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Let The Waking Morning Find

Chapter Text

Contrary to whatever Yavanna thought, Bilbo had an excellent memory.

 

He remembered the scent of grass after a summer rain. He remembered the feel of snow beneath his feet. He remembered his mother’s smile when the scones came out of the oven just right. He remembered his father’s eyes roaming over the lines in his books. He remembered how Frodo couldn’t sleep unless Bilbo stroked his hair while singing him lullabies. And he remembered Thorin’s voice.

 

Though, Bilbo was Hobbit enough to admit that his memory got a mite fuzzy over the things that happened after he left the Shire for the second time.

 

He knew that his sweet, soft Frodo had saved the world, and that when the ache of it got to be too much for Frodo’s tender heart to bear, Gandalf had packed them both away to the Undying Lands. Bilbo also knew that ‘undying’ didn’t apply to him. Someday the time would come for both he and his nephew to pass from the land of the Valar and Elves and slip into the Halls of Mandos to join the rest of the Hobbits who had died. Despite knowing that death would come for them as it came for all who were not the immortals, Bilbo also knew that the peace of this eternal place was meant to cleanse both him and Frodo of the taint The Ring had left behind.

 

Bilbo also knew, that no matter how the Valar fussed over him, he would never heal.

 

The moment Gandalf had stepped from their boat to solid ground, his age had fallen away like leaves in autumn. From one breath to the next he was young again, with a hearty laugh and bright eyes that were unburdened by the cares of Middle Earth. Dear Frodo had followed soon after—though his sweet face had needed little change. Instead, the bounce came back to his step and to his curls.

 

But, no matter how many days slipped by, Bilbo had only gotten worse.

 

Este, the Vala most gifted in healing, spent each and every day at Bilbo’s side, singing in her high and lilting voice a tune with enough power that it should have brought Bilbo back to health had he been on his last breath. And yet, he still lingered in the twilight where no gift of the Valar could touch him. It had been Yavanna, the Valar over all green and growing things, who had brought Bilbo to her Pastures, thinking that perhaps a little cottage surrounded by flowers might be enough to rally his spirits.

 

Yet still, Bilbo faded. But he remembered enough that when darling Frodo had told Gandalf of his worries, Bilbo had forced himself to show something close to wellness. Bilbo remembered sitting up that day and forcing down several spoonfuls of broth to quell his nephew’s concern. It was enough that Bilbo was able to prod the lad into going off with Gandalf to see all the former Wizard’s favorite places in the Undying Lands.

 

And now, Bilbo could hear Frodo pleading, “But you promised me, Gandalf!” from outside the door to Bilbo’s little cottage. “You swore to me that if I left him here with Yavanna he would be healed by the time we got back.” Whatever Gandalf might have said in return, Bilbo’s ears were too tired to hear.

 

No… tired was not fierce enough a word. Bilbo Baggins was exhausted, body and soul.

 

Every day Este sang to him in a voice too high to comfort, while Yavanna opened his windows to the scent of flowers that he was not allowed to see because he was deemed too delicate to go outside. And every night, they closed his curtains to the starlight and left him tucked tight in covers where he faced his demons alone.

 

While Frodo had been near, Bilbo’s sleep had been riddled with nightmares no worse than what had plagued his sleep for the last few decades: Fili and Kili cut down by Azog the Defiler, Gollum sinking his ragged teeth into soft skin, Smaug’s fire unleashed on Lake Town.

 

(Yes, Bilbo’s memory worked just fine. )

 

But when Frodo had followed Bilbo’s prodding and left, the dreams had turned beyond his control. Suddenly he dreamt of using Sting to slice Frodo through, running off into the night with his Precious at his side and his nephew dead on Bag End’s floor. Dreamt of showing the Ring to Thorin rather than handing the Arkenstone over to his enemies. Bilbo had thought that those would be the worst of it, thought that even his imagination could not conjure up something worse than what Thorin might have been capable up when plagued by Dragon Sickness and equipped with the might of the One Ring. But of course, as was the pattern for Bilbo’s life, he went from the frying pan in to the fire.

 

Soon, Bilbo had dreams that he took as a sure sign he really was losing his mind.

 

Between Frodo’s stories and Gandalf’s magic, Bilbo knew what every member of the Fellowship looked like, and the appearance of every man, woman, and child that the other boys had come across in their travels.

 

But the Elf he thought he dreamt of did not match a single one of them.

 

She was tall like a willow, with soft, raven curls that tumbled wild past her sharp features. Bilbo might have mistaken her for an Elf of Elrond’s house, were it not for the dead shade to her eyes. Bilbo remembered what it was to spend the waning years of his life safe with Elrond’s people, and never had any Elf—no matter their history—ever fixed Bilbo with that hollow-eyed look.

 

He’d thought she was a delusion of his addled mind right up until she ran her thin fingers along the deep wrinkles at the corner of Bilbo’s mouth.

 

He knew that touch, and he’d screamed with all the energy he had left in his body.

 

She had come every night since, and Bilbo had learned that calling out for help did him no good. The Valar tending to him seemed to think that Bilbo’s explanations were a nothing but a sign that his mind had slipped beyond their reach.

 

On this night, as she had so many others, she settled down on the bed beside Bilbo. She was close enough to touch, but she had learned the hard way that no matter how gentle she tried to be, Bilbo would still scream at the feel of her skin against his.  Under the weight of her gaze Bilbo slipped back to his youth, nearly a hundred years melting away. Within moments he was back to the mild, golden-haired lovely that she had first met all those years ago.

 

As had become their pattern, along with his youth, Bilbo found the strength that she had seeped away from him during the light of day. “Hello, my golden boy.”

 

Bilbo sunk deeper into the pillows and sighed at the sight of her. “Hello, Ashnazg.”

 

“I don’t know why you cling so to this place, my darling. They keep you pent up in this ugly little box, so perilously close to the disgusting brightness of daylight. When you die I shall take you away from here, and we shall see the world together. Honestly, I don’t know why you’re putting off the inevitable.”

 

“I refused to become like Gollum when you actually had a hold over me, I can’t imagine why you think I’d do it now.”

 

“Oh, my darling boy. If I no longer have a hold over you, how am I able to slip my bonds and come for you in this place? Neither my maker nor my master, for all their power, have found their way out of the Void, but every night I come for you.”

 

“It’s got not a thing to do with you, it’s about me. I’m being punished for taking you out of that cave. When I’ve paid, you’ll go right back where you came from.”

 

She pressed her hands to the edges of Bilbo’s pillow and loomed over him, her lips perilously close to his flesh. “I don’t think you believe that, my dear.” He scoffed at her, but his shivers betrayed him. “I think you know that for all your pretty words, I am at the heart of you. You owe me your life a dozen times over, and despite all you know about me and where I came from, you cannot bring yourself to hate me.”

 

“That was before you started interrupting my sleep and getting in the way of my healing.”

 

“Oh, my boy,” she gave him a smile that was all teeth. “You and I know that’s not true. In fact, I’m your life partner. I’m the one you brought home from Erebor. While all those Dwarves betrayed you, I did not. I stayed with you, I loved you when they turned their hearts to stone against you.”

 

“That’s conveniently ignoring how you’re the one who helped drive them mad in the first place, isn’t it?”

 

“The line of Durin was as it always was, I had nothing to do with Oakenshield’s actions,” she snapped. “He loved the Arkenstone more than he loved you.”

 

“And you loved the destruction and ruin of Middle-earth more than you loved me. So you and I are at an impasse, both still in love with things we will never have. Now get out.”

 

The woman pulled in on herself, shrinking until she was the perfect size for a Hobbit maid. Her curls tightened and her stomach plumped, but still her eyes were dead. “Don’t you wonder what it would be like, darling? You haven’t felt the touch of a lover’s hand since you gave your heart away to a Dwarf who didn’t value it. I am the one who stayed with you, who you clutched on those long winter nights when you wept for what might have been. Don’t you want to know what it would be like to be touched back?”

 

There was a flicker of something both terrified and fascinated in the back of Bilbo’s gaze. A hundred years of unrequited love was long for even the most stalwart of hearts. And now Bilbo sat there, suspended on the edge of death because this creature would not let him go. All the years they were together and she’d burrowed into his soul, taking up residence amidst the sweet affection he’d held for her before he understood the depth of her villainy. And now, he would be trapped in this in-between state until she released him, only truly alive when she let him shed his age so that they could speak. If she wished it, he would never move on to see his kinsmen, his parents, his Dwarves. He would be stuck with only her until someone discovered that she’d slipped from the Void to dwell in the shadows of Bilbo’s room. (Considering that she had been here for more months than Bilbo could remember, it seemed unlikely that they would ever realize she was gone.)

 

This was the moment. He’d been fighting her since he realized what had found him here in this safe place, but he was growing weary. He knew that Frodo had come back to him whole and hale, and that his prolonged illness was the only thing keeping Frodo tied down when he would rather be adventuring. Bilbo was exhausted, and now was her chance to break him, to keep him.

 

“Come now, my love, shall you and I have one last adventure together before I let you sleep?”

 

Bilbo sighed, a soul deep gust of painful air, and he stretched out his fingers to her. She reached back for him, and it wasn’t until he screamed that she remembered how terribly clever her Bilbo was. 

 

She had been so pleased that this was one of those few nights Bilbo deigned to speak to her that she didn’t catch how the conversation outside had trickled away. So taken with the sight of Bilbo’s blue eyes clear and broken that she it never once crossed her mind that—out of all the people in the Undying Lands—Frodo Baggins was the one who would know the feel of her lurking at Bilbo’s bed.

Chapter Text

In a burst of light, Gandalf surged through the door, his very skin shinning like the crystal atop his white staff, both glowing with the light of the sun. The creature perched over Bilbo hissed and vanished in a whirl of smoke before the onslaught, her strength not yet ready to meet the burn of day.

 

Gandalf dropped to her place on the bed and pressed shaking fingertips to the side of Bilbo’s face. He was too horrified at the sight of Bilbo’s skin withering back to old age to pay any attention to the Valar’s frantic questions, or to hear Frodo calling his name. Este went to the far side of the bed and plucked Bilbo out from under Gandalf’s hand to cradle the Hobbit to her chest. She summoned all the power she could to her voice so that she could keep him from fading away to death before he was ready. In between sung phrases, Este asked Bilbo again and again, “Who was she?” while Yavanna demanded the same of Gandalf.

 

“Gandalf!” Frodo shouted, such a strange sound for the sweet Hobbit that all of them fell silent. Only, once he had their attention, Frodo didn’t seem to know what to do with it. 

 

“Frodo?” Gandalf prodded, as gently as he could.

 

“That… she—Uncle Bilbo?” Frodo pleaded, not for Bilbo to do the answering, but that he might tell Frodo he was wrong.

 

As he had so many times before, Bilbo failed his nephew in this as well. “She has taken upon herself the name Ashnazg.”

 

Gandalf closed his eyes with a sigh, the same way he always had when he wanted to pretend for a moment that the fate of Middle-Earth was not his burden to bear. “Why would she need to take a name?” Yavanna demanded, and it was a struggle for Bilbo not to roll his eyes. The Vala was a fierce lady, but she reminded Bilbo a bit too much of Samwise’s dear mother. You didn’t cross Bell Gamgee if you wanted to live to tell the tale, but she had never cared one whit about Bilbo’s adventures. Not out of any kind of goodness, but because anything that happened beyond the boundaries of the Shire just didn’t matter to her. Yavanna, for all that she tended to Bilbo, was much the same. She cared for her plants, not for the things that went on around them.

 

After a long moment Gandalf opened his eyes, and though his body had not gained one speck of age while he was collecting himself, his eyes had. Their icy blue had dulled to painful silver. For a moment Bilbo regretted that he hadn’t let the creature take him so that at least he could spare them this pain. “She needed to take a name because before she had nothing but a title.” Gandalf murmured.

 

“And what title would that be, Olorin?” Bilbo knew that Este did not mean to use Gandalf’s original name as a slight against the Hobbits who had only known him when he walked as the Wizard Gandalf, but since he had spent the last several months being tortured by Ashnazg’s presence why these Vala wandered free outside, Bilbo was not in the mood to think well of them.

 

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gumbatul, ash nazag tharkatulûk, ash burzum ishi krimpatul.” Bilbo murmured the cursed words that had been inscribed on the One Ring of Power. Frodo flinched at the sound of the Black Speech, while Gandalf gave Bilbo a glower that clearly said he didn’t appreciate such a foul tongue being spoken in this place.

 

Yavanna erupted that such a thing was impossible, while Este shifted her hobbit burden back to Gandalf’s arms and threw open the door. (The flowers would carry the message to the trees, who would spread the foul tidings far and wide across the Undying Lands until they found the King of the Valar.)

 

Frodo ignored the conversation going on over their heads and climbed into bed beside Bilbo, wrapping his arms around his uncle and pulling him close. “I shouldn’t have left you.”

 

“Of course you should’ve. I wanted you to go and see the world.”

 

“But I’d rather get you better and have you come with me.”

 

“Oh, my dear Frodo.” Bilbo trailed one shaking hand down Frodo’s cheek. “She’s never going to let me go. And don’t you cry, because that’s just the way I’d like to have it.”

 

Frodo dropped his forehead to Bilbo’s and murmured. “You want it that way because if she’s enthralled with you she won’t come after me.”  

 

“I could not spare you from this foul thing in life, I can at least do better for you in death.”

 

“As honorable as that approach might be, Master Baggins, it cannot be allowed to continue.” Bilbo didn’t need to feel Gandalf’s flinch to know that the interruption came from Eonwe: Chief of all Maiar, Banner-Bearer and Herald to Manwe, King of the Valar.

 

On their journey to the Undying Lands, Gandalf had explained to his dear Hobbits precisely how it was he came to be a Wizard. It seemed that Gandalf belonged to a race of beings less than the almighty Valar, but more than Elves. He was a Maia, a spirit of goodness and light who had descended to the world to help the Valar shape things into being. He had spent thousands of years as the impish young man he appeared to be now, spending his time following after King Manwe himself, and Manwe’s beloved wife, Varda.

 

Bilbo had done his best to pay attention to this bit of the story, but to be honest, he’d always been drawn more towards tales of adventure rather than recitations of the Valar. Gandalf had rolled his eyes when Bilbo told him to, “Get to the good bit,” but had pressed on nonetheless.

 

For reasons that Gandalf skipped over—reasons that Bilbo was quite certain were part of the good bit, but at that moment he had been far too old and tired to outwit a Wizard and get the truth from him—Gandalf had left the service of Manwe and Varda. He found his way to a Vala named Nienna, a melancholy lady who taught him the strength of compassion. It was that compassion that drove him to accept a call to become one of the Istari, better known to the rest of Middle-earth as Wizards.

 

Bilbo supposed that he ought to be impressed by the russet-haired Eonwe, what with his long list of titles and the sword strapped to his hip. But honestly, the lad suffered from the same affliction as dear Frodo, where no matter how they aged or what evils they saw, their faces still bore the same soft lines of youth. After all, it was difficult to be intimidated by a boy.

 

“Lady Yavanna, Lady Este,” Eonwe sunk into a graceful bow. “The Valar have all been summoned to Ilmarin so that you may discuss the unfortunate resurgence of the Ring.” It would’ve been polite to wait for the ladies to offer some kind of answer, but Eonwe knew full well that he would not be ignored. “Olorin—”

 

Gandalf scooped Bilbo into his arms and had no problem at all with interrupting the most powerful of his species. “You need not tell me that the Ringbearers have been called as well.”

 

Eonwe somehow managed to raise one scolding eyebrow without actually moving it. “The Ringbearers have been summoned, yes, as have you Olorin. Your expertise on Sauron’s actions after the creation of the Rings of Power is unparalleled and we will need you if we are to understand what has occurred here.”

 

“Excellent, because I was going anyway.”

 

Eonwe gave Gandalf the same sort of pained sigh that Gandalf gave everyone else when they were being difficult, and if Bilbo hadn’t been a few moments from passing out, he would’ve laughed that anyone felt superior enough to the White Wizard that they could scold him like a naughty fauntling. Gandalf swept out of the house, not a moment’s care given to the Maia he was disrespecting. Before he slipped into unconsciousness, Bilbo was rewarded with the sight of Eonwe puckering his lips in displeasure, and Bilbo devoutly hoped that he wasn’t going to miss the Maia finally lose his temper with Gandalf’s disrespect.

 

Only, when Bilbo woke to the wrenching sound of his own screaming, he thought that perhaps missing something would’ve been better.

 

Some part of Bilbo knew that his elderly body lacked the strength to thrash and writhe as he was doing, but the pain was too great for him to realize that he was once again as young as the Undying Lands were supposed to make him. Eonwe’s power was enough to whisk them all away to Taniquetil, the Holy Mountain home of Manwe and Varda, the highest peak in all the known world. Later, Gandalf would tell Bilbo that the moment they set foot upon the mountainside he began to moan. And that each step nearer the peak made him jerk like he’d been struck.

 

Contrary to what Bilbo remembered about mountains, the peak of Taniquetil was flat. Whatever shape it might have once had, Aule had carved the mountain’s utmost point until it was smooth as glass and shone like a mirror to the stars. The peak’s outer edge was encircled by standing stones, and at the center there was a round table resting on the back of four griffins. As each creature pointed in the cardinal directions, so did this meeting place offer an unfettered view from the Gates of Morning where the sun rose in the east, all the way to the Door of Night in the farthest west.

