Notes: Okay, this chapter drops two particularly bad swears for a brief moment. Y'all been warned.
Also, a really, really, really belated shoutout to CeffylGwyn, Suheyla, nolessthan3, cinnatheart, and the two guests who all left reviews here!
Gandalf let out a sigh. "Yes, Bilbo."
"You want me to come with you as a burglar!?"
The rest of the party had shuffled back into the kitchen and now picked off the last of the beer and soda. They broke off into groups of three and four, talking among themselves in amiable tones.
Bilbo, on the other fucking hand, was not amiable He was on the other side of the world from amiable. Batshit crazy Santa stalking him (which he supposed was in the original Santa's job description)? Manageable. Gandalf bringing thirteen people waltzing in through his front door? Not ideal, but he could deal. A quest to go reclaim a mining company and clear the name of a family whose misfortunes rivaled those of a certain rotten state of Denmark? What the fuck ever. But asking Bilbo to join this circus? As a burglar?
"On a scale of one to Mars, how high are you right now?"
"I'm running out of patience for people insulting my intelligence and level of consciousness. Yes, I am asking you this in all seriousness. I would be here if I were not in all seriousness."
Just then, a very loud strum of…guitar strings? reverberated from the kitchen, followed by a cheering roar.
Innnnnn the fourth of July eighteen hundred and six
We set sail from the sweet cove of Cork
We were sailing away with a cargo of bricks
For the grand city hall in New York…
"Believe it if you will," said Gandalf standing behind him, watching the merry scene with a contented smile, "but many of these folk have not seen each other for a decade at least. Some" – he pointed at Bofur who had his arms around the neck of Gloin – the apparent guitarist - while both men howled along to the folk song – "have just met tonight."
We had one million bales of the best Sligo rags
We had two million barrels of stones
We had three million sides of old blind horses hides,
We had four million barrels of bones…
As the party went about singing and thumping in his kitchen, everyone was smiling so hard that Bilbo wondered who the lucky bride was. Not Nori, for Dwalin just about slugged him in the teeth just now for throwing his arm around the tattooed man's neck. Bilbo felt Nori's 'ooph!' echo in his own stomach. Ouch.
We had sailed seven years when the measles broke out
And the ship lost its way in a fog.
And that whale of the crew was reduced down to two,
Just meself and the captain's old dog.
Then the ship struck a rock, oh Lord what a shock
The bulkhead was turned right over
Turned nine times around, and the poor dog was drowned
I'm the last of the Irish Rover!
They all finished with a scream, clapping their hands and downing the last of their beers. Many of the men were guffawing uncontrollably while others simply grinned.
"If the Khuzdul people value one thing over mining and metalwork, it is family," remarked Gandalf with a crooked grin. He turned to Bilbo. "Would you like to know how I met your mother?"
"Oh, God, never repeat that sentence ever again, but sure. Why not."
"I was her travel agent for 15 years," said Gandalf.
"Ha!" sneered Bilbo, acting far braver than he felt. "Architect was more believable."
"I acted as her travel agent. For you see, Bilbo, I…am a contractor, of sorts. People contact me for the innumerable resources I have at my disposable, and I provide them with the according services. Belladonna Baggins contacted me as a travel agent because she wanted to go to East Germany – in 1980." He chuckled at the memory. "The last trip I ever arranged was a two-month-long venture into Peru, Chile, and Argentina."
"I remember that trip," gasped Bilbo. "But really, how do I know you're not pulling one over me again?"
For the first time that night, Gandalf replied without a word. He silently pulled out a small leather book and drew two papers from its contents. One was a worn and torn; picture of Belladonna Baggins in Peru, beaming from ear to ear. Gandalf didn't just steal that from a photo album in Bag-End; he had had that photo in there for a while. The other piece of paper was a folded-up card with a double-B embossed on the front.
Bilbo knew that double-B. And his heart suddenly took a moonshot into his throat as he read that familiar wobbly script:
Dear Mister Gandalf,
It is with great sadness that I must inform you that I must cancel the trip to Bosnia this February. I'm so terribly sorry for the inconvenience, but something else came up and I must attend to it before I go on any more adventures. For the time being, that is. You can count on a call the moment I'm well and ready to travel the world again. Have a merry Christmas, and I wish you all the joy in the world.
Bilbo read the date again. His hands began to shake.
"The call came five months later, but it was not to reschedule Bosnia." Gandalf pressed his lips thin. "I paid her a visit in hospital, and she asked if I would look after her only son, when I could spare an eye or two. For he had gone through some rough times in college, and he may let himself become terribly lonely after she is gone."
