Bilbo Baggins came back home to Bag End in late March, thinner, richer and sadder than he left.
Nobody said anything to him as he made his way up the Hill, dragging a small wooden chest behind him, leaving a narrow furrow in the soft wet earth. His skin was ruddy and wind-burnt, his cheeks gaunt, and his honey brown curls were limp and untidy, weighed down with a month’s worth of oil. Bilbo wore unfamiliar, foreign clothes: doeskin leggings, a royal blue surcoat sewn in silver thread over a loose white jerkin, a moonstone and sapphire bracelet, a simple silver chain with a plain gold ring – even shoes, of all things! It spoke much about the sensibilities and traditions of hobbits that the boots unnerved them more than the fact that he had a sword strapped to his hip and a war-axe almost as tall as him slung across his back. But it was early morning in Hobbiton, and the sun was rising, and Bilbo’s hot breath misted in the cool fragrant air, and nobody made eye contact with him.
Good, thought Bilbo wearily, trudging up the path to Bag End, shifting his weight so he could swap hands on the wooden chest whose contents clinked and clanked, Good. Let them mutter.
Bag End was a beautiful sight in the rosy pink light of morning and Bilbo felt the swell of tears in his eyes, not from sadness, but relief, pure unadulterated, unabashed relief. Home. He was home. He ran his callused fingers over the wood of the gate, noticing, with a pang of nostalgia, a stray thread wound around one of the rusted nails. It was aloft on the early spring breeze and Bilbo caught it, staring down as he absently wound it around his fingertip. It matched the waistcoat he had left Bag End in, almost a year and a half ago, sprinting madly down the rolling green hills of Hobbiton, contract flapping wildly in his hands, hair damp with perspiration and a mad grin splitting his face.
The waistcoat that had been ripped and ruined, encrusted in mud and blood, with all the brass buttons lost in a cave and the rich forest green and gold fabric dulled and dirtied from travelling in the wild. Bilbo remembered Bofur teasing him ruthlessly about wearing a waistcoat and a burgundy corduroy dinner jacket out in the wilderness. He remembered Fili and Kili rifling through his satchel and stealing his spare silk scarves, putting on Bilbo’s accent and mannerisms, mincing around the campfire with Bilbo’s neckerchieves around their throats. He remembered Balin and Dwalin putting their heads together and muttering about the Halfling’s fine clothes, before producing spare leather jerkins and doeskin leggings, even hardboiled leather greaves, vambraces and pauldrons, with a sort of grouchy bashfulness that was intrinsic in all dwarves when they did something kind. Bilbo remembered peering into the surface of a lake and smiling at himself, thin, hardy and grimy, sword on his hip and a long ugly cut from ear to jaw courtesy of a goblin scout that got a little too close.
Bilbo remembered a weight and warmth behind him, rough fingers at the soft juncture of jaw and throat, feeling the throb of his pulse, hands moving up to fist into his dirty honey-brown curls. The drag and burn and rasp of someone else’s beard on his face, a warm mouth against the shell of his ear. You look like one of us, he murmured, You’re family. You belong to us now. To me. Understand?
Back at the gate of Bag End, Bilbo nodded his assent to someone who wasn’t there, rubbing the thread between forefinger and thumb and sighing. With a sharp tug, he broke the thread off the nail and tucked it into his surcoat’s pocket. There were fragile spider webs laced with morning dew on the gate and Bilbo shuddered when he felt the wispy touch of them, memories leaping back to Mirkwood and monstrous spiders the size of draught-horses. Getting the treasure chest up a flight of stairs was no small matter and Bilbo was puffing and red in the face as he reached his front door. Now that he was here, Bilbo couldn’t quite believe he was home, even when he touched the varnished wood with reverence. His eyes dropped to the Dwarven rune scratched into the paint, drawn by Gandalf an eternity ago, it seemed like. Bilbo scrunched up his eyes and took a deep breath to stop from shouting out loud, one long scream of wordless and palpable sadness. And all it took was a scratched door.
Was this to be his life from now on? Bilbo thought wildly, curling up his fingers to form a fist and pressing it hard against his mouth, grazing his knuckles on his teeth, pushing back the urge to scream. Was this it? A life of memories, never living truly in the present because he was too attached to the past? Was Bag End to feel empty, hollowed out, like the dead cold embers of a fire? Not even the weight of his memories could keep him company here. Bilbo brought back with him the smell of pine needles and smoke, the taste of honey mead and sour doughy waybread, the sound of humming and harp strings in the sharp night air, the sensation of warm bodies close enough to reach out and touch, the bone-deep ache of being drenched and cold, seeking out warmth from the two people closest to him, fingers intertwined in the darkness, bodies pressed together in the dark. Bilbo missed his companions as one would miss amputated limbs, a pain in his heart of being bereft of their rough, gruff friendship. He missed being head-butted and hugged affectionately, sharing food, blankets and pipe weed. He had been a beloved member of a family that loved him and that he loved back.
Suddenly, being alone in Bag End didn’t seem that appealing. Bilbo wanted to go back to Erebor, to Dale, to the Lonely Mountain. Anywhere but here, he thought. Anywhere but by myself. Bilbo needed to see mist-wreathed mountains and still clear lakes that stole the breath out of you when you waded in and snow-capped pine trees. Bilbo wanted to be back with the Dwarves so badly that it hurt.
Of all things, Bilbo didn’t want to drown in memories or succumb to a life of quiet regret, growing old and reminiscing in his armchair, poring over old crackling maps and spotting the parchment with perfectly circular wet marks. Imagine! Bilbo thought, imagine his hair turning silver and his laugh lines deepening with no-one to share it with. Imagine sleeping and dying alone in his enormous four-poster bed, the wooden canopy covered in Dwarven runes, gouged with his knife. Imagine being forever known as Bilbo Baggins, that queer fellow from Hobbiton who ran off into the blue with dwarves, don’t you know, my dear, and came back with treasure but lost his voice and heart on the way!
Bilbo ran a hand over his face, suffering from a jittery hot uncomfortable feeling and he didn’t know whether he wanted to scream, laugh or cry, or do all three at once. Dry-eyed, burning and trembling, wanting to wade into a lake and never come back up for air, wishing he’d never stepped out of Bag End at all, wondering why he didn’t bury himself in the gold of the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo took a deep calming breath and stepped into his hobbit hole for the first time in almost two years.
It was the same yet very different. Two years of dust had smeared everything in a thin coat of silver. All the candles had sputtered out and cold congealed white wax had oozed at the bottom of his wooden candle-holders. All his plants and vases of spring blooms had wilted and withered, crumbling beneath his fingertips. Even the non-perishables in his pantry had, well, perished. Everything was cold and dead. Bilbo stood there in the foyer for some time, simply taking in the dark corners and breathing in the stale air that still held the faint scent of dead flowers and rot. He left the treasure chest next to a coat rack and promptly forgot about it, pushing his round green door to and sighing.
Well, Bilbo thought, I’m back.