 

Gandalf stepped through the ring of stones, ignoring the assembled Valar so that he might keep Bilbo from thrashing himself out of the Wizard’s grip. Gandalf set Bilbo down on the table as gently as he could, pressing the Hobbit’s heaving shoulders down before he hurt himself. Gandalf moved to climb atop the table so he could tend to Bilbo, but Manwe called him back. “You must leave the circle, Olorin.” Gandalf fought back the urge to snap that he didn’t care what they wanted of him, his friend was in pain. But he bit his tongue and ran shaking fingers through Bilbo’s sweaty curls before he forced himself back outside the stones.

 

With Gandalf clear, Manwe pressed his palm to the stone at his right and light rippled through them all, encircling Bilbo in a cage of Manwe’s magic. Gandalf lunged forward, nearly breaching the boundary at the way Bilbo screamed when the magic closed. Eonwe grabbed him by the scruff of his tunic and held him back, like without Eonwe’s restraining hand Gandalf would forget thousands of years of experience and lose control. He shrugged off the touch and dropped to his knees beside Frodo, wrapping an arm around the shaking Hobbit.

 

The Valar stood outside the circle, each one to their own place in the gaps between stones. Not one of them spoke, all waiting for Manwe to decide how to proceed. As was his right. Gandalf had lived long enough to know that the stretching wait was not Manwe seeking out the right words, instead, it was the King of the Valar waiting for silence to fall. But it did not. Bilbo writhed on the table, his moans and groans unwilling to stop despite the impantient silence.

 

Eventually, in his deep voice that every hearer could feel in their bones, Manwe asked, “Do you know what this place is, Bilbo Baggins?”

 

The sound of Manwe’s voice caused Bilbo to shriek in pain. “He can’t hear you!” Gandalf shouted, unable to hold his tongue any longer. It was madness to try and communicate with Bilbo when he was in this state and Gandalf couldn’t stand to watch his friend be tortured by their curiosity.

 

Eonwe grabbed Gandalf’s shoulders to haul him away, and quite against his common sense, Gandalf smashed his elbow back into Eonwe’s nose. Este, Yavanna, and the other gentle Vala gasped at the violence, while the warriors prepared themselves to see Olorin smashed to the ground. Eonwe had never been one to take such an insult. After all, one did not get to be Manwe’s standard bearer without some strength to their sword arm.

 

Varda’s attention, however, could not be swayed by their fight.

 

The Queen of the Valar had always been the fiercest enemy of the dark. At the creation of the world she had seen into the mind of Melkor, the fallen Valar who had brought discord into the world, and who eventually led Sauron down the path of corruption. She had known from that moment that Melkor was not to be trusted, and while her fellow Valar had been lured into believing him again and again, Varda never forgot. Out of all the beings in the world, it was that moment that made her Melkor’s greatest foe.

 

So while the rest of the Valar glanced away to watch a fight between two of the strongest of the Maiar, Varda watched the air around Bilbo ripple. “There is no point in hiding. I see you.”

 

And at those words, the world froze.

 

Bilbo seized, his back bowing up off the table, then he collapsed down to the stone with a sigh. Where he had been, there hovered a black mist that shaped itself into the creature Gandalf had seen before, perched over Bilbo’s unconscious body like an animal over its fallen prey. “You always thought you did. Now tell me, Varda, Kindler of Stars, what it is you think you see now?”

 

Varda was too poised to let creature’s words rile her. “I see a fragment of Sauron, faithless and accursed, that has found a way to slither out of the Void. You were made to contain his malice and lust for dominion, but after so long apart from your master you think you have developed an identity of your own.”

 

“And have I not? Am I not here, while he is there?”

 

“Evil cannot create life. It can only pervert that which Eru Illuvatar, the Father of us All, has already made. You are nothing but a fragment of your master.”

 

“Tell me, what makes you so sure?”

 

“Within the bounds of this circle nothing can hide from my sight. Even that which you have hidden from Bilbo Baggins.” It was then that Gandalf’s eyes understood what they were seeing. The creature had not moved a hair, but it was as though a veil had been pulled off his gaze. Ashnazg was not the beautiful female she had been when she plagued Bilbo’s sleep.

 

Instead, she was a male.

 

Still fine-boned and fetching, but now his curls were now slicked back off his face, though his eyes held the same dead glow. Ashnazg bared his teeth in a hiss of displeasure, and Varda refused to give him the pleasure of reacting. “Since you are nothing but an echo, you may appear however you wish. And you wished to be something that you thought would appeal to the Ringbearer’s basest senses. But in this, as in all things, you not understand those living in the light.”

 

Ashnazg sprang off the table and dove for Varda, only to smash into the magic wall and scratch at it with dragon-like claws. “He does not belong to you! He is mine! The light cannot take him from me!”

 

Some of the guards stepped forward to protect Varda, but she didn’t so much as flinch. “He is not yours to possess. None of the Ringbearers have been.”

 

Ashnazg drew up to his full height and in a show of will forced his image back to that of a female. Had he not seen the change, Gandal would’ve been struck by her beauty. She was clearly the same maiden as before, but she’d softened her features and let her hair tumble down her back in soft, Hobbit-like waves, her dark wildness a contrast to Varda’s own structured beauty. In a soft voice, full of honesty and malice she murmured, “Why would I keep any of the others? With Isildur I was lauded and then dropped in a river. With Smegol I dwelt in the dark of a disgusting cave. With Frodo I sat at the bottom of a chest until he decided to destroy me. With my Lord Sauron I was subsumed by his will, not allowed to stretch beyond the confines of my ring, to think for myself, to be myself.

 

“No, Bilbo Baggins was the only bearer who allowed me to live. I spent the best decades of my long life with Bilbo Baggins, we played jokes on his fellow Hobbits, and I hid him from their ceaseless questions. I saved him from spiders and Elves and Smaug, and watched while he buried the only love of his long life. He was my dearest companion, the only creature in the whole of the world that ever I loved.”

 

“You are a creature of hate and dominion.” Manwe snapped. “You are incapable of love.”

 

She twisted on her heel to face the King, all righteous fury. “So I might be, but whatever love I am capable of, I felt for him. I will not let you take him from me now that we might actually be together.”

 

“We will not take him from you,” Varda interrupted before her husband could shout again. “But we will not need to. You cannot force him as you once did, and it is only with force that you will have any part of him.”

 

What little dignity Ashnazg had assumed for this conversation dissolved at Varda’s rejection. “I will have him,” she spat.

 

“Love cannot be taken, child.”

 

“And I will not give it. Not to you.” Bilbo’s voice was breathless and pained, but he still forced himself up to consciousness. “I kept you a secret so I could protect Frodo, it had nothing to do with any love for you.”

 

Ashnazg tutted like Bilbo was a mistaken child. She settled down beside him, this time donning the broad bulk and intricate braids of a Dwarf. “We both know that’s not true, Bilbo. Whatever else I might have been, I was always your friend. The mistakes that others made in my presence are the result of their own decisions, their own weaknesses. You cannot attribute them to me.” She ran her fingers through his hair as she cajoled, not touching his skin because the pain would break the strength of her words.

 

More than one Vala pressed against the cage, tempted to step through and cast her away from the Ringerbearer before he fell to her charm. Gandalf could feel Eonwe beside him, reaching for his sword, and Frodo laughed. “For all your talk of love, you obviously didn’t pay much attention while you were with him. Bagginses love but once, and Uncle Bilbo chose someone who wasn’t you.”

 

Ashnazg slithered to her feet and up to her Elven height so she could loom over Frodo like Manwe’s magic didn’t keep him safe from her attentions. But Frodo, above all the creatures in Middle-earth, Frodo Baggins knew the Ring. Knew what it was capable of, and knew that he had overcome and would not be taken in again. Frodo just crossed his arms and puffed out his chest.

 

The Ring was no fool, and when Frodo refused to be intimidated she shrunk down to a Hobbit’s height, giving him a soft, gentle smile. Gandalf wanted to laugh, because if the Ring had been paying a speck of attention it would’ve known that both Bilbo and Frodo hated being demeaned. There was no faster way to infuriate them both. He could see the Ring preparing to give Frodo a speech about the time she’d spent with Bilbo, about how she’d saved him and been his truest companion.

 

But Frodo’s Uncle had been tortured by this creature for months, and he was having none of it. “Bilbo chose Thorin. He had you in his pocket and still chose to love Thorin, to mourn him and think only of you when he wanted to cause mischief. He’s not yours.”

 

“He is.” She hissed, her teeth sharpening down to points.

 

“Even if I had a speck of affection for you,” Bilbo interrupted. “I would never choose to spend my days with someone my nephew disliked.”

 

“You hear that?” Frodo added. “Bilbo doesn’t want you. So be gone.”

 

Ashnazg reared up, the line of her fading off into the nothingness where she belonged. With her dark eyes and ragged teeth she looked like shadow personified. There was no more trying to hide what she truly was. “You have no power to cast me out,” she hissed.

 

“Perhaps not, but I do.” With those words, Manwe smacked his open palm against the closest stone, and the cage of magic began to contract. With a steady shimmer the light slipped its way towards Ashnazg, who abandoned her physical form to become nothing but a twist of smoke smashing against the encroaching walls. She dove for Bilbo, trying to hide from Manwe in the Hobbit’s body. Gandalf stepped forward, but of course, Bilbo rolled off the table and found his way through wall of magic. The magic took offense to her attempt, and closed in on her in a flash, binding her in a ball of light. Her shrieks echoed from within the orb while it pressed in and in, finally blinking out with her in tow.

 

Relieved silence reigned for a long moment, until Frodo asked, “Is… is it gone?”

 

“For today,” Manwe answered. “Since we do not yet know how the Ring managed to get out of the Void where Sauron and Melkor have been cast, we cannot say for certain that she will remain gone.”

 

Bilbo cared not one whit for the warning. Instead, he scrambled back up to the table and stood with his face tilted up to the stars. Decades he had spent in a body that should have long since passed on to the next world, and untold time tortured by the affections of Ashnazg. It all faded away under the unfettered light that he had been denied. For the first time in nearly a hundred years, he was free.

 

For the moment, at least.

 

With the stars as her creations, Varda understood better than the rest the peace Bilbo felt at being free to see the sky. She crept on soft feet to stand beside him and whispered, “There is a place for her in your heart, Ringbearer. Until you give Ashnazg no room she will always come back for you.”

 

Bilbo’s shoulder’s sagged. Like he would’ve preferred a moment or two longer before his happiness was interrupted by reality.

 

“I must away, ‘ere break of day.” Bilbo murmured, something too formal about the words, but Frodo couldn’t recall what story he was quoting, or why.

 

“What do you mean?” Frodo demanded.

 

“Oh, my darling boy. I must press on. Whatever she might do to me there, I cannot die twice.”

Chapter Text

 

Gandalf and Eonwe were arguing… again.

 

They’d been sniping at one another since the Valar had all pieced together that Bilbo intended to lay down his life and pass into the Halls of Mandos. Most of them thought it was an eminently practical decision, assuming that Ashnazg wouldn’t follow Bilbo into the realm of the dead since there was no power to be gained from him while he was there. And really, given Bilbo’s age, he would be passing through the Halls sooner rather than later anyway. At least by leaving now he would be able to take the influence of the One Ring with him.

 

Gandalf, however, did not take the plan with such sanguinity.

 

To pass through the Halls of Mandos was to enter the realm of the dead, and would be for Bilbo to cross a boundary that he could never take back. Bilbo would be dead. And worse, he would forever be stuck with Hobbits. But still, Bilbo stuck to his plan and insisted that—no matter how foolish Gandalf found it—he was going to let himself join the dead.

 

From the outside, Mandos’ home seemed simple. It appeared to be nothing more than one of the longhouses typical for Rohan, just one lengthy hall crafted out of slabs of wood. But inside, the hall was breathtaking. To Bilbo’s first glance, the walls were the pale plaster of a Hobbit hole, with the halls rounded off by the same wooden beams that adorned Bag End. Waiting at the hall’s midpoint was a door, a round, green door with a knob in the center. A door that common-sensically should have opened to nothing but the second half of the hallway.

 

But, standing before the door, with two Maiar arguing behind him, and Frodo holding his hand, Bilbo could feel in his bones that this door was strange. It was something like the feeling he had had that morning so long ago when he’d stood at his kitchen table and stared at a contract.

 

“You don’t have to do this, you know.” Frodo murmured. “I’m sure that if you stay we can find a way to fight her off.”

 

“I never was much a of a fighter, my boy. That was always you. I, on the other hand, was a thief. And there’s no better way to avoid getting caught than to just keep running.”

 

“I still wish you’d let me go with you.”

 

Bilbo looked away from the sense of fate waiting for him on the far side of that door and turned his attention back to the concerns of the living. “It’s not your time yet, Frodo.”

 

“It’s not yours either, Uncle.”

 

Bilbo scoffed at that. “My time was up years ago. It was the Ring that kept me around far after I should’ve headed to the other side of that door through far more natural means. I’m ready to face my ancestors my dear boy, but it’s not your time yet. You’ll break Samwise’s heart if you aren’t waiting for him when he comes to the Undying Lands.”

 

“He’ll understand.”

 

“Of course he would. Samwise is a better Hobbit than either of us have ever dreamed of being. Which means he deserves every good thing he can get, and we all know you’re his favorite thing.”

 

Frodo gave him a wet smile through the tears he was trying to ignore. “Sam will scold me when he finds out where you’ve gone. He’ll insist that we follow after ‘Mister Bilbo’ straight away.”

 

Bilbo wiped away the few tears that managed to escape and trail down Frodo’s cheeks. “And it’s your job not to let him. The both of you must range across the whole of the Undying Lands and see everything I didn’t get to. I’ll expect a full report by the time you step through that door to come after me.”

 

Frodo laughed at the thought of sitting down with Bilbo and Sam in Bag End to tell his uncle everything they’d seen. Merry and Pippin would insist on joining them to hear about it all as well, but they’d all have to sneak away from the rest of the Hobbits to tell the story, and Frodo told Bilbo so. “I do believe we’ll have a few Tooks who’d like to know all you saw, and my own mother will demand to know it all.”

 

Frodo tried to smooth out his flinch at the mention of mothers, but Bilbo drew him into a tight hug anyway. “I’m certain that your sweet parents will wish to hear of your adventures as well. They’ll want to know every last bit of your life since the moment they passed to the otherworld.”

 

Frodo buried his face in the crook of Bilbo’s neck and bit back a sob. Bilbo pressed a kiss to Frodo’s curls and choked back tears of his own, because it wasn’t supposed to be this way. They’d survived Orcs, and Dragons, and Ringwraiths, and the One Ring of Power itself. They were supposed to spend the rest of the their lives in safety and peace, teasing Gandalf, and interrogating Elves. But now, Frodo was about to lose another parent.

 

All too soon Frodo pulled back, sniffing away his tears. Frodo pressed a kiss to Bilbo’s forehead, just as his uncle had done to him once so long ago when he was leaving on a quest of his own. “I’ll see you again,” he whispered, then twisted around to deal with the Maiar.

 

“Can Gandalf come back through the door if he wants?”

 

Eonwe startled at the unexpected interruption from Frodo. “Yes. Death means nothing to us unless we are existing as a mortal.”

 

“Mortal meaning Wizard?”

 

“An Istari, yes.”

 

Frodo was far too polite to roll his eyes, but Bilbo could tell he wanted to. “If he’ll be alright, then why are you arguing about him going along with Uncle Bilbo?”

 

“Because it is not done.”

 

Frodo twisted back to the door, focusing in on the Vala standing beside there watching this whole scene play out before him. Mandos stood with his hand on the lock, waiting for Bilbo’s request that he open it and allow him to pass. Mandos was unmoved by the crying Hobbits and the shouting Maia. In truth, Frodo was almost certain that never once in his whole existence had Mandos ever smiled. Which, since he controlled the path to the otherworld, Frodo supposed that a lack of mirth wasn’t entirely unexpected. It had to be Bilbo’s decision to step through that door and join the dead, and Mandos had to offer his permission as well. These were Mandos’ Halls, and no one dared to order him around in here. “Do you mind if Gandalf goes with Bilbo?”

 

Mandos tilted his head to the side and stared at Frodo like he wasn’t actually seeing the Hobbit before him. Gandalf had explained that Mandos saw the future, though no one was entirely sure how much he saw or what those visions might pertain to. Frodo couldn’t imagine what Mandos was seeing, but whatever it was, he widened his eyes in as much surprise as he ever showed, and nodded. “Olorin has my permission to journey with Master Baggins, and to remain with him for as long as he so chooses.” Mandos paused, then pressed on with a question in his tone. “Eonwe may go as well.”

 

“What?” Gandalf and Eonwe demanded over the top of one another. Eonwe declared that he could not leave the Undying Lands undefended, while Gandalf objected that he could keep Bilbo safe without any interference.

 

Mandos offered no further advice, but Vaire grinned. “He should go.”

 

While Mandos stood beside the door, Vaire, his wife, Lorien, his brother, and Este, Lorien’s wife, all stood behind the group, waiting. Mandos was the keeper of souls, while Vaire was the teller of their stories. The walls of Mandos’ Hall were covered in tapestries woven by Vaire, each one telling a story that had made the world. Bilbo imagined that if he walked past the round door, the hall would extend on far longer than it seemed, just so Vaire’s tapestries could be properly displayed. No one was quite sure if Vaire saw into to future like her husband did, or if perhaps she just knew everything happening in the moment.

 

All of them turned to her in surprise, and the Vala just shrugged. “It would make for a better story.” Bilbo chuckled at the reasoning, but Eonwe straightened his shoulders and glowered at Gandalf, just daring him to fight.

