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Master of Wood, Water and Hill

By Karmic_Acumen

Adventure / Humor

The Shire-1: Bag End

A/N: Well, it happened again. Plot bunnies overcame me. I watched the two Hobbit movies recently and it reminded me of when I read the book, years ago. And I decided to try out an idea for it.

There will be at least one song / tune played in every chapter of this story. I will be mentioning the title and artist (or YouTube username) for them, in the pre-chapter author notes. I know people rarely read them, but I'll do it anyway. Most of them actually provide me with inspiration to write the scenes where they come in.

And they ARE relevant, given Bilbo's main occupation in this AU of mine.

So here it is: My Silent Cry by blacksheep806

Master of Wood, Water and Hill

:-. .-:

The Shire – 1: Bag End

"-. .-"

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat. No, it was a hobbit-hole, and that meant comfort.

Although, to be fair, when it came to Bag End, "comfort" wasn't exactly the best word to describe it. Or, rather, the word was not enough to comprise what Bag End was.

Located at the end of Bagshot Row in Hobbiton, right in the center of the land where Hobbits lived, the smial had been built for Belladonna Took by her husband Bungo Baggins. It was the most luxurious hobbit-hole in the Shire even before the Fell Winter, and retained that title in the years that came after those horrible months of famine, wolves and Orc attacks. All the way to the present day, it was the largest, most homely, most respectable hobbit-hole in the entire Shire.

As far as the rest of the Hobbit population knew that is.

Not that it wasn't true. Bilbo Baggins could boast about that much. He wasn't one to gloat, but he did passively relish in it. He did ever so enjoy the mornings spent on the bench outside, next to the waist-tall front gate. Bag End really was the best smial ever, comfortable and with damn near countless different rooms. But it had stopped being just a hobbit-hole about two years after he led his father on his final journey. Then again, that wasn't exactly accurate either. The actual transformation of Bag End probably started a year or so before the first odd things cropped up. No doubt around the time when he began to sing the songs taught to him by his adoptive mother, and play the instruments made by his adoptive father.

"Heed you the world, boy, as song goes a-rumble / Enough heart poured in sends the ground a-tumble."

Bilbo smiled at the memory of the playful but almost always present rhymes. He smiled wider when he recalled all the occasions when he had been called to entertain his fellow Hobbits at various festivals and birthday parties.

And his own parties. Ah, the stuff of legends.

Bilbo the Minstrel, they called him. Bilbo the Bard. Bilbo the Great Musician. Bilbo the Great Storyteller. The Silver Tongue.

The Nimble Hand.

Bilbo always had to suppress a bout of hysterical laughter at that one. Hobbits' ability for accidental innuendo was astonishing.

His personal favorite was The Soul of the Party, but there was no accounting for taste he supposed.

In all honesty, Mad Baggins amused him more, though not as much as the last two visits that Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and her husband Otho dared to make before they finally stopped coming, four years ago. No doubt they'd thought he'd deliberately strung the house full of traps and pranks in anticipation of their arrival. They'd made sure to complain and gossip about it to anyone who could hear, for months after the fact.

Maybe he would have done it under different circumstances. They hadn't let him grieve for his father for even a year before they descended upon him like pretentious bowtruckles, a month before his 34th birthday. And they kept hounding him for years and years until his own home got fed up with them.

And that was the truth of the matter: Bag End simply didn't like them. And Bilbo didn't really have the heart to hold it against his home when a wall cupboard door randomly popped open (Are you alright, cousin? You hit your head rather badly there…) or when lock-less doors refused to open when Lobelia began to skulk around the place. And the way the clothes tree shifted in place and tripped Lobelia, thus causing the silverware she'd hidden in her bodice (his mother's courting gift!) to spill all over the hallway floor…

Bilbo had briefly considered lifting her by the back of her dress and throwing her out, but he had an image to uphold. And uphold it he did.

He was Master of Bag End.

No one else.

Bilbo looked up. The sky, nearly cloudless, was an incredible shade of blue. He drew in a deep breath full of Old Toby's wonderful scent, then puffed, his pipe releasing a perfect smoke ring that glided away, growing wider and thinner as it did.

The oddities of Bag End had started out innocently enough. Bilbo didn't realize anything was out of the ordinary until too many minor things piled up. Like how the door hinges stopped needing oil in order to swing open or closed without creaking. The windows stopped needing cleaning. A room's air freshened up in less than an hour even if just the smallest window was left slightly ajar. And not only that, but dust cleared itself from the furniture by itself when he aired a room.

Then the strangeness became more obvious. He'd stumble into the kitchen seeking an early tea in the morning and find the cupboard door already open. The jars of honey would be closer to the front of the shelves when he went for them, easily within reach when he wanted to fix himself a quick second breakfast. Old scratches started to fade from the walls. The grime that always darkened even the best wood over time slowly disappeared, leaving everything from the mantelpiece to the frame of the front door looking as good as new, then better than even that. Eventually, the same started to happen to the furniture.

And after another couple of years of him switching between his Home and his Home Away From Home (and boy, did the bigger prudes of Hobbiton ever criticize Mad Baggins for repeatedly venturing into the Old Forest), weirdness started to get really blatant, though not overbearing. And usually not when there were guests present.

Yet eventually Bag End started to become restless, and Blbo Baggins knew it was time to go. There were no more songs to learn in the Shire, and his own compositions became staggered, rarer. The lack of inspiration and self-fulfillment set in, making him feel antsy and constricted. Stir-crazy. Deprived. His home reflected his state of heart in many ways, and he knew he needed a change.

So one day, in the spring of his 40th year, he packed up, locked the doors on his house and left. Bag End fell into slumber behind him. Bilbo took the Old Forest road as usual. It would make his fellow hobbits think he'd only gone on one of his usual haunts, even though, for the first time, he planned to go further.

It was his first adventure, and also the first and last time when the Sackville-Bagginses tried to move into his home while he was away – Bag end did NOT like them skulking about, unlike the kindly (but thankfully oblivious) elderly gardener Hobson Gamgee. His home positively adored him for how faithfully he tended to the garden.

But it was also not the last of Bilbo Baggins' adventures. He went on several over the years, each of which began and ended at the home of his new parents, deep within the Ancient Wood.

Bilbo snorted and shook his head, then produced three smoke rings in quick succession. The nature of their relationship had never been stated, but it was clear regardless. Though it would have seemed ridiculous to his fellow Shire-folk. After all, while he may not have been an adult when he first met those who would essentially adopt him into their own family, Bilbo had been an adult when his birth father Bungo Baggins finally laid to rest.

It meant spending days that felt like years deep within the gloomy Old Forest, among trees that moved and whispered in the night.

It meant baring his soul and body to the Fëa and Hröa of the land.

It went against the norm for Hobbits.

It was perfect.

Bilbo leaned back on the bench and closed his eyes, basking in the sunlight. He would have relaxed the rest of the way, but a hum that only he could feel washed through the flower hedge decorating the slope behind him. He wasn't expecting guests (and Hobbits always knew to send advanced word) but someone was approaching. Purposely.

Huh. Well, all were welcome in Bag End until they proved they deserved otherwise.

The plants in the flower garden meandered in spite of the lack of a strong enough breeze, and all the petals became slightly more radiant than before. His home practically preened in anticipation of someone's arrival. Bag End had a sense for these things, which stretched some distance beyond his fences. And what Bag End knew, Bilbo knew so long as he was within the bounds of his property.

