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It was when they were leaving the Shire that Gandalf the Grey started going mad.

Not that he was a model of rational thought to begin with.

“Night travel,” the wizard said, as they approached the outskirts of Bree. “It’s good luck when leaving villages.”

Thorin eyed him suspiciously. “I’ve never heard that.”

“I have!” chirped the halfling, who had been haphazardly bouncing between sulks and improbably high spirits since they left the benighted Shire. “That’s what the Tooks say! The best way to start a new adventure is to leave at night!”

“I’ll second that,” said Nori.

“What happens if you don’t?” Thorin asked dryly.

The halfling shrugged. “Adventures don’t happen?” he said in a vague sort of way, and then brightened. “The Prancing Pony has an excellent ale.”

Which answered the question of where they’d spend the evening at least, and Thorin wasn’t altogether opposed to leaving early in the morning to make good time—but not at night, he told Gandalf later, firmly, for he’d had more than a few unpleasant memories of being chased out of towns of Men when their inbred rabid assholery had overcome their desperate need for dwarven competence and craft.

The Men of Bree seemed to be incurious about their company at any rate, sitting as the town did on a major thoroughfare. And perhaps Gandalf had some sense when he’d insisted the halfling wear Gloin’s spare cloak—“Halflings don’t occasion comment, since they’re a penny a dozen hereabouts,” the wizard said airily, “but a hobbit with dwarves now, plainly going somewhere— well. You don’t want tongues to wag and curious noses poked into your business, do you?” Which was a type of common sense, anyway.

Nothing that Thorin disagreed with, which was the important point. Buried in its folds as Bilbo was, no one looked twice at the small figure, assuming him to be a dwarfling. The innkeeper assured Thorin that he could bring their food to a private room, to keep from overwhelming the young chap. Appreciative of the privacy, Thorin didn’t bother to correct the Man’s assumption that the halfling was a dwarfling; the Burglar was already proving to be as irritating as he’d feared, and it surprised him absolutely not at all that one of the Big Folk didn’t have the wits to notice the supposed dwarfling wasn’t even wearing shoes.

Thorin would’ve been less irritated if he’d been able to indulge himself in the ale the innkeeper was giving out at half-price that evening. “All my kegs have sprung leaks,” he said, harassed. “It’s either sell it or see it slopped out the door. It’d be a crying shame, it would!” As a Dwarf in the midst of Men, Thorin had to keep his head. Annoyingly, none of the rest of the Company shared that view, and had consumed their own body weight in ale before he’d realized it. At least he was able to indulge in the delicious roast the innkeeper had delivered, with the explanation that the butcher had accidentally delivered three times his usual order and he’d a need to serve it or see it spoil.

Gandalf tried to bully them out of bed just out of midnight, but Thorin loudly reminded everybody that he was the leader of this Company, by Durin, and he wasn’t having it. So it was a sullen wizard, twelve hung-over dwarves, a sober and cranky King-in-Exile, and a yawning halfling (with hood down) who decamped from the Prancing Pony just after first light, headed East on the East-West road.

The stares and mutters of the few Rangers in Bree were rude, but Thorin was used to the uncouth manners of Men.

 

*

 

Fifteen miles outside of Bree, the halfling fell off his pony into a badger hole.

Gandalf was the only one not inclined to laugh, though Thorin maintained the severity of his expression with great effort. “Bilbo Baggins!” the wizard thundered. “If you cannot keep it under control this long,” and so saying, he yanked the kicking, overlarge feet to bring the halfling tumbling out onto the road.

“Hobbits don’t ride ponies!” the halfling protested, but the others were disinclined to laugh now; for the halfling had gone into the hole bare-headed, and had emerged with a crowned helm firmly wedged around his golden curls.

Silence fell as the dwarves stared.

“Mahal!” Dwalin swore, riding closer and dismounting. The craftsmanship in the helm was obvious, even through the crust of dirt that darkened its jewels and mithril scales. “Is that—?”

“It can’t be,” Gloin said, crowding close as well.

“Hammer and stone,” Bofur swore, dismounting to squint at the halfling’s head. “It is. That’s Broadbeam, that is.”

“First Age work,” Thorin said, a little stunned. “That’s Linnar’s symbol.”

“Two lines down. Linnar’s grandson wore this.”

“How did it end up here?”

“Mahal knows. Maybe after the First Battle of Beleriand—“

“Look how small it is. It must’ve been Linnar’s second grandson. He was barely sixty when he was lost to orcs.”

“And the halfling just fell down a hole and found a priceless treasure of the Broadbeams?”

“Well, excuse me, I’m sure,” the halfling huffed, and planted his fists on his hips. Thorin would concede he was a little bit adorable when he was indignant. “I told you lot that I don’t ride ponies! Will someone pray take this—this mathom off my head?”

