Thorin wasn’t entirely sure where he was going; he had told Frerin he was leaving to get coffee, but as soon as he had shut the door of the hospital room - shut, not slammed, despite what the expressions of the passing staff were implying - behind him he had turned away from the loud and busy cafeteria in the opposite direction, unable to face either the watery Americanos or the lined faces of tired, unhappy hospital visitors and staff that the café would offer him. He’d been through all this before, only months previously, and he was not prepared to do it again.
At this point it seemed as if he might end up leaving with two death certificates rather than a single birth one, and that thought only increased the unshifting ache of regret in his chest, the knowledge that he was still failing, even eighteen years after he had first felt the bitter taste of loss.
The thought of anyone, anyone offering him a sympathetic smile or a word of empathy was too much.
The white linoleum floor reflected the strip lighting, the bright glow adding to the headache that had been building in his head all day without a break.
Avoiding the eyes of all that he passed, he wandered along the long, quiet corridors.
Hospitals were an unnecessary labyrinth, he thought: there was never a simple plan, but rather a maze of interlocking corridors and stairways, as if they didn’t want people to know where they were going, as if they somehow thought that being lost would make the experience in some way easier. Maybe it did for some people - maybe if you could distract yourself with floor plans and illogical sign posting, you might forget why you were actually here.
Perhaps that was just him, though; Frerin had always said he had an awful sense of direction.
He felt limp, washed out, as if he would sleep for a year if only he could bring himself to close his eyes; if he could, he would have slept through the entirety of the previous year. It had brought too many loads to his already heavy shoulders, he thought; he was bending to the point of breaking.
Some days he felt as if his back were physically bent, that he was walking around hunched over with the weight of it all.
He scrubbed a hand through his hair, messy from too many hours of running his hands through it already.
A passing doctor shot him a small, sympathetic smile, and it was altogether suddenly too much: he saw an open doorway, and an empty room, and ducked inside it, shutting the door quietly behind himself and throwing his body down in a chair against the far wall, the back of it hitting the pale blue wallpaper with an audible noise. Silence. He needed silence.
He needed five minutes without having to look at Fili curled up and fast asleep under Thorin's coat on an uncomfortable chair because there was no where else for him to go, five minutes without Frerin's foot-tapping and Vivi's wide, fearful eyes and the murmurs of doctors needing responses, needing agreement, needing to know things that he just couldn't bring to the front of his mind right now. Five minutes without the vibration of his own fear, running from his mind and down his spine until every bone in his body felt distended by it, out of size and off kilter, leaving him spinning on his own axis of calm.
He closed his eyes.
He needed to sleep, and he needed to eat, and he needed to shut down his brain for a few hours so that he could process what had happened, so he could get a hold of himself enough to stop himself from acting as if he was already grieving, when there was nothing yet to grieve.
He opened his eyes again, his gaze dragging across the room, and he froze.
What he had taken to be an empty room was in fact occupied – very much so – by a person in the bed, lying completely still, wired to a host of mutely humming machinery. The room was bare of the usual paraphanalia of a patient, without cards or bouquets or books; there was no suitcase on the small rack in the corner and no dinner tray on the fold out table, although he had seen the staff dispensing evening meals when he had been wandering.
Just the figure on the bed, nothing more than the contours of a body beneath layers of sheets, and the shadow of hair on a pillow; he could see little else.
“I…” he started, meaning to apologise for bursting in, but the door clicked open before he could say anything, and a nurse walked in, his neat, silver hair pushed back from his face. The nurse stared blankly at him for a moment in surprise, before smiling warmly.
“My apologies,” he said, reaching for the clipboard hanging on the end of the bed. “I didn’t expect to see anyone in here – he doesn’t get many visitors.”
Thorin shifted a little in the uncomfortable seat, feeling entirely wrong – he shouldn’t be here, in the room of some man that he didn’t even know. He shouldn’t be here, in general: he was supposed to be at home, in the flat around the corner from their sprawling family house, where Dis' car should still have been intact on the driveway. It was a Sunday - he should be getting ready to go around to Dis and Vivi's for dinner, as they did every week. He should be ready to read to Fili, to nag Frerin about his own doctor's appointment this next week, going over his sketched designs that he would need to have sent off to the smith first thing Monday morning.
“No?” he said, when the nurse glanced back at him, clearly waiting for a response of one kind or another as he checked the readings on the machines surrounding the bed. His voice didn't sound like his own, hoarse and unsteady, but the nurse didn't seem to notice, continuing with the efficiency of someone well used to their task.
The nurse shook his head. “He got a few when he first came in, but he doesn’t have any immediate family and most people…” he trailed off, and sighed. “It’s been months now, and it is a big commitment for people, to keep coming in. Particularly when… well, when you don’t know if he’ll ever recover.”
Thorin nodded, and his response must have been enough, because the nurse smiled, and began turning down the bedding.
He averted his eyes as the man's chest came into view, and the nurse undid the ties of his hospital gown to check something, humming a nod of approval at whatever it was that he saw - stitches, perhaps, or something worse.
“I’m sure he’d really appreciate you coming to visit.”
Thorin wondered for a moment if he should confess, that he didn't know the man and hadn't meant to even be there, but the sudden weighty sorrow in the gaze that was shot to him was enough to halt his tongue. What would it accomplish, other than to upset one tired looking member of staff?
"Do you know him well? I'm not sure I've seen you here before?"
He phrased it as a question, for which Thorin was grateful, and he averted his eyes as he shook his head. The nurse seemed to take that for what it was, a quiet admission that he didn't want to talk, and simply covered the man up again. He made a note of something on the clipboard, and shot Thorin a small smile as he replaced it and headed back towards the door.
He hesitated for a moment in the doorway, looking back between Thorin and the bed.
