The first full moon came three weeks after Bilbo had joined the dwarves. Many of them were grumbling about the delay--everyone knew that the day after was no good for doing anything but resting and eating, so they would get no distance travelled--but Bilbo was looking forward to it. He always enjoyed a good long run after moonrise, and felt refreshed and calm for the next month.
Not that he expected to be running amongst friends. Hobbit-wolves didn’t care much about non-pack members running with them, provided they minded their manners and didn’t get too close to any children or eligible lads or lasses. He wasn’t sure how it was with Dwarf-wolves, but he thought, given their behaviour toward him thus far, that they would likely run off in the opposite direction of wherever he went, and make it clear that he wasn’t supposed to follow. That would be just fine with him--as long as he got to run, he was content.
Still, he felt a bit of nerves as the dwarves readied themselves, slipping off their clothes and standing in a circle in the middle of the clearing they had chosen for the night. Gandalf had left with the ponies for the duration, though he’d promised to be back with them by tomorrow evening.
There was no room for Bilbo in the circle, so he chose a tree near the edge of the clearing and tidily arranged his clothes and pack.
He could feel it when the moon rose, and though he was preoccupied with his own change during, he opened his eyes to find thirteen very tall, very shaggy, very bulky wolves turning to look at him after. He instinctively lowered his ears and tail and whined, his posture friendly and submissive.
With the younger Dwarf-wolves, it was apparent that this would have worked, for the tan and grey wolf he knew to be Fíli, the grey wolf he knew to be Kíli, and the scrawniest of the bunch, a reddish wolf he knew to be Ori, immediately lost their wariness and greeted him with happy yaps, wagging their tails. Kíli went so far as to bow, inviting him to play with both front paws stretched out as far as they could go.
Bilbo hadn’t taken two steps toward him when a low rumble stopped him in his tracks. His skin prickled with fear as the two largest wolves shouldered their way past the young ones, creating a barrier. Their lips were drawn back in snarls, their eyes hostile, one of them grey and brown, the other black shot with silver--Dwalin and Thorin.
He stepped back again, increasing his submissiveness, whining rather pathetically, in his opinion. The only effect was that they came closer and Thorin snapped his teeth.
One last try--he rolled on his back, his tail between his legs. Thorin’s growl only got louder, and he sprang, his jaws wide.
Yelping, Bilbo rolled back to his feet and started running in the opposite direction, into the trees. He was fast, but Thorin was large and took very long strides--he was on him in three bounds. Bilbo dodged, once, but it wasn’t enough.
His cry shattered the silence as he felt teeth sink into his rump, ripping flesh as he stumbled and fell from the force of the blow. The noise must have startled Thorin, because he abruptly let go. Bilbo didn’t wait for a second chance--he dashed off through the trees faster than he’d ever run in his life, heedless of the blood trail he left behind.
There was no joy in running that night. His heart pounded and he saw nothing, and morning found him weak and wobbling on his feet.
It took him most of the next day to return to camp, limping because of the large, swollen bite on his behind. All was quiet when he finally arrived, making a beeline for his clothes and keeping his head down. He dressed with shaking hands, his skin prickling, and quickly readied his pack.
“Laddie, I should have a look at that bite.”
He ignored Óin’s call and moved to the outskirts of the clearing, sitting as far from all of them as possible.
“Bilbo--we saved some dinner for you,” Bofur tried.
Bilbo didn’t acknowledge him, tucking his arms around himself and curling up with his pack as his pillow. He didn’t want to incur Thorin’s wrath again by interacting with his pack without permission. He closed his eyes and sighed, still trembling, his body on alert despite his relaxed posture.
They fell silent again, and Bilbo slipped into a light doze, listening for any sounds of approach.
Thorin watched Bilbo go off by himself and turned away, shaking his head--only to be met with Balin’s pointed gaze. He snorted and turned away, ignoring both Balin and the guilt unfurling in his stomach, making his dinner settle uneasily. It was just a little bite--he didn’t owe the halfling an apology for a warning bite.
Though he hadn’t meant it to go so deep. It was supposed to be a nip, just enough for Bilbo to feel his teeth and get the message that he’d better go elsewhere, because he wasn’t welcome in Thorin’s pack. But Bilbo was so much smaller than him--even smaller than he’d expected, though he felt a bit stupid for thinking he was going to be the same size as a Dwarf-wolf. Regardless of his form, he was still a hobbit, after all, and Thorin was a dwarf. Similar heights didn’t mean similar overall size and strength. He shuddered a little when he recalled the taste of Bilbo’s blood in his mouth, the scent of it on the undergrowth and the ground when Bilbo ran away, the sound of Bilbo’s pained, frightened cry splitting the night. He would admit, if only to himself, that he hadn’t been sure their burglar would return today, or if he did, that he wouldn’t leave to return to the Shire as soon as he had his things packed.
Still, the halfling was stubborn and stupid for not letting Óin tend the bite--it wasn’t as though anything had changed. He’d never been welcome amongst them, but he was here to do a job, and he couldn’t do the job if he died of a festering wound halfway to Erebor.
Thorin debated going over to Bilbo and ordering him to seek Óin’s care, but in the end, he decided it could wait. Let the halfling sulk today if he wanted--tomorrow, Thorin would approach him and make him get the bite tended.
Except he found in the morning that that was easier said than done. When Bilbo woke and went to saddle his pony, Thorin strode over to give his orders--only for the halfling to dart off into the trees. Thorin peered around the pony, and though Bilbo didn’t appear to be looking at him, he felt the distinct hair-raising feeling of being watched. When he walked away, back to his own pony, Bilbo cautiously edged back out of the trees.
The guilty feeling returned with a vengeance, making his stomach churn. Balin caught his eye and raised both brows. It was a clear message--I told you so. He’d urged Thorin to talk to Bilbo before the full moon, to tell him how things were and make it clear that he needed to find his own place to transform, away from the pack of Dwarf-wolves. Thorin had shrugged him off then, but now….
He shook his head and turned back to saddling his pony. Bilbo was just pouting and a bit skittish after being wounded. He’d get over it. After he calmed down, then Thorin would talk to him--or perhaps send Dwalin or Balin to relay the message for him, if he remained wary of Thorin.
It was a good plan, he thought, nodding to himself.
Now if only he could convince Fíli and Kíli of that. They were still pouting after being forced to go hunting last night instead of going to look for Bilbo. A glance over his shoulder revealed that Ori--shy, eager little Ori--was glaring at him, too.
Thorin sighed and shook his head again, resolved to ignore it. They were too young to understand what pack meant, but they’d get over it.
Unfortunately, it seemed as if he’d been wrong on both counts--neither Bilbo nor the three younger dwarves put the incident behind them. Fíli, Kíli, and Ori continued to glare or pout at Thorin whenever they were near him, his nephews openly shunning him in favour of whispering amongst themselves, and the three of them stared mournfully after Bilbo whenever the halfling was nearby.
Bilbo remained a wary outsider, slinking around the edges of their camp like the non-pack member he was, and fleeing to a safe distance if Thorin sent anyone over to speak to him. He hadn’t tried to speak with Bilbo himself after the failed first attempt, and he could admit, if only to himself, that the weight of guilt only increased with each day. He made a point not to show it, as Gandalf kept shooting him disapproving frowns, and he refused to give the wizard the satisfaction of knowing it was having any effect on him.
