None. Why? Do elves regularly lose their way in this.... charming... forest?"

Bilbo ignored Thorin's impertinent response, too busy counting. Thorin was yelling, insulting, and the elf was replying in kind.

Nine.

That was all there was in Bilbo’s head.

Nine.

He was invisible at the time. So ten.

But ten wasn't fourteen.

It wasn't fifteen either.

Bilbo saw Kili's eyes flicking back and forth between Thorin and the trees, as if he was about to reveal their missing members. Bilbo didn't like the twist of his face as he did. He wasn't the only one that seemed to be tortured by their reduced numbers.

Fili was missing. So were Bombur, Bofur, Balin, and Freya.

He shuddered, and Thorin’s hand returned the same worried panic.

He almost missed hearing the elf lose his patience, ordering them all bound and imprisoned. Thorin had to let him go, and Bilbo ducked away from the elves as his friends were taken prisoner. He returned to Thorin as soon as he could, and tugged at his sleeve. He did not want to separate. He did not want to have to face the forest alone. He also did not want to be caught sneaking through the elves’ domain.

While Dwalin made a racket over the lost of his knuckledusters, he whispered, “Should I try to find the others?”

Thorin shook his head, grimacing, and a few moments later, they were being led away, prisoners of the elven king.

Chapter Text

“Fíli!”

Balin had the spider’s pincers caught in his hands as it tried to remove his head. He was pressed into leaves and sticks and dirt, and his sword had fallen when the creature had tackled him. The crown prince was somewhere nearby. Hopefully.

He might have run off to hunt down one of the creatures, in which case Balin was facing a much more difficult problem. Screeching ripped at his ears, and something wet splashed over him. The spider writhed, then collapsed its substantial weight down, pinning Balin, and driving the air from his lungs. All Balin could see was the dead eyes over his face.

Fíli appeared a second later, levering the spider off with his sword hilts as handles; both were sunk into its body. While Balin got back to his feet, he saw the dwarf draw them both out and shake the ichor from them. Claiming his own weapon, they chased the sounds of angry spiders and angrier dwarves through the trees.

When the spiders had attacked, the group had scattered, trying to keep alive, but the majority had headed one direction. Balin and Fíli had had no choice but to move in the other. Whoever else was nearby was fighting fiercely, loudly, and likely bringing down more of the beasts with each of their shouts.

Fíli was ahead of him, but not by much. Balin jumped over the last fallen tree, and slammed his blade into the nearest of the spiders. Fíli was deeper into the skirmish already, making his way to where Bofur and his mattock were holding a half dozen of them at bay, steadily losing ground.

There were corpses on the ground, bashed and crushed into viscous pulp, more than Bofur could have brought down alone. Good, there were others nearby then.

Bofur ducked at the warning shout, and the sight of one of Fili’s knives held to throw. Balin finished the now crippled thing. Looking for anyone else had to come second to dealing with the overgrown monstrosities.

Old warriors still knew how to clear a field. They just would rather have a sit and a smoke. Especially when there were young warriors about to deal with the more energetic of the beasties.

Balin leaned into a tree as the last of the spiders that hadn’t fled was turned to goo.

Bofur wrenched out his mattock and looked about, shouting, “Bombur! Where’d you get off to? Bombur?”

“Bofur??” Balin and the others spun, trying to find where it came from, “A little help please!”

“Bombur?”

“Bofur!”

“Bombur!”

The forest muddied the sound, and it wasn’t until the crash of branches sounded off to the left that the three could try and help.

Bombur emerged suddenly from the undergrowth, spattered black and teal from the goop of the spiders, his heavy ladle crooked from bashing them apart. Just behind him was an equally filthy Freya, also hurdling over branches and stones.

Bofur snagged his brother in a quick embrace, relieved to have found another of their company alive and hale.

Frey, however.

Distracted by kin, Bofur didn’t notice when Frey snatched his mattock, dropping her much smaller hammer to the ground in its place. She then started jogging back where they’d come from. Didn’t so much as stop to look at the others. Balin and Fíli followed on battle instinct, coming around a dense bank of brush in time to see her bury the point of the mattock in the spider’s body.

Ichor and parts splattered.

She giggled.

More than a little bit hysterically.

Frey snapped her arms, flinging bits to the ground. She spat and sputtered, looking bereaved for the lack of something clean to wipe her face. Then it turned to laughter. Rather more deranged than anything else Balin could think to label it with. Still laughing, she rocked the handle to loosen it, and, with effort, managed to get it out of the corpse.

“Fuckyouspider. Thatswhatyougetfortryingtoeat Bombur. Bombur isgoodpeople.”

Balin spared a glance at Fíli, whose eyebrows were trying to leave his face as he stared.

But the forest was silent around them.

The constant whicker and clicking that had followed them was gone. While Balin wasn’t feeling himself, and wouldn’t go so far as to describe his mind as clear, the attack had knocked all of the company out of the stupor they had fallen into while trudging beneath the accursed trees.

It might return.

No, that was too hopeful.

It would return and they’d be back to useless.

Thorin had seemed to be keeping afloat for the last week or so, but the rest had been flagging, wandering, confused and snippy since before the path had abandoned them. After, it had only degenerated.

The battle rush of the spiders descending on them had thrown them all back to themselves, given them a chance to fight unclouded. Balin kept out his weapon and focused on that surge of energy and necessity.

“Balin. Fíli.” She nodded to them in greeting, with the mattock slung over her shoulder, and cheerfully led them back to the Ur brothers.

Little tweaks of laughters still shook her occasionally, but she merrily gave over the weapon to a bewildered Bofur with her thanks. She and Bombur grinned at each other. Bofur nudged his brother puzzled by the presence of a battle-born camaraderie.

Okayyes. Thisisgoingwell. Letskillmorespiders. Nobodygotstung. Igottosmooshseveralofthefuckers. Thissortaevenlookslikecanon. Thisisgreat.” She was smearing the sludge and dirt from the handle of her hammer onto an obliging tree, muttering happily to herself.

Balin signed to Bofur to keep an eye on their ever-inexplicable follower, grabbed Fíli by the elbow, and pulled him a few steps away for a conference.

“There will be more of them laddie.” Balin started.

Fíli didn’t hesitate; there was no need for him to drop out of his amiable personality, it was already gone.

The prince answered in a clipped, commanding tone. “We need to find the others, then. We’ll head back the way we came, hopefully they’ll do the same, otherwise we should be able to track their path away from that tree Bilbo climbed. She seems optimistic, but I’d rather not trust in that. We cannot make any decisions until we know what has happened to the rest.”

“Fíli, your uncle spoke to you of this before we left Ered Luin—“

“That’s not going to happen. Don't. We just need to go find the others. They cannot have gotten too far in this much time. We will find them.”

Balin stared until Fíli turned from watching the other three, face immovable, stared until the prince was paying attention.

“If we do not?”

“Not right now, Balin.”

“When would you prefer then?”

“When we know.”

“Fíli, lad.”

“Not yet, Balin.” He smirked briefly, “If we five are fine, if Freya was able to hold her own, then I cannot image they are anything more troubling than tired and covered in dead spider bits.” He shouted to the rest, where Freya was trying to work out what Bombur was saying to his brother.

They startled, and tromped over.

“We need to meet back with the others.” Fíli continued.

The prince gave them a quick glance and Balin would have preened in pride if they’d had time.

As it was, Balin just took the tail of the line and let Fíli track their somewhat erratic path.

It was trackable though. Slow going, and twice they lost it for a few minutes. It worked. Somewhat. They did find that enormous tree they had stood beneath when everything had gone mad.

They had fled with a dozen spiders bearing down on them; they had had no choice but to run for better ground. Over his shoulder, he had seen the others being forced the opposite direction.

He stopped dead.

At the time they had all been still so confused. He hadn’t thought.

The spiders had come from everywhere. They had appeared so suddenly that there had been little in their minds save for decades of training to fight.

Bilbo had been up the tree, trying to orient them.

Thorin wouldn’t have taken it well.

No. That didn’t come close.

Balin sent a quick plea to any of the Valar listening that Dwalin had kept his head enough to stick close to their leader when he had inevitably done something rash in search of or defense of their hobbit. Fíli was looking to Balin as he looked over the area for any evidence or sign from any of the Company. This was the natural place to return to if lost. A standard procedure in fact. If a dwarf was separated from the group, they would return to the last place they had all been together. If they had to leave from there again, then a sign was left.

There was nothing.

The day was starting to fade.

Balin glanced to the others and saw the same trace of disquiet in their expressions.

Except for Freya, who was looking at them all curiously, but unbothered, by the missing members of the company.

Balin caught her attention and asked why she was calm.

“Elves.” She almost chirped the answer. “And Bilbo.”

“But the spiders—“

“Bilbo.”

She was absolutely confident, dismissing his concern with Bilbo’s name as if that made any sense.

The others were gaping.

Butthatdoesntmatter. Look Balin. Bilbo managedtosaveallofyourassesfromthespidersbefore. Nowheand Thorin areallkindsofinlove. Itsgonnabefine. Spiders are injury for fourteen? Bilbo safe. Fourteen are safe. Thenofcoursetheresthenextchapter. WhichImveryexcitedabout. Elves. Thranduil. Legolas. Tauriel. Itsfine. Stoplookinglikeeveryoneisdead. Stopthat. IfIcanhandlespiders Bilbo hasgotthiscovered.”

Unsure how to respond to the implication that Bilbo was going to protect the rest of the company, Fíli started them all walking again, following the tracks the others had left.

They followed the corpses of spiders as much as the marks of passage through the brush. That was encouraging. There were quite a lot of corpses. But even when they found where their companions had clearly made a stand, there was no one there.

Kili’s bow lay on the ground and many of his arrows were embedded in the spider corpses. There were also two or three scattered shafts that were undeniably elvish.

“Yes! Elves!” Frey yelled with a grin, holding one up.

Balin’s face fell.

 


 

“I didn’t realize there was any crime committed by being attacked by spiders in your fasslaa — your exceedingly hospitable forest.”

Bilbo nodded at Thorin’s correction and amendment.

Not that anyone could see him.

All the same, his presence was most certainly necessary since Thorin seemed to be utterly incapable of making it more than half a sentence without resorting to insult and bluster. At this rate, the guards that were surrounding the other eight members of the company in the room somewhere behind them were going to become jailers in truth instead of armed escorts.

Hence the pinching.

Bilbo knew it wasn’t actually hurting Thorin, just making him aware of the hobbit’s displeasure. On a hobbit, pinching someone on the ear like that would put them on the ground more likely than not.

His efforts weren’t going to matter if the elf’s scowl was anything to go by. The king was draped over his throne like a cat in the sun, and had a similar feline amusement. Like a cat with prey.

And really, having an enormous throne up on top of a platform was excessive. The elf was tall enough already.

“And what were you doing in my forest?”

Travelling.”

“Travelers do not often pass through this forest, and certainly not on the path made by my people.” Thorin started, but Thranduil ran him over, “Not that you were on the path. You were on my lands.”

It was too much to hope that Thorin might peaceably apologize.

“Yours is a small party considering who you are. Do you merit so little protection? Or is this most that could be bothered to attend you?”

Bilbo realized he had growled a bit after noticing that Thorin’s had been louder. Perhaps Bilbo had just grown a bit protective of the great sod standing next to him, or perhaps it was because Bilbo knew what had occurred when Thorin had asked for help, but the hobbit very much wanted to empty a pitcher of wine on the prancing bastard’s head.

Imrid d’ursul, mibilkhags.” 

He recognized those words. Some of them at least. Enough of them.

And he agreed.

“Very well, if you don’t care to behave pleasantly,” Thranduil drawled with an icy smile, “Take him away and,” the smile grew, “keep him and the others safe. Do not worry Thorin Oakenshield, your company will be well looked after until you feel inclined to tell the truth, even if your pride holds your tongue for the next hundred years.”

He tried to keep up with Thorin as the guards saw him out of the throne room. He also tried to keep a sense of where he was, where they were going, where the rest of the company was going, which of the elves seemed to be in charge, and whether or not he would be better off chasing the company rather than Thorin. He actually slipped a hand into his dwarf’s when the elves left enough space to make it possible. Bilbo intended to give a quick squeeze to warn that he would be gone.

Thorin’s hand tightened in a way he couldn’t pretend was encouragement for Bilbo to walk from him. So Bilbo snuck along with the dwarf, losing track rapidly of where he was. Wherever they they intended to place Thorin was well away from the others.

It was dark, and it was chilly, though, no one seemed to be bothered by that except himself.

Maybe it was simply an effect of wearing the ring.

He didn’t like the way the world bled out at the edges. He didn’t like that it made it seem as if people kept leaving bits of themselves behind when they walked. He didn’t like that the elves glowed. He really didn’t like that whenever he wore it he felt all too ready to concur with Thorin’s hatred of said glowing elves.

However, there was the fact that being invisible meant that he was able to keep his dwarves safer, and now could stay near Thorin.

So, he supposed it was worth it.

Unfortunately, Bilbo wasn’t paying quite enough attention as the elves stopped their march.

He had to dodge when one of them grabbed Thorin’s arm, and he actually tripped as the dwarf was encouraged into the small cell.

Fully confident that he would be able to find a way back out again, Bilbo had intended to slip inside the cell. He had intended to climb atop Thorin, and kiss him until neither of them was quite so furious and frightened. He had intended to deal with all of this nonsense tomorrow.

But the door swung shut with Bilbo on the wrong side.

And it wasn’t as if he could ask the elves to pop it back open for him.

The elves didn’t speak. Just locked the door with a large key, and vanished the way they came.

Bilbo waited until they were too far away to hear, then waited even longer. Thorin, as patient as he ever was, sat on the— well, Bilbo assumed it was meant as a bed. He slipped off the ring, crammed it into his pocket, and smiled at the way Thorin’s anxiety melted.

Ridiculous dwarf.

“How do you do that? Not that I am not pleased to see you safe, but I believe that it would be known if your kind were able to disappear at will.”

“Hello to you too.”

“Bilbo.”

He frowned and fished the ring back from his pocket with only minor reluctance. “I found this in the mountains.”

Thorin watched him for a moment, distrustful, but finally shook it aside. “It kept you safe. And it has you standing free while we are imprisoned,” he shook his head again, “but I will say that few magic rings in this world come without consequences.”

Knowing by the tone that there was probably a novel worth of tragedy and history in that sentence, Bilbo wisely let it slide.

“I suppose since I’ve been put off my original intent in following you here, I may as well ask you a few dozen questions Thorin.”

“Your original intent didn’t involve questions?”

“It didn’t involve clothing either, I’ll have you know.” Bilbo smirked, and delighted in the way Thorin went red and shy. “But as that’s now off the table, or bed, or whatever the elves seem to think that slab of stone with a blanket is pretending to be, I suppose we should start planning an escape. The elvenking didn’t seem keen to let you all go.”

Thorin was still red when he looked up, but had that look of stunned adoration. It was almost the same as that night in the garden so long ago. Back in Rivendell when Thorin had watched with soft open eyes as Bilbo decked him with flowers of promises and intentions and love.

One day he would need to explain all that.

Not today.

Not when there were bars between them and Thorin’s heir was missing.

Bilbo cleared his throat.

“Don’t look at me like that. Anyone in my position would be trying to help you escape and you know that. It isn’t as it I’m doing something remarkable.”

Thorin just smiled wider.

“Now then, you must have had your reasons for not telling the elves that several members of our company are still lost out there in the woods, but I certainly can’t understand them. You don’t think that they’re going to lay siege to the place and demand your release do you? Fili and Bofur can be a bit rash, but not even they are so mad as all that.”

Thorin slipped a hand between the bars, grabbing Bilbo’s before he answered. “Balin is with them to maintain order. And, before you ever joined our quest, we tried to exhaust every possibility of what was to come, and how to respond.”

“Except for how to kill the dragon.”

“No. We do have plans for that as well, though we did believe it likely that the beast was dead.”

“He’s not. Apparently.”

“Would you like me to answer your question, you insufferable hobbit?”  

When was the last time they had been able to stand together without danger looming over them? Without worrying that the others would come by and they would have to pull apart, hasty and blushing? It must have been at Beorn’s home, but it felt like a lifetime ago. The haze of the forest had made it difficult to know what had occurred and when.

Thank Eru that didn’t seem to have permeated inside the elven kingdom.

Bilbo should have found a way to dive into the cell, to get past the elves, no matter the risk. They could be having this conversation wrapped around each other, not trying to take comfort in a glorified handshake.

Oh yes, Bilbo was in a great deal of trouble, and one of these days, he was going to have to explain a few things to this dwarf. To his dwarf.

Again, not today.

“Go on then.”

“Telling that kakhaf ilbêbzars that there were others in the forest would only have ensured he sent elves to find them. Their being captured would do us no good.”

“But they’re still lost out there, whether that ulbabzars knows it or not.”

“Do you doubt my heir?” Thorin retorted, with only a twitch of his lips at Bilbo’s use of profane, but correctly conjugated, khuzdul.

“Yes I do. Two days ago he walked right into a tree, Thorin.” Though, looking back, it had been amusing that he had then yelled at the tree for getting in his way.

“They will be fine. We were marched for several hours to reach this place, but it means they are no more than a few day’s travel from the borders of the forest. Balin is with them, and has travelled this region many times. They know what to do. We however, are in a somewhat more difficult circumstance.”

“How so?”

“Oh? Imprisonment isn’t enough for you to consider this difficult, would you rather the challenge be increased?”

Bilbo pinched Thorin’s thumb.

“I don’t have to save you, you know.”

“No, but I expect you will in spite of that.” Thorin’s grin was irrepressible.  

Bilbo mumbled an answer, not inclined to admit that he would happily ransom the whole of the Shire if it meant he could be rid of this dratted forest.

“What if they aren’t Thorin? What if they are still lost? What if they didn’t find each other? What if the spiders separated them and they were overwhelmed?”

Thorin’s hands squeezed and Bilbo cut off his rising panic.

“They are fine.”

“You can’t know that.”

Thorin smiled, encouraging and fervent, “No. But I can believe it, and I do.”

It was that easy for the dwarf. It was how he had gotten his people through their wandering times. It was how he managed to face each day when the world had been determined to drag him down. They had spent enough nights whispering to each other that Bilbo knew how deep conviction ran in Thorin’s bones.

It was persuasive, and it was gorgeous.

Bilbo kissed Thorin’s hand on a whim, nodding a bit too much to hide his wet eyes.

“Yes, well then.”

“Where are you going Bilbo?” he asked as the hobbit tried to pull away.

“Well, if the others are just fine and waiting for us out in the forest, then I need to get you lot out of here, and as soon as I can, I wager. Work to be done. Cells to be found. Escapes to be planned.”

“I always knew you would be useful to us.”

Bilbo lifted a brow, “No, you didn’t.”

One last squeeze between their hands, all they could manage in the circumstance, and Bilbo slipped on the ring, hoping that he’d be able to match Thorin’s confidence. He had no idea where to start, but staring at Thorin like a lovesick tween wasn’t going to help get any of them to freedom.

 


 

“No. No. Itsallfine. Thisiscanon. Orcloseenough. Thisisgood Balin! Mirkwood? Mirkwood is blech. Yes? Not Good.” She hadn’t stopped talking since they had realized what must have happened. There was no sign of dwarvish blood on the ground, but that was hardly a guarantee. Their kin and company had been taken captive by the Elvenking of Mirkwood. There was a small chance that Thorin might have hit his head during the fight and suddenly learned to speak calmly with the elf. There was also a small chance that the dragon would leave the mountain if offered a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits.

Balin had been trying to listen to Freya, trying to understand the gestured, rambling, half westron explanations. She just kept repeating herself, and seemed blindly certain that Bilbo was not only safe, but a saviour, and currently tagging along with Thorin.

Bofur and Bombur were looking in long circles around the edge of the area, investigating shrubs and leaves for hidden comrades or additional weaponry.

Fíli was holding his brother’s bow.

And had not spoken since picking it up. There were arrows embedded in many of the bodies, and it was clear that many of the shots had felled the beasts in a single blow. Fíli had noticed those as well, but kept returning his eyes to the bow, abandoned on the ground.

The younger prince hadn’t left that behind willingly.

“Balin! Yesthankyoulookatmeplease. Makesthesonganddanceeasier. Thorin, Bilbo, ten? Thranduil! Andtrustmethisisgood. Thranduil is good. Ipromise. We go talk Thranduil? Yes?”

“Don’t think it’s going to help if we go talk with Thranduil, lass. Just end up captured as well. If words can get them out, Thorin can manage.”

She frowned, working out meaning. Then she scoffed, held up one hand, labelled it Thorin, labeled the other Thranduil, and began to demonstrate in sound effects and puppetry exactly how poorly that conversation would go.

She had a point.

They might not actually resort to biting as her reenactment implied, but it would be close.

