A/N: I really didn't mean to take so long, and wanted to get further than I did, but figured it would be a good completion for the first arc. The journey begins in Chapter 6, though not quite as you might be expecting.

The Shire – 5: Master of Hill

"-. .-"

"I bet it'll be better than that one time when that platoon actually happened to be in town when the last pre-adventure day came around," the woman that had snatched Bilbo's fiddle bow said from her stall. "They thought we'd brought too much food. Poor folk. They probably never get enough to eat on the road. They're always so grim and their faces so drawn-in. That settles it! I'll be sending word to my sisters in Tighfield to bring the best honey and blueberry syrup."

Thorin kept listening to the chatter with only half an ear. Deliberately. He was fairly certain that if he allowed any more of his attention to focus on the hobbits and what they were saying, he would have a rather more… intense reaction to their bizarre way of life. It was bad enough that he'd taken to sitting on the upside-down bucket he'd tripped on earlier. On his left, across the alley leading out between the big folk building and the pottery, Gandalf stood and puffed his pipe, looking obnoxiously delighted by the scene before him.

The dwarf king (to-be) entertained the idea of retrieving his company and getting the hell out of dodge, but that would have meant braving the crowd, and he wasn't sure he could take a more direct, close-up exposure to hobbits without losing whatever shred of sanity he had left.

Not that he was ever going to admit that out loud.

Mahal, they were so backwards. The "trade" consisted of how good each hobbit was at bringing up reasons why they should contribute this or that, pro bono, instead of someone else. Whenever someone won an argument, they left looking smug, while the other either laughed it off or grumbled about the "nerve" of the other thinking their goods were better than their own. Not that it happened often. For the most part, the Hobbitry seemed content to all pitch in.

Thorin hoped this only applied to parties, or that Bilbo Baggins was to blame for this temporary mass insanity. He doubted he could handle it if this was what Hobbits were normally like. It was like they had no concept of real trade at all. Or maybe they just got it all wrong. They were backwards…

A few feet to his right, Dwalin was doing his best not to fidget while looking over the crowd and keeping an eye each on Fili and Kili. At least those two were sticking together. Thorin himself also let his eyes roam over the hobbit populace, since the side of the market square they were on was a bit higher up than the rest, so even though he was sitting on the bucket he still reached above their eye level.

Unfortunately, that meant he got a perfect view of the moment when Balin and Gloin finally laid eyes on them. The two dwarves were listening to Bilbo cheerfully explaining something or other, but stepped back when the Halfling was called upon by one of his equally crazy kinsmen. A question about cargo handling no doubt. Regardless, once the hobbit left the two dwarves, Balin looked around and finally spotted the two of them. Well, three if the Wizard counted.

Balin's eyes narrowed and his face settled into a pinched expression.

A moment later, Gloin saw what Balin was looking at and adopted a similarly peeved look. Then the two old dwarves made for them. And somehow, all the hobbits milling about got out of their way looking for the life of them like it was just a coincidence that a perfectly straight path was cut for the two members of the Company.

Balin looked like a dwarf on an orc hunt, and Thorin felt a weight settle in his gut. That look was not good. Not good at all.

But he refused to be cowed. He was King! So he got up from the bucket as if he was sitting up from a plush armchair and adopted his well-practiced, dour gaze. And when Gloin and Balin cleared the worst of the market chaos, he opened his mouth and-


… shut it with a dull clamp from the sheer confusion of it.

Gandalf blinked and didn't even have time to ask why Balin was descending on him like a hurricane because the dwarf grabbed him by a wrist none too gently. "Come, let us have a talk, shall we?" His voice sounded so sinisterly sweet that Thorin swallowed any intent of verbally interfering.

"What do y-" was all Gandalf managed to get out before he was dragged off into the alley. Well, half-dragged by Balin and half-pushed by Gloin.

Completely nonplussed, Thorin shared a perplexed look with Dwalin and ran after them. They caught up none too soon, because when Balin judged them far enough removed from the market square, he damn near tossed Gandalf forward and rounded on him. "Are we a joke to you, wizard?!"

"… I… I beg your pardon?" Gandalf stumbled, both on his words and on his feet.

"Are we a joke to you? Was this all a joke to you? Did you spark hope in our plight for some sick amusement?" Balin would have been spitting mad if he didn't have centuries of practice at staying composed. As it was, instead of snarling and spreading his spit everywhere, he was only red in the face and eloquently stabbing the wizard with words. "Did your tendency to count us out by names like dwarflings bleed over into your addled mind? Did you age catch up with you to the extent that you think we are like children you can lead around by the nose?!"

"What on earth do you-"

"You told us you had arranged things with the burglar weeks ago!" Balin damn near shouted. "And we arrive to find out that the last time you even came within a day's distance of Bilbo Baggins prior to yesterday morning was actually 10 years back!" Hold on, what? "I have to wonder, did it at least turn out as amusing as you hoped? Was that your plan? To have a good laugh at our expense for descending on his home like uninvited ruffians?! Or was it that you hoped our uninvited arrival would overwhelm our host and turn him into a laughing stock instead! You certainly seemed quite amused throughout the entire spectacle this morning!"

Thorin gaped as Gandalf sputtered. The next word that was spoken came from his own mouth, and he soon wished he'd kept silent. "Balin-"

The dwarf royal advisor whirled on him and jabbed him in the chest with his finger. "Don't you Balin me!" Thorin staggered back. "I'll get to you later, oh yes I will, believe me!" After which he, thankfully, turned back upon the wizard. "Did you or did you not lie to us about having secured a burglar when you had, in fact, never even spoken to him in person!?"

The grey meddler worked his jaw a couple of times before seemingly rallying himself. "I assure you that's not-"

"I don't care for excuses!" Balin cut him off derisively. "Do you realize what you did? You made us look like morons!" Thorin cringed. Wasn't that a bit much? Or had his men done… things before he arrived? "Or did you expect a common hobbit as we know them? A grocer?" Thorin winced at the disdain hat dripped from that word. "You would have painted Bilbo Baggins as someone who had made a promise to aid us but was now trying to weasel out of it because of the danger. Even if he came with us in the end, we would have treated him as a dishonorable outsider and a coward because of that! Or was that your intention?! To set him up for something like that? Or was it to set us up? To sow mistrust and ill will among us? When it was you that set us on this path in the first place?"

"Why… I assure you I did not! Why, that you would even think such a-"

"You gave Thorin a map that led to the tannery!" The dwarf in question gaped and, when the words fully sank in, started rummaging through his coat pockets, looking for the parchment. "You vandalized a property! And you did it when the one inside was as far away from a burglar as anyone could possibly get!"