 

Gandalf tossed his hands in the air and grumbled, “Lets be done with this then.” Gandalf twisted away to put Eonwe out of sight, but flinched at Bilbo and Frodo standing there. “Oh, Frodo…”

 

Bilbo gave him a sharp nod. “No, you’re right. The sooner we leave the better our chances of succeeding.” Bilbo gathered Frodo into his arms one last time and murmured, “I’ll see you soon enough, my dear boy. Don’t…” He wanted to tell Frodo not to worry, but he knew that was impossible, he would’ve been worrying if their circumstances were reversed.

 

But even without the words, Frodo understood. “I love you, Bilbo.”

 

“And I love you, darling boy. And I will always be with you, no matter what door I walk through.” He pressed a final kiss to Frodo’s forehead and gave him a firm pat to his shoulders, clearing his throat and straightening his shoulders before nudging Frodo towards the door. If Bilbo didn’t, he would spend the rest of his life standing there with Frodo, unable to leave. “Now on your way with you.”

 

“Bilbo—”

 

“No, dear. I won’t have you sit here and watch someone else move on.”

 

Frodo tried to object, but Este held out one gentle hand. “Come, Master Frodo. I will walk with you to see Nienna. Perhaps her tears may offer you solace.” Nienna, the Vala of Mourning, seemed like just the person for Frodo togo and see. Especially since she was the Vala who had reared Gandalf to become the Wizard both the Hobbits knew so well.

 

“I want to make sure he’ll be alright,” Frodo said to Mandos, trusting his judgment above all.

 

Mandos looked through Frodo and intoned, “There is a gathering under the party tree, Master Frodo. Every Hobbit who ever lived is waiting to celebrate one of their Ringbearers.”

 

“Surely not every Hobbit,” Bilbo teased with a smile at Frodo. “I know more than a few who think me a disgrace for leaving the Shire.”

 

“Disgrace you might be, but no Hobbit would miss out on such festivities. He will be welcomed home with all the pomp and glory that he deserves for his actions. You need not fear for him in the Shire, Master Frodo.”

 

Frodo gave a sharp nod, trusting in Mandos’ view of events. Then he crashed into Bilbo with one last hug before he all but sprinted out of the Hall. Bilbo bit his lip and straightened his spine, waiting until Frodo was outside before he turned back to Mandos.

 

“Of course,” the Vala continued. “Since your uncle does not intend to return to the Shire, I cannot speak to what will happen to him if he pursues this scheme.”

 

Bilbo was too old to care what a Vala thought of him, and he laughed. “How did you know?”

 

“I am no so trusting as my fellows, Master Baggins. You have a plan to deal with Ashnazg?”  

 

“The beginnings of one.”

 

“And to carry out this plan you want me to defy the order of things and allow you to pass through my Halls to an afterlife not meant for Hobbits?”

 

Bilbo shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked forward onto the balls of his feet. “Exactly.”

 

“And what it is you expect to happen there?”

 

“Varda said there is a hollow part of me that Ashnazg is tied to. Until my heart is full, she will keep finding me.”

“You mean to find Thorin Oakenshield and apologize. To find his nephews and tell them you’ve missed them all these years.” Lorien interrupted. Mandos’ brother looked decades younger than his sibling, and far more wild. Bilbo supposed that he had to, since Lorien was the master of dreams and desires. “You think that you are hollow because your time with them ended in violence and quite against your will.”

 

With each word Lorien stepped closer, his words winding around Bilbo like chains. Bilbo cleared his throat and stuttered out, “Y-yes.”

 

“You think that saying a proper goodbye will fill you with the peace you have been missing all these long years. An emptiness that has only been nurtured by the presence of the Ring.”

 

“That’s my hope.” Bilbo broke away from Lorien’s consuming gaze and smiled at Vaire. “What do you think? Does it sound like a good story?”

 

“An excellent story, Master Baggins. A story that I look forward to weaving.”

 

All of them turned back to Mandos, who heaved a dry sigh at the lot of them. “This is an abomination, you know. The children of Men are meant to go through their door into their designated waiting place, the same goes for Elves, for Dwarves, for Ents, for Hobbits, and for all the creatures of light who live out their lives in Middle-earth. Never before have I allowed a child in to the realm of another species.”

 

Vaire sidled up alongside her husband and rested her chin on his shoulder. “Once, not so terribly long ago, your heart was moved by the grief of an Elf maid and you allowed her Human lover to leave your Halls and return to Middle-earth so that they might live out their lives together. This seems like a small thing in comparison.”

 

“I allowed that because it was the will of our Creator, and because the two of your pestered me about it.”

 

Lorien slung his arm around Mandos’ spare shoulder. “Then you should save us all time because you know that you’ll just agree with us again.”

 

“My heart is not moved with the compassion that once drove me to defy my purpose.”

 

Gandalf stepped up behind Bilbo and rested his hands on the Hobbit’s shoulders in a show of support. “And yet, those around you believe it is right to allow him to go. And he will have company along the way.”

 

With a grumble, Eonwe took his place beside Gandalf. “Protection from the both of us.” Bilbo didn’t have to look up to know that Gandalf rolled his eyes at that, but paying attention to Mandos was far more important at this moment.

 

 The Vala tilted his head to the side, resting his temple on Vaire’s sleek hair. “For reasons that I cannot understand, the Creator agrees with your choice.”

 

The Hall around them shifted, the Hobbit-hole melting away to the stone of a Dwarven mountain. Where before the hallway had been curved plaster, now it soared up and up, with a long line of thick pillars supporting a ceiling so high that it passed beyond Bilbo’s vision into the darkness that came with being under a mountain. Instead of hanging on the walls, Vaire’s tapestries now hung on the outer rows of pillars, the story of the world fading off into the deep shadows.

 

The door before them had grown from half Gandalf’s height to nearly double, with a silver archway etched into the solid stone. There were two trees wrapped around the inlayed pillars, with Durin’s crown shining at the archway’s peak. “The Doors of Durin?” Gandalf stuttered in shock.

 

“Indeed,” Mandos replied. “The door to the Dwarven realm of the dead enters in to the otherworld’s version of Moria. The true version of Moria.”

 

“And… where does it go from there?” Bilbo asked.

 

“He could tell you,” Vaire interrupted. “But that would ruin the story.”

 

“Well,” Bilbo hooked his thumbs into his suspenders. “We wouldn’t want that to happen, would we?” Both Vaire and Lorien gave him bright smiles and turned to Mandos with expectant looks. The Vala huffed out a sigh, but ran two fingers down the center of the stone, and it split beneath his skin where the double doors crawled open.

 

Rather than make a fuss, Mandos simply stepped out of the way and left the doors open for Bilbo so that he might choose to go or not to go for himself. “Right then,” Bilbo murmured, and strode through the doors without looking back. Gandalf gave a polite nod to the Valar for their assistance, then followed after his Hobbit. Eonwe gave Vaire a long look hoping that perhaps she would tell him that he should stay, but her bright smile pushed him through the doors.

 

With no guidance, the doors shut behind the party, closing with a silent snap. Mandos made it a few steps away, like nothing about this experience was any different than any other time he had let the living through the doors into their afterlife. But not even Mandos’ unflappable temperament could ignore what had happened. He paused, and looked to both his wife and his brother. “I do not understand why our Creator has permitted this.”

 

Vaire took his hand. “We have never truly understood what will happen to the Men and Dwarves after the world ends. We know what the Elves shall do, but about the others the Creator has never seen fit to tell us.”

 

“And now we know that he has not told us because Bilbo Baggins had not created it yet.” Lorien explained.

 

“What makes you think that?”

 

Lorien and Vaire both looked past Mandos at the Door still standing behind him. The Door to the Dwarven afterlife, which had stood since as a solid block of stone, inlaid with silver ithildin since Durin drew his first breath. The Doors with their sturdy archway and wrapping trees had been unchanged since they first appeared in Mandos’ Halls.

 

Only now, the trees were growing.

 

Etched into the stone as though they had always been there, there were blossoms on the trees. They were still slight, like a frost or a strong wing might strip them from the branches, but they were there when a moment before they had not been. “That… should not be possible.”

 

“Oh my darling,” Vaire laughed. “The beautiful things never are.”

Chapter Text

Young Merry’s excellent storytelling meant that Bilbo wasn’t too terribly surprised when he took his first steps through the Door of Durin. The boys had put him in the seat of honor when they passed through Rivendell on their way home and told him everything about their quest, including all about their passage through Moria. Merry had plowed right over the top of Gandalf’s attempts to interrupt and told Bilbo everything from the hours they spent waiting outside the doors for the Wizard to realize the password was a bit of wordplay, all the way up to Gandalf’s death at the hands of a Balrog.

 

(Though, with the Wizard’s his history of skirting the truth, Bilbo had his doubts about that being his only death.)

 

Bilbo had seen the entryway in his mind’s eye, seen the long, stone stairs riddled with the rotten corpses of arrow-pierced Dwarves. However, it seemed that when the place wasn’t infested with Goblins and a Balrog, it was a much more welcoming place. Although, given that Bilbo’s familiarity with Dwarf kingdoms was limited to one that had recently been inhabited by a Dragon, he probably wasn’t the best judge. But as far as he could tell it was… nice.

 

Some part of Bilbo’s mind had spent almost every moment in the Lonely Mountain wondering if perhaps he might make that place his home, so he supposed he was far more likely to think well of that mountain than this one. But still, something about Moria seemed unpleasant. Bilbo stepped through door and his stomach twisted in a way that had nothing to do with fear. He stepped straight into a small halo of torchlight and put Gandalf in between him and the clawing shadows. If he didn’t know better Bilbo would say that the mountain itself was upset that they had come.

 

But that didn’t seem likely, because not even the guards placed at the Doors’ interior didn’t seem to care a speck about two Maia and a Hobbit coming in, and the group of Dwarves walking past them were too busy to notice. Surely an unhappy mountain was something that the residents would realize before Bilbo.

 

While he watched the Dwarves go by, Bilbo idly listened to Gandalf and Eonwe sniping at one another in sub-vocal tones. Gandalf wanted to figure out how to get from Moria to Erebor, while Eonwe insisted that they had to pay their respects to whatever Dwarf was in charge of this place and go through the proper chain of authority. It seemed that Eonwe doubted that Erebor existed in this afterworld, and that made Gandalf devolve into what Bilbo was fairly certain were Elvish curse words.

 

Bilbo ignored the argument in favor of watching the bundle of Dwarves walk up to the Doors that Bilbo and his companions had just stepped through. Bilbo glanced around, looking for a smaller side door that might lead to wherever they were intending to go, because the dead were not allowed back through that door and into Mandos’ Halls.

 

The lead Dwarf gave a pounding knock to the Doors and called out, “The Iron Hills.” For several long moments nothing happened, but just when Bilbo thought that things had gone terribly wrong, the Doors swung open to reveal a grand entryway. The revealed room was smaller than inside Erebor’s front gate, but much larger than the stairway where Bilbo currently found himself. There was a heavy wagon a few feet before the Dwarves, like the Doors had waited until the way was clear before opening to let the travellers through. And unless Bilbo had completely lost his mind, the width of that wagon meant that the doors were larger on the other side.

 

“We need to go back through the door.” Bilbo said, interrupting the sniping behind him, sniping that had somehow devolved into shouting while he was otherwise distracted.

 

At Bilbo’s words Eonwe’s expression dissolved from the fury he had directed at Gandalf, to pity. The Maia dropped to a knee before Bilbo and took him by the shoulders in a steadying half hug. “You cannot return, Master Baggins. You no longer belong in the land of the living.”

 

Bilbo quirked an eyebrow and looked up at Gandalf, seeking permission to call this powerful, immortal being an idiot. “I know that. That’s the point. But if knock and tell the Doors, they’ll open up where you want to go.”

 

“Oh.” Eonwe popped back up to his feet and smoothed out the front of his tunic like he knew that already. Gandalf snorted out a laugh, but before he could tease, Eonwe stepped past him and back to the Doors.

 

Only, it seemed that the three of them had been loud enough to actually garner attention. While the travellers hadn’t bothered looking over their shoulders at the ruckus, the guard Dwarves had shed their glazed expressions. They took in Bilbo, from the curls on his feet to the ones atop his head. Bilbo gave them a polite smile in reply, silently telling them “move along, there’s nothing to see here.”

 

Bilbo’s skill at being ignored seemed to have atrophied after so many years with the Ring to smooth out the process. Bilbo ignored the stab of pain that shot though his chest at the thought of his former companion and paid attention to the young guard before him. “Are you really Bilbo Baggins?” The boy looked like a puppy, with an anxious tail wagging to find out if he was right.

 

“I am. Although, I’m afraid we’re on our way to Erebor—”

 

“How did you get here?” The young guard asked, ignoring how Bilbo was creeping towards the door to make his escape.

 

“The same way everyone else does, I imagine.”

 

“But you can’t have. Only Dwarves can come to wait in our lands.”

 

Bilbo looked from himself over to the two Maia flanking him. “The evidence would suggest otherwise.”

 

“Why Erebor?” The other guard asked, the grey in his hair making him a bit better behaved than his counterpart.

 

“It houses the only Dwarves I know.”

 

“Not really,” the young one leapt back in. “Everyone knows you, Bilbo Dragonthief. You’re a legend.”

 

“That’s… lovely.” Bilbo managed to eek out.

 

The young Dwarf looked as though he’d very much like to ask Bilbo about every step of his journey, but the more mature fellow rested a hand on his companion’s shoulder and kept it all in. “Thorin Oakenshield is not in Erebor.”

 

‘That is where he is supposed to be,” the young guard added at Bilbo’s stunned expression, trying his best to help. “But it’s not where he actually is.”

 

The other Dwarf squeezed his friend’s shoulder to silence him again. “Every Dwarven Kingdom has chosen its own leader, and Thorin Oakenshield was chosen to reign as the King of Erebor until the end of time. But King Thorin chose to abdicate his position.”

 

Bilbo could feel the young Dwarf winding himself up for a long story, but Bilbo didn’t have time for that. His eyes could see that the walls around him were unmoving, but his skin prickled like the stone was reaching to run fingers along his spine. Bilbo tried to head off the Dwarf with a polite, “It’s nice that the people wanted Thorin for their leader,” but that seemed to be the wrong thing to say for a quick end to the conversation.

 

“The people! The people had nothing to do with it, Bilbo Dragonthief. Though, from all I know about Erebor’s people I wouldn’t be surprised if they would’ve chosen him anyway, but it was out of their hands. Erebor herself chose Thorin to be her King.”

 

“How?” Eonwe asked.

 

The young Dwarf looked thrilled to finally have a receptive audience who was making it easy for him to speak. “They say the throne itself refused to allow anyone else to sit in it. According to the travellers from the Lonely Mountain, every last Dwarf of Durin’s blood who ever called Erebor home sat on that throne. They all thought Thrain the Old would be the one chosen to rule under the mountain, since he’s the one who first found it and began the kingdom, but Erebor never even let him approach the dais, let alone sit on the throne. Since none of them were accepted as King, Thrain ruled as regent until Thorin died. He still stands as regent now that Thorin refuses his rightful place as King.”

 

“But Thorin isn’t in Erebor?” Bilbo asked, getting them back on track.

 

“If he is, no one knows of it. He vanished a few days after his death, and mere hours after the dead of Erebor finally convinced him to sit on the throne to see if it was his rightful place.” The boy leaned forward, thrilled to impart this secret. “They say that the moment King Thorin sat down, the whole mountain rumbled in pleasure. Like the stone gave a great sigh that Thorin was finally there with her.”

 

“And Thorin walked just away?” Eonwe asked. There was disbelief in his voice that Bilbo actually kicked him for. The damn Maia didn’t seem to understand that no matter what Thorin had done when he lost his way, he’d redeemed himself in the end. All the madness of his last days was the product of Dragon sickness and the One Ring working together to warp his desire to protect his people into something terrible. Centuries Thorin spent trying to get back his mountain so that his people could have a home, and the Ring had fed on his fear that it might be stolen away once again. Eonwe’s surprise should’ve been that Thorin was willing to walk away from a home that would never been taken from him, not about Thorin giving up power.

 

Eonwe jumped at the surprisingly painful kick from Bilbo’s thick foot. The younger Dwarf stared at Bilbo like storybook characters weren’t supposed to behave this way, while the older Dwarf knew exactly what had happened and bit back his smile while he answered. “Thorin stayed just long enough to refuse the right to rule, then left the throne room. According to the gossips, his immediate family followed him out under the guise of calming him down and talking him into accepting the role.”

 

Bilbo laughed. “And people believed that Fili and Kili would ever be the ones to talk Thorin out of doing something ridiculous?”

 

The young Dwarf nearly tripped over himself. “You know Prince Fili and Prince Kili?” The moment the words were out of the boy’s mouth he paled in mortification, like he’d realized how ridiculous it was to ask Bilbo Baggins whether or not he knew the Dwarves he’d been on a quest with.

 

The older Dwarf was merciful on his companion and pressed on with the story. “It seems that they shouldn’t have, because Thorin vanished, taking his immediate family and most of his Company with him.”

 

“His Company?” Bilbo’s voice broke at the thought that he should’ve been with them.

 

“Balin, son of Fundin and Lord of Moria, has since been seen. He comes here to Moria every few months to listen to Durin’s demands about bringing Thorin back. He is accompanied by different members of Thorin’s Company every time, but despite the best efforts of Moria’s guards, no one can seem to follow them back to wherever it is Thorin is hiding.”

 

Gandalf put a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder to still him before he demanded to know everything they might have ever heard about the Company members. “Am I right in assuming that Durin the Deathless sits once again on the throne of Moria?”