Balin knew his king wasn’t likely to keep a civil tongue. Based on the evidence around them, the company had been taken prisoner; they had marched off in a line, leaving a trail they would easily follow. Could easily follow. To do so would only ensure that the elves found them.

Months ago, while they had been contemplating the plan for the quest over an old map and several mugs of ale, Thorin had dodged his heir’s question about what they would do if the dragon lived, by asking what would happen if Thorin was killed or missing. At the time it had been a clear attempt to avoid discussing something hopeless. All the same, it had resulted in the formation of several arrangements they agreed to follow.

Fíli remembered them, that was a given.  

After how much he fought before agreeing, he would still remember them when his hair was white instead of gold. It had been a long and unsettling night after that as they listed the myriad ways that the quest could go wrong, and wounded the youthful optimism of the crown prince in the process.

If Thorin was known to have been killed, Fíli would take charge of the quest. That had been an easy one. If Thorin was taken by orcs, and the company had a chance to retake him, they were allowed to attempt it, but not at the risk of the quest at large. They determined that night how long they would wait for injuries or unexplained absences. They determined the exact parameters in which Fíli would be expected to take over leadership.

Thorin had later confessed that he had done so to ease Fili’s mind should something occur. It would not be his decision to leave Thorin behind, it would simply be following his uncle’s commands.

And yes, they had discussed the potential for the majority of the company to be captured. The plan discussed had involved men not elves, but the principle held true.

Unless they were certain they could fix it, or certain that there were imminent executions, those that were not captured were to get to safety, and wait for the others to join them. This fell neatly into that category.

Fíli was still silently distraught.

In none of the scenarios, not one, had they ever implied that Fíli and Kíli would be separated.

Balin sighed, watching the prince clutching the bow. This was something Fíli did not know how to reconcile. They had fought together in Goblintown. They had charged Azog together. They had been a duo of mischief and accomplishment from the time Kíli could toddle along in Fili’s footsteps.

Even during the darkest times, when there were attempts on the boys lives, they never —

“Oy.”

Balin startled at the sharp flick on his ear.

“Thank you. Comebacktome Balin. Youwanderedoffinyourhead. Youhavetostayfocused. Orangry. Orhighonadrenaline. Otherwiseyoureuselessinhere. Becausethisis Mirkwood.”

The lass snapped at him, hand held up to flick him a second time, and the reprimand obvious in her tone. She was right. The forest was trying to snare them once more. Balin shook his head violently.

“Thank you Freya. Oh my, that’s why Fíli isn’t speaking isn’t it?”

She looked over and sighed.

Balin walked with her, and grew more worried when Fíli had no reaction at first. She snapped her fingers in his face, and got no response. The she snatched the bow out of his hands.

It— well, it did succeed in breaking the glazed look from Fili’s eyes. And Frey ducked fast enough that there was no harm done when Fíli swung a fist. He looked immediately guilty as the last of the haze dissipated in his face.

Donenow? Greatfabulous. Veryrude. Youtwatsareruiningmyday. Justsayin. Werebackoncanon! Sortaatleastandyouarentplayingalong. Fíli. You and Balin and Bofur and Bombur and I. We go to words Thr—Fíli talk with Thranduil. Thenafterthetalking. Fourteen? Fourteen go to Erebor. Yes?”

“Frey, it is not that simple.”

“We cannot go to the elves and be captured ourselves.”

“Talk with elves.”

“Thranduil will not just let them go. And as you said, Thranduil and Thorin will talk to each other, and little good will come of that.”

“Thranduil wants …. shitwhatstheword… rocks?” She stumbled on a phrase, and fumbled the exuberance of her declaration. “Shitfuckdamn. Sorryaboutthat Ori. Didyouteachmethisword? Oh durinultarg thegemsaremoviecanon.”

Balin and Fíli both jumped at the khuzdul. Not that it didn’t make sense she would start repeating everything she heard. Balin had heard that story about Beorn’s from his brother.

Okaybutifthegemsareathing Balin willknowright? Letsassume. Balin?”

They both turned at the serious tone.

“Thranduil wants rocks. AndIneedthenameforwhite. AndIhopeitworks. Becausethenameofthatplaceisntcoming. Soexamples. Brown?” She pointed to a clean corner of Fili’s coat. “Black?” She pointed to the more prevalent black stains. Then she pointed to Balin’s beard.

“White.” Fíli filled in for her, catching her meaning faster than Balin.

“White? yes. Thranduil wants white rocks. Thror? White rocks for Thranduil? Nooooooo Mwahaha. No white rocks for Thranduil. Thranduil go with no white rocks.” Balin glanced sideways and saw the same suppressed mirth. Lost and endangered and hunted, and the lass had just flailed about and done impressions.

“Balin, did that recall anything for you? Rocks is probably all she has for gems or jewels. But if there was an agreement between King Thror and Thranduil—“ Fíli cut off when Balin inadvertently gasped.

“The white gems of Lasgalen.”

“Lasgalen! Yes! YESThankyouPeter! Thankyousomuch. Or Mahal orwhoeverthankyou. Thisiscanonhere. Lasgalen for Thranduil.”

“Yes Freya. Thranduil would want those. You believe he will consider exchanging the others for them?”

No. that was too complex for her. Fíli tried instead, in simpler language, with excessive gesturing. Frey watched, then rambled back at him, flapping her hands. They were at it for several minutes, and Balin caught little of it. Most of it wasn’t words, just gestures and sound references. And somehow they were communicating. Not smoothly, not easily, but they were understanding each other. In the end, she nodded slowly, and reiterated everything.

“Fíli talk with Thranduil. Fourteen go Erebor. Smaug dead. White Gems for Thranduil.”

“Oh. Hmm”

“Fíli?” Balin pressed.

“She thinks I need to be the one to arrange a trade since Thorin has a temper. Their release for the return of these gems after the completion of the quest. Thorin won’t agree to the trade, so she wants us to find the elves, and for me to negotiate. Frey thinks that Thranduil will also give us aid if we are on good terms, which will likewise help our status with the lakemen.”

Balin gaped.

Fíli shrugged, as if he hadn’t just pulled nuanced politics out of a puppet show.

“It’s not that hard when she tries.”

Well aware he was giving the prince the same look Kíli had recently, Balin forced himself not to comment.

“So how shall we proceed?” He asked in a carefully formal tone. “Are we going to try and find an elf to take us to their king?”

“I imagine they’ll find us if we follow where they took the others.”

They found Bombur and Bofur, who were happy to report that there was no sign of injury amongst the rest of the company. It was still possible that they were, but almost certainly nothing serious, and with Freya’s ongoing insistence that they were fine, that Bilbo was with them, and the elves had not harmed them either, they all seemed a bit lighter.

Not that the forest was any more pleasant, but as they tromped over brush and rock, they were able to keep themselves present with only occasional reminders.

It was all going well.

But, as seemed to be a theme in Balin’s life, that was always the moment that things went wrong.

Frey stopped walking abruptly, head quirked, looking bewildered, and staring into the murk of the distant trees.

Leaves crunched.

A branch snapped.

There was a low curse in black speech nearby.

Fíli gave a signal, and they all moved.

Bombur dropped into a hollow, pulling a snarl of branches and webs over to better hide himself. Bofur slid beneath a log, mattock at the ready. Balin followed Bofur’s example, and ducked behind a broken stone, peeking around the side for whatever was coming. Fíli snagged Frey with an expedient hand over her mouth, hauling her behind a trunk with fallen branches further blocking them from sight.

Two orcs appeared a moment later. Common orcs, not from Gundabad, but they had the look of scouts.

Balin had to duck wholly behind his rock, and shifted his grip on the hilt of his sword. Kíli would be a blessing just now. His bow was less useful on its own.

Khozdai.”

Balin did not know what the orcs were doing, but he knew that word. He had been the one to teach black speech to most of the Durins after all.

They were still being hunted.

Nuzdid. Narg rishi nast.” 

Shul hakht shug. Nashi gun."

Mahal have mercy on them.

This changed things.

And not for the better.

They should have known that Azog would not stop hunting them. They should have known that a forest so fallen into darkness would have worse things infesting it than spiders. They should have thought of this, but, within the quagmire of the forest’s spell, they had not looked beyond the immediate threats.

Thorin and Kíli at least were safe with the elves. Balin grimaced. It was an easy change to think of them as being kept safe rather than kept captive.

He risked a short glance. One orc was kneeling, sniffing; the other had a cudgel and sickle blade casually in hand.

Two would be no contest, if Balin and the others could align their attack. Scouts had to be killed quickly and quietly.

Yet, if someone had to take that first step on the promise the others would come along, there was likely to be a bloody ending to their story. It would go better with a dual attack.

Sha murg.”

Arg daka ash?

Balin wished he could see Fíli, but the tree the lad had chosen was doing its job too well.  “Dakami arg khozdai.” 

Yes. This wasn’t going to go well. The line of Ur did not speak orcish as far as he knew. Fíli did, but, if there was any mercy, and if any of Balin’s lecture on necessary risks had stuck in the lad’s head, he would stay hidden. At least until Balin had distracted the enemies.

There was a flash of something in the air.

A crash in the foliage many steps away from them.

A distraction tactic and a cue, all in one.  

Heart pounding, expecting the rest of the orcs to arrive at any moment, he moved from his cover.

Fíli and Frey had moved at the same time.

The orcs had nearly been atop them, and Balin had a distance to cover, so he watched as the pair moved through some kind of plan.

Freya stabbed a blade into one of their bare thighs, and left if there, already fleeing from the enraged snarl and swinging sword. Fíli was just behind her. His twin blades arced and blocked the orc’s pathetic strike. As he took off its head on the return slash, Freya reached the second.

She dodged clumsily, swinging the hammer in both hands. It caught the orc in the knee, dropping it to the ground with a piercing shriek. Fíli silenced it with a blade in the throat.

Balin reclaimed the knife from the orc’s leg as Bofur and Bombur joined them, staring warily into the surroundings. With a smirk, he held out the blade to Fíli, it was his after all. He accepted it without looking, slapping it back into Freya’s hand, still without looking away from her face.

She was glaring back at him.

Yes, the next time they had a quiet, safe moment, just as soon as they found the others, Balin was going to open another purse with Gloin.

“You idiot.” Fili started, in a tone that was less a reprimand than the words, “You were supposed to go second not first.” He held up two fingers. She grinned unrepentantly. “That was not safe.”

She knew that word and frowned. “Fili is safe.”

“I know how to use a weapon. I can actually defend myself.”

She didn’t understand him, but the general impression must have gotten through. Frey flicked him in the forehead and snapped, “And you are Durin.”

“And you can foretell the future of this quest.”

“Durin.” Her tone was final.

Balin was inclined to agree with her, and was already taking notes on Fili’s next lecture on self preservation.

“Frey,” Fili continued, softer, “you didn’t talk about this.”

“I not see this. Theyshouldntbehereyet. Idontknowwhytheyare.” All of the playful mirth slipped from her eyes, and she clutched her weapons tighter.

There was a long quiet as the four dwarves exchanged confused glances. The lass could predict the coming and going of deer, rainstorms, goblin traps, and the miscellaneous vagaries of gravity, this critical turn seemed to be something she should know about.

They all snapped to attention at the sound of a horn.

Balin’s eyes shut.

Orcish.

The pair had killed the scouts fast, but not silently.

A moment later, they could hear the faint sounds of their enemies moving. By the sound, it was many, and from many sides. Including the direction their companions had been taken.

“Elves. Please elves? Elves are safe, Fíli.” Frey said quickly, “Elves are dead orcs. We go to elves. Fíli talk with Thranduil. Fourteen are safe.”

A second horn sounded, certainly from the direction of the elves this time.

“We won’t make it lad.” Balin added. “If the elves were about we’d have heard their horns by now.”

“We need to get to the others.”

“We need to stay alive.”

“Balin—“

Rayad.” 

Rukhâs bin’amad faslaki.” Fíli growled, dropping one blade back into its sheath on his back and gesturing. “We have not heard any sign of orcs from that direction, yes?”

“Oh aye, nothing from where the spiders fled to.” Bofur replied with a macabre humor, “Just lemme get a bit of their insides off me mattock before we start all that up again.”

Balin nodded an agreement to Fili’s proposition.

“No. Fíli. We go for elves. Thorin. Bilbo. Kíli. Kíli!” She was pointing down the path with his knife.  Fíli shook his head.

“Orcs. Azog.”

Balin expected her to protest, or throw a fit that would bring their new hunters down on them. Her mouth opened like it was about to start. He did not expect her to deflate in resignation.

Yeahokay. Leastthiskeepsmeawayfromthering. Andactuallyitsgonnabe Bolg.” She sighed. “Wellthiswasfun. ForacouplehoursIthoughtshitmightworkout. Iknewwhatwashappening. Canthavethatcanwe? We go?”

Everyone looked to Fíli.

The prince checked them all over, looking for injuries, verifying their safety as he had been trained to do, then nodded.

And once again, for what felt like the hundredth time since leaving Ered Luin, Balin followed the line of Durin as they were hunted by the enemy.

 


 

 

It could be worse.

That was the thing Kíli was holding onto. They could have been eaten by spiders. They could have been killed on sight. The whole bloody company could have been caught and killed by Azog on that cliff. He could have died before he reached the Carrock.

It could be much much worse than being locked in an elvish prison cell not knowing where his brother was.

If he was even alive.

After all, he could know that his brother was dead.

Bilbo had come by, since the hobbit was apparently able to become invisible, and was using it to sneak around an elvish kingdom and nick snacks from the kitchen rather than sneaking out of said kingdom to find and help the missing members of the company. Kíli hit the wall again.

But yes. Bilbo had come by, asked how he was doing, and delivered a message from Thorin. They were awfully confident that the others were together, and well. They were convinced that they were in better circumstances than those currently in prison.

Kíli wasn’t sure about that.

They had been low on food, very low on water, and wandering lost through an accursed forest. That had been before they had been attacked by a small army of spiders.

So no, Kíli was not feeling exceptionally confident.

He had been in the blasted cell for four days, and had eaten the delivered food out of habit more than hunger. Kíli was treated warily by the guards, ever since they had searched him for other weapons and he had tried to break the elf’s wrist. A trio of them had put a stop to that, but the elf he had grabbed walked away rubbing at his wrist gingerly.

Small consolation.

Since he was considered to be a bit dangerous, he was being treated more harshly, and watched more closely.

The red haired elf came by every day and watched him. Fine. That was her decision, since Kíli was starting to think she was the warden. It didn’t matter. Maybe, possibly, if his brother had been nearby, and Kíli had confirmation that no one he cared about was hanging drained of life from a spider’s web he would have paid attention to the fact that she was easily the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, despite being far too tall, and, well, an elf.

That wasn’t the case.

So Kíli scowled at her when she returned again to hover outside the door of his cell.

She just stood there, awkwardly observing as he paced.

Usually she went away after a few minutes of this.

Which would leave Kíli to sit and panic and fuss and worry, and hit the wall until his hand throbbed, and do whatever possible to keep himself from thinking about the forest. Bilbo was working on an escape plan, much good may it do them. Escaping was one matter, and yes, it was important, but there were four of them, no, five of them, in the woods still.

Balin was with them.

That was good.

Assuming they were all together, Balin would be there to help settle his brother down. Kíli couldn’t imagine that Fíli was handling this much better than he was. Heir and elder brother he may have been, but there was a history of Fíli overreacting to Kíli being under threat. No. Balin would remind Fíli that attempting to confront the elves would be ill advised.

Balin would make him see reason.

Balin would make sure that Fíli kept to the agreements they had all made while planning this quest.

Balin would make sure Fíli and the others got out of the forest in one piece.

There was no reason for Kíli to be so shaken.

Except that it was Fíli.

Kíli stopped his pacing, slumped against the wall and clutched sore hands into fists. Some of the others were in cells together. Some of them were close enough they could shout to each other. Bilbo had told him that. Just like Bilbo had told him that Thorin had been obstinate, offensive, and was now locked in a cell well away from the others, the jailers not so much as speaking to him.

Isolation didn’t suit Kíli any better than it did his uncle.

“You are troubled.” the elf’s voice was smooth, but Kíli jumped like she had shouted.

She had not spoken in front of him in westron since the day they were captured. He turned, and glared.

“Of course I am, I’m in a cell and, I don’t know where—”  At least he managed to cut off before he actually explained that there were more dwarves in the area.

She watched him for a few minutes until Kíli grew uncomfortable and fidgeted.

“It must be difficult for you to be separated.” She said gently, lowering herself to a stone step. There was certainly no way she could know, and Kili’s glare intensified. “To know that you are here and that a part of you is elsewhere, possibly in danger.”

She paused, waiting until Kíli met her eyes.

“I would feel the same if my bow were left behind.”

Kíli blinked.

Swallowed.

Tried not to go hysterical that this was happening.

But yes, the elf was looking at him too intently to have made a mistake. She knew and she wasn’t asking for more.

“I did not think to send a scout back for your bow until yesterday.” she continued lightly, “After the reports from the guards and my own observation, it was clear that it was important to you, and that you might be calmer if it was found. They returned without it I must admit. Perhaps they simply overlooked it?”

How was he supposed to answer this? He couldn’t tell her about Fíli. Not just because uncle would be furious, not just because of the plans in place, but because he knew the elves would happily capture the rest, and then all hope for Erebor would be lost.

So Kíli talked obliquely about his bow.

“It’s a very fine weapon.”

“It brought down many of the spiders. I watched you with it as we approached. You are very talented with it. It is unusual among your kind is it not, to be trained in archery?”

“Not especially.” Kíli had to fight the need to curse, no longer sure if they were speaking of lost weaponry or lost kin. She had not changed her tone, but the question had not made sense if he had understood her at the start.

Nor did the next.

“You found the best targets on the creatures quite quickly it seems. We train warriors to aim for the juncture below the head as well, but learned that through long experience. I do not believe you had spent so long as we hunting the creatures.”

Kíli was sure his face was ridiculous, half a scowl, have twisted in confusion. She was irritating.

Then the blonde warrior he’d seen in the forest appeared, nearly silent, and she looked up cooly. “My lord Legolas.”

“Tauriel. Do you think to learn tactics from a dwarf?”

Tauriel answered in Sindarin, and by the half-laugh it evoked, it had been a private joke between them. She declined whatever he asked her after, and Legolas departed. A pointed look kept Kíli silent for a long time.

“My apologies.” She said, entirely serious.

“For what?”

“For not finding your bow.” Oh, fine then, and they were back to the strangely intense coded phrases again. “I intend to try to find it for you when my company next hunts.”

“Don’t. Uh, er, I mean, you don’t need to do that.”

“Master Dwarf, I think it is important that I find it.”

“Don’t. Don’t look. My bow will be fine.”

It didn’t matter why the elf was acting helpful and concerned. It didn’t matter that Kíli couldn’t sleep for worrying. Fíli needed to remain free.

A little flicker of something passed through her eyes, as if she was unsure how to proceed from their current location. Kíli wasn’t sure either. Tauriel didn’t seem to have any cruel intent, but Kíli had heard too many lectures about deception and the ways to subtly interrogate a prisoner to trust her.

It could easily be a ploy to get Kíli talking, and there could be half a dozen elves around the corner, listening, taking notes.

But he wanted to trust her. She just didn't feel so horrid as the rest of the elves. They all felt just a bit like the forest had, sick below the surface. Not much, but just a hint of something that kept him from believing them at all.

Tauriel didn’t.

But she was still an elf.

“The forest is not as it once was master dwarf.”

Even if she did try to speak respectfully.

“It is not safe as it once was. There are dangers.”

“We did notice that. Giant spiders, that your kind have allowed to breed and spread and attack travelers.”

“The forest path is protected.”

Kíli thought back to that first attack, and scoffed, “We were attacked while on the path, and driven off of it.” Tauriel sat up straighter, alarmed and irate. Not at him, not at the dwarves. At whom, Kíli could not guess, but something started smoldering inside her when he spoke. “What? Did you think we just decided to wander off into the creepy woods towards the giant spider webs and the ominous noises?”

“The path is protected.”

The revelation had thrown her. He whole face twisted on a thought, while concern rattled her previously composed mien. Kíli should have tried to show her some sympathy.

He didn’t.

“Your forest was poisoning us. We didn’t know where we were or what we were doing most of the time. We were fighting and confused and dangerous. Then we were attacked. Then we were lost, running out of food and water. Then we were attacked again. Then we were taken prisoner by a group of iskêb faslk binkurdu who took offense at our trying to stay alive. And now I’m locked in here while —“

“Your bow. Yes.” She had risen, overly still, reminding Kíli of nothing so much as a startled fawn.

Kíli let himself finally sit, leaning against the door with his back turned. He wasn’t going to talk to her anymore. That was a far better plan than letting his mouth have an opportunity to make things worse.

He could hear her shifting awkwardly.

