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This Long and Winding Road - Chapter 5

Title: This Long and Winding Road
Chapter 5: Gamekh
Pairings: Mostly Platonic Kíli/Fíli, Kíli/Bilbo/Fíli, Dwalin/Ori, Dwalin/Nori, Bilbo/Thorin, minor and background pairings
Rating/Warnings: None for this part unless you count epic amounts of pining.
Word Count: 10140 (30,576 so far)
Disclaimer: If I owned it, there would be more threesomes.
Summary: Fíli and Kíli have spent decades searching for the last piece of their hearts, but meeting Bilbo is just the beginning of the tale.  Because hobbits believe in love, not destiny and someone else catches their burglar's eye.

Chapter 1: Ze'
Chapter 2: Nu'
Chapter 3: Gem
Chapter 4: Ramekh


Bilbo never planned to go on an adventure. The hobbit was minding his own business when Gandalf suddenly decided to recruit him and he still isn’t sure how refusing to join the wizard several times led to thirteen dwarves sitting in his dining room.

Indeed, Thorin’s company crashes into the hobbit's life like a thunderstorm and Bilbo honestly doesn’t know why he agrees to help the dwarves with their mad quest. Perhaps this impulse is a remnant of the fauntling that Gandalf still remembers; the one who always believed that something amazing was waiting for him past the borders of his home.

That child dreamed of traveling but Bilbo learned to ignore his wanderlust as he grew older because proper hobbits do not run off into the wilderness to chase a distant wind. He is a Baggins after all and he has almost forgotten his youthful foolishness until Gandalf wakes that dream again.

Or perhaps it is not the wizard who makes Bilbo long for adventure; perhaps it is the two young dwarven princes who are so very glad to meet their company's burglar. Fíli and Kíli are strangely magnetic despite their bad first impression and in their defense, the brothers try to be better guests than the rest of their companions. Indeed, Kíli and Fíli keep the other dwarves from emptying the hobbit's pantry and defend Bilbo to their uncle and he does not like the idea of them running off to kill a dragon without help.

Of course, the hobbit will never admit to chasing after a lovely set of dimples or being swayed by some mad wizard so if anyone asks, he prefers to place the blame on Thorin Oakenshield's commanding majesty.

Whatever the true reason, Bilbo wakes up the next morning in an empty smial and knows that he cannot let the dwarves leave Hobbiton without him. The rest, as they say, is history.

Indeed, Bilbo Baggins joins the quest for Erebor on a wild impulse and it takes less than a day before he regrets his brief insanity. The hobbit has never spent so much time in a saddle and he can barely walk by the time his new company finally stops for the night. When he dismounts his pony, he's so sore that he's limping and while Bilbo doesn't expect to be coddled, he wouldn't mind some sympathy.

However, all the hobbit receives is disdain, at least from Thorin Oakenshield. The dwarf lord seems to hate him for no good reason – that brief moment of charm in Bag End nothing but a fluke – and if Thorin had a problem with hobbits, then he really shouldn't have hired one to be his burglar.

It's hardly Bilbo's fault that he's never gone on an epic journey before now and he's actually in decent shape considering his years. He's certainly in better shape than most hobbits in the Shire and Thorin Oakenshield should stop being such a snob about his inexperience. Nothing Bilbo does is good enough for the dwarf lord and his endless sneering gets annoying very fast.

The hobbit is trying his best but Thorin only seems to pay attention when he's doing something wrong. Tying snares: wrong. Packing his pony: wrong. Throwing knives and sewing coats: wrong and wrong again. The rest of Thorin's companions are kinder than their leader but they are not paragons of patience and there are limits to their help.

Bilbo would probably have cut his losses and gone back to the Shire if not for the dwarf lord's nephews. Fíli and Kíli are the nicest of his companions – the only ones who truly seem happy to have the hobbit's company – and Bilbo finds himself wanting to be near them without quite knowing why.

Proper hobbits do not feel the urge to giggle when dwarven princes smile. Proper hobbits shouldn't blush when the archer starts showing off his weapons or feel so very charmed when Kíli brings up all the different ways that their company might die.

Of course, the latter subject is also rather terrifying even before the younger prince starts to get enthusiastic so Bilbo always turns and flees before too long.

Indeed, that would have been the end of things if not for Fíli. The older dwarf is a master at reining in his brother and when all three of them are together, the world seems a brighter place. Bilbo cannot keep on running when Kíli and Fíli are so happy for just a bit of his attention and he truly enjoys their company; indeed, the first time that the hobbit willingly begins a conversation, the princes are so delighted that he can't bear to leave again. Bilbo can live with his weird impulse to be closer in order to keep the princes' friendship; it's not as though he hasn't had a crush or two before.

For now the burglar simply listens to Kíli's wild stories and argues with Fíli about the best way to cook rabbit, telling the pair all about the Shire in exchange for lessons on dwarvish politics. They talk about anything and everything and soon the hobbit considers them some of the best friends he's ever had. Fíli and Kíli seem to feel the same if the burglar is any judge. The brothers are always ready to support Bilbo against their uncle and comfort him when Thorin's words cut deep.

To tell the truth, the hobbit is probably half in love with them after only a few weeks together and he's tempted to try to court Fíli or Kíli as the company travels on. Bilbo may not be a warrior, but he has other skills to offer, and his husband would never lack for a home or family.

Yet even when he considers the idea – and he would likely need to do something amazing before Thorin would allow it – the burglar doesn't know how he could choose one prince over the other. He cares too much about both dwarves to have a favorite when they are Fíli-and-Kíli in his mind.

Of course, these thoughts are little more than flight of fancy at the moment and Bilbo soon learns better than to try.

For when the hobbit happens to ask about Dwalin's wrist tattoo in Thorin's hearing, he receives an impromptu lecture on dwarvish wedding vows. The hobbit had simply wondered what ink made the dwarf's runes shimmer but the answer that he gets almost makes him wish he hadn't asked.

Apparently Dwalin's tattoo is not a tattoo but a sign of the Valar's favor, a great blessing that only the luckiest dwarves receive.