That's why he knew exactly how his smoke ring expanded and floated, and how it turned into a butterfly when someone – one of the Big Folk – walked along the path leading up to his gate. The butterfly fluttered its way back to him, bursting into smoke again as soon as it landed on his nose. The noise was like the tinkling of bells heard through the spray of a waterfall.

Leaning back, still with his eyes shut, Bilbo drew a circle through the air with the mouthpiece of his 10-inch-long pipe. The smoke obligingly formed itself into a ring again and floated away once more.

Yes. In Bag End he was Master.

With a hum of contentment, Bilbo Baggins opened his eyes and met the searching blue ones of the man standing beyond the fence. It took a single moment of observation – grey robes, long grey beard, gnarled staff he pretended to lean on like a walking stick even though he wasn't crippled in the least – to identify his visitor. Behind him, Bag End settled into a deep but still aware state of inertia that would hopefully avoid tickling the wizard's mystical senses.

Good. Discretion was an appropriate first response.

Bilbo had spent years compiling ballads and stories, and reading histories in various languages. Not recognizing Gandalf the Grey would have been asinine. Especially since the old wizard had been a personal acquaintance of his, or rather his mother, so many decades before.

And now, here the old wizard was, gazing down at him from beneath the brim of his tall, pointed grey hat. Obviously waiting to be verbally acknowledged. Bilbo looked for signs of surprise at his trick with the smoke. Or any reaction on Gandalf's part to seeing his eyes colored a vivid green (like the emerald leaves of water lilies, his adoptive mother had told him) instead of the original brown.

He found not even the slightest hint of a reaction.

Damn inscrutable wizards. Bilbo was sure that even Maiar shouldn't be able to put on such a perfect mask. Then again, maybe it was no longer a mask. Or maybe it never was.

Well, nothing to it he supposd. "Good morning."

"What do you mean?" Oh, here we go. "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not? Or is it that you feel good this morning, or that it is a morning to be good on?"

Bilbo tilted his head and squinted at the old man. "All of them at once I suppose." He absently gnawed on the mouthpiece of his pipe, knowing it would be good as new in less than an hour, no matter how deeply he sunk his teeth into it. It was one of several gifts his adoptive father had given him. "May I help you?"

"That remains to be seen," the wizard answered. Bilbo almost snorted. The man was deliberately trying to egg him on by acting all dramatic. "I'm looking for someone to share in an adventure."

"An adventure?" Bilbo finally gave into the impulse and snorted in amusement. "Troublesome things, adventures. They sneak up on you and lead you all over the place. Make you late for dinner. And supper, mustn't forget supper."

Gandalf hummed, then resumed his act of peering down at him. "And how would you like to be that one?"

Bilbo affected an exaggerated look of surprise on his face. "Me?" He lifted his eyebrows as far as they could go. "And how could you possibly assume I'd be open to such a thing? Especially when the proposition was made by someone who has still not introduced himself?"

"Ah, an excellent point. How very rude of me!" The wizard's voice was only slightly gravelly, but clearly amused. "Allow me, then, to introduce myself. I am Gandalf. Gandalf the Grey."

"That you are," Bilbo nodded, lifting himself to his feet and removing the pipe from his mouth. He felt the slight pressure of his pouch of Longbottom leaf in his waistcoat's pocket, but decided he didn't yet need a refill. "Gandalf, the wandering wizard who made such excellent fireworks. Old Took use to have them on Mid-summer's Eve. Are you still in business?"

"And where else would I be?"

"Who knows? On an adventure? Then again, I suppose you're only starting one now." Bilbo walked over to his mailbox. "I'd ask what business a wizard would want with a respectable gentelhobbit like myself. After all, my mother always said not to meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger." Leafing through his letters with one hand – mostly invitations to parties and tea – he turned to look up at the old man again. "I always did find it odd, that piece of advice. She shouldn't have been one to talk, given how often she actually left on journeys with you. And now, here you are at my gate. I suppose 'children shouldn't pay for the sins of their parents' isn't a creed wizards live by?"

"Sins?" Gandalf sounded positively shocked and slightly aggravated. "I would hardly call your mother's travels sins, young man. To think I would live to see the day when Belladonna Took's son held the way she chose to live her life against her, and met the idea of an adventure as something to be feared and mistrusted!"

"I hold nothing against her." Bilbo pointed the spiked end of his pipe at the old visitor. "And I don't mistrust the idea of an adventure. I just mistrust you."

Silence.

Well, not exactly. There was the wonderful sound of a woodpecker coming from Hobson Gamgee's apple tree down the road.

Gandalf frowned and leaned his head forward. The shadow that fell over his face would have made Bilbo wary if he was the same person of 10 years ago. "Now now, my dear boy, I assure you I bear absolutely no ill intentions towards you. Why, I have no idea why you would even think such a thing!" The wizard sounded honest and serious about that. "You've changed, Bilbo Baggins, and I'm not sure if it was entirely for the better."

Bilbo's cheer disappeared, though his expression stayed as wryly amused as before. "Then it's a good thing my good mood is unassailable by the opinions of others. If it were not, some of the things people have been saying about me would have stung."

Gandalf took that in stride. "Now why would you say that? I've only heard your kin saying good things of you. That you've become quite the accomplished musician and entertainer?" Bilbo said nothing. "Though I do believe I heard a few mutterings about a 'Mad Baggins' and his tendency to occasionally disappear into the Old Forest for anything from days to weeks at a time."

"Mutterings is a good word," Bilbo easily agreed. "What will they think of next?"

"What indeed."

Bilbo wondered if Gandalf was really playing dumb about the several times he disappeared for over four or six months, or if he really didn't know about them yet. "Well, it was nice meeting you!" He tucked his letters under the arm and turned to walk up the path leading to his front door. "Do feel free to drop by for tea any time this week!" The hobbit looked back over his shoulder. "I won't ask to be warned in advance, seeing as how wizards only ever arrive precisely when they mean to. Never late, never early."

"I will definitely take up that invitation!"

"Splendid!" Bilbo opened his door. "Well, good morning!" And got into the house, shutting the perfectly round door behind him. He had to take a breath and slowly release it, to calm his nerves. In any other situation he might have actually lunged at the opportunity to go on an adventure with others, but that encounter had been loaded with an indescribable but heavy sense of doom.

Once he regained his composure, he moved further in, emptying his pipe in the ashtray he'd placed next to the clothes tree for that exact purpose. And all the while, he was fully aware of the presence that stepped through his gate and strode all the way to the door.

Oh well. He supposed it was too much to hope for at least some sort of reprieve before he'd have to invite the old man insi-

He reacted just in time.

Bag End nearly hurled the door open into Gandalf's face (and yes, the door to Bag End could swing open both ways), but Bilbo clamped down his will and preempted the reaction. Although he could understand the response. What was Gandalf playing at, using that staff of his to carve lines into his door?

Bilbo leaned against the wall and took deep, steady breaths, dividing his attention between keeping Bag End passive and persuading himself that no, he really didn't agree with his home that he should give Greybeard the Meddlesome a face-full of wooden boards.

He was thankful when the wizard stopped carving after a single symbol.

Bilbo stayed there, inside the entrance hallway, for ten minutes, focused on the feeling of the uninvited visitor as he disappeared into the distance at a steady trot. Once he was sure the old man was far away from his smial, the hobbit strode back to the door and pulled it inward, looking down, straight at the spot where an all-new, blue, shimmering symbol lay. Shimmering.