Which led to some argument once 1) the dwarves learned what ‘mathom’ meant; and 2) discovered said mathom wouldn’t come off.

Gandalf, Thorin noted distantly, was studiously looking at the sky. Fat lot of good it did anybody, when only two miles later a tree fell over just in front of Thorin’s pony, barely missing him. The nest of cheeping birds that came down with the tree, on the other hand, didn’t miss him at all.

It seemed to Thorin that a wizard who was looking up anyway could just as easily watch for falling trees and warn a body.

“Adventures are rather exciting things, aren’t they?” the halfling said, staring at Thorin’s chirping hair with fascination.

“This isn’t the sort of thing that usually happens,” Kíli assured him, trying to help Thorin untangle a flapping chick from his family braid.

The halfling blinked. “Really? Whyever not?”

Which was a strange thing to say. Almost, practically, most certainly a jinx, if Thorin believed in such things. Count on the halfling to tempt fate.

Because then there were trolls.

“It’s unheard of!” Dori exclaimed, stomping about in the aftermath. “Trolls do not come down this far. Ever!”

“The tunnel—“ Gloin began.

“Nonsense!”

“It were a cave, not a tunnel,” Nori pointed out. “How’d they get from the mountains down here then, wifout getting turned to stone? We’ve ‘ad nothing but clear skies the last two months. They couldn’ta made it.”

“These swords might have been made for you and me,” Gandalf said to Thorin, while they watched the others argue about the unlikelihood of it.

Thorin tore his attention away from the halfling, on the verge of decapitating himself with the blade Gandalf had given him, and frowned up at the wizard. Who was, come to think of it, looking oddly apprehensive.

“Aye,” Thorin said. He’d noticed the perfect balance, though it physically pained him to admit elves could do such adequate work. And it did suit his preference for longer, wider blades. “It was good fortune. What of it?”

Gandalf winced. “Perhaps you are correct. We should avoid Rivendell.”

Thorin should’ve been relieved that the wizard had finally seen reason. Finally.

And yet.

Well. It was suspicious, wasn’t it?

Thorin eyed him.

 

*

 

Rabbits. Really? A wizard being pulled by rabbits? Who just coincidentally happened to show up in search of Gandalf?

“Hobbit!” the daft rabbit wizard shrieked, and disappeared up a tree.

Which immediately fell down. On an attacking warg. That had appeared out of nowhere.

“The trees around here are rather unstable, aren’t they?” the halfling said, looking alarmed, while Gandalf helped Radagast up and avoided eye contact with everyone.

Thorin killed the second warg and eyeballed Gandalf harder.

 

*

 

Elves. The plains were crawling with elves. And not one conveniently elf-crushing tree in sight.

Admittedly Thorin didn’t have any particular desire for the creatures to like him or his kind, but he was still a little miffed when Elrond actually blanched on seeing them. Went white. It was an unhealthy color for an elf. Just like all the others.

My friend—“ Gandalf began in ingratiating Sindarin.

You would dare? Have you learned nothing?” Elrond asked, drawing back from the Company as though contact would contaminate him. His gaze was fixed and staring: when Thorin checked, he found that the elf-lord was staring at the halfling, who was happily looking around at all the poorly thought out elvish architecture. “You have gone mad, Mithrandir. I thought the Rangers were jesting. You would bring chaos and disaster to the lands from here to Erebor—and for what?”

“The defense of the north? It is important,” Gandalf said feebly.

Elrond made a small, high-pitched sound that suggested rage. Or terror. Or— well, rabbits, in Thorin’s mind, though he didn’t say so. He knew how to be diplomatic, no matter what Balin said.

This shall all end in fire and ruin,” Elrond said grimly. “Let the Valar bear witness: I will have no part in this madness.”

“What did he say?” Gloin shouted, fed up with all the Sindarin and shaking his axe.

“He offers you food and drink,” Gandalf lied hastily. He smiled, again not meeting Thorin’s eye. Maybe Thorin should have mentioned to the wizard that he understood Sindarin. Then again, it was obvious the wizard had been keeping something from him. Better off not telling him. It was none of the daft wizard’s business anyway.

“Oh, alright then,” Gloin said, abashed.

If my house is eaten by bugs and falls down in the middle of the night, Mithrandir, I will feed you to goats,” Elrond said darkly, and swept away.

 

*

 

The elves were enthralled by the halfling. They flocked around like idiot birds, cooing over his round cheeks and pert nose and fussy ways. They even went so far as to oil him in an attempt to remove that Broadbeam helmet. Thorin was secretly smug at the fact that good dwarven manufacturing roundly trounced elvish lubrication. Handsy arsewipes. They were galling.