Fíli and Kíli had mentioned the idea that Aulë linked certain souls together, but Bilbo had dismissed it as silly at the time. Why would the Valar busy themselves with matchmaking when people are quite capable of finding romance on their own? However, it seems that dwarves take this belief quite seriously, which may explain why the princes looked so disappointed by the hobbit's answer at the time. Bilbo must have hurt them with his skepticism and indeed, Fíli and Kíli had not mentioned it again.

But now the joke is on the hobbit as Thorin explains that his nephews also share such a blessing and are newlywed as well. The brothers that Bilbo has grown so very fond of are not only married, they are married to each other and forbidden from straying on penalty of death.

Truthfully, Bilbo isn't sure which revelation is more shocking. Relationships between siblings are forbidden in the Shire and no hobbit would ever dream of killing over infidelity. Although Bilbo doesn't personally hold with cheating on his partners, people make mistakes and hearts can change; the Thain stays separate from such matters as long as they are consensual for everyone involved.

However, Thorin seems to think that adultery warrants execution and he could not have been prouder of the relationship between his nephews if he had wed the lads himself.

“Their bond is a good omen. No member of my line had been granted such a blessing for two generations before Fíli and Kíli were born and their runes appeared. Show him, my sister-sons. Show our burglar the favor that you have brought upon our house.”

The princes seem reluctant but eventually they give in to Thorin's urging, pulling up their sleeves and showing Bilbo the names upon their wrists. Like Dwalin's mark, their runes shimmer strangely and while he still isn't sure if he believes in destined lovers, the hobbit can't deny that there is something otherworldly here. Something otherworldly and a bit familiar. Although Bilbo cannot read dwarvish writing, he swears that he's seen runes like these before.

In fact...

With some surprise, the burglar realizes that Fíli and Kíli's names look much like his birthmark, the one that had been hidden when his ankle hair came in. The thought is completely crazy but Bilbo can't seem to ignore it and he tries to check his birthmark as soon as he's alone. The burglar sits down away from the group, parting the thick hair on his right ankle as best he can. But if there is any writing on his skin, Bilbo simply cannot tell.

Perhaps he sees a flash of gold or perhaps that's just a freckle and even if the hobbit were willing to shave – the merest thought is completely scandalous – he didn't bring a proper razor with him when he left Hobbiton.

It's probably just coincidence or you're misremembering. You haven't seen that mark in years, the burglar tells himself, shaking off the thought. You are no one's destiny and Aulë would hardly bind a prince of Erebor to two different people when it's against his children's laws.

Honestly, Bilbo should count himself lucky that he hadn't tried to court either of the princes; he has no intention of being killed over a cultural misunderstanding, no matter how adorable the two young dwarves might be.

The hobbit needs to set his sights on someone else and quickly before he falls too deep. And if there is any member of this company who might take his mind off the princes, surely it would be Thorin Oakenshield. Even with his tiny feet, the dwarf lord is still attractive – even when he's being horrible, he's easy on the eyes. Indeed, Thorin looks much like his nephews would if they were a single person: Fíli and Kíli as distilled by pain and hard-won experience.

However, what makes Bilbo decide that Thorin is the best choice to pin his hopes on is not the dwarf lord's bearing or the fact that his bare wrist should make him safe to woo. What decides the hobbit is simply Thorin's smile, because the way that the dwarf lord is looking at his nephews makes Bilbo's heart skip a beat.

There is such love in that expression, such endless warmth, and the hobbit has always wanted someone to look at him that way. Sure Thorin kind of hates him at the moment, but Bilbo has never backed down from a challenge – if he had, he probably wouldn't be a burglar right now – and he has admired the dwarf lord from the start. After all, Thorin's insults wouldn't sting so much if the hobbit didn't care.

I've probably always wanted him and just didn't realize, Bilbo tells himself, putting all romantic thoughts of the princes from his mind. Kíli and Fíli are his friends and nothing more. They have never tried to be more and Bilbo has no one to blame for his misconceptions but himself.

Better the hobbit set his sights on Thorin where he might actually stand a chance. A slim chance considering the dwarf lord's current opinion of his burglar, but at least Bilbo shouldn't get executed for making the attempt.

Of course, the hobbit would rather not get rejected either but there's no reason that he has to begin his courtship right away. Bilbo can set his sights on Thorin while continuing to spend time with his nephews; the hobbit can wait until their uncle finally realizes that he's not useless after all.

He really does want the dwarf lord's admiration, that's the sad part. The more Thorin berates him, the more Bilbo wants to prove the bastard wrong and that urge only becomes stronger when his heart gets involved.

Now that the burglar is looking, he finds that there is much to like about Thorin Oakenshield. The dwarf lord may be hostile to outsiders but he's also quite protective of those he cares about. He's strong and intelligent and hilariously bad at following directions and when he smiles, the years melt off his face. Thorin shares Kíli's dimples and Fíli's amused exasperation, the princes’ intelligence and easy competence, and Bilbo can see where the brothers get it from.

So while the hobbit doesn’t suddenly fall in love with Thorin – that would be ridiculous – the idea isn’t as far-fetched as it would have been two weeks ago. Indeed, Bilbo soon realizes that he could love the dwarf lord; if Thorin would only look on him more kindly, the burglar could and would fall hard.

Unfortunately, the hobbit has barely come to this realization before Fíli and Kíli are dragging him off to steal from mountain trolls and he really should have known better than to listen to their plan. Despite what Gandalf says, Bilbo isn't actually some kind of burglar, but when the princes look at him like that, he simply can't say no. Fíli and Kíli seem to think that the hobbit can do anything and stealing back the company's ponies from a trio of trolls would certainly be a feather in his cap. Thorin would have to treat him as an equal – or at least a true companion – after that.

However, while Bilbo agrees to attempt the theft in a fit of optimism, he's never been that lucky and the hobbit can't even be surprised when everything goes wrong. He does manage to salvage the situation before his friends get eaten – and finds several nice swords in the process – but it's touch and go for a while and Thorin looks ready to kill Bilbo himself by the time the company wins free.

