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The Age of Miscommunication

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Thorin is a difficult man to make sense of.

He is not, as Bilbo thought at first, simply a foul-tempered, uncivilized, mule-headed git who hates most things but Bilbo in particular.

That isn’t to say that he’s not rather foul-tempered, certainly uncivilized by Hobbit standards, extremely mule-headed and frequently resembling the general form of a git, but he’s not just that.

He’s also stupidly, stubbornly brave, deeply and utterly devoted to his kin and those close enough to be considered such, fierce, passionate, loyal, honorable, and, Bilbo will admit to himself and himself alone, not altogether unpleasant to look at.

And it’s possible that he doesn’t hate Bilbo quite so much as he had indicated when they first met, at least not anymore.

There’s been a tentative...something between the two of them for a while now. Not quite friendship, but not quite the same resentment and dislike that they’d shown each other when they’d set off either. It felt like a sort of truce, an alliance. Something that could maybe, Bilbo quietly thought and didn’t quite hope, become something a little more.

That something is nearly crushed outright after the stone giants, when Thorin leaves his cheeks burning with humiliation and anger and his heart flattened somewhere near the soles of his feet.

But then comes everything after that.

And even then, Bilbo can’t quite stand to let Azog kill the dwarven king, though he does mentally call Thorin quite a string of names as he runs forward to put himself between the Pale Orc and his (friend?) companion, of which ‘mule-headed git’ is one of the more polite ones.

And then comes the Carrock, and the embrace, and the something suddenly feels a lot more like something.

Bilbo leans heavily against the rock he’s claimed, still a little in shock from the day’s events. The others are seated in a ring about the fire, battered but whole, resting for tomorrow’s journey off the Carrock.

Thorin stubbornly refuses to rest, despite his injuries, insistent on sitting up and polishing Orcrist, not far from where Bilbo watches the dancing flames and tries not to think too hard about how close they both had come to dying today.

The hobbit looks up when Balin joins him, lowering himself to the ground on his other side with a groan. The dwarf shoots him a smile as he pulls out his pipe and leather pouch of pipeweed. Bilbo mournfully wishes his own pipe hadn’t broken in his bag all the way back before Rivendell. If ever there were a time when he could have used the comfort of a pipe in hand, it had to have been now.

As if he can read his mind, Balin holds out the pipe to him.

“Oh, Valar bless you,” Bilbo says, incredibly grateful, to which Balin merely tips his head, grinning.

“Ay, you saved the life of our king tonight, laddie. I expect any member of this company would give you a puff off their pipe, or the shirt off their back, you ask nicely enough.”

“Ah,” Bilbo responds eloquently, flushing. “Well, that’s very kind, but completely unnecessary, thank you very much. I think the shirt I’ve got will do just fine. But the pipeweed is more appreciated than you know, Master Balin.”

“Oh, I think we can drop the titles by now, don’t you, Bilbo?” Fíli chimes in cheerfully.

“And besides,” Kíli adds, with that same suspicious brightness. “I wouldn’t rush to turn down the offer of an extra shirt. It’s still a long road to Erebor, and you never know what could happen to someone’s clothes in the meantime.” He blinks at Bilbo, looking utterly sincere and innocent.

Someone snickers, and Bilbo sees Thorin look up, eyes narrowed warily. Dwalin gives a warning “Boys,” that doesn’t quite hide his amusement.

Fíli ignores him, raising his voice to talk over the older dwarf. “But I’m sure if anything did happen to your clothes, Uncle would happily let you borrow his!”

Dori abruptly breaks into a coughing fit, which does little to cover the snickering that Bofur isn’t even trying to hide.

Thorin barks something in Khuzdul which makes the boys both duck their heads, though the sparkle in their eyes looks far less than contrite. Bilbo rather suspects that they would have gotten the blunt end of a sword chucked at one of their heads if Thorin hadn’t been so bruised.

In fact...are his ears blushing?

It’s Balin who steps in to save the poor lads from nepoticide. “You’re right about one thing, Kíli,” he says loudly, leaning back against he and Bilbo’s shared rock. “It is still a long road to Erebor.” He smiles again. “But I think our burglar has proven up to the task, eh?”

“Let’s hope so,” Bilbo sighs, tearing his eyes away from the distinctly flushed-looking dwarven king. He takes another puff off the pipe before passing it back. “The stories you all have told me...it sounds like a kingdom out of a fairytale. I hope very much to get the chance to see it for myself.”

