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take my caged heart back (it is always yours)

Chapter Text

“Move. Donys, move him.”

“No,” Bilbo insisted, pushing and shoving because no, it couldn’t be, it wasn’t real. “No, let me go!”

Hands caught him tightly, but less harshly than they could have, and he didn’t care about the kindness, he didn’t care, he only wanted to be free, to go home, to help, oh Eru, to help Dwalin-

He thought he screamed, fearful and desperate, but then everything went black.



Three weeks earlier



“Tell me again why we’re going here and not there?”

Thorin could feel the vein in his head beginning to throb. “You will be a few mere weeks from your brother, Fili,” he said at last. “And a few mere weeks from Dernwyn. One would think you would welcome the quiet, from your children and from Kili.”

“I do,” Fili said grumpily. “But why Dain wants to meet in the Grey Mountains and not in the Iron Hills-“

“’Cause it’s neutral ground,” Dwalin cut in. “Grey Mountains are sort of a halfway point between us and Dain.”

“Why does it have to be neutral ground?” Gimli asked, sounding as bewildered as Thorin had ever heard him. “We’re not armies goin’ to war, we’re kin! This is nonsense!”

Thorin let out a sigh. The dwarf had been just as irritated as Fili, when he’d learned that Tauriel would not be allowed to come. She had understood, at least, and had been grateful to remain behind with Dernwyn, Legolas, and Kili. Visiting dwarves who were not in the common mindset of the Ereborians wasn’t a safe place for an elf.

Not that Thorin feared for her. Rather, he feared for the dwarves who would undoubtedly incur Tauriel’s wrath. They would deserve it, he knew that, but there was such a thing called ‘tact’ that Thorin had learned of the hard way.

They would be courteous enough to Thorin and Fili, to Dwalin and to the other dwarves accompanying them. And they would, of course, be unfailingly polite to Bilbo. Everyone was. He was Bilbo Baggins, the Ringbearer, and twelve years after the fact, people still held him in high regard for what he’d done.

He glanced backwards and past the others on horses and couldn’t help his smile. Bilbo was comfortably seated on his horse, speaking with Dril about something that had him animatedly waving his hands about. Dril seemed just as enthusiastic about whatever it was, but despite being heavily involved in the conversation, he always kept Bilbo just a little ahead of him, to better protect him.

All in all, they were a strong group, going to meet Dain. His cousin’s letter, asking to meet, had been more of a demand than Thorin had expected. He hadn’t heard from Dain since his cousin had helped keep Erebor secure while Balin, Bard, and Tauriel had brought extra forces to Minas Tirith. They’d parted ways amicably enough. They’d never had contention, had always been good friends. Even when Dain had voted against trying to take back Erebor, he’d been apologetic about it. He’d had his people to think of, and Thorin had understood. And Dain had given his apologies by offering his help when Thorin had needed someone to help keep the mountain safe.

But it had been twelve years. And Erebor had flourished while the Iron Hills…had not. They hadn’t done poorly, but more than a few caravans of dwarves had come from the Iron Hills in the past two years, complaining of overcrowding, of strict policies, of guards looking for any reason to put someone away just to prove they were doing their job. So the letter from Dain hadn’t been a surprise, but the tone certainly had been.

Thorin made a mental count of their group before turning back to the front. Bilbo and Dril, with Gimli and Fili not that much farther up, Dwalin and Nori right behind Thorin. There were a few other guards scattered about in formation, and Nori was keeping to the sides on his horse, fingers always at the ready.

Not that he thought Dain would actually try to attack them. But Thorin wasn’t taking chances, not with Fili, his sister-son, with him for this important meeting. Not when Bilbo had suggested coming along, if just to meet Dain and perhaps keep the meeting from resorting to, “Bashing heads together like rocks in the hopes that one will light on fire.”

It made Thorin grin, just a little, remembering the dry tone it had been said in. And the raised eyebrow Bilbo had given that he was so very good about giving.

“Oh for Mahal’s sake,” Dwalin muttered. “Just go back there and ride with him. It’s obviously what you want to do.”

“No, because if I’m not allowed to have my other half with me, Uncle shouldn’t be allowed to be sappy with his,” Fili said, rolling his eyes. “And you know it’s going to be obnoxious very quickly.”

“Right: I’ll go ride beside Bilbo,” Dwalin began, but Thorin was already falling back through the ranks. Seeing him, Dril gave Bilbo a cheery wave and rode ahead, while Dwalin fell back behind the two of them. Partially to keep them both covered, but Thorin had a feeling that Dwalin would break them up if they got too ‘sappy’.

“Hello,” Bilbo said, smiling brightly at him.

Thorin’s smile broadened. “Hello.”

“Anything the matter?”

“Not really. I just wanted to come back and say that.”

If possibly, Bilbo’s smile got even wider. “Well I’m glad you did. I feel as if I haven’t seen you in a long time. Even if we’ve been riding together in the same company.”

This was most certainly bordering on what his sister-son would define as obnoxious. Thorin didn’t much care. “Then I shall have to rectify that immediately,” he said, voice low, and Bilbo’s eyes went a little bit darker. Thorin leaned in even closer, watching the tip of Bilbo’s tongue trace his lower lip. The others around them faded away, and it was only his husband, curls tousled by the wind, nose a little red from the sun, little golden dots across his face that Thorin absolutely wanted to kiss. He loved Bilbo’s freckles, loved tracing them with his fingertips-

“All right, that’s enough,” Dwalin said, and he shoved his horse between Thorin’s and Bilbo’s. Thorin scowled at his cousin, but Dwalin wasn’t budging. “Go back up to the front of the line. I am not watchin’ you get sultry with your husband. Go on.”

“Then close your eyes,” Bilbo said, and Thorin chuckled when Dwalin moved his insistent glare over to the hobbit. Bilbo glared back, though it lacked heat. “I mean it.”

“I mean it, too,” Dwalin said firmly. “We’re only half a day away from Dain. If you two start dawdlin’, we won’t be there ‘til tomorrow, and frankly, I’d rather get there before night falls.”

He had a point. Still, Thorin wasn’t thrilled about giving him the nod, especially since he was keeping Thorin from a very scrumptious looking hobbit who was still gazing at him with a come-hither look. There were days where Thorin remembered just how handsome and beautiful his husband was, and today, Bilbo looked like the greatest treasure he’d ever had the pleasure of laying his eyes upon. It made him want to haul Bilbo off his horse and into Thorin’s arms.

Maybe Dwalin had more of a point than he’d first thought. “The sooner we get to Dain, the sooner you can have him,” Dwalin said bluntly, and Bilbo rolled his eyes, far too used to Dwalin by now to get flustered. Still, his cheeks went a bit pink, and Thorin grinned.

“A valid point,” Thorin said, and he rode up to the front. Fili shook his head but finally gave a quick grin. Even Gimli wasn’t complaining, saying something about only half a day more. Thorin was inclined to say it with him. Only half a day more, and he could have Bilbo to himself.

Even if it meant climbing into the mountains, as they were now doing. The path was steep and filled with rocks everywhere, and their agile, swift horses were actually having trouble every now and then. “Easy,” Thorin murmured, patting his horse’s flank. They’d be picking out stones from their beards, the way things were getting kicked up. Still, better a stone in a beard than a stone in a hoof. That was the last thing they needed.

He glanced back at Bilbo when he was near to the top, just to ensure that he was handling the steep incline, and frowned. Bilbo was at the rear, with Dwalin quickly slowing his horse to join him. Neither looked happy. “What’s wrong?” Nori asked them, halting everyone else.

“Did you hear that?” Bilbo asked. “It sounded like-“

The rockslide was sudden. Bilbo’s horse reared away from the rocks, nearly throwing him off. “Bilbo!” Thorin shouted, but his voice was lost to the trembling of the earth and the terrible sound of the rocks tumbling, crashing down, blocking the path. Dust rose everywhere, and Fili coughed, trying to breathe. Thorin fought to see through the haze, desperate to hear a response above the din.

Finally it stopped, only tiny pebbles bouncing and clinking off the rocks like gold coins off a pile of treasure. Thorin urged his horse back down the path before he could even see properly. His heart beat like staccato drum, pounding in his chest. Bilbo, Bilbo, Bilbo…

“Bilbo!” he shouted again when he reached the rock wall. It was too tall to see over, far too tall to jump over by horse. They’d have to climb, that much was certain. “Bilbo!”

“We’re here!” came the answering yell, and Thorin let out a ragged breath. “We’re here! Is everyone all right?”

“Better, now that you’re answering,” Fili said from beside Thorin. “You’re both all right?”

“’Sides the rocks in our way, we’re fine,” Dwalin grunted. “Not certain we can move them, now that I can see how many there are.”

There were plenty enough that Thorin was growing more dismayed by the moment. Too many to move, even with the number of dwarves that they had. There was also the added fear that if they moved them, they could start another rockslide in the process. He gritted his teeth, his earlier cheer all but gone. “Did we pass any other paths up through the mountain?” he called. “Dwalin, did you see any?”

“Not that I can remember. But there has to be another way up.”

“I can hurry around and find one,” Nori offered. “Won’t take long.”

“Take one of the other guards with you-“

“What is that?”

Thorin whipped his head back around to the rock wall at Bilbo’s voice. “What is what?” Fili asked. “Uncle?”

Silence followed. “Bilbo?” Thorin called, unease stirring in his gut.

He got a response, but it wasn’t the one he’d been expecting. Nor the one he’d wanted.

“Get off-!”

“Let me go!”

Sounds of a scuffle met his ears, and Thorin suddenly realized that not only was there something going on, something that involved more than Dwalin and Bilbo, but that there was nothing he could do.

Not that he wasn’t going to try. “Bilbo!” he shouted. “Bilbo!” He moved his horse closer to the rock wall, prepared to climb it no matter what came of it. Bilbo was on the other side being attacked, and there had been no one else around for miles. It had simply been their small group for the past two days, and now someone was fighting with Dwalin and Bilbo, and he needed to be on the other side of the rocks. He needed to be there right now.

A muffled shout, followed immediately with the cry, “Dwalin!” was all he needed to push himself up to the wall. Fili yelled his name, but Thorin was already finger deep in the rocks. One of them slid, threatening to crush his fingers and his head. He didn’t want to be careful, he didn’t want to go as slow as this was going to take him, he had to get over the wall immediately.

Thorin!”

“Here, there’s a path back around!” Nori shouted from the top, just as Bilbo’s yell of terror sent a frisson of fear through Thorin’s heart. Thorin dropped back onto his horse and took off, flying after Nori as he led them up the hill and back down a smaller, lesser path. His horse slid several times but would not be deterred, feeling his urgency, his growing fear. Hold on, Bilbo. I’m coming.

Finally they cleared the small path and found themselves only a few paces from the base of their original path. “Bilbo!” Thorin shouted, tearing up the path with his horse.

He was gone. Dwalin, too. No one else was there.

Fili rounded the corner with his horse, eyes whipping everywhere. “Where are they?” he asked. “We didn’t take more than a few moments!”

Thorin couldn’t speak, the fear tightening his throat until he could barely breathe. Had it just been a few minutes ago that he’d been lightly teasing Bilbo, with the promise of that evening being all he wanted? And now his husband had disappeared into thin air, and his cousin, too. Their horses, their things, it was all gone.

There were signs of a struggle, now that Thorin looked. The ground was disturbed, and there were drops that were dark in the dirt. Blood. He swallowed and fought to stay calm. Bilbo needed him to stay calm.

“I’ll skin ‘em, whenever I find who did this,” Gimli growled. “They can’t have gotten far.”

“Plenty of valleys between the rocks,” Dril said with regret in his tone. “Could’ve slipped past us.”

“For what?” Fili asked, bewildered. “Who would’ve known we’d be here? Unless you think it was a band of robbers.”

No, it hadn’t been robbers. Now that Thorin really looked at the massive amount of stones strewn across the path, he saw the intent behind them. It hadn’t been a natural landslide. He would’ve bet his crown that it had been started by someone above, someone who was no longer there, though he looked up to see all the same. Someone had wanted to split the group, to separate them in order to attack and take them.

“They don’t have valleys and mountains like this in the Iron Hills,” Nori said darkly, and Thorin stopped. The demand for them to come to the Grey Mountains. The insistence to see them sooner rather than later. All to take Thorin’s husband and kin and use them as a bargaining chip for whatever Dain wanted.

“He wouldn’t,” Fili said, but he looked unsure of himself. “Would he, Uncle?”

“Once upon a time, he wouldn’t have,” Thorin said. His fingers tightened around the reins until the leather bit into his skin. “Now I have no clue what runs through my cousin’s mind.”

He’d find out soon enough, though.

“Spread out quickly, try to see if you can spot movement,” he said. “Then we ride for Dain.”

If Dain was behind this, he was going to regret it. No one took Bilbo, took Dwalin, and could expect to live. No one laid a hand upon his husband and kept his appendage.

No one.

It took all of twenty minutes to determine that whoever had taken Bilbo and Dwalin had vanished. It only spurred Thorin on. All he had to go on now was his cousin’s suspicious behavior and the sudden planned loss of his husband and kin. “We ride,” he ordered, fury burning through his veins. He would find them. He would.

If Dain hurt a single hair on their heads, if he so much as touched Bilbo, he would kill his cousin without any hesitation.

“Think we’ll make it by nightfall?” Gimli asked as they prepared to fly up the mountain again.

They’d make it well before the sky went dark, if he had anything to say about it. Thorin instead urged his horse back up the smaller path and flew over the top of the ridge. Though the breeze and colder mountain air tugged at him, his rage kept him warm enough to continue on throughout the day.

He had a husband to find.



As soon as the top of the bag was loosened Bilbo was fighting, clawing and punching and kicking out as best he could. A hand caught him by the neck to subdue him, and Bilbo managed to wrench the arm around in order to sink teeth deep into the skin. With a yelp the hand let go, only to backhand him straight out of the bag. Bilbo barely paused to shake himself out before he was up and running, mind registering small things: rocks, fire, night, more than one being in the small area.

And one of them was right behind him. “Oh no you don’t,” a sharp voice said, and Bilbo found a hand wrapped tightly in his hair seconds before he was yanked backwards. He cried out and landed on his back, the hand mercilessly refusing to loosen at all. Before he knew it, he was being dragged backwards by his curls, and the pain was so enormous that tears burned in his eyes, and his desperation to get free was at war with the urge to follow the hand in order to lessen his pain.

In the end, it didn’t matter. “Next time when I tell you to open the bag in the cage, try listening,” the voice with the hand snapped, and Bilbo suddenly found himself thrown backwards onto a flat, cold surface. Something loud went off next to his ear, and he shuffled away out of instinct. He hit something large and wet, and he whipped around, heart pounding in his throat.

Dwalin. Dwalin, bleeding heavily from his head, eyes still closed. Bilbo barely registered the bars around them and instead pulled the dwarf towards him. “Dwalin, wake up,” he said urgently, shaking him. Dwalin didn’t make a sound. “Dwalin!”

“How hard did you hit him, Arius?” the hand voice asked.

A new voice answered, low and casual. “Hard enough. He wouldn’t stop going for my throat. There wasn’t supposed to be a body guard. It was supposed to be the king and the little thing there.”

Thorin. Bilbo forced himself to keep his attention on Dwalin, but his ears were all for the conversation behind him. Dwalin was breathing, at least, as one would when asleep. He’d be all right. A monster of a headache, he imagined, but Dwalin would be all right. Bilbo let out a silent sigh of relief.

“That ‘little thing’ is Bilbo Baggins,” a voice said, and it sounded pained. “And he’s got teeth.”

Bilbo froze at his name. “And he’s clever,” the hand voice said. “Aren’t you, Mister Baggins?”

Slowly Bilbo turned around to face his kidnappers, for that was what they were. He’d had plenty of time to sit and think about what had happened as they’d ridden for hours and hours while he’d bounced around in whatever sack they’d shoved him into. And now he’d be able to see who they were for himself.

Three men stood beyond the bars of the iron cage, illuminated by the camp fire behind them. One of them was watching him with cruel, calculating eyes, and Bilbo thought he looked vaguely familiar. His dark hair was shorter than Bilbo had expected, given his age, just long enough to tuck back behind his ears. He was tall and he was thin, lithe, and probably very swift. That information was tucked away as Bilbo turned to the other ones.

There was one dressed in a red tunic with black, tight trousers, hair jet black and hanging in a braid down his back. He looked at Bilbo as if he could care less, and across his back was a bow and quiver. Archer. Probably very good. Best to always assume the worst in a situation like this. He looked to be around the age of the other one.

The last one, still clutching his bleeding arm that Bilbo had bit, looked much younger, perhaps Éomund’s age. His brown hair was scraggly and dirty, and he was staring at Bilbo as if he’d never seen a hobbit before. It was almost a look of awe, and Bilbo shuffled backwards, his attention perhaps the most unnerving of them all.

“If you wore your braces, Donys, you wouldn’t have been bit,” the one in red said, and Bilbo recognized his voice as answering to Arius. That was two names, at least. Nothing for the one with the sharp voice who was obviously the leader.

As if hearing Bilbo’s thoughts, the oldest stepped forward and gave a mock bow. “Forgive me, your majesty, for our impertinence. I am Caledon, the oldest of the brothers three,” and he stretched the ‘e’ out with an almost dismissive sounding ‘eh’. It suited him. “This is Arius, and that is Adidonys, our youngest. Your teeth are very familiar with him, I believe.”

“It’s just ‘Donys’,” Donys muttered. “And yes, I’m very familiar with his teeth.”

“If you hadn’t grabbed me in such a terrible fashion, I wouldn’t have bit you,” Bilbo couldn’t help but snap. “But you’ll have to forgive me; I’m not quite certain what good manners are when someone kidnaps you.”

“Oh, but the hobbit does have claws,” Caledon cooed, grinning from ear to ear. “I had heard rumors, but it’s quite different to hear it in person. I wonder if we’ll hear some of your witty remarks, too, or your clever thoughts. It’d be nice to have an equal match for once.”

Bilbo just glared at him. Caledon finally and leisurely moved his gaze over to Arius. “If the hobbit is more gracious and holds good manners, you may feed him. If not, he’d do well to keep quiet through the night. We’ve a distance to cover tomorrow.”

Arius just nodded and went to find a sack. Donys kept staring at Bilbo until Caledon smacked him up the back of his head. “Move,” Caledon growled, and the sudden switch from humorous to dangerous left Bilbo slowly shrinking away from the bars of the cage. He wasn’t one to cross, that much was for certain. No, he was a man who would promise something and then do it.