All told, the entire night is an unmitigated disaster for both romance and dignity and the situation doesn't get much better when the dwarves reach Rivendell. Thorin spends the entire visit growling and snapping at everyone; he seems to resent Elrond for his assistance and hate himself for needing it. Indeed, the dwarf lord suspects betrayal around every corner even though the elf is nothing but polite to his sudden visitors. Their host certainly manages to be more gracious than Bilbo was when Thorin and his company descended on Bag End and ate his pantry bare.

Elrond feeds them, heals them, and even names the weapons that they found in the trolls' hoard. Thorin's blade the elf calls Orcrist and Gandalf's he names Glamdring, though Bilbo's own is dismissed as the plainest of the three. However, Elrond's wisdom only makes the dwarf lord more resentful and Bilbo is honestly surprised that the elf agrees to translate Thorin's map.

That is probably down to Gandalf since the dwarf lord completely fails at diplomacy. Not good for a king-to-be and yet Bilbo finds Thorin's anger strangely comforting. Because if the dwarf can hate an elf as wise as Elrond then his dislike of his burglar probably isn't personal.

It's just Thorin's past hardship that makes the dwarf see danger behind every helping hand and Bilbo can understand that. A few of the hobbit's relatives have caused him to be wary of accepting any kindness for fear of strings attached. But he wants to show the dwarf lord that not everyone is like that. He wants to show Thorin that the world still has beauty and kindness in unexpected places even when it seems like no one cares. The hobbit wishes that the dwarf would learn to trust him so that he could share in Thorin's burden and ease the weight upon his heart.

However, Bilbo is no closer to winning the dwarf lord's admiration when the company leaves Rivendell than he was when they arrived. Whatever key can unlock Thorin's heart, the burglar does not have it and he's not sure which is colder: the dwarf lord's gaze or the weather as they start to climb.

Even when the hobbit is walking right behind Thorin, the distance between them might as well be miles and he has no idea how to bridge that chasm now. Bilbo considers asking Fíli and Kíli for advice since the dwarf lord is their uncle, but he can never quite bring himself to say the words aloud. He doesn't want to risk the princes' friendship; what if they think that he's not good enough for Thorin and cut him from their lives?

Bilbo doesn't think that he could bear to continue on this quest without Fíli and Kíli to support him. He needs their patience, their strength, and their smiles to remind him that this journey is not about glory, gold, or dragon-slaying; it's about giving the brothers and their kindred a place to call their own.

As much as the hobbit cares for Thorin, he's staying for his nephews. Making his friends happy is far more important than the bruises on his heart.

So the burglar resigns himself to pining until the dwarf lord finally sees him as someone valuable. Bilbo will make do with the scraps of affection he can get and while the hobbit knows that treasuring every moment of indifference is pathetic, such blankness is an improvement over the dwarf lord's usual scorn. Bilbo counts this as progress towards friendship if not romance and he tries to spend as much time as possible with Thorin as their company travels on.

Unfortunately, the route through the Misty Mountains is incredibly unpleasant this time of year – cold, rainy and steeper than a path has any right to be – and the hobbit seems to earn two frowns for every nod. One step forward, three steps back and Bilbo is grateful for the distraction when Nori, Dori, and Ori suddenly become much friendlier.

The trio goes from being distantly polite to walking beside their burglar and engaging him in conversation and while Bilbo doesn't understand their change of heart, he doesn't question it. Because for the first time on this journey, the hobbit has real friends other than Gandalf and the princes – as much as he enjoys their company, Fíli and Kíli can't be with him constantly – and the Ri brothers are quite entertaining when they put their minds to it.

Indeed, Bilbo is surprised to learn that Dori tells the most amusing stories and Nori seems to have a little crush on Kíli considering how often he brings up the archer's hair. Or maybe the dwarf is simply jealous since the younger prince's mane is spectacular.

After a few days of this, the hobbit discovers that Thorin's anger doesn't hurt the way it used to. Bilbo still cares about the dwarf lord but one of his friends is always there to distract him when the pining gets too much. In fact, Ori does a rather wicked impression of Thorin Oakenshield. It's all posture, flowing hair, and frowning and the first time that Bilbo sees this performance, he laughs so hard that he can't breathe.

Indeed, Dori and his brothers are great at pointing out their leader's flaws and Bilbo recognizes that most of what they say is justified. But somehow Thorin's weaknesses just make him more attractive in the burglar's eyes.

The hobbit would never have dreamed of courting the King of Erebor but dreaming of this stubborn cranky asshole is far more doable and now that he's set his heart on Thorin, Bilbo can't seem to let him go.

It's not as though I have a lot of options. Fíli and Kíli are off limits and if there was a hobbit that I could love in the Shire, I would have been married years ago. Thorin may be a pompous ass at times – okay, most of the time – but I'm not going to miss out on this opportunity. It might be my last chance.

Besides, as weird as it sounds, Bilbo is almost starting to enjoy the dwarf lord's insults. Thorin has a creative streak when he gets going and the hobbit's friends always worry over him so sweetly afterward. Indeed, Fíli and Kíli are quite protective of their burglar and Bilbo thinks that their uncle's position is the only thing keeping the princes from shouting a few insults of their own.

When the company runs into some stone giants and the hobbit nearly dies, Kíli actually does shout at his uncle and Bilbo could have kissed the archer if not for that whole forbidden thing. Still, the dwarf lord's expression is priceless. He looks utterly nonplussed, as though he can't believe that actually just happened, and the hobbit has to wonder if anyone has ever called Thorin on his shit before.

Maybe that's what I've been doing wrong. Forget proving myself through my actions. Maybe I should just yell at Thorin until he gets his head out of his ass.

However, Bilbo doesn't have a chance to test out his new theory before Thorin's company is attacked. The dwarves are ambushed by goblins while their wizard is off scouting and the hobbit is quickly separated from the rest. He falls into the depths of the Misty Mountains with nothing but his sword to keep him company. Well, actually, his sword, a strange gold ring that he finds in the tunnels, and a crazy monster who's obsessed with eating fish and hobbitses.

The burglar encounters this Gollum fellow while he's searching for the exit, stumbling into the creature’s lair on accident. Bilbo is desperate to return to his companions and the promise of directions to the surface is the only reason he agrees to play a game of riddles now. Honestly, the hobbit knows better than to make bets with creepy monsters, even ones that seem like they could really use a hug. Such bets always end badly in the stories and after Bilbo wins the game on something of a technicality, he can't be too surprised that Gollum doesn't keep his word.