Elrond, on the other hand, kept leaving the room right as they came into it. Elves were just like wizards, Thorin concluded:  always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“We found Narsil,” Kíli said their third night there, his voice dropping to a hush.

The dwarves murmured. There were many named swords, but Narsil was the work of Telchar, one of the great smiths of Nogrod, and famed throughout Middle-Earth. They swelled up with racial pride.

Fíli nodded energetically by his brother. “The shards are kept in a room nearby, for anyone to see. You can feel their power.”

“I tried to pick it up.” Kíli held up his hand, exultant; there was a fresh cut across his palm.

“It bit him,” Fíli said. “You wouldn’t believe the quality of the steel. You can’t make anything like that nowadays.”

“And there’s a painting on the wall.”

“It shows the Last Alliance.”

“Orcs, goblins, balrogs, elves and men fighting—“

“It even has dwarves. Durín’s folk!”

“And Isildur cutting off the One Ring.”

“And!” Kíli said, his voice dropping even further. “There’s a halfling in it! In the painting!”

“Just huddled there in the corner, with a wee sword! Being guarded by an elf and a dwarf!”

“She looked just like Bilbo!”

“Except she was female, obviously.”

“Adorable!”

“A halfling at the Last Alliance? Impossible,” Thorin said, and looked around for their halfling. He wasn’t around, as usual. Probably off being stroked and fondled by those damned elves again. Thorin gritted his teeth. There were no halflings in the battles of the Last Alliance. Apparently this elven obsession with halflings was of long standing, if they were painting them into places they didn’t belong.

Well, they’d steal his out from under him over his dead body. He was a Son of Durin. He held on to what was his, by Mahal!

“Guess what I found!” said the halfling, popping up out of nowhere. “You’ll never believe it!”

Kíli and Fíli were thrilled. “Us, too!” they clamored. “We found it too! We couldn’t believe it!”

“Isn’t it peculiar!” the halfling said. “Almost all the pieces, too! It’s a pity about the squirrels.”

The dwarves blinked at each other. “Squirrels?” Fíli said, for all of them. “What squirrels?”

The halfling blinked. “The ones stealing the pieces of the sword,” he said. “I suppose they thought they were nuts or some such. Squirrels are notoriously stupid, though clever in their own way. I hope they don’t bury them anyplace too difficult to find.” He shook his head sadly.

“Squirrels were stealing pieces of Narsil,” Nori said slowly, “a treasure of Arda and one of Telchar’s greatest works.”

“Oh, is that what it is? Now, why does that name sound familiar?”

“And you didn’t stop them?” Glóin asked, his voice rising.

The halfling looked offended. “I don’t think elves like it when people interfere with nature. Or something along those lines. I seem to recall reading it in a book somewhere. And, well,” he shuffled sheepishly. “They were rather large squirrels? Their teeth seemed quite sharp.”

The dwarves looked at each other. Then they lunged as a group for the door.

 

*

 

“There will be a council held here tomorrow,” Gandalf told Thorin, fiddling with his pipe.

Thorin noted how said fiddling allowed Gandalf not to make eye contact. He grunted. He was still filthy from digging up Elrond’s bedamned garden in search of Narsil pieces. Not to mention the inflamed scratches from fighting the—whatever they were. They weren’t squirrels. Tunneling, bushy-tailed wargs, is what they were.

“Probably a good idea if you leave before it happens,” Gandalf said.

Thorin narrowed his eyes.

“Elves, you know.” Gandalf smiled weakly. “They’ll try to stop you. Did I mention it’s a council of mostly elves? Important ones?”

Thorin narrowed his eyes further.

“Just a thought,” Gandalf said, and wandered away.

This time they took Gandalf’s suggestion and snuck out at night. Thorin looked back just once: there as an odd red light flickering in Rivendell. Something was on fire.

Well, the elves couldn’t blame them. They were already gone. It was probably poor elven fire management or shoddy engineering on those fire pits. Gravel-brained, pointy-eared twits. He turned his back on the valley and trudged on.

It was probably Gandalf’s doing that a landslide behind them blocked off the High Pass two hours later.

Probably.

 

*

 

Thorin was almost resigned by the time the stone giants happened. Because of course they did.

Goblin Town was a bit of a shocker, though.

“They had a what with them?!” the Goblin King shrieked, squeezing back into his throne like he’d climb and cower on its back if gravity would only work with him instead of against him.

“Cute little thing, my lord,” said the leader of the goblins that had captured him. “Round cheeks, button nose, furry feet—“

“A halfling,” Thorin said loudly.

The Goblin King screamed, a little higher pitched, and decided to give gravity the old goblin finger after all.