Not long after that, Arius came and shoved two pieces of flat bread through the bars. “Eat it,” he said, and Bilbo quickly took it before Arius had a chance to take them back. The man said not a word after that, simply stood and left.

After ensuring they weren’t molding or smelled odd, Bilbo quickly moved back to Dwalin. The dwarf still wasn’t awake, and Bilbo feared just how hard he’d been struck. “We’re all right,” he murmured. Dwalin wouldn’t appreciate the lie, but right then and there, it was as much for Bilbo as it was for him. “I’ve bread, if you wake up. If you don’t, I’m certain my hobbit appetite will take over and I’ll eat both pieces. So you’d best wake up.”

Dwalin didn’t say a word. Bilbo slowly slid back to his knees, adrenaline suddenly leaving him until all he wanted to do was fall asleep right then and there. The cage wasn’t tall, just enough for him to sit back on his feet and rest on his knees and crawl about almost comfortably. Dwalin would have more of a problem, but at least they could move. It was a boon, as small as it was.

The bread wound up being dry, so dry that he nearly cracked his teeth taking the first bite. Still, it was food, and Bilbo’s stomach was grateful for the meager offering after hours of nothing. He’d had some jerky in his pouch that he’d planned on trading with Fili for the dried fruits he knew Dernwyn had packed for him. They would’ve feasted tonight, he was certain of it, no matter how much Dain might have hated Thorin for whatever reason.

Thorin. His eyes burned for a new reason, and he clutched at the bread like it was his last lifeline. He could hear the fear in Thorin’s voice as his husband shouted his name, even as Bilbo had fought to get free. He’d seen Dwalin fall, had yelled for him, then had seen the bag coming for him as he’d been held down. He’d shouted Thorin’s name one last time, and then it had all been dark and restrictive and filled with barely any air. They’d loosened the top of the bag a little later, just enough for air to get through. But that had been it.

And now he was here, without Thorin, Dwalin hurt, eating dry bread with his three kidnappers gathering around the fire. Bilbo was grateful, he supposed, that it was warm weather out, that it was almost summer.

A soft sound made him turn. It was Donys, arm wrapped with a cloth, and he was setting a mug near the edge of the cage. “It’s just water,” he said. “Thought you might be thirsty.”

It was more kindness than Bilbo had expected, given that he’d bitten the man fairly hard. “Thank you,” he said softly. “Um, sorry about. Well.” And was he truly apologizing to his kidnapper?

Donys shrugged. “It’s fine. I just can’t believe it. The great Bilbo Baggins, right here. It’s…it’s amazing. You’re so much more handsome than I’d expected. Nothing like the dwarves or men.” There was that awed look on his face again, discomfiting Bilbo enough to make him want to hide behind Dwalin.

“Yes, well, thank you again,” he said quickly. Donys bit his lip and reached forward towards the cage, fingers gently reaching for him, and Bilbo’s heart began to pound.

“Donys! Get the firewood!”

Donys drew his hand back and rose, heading back to the fire with a bundle of sticks under his arm. Bilbo didn’t realize he was panting until the world began to spin from his lack of oxygen. He hadn’t the faintest idea what Donys would have done, but the thought of anyone besides kin and friend touching him at the moment was more than he could bear.

“’lbo?”

Bilbo whipped his head around to Dwalin, whose eyes were slowly starting to open. “Easy,” Bilbo murmured. “It’s all right, you’re all right.”

He came alert much more quickly than Bilbo had thought he would. It took him all of a matter of moments to size up just what was going on before turning back to Bilbo. “You hurt?” he asked.

“They left us bread-“

Dwalin caught him by the arm, and instead of the fear he’d felt when Donys had reached for him, Bilbo only felt comforted. “Are you hurt?” he repeated.

Bilbo bit his lip. “Not badly,” he finally admitted. “I wasn’t knocked out.” His head still felt as if it were on fire, though, and his arms hurt from being pinned down so roughly hours ago. Still, he was fairly certain Dwalin had gotten the worst of it.

Not according to the dwarf, if his narrowed gaze was any indication. He skimmed his hand over Bilbo’s face, quickly checking for injuries, and Bilbo winced when his fingers brushed over his ear. “Not badly, huh?” Dwalin deadpanned.

“It’s a scratch,” Bilbo said. “I’ve had worse.”

“Don’t remind me.” Dwalin finally left him alone, however, and sat up as much as he could. It wasn’t much, but after some help with Bilbo, they managed to get Dwalin onto his side, feet to the back of the cage. There was still room enough for Bilbo by the time they were done. Plus, if they opened the door of the cage, Dwalin would have a better chance to push himself out in a rush.

Not that Bilbo was thinking about escape at the moment. No, he was thinking more about surviving. Escape could come later, when he knew motives. When he knew how far the kidnappers would go to keep them, or if they’d be willing to hurt them to make a point.

“Here,” Bilbo said, handing Dwalin the second piece of bread. “There’s water here, too, if the bread’s too hard.”

“That’s a kindness I wasn’t expectin’,” Dwalin said, and it made Bilbo think of Donys. He couldn’t stop the shudder in time, and Dwalin immediately stared at him. “What happened?” he asked. “And I won’t stop askin’, so don’t bother.”

No, he’d pester him until Bilbo told him. As stubborn as Thorin was, most days, and the thought of his husband made him ache inside. So he quickly told Dwalin about the three kidnappers, their names and their attributes, how they worked together, and finally, about Donys and his odd fascination with Bilbo.

Dwalin grew grimmer the more he heard, until he finally waved Bilbo off. “I don’t like it. Not one bit. You keep behind me and let me do the talkin’, all right? I’ve had enough military experience with negotiations. Especially since they all know you, and at least one of ‘em’s got his eye on you, for whatever damned reason.”

Bilbo nodded his head jerkily. “But I’ll be right behind you. I won’t let them take a swing at you, either.”

Slowly Dwalin began to smile. “If you hadn’t wound up the King’s Husband, I would’ve recruited you for the Guard. You and your heart of mithril.”

“I would’ve been horrible. I can’t take a life.” Not unless it was his husband being threatened. Then apparently Bilbo took lives very easily. It still shook him, some nights, to remember plunging the blade through Rutar’s chest, stabbing Caila with everything he had. Even if it had been Dis who’d taken the woman’s head, he’d still thrust Orcrist forward with the intent to kill.

“I know that. Still would’ve had you in the Guard, all the same.”

Bilbo finally smiled. “It would’ve been an honor,” he said, and he bowed as best he could. Dwalin rolled his eyes and shoved gently at him, and Bilbo chuckled softly. Sharp voices behind them made them freeze, but no one came towards the cage. It was just Caledon, yelling at Donys for something.

“Brothers, huh?” Dwalin asked. Bilbo nodded once. “There’s an obvious peckin’ order, that’s for certain. Even if you hadn’t told me what he looked like, I would’ve been able to pick Caledon out all the same. And I don’t like him, not one bit.”

“He’s dangerous,” Bilbo agreed. “He reminds me of…of Caila.” Her bright eyes and manic laughter, her determination, her desperate attempts to kill Thorin-

Dwalin nudged him with his leg, almost tenderly, and it was enough to drag Bilbo out of his memories. “If you did the same thing to him you did to Caila, I wouldn’t be opposed.”

So much for tender. “And I’ll have to direct you back to the fact that I don’t really take lives.”

“Worth a try.” Dwalin paused to take a bite of the bread. He made a face at how hard it was but continued eating. “’Sides, Thorin won’t let you. Not when he’s got a chance to do it first.”

Oh but that was a beautiful image indeed. Thorin, riding to the rescue, clothed in his battle garments. He’d slice through them as if they were paper, and then he’d be there, pulling Bilbo out of the cage and holding on for dear life. It was enough to make his chest feel as if it’d been caved in, so desperate as he was for Thorin to just be there.

“He’ll find us,” Dwalin said, and Bilbo nodded shortly.

“He will. And Mahal help them when my husband does.”

“Couldn’t have said it better,” Dwalin said darkly. Then he nudged at Bilbo to finish his bread, and between the two of them they finished off the bread and the mug of water. Dwalin insisted that Bilbo at least try to sleep, and they curled together, Dwalin keeping one arm over Bilbo. It left Bilbo feeling like a younger sibling, well protected and out of harm’s way.

It let him drift in and out of sleep throughout the night.

Chapter Text

They’d barely arrived when Thorin was off his horse, storming towards the hall’s doors. “He’ll put a hole through it, you don’t open those doors fast enough,” Dril called as a warning to the dwarven guard outside the hall. Of course, he called that just a bit too late, since Thorin was already at the doors.

Oops. His mistake, truly.

The doors were thrown open so hard that they smacked against the walls and tried to close again. Fili kept them open with his own force, and as angry as the heir was, Fili was nowhere as close to as enraged as Thorin was. Dril wasn’t certain he’d ever seen his king this furious, this powerful before.

He deserved to be, if this Lord Dain had truly taken Bilbo away to barter with. Dril would have a few words with him as well, and by words he meant fists.

Who would hurt Bilbo? Who would dare hurt the greatest being who’d ever walked the earth? Not only as the Ringbearer, but as the King’s Husband, the kindest person Dril’d ever had the pleasure of meeting? He’d saved all of them, just because it was the right thing to do, and yet every day would go out and talk with the common dwarves, would share recipes and enjoy the gossip and had befriended Dril and Hril as if they were the same level as he was?

Oh Hril was going to be furious when he found out. Dril decided he’d save a punch for his cousin, just so he wouldn’t feel left out. Wasn’t his fault he’d stayed behind at Erebor.

A dwarf at the end of the hall stood with several others, all of them dressed in royal and noble garb. The one in the middle looked a great amount like Thorin, in many ways, from the facial features to the dark hair. He was a bit thinner than Thorin, however, a little smaller in several fashions. He also seemed a bit startled at the way Thorin was advancing on him. “You arrived sooner than I had expected, cousin,” the dwarf said, confirming that he was Dain.

“Where is he?” Thorin growled. “Tell me where my husband is, and I will spare your life.”

The guards from the corners came forward in defense of their lord, but Dril merely hefted his spear up and to the sides, keeping Thorin well protected. If Dain had taken Bilbo and Dwalin, he deserved this moment.

“Your husband? Bilbo?” Dain said, and Fili snapped at him first before Dril could.

“Until he gives you liberty to address him that way, his name is your majesty or Ringbearer. And you didn’t answer my uncle’s question.”

Thorin was all but upon Dain at that point, and Dril watched as true fear came to Dain’s eyes. “Where is my husband?” Thorin said, voice so low Dril could barely hear it save for the rage that seemed to flame the very air. “What did you do to him?”

Dain shook himself from his feared stupor. “Do to-? Cousin, I have done nothing to your husband. What happened? Where is he?”

Dril slowly felt his heart stop. Thorin refused to be dissuaded, but Dril had seen him stumble just ever so slightly in his step. He knew, then, the truth, the same as Dril and the others did. He just refused to accept it.

“That’s not good enough,” Thorin said, and he was close enough now to catch Dain by the front edges of his cloak. The guards came forward as Thorin dragged Dain closer, but Dain put up his hand out to stay them. Thorin glared at Dain until Dril almost feared the other dwarf would melt under the heat of his gaze. “Where is Bilbo?”

Dain gazed at him almost kindly, and Thorin slowly began to release his grip, his hands trembling. “Tell me what happened, cousin,” Dain said quietly. “And I will aid as best I can.”

“My lord-“

“It will hold,” Dain snapped at the nobles around him. “It will hold. As much as I would have words with Thorin about business affairs and the state of our kingdom, he is first and foremost my kin and my cousin. And if someone has affronted his husband, he has affronted Thorin, and, thus, me in turn. I will not allow it.”

It was a grand show of words, and though Dril didn’t doubt that there was some sincerity behind it, it was also a display of power, that it was his goodness he was granting, that he was the hero. It made Dril’s fingers tighten around his spear until he could hear the wood creaking. Of all the times to put oneself above another, it wasn’t now.

Fili seemed to feel the same way, for the young lad looked ready to jump at Dain at the first chance. “Easy,” Nori murmured, just loud enough for Fili and Dril to hear, and Fili let out a small growl but subsided.

Thorin didn’t even seem to notice, so lost was he in thoughts of his husband. “What happened?” Dain asked again. “Tell me.”

“We got attacked on the way through the mountains,” Fili said at last, when he was finally calm. “My uncle and our Captain of the Guard were both seized and taken, and we don’t know where or who.” He said nothing about the insinuation that Dain had been involved, and he made no apologies for the assumption.

Dain seemed to be waiting for it, but after long moments of silence turned to Thorin. “Dwalin, too?” he said. Thorin could only nod. “Then there’s no time to lose. There are only so many safe paths through the mountains. Whoever took them will have surely taken one of those paths.”

“Is there anyone bearing a grudge against you?” Nori asked. Dril looked to Dain, and noticed that his cheeks had gone a bit red. Apparently, Nori had hit a mark.

“The taking of the Ringbearer and Captain would not harm my position, so while a potential thought, it’s very unlikely.” It looked almost painful for Dain to admit that, and Fili very obviously reveled in it. “So we will have to look at another reason for their having been seized.”

As much peace as there had been since Caila’s demise and the retaking of Moria, it was never guaranteed. Who knew how many people would take Bilbo and Dwalin, and for how many reasons?

Thorin seemed to sag a little, as if he were thinking the same things. The next moment, however, he was standing tall and strong, and his voice was like thunder. “Then we will find him. Our conversation will have to be tabled.”

“Not chaired?” Dain jested, and Dril could see, now, how it might have been years ago: Dain following Thorin around much as Kili followed Fili, or as Dril had followed Hril. Trying to gain favor, to make his cousin laugh, to be the only one Thorin sought after. Even now, he wanted acceptance, and it made something in Dril very sad to see it.

Thorin didn’t respond to the joke, too focused on Bilbo. Dril, feeling the need to say something as Dain’s smile began to fall, spoke up. “Nah, there’s enough dwarves here to chair anythin’, as it were. Takes a special dwarf to table a meetin’.”

Dain gave him a quick grin for it, and the tension in the room eased a bit. “You have always found good dwarves to surround yourself with, cousin, and I see that this hasn’t changed.” He chuckled a little, then patted Thorin on the shoulder, growing somber once more. “Searching in the dark will do you little good. I can almost guarantee that they would stop for the night. The mountains are full of wolves and other creatures of strong jaws and sharp teeth. We’ll rest here, then begin at first light.”

“You would have me leave my husband-“

“What good will we be to Bilbo if we don’t rest?” Fili interrupted as Thorin’s rage began to burn again. “None. Just a few hours. He’d be cross with you if you didn’t.”

They were like magic, those words. One minute, Thorin was determined and viciously angry, and then he was taking a deep breath and forcing it aside, his thoughts only for Bilbo. “At first light,” he insisted, and Dain gave a sharp nod.

“At first light, cousin. Then we search.”



It was early morning when the kidnappers began to move about the camp again. Arius, the archer in red, seemed to move about easily enough, silent and very few on words. The only archer Dwalin had ever known to speak at length was Kili, and he was fairly certain only Legolas could shut him up. Most archers didn’t really speak.

Donys, the youngest, stumbled about as a young adult would, much as Kili and Fili did still, from time to time, when waking early didn’t suit them. He would be the easiest to overcome, when the time came. And the time would come. He had to be around the age Aragorn had been, twelve years ago, when they’d first journeyed together. He didn’t see the same skill and drive in this one as he had in the Ranger.

The oldest, though, Caledon. He was a dangerous one, and there were no two ways about it.

Still, they’d taken great pains to feed Bilbo and Dwalin both, and so far, hadn’t truly hurt either one of them. That put the greater favor with Dwalin, when he got them ready for the escape.

And when Donys got just a little closer, it was going to happen.

“Get them secured,” Caledon ordered. “I want the cage up on the cart. We’ve stayed here long enough.”

“I said I’ve got it,” Donys snapped. Caledon narrowed his gaze, and Donys quickly moved to the cage, key in hand. Dwalin stayed still, pretending to be sluggish and out of it. Bilbo stayed curled up beside him, keeping an evident display of fear on his face. By his side, however, he was clutching at where Sting had been. In the hands of the kidnappers, no doubt.

“I won’t hurt you,” Donys said. “Just need to make certain the lock works.” He kept staring at Bilbo, though, and Dwalin almost growled. Whatever his obsession with Bilbo was, Dwalin was through with it. He kept his muscles tensed, feet ready at the back of the cage.

The key slid in. Donys twisted, frowning when it didn’t open, then tugged until it finally came free. It didn’t open much, and he made to close it again.

It was all Dwalin needed.

He shoved his feet off the cage and propelled himself into the door, slamming into Donys and knocking him over. Donys yelped and stumbled backwards, and that was one down. Bilbo was already out of the cage as Dwalin stood and forced his light-headedness down, having not stood in so long. He had an archer to take out.

Arius was already there, trying to swing his bow up. But Dwalin still had the element of surprise, and he swung his arm up and straight into Arius’s jaw. The archer ducked, only to find Dwalin’s other fist waiting under his arm. He stumbled back, clutching at the side of his face, and with one leg Dwalin had him on the ground.

A cry of pain had Dwalin whipping around, only to freeze. Bilbo had Donys’s blade in his hand, but it was dropped quickly when Caledon, who had his arm wrapped around Bilbo’s neck, shoved the metal stick from the fire against his arm again. Bilbo shouted in agony and tried to wrench himself free, but only succeeded in having Caledon’s arm tighten until he was gasping for air.

Caledon began to chuckle, completely ignoring Bilbo and his twice-seared arm. “Well done,” he mused, as if discussing the weather. Dwalin’s blood boiled as Bilbo continued to try to get free enough to breathe. “Well done. Completely underestimated the both of you, well done.”

“Let him go,” Dwalin said lowly. “You’ll get no fight from me.”

“I didn’t think I would,” Caledon said, but he only tightened his arm around Bilbo instead of loosening his grasp. Bilbo’s face was starting to go as red as his burned skin, and he was clutching ineffectually at Caledon’s arm, trying to breathe. “Back into the cage with you.”

“Let him go,” Dwalin repeated.

Caledon pulled his arm further still, eliciting a croaking sound from Bilbo. The hobbit’s eyes were beginning to flutter shut, mouth open and begging for air. Dwalin’s heart was pounding in his chest, and all he wanted to do was surge forward and pound on Caledon until he was a bloody pulp for even touching Bilbo, let alone hurting him. He was killing him, and there was nothing Dwalin could do.

