It was with unexpected delight that Bilbo followed the company into the winding streets of Rivendell, eyes wide and head turning this way and that, wanting to see everything at once. The hobbit had never seen elves before, much less their home, and he was (much to Thorin's annoyance) quite delighted that Gandalf had led them there, and not only because it gave them a brief respite from the Orcs that hunted them. Bilbo, having a great love of reading and a certain interest in the fair race, knew enough about them to suspect that they would pass quite close to Rivendell on their quest, but he never would have imagined that stepping out his door would actually lead him to this place, particularly with the company so set against anything to do with the elves. Still, he could not hide his wonder and amazement at everything around him, nor stop the soft sigh that escaped his lips as a welcomed safety washed over him.
The dwarves, of course, were not so quick to relax, edging around the place like they expected the elves to suddenly jump at them with bows drawn and daggers in hand, and Bilbo was more than a little baffled when they closed ranks around him as if the approaching elven hunting party was indeed hunting them. But hobbits are more astute than most at knowing when it is best to keep quiet and remain unnoticed, and Bilbo thought it best not to involve himself in the clashing tension between the dwarves and elves, and so stayed small and protected at the center of the group.
It wasn't until later, after Elrond invited them to dinner, that any notice was taken of the odd member of their company, and the only thing that gave away Elrond's initial surprise at seeing Bilbo was the lift in one eyebrow before he turned to Gandalf with that curious twinkle of amusement he often wore when he caught the wizard doing something out of the ordinary (which, as it happens, was almost always).
"You didn't tell me there was a halfling in your company," Elrond said, a look in his eye that clearly told Gandalf that they would be discussing this in more detail later. Then, before anyone present had so much as a chance to register his words, he stopped abruptly and lowered himself to one knee in front of Bilbo, one fluid movement that left the hobbit blinking in shock at suddenly having a strange face on level with and very close to his own after so many weeks of looking up at even the shorter dwarves he traveled with.
Elrond smiled at him fondly, and Bilbo's mouth was just twitching into a half-smile of his own when Elrond leaned in close, bringing his right hand up to Bilbo's cheek and rubbing their noses together in a traditional hobbit greeting. Bilbo's body reacted on instinct, his own hand coming up to Elrond's cheek, which was fortunate - it would have been quite rude to simply stand there gaping. It was only a moment before Elrond pulled back, warmth dancing in his eyes as his hand slid down to clasp Bilbo's shoulder.
"You are most welcome here, friend. It has been many years since I have had the pleasure of speaking with one of your kind. I look forward to hearing news of the Shire," he told Bilbo, and then he was up and off, striding down the path again as if nothing at all had happened. Bilbo caught Gandalf trying to suppress his amusement as he fell into step beside Elrond, but it took Bilbo a moment longer to shake off his surprise and think to follow. When he chanced a glance at dwarves, however, he found them all rooted to the spot, bushy eyebrows lifted high in surprise. All except for Thorin, that is, who stood glowering at the back of Elrond's head as the elf continued down the path, seemingly unaware that Dwalin had a firm grip on his arm, as though he expected Thorin to suddenly try to run and attack Elrond from behind.
Thorin's behavior struck Bilbo as odd, but he wouldn't pretend to understand the dwarf's hatred of elves, and so he pushed the worry from his mind. Thorin could think whatever he liked, Bilbo thought to himself as he hurried to fall in line behind Gandalf. For his part, Bilbo was secretly quite pleased that Elrond not only found him to be a person of interest, but was clearly familiar with the customs of hobbits. Their stop in Rivendell was already shaping up to be the most pleasant part of his adventure so far, and he wasn't about to let a grumpy dwarf change that.
Evening was falling in earnest and the elves had long since left the dwarves to their own amusements when the hobbit greeting was brought up again, and as Bilbo should have expected, it was Fili and Kili who brought it up. He had been deep in his own thoughts, his mind running over the conversations he and Elrond had discussed at dinner, when he was pulled from his reverie by the sound of boisterous laughter.
