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“Come,” said Gandalf. “You are called for.”

The tremendous dark of the mountain fell heavy on his shoulders, and Bilbo did not want to go inside the tent. He clutched at his ruined waistcoat, the knot grown thick and gnarled in his throat, a stopper that strangled all words from their escape. In that moment, he felt small and terrible indeed. Though the battle was not initiated by his hand, and he believed his actions were those of a friend, Thorin’s harsh words of late remained sharp enough to draw blood even in memory. Come, into the tent? He could not—even for all the gold in the Lonely Mountain’s belly.

Gandalf looked on him and softened. His injured arm tucked close to his chest, he knelt before Bilbo in the ruin of the camp. “My poor fellow,” he said, and only this, for it meant a great deal more than words would allow.

“Is he very angry?” Bilbo choked, though he knew the truth. He had scented it in the air: a tangible grief, as dampened leaves or rotting earth. The sun was wan and watery, casting insipid shadows across the ground. Death had his foot in all doorways and his eye in the keyholes.

“He is dying,” said Gandalf.

There it was, given dreadful shape. His head throbbed but the wound was of no consequence. He wiped his hands over his waistcoat and said, “I’m very cold.”

Gandalf squeezed his shoulder and rose. “And so, I will provide you with a blanket, Master Baggins. But come, he has waited too long as it is for you. He fears he won’t have time enough.”

No, Bilbo wanted to say, there is not time enough in all the world. But he did not say so, and instead followed quietly at pace behind the wizard, who lifted the tent flap for him. Inside, the tent was musty and lit with lanterns, a carnival of light reaching out into the black, and in its center was a makeshift cot. Gandalf shut the way behind them and lifted his staff from the far wall, where it had rested as if little more than a splinter of wood.

“Thorin,” he boomed, “I have brought him.”

From a chair in the corner, Dwalin lifted his head from a vigil, a long bloodied scratch marking his face from ear to chin. He looked on Bilbo with small wet eyes and no smile, but neither was there censure. He nodded. Bilbo could not bear to return the gesture; his head felt leaden and overwrought.

In the bed rested Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain and leader of their company—stubborn as any dwarf but inherently good, his rage as devastating as his kindness, forged from smoke and night and the fire of red jewels in the deep—and oh, thought Bilbo, there is one, there is one I could love. Curse his silly hobbit sensibilities, the want to be accepted and enjoyed. Curse his heart, his easily punctured heart. Until this moment, he hadn’t realized he had lost it. It was no wonder his chest hurt so much and so sorely.

He looked on Thorin Oakenshield, the linen bled to black around him, and knew he could never ask for it back.

“Bilbo,” Thorin breathed, raising his hand. “Please. You look as if I’ve—struck you in the dark.”

You have, Bilbo thought but he approached the cot all the same. There was a chair waiting. He fell into it clumsily, tracking the many wounds gouged into Thorin’s body. Two thick furs had been wrapped tightly about his chest, as if all attempts to slow the bleeding were given up, and the King Under the Mountain’s head rested on a balled up coat of armor, his black and silver mane snagged in between the chainmail. He exhaled heavily, with great force.

Gandalf pressed a blanket over Bilbo’s shoulders and rested his hands there for a long time. Then he released him. Hugging the blanket around himself, Bilbo did his best to find speech. He did not know what to say—not to Thorin, not after the fiasco with the Arkenstone. Apologies, perhaps. Regrets, yes. Bilbo had many regrets, though he did not think he’d done wrong.

Thorin gazed at him, silent and measured. Something in his study made Bilbo shake to his very marrow.

“Give me your hand,” Thorin said, finally.

He could not bear it, but he must. Bilbo folded his hand inside of the fallen King’s with a quick intake of breath—it was so cold already. The frigid chill of the caverns had sunk into bone.

Thorin gripped his fingers as if he could hear his thoughts, dark eyes gleaming. He smiled for Bilbo and it was not false. “I have done you a great disservice, my dear burglar,” he said, with some difficulty.

“Don’t think anything of it,” said Bilbo. “Please. You were—not yourself.”

“No,” Thorin agreed, “and yet, it was the worst of me. Had I longer, I would repent for the wrongs I have done you in our time together. I would have you look on the beauty and splendor of Erebor as I bring her back to the light. I would,” and he swallowed, eyes closing as a tremor of pain overtook him, “see that you’ve no reason to doubt my faith and good opinion in you, evermore.”

Bilbo set his jaw against tears. With his free hand, he covered Thorin’s once more, hoping some warmth would build between the two and bring comfort. “And hearing that, I have none,” he said.

Thorin’s mouth twisted into something terrible: a smile plagued by grief, a tenderness that made no sense. “Our hobbit burglar,” he said again. “Bilbo Baggins of the Shire.”

