Thorin was staring at him again.

Bilbo frowned, ducking his head as he leaned in a little closer to the fire. It had been two days since they had been saved by the eagles, both of them long and tiring as the company had seen to their wounds and made their way down from the top of the eyot they had been put down on. In that time, there had been precious few minutes when Bilbo hadn't felt the weight of Thorin's gaze focused on him. What it meant, he had no idea, but he had no desire to bring it up.

They had finally reached the bottom late in the afternoon, and there had been no doubt that they would make camp there for the night despite the hour being fairly early. There was water to bathe in and fish to eat, and – most importantly – there was no sign of anyone or anything that might wish them harm.

The sun was finally starting to lower in the horizon, but there was still some time left before it would truly be night. For the first time since they had left Rivendell, the mood felt almost relaxed, though Bilbo couldn't help but notice that the dwarves were minding their speaking and keeping it quiet enough as to not draw too much attention if someone was to come near.

Bilbo was just beginning to consider trying to convince Gandalf to share some of the pipe-weed he knew the wizard had spirited away on him, as the last of his own supply had been lost during his fall into the caves below Goblin-town. Before he could stand up, though, two familiar shadows fell over him.

Bracing himself, Bilbo looked up into Fíli and Kíli's grinning faces. "Yes?" he asked mildly, well aware that several of the others had turned their attentions toward the three of them.

If anything, the brothers' grins grew even broader. Then, as one, the two of them dropped down to sit beside him, Fíli on his left and Kíli on his right.

Bilbo glanced from side to side suspiciously.

"It's a fine weapon you have there," Fíli said, his eyes twinkling.

"Oh, yes, a fine weapon," Kíli agreed, throwing an arm over Bilbo's shoulder. Bilbo narrowed his eyes, not trusting the thread of amusement he heard in Kíli's voice in the least bit. "And the two of us, we were thinking."

"We were thinking it's a shame for someone to have such a powerful weapon," Fíli cut in, making a hand gesture that could have been meant to represent a sword, among other things, "and not have any idea what to do with it."

There was a pause. Then several of the other dwarves snorted in amusement, Bofur actually throwing his head back and letting out a bark of laughter.

Bilbo let out a breath he hadn't even realized he was holding, rolling his eyes as he pushed Kíli's arm off of his shoulder. "Very amusing," he said dryly. If it had been just a few days earlier, he would have stopped there, holding back the teasing retort on the tip of his tongue that most certainly came from his Took side. Now, after everything they had been through... "Still, I can't say I'm surprised. I'd expect that the two of you have quite a bit of experience with your weapons not being put to proper use."

For a moment, no one said anything. A hint of red appeared on Kíli's cheeks, although his eyes still looked amused. Then a roll of laughter went up from those who had been listening, drawing the curious gazes of those who had not. Poor Bofur brought his hand up to cover his mouth, trying to muffle the sound of his laughter somewhat.

Fíli shook his head. "Well played, Bilbo," he admitted with a wry grin.

"What do you know?" Nori said with a chuckle, reaching over to pat Ori's shoulder as brother stared at all of them with a baffled look. "It looks as if our hobbit has a bit of a bite after all."

Kíli's face was still a little flushed, but his tone was serious as he nodded his head in Bilbo's direction. "Yes, but we found that out two nights ago."

Bilbo felt his own face grow warm, and he glanced down at his lap. He had pulled his sword from its scabbard at some point in the conversation, even though he didn't quite remember doing it. He turned it over a few times, staring at the silver blade, remembering Gollum's howls and the orcs' screams and the dwarves' yells.

"You two are right," Bilbo said softly.

"We are?" Kíli asked, sounding confused.

A firm hand grasped Bilbo's shoulder and squeezed. "Of course we are," Fíli said. Then he hesitated, just slightly. "Just to check, what are we right about?"

Shaking his head, Bilbo looked up. Most of the others were still chuckling, but a few of the older ones were watching him closely as if they knew what he was about to say. Balin nodded at him, a slight twitching at the corner of his mouth that Bilbo thought might almost be a smile.

"I have no idea how to properly use this thing," Bilbo admittedly, lifting his sword an inch or two off of his lap.

Kíli's eyes lit up, and for once Bilbo could see just how young he was. "Come on, we can help you with that," he said, grabbing Bilbo's arm and all but yanking him to his feet.