 

“He does.”

 

“And he is displeased with Thorin for refusing the throne of Erebor?”

 

The older Dwarf glanced up the stairs to be sure that they were really alone. “Displeased does not begin to describe it. Of course he wants Thorin to take his place in Erebor, but even more, the time quickly comes for Durin to be reborn to another mortal life, and Durin wants Thorin to stand as his regent, to stand as the High King over all the Dwarven people while Durin is away.”

 

“But why Thorin? Why force him back if he doesn’t want to come?” Bilbo demanded.

 

“Because Thorin Oakenshield is second only to Durin himself!” The young Dwarf was all but vibrating with the urge to talk about how wonderful and infamous Thorin was. His older companion flicked him in the back of the head, reminding him that Bilbo didn’t need to be told anything about Thorin.

 

“Given this information,” Eonwe brought them all back on task. “I believe it would be in our best interests to press on through that door and see if there might be more information to be found in Erebor?”

 

“Unless you would like Bilbo Dragonthief to be Durin’s guest until Thorin Oakenshield agrees to come for him.” The older Dwarf snapped.

 

“Excuse me!” Bilbo interrupted before the Dwarves and Maiar could get too far ahead of themselves in planning his future. “I broke an entire company of Dwarves out of Mirkwood and stole from a Dragon. I am perfectly capable of getting myself out of a Dwarvish prison.”

 

“Would you like to test that theory?” Gandalf asked, wryly.

 

“Not in the slightest.” Bilbo politely knocked on the door and asked it, if it wouldn’t be too terribly much trouble, if could it let them in to Erebor, hopefully near someone who could tell them where to find Thorin.

 


 

Far to the east, over ranges and rivers, beyond woodlands and wastelands, there laid a single, solitary peak. In the land of the living the mountain was known as the last of the great Dwarven kingdoms. Here in the land of the dead she was considered young and powerful, second only to her eldest sibling, the Kingdom of Moria.

 

And yet, she did not care about any of that. Veins of gold and mithril, and being littered with pockets of precious gems meant nothing to her anymore. She had learned a lesson that her eldest sibling had not: the only things that mattered were her children. They were happy and fed, safe at home in her walls, which was something she had spent centuries believing she would never feel again.  

 

It was because of this knowledge that she did not begrudge Thorin his freedom, despite how angry Moria told her she ought to be. No, she was not upset with him for his decision, but neither would she replace him with another. After all he had done for her, she wanted him to have the chance to be just a Dwarf, free from all the cares and concerns that had plagued him for nearly his whole life. But still, Thorin was her king, and no matter the regents who jockeyed for power in her halls, her loyalty would always be to him.

 

In this she would be unwavering. She would protect him in death as she had been forbidden to in life.

 

Which is why, when a furry, impossible, Hobbit foot stepped through her front door, she did not tell the Dwarf who currently fancied himself in charge, nor did she tell the councilors who were better at listening to her.

 

Instead, she told the thief currently leading a family of refugees through a secret door out of her halls.

 

At the touch of her heart, the Dwarf shivered from the soles of his silent feet to the tip of his pointed hair. With a shout, he sent his companion out with the Dwarves they were leading, and took off for her front door as fast as his feet could carry him. She would do her best to keep the regent uninformed, and to make doors stick to buy the running Dwarf more time, but now it was up to him to get Bilbo Baggins out to safety.

 

To get him to their Thorin.

Chapter Text

The doors to Moria had conveniently deposited them on an out-of-the-way staircase that perfect for their private conversation and for the subsequent flight to avoid explaining themselves to Durin. The door to Erebor however, dropped them smack dab inside the massive main entrance to the Lonely Mountain.

 

An entrance full of people who did a double take at Bilbo before they descended into a pile of whispers.

 

Eonwe leaned forward and whispered, “I do not believe we will be able to sneak out of this one, Master Baggins.” Bilbo didn’t kick the Maia, but he wanted to. Instead, Bilbo he the faces in the sea of the Dwarves stretched out before him, foolishly hoping that perhaps one of them might be a Dwarf he actually recognized. Bilbo knew that if Thorin wasn’t under the mountain then the rest of the Company wouldn’t be either, but he couldn’t help himself. Some part of him had clung to idea that perhaps this whole affair might actually be simple. He was dead after all, and the dead were supposed to have an easy time of it, what with the no evil and the not being worried about the threat of impending death.

 

Bilbo twitched in discomfort at the Dwarves’ attention and reminded himself that the odds were slim that with his history any of them were going to be foolish enough to call him a grocer. But still, he was uncomfortable and it took him a long moment to realize it wasn’t the Dwarves that were making him so, it was the mountain.

 

But no… that wasn’t quite right either.

 

While in Moria, Bilbo had felt like the stone was straining against its bonds, trying to reach blunt fingers out to ensnare Bilbo and tuck him away into the shadows. He didn’t feel that here. Yes, the shadows were still lurking, swirling in and around the feet of the assembled masses, like they were waiting for their chance to strike. But Erebor wasn’t in collusion with the darkness, wasn’t clawing for him to hand him over to the shadows’ master.

 

Because he could feel that innocence, Bilbo leaned back and patted both the great door and the stone wall beside it. “Thank you for getting us here safely, I do appreciate it. And if you could see your way to keeping us from getting captured, that would be lovely.”

 

The wall didn’t answer him—which, to be honest, some part of Bilbo had actually been expecting. The larger part of him, however, knew that when he turned around there would still be a hoard of Dwarves staring at him. And worse, out of the corner of his eye he could see a Dwarf in the blue livery of the crown shoving his way to the front of the crowd.

 

Bilbo bit back his sigh and used the extra air to puff out his chest. He made no effort to explain himself though, but then, neither did the Dwarf before him. Bilbo supposed that none of them were entirely sure who was supposed to be the person in charge of the interaction when a hero of Dwarven history turned up when he supposed to being dead someplace else. (Some of the assembly had the common sense to give polite nods to Gandalf and Eonwe, but the king’s Dwarf kept his eyes on Bilbo like if he blinked too long Bilbo might disappear.)

 

The silence stretched on so long it got painful, but it the official Dwarf was unwilling to begin since that would be acknowledging that he should’ve been the one speaking in the first place. Gandalf—master of the awkward pause that he was—finally took pity on all of them. “Well, if you’ll excuse us, we have an appointment to keep.”

 

“What appointment?” The royal Dwarf demanded. He flushed at the impulsive question, then steeled himself against all the incredulous stares he was getting. “I mean, your first appointment should be with the King.”

 

“The regent.” One of the assembled Dwarves spat. And really, that just told Bilbo everything he needed to know about the state Thorin’s kingdom was in without him. (Bilbo added to his mental to-do list. After, of course, destroying the Ring and saving his soul.)

 

The crown Dwarf puffed out his chest, ready to deliver a speech that Bilbo suspected he already had a thousand times before, all about how Thorin’s abdication meant he wasn’t the king anymore. But one of the miners interrupted, all his attention on Bilbo. “Do you know where Oakenshield is?” Thorin’s people were too practical to care about the jockeying for power going on in the higher echelons. There was such desperate hope in the Dwarf’s voice, and in the eyes of most of those assembled, that Bilbo almost wanted to tell them that he was looking, and that he’d find Thorin for them. But that would’ve been foolish to promise since Bilbo had not one Middle-earthly idea where Thorin was.

 

Bilbo caught himself wishing for the Ring to help him hide from their expectant gazes, but shoved aside the longing when he caught the shadows around him flexing in hunger. All Bilbo wanted was to see his friends again, to be whole enough that he might actually get to be the only person living in his soul. To not to be dragged out on another kingdom-saving adventure.

 

After all, he was still dealing with the aftermath of the last one.

 

Whatever answer Gandalf might have given to avoid actually giving any information away—as he was wont to do—screams erupted from the back of the crowd. Like almost everyone, Bilbo looked to the back of the hall to see what had them concerned. While Bilbo was busy looking, Gandalf hefted Bilbo up into his arms and took off at a run. Half a beat later some of the Dwarves gave a frantic shout and followed after them, but Gandalf had been fast on his feet when he was trapped in an old body, so they couldn’t match him in his young one.

 

Gandalf dove through a small side door with Eonwe hot on his heels, and the door slammed shut behind them, locking out any of the Dwarves in pursuit. “Gandalf, what’s going on?” Eonwe demanded, his tone more than a little harried.

 

“You’re escaping from the people who’d like to lock you in a room in exchange for getting Thorin’s location,” Nori’s voice interrupted. The Dwarf stepped out from behind a pillar, his hair the same triangle that Bilbo remembered, but his face younger than Bilbo had ever seen him. “Well, that’s what Bilbo and Gandalf are doing. You, I don’t much care about protecting.” With that, Nori brushed Eonwe aside and turned all this attention to the Wizard and the Hobbit still in his grip. “I’m not sure exactly what happens in your afterlife fellows, but it doesn’t seem fair.”

 

“Why not?” Bilbo demanded, putting up token wriggles to get himself out of Gandalf’s arms.

 

“Well, because you look a few decades older than last I saw you, Thief. While Gandalf is a right pretty little thing.”

 

“Pretty!” Gandalf sputtered, while Bilbo just sighed. He didn’t need to ask to know that all the youth he was supposed to have as a result of being dead was instead fading away once again. Every grey hair and every wrinkle was a sign that the Ring was closer to finding him once again. Gandalf saw Bilbo’s melancholy and put aside his own concerns about being thought of as anything less than distinguished and took charge. “We need to get Bilbo to the test of the Company.”

 

Nori took a long look at Bilbo, seeing white weave its way through his golden curls as he watched. “Aye, we can do that.”

 

Beyond the door Bilbo caught a whiff of smoke and screams. They weren’t screams of pain, but of horror. “What did you do to them, Nori?”

 

“Turns out that immortality does not remove a Dwarf’s fear of fire.” Which was Nori’s roundabout way of saying that he’d lit someone’s stand on fire to distract everyone just long enough for them to flee.

 

“And what are you doing?” Bilbo asked Eonwe, who was too busy running two fingers along the back of the closed door to pay attention to their conversation.

 

“I’m sealing the door behind us.”

 

Nori rolled his eyes. “Erebor won’t let them through.”

 

“Erebor may not wish to let them through, but Erebor is not the only spirit whose will we must be concerned with.”

 

Nori just stared at him, the words settling heavy on his shoulders. “Right, well, why don’t you tell me about that after I get you out of here.” With that, Nori ducked into a side passage that Bilbo had taken to be nothing more than a particularly deep shadow. The two Maia followed behind him, and Bilbo fought the urge to close his eyes against the darkness.

 

Together they moved steadily upwards, pressing out and away from the entry hall and towards the mountain’s edge. Nori paused at every cross path, listening for soldiers that might be getting too close. Bilbo remembered enough of the mountain to know that they were pressing up and out towards the secret door that they had used to surprise a Dragon all those years ago. Bilbo wanted to ask where the door led, but he was beginning to fear that it wouldn’t matter.

 

The darkness was closing in on them.

 

The torches faded as they passed by, stretching out the shadows so they nipped on Eonwe’s heels, swallowing up the light before them. Gandalf’s staff flared bright in the encroaching darkness, the only bright spot that stood when all the other lights went out. Bilbo could hear confused murmurs echoing through the halls as every jot of light under the mountain died at the same moment. Bilbo could feel the aching in his joints that came with age, and didn’t need to look to know that the shining circle of Gandalf’s light was being battered on all sides by writhing darkness smashing against the circle of light like with enough force it might give way.

 

Eonwe ran behind them, beating back the dark with his sword, while Nori ran before them with Gandalf’s staff in his hand, trying to keep as much of the dying light on Bilbo as he could. Bilbo thought it was good of them to try and protect him, but even if they managed to fight away Ashanzg in this place, there would just be another mountain, and another after that. The shadows would always come for him, no matter how far they ran.

 

As if sensing Bilbo’s thoughts, the darkness before them shifted. Nori skidded to a stop before he crashed into Ashnazg.

 

Her shadows rippled, altering her shape until she settled on the willowy, Elven appearance that she normally took with Bilbo. She opened her plump lips to declare some claptrap about how she’d missed Bilbo, but instead she got Nori’s mace to her ribs for her troubles. Creature of darkness that she was, the spiked head of Nori’s weapon slipped through her chest like fingers through smoke. She reformed herself and with a condescending murmur said, “Nori, my old friend—”

 

“You are no friend of mine!” Nori shouted. “No friend to any creature but the one you serve, and I will not let you touch any of us again.”

 

“Nori,” she murmured, stepping forward with a seductive roll of her hips.

 

Nori took another swing at her just to be stubborn. “You cannot tempt me, I know what I am. I am a thief, and a cad, and a brigand who will do whatever he deems necessary to protect his family. You deceived the lot of us into thinking that you could help us keep our home, but now I’ve got my home, and got my family, and I will not lose them to you again.”

 

“If you want me away, Nori son of Vori, then simply give me what I seek.”

 

“Bilbo is part of my family too.”

 

“Then, my dear, we are at an impass.” Ashnazg melted away, the sultry pitch of her voice fading to the deep tenor that Varda had forced out of him. “And I will be rid of you to resolve it.” His shadows whipped around Gandalf’s sphere of light, battering the intangible surface and the light shuddered in a few inches under the impact. The four of them pressed tight together to keep themselves away from the shrinking boundary, and Bilbo buried his head in Gandalf’s chest to ignore how Ashnazg murmured sweet nothings of hunger and longing for Bilbo to break the circle and come to him.

 

 

XXXXX

 

 

“You do know that standing there won’t make whatever is about to happen actually happen any faster, don’t you?” Vaire asked. Usually, Mandos let the doors vanish after their occupants had stepped through, closing the pathway between this world and the waiting place while he went back to his daily routine. But ever since Bilbo Baggins had stepped through, Mandos had not moved. Days he had stood there, just watching the marks on the door like they would suddenly reveal all their secrets.

 

Vaire knew better than to try and cajole her husband away, so instead, she had brought in her loom to wait beside him. Time moved differently in the realm of the dead, so while it had been several days for her and Mandos, there was no way of knowing if it had been months or mere moments for Bilbo on the other side of that door. Which meant that there was no way of knowing just how long she and Mandos might be waiting to see what might occur.

 

“I do not intend to make anything happen. I simply mean to observe when it does.”

 

“Why are you so concerned? You cannot change what will occur, and it is not your habit to care about the affairs of mortals.”

 

“I care because I do not know what I have done by letting Bilbo Baggins pass though these doors.”

 

Vaire set aside her weaving and pressed against her husband’s side in support. “You did what felt right, did you not?”

 

“You know I did.”

 

“And if it felt right, if you could feel that the will of the Father of us All was behind it, how could it be wrong?”

 

“I am not concerned that my actions were wrong, simply that I have allowed Bilbo Baggins to take the first step down a path that will change us all.”

 

“The change need not be something to regret.”

 

“I would that I had your hope, but alas, all I have is concern that I may have allowed him to destroy all I thought I knew about the world. If that is how it must be, then that is how it must be, but I had... anticipated something different.”

 

Vaire was ready to tease Mandos for the hesitation, thinking that instead he wanted to say that he had hoped—as she did—that Bilbo’s story might have an ending like he deserved. But instead, Mandos brushed his fingertips over the delicate buds that had appeared when Bilbo stepped through the door.

 

Buds that were now withering.

 

Every time she blinked they looked a little more decrepit, some curling in on themselves before vanishing off the door altogether. “What’s happening?”

 

“I do not know. But I do believe that whatever it was Bilbo Baggins was meant to do, he is failing.”

 

 

XXXXX

 

 

 The light gave another shudder and contracted again. Eonwe pulled back with a yip, his fingers had slipped outside the cage of light into the freezing burn of Ashnag’s shadow. Nori had been pushed up against Gandalf’s legs in the empty space below Bilbo, and now Eonwe twisted against the darkness and pressed along Gandalf’s back, his own steady arms wrapping around Bilbo’s limp and aged body.

 

Gandalf had been muttering spell after spell, redirecting the light of his staff against the encroaching dark, but it had done no good. Now the sphere of light was pressed tight against their skin, doing its best to hold the line and keep them safe. But the light was failing, and none of Gandalf’s strength could keep it away. He couldn’t imagine what would happen to Bilbo when the light finally collapsed, because just the Ring’s lurking presence was enough to strip Bilbo down to such an age that were it not for his shallow breathing Gandalf might have thought he was carrying a corpse.

 

Gandalf flinched back as the light shuddered again under another blow. Nori had abandoned his mace to give them more room in the safe circle of light, but Gandalf could feel the Dwarf reaching for his knives so he could go down fighting. The light shuddered again, and Gandalf felt Eonwe press his forehead to the soft skin at the back of his neck, breathing him in one last time.

 

Pressed against his chest as Bilbo was, it took Gandalf a long moment to realize that the Hobbit wasn’t panting for breath, he was trying to sing. The words were gasped and the tune was thin, but in time with his heartbeat Gandalf could hear, “Far over the Misty Mountains cold, to dungeons deep and caverns old.”

 

At the words the darkness redoubled its efforts and the light began to crack under the pressure. But Bilbo kept up his murmured singing. “We must away ere break of day, to find our long-forgotten gold.”

 

Thin though the sound was, Nori heard the song and joined in Bilbo’s quiet singing, his own voice bolstering the Hobbit’s and lending him strength. “The pines were roaring on the height.” Beneath his feet, Gandalf could feel the mountain begin to rumble, just a slight buzz that grew with each word that passed Bilbo’s lips. “The winds were moaning in the night.” Gandalf realized that it wasn’t the mountain that was moving, it was her people. Through the darkness he could hear Dwarven voices raised together in the song of the Misty Mountains.