“You’re not really in a place to be arguing with me,” Caledon said. “Back into the cage.”

“If you kill him, we have no ransom,” Dony pointed out. He had a bruise on his cheek from where Bilbo had undoubtedly punched him. “Cale, let him breathe a little.”

“That’s up to our friend here,” Caledon said, though his gaze narrowed and his hand continued to hold the hot metal pole. “Back in the cage and I’ll give him back. I can feel him heaving for air: will you give it to him?”

In the end, there was no choice. It was Bilbo or nothing, and Dwalin would be damned before he let Bilbo come to harm. Keeping his eyes on Caledon, he slowly moved and slid back into the cage.

Caledon kept holding on. Bilbo’s legs started to give beneath him, and his fingers began to let go of the man’s arm. “Cale,” Donys said, sounding almost desperate.

In one quick move the man hurled Bilbo towards the cage. Bilbo began to gasp for air, drawing in huge gulps with each breath. He coughed and choked, and even as he tried to crawl towards the cage, Caledon came forward to shove him in. Dwalin caught hold of Bilbo’s good arm and hauled him into the cage, as far back as Dwalin could take him.

Caledon grinned, as if he’d been given the greatest gift he could ever have gotten. “Good,” he said cheerfully. “Well done. You’ve earned back a bit of supper for that.” Then he slammed the cage door shut, and in one move whirled and slapped Donys across the face. Donys stared at the ground, cheek red, eyes anywhere but near Caledon. “And you lost yours,” the man growled. “Lock the cage this time. Quickly.”

Dwalin didn’t so much as breathe when Donys came forward and secured the cage. “Arius,” Caledon called, and Arius came forward with hooks, long terrible things that made Dwalin only clutch at Bilbo harder. But they were caught in the edges of the cage instead, and between Arius and Caledon, the cage was dragged up a ramp and into a small cart, then swiftly covered with a thick cloth. It left the cage almost in total darkness until they began to move out from the rocky areas and into the vague sunlight. It let Dwalin see Bilbo just enough to catch the pained grimace.

“Let me see,” Dwalin said quietly. The cart lurched, and Bilbo bit back a moan when it jostled his arm. “Bilbo.”

Bilbo slowly brought his singed arm forward. Not singed, but burned, enough that Dwalin could still feel the heat coming off of it. He made a face and began rooting around for his undershirt, the cleanest cloth he had. With a quick rip he had enough of a cloth to cover the wound. “Easy,” he murmured. Where was the mug?

There, somehow still in the corner of the cage. He dipped the cloth in the water and wrung it out as best he could. If it was clean enough to drink, it was clean enough to help with a wound.

Bilbo flinched when he touched the cool rag to the burns, but didn’t say anything else. “Want the rest of the water for your throat?” Dwalin asked after a long silence.

“We may not get more,” Bilbo rasped. “We need to save it.”

Dwalin really hated it when Bilbo was logical. “Have I mentioned how much I hate it when you’re smart?” he groused. He finally got a small smile for it, which Dwalin tried not to be too thrilled about. If Bilbo could still smile, they weren’t that bad off.

Even if the burn itself looked bad. His upper arm was red and angry looking, skin twisted and mangled from the heat. Twice he’d pressed the metal to Bilbo’s arm, and it showed. At least the water was cool.

“Well, that didn’t quite work out the way we’d hoped it would,” Bilbo said through gritted teeth, and Dwalin snorted.

“No, not quite. Close, though.” A second attempt wouldn’t do well for them. Caledon would be far too watchful, now. No, the next attempt would have to be quiet and stealthy. And they’d have to wait awhile. They’d have to wait a good, long while for that. “That was our last breath.”

Bilbo frowned. “Our what?”

“Last breath. Warrior’s last breath, as we call it. You take a deep breath, then you plunge in. You don’t hold back, you don’t hesitate. It’s your last chance to fight, and you’ve got to take it.”

“You mean there’s a name for the impulsive, deadly things that you do?” Bilbo said, almost incredulously, but it was clear that the hobbit was desperate for anything to hold onto, that any conversation was better than thinking about where they were.

Dwalin scowled at him, which the hobbit had most certainly been expecting. “Not deadly. I’ve had plenty of last breaths, and I’m still here, aren’t I? Saved my life a few times. You’ve got to stop thinkin’ and just do. Trust your instincts.”

“Impulsive, reckless moments,” Bilbo countered. Dwalin rolled his eyes, and even in the dim light that the sun gave them, Bilbo could still see it. He answered with a huff of amusement. The cage fell silent for a moment, before Bilbo spoke again.

“Still, at least we know why, now. Or at least, we know what they want.”

Dwalin frowned. “We do?”

Bilbo managed a pained smile. “We’re worth more alive than dead. Though, hurting us still works in their favor, but they need us alive for the ransom. So we’ll be fed, at least, and not left to rot.”

He’d forgotten that tidbit, cast out by Donys. Caledon hadn’t been thrilled with the youngest letting that information out, but at least they knew, now. There would be a ransom.

His cousin was going to massacre them. The last time Bilbo had been threatened as a ransom, it hadn’t ended so well for Caila and her army.

“We’ll keep our heads down for a little bit, get you healed some,” Dwalin said. “Then we’ll try again.” He feared, for a moment, that the burn and the near-death experience would make Bilbo more cautious.

But Bilbo gave a determined nod. “So long as they don’t hurt you, I’m willing to try again. We’ll need a few days, though. A few days. And we’ll have to be quiet.”

Honestly, if he’d only had Bilbo in the Guard. “Should’ve lined the walls of Erebor with hobbits,” Dwalin muttered. “I’ll be sad to see Esmeralda go.” Never mind that she was taking Bofur with her. Dwalin liked the dwarf, had called him kin for a long time now.

Bilbo bit his lip. “You don’t think they’ll try to take Esmeralda, Merry, and Bofur hostage, do you? As they travel west?”

“I think they’ll make it to the Shire just fine.” No, they didn’t want the hobbit or her child. They’d specifically named Bilbo, and Bilbo had said they’d mentioned Thorin. Dwalin being dragged along had been a sheer stroke of luck, as far as Dwalin was concerned. Better him than his cousin. “It’s us they want.”

“Well, it’s us they’ve got.” Bilbo winced and rubbed at his neck, which was undoubtedly red and still sore. Dwalin wished he could convince the hobbit to drink something, but Bilbo would refuse. Stubborn little thing that he was.

“Rest up. I’ll keep watch.” And Mahal help them if they hurt Bilbo again. Bilbo was kin, the closest thing to a brother Dwalin would ever have again, except for Thorin. Two years now that Balin was gone, and it still pained him, to not have his brother anymore. It almost felt as if his arm had been cut off, sometimes.

Then Thorin would grasp him hard by the shoulder and ground him, and Bilbo would sit with him and keep him steady, and Ori would catch his hands and hold on tighter than usual, and-

Ori. Oh Mahal, Ori. Dwalin shut his eyes at the thought of his husband, of his heart. As soon as Ori found out that he’d been taken, his husband was going to lose it. Not with tears, no, that would come later. Most would’ve guessed it would be Ori’s first response, but Dwalin knew his husband better than that.

No, Ori would be furious. Mahal help anyone who got in his husband’s way. Ori had a warhammer and he knew how to use it.

He let that comforting thought keep him warm as he continued dabbing more cool water onto Bilbo’s arm, his other arm wrapped protectively around his kin.



The door slammed against the stones, rattling the very teeth of all inside the room, but he didn’t care. Over to the next door, to their chambers, his warhammer in his hands, the weight a solid and secure comfort. Dwalin had given it to him, so many summers ago, when they’d first journeyed towards Mordor. He’d made certain to have it when Dwalin had gone off with Thorin, Aragorn, and Gimli to find the army of the dead, a promise that Dwalin would return for it, return for him.

“Ori, wait!”

Ori ignored his brother and started down the steps towards the main halls. He’d catch his horse and find Thorin with the others. Then they could head out together, and Ori could imagine his warhammer slamming into the heads of some blank faced foe who’d dared-

A hand caught him roughly by the arm, and Ori swung his warhammer around, teeth bared. Hril caught it easily and wouldn’t let go. “Breathe a minute,” the guard said. “Ori, breathe. You’re no use to them like this.”

Dis hurried down the stairs, a fury in her eyes. “If you think you’re leaving without me,” she began, but Dernwyn, right behind her, cut her off.

Neither of you are going, we’re waiting until Thorin sends another raven-“

“They’re not going, I’m going,” Kili swore. “And Legolas is going with me.”

“And what about me?” Tauriel snapped. “I stayed behind the first time, I will not be denied now. Not when Gimli and Fili are out there, searching for those foolish enough to seize Bilbo and Dwalin.”

“I’m going,” Esmeralda declared. “Bofur-“

“I’m not watchin’ Merry while you go off across the earth to find Bilbo. No, I’m goin’ too-“

Enough!”

Dori’s shout stopped them all. Ori’s brother was red-faced from fury, but he still walked calmly into the midst of the circle they’d formed in the main room of the Royal chambers. “Enough,” he repeated again, a little calmer than before. “Ori, you are not going anywhere. We need to be here, to wait and see what Thorin needs.”

Ori bristled. “Dori, Dwalin needs me-“

“To follow what Thorin needs,” Dori repeated. “What if Thorin finds tracks or gets a note, and needs us to come up from behind to circle around? Or what if we get a note and need to send it to Thorin immediately? We have to stay here.”

He hated when his brother was right. He hated it. But right then and there, Dori was speaking the truth. Ori only wished it meant that he could go, that he could race across the earth to find his husband.

“You think it’s a ransom,” Gloin said. The dwarf looked ready to snap a few heads together. Ori felt like joining him.

Bifur grunted and made quick gestures that Ori easily translated. Only reason someone would be foolish enough to take Bilbo and Dwalin.

“Bifur’s right: someone’s got a reason to take ‘em,” Bofur said. “Thorin’s raven message said it wasn’t Dain, and that they were searching the mountains. They couldn’t have gone further north. Means they had to come south, and what’s south of the Grey Mountains?”

“Kili and I will take to the forest,” Legolas said immediately. “The Greenwood will speak to me. It does not answer in full anymore as it used to, but it has begun conversing with me once more.”

“And I with you,” Tauriel said. Ori almost detested her, in that moment, for being able to go. But one look at Dori said that Ori was better off here, and he was right. He just…he just hated it. There was nothing he could do.

“And I’ll go to Dale. King Bard will want to be notified, and the more people involved in the search, the better,” Dis said. “I could use a scribe.”

There was no reason for a scribe, but it left Ori feeling so grateful that he nearly dropped his warhammer. Thankfully Hril still had a hold on it, and the guard took it without question. “I’m ready when you are,” Ori said.

“Then catch your cloak: the sun is high today.”

Ori nodded and raced for his chambers again, refusing to look at Dwalin’s side of the bed. He remembered Dwalin teasing him for wanting to stay in bed instead of seeing his husband off, and Ori had insisted he’d be there, and he’d be waiting in the bed when Dwalin returned, and then Dwalin had almost been late because he’d insisted on returning to the bed after that-

“Ori.”

Ori didn’t realize he was standing in the middle of the room, clutching his cloak, until Dori was there. Ori spun and buried his face in Dori’s chest, breathing as deeply as he had when he’d been so much younger. It had been years since he’d sought comfort from his older brother, but right then and there, it was all he wanted. “Oh, little brother,” Dori whispered, holding to him tightly. “He’ll be all right. If anyone could be all right in a situation like this, it would be him. And I’m grateful it’s him, I really am, and you should be too.”

Before Ori could even begin to fathom how it was a good thing, his mind drifted over to his other friend. Bilbo. Dwalin there meant Bilbo wasn’t alone, that Bilbo would be all right. They could protect each other. “I am, for Bilbo,” Ori said quietly. “But I wish neither of them had been taken.”

“You and I both, little one. And believe me, my fist is aching for a face.”

That didn’t surprise Ori in the slightest. “Then let’s hope Dis and I find you one,” he said, and Dori chuckled.

“That would be wonderful, thank you. That’s if Dwalin hasn’t already pummeled it black and blue.”

The thought was a cheerful one. Dwalin coming back to Erebor, Bilbo by his side, both of them unharmed and dragging their would-be kidnappers behind them. Thorin would be absolutely furious that he hadn’t had a hand in their rescue, and Ori would scold Dwalin for ripping the new tunic while fighting.

Dori tapped his forehead to Ori’s. “Go, and hurry back with good news,” he said, and Ori nodded and took off for the door. Dis was already waiting, all but vibrating with tension. Kili, Legolas, and Tauriel were also ready, and they left as one, moving down to the gates and the stables.

Then they were flying out onto the field, Ori and Dis breaking off from the others and racing to Dale.

Chapter Text

The keys were right there. So close, yet so far from Bilbo’s reach. Even if they had a large branch, he wasn’t certain he could reach it. Dwalin could barely get his arm through the bars for all their massive size.

But Bilbo could. And the keys were right there.

Sitting on the log near the campfire was Donys, keys tucked into his back pocket. The young man was currently eating his stew of rabbit and herbs, not even looking back at them. That in and of itself was an odd thing, but Bilbo would take the difference and gratefully. It was almost as bad as Caledon’s cruelty that could come about at any moment.

Because Donys was enamored with Bilbo. There was no two ways about it.

Over the past five days of traveling from rocks to trees, he’d tried to strike up a conversation with Bilbo about anything at all. About Bilbo, about his incredible journey as a Ringbearer, anything at all. At first, Bilbo had hoped it was hero worship, of a sort, and had given sparse answers. An ally in their midst was not something to turn away.

But then he’d noticed that Donys wasn’t so much gazing at Bilbo as much as he was staring at his mouth, eyes moving up and down his body. His fingers would twitch, as if they wanted to touch, and he would move closer to the cage with every word, as if all he wanted to do was to cuddle up next to Bilbo. Even with Dwalin growling and keeping his hand on Bilbo’s waist, Donys wasn’t deterred. He never touched Bilbo, but he made it clear that, if given half a chance, he would.

He doubted Donys would do anything violent. But Bilbo only wanted one person to hold him, one person to adore him, and it wasn’t the young man currently eating his supper. No, it was his husband.

Over a week without him now, and Bilbo could only imagine how much Thorin had to be losing his mind. The thought of his husband made him want Thorin’s arms around him so much that it felt as if someone had caved his chest in. He wanted, he yearned. He needed. And he wasn’t certain how much longer he was going to hold on without his husband.

Who even knew how Dwalin felt, so long without Ori. Who knew how Ori had to be feeling, because he was certain the other dwarf had to know about their disappearance by now. It made Bilbo ache for the dwarves he’d come to call his kin.

Caledon suddenly came back into the clearing, and Donys sat up straighter. “Now,” Caledon ordered, and Bilbo suddenly felt his gut twist anxiously. “It’s time. And don’t mess it up. I’m giving you another chance.”

Donys slowly put his stew aside. “Arius, help me with the parchment,” Caledon said, already having dismissed his youngest brother. Bilbo would have focused on the both of them more had Donys not been heading for a nearby stump. He took a long chain and pounded one link into the ground by means of a heavy metal spike. Then he headed for the cage.

Bilbo began scooting backwards, Dwalin pulling him back even further, but there was nowhere to go. Donys’s eyes were hard as he reached inside, and he didn’t even seem to care as Bilbo kicked and tried to fight back. The young man simply grabbed his ankle – thankfully not his bad ankle – and pulled him out of the cage. The door was slammed shut behind him, and Bilbo yelled, reaching desperately for Dwalin.

The dwarf all but threw himself at the door, trying to catch Bilbo’s hand to keep him there. “Let him go! Let him go!” Dwalin roared.

Donys seemed to be made of stone, and the feel of his hand on Bilbo’s bare ankle left him shuddering. He twisted and tried to free himself, and in an instant found himself swung around until his head nearly collided with the stump. Suddenly his wrist was grabbed and hauled up. Even as he fought, his wrist was wrapped tightly with the chain, and the chain was secured on the other side of the stump. He shoved his feet against the ground as best he could, arm stretched awkwardly across the stump, hand and wrist completely pinned.

Then Donys grabbed a nearby axe, and Bilbo froze in pure terror. “No, no, don’t,” he managed to say, even as his throat tried to close. “Please no-“

“Keep the hand in one piece as much as possible,” Caledon ordered. “That’s my best ransom, right there.”

“He has another,” Arius said, and Caledon snorted in amusement.

“True enough. Just try to get this one on the first attempt.”

Donys tightened his grip on the handle. Beyond them, Dwalin was all but howling, shouting threats and begging for Bilbo in the same breath. Bilbo tried tugging his hand free, but it was useless. “Please don’t do this,” he pleaded. “Donys, please.”

At his name, Donys shut his eyes. Bilbo’s stomach twisted until he thought he’d be sick. “The note itself will be enough, I swear. You could ask for the entire treasury and he’d give it to you with just your words, you don’t, you don’t have to do this-“

“I don’t want a treasury, your majesty,” Caledon said, and when Bilbo met his gaze, it was cold and dark. “I just want one piece out of it. And given what I’ve heard of your husband, it will take a great deal to make him part with it. I want what my older brother was promised but never got: I want the Arkenstone. And it will take more than words for Thorin Oakenshield to give it up. Donys, his hand, now.”

The Arkenstone. Even as his words whirled through Bilbo’s mind, even as Bilbo began pleading again, lips tripping over themselves in an effort to stay Donys’s hand, Donys pulled the axe back above his head. Bilbo glanced up and met Donys’s eyes once. Just once. Their gaze held.

The axe swung down and landed deep into the wood, far from Bilbo and his hand. Bilbo curled his fingers back away from the blade. Caledon paused, both he and Arius looking up at the distinct lack of pained screamed they’d obviously expected. “Donys?” Caledon asked, his tone an obvious warning.

Donys let out a casual sigh, as if he could care less. “We could have more, if he’s whole. If we gave him back whole, we could have gold, too. What king would pay for a damaged husband?”

“And how will he know that we’re serious?” Caledon asked, but his eyes were calculating. Bilbo turned away from his gaze.

Donys shrugged. “Blood? A lock of hair?”

“Perhaps a finger,” Arius suggested, but Donys shook his head.

“Too much damage. No, if we want the whole stone and then some, we’d be better off with a whole hobbit and then some.” He jerked his head towards the cage. “The Captain of the Guard and the Ringbearer. That’s got to be worth it to the king. Especially if they’re returned in one piece.”