Instead, the creature tries to kill him and if the hobbit's new-found ring hadn't been a magic one, he never would have seen the light of day again. It's a close thing even so since Bilbo doesn't know the ring is magic until he trips and it falls onto his finger, a feat that should be quite impossible.

However, the ring does slip onto the burglar's finger somehow. Between one moment and the next, the hobbit's world turns grey. All color leeches from his vision, leaving only hazy shadows and a sense of wrongness in its place. Bilbo's chest suddenly feels empty – almost hollow – as bile rises in his throat.

The only thing that stops the hobbit from tearing off his ring is Gollum. The creature runs right past him without pausing, screaming about thieves, Bagginses, and some precious treasure until his voice bounces off the walls. Gollum doesn't see Bilbo; he cannot see Bilbo, and the burglar needs that advantage if he's going to survive.

So the hobbit follows Gollum as he races through the tunnels, praying that the creature is going the right way. Thankfully the ground does seem to be rising and eventually Bilbo spies natural light up ahead. Although the hobbit doesn't know if this tunnel leads onto the correct side of the mountains, at least he'll be outside and right now, that's good enough. Bilbo just wants to remove his ring before he really does throw up.

However, before the hobbit can sneak past Gollum to the exit, loud cries suddenly echo through the tunnels and he looks up to see his companions running by. Everyone is there: Fíli and Kíli, Thorin and Dori and Glóin, Bifur, Bofur, Dwalin and Ori, Óin and Bombur and Nori, Balin, and even Gandalf too.

The wizard must have found the dwarves soon after they were captured and Bilbo is overjoyed to know that his companions are all right. But the hobbit can't get Gandalf's attention as long as Gollum is standing in-between them and the magic of his new ring cuts both ways. Thorin's company disappears from view without pausing; they can't see him either now.

Although Bilbo is pretty sure that the dwarves won't leave without him – Kíli and Fíli would never allow that without protest – he still needs to get past Gollum as soon as possible. The hobbit could kill the creature; in truth, it would be easy. But the thought of stabbing Gollum in the back just seems so dirty and even in a fairer fight, Bilbo doesn't think he'd have the heart. Gollum may want to eat the hobbit but he is more pitiful than frightening and he doesn't deserve to die just because the burglar got lost.

I guess there's nothing for it then. I'll just have to jump. The hobbit was a pretty decent long jumper in his youth – took home the May Day prize for six years running – and hopefully his muscles will remember their old skill.

Bilbo takes a few steps back from Gollum before sprinting forward, pushing off the stone when he's about a foot away. His leap is almost perfect, almost because Gollum looks up just in time to receive a kick straight to the face. But the hobbit manages to stick the landing anyway and then he's racing toward the exit, Gollum's furious screams chasing him out into the open air.

That first touch of wind upon his face is glorious and he turns toward the fading sunshine like a flower seeking warmth. Although hobbits live in holes, they aren't meant to spend their lives beneath the surface, not as dwarves and goblins do. Hobbits love green and growing things far too much for that.

Bilbo enjoys the breeze for a few seconds before remembering that his friends are probably racing full-speed down the mountain and he needs to run himself if he's going to catch up. So the hobbit picks a direction – directly east seems reasonable knowing his companions – and starts running as quickly as he can. Even if he has somehow lost the others, the burglar doesn't want to be standing by the tunnels when the sun goes down.

However, Bilbo hears voices barely a minute later and when he gets closer, he's relieved to see that he has managed to catch up after all. Indeed, the hobbit arrives on the scene just as Gandalf finishes counting heads and then turns to Thorin worriedly.

“Where is Bilbo?! Where is our hobbit?” the wizard asks. Bilbo waits a moment to watch the dwarves' reactions and while there is a bit of grumbling, most of them seem more worried than annoyed. Not Thorin, of course, but Dori, Ori and even Bofur look concerned, while Nori apparently thinks that the burglar is capable of winning free of the goblin caves himself. In contrast, Fíli and Kíli seem prepared to charge back into the mountain on the off-chance that he needs them and Bilbo cannot keep the princes waiting after that.

The hobbit pulls off his ring and steps into the clearing with a smile, almost toppling over when the brothers leap into his arms. Fíli and Kíli hug him fiercely, one dwarf on either side, and Bilbo can't help but hug them back.

Indeed, the sick feeling caused by wearing his ring has already begun to dissipate beneath the princes' smiles and even through an inch of leather, the warmth of their arms grounds Bilbo in the world again. Fíli and Kíli are on his side, the burglar cannot doubt that, and perhaps this is why he does not back down when Thorin glares at him.

“Why did you come back?” the dwarf lord asks, his tone suggesting that he would have preferred to see the hobbit dead instead. Which, honestly, is bullshit. Bilbo wouldn't be here if Thorin hadn't shown up on his doorstep and offered him a contract; if the dwarf lord doesn't like his burglar, then that's his own damn fault. The hobbit has given the dwarf his best and right now, he doesn't really care if Thorin thinks his best is good enough. He is a full-fledged member of this company and the dwarf lord needs to treat him with some measure of respect.

“Look, I know that you don't like me,” Bilbo growls as his patience finally snaps. What follows is a rant to match any one of Thorin's, weeks of bitterness rolling off the hobbit's tongue. Because the dwarf lord is being a hypocrite of the worst kind when he accuses his burglar of missing Hobbiton and Bilbo is just done with everything.

He's done with this quest, with being threatened and with the endless doubts of Thorin Oakenshield. Yet even now, the hobbit cannot give up on the dwarf completely and he's not sure whether it is a threat or a promise when he ends his speech with the words, “You're going to like me someday, Thorin, wait and see.”

Now that Bilbo's anger is fading, he feels a little embarrassed about going off like that. But the hobbit cannot truly regret his actions when Kíli and Fíli are beaming at him and he sees something close to admiration on their uncle's face at last.