Fíli stood up as well, grinning broadly at Bilbo. "Don't look so worried. We know what we're doing."

"That's very reassuring," Bilbo said weakly. His voice didn't come across nearly as calm and collected as he'd been aiming for it to sound.

Nearby, Dwalin snorted and stood up. "Now this I have to see."

Several of the others stood up as well, obviously planning on following him, and Bilbo felt his heart sink. The last thing he wanted was to make a completely fool of himself in front of everyone.

"Sit back down," Balin said suddenly, grabbing his brother and yanking him back down into his seat. "Unless you'd rather I remind you and everyone else here exactly how well your first sword lesson went, back in the day?"

Dwalin opened his mouth. Then he closed it again.

Bilbo shot Balin a thankful look as the others who'd stood up reluctantly sat back down as well. Balin inclined his head slightly, looking pleased with himself.

"Come on then, Bilbo," Kíli said. "Let's get started."


Kíli rearranged Bilbo's grip for what felt like the millionth time, a look of careful concentration on his face. There was still a hint of amusement in his eyes that had Bilbo somewhat worried, and not for the first time he felt thankful that the others hadn't followed them as they'd slipped just far enough away from the camp to be out of sight. Bilbo knew that he looked utterly ridiculous, and he expected that it was going to get worse before it got better.

"Now try!" Kíli said, grinning as he stepped away.

Bilbo took a deep breath, his fingers clenching tightly around his sword's handle despite both Fíli and Kíli telling him multiple times not to do so.

"No, no, not like that!" Fíli protested, stepping closer to Bilbo in order to grab his arm before he had a chance to try swinging again. "I don't know what you were thinking, Kíli. He needs a looser grip. Like this." He quickly rearranged Bilbo's hands before stepping back proudly. "There, that's better."

Bilbo stared at him. Then he stared at his hands, which were crossed over each other in a way that meant he couldn't actually swing the sword at all. "Um."

Kíli burst out laughing.

"Wait, that's not right." Fíli frowned, tilting his head. "How did your hands get like that, Bilbo?"

Bilbo groaned. "The two of you are doing this on purpose, aren't you?" he asked, letting the sword drop back down to his side.

The two of them stared blankly at him. "Doing what?" Kíli asked, confused, while Fíli just frowned.

Bilbo opened his mouth to reply. Then he tensed as, behind him, someone laughed. Reluctantly, he glanced over his shoulder.

Bofur was standing a few feet behind him, not even trying to mask his amusement. "What on earth are you lads doing to our poor hobbit?" he asked as he made his way forward to stand right beside Bilbo.

"Giving him lessons, just like we said we would," Fíli said crossly, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "What does it look like we're doing?"

Kíli coughed pointedly.

Fíli glared at him.

Bofur raised an eyebrow. "So I see," he said skeptically. He glanced at Bilbo. "Learning a lot, are you?"

"I, uh— that is to say, um—" Bilbo sputtered a bit, trying to think of a way to answer the question that wasn't going to come across badly in regards to Fíli and Kíli.

Bofur apparently took pity on him, instead turning his gaze toward the brothers. He shot them both a sympathetic grin. "Teaching's not as simple as you thought it would be?"

Fíli met his gaze for a second or two before looking away. "Perhaps it's a bit more difficult," he said grudgingly.

"But only a little bit," Kíli added. "And practice makes perfect, isn't that right?"

Bofur just laughed, placing his hand on Bilbo's shoulder and giving it a light squeeze. "It's getting dark," he said. "Thorin asked me to come fetch the three of you."

It took everything Bilbo had not to shower him with thanks right then and there.

Fíli and Kíli shared a look, but even they couldn't argue that it wasn't getting late. The sun had finally set, and while the moon was up it wasn't providing enough light to be of much use.

"I suppose you're right," Fíli said reluctantly.

Kíli nodded. "We can always pick back up when we make camp tomorrow, I suppose."

Bilbo was very proud of himself for not groaning out loud. He suspected that he didn't quite keep his face expressionless, though, considering the knowing look Bofur shot him only seconds later.

"Aye, that sounds like a plan," Bofur said agreeably. "I might even join you three, if you'll have me. I know a thing or two about swords, you know. And it wouldn't be the first time that I played the role of teacher."

Fíli and Kíli shared a look, both of them frowning.

"That sounds like a perfectly fine plan to me," Bilbo said quickly, before either of them had a chance to speak.