The writer felt as though he had been standing too long in the snow.
"You've lived alone for far too long. This will be very good for you."
"I'm fine where I am, thank you very much"
"Bilbo." Gandalf looked at Bilbo. His blue eyes sparkled but not with merriment. "What would your mother say about you right now?"
...Goddamn his traitorous body, why did it have to stiffen? And fuck-all his heart started acting up too.
He looked up from the manila folder he was flicking through to meet the silver-black hair of Balin. "What is it?"
Thorin bit his lip and let out a grunt. "I know."
"Hardly stern stuff. I mean, sharp as a tack, feisty as a bat outta 'ell, but him as a burglar? What're the chances he'll panic when the going gets rough?"
"We'll tell him to pack extra pants."
"Thorin." That was her mother voice.
"Gandalf trusts him." He snapped shut the manila folders he'd been flipping through shut with more force than he intended. A long exhale escaped him. "And Gandalf will not let me bring anyone but him."
"You put a lot of stock in that man."
"And you know precisely why I do." He met her eyes with a fiery glare. "I've more reason to trust his judgment than not. Even if he does saddle us with this…hobbit."
He pretended not to hear Balin's exasperated sigh.
"Thorin!" called someone from the kitchen. "Take a look at what we found."
The dark man grumbled and strode back into the kitchen – and stopped.
"Oh my word," fell from Balin's lips just as the burglar cried, "Oh hell no!"
"That is my father's very own Steinbach piano!"
"Yes and what a beauty she is," cooed Dori with reverent eyes.
"We found 'er while we were lookin' for the cellar," muttered Dwalin, wincing as he, Bifur, Gloin and Bofur shook out their arms. "Though' you might wanna have a go, your Majesty."
Bilbo almost squawked. "No! No! You can't just-"
But Thorin was deaf to the world, walking slowly towards the piano like a man transfixed. He had removed his suit jacket, revealing a pair of dark-haired forearms bulging with sinewy muscle and rough skin. As he sat down, his fingers – the very ones that nearly ripped Bilbo's arm off an hour ago - brushed the ivory keys with the delicacy you reserve for a kitten. And before Bilbo even had time to absorb the irony, Thorin stroked out a perfect G-major chord.
"Could use a tuning," murmured the dark man, though his eyes looked so mesmerized still that the tuning hardly seemed to bother him. 'Stunned' seemed too mild a word for Bilbo's state at that moment.
"When was the last time he played?" Bilbo heard Kili whisper to Balin.
"It's been years," she muttered back. "Most o' the places we shuffled him around to didn't have one, and those that did, well, he couldn't afford to make more sound than a peep."
However long it had been since Thorin last played the piano, it didn't matter, because in a flash, the man's hands were gliding over the Steinbach like a professional harpist plucking at a lyre. Beginning with a gentle, almost playful melody, the song morphed into a powerful thudding of chords that by all logic should not have sounded as good as it damn did.
It did not help when Mr. Tall Dark Semi King opened his mouth to sing.
Seen the lights go out on Broadway
I saw the Empire State laid low
And life went on beyond the Palisades
They all bought Cadillacs
And left there long ago
His voice was a deep, spine-trembling bass that Bilbo felt all the way down to the tips of his goddamn toes.
They held a concert out in Brooklyn
To watch the island bridges blow
Gloin jumped right in with his guitar, bobbing his head with every chord he struck.
(Strum) They turned our power down
(Strum) And drove us underground
But we went right on with the show...
And the rhythm picked up to a driving pace, accompanied by the tinny twang of a harmonica played by…Dwalin?! Meanwhile, Bofur led the remainder of the audience in a rhythmic chorus of stomps and claps, who despite their whoopin' and hollerin' actually kept some pretty damn good time. Even Gandalf started clapping along, smiling like the old fool that he was. And before Bilbo knew it, he was watching a thirteen-man impromptu band perform in his kitchen, led by a man who worked that old piano like it was his life, soul, and goddamned job. Bilbo almost saw the hint of a smile.
But no way was Bilbo tapping his foot to the beat. No, absol-fucking-lutely not.
"Oy, Mister Baggins."
The party wound down by ten o'clock. It became pretty damn evident that there would be fourteen men and women sleeping on his downstairs floor that night, so he threw them all the spare blankets he could. Call it a departure gift. Whatever. Everything would be back to normal tomorrow.