The first thing he did was strip and take a bath. Bilbo kicked off his boots next to the door, shrugged off his surcoat in the foyer, wriggled out of his shirt and leather jerkin in the kitchen, hopped out of his leggings in the dining room and carefully took off his jewellery in the bedroom. The bed was still unmade from that fateful morning – Bilbo smiled on one side of his mouth and shook his head at that. His magic ring on the silver chain was put in an envelope and hesitantly put on his writing desk; the silver embossed clips in his hair were taken out and put in his mother’s old jewellery box; the moonstone and sapphire bracelet Bilbo took off and held reverently, the precious gems heavy, glittering and warm in his palm, so beautiful and ethereal compared to the grime and calluses of his hand. He didn’t know what to do with it. Eventually, after minutes of deliberating, Bilbo bit his lip and put the bracelet back on his slim wrist. He didn’t want to part with it, even for so short a time.
The pipes clattered and creaked, and the faucets coughed up flakes of orange rust before Bilbo kicked it in a fit of pique and got the hot water running. He filled the clawed brass bath tub as much as he physically could and hissed with unadulterated delight as he dipped his feet in, and then, without much decorum, slid bodily into the boiling hot water, sending water cascading over the lip of the tub to puddle on the tiled floor. Bilbo kept himself submerged for a long while, sinking luxuriously into the warmth, a few bubbles escaping his mouth, his eyes closed and a dreamy smile on his lips. He wriggled into an odd position where Bilbo’s back was pressed against the bottom of the tub, his arms draped over the sides and his feet resting near the taps. His bracelet would occasionally click against the brass tub when he moved his hands but that was the only sound. Only when the need for air became pressing did Bilbo resurface with a heaving gasp, pushing back his wet mop of hair away from his eyes. So much dirt and grime was sloughed off himself that the water eventually muddied, so after Bilbo soaped up his hair for the third time, he drew himself another clean bath and sank into that one too, refusing to come out until his fingers pruned and wrinkled and the water went cold.
Feeling lighter, Bilbo ignored his empty stomach and the temptation of dinner – a very unnatural thing to do for a hobbit, most unusual, his parents would be disappointed – and wandered back to his bedroom in the nude, not bothering with a towel, and did a double-take at his reflection in his full length looking-glass. Thinner, sadder and richer, Bilbo thought absently, looking at all the places where convex had turned concave, where he had scars, shining burn marks and still-healing yellow-green bruises blossoming along his ribcage, even where he had somehow gotten a little lean muscle on his arms, legs and shoulders. Bilbo rubbed at his scalp, shaking water out of his wet curls and puffed out a sound that could have been laughter. Even his hair was longer. Bilbo wagged his finger in mock-disappointment at his reflection and fell into bed, wrapping himself up in his rumpled musty sheets, not bothering to dry off. He stared up at the canopy for a long while, willing himself to sleep.
Bilbo couldn’t. A year of sleeping outside, in the wilderness, in cold damp caves, in thorny wastelands, in the snow, with thirteen dwarves for company had completely ruined him. His bed was too large, too empty, too cold for Bilbo to comfortably sleep. Bilbo was used to falling asleep amidst snoring and snuffling, packed close together to conserve body heat, all hot breath and the sweet tang of old sweat and the scratch of fur and stubble against his smooth cheek. Bilbo closed his hand, missing the feel of someone else’s rough fingers intertwined in his, the beat of someone else’s heart, the warmth of someone else’s breath on his lips, a murmur of “sleep, little one, I’ll keep you safe”, dark eyelashes around cold blue eyes, the softening of severe rugged features in the innocence of sleep.
Bilbo bit his lip and wrapped his fingers around his bracelet, curling up on himself, limbs tucked in close to his body, the curve of his spine against the paleness of the moon through his window.
Imagine being forever known as Bilbo Baggins, that queer fellow from Hobbiton who ran off with dwarves. Don’t you know? He came back with treasure but lost his voice and heart on the way.
Bilbo, much to his chagrin, had turned fifty when out adventuring and had thus passed from “eligible bachelor” to “eccentric spinster” or whatever the male equivalent of a spinster was. Not that he much minded, as Bilbo had never been the type to settle down with a sweet-faced lass and have lots of children – more to the point, the thought sent chills down his spine and made him wheeze with horror – but Bilbo’s reputation had already taken a heavy blow when he had run off into the blue to go on one of those awful adventures. But now, being unmarried, suspiciously wealthy and now mysteriously mute had set tongues wagging. Some had called it witchcraft, others blamed the Elves, and one particularly bold hobbit down in Westfarthing spread rumours that the Bilbo that came back was not, in fact, the real Master Baggins, but rather a faerie changeling. This, the hobbit explained sagely over a pint of bitter down at the Green Dragon, explained the muteness and the inexplicable wealth. This theory was taken with a pinch of salt as hobbits are cynical creatures by nature, despite their wide eyes and innocent faces. Bilbo Baggins was treated with awe and suspicion just the same.
If Bilbo had the capacity to speak, he’d set the record straight. No, he was not a faerie changeling. No, it wasn’t witchcraft. No, it wasn’t Elves, but, yes, Bilbo had met many. The tunnels underneath Bag End were not stuffed with treasure, as he had only brought one chest back with him, and a small one at that. You want the truth? Bilbo would say, if he could. The truth isn’t that exciting, I’m afraid.
I went on an adventure. I faced down a dragon. I found a magic ring. I saved a kingdom.
That doesn’t matter. What matters is this.
I betrayed the person I loved.
I’m miserable and I’m ashamed and I’m grieving.
That is why I cannot speak because nothing I could ever say could fix this.
The other hobbits in Hobbiton, over the Hill and across the Water, even as far abroad as West and East Farthing, all tried to talk to Bilbo, to find out what happened, to quell their own stinging curiosity. They would attempt to coax speech out of him, a string of words to make a necklace of a sentence, anything at all, but Bilbo never spoke. He would look apologetic, tap his throat once or twice lightly with his fingertips and shrug his shoulders good-naturedly as if to say, well, what can you do? Everyone that lived on Bagshot Row noticed Bilbo going for unnaturally long walks, leaving in the pearly light of early morning and returning in the velvet darkness of late night, with a strange sword buckled on his hip and a string of precious jewels around his wrist that he never ever took off. He became a recluse, becoming odd, unsociable and distant, even with people he was close to before.
“It’s a funny business,” his closest neighbour would say warily, to whomever would listen, “He doesn’t take care of himself at all. He walks around in his dressing gown and smokes and reads books with strange markings in them, and he doesn’t even sleep at all because I can see candles burning all the way through the night. I’ve even heard he doesn’t eat all that much, maybe once every other day.”
Of course, this horrified everyone still further. A hobbit that missed one meal out of the seven per day was considered ill. But Bilbo Baggins, only eating once every other day? That was just unnatural.
Not everyone was convinced, however.
“Hobbit-folk only act this way for two reasons,” old Violet Chubb, the eldest female hobbit in Hobbiton, said wisely, “And that’s through love, or grief. Our dear Master Baggins is suffering from one or the other.”
As it so happened, Bilbo Baggins was suffering from both.