It shimmered!

A sound almost reminiscent of a growl came out of Bilbo's throat. And it wasn't all owed to the meaning of that rune. 'Burglar wants a good job, plenty of excitement and reasonable reward.'

No, the annoyance came from elsewhere: the wizard had done magic on his house!

Bilbo Baggins crossed his arms and pointedly glared at the offending etching.

The blue shimmer burst away from the door like sand in the wind, leaving only scratches that were already mending.

As if Bag End would suffer the touch of craft belonging to anyone other than its Master.

Bilbo reentered his home and closed the door behind him. In about an hour, there would be no sign that anything had ever been sculpted into the door to Bag End, or that anything had ever affected it at all, time included. If Gandalf had a way to know that his little spell had been countered, he was probably on his way back already. If not, then whatever he had planned that involved directions written in dwarven had been derailed, likely to hilarious consequences.

Good, Bilbo thought vindictively. He was always up for a good laugh.

"-. .-"

The follow-up to that fateful meeting came, as Bilbo half-expected, just the next day in the afternoon.

Which meant he only had half a day to himself left, so he had to make the best of it.

The clock on the wall opposite his bed told him he slept in until past the time when breakfast was usually served. But he woke up in a good mood, something that always happened after he dreamt of being one with the land. Though they weren't actual dreams, according to his living parents. And they happened more and more frequently each year. Ever since his first venture into the Old Forest, the nightly occurrences had slowly gone from once or twice a year to once every fortnight. It seemed to correlate with Bag End becoming more and more alive, though Bilbo knew his home was really as much an independent existence as it was an extension of him. The part of himself that truly, constantly, communed with nature.

Last night he could swear he connected with the spirit of his birth father for a while. He treasured those moments, even though the reason they could even happen always brought him as much sadness as it did happiness. But soon enough he was a tree, whispering along with his ancient brothers in the forest. He was the grass that swayed in the wind. He was the dew that glittered as the breeze pushed the grass blades to and fro. He was the Brandywine river, flowing unimpeded down his millennia-old bed.

And then he was the network of beaten paths crisscrossing from one edge of the Shire to another, from the Brandywine Bridge to Little Delving, and from Long Cleeve to Cottonbottom. That had been right before he awoke, and let him know of the recent arrivals

Travelers other than Gandalf walked the Shire. And they weren't Hobbits from Breeland. In fact, they didn't feel like hobbits at all.

That short-lived dwarven rune that Gandalf had etched into his door made perfect sense now. Then again, it had made perfect sense the previous day as well.

In-between meals, Bilbo spent some time playing the fiddle in his back yard. It wasn't his preferred instrument, but he could play pretty much all of them, as he'd long ago decided to master them all. He still had a way to go with some of the bigger ones, and he knew there were some he'd never gotten a hold of, but for most it came as easily as breathing now.

He probably wouldn't get to play a fiddle for quite a while after the week was out. They didn't exactly last long on the road, through shifting weather. Well, some did, but he didn't own one sturdy enough. And he knew he couldn't take too many of his instruments along on whatever adventure he was going to embark on, no matter how much he pretended he wasn't interested.

After all, his collection filled an entire room.

And yes, he already was pretty sure he would end up going on this adventure that Gandalf came to hound him about. Even if he was first going to put the wizard through the wringer for the way he tried to go about it.

Hobson had already been tending to the back garden for a while when noon came, and Bilbo played the tunes he knew the man enjoyed the most. Then he played the ones preferred by his wife Lily, knowing that the woman was always baking something at this time of day and had her kitchen window wide open. The window that ever so conveniently faced the hill Bag End was built into.

Bilbo never really tired of singing or playing, but he eventually set his fiddle aside and went to help with the only flowers he kept in the back, along the fence surrounding the vegetable pasture: Tiger Lilies. He had most of them along the path leading from the front gate to the door, but these were the original ones, the ones he wanted to keep safe more than he wanted to put on display. His mother had procured a pair of bulbs in her last adventure and Bilbo had done his best to multiply them and make sure he always got them through the year. It wasn't too hard, for the most part, since they were perennial plants and winters weren't too bad in the Shire.

Usually. Things like the Fell Winter still happened sometimes.

Hobson protested, as usual, when Bilbo sunk his knees into the soft earth next to his gardener. Honestly, Bilbo helped at least once a week, so Hobson should have given up by now. But he was a stout hobbit, bless his soul, even if he did only protest more due to habit than actual hope Bilbo would listen. Respectable gentlehobbits simply shouldn't do yard work, he kept insisting. It just wasn't done!

Bilbo, also as usual, pat him on the shoulder and helped anyway, then invited him inside to get cleaned up and have tea, which Hobson himself prepared while Bilbo got a change of clothes. He was feeling particularly "natural" today, so he went for deep green. It would contrast well with his a dark red waistcoat and the white shirt beneath it.

The waistcoat's embroidered pattern didn't hurt the image in the least either: interlocking leaves sewed in the same green as the trousers.

If he was going to have visitors, he would look the part of a good host, and when his guests learned how inappropriately Gandalf had set everything up, they would, with some luck, tear into him. Bilbo would probably not even have to ask, or put any effort into doing it himself by the end of the day.

Righteous vindication was so much better to witness than to feel. Because the latter always meant there was a slight in there somewhere to feel righteously vindicated over.

It was while he and Hobson were sitting in armchairs around a small table, nearly done with their tea, that the knock on the door came. Bilbo swiftly (and as gracefully as an elf, he internally boasted) left the chair and went to answer the door.

And much to his surprise, Hobson's young son Hamfast was on Bilbo's doorstep. Not a meddling wizard or a surly dwarf. Just a hobbit still in his tweens.

And he was bent over panting.

His mother had sent him to tell him there was a dwarf skulking about, the lad said after he caught his breath. Looking for someone that was supposed to to go on a journey with him and some of his kin. Bilbo could almost imagine Lily adding "or some such nonsense" to the end of that sentence. Well, the dwarf had beat a hasty retreat when he realized how silly he probably looked, coming to ask after someone without being able to offer any information on who he was searching for. He was supposedly standing at the crossroad now, where Bagshot Row and Bywater Road interlocked. Probably waiting for someone to meet up with him, kin or the wizard himself.

Well, misery did love company.

Bilbo began to feel a sinking suspicion coming in. Had Gandalf not given them any directions at all? Or even a name? For Iluvatar's sake!

He thanked the boy for coming to relay his mother's message, but apparently there was more. Lily had told Hamfast to ask Bilbo if it was alright to send the dwarf up to Bag End, so he could sort him out. She would have sent him over without asking, but he seemed mighty large and surly, and she didn't want to cause him undue trouble, hence Hamfast playing messenger.

Sometimes he really was amazed by how thoughtful the Gamgees were.

Bilbo walked with the lad and his father to the front gate and saw them off, though not before he gave Hamfast a cupcake along with the affirmative answer.

That done, he hurried through Bag End and retrieved his fiddle, then made his way back to the bench Gandalf had found him on the previous day. Once there, he sat down on the plush cushion, closed his eyes and, once he adjusted his position so the wind would carry the sounds as far as possible, set the bow on the strings and began to play. He'd been composing a tune inspired by the shooting stars streaking across the sky above The Last Homely Home. He'd been making adjustments to it for a couple of years now, so he may as well try it out, knowing how much time was likely to pass before he laid hands on a fiddle again.

