"So… what's the plan?" Bilbo asked as they made their way to the long and thin bridge that would lead them to Lake-town. It was the only way for them to pass over the lake without a boat, and it stretched on into a fog that not even his Hobbit eyes could see through.
"We restock what we can in the town. Then we continue to Erebor," Thorin explained, leading the group.
"Great. Wonderful. But what if the citizens of Lake-town object to our little adventure? I don't think they really want to risk making Smaug angry," he pointed out.
"They will not stop us," Thorin said with certainty. "We are too close to fail now. We will retake Erebor or die trying."
Bilbo couldn't help but flinch.
"I'd rather it not come to that," he said quietly.
Bifur was the only one who heard him and he gently patted the Hobbit on the shoulder. He made a sign with his other hand that he roughly translated to mean, 'It won't come to that.'
When they reached the bridge, Bilbo looked ahead at the two guards on duty in front of the locked gate. They were drinking and laughing over something between them with their weapons abandoned at their feet. The group was halfway across the bridge before they were finally noticed by the two Men.
"Halt! Who are you and what do you want?" yelled one as the other cursed and spilt his drink down his shirt.
Thorin looked them over with an arched brow, obviously unimpressed. "I am Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, and I have come for my kingdom."
The two young Men simply stared at him.
"You're a Dwarf," said the one who had spilled his drink.
"And you're the village idiot," Thorin returned easily, and then pushed past the two without hesitation.
"Wait a minute! You can't just barge in without permission!" cried the first Man who had spoken. He swung himself in front of the king and leveled his rusted and dull sword at him. "Step back now!"
Thorin looked to the blade for a moment before turning to Dwalin. The taller Dwarf stepped forward and calmly broke the sword in half with his hands. The broken piece fell to the ground, and the two Men stared at it as if it had just insulted their entire lineages.
"Wow. This is reaching a new level of pathetic," Bofur commented, wincing.
Bilbo mentally agreed and stepped forward to save the two from further humiliation. "Would you please inform your lord of our arrival? We must speak with him as soon as possible."
The two guards turned to look at him, and the second one pointed a finger at him. "Who are you? What are you?"
"The one trying to save you from making a bigger fool of yourself," he replied sweetly. "We simply wish to speak to your leader. Now let us in before you say something even stupider."
"I kind of want to see that," admitted Kíli.
The first guard at least had the sense to pull his friend away and gestured to the gate. "F-Fine. Follow us then. But don't try anything! We have a lot of soldiers on guard inside."
Nori snorted as they followed the Men into the town. "If they're anything like you two, I'm sure we'll be fine."
Lake-town looked exactly as Bilbo remembered. The wooden buildings were still suspended above the water as if floating. There were few roads or streets to be seen; mostly there were canals with boats, and bridges built high above them to connect the homes. The air was chilly and he could smell of stench of dead fish and lake water even miles away.
"Wow," Ori said, staring up at the buildings with round eyes. "How did they do that? I never heard of houses on water before."
"The town is held up on wooden pillars sunk into the bed of the lake," Bilbo explained, gesturing to the water around them.
Behind them, Glóin snorted. "Foolish idea. One day those pillars will collapse from water damage and the whole city will fall with it."
Ori paled at the idea and even Bilbo could help but shudder at the image that sprung to mind. "Glóin, please don't speak of that. Especially since we are currently in the town."
The Dwarf shrugged, looking unrepentant. "I'm just calling it as I see it."
"Then kindly call it away from my brother," Dori snapped from further back.
Glóin simply rolled his eyes in return.
The two Men led the Company through the streets without fail. Occasionally they would glance behind at the group before turning back and whispering something to one another. Bilbo wondered if they were eyeing up their weapons, or simply judging their clothes. He couldn't be sure from his spot in line.
Around them, the Men and Women of Lake-town stopped to stare at them with mixed reactions. Some looked surprised or excited while others looked weary and suspicious. He didn't begrudge them for their looks. They were about to bring an angry dragon down on their heads after all.
Eventually they came to a familiar building that housed the Master of Lake-town. He couldn't say he was looking forward to meeting the greedy Man again, but they couldn't avoid him. They would need his permission if they wanted a chance to rest and restock their supplies. As the Men walked up the wooden steps to the door, Bilbo hurried to Thorin's side in order to stall what he knew was coming.
"Please don't make a dramatic entrance when they open the doors," the Hobbit asked softly.
"Why not? It's rather fun shocking them," the king replied without looking at him.
"And it may also get us thrown out," he retorted, frowning. "Can't you just talk to the lord of this place nicely? Without making a scene that may get us banned forever more?"
Thorin sighed and finally looked at him. "I can't promise the 'nice' bit but I won't announce my presence. Yet."
Bilbo relaxed as they finally stood before the doors. "Thank you."
"Hmp. I liked it better when I was feared," the Dwarf grumbled.
"I was never afraid of you," he reminded.
Thorin's lips twitched. "I know."
Then the doors were thrown open and they were bathed in light.
He squinted through the sudden brightness and took in the large chamber before him. Tables stretched from the door to the other side of the room, and were filled with food and folk. At the end of the chamber he spotted the piggy Master of Lake-town seated in his great chair. At the slam of the doors opening, all attention was turned on them.
"What is the meaning of this?" demanded the Master of Lake-town as he slipped out of his seat.
"Master, these Dwarves have come to speak to you," said the smarter guard. He gestured to Thorin and added, "This one was going on about a kingdom to claim or something."
