"Are you sure he's old enough for this quest?" Dori seemed preturbed, eying the Hobbit's youthful looking skin.

Gandalf sighed, having already told this to Nori, Oin and Dwalin. "You should all get together and write up a list of questions, so I don't have to keep repeating myself."

Nori shot a glance behind him, slowing his horse to drop back beside his brother. "The wizard swears that Mr. Baggins is fifty."

Alarmed, Dori's eyebrows rose. "So young?" He sounded worried.

Gandalf twitched his mouth, annoyed. "Not so young for a Hobbit. He's comfortably in his middle age."

The dwarves in range of the wizard's voice fell quiet, lost in their individual thoughts.

Finally it was Dwalin who cleared his throat, speaking first. "So. The Hobbit is younger than Kili and Ori in actual years, but for his people he is a full adult?"

"Well stated." Gandalf sounded relieved to have the matter settled.

The group fell into a far easier kind of silence, the only sound the plodding of their horses and the natural sounds of the woods around them.

Another few miles and Thorin called Dwalin and Gloin up to his side. He then sent the two dwarves on up ahead to where the maps showed a human town. "We don't need an inn, but it would be good if we could camp inside the town walls if permitted. Save us from mounting a double watch."

Gandalf puffed contentedly on his pipe, letting his mind wander to more important things. Such as their coming route to get to the Lonely Mountain, and the possible perils to come.

A polite clearing of a throat, drew a soft sigh of resignation from the tall wizard. He peeked out of the corner of his eyes, to find Bifur next to him.

Bifur didn't talk so much as he gestured and made some almost distinguishable sounds. The dwarf's ability to speak had been damaged by a long ago axe blow, one that left the head of that weapon still embeded in the male's skull. Yet Gandalf knew that Bifur's intelligence was still intact. The dwarf pointed over toward Bilbo, as that fine Hobbit struggled to shift his seat upon the pony he'd been given to ride.

Gandalf smiled patiently, he had a soft spot for the unredoubtable Bifur. "Bilbo isn't used to riding, he'll adjust. He'll be sore tonight, I'm sure."

Bifur nodded thoughtfully, then shot another glance over at the diminuative hobbit. He looked meaningfully at Gandalf and stroked his beard.

The Wizard nodded. "He's fifty, which for hobbit's is a goodly age to be considered in the middle. Neither young nor old. Prime age for hobbits, that."


The voice from behind him, had Gandalf turning, finding he had the curious eyes of both Fili and Kili upon him. "Listening in?" He rebuked them mildly.

Not shamed to be caught listening in on another's conversation, Fili flashed a quick grin with a hint of a dimple beneath his short beard.

Kili smiled widely, but then, that was his normal expression. Smiling. "I thought he was straight from the cradle."

Bilbo sighed, patting his jacket pocket, wondering if he'd brought the right kind of clothing for an adventure. "I am no child." He sounded a tad grumpy. "And I can hear perfectly well too."

"We can all hear well enough with you lot jabbering like jays." Thorin called back from his spot at the head of the group.

Undetered, Fili pinned the hobbit with a curious look. "When do hobbits reach their majority?"

"Brother, don't be rude." Kili said, though grinning madly and staring at Bilbo. "Well? When do you?"

"How is that rude?" Prodded Fili.

Bilbo glanced back at the two brothers, both slightly annoyed and slightly charmed by their curious manner. He was a hobbit. He understood curiousity. But the dwarves were more bold in their manner and instead of hiding, were seeking out the information they wanted. "Thirty three."

"An odd number." Bofur commented, raising his voice to be heard by those in front of him.

"Thirty three is a fine age." Bilbo said snippily. "It's a goodly number for a hobbit."

"Nay." Bofur shook his head in amusement. "I mean it's odd, as not in an even number. Thirty three is odd, thirty four is even. Even thirty two would be even." He almost sang his last line, clearly having fun.

"Is this really important?" Thorin called back, barely sparing a glance behind him at the dwarves all eying the newest member of their band.

Bilbo nodded slowly, conceding the point. "Ah, yes. I see. An odd number. Almost a pun. Quite clever that."

The other dwarves all smiled at the small compliment.

"Are you sure you're really fifty?" Kili piped up, pointing at his own chin. "You don't have a beard."

"And you do?" Bilbo shot back, then seemed regretful of his quick words as he saw the young dwarf's face blush red.

The other dwarves all burst into peals of laughter. Except for the embarrassed Kili.

"Never mind the laddie." Bofur called forward. "He's young for a dwarf, and touchy on the topic of his beard."

"What beard?" Needled a highly amused Dori. He pointed at his younger brother. "Ori is younger than Kili, and his beard is already longer."

