A/N: First of all, my apologies for the long awaited update. In penance for my tardiness, this chapter is a bit longer than usual. As stated in the previous chapter, I was in the middle of a move to an apartment where we only just recently got internet access, a family emergency arose after that which included daily visits to the hospital (though thankfully all is well now and back to normal), I'm back temp-working for my old job I thought I officially left-now as an emergency short-term replacement, annnnnd grad school for me is now starting a week early. SO, time and energy has been very scarce this month, which is an awful feeling, but somehow I got this chapter done. I just hope the content hasn't suffered too much. Again, thank you to my readers and reviewers. I really appreciate your thoughts and criticisms and I'd love to hear what you think about this latest update moving forward.


Chapter Three – The Kindness of a King

The first thing he knew was the feeling of having overslept. For any family-oriented hobbit routine wasn't something you normally broke. For bachelors like Bilbo there wasn't much difference because he'd been raised on routine. Up with the sun, his mother used to chirp at him in the mornings. And to tell the truth not much had changed aside from waking, eating, and being on the road before the sun in the past few months he'd been away from home. Since they'd entered Mirkwood it had been hard to tell the difference between night and day, so all Bilbo had to go on was his internal clock of sorts, which he supposed hadn't led him astray just yet. From behind his eyelids it felt like another cloudy rainy autumn day.

But it wasn't anywhere near autumn yet.

The second thing he noticed was that he was warm and comfortable. Even after getting over the cold Misty Mountains, and cutting through the hot late summer of Beorn's flower and bee pastures, the chill from the mountains seemed to follow them into the forest. The air was stagnant and still among the trees, but it was far from warm. The darkness left a lingering coldness in the air that settled into Bilbo's bones and made them ache in what he supposed were the mornings, after being immobile for so long during the perpetual night.

But he didn't ache, and he didn't want for warmth from his thin blanket.

The final thing that made his eyes spring open was the smell. It wasn't putrid or old or musty or dank like the forest and everything around them. It wasn't the stink of his dirty clothes, courtesy of the murky bank of that blasted river he'd almost fallen into, like poor Bombur had. It wasn't even the rotten smell of another attempt at cooking an unlucky catch for breakfast. It was a sweet sort of musky smell that reminded him of home a little bit. There was an underlying smell of pipeweed on top of oak wood smoke from campfires, old worn leather, and some small lingering tang of metalwork. And the pipeweed smell didn't come from his precious supply of Old Toby. It was of an Eastern variety he'd tried for the first time only a few weeks ago.

In the valley of the eyrie.

Over old wounds and freshly tended ones, with apologies.

Under the gaze of soft and glittering blue eyes.

Maybe shooting up out of the comforts of Thorin's bedroll without bothering to wait for his body to properly balance itself wasn't the best morning idea he'd had since he decided to go on this adventure in the first place. He stumbled over his own two feet, got them firmly tangled in the coat and blanket that covered him, and fell over into a heap with a loud yelp stuck in his throat. With a face full of dirt and his hands and arms lodged beneath him, he groaned. So much for having a day without aching bones.

Then he heard footsteps. Two sets of familiar, light footsteps with a slight skip. They stopped in front of him and Bilbo swallowed the urge to roll his eyes. Instead he got his arms underneath himself and glared pointedly at the two princes who looked down on him with twin smirks. How those two could still wake up every morning and continue to smile in a place like this was beyond Bilbo's understanding. But, if he were completely honest, it wasn't entirely unwelcome, just under the circumstances of them finding him stumbling out of their uncle's…and king's…well, personal sleeping…things.

There was no way he was getting out of this.

Nope.

Bilbo rolled his eyes and waited with pursed lips.

"Well, good morning," Fili greeted.

"Good morning, indeed," Kili continued.

Bilbo cleared his throat from the same tangled position on the ground. "Morning, yes…"

"How'd you sleep," both boys asked in unison, singsong and with those maddening grins.