Thorin’s eyes narrowed into slits.

 

*

 

“Look,” Thorin said to Dwalin, after the halfling had miraculously survived a hundred foot fall and caught up with them after escaping a mountain full of ravenous goblins, the entire company had been cornered on a cliff by wargs and set fire to the trees they were on, Thorin himself had managed to avoid getting decapitated, and the whole lot of them had gotten an unexpected ride by oliphant-sized talking eagles. The halfling was still bubbling happily nearby, his stupidly beautiful eyes wide open and fawn-like. “Look,” Thorin said again, a little more firmly. “There’s something not right about all this.”

“Mahal, not this again,” said Dwalin, slouched down beside him at the bottom of the Carrock.

“Thirty years I traveled as a blacksmith around Middle-Earth,” Thorin said. “On foot, mind you, alone or with company. I wandered through most of Eriador and Rhovanion. There probably isn’t a square inch of Dunland I haven’t seen, and I’m on a first name basis with every Mahal-blessed blade of grass in Rohan. I’ve crossed the Misty Mountains fourteen times—“

“Ten,” Dwalin corrected.

Fourteen times,” Thorin repeated, loudly. “You know how many times I was attacked or ran into serious trouble in all that time? Do you?”

Dwalin buried his face in his arms. “Five times.”

Five times,” Thorin said triumphantly. “Five times in thirty years. Orcs once, bandits once, fell off a cliff three times.” He tallied them up on his fingers and held them up. “Five times.”

“Heard you the first forty times,” Dwalin grumbled.

“And now we can’t even go a league without falling into Goblin Towns and being eaten by goat-sucking wargs and being picked up by talking eagles. It’s ridiculous.

Dwalin said nothing for a while. Then he snickered.

Thorin glared. “What?”

“Fell off a cliff three times,” Dwalin said. “Didn’t feel like you did it right the first time, did you?”

“It wasn’t the same cliff.”

“Because you’re such a perfectionist, you are.”

“There were mitigating circumstances.”

“Oh, aye. You were walking and the cliff got in your way, I ken. You were just rehearsing for falling into Goblin Town, were you.”

Thorin rose with great dignity, careful of his cracked ribs, and began to stalk away.

“Wanna climb back up the Carrock and tip off, ya great wally?” Dwalin shouted after him, attracting the attention of everybody else in the Company. “Pretty sure you’ll get it right this time, if you just put your heart into it! I believe in you!”

When he was King Under the Mountain, Thorin was going to have to see about getting new friends.

 

*

 

They were chased by a bear. Into a house. Owned by the bear.

Because why not.

“I can run on my own two feet, you know,” the halfling said, paddling his legs in mid-air. Thorin had caught him up around the waist mid-way through the chase and had been carrying him since. (“Like a wee doll,” giggled Kíli and Fíli, who weren’t concentrating on running away from the slavering, rampaging bear. Mahal help them all, his heirs were blithering idiots.) “I managed to run all by myself on the cliff, after all,” the halfling finished indignantly.

Thorin had other things to worry about than the creature’s fussing. “A shape-changing bear?!” he roared at Gandalf. “And you didn’t see fit to inform us before we locked him out of his house?! You didn’t think it was something we might need to know?!”

“With my own two feet. I managed to run just fine,” the halfling mumbled, still paddling. A solid foot thumped Thorin on the shin. The halfling kicked like a mule. He ignored it.

“What possible difference could it have made? There was no need to alarm you,” Gandalf asked in what he undoubtedly thought was a voice of reason.

“Let me be the judge of what will and won’t alarm me!” Thorin shouted, the loud agreement of his Company warming him. “What else have you been hiding from us, wizard?!”

Gandalf pursed his lips. If Thorin hadn’t been watching so closely, he might have missed his quick glance at the halfling. “Nothing,” Gandalf said airily. He looked up at the ceiling. “Nothing at all.”

A sudden shriek cut the suspicious silence. Thorin swung around to stare. Nori was rolling around on the floor, his hands clenched high between his thighs. “I think Nori just got stung by something!” Bofur said, looking aghast.

Glóin yelped, flailing around his head before drawing his axes. “Did you see the size of that bee? It’s as big as my foot!”

“Where’d he get stung?” Óin demanded, shoving forward. He bent over Nori while Dori and Ori crowded close. A second later, Ori turned away, his face bright red.

“Ah, Mahal,” breathed Bofur, peering over Dori’s shoulder. “It’s swelling up something fierce. Why’d you have it out to get stung, anyhow?”

Nori howled.

“Did I forget to mention that Beorn keeps bees?” Gandalf asked. “Don’t hurt them if you please, Master Glóin. He wouldn’t be pleased.”