Reeling, the wizard tried to regain his balance. "..Wh… Well, I never!" His voice seemed to regain its steadiness and he tossed a glare of his own. "If I say Bilbo Baggins is a burglar, then a burglar he is!"

"So you're delusional too!" Balin snapped. "Spare me your theatrics. You know full well what Bilbo Baggins really is!"

Thorin blinked and looked up from the map he was perusing. "He does?"

Gandalf looked well and truly rattled and confused. "Whatever I may have omitted surely can't be enough to caus-"

"Oh, don't you even try," Balin cut him off. "Unlike others, I do know my Westron grammar." Balin started pacing to and fro, length-wise in regards to the road. He passed Thorin and Dwalin's position twice before he stopped with his back to them, reached up to rub his beard and pondered something. Then he whirled on his feet again and glared at the wizard. "I'm going to ask you one more thing, wizard."

"I'm sure I'll-"

"I wasn't finished!"


"Right… so, I'll ask you this one thing. And just so we're clear, if I don't like your answer I'll spend the rest of my life using my position as royal advisor to advise that you should be considered an enemy of the dwarven people on par with Smaug."

The sight of the jaws of both Thorin Oeakenshield and Dwalin dropping to the floor would have been comical in any other situation. But there could be little humor in what essentially amounted to the closest thing to a declaration of everlasting enmity.

Gandalf stared at the dwarf, stunned, for a minute. Then his eyes narrowed and he huffed in frustration. "You dwarves and your drama… Fine! Ask your question that we may put this foolishness past us."

Thorin almost couldn't believe it. How could the wizard not consider everything said before a serious issue?

But as fate would have it, Balin's next question made things even worse. The old dwarf met Gandalf's frustrated gaze with his own blistering glare and growled through his clenched teeth. "When were you going to inform us that Bilbo Baggins was royalty?"

With something between shock and outrage, Thorin turned on the wizard himself.

Gandalf looked gobsmacked for a moment, then he slowly dropped his head and reached up to grab the bridge of his nose.



Well damn. "He's WHAT?" Thorin shrieked, voice sounding an octave or two higher than normal as he looked at Balin again. "But… but he really looks like a groc-"

"HE WEARS GOLD-LINED VELVET!" Gloin hollered in tandem with Balin from where he was beyond the man, making Gandalf jump. "He had stores of food large enough to throw us a feast without prior notice!" Balin added as he advanced on his king. "He has plumbing and unlimited hot water! His house was large enough to host us all comfortably! Even has special big folk rooms! And he was well enough educated in foreign cultures to anticipate our needs and social norms. At least until you arrived, my king." Thorin would have normally chastised anyone who would address him so rudely, but in that moment he was only sorry he'd drawn his advisor's ire away from Gandalf and to himself. "He could have rightfully thrown us all out after the stunt you pulled! Not just from his home but from the Shire itself! Where all those lessons I gave you in manners and diplomacy went, I'll never know!"

It took all of Thorin's mental strength to stay blank-faced. That had stung.

"Mighty good thing he didn't throw us out too," Gloin grunted. "Or we might've all ended up like Nori."

That got Dwalin to snap out of the shock he'd fallen into when the word "royalty" had been spoken earlier. "What? What do you mean? What did the thief get himself into this time?"

Thorin winced. Did Dwalin have to yell out the occupation of that dwarf? Thank Mahal no hobbits were there to hear.

Or so he thought.

As it happened, the older member of the company was of similar mind. "Will you keep it down!" Balin hissed at his brother. "Or do you want to the whole Shire to think we're harboring a criminal and think we're all up to no good?"

"There ain't no one nearby to hear," the surly Dwalin said.

Balin laughed half-manically. "Oh, I assure you there are at least four hobbit Bounders watching us right now." Thorin stiffened and began to look around as unobtrusively as he could. "Don't bother, my king. You won't see them, the same way you failed to see them trailing us ever since we stepped onto Hobbit territory."

"… What did you say?" He must have misheard. Hobbits were bizarre creatures, but certainly not versed in skullduggery, not with those round-bellied frames of theirs.

"Exactly what I said," Balin answered drily. "Nori didn't see them either, so he thought it was safe to try and eavesdrop on Bilbo Baggins through the window after you left last night. He got himself rendered unconscious and thrown into the closest pig sty for his trouble."

"… You're joking," Dwalin said flatly.

"Not at all," Balin was just as flat-toned. "I'd say 'ask him' only he's not present, or even aware right now. He's back in Bag End, insensate. And if I understand correctly, when he does wake up he won't have any memory of last night."

That took both dwarves aback. "What do you mean-"

"I can't say more," Balin waved him silent. "Bounder matters. I signed a non-disclosure agreement."

Thorin reached up to rub at both temples. Why oh why did they ever think coming to the Shire was a good idea?

"You still haven't answered me, wizard!" Balin shouted at the strained-looking Istar.

Gandalf sighed heavily. "Hobbits do not have royalty."

There was an awkward silence.

Which Balin broke. "Unbelievable…" He breathed, shaking his head. "Tarkun…" Balin asked, slowly enunciating each syllable as if he was speaking to a simpleton. "Is the Thain or is he not the one in charge of the Shire's judicial, diplomatic, economic and military matters?"

"Well… officially he is but-"

"And is Thain or is it not a hereditary title?"

Gandalf looked vaguely annoyed. "Well yes, but-"

But Balin was too angry to humor him. "And is Bilbo Baggins or is he not his sister-son!?"

The silence said everything, even though Gandalf seemed more frustrated with how no one seemed inclined to see or even consider his point. As he looked at the man, Thorin supposed there probably was a supporting argument in there somewhere, but he was pretty certain he would agree with Balin's instead even if it did come out.

Mahal, this sort of situation probably deserved an acronym.

"Oh my lord!" Balin palmed his forehead. "It's a wonder we didn't all get dumped beyond the Shire border with hallucination-induced memories of a week's worth of drunken debauchery!" Rubbing his palm down his face, the dwarf glared at Gandalf yet again. "Just so you know, if it happens I'm blaming you!"

"It won't."

"GAH!" Balin jumped a whole foot in the air when that voice came from right behind him. He managed to land on his feet but brought a hand to his chest, facing the newcomer. For his part, Thorin spun on his heels to face the new voice that was suddenly there. Why the hell wasn't Dwalin watching their backs? Oh, wait, he was paying as much attention to Gandalf being dressed down as he was. He supposed he shouldn't blame him too much…

Balin gasped. "Don't DO that!" With some effort, he managed to take a deep breath, then release it. "Spare this old man's heart, lad!"

Bilbo, who'd somehow come to be right behind where Balin used to be, frowned. "I walked up here normally."

Balin deflated and dropped his head with a shrill sigh. "Of course you did."