Looking up, he nearly choked on his pipe when he found the company laughing (as they often were) at Fili and Kili, who were making a grand show of the hobbit greeting, prancing around in a circle with their noses in the air before leaning in and rubbing them together vigorously. Bilbo snorted in amusement at the obvious over-exaggeration and continued to watch as they spotted a passing elf.
"You there!" Fili called, and the pair took off after the elf, who, not knowing the risks, politely stopped and waited. Kili reached the poor elf first and practically grabbed his face to pull it down to his level and rub their noses together. The elf reared back in alarm and quickly turned and hurried down the path, casting frightened glances back over his shoulder at the dwarves where they stood laughing, clinging to each other to keep from collapsing.
The company, having watched the whole ordeal, roared with laughter, and Bilbo could only shake his head and grin as he wondered what the elves must think of this unruly lot. When Fili and Kili, seeing that they had scared away any other potential victims, began their shenanigans again with each other, Bilbo decided it was time to set aside his pipe and speak up.
"See here! You're doing it wrong," he told them, and the brothers stopped, propping their hands on their hips as they regarded him with confident amusement.
"Go on then; you're the expert! Show us how it's done properly!" Kili answered, pulling Bilbo to his feet. Bilbo wiped his hands on his pants and tried to ignore how many pairs of eyes were suddenly watching him.
"Well, to begin with, it's just a greeting between friends," Bilbo explained. "It's meant to be gentle; you don't go rubbing your faces together like animals in heat."
"Looked a bit too friendly when Elrond did it, if you ask me," Fili remarked, eyes twinkling with mischief. "For a moment I thought he was going to kiss you!"
"Uncle did too, from what I could tell," Kili added with a smirk, pointedly avoiding Thorin's angry gaze as he said it. Thorin growled, low and quiet, and a frown of confusion creased Bilbo's face for a moment before he turned back to the brothers.
"What? No, no. Elrond did it quite respectably. Yes, very proper indeed," Bilbo said with a nod, hooking his thumbs in his coat pockets and rocking forward and backward on his feet. "Better than you lot have managed, I can say," and Fili and Kili huffed indignantly.
"You must show us how to do it, then," Kili said decisively, and crossed to stand directly in front of Bilbo.
In no time at all, Bilbo had set the young brothers straight, and in doing so managed to get a fair number of the other dwarves to join in as well. Many of them were quite delighted in the funny little custom, while several of the older dwarves seemed to take an academic interest in it, commented amongst themselves on the vast differences between the hobbit's nose-rubbing and their own dwarvish custom of head-conking. Kili even managed to duck up to Dwalin and catch him off guard, quickly rubbing their noses together and leaping away as the burly dwarf reached out to throttle him.
In no time at all, Bilbo found himself standing in the middle of a crowd of dwarves all merrily rubbing noses, and he grinned widely as he watched them enjoying themselves, happily participating as dwarf after dwarf approached him. In fact, he didn't even notice who was missing from the fun until he heard a voice rise above the others.
"Come on, Uncle!" Fili called out to Thorin, hands on his hips and his eyes alight with mischief. "You would do well to learn the customs of the other races, if you're to be king!" The other dwarves laughed their agreement, prodding and pushing Thorin forward until he was standing directly in front of Bilbo and shooting disapproving looks at his scheming kinsmen. Bilbo stood, suddenly quite anxious, and his hands fluttered uselessly as he tried to find some way of deflecting. Rubbing noses with the rest of the company was one thing - it was more of a game to them than anything serious, really. But Thorin was too stoic and distant to join in on most of their fun, generally choosing to stand back and watch with disinterested amusement. Even more, it often seemed like Thorin avoided any physical contact at all with Bilbo, and the hobbit was at a loss for how to escape from such an awkward situation now.
Finally he just shrugged one shoulder and took a step back from their leader. "It's just a silly custom," he mumbled. "It's not as though you'll be entertaining many hobbits in Erebor," he ended with a nervous laugh, and turned to flee, intending to find somewhere quiet where he could regain his senses before he embarrassed himself further.
But before he could so much as take a step, he was stopped by a hand on his shoulder, and when he looked back, Thorin was there, amusement written in the lines of his face, and his eyes looked at Bilbo with that same surprising and unsettling gentleness that often caught the hobbit off guard at unexpected moments. "If it is important to your people, then it is worth the lesson," he told Bilbo honestly. "I'd...like to try."