"Suppose you'll see later if I trip over any more roots," Bilbo replied, trying to extricate his poor feet. "Though I can't see how I'll be doing that anytime soon-"

Both boys hooked one arm under each of Bilbo's and pulled him up off the ground to take him over to the fire where everyone else was preoccupied with packing up and cleaning up after another meager breakfast. How long had he actually slept? And no one had come to wake him? He frowned as he was placed gently down by the fire and his small ration given to him without a word by Fili. Bilbo raised a questioning eyebrow at him, half expecting a prank, but in the end he only gave the food one suspicious sniff before shoving it into his mouth. Over too quickly, he brushed his hands together and looked around for where he'd dropped his pack the previous night.

But Bofur already beat him to it, by dropping it right by his side with a wink and an odd smile. Bilbo frowned as the dwarf returned to helping Bombur with his bedroll before the hobbit could utter a thank you. In fact, they all were acting a little odd. Sure, Bilbo had been afraid of some teasing and joking this morning, after being found sleeping next to Thorin of all people, but no one was forthcoming with one. Had Thorin said something? He doubted by the sly and sneaky glances everyone kept throwing him that Thorin hadn't said anything. For if he hadn't, Dwalin wouldn't have that twinkle in his eye like a joke wasn't on the tip of his tongue. Bilbo returned the funny glance with a withering glare.

Maybe he would have been better with the incessant teasing.

"I trust your dreams were well?"

Bilbo jumped to his feet in surprise, but recovered well when he found Thorin by his side. He nodded. "Didn't uh…didn't have any, actually. For once," he added with a quirk of his lips.

Thorin dropped his voice down to a whisper, keeping his eyes trained above Bilbo's head at the rest of the company behind him. "If you ever find you have need for such refuge again…"

"I'll…be sure to um-let you know, yes."

"Good."

And without another word or even a glance the king moved past him to pack his own things. Bilbo had barely gotten over the brusque and somewhat impersonal manner before Thorin had finished and called for them all to move out. The hobbit shouldered his own pack and bit his lip as he followed towards the end of the line. He wasn't sure why but he felt a little disappointed. It was ridiculous of him to feel that way, but then again he wasn't even sure what he was hoping for. He'd gotten a good night's rest for the first time in days. His body felt a little better, but inside he was still feeling just as awful as before. Maybe it was just the forest, he reasoned with himself.

Making him and everyone else bonkers, or not themselves.

Even if Bilbo was dead drunk he never thought he'd act the way he had last night.

Definitely the forest, he thought.

But he couldn't feel too terribly embarrassed. After all, Thorin allowed it. The dwarf hadn't turned his nose up at him in ridicule or turned him away. Before last night he hadn't thought Thorin would be so open with him in front of the others. Ever since they left the safety of the eyrie he'd been so hell-bent on keeping things to himself. For a while, Bilbo thought Thorin had never meant to embrace him for the way he acted afterwards. But maybe Thorin was telling the truth that night at Beorn's house, when neither of them could find sleep. Maybe the quest really was wearing on him in different ways than the rest of them. Bilbo didn't like to think of Thorin carrying more than his fair share of weight, and when he was honest about it he'd surprised the dwarf.

And he found out that night that he liked surprising Thorin.

After all the times Thorin belittled him and assumed things about him since the quest began, maybe it was just Bilbo getting a little bit of revenge in his own harmless way.

But something about it didn't feel so harmless.

He wanted something from Thorin, something no one else had.

Maybe more of those surprised looks or calculating glances that said I might have misjudged you. Bilbo didn't like the idea of Thorin thinking he knew everything about him. Hobbits, by nature, were secretive in their own ways, not the least of which by being able to disappear when they feel they've attracted too much attention or found themselves in need of an escape. Bilbo had his secrets just like anyone else. In recent days though, he was strangely finding it easier to dig them up than keep them buried. Why he would have wanted to share them with someone else, let alone that particular dwarf, was beyond confusing.

