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Living After Midnight

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It is a real, honest-to-god restaurant, not just a hole in the wall, and that should perhaps be Bilbo’s first indication of all that is to come.

He orders baklava and a Turkish coffee because they are the only two things on the menu that he can afford, and although he’s likely not paying, he’d rather he didn’t appear too extravagant or ungrateful. Plenty of his classmates would have taken advantage of a professor’s lunch invite, but he prefers to at least seem polite. Bilbo is, however, realizing that his preferences don’t often matter as much as he’d like them to, nor do his attempts at politeness.

For example, there are plenty of Mediterranean dives in Berkeley, and most of them are cheap and decent and within walking distance from campus. Bilbo would have preferred to meet at one of those options were it up to him, but as it so happens, he isn’t here on his own accord. Rather, his advisor requested his presence at this stupidly far away and irritatingly posh place that he had to actually take a bus to, all so they could discuss a matter apparently too important for email.

Bilbo would have also preferred an email. He’s been anxious for hours. He’s worried that he’s in trouble, even though he knows he didn’t do anything to warrant it. And to make matters worse, the advisor in question is late. Bilbo has been sitting here in an anxiety spiral, picking at the honey-sticky flakes of his pastry for several minutes that feel like several hours, wondering if he’s about to be stood up by his own advisor, when finally Gandalf whisks in in a flourish of gray.

“Bilbo Baggins,” he announces fondly as he deposits himself ceremoniously at the small, mosaic-topped table. “I apologize for my tardiness. I realized upon leaving that this is not, in fact, a hookah bar, so I endeavored to find—and bring—my own,” he explains, gesturing to the elaborate glass and metal contraption that he’s just set down beside his chair. “Did you know there are no hookah bars on this side of the bay at all? I would have had to have dragged you across the water and into the city were we to find one. Terrible business,” he laments as he bends over his hookah, busying himself with attaching hoses to valves and pouring water from a travel-sized bottle and shaking out some tobacco from a drawstring pouch into a small clay bowl before lighting what appears to be a hunk of coal atop the entire operation. Bilbo stares, both mesmerized and mortified, certain they’re about to get kicked out for such a display.

“I did not,” he says awkwardly, folding his arms across his body defensively. “Know about the shortage of hookah bars in the East Bay, I mean. Erm, pardon my ignorance Professor Gandalf, but are you allowed to—”

Gandalf inhales as the hookah bubbles merrily, then exhales in a series of coughs before offering the mouthpiece to Bilbo. “Care for some? It’s quite a delicious blend, lavender-vanilla flavored.”

“Oh! No, thank you,” Bilbo says weakly, sitting back, blinking in the sweet-smelling smoke. “But I appreciate the offer.” This is a lie. He hardly appreciates it at all. He just wants to know why he’s here. He wants to end his suffering.

But Gandalf doesn’t appear to be in a hurry. He sits back and narrows his eyes thoughtfully, something alarmingly conspiratorial flickering in them as he puffs away on the hookah. “Suit yourself, dear boy,” he mumbles almost to himself, and then for a very long while indeed, he says nothing at all. He just smokes and smiles. Bilbo tries not to grind his teeth.

After forcing a baklava into his mouth, chewing it slowly, and then swallowing, Bilbo decides he can’t stand it anymore. “I hate to skip over pleasantries, I really do, but I’m the sort of person who jumps to the worst-case scenario given a mystery, so I suppose I’d really like to know whether or not I’ve done something wrong,” he blurts, feeling his cheeks heat up the second the words leave his mouth. “If you don’t mind.”

Gandalf smiles around the mouthpiece of his hookah before he coughs out a gale of smoky breath, shaking his head. “You really are a nervous, fidgety little thing, aren’t you?” he asks, not without fondness. Bilbo feels his face turning red, but before he can defend himself, Gandalf sits decidedly upright and looks him in the eye with some degree of sudden and terrifying gravity. “I’m afraid we’re not here to remedy one of your errors, Mr. Baggins, but one of mine. You see, as your advisor, I have failed to fulfill one of my chief duties.”

Bilbo’s eyes get wide. “What duty?”

“The bit about honoring your wishes. You see, I withdrew your application for housing over the summer,” Gandalf says easily, as he flags down a waiter, who eyes the hookah setup but seems otherwise too young and passive to actually say anything about it. “Could you bring us some hummus and pita, sir? Thank you.”

The reality of what Gandalf said has not yet landed, but Bilbo can feel the beginnings of dread seeping in, a hot prickle on his scalp, a weight awful and heavy like lead.