“Master dwarf, your bow is quite effective against the spiders infesting the forest.” He knew that. In either meaning it was true. “Is it equally so against other threats? Is it equally capable against orcs and wargs?”

Without thought, he had turned, stood, and grabbed the bars.

Her voice had been hesitant, and her face betrayed unspoken secrets.

Whatever he meant to say was cut off by a call from one of the other elves. Tauriel answered curtly and nodded to them.

“If anything is found by my scouts on the next hunt, I will tell you of it.”

She was gone before Kíli’s mind had caught up, and he had no guess what he could say to bring her back and make her tell him more.

When the guards brought him a bowl of food and bread later, he wasn’t able to eat it. Kíli stayed by the bars, waiting for her to return until late in the night when the stew was cold and the bread was hard.

He fell into a fitful sleep, still leaning into the door, chased by fear.

Chapter Text

“Oh, son of a bitch... Spiders.”

Because that was what they needed right now. More spiders. That was just the thing to round out their little side quest from hell. They were already exhausted and hungry and grumpy and had been hoping to find a place to hide and sleep and instead, they got spiders.

Lovely.

She aborted her hissed temper tantrum, stopped gaping at the snarl of webs full of monsters in the trees above her, and adjusted the hammer she was pretty sure hadn’t been set down in days. If she was lucky, very lucky, they hadn’t heard her.

Though, the last time she had been lucky had been back at Beorn’s house, so she wasn’t overly hopeful. Fíli was going to be pretty pissed if she got herself chased by spiders.

Again.

Speaking of whom, the dwarves needed to come find her. Preferably before she got munched on or chased, or had to try to fight off the eight, no wait, nine, ten, eleven spiders currently within sight. True, she shouldn’t have gone stomping off without one of the others.  Not her best decision. But, they had been whining and petulant and she had seriously been considering finding out whether dwarves were tough all over by kicking Bofur in the balls until he fell over. It was going to be like a tootsie pop commercial.

The miner stared at her most of the time when they were stationary, and it was getting under her skin.

Of course, it wasn’t as if they had spent more than a total of ten hours stationary in the last three days, but he glared when he could while they were on the move too.  

He was persistent that way.

Ever since they had lost the others, ever since the orcs had shown up and they had heard that horn, it had simply been the five of them hauling ass as quietly and stealthily as possible. These was dwarves, so their success in that had been minimal. It had just been them fleeing, and her having no idea what was going on except that the odds of them surviving this were dwindling at an alarming rate.

In Bofur’s defense, she had lost her temper on the second day and smacked Balin in the side of the head when he had gotten distracted by a bit of moss thanks to Mirkwood’s muddling effects.

They hadn’t seen the orcs since that first day, but they had never stopped hearing them. They were being hunted -- occupational hazard of being a Durin, that -- and the orcs probably were doing better in the forest than they were.

That didn’t matter right now. What mattered was that the spiders hadn’t turned to her yet, so apparently they hadn’t heard her constant cursing. Which meant she could sneak away and locate the dwarves and they could retreat from this direction and go somewhere unoccupied to curl up and nap for a few hours before they continued their inevitable ongoing retreat.

Frey got two steps before she heard an inquisitive shout from Balin.

Behind her, they were trying to find her. Sweet of them.

In front of her, all of the spiders turned to the sound, saw her, and clicked and hissed in delight.

Fantastic.

If this hadn’t been her fourth time fighting the damn things since entering the forest, she might have run. Fortunately, she had plum run out of fucks to give, and stood her ground.

“Spiders!” She shouted quickly to the rest, not daring to be too loud because the orcs were still around, and pulled Fíli’s knife from the sheath.

Apparently they were going to fight spiders today.

She danced backwards from the ones approaching her, unable to land a blow, unable to do much more than duck when they tried to grab her.

They weren’t all that fast. Thank god.

As they corralled her against a tree and flanked around, dodging her hammer, the dwarves decided to make an entrance.

Fíli was the first to get to her since his youth allowed him bound through the forest at a higher speed. He cut through the spider nearest to her, checked her health in a glance, and nodded. Frey nodded in reply, stepped behind him, and guarded his back as they moved from the nest and towards the others.

It was a spiraling dance they enacted. It left puddles of goop behind them as Fíli slashed open spiders with more vehemence than in their last encounter.

But all that dashing about and slaughtering meant he wasn’t quite predictable. Frey constantly had to adjust, shifting and countering to keep his back guarded from the errant beasts that tried to sneak up on them. If she hadn’t, he’d have ended up facing her long before. That would be less than helpful. Also. They would probably die.

Spiders were plenty intimidating if they were being faced down by a single hobbit. They were a challenge when the dwarves were bleary and drugged by the forest’s spell. They would be an issue if she was alone.

Against four furious, frustrated dwarves, and a displaced human, the outcome was inevitable.

Frey slumped on the ground against an obliging corpse as Bombur killed the last of them with a cookpot. She didn’t giggle at the sight, but it was a near thing.  

“Not gonnabeableta camp here.” Bofur grumbled at her. She flipped him off. Balin had been the one to tip off the spiders. She had been doing just fine sneaking out of sight.

She ignored them as they bickered for a moment, deciding which direction to run next. They did this sometimes. Often. Constantly.

This was her life now.

Running.

Killing things.

And ignoring the bickering of dwarves.

Which, if she was being honest, that had been her life ever since she had left Bree. The killed things used to be a bit more fluffy and delicious and a bit less murderous, but that was really the only difference.

“You are fine?”

Well, and the fact that some of the dwarves were nicer to her now.

“Yes,” She nodded at Fíli, accustomed to the question after every skirmish and event and flight and bloody loud noise by now. Just like she was used to the fact that he would ignore what she said and check her for any injuries. It probably would have set her blushing if he didn’t do it to everyone else. Going by Balin’s proud smile, it was expected of him.

“Do not wanderaway again.” She frowned and he began miming. “Walk? We are here. You walk? You see spiders. That is wander. Do not wander again.”

Fíli, of all of them, was the most troubled by their situation. Between Kíli and Thorin and his sudden position as company leader, he looked like he was ready to pull his own braids off from anxiety. Throw into the mix the forest’s tendency to make them all terse, confused and, bitchy, and they were certain to blow at some point.

Frey had alleviated a bit of their tension by opening the last elvish pack on her leg yesterday. The pack that she had guarded so fervently since Rivendell. Like the bags she had given them on the Carrock, it was filled with lembas, and would keep them going at least a while longer.

Not that they were going to see the other side of the forest. That was just a pipe dream at this point. That was preposterous. That was folly.

She had a better chance of marching the ring to Mordor dressed in a tutu and a boa than she did of seeing Laketown.

So it was hard for her to give a damn about anything. They were all going to die. Horribly, most likely.

They were being hunted by the orcs early, and for the life of her, she couldn’t figured out why.

Not that it stopped them from thinking she knew. Actually, they thought she knew everything. The orcs, the spiders, the goblins. She’d spent two months trailing after them like a querulous toddler and now that she was as clueless as the rest of them, they were taking what she said as gospel.

Middle Earth clearly had a sense of irony.

“Frey?”

She snapped out of her mental perambulation at his voice.

“Fíli?”

“We need to run.”

“Of course we fucking do. That’s all anyone ever does in Middle Earth. It’s no wonder everyone is thin and attractive, you’re underfed and doing constant wind sprints. It’s bloody inevitable. By the way, I hate wind sprints. Always did. They’re awful. Also, I hate you. Everyone else too, but at the moment, mostly you Fíli. You’re the face of this hell. So I hate you. You and wind sprints.” He waited while she whined, then rose, extending a hand to hoist her from the ground. “We run?”

A little flicker of a smirk tried to happen on Fíli’s face before he remembered he was in command and smothered it.

“Run.”

They did.

 


 

Maybe he could just run for it.

Maybe if he faked an illness he could get the guards to open the door, then he could get out and just run like anything. Then he could get out of this accursed prison and go find his damnable lost brother.

Instead.

Kíli paced.

Back and forth, one step after the next, one side of the cell to the other, worrying every step of the way that Tauriel would return and tell him that she had found his brother’s body. Terrified that his brother was going to die because Kíli wasn’t there to protect him.

He was the archer.

He was the distant force, the act of protection. He was the one that struck down enemies that thought to sneak up on his kin. Now, instead of doing that, he was in a prison cell. Pacing.

Freya would try.

That was obvious. She would try to protect the others if she was with them. And she was stubborn enough, she probably was. She would even try to protect Bofur; Kíli would bet his beard on that. That is. If they weren’t all dead already.

Problem with that fantasy was, she was awful at it.

Good intentions made for a lovely story, and worked out just fine in a story told to a passel of dwarflings, but she really wasn’t a fighter.

He and Fíli had discussed this at length. Well, they had discussed her imminent gory demise and how they might forestall it happening. However. It was inevitable.

They had both been raised to look at a person’s skills and determine their potential survival. It was a grim relic of the years spent wandering. Thorin had taught them with grief written on his face, but he had taught them all the same.

Ori made the Durins twitch for the same reason. Although, Kíli had to admit that Ori was doing a lot better since the Misty Mountains. Not great. Still likely to die.

Kíli shook himself. It did no good to dwell on the chance. He had to find a way to get out of the prison. Bilbo was sneaking about, trying to find something, but there was no guarantee. There was no certainty, and Kíli had to find his brother.

“Your bow has killed more spiders.”

He whipped his head over his shoulder, staring at the elven captain, enraged and grateful all at once.

He hated that he had no choice except to trust her.

He hated more that she was so endlessly compassionate to him. Skittish and awkward, but trying to console him.

Also. Trying to find and capture the others. And the reason Bilbo looked ever more stressed.

“You’re sure?”

“They were certainly dead.”

“I meant--”

“That too. I am certain. I saw the trail myself on patrol.”

“So?”

“Whoever killed the spiders did so easily. There was no sign of injury. Nearly a dozen spiders were slain. It was an admirable task.” She watched him softly. An entreaty. An offer. A kindness.

He really hated that he wanted to accept that offer.

“Where?” He half snarled.

“South of the path, some ten--” She cut off abruptly, smacked the hilt of her blade against the bars, and glared at him as if he was being unruly.

A moment later she walked away, and within a breath, another elf arrived with the evening’s meal.

South of the path.

South.

Kíli ate the stew quickly hearing the word repeat, then pitched the bowl across the cell, savoring the clatter as it echoed.

Fíli was going the wrong direction.

 


 

Bofur dropped out of the tree he had just scaled, looked at them all with a wry grimace, and pointed behind them.

“Damn.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

Durinul zantul’abban.”

“You’re certain?”

“Aye. Wereheadingoffsouth. Mountainsoff up that direction. Don’t think we can go sayingweredoing well nowcan we, Bom?”

“No, dontsuppose we can Bof.”

Of course they were running the wrong direction.

Just.

Naturally.

Frey snapped the branch she had been fiddling with in half and chucked the pieces into the undergrowth. Now they had to go back through the orcs. The same orcs that they had heard  each time they rested. The orcs that, in all probability, knew exactly where they were and were playing with them for funsies.

Those orcs.

But, being as the five of them were all directionally-challenged planning-incompetent idiots, they had no other choice. They couldn’t just keep running south. Even if they weren’t trying to get to Erebor, there was the small matter of Sauron doing his little necromancer cosplay off to the south.

Frey didn’t want any part of it.

That was Gandalf’s game. And Galadriel’s.

She was out of her depth with a forest and a dragon. She was out of her depth and bewildered and irate.

They had hoped to hear good news and to make camp here beneath the ginormous tree that Bofur had managed to scurry up, so they had been half reclining at its base. Fíli had been standing a few steps apart, doing his best impression of his uncle’s serious brooding scowl. It was his most common look lately. He was clinging to it like a security blanket.

She missed the smirking jackass that had been such a pain.

They needed to stop. They needed to breathe.

So, the faint clatter of marching orcs wasn’t appreciated.

“We haveto run.” Fíli said, tacitly apologizing as he ordered them to get ready.

“Where?” Frey threw back. He gestured vaguely. “South? South is bad, Fíli. Much. Bad. You don’t even know.”

He frowned, clearly weighing what he knew with what he thought she knew.

“There are orcs chasingbehind us.”

“I know there are orcs, thanks, I recall them. Ugly bastards, running ahead of schedule. Trying to murder us all. Orcs. I’ve got that. We still can’t go south. South is bad.”

“Where?”

She pointed.

“Erebor.”

“There are orcs.”

“There’s always orcs with your people,” she grumped, “Erebor. We go to Erebor.”

Fíli seemed likely to whine some more, to protest, and Frey was contemplating smacking him until he agreed with her; it was Balin that stopped them bickering. He stepped to their conversation, and nodded to Frey.

“Erebor, you say?” His tone was onerous. He was implying a great deal more than the simple phrase made plain.

He was implying her foresight.

Again.

She really ought to nip that in the bud. Flower at this point. Whatever. She needed to stop them from thinking that she could just predict any and everything. She needed to get through to them the important things and the sovereign fact that whenever things changed she became exponentially more useless.

Except Fíli wanted them to go south.

Which was dumber than usual.

Cutting off their faith would have to wait another day or two.

“Erebor.” She replied with finality.

Fíli acceded.

Behind Balin, even Bofur was listening. He was scowling at her, but he was listening like she was spouting the newest testament.

“How? The orcs…” Fíli motioned for her to explain some grand plan. It was an open sweep of his hand that, by virtue of occurring in the middle of a forest, meant he gestured toward a tree.

And that was as good a plan as any.

Frey smirked, “We go up trees.”

 


 

“And then climb a tree and look around and find them!”

“Oh, is that what you expect me to do Kíli? Pop outside of the inescapable prison, have a look about and come back with your brother and the others walking behind me neat as you please? You’re less helpful than your fool uncle. He wants me to snatch the keys off that elf captain and just walk you all out the front door. Never mind the guards. Never mind the gates. Never mind anything. But don’t worry, I’ve gotten you out of a few spots of trouble before, so this shouldn’t be a problem?”

Kill stared at the hobbit, abashed.

“I know that you’re trying, Bilbo.”

The hobbit deflated, sinking against the bars and tossing his head in tired frustration.

“I have to find a way though, don’t I? There really isn’t anyone else. Gandalf isn’t coming back, and the others are Eru-knows-where and I….” he winced, “I’m sorry for that.”

“Balin is out there too.”

“I’m sure they’ve all found each other.”

Kíli held back the comment on his tongue.

“Do you have anything yet?” He asked instead.

“I found your weapons?” Bilbo offered. When Kíli didn’t react, the hobbit huffed, “That cheered up Dwalin, Nori, Thorin, Bifur and Glóin just fine.”

"My bow got left in the forest."

“You can get a new bow, Kíli.”

“No, I can’t.”

 


 

“Oh cock-sucking hell. This buggering fucking mud.”

Yeah. Fine, when the rain had started they had all been happy about it. After she drank it without dying that is. Fíli had smacked her in the back of the head for that. Tough cookies. She was thirsty. They all were. Lembas wasn’t exactly the most moist and refreshing of snacks, and it was definitely the only thing they had left to eat.

Yes, Fine. When the rain slowed them down they were concerned that the orcs would catch up with them only to realize that they had gained some distance on their pursuers in the three day downpour.

Fine. Yes. Okay. It probably was, overall, a good thing that the skies had opened and flooded them like the entire ocean was trying to go on a vacation in the damned forest.

However, as Freya and Bombur untangled themselves from the branches and each other at the bottom of the ravine, neither was a fan of the rain. The edge had been turned to tremulous mud, which had given out beneath them, and dropped them into a muddy, scraggly, not in any way cushioned, ravine.

Bombur was indestructible. Frey knew that. So she was just worrying about whether the twinge in her leg was serious or not.

Probably wasn’t.

Hopefully wasn’t.

Keeping up with the dwarves was hard enough already.

“We’re fine, Bofur!” Bombur said with a gesture.

The other three were on the ledge above them, and relaxed visibly at the announcement.

“Freya?” Fíli added.

“I am fine.” She was getting very good at that sentence. True or not.

Then Frey ignored them -- like she often did -- as they sorted out what sounded like a way to get the pair of them back up the slick steep wall, and away from the rising level of the stream at fault for the ravine. Fear of flash flood was going to be tricky to convey. Easier not to try, and she wasn’t in the mood to bother with anything more complicated that taking a nap.

She was covered in mud.

They both were.

And there was a stream next to them taunting her with its existence.

Maybe it wasn’t all the streams in Mirkwood that were magical nap-inducing bastards, but she wasn’t about to risk having to carry their corpulent compatriot. Even if the idea of being carried was rather appealing.

“Freya?”

She turned away from her temptation, and nodded at Bombur to climb up the rope first.

Fíli had luckily kept that on his pack through the myriad fights and chases.

A minute later the rope dropped next to her, and she climbed it with a forlorn glance at the closest thing to a bath she was likely to see in the next month.  

Now that the rain had dissipated, she couldn’t even expect a downpour to sluice the muck away. Well. Free mud bath.

Because that was what really mattered at the moment. Good skin.

Mirkwood being known for its delightful healing qualities and soothing nature.

Right.

With the light fading, Fíli ordered them all to camp just back from the edge of the ravine, tucked against several trees, on stable ground. They already knew that there was no hope of getting the wood to light, so only kicked aside the worst of the branches and stones before sinking to the ground.

Fíli passed out lembas, and after handing her mouthful to her, joined her against the tree she had claimed.

“Are you going to yell at me about drinking the rain again?”

He ignored her english whining, “You’re fine? Not hurt?”

“No. Not hurt. Covered in mud like I’ve gone vacationing in some luxe hotel, eating like a damn supermodel, and living through a hell that I must be at fault for but I can’t figure out why, but yeah Fíli. Not hurt. So don’t you worry your pretty head.”

“You are angry.”

“Well spotted smarty pants.”

Fíli got a frankly precious crease between his eyes when he was trying to understand her. She knew he had started to pick up some of the english. Mostly obscenities and pronouns. Not enough to speak it yet, but he occasionally caught the drift of her rants. Speaking to her, he was always meticulous about using simple sentences. He was an idiot and thought she was some faultless speaker of truth and prophecy. He also had been all chivalrous and helpful with keeping her from getting dead.

Both good and bad there.

Because what she needed in the middle of the side quest from hell was the return of a crush.

“Angry, not hurt? Angry at this iklifumun mud?”

“Mud?”

He swept a finger down her arm, pulling off a line of mud; not that it made her any cleaner.

“Mud.”

She didn’t even like the word.

“Yes Fíli. I am angry at iklifumun mud. And at trees. And at spiders. And at orcs. And at, at, at All.”

He swept most of the mud off her nose and cheek where she had face-planted, then started trying to clean the rest of her face.

“Angry at Fíli?”

Oh, that was a very strange question. One that she was almost certainly misinterpreting.

In the real world, she would have known how to respond to that: She would flirt. Possibly pretend she was angry until he bought her a drink. Then there could be lovely naked sexy times.

As it was, she shook her head, leaned into the body of the tree and tried to fall asleep now so she could stay awake during the doubled second watch later with Balin. With the way her body ached and her mind was running in circles on a dozen subjects, she didn't expect to manage it. However, sleep was a precious commodity to them, and added to the fact that they were nearly starving, her body overrode her mind.

She fell into strange dreams of running from orcs that turned into dragons and then into butterflies. She dreamt of her bed and of soaking in a jacuzzi. She dreamt of curling up on the couch and watching crap television, snuggled into someone’s side with their arm tucked around her.

She also dreamt of having to joust against Glorfindel armed with a pool noodle.

The blackness was oppressively dense when she was awoken.

Fíli was rubbing a hand over her shoulder, rousing her, which she allowed reluctantly. Or, it was reluctant until she realized that she was curled halfway into the dwarf. Then she was wide awake, skooching away and muttering apologies without focusing on which language she was using.

In the day, she could have at least judged what was happening by his face. In the dark, there was nothing but words, which neither seemed inclined to use. So she concluded her ramble with with a curt, “I have watch.”

Ne sazraliya aksut belamê ina ahliti mimadkhatadrân?” He muttered grumpily in khuzdul. Frey started to attempt an answer, but he cut her off, “Watch.”

She heard him shift, probably to fall asleep, and in the dark, she mouthed a tirade at herself.

Not for the first time, she was reminded that her life would be a lot easier if she actually understood what was being said around her, and went to wake Balin.

 


 

“I regret that I cannot tell you more than that.”

“It’s fine.”

“No, it is not.”

Kíli stayed where he had retreated, on the cot that was the only option in the cell. He sat stiffly, brittly. He faced away from the door because he wasn’t going to allow this elf to see his fear. It wasn’t a thing to share. It was his own pain and his own fault, and he wouldn’t let her have it.