Two years since he came back home and Bilbo still hadn’t said a word out loud to anyone. One day, Bilbo walked out of Bag End with a bucket of green paint and carefully painted over the odd Dwarven rune that had been scratched into it. After four coats of paint, when the rune could still be seen through it, Bilbo had apparently snapped, thrown the bucket at the door, screamed wordlessly in frustration and stomped off into the East Farthing woods and didn’t come back for two days. When he did come back, covered in little scratches and bleeding cuts, with twigs in his hair and mud on his face, Bilbo wrote a note to the Gaffer and his boys asking if they could please remove his door and burn it. The Gaffer had read the note carefully at least half a dozen times and gently said:
“Burn it? Are you sure, lad?”
Bilbo nodded emphatically and made a shooing dismissive motion towards the door as if he could care less about it and the fact that it had been a part of Bag End for at least two hundred years.
The Gaffer hesitated. “What is it about that chicken-scratch that bothers you so much, Master Baggins?” He asked, as diplomatically as a hobbit could get. “You seem awful riled up about it.”
Looking distraught, Bilbo walked quickly up the stairs and slammed the new red door behind him.
To the Gaffer’s credit, he didn’t burn the door. He kept it safe, hidden in the grape vines in his back garden. He may have been a simple hobbit, but even he knew that it was something important.
And who knew? Perhaps Master Baggins would change his mind.
Five years on, a pretty Brandybuck lass, Bryrony, asked to marry him out of the blue.
“Purely a business transaction, you have to understand,” she said, popping a grape into her mouth and chewing thoughtfully. Bilbo, silent as ever, sat on the other side of the table and watched her curiously, a slight pensive frown on his face. “My family’s well-off, and so are you, but no respectable hobbit lad wants to marry me because I’m too— what’s the word? Peculiar, I warrant. Unnatural.”
Bilbo stared down into his cup of chamomile tea for a long while, twirling finger and thumb around each other thoughtfully. After contemplating drowning himself in the hot pale gold liquid, Bilbo forced himself to respond somehow, by making a circular motion with his wrist, as if to say, go on.
“Well,” said Bryrony, twisting off another grape, “I can’t go travelling anymore because my folks are getting worried. I keep threatening to run off to live with the Elves just like you did,” she smiled.
Bilbo shook his head. He opened a drawer of his writing desk, found a scrap of parchment and a quill, and scribbled not Elves on it, with a strained smile on his face. Bryrony cocked her head.
“Dwarves?” Bryrony laughed, meaning it as a joke. When Bilbo didn’t laugh, she sobered up.
“Sorry,” she said, “It’s just that— no-one knows what you got up to, Master Baggins.”
And then, quieter: “We just don’t know how to help you.”
Bilbo dipped his head and didn’t react. Bryrony polished off the grapes and fiddled with the lavender ribbons in her long gold curls of hair. She had little delicate hands and dark brown eyes and dimples. She was achingly pretty and her voice was light and musical, and she even had a spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose. Bilbo pitied her but he couldn’t accept her offer in good grace. It would be a loveless marriage, empty and hollow, and to bring children into that! It horrified him.
“So, what was it?” Bryrony asked, after the silence dragged on too long, “Love or grief?”
Bilbo looked at her with tired eyes, and then picked up his quill, scratching it against the parchment.
Both, he wrote and left it at that.
Bryrony looked at the word carefully and then folded both her hands over Bilbo’s, sighing.
“I’ll let myself out,” she said softly, patted Bilbo’s hand gently and stood, gathering up her cotton skirts. “I’ll tell my papa that the deal’s off. Promise me you’ll take care of yourself, Mr Baggins.”
It wasn’t all bad as Bilbo received a beautiful leather-bound journal from her in the post. It had cream-coloured pages and gold stitching and a note from her tucked in the back, making him promise to use it to communicate more with people. Bilbo never saw Bryrony Brandybuck again – as it turned out, she married a Proudfoot from West Farthing and moved away – but he used the journal religiously. It took a few months, but eventually the other residents of Hobbiton became accustomed to holding a conversation with Bilbo Baggins via ink and paper, even if they had to wait a while for him to write, as Bilbo would start writing in an odd angular foreign language, similar to the rune that had been scratched into the old door of Bag End, before hissing between his teeth when he realised his mistake, scribbling it out almost violently and writing in the Common Tongue instead.
The years rolled by. Bilbo was almost sixty and had found a few silver hairs near his temples. The small study that he had put all his treasure, mementos and books in was gathering dust. Every midsummer’s day, at the height of June, where the fireflies would gather in soft lazy luminescent swirls and the night sky was thick with stars, where the moon cut the sky like a silver scythe and gold wheat fields shimmered and shivered in the sultry summer breeze, where flowers would wilt listlessly in the sun, Bilbo would allow himself to sift through the relics of his adventure. He would run his fingers over the soft crackling parchment of the maps of Dale, of Erebor, of the Lonely Mountain, and feel a slow swelling rage and disappointment, as hot bile in his throat and a burning in his eyes. Bilbo would unsheathe his Elven sword, Sting, the letter opener as Balin had called it, and hold its cold cruel edges against the firelight. He even found an old drawing of him, looking young and aloof, one eyebrow raised at the artist, chin up, a small smile tugging up at his lips. His hair was getting a little long and his top two buttons were undone, collarbones exposed, the nape of his neck damp with perspiration. Bilbo remembered sitting in Beorn’s Carrock, watching the strong bold strokes of ink forming into his likeness, breathing in the sharp rich scent of pine needles, wet earth and horse hair.
“Why are you drawing me?” Bilbo had asked and never got a reply.
Bilbo held the sketch in his hands and resisted the urge to ball it up, tear it to pieces and throw it in the fire.
Instead, he took a deep breath and smoothed it out, taking care not to smudge the ink.
It was, in the end, a very good drawing.
Bilbo hadn’t spoken in nine years.
Not that he was keeping count.
He woke up one May morning, when the dew was still fresh on the grass and a thin mist hung about on the hills, instinctively stretching out for someone on the other side of the bed before his eyes had even opened. When his fingers met air and cold sheets and the leather spines of books instead, Bilbo rolled over with a wordless exclamation of grief, burying his face in his hands and curling his fingers in his hair, pulling at his scalp until it hurt, lips moving soundlessly, no no no no not now please no no no.
Bilbo stayed in bed for most of the morning, cocooned in his blankets, before begrudgingly getting up and padding through the empty halls of Bag End, bare feet slapping quietly against the tiles, sheets thrown across his shoulders which dragged on the ground with a whisper. He drew himself a bath, with water hot enough to boil himself in, and submerged himself in it until his lungs screamed for air. Ignoring breakfast to smoke his pipe instead, Bilbo sat on the bench outside Bag End, letting streams of silver smoke escape his parted lips, eyes defocused, staring somewhere into the distance. He looked halfway respectable today, with his hair neatly brushed and dressed in his favourite yellow waistcoat. His skin still looked too pale and his eyes were too tired, but it was a start, at least.
It was a fine day, Bilbo decided, tamping down the tobacco in his pipe with his thumb. The moonstone and sapphire bracelet ever-present on his wrist glinted in the morning light. A fine day.
He spent all of it indoors, poring over old books in scrawled Dwarven runes. Whenever he answered the door, Bilbo somehow, without fail, always forgot to bring his book or quill with him, excusing himself silently, looking sheepish and running back into his study to fetch it. When the sun set, there was a series of loud knocks on the door and Bilbo put down his book with an exasperated sigh.