“I could write, in my own hand,” Bilbo offered, trying to quell the shaking in his voice. But his heart was still in his throat, pounding in his ears, the axe still too close to his fingers. “I-I could ask for the…the Arkenstone.”

“Now there’s a clever idea,” Caledon said, nodding to Bilbo. “Not bad, little brother. Not bad. Get him over here. I think this will work nicely.”

The chain was released on one end, then the other, and then his wrist was free. Bilbo jerked it back against his chest, rubbing his wrist to restore feeling. There was blood from where the chain had cut, and his fingers tingled. But it was still attached, thanks to Donys’s mercy.

Donys was suddenly in front of him, kneeling before him. “I won’t hurt you,” he promised, and he carefully reached for Bilbo’s wrist. Gently he began to rub at the skin, restoring feeling. Bilbo stayed as still as he could, trying to imagine that this was just a friend helping him. A friend who’d saved his life.

“Thank you,” he managed, and Donys smiled fondly at him. It made Bilbo want to tug his hand back. Instead he let Donys have it, then allowed the man to help him up. All the way to the fire, Donys was right behind him, hands resting carefully on his shoulders. Just resting, but it was discomfiting all the same.

Caledon shoved an ink feather into his hand. “Write,” he ordered, and Bilbo began to look around for the ink well that they’d used. His eyes skimmed over what they’d written.

in exchange for the Arkenstone, you will be given back your husband the hobbit, whole and unharmed, as well as the Captain of Erebor…

“I need ink,” he said after a moment, and Caledon grinned.

“From your veins, your majesty.”

Bilbo stilled. Donys’s hands tightened on his shoulders. “Cale-“

“You suggested blood, brother, and I think it’s a good idea. From your veins, Bilbo Baggins, and either you do it or I will.”

Dwalin was yelling again, throwing out threats that were meaningless. Still, they bolstered Bilbo’s courage, and he took the feather tip to his arm, to a spot where he felt it would hurt the least. With the three men staring at him, he took a deep breath and sank the feather tip into his arm, his breath hitching as blood gushed forward.

He refused to focus on the pain and instead began writing as quickly as he could.

Thorin,

They want the Arkenstone in exchange for me and Dwalin. If there is any gold to be spared, the three of them would also gladly take it. We are alive, but without you, we will not survive. They are as clever as spiders, and there are no rocks in their heads. Tall as trees and just as dangerous, I beg of you to heed their warning

“That’s enough,” Caledon said sharply, ripping the feather from Bilbo’s hand and spreading a line of blood across the bottom of the parchment. “Donys, take him back to the cage.”

With kind hands Donys turned him around and back to the cage. Bilbo kept a hand on his arm, which was still flowing freely. It burned, and he winced, even though Donys was careful to put him back into the cage.

As soon as he was inside, Dwalin grabbed him and held him tight. “It’s all right,” he murmured, clutching Bilbo close, and Bilbo realized he was shaking, little gasps making their way out of his mouth. He clung back, the pain in his arm almost more than he could handle as the adrenaline rush gave way to lethargy and dizziness.

Dwalin stiffened, and Bilbo glanced to the edge of the cage. Donys was crouched beside it, a mug of water in one hand, a long strip of linen in the other. “Let me bandage it,” Donys said, giving Bilbo a small smile. “It’s the least I can do.”

“I can do it easily enough,” Dwalin said, barely restraining his growl.

Donys pursed his lips. “I think I have the better arm reach at the moment. Allow me.”

He wasn’t going to take no for an answer, unless Bilbo wanted the wound to fester. Reluctantly he shuffled himself forward, hearing Dwalin curse under his breath. Donys brightened upon seeing him and pulled Bilbo’s arm through the cage. “It must hurt an awful lot,” Donys remarked, biting his lip. “I’m so sorry. It was that or your hand.”

“I’m grateful, I truly am,” Bilbo said. The thought of how close he’d come to losing his hand still left him trembling a little. Blood was a small price to pay instead.

“I couldn’t let him hurt you,” Donys said. “I just couldn’t.” He carefully used the water to clean the wound, then patted it dry. He was fastidious in his movements, devoted to Bilbo and Bilbo alone, and it left Bilbo’s stomach twisting.

“Why?” Bilbo finally dared to ask. Nearly a week of Donys’s stares and gentleness, and now his actions tonight: Bilbo thought he deserved to ask.

Donys glanced up at Bilbo through his lashes. “You’re Bilbo Baggins, the greatest being to ever walk the earth,” he said simply. “You’re the Ringbearer, the Defeater of Sauron. And…you’re the Kind One. So gentle and so small, in a good way, mind, and…you’re like a statue, a living statue. You’re a real hero.” His one hand was now wrapped around Bilbo’s wrist, gently, but Bilbo had no doubts that he’d tighten it if Bilbo tried to pull away. He kept himself as still as he could.

With a small huff of laughter Donys began wrapping Bilbo’s wound. “I could never let him hurt you,” he said. “I swear to you. You’re too…too incredible. I could hardly believe I was really looking at the real Bilbo Baggins, when I first saw you. But you were real. You were truly there. Just…you have no idea how beautiful you truly are, inside and out. A genuine hero. My hero.”

Oh Eru, he wanted Thorin. He wanted Thorin to hide him, he wanted Thorin to hold him, he wanted to be anywhere except there with Donys and his misguided attention and hero worship that had obviously spiraled out of control. The wound was wrapped, but Donys continued to hold his wrist, thumb brushing gently against his skin.

Bilbo finally cleared his throat. “Thank you for seeing to my wound,” he said, and Donys seemed to shake himself and finally, finally, let go. Bilbo tried to be as slow about returning his hand as possible, but all he wanted was to clutch it to his chest.

“Of course. Is your other arm…?”

“Healing, thanks to the salve you gave me. Truly, I am grateful. I hope the note suffices.” And that Thorin would pick up on the note’s hidden message.

Donys made a face. “I hope so, too. I would hate for you to be hurt again. You don’t look right when you’re hurt, when you’re in pain. I don’t want that. I care for you too much for that. Caledon is just so swept up in doing what Lenegar couldn’t do-“

Bilbo swore his heart stopped. “Lenegar?” he asked.

“Our oldest brother,” Donys said, pitching his voice low. “He was with a woman named Caila, and he never came home. Caledon swore revenge, that he would have what Lenegar was supposed to have as a spoil of war: the Arkenstone. That’s where you come in, I’m afraid. But don’t worry: I’ll keep you safe.”

He left then, and Bilbo’s mind continued to spin. Lenegar? Lenegar was Caledon’s older brother? The man with the long dark hair, standing beside Caila until the end, swinging at Bilbo until Thorin had ended his life with one well placed blow. No wonder he’d looked so familiar.

“Dwalin-“

“I heard,” Dwalin muttered, and then Bilbo was thankfully back in his dwarf brother’s arms. “He comes near you again, I’m liable to try and bite his wrist off.”

“He’s the only ally we’ve got,” Bilbo offered weakly, but Dwalin shook his head.

“I don’t care. M’not lettin’ him near you again. Never mind that Thorin would have my head for him touchin’ you: I’d have my head for it.”

Bilbo shuddered and leaned his head back against Dwalin’s shoulder. “He could’ve taken my hand,” Bilbo whispered, and Dwalin stilled. “But he didn’t.”

“I would’ve ripped ‘em apart with my bare hands, if they’d hurt you,” Dwalin swore after a long moment. He swallowed hard and pulled Bilbo closer, mindful of his still tender arm. “Still would for makin’ you bleed, but if they’d taken your hand? Nowhere on earth they could’ve hidden.”

Others would consider it violent, the deadly promises Dwalin was making. Bilbo knew what it really was: it was kinship, the promise to protect at any cost. It left him calm, soothing him and letting his heart start to slow. “Thank you,” he murmured.

Dwalin just rested his hand on Bilbo’s back and began stroking gently, as he did with Ori when he was upset, or Merry when the thunderstorms frightened the little hobbit. Bilbo let it soothe him, the adrenaline rush dropping so rapidly that darkness encroached on his vision, and he let it.



“Uncle?”

Thorin didn’t move. Slowly Fili walked forward to the cliff side where Thorin was currently standing. His uncle was tense, facing off into the distance, hands clasped behind him. Not that Fili exactly expected an answer: Thorin hadn’t really spoken much since they’d sent the raven off to Erebor. Ori would no doubt be furious. They’d all be furious, at the fact that Dwalin and Bilbo had been taken, and the thought of his hobbit uncle in distress left Fili wanting to chop down the nearest tree, no matter how many swings of his blade it took.

Fili stopped a few paces from Thorin. Even from here, the clenched jaw was obvious, and so were the eyes that were cast off into the darkness. As if he could see Bilbo, if he only looked hard enough. Fili swallowed. “Dain’s got supper nearly ready. He said you should eat, and you should.”

Thorin didn’t say anything. If anything, he only tensed the more. “It doesn’t smell bad,” Fili offered. “I didn’t know he could cook, but it’s got a good aroma. Enough to keep us warm through the night.”

Still nothing. Fili bit back the sigh and stepped closer. “He’d want you to eat,” he said at last, hating himself for the low blow but needing to do it.

Thorin slowly turned, his eyes blazing in the night. “That’s what you’re stooping to?” he said lowly. “Using your uncle to make me eat, like a child?”

“It’s true, and you know it,” Fili countered. “Bilbo would crack me over the head if I didn’t get you to eat something. Then he’d start in on you, poking you and insisting that he wouldn’t be able to eat if you didn’t eat something. Dwalin would say something about hobbits never being able to not eat, and Bilbo would scowl at him and mention something about honeycombs, which never fails to make Dwalin go red in the face, and the point is that they’d both want you to eat. You can’t exactly go barging in to their rescue if you don’t have any strength.”

His chest was heaving by the time he was done, though his voice had never raised above a quiet tone. Thorin’s fury was no longer present, and there was almost a faint turning up of his lips. “So come eat,” Fili said, feeling a little foolish for having been so dramatic. It had felt necessary, a few moments ago.

Thorin shook his head, but he rested a hand on Fili’s shoulder, and there was a definite smile on his face now, tinged with sorrow. “You will make an excellent king one day,” he said softly. “I can only hope to live to see you ascend to the throne.”

Fili felt his face heat a little. “Sure, stick me with the hardest task of all, ruling a kingdom. I thought getting you to eat would be hard enough.”

“It does smell good,” Thorin conceded. “Though I’m concerned with it having been done by Dain. It never bodes well.”

“Why, can’t he cook?” Fili asked.

Thorin’s face looked to have been made of stone. “No, he can cook expertly. But he only does so when he needs to make an apology. The night that the journey to Erebor was decided against, he treated me to a feast he insisted on preparing by himself.”

Oh. That put a whole new spin on why Dain had insisted he have the pot and the herbs to himself. “Maybe it’s an apology for not riding the horses as well as we do?” he finally said. Dain had been almost indignant about leaving the ponies behind, but it had been clear very quickly that ponies and horses couldn’t keep the same pace.

“We will see. But be prepared to separate. I fear Dain’s patience is at an end.” He moved back towards the others, then paused, glancing over at Fili. “Thank you,” he said softly. He patted Fili’s cheek twice, then continued on his way.

Fili stood by himself for a moment more, feeling the welcome breeze whipping through the air. The days were only getting warmer, and each afternoon of traveling under the sun was hot and unwelcome. If they hadn’t been so concerned about following the small trail of tracks they’d found, he would’ve welcomed a rain cloud. They’d come soon enough, he would bet on it. Hopefully not until they found out whether the tracks led further into the forest, or went away from the Greenwood.

He finally returned to their small camp, settling down beside Gimli and Nori. Thorin stood by the fire, where Dain was ladling out his stew. “Cousin?” Dain offered, handing him a bowl.

Thorin took it carefully and did not take a bite. “It’s good,” Dain promised with a grin. “My father’s own recipe. Do you remember?”

“I do,” Thorin said. Without preamble he added, “What is your next move?”

Dain’s grin fell away, and he set the ladle back into the pot with a sigh. “How you always know me so well, I don’t understand,” he muttered. Louder, he said, “I cannot go with you any further, cousin. I must return to my own lands.”

“You don’t think this search is important?” Gimli asked, his voice almost a growl. “You don’t think findin’ Dwalin, Captain of the Guard and cousin to your own kin, and Bilbo Baggins, Ringbearer and savior of our good green earth, is important?”

“Do not put words in my mouth, Gimli son of Gloin,” Dain warned, and Fili could all but feel him shrugging on the duty and command of a leader. Fili straightened his back, giving his own warning to Dain. Do not seek a fight with us. It won’t end well for you. “I must return to my own duties. My guard will continue on with you, those I can spare, and I will send more if I can.”

Fili didn’t breathe, waiting for the ‘but’ he was certain was coming. Dain seemed to be contemplating his next words, stirring the stew. Thorin still hadn’t taken a bite yet, fingers wrapped tight around his bowl.

Dain finally sighed. “This is what I had to speak with you about, cousin,” he said. “My kingdom is in an uproar. Leaving for as long as I have can only make things worse.”

“We would have come to you-“

“Which would have been worse still,” Dain interrupted, cutting Fili off. Fili bristled but pushed his personal feelings aside. “For it is not me that is the problem, but you. You and your kingdom and your heroic tales that are the stuff of legend. Your kingdom has prosperity, while the Iron Hills? We are just that: hills next to your mountain of grandeur.”

“If you would have but asked it of me, I would have happily distributed the wealth,” Thorin began, an edge of righteous anger to his tone, but Dain waved him off.

“As a loan? Because that would establish me as a true and wise ruler, of course.”

“As a gift. You came to me in my time of need; I would do the same for you, now.”

“It was not enough!” Dain shouted, standing suddenly. Nori reached instinctively for his blade, and Fili managed to catch him by the arm. The guards around them went still, no doubt waiting for the call to arms.

Dain stood, fists trembling, glaring at Thorin. “It was not enough, cousin! It is nowhere near equal!”

“What isn’t enough, Dain? What more would you ask of me?”

“Not of me asking you, of you asking me!”

Fili felt his head spinning, not understanding where Dain was coming from. Dril, surprisingly, spoke up. “You think the help you offered Erebor isn’t enough to ask for a gift?”

Dain’s shoulders slumped. Thorin seemed unable to comprehend Dril’s quiet words. “Dain-“

“I rejected you and your journey, all those years ago. I would not stand with you, I did not pledge to aid you. Then you not only accomplished your task, but set out on another grander adventure, ridding our world of the greatest plague that has ever existed. You found your heart’s desiring in the greatest being the earth may ever see, you have heirs upon heirs to your throne. Erebor continues to thrive with alliances in every corner of the earth. All I offered you, what I did for Balin under your request, is essentially mountain-sitting. I wandered the halls and roamed what you had taken back. I sat until you returned in triumph.”

Thorin stared, stunned. “You called me to travel to the Grey Mountains because you’re jealous?” he said incredulously.

Dain’s cheeks went red in embarrassment and anger. “What would I have done? Called you to my hills, where already my people are gathering to leave every day to your mountain? Having you there, proving to all that not only is the line of Durin strong, but your happiness and wealth is as true as the tales say…what I have to compare to that?”

“Dain, you have done your people proud,” Fili said, shaking his head and rising at last. “You have kept your borders safe, you have kept them well fed and provided for. That is all a kingdom can ask for.”

“I should not even dare to call it a ‘kingdom’,” Dain said bitterly. “They are hills. They are nothing compared to what you have done.”

“What I have done is suffered a great deal of pain for what I have,” Thorin said sharply. “I fought my way into Mordor and saw more darkness than I would ever wish for anyone else to see. I have been down into the depths of Moria and witnessed first-hand creatures of horror and death. I have stared fate in the face to spare my husband and my sons and nearly lost my life and theirs more times than I can count. I have been made a target, had Bilbo made into a target, simply because of what we have faced. There is good to be had, for all we have accomplished, but there is also pain and terror and evil, too. I would give anything, anything, for a simple kingdom with nothing more to worry about than the daily going-ons. I would give anything for a peaceful life with Bilbo by my side and my kin about me.”

Dain had shrunk back with each word Thorin had spit out until he was at least four steps away from where he’d begun. Thorin’s chest was heaving, and Fili winced at the pain, the grief, in his eyes, of all the painful memories that had led them to this point. Then there was the very good point of why they were here, now, searching for Bilbo and Dwalin, and it was probably for the very reasons Thorin had laid out.

Dain finally straightened his shoulders. “I do not envy your pain, cousin,” he said. “I will leave guard for you to take with you.”

“No need,” Nori said, standing. “We’ve guard enough. Last thing we need is for something to befall you, on your way back to the Iron Hills. We’d be split in two, trying to find you and Bilbo.”

Dain shook his head. “I doubt it would happen. I am not of Erebor. Perhaps I will be, in future days.”

If more continued to leave the Iron Hills, it could be true. Not that Dain needed that pointed out. “No matter why or when you came to visit Erebor, we would want it to be your home, just as we would consider the Iron Hills a home,” Fili said.

After a long moment, Dain gave a bitter smile. “You always did keep good dwarves about you,” he said to Thorin. “You always did.” He took his bowl of stew and moved over to the other side of their camp.

Fili glanced over at his uncle and watched as pain flashed across his face. His husband missing along with his one cousin, his other cousin cutting ties for such a small perceived slight. “Uncle,” Fili said softly, and at last Thorin turned to him. Dril rose to stand beside him, and he knew Nori was doing the same, even if Fili couldn’t hear him. The other guards with them also stood tall with nods of encouragement.

Thorin wasn’t alone. He wasn’t going to be alone. And they would find Bilbo. Not a single one of them there would leave Bilbo or Dwalin out here to the mercy of whomever had taken them. The Guard were loyal to Dwalin beyond any measure, and all of them adored and respected Bilbo, respected their king.

Thorin slowly took a breath and then gave them a nod. “Thank you,” he said quietly. His voice was a little hoarse, and Fili gave him a quick nod in reply, before his uncle’s emotions could get the better of him.

“Aye, we’ll find ‘em,” Gimli said from where he stood beside Dril. “And Mahal willin’, I’ll have a head or five to crack open.”

Thorin snorted, eyes shining but lips turned up into a helpless grin. Fili rolled his eyes but reached around Dril to give Gimli a hidden pat on the back. “Always can rely on you for the moral support, cousin,” he drawled, and this time it was Nori’s turn to snort.