“It’s fine. You don’t need to speak to me anymore. You shouldn’t. You aren’t supposed to talk to me. So now you have a reason to stop.” His efforts to sound formal and formidable fell flat. Kíli knew that talking with Tauriel, even when it was just snips of phrases, even when it was stilted and uncomfortable, was the only thing he was holding onto. Bilbo was rarely nearby, and the solitude and uncertainty was eating at him.

It wouldn’t get any better without Tauriel to talk to every day. Sometimes multiple times a day.

“You should not give up hope.”

“I haven’t. I trust him,” he spat back.

Tauriel was silent for long enough that Kíli almost turned to see if she had departed. But her voice was muted when she spoke again in the tense quiet moment, hidden from the rest of the company, secluded from the elves, and shrouded by the early morning hour.

“A brother?”

Damn it.

Kíli was doing nothing but lead the elves closer to the others with these slips. It was doing no good to speak to the elf at all. A little worried voice reminded him though, that if Fíli and the others were caught, and Tauriel believed them to be of value, she would keep them safe.

So he nodded.

“I have no relations. No. I have some. But they are kin by choice not by blood. I cannot fathom how you must ache. You must have faith. He has done well in the forest. The spiders--”

“There are orcs hunting him. And I am trapped here while he is left unguarded.” He spun to throw the words in her face.

“It is not my decision to keep you here. That is the purview of my king.”

Kíli scoffed and shook his head. “But you’re the one with the keys. You might not be the one to make the decision, but you’re standing there talking to me while he’s out in your accursed forest, hunted and in danger, and if you were telling the truth, you could let me out right now.”

“That is not true.”

She was correct, but Kíli wasn’t about to apologize. He hadn’t thought that would work. He had just needed to vent his temper. After he had destroyed a fifth bowl, the elves had stopped giving him dishes at all. He knew better than to hit the wall and injure his hands. So his temper built up to an almost painful level.

Kíli said nothing, just resumed his vigil watching the back of his cell, and counting down until she left and he could succumb to the fear her declaration had provoked.

“Master Dwarf, I told you only what I know. My scouts brought a report of signs of a company of orc changing direction, though they did not find the company itself. They brought a report that the others they had been seeking had vanished. And, a report that the paths had crossed. There is no certainty.”

How else was he to interpret that? How else was he to interpret his brother vanishing in Mirkwood just as the orcs that had been hunting him crossed their course?

Something must have happened to him.

“I believe that if he was lost to you, you would know it. Dwarves are not -- from what I have learned of your kind, you do not often have siblings so near your age. He, that is, if you are who I believe you to be, and you need not confirm such, Master Dwarf, but what I mean to say is, I believe you would know. Do you believe he is dead?”

Tauriel waited for long tense minutes, but Kíli gave her no answer. He didn’t turn back to her, not wanting to reveal the way the elf had just nurtured a tiny shard of hope into something viable. He didn’t want her to know that she had just helped.

She was an elf.

He was a dwarf.

He could not -- should not -- take comfort in her words.

He eventually heard her depart.

Silence reclaimed the air, and the tension grew worse without her there.

“No. I don’t.” He finally whispered, “I don’t believe he is dead.”

 


 

They’d had a good run.

Not great.

But they’d made it pretty far considering the fact that the damned orcs were bloody early, that they were so hopelessly lost, and that they seemed to think she was omniscient even after she stated as explicitly as she could that she knew nothing. She was Jon Snow. She was useless. She knew this.

They refused to hear it.

There was going to be yelling if they lived through this mess with orcs and whatnot.

The trees had worked at first.

Long enough that now they were being chased toward the north.

So. You know. Progress.

Such as it was.

Frey scooped up the blade from the ground and buried it in the side of the ugly bastard that had just knocked it out of Fíli’s hand. The orc screamed, and she shrieked back at it. That served to turn two others to look at her.

The dwarves took advantage of the distraction and promptly killed them.

Bofur went so far as to shout a thanks to her as he excused the thing’s head from its shoulders. Frey was preoccupied with trying to finish off the orc she’d stabbed, without it managing to return the favor. So, when Fíli yelled her name, she wasn’t sure what the hell he wanted from her. One of his throwing axes buried in the shoulder of the orc she was dancing around, and she finally succeeded in wrenching out the sword.

There wasn’t any dramatic final duel though. The orc had its scimitar in hand despite the gaping wound on its torso. Frey had one of Fiil’s swords and her hammer. Frey was expecting some kind of boss fight. Even just a little one.  

Fíli and Bofur had a different opinion.

Murderlate.

That was the best way to describe what they did to that orc.

It was a bit excessive.

Very effective though.

With the orcs regrouping or organizing or running for backup, and the five of them reunited for a moment, Fíli snapped an order in khuzdul, retook his sword, and they began to run again. It was only after they had put some distance behind them that Frey noticed Fíli was clutching her hand. The next time they stopped running, she was going to have to think about what the hell that meant.

 


 

Kíli’s life would be easier at present if he had paid attention during Sindarin lessons when he was younger.

Nothing for it though.

He hadn’t.

It had been bad enough that he’d heard about his slight figure from the other dwarves, especially the visitors that seemed to take delight in getting in jabs against the longbeards whenever possible. Kíli hadn’t wanted to give them more ammunition by speaking in an elvish tongue where anyone could hear.

So no, he didn’t pay attention to his Sindarin lessons, and refused to practice it past his schooling.

Now, forty odd years later, it meant that no matter how long Tauriel and the guard spoke outside his door, he had barely more a dozen words he understood. Orch and orchoth. Those were obvious. Anfang. Ungol. Maeth.

It wasn’t enough for him to properly know what was happening.

Maybe Bilbo was slinking nearby.

Maybe he was listening and would appear after the elves left and translate the whole thing. Maybe they knew where Fíli and the others were.

None of that happened though.

They finished their conversation, Tauriel left, and the guard passed him his food.

Bilbo didn’t appear.

Hopefully Bilbo was off finding an escape.

Two weeks had passed in this awful elven prison, and Kíli had long since passed the point where he cared what they had to give up to leave. Bilbo had flat out refused to pass Kíli’s more recent messages to Thorin. His uncle wouldn’t have taken well to the insults that Kíli had thought well hidden in Khuzdul.

Bilbo knew more of it than Kíli had thought.  

And, there may have been a valid point in Bilbo’s retort that, “Unlike some, Thorin hasn’t given up hope that the others are fine.”

Kíli hadn’t given up hope.

He hadn’t.

But he wasn’t facing this with the unshakable determination that was expected from a scion of the line of Durin. In the deepest parts of the night, when he was at his most desolate, he could think of nothing but his failings. Could only imagine having to tell his amad that he had failed to protect his brother. It was then that he would bring out his runestone and trace the vow carved into it. The token was his balm, but lost its efficacy with each day that passed in captivity.

He would sit for hours, unable to sleep, turning it in his hand, and picking at his guilt like a scab.

“What do you have there?”

Kíli flung himself sideways at Tauriel’s gentle interruption.

“My apologies Master Dwarf. I have to be certain it is not a weapon.”

Petulant and scowling, he tucked the stone into his pocket, never letting her see what it was. She bowed her head a moment, and Kíli celebrated his disobedience.

Then she removed the keys from her belt, and reached for the lock.

If Kíli’s mind had been capable of a coherent thought in that moment, he would have expected some form of violence. Men beat prisoners. Orcs and Goblins tortured them. Tauriel swung open the door and scrutinized him.

“Come.”

And that was clearly a trick. The captain of the elvish palace guard wouldn’t simply allow him to walk out of his prison cell.

Yet there she was, standing aside and leaving him a chance to rush past. To escape. To go find his brother. Fortunately, Kíli didn’t give into the impulse to attempt it. The more reasonable part of his mind was aware that it was impossible.

“Come where?” He clipped, pressed against the wall.

“You are not coping well with your confinement, Master Dwarf. I am tasked with the well being of yourself and your companions. If you would rather stay here, I can close this door and leave you to your own tending. But I cannot help but think that a moment away from this might ease your heart.”

Elves weren’t supposed to be kind.

It made it too hard to ignore the way they looked like starlight and nature twined together, barely contained by their physical form.

Elves were supposed to be unfeeling and callous. They were supposed to disregard the other races, hate the dwarves, scowl at their suffering and laugh as they were slain. They were not supposed to hold out an offer that was desperately needed with sincerity and tenderness.

But she was.

And so he obeyed

Kíli went with her on a circuitous path up staircases and sloped halls, steep ladders and narrow spans. She walked behind him, pointing to paths in silence. They ended in the open air, on a secluded balcony, with stars stretched above them, sparkling like the stories his uncle told him of the deepest mines.

They simply stood there, nothing more.

Kíli had not known how badly he had needed to breathe deep and see the world around him. It was an undwarvish instinct he tried to ignore, but he adored the night sky, the stars and the moon. Tauriel had seen that in him. Somehow.

When the first stain of grey light began to taint the night, Tauriel set a hand on his shoulder to lead him back to his cell.

No one saw them. He knew it would not be spoken of by either of them.

“Thank you for trusting me, Master Dwarf, you seem somewhat improved.” she murmured as she turned the key, relocking him in his cell.

“My name is Kíli.”

“And mine is Tauriel.”

 


 

“Freya.”

Why were they even bothering anymore? They were all humped. Utterly. Entirely. Humped.

She’d done her best, she really and truly had. It didn’t matter, but hey, at least when she died stuck through with an orc spear, she could could know that she deserved a participation ribbon.

The forest loomed around her, tricking her perception and rolling like an ocean wave beneath her feet. Trees bent as if they would tip sideways and crush her. The ground bucked and swayed and tempted her with smooth stones she mistook for the missing path. Shadows became orcs and wargs, nazgul and wraiths.

Even the air around her changed and mutated. Sometimes it was heavy, almost painful to breathe. At others, it seemed not to exist at all, and she gasped, hauling all the oxygen she could get into her body.

“Freya. Lasscomeonback.”

The forest was going to kill them. Or the orcs were.

If she got a vote, she preferred the orcs. They’d be faster about it.

Unless they weren’t. Unless they all got to take a vacation to Dol Guldor. Not much of a vacation. Azog would be there. He’d remember them. He’d remember her. She still recalled the way he had looked at her like filth on that cliffside. Also recalled the way Fíli had pulled a stupid to let her get away.

Oh crap.

Azog would definitely recall Fíli.

Yeah, probably best to cancel the vacation plan.

On the other hand, he’d get to meet his granddad. Thrain was good people. Crazy, but good people all the same.

“Oi. Freya! Whatchatalkingbout Thrain for?”

Unless fanon was right and Fíli looked like Frerin. Then there could be confusion.

SnaponoutofitLass.”

The world shifted with a crack.

Frey blinked and noticed her hand was at her cheek.

Damn forest and its damn obnoxious distraction causing magic.

She glanced at her saviour slash abuser.

“Thank you Bofur.”

This wasn’t the first time one of them had gone meandering in their own brain. Or fallen victim to the haze around them. It certainly wasn’t the first time it had happened to her. Just, generally it was Balin or Fíli that snapped her out of it.

And slapping really was the most effective way of doing it. She wasn’t worried about that. Honestly, Bofur hadn’t even hit as hard as Balin did.

“You said Thrain.”

Right, she should be paying attention. She nodded.

“What’d ya see?”

This wasn’t something she’d planned to mention. Not to any of them. Thrain was dying, regardless. She’d made this call before she hit Bree. The dwarves didn’t need to know that Sauron had Thrain. They’d do something dumb.

“Freya? Is Thrain alive?”

Shocked at Bofur’s sudden perceptiveness, she nodded.

“Where? Durinultarg lass. Why’d ya not say somewhatboutthissooner? Why’d ya not dragthelotofusoffta help him?”

She stammered an answer, “Y-y-yes. Is alive now. But is bad. We not help. If we help? We all are death. Dead.”

His expression, which had been a mistrustful glare for so long that she’d nearly forgotten what he normally looked like, shifted. It was, well, she thought it was sympathy.

Sasakhmayan yothur sazraliya.”

“What?”

Ne birasakniriya hu.”

“Bofur, I don’t speak khuzdul. Except the cursing Nori taught me.”

The former miner was still watching her, that weird and unexpected compassion or sympathy making her gawk at him. Conflicted too. Like he wanted to turn and tell Fíli and the others what she had just admitted.

“Freya, if he is alive--”

“Bofur. Why have you stopped?”

Both of them looked up at Fíli’s interruption.

They had fallen far behind the others on today’s jogged escape from their pursuers.

Bofur whipped his head from the prince to Freya, and she did her best to beg with her eyes. The last thing they needed right now was to distract the dwarf currently leading them, who was currently holding onto his temper by a thread. Bofur nodded, barely enough for her to see, and turned back.

“Forest gotinto her head a bit.”

All three shared a moment of mutual understanding before resuming their walk.

Bofur stayed behind her though, a silent storm of unspoken questions.

 


 

“They’re alone.”

“They will protect each other. Or my company will succeed in finding them, and they will be fully safe.”

“You mean they’ll be thrown in cells to rot.” Tauriel recoiled as Kíli snapped at her. He had to stop that. Bilbo still had found nothing that could serve as an escape for them. Maybe she could be persuaded; but it would not happen if he insulted her. “I apologize, Tauriel.”

“You do not need to, Master Dwarf. Your continued confinement is… it is regrettable.”

“So why don’t you do something about it?”

“I cannot challenge my king’s command.”

“You would if it mattered to you.” He spat, turning back to the sky.

After that first night, Tauriel had taken him in secret to this place every day. It could only be at night, and it had to remain an absolute secret. They spoke now. Often they kept themselves to thornless subjects, each avoiding what weighed most on their minds. Kíli didn’t know why she was doing this, but could see a soul-deep frustration lingering in her.

She truly wanted to fight against the commands Thranduil had issued.

So instead they told stories. Myths and legends of their people. Public secrets. They discussed their own lives and dreams and hopes. Kíli had spent an entire night talking about their quest after she had admitted to knowing their destination.

He shouldn’t have.

His uncle would be furious, but even so, he had talked. He left out Bilbo, left out Freya’s prophecies, but he told her of it in broad terms. The dream of a restored home and future. The hope of ousting an evil force. The fervent wish to fight back against the darkness lingering on the edges of the world. The hopelessness of what they were doing, and their determination to do so anyway.

Tauriel had listened with rapt attention and a soft smile.

The next night she had spoken of the forest.

Not of Mirkwood, but of the Greenwood of old. The way light had seemed golden in the day and silver at night. How the air itself was a restorative. How the trees bowed in greeting beneath a breeze. She told him about her parents’ deaths and the way the forest had changed. She spoke about how the darkness of the forest and the King’s deep sadness had compounded each other.

Tauriel told him about the many times she had requested to lead a larger force to eradicate the spiders, and find the source of the blight. How the king had refused on the argument that their own lands were safe. How she knew that was not true.

“It does matter to me.” She answered earnestly. “Were I a dwarf, I would have been the first to join your quest. We cannot allow the enemy to hold so much of the world in thrall. And the only way to resist it is to meet it on the field. We cannot simply wait for evil to come for us.”

“Then why have you not let us go?”

“Why have you not asked to negotiate with my King Thranduil? It would be within your right, Kíli.”

Because his uncle would despise him for it. Because he could not contest his own king’s decision.

Which was why she could not let them go.

Kíli stared back at the small throwing axe in his hand. She had brought it to him. Tauriel had brought him his brother’s weapon as proof he still survived, not knowing that he would see it as evidence of their desperation. The elves had found it in the body of an orc.

Tauriel had beamed and extended it to him.

Kíli’s world had fallen down. Fíli would not have left the weapon behind by choice. He tried to explain it, only stopping himself when he could not keep his voice even and detached. She went tender, and told him about the starlight festivals of the elves, long and poetic stories that calmed him, that relaxed him. He had given up the hope of resisting his affection for her, adoring that she continued to try and encourage him.

He did not speak of it, but he could not stop his attachment from growing.

“What will you do first you when you reach Erebor?” She asked, moving them from the more painful subject.

“Kill the dragon, I suppose.”

“But-- The dragon has not been seen in sixty years. You believe he lives?”

“We know he does.” Kíli answered, almost smiling as the remembered taunting his brother had given him.

“And you think to succeed where Girion failed?”

Kíli shrugged, “I am the best archer amongst us, and no one else is going to help. Smaug lives, and must be slain, so it will have to be me to do it.”

Tauriel’s mouth opened to speak, before snapping shut as she became the skittish awkward presence she regularly was.

They didn’t speak again that night, but Kíli felt her watching him rather than the sky above them until they stepped back inside.

 


 

“You are scared, not angry.” Fíli said into the barely there light of the second watch.

At some point it had become tradition. They took second watch together. They fell asleep on empty growling stomachs, leaning into each other as the darkness closed around them, and were woken by Balin, who never commented.

They never made a fire anymore, not trusting what it would bring down on their heads.

So, in the dark, lit only by whatever scrap of light managed to slip between the leaves, they kept the second watch. On a colder night, days ago -- a week ago maybe? They had lost their sense of time -- when she started to shiver, Fíli noticed, and moved to sit pressed beside her.

When that had become the only way they could get through watch, she wasn’t sure. When it had become normal for him to open his coat and wrap it around the both of them, she really wasn’t sure.

Now, it was just a thing that was never mentioned in daylight.

And sometimes, in the dark, they had barely audible, barely understood conversations.

“Yes. I am scared.”

“Why? Orcs? The forest? Your dreams? Khulu-hu?”

She mumbled an answer to the khuzdul she had heard so many times.

“Frey. Khulu-hu?”

“Orcs.” She answered, placating, and not at all smooshing her face further into his shoulder to try and hide from explaining.

Izirimi. We run fast. We willescape this forest. We will see Erebor.”

He was always so determined. Some sort of fault in the Durin brain, clearly. They all did it. They were all so certain that they would be fine. Faced with something that challenged them, they thought they could surmount it through force of will alone.

Cozy as she was, it grated on her.

“That’s not the point Fíli. It isn’t. The point is that they shouldn’t have been here so early. they shouldn’t. Even if they had snuck around the forest for a while in the movie first.. this is too early. Something changed and I can’t figure out what! I’ve been trying. I have. And I know you don’t understand me right now. I don’t want you to. Hence the english. I need to know what changed because it is probably worse than I know. It always has been. Every time, it’s been worse than I thought. But, I didn’t change that much, I just. The cliff happened. and the eagles and the Carrock. and then Beorn’s. And then we hung out there and I threw a cup at you, and got food and --”

She cut off so quickly that Fíli tensed beside her. Frey was slack-jawed in the frail light, mind roiling as she took the events she recalled of the book and the events of the movie and the events she had survived and beat them against each other, trying to find another reason.

“Frey?”

It had to be another reason. Because this one was extraordinarily bad.

“My leg.”

“Your leg?”

Crap. That had come out in Westron.

“Beorn took us in. Beorn took care of me. Oh no. No no no no no no. Oh Durinul zantul’abban. Fíli?” He had turned and caught her shoulders as she began to panic. “It’s my fault. All of this. I don’t -- I mean, I’m not certain. I’m never certain. There’s a lot of other things that it could be, but with my luck, it’s all on me. This is my fault.”

“Khulu-hu, Frey?”

“Beorn.”

“Beorn?” The dwarf wasn’t going to understand.

“Goddamnit. Dammit. Damn. Shit. Fuck. This is all my fault. I’ve gotten all of you killed. The orcs aren’t supposed to be here yet and it’s my damn fault and just -- fuck. Fuck it. Fuck everything. No. I can’t. I’m done. You -- Fíli, Fíli no. Stay. You stay. Watch. There are orcs.” She pulled away faster than he could notice her fleeing, and before the tears in her eyes could begin to fall.

This was the last thing she needed. After everything. After all the pain and annoyance of the last few weeks. After nearly starving and the bullshit with hiding in trees and the dwarves finally starting to like her just a tiny bit, even Bofur, and this was just the worst thing that could be happening.

And yet.

Galadriel had been right. She had changed things, and she had read too many damn fanfics that skipped over what Beorn was supposed to do that first night. Frey hadn’t even noticed.

Yeah, sure, the bleeding and the active infection and the fever and the drinking of potent alcohol may have been a slight distraction, but she should have noticed. She should have realized and forced Beorn to go orc hunting.

Instead, he stayed to keep her safe. All because she had seemed scared of the dwarves.

The orcs must have regrouped early, or just had needed a good night’s sleep. Maybe there were just more of them. Maybe Beorn was supposed to kill the one that would have caught their scent.

It didn’t matter what was supposed to happen.

It was her fault.

And now the orcs were early and there was no getting around the fact that it was because of her.

She hadn’t cried since Rivendell, and the last months of fear caught up with her in a rush. Tears scalded down her cheeks as she ground her teeth and tried not to make any noise. There were orcs nearby. There were probably more damn spiders. There were the others. There was Fíli, who was probably sitting on watch in confusion twenty steps away, staring in the general direction she had gone, preparing a fresh tirade about wandering.