Bofur grinned. "Well then, that's settled," he said, squeezing Bilbo's shoulder reassuringly one more time before letting go. "Let's get back to camp before they send out a search party for us, shall we?"


Bilbo woke up at sunrise, the sound of a hushed argument nearby catching his attention and dragging him from his rest. Yawning, he let his gaze move over their camp. Most of the others were still asleep, although he thought that he saw some of them beginning to stir.

Balin, Dwalin, and Bifur were sitting by the small campfire that had apparently been built back up at some point, all of them trying not to be obvious that they were blatantly eavesdropping on... whatever it was going on just out of sight of the camp. Frowning, Bilbo pulled himself to his feet and made his way over toward where they were sitting.

"What's going on?" Bilbo asked quietly, careful to keep his voice barely above a whisper as he sat down beside them. While he couldn't see them or hear exactly what they were saying, he recognized the two voices involved in the argument as belonging to Thorin and Gandalf.

Bifur muttered something in Khuzdul, and Balin's mouth twitched as if he was trying to hide a smile. Bilbo didn't have a clue what Bifur had said, but he expected from the tone – as well as Balin's reaction – that it probably wasn't very polite.

Dwalin rolled his eyes, reaching over to grab some roasted fish from the fire that Bilbo hadn't even noticed cooking there. "Gandalf claims to have a friend nearby who may be able to provide us with some supplies," he said, taking a bit of fish. He chewed a few times and swallowed. "He wants us to spend the day here until he returns."

Bilbo blinked. "And that's a bad thing?"

Dwalin snorted and took another bite of fish.

"What's a bad thing?" Bofur asked, stretching as he walked over to where they were sitting.

Bifur said something that sounded like gibberish to Bilbo. It must have made sense to Bofur, though, as he raised an eyebrow and dropped down to sit beside Bilbo. "I have to agree with Mr. Baggins here in that case. A bit of rest doesn't sound like the worst idea I've ever heard." He shrugged. "All things considering, I mean."

"Perhaps," Balin agreed, "but I expect Thorin might not see it that way."

As if on cue, there was a muffled shout from just out of their sight. The other dwarves who had still been sleeping jerked awake, all of them reaching for weapons as they sat up. Bilbo couldn't help but be somewhat amused to see that Bombur and Ori were the first armed, clutching an iron ladle and a slingshot respectively. They might not be the most dangerous weapons, but at least their owners were speedy.

Thorin came stomping back into the camp a few seconds later, his eyes flashing as he muttered angrily under his breath. He came to a sudden halt as he caught sight of the five of them sitting beside the fire, the rest of the company obviously just woken up and in various states of wakefulness. For just a moment, Bilbo would have sworn that Thorin was staring straight at him.

"We're resting here for the day," Thorin said through gritted teeth, his voice almost a growl. "Make use of it as you will." Then he stormed through the camp, disappearing from view as he rounded a large piece of stone that jutted out.

No one said anything for a moment as all of them processed what had just happened. Then Dwalin snorted and took another bite of fish. The uncomfortable silence broken, the others began to stand up and make their way toward the fire.

Bofur dropped a hand on Bilbo's shoulder. "Well, at least you can get some more sword lessons in today," he said, grinning somewhat.

"Wonderful," Bilbo said dryly.

Fíli walked up to where they were sitting, Kíli trailing behind him and rubbing sleep from his eyes. "What did we miss?" Fíli asked, a confused look on his face as he glanced in the direction Thorin had disappeared.


Bilbo brought his sword up hurriedly, blocking Fíli's thrust the way Bofur had taught him. It wasn't as smooth as it had been when Kíli had demonstrated the move, nor was it as effective. If it had been a real battle, Bilbo had no doubt that he wouldn't have stood a chance. Still, it was more than he had been able to do just a few hours earlier. He couldn't help but feel just a little bit of pride when he heard the clang of metal when Fíli's sword connected with his.

"That's more like it," Bofur said, clapping his hands together. "We'll make a proper swordsman out of you yet."

Bilbo sighed as he let his sword drop back down to his side, reaching up with his free hand to brush a few strands of sweaty hair out of his eyes. "Let's not exaggerate," he said lightly.

Kíli grinned at him as he walked up and threw his arm over Fíli's shoulder. "Don't doubt yourself so much, Mr. Baggins," Kíli said.