It was ten minutes later that heavy footfalls made themselves heard, though Bilbo (or rather Bag End) had been aware of the dwarf's approach for quite a bit longer than that. Bilbo kept playing until the dwarf stopped across the fence from him, then continued for another minute. Not just because it was an aria he wanted to go through all the way, but also to see if the dwarf would interrupt him to gain his attention or not.

Much to Bilbo's surprise, the dwarf didn't clear his throat or say anything. Bilbo did hear him shift on his feet a couple of times, but he said nothing until he stopped playing and set the fiddle and bow aside.

Well, Bilbo didn't look like much of a burglar, the hobbit supposed, so the dwarf probably thought he'd been sent over to ask for directions from someone who knew about whatever he was going on about.

Bilbo sympathized with him. Really.

There was more to the tune, but there were some harp sections before the fiddle had to resume, so the hobbit had to stop there. Besides, he doubted dwarves would take all that well to music that clearly felt so very Elvish. Even to the hobbit's own ears, the tune sounded out of place in the Shire.

When Bilbo finally opened his eyes, he was met with an odd sight. The dwarf was larger than he expected, and he was bald, with tattoos lining his scalp. Though his beard and mustache did extend to his cheeks and above his eyes, even circling the back of his head. He was heavily armored and had a thick, fur-lined tunic over the rest of his garb. And his boots were bulky and large, with metal shins and tips.

Making those observations had taken about a second. Basically the time he needed to set the fiddle aside. Bilbo decided to pull the dwarf out of his misery. "Good afternoon."

"Afternoon," was the answering grunt – exhausted of patience and tiredly resigned, Bilbo sensed. The dwarf was about to say something else, but the hobbit cut him off.

"Let me guess." Bilbo pushed up from the bench and took two steps, until he was standing face-to-face with him. The rising slope ensured they stood at the same height, even though the hobbit was a full head shorter. "You're looking for someone to share in an adventure." He said dryly. "You know, funny how these things go. Adventure would be a good word for what happened to me the other day." For dramatic emphasis, he began to slowly pace, his fingers tapping his chin and the other hand behind his back. "Here I was, smoking my pipe and minding my own business when an old friend of my mother's shows up at my gate expecting me to magically bear the same fondness for him even though I'd only actually met him a couple of times when I was a faunt. We exchanged words and you know what he did? He insulted me!"

The dwarf was staring at him with the eyes of one who was asking his gods what he'd done to deserve walking into that situation.

But Bilbo was on a roll. "Then, when despite his behavior I did the courteous thing and invited him for tea, he actually accepted as if there was no harm done! But you know something? That wasn't even the worst of it!" He whirled on his feet leaned over the gate, right into his personal space. It made the dwarf actually take a step back in surprise. "After I bid him goodbye and retired into my home, he had the nerve to waltz in and vandalize my property!"

"That was indeed terribly rude of him."

Bilbo internally smirked in satisfaction. His 'greeting' had taken the surly dwarf aback to such an extent that he was automatically agreeing only because he had no idea what else to do. "And now!" Bilbo ranted. "Now…" He straightened and crossed his arms, gazing sternly at the dwarf. "Now, I'd say he has set you up for an awkward and frustrating first foray into an unfamiliar land, all for the sake of his sick amusement." Well, Bilbo didn't really feel that way about the wizard, but he had a performance to put on.

Some light of understanding finally dawned on the dwarf, who pulled himself together. "This friend of yours. Is he who I think it is?"

Well, he was blunt and gruff, but Bilbo supposed 'might I inquire as to the identity of your acquaintance' wasn't exactly how normal folk talked. "I find myself, at present, unable speak his name without broadcasting my utter annoyance towards the man, something that just isn't done by respectable gentlehobbits like myself." Bilbo was putting on airs, he knew, but that was the whole point. And audience of one was still an audience after all. "But I'm sure we've come to the same conclusion. Tall, reedy-looking, wearing grey robes and a pointy hat. Pretends to lean on his walking stick despite not being crippled at all." Bilbo waved his hand through the air a few times. "Tends to send those he's traveling with looking for people without actually providing directions?"

The dwarf grunted in grudging assent. "Sounds about right."

Bilbo looked at him sympathetically. "He didn't even give you a name, did he?"

The dwarf winced.

Bilbo rubbed a hand over his face, and what he said next made the dwarf snort. "One of these days, someone will snap and strangle Gandalf with his own beard." The hobbit met the dwarf's eyes again. "You know what the worst part is? He not only failed to mention when he would drop by, but he also failed to mention he would be bringing company. So now I am in the uncomfortable position not having prepared any dinner in anticipation of your arrival, and that of whatever traveling companions you might have. I take great pride in my reputation as the perfect host, you see, and now has been tarnished!"

"Oh…" The large, solid dwarf looked well and truly thrown off his game. Whatever his game would have been. "Well, your idea of beard strangulation is more than appropriate then." He looked down the road, then him again. "I apologize for dropping in unannounced." Bilbo was truly surprised at that one. "I have a feeling my fellows will feel as you do once I meet up with them, which I think should be done sooner rather than later." He nodded at him. "Good afternoon, master hobbit."

"Now now!" Bilbo spoke in time to prevent the other from walking off. "I said I no longer qualified as the perfect host, but I'm certain I can still be a good one, in spite of the sabotage by Greybeard the Meddlesome." The dwarf snorted again, from definite amusement this once. "But that will require something from you. You can either tell me now when I can expect you and your fellows, or… " Bilbo stepped forward and pulled the waist-high gate open. "You can come in and allow me to serve you something quick while I start dinner in earnest. In spite of how awkward Gandalf made sure this situation would be."

The dwarf seemed torn between going on a righteous manhunt and accepting free food. Bilbo had honestly expected him to come in immediately. "Keep in mind that if you choose the former, you'll likely have to strangle Gandalf with his own beard without any backup." The dwarf couldn't quite smother his amusement. "That you are by yourself tells me you and whoever will embark on a journey with you have not been traveling together. That you bear a sizable travel backpack says you haven't checked in at an inn either. Which means that my home was supposed to be your meeting place, and would have been if Gandalf hadn't botched things up so magnificently. Am I right?"

"... well, you're not oblivious, I'll give Gandalf that."

"Thank you for that delightfully backhanded compliment," Bilbo quipped. "Perhaps I might respond with one of my own? The remnants of your Mohawk are only barely discernible among the tattoos covering your otherwise gleaming scalp."

The dwarf glowered, though Bilbo could tell there was barely any heat in it.

"Turnabout is fair play, master dwarf!" The hobbit smiled and stepped back from the still open gate. "So. Introductions first?"

"I suppose so," the dwarf grumbled. Then he sketched a bow. "Dwalin, at your service."

Hobbits did not bow, but they did step aside and usher their guests in. "Bilbo Baggins, at yours and your family's."

Dwalin finally stepped through the gate, and the reaction that Bag End had upon receiving this unusual guest almost made Bilbo trip on air. There was no movement, nothing physically changed about the hobbit-hole. No doors opened, no windows moved, and the plants only swayed as much as the very faint wind dictated. But Bilbo and Bag End were essentially one being, and the hobbit was almost bowled over by the emotional surge.

Maybe there was no physical element because the response was so intense?