The rest of the evening passed swiftly after that, and the next morning, Dain and his guard left. Two remained behind, to help aid the search, though Fili had no doubt about where they would go after Bilbo and Dwalin were found. Dwalin would welcome them to the Guard, most certainly, and for a moment, Fili felt sympathetic towards Dain. His own people deserting him.

Though, if one let his jealousy and misremembered slights rule him, Fili wasn’t certain what kind of leader he could be.

The next day, nearly two weeks after Bilbo and Dwalin had gone missing, a raven found them, with a message from Dis. There’s a ransom note, here in Erebor. You need to return to the mountain now.

The entire group, Dain’s two guards included, all turned for Erebor.

Chapter Text

“Home sweet home,” Caledon said, in a cheerful mood once more. Bilbo tried to catch a glimpse of the area through the dark, but wound up having to wait for a fire to be lit before he had a better chance.

A few tents were set up, leaves scattered all over them to better blend into the forest around them. A small stream trickled through nearby, too small to be significant on a map. A few crates were set up haphazardly around the area, making it look abandoned. Yet when Arius pulled blankets from them, it was obvious that this camp was very much inhabited.

“Feed them,” Caledon said. “I’m traveling tomorrow to gauge whether our king is willing to deal. We’ll see if he values you over the heart of the mountain, little Halfling.” He let his gaze fall to the cage, and Dwalin slowly curled a hand around Bilbo’s wrist. Just enough to keep him solid under that hateful stare.

Then Caledon was moving over again to another part of the camp, whistling jauntily as if he had not a care in the world. Even Arius gave him a wider berth than usual. Bilbo could well imagine that they’d learned the trick years and years ago: Caledon’s good moods often led to worse moods, and swiftly.

The night fell, the warm air almost comfortable, given how hot the cage had gotten through the day. Arius and Caledon both went to their respective tents, Donys having already retired, and Bilbo tried to curl up in a comfortable place. Dwalin was already out for the count, and the place near him held just enough room for Bilbo to rest. Despite the circumstances, Bilbo couldn’t help but smile. “Always looking out for me, aren’t you,” he said softly. Dwalin didn’t answer, slumbering on. His friend, the stalwart strength he and the others had relied on through the years. The man Bilbo had come to call his older brother. He moved over, then froze when something caught his ankle.

By the door of the cage knelt Donys, and he was slowly unlocking the door. He jerked his head, then tugged at Bilbo’s ankle in a sort of warning when Bilbo went to reach for Dwalin. He had no weapon in his hand, but Arius and Caledon weren’t that far off. The very thought of what Caledon would do to him, do to Dwalin, if they were found…

Slowly Bilbo backed out of the cage. Donys caught him by the arm as he quickly locked the cage again, then pulled him towards his tent. “I want to speak with you,” he whispered.

Bilbo’s heart was hammering in his chest. This could be his chance. Maybe he could convince Donys to let them go. They were in the Greenwood, he was sure of it, and if they could get free, Bilbo knew he could find the Elven-King’s palace. Maybe Legolas or Kili was there, even. They could hide, they could get back to Erebor.

Donys closed the tent flaps behind him, and Bilbo took the chance to look around. It was a meager pallet spread across the ground, with little pillows that ranged from the badly stitched to the most plush, decorative things he’d ever seen before. A little candle sat atop a wooden stool, finely crafted, next to a plate of random fruits and cheeses. It was very obviously someone’s space, and as rich as some of the things were, it left Bilbo’s heart twisting for the young man who had so little.

“Donys, you don’t have to stay here,” he began softly, mindful that the others were but a few crates away. “You could leave them. You’ve got a good mind, you could find a better life.”

Donys’s eyes lit up. “That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you! That’s what I want. I’m so glad you feel the same way. I promise I could get us far from here before they even notice-“

“Wait, what?” Bilbo shook his head. “No, Donys. I mean, I’d like for you to let me and Dwalin go, but I wouldn’t go with you.”

There was a long pause. Donys finally caught the plate of fruits and cheeses and offered them to Bilbo. “I thought you might like them,” he said. “Instead of hard crusts. It’s the least you deserve.”

Bilbo forced himself to breathe. “Donys, I can’t go with you,” he said again, not taking anything from the plate. “But you could settle in Dale-“

“Where I could, what, watch you from afar?” Donys snorted. “I promise I’d take care of you, give you anything you could want, I would…I would make you happy. So happy, if you’d just let me.”

He’d heard tales from the young people of the Shire, of having suitors so infatuated with them, and no returned feelings. How it had made them feel so awful and so uncomfortable, how they’d sometimes wished, just a little bit, to feel the same, while others had never wanted to be left alone so desperately before. But Bilbo had never understood what it even meant to be in love, had never expected to have his heart reach out to another.

Then he’d met Thorin, and twelve years later, his heart was still firmly wrapped around his husband. The thought of him, the memory of his smile, of his fingers caressing Bilbo’s face, it made him want to close his eyes and pretend to be anywhere else except for here, with this eager youth he didn’t know what to do with. “Donys-“

“I love you,” Donys insisted, and Bilbo froze. “I do. You, you make my heart sing, you and your fabulous tales, your courage and your kindness-“

He didn’t have a single idea about Bilbo, not truly. “You think you love me, but you’re in love with an idea, a story,” Bilbo said. “This is hero worship, Donys. And I’m flattered, but you’ll find someone else, someone who will be your world, your everything. I’m not that person.”

“You could be,” Donys said stubbornly. “If you let yourself.”

“That’s not how love works. I already gave my heart to someone else, and I love him.”

“We could go to the Shire,” Donys said, completely ignoring him. “That’s where you’re from, right? What’s it like?”

Bilbo sighed. “Green hills, a little river, lots of hobbits.”

“And food?” Donys persisted. “Cakes?”

Bilbo began to answer as dismissively as he had before, then paused. Donys was truly hanging on to every word that Bilbo had spoken thus far, as if desperate for a dream, a world better than the one he was in. “Pies and cakes,” he said quietly. “The smell just wafts through the entire town. There’s flowers and trees that lend their own fragrance to the breeze, and children play and laugh in the paths while the adults just talk and enjoy each other’s company.” Donys was enraptured, watching him with bright eyes. Sensing a chance, Bilbo began, “You know, my kin are planning a trip to the Shire, soon. I might go with them. You could come with us, my husband and I, he wouldn’t mind, and you could see it-“

“We could go, you and me,” Donys said firmly. “I’d take you. I’d brave the mountains for you, you’d see how dedicated I am to you.”

It just wasn’t sinking in. “Donys, I’m married to Thorin, he is the only one I’ll ever be with, the only one I’ll ever love. I can’t just, just give my heart away, not when he has it.” And would always have it.

Donys suddenly sat up, and Bilbo was quickly reminded of their size difference, that if Donys had half a mind to, he could hurt Bilbo without even breaking a sweat. “He won’t ask for you back,” Donys said sharply. “Why would he part with the Arkenstone? He doesn’t love you that much.”

Unbidden, memories of pain from all those years ago ran through his head. The bright, glimmering Arkenstone in his hands, giving it to Bard and Thranduil when Thorin refused to listen to reason. Thorin nearly killing him, the gold lust running through his veins, calling him betrayer and traitor and banishing him. “It’s but a trinket.”

Even now, the gold pin was carefully tucked away beneath his vest, reminding Bilbo that it had been given back, that Thorin had begged his forgiveness, that they were married and he was loved. The Arkenstone was buried somewhere in the depths of the mountain.

But…what if it was true? Thorin hadn’t laid eyes on it since that day, as far as he knew. What if the temptation of so many years ago came rushing back?

“You know it’s true,” Donys pushed when Bilbo didn’t answer. “I wouldn’t give you up for gold. I wouldn’t. I would love you, if you’d just let me-“

“Donys, no,” Bilbo said firmly, and Donys reared back as if he’d slapped him. Bilbo swallowed and tried again. “I can’t love you when I love him. And even if…even if Thorin were to keep the Arkenstone, and choose the stone over me…I wouldn’t stop loving him. He has my heart, my very being. I love him.”

The young man looked close to tears. Bilbo slowly, carefully, reached out and rested his hand on top of Donys’s. Donys bit his lip, as if Bilbo’s touch was all he’d ever wanted. “You’ll find someone, one day,” he said softly. “Someone who adores you for you. But you can’t do that here, Donys. You’ve got to get out. Let us help you.”

“They’re all the family I’ve got,” he said helplessly. “You don’t, you don’t understand, Bilbo. Not even the same mother. Maybe not even the same father. The only thing I remember is Lenegar, Caledon, and Arius. Just the four of us. And Lenegar got all wrapped up with that woman and then he never came home, and Cale told us we were supposed to live off of those riches, that we wouldn’t be thieves anymore. That we’d have a home.” He snorted. “Should’ve known better than to listen to him. Cale’s always been out for himself. Arius he’s all right with, but me? I’ve always been trapped under him. But he’s still taken care of me, he’s still cared. I can’t turn my back on them now.”

He glanced up at Bilbo, tears in his eyes. “I would’ve, would’ve left,” he managed. “If you’d have come with me. But I won’t go by myself. I want you to come with me, please.” And he leaned forward, before Bilbo could back away. His breath was heavy on Bilbo’s face, and Bilbo froze, heart pounding in his ears.

Slowly, carefully, Donys pressed his lips lightly to Bilbo’s cheek. “You’re everything I could have ever wanted,” he whispered. “My hero.” He hung beside Bilbo, his breath hitching, before he backed away. And Bilbo hated sympathizing with him, he hated it, because he didn’t want to feel for this young man who was far too broken for his age. Not this young man who wanted Bilbo in ways Bilbo would never give him. He didn’t want to be his hero. He just wanted to go home with Dwalin, to throw himself into Thorin’s arms.

Oh Eru, Thorin. He wanted his husband to be here so much.

When Bilbo still said nothing, over the next long moments, Donys finally took Bilbo by the arm and led him back over to the cage. The door opened and shut just as quietly as it had before, and then Bilbo was left in the dark with Dwalin, watching Donys return to his tent. His shoulders were hunched, and Bilbo’s gut twisted.

“He hurt you?”

Dwalin’s voice, dark and angry, left Bilbo releasing the tension in his own body. “No,” he said softly. “No, he didn’t. He wanted me to run away with him.”

“You should’ve taken it, then run from him when you could,” Dwalin said immediately. “You did the ‘noble’ thing instead, didn’t you?”

“I’m not going to lie,” Bilbo said sharply. “And I’m not leaving you.”

Dwalin shook his head and somehow, in the darkness, found Bilbo’s hand to pat. “Thorin’s right: you’re insufferable and stubborn,” he muttered, but there was a fondness in his tone.

Bilbo smiled. “Typically, we switch off. He’s insufferable and I’m stubborn, or vice versa. We never claim both titles at once: that’s greedy.”

Dwalin snorted and shifted into a more comfortable position. “Get some sleep. Somethin’ tells me we’ll be free in a short time.”

That would be wonderful. Bilbo finally pulled himself into a ball, away from the edges of the cage, and let his eyes drift shut. The last thing he saw before he fell asleep was the candle in Donys’s tent burning merrily into the night.



The winds whipped a rare breeze over the gates, relieving the heat for just a short bit. Down on the field, the taller grass danced about, looking deceptively soft and beautiful. If one but moved through it, though, it would be sharp and leave one itching for hours. Somehow, Bilbo never complained about it until much later, in the evening, when he took a bath and muttered about tall grass still leaving red and angry scratches up and down his legs.

“My liege?”

Thorin slowly tried to let out a breath, to try and breathe past the iron bands that seemed to have taken up residence around his lungs ever since…

Well.

“We’re ready for you,” Hril said quietly. “We’d have done it, as requested, but Dril and I thought you deserved to be the one who did it.”

Thorin glanced over his shoulder at the dwarf. He’d become an invaluable friend and guard over the past two years, and now, with Dwalin gone, both he and Dril had taken over running the Guard while its captain was away. Something Thorin appreciated more than words could say.

“Lead on,” he said. Hril gave him a short nod and did so, letting Thorin follow at his own pace. With every step he took, his eyes kept begging him to look out to the field, to see if Bilbo was there, if they were holding him just beyond the tree line-

He shook himself, and instantly the ransom note came back to mind.

To the King of Erebor

We have your Captain of Guard, and your husband, Bilbo Baggins. We only want one thing for their lives: the Heart of the Mountain, the Arkenstone. It was promised to my brother, Lenegar, but never given. It grieves us that it has come to this, that our exchange could not be made more peaceably.

But come to this it has, and so, in exchange for the Arkenstone, you will be given back your husband the hobbit, whole and unharmed, as well as the Captain of Erebor. They are being kept in a secret place, and you will not be able to find them. You only chance of seeing them alive once more, and having them returned to you, is to bring the Arkenstone to the field in front of Erebor on the twelfth day of the month.

However, it is a long travel for us, and we understand how precious the Arkenstone truly is. Therefore, if you will not be giving us the Arkenstone, we would like to know in advance. Please hang a green banner from Erebor’s gates if your wish is to keep the stone. We will dispense of the Captain and Bilbo Baggins immediately, sparing you the grief.

If you wish to make the trade on the day offered above, hang a purple banner above your gates, and we will meet you before your mountain. We are very graciously giving you two people for only one stone, so several crates of gold would not go amiss.

Keep the field clear and empty. We will only speak with you. You are allowed two guards. Any more, and we will leave you a dead body.

The note was still in his pocket, and his finger rested over it once more. The desperate writing beneath the note, a written blood stain from Bilbo, had left Fili cursing and Thorin ready to murder. It hadn’t been the careful handwriting of his husband that he’d come to recognize and know through the years. It had been swift and messy, and the last dragged line had only spoken of violence against Bilbo, to keep him from writing further.

It didn’t matter. His clues had been enough, and a raven had been sent to Kili, Legolas, and Tauriel, who were still in the Greenwood.

Your search is not in vain. Bilbo and Dwalin are somewhere in the forest.

The clues of ‘spider’, ‘no rocks’, and ‘trees’ were enough for Thorin. Somewhere, off the beaten path of the forest, was Bilbo. And Mahal help these thieves when they were found.

Because Thorin would find them. Until then, he would play their game.

“My liege,” Hril said, gesturing towards the cord. Thorin didn’t even so much as pause as he grabbed the slip knot and pulled hard.

The purple banner unfurled gloriously above the gates, a perfect display of obedience. It was the least Thorin could do. Anything to keep Bilbo and Dwalin alive for just a little bit longer.

It just wouldn’t be the only color Erebor would hang.

“Drape Erebor in the red,” Thorin said, eyes still searching the field. Bilbo was out there, and he was going to find him. “We are a week from the ransom date. We go to war now.”

“At once,” Hril said shortly. He left with several other guards, shouting orders and hurrying to find the drapes. Thorin remained at the gates, hands clasped behind him.

“Hold on,” Thorin murmured. “Hold on, beloved. We’re coming.”



It was quiet, that night. With Caledon gone, Arius had gotten even quieter, not saying a word. Donys, too, had been quiet, but no less kind than before. He continued to feed them, even brought them the grapes and cheese he’d had in his tent. When Bilbo had quietly told him that he didn’t need to do that, Donys had shaken his head with the tiniest of smiles and left them the plate. It was the first real, fresh food that Bilbo had had in three weeks, and it had been savored, every bite. Dwalin had left him the fruit, save for two pieces, and had instead focused on the cheese. It had been an energy booster as much as it had been a lift to morale.

Then, in a stroke of pure luck, the keys had fallen from Donys’s worn pocket onto the ground, just within reach. Whether he’d done it on purpose or not was yet to be decided – Bilbo highly doubted that he had, given how worn the pocket had been where he’d always placed them – but Bilbo had snatched them up before they could so much as make a sound on the forest floor, and he’d clung to them ever since.

In the quiet of the night, they’d acted.

The cage door slid open without so much as a groan, just as it had a million times before that. Bilbo slowly slipped out and Dwalin was quick to follow. The dwarf stumbled, upon getting to his feet for the first real time in days, and Bilbo caught him before he could fall. I’m all right, Dwalin mouthed, but he kept his hand on Bilbo’s shoulder. Once he was finally steady, they quickly searched the camp for their weapons, but they were nowhere to be found. Dwalin finally pointed to the small path where Caledon had gone, days ago, and hadn’t yet returned.

The dark of the forest didn’t exactly help keep them quiet, but Dwalin had better night vision, and Bilbo kept a firm grip on his tunic. His arm throbbed, just a little, and oh, it would be so good to be back in Erebor, where Oin could properly treat the burns. He was lucky they hadn’t gotten infected thus far.

They kept going all through the night, leaving Bilbo stumbling more than once after the initial adrenaline rush of escaping faded away. They’d turned north when they could, hoping to throw off their pursuers when they were discovered missing. If they could go north, then come back south to Erebor, that gave them a fighting chance. Plus, if they were discovered, at least they were going the right way for the palace.

Except they were closer to the edge than Bilbo had thought, and by noon he could recognize where they were. “Didn’t go very far from the Grey Mountains, did they?” Dwalin asked as the sun began to beat down on them.

Bilbo shook his head, feeling weary and dizzy. He wiped at the sweat on his brow and glanced around again. The fields around them were bare and empty, and far off ahead of them were the Grey Mountains. Somewhere further to their west, in the forest, was the palace. South east lay Erebor. They weren’t far, perhaps a day of walking at most from Erebor.

The temptation was almost too strong. They could be back in Erebor in the early hours of the morning, Bilbo could be back in Thorin’s arms before the next sunrise. He took an inadvertent step before he even realized what he was doing, and Dwalin caught him and hauled him back.

“Better safe than sorry,” Dwalin rumbled. “Caledon’s watchin’ Erebor, and who knows how close he is. We’ll go a little further north, then go east, then south. We’ll come up from behind the mountain.”

Tomorrow, then. Most definitely tomorrow. “Then hurry,” Bilbo said.

Dwalin grunted. “You and me both. I’m almost lookin’ forward to the tongue-lashin’ that Ori’s bound to give me.”

Bilbo would’ve laughed if he’d had the energy. Thorin would wrap him up and probably pull him off his feet, arms tangled around his husband with the refusal to let go until he’d had his fill. He’d cup Bilbo’s face and brush their foreheads together-

Oh Eru, he was just making it worse. Now it wasn’t just that he wanted his husband there, he was longing for him, with every fiber of his being, needing him as much as he needed the air to breathe and a cool drink to parch his thirst. That was a little more necessary.

Maybe. His heart was telling him otherwise.