Thorin took that as his cue to step forward and introduce himself. "I am Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, and we are the Dwarves of Erebor!"
There was a moment of silence before chaos erupted. Bilbo flinched at the loud of pitch of many voices talking and shouting at once. He watched as the Master hurried over to them while waving to his guests to calm down. When he reached them, he quickly gestured for the guards and pointed to a door off to the side.
"Escort them to my office. I will listen to them there," he ordered. "The rest of you see to our guests. Let them know everything is fine."
The plump Man led them through the door and down a hall and into another room that was much smaller and taken up by bookshelves and a desk. It was a tight fit with so many in the room but somehow they made it work. The Master took a seat at his desk, and then gazed at them all with a look that said he had no idea what to make of them.
"So, you say you are… Torin?" the Master asked slowly.
"Thorin," the king corrected as he stood across the table from him. Somehow he was managing to look down at the Man even with the difference in height. "I am Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain. I have returned to reclaim my city and get rid of Smaug once and for all."
The Man simply kept staring. "Oh. Is… Is that so?"
"We have come to ask for your permission to stay in your town for a few days," added Balin, his tone gentle and calm. "We are tired from our long walk and would like to prepare before we leave again."
"Oh, of course. We would be happy to… help," the Master replied, blinking and looking around at all the Dwarves that had gathered. When his eyes landed on Bilbo, he stopped and stared again.
"You… You are not a Dwarf," he realized, his watery blue eyes scanning the Hobbit from head to toe.
Bilbo shook his head and pushed back his bangs so he could see more clearly. "No, I'm not. I'm a Hobbit from the west, and my name is Bilbo Baggins."
"A Hobbit?" the Man repeated, blinking rapidly. "What are you doing here with a bunch of Dwarves?"
He gave a one-shoulder shrug. "Trying to keep them alive."
From a dark corner of the room—because no one appreciated a cliché like Dwarves did—Nori scoffed loudly. "More like us trying to keep you alive."
In response, Bilbo made a rude gesture at him behind his back.
"Right." The Master didn't look any less confused as he ran a hand through his thinning red hair. "For lodgings I can get you a private house to stay in. For supplies I can recommend several fine merchants to visit. Does this sound fair?"
"It does. And what will this all cost?" Thorin asked, narrowing his eyes.
"Well, what do you have?" the Master returned.
Calmly, the Dwarf reached into one of his many pockets and pulled out a gold necklace with a ruby at the end. The Master's eyes lit up at the sight of it and his mouth fell open slightly.
"Will this do?" the king asked, tossing the necklace onto the table.
The Man quickly scooped it up while nodding. "Y-Yes, this will do nicely. I will have my Man escort you and your companions to your lodgings."
Thorin tipped his head forward slightly in gratitude. "Thank you."
"B-But w-we also must discuss your plan to confront S-Smaug," the Master added quickly. "Tomorrow will you return here to explain it in greater detail?"
The Dwarf stared at him for a long moment with hooded eyes. The look reminded Bilbo of a sleepy wolf that had just been rudely awoken by a bumbling elk.
"Very well," the king finally drawled, tilting his head to the side. "I will return here at noon tomorrow. Is that satisfactory?"
The Master nodded quickly; his face pale and his watery eyes large. "O-Of course! W-Whatever you l-like, my good sir."
The Dwarf smiled back with all his teeth exposed. "Good."
The house they were granted was the same as the one he remembered. It was large and looked newly built but it was also cramped with too much furniture. But there were rooms for them to share and a kitchen with a full pantry so no one complained. The sun had set long ago, and so when they arrived at the house, most of the Company went straight to bed. A few were still awake, and when Bilbo saw that Thorin was one of them, he made a beeline for the king sitting by the fire.
Thorin nodded in greeting as he took a seat across from him. The chair was large and much too tall for him, but Bilbo didn't mind the awkward size. It was soft and padded and it took him off his sore feet; that was enough for him.
Thorin watched him struggle into the chair while calmly smoking his pipe. When the Hobbit was finally seated, he raised one brow in question. "I thought you would join the others and go to sleep. We certainly earned a good rest by now."
"I'll go to sleep soon enough," assured Bilbo, shrugging. "But first I want to know what you're going to tell the Master tomorrow."
"The truth," the Dwarf answered bluntly. "There is no point in lying to him."
"Fair enough. But what if he refuses to let us leave?" he pointed out. "He must know the threat our goal poses to him and this town."
"Then we will escape without his permission," retorted Thorin. "Don't worry, burglar. We will get to Erebor one way or another."
He sighed and leaned back into his oversized chair. "I just don't want our visit here to end in violence."
"It won't as long as they cooperate," the Dwarf muttered around his pipe.
Bilbo rolled his eyes but didn't fight the smile that slipped across his face. "So stubborn. It's a wonder you Dwarves get anything done with such an attitude."
Thorin stared at him for a moment before narrowing his eyes slowly. "Stop that. Now."
"Stop what?" the Hobbit asked, blinking in surprise.
Thorin gestured to his mouth with his pipe and explained, "The smiling. Stop it."
Bilbo was now even more confused. "What? Why?"
"Never mind why. Just stop it," the Dwarf ordered with a scowl.
Bilbo stared at the Dwarf for a moment before his Took side got the better of him. Slowly, he leaned forward and smiled as widely as he could at the king. In response, Thorin dropped his pipe to the ground and looked away.