“Look at the size of it,” Bofur said, impressed. “I’ve never seen one get that big. Even when—“

Dori shoved him ass over teakettle.

Thorin absolutely did not clutch the halfling a little tighter to his side. Or cover his eyes with his free hand.

The Burglar squeaked.

 

*

 

Beorn thought Thorin’s halfling was adorable. He kept hauling their Burglar up to sit on his shoulder while he wandered around doing chores and the like. It was only a matter of time before the enormous Man started thinking about stealing the Burglar. It was for the good of the Quest that Thorin had to start carrying him around as well. Otherwise, Beorn’s hands would have been all over the Burglar, and the rest of the Company wouldn’t have stood for that.

It was in the diplomatic best interests of Erebor. Thorin had to do all sorts of things he didn’t want to do, for Erebor.

The halfling invariably protested, but his protests were starting to get weaker and weaker. He was learning that when Thorin Oakenshield set his mind to something, there was no power on Arda that could stop him. He was a Durin, after all.

“Oh honestly, Thorin,” sighed the halfling. “What exactly do you think you’re guarding?”

Thorin was tempted to say, Your innocence, but the halfling would obviously never understand. The halfling was a soft, sweet, surprisingly competent little creature, but he was, well. He was someone to be guarded, is all. Unlike Thorin, who was better suited to doing the guarding.

Besides, Beorn’s animals kept wanting to give the halfling baths. Thorin scowled at them suspiciously and refused to leave him alone with the beasts. They weren’t to be trusted.

“I can bathe by myself, Thorin,” the halfling said behind Thorin, though he didn’t sound displeased. There were little splashing sounds. “I am a grown hobbit.”

Thorin snorted, and kept his eyes firmly on the gleaming pan that was reflecting the halfling’s bath to him. Just to make sure the excitable little creature didn’t drown. “It isn’t you I mistrust.”

More splashing. “What on earth do you think Beorn or the animals will do?” the halfling asked, chuckling. “You’re being ridiculous.”

Oh was he. Just then, one of the dogs came slipping in, looking sneaky. It froze when it saw Thorin.

He glared at it.

The dog backed out of the room. The door clicked softly shut behind it.

Thorin glowered, feeling vindicated.

 

*

 

Fucking forest.

Fucking spiders.

Fucking Thranduil.

Fucking elves.

 

*

 

“You saved us!” Ori burbled at the half-drowned halfling, who was sniffling and trying to dab his face dry with a dripping handkerchief. “How did you avoid the elves?”

“Oh, ha ha,” said the halfling. He stifled a sneeze. “Well.”

“He goes invisible, don’t he?” said Nori, squeezing river water out of his hair.

The halfling looked alarmed. “No I don’t.”

“Not all the time,” Nori conceded.

“I think I’m going to throw up,” Bombur said in a distant voice.

“Well, don’t aim your face at me then,” said Bofur.

“He goes invisible when he’s in the mood for it, yeah? ’S why Tharkun wanted ‘im wif us. Figured it out, after Goblin Town. Secret halfling power, yeah?” Nori asked, winking with exaggerated solemnity at the halfling.

Who looked, it had to be said, a little pale. “Secret halfling power,” he said. “Er, yes. Ha. Yes. Halfling po— wait a tick. Who’s a halfling? Are you calling me a halfling?”

“You know, you keep slitting your eyes like that, you’ll walk right into a tree,” Dwalin observed, squinting his own eyes at Thorin.

“Shut up,” Thorin said.

 

*

 

There was a fine line between brilliance and madness. Thorin stood stock still on the side of a mountain, staring at a bird who had conveniently shown up on cue to kill snails at just the right spot and guide long-lost dwarves to the secret hidden entrance to their ancestral home.

Maybe it was just him. After all, this could be the traditional ancestral snail-bashing grounds of the thrushes. That they bashed specially on Durin’s Day. For over a hundred years. Or. Or something. This was completely natural.

It eyed them with a shiny black eye and—Thorin would swear it on his father’s grave—winked at them.

“I’m not the only one thinking this is bollocks, right?” Bofur asked, tilting his hat up to scratch under it.

The low rumble of dwarves agreeing with him was balm to Thorin’s increasingly aggravated soul.

“No?” said the halfling brightly. “What’s boll— er, the difficulty?”

Nori pointed. “Bird. Snail. Old map with words on’t. Secret door, right? And we can’t find it, but that there bird—“

“It’s a thrush,” the halfling supplied.

“Right, thrush, yeah? It’s right there right as we’re lookin’ fer the door, right? After all them years? Smack dab at sunset on Durin’s Day?”

“Thrushes do pass down territories,” the halfling said helpfully. “For feeding and, er, mating, and that sort of thing.”