A whistling sound suddenly got louder, and then it landed so close to Bilbo’s ankle that he tumbled away, wrenching it in the process. The arrow stood straight up from the earth, a threat and a promise. “Get them!” Caledon shouted, and they’d been found. They’d been found.

Dwalin hauled him up, his ankle aching but Bilbo didn’t care, they had to run, now. “Go!” Dwalin roared, and they both took off due east for Erebor. It was over that far plain, Bilbo knew it. They could get past that plain and then they’d be in visible sight of Erebor and probably even Dale. Oh Mahal they were so close-

Then he was being dragged away, hands wrenching him from Dwalin so fast he couldn’t fight back. “Dwalin!” he screamed as Donys and Arius both advanced on the dwarf. Dwalin looked more than ready to take them both, but his eyes kept frantically flitting over to Bilbo. Behind him, Caledon might as well have been made of steel, refusing to let go. He twisted his arm to try and get free, and Caledon ground his fingers into the burn wounds.

The pain, oh Eru the pain. Bilbo gasped and tried to get free, whimpering when Caledon’s grip was too much to bear. “Stop it, please,” Bilbo found himself begging. “Caledon, stop!”

“I’m not giving you two up when I’m this close to my prize,” he snarled. But his head was closer now, and Bilbo snapped his backward and straight into the man’s face. It hurt and left Bilbo’s head ringing, but Caledon let go, and Bilbo rushed forward to Dwalin’s defense. “Arius!” Caledon shouted, clutching at his face.

Arius immediately turned from Dwalin, leaving him to Donys, and made for Bilbo. Bilbo tried to cut under him, but Arius had the eyes and speed of an archer. Bilbo was quickly caught and pinned to the ground, a boot digging deep into his back. Any movement just dug further until he could feel blood soaking through his shirt.

Dwalin let out a yell that made him wrench his head up. Donys had caught the dwarf by the tunic, grappling with him, and Dwalin’s legs suddenly went out from underneath him. Bilbo stared, holding his breath, watching in numb horror as Donys shoved the dwarf into the grass and brought his blade down.

Dwalin let out a choked cry, and then was silent. Donys stood, blade sunk deep, gasping for air. All Bilbo could see were his shoulders heaving as he stood facing Dwalin. Dwalin’s body. His still, lifeless body.

“Donys,” Caledon ordered. Donys slowly wrenched his blade free, and when he turned back, the fresh blood glistening on it was obvious.

No. No, no, no-

Bilbo didn’t realize he was screaming until Arius dragged him up by his hair. Then he was thrown backwards at Caledon, and the punch from the man left him reeling and falling to the ground. The next thing he knew, there was a blade at his throat, and Caledon was ready to kill. He could see it in his eyes, the murderous intent, and this was it. There was nothing left.

“Cale, if you do this, then we have no leverage,” Donys said, sounding desperate. “Caledon! This is the Arkenstone! You said they waved purple, Erebor’s willing to deal. You’re going to lose it now because you’re angry?”

Caledon stopped above Bilbo, fury making his hands tremble and cut just a little into Bilbo’s skin. Bilbo could barely keep himself still, his grief threatening to pour out of him with every breath. Dwalin, Dwalin, Dwalin

“We caught them,” Donys said. “You caught them. Brilliant as ever, Cale. And now we only have Bilbo, just like you wanted in the first place.”

After a long pause, Caledon suddenly laughed, and the blade was pulled away from his throat. Bilbo felt sobs heaving out of him and forced himself to swallow them back. “Getting smarter every day, Donys,” he said. “You truly are.”

“We can’t stay out here, in the open,” Arius said. “Need to move.”

“Then we will. Move,” Caledon ordered. He hauled Bilbo up by his collar and shoved him towards Donys. “Donys, move him.”

“No,” Bilbo insisted, pushing and shoving because no, it couldn’t be, it wasn’t real, Dwalin wasn’t dead, he couldn’t be. “No, let me go!”

But Dwalin wasn’t moving. And Donys’s blade, coming ever closer, was covered in blood.

Hands caught him harshly, less harshly than they could have, and he didn’t care about Donys’s kindness, he didn’t care, he only wanted to be free, to go home, to help, oh Eru, to help Dwalin-

He thought he screamed, fearful and desperate to be free, to reach Dwalin, but then everything went black.

Chapter Text

It reverberated through his soul, leaving him slamming to a stop. “Legolas?” Kili called, but Tauriel caught him and held him back, fear in her own eyes. “I don’t understand,” he heard his husband say, but Legolas could only focus on the grief-stricken scream that had left him so jarred.

It was Bilbo, he could feel it. And the pain that the wind had carried to him was so horrific and violent that it made him want to retch.

“Is it Bilbo?” Tauriel asked, but she looked as if she already knew.

Kili was out from under her hands in an instant, sliding in front of Legolas and catching him by the arms. “Easy, love,” he murmured. “Easy.”

“Something terrible has happened,” Legolas said. Above him, the sky seemed more clear than it should have been, given the grief that the breeze had delivered him. For pain such as that could only be joined by death.

Only Kili’s gentle hands were keeping him upright by that point as Legolas tried to determine where it had come from. The breeze had not been long since its birth, and Legolas remembered having thanked it for joining them and cooling them from the sun. It had come from the north, and he forced himself to stand and face it.

Just a faint whisper of the grief now, but he would not have felt it so strongly, had it not been so close, or been someone he knew so well. It had to be Bilbo.

“Hurry,” he said, and he took off running. Tauriel and Kili were right behind him, racing back to their horses near the edge of the forest. Together they rode, further north, the sun beating mercilessly on them. Legolas did not care what the sun did, now, so long as it did not hamper them from their goal.

It was only a short distance later, not even half of an hour, when they came across the body in the field. Kili was off his horse before Legolas could stop him. Even from their small distance, Legolas could see the tattoos on the head, and he moved to follow Kili, but grief wrenched at his heart.

“Dwalin, Dwalin,” Kili kept calling desperately, falling to his knees beside the dwarf. Blood was all over his tunic. “Dwalin, no-“

“I will search for Bilbo,” Tauriel said at last, her voice heavy-laden with sorrow. Legolas could barely nod to her, instead moving to his husband. Kili was begging and clutching at the dwarf, his voice breaking, and Legolas gathered him in his arms. Kili shuddered and pressed his face into Legolas’s neck, tears hot and heavy.

No whisper of grief came on the wind, now. Bilbo was long gone from this place. And it would be them left to mourn Dwalin alone.

“Heart, my heart,” Legolas murmured into Kili’s ear, clutching at his husband. Kili just held on, wet breaths tearing at Legolas’s heart. For all they had endured, this was by far the worst of the blows they had been dealt in some time.

For Dwalin was more than a friend. Dwalin had begrudgingly accepted Legolas as they had journeyed together, despite his being an elf. He had earned Dwalin’s respect, and Dwalin had earned his. He had become more than a friend, he had become as near and dear as those born to Legolas in blood. Ever watchful, ever protective, ever loyal.

Tauriel slowly returned to them, and her face was grim. “There are tracks that lead away to the forest,” she said quietly. “They are fresh, but there is no way to track them unless we herald the forest itself. It has not done us much good, these past days. But we will try.” Her eyes fell to Dwalin, and she shut them in grief.

“We can’t leave him here,” Kili sniffled. He pulled away and wiped the back of his hand over his red eyes. “We just, we just can’t. We have to take him h-home.” He managed to catch his sob, but just barely, and Legolas felt his chest tighten even more than before.

A fresh wave of pain came on the breeze, but it was dizzy and muffled. Frowning, Legolas tried to understand how it was so close when Tauriel had told him it could not be, then felt it again, only with a soft groan to accompany it. His eyes shot down to Dwalin.

Who was moving. Dwalin was alive.

“Quickly,” he said, but Kili and Tauriel were already moving, pulling him up to sitting. Dwalin blearily blinked his eyes and immediately tried to fight them. Only when he saw Kili did he begin to relax. Pain clouded his gaze, the pain Legolas felt, but he was still alive, and Legolas did not understand how.

Then he seemed to come back to himself, and his eyes widened in panic. “You’re all right,” Kili soothed, relieved. “Dwalin, you’re-“

“Bilbo,” Dwalin rasped, and his wild gaze went to Legolas. “Where is ‘e?”

“Gone,” Tauriel said quietly. Dwalin raised a trembling hand and covered his face. “There are tracks back to the forest.”

“Is that where you were kept?” Kili asked. “If you knew where-“

“They’ll be gone,” Dwalin muttered. “Kept movin’ us. They’ll move now, with this havin’ happened.”

It would make sense, why they had not found them. A constantly moving group was much harder to find than a stationary one. And in the Greenwood, even those who stayed still would be difficult to find.

“What did happen?” Legolas asked. Dwalin licked his lips, or tried, and Legolas could see now the red flush to his face, his cracked lips from having been out in the sun for so long. “Tauriel,” Legolas called, and Tauriel was there not a moment later with her water sack. The dwarf drank it down as if he’d never tasted it, and Legolas refused to think of how Bilbo had to be, at that moment.

Finally Dwalin set the water aside and managed to find his voice. “We escaped. Only got so far before we were found. The youngest one told me to play dead and knocked me out.” He glanced at his tunic. “Think it’s his blood. Last thing I heard was them takin’ Bilbo away.”

He grimaced, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Not that that’s any better, what with Donys bein’ obsessed with Bilbo the way he is. I’d have been better off there with Bilbo, and now he’s alone.”

“Obsessed?” Kili said, looking ill. “What do you mean, obsessed with Uncle?”

“That is a longer story,” Legolas said, when Dwalin tried to take a deep breath to begin. “And Thorin needs to hear it. We need to get you back to Erebor. Then we will come search once more.”

“The trail is fresh-“

“You won’t find ‘em,” Dwalin said, cutting Tauriel off. “There’s only three of ‘em, and they know how to hide.”

It rankled, that they had been in the forest, his forest, and Legolas had not known. For days they had searched, and somehow always missed them. He pursed his lips and looked to the edge of the forest.

“Back to Erebor first; Uncle needs to hear everything. Then maybe we’ll have a better way of finding Bilbo,” Kili said, and that decided it. Between the three of them they were able to get him up onto Tauriel’s horse, where she wrapped a protective arm around him. Dwalin still looked hazy, and Legolas made certain his horse was on one side of Tauriel’s, Kili’s on the other side, in case he listed to the side.

Within a few short hours they were back in Erebor, and they were able to get Dwalin up to the royal chambers without any true fuss. Dril was notified immediately, and then it was just a matter of getting him up safely.

He was not in his bed for a few moments when the doors flew open. Fili led the way, Dis right beside him, Dernwyn hurrying to get Oin into the room. Beside him was Holdred, whom Dernwyn could not catch in time to stop, and Hildili, whom she did stop in time. Baldrin hovered around her legs, clutching and staring with wide eyes.

Thorin was there moments after Oin had begun tending to Dwalin, but could not utter a word before Ori raced in, Dori and Nori behind him. The room went quiet as Ori flew to his husband’s side, grasping at him, making a pained sound at the sight of his bloody tunic.

Dwalin’s eyes opened. “S’not mine,” he said. “Tunic’s still ruined, anyway. Don’t bother tryin’ to save it.”

Ori huffed a wet laugh and buried his face in the crook of Dwalin’s neck. Dwalin’s mouth twisted in fondness and he managed to wrap a single arm around his husband, and if his fingers clutched a little more into Ori’s side, the other dwarf did not complain.

After a moment of watching them, feeling a peace settle where his earlier grief had been, Legolas tore his gaze away. Everyone was smiling, from Hildili up to Dori, who had tears of joy in his eyes. The only one not smiling was Thorin, and even his lips turned up after a moment.

But for that first moment, all Legolas had seen was pain and devastation. For Dwalin was here, but Bilbo was not.

Dwalin must have seen it, because he sat up a little straighter, shifting Ori to his side. “Last I saw of him, Bilbo was all right,” he said. Not what he had told Legolas, Kili, and Tauriel, but to tell them that Bilbo had been dragged away screaming was nothing Thorin needed to hear.

From the look on Thorin’s face, he had heard the truth all the same. “I’m not lyin’,” Dwalin said firmly. “I’m not. They want him in one piece for the ransom. He’ll make it back alive. All the want is-“

“The Arkenstone,” Thorin said. “I know.” He let out a heavy sigh. “I had hoped to not ever look at it again,” he murmured. “At least this way I will be rid of it for good. And I could not think of a better way for it to go: to save Bilbo’s life.”

“Good,” Dwalin said. “It’ll be good for him, to see that.”

Dis frowned. “Why? What do you mean?”

Dwalin pursed his lips, and Legolas realized he did not want to speak. Not for fear, no, but to spare Thorin pain.

It did not matter: Thorin saw through this, too. His face crumpled, and he stepped out before anyone could stop him. Fili began to go after him, but Dwalin called him back. “Leave him be,” he said. “Just for a little bit. Nothin’ you can say to console him right now.”

“I don’t understand,” Tauriel began, but Bofur sighed from his place near the door.

“The Arkenstone’s what nearly cost Bilbo his life twelve years ago. The gold lust got to us all, but Thorin worst. Bilbo tried to offer the Arkenstone to Thranduil and Bard as a peace offering, and Thorin about killed him for it. Bard gave it back, and it hasn’t been seen since.”

“It’s in the Treasury, in a vault,” Fili said, and it was clear that he would not say where. Legolas did not blame him.

After a moment, he met Kili’s eyes from across the room. Kili gave him a brief nod and a quick smile. Love, my love, he could all but hear, and Legolas pressed a hand over his chest before leaving the room. Kili was his heart, always and forever.

But he had another dwarf to find.

Thorin had not gone far, only to the hallway outside the royal chambers. “He lives,” Legolas said quietly as a greeting.

“For now,” Thorin said, and he was tense all over. “And fears me, fears what the stone will do to me.”

“It is an old fear,” Legolas argued. “The last time he saw the Arkenstone, it was in the hands of Bard. All he knows is that it is here, somewhere, in the mountain. And he knows that you put it away in order to find him. He knows these things. You must also trust in that, in him. In you. All of us do. I would put my life in your hands any day.”

Thorin was gazing at him now, eyes haunted. Yet some of the clouds within his gaze were lifting at last, though they did nothing to the deep circles beneath his eyes. His cheeks were a little gaunt, all signs that he had not slept, had not eaten.

“How do you know he’s alive?” Thorin asked.

Legolas hated the words that would come out of his mouth next, but spoke them anyway. “I heard his pained scream on the wind, but it was for Dwalin. He thought, as we did at first, that Dwalin was dead. He believes it still. One of the kidnappers spared Dwalin’s life. Dwalin believes the man did it for Bilbo’s sake.”

Thorin’s face went from pale to a bright red as shock gave way to anger. “For Bilbo?” he asked, voice low. “Why would any kidnapper do such a thing for their hostage, unless they expected something great in return?”

“You will have to speak to Dwalin about the details. And the sooner you can do that, the better, for they hide in the Greenwood. The more I know, the better I can search for them.”

Without a word Thorin strode down the hallway and back to Dwalin. He paused at Legolas’s side, however, and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you,” he said softly. “I could not have asked for a better wedded-son.” Then he continued on.

His words were like a balm, even after all these years. The forest could not help but remind Legolas of the father he had lost in so many ways, and when he visited the palace that had been Thranduil’s, his heart yearned for that which he could no longer have.

But he had another family, here in the mountain, alongside Kili and Fili, Bilbo and Thorin. And he would not let these men take that from him, not now.

He followed after Thorin, eager to return to the woods and begin the search anew.



If Caledon could have halved the cage, or kept him in a sack for the remaining days, Bilbo knew he would have. As it was, he’d resorted to violence whenever Bilbo didn’t do whatever he wanted. Or just for any reason at all. His boot was thin enough to get through the cage bars, and typically found a home on Bilbo’s skin somewhere. More than once Bilbo had seen him twisting his hands over the hilt of his sword, just barely holding himself back.

Bilbo didn’t care.

And he knew he had to care, if he had any chance of getting out alive, but Dwalin was dead. Dwalin was dead, and just the thought left him nearly dizzy with grief. Dwalin had been a friend, a brother, when Bilbo had never had one before. From even the early days of their journey, Dwalin had kept him protected, had tried to keep him shielded when they’d fallen down the goblin tunnel. When Bilbo had been ill in Erebor, even as he’d teased at Bilbo to stay abed as Bilbo had done to him, he’d still brought him tea and fresh handkerchiefs. And when Bilbo had thought Thorin’s life lost, two years ago, it had been Dwalin who’d kept to his side as a faithful friend and brother, refusing to abandon Bilbo to his grief.

He buried his face in his hands, tied together despite the complete lack of necessity. And he didn’t care about it, truly, not about the scratch on his neck that burned, or the lump on his head from the punch Caledon had given him. Or the burn wounds, or any of the other scratches and injuries he’d received while with them. He would’ve given any limb of his body, would’ve given his life, if it had meant sparing Dwalin.

And of all the people who had done it, it had been Donys.

A clattering of sound made him slowly raise his head. Donys was there with a plate and a mug, giving Bilbo a quick smile that looked more like a grimace. “You, uh, you should eat something,” he said. By the fire, Caledon was still seated, hand on his hilt, glaring at them both. Donys shifted uncomfortably and put the plate near the edge of the cage. “It’s just water, but it might help-“

“Leave him his food and find something else to do,” Caledon snapped at him. Donys flinched, and Bilbo could see now a small bruise on the edge of Donys’s chin that hadn’t been there before. A measure of sympathy rose, and then died a quick death. He’d murdered Dwalin. There was no sympathy.

Even if his heart still managed to break a little for the young man despite his best efforts to not care. He’d only done what Caledon had ordered him to do. And it was there that his sympathy died.

“Cale, leave him be,” Arius said, surprisingly. “His little infatuation isn’t hurting us. It keeps him busy. You and I need to look at the retreat.”

Caledon finally stood from the log and met Arius by the fire. Donys seemed to hold his breath, waiting to see what his brother would do, then finally let out a tiny sigh when it was clear Caledon didn’t care about him any more.

The food made Bilbo’s belly lurch in hunger, but he refused to eat it. Not until Donys had gone. He kept himself seated instead, eyes locked on his hands.

If he’d just been faster. If they’d gone further. If he’d done something-

“Tell me about your Shire again,” Donys said in an encouraging tone. “All those green hills, right? Pies and plants everywhere. It sounds lovely. What else is there?”