Bilbo frowned at him. "I'm not a swordsman," Bilbo protested, "and I don't think that I want to become one even if I could."

Fíli pushed his brother's arm off of his shoulder. "Well, what matters is that you at least learn how to block and thrust properly. And you're getting there, Bilbo."

"Slowly," Kíli added teasingly, rather unhelpfully in Bilbo's mind.

His brother apparently felt the same, as he elbowed Kíli in the side. Kíli let out a soft "oomph" as Fíli's arm connected with him. "What?" he asked with a scowl. "I didn't mean it as a bad thing!"

Bofur chuckled, shaking his head as he glanced up at the sky. "It's getting close to midday," he said thoughtfully. "I should probably go see if Bombur needs help getting the next meal ready."

Bilbo couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed that the training was over already, since he actually had been making some progress. He was careful not to let it show on his face, however, as he shot Bofur a tentative smile. "Thank you for the lesson," Bilbo said. "I appreciate it."

"Anytime," Bofur said with an exaggerated bow.

Fíli saluted him. "Don't worry, Kíli and I will take over from here."

Bilbo froze, remembering very clearly Fíli and Kíli's teaching attempts from the night before.

Bofur apparently recognized the look on Bilbo's face for what it was. He slowly raised an eyebrow. "Do you think you're up for some more training, Bilbo?" he asked, his eyes asking more than his tone of voice. "It's been a long morning. You must be tired."

Kíli's face fell.

"Oh, I hadn't thought of that," Fíli said, not even trying to hide the disappointment. "Did you want to stop then, Bilbo?"

Bilbo knew he was being played. No matter what some of the others might think, he wasn't a fool. He could see the sparkle in Kíli's eyes that the dwarf wasn't quite hiding, just like he noticed the way Fíli's mouth twitched slightly as he carefully didn't glance at his brother.

Still, it wouldn't hurt him to get some more practice in. Besides, at least now he had a slight idea as to what he was doing thanks to Bofur's help.

Bilbo bit his lip. "No, I'm fine," he said slowly, hoping he wasn't making a mistake. "A little more training wouldn't go amiss, I think."

Fíli and Kíli's faces both lit up. Bilbo couldn't help but feel a little bit of apprehension at just how eager they were to try to teach him again, but he wasn't going to back down now.

Bofur shook his head in amusement. "In that case, I'll leave you in the lads' hands," he said as he turned and started back toward the camp. "Good luck."

As Fíli and Kíli turned toward him, identical grins on their faces, Bilbo had a feeling that he was going to need it.


"In my defense, I was expecting you to duck," Kíli said apologetically.

Bilbo might have taken it better if it hadn't been the fourth time in the past ten minutes that Kíli had made that same comment, or – at least – something similar. As it was, Bilbo glared at him, hissing as Óin finished wrapping the cut on his left arm.

Fíli clapped him on the good arm. "Look at it this way, Bilbo, it could have been worse," he said brightly.

Bilbo turned his glare toward Fíli, who quickly let go of Bilbo's arm and held up his hands in a placating manner.

Óin snorted. "I expect you boys should quit while you're behind," he said, turning Bilbo's arm slightly so that he could inspect his handiwork. "You've done enough damage to our burglar for one day, I think."

"I thought you said it was just a scratch," Bilbo said, frowning as he turned his attention back toward Óin.

"Oh, it is," the older dwarf said matter-of-factly. "Still, even a small wound can cause trouble if it gets infected, especially out here."

Bilbo opened his mouth to reply. He was cut off by the sound of Thorin's voice coming from directly behind him.

"What is going on here?"

Bilbo stilled.

Both Fíli and Kíli both dropped their gazes immediately. Kíli shuffled his feet a bit while Fíli suddenly became very interested in inspecting one of the many blades he kept on him.

"Well?" Thorin asked.

Óin snorted, letting go of Bilbo's arm and standing up. "Training accident," he said bluntly as he gathered up his things. "Talk to these three if you want any more details than that."

There was a pause as Óin walked off, and for a second Bilbo thought that Thorin might have gone with him. Then, suddenly, Thorin was kneeling down beside him and roughly grabbing Bilbo's arm. Bilbo flinched, just slightly, but it was enough to cause Thorin to still.

"What happened?" he asked. His voice left no room for argument.

Bilbo could feel his face heating up with embarrassment. "Apparently I forgot to duck."