Kili slouched into his saddle and Bilbo felt a bit sorry for the young dwarf, even if technically he was the older of the two.

"The women don't mind his lack of beard." Fili piped up, obviously on his brother's side.

"The women like him being the sister-son of Thorin." Dori pointed out almost ruthlessly.

Kili made a face.

"What he lacks in appearance, he more than makes up in with charm." Bofur added helpfully.

"Town." Thorin's voice cut through the teasing.

The group came to the rise overlooking the town and grunted in satisfaction. Balin looked at the setting sun. "Good timing."

"Here are our two." Nori pointed at where Dwalin and Gloin were waiting, near the gate walls leading into the town.

Thorin led the other's toward the town gates, his stoic expression deepening into a frown as he could see that the two weren't happy. "What is the problem?"

Dwalin sighed wearily and ran one hand over his face. It was Gloin who spoke up. "Dwarven merchant caravan through here last month. They did not set a good example."

Not setting a good example was a phrase amoung their kind. It ranged from a rude comment to complete drunken melees. Thorin's mouth tightened. "We're not welcome?"

"The humans want something they're calling a security deposit. For good behavior." Dwalin snarled, then gave them the amount asked for.

Thorin drew in a sharp breath. King he might be, but rich he wasn't. His wealth was buried beneath Erebor and in the clutches of a fire-breathing dragon. They were on a limited budget.

"Let me speak to this fellow, perhaps I could alleviate his concerns." Gandalf spoke up.

"Her." Gloin grouched. "Two hers. Sisters. They own the inn, and the grounds beside it."

If you couldn't afford an inn, many travellers camped out on land leased to them for the night. Safe within a town's wall, and yet not as expensive. But without the amenities.

"Only one inn?" Thorin carped.

Gloin shook his head. "Two. The other is oned by a bandit asking nearly double what the sisters are asking."

Gandalf nudged his horse forward. "I'll see what I can do."

Reluctantly, the dwarven group along with one hobbit, followed. At the end, they stopped, staying upon their mounts as Gandalf approached the door of the inn.

Bilbo eyed the inn with longing. Not that he'd ever stayed at a public rooming place, but after the day's long journey, he was a hobbit definitely missing the comforts of home.

Gandalf opened the door and stepped out, his gaze serious as he gestured toward Thorin. Two human females came outside with him, carefully looking them over.

Balin stiffened. "Look respectable, straighten up." He gave his best court face.

Fili and Kili smiled. Bofur tilted his hat at the ladies. Bifur grunted. And Gloin ran one hand over his full beard.

The women stared, then one nudged the other. Both females whispered to each other before turning to address Gandalf.

The Wizard's eyebrows shot up in surprise. He looked speculatively over at the dwarves as he approached Thorin's horse.

The leader of the dwarven group looked down into Gandalf's face. "Well?" He demanded. The other dwarves all edged closer, several dismounting in the process.

Gandalf stroked his beard and sighed. "They still want their security deposit. Or you can rent the field for three pennies instead, if ..."

Thorin listened closely, but the gray wizard's voice didn't continue. "If...?" He prompted.

"A kiss apiece from the ...and I'm quoting, 'the handsome one.'"

Gloin's eyebrows shot up. "I must have made a better impression than I'd thought."

"Go kiss them." Fili urged, looking over at the women in question. They weren't bad looking, for humans. Gold-red curls and nice curves. A bit tallish. And no beards, but not bad.

Gloin blustered, shaking his head. "I'm a married dwarf!" He protested.

Balin nodded sadly.

Dwalin scowled. "It's just a kiss."

"Two kisses. Two ladies, two kisses." Nori pointed out, needing everything to be accurate.

Gloin shook his head, only stopping as Gandalf coughed. The wizard patted the red-bearded dwarf on the shoulder. "I don't think they meant you."

Bofur scratched his head. As far as dwarves were concerned, Gloin was practically the pinnacle of handsomeness. Strong, burly, full bearded, and well-off. Everyone else looked confused too, turning to stare at each other in question.

Gandalf shrugged. "Remember, they're humans. I think they meant Bilbo. Hobbits are not quite humans, but if Men are 'people' and halflings are 'little people' ..."

Thorin grunted in approval. "That makes sense, they'd be more likely to find someone looking human handsome."

Gloin nodded, deeply relieved. "Go kiss the ladies, burglar."

Bilbo's eyebrows shot up. "Me?" His voice squeaked higher than he'd have liked.

Fili eyes widened and he leaned toward Gandalf. "Are you sure of his age?"

The wizard batted at Fili in irritation. "He's of age!"

Thorin glanced back at the hobbit. "Not something you were brought into the group for, kissing humans. I won't ask it of you."