Baffled, the hobbit quickly shut the gate and spun on his heel to stare at his visitor. As he turned, Dwalin managed to catch the tail ends of his astonishment, but the hobbit quickly looked away to stare at his smial instead.

For goodness' sake! Really?

"Erm… yes," Bilbo floundered, then gave himself a shake. "Well then. Follow me." Not meeting the dwarf's eyes, Bilbo strode past him as steadily as he could manage while still involved in an empathic confrontation with his house.

"Are you well, master hobbit?" Bilbo really couldn't tell what his tone was. "You looked a bit faint for a moment there."

Bilbo gave a nervous laugh. "Oh, it's nothing, just…" Okay, that was a blatant lie. Actually, Bag End was literally swooning, and cooing over how adorable (adorable!) the new creature that had passed its threshold was. It rather reminded Bilbo of the time when little Hamfast found a small, fluffy puppy ten years ago and refused to stop hugging it for half a day afterwards.

Bilbo had the sneaking feeling that supplying that information to his newest acquaintance would not go over very well. "My home never had such a positive reaction to anyone before." That was a safe enough translation right?

From where he followed, one step behind, Dwalin asked the predictable thing. "Your… house… reacted well."

Yes, master dwarf, it wants to cuddle you all the way into next year. Because that would be such a smart thing to say. Where in the world this reaction had come from, Bilbo had no idea. He just knew it wasn't him.

" … Your home… likes dwarves…"

Bilbo wasn't sure which part of that assessment the dwarf found harder to believe. That his home had a mind and feelings of its own, the ability to like people… or that anyone would actually like dwarves right off the bat. If it was the latter he couldn't believe, it was immensely sad. What kind of life had he led that made him think that? "Well…" Hold up, since when was he so easily rattled? This would just not do! "To be truthful, Master Dwalin, I don't know about dwarves exactly." He stopped short of his doorstep and turned on his heels to give him a one-eyed look. "It likes you though." The door to Bag End swung open invitingly all on its own, and Bilbo grinned wolfishly. "See? It can't wait to welcome you in. Eru knows why!" Having regained his composure, Bilbo Baggins swept through the entrance and into his house.

He made a beeline for the small sitting room where he and Hobson had been having tea. It took a few seconds for everything to be gathered up on the tray. Then another thirty for him to return everything to the kitchen. In all that time, there was no indication that the dwarf had entered the house after him.

After sternly ordering Bag End to calm the hell down, Bilbo was finally able to actually divert some of his attention to knowing where everything and everyone was.

Huh.

Not too slowly but also not too hastily, he returned to the main hallway. Dwalin wasn't quite quick enough to straighten from where he was still outside, peering suspiciously around the door. Oh Valar, he must have thought… "Peace, master Dwalin." He hoped his smile was reassuring instead of amused at his guest's expense. "There is no one in Bag End but the two of us. For now anyway." Hoping it would quell some of the awkwardness, Bilbo paid him no more mind and crossed the hallway the rest of the way, to one of the many guest rooms the smial had, whose door swung open on its own like the main one had.

Bag End was accommodating and eager to assist like that, when there was no need for secrecy. And this time, Bilbo would hold nothing back.

Anyway, if he was going to have guests, he would need more chairs. Or maybe he should just get a bench or two into the dining room instead.

But that would come later. For now, he only took one of the better cushions he had and carried it back to the sitting room. Dwalin had finally dared to come inside, although he gave a start when the door closed shut behind him without prompting. After giving it one last wary glance (was he debating the benefits of leaving and waiting for backup before he braved the haunted house?), he hurried after the hobbit while trying to make it seem as though he wasn't hurrying at all. Bilbo watched it all through the reflections in the glass cabinets.

"Take a seat. I will whip something up for you as quickly as I can. Until then, feel free to partake from the fruit bowl."

Leaving the dwarf to his own devices, Bilbo hurried to the kitchen, thankful he'd gone to the market two days before. In less than five minutes, he'd whipped up four large cheese and ham sandwiches, with lettuce and tomato rings for extra flavor. He was about to take it to his guest but hesitated. Moving to the pantry, he pulled out a small keg of ale and then got the largest mug he could find, filling it to the brim.

Well, it would have to do as an appetizer if nothing else.

Nodding to himself, Bilbo scooped up the plate and mug of ale and quickly traversed the corridors back to the front sitting room. His eyebrows went up when he found the dwarf drumming his fingers against the tabletop, and the fruit bowl totally empty. There weren't even the tiniest apple scraps left.

Huh. The guy had to be hungry. Well, he had been on the road for a while. "Here you are, master dwarf."

The man barely grunted before he dug in. Huh. No manners. If only Bag End would use that as a reason to stop silently fawning over him. Maybe then Bilbo would be able to concentrate properly.

No such luck. "Well then, I'll go prepare the actual dinner." Another grunt. Dwarves really could think of nothing else when they had food placed in front of them.

Bilbo was almost out the door when something occurred to him. "Master Dwalin." He turned to look at his guest, and was gratified to see him at least paying attention, even if he was still scarfing up the sandwiches with alarming speed. "Gandalf never told me how many would be coming."

Dwalin washed down his food with a generous helping of ale, then wiped the foam off his beard before answering. "Twelve besides me." He belched, and Bilbo had to force himself not to grimace. "Twelve dwarves and the wizard." He drank some more ale and gave it a speculative look. "This is good ale."

"Yes, thank you, glad you like it…" Bilbo mumbled. Thirteen. Thirteen dwarves! "Thirteen… Right. Right!" Abandoning his previous path, he walked back into the room and went straight for the desk under the window. He had most of his stationery in his study, but he always kept some parchment and an inkwell here as well, just in case. And some other areas in his home for that matter.

Not that he was going to use quill and ink. No, for this he would need a charcoal stick, and it was good that he had many of those on hand as well, for when the fancy struck him to sketch something. "Right… We'll need a large cauldron of stew. Pork would probably work best." His hand absently guided the charcoal across the paper as he muttered to himself. "Some sort of roast as well. There are still some rib strips in the basement stores, and I still have those plucked and cleaned turkeys. What else? Cheese of course, there should still be two whole rolls left and they should last if they're sliced properly. That means we're only lacking bread and oh I'm going to set Gandalf's beard on fire next time I meet him!"

"… umm… Master Baggins?"

"Yes?" Bilbo distractedly looked up at his guest, who'd stood up at some point.

"You've torn through the paper."

"What?" His attention finally snapped to the sheet of paper. "Oh." The sheet he'd driven his charcoal stick right though. "Oh! Huh. Imagine that." Well, it could still be salvaged. "I was done anyway."

"It must be quite the shopping list…" Bilbo wondered why the dwarf was looking at him like he was crazy.

With a shake of his head, Bilbo stood, grimly determined. "It's not a shopping list." He held up the sheet, which bore the rune Gandalf had so pretentiously carved into his door. "Old Meddly etched this into my door yesterday, but my home didn't like it so it got rid of it." Bilbo was still cross about that breach of privacy. "Master dwarf, please hang this on the front door while I open up the basement stores." He pushed the sheet into the bemused dwarf's hands before stalking off. "And don't worry about a hammer and nails! Just slap the paper on the outside of the door and Bag End will keep it there."

Bag End had somewhat calmed down after the initial cooing episode, so Bilbo could focus on actually preparing his home for the arrival of a dwarven company. As he disappeared down the corridor, he picked up the muffled sounds of Dwalin jumping in actual fright when the front door opened on its own again. And were those curses he heard? Really, an adventurer should be able to adapt faster than this! Though, clearly, the dwarf refused to take Bilbo's claims about his home at face value.

