Dwalin had never met a Hobbit before.
Hobbits rarely left their homes and he had never stopped at the Shire on his way to Ered Luin, so it was understandable why he had never seen one. Not that he cared, really. He had met enough races in his life at that point, and all of them turned out to be made of the same cloth—a greedy, hateful, ugly cloth.
But Bilbo Baggins was… different.
It was not his kindness or generous behavior that threw him off. He had met others before who were kind to Dwarves—stemmed from pity more than anything else, bastards—and it was not his willingness to go along on their quest either. Being promised a reward from the coffers of Erebor would motivate anyone, after all. No, what threw him off were not the actions or words from the Hobbit.
It was simply the way he looked at them.
For most of his life, Dwalin had been regarded by other races as a stupid and greedy barbarian. He had grown used to being seen as something lesser just because he was shorter than Men, and sported a beard that he was sure the weed-eaters were simply jealous of. He never liked it and never would, but he had come to accept it as just another fact of life.
But Bilbo Baggins did not look at him as if he were scum or trouble. He did not look at him with pity or mistrust. He did not even flinch in fear of his weapons or beard or many, many scars. No, he did not do any of the normal things that Dwalin had come to accept, and even expect on some level.
Instead, Bilbo Baggins looked at him the same way a lad looked at his first weapon. As if he was something wondrous and amazing and unreal.
It was unexpected.
He did not know Bilbo Baggins. He had done nothing to earn such a look from the Hobbit. He had not been friendly, or even kind to the Hobbit! Dwalin did not understand why he deserved such a look.
However, for all his confusion, he could not deny that some part of him was… pleased. It had been so long since anyone—even among his own kind—had given him such a look. It made him feel as if he was worth something again. That he wasn't just a wandering old Dwarf looking for a home, but a mighty warrior with the blood of an ancient line running through his veins.
Rather funny, really, he mused, glancing behind at the humming burglar riding along on the pony. Never thought a Hobbit could make me feel like a Dwarf again.
Bilbo had never enjoyed riding. Oh, he liked the animals themselves well enough, and had grown quite fond of a few ponies during his time traveling. But the riding itself he did not enjoy. Hobbits simply weren't meant to be removed from the ground in any manner.
Unfortunately he was stuck riding for the time being. They had left the Shire behind and were well on their way to Erebor. In that time, Bilbo had found himself growing more and more used to seeing his once dead companions alive and merry. The sharp ache in his heart had died down into a tolerable pinch, and the memories of another life no longer plagued him at every turn. Now he could at least face Fíli and Kíli without flinching, or wanting to burst into tears.
But for all his progress, he found that he still could not face Thorin. The leader of their Company hadn't paid him much mind and had spoken no more than a few words to him in passing, but even those few words had been horribly awkward for him as he struggled still to see this Thorin as his own person instead of a memory. It would be difficult, but he wanted to move past his own memories and feelings to build a fresh relationship with Thorin. They would never have the same friendship as they did before, but he did at least want a decent relationship with the Dwarf.
Oh, but it was hard. Not only was it still difficult for him to simply look at Thorin, the Dwarf himself was incredibly difficult to get close to. The last time around he had to throw himself in front of a group of Orcs just to get the king to smile at him. This time around he was sticking to talking with the latter being a last resort.
It was not only Thorin that he found himself struggling to win over. He noticed Gandalf had been watching him with that same look he used to (and eventually would again) give Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took whenever they got too close to the fireworks. He was expecting such a look, but that didn't mean he enjoyed being mistrusted by his oldest friend.
"Mister Bilbo, would you like to taste the soup?" Bombur asked, pulling him from his thoughts. The redhead was sitting before a large pot and stirring it with slanted brows and pursued lips. Bombur had always taken his cooking very seriously.
"Of course." The Hobbit carefully took the ladle handed to him and took a sip of the soup. It was a simple meal of meat and broth but the spices brought it to life. "Delicious. Do I detect a hint of parsley?"
Bombur beamed. "Aye. Parsley and basil, to bring out the lamb. I believe I detected rosemary in the beef you served us, yes?"
"Yes, from my mother's herb garden. She was an excellent cook and had a way with plants. I took over the care of the garden after her death, but I'm afraid I lack any real skills. It is enough that I keep them alive at all."