Leave me be, he thought wearily, I just want to be left alone.
He was sorely tempted to just ignore the three raps at his door, as it was such a late hour, but seeing as sleep would elude him as it ever did, Bilbo ran a hand over his face and stood up from his armchair by the fire. Bilbo left the book he was reading spine-up on the seat and looped his suspenders back over his shoulders, tightening them out of habit as he made his way to the door and opened it.
“Bilbo,“ said Thorin Oakenshield, eyes crinkling into a smile.
Oh, he was so beautiful against the night sky, dark hair streaked with more silver than the last time they spoke, cold blue eyes so piercing, everything about him incandescent like a star.
Bilbo stood there in the doorframe, eyes wide, blood drained from his face, trembling so violently that it may as well rattled his bones. There was a roaring in his ears, like he was being held underwater, and somewhere above the surface, he could hear someone murmuring “no, no, no, no, no, no” and not realising it was himself speaking for the first time in nine years. Everything blurred at the edges, everything was too bright and painful, dark and fearful, and Bilbo could see Thorin – no no no no you’re supposed to be dead no no no – moving closer towards him, face crumpled with worry, hand outstretched. Bilbo stumbled backwards. He didn’t want this spectre of Thorin to touch him because he would crumble into hair, ashes and smoke and Bilbo wanted to take him all in before he disappeared and took his voice and heart with him again.
“Bilbo,” murmured Thorin.
Bilbo slammed the door shut and then collapsed to his knees, curling up on himself, smothering his choked and grief-stricken keening in his hands, his face drenched in tears. His whole thin frame shook and shivered, and Bilbo bit down on the heel of his hand to keep from screaming or throwing up.
He heard the thump of flesh on wood, Thorin slamming his open palm against the door in frustration and panic, before he realised that it was unlocked and, carefully, gingerly, pushed it open. The candles in Bag End’s foyer had almost burnt out, the flames sputtering in the congealed wax, and it was so dimly lit that Thorin almost missed where Bilbo had crawled against a wall and rested his weight against it, curled up like a child with his forehead on his knees and arms wrapped around his legs. Thorin hesitated before sinking to his knees beside Bilbo, threading his callused fingers through his honey-brown curls, not missing how Bilbo shuddered and pushed into the achingly familiar touch.
Thorin said his name again, as if were the only word in Middle-Earth that mattered, in any language of Dwarves, Elves and Men, and again, and again, as if it were a spell, and finally Bilbo looked up. He looked wan and afraid, face wet and mottled, and normally Thorin would protect Bilbo from anything that made him look as such, but it was him doing this, hurting Bilbo in ways he couldn’t even fathom.
Bilbo wet his chapped lips and croaked, “I mourned you.” His voice was reedy and cracked from lack of use and his words were slurred, syllables sticking together like treacle. His shaking fingers hesitated at Thorin’s lapels and then fisted greedily in the fabric, pulling him closer. “I thought you were dead.”
“Aye,” Thorin agreed quietly, “So did I, for a time. You left me for dead in Erebor, I think, and you were the last to give up hope. You fled, in guilt, in shame, in grief, I know not, but I still drew breath. I healed from my grievous wounds and I spoke your name. I asked for you but you were already gone.”
“Thorin—“ Bilbo began, voice pained, but Thorin cut him off.
“No, listen to me,” Thorin said lowly, “I do not know what brought me back but I know what I was brought back for. I returned for my throne, my people, and for you, Bilbo Baggins, you fool.”
Bilbo inhaled and parted his lips, and before he had uttered a single syllable, Thorin knew.
“—is just a gem,” Thorin said firmly, “A cold dead piece of glass, and that’s all it’s ever been.”
Curled up underneath him, Bilbo looked up at him like he had gone insane. For a Dwarf to say that – for the King Under The Mountain to say such things! – was surely tantamount to blasphemy or heresy, Bilbo didn’t know which. But Thorin was here, alive, warm and heavy pressed up against him, and Bilbo was never the type of fool to refuse free gifts. Thorin’s large rough hands moved down from Bilbo’s hair to his face, cupping his jaw, thumbs resting against his cheekbones. Bilbo reached up to cover Thorin’s hands with his own small ones, moss-green eyes flickering over Thorin’s face, as if to revisit all that had stayed the same and to memorise anew all that had changed. Hobbits had longevity which meant that they still looked fresh-faced and young even at Bilbo’s age, but Dwarves could effortlessly live to be a thousand years old, as immutable and indestructible as the very earth.
Thorin’s salt-and-pepper beard had lengthened a little, with a small braid at the chin, and his hair had great silver streaks running through it now, but his face had crumpled from worry and sorrow, from enduring the calamities and catastrophes, the responsibilities and regrets, of an entire kingdom. Heavy was the head that wore the crown, indeed. There were many laughter lines around his eyes and mouth, but also deep furrows on his brow, and an infinite weariness in his cold blue eyes.
“I do not wish to let this hang heavy between us,” Thorin murmured, “You made a difficult but noble choice, even if it meant my wrath. You tried to avoid bloodshed with it. And in hindsight, I’m grateful. But it is nothing to me, even if it meant everything to my father and my grandfather. It is just glass.”
“I thought you died angry with me,” Bilbo said, voice quavering.
Thorin leant forward to push his curls of hair away from his forehead and press a kiss to Bilbo’s brow, and even after nine years, the act was so reassuring, so routine, that Bilbo calmed immediately. “Gods help me,” Thorin said, moving to kiss Bilbo’s temple reverently, “if I had done such a terrible thing.”
At the touch of his dry chapped lips against his skin, Bilbo shivered, clutching shamelessly at Thorin’s surcoat, gathering up folds of leather and mail and fabric, pulling him closer. To Thorin’s credit, he let himself be pulled and pushed hither and yon by Bilbo, never once taking his eyes off his dear Halfling.
“I waited,” Bilbo said faintly, “I waited nine years. Maybe I didn’t know I was waiting, but I still did, and, oh, now that you’re here, I don’t know what to do, I don’t—“ He reached up and kissed Thorin on the corner of his mouth, Thorin turning his head to kiss him fully, and the raspy scratch of his facial hair against Bilbo’s cheek was so achingly familiar and wonderful that he smiled even as he wept.
“What took you so long?” Bilbo had to ask when they broke apart, but still close enough to share warm wet breath, noses pressed together, “It’s been nearly a decade. You couldn’t have written me? Sent an envoy? Or even visited me yourself? Didn’t I deserve that, at the very least? We were—”
Thorin kissed him just to shut him up and Bilbo hummed furiously into his mouth, beating his fists against Thorin’s barrel chest. Thorin endured it patiently and then gently caught Bilbo by the wrists.
“Well?” Bilbo demanded, his indignation palpable. “What’s your excuse?”
“Bilbo,” said Thorin in that dark throaty tone of voice he used when Bilbo was being absurd, smiling on one side of his mouth, “It takes nine years to abdicate a Dwarven throne. Do you understand?”
“No, I—“ Bilbo began angrily, and then the blood drained from his face. “Oh,” he squeaked. “Oh.”