"You are vile," the Dwarf cursed, his scowl growing fiercer.
The Hobbit laughed and kept smiling. "Come now, it's all in good fun. After all, I rarely get a chance to one up the King Under the Mountain."
"Are you joking? You talk back and argue with me all the time! I'm beginning to think that my nephews will never fear my temper again thanks to you."
Bilbo privately thought that there had been no fear there to begin with, but decided to allow Thorin his delusions. "Well you can't blame only me. You're so damn complicated that you make me frustrated."
"I'm complicated?" Thorin repeated, pointing to himself. "I'm complicated? Master Burglar, in all my years I have never met a more unpredictable creature than you. I could spend the rest of eternity trying to understand how your mind works, and I would still need more time."
Bilbo felt rather offended at that claim. "I am not complicated! I'm a simple Hobbit who enjoys good food and relaxing with a good book—"
"And who also goes on suicidal missions with a bunch of Dwarves that he's never met before. He then spends this journey arguing with kings, insulting Orcs, poisoning trolls, and turning his companions' hair white from his antics," the warrior recounted with a smirk. "Yes, all very normal."
He opened his mouth to argue only to realize that he had nothing to say. It was all quite true, after all. When Thorin saw that he was speechless, his smirk grew wider and he laughed.
Why am I saving him again? the Hobbit brooded as the Dwarf cackled. I'm sure there was a good reason. Maybe. Possibly.
"I still don't think I'm complicated," he grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. "Those that know me well would tell you the same."
Thorin snorted. "I know you well enough."
He highly doubted that. "Hardly. You've known me only half a year and most of that time you didn't even speak to me."
"I don't need to speak to you to know you," the Dwarf objected with a frown. "All I have to do is watch. That's why I know that you prefer to sleep outside the group, and that you always lay on your side with your feet uncovered. I know that you dislike the cold and love the sun. I know that you prefer Bombur's cauliflower soup to his rabbit one. I know that you like flowers because every time you see one you smile. I know that your favorite color is blue because nearly all of your clothes are that color. I know that you adore the coat Dori made for you because you never take it off. I know that your favorite pipe-weed is Old Toby because your pack smells of it. And finally I know that you don't value your own life, and will recklessly put yourself in danger for the sake of others."
Bilbo stared blankly at the Dwarf before him. His mind had gone into shock and his voice seemed to have run off somewhere. His feelings were a tangled mess of contradictions much like the stray pieces of yarn that Dori sometimes knotted together. Was he to feel impressed by Thorin's knowledge? Or maybe flattered? Angry? Sad? Happy? He couldn't pick a feeling out of all of them, and so was feeling them all at once.
"You… You noticed all that?" the Hobbit finally said, his voice quiet and small.
Thorin arched a single dark brow. "I notice everything."
"Oh." Bilbo didn't know what to say to that. He still hadn't even decided on a feeling yet. But his mind had at least caught up to him, and was now encouraging him to run away before he did something stupid.
"I… I think I'll turn in now," he said, trying to sound unfazed and failing miserably. He slid down off his chair and gave the King Under the Mountain a shaky smile. "Goodnight, Master Oakenshield."
"Thorin," the Dwarf corrected; still watching him with his wildfire eyes. "My name is Thorin."
Bilbo flinched. "O-Of course."
He then turned around and ran away from Thorin and his horribly beautiful words.
Bilbo got little sleep that night. Despite his warm and comfortable bed that felt like heaven after sleeping on rocks for weeks, he could not fall asleep. His body certainly ached from all the walking and training, but his mind was buzzing and active. The result of such a mix was a night of tossing and turning, and too much thinking.
He didn't know what to make of Thorin's words. How did the Dwarf know so much just from watching him? And for that matter, what was he doing watching the Hobbit in the first place? Did he do that with all their comrades? Or was Bilbo just a special case because he was a Hobbit? He had so many questions, and to his disgust they all made his heart beat quicken. A seed of hope had been planted in his heart that Thorin could possibly—maybe— feel something more than friendship for him.
Bilbo hated it.
He knew his place in life. He had accepted that he would always be Thorin's friend and nothing more. And even if Thorin came to love him—and he was under no illusion that would ever happen—there was still the matter of him being a Dwarf king. It was bad enough that they were not even the same race, but a king with a commoner? Hah! The others would laugh themselves sick over the idea. Thorin was of Durin's line and would only marry someone of equal birth. He could never be with a simple Hobbit.
Bilbo knew all of this—had lived in peace with it for eighty years, damnit—and yet his heart still had to go and start hoping for something that could never be. It made him feel disgusted with himself that he had so little control over his own emotions. He was supposed to be stronger this time around! He was supposed to be above daydreams and wishes and other romantic nonsense. He had lived his life already and had not come back to live it again, but to give others their first chance! He had no business thinking of anything else.
Make him love you, the ring offered in the back of his mind. Now that it knew of his weakness, it had been taunting him with promises of love and loyalty. It was slowly driving him insane.
It wouldn't be the same, he retorted sharply. It wouldn't be real.
It would, the ring crooned. A burning love, a true love. Never leave you alone again.
But it wouldn't be him, he stressed because the piece of jewelry was just not getting it. It wouldn't be his choice so it would all be a lie. I would never want such a thing.
It did not listen. Make him want you. Make him love you. Together, always. Always, always, always.