“You—what about my housing application?” he breathes, cocking his head because perhaps…he failed to hear it all properly. Perhaps he misunderstood. “I have a summer job, Mister Gandalf, I have to live somewhere—”

Oh! And you will,” Gandalf assures him, raising his brows. “In fact, I have several suggestions that I think you will find less comfortable, perhaps, but far more affordable and absolutely more character-building.” He says this as if comfort is a small price to pay in the face of other virtues. Bilbo, however, disagrees.

“I liked the international housing dorms!” he confesses, tottering on the verge of panic. “I knew everyone there and I had a nice room and—”

“See! All the more reason to try something new! It’s your first summer in the states, do you know where I lived, my first summer in the states?”

“Sleeping on a bench in People’s Park?” Bilbo ventures, and Gandalf looks positively delighted at that.

“No! Sleeping on benches in the West Village, in New York. Once I had a pigeon attempt to roost in my jacket, and I could not have been happier. I do understand, however, that times have changed, which is why I have gone out of my way to find you a contemporary equivalent to the vast wild, my dear Bilbo,” he announces, holding up a spindly finger for emphasis. “I know it is not what you wished, but I suspect it will be what is best for you.”

Bilbo is at a loss for words, but he must look quite dismayed because Gandalf makes a pitying face at him, puffs on his pipe, and says, “I am not merely a professor of classics, in this case. You asked me to be your advisor, to assist you in making decisions as you pushed forth in your studies here. And it is my advice that you shake yourself up a little. See the world. And if not the world, then at least this odd little city you have decided to study in. I fear that you’ve hardly left campus at all during your first semester here.”

This, unfortunately, is true. Not wanting to give Gandalf ammunition, though, Bilbo takes a bitter and measured sip of his absurdly tiny cup of coffee and argues, “Maybe so, but I was very busy writing papers and going to class and such! I had no time for adventures, I take my studies seriously.”

“Yes! Which is why you should jump at the opportunity for a change of pace and scenery now that it is summer and you have time to explore! I have read your papers, Bilbo Baggins. You at least like the ideas of excitement and grand romance very much. Why not make them a reality? You are young!”

Bilbo has reasons, but they all come down to a matter of preference, and he knows that won’t stand, not here, not against the storm of an eccentric, senile professor high on lavender-vanilla tobacco. He cannot sound like Bartleby the Scrivener, that will never do. The truth is that he likes routine, he trusts routine, and he was somewhat relying on it in order to continue living so very far away from home. He might wish for adventure, but deep down, he prefers comfort above all, and even in new countries and new schools, he will find a foundation to adhere himself to and lean upon it. “I appreciate that you’ve taken such an interest in my livelihood, I really do. I could not ask for a more involved, or dedicated, or…meddlesome advisor,” he finally says, deciding flattery with a touch of passive aggression is the best approach. “But—”

“No buts!” Gandalf interrupts, fishing around in the pockets of his coat until he comes up with a tattered stack of post-its. “The cheapest place to sublet in Berkeley is on Fraternity Row,” he says with authority, peeling off the first post-it and sticking it to their table. It curls at the edges, obscuring the names and numbers jotted down in nearly-impossible-to-decipher script. “The students leave for the summer, and the heads of the fraternities rent their rooms out at incomparably low prices to avoid losing money. But fear not, I assumed already that you were not the fraternity sort of fellow, so I took it upon myself to find you a more suitable alternative.”

He points to what appears to be an address, and Bilbo squints helplessly. “A co-op?” he asks hopefully.

“Well,” Gandalf shrugs. “Something of the sort. This particular house was so severely damaged and neglected by its fraternity that the school chose to evict them, condemn it, and sell it for close to nothing several years ago. They were counting on the city purchasing it for location alone and mowing the house down, but lo and behold, a band of musicians, of all the unlikely candidates, swept in and offered the total in cash, and so. They own it now. It is a house of Orpheus amid Bacchae. They call it the House of Durin, for reasons I am perhaps too old and world-weary to understand. ”

Durin. Bilbo flattens his mouth out and crosses his legs. There is an uncomfortable twisting in his stomach, and he cannot seem to shake the feeling that he is somehow being tricked. “And these musicians, they sublet...to students?” he adds with skepticism.