Thorin and he had come to an understanding at Beorn's, and that was the problem, because now there was no going back on it. No more keeping things to himself and being able to hide behind the king's displeasure of him and his involvement among the company. No more pretending he could simply go home after all this is done and over with and forget that he actually had friends now who cared about him and his well-being in ways that didn't include just a pop by for tea every few years or so. Bilbo had cemented his place in the company and in Thorin's good graces, which was what he had wanted…or what he thought he had wanted.

But was it something Thorin wanted?

The king looked back, laying eyes on each member of the company for a fleeting second to keep count, not lingering on Bilbo for more time than anyone else before he continued on. Bilbo sighed. Dwarves and their ways were far too complicated for him.

"Master Baggins," Kili said, throwing an arm around Bilbo's shoulders as Fili appeared at his other side. "My distinguished brother and I have been wondering."

Well…some dwarves.

"Wondering," Bilbo asked. "Is that all you sneaks are up to this morning?"

"Prince's honor," both replied in unison with one hand raised.

Bilbo frowned. "Alright, what were you wondering?"

"About you hobbits," Kili answered. "We weren't really taught much aside from how quaint you are with each other."

"No brawls," Fili continued. "No cursing. No family power-struggles or open threats of extortion or murder."

Bilbo almost laughed when images of his surly cousins popped into his head. "Sounds like you really don't know a thing about hobbits."

"Sadly we do not," Kili went on. "Which is why I had said that we simply weren't privy to the nature and measure of quiet folk to make an informed assumption-"

"And I happened to disagree," Fili interrupted. "Because I think all you need to do is find the right hobbit to find out the truth of the matter and that the rest could simply just be happy to be left to their own little holes-"

"And so here we find ourselves with no hobbit to put the question to for miles but yourself!"

"The actual question that pertains to you, if my dear little brother would care to get to his point," Fili said. "Is where an orc-stabbing warg-confronting hobbit such as yourself fits into all of this peaceful milling gardening pipe-smoking and tea-in-the-afternoon-ing business?"

Kili glared at his brother over Bilbo's head and leaned in close to Bilbo, as if conspiring against the other dwarf. "I don't suppose any of that that would be seen as respectable hobbit-like behavior, now would it?"

Bilbo sniffed and held his head high. "I'll have you boys know I was nothing but respectable before you lot came along."

Fili leaned in. "But how does one become a respectable hobbit, Master Baggins? Surely it's not as simple and plain as what color you decide to paint your front door?"

"Oh, I know," Kili claimed with a grin, whipping around in front of them both and marching backwards. "Food stores for a passing army, double the number of rooms and fireplaces one hobbit could find he needs-which also fit our company quite comfortably by the way-"

"I thought we didn't know enough to make assumptions," Fili interrupted.

"Educated guesses," Kili bolstered on with a pointed finger. "Also, triple the number of books than you can possibly read in one lifetime, I'd imagine plenty of spare smoking pipes in the off case any hobbit would suddenly find themselves in need of some sort of weapon*, OH and innumerable numbers of those doilies you hobbits like putting on tables and mantelpieces. I'd wager you even call the doormat an oversized one-"

With a yelp, Kili tripped on a root and fell flat on his ass.

Fili and Bilbo both stared down at him before looking at each other with unreadable expressions. Neither moved to help the bemoaning dwarf to his feet, and none of the company did either, most of whom were snickering and biting back smiles of their own. Bilbo glanced up and saw Thorin looking back with a frown. The hobbit pursed his lips together, and felt the seed of some familiar sneaky playfulness in his chest, the likes of which he hadn't felt in a very long time.

"Hm. Shame I didn't take on that bet between you two," Bilbo said before leaving the two young dwarves with identical looks of confusion.

"You see, brother? That is no normal hobbit!"

"Well, he's one of us now and we're the least normal lot of our kind," Fili said as he pulled Kili up off his ass. "I don't think Master Baggins could get any more normal at the moment."