Strangely, he also found himself missing the halfling around the fire at night. He might creep close enough to talk briefly with Bofur and get his share of the evening meal, but then he scampered off again. Thorin hadn’t realised before then how quiet their campsites were. Now, though, he noticed the subdued atmosphere, the weight of the Quest resting heavy on his companions without Bilbo to distract them with his innocent questions. Thorin had wanted to snap at him for his nosy cluelessness before, but now, he wished for another cheerful inquiry about the designs on their axes, or the differing styles of braids they wore in their hair and beards.
There didn’t seem to be any way to convince him to rejoin the fold, though. Not without welcoming him into the pack, and Thorin couldn’t--wouldn’t--do that. He was a stranger, only with them because of a contract.
Their evenings would just have to remain quiet and tense, at least until Bilbo forgot Thorin’s fangs, he thought with a grimace. It was unlikely at best. He promised himself that if there was need for any force with Bilbo in the future, he’d tumble him with a well-placed paw or a bump from his shoulder--never again would he put fang to him.
If Gandalf noticed the new dynamic and Bilbo’s altered behaviour when he returned, he didn’t mention it. For his part, Bilbo obeyed his instincts and kept to the outskirts of the dwarves. He rode trailing them during the day, rather than with them, and he kept his bedroll far from theirs, almost outside of the reach of the firelight. He kept his head lowered and made eye contact with no one. He eventually got brave enough to go near Bofur again, encouraged by the friendly dwarf’s continued overtures, and Bofur would always give him some food--but one glance from Thorin or Dwalin would send Bilbo scampering out of camp again, back to his bedroll. He was hyper-aware of those two in particular, tracking their movements through the camp, and he made a concerted effort to keep a large distance between them.
One night, after the incident with the trolls, Dwalin seemed to want to test that, as he started stomping over to Bilbo’s bedroll. He’d been dozing, but he immediately leapt to his feet and bolted, restoring the margin between them to its proper distance, abandoning his bedroll and supplies in favour of his life. He could feel Dwalin’s eyes on him for a long time, but he came no closer and eventually he wandered back to camp. Only then did Bilbo return to his bedroll, wary and stiff.
It was nearly a week later that the next full moon came. Bilbo already had a plan this time. He waited for dusk and then picked up his things, moving further away from the clearing the dwarves had chosen for this night, slightly smaller than the last one because of the more difficult terrain. It didn’t take him long to find a hole large enough to stow his pack and bedroll in, and he took off his clothes and tucked them on top. That done, he went deeper into the forest, further away from the dwarves, his eyes and ears alert for any potential threats. It wouldn’t do to be so concerned with being attacked by the Dwarf-wolves that he ended up eaten by more trolls or something equally unpleasant.
After he changed, Bilbo shook out his coppery coat and continued trotting deeper into the forest, only stopping when he could no longer smell the dwarves with his sharp Hobbit-wolf nose. He felt relatively safe--so, naturally, that was when the Dwarf-wolves began howling, deep and long and resonant, like when they sang in his smial. The hair on his ruff stood up and prickles raced up and down his spine. The chorus fell silent, only to be replaced with one lone howl. Bilbo went utterly still when he recognised Thorin in the call, his ears pricking.
“Hello? Hello?” he was calling, slightly garbled to Bilbo’s ear.
There was a pause, but none of the Dwarf-wolves answered. Bilbo sat stiffly, looking around himself and hoping that whichever one had strayed from the pack, they were either friendly or going the opposite direction that he had come.
Thorin howled again, louder and longer this time. “Hello? Little Wolf? Hello?”
Little Wolf? That made Bilbo feel better--it must be one of the three young dwarves missing. Since whoever it was still wasn’t answering, it probably wasn’t Ori, as the shy, mild-mannered dwarf wouldn’t keep his leader waiting. Fíli probably wouldn’t, either, although Bilbo didn’t completely discount him. It was more than likely Kíli, who was just mischievous enough to play this sort of game without realising how much it would worry the others.
The next howl was more insistent, full of command. “Come back! Come back!”
Bilbo sighed and stood, preparing to move further away. He wanted to run for a while, and he didn’t want to be found by accident when they inevitably started searching for Kíli.
“Where are you, Little Wolf?! Answer me!”
Thorin was getting frenzied now. Bilbo pitied Kíli when his uncle found him. Yawning, he stretched and loped off into the forest, trying to forget his cares for a while in the joy of breezing through the trees and the undergrowth, quick and silent. Thorin’s howls grew fainter as he put distance between them, but the king-in-exile continued to call out.
“Little Wolf, we will not hurt you! Come back! Come back!”
The last howl Bilbo heard was a call for the others to gather, to begin to search for the missing member of their pack. After that, he was too far away to hear even the loudest call.
Near morning, he turned around and headed back toward the hole where he’d left his clothes. He knew he wouldn’t make it all the way back before sunrise, but it would be faster in Hobbit-wolf form than in regular hobbit form, so he wanted to make up as much distance as he could.
He returned to camp, fully clothed and carrying his pack, around midday, which was surprisingly good time, for him. He felt, as expected after a nice run, refreshed and much calmer than he had before. It became apparent that it was not the same for the dwarves, who were lying around looking more exhausted than he’d ever seen them up to that point.
He jumped, automatically flinching at Bofur’s approach. It didn’t stop the dwarf, who looked him over with a worried expression.
“Bilbo, where were you? We looked for you all night!”
Several of the dwarves raised their heads and looked their way, awaiting Bilbo’s answer. For his part, he blinked at them in surprise, noting Kíli’s presence and equally exhausted state.
“Yeah, where were you, Mister Boggins?” the young dwarf asked when he noted Bilbo’s attention. “Why didn’t you answer when Thorin called you?”
That made Bilbo’s mouth drop open and he involuntarily looked at Thorin, who was glaring back at him, his arms crossed.
“You…you were calling for me?” Bilbo stammered, feeling more lost than he had in a while. “But…why?”
“If you get yourself killed out there, wandering around by yourself, we can’t get into the Mountain,” Thorin snarled, a hint of his wolf still hanging around the edges of his deep voice.
Bilbo flinched at that, hunching inward, and dropped his eyes. “Oh.”
“Stay where we can keep an eye on you next time,” he added coldly.
Bilbo forced himself to nod--and padded off to sit by himself again, as far outside of the ring of dwarves as he could get.
Thorin bit back a sigh as their burglar retreated to the outskirts again.
“That was nicely handled,” Balin said dryly, the sarcasm obvious in his raised brows and pursed lips.
He glowered, but Balin was unimpressed. He turned away, fussing with his pack even though he already had everything he needed out of it for the night. He hadn’t meant to be so harsh to Bilbo, and he did regret it, but he couldn’t find it in himself to go over and apologise.
He’d been intending to let Bilbo join them last night, but only to keep an eye on him, since Balin had pointed out that their little burglar was an even littler wolf, compared to their large forms, and all alone he would make easy prey for another threat like the trolls. It did not mean he was part of the pack, and Thorin wouldn’t pretend as though he was.
Unfortunately, only Dwalin seemed to understand that. His old friend rolled his eyes when he caught Thorin’s gaze, shaking his head at their fellow dwarves, some of whom were glaring at Thorin, others staring mournfully after Bilbo. Thorin grimaced in agreement and they sat apart from the others, ignoring their pouting.
Still…he couldn’t stop his eyes from drifting to the halfling, any more than he could banish the guilt curdling in his gut.
There was something else there, too--longing, perhaps, or hurt over being ignored--but he refused to think about that.
