A/N: I'm certain everyone has forgotten about this story by now, but I haven't, and still work on it as time allows. I can't promise future updates will be quick, but I'll do what I can to make sure the fic gets finished! This chapter is nearly twice as long as the last, so maybe that makes up for the lateness a bit?
To those who had never visited the area when the winter rains had given way to fields thick with blossoms and honey bees, the Spring Market in Bree was a sight to behold. Spanning the length of the main east-west and north-south roads inside the city walls (and spilling over onto some of the lesser roads as well, as it continued to grow over time), the cobblestones were crammed with venders selling goods both ordinary and exotic. The colors and noise of the city seemed to double even as dawn was just breaking, when the gates were flung wide and carts jostled for position in the line to enter, bringing with them a massive dust cloud that refused to settle until after they rolled back out again at the end of the day. Men with strange accents shouted at each other as they flung out their banners and set up their wares, and for just one day, you could find just about anything your heart desired for sale on the streets of Bree.
It was less due to luck and more to careful planning that Thorin and his company - whom he had eventually located, neck deep in mead and pipeweed at the Prancing Pony - found themselves in Bree when the Market turned the city half-chaotic. Being the main crossroads in the area, the Market drew vendors from all over, conveniently providing them with an easy way to gather the remaining supplies for their journey in one fell swoop - save for their burglar, of course, since the one Gandalf had chosen for them seemed to be more of a joke than a useful addition to their party.
Thorin had not been back to the little coffee shop he had so tactlessly entered a week prior, and had not seen its hobbit shopkeeper at all during his errands and business that week. Perhaps if Gandalf were there, he could explain why the Burglar's Mark sat carved into the coffee shop door, when Bilbo Baggins was clearly as skilled in burglary as Thorin was at dressmaking - that is to say, not at all. Had the wizard bothered to verify that Mister Baggins was a burglar at all, or had he simply picked the first hobbit to claim the skill? Did Gandalf know something they didn't that influenced his choice? Unfortunately, the wizard was gone, having rushed away on his secret business, and so Thorin could only speculate about the matter and doubt his own decision to involve the wizard in his affairs.
And so, seeing no real reason to go back to Bilbo's, Thorin went on about his other errands, still quite set on his decision to reclaim Erebor. But this did not mean that it slipped his mind entirely - quite the contrary, in fact. The dwarf's thoughts had a habit of wandering back to that shop at odd moments, leaving Thorin endlessly frustrated that something as silly as the daffodil blossoms tacked into the Market decorations would remind him of the exact yellow of Bilbo's waistcoat, and he would mentally chastise himself for being so ridiculously distracted from his real business in Bree. There was no time and no reason for being intrigued by such a simple shopkeeper. Gandalf must have been mistaken about the halfling; there was no other explanation. It was best to forget him entirely, even if Thorin had found the turn of his nose abnormally pleasant.
In retrospect, it was only a matter of time before Thorin ran into Bilbo again - Bree, after all, was not nearly so large as it often seemed, as a good portion of its population was only passing through at any given time - and if he hadn't been so set on trying to forget the hobbit, he might have thought to prepare something to say when it happened. It was fortunate indeed, then, that this was an unnecessary measure, as their reunion came about so unexpectedly that there was no need for stiffly-mumbled pleasantries and lingering awkwardness.
It was late morning, and Dwalin had just began to grumble about finding food for their noon meal as the two friends perused a booth of leather bags, when Thorin heard his nephew call out.
Thorin looked up and spotted Kili coming toward him, grinning widely as he pushed through the crowd a bit too roughly, earning him a fair number of dirty looks.
"Uncle!" he called again, as if Thorin hadn't already seen him, and finally shoved one last woman half-again his height out of the way and broke through the throng of shoppers. "Our fortunes have changed, it seems! We have found you a burglar!" he declared, his chest puffed out with pride at his accomplishment.
Thorin studied him for a moment, uncertain of whether to be surprised or amused by this turn of events. "Oh? And just where might this burglar be?" he asked, standing up a bit straighter and folding his arms over his chest. Beside him, Dwalin did the same, and laughter danced in their eyes as they shared a well-practiced glance when Kili turned to look back the way he had come.