“And I hope you will have the opportunity to see it as it once was,” Thorin says quietly, and for a moment their eyes meet, and it takes more effort than it should for Bilbo to break the contact.

He looks away, telling himself the heat that’s risen on his own cheeks is only the heat of the fire. He directs his gaze instead towards the distant mountain they’d looked upon earlier, now cloaked in darkness, and he senses, somehow, that the others are doing the same. “It’s got such a presence to it, even from a distance,” he says softly, and there’s a general murmur of awed agreement from the others. “Why, in all my fifty years, I never thought I’d see such a thing, and we haven’t even arrived yet!”

Thorin’s sword hits the ground with a clatter, and Balin chokes on his pipe.

The hobbit doesn’t look at Thorin, too busy thumping Balin on the back. Once the dwarf seems able to breathe again, he looks up, to find thirteen wide pairs of eyes fixed on him.

“What?” he says defensively, though he’s not sure what he’s defending.

“You’re how old?” Kíli squeaks.

Bilbo frowns at the young dwarf. “I’m fifty years old. Well, fifty-one, come springtime. Though it is not very polite to ask someone their age so bluntly,” he tells him primly.

Fíli makes a choked sound, and Nori lets out a vicious string of swears in Khuzdul.

“How could Gandalf do such a thing?” Glóin gasps, sounding, to Bilbo’s horror and discomfort, near to tears.

“I’m going to kill that blasted wizard,” Dwalin says, deeply shaken. His face is worryingly pale.

“I can’t believe we didn’t even notice,” Bombur moans.

“Now hold on just a moment,” Bilbo says, puffing up slightly, although there’s a sinking feeling in his stomach. “I may not be in my absolute prime, but I’m hardly frail, there’s no need to make such a fuss.” He looks at Thorin, but the dwarf won’t meet his eyes. He’s staring down at the still-dropped sword with an expression Bilbo can’t even begin to interpret. The hobbit’s stomach drops further.

Balin places a gentle hand on his shoulder. “No, laddie,” he says kindly, though there’s a grim note to his voice that matches his brother’s. “We don’t think you’re frail at all. In fact, you’re much braver than any one of us realized.”

Óin jerks as though stung. “You shouldn’t be up this late!” he yelps, glancing around at the others, who are suddenly nodding hurriedly, varying looks of shock, guilt, and determination spreading across their faces. “Especially not after the day you’ve had! You need your rest!”

“What - excuse me!” Bilbo says indignantly, as several dwarves suddenly appear at his side to manhandle him to his feet.

“You’ll sleep in our group with my brothers and I,” Dori informs him, tone leaving no room for argument. “It’s hardly safe or right for you to have to sleep on the outskirts of everyone, in the cold!”

“I’ve been doing quite alright so far!” Bilbo snaps, twisting his arm free from Dori’s admittedly rather gentle grip.

Ori’s face crumples. “We didn’t know, Bilbo, we’re so sorry!”

“We will not be so negligent again,” Dwalin vows solemnly from Bilbo’s other side, an almost frightening look of determination on his face. Next to him, Bifur nods, and says something in Khuzdul, clearly in agreement.

“Now, come along, let’s get you to bed,” Nori adds, helping Dori steer him into the center of the Ri brothers’ little cluster of bed rolls.

It is only because Bilbo is so utterly baffled by the dwarves’ behavior, and that he truly is too tired to even try and make sense of it, that he allows himself to be put to bed like a fauntling.

Tomorrow, he hopes as the brothers gather around him (and it is rather nice to sleep with the warmth and protection of others around him for once), perhaps the dwarves will have gotten their heads on straight and remembered that he has saved their hides on more than one occasion now, and that there’s absolutely no cause to treat him like some feeble grandfather.

He’s only barely middle-aged, for yavanna’s sake!

***

Thorin is avoiding him, he’s almost sure of it. ‘Almost’ because it is possible that Bilbo just can’t see him through the barrier of dwarves that are constantly there. Being ridiculous.

“Dwalin,” Bilbo says, very politely and not at all irritably. “Can I please have my sword back now?”

Dwalin looks at him guiltily. “I don’t know where your sword is.”

“Dwalin, I can see it, it’s wrapped up in your cloak,” he snaps. “I’m not blind.