Bofur, however, had not yet joined the others. He stood idly at the bottom of the stairs, twiddling a lighter between his blackened fingers, just as Bilbo was halfway up to his room,
"Hm?" hummed Bilbo, tired and ready to just go collapse into bed and wake up tomorrow to normality again.
"That thing ye did earlier, where ye read us all like books, that was goddamned brilliant." Bofur smirked at him, lifting his dark moustache with his lip.
Bilbo blinked. "Oh. Thanks."
"How'd ye do it?"
Bilbo honestly had no idea. "I'm a writer and a wallflower," he said with a shrug. "Leads to frequent people watching."
"Ye live alone then?"
Bofur let out a low whistle. "Damn…I dunno, this house seems mighty big for one person. Terribly lonely too."
The next thing he knew, Bilbo was lying in his bed and someone was pounding on his front door. Oh, not a-fuckin'-gain.
But rather than an jovial crowd of men and women shoving their way into his house, a bleary-eyed Bilbo was met with one very cold-eyed, very cross dark-haired woman.
"Lobelia," he muttered. Goddammit, why did he answer his door anymore?
"Bilbo," she said icily. It was a damn miracle his exhausted eyes couldn't focus properly. He might turn to stone if he did. "Oh, I'm sorry, did I wake you? Did I interrupt your sleep?"
"Most people tend to sleep at 3am, so yes." Except for you apparently, living evidence that evil never sleeps.
"They also tend to sleep at 8 o'clock at night, but that didn't stop you at all, did it?"
Fuck-a-doodle-dandy. The neighbors had heard the circus last night. However, it occurred to him that his house was surprisingly empty and clean, that any evidence of anyone else being there beside himself had long gone. "Whatcha takin' 'bout?" he mumbled.
Hold on a moment, why the fuck do I need to cover for fourteen trespassers and pantry raiders? No reason came to mind. Whatever, he hated Lobelia more than he hated them. And his hatred only intensified when he realized he was dealing with a witch without his morning coffee.
"Oh don't give me that!" she snapped. "My son has an extremely important biology test to take tomorrow-"
"Isn't Lotho in eight grade?"
"-and while he should have been studying in peace, he instead had to listen to the ridiculous orgy coming from your place!"
"Or whatever you faggots call it these days."
It was like someone had poured ice water beneath his skin. It filled his lungs, curled around his chest, squeezed him like iron bars. "I'm not…"
"Not what, a queer?" Her eyes flashed maliciously.
Words. Words. He tried to speak but more water filled his mouth, his nose. Bilbo buckled over, trying to get just a whiff of air into his lungs because he couldn't breathe. He couldn't fucking breathe.
"You do whatever the hell your…your type does." Her lips writhed like cockroach larvae. "But don't think you can inflict it on the rest of us proper folk!"
All of a sudden, the iron bars disappeared. Bilbo could breathe again. And what else did he do? He started to laugh.
Lobelia, on her part, looked like she just witnessed the devil reincarnated.
"Proper folk?" he sneered. There was nothing merry about his laughter; it was cutting and shrill, the laughter of a mad, hollow man who finally realized the rest of the world was mad too, as crazy as a cuckoo clock. "You, proper folk? Oh, tell me all about this proper folk, because all I see is people who clink their glasses at parties and laugh and pretend everything's all fucking right while you sweep the bills under table and your children snort themselves to death and you down whiskey like it's fuckin' tap water to dull the pain. Proper folk? Tell me how much you pay your gardener keep you screaming while Otho's away, you slithering, two-faced cunt."
Lobelia had turned white as death, her frame trembling with horror.
Bilbo suddenly became the most revolting creature he'd ever met.
He slammed the door in her face and wilted to the tile floor because shit shit shitty shit shit he had just used the only word his mother would have boxed his ears for saying because even though he meant every word before that one with every fiber of his tiny, cowardly, frail being, never ever ever ever should you say that goddamn word to anyone in the world no matter how evil or terrible or Lobelia-ish they were.
What would your mother say about you at this moment?
Shadow blanketed the foyer, but Bilbo could still make out two photographs on the wall: one of a very stern-looking man with sandy hair like Bilbo's own, and another of a dark-haired woman, her eyebrows arched and her lips curled into a mischievous grin.
What would your mother say to you?
Bilbo needed to go.
Not just because Lobelia would most certainly call the police on him (and they would come because what the fuck else did they have to do in Hobbiton?), but rather all of a sudden in a moment of crystal-sharp clarity, he realized that the thought of staying in this empty house in this plastic town for another hour made him want to upchuck the breakfast he hadn't even had yet.