"Fili is bringing him now, see? There he is! Fili!" he shouted the last word as his brother popped into view, and it was fortunate that dwarves were so short, or Kili's excessively wild waving as he tried to catch his brother's attention (which he already had) would have sent several of the waterskins hanging over their heads flying. Fili waved back with his free hand, his other held tightly around the wrist of a short figure Thorin couldn't see properly, but who didn't seem to be keen on following the young dwarf willingly.
When Fili had fought his way over to them (at least mumbling quick apologies as he elbowed people out of the way), he nodded respectfully at Dwalin before beaming at Thorin. "We have you a burglar, Uncle!" he said proudly, pushing the figure into the middle of their group, and Thorin couldn't help the way his eyes widened comically when he saw Bilbo Baggins standing before him, looking altogether put out as he tried to straighten his coat and juggle an armful of packages without dropping any on the dirty street.
"Now, see here, I'm no..." Bilbo trailed off as he looked up and recognized Thorin, and his mouth dropped open in surprise. Before he could get anything else out, however, Kili cut him off.
"You should have seen it; he's very good! We watched him steal coins straight from the money bag on a vendor's belt! He didn't even drop any of his packages."
Bilbo's face went from surprised to annoyed in a heartbeat. "That," he said, swinging around to wag a finger at Kili, "That was not stealing. I've never stolen a thing in my life," he insisted, stretched to look behind Kili nervously, clearly checking to see if anyone had heard the dwarf's loud accusations.
"But that's not true!" Kili argued, turning to Thorin, eyes suddenly big and pleading for his uncle to believe his story. "We saw it all happen, didn't we, Fili?" and he gestured for his brother to confirm his story.
"Aye," Fili nodded, mimicking his uncle's calm regality, but Thorin could see his excitement bubbling just underneath the surface, betraying him. "We stopped at a booth down the street to look at some Dwarvish jewelry-"
"But it wasn't Dwarvish at all!" Kili interrupted, a dark look flashing across his face. "It wasn't even real silver; it was only plated! Horrible stuff, really; I've seen little dwarrows make better trinkets than that."
"And we said as much," Fili continued, "A bit too loudly, perhaps, as a woman who had just bought some was very upset."
"And that's when we saw the burglar!" Kili clapped an excited hand on Bilbo's back, sending him nearly falling forward as he scrambled to hold onto his mountain of shopping.
"He slipped in, quick and quiet as a mouse, and had the woman's money back before the vendor even realized he was there," Fili finished. "I've never seen burglary so skillful!"
"I told you," Bilbo finally got a word in edgewise, "I'm not a burglar! And that wasn't stealing! I was only evening things out a bit; giving her back her money. It's less of a punishment than the vendor deserves, I'll say that. Pulling those kinds of tricks in our Market; he'll give the whole thing a bad reputation!" Bilbo seemed to realize then that he was beginning to get sidetracked, and looked back at Thorin nervously. "It wasn't stealing," he said again, but it was quieter this time, and spoken just to the dwarf, as though his was the only opinion Bilbo really cared to correct.
Fili and Kili were undeterred by Bilbo's explanation, however, ignoring his claims of innocence. "Will you consider him, then, uncle?" Fili asked, hope alight in his eyes as he looked at Thorin, waiting to hear if he had done well.
Thorin sighed and pushed the hair back off his face. They needed a burglar, that much was true, and his nephews' account of things did seem to indicate that the hobbit had some skill at burglary. Thorin studied Bilbo again as he shuffled about checking that his (slightly crumpled) packages were still intact, but Thorin couldn't see anything more in him than he had seen on their first meeting. The halfling looked far too domestic to last long in the wild, and even if he did have some small skill at stealing things, what use was it if he ended up dead before they made it to Erebor?
Fili's hopeful face flicked from Thorin to Bilbo and back again, but Thorin turned to Dwalin and sent him a look that didn't need to be spoken aloud. Dwalin nodded and clapped a hand on Fili and Kili's shoulders.
"Come on, lads," he said to them as he guided them back out into the street. "Let's find some supper while your uncle has a chat with the burglar." Kili brightened at the mention of food, ever quick to distraction, but his brother threw a disappointed looked over his shoulder before he let himself be led away.
"I'm not a-" Bilbo started to call after them angrily, but cut himself off when he saw they weren't paying attention. "Oh, what's the use?" he mumbled to himself moodily, and turned back to Thorin with a sigh. "Look, I'm sorry about this. I really didn't think anyone was watching, or I never would have taken that money back. It's just my luck that I'd be spotted by your nephews," and Thorin wasn't quite sure what he meant by that. "It was lovely to see you again, but I'll just be going now."