"I'm sure your mother appreciated the sentiment," interjected Bofur, flopping down between the two in a graceless heap. He hijacked the ladle from Bilbo and finished the rest of the soup in one gulp.
"Mmm. I'd say it's ready to be served," he informed his brother, handing the ladle back. "Shall we call the others?"
"Not until Mister Bilbo gets his portion," Bombur declared fiercely, already scooping some soup into a clay bowl. "The rest will devour the soup without any mind to our smaller comrades."
Bofur nodded in agreement while the Hobbit in question scowled.
"You do not need to treat me any different from the others," he protested. "I may be a Hobbit but that does not mean I'm really so different from the rest of you. I don't need special treatment."
Bombur ignored his words and simply handed him a bowl. "Here you go. Eat up now."
"Don't bother arguing with him. Once Bombur makes a choice, he sticks with it," Bofur explained as he grabbed his own bowl and held it out to be filled.
"Hey, are you eating without us?"
Fíli and Kíli joined them around the pot of stew; both slightly out of breath from sparring. Most of their Company had been watching them and either taken to yelling out suggestions, or cheering them on. Bilbo recalled them doing such a thing often the last time around though he couldn't remember if there was ever a winner.
"Why did you start serving without telling me? You know how hungry I get kicking Fíli around," Kíli complained, reaching over to swipe a taste of Bilbo's soup with two fingers.
"Hey! Didn't your mother ever tell you that's it's rude to put your fingers in other peoples' food?" he complained, attempting to smack the wandering fingers with his spoon only to miss.
Kíli widened his eyes and bit his lower lip in a manner that he recognized all too easily. He remembered the young Dwarf pulling such a move to get his way, or to makeup whenever he did something foolish. Unfortunately for him, that face only worked on his brother and uncle and sometimes Dwalin.
"Don't even try those eyes on me. I lived among baby Hobbits. Come near me again and I'll crack your fingers," he warned, waving his spoon to get his point across.
Long lost friend or not, you did not come between a Hobbit and his meal.
"Looks like our burglar has a pair after all," Fíli snickered as he went about the more sensible task of getting his own bowl of stew instead of trying to steal one.
"Obviously. How else could he have talked back to Thorin?" Bofur pointed out.
"And join us on our quest against a dragon," reminded Bombur.
"Which, by the way, I still don't get. Why did you decide to come with us?" wondered Kíli, deciding to steal from his brother now after being shooed away from Bilbo's food. His theft was rewarded with a swift elbow to the side that was ignored.
Bilbo stirred his soup thoughtfully. Why did he join them the first time around? Was it really just for an adventure? Or had their song and tale truly touched him? He knew that was why he had decided to stay later, and it was still important to him now. But he honestly could not recall what had influenced him into running after them that morning so long ago.
"You goal is a noble one," he finally answered. "You lot… You don't have a home anymore. It was stolen from you. So I will try to help you get it back if I can."
The Dwarves around him paused and stared at him with a look that was much like the one they had given him the first time he had said that. It still made him feel horribly uncomfortable.
"You…" Bofur began only to trail off as the others began to join them for dinner. No one else mentioned his words for the rest night, but the Hobbit could still feel the looks they gave him, and it made him wonder what they could have possibly thought of him now.
Later that night, after the stew was finished and they had retired for the night, Bilbo awoke to the sound of wargs howling in the night. The noise awoke the rest of his companions with grumbling and hissed insults as they all gathered around the small campfire. Bilbo joined them with his quilt wrapped around his shoulders, and tried to contain his yawns.
"Are wargs common around these parts?" he questioned, rubbing his eyes with one fist.
"No. They usually don't come this far out," Bofur answered him, lighting up a pipe.
"Aye. They are used by the orcs as mounts and usually linger around Rivendell," Dwalin added, scowling.
"Think they'll bother us?" Ori wondered, eyes wider than usual.
"Not if we keep moving. We leave at dawn," Thorin commanded, stalking off to the edge of the cliffs to overlook the canyon below.
"He seems… angrier than usual," Bilbo noted, hinting at the untold story that he knew they all needed to hear.
"Aye. Thorin has more than enough reason to hate those foul beasts," Balin answered dutifully, and then launched into a heroic and tragic tale of an attempt to reclaim the lost kingdom of Moria from the dreaded orcs. He explained with great sorrow of how Thorin's grandfather, King Thrór, was beheaded by the orc Azog; who was determined to end the line of Durin. With eyes lost in memory, he recounted of how he watched Thorin struggle to hold his own against a monster thrice his size, and how it was thanks to a simple piece of fallen oak that he managed to survive, and cut off the beast's hand.