"Shut up," he hissed out loud. "Shut up, shut up, shut up!"
The ring simply laughed. Poor Hobbit. Alone Hobbit. Bilbo, alone. Poor, poor Bilbo; who will love you now?
He didn't bother with a reply. They both knew the answer to that question.
When he awoke the next day, Bilbo found that it was noon and most of his companions were gone.
"They went to explore the city and stock up," explained Glóin, sitting cross-legged and barefooted on the floor in a simple tunic and breeches. He had all his weapons spread out before him, and was going over each of them meticulously. "Pretty sure Fíli and Kíli are still sleeping upstairs, but the rest are gone."
"Did Thorin go to meet with the Master?" he asked, joining the Dwarf on the floor.
"Aye. Took Dwalin and Balin with him. Hopefully Balin will keep him from saying something stupid," the warrior said, rolling his eyes. "I'm not even going to bother hoping with Dwalin."
He laughed and leaned back on his hands. "I'm sure Balin will keep things calm. He's very good at that."
"He's a softie at heart all right," Glóin agreed, sharpening one of his knives. "But threaten his king or kin and he'll rip your throat out with his teeth before you can blink."
"Thank you for that lovely description," the Hobbit replied, making a disgusted face.
Glóin simply grinned, unrepentant.
Bilbo watched the Dwarf as he began to polish his knife. He couldn't see it very well as hair kept falling into his eyes. He pushed it back irritably only to have it fall back into place again.
"I need to cut my hair. It keeps getting in my way," he complained, running his hand through the mess of curls. "I should probably also brush it one of these days."
Glóin paused in his chore and his eyes went wide. "No! Don't do that! Just braid it back and it won't be in your way. Mahâl, don't ever cut your hair again! That's a horrible practice.
"But I'm a Hobbit. We don't favor long hair like all of you," the burglar reminded.
"Which is, again, a horrible idea," the Dwarf grumbled, wrinkling his nose. "I don't understand why you all do that. Even Men and Elves see the beauty in keeping your hair natural."
"Long hair is not considered attractive to hobbits," he explained, shrugging. "It weighs your curls down and looks messy. It is much cleaner and simpler to just cut it short."
Glóin still looked disgusted as he returned his attention to his weapons. "Still don't like it. For Dwarves, your hair and beard are very desirable traits. To even think of cutting either is a nightmare."
"So… is it only hair that you value? Do your people not find other traits attractive?" wondered the Hobbit.
"Aye, we also like muscle and large features," Glóin explained, waving his knife. "For example, the 'Ri brothers? Beautiful. Simply stunning. I've seen Dwarves get into fights over them. It is why Dori is so protective of his brothers. Those looks can bring about trouble."
Bilbo blinked slowly. He had never thought of the three brothers as beautiful; stunning, yes, amazing, sure, but beautiful? It had never crossed his mind. Of course, he also knew them individually as their own person, so it was possible that he had completely missed the appearance part.
"So then is Kíli considered ugly by your people?" he wondered as he pictured each Dwarf in his mind. He was slowly realizing that he was quite possibly traveling with some of the most desirable Dwarves around. It was rather mind boggling.
"To some, yes. His features are too delicate and fine right now," the Dwarf agreed. "But once he grows into his face and sprouts a beard, I'm sure he'll be quite handsome. But don't mention any of this to him. He's very sensitive about his looks."
"I won't," he promised. He never wanted to upset Kíli. It was much like kicking a puppy. It just hurt and made everyone angry.
"So what do hobbits like then?" asked Glóin, turning his attention to his axe. "If you don't like hair, then what else is there?"
"Well, having large and hairy feet is seen as attractive to many," explained Bilbo. "So is being large and round because it shows that you have a good appetite. Height isn't very important though some hobbits are attracted to that. Bombur would be considered very attractive even with all the hair."
Glóin raised his bushy brows. "Oh? Perhaps he should visit then. Might find himself a wife."
Bilbo winced. "Wasn't he already married?"
The Dwarf immediately looked remorseful. "Oh, aye, he was. Forgot about Bera for a moment there."
"Bera? That was her name? Did you know her then?"
"Mmm. She was a pretty little thing; almost as pretty as my Súna. She worked in the kitchens so I saw her in passing." Glóin frowned and his eyes darkened. "Poor thing didn't deserve to die the way she did. None of them deserved to die like that."
Bilbo didn't ask about who the rest were. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.
It was late afternoon when the rest of the Company began to trickle in.
"Bilbo! I got fresh vegetables to cook with tonight," Bombur said in greeting, bouncing into the room with a large beige sack.
"Wonderful. We'll eat well again," he replied, smiling at the cook's enthusiasm.
Bofur and Bifur sashayed in after him; each carrying their own bags of supplies that they dropped without a care.
"This town is too confusing," the miner declared, throwing himself down next to Bilbo on the floor, and pulling his hat over his face. "It's like a maze out there! I don't know how any of them find their way home."
Bifur scoffed and said something in Khuzdûl that made Bofur groan, and Bombur and Glóin snicker. Bilbo wisely decided that he didn't want to know.
"What did you buy?" he asked instead, looking to Bofur while Bifur helped Bombur drag their bags into the kitchen.
"Ehh, mostly food and stuff. Got some more rope and a tinderbox too. That's what we were ordered to look for," the Dwarf explained, his voice muffled under his hat. "The others are getting the rest."