Thorin frowned for a moment, mouthing the words Bilbo had just said. Then he turned toward his nephews, a resigned look on his face. "Kíli?"

"At least it was only his arm this time?" Kíli said hesitantly.

Bilbo blinked. "Wait, what do you mean this time?" he asked, confused.

Fíli grinned at him, pulling his shirt down enough that Bilbo could see a messy scar on his shoulder. "Like I said, it could be worse," he said, much too cheerfully in Bilbo's mind. "You should have seen the looks on everyone's faces when—"

Fíli trailed off suddenly. Bilbo expected that Thorin was probably glaring at him, but he was too busy trying his best not to think about anything Fíli had just said to look and see.

"I'm going to assume you were young children when this happened?" Bilbo finally managed to ask, his voice only slightly strangled.

There was a long pause.

"Well," Kíli said slowly, "actually, it was about three—"

Bilbo held up a hand. "Please forget that I asked that question."

Thorin reached up and rubbed his temples. "How badly is your arm injured?" he asked tiredly.

"It's just a scratch," Bilbo said hesitantly.

Bilbo wasn't certain, but he suspected he wasn't imagining the relief on Thorin's face at his reply.

"I assume my nephews have both apologized to you?" Thorin asked. He shot both Fíli and Kíli a pointed look. "Repeatedly?"

The two of them looked everywhere but at him. Bilbo couldn't help but take pity on them.

"They have," Bilbo said firmly. "Besides, it was an accident."

Thorin glanced at him. "I'm afraid, Mr. Baggins," he said, a hint of amusement in his voice, "that while they might be skilled at fighting, my nephews are not nearly as gifted at teaching."

Kíli made a sound that could almost have been a protest. Fíli elbowed him in the stomach. Judging by the sharp hiss that Kíli let out, he wasn't gentle about it.

"I hadn't noticed," Bilbo said, trying to keep his voice lighthearted. He suspected it came across more dry than he had intended.

Thorin's mouth twitched. It wasn't a smile, but it was closer to one than Bilbo had seen him come since their journey's beginning.

"Well, in that case, why don't you give him some pointers, Uncle?" Fíli asked.

Bilbo immediately turned toward Fíli, eying him warily. His tone was much too innocent.

Thorin apparently thought so as well, because he narrowed his eyes at his older nephew.

Kíli suddenly grinned. "Yes, why not?" he asked. "You're the one who taught us, after all."

"That was Mother," Fíli muttered.

Kíli waved a hand at him. "Well, yes, but he stepped in when he was there."

"Kíli, Fíli," Thorin said warningly.

"No, no, it's a wonderful idea!" Fíli said, grabbing Kíli by the arm and pulling him in the direction of the camp. "We'll leave you two to it."

Bilbo stared blankly as they disappeared from sight. Then he glanced at Thorin. "What just happened?" he asked.

"I'm about to need two new heirs," Thorin muttered, though there was fondness in his voice. Then he looked at Bilbo. "I can help train you, if that is why you wish."

"I, uh, that is to say—" Bilbo looked down at his arm, poking at the bandage a little. Then, hesitantly, he met Thorin's gaze. "Maybe after lunch?"

Thorin nodded, his mouth twitching with something that could almost be a smile.


Bilbo wasn't certain whether to consider it a curse or a blessing that Fíli and Kíli didn't follow when Thorin gestured for him to get his sword and come with him.

While he appreciated that the brothers had been trying to help, their attempts at teaching him had been anything but helpful. Still, considering just a few days earlier Thorin had thought he was nothing but a burden, Bilbo wasn't certain he wanted to risk losing the little bit of respect that he had gained by showing just how weak his swordsmanship was. If Fíli and Kíli had been there, he expected they would have at least been able to draw Thorin's attention from being focused solely on him.

It hadn't helped that Bilbo had noticed the looks the other dwarves had shared when Kíli had cheerfully announced that Thorin was going to be giving Bilbo sword lessons after they finished with their meal. Some had been surprised and some had been knowing, but there had been an underlying layer of amusement that even he had been able to pick up on. Needless to say, it made him worried when he considered just what the others might know that he did not.

"Mr. Baggins, are you listening to a word I'm saying?"

Bilbo jerked in surprise, his attention abruptly brought back to the present. He felt his face flush when he realized that Thorin was staring at him with a raised eyebrow.