I need to go.
What would your mother say?...
It was 3:27 am.
"Almost done fillin' up, Thorin."
"We pull away in one minute," snapped Thorin. His companions, tired and hung-over, silently groaned, but one by one they started to pile in their respective cars.
"But," stammered Ori to Balin while the older woman screwed the gas cap on the Cadillac beater, "we don't have Mr. Baggins yet."
"So we don't," replied Balin. She snapped the gas lid with force than necessary.
Bofur, cheery as always, hopped into the front seat of the mini-van with one very, very hung-over Dwalin crawled clumsily into the passenger seat. In the back sat Bombur, Bifur, and Nori (much to Dwalin's displeasure). Bofur started taking requests for music.
Fili and Kili tried to sneak into the van but Thorin barred the door. "Like hell you're going in there."
"Why not?" protested Fili.
"Because you need adult supervision."
Adult supervision meant Dori, who took the wheel of the beige Toyota sedan. Ori climbed in beside him, her arms crossed in a glum expression. In the backseat sat Oin, twiddling with his barely-useful hearing aid, while Fili and Kili climbed in on either side of him. They looked at Oin, then looked at each other with impish grins.
"G!" shouted Thorin at the road. There at the curb stood Gandalf in his fishing jacket, peering out at the dark with a smile that was becoming more habitual than genuine.
"I will meet you at the first checkpoint in 18 hours time," the old man replied sharply. His blue rental car stood parked on the other side of the gas pump from the convoy.
Thorin nodded, and then trudged to the Cadillac beater and took the driver's seat. Beside him sat Balin, bearing a ghost of a grin. A snoring Gloin sniffed in the backseat.
"You ready?" murmured the salt-and-pepper-haired woman.
The rumbling of the old engine was Thorin's wordless reply.
Fourteen heads - Gandalf's included - snapped towards the road. Just down the street, a bike was hurtling towards the gas station, carrying a red-faced, bedraggled man pedaling as fast as his little legs could.
Thorin let out a grumbling exhale. In the rearviw mirror, Dwalin clapped his hands to his ears with a snarl as the cheers erupted from the mini-van.
Bilbo pulled up alongside the caravan and all but fell off his bike. "Sorry- I'm late-" he gasped. An over-sized backpack slipped off his shoulders onto the ground. "Just packed- had to bike- all the way here- fuck, I'm tired!" He buckled over his knees and took rasping breaths.
"Didn't think you were coming at all," growled a red-eyed Dwalin who had rolled down his window.
"Neither- did I." Bilbo wheezed a laugh. "But I called- my neighbor a cunt- this morning- so I'm kinda- whoo! on the run."
Thirteen pairs of eyes blinked at him. Gandalf simply beamed.
The slam of a car door. Thorin stalked over to Bilbo - Christ, he was tall - and for a while he simply looked at writer with a stone-melting glare. "What did you pack?" he finally said, arching an eyebrow at the lumpy backpack lying at Bilbo's feet
"Clothes, books, phone-"
"Throw away the phone. And the books."
"We're not taking any chances with tracking."
Bilbo huffed. "Fine. Phone can go." His voice was still wheezy. "But the Burglar comes with books. No books, no burglar. Take it or fuckin' leave it."
Gandalf did his very best to stifle a grin. Thorin took a deep, long breath, as if trying to suppress the urge to punch Bilbo straight out of his shoes. But Bilbo stood there strong and proud; his last fuck to give had scuttled away with Lobelia this morning. Or he was too fucking terrified to move. Fuck it all.
"Fine," the semi-king finally growled. "We've lost enough time because of you already."
How very welcoming of you, McBroodyPants. "The bike comes too."
"Rakhas," spat the dark man at the ground, his hands curling into fists before he slammed his car door shut. But hey, Bilbo didn't hear a 'no.'
Five minutes later, after Bilbo's bike was strapped to the roof of the van, the convoy rolled away, westward bound. Except for a minor turn-around, where Bilbo directed them to the road that was actually westward bound.
Gandalf waved them off with a chuckle before he climbed into a blue sedan. Now he had a rental car to return, a flight to catch, and a burglar to look out for.
The quest had begun.
1. I will unlikely be using those swears ever again. Mostly because we won't run into someone like Lobelia again (for better or for worse).
2. Songs were "The Irish Rover," a common Irish drinking song, and "Miami 2017" by Billy Joel. Thorin seems like a Billy Joel-kinda-guy.