“Yes, yes—I’m here. For what little it’s worth.”

“Dwalin, please bring the chest,” said Thorin, though he never removed his gaze from Bilbo’s face. “Gandalf, a little time; I beg you.”

“Make haste,” Gandalf warned as he left the tent with the other dwarf.

When they were alone, Thorin gripped Bilbo’s hand tighter than before, taking on the appearance of a man possessed; no falcon could have pinned its concentration to the tail of a mouse any fiercer. He lifted himself from the bed until Bilbo cried out in alarm and horror.

“Oh—don’t, please—”

“I have no time for reparations,” Thorin said roughly, “and less still to say the things I want to say. If there were time—but there isn’t—forgive me nevertheless and receive my attentions. My nephews are dead and my line ended. I cannot be assured you will even receive your fair share of the treasure. I am a fool, and I am fast approaching the halls of my fathers, but all of this is but a pale shadow when cast next to you. You would have brought me great happiness, I believe, had this quest ended differently.” He took a deep halting breath, and at last in his face, Bilbo saw a heart as stolen and rent as his own. “I cannot bear leaving this good world without securing your place in it. Bilbo, I beg you—consider me.”

“Consider you,” repeated Bilbo.

“Do me the honor of combining our houses,” Thorin said, “royal and homely as they are, and my own soon to be banished to lore and legend.” He clutched Bilbo’s hands to his chest, unable to hold himself above the cot any longer, and sunk down to the furrowed, bloodied bedding. “Take my hand,” he gasped, perspiration and grime streaked across his brow. “In all ways.”

“You mean…” Bilbo jerked up right. “You can’t be serious!”

Thorin was spent; he only looked at Bilbo, a fearless determination set in his countenance.

“But it’s not done,” said Bilbo, a little desperately. “You can’t just—I’m quite sure there are rules—rites and rhymes, that is—and you are, oh, you are—“ He couldn’t say it. He could not say dying. Misery struck him like an arrow to the belly and he shuddered, folding around himself. Troll, dragon, wood-elf, and more besides could be faced by Bilbo’s courage, but for the first time in a great while he hungered for his hobbit hole, its comfort and safety, its sunshine and livelihood. He wanted to be anywhere but here, in loss. With Thorin Oakenshield doomed to leave him for a place he could not follow, even with the ring of great power.

“Bilbo,” said Thorin, and there was in his voice the grace of a king and something more, something gentler. “Do you love this confounded dwarf?”

He pushed his hands over his mouth, tears brimming. He tried so very, very hard not to answer. And yet, a small and broken yes escaped him.

“Then I am sorry,” Thorin whispered, “for it would be better if you did not.”

 

Dwalin brought in a large, studded chest filled with jewelry and robes, richly woven and embossed in gems. He bowed until his nose nearly reached the dirt and then left them without a word, and on his heels was Gandalf, who brought with him a small leather-bound book with fine golden handwriting on its cover.

“It’s customary to wear one’s finest and richest clothes in a dwarf’s wedding,” said Gandalf. “Considering your current meager belongings and the circumstances, however, I imagine custom may go bother itself. Still, we will do this the right way, Master Baggins, and that means some adornment. It would have been Fili and Kili’s duty to dress you, but they are lost to us and I thought privacy may suit your sensibilities better.”

“You thought right,” murmured Bilbo, running his hand over the chest. He could hear the labored breathing of Thorin behind him and knew they had little time left to them. Bending over the chest, he dug through the riches—gold bracelets with precious stones set into their bands, rings finer than that in his pocket, helms studded with star-sparks, shoes gilded in silver, thick old furs made from the hides of creatures that no longer lived in the mountains or elsewhere—and tried to feel less foolish. He was covered in dried mud and crusts of maroon, hardly suitable for such majesty. In the end, wishing to be quick and adorned as simply as possible, he stripped down to his mithril coat and dress shirt. He wrapped a chain encrusted with moonstones about one wrist, for moonstones were known for reuniting lovers who had quarreled and bringing beautiful visions to the waking world. If there were ever a time for magic, he thought, this would be most opportune.

When he sat at Thorin’s side, the dwarf king looked at him long and wondering. “You appear a specter,” he said when prodded. “All pale light and dark eyes. I would have dressed you in the colors of earth and fire, and clipped precious metals into your curls. Like my father, and my grandfather before him. Their beards were always beautifully adorned.”

Bilbo strained to smile. “I am a hobbit, you know. We like our suspenders over such finery. Precious metals in my hair! It all sounds rather fanciful.”

“If this is to be my last sight, I am content,” said Thorin.

Then he coughed, hard and wetly. Coagulated black splattered across the furs on his chest. “We must be quick,” Gandalf said above them, opening the book.