Bilbo nodded thoughtfully. "Did anyone bother you three?"
"Nah. They stared and pointed but that was about all," the Dwarf replied. "Nothing we haven't seen before."
"No one is going to start a fight with us," Glóin reassured, reading his concerns easily. "And if they do then we'll show them why they shouldn't."
Bofur groaned and pulled his hat down to give Bilbo a weak glare. "Stop worrying. We're safe here."
"You don't know that," he argued back, thinking of Bard and his Men. "Not everyone is as dense as the Master. Some will make the connection between Dwarves and Erebor."
"I think you're giving these people too much credit," Bofur retorted, sitting up just enough so he could flop into Bilbo's lap. He pulled his hat back over his face and made himself comfortable on his new pillow. "Remember the two guards we met? I think that was their best."
"No, their best is likely waiting to see if we pose a threat to them," he rebuked sternly. "Don't underestimate this town."
Bofur snorted. "Not much to underestimate."
"I'm going to smother you," the Hobbit threatened, pushing down on the hat lightly. The Dwarf simply laughed in response.
The second group to return were the three brothers.
"I can't take you anywhere!" Dori complained as he stomped into the house with a sack very similar to Bombur's. He tossed it to the side and spun around to yell at the thief. "Can't you go one day without causing trouble?"
"Nope," replied Nori, sauntering in with another sack over his shoulder and a split lip. Ori followed shortly behind; looking rather calm about his arguing kin.
Bilbo immediately zoned in on the wound. "What happened? Were you attacked?"
"No, Nori just doesn't know when to keep his big mouth shut," Dori growled before switching to a furious rant in Khuzdûl. Nori replied in kind, and then they were off for another round. Bilbo had lost count of the score back in Mirkwood, but he had a feeling that Nori was winning.
Ori ignored them both and joined his comrades on the floor. He held up his much smaller bag proudly. "I got more ink and paper!"
"Did you get the fabric and oil?" asked Glóin.
"Nori has it," assured Ori. "The merchant didn't want to sell to us at first, but we managed to get it in the end."
Bilbo slowly narrowed his eyes. "Does Nori's lip have anything to do with that?"
Ori suddenly found the ceiling very interesting. "N-No, of course not. W-Why would you think that?"
"We have to work on your bluffing face," said Bofur from behind his hat. He still had not moved from his Hobbit pillow.
"You can't even see me!" protested the scholar.
Bofur snorted. "Don't need to. Your voice says it all."
Ori silently pouted.
The third and final group to return were the rest of their companions.
"—trust him. That Man is greedy and spineless!" yelled Dwalin as he marched in behind Thorin. Balin and Óin trailed after them; both looking tired and annoyed.
"He has agreed to let us leave without harassment. That is enough for me," countered Thorin, rolling his eyes.
"Indeed. Let it go, Dwalin," Balin pleaded, rubbing his forehead. "You're giving me a headache with your whining."
Dwalin scowled but listened to his brother. "Fine. But when we all end up in prison, don't come crying to me!"
"So dramatic," muttered Óin as the warrior stalked off with a huff. He nodded to the group sitting on the floor still before heading off to the rooms with his own sack of supplies.
"I take it the meeting went well?" Bilbo asked, smiling widely up at the remaining two Dwarves.
Thorin and Balin shared a look. "The Master will not give us any problems—" Balin began slowly.
"—because I have paid him not to," finished Thorin, eyes turning steely. "He was willing to look the other way for some gold trinkets. A cowardly Man as Dwalin claimed, but a useful one for the time being."
"He doesn't seem to care much for his people," Glóin commented, never looking away from the handle of his axe. "Says a lot about this place that they would choose such a Man for a leader."
Bilbo bit his bottom lip to keep from speaking. The Master of Lake-town had been cowardly and greedy, certainly, but that didn't mean the people were. They did not deserve the fiery fate that awaited them in the coming days.
"When are we leaving?" asked Ori, pausing in his writing to look up at the group. He had ink smeared across his face from where he had pushed away his braids. Bilbo sighed at the sight, and reached for his handkerchief.
"If we have everything, then tomorrow morning," replied Balin, his lips twitching slightly as he watched the Hobbit attempt to wipe the black marks from Ori's face. "If not then the day after, but no later than that. We cannot afford to linger here for very long."
"Indeed." Thorin stared down at the snoozing Bofur with an unblinking gaze. "What is he doing?"
"Cutting off the blood flow to my legs," grumbled Bilbo as he continued trying to clean the young Dwarf's face. Ori kept twitching away and wrinkling his nose at his touch instead of holding still, the brat.
Thorin scowled and barked something in Khuzdûl that had Bofur shouting and jumping up in a blink. The miner looked around before focusing on the king, and then tentatively said something in Khuzdûl. In reply, Thorin growled something low and made a gesture with one hand that made all the Dwarves stop and stare at him.
"Seriously?" said Bofur, brows raised high and his hair frazzled.
In response, Thorin narrowed his eyes.
"Fine, fine! I'm going, see?" The miner got to his feet and stuffed his hat on before marching off with a huff.
Bilbo watched him go before looking to the now smirking Thorin, and then finally to the exasperated Balin.
"What just happened?" he asked slowly.
Ori shook his head and patted him gently on the shoulder. "You don't want to know."