No matter. He would come to believe them by the end of the day. Either that, or he'd come to believe he had gone crazy.

"-. .-"

Evening had fallen, and clouds had gathered overhead. If Balin, son of Fundin, had been more like his brother, he would have started to mutter curses in Khuzdul hours ago, and with the impending rain his mood was not getting any better. But he was not Dwalin, and he also happened to be a former Dwarven Noble, a Lord, Head of his own House. So instead of bad language he dealt with his discomfort (though the word did not truly do his mood justice) in his own way: stoicism.

Mahal knew that few of the others that would go on the journey to Erebor had it in them to be level-headed and serene in the face of the oncoming storm.

He'd entered South Farthing via the southern road early in the afternoon, so he'd been certain he would find his destination easily enough. He'd followed Gandalf's directions to the letter. They had been few, but they had also been very specific. Take the right when you reach X crossroad and keep your eyes open for the door bearing the Burglar's mark.

He'd found what he considered to be the proper street, and he'd walked all the way to the end, but none of the strange, earth-dug dwellings bore the sign he was seeking. Confused, he thought he might have to travel a bit further. He knew that some people built their homes away from where most everyone else in a surface settlement clustered their houses together. Maybe the one that would become the fourteenth member of their company had done the same.

It would fit the mindset of a burglar to seclude himself from everyone else after all.

So Balin had proceeded to walk further, and by the time he realized that yes, the so-called path he was following really was just a rarely-traveled track leading into wide fields of wheat, he'd already reached the end of Hobbiton. With a sigh of resignation, he followed the track the rest of the way, until he reached an altogether different road. Then, for lack of a better option, he was forced to basically double back.

By the time he reached the faithful crossroads again, the sun had disappeared beyond the horizon and clouds had overtaken the sky where it used to shine.

The white-haired dwarf stroked his impressive beard and was torn between relief that he'd at least returned to the last correct waypoint, and the wish that he wasn't the only one who got lost.

He was going to just wait at the crossing until someone else from his company hopefully showed up, assuming there even were others running as late as he was. All the while, he wished he'd prevailed upon Gandalf that they use the Shire inn as the meeting point before they sought out their burglar.

And would you look at that, the rain had finally started!

Balin sighed and hoped he didn't look too miserable, leaning against the signpost and waiting for nature to give him a good soak, whether he wanted it or not. Soon enough, the drizzle would turn into full-blow downpour and his horrible day would be complete.

Then again, maybe if he looked miserable enough, someone would miraculously pop up and provide him with a way out of his wretched and embarrassing situation.

As it turned out, what happened was somewhere in the middle. The rain was a signal for everyone to run back to their homes. And hobbit children always seemed to gather in groups to play. One such group came running down the hill and broke off once the first large raindrops started to fall, and one of the hobbitlings, a lad, ran past him. Or would've, had he not stopped to stare at him in surprise and, curiously enough, recognition? "'Scuse me mister, do you have a friend who's bald?"

Balin blinked. Well, that was blunt, but he cared more about the implications of the question than the boy's manners. "As a matter of fact, young lad, I do."

"You'll want to head over to Bag End then." The lad waved in the direction of the road that had gotten him so very sidetracked earlier in the day. "Master Baggins will get you sorted out. 'S'where the bald dwarf man went anyway, and he was as lost as you are."

Mahal's beard, was he so obvious?

Thunder cut off whatever else they were going to say. "Sorry, mister, I gotta go. Mum'll cuff my ears off if I come in dripping rain all over her new rugs. Bye!" And he was gone as quick as he'd appeared.

As he stared after the lad, Balin couldn't help but notice that hobbits seemed to be really quick on those hairy, bare feet of theirs.

And astonishingly quiet.

A second blast of thunder and lightning snapped the dwarf out of his musings. Maybe he should do as the lad said. At this point, he was too tired to feel embarrassed to show up at someone's door uninvited. Even if it turned out it was a false lead, maybe the residents would let him take shelter under their canopy.

As quickly as he could, Balin traversed the length of Bagshot Row, until he finally reached the hobbit-hole in question. And when he did, he could only stop at the gate and stare at what now decorated the front door. A sheet of paper bearing the Burglar's mark was now displayed openly, and the rain didn't seem to even touch it. He was sure it hadn't been there the first time he passed by.

With a sigh of relief, Balin quickly made his way to the door. His morale was buoyed when he began to hear multiple voices, even if they did sound as though they were coming from pretty far in. There was a wooden canopy above the doorstep, which finally got him out of the rain. He took a few moments to shake off the rainwater as best as he could before knocking on the door three times.

He waited and was about to knock again when the door finally swung inward. Balin was this close to doing the customary 'Balin, son of Fundin, at your service' bow when he noticed that the one who'd opened the door was Dwalin, of all people.

Dwalin, who looked at him like he was a gift from their god himself. "Oh, thank the stone! Some sense in all this madness."

"Brother? Why are you the one opening the door-" Dwalin just grabbed his wrist and pulled him a fair way inside the hallway, giving the door the evil eye. "Dwalin, what– " the door swung shut without any aid, and he felt Dwalin tense and flinch minutely through the hold he still had on his wrist. "- huh."

Dwalin's eyes kept shifting frantically from corridor to corridor. He helped him take off his travel pack, then his coat (practically throwing it onto the clothes tree), and ushered him to the chest that had been laid out for their weapons and whatever else they didn't want to be encumbered by. "Put whatever stuff you want in the chest, but don't touch it!" Dwalin hissed. "And don't touch the doors. And the furniture. Stay away from the furniture."

Balin couldn't have boggled his eyes any wider even if he tried. "If we'd greeted each other in the customary manner, I would be asking myself if we bumped heads together hard enough to mess with my senses."

Dwalin looked at him like he was crazy. "I'm serious!" And he was keeping his voice low, even though there was no one nearby to overhear them.

"… what."

Dwalin's whole posture slumped. Then the mighty warrior gave a nervous look around the hallway before he shuffled to huddle behind Balin as if… as if he was hiding. What the pit? "Dwalin, what's gotten into you?"

"It's this place!" Dwalin hissed under his breath again. "It's alive. Or haunted, I'm not sure. Never believed the stories, but I do now."

Balin gave him a flat look. "You've never been into pranking, Dwalin, and you should do yourself the favor and not start now. You're too far behind. Leave it to Thorin's boys-"

"This house has been trying to fondle me ever since I came in!"

Balin's jaw froze half-open.

There was an awkward silence.

Had he just heard…? "Dwalin…" He said carefully. "Have you suffered any head injuries lately?"

"None that would give me visions of doors that open and close on their own," Dwalin snapped. "You saw it, don't deny it! It happened just now! And the windows, they open or close whenever I pass by them. And the furniture never stays in place! One minute the chair is where it should be but when I take my eyes off it for a moment it's suddenly pulled away from the table and turned towards me, as if beckoning me to sit on it. And the curtains." Dwalin shuddered and hugged himself. "Mahal, the curtains."

Balin experienced a mind blank. There was no way the sight before him was real. "Right. Well!" he brushed some non-existing dust off his partly-sodden jumper. "You get that figured out. In the meantime I'll try to smarten up. I assume this place has a washroom of some sort?"