The dwarf shuffles his feet, glancing around like he’s hoping someone else will come to his aid. “Well, Bilbo, it’s just that it’s…very sharp, see.”

“I know it’s sharp. It’s a sword. That’s why I have it,” Bilbo says, very patiently, wondering if perhaps Dwalin was struck in the head and none of them noticed. “Remember when we were attacked by the big scary orcs and I needed it to defend myself? Yes? So do you think you might give it back now?

Ori, who’s been edging closer throughout this exchange, hesitantly speaks up. “He does seem awfully careful about not hurting himself with it, Dwalin. And he’s right, he could need it if we meet enemies again.”

Dwalin scowls, looking faintly betrayed that Ori isn’t siding with him. “If we’re attacked by enemies again, they’ll have to get through all of us before he’ll have to use it,” he grumbles, which is a rather sweet thing for someone being such an ass to say, but he does return the sword.

“Thank you,” he tells Ori, his earlier exasperation still evident.

Ori nods sagely. “I understand,” the dwarf says, in a very understanding tone. “I do have two older brothers.” And he walks off, leaving Bilbo to puzzle over what on earth that has to do with anything.

He makes it through packing his few remaining supplies for the trek down off the carrock, probably only because he has so few that it only takes him minutes after he’s recovered his sword, but nearly the moment he’s finished Bombur swoops in, Bifur beside him.

“That’s an awfully big bag you’ve got there! You’re very strong to have carried it this far!” he says earnestly. “But I can carry it for a bit, lad! You don’t want to get tired too early in the day!”

Bilbo warily edges away, hand unconsciously reaching down to make sure no one has helpfully stolen Sting again. “That’s...very kind of you, Bombur, but quite unnecessary, thank you.”

Bifur signs something, which Bombur translates. “He says if you do get tired, he’s happy to let you ride on his shoulders for a ways!”

Bifur nods rapidly, looking just as sincere as his brother.

Bilbo stares at him, and thinks very seriously about the possibility of kneecapping the dwarf just to send a message to the next member of the company who decides he might be too old to walk.

“Thank you, Bifur,” he says through his teeth, shooting him his very most polite smile, the one usually only reserved for when Lobelia comes to visit. “But I think I’ll manage.”

He avoids their entire trio as much as he’s able once their group sets off. He also does his best to avoid Dori and his strange fussiness, Dwalin and his ridiculous overbearingness, and any of the line of Durin, because it’s a perfectly lovely day and he refuses to ruin it with the awkwardness of seeking out anyone who is very clearly avoiding him.

This leaves him with very few options for who to walk beside. He settles on Glóin.

“Hello,” he greets the dwarf, hoping for a shred of respect and normality.

Glóin beams down at him, and abruptly his eyes fill with tears, crushing Bilbo’s hope.

“I’m sorry,” he sniffles. “It’s just...I keep thinking about my little Gimli, and I...I just don’t know what I’d do if he were out here in the middle of all this!” His voice rises to almost a wail, and Bilbo sees several of the other dwarfs glancing back in concern. He hurriedly pats Glóin’s arm, hoping none of the others come over to see what’s going on.

“There there, Glóin, I’m sure you must miss him terribly, but there’s no need to work yourself into such a state when he’s safe at home, right where you left him!” he tries to reassure him.

Glóin begins to cry even harder.

“Maybe it would make you feel better to talk about him a bit!” Bilbo blurts out, fearing that this is the exact opposite of the right move, but desperate to try anything. “What’s he like, your son?”

To his immense relief, Glóin’s sobs turn to hiccups and sniffles, and he smiles a watery but happy smile. “Oh, he’s...he’s brilliant, he is. Fierce as his dam, and nearly as strong.”

Bilbo smiles encouragingly. “There you go! He sounds like his father’s son.”

Glóin beams, and an idea occurs to Bilbo. It might be borderline impolite, but then, the dwarves have been more than borderline for...well, the entire journey, honestly.

“You know, I might have kids someday,” he tells Glóin, the faintest hint of sharpness in his voice. “In the future,” he adds pointedly, just in case the dwarf missed the message. “When I’m older.”

To Bilbo’s shock and humiliation, Glóin bursts out laughing. He stares up at him, as the dwarf’s laughter turns to chuckles, and he pats the hobbit on the head.