“Aye,” said Thorin, smiling, “I know it is no excuse to keep you waiting, but it had to be done. There are rules, rites, ancient traditions to follow. Most were taken aback when I made my intentions clear, but I promised to rebuild the pride and might of Erebor before renouncing my claim to the throne. I tried to do this as swiftly as possible, but I had to wait nine years in accordance with law and—“
“You’re an idiot,” said Bilbo suddenly.
Thorin stopped, his mouth open. “I beg your pardon,” He rasped eventually.
Bilbo breathed in as deeply as he could manage and looked Thorin square in the eyes. “You’re an idiot,” Bilbo repeated, “Because you just gave up being King of Erebor, for what?”
“For you,” said Thorin without hesitation.
“Well, that was stupid,” Bilbo snapped.
Thorin loved Bilbo with all his cold stone heart, but he had not missed the sarcasm, truth be told.
“Did you even think about this?” Bilbo pressed on, looking wild around the eyes. He couldn’t quite wrap his simple hobbit mind around such reckless impulses, which was a little incongruous, given Bilbo’s penchant for building a career on aforementioned reckless impulses. Bilbo fisted his hands in his hair, not comprehending the staggering political and cultural implications of Thorin’s abdication. “I bet you didn’t. You never were fond of foresight. Who sits on the throne now, Thorin, if not you?”
Thorin looked uncomfortably put-upon. “If you must know,” he muttered, with all the dignity and majesty he could muster, “I only have two kinsmen of the line of Durin, so it was a simple choice.”
“Oh, please tell me you’re joking,” Bilbo said, “Thorin, please tell me Kili doesn’t sit on the throne.”
“No, don’t be foolish,” rumbled Thorin, “Fili was the eldest, so he does.”
“Good grief,” despaired Bilbo. “That’s hardly any better. What were you thinking, Thorin?”
“And don’t,” Bilbo amended quickly, with a nervous trembling laugh, looking up, “say about me.”
“Ah, then, you’ve taken my answer away from me,” Thorin said in frustration, and as muddled as Bilbo was, even that made him smile wanly, his eyes watery. Thorin took his hands and clasped them between his own, bringing them up so he could touch his mouth lightly against Bilbo’s knuckles.
“Just tell me,” Bilbo said quietly, “that you didn’t make any rash decisions.”
Thorin shook his head. “I had been planning this ever since we rested in Beorn’s Carrock, so many years ago. When I realised that I would rather have you than the throne, as I could not have both.”
“So long ago,” Bilbo exclaimed in surprise, “Why did you not say something sooner?”
“Ah, you forget how Dwarves hold grudges and stew in their own thoughts,” reminded Thorin, “Sometimes for years, decades, centuries even. I’m fortunate to have made my mind up so swiftly.”
“You call nine years ‘swift’, Thorin?” Bilbo asked dryly, “I have grey in my hair now.”
“Don’t think that this was a decision made lightly, believe me,” Thorin warned, bright blue eyes cold and calm, “I am well aware of the royal blood in my veins and that I am of the noble line of Durin, but I am also the master of my own fate. I have fought and struggled many hard centuries to claim back what is rightfully mine, but it is also rightfully mine to give away to another as well. I have avenged my father and my grandfather by taking back Erebor and uniting Dale with us, by the death of Smaug and the return of our people’s treasure, but that is where I want my story to end. I’m tired. I wish to rest.”
Bilbo swallowed thickly. “And,” he began warily, “What would you have me do?”
Thorin smiled, and it was so genuine, so content, so at peace, that a weight Bilbo never knew was on his shoulders for nine years lifted, like birds taking flight.
“I would have you keep me, Bilbo Baggins,” Thorin said simply.
“Keep,” repeated Bilbo.
“If that’s agreeable with you,” remedied Thorin quickly, looking as close to nervous as Bilbo had ever seen him. He had little spots of colour high on his cheekbones, “I would never impose on you.”
There was that roaring in his ears again, like someone was holding him underwater. Bilbo shook his head as if to dispel the noise and stared at Thorin.
“You want to stay?” He asked incredulously.
“Yes,” said Thorin with characteristic bluntness.
“With me?” Bilbo demanded.
Thorin’s eyes crinkled into that genuine heartfelt smile that made Bilbo’s heart pitter-patter like a scared rabbit’s. “I wouldn’t plight my troth to just anyone,” Thorin said, “Yes, you. It was always you.”
“Wait, plight your what?” Bilbo spluttered. “Troth? As in betrothed? As in me?”
Then loudly, “Did you just propose to me?”
Sometimes, Bilbo forgot that he had fallen in love with Prince Thorin Oakenshield, heir to Erebor. To Bilbo, he was just Thorin, who was clumsy, endearing, grouchy in the mornings and got embarrassed far too easily, whom Bilbo had seen at his most naked and broken, both physically and emotionally. But when Thorin was looking down at him with that open vulnerable expression that Bilbo was so accustomed to, with his brows furrowed and mouth parted, Bilbo knew that to be Thorin’s “oh, you’re an absurd creature, Bilbo Baggins, and I like that” face, but, unfortunately, it was also his “you baffle me, Bilbo Baggins and I’m not sure how I feel about that” face. At present, it translated to the latter.
“No,” said Thorin indignantly.
“Oh, good, that’s fine then,” Bilbo sighed, his shoulders slumping.
“I proposed to you nine years ago,” Thorin said slowly, as if explaining to a child, “Do you not remember?”
“I would have remembered such a thing, Thorin,” Bilbo snapped, feeling panicked and light-headed.
Thorin’s fingers closed around Bilbo’s wrist. “But you’re wearing the bracelet.”
Bilbo’s eyes darted to the gleaming band of moonstones and sapphires. “This?” He exclaimed, “You gave me this after I saved you in Mirkwood, as a gift. You didn’t propose. It’s just—“
“My mother’s,” Thorin interrupted tiredly, “It was my mother’s. Bilbo, if I’m not mistaken, other species propose by giving each other jewellery. Men exchange rings, Elves exchange necklaces and Dwarves plight our troth with bracelets. I’m unaware of what Halflings do in this situation but—“
“Flowers,” said Bilbo quietly, “and thread.”
Thorin’s face softened. “Flowers and thread,” he repeated.
“We’re simple folk,” stammered Bilbo, pink about the ears, feeling like a country bumpkin.
But Thorin was smiling. “And if I had given you something woven in thread and flowers, instead of silver chain and jewels, would you still have accepted it?” He asked, already knowing the answer.
Bilbo rubbed at his tired eyes. “Yes,” he said irritably, prodding a finger into Thorin’s barrel chest, “Yes, and you bloody well know it, Thorin Oakenshield. I would have said yes to you if you hadn’t a single coin to your name, if you were a grocer, or if you were a bloody Sackville-Baggins.”
Thorin looked far too pleased for his own good. “That means a great deal to me,” he said sombrely.
“Well,” Bilbo muttered, embarrassed.
“Especially the part about the Sackville-Bagginses,” said Thorin pensively, frowning as if recollecting something, “I know how much you loathe them. They stole your silver spoons, if memory serves.”
Bilbo smiled. Of all the things for Thorin to remember after all this time, it was his feud with his arch-nemeses and their penchant for cutlery theft. “So, we’ve been betrothed for nine years.”
“Ten years, this summer.”