With the Company together once more, they began the long task of packing up their supplies, and checking to see what they still needed. Bilbo sat back through the whole ordeal; trying to avoid any attention and Thorin at the same time. He still could not face the king alone without recalling his words from the night before. It left him feeling awkward and unsure, and gave the ring more ammo to harass him. So he attempted to avoid the Dwarf until he could wrestle his feelings under control, and was able to ignore the goading of the ring.
Bilbo waited until his companions were all distracted with their tasks before he snuck out of the house. The sun was just beginning to set on the horizon, and the people of Lake-town were beginning to close up shop and head home. A few looked at him with a mix of wonder and suspicion, but were polite enough to give him directions when he asked. As quickly as he could, he slid through the streets and bridges of Lake-town until he came to a stop in front of an average looking house.
He could hear no sounds or voices coming from the home, but he thought he could see a hint of a fire and shadows from the windows. He stood on his toes and strained to get a better look, but unfortunately Men were unnaturally tall and built their homes the same way.
"Can I help you?"
Bilbo gasped and spun around, and then nearly collided with the Man standing behind him. He took a few steps back and looked up at the newcomer with an excuse on his lips, and froze. There was a familiar stranger before him.
Bard—the bowman, the slayer of Smaug, and the future king of Dale—was tall and commanding even dressed in his worn homespun clothes. His dark hair was pulled back in a familiar mess of curls, and his equally dark eyes could rival Thorin with their intensity. At his back was his longbow and sword while a quiver of arrows sat at his hips.
Bard stared down at him from his impressive height with a face of stone. "I don't like repeating myself," he warned calmly, never blinking. "Now, what do you want?"
Bilbo rested a hand against his beating heart and gave the Man a polite smile. "Ahh, sorry. You just surprised me for a moment. I'm looking for a Man named Bard, and was told that this was his home. Do you know where I can find him?"
"You're looking at him," the Man replied. "Again, what do you want?"
"My name is Bilbo Baggins, and I came here to ask you for a favor," the Hobbit explained, glancing around to make sure they were alone.
Bard's eyes narrowed. "What sort of favor?"
"A dragon sort," he replied, and smirked when the Man's eyes went wide. "Do I have your attention now?"
"Keep talking. What business do you have with Smaug?" the bowman demanded, crossing his arms over his broad chest.
"My Company and I intend to kill him and reclaim the city he has stolen," explained Bilbo.
Bard cursed. "The Dwarves who came last night—I knew they were trouble! I had thought they had something to do with the mountain, but hoped the Master would be wise enough to deny them entry to the ruins."
"The Master is willing to look the other way for some treasure," the Hobbit recounted, shrugging. "Personally, I'm still wondering how he ever got such a position with those morals."
"There wasn't a lot of competition," the human growled, beginning to pace back and forth. "When do they plan to leave?"
"Soon. Tomorrow morning, most likely," he replied, watching the future king carefully. "We are racing against time, you see, and cannot afford to delay for very long."
Bard cursed again under his breath. "Then I will need to gather the others tonight. We cannot let them leave—"
"No, you won't," Bilbo interrupted, making the Man pause in his frantic pacing. "You will not stop us from our goal. We will face Smaug one way or another."
"You would dare risk the lives of my fellows—the lives of my children—for the glory of a dead kingdom?" Bard questioned slowly. His dark eyes had gone hard while his hands shook with suppressed emotions.
Bilbo didn't flinch away. Instead, he took a step closer and raised his chin high to meet the Man's eyes. "No. I would risk them all for a chance to be rid of Smaug for good."
The bowman did not look convinced. "A foolish notion. Nothing can kill the beast."
"Wrong. I know how to kill him," the Hobbit countered calmly.
Bard snorted. "As if I believe that. You have not even seen the drake—"
"On his left breast, near his heart, he is missing a scale," he interrupted again without pause. "The rest of his vulnerable underbelly is protected by jewels except for this one spot. It is small and not very accessible, but if one was to use a bow…"
"Then they could expose this weakness," finished the human, his dark eyes growing round. He stared at the Hobbit as if he had started sprouting off the very meaning of life. "How… How do you know all this?"
Bilbo smiled and tapped the corner of his mouth. "That, I'm afraid, is a secret. But I will say that I am confident in this weakness. I am so confident that I signed onto a mission that has nothing to do with me, and left the safety and security of my home far to the west for it."
Bard simply kept staring. "I don't… Why are you telling me all of this?"
Bilbo lost his smile and grew serious. "Because I need your help, Bard. I need your help in bringing down Smaug once and for all."
When he returned to the house, he found that his absence had not been noticed by anyone. Well, almost everyone.
"Where did you slip off to?"
Bilbo glanced over his shoulder and gave the Dwarf before him a smile. "Just went for a walk. I wanted to see the town before we left tomorrow."
Dwalin raised one brow in answer. He was leaning against the doorframe with one leg bent and his arms crossed over his chest loosely. "Uh-huh. Anything else?"
"Nothing you need to know," he replied, feeling a pinch of annoyance. "You're not my mother. You don't need to keep track of me."
"Says the Hobbit with a death wish," Dwalin deadpanned.
He rolled his eyes in return. "For the last time, I don't have a death wish. I'm simply practical."
"More like dense," muttered the Dwarf as he pushed himself off the doorframe. He looped an arm around the Hobbit's shoulders and began to drag him along. "Well, either way, come along now. It's time for dinner and Bombur is already grumbling about the food getting cold."
Bilbo sniffed but allowed the Dwarf to guide him to the dining room. "I don't blame him. A cold meal is never very good."