Bilbo made to turn around and leave, and Thorin was of a mind to let him, but the crowd seemed to have only grown thicker on the street, and he hadn't even made it out of the booth before someone twice his height nearly sent him sprawling. He managed to regain his footing before he fell, but it was Thorin that caught the brown paper package that slipped from his grasp as he stumbled.
Bilbo looked from the package in the dwarf's hands up to his face. "Th-thank you," he stuttered, trying to shift around his other packages so that he had a free hand, but Thorin simply reached over and took several more from the stack and nodded in the direction of Bilbo's shop. The hobbit blinked at him in surprise, but a moment later a crooked half-smile twitched the corner of his mouth and he set off into the street with Thorin following behind.
Thorin had to work to keep up with the hobbit in the street, as it turned out, and he watched with no small interest as Bilbo easily cut through the crowd now that his load was considerably lighter. He had quick reflexes, Thorin noted, and was light on his feet. The crowd at the market was mostly made up of men, and being no larger than a child, someone of Bilbo's size might have easily been knocked down and trampled, but the hobbit moved with much more skill than Thorin himself did. While Bilbo was small enough to dodge and squeeze between people easily with a bright, "Pardon me!" Thorin was at a disadvantage, being neither tall enough for most men to pay attention to, nor small and light enough to weave through the crowd without jabbing his elbows into anyone who pressed too close. He managed to keep up with Bilbo, but was considerably more worn by the time they reached Bilbo's shopfront.
Thorin started to head for the door, but Bilbo's hand shot out to tug on his sleeve and pull him toward the side of the building. "Not through there; if I open the front door, everyone will want to come in. There's a side door this way."
Bilbo motioned for the dwarf to follow, and when Thorin stepped through the door, he found himself standing in Bilbo's quaint little apartment, and shuffled uncomfortably as he waited for his host to come in and direct him where to go.
The first thing Thorin noticed was the comfortable warmth of the place. A round window sat open onto Bilbo's private kitchen, letting in both the heat from the spring sunshine and a cool breeze that rocked the windchimes hung outside and brought with it the smell of wildflowers to mix with the musky scent of coffee that permeated the building. It's wasn't a large apartment by any means; hardly two rooms, plus a spare closet or two and a bathroom tucked out of the way. The kitchen was open to a sitting area that was little more than a comfortably plush armchair surrounded by stacks and stacks of books. In the corner was a fine writing desk with a variety of quills and papers strewn about its surface, and above it was hung a mirror that reflected the light from the circular window and brightened the whole room with cheery sunshine.
Through the open door to the back, Thorin could make out a small second room with a built-in bed and little space for much else. A beam of light fell on the colorful patchwork quilt covering the bed, and when the dwarf looked up he saw a large, round skylight cut into the arched ceiling of the room, big fluffy clouds drifting past as they minded their own cloud business. The whole place was less than half the size his bedchamber alone in Erebor had been, but it fit so perfectly with what he knew of Bilbo that he couldn't help but like the tiny space, even if it was a bit too bright and there wasn't nearly enough stonework for his taste. It was a tidy little home for one so small, just cluttered enough to feel used but not messy by any means.
When Thorin turned around to ask Bilbo where he should set his purchases, his eyes landed on the wall behind the door they had entered through, and it was with no small surprise that the dwarf saw quite a collection of maps, new and old, framed or otherwise mounted and hung out of direct sunlight.
"You like maps," said Thorin, more of a statement than a question.
Bilbo followed his gaze to the cluster hung on the wall and tried for a smile, but it came out sad around the edges, like it wasn't really meant to be there.
"I got most of those when I left the Shire. Thought I'd be going quite a bit further than I did, as it turns out." Bilbo sighed, but a moment later the sadness had lifted and his face relaxed back into his usual comfortable expression.
"I bet you've been all over that map, haven't you? Probably seen places that aren't even listed on there," Bilbo asked, and Thorin saw the half-playful, half-excited spark in his eye as he said it. The dwarf didn't offer up any answer to that. It seemed a shame to sully the warmth of this place with unhappy tales of his exile. He simply nodded in question toward the packages in his arms and hoped Bilbo would take the hint.