A decade! Bilbo’s mind reeled. All those long and painful and empty nights spent alone in his enormous four-poster bed, fingers curled around that bracelet, and he was someone’s husband? It was a strange thought, but not exactly an unpleasant one.
“You never thought to bring this up?” Bilbo asked, and as ever, he sought refuge in sarcasm. “It seems slightly important. All this time, I’ve been writing the wrong name on my letters. I’ll have to change my name to Oakenshield at the post office.”
It was a small and fleeting thing but the entirety of Thorin’s expression softened into something gentle and overjoyed, and he laughed under his breath. Thorin’s laughter was almost always quiet, a raspy soft chuckle, ducking his head, as if shy, to hide his amusement. He laughed like it hurt, as one who had forgotten how after decades of disuse.
“Forgive me, I didn’t deem it prudent,” said Thorin, his eyes glittering from amusement.
“Well, I’d deem it prudent,” grumbled Bilbo, “Why do I have to change my name? Awful lot of fuss.”
“I’d take yours, if you felt that strongly about it,” Thorin said peaceably.
“You don’t look like a Baggins,” Bilbo countered, his toes curling.
“Aye, and you don’t look like an Oakenshield," shrugged Thorin, "but you did say yes to me.”
“And what if I had said no?” Bilbo demanded, “Thorin, do you ever think things through? Do you ever look before you leap? What if you had given up your throne for naught? What if you had waited all that time, travelled all this way and found me married? What if I turned you away from my door?”
Thorin looked down at his hands, palms up, his expression one of deep contemplation.
“Then I would have been lost,” Thorin said and looked up at Bilbo with those frighteningly mournful blue eyes, dark and terrible like the bottom of the ocean, his face achingly vulnerable.
“Oh, don’t say such horrid things,” stuttered Bilbo hurriedly, leaning forward to brush his fingers against Thorin’s cheekbones, flattening them against his beard, the hair rasping against his skin. “I would never—“ He pressed a kiss to Thorin’s jaw, beard scratchy against his lips, “I would never,” Bilbo repeated, kissing him again on the dip between nose and mouth, “ever turn you away from my door. And there will always be a place for you here, in Bag End, with me,” he said fiercely, blushing unattractively at the tips of his ears and in ugly blotches of colour on his cheeks. “If you want,” Bilbo muttered, embarrassed, fiddling with the silver clasps of his suspenders, nape of his neck burning.
“I’d like nothing more,” said Thorin, in such a soft, reverent tone that it made Bilbo swallow thickly.
Thorin’s hand was warm around his wrist, and they sat in silence for a long while, Bilbo watching the light of the candles flicker in the darkness of Thorin’s eyes. Bilbo was utterly hopeless in these situations. He wanted to say something, as terribly profound and heartfelt as the words Thorin had given him, but at the end of the day, Bilbo Baggins was a simple hobbit with a simple heart.
“I’ll have to go make up the bed for you, then,” Bilbo said instead. “Are you staying long?”
And Thorin laughed.
Thorin retired to bed early that night, as he hadn’t stopped to sleep for days since he walked across the borders of the Shire, and Bilbo left him in the master bedroom, sprawled across the four-poster bed like he owned it. Bilbo hovered in the doorframe for longer than necessary, watching Thorin’s chest rise and fall in slumber underneath the quilted coverlets, his features smoothed from worry, looking years younger in the darkness. The fire was dying in the hearth in the sitting room, so Bilbo fussed over it, putting down new logs and prodding at them with the iron poker, stirring up the flames. He fell back into his favourite armchair when the flames were dancing warmly and brightly, and took out his pipe, tamping down fresh tobacco and lighting it with a match, sucking on the stem thoughtfully. Bilbo quietly smoked his pipe for a long while, not even realising he was smiling.
“I’m married now,” he told the oil paintings of his parents above the hearth, feeling a little burble of laughter in his chest, “You would have loved him,” Bilbo said to the painting of his mother. “And you,” he said, pointing an accusing finger at the painting of his father, “Would have hated him. Good night.”
After he had finished his pipe, Bilbo left the fire to burn itself out and padded through the halls of Bag End, making sure not to trip over Thorin’s sword or bedroll, which had been tucked underneath Bilbo’s coat rack, as if it had always meant to be there. Thorin’s half-closed blue eyes were reflecting moonlight as Bilbo walked into the master bedroom, making him start. His long dark hair was loose from his many braids, his silver streaks framing his face. He looked at Bilbo, then outstretched a hand.
“Are you coming to bed?” Thorin asked drowsily, words slurring together.
“If only your kingdom could see you now,” Bilbo remarked, whispering under the cover of night.
Thorin made an irritated sound. “Ach, ‘tis not my concern anymore,” he said groggily, “’Tis getting you ‘neath these coverlets before I let all the heat out. Come to bed, you insufferable little hobbit.”
To Bilbo, that sounded like a very good idea, indeed.
The lines of Thorin’s body welcomed him in, warm and strong, and Bilbo rested his head underneath Thorin’s chin, nestled between the juncture of neck and shoulder. He breathed in the scent of earth and rain, pressing his face against the thrum of Thorin’s pulse in his throat. There was a rustle of skin against fabric as Thorin shifted underneath the coverlets, holding Bilbo close to his chest, nose dipped into his sweet-smelling curls of hair. Bilbo curled his fingers around Thorin’s hand and squeezed.
“Bilbo,” Thorin mumbled sleepily, eyes still closed.
“Yes, what is it?”
A pause, and then Thorin said muzzily, “I lost my way twice. You changed your door, didn’t you?”
Bilbo would have answered but Thorin’s soft snores next to the shell of his ear silenced him.
They were married the proper hobbit way in June, on Midsummer’s Day. All the Dwarves from their company attended and made fools of themselves, indescribably pleased that Thorin and Bilbo were finally tying the knot. Thorin got very tipsy on honeyed mead, went barefoot in the hot parched summer grass and wore a crown of bright wildflowers and thread in his long dark hair. Bilbo wore his mithril shirt and laughed nervously through his vows, mostly because Thorin kept ducking down to kiss him on the nose. They spent most of their wedding day either in the bath or in bed, drinking all of Bilbo’s reserves of red wine.
One of the first things that Thorin did was rescue Bag End’s old door from the Gaffer’s back garden. The wood had split and cracked from the sun and the rain, and it needed a fresh coat of paint, but the Dwarven rune that had begun it all, scratched there by Gandalf, was still there, and for that small mercy, Thorin was grateful. Stepping over the sprouting vegetable patch, Thorin ducked under the Gaffer’s grape vines and politely asked him if he could have Master Baggins’ door back, please.
The Gaffer stared up at Thorin, who radiated otherness, what with his accent, his long dark hair, his height and cold blue eyes, and shifted his weight, ready to defend his little plot of land with a pitchfork, if need be. “Aye, you must be Master Baggins’ fellow, then,” the Gaffer said gruffly, “He was mooning over you for nine years, you know. I’m glad something good came of it.”
Suddenly, with little spots of colour high on his cheeks and lost for words, Thorin didn’t seem so terrifying anymore. “Yes,” stammered Thorin, “I’m— I’m trying to make amends for my absence.”