"As a matter of fact," Gandalf piped up, sounding annoyed. "He arrived a couple of minutes earlier." The wizard frowned in disapproval. "He just decided to keep ever so unhelpfully silent."

Bilbo looked totally unimpressed. "And what were you expecting? A rescue?" He scoffed, not even acknowledging Thorin's presence even then. The nerve. "You may have apologized to me for the harm you committed against my person and my creation, Gandalf, and I am willing to be cordial if you will. But I am merely one of fourteen whom you knowingly and deliberately wronged."

After wondering if he should feel mollified at being included in that statement, Thorin decided to take what he could get.

Bilbo broke eye contact with the aggravated old man and met Balin's again. "That said, I may as well clarify that in this, at least, Gandalf is somewhat correct. The Shire is not a monarchy. I am no more important than my fellows due to my bloodline. In fact, reputation-wise, I get more of my so-called respectability from being a Baggins instead of a Took." He smirked then. "The reason people seem to fall over themselves to please me is because of my contributions to the community and, of course, because I am the best entertainer you'll ever find!"

Balin, who had calmed down somewhat, pondered that. "So… you're saying that the Shire is a meritocracy?"

Bilbo opened his mouth, then closed it. After a moment, he nodded. "Yes, that is just about right."

On Balin, that answer had the opposite effect than the one Thorin was expecting and hoping for. "Oh Mahal, that only makes this worse!" Balin openly despaired, sinking his face in both hands.

Valar above, he seemed to be swearing by their God a lot, Thorin thought.

Bilbo sighed softly and pulled out a flask from… somewhere under his long coat. Still acting as if no one but Balin and Gandalf existed, he approached the old dwarf and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Here, you look like you could use a drink."

Though looking tired, frazzled really, and somewhere between grateful and uncomfortable for a second, Balin accepted the bottle and took a long chug. When he finished he exhaled from the depths of his lungs and stared at the container curiously before handing it back. "What is that? It had no taste but felt sweet and charged, somehow."

Bilbo gave a vague smile and responded, much to general bemusement. "Water, my good dwarf." The container was gone. How had he missed the hobbit stashing it away, Thorin had no idea.

And now what? Given Balin's attitude earlier, there was no way Bilbo Baggins was going to join them without an apology from him. On the one hand, hindsight suggested he really had approached the situation… inadequately. On the other, the dwarf king wasn't sure he even wanted Baggins for a burglar at this point. And it wasn't just because the idea of apologizing to anyone rankled. Truly, it was not! Besides, they didn't need an "entertainer" on the quest.

"Now!" The hobbit turned away from the incredulous, white-haired dwarf to finally, finally look at the two of them. "The reason I am truly here." Well, if he was going to renounce his advantage by speaking first, who was Thorin to deny him- "Master Dwalin."

Hold up, what?

Bilbo, for the life of him, acted as though Thorin didn't even exist. Despite that Dwalin was half-way behind him, as bodyguards tended to hover. "It has come to my attention that you were the victim of a misunderstanding."

With a cautious glance in Thorin's direction (and no, Thorin was not gritting his teeth), Balin's brother finally spoke for once. "Misunderstanding?"

Bilbo Baggins proved he had no qualms about speaking his mind. "The kind that led you to the conclusion that my house was trying to molest you."

Gloin started to cough suspiciously in the background.

Dwalin sputtered unintelligibly for a few moments before rallying himself (and could he blame him? Thorin was staring in shock too), but he didn't get the chance to speak.

"So tell me, Master Dwarf. How on Arda would the concept of sexuality even apply to a building?" Dwalin was stumped by the earnest, nearly astonished tone. Thorin had to grudgingly admit he had a point. "And even if it were possible, do keep in mind that Bag End's sentience is only ten years old."

Dwalin stared. "… Oh." Then he blinked, and blinked again. "Why'd it try to smother me with the curtains then?"

"Not smother. Hug." Bilbo replied. Because that sounded so much less bizarre. "You not only were the first dwarf to ever come through my gate, but you are also the most honest person I've ever encountered." Dwalin stared, and when he didn't find anything but frankness in the Hobbit's eyes, he shifted a bit at the… praise? "Thoughts and feelings aren't fully ensconced in your heads, Master Dwarf. They are like strands and eddies, swirling about you, or like a star of blazing fire. Sometimes I can perceive them as they affect the world, but Bag End does it all the time." Thorin nearly scoffed, but then remembered almost being eaten by darkness and grimaced instead. "Normally, such eddies are mild, muted, but they are brighter and stronger the freer a person thinks and feels. The more straightforward they are, the stronger their feelings show. I long learned to control my Flame, but I still burn bright enough when I reach out with my mind to talk to my home. And yet you burned and still burn brighter than even that. When you accepted my invitation, it was like a sun entered my house." Dwalin's ears pinked as he looked down at the hilt of the axe he was fiddling with. "Even now you flare with protective loyalty. And the sheer love you have for your kin blazes brighter than even that of your king."

Dwalin was well and truly red now, even on the top of his bald head, and didn't seem to register the outrage and hurt Thorin felt. At that underhanded accusation that he didn't care for his people as much as he should.

"That said!" Bilbo turned casual but no less honest. "I apologize on behalf of Bag End for the discomfort you may have felt due to this misunderstanding. Bag End thought you were reaching out to it and was merely trying to reciprocate. I have since cleared the confusion, but I would still like to extend an offer to facilitate communication between you two." That finally made the blushing Dwalin look up again. "It's not all selfless on my part though! I want Bag End to grow, and it can only gain from being exposed to a person of your moral fiber."

With the expression of one who just saw something he couldn't make heads or tails of, Dwalin looked from Bilbo, to Balin, to Thorin and again Bilbo, then cleared his throat, though he was still pink in the face when he answered. "Erm… That's alright I s'pose. I reckon we have to double back anyhow, since our things are still there." Thorin threw him a dirty look, but Dwalin wasn't looking at him so he might just have failed to notice his king's obvious opinion the matter.

Fat chance. Dwalin had just ignored him!

It made the king glare at the hobbit. The gall, the Halfling was seducing his followers away from him!

"Wonderful!" Bilbo clapped his hands together. "In that case, I should-"

A hobbit fell from the sky and landed a crouch right next to Bilbo.

Except for Balin and Gloin, the dwarves jumped and yelped, but the newcomer didn't pay them much mind. Instead, he pushed to his feet (had he jumped all the way down from the rooftop above?) and went to whisper something in Bilbo's ear. Then he gave a short bow (still not acknowledging anyone other than Bilbo Baggins) and turned to leave, taking off his single-feather cap and collapsing it as he went.