I guess yelling was the answer after all, Bilbo thinks with some amusement. Of course he needed to bash Thorin over the head with words to make the dwarf see reason; he's a stubborn bastard after all. Bilbo should probably have yelled at him much sooner, but he's been operating by the Shire's rules of conduct until now. Although his home is far behind, the habits of a lifetime are not easily laid aside and hobbits do not court their beloveds with blunt truths and arguments; they would sooner walk through the Harvest Market wearing shoes.

The only reason Bilbo abandoned that propriety was extreme vexation and yet, now that he has, the burglar feels oddly free.

Bilbo has never quite fit in with his kinsfolk. He did his best to be normal – to be a proper Baggins – and he truly does appreciate the comforts of his home. But the hobbit can no longer deny that he has a wild streak as well.

Normal hobbits do not run off with dwarves. Normal hobbits do not befriend a pair of princes or fall in love while on the road.

Most of Bilbo's kin are content to live and die without ever traveling more than a few leagues from their homes. However, while the hobbit's life had been safe and comfortable, it never made him very happy and stuffy old Bilbo Baggins has no place on this adventure now.

He's done with propriety, at least by Shire standards. His friendship with Fíli and Kíli started the process and now the burglar will finish it because he has an opportunity for romance and true happiness at last. Let the neighbors gossip; Bilbo has a chance with Thorin Oakenshield and he is sure that any judgment will be mixed with jealousy.

However, before the hobbit can make his true intentions known – for this, Bilbo will actually think about his phrasing – a piercing howl echoes through the trees.

“Wargs!” Gandalf shouts and when the burglar looks back toward the Misty Mountains, his heart goes cold with fear. There must be at least a dozen wargs dashing toward Thorin's company and the dwarves are in no shape to fight them off.

“Run!” Thorin shouts.

His companions turn and sprint in the opposite direction, dodging around the trees while wargs snap at their heels. Bilbo nearly stumbles when one of the creatures leaps over his head and cuts him off from the others, the hobbit’s arms flailing wildly as he skids to a halt. He looks around for his companions but the dwarves haven’t noticed their burglar’s peril and there is no time to shout.

Bilbo will just have to save himself and he draws his sword with shaking hands. The hobbit may not have skill or experience on his side but he has luck and desperation. He thrusts forward blindly as the warg lunges at him and he’s nearly knocked off his feet when his blade pierces the creature’s jaw.

I can't believe that worked! Bilbo thinks, gaping down at the warg’s twitching body until another howl reminds him that he’s not out of danger yet. Then the hobbit yanks his sword free and follows after his companions, none of whom have noticed that their burglar fell behind. Of course no one was watching when I killed a monster singlehandedly. That's just my luck these days.

Unfortunately, there are another dozen wargs where that one came from and Bilbo is still a few steps behind the others when Gandalf shouts for them to climb.

Thorin’s company does as ordered, even Bombur proving quite agile when his life is on the line. Soon thirteen dwarves and a wizard are perched high in the branches and their burglar follows moments later, Fíli and Kíli grabbing his coat to help him climb. The princes pull Bilbo into their tree just as another warg jumps toward him, the beast's jaws snapping shut only a few inches from his feet.

The hobbit and his friends are safe for now but the wargs will not give up. They circle around the trees and scrabble at the lower branches, their claws digging furrows deep into the wood. The wargs seem determined to bring down their prey through sheer persistence and to make matters worse, this pack does not hunt alone.

Bilbo feels a shiver of terror run through him when a pale orc rides out of the darkness atop a warg as white as snow. Kíli and Fíli gasp loudly from the next branch over and when the hobbit glances at their uncle, Thorin looks horrified.

“Azog? It cannot be,” the dwarf lord whispers in a voice like shattered glass.

The pale orc is supposed to be dead. Thorin remembers that battle well – indeed, he can't forget it – and the Defiler should not have survived the loss of his left arm. But the dwarf lord cannot doubt what he is seeing; that is Azog the Defiler, one of the greatest enemies that his kin have ever known. The pale orc beheaded Thorin's grandfather on the field of battle and Thrór's death must be avenged.

Not that Thorin is in any position to fight his enemy. His company is trapped, his body is exhausted and a dozen wargs are circling the ground beneath his feet.

Indeed, the situation seems quite hopeless and when these wargs destroy the dwarf lord's kinsfolk, their deaths will be his fault. Thorin can't prevent it; he can't even borrow Kíli's bow to shoot at Azog, not when his sister-son's quiver was emptied in their flight. All the dwarf can do is glare at the pale orc helplessly.

But then Gandalf turns his magic to a more useful application than his usual smoking habit, sparks igniting every pinecone he can reach. The wizard and his companions use these missiles to great effect since the wargs fear fire as they fear little else. The dwarves cheer loudly as their enemies turn tail, their triumph all the sweeter for the frown on Azog's face. However, this reprieve is short-lived; using fire in a forest wasn't Gandalf's best idea and the trees in which the dwarves took shelter soon begin to fall.

One by one, the pine trees topple over. Thorin and his companions are forced to leap from branch to branch until all of them are sitting in a single pine tree, its roots creaking loudly from their weight. On one side the dwarves face a long, long drop to the rocky flats below, and on the other side stands Azog with his pack of orcs and wargs.

For a moment there is silence as the dwarves and orcs look at each other and then the company's last refuge starts to fall. The tree tilts over the edge of the cliff until it's nearly horizontal, only panicked scrambling keeping several dwarves from falling to their deaths. But the pine's roots won't hold much longer and Thorin's kin cannot climb to safety while Azog is standing there.

Death waits for the dwarves in both directions and yet, if Thorin has to die, he chooses to die fighting as a son of Durin should.

The dwarf lord pulls himself onto the tree trunk and draws his sword, holding Orcrist high as he begins to run. Thorin charges through the fire and the smoke, his eyes fixed on Azog's smirking face. The dwarf lord will destroy his enemy once and for all; he will avenge his grandfather, his father, his brother, and every other warrior who was slain at Azanulbizar. Every life that Azog stole will be paid in blood at last.