“Yes, it appears they have an empty room for a substantially lower price than their fraternity neighbors. And because I know you are a patron of the arts and in search of housing, I may have already put in a good word for you.” Gandalf winks then, like he has done a vast favor for Bilbo, when in reality, all he’s done is botched his housing application and nearly made him homeless for the entirety of the summer. Still, Bilbo tries on an expression that he hopes at least looks grateful. After all, Frat Row is not terribly far from where he’ll be working in the upcoming months, and he does appreciate music.

“Fine,” he sighs, worrying a hand through his hair. “And to apply, I just call this number?” he asks doubtfully.

Gandalf offers nothing more than a brisk nod before he begins the process of packing up his hookah, now that he’s done with both his smoke and his update. “Right you are, Bilbo. I shall reconnect with you formally come fall term, but let me know if you need anything of an advisory nature in the meantime. Farewell!”

And then Gandalf is toting his hookah out the door, without having paid for the coffee or the baklava or the soon-to-arrive hummus and pita that he ordered. Bilbo has but one choice, and it is to down his coffee, dump his wallet out on the table, and make a hasty exit in shame before any of the restaurant staff notice.

It is not how he would have preferred their meeting to go, to say the least.

—-

Bilbo’s misfortune continues for the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening.

After a terse text conversation with Thorin, the owner of the House of Durin, Bilbo agrees to meet him downtown to suggest the terms of the sublet. The knot Gandalf tied in his stomach tightens with each step as his tattered Toms hit the pavement, mouth watering at the smell of sesame oil and salty teriyaki and freshly deep-fried cinnamon sugar donuts wafting up from the countless restaurants clustered around a plaza just off Durant. Normally, he’s overwhelmed by the cacophony of warring scents all pouring out onto the sidewalk in this part of town, but he’s uncomfortably hungry tonight, so instead it just makes him frown in idle, pointless longing.

When he arrives at the designated meeting place, he scans the different groups of students all standing about waiting for their food, brow tight and hands clasped behind his back nervously to keep from seeming too fidgety as he tries to discern if any of them could be musicians. He’s picturing the orchestra type, tidy hair and strong fingers and perhaps a bit pompous, as all art majors tend to be. It’s fine, Bilbo knows how to blend in with the self-important sort if he needs to. He’s not terribly worried about that part of it, not as much as the whole moving all his belongings from the international dorms and into some once-condemned fraternity house part of it. He imagines orchestra types would know a thing or two about remodeling, though. He imagines fresh coats of off-white and pale blue paint, holes in the wall from rowdy parties patched up with inexpert but neat stucco. He’s busy wondering about the potential size of his new room when a large, bald man in a leather jacket strides up to him with purpose and offers a hand in what appears to be a fingerless motorcycle glove.

He stares, then blinks.

The first thing Bilbo notices is that this man’s bare knuckles are tattooed. The second thing he notices is that his bare skull is tattooed as well. The mere idea of needles being close to either of these locations on his own body makes Bilbo feel briefly but powerfully faint, so he sways on the spot, vision suddenly hazy. “Are you Bilbo Baggins?” the man asks, raising an eyebrow skeptically and dragging his gaze up and down Bilbo without smiling.

“Yes, I am!” he squeaks as he sticks his hand out reflexively, thinking this certainly cannot be Thorin the musician who he texted with earlier. This man hardly looks fit for the orchestra.

He shakes Bilbo’s hand with such violence that Bilbo’s whole arm is nearly popped from the socket at the shoulder. “Dwalin, at your service,” he says gruffly. “Are you hungry? I’m fucking starved. The rest can meet us inside, I could kill for a curry,” he announces, proceeding to grab Bilbo’s now injured shoulder and steer him through the crowded plaza of tables and into a small, casual Thai restaurant situated between ramen and a Korean BBQ.

“The rest?” Bilbo manages to get out as he scrambles in alongside Dwalin. “The rest of what?”

“The house,” Dwalin answers mysteriously, shoving one hand into the pocket of his very tight, very studded black jeans and fishing out a leather wallet at the end of a chain. Bilbo is trying very hard not to stare, for he’s sure his expression would be fraught with scrutiny and possibly even judgment were it to linger. He doesn’t want to judge this complete stranger, but it creeps up on him anyway, tugs at the corner of his mouth so that he is frowning, arms crossed over his chest. “Not everyone lives there all the time, but we’re in and out for practice, parties, what have you. Every new applicant gets put through the gauntlet to make sure they’re not a narc,” Dwalin explains before ordering a green curry, a yellow curry, and two orders of satay chicken. Then he turns to Bilbo, eyes narrowed. “Are you a narc, Bilbo Baggins?”