The hobbit smirked to himself when both boys were behind him. He wore it until he made his way to the front where Thorin was looking at him with narrowed eyes. Bilbo almost frowned. He certainly didn't feel guilty about it, for all the pranks those two had pulled on him since Bag End. He would have thought Thorin of all people would understand the need to get back at those two at least once.

"Oh, come on," Bilbo said. "How often do you get a one up on those two?"

Thorin raised an eyebrow and the corners of his lips twitched upwards. "There is good reason," he replied. "Why their pranks never extend to me. It is not punishment they fear, but retribution from the dwarf who taught them."

Bilbo's mouth dropped open as he whirled on Thorin in disbelief. Then he narrowed his own eyes and reeled himself back in with a frown and a scoff. "If you think I'm that gullible, I'm sorry to have to disappoint you."

Thorin leaned in to whisper in Bilbo's ear. "The last time those two tried pulling a prank on me was fifty years ago, when they were just old enough to realize I hadn't even taught them a fraction of what I knew."

Then it was Bilbo's turn to gape as Thorin turned and moved on with a smirk.


"You are fond of some mischief, are you not, Master Baggins," the elf prince asked.

Bilbo blinked, embarrassed to have lost himself again so easily. It seemed to be happening to him more than usual, and though part of him knew why the other part still vehemently tried to deny it. The hobbit shifted his feet and cleared his throat. "Given the circumstances," he replied. "Preferably when I'm not about to be eaten, squashed, or incinerated. And only on Tuesdays. "

Legolas finished tying off a finely embroidered leather bag to the back of his saddle and turned to give the hobbit an unreadable look.

Bilbo shrugged and crossed his arms. "Well, you wouldn't go looking for mischief on a Sunday, now would you?"

"I must confess, Master Baggins, I wouldn't know the first thing about mischief-seeking," the elf said with a growing smile. "Mischief-causing, however, perhaps a little more than I should."

Bilbo gave the prince the best smile he could muster as the elf mounted his horse. It had lightened the mood for them just a little bit. After all, neither of them had conceived that the elves would be leaving so early, practically at the very breaking of dawn too. But Bilbo was still grateful that Legolas came to wake him so he could at least say goodbye. Gandalf was nowhere to be found as usual, but the hobbit had long stopped trying to understand the minds and doings of wizards. It would have been very easy for Bilbo to simply sneak away with the elves and be on his merry way back home without much hassle, for he certainly didn't have much left to bring with him besides the clothes on his back and the sword strapped to his side.

But as much as he wanted to, he couldn't justify leaving without taking care of some personal business. Granted it was personal business that might just get him killed, but it was the proper thing to do, and he was still a hobbit at the end of this journey. He would continue to be Bilbo Baggins for however long he had left, even if it only amounted to a few hours. Legolas wasn't happy that Bilbo had decided to stay, especially when Bilbo had told him of his reasons for doing so. They had argued for close to half an hour before the elf finally relented.

"I fear you've learned far too much of dwarven ways and manners," Legolas sighed.

"Probably," Bilbo replied, pulling the ends of his torn jacket closer about him. "Bit too late to change things, I think."

The wind picked up a bit. There was a chill on it that did not go unnoticed by the restless horse, its rider, nor the shivering hobbit on the ground below them. "I would stay," the prince lamented. "But my duty calls me home."

Bilbo nodded with a tight jaw. "Maybe I'll catch you up on the way?"

"If you say there is hope, I will sow a little for myself that it may come to pass. For I would very much like to see you again, and in good health and better mind."

"I hope so too."

A loud horn of Thranduil's banner man echoed across the hills, calling the elves to start their march. Normally, the prince's place was by his father's side, and Bilbo could see the elven king glance back to them with keen eyes. The hobbit frowned and stepped back. He knew Legolas had delayed as long as possible for Bilbo's sake, and the knowledge warmed his heart a little.