It was Bilbo’s rotten luck that the next full moon was right after they descended from the Carrock. He’d saved Thorin’s life, and he and the other dwarves finally seemed to be beginning to accept him--but that didn’t mean he was part of their pack, and after spending the previous night sleeping on top of the Carrock, he’d had no opportunity to scout the type of terrain he was dealing with, in order to decide how best to slip away.
“Where are you sneaking off to?”
Bilbo froze in the act of creeping into the treeline. They were all too exhausted--and Thorin still too weak, despite his protests to the contrary--to look for a more suitable place, and Gandalf had insisted that he would be safe if he remained atop the Carrock for the night and joined them in the morning, so they had all simply flopped down between the treeline and the broad, shallow river. They didn’t really have enough supplies left to make a proper camp anyway, even if they’d had the strength to seek out a more secure spot.
Nori regarded him with glittering eyes when Bilbo didn’t answer. “Thorin told you to stay where we can keep an eye on you.”
Bilbo’s hand involuntarily went to cover the spot on his rear where Thorin’s fangs had ripped his skin open. “Thorin also tried to kill me the last time I was within view of the pack,” he said, his voice coming out rather choked.
The rest of the dwarves went still, some of them in the middle of pulling their shirts over their heads. He swallowed and averted his eyes, tensing under all the attention.
Thorin was already undressed and lying on the ground, thanks to Óin’s insistence and Dwalin’s aid. His voice was subdued when he spoke, but Bilbo didn’t dare look at him.
“It won’t happen again, Master Baggins.”
Bilbo hesitated. “You’re injured this time. That doesn’t tend to make leaders friendlier to non-pack members.”
“You’re not a non-pack member,” Thorin said, and then, at Bilbo’s look, he amended, “Not anymore.”
He couldn’t help his doubtful frown. At the dwarves’ crestfallen looks--and Thorin’s distinctly guilty face--he relented.
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather keep my distance, just to be safe,” he said reluctantly. “But I won’t go far this time.”
He turned away from the trees and instead headed farther down the riverbank, choosing a spot that was far enough to give him a headstart if Thorin’s wolf took issue with him, but close enough that he could still easily see and hear each dwarf.
The transition was usually mildly uncomfortable, but more than a few of them groaned, Bilbo included, as their already sore bodies and injuries were contorted. He heard Thorin cry out and felt a pang of sympathy. They could only hope that the change hadn’t reopened any of his wounds.
Many of the Dwarf-wolves turned to look at him again, but there was no hostility this time. Kíli looked like he wanted to play again, but he confined himself to pacing between his brother and the riverbank, his tail wagging manically as he watched Bilbo. Dwalin huffed once and went to join Óin at Thorin’s side, dismissing Bilbo.
For his part, Bilbo laid down and watched them all warily, though he felt another pang when he saw Thorin, lying on his side and whimpering, one paw over his muzzle. Óin was nosing at him carefully, but no blood came away on his white muzzle, and he walked off after a few minutes to rejoin his brother, so Bilbo assumed it was all right. Most of them seemed too tired to do much, choosing a spot to lie down and dozing in their family groups. Fíli and Kíli occupied themselves with playing tug-of-war over a stick when Ori refused to play with them, preferring to nap between Dori and Nori. Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur had created a snoozing dog pile on Balin, who didn’t seem to mind, if his snores were any indication.
Dwalin didn’t sleep, sitting between Thorin and his nephews, watching the younger Dwarf-wolves play, occasionally growling when their play became too noisy, risking waking the others.
Thorin wasn’t asleep, either, on second glance. His icy blue eyes were squinted with pain, but he was watching Bilbo.
He sat up at that, the hair on his ruff rising, but after a moment, he calmed. Thorin was still whining, and there was no aggression in his posture. When he noticed he had Bilbo’s attention, the paw covering his muzzle lifted and he scratched the ground a couple of times, whining louder. The message behind the gesture was clear: come here.
Bilbo hesitated. There had been no attack, not even from Dwalin, but it was difficult to forget the terror of Thorin’s attack from that first full moon. He’d been sure Thorin meant to kill him.
But then…Thorin had said the second time that he had made the pack search for him because they needed him, and he’d let go of Bilbo the first time, as though Bilbo’s cry had startled him--as though he’d wanted him away from his pack, but hadn’t actually meant to hurt him in making that message clear….
And now he wanted him near. To Bilbo’s shock, Thorin had stopped whining and was making a pitiful attempt to crawl in Bilbo’s direction, ignoring Dwalin’s chiding growl.
Well, that decided it. Bilbo got up and trotted quickly to Thorin’s side, giving a smart little woof that meant stop. Thorin obeyed, seeming to relax at Bilbo’s proximity, breathing raggedly. Bilbo knew he would probably kill him in the morning for this, but his fussy hobbit instincts were roused by the Dwarf-wolf’s pitiful state. Unable to help himself, he nosed at the king-in-exile, bestowing little licks here and there, grumbling to himself about stubborn, ridiculous dwarves. When he was satisfied that Thorin hadn’t done himself any additional harm, he circled three times and lay beside him, huffing.
To his surprise, Thorin seemed almost…comforted. His eyes finally closed and he sighed, appearing content. Dwalin snorted, but they both ignored him.
Bilbo spent the night awake, watching over the stubborn, stupid dwarf king he’d somehow come to care about.
In the morning, he continued to fuss, helping Thorin dress and bringing him his share of the food Bombur had scraped together, completely ignoring any protest Thorin tried to make.
When he chanced a glance at Thorin’s face as he packed up what little the two of them had, he saw the king-in-exile trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile.
Thorin stuck close to Bilbo the next morning, letting the flow of words from the hobbit’s mouth soothe him. Before, he would have found the fussing an irritation; now, he recognised it as a sign of Bilbo’s concern, and it warmed him that the smallest member of his pack cared about him so, despite his ill treatment of him. They walked beside each other on the way to the house of Gandalf’s friend, and after they convinced Beorn to let them stay and settled in, Thorin sat himself beside Bilbo, nudging Kíli out of the spot and ignoring his nephew’s pout.
Bilbo looked surprised, but he didn’t comment, just passed Thorin the basket of bread with a smile.
“You’re looking better,” he said amiably. “Food will help. Food and rest.”
Thorin hid a smile, inexplicably pleased with the attention, and deliberately took small portions.
Predictably, Bilbo was not satisfied.
“That’s not nearly enough!” he squawked, and added several more heaping spoonfuls to Thorin’s plate. “There! How do you expect to heal if you take bird portions?”
Dwalin was shaking his head, clearly amused by Thorin not only allowing himself to be mothered by a hobbit, but encouraging it. Thorin ignored him, feeling rather pleased with himself when Bilbo pressed another honey cake into his hand, muttering about stubborn dwarves again.
That night, after Beorn had left them with a warning not to go outside, Thorin took his blanket and followed Bilbo to one of the mounds of hay that were to serve as their beds, though he noted with discomfort that the spot Bilbo chose was as far from the dwarves as possible without actually leaving the building. He followed anyway, and began settling himself right beside the hobbit. Bilbo froze in the act of shaking out his blanket, his eyes large and blinking.
“What are you doing?” he asked, his voice gone rather squeaky.
Thorin hoped his beard and the dim lighting hid how his cheeks pinked. “Preparing to sleep,” he said in as dry a tone as he could muster.