“I’m not—I don’t think—perhaps you have the wrong—,” but before his stuttering can crystalize into a coherent defense, Dwalin is turning around and shouting so loudly that it makes Bilbo flinch.

“Balin!” he yells, waving over an old man with a tattered black bandana tied around his forehead and a very long white beard to the register. “I found him! Get your ass over here.” And then there is a very long and dramatic embrace accompanied by much jingling, with both men wearing clothes so heavy with various buckles and pins and zippers and such that they clink together as they squeeze each other tight. Balin might even have a motorcycle helmet under one arm. Bilbo cannot tell because he refuses to stare.

However, this is the moment it occurs to Bilbo that there are other musicians in the world besides orchestra musicians, and he begins to feel very foolish, and very dismayed.

He attempts to interrupt Dwalin and Balin’s enthusiastic reunion with a series of feeble excuse me’s, but none of them quite penetrate the wall of conversation, which is a frequent symptom of being both very short and very English, so he never gets to utter his hasty apology about what a huge misunderstanding this has been. Instead, he ends up helplessly seated at an oily plastic table while more and more loud, heavily bearded men in head to toe leather pour into the restaurant and order more and more food. They all introduce themselves to Bilbo but then proceed to ignore him, and he has never been less certain about his advisors’ sanity. Why would Gandalf recommend that he live with a massively noisy, rude, possibly homophobic rock band with questionable personal hygiene? What about Bilbo has suggested he would not only survive such a living situation, but it would be good for him?

“Aren’t you going to eat?” one of the men—Ori, maybe, Bilbo is trying and failing to keep track of everyone’s names—asks through a mouthful of pad thai, elbowing him in the side. “You’re scrawny.”

“I’m—I’m also broke,” Bilbo admits, before he realizes how awful it sounds. “Oh! By which I mean I have no money on me right now, in this precise moment, but I have money for rent. And I have a job that starts in a few days, I only—”

But before he gets his shoddy defense out in full, the table goes suddenly and peculiarly silent, twelve pairs of eyes all trained on a figure poised in the door.

It is another man, and on paper, he’s indistinguishable from the rest. Long, wavy black hair down well past his broad shoulders. A leather jacket festooned in hand-sewn patches. Tight, torn black jeans sagging under the weight of several studded belts. Steel-toed leather boots laced up his thick calves. And maybe it’s the quiet and commanding authority of his presence, or his stunningly ice-blue eyes, or the way his beard is short and groomed, but as soon as Bilbo sees him, his mouth goes dry and his stomach flips the way it does everytime he sees an insufferably and unfairly attractive man he knows he’ll never have a chance with.

It’s a weird response. An unexpected one. He tears his gaze back to the table and wishes he could melt invisibly into the floor, but Dwalin is reaching for him, clapping him heavily on the back with a greasy hand. “Thorin! Here’s the lad you’re looking for.”

Thorin. So this is Thorin. Bilbo has texted this stupidly attractive man already, and for some reason, that feels stomach-burningly scandalous.

Thorin peels off his motorcycle gloves and shoves them in his back pocket, studying Bilbo with an unreadably steely gaze. “So,” he says then, voice soft. “This is who’s applying for the empty room.”

“Yes, hi, hello,” Bilbo mumbles, lifting a hand to wave awkwardly. This entire time, he’s been sitting here, watching everyone else eat and thinking about how he’s going to have to politely explain to Thorin, when he arrived, that he was no longer interested and this was all a terrible misunderstanding. But now, he can’t remember a word of his pitiful, internally rehearsed speech. In fact, he can't even remember why he was so certain he couldn’t rent from these men in the first place. Thorin and his stupid blue eyes, his careful, broad-knuckled hands, have ruined everything.

“Tell me, what sort of music do you listen to?” Thorin asks him, raising an eyebrow. “Do you prefer glam or thrash?”

“I—what? Simon & Garfunkel is my favorite band. I like The Smiths if I’m in a bit of a strop, Bowie if I’m feeling adventurous, I suppose,” Bilbo answers, aware there might be a note of snark coloring his words because, well. He was set up, meant to sound like a fool no matter how he answered, and he does not appreciate rude conversational traps like that. He does not appreciate anything about this situation. He does not appreciate the small, crooked, tight-lipped smile that flashes across Thorin’s face at his response, and he does not appreciate the way it makes his stomach drop.

“I thought as much,” Thorin answers, shrugging off his jacket and draping it over the chair opposite Bilbo before he stomps off without another word, presumably to go order his food. Bilbo stares, wide-eyed and furious, at his well-muscled forearms as he goes.