"I dare not say what thoughts worry me," the prince said. "And yet my resolve is not normally so weak. You have yet a means of protection on you, and I would with the whole of my heart urge you to make use of it should there be need. But the same caution in me would warn you to never touch it again. You carry more than a mere ring, Bilbo. There is some shadow upon it that makes me ill at ease for your sake."

Bilbo frowned up at the elven prince, even though inside he knew Legolas spoke the truth. "But…it is just a ring, isn't it?"

"Would if that were true. Be careful, my friend. Trust none but the wizard. And if you must do as you've said, take some pains to ensure you are not seen. There are those in this camp who still wish you harm in spite of the King's pardon."

A shiver crept up Bilbo's spine, but he kept his face straight and managed a reassuring smile. "Don't worry about me," he said with a slight bow. "We'll see each other again, my lord."

Legolas gave him a soft glare. "And hopefully without titles, Master Dragonspy?"

Bilbo nodded as another elf came up to urge Legolas onward. The prince gave the hobbit one final look filled with regret as he reluctantly turned and spurred his horse towards his father and the rest of the elves as they started their journey back home. Another gust of wind threatened to blow the poor hobbit off his feet, but he barely felt it for the longing in his chest. Dawn had barely started to peak over the treetops, and despite the chill all Bilbo had the energy to do was stand there and watch as the glimmering banners flapped and grew smaller as the elves went.

If Bilbo was honest, he was a little envious their home was so near. He felt a sharp pang in his heart for his own home and comforts. It had been so long since he'd seen it and it felt so far away too. Would he even be able to reach it before winter set in? Just the mere possibility that he couldn't made him second guess what he had already decided to do. He fingered the cool band of the golden ring in his pocket as he turned his thoughts over again. No firm answer seemed to be forthcoming.

Aside from that familiar…'kicking,' as Gandalf continued to call it.

"Oh hush, you," he groused to himself with a huff. "Losing my marbles over some complete nonsense. Pregnant indeed. My hairy foot!"

The hobbit slipped the ring on without another thought and slowly but carefully made his way through the dwarven camp. Many were still awake from a long night of tending to the sick and wounded, but none heard the passing of an invisible hobbit over the occasional moans and snores in the early morning hours. They'd be able to see his muddy footprints, but if anyone were to become curious about them Bilbo would already be far ahead. He certainly didn't dare run through camp, but he didn't tarry to make sure he wasn't being followed either.

Just do what you plan to do and be done with it, he said to himself.

But the heart in his chest pounded regardless. He wasn't nervous because he was heading into the center of a camp that still wanted his head. He was nervous because of one dwarf and damn the rest. When the high banners came into view and Bilbo finally saw the tent he stopped and allowed himself a moment to just breathe. What had he planned to say? He'd gone over it enough times but now it all seemed so stupid. His hand trailed across his stomach as Gandalf's words filled his head again. Bilbo set his mouth into a firm line and pulled his hand away as he set forward again. If there was one thing he wasn't going to be once he left this camp it was a laughingstock. If Gandalf wanted to meddle then that was fine, but Bilbo would have no part in it himself.

The hobbit had barely turned the corner to the front of the tent before a naked sword came into view. "Who's there," a gruff and familiar voice demanded.

"Master Dwalin," Bilbo greeted, quietly as he pulled the ring from his finger.

The large dwarf sighed in a grunt, or maybe more of a growl as he shoved his weapon in its sheath and turned his back. "What in Mahal's name possessed you to come here?"

Bilbo stepped forward as Dwalin started back to the archway. "I-I wanted to see the king-"

Dwalin turned on him and gave him a hard look. "Are ye mad? Comin' all this way and for what? I don't think the king would appreciate seeing ye, much less not want to at the very least run ye through. And unless ye've got a death wish-"

"I know, I know but…all I came to say was goodbye. Can I at least tell him that and then…just go? None of you will see me again, I promise you."

That seemed to shake the imposing dwarf a little. His bushy eyebrows knitted together in disgruntled confusion as he looked down on Bilbo. "Yer leaving?"