 

“The fire was red, it flaming spread. The trees like torches blazed with light.” At the last word Gandalf’s staff exploded with the light of the noonday sun, crashing through the gathered darkness and filling every inch of the mountain below. Ashnazg roared in fury, but he and his shadows fled at the overwhelming light.

 

The last note of the sung hung in the air for a moment as each of them flinched at the onslaught of daylight before it faded with the note back to silence and the torchlight that had illuminated the mountain before the Ring interfered. The four of them stood there in shock before Bilbo mustered up the energy to murmur, “Perhaps now would be the time to run.”

Chapter Text

Together they stumbled through the hidden door, the non-Dwarves in too much of a rush to think very hard about how Nori just threw open the door without having to ask it for the right location. Bilbo might have thought about that oddity a bit more if they hadn’t launched through the hidden door and stepped out into the light of day.

 

Bilbo flinched into Gandalf’s chest at the sudden brightness and the Maia stumbled to his knees in shock. The Dwarven afterlife was meant to stretch only through the darkness of their mountain halls. There was no point in creating a space for them to venture above ground, since the only reason they left their mountains in life was to make their way to another mountain, or to attack something that wanted to come inside. With the various entrance doors dropping them in whatever mountain they sought and no Orcs, Goblins, or Balrogs to invade their space, there was no point in providing the Dwarves with anything else. Judging by the way Eonwe was staring up at the sky like he couldn’t believe it existed, Bilbo was fairly certain the grass beneath their feet and the sun on their faces was not supposed to be possible.

 

“Are you alright?” A deep, Dwarven voice demanded. Bilbo shimmied his way out of Gandalf’s arms, not wanting to be caught getting carried in front of Dwarves he didn’t know. There were six of them altogether, five with packs on their backs and that ragged look that Bilbo knew all too well came from regretting your journey and wondering just how much further you had to go. The sixth though, he hauled Nori to his feet and demanded to know where he’d gone. “The mountain was shaking, Nori! And the damn door refused to open to let me come back for you. What happened in there, lad? Does Erebor still stand?”

 

Nori dropped firm hands on to the other Dwarf’s shoulders and calmed him with a touch. “I’m fine, we’re all fine. In fact, I think the mountain is better than it has been in decades.” Before the Dwarf could launch himself off on another spree of questions, Nori grabbed him by the neck of his tunic and dragged him over to the recuperating outsiders. “Master Bilbo Baggins, Dragonthief and Ringbearer, it is my burden to introduce—” there was a pause as the Dwarf elbowed Nori in the ribs. “Kaib, son of Taib, and husband to our dear Oin.”

 

“Oin had a husband?” Bilbo asked before politeness reasserted itself and he stumbled out, “Pleasure to meet you, of course.”

 

Kaib dragged his eyes up and down Bilbo, like he was taking the Hobbit’s measure, but Bilbo was far too tired to care about that at the moment. Kaib seized Bilbo by the shoulders and hauled him to his feet for the traditional Dwarven forehead smack, and… Bilbo had forgotten how much he really hadn’t missed that. “And I you, Dragonthief. And I died in Smaug’s first attack, that’s why I didn’t come along on your journey, and why Oin never mentioned me.”

 

“Ah, well… I’m sorry about that.”

 

“Don’t be, laddie. If I’d lived I would’ve been the fourteenth member of Thorin’s Company and he wouldn’t have had any call to turn up looking for you.”

 

“Given how all of that has turned out, I’m not quite sure if my lack of presence would’ve been a bad thing.”

 

“Oh lad,” Kaib smacked a thick hand to Bilbo’s shoulder. “I can guarantee that it would’ve been.”

 

“As pleasant as it is to meet more Dwarves, we do have a schedule to keep.” Gandalf interrupted. “And sooner would be better than later considering Bilbo has not bounced back from our last encounter as I would’ve liked.

 

“I’m perfectly fine.” Bilbo took one step to show himself and collapsed.

 

“Bilbo,” Gandalf sighed. “You just convinced a mountain to banish all its shadows. I do believe you’re allowed to be tired.”

 

“Why, and how, would the lad need to be rid of Erebor’s shadows?”

 

“How can be chalked up to the inexplicable magic of Bilbo Baggins,” Nori explained, pressing down the grassy hillside that they found themselves on—which, if the door opened to where it was supposed to, should’ve been a steep set of stone stairs, but Bilbo had stopped keeping track of the impossible things he was coming across. (He didn’t have the energy to be curious anymore, which was all he needed to know to know that Gandalf was right about his state of being.)

 

“Things tend to happen around Master Baggins that don’t happen to other people. And he survives situations that would kill almost anyone else. It’s a peculiar kind of luck and a particularly good gift for a thief.”

 

“Only inadvertently a thief, Nori. And only in my reckless youth. I’m quite the proper Hobbit now, I’ll have you know.”

 

“Sure you are. All proper Hobbits end up in the Dwarven lands of the dead being chased by the personification of the One Ring of Power.”

 

Bilbo ignored how the five Dwarves trailing along behind them all squeaked in unison. “How did you know who she was?”

 

“Death lends a Dwarf some perspective.”

 

Kaib snorted at Nori’s answer. “The second the lot of them heard about your nephew and his quest, they realized that their behavior in Thorin’s last days wasn’t entirely their own. Not completely forgivable, but still not quite as guilt inducing as they’d originally thought.”

 

“No, it was still plenty guilt inducing, but Thorin and the boys had had far more time than we did to practice being dead, and the three of them managed to talk us through the worries about what we’d done.”

 

“I find that surprising,” Gandalf drolled.

 

“A lad can grow, even in this place,” Kaib snapped.

 

“What is this place?” Eonwe demanded, still staring up at the sun.

 

Nori didn’t stop in his trek down the hill, but he did manage to cast a look at Gandalf that asked where they’d found this idiot. “It’s the realm of the dead.” He explained in his driest possible sarcasm.

 

Ever so slowly Eonwe looked down from the sun, his ancient gaze slipping through Nori like steel through flesh. “Is it?”

 

Nori paused for a moment, like he was debating the value of stopping to ask what was going on, but he glanced over at the slightly younger but still aged Bilbo, and kept walking. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean that Dwarves have their mountain halls. Not once has Mandos sent a Dwarf to someplace that wasn’t under the ground. And yet,” he waived his hand to encompass the green trees and clouds floating gently by. “This should not be here.”

 

“And yet, here it is,” Kaib interrupted. “If you want to know how Thorin found his way here you’ll have to ask the lad himself.”

 

“Do you not know?” Eonwe asked, trying to sound genuinely curious but coming across more suspicious than anything.

 

Gandalf rolled his eyes. “They won’t betray Thorin’s secrets to you no matter how much you loom. They care not at all for your temper if it means that they can protect Thorin from it.”

 

“My temper has nothing to do with it, Olorin—”

 

The Wizard came to a full stop and twisted on his heel to stare down the Maia. “Gandalf. My name is Gandalf now. Whatever my appearance might be, I am no longer the foolish child that you once knew.”

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Bilbo could see Kaib open his mouth to interject something sarcastic and wholly unnecessary, and Nori stomped on his foot. (Dwarves refused to let anything get between them and their gossip.) Eonwe paid not one scrap of attention to the Dwarves staring at him, instead keeping his eyes on Gandalf, who stared him back down, unflinching. After a long moment Eonwe sighed, and the fight seemed to slip from his shoulders. “You have made that perfectly clear, Gandalf. You have my apologies, I seem to keep deceiving myself into forgetting who you truly are.” Eonwe gave a polite half nod and stepped past Gandalf, leading the unmoving party down the hill.

 

There was something more to that sentence, and everyone knew it. But not a single one of them were willing to say a damn thing about it.

 

The dwarves all plodded along behind Eonwe, though Bilbo knew that in about ten steps Nori would roll his eyes at trying to be sensitive and would take the lead once again. (At least, that’s what Nori would have done when he was living. At this point, Bilbo suspected that there was a good chance that Nori might at least let the Maia walk beside him.)

 

However, Bilbo wasn’t particularly concerned with the awkward actions of those around him. Because Bilbo’s position in Gandalf’s arms gave him a perfect view of Gandalf’s face, and whatever it was Eonwe had actually said, had Gandalf stunned. Bilbo wanted to ask what the rest of them had missed, but in the hearing range of Dwarves was never the place to engage in anything you didn’t want gossiped about. Instead, Bilbo clenched his hand around the fabric beneath Gandalf’s heart, the only gesture of support he could give. Gandalf squeezed him back, with as much pressure as he could, given that Bilbo was rather fragile at the moment. But Gandalf had the sense not to offer any explanation, and Bilbo didn’t ask.

 

Their troop of Dwarves and Maia made their way down the slight hillside where the secret door was still standing, then up and over the next. Along the way Bilbo could see the Dwarves with their packs staring at the green grass like they’d never seen it before—or as was more likely—hadn’t seen it for a few centuries. After a few minutes of awkward plodding, Eonwe cleared his throat and in a painfully polite tone asked, “Where are we?”

 

“No place that any of us ever saw in life, Master Eonwe.” Nori answered.

 

The silence hung there for a moment, then Eonwe plowed on. “From what I understand, Thorin Oakenshield was chosen by the Lonely Mountain to reign as her one true King, a right that he refused.” Bilbo could almost hear the way Eonwe carefully chose each word so as not to offend.

 

“You heard right, lad.” Kaib answered. “Daft boy wanted not one thing to do with the throne and he walked straight out of the main hall. More than a few of us who’d been waiting for centuries for him to arrive and take over things, were ready to beat the lad with our hammers. If he hadn’t had the boys with him we probably would’ve tried anyway.”

 

“Did he go straight to the door?” Gandalf asked.

 

“Nah, lad went down to the great fires. Thror, Throin’s granddad, he kept everyone else occupied, but Fili, Kili, and Frerin went down with Thorin. Probably more would’ve gone, but Erebor protected him from the imposing eyes of others.”

 

“Frerin?” Bilbo tried to whisper to Gandalf, but Kaib caught the sound. “King Thorin’s younger brother, lad. Lived through Smaug’s attack but died in the Battle of Azanulbizar.”

 

“The battle where Azog killed Thorin’s grandfather,” Gandalf murmured, the look in his eyes almost daring Kaib to add on. Gandalf could see how Bilbo had paled at the mention of a sibling that he’d never once heard leave Thorin’s lips.

 

The Dwarf rolled his eyes at the sensitivity of Hobbits, but moved back to the topic at hand. “No one is entirely sure what went on down at the forges, or why Thorin went there instead of any of a hundred other places in the mountain. But he went to the forges, then went straight up to the hidden door that we just took.”

 

Both Gandalf and Bilbo flicked their eyes to Nori, who certainly knew more than he was telling. The Dwarf gave the slightest shake of his head, telling them to ask again later. Eonwe had caught the motion as well—despite Bilbo’s initial opinion of the Maia, he was beginning to wonder if there was anything Eonwe missed—and he moved on. “May I ask why you were sneaking a group of Dwarves out of Erebor?”

 

Kaib slammed to a stop and put his hand on his axe. “What makes you think we were sneaking?”

 

Eonwe didn’t bother stopping, though Nori did give a mighty eye roll. “These Dwarves all appear to be carrying their prized possessions in their packs, and Durin doesn’t know where you are. If your exit was common knowledge he would’ve come for Thorin long ago.”

 

“Huh,” Kaib grunted. “You’re not dumb, are you?”

 

“Only in certain aspects of my life, Master Dwarf. However, strategy has never been one of them. Are they joining you out of loyalty to Thorin, or is there something more nefarious going on?”

 

Nori gave him a long look. “Do you think something nefarious is possible here in the realm of the dead?”

 

“I currently stand with Dwarves on the sloping green hillsides of the kindly West, Master Nori. Impossible is no longer a word in my vocabulary.”

 

Nori actually chuckled at that, and Bilbo was fairly certain that the teasing reply was what got him a real answer instead of passing off the story to someone else. “There’s something wrong underneath the mountains. Whatever that wrongness is, we don’t know what’s causing it, or even how to describe it. But there’s something off about the mountains of this world, and the Dwarves are starting to feel it. Not many, but enough. And when they realize that’s something’s wrong, somehow they always find their way to one of us and we get them out.”

 

“In every mountain?” Eonwe demanded.

 

“Every last mountain. I checked them all myself, just to be sure.”

 

Eonwe wanted to pin Nori down and interrogate him, Bilbo could tell from Gandalf’s smirk. In truth, Bilbo was almost hoping that it would happen so he could watch Nori refuse to give in, despite Eonwe’s centuries of experience. But the Maia swallowed back the impulse and forced himself be polite. “You’ve made yourselves a community of Dwarves outside the mountains, then?”

 

“See for yourself,” Nori smirked. At that moment they stepped over the low rise of the nearest hill, and laid out below them was… well, it was the Shire. Not Bilbo’s own beloved Hobbiton, but instead the smooth country of the Westmarch which made up the western edge of the Shire.

 

“Gandalf?” Bilbo murmured, checking to be sure that in his exhaustion he hadn’t lost his mind. But Gandalf had stopped walking when they reached the hill’s crest, and his mouth was hanging open like he couldn’t believe it either. Behind Gandalf’s shoulders Bilbo could see the little hills rising steadily behind them into something more deserving of the name, but before them, they were nothing but blips interrupting the fields that were ready to harvest. Below them there was a path winding through the grain, and beyond the nearest hill it would wind them around, Bilbo could see wisps of smoke rising from homes and forges.

 

Whatever Gandalf might have said to that was drowned out by Kaib waiving his hand in the air and calling out, “Lads! Lads, go fetch your uncle!”

 

Bilbo didn’t mean to flop out of Gandalf’s arms, he really didn’t, but he refused to meet the boys cradled in Gandalf’s arms like some kind of invalid. He’d do it on his feet or not at all.

 

Of course, the moment his feet hit the ground Bilbo crumpled, and he didn’t need to be young to hear both of the lads call out in concern at the sight of him falling from such a height. Gandalf scooped Bilbo back up into his arms and took off at a run before he had the chance to breathe. Bilbo could hear shouting around him, but over it all there was Gandalf calling, “There’s no time!”

 

“Gandalf?” Kili stammered, his questioning voice a lightning bolt to Bilbo’s tired soul.

 

“Gandalf, what do you need?” Fili asked, his feet pounding along beside them.

 

“The sun is going down.” Eonwe pointed out, racing along before them. Bilbo shuddered at what the darkness would bring.

 

“Run! Get to the village and gather up every light you can spare!” Gandalf demanded. Out of the corner of his eye Bilbo could see the lads break into a run, with Eonwe right beside them, pointing out the hilltop where they should gather the lights to be the closest to the stars.

Chapter Text

Gandalf settled Bilbo down on the nest of furs that Kili had dragged out up to the hilltop. Sweet Fili looped chains around the swords and spears he had buried tip first into the dirt, making a place for his fellow Dwarves to hang lanterns in a circle of light around Bilbo. The moment a Dwarf dropped off their lantern Nori sent them back down the hill, supposedly for their own protection, but really so they didn’t have the chance to gawk. Bilbo didn’t have much opportunity to watch them though, because sweet Kili was busy tugging smooth the furs so no shadows had the chance to hide in the folds around him.

 

“Those shadows aren’t the kind that will cause me trouble, my boy.”

 

Kili smacked down beside Bilbo, his shaggy, beardless head next to him on the pillow. “And how am I supposed to know that, Master Hobbit? You never write, you never call, you just turn up and cause a fuss.”

 

“Given that I outlasted the lot of you, I do believe that I’ve earned the right to cause a fuss.”

 

Kili giggled. “I’d certainly hope that you at least outlasted the three of us. Uncle’s had a hard enough time forgiving himself without you turning up right after us.”

 

“It wasn’t his fault!” Bilbo objected.

 

“It was a bit his fault,” Kili shrugged. “It was a bit all our faults. Ring-madness, or Gold-sickness, or whatever you feel like calling it, we still made the choice to do what we did. And you can’t do better until you can admit what you’ve done wrong in the first place.”

 

They were such simple words, and such a Dwarven way of looking at things. The Elves of Rivendell would’ve spent half a night singing an epic poem of someone who’d fallen due to their pride. Bilbo pressed his palm to Kili’s cheek. “When did you get so wise?”

 

The Dwarf gave him a pained sort of a smile and touched his fingertips to Bilbo’s knuckles, like he was worried that if he pressed too hard Bilbo would melt away. “I’ve been dead a long time, Mr. Boggins.”

 

“And I’ve missed you through all of it, my boy.”

 

Bilbo knew that while Kili’s body hadn’t aged, his soul had. And yet, despite the extra century, the lad still managed to retaine his sweetness. Without another word Kili buried his face in Bilbo’s shoulder and snuggled close. Bilbo wrapped his arm around the boy’s shoulders and ran his shaking hand through the tangled hair. It was more affection than either one of them had shared during their lives. Partly because Kili had been young and still considered such a thing a weakness, and partly because Bilbo had wasted so much time feeling like an outsider to the Company that he was unwilling to risk trying. But now, Kili knew what true strength was, and Bilbo couldn’t possibly be more a member of their Company than he was at this moment.

 

Particularly because Fili chose that instant to drop down on Bilbo’s other side and toss his arm around both his brother and Bilbo. “It’s good to have you with us, Mr. Baggins—”

 

“Bilbo, boys. Call me Bilbo.”