Bilbo listened to the familiar tale while watching his companions. Each Dwarf seemed hypnotized by the story, and he realized that it was this moment that cemented their loyalty to Thorin Oakenshield instead of just the King Under the Mountain. It was this moment that they all realized how much their king had lost, and how hard he would continue to fight to reclaim it. He could see, in the way they all stood and turned to their king still standing on the cliffs, that they would follow the Dwarf until the very end.
And so would he.
They traveled on.
The days continued to pass and Bilbo found himself becoming more and more at ease around his long-lost comrades. Soon he found that he could even meet Thorin's eyes without feeling as if he had been punched in the chest. But the most startling thing he discovered was his youth.
Bilbo had forgotten how to felt to be able to walk without creaking and aching bones. Hell, he had forgotten how it felt just to be able to move for more than ten minutes without feeling tired and out of breath. He had been an old man for so long—longer than he should have been thanks to the ring—that he had forgotten that there was ever a time that he was young.
It was an exhilarating realization.
"Um, Mister Bilbo, why are you walking along with the ponies instead of riding one?" Ori asked him one day as he guided his pony along on foot.
"Because one day I won't be able to," Bilbo replied, and earned an odd look for his remark. He easily ignored it; well-used to be being regarded as strange even among his own kin for most of his life. He had grown to accept the looks.
Thankfully the rest of the Dwarves didn't seem to care whether he walked or rode the pony.
Actually, he had noticed that other than Fíli, Kíli, Ori, Bofur and Bombur, the rest of their Company never spoke to him, or paid him any mind. He understood though that it was to be expected. Dwarves were mistrustful of outsiders by nature, and until he proved himself trustful then the rest would not open up to him. That was fine because it gave him a chance to focus on another problem: Gandalf.
Bilbo realized that he had to end the tense silence between him and the wizard. He thought he could handle the mistrust and suspicion until they reached Erebor, but it was becoming too much for him. He had enough that he had to deal with, and having Gandalf against him did not help.
So one night, as the rest gathered around Bombur for dinner, he cornered the wizard as he sat alone on a nearby rock.
"Bilbo," the wizard greeted pleasantly even as his eyes gleamed under his hat. "What can I do for you?"
"You don't trust me," he stated bluntly because old age had brought about more than wrinkles for him. "You think something is wrong with me, yes?"
Gandalf stared at him silently for a moment before slowly nodding. "Yes. Yes, you are quite right. You are hiding something from the rest of us, Master Baggins."
"Yes, I am," he admitted, watching as the nearby camp fire cast dark shadows across his old friend's face. It made him look quite menacing.
"I have to keep this secret for the moment," he continued on, "but only up until a certain point."
"What is the reason for this secret?" questioned the wizard. "What are the consequences if you speak of it?"
—the Dwarves begin to sing in low and deep voices as they bury the bodies of the three royal Dwarves. The song is in Khuzdûl and is beautiful and alien to his ears. The voices that resonate as one paint a melody that is heartbreaking with the grief that carries through. Their king and his heirs are gone and they mourn for all three—
Bilbo closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. "The lives of those very dear to me are on the line. So until I know that they are safe and well, I will hold my secret to myself."
Gandalf's eyes widened as he took in the meaning of his words. Once he did his face softened, and the harsh line and wrinkles eased up in a way that made him look much younger and kinder.
"In that case, I will not hound you for an answer. I will wait for you to come to me in your own time," the wizard said, giving him the same smile he shared whenever Bilbo had done something foolish, and then attempted to make up for it. It made his heart hurt a little to see it again in this lifetime.
"Thank you, Master Gandalf. I do appreciate your trust in me," he replied, giving the wizard a small smile. "And I promise that it will not be misplaced."
And I am sorry that I cannot speak to you of the truth. You are a good and noble person but you may make things worse in your attempts to help. I do not even know the consequences of my own actions at this point, let alone what you may cause. So all I can do is to try and change things, and hope that my choices don't condemn us all.
Gandalf simply kept smiling his kind smile. "I'm sure it won't, Bilbo. I'm sure it won't."