The other dwarves instantly protested, only falling into silence as Thorin made a swift cutting motion with his hand.

Bilbo looked over at the humans, not wanting to go over there. Not by himself. Not for this. Then he looked at the inn. The thought of a warm hearth, a well cooked dinner, and a foot stool for his feet called to him. "I'll be right back."

Fili and Kili instantly brightened, even Dwalin gave a grunt of approval.

Only Balin looked concerned. "Ye don't have to, you know."

"I know." Bilbo slid awkwardly off his pony, and indeed would have fallen on his butt if not for a steadying hand from a helpful Ori. "Thank you." He muttered.

"Think nothing of it." Ori returned kindly. "They look pretty."

But the look of the women meant nothing to the hobbit against the lure of a safe, warm, comfortable place to sleep. He hesitated, then put one large foot in front of the other as he approached the owners of the inn.

Gandalf watched with amused contentment. Only to lose his smile as the women spoke to the hobbit, gesturing back toward their group. Kisses were not forthcoming.

Bemused, the group watched Bilbo return, unable to read the odd expression on the hobbit's mobile face. When he reached them, their burlar shrugged one shoulder in apology, blushing just a bit. "They said to ...well, yes, ...they said to tell my grandfather ..." He shot Gandalf an accusatory look.

"Grandfather?" Gandalf sputtered, appalled, drawing delighted laughs from several dwarves, Thorin included.

"Not to send them a child." The hobbit pursed his lips unhappily. "I tried to tell them my age, but they didn't believe me."

Gloin shook his head, crossing his arms over his chest. "The handsome one indeed. I'm still married."

"They said the dark-haired one." Bilbo continued, embarrassed.

Bofur looked shocked, then pleased. Until Dori hit him in the shoulder. "He meant Thorin."

Dwalin nodded, looking at their leader. Thorin's eyes rolled. He wasn't overly fond of humans.

"They meant Kili."

Laughter and shaking heads. Ori frowned over at the hobbit. "It's not fun to poke at persons like that."

"I'm not poking." Bilbo protested. "They meant Kili. They called him the handsome one."

All eyes turned onto the youngest of Durin's heirs. Kili's eyes were wide. It was clear no one knew what to say.

Gandalf scratched his head.

Fili looked over at the women, it did look like they were staring at his younger brother. "Uhm."

Bilbo shook his head. "Why is this so hard to believe?"

Nori shrugged. "Kili's a great lad, but he's a bit on the slender side. Almost scrawny."

"He's tall." Ori pointed out helpfully."

"Beanpole." Dwalin grunted again.

Bifur drew one hand up, pointing his finger in the air and twisting it with a soft whistle.

Bofur nodded at his brother. "You're right, Bifur."

"No beard, patchy at best." Gloin pointed out.

Kili muttered, frowning sharply.

"Nose is too thin." Dori pointed out, then shrugged. "Sorry."

Bilbo crossed his arms in shock. "You don't think Kili is handsome?"

Thorin frowned at their hobbit. "He's charming."

"Funny." Bofur pointed at the dwarf in question.

"Delightful." Ori couldn't help but chime in. "Clever."

Kili's face lost that haunted look, his usual smile returning.

"But not pretty." Thorin cut to the chase. "He's worth everything to me. He and his brother both." He sighed. "But he's not ..."

"Handsome." Kili finished the sentence with only a hint of resignation.

Bilbo pointed at Kili, then over at the human ladies, then he chuckled. "You don't see it."

"See what?" Bofur asked, curiously.

"Among the hobbits, of you all ..." Bilbo smiled apologetically. "What you just listed would be assets, not things to detract attraction."

Kili straightened up, sending an odd look over to the human ladies. They both smiled widely at him. His grin answered theirs. Fili began to laugh.

"Are you saying ..." Balin looked interested. "That ..." He stopped as he saw Kili lope off over to the human women. "Oh dear."

"Well now." Thorin watched his sister's-son kiss two very willing women as all three giggled and laughed. "Not something I ever expected to see."

Balin stroked his white beard thoughtfully. "Hobbits come of age at thirty-three and humans think Kili is a prime example of handsome. It seems my education is sorely lacking in certain areas."

Dwalin coughed out a hoarse laugh.

"Not just humans." Bilbo pointed out. "Hobbit ideal? Only Kili's small feet would keep him from being completely handsome."

Bofur choked out a laugh even as Kili came running back up the group. "All good laddie?"

Kili grinned outrageously. "I'm the handsome one." He sound supremely pleased with himself as Gloin groaned.

Fili grunted and grinned too. "And we all learned today ...that humans are blind."

Laughter ran through the group as even Kili chuckled at that.