“Of course you will, lad,” he says warmly. “And we’ll get you safely back to your shire so you can do just that.”

Bilbo grits his teeth, and refuses to walk beside any of the dwarves for the rest of the day.

***

Or at least until they finally encounter Beorn.

Who’s a bear.

Fine, a shapeshifter in the form of a bear. Bilbo still thinks Gandalf could have bothered to share the bear part ahead of time.

Despite the fur, he decides he likes Beorn, who’s gruff but kind, and apparently thinks Bilbo is just adorable. Reluctantly, he allows the “little bunny” nickname, and resigns himself to the apparently inevitable fate of being carried on someone’s shoulders, dwarf or not.

It’s worth it to finally be able to sleep indoors again.

***

He sleeps again in Dori’s little cluster, the entire company sprawled out on the floor around Beorn’s warm hearth. They’re not all as huddled together as they have been on the road, but the Ri brothers still end up looped around him, one on each side not blocked by the fire, and the rest of the company surrounding them.

Bilbo has to pick his way out from the center of the sleeping dwarves when the dawn light creeps in through the windows and wakes him, taking care not to step on any fingers or faces.

Bombur is the only one up before him, though Beorn must be around somewhere because the table Bombur is seated at is covered in food, which Bilbo makes a beeline towards, eyes fixed on the plate of what his nose tells him are fresh-baked biscuits.

He’s just reached the edge of the annoyingly tall table and is about to clamber up onto a chair to reach the truly lovely-smelling platter when a pair of hands wrap around his waist, and, ignoring his indignant yelp of surprise, lift him up and place him in the chair.

He stares at Bombur, who smiles cheerfully at him as he returns to his own seat. “Good morning, Bilbo! Sleep well?”

Bilbo sputters in response. “Excuse me!” he says, not awake enough yet to think of a more eloquent way to express his outrage at being picked up and placed in his chair.

Bombur’s smile fades slightly, and he starts to look slightly worried. “Did you...not sleep well then?”

“Who can, with Dwalin snoring away like an old man just a few feet away?” Kíli complains, plopping down in the chair next to Bilbo with a yawn.

Bilbo glances up at him sharply.

“It’s so much louder indoors,” Fíli adds, appearing on his other side. “I swear, I thought there was a second bear in the house.”

Bombur scowls reproachfully at the two, even as he slides the crock of butter across to them as they grab for the bread. “If you lads are lucky enough to live to his age, you can snore your lungs out as you please.”

Slowly, the others trickle in and join them at the table, but Bilbo gives them only monosyllable greetings, keeping his eyes fixed on his breakfast as he eats.

It doesn’t taste nearly as good as it should have.

***

After breakfast, Bilbo slips out to the garden, unfollowed for the first time in a while. It’s truly a beautiful garden, much wilder than anything in the Shire or Rivendell, but healthy and vibrant and full of life. Beorn clearly has a green thumb, unsurprisingly.

There’s a small stone bench in the shade beneath the rose bushes, sheltered and private. A lovely pond lies in front of it, where shining fish unlike any he’s ever seen swim lazily beneath the water, and lily pads bloom across the surface. Bilbo tucks himself away into his little hiding spot, and breathes in the scent of flowers. For the first time in a while, Bilbo feels like he can breathe again.

But...it’s not what he was hoping for, though he didn’t realize what he was hoping for until he finds it isn’t there.

It’s not the same as home.

It’s peaceful, yes, but. It feels like something’s missing.

It’s that the garden is different, he tells himself. It’s not that he is. And, yes, maybe he has gotten used to the swarm of loud, obnoxious dwarves around to pester him. So what? Maybe he’s just more adaptable than he expected, that’s all.

The commotion, when it inevitably arises, is almost a relief to hear, and he slips cautiously through the bushes towards the sound of clanging swords.

As he gets closer, he realizes the dwarves are laughing, and he relaxes, continuing on with curiosity rather than fear.

He finds them standing in a loose ring in a clearing, cheering and whooping as they watch Dwalin and Fíli duel. As he watches, Dwalin takes Fíli down with a swipe of the flat side of the sword to the knees, and several dwarves laugh. Scanning the crowd, Bilbo notices Thorin is nowhere to be found.

Fíli jumps to his feet, rubbing his shin but grinning good-naturedly. He spots Bilbo, and, brightening, steps out into the circle to stand beside him as Kíli takes his place.