Dwalin snorts into the dredges of his curry. “Look, Bilbo, you seem like a nice enough guy, but I’m not sure you’ll fit in. S’nothing personal.”

“I—fine. That’s a perfectly fair assessment. And I understand we’re different, but I don’t need to live with people exactly like me,” he argues, even though only moments before Thorin arrived, he would have vehemently agreed. He would have been grateful to be let down gently so that he didn’t have to come across as intolerant. But apparently, all it takes is a single, highly unattainable man to once-over him with unabashed criticism for Bilbo to start making very, very poor decisions. “And I really need a place to stay, since my last option fell through. I’m quiet and polite, and I make rent on time. I’m a very good housemate.”

One of the younger men, Kili, he thinks, interrupts. “Yeah, but the issue is that you’re quiet. We’re all in bands, we practice all the time, sometimes in the middle of the night, and you, no offense, look like the studying type,” he says this as if studying is a dirty word. “I just think you’ll be miserable,” he announces cheerfully. “And we don’t want a housemate who will hate us.”

“I’m not in summer session,” Bilbo counters, crossing his arms. “I have a job, I’ll be working downtown at a bookstore, and I have noise-cancelling headphones. I can manage.” The table looks highly skeptical, so he tries a new approach. “I lived in a co-op in London for years. I can cook. I’ll make enough for everyone.”

Dwalin, at least, seems tempted by this offer. He makes a face as he turns to consult with the others, and Bilbo’s gaze is inevitably drawn to where Thorin is paying at the register, head bent, profile cutting a sharp, lovely, uneven line. It hurts to look at him, so Bilbo stares at the bits of uneaten food on everyone’s plates instead and realizes that that doesn’t make him feel much better either.

“It’s ultimately up to Thorin, since he’s the head of the house,” Bofur, the only name Bilbo is certain about because he’s the only one wearing a hat, declares, shooting him a good-natured grin from beneath the brim of a grimy ushanka. “But I, personally, would never say no to a home-cooked meal. As far as I’m concerned, my good sir, you’re hired.”

“Thank you,” Bilbo says, face hot as Thorin makes his way back to the table with a plate of pad see ew.

He sits and doesn’t look up as he stabs his noodles repeatedly with a pair of chopsticks. “You need a room,” he says eventually, gaze flicking to Bilbo’s eyes only momentarily before he averts it again, the blue flame eclipsed by sudden darkness. “And we need someone to fill ours.”

“Yes,” Bilbo agrees hastily. There is a bubble of shameful hope in his chest, and he should rupture its giddy swell, but instead he pushes on. “I know it might not be the best fit, but—”

“But it will do,” Thorin sighs, twisting at the waist to dig around in the many pockets of his jacket before he finds and brandishes a crisply folded contract. He pushes it across the table, and Bilbo stares at his rings (one of which is shaped like a tiny coffin) and at the chipped black polish on his blunt nails. “Here’s the rental agreement. No calling the cops for sound complaints. If it’s loud, it’s your problem for signing this. There’s a clause about it,” he explains, pointing at the paragraph in question for emphasis. “Read carefully, please. And if you have no complaints, then welcome to the House of Durin, Bilbo Baggins.”

And so he signs with numb fingers and a strange, fearful tightness in his chest before sliding the contract back, the last line bearing his clumsy signature. Thorin smiles briskly but without warmth, tucking it back into his jacket before forking some of his noodles onto an already cleared plate and then shoving them across the table to Bilbo. “A toast,” he says, “to our new housemate.”

The table erupts into raucous cheers as Bilbo desperately eats. And that, as they say, is that.

—-

No one bothers to follow up with Bilbo or provide him with a key or instructions after the initial meeting, so when move-in day comes, he’s forced to hover outside awkwardly with all his belongings in plastic tubs, wondering if anyone is home as well as why he signed a lease he cannot break with men he likely cannot stand.

The house looks exactly like all the other frat houses on Frat Row, save for the giant black bed-sheet emblazoned with the words “HOUSE OF DURIN” in dripping red paint hung decidedly and defiantly over the faded Greek letters. Bilbo appreciates the overstatement, in spite of himself. He also manages to note that there are unused cement planters flanking the house and a dead, yellow lawn. He could possibly plant something, which means this disaster he’s thrown himself into might have redeemable qualities after all. He hopes so. He desperately needs something to counter the overwhelming sensations of regret and self-recrimination coursing through his body the longer he stands outside, fruitlessly knocking on the door.