He continued settling in, making a show of fluffing and patting down the hay until it was comfortable enough and pulling his blanket over himself. Being ignored seemed to calm Bilbo, as after another moment, he slowly settled down beside him and relaxed.
That night, Thorin dreamed in his wolf form, of running through the moonlit pines on the slopes of Erebor the way he had as a youth--with a small coppery wolf at his side. He dreamed in his dwarf form, too, of walking those halls again, running his hands over the veins of gold in the walls, feeling the stone sing to him--with a hobbit walking beside him, complaining about walking so far without a proper meal.
If he woke in the morning with a smile on his face, his nose buried in Bilbo’s curly hair and one hand around his arm, the hobbit was polite enough not to mention it.
The next full moon came in Mirkwood, and Bilbo made no attempt to stray from the dwarves, sticking close to Bofur and Bombur. Thorin was anxious and restless, and as soon as he was in wolf form, he was herding all of them together, growling to himself and touching noses with each of them, as though he was counting them. He probably was, Bilbo considered. Dwalin took up a position at the back of the line, facing outward in a defensive position, and Balin and Glóin lay down at the front of the line, the rest of them huddled tightly together in between, all of them quiet and watchful, the sick forest making them all too nervous to play or hunt.
Bilbo felt that he still should have been surprised, despite Thorin’s new habit of putting his bedroll beside Bilbo’s at night, but he couldn’t manage any surprise at all when Thorin finished making the rounds and came to lie down beside him, his large muzzle touching Bilbo’s, and his tail curved around him.
“Do you think he’s all right?”
It was a whisper, barely loud enough to be heard, but Thorin tensed anyway. He’d even felt nervous about his oblique reference to the deal with Thranduil not being their only hope, worried that the guards might have overheard and realised that there was another member of their Company on the loose.
There had been no sign of Bilbo in all the days they’d been here, and Thorin was trying to take it as a hopeful sign--if they hadn’t seen him, then the elves hadn’t captured him. He was probably just sneaking around the palace, learning the layout of the elves’ stronghold and trying to find both them, down in the dungeons, and a way for them to escape.
He refused to entertain the thought that Bilbo wasn’t inside at all, that he was still wandering the forest, starving and alone, or that he’d died of thirst, or been eaten by the spiders….
“He’s fine,” he rasped out, taking refuge in rage as he always did when he was worried. “But he won’t be for long if the guards figure out he’s here because of your prattling!”
Kíli fell silent, and Thorin felt a pang of remorse.
“He’s all right, Kíli,” he said, softer, resting his head against the bars. “He’ll be fine. Master Baggins is clever and resourceful. He won’t let the elves get their hands on him.”
“I hope he’s clever enough to get us out of here,” Glóin groused.
“Of course he is!” Kíli said, offended.
“Clever or not, I don’t think he’s a match for the elves,” Balin said, but his tone was gentle and regretful.
Kíli harrumphed and Thorin could hear him and Fíli whispering about what plans Bilbo was undoubtedly concocting to ensure their escape, each idea wilder than the last, all of them unworkable and all of them ending with the humiliated elves bowing to Bilbo’s superiority. He sighed and sat against the wall and listened, and hoped against hope they were right. Their hobbit wouldn’t let them down.
It was becoming a habit for the full moon to fall when they least needed it, Bilbo decided. They had just escaped from the elves, and now they would have to endure this before they could make for Laketown. They were all tired and wet, so he assumed there wouldn’t be much motion, as there hadn’t been in Mirkwood.
He was wrong. As soon as they were changed, the three youngsters began chasing each other back and forth, keeping their excited yips quiet. Bilbo had plopped down on the ground immediately, but he looked without lifting his head when Thorin started trotting around, touching noses with the rest of the group. It took him longer than he wanted to admit to figure out that Thorin was organising them for a hunt as best he could when they couldn’t risk howling.
It was a good idea. They’d been fed in the dungeons, but not as well as they could have been, and their escape had left them all hungry.
Unfortunately, Bilbo had not been a prisoner, and therefore he hadn’t had the benefit of regular meals. He’d been feeling lightheaded and weak even before the change; now, he couldn’t lift his head. He was exhausted, and mostly starved, and still very wet, and cold, and depressed after being yelled at by the dwarves for his escape plan. He’d given as good as he got at the time, but now he was just sad, which didn’t help on top of all of his other problems.
Thorin came over to him then, almost quivering with excitement, and he nosed at him, grumbling, “Get up, get up, it’s time to hunt!”
Bilbo ignored him, blinking wearily at the Dwarf-wolves lined up and watching him with anticipation.
Thorin whined, agitated, and paced away and back again, nudging him in the side. “Get up!” he growled, though it was still a friendly sound.
He didn’t want it to become unfriendly. Reluctantly, he pushed himself to his feet, his legs quivering with the effort and his tail tucked between his legs, his ears and head low. He only made it two steps before he collapsed again, and he made no effort to rise again, blinking with exhaustion.
Thorin yapped something at someone. Bilbo’s ear flicked and he closed his eyes.
When he woke, Balin and Óin were with him, but the rest of the Dwarf-wolves had gone. He tried to sit up, but Óin’s warning growl convinced him to stay put. He dozed off again. The next time he woke, it was to the pleasant feeling of being groomed and the equally pleasant smell of meat.
He opened his eyes to find a large hunk of venison in front of him. His nose twitched with interest and he stretched out for it, nibbling tentatively. This met with an approving noise from whoever was grooming him.
Thorin. Bilbo supposed he should have been surprised, but he wasn’t, again. He was just comforted.
He ate most of what was in front of him before sighing, turning his muzzle into Thorin’s thick fur and relaxing. He slept again.
He’d never slept through a transformation before, but he must have slept through this one, because the next thing he knew, he was a hobbit again, dressed and wrapped in a blanket, tucked against a broad chest and sitting on the deck of a barge.
“You need to rest,” Thorin--for, of course, that was whose chest he was sitting against, and the owner of the arm that came to wrap around him when he tried to sit up--said lowly. “Óin says you’re malnourished and haven’t been getting enough sleep.”
Bilbo didn’t bother putting up a fight, gladly burrowing into the embrace and closing his eyes. “Nowhere to sleep safely,” he muttered. “Couldn’t steal too much food…elves might have got suspicious.”
His throat was sore, his head aching, and his nose felt full. He coughed after he spoke, hard enough to shake his whole body.
Great--a cold. That was the last thing he needed.
Thorin ran a hand over his messy hair. “I am sorry. We--I--should have been more grateful to you.”
He waved a lazy hand without opening his eyes. “Water--bridge,” he slurred.
He tucked Bilbo closer to him and pulled the blanket tighter around him. “Sleep, my friend.”
Bilbo’s cold worsened until he was unable to leave bed. Thorin stayed beside him, tending him personally even when Óin urged him to seek his own rest.
It was more than just guilt over his ungrateful attitude after their escape from the elves’ dungeons, regardless of what Balin thought. They all shared a portion of that guilt, as they had all complained. Not that helping to look after Bilbo didn’t assuage some of that guilt--it did help, and it helped assuage his guilt over not noticing how thin and exhausted Bilbo had become during their imprisonment.
But it was more than that. Thorin felt a strange yearning, like a pull in his chest, that he had never felt before in his life. It was similar to how he felt drawn to the Mountain--for if he wasn’t with Bilbo, he was staring at the Mountain, the peak so close now, within his grasp--but different, too. More real, almost, causing a physical pain in his stomach if he was away too long.