Thorin rolled his eyes. "I will take that as a 'no,'" he said dryly.

"I'm sorry," Bilbo said. "I was just—" He trailed off, not quite certain what excuse to offer.

Thorin sighed, but Bilbo would have sworn that he saw a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth. "If you would be so kind as to show me what you have been taught so far," Thorin said, his voice not quite as wry as Bilbo had expected, "I would like to see what I have to work with."

Bilbo took a deep breath. Then he shifted his weight, bringing his sword up and gripping it lightly like Bofur had shown him.

Thorin narrowed his eyes, circling Bilbo for a moment. His gaze was focused on Bilbo, a tightly focused look on his face.

Bilbo shifted a little, uncomfortable at the close scrutiny. He felt his heart sink a little when Thorin frowned, and he quickly tried to move back to the position he had been in previously.

After what felt like ages, Thorin nodded. "I've seen worse," he said frankly. "Your stance is better than Kíli's was after months of training."

"Truly?" Bilbo asked, lowering his sword. The amount of surprise in his voice caught him off guard.

Thorin apparently felt similarly, based on the way he eyed Bilbo a moment later. "There's a reason he favors a bow over a sword. He takes after his uncle in that way."

It was obvious from the way Thorin had said "uncle" that he wasn't speaking about himself. It was on the tip of Bilbo's tongue to ask questions, but he saw how Thorin's face darkened somewhat as soon as the words left his mouth and decided otherwise.

"Where shall we begin?" Bilbo asked, purposely changing the subject.

Thorin shot him a look, an unreadable expression on his face. Then he nodded. "Get back in position."

Bilbo did so without hesitating. Thorin's tone brooked no argument.

Thorin eyed him again, studying his posture. Then he began walking around Bilbo once more. After a moment, Bilbo startled somewhat as Thorin leaned forward and carefully repositioned the placement of Bilbo's hands.

His touch was surprisingly gentle.

"How does that feel?" Thorin asked, pulling his hand away.

Bilbo swung his sword slightly, just enough to test the new position of his hands. "Better," he admitted, unable to keep the surprise out of his voice, "as if I have more control."

With Thorin standing behind him, Bilbo couldn't see his face. He felt a light huff of air ruffle his hair, though, a quiet sound that could have almost been a chuckle. Then, a second or two later, he felt a hand on his back.

It took everything in him not to jerk away at the touch.

Thorin lightly pushed him. "You need to straighten up," he said seriously. "Don't bend your legs quite so much."

Bilbo did his best to follow Thorin's advice. For some reason, though, it was hard to focus. Thorin's hand was still resting on his back, a light touch that he could barely feel, yet he couldn't help but find it extremely distracting.

"Better," Thorin said. Bilbo thought that he could almost hear Thorin nodding.

He felt a flash of relief as Thorin's hand moved from his back. Except the next thing he knew, Thorin had moved to his side and was gently straightening his arm out. Bilbo could see Thorin's face now, his attention focused on nothing but Bilbo as he carefully showed him the proper stance and grip he should be using.

"There, that's better," Thorin said finally, more to himself than to Bilbo.

Thorin moved away, unsheathing his own sword as he positioned himself several feet away from Bilbo. He met Bilbo's gaze, and then he smiled. There was no other word for it. It wasn't as bright and unguarded as that of his nephews. In fact, compared to theirs, it barely even counted as one. But it was much more than Bilbo had seen from Thorin since the beginning of their journey months earlier.

"Let's begin," Thorin said.

Bilbo let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, uncomfortably aware of the way Thorin's stare was focused entirely on him.

It was going to be a long training session.


"No, stay as you are," Thorin said firmly.

Bilbo froze in place, his chest heaving as he tried to calm his breathing. His hair was almost plastered to his head, and sweat trickled down his face.

Thorin walked over to Bilbo's side, leaning in and adjusting Bilbo's stance yet again. Bilbo felt his face flush when he felt Thorin's breath hit his cheek, but he was too tired to hide it. After however long they had been practicing, with Thorin stopping repeatedly to personally show Bilbo what he was doing wrong, his entire body felt raw and exposed. He only hoped Thorin thought it to be exhaustion rather than anything closer to the truth.

Beside him, Thorin stilled.

Bilbo felt his breath catch in his throat. "Perhaps we could take a rest?" he said hurriedly, the words tripping over themselves as they rushed out of his mouth.