“It’s all in good fun, don’t worry. Dwalin trained us when we were little, said we’d be true sons of Durin the day we could beat him in a match. Hasn’t happened yet, but we give it our best shot every so often,” he informs Bilbo cheerfully.

Kíli’s small and quicker on his feet, but it becomes clear quickly that Dwalin has the advantage of patience. He doesn’t move forward to strike first, not once, merely standing back and waiting. Kíli takes the first attack. And the second. And the third, darting forward again and again, Bilbo flinching each time their swords clatter together. Dwalin blocks him with ease every time.

Within minutes, Kíli begins to slow ever so slightly, tiring himself out.

That’s when Dwalin strikes.

With surprising swiftness for a man of his size, he goes on the offensive at last, cracking their swords together over and over, the powerful blows pushing Kíli back until he staggers under the barrage.

Finally, Kíli misses a block, and Dwalin brings the blade forward, pushing the point into the younger dwarf’s chest.

Kíli raises his hands in surrender, and Dwalin steps back, laughing. He puts out his hand for Kíli to shake. “Good match, lad!” he booms. “You’ll beat me one of these days yet, but not today.”

“Tomorrow, then!” Kíli declares cheerfully, accepting the handshake. “And in the meantime, I’ll settle for watching you kick someone else’s arse after mine!”

He looks around, grinning brightly at the rest of the dwarves, none of whom seem to be jumping at the opportunity.

“I’ve got bruises to last till the end of days from scuffles with you over the years, I don’t need any more!” Balin says, shaking his head when Dwalin looks at him hopefully.

Fíli suddenly pokes Bilbo in the side. “You should try!”

Abruptly, the whole group of dwarves turn their eyes on him.

Bilbo glares daggers at Fíli, flushing under the weight of everyone’s attention. “That’s a ridiculous idea. A terrible idea, really!”

“Yes, Fili, that is a ridiculous and terrible idea,” Dwalin says firmly, scowling furiously at the younger dwarf.

“Now hold on just a moment,” Bilbo says, turning his glare to Dwalin.

“Why?” Fíli defends. “Look, if he’s going to have a sword, he should know how to use it. I’m not saying try to kill him, but why not teach him the basics?”

“You helped teach us, why not him?” Kíli chimes in.

Dwalin isn’t quite looking at Bilbo as he shifts uncomfortably, and maybe that’s what gets to him.

“I want to learn, actually,” Bilbo declares, looking around with narrowed eyes, challenging anyone else to call it a terrible and ridiculous idea.

No one does.

He pulls out his sword, and walks into the ring, chin held high. Then he immediately falters, uncertain of what to do next.

Dwalin heaves a great, exasperated sigh, and picks up his own sword. “Fine, fine lad, I’ll show you what I can.”

“Plant your feet,” he instructs. “Like this.”

Bilbo copies him, feeling exceptionally awkward.

“Now, your grip. See how I’m holding it?”

Bilbo adjusts his hands, testing the way it changes the balance of the sword.

“Alright, now I’m going to swing at you. I’m not going to hit you, I’m going to hit your sword, and I want you to try and keep your grip, okay?”

He nods, and braces himself, waiting.

What are you doing!?” a voice barks, and Bilbo startles so badly he almost drops the sword.

Thorin looks positively murderous as he storms towards them.

Dwalin blanches.

“Are you mad?” Thorin snarls, barely even glancing at Bilbo as he glares around at the group of guilty-looking dwarves. “I never would have thought you this brainless!”

Dwalin’s gone very still, eyeing the king as though wondering if he’s going to have to put his own sword to use. “The lad wanted to practice,” he offers cautiously.

Thorin whirls on him, a thunderous expression on his face. “And what? You thought to let him? He’s got no business swinging a sword, and you have no business allowing him to!”

Bilbo, despite the sword still clasped in his hand, feels very, very small, humiliation burning at his cheeks.

The rest of the dwarves, for once, are very quiet, none of them looking at him, or at Thorin.

Bilbo rather wishes he could sink into the face of the earth.

To his surprise, Nori is the first to speak up. “You won’t protect him by pretending there won’t be any more danger for him to face,” he says quietly.

“He won’t face anymore danger on this quest,” Thorin says lowly. “We won’t let him.”

“Don’t you think I should have a say in this?” Bilbo finally manages to drag the words from his chest.