“Right by a ruddy dragon? On a schedule?”

“Maybe it’s magic!” The halfling’s eyes shone with excitement.

Thorin had the utterly bizarre thought that he wouldn’t mind having the halfling look at him like that.

“No doubt it is one of the, the royal thrushes,” Thorin said before he’d quite realized it. He went numb. What? The halfling turned that rapt gaze onto him, as though he had hung the very moon and stars with his own callused hands. Panic rising inside, Thorin heard himself add, “They are long-lived, and, and magical, an ancient breed that used to live about here, tame to the hands of my father and grandfather.”

“Long-lived and magical,” Balin said flatly.

“They live hundreds of years,” Thorin said, desperately avoiding eye contact with his cousins. “In fact, some of them understand the language of men.”

The halfling transferred his far too fascinating gaze to the thrush. The rest of the Company stared at Thorin. In the dead silence, Dwalin coughed once.

It sounded like Bullshit.

Thorin cleared his throat. “Moving on,” he said loudly. “Secret tunnel. Climax of our quest. Arkenstone.”

“Right, that’s me then, isn’t it?” said the halfling. He straightened, puffing out his stomach, and beamed at Thorin. “I’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Now, what’s an Arkenstone look like, then?”

 

*

 

Fucking dragon.

Fucking elves.

Fucking orcs.

Fucking— fucking everything.

 

*

 

Thorin was dying.

It was a good death, one to sing of for the ages. He had avenged his forefathers. He had reclaimed the home of his people. He could die satisfied, content, having struck down the enemy of his line, knowing he had fulfilled his destiny.

He had only one regret.

“Farewell, good thief,” Thorin gasped, clinging to the warmth that was the halfling’s little hand. Darkness crowded in on his vision. The halfling’s anxious face shone above him like the moon in the night. “I go now to the halls of waiting to sit by my fathers, until the world is renewed—“

“I thought they were dead,” said the halfling. “Your fathers, that is. I thought they were dead.”

Thorin broke off to recalibrate. In all his imaginings of his final deathbed speech, Thorin had never actually expected to be interrupted. “They are.”

“Ah. Of course. Alright,” said the halfling.

“The halls of waiting are the halls of the dead,” Thorin explained, since the halfling seemed confused still.

“Like, a metaphor, then?”

“No, they’re literal halls. Halls of Waiting. Halls where the dwarves wait until we’re called again by Mahal to— it’s a dwarf thing,” Thorin said at last, a bit impatiently. “You’d have to be a dwarf to understand.”

“Ah,” said the halfling, wisely. “I’m not a dwarf.”

A little louder, Thorin wrenched the topic back to the lines he had planned for his end of life repentance. “Since I now leave all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship from you…”

There was a new crease on the halfling’s forehead. “Are you moving to the Shire?”

Thorin, who had broken off to cough, started to feel a bit frazzled. Apparently, even a Durin’s sense of dignity couldn’t survive a halfling. “What? No, I’m not moving to the Shire.”

“Because you said you’re leaving all gold and silver, and go where it’s of little worth—is that another dwarf thing? You don’t want to live in the mountain? I realize it’s rather dusty and all, and there’s all that gold and probably decades of dragon droppings littering the place, but you were so excited by the idea. I’d rather thought you’d want to live in it. As a, you know, dwarf thing.” Because dwarves did daft things like live amidst dragon droppings, but far be it for him to judge, his tone of voice said.

“I’m not moving to the Shire,” Thorin said, grinding his teeth against pain and the desire to yell at him for being irritating. Obviously, the halfling was in denial about Thorin’s impending death. He softened, about to explain about mortal wounds and narrative symmetry, when the halfling continued earnestly, “Besides, it’s not true, that the Shire doesn’t care much for gold and silver. I know that’s what Big Folk think about us hobbits, but that’s really a misconception. We just prefer to have it in sensible shapes, like spoons and forks. Useful things, that is. Silverware. Although maybe not goldware, unless it’s gold plated, because gold spoons wouldn’t do well at the dinner table. Too soft and all, I’m told, and we hobbits have healthy teeth to go with our healthy appetites.”

Thorin blinked rapidly.

Without warning, a pale, hazy figure loomed up behind the halfling, its deformed face twisted even further in a roar. Azog! Thorin’s mouth gaped open in alarm—Mahal, how many times did he have to kill that worm-skinned carrot-eater?—when with a clang! a stray arrow came zipping in out of nowhere, bounced off the halfling’s helmet, and pierced Azog in the eye.

The helmet—that same Broadbeam treasure that had been stuck on the halfling’s head for the last three months, despite elf oil, river water, spider fangs, and dwarf might—fell off the halfling’s head and thudded to the ground.