The Gaffer waved a hand airily. “Take the door, then. Give old Mr Baggins my regards.”
“I will,” Thorin promised, far too solemn for such a needless pleasantry, inclining his head.
The Gaffer watched Thorin walk up the Hill with easy solid strides, holding the heavy oaken door above his head as if it weighed nothing at all.
“Why a Dwarf of all creatures, though?” The old hobbit wondered out loud and returned to his digging.
Bilbo encouraged Thorin to go barefoot as soon as possible. Thorin was deeply unnerved.
“I feel very exposed,” he grumbled, flexing his long toes in the cool damp earth. “Must I?”
“You’ll get used to it,” Bilbo reassured him, lighting his pipe. “Besides, you’re trying to get to grips with our culture. You’ll never be accepted if you wear shoes all the time, and you know it.”
“Everyone in Hobbiton loves me,” Thorin said stoutly.
“You’re lucky they do,” Bilbo said with a small fond smile.
Happily, it was the truth. Thorin was treated with suspicion at first, as soon as the news spread that a Dwarf of all things was living with Master Baggins up at Bag End. However, he was welcomed with open arms as soon as all the neighbouring hobbits realised Master Oakenshield was a hobbit at heart, in the sense that Thorin ate far too much, smoked pipe weed, loved being out in the fields with his sleeves rolled up and his hands in the earth, and sang terribly lewd songs when he was drunk. Bilbo had never been more relieved about the kindred spirits of Halflings and Dwarves in his life, although he would have to sink down in his seat and hide his face in his collar when Thorin got up on the tables in the Green Dragon with his Halfling neighbours, spilling ale and roaring along to the drinking songs.
Thorin was gruff in a kind-hearted fashion, exhaustively polite and only a little taller than the tallest of hobbits, so he was instantaneously popular with everyone, lads and lasses, young and old alike. Elderly Violet Chubb had a penchant for pinching Thorin’s cheeks and telling him to take care of dear Master Baggins, to which Thorin would splutter, turn red and mumble in his own language. Thorin was also well-liked with the Halfling children, who attached themselves to his legs and wouldn’t let go whenever he walked through the fields. Bilbo would often walk out of Bag End and see Thorin sitting in the grass, with the little Bracegirdle girls from next door draping him in daisy chains, or using him as a climbing frame, only to stop smoking his pipe and remark “You have children on you, dear.”
“I’m aware,” Thorin would grumble, as the Bracegirdle girls pulled up fistfuls of grass and put them in his hair and in his lap, with all the patience and endurance of a saint, “Please postpone dinner.”
As much as Bilbo liked to see Thorin wear his Dwarven informal wear all the time, eventually the need for a new set of clothes became pressing. Bilbo called in a few favours with the seamstress in town, who sewed waistcoats in every colour imaginable, trousers, shirts and even jackets in Thorin’s size. It was a rainy September morning when Bilbo watched Thorin get dressed, shrugging on the white shirt, buttoning the royal blue waistcoat with the silver thread and stepping into the tan trousers. With his beard neatly trimmed, his long dark hair brushed and braided carefully, and feet bare, Thorin looked as close to a hobbit as he was ever going to get. Bilbo noticed Thorin staring intently at his reflection in the looking glass, his jaw set, his eyes suspiciously wet and bright. Bilbo licked his lips carefully.
“Thorin?” He asked diplomatically. “Are you all right?”
Thorin clenched and unclenched his fists once, twice.
“I just—“ He began, and stopped, swallowing thickly. “I never thought I’d ever feel this content.”
“Well, you truly deserve it,” Bilbo said quietly, “You, of all people.”
Thorin turned to face him. “Thank you,” he said earnestly, “for everything.”
Bilbo went all red and hot from embarrassment, so Thorin had to pick him up and kiss him all over his face, before Bilbo retreated to his study, knocking over a pile of papers in the hallway in his haste. Thorin made to follow him, but something on the floor caught his eye. He knelt down, frowning, sifting through Bilbo’s miscellaneous sheaths of parchment and books, before picking up a familiar drawing, lips parting and eyes widening in recognition. It was an old drawing of Bilbo, some twelve years ago, looking young and aloof, chin up, a small smile tugging up at his lips. His hair was getting a little long and his top two buttons were undone, collarbones exposed, the nape of his neck damp with perspiration. Thorin remembered sitting in Beorn’s Carrock, drawing Bilbo’s likeness in strong bold inky strokes, breathing in the sharp rich scent of pine needles, wet earth and horse hair.
“Why are you drawing me?” Bilbo had asked curiously, putting down his clay pipe and peering over at Thorin, attempting to get a better look at the sketch. He had blown out silver smoke from between dry pink chapped lips with every syllable and he pushed back his honey coloured curls away from his damp forehead, looking at Thorin quizzically with those wide moss-green eyes, sunken from worry and lack of sleep, lined around the edges from laughter. “Thorin?” Bilbo had asked again, quieter.
Thorin had many answers on his tongue but he wasn’t brave enough to voice them. Because I can. Because it’s you. Because it’s us. Because it’s the thousand variations between. Because I want something of you to keep when we’re apart. Because I’m a coward and I can’t tell you the truth even when we both know it. Because I can trap you in this moment forever. Because when you’re dust and when I’m dying, I’ll still have this, even though it’s never enough, because nothing is ever enough.
In Middle Earth, Dwarves had a reputation for being an extremely stoic race. Elves and Men alike thought that, because Dwarves liked to live underground, that their hearts were as cold and dead as the stone they hewed, that the only true love they felt was for the jewels they unearthed. That was untrue. Dwarves, as it so happened, were one of the most emotional of the races, if not the most. Their emotions ran deep and strong through them, like veins of gold through the earth, like precious pockets of ore, and they were also very expressive with them, laughing and smiling with the same ease as weeping and screaming in rage. Their capacity for love was legendary. Dwarves were fiercely faithful to their partners, strictly monogamous and profoundly possessive. Like Elves, they mated for life, bonded irrevocably to each other. They loved with all the endurance of the earth and the endlessness of the sea, and they loved until their last breath.
But, out of fear, Thorin had stayed his tongue. As he looked up to meet Bilbo’s eyes, feeling like someone was punching him in the stomach repeatedly with knuckledusters, like someone was squeezing his ribcage until all the breath had left him, like he was drowning in fire and burning in ice, Thorin had been struck with the need to tell Bilbo everything. How Thorin would readily and gladly follow Bilbo to the ends of Middle-Earth and back, beyond the Sea to the West, beyond the great wastelands of Rhûn to the East and the deserts of Harad to the South, beyond the terrifying snowy tundra of Forodwaith to the North. How Thorin would burn down forests for him, how he’d move the sky and the mountains for him, how he would walk unafraid in the dark silent halls of Mandos for him. How Thorin would spit in the eye of Aulë and Illuvatar for him, all for him, only for him.
Understand, Thorin had willed silently, Please understand me.
I would give this all up in a heartbeat for you.
Bilbo had lost interest in whatever Thorin had been drawing and had returned to his pipe, muttering about how enigmatic Dwarves were.
Thorin watched the sunlight in Bilbo's hair spark gold as he shifted his weight.
“If you have something to say, just say it,” Bilbo had said, his back to Thorin.