As if the words were a magic incantation to summon the fae, a door closed somewhere with an ominous thunk. Then, another one located on the left side of the corridor Balin was facing, swung open. Beyond it, another opened. At the same time, the oil lamps lighting the other two hallways dimmed to the point where barely anything could be seen anymore.

The white-haired dwarf stared, open-mouthed, at that occurrence.

"Well, go on then," Dwalin urged from behind him, suddenly far less scared out of his mind than before, all in favor of gloating. How dwarfish of him. "What are you waiting for?" That smug, self-righteous cad! "The house is beckoning you. See how helpful it's trying to be?"

Balin laughed. It sounded nervous even to his own ears. "Yes, well…" He grudgingly turned to behold his brother again. "On second thought, maybe you should first tell me exactly what's happened here so far."

After ten minutes of listening, Balin had a fairly clear picture. Gandalf had botched everything up in a most spectacular manner and made them all look like fools. Their host – one Bilbo Baggins – set about preparing dinner for them anyway, and was upset with Gandalf on their behalf instead of justifiably getting the impression that they were all idiots.

A miracle, that's what it was.

Balin had apparently been the next-to-last to arrive, the only one still absent being Thorin. Kili and Fili had shown up not long after Dwalin. Then the 'oin brothers joined them (Oin and Gloin). Then came the 'ri siblings (Dori, Nori and Ori) together with the 'ur brothers (Bifur, Bofur and Bombur), who'd all been gathered up like stray dwarflings by the wizard himself.

Unfortunately, the sizable Bombur was bringing up the rear, and when the door opened and he leaned forward to try and get a look at the hobbit, he sent all six dwarves crashing forward… right on top of Bilbo Baggins.

Balin winced, and even Dwalin looked chagrined while he relayed the story in low tones.

Apparently, Bilbo Baggins managed to shrug off the near death experience and welcomed the six dwarves anyway, after which he proceeded to give Gandalf the silent treatment, seasoned with the occasional evil eye. Also, as Dwalin was most gleeful to recount, the wizard had seemed rather prone to tripping on loose rug edges and bumping into chairs and tables during the first hour of his stay. Then, after he hit his head on a chandelier which (as Dwalin distinctly remembered) used to be quite a bit higher up before Gandalf arrived, the wizard retired to a chair in the dining room and sat down to smoke his pipe in sulking silence.

The former dwarven lord could only listen on in horrified fascination.

Bilbo Baggins was well on the way to preparing a veritable feast by that point – he'd felt no shame in asking Dwalin to cart off half a pig, plus sacks of potatoes and flour up from the basement – then, as compensation for nearly squashing him to death, Bombur asked to help. Bilbo said there was no need, they were guests, but Bombur insisted. Master Baggins insisted right back, and Bombur insisted again himself.

All the other dwarves had spread along the walls or were stretching their necks to watch the scene from just outside the kitchen. Their heads had taken to swiveling from one cook to the other. And not much later, Balin arrived, and Dwalin came to answer the door himself because the Master of the House and Bombur had started an impromptu cooking contest by that point.

Somehow.

At the end of the tale, Balin shook his head in bemusement. Even if it turned out they had come here for nothing – Bilbo Baggins seemed more like an aristocrat with a cooking hobby than a burglar – traveling all the way here was probably worth it for the entertainment value alone.

Then again, the Hobbit lived in a haunted house.

Hell of a way to throw off all expectations.

For a while, none of the two brothers said anything.

Then Dwalin spoke. "It's quiet." He looked around suspiciously. Balin noted that the hallways were still dim. "Too quiet. Why is it so quiet?"

"I suppose it really is quiet," Balin murmured, looking around himself. What had happened to the shouts Dwalin had mentioned? "Where did you say the kitchen was?"

And for the second time in the past half an hour, the house changed. The doors leading to the washroom (the closest one anyway) closed, and the corresponding hallway dimmed, while one of the others lit up. And as the flames in the oil lamps regained proper strength, the sounds of cheering abruptly reached the two dwarves, as if their ears had suddenly been unclogged.

Balin blinked in astonishment. The house could isolate sound? And knew to do it when it thought someone wanted privacy?

Forget Dwalin's skittishness, he wanted one!

"Now what would they be cheering about?" Dwalin muttered, then bravely strode down the hallway leading to the commotion.

Balin followed. It wasn't like he had a better idea. And the further he got, the better he could hear.

First came Bombur's voice. "Ha! Match this expert maneuver of dwarven cuisine, master hobbit!"

Then came a much smoother tenor that could only belong to their host. "Oh, you mean like this?"

Sputters, then cheers from different voices. "-Go!- Do it again! – Is that even possible?"

And some were particularly enthusiastic. "Go master Boggins!"

Balin almost palmed his face at prince Kili's antics, but he didn't need to.

"Baggins, young man, or you won't get any desert."

"Yes sir! Sorry sir!"

Balin almost choked.

"That's a good lad – hey! Trying to surprise me, Master Bombur?"

"A true cook is never surprised in his domain!"

"Oh, it is on!"

When Balin finally reached the commotion and Dwalin pushed Bifur and Nori aside to make room for the two of them, he found he could do nothing but stare. And really, he couldn't be faulted for that! What else could he do when faced with the sight of a hobbit and dwarf juggling onions, potatoes, tomatoes and various other vegetables over the cooking table?

The various foodstuffs kept flying between the two cooks, steadily picking up speed. And as that happened, Bumbur became more and more flustered, while Master Baggins kept a self-assured smirk firmly in place.

Balin didn't know what he had been was expecting, but he was sure it wasn't this. The hobbit was shorter than them all, and he even lacked the pot belly that seemed to define his kind. His brown hair was curly and he had the most vivid green eyes. And his hands were almost a blur as they easily tracked the edible projectiles and sent them back to his apparent opponent.

And despite that he did not wear an apron, there was not even the smallest of smudges on his clothes.

Balin tore his eyes away from the hobbit and took in the stained apron Bombur was wearing, and the flour on his beard and in his hair.

Trading a look with his brother, he found the same conclusion there.

His kinsman didn't stand a chance.

And, apparently, Bilbo Baggins had no qualms about relishing that fact. Slowly, with brazen ease and without moving his eyes from Bombur's own, he moved his right hand away and reached for a kitchen knife, keeping up the juggling game using only his left.

Then he, very pointedly, began to chop a leek. Each slash of the knife was measured and loud in the round room. It was like everyone was holding their breath.

Wait. They were.

"Fili!"

The blond prince jumped in place, startled, and the spell was broken, allowing everyone to breathe again.

Perhaps Bilbo Baggins was kind in his own way.

"There's a good lad," Bilbo, still smirking at a now reddening and tiring Bombur, tossed a pinch of chopped leeks over his shoulder. Even the tiniest bits made it into the cauldron steaming above the fire in the hearth. "Get me one of those garlic braids, will you?" he pointed at the far corner of the room. "Walk around me. No need to disturb master Bombur by brushing past him."

Which meant that he shouldn't bother trying to slip past Bombur because his wide girth took up all the space between his side of the table and the wall. Master Baggins was just too polite to say it.

"Right!" The prince obediently scurried to do as he was told.

One of Bombur's hands strayed, as if he was reaching for the pork ribs next to him, but he had to abandon the idea and return it to the juggling. He managed to avoid a disaster. Barely. Sweat was pooling in beads on his brow.