Bilbo can hear a muffled, chugging bass coming from somewhere inside the house, so he suspects someone must be home, but his fist against rain-warped wood is simply not enough to make his presence heard. After twenty entire minutes, he gives up and decides to just try the knob. It isn’t locked, so he takes a deep and nervous breath and stumbles in.

It is very dark inside, so it takes a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the shadows. Eventually, a room comes into view: leather couches with heinously tattered upholstery strewn in electric guitars and empty takeout containers. A coffee table that is actually just a piece of unfinished plywood atop four cinder blocks. Many, many red cups in haphazard arrangements, all with less than an inch of beer and a graveyard of cigarette butts and fruit flies floating in them. Bilbo gags at the grisly sight, and then, most tragically, the smell hits him. It’s an overwhelming combination of weed smoke, stale beer, and even more stale BO. He covers his nose with his hand as he wanders to peer into the filthy kitchen and hallway, trying to identify where the music is coming from so that he can at least speak to an actual human person about where the fuck he’s supposed to go. “Hello?” he calls, right before he trips on an amp lying treacherously in the middle of the floor. “Hello, it’s Bilbo! Your new housemate? I’m—I’d like to move my things into my room, if you’d please!”

No one answers, and so he deflates, exhausted already. He thought there might be a welcome committee or something, which he now realizes, as he thinks it, is an absurd notion. There is nothing welcoming about Thorin and his company. They are all angles and bristles and studs and spikes, and Bilbo should have anticipated as much. He should have prepared himself to spend time with men far less soft and fragile and sensitive than he, he should—

Suddenly, someone bursts out of a room and sprints down the hallway, brandishing a baseball bat and yelling some sort of wordless battlecry. Bilbo recoils but does not run, for he is neither quick nor athletic. His skills are limited to being small and rarely seen when he needs to go sneaking, but once he’s spotted, that’s the end of his stealth capabilities, so he supposes this is how he goes down: dashed to pieces on the floor of the House of Durin, joining the fruit flies in their watery, foamy grave.

Fortunately, someone grabs the baseball bat person and halts his motion mid-swing. “Oh, wait, stop, it’s just Bilbo.’”

The bat drops to the floor with a clatter, and Bilbo gazes upon Fili and Kili, who are peering at him with identically startled, paranoid, bloodshot stares. “Shit! Bilbo, we thought you were a burglar. Nearly killed you!” Kili announces, reaching out and drawing Bilbo’s cowering form into an awkward, crushing hug. “Jesus. What the fuck! Why didn’t you knock?”

“He did,” another voice says, and Bilbo freezes in the too-tight and rather smelly embrace because he recognizes that warning timber, the stoic rumble. It’s Thorin. Thorin is here, witnessing him quaking in his chinos. He would perhaps be embarrassed if his heart wasn’t still racing at the thought of nearly dying. “Just not nearly loud enough.”

The blue of his eyes is a crystalline, too-solid, too terribly cold thing. Bilbo shivers. “So much for the welcome committee,” he grumbles as he rights himself, straightening his shirt once Kili finally lets him go. “Will someone please show me to my room so I can properly move my things there?”

Thorin says nothing and instead gestures briskly before turning on his heel. Hands sweating where they’re shoved in his pockets, Bilbo follows Thorin up a narrow, carpeted, and throughly stained flight of stairs, chewing the inside of his cheek so he doesn’t say anything stupid or rude, as much as he’d like to.

They enter another long, dormitory-style hallway, and Thorin twists the knob of the first room on the left. “Here,” he says. “We’ll carry your stuff up.”

“I’m quite capable of doing it myself,” Bilbo reminds him, even though he’d really rather not lug all his tubs up alone. He feels awkward accepting help, though, like he’s confirming Thorin’s preexisting belief that he’s a poor match for the house, that Bilbo will do nothing but complain for the whole summer, just like Thorin expects him to. He steps inside the room to survey it, and before he even registers the street-facing window and hardwood floor, both of which are good things, he realizes with horror that there is absolutely nothing inside. No desk. No flimsy metal bed frame. No mattress. “There’s no bed,” he sputters before he can think better of it.

Thorin makes a humming sound in the back of his throat, raising his eyebrows and regarding Bilbo with something like irritation. “Were you expecting one?” he snaps, crossing his broad arms over his chest and leaning against the wall. Bilbo stares at Thorin’s worn-in black leather wristband because it seems safer than looking anywhere else. He can see fractals of his own distorted reflection in the studs on it, which makes him dizzy, but it’s better than the alternative. The room will only make him mad, and Thorin’s skin will only make him madder. And the cold blue eyes in their reflective veneer of judgment will likely just make him choke. “This isn’t student housing, Burglar,” Thorin reminds him.