"Ah, I suppose that's my cue to leave," Bilbo said, as if what had just happened was normal. "Apologies, we will have to pick this up later. Seems the Mayor of Michel Delving is looking for me. By your leave!"

And he walked off.

Later, he would consider the implications of the Mayor of a village two settlements away coming over from across the Farthing just because Bilbo decided to throw an impromptu party, but for now, there was only silence.

Until Thorin broke it, unable to understand why Balin and Gloin hadn't reacted to the appearance of the halfling. "Was that supposed to be normal? Because the Halfling acted as if it was normal!"

Balin sighed, shook his head in despondence and left as well.

Thorin never did see Gandalf relaxing in what could only be relief that Balin wasn't going to chew him out anymore, but he did hear his advisor's last parting shot. "Just to be clear, I'm not done with you, wizard! Remember! For the next while at least, I know where you live and sleep!"

Gandalf groaned and not-quite stormed away, muttering about dwarves and their drama again, and Gloin left soon after. At the end of it, Thorin could only rub his temples and ask himself again why he ever thought coming to the Shire was a good idea.

Dwalin was silent beside him, but not for long. "Sooo…. Ale?"

"Mahal, yes!"

"-. .-"

Nori woke up slowly, and the first sign of alarm that got set off was the fact that his "I was drugged" alarm didn't go off as it should have. For some reason, he hadn't immediately assumed he'd been drugged, even though the slow crawl into consciousness was a blatantly clear sign he'd been put through that. He'd gotten used to instantly (and undetectably) going from asleep to awake back when he was sixty, not even an adult. And that had been decades ago. Yet he'd just spent at least five minutes trying to figure out why the hell he was in a bed and staring up at what was obviously the ceiling of a hobbit-hole room. Somehow, he was able to deduce the nature of the dwelling he was in just from how low the ceiling was, yet he didn't get around to the "alarm" part until a fair bit later.

Though he could barely see it in the dark. Was it still night?

Unfortunately, his body lacked the responsiveness he was used to, so he couldn't jump out of bed and take cover while scanning for threats. Or even listen for movements and voices. He couldn't process much of anything. Instead, he managed to lift his head some degrees before dropping it with a groan as it started pounding.

Dori was to blame for this somehow. He had to be.

Damn, what the hell had happened?

Nori's eyes pried open. Ignoring the headache this time, he pushed himself up by the elbows (failing to notice how suspiciously unbound and comfortable he was) and blearily looked around, trying to remember if the situation called for rolling off the far side of the bed or jumping towards the door… wherever it was. He could barely see anything beyond a foot away from the bed, and his sluggish mind told him he should be a lot more concerned about that than he was. He couldn't really listen to it that well though. Not after bringing a hand to the side of his head and being informed by the feel on his fingertips that his starfish hair arrangement had been… ruffled would be putting it mildly.

Right. Heads would roll for that.

"I assume you remember at least some of what happened?"

Nori jerked and sat upright, not quite masking a sharp intake of air. He decided to blame it on the stabbing pain that shot through his head at the sudden movement. He stubbornly kept his eyes open though. The unnatural darkness (he could tell it was unnatural now) slipped, ghosted really, a bit farther away, revealing the armchair next to his bed, just a couple of feet away from him. The chair which Bilbo Baggins was lounging in.

"Where am I?" Nori demanded, trying to sound menacing while casting his eyes around for possible weapons. This was, sadly, not the first time he awoke in someone else's "care." Although he wasn't tied up… which was a surprise.

Bilbo raised an eyebrow. Nori noticed that his eyes… didn't shine but were perfectly visible in the darkness. "In Bag End of course," the hobbit drawled. "The room you'd have slept in if you didn't venture outside to perform acts that could so easily be misinterpreted." The gaze sharpened. "Or not be at all misinterpreted, as the case may be."

The dwarf tensed and a fist curled around the blanket that still covered his legs (the oddity of having been tucked in at some point escaped his still somewhat addled mind). If he could distract the hobbit by throwing it in his face, maybe he could stumble blindly and find the door, assuming it wasn't locked. If it was any other Hobbit, his first thought would have been physical assault, but Nori had been present at the "cooking" display earlier (or of the previous night? How much time had passed?), and he wasn't stupid enough to risk assaulting the knife-loving man, especially not in his condition, and not knowing how the weird, living hill would react…

The hill that probably knew to keep the door shut tight. Damn. Right, he needed a new plan. Maybe-

"Stop that," Bilbo suddenly said, and the near-command threw Nori's thoughts off the rails. "Relax, will you? You look like you're plotting our mutual destruction or something."

"Hopefully not mutual," Nori quipped reflexively.

Bilbo snorted. "I'm not the one that put you here," Bilbo headed off any further commends. "That was Dori." Huh, imagine that. He really was to blame, the bastard. "And he made no secret of how peeved he was of you being 'assaulted' by my kinsmen."

Assaulted by hobbits? Was he supposed to believe that? At least the idea of Dori putting him to bed wasn't entirely unlikely. Huh. Surprises never ceased. "Did he now?" Nori hadn't relaxed, exactly, but he figured that it did look more like he'd been tucked into bed instead of abducted and imprisoned for whatever reason. "Why was I attacked?" Alas, his brain still wasn't working properly, so he only realized the stupidity of that query after it was already out. "Wait, how on earth was I overpowered?" Last thing he remembered was that Dwalin had dragged Thorin off somewhere and he went out to try and eavesdrop on the wizard and weird Hobbit…

The shadows! He'd barely seen them in the dark, and it had been too late by the time he noticed them. There had been two or three of them and before he could do anything something had hit him on the nose and now he was waking up… in Bag End presumably?

Bilbo gazed at him, bringing his fingertips together in front of his face while his elbows sat on the armrests. It all looked quite eerie, with that total blackness around him. Around the both of them really. Nori could give him points for style if nothing else. Or was it Bag End's style? "Tell me something, Master Nori." Bilbo's voice was deliberately casual. "If this was Erebor and you had unknowns dropping by, allowed access to the city for whatever reason, what would you do? I would imagine something along the lines of an escort that would, officially, be a tour guide but would, in fact, also have the task of 'keeping an eye' on the new visitors. Maybe with one or two, not necessarily obvious, extra 'helpers.' How close is my assumption?"

Nori stayed silent, but not for long. "Reasonably."

"And how reasonable would it be to assume that the one receiving the 'escort' would have enough experience or education to recognize the tactic? And that you, knowing they would recognize it, would proceed with it regardless, as an unspoken but obvious warning to be on their best behavior?"

"… Reasonable enough."

"Now, question three, and I urge you to be honest with me." Nori felt the tension shift. Not rise but shift, somehow. "How would you view the situation if hobbits tried to approach the arrival of your company this way?"