Bilbo kept his gaze on his hands. All he could see was Dwalin in the Shire, standing up to Lobelia in defense of Bilbo and Thorin. Keeping him and Thorin riding together on their way back from the wedding, after a long and painful night of fighting and grieving.

Thorin would be heartbroken. To lose Balin two years ago, and to lose Dwalin now, his best friend, his cousin-

Donys shifted on the ground, looking uneasy. “Bilbo, listen, I need to tell you-“

“Donys, get over here! Help us out!” Caledon ordered. Apparently he’d had enough of Donys’s ‘infatuation’.

Donys bit his lip but finally shoved the mug and plate closer still. “It’s all going to be all right,” Donys promised under his breath. “I swear to you.” And then he was gone.

Only when Donys turned away, watching what Caledon wanted, did Bilbo finally take the food Donys had offered him. Fruit and cheese, fresh and probably the young man’s supper.

He swallowed back a piece of fruit and felt tears roll down his face. Dwalin, I’m so sorry.



The long walk down to the Treasury was silent, dwarves pausing in their work for respect to the king, to the ransom that had gone around the mountain. Not a single dwarf in the Council had argued the decision. All of them had been adamant that they would aid in any way, offer their own gold, if just to have Bilbo returned safely to the mountain.

It didn’t make the walk any less painful.

Two dwarves from the Guard met him at the Treasury doors, and as one they pulled the doors open. Thorin waited, face as empty as uncarved stone, until they were fully open. Only then did he enter, footfalls echoing as he entered the Treasury.

Gloin waited within, the only dwarf inside. “He tell you which one?” he asked.

“Yes,” was all Thorin replied. Fili had told him which vault contained the Arkenstone. It had been clear that his nephew had been hesitant in his wishes, but not for fear of what his uncle would do. No, because he had looked just as uneasy as Thorin had felt, about the entire ransom, that the Arkenstone would not be enough.

Mahal, it had to be enough. It had to be.

Thorin led the way to the vaults, and once there, Gloin stayed behind while he continued inward. He passed the large impressive vaults and continued on down until he reached the vaults meant to hold nothing more than paperwork. Only then did he stop and begin counting numbers.

Near the ground, the bottom most row, was the one he wanted. He crouched and carefully pulled forth the key that, somehow, Fili had kept secret for all these years. He felt a swell of gratitude for his son, the first emotion he’d allowed himself to feel in what felt like days, before he pushed it aside, lest his fear come sweeping in right behind it.

The door opened, and for a moment, Thorin could see nothing. Then, it glowed, and Thorin reached in with a trembling hand for the stone.

It fit in his hand as if it belonged there. Even though it had remained hidden here, in this small vault, for twelve years, it still shone like the sun. It sparkled and moved in his hand, pulsing with its beauty and magnificence.

And he didn’t want it. He wanted to not be the one to hold it, he wanted it gone.

He rested his head on the wall of vaults at the relief that flooded him. It had no hold. And he could be free of it at last.

Then the memories poured in. Bilbo before him, begging for his life, clutching at Thorin’s hand to try and free himself. The fear in his eyes when Thorin had dangled him over the edge, the tears and hurt when Thorin had cast him out, banished him.

It was why the Arkenstone had been placed here, to never see the light of day again. Because all it would do, all it would ever do, was remind Thorin of the way he’d hurt the only being his heart would cry for.

He swallowed hard and tried to force the memories from his mind, to keep himself from remembering the way he’d tightened his hand around Bilbo’s neck. The way Bilbo’s voice had broken when he’d pleaded with Thorin.

“You all right?” Gloin called down the hallway.

Thorin slowly rose onto unsteady legs and locked his knees until he could answer. “I will be,” was all he could manage. He wouldn’t be all right, not until Bilbo was safe and sound in his arms and the Arkenstone was gone.

Mahal, Bilbo.

He marched back out, feeling his energy return, the stone safe in the pocket of his royal robes. By the time he reached the top of the gates, where everyone was waiting, he felt as if he could’ve taken on Azog and Bolg all over again by himself. He could do this. He would do this, and he would have Bilbo back in his arms before the day was over.

“King Bard’s men are waitin’ on the eastern hill,” Dril reported. “Bifur and I’ll be going down with you.”

“I’m staying up here to keep them in line,” Hril said, jerking his head towards Kili and Fili. Both of them looked just as determined and ready to kill, and Kili’s fingers were already twitching for an arrow.

Thorin glared at them. “Do nothing until I know Bilbo is safe.”

“I’m not jeopardizing my uncle,” Kili snapped, though he looked apologetic about his tone immediately afterwards. “I just want one shot at the bastards. Just one.”

“Not without me,” Legolas said tightly.

“This isn’t fair,” Dernwyn said, crossing her arms. “I don’t have a long range weapon, and I can’t go down there.”

Fili raised an eyebrow at her. “You could throw your sword.”

Long-range, Fili.”

“Throw it really hard?”

“My liege, a cart approaches from the south-west,” one of the guards said, and everyone stopped. Thorin took a deep breath, then two. He could see it now, a small cart bearing only a few people. And one of the beings there was his husband, his beloved.

It was past time to bring him home.

“Where is Dwalin? He’ll want to be here,” Dernwyn asked.

“Aye, he’s comin’. Bringin’ Esmeralda with ‘im,” Gimli confirmed. “Others aren’t far behind.”

“Good.”

Dis moved to Thorin and pressed her forehead to his, a quick touch of assurance and courage. “Bring my other brother home,” she said, and Thorin gave a nod.

Then he was hurrying down the stairs, Dril and Bifur behind him, and making for the gates.

Chapter Text

The jostling of the cart hurt. It wouldn’t have hurt as much if he hadn’t had ropes digging into his wrists, tearing at his skin.

Or had the iron collar around his throat, the chain being pulled by Caledon every now and then. That didn’t help either.

It was thick iron, that much was certain, and it dug into Bilbo’s neck and shoulders. It weighed a terrible amount, and Caledon had cheerfully told him it wouldn’t have been necessary if Bilbo had just cooperated and not tried to run off.

Bilbo was certain Caledon would’ve figured out a way to wrap it around his throat anyway.

Donys glanced back at him from the front of the cart, looking nervous. Caledon, on the other hand, was in such a good mood that Bilbo couldn’t stop twitching. Caledon in a good mood was never a good thing.

Finally they stopped, and Bilbo tried to get a peek over them, to see if Thorin was there, if he could run now and be free-

“Arius.”

A thick sack was put over his head and tucked under one of the edges of the collar. Sweat immediately began rolling down his face as the heat of the sun began baking him and leaving it hard to breathe. “Get him over here,” Caledon ordered, and Bilbo found himself suddenly lifted off the cart and tugged along, hands gripping tight on his shoulders. He came to an abrupt stop when he bumped into something and stayed there. It felt like someone’s legs. He was being hidden, then.

His heart began to pound. Was Thorin there? Had he brought the Arkenstone? Oh Eru, he wanted to be free, he wanted to see, he didn’t want to be here with the heat and the sweat and the pain in his shoulder and neck. He wanted to be home.

Almost there, he thought. Just hang on a little more. You’ve held on for a month. You can do a little more now.

He owed it to Dwalin to keep it together. The dwarf had kept him alive for as long as he could; he’d be furious if Bilbo went and botched it now. It almost made him smile at the thought.

“Stop!” Caledon ordered suddenly, and he wished he could see. “That’s close enough. Any closer, and you’ll have him returned to you in pieces. And we don’t want that to happen today; we just want to make a simple trade, that’s all.”

“That’s all we want, too,” Bilbo heard Dril say, and it was a comfort to hear his friend’s voice. “Just a simple exchange. We’ve the stone for you.”

Bilbo was shuffled forward, and he heard sharp intakes of breath. He was almost grateful for the hood: the flush of shame across his cheeks almost hurt, it burned so brightly. He knew he was a mess, with cuts and bruises everywhere, where the rope had twisted across his skin, where the fiery metal had burned his arm. And now, he was being used as leverage against Erebor.

“The Halfling for the Arkenstone, one ‘heart of the mountain’ for another. So do we have an agreement, oh Mighty King?” Caledon said, and even through the hood Bilbo could hear his derision. His fingers clenched into fists at the insult.

Then his mind finally caught up to his heart, and it stuttered in his chest. King. Thorin. Thorin was there.

“Let me see him.”

Thorin. Oh sweet Eru, he was there, close enough that Bilbo could hear him, and he actually jerked forward, just slightly, the impulse to just run to his husband nearly too strong to fight against. His eyes burned, and he shut them tight when the hood was abruptly yanked off. The sunlight was too bright for him to see, for a time, and when he could finally focus, it was almost enough to make him cry.

Erebor. She stood tall ahead of him, not imposing but beckoning to him like a stronghold that would keep him safe. There were figures above the gates, and all around the field were a multitude of horses. Horses everywhere, and Bilbo could see the flag of Dale held high. They were blocking the eastern rise, and all of them seemed to be waiting.

And then he couldn’t think of anything else, because his eyes looked straight ahead, only twenty or so paces from him, and they found Bifur and Dril, and in front of them, Thorin.

His husband. His king.

His Thorin.

After a month of not seeing him, it felt as if Bilbo could finally breathe again. His hair was braided in various war braids, including his beard, but there was a bright red war ribbon bound around his marriage braid. Going to war for Bilbo. His face looked a little gaunt, and there were circles beneath his eyes, betraying his lack of sleep for all the world to see. But Thorin still stood tall, as tall as he could, and when he did, he seemed to stand as high as the mountain itself. There was no mistaking the power he held or the lengths he’d go to in order to see Bilbo safely returned.

They were all here for him, he realized. The dwarves in the mountain, the men of Dale, they were all there for him. It was enough to help him stand just straight enough that there was a difference. He was husband to the King Under the Mountain, the greatest dwarf he had ever known, and he would hang on just a little longer.

The others seemed to have understood that, and even as Caledon tried to push Bilbo back down, Bilbo dug his heels into the ground and stood as tall as he could. He’d taken enough from Bilbo: he wasn’t about to take from Bilbo the sheer pride and confidence he held in his husband.

Besides, it wouldn’t last long: his body was too weary to let him stand straight for too long. And even without the heat from the hood, he felt as if he were suffocating under the sun. No, Bilbo wasn’t going to stand at all for much longer, let alone stand straight.

Caledon let out a huff but let Bilbo have his small win. “Throw the stone to me,” he insisted. His fingers were tight in Bilbo’s shoulders, and the touch was almost too much. He felt as if he were on sensory overload: the hot sun, the grass scratching his leg, the sweat dripping down his skin, the harsh fingers that bruised. It was all too much, and he suddenly wanted nothing more than to be inside where it was cool, with only Thorin touching him, Thorin wrapped around him, his husband there, Thorin Thorin Thorin.

Thorin stood where Caledon had demanded he stop, but every bit of him seemed to be held back, barely. His eyes were locked on Caledon, and a good thing too, because if they moved to Bilbo, Bilbo was going to absolutely lose what tenuous grip he had on his emotions and crumble, and he couldn’t, not now. Because he was the husband to a king, and this was the most perilous negotiation that Thorin would ever do.

And if Bilbo broke, then there was nothing Thorin wouldn’t do to get to him, including taking Arius’s arrow to the throat that Bilbo could now see clearly.

“The stone,” Caledon said again, voice louder, and Bilbo flinched when his fingers tightened into his shoulder further still. Despite not looking at Bilbo, Thorin’s nostrils flared. “Throw me the stone!”

“And how would I know you would release Bilbo to me?” Thorin growled.

“Then we’re at what they call a bit of an impasse, aren’t we?”

Arius adjusted his notched bow, aiming true towards Thorin’s heart. Bilbo wanted to shove him away, but he wouldn’t get very far; Caledon would catch him, and even if he didn’t, the chain around his neck would. It burned against his skin, the sun heating the metal to an almost unbearable temperature. It reminded Bilbo unpleasantly of the chain Thengel had gifted him, the one that had carried the Ring.

He wanted to be out of it. He wanted to be home.

Donys coughed slightly, catching everyone’s attention. “We could let him get the stone for us,” he suggested. “He’s on a chain, after all.”

Caledon nodded slowly, warming to the idea. Bilbo felt his stomach sink at the calculating gaze. “It’s fitting. You’re the King’s dog, aren’t you?”

He shoved Bilbo forward so hard that he nearly lost his footing. The chain around his neck tightened, bringing him back to standing almost immediately and choking him briefly. “So fetch,” Caledon ordered, and there was something dark and vile in his voice. It made Bilbo shiver despite the heat.

He walked. His ankle was in agony, and for a moment, the heat and the pain took him somewhere else, somewhere he’d fought not to think of for years. Black rocks and stones beneath his feet, his hands ripped from the steep climbing, the fire burning around him as the Ring called and offered him everything-

A cool breeze blew past him, pulling him back to the present. He was still walking, somehow, each step taking him further from Caledon and closer to Thorin.

If Thorin hadn’t been watching him before, he did nothing but stare at Bilbo now. Bilbo could feel his husband’s gaze roaming over him, taking in each bruise, each cut, each tear in his clothes that had left blood behind. Though his face was like stone and he said nothing, there was a raging fire burning in his eyes, one that promised bloodshed and death to those who’d dared raise a hand to Bilbo.

It shouldn’t have been as calming a thought as it was, but it soothed Bilbo’s heart. Thorin was there. He’d be fine.

Something bright and red suddenly unfurled above them, catching Bilbo’s eyes. He glanced up at the mountain, where the red flags of war were now hung, and he knew that the others were up there. Tauriel, Legolas and Kili probably had their own arrows ready to fire, and Fili more than likely had both swords out and a rope ready to descend. Ori most certainly had Dwalin’s warhammer, and Bilbo felt tears burn in his eyes. Dwalin, Mahal, how was he supposed to tell Ori that Dwalin was dead? He glimpsed random faces, familiar faces, all watching and waiting.

And then stopped. Because right by a red flag was a tall, cloaked figure, and the hood fell back to reveal a tattooed head. A very familiar tattooed head.

Dwalin.

Bilbo didn’t even stop to try and think of the why, or the how, the impossible how, because he’d watched Dwalin die. But he couldn’t, right now. He’d paused for only a few moments, but it was enough for the chain around his neck to be pulled. “Move,” Caledon ordered, and if the rage had been a fire in Thorin’s eyes before, it was an inferno now, and Bilbo didn’t want to be in front of Thorin when it erupted.

He wanted to be behind Thorin, where he could watch his husband unleash his fury.

He finally stepped up until he was just close enough that if he reached out, he could brush his fingers across Thorin’s cloak. And oh, how he wanted to. He thought he would weep at how close he was to his husband, and he nearly raised his arms to reach out and touch.

“Bring me the stone!” Caledon yelled, and Bilbo flinched.

“Tell me you’re all right.”

Somehow, Thorin’s whisper was louder than Caledon’s shout. His lips had barely moved, but it was Bilbo’s husband that had spoken so softly, so quietly, that no one else save for the wind had heard him. Not even Bifur and Dril behind Thorin had heard their king, which was just as well: his words were for Bilbo and Bilbo alone.

Bilbo swallowed hard. “I’m all right,” he whispered back. It wasn’t the truth and they both knew it, but Thorin didn’t need the truth right now. The truth was visibly obvious just by looking at Bilbo.

But Thorin gave a short nod and pulled from his cloak the Arkenstone. Bilbo realized with a jolt that it was the first time he’d seen the stone since that fateful day years ago. Thorin had locked it in the vaults below and it hadn’t come out until now. There hadn’t been a reason for it to emerge. What had once been his most prized possession now balanced in Thorin’s hand as if it were another stone to skip across a pond’s surface.

He was going to give it away. Bilbo stared at his husband, stunned. There was no trick, no gimmick, nothing to get it back from the thieves. He was giving it up for Bilbo, and he wasn’t hesitating.

He’d been married to his dwarf for nearly twelve years now, and yet Thorin could still surprise him. “Thorin,” Bilbo murmured, and tears stung his eyes. Thorin shifted forward, as if to brush the tears away as he had hundreds of times before, but he stayed where he was. Not willingly, that was certain. It was as if there were invisible bands holding him back, and if someone cut through them, Thorin would surge forward and wrap Bilbo tightly in his arms to shield him.

Without further preamble, Thorin handed the jewel over. It felt heavier in Bilbo’s hands than he remembered. The weight of his freedom, right there in his hands. He swallowed, then swallowed again when the band of iron tightened around his neck like a noose. A growl came from Bifur, and Thorin clenched his fists so tightly Bilbo thought they’d burst.

“Bring it back, little puppy,” Caledon ordered, and he tugged on the chain to emphasize his point. The collar hit hard against his throat, and Bilbo coughed for air even as he stumbled back two steps. Thorin had his hands down by his side, shielded from the cloak, and he seemed so far away now. Caledon was going to pull him back, if Bilbo didn’t walk towards him, and-

He wasn’t going to let Bilbo go.

Bilbo’s eyes widened at the revelation. And he realized, right then and there, staring at the faces of the others, that he was the last one to figure it out. Thorin knew it. Bifur knew it. Dril knew it. Everyone watching from the high mountain knew it. And finally Bilbo had bought a clue as to what would happen.

Caledon wasn’t going to let Bilbo go.

He’d make Thorin watch Bilbo die. The thief had a whole mountain against him, and others elsewhere, of that Bilbo was certain of, and there was no escape unless he had leverage. Unless he had Bilbo. He’d drag Bilbo away with him until they reached the forest’s edge. Thorin would follow, because of course he would, and then-

Would he rip his throat out? Slice across his neck so neatly that Bilbo wouldn’t be able to breathe? Would he have a last moment with Thorin before everything faded away?

His fingers clenched around the stone. This…this damned stone, this stone that had nearly ended his life once before, and he hated it so much. It would be the millstone that dragged him down until he drowned.

And suddenly, just like that, Bilbo felt calm wash over him. Warrior’s last breath, Dwalin had called it. The sudden calm before doing something heroic that could most certainly end in death.

Or something incredibly stupid. That was what his dwarves typically did. Bilbo thought with his brain, and it had served him well so far. But maybe, just maybe, it was time to rely on instinct and be a dwarf.

He locked his gaze with Thorin’s once, just once. Catch me.

Thorin clenched his jaw. Always.

A breath in.

He threw the Arkenstone behind him, high and far, and immediately began to run to Thorin. Thorin was there not a breath later, and the axe he pulled from his belt was heavy and thick and pure mithril. It cut through the chain, pulling on Bilbo’s neck for one terrible moment, and then he was slamming into Thorin, clutching at his husband. He found himself spun around and hidden behind Thorin, but not so far that he couldn’t see the shocked looks on Caledon and Arius’s faces. Donys didn’t look very surprised. If anything, he looked relieved.