It is not a term of endearment. It’s meant to humiliate, perhaps, but something might be wrong with Bilbo because it sends a sudden lick of heat into his gut to be reminded so flippantly of the way he just walked into the house uninvited earlier, making no improvement upon his already lackluster first impression. It seems that although Thorin is a man of few words, he manages to infuse tremendous feeling into the ones he does say. “Well, I suppose not,” Bilbo finally mumbles, mouth twitching to conceal a frown. “If only I’d remembered and picked up an air mattress at Target or something. Well! It’s fine, I have one of those foam toppers, I can put that on the floor. It’ll do in the meantime,” he says, shaking his head, pretending that he’s perfectly fine with such a sleeping arrangement. He can feel Thorin’s gaze burning into him, hot with scrutiny, with words unsaid, and he’s about to fill the terrible silent vacancy with more words just so he doesn’t have to endure the silence any longer when Fili stumbles in under the weight of one of his tubs.

“Delivery!” he announces, dropping it to the ground with a solid thunk. It displaces a small cloud of dust from the floor, and Bilbo coughs. “Kili and Bofur have the rest, they’re on the way up,” he says, slapping Bilbo on the shoulder goodnaturedly. “Glad to have you here.”

“Thank you,” Bilbo replies, trying to match how earnest Fili sounds. “I really do appreciate you renting to me in spite of my musical limitations and all.”

Thorin sighs loudly and pushes out of the room past them both. “I’ll leave you to it, then,” he grinds out, like every word pains him. And just like that, he’s gone.

Bilbo watches him go, eyes narrowed, lips flattened into a line.

“Don’t mind Thorin, he’s like that with everyone,” Fili says, lifting one of his Doc Martens and bracing it on the windowsill, leaning into the stretch as he peers out Bilbo’s window. “He’s my uncle, so I’m used to it.”

“Your uncle?” Bilbo asks, eyes wide. “Is he really?”

“Yeah, me and Kili. Our mom was young, and my grandpa was sick, so Thorin basically half-raised us. He seems like a grumpy piece of shit, but he’s actually a big fucking softie under all that leather. We all are, promise! You don’t have to look so wound up all the time, okay?” he teases, dropping into a loose boxing stance and landing a couple of firm but gentle punches on Bilbo’s arm, his long, dirty blond hair swinging with the motion. “Lighten up.”

As Bilbo smiles nervously and rubs his newly sore arm, Bofur appears and knocks on the door frame, balancing Bilbo’s suitcase on his hip. “Are you guys wrestling without me?” he pouts, dropping the suitcase. “I thought I called first wrestle with Bilbo.”

“As far as I recall, wrestling was not part of the rental agreement,” Bilbo reminds them both, knees buckling a bit as Bofur throws an arm around his shoulder, dragging him close to mess up his hair. Bilbo used to try and style his unruly auburn curls, but he never settled on something he liked or anything that actually felt like him, so he gave up some time ago. Still, he does not appreciate a near-stranger’s fingers sifting through his hair, even if it’s already sort of a wreck. “Unless I—erm, failed to read it closely enough. That’s my hair you’re pulling, thank you very much,” he says, disentangling himself from the mess of sweat and weed-smell. It’s unsettling, he decides, to be touched so much. He’s so used to avoiding casual physical contact with other men, lest they assume he’s making a move on them and feel threatened. In his experience, straight men are too fragile for idle touch, and he’s far too polite to ever come close to even toeing that boundary. Today is packed with more hugs than he knows what to do with.

“We’re neighbors,” Bofur declares, ducking out the door to rap his knuckles on the one beside it. “I live right here, so expect lots of Dio and mad shredding coming from my humble abode,” he adds, doing an impromptu solo on an imaginary guitar.

Kili arrives then, somehow brandishing the remaining two tubs, one under each arm. It’s remarkable, given that he’s easily the smallest of the three. “Sorry about the bat,” he says again, offering a sheepish smile. “Really, I’m so sorry. I should have looked before I just went running. It’s one of those semi-paranoid highs, man.”

“It’s quite alright,” Bilbo promises. “You made up for the whole near-death-experience bit by hauling all my things up, so we’re even,” he mumbles awkwardly, hands wringing behind his back like they always do when he’s uncertain about where to put them. The other guys all erupt into sudden laughter like he’s made a joke, and that feels good, at least. Having his quiet clever jabs actually acknowledged. Being included, even if he’s not sure whether he’s being laughed with or at. “Thank you all, really,” he says. “I’m just so relieved to have a room this summer.”