"Does that mean Fili gets more desert than the others?" Kili asked, forlorn. Although his eyes were still riveted on the juggling vegetables.

For a moment, the hobbit's smirk shifted into something akin to fondness.

Bombur made another attempt at juggling one-handed, and after a second of uncertainty seemed to manage. Balin felt an absurd burst of pride for his kin, but when he turned to study the hobbit's reaction he noticed that there were an onion and a tomato next to his cutting board. An onion and a tomato that had been flying through the air until a few seconds before.

The realization made the elderly dwarf stare at the hobbit again. Master Baggins had removed them from the contest without Bombur noticing, just to make it easier on him.

Bilbo Baggins was kind indeed.

Fili gave a grunt of frustration. "I can't reach them, is there a stool I could – Wha!" The prince fumbled, barely caught the garlic when it fell in his hands. For his part, Balin raised his eyebrows at the kitchen knife that had flown across the room from Bilbo's hand and had stuck into the wooden rail, cutting the garlic braid loose in the process.

Bilbo Baggins pulled the tomato onto his cutting board and calmly reached for the other knife located to the right of it. There were three other knives to his left though, neatly lined up, with their hilts sticking out past the edge of the table.

Fili brought him the garlic, which he took and set aside, next to a truly large bowl of eggs. Then Bilbo sent the lad off with a nod of thanks, and resumed cooking, his unwavering smile still aimed at the nearly exhausted Bombur.

But the dwarf still had some defiance left. Struggling to keep the vegetable tossing going, he flared his nostrils, pulled a strip of raw pork ribs in front of him and began to chop at it with a cleaver.

Viciously.

"Master Bombur," Bilbo said calmly. His knife had almost finished cutting the ripe tomato into perfect cubes. "You're looking a bit peaky. Are you sure you are feeling well?" Balin caught the considering glance that Bilbo shot the onion he'd previously removed from the game. "Perhaps you wish for a break? There would be no shame in it. Other than my adoptive father, I have yet to meet anyone that could keep up with me in the kitchen."

Balin barely had time to ponder on the issue of adopted parents before Bombur snarled and brought the cleaver down with more force than he'd used up to that point.

It cut through rib bone, but it also sent a chunk soaring straight up, and disaster became unavoidable when the startled dwarf flailed, trying to catch it, thus slapping the vegetables coming at him in every direction.

It was battle fervor. Adrenaline. Balin watched in slow motion as Bombur threw himself to the side, heroically trying to save the first thing he laid his eyes on – which happened to be a potato – all the while releasing a deep, bellowing, desperate cry of "Nnnnooooooh-"

A silver streak cut the air, there came a THUNK, and suddenly a knife was embedded through a tomato, tip buried an inch deep into the wall right behind where Bumbur's head had been a second before.

But Bilbo Baggins was still moving. Had moved, brought his left arm sweeping upwards, throwing the three kitchen knives into the air above him. Nimble fingers caught one by the tip and sent it flying, then his right hand caught the second, and his left grabbed the third by the hilt.

Bombur smashed shoulder-first into the ground, potato safely held in his shaking hands.

And Bilbo Baggins shot his right arm out, and the left one overhead.

Steel pierced onion and garlic bulbs, dull clunks sounded even before anyone saw the knives embed themselves in wood and plaster. Kili yelped and jumped away from the blade that was suddenly rattling ten inches from his left shoulder. And as the princeling fell on his backside and brought half the company down with him like drunk dominoes, Balin watched as Bilbo Baggins used a hand to hurl himself over the table, twisting horizontally through the air and finally crashing right on top of his erstwhile opponent, arm stretched out as far as he could get it.

The piece of meat that had been sent airborne landed safely inside the ladle.

There was an awkward pause, broken only by the painful groans of a chef that had become the landing cushion of a hobbit, and those of an audience squashed under the weight of a dwarven youngling.

… When on Arda had the hobbit even grabbed the ladle? Where had it even come from?

Bilbo Baggins slipped off the moaning dwarf and smoothly stood on his feet, clothes barely ruffled and still as spotless as ever. Then he flipped the ladle backwards, not even looking at what he was doing.

The pork rib landed right in the middle of the steaming cauldron, and not a single drop of broth was spilled.

Balin was proud to say that he did not gape. Unlike many of the others.

Bilbo Baggins looked down at the wheezing form of the obese dwarven chef, then gave the rest of the company a cursory gaze, until his eyes met his own. "Huh. Who're you?"

The latest arrival shook himself and cleared his throat. "Ahem. Balin, son of Fundin." He found that the bow came easier than it usually did. "At your service."

The hobbit nodded in return. "Bilbo Baggins, at yours and your family's."

Which was when everyone else finally noticed that he existed. "Oh, hi!" Ori blurted, and was followed by "Hey Balin's!" and "Hello sirs's."

"Right!" The voice of the Master of the House cut through the mire before it could really get started. "Fili! Kili!"

Both yelped and were suddenly standing at attention. "Yes?" It was a comical sight really. The blond, older brother was trying to pick his younger sibling off the floor one moment, and the next they were both standing straight and stiff as though their uncle had caught them in the middle of a prank.

Bilbo approached, took them by the wrists and dragged them to the left corner of the room, where he sat them on a pair of stools Balin hadn't known were there. "You two can stay because Bag End adores you."

The two young dwarves grinned and puffed their chests. "Does that mean we get cake?" Kili asked.

"No," Bilbo said unrepentantly. He even ignored their pouts and doe-eyes, moving to retrieve the knives and vegetables from the walls instead. "But you can get early servings of the stew if you behave." Returning the items to the table, he went and helped Bombur off the floor. For something so slight, he must have had better than average strength if he managed to pry the large dwarf off the floor. "Master Bombur, you may stick around and assist, as you have proven yourself quite able. Though I will say again that you are an honored guest in my home and need not do anything of the sort."

The dwarf in question huffed and tucked the end of his long beard back into his collar. He didn't seem upset though. "Face it, Master Baggins. You need all the help you can get if you're going to feed all those lumps behind you."

"Ah yes!" The hobbit strode around the table and picked up his knives as he went. "Since we're on the topic." He reached the far side of the table and turned his back on everyone, then began to juggle the blades as if it were a normal pastime. And maybe it was. "I'd better only have to say this once." He tossed the knives into the air and behind him, and they all landed, tip first, into the tabletop, neatly lined up, from smallest to biggest.

The clumps echoed ominously in the hushed silence, one by one by one.

Bilbo Baggins pulled out a drawer hidden by his frame from everyone's sight, paused for effect…

The light of the chandelier up top dimmed even though the fire did not go out. Darkness descended upon the room like the shade of a crumbling mountain, and the fire in the hearth sputtered, failing to dispel the gloom regardless of how strong it still blazed and crackled. The only thing still visible was Bombur's startled face, the only thing that the fire's light still reached. Then even that was gone.

Only a streak of steel was seen when Bilbo Baggins spun on his heels. Two glowing green eyes glared at the watchers as a chef's knife as large as an entire forearm was driven tip-first into hard oak wood with a flinch-inducing smash. "GET OUT OF MY KITCHEN!"

The room emptied of people so fast that Balin was almost run over in the chaos. As Dwalin barely caught him and pulled him out of the stampede, the old dwarf wondered which he should choose between feeling awed or succumbing to alarm.

In the end, he settled for the latter.

Mahal, what was Gandalf trying to unleash upon their company?

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