And twelve years later, Thorin finally understood.
Love, he had thought his entire life, was something enormous and sublime, intangible and unreachable like the constellations, and in a sense, it was. But, no, Thorin thought, making his way numbly through the halls of Bag End, his halls, his home now, it wasn’t just that. It was the simple and humble things that made love what it was. Just as you could not build your house on air, love could not be built on the grand proclamations of eternity. Love was not fire, love was the softly glowing embers that remained after the flames died out.
Love was earth and water, steadfast and strong.
It was the scent of Bilbo’s hair and a streak of flour on his cheek. It was having his feet in Bilbo’s lap as Thorin sat in the armchair opposite, watching as Bilbo absently read his book and rubbed circles into his feet at the same time. It was Thorin coming home late for dinner, covered in bramble cuts and smelling of rich tilled earth, grinning white and widely, and Bilbo scolding him for treading mud into the carpets. It was lazy messy kisses in the grey light of dawn, absently placed kisses on the cheek as they passed each other in doorways, deep wet desperate kisses, I’m-glad-you’re-home kisses, please-don’t-ever-let-me-go kisses. It was peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink, Thorin humming under his breath, while watching Bilbo hang up wet clothes on the line through the window. It was Bilbo brushing Thorin’s long dark hair, working out the tangles with his clever fingers, braiding his ever-lengthening beard. It was running a mile home in warm spring rain, mud splattered up their bare calves, Thorin holding his jacket over Bilbo’s head to keep him dry, laughing helplessly. It was dozing underneath parched grape vines in the sweltering summer heat and picking apples in orchards in the pale cool days of autumn. It was listening to the symphony of their breathing in bed together, while snow fell outside, drunk on their warm skin, strong heartbeats and the secrets safe between them.
Thorin folded up his drawing and put it in the same frame as his old map of Erebor that Bilbo had framed – the dear hobbit was sentimental, after all – and found Bilbo in the study. Bilbo was plucking at his suspenders thoughtfully, an unconscious habit of his, staring unhappily at his piles of books. There were mountains of them, all in various stages of disuse and disrepair, all in different languages.
“I’m going to have to give some of them up,” Bilbo said, sounding deeply miserable as he put his hands on his hips and sighed, “There’s just not enough room anymore. You almost broke your leg the other day when you tripped over my pile of Elven art history books.”
Thorin still had a bruise on his shin from those blasted Elven books but that was irrelevant.
“Bilbo,” he started, before his courage failed him, “Did I ever tell you that I loved you?”
“I mean, I could give some of them to the library down in Bywater but there’s only so much demand for books about Dwarven linguistics,” Bilbo harrumphed before turning around to face Thorin. “Wait, what?” He said, looking perplexed, “Have you ever told—? What? Did you hit your head again?”
“No,” defended Thorin, who had a painful habit of smacking his forehead against the door frame to the pantry because it was smaller than the other doors, “Didn’t you hear me? I said that I—“
“Yes, loved me, I heard you the first time,” Bilbo interrupted, rolling up his sleeves, “Can you help me move these to the front door? I’ve got to get them out of the study at least.” When Thorin didn’t react or twitch a muscle, Bilbo looked around at him from where he was carrying an armful of tomes, pink in the face from how heavy they were, “Thorin?” Bilbo asked breathlessly. “What’s wrong?”
“In the twelve years I’ve known you, and the three years we’ve been together,” Thorin said carefully, “I have never once said that I loved you. Forgive me, but I was expecting a stronger reaction.”
“Oh, is that it,” Bilbo huffed, putting down the books and straightening up, his spine clicking. “Thorin, I know. Or rather, I knew. I knew that you loved me. You wouldn’t marry someone you hated, would you?” Bilbo laughed, somewhat anxiously, lifting up his hand so that the bracelet around his wrist was thrown into sharp relief and shaking it reassuringly, “I always thought it was, you know, implied.”
Thorin looked frustrated. “Implications are not enough,” he insisted, “I am a fool and a coward, and I’ve been so wrapped up in my own ego that I forgot to tell you how I truly felt all these years.”
Bilbo coughed awkwardly, rubbing at his damp forehead with the back of his hand, pushing back his sweaty curls. Judging by how uncomfortable he looked, Bilbo wasn’t at all accustomed to a barrage of Dwarven emotions. It was like trying to patiently sit inside a hurricane, or trying to swallow a flood – simply impossible. “Thorin, it’s all right,” he said, kindly and quietly, “I don’t mind in the slightest.”
Judging from his stormy expression and the way his fingers were curled into fists, Thorin was not convinced. “No, it’s unacceptable,” Thorin said, blue eyes flashing dangerously, dark brows knitting, “How many times have you told me that you loved me? How many times have you said it today?”
The actual answer was five times, and it was only coming up to eleven o’ clock, but Bilbo pretended not to remember to save himself some dignity. “Thorin, it doesn’t matter,” he stressed.
Thorin coughed out a few guttural words in Dwarvish, all growling consonants, before shaking his head and muttering, “Ach, no, not in my own tongue,” and he took a deep calming breath.
“I love you,” translated Thorin, the words cumbersome and unfamiliar in his mouth, but Bilbo physically reacted like he had been slapped in the face, judging from how he took a step back, with the smallest of gasps smothered in his palm. Thorin looked wearily content, as if he was proud of getting such a strong reaction at last. “I love you,” he repeated, with such blatant adoration, “I love you more than all the jewels and precious metal in the world, Bilbo Baggins. I loved you more than my throne.”
“No, s-stop it,” ordered Bilbo, stammering, pointing at Thorin ineffectually, “That’s not fair.”
“Why?” said Thorin, smirking, “Am I not allowed to say that I love—“
“All right, stop, you can stop now, stop it,” Bilbo flustered, his face and the tips of his ears bright red, and he grabbed Thorin by the lapels of his shirt, pulling him in to kiss him soundly on the mouth, “I’m just— I’m just a hobbit,” Bilbo mumbled despairingly against Thorin’s lips, feeling Thorin’s fingers run through his hair and fist in his curls, bringing him closer, “I can’t be dealing with all of this.”
Thorin hummed his disapproval. “That’s what you said twelve years ago, too,” he reminded.
“You know, I only ran after you in the first place so I could prove you wrong,” Bilbo said petulantly.
“Oh?” Thorin’s eyebrows rose. “Your foremost thought was of me, I’m very flattered.”
Bilbo stabbed him with a finger to the chest. “No, it was to prove I wasn’t a grocer.”
“Aye, you proved that much and more,” Thorin admitted.
“But now I’m married to one,” Bilbo finished fondly.
“Ach,” grumbled Thorin, in mock-distaste, “’Tis unhappy circumstance.”
“Oh, you enjoy it, don’t be rude,” Bilbo said crossly, tugging once on Thorin’s braided beard, “Now help me move these books. Don’t forget to wash your hands afterwards, you're making dinner.”
“Aye,” Thorin replied distractedly, his fingers curled into the fine fabric of Bilbo’s waistcoat, smiling at the absurd little creature that he had given up his throne for without a shred of hesitation, thinking how, if he had the chance, he’d do it all again in a heartbeat, “Aye, I’ll do that.”