There was no way to ask Bilbo, as he was delirious with fever, babbling nonsense, but Thorin liked to think that he felt the same, for if Thorin was away too long, he returned to find Bilbo whimpering and restless, resisting anyone else’s attempts to calm him. He only relaxed when Thorin came to him again, putting his arms around him and humming in his ear.
The cold was not serious, Óin said. Bilbo would be better in a few days. Thorin was glad. It meant that he could allow his mind to wander to the dreams he’d been having since that first night at Beorn’s. He had denied himself, up to now, but he couldn’t ignore them any longer--couldn’t deny that he had been looking forward to the hunt after their escape not because of their confinement, or because of being unable to hunt for the last three moons.
No, he had been looking forward to finally running beside Bilbo in real life. Bilbo’s collapse had sent ice through his veins. When Óin pointed out how thin his hobbit had become, Thorin was beside himself. The hunt had become frantic, a necessity to complete successfully so he could feed his…friend.
He didn’t allow himself to use any other word for it. Not when he hadn’t spoken frankly to Bilbo of his feelings. Later--after the Mountain was theirs, then they could relax and he could tell Bilbo of how he had come to regard him, and ask him to remain always by his side. He would shower his hobbit in gems and pretty baubles and promise that he would never want for anything--Thorin would be king of Erebor, he could easily make such promises with no fear of breaking them later.
And Bilbo would either refuse him and go home, or he would accept, and make Thorin complete.
Then--then he could use another word, the word he longed to use.
Bilbo’s fever broke during the night, and when he woke the next morning, to Thorin his smile was brighter than the rising sun.
If the last full moon had been miserable, Bilbo wasn’t sure he was going to survive this one. He’d had a little over a week to heal since the battle, but it was still dangerous to transform with such a large wound, not to mention his head injury. His only consolation was that, having taken the blow meant to kill Thorin, he knew that Thorin’s remaining injuries were not life-threatening even with the transformation. It was the same for the rest of the Company--painful and miserable, but nothing they couldn’t live through.
He, on the other hand, lay trembling on the floor beside his cot, waiting for the inevitable. The elven healers had been able to give him no comfort before they left to join their own kind--there would be no mingling during the full moon. The Elf-wolves would run together on the plain between Erebor and Mirkwood. The Man-wolves would stick to the areas around Dale and Lake-town, seeking out what game they could there. The Dwarf-wolves would, according to the elves, be found before the doors of Erebor and the eastern plain beside the Mountain. Goodness only knew where Gandalf had gone off to--he’d taken one look at Bilbo’s ring after the battle and spirited it away to parts unknown.
And one lone Hobbit-wolf would lie in this tent, waiting for death, be it by Elf-wolves who saw him as an outsider, a vengeful Thorin returned to his king status, or his own injuries. Bilbo tried not to feel sorry for himself; instead, he lay with his eyes closed and tried to picture the Shire, imagining himself running through the rolling hills turned blue and silver by moonlight.
The pain was immense, when it came, whiting out Bilbo’s vision and tearing a scream from his throat. He didn’t know how much later it was when he came to, dizzy and half-blind with pain, his heart pounding in his chest. He could feel the tell-tale rush of bleeding, smell the tang in the air, but he couldn’t tell how bad it was.
One of the packs was howling, he realised when the ringing in his ears faded enough to tell.
Thorin and the Company, he registered belatedly. It took him even longer to understand what they were saying.
“Come, Little Wolf, come! It’s time to hunt! Come back to the pack!”
Did they not know of his injuries? He didn’t know. He’d been too afraid to ask for them, other than to seek assurances from the healers that they were all alive and relatively well, and bedridden so that he could not seek them out, even if he’d been brave enough. The elves and dwarves still did not mingle, and he hadn’t seen Bard or any of his people since the battle, so with Gandalf gone, he wasn’t sure how much communication was happening between the three groups. Thorin had been unconscious when Bilbo blacked out, and he woke alone with the elven healers, so his assumption that Thorin knew could easily be incorrect.
“Little Wolf, where are you?!”
They sounded afraid. He didn’t know why, but he didn’t want them to be afraid.
He could not rise. Weakly, he pointed his nose as high up as he could and gathered breath to howl back.
“I am here! I am here!”
It was weak and thin, and he had no idea if they’d heard it or not. They fell silent and he howled once more.
“I am here!”
They burst out into a cacophony that he couldn’t interpret, so he simply laid his head down and closed his eyes. They grew louder, or closer, he wasn’t certain until he heard their large paws thundering across the ground outside. They were very close when all the noise stopped and Thorin howled again.
Bilbo could not lift his head, so his response was weak and muffled.
They ran into his tent shortly after, all thirteen of them crowding in, but it was Thorin who barked.
He was at Bilbo’s side then, sniffing him all over and nudging him as though if he only pushed him enough, Bilbo would stand and be well again.
“You cannot die,” he whined, licking Bilbo’s head. “Do not leave me.”
Bilbo grunted as Óin and Bofur pressed their paws against his injury. Not as effective as hands, but hopefully it would help.
To his surprise, Thorin walked around behind him and lay down, pressed up against his back, and resumed grooming Bilbo’s head with long, gentle strokes of his tongue.
“Not angry?” Bilbo whimpered, and Thorin quickly licked his muzzle to hush him.
“No,” he whined back. “No.”
Bilbo sighed, relaxing a little. It wasn’t the same as when they were a hobbit and a dwarf and could communicate properly, but it would have to be enough, since he didn’t expect he would make it through the night.
“Stay,” Thorin yipped anxiously, and soon, the rest of the Company was echoing him, begging Bilbo to stay with them.
He didn’t have the strength to answer anymore. Instead, he focused on remaining awake, breathing in and out, though his eyes were shut and he couldn’t move.
He must have lost the battle at some point during the night, because he woke screaming weakly, thrashing in pain.
“Hold him still!” That was Óin, he registered vaguely. “The wound is open again!”
Strong arms wrapped around him, and Bilbo went still, tense and quivering with pain, his breaths coming harsh and shallow. He couldn’t see, but a moment of reflection revealed that was because he was squeezing his eyes shut. He left them that way, and clenched his teeth for good measure when Óin began prodding around his injury.
Then Óin started removing the broken threads so he could sew the wound closed again, and Bilbo gripped Thorin’s arms and moaned pitifully, squirming a little despite himself.
“Shh,” Thorin said low in his ear, “stay still. It’s all right.”
He was trying to sound comforting, but there was a waver in his voice that he could not hide.
Bilbo went still again, his heart pounding against his ribcage like a battering ram against a door, his breathing shaky. The air smelled of blood, and something that turned his stomach.
“Sh-should have--” He broke off to swallow. “Should have…worn the shirt you gave me.”
Thorin’s arms tightened. “Why didn’t you? I thought you couldn’t have been badly injured because of it.”
Bilbo’s chuckle was bitter to his own ears, and it made him cough. “Not…worthy of it,” he croaked between short, sharp gasps. “Not worthy of you.”
“Bilbo…. Bilbo, no, that’s not true!”
“Keep him quiet,” Óin cut in. “Quiet and calm. And someone needs to go and fetch those elves from wherever they’re lazing about, or he’s not going to make it.”
He heard three sets of feet bolt out of the tent. Thorin ran a hand over his hair and nuzzled into his neck, no longer saying anything--but Bilbo could feel him trembling and his grip on him never slackened. He thought perhaps that was a good sign. They could talk later, he hoped, when he was better.