No,” Thorin snarls, moving swiftly over to him and putting a finger in his face. “As long as you are a part of this company, you are under my protection, and you will listen to the rules I give you!”

Bilbo can’t even speak, the fury and frustration lodging in his throat, his mouth opening and closing uselessly.

“Damn your rules,” he finally spits, vision blurring with rage and, to add to his humiliation, moisture. “And damn you and this whole bloody condescending company!”

And he whirls around and marches off with as much of his shredded dignity as he can muster, refusing to even glance at any of the expressions around him.

In his emotion-filled state, his feet take him back through the gardens to the only bit of safety and peace he knows in the familiar bench, where he once again tucks himself away to simmer.

The sense of calm he was hoping for doesn’t return to him. The trees are just as green, the roses smell just as lovely, and the bees buzz just as peacefully, but now it all just grates against his already tightly-stretched nerves.

“Feckin’ dwarves,” he hisses, swiping harshly at his eyes with his sleeve. He scoops up a pebble and whips it viciously against the trunk of a nearby tree, but it doesn’t take the edge off his anger.

“A fair evaluation,” Nori’s voice comes from behind him.

Bilbo bites down on the instinctive urge to tell him to fuck off, though he can’t quite muster the manners to greet him politely. “What do you want, Nori?” he asks, all sharp edges.

Nori seems unintimidated. “To say that you are not the only one who can see that Thorin is rather a fool sometimes.” Without invitation, he sits down beside him on the bench.

“He’s something, there can be no doubt of that,” Bilbo says bitterly back.

Nori merely smiles, his odd, knowing smile.

To Bilbo’s relief, he doesn’t try to continue the conversation, allowing the hobbit to nurse his wounds in silent company. He takes out his leather case of knives and sharpening strap, tending to the weapons with care.

Bilbo focuses on the fish darting beneath the surface of the water. Slowly, with the sound of the knives in the background, some of the stress between his shoulder blades begins to unwind.

Just as he’s beginning to feel a bit more level-headed and almost calm, a knife slams into the trunk of the same tree he’d thrown stones at earlier, and Bilbo nearly falls off the bench in shock.

He stares at Nori in wide-eyed bewilderment. The dwarf looks rather satisfied with himself.

“Nori, what in Yavanna’s name are you doing?

Nori shrugs, picking up another knife. “Entertaining myself.”

The second knife strikes so close to the first that the blades are almost pressed against each other.

Bilbo watches, impressed and fascinated despite his irritation.

Nori looks at him out of the corner of his eye. The third knife strikes perfectly parallel on the other side of the first one.

“Would you like me to teach you?”

Bilbo blinks at him, surprised yet again. “You’re not afraid of what Thorin will say?”

Nori smirks, and with a graceful flick of the wrist, a fourth knife sinks into the tree bark. “I am not. And neither should you be.”

Bilbo stares at the neat arrangement lodged in the tree for a long moment. Then, he gets up, walks over and collects the knives, carrying them gingerly back to the bench. He holds them out to the dwarf. “Teach me.”

Nori grins.

His first five attempts either fall to the ground or miss the tree entirely. The sixth sticks, but barely, dangling loosely with only the tip stuck in the bark.

“Here,” Nori interrupts him before he can try a seventh time, catching hold of his arm. “Your aim is improving, but you’re using your shoulder too much. The energy should come mostly from your wrist. This time, don’t toss it like you’re throwing a ball. Flick it, like you’re skipping a stone, only sideways.”

Bilbo takes careful aim, letting out a long, steadying breath, and finally lets the seventh knife fly, doing his best to follow Nori’s guidance.

The blade hits dead-on, sinking into the wood almost to the hilt.

He lets out a startled laugh, and Nori smiles hugely.

“Nice job, lad,” he laughs, ruffling Bilbo’s hair. The hobbit can’t even find it in himself to be annoyed by the gesture.

“Yes,” comes a voice from behind them, and Bilbo’s smile immediately vanishes, replaced by a scowl. He turns to find Thorin, standing just past the roses, looking very awkward.

“Thorin,” Nori starts, but the other dwarf puts up a hand.

“It’s alright, Nori, I’m not angry,” he says quietly. “Would you give us a moment?”

Nori studies the king for a long moment, and the hobbit takes some bitter pleasure in seeing that he looks nearly as uncomfortable as Bilbo felt.