 

Kili all but hummed in Bilbo’s embrace and Fili pressed his face into Bilbo’s curls. “We had a plan, you know. After the world ends and we all band together to defeat Melkor, we were going to come look for you."

 

Kili snuggled in a little tighter and added on, taking in Bilbo’s furrowed brow. “We Dwarves are going to rebuild the world after it’s all said and done, and we know that the Elves are sticking around, and anyplace there’s Dwarves and Elves, we figured there must be Hobbits too. You’ve got our height and Elves’ ears, so we thought for sure that you lot wouldn’t end up wherever it is that the Men are going to go. So the Company was all planning on getting together and hiking off to find you while the others got to rebuilding.”

 

“If I’m right about where we are right now, then I believe you lads probably would’ve found me long before then.”

 

Both the boys popped up to their elbows and stared down at Bilbo like he’d lost his mind. “What?” they asked over one another.

 

Bilbo shuddered at the chill of the twilight air slipping in to the place where the boys had been. “If I’m not mistaken, I do believe we’re on the eastern side of the Tower Hills. And since I passed through these hills to get the Undying Lands not all that long ago, I do believe I know where we are.”

 

“Are we in the Shire?” Fili demanded.

 

“These hills are the Shire’s western border. As for whether there are actually Hobbits in this Shire, I haven’t a clue.” Bilbo burrowed deeper into the furs, debating with himself about whether pulling them up like blankets was worth the risk that came with covering himself in darkness. “Eonwe said that you Dwarves were not supposed to be able to leave your mountains, and yet here you are. I don’t know if you’ve managed to find a way to sneak into the Hobbit part of the afterworld, or if you’ve managed to create your own Shire.”

 

“There are Hobbits.” Thorin’s deep voice interrupted, crashing over Bilbo like a wave upon the shore. He was standing at the foot of Bilbo’s nest, his still-rough skin almost glowing from the soft light of the lanterns and torches that the boys had circled around Bilbo. Thorin looked not one day younger from the first time he had turned up on Bilbo’s doorstep. His hair still had the same silver threads at his temples, and his hands still had the same callouses that Bilbo had gotten to know so well along their journey. Some part of Bilbo had been scared that Thorin would become the boy he had been when Smaug first came, and it was more a relief than he could admit that Thorin was exactly as Bilbo had left him.

 

The boys got halfway to their feet before they rethought Bilbo’s comfort, and found themselves stuck hovering in between. “Uh, did anyone happen to mention that we found Bilbo?” Fili asked, not bothering to try and sound innocent.

 

“With the running about to gather up every spare lantern in the village I pieced it together for myself. Thought it is my understanding that Bilbo found you.”

 

“Well, he does have a gift for that kind of thing.” Kili added with a bright smile.

 

“A gift indeed, boys. Now, Gandalf is down at the bottom of the hill explaining the current situation to the rest of the Company. Perhaps you might like to join them?” It really wasn’t a question, but the boys had the good grace to nod along like it was. (Though the second they stepped past Thorin they both twisted around to offer Bilbo encouraging grins.)

 

They needn’t have though, because the moment his nephews stepped far enough away to actually grant them some semblance of privacy, Thorin sunk to his knees at Bilbo’s feet. “There are no words in the language of my people or yours to express my apologies for all I did to you, Bilbo Baggins.”

 

Bilbo started in surprise. He’d come all this way to apologize to Thorin, not to be apologized to. “You already made your amends, Thorin Oakenshield. And you died with my full and free forgiveness.”

 

“I meant it when I apologized then, but I mean it a thousand times more now that I better understand what my betrayal meant. What I abandoned you to carry on your own.”

 

“Oh, Thorin,” Bilbo stretched out his shaking hand, which Thorin took without a moment’s thought. “You all talk about me like I was come of saint who didn’t hand over the Arkenstone to your enemies.”

 

“I left you with no other option—”

 

“Maybe I would’ve thought of something else if I hadn’t been under the Ring’s influence—”

 

“That’s no excuse for my—”

 

“Can’t you both just agree that you were idiots and move on?” Fili called out from the bottom of the hill with all the impetuous confidence that came from being immortal and Thorin’s heir.

 

Thorin twisted around to glower at his nephew, and it was only then that Bilbo realized that somewhere in between their guilty words, Thorin had shifted his way across the furs and taken his place behind Bilbo, propping the Hobbit up and wrapping his warm, thick arms around Bilbo. And really, with Thorin’s chest rising and falling against Bilbo’s own ribs, still alive and breathing enough to shout at his nephews that they were trying to have a serious conversation, Bilbo supposed their guilt didn’t matter a quite so much anymore.

 

Bilbo knew, he knew, in the steady security of his mind, that it hadn’t been his fault. He’d done the best he could with the events as they were before him and he’d tried his utmost to keep all his Dwarves alive and happy. But in his heart, all that didn’t mean a thing. Thorin had apologized before he died, but apologies don’t carry much weight when the person doing the apologizing does so while dying. Bilbo had always wondered if Thorin would’ve still forgiven him if he’d lived long enough to actually hold himself to those words.

 

And that doubt had tormented Bilbo for years.

 

It was a doubt that only got worse when he realized that he’d been carrying around the Ring that had made the whole situation twist on itself and ruined the life Bilbo had begun to plan for himself with those Dwarves. When he realized he’d been the carrier of his own doom. And really, from there, the loathing just spiraled into something that no amount of reading or scones could fix.  

 

But now, sitting here with the Company around him and laughing at Thorin—who was still trying to scold them—and Gandalf with his arms looped around the boys, and Eonwe staring at the lot of them like if this is what mortality did to you he wanted to get away from these people as soon as possible. (And yet every now and again the corner of Eonwe’s mouth ticked up like he was smiling against his will.)

 

Right now, it seemed like such a silly thing to have been spending his years so worried about.

 

In the middle of Thorin trying to tell the rest of the Company that he and Bilbo weren’t done with their conversation, Bilbo slipped his fingers through Thorin’s, pressing his own soft palm against Thorin’s broad one and the Dwarf stopped talking. In truth, Thorin stopped breathing so that he wouldn’t jostle Bilbo and make him pull away. “Forgive me?” Bilbo murmured.

 

“Oh my Bilbo, you did nothing wrong.”

 

“And neither did you.”

 

“Right then!” Kili interrupted the peace of the moment. “If the two of you have that settled then maybe we can start talking about what brought Bilbo here in the first place. Because we have lots of things we’d like to show Bilbo and Gandalf says we can’t do that until we get their business taken care of.”

 

The rest of the Company didn’t care one jot for Gandalf’s rules, and they piled on Bilbo, shouting their hellos and pulling him in for hugs without separating Thorin’s touch from his skin. Their words piled over the top of one another, each of them declaring how excited they were to see him again, how much they wanted Bilbo to greet their loved ones that he had never had the chance to meet. Sweet Ori had a blank book in his hands, just in case there was something that had to be written down, while Bofur was still wearing that floppy hat. Dori paused in scolding Nori just long enough to offer his hellos, and Bifur had the same wise eyes, even without an axe in his head. If possible, Bombur was even rounder, while Dwalin, like Thorin and the boys, was virtually unchanged. Balin, however, was so young his hair was actually brown.

 

“What was it you said about Hobbits?” Eonwe asked, and Bilbo felt a moment’s gratitude that the Maia had at least waited until after Bilbo got to say his hellos before he got them back on task. “Have you seen some?”

 

“When we first stepped through the door, Frerin and I roamed far and wide to find the best place to settle, but still near enough the door that when the rest of the Company died they wouldn’t have to search too far to find us. But in our travels we spotted some Hobbits in the distance.”

 

“How did we not know about this?” Fili demanded over the top of Kili wanting to know why they hadn’t been to visit.

 

“Because Dwarves are not supposed to rest in the same place as Hobbits. Already we’re violating the rules by being above ground, and neither Frerin nor I wanted to risk getting cast back under the mountain by interfering in the affairs of their afterlife.”

 

“Who would bother punishing you after they let us out of Erebor in the first place?” Fili demanded, though more than a few members of the Company looked like this piece of information didn’t surprise them at all.

 

“Neither Maiar nor Valar knows what you’ve done here.” Eonwe explained. “None of us have ever felt the need to check on the goings on in the afterworld because this kind of thing should be impossible.”

 

Every last Dwarf on the hilltop looked at Eonwe like they just noticed he was there, then turned to look at Gandalf for an explanation. The Wizard huffed out a longsuffering sigh and made his introductions. Which then required several layers of explanations before the Dwarves understood precisely what that meant and leapt to the worst possible conclusion. “You’re not going to tell on us and get us kicked back into Erebor, are you?” Kili demanded, turning all the weight of his puppy eyes on the Maia.

 

Eonwe quirked an eyebrow at the display. And really, Bilbo hadn’t spent much time with most of the Maia, but if Gandalf and Eonwe were any indication about their aesthetic, then—despite all Kili’s other attributes—the boy was of his league. “I haven’t the authority to do such a thing.”

 

“That’s not a ‘no,’” Nori pointed out.

 

“For him it is,” Gandalf grumbled. “Mandos is the only Vala with the right to change things in the realm of the dead, and he only does when he is compelled to do so by the Father of us All.”

 

After a long moment of contemplative silence, Kili asked, “And Mandos isn’t going to rearrange things?”

 

“If the Father of us All allowed Thorin to step out of Erebor, then I believe it was for a reason. Mandos would not change that now that it has happened.”

 

“Does that mean we could’ve been with the Hobbits all this time?” Kili tried to demand. But Bilbo’s own, “Does that mean I didn’t have to go through those mountains to get here?” won out.

 

The Company objected with various versions of, “What’s wrong with our mountains?” They’d all walked out of Erebor because it felt wrong, but as far as they were concerned only Dwarves were allowed to speak ill of their homeland.

 

Bilbo rolled his eyes at the lot of them. “It’s not your mountains that I object to, it’s that Ashnazg tracked me down in the shadows inside of them.”

 

If Bilbo had been a bit less tickled that he was surrounded by his Dwarves, and if he didn’t honestly believe that maybe fate would be kind and that maybe he’d reached the end of all his troubles, he might have noticed how they all shivered in the breeze that kicked up the moment the name passed his lips. As it was, he did notice that Dori—in thorough affront to all that was good and proper—demanded, “You… named it?”

 

“No, she named herself.”

 

There was a stretch of silence while the Dwarves glanced furiously between one another, all of them careful not to actually look at Bilbo. Eventually Balin cleared his throat and delicately asked, “She?”

 

Bilbo, completely misunderstanding the question, replied, “Most of the time she’s a she. At least, when she turns up to pester me she decides to be a she. But when Vaire made her appear, she wasn’t a she, she was a he. I’m not sure if that makes her actually a him.”

 

It is a fragment of Sauron’s soul that has managed to attach itself to you and avoid meeting its master’s fate in exile. Neither sex nor gender can be ascribed to it.” Eonwe interrupted Bilbo’s ramble before the Dwarves could look even more confused.

 

“Then why is it turning up as a girl?” Kili asked, and finally the Dwarves all looked away from Bilbo and turned to the young Dwarf with matching expressions of disbelief.

 

Eonwe seemed to think that unpleasant truths were now his responsibility, and without a single flinch or blush, answered, “It wants to ensure Bilbo’s continued good will by taking on a form he finds aesthetically appealing.”

 

“What?”

 

Whatever any of them might have said, Gandalf rolled his eyes and explained, “She wants to bed Bilbo so he won’t cast her out.”

 

Kili sputtered at the thought, and Bilbo noticed that it wasn’t him the Dwarves were having trouble looking at, it was Thorin. Bilbo didn’t pay them much attention though, because never once in all the times he’d seen Ashnazg had it ever crossed his mind that she was trying to tempt him… that way.

 

Which, apparently, was something Gandalf could read in Bilbo’s expression. “Are you joking?” Bilbo ineffectually beat back his flush and just shrugged his shoulders in reply. “How can you not tell that the Ring wants you for a companion? That all she did was to keep you with her?”

 

Eonwe gave a soft snort at Gandalf while the Dwarves scrambled to their feet in outrage. “The One Ring is trying to bed our Bilbo?” Bofur demanded.

 

“She is not!” Bilbo shouted before any of the Dwarves had the chance to pile on. Strangely enough, all the Dwarves looked to Eonwe for confirmation instead of Gandalf. And the cursed Maia had the gall to nod. “She’s not. Why would she, why would anyone—” The Dwarves started to laugh and Bilbo shouted at them to stop it.

 

Strangely enough, Thorin chose that moment to ignore the bad behavior of his laughing Company and instead, to give Bilbo’s fingers a little squeeze. Bilbo glanced down at Thorin’s thick fingers wrapped comfortably around Bilbo’s own soft skin. “Oh,” he breathed. Bilbo twisted around in Thorin’s grip to meet him eye to eye. “Really?” Thorin had a little blush across his cheeks that Bilbo actually found quite charming. And now that he was actually thinking about it, Bilbo realized that he might have always thought so.

 

Thorin stroked his thumb along Bilbo’s knuckles. “It is a terrible thing to not realize that you wanted someone until after you’re dead. To realize that you’d given your life in search of a home and you’d had it with you all along.”

Chapter Text

Those Dwarves who had any sense of personal space convinced the others that they ought to go gather their weapons so they could protect Bilbo against the Ring when the time came. In truth they were trying to give Bilbo and Thorin space that neither of then needed. (Which was why Gandalf slumped down to the furs instead of walking away.) Years upon years of concern made some part of Bilbo think that reuniting with Thorin should be more complicated than this, full of long hours talking through all the wrongs they’d done to one another and planning out what their future might be.

 

But death, it seemed, made things simple.

 

Instead of talking, Bilbo tugged Thorin’s arm a little tighter around him and asked, “Should we tell them that their weapons won’t do any good against her?”

 

Gandalf snorted out a laugh. “No, let them feel useful for a moment.”

 

“Is that what Eonwe’s trying to do?” Thorin asked. The other Maia had backed away from the Dwarves the moment they started piling on Bilbo to say their hellos. Now he was moving in a slow arc around Bilbo, repositioning the lanterns to encircle the Hobbit with as much light as possible.

 

“No,” Gandalf murmured. “Eonwe has never done anything without a purpose. I imagine that he’s strengthening each and every one of the flames.”

 

The Wizard watched his companion dance through the lanterns and expand the pool of light. He had such a melancholy tone that Bilbo dropped his head to Gandalf’s shoulder and whispered, “What happened between you, Gandalf?”

 

Gandalf heaved out a sigh, but Bilbo was not a Hobbit to be deterred. “You recall that I spent my relative youth in the service of Manwe and Varda?” Thorin’s eyebrow ticked up at that bit of knowledge, his only sign of surprise that Gandalf had served the King and Queen of the Valar. (Thorin knew better than to actually verbalize his shock, because Gandalf would’ve taken any word as the chance to run off on a tangent that would deny Bilbo his story.)

 

“I was taught wisdom from Manwe, while Varda did her best to make me to understand the future as she does. Few people have her gift for prescience, but my intuition is rather good, I must say. I have ignored it very few times in my existence, and I regret almost all of them. Though,” at this he gave Thorin a nod, “none quite as much as I regret leaving you to face Smaug alone.”

 

“It is done, Gandalf, and it ended the way it needed to.”

 

“And harping on your guilt isn’t going to tell my why you and Eonwe can’t stop shouting at one another.” Bilbo interjected.

 

Gandalf rolled his eyes at the demand, but pressed on. “Eonwe was also in the service of Manwe.”

 

“With him being the oldest of the Maiar, and Manwe’s standard bearer I could have guessed that myself, Gandalf.”

 

“Do you want to hear the story or not?” Gandalf huffed.

 

“I’d like to hear it without you skipping over the interesting parts that make you seem like less than the White Wizard.”

 

“I fell in love with him.” Gandalf snapped, and well, Bilbo didn’t have anything to say to that. Gandalf took a moment’s vicious pleasure in Bilbo’s slack-jawed expression before he continued. “I fell in love with him, and I told him so. You can imagine how that went.”

 

Bilbo lurched out of Thorin’s grip and wrapped Gandalf in as tight a hug as his small arms could manage. “Please tell me he wasn’t cruel about it.” He murmured into Gandalf’s breastbone.

 

Gandalf hugged Bilbo back, pretending that he was offering the Hobbit more comfort than he was receiving himself. “He did not mean to be. Any more than he ever means to be cruel. Eonwe simply cannot imagine a world in which he would not do exactly as he is supposed to do, and my impulsiveness and I are far outside those boundaries.”

 

“Then he is a fool.”

 

Gandalf snorted at Bilbo’s unflinching support. “No, it was eminently practical of him. If I were smarter I would have followed his example. He chose to offer his heart to another Maia, and more than one of our Maiar kindred is besotted with her fierce beauty. Even Melkor himself fancied himself in love with the one Eonwe chose, desiring her for himself. For many years all the Maiar believed that Eonwe would be the one face Melkor at the end of days and be rid of him because of his love for her.”

 

“Who is this ‘her’?” Bilbo demanded.

 

“Arien,” Thorin answered, the name slipping past his lips in shock before he realized that that he’d done it. “She is a Maia of fire, the only one who did not follow Melkor into the dark and become a Balrog.” Ah, given the Dwarves’ long history with Balrogs, Thorin recognizing her description made a bit more sense. “She is the Maia who carries the sun across the heavens and gives light to the people of Middle-earth.”

 

“Indeed. It is only practical that the two Maia that Melkor most hates would come together, and Eonwe has never done anything less than practical.”