He gripped Thorin’s arm and leaned into his gentle nuzzling, trying to express what he could not say.
Thorin was hovering again--he knew he was. He simply couldn’t help it. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say that he didn’t care to try.
He’d almost lost Bilbo. Not just once, no--he couldn’t possibly settle for mediocrity like that. If Thorin Oakenshield did anything, he went all the way.
He had almost lost his mind completely, and Bilbo with it, his hobbit rightly disgusted with his honourless behaviour. Then he’d almost killed Bilbo, nearly dropped him to his death, too lost in his spite and greed to value his hobbit properly. Then Bilbo--good, brave Bilbo--took the blow meant for him and almost bled to death twice.
And Bilbo thought he was unworthy of Thorin? Thorin knew better--he knew he didn’t deserve Bilbo. By all rights, he should be locked up far away from him, and Bilbo should be escorted home with an honour guard and all the treasure that could be packed into as many carts as could be arranged.
Thorin was selfish, however, and he stayed by Bilbo’s side. While he was confined to bed, Thorin sat beside him, either working while Bilbo slept or talking to him if he was awake, telling him about his negotiations with the Men from Lake-town and the elves of Mirkwood.
“I’m surprised you’re allowing the Men into Erebor, and being so friendly with the elves,” Bilbo said, his voice quiet but warm, after Thorin confessed to giving Thranduil his jewels back and beginning talks for a new trade agreement between the three peoples.
Thorin’s face heated and he looked down at his hands. “I thought it would please you.”
Bilbo’s smile stayed with him long enough to get him through another meeting with Thranduil with his temper and feelings of generosity intact. Thranduil’s obvious confusion helped with that, too.
After Bilbo was allowed out of bed, Thorin followed him around, fretting over him wearing himself out. Bilbo finally got annoyed after three days.
“Don’t you have anything useful to do?” he asked after Thorin insisted on carrying him up a short flight of stairs. “Such as, possibly, ruling your kingdom?”
Thorin accepted the reproof and backed off--he really did have other work to do--but it didn’t stop him from hovering whenever he had a break to visit his hobbit.
To his surprise and delight, today, Bilbo just looked at him with a fond smile and sighed, shaking his head.
“Help me down?” he said, gesturing at the stool under his feet that he’d climbed on to reach a book for Ori.
Thorin grinned and happily obliged, setting Bilbo carefully back on his feet. Bilbo just shook his head again and took the book to Ori, and he didn’t scold Thorin for following two steps behind him.
There were so many dwarves that it would have been overwhelming if Thorin hadn’t kept him close with an arm around his shoulders. The whole of Erebor would be a mighty pack, indeed, even with some of them assigned to stay at the gates.
“Aren’t there this many hobbits every full moon?” Thorin asked, with no judgment in his tone, only curiosity.
Bilbo shook his head. “We don’t worry about making one large pack and forming a hierarchy. Instead, everyone stays in family groups and goes off their own way. After my parents died, I was usually alone, unless the Gamgees asked me to help mind their pups. That didn’t happen often.”
“I see. Stick close to me, then, and you’ll be fine. Or another member of the Company,” he added quickly, looking a bit embarrassed at his presumption.
Bilbo smiled. “I have no intention of leaving your side,” he said simply.
Thorin relaxed and gave him one of those bashful smiles that he’d been giving more and more often since they had finally settled things between them. It was as though he still couldn’t quite believe his luck at finding himself not only forgiven, but still counted among Bilbo’s closest friends. He’d almost refused Bilbo’s apology, so certain was he that he was the only one deserving of any guilt and blame, until Bilbo lost his temper.
“You can accept my apology, or you can get me a pony so I can head back to the Shire right now!” he had cried, rather shrilly. “I stole from you, knowingly and willingly, something that I knew you held dear! Whatever my motives, it was wrong and you had every right to be angry, and I am very, very sorry!”
He’d dissolved into another coughing fit then, still not fully recovered despite being allowed out of bed, and Thorin had fallen all over himself in accepting the apology and fussing over his burglar, insisting on escorting Bilbo back to his room so he could rest. Bilbo had accepted Thorin’s apologies for trying to kill him, banishing him, and being stupid with much more grace. They agreed that Bilbo was wrong to steal the Arkenstone and give it to Bard, but also that he’d had no choice because of Thorin’s sickness, and that Thorin had very definitely overreacted and crossed a line, but that he couldn’t be held entirely responsible because of the sickness.
Though Thorin had tried to argue that last part very adamantly, even threatening to cut off his braids and shave his beard in penance.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Bilbo said with mild reproof, reaching over and fussing with Thorin’s hair to hide how much the thought disturbed him. “We’ve both apologised and you’ve retracted the banishment, so there’s no need for such dramatics.”
Thorin had subsided, an odd smile on his face. It became apparent over the following weeks that if Bilbo wanted to end an argument, fussing with Thorin’s hair was the quickest way, as the newly crowned king would immediately close his mouth and smile, sometimes blushing a bit if they were in public. As a bonus, those were the arguments he usually won.
Bilbo had a fairly good idea of why that worked, too, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
Here and now, Bilbo kept close to Thorin, guided to the inner circle where the rest of the Company was waiting, the other dwarves milling about outside it. Everyone seemed so excited and happy, the quest no longer weighing them down, and Bilbo relaxed at the familiar atmosphere. Granted, there were still a lot more people around than he was used to, but it wasn’t all that different from the hunting parties of his youth, otherwise.
He double-checked his belly wound, but found it unchanged. Óin had warned him not to overdo it tonight, but since the stitches were out, he shouldn’t have to deal with anything more than some discomfort when he transformed. Certainly nothing life-threatening this time, which came as a huge relief.
“Tonight, will you sing first?” Thorin asked politely as they waited for sunset, shivering in the cold.
Bilbo blinked at him. “Sing?”
“Howl,” he corrected, grimacing a bit. “Dwarves call it singing. We don’t howl at the beginning of the night; we sing our hunting song. I’ve never heard the hobbit hunting song.”
“Oh.” He tilted his head. “Do all dwarves share the same song, then?”
Thorin nodded, frowning. “Yes--it was taught to us by our Maker, and we have passed it down through the ages intact. It is tradition.” He paused. “Hobbits do not have a single hunting song?”
He shrugged a little, wishing he was still wearing clothes so he could hook his fingers in his pockets. Although the clothes would be quite ruined come morning, so it was best if he wasn’t.
“No, we don’t have a Maker to teach us these things,” he said, shifting uncomfortably. “We have Yavanna, I suppose, but she’s never spoken to us, if we are indeed her children, as the stories say. We have--well, we don’t speak about the wolfing in the Shire. It isn’t considered proper, as we’re all extremely unrespectable at that time. But I suppose we have what you dwarves might call family songs. They change from generation to generation. I sing the song taught to me by my parents’ voices intermingling. He sang the Baggins song, she sang the Took song, and together they created a harmony that became my song, and the three of us sang that song together, until my parents died. If I’d been the marrying kind, our children would have created their own song from my song and my wife’s song. So it has been for generations beyond counting. It’s one of the ways we bond with our families.” He sniffed, twiddling his nose. “Not nearly as impressive as being taught a song by a Valar, I’ll grant you.”
“No--I like it,” Thorin said quickly.
“Me, too,” Kíli piped up from behind Bilbo, making him jump. “After we hear it, can we sing your song with you? Please, Mister Boggins?”