There was something about the way Thorin looked at him, a flash of emotion in his eyes that Bilbo couldn't define. It wasn't disappointment. Bilbo was well aware of how that looked on Thorin's face, having had it aimed at him so many times over the past few months. Still, it was similar enough that it was what came to Bilbo's mind when he saw it.

Bilbo was on the verge of trying to take the words back, to insist that they continue even though – now that he had stopped long enough to thing about it – he truly was exhausted and the cut on his arm from earlier was aching. Except then Thorin nodded at him.

"Of course," Thorin said, and Bilbo knew that he wasn't imagining the frustration in his voice.

Nothing but a disappointment, a voice in Bilbo's head whispered softly, that's all he will ever think of you as.

It was as if all of the energy suddenly flooded from him. Bilbo dropped to the ground. He managed to make it look as if he was merely sitting down rather than his legs all but crumpling under him, but he couldn't quite meet Thorin's gaze for fear that the dwarf would read something there that he would rather keep to himself.

There was a soft thump beside him.

Bilbo looked despite himself, surprised to see that Thorin had sat down beside him. "I had not realized just how long we had been at this," Thorin said, glancing at the sun riding low on the horizon before turning his gaze back toward Bilbo. "You have my apologies."

"No, I'm the one who's sorry," Bilbo said, before he could stop himself. "I'm afraid we hobbits simply aren't as hardy as dwarves. I know that I must make a poor student."

Thorin stared at him for a moment. Then, to Bilbo's surprise, he threw his head back and laughed out loud.

Bilbo stared at him blankly.

"Bilbo Baggins," Thorin said, his voice still full of mirth as he met Bilbo's gaze straight on, "almost any dwarf out there would have insisted we stop to rest hours ago. It is much more draining to be the student than the teacher."

Bilbo opened his mouth to speak. Then he closed it again, no words coming to mind.

Thorin reached over and rested a hand on Bilbo's shoulder, and Bilbo was suddenly very aware just how close to each other they were. "If you'll have me, I would be glad to continue these lessons in the evenings when we make camp," Thorin said, his tone suddenly deadly seriously. "As others have pointed out to me, it would be for your own good if you were able to at least defend yourself in battle if needed."

An unbidden thought popped into Bilbo's mind, and he remember how he had thought Thorin's gaze had focused on him for a moment longer than the others that morning. Everyone had been surprised that Thorin had agreed to spend a full day resting rather than pushing forward. Could Gandalf have possibly suggested that—?

There was a sharp pain in his arm, and Bilbo hissed as he was brought unpleasantly back to the here and now.

Thorin's hands were on his arm, carefully inspecting the cut from earlier. It said a lot for his state of mind that Bilbo hadn't even noticed the touch this time. "You should clean this and change the bandage," Thorin said, a hint of worry in his voice. "It wouldn't do for it to get infected."

Bilbo raised an eyebrow at that, pointedly looking at swathe of bandages that peeked out from under Thorin's shirt. While the white warg had done surprisingly little damage, all things considered, Thorin had come out of the battle a few nights earlier far from unscathed. And, despite his earlier words, the sweat on his brow made it clear that the past several hours' worth of training had taken at least a small toll on him as well.

It took him a moment to realize that he was staring at Thorin. He quickly looked away.

Thorin's mouth quirked upward again, a smile appearing on his face that seemed far too knowing. "Are you trying to say something, burglar?"

"I don't know what you mean," Bilbo said, doing his best to keep his voice from revealing anything. "I'm simply trying to gather the strength to get up so that I can go bathe before Bombur finishes cooking what will presumably be yet another fine dinner of fish."

Thorin shook his head, but he didn't say anything. Instead he stood up, stretching as he did so. He then reached his hand down, offering it to Bilbo.

Bilbo hesitated for a moment before taking it and letting Thorin help pull him to his feet. His back protested immediately, letting him know just how little it thought of him spending hours on end training with a sword.

Thorin started walked in the direction of the camp. After a second's hesitation, Bilbo followed him.

"I must admit, a bath does sound appealing," Thorin said thoughtfully. He glanced over his shoulder, the same something on his face that Bilbo had seen earlier. It was probably his imagination, Bilbo knew that it was, but it almost looked as if— "Perhaps I will join you."

Bilbo tripped over his own two feet.