However, Thorin is so focused on the Defiler that he doesn't watch the pale orc's warg and this is a mistake. The white warg leaps forward when the dwarf nears Azog, an enormous paw smashing him down to the ground. He struggles to his feet only to catch Azog's mace straight to his face and the blow knocks Thorin onto his back again. The warg's jaws close over his shoulder, the creature's teeth piercing through his armor and into the flesh beneath. The dwarf lord struggles futilely until a lucky blow strikes the warg across the face. Then the creature throws Thorin through the air and he lands heavily on a nearby crop of rock.

The dwarf lord is defeated, his sword falling from numb fingers, and all he can think as his vision starts to dim around the edges is, How could I have failed so utterly?

When an orc stalks over to kill Thorin, something in Bilbo snaps. He cannot let this happen. He cannot watch the dwarf lord die. So the hobbit charges forward, tackling the orc away from Thorin and slamming his sword into its chest. No one was expecting that – not even Bilbo – and he drives Azog's pack away from Thorin with the sheer strength of his rage. The burglar bares his teeth and growls, daring the Defiler to hurt his dwarf lord now.

Of course, one small hobbit isn't going to stop Azog. However, Fíli and Kíli join Bilbo moments later and somehow the trio manages to turn the tide. The princes and their burglar protect Thorin until their company is rescued by giant eagles – an odd turn of events, to be sure, but not one the hobbit minds.

Fíli, Kíli, and Bilbo are swept up by the same eagle and the princes quickly fall asleep on that wide feathered back. The burglar takes comfort from their presence, leaning against the brothers for warmth as he watches the scenery fly by. Although Bilbo is exhausted, he can't seem to settle down; he's still buzzing with battle nerves when the great birds finally land.

Truthfully, Bilbo can't believe he did that. He can't believe he took on an orc pack and survived. Maybe he's more suited for adventure than he thought.

Indeed, the hobbit has more than proved his courage and while he didn't save Thorin in order to win glory, he is pleased by the dwarf lord's reaction once he finally wakes up. Sure there's some yelling at first and Bilbo kind of wants to smack Thorin, but then the dwarf lord takes the burglar in his arms. He admits that he was wrong about the hobbit; he was wrong and he is sorry and the apology is everything that Bilbo has imagined it would be.

This is what the burglar has been hoping for for weeks now and so he ignores the niggling feeling that it isn't right at all.

Bilbo ignores the part of his heart that still feels furious and gutted rather than appreciated, the little voice that whispers to him, reminding the hobbit that a bit of praise doesn't make up for weeks of scorn. But the burglar's qualms are overpowered by his joy at recognition and the warmth of the dwarf lord's fierce embrace. This is Bilbo's best chance for romance and he's not going to waste the opportunity due to a few lingering doubts.

The hobbit is so focused on Thorin and their future life together that he doesn't notice the dejected faces staring at his back. Fíli and Kíli trade miserable expressions even as their companions cheer for Thorin and the burglar they adore.

Only Nori notices that the princes do not join the celebration. He watches them worriedly as Thorin pulls Bilbo even closer because he knows the pain they're feeling. The dwarf has felt an echo of that longing every time he sees Dwalin take Ori in his arms.

However, Nori’s sorrow is mitigated by his little brother's happiness. He cannot regret Ori's marriage, he won't, and he worries that Fíli and Kíli have no such balm to ease their pain. Thorin is not Bilbo's amrâbulnas; the dwarf lord could find love in other caverns and it isn't fair that his sister-sons cannot even plead their case.

Nothing about this situation is fair and this isn't the first time Nori has cursed the laws that bind them all. Kings should not separate what the Valar linked together and the dwarf doesn't know how long his princes' spirits will survive.

If Fíli and Kíli's ashânumahâl feels anything like Nori's then Bilbo's every blush and stutter must be a dagger in their hearts. They can do nothing but watch as their uncle charms their hobbit and judging by their expressions, it is killing them inside. At this rate, Fíli and Kíli will lose hope long before Thorin's company reclaims the Lonely Mountain and then Nori's one slim chance to finally have Dwalin would disappear as well.

Truthfully, it's a fool's hope. It has always been a fool's hope, but now that his princes have made him dream of better, Nori won't go down without a fight. If the law is to be changed then Bilbo and Thorin cannot be allowed to fall in love; Kíli and Fíli must have reason to keep hoping until their quest is done. For they are the darlings of the Sigin-tarâg and Thorin should listen to their request as he would no other dwarrow's plea.

Together Fíli, Kíli, and their uncle might change dwarvish law forever since he who holds the Arkenstone commands all of Mahal's children whether they agree with him or not. While the more hidebound khazâd will probably grumble about breaking old traditions – might cry of sin and ruin – they will be forced to obey Thorin's proclamations anyway.

So Nori pulls Dori and Ori aside to discuss their plan of action once the company makes camp that evening, the trio leaving Fíli and Kíli alone to lick their wounds for now.

“I don't know how they stand it,” Ori murmurs to his brothers as they watch Thorin and their burglar smile at each other sappily. “Bilbo is completely smitten and seeing Dwalin look at any other dwarf like that would kill me, anyone but you.”

“I know, little brother; that's why I agreed to help Fíli and Kíli in the first place. That’s why we’re going to help them win the love that should be theirs,” Nori replies. “But now that Thorin has changed his tune, we might need more allies. I still won't risk telling Dwalin – he's too loyal to our leader and I will not make him choose. But some of the others might be more sympathetic. What do you think, Dori? Anyone come to mind?”

His brother considers the question for a moment before answering. “Not Balin, he follows the law above all else and until it changes, he will be no use. Glóin and Bombur are too happy in their ashânumahâl to believe that anyone might struggle, but I think that Óin might be convinced to listen and it would be useful to have a healer on our side."

“All right then. Feel out his loyalties as subtly as you can. Ori and I will work on prying Bilbo out of Thorin's arms.”

The latter task turns out to be the harder of the two. Thorin refuses to let the hobbit out of his sight as the company hikes eastward, worrying over Bilbo's safety as he never has before. In contrast, convincing Óin to help the princes is actually quite easy. Dori takes the healer aside as soon as possible and while he never repeats that conversation for his brothers, the other dwarf has joined their conspiracy by the time the sun sets twice.