Bilbo huffed with irritation that was mostly feigned. “You have your own song you’re supposed to sing. Won’t the Iron Hills dwarves be offended?”
He didn’t think they would want to hear a Hobbit-wolf sort of song, not when he’d heard their traditional hunting song before. It was deep and long and low, full of stone and mountains and full bellies and surviving through the hardest winters when bellies were empty. Hobbits didn’t sing about that sort of thing, no matter what form they were in.
“If they are, they can stuff it,” Bofur said cheerfully from across the circle, and was met with a chorus of agreement from the rest of the Company.
Bilbo felt his face heat. “It’s really not that important, we can just sing your song.”
Thorin put a hand on his shoulder. “Please.”
“Yes, please, Bilbo!” Ori squeaked.
“Sing us your song!” Dori said brightly, nodding.
The transformation came on them before any further discussion was made. Bilbo shook out his coat, as was his habit after settling into Hobbit-wolf form, and since Thorin and the others had requested it of him, he pointed his nose at the sky and howled, hitting the notes of his childhood through long-ingrained habit rather than real concentration. He wasn’t sure if the Dwarf-wolves would understand the message behind his howling--goodness knew he had enough trouble understanding them at times, unless they were being extra clear in their yaps and growls and howls--but he sang it unaltered anyway.
For it really was a song, he realised. He’d never thought of it in that way--never thought of it at all. But it was a song he and his parents had made, about green grass and good food and good friends and following your feet down the Road, for all roads lead home, sooner or later, and home is the best thing of all, wherever it may be.
Unable to resist, he did alter that last bit--whoever it may be, he howled instead.
As always, it made him feel joyous and energetic, and after the last note faded away, he bounded up to Thorin, his tail wagging furiously, and mouthed around his muzzle, making happy noises that made little sense, but really just meant I’m ready, let’s go, let’s go. Thorin rumbled, a pleased sound, and gently nudged him away. Bilbo was confused until Thorin tipped his head back and started howling. He’d forgotten, in his excitement, that they had yet to do theirs.
Except…that wasn’t the dwarvish hunting song, he realised as Kíli joined in, followed by Fíli, and gradually, the rest of the Company. There were a few notes out of place, some off-key howls garbling the meaning, but they were doing their best to imitate his song. The rest of the dwarves outside of their circle seemed confused, remaining silent and milling about, but it didn’t stop the Company from continuing.
His heart full to bursting, Bilbo threw his head back and joined in, louder and fuller than he ever had, gently guiding them to the right notes. When they finished, he was so overjoyed, feeling so connected to his pack, his family, that he couldn’t hold still, springing and bounding around each of them, yapping and yelping his love, bestowing familial kisses even on a reluctant Dwalin--though his huff was obviously more for show than anything else, as he lowered his head to allow Bilbo access to his forehead when it was his turn.
When he finished with the rest of them, he nearly bowled Thorin over, eagerly pressing the length of his body against Thorin’s and rubbing before focusing his attention on covering as much of his face as he could reach in kisses. Thorin gave another pleased rumble, but this time he didn’t nudge Bilbo away.
Gradually, he calmed down on his own and backed off, feeling a little embarrassed now, and aware that they probably wanted to get on with their own hunting song. He stood panting in the trampled snow, his tongue hanging out and his eyes bright, his fluffy tail still wagging.
The dwarves did do their own song then, and while he’d heard it before, Bilbo was struck with fresh awe at the sound of hundreds of Dwarf-wolf voices raised, making the air and his very bones reverberate with it. At the end, Thorin snorted, his version of saying let’s go, and swung out in an easy lope, heading north. Bilbo made to take up his usual spot between Bofur and Bombur, but Balin nudged his rump until he got the message that he was supposed to go next, following right behind Thorin, where Balin usually was. He didn’t know what had changed, but he obeyed happily, a new spring in his step, his tail habitually low but wagging with each stride.
They were tracking a large herd of elk through the foothills, from what he could tell. Having never actually hunted with the Dwarf-wolves before, Bilbo didn’t understand most of the signals Thorin gave, but he figured he couldn’t go wrong by just following him around. This was apparently the correct choice, because Thorin gave him a friendly nuzzle when he saw him there and led him toward a stand of scrubby bushes. Bilbo copied Thorin’s stance, lying in the snow but ready to pop up at any moment, and watched as the groups that had split off went around the herd. One of the groups stayed on the eastern side, while the other went around until the northern side was blocked.
If this had been a hobbit pack, Bilbo knew there would have been a lot of waiting. Hobbit packs were small, and they had to wait for an opportunity to go after the sick or weak members of a herd--when they bothered with large game at all. Bilbo had only been a part of a deer hunt twice, in his youth, when the Fell Winter necessitated going farther afield and bringing back larger amounts of food to sustain everyone. The rest of his life had been spent chasing rabbits and other small creatures, when he chose to hunt. Usually it wasn’t necessary, and he just ran for the joy of it.
Apparently, this dwarf pack of hundreds was large enough that they didn’t feel the need to wait. After everyone was in position, Thorin sprang up, and on that signal, the rest of them broke from cover, charging the elk and sending the herd scattering. Some of them ran at the Dwarf-wolves, meeting quick ends in blunt, strong jaws, but the bulk of the herd went toward the west, where there were no Dwarf-wolves.
Bilbo could see the strategy--the western side would have been upwind of the elk, alerting them before the dwarves were ready, and also there were pockets of deeper snow there. Unfortunately, he could also see the problem. Dwarf-wolves had big, thick paws that were ideal for digging--but their bodies were also big and thick, heavy and dense, and they sank in the deep snow just as much as their intended prey did. The elk were always elk, not shifters, so they were more used to their bodies and freed themselves faster.
For the most part, he didn’t think this was such a bad thing. Plenty of elk were brought down anyway, having gone the wrong way, straight into the teeth of their pursuers, or they were too young or too old and slow. There wouldn’t be a shortage of meat to go around.
No, the only thing about it that tugged at Bilbo’s heartstrings was when he saw the three young Dwarf-wolves attempting--and failing--to bring down their own elk. Ori had broken away from his brothers to join Fíli and Kíli, and the three of them had pursued a very large elk into a pocket of deep snow. Ori was having better luck freeing himself, but he still wouldn’t be in time to stop the elk, who was only inches from freedom. Most of the older Dwarf-wolves were busy, the Company included, and even if they weren’t, they couldn’t help, either, as they would become mired in the snow just as the younger ones had.
Bilbo was no Elf-wolf--he couldn’t walk atop the snow, but he was a Hobbit-wolf. He was light on his feet, and his paws were big and wide, almost designed to be snowshoes. He changed direction with a low woof at Thorin, heading to help the three youngsters. He heard Thorin following him, but the king abruptly stopped at the edge of the deep snow, making a sound of distress when he saw his nephews stuck in the snow. Bilbo ignored him, since that wasn’t why the boys were upset, and crossed the snow in great leaps, his big paws saving him from sinking too far in.
The elk had just regained its footing on the other side when Bilbo reached it, and it dazedly turned to face him, its antlers still up as it failed to register the threat.
“Little Wolf, no!” Thorin barked.
Bilbo ignored him, making one neat lunge, his teeth clamping in the elk’s soft neck, and he immediately curled himself into a ball, hanging on for dear life as the elk tossed its head, flinging itself about in an attempt to dislodge him. All it did was make Bilbo’s small sharp teeth rip the flesh, and he tasted blood in his mouth and clamped down tighter.