In that moment, she wasn’t sure who she wanted to find her least.

At least if the orcs showed up she could die and stop making everything worse.

“I told you I couldn’t do this Galadriel. I told you. I told you that this was a terrible idea. But no. You had to make me go. And now -- now they’re going to die and it’s going to be my fault and I just, fuck. I can’t. Fuck. I can’t do this. I cannot do this. I need to just get the hell away from them. They’ll be fine. They’ll. God, fuck. except, I fucked with Thorin’s head. And I still can’t figure out how to warn them about Ravenhill, and that might be different now, and if it’s book canon how the fuck do I even warn them, how do I protect them? I don’t even know what happened to Fíli then. I just know he dies. And the book was Bolg not Azog and it’s all just hopeless. Balls and fuck. Frickety fuck. No. No. I am not going to let-- I am not allowing that. So I just need to-- I need to stop --I need to just--”

She slammed her fist against a tree trunk, focusing on the pain spiking up her arm to try to shut off the hysterical weeping. When it faded, she hit the tree again. And again. Her forehead was pressed into the bark and the shaking of her sobs ground dirt into her skin. Her eyes were screwed closed, hiding from the shadowed, desolate, miserable fucking world for just a moment.

The pain began to eclipse the tears and she had nearly gotten herself under control. There was surely a bruise forming. She forced her breathing to be deeper and calmer.

One last punch to the aching side of her fist.

The images she had seen in her dreams, that the ring had been showing her welled up again; the dwarves dead and her responsible.

And she would be when they died.

She knew what was coming. She had been bloody omnipotent when she first got there, if you glossed over the minor language issues, and she had still managed to ruin it.

Tears were restarting.

She needed to hit the tree again.

But as her hand pulled back, blindly preparing to punch, it was arrested.

“Frey, stop. You are hurting you. Khulu?”

“How do you do that?” she hissed, “How did you manage to grab my hand? It is night. It is little moon. Is black. You see me?”

“You reallyarent a dwarf, are you? Yes. I can see in the night.”

“I not can see.”

“Cannot.”

“Fine. Yes. Fuck. I cannot see.”

“You see eventslongbefore they occur. That is enough.”

“No. No. Stop. Shh. Shush. Stop talking about that, Fíli. I can’t see shit. Not now in the dark. Not in the future. I have fucked everything up. You know what I know at this point? Actually know, not just a vague idea about? Smaug is not dead. Bilbo has the one ring. That’s it. Everything else is a bloody toss up at this point. Gandalf might die. The others might not escape. The orcs might not bring an army. Beorn might not show up. Thorin might not get gold sick and send for Dain.

“Oh, and this one I’m not sure about the how, but I’m pretty damn sure that we’re all going to die and die ugly.”

“Why do you mention Dain?”

They always fixated on that. She shook her head. Apparently he could see it, even when she couldn’t see the tree beside her.

“Freya. We are fine. All fifteen are fine. You sworeeveryone was fine. What makesitseemlesscertain now? Why are you scared? Why are you scared of orcs?”

“Not scared of orcs.”

“You said--”

“Scared we are death, dead. Scared we will dead.”

“Will be dead.”

“Gah! Fine! Scared we will be dead.”

“Frey. We are fine.”

“No. We all are dead, Fíli. Why? Orcs. Smaug. And me.”

He caught her by the face as she shook her head violently, pushing away his confidence.

“Not dead now.”

That was true enough. And it wormed its way past her temper into her mind, pounding with her pulse. They weren’t dead now. They probably would be later. But for now, Fíli was holding onto her in the dark.

And she was fairly sure that the little crackle of noise she’d just heard was the orcs sneaking up on them once more.

And she’d be damned if she’d gone through all this without having checked off at least one box.

More than a little hysterical. Much more than a little desperate, she reached out to Fíli’s chest. She could only just see the outline of him in the night, but knew too well that he would be watching her all infuriatingly majestic and helpful and concerned. He’d be watching her with compassion and regality and offensive beauty.

And dammit, but if she was going to die in middle earth -- and she totally was because that was definitely orcs coming -- she was going to kiss the cute dwarf before she did.

Her hand closed in fur, and she pulled. He followed with the compliance of confusion, an explanation that was born out when she kissed him. His hands fell away. She missed at first, and almost found a moustache bead in her mouth. She corrected and kissed him like they were actually something. Like they were as well suited to each other as Bilbo and Thorin. Like it was the start of something incredible. She kissed him like they were more than each other’s nightly space heater.

His lips parted and Frey knew that he was about to try and speak.

That sounded like a bad idea, so she just flicked her tongue along his as she tangled a hand in hair, keeping him silent.

She kissed him with the superficial want that had existed since the movies decided to make the line of Durin scorchingly hot, and the emotional attachment she had been trying to pretend didn’t exist.

Fíli didn’t react.

Until he did.

He really was about ten times stronger than she was, so when he pushed on her shoulders and forced her away from him, there wasn’t a chance to resist it.

Frey squeezed her eyes shut, well aware that she was blushing madly, and that the damned dwarf could probably see it. His grip was too tight on her shoulders.

Fine. Yes.

She had misread this.

Cultural differences.

Shit.

The trope was less fun in person.

“Freya. Jal khakful d’ala saktibmayan.”

Ooh boy.

Full name.

Not a good sign.

And angry Khuzdul.

Really not a good sign.

“Freya.” Whatever else he meant to say was never spoken. He cursed again, softly, and caught her arm, hauling her along. He must have heard the orcs, but she didn’t recognize the whispered ramble of khuzdul as they moved. Except for the cursing. That she knew. Fíli was as angry as she’d ever heard him.

They rushed back to the the others, Fíli dragging her with restrained fury, carefully not touching her hand. All five were awake and travelling less than a minute later, hurrying toward a stand of trees they could climb and use for cover.

As she swung onto the first branch, helped up by Balin, who Fíli had shoved her towards after they got back to camp, Frey couldn’t help but hope that the orcs would just kill her then and there. It had to be less uncomfortable than this was going to be.


 

Kíli gaped as Tauriel repeated the command.

“Stay silent. And follow me.”

She was standing in the open cell door, better armed than she usually was. It was early for their normal excursion. More importantly, she seemed tense. Or, Kíli thought she did. It was still enormously difficult to tell what was in her mind behind that composed mask elves were so good at affecting.

But she had never been anything but earnest with him. She had never given him cause to distrust her, or cause to betray her. Kíli followed rapidly, never even thinking of trying to make an escape.

They stopped inside a small room, deep below the palace proper. There was a second door on the other side of the chamber, and the only light was cast by her torch.

“What is it? Has something happened?” he rushed out as soon as the door shut, “Have you found them? Are they alright? Have you found-- do you have any evidence or any proof? Why did you bring me here now? You never come so early. What’s happened?”

“You should have told me.”

He tilted his gaze, puzzling at the scarcely leashed betrayal in her voice.

“Told you what, Tauriel?”

“You should have told me about him.”

Kíli shook his head, still not understanding. “I did tell you. Not. No, not everything. But I told you about him. You’ve been looking for him. You’ve brought me news. I don’t know anything that you don’t.”

“Kíli. You could have -- he could have been killed because you didn’t. He could have died trying to help you all because you did not warn me. Why--” the elf stuttered, then exhaled slowly, eyes falling shut to hide the glimmer of hurt in her eyes, “I thought that you trusted me. These last weeks, it has seemed that we...”

“I do. I shouldn’t. Thorin will never forgive me, but I do Tauriel, I swear it. Why do you doubt that?”

When she reopened her eyes, they pinned him in place like arrows, precise and unyielding. She gestured to the second door.

Kíli followed the silent instruction, and moved across the small room, with a well of fear rising in his gut. It wasn’t a cell, but nor was it a medical room. It was a pantry, if that. It was a forgotten chamber in a forgotten corner of a kingdom that she had told him was falling into history and disrepair. The door was solid save for a small window, and was lashed closed between the handle and a column.

The first glance was too dark for even his dwarven vision to pierce.

The second revealed a form lying asleep on a pile of linens.

The third let him see the bare, furred feet.

“Is he injured?” Kíli managed to keep his voice from cracking.

“No. Only asleep. I gave him a draught.”

Kíli hadn’t seen Bilbo much lately. Probably because of the insults and anger on Kíli’s end. Bilbo had become the manifestation of his fears. Tauriel had become his balm.

“When did you find him?”

“Just before dawn. Kíli why did you not tell me he was here? I found him, and I thought at first that-- if it had not been myself, he would be dead. How could you have risked his life like that?” Gone was the nervousness she often fell into. This was the captain of the guard more than his friend, questioning a prisoner.

“He was trying to get us out. Of course, I couldn’t tell you. He was the only hope we had.” And now it was gone.

Realization rocked him on his feet.

Thorin didn’t know.

All Thorin would know was that Bilbo had not come to him. That Bilbo was late. Kíli had seen the raw pain in his uncle’s face after they escaped the goblin tunnels. That was before they had truly admitted their affections. Now?

He needed to get a message to Thorin. But there was no way to do so.

Kíli glanced at the door again. It wasn’t a cell. There was many many empty cells, so it wasn’t a question of a lack of capacity. This was a corner of the elvish realm that saw little traffic. This was a room that was not normally used.

Even the rope on the door -- it had been improvised.

“You haven’t told anyone.” Kíli looked up in time to see her turn away, blinking too fast, fidgeting.

“I wasn’t certain if -- you had told me that -- This is not your brother.”

“No.”

“This is one of the perian.”

Kíli scrambled to recall that word in Sindarin, failed, and answered, “He’s a hobbit?”

“On your dwarvish quest?”

“Yes.”

“And he has travelled with you from the west?”

“Yes.”

“And you knew he was within this kingdom, in danger and hiding from my guards?”

He nodded. “Tauriel, I couldn’t tell you.”

“You should have, Master Dwarf. Come. I need to return you to your cell.”

Kíli took a step away from her, almost pressed himself into the door that hid Bilbo from view. Her formal anger was patchy. And he shook his head. “I can’t. Not yet. What are you going to do?”

“I am going to return you to your cell, and report this to my king.”

“No you won’t.”

“You dare to tell me what to do, Dwarf?”

“No, Tauriel, that’s not what I meant. You found him this morning. It has been most of a day and you have not told anyone, I am certain of that. You do not want to see him in a cell any more than you want to see the rest of us there. Please, wait. Think about this before you take an action you cannot undo.”

“I am charged with --”

“What would your king do to him?”

Her face closed off, and it was more than enough to answer his question. Acting on instinct, he dug in his pocket and pulled out the runestone. Two steps brought him beside her, and she flicked her gaze down for a moment.

“This is what I was holding that night. It’s a token from my amad. It’s a token to remind me of my promise to return to her. She gave it to me and made me vow that I would come back, and in the faith that I would do the right thing at every step of our quest. It is the only precious thing I still carry.”

He pressed it into her hand and clasped his over hers.

“I should have told you Tauriel. But I could not risk the only hope we had of succeeding in this quest. We must continue. We must prevail. I know you think the same. Take this, and take me back, and think. If you still believe it right to tell your king, do so. If someone must be punished for this, do not hold him accountable. He has only done as we told him to. Let your king treat him as one of us. We will be here for the rest of our lives. My brother will die in your forest. The dragon will wake and rain fire on the defenseless without anyone willing to stand against it. And the evil of the world will spread.”

Kíli dropped his hands away, stepped back, “I trust you Tauriel.”

Then he exited the chamber, leading her in silence back to his cell, where she turned the lock and left him with his tattered hope.  

 

 

Chapter Text

Once, when Bilbo had been an adventurous tween, back in the Shire, before his life had been turned into chaos by Gandalf and his troupe of confusticated dwarves, he had trysted with Lobelia’s love interest of the season, a Haldoc Grubb. Lobelia, upon noticing their absence from the Old Took’s Birthday party, had snuck after them, found them in an obliging garden with a distinct lack of shirts, entirely too occupied in mutual exploration to be bothered with her huff of annoyance.

More’s the pity.

By the time she had gone away and come back with her vengeance -- that being Aldo Proudfoot’s grumpiest pony -- they had a distinct lack of trousers as well.

So. When said pony ran at them, they naturally fled, and, entirely by accident, sprinted stark naked toward, through, and subsequently away from the party that was still underway. At speed. The only thing he could say came good of that night was the boys’ sudden reputation for being quite impressively endowed. Had the pony arrived a few minutes later, their reputations may not have been so grand.

However, for several decades, Bilbo was convinced that nothing in his life would ever top that in regards to negative impacts of a licentious impulse.

Bilbo was wrong.

He twiddled his thumb over the cap of the little bottle of oil that had remained in his pocket. This was all Thorin’s fault.

Clearly.

He was the one that had taken to kissing him so sweetly through the bars of his cell. He was the one that had found a way to get the elves to open his cell door regularly by refusing to return the bowls and plates and spoons. He was the one who had whispered about all of the things he wanted to do to Bilbo when they escaped. He was the one who had taken to writing poetry in westron and khuzdul while Bilbo sought an escape. He was the one who had kept Bilbo’s spirits afloat during the last few weeks of hiding and investigating and danger. Him and his irrepressible confidence in the hobbit. Him and his adoring looks.

Him and his maddeningly handsome face.

So, when Bilbo had finally admitted that sleeping beside Thorin would do a great deal to help his state of mind, Thorin made a somewhat lewd joke about what would help Thorin’s state of mind. It had been Thorin helping to keep Bilbo from despair. All the same, it danced around in Bilbo’s head for the rest of the day as he investigated yet more corridors and chambers that were useless to them.

A joke that involved no trousers.

So. Clearly. It was Thorin’s fault.

Even if Bilbo had been the one to overlook the elf captain in the corner of the room he was exploring. She shouldn’t have been awake so early anyway. And how was he supposed to know she would hear the sound of the little glass bottle being lifted from the shelf?

Damned elves.

He had slipped off the ring because she had kept an arrow trained at his chest with a disturbing accuracy, and he knew he was hardly intimidating. She… well, safe to say that her reaction was not what Bilbo had expected.

“You are here with the dwarves, to help them.” Not quite what he expected. Nodding was the only possible response.

“You will not find a way to remove them from this place.” She had finally said after staring at him intensely enough that Bilbo had begun to fidget.

“I might.”

“You believe you can because of your gifts?”

“Uh… yesh.” Gifts. Yes. That was a good way to describe his ring. A gift. A present.

“Does Kíli know that you are here?”

He had stammered then. Yes, he had seen the elf near Kíli’s cell a few times, but he had seen her near every cell at least a few times. Stammering turned to coughing, and she had handed him a glass of something.

Not wanting to upset the elf that had put down the bow, and left her knives in their sheathes, he drank it.

Not his best choice.

He woke up in a small room on a musty cot, only a faint trail of light coming in through a tiny window in the door. Though, he was very well rested.

And he would have happily laid back down to sleep some more, but a few seconds after waking, the consequences had crashed into him. He had been the dwarves only hope of escape, shy of the others miraculously arriving with an army, or, far less likely, diplomacy.

Worse, he had promised to return to Thorin that night before the nightly ritual of opening the door. He had promised to curl up against the dwarf king and get proper rest for once. He had promised he would let Thorin take care of him for a night. He’d had his own ideas about what that would mean.

Instead, he was here, and Thorin was unaware.

What must he have thought? What kind of torment was Thorin going through? Had the elf told Thorin? Had she told Thranduil? Well. If she had, Bilbo was certain the prancing tosser would have hauled Thorin out of his cell to gloat. He had spent enough days trailing after the king to be sure of that.

Had Thranduil told Thorin that Bilbo was killed? Was Thorin well?

Bilbo knew how he would react if he thought Thorin was lost, and, he liked to think that Thorin would be equally upset. For a moment, he recalled Thorin on the Carrock.

“Confound it all. I have to get out of here.”

He could not, would not let his dwarves waste their days in this place.

He was a Baggins of Bag End, he would find a way to solve this.

 


 

It had been more than a day.

Kíli was going to wear a hole in his sleeve where he kept fussing at it.

More than a day, and he had not seen Tauriel.

Or, he was going to wear a hole in the floor pacing like this.

He had not heard any great commotion. He had not seen Bilbo. He had only seen the most close-lipped of the elves, who handed him his piece of stuffed bread and vanished.

With each passing breath, Kíli grew more anxious, grew more certain that he would live and die in this place. More certain that the tiny little flicker of something in the air between himself and Tauriel, that he had gambled everything on, was nothing more than his own imagining.

No.

He had to stay confident. He was a Durin.

No matter how bleak the world, how dark the past, he had to examine it, find the lessons there, and meet the future with the same will and determination that was the hallmark of his lineage.

He had spent decades hearing this. It was his responsibility. Never mind that he was very bad at it.

Even if Tauriel surrendered Bilbo to Thranduil, Fíli would continue. Fíli would survive with Balin to advise him and Bofur and Bombur to protect him, and Freya to warn him of obstacles he didn’t know to defend against. Fíli would escape the forest. Fíli would reach the mountain, slay the dragon, and come to the gates of the elvenking with the might of the dwarves behind him, arkenstone in hand, and Thranduil would release them.

They would succeed. If not this year, then soon.

But the key was still around Thorin’s neck.

Kíli kicked the door.

No.

Confident.

That was the only way to get through when the world was set on dragging you into despair.

Dwarves were made of stone and would not be worn down by something so paltry as confinement. He would not let his reaction be anything but strong.

Even if the thought of going years without seeing the sky twisted in his gut. Even if that thought twisted worse for how undwarven it was.

“Kíli.”

Tauriel had arrived as he berated himself, and shifted gawkishly as soon as Kíli looked at her. It plucked at something unspoken in his chest when she wouldn’t hold his gaze. Her voice wasn’t as smoothly strung as it had been, but the cause, he could not guess.

It was past the midday meal, but not close to the perfect stillness of the times when she would secret him to their shared star gazing.

She was early.

She must have told the king.

And Kíli could not blame her for that.

Try as he might to tell himself that he now needed to hate her for the betrayal, he knew he could not have directly disobeyed his uncle. He wasn’t brave enough to stand against his king, so how could he condemn her for the same loyalty?

“There is a feast tonight. A great celebration.”

What little air he had punched out of his chest as his eyes shut. She sounded desolated by what she had done. Maybe he could ask her to pass a message to Thorin. His uncle at least deserved to know that Bilbo was unharmed. Somewhere in another cell, Thorin would be driving himself mad with fear and anxiety over Bilbo’s absence. Despite years of lectures on how a king had to put aside their own emotions, Bilbo was an exception to his uncle’s control. She sympathized with them, he knew that, maybe she would do that favor and ease his mind. Maybe she would commit a small treason. Or maybe she had remembered her oaths and now clung to them. Her hands were clasped, knuckles gone white from the grip.

“My king is unusually cheerful despite the reports of spiders and orcs on the fringes of our lands.”

Of course he was, the bastard was probably planning the best way to taunt Thorin with Bilbo’s capture.

“So cheerful in fact, he included most of the guard in the festivities for the evening.”

The better to brag. And Tauriel was still speaking to the ground.

“It is to be a glorious night, and everyone was thrilled to be included.”

Victory feasts always were.

“The Keeper of the Keys was upset to have a responsibility for the evening that kept him from it.”

Well, without them in cells, there was no reason for the feast, was there?

“So he was pleased when I offered to hold the keys until the morning.”

At least she had the decency to feel remorse for dooming them to this fate and not want to drown in wine with the rest of the mibilkhagsul ufâr.

“And I -- I was pleased not to involve him in what I had decided to do.”

Kíli jerked to look at her.

“Tauriel?”

She finally raised her head and met his eyes. She was nearly glowing. Set on her decision and eager, the fear that he could see in her tense shoulders and stiff stance paled beside it. She had an entire sky’s stars caught inside her expression and as her timid smile widened and deepened, Kíli felt his own cheeks grow sore with the force of his answering smile. She was radiant and unreal. She was more than they deserved.

He only noticed she had unlocked the door when she had to step aside to open it.

Hugging her would be inappropriate.

Definitely.

When he stopped himself, and lurched uneasily, her smile settled. Kíli could see her retreating to a more confident footing. She fell into authority and command. Calm and rational and composed, she asked, “Do you know where the others are kept? Does your friend?”

“Yes he does.”

“Very good. Follow me.” Her steps were hurried, and Kíli half jogged to keep pace, following her down staircases.

When they stopped in a cellar, he spun in a circle, marvelling at the alarming quantity of wine. It was stacked in wall frames clear to the ceiling and there were still more barrels in the corners of the room.

“You... want to get drunk?” The joke slipped out without thought, accompanied by a quick wink.

“Did you never wonder how this kingdom traded with the Men of the Lake?”

For a moment he thought she had made a joke in response to his, but a better look showed her watching him intently. Utterly serious, then.