"Oh, goodness me, look at how rude I've been, letting you stand there holding my thing. Come, come this way," he flustered, beckoning for Thorin to follow him into the short hallway dividing the shopfront from his private apartment. A door stood on either side of the hallway, and Bilbo opened the one to the right as he waved Thorin in. "That's right, just set them anywhere in the pantry. I can sort them out and take things down to the root cellar later," he said, stomping a foot on the trap door in the floor of the pantry. They left Bilbo's purchases on a little wooden table at the back of the pantry and backed out of the closet-like space.
"Would you like a drink?" Bilbo asked hopefully, before Thorin could even begin to make his excuses and leave. "I have - well, you see, I bought -" Bilbo ducked into the pantry again without an answer, and after a moment of rummaging popped back out holding a small tin. "I bought this at the market today. I've never tried it myself, but when I saw it I thought of you and-well, not that I bought it /just/ for you, of course. I wasn't sure if you would be coming back. But I thought if you did, you...you might prefer it?" Bilbo was blushing as he stopped stammering, eyes looking anywhere but at Thorin. He held the tin out to the dwarf and Thorin took it, reading the label.
"Darkroot coffee?" Thorin asked.
"You don't have to drink it," Bilbo said quickly, snatching the tin back. "The vendor said it was a dwarvish brew, that's all, and I thought it worth a try."
"I haven't had darkroot coffee in many years," Thorin said softly, and a genuine smile cracked at the corner of his lips as he remembered his youth in Erebor, sharing a pot with Dwalin as they recovered from drinking too much mead. "We couldn't get it in Ered Luin..."
He looked up to see Bilbo watching his face intently, who quickly blinked and looked away to cover his blazen staring. "Then it's settled!" he stated, and shooed Thorin into his shop. "You must stay and have a cup, for old time's sake."
Thorin didn't resist, settling against the counter to watch as Bilbo set the kettle to boiling and measured out the coffee (which wasn't really coffee at all, but was actually ground, roasted plant roots). The silence between them was comfortable, and Thorin took the opportunity to watch Bilbo work. The counters were much too tall for the hobbit, but he seemed to have taken it as a challenge more than an annoyance, forgoing stools altogether and simply climbing the cabinetry when he needed to get to something out of reach. His hands flitted here and there, producing strange little tools from his pockets and easily plucking two mugs from a teetering tower of dishes without so much as unbalancing it. "This needs to brew for a bit," he told Thorin as he added the hot water, "So we might as well have a seat while we wait."
"You are more of a burglar than you think," Thorin told him as Bilbo made to go sit down. He raised his hands in a placating gesture when Bilbo stiffened and opened his mouth to tell him off. "I mean no offense. It is a compliment."
"You're complimenting me for my skill at stealing things?" Bilbo asked incredulously, and Thorin couldn't help but crack a smile at the way Bilbo's nose wrinkled in distaste.
"It is a respectable skill to have, when you use it to right wrongs, as you did in the market."
"Right or wrong, it's not exactly the kind of skill you can tell your mother about, is it?" Bilbo pointed out, still frowning deeply.
"Perhaps not," Thorin conceded, his face thoughtful as he looked at Bilbo standing beside him. "But you could tell her that you're quick and light on your feet. That you're not afraid of the world outside your front door. And that you're good at solving problems and puzzles."
Bilbo's mouth was agape now, and he stared at Thorin like he had only just noticed him standing there. It took him a moment to work the words loose from the catch in his throat, but finally he managed to mumble, "All I did was sneak a few coins out of a purse; hardly evidence that I'm all that..."
Thorin just raised his eyebrow knowingly and moved to go sit in one of the armchairs up front without another word, leaving Bilbo with his own brow furrowed, but seemingly content to let it drop, so long as the quality of his character was not in question. After a few moments, Bilbo joined him, bringing with him a steaming mug that he held out to the dwarf before settling into the nearest chair.
Silence fell between them as they sipped their drinks, and Thorin could see Bilbo growing more fidgety the longer it stretched. In truth, Thorin didn't mind the quiet, but the hobbit seemed accustomed to more conversational company, and Thorin could tell his failure to engage Bilbo was making him uneasy.