"You would still eat it even if it was cold and dirty," scoffed the Dwarf.
"Of course. Wasting food is a terrible crime," he defended.
Dwalin simply snorted. "You hobbits are a strange lot. You eat twice as much as Dwarves and yet you are still so tiny. Where do you put it all?"
"We use up all of our energy rather quickly," Bilbo admitted, scratching his nose. "That's why we eat so often. It's to replenish our strength."
"Really? Then does that mean you haven't been getting enough food on our journey?" the Dwarf wondered with a frown. "Have you been starving this entire time?"
Bilbo shook his head quickly. "No, no, I'm fine! I've been getting enough to eat! When I can I've been picking nuts and fruit to snack on. It's been enough."
"But you need more than rabbit food to live off of," the warrior protested, his frown never wavering. "Why don't you eat more from our stock of food?"
"It wouldn't be fair to the others," he pointed out. "Why should I get a larger portion over you or Bombur? If anyone should be given more food then it would be Fíli, Kíli and Ori. They are still growing and need it most."
"I should've known you would say something like that," muttered Dwalin, shaking his head. He tightened his grip and pulled the Hobbit closer as they entered the dining room. Carefully sidestepping the others, the warrior led him to an open seat and boosted him up into the large chair.
"Stay here," ordered the warrior before disappearing into the crowd of Dwarves.
Bilbo frowned and pushed his bangs back. He had a bad feeling the Dwarf was about to join the others in their coddling. He really didn't need any more of that. But to his surprise, Dwalin did not suddenly appear with a plate stacked high with food. Instead, Bombur popped up with two plates of food in his hands.
"Here we go," the cook said, setting one of the plates down on the table. "Eat up now. This is probably the last big meal we'll have."
"Thank you, Bombur. It looks delicious," he replied automatically, still glancing around for Dwalin. "Did… Did Dwalin say anything to you by chance?"
Bombur shook his head. "Not really. Just mentioned in passing that you were very hungry tonight. Why?"
"No reason." Bilbo smiled and thanked the Dwarf again before turning his attention to his dinner. He still had an uneasy feeling that Dwalin was about to pop up with Dori in toll, but he wasn't about to waste his time worrying. He had a delicious meal waiting for him.
The next morning they left Lake-town behind.
The task went about much like Bilbo recalled. They were given three large boats to use to row up the river, but the Master did not provide them with any ponies this time. Bilbo didn't know the reason for this change but didn't put much thought over it. It really didn't matter why they had no ponies; only that they were not delayed time wise. Once the boats were loaded with their supplies and passengers, they set off with the rising sun.
Bilbo watched Lake-town as it became smaller and smaller before disappearing from sight all together. He worried that it would be the last time he saw the town safe and whole. He couldn't face it (again) if his plan failed, and Smaug reached it (again).
It won't happen as long as I follow the plan, he reminded himself, trying to shake away the fear and doubt. And even if that fails, Bard will still be around as backup. Smaug won't get another chance at the town.
"You're doing it again."
The Hobbit looked to the Dwarf at his side and blinked. "Excuse me? What is it that I am doing again?"
"Worrying," supplied Thorin, leaning closer to him so his lowered voice could be heard.
Bilbo tried his best not to flinch away. "There's a lot to worry about. And I don't want to hear any nagging from you over this. Not when you spend half your time worrying, and the other half brooding."
Behind them, Dwalin and Balin had a sudden and mysterious coughing fit.
"I do not brood," denied the king, spitting the word out as if it was something foul or Elven. "I am simply thinking deeply. I reflect on past actions. I contemplate future possibilities and—"
"You brood," he interrupted, rolling his eyes, "and fret and worry and glower to mask your concern. You are a king with a great deal of responsibilities, yes, but you also take more than needed upon yourself. All of that worries you, and so you brood into all hours of the night instead of sleeping like normal folk."
Thorin glared but didn't dispute his argument. "Regardless, we are not talking about me. You are worrying yourself needlessly. Stop it."
"We are on our way to confront a dragon. I think I have the right to worry," he retorted dryly. "I, in particular, have every right to worry as it will be me going in first to scout the area."
On the other side of him, Dori paused in his rowing while Thorin suddenly tensed. "You won't be hurt. We will be nearby for you to call on."
Bilbo scoffed. He had no intention of calling on any of the Dwarves until the very last possible moment. "You would all be better off hiding. There's not much thirteen Dwarves can do against a full grown dragon. And we both know how I feel about you lot putting yourselves in danger."
"So we should just cower in the shadows and allow you to face Smaug on your own?" the king asked with a mockingly sweet voice. "Is that your solution?"
The Hobbit frowned and leaned a bit back from the other. "We've been over this. I don't want to see any of you die—"
"And we don't want to see you die," interrupted Thorin, glaring at him eyes the color of a frozen lake. "We won't let you die, Bilbo. We will protect you. I will protect you. From Smaug, from Orcs, from trolls—even from yourself if we must."
Bilbo swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. "I-It is not y-your job to p-protect me!"
"No," Thorin granted, his eyes never thawing, "but it was never yours to protect us either."
It took them two days to reach the end of the river. When they finally did reach the banks on the third day, they tied the boats, gathered their supplies, and began the walk to Dale. It was a long and tedious task as the area was overgrown and the paths once there were long gone. They spent an entire day simply scouting and backtracking through the foliage as they struggled to find a safe route to the ruins of Dale.