Bilbo smirked, half-heartedly. "Don't sound surprised. I wouldn't delude myself by believing I'd be forgiven of what I'd done."

"Ye've got less chance of that than an elf making it out alive through the Iron Hills." Dwalin rolled his eyes and stepped aside, turning to face the other direction. "On yer head be it, hobbit. My hands'll have naught to do with yer blood."

Bilbo breathed a small sigh of relief, but stopped short just outside the entrance and voiced one last small question. "How is Fili?"

Dwalin grunted without turning around. "Hasn't woken. And don't ask about the boys if ye want any chance of life at all."

"Thank you," Bilbo whispered back.

He supposed he should have taken that as a good sign, that of all members of the company, Dwalin hadn't been ready to eviscerate him on sight. But it was only a small victory. He still had to gather the courage to enter the tent and speak. It wasn't the possibility of death that made him hesitate. He just wasn't sure what to expect. It wasn't just Thorin somewhere inside of that tent. The boys would be in there, recovering-he hoped-but not without some level of suffering along the way. That struck him quicker than Thorin's anger, the fact that he had to see what this battle had done to those two lively young boys. Before he knew it, he'd taken that step beyond the arch and past the flap of canvas. The tent was darker than he expected. Candles burned low, but gave enough light to show its three occupants. The sight of them both stole his breath away.

"Bilbo," Kili said softly with a relieved smile.

Kili looked absolutely white. In fact, both boys looked like death only slightly warmed over. The younger of the brothers looked utterly exhausted and a sweaty mess as if he'd just gotten over a fever. The spark in those bright eyes was dimmed and Bilbo had to swallow hard against the lump in his throat as he turned to look on Fili. If Bilbo hadn't let his gaze linger on the older brother's slowly rising and falling chest, he would have thought the boy dead for how still and pale he was. There was no blood on either of them that he could see, but the tang of it lingered in the air like an oppressive cloud.

Thorin sat on a stool in front of Fili's bed with his back to the archway. The dwarf king's back was tense as a bowstring and the one hand that Bilbo could see grasped the hilt of a sword propped up against a side table like a lifeline. There was no doubt in his mind that Thorin knew he was there, even before Kili had spoken his name. Bilbo opened his mouth to speak, but found his mouth dry and his mind completely blank. The seconds ticked by and the urge to just turn around and run kept settling into his feet.

And then he felt another one of those damned 'kicks' in his stomach. He bit his lip, clenched his eyes shut and forced himself to start talking, no matter what came to mind first. "I know you don't want me here," Bilbo began. "I…I just wanted to say… that I'm-"

"Get. Out."

It was a soft command spoken in anger. Anger was the nice way of putting it to memory because in the moment it was pure hate that knifed its way deep into Bilbo and stole any further thought of talk.

"Uncle," Kili whispered.

Thorin turned on his nephew with an angry glare for silence, but the weary boy persisted with his eyes. Bilbo stayed long enough to watch Thorin for a change, but when it didn't come Bilbo jammed the ring on his finger and gave into the urge to run. And he didn't look back. He didn't stop until he was nearly at the end of camp and his own shoddy tent. His chest was burning and he could barely catch his breath, even when he was bent over leaning on his knees and gasping for air.

Fear, anger, disappointment, embarrassment, and sorrow twisted in him like the torrent of a bad summer storm. He didn't cry, but he desperately wanted to. If this was what it felt like to have poison in your blood, then the hobbit was surprised he didn't just keel over right then and there from the pain alone. And his arm, that wretched arm attached to that hand with that damned ring! Bilbo straightened up and ripped it off his finger. His whole arm felt like it had gone numb! He gasped as he shook it and tried to rub life back into it even though the rest of him was shaking like a leaf.

Nerves.

Bloody damned nerves.

He hoped.

"Stupid, stupid Baggins," he hissed to himself as his head started spinning again.