Fíli, Kíli, and their allies are still trying to separate the lovebirds a few days later, the princes growing more disheartened with every failed attempt. Although Thorin has yet to begin a formal courtship, the dwarf lord is clearly working up to the question and judging by Bilbo's smiles, the hobbit will accept.

So Fíli can't deny a certain satisfaction when Azog finds the company's trail at last. He never thought he'd be happy to be chased by an orc pack, but the news of his old enemy seems to snap Thorin from his infatuation. For the first time in days, the dwarf lord sends Bilbo back to scout and his sister-sons take full advantage of the opportunity.

Fíli and Kíli follow Bilbo on his scouting mission, moving to flank their burglar when he climbs back down the hill. The princes have missed their amrâbulnas; they have missed his conversation and the dimples when he laughs.

They stay with Bilbo as he makes his report and then maneuver him to the other side of the campfire. Kíli drags the hobbit down beside him and starts blithely chattering while Óin and the Ri brothers run interference so that Thorin can't interrupt.

Not that Bilbo is trying to escape the princes' company. No one sees deceit beneath the archer's smile. Kíli has perfected that expression over decades of doing what he shouldn't and it helps that his natural state is completely guileless. So the burglar just gives Thorin a helpless shrug before turning to listen to the younger prince's story and Óin quickly draws the dwarf lord's attention to a discussion of supplies.

Fíli sits down next to his amrâbulnâs and for the first time since they left the Misty Mountains, his world feels right again. He is comforted by Bilbo's presence even though he can sense a faint thread of disappointment when the hobbit glances at his uncle and he knows that the struggle for Bilbo's heart has only just begun.

However, tonight Fíli has hope that Thorin will not win the coming battle. Because Bilbo is quickly caught up in Kíli's story and the faint awareness of disappointment is replaced by an echo of the princes' happiness. A faint echo but it is there in the pulse of Fíli's heartbeat and the dwarf cannot believe that the burglar is completely unaffected by the bond they share. He won't believe it when doing so might drive him crazy and send his little brother falling to despair.

Of course, the hobbit’s crush on Thorin is hardly the only problem weighing on Fíli's mind, what with Azog and his orc pack and Smaug the Terrible. Bilbo’s choice will hardly matter if the company perishes long before their journey ends.

Uncle's quest was not supposed to be this dangerous, enough to earn a hero's blessing but not this endless struggle for our lives.

The days that follow do nothing to ease the prince's worry as the dwarves are forced to run from dawn to long past dark. Despite this endless travel, the warg pack just keeps gaining on Thorin's company and Fíli can't shake the feeling that Azog is just toying with his prey.

When fatigue finally does force the dwarves to rest, the prince's sleep is fitful. He wakes up every few hours, twitching to alertness as howls cut through the night. Not only howls, but growls and snapping branches, the sounds chasing Fíli deep into his dreams. The dwarf is almost as tired in the morning as he was when they made camp and he's not the only one who's dragging when the dwarves start to run again.

Everyone is exhausted, even Kíli's endless optimism starting to wear thin. The mood grows even darker when Bilbo returns from his scouting later on with news that another monster is roaming through these rocky tors, one too large to be another warg. If Thorin's company cannot outrun Azog, they cannot hope to deal with a new enemy as well.

Some of them are almost ready to surrender when Gandalf offers a solution, giving his companions a ray of hope amidst their desperation. Because the wizard knows the owner of a nearby homestead and while he isn't certain of Beorn's welcome, anything must be better than falling into Azog's hands.

So the dwarves run and run and run until the crags and trees give way to meadow and they see a sturdy house built upon the plain.

“This way!” Gandalf shouts. He turns toward the house and his companions follow, the sight of their destination giving them a second wind. But the dwarves are not safe yet and they run all the faster when a chorus of howls splits the air behind them and a massive bear bursts out of the trees.

Fíli has never seen such a creature; the bear's claws are as long as any of his daggers and its eyes burn fiercely with unbridled rage. At this point, Beorn's house is only a few more yards away, but it's a near thing even so. The company crowds against the door, beating on the wood in panic until Nori thinks to turn the handle. Then the dwarves stumble inside, slamming the door shut with the bear right on their heels.

Kíli, Dwalin, Bofur and Ori struggle to hold the door against the creature while Fíli sets the lock, shoving a bar across the door before he backs up warily. The prince half expects the bear to come bursting through the window, but despite the itch between his shoulder blades, the beast just walks away.

Fíli breathes a sigh of relief then, his eyes seeking out his amrâbulnâs now that the danger's passed. The dwarf may be able to feel Kíli, but he likes the visual confirmation and he needs to know that Bilbo made it through as well.

Indeed, his brother has the same idea, though Kíli is more hands on in his approach. The archer wraps one arm around Fíli's waist and uses his other hand to pat Bilbo down for injuries, hiding his worry under the guise of brushing off the hobbit's coat.

“Um, Kíli? I think I'm clean now,” the burglar says when this goes on a little long, a flash of consternation pulsing through their bond.

These flashes have become more common since the Misty Mountains, small flickers of emotion touching the princes' hearts before their link goes dark again. There doesn't seem to be a pattern to it, fear and fondness coming through in equal measure, though Fíli considers both a gift. Feeling Bilbo's terror is better than feeling his attraction to their uncle, the brothers flinching in sync when their amrâbulnas sends a smile Thorin's way.

However, the dwarf lord is busy discussing the next stage of their quest with Gandalf and his sister-sons don't need the help of their conspirators to keep Bilbo close this time. Fíli and Kíli just take the hobbit's arms – one prince on either side – and lead him to the far side of the room. Beorn has turned part of his house into a stable and the other dwarves are laying out their bedrolls in hay piles for the night.

“Stay with us, we missed you,” Fíli and Kíli tell their hobbit, speaking naught but truth for once. “We want to know what happened after we lost you in the mountains; we were so worried when we couldn't find you later on.”

“Oh, I couldn't. It was nothing special,” Bilbo says bashfully. “I barely even had to fight.”

It takes some convincing before the hobbit agrees to tell his story and he keeps fiddling with his pockets at the start. But eventually Bilbo falls into a rhythm and the princes find themselves hanging on every word while several of their companions gather round to listen in. Kíli and Fíli gasp with horror when the hobbit describes the goblin that attacked him, how he'd fought and fallen down into the mountains' heart. The brothers sigh with pity when Bilbo describes the creature that he found there and they crow with admiration at their burglar's cleverness.