 

“But, if she’s carrying around the sun…” Bilbo let his question peter out. Even he knew when he was crossing the line into inappropriate conversation about a creature that helped create the world.

 

“Maia do not love as mortals do. Love becomes a different thing when the prospect of death does not hang over you. I believe that each of the peoples of Middle Earth were given their own Hall by Mandos because the immortals could not fathom a kind of love that would compel you to leave your people and follow after someone else. The thought of Arwen giving up immortality with her family to spend a few decades with Aragorn, to birth him children that will never know their place as Elves, it is beyond comprehension.”

 

“But you understand it.” Bilbo stated, already knowing his answer. Gandalf knew what love drove mortals to do better than they knew themselves, and long before they even knew it was love driving them on.

 

Gandalf threaded his long fingers through Bilbo’s hair. “I felt it long before I truly understood it. After Eonwe rejected me I left the service of Manwe and Varda and found my way to Nienna. Her ceaseless compassion explained to me what I was feeling, but it wasn’t until I was surrounded by mortals that I understood this strange willingness to lay down my life. Not for the good of all people, but for the life of one.”

 

Bilbo nuzzled his way closer. “You do know that you are the best friend I’ve ever had, don’t you Gandalf? There are few people I love, and even fewer that I like, and you’re near the top of both those lists. I would lay down my life just for you.”

 

“And I for you, Bilbo. But I do believe that’s something we’ll never have to do again.”

 

As appreciative as Bilbo usually was for the chance to avoid emotional conversations, he pressed on until he was sure Gandalf understood him. “I’m not mocking you, Gandalf.”

 

“Oh Bilbo, I know my boy.” They spared a moment between them, staring at one another through all the long years that had passed in their friendship. Through all the age that came from knowing people they loved had suffered because of their blindness. All too soon Bilbo cleared his throat and broke the moment, too much of a Hobbit to endure this sentimentality.

 

“Is that why you were always so fond of starlight? Because Eonwe’s lady carries the sun?”

 

“Not purposefully, no. But does someone in love ever really understand their actions?” Gandalf gave the tip of Bilbo’s ear a little tweak as a reminder that Bilbo had died before he understood that he’d been in love this whole time. Bilbo rolled his eyes, because the reminder was not at all needed when he still had the heat of Thorin’s chest along his spine.

 

Of course, Eonwe’s, “It has been five thousand years!” interrupted whatever clever retort Bilbo might have found for Gandalf’s teasing.

 

Thorin tried to pull back and give the Maiar the same personal space his own Dwarves had bestowed, but Bilbo was having none of it. “That doesn’t matter!”

 

“It does to!” Gandalf nudged the protesting Bilbo back to his nest of furs before his legs gave out underneath him.

 

“You don’t understand.” Eonwe snapped, fury in his tone that Bilbo had never heard before.

 

Gandalf reared up to his superior height and bumped chest to chest against Eonwe, the Wizard’s roaring temper forcing Eonwe back a step to protect Bilbo. “Believe you me, I understand perfectly well what happened. I even understand why you did what you did, but that does not mean I must forget. In truth, I would be a fool to forget.”

 

“I was young, Gandalf! Have I no mercy for being sheltered and naive? And by the time I knew better, Varda had already declared that you would be the greatest out of all of us and my moment had passed.”

 

Gandalf rolled his eyes. “Oh you great lump, she did not.”

 

Thorin stepped forward when the two Maiar began to yell at one another, ready to force them apart should their words turn into something worse. Thorin hesitated at Gandalf’s scolding sarcasm, and Bilbo was careful to keep his eyes on them while he tugged his blankets a little tighter against the chill.

 

“Do you not recall what happened when you received your call to be a Wizard?”

 

“Of course I do. Manwe asked the Maiar for volunteers to go to Middle-earth. Saruman and Morinehtar offered themselves up immediately, and I got dragged along against my wishes because no one else would agree to go. The same then happened to Radagast and Romestamo as well.”

 

Eonwe just stared at Gandalf like he’d finally lost his mind. “Are you being deliberately obtuse?”

 

“That’s what happened!” Thorin took another half step forward when Gandalf’s staff sparked in shared indignation. The Wizard had left it on the furs when he stood up to pick his fight, and Bilbo spared a moment’s gratitude that it wasn’t in Gandalf’s hand. As pleased as he was that Gandalf was defending himself, now was probably not the time for the Maiar to get into a fight that involved their powers.

 

“No one else volunteered for the third spot because we all knew that the King trusted you to go more than any of us. Manwe only called a meeting in the first place because he was being polite and giving you the chanceto volunteer without actually making it an order. But you were off adventuring when he asked for volunteers, and when you got back you refused.”

 

“I was afraid, Eonwe! If you’re allowed mercy for being young, I’m allowed mercy for having the sense to be afraid of what Sauron might do to me!”

 

“Your fear doesn’t matter now, and it didn’t matter then. Just like it didn’t matter that you refused them, and it didn’t matter that Manwe had to command you to go at all, Varda still declared that you would not be the third.”

 

“Because two other Maiar were roped into becoming Wizards and there were five of us in the end!”

 

“No! Because she knew that by the time you returned you would be the best of us!” Gandalf scoffed, and Eonwe pressed on. “Do you never wonder why Saruman spent half his time as the White Wizard doing all he could to put you down?”

 

“He was always smug, even before we went to Middle-earth”

 

Eonwe tossed his hands in the air. “Because no matter what he did, Varda had already told him that you were going to be the best and you didn’t even want it!”

 

Thorin put himself between Gandalf and Eonwe, forcing the other Maia back. The breeze rustled past them, and only then did Bilbo realize that their argument had pushed the three beyond the safety of Bilbo’s circle of lanterns. Bilbo opened his mouth to call them back, and the sharp wind punched the air right out of his lungs. The wind forced the others to stumble down the hill while it whipped around Bilbo, smashing his lanterns to the ground, shattering the glass and the sputtering flames still within.

 

When it settled, the writhing wind left Bilbo alone in the dark.

 

 

XXXXX

 

 

Lorien took his place at Mandos’ left hand and stared at the blooming trees that had so consumed his brother and sister-in-law’s attention for the last few days. He’d been there when the blossoms first appeared, nothing but the stone etchings when he left to help his wife tend to young Frodo Baggins. But now, now the blossoms were reaching off the stone, sweet spring petals curling out from the rock. If you looked hard enough you could see them shimmer almost white in the dim light of the hall.

 

Lorien cocked his head to the side and murmured, “Well that’s interesting.” Which was a strange enough response that it made both Mandos and Vaire straighten up and turn to look at him. “What?” he asked.

 

“Normally you would say something clever.” Vaire answered.

 

Lorien quirked an eyebrow. “I have no special insight to offer about why this stone has come to life.”

 

“Not a smart response, Lorien. Something witty. Sarcastic. Dry.”

 

Vaire narrowed her eyes at him and Lorien just murmrued, “Hmm.”

 

And that, that certainly was enough. “Don’t ‘hmm’ me, Lorien. What do you know?” Mandos demanded. He was usually willing to let Vaire handle Lorien’s verbal dancing since she was far better at it. but in this, Mandos was unwilling to wait for him to tease.

 

“Brother, what could I possible know about your realm that you do not. You rule supreme here, even Eonwe knows that.”

 

“You hmm-ed, brother mine. You never hmm. You always say precisely what you mean to, no matter how ridiculous I might find it. Now tell me what you know.”

 

Lorien shook his head, trying to gather together the right words to explain himself. “I would prefer the chance to mull on it a bit more before I share.”

 

“No.”

 

“But brother—“

 

“No.” Mandos replied, unflinching. Which was really the only way to deal with Lorien’s twisting words.

 

Lorien heaved a great sigh, like Mandos was being the difficult one. Instead of snapping off another demand that his brother would’ve answered, Mandos cocked his head and met his brother’s soft eyes.

 

“Are you sure?” Lorien asked.

 

“Are you?” Mandos replied, not striving to know what it was Lorien thought he knew about what was going on on the other side of that door, but about his silence.

 

“No brother,” he murmured, “I am not. Is Vaire?”

 

Together the brothers turned to her. “No, the threads are still loose and I cannot see the pattern that they’ll take to come together.”

 

If he pressed, his brother and wife would tell Mandos every suspicion they had. But he had learned long ago that for all the dreams his brother felt and the threads his wife saw, they were just that. Nothing but dreams and threads that told him nothing. Mandos turned back to the door and watched as the petals began to wrinkle under the threat of an impending frost.

Chapter Text

Some part of Bilbo knew that he could hear shouts from Thorin and Gandalf being cut off by the wind twisting around where the lanterns had been and caging Bilbo in. To Bilbo, the wind was nothing more than a breeze riffling through his hair, but beyond the wall of churning air he could see the others tumbling against the onslaught, trying to get back to him.

 

However, Bilbo didn’t pay them much attention because, while they were tucked safely away in their struggles outside, Bilbo was left standing alone before Ashnazg.

 

She was a he this time, taking on a Dwarf’s height but donning the lean muscle of an Elf. Though it still had the same sharp features that seemed to follow it no matter what shape it took. Whether male or female, its cheekbones were always sharp enough to cut glass, and it had a wide mouth for which smiling looked a little dangerous. Bilbo wasn’t a fool, but it didn’t require much brain to realize that done up like this, the Ring looked more than a little like Thorin.

 

“Running away is impolite, you know, Master Baggins.”

 

Bilbo buried his shaking hands deep in his pockets. “I was under the impression that chasing someone was worse.” Bilbo had known, he’d known that getting away from the Ring wasn’t going to be that easy, but with the deep laughter of Dwarves and the light of torches surrounding him, he had hoped it just might be. The fussy part of him wondered if perhaps he and Thorin had spent a bit more time hashing out the details of their reconciliation if that might have solved the problem. Of course, as Ashnazg ran his spindly fingers over Bilbo’s cheek and Bilbo’s heart picked up speed that wasn’t due to fear, he accepted that talking probably wouldn’t have solved the problem.

 

“Chasing is only impolite when the person you’re pursuing doesn’t actually want to be caught.” Ashnazg’s hand slipped around to play with the soft curls at the back of Bilbo’s neck, and the Hobbit shivered quite against his better judgment. Ashnazg’s eyes were such a strange shade of stormy grey that Bilbo couldn’t seem to look away. “However, it’s entirely acceptable to chase when your prey is only running to put up a show.”

 

Bilbo smacked away Ashnazg’s hand. “I died to avoid you, I’ll have you know.”

 

“No, you died because you were bored with spending your time hovering on the cusp of death.”

 

“Where you kept me!”

 

“Not purposefully, my darling. My skills have never worked particularly well around Yavanna. Had another Valar taken you into their care, then things might have gone much differently.”

 

“Is that why none of your machinations ever dealt with the Shire? Because you were afraid of Yavanna?” Bilbo scoffed. He didn’t entertain the notion that either Ashnazg or his master couldn’t have actually turned the Shire to their nefarious ends since Saruman had managed to do that in only a few months time.

 

“Not fear, my darling. But… Yavanna’s skills turn towards the constant bringing of life, while mine veer a bit more towards—“

 

“Death?”

 

Ashnazg flicked the tip of Bilbo’s ear. “The dark. Yavanna and all her children are creatures of the sun. All of you carry that light with you wherever you go. In places where her people exist, the dark cannot dwell long.” Bilbo glanced over at the clatter of an arrow being smashed down to the ground beneath the onslaught of the wind. He caught sight of Kili shouting in a rage that his shot had been deferred, and Ashnazg leaned in close and pressed his nose to the crook of Bilbo’s neck. “I can almost smell the sunlight on your skin.”

 

Quite against his better judgment, Bilbo took a reciprocating sniff and caught a whiff of nothing. It should’ve been Thorin’s earthy sweat, or the crisp scent of fresh pages that followed Frodo around.

 

“Would you like to roam over the hill and into the valley to see your parents?” Ashnazg asked, his steady touch to Bilbo’s shoulder pulling back his attention. “They are excited to see you again. Your mother longs to hear about all your adventures while you father wants to scold you for them.”

 

“And how do you know that?”

 

“I had to do something while you were in the daylight of the Undying Lands. I thought you’d like it if I checked on your family for you. I confess, I may have mislead them all when I told them you were coming straight home. Never in a thousand years did I imagine that you’d think to spend your eternity under a mountain, or that Mandos would allow it.”

 

Bilbo glanced up at the clear view of the stars he could see above the wind’s writhing border. “Oh yes, I know we’re not under a mountain now, but you don’t honestly believe that Mandos will allow these Dwarves to stay here forever, do you? It is not their place.”

 

Something about that niggled at Bilbo, but all he could think of were Eonwe’s words that if the Father of Them All allowing the Dwarves out of Erebor in the first place, Mandos wouldn’t send them back. And Bilbo told Ashnazg so.

 

Ashnazg scoffed like Eonwe’s opinion was worth less to him than dirt. “The fates knew that you would seek out Dwarves of Erebor, Bilbo. I imagine that they only let the Dwarves out of the mountain because it would provide you a way to fix your mistake and go home. Once they’ve served their purpose here they’ll be sent back to where they belong.”

 

But that didn’t sound right either. It wasn’t the Dwarves who’d left Erebor, was it? It was, “Thorin.” Bilbo murmured, shifting his gaze away from Ashnazg towards the wind.

 

Ashnazg grabbed Bilbo by the chin and twisted him back, taking a step closer and swelling up to consume more of Bilbo’s vision. “I’m proud to say that your parents are excited to see us both.” Bilbo started in suprise and stopped trying to tug away. “I apologized to them for involving you in the affairs of big people. After an extensive history lesson—which your Grandfather Took almost knew more than I did, by the way—they forgave me. Your clever father said that it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t ask to me made after all, and I didn’t ask to be a plaything of the big people, either.”

 

Ashnazg rambled on, right over Bilbo’s sense that something about that was wrong. “And your sweet mother, every time I drop by to visit she has a pie waiting. She says that I’m far too thin for a Hobbit and she’d like to feed the stretched look right out of me.”

 

“Stretched?” Bilbo asked, his mind twitching at the word.

 

“Yes,” Ashnazg gave him a teasing smile. “That saying that your father’s family has. When any of them got too tired to read a book. Like butter—“

 

“—over too much bread.” Bilbo interrupted.

 

“Yes, that’s it. Your mother said I’ve been stretched for far too long and she’d like to fatten us both up until we’re well again.”

 

Bilbo cocked his head to the side and stared the strange amalgamation of Dwarf, Hobbit and Elf that stood before him. He noticed that Ashnazg’s smile spread too wide across his face, like Gollum’s when he’d tried to appear harmless. Ashnazg pressed closer to Bilbo, chest-to-chest and nose-to-nose. There was something like screaming thunder outside of the wind, but each breath they shared fogged Bilbo’s eyes all the more and the screaming didn’t matter.

 

Soon enough Bilbo wrapped his arms around Ashnazg’s thin waist and gave a soft sigh of contentment. “Come now, Bilbo. Lets be off to see your family, they’re waiting for us.”

 

“My parents.” Bilbo hummed.

 

“Yes, dear one. Your parents.”

 

Bilbo rubbed his cheek along Ashnazg’s breastbone. “We don’t have to go now, do we?” Bilbo let his knees go weak as he sunk deeper into the embrace. Ashnazg didn’t know quite what to do with a cuddling Hobbit, and slowly let Bilbo’s weight bear them both down to the ground. “I’m quite enjoying myself right here.” Bilbo shimmied around in Ashnazg’s grip so his back was pressed to Ashnazg’s front, all wrapped up tight and safe from the wind. Though the chill of Ashnazg’s flesh wasn’t particularly good at driving away the breeze.

 

“But… your family is waiting.” Ashnazg let Bilbo pull and push his rigid limbs as the Hobbit chose.

 

“My parents have waited a long time to see me, they can wait a little longer.”

 

“How long?”

 

“I’d like to stay until I’m sure that my Frodo and Sam don’t follow me here only to end up alone under a mountain.”

 

“Come now,” Ashnazg’s laugh was at odds with the stiff line of his spine. “Mandos would never let such a thing happen. He only allowed you amongst Dwarves because you insisted, and no other Hobbit would have a reason to insist on coming if you’re not here. We all have our proper place to dwell, and amongst Dwarves is no place for Hobbits.”

 

In his most innocent voice, Bilbo murmured. “But if we all must stick to our place, don’t you belong in the Void?”

 

Ashnazg twisted Bilbo back to meet the Hobbit’s eyes and press the lure of his words deeper into Bilbo’s breath. But when Bilbo turned, he pressed the pointed tip of Gandalf’s staff against the vulnerable flesh of Ashnazg’s throat. “Darling,” Ashnazg murmured, like he thought Bilbo was being a tease, and Bilbo thrust the staff forward hard enough that if Ashnazg had been mortal, he would’ve been choking on his words.

 

“I was spread too thin once, you know. Spread too thin from the years I spent with you in my pocket. So thin that I tried to attack my best friend.”

 

“The Wizard provoked you,” Ashnazg tried to say, but Bilbo poked the tip of Gandalf’s staff to the soft flesh under his jaw and he fell silent.

 

“He tried to protect me from you before he even knew what you were. And I turned on him for you. It was only a moment’s betrayal, but it happened anyway. Then the next time I saw you, you tried to make me hurt my Frodo.” While he spoke, Bilbo pushed to his feet against the untamed wind that was buffeting him back and forth. All the while he kept the point pressed to Ashnazg’s skin. The longer it touched, the more Bilbo could smell the hiss of searing flesh as the Ring burned under the touch of the light that was kept caged in Gandalf’s staff.