“Why would I ever wonder that Tauriel? All I’ve seen is what you’ve shown me.”

She acknowledged that with a slight tilt of her head.

“Goods are brought up the river in barrels on a barge. When they are empty…” She looked to her side. He had no idea what she was implying. None. He had thought this was some form of escape. He really had, and yes, he trusted her, and yes, he wanted to believe that she was helping them.

Presently, Kíli was looking between her burgeoning irritation and the stack of barrels.

Empty barrels. Huge ones in fact.

As big as the ones he and Fíli had used to hide from their Amad in the cellar after the incident with the dyer’s guild.

Oh. OH.

New understanding made him laugh and released the tension in Tauriel.

“It will be unpleasant.” She warned.

“This whole forest is unpleasant.” She grimaced, and the amendment fell out of his mouth, “Mostly.”

Instead of commenting on the way she looked away with wide eyes, Kíli reexamined the room. Now that he understood what she proposed, the barrels made more sense, as did the lever.

The fog that hung over him had parted when he had seen Tauriel’s eyes alight, and dispersed entirely with this opportunity. Kíli felt energetic again. He felt excited and eager. Maybe he would be the one to save Fíli after all.

“You will need to seal everyone inside. There are guards along the river. If they see you, they will raise the alarm and prevent your escape. Bring your companions here, hide them within the barrels, I will seal you inside, and I can then release the lever.”

“You’re coming with us?” For the space of a thought, Kíli thought he was right. She brightened and she began to speak, then withdrew, shaking her head.

“If I leave with you, the king’s wrath will spread to others who were not involved. I will not let my friends bear the anger and punishment that should be mine.”

If Thranduil was half as temperamental as the stories made him seem, she would find herself in a cell until Kíli had grown a beard and seen it turn white. He needed to convince her to come with them. Thorin would adore her for defying the elf king. He would adore her for helping them escape and for saving Bilbo. Protecting Bilbo. Opting to not shoot Bilbo.

Actually, it would probably be better to skip over that part when Kíli praised her.

He just had to convince her to come along with them.

There was steel in her eyes when he looked back, and Kíli knew before he started she would not be swayed. So he diverted his request and stuttered, “W-w-well. If you are not to be there after, one of us will need to stay outside the barrels.”

“Your companion can pass unseen.”

“He also can’t swim.”

“And you can?”

“Better than a fish.”

“You are a dwarf, you will not be weighed down by the - by the stones of your birth?”

Apparently elves were unaware of the meaning that word took on in Westron. Or she thought dwarves were literally full of rocks.

“I’ll be fine.” he deflected, “But I will need a pry bar, or I’ll never get them out at the end of this.”

“What if you are seen?”

“I’ll hide.”

“Kíli.”

That was a tone he knew. That was the tone his amad reverted to whenever she learned of his and Fíli’s plans. It was condemnation with a pinch of admiration. And, as he had been hearing it for decades, it did not get under his skin. He knew better than to look up from his hunt for a pry bar. Then he would have to resist the look as well as the voice, and, well, that was much harder.

“You recall where your companion is, and know how to reach him from here?” She asked in a more commanding tone. When he laughed at that, she rattled off quick directions for him. “I will do what I can to ensure you are not disturbed, but move swiftly, be silent, and if you are discovered, do not attempt to fight. On the shelf, Kíli.”

He snagged the bar and set it atop one of the barrels.

“We need to get our weapons and armor back.”

“Your armor will weigh you down in the river.”

“Just the weapons then. The ones that fit in the barrels.”

“Do you know where--”

“Bilbo does. How long do we have before the feast ends?”

“A few hours.”

Kíli nodded, staring at a tall barrel in the corner, still half full, hoping it would fit Dwalin’s axes. They could pour out the contents when the others arrived.

“Kíli?” The softness in her voice turned him, “the scouts in the forest have sent new reports of a force travelling just beyond the borders of our lands. A larger force than those we have seen recently. My king commanded we not pursue it.”

His shoulders tightened as his eyes shuttered against her compassion. As soon as they were free of this place, they would return to the forest to find his brother.

If Thorin resisted, Kíli would go alone.

“I will go above to keep any from coming here. Do not tarry.”

She left before Kíli could say an of the dozen things in his mind. Whatever that flicker was in the air, it could not be the priority now.

Her instructions led him back to Bilbo’s improvised cell, and he slipped the rope from the post as quickly as he could. There was no sound on the opposite side. That would be just his luck; he finally had a way to get them out, and Bilbo had escaped all on his own. That would unravel the plan nicely. Fortunately, his concern was unfounded.

Bilbo gasped as Kíli opened the door, and reappeared, tucked into a corner. His eyes were a bit red in the candlelight, but the relief was obvious.

“Kíli! Oh, thank Eru. How? How did you get out? Wait, how did you know I was here?”

Damn.

Kíli hadn’t considered this part.

At all.

The truth was out of the question.

And impenetrable lies were never his strong point.

Innocent charm it was then.

“If I swear to you I will explain after this is over, will you just pretend that this was all you? That you escaped and found a way to get us out?”

“Kíli, are you mad? I can’t possibly -- wait. You found a way for us to escape this place?”

The dwarf nodded, “I have the keys to the cells, and there are barrels in the wine cellar that will take us downriver.”

Bilbo gaped at the ring of keys for a breath, processing Kíli’s impassioned announcement. “Wait, barrels? You want me to put you all in barrels and just shove you in a river? That’s-- Kíli, even for you -- is this the best you can think of? You’ll all drown. And I certainly will. I’ll have to be outside the--”

“I will.”

“You will what?”

“I’ll be outside the barrels. You can’t swim.”

“Won’t you be seen?”

“I might, but I can swim like a fish. I’ll just go underwater if I need to.”

Bilbo had explained long ago that hobbits were not particular fans of water. Too prone to sinking, and therefore, drowning. So the look of outraged horror was explainable.

“Nope. No. No. That’s -- Your uncle will -- you can’t just --” He sighed, exasperated, and dug his hand into his pocket. A little band of gold emerged and Bilbo held it out, hesitating only for a second before placing it in Kíli’s palm. “Use that. It’s how I’ve been sneaking about. It’ll turn you invisible.”

Dwarven instinct took over and he weighed the ring, turning it and inspecting it. How very hobbitish, to have a magic ring, and have it look so dull and useless.

“You’d best give it back to me after this is done though, and don’t think I won’t come after you if you try to keep it.”

Hurriedly promising to do so, Kíli and Bilbo returned to the main hallway.

“We need to get the others, and our weapons.”

“We need to get out, your weapons can be replaced.”

“Would you like to tell that to Dwalin? Would you like to tell Thorin you left Orcrist behind?”

Bilbo fidgeted and mumbled, fingers playing with the hilt of his little sword. Kíli, realizing the implication, started to grin so widely that it made Bilbo frown. “She left you your sword.” He explained.

And maybe that wasn’t the best thing to say at the time. Bilbo was, as he had proved many times, a very clever hobbit. By the flash of shock, he had just put together how Kíli had escaped at all. There was no comment made, but their inevitable conversation was likely to be more of a lecture than anything else, of that, Kíli was certain.

“My sword is called Sting.” He raised his chin in challenge.

Kili didn’t contest it. Sting was a nice name for the tiny thing.  

The pair half jogged through the lower levels of the Elven kingdom, even passing a hall with dwarvish voices in it. Kíli had a guess why, and was proven right when Bilbo sped up, keys in hand, and half threw himself at a cell door in an isolated and dreary hallway.

“Bilbo, where have you been, you gave me no warning you would not return and have been gone for -- you have the keys! -- however did you -- Kíli?” Thorin’s voice was hoarse and reverent as he spoke to Bilbo, cracking up in pitch when he spotted his nephew. Kíli rolled his eyes as the pair grinned like sops at each other, hopeless and lovey, and was about to break custom by asking if Thorin’s poetic ramblings had kept Bilbo from finding an escape earlier. Then Thorin pointed to the keys, “I knew that you would find a way.”

Kíli found himself very interested in the carving of of a leafy plant on the wall.

A moment later the pair had returned to being the King and the burglar, slipping on masks that didn’t quite hide the way they leaned into each other as they rushed back to the rest of the company.

Bilbo acted his part admirably, lying with verve about finding an escape and stealing the keys when the elves weren’t looking. He even had known about the feast, and explained away why the guards were absent. Kíli elected to dismiss his kin’s gullibility as rapturous hope clouding their thoughts. He might have believed it himself if he hadn’t known the truth.

The room with their weapons was, as it turned out, also the room with their armor, and Kíli slipped on his tunic and vambraces as Bilbo berated the others that they had to move lightly. Dwalin in particular had to be reprimanded at length as he gathered every piece of his armor.

Their response to the barrels was… less enthusiastic.

Bilbo simply flicked a glance to Thorin, and the king ordered them all to climb inside. Dwalin emptied the tallest barrel in the room of the apples inside, stashed his axes along with the other large weapons, and added some of the armor and clothing that would not easily fit on them inside.

Kíli watched as Nori, the most at ease with the prospect of time spent sealed in a barrel, vanished beneath a lid Dwalin pressed into place.

“We will find him, Kíli.” Thorin said gently at his side.

Kíli wanted to cling to his uncle and accept the fear that he had been holding at bay for weeks, but, once again, shoved it aside.

“We will escape this place,” he continued, “And we will find him. We will find all of them.”

“There have been orcs in the forest, Uncle.”

“How do you know?”

“I listened to the elves.”

Thorin crumpled, just slightly, at that, but by his next inhale, he was standing tall, “Then we will find them quickly. Or we will find them in Laketown raising an army to bid for our return.” A hand clapped him on the shoulder, and with everyone but Bilbo now hidden away, Thorin pulled him into an embrace.

That was Thorin. That was the uncle that Kíli had grown up idolizing. He was a leader who was deeply pained by every mistake and error, and who found a way, time and again, to remain unbroken by it. He stood back up every time he was pushed down. He was who Kíli tried to be. Encircled by strength and confidence, Kíli found a bit more of his own. A bit more of the unbreakable spirit of the line of Durin.

They separated at Bilbo’s quiet clearing of his throat. “Thorin, you’re next. In you go.”

“Kíli is next.” Thorin returned.

“I’m not going in a barrel.” Kíli interrupted, saving Bilbo from the glare that had instantly found him.

“Bilbo can pass unseen.”

He opened his mouth to clarify, caught Bilbo’s pleading gaze, and guiltily continued, “Sorry Bilbo. Thorin, hobbits don’t swim.”

The change was instantaneous. Thorin spun back to Bilbo. Bilbo fumed through the betrayal. Thorin whispered reprimands. Kíli wasn’t going to be the only one receiving a lecture once they escaped. Apparently his uncle had been told this before, back by the river of sleep, and simply forgotten, so half the anger was at himself. Thorin practically lifted the flummoxed hobbit into a barrel. Discomfort outweighing sass, Kíli made a show of looking at another leafy carving, and gave them a moment together.

Whatever passed between them was too quiet for Kíli to hear as he rifled through things in a barrel that reeked of fruit.

The pop of the lid setting into place cued Kíli to turn back.

Not that he would ever admit it, but there was certainly a bit of pink on Thorin’s cheeks.

If Fíli was there they would have broken into a giggling fit at the sight.

If Fíli was there, they might not be escaping at all. Tauriel had only spoken to him due to his distress.

His uncle helped him hoist the barrel of weapons onto the others before climbing into one of his own. “You know how to release the barrels?”

“Lever.” He pointed.

“You are confident in your swimming? Your injury is no longer hurting? No. No. It would be best if I were to remain outside. I’ll not tell Dis that I placed you in danger. Here, climb into this--”

“Uncle. I will be fine. My side does not hurt. I can swim better than you can, and I will see you again soon.”

“You need not--”

“Uncle, I will be fine.”

“Kíli. If.. if you are seen. No, if you feel you must separate from us, and rejoin us after for your own safety, do so. Swear that you will do so. I am certain we would be able to escape these barrels alone if we must.” What he did not say was more touching than the formality of his uncle’s words. In between them was a plea for his survival, a thread of fear that Kíli was his only nephew now, and a great deal of unspoken affection.

So Kíli promised, and sealed the lid.

Then he checked all of the others, and checked them again. Slowly drowning in a confinement one couldn’t escape was a terrifying thought. The ring was in his pocket, the pry bar tucked into his belt, one of Nori’s knives was at his side. He needed to pull the lever, release the obvious trap in the floor, and be on his way.  

A hand settled on his shoulder.

He only jumped a little.

Maybe a lot.

Based on the sweet smirk Tauriel gave him, it may have been more obvious than he would have liked. She gestured to the barrels, he nodded. She motioned for him to be silent, and to follow him.

He did.

They only went as far as the hallway, and she spoke in a whisper, hiding from both the dwarves and the elves.

“You will be safe Kíli? If you are seen, you will be shot. If you separate from them, and travel through the forest you will not be seen as easily, and I am sure that your fellow dwarves would be able to force the lids off if need be.”

“I’ll be fine, Tauriel. See?” He slipped the ring onto his finger without letting her see it, grinning unrepentant and cocky.

Her expression did not change.

“See what, Kíli?”

He didn’t answer at first, looking around him at the faint haze on the edges of of his vision, and curious at the sudden queasiness he felt.

Apparently magic hobbit invisibility rings didn’t work on dwarves.

They should have tested that theory first.

“Nothing. I should be fine.” She was unconvinced. She delved into her own pocket, revealing the runestone he had pressed at her with his entreaty. Kíli caught her hand before she could start, “No, keep it. It’s-- it’s a promise.”

Eyes wide as she gaped at their clasped hands, she whispered, “What does it say?”

Kíli tightened his grip, “Amralîme.”

“And that means…”

“Come back to me.”

She stared into his eyes, then back to their hands, snatched her own away, looked back to his face, and mouthed silent syllables in the direction of the floor, then the ceiling, then the floor again. Tauriel managed to hold his eye for longer than a blink, and Kíli watched as she retreated to the safety of aloof elvish manners.

“You must leave swiftly if you are to succeed and find your brother.”

There was no denying that.

Feeling at once more confident and infinitely more reluctant, Kíli grabbed the heavy lever, and pressed his weight into it. The floor opened, the hinges creaked, the barrels groaned, and Kíli flung himself toward the slope of wood. As he slid down it, Tauriel watched, her hand with the stone held to her chest, and her eyes glittering.

Then she was gone, and Kíli plummeted into the water.

 


 

The air split with the crash of steel and iron. It was familiar in a way his kin had always told him it would be, but revolting at the same time. They had been only months on this quest, and Fíli fell into battle with the ease he had long envied in others. No matter to the battles he had fought before leaving Ered Luin, Fíli had never felt so confident in his bones as he did now.

To his left, Balin knocked back a smallish orc with grim ferocity.

Bombur and Bofur were a whirl of battering attacks somewhere deeper in the approaching orcs. The pair had charged, nearly feral, weary of the way they had been harried and pecked at for weeks. They all had. They all were. Weeks of spaced skirmishes had them all beyond the point of reason.

And these last two days... It had been a torture.

Fíli dodged another strike and jumped aside as the creature overextended. His second blade slashed down, but barely caught its back before the orc had pivoted with its twisted sickle. He parried, tried again, missed. Triumphant cheers rose from the Ur brothers and he had a glimpse of them advancing, flanking around the main party, gaining an advantage.

Balin was being forced closer to the precipice by his opponents. The fall down to the river was steep, but survivable should they be forced to attempt it. That might have been the wiser choice. The threat of drowning was less liable to kill them than the blades of the enemy. Even with the rapids throwing mist and foam airborne, it was less likely to be their end than if these half dozen orcs and handful of wargs were the scouts, and the full force of hunting orcs had cornered them at the end of this long chase.

He watched as his mentor faked a stumble and took advantage of the orc’s amused surprise.

Balin took off its arm, then its head, and moved for the next one.

A warg’s growl spun him to check the last of their group.

Freya held her hammer behind her, gripped to swing upward; Fíli’s knife was still in her other hand, extended as a ploy to bring the beast closer.

She noticed, and spared him a glance, shouting, “Am fine. Orcs!”

She was right. Two more were advancing toward him. He readjusted his swords and began, with too much of his attention on her.

Two days of frantic retreat had given them neither reprieve nor rest. The orcs had found them in the trees before dawn broke.

Fíli didn’t know how they had managed to get away.

No, he did.

Bombur’s berserker rampage followed by his unexpectedly remarkable speed when sprinting.

That’s how. His companion’s willingness to risk their life to save the others.

Fíli caught one of the orc’s axes between his blades as he kicked the other in the gut.

They had survived everything else in Mirkwood. They had learned to fight spiders and travelled without water or rest or food. They had lost the majority of their company and been chased across a poisonous treacherous forest. Fíli had no intention of failing now.

Frey’s invective sodden rant kept him apprised of her status. When she suddenly sounded more imperiled than furious, he knocked back one of his opponents to gain a moment’s pause, and slashed open the warg’s side. There was no more time than that. The duo he was fighting had watched his diversion with a cruel fury lighting their eyes. They spat words to each other in black speech that made Fíli step closer to her. He heard her yelling turn victorious, and saw the warg fall to the dirt, dead.

She noticed even before he could call, joining him with a short nod of acknowledgment.

The first orc fell in seconds. The other soon followed.

He couldn’t stop himself from checking, just once, that she was uninjured.

She was preoccupied, sheathing the knife and trading it for one of the bastardized spears from a corpse. Good decision. She needed something with a longer range to balance her slighter height and frame. He wasn’t going to think about how pathetic an excuse for armor her tunic was. He should have noticed sooner. He should have noticed at Beorn’s and borrowed spare pieces from the others. The elves should have provided her with something useful instead of pretty.

But no, he didn’t have time to think about that imminent disaster. There was another coming at them through the underbrush.

“Lot more comin!” Bofur yelled to them as he jogged out of the tree line. Bombur followed just behind, spattered with blood and filth and smiling as he panted for air. He had a pair of stolen orc axes in hand, and passed one to Frey in exchange for the spear.

“How far?”

“Just behind. Not many I don’t think. Didn’t get a good look.”

They could withstand that. With luck, they could end this hunt here and now, finally follow the river, reach the lake, and find a way to retrieve their kin from the elves.  

The orcs had never yet attacked with their full numbers. Fíli and the others had been winnowing them down one skirmish at a time. The orcs always held back a part of the company. They always erred on caution. That, more than anything, unnerved Fíli.

It wasn’t the way of the enemy. Orcs were mindless droves, scarcely better than goblins. They did not plan and restrain their strength. They did not toy with their prey.

“We hold our ground here. Bombur, Bofur, don’t get too far off this time. If we need--”

“Prince.”

“Khulu-hu?”

He never got to answer. There wasn’t any time. The orcs arrived, visible between the trees and the brush. And at the front, astride the white warg he had ridden on the cliffside, sat Azog.

The enormous gundabad orc was flanked and protected by a small group of more breakable companions. How many more were hidden just beyond sight, they did not know. How many more would come when the horn on that orc’s side was sounded, they could not guess. They had to hope they had whittled down their force to something they could surmount. They had to hope that they would see the sun set that night.

“No. No. No! Whatthe shit ishedoing here?” Angry enough to have forgotten what language she was speaking, Fíli only understood pieces of her violent reaction.

The enemy of the line of Durin was smug as he sneered at them.

Fíli felt the ripple of anxious anger travel through his companions. With all fifteen of them, they had not been enough to face Azog, and now they were barely five.

“No Imeanit . Thatshouldbe Bolg. HolymosesonamotorcyclewhatdidIdo ? You arentsupposedtobehereyet !”

The orc ignored her yelling, as did the others, and pointed his claw at Fíli.

Toragid biriz.”

Fíli snarled in response.

Ohhellno. Thesedwarvesaremine. Sodofffucker. AfteralltheshitIvegonethroughtokeep Fíli alive? Hellno.” Freya stepped closer to him, weapons clenched in her hands and spitting challenges at the orc. Bofur caught her arm to keep her from charging forward. She pulled at the grip, trying to take on a company of orcs alone. “No fuck it. Itson you scarredbaldasshat !” Echoes of her warnings in Rivendell made Fíli glance over his shoulder at the river.

Orcs didn’t swim.

They did. At least, he hoped she knew how to swim. It hadn’t ever come up.

Azog’s hatred of the line of Durin didn’t have to end the lives of his companions.

The orcs would move any moment, and if they were going to try to get away, it had to be now. The majority of the group could make the river if someone was able to hold back the orcs. By the time that dwarf fell, the others would have been swept downstream to safety.

“The river?”

The dwarves glanced behind at the rocky edge that led to a no doubt rock-filled river.

That was when the orcs decided to attack.

Both his blades swung up to catch the first of them across the stomach. Bombur ran the spear through the throat of the one coming up on Frey’s back as Balin and Bofur took on the largest of them.