"It's too quiet out here," observed Nori, staring up at the trees with unblinking eyes.
"I think all the animals have fled the area," explained Balin as he helped Bombur set up the campfire for the night. "Smaug must have scared them away."
"Smart move," muttered Dwalin. "Too bad the humans didn't follow."
"Where would they go? This was their home too," Balin pointed out.
His brother scoffed and waved a hand towards the south. "There are lots of human settlements out there. They didn't have to stay."
"Not everyone is so brave, Mister Dwalin," Ori said softly, causing the two brothers to stop and stare. He met their gaze without flinching and even raised his head higher.
Dwalin opened his mouth a few times before finally closing it with a solid click.
Bilbo smiled to himself as he set out his bedroll. At the start of their journey, Ori would have never dreamed of disagreeing with someone like Dwalin. It just showed how much the scribe had grown over the months, and it made the Hobbit fiercely proud of the young Dwarf. He wasn't the only one either as he spotted Nori smirking without restraint while Dori hummed to himself with a little smile.
"Hmm. I don't think I've ever seen Dwalin speechless before," commented Thorin as he took a seat on the ground close to the Hobbit.
Bilbo grinned widely at the Dwarf. "It's a rather lovely sight, don't you think?"
"Indeed. We need to have more of those moments," the king agreed as he settled his blue eyes on the Hobbit. "I have a request to make of you."
"Oh?" He leaned back on his bedroll and judged the king carefully. He still didn't know what to make of Thorin and his strange words, but it was impossible for him to deny the Dwarf anything. He was never very strong in that. "What is it?"
Thorin scratched at his beard but didn't look away. "I would like you to tell me about him."
The Hobbit frowned. "Who?"
"Your lost love. Tell me about him. I want to know what he was like."
"Why would you wish to hear about him?" he asked, feeling torn between laughing and groaning. Couldn't the Dwarf leave that subject alone yet? What else did he possibly need to know about himself?
"I'm… curious," replied the king, obviously choosing his words carefully. "He must have been something amazing to make you fall in love with him."
Bilbo slanted his brows. "Why would you think that?"
"Because nothing seems to impress you," Thorin said flatly. "You have faced everything in our journey—trolls, Orcs, Elves, kings, and even shape-shifters—without any sort of surprise or awe. So, clearly, this stranger must have been the stuff of legends to catch your attention."
"I… I guess he was," he admitted because Thorin had ended up a hero from the stories the first time around. The tragic type of hero that died nobly in the end, but still a hero. "But his valor wasn't why I loved him."
The Dwarf frowned and drew back slightly. "I don't understand. What did you fall in love with then?"
Bilbo sighed and felt a headache coming on. "There is more to a person than their deeds, you know. I loved him for his bravery and strength in battle, yes, but that wasn't all he was."
"Then tell me what he was like so I may understand," the king retorted, looking as if he too was getting a headache.
"Fine," snapped the Hobbit. "He was the most stubborn and rudest cad that I ever had the pleasure of meeting!"
Thorin stared. "What?"
"You heard me. He was blunt and rude to the point of being cruel. He also could never let anything from the past go, worried about absolutely everything, had no sense of direction, and a horrible taste in clothes. Oh, and he smoked Southlinch. Who smokes Southlinch but tasteless Men?" said the Hobbit, making a disgusted face.
"The… The Dwarves from the Blue Mountains?" offered the king, slowly leaning back from the Hobbit.
"Only because your lot don't know any better," Bilbo dismissed, completely caught up in his rant. "But he knew better. I gave him some of my Old Toby to try once and do you know he said? He said that he liked Southlinch better! As if that cheap imitation could ever compare to Hobbit grown pipe weed! The nerve of him!"
"Very foolish," Thorin agreed, nodding quickly.
"That's because he was a fool. The second biggest fool I've ever known!" exclaimed the Hobbit, throwing his arms up in the air to show exactly how big.
"Who was the first?" wondered the Dwarf.
"Me. I'm the biggest fool because I fell in love with the sod." He dropped his arms and felt his heart give a quick but strong squeeze. "He was a stubborn fool with bad taste, but I still loved him. I loved his sense of loyalty, and his devotion to his family and people. I loved his passionate persistence and unwavering sense of duty. And I loved that, no matter what he faced in life, he never gave up. Even when the world was against him—and it was at times, believe me—he still got up every day and gave it his very best."
Thorin's brows scrunched together and his mouth twisted into an ugly scowl. "He… He does sound like a hero…"
Bilbo laughed something broken and wrecked in reply. "He was a hero. He inspired me and influenced me in ways that I could never say. He made me a better Hobbit just by existing, and I will never forget that. Do you see now why I loved him so?"
"Indeed." Thorin gazed at him with something he could not read in his blue eyes. Bilbo wondered how the Dwarf couldn't see himself in his words. Anyone else in the Company would have made the connection to the king, but not Thorin. The Dwarf never did give himself enough credit.
"I'm sorry that you lost him," Thorin added quietly after a pause.
He gave a half-shrug. "He wasn't really mine to lose."
The king snorted. "Then I suppose he wasn't so perfect after all."
"What?" he asked, blinking.
Thorin just gave him a half-smile and got to his feet. "Get some rest. We will be busy tomorrow cutting through this overgrowth."
The Dwarf then turned around and Bilbo silently watched his—past, future, present, always—love walk away.