At this rate he'd be suffering a migraine within the hour.

How foolish he'd been to even think for one second that just a few words could change anything. And what had been on the tip of his tongue…it still unsettled him. The hobbit leaned down again to get a few deep breaths in. Those infernal 'kicks' hadn't stopped since he left the royal tent, but with his frayed nerves the way they were he could hardly blame them on anything else. He just needed to sit for a moment and think. Moving seemed the hardest thing yet he had to do, but eventually putting one foot in front of the other became easier than trying to digest all that just happened.

His mind was elsewhere. The ring was in his pocket. He wasn't far from his tent, but every warning he'd received hadn't meant anything to him until that blind moment, when he was kicked in the side and thrown off balance into a mud puddle. He coughed and rubbed a quick hand over his face to get the mud out as he turned and looked up. Four burly dwarves stood over him with weapons drawn and leers that made him grasp the hilt of his own little sword on instinct.

"Do you know what happens to traitors, half-man," the tallest one of them asked in a deep voice. "In Durin's day, when a king beheaded a traitor from The Edge their head turned to stone and rolled down to the bottom of the mountain. But it wasn't a stone when it got there. It was powder. Broken down to bits. Pounded into bigger stones on the way down, it did."

The tallest one took a step closer with an axe in hand. He stood right over top of Bilbo and the other dwarves followed suit. Bilbo tried to move back, but the mud had him stuck good into the mire. He doubted he could get his sword free in an instant if he needed to. The ring would be of no use. Even if he could somehow get away, they'd see his movements and chase him down before he could get far. And if they hit him…if they hit his stomach…

He almost laughed at how easy it was to believe it was there. If it was there he could do nothing, and if it wasn't there was nothing much he could do either. He wanted to say he didn't feel fear, but when one of other dwarves stopped fingering a knife at his belt and took it out, he felt all the fight drain out of him. A cumbersome axe was one thing, but a small knife big enough just for him, for one fatal blow was enough. He didn't cower. He didn't make a sound because his mind had shut down. All he could do was sit there and wait because Bilbo truly didn't know what he could do.

"OI," someone shouted. "Move off!"

What snapped the hobbit out of his immobile shock wasn't the sound of the voice, but the sight of familiar robes and hair. Ori had jumped between the dwarves and Bilbo, even going as far to shove some of them away without even a weapon of his own to use. Bilbo tried to lever himself up, but a stinging in his side kept him down. That kick was sure to leave a colorful bruise later, and he had only just realized how lucky it was that he hadn't been kicked anywhere else.

The tallest dwarf pointed his axe at Ori as he growled out his anger. "This is not your concern, scribe."

Ori flinched, but shoved another burly dwarf aside and stood his ground. "I am a member of Thorin Oakenshield's company-"

"And we're Dain's bannermen, your fellow countrymen, your kin by blood. I'll tell you plain as day your king may be duty bound to spare this creature's life but no duty binds me."

"You forget yourself and your duty, Lord Kain-"

"You dare speak to me about duty? A no-name dwarfling with nothing more than an elvish craft to speak of?"

"The King of Erebor commissioned my services to properly document our journey so if you insult me you dare insult my lord king himself and in his own lands!"

Kain dropped his axe but leaned in to Ori as he lowered his dangerous voice. "Where's your king now, little dwarf? Send him word. I think he'd be very happy to let us do this little job for him."

Ori clenched his hands into fists at his side. "Dain would not be pleased with broken orders."

"Dain is not here."

"But the wizard soon will be. Move off," Ori growled, stepping up to within inches of Kain's face. "Or he will hear of your threats in great detail. And he will make Dain's anger seem like a mere sting from fresh paper."

Kain stepped back, and the other dwarves behind him mercifully shoved their weapons back in their sheaths. "You make dangerous enemies, dwarfling. The orcs and dragon are dead. Now it's just us common folk with knives and hammers. Best fashion one for yourself instead of writing about them."