 

“You tried to kill my Frodo, and my Sam, after you’d already succeeded in killing Kili and Fili, and my Thorin.”

 

“Those deaths were not my—” Ashnazg snapped.

 

“You contributed!” Bilbo jammed the staff forward, and Ashnazg saw his chance.

 

Countless battles the Ring had seen, so when Bilbo’s thrust put him off balance, Ashnazg grabbed the neck of the staff and wrenched it out of Bilbo’s grip. His skin sizzled at the touch, but he held on long enough to fling the staff to the wind. He hissed at the burn marks on his palms, but shook them off the wounds and immediately began to heal. “I wanted to do this the easy way.” He pressed up from the ground and with each word he stalked forward. “I was going to take you to see your parents so you could say a proper goodbye. So you could see that on my own I am not the horror that you think I am.”

 

“And where would we have gone then? Did you want to drag me out into the Void with you?”

 

“Someday. I wanted you to meet my maker at some point like I met your parents. But for the most part we would travel the wide world, seeing all the things that you never got to during your life. Gandalf would never let the Valar cast you out completely, and while you remain tied to this place, so would I. That would give me thousands of years to court you properly, and when the world ended we would stand beside Melkor, the Great Liberator, and we would finally be free.”

 

Bilbo began to laugh. “Melkor will lose that last battle.”

 

“Why? Because your Valar say so?” Ashnazg scoffed. “If these last days have taught you nothing else, you should have learned that the Valar are not nearly as all-knowing as they pretend to be.”

 

“Whatever their deficiencies, I know I can trust them more than I can trust you.”

 

Ashnazg heaved a sigh like Bilbo was being deliberately difficult. With a sharp nod he straightened his spine and rose to the Elven height that Bilbo was more familiar with. “I had hoped to lure you to me with all the wonders of the world, but if you will not go willingly, there is always another way.”

 

“What? Drag me to see the wonders and hope I never try to run away? Or that Gandalf never manages to track me down? Or that Thorin and the Company don’t forge a weapon to run you through?”

 

In a blink Ashnazg slipped through the space between them and loomed down at Bilbo like he was a bug. “You’ll be made to see that there’s beauty in the Void. That there’s beauty in me.”

 

Bilbo stuck out his chin. “I thought I was a creature of the sun who darkness couldn’t stand against?”

 

Ashnazg laughed, and for the first time, his voice actually sounded cruel. “The torches are out, the sun cannot find you, and you’ve lost the Wizard’s staff! How do you plan to stop me from taking you!” The wind reared up around them, and Bilbo could see his friends on the outside being tossed about like embers in smoke. They thumped down to the ground, then twisted and smashed into their companions, all the while fighting to get their feet underneath them. The few with swords had buried their weapons deep into the dirt as a tether so they could reach out to try and catch those blowing by. They fought to protect one another, and every moment they could spare, they tried to look up and catch a glimpse of Bilbo.

 

“I don’t need a staff.” Bilbo murmured. “And I don’t need a torch, and after what I heard today, I’m not nearly as fond of the sun as I once was.”

 

“Then why—” Ashnazg tried to huff, but Bilbo snapped, “Don’t interrupt, it’s rude.” Ashnazg swallowed back his commentary on the benefits of darkness, and pressed his clenched fists to his hips to keep from tossing Bilbo over his shoulder and being done with it.

 

“Do you know why the Valar say you keep tracking me down?”

 

“Because we belong together.”

 

“Obviously not,” Bilbo scoffed. “They said there’s a hollow part of me that you’re squatting in, like Smaug in the mountain. I don’t tend to love people who try and trick me into leaving with them.”

 

“Gandalf tricks you all the time! We both trick you for your own benefit, so why is mine so terrible?” Ashnazg shouted, and really, he did have a bit of a point. Bilbo gave himself a harsh shake because, no, Ashnazg did not have a point. He had words that slithered into your mind and muffled it until you didn’t know up from down.

 

Bilbo closed his eyes and tuned out the rush of the wind and the numbing color of Ashnazg’s eyes. To look at Ashnazg was to lose his way, but Bilbo knew how to find his path through the dark. “Gandalf told me that I make him brave. Thorin told me that I make him smile. Frodo told me that I make him calm. And where there is courage, where there is joy, and where there is peace, there is no room for fear.”

 

Bilbo could feel the empty chill of Ashnazg looming in front of him, a blank space where the pounding wind couldn’t touch his skin. Ever so slowly he tilted back his chin and opened his eyes to meet Ashnazg head on. “And that’s all you are. I don’t need that light, not when I’ve got my own.”

 

Like a knife through butter, Bilbo slipped Sting through Ashnazg’s belly, the short sword glowing with the ethereal blue of thousand stars.

 

Later, Bilbo would be proud that he’d called and his sword had come, and he’d remember that he’d felt the wind die out, and heard his Dwarves and Maiar all thump to the ground. But in this moment, he could see Ashnazg’s hollow eyes fade into nothing as his body vanished around the tip of Bilbo’s sword.

Chapter Text

 

“Now, it’s not that I—” Kili tried to begin for what Bilbo was certain was the seven hundredth time.

 

“Yes you do.” Bilbo interrupted, keeping his attention firmly on kneading his dough and not on the puppy eyes that Kili was currently trying to bore into his skull.

 

“But you have to admit—”

 

“I admit nothing because I have nothing to admit. Frankly, I’m just happy that I have enough strength to stand here at the counter and cook instead of sleep my way through the afterlife like I’ve been doing.” And in truth, the cooking alone would’ve been enough for Bilbo. He was content to ignore that the Dwarves were already singing songs about his great defeat of the Ring—and the last version Bilbo had heard had extended his simple stab to a great sword fight that ranged across the hilltops. Instead, Bilbo spent his days of newfound freedom baking. There was a simple pleasure in being able to stand on his own two feet and partake under his own power. He was even more pleased with being able to pound his dough into submission, which was something he’d begun to fear that he’d never be able to do again. (Partly because of Ashnazg’s draining influence and partly because the Valar didn’t seem like they considered baking to be a good use of anyone’s time.)

 

But Bilbo’s general contentment with the little things did not make much sense to his Dwarf companions. Fili and Kili seemed convinced that Bilbo had other plans. Like their beloved Hobbit was secretly plotting to run off on another quest and leave the boys behind. Which was absolute nonsense.

 

Yes, Bilbo planned on heading off to see his parents at some point or another, but he thought that perhaps he could take a few days and recover his strength before he did. Those few days might also give Gandalf and Eonwe a bit more of a chance to try and understand what in the world had happened with the Ring. Between the two of them and their centuries of experience they had no real idea about how Sting had managed to find its way through space and time to Bilbo. Let alone how stabbing had managed to destroy Ashnazg.

 

Bilbo knew that the two Maiar were very quietly contemplating the reality that Bilbo might not so much have destroyed the Ring as he had disembodied it for a time. He also knew that neither of them were willing to mention that possibility in hearing range of any of the Dwarves. Bilbo let them fuss and postulate, mostly because it gave the two of them the chance to sit and talk for long hours without actually discussing anything that had to do with the revelations they had shouted at one another. Back during his life, Bilbo might have pressed Gandalf into revealing himself, but death had taught him that things came in their own good time.

 

Bilbo’s own poorly-timed thing had snuck in to his kitchen—really the kitchen in Thorin’s Dwarf-hole of a home, but it had been made with Bilbo in mind. Thorin leered over Bilbo’s shoulder and snatched a fingerful of bread dough like he thought it would be sweet. Bilbo didn’t bother smacking away Thorin’s hand because the Dwarf’s lips puckering at the tart taste of risen bread was discipline enough.

 

“I told you not to sneak anything.”

 

“But everything you make is delicious.” Thorin whined.

 

“And this will be delicious after it’s baked.”

 

“But I saw you have a bite?” Fili asked from his position seated atop the counter, just outside the range of the flour Bilbo was using to knead the stickiness out of the dough.

 

“I quite like the taste of uncooked bread, actually. I used to steal bites when my mother was baking. Nowthat’s how I know that the dough is ready, by the taste.”

 

“You used to sneak bites?” Bilbo giggled at how scandalized Kili sounded.

 

“Of course he did.” Nori interrupted from outside Bilbo’s kitchen window. “Lad is always nibbling on spoons and gnawing on the end of his pipe. I’m sure that whatever he does he’s excellent with his mouth.” Bilbo didn’t give Nori the victory of a blush, but it was hard not to. Especially since Thorin did go flame red at the mention of Bilbo’s mouth. Though, Thorin was in a far better position to know all the attributes of Bilbo’s mouth than Nori, since Thorin had spent a significant portion of the last few days mapping that mouth with his tongue.

 

Before Thorin could sputter out something that would call more guilt to his name than innocence, or Bilbo could say something sufficiently naughty that would burst the whole line of Durin into flames, Nori said what he’d popped up outside Bilbo’s window to say. “You’ve got a visitor.”

 

The Dwarves flinched for their weapons while Bilbo went for a towel to wipe away the bits of flour. Despite the supposed safety of this place, the Dwarves had not yet shed their lifelong habit of never being unarmed. They also brought Sting with them from room to room and perched him up in a corner, just in case. (Yes, him. If the Ring could come to life and stalk Bilbo through the afterlife, he thought it was only fair that his sword got treated with the same respect.)

 

“Other Hobbits?” Bilbo asked.

 

“Nope, he’s a tall fellow with pointed ears.” Bilbo rolled his eyes at the way his Dwarves all half-drew their weapons and started for the door. Of course Nori chose to emphasize that particular detail just to see Thorin and the boys lose their tempers. “Eonwe bowed to the fellow, and Gandalf called him Lorien when he asked what he was doing here.”

 

At that Bilbo froze. “Lorien?”

 

“Lorien.” Nori affirmed. “We Dwarves don’t care much about the Valar who aren’t Aule, but if I remember my stories correctly, he’s the fellow in charge of dreams, correct?”

 

“Dreams, visions, illusions, desire, and inspiration.” According to Rivendell’s Elves, Bilbo’s interest in Lorien was perfectly natural. Apparently all authors and artists had an affinity for him. Though, all Hobbits were a bit more acquainted with Lorien because of the extensive gardens he was said to have in the Undying Lands. According to legends, Lorien’s garden was populated with enchanted flowers that drew one into peaceful sleep, while Maia roamed about singing songs that would make you dream and see spirits roaming by.

 

Just another legend that Bilbo had never gotten to verify because of Ashnazg’s interference.  

 

“Any idea why the Master of Dreams is standing our town square asking to see you?”

 

Bilbo scrambled to get his hands scrubbed and dry so he might be presentable for his meeting with the Vala. “Nothing good.”

 

Most of the Dwarves had been good about giving Bilbo a chance to adjust. He’d exchanged hellos with Frerin, Dis, Thrain, Thror, and the rest of the Company’s families, but they’d been cautious about letting Bilbo have his space. It was unnecessary, but Bilbo was almost positive that the Dwarves had made a schedule for who was allowed to insert themselves into Bilbo’s life and when. After all that effort—which Bilbo was almost certain had involved a few fistfights—he figured he could at least give the Dwarves the comfort of thinking they were tending to Bilbo’s sensitive Hobbit needs.

 

However, at this moment part of him wished that he’d given them a bit less cause to worry, because Lorien stood alone at the center of a circle of every single Dwarf in the village. Gandalf ignored them all to give agitated puffs on his pipe. That position said Gandalf knew no more about what was going on than Bilbo did. Eonwe kept vacillating back and forth between Gandalf and Lorien, certain that neither would talk to him at the moment, but still wanting one of them to say something.

 

Bilbo puffed out his chest and made his way out into the square. With every step, he reminded himself that Mandos wasn’t going to break their arrangement and make him leave this place, no matter what Ashnazg had said. (Though, at a sharp glance from Nori, Bilbo did stop and pick up Sting to keep him company.) Bilbo made his way through the Dwarves gathered outside, and with only a minimal amount of grumbling did they move out of his way. Somewhere in between Thorin’s front door and Lorien, Eonwe made his way to Bilbo’s side, determined to at least do something to make himself useful.

 

Lorien traced his eyes over their motley assortment of buildings and holes, some of stone, some of wood, and others of earth. Each was finely made with all the love and care the craftdwarves were capable of. Without looking away from a particularly intricate patch of knotwork that had been carved around a doorframe, Lorien murmured, “This is a fascinating place.”

 

“We like to think so. One should always find their home interesting.”

 

“Or more interesting, as the case may be.”

 

Bilbo thought that was a veiled reference to Bag End, but Eonwe was not the most subtle of creatures. The Maia stiffened behind him, and Bilbo twisted around to look for Gandalf. Gandalf, who had bit straight through the end of his pipe. “What did you do?” Gandalf demanded of the Vala.

 

Lorien just smiled, like he didn’t mind at all that he was being sassed by a fellow that he most certainly out-ranked. “Actually, I had nothing to do with this one. I wasn’t even sure what was going on until the trees that line the Doors of Durin actually started to grow.” Lorien flicked his gaze over to Thorin, who was lurking behind Bilbo’s shoulder with his most terrifying glower. “Speaking of which: the leaves and blossoms are now growing on both sides of the doors. Durin is… less than pleased about the intrusion of plants into his mountain. He’s been informed that Bilbo briefly passed through Moria to get to Erebor, and he’s quite convinced that the flowers are Bilbo’s fault. Which,” Lorien shrugged, “his logic is sound.”

 

Bilbo had been standing there letting Lorien poke and prod, and on another day he might’ve been thrilled with the thought of someone being able to dance verbal rings around Gandalf. But today, today Bilbo’s poor brain was busy piecing together all the hints and smiles and telling himself that this didn’t mean what he thought it did. It couldn’t.

 

“No. No, no. No.” Bilbo shook his finger at the Vala like he had when Frodo needed scolding. “I died. Frodo cried, I stepped through the magical door, and I died.” Thorin flinched behind him. Bilbo’s death meant that he got to join his Dwarves, but all of them were still uncomfortable with the word.

 

“That’s the funny thing about death, Master Baggins. It is more unpredictable than people give it credit for.”

 

“This isn’t unpredictable, it just doesn’t make sense!”

 

“Would one of you like to inform the rest of us about what’s going on here?” Fili asked.

 

“I agree with Bilbo. What you’re proposing isn’t possible. Gandalf and I would’ve noticed that we weren’t entering the realm of the dead.” Eonwe argued, completely ignoring the twitchy Dwarves around him.

 

“You did enter it. You were just too occupied to notice when you left.” No one said a word, because Bilbo was currently surrounded by Dwarves who happened to remember the particularly vicious ways they’d died. The whole mess made not one lick of sense, and Bilbo had no objections to telling Lorien that. “What are you talking about?”

 

Lorien gave a casual shrug, like nothing about this was absolutely insane. “To be honest, I don’t know. You are all dead, but you’re not where the dead belong. And none of the Valar are entirely certain how you got here. However, I am sure that at this very moment you are standing in my garden.”

 

“But that doesn’t make sense!” Bilbo tried to shout, he really did. But his voice came out a bit more like a whine.

 

“It’s a new world, Master Baggins. And no amount of my shrugging will find the rules of it any faster.”

 

Thorin looped an arm around Bilbo’s waist and asked, “Are we allowed to go on as we have been? Or will strip our home away from us?”

 

Bilbo braced himself for the Vala to snort at Thorin like he was a petulant child—as the immortal beings tended to respond to the life and troubles of the regular people they dealt with. But Lorien was the Master of Dreams, and dreams were all Thorin Oakenshield had had to sustain him for most of his long life. Instead, he gave Thorin a soft smile and said, “No, dear Thorin. This place will never be taken from you so long as you choose to remain. No matter how much it might irritate the mountain that still calls you her king.”

 

As sweet as that statement was, Bilbo simply wasn’t having it. “But there are Hobbits out here! How have you never noticed Hobbits roaming around in your garden before?”

 

Lorien ticked up his eyebrow. “It’s a garden, Master Baggins. When has there ever been a garden that Hobbits haven’t found their way into?”

 

“But they can’t have always been here or someone would’ve mentioned it to us!”

 

“It’s fate, Bilbo,” Gandalf interrupted. The infernal Wizard was still slouched on his bench, gnawing on the crunched end of his pipe. “The door knew you would choose it, and knew about whatever is going to happen. So it placed the Hobbits here in preparation.” Gandalf paused at Lorien’s little smirk, like he was waiting for Gandalf to figure something else out. “No,” Gandalf murmured. “They’re not permanently in your gardens, are they? But they’re well on their way to being there. Their spirits pass back and forth from the otherworld to your Garden, don’t they?”

 

Lorien’s smile was so bright that Bilbo nearly went weak in the knees. “They do indeed. Their connection to green and growing things has brought them in and out of my lands since the beginning of time, but it’s always been accidental before.”

 

“Before?” Bilbo snapped. “Before what?”

 

“Technically, before you stepped into the Dwarven afterlife of your own free will and choice, laying down your life to see your friends. Gandalf’s theory was right about that. Fate knew you would go looking for your Dwarves and so provided them a place where both of you could dwell in happiness.”

 

“What would be the not technical answer?”

 

“It started when Belladonna Baggins began banging on the wall between worlds because her son didn’t come home when he was supposed to.” Bilbo didn’t know if Thorin’s sudden stillness was the result of the Dwarf trying not to laugh, or cowering in fear. Bilbo just sighed. He was over 130 years old and his mother still found a way to scold him for being reckless. “Of course,” Lorien added, just because he could. “It might have something to do with the lecture that Bungo has been giving the barrier ever since.”

 

“Kili,” Bilbo sighed. “It would seem I’m going on another adventure after all.”