When the hobbit speaks of his panicked flight to the surface, Fíli and Kíli can't help but flinch even though he clearly made it and the archer has to hug Bilbo once his tale is done. He's gotten good at hugging Bilbo without touching skin to skin, keeping his hands covered and the hobbit tucked beneath his chin.

“We're so happy you survived,” Kíli murmurs with a besotted grin. His feelings are so obvious that Fíli glances around quickly to ensure that no one is watching them. But the rest of their companions are busy with their own evening preparations, Bilbo's audience having drifted off once they knew his tale was done.

So Fíli allows himself to smile at his amrâbulnas the way he always wants to and the hobbit blushes quite prettily in return. That expression makes the dwarf wish that he and Kíli could show their true hearts more often but he knows that's foolishness.

There's no point in wishing, the prince tells himself firmly. There is only doing and we're on this quest to make such confessions possible, to help every dwarf who cannot answer their heart's call.

Fíli and Kíli are committed to this course of action even if Bilbo never returns their feelings or he chooses to become their uncle's consort after all. To give up would be selfish when they are not the only ones who suffer from ashânumahâl that exist outside the law.

Look at Nori. He gave up everything in order to make his little brother happy and there must be others who have done the same. Scores of others who hide the truth of whom they love.

Fíli and Kíli are committed to their quest no matter what and yet, seeing the light shining in his brother's smile, the prince truly hopes that they find happiness as well. This is peace, here with his amrâbulnâs beside him. This is a perfect moment and all Fíli wants is a lifetime of such domesticity. The three amrâbulnâs curl up beside each other in the hay and the brothers fall asleep still smiling.

Gandalf wakes his companions early the next morning. He gathers them together in the foyer and tells them that it's time to meet their host. Or rather, meet him again, several of the dwarves trading worried glances when the wizard explains that the bear from yesterday was Beorn's other form.

“It'll be fine,” Gandalf promises. “Beorn despises dwarves but he hates orcs even more and I've always found him more reasonable when he in human form. Although, that said, it might be best if we try not to startle him.”

Two by two, the wizard leads his companions out into the garden where Beorn is chopping wood. The skin-changer greet their arrival with clear consternation, his frown deepening as each new dwarf is introduced. But it appears that Gandalf was correct; while their host may not like dwarves, he still offers them his hospitality.

Beorn prepares a feast for Thorin and his companions so that they can sate their hunger and gives them supplies for the next stage of their journey; the skin-changer even replaces some of the dwarves' lost weaponry and Kíli is quite glad to have a new set of arrows, elvish-made though they may be.

Truthfully, Fíli would have liked to spend several days in Beorn's hall; the entire company could use a break after their trek through the Misty Mountains and a few more meals like that breakfast would not go amiss. However, the skin-changer is full of dire warnings once he learns of their destination, his council adding to the dwarves' own sense of urgency.

Thorin's company cannot afford to waste any time if they are to reach Azsâlul'abad before Durin's Day arrives. Still, the prince is glad they stopped, if only for an evening. He would not have gotten his perfect moment otherwise.

That memory keeps Fíli's spirit bright when they set off towards Mirkwood. He knows there are many miles left to tread, but those miles disappear much faster beneath the hooves of Beorn's ponies than beneath tough dwarvish boots. Even the grey drizzle that begins on the second day can't dampen Fíli's mood and while Bilbo chose to ride with Thorin that morning, he promised to join the princes later on. While the hobbit spends most of that afternoon staring at their uncle, Fíli and Kíli have learned to take their victories where they can.

Indeed, the brothers' campaign to keep Bilbo and Thorin separated continues apace during this new segment of their journey, the task seemingly easy and insurmountable in turns. Although the dwarf lord can usually be distracted with some urgent business, their burglar is rather less cooperative.

He is stubborn, their amrâbulnas, and Fíli admires that about him even as he stymies the princes' plans at every turn. Only the help of their allies and some truly drastic measures allow the dwarves to interrupt their uncle whenever he tries to speak his heart.

On one memorable occasion, Kíli throws himself into a patch of brambles in order to stop Thorin from confessing the true strength of his feelings; Fíli spends three hours picking thorns out of the archer's hair once the company makes camp.

“Completely worth it,” Kíli mutters to his brother when Bilbo starts fussing over him as well. The older prince can't disagree. That was a close one; the dwarf lord nearly managed to begin a formal courtship before Kíli broke the moment and the archer might have been too late if their uncle hadn't made his intent so obvious.

Thankfully, Thorin is obvious. While the dwarf's majestic stare has been known to end many negotiations in his favor, the expression has always been an open book to those who know him best. Indeed, Thorin truly does like Bilbo, his earlier disregard transmuted into honest admiration by the hobbit's bravery. But Fíli's uncle hasn't spent weeks listening to his burglar's stories or learning about his people; he doesn't deserve the attention that Bilbo lauds him with.

Not that the hobbit actually cares if Thorin is worthy of him. Bilbo seems to have forgotten all the pain the dwarf lord caused. Fíli and Kíli do their best, but the burglar appreciates their uncle's flaws as much as his attractions and his smile only seems to grow more fond. The princes don't know which is worse, listening to their amrâbulnas discuss Thorin's many virtues or watching the pair fall asleep under the same cloak at night. Chastely, of course, since the dwarf lord has not officially begun to court their hobbit, but together all the same.

Perhaps the worst thing is feeling Bilbo's disappointment and knowing that they've caused it. After all, Thorin is not a bad dwarrow and he is truly smitten; Fíli and Kíli know their uncle would treat his consort well. The princes must acknowledge that even as they try to break his heart.

Thorin will recover. Without a karashumrâb of his own, the dwarf lord has a world of options that his sister-sons do not. All the brothers want is to stand on equal footing before Bilbo makes a promise that he can't take back. This doesn't seem too much to ask. If the princes can just keep Thorin from speaking his intentions for a few more weeks, then they'll still have a chance.


Chapter 6: Ges