“I'll leave you to it, then. He… you don’t have to sit over here, you know. They think that hearing people talk can help. We leave the radio on for him, sometimes. You can go over, sit closer to him.”
Thorin nodded, not quite trusting himself to say anything. The nurse continued to smile at him for a long moment, and Thorin pulled himself to his feet.
If he could, he would have left, but right now the thought of disappointing the nurse was just another weight to settle around his neck.
He took a step towards the bed.
The nurse closed the door with a quiet click behind him, leaving Thorin feeling perhaps even worse than he had done when he had first barged into the room. Not only had he managed to interrupt the quiet of what was apparently some poor bloke in a coma, he had also unintentionally convinced a well-meaning nurse that he was here to see the man, when in reality he had just been trying to hide from his own responsibilities and emotions.
He really hadn't needed more guilt, today of all days.
He took the clipboard that the nurse had replaced, glancing to the admission date: three and a half months ago.
The man in the bed was pale and thin, though there was a certain softness about his features that suggested he had been a little plumper before he had been admitted to the hospital'; he supposed that kind of thing was normal, in comatose patients, though his medical knowledge was limited to the occasional re-run of an old House episode. It was difficult to gauge the man's height from where he was lying, sheets covering most of him, but Thorin thought he would be shorter than he was, slighter, too. There was something vulnerable about the way he was lying there, flat on his back rather than curled slightly as you would expect from someone who was merely sleeping.
“I am sorry,” he told the man, “for interrupting you.”
The man did not respond, and Thorin found himself staring at that blank, smooth face for a moment. It was strangely ageless, stripped of all care and feeling; he could have been ten years older than Thorin, or ten years younger. He had no way of knowing.
“I… I just needed to sit down somewhere quiet for a while, without anyone talking to me or asking if there was anything they could do, or…”
He shook his head, before glancing back at the bed. The man’s hair was close cropped to his head, no doubt to make things easier for the nurses: it was somewhere between brown and blonde, without quite being either, and had a slight softness to it even when it was this short that suggested that it might curl if allowed to grow longer.
There were slight lines at the corners of his mouth, as if he had smiled a lot, but now his face was slack, expressionless.
There was no reaction to his presence and with one last glance to the door, Thorin settled down in the chair next to the bed, flicking through the clipboard of notes once more.
Most of it was in technical, medical language that he didn’t understand: there seemed to be a rota of some sort, and a list of things with long names that Thorin suspected might have been medications of some kind or another, but he came across things he could understand, here and there, some typed and some in the half illegible script of a no-doubt harried doctor.
He closed the folder before he could pry any further: it was not this man’s responsibility to provide him with distraction in times like these, even if it was much needed and, in all likelihood, he would never actually know.
“I’m not actually here to visit you,” Thorin started again, “I just didn’t know how to tell the nurse that. I’m here with my sister. She’s…” he trailed off again, the creeping exhaustion of days without sleep settling over him. The fear he’d been trying to fight since the call had come early that morning still pressed down on his chest, making it a little hard to breathe.
“She was in a car accident,” he told the sleeping man. “She went into premature labour. The baby made it out, and they think he'll be okay, but they said they need to keep him in for several weeks, if not months.”
The man – Mr B. Baggins – didn’t say anything.
Thorin tipped his head back, closing his eyes.
“She’s… our parents died when she was twelve, and I was nineteen, I took over legal guardianship. Of her and my brother.”
He fought for a moment to stop his face from showing how he felt, but then he remembered: there was no one to see. He screwed his eyes shut.
“My brother nearly died just three months ago. I thought I was going to lose him, like our parents. It was my fault, I was supposed to pick him up, but I was late… And now her, the doctors told us she might die, she’s in surgery now and...”
By this point people had normally jumped in, with reassuring words or sympathetic smiles or – worse – unwanted physical contact. He’d had more patted shoulders and awkward, one-armed embraces after his parents had died than he had known what to do with.
The grey afternoon did little to light up the small hospital room, the muted beeping of the machines a strangely soothing background noise. He supposed he might have spent too many hours in the hospital in recent months if the sound of hospital equipment was actually relaxing.
There were flowers on the windowsill; silk ones.
He wondered if they were from the hospital, or from a visitor: perhaps one that didn’t visit too often, and thought that their guilt at infrequent visits might be assuaged by a present that lasted.
It made him feel oddly annoyed.
“My brother was mugged, outside a train station: they stole his bag but he tried to fight back, and they had a knife. I was going to pick him up, he’d been away for work, but I was late.”
He paused, and frowned.
“I don’t know why I am telling you this.”
Thorin waited a moment longer, still half expecting the man to wake, to turn to him, to respond.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, getting to his feet. “I’ll leave you be.”
But as he shut the door behind him again he felt an odd sense of calm wash over him, as if he had taken a long nap in a cool, dark room.
He squared his shoulders, feeling a little better, and made his way back to the rest of his family, to wait for news.
Seven weeks later –
He became vaguely aware of a strange beeping sound, and the uncomfortable warmth of too much bedding, as if he had been lying too still on a warm summer night for far too long.
He frowned, and tried to shift, but his body felt as if a great weight were pressing down on it, and it was near impossible to move his limbs even a little.
“Don’t worry,” came a calm, soothing voice, lilting and quiet. “Don’t try and move too much, just try to open your eyes.”
He tried to answer, but his mouth felt incredibly dry, and he couldn’t quite get his tongue to work like it was supposed to.
Eyes. The voice had said that he should open his eyes.
It was far harder than it should have been.
Everything felt as if it should hurt, but remained numb at the same time. What had happened?
The light was almost blinding when he eventually managed to open his eyes, the world swimming slowly into focus again.
The only thing he saw, before he was forced to close his eyes again, were the pale orange-gold of flowers, slightly wilting, in a vase by his bed.