“I’m coming!” Ori yapped, and a few seconds later, the elk stumbled to its knees as the young Dwarf-wolf joined him at its neck.
Soon, the three sons of Durin had made it across the snow, just in time for the elk to topple, suffocated. Fíli and Kíli pranced around it, yipping and yapping excitedly, nudging Ori and congratulating him.
Bilbo ignored them and went to Thorin, whining apologetically and nudging his muzzle. Thorin sighed and gave him a lick across the head that let him know it was all right.
Everyone feasted cheerfully--though Fíli, Kíli, and Ori were rather disappointed when Thorin took over their kill and let Bilbo have first pick. Bilbo didn’t really understand the significance of that, given that Hobbit-wolves didn’t worry about silly hierarchies, but he did know that it was significant. Even if technically, by hobbit-reckoning, the kill was really Bilbo’s anyway, since he’d drawn first blood on it. He wouldn’t have claimed it, and he knew Thorin was aware of that.
With his belly full and warm contentment turning his limbs sluggish, Bilbo wandered away from the kill to find some bushes to lie under. To his surprise, Thorin followed a few minutes later, looking amused at Bilbo’s sated sprawl. Bilbo gave an annoyed grunt when Thorin nudged him; he didn’t want to get up.
Thorin let out a long, low groaning sort of noise that raised the image of a warm hearth and comfortable rugs in Bilbo’s mind.
He huffed and climbed to his feet. That did sound quite nice.
Thorin let out a noise that would have been a chuckle in his normal dwarf form, and then he led the way back to Erebor, going slowly to accommodate Bilbo’s shorter legs and tired state. Bilbo followed with less irritation than he’d care to admit, because of course, he would follow Thorin anywhere.
The gates of Erebor stood open, the guards lying nearby, so no one would get left outside naked in the morning. The stairs were a bit tricky in his Hobbit-wolf form--a complication he hadn’t foreseen. His legs weren’t that long, and stretching to reach the next step started straining his belly wound very quickly. After the third time he tripped and slammed his face into the next step up, Thorin bounded back down to him and picked him up by the scruff of the neck.
Instinctively, Bilbo tucked his legs up and held very still, and they reached Thorin’s chambers in short order. Thorin placed him very gently in front of the crackling hearth and retreated to the door, his movements sheepish and uncertain suddenly.
Bilbo thought that over, as it seemed very odd at first. It couldn’t be because he helped Bilbo up the stairs--that had, unfortunately, been necessary, which was why he hadn’t protested being carried like a cub. It certainly wasn’t because he had delivered Bilbo to the comfy place by the fire that he’d promised in order to get Bilbo moving.
Except he’d brought Bilbo to his chambers, not to Bilbo’s own merry blaze that he’d seen to before heading out. Bilbo remembered his embarrassment over his perceived presumption before the hunt, his insistence on Bilbo hunting at his side, his snarling defence of Bilbo’s right to eat first.
Bilbo was very definitely right about the hair thing, then.
He stood and shook himself before walking over to Thorin. He studied the king, trying to work out how to say what he wanted to say when they were both wolves who could barely communicate anything abstract that wasn’t about food or comfort. It was so much easier in their normal forms--and yet Bilbo knew that Thorin the dwarf would never have been secure enough to treat Bilbo as a suitor would, while Thorin the Dwarf-wolf had no qualms about treating Bilbo like his mate. Until now, of course, when his normal dwarf brain seemed to have twigged to what he was doing and that he hadn’t actually asked whether Bilbo would mind first.
Apparently, he’d been staring too long. To his shock and amazement, Thorin slowly put his tail between his legs and whined, lowering himself to the floor and rolling onto his back, his belly and neck exposed. It was a little bewildering, given how much larger and stronger Thorin was. He could tear Bilbo to pieces, and yet here he was, submitting, whimpering softly in a plea Bilbo couldn’t understand.
Bilbo huffed, nosing at Thorin’s cheek and neck, grumbling in his fussy hobbit way. He had no idea whether or not Thorin understood his muttering, telling him to quit being so dramatic and get up and come join him by the fire already and must dwarves always be so stupid and stubborn--but cautiously, Thorin rolled back to his feet and stood, keeping his belly low to the ground and his tail tucked.
Sighing, Bilbo decided to be more direct. He grabbed Thorin’s ear in his teeth, ignoring Thorin’s yelp, and hauled him over to the rug in front of the hearth. He released the ear and gave Thorin a firm shove with his shoulder. Normally, such a shove would have done nothing but possibly land Bilbo on his bum, but right now, Thorin was surprised enough that he allowed himself to be shoved, lying down with a rather confused expression.
Bilbo gave a satisfied sniff and walked around to Thorin’s other side, flopping down against him and happily soaking up the warmth of the fire on one side and the big, shaggy Dwarf-wolf on the other. He let his head lie on Thorin’s foreleg and closed his eyes with a contented sigh.
After a moment, he heard a rhythmic thumping and smiled to himself--Thorin was wagging his tail, something he’d never known him to do, thumping it against the floor in a testament to his own happiness.
No, Bilbo thought as he fell asleep, he hadn’t misinterpreted any of it. He might be starting to understand these silly dwarves of his.
Morning found a very comfortable hobbit waking with a smile on his face. Thorin was still asleep, judging by the rumbling snores, with one leg sprawled across Bilbo’s and an arm wrapped tightly around his waist, keeping Bilbo firmly pinned against his chest.
Bilbo didn’t mind in the least, despite a very private part of Thorin jabbing him in the bum. If every morning after the full moon was this peaceful with Thorin by his side, then he would be insisting on it becoming a tradition, regardless of anyone else’s feelings on the matter. Even his belly wound didn’t hurt much.
He knew when Thorin woke--the rumbling snores stopped, and he went very, very still. He even seemed to be holding his breath.
Bilbo patted his arm. “Good morning.”
Thorin breathed in slowly, his tone cautious. “Good morning.”
Well, this tension just wouldn’t do. It was time for some hobbit directness.
He squirmed, turning in Thorin’s arms until he could see his face. He looked uncharacteristically vulnerable, his expression so unusually hesitant that it moved Bilbo to pity, and he released Bilbo as though he’d been burnt, withdrawing. Bilbo caught his arm before he could get far.
“Would you like me to do your braids for you?”
Thorin blinked, his shock plain. “My…. But--you don’t know--if you do this--”
“I know exactly what it means, Thorin, or I wouldn’t have offered,” he said, his tone calm and even despite his amusement at Thorin’s gawping. “I’ve lived amongst dwarves for almost a year now. It couldn’t possibly have escaped my notice the importance you all attach to your hair, and only the dimmest of Bracegirdles wouldn’t have investigated to find out more information.”
Thorin was still staring as though he expected to wake up any minute now, and Bilbo softened, touching the ends of Thorin’s beard that he had only recently started allowing to grow out.
“Trust me, Thorin. I know what I’m offering. I think you will make me very happy--and I would like to spend the rest of my life trying to make you happy.”
He stared for a moment longer--and then a bright smile broke over his face like the dawn. He pulled Bilbo back into his arms, which was quite perfect, really, because that was the only place Bilbo wanted to be.
“You’ve already made me happier than I ever imagined possible,” Thorin murmured against his skin, and he pressed kisses across Bilbo’s cheeks, over the bridge of his nose. “You may braid my hair if I may braid yours.”
Bilbo smiled against Thorin’s lips. “Every day.”
Thorin sighed happily, and there were no more words between them for a long, long time.