He’d planned it. He’d hoped to give Bilbo the very chance he took. He felt an intense surge of gratitude towards the man, for suggesting that Bilbo go fetch the stone, for having spared Dwalin somehow, for all his kindness, however misplaced the feeling had been.

Arius had dropped his bow and arrow to catch the stone, where it now sat, cradled in his hands as he knelt in the dirt. Caledon began laughing, a wild laugh that raised the hairs on the back of Bilbo’s neck. “Well played, little wretch, well played!”

“If you’d like to keep your head past today, you will cease referring to my husband in such manners,” Thorin growled, and there was the rage and fury Bilbo’d been waiting for. His husband was trembling with it, muscles so tight that Bilbo wondered if he’d shatter at the slightest touch. Bilbo kept breathing, trying to settle his now furiously beating heart. All the adrenaline had slammed into him the minute he’d been safe, and it was leaving him dizzy.

“And if you want him to live, you’ll stop threatening me,” Caledon said, and the laughter cut off so abruptly that Bilbo started in Thorin’s arms. His face went slack and cold, so cold, and Bilbo remembered the night Caledon had nearly killed him. He shuddered and found himself buried even more in Thorin’s hold.

“You can do nothing to him now,” Thorin said, voice dangerously low. “You have what you asked for, and I have what you bargained so foolishly with.”

“Let’s go, Cale,” Donys said, tugging at his brother’s sleeve. “You’ve got the Arkenstone. You’re the greatest thief of all time. Stole a King’s husband and his greatest treasure.”

“Would’ve kept the husband if we hadn’t let him go,” Arius said suddenly, and Bilbo froze. “Whose fault was that?”

Caledon slowly turned to Donys, who bravely but stupidly – so stupidly – held his ground. “No,” Bilbo murmured. “No, please, no-“

“It was your idea, wasn’t it?” Caledon said, advancing on Donys. “You said to let the Halfling go get the stone. You wanted him to get away, didn’t you? Wanted him to go free?”

Donys looked at Bilbo, and there was so much emotion in his eyes that Bilbo wanted to close his own and hide. He didn’t want Donys to die for him, for some foolish love that the man seemed to think he had for Bilbo. But the look in his eyes was pure longing and something soft, something that made Bilbo’s chest ache.

He turned to Caledon then, and Bilbo knew he was dead before he even spoke his last word.

“Yes.”

Caledon’s blade was out and buried deep in Donys’s chest before Bilbo could even breathe. “No!” Bilbo screamed, and he dug his fingers so tightly into Thorin that he thought he’d leave bruise marks. There was blood everywhere, and so much hate on Caledon’s face, and he didn’t realize Bifur and Dril had moved past them until he saw them advance on the men.

It all happened so slowly that Bilbo swore he counted individual heartbeats, all beating at a rapid pace. One, two, three: Arius pulled an arrow aimed at Thorin and Bilbo. Four, five: several arrows pierced him at once, dwarven and elven make alike, and he dropped like a stone. Six, seven: Caledon pulled the blade out of Donys to face the dwarves, but Bifur was too quick with his axe. Eight: the sword went flying. Nine: Dril caught him hard across the face and sent him to his knees. Ten, eleven: Caledon swayed, bleeding on the ground, before suddenly pulling a blade from his side, flinging his arm out to throw the knife at Bilbo and Thorin.

Twelve.

Thirteen.

Caledon jerked once, then hit the ground, a blade embedded in his chest, his own short knife falling from his fingertips. Bilbo glanced at his husband, but Thorin looked as bewildered as Bilbo felt, and his axe was still in hand, just moments away from being thrown. Then…?

“Been wantin’ to do that for days.”

Bilbo stared for so long his eyes began to burn, and then he was racing around his husband, ankle ignored, and throwing himself at one of his best friends. “Dwalin,” he choked out, and the dwarf wrapped his arms around him. “I thought, I thought-“

“You were s’posed to,” Dwalin said, but there was regret in his voice. “M’so sorry. Donys scratched himself to cover his blade and told me to get back here, to get help. Only knocked me out.”

“I’ll be cross later,” Bilbo managed. “Later, when I’m still not so happy that you’re alive.” Oh sweet Eru, Dwalin was alive, and Bilbo was certain he was going to fall and weep in relief.

Bifur began grunting, and when Bilbo glanced over at him, his hands were flying in a wild, dizzying array of motions. No and dead and young coupled with man. What…?

When the realization came, Bilbo tore himself from Dwalin and ran as fast as he could, Dwalin and Thorin calling his name and coming right after him. Young man’s not dead.

Donys.

He slowed when he reached Donys’s side. Donys was breathing terrible, wet breaths that were tinting his lips red. Not dead yet, at least. But he was dying, a slow, horrible fade that left Bilbo’s own chest aching in sympathy. He knelt beside him and gently touched a hand to his shoulder.

Slowly Donys opened his eyes. They brightened when they caught sight of Bilbo, and Bilbo found his chest aching for an entirely different reason. “Stay still,” Bilbo urged. Not that it would aid him at all. Donys was passing, and quickly, and Bilbo didn’t want to be here, kneeling in the stinging grass, the metal still hanging hot around his neck. He didn’t want to watch Donys breathe his last, bloody bubbles staining his lips.

But Donys had saved his life. Donys had saved Dwalin’s life.

“Had to…had to save you,” Donys rasped, coughing weakly. When he subsided, his cheeks were even more pale, and the red on his chest had grown. “It’s…it’s what you do, when, when…”

When you loved someone. Bilbo clenched his fists.

But he rested a hand on Donys’s shoulder, and the look of wonder and awe Donys gave him left him feeling ill. “Thank you,” he said softly. “For saving me, and saving Dwalin. I can’t ever repay you.”

“Then don’t,” Donys said. “Just, just don’ bury me w’them.”

“I won’t,” Bilbo swore. “You’ll be buried somewhere nice. Somewhere green.”

“Like th’Shire?” Donys mumbled. “Love y’Shire.”

“Like the Shire,” Bilbo said to him, his voice softening. “Green grass everywhere, the sun shining down just enough to make it warm. There’s windows open everywhere, fresh biscuits just out of the reach of children. The wind whips through the tall grass, a cool breeze that tickles your toes and leaves you wanting another-“

“Bilbo.”

Bilbo stopped. Donys’s eyes were closed forever, and there was a gentle, bloody smile on his face. A peaceful smile. Bilbo stared, even as Thorin pulled him to his feet. It was only after Thorin brushed a hand across his cheeks that he realized he’d been crying, and he slowly wiped the rest away with the back of his bruised hand.

Dril and Bifur moved to take his body. “Don’t,” Bilbo choked out, and he had to cough to speak again. “Don’t bury him with the others. Please.”

They paused, glancing at Thorin. Thorin gave a slow nod, and they lifted Donys away, much more carefully than they had before. Somewhere green, Bilbo could make sure of that.

He turned and buried his face in Thorin’s neck, tears staining his husband’s skin.



The door opened quietly and shut just the same. Thorin clenched his hands around the edge of the table. He knew who it was. He just couldn’t face his husband, not yet.

The burial for the youngest thief had been a quiet and subdued ceremony. They couldn’t bless it, Thorin just couldn’t. Dwalin had told him everything: of Donys watching Bilbo, of being obsessed with him, of offering love to his husband, his Bilbo. How Bilbo had recoiled and hidden, trying to keep himself from Donys.

Then Donys had saved Bilbo’s hand and life, had treated him kindly. How he’d saved Dwalin, had somehow continued to keep Bilbo safe. Then had given his life, in the end, to return Bilbo to Thorin.

Thorin’s head was a mess. Mahal only knew how his husband had to be feeling.

“Thorin?”

Thorin made a soft noise to show he’d heard him. The night was cool, the breeze through the open window just as gentle as the one Bilbo had described to Donys. Thorin had never heard his husband speak so softly, so heartbreakingly before. He had ached to hear more of the Shire even as he’d almost begged for Bilbo to stop speaking. The clogged tears in Bilbo’s voice, the longing, the grief…

Thorin had hoped for a better return for Bilbo than what he’d received.

“I…I’m so sorry.”

Startled, Thorin turned, and his heart shattered in his chest. Bilbo stood before him, looking impossibly small, his eyes brimming with unshed tears. He twisted his hands nervously before him. “I…I know you didn’t want to bury Donys, and especially not in such a quiet and peaceful place, but I promised him. And he, he saved Dwalin, and, well, me. But I don’t hold affections for him, or even, even count him as a friend and all I wanted to do was go home-“

Thorin had him in his arms before Bilbo had choked on his last words. “I’m sorry,” Bilbo whispered wretchedly. “Thorin, I’m so sorry.”

“Beloved,” Thorin murmured, despair coursing through him. “You owe me no apologies. None. Don’t ever apologize to me, please.” His traitorous mind took him back to before the Ring, when Bilbo had let apology after apology tumble from his lips in an effort to satisfy Thorin before he’d ultimately been banished.

And that was part of why Thorin was up here, alone, in their rooms, instead of down below celebrating the safe return of the King’s Beloved. Because all he could think of was the Arkenstone.

“I didn’t see you downstairs,” Bilbo whispered, and Thorin’s heart sank even further. “I…I thought you might be angry with me.”

That was enough. Thorin pulled back enough to press a line of kisses down Bilbo’s face, his forehead to his nose to his lips. “There is no possible way I could be angry with you. If you saw rage, it was for the thieves, not for you. Fear, yes: that was all for you.” If Thorin slept at all in the next thirty years, he’d count himself grateful. That first sight of Bilbo after the long month apart had been gratifying as much as it had been terrible. He hadn’t expected Bilbo to be unharmed, but all he’d seen were the bruises and blood, and when his eyes had drifted to the collar on his husband’s neck-

He’d focused elsewhere, anywhere else but Bilbo. And when Bilbo had finally been released to him, he’d been unable to look away from his beloved. Thorin shut his eyes. If Caledon had pulled Bilbo back, if Bilbo hadn’t made his daring move, if Thorin had been too slow-

If, if, if. The last time he’d had such ‘if’s, he’d been watching the stars, wondering where Bilbo was in the world.

Bilbo was breathing more steadily now, and his face wasn’t as filled with despair as it had been. It had been a long and trying few days, even after Bilbo had been rescued. Between finding the hideout and recovering Dwalin and Bilbo’s weapons, to tending to injuries sustained over the month, Thorin wasn’t absolutely certain when either of them had slept last. He’d caught a few hours the night before, but they had been filled with dark dreams. Given how Bilbo had been wracked with terrible dreams after his quest to destroy the Ring, he was either not as traumatized as he had been then, or he just wasn’t sleeping.

Even without looking at the dark circles under Bilbo’s eyes, Thorin still would’ve guessed the latter.

“Why weren’t you at the celebration?” Bilbo asked softly.

“Did others ask?”

“I told them you hadn’t slept, that you were still making plans to speak with Dain.”

Ever the tactician. Thorin couldn’t help the smile. “I am making plans.”

“Thorin Oakenshield, you were doing nothing of the sort when I came in. What’s wrong?”

And ever far too knowing. Thorin’s smile fell, but he clutched at Bilbo, letting him know with touch what he could not voice. If he tried to speak anything except for what haunted his mind, he would choke on the words. Bilbo caught his forearms with his hands, clinging back just as much. Acceptance.

Thorin took a breath. “The Arkenstone. That is why I hide.”

To his credit, Bilbo did not flee. But he stilled, as if waiting for a blow, and Thorin found that was worse. “I’m…sorry you were forced to give it away, though glad it has been returned,” Bilbo said, his words carefully chosen, but they left a hole in Thorin’s heart all the same.

“No, that isn’t why I hide,” Thorin said urgently. “I don’t regret giving it away. I do not. I was glad to see it go. It was a small price to pay to have my greatest treasure returned to me.”

With every word Bilbo relaxed in his hold. “Then what’s the matter?” he finally asked.

Thorin took a long moment to gaze at his husband. The strongest, most courageous being in all of Middle-Earth was in his arms, his heart, his life, and yet still feared a small, polished stone. Had feared Thorin with the stone, and though it had been brief, had still feared him all the same.

“I want it gone.”

Bilbo blinked, startled. “You what?”

“I want it gone,” Thorin said firmly. “Ever since the demand came in, ever since I went to retrieve it from the vaults, I remembered why it had been cast down there to begin with. I thought…I thought of you beneath my grasp, dangling over the edge of the mountain-“

“Thorin, no-“

“You nearly died for that stone, and you nearly lost your life for it again, and I cannot…” Thorin turned away, shifting his jaw to try and breathe. “It’s haunted my thoughts as it once did before I came to Erebor. I feared going into the throne room and the main hall, because if I did…”

All he would see was Bilbo in his grasp as he’d held the hobbit over the long drop. Threatening him, banishing him. All he would see would be the tears in Bilbo’s eyes as he’d been cast out.

“Thorin, listen to me,” Bilbo pleaded, and when Bilbo asked anything of him, especially in that tone, Thorin could never say no. There was desperation on Bilbo’s face, but he reached his arms up to brush his fingers across Thorin’s beard. Kindness, gentleness, love.

“You are not under the control of the gold-lust. I knew that, the moment I saw you on the field. You had the stone in one hand as if you’d simply toss it away. It didn’t matter to you, Thorin. It didn’t matter at all.” A hand caught Thorin behind the neck and gently tugged him down until his lips were mere moments away from touching Bilbo’s. “I know you,” Bilbo whispered. “And I could see what mattered to you. It wasn’t the Arkenstone.”

Thorin crashed his lips onto Bilbo’s, hands slipping to wrap around and enfold his husband. Bilbo clutched back with the same amount of desperation, lips biting and tugging Thorin’s bottom lip into his mouth where he could suck on it. Thorin nearly stumbled, his body suddenly too heavy, and all he wanted was a bed where he could lay Bilbo out, cover him, whisper heavy promises that he would keep, kiss every bruise and cut away until Bilbo knew just how great a treasure he was.

He’d just started lifting Bilbo into his arms and encouraging the legs to wrap around his waist when there was a knock at the door. “Uncle? Are you all right?”

Bilbo sighed. “I’m fine, Kili.” He hadn’t stepped down, and Thorin slid his hands under Bilbo’s thighs, delighting in the shiver.

“Unca?”

Thorin let out a sigh of his own and helped steady Bilbo as he stood. Kili was one thing, but Hildili was another. “I’m fine,” Bilbo promised. He seemed to set his shoulders as he moved to the door, and Thorin paused before following him.

Bilbo had barely opened the door to his nephew and grandniece when Thorin spoke. “Will you give us a few moments, Kili? A few moments more?”

Kili glanced between the both of them before nodding and hoisting Hildili up into his arms. “We’ll wait for you in the main room; we managed to save you both some cake.”

“I didn’t eat it,” Hildili swore. Thorin gave her a smile and ruffled her hair. It was already wild and unruly, a nod to Dernwyn’s untamed hair, despite it having been brushed for the feast.

“We’ll be along,” Thorin promised, and Kili finally moved away and back to the main room. While Thorin had no doubt that there were sweets waiting for them, he also knew that Kili had used the cake as an excuse to check on Bilbo. Warmth filled him at the devotion his nephews, his sons, had for his husband.

When Kili was through the doors, Bilbo turned back to Thorin with a questioning gaze. “A few moments is going to get us nowhere-“

“I’m not angry at you,” Thorin promised, and Bilbo went silent. “Perhaps frustrated at how sympathetic and kind you are to everyone, including those who held you captive.”

“He saved my life-“

“Not just him,” Thorin said softly, and it was enough to settle Bilbo. “Everyone. You open your heart to so many, and it leads to heartbreak. If I could never see the look on your face again, as I saw when the thief died, I could pass on as a content dwarf.” No, Thorin had seen that look on Bilbo’s face more than enough for this lifetime.

“But I’m not angry with you for caring. It’s the trait I admire the most about you. You are the heart of this mountain, not the Arkenstone. You are my heart, and I love you.”

Bilbo leaned forward and pressed a chaste kiss to his lips, so vastly different from the desperate touches from just a few minutes earlier. “My husband,” he murmured, and Thorin let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“My beloved.”

Bilbo smiled, lips turning up into a genuine grin for the first time since he’d returned. “I think we’ll miss cake if we don’t hurry. I’d swear Hildili was half hobbit the way she eats, if I didn’t know better.”

Thorin chuckled and closed the door behind him. He nearly ran into Bilbo in the hallway, where his husband had suddenly stopped. There was a distant look on his face, as if he were puzzling out some great riddle, and when his eyes widened, Thorin knew he’d solved it. Of course, that didn’t answer just what he’d solved. “Bilbo?”

“Put it back,” Bilbo said, and Thorin had never been so suddenly bewildered in his life.

“What?”

“Put it back,” Bilbo said, as if warming to an idea. When he spun around to face Thorin, there was a relieved smile on his face. “You can put it back.”

“Put it…”

When the realization came, Thorin felt the same wave of relief that Bilbo obviously felt. The Arkenstone had come from the mountain: it could be returned. Perhaps their taking it had led to all the bad luck that had followed.

Thorin nodded. “We’ll put it back where it belongs.” He pressed a swift kiss to Bilbo’s forehead and swore he could feel Bilbo smile beneath him.

They moved to the main room and found more than just Kili and Hildili there: Fili and Dernwyn, Holdred standing beside them and Baldrin on Dernwyn’s hip, Dis and Bofur and Esmeralda with Merry bouncing in her arms, Bifur and Dril, Nori and Dori and Bombur, and stepping in were Ori and Dwalin, with Legolas and Hril right behind them. Tauriel and Gimli were also there, off in the corner, and every single person almost seemed guilty at having gathered there. Bilbo blinked in surprise.

“Wasn’t really a party without you both, anyway,” Bofur finally said with a large shrug, and a chorus of laughter rang through the room. Bilbo’s wide smile was an answer in and of itself, and Thorin stepped into the room with him, feeling warm and happy for the first time in a month.

He would have to speak with Fili and Dis, later, about letting them take the throne for a bit. Perhaps for a year. Long enough for Thorin to take Bilbo back with Esmeralda and Bofur and Merry to the warm Shire filled with sweet breezes and the cheerful calls of kin. Somewhere Bilbo could heal for a bit.

Somewhere Thorin could heal, too.

END