"… If this was yesterday I would say… Unexpected?" Nori hedged.

Bilbo raised an eyebrow. Nori saw it because the hobbit wasn't wearing a hood, or even a cloak. And because now the entirety of him looked like he was standing in the midday sun despite the gloom in the rest of the room. "You mean laughable." It was a statement. They both knew it, and Nori didn't reply in any way. "I can understand where you would be coming from. But here's another thing." Bilbo let his arms fall on the armrests and leaned a bit forward. "Do you really think we Hobbits are so simple as to not know that such an approach would be considered laughable coming from us?"

Nori blinked and frowned. His mind flashed back to the last thing he remembered and he suddenly had a feeling of where the discussion was going.

"Here is, then, my last question: do you really think that your opinion would mean we'd let you all roam about unsupervised? Spy on us and eavesdrop from outside windows?"

Nori winced. "Er… woops?"

Bilbo smoothly slipped out of his seat as the dark began to lift. "We are small. We know that. We also know our size ensures everyone other than the rangers will never take us seriously if we show our intent to enforce any sort of rule upon outsiders." Bilbo smiled then, but it was a cold thing. "But just because we don't show our intent to keep 'visitors' from disturbing the peace doesn't mean we don't do it."

A weight seemed to settle in the dwarf's gut as the Halfling made for the now visible door. "From your look I assume the antidote to the agent you were shot with worked as intended," Bilbo told him as he left. He paused in the door, still not looking back. "Otherwise you would have no memory of last night and much of the day before." His head turned just enough for a one-eyed glance to make it through. "The Bounders have been notified as to your change in status from 'suspicious snooper' to 'vouched-for guest.' It would have been great if I there wasn't an actual need for me to vouch for you though."

Nori stared at the empty doorway, one line repeating itself in his mind. You would have no memory of last night and much of the day before.

What the Stone had the halflings done to him? What… how could he not have seen them close by? Did Bilbo Baggins have guards on his property? Invisible guards? Given how much of the hilltop couldn't be seen from the path, it was possible they could have hidden there…

Then the last words crashed into him. It would have been great if I there wasn't an actual need for me to vouch for you. Nori brought a palm to his forehead.

He owed Bilbo Baggins a favor now.


Maybe he could try to shirk it somehow… but no, Ori would give him that look and…


He ruminated on his status for a time, until his mind finally realized that he couldn't hear any noises and he was, in fact, alone in a room instead of being in the same chamber as his brothers.

Nori jumped out of bed, after making sure he didn't lack his pants or anything. Dori had stripped him naked once and hidden all his clothes in order to keep him from going out to steal things, back before he'd completely given up on him. Of course, Nori took that as a challenge and went out in his birthday suit and proceeded to filch new clothing from wherever he found it. Fortunately, this time he was dressed in an acceptable shirt and slacks, so ran out the door in search of the others.

Mahal, with his luck anything could have happened, from being set up for a scathing Thorin shouting session- er, lecture- to having been left behind. He banished that last idea out of his mind, not willing to dwell on how sad it was that he even considered it possible that his two brothers would abandon him for screwing up. That Ori would-

He took in the sight of all the travel packs with an absurd burst of relief. They were all prepared and neatly lined up in the hallway. Come to think of it, he could finally hear some of the others from a couple of rooms away too. And there didn't seem to be any sign of the Hobbit anywhere.

He considered his options. He could go and face the music as it were. He'd have to be sharp in order to fast-talk his way out of the shame of being snuck up on. Not too hard a thing to pull off…

Oh who was he kidding? He'd been made a fool of. By Halflings! He had been snuck up on. Him! By hobbits no less. Durin's mole, how embarrassing.

His eyes settled on a certain part of his immediate surroundings and gave him an idea. Maybe a strategic delay was in order. Good thing there was something right in front of him that could prove a distraction. Besides, it would be a nice way to find out if Baggins really was aware of all that went on in Bag End. Nori doubted he'd leave things alone if the dwarf started to perform "crimes" in his dwelling. Besides, he could multitask just fine, so he'd be mulling over their host's foreboding "revelation" all the while.

Right. Onwards then. For the sake of his pride, such as it was…

Alas, it proved to be a wholly unnecessary delaying tactic. Once he finally built up the courage to sneak a peek in the room where the voices were coming from, he realized why there was so little noise. Dwalin was sprawled over an armchair and seemed to be … snoozing and smiling like a love-struck fool. Nori could barely believe his eyes. He had to tear them away from the sight just to avoid a logic hiccup. He looked at Kili and Fili. They had their heads together, whispering and plotting something. As always.

Other than Balin, who was writing at a desk near a wall under the light of an oil lamp, no one else was present. It made Nori glance out the window and see that it was night. Right, time to figure out what had happened while he was under.

20 minutes later, he left the room, head almost spinning at the realization that he had missed a whole day, not just a few hours of the night. Everyone other than himself and those three he'd just left were sleeping somewhere in the smial. Even Thorin, whose all-nighter had finally caught up with him. Kili and Fili had quite flamboyantly given Nori the rundown of the past day's events, but they didn't answer any of his questions about the Hobbit Bounders, saying they'd signed an NDA of all things. Balin filled in some things, but he'd signed the same contract, and dwarves took contracts seriously.

Fortunately, the middle Ri brother was good at deducing information from vague hints and even silence. He worked through them while redoing his hair and braids in the bathroom. Well, one of the bathrooms. The worst realization was that, apparently, there had been a lot more than three people trailing their steps. Clearly, being dismissive of Hobbits (on their own turf no less) had not worked out for any of them.

Oh, and Bilbo Baggins was royalty. Imagine that!

It at least made him feel a bit better about the whole "getting instantly put under" thing. If Bilbo was that high up, the guards around him would be the best available. Maybe not on Nori's level but close, given Hobbits' natural advantages in regards to snooping. He could live with being overcome if he could rationalize it as being owed solely to the Halflings' home field advantage and veneer of harmlessness, the latter of which would not work on him again. Besides, there had been three of them, and one of him.

And the one who shot him may have been the actual Hobbit prince (no matter that the Shire supposedly wasn't a monarchy). And there was evidence that he was a perfect shot with incredibly keen eyesight. It stroked Nori's ego somewhat.

… for all of one minute. Then Nori sighed and decided to face the fact that he'd essentially shot himself in the foot with his actions, then put that foot in his mouth for good measure. At least he still had the consolation that Thorin and the Wizard had screwed things up worse than he had.

It took a while to finish his hair and beard. It had to be near midnight, by his reckoning, but not feeling nearly tired enough to sleep after being unconscious for a day, Nori took to wandering the round corridors of Bag End. Even the princes and Balin had turned in and Dwalin was just standing near a window and staring distractedly at nothing instead of checking in on the others as he should. Why stay up at all if he wasn't going to keep watch? Nori stifled a sigh and went from room to room, carefully prying open the door to each and peeking in, to make sure that everything was as it should be.