Bilbo tried not to show his surprise at this, eyes darting nervously to the other dwarfs to see them watching with unconcealed amusement. "Oh," he managed to say weakly. "Yes, well then. It-it's actually quite simple, you see, you just-" he took a step closer to Thorin, lifting his hand hesitantly as Thorin mimicked him. At the first touch of contact, Bilbo's mind began racing, trying to comprehend the surprising softness of Thorin's beard under his own fingers while at the same time, Thorin's palm cupped to his cheek sent tingles shooting through him. Thorin ducked his head to meet Bilbo's and as they inched closer, their eyes locked and Bilbo couldn't seem to avert his gaze downward as he had done with the other dwarves.
After several long moments hovering close, tension crackling between them as they grew ever nearer, their noses met and brushed carefully against each other, and Bilbo was certain it was quiet enough for Thorin to hear the heavy pounding of his heart as it beat erratically. As it was, the dwarf would surely feel the heat from his cheek as his face flamed hot under the touch. The laughter and playful banter of before had died out, and when they pulled back after a moment, Bilbo glanced around to see the other dwarves smirking at them knowingly. Fili and Kili stood back, elbowing each other excitedly with wagging eyebrows, while Dori had a hand pressed to his heart and a dreamy expression lighting his face. Even Dwalin was trying to dampen his smile by rolling his eyes.
Bilbo cleared his throat nervously, daring a glance back at Thorin, who was gazing at him with such intensity that Bilbo felt exposed and flustered. "That's, uh, that's it, really," he said with a laugh that bordered so closely on manic, it made even him wince. "I'll just-I should-I'll just go and see that the bags are well stocked, shall I?" he stumbled, and turned again to escape, certain that his face was redder than Bombur's beard.
But once again, he was stopped. "Wait!" Thorin nearly shouted, reaching out to grab Bilbo's arm again, and the hobbit felt those same tingles in his skin where they were touching, even through his clothes. Bilbo looked up at Thorin, but the dwarf seemed momentarily struck dumb, as if he had forgotten what it was he wanted to say. He gathered his wits and took a breath before speaking again. "If you teach us how your kind greets friends, will you not also teach me how you would greet family?" he asked, pulling Bilbo lightly back to where he was a moment before.
"I suppose it would be good for you to know," he said softly, shuffling nervously. "It's quite the same, actually. You just switch hands." He held up his left hand this time and gently pressed it to Thorin's cheek as Thorin did the same to him, but as they leaned in this time, Bilbo kept his eyes lowered and pulled away after only a moment, willing his twisting stomach to settle down and stop flipping about in such a peculiar way.
But before Bilbo could even attempt to make an exit this time, Thorin spoke yet again. "And your couples?" he asked. "How do your lovers greet each other? Do they kiss, or rub noses?"
Bilbo's eyebrows shot up in surprise and he felt his cheeks redden even further. He ducked his head, trying in vain to hide his blush, as he stuttered an answer. "Oh, well, you see, it isn't considered proper for hobbits to kiss in public. We, ah, we just-" he looked at a loss for how to explain the custom without demonstrating, so Thorin stepped closer, his piercing eyes giving silent permission.
Bilbo lifted his right hand again and cupped it to Thorin's face, waiting for Thorin to mimic him. When he did, Bilbo then lifted his left hand and placed it over Thorin's right where it rested on his smooth cheek, holding it there. The dwarf did the same, covering Bilbo's smaller hand with his own, and Bilbo's breath caught in his throat at the sensation of having his hand tucked between Thorin's cheek and his hand, surrounded by the dwarf's warm skin on all sides.