“Don’t mention it,” Bofur says, slapping his back. “We’re glad. Well, I’m glad, anyway, personally, to have a cook.”

And being a cook isn’t really in the rental agreement, either, but Bilbo doesn’t mention that part. He nods awkwardly and rubs his sweating palms together, and everyone files out in a single line after slapping his back. By the time his door is shut and latched behind the lot of them, his shoulder is aching from impact: not only is it more physical contact than he’s used to enduring, it’s more force. He feels entirely too breakable to be repeatedly struck in both greetings and goodbyes. He will either develop a thicker skin this summer or emerge a mess of bruises. He’s terrified and thrilled in equal measures by either prospect, and he wonders what that says about him.

He decides that this is all simply too much to consider—right now, at least—so he shoves it all down. He’s quite good at bottling things up to be shoved into a dark cupboard and forgotten, when need be.

Bilbo dutifully unpacks his things, folding up and arranging a number of his jumpers and hoodies into a vague bed-shape, since he has no mattress and suspects he won’t be needing the extra layers during the summer months. Then he lays his foam topper over them, followed by sheets and a pillow, before stacking his books by the head of it all to make a small, uneven, makeshift table for his solitary lamp. It is a pitiful arrangement, but it will have to do.

Quite immediately, he misses his old room. He misses his friends, who he was not particularly close to, but who he could at least trust to not leave unfinished games of beer pong lying around to rot. Who at least only nodded jovially to him in the hallways instead of touching him. Who at least, for the most part, wore deodorant and showered regularly. He wonders if he’ll get used to the green, sticky, weedy sweat-smell that has lodged itself stubbornly into his nose and then realizes with a sudden jolt that he doesn’t really want to get used to something so disgusting and unsanitary. He wants a bed. He wants to be freed from the worry that the person he’s writing his rent checks to doesn’t secretly hate him simply for being a Simon & Garfunkel fan.

But just as he’s about to combat his rising anxieties with some stubborn internal optimism, Bofur, presumably, puts on some music, and the wall they share literally begins to rattle. Bilbo stares, not even certain if he can classify the hysterical, chaotic guitar as music in the first place. He sits there, considering what on earth he’s gotten himself into as the “song” goes on for at least another seven minutes. When it finally does end, he lets out a breath that he hadn’t even realized he was holding, spreading his hand over his heart, feeling its frantic, panicked thud.

Then he pulls out his laptop to write an email to Gandalf.

Dear Professor,

I hope this email finds you quite well. I followed your advice and moved into the House of Durin. You did not tell me they were heavy metal musicians, which was a bit of a shock, but here I am. I suppose you will be proud of me. However, are you certain there are no alternatives in terms of available student housing at this time? The lease is month-to-month, so I could move back into the international dorms come July in the event something opens up. I do not mind the inconvenience. PLEASE let me know. Thank you and happy June.

Sincerely,

Bilbo Baggins

Immediately, he gets a reply, and his heart leaps up into his throat with a surge of relief. But the relief is short-lived because it becomes very clear that this is only an auto-reply, Gandalf is not going to be available for any advisor-type duties over the summer after all. It reads:

Dear Berkeley students, faculty, and administration,

I am currently vacationing just outside Naples with my husband Ratagast and will not be back in the states or available by email until September.

Amid sunshine and very expensive Chianti,

Gandalf, Professor of Classics

He has also attached a picture of himself and another old man standing on a beach with their arms around each other as they hold massive glasses of red wine, their hideous printed Hawiian shirts blowing in the Tuscan breeze, their smiles very cheery and relaxed and careless indeed.

Bilbo is not a violent man, but he considers chucking his computer across the room. However, before he can commit such a rash and terrible act, there is a firm knock on his door. By the time he hauls himself up off the floor (or, rather, his bed, which is regrettably only an inch or so off the floor) to answer it, whoever was there has vanished, leaving a single rubber mattress leaning against the wall with a key taped to it. It is not until Bilbo begins to drag the offering inside that he realizes there was a note trapped between the mattress and the wall. It drifts to the floor, and he picks it up.

I had an extra — T, it says in hastily scrawled chicken scratch.

And Bilbo does not mean to be wrenched from his despair so easily, but a wild, helpless smile spreads across his face anyway, like dawn cracking over the horizon.