Not that he was worried or anything.

Soon enough he was finished and, once again, he was left without a task. Damn. An idle Nori was a fidgety Nori, and a fidgety Nori was a twitchy-handed Nori. Which generally meant that the belongings of everyone else weren't safe. Even if Bag End's sentience was enough of a deterrent to keep him from actually stealing things, Nori doubted he'd be able to stop himself from at least picking up every curiosity and fiddling with it until something dastardly happened. He needed some kind of distraction… a-ha!

Peckishness! Something to dwell on. Very dwarvish too.

Onwards to the kitchen it was then.

Unfortunately, when he got there he found a nice meal already waiting for him. Drat, he was hoping to at least occupy himself for an hour just preparing something. Now what was he going to do all night? He supposed he could go out for a walk. Presumably he wouldn't get assaulted again. Though he did relish the challenge of pitting his skills against someone of similar profession, if not necessarily the same side of the law as himself.

He mulled on the dilemma while he ate. A part of his mind noted that the kitchen was perfectly lit despite there being a single oil lamp burning above. The food was more important though. Ah, broth, mashed potatoes with marinated meatballs and even some beef steak in case the first course wouldn't be enough. Either Bombur or Bilbo Baggins himself had prepared it for him. Probably the hobbit. Bombur was more liable to eat everything in sight.

Actually, that gave him an idea. He had the night to kill anyway, so why not spend it cooking? Contrary to what others thought, he was a decent hand at it. And it would be hilarious to see everyone else look at the food suspiciously in the morning, not sure they should risk eating it in case it was poisoned. Maybe he could persuade Bilbo to claim the cooking as his, then reveal who'd really prepared everything when they were half-way through it.

With a grin, the dwarf inhaled the last of the roast and cleaned after himself in the blink of an eye. Then he made a beeline towards the pantry.

Only to realize, upon passing the threshold, that Bag End had been doing its sound isolating thing all along. There were noises coming out from the basement cellar. Cautiously, Nori traipsed down the stairs as silently as he could.

And there was the hobbit, piling things up, mostly perishables, as though he was preparing to go on a journey, or to send a care package. Or a whole wagon of care packages. Which made sense, considering that he was preparing to go host a party outside the Shire borders.

That had been a hilarious revelation. That their burglar (who still hadn't said he was actually coming along to the Lonely Mountain) had roped a large part of the Shire populace into throwing a party for the rangers. Pro bono. A party they would be leaving for the next morning, like a caravan of some sort. A party which they all were, apparently, going to, or at least accompanying the Hobbit to, even if it did add a few days to the time it would take to reach Bree.

Thorin, of course, had been against it. Until Gandalf said he was going and if they wanted to head off without a wizard OR the fourteenth member of the company, then they were welcome to. The king had eventually (and grudgingly) agreed only when Gandalf told him that Bilbo knew how to shear off the same amount of time from the journey.

"Well don't just stand there," Bilbo suddenly said from below. "You came here for something, did you not?" The hobbit crossed the large store room and began to undo the locks on a large, thick, cast iron door. Nori descended further into the semi-dark, earth-dug room just to make sure he wasn't seeing things. What did the hobbit have down there?

He got his answer when Bilbo finished the third lock and pushed the door in (not without some difficulty, it should be said). It opened with a groan of metal and a blast of cold air that made Nori shudder, in spite of how far he was from it. "Since you're here anyway," Bilbo said, not looking at him, "You can help me put these away." He indicated a couple of large strips of raw meat. The meat that wasn't likely to last for more than a day or two without spoiling. Nori remembered something about Bilbo having ordered them just the day before they descended upon his home. Apparently, the Hobbit wasn't one to go back on his word even for small things like that.

It turned out that the room Bilbo had just opened was a large freezer, with pigs and even cow chops hanging from hooks affixed with chains to the horizontal beams above.

Now that sure was useful. Nori didn't think he'd see a cold room outside Dwarven settlements. Well, not counting the homes of the knife-ears. And there were no runes anywhere either. Nori could only assume that Bag End was able to just turn a room into an oversized icebox somehow.

After an hour of putting things in order, Bilbo stretched his arms and headed over to the wall bearing the dry vegetable and fruit shelves. No sooner was he within a few paces of it that it gave a creak and sunk into the wall itself, several inches, then began to slide to the right. 10 seconds later, there was a dark passage there.

Nori blinked. Well waddaya know.

Then he looked at the hobbit incredulously.

Bilbo shot him a brilliant grin. "So!" Bilbo looked at him over his shoulder. "I'm going to visit someone. Care to join me?"

"… er… You're just inviting me along? Just like that."

"Why not?"

Nori wondered if he'll ever stop wondering if the Halfling was sane or not. "Weren't secret passages supposed to be, I don't know, secret?"

"Only when there's danger of them being accessible to others." The Halfling picked up a pouch from a barrel next to the dark tunnel entrance and hung it off his belt. He'd discarded his long coat earlier in the evening. "Which there isn't, because Bag End is great like that!" The light of the lone oil lamp brightened for a moment at the praise.

Freakin' smial.

Nori debated the merits of going with his original plan of cooking versus accompanying Bilbo to… wherever. Eventually, he decided to go with him, if only because he figured he'd be less likely to try and steal everything in sight and bring the wrath of the Hill down upon his head. "Fine. I suppose it couldn't hurt."

Ten minutes later, he began to wonder if he'd spoken too soon, for the simple reason that he felt as if the earth was closing in on him. He was a dwarf, living underground was in his blood, but despite all that he felt like he was about to be buried at any moment. The tunnel was barely large enough to let him through, his solid dwarvish build being almost too wide. And to make matters worse, there was no source of light, so he was all but blind despite the natural night vision of his race. It didn't help that he didn't feel anything reinforcing the soft tunnel, despite using a palm to feel his way forward.

Ahead of him, Bilbo Baggins walked without a care in the world, and Nori could do nothing but watch him, because unlike everything else he was visible, not glowing but still almost clear, colors and all, if somewhat indistinct and with a tint or dark orange, as if bathed in the new light of sunrise. If ever there was any sort of confirmation that it wasn't just Bag End that was unusual, this was it. The dwarf wondered if Bilbo actually saw ahead of his steps, or if he came down this tunnel so often that he didn't need it anymore.

"So," Bilbo broke the silence, almost making Nori jump. "Bag End informed me that you were quite industrious in the short time between your awakening and you washroom ablutions." Well, that answered the question of whether or not he'd found out about him going through everyone's bags earlier. "That said," the hobbit continued, "which things on my property did you ever so valiantly restrain yourself from appropriating?"