Thorin was the first to lean in this time, carefully tilting Bilbo's face upward as he lowered his own to softly rub their noses together. It was slower and gentler this time, and the air around them seemed suddenly thicker as they stilled, but didn't pull away. Instead, they stood frozen, faces so close that Bilbo could feel Thorin's breath against his lips, could see the stormy grey flecks of Thorin's eyes behind blown pupils, could feel the barely-there tickle of Thorin's mustache. Terrified that Thorin would read the obvious feelings in his eyes, Bilbo glanced downward, but that wasn't any better, because then he found himself staring at the dwarf's lips, parted just slightly and so close to his own. Bilbo's heart was racing despite the fact that his breath was still trapped firmly in his lungs, and both dwarf and hobbit seemed stuck, reluctant to pull away and waiting for the other to make his move.
Just as Bilbo saw Thorin's tongue dart out to wet his lips as he leaned almost imperceptibly closer, and Bilbo's eyes started to close in anticipation of the kiss that would surely come, Bilbo heard a loud voice behind him.
"Well, go on then! Don't take all day about it!"
Bilbo was so startled by the noise that he shot backwards, having quite forgotten that the other dwarves were there. He didn't turn to find out who had spoken, for his face flamed red again as he realized just what had almost happened, and in front of the company, no less. Without so much as a glance at Thorin or any of the others, he turned and fled, not even hearing their calls for him to come back.
Thorin found him in one of the gardens some time later as evening gave way to true night, sitting on a bench and admiring the night flowers growing along the path. When Bilbo saw the dwarf king approaching, he stood, glancing around to check for others as he hesitated between staying and going. Thorin stopped a short distance away and waited silently for the hobbit to make up his mind. Finally he seemed to decide and remained standing, but did not leave, swallowing nervously before breaking the tense silence.
"Nice night for a stroll through the gardens, don't you think?" he asked, because it was the only thing he could think to say.
Thorin glanced around at the blooms and inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement of the fact. "I did not come to see the flowers," he said, and left it at that, those bright eyes focused intently on Bilbo again.
Bilbo cleared his throat, not sure what to say to that, and simply settling on a soft, "Oh," somewhere between a statement and a question.
"I did not intend to embarrass you earlier," Thorin said, and Bilbo silently cursed the blush that crept up his neck again at the memory.
"Yes, well," he said, not looking at the dwarf and instead watching his hands as they smoothed down the front of his waistcoat. "No harm done. It was just a bit of fun." He gave Thorin a stiff smile, not quite meeting his eyes, before he turned back to the garden. A moment passed where neither spoke, the silence growing awkward.
"Why do you think I won't be entertaining hobbits in my halls?"
The question caught Bilbo off guard and he looked up abruptly, confused. "What?"
"Earlier, you said I wouldn't be entertaining hobbits in Erebor," Thorin explained, taking a few steps closer now that Bilbo seemed less likely to flee.
"Did I?" Bilbo asked absently, all too aware of Thorin edging closer. Thorin simply nodded, waiting for an answer. "Oh...well, hobbits rarely make it farther than Bree, and those are just the adventurous ones. I...I honestly don't recall hearing of a hobbit ever making it to Rivendell before now..." And Bilbo frowned at the reminder of just how queer he was, to have travelled so far from home. "I'm afraid you might find them a difficult lot, anyway. We can barely function without our handkerchiefs, after all," he added, a hint of a smirk playing at the corner of his mouth as he said it.
Thorin was thoughtful for a moment before he said anything else. "I can think of one hobbit I wouldn't object to entertaining," he said quietly, taking one more step that brought him to the edge of Bilbo's personal space.
Bilbo looked up with surprise, his startled expression not enough to mask the blush creeping up his neck again. Thorin waited, silently willing Bilbo to understand, to read the meaning behind his words and respond in kind. Bilbo studied the dwarf's face intently, and slowly the guarded look in his eyes slipped into something more hopeful, until finally his face broke out into a bashful smile and he glanced at the ground before looking back up at Thorin through his eyelashes. He closed the remaining distance between them shyly and watched as an answering smile formed on Thorin's face. "Well, in that case, we might ought to practice your greetings some more. It wouldn't be proper for you to have bad technique."
Thorin reached out, fingertips trailing along Bilbo's jaw teasingly before he tilted his face upward again, and the only thought that escaped Bilbo's suddenly dazed mind as a gentle hand slid over his cheek and the dwarf's breath warmed his lips, was that of how glad he was to have Thorin's hand over his own to keep him from floating away.