"This is very good," Thorin blurted, because it was, and because it seemed the right thing to say. He nodded toward the cup in his hands when Bilbo looked up, and if he relaxed just a little when Bilbo beamed at the praise, he stubbornly didn't acknowledge it.
"It's not too weak, is it?" Bilbo asked. "I've never brewed it before, and I was just going by the instructions the vendor told me, but you never know with that lot. They'll tell you chamomile cures the pox if they think that will get you to buy it."
"It's good," Thorin repeated simply, his mouth tilting up unconsciously at the corners just enough to soften his features. "It's usually taken black," Thorin told him, and he only meant it as conversation, thinking that it would be a fact Bilbo found interesting, but the hobbit's face fell into distress almost immediately.
"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" he cried, shoving his own cup aside as he jumped up. "I should have guessed as much, and now I've gone and added milk and ruined it. Give it here; I'll just nip back and make you a proper cup."
He made to take the dwarf's mug away, but Thorin held the cup close and caught Bilbo's arm before he could. "There's no need," Thorin assured him. "I like it better this way. You make it well."
Bilbo gradually stilled and studied his face for a moment, searching for any sign of deception, for any indication that Thorin was lying so as to not hurt his feelings, and Thorin suddenly realized how close the hobbit stood. Bilbo blinked at him for a moment, his lips parting as he licked them nervously, and it was a very strange thing, the dwarf thought, but it abruptly became very hard for Thorin to breathe. He didn't even realize that his hand was still around Bilbo's wrist until his skin began to tingle pleasantly from the contact. He waited, not entirely sure what they were doing but not entirely wanting to stop either, and had the most peculiar urge to lean in closer when Bilbo's tongue darted out to wet his lower lip again.
The mood was abruptly broken when the sharp rap of knuckles on glass pierced the air, and Bilbo flinched backward so quickly he nearly tripped and fell over. Turning toward the noise, Thorin caught sight of Dwalin's hardened face waiting for him out front, seemingly unaware of what he had just interrupted.
When he had regained his footing (and his dignity), Bilbo looked out at the warrior with his curly head tilted to one side. "Does he usually look so put out, or is it just because...?" he trailed off with a gesture to the window, and this time when Thorin looked out, he noticed his nephews standing in front of the shop across the road, trying on ridiculous lady's hats from a stand outside the milliner's shop, bowing and kissing each other's hands in an obvious mocking imitation of the townspeople and their customs. Thorin watched as Dwalin stomped over and yanked the hat off Kili's head, grabbing the laughing dwarf by the arm and tugging him away from the shop as Fili trailed behind and tried to land a hat on Dwalin's bald head without getting caught by an angry swipe of the warrior's fist.
Thorin sighed wearily and drained the last of his drink without a word. Whatever had sparked between he and Bilbo a moment earlier was gone now, and that was undoubtedly for the best. The hobbit made him feel things both pleasant and uncomfortable, things he wasn't altogether familiar with or certain that he should be feeling. In any case, it mattered little. Any interest he had in Bilbo was strictly business, desperate as he was to find a burglar for his quest. He still had many doubts that Bilbo was capable of such a hard journey, but Bilbo had proven himself to be quite surprising in the market, and the dwarf reluctantly conceded that the hobbit was worth reconsidering.
"I must go and see to the rest of my company," he said simply as Bilbo took his cup and set it on the countertop. "We still have much to plan."
Bilbo tried to mask his disappointment, but nodded his understanding as Thorin led the way back to the side door. Just as he pulled it open and stepped out, Bilbo cried shrilly, "Dinner!" and Thorin turned back to give him an alarmed look.
Bilbo's face reddened and he cleared his throat before trying again. "Er, that is, you should come 'round for dinner tonight. We could talk. I've got plenty of food," he added, waving his hand needlessly in the direction of his stocked pantry.
Thorin considered it for a moment. They had cancelled their initial meeting at Bilbo's when Thorin told them Bilbo was no burglar, but now that the hobbit had shown his skill...well, perhaps it was time to reconsider. Yes, he would bring the company around for dinner, he decided, and see how Bilbo got on with them. If all went well, they'd give him the contract and should be ready to leave in less than a week.
Thorin nodded at Bilbo, and then - and he wasn't sure why - gave him half a smile as he turned toward the main street. And if he could feel the hobbit's beaming smile on his back until he turned the corner - well, he certainly didn't acknowledge it.