"… Huh?"

Bilbo rolled his eyes. "Anything you feel might be needed on the trip? Things you didn't have on hand or forgot about? And which you may or may not have filched in the absence of an all-seeing house spirit?"

Nori looked at the hobbit askance, because they were shoulder to shoulder now. Bilbo had lagged back a bit since, apparently, the tunnel was wide enough for that now. "I assure you, we are quite capable of packing for an extended enterprise, Mister Baggins."

The hobbit clucked his tongue. "Come now, there are thirteen of you, and at least one of your company is at least mildly absentminded. At the very least I can't imagine someone like Fili or Kili not forgetting something important at home."

Nori scowled, though he was somewhat surprised that his companion didn't make a quip about Bifur's axe. "And why are you asking?"

Now it was the hobbit's turn to look incredulous. "Did you seriously just ask me that?" After holding the disapproval on his face for a while, Bilbo Baggins produced a piece of charcoal and some paper from inside a pocket. "So?"

"… Fine. Fili and Kili did manage to forget their oilskin cloaks, if you must know."

"Now we're getting somewhere!" The Master of the Hill happily scribbled down the information. "What else? And what are their sizes? Actually, give me a rundown of potentially useful supplies, plus the whole measurements of everybody for the sake of thoroughness, and we'll go from there!"

What made the hobbit think he even knew those things? Sure, he did know those things, and he wasn't about to explain how, but still! Then he caught Bilbo's expectant look and his resolve crumbled… What the hell, it couldn't hurt more than everything else that had happened during the past two days.

It took around 20 minutes to get everything written down. The remaining hour was spent alternatively in silence and Nori's answers to whatever random questions Bilbo posed.

"-. .-"

Nori, son of Bori, didn't really know what he was expecting at the end of the passage. Sure, the light at the end of the tunnel was easy enough to take in. The white, foamy waterfall that covered the mouth of the tunnel was a bit more unexpected, but still reasonable. The sources of the light, though, well, those were a bit above his pay grade.

The dwarf couldn't help but stop and stare at everything around him. It was like stepping into an enchanted glade, only without the open sky above. Instead, there was solid earth with hanging moss, vines and countless roots holding it aloft. And mesmerizing patches of phosphorescent liken, casting a soft glow over the entire grotto. The hue of it, half-way between azure and emerald seemed to come down in waves, and motes of light descending like snowflakes.

The dwarf would have wondered what could even charge the phosphorescence of those liken patches if the answer wasn't so blatantly obvious. There, in the middle of the 60 foot-wide, 40 foot-tall hollow was a round pond. It was a crystal-clear thing, fed by the waterfall they'd just cleared, and a second one on the far side. From the pond's depths came golden light. The shine streamed upward through the glimmering surface, always shifting like an aurora. And in the middle of the pond was a perfectly round island, bearing an oak, twice as tall as the largest of the big folk.

The tree was healthy and strong. Even Nori, who knew nothing about plants, could tell it had been looked after by someone. A glance at the hobbit next to him confirmed his suspicions. Bilbo Baggins' eyes were slowly moving over the enchanted cave, analyzing everything. And his face held a contented lightness Nori had seldom seen on anyone, tempered with something like melancholy.

It made the dwarf suspicious, so he followed the hobbit's gaze to the side of the pond, the path of flat stones that led to the little island, then further. Nori squinted and saw that he hadn't imagined it. There, at the base of the oak was a small stone pedestal and a statue, flanked by two flower pots, each holding a tiger lily in full bloom. One near golden, one almost blood red.

The realization came out of his mouth before he could stop himself. "A shrine." He looked at Bilbo again. "This is a memorial…"

The hobbit nodded once, then noticed the question he hadn't fully stopped from showing in his gaze. "My mother."



No wonder he was so protective of that special china. And the glory box. And the kitchen appliances. And Bag End in general. If she was a great enough person for him to go to the effort of creating something like this

Definitely not a grocer.

Thankfully, the smaller figure resumed his walk, striding purposely down the path that led from behind the waterfall to the grass and flower-studded ground below. Nori followed silently, still looking around in honest awe. Being closer to the center, however, didn't cast any clarity upon the mystery of where on earth the light in the pond even came from. For all he knew, Bag End was doing this, somehow. The water from the waterfalls certainly didn't come from outside. The closest river hadn't shown signs of redirection, even partial, and there had been no evidence, anywhere, of an underground one.

In fact, everything looked like a closed, self-sufficient ecosystem. Was the pond water funneled through the earth somehow, and pulled up to cascade back in?

Bilbo's voice forced his mind back to his surroundings. "I'll just need a few minutes." Embarrassed at having lost sense of the world around him, Nori gave a grunt of acknowledgment. "Feel free to look around in the meantime."

He watched Bilbo easily step from one stone to another, his bare toes never touching the water. The Halfling did sprinkle some sort of powder though. Seeds or flour of some sort? It made colorful streaks come to the fore in the water around him. Acting on a hunch, the dwarf stepped closer to the edge of the pond, wincing when he couldn't quite avoid stepping on some of the yellow and purple flowers. At least the bumblebee survived his slow advance, though the black and gold-ringed insect did buzz around his face a couple of times to show its displeasure.

Looking ahead and seeing the intent look that Bilbo was sending him, Nori forced himself not to show hostility to the buzzing thing until it left him alone. The hobbit nodded at him in approval and resumed his walk, leaving him be. It made Nori feel somewhat less apprehensive of his inspection, so he looked into the pond and got his confirmation: it was full of fish. Exotic ones. The gold fish were acceptable enough, but there were at least five other species, some transparent, some colored with all shades of the rainbow, there was even a tiny turtle, of all things. And – Nori blinked in astonishment there – did that black fish have whiskers? So weird…

Not as strange as the light though. There was no source he could determine. There were no glowing rocks at the bottom of the pool, though there were plenty of algae and green underwater plants. There wasn't even gold dust missed with the sand. Yet light shone from the water regardless.

Beyond it, in front of the pedestal, Bilbo Baggins had knelt and was keeping still and silent, like nothing could disturb him. Nori didn't want to chance it tough, and he could mind others' feelings from time to time, so he tried not to make any noise. Not that hard for one of his occupation.

Some minutes later, he returned to the path. The cobblestone path, strangely enough. It looked like a road of yellow bricks. Odd tastes, but that was nothing new for hobbits. It did fit in well though. Everything was so peaceful here. Nori was no one's fool, he could tell when something was remarkable, and this place certainly qualified. It made him wonder what strange hallucinations Bilbo Baggins was suffering from, sharing such an amazing, mystical secret with him of all people. Him, who probably had the most problems out of everyone in Thorin's Company of dwarves. For crying out loud, he couldn't even control his thieving. Half the time he didn't even remember stealing something when he found it in his pack.