Finally, Nori nods. He claps a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder for just a moment, before quietly disappearing among the flowers.

Bilbo turns away from Thorin, crossing his arms, and pointedly ignores him. He no longer cares if he looks like a sulking child.

After a moment’s hesitation, Thorin joins him on the bench anyway.

“You’re a good shot,” he says at last.

Bilbo snorts, wondering if it physically hurt him to say those words. “And is now the bit where you tell me how I’m too much of a feeble idiot to hold a knife, and order me to knock it off before I lose a finger?” he replies scathingly.

“The way I have treated you is not a mark against you,” Thorin says quietly. “I...have not behaved at all as I ought to. But it is not because I think you an idiot, or any less brave than the other members of this company.”

“You could have fooled me,” Bilbo scoffs, though not as heatedly as before, uncertain of where this is going.

Thorin shakes his head. “I have a responsibility to this company, and everyone in it. But...especially you. You are...you are not a warrior.”

“This is veering very close to you telling me I’m too much of a feeble idiot to hold a knife and I need to knock it off before I lose a finger,” Bilbo points out.

There’s that familiar scowl back again. “That’s not what I’m - look, would you just listen?”

“Is it two fingers?”

“I’m trying to say that I’m only trying to protect you!”

“Yes, I gathered that. Because I’m a feeble idiot who you think can’t hold a knife,” Bilbo says, taking a little too much pleasure in the clear discomfort and frustration he’s causing in the dwarf.

Thorin takes a deep breath, pinching the bridge of his nose before letting it out very slowly. “By the valar, you’re worse than Fili and Kíli when they were little.” He releases his nose, looking out at the pond. “The truth of the matter is that I’d rather they weren’t here either. I’d rather they were safe at home with their dam, that they never had cause to pick up a sword in their lives, and I wish the same for you. They’re with this company because they have a right to their homeland, and that is not something I can deny them. But I would give my life to protect them, and I would do the same for you. Because I have chosen to lead this company to Erebor, the lives of everyone in it are my responsibility, yours perhaps even more than the others. Especially considering you are only here because I asked you to be a part of this. You have no birthright which you seek to reclaim. It is not an insult to you or your capabilities to say that. If anything, it is a credit to your selflessness and bravery that you would join this company, despite having no stake in it yourself. That is why I must protect you.”

Bilbo is quiet for a long minute.

“You’re correct. I did join this company because you asked,” he says at last. “And I don’t ask that you respect me. I know I’m not a warrior. I only ask that you treat me with respect,” he tells him.

Thorin bows his head slightly, chuckling. Bilbo watches him cautiously, but senses he isn’t being laughed at. “You are a clever little thing,” he says, voice warm. “And quite right.”

“And I want to learn to use a sword. Properly,” Bilbo adds. “Because your condescension isn’t going to protect me from dragons or anything else,” he says firmly.

Thorin nods slowly. “That is fair. My earlier reaction may have been...an overreaction. I’m afraid I have not been acting much like a proper adult recently.”

“Yes,” Bilbo says agreeably.

“If Fíli and Kíli survived being trained by Dwalin, I expect you will too.”

“I expect so,” Bilbo agrees brightly.

Thorin sighs tiredly. “You must forgive me, Bilbo. Fíli and Kíli are still young, but it has been a long time since I have had such a young child in my care, and never in circumstances such as these.”

Bilbo blinks.

He blinks again.

“Pardon me?” he says politely at last, not quite comprehending.

“None of us had any idea how young you are when we asked you to join us, we never would have asked if we had,” he says fiercely, an angry undertone to his words, though it doesn’t seem to be directed at Bilbo. “You must understand, Bilbo, that adults aren’t perfect, and…we don’t always handle things the way we ought to. I, certainly, have handled things very badly, only because it startled and frightened me so much to find out this far in that we had a child in our midst.”

Bilbo’s mind has gone oddly blank from sheer bewilderment. “Thorin, I’m fifty,” he says.

Thorin looks at him curiously. “Yes, I’m aware. You told us.”

Bilbo frowns at him, utterly baffled. “So why are you - wait a moment.” At last, the gears in his head start turning again, and something clicks. “Thorin, how old are you?”

Thorin’s forehead creases, looking equally befuddled. “I’m one hundred and ninety-five.”