They would have to peel away one at a time. They would need to give some kind of signal. And Fíli had no way to stop and think as he lunged back from the blade that would have caught his leg. Which made it harder. Substantially so.

Unlike the previous attacks where they had been harried and herded along, beset by just enough attackers to make it seem a threat, this time the orcs were not leaving any gap or chance.

They were also trying to cut them off from the river.

Sore and struggling to think beyond the next sweep of a blade, Fíli noticed a more horrifying element.

The orcs weren’t aiming to kill. Fíli watched one pull a blow that would have felled Balin. Another was playing with Freya. If it had wanted her dead, she would be already. Instead, with malicious laughter in the background, they were being captured. Durin or not, fate or not, prophecy be damned, Fíli would not let them die so he could have a chance to end his family's enemy.

He feinted at the next orc, and used the resulting stumble to knock a hole in their line. Balin’s head snapped up at the shouted khuzdul, and the old warrior signalled back in iglishmek that it was a stupid plan.

Concise, and punctuated by his dispatching of another warg, Fíli cursed in reply. Balin did not have to like the plan to retreat. He only had to support it. They could make it to the water, if they moved now.

Balin glanced over Fíli’s shoulder, and his face fell into exasperated panic.

Fíli had seen that look directed at him and Kíli enough times to know what had just happened behind him.

Something monumentally stupid.

And he was right.

Freya was advancing. Or, maybe she was just allowing the orcs to lead her toward Azog. Or maybe she hadn’t even noticed what was happening.

She was, more than the others, on her last legs. She was past the point of rationality and safety, and had clearly gone into a battle rage.

Yet more excellent timing on her part.

And he hadn’t had half a minute’s pause to deal with her last instance of poor judgement.

“Freya! River!”

“River?” She shouted back, asking for a definition as she tried not to get grabbed.

Two more orcs, pushed back from the terrifying whirl of death that was Bombur and Bofur back to back, were joining their companion in taunting her. Fíli kicked down his opponent, killed it, and started moving toward her.

“Fast water Freya!”

She clipped one of the orcs in the hand with her hammer, disarming it.

“River is fast water.” He repeated as he reached her, yanking her back from her effort to go after the vulnerable orc.

“No. Azog ishereearlyandIdontknowwhatshappening. But I amdone Fíli.”

He kept the newly arrived warg at bay and tried not to scream at her.

He managed to get to her opposite side, and began to corral her toward the riverbank despite her protest.

“Go with Balin!”

“You go with Balin!”

“Freya!”

“Fíli!”

She slipped past him and buried the axe into the warg’s side. It fell howling, and she landed a second blow in its neck.

“Azog is here.” She spat it at him as she rose, a hint of apology hiding beneath her rage. “I need help to dead Azog.”

Half a second’s calm in the skirmish let him really look at her. Whatever she had seen, whatever she knew, weighed heavily on her. Fury and frenzy and fear were flickering in her features. Centered on Azog.

Balin was going to kill him.

He nodded. “Idiot.”

Frey’s face split with a manic grin as she laughed and spun to the troops waiting for Azog’s command. “Whatareyouwaitingforyoubastards? Worriedaboutgettingasunburn?”

“Rayad? Id-ân?” Balin yelled behind them.

“I am a Durin.” He apologized to them all. He would not turn away from this and leave the scourge of their line to continue to harry them after all. If they fell, it would save his kin from this fight.

It would save Thorin and Kíli and his amad.

His left arm was aching. His legs burned from exertion. His eyes stung. His mind was clouded by lack of sleep.

Their chances were slim and dwindling the longer they waited. Azog would not travel with a small force.

There was still the river behind them.

If this gambit went poorly, they had no eagles to save them. With luck, he could hope to get some of them -- to get her -- into the river. She would find the others somehow, and use what she knew to ensure the reclamation of Erebor.

He really hoped she knew how to swim in case he had to fling her into the rapids.

Fíli wasn’t going to watch her die here though.

“And Durin do not run from fights.” She replied, voice steely. Three dwarven rumbles echoed her as they moved closer, through the two remaining wargs, but Fíli didn’t care, busy splitting his gaze between her and their opponents.  

The phrase she had nearly gotten right was his uncle’s. It had been repeated, chanted, pounded into the very iron of his being, and it had been Thorin more than any other that had taught him that the indomitable will of dwarves was unstoppable. That spectre as much as the stories of his slaughtered forebears was the goad that urged him onward.

Freya nodded, eyes alight, and, at his side, fell into a battle stance. Such as it was.

“Idiot.” She whispered.

“Idiot.” He returned under his breath. He didn’t need to look again to know she had a tiny grin turning up one corner of her mouth. From beneath his exhaustion, he felt a flare of determination.

The five of them braced on each other’s strength from their places strung along the glade, took fate in hand, and met their fate.

 


 

Floating down a river was more boring than Kíli had expected. The current handled the movement, not that Kíli could have steered the various barrels if he had tried. The sky was darkening. The water was chilly, his boots were trying to drag him down, and despite the multiple warnings, he hadn’t seen anyone or anything watching him.

He had ducked underwater as the barrels passed through the unguarded elven gate, but that was as much for his own amusement as anything else. He had climbed onto one of the empty barrels -- he thought it was empty, no one answered when he knocked. That was on a calmer section of the river. It had been a good decision since the rapids had been intermittent problems ever since.

Bilbo would not have done well.

Scratch that. Bilbo would have drowned, unless he was infinitely more stubborn than Kíli gave him credit for.

He groaned as the river bashed him against another rock at the tail end of a patch of rapids. A glance ahead confirmed that the next stretch was at least slightly slower.

Or not.

He could see a mess of whitewater and jutting stones at the edge of visibility.

Ears attuned to any sound that might prompt him to duck under water, Kíli heard a clang of metal before he knew where to look.

He gulped in the deepest breath he could, about to slip beneath the surface when he heard a second sound. A voice bellowed a battle cry, and though it sounded more furious than when they had practiced in the woods as dwarflings, there was no denying that it was Fíli.

All the air in his chest caught, unwilling to move in either direction as he searched the visible banks.

He didn’t see Fíli. He didn’t see the others. The river was sunken into the ground here, with ledges and walls of dirt blocking his sight of what was occurring. What he could see was an orc’s corpse lying near the water up ahead. There were barely seconds in which to think. Tauriel’s warnings came first, and loudest. Thorin’s fear for Kíli’s life followed soon after. But he heard another dwarven cry, and made up his mind.

Letting go of his raft, he swam toward the shore, letting the current pull him downstream as he fought to get to shallower water.

He reached it a few steps from the fallen orc, and took up its shoddy blade as he scrambled past it. The narrow bank was at the base of a steep incline.

Thought and fear pushed away by instinct and weeks of anxiety; Kíli hauled himself up, soaking wet and barely armored.

They were all alive.

But unlikely to remain so.

Outnumbered three to one that he could see, the orcs were trying to cage them. He could not see any injury, but he could not see them much at all. He could hear them. The bellowing roars of his kin were fierce. The answering shrieks of the orcs were taunting. The growls and snaps of the wargs that lingered on the fringes of the group were anticipatory.

All of it turned to chaos as he charged into the fray. Orc blades were pathetic brittle things, but they were more than enough to gash open exposed flesh.

“Nadad!” he greeted, not stopping his smile as he slammed the blade into a orc leg and closing the last distance.

“Kíli?” Fíli wasn’t the only voice that shouted his name, but it was the one that mattered. Not that they could stop fighting. Dramatic reunions and a much needed hug would have to wait until after they had cleared the field of enemies. He pivoted in place at a malevolent chuckling, and saw Azog, arms outstretched, parting the fighters as he approached them. There were small slashes on his arms and legs; he had been in the fight already.

No wonder Fíli hadn’t fled.

Taud Durinul u mat.”

Fully healed, his side twinged.

Azog had been in the fight, and Kíli had not been there to protect him.

Agh dugpon mesg u zagh.”

“Fíli, tabsinatiyanmat.”

He couldn’t understand why the others hadn’t forced Fíli to already. They were outnumbered. They were ill-armored. By the look of it, the fight had started by the river. They could have escaped, they could have gotten to safety. The line of Durin would address Azog another day.

Donteventhinkaboutityouuglywhore. Thesearemine.”

Frey was behind his brother, mismatched weapons as filthy with ichor as she was, deranged and moving to challenge the pale orc.

There was something shadowed in Fíli’s eyes when he looked up, some weighty darkness that the forest seemed to have pressed upon him. He nodded, and ordered, “Id-ân. Ishiê. Diya.”

It echoed sharply in Kíli’s skull, but he understood.

Scowling a silent threat that Fíli had better include himself in the plan, Kíli spun back to the enemies that had closed the trap around them after his charge. Balin seemed to have noticed the plan, and joined him. Bofur and Bombur fought together at the third point of the triangle, and yelled a khuzdul affirmation before pressing to make an escape.

Frey and Fíli were the farthest from the water, seemingly determined to meet Azog no matter the cost. With several orcs dead, and the path easier to cross, Fíli moved to the far side and shoved their troublesome companion to Kíli.

She stumbled into him, but was rounding to go back, furious and cursing as soon as she found her feet. Kíli caught her arm and dragged, eyes tracking back to Fíli to assure him he could now retreat as well. So, he was watching when the brutal claw crashed into his shoulder and threw him to the earth. He was watching as blades dropped from from slack fingers and Azog loomed tall.

Gakh matdurinul su.”

A stabbing shock blasted him as he wrestled with instinct and rational thought.

Balin suffered no such delay.

The old dwarf that had mentored them both, that had taught them both languages and diplomacy, was already moving. Azog caught Fíli by the head, lifting until his feet left the ground. Azog’s warg stepped between Balin and it’s master, and a gutted scream of Fíli’s name split the air wrought with horror.

Kíli lunged to catch her as she ran, flinging an arm around her chest, and pulling her close.

The orc looked up, past the fight between Balin and the warg, and sneered at her.

Frey was clawing at his hand, trying to get free, “Nonononogoddamitno. Notagain! Kíli letmego! Fíli!”

Her frenetic struggles stood counter to his inability to move or breathe or look away. Fíli was staring back at them desperately. Kíli didn’t know what he was desperate for though. If he’d had his bow he could have taken the shot, and damn the risk of letting go of her. Damn the risk of hitting his brother. He could do it, he could end this fight if he had his bow. Instead he had a weak blade and a useless magic ring.

She froze without warning, and faster than Kíli could wonder why, he felt that ring slip off his finger.

The shock of her vanishing loosened his grip, and Kíli felt her pull away.

It loosed the inaction in him as well.

Balin crippled the warg and pointed his sword at the orc.

Azog looked back to Fíli, shaking him and bringing up the claw to hold beneath his throat as threats were growled. Dazed, and no doubt in pain, Fíli was twisting, trying to get free.

Bombur and Bofur were facing down a cadre of enemies, and despite their shouts and frenzied battling, they could not escape. Balin and Kíli could not get close enough to land a blow without Azog slaughtering Fíli.

The roar that tore from the orc’s mouth was more scream than threat. The slash across his torso bloomed in sudden black blood.

Fíli was dropped as Azog cast about for his attacker. The claw opened a cut down Fíli’s face as he fell, but the dwarf was crawling for a sword the moment he hit the ground. His second blade was nowhere to be seen. Kíli reached him as Balin tried to engage the orc, but the fight with his unseen attacker, and it could only be Frey, was too erratic. Balin blocked a blow from a crony coming to Azog’s aid as more orcs boiled out of the trees, and Fíli moved his weapon to his off hand. His main sword arm was slung feebly at his side from the strike to his shoulder.

So Kíli stepped to his brother’s right side after a single moment of contact between clasped hands, and they fought together.

The next time Azog roared it was in triumph, but there was nothing Kíli could see.

While his victorious sneer was still in place, an axe appeared, lodged deep in his thigh. He collapsed as blood welled along the head of the weapon, and drew dark viscous lines over pale skin. Another slash of black appeared crossing the first on his chest, shallower this time.

The orcs swarmed.

Protecting their leader, they pushed back the dwarves, shrieking, and began dragging him into the trees. Retreating, and not bothering to fight, the orcs were vanishing.

It was a blessing. They did not have the numbers to survive that fight.

He saw one fall with no one nearby it, clutching its stomach, and a second fell when its face cracked open at the ear.

“Frey!” Fíli shouted it as a command, not a plea. She reappeared with one hand in a fist, and Fíli’s sword in the other, snarling over her shoulder, head tucked down, and eyes aglow. She could not seeing anything but the red haze of battle. Bofur and Bombur rushed forward, yelling entreaties, and Kíli could only wonder at what had happened in the last weeks.

His brother ran as the pair cut her off from her clear intention to pursue the orcs.

Getoutoftheway. Imgoingtowatchthatcockstuffedcuntdie.”

Fíli reached for her shoulder, and it was only training that brought his vambrace up in time. She spun the weapon again, with more finesse than she had shown before, catching Fíli’s other arm. Frey tripped him, and got past the circle of dwarves. All four chased after her without a trace of anything except loyalty and concern. Bombur caught her first, his speed always a surprise. It was Fíli that disarmed her, a single strike with the flat opening her hand. Bofur then tackled, catching her in a hold she couldn’t escape.

Battle fever.

She thrashed a moment against the miner’s chest, cracking her head into Bofur’s as she did. The dwarf was unfazed, and continued to mutter calm words to her. She shuddered and went slack in the space of a breath.

When she managed to look up her eyes were horrified. “Fíli?”

“I am fine.” He assured as Bofur released her, but she fell back a step, shaking her head.

The quiet was oppressive after the battle they had just concluded, and his heartbeat still pounded in his ears. Kíli saw her take a few more steps, staring at the ground where Bilbo’s ring was nestled in the dirt. When she slumped on a rock by the edge, something passed between Fíli and the others that Kíli didn’t understand.

He didn’t need to.

What they had survived surmounted the discomfort of time spent in elvish cells by miles. Adrenaline was giving way to terrified relief, and Kíli scarcely held himself up when Fíli dragged him into a fervent one armed embrace.

“Your arm?”

“I’ll be fine. You?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“The others?”

“Most likely to Laketown by now.”

“So why are you--”

“That’s a very long story, nadad.”

“I have your bow.”

“You are my bow.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Why are you soaking wet?”

“Also a long story.”

“Do you have any short stories?”

“Do you?”

Fíli made a hysterical sound, “No.”

They giggled, and held on tighter.

“I think your marlûna may have killed Azog.”

“I think so too.”

“Not denying it, anymore, I see.”

“Shut it, nadad.”

They hadn’t moved, just held onto each other and mumbled into shoulders. They were both shaking, and neither could keep the emotion out of their voice, so they spoke in soft creaks and crackles. It would never be mentioned. They were in their own world, and Kíli was certain that the fears he’d obsessed over were the same ones Fíli had. Having to tell their mother. Having to go on without the other. Having no chance to say goodbye.

“If yer all done with the reunion over there?”

“No.” Kíli mumbled petulantly, content to ignore Bombur.

“Rayad.” Balin’s voice, and that word, was enough to motivate them. They separated, though Fíli was still leaning on Kíli a bit. Bofur was standing beside Freya, protecting her, there was no other way to term it. Bombur and Balin were standing side by side in a loose battle pose, guarding the princes against the new arrival.

Kíli shook his head, and shook it again, but no, his vision did not change.

Tauriel was standing there, dressed in armor, and carrying as many weapons as Fíli with a miniscule smile.

“I see you’ve found your bow, Kíli.” His laughter confused the other dwarves. “And I seem to have arrived late. Have you any wounded?” Her tone turned serious at the end.

The fragment of the company, seeing Kíli’s casualness, checked themselves and found only minor injuries; nothing that could not wait. Kíli was sure his side would be marvelously bruised by the river’s tossing, but it would need no attention. His brother was already regaining feeling, and rolling his fingers experimentally. Fíli gestured, and Bofur assured him that Frey was only addled. They would all sport a rainbow of bruises, but nothing needed to be immediately addressed. 

Tauriel nodded and surveyed the woods behind them.

“You cannot stay here.”

“That part was a wee bit obvious, even to us, elf.”

Hernameis Tauriel. AndIthinkImnowofficiallyuseless. Ivegotnoideawhatllhappennow. Istabbed Azog Ithink. Tauriel ishere. Itsalldownthetoilet.”

Kíli smirked at Tauriel’s flustered look. They had all adapted to Frey’s foreknowledge making sudden name-based appearances.

“Tauriel is how we escaped nadad.”

“Another long story?”

“Very.”

Fíli straightened, and inclined his head toward her, “Then you have my thanks. You plan to travel with us?”

“I know your quest, and your destination. If I am welcome, I wish to join you.”

“Do you know how to reach Laketown?” She nodded once, “Then you are more than welcome to join us.”

With the sun sinking to the horizon, Kíli fell into step beside the elf, and they began to walk.

Chapter Text

 

Newest plan: Snag a bag of food from the house’s kitchen, shove the king into the lake as he made doe eyes at their burglar, tie his brothers to the first horse or pony or damned pig he could find that could take the weight, and march the lot of them off to the south east.

There were dwarves there.

Nori could find them.

Then he could rob them.

And he would never have to travel by barrel again.

That was the plan.

And it was a good plan.

To be enacted directly after he ate the rest of the fish stew.

The littlest of the children had given him the bowl, and Nori was generally considered to be a feelingless excuse for a dwarf, but not even he could find it in himself to disappoint her. She was the housekeeper’s youngest. Sweet curls that almost matched his hair, guileless eyes, and a firm set to her jaw that had made it clear he was to both eat the stew, and behave himself.

Children always knew he was a troublemaker.

Her mother ran this house for the Master of the Town.

Disgusting man.

Several kinds of disgusting in fact. Visually repugnant. Emotionally deficient. Morally lackadaisical. And coming from Nori, that last was a serious condemnation.

So Nori was eating the stew.

It was rather good.

Then it would be on to his plan. If he was feeling especially magnanimous, he would detour briefly towards the woods, see if he couldn’t find Bofur and add him to the collection of dwarves tied to the horse/pony/pig. The others could sod off.

“Eat the blasted soup, Thorin!”

Nori popped his head up to stare at their resident hobbit, who was shouting, arms akimbo, at their dull witted leader.

“I, and everyone else in this room agree that we need to find the others, but you won’t find anyone if you eat nothing and fall over from exhaustion when we haul off back to the woods. Don’t try that look on me, you butterless squash of a dwarf, and eat your soup! We can’t go running off again until we recover from those confounded barrels. We’ve taken a single day to try and recover and restock, they’ve been there near a month without needing us. Now. Eat. Your. Soup.”

Thorin took a petulant bite.

Ori, ensconced safely with Dwalin to guard him, queried, “Butterless squash?”

Bilbo simply glared, took another bowl from the daughter, and mumbled an answer that was suspiciously sindarin sounding.

Ori ducked his head back to the table, even as Dwalin puffed up next to him.

“Those barrels were your idea.”

“Would you rather I return you to Thranduil’s prison, Dwalin? Would you rather sit and wait while I think of a more comfortable departure method? How about you Master Oakenshield, would you like to return? It might put us behind on finding your nephews, on finding the others, but at least you won’t have had to suffer any indignity. Hm?”

Half of them bristled, and half of them cowered.

Bilbo deflated.

Laketown was going marvelously.

If measured solely in terms of efficacy, Bilbo’s plan had been spectacular. Nori had to admit that. His hair might never recover, and all of their extra clothing and weapons reeked of apples, but, they were free, alive, and closer to their goal.

The young prince’s absence was less encouraging. Thorin had announced rapidly that he had asked Kíli to slip away for his safety, but had said it with a grimace.

That bargeman hadn’t commented on it.

That bargeman.

It took a special sort of person to haul a cluster of supposedly empty barrels onto a bank, and not scream like a nutted elf when Nori popped out of one of them. Nori had liked him immediately. Even the arrow at his face hadn’t reduced that. Everyone needed to be able to defend themselves. Nori would probably have killed anyone that had gone springing out of a barrel right in front of him, and asked questions of the corpse.

But then, Nori was not a particular fan of surprises.

After exercising his silk tongue a bit, Bard helped him pry the lids off the other barrels.

Glóin had been placed upside down, and came out redder than a tomato.

Thorin had undergone such a range of reactions in the first few seconds it must have given him a headache. Relief. Panic. Love. More relief. Anger. Majesty. Panic again. And then remorse as he noticed in certainty that Kíli was nowhere to be seen.

Bard had been happy to bring them to town for a few coins, and happier still to keep his mouth shut for a few more.

Thank Mahal they’d thought to grab their weapons.

They had thanked the man at the dock, parted ways, and marched off, proud as you please, to find the Master of the town.

Bilbo had been the one to do the talking there.

Well, Bilbo and Thorin.

Bilbo was the one who did the talking that helped them. Thorin did rather more of the reverse.