A split second later, Azog followed it.

Thorin squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again to stare. The halfling was still helmetless. Azog was still dead. Again.

The halfling looked contrite. “Sorry. You were saying?”

Thorin scowled at him suspiciously. The halfling pressed his lips together, mimed locking them shut and throwing away the key, and blinked wide, earnest eyes at him.

Deciding that the only thing for it was to pretend none of that had just happened, Thorin said weakly, “I would take back my words and deeds at the gate….— oh for fuck’s sake,” he added, spasming in temper as fucking Thranduil came flouncing up the fucking hill. Even after hours of battle, the elf king’s hair was perfect. Perfect. Thorin was on his deathbed, and had orc blood and guano in his hair. Rage briefly robbed him of speech.

“Oh hullo!” greeted the halfling, beaming in an inappropriately friendly way at the eight foot tall bag of dicks. “Nice to see you again.”

Thranduil looked down his royal nostrils at Thorin, who couldn’t even die without elves dropping in to fuck it all up, and then did the same thing to the halfling. The ponce’s giant caterpillar eyebrows drew together. “You look familiar,” he informed the halfling.

The halfling wiggled his fingers in a wave. “Ta,” he said cheerily. “It’s me. Dwarf stealing, Arkenstone trading, sneaking around and riddling with dragons me.”

Thranduil blinked rapidly, like he was wrestling with a world that had grown increasingly bizarre for the presence of one tiny halfling. For one horrible moment, Thorin felt a pang of fellow feeling. Ugh. “You look … different,” Thranduil said.

“Ah, yes. I was wearing a disguise, before. Beard. You know.” The halfling made little exploding hand gestures around his head and chin with his free hand. (Thorin wasn’t letting go of the other one, just in case Thranduil Elk-Fucker took it in his head to try to steal his halfling.) “Pretending to be a dwarf, so. Hair, you see. Gandalf thinks it’s safest that way. But it fell off during the battle. Some goblins pulled at it and the glue didn’t hold,” said the halfling.

Thranduil’s face went— odd. “Your ears are pointy.”

The halfling felt the tips of his, as though to verify they were still there. “Yes, they are, rather.”

“And you have a button nose.”

“Yes.”

“And round cheeks and belly.”

Was Thorin imagining the growing note of horror in Thranduil’s voice? The halfling patted his only slightly rounded stomach with a nostalgic, regretful air. “Not as round as they used to be, I’m afraid. I used to be considered rather a fine figure amongst my fellows.”

Thranduil paused. Sounding strangely hopeless, he said, “You seem to have … lost your shoes.”

Thorin winced, anticipating the rant. Sure enough, the halfling puffed up. “Shoes?” he repeated, in honest outrage. “Shoes?! I’ll have you know that I’m a respectable hobbit. That is to say, yes, I’ve had adventures, but nonetheless— respectable. I am a Baggins, sir! Why, I never! Shoes!”

“Ah,” Thranduil said. Always pale, he had turned the color of bleached bone. It was so obvious, even Thorin’s fading eyes couldn’t mistake it. “Hobbit. You are a hobbit.” No, the elf king wasn’t pale. He was— he was turning green. Horror seemed to have turned him into an asparagus stalk. “Hobbit,” Thranduil said again.

“Yes,” said the halfling.

“Oh help,” said Thranduil, which was a strange thing to say.

Between one blink and the next, the elf king was gone. Vanished. Thorin squeezed his eyes shut and then opened them to check again. Still no elf. Odd. Thorin covered an eye with his free hand, squinted with the other, and double-checked. Triple-checked.

Still no elf.

Ah, Mahal did love Thorin after all. He relaxed. Praise Mahal! Except apparently Mahal still wasn’t done fucking him about, because at the next blink, Gandalf had materialized from out of whatever cursed place had eaten Thranduil, and was leaning on his staff, looking dismayed.

For a second, Thorin had the thought that Gandalf was feeling sorrow over his imminent death. For the first time on this thrice-cursed quest, he almost liked the wizard.

And then, of course, the pointy-nosed bastard ruined it by saying, “Ah. Drat. Thranduil saw you without your disguise, did he? You couldn’t maintain it a few hours longer? I realize that dwarves are indescribably hairy and borderline lunatic, and the beard itches, but couldn’t you have— Oh. Thorin. You there? Ah. Didn’t see you. Er, dying, are you? I don’t suppose that’ll take much longer?”

Right then,” said Thorin, giving up on the business of shuffling off the mortal coil. He pushed himself up to sit, and was vaguely pleased to discover that actually, his mortal belly wound was feeling much better. Less mortal wound-ish, and more flesh wound really, honest mistake-ish. “Right,” he said again, in his kingliest of kingly voices. “What the hell is going on with my halfling?!”