Bilbo lets out a disbelieving laugh, and finds he can’t stop. Thorin is staring at him as though he’s lost his mind. Bilbo feels a little like he has.

“Thorin,” he says, trying desperately to rein himself in and regain some dignity. “For a hobbit, I’m middle-aged.

The king gapes at him. “You’re - what?

Bilbo has to blot at his eyes, having laughed so hard he’s almost crying. “Most hobbits my age are married with kids of their own. By my race’s standards, I’m practically an old bachelor. By the Valar, Thorin, have all of you really thought I was a child this whole time?”

Thorin has flushed a deep red. “It was - I mean you didn’t look - ”

“And that’s why everyone’s been treating me so oddly!” He laughs, leaning back on the bench, feeling strangely light. “I must say, as absolutely ridiculous as this is, I’m rather relieved.”

Thorin looks at him in bewilderment. “You are?”

Bilbo runs a hand through his curls, still chuckling. “I was certain you thought I was too old to handle myself.”

Thorin stares at him for a long moment, and then suddenly bursts out laughing as well. His head tips back, and his shoulders shake as he laughs.

He looks...well, rather beautiful, Bilbo thinks.

“Ah, we have made some assumptions, haven’t we?” Thorin sighs, still smiling.

“Too many,” Bilbo agrees. “You know, it’s possible we would have been friends much earlier if we took greater care of such...cultural differences.”

“Perhaps,” Thorin agrees, bowing his head slightly. “It seems, then, that I owe you another apology for a completely different reason. I was arrogant, in failing to consider that not all are as dwarrow in this and in many other regards, and I caused you much grief which could have been so easily avoided.”

Bilbo shakes his head in response, a smile still on his lips that he can’t quite shake. “Ah, there’s no true harm done. And I can hardly blame you, I suspect I would have made the same mistake, were our positions reversed.”

“The truth was perfectly evident, had I taken more care to consider it,” Thorin returns, watching him. “You see, you certainly don’t look elderly.”

Bilbo dips his head graciously. “Well, I haven’t gone grey just yet in any case.”

“You also don’t exactly look like you ought to be a bachelor, no matter what you say,” he continues in a low rumble.

Bilbo is beginning to think he’s going to be bright pink for the rest of his days at this rate. “Ah,” he says eloquently. “Well, I do believe that’s about the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

Thorin looks abashed, but there’s a spark of hope there too. “I believe that’s something I can remedy, if you’ll let me, Master Burglar.”

And Bilbo decides, well, fuck it. Perhaps it’s finally time for some clear communication, and just a pinch of bravery.

He looks Thorin straight in the eye, takes him by the collar, and kisses him.

To his immense relief, Thorin doesn’t hesitate to kiss him right back, hands coming up to gently cup the sides of his face. The kiss lasts only a few lovely seconds, but at long last, Bilbo feels like they’re on the same page.

When they break apart, the dwarven king is flushed as pink as he is. “Though it’s a pity it has taken us this long, I certainly think we have the potential to be great friends, Master Thorin,” Bilbo tells him, fingers tangling gently in the handsome mane of black and silver hair.

Thorin chuckles, pressing their foreheads together. “The greatest, I suspect,” he murmurs. He pulls back, eyes warm and bright. “But I think first, we ought to explain things to the others, lest they catch us like this and think very, very poorly of me.”

“Oh, any one of them would probably behead you without question, I have little doubt of that,” Bilbo says with a shudder. “Or worse.” He frowns slightly, feeling a twinge of guilt. “By the way, I am sorry for cursing you and the company in my anger. None of you really deserved it.”

Thorin smiles, standing and tugging the hobbit lightly to his feet. “Come. You can tell the others that yourself, and they will tell you as I do that there is no apology needed. I think they may simply be disappointed that they don’t have a new little brother to fret over.”

“If that’s their fretting, I’m nearly glad to have been an only child,” Bilbo snorts, taking Thorin’s hand as they walk through the garden.

Thorin looks at him knowingly. “Nearly.”

“Nearly,” Bilbo agrees. He looks around the garden as they meander towards the house, in no great rush. The flowers are sweet, the leaves are rich and green, the bees buzz happily, and a sense of calm settles in the hobbit’s soul.

Thorin is a great many things, some of which Bilbo is only just beginning to realize.

But he thinks he may yet be able to make sense of it all.