He could almost feel his simple presence dirtying the wondrous place around him. It made him feel so morose that he heaved a sigh.

Which was when something splashed in, or out of, the pond, making him spin on his heels. There were still some drops in the air, and they fell, stirring ripples that lost themselves in the larger ones that came about as a result of the bird's emergence from the clear water. It was official, Nori was hallucinating too if he was seeing birds coming out of lakes.

The avian was a tiny thing, smaller than even a wren. It breezed through the air on blurring wingbeats, shooting freely like a streak of bright scarlet, then stopped right in front of his face, having cleared the distance faster than an arrow could fly. Nori looked at it in wonder. He'd never seen its like before, and doubted anyone else had. Well, anyone other than the hobbit.

"Are you alright?"

Nori almost jumped out of his skin. As it was, he managed to only tense at the sound of the voice that came from right beside him. "Yeah, just… just a bit distracted."

The bird shot away, hovering in front of the hobbit, before landing on his nose and producing a string of high-pitched chirps that almost sounded like words, before taking to the air again, flying a loop around Nori one final time and going up… then down again. It splashed through the water surface and disappeared by the time the resulting ripples faded from sight themselves.

Bilbo hummed in amusement. "One day I'll know how he does that."

Nori barely had time to tilt his head at the use of "he" instead of "it," because Bilbo took off at a quick walk again, making for the other waterfall, not the one they'd come through. After a few seconds, Nori shook himself out of his trance and fell into step behind him. He really should have at least considered the possibility of there being another access tunnel.

Bilbo, of course, guessed his ponderings. "I brought the seeds, saplings and critters, basically creating the ecosystem here." The hobbit strode up the slope on steady feet. "But I didn't actually do the digging. My uncles and aunts did the heavy lifting. Because of that, you'll be pleased to know that the rest of the way is going to be significantly less cramped." Bilbo looked at him over his shoulder. "The passage leads to the Great Smials of Tookland. That's where we're going."

Nori forced himself not to swallow. He was being taken to meet the hobbit King. Not-King, whatever. Once again, he found himself questioning Bilbo Baggins' sanity. How on earth was bringing him along a good idea? Instead of, I don't know, Balin? Gloin? Hell, even Bifur would probably do less damage, and he couldn't' even speak anything other than Khuzdul. Or was Nori being brought along just to be laughed at after the events of the previous night? Bilbo hadn't struck him as someone so petty but…

"Don't worry!" Bilbo said cheerfully. "My folks will love you. Just mind your feet when we get there. The fauntlings will probably try to steal your boots." At Nori's baffled stare, he clarified. "Footwear is odd to us, and children like to take things apart. That much I know holds true for all races. You won't have to guard yourself too much while we're walking there, but once we settle at the table, all bets are off. Faunts can sneak underneath chairs and tables like nobody's business. I'm doing my civic duty and warning you in advance."

Somehow, that didn't make him feel reassured at all.

It took another two hours to reach the end of the passage, but reach it they did. It finished in a heavy iron door much like the one that Bilbo had in his basement back in Bag End. The hobbit knocked twice, waited, then knocked four times, then waited, then another one time, after which he waited twice as long as the first time and struck the door with his palm.

Five seconds passed, then the thing sunk towards them. Nori made a step back, but it was unnecessary. The door slid to the side on rails the dwarf hadn't noticed before, though he really should have. Light poured in from the room beyond the tunnel exit. Well, from the lamp held there by whoever had opened the door anyway. It made him cringe and remember just how pitch black the whole passage had been. Odd how completely he'd gotten used to it.

"Well spank me rosy!" A male voice spoke from beyond the dull flame. "Bilbo Baggins! And a dwarf in tow, no less! I was right when I said you wouldn't be coming in alone!"

"Well if it isn't uncle Isembard," Bilbo said indulgently, stepping forward to embrace the significantly older man. Nori continued to be amazed by how freely Hobbits showed affection. "Who did you swindle this time? Uncle Isembold? Hildibrant? Aunt Donnamira?" Bilbo pulled out of the embrace and frowned. "You didn't start taking advantage of the younger generation, did you?"

"Don't you get cheeky with me, lad," The newly named Isembard shook his finger at his nephew. "Now, who's this with you?"

Bilbo grinned. "Nori, I give you my Uncle, Isembard Took. Uncle, may I introduce you to Nori, son of Bori." He waited until the two shook hands. "He's the intelligence officer accompanying Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror."

"Ah." The hobbit treated him to a long, piercing stare, then addressed Bilbo. "Contract?"

"Nope," Bilbo said brightly. "I have a good feeling about this one."

What the hell did that even mean?

"Do you now," the older hobbit looked at Nori again, even more keenly if it was even possible. "Well, it's not my decision to make. Come on, follow me!" The tunnel iron door seemed to open in the basement here, as it did in Bag End. A sensible enough architectural decision. "The table's already set. Mind your step, though. The little ones are prowling about as usual."

Nori wondered about that. The table was already set despite that it was midnight? There were hobbit children about at this hour? There was something periodic and consistent about Bilbo's arrival through that passage? And it was all routine enough that his relatives knew when someone should be waiting at the door? And for even hobbit children to catch on?

It must have been the whole "usher in the dawn" thing that signaled what Bilbo was going to do next. How he wished he'd been awake for it. Damned Bounders and their darts.

Looking around once they were in the corridors proper, he actually noticed the little ones. The darkness he and Bilbo had come through had helped sharpen his night vision, if nothing else. There were plenty of the tykes, all of them with curly heads of hair and big, curious eyes, peeking from around nooks and crannies. The thief was envious of Hobbits for a moment. The dwarves, in comparison, were a dying people, with the birth rate having long ago fallen below the yearly death toll. It was a large part of why so much hinged on this expedition.

But the three adults soon passed by what was clearly the tunnel leading to a dining hall, and Nori couldn't suppress an inquiring eyebrow.

Bilbo noticed and asked Isengrim the question Nori didn't voice. "I take it we're meeting uncle Isumbras before anything else?"

"He's waiting for you ahead. Ah, here we are. This is where I leave you. The wife's still up waiting for me. Good luck!" The lone dwarf watched him leave, feeling unexpectedly apprehensive because it was him that the last words had been directed at.

The feeling lasted for all of two seconds.

Bilbo strode forward and shoved the circular door aside with such a total lack of decorum that Nori was left slack-jawed. "Hey Uncle! How's your pigheadedness doing these days?"

Nori, son of Bori, palmed his face and wished he was somewhere else.