“Ah,” said Gandalf, not meeting his eyes. “About that.”

 

*

 

“So you’re telling me,” Thorin said much, much later, in the warmth and comfort of his very own command tent in the middle of the victorious battlefield. “After all this, after talking bears and Goblin Towns and flying eagles and floating down rivers in apple barrels—“

“Most of those are perfectly normal features of Middle Earth,” Gandalf argued.

“—After all of these things,” Thorin said loudly, “You’re telling me that if I have the halfling—“

“Hobbit, if you please!” said the local representative of that species.

“—That if I have the hobbit about, I will never see Thranduil Nostril-Licker ever again?”

Balin, who was playing the role of advisor to the crown, closed his eyes in existential pain. “I don’t think that’s the important point here, Thorin.”

“Because he’s scared o’ the wee thing,” Dain said, looking equal parts annoyed, delighted, and baffled. “I cannae even fathom the damned thing, much less say it without laughing. What’s it all about, then?”

“There’s a certain, shall we say, magical, or perhaps physiological reaction the older elves have, due to experience with certain hobbit traits—” Gandalf began.

“Are you telling me he’s allergic?” Dain asked, the expression of glee deepening.

“Never again? No Thranduil? Ever again?”

“More critically, what we would like to know is why you sabotaged this quest from the get go, while simultaneously encouraging Thorin to reclaim Erebor, ” Balin said, overriding both Dain and Thorin with the experience of a sensible dwarf forced by terrible circumstance to have Dwalin Doodleskull as his brother and Thorin Oakenshield as his king. “From our point of view, you must understand, it’s very suspicious.”

“I did not sabotage the quest!” Gandalf huffed. He rose up to his not inconsiderable height, only to deflate as the low tent ceiling bumped his hat off. The old wizard rubbed his hand across his face. In a quieter voice, he said, “If you must know, I added the hobbit—”

“I have a name,” said an indignant voice.

“I added Bilbo to the quest,” Gandalf conceded, “because hobbits have a— a knack for making the impossible, possible. It’s a terrible gift, and a wonderful curse. It pulls them out of the most unlikeliest of disasters, and brings down the strangest blessings on them."

"Strange," said Balin. "Like accidentally learning how to speak spider."

"Setting fire to Rivendell," said Kíli.

"Finding exactly twelve empty apple barrels to rescue dwarves from an elvish dungeon," said Fíli.

"Killing Azog with a hat," said Dwalin.

Dain leaned over to Balin. "Had a nice trip up from the Blue Mountains, did ye?"

Gandalf pinched his nose. “Yes. Rather like that. Many centuries ago, the Wise made use of that gift, turning the tide against the Enemy. But such things cannot be controlled, and we learned to our regret that it was a weapon we could not aim only at our foes—" he glared at Kíli, who was giggling and making descriptive hand gestures to Dain about fire and elves, "—willing though the hobbits were to aid us. Too, we saw that to let them run wild across Middle Earth would be to make chaos where there was order. And order was in too short a supply to surrender it so cheaply.

“But what was to be done then? For the hobbits were well-loved by all for the good heart and their courage, silly though they could be.”

“Excuse me very much, I’m sure!” said the halfling with a sniff.

“So the Wise, whoever they might be, made the Shire,” said Balin, coming to the inevitable conclusion.

“Indeed,” said Gandalf, glowering at Balin from underneath his great fuzzy brows. “Out of gratitude, with the aid of the kings of Arthedain we made a home for them. A haven where they could be safe and sheltered, and forget their dangerous gifts. Even today, though the kingdoms of Eriador have fallen, the Dunedain guard the lands around the Shire to keep the hobbits safe.”

“To keep us safe from the hobbits, don’t you mean?” Balin asked shrewdly.

Gandalf avoided his gaze, becoming suddenly quite busy with lighting his pipe.

“Rude,” said the halfling. He folded his arms and glared at the wizard in high dudgeon. “See if I ever go with you on a quest to steal from a dragon again.”

Thorin, who had lapsed into a contemplative silence during the tale, blinked and roused himself. “Right, that’s all very interesting and all,” he said, lying badly. He returned to staring raptly at the halfling. “Let’s get back to the bit about Thranduil. For reasons of— of national security.”

Balin looked at his king, who didn’t look to be letting go of the halfling’s hand anytime soon, and sighed. Beside him, Kíli and Fíli snickered.

Uncle Bilbo,” Fíli said. “It has a ring to it.”

“A spring wedding, you think?” Balin asked Dain.

Dain nodded wisely. “I’ll bring the cake.”

 

+

 

Six hours later, Bilbo suddenly turned into a female.

Because why not.