Bilbo did not hear many of the words, though they would have been unfamiliar if he had. He felt Thorin take his hand but there was no longer any strength in his grip. The king’s gaze never left his, but his body shuddered and quivered in a battle against an unseen foe, and all the while Gandalf read in a tongue unrecognizable to hobbits and men. Each syllable set a cold drop of rain into Bilbo’s stomach, where it settled into a chilly pool, a grave trap laid for the hours ahead of him. He could barely swallow past the burn in his esophagus: no joy, only mourning.

Pale as paper, Thorin stared up at Bilbo and strove to breathe until the ceremony was finished. He looked at Bilbo as if he were the last pinprick of light in the dark—and perhaps he very well was.

Perhaps they were both reaching out in the dark to each other. Perhaps that was all they had ever done.

At last, Gandalf stated, “The words have been said. Thorin Oakenshield, all that is yours is halved, cleaved into two as the river rends the mountain. Your gain is richer for it. Give your oath and let it remain unbroken.”

Thorin tried, and failed, to speak. He wet his lips. He rasped, “I give my oath. I will return to my forefathers now. Keep him safe on his journey home, wizard. See he is given all that was mine.”

Gandalf let out a gust of air. “You have my word to try. And so, Bilbo Baggins, all that is yours is halved, cleaved into two as the axe rends the fire-ready wood. Your gain is richer for it. Give your oath and let it remain unbroken.” Kinder, he added, “Give Thorin Oakenshield his peace.”

He cared nothing for riches, for mountains of gold and glory. How much Bilbo wanted to tell Thorin everything—all of it, every thought he had ever entertained, every song he had ever sung. How much he wanted to share with him the whole of his life, and hear a tale of contrast, something not made for legends but between friends and companions. He wanted to know Thorin’s favorite spread of honey. He wanted to hear about the day Thorin first picked up a sword and held it gleaming into the sun. The moonstones weighed cold on his wrist and Bilbo knew, beyond a certainty, that this would be the last minute shared between them. There was no time for stories and song and learning how to embrace each other.

“I give my oath,” he said, clasping Thorin’s bearded cheeks between his hands. Still warm, for but the minute. “And if you had asked without a single gold coin in your pocket, I would’ve said yes.”

Thorin smiled.

Bilbo took a tearful breath and pressed his mouth hard to Thorin’s, kissing him while he could yet respond. He felt Thorin’s hand tangle into his curls, fisting as many as he could hold at the back of Bilbo’s head. Thorin was warm, and smelled of earth and rain, and he knew how to kiss a new husband.

When breath stopped, and lips grew cold, Bilbo wept. The taste of blood lingered in the corner of his mouth long after.

 

Years later, Bilbo will ask what was the point and was it ever about love, or just another financial transaction. He will spend long nights staring into the dark, stroking his wrist and remembering the impression of moonstones upon it. He will think of Thorin Oakenshield and love the empty places he has left behind, even more than he can bear to. Bilbo’s hobbit hole will always be filled with the rich baritone of a dwarf singing for his long-beloved homeland, for the blaze on the trees and the moon swung high above the fields like a scythe. He hears it in his sleep, in the night, in the ghosts of early mornings and barren rooms.

He will be the youngest widower in the Shire, though no one will ever know as much. Most hobbits and their lasses live long, hardy lives tilling earth. If Bilbo ever dreams of someone opening the front door in the dark, humming low on the wind and carrying in the scent of the blacksmith’s fire, he will not speak of it. He only wakes with an acute ache, as if something is profoundly missing—as if he has neglected a visitor in the night.

He finds that he can be happy, for a time. All is not lost.

 

Today, Bilbo Baggins cried until his eyes were rimmed red, his voice hoarse and wrecked, and he looked altogether a wretched creature. Gandalf said not a word; he left them together in the tent, the hobbit curled into his blanket, the king dead in his cot. There they remained for half of the day. The sun sunk beneath its mother’s skirt and hid from view, and fires were ignited around the camp.

At last, his despondency spent, Bilbo stood from the side of the last King Under the Mountain, blanket shrouding his small person. He stumbled out of the tent and onto the open field, dizzy and sick to his stomach, and surrounding him were dwarves and men and elves, all of them stung by the hunger for gold.

He stared at them, and in time they bowed.

Bilbo wiped his eyes furiously. “The king is dead,” he said, and there he left them, standing dumbly like toy soldiers on a mantel. For a moment, he wanted nothing more than for them to be thrown into the fire and melted into scabs of tin. Let them all burn, he thought. Let the dragon rise from the ashes to have them.

But his anger was short-lived. The hours found him listening to the call of the thrush, curled up on the mountainside. He looked out over the vast landscape before him and for the first time, Bilbo could not discern which direction was home.