Once the dwarves were out of sight Ori shook a little and let out a great breath of air before he turned to help Bilbo to his feet.

"You didn't have to do that Ori," Bilbo said. "I don't want any more trouble to come to any of you on my account."

"It's not of your account, Master Baggins. I said what I said because I wanted to."

"But why?"

The young dwarf urged them both to start back towards Bilbo's tent, and as they went both kept glancing nervously over their shoulders. "I'm not so easily blinded by riches and gold. Books maybe, but I know why you took the Arkenstone. I'm just sorry it didn't do you any good."

Bilbo shook his head. "My own wellbeing wasn't on my mind at the time, and it still isn't. You're all alive and you've finally got a home. That's all that ever mattered to me."

"You should think for yourself. I don't like to see you treated so harshly for all you've done. It's wrong."

"Wrong or not, you won't have to worry about it much longer."

Ori stopped and looked at the small hobbit with confusion. "What do you mean? Surely you don't mean to leave?!"

Bilbo bit his lip and looked down. "I don't want to leave-"

Ori grabbed both of Bilbo's shoulders and those big brown eyes nearly did the hobbit in. "Then stay! Please stay?"

Bilbo shook his head again. "No," he whispered. "Not with how things happened, how they still are."

"Things could change. It's just a little too soon-"

"Ori," Nori called behind them with a dark look and his arm in a sling. "Come along. There's work to be done."

Bilbo frowned, but gave Ori a firm push. "You should go, Ori."

"No," the young dwarf persisted. "You can't just-"

"Ori," Nori called. "Now!"

The scribe threw a glare over his shoulder, then turned to face Bilbo one last time. "I won't forget you. And no one else will either. I'll make sure of it."

"No, don't take any pains for my sake, please-"

"I can and I will-"

Nori stalked to them, grabbed Ori by the arm, and forcibly pulled him away from Bilbo. "That's enough, now!"

But Ori pulled free of his older brother and shoved him aside. Nori stumbled and looked at his brother in shock, but Ori pounced and pointed a finger into his brother's chest. "If you think for one minute that I'll forgive you for this you're dreaming worse than you said I used to when I was a child!"

After that Ori stormed off without a second glance behind him. Nori gave Bilbo one last glare before going after his brother, shouting his name and not caring for all the attention it drew. A crowd of dwarves was starting to gather, but Bilbo didn't wait to see how big it would get.

Someone cared.

Someone actually cared.

Gandalf had spoken the truth about some of the company.

But it wouldn't change a thing anytime soon. Bilbo wasn't sure what stung worse, the impotent care or the unyielding hate. He entered the tent breathless and started grabbing things and shoving them into his worn and torn bag he'd still managed to keep on him since Bag End. He was so absorbed into the frantic task that he barely noticed when Gandalf came in after him.

"What are you doing, my dear hobbit," the wizard gently asked.

"What does it look like I'm doing," Bilbo shot back at him with a withering glare. "I'm going home, and if you think you're going to stop me you have another thing coming."

"And what would that be now, hmm?"

Bilbo turned to give the old man another hot retort but felt the response die on his tongue as his shoulders sagged. "I need to go home, Gandalf. I'm sick for nothing else now but that. I need to…sit in my study with a book in my lap. I need to feel the carpet between my toes. I need to breathe in my garden. I need my afternoon tea of all things. It's the only thing I have left. Please, don't try to stop me."

Gandalf looked at him for a long moment and then relented with a frown and a nod. "Wait here but a moment more. The road home is long and should not be traveled alone, especially someone with your condition."


A/N: The asterisk note was just a little nod to one of my first hobbit fics, "Kindred Horizons" which is a series of three introspective stories that explore the deep friendship between Bilbo and Thorin over the years. Never thought I'd be writing a romance fic, but then again here I am. Grad school is officially starting so God knows when I'll have time to breathe let alone find time to write, but somehow I will try. Next up some slow burn Dwalin/Ori to throw in the mix, among other things.