No matter.

It had been dark by the time they arrived, and they’d had little choice but to accept the offered house and food. The Master seemed set on pleasing them.

Some sort of feast was being planned, but in a town this poor, such a thing could not be readily assembled. There was hardly anything worth stealing on the miserable clutch of waterlogged ramshackle huts on the lake. Not that Nori was feeling sour about that.

In the morning they had planned to return to the forest. The men decided they needed to stay for a proper feast first, after they managed to assemble one. Current guess was another day or two. In the meantime, they were recovering, and packing fresh supplies for when they tromped back into an accursed, infested forest.

Not Nori, but they didn’t need to know that yet.

His whole family was alive, and he planned to keep them that way.

He had expected that the mood would be like a night before a battle, grim determination. Nope. It was just grim. None of them really thought the others were alive. They were just going back to confirm that, and to find Kíli.

So. Safe to say that when the door was flung open and five filthy dwarves tumbled through, they were caught a tad unaware. Enough, in fact, that no one moved or made a sound for a solid three seconds aside from Bilbo’s spoon clattering against the bowl.

“Why’ve ya got such long faces? Ale no good here?” Bofur chirped.

Confusion gave way to chaos.

Fíli and Kíli would have tackled their uncle if he hadn’t moved faster than them.

Bifur crashed into his kin, shouting enthusiastically. Glóin, Óin and Dwalin just about scooped Balin off the ground. Nori watched his brothers embrace and then begin hugging any and everyone that was near them. Bilbo got dragged into the snarl of Durin hugging that had also appropriated Dwalin and Balin.

Nori stayed outside it.

Breathing an internal sigh at the return of their companions, some of his determination to depart wavered. Not all of it: he wasn’t a fool. Some of it whispered away though. At the least, the part about detouring to save Bofur, great lump he was, was gone.

Shouted questions were rising, and the newly arrived group hesitated. They clustered, battle companions, utterly trusting each other, and, Nori noted, blocking the door.

That was when Nori noticed that only the five of them had burst through the door, and tried to judge by Fíli’s stance where she was. All five of them were spattered in blood, weary, and bearing scuffs and cuts, the deepest of which was across Fíli’s cheek. They’d been through something a bit rougher than a stint in jail.

Wasn’t a great sign.

Fíli didn’t look mournful though. And Bofur wasn’t exultant.

Thorin repeated the question the others had chorused, in the calm, “How did you escape the forest ingadân?”

The princes glanced to each other, then to the other three.

“We had some help.”

Kíli started talking.

He simply didn’t stop. He just blabbered on about his time in prison. Getting quiet when he explained how he and an elf had discussed their quest, and louder when he ploughed over Thorin’s indignation, he narrated what had passed. Listening, Nori could tell that Kíli was leaving something out. Not quite a lie, more like when a mark tried to claim they only had a few coppers on them, but had a bag of gold.

Somewhere around the time that he sold out Bilbo’s complicity in the plan and cacophony resumed, Nori spotted Freya, lurking in the darkness just outside the door, next to someone else he didn’t know. She looked worse than the day after the trolls. His hatred of Mirkwood ticked up by a few more notches. Cheek twitching while she shook her head and gritted her teeth, she looked, well, like herself. A month lost in the forest with at least one dwarf that had wanted to kill her, and she had come out the other side looking like the lass they’d met in Eriador.

Maybe that was the better way.

Either case, she wasn’t dead. And that was great news.

Still half following Kíli’s story, Nori pivoted at the phrase ‘magic ring.’ Kíli dropped it into Bilbo’s grateful hand.

Apparently their hobbit had a magic ring that didn’t work on dwarves. That would have been the most important part of the story, if Fíli hadn’t begun speaking right after. The boys had always known how to maximize the impact in tales of their exploits.

The others had gotten cut off, intended to find them with the elves, and instead been chased by orcs and wargs and spiders for nearly a month. Boring food in an elvish prison didn’t sound oh-so-bad anymore. Fíli said it in a rush, not rambling as his brother had. He used as few words as possible.

“Then Azog arrived.”

Thorin hissed a breath.

“It’s alright, indâd. He might be dead. At the least he’s badly hurt. I got to them as they were fighting,” Kíli interrupted, “and we were going to try to get away. But Azog got to Fíli. Grabbed him up by the neck and hoisted him in the air.”

Clearly the tale had a happy ending since the dwarf in question was standing right there, but everyone tensed at that.

“And you saved your brother.” Thorin breathed.

“Actually, Balin charged the filth.”

The company turned to the eldest of the company, none prouder than Dwalin, but Balin held up his hands and demurred. “I just stalled him for a bit brother, no need to go looking like that.”

“Then who? Bofur?” Dwalin rumbled.

All five dwarves got a bit sheepish; Nori saw the answer before they spoke and started cackling. When everyone turned to his seat at the table, he managed, “Her, weren’t it?”

Kíli’s smile was huge as he launched into the rest of the story.

Nori knew he was right about her. The others just had taken their time catching up with his wisdom. Bofur in particular had been an obstinate twerp.

Even Bofur seemed to agree with him now. That left Dori and Thorin as the holdouts of mistrust if Nori was any judge. Dori’s was founded in confidence she’d get herself and others killed more than an true dislike. Thorin’s was -- actually, Nori couldn’t rightly explain Thorin’s instant virulent hatred of the lass.

“Where is she?” Thorin asked, and there was almost a trace of concern there..

The princes winced, and, in chorus, answered, “Them.”

“Them?”

“Well after she showed up in the woods and helped us escape and everything else we couldn’t just send her back, Uncle!”

Thorin growled inarticulate khuzdul curses.

Looking about ready to run off at the first opportunity, the ginger elf got half shoved, half dragged into the room. Kíli’s introduction did little to help ease the tension. Tauriel straightening her spine and giving a half bow, accented with a respectful nominative did better.

In an echo of the past, Nori watched Bofur reach into the hidden dark, and haul Freya into sight.

Nori wasn’t the only dwarf to think yelling was imminent from one of the pair staring at each other, though which would start it was anyone’s guess. The princes shifted awkwardly. The company shifted awkwardly. If they’d had time, Glóin would have opened a purse on the outcome of the meeting.

Instead, Thorin stalked forward, and swept her into a hug. Attempted to. She was behind Bofur the second she saw him moving, and it worked for a moment. Then Bofur stepped aside,  and Thorin froze.

She had her arms held up, placating, but her voice was snarly. “Stopthatyourefreakingmeout. Imnot Bilbo. Idontgetredemptionhugs. Igetattacked. Igetthrownofftreesforcrapssake. Igetdangledoffrocks. Alsoprettysuretheassholeisntdead. Ifthatswhattheytoldyou. Kíli talkstoofast. Whoknowswhathesaid.

Their missing companions were calm, and notably leaning toward her. Balin went so far as to step closer to Thorin.

Plusyouarentsupposedtobehere! Youresupposedtopopupatoilet. Hangoutwiththebardlings. Everythingsallcockedup. Whatdidyouidiotsdo? Andhowlongwillittakeformetofixit?

“Uhhh…..” Bombur dragged as she ducked behind him, leaning against the door, “All this love and forgiveness is grand, but I don’t suppose there’s some more of whatever it is I can smell right now?” His stomach rumbled concurrence, “Well, but it’s been awhile since we had a proper meal.”

It broke the spell.

They reclaimed seats, bowls, spoons, and their good cheer. Stories were told with effusive praise, each of the four dwarves trying to out boast on another’s behalf. Ale appeared, and began to rapidly disappear. The newcomers vanished one at a time to throw cold water in their faces and scrape off the worst of the mess covering them.

The elf they brought with them sat silent, and stoic, and polite, sharing little smiles with Kíli that Nori would be teasing him about starting in the morning. He did have some decency, he’d give them a short reprieve. A few hours.

Balin leaned into Glóin, whispered while the banker’s eyes widened, and Nori watched as two more betting pools were opened.

That, naturally, sent another round of betting flitting about the table communicated in furtive iglishmêk. Bifur’s bet on the crown prince was large, unflinching, and placed on confirmation before they left the town.

After the betting settled, was an attempt to assess whether their hobbit-burglar’s inability to get them out their cells was because of preoccupation with Thorin’s trousers and what was in them. This was likewise done furtively; no need to anger the pair just when they’d found good moods again. But all the same. Bilbo had spent weeks looking about the place and found nothing. Nori felt it important to point out that Tauriel had lived in the palace longer than Bilbo had been alive at all, and they should give him a break. Then he looked over, saw the hobbit watching Thorin like he was a fresh pie, and conceded the point to Óin.

The Master had been happy to curry favor, and the ale flowed freely. It seemed to be the only plentiful thing on the lake other than the stink of fish and rampant poverty.

The dwarves were boisterous as they celebrated, like they always were. Laughter was louder in their relief, and insults chased the praise. All of it said from love, of course. The elf was awkwardly seated near the fire watching it happen. Nori spotted concerned glances flick between the recently arrived, and saw them all relax when Freya reappeared, with some of the filth washed away.

The little girl who had been helping to serve started yawning and was taken home. Thankful, but eager to be unwatched, they encouraged her mother to go as well. They had ale and leftover soup, and bread; they would be more than fine until the morning.

Nori refilled an oversized pair of tankards and set one in front of Bofur.

“So. Not dead yet I see. If you need a bit of help with that, you let me know.”

“Aye, just had a pleasant little walk through the woods. And yourself, I heard you were back in your natural habitat.” Nori glared, but without any venom. “Well, it’s true. Don’t think you’ve spent more time in any place except sittin behind bars.”

There wasn’t any denying it.

So Nori nicked the pipe out of Bofur’s pocket and spun it between his fingers, smirk climbing higher with each rotation.

“Yer a right bastard.”

“Don’t think I’ve ever said otherwise, Bof.”

“An’ Im gonna want that back.”

“We’ll see. Maybe I’m planning somewhat else.”

Bofur heard the lilt of insinuation and quirked up an eyebrow til it vanished under his hat. The miner was a proper bastard most of the time, obstinate and protective, but was also about the sweetest thing Nori had ever met. That particular combination was a weak point in Nori’s affections. Bofur fought like his own mother was at risk. He also kissed like they might be dead in the morning.

At least, he had behind Beorn’s house.

All decisive and intense and still leaving plenty of chances for Nori to bugger off. Even kept his hands to places that were mostly appropriate. Proper gentleman, despite his ignoble upbringing.

Nori had spent much of the last month contemplating what Bofur might do if he hadn’t been made into a midday meal for a spider the size of a bear. There hadn’t been much else to do when he wasn’t listening to the others bolster spirits back and forth.

Bugger. His mind had gone meandering.

And by the glint in his eyes, Bofur had seen exactly where it went.

“You lot gotten any rest?”

“Some.”

“Enough?”

“Hope so.” Bofur’s mischievous eyes narrowed in a flash at a sight behind Nori. “Fíli.” Nori watched as the pair communicated over him. Resignation and exhaustion and loyalty. Balin and Bombur saw it happening, and gestured questions.

“No. I’ll go.” Fíli interrupted with authority.

“Out the window on the left.”

“Thank you. Eat more Bofur, we can all fully bathe tomorrow. Rest is more important.”

“We aren’t lost anymore prince, ya don’t have to go fussing about my well being now.”

Nori recognized that look. Both looks. Bofur’s loyalty. Fíli’s leadership.

Then the prince was gone and Nori was watching Bofur stare. The bastard tracked Fíli’s movement out of the house, and out of sight.

It took longer than he thought, watching and admiring like that. When he caught himself, he realized that many of the others had already vanished off to beds. Kíli and the elf were still whispering softly. Dwalin and Ori were silent next to the fire with ale while Glóin rambled about his wife. Balin was headed for the stairs muttering about being too old for such nonsense anymore.  

Frey was a bit more missing than they wanted, but the rest had vanished off to sleep, and she was probably not dead.

“Did ya just send him off to find her?” Nori asked.

“Aye.” Bofur wasn’t even reluctant. “She tends to get herself in trouble when she wanders. Not that it stops her doin’ it.”

The stories that had been told had been engaging, but had really only told them about their first days and their last in the forest. The rest had been obscured for the sake of dramatics. That Bofur had changed his mind about her was testament to the fact that the days in between were far from empty.

“You watchin’ out for her?”

“Aye. Still don’t like the ibsên bar’gairuith.”

“Never said ya did.”

“An’ I still woulda rather had you or Dwalin out there with us. Or better yet, none of us locked in cells or running day and night from things as what want to eat ya.” Bofur yawned then. Not a little yawn. Oh no, this was a full body stretch and yawn. Just the last two days worth of adventure would have been exhausting, and Nori knew there was more to the story than a quick skirmish and a day and a half of jogging.

Nori decided to be a gentleman.

Never mind that his thoughts had been up Bofur’s knickers for the past month.

It hardly took any effort to get him up the stairs and to one of the rooms. Alright, fine. To get to Nori’s room. But only because Nori knew that there was a spare blanket in there as well as being plenty warm, and he could easily kip on the floor.

The happy garbled sound at the sight of the bed was a twin to the one that Nori had made yesterday.

Bofur shucked out of the filthiest of his clothes, and splashed some water on his hands to try and rid them of yet more of the dirt there. Lost cause. They’d all need a long soak in a bath. Or the lake. And a great deal of scrubbing before they turned into anything resembling clean. Nori certainly had.

Thinking back to the weight of the last day, and the way they had all been certain that the company that had survived so much had been broken; that oppressive pain radiating off of Thorin in particular, but also off Dwalin and Bilbo, at the loss of a third of the company, had been crippling.

Now here they were. All alive. Unless Freya had managed to find trouble in the last quarter hour. Actually. She might have. Didn’t go well to underestimate her capacity to do something dumb. But that was Fíli’s problem currently.

Nori snuck behind Bofur to steal a blanket off the foot of the bed, already deciding that the wall by the door was closest to the chimney and likely to be the warmest. Bofur caught him at it, and laughed, “Can’t break the habit can ye? Gotta steal somethin. Just a rule, that.”

“Jus’ don’t wanna freeze.”

Bofur was a few steps past charming when he was trying to puzzle something out. Every thought played over his face. Every reaction and emotion and consideration was visible. Bofur would be a terrible spy. That made him an admirable dwarf. “This is your room ain’t it?” Nori nodded. “An you were plannin’ on sleepin’ where?” Nori glanced to his prechosen patch of floor.

Thinking wasn’t Bofur’s suit.

Decisions were.

Bofur was always decisive about these things. Didn’t matter that the last time they’d gone from throwing punches to kissing in the space of a breath. Bofur made decisions, and he made them well.

It shouldn’t have been so stunning when Nori found himself kissed to the point he stumbled backwards into the bed.

And yet.

They kissed like they were drowning, and for a dwarf that took such pride in his awareness of his surroundings, it was ridiculous that Nori had no idea where in the name of the Valar the majority of his clothes had just gone. Undertrousers and binder got left behind, and it was only due to the absence of his boots and weapons that Nori had to assume he had assisted at some point. No memory of it. Just a memory of whiskers and that damned hat.

Though, for all he knew, they’d been vanished off him by a helpful wizard.

Bofur, having already stripped out of the majority of his own, did little else.

The world tilted sideways, and Nori found himself on a bed, without Bofur.

That was only temporary.

He arrived with the stolen blanket a moment later, and an apology.

“I know what yer thinkin’ and it’s a lovely notion, not pretending otherwise, sounds like a delight, but I don’t think there’s any option for my next activity except for sleep.” He snuffed out the candle and sighed when Nori snaked an arm around him. “Happy to oblige you afterwards though.”

Nori snorted. Any obliging was likely to be on his end. Unless Bofur was carrying around more than just his normal trinkets and had a rather particular toy hidden in his coat. Nori doubted that. It would have been mentioned by now. He twisted his arm around to reach the tie on his binder to slacken it for the night. Bofur, eyes shut in the thin moonlight through the crack of the curtains, held him in place to prevent him, snuffling laughs into his moustache as Nori tried harder to reach.

Nori couldn’t move his arms back, but he could reach forward to pinch.

Next he knew, Bofur had slipped the knot for him and loosened the compression. When Nori settled closer, well aware that they’d not have done anything of the kind if they’d not thought the other one dead for the last month, Nori breathed deep.

Any amorous adventures were on hold after that.

Bofur definitely needed to take a bath first.

 


 

It wasn’t as if they had never done this. While Bilbo may have suffered some confusion after a mild miscalculation in phrasing on Thorin’s part, both of them were well experienced.

It did not stop the way the air was thrumming. It did not stop they way that they had tripped over each other trying to let the other walk into the room first. It did not stop the fact that they had then stood some three paces apart, drinking the other in, wide awake and hopeful in a way they had not thought would ever happen again a few hours earlier.

In the space of an evening they had changed from tense and sniping each other, to devouring each other more than they did their meals.

Their heads were light with drink and lust. Their hands were shifting uncomfortably at their sides. It was something in the air. It was a little thread of knowledge wound around the fact that they had done a great many things but had not yet crossed this line. Boots and coats had been stripped off as they stared each other down, but they were both fit for public appearance. That couldn’t be borne.

Thorin was the first to respond, eyes watching Bilbo shift and tweak little smiles. It wasn't to say that he could not control himself, only that he no longer had to.

Two quick steps forward were enough to bring him in range of his hobbit.

After days of doubt, after weeks of denial, after months of self recrimination and censored confessions it was too important for Thorin not to continue.

He wanted.

Well. He wanted everything. He wanted to see what Bilbo would look like spread out beneath him, though, he was well aware that Bilbo was far more likely to climb atop him than he was to let himself be towered over.

Small, in everything but spirit.

And that spirit so outpaced Thorin's own will that it was difficult to ever imagine that it would falter.

So Thorin reached up to stroke fingers through Bilbo's hair, grown long on the journey. It was nothing like a dwarf's locks yet, but, if he could keep Bilbo nearby long enough, and away from scissors throughout, it was possible that he would be able to braid in symbols of his affection one day. A twinned braid to show their bond, and beads to show Thorin’s loyalty to him. A clasp marking him a dwarf friend for saving Kíli. A crown perhaps some day.

Maybe one day he would even manage to say aloud what he had wanted to for months.

Bilbo was watching him with a knowing arch to his eyebrows.

Maybe what he wanted was already known.

Ever impatient, Bilbo brought up his hands, tracing lightly over Thorin’s beard, before dragging him into a searing kiss.

While the others were missing, they could not have taken the time for this. It would have been unconscionable. They could discuss it. Thorin had taunted and teased Bilbo while trapped in a cell, but even if Bilbo had found a way inside, they could have done nothing with spectre of his missing kin above them.

The night before, they had fallen asleep in each other's arms in this bed, taut and preoccupied and clothed.

Now he had no such compunction.

The tension and fraught panic he carried began to melt as Bilbo pressed closer. It fell away in great chunks as nimble fingers did likewise to his clothing. He should return the favor, seek out bare skin and strip away the worn and dirty clothing that had once been proper hobbit garb. But he had his fingers in Bilbo’s hair, thumbs running up the shell of his ears and flicking past the points. It was a far better use of his time.

He moved his hands away only long enough to shed the coat and tunic at Bilbo’s tugged order. Then they were back and they were kissing once more, and the surreal sensation of peace was heady.

There had been little opportunity for Thorin Oakenshield, Durin’s heir and wandering blacksmith, to be calm and content in the last hundred and seventy years. It felt wrong. It felt as if he did not deserve it. As if it were simply on loan from another, and never really his.

He was guided to sit on the edge of the bed, stripped down to his underthings.

Bilbo tossed aside his shirt, and hoisted himself onto the man-sized bed. He straddled Thorin’s thighs, and caught his face, examining him with the pushiness and tender care that defined the hobbit.

“You are thinking too much. Why is it that you can never simply enjoy yourself? Why do you torment yourself with -- well whatever it is you’re thinking about now. The supports for the town collapsing and dropping us all in the lake maybe?” He spoke with barbed words, but pressed sweet kisses over Thorin’s face.

“I’m thinking of you.”

“And you’re frowning like that? I must be making a terrible hash of this. Should I try harder?” The teasing achieved its goal, and Thorin smiled up at him. “There you are. Now then, I seem to recall you having some very pleasant plans of what you were going to do to me as soon as you could, and I’ll never forgive you if you don’t take this chance to, what was it you said?”

Leave him unable to speak from pleasure.

His cheeks flushed at the reminder.

Shoving aside his doubt, he returned to the moment, and the expanse of skin before him. Bilbo was still soft and curved. He was thinner than he had been perhaps, but that was true of them all.

Bilbo was still a hobbit though, and the softness spoke of his gentle life. There were no great scars riddling his body, there were no inkings. Bilbo was himself, and proud enough in his body to grin with confidence when Thorin met his eye after savoring the sight. He rubbed his hands up Bilbo’s sides, down his back, and lo